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The Clem: A Shakedown Year

Having been humbled by the Bicycle Quarterly bike, I gazed into the eyes of my second wolf: What I needed was a Rivendell. Long gone was the lofty goal to begin randonneuring. It’s not that I can’t do long rides – I can – it’s just that another year came and went in which I didn’t take up the discipline. I hadn’t felt the desire to participate in another gravel race in a few years. Daily urban riding, occasional just-for-fun rides – both long and short, and light touring are where my heart sits. Standard diameter 7/5/7 frames can’t quite meet my needs. Any shreds of lingering performance culture exited my body. I am cringe, but I am free.

Once again I started saving. I dedicated a bit of pandemic money and set the cursor over the Riv webpage. I was gonna get a 64cm Clem L. If the Platypus came in a 64 I probably would’ve gone for it. Yes yes they have a 60, but at this stage in my bike narrative there was no way I was going to spend the most money I’d ever spent on a bike if it didn’t look the way I wanted it to. Will and I seem to be about the same size. His 60cm Plat has charm, but I just don’t like all that seat post and stem climbing out of the frame. It’s a personal preference, and I’m too old to budge. Besides, the Clem is a humble but beautiful beast, reminiscent of the city bikes that we idealized in the urban transport world just a few years ago.

To again tie this story back to my earliest posts, I was encouraged to get the Clem in no small part because of Velouria’s non-review. One of the last she ever wrote! This post is in her honor.

I wanted a new start. Velouria describes the Clem as the “best of Dutch omafiets meets best of 90s mountain bike.” That was the aesthetic I was going to lean into. Nothing precious and twee. No Nervex lugs on this thing. And I didn’t want another blue bike. It’s been done. I wished it came in black but in its absence I intended to get the lime green. Rather than go my traditional route with a Velo Orange Constructeur, I snagged my first Nitto. Soma had the Rivendell original 35F front rack on sale. I could use it for a basket or panniers. To my mind it didn’t scream “Frenchie.” Not Honjos this time, but Tanaka – at 68mm wide they could bridge a body of water. You will recall that I didn’t like the way the 54mm Rat Trap Passes handled, yet I felt a 42mm tire would look dwarfed on a bike whose chainstays were as long as some seat tubes. So I went with a pair of 48mm Soma Supple Vitesse EX. More of these in a minute.

I was nervous the reach would be too far with normal bars, so I got Riv’s Billies, which extend as far back as an elephant’s memory.

While I was trying new things and correcting what I felt had been a trip too close to the Herse sun, I decided to go with Deore V brakes, levers, rear mech, and hub. I’d never had V brakes, but Riv seemed to love them, and have all but disappeared cantis from their program. Black Deore brakes over polished alloy fenders seemed to me the perfect fusion I was going for. City bike and mountain bike together in harmony. A bicycle for over hill and Dale Avenue.

When the day finally came the green Clems sold out in seconds, so I had to get the blue. But it’s nothing to complain about. The blue’s a lovely color, if not the one I had designed the build around. Parts had been trickling in for a while and soon after the frame arrived I began to build it up.

It rides smooth as ice. The near total silence of the XT hub, the massive wheelbase, the 48mm tires all add up to a machine that never feels as if it’s straining at its limit. All road buzz disappears beneath its length. One almost wants to use language of lumbering, or draw an analogy to a limo, and yet the Clem is not slow. As Jan has pointed out, sometimes velvet comfort can feel slow, but once this thing hits cruising speed it maintains it with ease. In a strange way it reminds me of a fixie in that respect. The momentum carries. I can confirm what Velouria said: It also climbs remarkably well. I was once on a group ride taking urban single track at night and at a certain point the rider ahead of me dismounted on a sudden steep rise. I slammed the friction shifter down and surged around him to the top, basket and all, as he gasped in surprise. Side note – an IQ-X was enough to illuminate the dark wooded trail not only for me but the two riders ahead of me. Why people still use battery lights is beyond me.

One remarkable feature of the Clem is that I feel sat in the bike, instead of on top of it. I had only ever felt that before with the Traveler. As a tall rider it is as novel as it is comfortable. I’m assuming it has something to do with the 56cm chainstays and the 700mm effective top tube. Is this how the rest of the world lives, with their average height and 55cm bikes? Despite the bars not having much flare, feeling sat in the bike makes me feel more in control. There is nothing touchy or sensitive in the way it handles.

