“Hey, you’re using the wrong bars!” That was a shout in the woods. No time to reply. I was squinting through dust, hot on the wheel of another rider as we flung ourselves through twists and turns, dips and drops, over logs and around rocks. Beneath me, a Rawland Drakkar 29er was being put through the paces on relentless singletrack.
Rawland Cycles, based in the small town of Northfield, Minn., has a knack for producing bicycle frames that could be classified as “fancy utilitarian.” My fully rigid, steel 29er Drakkar test bike ($600 frame and fork) came set up with shallow, cyclocross-style drop bars and skinny 1.8-inch knobby tires. At first glance, it’s hard to tell if the bike is a cyclocross frame with mountain tires, or a mountain bike with drop bars. Rawland markets the bike as a do-it-all frameset.
First order, I wanted to see if the Drakkar could handle serious trail duty, so I headed to my weekly Tuesday night ride with a local group of 29er-riding hooligans. Typically, rides with this group more closely resemble rolling cock fights than friends on bikes.
The Drakkar handled pretty well considering the setup, but was not nearly as aggressive as my own 29er mountain bike. A lower bar height and mountain-style handlebars would transform it into a hard-charging, rigid mountain bike. But as it was I was trickling to the back of the group, unable to handle tight corners without my front tire washing out.
A negative-rise (or upside-down) stem would work wonders too, lowering my weight onto the front wheel for more aggressive handling. The rigid frame and fork, made from custom-drawn, double butted Columbus Zona tubing, flexed just enough to keep me comfortable, but it never felt wobbly.
On pavement, I appreciated the drop bars and tall headtube. Once I settled into a straight stretch of road, I eased into the drops to cheat the wind a bit. A smile crept onto my face — I could have stayed on those cork-wrapped drops, spinning away, for days. The bike is crazy comfortable.
The comfort fit is no accident. Rawland owner and frame designer Sean Virnig places high priority on the “comfortable riding position that is Rawland,” as he puts it. It makes perfect sense, as the Minnesota/Wisconsin/Iowa river-valley region where Virnig rides is jam-packed with low-traffic paved and gravel back roads. (So much so that a gravel century race series has bloomed in the last few years, and it is attracting up to several hundred riders.)
Designed in the USA, but made in Taiwan (from the same factory as Surly, Rivendell, Jamis and more), the Rawland frames offer clean welds, classy lugwork and real-world utilitarian touches. The Drakkar sported three sets of bottle cage braze-ons as well as front and rear rack tabs. Frame and fork are disc-brake only, and rear horizontal drop-outs are bare stainless steel for either fixed, single-speed or geared set-ups. You can build this frame into almost anything you can imagine. But fans of suspension should look elsewhere — the Drakkar frame is non-suspension corrected.
Aesthetically, the Drakkar makes friends quick. My test bike wore a silvery-green paint color that reminded me of a 1960’s Chevy. Lugwork and thoughtful touches make the bike easy on the eyes. The biplane crowned fork and sea-serpent rear drop-outs — the latter with a built-in bottle opener! — are the kind of custom details that provoke bike-envy among riding buddies. Everywhere I went, people were impressed with my fine-looking ride.
The only thing that raised an eyebrow was an abnormally tall headtube, which puts function ahead of form. It places the bar higher for a more relaxed riding position, and it allows the sloping top tube position “a wider range” of standover clearance, according to the company (again playing to the Rawland ethic of “comfort first”). Headtube notwithstanding, it’s a beautiful bike.
From 700c skinny road tires to knobbies as wide as 2.35 inches, the Drakkar can be built to suit just about any use. I feel its ideal use would be touring and exploring the back roads and gravel roads of America. But anyone shopping for a utilitarian frame built with comfort in mind would do well to have a look at what Rawland has to offer. And to the stranger shouting in the woods I’d say “Sorry buddy, on this frame, there’s no such thing as wrong bars.”