A Journey of Discovery, Part 6: The Way We Ride

In the previous parts of this series, we have looked at how our preferences in bicycles changed over time. More important is how the changes in our bikes have expanded the way we ride.
Indeed, we replaced saddlebags with handlebar bags, triple cranks with compact doubles, mid-trail geometries with low-trail ones, and medium-width 700C tires with wide 650B tires. But my joy lies not in arcane technical details, but in the changes this has brought to our enjoyment of cycling.
In 1999, a 16-hour ride was about the longest I could fathom non-stop. With our 28 mm tires, we could handle the occasional gravel road, but for the most part, we stayed on pavement. Corners always were fun, but we did not go out of our way to find twisting backroads.
Today, an all-night “transport stage” is an enjoyable way to begin a long ride. Riding for 24 hours non-stop allows us to experience places that are beyond the reach of even an all-day outing. Gravel roads offer a wonderful respite from traffic, as well as providing access to beautiful scenery. A challenging descent is worth an hour-long detour.
All this has been made possible in part by the bikes we now ride. The handlebar bags allow us to access our luggage while riding. The low-trail geometries require less concentration to keep pointed in the right direction. The precise cornering makes winding back roads especially engaging. Integrated fenders keep us dry even when it rains, and can be forgotten the rest of the time. The wide tires greatly increase the range of roads we enjoy, while rolling faster than the stiffer tires we used to ride. And technical progress has brought us generator-powered LED headlights that make riding at night much more enjoyable. In the end, it’s all about the ride, not the bike.
How has your riding changed in recent years?
Click here to go to Part 7 of this series.
Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.

Continue Reading

A Journey of Discovery, Part 5: Frame Stiffness

In the previous parts of this series, we have looked at how our preferences in bicycles changed over time. We started out on “state-of-the-art” bikes with mid-trail geometries, 700C x 28 mm tires and saddlebags. How did we come to prefer low-trail 650B bikes with much wider tires and handlebar bags? And is habituation stronger than optimization? In other words: Do riders prefer the bikes they usually ride, or are there bikes that really are superior, even if they are unfamiliar?
Both Mark and I never had cared much about frame stiffness. Then we tested a few bikes with oversize tubing and relatively thick walls. We were baffled by their relatively poor performance. It was framebuilders and constructeur Peter Weigle who suggested: “Maybe those frames are too stiff for you.” After a lot of thinking and even more riding of different bikes, I hypothesized that relatively flexible frames were easier to pedal, because they did not resist our pedal strokes. We could get in sync with the frame, pushing down harder during the power stroke. The frame stored the excess energy as it flexed, and returned it to the drivetrain during the “dead spots” at the top and bottom of the stroke.
I compared the phenomenon to a boat rising out of the water at a certain speed – “planing.” At a certain power output, some bikes felt easier to pedal even though I was going faster than before. Mark was skeptical. He was unwilling to give up the belief that frame stiffness did not matter at all.
Mark and I both agreed that a classic Columbus SL/Reynolds 531C frame offered a great ride. After all, how could decades of racers be wrong? Both my Singer and Mark’s new bike used those tubes, and we liked these bikes a lot.

Then came the first Terraferma test bike (above). It was a racing bike. I didn’t know anything about the tubing. The bike wasn’t particularly light. I didn’t find it very appealing at first, but I was surprised when I felt faster than usual when riding it. Was there something special about this bike, or did I just have a particularly good day when I rode the Terraferma?
To better assess the performance of our test bikes, Mark and I ride a loop around the north end of Lake Washington that has several long, sustained climbs. We usually are well-matched in our climbing speeds. On this day, Mark started on the test bike, while I was on my Singer. I was careful not to let on to Mark what I thought about the test bike to avoid biasing his judgment.
On the first long hill, I accelerated in two stages. As usual, Mark remained on my wheel for the first acceleration. When I looked back after upping the pace again, I couldn’t see Mark behind any longer. “Wow,” I thought, “Mark is gone. That test bike is not very fast after all.” Then I realized that Mark was in the blind spot on my other side, passing me. He shifted into a higher gear, and let out a laugh as he accelerated up the hill. Try as I might, I could not catch him.
Then we switched bikes, and it was Mark who was dropped, riding my Alex Singer. We added weight to the Terraferma, and it still was faster. So we hypothesized that it used lighter, more flexible tubing that made it “plane” better. I called Mike Terraferma, and he confirmed that the bike was made from “superlight” tubing, with walls that were about 0.1 – 0.2 mm thinner than those of the bikes we ride all the time. And Mark wrote an article for Bicycle Quarterly titled: “Confessions of a Lapsed Skeptic on Planing.”
We later conducted a double-blind test of three frames: two superlight and one from tubing like the bikes we usually ride (see photo at the top). The results confirmed what we had observed on the Terraferma: For Mark and I, the bikes with the superlight tubing were easier to pedal without our legs hurting during all-out efforts. We could go faster on them. (Our third tester could not tell the relatively small difference between the bikes.)
Both Mark and I were faster on the superlight bikes, even though the “standard” bike was very similar to the bikes we had ridden (and continue to ride) all the time. So from our experience, it appears that there is an “optimal” configuration out there. Of course, the optimum may vary depending on what you want to do with your bike.
That doesn’t mean that other bikes are no fun to ride. Both Mark and I still have the bikes we ordered in 1999. They still do everything we wanted them to do back then. However, we have found that we can ask much more of a bike than we ever thought possible.
Click here to go to Part 6 of this series.
Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.
Further reading:
– Double-blind tests of frame stiffness and planing, Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 6, No. 4.

Continue Reading

A February Ride

Last week, we went on a “training ride” into the hills northeast of Seattle. We met at 7:30 and rode to Snohomish (above). The valley of the Skykomish River was filled with cold fog, so a stop at our favorite bakery provided a welcome warm-up.

As we headed through the hills near Lake Roesinger, the frost was melting in the meadows, and the sun broke through the fog to start a glorious day.

February in Seattle isn’t always rainy! Matt’s on-bike photographs capture the gorgeous morning. (All photos by Matt Delcomyn.)
All winter long, we had been looking forward to one of our favorite roads. Reiter Road is a scenic, winding backroad that connects Gold Bar with Index. It runs high above the valley in a long series of short climbs and exhilarating descents.

Alas, the road was closed. A clogged culvert had caused a large washout. (Budget cuts in road maintenance don’t always save money.)  Fortunately for us, the road is needed as an alternative evacuation route for the town of Index, so it will be repaired. By next year, we should be able to return to Reiter Road.

We explored for an alternative route, and found a road that happened to go to a fish hatchery. From there, a pipeline maintenance trail led along the scenic Skykomish River.

When this dead-ended at a creek, we stopped for a picnic lunch. The photo shows (left to right): Hahn, Ryan, Jan. On the way back, we stopped at our favorite taco truck in Monroe for a second lunch. Riding in the cold makes you hungry!

While we don’t talk much about bikes on our rides, we do notice each other’s equipment. Matt was intrigued by the patina on Jan’s handlebar bag. It has been in daily use for a decade, yet it’s still waterproof.

The shadows were getting long as we headed into the hills that separate the Skykomish River from Lake Washington. It was dark by the time we got home. A day well-spent on beautiful roads in the company of good friends was ending!

For Seattle area readers, here is the essential part of our route. (Bikeroute Toaster does not display routes along bike trails; we took the Burke-Gilman Trail and the Centennial Trail near Snohomish.) See you out there!

Continue Reading

A Journey of Discovery, Part 4: Front-End Geometry

How did our preferences change from our familiar bikes with mid-trail geometries, 700C x 28 mm tires and saddlebags to low-trail 650B bikes with much wider tires and handlebar bags? In the previous parts of this series, we related how we found out about the advantages of handlebar bags, aluminum fenders, and supple, wide tires.
Then we discovered how much difference front-end geometries can make. Both Mark and I had ridden tens of thousands of miles on bikes with “mid-trail” geometries – about 55 mm trail with 700C x 28 mm tires. In 1999, we each had custom bikes made with that geometry, because at the time, we felt that they offered the best handling we had experienced on a bike. When an American bicycle maker asked Bicycle Quarterly about ideas for the perfect randonneur bike, I talked at length about lights and racks. When the maker asked about geometry, I replied: “Your slightly relaxed geometry probably is just about perfect for a randonneur bike.”
Then I started riding an old Alex Singer randonneur bike (see above) once in a while. The Singer surprised me: “Tricky” corners suddenly were less difficult. When I noticed a pothole too late, and thought that I would not be able to steer around it, I braced myself for the impact. To my surprise, the bike responded quickly enough to avoid the pothole. When I got tired, the Singer was easier to keep on a straight line – in fact, I could ride on the white painted “fog line” for miles with little concentration (see photo at the top of the post). Riding no-hands at moderate speeds was easier, too. This confused me: The Singer had “quicker,” more precise steering, yet it was more stable.
When I switched back to my normal bike after a single ride on the Singer, I found myself running wide in corners. I hit potholes that I thought I would miss. And the bike sometimes weaved unexpectedly when I was getting tired. Both bikes had a similar positions, both had handlebar bags, but something was different. To my surprise, the bike I rode all the time felt less intuitive than the new-to-me Singer.
That is when we started measuring geometries. We realized that the Singer’s geometry was anything but the “relaxed” geometry we had expected. The bike had a steep head angle and less trail than was common at the time.
During Mark’s first ride on my Singer, over a challenging stretch of road, he exclaimed: “Now I know how a bike should handle.” We both immediately preferred the “optimized” bike over the ones we usually rode.
This raises an interesting question: Is habituation stronger than optimization? Will a rider just prefer the bike they usually ride, or is there an “optimum” setup that will appear superior even to those who are not used to riding it? Based on our experiences with front-end geometry, we prefer “optimimized” bikes over those we usually ride.
I began riding the old Singer more and more, until it had replaced my usual bike. And Mark ordered a new custom bike altogether.

