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I spent my formative years of mountain biking riding hardtails. Although my very first one was made of carbon fiber (?!), it wasn’t long at all before I found myself firmly enamored with metal. There was a titanium Litespeed Obed, three DeKerfs (a steel Team SL, a steel-and-titanium Team ST, and then a titanium Elysium), a custom Reynolds 853 Waterford, and a feathery-light Voodoo Bizango that met an untimely demise on its maiden voyage after receiving a gloriously elaborate custom paint job from a friend.
I have fond memories of every one of those bikes, and so it was with no small amount of hope and nostalgia that I embarked upon this test of the Ritchey Ultra: a steel hardtail with old-school tube diameters, but a more modern geometry and big, plus-sized 27.5in tires to help take the sting out of Colorado rocks. Would it bring me back to days gone by?
- What is it: A steel hardtail with classic aesthetics, but modern features and geometry.
- Frame features: TIG-welded “Ritchey Logic” steel tubing, threaded bottom bracket, 148x12mm rear hub spacing, external cable routing, room for 29×2.4in or 27.5×2.8in tires.
- Frame weight: 2,570g (size large, claimed).
- Bike weight: 12.70kg (28.00lb, as reviewed, size medium, without pedals).
- Price: US$999 / £899 / €999 (frame only; Australian pricing TBC).
Old meets new
At first glance, the Ultra is about as classic as you can get from a mass-produced steel frame these days. The butted Ritchey Logic steel tubes are barely oversized and TIG-welded into a traditional double-diamond configuration, there’s a threaded bottom bracket down below, and most of the cables are routed externally. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that this is no throwback rig.
Nods to modernity include the gracefully tapered and integrated head tube, Boost 148x12mm rear hub spacing, routing for a stealth-style dropper seatpost, and a bolt-on replaceable rear derailleur hanger.
The frame geometry is up to date as well. The head tube angle is on the slacker side at 68-68.5° — depending on size — the reach is comfortably long, and the chainstays are pleasantly compact at 438mm. Ritchey designs the Ultra to be paired with a fairly generous 120mm-travel fork, too, and there’s room between the stays for 29in tires up to 2.4in-wide, or 27.5in ones up to 2.8in across.
There’s no hiding steel’s disadvantage in terms of material density, though, and the Ultra is rather heavy. Claimed frame weight is 2,570g for a large size; even mid-range carbon hardtails are well less than half that. But the Ultra’s slender tubes, ready-to-play geometry, legendary steel toughness, and meaty rolling stock promise decades of low-maintenance fun, free from the burdens of shock rebuilds and pivot bearing replacements, coupled with the springy ride that ferrous aficionados enthusiastically evangelize about.
Ritchey offers the Ultra in four sizes — small (15in), medium (17in), large (19in), and extra-large (20.5in) — but only as a bare frame, so it’s on you to figure out the most appropriate build. Retail price is US$999 / £899 / €999 (Australian pricing and availability is to be confirmed).
Ritchey supplied my medium tester as a complete bike to facilitate the review, outfitted with a RockShox Reba RL fork, SRAM GX Eagle 1×12 drivetrain, TRP Slate T4 hydraulic disc brakes, and a smattering of Ritchey cockpit components. I opted to sample the Ultra with a 27.5 Plus setup, which comprised a Ritchey WCS Trail 40 aluminum wheelset and 2.8in-wide Ritchey Z-Max Evolution Plus WCS tires front and rear.
So equipped, but without pedals or accessories, my tester tips the scales at 12.70kg (28lb) — hardly a featherweight, but in keeping with the idea that it’s a rough-and-tumble workhorse that should presumably hold up well to regular abuse.
Nostalgia vs. reality
I love the idea behind this bike.
The idea that you can counter the unyielding ride of a hardtail with nearly three inches of air cushioning between you and the ground, and a similarly fat footprint clawing at the ground. The idea of riding a frame that I don’t have to worry about as much as I might a carbon one. The idea of leaving behind the complexity of multiple pivots and elaborate shock tuning, and returning to something simpler and more carefree. The idea of reliving that playful and involved feel that you get in such generous supply from a hardtail.
