Published:

Shawn Parr

Novara Divano

Biking and Commuting

Recently I bought a bicycle in order to get some exercise. It has been working out for me very well, and in order to really change my lifestyle and stay in shape long term I decided to try bicycle commuting. This was an easy choice as I live exactly 2 miles from where I work, as the road winds, and I live in Louisiana, a place where winter is something often discussed and rarely experienced. Originally I used my first bike, a Trek DS 8.3 to do the commute, which worked well, but had a few drawbacks. The primary being that I had decided to buy a Rickshaw Bagworks Zero Messenger bag to carry my stuff back and forth. The bag itself is awesome, however having a bag on your back while commuting, especially in a humid place like Louisiana, really sucks. If any sweating occurs, and likely it will, you will get a pool of it anywhere the bag touches you. I could solve this with a rack, but I didn't really want to put a rack on my DS.

At one point I ended up getting a used Trek 7100. It was effectively free as it came with a bike I bought for my wife. So initially I used it to learn maintenance and mechanical skills, then bought a rack for it and used it for commuting for a while. Conceptually it was great, however I didn't like the upright ride of the 7100 at all, and compared to my DS it felt a bit unstable. This is a bit of an issue as my office is in a building at the top of a hill that I can easily hit 20 MPH just coasting down. 20 MPH on a bike you aren't confident in is not fun at all. In the mean time I started doing longer recreation rides on my DS and started really having some hand numbness issues. These are not easy for me to work around as I can get hand numbness while sleeping. Not bad enough that I would seriously consider surgery, but none the less I have joint issues.

In order to solve both these issues (commuting and hand numbness on long rides) I decided to look into drop bar bicycles.

Drop Bars and Geometry, or my body sucks

I noticed something while checking out and test riding drop bar bikes. They all felt bad. Not just "this isn't the perfect one for me," but they actually felt horrible. I though maybe I just wasn't in good enough shape, or maybe I just wasn't ready. Then one day I took my wife bike shopping at a Specialized shop and on a lark tried out a Secteur. It was heaven. It felt right. It was small, and cost over $1000. Which meant that it wasn't really in the cards, although I began plotting.

While plotting how to afford a Secteur, I got as much information from its geometry chart as I could and furiously started comparing to other bikes. Part of me thought that touring bikes, steel touring bikes especially, were probably in the zone. Nope. My weird body wanted a geometry that wasn't considered a touring/commuting type of bike. I began to fear that a comfortable bike may not be a match for how I wanted to use this one.

In the middle of this process I ran across the REI Novara Divano. Geometry wise it appeared almost identical to the Secteur. It also looked a bit like it shape-wise. It was also last years model and was on sale. Given REI's well known liberal return and support policies I decided to give it a try.

The Divano Arrives

Divano in boxUPS arrived on November 20th with a large box. If you've never received a bike via mail order before it is interesting how the box can seem both so large and so small at the same time. It was the largest box UPS has ever delivered to me (if you don't count the one my Son's bike came in). On the other hand you kind of wonder how a bike can fit in there. And the answer is that the front wheel, handlebars, seat post, and seat are all removed. If it had come with pedals those would have been removed also.

Unboxing is pretty straight forward. One needs to be a little careful not to scratch the frame while working out the front wheel and the seat post (with seat installed on it). The handlebars were zip tied to the frame as the cables and housings were attached and ready to go.

Divano during build

 The first things that I noticed after putting it on the stand and attaching the handlebar was that it was not nearly as vibrant in color as it was on the REI site. Personally I appreciated this as I go for a more subdued look rather than obvious bling, but I can understand how some might think this didn't live up to the name "Spark Blue." I also noticed that the white bar tape and seat were already starting to collect marks from dust, dirt, grease, etc. Luckily I had planned for this, but it makes me wonder why manufacturers build so many bikes with white bar tape these days. Even in bike shops they can start looking dingy quickly just from test rides.

I greatly appreciate the fact that the Divano includes a two bolt seat post. Typical one bolt seat posts have a limited amount of angles they support, however a two bolt system allows for nearly infinite adjustment. I've had a few issues getting seat angle dialed in and went to the trouble of buying a two bolt seat post for my DS. This is one less item I'll have to procure later to add on.

It took a small amount of time to get things set up. The gearing and brakes were pre-cabled and it appeared someone had actually done a minimal setup on them. When pulling on the brake levers the calipers would stop the wheel effectively, and I could shift through the gears without any major issues. When my son's bike arrived via mail order the brake calipers were not fully tightened down and the shifting needed a lot of work. This being only my second new bike I was surprised to find the front fork doesn't have lawyer lips on it to keep the wheel in place if the quick release isn't tight enough. On this bike make sure you really know how tight the quick release is supposed to be.

