Rachel jets off to meet the guys behind new brand Rondo, and rides the new gravel bike, the Ruut.
The promo video on Rondo’s website made me rather apprehensive about my first trip to Poland. It looked cold, harshly cold, in a feel-it-in-your-bones way. Here was Rondo, about to launch its bike, built for these harsh winter conditions. So, even though I was going in July not January I packed my winter jacket just in case and prepared to do battle with the elements.
Visiting a country for the first time is always anticipation filled; I had difficulty picturing what it, let alone the riding, would be like. Gdansk, a port on the north coast and my initial destination, is most famous for its geographically and politically significant position in World War II and more recently the home of the Solidarity Trade Union who started the downfall of the communist regime. It’s always nice to know a bit of history, but it didn’t tell me much about the riding that would be on offer…
Cold vodka and a warm welcome
I was heading an hour’s drive from the city to the rolling hills and lakes within the national park around Gowidlinko. On arrival I was warmly welcomed (with some cold vodka) by Szymon Kobylinski, Rondo founder. Cards on the table here, Szymond is the kind of man that men want to be and women want to be with (or the other way round, whatever takes your fancy). After spending his youth in London he returned to Poland where he started racing bikes downhill and very fast. Yet being a national DH champion wasn’t enough and he constantly looked to innovate and develop his riding. Frustrated by the difficulty in getting hold of good gear he established 7Anna – a distribution company – and started to import Pedros, DMR and Hope to Poland. While this made hot products easier to access in Poland, it still didn’t satiate Szymon’s drive. In 2003 he established NS Bikes, designing and manufacturing some mountain bikes that quickly build a reputation for their toughness. That alone would be achievement enough, but somehow he also found time to be a founder member of Blenders, one of Poland’s biggest punk rock bands in the 90s and 2000s. It’s probably safe to say he’s the only man ever who has earned himself both national cycling titles and platinum discs. His band days are now long behind him and so he just spends his time road, XC and DH racing.
Rondo – a friendship and a company
Strangely, the birth of Rondo didn’t come about directly from his passion for cycling but from windsurfing. Szymon and his windsurfing friend and former Blenders sound engineer Tomasz Cybula started racing road bikes together to keep fit whilst travelling the world to surf. They also spent many hours sat on beaches waiting for the winds which gave them plenty of time to dream up Rondo. The harsh winters of home in north Poland make road riding an impossibility for several months a year. Necessity is the mother of invention, so they say, and Tomasz and Szymon looked for riding possibilities other than tarmac. The gravel came calling; the huge network of dirt roads in their home region provided the prospect for more sheltered, safer and sociable riding but, even more than that, a huge opportunity for adventure.
Taking what Szymon had learnt from MTB design and their love of riding and racing almost every discipline, they went out to design a bike that made the best of each and every drop bar off-road riding possibility – and furthermore – was adaptable to each individual rider͛s wants and needs. They took the fast ‘n’ hard nature of a road bike and complemented it with wide and grippy tyres, short chainstays and even the adjustable geometry from the MTB world. The Rondo Ruut (pronounced ‘Root’) came into being.
The roots of the Ruut
The Ruut is available in a few different incarnations and frame materials, but all share the same fundamental features and geometry. That one single starting point gives four different full build possibilities: CF1 and CF2 (carbon fibre frame and forks), steel, and aluminium (both coming with carbon forks). A carbon fibre and a steel frameset is also available.
At the start of the Ruut’s design, the team had long and hard debates as to whether the bike should be based on an endurance or race geometry, before they eventually settled on both. Switchable chips, adjustable headset angles and eccentric bottom brackets are no longer unusual on mountain bikes, but until now adjustable geometry is more rarely seen in the drop-barred world. Rondo go down the switchable chip route. The TwinTip fork has a simple chip which alters the position of the front wheel axle (a job that takes about 5 minutes and a change of disc brake mount). This results in 0.5º greater head and seat tube angles (70.5º – 71º and 73.0º – 73.5º respectively), lowers the cockpit by 10mm and decreases the rake of the fork by 13mm. Perhaps surprisingly, Szymon and Tomasz freely admit that switching the chip doesn’t make as dramatic difference to the ride as they first thought it might – they even swapped from calling them ‘endurance’ and ‘race’ positions to ‘high’ and ‘low’ – and they don’t advocate constantly swapping over positions. Instead they describe adjusting the TwinTip as you would your saddle and stem to optimise the fit of your Ruut to you and how you like to ride.
The carbon frame features a distinctive bent top tube which angles down past the seat tube to the seat stays (neither the aluminium nor steel versions boast this feature). The angle of the top tube means that the junction of the seat and top tubes is much lower than without. In turn this gives much more flex in the seat tube for additional comfort on the rough terrain. Riding the steel frame, a material renowned for its comfort, over rougher ground felt much more jittery than on the carbon bike which made me realise just how smooth the carbon version was – that wonky top tube and resultant flex in the seat tube do a very good job. Rondo believes it works so well that they have spec’d the carbon bikes with 35c Panaracer Gravelking tyres which are much faster and lighter than the 43c versions on the ally and steel versions (officially the frame only takes up to 40c tyres but there͛s room for plenty more). Another difference between the carbon and metal models is you can only run the ally and steel in 1x configurations, due to the difficulties in working the tubesets.