Mark’s new bike was designed around the Mitsuboshi 650B x 38 mm tires that I had used in the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris. It used the geometry of the 1952 René Herse that I had liked so much. Of course, Mark’s new bike was equipped with a handlebar bag and aluminum fenders. And by now, we also had discovered that we did not need very large gears. The “compact doubles” used on many classic randonneur bikes allowed us to ride most terrain in the big chainring, thus eliminating many front shifts.
Mark initially intended his new bike as a special bike for fast events. He planned to use his old bike on gravel roads, for touring and many other rides. In the end, he preferred his new bike so much that he rode it all the time. He even made a low-rider rack for it, so he could take it touring.
So by 2005, our “best bikes in the world” had been replaced by a 1973 French Alex Singer and by a modern bike inspired by a 1952 René Herse. But our journey of discovery was not yet over…
Click here to go to Part 5 of this series.
Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.
Further reading:
– Front-End Geometry for Different Loads, Speeds and Tire Sizes. Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 3.
– What Makes a Well-Handling Bike” with sample geometries for all applications. Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 5, No. 3.

Continue Reading

PBP Preparation: Planning Your Trip To France

If you are planning to ride Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) this August, you probably have started training already. We are adding some hills to our “base miles” now as the brevet season approaches.
Now also is the time to plan the trip. Booking airfares early usually results in less expensive tickets, and hotels often fill up early as well. Here are a few thoughts from my perspective after having completed three PBP rides, as well as talking to many other participants:
Packaged Tours?

Traveling in France is easier than you may think. Paris is accustomed to tourists, and most hotels, restaurants, etc., have somebody who speaks English. You will have little trouble getting around on your own. (Learning a little French still is a good idea.) There is little need to book a packaged tour.
On the plus side, a packaged tour will offer you peace of mind and help with getting your bike from the airport to your hotel. Negotiating the Charles de Gaulle airport is always challenging, and it’s not made easier by having to carry your bike up and down flights of stairs.
Staying in Paris or Saint-Quentin?
For me, the main reason to ride in Paris-Brest-Paris is to experience riding in France and being part of the history of Paris-Brest-Paris. If my goal was just to ride a 1200 km brevet, I could do this closer to home…
Paris-Brest-Paris now starts in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in the outer suburbs of Paris. The good part is that tired riders no longer have to navigate Paris traffic at the end of this 750-mile ride. The bad part is that Saint-Quentin is a “ville nouvelle,” a modern suburb  (see photo below) lacking the charm, museums, restaurants, cafés and parks of Paris.

Contrasting this, Paris is a city with more than 1000 years of history, and worth a visit by itself (see photo below). It is a good idea to arrive a few days before the start of PBP to get over your jet lag and acclimatise to France. I think it is more fun to hang out in Paris than in Saint-Quentin.

Photo ©Gary Johnston
From Paris, it is relatively easy to get to Saint-Quentin by train. The trains leave from the Gare St. Lazaire and Gare Montparnasse (near the Latin Quarter), which you can take into account when booking your hotel. You can find public transit connections in Paris at this web site.
The suburban trains in Paris take bikes – you just roll them on. (It’s more difficult, but possible, to take a bike on the Metro and RER trains.) Since your bike must be checked the day before the start, you get to practice the itinerary without any stress. (You can show up to the bike control at any time you want.) After that practice run, there is little risk of getting lost when you are going to the start of the actual event.
Riding your bike in Paris is a fun and easy way to get around, but finding your way through Paris’ suburbs can be tricky. Perhaps I’ll map a bike route from Paris to the start of PBP when the time approaches and put it in the blog.
On the other hand, if you enjoy socializing with other American, British and Australian riders, then Saint-Quentin is the place to be. You’ll be near the start, and from the finish, it won’t be far to your hotel.
No matter where you stay, you don’t have to pay for the hotel while you ride the event. Leaving a suitcase or two for a couple of days while you are on the road usually is no problem if you return to the hotel for a couple of nights after the ride.
Start Group?
If you are at all uncertain about making the time limits, choose the 90 hour start group. That way, you have ample time to complete the ride. For faster riders, there are two additional start groups: The 80-hour group starts ahead of the crowds, ensuring open roads and empty controls. Clean bathrooms, too. These two groups start in the late afternoon. The 84-hour group starts in the morning. Some riders do not like riding at night, and prefer this group. I have tried each start time. Here is what I found:

Photo ©Gregg Bleakney
84-Hour Start
For my first PBP in 1999, I chose the morning start. I slept poorly that night, afraid I’d oversleep. With the excitement of the event, I was not tired until 24 hours into the ride. So I went to sleep at 5 in the morning, and my daily rhythm was upset. Furthermore, as the morning group started last, I found many of the controls to be crowded as we ran into the main wave of riders.
80- and 90-Hour Starts
Since then, I have started in the evening. The day of the start, I get up late, then take a lunch-time nap, and still have plenty of time to arrive the start with little stress. (This year, PBP will start a few hours earlier, so I may have to go without the nap.) Most of all, I really enjoyed riding through the night to leave Paris on empty roads with little car traffic. When the day broke, I was in Britanny, right in the heart of this remarkable event.
Hotels along the Course?
PBP is a well-organized ride. All you need to do is show up at the start with your bike and about 200 Euros in your pocket. (Don’t plan to use credit cards or ATM machines during the event.) The Audax-Club Parisien keeps the entry fee low, and you pay as you go for food and other services.
Some riders book hotels along the course. While it may sound nice to have a clean bed and shower half-way through the ride, the potential drawbacks may outweigh the benefits. Not only does a pre-booked hotel room detract from the adventure of PBP, it also locks you into a schedule that you may not be able to maintain. I have heard of many riders who arrived at their pre-booked hotel room, but were not yet tired. Others got there so late that there was no time to sleep. Yet others spent an hour or two just finding their hotel, losing valuable time.
PBP controls usually are located in high schools. The gym has sleeping arrangements. For a few Euros, you get a cot and a blanket. (Bring earplugs, because some randonneurs snore.) A volunteer who will wake you up at a pre-determined time. During a randonneur ride, you stop only when you truly are tired, and that is all you need. Food is next door in the cafeteria, and you are back on the road without much delay. Key to this is arriving ahead of the biggest crowds. I will discuss strategies for staying ahead of the crowds in a future part of this series.
Which PBP start times and travel arrangements do you prefer?

Continue Reading

A Journey of Discovery, Part 3: Wide 650B Tires

How did our preferences change from our familiar bikes with mid-trail geometries, 700C x 28 mm tires and saddlebags to low-trail 650B bikes with much wider tires and handlebar bags? In the first two parts of this series, we talked about discovering handlebar bags and aluminum fenders.
Inspired by the old randonneurs, I decided to ride a tandem in Paris-Brest-Paris 2003. I had met a randonneuse from Toronto, Jaye Haworth, whose strength and souplesse impressed me. Our pedal strokes matched perfectly.
A few months before the event, my friend Hervé found a 1946 René Herse tandem in France. Wouldn’t it be neat to do the event on a classic machine of the type that had been associated with this event for so long?
So far, so good, but the old machine was equipped with wide 650B tires. On the one hand, accepted wisdom said that narrow tires were faster because they could accept higher pressures. On the other hand, in my research for Bicycle Quarterly, I had met riders on 650B bikes completing Paris-Brest-Paris in 50 hours or less, more than 50 years ago. If their bikes were slow, then their leg power must have been superhuman.