(Image from

Though the reach is quite far indeed I found that I rarely used the back end of the Billies. Using alt bars doesn’t necessarily mean one wants to be bolt upright. I like to be leaning forward a bit, but not down. So after resisting for months, lest I perform a sacrilege, I hacked off a few centimeters, effectively transforming the Billie bars into Albatross bars. There was nothing wrong with the Billies, I just didn’t need the extra length. People talk about the many hand positions of drops, and why this makes for the ideal bars for long rides, but I’ve found that the Clem set up according to its design covers distance effortlessly. This last year I rode 10-15 miles a day at least, not even counting just-for-fun rides, and the bike never balked.

The new Riv way of setting up thumbies friction on the inside of the bars is revelatory. Every other way of shifting is philistine in comparison.

I’ve said the Clem is not slow, but when I say this I am speaking of the objective movement. The steering…the steering is not to my liking. So much so that it can be a bit distracting. Context is everything, though. You will recall that my previous main ride was a low trail Raleigh Comp conversion. With the smaller diameter wheels, custom fork, and 74 deg head tube it moved wherever I wanted with a flick of the wrist. It had a mere 8mm of wheel flop. The Clem, however, has a 69.5 deg HT. Combined with the rake, the big ole’ wheels, and tall axle to crown, the Clem has got 21mm of flop. Now I knew, of course, that the Clem is a high trail bike, but Bicycle Quarterly has suggested that in certain contexts high trail acts as “power steering,” and works better with a front load than mid-trail bikes. The real issue seems to me to be not simply “high” or “low,” but what the head tube angle contributes. What is the reason the Surly Midnight Special and Pack Rat are said to handle front loads nimbly though being high trail, but high trail mountain bikes are “stable?” I’ve come to believe it has to do with the HT angle.

I like front loads. I am a total convert to front baskets for everyday riding. I put everything I need for a day in my Sackville Clemsack, toss it in the basket, and go. Its convenience excels quick release panniers, since it’s a regular looking bag and can be handled without any mounting bits to worry about. And on tours, or for errands, as Martinna of Swift says, pushing the load is miles better than pulling the load. The Clem does not like a front load, though. With simply the 35F rack, a Wald 139, and a workday’s supplies in a sack the Clem handles floppily. At cruising speed the steering is mostly neutral and fades into the background of the sublime comfort of the ride, but taking a corner at speed requires power and concentration, as it wants to keep going in one direction. At the same time, at slow speeds the steering is “drunken goaty.” Slow includes a complete stop. If I wait at a light I have to hold the bars, because it doesn’t want to just be chill – it wants to throw itself to the side.

This is where urban cycling differentiates itself, I think. There is a lot of starting and stopping, a lot of quick corners, a lot of sudden moving around potholes and cars parked in bike lanes. At speed I want sensitivity, and while slow or stopped I want ease of control. This is almost the opposite of what the Clem specializes in. In summary, the ride is truly fantastic, but the steering doesn’t vibe with where and how I ride. Now I want to talk about the build.

First up, the fenders. The Clem has generous tire clearances, but I don’t love the feel of 55mm tires on a road bike, even one with 559 wheels, so I thought I’d try the middle ground between them and the modern classic 42s: I got 48mm Soma Supple Vitesse EX with terra cotta tread. The “EX” means extra rubber at the center, but the sidewalls are still nice and supple. Before I even get to the fenders I’ve gotta note these tires are fantastic. Didn’t flat all year despite going over plenty of glass and riding the treacherous early Spring roads, complete with collected debris recently freed from the melted ice. Just as comfortable as Rene Herse tires. I could go for a tiny bit of tread for grip but in nearly every context that didn’t matter. Highly recommended.

But the fenders. I felt the size to get that would be proportionate to the frame clearances would be 68mm. If they were a tad bigger than necessary who cares? And they do fit both in the stays and under the fork crown. At 20mm wider than the tires I have found that road spray finds a way out of their curves sometimes. On turns that overspray can get on my feet. Sure it’s nice to have 20mm of room above the tire, but as far as width goes, in the future I’ll stick closer to 10mm.

The Tanakas came pre-drilled and the placement was less than ideal up front. The fender itself comes down pretty close to the ground such that going over a curb can be hazardous. And up top it means the fender doesn’t extend far enough forward to prevent spray from getting on the basket bag. In the future I would redrill the fork crown hole to bring it further out and make up the difference with a mudflap. But taking that front placement into account overall they’re of noble quality. They didn’t need to be re-radiused and they are nice and shiny.

