Velo Orange Piolet Review: A Modern Classic.

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Classic. From the segmented fork, to the clean lines, to the solid cerulean paint with brushed metal headbadge, Velo Orange’s Piolet harkens back to a time in mountain biking that predates suspension and indexed shifting. Its looks, however, are where the similarities end: unlike the early mountain bikes that heralded the off road boom of the 80s, the Piolet has disc brakes, 29” wheels (with 27.5+ compatibility), huge tire clearances, and more braze ons than you can count. I guess that would make the Piolet a “modern classic”.

By Lee Vilinsky

Aesthetics aside, this is one serious touring bike – and a touring bike it most certainly is. Make no mistake: the Piolet is not your current crop of slacked-out trail machines with super-short chainstays and lightweight tubing. This thing is a beast. At 460mm, the chainstays seem to go on for days. The angles are steep, at least compared to most modern mountain bikes. And the bottom bracket gets low – 70mm drop, though not as low as the similarly-minded Surly ECR. Having ridden it in many conditions, I can say that all of these aspects speak volumes to the bike’s real-world handling, as I found during 6 months of mountain biking, commuting, and touring on it.

Velo Orange Piolet Review

  • Velo Orange Piolet Review
  • Velo Orange Piolet Review

For mountain biking, Edmonton, Canada, is somewhat unique in that an extensive network of mountain bike trails is accessible right from the city center, via its huge river valley. Conditions are usually dry in the summer and slippery in the winter. I’ve ridden the same stretches of trail numerous times and on numerous bikes, such as a Kona Unit, Marin Nail Trail, and the Velo Orange Piolet. What I’ve found is that the Piolet is really great for flowy, non-technical single track. With a 2.4” Maxxis Ardent in the rear and a 3.0” Chronicle in the front, these massive wheels were able to eat up roots and rocks, despite the lack of suspension. The big 29+ tire in the front also helps navigate some deeper snow, though it’s certainly no fat bike.

Velo Orange Piolet Review

Handling wise, I was able to lift the front end over obstacles fairly easily. The frame responded well to my hard pedalling efforts, though the long chainstays didn’t exactly lend any “nippiness” to the bike’s handling. It was only in the more technical areas of the trail that left something to be desired, especially on technical descents. Specifically, the ultra-long wheelbase had me feeling like I was steering a barge and the steep head tube angle had me planting my feet on some descents that I’d otherwise be able to follow through on a proper mountain bike.

Velo Orange Piolet Review

  • Velo Orange Piolet Review
  • Velo Orange Piolet Review
  • Velo Orange Piolet Review
  • Velo Orange Piolet Review
  • Velo Orange Piolet Review

Escaping part of the brutal Edmonton Winter, I took the Piolet down to Colombia for a month to tour some back roads. Having cycled the paved and moderately trafficked Pan-American highway last time, we were keen to discover routes less frequently travelled. Sticking mainly to the mountains in the provinces of Boyaca and Santander, we pedalled mainly through dry, sweltering heat on dusty roads and trails. It was in this state – loaded with gear while covering large daily distances on poor surfaces – that the bike truly shined.

This month of riding saw road conditions from fresh new pavement to seriously degraded, well, river beds. The Piolet was a warrior through all of it. Velo Orange suggests that you can set up the bike with a traditional touring setup (i.e. racks and panniers) or with a bikepacking setup. I went with the latter and I’m glad I did, if only for the assurance that my gear wasn’t rattling and moving about on the really rough stuff. The Salsa Anything Cages worked great and the VO-branded Revelate Designs frame bag – massive, due to the bike’s non-suspension corrected geometry – swallowed an incredible amount of gear.

Velo Orange Piolet Review

  • Velo Orange Piolet Review
  • Velo Orange Piolet Review
  • Velo Orange Piolet Review

This said, it’s also nice to know that the burly steel frame can accommodate racks and fenders front and rear (all at the same time) if I ever choose to carry the kitchen sink. Although I only had about 20 lbs. of gear with me, I suspect the Piolet would take on another 50 without a hiccup. I was particularly impressed with how well the fork performed. I didn’t perceive any pulsing or juddering under hard braking, even during steep descents 20 kilometers long. With my 20 lb. load, the frame also felt very solid during rough descents. This means that the frameset may be overbuilt for the most die-hard minimalist, but I personally like having options and wouldn’t want to limit myself from throwing on more gear if my tour called for it.

