Lilac Dreams and the Velo Orange Polyvalent – Morgan Taylor

Lilac Dreams and the Velo Orange Polyvalent
Photos and words by Morgan Taylor

Looks can be deceiving. The Velo Orange Polyvalent looks like a classic randonneuring bike, particularly when dressed in an all-silver build kit. But, after many miles and various tire and bag changes, a different story emerged for me. While its handling characteristics are markedly different, the Polyvalent is a peer – and interesting alternative – to the popular all-steel drop bar adventure bikes out there like the Soma Wolverine, Surly Straggler, Kona Rove, and so on.

Now in its fourth iteration, the Polyvalent for the first time gets disc brakes, and that’s exactly what prompted me to reach out to Velo Orange about doing a review. Over the past few years I’ve been exploring how the widely varying combinations of steel frames and wide tires manifest in ride quality. Yes, I’m still on the hunt for the elusive smooth-riding production disc brake bike. Could the Polyvalent Mk4 be the one?

Right on Trend

The Polyvalent – or PolyV, as I’ve come to call it – is a longstanding model in Velo Orange’s lineup of steel frames. The PolyV has always been inspired by classic French randonneuring bikes, with high volume 650B wheels, a 1” head tube and threaded headset, beautifully curved fork blades, and accommodations for fenders, racks, and anything else you can imagine attaching.

Five years have now passed since the last generation of rim brake Polyvalent was released, and in that time, the 650B tire market has exploded. No longer a retro-grouchy exception, you can have your choice of anything from fast and light slicks to durable trail-ready mountain bike knobbies to tailor your 650B ride experience. With disc brakes and more tire clearance than its predecessors – think 50mm+ with fenders – the Polyvalent Mk4 is modernized and right on trend.

That Paint!

The PolyV Mk4 comes in two paint colours: metallic emerald green, and the way rad gloss lilac you see here. Given a choice between the two, I couldn’t say no to the potentially polarizing pseudo-purple.

The polarized reaction I was anticipating turned out to be but a ripple. The lilac Polyvalent is one of the most eye-catching bikes I’ve ridden. It’s a simple paint colour and a classic silhouette, far from gaudy yet difficult to look away from.

This emotional response is elicited from riders and non-riders alike. The vast majority of people who see the colour love it, and I think it’s cool that it stands out among the many wild paint jobs production bikes are getting these days.

Numbers and Handling

Before I dive into numbers, I’ll simply say that the Polyvalent’s steering geometry is what sets it apart from the other bikes in the “drop bar adventure” category. If you’re considering this bike among options like a Wolverine, Straggler, Midnight Special, or Rove, it’s the steering geometry that truly differs.

So, how does the Polyvalent handle? With a relatively steep head angle – 73º on all sizes – and a 60mm fork offset, the Polyvalent is indeed a low trail bike like those regarded so highly by the folks at Bicycle Quarterly.

Two things about this. First, having a static head tube angle across all sizes is rare, and this means the PolyV’s unique handling is preserved even for smaller riders, who usually get a slacker head angle on production bikes. Second, the 60mm offset pushes the wheel forward and reduces toe overlap, but comes a bit short of the BQ-standard 65mm offset.

Still, 60mm is a LOT of fork offset. Most big tire drop bar bikes, including touring bikes, have 45-50mm of offset. What does this mean? Well, even with a heavy front load, the PolyV’s steering remains light and resists flopping. That cannot be said for many bikes in the market, period. Front loading is so hot right now, and this bike is well suited to it.

With wide tires run at relatively low pressure, and a mild load up front, the steering feels very neutral. A 65mm offset fork can be difficult to ride in a straight line at first, but the PolyV’s 60mm offset feels like a nice compromise. This bike’s handling is unique, but not so much so that it’s unrideable.

Frame Sizing

With a level top tube, threaded headset, and quill stem, the Polyvalent doesn’t quite fit like a modern bike. Frame reach is relatively short which, in the classic tradition, encourages riding longer reach bars instead. Most people my size would happily ride the 57. I chose to size up to VO’s 60cm, mostly because I wanted to run a short reach bar on the bike, and didn’t want to run a huge stem.

Interestingly, across the size range, Polyvalents have a 72º seat tube angle. This is quite slack, and very well suited to things like Brooks saddles and swept bars a la Rivendell. For me, it’s meant I’ve finally found a bike where I don’t need to run a high offset seat post. VO shipped it with their 30mm offset post, and I can barely get my Cambium far enough forward. Wow!

Holes, Everywhere

The PolyV is riddled with holes. This is the first clue that this bike isn’t just a neo-rando bike, but a capable everything bike.

The fork has no fewer than 20 holes you can thread an M5 bolt into: it’s got triple cage mounts that go right through the fork blades, rando rack mounts, and two spots at the dropout. Under the fork crown, there are not one, but two holes for direct fender mounting, negating the need for a daruma.

The frame is similarly holey: a triple cage mount on top of the down tube, regular bottle cage mounts on the seat tube and under the down tube, two barrel eyelets on each dropout, and two at the seat tube.

The fender mounts are equidistant from the tire at both the seat stay and chain stay, though you’ll be using some kind of spacers to bring your fender lines back into line if you use smaller tires. And, if you are so inclined, it’s even got a kickstand plate.

This abundance of eyelets may seem overkill – yet somehow, the PolyV pulls it off. You’ll never use them all at once, but you’ll never be short a place to mount whatever you like.

