Thorn Sterling review

Ultimate adventure/minimum-maintenance bike

BikeRadar score4/5

At first glance, the Sterling is one of the gawkiest looking bikes we’ve ever tested, but you don’t have to pedal far to be charmed by its ride, crafted by some of the most experienced and thoughtful adventure bike designers in the world.

Ride it in long-haul cargo carrying context and you’ll understand every carefully considered aspect of its design. With suspension forks and knobbly tyre kit selections also available to up the fun factor, you’re looking at an extremely versatile and enjoyable ride that’s possibly the ultimate zero maintenance, maximum versatility, high-value adventure bike on the market.

Ride & handling: Remarkably smooth and surefooted Rohloff ride

With its wonky high-rise shopper handlebar perched on top of no fewer than eight 5mm Aheadset spacers, the Sterling couldn’t feel less like an aggressive trail bike.

The unloaded handling is an odd mix of very light hand pressure and steadfast straightline stability. This makes the front wheel prone to pushing out on loose turns if you’re running unloaded or with rear luggage only.

That's because the Sterling is designed to carry most of its payload up front. With low riders (panniers that sit low down alongside the front hub) fitted, the handling makes perfect sense in a planted, drama-free way.

From the twin-crown 100mm suspension-corrected fork with a custom offset to Thorn’s proprietary socketed Rohloff dropouts, it’s all simple but highly effective.

Despite its utilitarian looks, the Sterling’s level of smooth comfort and its playful unloaded feel on rough trails is as charming as it is surprising, whether you're using it for long exploratory on/off-road sorties or just nipping out on errands to make good use of the panniers.

Despite the rigid fork and hefty Rohloff hub at the rear, the carefully blended tubing gives a smooth feel on rough tracks and bridleways. The semi-slick tyres means the Sterling hides its weight surprisingly well too.

Thorn sterling: thorn sterling
Thorn sterling: thorn sterling

Frame: Super-stiff steel chassis with all the tour-ready features you might need

At £349 the Sterling frame is the same price as most decent quality steel mountain bike frames but the devil is in the detail. The 858 steel tubeset has been developed by Thorn over years of building off-the-peg and bespoke expedition touring bikes.

Thorn claim their 858 heavy gauge tubing is significantly stiffer than ultra-light gauge tubing. This stiffness ensures that the frame can take the load for medium-weight touring, and that the rear wheel tracks the front.

Super thin rear stays are designed to reduce rough road sting to a minimum, and the distinctive biplane crowned rigid fork curves forward to calm pothole sting and add loaded stability. The main tubes are stiff enough to keep you and your panniers going in the intended direction on an Andean jeep track descent.

It certainly isn’t short on practicality: Crud Catcher mud guard, multiple bottle, dynamo, mudguard and front and rear rack mounts are all threaded into the frame. As a result the Sterling is rated for 15kg of load at the rear and 25kg on the forks. Crossover cable routing under the bottom bracket means lovely clean lines to the Rohloff hub, which sits in dedicated dropouts.

Equipment: Choose your own build from a well thought out list

The Thorn order form lets you specify crank and stem length according to personal preference and offers a series of build kits, each of which can be altered to suit while you’re shopping. Don’t look at the old-school elements and immediately assume you know better though, because going through the spec lists is definitely an education in durability and practicality.

For a start, the square taper bottom bracket for the own-brand SJS/Thorn cranks will last far longer than any external bearing BB. Using a smaller chainring than the Van Nich keeps you in the smoother top seven gears more of the time, as well as giving a lower crawler gear too.

You’ll be able to find at least a botchable set of brake pads for the V-brakes almost anywhere in the world too. While they feel spongier and less powerful than hydraulic discs – particularly in wet weather – V-brakes won’t boil up and leave you hurtling to your doom on a long, loaded descent.

This is the the ultimate adventure/ minimum maintenance bike, rather than a fashion statement.: this is the the ultimate adventure/ minimum maintenance bike, rather than a fashion statement.
This is the the ultimate adventure/ minimum maintenance bike, rather than a fashion statement.: this is the the ultimate adventure/ minimum maintenance bike, rather than a fashion statement.

Guy Kesteven

Freelance Writer, UK
Guy started filling his brain with cycle stats and steaming up bike shop windows back in 1980. He worked the other side of those windows from '89 while getting a degree in “describing broken things covered in mud" (archaeology). Dug historical holes in the ground through the early '90s, then became a pro bike tester in '97. Guy has ridden thousands of bikes and even more components the world over since then and can remember them all in vivid, haunting detail. Can't remember where the car keys are, though.
  • Age: 45
  • Height: 180cm / 5' 11"
  • Weight: 68kg / 150lb
  • Waist: 76cm / 30in
  • Chest: 91cm / 36in
  • Discipline: Strict sadomasochist
  • Preferred Terrain: Technical off-piste singletrack and twisted back roads. Up, down, along — so long as it's faster than the last time he did it he's happy.
  • Current Bikes: An ever changing herd of test machines from Tri bikes to fat bikes and everything in between.
  • Dream Bike: His Nicolai Helius AM custom tandem
  • Beer of Choice: Theakston's Old Peculier (not Peculiar)
  • Location: Yorkshire, UK

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