Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Velo Orange Campeur - Happiness Sets In

Getting the fender just right

Today I received and aftermarket saddle binder bolt and was able to secure the saddle into the bike. Despite pouring rain, I took it for a ten mile jaunt on gravel and pavement. Wow, I love it! The ride is supersmooth, it tracks just fine freehanded, and the fenders worked very well. I was soaking wet but cozy and warm in a merino shirt.

The other bikes I have been riding lately are a Soma Smoothie (steel road bike set up in a racer direction) and a Shogun (vintage sport-touring bike with VO porteur handlebars and baskets on the rack). The Shogun is actually amazingly spry and nimble, but not as much so as the Smoothie. The Campeur, which I was not expecting to feel quick, is right between the two. It is lighter than I was expecting, and the gearing is well-chosen. The bike was about as pleasant as a bike can be while climbing, and for the first time I did not dread the "fork hill" on the way back to my house. Probably just new bike excitement, but I really am feeling great about this bike.

Also, VO replied to my concerns of the damaged paint, broken bolt, and missing pieces. They responded rapidly despite the hurricane closing their office. The issue with the bolt was indeed that a crucial washer was missing, and they are addressing this on other frames. The paint damage seems to have happened while being shipped, and they are adjusting their packing procedure. As I took the brunt of this as a beta-tester of sorts, they are graciously sending me a front rack. This is about 1/5th the price of the frame, which I feel is more than adequate for the slight damages I have to put up with. All in all, I am a very happy campeur, and wouldn't hesitate to continue to recommend Velo Orange as a dealer of parts and bikes.

Of course I am going to need more time to properly assay and review the Campeur bike, but after that first ride, I really love it! The fit is great, the shifting is smooth, and the components feel solid. I really like the micro-ratcheting shifters in particular.

I am not sure I love the pedals I put on it, some Shimano hybrids which I used on the platform side. Not as grippy as I had hoped, and I had a little numbness in the foot. I need a little more time to determine if they are keepers or not.

Velo Orange Campeur: First Impressions and Frustrations

My Campeur has arrived!

The bike is rather attractive; it is especially impressive to see the gleaming silver hardware after so many years of ubiquitous black parts. Certainly the gear cluster is going to be black soon enough.

Blobby welds were expected, and are really not too bad. Also within tolerance would be a few nicks and scratches in the paint, but I am a little disappointed in the number and severity on this frame. One and possibly two are deep enough that I am concerned and will coat them. The worst is a series of little blemishes under the Campeur decal. It creates a bubbly appearance and feeling that looks really terrible and cheap. Not enough to send the bike back, but really disappointing and at odds with the whole "classic" look.

I'm not sure if my photos really capture the nature of these spots. They are highly visible; as a metric my wife spotted them instantly with no prompting.

The bike was simple to assemble with a couple exceptions. The first is that the bar tape was not included. Not a huge deal, not too expensive to buy, but I live in a very remote area with no decent bike shop within a 90-minute drive. That is quite a ways to go for bar tape. I've contacted VO and hope they will remedy this, but the wait is frustrating. I plan to ride without the tape for a while anyway, to verify the positioning of the hoods.

The other issue is that upon installation the seatpost binder bolt was unable to clamp enough to hold the post in place and then snapped as I tightened it. After removing the broken pieces, I realized it was missing it's washer, which might have been the spacer required. Another possibility is that the male portion was milled too long, and it was bottoming out.  None of my other bikes use a compatible bolt, so now I cannot even test-ride the bike (see above regarding just going to a the LBS and grabbing a new one). I did actually call the two bike shops within an hour, and neither have such an exotic item as a keyed 19mm bolt. I went ahead and mail-ordered a Sugino replacement, hoping it to be of higher quality or milled more accurately.

Not being deterred, I continued working on the bike with what I had: a brand new set of VO steel fenders. Again, some disappointment as two of the 5mm bolts to hold the stays onto the dropout eyelets were missing. This is not a big deal financially, but a show-stopper as far as fender installation goes. I was able to steal some from my MTB water bottle mounts. Uglier (they are ancient and filthy panheads) but they work. The fenders were giving me a bit of trouble to install perfectly, but I was expecting it to be a challenge. The main issue is with the eyelets which mount the stay to the fenders. Positioning them symmetrically is very challenging, and when they are not exactly positioned right, the entire fender is biased to one side or the other. Adjusting the stays in the R-clips is not the answer here. After a lot of fiddling over 2 days (3 sessions) I was able to get a decent line and no rubbing. Not perfect, but close. I feel VO should include a couple spacers for where the fenders mount to the fork crown and the seatpost stay. This $1 extra in hardware would go a long way to making the $55 fenders work out for everyone. They suggest using presta-valve locknuts, but not everyone has those laying around. I suppose they assume anyone installing fenders on their own has a stash of hardware, and they might be right, but again I think the minor touch of including "nice to have" hardware would make their product much more appealing. Raise the price $5 and include a couple extra bolts and spacers.

One key to getting the fenders put on was to slightly bend the washers which go inside the fender. It was very difficult to get enough thread through to put the nut onto until I "potato chipped" the washers a little bit with some pliers. You can see what I mean here:

The washer on the right was adjusted to follow the contour of the fender just a bit. This made a huge difference.

All of this is indeed disappointing, yet minor. I still cannot address the ride quality of the bike! Most of these items would have been hardly worth mentioning if the bike had been assembled at a bike shop with a spare hardware bin. It does, however, serve as anecdotal evidence to confirm some rumblings out there that VO has some issues regarding quality control and "fit and finish". For the relatively low price, I expect some compromises, but these issues seem like they could have easily been nipped in the bud with a little more quality control and packing efficiency (for example, there was no packing list or checklist).

