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Product Test: Velo-Orange Grand Cru Brakes

I mostly talk about our projects in this blog, including products we develop at Compass Bicycles, but rarely discuss those of other manufacturers. This might lead to the impression that Bicycle Quarterly does the same. However, the magazine is independent from Compass Bicycles – as is explained here.
In every issue of Bicycle Quarterly, we publish tests of products from other companies. Our tests are totally independent of whether that company advertises in the magazine, or whether their products compete with the products that Compass Bicycles sells.
We simply call it as we see it, with little concern to who is making the product. We send a copy of the review to the manufacturer, so they can comment. We either integrate their comments into the review, or we publish them as a sidebar. (Quite often, the company agrees with our review, and has no comments.)
Following is an example of a Bicycle Quarterly product test from our current Autumn 2011 issue:

Test: Velo-Orange Grand Cru Brakes
Test bike: Calfee Adventure
Test distance: 795 km
Weight: 177 g (front brake with pads)
Price: $160/set (with pads)
Country of manufacture: Taiwan
Sample provided by: Calfee

The Grand Cru Long-Reach Brakes offer great braking power and excellent modulation. They are among the best long-reach brakes we have tested.
Wider tires and fenders offer many advantages. However, sidepull and dual-pivot brakes that provide enough reach to clear 28 mm or wider tires often tend to flex so much that their ultimate braking power is insufficient.(1) While cantilever or centerpull brakes can avoid this problem, they require or at least work best with frame-mounted pivots. Many bikes are not equipped with these pivots, and thus must be equipped with sidepull or dual-pivot brakes.
Velo-Orange imports long-reach brakes and sells them under their “Grand Cru” brand. The brakes are machined from aluminum and polished, with an attractive appearance. Their weight of 177 grams is 13 grams lighter than Shimano’s BR-R600 (formerly called  “Ultegra Standard Reach”) brakes. Only classic centerpull brakes are lighter.(2)

Riding the Grand Cru Brakes
Near Golden Gardens in Seattle, there is a set of downhill switchbacks that is a great test for any brake. After a long run to gather speed, there is a bumpy right-hand turn that is slightly off-camber and has a sharply decreasing radius.
I braked gently to scrub off some speed, then continued to apply the brake slightly to increase traction on the front wheel and help the bike turn into the corner. Half-way through the turn, the radius suddenly tightens. I applied a little more brake, and was glad for the good modulation of the Grand Cru brakes. As the bike turned in sharper, I let go of the brake lever as I approached the limits of tire adhesion. I rounded the corner without drama, then righted the bike and moved my hands next to the stem. In the aero tuck, speed built quickly.
The 180° hairpin at the bottom of this stretch approached quickly. This curve also is off-camber and has to be taken very slowly. I braked hard, and the bike decelerated so much that I was pushed forward. If I had not braced myself against the handlebars before applying the brakes, I would have flown over the handlebars.
The front wheel unloaded as the bike went over a little bump, and the front tire emitted a little squeal. Instinctively, I had opened the brake as I felt the compression of the bump, and the front tire never lost traction. The brakes slowed so well that I released them sooner than planned, and turned into the corner under light braking. (Mental note: Next time, you can brake a little later with these brakes.)
As this short sequence showed, the Grand Cru brakes offer superb stopping power combined with excellent modulation. Compared to other dual pivot brakes, the Grand Cru brakes are light, yet they are very stiff. The brake action was linear, making the brakes easy to modulate. The brakes never squealed during this test. If there is a gripe about these brakes, it’s that the quick releases do not open wide enough to clear 31 mm-wide tires.
Our sample was equipped with blue brake pads, which provided much more friction than the brake pads Velo-Orange sells separately.(3)
Overall, the Grand Cru dual-pivot brakes are among the best long-reach brakes available today. They offer excellent stopping power and modulation together with reasonably light weight. They may cost more than Shimano’s long-reach brakes, but they are worth the money. Recommended! ­—JH
This article was sent to Velo-Orange for review.
1 Limitations of Long-Reach Brakes. Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 5, No. 3, p. 32. Test: Medium-Reach Dual-Pivot Brakes from Cane Creek and IRD/Tektro. Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 7, No. 2, p. 50.
2 A Mafac “Competition” brake weighs 160 grams including thick pads and all mounting hardware for frames without brazed-on pivots.
3 Bike Test: Ellis 700C Randonneur. Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 9, No. 4, p. 22.