The only way to find out was to try it! I borrowed a lovely 1952 René Herse with 650B wheels (above, click on images for higher resolution). Bob Freeman of Elliott Bay Bicycles found some Mitsuboshi 650B tires that he claimed would offer great performance. I was skeptical – they looked like rather ordinary tires to me, with their wire beads and center-rib tread.
I rode the old Herse in our club’s season-opening 100 km Populaire brevet. The season opener was an eye opener as well: The Herse was surprisingly fast. Only one rider, on a titanium racing bike, could keep up. Our time was the fastest over that course so far. Clearly, the wide 650B tires were rolling at least as fast as the medium-width 700C tires that I used on my own bike. (The Mitsuboshi’s center rib in fact was cosmetic only, and not raised like those on many tires offering less performance.) And on the way home from the event, I was pleasantly surprised how little I felt the ridges on the Burke-Gilman Trail, where roots had pushed up the pavement. Speed and comfort, in the same tire!
We did ride the old René Herse tandem in Paris-Brest-Paris 2003. It was a lovely experience that left me (and my stoker Jaye) with a new appreciation for these old machines, and for wide 650B tires.
When Mark and I later tested tires for Bicycle Quarterly, we found that the tires we used on our own bikes actually were among the slower tires, while the wider and more supple 650B tires were significantly faster. Wouldn’t it be nice to ride those tires all the time?
Click here to go to Part 4 of this series.
Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.

Continue Reading

SKF Bottom Brackets: World Exclusive

Compass Bicycles is proud to be the sole distributor of SKF bottom brackets world-wide. Svenska Kugellagerfabriken (SKF) has been the leader in bearing technology since 1907. Today, SKF is the largest bearing manufacturer in the world, and their bearings are used in Formula 1 racecars and other high-end applications.
SKF’s ball bearings have been used on many of the best bicycles. Campagnolo’s famous ball bearings were made by SKF. Starting in the 1940s, Alex Singer and René Herse equipped their custom-made bottom brackets with pressed-in SKF cartridge bearings, because they were the best available.

When SKF decided to make bottom brackets, using the highest-quality bearings was a given. Bearings run smoothly only if they are kept clean and well-lubricated, so the company developed and patented custom seals that keep the grease in and contamination out. SKF designed the bottom brackets as completely integrated units. By running the balls and rollers directly on the spindle and shell, the design saves valuable space, allowing the use of larger bearings for greater strength and durability.
Why is this such a big deal? Many other high-end bottom brackets use standard bearings pressed onto the spindle and into the shell. There is only so much space inside a bicycle’s bottom bracket shell, so the ball bearings have to be much smaller (usually 2.8 mm diameter vs. 4.5 mm on the SKF). And many expensive bottom brackets don’t use any seals, relying on the dust seals of the bearings to keep them clean. These dust seals aren’t designed to keep out water… and they don’t. As a result, riders who ride through rain and snow have to replace their bearings annually.
SKF wanted to design a bottom bracket with a maintenance-free life expectancy of 10 years or 100,000 km (65,000 miles) under harsh conditions, so they had to address these concerns. They also made all parts from stainless steel or aluminum, so corrosion is not an issue.

With such an excellent product, SKF did not anticipate the difficulty of selling their bottom brackets. Without their own access to bicycle shops, the company relied on a variety of distributors world-wide, who often buried the bottom brackets deep in their catalogues. Without adequate promotion, sales lagged behind their targets.
When we heard that SKF might stop selling their bottom brackets, we offered to distribute the bottom brackets for the company. SKF bottom brackets will remain available directly from Compass Bicycles and through our network of quality bicycle shops. We are committed to keeping all available sizes in stock at all times. Below, you see our latest shipment from Germany as it arrived…

To reflect the superior quality of SKF bottom brackets, we have extended the warranty to 10 years or 100,000 km (65,000 miles), whichever comes first. This warranty includes the bearings. (We are unaware of any other maker of bottom brackets whose warranty includes the bearings.) We are confident that these are the best bottom brackets ever made, and we are proud to make them available to cyclists world-wide.

We now offer the Park BBT-18 installation tool, because it is important to use the correct tool when installing these bottom brackets. We aren’t making money on the tools (we sell them at a discount), because we want you to be happy with your SKF bottom brackets!

Continue Reading

A Journey of Discovery, Part 2: Handlebar Bags and Aluminum Fenders

In the last installment of this series, we looked at the bikes we rode when Bicycle Quarterly got started almost a decade ago. How did our preferences change from our familiar bikes with mid-trail geometries, 700C x 28 mm tires and saddlebags to low-trail 650B bikes with much wider tires and handlebar bags?
Influenced by Mike Kone (then of Bicycle Classics) and Grant Handley, I had admired the French cyclotouring bikes from René Herse and Alex Singer for a while. The consensus back then was that they were beautiful, but probably not great to ride. Except that nobody I knew had ridden one for any significant distance…
Paris-Brest-Paris 1999 was a bit of an eye-opener for me. At the finish, I bought Bernard Déon’s wonderful book Paris-Brest et Retour, which chronicles the history of this fascinating event. And there I learned about the amazing performances of randonneurs in the 1940s and 1950s, on classic cyclotouring bikes. I also visited Cycles Alex Singer, and saw bikes that were far more sophisticated than my own.
As I did more randonneuring, I realized that having my luggage accessible in a handlebar bag would be better than having to stop every time I needed something out of my saddlebag. However, I had heard that handlebar bags negatively affected the handling of the bike. How did the randonneurs in Déon’s book ride 765 miles with their full handlebar bags? I noticed that the French bikes all used a bag-support rack that securely mounted the bag as low as possible, rather than suspending a floppy bag from the handlebars high above the front wheel. On a return visit to Paris, I asked Ernest Csuka at Cycles Alex Singer about this, and he confirmed that a stiff rack was key to good handling with a handlebar bag.

When my frame needed some repairs, I used the opportunity to incorporate what I had learned. I had a custom rack made, as well as a decaleur. I made the correct braze-ons, and the builder added them to the fork. When I rebuilt the bike, I replaced the plastic fenders with aluminum ones, mostly because I preferred the way they looked. My bike now began to look like a French randonneur bike (see above, click on photos for higher resolution).
The handlebar bag was great, and with the rack supporting it, the handling was fine. The biggest surprise were the aluminum fenders. Not only did they offer more coverage, but they also kept the water inside, rather than have it drip from the edges. My feet (and my bike’s chain) stayed much drier and cleaner. And they were lighter, too! I began to realize that the French constructeur bikes were not just about aesthetics, but also about function.

My friend Mark also saw the advantages of a handlebar bag, and came up with his own solution: He attached a second (threadless) stem to his original one. Where the steerer tube usually goes, he inserted a short length of PVC pipe. Now he had a secure, low mount for his Ortlieb handlebar bag. And soon thereafter, he also installed a set of Honjo aluminum fenders. For the time being, we were very happy with our bikes.
But our journey of discovery was far from over…
Click here to read Part 3 of this series.
Click here to return to Part 1.

Continue Reading

A Journey of Discovery, Part 1: What We Used to Ride

We sometimes hear people criticize our technical analyses:
“Bicycle Quarterly’s testers simply prefer they bikes that they ride most. You get used to anything, and then you prefer it.”
“Jan has got his preferences. He started a magazine so he could have a place to talk about them.”
The reality is a bit different. Both our main testers (Mark and I) started riding seriously on racing bikes. Mark had a Cannondale; I had a classic Bianchi and later a Marinoni. Mark rode triathlons; I raced for 10 years and did some triathlons and cyclocross as well. I even toured on my racing bike.

In 1999, in part due to Grant Petersen’s influence, we both had come to realize that (slightly) wider tires, fenders and lights offered more versatility for the riding we enjoyed. Even though we didn’t know each other yet, we independently ordered almost identical state-of-the-art custom bikes with:

  • mid-trail geometry
  • 700C x 28 mm tires
  • plastic fenders
  • triple cranks
  • Carradice saddlebags

We selected the best components for our bikes, and we both were convinced that we owned the best bikes in the world. I rode about 20,000 miles on my bike, including the 1999 Paris-Brest-Paris (see photo above and top) and many brevets and long-distance races.

Mark rode at least as far on his machine. Those were the bikes we rode when Bicycle Quarterly got started almost nine years ago. We still have those bikes. They still are very good machines, but the bikes we enjoy most these days are quite different.
How did we come to prefer bikes with

  • low trail
  • 650B x 42 mm tires
  • aluminum fenders
  • compact double cranks
  • handlebar bags

over a short period of just 8 or 9 years? It has been a remarkable journey of discovery, which we’ll share in this series. How have your preferences changed in recent years or decades?
Click here to read part 2 of this series.

Continue Reading

A New Book on Cycles Alex Singer

From 1938 until today, Cycles Alex Singer has made some of the most wonderful bicycles ever made. (I may be biased, since I ride my 1973 Alex Singer randonneur bike more than any other bike.) Alex Singers have been appreciated especially by Japanese cyclists. This new hardcover book celebrates Cycles Alex Singer, seen through a Japanese lens.