All bikes are 15mm front and 12mm rear axles for MTB compatibility and the resistance to twisting under power and braking. It is possible to run 650b (and up to 2.1” tyres) as well as 700c wheels, but bikes themselves aren’t available in 650b flavours as the team don’t expect a large demand.
My first foray was on the flagship CF1 in race fork mode. Instantly I was taken by the comfort of the carbon frame, after just a few hundred yards on tarmac we turned off onto the first dirt track but yet the change in surface was barely perceptible through the frame. However, any further ideas of noting ride subtleties were immediately gone as the rest of the group accelerated to warp speed up the track ahead and I desperately sprinted to keep in touch. Fortunately, the Ruut was mega responsive to my desperate stamps on the pedals and I just managed to stay in touch. Sadly for my long and slow endurance engine, this makes it a bike that really invites you to rag it in a masochistic way until both your legs and lungs fail. During the day the rain came down and the bike started to feel slightly skittish on the unfamiliar and now wet and greasy cobbles. On the plus side, it encouraged me to let a whole lot of air out my tyres and the bike once again came alive. Whilst before it had felt fast in an on-the-edge-of-control kinda way, it now felt fast in a rippin’ and grippin’ the trails kinda way and the MTBer in me was awakened. Bravely ignoring the regret that it had taken me until half-way round the ride to lose some air, I got to work ripping through corners, flowing over roots and ruts and gliding across the cobbles.
The steel Ruut rode in a way that makes people fans of steel frames. It didn’t produce the same responsive acceleration as the carbon version but it was quick, snappy and reactive; dead good fun to ride. Swapping between the steel and carbon bikes was rather analogous to driving an old style Golf GTi (other hot hatchbacks are available) in comparison to the modern-day model; the steel is fun and quick with lots of feedback but feels a little rough around the edges whilst the carbon does everything you want it to do very, very well but has maybe lost a little of the character of the boy racer version as creature comforts have crept in. The steel frame has also designed with utility in mind and offers three bottle cage mounts (rather than the two on the other frames) and rear pannier mounts as well as the fork bosses that are common on all models.
Rondo has built the aluminium Ruut with a primary objective of affordability. I didn’t get to ride this version but on paper it’s a good build at the price point. It’s also got a blinding paint job with its sparkling burgundy and dusky pink.
What the fork?
Back to that fork, and the adjustable geometry. In its race set up the Ruut was nicely balanced and handled the terrain with ease and at speed; we rode for around 5 hours and I never felt the geometry was too aggressive (although it is worth noting I do tend to ride my bikes in a stem-slammed way). Initially this made me wonder whether anyone would actually choose to swap the fork for a more relaxed position if the full-gas mode felt this stable. When I first changed the position there wasn’t as much difference as I had thought (hoped?) on the relatively straight and undulating tracks that we were riding. As a bit more of a test I snuck off and found some wooded twisting singletrack which posed no difficulties for handling in the race position. It was only when I swapped again to the endurance mode along this same trail that I really noticed the difference with increased front wheel grip into the turns, which gave me much more confidence leaning the bike into the corners.
Rondo was conceived from a functional need. Szymon and Tomasz felt that there wasn’t a bike out there that did exactly what they believed a gravel bike should be capable of. It is clear that the end result is worthy of their time investment. The back roads, cobbles and forest singletrack provided a strangely familiar test ground for the day. Another country – one which felt quite alien before my visit – delivered shared landscapes, shared laughter and shared passion for riding. After a giddy first date, I’m looking forward to seeing whether the Ruut will still have that special something when I bring it back to the UK, or whether it will be like the bottles of holiday vodka and spirits and never quite live up to their exotic promise.
Specifications and Pricing
- Price: £3,299
- Specification: Rondo carbon frame and fork SRAM Force brakes and drive train, Easton EC90 bars and seat post Rondo hubs and superlight alloy rims
- Price: £2,699
- Specification: Rondo carbon frame and fork SRAM Rival brakes and drive train, Rondo bars, Easton EA50 seat post Rondo hubs and aluminium rims
- Price: £1,999
- Specification: Rondo Tange steel frame and carbon fork SRAM Rival brakes and drive train, Rondo bars, Easton EA50 seat post Rondo hubs and aluminium rims
- Price: £1,699
- Specification: Rondo AL6061-T6 frame and carbon fork SRAM Apex brakes and drive train, Rondo bars, Easton EA50 seat post Rondo hubs and aluminium rims
- Price: £1,799
- Specification: Rondo carbon frame and fork Inc. stem and seatpost
- Price: £999
- Specification: Rondo Tange steel frame and carbon fork Inc. stem and seatpost
For more info, head over to the Rondo website, Facebook page or UK distributor Hotlines. Frames and complete bikes are due on sale in September 2017.
Full disclosure: Rachel’s trip costs were covered by Rondo.