Archive | A Journey of Discovery

1952 Rene Herse – Ancestor of Our All-Road Bikes

It’s hard to believe that it was 20 years ago when I first got to experience a 650B all-road bike. The bike in question was a 1952 René Herse Randonneuse. I had been curious about the bikes from the great French constructeurs, but there weren’t many around. And those who collected them treated them as art objects rather than performance bikes to enjoy on the road.

Then I rode my first Paris-Brest-Paris in 1999. At the finish, I met the late Bernard Déon, the historian of PBP, and bought his book about the incredible ride I had just completed. And there I read that riders like Roger Baumann had ridden René Herses through wind and rain in the 1950s, completing the 1200 hilly kilometers (750 miles) in 50 hours or less. As a first-time PBP rider, speeds like those seemed impossible – and they weren’t far behind the fastest riders in modern PBPs.

So when the opportunity came a few months later to sample one of these mid-century bikes, I leaped at it immediately. Continue Reading →

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80 Years of Rene Herse Cycles

When Compass Cycles became Rene Herse Cycles earlier this year, many cyclists wondered: Who was René Herse, and why is his work relevant today? Here is the story of how René Herse and his bikes have inspired modern all-road bikes:

Eighty years ago, René Herse entered the cycling world with a splash when he entered the lightest bike in the 1938 Concours de Machines technical trials (above). Fully equipped with wide tires, fenders, rack, lights and even a pump, this amazing machine weighed just 7.94 kg (17.50 lb). Not only was Herse’s bike incredibly light, it also was strong: The Concours included 680 km (425 miles) of hard riding on rough mountain roads, with penalties for any parts of the bike that broke or stopped working.
Gravel roads in the mountains, spirited riding, carrying the supplies for your adventures: This sounds exactly like modern all-road riding and bike-packing! René Herse loved this style of riding, and he designed his bikes and components specifically for it.

Who was René Herse? During the previous decade, he had worked at Breguet, France’s leading aircraft builder. He made parts for prototype aircraft, including the famous ‘Question Mark,’ the first plane to fly from Paris to New York, in 1930.
We all know about Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight in the other direction, just three years earlier. Lindbergh was aided by powerful tailwinds. Going the other way was much, much harder.

The ‘Question Mark’ had three times the horsepower of Lindbergh’s ‘Spirit of St. Louis,’ yet it took seven hours longer to make the trip. The two pilots landed in New York after more than 37 hours of non-stop flight (above). It was a monumental achievement, and all his life, René Herse treasured the medal he received for his part in this success.
Applying the knowledge gained from working on planes, Herse designed and made lighter, stronger bicycle components. The Concours de Machines was the best place to perfect them.

During his premiere in 1938, René Herse’s bottom bracket – one of the few unmodified parts of his bike – developed play, costing him first place. He wasted no time to develop a better bottom bracket, with pressed-in bearings that lasted for decades. At the 1947 Concours, his bike (above) won, with zero technical problems after hundreds of high-speed miles on gravel roads in the French Alps.

Based on the experience of the Concours de Machines, Herse developed bikes that stood heads and shoulders among the machines that had come before. They were superlight, extremely reliable, and beautiful. He equipped them with his own components and with supple, handmade tires that he sourced from specialist makers.

Herse’s specialty were randonneur bikes, but the quality of his frames wasn’t lost on the biggest names in racing. More than a few came to the workshop in Levallois-Perret, just outside of Paris, to order frames. Lyli, René Herse’s daughter, told me how world champion Briek Schotte waited for the final assembly of his bike the day before a big race, eating a sandwich “as long as my arm.”

Herse supported his own team of randonneurs, who dominated the cyclotouring competitions of the 1950s and 1960s. The photo above shows Robert Demilly (front) and Maurice Macaudière on the way to setting a new record in the 1200 km Paris-Brest-Paris in 1966. Their time of 44:21 hours for this incredible distance (which translates to 750 miles) remains competitive even today.

Lyli Herse was an incredibly strong rider herself: She won no fewer than 8 French championships. When she wasn’t racing, she worked in her father’s shop, building wheels and managing the component supply.

After Lyli retired from racing, a few young women asked her for training advice. Lyli formed a team that continued her successes – including two world championship titles by Geneviève Gambillon (above).

Herse also continued to build bikes for adventures that spanned entire continents: Paris to Istanbul, a trip across Northern Africa, the West Coast of the U.S. by tandem…

After her father’s death, Lyli took over Rene Herse Cycles. She was married to Jean Desbois, who had been Herse’s best framebuilder in the 1940s and 1950s, and again in the 1970s. Together, they continued to build amazing bikes until Jean’s health problems forced them to close the shop. When the word spread that this might be the last chance to get a Rene Herse, Lyli received so many orders that Jean had to work out of their house for two years to complete the bikes.

I met Lyli through my research into the bikes her father had built. When we started to explore the gravel roads of the Cascade Mountains in the early 2000s, we realized that Herse’s amazing machines provided a perfect blueprint for the bikes we needed. So I contacted Lyli Herse…
At first, Lyli wasn’t sure what to make of the young American who wanted to talk about her father, but when Jaye Haworth and I rode a 1946 Rene Herse tandem in the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris, she warmed up and agreed to meet me.
Over the next 15 years, I visited Lyli and Jean many times. I learned everything I could about René Herse and what made his bikes so special. Jean explained how to make the iconic stems and how to bend the tubes for the racks and for the amazing Chanteloup tandem frames. Others who had worked at the shop shared additional information, and interviews with suppliers shed more light onto the production processes.

Rummaging through Lyli’s garage in search of parts and tools, we came upon two suitcases of photos: the Herse family archives, compiled by her mother. Seeing the bikes, the workshop and the riders in these amazing images was the last piece in the puzzle of researching Rene Herse Cycles. Our acclaimed book René Herse • The Bikes • The Builder • The Riders was the result.
During one of my visits, Lyli told me that she worried about the future of the Rene Herse name. She had no children, and she was afraid that after her passing, the name might be used in ways that her father might not have approved of. She now wished that she had sold the brand and passed it on to a successor. As she looked at me intently, I realized that she was asking me to continue Rene Herse Cycles.

I was not yet ready to take on that responsibility, so I brokered a deal between Lyli and my friend Mike Kone to take over the name, while I bought the remaining tools, documents and other physical assets of the company. Mike made a few Rene Herse bikes in Colorado, before the brand reverted to me.

That is how Rene Herse Cycles was reborn in the Cascade Mountains. Inspired by Herse’s famous originals, we’ve introduced cranks, brakes and other components that are ultralight and offer excellent performance. We’ve developed wide, supple high performance tires that allow us to traverse entire mountain ranges.

When the Concours de Machines was revived in France, we joined forces with J.P. Weigle to enter a bike in the spirit of the great constructeurs. Combining Peter’s mastery with Herse’s designs, the bike was the lightest to finish the difficult event, and one of the few that didn’t have any technical problems. Lyli was proud when we visited her after the event.

Sadly, Lyli died last year, on the day that would have been her father’s 110th birthday. We lost a dear friend, who surprised us during every visit – such as when she gave Natsuko and me a rose from her garden in 2016.