On 168 pages, the large-format book shows studio photographs of 44 Alex Singer bicycles. The highlight is the machine that won the 1946 Concours Duraluminum technical trials (above, click on images for higher resolution). Weighing only 6.875 kg (15.16 lb) fully equipped with fenders, rack, lights and even a pump (but without tires),* this probably was the lightest “real-world” bike ever built. Detail photos show how every part was modified to save weight. Even the pedal bodies were cut away, exposing the spindle and bearings.
Renovating this bike was Ernest Csuka’s last project before he died in late 2009. This book is an homage to this builder, who was the soul of Cycles Alex Singer for half a century. Between the studio photos of the bicycles are historic photos of Alex Singer bicycles in action and wonderfully evocative views of Ernest Csuka in his shop.

Most of the bikes featured in this book were built during the last two decades for Japanese customers. At first sight, they look like historic machines from the 1940s and 1950s, because they are outfitted with classic components like Cyclo derailleurs, Stronglight cranks and Maxi-Car hubs. Only some details of the frame construction (and their serial numbers) give away their recent age.
Reprints of Alex Singer catalogues with their artful Daniel Rebour drawings complete this book. The text is in Japanese, but a (sometimes rough) English translation of a few chapters is included with the book. The texts don’t offer much new, certainly not an in-depth history of Cycles Alex Singer, and they contain a few errors. Even so, I enjoyed Olivier Csuka’s reminiscences of visiting suppliers in the Paris region with his mother.
For Alex Singer aficionados and those who appreciate beautiful bikes, this book is worth the price for the photos alone. We expect an airshipment of books in the next two weeks, and the rest should arrive in late February/early March. Each large-format (9.25″ x 12″), hardback, full-color book costs $80. Pre-order your copy now.
* Lightweight bicycle tires were available only on the black market in 1946, so the bikes were weighed without tires and tubes to level the playing field. For comparison, the lightest randonneur bike Bicycle Quarterly has tested, with carbon fiber frame, fork and fenders and a titanium rack, weighed 8.825 kg (19.46 lb) without tires, or 1.95 kg (4.3 lb) more than the 1946 Alex Singer.

Continue Reading

Preparing the 2011 Cycling Season

Happy New Year! After my December rest period, it’s time to start training for the 2011 cycling season. Whether you race and prepare for a specific event, whether you plan to ride your first double century or brevet series, or whether you want to be in shape for a week-long tour, having a goal gives the season a nice focus.
It’s like being a farmer: You sow your crops, you tend them as they grow, and it all culminates in the harvest. Similar to the seasonal cycle that allows the soil to replenish itself, a seasonal training cycle allows you to “peak” and reach a top form that is far higher than the form you can maintain throughout the year. For me, this keeps cycling interesting, and prevents burn-out and boredom.
My goal for 2011 is Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), the 765-mile ride in France. PBP is in August, so I have outlined my training roughly as follows:

  • January through mid-March: base miles
  • Mid-March through early June: endurance (qualifying brevets) and speed training
  • Mid-June through late July: speed training
  • Early August: rest
  • Mid-August: Paris-Brest-Paris

To stay with the farming analogy, it’s time to sow right now, to work on my basic form. Having a good base provides a sound foundation for working on speed and endurance later in the season. Training hard without a base often causes injuries or excessive fatigue.
My base miles consist of a weekly ride of 80-120 miles with a friend or two, at a moderate pace, with a stop at a café along the way. For now, we stay on relatively flat roads. Bike trails are great for this sort of training. It’s nice to revisit lowland roads and trails that we haven’t ridden since last January. (We don’t miss much doing this, as the mountains aren’t accessible right now anyhow… see the photo above taken near Paradise, Mount Rainier, in May.)
This also is the time to think about changes to your equipment. Are your handlebars comfortable? Do your feet get numb? Do you have the right gearing? Are you thinking about adjustments to your position (longer/shorter/higher/lower stem, etc.). Do you plan to get a new bike? Making changes now enables you to fine-tune them during the base miles, rather than when the events of the season start in the spring. You also can try out new nutrition on these rides. My goal is to have well-honed equipment and strategies when the season starts.
Most of all, I enjoy these casual rides with friends. Spending a day on the bike really does keep the winter blues at bay. What are your goals for the season?

Continue Reading

Handlebar Width

A few people have asked about handlebar width in our handlebar discussion. Compass handlebars come in widths between 40 and 46 cm, which may appear narrow by some standards.

Many riders, even very tall ones, prefer relatively narrow handlebars. Above is my friend Ryan, who is 6′ 4″, riding on 41 cm-wide Randonneur handlebars (click on the photo for a bigger version). On his previous bike, he used 46 cm-wide carbon handlebars, but he loves the improved comfort of the narrower Randonneur bars on 24+ hour rides. (His new bike also has a different steering geometry that requires less leverage to guide the front wheel, see below. By the way, all measurements in this post are center-to-center.)
Ryan’s bars are narrower than his shoulders, but human elbows articulate, and we can adjust to different handlebar widths without restricting our breathing. Otherwise, no racer would climb with their hands on the tops of the bars, where they are much closer together than even the narrowest handlebars. Andy Schleck seems to be breathing just fine in the photo below. He wore the yellow jersey in this year’s Tour de France…

From the 1930s until a few decades ago, most riders used handlebars that would be considered very narrow today. Fausto Coppi was 6 feet tall, and he rode 40 cm-wide handlebars. (My height is similar, and I also prefer narrow handlebars.)
Contrasting this, handlebars as wide as 46 cm were popular in the 1920s, when front-end geometries had a lot of wheel flop. The extra leverage of the wide bars may have helped to keep those bikes on course. By the 1930s, head angles got steeper (which reduced wheel flop), and handlebars became narrower. When I measured the geometries of all the bikes featured in our book The Competition Bicycle – A Photographic History, I found a strong correlation of handlebar width with wheel flop, rather than with rider size. Handlebars became wider again in the 1970s, when wheel flop increased as geometries were adjusted for narrower tires.
Aerodynamics can be another reason to choose narrow handlebars. When we tested “real-world” bicycles in the wind tunnel, we found that frontal area is the most important factor in determining wind resistance. Wider handlebars increase your frontal area, and thus probably increase your wind resistance. Aerobars are so effective because they put the rider’s hands closer together, and reduce the frontal area, as well as shielding the cavity formed by the rider’s chest.
Handlebar width is influenced by many factors, including personal preference. We recognize that many riders today like wider handlebars, that is why we offer 46 cm-wide handlebars. However, we encourage you to try narrower handlebars – you may like them.
Click here to learn more about Compass handlebars.
Note: This post was updated in September 2016.

Continue Reading

Urban Delivery

My favorite bookseller called and said: “We just sold the last copy of The Competition Bicycle, and there is a gaping hole next to your other book in our window display.” There was only one thing to do:

I loaded up the trusty Urban Bike with a 40-lb box of books and headed toward downtown Seattle. On the narrow bike path on the Ballard Bridge, I appreciated the secure handling of this bike even with a heavy load.

Approaching downtown, I rode on the scenic trail along Elliott Bay, with Mount Rainier in the background. (Click on the image for a larger version.)
Rides like these are among the most valuable. They allow me to get away from my desk for a few hours, breathing fresh air and restoring my spirits. I really appreciate having a great bike made specifically for rides like these. A scenic ride in the mountains probably would be fun on any bike, but on these urban rides, a great bike doubles the fun. I used to pull a Burley trailer when I had to carry a box of books, but my rides were more a chore than recreation.

On a bike, you meet interesting people. This afternoon, I rode with a young chef from El Salvador commuting to work. (He took the action photos you see above.) We stopped briefly to admire the setting sun on this beautiful autumn day.

A steep climb took me from the Pike Place Market to downtown Seattle. The road here is rough, but my wide tires glided across the broken bricks and cobblestones.

At Peter Miller Books, it’s always inspiring to browse the wonderful architecture and design books on display. It’s even nicer to chat with Peter Miller.

As I headed home, Peter Miller was placing one of the books I had delivered in the shop window.

Continue Reading

Free Priority Mail Shipping Upgrade

At Bicycle Quarterly, we get to review almost every cycling book that is published. We select only the best books for sale in our online bookstore.
Buy any two books from the Bicycle Quarterly bookstore, and receive a free upgrade to Priority Mail shipping to get your books in time for the holidays. (Select “Media Mail” in the check-out basket, we take care of the upgrade.)
The offer is good through 12/22/2010. (International customers: Delivery times are longer, sorry.)

