Posted by: Ian | May 1, 2011

Van Nicholas Astraeus 1,000 Mile Review

I wrote about the qualities I wanted in a winter trainer bike in early June and, after a long time selecting it and an even longer time waiting for it, my Van Nicholas Astraeus turned up just in time for the Exmoor Beast sportive on the last day of October. Six months on, I’ve done well over 1,000 miles on it and feel that it’s time to set down some considered thoughts. As encouragement in case the next few paragraphs turn you off, let me say that the Astraeus is superb!

I  would have written this sooner but I’ve found the Astraeus surprisingly difficult to assess. First, the purchasing process so was protracted and ultimately miserable that it took me a long time to escape the shadow this cast over my experience of the bike. The guys at Van Nic are lovely and they finally offered me the Astraeus at a great price but they seem to have none of the essential processes in place for online retail. One important outcome of the saga was that I didn’t get the model I initially chose. I had selected the Zephyr for its relaxed geometry but, when Van Nic couldn’t supply me with one, I ended up with the Astraeus as consolation. This is by several measures superior to the Zephyr but it’s a very different bike. In fact, its geometry is more aggressive than that of my Felt Z15: it has a narrower rear triangle, less rake and a straighter top tube.

Equally significantly, I’d sized the Zephyr after a great session with BespokeCycling. When the Astraeus arrived, with an FSA headset that offered less height than the Chris King headset recorded on my order, it took me many weeks/months to find a configuration that worked for me. Getting the triangle of contact points right is more important than getting the right frame (the latter only matters more because it’s harder to change). Consequently, my first major outing on the Astraeus – last year’s Exmoor Beast – was something of a struggle.

I bought the Astraeus as a winter trainer after much deliberation about the available options. One benefit of the trouble I had buying it is that I’ve ended up with a bike that’s superior to any of those I was initially considering. Six months after the Beast, I cycled over the same area of Exmoor on Friday, covering more distance (94 miles) and more ascent (9,000 feet) at a higher average speed, and felt much fresher at the end of it. Earlier this year, I sailed round the Glastonbury 100 miler without complaint too.

I don’t think I’ve quite found the optimal geometry quite yet but I’m close. The seat clamp doesn’t help. As Cycling Plus noted in a review of seat posts, the VN post looks superb and has nice Ti ride qualities but it’s a pig to adjust; accordingly they gave it only 6/10. You (and, more usefully, I) can see on the photo that I haven’t got the saddle quite flat and I’d prefer it pointing slightly down to slightly up, as it is.

As well as tinkering around with the fit, I’ve also changed the saddle. I now have on an old Specialized BG model that carries a 50% weight penalty over the popular Fizik Arione that I had at first – but I find it so much more comfortable! Also, after my handlebars were trashed by my crash in February I replaced them with narrower ones. I love the 3T ErgoNova Team bars that I’ve been using on the Felt since last August and I bought these for the Astraeus off the bat. Choosing the right width was more art than science and after switching from a 44cm to a 42 cm bar I prefer the tighter, racier feel.

So comfort, in summary, is now very good, even though the set-up remains a work in progress.

I also, in my rational moments, wanted my winter trainer to be less speedy than my Felt, especially up the hills – the point being that I wanted a sense of effortless light rapidity when I switched to the Felt for big events. Surprisingly, if you ever read any press reviews of the Astraeus, it achieves this relative slowness. It does, as the reviews say (see, for example, this one on bikeradar or this one on road.cc), feel stiff and lively and you don’t sense that much power is being dissipated between leg and wheel. Even so, if it “bridges the gap” between Ti and carbon as bikeradar say it doesn’t manage to cross it. The Astraeus is simply not as fast as the Felt. You can feel this as soon as you get on it. In fact, you can sense it as soon as you look at the two bikes.