So many good ideas. And in many ways, they pan out.
First and foremost, Ritchey has done a very good job with the handling. The relatively stable and slack front end encourages you to push things harder on technical terrain, and to learn to trust that the rear end will faithfully follow. It doesn’t take long before you remember to keep your legs soft and supple through the rough to help keep the back tire planted, and between the right-now power efficiency that only a hardtail provides and the big contact patch, even tricky climbs can often be conquered at first go.
It’s occasionally more work — both mental and physical — than a full-suspension bike, but also more rewarding when everything goes as planned.
Ritchey hasn’t gone overboard with the whole progressive thing, either. The seat tube isn’t nearly as steep as what you’ll find on the latest full-suspension bikes, for example, but being a hardtail, the Ultra’s rear end will also never sag on uphills and place you uncomfortably behind the bottom bracket, either. The neutral position that results is still the best for general pedaling mechanics, at least in my opinion, and never did I find myself pining to get further over the front end on climbs.
Bottom bracket height feels just right, too: low enough to help your body weight sink down for stable cornering on loose terrain, but not so low that I ever worried much about pedal strikes through rocky sections of trail. And the short rear end certainly doesn’t hinder getting the front wheel off the ground.
Overall stack and reach dimensions worked well for me as well. I ended up slamming the stem right atop the headset cover, but that’s more a function of the fact that my legs are relatively short for my height. XC-minded racers might prefer more handlebar drop than what the Ultra can provide, but for general-purpose trail riding, I’d say Ritchey has got things spot-on here (at least on the medium size).
I wish I could say that the overall ride quality brought me back as much as I’d hoped, though.
One of my favorite hardtails was that old Voodoo Bizango, which was made with paper-thin Tange Prestige Ultimate Superlight steel tubes that just sang on rough trails (or, at least, that’s how I remember it). There was so much spring, so much liveliness, so much of that legendary steel magic.
Ritchey declined to provide precise tube dimensions, but based on feel, the company seems to have gone a safer route with the Ultra’s wall thicknesses as they neither feel nor sound as thin as more premium steel pipes. The Ultra is stout and efficient under power, and yes, there is also a certain amount of “give” that you don’t usually get out of a large-diameter aluminum or carbon frame. That said, those of you looking for that mythical ride quality of top-end steel might be a little disappointed.
The Ultra is good in that respect, but not exceptional. And even with 2.8in tires, the back end will still buck you pretty hard if you’re not prepared for hitting something substantial. But then again, softer-riding steel frames with thinner walls and smaller-diameter tubes also pay a price in terms of toughness.
It’s worth noting that the front triangle of that old Voodoo crumpled after a front-end impact a newer frame likely would have survived. And it’s important to keep in mind that the Ritchey occupies a fairly modest price point all things considered, so there is some element of you-get-what-you-pay-for.
To be fair, the dropper post bears a decent chunk of the blame here. As compared to a good 27.2mm-diameter seatpost, a dropper offers the ride suppleness of a cast iron pipe. But even after temporarily swapping the Ritchey Kite for a fixed aluminum post, the ride quality of the Ultra didn’t improve dramatically.
Ride quality issues notwithstanding, the finish quality seemed pretty good, and a quick tear-down (and reassembly) revealed clean threads, a square bottom bracket shell, and properly spaced and aligned dropouts. Weld snobs will invariably notice that the beads aren’t as pretty as what you’d find on a high-end custom machine, but then again, this isn’t a high-end custom machine.
DIY with caution
Ritchey may sell the the Ultra only as a frame, but several items in the provided build kit reminded me all too well that it’s important to choose wisely.
The RockShox fork worked well enough for the task at hand, but its spring curve was too linear for my liking. On rougher sections of trail, it dove too far into the stroke, effectively steepening the head tube angle and making the Ultra feel twitchier and less stable than its geometry would otherwise suggest. Adding a couple of volume spacers helped the front end sit up a little higher in its travel, but even so, RockShox fits the Reba with a more basic damper than what’s found in the company’s higher-end offerings, and it still struggles to keep up when you really get moving.