Continue Reading

PBP 2011: "We Hope to Accommodate All Riders"

Many randonneurs are planning to ride in Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), the famous 765-mile ride in 2011. The next edition of PBP will bring some changes to deal with the large number of participants. PBP is organized by the Audax-Club Parisien (ACP), the influential cycling club founded in 1903. The ACP created the Randonneur PBP, the Flèche Vélocio 24-hour rides and many other events. Today, the ACP continues to issue the rules for all randonneur brevets world-wide and validates the results.
I recently spoke with Jean-Gualbert Faburel, president of the ACP, about the 2011 PBP and other randonneuring topics. Translated from French:
JH: Many randonneurs are worried that they may not get to start in the upcoming Paris-Brest-Paris, even if they complete the qualifying brevets. Will there be many randonneurs who cannot enter the event due to a rider limit?
Faburel: We hope to accommodate all riders who want to participate in the 2011 PBP, but we will do this only under two conditions: 1. We find the means to accommodate more than 6000 people. 2. The French government does not impose a rider limit. Today we are assuming 6000 starters, a number which may increase or decrease. We hope that we won’t have to turn anybody away.
JH: If there is a problem in PBP, it’s the crowding in the controls just before closure time. Riders who already are at the time limit spend hours in line at the check-in, at the cafeteria, at the bathrooms, etc. Do you have any ideas to improve that situation?
Faburel: To reduce the waiting at the controls, we have chosen a new control system. There still will be a brevet card that is stamped, but the magnetic card will be replaced by a chip that is attached close to the rider’s foot. The chip will be detected automatically when the rider enters the controls. We also will open new facilities between Loudéac and Carhaix, at Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem. This will not be a control, but only a spot to eat and sleep. We are looking for similar facilities on other parts of the route.
JH: The Audax-Club Parisien (ACP) has a glorious past. You created the “allure libre” brevets, the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race that proved the superiority of derailleurs over other gear changing systems, the Flèche Vélocio… A strong emphasis on performance runs through all these events. Does this spirit still exist at ACP?
Faburel: The “performance” spirit still is at the heart of the Audax-Club Parisien, but we are open to all forms of cycling. Above all, we believe that the bike is a wonderful vehicle to discover new landscapes and new people. Friendship and friendliness are our primary goals. With that in mind, we can enjoy riding fast from time to time – why not? But it’s important that it remains friendly.
JH: In the Flèches Vélocio, many teams ride the minimum of 360 km and stop on the way to sleep (only for two hours with the new rules). You have done a Flèche with many more kilometers. What was your goal? And how do you see the spirit of this event?
Faburel: The rules of the Flèche Vélocio have been poorly translated into English. We are looking at publishing a new translation to improve the understanding of this event. Many people think the goal is to ride 360 km in 24 hours. However, the goal is to ride 24 hours without stopping, more or less, and to do the maximum distance the team can do. The basic principles of this event are: 1. Creating a team spirit, starting with the preparation, to enjoy a great cycling experience in a group. 2. Complete a beautiful randonneur ride, even with difficult weather. 3. Arrive at a wonderful destination to meet other riders, and have a good time together talking about our rides… or anything else!
When I participate in the Flèche Vélocio, my team usually rides more than 600 km, but we carefully choose our route so that it is as flat as possible. Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

Avoiding Numb Hands

Hand numbness can spoil the most wonderful long distance ride. A cyclist’s hands can get numb from vibration and pressure.
The first step is to eliminate as much vibration as possible near the source (road surface). Supple, wide tires, run at moderate pressures, are key. Flexible fork blades and suspension are less effective at absorbing high-frequency vibrations, but they can absorb bigger bumps. Cushy handlebar tape is ineffective at absorbing vibrations, but it can reduce pressure.
Why are vibrations easiest to absorb at the source? It is relatively easy to stop a few grams of tire contact patch from moving up and down. This insulates the rest of the bike from the vibrations at the road surface. If your tire doesn’t absorb the vibrations, then your entire front wheel moves up and down a few hundred times every second as it rolls over rough pavement. These forces are then too large to be absorbed elsewhere.
Imagine somebody throwing a peanut at you: It is easy to catch with one hand. Now imagine having to catch a 5 lb weight – much harder. That peanut at the road level becomes a 5 lb weight at the handlebars, if the whole front of the bike vibrates.
Pressure can cause nerve damage in your hands, making them numb or tingly. When you look at the nerves in your hand, you see that there are only a few nerve endings in the base of your thumb, making this area ideal for resting on the handlebars.

The “on the ramps” hand position (behind the brake hoods) supports your weight with the base of your thumb, and therefore tends to be very comfortable (see photo at the top). This works best with handlebars that have flat ramps to support your hands well in that position.
Moderately soft handlebar tape can help distribute the pressure of your hands as they rest on the handlebars. Also, your hands should rest on the bars, rather than grip them tightly. Wrap your fingers around the bars loosely for safety on rough roads.
Beyond that, it helps to switch hand positions from time to time, so that you don’t put pressure on the same spot for too long. Furthermore, raising your handlebars or tilting your saddle nose slightly upward will prevent you from sliding forward and putting more pressure on your arms and hands. (However, tilting your saddle upward may cause other problems for some riders…)
Numb hands can lead to lasting damages. With the right technique and equipment choices, numb hands usually can be avoided even on rides as long as Paris-Brest-Paris (765 miles non-stop).

Continue Reading

Mr. Pedersen – A Man of Genius

David Evans spent more than a decade researching the life of Mikael Pedersen, who is best known for his unconventional bicycles. I have been fascinated by these machines since we photographed a rare racing version for our book The Competition Bicycle (see photo below). I have ridden a reproduction Pedersen, and to my surprise, the unconventional design worked quite well.

David Evans’ book doesn’t have studio photos, but it’s full of historic images and fascinating anecdotes. When Pedersen designed his bicycle, he built a prototype from wood, and rode it for thousands of miles! Later, he built a cycling track in the garden of his house to train and to test bicycles.

I marveled at the Pedersen quadruplet, the record-setting exploits of “Goss” Green on a Pedersen that was not just equipped with pedals, but also with oscillating handlebars that powered the front wheel, making his bike an all-wheel-drive machine! Over 224 pages, David Evans traces the ups and downs of Pedersen, whose brilliant inventions were not limited to bicycles. Until now, the book hasn’t been available in North America… so we decided to add it to our online bookstore.

Continue Reading

Bicycle Quarterly Press Around the World

Does this book look familiar? Look again: It’s the German edition of The Competition Bicycle – A Photographic History, published by Covadonga in 2009. Our books and Bicycle Quarterly are being read all over the world. Here are a few examples:

The Times (London, UK) mentioned Bicycle Quarterly’s article on Tour de France speeds and bicycle technology in a recent issue of their monthly science magazine Eureka.

Omega Lifetime, the magazine of the famous Swiss watch maker, focused their latest issue on sustainable technology. They featured both The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles and The Competition Bicycle… Click on the links above for more reviews of these books. And if you are in North America and want a copy of the German edition, contact us. We have a few for sale.

Continue Reading

Preparing for 2011 and PBP

At this time of year, we reflect on the cycling season that just has ended, and make plans for the next season. For me, the highlight of 2011 will be Paris-Brest-Paris. The famous 765-mile ride still is 9 months in the future, but now is the time to begin preparing for the upcoming season, whatever your goals may be.
I don’t ride much during most of November and December. It’s important for my body and mind to recover and rest, so that I can start the new year fresh and excited about cycling. It’s not that I have stopped cycling altogether: I still go on a leisurely 60-mile ride with a friend or two every 7-10 days. It’s nice to get out, and I don’t want to lose my body’s adaptation to cycling. Otherwise, my cycling consists of commuting for deliveries to local bookstores and bike shops, to pick up mail, etc.
So what do I do during the “off-bike” season? My core strength and flexibility are not what they should be. This is a common problem among cyclists that can manifest itself in knee problems (from the kneecap being pulled out of alignment by tight hamstrings and muscle imbalances) and even in shoulder, neck and hand pain (due to the upper body not holding itself up on the bike, and resting too heavily on the arms and hands).
To work on core strength and flexibility, I do a combination of yoga and strength-building exercises. It’s not something I greatly enjoy, but it makes for a much better cycling season. I try to fit in 5-10 minutes every day, doing stretching exercises recommended by a physical therapist together with others learned in a yoga class, plus some push-ups and sit-ups. Running also seems to help my core strength, so I go for a run twice a week, including some stairs (can’t resist that cycling-specific training!).

I poked around online a bit, and Bicycling magazine has an article on core strength with some exercises that could serve as a good starting point. Most of us know what we need to work on… and now is a good time to lay the foundations to a successful season. How do you prepare your 2011 season?