One reason why the Astraeus isn’t as quick as the Felt is that it’s heavier. With Mavic Elites and a loaded wedgie pack the Felt weighs 8.14 kg. With the same wheels, a similar loaded wedgie pack and a small frame pump the Astraeus weighs 9.06 kg. Some of this is due to the groupset – I have DuraAce on the Felt and Ultegra on the Astraeus – and the comfy saddle on the Astraeus contributes extra grams too; offsetting that are the narrower and hence lighter bars on the Astraeus, which is fundamentally a less light bike.

I’ve never really got the whole weight weenies thing: since I weigh around 80 kg myself I don’t understand how a difference of less than one kilogram in the bike can make much difference. But it does. It’s not just psychological either: I can see it in my ride times. For example, on park loops, where we ride 10 miles round Regent’s Park on a weekday morning, my one time on the Astraeus took me 29:25. I can’t expect time trial speeds as it is occasionally necessary to stop for lights and so forth, but this is only a little faster than my median time on my fixed-gear steel Tempo (29:36). By contrast, my two rides in dry weather on the Felt took only 28:02 and 29:00. This is a conclusive difference when power is taken into account: to get my 29:25 time on the Astraeus I laid down an average power output of 264W, whereas my appreciably faster times on the Felt required only 251W and 235W respectively (measured using the same CycleOps PowerTap hub in a Mavic OpenPro wheel).

On the other hand, the effort put into turning the pedals matters as well as the frame.  This morning I did a 12.5 mile local circuit that has about ten times the ascent of our park loops run (1,000+ feet compared to 100 feet). Riding the Felt I failed to match the time I recently set on the Astraeus. With no power readings this time, my relatively low average heart rate suggests I just wasn’t trying hard enough.

My conclusion from all of this is that speed-wise the Astraeus is ideal for me: it’s not too much slower than my “event” bike but the gap is enough that I feel a boost when I pull out the Felt.

Another feature I was looking for in a winter trainer was ruggedness. As I wrote previously:

“The new bike I’m after will be more robust than the Felt. Although I don’t need to be able to plough through fields on it, as I can on the Tricross, it has to be impervious to bad weather, our low-tax-economy roads, cattle grids and occasional failures of maintenance.”

It is! The best proof point is my crash in February. Despite snapping my carbon handlebars clean in two, the Astraeus frame was unaffected. In fact, the alignment test done by my LBS showed the frame to be millimetre perfect. This was not down to freaky luck in which the impact knocked the bike bang into line but the strength of titanium and Van Nicholas’s very high manufacturing quality. They do make a great bike. Needless to say, if I’d been on any carbon bike the LBS would have been obliged to write it off as there would be no way to ensure that the frame wasn’t fatally compromised after such a collision. And it would probably have broken conspicuously anyway.

My final selection factor when choosing the bike was fun. Initially, I had a fun deficit because the Astraeus was not what I set out to buy, the purchasing process was a nightmare, it came with the wrong stuff and it took me months to get the set-up right. This stands in complete contrast to my Tempo, which was exactly what I wanted and was configured precisely to me after an hour on the jig at Condor before I bought it. When the Tempo arrived I cycled away from the shop with a big smile of immediate enjoyment.

Several months on, I’ve got over all of that. As well as all of the criteria matching, the bike looks fantastic (although I’ve not yet managed to capture the muscular appeal of its hydroformed tubing and committed geometry to my satisfaction in a photograph) and it cleans up beautifully. I’m giving the Astraeus 10/10.

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Responses

  1. Hi, everything is going well here and ofcouese every one is sharing information, that’s
    in fact good, keep up writing.

  2. How can a bike made with a frame costing 2500euros ever be considered a ‘winter trainer’?

    • Well that’s an excellent question. I never meant to get a bike as fancy as the Astraeus and I didn’t pay the Astraeus price: I got upgraded by VN for reasons documented elsewhere on the blog. Also all of my commuter miles are done on my (cheaper) steel fixie. My mileage doesn’t fall off too much over winter but I fall off more myself. So it’s nice to do my bad weather miles on a bike that’s good to ride but can survive a spill. Even when a van reversed into me, snapping my bars, the frame alignment remained perfect and I didn’t need to x-ray it to prove that it wasn’t compromised.

