This article first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
Bike testing is an important part of what we do here at Adventure Cyclist, but lately, with the pandemic causing havoc in the industry, it’s been difficult to get bikes to review. Hence what you might have guessed about the bike pictured here: it’s a little big for me. But this is what was available, and we weren’t in any position at the time to turn it down.
At six feet tall, I’m a size large, but the Velo Orange Polyvalent you see here is of the Low Kicker variety (also known as a drop frame), so the fact that it’s an XL isn’t a big deal. Its standover height, the geometry figure that determines whether I can comfortably straddle the top tube, is a mere 657mm. Compare that to the same-sized diamond frame’s standover of 842mm. (The latter would roast my chestnuts for sure.) The XL size also brings with it a larger stack height and a longer reach, and I adapted easily to both.
Why would you want a drop frame? If you’re of short stature or have mobility issues and can’t swing your leg over the top tube of a traditional bike, a drop frame can be a big help. Drop frames are also great if you often ride in a skirt or dress. Or, heck, maybe you just like the extra-classy looks of a dropped top tube.
Velo Orange describes the Polyvalent as its “do-it-all” bike, “the ideal platform to build a sturdy tourer, practical commuter, comfortable all-day randonneur, or a rugged gravel bike.” The Polyvalent does indeed have a longish wheelbase, braze-ons aplenty, and clearance for big tires, all of which help slot it into that “do-anything” category. Velo Orange also added thru-axles, disc brake tabs, and internal routing for the rear brake housing. In spite of those modern touches, the Polyvalent retains a very classic — and classy — look, much of that due to the elegant French bend in the fork. The brilliant paint doesn’t hurt either. Velo Orange calls it “sage metallic;” I call it an earthy green with metallic flakes that sparkle in the sun. If the swoopy top tube doesn’t get the attention of passersby, the paint sure will.
Interestingly, the Polyvalent is intended for 650b or 26in. wheels, not 700c (if you must have the larger wheels, look to Velo Orange’s Pass Hunter model). With fenders, the Low Kicker will clear 650b x 48mm or 26 x 2.3in. (with smooth tread). Without fenders, you can squeeze 650b x 2.1in. or 26 x 2.3in. knobbies, which verges on mountain bike territory.
My test bike arrived with a smattering of components that were new to me. What most stood out on the build were the shiny, silver Voyager wheels in 26in. diameter. I hadn’t ridden a bike with 26in. wheels in almost 10 years, but guess what? They’re round and they roll just fine. In fact, I’m so used to bigger wheels that the hoops on the Low Kicker felt especially nimble, particularly when cornering on dirt trails. At 22mm, the Voyager rims are a little narrow for 2.3in. wide tires, but they’re tubeless compatible (and arrived tubeless on my test bike) and available for disc or rim brakes. Velo Orange’s disc hubs (tested) look similarly sharp in chrome, are thoroughly modern with thru-axles and sealed cartridge bearings, and the freehub body pops right off without tools.
Mounted on the Voyager wheels were strange-looking knobby tires with a strange name. Ultradynamico is a tire brand started a few years ago by Ultra Romance, of internet bikepacking fame. (Haven’t heard of him? Doesn’t matter.) I found the Mars tires to be … interesting. On the one hand, they offered excellent grip and low rolling resistance on dirt, and even pretty good grip in the snow. On the other hand, those big center chevrons are quite noisy on pavement, so much so that I didn’t need to ring a bell to gain the attention of pedestrians: they could hear me coming. What’s more, the tire’s construction is a little unusual in that the sidewalls feel very thin — I mean, err, supple — while the tread casing is pretty thick. I didn’t suffer any punctures or notice any drawbacks to this design while testing, but in the long term I would worry about slashing the sidewalls if riding primarily off-road.
Also new to me were the cable-actuated hydraulic Origin8 Vise brakes. They looked nearly identical to the Yokozuna brakes that former Editor-in-Chief Alex Strickland reviewed a couple of years ago. In fact, Connor Mangan at Velo Orange confirmed that they are re-branded Juintech calipers, the same as the Yokozunas. I never had the opportunity to try the Yokos, but I can confirm that the Vise brakes are very, very powerful. They don’t quite have the smooth feel of full hydraulic brakes, but they’re close. The Vise brakes brought the Low Kicker to a halt easily in all weather, including snowy conditions and even the dreaded smooth pavement covered in wet leaves. These are good stoppers.
The most unusual parts on the Low Kicker were the drivetrain components. My test bike arrived with a 1x clutch derailer, 11–46T cassette, and 1x dropbar shifter/brake levers (also known as brifters), all from a new value-oriented brand called Sensah. Being a 1x setup, the right-hand brifter does the shifting while the left is just a brake lever. And there’s no secondary paddle — the right brake lever is the shifter. A small push with a single click shifts up to a higher gear while a bigger push with two or more clicks downshifts to an easier gear. And you can downshift three gears at a time, which is nice. The shifts were quick, crisp, and unusually satisfying. As a side benefit to the single-lever shifting mechanism, you can ride with mittens in the winter and shift easily.