Velo Orange Piolet Review

One of the hallmarks of most Velo Orange frames is their “mid-trail” geometry. Without getting too far into the nuances of steering mechanics, trail is simply a function of head tube angle, fork offset, and wheel diameter. Steeper angles and greater fork offset yield lower trail, while slacker angles and less fork offset yield high trail. Most touring bikes have high trail which gives the bike a sensation that it corners “on rails”, even with low rider panniers. Bikes that have low trail, such as a classic French randonneuse, are designed specifically such that handling is still nimble even with a front load. This makes sense for designers of conventional touring bikes made for sealed roads: it’s better to have the bike confidently hold a line with a full touring load than have nimble handling. But what about on degraded roads or single track, where you’re constantly having to readjust your line as you descend through the really rough stuff?

Velo Orange Piolet Review

  • Velo Orange Piolet Review
  • Velo Orange Piolet Review

The idea with the Piolet’s mid-trail geometry is that the bike should have neutral handling whether completely unloaded or with two panniers and a basket’s-worth of groceries up front. In practice, this is exactly what I’ve found: steering with a full front load was strangely familiar to when I had ridden it unloaded. Though not true “low trail”, I found the mid-trail geometry to be a significant benefit on rough roads. The quick handling allowed me to adjust my line and avoid irregularities that were too much for the 29” wheels to handle. On one particularly degraded section of road, I was able to climb and descend a series of rock gardens at a speed that I would not have dared dream of doing on my old Surly LHT. I was shocked at how easy it was to negotiate the terrain even with most of my gear at the front of my bike. The steering was still fairly light and maneuverable while still feeling solid and sure-footed.

Velo Orange does not sell complete bikes, so each build is essentially from the ground up. What I like about this frame is that all fittings are relatively standard. For example, quick release hubs may be dying out in the mountain bike world these days, but a 135mm rear hub and 100mm front hub are certainly way easier to find around the world than most new through-axle systems (and a good set of Shimano hubs – Deore or higher – should last for ages anyway).

Velo Orange Piolet Review

The same goes for 73mm threaded bottom bracket shells and 1 ⅛” headsets. Vertical drop outs are a nice choice for simplicity’s sake and the integrated steel derailleur hanger seems very robust and shouldn’t prove an issue. The frame is designed around 29 x 2.4” wheels (for sizes M, L, and XL, 26” for XS and S), though as I mentioned before, it can take 27.5 x 3.0” just as easily. If I were to build the bike over again, I may have gone with the 27.5+ format, though this would limit drivetrain choice to a 1x system or Surly’s offset OD cranks in order to avoid chain rub on the rear tire. As it was, I had too many good 3×9 drivetrain parts to not use, so the 29 x 2.4” in the rear had to suffice. For the record, the front does clear a 29 x 3.0” Maxxis Chronicle with at least five millimeters to spare. The rear is incredibly tight with the same tire and rubbed the chainstays in corners. I doubt any 29 x 2.8” tires are in the pipeline, but that would be about the maximum for rear clearance. 2.4” tires front and rear however leave plenty of room for lots of mud.

There really isn’t much I would change on the frame. Every one of the many braze ons are thoughtfully placed. I especially like the bolted fittings for cable routing under the downtube – no more fiddling with plastic brake line clamps or zip ties that can crack and break in dry climates. Even the fork crown and seatstay bridge have threaded holes facing the tire, making for cleaner and sturdier fender installation. I do have a few nitpicky suggestions, however. I would change the location of the front derailleur housing stop. I’d imagine the current setup where it ends vertically just behind the bottom bracket will prove a longevity issue for the cable and housing, especially in wet and muddy stuff. I would also change the location for the triple boss mounts on the fork. Currently, the cages sit perpendicular to the frame, meaning that they create a high profile. I would have liked to see the mounts offset 45 degrees akin to Surly and Salsa forks in order to create a lower profile and to potentially free up space to attach a second set of water bottles with hose clamps on the other side of each leg. Better yet, I’d love to have seen a second set of dedicated braze ons!

Pros

  • Thick paint and double butted steel are made to take abuse
  • Choice of 29” or 27.5”+ wheels give you options
  • Comfortable, all-day geometry
  • Braze ons, braze ons, braze ons!