      Sent from my igPad

  3. Hi Ian, nice blog!
    I’m looking at picking up a 2011 Astraeus at the moment and am sort of tossing up between this and either the Euros or Zephyr models. Cost is not so much of an issue (though going for the cheaper Euros model would mean I’d have enough for a nice wheelset too). One thing I was considering however was tyre clearance – the Euros and Zephyr models indicate clearance for 28c, but there isn’t anything listed for the Astraeus. What width are you running? Do you think a wider tyre would fit comfortably? I’m curious because some of my preferred long rides include poor roads and a bit of dirt (no cobbles here in Australia though), and the ability to run 25s or even 28s would be a plus.
    Also, do you find much of a difference in the performance/durability of the two group-sets (ultegra and DA)?
    Cheers!

    Also thanks to Simon G for sharing his info!

    • Thanks! I haven’t ridden the Euros or the Zephyr so can’t compare them. I originally tried to buy a Zephyr but VN made such a drama of it that they eventually upgraded me to an Astraeus for free. Certainly, a better wheelset could make a huge difference.
      Re the tyres, I currently have 25’s on and swap between 23’s, 24’s and 25’s. I imagine you can get 28’s through the Ultegra brakes, though 25’s are fine. I’ve taken the Astraeus over far more crap than is probably good for it. It’s currently in the shop having the arising rattles fixed – new headset, new BB, new wheel bearings.
      Re the groupset, Ultegra and DA are both great! DA is a bit sharper and a bit lighter and when you’re working on it you notice the components are better quality – small things like the spacers on the cassette are just classier. But in real life you will hardly notice it. The DA is theoretically more durable but you with regular maintenance neither should give you any trouble. (Glad to see that you’re not looking at electronic!)
      Ian

      • Cheers for that! The tyre clearance was one thing I thought might be a disadvantage for the Astraeus, but looks like that isn’t the case. That infamous FSA headset is one of the few things holding me back at this point – the other models have external headsets, so would have the advantage of going for a (nearly maintenance free) Chris King (to also match some other king goodies perhaps). Oh dear, this decision isn’t getting any easier 😉
        I can’t say electronic shifting isn’t appealing, but when I can kit out two bikes with Ultegra for less than the cost of one Ui2 kit, I’ll pass. Sort of like the R5 vs R3 thing to me.

  4. Hi there, I found your website by way of Google whilst searching for a comparable matter, your site came up, it looks good. I have bookmarked to my favourites|added to my bookmarks.

    • Cool. Hope you find stuff to like.

  5. Very interesting stuff. Really helpful to read. However, you would need to do many more rides around Regents Park to determine whether the Astraeus is really slower. The fact that your two rides on the Felt varied by more than the difference between the slower of the two rides and the Astraeus ride shows how so many variables can affect ride times. Sleep, whether you’ve had a rest day, food, hydration, caffeine, wind, and so on, even your mood, can make the kind of percentage difference you refer to.

    • Hi Richard

      That’s completely true. Many thanks for your comment. Having done about 1,500 miles on the Astraeus now and several thousand miles on the Felt and compared multiple routes and route sections I can make a couple of observations. The first is precisely what you say: road conditions, my condition and other non-bike factors dominate performance on any one day. The second is that when you strip all that away the Felt is faster than the Astraeus. The difference between the two Felt times for Park loops was due to one being set in the dry and the other in the wet. If I were to take the Felt out one morning now and was lucky with the weather, the traffic and the lights I can guarantee that I would break 28 mins. If I were to take the Astraeus out in the same conditions I think I could but I wouldn’t bet my last dollar on it.

