15 Years Ago: Three Volcano All-Road Brevet

It’s hard to believe that 15 years have passed since I had my first real taste of the performance of all-road bikes. On a Saturday in August 2005, the second Three Volcano 300 km Brevet was organized by Robin and Amy Piper of the Seattle International Randonneurs. The previous year, I had ridden the event on my road bike with 28 mm tires – which were considered wide then! – but they proved ill-suited for the loose gravel of Babyshoe Pass. In 2005, I decided to ride a 1952 Rene Herse with wider 650B wheels. The result was a FKT (fastest known time) that stands to this day, and a new appreciation of the amazing performance of the best mid-century all-road bikes.

Most of all, it was a perfect day: just me, a great bike, and a wonderful course. We published the story of that ride in Bicycle Quarterly 13. That edition is long out of print, so we’ve decided to reprint the article here. Enjoy!

A 300 km Brevet on a 1952 René Herse

“Aren’t those fat tires hard to push?” asks the rider next to me as we roll along the meadows in the morning twilight, shortly after the start of the Seattle International Randonneurs Three Volcano 300 km Brevet. “Not at all,” I reply, realizing that the effort and speed are roughly the same as on my other bikes equipped with 28 mm tires. I wonder what the other rider would say if I told him that the 650B x 36 mm tires of this 1952 René Herse are pumped up to only 3.8 bar (55 psi).

The road is a bit higher than the surrounding meadows, which are shrouded in fog. Our attention focuses on two large animals next to the road – elk. Fortunately, they move away and disappear among the shadowy outlines of cows in the pasture. Then I see a small, long-tailed animal run across the road. “Fox?” I ask David Huelsbeck, who is riding ahead of me, leading the paceline. He nods his head. The magic of early morning rides are the sights and sounds you don’t experience during the day. After 45 minutes of pleasant spinning, we turn off the highway, and the first climb breaks up our group. On a course that is either up or down, there is little hope of staying with other riders, as each climbs at their own speed. In any case, many of us are trying to rise to the challenge, and see how fast we can go.

I reach behind the seat tube, move the shift lever, and the chain smoothly drops into the middle chainring. A tug at the downtube lever moves the chain to a larger freewheel cog, then another and another, until I have found the perfect gear for this first hill. As the grade steepens and slackens, I marvel at how easy it is to shift the old Cyclo rear derailleur. Having done Paris-Brest-Paris on a similarly equipped tandem, the ‘reverse action’ of the shift lever (toward the rider gets a smaller cog, away a bigger one) only requires a few miles to become second nature again.

The road becomes a false flat. I shift back into the 48 tooth big ring, and enjoy the ride through the trees. An small lake appears on my left. The dark water contrasts with the greenish-grey tree trunks touched by the first rays of the sun. Soon I reach the first control, where one of the organizers, Amy Pieper, signs my card and wishes me luck.

The road continues along the Cispus River. Gaps in the trees allow me to catch a glimpse of the milky water running in numerous channels over large, round gravel. The Cispus River springs from the glaciers on the slopes of Mount Adams, one of the large volcanoes in the Cascades.

A short descent brings me back to the valley floor, where fog still hangs over the meadows. The hamlet of Cispus Center appears. The sun is starting to pierce this blanket of white, with beautiful light outlining the few houses and barns along the road. I greet a couple of runners, then enter the forest again and start climbing.

Babyshoe Pass is not marked on most maps of Washington State, and very few even show this road. As I look up, I see the massive peak of Mount Adams looming above the trees. The road continues to climb the flanks of this huge volcano. For the past two hours, I have not encountered any traffic at all. I am grateful that this road remains off the beaten path. After winding up the sides of the Cispus River valley, the road turns to gravel. My bike remains at ease, climbing confidently under my pedal strokes. The wide tires deal with the loose rocks without problems. I had planned to let out some air for the gravel section, but for now there is no need to do so.

The cool, foggy lushness of the valleys below is but a distant memory now. As I climb above 1,000 m (3,300 ft) in elevation, the trees are less dense, and even at 8 a.m., it is getting warm on this summer day. I realize that apart from my nylon shorts and my helmet, the scene could date from 1952, when this bike was new. It is likely that neither the landscape nor the road have changed since then. But it is not out of nostalgia that I have chosen the old René Herse for today’s ride. Last year, I rode my Rivendell with 700C x 28 mm tires on this brevet. With 18 km of gravel, and poorly maintained roads elsewhere, this year I knew I would be much happier on wider tires. The twisty descents require good brakes, and, with so much climbing, I wanted a bike that I enjoy riding.

