Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hunting passes with the Passs Hunter

A few months back, I build a new bicycle around the Velo Orange "Pass Hunter" frame. Its intriguing name is inspired by the the sport of chasing passes, and its seat tube decal an hommage to the logo of its 'governing body': And while I am now grounded to the flatness of Hamburg, this is what I liked to do most on a bicycle, when still living in the mountains. Only recently, I realised how far the mountains actually are from where I live now - the 600 km Brevet had its turning point on top of the first significant hill (from Hamburg and for my VO Pass Hunter): the Brocken in the Harz. And I sure would put the new bicycle trough its paces a soon as I had an opportunity, which finally came in the form of holidays in Grenoble, France.

A day trip around and across the Chartreuse mountains had me re-visit a number of the places I enjoyed, and glance views of many summits I used to hike, climb and ski.

Col de Clémencières, 620 m.
The trip started with the Col de Clémenicières, which separates the emblematic "Neron" from the "Bastille" dominating the city and was part of one of my favorite evening excursion "Tour du Neron".

Col de Vence, 782 m.
By the very definition of a pass, the route is "locally the highest point" on "the lowest possible route".

Col de Palaquit, 1154 m.
Yet instead of following down the lowest possible route, I turned the pass into a saddle and headed further up, doing so two more times on Col de Vence and Col de Palaquit, before really peaking for the first time on Col de Porte under the Chamechaude mountain.

Col de Porte, 1326 m.
The first downhill speeds down fast inclines on routes with barely any cars before the next climb, which unassumingly starts in St Hugues with some false flats before gradually steepening and finally turning  into a serious but rewarding grind. The views back into the chartreuse Mountains, up la Dent des Crolles towering the col, and towards the Belledone range on the other side are worth every revolution of the pedals on the slopes attaining 16%.

Col du Coq, 1435 m.
Zipping trough the twisting switchbacks facing the Belledonne range in an exhilarating descent, quickly  brings me down to the village of St Hilaire du Touvet, which is famous for its paragliding opportunities.
Col de Marcieu, 1060 m.
The road follows the foot of the abrupt east face of the Dent de Crolles, Dome de Bellefont, Aup du Seuil and the Rochers de Bellefont. Passing Col de Marcieu brings back fond memories of endless hours spent climbing these cliffs hiding some of Europes most spectacular natural arches and improbable passages across the steep faces.

Col du Granier, 1134 m.
The Col du Granier has to be earned by another winding climb under the North face of the homonymous mountain in the heat of the afternoon and is rewarded by some excellent blueberry cake at the cafe on top.

Col du Cucheron, 1140 m.

A fast descent with many straights brings me back into the heart of the Chartreuse mountains, and after crossing the Col du Cucheron the road passes close to the monastery (Monastère des Pères Chartreux), which is famous for its liquor and lends the entire mountain range its name.

Col de la Placette, 588 m.
The impressive creeks of the Gorges du Guiers Mort lead down to St Laurent du Pont and finally to the gentle climb up Col de la Placette before one last descent and a comfortable bicycle path along the Isère river brought me back to my starting point.

(Alternatively, and a little less expensive in elevation gain, the passes Col de Porte, Col du Cucheron and Col du Granier invite to a crossing of Chartreuse from Grenoble to Chambery.)


Map, click to enlarge.

A rewarding day in the saddle, 9 mountain passes, and about 148 km with 3400 m of elevation gain...

Elevation profile. 9 mountain passes, 148 km, 3400 m elevation gain.

Its not about the bike. But the Velo Orange Pass Hunter certainly did not hold 
me back grinding up winding ascents and steep cols, speeding down fast 
inclines, and zipping through twisting switchbacks.

And the Velo Orange Pass hunter in all that? It certainly did not hold me back grinding up winding ascents and steep cols, speeding down fast inclines, and zipping through twisting switchbacks. It now has honestly earned its name.

Velo Orange Pass Hunter build

A bike to go the extra mile

After moving from Grenoble to Hamburg, I was looking for a new activity. I had spent a lot of my free time skiing and kiting. Deprived of the beloved mountains and snow, I was looking for a new activity conveying a feeling of independence and self reliance, where I could measure my endurance on geographic scales. Since some time already, I had secretly admired long distance cyclists and followed the scene. In my new situation, far from the mountains, I decided to give it a try. Yet during exactly this move from Grenoble to Hamburg, my road cycle got stolen while in the hands of the moving company. After my first two brevets on my city- and trekking-bicycle something had to change. After some hesitation, I set my eyes on the Velo Orange Pass Hunter frame to build the new endurance bike to go the extra mile.