As Rene Herse Cycles is reborn in the Cascade Mountains, it’s our goal to keep the brand as relevant in the future as it has been for the last 80 years. Like Herse, we enjoy spirited rides far off the beaten path. Our riding experience has defined our philosophy: Only the very best is good enough. Performance is more important than fashion. And when our bikes are beautiful, we want to ride them more. These are the principles that guided René Herse. They continue to guide us today and into the future.
Further reading:

Photos are from the Rene Herse book, except: Natsuko Hirose (Photos 1, 12, 13, 20), Maindru (Photos 14, 16), Nicolas Joly (Photo 19), Duncan Smith (Photo 21).

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All-Road Bikes are the Road Bikes of the Future

All-road bikes with wide tires are the hottest trend in cycling. There is a level of excitement that we haven’t seen since the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s: These new bikes bring new people into the sport, who are enticed by the idea of cycling on small roads, away from traffic. The new bikes combine what people love about road bikes – effortless speed – and mountain bikes – go-anywhere ability – without the drawbacks. These bikes have the potential to transform the bike industry.
Like most trends, this one didn’t start within the industry. Bike manufacturers only reluctantly adopted wide tires on performance bikes. Even then, they called them ‘gravel bikes,’ in the hopes of selling one to every cyclist, in addition to the ‘road,’ ‘mountain,’ and ‘cyclocross’ bikes they already owned. But ‘gravel’ was too limiting a term for something that is much more than just a bike for the special condition of riding on gravel.
Recently, bike companies have adopted the name ‘all-road bikes,’ a term we coined way back in 2006, when we realized the potential of wide tires on performance bikes. It’s great to see cycling luminaries like Richard Bryne (founder of Speedplay) say: “The potential of this bike category cannot be underestimated.” He predicts that all-road bikes will “dwarf the previous road and MTB categories in scale and relegate them to the two margins of the market spectrum.” 
In other words: All-road bikes will becomes the go-to bike for most cyclists. Racing and mountain bikes will move to the fringes of the market, used for very specialized applications where all-road bikes reach their limits.

Bryne is not the only one to feel that way. Gerard Vroomen, the founder of Cervelo, sold his company – famous for its narrow-tire racers – to start two all-road bike ventures. Together with Andy Kessler, he started a new company, Open, and introduced the iconic U.P. (for ‘Unbeaten Path’). And he bought the former handlebar maker 3T and introduced the company’s first bike, the all-road Exploro. These bikes take the performance of modern carbon racers and add the ability to run ultra-wide tires. And both have had more influence on the bike industry than any other bike of the last decade. Vroomen’s characteristic dropped chainstay – to create room for wide tires between narrow road cranks, he moved the chainstay out of the way – has been cropping up on bikes from many mainstream manufacturers. The Open web site exclaims: “Go anywhere fast!”
We said similar things back in 2006. Our tire tests had shown that wide tires could roll as fast as narrow ones – provided they used a supple, high-performance casing. At the time, a road bike with wide tires seemed like a ludicrous idea to most. The very definition of a road bike was that it had narrow tires!
And yet, we became convinced that road cycling’s future rolled on wide tires. We coined the name ‘allroad bike’ (at first without a hyphen) to explain our vision: a new type of bike that was a road bike, but designed to go on all roads, not just smooth, paved ones.
The problem back then: There were no high-performance bikes designed for wide tires. Not even the tires themselves existed: The only wide tires on the market were heavy, stiff touring models – a far cry from the supple high-performance tires we envisioned. Our first task was to make the tires available. Then we asked the industry to build all-road bikes around the new tires.

Road Bike of the Future?
That was the title of our test of the Tournesol (above) in Bicycle Quarterly. We wrote: “Our test bike this month may well be one of the first of a new breed of ‘Allroad’ bikes: road bikes with wide tires that ride as fast as racing bikes on paved roads, and faster than cyclocross or mountain bikes on unpaved roads.”
That was in Autumn 2006. The first ‘allroad’ bike had a titanium frame, 650B wheels, and its disc brakes presaged the future. The brand itself was a short-lived collaboration between BQ reader Douglas Brooks and Seattle’s Steve Hampsten. With updated colorways and components, this 13-year-old bike could pass for a current all-road bike. Put some modern rubber on it, and its performance would be very much up-to-date, too.

And yet it’s not like we came up with something that had never existed before: We may have coined the name ‘all-road bike,’ but high-performance bikes with wide tires weren’t a new idea, even in 2006. Our research was inspired by mid-century constructeurs like René Herse – above on his amazing 7.94 kg (17.50 lb) bike during the 1938 Concours de Machines. Wide, hand-made tires; bags strapped bikepacking-style to a superlight rack; flared drop handlebars – Herse’s bike wouldn’t look out of place on a gravel adventure today.

René Herse wasn’t the first to discover wide, supple tires, either. Way back in the 1890s, bicycles became popular once pneumatic tires revolutionized their speed and comfort. The change was so profound that old bikes with narrow solid rubber tires were henceforth called ‘Boneshakers’! The whole idea behind putting air in your tires was to run wider, more supple tires. The first pneumatic tires measured about 43 mm wide – not very different from the tires many of us run on our bikes today!
So fast were the pneumatics that you couldn’t win a race without them. During the first Paris-Brest-Paris – back then still a professional race – all of the first three riders were on pneumatics, even though the technology was still brand-new! Never since has a change swept through the cycling world with such speed.

Why did tires become narrower over time? Already in the 1920s, Vélocio, the editor of the magazine Le Cycliste, joked about the ‘pneu crayon’ that most racers used: narrow, made from stiff rubber, and pumped up to the highest pressure possible. Even on the rough roads of the Tour de France (above), racers used tires that measured little more than 28 mm.
Vélocio brought back wider tires for a while, but by the 1950s, most riders were on narrow rubber again. That trend continued until recently. Why was the joy of riding on a supple cushion of air forgotten time and again?
I think the answer lies in a powerful placebo effect: Pumping up your tires harder makes your bike feel faster, even if it isn’t. Here is how it works: Your bike vibrates as your tires hit road irregularities. The faster you go, the more bumps your tires hit per second – the frequency of the vibrations increases. This experience conditions us to equate higher frequencies with more speed.
When you pump up your tires harder, the frequency of the vibrations also increases. You get the same effect as you do by going faster, except your speed is the same – but you feel faster. Conversely, a wide tire at low pressures feels slower because the vibrations that we equate with speed disappear.

In a group with well-matched riders, you realize that even though wider tires may feel slower at first, they actually aren’t. In fact, racers were among the first to put Bicycle Quarterly‘s research into practice: Soon after we showed our test results to a technical advisor who worked for several North American pro teams, the (Canadian) Cervelo team started riding on 25 mm tires. Other North American teams followed suit, and a few years later, even the European teams started to race on 25s. Now many are moving to 28s…
For racers, it’s easy to check speed. If you can hang with the group, even though you’re riding wider tires, you know that the wider tires aren’t slowing you down.

For the rest of us, the placebo of ‘high pressure = high-frequency vibrations = high speed’ can be unlearned. I no longer feel any slower on my Firefly with its 54 mm tires (above) than I do on a racing bike with 28s.

