While the Rikulau brand may be entirely unfamiliar, the term ‘master’ is bandied about in cycling all of the time. Master can be an age category, a major component in the name of a classic Colnago frame or simply a description of excellence. We’re confident that Rikulau is aiming for the latter in this case, with a slight tip of the hat to the frames of yesteryear too. There was only one way to find out if this stainless classic was a jack of all trades, a master of none, or all together something else, and that was on the road.
Before rolling out it’s pretty clear to see that the Master is not your typical 2014 road bike. It’s raw, silver and shiny. People with half a clue will instantly ask if it’s titanium, to which the answer is a resounding ‘no’. The frame is made primarily from Reynolds 931 stainless steel tubing. This is one of five stainless steel tube sets available on the market (the others being Reynolds 953 and 921, Colombus XCr, and KVA Stainless). Compared with the abundance of regular chromoly steel tubing available, this stainless steel stuff is decidedly specialist. It’s been a long, long time coming and is still a rare sight amongst the already scarce population of modern steel framed bikes. The stainless material is particularly hard, especially in the case of Reynolds 953, which makes it difficult to work with. The extremely high tensile strength of the stainless tubes means that the tubes can be drawn with extremely thin walls, which again makes it difficult to work for the frame builder. It’s hardly surprising that these metallic beauties are few and far between.
The first stainless tubeset to come to market was Reynolds 953, followed closely by Colombus XCr. More recently Reynolds came to market with 931. Not quite as strong, but still very strong in its own right, the 931 is a little easier to work with for the frame builder and about 20% cheaper too. Reynolds were smart to launch a product that could better suit larger scale production, and in a sign of their intentions they chose Rikulau to weld the first 931 frames. Rikulau are based in Taiwan, and produce a small range of frames in steel and titanium. They’re not a huge global name or a revered artisan builder, but an aspirational Taiwanese producer focused on unique designs and leveraging Taiwanese skill and labour.
The stainless tubing is not as easy to work with as a regular 4130 chromoly tube, but Rikulau did a reasonable job on our Master. Most of the welds are very tidy (although not all) and the frame looks as classy as a raw stainless frame should. It lacks the flourishes and flair that define many boutique hand builders and the welds are not ‘art’, but this is meant to be a unique machine built from premium materials, to a price.
Ironically, the Rikulau is available in Australia via Titanium Bikes Australia. Rikulau do make some titanium frames, and hence the link with their local distributor. A Rikulau can be purchased from Canberra Bikes and Kayaks (Titanium Bikes Australia’s retail store), Ti Bikes in Adelaide, or online. Any store can special order a Rikulau for you, but don’t expect to find a row of Masters on the floor of your local store the next time you walk in. Titanium Bikes Australia offers a huge range of Ti and steel bikes, it’s worth a few minutes of distraction-time to surf over to their website and browse all of the options.
Options abound when it comes to the Master. Our test bike is a stock standard frame, as seen on the Rikulau website. The frame is supplied with the Eason EC90 SL fork and FSA headset for $2,100, or as a complete bike in with build kits featuring Shimano, SRAM or Campagnolo drivetrains. Our Ultegra spec test bike has an asking price of $4,300. The new 11-speed Ultegra 6800 bikes have not landed just yet, but pricing will be the same as our end of season bike 10-speed Ultegra 6700 bike.
As well as spec options, the frame can be almost entirely customised. Lead times for custom frames are typically six weeks, although in peak times this may stretch to eight weeks or more. The most popular customisations are disc brakes (with matching Easton disc brake fork) and integrated seatposts, both of which add only $300 to the price. Geometry can also be customised, although there are no options for tapered head tubes or oversized bottom brackets.
In stock format the Master is a combination of new-school material and old-school features. The addition of disc brakes, but the omission of a tapered steerer fork option is the personification of this mix of new and old. In stock form the Master is well matched with the slender profile of the Easton fork. It’s a very light fork and there is no escaping that the low weight and diminutive proportions create a fork that is fairly smooth, but prone to wind-up and has a whippy feel, but that’s also a match for the Master.
The 931 pipes are graceful and should age well due to their ability to resist corrosion and fatigue, but the Master rides like a steel bike through and through. I’d not ridden a stainless bike before and the slight change in material doesn’t remove the legendary ride that is synonymous with steel bikes. The Master takes the edge off road buzz and dampens big hits when you’re not paying attention to the road ahead. The frame is also a little flexy when compared with a nice carbon frame, but that is part and parcel of this deal. In this setting the Easton fork is a perfect choice. It too is slender and not overly stiff, but it gets the bike where it needs to go without punishing the rider.
The Master as is, no discs or oversized anythings, is a classic steel machine. This seems right, although the geometry is also quite traditional which is perhaps a slight oversight when considering how the bike may be used. The Master has a very short head tube and equally tight wheelbase. The material and ride quality is suited to classic days of long rides on dead roads, but the geometry makes for an animated ride rather than relaxed and cruisy. A good training bike for the racer type for sure, but the Master could be a superb sportive bike if the chainstays were stretched and the head tube lengthened a bit. The option of custom geometry may appeal to a lot of prospective purchasers for this frame, as it’s far more likely to see non-race use than intense race day action. A more sedate frame based on the Master would be a great stock model for Rikulau.