The Velo Orange Pass Hunter

Velo Orange Pass Hunter

The bike should be comfortable, accept at least 28 mm wide tires with fenders and 35 mm without, it should be capable to carry a moderate front load in a handle bar bag, and be attractive enough so I would enjoy riding it for a few hundred kilometres, and then some more. Among several reasonable choices, it was mostly the last argument that carried me away to choose the Velo Orange Pass Hunter over others. Its a steel frame with the necessary clearance, bridges, and eyelets for fenders, a nice rake to the mid trail fork, road rear spacing, reasonable weight, and - a number of quirky details ranging from the clean inline rack mounts, over the horizontal top tube to the wrap around seat-stays, the biplane fork, lug like steering tube flanges and lugged fork ends and rear dropouts. And it were those nifty details remotely reminiscent of the iconic bicycles of Alex  Singer, Rene Herse and Jo Routens that finally tipped the balance.

The build

A few mails later, Scott Gater from Velo Orange had referred me to Jamie Younger of their european distributor Freshtripe who is placing orders with VO every week. Both were really helpful and a pleasure to deal with. The day, the frame crossed my doorstep, I brought it to my local bike store Tool Bikes which were kind enough to install the bottom bracket and a Tange Seiki headset on very short notice on a frame I had not bought there. Only two nights later, the build was ready to ride ...

Velo Orange Pass Hunter rigged for a long ride. Front: Rixen and Kaul
KlickFix Daypack, rear: Apidura Saddle Pack Compact.


The wheels were build by Maro Moskopp from Radplan Delta. I was looking for a classic wheel set in a 3 cross lacing pattern, 28 spokes in the front, 32 in the rear. He took time and patience to discuss my request and  insisted that I should consider the 23 mm wide Kinlin XC 279 rims, if I was serious about running those ridiculously wide tires from 28-32mm. He recommended a radially laced front wheel with 20 aero spokes and an asymmetric 8/16 lacing with aero spokes in the rear.

Hubs. Front Schmidt Sondelux, rear Miche racing Hub.
We settled for a compromise. The front wheel is build with 24 Sapim laser in a 2 cross pattern around a Sondelux dynamo hub. The rear wheel features sapim laser on the non-drive side and sapim strong on the drive side in order to balance spoke tension, laced in a three cross pattern on a Miche Racing hub. Tyres are Continental GP 4000 SII 28 mm mounted with Schwalbe SV15 air chambers. The wheels arrived  more than one week earlier than promised, look beautiful, and their performance is superb, as far as I can judge until now.

Drivetrain and shifting

The drivetrain is a mix-match of various components, in an effort to combine reliability in the context of long distance cycling and travelling, a wide gearing range and the irrational desire to keep a classic appearance at an acceptable price point. Pedals are the brilliant Exustar E-PR43, mounted on Sugino XD2 compact cranks in 170 mm which are revolving on a Token JIS 103 mm square taper BSA bottom bracket. Sugino has quite a reputation for their cranks, but some aspects of the XD2 left me a little surprised. The finish on my sample looks, as if the forged raw piece was trimmed with a belt sander without attention for the subtle form where the spider transitions to the chainrings. The polishing stops already at the visible thin sides of the spider. The fiddly choice to hide one of the chainring bolts behind the crank-arm does not really appeal to me after only one change of chainring, and comes along with a milled recess at a place where the strain in the crank-arm must be very high. In addition, this choice of spider orientation does not allow to mount the bolt keeping the chain from falling in the gap with TA chainrings. Deburring on the inside of the spider was incomplete and needed touch-up. That said, the thread is as narrow as on older racing cranks, already from one meter distance it looks like the real thing, and in up to now it simply works great.

Drivetrain. Exustar E-PR43 pedals, Sugino XD 2 cranks (170 mm), Specialites
TA Zephyr chainrings 48, 36 (for the mountains optionally Gebhard 33), Token
bottom bracket, KMC chain, Shimano SLX  11-32 cassette. The crank features
a few odd details.

Specialites TA chainrings of 48 and 36 teeth in the front transmit the power through a budget KMC chain to the Shimlano Deore/SLX 11-32 cassette in the rear. For really steep mountains, I keep a Gebhard 33 chainring in the parts bin, but here in northern Germany it simply wouldn't be of great use. This choice was based on my experience in the mountains and shows my complete lack thereof in the windy and rainy flatlands here. For fast group- and paceline riding at rather constant speeds, the gearing steps of the cassette feel uncomfortably big to me and I will likely give a 12-25 or 12-27 cassette a try very soon.

Exustar E-PR43 pedals. They are silver, they look classic, they are light, and
they are designed for Shimano SPD clips. Brilliant.

The decision for a 9-speed drivetrain and downtube shifters appears certainly anachronistic. But after giving it a second thought, and with my hands on experience it has some appeal: There is more cable pull per gear in a 9-speed system. With the exception of the last 20 cm for the rear derailleur, there is no cable housing, making the entire adjustment more stable and reliable. If indexing for the rear goes out of adjustment, it can be switched to frition shifting. The current gear is immediately felt by touching the shift levers even when riding at night.