That brings us back to the original question: Are all-road bikes just a trend? Will their time come and go, like so many other bike categories that were hot for a while before the next big thing dropped? Will the joys of riding on supple, wide, high-performance tires be forgotten again?
I don’t think so. Unlike in the past, this time, the ‘wide-tire revolution’ is backed up by solid data. We won’t be tricked by placebo effects any longer! Smart people like Bryne and Vroomen are putting their money and effort into all-road bikes, because all-road bikes are transforming cycling as we know it. At Bicycle Quarterly and Compass Cycles, we are proud to have contributed at least a small part to make this happen.
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The Best Drivers' Cars are 50 Years Old

Quite a few people were surprised at the 2017 Concours de Machines when Peter Weigle’s bike was the lightest by a big margin. With a steel frame and mostly metal components, the Weigle weighed just 9.1 kg (20.0 lb) fully equipped with wide tires, fenders, lights, a rack, even a pump and a bell. To date, no carbon or titanium bike has been as light, while being similarly outfitted for real adventures.

As impressive as that weight was, for the Concours, being light was not enough. In this competition for the best “real-world” bike, the contestants were ridden over hundreds of miles on very challenging courses, including rough mountain bike trails, with more than 5,000 m (16,000 ft) of elevation gain over two days. Not only did they get penalized if something broke, but they also had to perform well. Any bike that didn’t maintain a high average speed incurred further penalties.

The Weigle was one of the fastest bikes in the event, bettered only by bikes that were ridden by strong amateur racers whose power output gave them an advantage. How can this bike be so light and perform so well, when, at least on the surface, it lacks the latest technology?
Car enthusiasts probably aren’t surprised. Ask ten motoring journalists which cars are the best to drive, and they won’t point to the the latest carbon-fiber supercars, though they are amazing technological achievements. Instead, the best driving machines trace their roots 50 years back, but they have been honed to the nth degree by small, dedicated companies.

Top of the current crop is a Porsche “reimagined by Singer”. This small Californian company takes air-cooled Porsche 911 – 25-year-old cars built to a design introduced in 1962 – and replaces almost every part with a hand-made component that is outwardly similar, but has been improved in every way possible. The price tag for these “used cars” starts at $ 350,000. And everybody who has driven one says it’s worth the money. That is reflected in the two-year wait list if you want one. (I’d love to experience driving one!)

If you just care about the driving, and don’t need things like a roof or a trunk, the Caterham 7 is supposed to be even more amazing. For me, the most surprising part is that this is a car introduced in 1957 (as the Lotus 7)! You have to be an expert to distinguish the latest model from one made decades ago, but the Caterham also has been refined, with new engines, modern tires, and numerous other tweaks. And yet the basic concept is the same as it was 60 years ago. On paper, it’s archaic, but in practice, it is said to offer a performance that belies its age.

On a ride with the BQ Team, we talked about these cars and wondered: How can they be better to drive than the latest supercars? On paper, it looks like a Lamborghini Aventador should be the far better car. It’s developed by a huge engineering team and made in an advanced carbon fiber production facility. How can small companies like Singer and Caterham, that most people haven’t even heard of, make cars that are better to drive?
I think there are a few reasons for this:

  • Refining the same design over many years allows small manufacturers to make each car better than the last. The big makers have to introduce new products all the time. Then they spend the first few years ironing out the bugs. Once the product approaches maturity, it’s time for the next model.
  • The cars from the small makers sell to an educated clientele, so they don’t have to play the “numbers game”. They can give up a little in horsepower, 0-60 times and top speed to focus on what really matters: performance and enjoyment on real roads.
  • Without large overheads and the need to compete on price, every part can be the best in the world. For example, the Singer Porsche’s shock absorbers cost more than some brand-new cars. Small makers can choose a part that is 10% better, but costs 30% more, knowing that their customers will appreciate it. For big companies, it’s more cost-effective to spend that money on marketing, and keep their per-unit costs low.
  • These factors outweigh the small advantages that modern materials may offer in theory.

There is a direct parallel between these cars and randonneur bikes like the Weigle or my René Herse (above). Like that Porsche or the Caterham, they may look like classics, but they, too, have benefitted from decades of development. Every part has been refined until these bikes offer a performance that is hard to match. “Modern” mass-produced bikes may be lighter, stiffer or have more gears – impressive “numbers” – but none offer superior performance across real-world terrain.

With so many beautifully designed and meticulously crafted details, it’s easy to overlook that these bikes are great to ride. Or as a journalist put it about the Singer Porsches: “They may be engineered to perfection, but they’re also engineered to be fun.”
If you are in the Boston area, you can see Peter Weigle’s amazing Concours bike at the New England Builders’ Ball this weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017.
And the full story of the 2017 Concours de Machines is in the Autumn 2017 Bicycle Quarterly, including an article by Peter Weigle on building the bike and going to France for the Concours.
Photo credits: evo magazine (Photo 1), Natsuko Hirose (Photo 3), Caterham (Photo 4), Maindru (Photo 5).

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Why We Choose Steel Bikes

At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve been testing quite a few titanium and carbon bikes lately, and even a bike made from bamboo. We really liked most of these bikes. And yet our own bikes continue to be made from steel. Why don’t we ride carbon or titanium (or bamboo) bikes?

We choose steel because this material allows us to build custom bikes that are dialed in to the nth degree. High-end steel bikes have benefited from decades of research and development. They now offer a performance that is difficult to equal with other materials. With performance, I don’t just mean speed – although the best steel bikes have no trouble keeping up with ti or carbon racers – but also handling, reliability and all-weather, all-road capability.

Steel tubing is available in many diameters and wall thicknesses, so it’s easy to fine-tune the ride quality and performance of our bikes. For example, my Mule (above) – intended for hauling heavier loads – has a stiffer main triangle than my René Herse (second from top), which is intended for speed first and foremost. With steel, it’s relatively easy to fine-tune the bike’s flex characteristics for optimum performance – what we call “planing”.

Steel is easy to shape. That means that it isn’t too difficult to bend the chainstays slightly, so they curve around wide tires. You can indent the stays to create even more clearance. And steel is stiffer for a given volume than all other materials, so slender tubes are sufficient: Steel chainstays need less of that valuable space between tire and cranks.

Steel is easy to machine, which helps when making dropouts, braze-ons and other parts. Pump pegs and braze-ons for centerpull brakes are readily available in steel. Making those parts out of titanium isn’t as easy as it sounds.

What about the weight and performance of the frame itself? Titanium, steel and aluminum all have the same stiffness-to-weight ratio. Titanium weighs half as much as steel and is half as stiff. For aluminum, it’s 1/3.
If you made frames from each material, with the same tubing diameters and the same stiffness, you’d get three frames that weigh the same. The titanium tubes would have walls that are twice as thick, the walls of the aluminum tubes would be three times as thick.
In the real world, titanium frames tend to be lighter than steel. They use larger-diameter tubes with thinner walls, which require less material to obtain the same stiffness. However, you can make the walls of a frame tube only so thin before the tube risks buckling, denting or cracking. That is the limit with steel – remember that for the same stiffness, a steel tube’s walls will be only half as thick as those of a titanium tube. If you wanted to make a steel frame that is as light as the best titanium frames, the tubing walls would get too thin. So you keep the tube diameter smaller, with the result that the frame weighs a little more.
The weight advantage of titanium frames is smaller than you might expect. Remember that the frame makes up only 20% of a bike’s weight. And once you factor in the rider’s weight, the weight advantage of a titanium bike practically disappears.

