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by Dave Rome
October 29, 2020
Photography by Dave Rome & Tim Bardsley Smith
How much does the place of manufacture matter to you? For Ritte, its latest steel frames have been designed with the experienced eye of veteran frame designer Tom Kellogg. They offer a number of premium fitments that are rarely seen in steel frames. And the ride quality is superb. But for many, the outsourced manufacturing immediately removes the lustre that a premium steel bike carries.
I’ve spent the past few months rolling around on Ritte’s new Phantom all-road bike and am convinced that it’s a wonderful bike for those who want an elegant, fuss-free option and don’t necessarily care for the lightest, stiffest or most aero thing going. However, with a price that’s edging into the entry point for a custom steel frame, it does raise a few questions.
Based in California, Ritte is a small bike company best known for its fun approach to marketing and keen eye for visual design. Having dabbled in both carbon and steel frames in the past, the company once known as Ritte Van Vlaanderen re-emerged from a quiet few years with two wholly new disc-brake steel offerings: the Phantom (all road) and Satyr (gravel).
Despite being designed with different riding in mind, the two new bikes share a number of similarities. Namely, and a first for Ritte, both are designed with help from master frame builder and bicycle designer Tom Kellogg. With over forty years creating frames, Kellogg has an impressive resume designing bikes for the likes of Merlin along with co-owning the custom bike company Spectrum Cycles.
Kellogg has a long history with the Reynolds tubing company, and that’s exactly what Ritte’s new steel frames use. Kellogg oversaw tubing selections, and of course, the geometry, too.
Additionally, the bikes spare few expenses when it comes to the pieces that sit between the tubes. Parts such as the T47 threaded bottom bracket and head tube are custom machined, the latter of which aligns smoothly with a painted-to-match Enve carbon road fork (an item that retails for US$570 by itself). All told, and at least on paper, Ritte’s new bikes offer all the modern and premium flashings of a high-end custom steel frame, albeit they do it with a choice of six frame sizes and manufacturing outsourced to steel frame specialists in Taiwan.
Ritte offer the Phantom as either a frameset or complete bikes. I tested the former.
Let’s take a deeper look.
The Phantom features predominantly tig-welded Reynolds 725 butted tubing, something that’s effectively a 4130 alloy steel with Reynold’s own drawing, butting, and heat treatment processes.
“Steel is interesting stuff… it can be high carbon plumbers pipe, or it can be normalized 4130, which is basically what 725 is, or it can be a hardened 4130 or can be some Kobalt enhanced, highly tempered steel. They’re all the same modulus,” said Kellogg. “It just is no difference as far as stiffness goes. It doesn’t matter what the alloy is, for a given diameter gauge the stiffness is the same. Steel works that way. Other metals don’t, but steel does. So as far as stiffness, ride feel, and that kind of stuff, the alloys don’t change it. What changes it are the diameter and gauge.”
Kellogg has a long working history with Reynolds tubing.
Those different alloys do provide differences in notch hardness, something Kellogg simply summarizes as a measure of the material’s resistance to fatigue. Accordingly, 725 may not be the very hardest steel offered, but the veteran builder settled on it because it doesn’t become brittle through welding like some harder steels, and is, therefore, an extremely reliable choice.
Those selected tubes do differ between frame sizes but not to the extent I had first imagined. “Through the sizes we’re using two different down tubes, two different top tubes, but only one seat tube. The seat tube (diameter) we really can’t vary so that we can make sure that the seat posts fit,” explained Kellogg.
“Generally speaking, the smaller people are, the less they weigh on average. So that’s why you not only shrink tubing, but you use thinner gauges because it allows you to tune the ride a bit more. For the top tubes, we’re using two sizes, an inch and a quarter for the three smaller sizes. And then 1 inch and 3/8ths for the larger sizes.”
The Phantom’s tube diameters are fairly svelte by modern standards.
Accordingly, the same butted tubes are used and cut to length for the frames, “the smaller the frame, to a small degree, the shorter the butts (the thicker-walled end section of the tube), which works out perfectly because it reduces the stiffness [of the smaller sizes].” The seat stays and chainstays are the same across the six sizes, but do differ in length.
