Second Time’s a Charm: The Smaller Rivendell Clem Smith Jr 45cm L Style

I just rounded 1,000 miles on the 45cm L in the configuration I took to the fitter without a single adjustment or component change, the longest since I started the Clem saga. For those who remember my long and troubled experience with the 52cm H style, the important thing for me to start with is all of my pains are gone, my wrists are good and my knee is healing and I have no soft tissue issues. I don’t think any of my problems with the 52cm reflect at all on Rivendell, just a series of boneheaded mistakes when I built it that got compounded by it just always being slightly too big for how I wanted to ride it. I think I could’ve fit that frame fine if I was able to live with the full upright more casual pace, but I just couldn’t let go of the urge to ride it harder most of the time. That’s on me, and everything I have to say stems from that.

Wait… A Second Clem?

Yup. Previously I rode a Rivendell Clem Smith Jr “H” in the 52cm size for about 3 years from November 2015 until August 2018. I have a pubic bone height of about 81cm or so, which per every Riv catalog really says the 52cm is the target size for me, I am pushing the very limits of what they’d recommend for the 45cm.

But, in those three years a series of personal mistakes (slipping seatpost, stripped saddle clamp angle adjustor, questionable stem reach choices) combined with some aspects of the frame at that size versus my body and riding style (saddle setback from bottom bracket, minimum handlebar height) combined together slowly over time to give me some persistent and increasingly disruptive physical ailments, including:

  • Tendinitis in my right knee
  • Wrist pain in the back of both wrists
  • Irritated soft tissues through my seat

It got so bad I started having to take time off riding. Weeks, and then later months. When I would ride my other bikes, I wouldn’t have the same issues. I tried a lot of solutions: different saddle heights, different seat posts, different saddles, different stem lengths, different handlebars, different handlebar heights, etc. I eventually just accepted: the bike might just be too big. It was indeed a giant, dwarfing any of my other rides. So, with a heavy heart, I stripped it down and found a new home for the frame.

So, why a second Clem?

“OK,” you say, “I can get feeling a bike is too big. But, the size steps on the Clem are pretty big, why chance sticking with it and not going to something else?”

Well. To start with, we should go back to why I wanted a Clem in the first place. I’d been trying my hand at building touring bikes out of old boom-era steel frames, and over the course of a few years doing that I’d come to embrace things like 650b conversions and fat tires and the Tektro R559 long-reach brakes, friction shifters, quill stems, and the Albastache bar… all of which Riv was the champion of if not the entire reason it was on the market. So, wanting to eventually transfer up to a Riv seemed like a good dream anyway, I’d learned and benefitted a lot from them and I’d come to value them as a company.

Along the way building out those old frames, I’d also come to develop some pain points I wanted to resolve. Poor tire clearance, difficulty fendering, lack of rack boss points, flexy bottom brackets, and those R559s aren’t exactly the most confidence inspiring brake when the pads are at the ends of the arms. Especially in the rain. But at the same time, I never did much gel to drop bars, and I had come to dislike mechanical disc brakes for their squeal and found hydraulic brakes a bit touchy, not to mention hard to source replacement pads for.

So when Riv announced the preorder for the first Clems, what I saw was a new frame that:

  • Was from a company I had come to respect and was already dreaming of a bike from, but at a much more affordable price point
  • That promised all of their usual signatures, like a steel frame with neutral handling and a near fanatical eye for detail
  • That still took rim brakes, not disc
  • But that also took canti or v-brakes not long reach
  • And which was overbuilt to handle mountain biking or touring
  • With all the boss points I could want, and some I probably didn’t even need (like the ones on top of the crown)
  • And with unusually long stays (woohoo, no more barely pinching fenders inbetween the tire and seat tube)
  • Which also had clearance without fenders for full-on mountain bike knobbies
  • And it was purpose made for upright bars instead of drops.