Carbon can be even lighter and stiffer. The down side of most carbon frames is that they are made in molds. If you want to change something, you have to make a new mold. That makes it almost impossible to fine-tune the ride characteristics to your preferences. Carbon also works best in uninterrupted shapes. That means it’s not so easy to install braze-ons for racks and other parts that feed significant point loads into the frame or fork. Carbon also tends to be more fragile. Where a metal tube may at worst dent in a fall, carbon often cracks.

For forks, steel and carbon are the only materials that are commonly used today. Most carbon forks are made in molds, so if you want a different geometry, you need a new (and expensive) mold. None of the carbon forks available today have enough offset for a low-trail bike. With steel, you just rake the fork blades a little further. That is why my titanium bike has a steel fork – I wanted to get a geometry optimized for wide tires. Every time I carve into a turn during a steep, twisty descent, I am glad about the precise handling this allows.
Steel also has a longer fatigue life than carbon, which means you can make smaller-diameter fork blades that flex and absorb shocks. If a carbon fork flexed as much as our Kaisei “TOEI Special” fork blades (above), the carbon layers soon would delaminate, and the fork would fail. To be durable, carbon forks have to be relatively stiff. That transmits more shocks to the handlebars, making the bike less pleasant to ride on rough roads.

What about the performance of a steel bike? We’ve tested our steel bikes against the best titanium and carbon bikes. We expected the steel bikes to be a little slower, but we were surprised: The best bikes’ performances were indistinguishable. (And quite a few titanium and carbon bikes actually were slower, because their flex characteristics didn’t work as well with our pedal strokes.)
One carbon bike was a tiny bit faster up a steep hill, because it was lighter. Once we equalized the weights of the bikes, their performance was the same. The extra weight of our bikes came mostly from the fenders, lights and rack. The frame tubes themselves don’t actually weigh that much. We added two full water bottles to the carbon bike, and it was as heavy as the steel bikes.
We aren’t the only ones who’ve rediscovered steel. I was surprised when I recently heard about Global Cycling Network’s new “dream bike”. The frame is made from steel, and they absolutely love it. Click on the video below to watch their first ride on the steel machine.

It’s important to remember that these steel bikes are true high-performance machines. They have little in common with most production steel bikes available today, which are mid-priced bikes that make little pretense to performance. Made from sturdy tubing, these bikes often are very stiff and don’t exhibit the “lively” feel that makes the best bikes perform so well.
Great bikes can be made from many materials. My titanium Firefly and my steel René Herse both feel remarkably similar in how they respond to my pedal strokes – and both are worlds apart from most steel production bikes.

The bikes we love and ride are handbuilt from ultra-thinwall tubing in carefully selected diameters and wall thicknesses. They incorporate things like dropouts with built-in connectors for the generator lighting. Their racks are custom-built for ultimate strength, stiffness and light weight. Their cranks have low tread (Q factor) for optimum pedaling efficiency, yet we can run wide tires. There is a lot that goes into making a great bike. When it comes to our most challenging adventures, we usually choose our steel bikes, because they are no-compromise machines designed to perform under all conditions that we may encounter on the “road”.
This isn’t to say that the other materials cannot be used to make great bikes. Some day, somebody will make a fully integrated “real-world” bike from titanium or carbon, maybe even bamboo. It’ll match the performance of our steel bikes, but it won’t do anything significantly better. It’ll be cool because it’s different. If it’s made from titanium, it won’t dent as easily as our steel bikes. If it’s made from carbon, you can bring an extra water bottle without a weight penalty. Such a bike will probably cost significantly more than our steel bikes (which aren’t cheap by any means!). I really look forward to riding that bike when it becomes available, but I doubt it’ll start a revolution that makes our steel bikes obsolete.

The biggest problem with steel bikes is that the truly great ones aren’t easily available. You have to order one from a custom builder. That is a bit more difficult than going to a bike shop and picking up a bike. But for us, it’s worth the effort, because a custom bike offers things you cannot get with a production bike. Your bike will be exactly as you want it – with features that no production bike offers. And since you are buying it directly from the maker, it’s surprisingly affordable for something that is truly handcrafted to the highest specifications.

Compass offers custom builders a variety of framebuilding parts, like fork crowns, braze-ons, and – soon – a bottom bracket shell specially designed for wide tires (prototypes shown above). We are also adding high-quality frame tubing to our selection. Fewer makers offer frame tubing for bicycles these days, because demand for steel bikes is not as high as it once was.
One place where steel bicycles are still made in large numbers is Japan. Japan’s more than 2000 Keirin racers ride steel bikes, and that creates a significant demand. Many of these bikes are made from Kaisei tubing, which is chosen for its excellent quality. Keirin racers are not allowed to change bikes during a weekend of racing. If their frame breaks, they are out of the races. And since they live off prize and starting money, that is something to be avoided at all costs. So everything about their bikes has to be absolutely top quality.

In the past, Kaisei tubing was difficult to get outside Japan, and the tube lengths were optimized for smaller frames built for Japanese racers (who tend to be less tall than many westerners.) That is why you may never have heard of Kaisei despite its excellent track record. My Urban Bike (above) is made from Kaisei tubing, and it’s held up great over a decade of really hard service.

Starting this summer, Compass Cycles will distribute Kaisei tubing. When we visited their factory (above their tube butting machine), we were really impressed with the quality of their tubing. We have worked with Kaisei to offer tubes with longer unbutted center sections that are designed for larger frames, in addition to their existing tubes. We will offer a large selection of Kaisei tubing in standard and oversize diameters, with ultra-thin walls (0.7-0.4-0.7 mm) that we use on our own steel bikes.

We’ve found that when you want the very best performance in every way, a custom steel bike is hard to beat. Our goal is to provide what your builder needs to make one of these exceptional bikes for you!
Click here to find out more about Compass framebuilding supplies.