Continue Reading

Oregon Manifest Technical Trials 2011

The 2011 Oregon Manifest Constructor’s Design Challenge will be held in Portland, Oregon, on September 23-24, 2011. The goal is to determine what the ultimate modern utility bike looks like and who can build it.

The 2009 Constructor’s Design Challenge was an innovative event that focused on riding bikes over a challenging course. Inspired at least in part by the famous French Technical Trials, the Challenge awarded points for desirable features. Unfortunately, the penalties for “problems” were inconsequential in 2009, even though several bikes had racks coming loose, fenders breaking, unsuitable tires, and a host of other problems. Thus, the on-the-road test was instructive to observe, but neither on-the-road performance nor failures influenced the final results.
Over the last year, it appears that the Oregon Manifest crew has examined what worked in 2009 and what needs to be improved. I hope that there will be clear rules, published months before the event, so that builders can determine their likely scores as they design their bikes. Performance on the road should be required (for example, by imposing a minimum speed), and failures should be penalized. One thing probably should not change: The course was both challenging and scenic (see photo above), and it truly tested the bikes. The 2009 event was great fun, but with some careful fine-tuning, the 2011 event has the potential to be much better. I really look forward to next year’s Challenge. More info is at the Oregon Manifest web site.

Continue Reading

A Neat Bike

When I was working with Peter Weigle on an article on fender mounting for the Winter 2010 issue of Bicycle Quarterly (now at the printer), Peter sent me a photo of his latest bike (above). His bikes always have been special, but on this one, I noticed a lot of features that went beyond what you commonly see even on custom bicycles.
The rack clearly shows the influence of Jo Routens, the legendary constructeur from Grenoble. The entire bike is an alluring mixture of old and new. The frame is made from a vintage tubeset, including my favorite Reynolds 531 “Super Resilient” fork blades that make my Alex Singer so comfortable. Here they are combined with our fork crown to provide room for 42 mm-wide Grand Bois “Hetre” 650B tires. The tires themselves have been “shaved,” removing the tread to make them even more supple and even faster.
The hubs are Campagnolo Tipo hubs. Inspired by Campagnolo’s first high-flange hubs, Peter drilled extra holes into the flanges. Instead of quick releases, Peter’s special wing nuts hold the wheels in the dropouts. The Stronglight cranks have been reshaped and profiled to remove excess material.
The shellacked handlebar tape covers what look like 1950s Philippe “Professionel” handlebars. The Shimano aero brake levers are not to my taste, but they offer undeniable advantages on the road. Functionally, they harmonize well with the old Mafac cantilever brakes.
At the back of the seat tube is Peter’s custom-made taillight. (The front light is hidden by the tires in the photo above.) The rear reflector is a vintage item from Peter’s collection, as are the reliable Simplex seatpost and the superlight Huret Jubilee derailleurs.
While I admired all this, I did not even notice the fender attachments until Peter pointed them out to me. The fender stays are flush against the fender, and the drawbolts do not appear to have cups. This is not just elegant, but also provides optimum support for the fender.

I had seen this arrangement on a few special French bikes, but never really had figured out how it worked. So I asked Peter about it. From that came the a Builders Speak article for the Winter issue, in which he shares some of the secrets of his fender installation. On Peter’s bikes, the details tend to be subtle, but they all combine to create a bike that is very elegant. And judging from the Weigles I have ridden, it probably rides as well as it looks. Click here for more photos on Peter’s bike.

Continue Reading

COMPASS BICYCLES: Components for Real-World Riders

At Bicycle Quarterly, we sometimes discover products that are superb, but nobody imports them to North America. Or our research indicates that certain classic components work better than those available today, but nobody is making them.
We have suggested some of these products to existing manufacturers. I told Paul Price how wonderful centerpull brakes were, and sent him a set of Mafac Racers. The Paul “Racer” centerpull brakes were the result. In other cases, we have imported cycling components to make them available to North American cyclists. For example, we now import Grand Bois tires and components, as well as SKF bottom brackets. There are plenty more components that we would like to have available.
We are starting Compass Bicycles Ltd. to provide these components. Compass Bicycles will take over the bicycle components from Bicycle Quarterly Press, which focuses on publishing the magazine and books. In addition to the components already on offer, we are working on a number of new components.
Compass Bicycles’ first new products are the 650B fork crowns with matching Kaisei “Toei Special” fork blades. These classic fork crowns provide the right amount of tire clearance for 38-41 mm tires. The crowns are a reproduction of those used by René Herse and Alex Singer, which have proven themselves over decades of hard use.

The fork blades use the “Imperial Oval” cross section at the fork crown for strength, and a small diameter in their lower half for optimal shock absorption.

The small diameter near the bottom also makes them easy to rake to a graceful curve, as on this fork raked by Mark Nobilette for a René Herse bicycle.

For the future, I dream of a Nivex derailleur, with constant chain tension, superlight weight, and immediate, light-action shifting due to its twin-cable operation without a return spring.

I still use Maxi-Car hubs on my bikes, with twin labyrinth seals and adjustable cartridge bearings. A cassette-hub version of these would be nice. I also would like to see a centerpull brake with forged arms for light weight and safety, so that riders no longer have to scour eBay for “new old stock” Mafac “Raid” brakes.
As before, the Bicycle Quarterly team will develop and test all components before they become available. You will know that the components you buy from Compass Bicycles have proven themselves over thousands of kilometers. Check out the new web site www.compasscycle.com.

Continue Reading

Farewell to the Mountains

Autumn is a melancholy time. In Seattle, it is hardly noticeable, as the weather gradually gets cooler and wetter. But in the Cascade Mountains, the change of the seasons is swift and spectacular: Cold nights turn deciduous foliage into bright hues of yellow for a brief time, before snow falls and closes most of the scenic passes until June or July.
What better way for a last farewell ride than to string together many of my favorite roads? My pre-PBP-year* training usually includes a ride at least 3/4 as long as the event itself, so I quickly mapped a 930-km course. The route out of Seattle isn’t exactly the one I followed, as some roads are closed for cars, and the mapping program doesn’t allow using them (click here for course).
* Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1200-km (765-mile) randonneur event held every 4 years in France.
Last week, the forecast predicted snow levels dropping to 3000 feet, and I realized that my last chance for this ride had come. Without much time to plan, my route sheet for the unfamiliar parts of the ride was a bit rudimentary, but navigation in the mountains isn’t complicated since there are few roads.

Next came planning my schedule. I prefer to descend mountain passes in daylight. Not only can it be very cold descending for half an hour or more in late October, but the fall colors cannot be enjoyed at night. I jotted down a quick schedule and worked out that if I left around 4 in the morning, I could cover all but one pass in daylight, and might even get back in time to tuck my children into bed the following evening. The schedule was even rougher than the route sheet, as I did not adjust the average speeds for the terrain. My actual times are in the last column, which will help me plan future rides along these roads. (Click on the images for larger versions.)

So I left at 4:30 in the morning. After enduring morning commuter traffic (fortunately headed the other way), I reached Orting just after sunrise. Orting is the last of the suburbs, where the landscape transitions to meadows and forests. I turned off the highway. Fog was rising from meadows heavy with dew, and blue skies above were announcing a gorgeous autumn day.

“My favorite roads” was the theme of this ride, and few are more favorite than Orville Road along Ohop Lake. Its gentle undulations lent a nice rhythm to my effort. I enjoyed looking at the beautiful patterns of light and shade on the pavement. Between the trees, I caught glimpses of the meadows, lakes and even Mount Rainier in the distance.
Skate Creek Road is another favorite, and well worth the two-hour detour it took to get there. During my first summer in Washington, I rode and hiked almost every inch of this valley as I mapped its glacial geology. Under the bucolic cover of trees are the scars of an eventful past, with landslides, floods, debris flows and other events eroding and depositing material, as is visible in the photo in the river bank. Today, I just enjoyed the views of Mount Rainier at its barest, before new snow covers its flanks.

The sign at Bear Prairie reminded me why it’s always an effort to get there. Almost imperceptibly, the Nisqually River valley climbs 1200 feet in just under 20 miles.

Skate Creek Road then drops 700 feet in a few miles. It’s not so steep that you can coast, but the gradient helped me speed along. I took the challenging turns (below) at good speed, and that was great fun.

In Packwood, I turned westward again, taking in some recently discovered side roads as pleasant alternatives to the main highway. In Randle, I turned south toward Mount Saint Helens.

I passed the sign that announces 30 miles of beautiful, almost uninterrupted, mountain climbing. It starts with shady, curvy Forest Road 25 (below).

Forest Road 26 (below) is even better than FR25, since it sees almost no traffic.  It is a steep, single-lane ribbon of asphalt that winds up the slopes of the mighty volcano, Mount St. Helens. Every time I start this climb, I feel that the outcome of the battle between cyclist and mountain is slightly uncertain. Will I make it?

