Mini Cooper, Sorel, Mountain Dew Throwback, reclaimed barn wood. These are all proof that what’s old is new, if a bit reimagined. And so it goes with bicycles. The current trend of 27.5-inch mountain bikes is actually a revisit of the 650b spec that was popular in the early days of mountain biking.
Ritchey launched its own reboot recently with the Break-Away Ascent. With frames that come apart and pack into small cases for transit, Ritchey’s Break-Away series of bikes has always attracted cyclists who travel frequently. While the original Ascent was a mountain bike, the new Ascent is a true adventure bike, built for daily use, loaded touring, dirt-road exploration, or just errand running. The Ascent is sold only as a frameset (frame, fork, headset, travel case) for $1,650. Thanks to the use of disc brakes, Ascent owners can run either 650b or 700c wheels with room for 650b x 2.1in. or 700c x 40mm tires. The Ascent frameset allows for mountain bike or road handlebars and drivetrains. Options abound, as is usually the case when building from a frame up, but there are even more options with Ritchey’s careful design.
The Ascent mountain bike model was first introduced by Ritchey as a mid-year addition in 1985 and was featured for many years afterward, including an Ascent Comp version. Ritchey catalogs online show that, amazingly, the current Ascent shares much of its geometry with the original. The wheelbase, chainstay length, and fork offset are virtually identical to the 1985 model. The head tube angle is a tad steeper at 70.5 compared to the vintage 69, and the seat tube is only half a degree steeper at 73.5. To be clear, none of this is criticism. Like a good mountain bike, the new Ascent is very versatile.
For this review, I requested 650b x 2.1in. tires, a drop bar, and 2x11 drivetrain; the rest I left up to the minds at Ritchey. What arrived is a super fun bike that encourages off-pavement exploration. Avid’s legendary BB7 mechanical disc brakes and the plump, fast-rolling tread on Ritchey’s Shield WCS tires inspired confidence on mountain bike trails and rolled well on pavement. With a road compact crank (50/34T chainrings) and the 11-26T cassette that arrived on the bike, it was a flatlander’s dream. I installed a wider 11-32T cassette that I had in a parts bin, and it opened up new possibilities for the bike. For the touring cyclist, a drop bar paired with SRAM’s mountain bike derailers would allow for even lower gearing.
I didn’t have time for an extended tour aboard the Ritchey, but I did load up some panniers on Salsa Down Under low-rider front racks and took to dirt roads in my area. The bike handled as expected with its geometry: it was stable but easy to maneuver. The bottom bracket on the Ascent is far closer to touring bike standards than to mountain bike standards, which makes for a nice grounded feeling. When playing off road, the sloping top tube, although far from traditional for a touring bike, gave impressive standover clearance. For comparison the wheelbase is 15mm longer than a Trek 520 but the chainstays are 5mm shorter.
About those tire clearances. While the front fork has room for a tire wider than 2.1in., the seatstays and chainstays limit clearance. The Ritchey Shield WCS tires measured 52.1mm wide on my calipers, and I wouldn’t recommend going any wider. If you’re planning on seeing mud, I’d definitely go narrower. This certainly isn’t a deal breaker in any way, but it’s certainly worth knowing before you buy. If you plan on going with 700c wheels and tires, you shouldn’t have any concerns. I tried a pair of 29er wheels I had on hand with 38mm tires, and they had loads of room. In fact, I considered installing a set of 35mm road tires on that set of wheels for a couple of rides, but I was having too much fun diving into singletrack connectors and ran out of time before this review was due.
Touring cyclists will appreciate the frame specs on the Ascent. A threaded 68mm bottom bracket, 27.2mm seatpost diameter, clamp-on front derailer, and post-mount brake specs are all very common, and parts for them are easily sourced. The Ascent also arrives with a full complement of rack and fender mounts and two sets of bottle bosses. I would have liked a third water-bottle mount on the underside of the down tube, though.
Although I loved the riding manners of the Ascent, its real ace in the hole is the Break-Away frame. Day to day, the bike rides like any other. But when the time comes for a trip the frame separates quickly and packs into a discrete bag that avoids airline bike fees. The Break-Away design adds minimal weight to the frame, and its simplicity means that it’s easy for even ham-fisted mechanics to use after a bit of practice (though I do recommend that you have a pro build your bike and install the cable splitters).
With careful packing, you can fly to your destination with only two checked bags: one for your bike and another for your racks, panniers, and other necessities. Once you arrive at your destination, find a place to stash your luggage and you’re set.
If you’re a bikepacking, soft-luggage user, you could go even lighter, checking the bike and carrying on a backpack with your clothing, shoes, and helmet.
A savvy builder might also explore single chainring options and have only three cables to manage when packing and unpacking the Ascent for travel.
While technically I’m reviewing only the frameset here, I would like to mention the Ritchey wheels that were sent with the frame. The rear hub dismantles without the use of tools, allowing the axle to be used in the rear dropouts during transit and making the wheels lie much flatter than is possible with a fully assembled hub.
I love versatile bikes. I also love cycling’s history. In Ritchey’s new Ascent, the two meet in a wonderful package. At $1,650 for the frame, fork, headset, and travel case, the Ritchey isn’t cheap, but if you travel frequently, the saved baggage fees can earn back some of the cost. It is also worth noting that the travel case retails for $300 by itself, so the frameset is essentially $1,350. Lastly, while you may spend a bit more assembling an Ascent, the ability to build the bike based on your preferences and type of riding is hard to beat.
Contact: Ritchey Design, Inc., Corporate Office, 620 Spice Island Dr., Sparks, Nevada 89431, ritcheylogic.com/frames/mountain
This review originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Adventure Cyclist.