The beginning of the season is a good time to check our bikes carefully. The last thing we need the evening before a ride is to find out that our chainrings are too worn to work with a new chain, or that our bottom bracket is about to pack up. A poorly maintained bike might leave us stranded on the road, or worse, cause us to crash.
I start by going over my bike as I clean it. Not only is it much more pleasant to work on a clean bike, but problems like cracks are easier to see. I wash my bike with water and soap. After it dries, I rub car wax on all metal parts (except the chain). As I wax the bike, I look for cracks and other problems. After the bike is clean, I inspect the following areas:
I inspect the brake pads. Are they worn down? Pads that slip into a metal holder (above) must remain at least a few millimeters exposed, otherwise, the holder will touch the rim when the pad compresses under hard braking. (The pad in the photo above needs to be replaced!)
Pads without separate holders have a wear line molded into them. Don’t try to use them beyond that line, as there is a metal stiffener inside the rubber that will score your rim if it is exposed.
Are my brake pads aligned correctly? Do they hit the rims squarely? Is there a risk of hitting the tire (sidepull and centerpull brakes), or of diving under the rim (cantilevers)? I make sure there is a little margin, as the brake shoe will compress during very hard braking. If the pads have a ridge worn into them (above), they need to be adjusted.
It’s also a good idea to “refresh” your brake pads from time to time. The rubber can “glaze over,” resulting in much-reduced braking power. I use a coarse file to expose fresh rubber. Try it, and you’ll be amazed how well your brakes work again!
The rims also form part of the braking system (unless you have drum or disc brakes). Have the sidewalls become concave from the abrasion of the brake pads? If yes, I measure the remaining wall thickness. If it is less than 0.8 mm, it is time for a new rim.
If possible, I unhook the brake springs and move and wiggle the arms. Do they move smoothly and without too much play? Are the bolts tight?
I replace my chain on a regular schedule, so I don’t need to check whether the bushings have worn so much that it no longer meshes cleanly with the freewheel/cassette cogs. If you are in doubt, place a ruler against the chain with the zero on one chain pin. At the one-foot mark should be another pin.
The chain above is almost new, so each link still is exactly one inch long. If the pin is more than 1/16 inch beyond the 12-inch mark, the chain has worn (“stretched”) so much that it should be replaced.
When the chain is off, I spin the cranks to see whether my bottom bracket turns smoothly. There should not be any grinding or catching, but just a smooth spin. I also spin my rear derailleur pulleys to check that they still turn smoothly.
The wear of the rear cogs is difficult to inspect visually. I know they are worn when I install a new chain, and it skips on some cogs under hard acceleration.
Chainrings are easier to inspect. Worn chainrings have a “shark tooth” profile, if the old chain has been used for too long. I replace my chain regularly, so the teeth just get thinner as they wear. When the teeth have visibly “thinned,” I replace the chainrings to reduce the wear on the chain and to keep my drivetrain running smoothly.
If the chain feels “rough” when I pedal, I check whether my cogs still have all their teeth (above). On my Urban Bike, I have stripped teeth off high-quality Dura-Ace 6-speed cogs. That bike sees a lot of torque when starting from a stop with a load of books on the rack.
Derailleurs and Cable
Derailleurs don’t usually suffer from much wear. Trouble usually comes from the shifter cables, which eventually fray and break (above). With downtube shift levers, it’s easy to check the cables at the shift lever. With modern brake/shift levers, it is harder to see whether the cable has frayed where it bends the most. I suggest taking the cables out and checking them once a year. A broken shifter cable will convert your bike to a single-speed, and not with the gearing you’d want!
I also check the brake cables. If the cables are frayed or have broken strands, they should be replaced. With broken strands (or worse, broken cables), look for the cause. Is there a burr over which the cable runs, causing it to flex more than necessary? It’ll need to be smoothed so the new cable won’t fail in the same spot.
I also inspect the housing. Is it in decent shape and without kinks? If your bike still has unlined housing, you can replace it with modern housing, which has a plastic liner inside that greatly reduces the cable friction.