Divano built with Brooks

 I immediately removed the the seat from the seat post to replace with one of my Brooks saddles. I decided to try out the B-17 first as I'm going for a more relaxed setup rather than sporty. If I find that a sportier setup works better I can always swap out with my Swift. I also moved my Shimano clipless pedals (PD-M530) from the DS to the Divano. I'd like to reformat the DS to do more light off-road/mountain stuff, and I'm not nearly as confident off-road using the clipless as on-road, so the DS's original pedals went back on.

it was too dark to actually ride the bike after setting up the handlebars, seat, brakes, and derailleurs, so I had to wait for the next morning. On coming out the next day to take my first ride I realized I had forgotten to install the water bottle cages, so I started with that, made a few more mechanical tweaks and took a ride. All in all it was a pretty decent ride. I found myself adjusting the angle of the handlebars a few times to get the feel right, and had to make a few saddle adjustments. I was happy to find I could do my normal type of ride with the Divano, although I have changed a few side streets due to the skinnier tires and lack of suspension. I should get some wider tires as the streets here are pretty awful.

On Racks and Fenders

Being that the primary use for this bike day-to-day is commuting, I set out to install the rack I had for the 7100 on the Divano. This proved to be a frustrating experience, although not unexpectedly so. The 7100 is technically too large a frame for me, 22.5", whereas the Divano is the right size, about 20". In addition the 7100 geometry has more chain stay length in similar sizes. All that means getting the rack and bag setup without hitting my heels while pedaling is a challenging process. In addition to the chain stay issue, I discovered that the Divano's mount points for the rack were severely compromised by other design considerations. The first issue is that the mount points near the rear dropout have very little space due to the seat stay tubes being very close. The legs on my rack were too large to fit next to the frame, and I had to improvise by getting some nylon washers at a local hardware store.

Divano rack mount clearance

Next I discovered that the cable housing coming out of the rear brake caliper interfered with the upper seat stay mounts for the front of the rack. The nylon washers helped here as well, although there is still some contact between them. If I grab the rear brake lever and pull it tight while the bike is on the work stand I hear a squeak from the housing rubbing the arms from the rack. I have yet to notice this during a ride however, either due to the fact I don't use the brakes that hard (and hardly use the rear brake anyway) or it is quiet enough out in the real world not to be noticed.

Divano rack/brake clearance issue Divano rack/brake clearance

Eventually I got the rack installed, and after a short time riding with my bag discovered I had to change the height on the legs to give it more heel clearance. Luckily my rack is adjustable in that fashion. After fighting with it a bit more I was able to get both me and my bag on the bike comfortably.

Divano with rack and bag

 I also plan on putting fenders on the bike, however the front fork has very little clearance, and there are a lot of places in the rear that may also have issues. I know that I can fit a 32c tire in the front; I temporarily installed one of my Vittoria Randonneur Hypers (now called Voyager Hyper apparently) to see if it would fit. It definitely could work there, but there would be no way to also install a fender. I believe I could get a fender to work with a 28c tire, however I'm paranoid and keep re-measuring the crown space to make sure I can find one that fits.

Divano Fork Clearance

I also wanted to get my hands on one of the awesome looking Pletscher twin legged kickstands. However it is unlikely I could get it to fit into the space provided, without major alterations due to the front derailleur cable, and even then there may not be room.

Divano kickstand space not there

Them's the brakes

Being that this is my first road bike I have to say I'm pretty disappointed in the feel of the brakes. However I don't think the Divano or the Tektro brakes it came with are to blame. I notice the same lack-luster, fear inducing, poor brake feel in every bike with caliper brakes I test rode. I'm guessing that is due to being spoiled by my first real bike that I rode as an adult having disc brakes. While riding the DS I can go into a skid on a moments notice, and I can easily slow to a stop from just about any speed quickly and without fear that I will overshoot my goal. Caliper brakes feel to me like it is very difficult to hit a spot to stop on, and as such I find that I'm very likely to brake early and often.

I should mention that after a couple weeks on the bike the brakes do seem to be grabbing a bit better. However they still are not quite up to what I'm used to. Maybe they'll get even better. Maybe they need better pads. Maybe I'll get used to it. Who knows? But I include this information for others coming from disc brakes, or even V-brakes which also feel more sure to me while stopping.

