A guest post by Ben Everett. He runs the epic ride, The Dark Divide 300. Since 2021, Ben has been riding the blue Pass Hunter. Most recently, we sent out the new Graphite Metallic version.
I moved to the pacific northwest for graduate school in 2016 after 24 years on the east coast and I’ve lived here ever since. Sure, it was a culture shock at first; there are no Dunkin Donuts or Wawas out here but I have settled in nicely in spite of those things. I grew up in a small town in Maryland, moved to New Orleans for a stint, and then settled in Asheville, North Carolina for about 5 years prior to moving out west. It was in Asheville that I fell in love with cycling both as a mode of transport and also as a vehicle for exploration into the hollers and hills that surround the city.
As mentioned above, I caught the cycling bug while living in Asheville; a most beautiful and expensive city to call home. In the fervor that comes with a new hobby, I was furiously and fastidiously internetting my way to absolute bike knowledge: “Who is Jan Heine and why do they have so many charts on tire pressure?” “Who are the Grand Bois?” “What is a BCD and why are there so many?” “Is every tire really just made by Panaracer?” Relatively early on after taking the plunge into cycling culture, I came across Velo Orange, whose product program consisted of the classic looking componentry that I was drawn to, and whose prices were affordable to a recent college graduate who was making tacos and cleaning treadmills for a living. After many years of using various VO products, I can attest to the quality and durability; specifically of their racks, stems, rims, and hubs. But, it wasn’t until recently that I had the opportunity to ride a Velo Orange frame.
The Build Notes
I received the Pass Hunter frame from VO in October 2021 and built it up over following winter, finally completing the build in February 2022. For the majority of the time I’ve had it, it’s been built with a used SRAM 1x11 Rival hydraulic groupset, ENVE AG28 650B carbon rims laced to an ENVE disc hub in the rear and SON28 dynamo hub in the front, 650x48b Ultradynamico tires, ENVE stem and their 48cm Gravel handlebars, PNW Components 27.2 externally routed dropper post, and carbon fork (first a Rodeo Labs Spork 3.0 and currently an ENVE Adventure fork). I used the stock steel fork briefly and will touch on that but for the most part I rode my Pass Hunter with carbon forks.
How I’ve Ridden the Pass Hunter
I’ve ridden the pass hunter a lot, and I think that it is a really good gravel bike. What makes a good gravel bike, and good bike in general, is highly subjective, but to me it’s a frame that balances efficiency, comfort, and speed. The Pass Hunter achieves this balance through some clever engineering (I say that as someone with no understanding of engineering): the standard top tube and standard oversized downtube on my size medium, provide high efficiency in power transfer when pedaling (again, no engineering background, this is all based on feel), but the wishbone-style seatstay offers compliance on rougher roads and even what felt at times like a small amount of suspension when the going got really rough or when I had the bike loaded down with gear. To some people this may feel noodly or jarring but I appreciated the way the rear triangle soaks up bumps and rough stuff instead of bouncing around on it. The ride quality of the Pass Hunter is smooth and I never feel beat up at the end of a long ride like I have on other bikes that are more overbuilt and less compliant, as tends to be an issue with production steel frames. Some of this compliance surely comes from the carbon rims and fork I use, but I think the frame characteristics also have a lot to do with it.
Since I’ve owned the Pass Hunter, I have done basically every imaginable type of riding on it (..that I like doing): casual weekend gravel rides, fast gravel races, bikepacking trips, spirited lunch-break roadie loops, mild-to-medium spicy mountain bike trails, commuting, toddler hauling with a trailer, grocery getting, and I plan to do some randonneuring-adjacent riding with it this summer. Velo Orange markets the Pass Hunter as a gravel bike, but I have used it and view it as a jack of all trades. Often there is a negative connotation with that phrase, and it’s usually followed by “master of none,” but I find the Pass Hunter to be solidly master of some. It’s the bike I grab most often. My typical weekend rides are 25-40 mixed terrain miles involving some combination of paved road, gravel road, forested double and single track, and bike path. I feel like the Pass Hunter was really made for this type of ride. It’s quick on the road, planted and solid on all sorts of gravel, and really holds its own on just about every mountain bike trail I’ve taken it on, even if I may have voided a warranty at some point. There are no parts of my rides where the PH feels like a compromise or a means to an end; it always seems to be the right bike for the job.
In addition to being a really good gravel bike, I think the Pass Hunter holds its own as a road bike, especially in the tradition of randonneuring, where the focus is less on speed and more on distance traveled. The bike feels planted and sure footed when pedaling along on flats, when climbing, it’s not too noodly and you feel like you’re getting all you can from your pedal strokes, both seated and standing. Descending on both road and gravel is really a joy aboard the Pass Hunter. That planted feeling shines through when descending at speed and I feel confident to lean the bike into corners. Again, this is subjective and has a lot to do with how comfortable you feel descending in general, but it’s a feeling I haven’t felt as much on bikes in the same category.