I check that my wheels are still true. Minor deviations don’t really affect your bike’s performance, but if a wobble is visible to the eye, it should be trued. Often, it’s just one spoke that has come loose (or broken). I find that spoke by plucking each spoke like a guitar string. Without removing the wheel from the bike, I tighten the loose spoke and see whether the wobble disappears. If the problem isn’t limited to a single spoke, then it’s time to rebuild the wheel to make sure the spoke tensions are even.
The days when we had to repack our bearings annually are over for most of us. But even modern bearings with good seals do wear over time.
First, I check the bearings for play. I push the rims sideways to check the hub bearings. It’s normal that the wheel flexes, but if I feel a rocking motion, then there is play in the bearings. On many hubs, this can be adjusted. On others, you just have to live with it.
I push one crank toward the chainstay to check for play in the bottom bracket. For the headset, I turn the handlebars 90° and then rock the bike back and forth. There should be no play in the headset.
Then it’s time to make sure that my bearings still spin smoothly. I remove the wheels and turn the axles by hand. A little resistance is normal with sealed bearings. If the bearing catches at one (or several) spots during each revolution, the bearings are either adjusted too tightly, or more likely, are pitted and need replacement soon. I drop the chain off the chainrings (or remove it entirely) and spin slowly the cranks to check the bottom bracket. I put my bike on the stand, remove the front wheel, and turn the handlebars to check my headset.
I also check the pedals, both for play and for smooth bearings.
Riding with pitted bearings is not recommended. Eventually, the bearing can “pack up” and stop rotating. This will leave you stranded on a ride.
Last, I check the tires. If the tread has worn so much that it is smooth in the center (above), then the tire is getting close to its replacement point. I take it off and feel how much thickness remains. If the tire tread is almost as pliable as the sidewall, then there is hardly any tread left on top of the casing. Replace your tires before the tread wears through entirely! If you can see the casing through worn patches in the tread rubber, then you should replace the tire immediately. You are only a few miles away from a dangerous blowout!
What other parts of your bike do you inspect before you start your cycling season?
Just one week of riding without a mudflap, and look at my bike! It’s a mess!
I ride my Urban Bike year-round in rainy Seattle, but thanks to its generous fenders, it rarely gets dirty. I clean it only once a year, because it doesn’t need it more often.
Then, last week, the mudflap on the front fender came off when I reversed the heavily loaded bike up a home-built ramp out of the basement. The flap got caught underneath the front tire at the end of the ramp, and pulled out of the fender.
It’s surprising to me – the front fender is as good as they get: It extends as low as it can without hitting curbs. Yet without the mudflap, spray hits the bottom bracket and entire rear of the bike, to say nothing of my feet. And with the rubber mudflap (above), the bike stays almost totally clean.
This experience shows once again how important those “minor” details really are. This weekend, I’ll install the mudflap again!
At this time of year, we plan our rides for the summer. There are so many places we want to explore! We pore over roads and look at event calendars. And we think about changes to our bikes. Some of the changes are intended to make our bikes better suited to our riding styles. Other changes take advantage of what we have learned. Some changes are the result of new products becoming available.
Now is the time to make those changes to our bikes. That way, we can fine-tune everything during the long winter “base mile” rides. Our bodies get used to the new setup, and when the season starts, our bikes will feel like extensions of our bodies, rather than foreign objects. We want the next riding season to be even more enjoyable than the last.
If you are thinking about changes to your bike, here are a few things to consider for the new season:
One of the most important factors influencing the comfort on long rides are your handlebars. Many modern bikes are equipped with “compact” bars that feature a very short reach and shallow drop. This allows a more upright position, while keeping the handlebars fashionably low. The drawback is that your hands are locked into three positions, all very similar as far as the angle of your back is concerned. On long rides, this can lead to numb hands, as well as shoulder and back pains.
Experienced long-distance riders generally prefer classic handlebar shapes from the 1940s and 1950s. Back then, even racers spent many hours in the saddle. The old-style bars feature more generous curves and give your hands more room to roam.
As you ride more and as your core and back muscles become stronger, you can use a more inclined position that allows you to put out more power. Switching to handlebars with more reach is an easy way to achieve that, while preserving the upright “on the tops” position for slower rides. Read more about handlebars here.
