Second Impressions of the Campeur

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I have ridden the Velo Orange Campeur in ways that it was designed and ways it wasn’t, forcing it out of its comfort zone since November 2012. Along the way, I have learned a lot about the bike and about my needs as a rider. I have (re)learned to appreciate a fast, natural ride on pavement. Although I’ve been on the road much of the last five years, this is the most road oriented bike I’ve ridden since 2009.

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First glancing the Campeur at Interbike, comparing geometry charts, and assembling the frame with new parts served to create a feeling about the new Velo Orange frame. Those were first impressions– pure speculation.  They were important because they framed my expectations of experiences to come. Disregard them. These are second impressions. These are based upon experience.

The Campeur has all the standard features of a proper touring bike to mount water and racks and fenders; long chainstays and stout tubing ensure stability; and a sensible headtube extension allows the handlebars near saddle height. Beneath the French aesthetic, the bike is actually a classic American touring bike. No, the Campeur does not compete directly with the venerable Trek 720 or Miyata 1000, which could or would cost much more to duplicate. Rather, the Campeur is much more like the Trek 620 or the Miyata 610, affordable versions of their top-of-the-line brethren. These models were known for similar features to their celebrated siblings, but they boasted a more rugged construction and were suited to carry more. Most of all, they were more affordable. The Campeur continues the tradition.

Ride quality

The Campeur is not a lightweight event bike, but it rides nicely unloaded with the right wheels, tires and tire pressure (see Mike Ross’ “1500 Mile Review”). Unlike many touring bikes, it features lively steering that is inspiring to ride unloaded. Its stout tubing does not provide the supple ride of an Italian lightweight and it may not plane when sprinting uphill unloaded, but it will handle daily life, transitioning from city to country and back. It could be ridden on a 200km brevet, to work all week, and onto dirt roads in the hills the following weekend. As with many touring bikes, the ride is enlivened with a load, feeling more grounded and assured and compliant. I have not ridden the Campeur in the traditional “fully-loaded” format with racks and panniers, but given the ride quality with moderate loads on fast descents I have no doubt that the load limit is still far off.  It is certainly capable of the kinds of trips where tires are dipped into the ocean.

Steering

I don’t think much about steering while riding the Campeur, which is a great compliment to a bike. I used to spend hours obsessing over low-trail geometry before realizing that trail is a necessary feature of bike design, best understood when the extremes (too high and too low) have been experienced. From some test rides, I know that extremely low-trail steering is not to my liking, especially unloaded (VO Polyvalent, 37mm trail). I’ve toured and commuted on a bike with notably high mechanical trail and gigantic tires with massive rotational weight at low pressures, and I know that high trail and heavy steering can force the bike wide around a corner, or off the trail altogether (Surly Pugsley, 88mm trail). I’ve toured on a very normal bike with many positive attributes, which became cumbersome with a heavy handlebar bag and too-narrow handlebars (1985 Schwinn High Sierra, est. 65+mm trail). First, I developed my touring chops for almost two years on a Made in the USA bread-and-butter touring bike with aluminum racks and panniers (1995 Trek 520, est. 65+mm trail). These are my reference points.

The Campeur provides the most natural steering I have experienced. I always ride with some kind of load. While never excessive, my load varies from a day’s supply of electronics, clothing, snacks and tools to a camping load for a couple of days or a load of groceries.  The steering geometry of the Campeur is best quantified as medium-trail, measuring 57mm of mechanical trail. For reference, the Surly LHT and Atlantis are both in the high 60′s (all on 38mm tires). Conventional wisdom suggests that high-trail geometry benefits the touring style, providing stability when riding straight all day, every day. But as front loads increase in mass and in height above the wheel– as with a basket or handlebar bag– high-trail bikes become cumbersome, especially when steering at low speed. The phenomena of heavy, slow speed steering is called wheel flop. It can be tiring and unnerving.

Daily, my experience riding the Campeur is casual and the steering is intuitive– it is neither twitchy nor heavy. I only notice the steering because of the smooth arcs that I carve on pavement. Broad curves at speed are managed with body english and almost no perceptible handlebar input. In the city, I lay the bike through tight corners with some input at the bars, and I always come out of the turn exactly when I want– never too soon– without losing much speed. The bike is unencumbered by a moderate front load, such as a full day’s supply in my Ostrich handlebar bag. The steering does not become heavy until I load a gallon of milk, avocados, apples, and a camera up front. At some point, a loaded bike is expected to feel heavy. This is when a balanced load becomes important.

For an in-depth discussion of my packing style, revisit my post “Packing the Campeur: Bikepacking Style” on the VO Blog.

