Road Cycling

Review: Ribble Sportiva Carbon Women’s Bike

Ribble offer you the opportunity to build your own bike for a bargain - but how does it ride?

Ribble’s Build a Bike service reminds me distinctly of the Bear Factory.

I’m going somewhere with this, I promise. Kids the world over want a bear that’s designed to be personalised to them. However, give them material and a sewing machine and the outcome won’t be pretty. Give them a choice of bear skins, bear eyes, bear voices and bear clothes and you’re on to a winner.

The same goes for bikes. Many of us dream of building our own custom machine, but few actually have the time or the mechanical skill to build from scratch. Ribble make it easy, offering you the chance to choose a frame, and then groupset, wheels, handlebars, stem, saddle – right down to bar tape and the brand of the accompanying spare tube. Every component choice is followed by a figure which shows you how much this selection will affect the price of your overall bike.

The build process is probably the most appealing selling point for Ribble. Yet the system might make the brand seem a little new-fangled. Actually, they were established back in 1897 and despite operating largely online, still interact with customers and offer bike fitting in their Preston store.

The Sportiva Carbon Frame 

The Ribble Sportiva Carbon Women’s bike is designed to be a comfortable enough ride for all day adventures, but the geometry and carbon lay-up have been manipulated to provide enough stiffness and liveliness to ensure the ride isn’t deadened by the extra compliance.

Ribble describe the wheelbase as being short to provide extra nippiness. Any such claims will always need to be placed on a scale – but the 48” size I tested had a wheel base of 982mm, about the same as my own fairly quick footed race bike.

The top tube tapers nicely as it reaches the seat tube, and skinny seat stays meet fairly low beneath the seat tube, creating a wide junction which would certainly go a way to dampening out road buzz. The downtube is still pretty chunky though, as is the area around the BB86 bottom bracket, offering assurance of a sprightly ride.

Ribble have also built the bike to suit a female form. We cringed a little at the description on their website: “Women have proportionally longer legs but shorter torso and arms than your average male.” The whole long legs/short torso argument is pretty outdated. However, when we asked for more information, we were got a much more detailed explanation and one we’re pretty on board with.

James Dove, a director at Ribble, told us: “It’s not that long ago that a ‘women’s bike’ was simply a bike with a step through down tube.  Those women looking for a ‘serious’ road bike typically would end up riding a men’s or unisex bike. While riding a unisex bike is in most cases no means a problem for women, there are a few instances where it is harder to get the fit right.  From fitting a large number of customers over the years – we still do so in our Preston shop – we typically find women have a shorter reach than men – especially in the arm length.”

This explanation marries up to what we’ve been told by Specialized and Canyon, both of whom claim to have carried out extensive research. Jim went on to say: “Traditionally this [shorter reach] was simply solved by fitting a shorter stem and moving the saddle position slightly.  However, the Sportiva carbon features a shorter overall reach.  What this means is we don’t have to a compromise handling performance when fitting a shorter stem to the bike.  There comes a point where a shorter stem can deliver a twitchy ride which isn’t the sort of riding experience you want for the customer.”

This explanation made sense to us, and we were excited to see what the frame would offer in terms of ride quality. As you’d expect, the frame and fork are both carbon, and we’re told different grades of carbon – Toray T700 and T800 – are blended to offer stiffness where it’s wanted and compliance elsewhere. All cable routing is internal, and the frame has clearance for 25mm tyres as well as being compatible with both electronic and mechanical gearing systems.

My Choices

I started with a frame and basic components at £899.95, and bolstered the price up to £1,193.30. However, with that I got a full Shimano 105 groupset (with a compact chainring and a 12-25 cassette) and Mavic PR Aksium wheels shod with Continental GP4000S II tyres in 25mm. Opting for 105 only added £139.99 over the pre-specced Sora, but I knew would promise crisp and reliable shifting, whilst Ultegra would be a further £329 without feeling doubley efficient when compared to 105. There were groupsets on offer from Shimano, Campagnolo and a couple of SRAM choices, and wheels from Mavic, Shimano and Fulcrum.

