The Volae Team
“Hostel Shoppe’s Ticket to Fly”
The US recumbent market is now “suffering” from a very severe case of High Racer Fever. I first thought that this malady originated in the mid to late 90’s and was quite ready to establish its etiology by pointing an accusing finger at the noteworthy Vision Saber models, Rich Pinto’s legendary Aerocycles or George Reynold’s faster than sin “contraptions”. Unsatisfied with my initial impulse, I then learned that the whole thing may have actually started in Europe but the high racer bug was pretty much ignored by the US market as it silently incubated and mutated into an incurable fever-causing agent. Nevertheless, the introduction of the extremely popular Bacchetta Bikes in 2001, the sudden 2003 appearance of the Volae line of High Racers and yes, the future release of the RANS Force 5 threaten to morph this malady into an illness of pandemic proportions. The truth be told, I’m convinced that High Racer Fever is as contagious as the Ebola Virus.
Rolf Garthus, the owner and founder of Hostel Shoppe, an immensely reputable and popular `bent retailer, “admits” to being an early “victim” of High Racer Fever: “The concept of a dual 650c wheel recumbent has appealed to me since ATP (Vision) introduced the Saber. I have maintained for the last ten years that larger wheels roll better than smaller wheels and have been a fan of the open cockpit design ever since I sold my first King Cycle back in the early 1990’s.”
Getting involved with the manufacturing side of the recumbent business was quite possibly the last thing in Rolf’s mind when he first opened the doors of his Stevens Point, Wisconsin bike & ski shop back in February of 1974. But all of this changed a few years ago as they started to provide highly customized recumbent bikes to their customers. According to Rolf, “We have been moving in the direction of producing our own bikes for the past five years. We started by purchasing framesets from ATP, RANS, HP Velotechnik and Greenspeed and building them up here at the Hostel Shoppe. It was a natural progression to take the next step of designing our own bike. Joel Smith and Steve Nash, from ATP, were instrumental in helping us develop our design.”
The first Volae prototypes were ready by February 2003 and the very first Vision-built production models rolled out in June of 2003. Rolf then purchased the tooling and drawings from Vision in the fall of 2003 and contracted Waterford Cycles to weld and paint the new Volae frames.
Ashley Trop, a member of our local `bent club, ordered a Volae Team in the middle of December 2003 and asked Rolf to send it to me for a “test drive” and a couple of weeks later, their top-of-the-line racer arrived at my front door.
Go ahead, make me
If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you may have noticed that I view most tools as diabolical devices that were invented with the sole purpose of making me feel stupid. The easiest way to give me a good first impression about a bike is to simply make me feel smart by NOT ASKING ME TO PUT THE DARN THING TOGETHER! The folks at Volae made me feel like a genius! Upon receipt, I found that the Volae Team was not only impeccably packaged; it was also fully assembled. All I had to do was unpack the bike, pop the front wheel in, rotate the stem forward and the handlebars upward, tighten the stem & handlebar bolts, adjust the seat and attach a couple of eggbeater pedals. It felt so good to confirm that after many, many years of occupational therapy… I mean… practice… I’m finally able to install a set of pedals and complete “complex” tasks like the handlebar or seat angle adjustments without destroying a bike in the process. I could have been out the door riding in less than 10 minutes from the time I unpacked the Volae Team but I stopped to take pictures and take some notes as I admired the fine way the bike had been shipped. I then became aware of a couple more unexpected but pleasant surprises: There was no need to adjust the tension of the brake and/or gear cables. The bike had already been tuned up and was ready to go!!! Receiving a fully assembled Volae was positively an ego booster and learning that this is just the way they normally ship their bikes was like a fresh of clean air.
DARE TO COMPARE
If I had $10 for every time I had to tell people that I was actually riding a Volae and not a Strada or a Corsa, I’d have enough money in the bank to actually afford the almost $3000 Volae Team. Okay, the preceding statement stretches the truth a little but you just can’t deny that the Volae and Bacchetta high racers share a striking similarity. They both make use of a monotube frame, both have high-performance big wheels and both place the rider in a very aerodynamic position with their open cockpit design, high cranks and laid back M5 seats. Moreover, they are both high performance bikes aimed to capture the imagination of genuine and “wannabe” athletes. Similar, of course does not mean “identical”. The similar appearance of these bikes does suggest that the now ubiquitous high racers from Bacchetta must have had an influence in the Volae design and Rolf Garthus, the force behind the Volae big wheels, will readily admit to that. Rolf is also quick to point out that his design was also influenced by a number of other excellent bikes like the Vision Saber. But… do I dare compare? Comparing these bikes (and any other recumbent bike, for that matter) may be akin to diving head first into a bottomless pit of quicksand with a massive ReBike frame wrapped around my neck. But, so many of our readers did ask me to take the dive and… since I happen to own a highly customized Corsa, it would be almost impossible to avoid making a comparison. So I’ll do my best to include a few comparative statements in this article but PLEASE, don’t expect me to compare these bikes in every detail.