They don’t interact with the Clem well. The Clem is not designed for fenders. “Clearance for fenders” is not the same thing as intentionally designed for fenders. In order to approach a proper fit around the tires I needed 3/4 of a wine cork to space at the chainstays. The fender nearly touches the seat stay bridge, and the SS bridge is drilled like an old 10 speed for caliper brakes – just a plain horizontal hole. It’s not just that there isn’t a proper braze-on for direct mounting, the hole doesn’t face the fender at all. Which means the rear fender moves around. Eventually, despite my efforts, it came completely loose at the SS bridge while riding.

For the life of me I cannot understand why Riv rightly takes an unpopular stance against plastic forks, and as many plastic bike bits as possible, but swoons over plastic fenders. Or rather I understand the reasons they have given but it’s simply incorrect reasoning. Maybe the California weather leads them to believe nobody else really needs them, I’m not sure. Will’s latest email seems to think fenders are great, yet even on their bikes with properly-faced bridge braze-ons assorted spacers are needed to achieve a fit.

Even if the fenders were able to be mounted properly the chain still slaps against it. Which brings me to the chain stays. Now keep in mind that I am not a racer. I have no concern about “weight” or “acceleration.” All I know is that I’ve never had such a problem with ghost shifting as I do with the Clem, and evidence points toward chain stay flex as a significant contributing factor. Almost certainly the incredible ride of the Clem is directly related to the extra long chain stays, but between the ghost shifting and the fender slap I’m not sure it’s entirely worth it on my end. Maybe getting them just under 50cm would solve the problem? Early 80s Trek 720s had 470mm stays and that seems both long and reasonable. I dunno.

Speaking of making noise against the fenders, it’s time to talk about the V brakes. This was my first time ever using them. It will be the last. If I wanted to get the fender line ideal, the brakes came into contact them. They scratched the fenders, and they rattled on them over bumps. And the supposed superior power of V brakes? Mostly false. On the front I was able to get power, even lots of power, but the modulation sucks. And no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many minute adjustments I made, I couldn’t get any power out of the rear. The feeling made me think of how people describe disc brakes – more absolute power, but at a cost. Switching to cantis fixed everything. No contact with the fenders, more power in the rear, and better modulation everywhere.

Finally the Nitto 35F rack. It’s my first Nitto. It is as lovely and sturdy as they say, it’s just that it’s not well suited to the bike for my purposes. The long angled tab at the bottom of the rack looks a bit tacky. It had been my plan to cut off as many holes as I could to get the rack as low as possible. For aesthetic reasons and for handling. But even after hacking and filing the fit was off. It wasn’t level for one, and there is no real way to attach a fender (you see a theme emerging). If I wanted the rack level it would squish the fender. If I wanted the fender at the proper level the rack would sit a bit high. Plus there’s no place to mount a dynamo light while keeping it protected. I’m planning to put it on the rear of the bike, and I think it’s going to work perfectly there, despite being designed as a front rack.

It might seem at this point in a rather long review that I don’t like the bike. But that’s not exactly right. In academic circles there is a tendency for book reviewers to fault a book for not being what they thought it should be instead of what it set out to be. That’s just bad academic work (you can see an example of how I avoid that problem in this recent review of mine). What I’ve come to realize is that despite seducing me with it’s Dutch lines, the Clem is a mountain bike, not a city bike. Call it a “hillibike” if you want but however you describe it the Clem is designed for fenderless off-road riding and rear loads. And I’m not alone in saying this. Recently Alan Barnard of Eco Velo fame has himself suggested that Riv has shifted focus in their designs. At one point they were in the center of the urban transport cycling scene as it developed in the late 00s and early 10s. Of late their focus has tended to be on recreational off-road riding.

It is then sort of my fault for expecting the Clem to be the kind of all-purpose city bike I wanted it to be. I should have listened to them when they call it a hillibike! My new long term plan is to put my Brooks Flyer on the Clem, liberate it from fenders, put the rack on the back, and ride it up and down hills. I have no doubt it will thrive in its natural habitat.

