When it comes to choosing a new bike, what value do you put on racing pedigree? Does it matter if it has been ridden to victory on Alped’Huez or the Champs-Elysées? Did Philippe Gilbert’s attack on the Cauberg inspire you to get out of the house and ride? Did it make you want to ride a BMC? For many, the answer to these questions is “Yes!” And that’s cool. We might only dream of leading the charge up the Stelvio, but we like to think our bike choice says a little something about who we are. It’s more than a collection of parts. You’re joining an association, buying small tokens of the builder’s history, the brand’s palmares… it's racing culture.
These little inspirations are important to us. And they’re valuable commodities for bike makers. But what if a bike company had none of the above, nor any real interest in them? What if rider satisfaction was the only metric of design success? Can a performance bicycle brand be successful without a marketing plan built around a paid stamp of approval from the UCI?
Van Nicholas is dedicated to producing titanium bicycles. You can’t scroll through a list of race wins on this Dutch brand’s site because those wins don’t exist. Van Nicholas wasn’t making bikes in 1952 or even in 1992. It saw a gap in the market where it believed titanium bicycles could compete, and went for it. Van Nicholas is so confident you’ll appreciate titanium’s unique set of characteristics that it builds frames with nothing else. It has 26 different models.
One frame material. When carbon-fibre frame production was still in its infancy, titanium was the most desirable frame material available. Aside from its lovely smooth ride, titanium is lighter than steel, stronger than aluminium, with more corrosion resistance than both. Titanium frames’ only natural enemies were high production costs and the progression of industry standards, with carbon’s significant weight savings later added to the list.
The cost factor was dealt with by a move to foreign production, with quality standards not far from the old masters. The movement of industry standards – or more apropos: ‘technical fashion’ – has been a trickier problem. Your new Ti bike will easily last for 30 years, but what happens when it starts looking dated after five? An external one-inch headset looked fine in the late-1990s, then became an anachronism a few years later. There will always be a market for retro chic, but I see titanium as a rather high-tech material – not a nod to the past.
Van Nicholas apparently sees it the same way, and the Astraeus is its answer to technical fashion. It’s the first titanium bike I’ve seen which looks like it came from this decade. Creating the complexity of shapes seen in the Astraeus used to require working with titanium sheets rather than tubing. Sheets were folded into shape, with welded seams holding the structure together. Bikes like the Litespeed Ultimate, for example, looked amazing and enjoyed loads of racing success, but my impression was that ride quality suffered a bit with sheet tubing – some of that indefinable titanium ‘hum’ was lost.Van Nicholas uses hydroforming to create the transitioning tube profiles seen in the Astraeus. Hydroforming (manipulating tube shapes with pressurised fluid) has helped aluminium keep pace with shape trends that emerged with carbon-fibre production, allowing reinforcement of high-stress areas with weight removal in areas of lower stress.
Applying this technology to titanium is what sets the Astraeus apart. Titanium delivers a uniquely absorbent ride quality without feeling detached…hydroforming keeps it current and hasn’t killed off what makes this frame material so revered.
As good as the bike looks here, next year’s model sees another wave of future-proofing: tapered head tube and fork, press-fit bottom bracket and internal cable routing. What thankfully won’t be changing is the unpainted polish that draws attention to the frame’s beautiful welding. It might not have the bead-by-bead perfection of a Baum or a Moots, but it still shows off some excellent craftsmanship. The frame geometry of the Astraeus follows the quest for modernity. The head tube is quite tall relative to the top tube length, and the resulting upright position makes the bike’s intended purpose obvious: long, comfortable days in the saddle. I took the bike on a few rides over our usual 75km loop, on terrain with lots of sharp climbs and tight sweeping descents. There’s plenty of stiffness in the rear triangle for launching attacks, but the bike’s real strength is chewing up miles.
The bike I rode until recently was also titanium; a 2007 Litespeed. It easily handled everything I could throw at it, but five years is a long time in the bike world. Direct comparison with the Astraeus was made easier by its spec of the same handlebar, stem and bar tape as my bike. The Van Nicholas responded more quickly to accelerations. It felt lighter and smoother over rougher sections of road.
And, of course, it was lighter on the scales. The details and revisions I’d have liked for the Litespeed can all be seen in the Van Nicholas. All the good stuff remains and everything else is better.It would be remiss not to mention the wheels as the Lightweight set dramatically affects every aspect of this bike’s ride. Attacking accelerations, sustained seated climbing and holding speed on the flats all seem to happen with far less effort than one should reasonably expect.
At times I felt the wheels were almost too light – not in terms of durability, but in how they behaved when combined with the short stem and tall head tube. It creates a very light front end. It’s great for popping wheelies, but I would prefer a bit more weight over the front wheel to stabilise the steering on the descents. Short stem, tall head tube and crazy light front wheel: perhaps two out of three from this list would be better. (The Astraeus had to be returned before I was able to try a longer stem, but that would be the obvious solution.) I certainly wouldn’t be in a hurry to change the wheels! What I was in a hurry to change was the Van Nicholas saddle, but it was far too difficult to remove from the brand’s own seatpost. The seat is well constructed with genuine leather and titanium rails (what else?) and it did not suit my backside. The absolutely gorgeous titanium seatpost is one of my favourite features of the bike, but wrestling a saddle through the clamp isn’t fun.
The new SRAM Red group is a joy to ride. I’m shocked how much more I enjoy riding this group than its predecessor. Front shifting is clean and quick in both directions, and rear shifting is precise and forceful. The shifters feel better in hand, the entire drivetrain in much quieter, and the brakes have a light feel with loads of power. Oh, and it’s the lightest complete group available.