The road flattens out a bit, and I use the lever behind the seat tube to engage the 48-tooth chainring. Where I bogged down last year on narrow tires, the bike now storms up the mountain with only an occasional shift on the rear to take care of variations in the slope.

The road steepens and turns into switchbacks, so I drop the chain back to the middle chainring. Shifting the lever-operated front derailleur is incredibly smooth, as it simply derails the chain, which then continues the shift on its own. The spring-less derailleur floats and always stays centered on the chain.

The top of the ridge comes into view, indicating that Babyshoe Pass is near. I stop before reaching the crest. Counting to five as I depress the valve, I let out some air to reduce the tire pressure to about 2.5 bar (37 psi). (I have practiced this a few days ago, so I do not have to bother with a pressure gauge on this ride.) The washboard is getting worse, and on the downhill, the extra shock absorption is worth the time lost adjusting the pressure. As I crest the pass, I look on my route sheet, then at my watch. It is 8:37 a.m, and I am exactly on schedule.

Descents on gravel roads usually are fun, but with the sun behind me, it is hard to see the washboard. Suddenly the bike hits the undulations and begins to shake violently. Deeper gravel on some switchbacks causes the bike to float. The messages coming up from the tires are very vague, and I wonder whether I will make it around. The secret here is to keep the bike pointing roughly in the desired direction and to let it float without overcorrecting. After a few kilometers, it is with relief that I find myself on pavement again. At the next intersection, I lean the bike against a signpost and inflate the tires. 45 strokes per tire… I notice that my bell has gone missing on the washboard. Even if I turned around, my chances of finding it would be slim. Fortunately, of all the pieces that could fall off this bike, the bell is relatively easy to replace. Next time, I will put some beeswax on the threads.

I look forward to what I remember as a long downhill to Trout Lake. Unexpectedly, the road rises and falls for a few kilometers as it winds its way along the flanks of Mount Adams. The rises are not entirely welcome, because I have exhausted myself a bit on the pass, and would prefer some easy spinning to recover. Soon the real downhill begins, and I am spinning comfortably in my largest gear (48 x 14, 6.98 m/88 in). The road here is very smooth. When I take my hands off the handlebars, the bike veers to the left. To ride no-hands, I have to lean my body far to the right. The bike usually does not do this, but I have replaced the wheels for this ride. Obviously, something is different – these bikes with little geometric trail are very sensitive to small misalignments.

Before long, I reach Trout Lake, a small town on the White Salmon River. Looking back, Mt. Adams still looms large. This control is ‘open,’ meaning riders can have their card signed at any business. I peek into ‘KJ’s Café,’ but it’s full of people sitting at empty tables, waiting for their breakfast. I realize that my needs are more easily met at the General Store, a cute building full of frontier charm. Unable to find apple juice, I buy Gatorade, fill my bottles 2/3 with water, and top them off with the electrolyte replacement drink. I remove the front wheel and reinstall it the other way around, hoping to cure the alignment problem. After 3 minutes, I am back on the road. Turning the front wheel had no effect, but fortunately, the problem only appears when I ride no-hands.

The route parallels the White Salmon River a little longer before going up Trout Creek. Instead of following the creek closely on a moderate grade, the road traverses very ‘humocky’ terrain with lots of ups and downs. The grades are not very steep, but the incessant undulations result in a lot of cumulative elevation gain. Always within the trees, it is hard work without offering the satisfaction of having climbed a mountain pass. After a while, the road turns into a single lane. Every mile or so, turnouts allow oncoming cars to pass one another. Even thought I have encountered only a car or two in the last hour, the narrow road requires vigilance when descending around the many blind turns. Every half-hour, I eat half an energy bar to fuel my body.

After riding in this featureless landscape for 30 km (19 miles), the route joins the Lewis River. Towering basalt cliffs and the stream gleaming in the sunlight provide a welcome change of scenery. Once again, the road follows the river only approximately, which means a series of climbs and descents. A few short gravel stretches add excitement to the descents, especially since the tires float a lot more at full pressure than they did on the descent from Babyshoe Pass.