To their credit, VO did reply rapidly. Understandably, they are closed now because of Hurricane Sandy, and I am not at all faulting them on a slow reply to my missing bolts and tape in the face of a natural disaster. That said, the way that they do address these issues is going to seriously effect how I feel about them as a company, and how I feel about the experience of mail-ordering a bike from them.

More soon (I hope) as I actually get the thing ready to ride!

Update: VO did reply and have sent out replacement hardware as well as reasonable explanations for the issues. I am feeling good about the purchase and love the bike. More here: http://kidhauler.blogspot.com/2012/10/velo-orange-campeur-happiness-sets-in.html

Friday, October 19, 2012

Shellac and Twine

Like many other bike dorks, I've gone ahead and slathered some shellac onto the cloth bartape on the Shogun. 3 coats. I am pleased with how it looks and feels. Original color was yellow. Shellac was amber.

I also added a simple rack and some Wald folding baskets.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Sudden Turn - The VO Campeur

When I decided it was time to invest in a new automobile-replacing bike, the Surly Long Haul Trucker was what I had in mind. Intended as a touring bike, lots of people have used them for commuting and utility bikes for many years. I was thinking of it as a less-expensive version of a Rivendell "unracer"; a bike meant to last and provide comfort without pretending to be a racing bike. As I do not live near a decent bike shop, I came close to just ordering one of these based on the mountains of positive reviews out there. My cooler head prevailed, though, and I went to test ride them to choose my frame size. To my surprise, none of them fit me well. There are probably accommodations I could make with different stems, handlebars, and seatposts, but the frame felt either too small or too large, the sizing was not granular enough. Us short people got no reason...

The bike shop suggested I try a Crosscheck, another very popular frame with a huge cult following. It is still touring capable, but is marketed as a cyclocross bike. A higher bottom bracket, and a different "effective top tube length". To my surprise and delight, it fit like a glove. Very nimble, peppier than the sluggish LHT, but still durable enough to load up witih cargo. Indeed, a friend of mine rode hers from Minneapolis to my home in Coastal Oregon. That is more touring than I will probably ever do. 

Then the question was if I wanted a black one (I already have a black bike) or to wait for the 2013 obnoxious green, they call "hospital foam".

While admitting it is a bit over the top, I actually like the loud color and was telling myself it is a good nod to safety, as well as having the bike remain visible while parked on a crowded rack. I was not as into its modern black hardware, but so be it.

However, breaking news occurred!  As I was looking at the Velo Orange site, I noticed that their Campeur frameset was available as a complete bike. This bike is built just as I would want it (as a triple, and balanced for front and rear luggage). I was planning to have the Crosscheck converted, and the pricing after all the modifications I was going to make to the CC made them comparable in price.

Velo Orange has mixed reviews on the net, and it highlights the dangers of researching projects on the net in general. Most of the criticisms are that the items are using obsolete technology like friction shifters and cantilever brakes. However, I am old enough to have grown up with friction levers and never had an issue (that I couldn't fix) with them. I have had lots of frustrating experiences with indexed shifters, though. Similarly, another criticism of the Velo Orange frames are that they are designed for threaded forks. I enjoy threaded forks because they are easy to adjust bar height. To each his own, anyway. I generally avoid cycling blogs because the discussion is so opinionated and mean-spirited, really odd for such a pleasant interest. 

The Velo Orange is also criticized at being aimed towards those who just appreciate its aesthetics or have a nostalgic agenda. If the bike were otherwise junk, I might agree, but I don't think that a specific look is automatically a bad thing. If it were, I would hate 90% of the bikes on the market now anyway. I would much rather have something that looks like an antique than something that looks like a plastic spaceship. That said, as part of full disclosure, I enjoy wool clothing more than nylon, I like books more than electronic tablets, and I use hand tools for woodworking as much as possible. It is not an "older is better" thing as much as a love of simplicity and a minimalist bent. I also love technology, but prefer to let others debug it for a while before jumping on board. I am very glad I did not buy a 1st generation iphone, nor a 50 disc CD changer. Again, to each his own. 

And yet, I am going to take one for the team and become an early adopter of a Campeur complete bike. There is a lot of arguing out there about the merits (or lack thereof) regarding this bike, but not many people have actually claimed to have one or plan to, so I'll share my experiences here.

I love the Velo Orange philosophy and aesthetic, and I like having the option of supposedly-obsolete yet simple and time-proven hardware. Other bikes and blogs are available for those who prefer carbon fiber and electronic shifting. On this one, I will continue to explore utility, comfort, health, and jaunts into the woods and beyond for adventure. I'll be pulling my kid, hauling groceries, doing light touring, and who knows what else. I'll see what this bike can do on dirt trails. 

I would not suggest that anyone else buy a bike unseen; in fact I have myself been burned in the past doing this. However, life is short and this bike just excites me so much more than the Crosscheck did. 

Even if this does not turn out to be the bike I want it to be, I am grateful that small companies like Velo Orange are building in a specific style (any specific style); learning from the past and remaining true to what has worked. This may confuse many modern cyclists, and if you want to know more about that, ask me about my hand-tool woodworking some time. I suppose this makes me an official retro-grouch, except I am really not all that grouchy, and was attracted to this bike precisely because it is new and does have some modern engineering despite an older overall design sense.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Couple Upgrades

Velo Orange has delighted me with their Porteur handlebars, quill stem (so I could pull them up a little higher than the old SR stem), inverse brake levers, and cushy cotton tape. The tape is glaring yellow now but will soon be shellaced to an almost leather color. More soon, but here is how it looks now. It is very comfortable! I was able to do 20 miles with the kid in the trailer today, 4 miles of that on gravel.