I mean, you have to respect that on paper the Clem was the realization of everything I’d been working towards in a bike. Riv’s messaging never quite settled on how to describe it, but I have always from the start viewed it as a much more urbane, much less ‘extreme’ Rivified expedition touring bike. From the beginning, I wasn’t comparing the Clem to things like Papillionaire or Linus, but to things like the Thorn Nomad, the VSF TX series, the Trek 920, the VO Piolet, the Soma Wolverine, and even the Surly Troll. The Riv wasn’t as ‘extreme’ as any of those, but as far as what abuse it could take, to me, those were its competition. That you could build it up instead like a Papillionaire or a Pashley really proved to me how much more versatile it was as a frame. And it’s still the best example I can think of for bicycles where wheel size is chosen proportional to frame.

I am convinced these are different solutions to the same problem set. These are both expedition touring frames with all-day multi-position bars, strong brakes, and support for full cargo hauling.

So, I mean. Yeah. Of course I was sticking with a frame. Nothing out there did quite everything it did. As far as I know, nothing does still. And thus I bit the bullet, accepted I’d have to change out a substantial amount of the bike (frame, wheels, tires), and ordered a 45cm frame. This time in an L, which, if you’ll humor me, I’ll cover in a bit.

I’ll admit: when I first got that 45cm frame, I was sure I had made a mistake. As the 7cm jump in frame size might suggest, it was notably smaller than the 52cm frame was. It felt so tiny. But, I already had the parts, and I’m no stranger to foolhardy choices, so, I went ahead and built it up.

And you know what? Built up, it does not feel like a small bike. Heck, it was bigger than my hybrid that was my daily commuter for years before the Clem experiment, and which was the first bike I ever emotionally bonded to I loved it so much.

I went back to riding, and I rode more than I had been. I got about 700 miles in though and had to admit, it still wasn’t right. It was a lot better. A lot better, like, immediately. But it still wasn’t quite there.

While I was in cycles of taking time off the Clem to reset, I had gone back to riding my old hybrid. And two things kept making themselves obvious to me: one, after all the time on my larger roadster and the Clems, it was obvious the hybrid was a bit too small for me, and two, I really liked those Velo Orange Crazy Bars. In fact, I had settled on basically that same setup with a flat bar and bar ends inboard of the shifters long before VO even came out with their bar, and every time I was back on them it felt like home in a way neither the Bosco nor Billie bars ever had.

Way back in 2013

“I rode like 5,000 miles on these bars,” I thought on one commute in to work, “and never once did I have any wrist problems.” But, in every other way the smaller Clem was better: more stable, less jittery, smoother, accelerated like it had a motor. So, the next obvious thought was, heck, why keep sticking with Riv bars? Why don’t I try the Crazy Bars I love so much on the frame that was really just the improved-in-every-way version of that old hybrid? I’d tried it the full Riv way, the full Clem experience, for years. Was it really so sacrosanct to try it as a ‘flat bar’ touring hybrid?

Like the switch to the 45 from the 52, there was a quick and immediate improvement. But… yeah. It still wasn’t right. I was by this point so injured and so used to compensating that I no longer trusted my body feedback on what was the right fit. I knew once my saddle height was 68 and I had no pain, but now it was down to 64 and that seemed wrong, but my knee stopped hurting…

I bit a bullet almost as bitter as the cost of switching bikes, and took three whole months off bike commuting. At the end of which I did two more things: I paid for a fitting to have a second set of eyes on my build, and I started getting personal training at my gym to give me a second set of eyes as I broke my compensation forms.

The fitting went mostly well. He didn’t think the bike seemed small at all (and actually had a hard time conceiving how big the 52cm must have been), but watching my pedal stroke by eye he ended up setting me at 70cm (perfectly in line with Riv’s method based on my 81 PBH), and we swapped my 10cm stem out for the longest I could easily get, a 13cm. After that, I committed to riding without adjusting anything for at least a month.

The first two weeks were rough. Like, back when I got back on a bike and started commuting rough. It was hard to go a decent speed with the saddle now back to higher, though my knee didn’t hurt. I had to focus on keeping my wrists straight but I found two solid grips where they wouldn’t hurt either. My trainer had me focus on squats and lunges, and on keeping my knee behind my toes and pushing through my heel. Within a month I was riding more normally. After a couple, my wrists stopped hurting. After five months, my knee pain sometimes wasn’t there at all, and even as I type this is just an echo.