Unfortunately, the clutch (a device on pretty much all modern off-road derailers that provides tension on the chain and keeps the chain from falling off on a 1x drivetrain) on the SRX derailer didn’t seem to do much. The chain would slap noisily in rough terrain, and adjusting the clutch to its maximum made no difference. Mangan told me he’d seen good reliability from Sensah and hadn’t come across any issues with the clutch derailers. He agreed that I must have gotten a dud. At least the derailer is only $69!
Notable among the rest of the componentry was the handlebar. The Daija Cycleworks Far Bar, in 480mm width, is an appropriate choice for this bike, but the 21° of flare is just too much for my taste. I find that much flare puts the hoods at a weird angle that forces my wrists into an uncomfortable position, and then in the drops I have to really reach to find the brake levers. I know a lot of people love these super-flared bars, but they’re just not for me.
I own a fine example of a “do-it-all” bike, my beloved Black Mountain Cycles Road Plus, so I have a good idea of the qualities needed for a bike to really be capable of all the things. The Low Kicker has the easy ones checked off: big tire clearance; braze-ons for racks, fenders, and cargo mounts; and a middle-of-the-road geometry that ensures it handles just as well with a load as without. The other necessary qualities are harder to enumerate, such as ride feel. At 28.2 pounds with pedals, the Low Kicker’s weight is respectable; it’s neither a flyweight nor a porker. Similarly, its tubeset feels sufficiently lively without noodling its way around corners when loaded. Standing out of the saddle and sprinting, the Polyvalent gets up and goes pretty well, which I did not expect. Even with big, knobby tires, I felt encouraged to hammer on the pedals when riding it, and when I would sit back down and resume a pleasant cruise, it just wafted along like an air-sprung Cadillac.
Another necessary quality for a good “do-it-all” bike is the ability to seamlessly go from one type of road surface to another. Tires surely play an important role here, but regardless the Low Kicker felt just as capable and confidence-inspiring on the dirt tracks crisscrossing the Salt Lake City foothills as it did bombing down canyon roads. Indeed, I wouldn’t hesitate to take the Low Kicker on a loaded tour with an even mix of pavement and gravel, although I might opt for 650b wheels with 48mm file-tread tires, but that’s a personal choice.
But maybe the most important — and most intangible — quality of a good “do-it-all” bike is that it makes you feel good, by which I mean your body feels good when riding it and you also look good doing so. Call me vain, but there’s nothing wrong with feeling good when riding a classy bike around town. I certainly felt pretty darn great while riding the Low Kicker all around Salt Lake City, and even got a few hoots (surely directed at the bike, not me). Putting aside my sore wrists from the handlebar’s flare, I also physically felt great while riding the Polyvalent, even hours into a big ride.
At $3,070, it’s hard to call this particular Polyvalent Low Kicker a bargain bike, but I would argue that you’re getting good value for your dollar. I can’t speak to the long-term durability of the Sensah components, but — the derailer’s clutch aside — they performed well for me. For $925, you can get yourself a bare frameset and affix whatever parts you can scrounge up. In any case, I can guarantee you’ll have yourself a handsome-looking rig, and chances are good that it’ll be a pretty versatile bike. It might even do it all.
Sizes available: S, M, L, XL
Size tested: XL
Weight: 28.2 lbs. (with pedals)
Head tube length: 182mm
Head tube angle: 73°
Seat tube length: 600mm
Seat tube angle: 72°
Top tube: 600mm (effective)
Bottom bracket drop: 67mm
Fork offset: 60mm
Standover height: 657mm
Frame: 4130 double-butted chromoly steel, two bottle mounts, rack and fender mounts
Fork: 4130 double-butted chromoly steel, rack and fender mounts, triple mounts
Handlebar: Daija Cycleworks Far Bar, 480mm
Stem: VO Tall Stack, 80mm
Rear derailer: Sensah SRX, clutch, 11spd
Shifter/brake lever: Sensah SRX
Brakes: Origin8 Vise cable-actuated hydraulic disc
Rotors: Tektro 160mm
Bottom bracket: SRAM GXP, threaded
Crankset: SRAM Apex 1, 42T, 170mm
Cassette: Sensah SRX 11spd, 11–46T
Headset: VO threadless
Seatpost: VO Grand Cru alloy
Saddle: VO Touring
Hubs: VO Disc, 100 x 12mm front, 142 x 12mm rear, thru-axles
Rims: VO Voyager 26in., 32h, tubeless
Tires: Ultradynamico Mars 26 x 2.3in., tubeless
Pedals: VO Sabot
Contact: 6730 Dover Rd Suite 113, Glen Burnie, MD 21060, email@example.com, 410.216.2988, velo-orange.com