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by Dave Rome
March 7, 2018
Photography by David Rome
How do you like the sound of a do-it-all gravel bike, one that leans a little towards the performance end of the spectrum, but still collapses to fit inside an inconspicuous case that won’t raise eyebrows at the airline check-in counter?
That’s exactly what the Ritchey Outback Carbon Break-Away frameset promises, and tech writer Dave Rome has spent the past few months riding gravel and tarmac on one – with a little traveling in between – to see if those promises hold true. Whether you’re seeking a new gravel ride, interested in a versatile travel bike, or just intrigued by such a niche offering, this just might suit your needs.
Before you get reading, though, it’s worth noting that Ritchey have two new Outback models available: the teal-coloured steel version, and the carbon Break-Away reviewed here. While both are designed for going beyond where the tarmac ends, a quick look at the geometry charts proves the material isn’t the only difference. If you’re keen on the steel Outback, take this review with a grain of salt.
Despite the niche market, Ritchey have long-offered a range of production travel framesets with the patented Break-Away design. Unlike the threaded S&S couplers used by many custom builders, the Break-Away system allows more freedom of material choice while being lighter, too.
Break-Away frames split at the top tube and seat tube junction, and again at the bottom of the down tube, near the bottom bracket. The down tube sections have tapered male and female ends to aid in alignment, and are held together with a simple metal clamp. Up top, the built-in seatpost collar serves double duty as it also clamps the upper seat tube stub in place inside the end of the top tube. It’s elegantly simple.
The Ritchey Outback Carbon Break-Away is sold only as a frameset, but it includes a number of dedicated accessories to make traveling with it as easy as possible.
Put next to a regular bike travel case (Thule RoundTrip), the Ritchey Break-Away is discreet.
Box for a single wheel on the left, Ritchey Break-Away case in the middle and a Thule RoundTrip case on the right,
The case is small enough to fit into the boot of an SUV sideways…
Or be stored in a cupboard. That’s a tool box on the left for size comparison.
Most notable is the travel case (also sold separately for US$300) and specific frame padding. Popular among the travel bike crowd, the soft-sided case features a rigid base and semi-rigid edges. It’s zippered on one side, with a steel plate reinforcement for wheel axles on the opposite side. Inside, there are retention straps and a number of storage pockets for small items, such as tools, pedals, and lights.
The included padding certainly adds to the packing experience, with felt-lined padding (Velcro equipped) provided to wrap all the frame tubes. The padding is very thin, however, so it’s meant more to preserve the paint than prevent structural damage. There’s also a cover for the crankset made of sturdier materials, and another to separate the wheels from the frame parts.
With aluminium lugs and carbon tubes, the frame itself is somewhat of a carbon fibre hybrid. The aluminium is predominately used at junction and frame connection points, where carbon alone wouldn’t play well in this application. The aesthetic of the tube shapes is closer to that of a steel frame, and certainly not the oversized look one would usually associate with a modern premium carbon frame. As a benefit to this, the carbon tube walls are quite thick and seem more capable of withstanding constant travel abuse than more lightweight chassis.
Bundled with the frame is Ritchey’s new full-carbon WCS Gravel fork, which features a straight 1 1/8in steerer, 47mm rake, a 383mm axle-to-crown length, 12mm thru-axle dropouts, and plenty of space for 40c rubber. This turns on Ritchey’s excellent WCS drop-in headset with coated bearing races for improved corrosion resistance.
I weighed the small sample frame at 1,520g, including the rear thru-axle, and the fork adds another 440g with an uncut steerer. Adding in the headset, cable connectors, and down tube coupler, the total climbs to 2,020g – approximately 500-700g heavier than a (non-travel) top-tier carbon gravel race frameset.
Also included are a set of tool-free aluminium connectors that split the gear and rear brake cables for easier packing, tooled 12mm front and rear thru-axles, an IKEA-like card to guide you through the packing and reassembly processes, a 4Nm preset torque wrench, and a full set of Ritchey-logo protective frame stickers to ward off cable rub, chain slap, and similar wear.
Ritchey’s Break-Away design is not something you see often.
The aluminium seat tube stub tucks up into the end of the top tube.
The connection points of the frame are aluminium.
Cable joiners are provided. You’ll need double the normal number of cables as a result.
A Ritchey WCS headset is provided. It’s a quality item.
The frameset includes Ritchey’s all-new WCS Gravel carbon fork.
If anything, these parts are overbuilt for the application, but that’s probably a good thing given that you remove the seatpost more than usual with a travel bike.
The pockets provide plenty of space for tools, small parts, and a few random items.