I am working harder than I should. It is tempting to carry as much speed as possible on these smaller climbs, rather than bog down and climb each one individually. As a result, I am a little tired when I reach the next control, Northwoods, at lunchtime. A volunteer is just setting up the control, so I have my card signed at the store, buy some more Gatorade and two cans of Coca-Cola (no re-closable bottles available here), and head out after about 5 minutes.

I cross the Lewis River on a large bridge. On the gravel banks below, swimmers and sunbathers enjoy the sunny day. Before long, I reach the final, and hardest, climb of the ride: Elk Pass. It is hot now, approaching 32°C (90°F). The first switchbacks pass without problems, as I am climbing smoothly in the middle ring. Soon I realize that I cannot maintain this tempo, and switch to the little ring. Even that becomes hard to turn, so I stop to drink my second can of Coca-Cola.

A kilometer further, I realize that I am suffering from the dreaded bonk – a visit from the ‘Man with the Hammer,’ as the French call it, makes it difficult to continue. My vision blurs. Knowing that the climb is long, I decide to stop and rest for a short while, rather than suffer for the entire climb. I lay down the bike on the grassy shoulder, and stretch out next to it. Sweat is running down my entire body, dripping not just from my brow, but also my back, my arms and my legs. Clearly, I have overdone it a bit on the hills before the last control.

After a few minutes, I begin to feel better. I mount the Herse again, and continue the climb. Soon, the grade eases, and the bike surges ahead, beckoning me to shift into the middle ring. I am regaining my strength, and I begin to enjoy the climb again. When the trees open, I see the huge, hulking mass of Mount St. Helens across the valley. When Mount St. Helens lost its top in the eruption in 1980, the glaciers on its flanks lost their accumulation zone, where snow turns into ice that feeds the glaciers. Starved of ice, the glaciers disappeared. So instead of the cheery bluish white and grey of the other volcanoes, Mount St. Helens’ color is ashen grey.

The mountain soon fades from view as trees close in again. I reach a ‘secret’ control, where I see Amy Pieper again. After the solitude of the road, it is nice to see a familiar face. To my surprise, she inquires whether I have crashed. Only now do I notice that my jersey is covered with leaves from my rest next to the road. Apparently, Amy does not believe my explanation… I sit down on a folding chair, drink some more cold Coca-Cola, refill my bottles, and soon set off. Amy tells me that it is another 2 miles (3.2 km) of uphill. I pace myself for this distance, only to find that there are a few more kilometers of false flats at the top. Finally, I reach Elk Summit and plunge into the descent.

The next 16 kilometers are downhill, with very little pedaling required. Once in a while, I see Mount Rainier above the trees, but mostly, I have to concentrate on the narrow, twisty road with numerous washouts. The Herse shines on this descent, exhibiting exactly the right amount of stability – enough to run straight and stable when I need it, but not so much that I cannot make last-second changes in line to avoid a crack or hole in the asphalt. The cantilever brakes scrub off speed effortlessly where required, but the confident handling means that I rarely brake at all.

Before long, I reach the Cowlitz River valley again, exactly at the point where we entered the mountains this morning. All that remains are 26 km (16.3 miles) along the main road with a slight tailwind.

The afternoon sun bathes the bucolic valley in soft light. No more hills – no need to hold back any more! The short 165 mm cranks mean that pushing big gears is useless, but they are easy to spin even after having ridden for 11 hours. Without a bike computer, I wonder about my speed. I time myself between mile markers as I zoom along the valley. Every mile passes after 2:45 minutes. I calculate my speed: 21.8 mph (34.9 km/h).

As the mile markers pass with pleasant regularity, I reflect on the bike. It really works for me. Whether it is the low Q factor or the frame having just the right amount of flex, the Herse always beckons me to go faster. Even this far into the ride, it is easy to maintain my cadence and speed. Only the short reach to the handlebars compared to my other bikes causes my back to ache slightly after 11 hours on the bike. A longer stem would be useful, but even so, the Herse is an extremely capable and pleasant bike.