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Riding the First Recumbent

Bicycle Quarterly hasn’t really covered recumbents much. It’s not that we aren’t interested, it just seems difficult to do such totally different machines justice. And yet recumbents are a perfect fit with Bicycle Quarterly‘s research into the history of cyclotouring. During the mid-1930s, recumbents were quite popular among French cyclotourists.
Many saw them as the bikes of the future. While the racing world outlawed recumbents soon after Francis Faure set an hour record on a recumbent in 1933, cyclotourists and randonneurs couldn’t have cared less about what the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) thought: That recumbents weren’t “real” bicycles.
Recumbents appealed to “real-world” riders because they seemed to offer speed and comfort, in addition to novelty. Quite a few companies offered them: Mochet, Ravat, Vélostable… They even participated in the 1930s Technical Trials, where they were given their own category, because they couldn’t compete on weight with upright bicycles. Randonneurs in Paris-Brest-Paris were allowed to ride them, too. And for a while, recumbents received a lot of positive press.
But then they faded away. By the late 1930s, almost half of the “for sale” ads in magazines like Le Cycliste listed recumbents. I’ve often wondered: What happened?
The literature is silent on this issue – they just stopped talking about recumbents. Most riders who rode recumbents back then unfortunately no longer are with us. The best way to understand 1930s recumbents today is to ride one.
Imagine my excitement when Christophe Courbou, the organizer of the French Technical Trials, showed me his latest find: a mid-1930s Mochet Vélo-Vélocar. Mochet was the brand that started the recumbent craze of the 1930s. His machine was ridden to that infamous hour record.
Georges Mochet first developed a four-wheeled, pedal-powered car, the Vélocar. This became quite popular – people even rode across the country in them. Then Mochet had the idea of cutting the car in half, and making a bicycle out of it. Hence the strange name: Vélo-Vélocar. (It’s the bike version of the Bike Car.)
“Can I ride it?” was my immediate question. Classic bikes fascinate me, but I am not a collector. I want to ride them: How do they work? What are their strenghts and weak points? What can we learn from them. Could this be another forgotten gem like the 650B randonneur bikes that we discovered in the dusty annals of history?
Fortunately, Christophe’s Mochet remains in perfect condition. It clearly hasn’t been ridden a lot. Unfortunately for me, I am too tall for the bike. The size can be adjusted, but this requires a lot of work, including lengthening the chain. After the Technical Trials, there simply wasn’t enough time for this.
So I tried to ride the Mochet as is. I had to splay my legs to clear the handlebars. And I found I couldn’t keep the bike upright.
Perhaps I was too tired from riding that day’s gravel stage of the Technical Trials. Having to keep my knees from hitting the handlebars (which immediately turned them sharply) didn’t help. I am glad nobody photographed my attempts: They were too busy catching me as I kept falling over!
Christophe has more practice, and he managed to ride the Mochet impressively well. But even he wasn’t keen on heading into the surrounding hills to try the Mochet on steep ups and downs.
The problem seems to stem from the universal joint in the steering. It’s beautifully made, just like the rest of the bike, and it turns very smoothly. But the handlebars only have an indirect connection to the front wheel.
On an “upright” bicycle, you simply look where you want to go, and the bike follows. On the Mochet and similar 1930s recumbents, you have to think about where you turn the handlebars and how far. That active thought process made it so difficult for me to ride the Mochet. It apparently takes a while to become intuitive. I can’t imagine that you’ll ever get the same feedback about what your contact patches are doing as you do on a “regular” bike.
Christophe also reports that sitting on the Mochet isn’t very comfortable – recumbent seats have come a long way since 1933. When you consider how highly evolved the best French cyclotouring bikes already were in the 1930s, it’s no wonder the recumbents didn’t really catch on. They clearly needed more development before they’d become viable alternatives to “upright” bikes.
So we now know that it wasn’t the UCI banning recumbents that caused their fall from popularity. The machines simply didn’t work well enough. The riders who bought them, often sold them after the novelty had worn off.
And yet – I want to try one for a longer ride. The old photo of the touring countryside is just too evocative. Christophe has promised that the next time I visit, we’ll fit the Mochet to my taller body, and then I can have a go. I can’t wait!
Further reading:

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Aesthetic Choices

The bike above is the icon of my youth – a 1980s Cinelli Supercorsa with Campagnolo Super Record components. Back then, I was riding a crummy Peugeot 10-speed with heavy tires, rattling fenders and poorly-shifting derailleurs, and I dreamt of a lithe racing bike.
When I finally was able to afford one (a Bianchi, since Cinellis were out of reach), I loved the fender-less wheels, the narrow tires, and the almost ethereal appearance of my bike. I promised myself that I’d never ride a bike with fenders again.
A few decades later, my preferences have changed. To my youthful eyes, my current bike would have seemed bulky and unappealing. The big tires, the wide fenders, the racks, the lights… It is a lot of bike, and it wouldn’t have squared with my vision of the ultimate performance bike. Most of all, I would have thought that the randonneur bike offered less performance than the racing machine.
Today, we know that both bikes perform equally well. We now know that wider tires don’t roll slower than narrower ones, provided they use the same supple casing. Physics tells us that the weight of fenders and lights has only an insignificant effect on climbing performance, and our on-the-road testing has confirmed this.
For me, the randonneur bike, with its lighter-gauge frame tubing, actually climbs better than the Cinelli with its heavier frame. The Cinelli is geared more toward a strong sprinter, and I am more of a climber and long-distance rider. But a racing bike could be built with a lighter-weight frame that would perform like my randonneur bike, so that isn’t a good reason to prefer one over the other.
It’s also churlish to chastise a rider on a sunny day for not having fenders, or to look down upon a weekend rider who may never ride all the way through the night, but prefers to ride a fully-equipped randonneur bike.
In the end, it comes down to aesthetic choices. I have grown to love the look of a good randonneur bike. The fenders serve to accentuate the wheels, the small rack makes the entire bike look as if it is moving forward, and the lights add interest to the bike. To me, a racing bike now almost looks incomplete, as if the builder had not yet finished his or her task.

Even so, I fully understand the appeal of a great racing bike, whether modern or classic. The track bike is the ultimate expression of that aesthetic – it’s the bike reduced to its simplest form. The racing bike then adds only the parts that are absolutely necessary: brakes and derailleurs. The tires are only as wide as need be. It’s a minimalist aesthetic that contrasts sharply with the randonneur bike’s “fully equipped with everything in its place” look.
Whichever we prefer, it’s useful to realize that we are making aesthetic choices. There’s no need to defend one preference over another because of its imagined performance advantages. (It’s different if you are actually racing, or riding in wet weather, or at night. In that case, the machine that is specific for your activity is the best choice.)
Some people scoff at aesthetic choices as being superficial, but I consider them very important. Few of us sit on upturned fruit crates in our homes – and just like our furniture, our bikes are important for our enjoyment of our daily lives. And like our clothes, our bikes present ourselves to the world. Let’s be proud of our aesthetic choices while respecting those of others.
Photo credit: (Cinelli)

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How Far We've Come

A few weeks ago, I was working on the third-ever issue of Bicycle Quarterly: Vol. 1 No. 3, a slim volume of 24 pages. We are reprinting this issue as part of our commitment to keep all this timeless content available. And many of the articles are indeed timeless, but I had to laugh when I read the editorial.
Twelve years ago, I lamented that fully integrated randonneur bikes were not available. I wrote: “I hope some ‘framebuilders’ will make the transition to ‘constructers’ and start offering complete, integrated randonneur bikes. […] It is up to us customers to demand better, to ask difficult questions, and finally to order the bikes.”
Back then, making a randonneur bike was exceedingly difficult. There were no wide high-performance tires. No fork crowns to fit wide tires. No flexible fork blades. No good brakes that could reach around wide tires and fenders. Few good fenders. No compact cranks. And there were few builders who could and wanted to build such a machine. And even those builders lamented that they could not get the parts they needed to make the bikes that we had in mind.
How much things have changed. Today, wide tires are commonplace. Not only Compass, but numerous other companies offer supple high-performance tires that are wider than the traditional racing sizes of 20-25 mm. Flexible fork blades and fork crowns for wide tires are no problem. Centerpull brakes are offered by several companies. The same applies to fenders. Compact cranks are commonplace. Beautifully made racks are available either custom-made or as ready-to-go solutions.
Perhaps the biggest change is that “accessories” like racks, fenders and lights no longer are treated as afterthoughts, but integrated into the bike from the beginning. That is the only way you can create a bike with the performance of a racing bike, but the added versatility of fenders and lights to take you on any adventure you can imagine. Small builders have been the first to make these fully integrated bikes, and now we are seeing the first production bikes that are truly equipped for rides off the beaten path. The Specialized Diverge we tested for the Autumn issue of Bicycle Quarterly came with fenders and lights that were integrated into the bike, rather than added later with poorly fitting clamps and brackets.
As our bikes have evolved, our riding has changed as well. No longer do we need to stay on smooth main roads. First, we explored the paved backroads of the Pacific Northwest, then we discovered a vast network of beautiful gravel roads. Places like Babyshoe Pass, Naches Pass (above) and Bon Jon Pass may not yet be household names among cyclists, but they now see a good number of riders pass every year. And that to me is the most exciting: Not just better bikes, but a new style of riding that is more fun!
We at Bicycle Quarterly are proud to have been at the front of this positive trend. Our job is far from done – we’ll continue to push the development of “Allroad” bikes further, and test the ones available to make sure they perform as well as they should.
For more information about Bicycle Quarterly, click here.

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Allroad Bikes Hit the Mainstream!

The big news in the bike world this week is Cannondale’s introduction of an Allroad bike, which will be equipped with 650B x 42 mm tires. And those tires have a file tread pattern, and generally look very much like our Compass Babyshoe Pass tires… which is not surprising, since they’ll be made by Panaracer (like our tires) and will benefit from the tire research from Compass Bicycles and Bicycle Quarterly. (The Cannondale tires will not be available with the extra-supple Extralight casings, though.)
650Bx42 mm tires on a road bike… Supple casings and file tread patterns for pavement and gravel… A few years ago, you would have checked your calendar to see whether it was April 1!
Allroad bikes, gravel bikes, adventure bikes – whatever you call them, they are the fastest-growing and most important segment in the bike market. It’s gratifying to see the bike industry adopting the bikes (and tires) we’ve championed for so long. Unlike most fads, this is a good thing, because the focus is shifting from the equipment to the experience. This new breed of Allroad bikes allows more riders to experience the joys of spirited cycling off the beaten path. The bike only serves as a tool to get out there and have incredible experiences. And even for urban commuting over significant distances, it’s hard to think of a bike that is faster and more fun than one of these…
In the past, when we reported on our wonderful adventures in Bicycle Quarterly, we were aware that for most cyclists, rides like these were out of reach, not because they lacked the conditioning (you could always go for a shorter ride), but because they didn’t have bikes that could handle a mix of pavement and gravel efficiently.
Until recently, your only choice was to get a custom bike, which required not just significant amounts of money, but also knowledge and patience, since most good custom builders have long wait times. If you walked into your neighborhood bike shop, asking for a bike that could be as fast as a racing bike on pavement, yet handle rough gravel as well as a mountain bike, you got blank stares, or perhaps they’d point you toward cyclocross bikes.
A mountain bike is designed for technical terrain, so the riding position and general setup are far from ideal on the road, whether it’s paved or not. On the other hand, most road bikes are limited by their relatively narrow tires. You can take a bike with 28 mm tires on gravel roads, but in many cases, you’ll be underbiking, which is a different experience from just floating over the surface at speed, and still being able to take your eyes off the road to enjoy the scenery.
Even if you stay on pavement, the most scenic and fun roads often are poorly maintained, because few cars drive on them. Few cyclists use them, because on a typical “road” bike with narrow tires, they just aren’t all that much fun. Wider tires allow you to really enjoy these amazing roads, away from traffic and congestion.
It has been encouraging to see the bike industry (finally!) embrace this type of riding to the fullest. Wide tires. Fenders. Lights. And not only on inexpensive (and compromised) hybrid or commuter bikes, but on race-bred $ 8500 carbon fiber machines (above).
At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ll try to test all these new machines. With more than a decade of gravel riding experience under our belts, we are able to tell you what works and what doesn’t. And as always, we’ll take these bikes on splendid adventures that hopefully will inspire your own rides off the beaten path. Because in the end, the bike is just a means to getting out there and enjoying the ride.
At Compass Bicycles, we are already pushing the envelope further. Cannondale’s Allroad bike reputedly has clearances for 60 mm tires, so our new 650Bx48 mm Compass Switchback Hill tires will truly bring out the potential of this machine. The thought of a modern carbon bike that can fly over pavement like a racing bike, but handle rough gravel like a mountain bike, and everything in between, is truly exciting.
There are good times ahead!

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The 650B Ancestor: René Herse Randonneur

