REI Novara Randonee: A review

I love my bike – I really do.  My REI Novara Randonee served me well for 17,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina.  It got me there through thick and thin, over mountains and through valleys, through blowing sand and pouring rain.  It carried an enormous amount of gear and barely uttered a moan – well, maybe that part isn’t true.  Overall, my Novara Randonee served me well.

Was my Randonee the perfect bike for a trek through the Americas? No – and in hindsight I never should have taken it on a journey through Latin America. Through North America? A resounding yes.  This is the bike to take across the USA or on a tour around your state.  That’s what it’s designed for and it’s perfect for that task.

Before we left on our journey I made a few modifications to the Randonee, and REI has changed it through the years since I bought mine in 2008 – I’ll do my best to point out what you will now find on the new Randonee should you decide to buy one. If I forget an item or two, please forgive my ignorance.


Things I Changed

In 2008, the Randonee came with the most ridiculous gearing possible.  Although it was fine for a supported tour where you aren’t carrying any gear on your bike, it was nowhere near low enough to get up steep mountain passes fully loaded. The gearing was the first thing I wanted swapped out.

Unfortunately, in order to change the large chain ring, we would have had to swap out the entire crank set and, in the interest of the almighty dollar, I opted not to do that.  Instead, I changed the two smaller rings and greatly reduced the range of gearing I had available. I never used the large chain ring – ever – except those few days when we blasted over the flat Patagonian plains with a tremendous tailwind. I wish I had coughed up the money to swap out the whole thing to put a more reasonable triple on the bike.

The good news is that REI has now made that change.  The 2012 Randonee comes stock with “mountain” gearing – very good news for the loaded bike tourist.

Shifter levers: The shifter levers were the next item I wanted swapped out – the 2008 model came with integrated brake/shifter levers, and I wanted simplicity, not complexity.  The brifters would be fine – most likely.  I wasn’t willing to deal with most likely.

In the end, John went with brifters on his bike and they caused an enormous amount of headache and stress – which goes to show that I made the right decision in avoiding them.

The good news? REI came to the same conclusion we did and are now putting standard brake handles and bar end shifters on the 2012 Randonee.

Handlebars: I have horrible hands. Seriously horrible. Recurring tendonitis in my thumbs has resulted in very weak hands – and hands that flare up and become extraordinarily painful. I have to consider my hands in any bike I choose.

Although I probably would have been perfectly fine with the drop bars that came stock on the Randonee, I opted to swap them out for butterfly bars as I knew that setup would work and I wasn’t up for taking chances. I discovered along the way that wrapping the bars with four or five layers of bar tape makes them nice and fat and cushy and comfy – I highly recommend it.

This one is personal choice – nothing wrong with the way I went or the way the Randonee comes.

Saddle: After hearing from so many other bike tourists about the Brooks saddle, I wanted to go with that.  In the end, I wasn’t thrilled and would most likely go with whatever comes stock on the bike – they seem to change it every year, so I’m not sure there is a “best” saddle.

Tires: In all our contacts with other cycle tourists, we had heard nothing but rave reviews of Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires – so we swapped all our tires to the Schwalbes.  These tires are – bar none – the longest lasting, most flat-resistant tires on the market. Given our loathing toward changing flat tires, they were a given.

Rack: The rack that came with the Randonee in 2008 looked awfully wonky – there were something like ten or twelve adjustable locations on it, which was simply too many places where it could fail.  REI has now redesigned the rack and it looks much more solid.

In the end, Surly came on board for us and offered to sponsor us with their Nice racks – and we were thrilled with them. We had no trouble with the Surly racks at all.

Things I didn’t change but wish I could have

Wheels: I’ve already written about the stupid route decisions we had to make due to the wheel size on the Randonee, so won’t go into that again. Suffice it to say that I will never take a bike with 700c wheels out of the USA and Canada again.

I really wish there had been a way to put 26” wheels on the bike. It would have made my life much easier.

Stem height: I disagree with REI’s idea of a comfortable stem height.  They have the bike designed so your handlebars are roughly two inches below your saddle – if the saddle is all the way down.  Who buys a bike they need to have the saddle all the way down on?

Although my seat was only five or six inches above the top of the tube, my handlebars were way, way too low.  I added an extension to raise them four inches, and would have liked to get them up another two inches – but there was no way to do it.

For touring, general wisdom holds that your handlebars should be approximately level with your seat – some people prefer slightly below and others slightly above. The way the Randonee is designed, unless you buy a bike that you can just barely straddle, the handlebars will be too low.

When Rodriguez built my husband’s tandem, they put an uncut top tube on it allowing John to adjust the handlebars wherever they worked for him.  That’s the way REI should do it.

Adjustable stem: Oh, how I wish I had swapped out the adjustable stem!  It was such a simple thing and would have been quick and easy and cheap to swap. But I didn’t, and ended up listening to it creak, creak, creak, creak, creak… for 17,000 miles.

There doesn’t seem to me to be any reason for an adjustable stem. Once you have your handlebars in the position you want them, you’ll never change them again – so why deal with another joint that can potentially fail and will creak forever? The good news is that REI has come to that realization too and now have a fixed stem on the new Randonee.

Things I loved

Steel: I know there is a bit of a debate out there about steel versus aluminum for a touring bike, but my personal decision is that steel is best.  REI done good by making the Randonee out of steel!

The takeway

As I read back through this list, it appears as though I either swapped out or wish I had swapped out nearly everything on the bike. My initial thought after reading it was, “Why didn’t I just buy a different bike to begin with?”

And that is a very good question. Truth be told – the REI Novara Randonee was as close to the perfect bike as I could find at the time. The bike I wanted simply wasn’t made – in the USA, that is.  I’ve gone into the details on this post, so won’t reiterate it here.

By making the changes I made, the bike worked for me. It was strong, durable, and comfortable. I had very few mechanical issues during our entire 17,000-mile journey the length of the Americas.

Overall, I was happy with the Randonee and would certainly buy it again – for a trip across the USA.  If I plan to leave the country I’ll get a custom bike built that will be exactly what I want.

Nancy in Bolivia


books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel