Sunday, July 3, 2011

Serving Those Who Do Not Race

The term "Keeper of the Flame" is generally reserved for framebuilders who build lugged, brazed frames according to "old school" manufacturing techniques. But the frame is only one part of a bicycle. Your old Raleigh Pro will not look so classic if it is equipped with carbon bars and "Deep V" rims.

Enter Velo Orange (V.O.). Rambling through their website makes me feel like I am flipping through the pages of a French parts catalog from the 1950s. The parts are beautiful, shiny polished metal and rich leather. Yet they also look solid, ready to take on the rigours of riding in the real world.

V.O. was founded by Chris Kulczycki. He was kind enough to grant me an interview.

All photos are from the Velo Orange blog.

Velo Orange Founder, Chris Kulczycki

Q: Is there an overall theme to the Velo Orange product line? If so, please describe it.

A: Here is the little introduction I wrote when I first started VO. It's been on the landing page of our web site ever since. It's as good a description of our products and philosophy as I can write:

"Most cyclists don't race, yet they ride uncomfortable racing bikes and try to go too fast and so miss much of the world around them. Our emphasis is on a more relaxed and comfortable style of riding, and on refined bikes that are comfortable on a century ride, an inn-to-inn tour, or even on a ramble down your favorite dirt road.

"For many years some of the wonderful parts and accessories once produced by small firms in Europe for the cyclo-tourist and randonneur have been unavailable, or outrageously expensive. So I started Velo Orange to find and sell these remaining items, and to produce those that were no longer available."

V.O. Grand Cru Quill Stem

Q: Are you a cyclist? If so, what kind of riding do you do?

A: I'm a lifelong cyclist. My main interest is light touring, but I've done some racing, mountain biking, and loaded touring as well. My ideal ride is a leisurely tour lasting anywhere from one day to a couple of weeks winding through beautiful countryside. I love to stop and wander around little villages, take meals at local cafes, and spend the night at B&Bs or country inns. I'll stop at every farm stand, boatyard, vineyard, atelier... But the reality is that business and family obligations mean that most of my rides are an afternoon on the back roads of Maryland with, maybe, a stop for lunch.

Q: Please tell us a bit about the history of Velo Orange. What inspired you to start the business? What have you learned along the way?

A: After we'd started and sold a successful company, we started doing a lot more cycling, including some touring in the US and in Europe. I found that I wanted certain components that were getting hard to find. I guessed that others would want them too. The plan was to have a little part-time business importing and making a small selection of practical components. We got carried away and now, 5 years later, we have hundreds of our own products and sell to over 400 shops and custom builders in a dozen countries, as well as through our own e-store and through wholesale distributors.

V.O. Grand Cru 50.4bcd chainrings. Look Familiar?

Most of what I learned at VO is technical stuff about manufacturing, sourcing, shipping, etc. The really important stuff I learned at my first company, and it's just been reinforced at VO. There are three most important things I've learned about business. The first is to communicate with customers. We learn a tremendous amount from those who use our products and often make improvements and develop new products based on their suggestions. The second point is to hire the very best employees you can. Always try to hire people who are smarter and more talented than you are. Finally, I learned to continually improve products; never believe something is “good enough.”

Q: How much design work do you do "in house?" How much of what you sell is "off the shelf" product that you buy from various suppliers?

A: We do a tremendous amount design in-house. Examples include our racks, most of the handlebars, 50.4bcd cranks, retro cages, bike luggage, Grand Cru stems, our frames, and many more. There are some things that we can't design alone because they require more technical expertise than we have. The roller bearing headset, the Polyvalent crank, and the hubs are examples. In these cases we go to the factory and explain our concept and their engineers help with the design. Sometimes there is no need to develop a new design. We can take a product developed by a factory and simply specify the finish and cosmetic details we want, or we might ask them to upgrade the alloy or the hardware or the bearings.

Q: How would you like Velo Orange to evolve over the next five years?

A: VO will continue to introduce new components and accessories and refine existing offerings. One big change is that we're considering introducing a line of complete bikes. We may do this on our own or we may seek a partnership with a larger company.

Unlike most other companies we hope to use many of our own components. I'm a fan of a boat building company in Maine called Hinckley. What sets them apart, beyond impeccable workmanship, is that unlike most boat builders they don't just build the hull, deck and interior. They also make a lot of their own rigging, fittings and hardware that work and look better than off-the-shelf stuff. In the bike world the French constructeurs were superb custom bike builders who not only made frames, but often also made racks, stems, and brakes – even drive-train components that improved on what was made by the big companies. We hope to bring that sort of integration into production bikes.

V.O Raid Rim

Q: Are the products that Velo Orange sells meant to be practical, functional, durable items for "real world" bicycling, or are they intended more to make a fashion statement?

A: I don't know what to make of this question. Designing items as "fashion statements" is the exact opposite of what we do. Yet, unlikely as it seems to some, many people see our products as very fashionable because they are elegant and purposeful.

People have funny ideas about fashion. Consider the middle aged and overweight guy huffing along in logo covered spandex on a carbon race bike. The gearing is too high for him, the saddle too narrow, the bars too low, and the 20mm tires are rock hard. Now that is following fashion to the point of absurdity. And it's exactly what many bike shops still push customers into.

Now put the same guy on a rando frame with proper gearing, a comfortable leather saddle, bars at saddle level, and wide comfortable tires. He might now cover that 50-mile Saturday ride in perfect comfort and still get a good workout. Fortunately we're seeing a big shift in perception, a shift in fashion. More and more cyclists are learning that, unless you actually do race, the rando or light-touring bike is a far better choice.

Q: Please choose one item you stock, perhaps one that has not gotten much attention yet, and describe it to us. What makes it special? Why do you like it?

V.O. Grand Cru Hub

A: One of the things that makes VO different from most bike companies is that we develop more products than most companies five or ten times our size. There are so many new VO products that I think are special. The Grand Cru touring hubs which use four identical and large Japanese bearings, yet can be field stripped without tools, are the latest example. Or look at our new Grand Cru stems, or the double-eyelet Raid rims, or the Porteur rack, or our large range of metal fenders.

Q: Is there a "typical" Velo Orange customer? If so, please describe him/her to us?

A: I suppose the thing that most impresses me about the customers I meet at the shop and at bike shows is that they are usually very experienced cyclists who put a lot of thought into their bikes.

V.O. Polyvalent

Q: I am 6'6". I have a commute that is fourteen miles each way, with roughly 1300 feet of overall climbing. What is the perfect commuter bicycle for me?

A: I know that there are plenty of bike pundits out there who would happy to tell you exactly what you should ride and how you should set it up. I'm not one of them and it's not the sort of question I'm often asked. The people who come to VO have usually had a number of bikes and know what they are looking for. As for me, my VO pass hunter (basically a rando with canti-brakes) works very well as my commuter and as my “sportif” for fast day rides.

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: Most days it's just coffee, either an americano or a Kona drip, but occasionally a can of kippered herring and some sliced tomato.