Those that like what they see in the stock Master will then have to toss up between a custom build and a complete bike kit. The bottom bracket is a traditional English thread and there are no odd front derailleur mounting quirks or unusual brake clearances. Building a Master from the frame up would be relatively easy. Moving an old build kit over from a tired or wrong-sized frame to the Master has some appeal as the frame and fork combo is well priced.
Complete bikes are usually a better value proposition, and the Master is no exception. Our bike came with the full Ultegra 6700 group, alloy FSA cockpit parts and a Selle Italia saddle. Titanium Bikes Australia is happy to swap bar widths and stem lengths to get the right fit. Our bike came with a 44cm bar, which was wider than we’d like. If we’d been buying it would have been a simple process to have this swapped for a narrower bar (we loved the compact bend of the FSA Energy bars).
We didn’t feel as positive about the stock Orbit brand wheels though (RRP $700). These are an OEM wheel that feature on many of the Rikulau range, and didn’t enhance the ride of our test machine. They’re reasonably light at sub 1600g, but that’s their primary redeeming feature. The rear wheel was the real letdown. The hub uses a radial lacing pattern on the non-drive side, so spoke tension and bracing is vitally important to ensure a stiff wheel. The flange of the Orbit hub has been placed close to the centre of the hub to help equalise spoke tension between the drive and non-drive spokes, but the knock-on effect of this is that the wheel lacks rigidity.
The Master felt downright sluggish and heavy on our first ride. Out-of-the-saddle climbs in a big gear were completely disheartening and we were riding a few gears lower than usual for the same effort. Our effort was lost in the mush of the rear end, primarily by the wheel. Titanium Bikes Australia does offer customers the option to substitute the Orbit wheels with a pair of Mavic Ksyrium Equipe S. They say that customers either love or hate the Orbits, and that’s understandable. The light weight is good at the price point, and for low torque seated climbs, the kind that many steel bike lovers would seek, the low weight could trump the lack of rigidity (the Master also came with a compact crank and wide ratio cassette, a further indication of how the Master may often be ridden). For out of the saddle or higher torque or weight riders, the shortcomings of the Orbits are easily identified. Titanium Bikes Australia does stock spare parts for the Orbit wheels, which is always a major concern with an unknown wheel and hub, but more aggressive riders may well pass the Orbit’s by in favour of the Ksyriums.
We did a similar thing, and substituted the Orbits for some Mavic R-Sys hoops after a few rides. Good move! Although the back end of the Master will never be as responsive as a stiff carbon or alloy bike, we instantly received more direct and exciting acceleration from the Master, more in line with what we’d expected and hoped for. The Master went from being a plodder to a springy and fast entertainer, which again raised the paradox of the expected use vs. the reality of the machine. The wheelbase of the master is short. It’s a fast handler; not the kind of bike that you’d want loose your reign over on a big descent as there would be nowhere to hide! Our test bike was 10mm shorter in the top tube than I would usually ride, but the short wheelbase isn’t a figment of imagination. I wear a size 43 shoe, and this is a ‘large’ size bike, but I experienced the unpleasant surprise that is toe overlap when riding the Master. It’s a tight little machine.
The Master is a lot of fun to zap through traffic and through the twists and lanes of suburbia. It springs around and recoils out of corners with the zing that only a steel bike seems to have. On long days the Master is less the master and more the servant, keeping the rider fresh by removing nasty vibrations from dead roads. The key to the Master is picking the right combination of options. Geometry is fast, but the Master is comfy enough to be a ‘slow’ bike although it does not handle like one. Discs could make it more modern, but it has the classic lines of steel and a truly timeless aesthetic. Our masterful advice: choose carefully to get the most out of this machine.
Our Master frame rode as it should. Smooth and energised without being overly rigid. Geometry and parts selection is up to the buyer, and will decide how the frame’s DNA is translated to on-road performance.
The raw materials are right, beautiful tubes from Reynolds and a top notch fork from Easton. The welds on the Master separate the frame from those of the bespoke builder, but they’re perfectly acceptable if considered along side price.
This is a unique bike. The odds of seeing another on the road are low, and the frame and finish should last a very, very long time. Value is so subjective, but let’s say this is great value for a frame that offers longevity, classic lines and individuality.
The Master could be great, or a Master of disaster. Rikulau have produced an off-the-shelf frame that will appeal to riders after a quick handler, but potentially exclude a large group of riders that want its smooth ride as well as a stable handling bike. As an example of what’s possible, the stock Master is what it is. This machine will always have the allure of steel and the smooth ride that goes with it, but the purchaser needs to make the Master work for them.
Frame: Reynolds 931 Stainless steel
Fork: Easton EC90 SL
Stem: FSA OS99
Handlebar: FSA Energy Compact
Saddle: Selle Italia SL
Seat Post: FSA alloy
Shift Levers: Shimano Ultegra 6700
Brakes: Shimano Ultegra 6700
F Derailleur: Shimano Ultegra 6700
R Derailleur: Shimano Ultegra 6700
Crank: Shimano Ultegra 6700 34/50
Cassette: Shimano Ultegra 6800 11-28
Wheels: Orbit Design Baryon
Tyres: Hutchison Fusion
Distributor: Titanium Bikes Australia