This time, I climbed smoothly and stopped only once, briefly, to stretch my legs on the steepest stretch. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I reached Norway Pass and joined the “main” road to Windy Ridge. The blasted trees from the 1980 eruption make this area a bit desolate. The lack of trees allows you to look over the Cascades and see the volcanic peaks of Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood in the distance (see opening photo). It’s a rare feeling of being on top of the world. The descents on the return from Windy Ridge are spectacular, with the road forming a continuous string of curves that test the bike’s handling to the limit.

I resisted the temptation to take one scenic photo after another. October days are short, and my schedule called for descending Forest Road 25 before dark.
After a brief rest stop in Packwood, where the food is best forgotten, I headed up Cayuse Pass, then Chinook Pass. Mount Rainier was gleaming in the moonlight, and for almost two hours of climbing, I did not see a single car. Even though it was warm for an October night, I wore every bit of clothing I brought for the descent from Chinook Pass: wool shorts, Windstopper leg warmers, wool tights, wool socks, booties, two long-sleeve wool jerseys, rain jacket, fleece gloves, shell overmitts, skull cap and helmet. Tonight, the long descent offered views of the valley below and of the rocky slopes in the silvery light.

My small digital camera could capture only the moon, which is why you don’t also see Mount Rainier in the picture above. I understood why Ansel Adams kept coming back to the western mountain ranges in the moonlight… It’s magical, especially on a warm night like this one.
When I finally did feel sleepy, I stopped in Cliffdell, removed my helmet and lay down on the porch of a shop for a short nap. I fell asleep immediately. I woke up because I was getting cold. I checked my watch: Only 9 minutes had passed, but I was ready to go.
I try to find backroad alternatives to the main highways, but I hadn’t investigated this area on a map yet. As “luck” would have it, a massive landslide has blocked the main highway, and traffic was re-routed over an older road that meanders along the river. Eventually, the highway will be rebuilt, but I will continue to use that backroad.
My hasty preparation let me down in Yakima.  My cue sheet showed a “T-junction.” I anticipated that junction for a long time… until I found myself on the main highway to Yakima again. After more than an hour riding on various highways, I found a gas station and borrowed a map. I realized that my “T junction” was actually a small sideroad to the left in the middle of a curve to the right. I had followed the road to the right, and never noticed the small sideroad I should have taken.
It was with great relief that I finally found myself on Canyon Road toward Ellensburg. Canyon Road is lovely, but the moon had set, and it was too dark to see much. I enjoyed the road rising and falling along the sides of the canyon, although I was distracted with thoughts of breakfast. One of my favorite restaurants, the Valley Cafe, is in Ellensburg. I arrived at 7 in the morning; alas, the cafe opened at 11. Instead of breakfast, I got to fix a flat tire at a grocery store! A long thorn had punctured my tube.
At least it was a gorgeous morning. My misfortune in Yakima had put me behind schedule. I decided to forgo the short detour over Old Highway 10 that loops above the Yakima River. Instead, I headed straight toward old Blewett Pass. The old road up this pass blends into the landscape: You can barely see it in the middle of the photo below.

The mountain continuously tries to reclaim this road. I rounded a sharp bend and came upon a few rocks that had fallen onto the road. I was reminded once more why I prefer bikes that allow adjusting their line in mid-corner. Good brakes are useful, too.

Favorite roads aren’t always super-spectacular. Sometimes, they just provide a pleasant alternative to a major highway. Between Peshastin and Leavenworth, there is a lovely road winding its way on the glacial terraces above the Wenatchee River (below). Who wouldn’t rather ride through the orchards up here than on the busy highway in the valley?

I haven’t found any alternatives to most of the main highway up to Stevens Pass, but traffic was light, the shoulder was clean, and the trees had beautiful fall colors.

I reached Stevens Pass as the light began to fade on the second day of my ride.

On the other side of the pass, the old highway remains intact for many miles, often just a hundred feet from the busy highway. Instead of trucks thundering down the grade, you hear the burbling of a brook, which eventually will become the mighty Skykomish River. That evening, lots of chipmunks scampered off the road as I approached.

I zoomed through Skykomish, then took the side road to Index. I climbed over Reiter Road as the sun was setting in the Puget Lowland far to the west. Reiter Road is perhaps the crown jewel of any ride. I was afraid that after more than 800 km on the road, I would regret taking this rolling road instead of the downhill highway, but the opposite happened. I felt inspired by the road, and it mobilized energies I did not know I had. This invigoration carried me all the way to the outskirts of Seattle. I was home before midnight (the kids already in bed, though), and I was back at my desk the next morning.
Two days later, the snow started, and today, the passes were covered in snow.
This also completed my PBP training for the year. Now I will rest for two months until I start training again for the new season with a focus on PBP. In the coming months, I will talk about preparing and training for this wonderful 1200 km event.

Continue Reading

Science and Bicycles 1: Tires and Pressure

Most cyclists are interested in improving their bike’s performance, because rolling along at considerable speed while expending relatively little effort is one of the great appeals of cycling. Before you can improve your bike’s performance, you need to know what makes your bike faster, and that is where science comes in. Science is a fascinating process. Here is how we determined that higher tire pressures (beyond a certain point) don’t make your bike faster.
Science usually starts with a hypothesis. In 2005, the German magazine TOUR published performance tests of racing tires, and found that at 50 km/h (31 mph), the differences between racing tires were relatively small. Looking at the data, I realized that at more moderate speeds, the differences in rolling resistance could be quite significant. We designed a roll-down test. Our preliminary results showed that some tires rolled much faster than others. We refined our test protocol, and started testing dozens of tires (see BQ Vol 5 No 1 for more details and complete results).
Science also is hard work: Mark Vande Kamp rode up and down the same hill about 300 times over the course of several months, always in the early morning, when the chances of zero wind are greatest. And several times, we got up at 4 a.m., set everything up, only to have a slight wind rise despite a forecast of perfect conditions… All we could do is go back home. (And because our test track was next to a BMX practice track, we had to sweep the pavement – all 245 m of our test hill – the evening before to create a clean surface for testing.)

We also tried to find out how much performance improved with higher tire pressures. We knew that higher pressures are less comfortable, so we wanted to find out just how much speed you give up for that added comfort. To our surprise, the answer was: “None.” We found that higher pressures beyond a certain point did not make the bike roll faster. This was counter to our and almost everybody else’s expectations…  To rule out that these results were just noise in the data, we did more tests of different tires at various pressures. The results were consistent with our previous tests. Statistical analysis showed us that the results were highly significant, that means, they are unlikely just noise in the data.
Suspension Losses
The next step was to develop a hypothesis that explained what we had observed: Suspension losses are caused by friction in the the rider’s body tissues as they are vibrating. Higher pressures cause more vibrations, and hence higher suspension losses. This appears to cancel any gains at higher pressures from reduced flexing of the tire (hysteretic losses), as the tire deforms less at the contact patch as the wheel rotates.
This hypothesis also allowed us to explain why the drum test results were different – by neglecting the suspension losses, they measured only one half of the equation.
To test this hypothesis, we had to establish that suspension losses really were a significant factor, rather than some theoretical construct. (OK, the U.S. army already had established this for vibrating tank seats, but we had to show that it happens on a bicycle, too.) We did this by testing power output at constant speed on a smooth and on a very rough surface, side by side (see photo below). The differences were huge. On the rough surface (rumble strip), our rider had to put out 290 Watts more than on the smooth surface (right next to the rumble strip). That means that 290 Watts were lost through vibrations of the bike and rider’s body.

The Army studies had shown that energy absorption in human bodies was directly correlated to discomfort. After having ridden up and down our test hill 300 times, Mark wasn’t keen on riding 11 miles on rumble strips. That task instead fell upon me. I was able to confirm the Army’s results on the discomfort of absorbing hundreds of Watts as your body vibrates. Did I mention that science is hard work?
As a side effect, the suspension loss tests confirmed once again that higher pressures don’t make the bike faster even on very smooth pavement. And this time, we tested with a power meter instead of a roll-down test. So we had confirmed the results with two different methodologies. (This is much more powerful than just reproducing our initial results, which simply means running the same tests again, and finding the same results. We have done that as well, multiple times.)

After all this testing, we now can say with great certainty that increasing your tire pressure (beyond a certain point) does not make your bike faster on road surfaces that range from very rough to very smooth. In fact, on very rough road surfaces, higher pressures are a lot slower than lower pressures, because the suspension losses are so great. On most surfaces, tire pressure (beyond a certain point) simply doesn’t make a difference in speed.
Optimized Tire Pressure
Our initial tests even established at what point the performance no longer increases with higher tire pressures. For most tires and on “average” roads, this point appears to be a little higher than the 15% tire drop measured by Frank Berto. Note that the loads are given per wheel, not for the entire bike.

