Disclosure: I was eager to test-ride the Ridgeback Expedition, as it looked on paper like a brave and welcome entry at the lower end of the 26-inch wheel expedition bike market in the UK. It was returned to Ridgeback after the testing period was over. I’m not affiliated with Ridgeback in any way.
Released in 2014, the Ridgeback Expedition is a 26-inch wheel equipped touring bike at the low-middle of the pricing scale. It’s one of their World series of bikes, which also includes the well-regarded Panorama (reviewed here last week).
The bike’s build and specification orients it strongly towards long-haul expedition-style touring in the developing world with a big lean towards journeys incorporating plenty of unpaved roads.
These qualities, of course, make it an attractive proposition for those looking for a round-the-world tourer; a bike that can be depended upon in the long term, easily maintained and repaired the world over, and taken comfortably across a variety of terrain with a full complement of luggage.
While most new bikes built for the demands of world touring cost upwards of £1,200 (and regularly approach and sometimes exceed £2,000), the Expedition’s RRP of just £850 is an attention grabber. Though still a pretty decent wedge of cash, it’s notably less than the sticker price of most competing 26-inch wheel equipped expedition bikes.
Given that you generally get what you pay for with bikes in this price bracket, I was interested to find out where Ridgeback had compromised to bring the price down, and whether those compromises were likely to make sense in the long run.
Frame & Forks
The frameset is what defines a bike like this, and the Expedition is well thought out from a feature and geometry perspective, in many ways resembling the old fashioned steel mountain bike frames from the 80s and 90s that were popular for adapting for touring, except with a longer wheelbase for stability and heel clearance from rear panniers.
I rode a 57cm frame, which turned out to be a little long for my average height and proportions of 5 foot 11. I usually ride a 56cm frame; could I choose again I’d go for the 54cm version of the Expedition.
It’s built for cantilever or V‑brakes only, as you’d expect from a bike like this, the simplicity of rim brakes still being the most popular choice for round the world rides.
Shifter cables are routed via bosses on the down tube, allowing for old-fashioned down-tube shifters to be installed if necessary.
Touring-specific features include three bottle cage mounts, with the smaller front wheel allowing for a decent-sized bottle on the underside of the downtube.
There are separate rack and mudguard mounts at both sets of dropouts, eyelets on the seatstays for the rear rack, and mid-blade eyelets on the front fork for the mounting of a lowrider. Mudguard brackets front and rear are present and correct.
The non-drive-side chainstay features three spare spoke holders, which is a really nice touch — though, strangely, spokes of the appropriate length and gauge are not included.
There’s a pump peg on the seatstay for the supplied frame pump; it’s a nice idea, but ultimately, given it’s rather mission-critical nature, I’d prefer to keep a reliable pump of my own choice safely stowed in a pannier rather than exposed and vulnerable to opportunistic theft. I suspect the majority of developing-world tourers considering this bike would think likewise.
(The peg also makes carrying the bike on that side a rather painful experience, as noted in the Panorama review.)
The tubing is British steelsmith Reynolds’ 520 chromoly butted tubing, which has the same properties as their basic 525 tubing but is manufactured more cost-effectively under license in Taiwan. Many lower-end steel bike frames are built of 520 for cost-cutting reasons.
The frame flexes somewhat under high torque, and the lack of stiffness is apparent when riding on bumpy roads with luggage attached. It’s particularly obvious when riding the Expedition alongside other cromo frames, such as the Kona Sutra I was test-riding concurrently.
It’s questionable whether the newcomer to cycle touring would notice this, or be particularly bothered by it if they did. But after having ridden thousands of fully-loaded miles on a variety of bikes over the years, one does become rather attuned to the feel of these things.
High marks for design, features and geometry in the frame department, then; but I’m not particularly impressed in the admittedly highly subjective department of ride quality. It’s not helped by the rather basic wheelset, which we’ll come to later.
Drivetrain, Crankset & Brakes
Power transfer is conducted by a mixture of low- to mid-range Shimano mountain biking components, with a Deore rear derailleur, an Alivio front derailleur and a 9‑speed Alivio chainset with individually replaceable chainrings.
In my opinion, these are ideal drivetrain components for a world tourer and a sensible place to cut costs; these components will last as long and do just as good a job as the more expensive LX and XT components used on pricier tourers. (I’d be just as happy with an 8‑speed setup, such as that on Ridgeback’s Voyage, which would shave costs even more and allow for maximum availability of compatible parts worldwide.)
The Deore rear derailleur is a long-cage model. There’s no barrel adjuster on this rear derailleur, but instead you’ll find one on the downtube for easy tweaking of the gear indexing. The same goes for the front derailleur.
The 12–36 tooth cassette* provides that ultra-low first gear that tourers so often wish they had while lugging their worldly possessions across epic mountain ranges, quietly cursing the manufacturer of their bike under their breath. This is a big thumbs up; it really does make a difference, and while it’s not difficult to fit a 12–36 tooth cassette to any other model of touring bike, the fact that it’s fitted as stock is a big bonus for people who’d rather not get their hands dirty.
The bottom bracket is also a very sensible one: a square taper Shimano model, cross-compatible with the majority of cranksets and bottom brackets. You’ll find the same model on Surly’s top-end Disc Trucker for just the same reasons — simplicity plus ease of repair and replacement anywhere in the world.
Braking is of the cantilever rim-brake variety, the road-style brake levers unsuited to operating mountain bike V‑brakes.