Dura Ace 9-speed down tube shifters. The left lever is spring loaded to
balance the pull of the front derailleur. The indexing of the right lever can
be disabled in case of adjustment problems with the rear derailleur. Neat.
While I was lucky to get hold of a 'like new' Shimano Dura Ace FD-7410 front derailleur with a 28.6 mm clamp, the market for matching long cage rear mechs seems to be completely soaked up by  enthusiast tourers and randonneurs willing to pay a fortune for these beautiful pieces of kit.  When I had already settled for a Shimano XT rear derailleur, ready to modify it with a barrel adjuster, I stumbled across the new SunXCD SXRD34M on Freshtripes component offerings. Possibly with the exception of small details, the SXRD34M appears basically to be an all silver, SunXCD branded Microshift RD-R51M. It perfectly filled a gap in my component list for this bike, but its a mixed bag considering its price tag: The barrel adjuster is plastic, the back plate of the parallelgram is a folded black steel plate with riveted articulations, and while the upper floating jockey wheel spins on a ball bearing, the lower one came with a simple bushing and had to make place for an aftyermarket part from Tacx on a ball bearing. But then, the shifting of the SunXCD feels crisp and precise, with the changed pulley it does not add any resistance, and it does look really great from some distance.

Rear derailleur: SunXCD SXRD34M. Front derailleur: Dura Ace FD-7410.
Given unlimited funds, I would seriously consider a silver Campagnolo Athena 9 or 10-Speed setup with ergo power levers and a Compass Bicycle 'Rene Hersé' crank. One day maybe.


The Cane Creek SCR5 brake levers are equipped with a campagnolo style brake quick release which turns out very useful with the cantilever brakes. The Tektro CR720 are among the lightest, and at the same time also cheapest cantilever brakes on the market.

Cane Creek SCR5 brake levers. The
Campagnolo-style quick-release comes
in handy with the cantilever brakes.
Tektro CR720 cantilever brakes.

Saddle and handlebar

There is little more personal and maybe random hit or miss then finding the right saddle for really long rides. When the saddle of my city and touring bike broke down some two years ago, I just went into the next bike shop which happened to be a Specialized concept store and bought about their cheapest offering in the correct width. Eventually, this saddle went over many high alpine passes, through countless commutes and finally my first brevets without ever causing any real discomfort. When time came to choose a saddle, I simply went for the higher quality, harder, and less sticky 'Toupé' saddle from Specialized.

Saddle: Specialized Toupé, seatpost: Ritchey Classic, handlebars: Ritchey
Classic, stem: Velo orange Tall Stack Stem. Ritchey bar tape, VO silver alu
bar end plugs.

The seatpost is Ritchey Classic, as is the handlebar, which is mounted on a VO Tall Stack Stem with 80 mm reach. The bar is rounded of with Ritchey bar tape and VO alu handlebar plugs.


A Schmidt Edelux II powered by a SONdelux hub generator serves a s headlight, both marvels in finish and apparent manufacturing quality. Its touchy in angular adjustment, but once the position is correctly dialed in, a busy patchy beam pattern transitions to a very even flood, that  is a pleasure to ride with. Avoiding a desaster in the looks and style department was worth patientl fiddling of the cable from the hub generator to the headlight through the forks vent holes. Waiting for intuition and time to implement a clean cable routing solution to the taillight (meanwhile done), a battery powered Cateye TL-AU100 ensures StVZO compliant visibility from the back and won a fight for seat tube real estate over the 'Pass Hunter' decal. It was chosen for its impressive claimed battery life, and solid mounting bracket.

Lights. Front: Schmidt Edeleux II, rear: The AA battery powered Cateye
TL-AU100 Gwill have to make room for a dynamo powered taillight, once
I have figured out a clean cable routing to the rear.


For me its illusorical to even go on a daytrip without bike mounted luggage.  I do not like to carry any things in my pockets the bike could carry. The Rixen und Kaul "Daypack" frontbag mounts with a clickfix adapter and keeps things accessible without dismounting the bike. An Apidura "Saddle Pack Compact" ideally complements the luggage capacity on longer rides without the need to install any hardware. (Revelate design has similar offerings).

Maiden voyage

After riding my first two brevets on my city and trekking bike something had to change. I seriously doubted I could ride the longer distances without the help of an efficient bike. And when the frame arrived just barely in time for the next Brevet, there was no holding back ... With not even hundred kilometers of errands across Hamburg to complete last details of the build, it would have its true maiden voyage during the 400 km brevet in Kiel.

A stamp collection worth 400 km. Only four days after the big box containing
the frame crossed my doorstep, I was putting the new Pass Hunter through
its paces during a Brevet starting from Kiel. It performed admirably well.

What a change! I no longer get compassionate compliments for strong legs, but rather for a beautiful bike. It performed admirably well.

I have been asked about the bicycles weight. Its about 11.3 kg, with solid SKS fenders (added after the photo session). This is by no means heavy. And it anyway does not ride itself without a rider. If the fully rigged bicycle and rider were to tip the scale together, there is certainly room for improvement on my side and through thoughtful packing of food water and clothes.