Click here to read more samples from Bicycle Quarterly, including a full bike test.

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Coming up on 10 years

Bicycle Quarterly is entering its 10th year! We recently mailed Vol. 10, No. 1, the Autumn 2011 issue.
It has been a remarkable journey, and it is nice to see how much the bike industry has changed over the last decade – for the better. Quite a few things that we recommended over the years – often with a sigh, “Well, these are great, but good luck finding them” – are common today. Here are a few examples:
Compact Cranks
Compact cranks were popular with 1950s randonneurs. After I rode a 1962 Alex Singer in a long brevet, the first issue of BQ had an article titled “Who needs a triple? Get rid of your big chainring!” Back in 2002, most component makers offered only limited crank choices:

  • “racing” cranks with 53-39 chainrings: gearing that was too big for most riders
  •  triples: wide tread/Q factor and inferior shifting

We wrote that using a smaller “big” ring with the small ring of a triple, like 46-32, was close to an ideal combination for most riders. Others were thinking along the same lines: two years later, Campagnolo introduced their “Compact” cranks, starting a trend. Today, most riders choose compact cranks over racing cranks and triples. Campagnolo does not even offer triple cranks any longer!

Fully Integrated Bikes
When we started publishing Bicycle Quarterly, the concept of a constructeur, who makes a fully integrated bike, was almost unknown in North America. (There were a few pioneers, like Mike Barry in Toronto and Jitensha Studio in Berkeley.)
Even if you bought a custom-made cyclotouring bike, you usually bought a frame from a framebuilder, and equipped it with “components” (shifters, brakes, wheels) and accessories (racks, fenders, lights). The “accessories” were attached almost as an afterthought.
When we experienced 1950s bikes that were designed and built as fully integrated units, we found that they performed better, were more reliable, and were lighter than the bikes that were common in 2002.
Today, there are many constructeurs who build complete bikes with custom racks, integrated fenders and even custom lights. Even the big makers offer city bikes with integrated racks and fenders.

Front Loads
Nine years ago, hauling something on a performance bike meant you put it on a rear rack. For touring, you might use front low-riders, but you always expected to carry the bulk of your weight on the rear. Our research found that front loads are easier to balance, as long as the bike’s front-end geometry is designed for a front load.
Today, front racks have become accepted again. Many city bikes, even from large makers, are equipped with porteur-style racks.

For a long time, many cyclists and bicycle makers believed that more geometric trail made bicycles more stable. If you wanted a more stable bike, you added trail.
When some older French bikes turned out to have much less trail than was common nine years ago, some experts declared them “unstable.” We actually rode these bikes, and found them to handle very well. As a result, a more nuanced view of front-end geometry has evolved, which takes into account wheel flop, front loads, tire width and riding position to make bikes handle better even at non-racing speeds and with real loads.
Wider Tires, Lower Pressures
The trend away from ultra-narrow tires already had started long before the first issue of Bicycle Quarterly came off the press. (Do you remember the 18 mm-wide Continental tires that were the non-plus-ultra during the late 1980s?)
However, the idea that higher pressures made tires roll faster remained ingrained in bicycle wisdom, and only narrow tires can be run at very high pressures. Thus, many riders believe that narrower tires are faster than wider ones.
We showed that on real roads, lower pressures did not reduce a tire’s performance. Thus, wider tires at lower pressures can offer the same performance as narrow, high-pressure tires. Since then, many professional riders have experimented with wider tires and lower pressures. And today, even carbon bicycle makers are offering bikes for wider tires.