And yet it adds to my general and longstanding frustration that one simply cannot buy a complete bicycle in North America. It sounds wild when you say it and yet one will look around in vain for one. A custom frame or a custom build is the only way to go. In my naivete I thought that finally getting a bike from one of the greatest companies around would mean I could finally escape from hack saws and zip ties, but it appears that even at the upper reaches of production bicycles, designers are fine with p-clamps, foam spacers, plastic fenders, mismatched racks, and difficult dynamo set-ups.

From Bike Boom Peugeot (French 1957)

It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at one example. Through the 40s and 50s Peugeot mass produced a whole bunch of bikes. Several models went right through the whole period complete in their entirety. Dynamo, fenders, racks, and 650b wheels. The dynamo systems often work even into the present day, with wires run inside the fenders and frame through custom grommets. They work because they are designed as complete systems. And this is what is missing from today’s bikes. We get pretty dang close with Velo Orange, whose fantastic accessories play well with their frames. But even with them the bikes have to be put together custom. No completes.

For Christmas I got an oxy-propane torch. I’m planning to custom build my own bikes going forward. I hope never again to need a zip tie.


7 responses to “The Clem: A Shakedown Year”

  1. I had a Clem L for several years and thought it was a beast, though I appreciated its 2 x set up and as you say, the bike climbed well. I have a Bassi Rachel now. It’s spritely and I’m still setting it up for touring.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I dig your Bassi. It looks to be a fabulously useful bike.


  2. Great post! A few thoughts…

    The 35F is a nice rack, but IMO it’s too much for fork mounting. As I’m sure you know, to keep flop to a minimum it’s super important to keep a front rack as low as possible, and tight in close to the head tube. I found this near impossible with this rack, it seems you had the same issues I did. I think your idea of using it as a rear rack is a good one.

    I hear you regarding the fender mounting points. I had similar issues with the Platypus. I think perhaps the large gap between the tire and the mounting point is a result of combining the kickstand plate and fender mount. My guess is that moving the kickstand plate further to the rear to better accommodate the fender mount would throw off the balance when using a double-legged kickstand, and possibly place too much stress on the chainstays. All of this seems to be a by product of the unusually long chainstays on these bikes.

    Regarding metal vs plastic fenders, my guess is that this has to do with the time and hassle required to mount metal fenders. I can throw on a set of plastic fenders in less than an hour, but to get a perfect fender line with a set of Honjos can literally take an entire day or more. Riv’s build queue often runs into months, they probably don’t have the time or inclination to fuss with mounting metal fenders on their in-house builds. Just a guess.

    I can’t help but think that Riv’s pivot away from cantilevers to V-brakes is for the same reason as mentioned above. V-brakes are dead simple to install, and they fit almost any size tire without a fuss, whereas cantilevers take a bit more time to set up and adjust properly. When the build line is out the door, anything that saves time is a welcome advantage. As for their performance, I’m with you. I prefer the performance of a properly set up wide profile cantilever over a V-brake any day. They also look a world better.

    I’m excited to watch your progress with the oxy-propane torch!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Regarding the fenders, I think it’s more than a preference for their own set up purposes. I wouldn’t expect them to install mine. They could accommodate SKS fenders while properly spacing the bridges and braze ons.

      In an instagram post, now deleted I think, I asked about this and Grant responded with his reasoning why they prefer plastic to metal, and they were strangely and plainly false reasons.

      My sense is they just don’t think metal fenders are legitimate. I’m reminded of the former head of All City who said he hates fenders. All of a sudden it made sense why their bikes weren’t accommodating.

      I also assume that personal customizability is important to them and making the bridges equidistant means a certain, specific tire size is mind. And to be fair, on balance I see few bikes anywhere with full metal fenders. We who desire them are a niche within a niche.

      And to be clear, I say all this as a huge Riv stan, not a grumpy disc brake guy.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I recalled seeing Grant’s take on plastic vs metal fenders at one point and was able to find the article on their website. He seems to feel it’s mostly a question of safety and even says they’ve had customers go over the bars and destroy frames and forks because of metal fenders. I have to admit to being skeptical of this, but I guess it’s possible? Here’s a link to the article of you’re interested:

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah “safety” was one point he brought up. Another was that plastic fenders are “more modifiable,” which I found bizarre. Metal fenders are far far more modifiable, from drilling holes, to cutting for rinko, to running wires in the inside, to re-radiusing by bending, etc. I wish the post was still up there because it was an odd comment full of holes.


      3. Oh, another little piece I just found. What stood out to me was the line “as little integration as possible.” And what I’m looking for as a bike that is a singular, integrated machine.


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