Let’s Talk About That Fork

Straight up, the Polyvalent’s front end rides smoother than any disc bike I’ve ridden. Velo Orange doused it in special sauce. That elusive smooth ride quality? Well, this fork’s got it. Not quite to the level of a rim brake fork with thin-wall tubing, but better than I’ve felt on any production disc bike.

As with any well-tuned system, I can’t point simply to one component of the front end to say definitively what makes the difference, but I can list those components. 60mm fork offset, French curved fork blades, 1” steerer tube, quill stem. It’s refreshing to have a front end ride this smooth, and the fork looks really good too.

On the flip side, a low trail bike’s decreased stability can lead to shimmy when you take your hands off the bars. I feel like Velo Orange has mitigated this somewhat with the 60mm offset – 5mm less than a classic rando bike – and shimmy is very rare on this bike. But, I did experience some occasional shudder under hard braking.

However, I didn’t experience much of that shudder: the bike was set up with standard brake housing and, combined with the OEM TRP pads, the brakes were anemic. Exactly the kind of setup that gets rim brake doubters and hydraulic brake touters all razzed up about how crappy cable disc brakes are. I highly recommend putting compressionless housing on any cable disc setup and the widely available Jagwire stuff is just fine.

Frame Ride

As a contrast to the front end’s surprising suppleness, the rear end of the Polyvalent is relatively stiff riding. It’s not stiff in comparison to other bikes in the same category like Surly or Soma – more like it’s on par with those bikes – but when the front end rides soft you do notice the rear end being more “normal” for a production bike.

It’s a bit of a curious combination.

So it handles like a rando bike, and the fork is quite supple, but in the end I can’t classify it among those bikes. The ride is somewhat discordant in this sense. Going back to my comment about this bike’s front end suppleness being a combination of factors, the whole bike is also a system in this sense.

I’ve ridden numerous modern bikes where a stiff carbon fork creates a discordance in the opposite direction, where the fork is stiffer than the frame. Given the choice, I’ll take a smooth riding fork (with a hundred eyelets, yay!) over a harsh-riding front end, particularly if going off-road.

As always, numbers don’t tell the whole story. A bike is an integrated system, a concoction of tubes and components that create something greater than the sum of its parts. The bikes most heralded by classic rando afficionados have a ride quality that is truly supple, not just in tires, but throughout the spec list.

But, one number that I always have to consider is the chainstay length, and here it’s 435mm. In comparison, the Crust Romanceur is a whopping 450mm out back. The PolyV’s relatively short rear end makes for a more zippy handling feel that I tend to seek out. The frame may not be as smooth as one built with lighter tubing (my search continues…), but it’s still a fun ride.

VO Build Kit

Velo Orange’s bikes are only sold as framesets, so I had some latitude with spec choices. Since VO makes a whole pile of parts and accessories, it was a natural choice to spec what I could from their catalog, with as much silver as possible, and accentuate that with a silver Campy group.

Pedals, cranks, wheelset, headset, bar, stem, seat post, rando rack, fenders, bell, and bottle cages. The fact that VO continues to produce these parts, often in both silver and black, is a boon to the custom bike building community. In a world where shades of off-grey are all around us, shiny silver stands out.

Here are a few of those stand-outs:

Grand Cru 50.4 cranks. This square taper crank is an affordable alternative to the Sugino and Rene Herse options in the silver, narrow Q-factor, super compact sphere. The 46/30 chainrings shift decently and run quiet with the Campy chain. The chainring system is cool looking, and should be adaptable to other size combinations, though the 46/30 is all that’s available right now. That said, I really like a 46/30 combo, and I wrote about that here.

VO 650B Wavy fenders. These are probably the most aesthetically polarizing part on the bike… people either like them, or they don’t. Quality and stiffness is on par with other VO fenders, which is middle of the road. On my personal bikes I definitely prefer Honjo fenders for their increased stiffness and lighter weight, but they are very time consuming to install. For most people the ease of initial installation makes VO a good choice, and I’ll always recommend metal fenders over plastic.

VO Diagonale wheelset. I have to admit this wheelset was a bit of a disappointment. Narrow rims, not tubeless ready, loose tire fit, and overall quite heavy at more than 2000 grams for the set. I didn’t have any problems with the hubs, and the freehub does have a nice metallic sound to it, but overall I was wishing for wider, tubeless-ready rims – of which there are only a few options in silver. This bike’s begging for a dynamo lighting system, anyway.

VO Nouveau Randonneur bar. This recently released bar from VO is a 31.8, flat-topped, short reach, shallow drop bar with a mild flare in the drops. If you want a silver flared bar with a modern shape, this might be your only option. With the tops of the bar flat as I’ve got them set up in the photos here, the drop doesn’t come parallel to the ground. I’d likely rotate the bar forward a bit and keep the hoods where they are to make the drops more usable.

Any other questions about components, drop into the comments, I’m happy to answer.

Unique and Capable

The Polyvalent has a unique geometry and ride quality that sets it apart from most other steel bikes. As such, it presents an interesting alternative to many of the bikes that people build from the frame up as adventure, dirt road, any road bikes. None of these bikes are particularly fast, but they’re zippy enough to be fun. With the PolyV you get the classic look, loads of tire clearance, and the adaptable features and integration.

This bike toes the line between classic rando aesthetic, a fully capable touring bike, and a perfect getaround bike. In hindsight, I wish I’d asked for the bike to be spec’d with down tube shifters, so I could try out a flat bar or a swept bar. I think the fit geometry would really suit that kind of build!

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