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.

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