It’s been a thousand miles since my fitting. And I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the past four years, and I am baffled that so many people have still trusted my opinions on the Clem over the past year, after how my time with the 52cm went. But, well, ok. I’m a guy who’s made some mistakes. I’ve tried two Clems in two sizes, with three different saddles and three different tires and four different handlebars. I’ve logged a total 9,540 miles on these bikes. And, I guess these are my thoughts about the current one, and how it compares to me previous ones, and some thoughts about the different bars and the different sizes and the different styles. It seems incomplete to not write them up, so, one last time… here we go.

The Build

  • 45cm Clem Smith Jr “L” in Grilver (originally bought from Riv’s site, because I knew the small Ls sell fast and I wanted this one. It was the last. They called me up and said I had a dealer in my city, would it be OK if they canceled the sale and sold it through him, same price, so he got the sale. You cannot beat Riv’s devotion to the human element, you just can’t. That shop was A1 Cyclery [now The Psychic Derailleur] and Chris was as always lovely to deal with and everyone in this mini story is good people).
  • Velo Orange Crazy Bar
  • Velo Orange 1″ quill to 1 1/8″ threadless adapter
  • Forte 130mm 31.8 threadless stem with 31.8 to 25.4mm clamp shim
  • Rivendell Silver Shifters
  • Velo Orange thumbie adapters
  • Shimano R550 brake levers
  • Velo Orange Grande Cru Mk II ‘frogleg’ cantilevers
  • Brooks B17 Special
  • “Brutal Beast” wheelset (Deore T610 hubs, Rhyno Lite rims, 32 spoke)
  • Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tires (to my mind these are the spiritually correct Clem tires. They wear slowly and last forever, they never flat, and the lug design means they’re as good for climbing grassy hills and gravel as they are for pavement. A+)
  • Sugino XD2 wide/low crankset, 170mm
  • MKS Sylvan NEXT pedals
  • Shimano FD-2303 front derailleur
  • Microshift RD-M85L rear derailleur
  • Rawland Raidoverks Demi-portuer with Acorn medium handlebar bag
  • Tubus Logo Evo rear rack with Rivendell Sackville saddle sack medium
  • SKS B65 fenders with custom mudflaps
  • Abus Amparo 495 frame lock
  • Blackburn Central 650 front light, Cygolight Hotrod rear light, Crane Suzu brass bell, Portland Design Works Lucky Cat (black) bottle cage
  • Spokey-dokes and plastic butterflies and angelfish

The Clem 45 vs the Clem 52

The first question I usually get is how I find the difference between the two sizes, as someone who was on the extreme of the overlap. Broadly, they ride about the same. The 52 is a bit more staid, it does have the longer chainstays by over an inch. The 45 feels more responsive, almost zippy. The 45 accelerates faster, the 52 had a higher top speed (bigger wheels, same gearing). The 45 fits more readily in doors and cars. The 52 felt like a bike you ride in, the 45 is a bike you ride on.

At least at my size. What it really taught me is that the lucky people are the ones in the middle of a Clem’s fit range. Go off the fit for the H style, because they’re more generous with the L because of standover. If you’re in the middle of the size range for the frame in H, you get the advantage of being able to build the same size frame as either a flat bar tourer (like my 45), or as an upright cruiser (like the 52 / typical Riv build). If you’re on one side of the middle, you might get stuck in either the touring style (if the bike is slightly small) or the upright (if it’s slightly large). If you’re in the overlap, then you’ll have to pick which style you want and size up or down accordingly. I tried the Riv way sizing up for three years and it never gelled with me. Sizing down I feel right at home. I always preferred a bike slightly small though, so, I should’ve known better. I just really wanted to keep using the 650b wheelset I already had instead of switching to 26″. Know yourself, and know your preferences. If bikes always feel smallish to you, size up and be happy. if they always feel big, the bigger Clem size will be much bigger, size down and be prepared to get a long and tall stem.

There’s less room on the 45 for a bottle cage, and I had to go to side-entry and a smaller bottle. Not the end of the world, but a consideration. If I was doing long haul touring I’d mount a couple extra cages with hose clamps on my demi-porteur rack. Others might find the smaller primary bottle cage of the L a non-starter for that.