Unquestionably, the Volae team is a highly refined product that boasts an elegant paint job, great looking welds and obvious attention to detail. The bike is available in a number of colors including Oxblood, Oxblood and Oxblood but this shade of red ought to satisfy the needs of bloodthirsty racers. Our test bike was built and painted by Vision but we think that the Waterford built/painted Volae Recumbents will turn out to be just as good or maybe even a bit better.
The bike’s frame uses a round 2” OD x .035 wall CroMoly tube which appears to be pretty darn stiff, especially around its relatively short boom area or the spot where its bottom bracket “lives”. I did not notice any frame flex in the bottom bracket area – not even during an “all-out” effort – and this is, of course, a good thing in my book. However, I should note that I don’t have bionic legs and thus, a stronger rider may well disagree with this observation. Nevertheless, I think the Volae Team’s bottom bracket stiffness is more than adequate for efficient energy transfer. On the other hand, vertical frame flex is visually noticeable near or at the chain stays but only when getting on and off the bike. I’ve also noticed some frame flex when I sit on a Bacchetta Aero but the Aero’s frame flex seems to be more uniformly distributed along the entire body of its frame and not just focused in the vicinity of the chain stays. The Bacchetta Strada or Corsa frame is, as many of you know, tear shaped and much stiffer than either the Aero or the Team by comparison. On the issue of vertical flex, I would like to point out that some vertical flex is not thought to have a detrimental impact on performance and, I should mention that it did not seem to be detrimental to the speed performance of the Volae Team but did contribute to a very soft ride, or much softer than that of the Strada or Corsa. The Team’s frame appeared to be quite happy to support my 185-pound body and that of some of my 210-pound test pilots. One of my test pilots was considerably heavier (approx 240 pounds) and the bike did show considerable flex under his “robust” body. Because of that, I would think that a very heavy rider is NOT a good candidate for this bike. The theorized advantages and disadvantages of teardrop frames, round frames and trussed frames are energetically debated in various Internet forums and sometimes, questions or negative comments about the durability or reliability of round monotube frames pop up. Though I’m inclined to think the jury is still out on the subject of monotube frame durability, I thought you might be interested in learning what the Team’s designer thinks about this issue: “The strength of the joint between the chain stays and the main tube is related to the distance between the front of the joint and the back of the joint. Most, although not all, of the forces are working the front of the weld against the back of the weld. On a Volae this distance is around 1.5 “ (significantly greater than most) and the chain stay is also welded to the rear plate of the frame. This is the same joint that Vision has used for over eleven years and Joel informed me today that they (Vision) have never had a failure of this joint. Even in long wheelbase bikes and tandems where the forces are much greater than a short wheelbase bike. We are very confident of this part of our frame for two reasons. Joel Smith has impeccable credentials when it comes to designing this type of joint and this joint has been thoroughly field tested for eleven years.”
During our test, we learned that the X Seam alone couldn’t determine our optimal frame size. As an example, my X Seam is almost identical to that of Ahsley Trop, the bike’s de facto owner but we have different arm lengths. While I had no problem reaching the handlebars and felt the small frame was perfect for me, Ashley could only reach the handlebars in a relatively upright position. A shorter stem helped a little but we concluded that he would be better served with a larger frame. Because of this a sizing chart that takes into consideration the riders X-Seam, the seat to shoulder height and the arm length is being developed.
The handlebar design is also noteworthy. Our test bike came with the narrow handlebars, which provided me with about 18 inches of “leg room”, but wider handlebars are available. These handlebars feature a couple of posts that serve as perfect mounts for the B&M Cyclestar Mirrors. The handlebars offer good ergonomics and in my case, good shin clearance. They are easy to adjust but this assumes that you have the right stem/frame size combination. Bacchetta bikes, on the other hand make the adjustment a bit easier or more versatile with the use of the excellent Glide-Flex Stem but this approach does have a weight penalty.
The Volae Team features a very light but strong carbon fiber M5 seat. Most folks in the “know” will agree that the use of a hard shell seat, like the M5, greatly enhances the efficiency and the speed performance of just about any recumbent bike as it helps you transmit more of your pedaling power to the rear wheels, where it counts. Unfortunately, the M5 seat does not seem to suit everyone. Though I am a devoted admirer of hard shell seats in general, and love the M5 seat in particular, I’ve run into a surprisingly high number of experienced bent riders who simply hate this seat. But the good news here is that Volae covers all their M5 seats with a very comfortable dual density foam pad. (One thick layer of open cell foam glued to a thin layer of closed cell foam)
Rolf invented the bike’s seat mount (slider) and seat stays but credits Joel Smith and Steve Nash, from Vision with helping him to “fine tune” his design. The slider can be firmly attached to the bike’s frame after you determine your optimal pedal to seat distance but provides an independent seat attachment point while the seat stays employ a couple of built in pressure collars to memorize” your chosen angle. This design lets you remove the seat for transport without your having to readjust the seat to pedal distance or your preferred seat angle. The initial adjustment of the seat slider may not be as fast as that of other seat mounts on other recumbent cycles, but the ability to program your ideal seat position is really convenient. Once you find your sweet spot, the bike slider and seat stays remember it!