Traditional threads at the bottom bracket are a welcomed sight.
The front derailleur tab is removable, offering a cleaner look for those wanting to run single-chainring drivetrains.
The Outback Carbon uses external cable routing.
Despite its odd design parameter of having to fit inside a travel case, the Outback Break-Away calls for an impressively standard build kit. The 100x12mm and 142x12mm wheel fitments have become increasingly common in recent years, and the frame itself features an English threaded bottom bracket, external cable routing, and flat-mount disc brake calipers. The braze-on front derailleur mount is removable for those wanting to run single-chainring gearing, too.
There are, however, some notable limitations. As it stands, the frame is not set up for wired electronic shifting. Likewise, as the cables need to be split at the down tube, full hydraulic brakes present packing issues. And while there are some hydraulic brake decouplers on the market to overcome this, none are meant for regular and repeated use. At least from a travel point of view, mechanical disc brakes thus remain the easiest and most reliable option.
Also missing are dedicated fender or pannier mounts. This was not an issue for me, but it will be deal breaker for some, especially those that hope to use the Outback Break-Away as an everyday commuter at home.
Ritchey provided a number of its components to help with the build, including its well-matched WCS Zeta Disc wheelset. As CyclingTips US technical editor James Huang has written about in the past, this is a stand-out item for a travel bike given the way the rear hub allows the freehub (with cassette installed) and axle to be simply removed tool-free for flatter packing. It’s not a mandatory item for the Break-Away case, but it certainly eases the packing process.
At 1,610g for the pair, these alloy wheels are tubeless-ready (something I’ll come back to) and offer an actual internal rim width of 19.9mm, a good match for tyres between 28 and 40c. Another packing bonus is the Centerlock disc interface, which makes it far easier to install and remove rotors for travel than on six-bolt hubs.
From TRP comes its Hy/Rd flat mount hybrid brake calipers, which use a traditional cable to actuate a hydraulic cylinder. It’s not quite the best of both worlds, but they’re noticeably smoother and more controlled than a full mechanical setup, especially when used with compressionless brake housing.
Completing the build is Shimano’s latest Ultegra R8000 groupset (which we’ll review separately at a later date), including a compact crank and 11-34T cassette. All up, with Ritchey 40c tyres and Shimano XT pedals, the bike weighs 8.99kg (19.82lb).
The build went together with very few snags. While functional, the rear flat mount benefited from being faced, allowing for easier brake setup once done. It’s not the first flat-mount equipped frame that I’ve seen needing this, and something a well-equipped shop, with a Park Tool DT-5.2 in hand, should be able to sort if ever needed.
As a cautionary warning, the gear cables run directly on the frame surface underneath the bottom bracket. If left exposed long-term, it’ll gradually wear into the aluminium lug, or at least, increase cable wear. Ritchey doesn’t include them, but I strongly suggest using short sections of cable liner here.
While I’m nitpicking, the second bottle cage mount is positioned quite high on the seat tube. I was able to run a standard cage, but there was wasted room beneath. Otherwise, everything else on the frame was well finished and precisely prepped.
With the whole bike fitting into a case that’s barely larger than a wheel box, one’s travel experience is truly transformed. For anyone that’s ever flown with a bike before, and/or tried to fit a bike box into a taxi or hire car on the other side, you’ll know the stresses it can bring. Transport issues aside, a bike like the Break-Away can quickly pay for itself in saved baggage fees, at least for frequent travellers. Even for those that only occasionally fly with a bike, the sheer convenience of a smaller bag might be the only justification required.
If you’re thinking of arriving at your destination and riding from there, keep in mind that you’ll not only need to assemble the bike in the airport; you’ll also need to find a secure locker to leave it behind since the semi-rigid case doesn’t fold. But in fairness, arrive-and-ride adventures aren’t the purpose of the Break-Away.
At 80 x 69 x 22cm (31.5 x 27 x 9”), the case teeters on the edge of most airline’s checked baggage allowances. I didn’t have any issue with checking the Break-Away as standard luggage within Australia, although in all cases I was asked to drop the bag off at the oversized conveyer due to its taller height. However, those unloading the luggage on the other end didn’t seem as concerned, with the bike appearing on the regular baggage conveyor on more than one occasion.
As always, though, your experience may vary. American airlines are notorious for being much stricter in terms of baggage allowances – especially for bikes – so keep that in mind when checking in. Either way, it’s best to check airline policies prior to booking, and then prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.