How to: Choose the Perfect Road Bike Gear Set Up for You

Buying Guide: Road Bike Wheels

Handlebar and saddle choices were a little tricker. Contact points are personal, and most of us have a clear preference. Ribble could offer me bars and stems from ITM and Deda, and saddles from Selle Italia, Fizik, Charge and Fabric. In terms of bars, I eventually opted for Deda’s RHM (rapid hand movement) in 38cm for the front end, selecting them for the shallow reach they claimed to have. Though it was an improvement on the norm that I could choose the width, I didn’t get on with them as well as I’d hoped. In terms of the saddle, noting that of the women’s options, my own go-to Selle Italia SLR Flow wasn’t there, I took the risky option and selected the men’s SLR Flow. Also not my friend.

Obviously, both of these were my own choices, so I can’t blame Ribble for them being ‘adequate’ but not ‘optimum’ – but it is worth noting that since it would be impossible for the brand to offer every available choice, you’re never going to get the same level of personalisation as you would if you built from scratch. All this said, this approach clearly beats the ‘get what you’re given’ shopping model you’d get with an off the peg bike.

The process

This is where buying online has the potential to unravel. Delivery of the bike. So much can go wrong from screen to front door, how would Ribble perform here?

The bike arrived with me well packaged and carefully wrapped to prevent damage in transit. ‘Building it’ was as simple as turning the bars, fitting the separately supplied seat post and saddle,  and adding pedals. So far so good.

A turn of the pedals as I shifted gears, however, revealed a problem. The chain clattered around in the rear cassette and tick-tick-ticked at me incessantly instead of crisply shifting. Badly indexed gears can ruin a ride, and I’m sad to say that these were badly indexed. Thankfully, a few tweaks of the gear cable had the shifting down to perfection and we were good to go.

This does present a complication. I know what bad set up feels like and I know it’s easy to fix. Someone buying a first bike might not have that knowledge, which would probably result in a trip to the local bike shop and a tail between the legs request for them to fix the bike you bought online. Ribble do however promise that this would be a rare occurrence, and that they could fix problems in their Preston store, or would foot the bill for any required tweaks.

Everything else, however, was perfect – the brakes were set up to within a millimetre of perfection, saddle (which I promptly swapped after one ride) was fitted to the seat post. The tyre logos almost matched up to the Mavic logos, though if we’re being picky they were a bit off centre.

The ride

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the frame. Online only retailers offering great prices don’t always have the best reputation. However, any preconceptions that had set the bike in a negative place in my mind were thrown aside by the ride.

I took the Sportiva out first on a couple of easy miles excursions with a friend looking for a guide on her first rides. The bike ate up the Sunday base miles with ease – bumps in the road were easily dampened and that same effect continued into longer solo trips. Cue: sunny, happy, summer smiles.

Climbing was also a pleasure – out of the saddle the Sportiva felt sprightly and light as I pedalled, without offering any of the flex that sometimes occurs when a bike has been made so slim and smooth it loses its stiffness.

The final test was a shorter, harder ride around my local “punchy, sprinty” loop – a ride out to the 10 mile Crowhurst circuit in Surrey. Driving up the short inclines and jumping out of the saddle to test the ride on flat accelerations, it still impressed me. The Sportiva didn’t quite pack the punch of a more race orientated bike, but it felt far from lacking, too and it’s not really designed to be an aggressive ride anyway.

Flowing around the bends on the circuit and shooting down the descents, the Sportiva felt sure and true. Handling will of course be affected by component choice – I opted for a middle of the road 100mm stem – a longer stem will make for more fluid handling whilst a short stem will be more twitchy. Your choice will vary depending upon your fit on the bike. Regardless, the bike went exactly where I wanted it to, and most of that will be down to careful design of the front end.

The verdict

Ribble’s Build a Bike service is an excellent option if you want to choose your own spec, but don’t want to start from scratch and build the bike yourself. You might not find absolute perfection and have to change a few parts, but you’ll get a bike closer to your optimum than if you went for a normal pre-build.

Delivery was smooth and simple, though it was a shame to find the bike wasn’t set up as well as it could have been. This said, once good to go – the ride was a joy and I’d without a doubt recommend this bike to someone after a comfortable but still lively ride.

Carbon, Shimano 105 and Mavic Aksium wheels with quality tyres, saddle, bars and tape all for under £1.2k is an excellent deal, too – you’d struggle to find better. But you will have to explain yourself if you want the mechanic at your local bike shop to do any work on your online purchase.

Interested? You can check out the bike and other models available, here


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