I have enjoyed this wonderful ride, but I am relieved as I enter the town of Packwood. I know I cannot maintain this pace much longer. At 4:49 p.m., I arrive in front of the hotel that serves as the final control, 11:49 hours after I started – a new course record. The bike is dusty, but apart from the lost bell, it is none the worse for wear.

Further Reading:

22 Responses to 15 Years Ago: Three Volcano All-Road Brevet

  1. Mike August 8, 2020 at 6:12 am #

    Great story! Surprised you ran the 38s at 55 psi on the road.

    • Jan Heine August 8, 2020 at 6:13 am #

      We all thought higher pressures were faster. Back then, I ran my road tires at 115 psi. 55 psi seemed incredibly low by comparison. Then, a year after that ride, we started testing tires and realized that the high pressures offered no benefit.

  2. Sweat Loaf August 8, 2020 at 6:19 am #

    I remember reading that piece over and over before heading out on tour which headed into Gifford with the intent of incorporating Baby Shoe Pass. I’ve since revisited those roads a few times and remain drawn to them. At the time that ride of yours, and the bike, seemed so different from anything I had done before. And certainly different from anything the bike industry was behind. I certainly couldn’t have imagined myself eventually taking in so many rides like that through randonneuring, bike camping/touring and just rambling. Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Richard Shannon August 8, 2020 at 6:28 am #

    Thanks Jan. Always liked this inspiring ride report. Third time I’ve read it and I still have the paper copy!

  4. Owen August 8, 2020 at 9:03 am #

    Great read Jan, is there still a GPS link to this route somewhere?

    • Jan Heine August 8, 2020 at 9:34 am #

      That ride was before GPS became widespread. It’s an easy route to recreate, so I’ll see whether I can put it on RidewithGPS.

      • Owen August 8, 2020 at 10:58 am #

        That would be great, I really hope to ride it someday. At my pace it will definitely be a two-day undertaking though 🙂

  5. John Duval August 8, 2020 at 12:39 pm #

    Were the tires vintage as well? I remember how hard it was to find quality tires in wider widths, much less 650b!

    • Jan Heine August 8, 2020 at 2:12 pm #

      When Bob Freeman of Elliott Bay Bicycles saw the Herse, he told me that he knew of tires that would be great for the bike. He then imported some Mitsuboshi Trimlines from Japan, and they were indeed very good compared to all the other wide tires available at the time.

  6. ayjaydee August 8, 2020 at 1:16 pm #

    You wrote: “Back then, there just weren’t any bikes for a ride with 12 miles of gravel and 180 miles of pavement. Except perhaps a mid-century René Herse with wide 650B tires… which is the bike Jan rode.”

    Surely the Bridgestone x0-1, the Rivendell All-Rounder, Rambouillet etc fit that category very well.

    • Jan Heine August 8, 2020 at 2:16 pm #

      There were definitely attempts to make bikes that straddled the mountain and road bike genres. Somehow, the 26″ bikes never caught on, maybe because there were simply no really high-performance 26″ tires available then. Avocet tried with the FasGrip City (?), but they were still comparatively heavy. Grant once told me that of the early Rivendells, only a tiny portion were 26″.

      The 700C Rambouillet was incredibly popular back then, but I recall it having been designed around short-reach brakes like the early Rivendell Roads, which limited tire clearance to about 28 mm. My own custom Rivendell had more clearance, so I could run 28 mm tires with fenders. That is the bike I had ridden the previous year, but I struggled on Babyshoe Pass in my smallest gear, whereas the Herse surged up the same section in the big ring…

      • ayjaydee August 8, 2020 at 3:13 pm #

        The X0-1held the world 24 hour off road record, the specialized 26 in fat boy was 32 mm, the road bike took a 32 mm with fenders and the All-Rounder (which I mentioned) took a much bigger tire than that.

  7. Bill Gobie August 8, 2020 at 2:03 pm #

    I had planned to run an updated version of Three Volcanos this year for the summer 300 brevet. The route is here: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/31818035

    This version visits Tahklakh Lake and avoids road 23. Road 23 carries a lot of car traffic and has been the scene of rude drivers causing riders to crash in the deep gravel on the sides of the road.

    From Trout Lake to Northwoods you can find more gravel by taking WA-141, Road 24/Twin Buttes Rd, Road 30, and Curly Creek Rd.

