RAVAL OVAL CHAIN RING
139g 38 teeth £43.48 (as tested plus shipping)
Raval Chainrings are made to order in Latvia, by a one-time bicycle messenger, so I was expecting something special. Aside from optimising my tubby-tourer's gear range, ours was beautifully made and should last a long time.
Pros: Custom sizes, beautifully machined and competitively priced.
Cons: No aluminium alloy option.
Raval make rings in stock, or custom options and in a choice of sprung steel, or stainless steel. The former can be “hardened” or plated, the latter highly polished, or (as ours) given a satin effect. Raval once offered an aluminium option but the need to produce in batches and more complex after-processing extended lead-in to a month, whereas they can typically turn orders around on a fortnightly basis.
Steel rings weigh more (in this instance, almost twice that of the 44tooth 6061 aluminium alloy unit it replaced) but have durability on their side. This also enables considerable amounts of metal can be pruned, resulting in a very ornate and in my view, attractive effect. Now, in this instance, Raval wanted to showcase one of their oval rings. Oval/elliptical rings were a big thing through the late 80’s, only to fall out of fashion by the early 90s.
Shimano’s Bio-Pace was the most memorable but others, including Suntour (Oval Tech) and Stronglight (Bio strong) offered their own versions. However, the concept has been gathering a small revival, since 2014. The science underpinning oval rings is that they reduce the dead-spot, improve power delivery, resulting in a smoother, more efficient cadence, with less strain on the rider’s joints-knees specifically.
However, there is a belief that oval can encourage a taller than appropriate gear, resulting in a jerkier motion, which was not conducive to knee and back health. Raval say 13% or 15% ovality is chosen because there’s just enough to differentiate between a round ring, without being “too sharp” for the rider’s legs. They also say the more teeth a ring has, the greater ovality, without inducing this problem. In this instance, I have a 38-tooth ring, which has 15% ovality.
Test Bike/Back Story
My Univega runs an eclectic but reciprocal mix of components, including a very solid square taper Shimano LX crankset (given a satin black powder coat makeover back in 2017). I also cut it down, for a simplified 1x10 drivetrain. However, with a 42 ring, gearing was just a little too tall-I wanted a little more mid-range and calculated a 38 tooth, with the 11-28 cassette would give a range between 34 and 89 inches.
Trailer tugging aside, on a geared build, I prefer to sit and spin up the climbs. Regular will also know I also ride fixed a lot. The crankset in question is a 5 arm, with 94 BCD (Bolt Circle Diameter). These are getting trickier to source, off the shelf (although Stronglight and TA still offer them, in the desired sizes) Look closely at the Raval and you will notice a lip. This is the alignment point, i.e. where it should align with the crank arm for optimal performance.
It’s been 25 years since I last rode anything oval. Thus, the first few revolutions felt decidedly alien and yes, jerky but evened out when I adjusted my spinning technique/muscle timing. In practice, initial adjustment took ½ mile.
Even allowing for this, there’s a subtle, though apparent difference between this and a regular, round ring, at least at lower speeds, meaning I could remain in a slightly taller gear, than typical of a familiar climb.
At a higher cadence - 80rpm upwards, spinning also felt slightly unnatural and it took a week's successive riding before my leg muscle timing synced. From then on, I was literally blasting along, reveling in the joy of greater mid-range, though erring on a slightly lower gear for the climbs.
There have been a few occasions where I’ve broken that rule-in part to test rigidity on a couple of 1in7 climbs and others where I’ve fallen into the trap of turning a slightly taller gear than good for my knees. Otherwise, the Raval has addressed my need for a more fluid mid-range, making my cadence-laden or otherwise, that bit more efficient and my otherwise loveable tourer that bit friskier and rewarding to ride.
Arguably a round ring would also address the mid-range issue and it’s worth noting, if you’re running a twin or triple ring setup, that switching to oval rings may also demand height adjustment of the front mech, which may be another consideration.
Lateral stiffness (confirmed by switching back to the bike’s 42 tooth aluminium alloy ring) was also marginally better, which bodes well, especially for bigger/heavier riders. Stainless steel should also prove more durable, even if you’re a little slack, when it comes to pensioning chains.
Obviously, stainless is an alloy of several metals, including Chromium, which prevents corrosion/tarnish. I love the satin finish and ornate effects, which have proven a talking point. Corrosion/tarnish (as we’d expect) has been a moot point, although I might give the ring a periodic waxing, as part of the bike’s regular maintenance.
In some respect this is a difficult one to quantify, given it’s a custom product. Surly still offers stainless steel rings in 5arm 94bcd format but only in 30-36 tooth, round formats (£34.99) Stronglight still offer 36 tooth 5arm 9 BCD aluminium alloy rings (£33.95) and Dimension also offers aluminium alloy rings from £31.99-34.99, albeit in 31 and 34 tooth 5-9spd options. Enough change for a chain, so might prove a more cost-effective solution an older/working bike, compared with the Raval. However, on a strictly monetary basis, £43.48 is very competitive, alongside other custom options.
In summary, I’ve been very impressed with the Raval Oval chaining. It’s well made and, in this instance, a very cost-effective option for riders looking to extend the life of older but very serviceable cranksets and/or achieve custom ear-ratios. It has perfected the gearing on my tubby tourer, suiting my needs and riding style. Being custom, contemporary and older BCD patterns are easily catered for.
To some extent the fact it’s oval is neither here nor there. Having run round and oval rings for a good while, I am not sold on the latter’s superiority, it’s just different. There are some definite benefits to oval rings, tourists and time triallists who have a smooth, quick cadence. I certainly wouldn’t switch to oval rings wholesale, or encourage others to do so.