There’s nothing unusual about this type of brake on a bike like this. They’ll never be as strong as discs, nor as mountain bike style V‑brakes, but if properly set up they’ll do an adequate, if not exactly admirable, job of stopping the fully-loaded bike.
What is unusual is the specific model of canti brake: the Shimano CX50 model. It’s used by Ridgeback elsewhere in their range, including the Panorama.
The big issue here is that these brakes are only compatible with a specific and unique (and expensive) model of brake block, the R50T2*. Parts need to be simple and cross-compatible on world tourers; similar brakes compatible with generic and therefore easily sourced brake blocks, such as the Tektro CR710s or Avid Shorty 4s, would have been a better choice here. Tourers heading off long-term on the Expedition with the stock brakes will need to ensure they’re carrying spare pads with them from the word go.
Cockpit & Controls
Braking is controlled primarily by a pair of basic Shimano road levers, which are functional enough but don’t have the adjustable reach of similar equivalents that some might like to see for ergonomic reasons.
A big plus point is the addition of a pair of top levers, allowing braking while gripping the bar tops. Though diminutive, they work surprisingly well, and I had no trouble controlling steep descents with a big pair of rear panniers and a tent strapped on top. They also allow barrel adjusters to be incorporated for adjustment of the brake pad position without tools.
Bar-end shifters take care of the gears, sensibly separating gear and brake lever mechanics, while allowing friction shifting as a fallback if the indexing system breaks.
The synthetic grip tape is decent enough. The stock saddle is a surprisingly comfortable one for a tourer and perfectly adequate for short rides, though I’d still swap it out for my Brooks if I were heading off on a long trip.
As another plus point, all of the cable routing is done beneath the grip tape, meaning there’s no interference with handlebar bags.
Several spacers have been added between the steerer tube and the reversible stem, so there’s plenty of room for adjustability of the handlebar height. In general, the resulting riding position is a good balance of upright comfort and all-day pedalling efficiency.
Wheels, Tyres & Mudguards
Like the frameset, the wheels sound ideal on paper: 26-inch, double-wall rims accepting wide tyres, 36 spokes per wheel, and Shimano cup-and-cone hubs.
The rims are Alex Rims DH19s. They’re a basic, budget rim for trekking and mountain biking, but they don’t have a particularly good track record when it comes to expedition-style touring, with various reports of them cracking after a few thousand miles of heavily loaded touring. This happened to the Panorama, too, as mentioned in the review.
On a bike intended to be used for long, remote, heavily loaded journeys on mixed road surfaces, a bomb-proof rear wheel is among the most important things to look for, as it’s one of the most heavily abused and thus failure-prone moving parts on such a bicycle.
While the front wheel would probably be fine, I’d have my doubts about the durability of the Expedition’s stock rear wheel for an extended tour.
I’ve also had issues in the past with the quality of the seals on the lower-end Shimano hubs, such as the Alivio hubs used on the Expedition. In the long run I’d recommend regularly checking that the bearings of hubs like this are running smoothly, particularly after long spells of bad weather, and anticipating overhauling them more regularly than you would for a better sealed pair of hubs from higher up Shimano’s range.
In general, something all bike manufacturers would do well to take heed of is that when it comes to long-haul touring, there’s no particular reason the front and rear wheels of a bike should be built to the same spec. It’s almost always the rear wheel that breaks, because it take a considerably harder beating and bears a lot more weight.
The stock tyres are Schwalbe Marathon 26x1.75″ expedition tyres, some of the longest-lasting touring tyres on the market, which will happily do thousands of miles before needing replacement. You won’t be winning races on them, but the high volume makes for a very comfortable ride. Lower the pressure for traction on dirt roads; pump them up for a little extra efficiency on tarmac.
Matching the tyres are wide, deep mudguards with rubberised mudflaps; ideal for a bike of this kind, and with plenty of adjustability and space for even higher-volume tyres should the fancy take you.
The bike is fitted with Ridgeback’ standard touring rear rack, a burly looking and spacious aluminium specimen which seems well made.
It features a built-in rear reflector, which is a nice touch, and matches the geometry of the frame perfectly, without any awkward workarounds for mounting. Because it’s designed to suit this specific frame, it’s not a rack you’ll necessarily be able to transplant easily to a different bike.
Unlike some racks, it doesn’t feature horizontal rails at the bottom of the stays, and only allows for a single pannier mounting height, which might affect some combinations of panniers and rack-top luggage.
No lowrider is fitted up front, but the requisite mounting points on the fork are present and correct.
The frame and forks are a metallic olive green with fairly inconspicuous decals, while most of the finishing kit is chrome. It’s utilitarian rather than stylish, which is probably what a touring bike should be, though I can’t help thinking that a black finish to the components would draw still less attention.
The thinking behind the Expedition is sound for the most part, and it’s great to see a relatively big UK manufacturer making a foray into the expedition and world touring bike market, as it’s one still mainly served by a small handful of niche manufacturers, most of whom originate from elsewhere in the world.
In general, the Ridgeback Expedition is executed well; ideal for the newcomer to expedition touring. At £849 RRP, it’s staggeringly good value, though a few compromises have been made in order to keep the price down. Looking ahead, I’d want to upgrade the wheels and racks to bring it up to scratch for a long-haul round-the-world ride, but I could say the same about many off-the-peg touring bikes. Excellent work, Ridgeback.
Update: For 2016, Ridgeback have changed the frame geometry for a more classic horizontal top-tube, which should help with stiffness, and switched to flat handlebars with bar-ends. In my book, these are both major improvements. The £100 reduction in RRP is the icing on the cake.