Just as an overloaded handlebar bag can be cumbersome, a full saddlebag without a front load feels a little strange. When both bags are used in conjunction, even when full, the bike feels right– it is once again grounded and natural. For bulky items and camping loads I look to my Carradice Camper saddlebag and its 25L capacity. It swallows laundry for two, or camping gear and food for a few days. Even at high speeds with a full load, the Campeur is unwavering. The bike does not shimmy (speed wobble) when loaded, even when attempting to instigate or propogate a wave. Riding with one hand on the bars, or with no hands, is possible.

Low BB

Another notable feature of the Campeur design is a low bottom bracket, which is a common on the touring bike checklist. However, a low BB is not a feature for the kind of riding I like to do. Dirt roads may include erosional features and embedded rocks, and the Campeur is challenged by limited pedal clearance in some situations (45mm, tires; 175mm cranks; VO Sabot pedals). As such, I have switched from the large platform of the Grand Cru Sabot pedals to narrower VO Urban pedals for increased clearance. I have gained the confidence to corner without fear of pedal strike in the city.  Regarding vertical pedal clearance, I have learned to time my pedal stroke to avoid contact in the rough. Such riding is not the exact intention of this bike, although it is my passion and the tire clearance allows it. This is a personal caveat. For normal gravel road riding and unpaved rail trails there is little concern of pedal strike and a low bottom bracket does benefit stability, minimally.

Quill stem

The Campeur also uses a standard 1” threaded headset and quill stem. For my build, I have chosen a VO quill adaptor with a threadless-type stem. Both are finished nicely in polished silver. This system provides the best of both worlds– simple vertical adjustments and easily replaceable stems with removable faceplates if I choose to adjust the reach or swap handlebars. The claimed benefit of a 1 1/8” threadless system is a stiffer interface, which one can easily believe. However, I count a benefit of 1” quill systems to be the damping of road vibrations. Surely, the system also allows some lateral motion and torsion without ill effect, but the dampening is notable when riding fast on rough dirt roads or on broken pavement. For proper trail riding or sprinting, stiffness may be a feature. For riding along on real roads, compliance and comfort have a place.

Finish

I’ve seen all of the VO production frame models first hand, mostly in the brief time that I worked in the VO warehouse. The Campeur is the most refined of all previous models, both in design and finish. Tire clearances are exactly the same all around the bike. Rack, fender, and water bottle mounting points are all well-placed. The fork has a pleasing curve. The dropouts are utilitarian, yet proportional and elegant.  Cable routing is modern and sensible. The paint and decals are very nice. And, it has a headbadge.  I like the new Campeur decal and typeface.  It has a bold, modern feel and the illustration by Dan Price is playful and appropriate.

The Campeur is a touring, commuting, camping, utility bike– executed with subtle flair and an attention to detail. Mostly, it does not do anything that your beloved road touring bike cannot do. But in such a narrow category with close competitors, (in)significant details can make all the difference. The Campeur is fun to ride. The Campeur is a capable road bike for a path that is not always smooth or straight.

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These photos are from a three-day camping trip in the Jemez Mountains northwest of Santa Fe, NM.  We started and ended on pavement and connected about 70 miles of dirt roads at the heart of the route, including a section of the Great Divide Route (section Abiqui to Cuba).  Jeremy was riding his Rivendell Hunqapillar with a basket and a saddlebag.  He was rolling on 29×2.35″ Schwalbe Super Moto tires, which are a lightweight version of the Big Apple.  I had a Schwalbe Mondial up front (actual, 43mm) and a Dureme in the rear (45mm).  This kind of riding is a little out of range for the Campeur, but is possible with a medium-light load and larger tires.  

Keeping the things that I really enjoy about the Campeur, I would increase tire clearance and increase bottom bracket height (decreased BB drop) for an optimized dirt road tourer and a more versatile exploration machine.  These thoughts are parts of a longstanding mental thread regarding my ideal dirt touring bike.  In all, the Campeur is a very nice riding bike. 

A full geometry chart can be seen here.

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Roots

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A loop around the Valles Caldera on dirt roads is a suitable test for the new bike. Leaving Santa Fe, Jeremy and I ride north for an hour on pavement to Espanola. The feeling of being on a road bike again is exhilarating. Just west of town, the unpaved 31-Mile Road (FR 144) climbs 5000 ft over a ridge connecting Chicoma Mountain and Polvadera Peak, linking with the Great Divide Route for a bit. Chicoma is the second tallest peak in New Mexico at 11,561 ft– the road passes a thousand feet below the summit. We find cold nights and sunny t-shirt days as November becomes December, miles and miles of dirt roads and hardpacked snow in the shadows; deserts and pines from 5500 to 10,500 ft; and a back door entrance to the popular San Antonio Hot Springs.