Getting a handle on things

Handlebar rap with cotton twine Handlebar wrap with cotton twine - back

 After a few days on the bike, and having a weekend ahead of me before doing any actual commuting, I finally mustered the courage to attempt to correct the white bar tape issue with blue bar tape I bought in anticipation of the bike's arrival. I didn't really plan on doing blue on blue originally, but the shop I got the tape from only had blue, white, bright yellow, and nuclear green at the time. I was a little concerned about the blue on blue not matching up well, but since I plan on eventually doing leather wrap to match my saddle I wasn't that concerned about it. Ultimately they don't match perfectly but they are far from clashing.

I decided while doing the new wrap to also try out Grant Peterson's advice in his book, Just Ride (Amazon, iBooks) to try using twine to finish rather than electrical tape. I wanted to be ready to do this when I went to leather, and I knew I would probably need the practice. A couple things ended up weird for me: I only had cotton twine available, and cork tape, especially cork tape with gel like I had bought, is much thicker than the cloth tape discussed in the book. Due to the thickness of the bar wrap it was difficult to have a well finished look, especially as I am far from having mastered cutting the ends of the wrap perfectly straight. Also the cotton twine was slick enough it was able to unwrap one end on the first ride I took. While the tape didn't unravel at all I could tell it wasn't going to last for long.

On an unrelated adventure, I was able to find some hemp twine and try again with it. It was a much better experience, although it is more difficult to keep your winds tight and not overlapped due to its much smaller size. Unfortunately this image really highlights how uneven my tape edges are and how the thickness of the tape doesn't work well with the twine. However even with those caveats it is solid and has a look I ultimately like. I'm very much looking forward to trying it a few more times then going the leather route.

Handlebar wrap with hemp twine

In use

I've now used the Divano nearly daily for about three weeks. The ride is pretty good, bearing in mind our awful streets and lack of suspension. As stated earlier I definitely need to up the tire size and run some lower pressures. The Divano came with a set of 25c tires, and I'm planning on getting some Vittoria Rubino Pros in 28c over the holidays. I'm hoping the Rubinos will be as good as the Voyagers which improved the ride of my DS substantially.

The Divano thus far has been very stable both at low and high speeds. Cruising down the hill from the office feels sure footed and confident, and I've even pedaled a couple of times to increase the speed more, something I never would have done on the 7100. I do have some toe overlap issue in the front, where when I turn the front tire I can hit my toes while pedaling, however this is rarely an issue in actual use, I just have to keep it in mind when maneuvering slowly.

I do find that how I sit on the bike seems to trigger different muscles in my legs than when riding my other bikes. During the first week I had some sore muscles which have gone away with more usage. I also found that initially my average speeds decreased slightly. However now that my legs have acclimated I'm finding it easier to average higher than on the DS. The Divano started life out much lighter than the DS based on "picking them up side by side" measurement. Obviously adding a rack increased the weight, and when I have the bag on it does as well. However it still seems lighter overall than the DS, is definitely lighter than the 7100 with that load, and is much easier to carry up the flight of stairs at work. This is both due to the weight and the internally routed cable for the rear brake allowing for a better hand hold.

My hand numbness issues have been okay. The drop bars give me a few more options on how my hands are positioned and how much weight they have on them. It certainly helps, although I still need to get a fit as it is very difficult to use the drops due to how I have the bars set for comfort in the tops and hoods. I'm scheduled for a fit in a couple of weeks, and I anticipate I will need a stem with a bit more rise to it, and possibly shorter in length.

The frame's the thing

Ultimately, the Divano is not the nicest bike in the world. It is a great feeling bike to me though. I've always sort of viewed bikes as a platform. If you have a frame you are happy with you can always build around it. Some don't like this school of thought as you save a lot of money long term getting a higher spec'ed bike from the shop vs getting a lower end one and building it up to the same level of components. But for me, if you are happy with the frame, why not update and improve over the years?

For me the Divano frame is excellent. I have aspirations to upgrade the components around it over the next few years. I'd love to try out a SRAM Rival groupset on it. It'll be a while until I can do that though as retail on that groupset is a bit more than I paid for the Divano as is. One thing to consider though is that the cost of the Divano and that groupset together is still less than most bikes you would find at a bike shop with Rival. And most of those Rival equipped bikes probably wouldn't feel nearly as good to me as the Divano does.

The Future

As time goes on I will be doing more with the bike. First up is a new set of bags. My current bag was designed and made by my wife and I. It works well, however it needs some tweaks, and quite frankly the two of us don't work well together on these sorts of projects. So I found a couple bags by Linus, the Market Bag and the Pouch, on sale at The Urbane Cyclist (thanks Clara!) and they are on their way. I also plan on doing the tire and fender thing in the next few weeks. I'll be visiting civilization over the holidays and hope to find something at a brick and mortar store on my adventures.

And I plan on riding. A lot.