Van Dessel Sports continues to shift production of its alloy bikes back to the United States, including its long-standing Hellafaster road racer. This latest iteration – made by Zen Fabrication in Portland, Oregon – carries a premium price tag but the workmanship is superb, with performance to match.
Ride and handling: direct yet comfortable feel, definitely race-ready
High-end alloy bikes are unquestionably making a comeback and the Van Dessel Hellafaster is a good example of why that's happening. Although slightly heavier than most carbon frames with an actual weight of 1,250g for a bare 53cm frame (plus 362g for the matching all-carbon fork), the Hellafaster rewards you with a direct and unfiltered road feel that many composite chassis simply can't match. It's communicative without being unduly harsh or buzzy, comfortable without feeling sluggish or squishy, and sufficiently snappy under power while still possessing that elusive sensation of liveliness that often only comes with just the right amount of inbuilt flex.
It doesn't matter where something is made as much as how it's made – and in this case, the Hellafaster is made very, very well
That flex doesn't overly detract from high-speed handling precision, either. Although there's a touch of wag from the rear end (seemingly from the spindly seatstays), the middle and front end of the bike are reassuringly solid thanks to the oversized main tubes and meaty all-carbon fork. Handling is unabashedly agile with a refreshingly quick turn-in that requires little more than the subtlest flick of the bars when entering a tight corner at speed but yet still with a reasonable amount of stability thanks to the relatively low bottom bracket.
It might be a little too quick and edgy for riders coming off of something geared more toward endurance riding but it's certainly a natural for the criteriums and circuit events that dominate the racing scene in its native US. We did plenty of longer, all-day rides on the Hellafaster and still found it a willing and able partner for more casual outings provided you're not one to let your mind wander while on the move.
Handling is quick and precise
Van Dessel gives you plenty of wiggle room to tweak how you want the Hellafaster to feel, too. We started out with Easton's latest EC90 Aero 55 carbon wheels shod with Continental Competition tubulars for all-out speed but also ran a set of shallower alloy tubeless clinchers with 28mm-wide rubber for versatility – and there's ample room through the stays and fork for either configuration.
Frame: small-batch quality with excellent attention to detail
Build quality is fantastic on the Hellafaster and reflects the bike's small-batch production, with US-sourced 6061 tubing and noticeable attention to detail that at least partially justifies the extra cost compared with more generic frames. Alignment was spot-on all around, and both the head tube and PF30 bottom bracket shell arrived perfectly bored and faced. As a result, all of the bearing cups pressed in tight – and more importantly, they stayed that way throughout testing with nary a peep to speak of.
The chunky hooded dropouts are well made, too, with tidily machined edges and an excellent fit with mating wheels. Even the finish is high quality with a sleek matte anodized surface all around plus discreet masked-off logos on the down tube and top tube – a nice change from the overly logoed race bikes that currently dominate the landscape.
Both the bottom bracket shell and head tube are precision machined for a perfect fit with the mating bearing cups. We had no issues with creaking over a year of testing
Our one niggle is with the cable routing. Van Dessel builds the Hellafaster to be compatible with either mechanical or electronic drivetrains but there's no way to remove the housing stops on the down tube and chainstay. As a result, setting the bike up with Shimano Di2 or Campagnolo EPS leaves a few vestigial appendages that sully what would otherwise be a very clean appearance. We'd like to see some sort of removable bits instead.
Equipment: DIY or buy it complete
Van Dessel offers the Hellafaster with a wide selection of build kits. We went with the bare frameset option and built it up ourselves with SRAM's latest midrange Force 22 groupset, the aforementioned Easton EC90 Aero 55 tubular wheels, and a carbon ENVE cockpit. All told, it came out to a wispy 6.94kg (15.30lb) before adding pedals – plenty light for serious race duty.
We've already covered the Easton wheels in depth so we won't bother to rehash here but the Force 22 group is worth some mention. SRAM has a solid history of trickling down top-end features to lower-end groups and the trend continues with Force 22. The levers feel absolutely identical to Red 22 with excellent (and highly adjustable) ergonomics plus a smart hood shape that seems natural in your hands. Any difference in shift quality is wholly imperceptible, too, and if anything, the more conventional cassette construction is actually a touch quieter than the Red unit.
Shift quality is aided by the sturdy machined rear derailleur hanger
The only real noticeable difference is the braking performance, which now falls a step behind with the old carryover calipers. The lever feel isn't quite as springy, there isn't quite as much power, and they're not as accommodating of wide-profile rims. The Easton tubulars measure a healthy 28mm at the brake track and the calipers were essentially maxed-out there.
Bottom line: an expensive but fantastic bike
The Hellafaster is definitely more expensive than most alloy frames with similar specs, although there's a definite bump in build quality and finish work that goes along with that – plus the bike has the performance chops to back up the higher price tag.
Don't just take our word for how good the Hellafaster is, though. At one point, we loaned our Hellafaster tester out to a pro cyclist visiting from out of town whose usual ride (a major-brand carbon flagship machine) was sadly out of commission with a wrecked dropout. A couple of days on loan eventually turned into three weeks, and when it finally came time to return it to us, we were asked how much it would cost to just buy the thing from Van Dessel. If that's not a worthy testament, then we don't know what is.
For more information, visit www.vandesselcycles.com.