I think one thing that makes the Pass Hunter a good randonnering and/or endurance road/gravel bike is how it handles when you load it down with all your crap. When I pre-rode the Dark Divide 300 route in summer 2022 I loaded my PH up with 4 days worth of food, camping gear, and clothing, and I think while I was pushing the frame a little beyond what it was intended for at some points on that trip, specifically the 10 miles of rutted and washed out backcountry singletrack, overall it performed well with the weight that I had on it. While loaded bikepacking may be a little overkill for the PH, I think semi-loaded “sport touring” is where it really can shine. It handles well with a front load, either on a front rack or in a Carradice-style bag hanging off the handlebars, or no front load at all; its geometry is not beholden to one type of luggage strategy, which makes it a great tool for many types of long rides. I would be interested to try the PH as a road bike with 700c wheels, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.
Honestly, the Pass Hunter is a real sleeper of an adventure bike- I know that’s not something that most people see it as, but I think with the right setup, it’s a solid bike for many of the ultra-endurance gravel events we’re seeing pop up now. I’m talking: the Arkansas High Country Race, Unbound XL, the Ozark Gravel Doom, the Dark Divide 300, etc.; essentially rides where speed isn’t necessarily the key to success, but rather consistency and grit, both of which I get from the PH. If I had the time and resources to travel to races like those mentioned above, I would reach for the Pass Hunter in an instant and I’d have a heck of a good time on it. As the name suggests, it’s a great tool for mountain road riding and pass hunting.
A quick note: as mentioned above, I have spent most of my time on the PH with a carbon fork, but I did ride the stock steel fork for the first few months that I had the bike. First, the elephant in the room is that the fork is pretty heavy. Like, 1400g versus the 575g of the carbon fork. That said, I never noticed the bike feeling sluggish or distinctly heavy when using that fork. The only time it really made a difference was when I would pick the bike up to walk over a downed tree or something. I think the bike rides well with the stock fork and a carbon fork is certainly not a must-have upgrade, but the weight difference and nuances in ride quality (the carbon fork soaking up washboards on gravel roads, for example) are noticeable.
What I Liked
Hopefully from this review you can tell that I really like my VO Pass Hunter, and that it’s the bike I ride 75% of the time. It’s comfortable, it’s versatile, it’s sturdy, it’s snappy, it flexes when you want but it’s stiff where you need it. It will carry your crap, it rides just as well with bags strapped to it as it does without. All around, it’s a great all-rounder. Here are a few things that I really like specifically about it:
- Ride quality is supple and snappy without being overly noodly and flexy.
- Classic, clean styling with modern standards: tapered headtube, internal brake routing, flat mount disc brakes, through axles, all allowing for modern builds.
- Necessary mounting points, but not too many. No need to overload this frame.
As with any bike, the Pass Hunter isn’t perfect and if I were at the drawing board (with my extensive engineering background), I would make a few minor tweaks that I think would change the frame for the better. However, I would not let any of these stop me from buying the Pass Hunter if it went unchanged.
As it sits now, the frame officially clears 650x48b tires without fenders and 650x42b with fenders. I think that marginally expanding that clearance to accept 650x48b tires with fenders and 27.5x2.1 without fenders would more align the frame to others in the same class, as well as aftermarket carbon forks, and allow it to more confidently handle rougher roads and the oft-encountered single track connector between two backcountry roads. I run 650x48b tires with fenders, and while I can’t recommend doing that for safety reasons, it works for me and my needs living in a region where it rains for 7 months out of the year but I still want to ride gravel and trails during that time- I could do that on 42mm tires but it’s not ideal and I like to push the limits of bikes that I ride.
The Pass Hunter comes in small, medium, large, and x-large; basically 52cm, 55cm, 58cm, and 61cm. I have found that I am unfortunately in a real Goldie Locks scenario where the 55cm is just ever so slightly too small for me and the 58cm would be way too big. In an ideal world there would be a 56cm or 57cm, but we don’t live in an ideal world, so I ride the 55cm. Realistically the fit is comfortable and I feel fine on it, but there are times where I’d like to stretch out a little more or have the bars a few mm higher (since I use a carbon fork, I am limited in the number of spacers I can use under the stem). This will affect different people in different ways; some can run more spacers underneath the stem, some will size up and run a shorter stem and less seatpost. I tend to like a more aggressive fit so I’m okay with a lower stem. Luckily, Velo Orange provides detailed geometry charts.
The Velo Orange Pass Hunter is really a heck of a bike and a massive bang for your buck in terms of value and quality for a production bike, or for any bike, really. Like, I didn’t even get into the welds, but the welds are great. The paint is great. The vibes (do we still talk about vibes?) are great. It can be a fast gravel bike, it can be an upright picnic pamble-rambler, it can be anything you want, just like you can be anything you want. Yeah it’s not perfect, but what is? Nothing and no one so just ride the bike and enjoy yourself.