By Gary J. Boulanger
The Ritchey P-29er is an old-school looking steel hardtail with a nearly Encyclopedia Britannica-esque history of development and racing heritage, beginning with its iconic tri-color fade paint job, as ridden to silver-medal glory by Swiss pro Thomas Frischknecht at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
For more than 20 years, between 1981-2003, Ritchey-branded steel mountain bike frames were designed and distributed in northern California. Beginning with frames made for and designed by Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly’s Mountainbikes company in 1979, (yes, the name of the brand was "Mountainbikes." -ed.) Ritchey’s prolific framebuilding catapulted his stature beyond the Golden State, becoming one of the most famous mountain bike pioneers of his generation.
His signature long black hair and handlebar moustache, coupled with his annual saddle time surpassing 10,000 miles, made him recognizable around the world, where most of his professional mountain bike racers were winning often and frequently. Ruthie Matthes won the 1991 cross-country world championship on a Ritchey, and former Danish professional Henrik Djernis won cross-country gold three consecutive years (1992-94).
What’s old is new again
The P-29er is essentially a modern take on a proven design, acknowledging the popularity of the larger diameter 29-inch wheel. Although it’s been almost 10 years since Ritchey last offered mountain bike frames, the frame tubing remains steel, in this case triple-butted chromoly, which has been designed to be thicker on the ends and thinner in the middle, an ideal formula for TIG welding. The curved down tube provided the necessary clearance for the suspension fork’s crown, while adding a modern look to the overall machine. A simple pinch-bolt keeps the seat in place, allowing a thin, extended seat tube above the top tube.
Several bike designers and metallurgists have told me if steel was invented today, it would be hailed as a miraculously exotic and divine material, which would explain the ride quality of the P-29er: springy when needed, stiff when necessary, and forgiving over the long haul. And, to the carbon-minded newcomers: steel can be realigned after a crash, and tubing can be affordably replaced and repainted.
Steel is real
Visually, I’m used to looking down and seeing skinny steel tubes between the wheels. My personal bikes are all steel, but I’ve also logged hours onboard titanium, aluminum, and carbon bikes, so I know the ride qualities of each material, including the pros and cons.
The P-29er can’t be labeled retro, because the test monkey himself — Tom Ritchey — still logs 10,000-plus miles on his bikes on trips all around the world, and his choice is steel for many reasons, chief among them weight, performance, and simplicity. Rarely does one hear the faint but unnerving squeak common with most carbon frames when one rides steel. I found the frame to be aligned, which kept both wheels tracking straight. I did, however, need to realign the slider dropouts to center the rear wheel part-way through my second ride at Skeggs in Woodside, easily accomplished with a simple Allen key.
This 19-inch “Large” frame weighs approximately 4.74lbs with the sliders. Designed for 100mm suspension travel forks, the P-29er provided ample tire clearance while providing a good geometry (70-degree head angle, 73-degree seat angle) for all-around riding, never fighting me on the climbs or shoving me toward the bars on the descents. Chainstay length, while variable due to the adjustability of the sliders, is a fairly short but roomy 44.7cm (17.5-inches). The crankarm passing point on the chainstays was ideal; not too close, but I didn’t feel like I was straddling a horse either. It helps that the stays are S-curved to provide extra heel clearance for me and mud clearance for the tires.
Regarding slider dropouts: there’s too much going on back there that complicates an almost perfectly clean frame. Extra bolts and alignment hardware could be removed with the simple use of the proven Ritchey socket vertical dropouts, shaving weight and increasing the rear triangles rigidity. Ritchey instead chose the adaptable slider dropouts, which allow for geared or singlespeed use. As my boss Maurice said during the Skeggs ride: “If someone wants a singlespeed, they should just buy a f#@&g singlespeed!” Thankfully, the upcoming Ritchey P-27.5/650B model will come with simple vertical dropouts.
The P-29er is available as a frame only, with a retail price of $999.95.
The actual seat tube length was 48.3cm, which meant a fair bit of seatpost was exposed to get me to my 79.7cm saddle height, but the 27.2mm diameter, 350mm long Ritchey SuperLogic carbon post 154g/$259) added a nice bit of flex when needed. The carbon seatpost was topped with a 223g Ritchey Vector Wing Marathon saddle ($119), 130mm wide by a climbing-friendly 271mm length.
Our test bike rolled on the latest Ritchey WCS (World Championship Series) Vantage II alloy 29er tubeless-ready wheelset (1,668g/$799), handbuilt with Ritchey WCS cold forged hubs, German SKF sealed bearings, a patented 6-pawl, 12-point micro-clutch engagement system, all laced with DT Competition spokes to 20mm-wide alloy rims. The 554g Ritchey WCS Shield 29×2.1-inch tires ($69 each) provided the traction, while steering was enabled by the latest Ritchey WCS Trail bar and stem combination. The 232g alloy bars ($85) were 720mm, but offered cut marks for those needing more clearance.
Drivetrain support was provided by the reliable and lightweight SRAM XO 2×10. The complete bike weight (with Crankbrothers Candy S pedals) was 24.7 lbs.
A couple shake-down rides on vastly different trail systems didn’t deter the P-29er from providing a predictably reliable and smooth ride. There’s plenty of elevation to be had in the Santa Cruz Mountains (my second ride piled up nearly 6,000 feet in just under 16 miles), so my concern about maintaining my line in loose gravel, rocks, and roots up the steep climbs while commandeering the rig into berms and switchbacks were easily allayed.
My big day in the saddle came during the recent Mt. Tam Dirt Fondo in Marin County. I spun most of the 46 miles with mountain bike pioneers Joe Breeze and Otis Guy, undeniably the two men who’ve logged the most mileage on Mt. Tamalpais since 1973. We climbed nearly 7,000 feet of elevation in just over five hours, putting the P-29er through the ultimate test. Long climbs and twisty, fast descents toward the Pacific Ocean were a breeze because I never fought the bike.
I’m the type of rider who steers with his knees clutching the saddle on technical descents (something I noticed Guy was doing to great effect), which also unweights the rear tire on the rocky stuff to avoid pinch flats. Despite some cramping toward the end of our big day on the bike, I was thrilled with how the P-29er handled everything in and around Mt. Tam, especially the technical descents from West Point Inn.
Check out my ride report of the Mt. Tam Dirt Fondo for more about my experience riding with Otis Guy, Joe Breeze, and other mountain bike legends.