650B and Other Components
I recall stocking up on 650B tires, afraid that soon I would not be able to get them any longer. I feared that I’d never get my dream 650B bike built, unless I found an old fork crown, since new ones no longer were available.
Today, new components are available, whether classic fork crowns, cranks, or even centerpull brakes. Aluminum fenders have gone from “boutique” items to mainstream.  Constructeurs turn out new 650B bikes that rival the best of the old ones. I find it incredible that today, I can ride a brand-new René Herse bicycle with 650B wheels, and soon, I’ll even be able to put René Herse cranks on the bike.
Bikes are getting better
When we began testing bikes, we were excited if a bike came equipped with a front rack and lights, even if it was just a Nitto rack bolted to the fork. That was all we could hope for back then.
For years, some readers complained because we compared custom bikes to my 1974 Alex Singer, and not many measured up. It was almost normal for fenders to rattle loose, lights to fall off and other issues to creep up during our 200-mile tests. In recent years, the best bikes available in North America have become so good that a good number now have eclipsed my trusty Singer. The new bikes are so good that I recently replaced my Singer with a new, North American-made bike.
And where we have been wrong
Our understanding has evolved as we conducted our research, and sometimes, we have been wrong. Here are a few examples of things we wrote in Bicycle Quarterly, where we should have thought twice before publishing it:

  • “A lower bottom bracket will corner much better…” (Vol. 1, No. 1). We now know that it makes no appreciable difference on the center of gravity of bike-and-rider combined. (The center of gravity of bike-and-rider is about 800-1000 mm off the ground. Lowering the  bottom bracket by 10 mm lowers the center of gravity by only about 1%.)
  • We believed that any bike could be equipped with a handlebar bag, as long as the bag was mounted low and on a stiff rack (Vol. 1, No. 3). Later, we realized that the front-end geometry should be modified to take the weight of the bag into account.
  • We postulated that a tire’s casing weight was a good predictor of a its performance (Vol. 4, No. 1). Since then, we found that casing construction matters much more than weight.
  • We thought that high-trail bikes rode poorly in cross-winds because of their large amount of wheel flop. Tony Foale pointed out that the culprit is the lever-arm of the trail, which gives the side force of the wind more leverage over the steering. (Our observation – high trail does not work well in cross-winds – was correct, but our explanation was wrong.)

The Future is Bright
In 2002, there seemed to be little to look forward to. Classic components had been discontinued. Racing bikes and extreme mountain bikes ruled. Custom framebuilders complained about declining orders. There was little hope for progress among “real-world” bicycles.
Today, there is a vibrant culture for real-world bikes. Bicycle Quarterly is proud to have contributed to this positive growth so that we may all enjoy our bicycles more.

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The Aunt

One of the best things of editing Bicycle Quarterly have been the wonderful people I have met all over the world. Even among these amazing people, Paulette Porthault stands out. Most of you have seen her many times: On the Bicycle Quarterly home page, you see her climbing the Galibier during the 1930s (see also above).
I heard about her from various French randonneurs. Did anybody know a rider who had participated in the Technical Trials? How was it to tour around Europe in the 1930s? What about cycling during the war? In every case, I was referred to “La Tante” (the aunt). The name was spoken with reverence, but also with a lot of fondness. La Tante was Lucien Détée’s aunt, who himself was one of the strongest randonneurs of the 1950s. (We featured the story of his tandem in Vol. 9, No. 4.) He introduced me to his then 90-year-old aunt, Madame Porthault, in 2004, and a wonderful friendship started.

In Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 1, we published an 11-page interview with La Tante. It’s still one of my favorites. As I wrote in the introduction: “A good many laughs were shared, and time passed all too quickly.” Madame Porthault told me how she went on her first cyclotouring ride in 1932 on a borrowed bike with indexing Le Chemineau derailleurs. To shift, you had to pull the lever outward and then move it to the next slot. This was so tricky that she swerved into her friends, and they all crashed to the ground!
Despite this inauspicious start, Madame Porthault rode with her friends whenever the opportunity arose. On holiday weekends, they took the night train on Friday evening to the Alps, then rode all weekend before returning by train on Sunday night. Arriving in Paris early on Monday morning, they rode straight from the train station to work, washed up in the bathroom, and were ready for work.