Of course, there’s plenty more to the Phantom than tube selection. “The fact is, there are things about the Ritte that no one has ever done, except Ritte. [For example] the way the cable routing goes. We were tearing our hair out getting this thing to work,” joked Kellogg about the cable routing that runs the brake lines, and mechanical shift housing through the bottom bracket shell and into the slender chainstays. “That T47 bottom bracket is really expensive to make. That’s not done where the frames are made.”
Similarly, Ritte went with size-specific tapered head tubes. “There’s nothing wrong with straight 44 mm head tubes,” said Elijah Grundel of Ritte. “But we chose to use size-specific head tubes, which, you know, maybe were a little bit nuts, but we thought there are some weight savings. But also it just looks really nice, and they’re matched to the forks.”
The head tubes are machined specifically for Ritte.
“I think that the factory had some moments where they thought we’re the nuttiest people on Earth because they kept finding inexpensive ways to do things and then we would find a more expensive way. But we tried to make the decisions that we thought would ultimately give people a really nice package,” explained Grundel.
Other details of note include the logo on the seat stay bridge and the use of rubber grommets at the cable entry and exit ports, something I’ll return to later. Notably, the frame offers no fender mounts, a polarising choice that no doubt produces cleaner lines. According to Grundel, the lack of fender mounts is because “our chosen Enve forks do not include fender mounts. The other being that we see the Satyr as a more ideal wet weather or commuter build than the Phantom.”
The brand logo on the seat stay bridge serves little purpose, but it’s this type of detail that helps set the bike apart.
The end result is a frame that tipped my scales at 2.1 kilograms (size small), while the uncut painted-to-match Enve fork was 480 grams. Those figures aren’t going to win the hearts of weight weenies or really anyone that uses their kitchen scales for bike parts, but then, that’s not the intended customer here. This frame clearly hasn’t sacrificed long-term durability in an effort to save weight.
And speaking of durability, Ritte’s manufacturer conducts its own strength and reliability testing to conform with CEN standards. “Safety is, of course, important to us. It’s a big contributing factor in choosing to work with a brand like Enve for forks, knowing they’re of the utmost quality,” said Grundel. “Our manufacturing partner builds everything to spec to pass CEN and other safety standards testing. Everything is built with compliance and safety in mind, it’s a big part of our process in how frames are engineered and who they’re manufactured in partnership with. Our intention is for these bikes to stand the test of time.”
The Phantom is compatible with all major drivetrains – mechanical, electronic, wireless – and supplied with interchangeable rubber grommets for clean routing, using the same entry and exit ports. These rubber cable grommets proved a pain to get into place, but Ritte suggests the trick is to use a bit of waterproof grease and a paddle pop stick (provided) to pop them into place. “After trying a few different iterations of grommets and different gussets on the frames we came to the conclusion that a snug fit was preferable to one that can come loose over time,” said Grundel.
“The gussets around the cable openings is pretty robust, but it’s finished smoothly enough that you could opt to forego a grommet if you wanted. We do have customers running that way and our original prototype frames were run that way while we swapped groupsets around frequently.
The rubber grommets are a pain to install, but are effective once in place.
”The frames are ED coated so water incursion isn’t really a concern if one were to run without grommets but the grommets do provide a nice seal nonetheless… and keep the cables from rattling to provide a bit quieter ride.” And a quiet ride it is, even with my mechanical build.
Even still, those cable grommets are probably the least clean looking thing on the whole frame, and in my opinion, they cheapen the aesthetics somewhat. Clearly, there’s a tradeoff between function and form, and Ritte has erred on the side of the former here.
Sticking with the cable routing and those building up the Phantom with a mechanical drivetrain are likely in for a bit of a fight. To be clear, Ritte has done an impressive job of hiding the mechanical cable gear housing inside the T47 bottom bracket shell, there aren’t many frame makers that would attempt this. However getting the rear derailleur housing and rear brake hose from the bottom shell, through that unique chainstay bridge (which exists for the concealed housing), and into the respective chainstay was a fiddle.
This unique chain stay bridge doubles as a channel for the cables and rear brake hose to stay internal.