I do appreciate that the smaller frame maxed out gives me more room for my handlebar bag and saddle bag though. I really love the Riv Sackville saddle bag medium as a commuter luggage. Mostly I don’t even need my panniers anymore, the saddle bag hauls enough and the weight distribution is much more ideal. The large amount of exposed seat post means I have ample room for the bag to expand to full height under the saddle, which was more of a problem on the 52.

Still miss those longer chainstays on the 52 though…

The H vs the L

I bought the H originally for the extra rigidity under load, and what I imagined would be more storage space inside the main triangle. I took a gamble on the L the second time because, well, rigidity under load is nice but when you’re hauling giant stuff on the rear rack getting a leg over to mount can be a chore. The L solves that. And also, I didn’t end up storing much in the main triangle. I like the L’s swoopy tube as a carry handle, very useful. And, if I ever have to shoulder it, I like that I can take my bottle cage off and flip the bike upside down to put the curve over my shoulder. As near as I can tell, they don’t show any appreciable difference in stiffness most of the time. Importantly, the L is no more prone to bottom bracket flex.

That seat lug on the L is real pretty. Hard to beat it. The L also looks more genteel, a little softer. I can understand why maybe some people don’t want that, but in city commuting it means slightly more people will stop and yield correctly to me. You look less ‘serious’ on a step through and that can actually be a real advantage. (One I further enhance with spoke beads…)

Both have the same neutral handling. Both feel sturdy as all get out, but have those light rear triangle stays that seem to yield that unusual planing property where they feel spring loaded. Remember to downshift before a stop and either Clem style feels like it’s coiled when you start back up. They neither ride dead, despite how stout the frames are. Sure, they aren’t as whippish as racing steel, but they both ride ‘lighter’ than they are.

Crazy Bar vs Billie/Bosco

The next question I get after those two is always about the bars. VO Crazy Bars on a Riv is… not entirely common. Plus, I’d said so much good about Boscos. So… how do I find the Crazies?

Well, first, let’s check the What Bars overview:

The Bosco and Billie both offer one more ‘upright’ grip vs the Crazy Bar. The Crazy Bar offers about 1.5 grips more forward the Riv bars don’t. So, the Riv bars are more casual, the VO more aggressive. No surprise there. All offer room enough to move hands around, and at least one bar grip and one parallel grip, for changing up wrist angle.

What’s less apparent, and what ended up being important for my wrists, is when you’re in bar grip and when you’re in parallel are also reversed between the VO and the Riv.

Like, on the Billie:

Your upright grip is parallel. You have a 45º grip almost entirely forwards, and then your farthest grip is bar grip. Meanwhile, the Crazy Bar:

Your upright grip is 45º, in the middle you have a bar grip, and the farthest 1.5 grips are parallel. For me, this made the big difference. When I’m accelerating, I can resist my body shifting more naturally on the 45º grips. On the Billie and the Bosco back I had to grip harder to prevent my hands sliding back in the parallel grip. On the VO in the parallel grip, the flat bar provides a natural stop when my hands slide back. In the wide grips, I can make use of the paddle rests on Ergon grips to distribute weight, whereas they were less useful on the Bosco and Billie to the point where I just switched instead to silicone chunky grips. The Riv bars are fine for cruising (by which I mean maintaining speed once already going), and great for climbing. The VO are superior for spirited riding, resting in a headwind, and accelerating under hard effort.

The Riv bars looks better, and for more upright/staid riding they are great and comfortable and offer sufficient hand positions. I spend most of my time commuting in stop and go traffic on a rail trail plagued by constant headwinds, so, the Crazy Bars win for me. This is similar to the bigger/smaller thing. Do you want a Clem because it’s a rugged touring/mountain bike? Consider the VO Crazy Bars, or at least an alt bar in that same family (Jones H, Surly Moloko). Do you want the Clem to be more casual, more upright, more like a classic roadster? Go with the Billies for more zip / lower bars, go with the Boscos for higher bars or better climbing. The Boscos are still champ for climbing. I actually had trouble getting the bars on the 52 low enough to not cock my wrists, and the Billies helped that a lot, so, keep that in mind as you find your own fit.