Cons

  • Low stack height and drop bar accommodation makes sizing unconventional
  • Steel is quite hefty, a lightweight build would be fairly difficult
  • Not as agile on technical singletrack, though most buyers wouldn’t necessarily use it for this purpose
Velo Orange Piolet Review

The only other thing that irks me, and I have a feeling I’m not alone in this, is the low stack height. I would have gladly taken a taller head tube and more slope in the top tube to get rid of the giant stack of spacers under the stem. Velo Orange claims the Piolet is both drop bar and flat bar compatible. If you plan on using drop bars for this bike, you’ll likely have to use an ultra-short stem if you want a decent stack height (i.e. if you size up). The other option is to use a longer stem with a whole mess of spacers underneath. If using flat bars, you’ll have to use a relatively long stem in any case. Still, the price ($685 USD) is bang on and is exactly what I’d expect for this quality of frame. Similar frames such as the Surly ECR, Soma Juice, Specialized AWOL, and Genesis Longitude are right in the same ballpark.

Build kit

  • FRAME 4130 Double butted chromoly
  • FORK 4130 Double butted chromoly
  • HEADSET VP 1 ⅛” sealed cartridge
  • STEM Velo Orange Threadless +/-17 80mm
  • HANDLEBAR Soma Clarence 660mm
  • GRIPS Ergon GC-1 Biokork
  • BRAKES Avid BB7, 180mm rotors front and rear
  • SHIFTERS Shimano Saint 3×9
  • FRONT DERAILLEUR Shimano Deore 9 speed
  • REAR DERAILLEUR Shimano XTR 9 speed
  • CRANKS & CHAINRINGS Shimano Deore, Truativ Chainrings
  • CASSETTE Sram PG990
  • CHAIN KMC X9
  • FRONT HUB Deore XT 100mm
  • REAR HUB Deore XT 135mm
  • SPOKES DT Swiss Competition
  • RIMS Velocity Blunt 35
  • TIRES Maxxis Ardent 29×2.4”, Maxxis Chronicle 29×3.0”
  • SEATPOST Evo Silver, 25mm setback
  • SADDLE Brooks B17, Honey Brown
  • WATER BOTTLE MOUNTS 1 on seat tube, 1 underneath downtube, triple mount on top of downtube
  • RACK MOUNTS Multiple options for front & rear racks/fenders, triple fork cage mounts
  • Velo Orange Piolet Review
  • Velo Orange Piolet Review
Velo Orange Piolet Review

Wrap Up

Velo Orange’s Piolet is truly a modern classic: though 26” wheels and rim brakes still win for being the most widely available component choices, the benefits of larger wheels and discs are an overwhelming advantage. With more of a touring-oriented geometry, the Piolet is a fantastic interpretation of what a rough stuff touring bike should be. The frame handles bikepacking loads quite well and it should also take a classic 4-pannier, loaded-to-the-gills setup without issue. Even unloaded the frame handles great and feels agile, though its touring geometry means a bit more effort is required when navigating more technical singletrack. Velo Orange obviously did their homework in designing this classy machine which will certainly stand out from the rest of the herd. Given the opportunity to do another round-the-world journey by bike, there is no question that this is the one I would take.

  • Weight 29.8 lbs (13.5 kg)
  • Size Tested Large (XS, S, M, and XL also available)
  • Price (as tested) $685 USD frame and fork, ~$2,000 as built
  • Recommended uses Bikepacking, off-grid touring, round-the-world trips

Rider’s background

I first toured across the U.S. on a $200 bike in 2011. I loved it so much that I started riding road and track racing. My involvement in cycling grew and led to a year and a half tour from Canada to Patagonia, where I discovered more challenging, off-road routes. I now work full time as a bike mechanic in Edmonton and enjoy mountain biking in the Summer, fatbiking in the Winter, and dreaming of the next trip in between.

Height: 5’11”
Weight: 170 lbs.
Inseam: 34”

Disclosure

The frame and fork were purchased from Velo Orange at dealer cost.

You can follow Lee Vilinsky’s travels by bike via his Instagram.

  • Nathan Fenchak

    Great review! did you try to mount any sort of front rack to the bike?

    I owned a Piolet for a hot minute, and sold the frame partly because it seemed that the fork braze-ons were not properly spaced to accommodate a low rider rack. I tried both a Tubus Tara, and a Salsa Down Under rack, and they would not mount to the bike without doing some serious bending, way more than would be acceptable, or fabricating some sort of new hardware to space the dropout brazeon closer to the mid-blade brazeon by about a centimeter.
    The Specialized Pizza Rack was also not a good fit, because of the rake of the fork. You need to do some serious hardware bodging/extension at the fork crown to get the pizza rack onto the bike.