I had the opportunity to ride a favorite classic René Herse again recently. This is the bike that started the current trend of 650B bikes in North America. It’s the bike that made us re-evaluate front-end geometries and wide tires. It’s truly the ancestor of the bikes we ride today, and it has been hugely influential. I first rode this 1952 René Herse more than a decade ago. I didn’t have very high expectations. Wide tires at low pressures? Must be slow. “Suicide” front derailleur? Must be difficult to shift. Huge amount of fork rake? A clear sign they didn’t understand front-end geometry back then. Today, we smile about these assumptions, but back then, they were deeply ingrained in all of us. Imagine my surprise then when the old Herse was faster than my custom bike. It handled better and was more fun to ride. I set a few personal bests on this bike, and to this day, it holds the fastest time on the challenging “Three Volcano 300 km” brevet. The old Herse made me realize the merits of 650B tires. I talked about this bike with Grant Petersen from Rivendell, who took up the idea of 650B tires. Then Kogswell asked me for a bike design, and I modeled the P/R’s low-trail geometry on this Herse. And the rest is history… Seeing and riding the bike again was a lot of fun. Underneath the lovely patina of its 62 years, it amazed me once again how aesthetically and functionally resolved this bike is.
The Herse stem still is one of the most beautiful ever made. It’s also quite lightweight. The bell is directly attached, and the original owner’s name remains engraved on the stem cap.
rh_crank The René Herse crank has become a more common sight these days, but it’s still one of the most beautiful ever made. Too bad about the 38-tooth middle ring, which is the largest ring that didn’t always have the triangular cutouts. I think it would look a lot nicer with the cutouts, so we added them to the 38-tooth rings on the current-production René Herse cranks. rh52_brake
The Herse cantilever brakes are among the lightest ever made, yet they work very well. Details like the rack attachment to a forward extension of the brake attachment bolt are elegant and functional. (Several companies now offer copies of these bolts.) Every component and every bolt is only as large as it needs to be. This doesn’t only save weight, but also makes the bike so elegant.
The Herse front derailleur shifts very smoothly, even on a triple. At first, I found it difficult to move the chain from the big to the middle chainring – it went straight to the small ring. After a few shifts, it became second nature, and I never thought about it again.
The Cyclo rear derailleur has an aesthetic purity that must have appealed to René Herse. It shifts surprisingly well. This one needed a little lubrication: Front shifts tended to rotate the entire derailleur on its support, rather than just the chain tensioner arm. The result was an unexpected rear shift every other time I shifted on the front. When I rode the bike years ago, it didn’t have that problem…
Herse made an eccentric shift lever, since the Cyclo derailleur moves inward and outward as you shift. Otherwise, the shifter cable goes slack on the largest cogs. One thing that is easy to miss in this photo: There is no lighting wire going from the fork to the frame. The current is transmitted via a carbon brush inside the head tube.
You can see where the inspiration for the Compass taillight came from! We had to modify the shape so it looked good with a flat reflector instead of the curved lens of this old JOS taillight. You also notice how the rear brake cable runs parallel to the seatstay. That is one of the reasons the classic Herse’s look so light and elegant.
I wish somebody would make a headlight that was nearly as pretty as the old JOS. This is Herse’s special version, with no mounting bracket, since it attaches directly to the support on the rack. The lighting wire runs inside the rack tubes.
The only lighting wire that is exposed on the entire bike is at the rear. Here, it leaves the fender and immediately enters the seatstay.  A little further down, it exits the seatstay at the bottle generator. All other lighting wires are internal. I love the blue line painted on the “Le Paon” fenders, outlined in gold.
The bottom bracket shell doesn’t look special, until you realize that it was fabricated from pieces of tubing that were welded together. On the inside, there are shoulders to locate the pressed-in SKF cartridge bearings for Herse’s custom bottom bracket. The bearings have never been overhauled in the bike’s 62-year life, yet they still spin smoothly.
This photo epitomizes the craft of René Herse for me. The stays extend as far as possible toward the rear axle. As a result, the custom-made dropouts are tiny, which saves significant weight and also makes the frame stronger. The workmanship is close to perfect. (The slight rounding-off you see on the stay ends happened during the polishing for chrome-plating.)
Notice how fender eyelet is placed on a smaller radius than the smallest freewheel cog. That way, the nut that protrudes on the inside doesn’t interfere with the chain on the smallest cog. Few makers, past or present, have resolved details like these in such a neat and unobtrusive way.
So how was it to ride the 1952 Herse again? When I first rode it 11 years ago, it was a revelation, but today, it feels surprisingly familiar. The main reason is that my current bike is basically an updated version of the 1952 Herse. (So are about a dozen test bikes I’ve ridden for Bicycle Quarterly.) The differences are slight: My own bike feels like a 105% version of the 1952 machine, with slightly more flexible fork blades, a slightly more responsive frame, slightly better shifting (my Nivex vs. the Herse’s Cyclo) and slightly better brakes (centerpulls vs. cantilevers). Even the weight of the 1952 Herse (11.2 kg/24.8 lb including the pump) remains more than competitive for a modern bike that is fully equipped.
I rode the bike on a beautiful spring day. Mark and I headed out on our “standard” loop around the North End of Lake Washington. We rode up Juanita Hill, and it was obvious that Mark was feeling strong that day. We raced up the hill with abandon, and more than once I felt like surrendering. But somehow the bike kept going, and toward the top, I even felt good enough to try to outsprint Mark. I managed a clean shift with the Cyclo derailleur, but when I rose out of the saddle, my legs almost buckled, and Mark pulled away. Can’t blame the old bike for that!
We stopped at a café in Kirkland, and just as we were leaving, a Ford Model T racer pulled up. Now here was a machine that was even older than this Herse. However, unlike the Herse, which easily holds its own with modern machines, I doubt the Model T holds any course records today!

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Catalogue Specifications and Apparent Bargains

When I started riding seriously while I was in college in Germany, it became apparent that my Peugeot 10-speed no longer was sufficient. Not only did it lack performance, but it required repairs almost daily. So I soon started shopping for a new bike.
Like most new cyclists, I was mesmerized by the latest technology. One rider in town had one of the first Cannondales (above). Its oversize aluminum frame and indexed Shimano components were incredibly alluring to me. But the price was steep, because the U.S. dollar’s exchange rate was high. So I looked for European offerings instead.

I went to the best pro shop in that region of Germany. I asked about Bianchi’s high-end production frames made from double-butted Columbus tubing. From the catalogue specifications, it appeared that they were almost identical as the more expensive “Columbus SL” frames that came out of Bianchi’s famous Reparto Corse race shop. I thought I had identified a bargain.
“Catalogue specs,” said the old racer who owned the shop, with evident disdain. “Does the catalogue show you how much heat they put on the tubes when they braze them? Did you see that the lugs on the more expensive model are much thinner? Do you realize that Bianchi’s best brazers make the Reparto Corse frames by hand, whereas the production frames are made on assembly lines?”
This was a new world to me. I had never considered any of these factors. I went home and thought about this. I began to realize that the apparent bargain frames were less expensive for a reason. Did I really want to invest all my savings into a second-best bike?
Then I got a flyer from the pro shop in the mail, and discovered that the 1989 Reparto Corse frames from Bianchi had gone down in price compared to the previous year’s model. I decided to increase my budget, and returned to the shop to buy the more expensive frame. The owner said: “Ah, the latest Reparto Corse frames were no good. Sloppy workmanship. I sent them all back. But I still have a few older frames, which I’ll sell you at the old price.” I tried to argue that last year’s model should not cost more than the current one, but the shop owner pointed out that once these were gone, there would be no more. So I bought a close-out frame at price that was higher than the current model.
Next we discussed components. I had planned on getting Shimano Ultegra, but I noticed a Campagnolo Victory group on closeout for the same price. I had read that Campagnolo’s new Syncro indexed shifting system worked even with their older components. Combining the new indexing and the closeout group seemed like another bargain to me. “Victory is good stuff, but Syncro is junk,” the bike shop owner informed me. “I don’t even carry it. You don’t need index shifting. You don’t have problems shifting your old bike, and the new components will shift much better anyhow.”

That is how my dream of a mass-produced Cannondale with Shimano components turned into a hand-made Bianchi with gleaming Campagnolo components. The price I paid was the same as the Cannondale would have cost.
Knowing what I know today, I realize that I made the right decision. That Bianchi introduced me to the joys of riding a truly excellent bicycle. It took me to my first race victories and even the occasional tour (above), before it was rear-ended by a pickup truck in Texas, and replaced by an even better hand-made frame. Most of the components were transferred to the new frame, and stayed with me for all my 10 years of racing. They worked as well during my first race, a small beginners’ criterium in Texas, as during my last, the Tour of Willamette, where I tried to hang with professionals who were using this hilly stage race to prepare their European season.
That grumpy bike shop owner really got me off the beaten path of mainstream bicycles. I discovered that an outdated, but top-quality, machine offered at least as much performance and pleasure as the latest state-of-the-art bicycles. Since my new bike already was “obsolete,” I dropped out of the rat race of annual upgrades to newer and supposedly better machines before I even started. This has allowed me to evaluate each innovation on its merits, and to adopt those that truly improve my cycling experience.

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A Journey of Discovery: The Lure of Racing Bikes

When we wrote the “A Journey of Discovery” series for this blog, we started with the racing bikes we rode a little over a decade ago. However, my “journey” has been much longer…
I grew up in Germany, where all bikes had fenders, lights and racks. When I was ten years old, I got a bike that was the envy of my friends: a Peugeot “Semi-Racer” with derailleurs, 10 speeds and drop handlebars. It was just like the one shown in the catalog above, except mine was silver. Of course, my bike had a rack and fenders, as well as a sidewall generator that made a huge racket at night. The whole package must have weighed about 35-40 pounds, because most of the parts were made from steel.

My next bike was another Peugeot (above). It was a step up: It had rims and cranks made from aluminum. Of course, it still was equipped with fenders, lights and a rack, and it still was heavy.