The Volae Team’s drive train utilizes an SRAM PC 59 chain, a 53/42/30 FSA Carbon Pro triple chainring and a 9-speed SRAM rear cassette. Gear shifting is accomplished with SRAM grip shifters, a Dura Ace triple front derailleur and an SRAM X.0 rear derailleur. All of these drive train parts are unquestionably reliable and performed as expected. Shifting from one gear to another was, uneventful, smooth and predictable. The chain line is a pretty straight shot from front to back with only a slight drive side deflection. A flat chain trajectory is believed to be a plus in efficient energy transfer. Yet, the folks at Volae went a bit further and attempted to reduce chain friction by keeping the drive side of the chain from rubbing against the sides of the idler. To do this, they selected a slotted idler from Greenspeed. A close look at this idler reveals a row of tapered or triangular “teeth” in the middle. The teeth catch the chain and keep it centered. The return side of the chain is managed with a small hard plastic idler in the much the same way as that of the Vision Saber models. The down side of this configuration is that it results in more chain noise than I like to live with. The chain drive noise is more noticeable in mid to lower gears and can be reduced a little by making sure the chain is saturated in White Lightning or by using Phil Wood Tenacious Oil on the various moving parts but I was never quite happy with the results. Interestingly, 50% of my test pilots neither noticed nor complained about the idler or chain drive noise suggesting that some bent heads are just pickier than others. Nevertheless, Rolf is looking into this issue and I think may come up with a quieter idler alternative.
The “standard” Volae Team comes replete with extremely nice component parts. I specially liked the feel of the Dura Ace brakes, the cool looking AlphaQ Sub3 Carbon forks, and its Velocity Spartacus wheels. It is important to point out that the component parts of our test model are not exactly the same as those that you might see in the Volae web site. You might think of the web site listed components as a “model template” because these components are subject to change AND they do allow you to customize your Volae. For example, you can change out cassettes, tires, forks, and shifters and would only be asked to pay the difference in component price. According to Rolf: “If someone wants an 11-23t cassette instead of a 12-27t cassette and the quality level is the same, there would be no extra charge”
For the sake of our more fastidious readers, I went ahead and I checked the bikes weight with and without pedals. According to our scale, it was about a bit over 25 pounds w/ out pedals and about 25 and a half pounds with egg -beater pedals. This is, of course, more than a pound heavier than claimed but our test model was a bit different. Our test bike did not come with Continental Grand Prix Supersonic tires. Also, the new dual density seat foam of our test bike (now available on all Volae bikes) is a bit heavier than the open cell foam that Volae was previously using and there is always a good chance that our scales may not be perfectly calibrated.
While I would not categorize the Volae Team or any other High Racer as “user friendly” – that “honor” belongs to the Compact Long Wheel Base Bikes – and I think that neophytes may find these bikes to be a bit intimidating - the Volae Team is actually pretty easy to learn after a relatively short learning curve. More experienced riders would probably agree that the Team’s handling is both excellent and predictable with great cornering and only slight pedal steer. The bike feels stable and sure-footed at slow and fast speeds. Though I found it to be pretty well mannered in tight and curvy bike paths, the bike’s forte is the open road. In case you’re wondering, the same observations apply to my Bacchetta Corsa.
This IS a fast bike. No question about it! But is it FASTER than my Bacchetta? To tell you the truth, a controlled experiment would be necessary to establish which bike is faster and I just don’t have the resources to conduct such a study. Thus, as far as speed goes, I think that the Volae’s performance is equivalent to that of my Bacchetta Corsa and for what this may be worth, all of my test pilots agreed with this observation. To further illustrate the speed performance of this bike, I’d like to share with you the following little stories:
· One of my test pilots normally cruises on a RANS V-REX at 13-14 MPH. When he rode the Volae, he noticed that he was doing 17-18 MPH with the same perceived effort.
· On a recent 70 mile ride, a few of us were shocked to see that the Volae's owner (Ashley Trop) was able to maintain speeds that ranged in the 19-21 MPH range in spite of the fact that his bent muscles were not yet conditioned (he had only been riding for two weeks) and prior to this ride, his longest ride was only about 40 miles.
TO MAIL ORDER OR NOT TO MAIL ORDER…
Most of us feel that we need to test ride a bike before you mail order one or need the help and support of a local bike shop. The folks at Volae seem to recognize this and try to make it easier with the following guarantee:
So if you buy a $2000 bike, find that you don’t like it and return with no damage within two weeks, your risk is only about $100.
The only thing I can add is that I found that dealing with Rolf was a pleasure and trust that Hostel Shoppe is not going to vanish overnight. The fact that they’ve been in business for 30 years has got to mean that they’re doing something right. Still, the decision to mail order a bike is a tough one but it is one that only you can make.
The Volae Team deserves your consideration. It is well made, has great component parts or can be customized to your liking, and offers excellent handling, speed performance and comfort.
Highs: Excellent speed performance, comfort, awesome component parts & good support
Lows: Noisy drive train, not suitable for extremely heavy riders, a bit on the expensive side
More Info: http://www.volaerecumbents.com/