Packing my 8.99kg tester into its 5.66kg case (6.70kg with all included padding), there is weight and room left to play. On one trip, I managed to fit my bidons, cycling shoes, bike lock, lights, travel pump, spares, tools, two days of riding kit, and a generous sleeping bag into the case, along with the bike itself. And all of that still came under the 23kg airline limit.
Fully loaded, the discreet case is easy enough to drag behind you. A handle at the front allows you to tip the case up and walk, but it’s not the most comfortable thing to do for long distances. This is especially true for uneven surfaces, where the tall and narrow case is prone to toppling.
There’s undoubtedly some compromise to fitting the bike in such a small case, and there’s a fair bit of disassembly required. The build process isn’t ideal if you’re wanting to do single-day trips and go for a lunch ride while at the office, and suffice to say, this isn’t a product for the mechanically challenged.
At minimum, you must remove the wheels, stem (keeping handlebars attached), pedals, and seatpost, in addition to separating the frame itself and splitting the cable connectors. Many Break-Away owners also remove the rear derailleur and chain for absolute safe travels.
I took the disassembly further still, removing the brake rotors and pulling the rear hub internals from the Ritchey wheels. An added bonus here is that the Ritchey WCS rear wheel axle, with freehub and cassette attached, doubles as a chain keeper and reinforcement axle for the frame. Thankfully, the flat mount brake calipers are tucked out of harms way, and so I didn’t need to touch them. While not required, I found removing the bottle cage from the seat tube helped with the packing.
Unfortunately, a 700x28c tyre is about the limit of what will fit inside the case inflated; anything larger needs to be deflated. Tubeless users may experience some additional headaches as a result, depending on their particular setup.
My first go at packing the bike took a full hour. I certainly got far quicker from there, but it’s never going to be a five-minute job. My fastest packing still neared 25 minutes. Care must be taken to get a flat-packed outcome, too, and more commonly I’d have the wide rear dropouts protruding just a little from one side of the case.
Rebuilding the bike is in some ways easier than fitting it in its case, with the hardest bit being getting the stem and post straight, and the cables connected.
If you haven’t noticed yet in the photos, my test sample has a setup that would make traditionalists and slam-that-stem evangelists shudder. By the end of testing, I had 25mm of headset spacers and the stem flipped upward – not pretty. Apparently, even Tom Ritchey runs his own Break-Away with a flipped stem (although with far fewer spacers).
Simply put, the Outback Carbon Break-Away features an oddly low stack and long reach for its given size. I chose the frame size based on the reach dimension (and in this case, it’s actually on the long side), but the stack is so low that the fit is more in keeping with a pro-level road racing bike than a dedicated gravel setup.
Looking at a size small (as tested), the stack is 18mm lower than even Ritchey’s Break-Away carbon road bike. In fact, it’s lower than any road, cyclocross, or gravel bike Ritchey offer. Likewise, the stack is a couple of millimetres shorter than Cannondale’s smallest 48cm CAAD12 road racer. Nevertheless, the reach of the small Ritchey is equivalent to a 54cm CAAD12. For comparison, my personal CAAD12 is a 52cm, and it fits me well.
I’ve spent countless hours scratching my head at this geometry, but can come to no other conclusion except that the Outback Break-Away’s head tube is just too short. Aesthetics and traditions aside, a headset spacer should solve the issue for most, and a flipped stem eases the issue further. But be aware that Ritchey suggests no more than 30mm of headset spacers with its carbon forks.
Admittedly, my fit dimensions are partly to blame for the fit woes. At 172cm (5’8”), I often fall between small and medium frames, but my preference in drop bar bikes is for the smaller option given my long inseam and short torso. I typically run plenty of handlebar drop, but seek a shorter reach. By comparison, my colleague James Huang stands at the same height but uses a saddle height 3cm lower, and so he likely wouldn’t have as much of an issue with the Outback Carbon Break-Away’s unusual geometry as I did. Going up a size would solve my stack woes, but at the expense of a longer reach than anything I’d typically throw a leg over, along with compromised handling.
That’s a tiny head tube.
I checked with Ritchey about the sizing decisions, for which they admitted that some compromises are made for easier and smaller packing. That’s understandable given the new gravel fork is 20mm longer in axle-to-crown length as compared to a road fork, but the choice seems odd given the small shares the same travel case as the extra-large frames. Shortening the head tube also does little to ease packing, anyway, since the fork stays in place.
Other key measurements show this bike’s performance intent. As compared to a number of other current gravel bikes, the Outback Carbon is relatively tall, steep, and short in its wheelbase – not unlike a euro-spec cyclocross bike. By comparison, the steel Outback is 3-5mm lower, a tad longer and a touch slacker.