  6. Ian,

    Great review thanks. I’ve just bought a 2011 Astraeus framset and for the life of me I just cannot find a headset to fit the bike. You mention that yours is fitted with an FSA headset, but I’d like to know which type and model if possible? I cannot find an internal headset with a cup of 41mm diameter as they’re all 45mm (I assume that the headset is interal i.e. zero stack and not integrated i.e. just the bearing?)

    Simon

    • Hi Simon. Afraid I don’t have a model number for it as I didn’t get the (Chris King) headset that I specified and the FSA one just came fitted. It is an internal headset, which I don’t think VN used on the Astraeus prior to 2011. I’d suggest you email them directly – they’re usually very responsive. If you don’t get an answer let me know and I’ll see if my LBS can identify the model. If you do get an answer could you pass it on. Many thanks!

      • Ok, so the headset model which Van Nicholas are using for the 2011 Astraeus frame is the FSA Orbit (11AGY) which appears to be on sale virtually no-where and appears to be the headset of choice for the Giant OCR (which is no longer made). Hmm, I have to say that I feel a tad concerned about that! So it looks as though Van Nich are using a non-standard headset size for this frame, which begs the question ‘Are we going to be able to get a headset for this bike in two or more years time?’ I’ve asked a few pointed questions through VN customer service and I will post the answers here

    • Good digging! It is a worry, isn’t it. If they were going to peg themselves to a weird headset I wish they’d chosen one from Chris King or Hope that might be expected to have longer shelf life than an FSA. Do let me know if you hear more from Van Nic. Meanwhile I guess we should each buy a spare or two. They can at least still be purchased (e.g. at cyclestore.co.uk).

      • I’ve sent two emails to Van Nicholas on two consecutive days and I have received a prompt and informative reply to both of them – Well done Van Nicholas!

        So, it looks as though Van Nicholas decided to choose a headtube size for their 2011 Astraeus frameset, which performed a specific form and function (i.e. presumably not to be too bulky and to be stiff enough for the job). Given their chosen headtube dimensions, they appear to have selected FSA as their supplier given their “extensive catalogue” (I quote Van NIcholas there). Here in the UK, their chosen headset spec does not appear to be carried as stock in many of the big online bike shops, but VN assure me that FSA have a much larger catalogue of headsets than the average punter gets to see. I’m going to take their response at face value and assume that they are telling the truth 100%. I assume therefore that purchasing a new headset for the Astraeus may be slightly trickier than popping onto the Wiggle, Evans or Chain Reaction Cycles site, but should not be impossible! Van Nicholas mentioned that they are planning to sell a ceramic headset for the Astraeus in the not too distant future.

        In the meantime, I still await a response from FSA. I am hoping to hear the same picture from them. As always, I will endeavour to post my findings here for all current and Future Astraeus owners to ponder..

      • That’s good but don’t you wish they could have built a frame that could take a headset from a leading manufacturer that you can buy from a regular store?! What do they know that every other bike maker doesn’t? It’s not as if they have a proper components business either so they’re relying on FSA to keep manufacturing a unit that has next to no market.

  7. this is interesting, my heavier bike (Hampsten Team Pro) is faster that my Cannondale for the same level of perceived effort. I’ve not weighed it but I suspect it’s a kg heavier at least. I’m often suprised when I try to take a higher gear and I’m already in the 12.

    With regards saddle position, yours is probably about right. The advice for men is that the saddle tilts up slightly so you can perch on it without sliding forward.

    • I agree about bike weight not being everything. Today I did a ride on the Felt that included a 13 mile stretch over Dunkery Beacon that I’d done as part of a long ride on the Astraeus a week or so ago. The times on the two bikes were within less than 1 percent of each other, with the heavier Astraeus being marginally quicker. All sorts of other factors – how I felt on the day, what I ate, how long I’d ridden to get to the start, the wind etc – had at least as much impact as a fraction of a kilo difference in bike weight.

      Regarding saddle position, I guess if I tilted it upwards that would at least be cheaper than actually *paying* for a vasectomy.


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