The latest Raven to join Thorn's Rohloff-hubbed flock is the Nomad S&S, their Taiwanese-built, round-the-world flagship model.
Considerably burlier than our 2006 touring bike of the year, the Raven Tour, the Nomad sports oversized chromoly tubes and seemingly never-ending chainstays. Tyre clearances are massive, and for those heading overseas, S&S's superb couplings are included as standard, allowing you to easily split the bike in two. Even the bosses are beefed up, featuring stronger 6mm threaded bolts over the traditional M5. But all this extra muscle doesn't come free - our fully kitted and ready to tour test model costs £2,172 (the opening price is £1,699) and weighs in at a touch over 37lb.
Like the Raven Tour, the Nomad uses Thorn's proprietary 969 tubing. It's an oversized, cold drawn and butted 4130 chromoly tubeset, which is heat treated for extra strength. In the extremely unlikely event of a failure, it's a heavy enough gauge to be easily repaired in the field, and one that should take a knock or two. Cast stainless steel braze-ons are one improvement over the Raven Tour, and more direct Rohloff cable routing under the down-tube is another. The cable runners are open-ended in places, allowing the frame to be easily split in two with the S&S couplings. Thorn sell a Samsonite-made hardcase (£300) perfect for air travel, though at 16lb for the case alone you'll be pushing your luck on some flights.
Chain tension is adjusted via an eccentric bottom bracket, and held in place with two 15mm bolts - it's a simple, effective and reliable system. Teamed with custom stainless Rohloff dropouts, rear wheel removal is easy. Simply shift the hub into 14th gear, remove the EX box and undo the quick release.
Three sets of bottle mounts, as well as mounts for mudguards, come as standard, and the frame is future-proofed with an ISO (international standard) rear disc mount. It's a shame it's not compatible with a mechanical disc brake though, like the Avid BB7, as the calliper's depth would interrupt the rack legs, limiting you to a hydraulic disc. Our test bike came in matt green, with military-style stencilled logos. But it's not as tough as the gloss black version, having flaked and chipped in a few places.
Forks are equally chunky affairs, with a twin plate crown for extra rigidity and all the required braze-ons, including a dynamo boss and low rider mounts. Positioning the brakes behind the blades, as Orange used to do with their P7s, is designed to reduce brake squeal. You can swap the rigid blades for an 85mm suspension fork, but on smaller sizes this will jack up the front of the bike and reduce standover clearance.
Our Nomad arrived in full-on expedition mode with a wheelset to match. We featured these chunky Rigida Tungsten Carbide rims, purpose drilled for Rohloffs, in our wheels test last issue. The incredibly hardwearing finish helps justify the high price, as long as you use Swiss Stop pads - conventional pads melt like butter in gritty conditions. Expect some ear-bleeding squeals for several days while the pads bed in. I've tried a similar set-up for several months in the Himalayas with very little sign of wear.
Our bike was also specced with Schwalbe's Marathon XRs, the tyre of choice for most transcontinental tourers. Personally, I wouldn't go for the 2.25in version, as their 900g apiece amounts to at least another couple of hundred grams of crucial rotational mass on the bike over the already meaty 2in versions. That said, big tyres are an effective way of doing away with suspension if you're expecting rough terrain. No complaints with the wheel build, using quality DT double-butted spokes and an XT hub up front.
Our test bike came with all the trimmings for world travel. This included XTR brakes, costing a cool £115 on top of the standard Vs, pretty much the best brakes you can get short of discs. Another upgrade is Rohloff's own chain (£30), which has an excellent reputation for its service life. Ergon's palm-friendly anatomic grips really help with all-day comfort, and Thorn's front and rear rack are among the best in the business - they're not light but they're as solid as small buildings.
There's a set of Profile bottle mounts and Thorn's own brand finishing kit, including comfort riser bars, stem and seatpost and a traditional leather Brooks saddle. A range of crank lengths is on offer to fine-tune the set-up.
We were never expecting the Nomad, at just over 37lb, to be jumping out of the blocks, not least due to the heavy wheelset on our test bike. But once kicked up to speed, the ride is phenomenally smooth. Add on the kilos and its touring credentials really start to shine through. I piled on 25kg of kit - more than I'd normally carry - which it accepted without a murmur. There's not the smallest hint of wallow in the frame when tearing down hills both on and off road, and slow-speed steering through traffic is remarkably reassuring. Thorn reckon it'll take 35kg-plus just as easily, and I've no reason to disagree - though how often you'll need that kind of payload is another question, unless you're embarking on an extended ride with food and water, or just like to overpack.
The Nomad earns a 10 when it comes to seriously loaded touring, but we've given it an 8 overall as it sacrifices some versatility and liveliness for solid handling. Given its heft, it would really benefit from a second set of lighter tyres. That's one downside of the Rohloff: you can't just throw on a lighter set wheels for non-touring duties. I found the handling and feel relatively similar whether loaded or unloaded - a little slow and unwieldy, but incredibly stable and surefooted.
As for the Rohloff, there's certainly a premium to be paid, but when it comes to touring I think it's worth it - it is simply the ultimate in faff-free riding. In brief, the Speedhub offers 14 gears, with a similar spread (526%) to a standard Mtb drivetrain, fully encased in a grime-free hub which requires just a yearly oil change. There are no derailleurs to get damaged on a flight or roof of a bus, and no gears to fiddle with, promising rock solid performance whether slopping through mud or riding on the finest tarmac. And you can change gear at a standstill, which is a huge benefit when riding fully laden.
Being dishless, you won't need cassette removal tools to replace spokes. On the downside, the subtleties of the gripshift system take some getting used to for the best gear changes, and it's noisier than a well-maintained derailleur in its low gears. As efficient as it is in hub gear terms, it can't match a derailleur, though - at least one that's working well.
Rohloff Speedhubs are incredibly reliable, with a life expectancy of over 100,000 miles, and Rohloff are known for their superb backup service, but they're not infallible. We've heard of slipping gears, requiring hubs to be returned to Rohloff for re-shimming, and more recently, a couple of instances where the flange has broken, though the tourers were still able to continue on their journey with replacement hub plates sent out to them. Given the 50,000-plus units currently in use around the corners of the globe, it's still impressive.
The Raven Nomad is the most capable expedition bike we've tried, excelling with serious loads both on and off road. It's overbuilt in all the right places and the attention to detail is superb. But it's a specialist machine and in most instances a more regular touring bike will do all that you need. S&S couplings will be a real benefit to some, but whether those massive clearances, longer stays, oversized rack bosses (and extra weight) are really worth it will depend on what you intend to do - particularly if you're a lighter rider.