Ritte’s design calls for the use of a cable tie through the two small holes in the base of the bottom bracket shell to retain the cables while the bottom bracket cups are threaded into place. This is actually quite clever, but I was snapping cable ties with the force required to have them follow the curve of the frame’s bottom bracket shell. I eventually got it, but it wasn’t a quick process. On the positive, all that bending caused no negative effect on the shifting performance, while the full-length housing means frayed inner cables can be replaced with ease.
Beyond that cabling, this is one easy bike to build. The flat mount brake surfaces were acceptably parallel, the bottom threads were cleanly finished and the headtube offers a round surface for the drop in (IS) bearings.
This frame suffered of no (surprisingly common) alignment issues at any of the mounting surfaces.
Ritte sells the Phantom as either a frameset (what I tested) or as a complete bike. The frameset (US$2,250) includes the frame and fork only, with the headset sold as an additional charge. Complete bike options start from US$3,800 for a Shimano 105 build, with other options beyond that.
Thinking back to when Ritte first announced the Phantom and Satyr, it was actually the geometry chart that had me wanting to call this bike in for testing. The figures are fairly traditional, but clearly, Tom Kellogg had played an important role. The bell curve of chainstay lengths was intriguing to me, as was the relatively generous stack height for the given reach. It just looked like a smart balance between classic proven numbers with a modern approach to fit.
According to Kellogg, a great handling bike is one that goes completely unnoticed. “Whatever you’re doing: climbing, cornering, whatever, you don’t want to notice it because if you notice it, it’s probably doing something you don’t want it to.”
The Phantom’s figures.
That philosophy has clearly led Kellogg to some trusted geometry numbers that he not only used for the Phantom, but has used for previous bikes for the likes of Merlin, too. The trail figures vary slightly through the size range, ranging from 56 to 60 mm (with a 28 mm tyre), and that’s achieved with two different fork rakes used.
Less common is the use of chainstay (rear centre) lengths that follow a reverse bell curve throughout the sizing, startling long on the smallest sizes, getting shorter for the middle sizes and then growing in length for the largest sizes. Kellogg does this for two reasons. “Starting from the long ones, it gets longer simply to make wheels fit. When you have shallow (slacker) rear seat angles on the bigger bikes – which you need to do to fit larger people with longer femurs – to fit the rear wheel in there, you need to make slightly longer chainstays. Simple as that.
“So as you get a little smaller, you shorten up the chain stays, because you can. But then as you start getting into the small and the extra small sizes, if you keep going smaller with steeper seat angles, you start running into handling problems,” said Kellogg, while explaining that too short of a wheelbase in the smaller frames can quickly produce a bike with problematic handling quirks.
Also worthy of note are the stack and reach figures which follow a clear curve throughout the size range. The figures selected are quite common, and most users should be able to achieve a comfortable fit without the need for too many headset spacers.
Often when you buy a high-end custom bike you’re paying for the experience of the builder. That builder, over time, has learned how to pick the right materials for the rider, and how to assemble them into a reliable machine. And while there’s no specific name or face to the true creator of this bike, the end product feels just as good to ride.
What stood out most is how the Phantom just hums effortlessly and comfortably along most typically dead feeling roads. This is a common praise for steel bikes, but it’s not always a given. In this case the tubing selections do a great job of muting buzzy roads and taking a noticeable edge away from inconsistencies, such as tarmac patch work or tree roots causing bumpy bitumen.
The Phantom offers a lovely ride quality.
Having spent a bunch of recent time on stiffer, more race-focussed carbon bikes, getting back on the Phantom gave me an immediate sense of blissful cycling. I often found my mind wandering off at the view or how my socks weren’t staying put, rather than focussing on what my wheels were doing.
Now that’s not to say the Phantom just floats across all surfaces; no, this is still a rigid bike. That comfort exists to quieten the type of road that saps your energy, but won’t hide the blows of visible holes, bumps and ripples in your path. The frame doesn’t offer any significant give in this sense, and really it’s up to using wider tyres, and perhaps fitting a flexible seatpost if you want more comfort – and with a regular round 27.2 mm seatpost and room for 32 mm tyres, those options are plentiful.