During the war, long tours were out of the question, so Madame Porthault became more involved in competition. With Jean Dejeans, one of the best riders from the Audax-Club Parisien, she won the tandem race of the Poly de Chanteloup (above). They also set a record in the 200 km brevet of 5:41 hours, which translates into an incredible 35.2 km/h (22.0 mph) average. And this on a course that was far from flat. Below, she is steadied by a young René Herse at the start of the 1943 Journée Vélocio hillclimb.

In 1942, she participated in the Criterium de Paris technical trials. She told me: “During the war, we did not get much vacation. When I asked my employers for time off so I could ride in a bicycle event, they were a bit surprised, but gave me the vacation anyhow.”
After the war, she continued to ride in events for René Herse, including the 1946 Technical Trials in Colmar: “We had saddles […] like pieces of wood. Sure, they were light. I don’t know what they used instead of leather, but they were abominable.” She was still smiling, though (below)!

She resumed touring abroad, all the way to Yugoslavia and beyond. Currency restrictions meant that money had to be smuggled across the borders. Madame Porthault recalled: “We rode across the border with the money in our tires. Then we looked for a secluded spot, where we took off our tires and recovered the money. But you had to be careful and wrap the bills in cotton. One of our friends, who wasn’t too mechanically inclined, simply stuffed them in there. They were completely shredded when he wanted to retrieve them…”
In 1947, she was part of the team that originated the Flèche Vélocio (below). She wrote a great report, which we translated and published alongside her interview in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 1. She was planning to ride in the first post-war PBP when she became pregnant with her son. Her husband, Charles Porthault, was also one of the “grands randonneurs” of the time. He is shown in the center of the photo below, at the start of that inaugural Flèche in front of Notre Dame in Paris. (Jean Dejeans is on the left, Alfred Gadeceau on the right.) These are but a few of the many stories and photos she shared in the Bicycle Quarterly interview.

It was greatly concerned when I learned two years later that Madame Porthault had fallen and broken her hip. However, when I called her, she was in good spirits. “Later in life, I will look back on this time as a difficult period,” she told me. She was 92 at the time.
Her optimism was well-founded. Five years later, she is as healthy as always. I last saw her two years ago, when she picked me up from the train station. We had lunch at a restaurant, then went to her apartment. She walked the stairs with ease and even went into the basement to rummage for some old photos. Her memory is as sharp as ever, and I look forward to visiting her this summer after riding in Paris-Brest-Paris to celebrate her 98th birthday.
For more information or to order this classic back issue of Bicycle Quarterly (while supplies last), click here. I am sure that you’ll enjoy the adventures of La Tante as much as I did.

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The Beauty of Paper

Once in a while, we get a question about whether we will offer a digital edition of Bicycle Quarterly. For now, we are committed to paper. I love paging through magazines with my children. Many of those magazines I have kept since I was a teenager. And I love libraries and archives – the mystery of old volumes, which haven’t been touched in decades, yet are ready to yield their secrets as soon as you open the pages. It’s a different experience from sitting in front of a screen and scrolling down the page.

Even more important is paper’s durability. In my research, I often refer to magazines like Le Cycliste, Le Cycle, Cyclo-Magazine, La Pedale Touristique, CTC Gazette and others that are 70+ years old. I have access to other collections that date back more than a century. The magazines back then often were printed on low-quality paper, so the pages have yellowed, but they remain legible even a century later. We even can scan the wonderful drawings of Daniel Rebour and Frank Patterson and bring them to you in the pages of Bicycle Quarterly. (Below is Rebour’s drawing of Jacques Anquetil’s bike on which he won the 1962 Tour de France.)

If those old magazines had been in some archaic electronic format, they would be long gone now. Daniel Rebour’s wonderful drawings of bikes and components, Frank Patterson’s masterful evocations of landscapes and cyclists, the technical analyses, the reports of rides and races…

I can’t even open the digital files for my Ph.D. dissertation any longer, which was written just 13 years ago. The files were backed up on a format that I no longer can read. (Jazz disc – remember those?). Fortunately, I have a few hardcopies.