This means that Berto’s values are a good starting point for experimenting with tire pressures. If you want to optimize performance, you may want to go a little higher. If you are mostly concerned about comfort, you might prefer a tad lower pressure.
As always in science, there remain open questions. Is this cut-off point the same for different tires? Or do stiff tires benefit from higher pressures more than those with supple sidewalls? After all, a stiffer sidewall takes more energy to flex, so reducing that flex by all means may be helpful, even if it makes the bike vibrate more. Or is it the opposite, that stiff tires vibrate so much that running them at lower pressures is better, even if it increases the losses due to tire flex? Rest assured, we are working on this…

Continue Reading

Oregon Handmade Bicycle Show

The Oregon Handmade Bicycle Show was a celebration of finely crafted bicycles. With natural overhead light in a former industrial building, the bicycles were displayed well. Tony Pereira (above) showed a replica of his Oregon Manifest-winning commuter machine with its integrated lock.  We hope to get this one for a test soon.
About 2 dozen builders showed interesting bikes. It was nice to see Mark DiNucci active again, with the most finely thinned lugs I have seen on a bike. The paint motif on this 1970s (?) frame caught our attention.

Show organizer Andy Newlands of Strawberry Bicycles asked us to bring an “interesting classic bike.” We were able to bring a 1952 Rene Herse (below). Riding this bike years ago persuaded us of the virtues of the “constructeur” approach to building bicycles that combine the speed of a racing bike with the versatility of wide tires, fenders, racks and lights. It’s a bike Bicycle Quarterly readers rarely have seen in its entirety, but its geometry, its integrated rack, the way the chainstays bend around the wide 650B tires and fenders, and many other features have been shown in the magazine to illustrate technical articles. One could say that there is a direct lineage from the old Herse to many of the bikes on display, including Mitch Pryor’s MAP which we tested for the current issue of Bicycle Quarterly. Seeing that MAP at the show was like greeting an old friend – I rode this bike more than any other BQ test bike to date.

Most of all, BQ contributor Hahn Rossman and I enjoyed seeing old friends, meeting many BQ readers, as well as discussing bicycles with fellow cyclists.

Continue Reading

Carbon Fiber Handlebar 911

Emergency Roadside Repair in 3 Easy Steps

Materials required:
• wooden stick
• steel strap
• big rock
• 5 mm Allen wrench (optional)
Time required: 25 minutes.
On a spring-time ride in the Cascades, we took a side road from Sultan to Gold Bar in the Skykomish River Valley. Our destination was Index, and we were looking forward to the fabulous Reiter Road that runs high on the hillsides above the valley between Gold Bar and Index. Presently, the road turned to gravel, and then we found ourselves in the railyard at Gold Bar. Suddenly, Ryan crashed.

His front wheel had picked up a steel strap, which locked up the wheel. Ryan fell over at low speed. He was relatively unhurt, but his carbon-fiber handlebars broke in half when they impacted the ground. (Here is a photo of Ryan on his carbon-fiber bike.)
We were 80 km (50 miles) from home, so our repair had to be durable enough to get back to Seattle safely.

Step 1: We found a stick of suitable diameter and jammed it into the handlebars. We had to remove the rear brake, because the cable was too short to get the broken end onto the stick. Ryan’s handlebars had a groove for the brake cable, so the cross-section wasn’t round, and the stick was not a perfect fit. The stick served only to preserve the alignment; it was not strong enough to support the weight of the rider on the handlebars.
Step 2: We decided to splint the handlebars like a broken bone. Fortunately, a railyard is full of useful materials. A steel strap was perfect for the job.

A big rock served as a hammer to form the strap into an “L” profile, giving it more strength. The gap between two rails served as a vise. (This was a siding, there was no danger of being run over by a freight train descending Stevens Pass.)

Step 3: We carefully removed the handlebar tape and used it to wrap the splint tightly onto the handlebars. Ryan had gel tape on his handlebars, which we used to cover the sharp edges of the steel plate.

We used two toestraps to secure the splint further. It certainly looked odd, but the bike was ready to ride. We didn’t want to press our luck, so we decided to forego the final, most beautiful leg of our ride, and instead turned back toward Seattle.

The ride home was uneventful. Ryan still could use his right shift lever with confidence, but wasn’t so confident resting his weight on the hoods or drops. Fortunately, the lever for his front brake was on the intact left end of the handlebars, so his braking was not impaired. Of course, this is only a temporary fix. Ryan replaced the handlebars for his next ride. Use your judgment before riding with similar repairs.

Continue Reading

Seattle to Portland through the Backdoor

Recently, I had to return a Bicycle Quarterly test bike to MAP Cycles in Portland. I really don’t like boxing up bikes, and very much prefer to ride them. Boxing a bike takes half a day, riding to Portland about a day, so it was an easy choice to ride to Portland.

Seattle to Portland (STP) is a popular ride that draws thousands of riders every year. The 320 km (200 miles) ride goes through the densely populated Puget Lowland. It’s flat, but not what I would call scenic. I love riding in the mountains, away from traffic and civilization. So I designed an alternate course to the STP route, which minimizes the time spent on busy roads. (Click here for a course map.)

I left Seattle after dinner, and rode on empty roads through the city and the industrial areas of Renton. Then I continued on empty winding roads to Orting and Eatonville. I skirted Mount Rainier and stopped for a resupply in Morton just past midnight. In Randle, I turned toward Mount Adams on Cispus Road. With a new moon and cloudy skies, the landscape outside the beam of the MAP’s Edelux headlight was so dark that I rode through the hamlet of Cispus without noticing it. The gravel road up Babyshoe Pass was rougher than I remembered, but the MAP’s  650B x 42 mm tires coped very well after I had reduced the tire pressure. Daybreak saw me approaching Babyshoe Pass. I had not seen a car in at least 4 hours.

A huge grader was parked on the pass, so hopefully the road will be better next time I ride it.

The sun rose, and by 8:20, when I rolled into Trout Lake, it was the beginning of a beautiful day. I arrived in perfect time for breakfast at the general store.

From here, the back road to Carson winds through the forest, with occasional views of Mount Adams in the meadows.

There was almost no traffic. Soon, a sign appeared that delights riders of Allroad bicycles:

Unlike the gravel on Babyshoe Pass, Carson-Guler Road road was smooth. After the rain of the previous days, the gravel was soft, so once again, I let out some air from my tires to increase floatation. After a few hours, I was back on pavement, with a magic, twisty descent toward Carson. The MAP handled beautifully and the wide tires (re-inflated to their normal 40 psi) hugged the undulating pavement. Sunlight filtered through the trees, dappling the pavement with a beautiful pattern of light and shade. I could have continued to ride like this for hours…

After an early lunch in Carson, I crossed the Columbia River on the Bridge of the Gods. I huge wind was blowing down the gorge, but fortunately, the MAP’s geometry was not overly affected by the crosswind.

The name “Bridge of the Gods” stems from a Native American legend of an ancient stone bridge that crossed the river here. One day, during a quarrel between two gods over a beautiful maiden, the earth shook, and the bridge collapsed. Its stones fell into the water, where they formed the rapids of The Dalles. More recently, geologists have found evidence of a giant landslide that dammed the river, forming the “bridge.” Eventually, the mighty Columbia River breached the dam, and the bridge was destroyed.

On the south shore of the great river, a series of trails leads along Interstate 84. Going west, I had to travel about two miles on the shoulder of the freeway, the rest was on trails and then the beautiful Historic Columbia River Highway. This road winds its way through the forest, past the famous waterfalls, crossing bridges with art nouveau railings that are covered with moss: The road was built in the 1920s, and today sees little traffic as most drivers use the Interstate highway that now parallels it. The old road then climbs in a wonderful series of switchbacks to a series of scenic overlooks.

To think that most travelers to Portland drive on the freeway and never get to see these views… The old highway ends in the suburbs of Portland, but fortunately, Marine Drive along the river has a wonderful bike trail that got me close to the center of town. I arrived at Mitch Pryor’s MAP Bicycles in the afternoon, after 21 hours on the road. I had a little less than two hours to freshen up, buy dinner and walk to the train station for the ride home.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable ride. If you think of riding from Seattle to Portland, I recommend taking an “inland” route away from traffic. If your bike is ill-equipped to handle gravel roads, you can go from Randle up Forest Road 25 to Elk Summit, and then continue to Randle via Northwoods.

Continue Reading

Welcome to Our New Blog!

In this space, I’ll blog about what is going on at Bicycle Quarterly: Rides we do, how we keep our bikes on the road, new products, glimpses of topics in upcoming issues of the magazine and more. BQ’s contributors will feature occasionally as well. We welcome everybody to join us through the comments section. Enjoy!
Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Continue Reading