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Test: Retro Steel Road Bike

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Though heavier than aluminum, carbon and titanium, good ole’ chromoly steel continues to maintain a firm foothold in the bike industry. The material gets high praise for its strong yet slightly flexible characteristics. Ask any bicycle-touring nut and they’ll tell you it’s hard to beat a steel frame for all-day comfort.

Novara, REI’s house-brand bicycle, has joined the steel brigade with an affordable entry named the Verita. It sells for $1,099, and it comes with a Reynold’s 520 chromoly frame with butted tubing and paired with a steel fork. Novara then peppers in a host of alloy parts — bars, seatpost, wheels — to help keep the weight down on this retro-style bike. A size medium Verita weighs about 24 pounds.

Novara Verita steel-frame road bicycle

For the last month, I’ve packed the miles onto the Verita on paved, gravel and dirt two-track roads. It has performed well in every condition so far, but overall it is no race bike. For slow-paced touring, commuting, and weekend sightseeing rides this bike won’t disappoint.

Leather-wrapped bars and a matching leather seat, combined with silver components, give the bike a handsome curb appeal. With its throwback styling and genteel looks, in my use the Verita has attracted the attention of several of my bike-loving friends.

Components on the bike are mid-level but solid. I give SRAM’s new Apex shifters and derailleurs high praise for their flawless shifting for the entire test period. Shimano’s BR-R450 brakes hauled the Verita to a stop better than expected, and the lightly-treaded 28c Vittoria’s Randonneur tires, though heavy, are tough, puncture resistant, and long wearing — a good choice for this bike. Rack bosses on both the fork and seat-stays invite users to bolt on racks, pack the panniers, and hit the open road for adventure.

Cyclists looking to go fast should investigate elsewhere. Entry-level Weinmann wheels and the aforementioned heavy Vitorria tires give the bike a very slow roll-up to cruising speed. Geometry of the frame is also set up more for “easy does it” than spirited training rides.

The Verita offers a retro look with modern-day components

With its steel frame and 28c tires, I expected the Verita to be a little more comfortable than I found it to be on the road. Swapping my own seat, wheels and tires onto the bike helped, but that would be an expensive upgrade. Some will like the bike’s flat, ergo-bars, but I did not find them comfortable myself. Also, the cheap headset looks period correct, but I’d maybe recommend a replacement in the name of longevity.

My only significant gripe about this bicycle is the Chinese-made frame. Chunky welds and cost-cutting construction methods will disappoint those wanting to relive the glory days of beautiful, lugged road frames. Corners had to be cut, I guess, to keep this bike affordable, and in these subtle areas this is where it happened.

The “cost cutting” I note is in the chainstays section of the frame. The tubing, instead of bending to align with the axle drop-outs, is cut, and a small section is welded on at an angle. It looks like an afterthought, but it isn’t. Bending tubing costs money, and this bike’s framemaker apparently skipped that part of the process to make it work in a more crude way.

Admittedly, my complaints fall in the realm of the bike geek. They don’t really affect performance or durability, and most riders will not look at lugs and welds too hard. But if you do have this attention to detail like me and you’re willing to spend just another $100 or so, competing brands like Salsa and Surly offer Taiwanese frames that show a higher attention to detail.

In the end, the Verita is guaranteed to shift smoother and pedal more efficiently than a true vintage bike. It is upgradeable thanks to modern frame specs, and the bike is built from made-to-last materials. If you’ve been pining for a classy-looking road bike and like to ride at the speed of enjoyment (not “race pace”), Novara has a solid option with the Verita. But to reiterate, the bike is slow. I would not even use it for a training day with buddies unless my goal was to work way harder than them, thus getting more training in — though perhaps looking classier while I am at it.

T.C. Worley is an amateur bike racer and a professional photographer.

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