Then I went to college, and a neighbor asked me to fix up his brother’s Bianchi racing bike. After overhauling the Bianchi’s bearings and brakes, I took it for a test ride. I was amazed at how different this bike felt compared to my Peugeot. The acceleration was incredible, and it held the road so much better, too. Hills that had been a chore on the Peugeot became an exhilarating experience on a bike that just wanted to go. I decided then and there that I needed a racing bike!
So I saved my money, bought a Campagnolo Victory group on closeout, and soon was the proud owner of a Bianchi “Reparto Corse” frameset, made from Columbus SL tubing. It was a true dream bike. The Campagnolo components gleamed, and their precision was a revelation after the cheap French components of the Peugeot. The performance was in another league, and I promised myself I’d never ride another bike with fenders again!

Even though I had planned to keep the Peugeot for touring, I preferred to strap a rack to the Bianchi for my cross-country trips in Germany. The Bianchi with its short chainstays was not ideal for carrying panniers, but it was much better than the sluggish performance of the Peugeot. I even commuted on the Bianchi, unless the weather was extremely bad. I remember watching my bike during a winter night as I sat in class: The lovely Bianchi was getting covered in snow as huge flakes fell. Fortunately, the snowy roads meant that traffic was light on the way home, because I didn’t have lights on the bike…
When I moved to Texas, I brought the Bianchi, but left the Peugeot in Germany. I ordered a custom Mercian touring bike (below on left), which had racks, but true to my promise, no fenders. Those fenders would have come in handy on my very first tour to Colorado. Every afternoon, we had to find shelter in advance of the daily rainshowers.

When I moved to Seattle, I resisted fenders for two rainy winters, because I didn’t want to go back to the sluggish performance of my childhood Peugeots. When my teammates finally made me put fenders on my bike, I couldn’t bring myself to “compromise” my racing bike. Instead, I equipped my touring bike with fenders, and even on that bike, I took the fenders off every spring.
In retrospect, it’s clear why the Bianchi was such an epiphany. Its Columbus SL frame was much lighter and more flexible than the “drainpipe” I was used to. For the first time in my life, I experienced “planing.” Of course, I still thought that stiffer frames were better, and I tried to explain the superior performance with the more obvious differences: the lack of fenders, lights and racks, plus the skinny tires. The Peugeot was fully equipped and slow, the racing bikes were lighter and thus faster (or so I thought).

It took a whole “Journey of Discovery” to figure out that my dislike of fenders was misguided. I learned slowly and over many years that I could have fenders, lights and racks without giving up the performance of the racing bikes which I loved so much.
To some, it may appear like I have come full circle, and that my current French-inspired bikes are similar to the Peugeots of my childhood. Nothing could be further from the truth. The randonneur machines I ride today (above) really are closely related to the racing bikes that transformed cycling for me. Their lightweight, flexible frames are responsible for their speed, and the fenders, lights and rack simply increase these bikes’ versatility without detracting from their performance.

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Fully Equipped Bikes – Follow-Up

A little while ago, we talked about how sports cars are equipped with lights and fenders, and nobody thinks they are less sporty for it.
Performance bicycles don’t have lights and fenders, because most “weekend warriors” don’t think they need them. After all, they usually ride during daytime and in sunny weather. Plus racers don’t use lights and fenders, either.

Racers may want to rethink the equipment of their bikes. Tour de France champion Alberto Contador (above) was stopped recently by the French police.
For once, the issue was not doping, but riding a bike without lights. Contador was checking out the route of this summer’s Tour de France. There is a long, unlit tunnel at the top of the Col du Galibier (see photo at the top of the post). The police did not accept Contador’s argument that his team car would illuminate the road for him. He had a choice of turning around or getting into his team car. You can read the full story here. I wonder whether the police will stop the entire peloton when the Tour de France comes through in July…
I doubt we’ll see generator hubs and lights on Tour de France bikes this summer. Can we even envision a racing bike with lights and fenders?
Just a few weeks ago, we did see race cars at the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans fully equipped with fenders and lights. You see, the 24 Heures du Mans is a race for “sports cars.” They race at night and in the rain, and the rules require fenders and lights. Even with this equipment, Le Mans racers are the fastest race cars in the world, faster than the less aerodynamic Formula 1 racers.

Audi (above) competes at Le Mans and not in Formula 1, because people see the “sports cars” as more closely related to the cars they can buy. Winning Le Mans translates directly into selling more cars.
A similar “sports bike” category might reinvigorate bike racing, now that many teams are sponsored by bicycle manufacturers. Then manufacturers could sell city bikes with the sales pitch that a similar machine (more or less) had won the Tour de France.
And then we might see a new version of the 1954 Alex Singer below, with carbon-fiber fenders and integrated lights as part of a complete, lightweight package. Marketing aside, the real benefit would be to allow Contador and the weekend warriors to continue riding safely even if they encounter fog or a tunnel on their rides.

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A Journey of Discovery, Part 7: The Future

In this series, we have explored how our preferences changed from mid-trail geometries, 700C x 28 mm tires and saddlebags to low-trail 650B bikes with much wider tires and handlebar bags. What will come next? Will we soon ride fully-faired carbon bikes with fenders and racks that form structural parts of the frame (see concept drawing above)?
In the last few years, our preferences haven’t changed further, despite riding very different bikes, like the Moulton with full suspension, the Dursley Pedersen with a hammock seat, and a variety of carbon bikes. Have we arrived at (or rediscovered) something that approaches the ultimate form of the bicycle, at least for the riding we do?
It’s hard to predict the future…
That said, we’ve spend considerable saddle time on more than 50 bikes that cover the available spectrum of bicycles:

  • trail figures between 11 and 76 mm
  • wheel sizes between 20″ and 27″
  • tires between 21 and 42 mm wide
  • different suspension systems
  • made from the lightest, most flexible tubes you can buy, as well as pretty sturdy and stiff frames
  • loads on the front and the rear
  • and most possible combinations of these various factors.

While we haven’t ridden recumbents and tricycles, we have studied their performance and found little indication that they would work better for us than the bikes we currently prefer.
It appears that our journey of discovery has arrived at its destination. I am now confident that I can specify a bicycle that will remain close to optimal for a long time, rather than becoming obsolete quickly like the bikes we used to ride. In fact, Mark ordered his “new” bike in 2006. In the five years since, the only things he would change are a slightly lighter tubeset and slightly wider tires.  Mark also changed his handlebars to the Rene Herse Randonneur and installed the latest-generation LED headlight, but those were relatively simple modifications. Compare that to the radical changes our bikes underwent in the five years prior.
Of course, everybody’s “ultimate” bicycle will be different. Much depends on where you ride. If your roads are as smooth as glass, then tires wider than 28 mm offer little advantage. If you live in the Atacama Desert, then fenders are of little use, except to protect you from dust.
Some choices are about aesthetics. I like lugs, even though a fillet-brazed or TIG-welded frame can be slightly lighter and easier to adapt to various geometries. (Lugs may be better at distributing stresses, though.) Similarly, narrow tires and racing bikes are aesthetic choices that offer few functional advantages, but that have an appeal of their own.
At Bicycle Quarterly, we try to provide information on how different bicycles perform. With this information, our readers can make informed choices and form their own preferences. What is your “ultimate” bicycle?
Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.

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