    The mid trail geometry of the Piolet is a big feature of the bike, and contributed to handling that I really enjoyed, but the execution of the other features of the fork seemed a bit off.

  • Evan Baird

    I don’t understand the fixation about headset spacers. If the the handles are in the right spot what difference does it make what you did to get them there? It’s not like you have to worry about a carbon steerer tube breaking off, so why the superstition about raising the handlebars to the approporiate height?

  • mikeetheviking

    Hey Lee, I followed your crazy guy blog while you were headed south (which i thoroughly enjoyed). Glad to see you are doing well. Excellent to see you popping up here!

  • Todd Shank

    I couldn’t agree with this review more. Last year I built up a Piolet and was a bit surprised with the amount of spacers needed to give myself more of an upright riding position for more of a comfortable touring position. I rode the Piolet(size L, I’m 5’11”) on single track and gravel over a couple of months and just didn’t like the short steer tube. The overall ride was comfortable, the stack height just wasn’t for me and I ended up selling the frame set.

  • Michael Viglianco

    It looks like it is designed for use with Anything style cages and a rando rack more than a front rack.

  • http://www.emptyfields.org/ kamaz

    one thing is aesthetic look, the other is that with longer headtube it would make even more space for framebag. It’s strange that they designed it like that.

  • Lee Vilinsky

    I think the main thing is the aesthetic. 99% of people who use this frame won’t use it for racing, so you don’t need the ability to get the bars low. And Velo Orange obviously put a lot of thought into aesthetics, which I think most of their customers do place on a high priority as well.

  • Lee Vilinsky

    Thanks Nathan! I did not actually try mounting a front rack. I sort of assumed that the middle cage mount on the fork was meant to be the correct spacing for a conventional low rider rack, though it sounds like that hasn’t worked. I know I’ve seen at least a few Piolet builds with Tubus Taras and others with Surly racks. It seems like a rack with more adjustability (Surly or Blackburn come to mind) might be easier to install.

  • Lee Vilinsky

    Thanks! Finally feeling inspired to write again, though no blog for the Colombia trip this time.

  • joshhh

    The Tubus Ergo is a more adjustable lowrider rack from the German brand. Just something to consider given the problems you’ve had.

  • Nathan Fenchak

    I think you’re probably right about the Surly and Blackburn racks. They come with a ton of hardware and I’m sure something would line up and work perfectly.

  • Nathan Fenchak

    Thanks. I was just going with racks that I already owned at the time. I’ve since sold my Piolet frame, so I can’t try the Ergo now.

  • Brian Sims

    I made a similar comment on a post from Soma about their Wolverine frame. Soma seemed to indicate that on production, more mass audience frames, the shorter headtube works for a wide range of users. Those who want their bars higher can always add spacers, but those that don’t can’t get their bars low enough if the headtube is too long.

    That said I prefer big headtube (and I cannot lie. Those other brothers can’t deny ;) ). Aesthetically and functionally from the perspective of a larger space for frame bag and/or bottles.

  • Lee Vilinsky

    Blue Lug did a build with a Tubus Tara and 650b wheels. Check out “akimasa_tani” on instagram.

  • hobonoa

    Nice review of a bike that looks really beautiful and classic. I wonder what brand and name of the small rear luggagerack You use under Your saddlebag?
    /Noa

  • tigerfire

    Recently rode a Piolet with 1×10 drive train and loved it! I need an all around bike for everything from commuting to centuries to light trail riding. I’m a big guy 6’1″ 240lb. Have thoughts on Piolet vs Salsa Fargo vs Surly LHT disc?

  • Lee Vilinsky

    I think all three bikes you mention could be used for all intended purposes. That said, the Surly Disc Trucker has the least tire clearance of the three. Surly states 700 x 45c without fenders, which is still a massive tire for road and even light trail use, but would limit you if you ever wanted to go with something wider like on the Fargo or Piolet. Additionally, both the Disc Trucker and Fargo are designed to be used with drop bars, while the Piolet is designed to accommodate either flats or drops.

    The other main thing to consider is that Velo Orange do not sell complete bikes, whereas the Disc Trucker and Fargo come complete or as framesets.

  • Lee Vilinsky

    It’s a Soma Lucas Mini Front Rack. It made a great, inexpensive platform for the Carradice!

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