I found the stock tires to be pretty underwhelming, too. I spent years worshipping Ritchey’s long-standing Z-Max tread pattern and rounded casing profile, which offered prodigious grip on softer dirt along with highly forgiving breakaway characteristics when you pushed things too far. But that pattern doesn’t work as well on more hardpacked terrain, where something with a more squared-off shape would offer a more secure purchase.
Regardless of local conditions, I found the Z-Max’s casing to be disappointingly stiff, and the rubber compound too hard. At 14psi out back and 12psi up front, the ride feels harsh and unyielding, and the footprint doesn’t expand enough to justify the additional rotating weight. And when the pressure was even a touch too low, the bike felt squishy and dull, the rims regularly bottoming out on rocks and roots.
I eventually found my sweet spot at 12psi and 11psi (I weigh 156lb/71kg), and enjoyed a nice balance of suspension and responsiveness as a result. But even straying 0.5-1psi outside of that window resulted in a greater degradation in performance than I usually see in tires that have more flexible carcasses.
Granted, getting the tire pressure right is always critical with Plus setups, and suppleness and toughness are usually inversely related when it comes to tires. But even so, that window seems smaller than it should be, and even when I had it right, the skittery rubber compound couldn’t fully deliver on the traction benefits that Plus tires should provide.
Most of the Ritchey finishing kit was just fine: the bar offered a pleasant bend, the stem seemed stiff enough, and the dropper seatpost faithfully moved the saddle up and down like it’s supposed to (which, sadly, isn’t always the case with dropper posts). But the supplied Streem saddle was too narrow and too sparsely padded for the job, in my opinion, and the rear hub on the Ritchey wheelset was far too slow to engage with its 30-tooth ratchet ring, which occasionally made tricky climbs trickier than they needed to be.
As for the SRAM GX Eagle drivetrain, I had no complaints: it truly seems to work just as well as its more expensive brethren, albeit with a cheaper-feeling shifter. But those TRP Slate T4 brakes? Sorry, TRP, but I found them mediocre at best: too dull a feeling at the lever, not enough initial bite, and not enough ultimate power when you really need it.
Memories are funny things. In my head, and I can feel the smooth and supple ride of my old steel hardtails, their springy personalities, their lively snap — or at least I think I can. Granted, some of that creamy ride was probably due to the softer dirt I rode on back then, the more flexible seatposts I used, and the thinner-gauge steel tubes that often comprised the bikes of my young adulthood. But having ridden plenty of premium steel over the years, I’m still keenly aware of its potential.
That’s not to say that the Ritchey Ultra was disappointing — far from it. It’s not a smash-and-plow kind of bike like so many full-suspension bikes are these days, but rather something that you learn to work with, to massage, to coax into doing your bidding. It offers a stout-yet-somewhat-compliant ride that is still distinctly associated with smallish-diameter steel, it should last for ages (barring rust), and the geometry is well-suited to modern riding styles.
It’s just not as springy and electric as I ultimately want a steel bike to be (and know that it can be).
How much the Ritchey Ultra appeals to you will likely depend heavily on the nature of your local trails, how you intend to ride on them, how much you loathe maintenance, your riding style, and — of course — your budget. There’s also the fact that you’re unlikely to see one of these at your local trailhead any time soon.
I’m a different rider than I used to be, and the trails I ride now bear little resemblance to the ones that made me fall in love with mountain biking. But even so, good hardtails still hold a special place in my heart. This Ultra doesn’t quite rush me back to the early days of gleefully tearing through the woods of southeastern Michigan, but it does recall a simpler time when I worried less about spring rates and damper settings and just shut my brain off and pedaled.
I reviewed Ritchey’s Road Logic steel frameset a couple of years ago, spent several years on a titanium-and-carbon Ritchey Breakaway travel road bike, and am soon wrapping up a review of Ritchey’s higher-end carbon Breakaway. I’d happily have any of those in my personal collection, and I still fantasize about adding the “right” mountain bike hardtail to fill that longstanding hole. But at least for me, the reality of this Ultra doesn’t quite fulfill its promise.