Fit issues aside, the Outback Break-Away offers an impressively smooth ride quality, while also not being a noodle under power. It’s certainly a design intention of the bike, with Fergus Tanaka of Ritchey USA explaining that Tom Ritchey purposefully picked the smaller-diameter round tube profiles to closely match the ride quality of a good steel frame.
A skinny head tube hides a straight 1 1/8in steerer.
Likewise, the carbon fork, with its 1 1/8in straight steerer, was chosen for its added comfort relative to the tapered steerers more often used in modern bikes. While this approach seems dated, I must completely admit to not missing the tapered steerer. The front end stiffness was perfectly adequate, while the ride at the front was noticeably cushy.
I rode the Ritchey with both 40c gravel and 30c road tyres on a variety of terrain. What surprised me most was how composed the bike was when riding in gravel mode at high speed. Here, that supple ride quality, combined with the big tyres, goes a long way to keeping the bike planted. I found myself able to pedal more consistently over rougher terrain than other carbon gravel bikes I’ve had on test recently, such as the Cannondale SuperX SE.
The handling is spot-on, too, providing a sense of stability while still being reactive like a good cyclocross race bike. Those who prefer a more touring-type feel are probably going to feel this Outback is a little too quick, but those coming from a road racing bike or even a cyclocross bike will feel right at home in the way it responds.
Likewise, stomping the pedals to overcome steep pitches didn’t reveal any unnerving flex. The Outback Carbon Break-Away isn’t stiff from the handlebars to the wheels like a sprinter’s bike, and so it lacks the same level of snap. The frame rigidity always felt adequately efficient, though, and I’d liken its quality more to a good steel frame, but lighter.
Despite the fact that the frame separates into two pieces, never did the bike make a squeak, creak, or squawk when seated. I did have the occasional groan when purposefully twisting the bike out of the saddle and throwing a weighted downstroke, but this was typically due to the down tube coupler either being slightly loose, or being dirty. After a quick cleaning and re-tightening with a torque wrench, the bike was once again perfectly silent.
Common with smaller frame sizes, I experienced a fair bit of toe overlap when riding off-road, made all the more noticeable with the 40c tyres. For reference, it wasn’t ever an issue when on the road, especially with skinnier rubber, but it took careful consideration while riding tight and twisty mountain bike singletrack (and it didn’t always work out).
Switching to the road tyres revealed a handling quirk I didn’t notice when off-road. At high speeds, the bike had a tendency to want to sit up in corners, otherwise known as understeer. It’s not too surprising given the tall-ish bottom bracket height and change in trail, and while I never had the nerve to tip the bike into corners at such high speeds off-road, it’s certainly something to be cautious of if you’re planning some alpine road trips.
The geometry of bike handling
Despite that, I would happily race this bike in a (club) ‘cross race or chuck some slick rubber on and join a road bunch.
Speaking of descents, the Ritchey’s use of mechanical disc brakes sacrifices some braking potential. Even with high-quality compressionless housing, the added friction requires noticeably more hand force than a full hydraulic system to generate a similar amount of stopping power. Overall performance in mixed conditions is still superior to rim brakes, but it’s certainly not best-in-class for discs.
This became more noticeable with use, as the split rear brake housing is exposed to the elements on the down tube. Rubber seals are an option, but add their own friction to the system, while full sealed systems won’t play all that nicely with the Ritchey cable connector.
Finally, riding the Ritchey on a very wet Giro Della Donna, I experienced an issue I’ve yet to have to complain about in a product review before – water build-up. Packing the bike immediately after the event, I was surprised to see water pouring out of the frame’s rear-end like a full jug. I suspect water was entering through the slotted seat tube, frame coupler, and front derailleur cable routing, but without a hole at the bottom bracket, there’s no way for it to drain. I don’t have a proven solution to stop this from happening at the moment, and Ritchey is looking into it.
Rear tyre clearance around a 40c reveals you shouldn’t go much bigger.
There’s more clearance at the seatstays.
A close-up of the down tube coupler.
The flat-mount rear brake and bolt-up thru-axle offer a nearly-flush fit for easier travel.
Cable connectors on the down tube allow for tool-free cable splitting.
A closer look at those cable connectors.
Visually, the frame is rather sedate.
Designed by Tom Ritchey.
Two bolts are used to connect the frame together and hold the seatpost.
From afar. you’d never know this is a splittable travel bike.
The keyed connection between the seat tube and top tube keep the two sections from rotating relative to each other.
The Ritchey WCS Zeta Disc hubs offer a unique aesthetic. They work ideally for travel.