Reverting to my roots, the VO Campeur is the most road oriented bike I have ridden since I sold my well-used 1995 Trek 520 three years ago. It is thrilling to be able to connect the dots on paved roads so easily, to transport myself well out of town in only a few hours. It is satisfying to “do more with less”, and to explore sandy, rocky, but mostly well-graded dirt roads. It is frustrating to not be able to go absolutely everywhere, as I have come to expect on the Pugsley. Compromises are the nature of any bicycle expected to serve varied functions. A more complete discussion of the Campeur will follow in the coming days.

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On the last day of our trip, my workhorse MacBook Air was stolen from aside my bike. Jeremy and I are picnicked only a few feet away, deep in conversation, and as we begin packing to leave I sense an absence. Fuck. Dig deeper in the saddlebag, but of course it has nowhere to hide. My external hard drive is also missing, and as many as twenty thousand photos are gone. I select a direct route toward Albuquerque, and coast downhill in awe. The road flattens, pedaling eighteen, twenty miles an hour into the sun, knowing that lactic acid and tears serve some of the same function. The new bike rides; it really, really rides. I ride for fun, for transportation, and now for release. A missing hard drive is not the same as the loss of memory. It does not impede the future. Rolling into Albuquerque at sunset, barely, I am happy about our trip and committed to forward motion– these are the roots of my cycling life. Be happy, roll on.

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I still have a bike and a camera. The blog will be rolling again soon.

Lovely Bicycle considers the difference between a camping bike and a touring bike. I have an ideal camping bike in mind, capable of roads and trails and moderate loads. What is your ideal camping bike?

Santa Fe Lost and Found

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Charged with forest service maps, local hiking and biking trail maps, and an iPhone, our plan was for five days of riding dirt roads and singletrack.  Even before leaving town, we consult the iPhone.  Stop and go navigation was to become a pattern, and a series of forest fires and floods over the past decade would erase much of the valuable information from our maps.  More images from my trip with Lael, Cass and Joe, here is another installment of riding with friends.

Leaving town on a rail-trail is easy.  Eventually, we find our way onto dirt roads and BLM property and encounter a spectacular rocky descent from atop a mesa.  So far, so good.

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Navigation is easy when you can see where you are going.  This vantage offered a map view of the area.

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Several transport stages require riding on pavement.  Working together to reach the Jemez Mountains and USFS lands by dark, a brisk paceline forms.

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A map view of the Jemez area indicates concentric ridges and canyons around the Valles Caldera, at the center of the Jemez Mountains.  In the morning, we climb a ridge on FR 289 into the trees.  The views from atop this ridge are our first signs of the dramatic effect of forest fires over the past decade.  This fire burned last June, and was followed by a biblical flood event.  Fire followed by water is a toxic potion in arid climates.

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In search of water, we venture down a gated 4×4 track.  Followed by a fun descent, we hack our way through shoulder high vegetation.  The map indicates a trail, but we only find the obvious signs of erasure– fires and flood, and the thick regeneration of understory vegetation.  In five days, we encounter only five surface water sources.  Luckily, several opportunities to fill our bottles from municipal sources ease the strain.

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In lieu of a trail, a sandy creek bed will do.  It’s handy to be riding a Pugsley in times like these, although a lightweight bike and soft 29 x 2.4″ tires will also do the job.

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Our eventual escape from this isolated drainage requires some pushing  Technically, it was my suggestion to find water that led us to this point.  Later, it would be Cass’ enthusiasm for singletrack that would have us hauling our bikes over logs.  For now, push.  Joe says any day with more that 50% riding is a success.  This day was to be a success, as we are soon back on the road.

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In search of secondary forest roads, we dead-end at an abandoned gravel pit.  Return.

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Riding out, the boys consider this “road” rideable.

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Lael has a good head, and considers a mellow hike instead.

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We encounter a local resident and trail-builder who verifies that all local singletrack trails have been destroyed by fire and flood.  He suggests some alternate routes near Los Alamos, and offers a roof for the night, just as the sun takes a dive.

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We awake at the edge of Cochiti Canyon.  Torched and flooded, the canyon has seen the end of days, but is finding some footing after a year and a half.  A light frost has fallen on the mountain tops– beautiful.

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Joe is riding a custom, packable Rob English 29er travel bike.  The rear triangle can be removed for easy packing, but there are no delicate hinges and it is a fully functional mountain bike.  It is equipped with a White Brothers carbon fork and a Shimano Alfine 8-speed internal gear hub.  Cass rides his road-worn Surly Ogre.

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In Canada, cattleguards are called Texas gates.

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The grassy plains of the Valles Caldera Preserve, at the center of the Jemez.  Hiding somewhere are a herd of elk.

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Doubletrack above Los Alamos.  We connect with local singletrack recovered from devastation by local trail crews.

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Dressed in black, Joe is perfectly camouflaged amongst torched trees.

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Lost and found– Cass consults the map.