So much research goes into every issue of Bicycle Quarterly that I want the magazines to remain a resource for as long as people care about bicycles. That is why we list sources and references, and why we print on acid-free paper. If somebody, 50 years from now, wonders about the performance of tires at various pressures, about frame stiffness, the French technical trials, or the history of the first Campagnolo parallelogram rear derailleur, then paper copies of Bicycle Quarterly will provide a starting point for new research. Building on existing knowledge means that real progress can be made, rather than every generation having to start all over again.

We strive to reduce our environmental impact. Bicycle Quarterly‘s paper has the largest recycled content we can find. We run a paper-less office: We don’t even send you a paper packing slip when you order from us. We have been recognized as a “bicycle-friendly business” by the League of American Bicyclists. We even do most local deliveries by bike.

Of all the paper you get in the mail every year, the 288 pages of Bicycle Quarterly make only a small impact. And many years from now, we hope you will pass your copies along to a young, enthusiastic cyclist, who will treasure them as much as you have.

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The History of Bicycle Brakes

Bicycle Quarterly always has been intended as a timeless resource, rather than a magazine to be read once and then recycled. Over the last 8.5 years, we have published no fewer than 1711 pages! Many issues are dedicated to a topic and provide an incredible resource for very little money. From time to time, we’ll feature a back issue in the blog.
Vol. 7, No. 2 was about brakes. As a fan of The Dancing Chain, the illustrated history of bicycle derailleurs, I wanted to do something similar on brakes, and this issue of Bicycle Quarterly was the result.
With more than 80 drawings (most from the pen of Daniel Rebour) and dozens of studio photographs, this issue charts the development of bicycle brakes. It explains why sidepull, centerpull and cantilever brakes were developed and how they work. It looks at early hydraulic brakes and disc brakes, different brake lever designs and even examines whether it is better to operate the front brake with the left or the right hand. (There are good reasons for either way.)

You’ll find old favorites like Campagnolo’s classic sidepull brakes (above) and Mafac’s cantilevers and centerpulls alongside truly oddball designs. As cantilevers became popular in the 1940s, many designers tried to improve on the standard design. Here are just four interesting solutions.

Does anybody know how brake No. 7 in the drawing above works? It’s a CLB cantilever from 1948, with a linkage to push the brake pads straight toward the rim, rather than rotating them. (Standard cantilever brake shoes must be adjusted as they wear, otherwise, they don’t touch the rim squarely any longer.) On the CLB brake, it appears that the straddle wires push downward, rather than pull upward. If anybody has a photo of this brake, I’d love to see it.
No. 5 is a CPM cantilever brake that mounts to the posts of a Jeay roller-cam brake (see below). When I first saw one, I thought it was a clever retrofit for older frames, but in fact, it was intended as a quick release. Now 6 is a brazed-on version of the British Resilion cantilevers (which originally dates from the 1920s), while No. 8 uses a corkscrew mechanism similar to the old Cyclo derailleur. I doubt the latter worked very well!
Some brakes are almost forgotten today, but at the time set new standards for performance, like the 1920s Jeay (below), which later saw a re-incarnation as the Roller-Cam for mountain bikes.

Of course, no issue of Bicycle Quarterly would be complete without bike tests. We rode an innovative Frances Smallhaul cargo bike and a classic Lyonsport Randonneur, and tested modern long-reach dual-pivot brakes. We also examined handlebar shapes. To round off this issue, we took you on a trip along the Baltic coast of Germany just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, through a landscape suspended in a no-man’s land between old and new (below). Here are more details of this classic issue, and here you can order your copy.

I am sure somebody will ask about the cover illustration of the “Brake Special” (top): It is an old ad for Torpedo coaster-brake hubs. The lady in the flowing dress outruns all the exhausted racers on their fixies, as she has brakes that allow her to coast safely at high speed.

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