Kellogg spoke of designing neutral handling and that’s certainly how I’d describe the Phantom’s poise in following flowing cambers. Some like their road bikes to handle like a hyperactive Jack Russell terrier, jumping from one spot to the next. The Phantom, by contrast, is just that little more docile, like a middle-aged Golden Retriever. It can be energetic when you want it to, but generally, it’s just more calm and predictable in its ways. And no, the purpose of this analogy isn’t to infer that it rides like an old dog.
That handling actually surprised me somewhat as a look at the 56mm trail figure of my small-sized sample would lead you to believe it handles as quickly as any race bike on the market. However, the slightly longer front and rear centre (chainstay) lengths help bring calm and stability to the front end. And it’s worth noting that my small-sized sample has the lowest trail figure of all the size options – that handling should only get more controlled for other sizes.
Similarly, the bottom bracket height is kept relatively low with modern larger rubber in mind, a decision that has the Phantom dipping into corners without a surprise weight shift. While most of my test time was spent with actual 29mm measured width tyres, I also found that fitting a (measured) 31.2 mm tyre didn’t introduce any unusual handling quirks or raise the bike too high.
The Enve fork won’t fit more than the claimed 32 mm tyre.
Speaking of wider tyres, a 32 mm tyre is right on the limit of what I’d feel comfortable putting into this frame as squeezing in much wider could result in paint damage on a rainy day. In that sense the Phantom is much more an ultra-modern road bike than it is an All-Road bike.
Not just a figment of my imagination, the Phantom doesn’t jump forward with a burst of power like more race-oriented machines do. Mostly it’s that you can’t hide that the frame weight is easily double (or even triple) that of a carbon frame. However, a much lesser component is the mid-size diameter tubing that saps the edge from big efforts. Thankfully this frame is no swimming pool noodle, and at no point was I left wishing for more frame stiffness in what this bike is intended to do, that would only result in a harsher ride.
The Ritte may not surge forward like a dedicated race machine, but the smooth ride and sporty handling make this a fun bike.
Whether we like to admit it or not, aesthetics play a huge role in how well we take to our equipment. While it’s rare to find a truly ugly bike these days, I must complement Ritte on continuing to do what they arguably do best: make great looking bikes. In my eyes, the Phantom’s baby blue and painted silver finish is equal parts class, eye-catching and immaculate. Some friends of mine saw it differently, saying the painted silver made the bike look cheap. Sadly for those in the latter camp, the Phantom is available in a single colour offering, with custom paint being the other (far more expensive) choice here.
The Ritte Phantom is an elegant bike in my eyes.
Perhaps the bigger question is how it compares to other steel bikes on the market? As it stands, the Ritte Phantom is a somewhat unique blend of premium features that are typically only found in custom options merged with small-scale production and stock sizes to keep the price in check.
A close rival to the Ritte is the Ritchey Logic Disc, a well-loved classically-styled steel ride that’s also a fair bit cheaper at US$1,400. And while both bikes are pitched at similar riding, the Ritte arguably offers a bit more modern flair with its internal cable routing and the tapered head tube. I also prefer the Ritte’s geometry that’s a little more modern and less long-and-low in its fit. Meanwhile, the Ritchey is arguably a little more utilitarian in its ways, which has its appeal, too.
Buying the Ritte Phantom doesn’t make a huge amount of sense on paper. Even for a steel frame, it’s not particularly light. It won’t make you more efficient against the wind. And it’s fair to say the price is going to be a sticking point for many steel-curious cyclists, especially given the lack of a face for who lovingly welded the tubes.
However, none of that stopped me from enjoying my time testing this bike. The bike world is forever getting more complicated, integrated and confined to certain systems. By contrast, a bike like the Phantom is simply a modern take on a classic road bike.
You can build it how you want. It’s easy to take care of. You don’t need to worry about it tipping over at the cafe. And it just so happens to look nice and ride wonderfully, too. Perhaps the best measure here is that if I were to order a custom steel frame, I’d want it to fit, handle, and feel almost exactly like this bike.