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Cass and Joe have been cycletouring for years, and have probably ridden enough to encircle the Earth several times.  There is no shortage of stories with these guys, such as that one time in Egypt, or riding a tandem in Kyrgyzstan, or the millions of delectable calories consumed.  Cass and Joe, talking and riding:

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Near Los Alamos, we break for some friendly competition.  Joe suggests a proper pull-up, while Cass advocates for the underarm method.

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The eerie, empty streets of Los Alamos are home to national laboratories responsible for developing weapons, including the historic Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb.  The town feels like the combination of a large public university and a Soviet facility.  Signs proclaim, “Take two minutes for safety!”.  Safety and solidarity, comrades!

The Bikini Atoll is an island chain in the Pacific which was the site of 23 atomic detonations in the 40′s and 50′s.  It continues to be unsafe for human habitation, and is the name of a street in Los Alamos.

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Loaded up with food and a carton of wine, we climb up past the ski area above Los Alamos in the final light of day.

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Los Alamos below.  The subject of tomorrow’s ride is seen in the distance on the other side of the valley.

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Camping in an alpine meadow, we commune around food and wine.  Cass and Joe commune inside a shared Megamid tarp, telling touring stories into the night.

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The next morning, we climb the Pipeline Trail to a huge singletrack descent.  The forest fires have reduced the organic content of the soil.  The resulting rocky “kitty litter” soil is hazardous on off-camber trails.  There are a few white-knuckle moments on the ride down, especially on well-worn Surly Larry tires.  It may be time for some new rubber.  Nearing the end of my “fat year”, it’s almost time for a new bike.

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Joe’s Revelate handlebar bag has recently been replaced after much use, and the new design features convenient mesh side pockets which he stuffs with fruit.  As advertised, those are Avid single-digit levers.  Joe is an expert lightweight bikepacker, and keeps his bike as tidy as a Japanese cycletourist.

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Resupply.  Despite the signage, this is actually a grocery store.  Four tired and dusty dirt touring bikes take respite from riding.  We are all effectively riding 29″ wheels, although mine are 26×4.0″.  On the right, Lael’s bike is the only one without a framebag.  With camping gear and clothing, her loaded bike weighs a mere 45 lbs.  The bike was sourced from parts on Craigslist in the Denver area and cost less than $700– not bad for a real mountain bike.  Although she arrived with lots of cycling experience this fall, she did not consider herself a mountain biker.  Commuting on a Surly Pugsley this winter developed sharp reactions on the bike, and previous dirt touring experience in the US, France and Mexico on her Surly LHT engrained a love for off-pavement travel.  After almost two months of riding singletrack, she can no longer hide the fact that she is a real mountain biker.

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These two never run out of things to talk about– Rohloff vs. derailleurs, remote Peruvian routes, popular superhero films, and home-made beer can stoves.  Ride up to the Nambe Reservoir for the night.  The next day, we expect to ride up the Rio Nambe Trail.  Expectations, like rules, are meant to be broken.

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After coffee, a breakfast of broken expectations.

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And unexpected encounters.  This little bear is limping, and quickly backs down from Joe’s stern demeanor.

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As we near town, evidence of trail use grows despite continued damage.  Still, very few people pass this way, especially on bikes.

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All at once, we are back on the road and on our way back to town.  By 5PM we have spent most of the day pushing our bikes, lost.  Descending on dirt at the day’s end, we include a little singletrack descent back to town.  Found.

As Lael and I begin looking for a place to hang our hats this winter, I look forward to more riding with friends.  Cass will be a short train ride away, and we’ve both got plans for some new go-fast allroad touring bikes.  As snow begins to fall in the mountains, we will escape to the south and to lower elevations.  With a lightweight load and some svelte new machines, Pie Town, NM will only be a day or two away.

Capable of both paved and unpaved surfaces, I’m designing my ideal “road” bike around a VO Campeur frame.  At the center of the build will be a versatile, voluminous tire and a large framebag.

Note: Velo Orange has recently announced a significant drop in their frame price; the Campeur, Polyvalent, and Rando frames are now available for $500.  A healthy Campeur build kit is available for $650, and for the first time a complete bike is offered for $1600.

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Riding with friends

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Five days from Santa Fe and back by bike with friends Lael, Cass and Joe– we hit upon a goldmine of adventure.  There were some fantastic settings…

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…and lots of decisions.

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Routefinding with four people– one reads a map, one unearths UTM coordinates from an iPhone, the other climbs the hill to look ahead, and the last one looks for a snack.

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Some vast expanses

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And prescient signage.

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Minor misfortunes

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Synchronicity

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And challenges.  Cass won with an even ten.

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Cool alpine mornings

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And tent packing rituals.

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Spirited riding

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And diverse grocery stores.

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Bikepacking and bushwacking– we enjoyed five days of first-rate bikewhacking.

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Riding with friends– a great time in proximity to a bike, if not always upon it.  Thanks for a great trip!

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