Anybody ever heard of Van Nicholas bikes? Well, me neither, or at least that was what I initially thought when asked to do a test on one of their bikes. However, a bit later, when I was speaking to the founder and director of the company, Jan Willem Sintnicholaas, on the phone, discussing the specs for the test bike, suddenly something rang a bell in my head and it all came back to me.
I tested an Airborne Ti bike a few years back, and Jan Willem was the European importer of those titanium bikes. More recently, he has created his own brand, and used his own name as inspiration for it by dubbing it Van Nicholas.
After we decided on the specs, I went to check out the Van Nicholas website (vannicholas.com), and I was not disappointed. All of the manufacturer's models pop up in windows that enable users to configure their own dream bike from a huge range of equipment - and as you make the changes to your set-up, you are always given the actual price and weight. It almost goes without saying that these two factors are inextricably linked: the more weight you shave off, the heavier the impact will be on your wallet. This might concern some people, who could well end up asking themselves if it's really necessary to spend an extra 400 euros in order to shave off 21 grams from a bike... but you can do so if you want!
As with all of the test bikes, the Van Nicholas came in a big box and was wrapped up in a way that immediately revealed that the people who had done it definitely cared about bikes. Unwrapping the many layers of protective wrapping was hard work, but well worth the effort. With the bike finally stripped of packaging material and standing before me in all its beauty, I asked myself why it is not compulsory for manufacturers to build all of their bikes from titanium - no paint is required, the welds are nice and clean, and they come with very classical, skinny tubes. So this was the Van Nicholas, and to think that I did no even know this brand existed a few weeks before. Shame on me!
Getting dressed and actually doing the test were the next two items on the agenda, and the first one took only five minutes. When I took off on the Van Nicholas, I instantly recalled why some people like titanium bikes so much. They have a certain smoothness when it comes to getting from point A to point B. It is almost as if you are gliding rather than just riding. It's a little bit like being behind the wheel of a Rolls Royce... you don't drive, you sort of float. The Van Nicholas was just like this. The few bumps in the road were swallowed with serenity, and I was impatient to find out how it would handle when pushed towards the limit. The first opportunity I had for this was on a very steep hill - 26 per cent was ominously marked on the roadside sign - and, despite my rather average fitness, I tackled the climb with some gusto.
For as long as I had power left in my legs, the frame seemed to transport every pedal stroke into kinetic energy through the wheels. Unfortunately, the climb was way, way longer then I expected, so when I got exhausted, I had a good chance to give the Campagnolo Record 2007 derailleur a good hard run for its money. Even with lots of power being transmitted through the pedals, it shifted easily from the 23 sprocket into the last and life-saving 25. I tried to sit down and make it to the top - but because it was that steep I had to really juggle to keep the front wheel down, something I have experienced only a few times in my career. But this was not the fault of the Van Nicholas, but simply down to the fact that the silly Austrians build roads straight up their hills! m
The descent on the other side of the summit was not as extreme as the climb I'd slogged up, and here I wanted to find out how far I could push both the frame and my luck. Even on what was still a pretty steep drop, the balanced geometry made the frame very easy to control, and the comfy feeling I started the ride with persisted. There was a bit of a softish feeling in the head tube, but the Van Nicholas was still very safe and predictable down the fast descent. Negotiating corners was pure pleasure, and this even extended to nasty switchbacks with bumpy sections on the very inside. Nothing could disturb the Van Nicholas at all.
After some hardcore leaning into the faster corners, I was convinced: this was a bike for the ageing hobby rider, but a machine which could be seriously raced on! It delivered me happy and healthy to the bottom of the hill, where I took a little break in order to have another good look at the set-up.
It was stunningly beautiful, its slim tubes joined with perfect welds. The fact it was built up with Campag's Record 2007 groupset, which I had recently got first sight of at the Eurobike show in Friedrichshafen, mad it even better. The new crankset, with the hole in the middle, was exactly what all Campy fans have been waiting for - something new, flash and different. The new Record offers improved stiffness with reduced weight, and all of the other parts supplied by the Italian manufacturer were all way up on my wish list too. The brakes seemed to be even better than the ones I still have on my bike at home, and the modulation was perfect too. I felt like I always knew when the back wheel was about to lock up, so it never did.
Talking wheels, I think the Van Nicholas would be a great bike with any set of wheels. You could put on some heavier training wheels or super light aero wheels and it would adjust to them no problem. The Nucleons the test bike was fitted with fell somewhere in between these two points. They offered a bit of both options, but avoided the extremes. They are aero enough for you to be able to hear the wind in the spokes when you're going fast, but are also a good everyday wheelset when on good roads. The Michelin tyres, which are well used by some of the ProTour teams, left no nasty aftertaste. They are good and grippy, fast when inflated to the right pressure, and save on punctures.
As I mentioned before, if you want different stuff for your own Van Nicholas, you can choose from the large menu on their website and get exactly what you want, and this extends to tyre choice. You really can get exactly the bike you want.
The other components selected showed no measure of compromise either. The bars, stem and headset all came from Ritchey - good stuff, reliable stuff, (sort of ) affordable stuff! The stem and bar are light and stiff, and if you do not plan to tackle 100 kilometres of cobblestones a week, the headset should last you forever. The Van Nicholas full carbon fork was a good match too, on both looks and performance.
Having tested the Airborne in 2003, I was already aware of the titanium seatpost, with a bit of set-back. This was surely responsible for a good part of the comfort I felt on my favourite saddle, the Fizik Arione. The combination of the saddle and the seatpost's material and shape was like having a little bit more suspension easing out the very occasional bumps on the Austrian roads. It came with a beautiful looking clamp, although by this stage I really was not expecting anything else because this bike is way more state of the art than even the flashest carbon frame. The material is so raw, but beautiful at the same time. It is nice to touch and it seems that Van Nicholas has resolved the frequently encountered problem of titanium frames being way too soft. My only complaint was that I had to pack it back up, and leave the box in the hotel in Salzburg to be picked up by the courier the next day...
Van Nicholas is not a big name (yet?), but if you plump for one you will definitely be riding something that is not only worth its money, but is also extremely good to look at. Being a little bit softer, but way more comfortable than some of the race bikes on the market, the Van Nicholas will still give you full satisfaction in all race-type situations. It is the ideal treat for lovers of 'something special' - and as the Van Nicholas writing is so difficult to read, you can be sure everyone will have at least two looks at it!