  8. Tim Nielsen August 8, 2020 at 3:52 pm #

    Wonderful story. Gone are the days for me, when I could “recover” and remount. Now I just try to get home and lay down on my front porch, long enough to recover and move inside to the couch! I also have a vintage bike with a certain ‘ je ne sais quoi’, a practically NOS 1972 Alex Singer (original cables even). The one thing I dislike about it are the bar-end shifters. I prefer downtube shifters. It is a rather large frame so the 700c wheels with 38mm tires look splendid. One thing I feel is often overlooked on modern reiterations are the stoutness of the forks. In the case of my old Singer the forks are incredibly delicate looking, as it sports the original spec front rack reaching up from the dropouts. Perhaps knowing the rack adds stiffness, the great builders of the past made the forks with this in mind?

    • Jan Heine August 8, 2020 at 4:35 pm #

      Your Alex Singer is one of the true classics. I’m surprised it has bar-end shifters – most came out of the shop in Levallois with downtube shifters.

      You mention the forks blades: Alex Singers used Reynolds 531 ‘Super Resilient’ fork blades that were very slender, at least until the mid-1970s, when Reynolds stopped offering them (or, more likely, Singer ran out of the old stocks they had left). The slender fork blades work great, even without a rack stiffening the fork. The Kaisei ‘TOEI Special’ fork blades we sell have similar dimensions. The difference in shock absorption – which affects both comfort and speed – is measurable. (We’ve measured it for Bicycle Quarterly.)

    • Korina August 9, 2020 at 12:15 pm #

      You know, you can buy clamp-on downtube shifters or mounts. Then your bike will be perfect. The beauty of those bikes is that everything is mounted to braze-ons that are placed just so. 🙂

      • Jan Heine August 9, 2020 at 12:43 pm #

        That’s always an option. But wouldn’t clamping anything to an Alex Singer be a sacrilege? The beauty of those bikes is that everything mounts to custom braze-ons that are placed just-so.😉

  9. Mike M August 9, 2020 at 6:46 am #

    “Aren’t those fat tires hard to push?” I heard something very similar on a group training ride back in 2018. I was on Rat Trap Pass extralights at the time, so no, they’re weren’t hard to push at all. 😉 It was a relatively short ~45 minute spin around the country roads surrounding the office park during our lunch break (in fact, one person dropped off early for a 12:45 conference call). I was in fact leading the pack several times on the ride, until I reached a point where “oh $%@&, I don’t know where I’m going” and slowed to let the leader catch up. That should’ve put to rest the concerns about my bike and tires for the big ride, the Pan-Mass Challenge in August; sadly, they kept coming. My solution: pedal faster 😉

    Also, thanks for e-printing this ride report. I missed it in print the first time around. I didn’t get clued in to BQ until ~2011. I always enjoy reading about the ’52 Herse and other high-performing vintage bikes.

  10. Sam August 10, 2020 at 10:00 am #

    It’s interesting that the cranks on this old Herse are 165mm long, even though it’s such a big frame size. My old Herse has a similar size frame and also has 165 cranks. I have seen a few others like this as well. Was this common on old René Herse or other randonneur bikes?

    • Jan Heine August 10, 2020 at 11:55 am #

      I’ve seen plenty of Herse bikes with 170 mm cranks… Unfortunately, we can’t ask René Herse about this. I suspect that if a rider liked to spin, Herse put shorter cranks on the bike. The fact that this bike has relatively small gears indicates that this may have been the case.

  11. Andy Stow August 10, 2020 at 1:28 pm #

    Jan,

    I’m curious what length crank you’d consider needing to make pushing big gears not useless. Surely the 6% difference between 165 mm and 175 mm wouldn’t do it? As I’m currently on 165 mm Rene Herse cranks, I’m wondering if this is something I should notice. But then, I’m not a very strong rider, and probably none of my bikes have what you’d call big gears. My highest is about 112 gear-inches, and I push that at some point nearly every ride.

    • Jan Heine August 10, 2020 at 1:34 pm #

      I don’t think the difference between 165 and 175 mm is very noticeable. It’s only a 6% difference. When I wrote that article 15 years ago, we still accepted much of the conventional wisdom about bicycles. I probably also would have told you that because of its low bottom bracket, the Herse cornered very well. (The difference in the center of gravity is so minuscule that it is impossible to feel.)