Closing Thoughts

So. Where did the 52 go wrong for me? I think it was mostly not being able to get my saddle far enough forward, and not being able to get the bars low enough. I have to jack the 45 up a lot, but it lets me do those two things much more easily. It’s worth remembering that Riv’s expanded frame system viewed backwards is more traditional compact sizing. The 52, if you size it like a compact frame, is about the same as a L Piolet, a L Troll, a 565L Nomad Mk II, or a 57cm TX-400. There’s some geo variance, obviously, but mostly the Clem has a lower stack, which makes sense because you can always just use a taller quill. I’ve seen it measure out similarly with bikes sized by other companies as large as 59cm! The 45cm, meanwhile, is a M Piolet, a bit bigger than a S Troll but not quite a M, a 540L Nomad Mk II, or a 50cm TX-400. It is, actually, slightly larger in every dimension than my worker’s M Cannondale Quick hybrid (my saddle is higher, my bars are higher, my bike is longer). I looked it up. His bike has a… 45cm seat tube. If you like the way hybrids fit and generally fit them yourself, sizing a Clem like a compact frame might suit you more. If you always feel cramped, by all means, size up. Just know you may limit yourself on your build options, if your nearer one end of the range than the other.

Me? I got what I actually originally wanted, before I got lost in the woods trying it the Riv way and then feeling dumb because they’re smart dudes and mostly they prefer the bigger way. It’s not for me, and that’s OK. Sized down I still get to benefit from an amazingly strong frame with ample boss mounts, no bottom bracket flex, neutral handling, easy build and maintenance, and I get to support a good company. Basically, I got my rugged but pretty touring bike that’s easy to work on that I always wanted. It ended up built kinda like my hybrid, but, so what? That bike taught me I love biking, and this gets everything right it did and fixes everything it got wrong. It may be the small Clem but it’s actually still bigger than that bike ever was. And if I take my hands off the bars it doesn’t immediately zip into the nearest ditch. Man that hybrid was twitchy.

Anyway. Clems. I still love them. I prefer mine slightly small. You might prefer yours the other way. What’s best is the frame works equally well either way, so long as you can get the adjustments right. Don’t let the way the stock ones are built up fool you. This is an excellent platform for all sorts of adventures. Stop and just read the dimensions on the frame itself and let your mind imagine everything you could build that into with different parts.

Then do it and go ride. Me? I’ve got a solid thousand miles down, and for the first time in over a year I can’t wait to get back on and go tackle more.

Update: May 16, 2020.

Just a few updates here to the whole Clem saga, since these reviews keep getting so many hits. First off, I still love and am riding the smaller Clem. I still have no pain, and it’s been a great companion through all the COVID-19 stay-at-home stuff. I added a Shimano 3N72 dynamo wheel with Dyad rims from Quality Wheels, an upside-down Edelux II, and a B&M Topline Plus Brake Pulse, so, it’s finally got all my ‘dream commuter’ points covered.

I’ve changed a couple other things too. It’s got a New Albion triple on it right now. Also the new Silver XO shifters and their mounts (the XOs don’t fit right on the VO mounts, I tried. They work, but the cable doesn’t rest in the groove right.) And I got a RapidRise XTR from someone on the list, so, I’m finally trying life in the upside-down where rear shifting makes sense.

I also finally gave in and tried some Deore T610 v-brakes since even the Paul Touring cantis were having trouble locking the front wheel up a lot of the time. The v-brakes are perfect. I can easily lock both wheels up, the power is fine in the rain, and they have about as much modulation, maybe even a little more than the Pauls did when set for maximum power. And I haven’t had a squeal since I switched. All my bad thoughts about v’s are dispelled, these are lovely. Except physically. V-brakes still aren’t lookers. But apparently the Deore ones just work, and by now you all know how I value that. I’m not even using Kool Stops. The stock pads are quiet, and strong. Add this to the ‘things I should have done sooner’ pile.

Also, I got some streamers from Retro Your Ride. They really make the bike a lot more fun, and they’re excellent quality. You should get some for your bike too.