Did you find yourself shifting between front chainrings a lot last year? The reason usually is that your big chainring is too large; instead of shifting a few cogs on the rear for a minor hill, you need to change to the small ring and then compensate on the back cassette. These multiple shifts break your rhythm. A smart gearing choice starts with your base gear, which should be on the big ring and in the middle of your rear cassette. Read more about gearing in this post.
New gearing usually requires new chainrings, and in some cases, new cranks. If you still ride on old-style “racing” gearing (53/39), you will be surprised how much difference a “compact” crankset or, even better, custom-designed gearing will make to your riding enjoyment.
If you did not get a huge number of flats last year, consider changing to more supple tires that offer more comfort and speed. Nothing will transform your bike and increase your riding enjoyment as much as a great set of tires. If you have sufficient clearance, running wider tires will not only improve your comfort further, but also reduce the risk of flats. Read more about tires.
If you want to try a new saddle, now is the time to put one on your bike and “break it in” during the winter training rides. A good leather saddle needs a few hundred miles until it becomes truly comfortable. A modern plastic saddle also will conform better to your anatomy over time. Making the switch now will make sure that you have a comfortable saddle during your summer cycling adventures.
If you are considering a new pedal system, the long winter rides are a great opportunity to try it out and “learn” the different release. Then you will feel secure when you ride in events with unknown riders, where you may have to stop suddenly.
Are you still waiting for the rain to end so you can start your cycling season? Maybe this is the year to install nice fenders on your “go-fast” bike? That way, you won’t curse the afternoon thunderstorm during that great mountain ride in July! Read more about fenders here.
If you plan to ride long events (or simply are tired of replacing batteries), consider upgrading to a generator hub system. This requires a new front wheel, so it is a bit of an investment, but most people only regret not having made the switch sooner. Read more about lighting systems here.
Have you become hot during a ride, but were unable to remove layers because there was no place to put them? (Don’t sling a long-sleeve jersey or tights around your waist, as they are likely to get caught on the rear tire or in the spokes, causing you to crash.) Think about a new luggage system for your bike. Easiest is adding a large under-seat bag like a Carradice.
For convenience and excellent handling, it is hard to beat a good handlebar bag, mounted to a rack and attached to the stem with a decaleur – provided your bike’s front-end geometry is suitable for front-loading.
Handlebar bags aren’t just great for clothes. They keep your food, your camera, your wallet, and other things easily accessible without dismounting the bike. Having your route sheet on top of the bag, visible at all times, greatly reduces the difficulty of navigating during organized rides. Read more about racks and bags.
What other changes are you making to your bike this year?
Many people see my bike and think “Retro!” In some cases, this is seen as cool. Others are dismissive, like the famous builder who once compared riders like me to civil war re-enactors, who dress up and play civil war in their spare time.
It is true that I enjoy riding classic bikes. Best-known is probably my ride with Jaye Haworth in the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris on a 1946 René Herse tandem (below). I also rode a 1952 René Herse 650B bike in a number of brevets. While there was an element of re-enactment in those rides – I wanted to understand these bikes and their riders better – the results were really surprising.
The 1946 René Herse tandem performed better than any modern tandem, and we were the fastest mixed tandem that year. In the entire history of PBP, only 7 mixed tandem teams have been faster, and six of them have been on classic tandems. The old Herse’s effortless speed, but even more its effortless handling, really was an eye-opener that led into research of why modern tandems did not perform as well. Since then, quite a few tandems have been built along similar lines, to the great enjoyment of their owners.
My rides on the 1952 Herse 650B bike had even more far-reaching consequences. Not only does that bike hold the record for the “3 Volcano 300 km” brevet to this day, but its surprising performance led to our research into bicycle performance. A trickle-down effect of that research is that now even racers run wider tires at lower pressures than they did before. And the old Herse served as a blueprint for a new generation of 650B randonneur bikes made in the United States, including my current bike.
Designed for performance more than style, these new bikes take some elements from the old: fast, wide 650B tires, lightweight aluminum fenders with excellent coverage, and handlebars that offer room to roam during long rides. Other details are decidedly modern: clipless pedals and generator-powered lights with the latest LED technology.
Some riders equip their new randonneur bikes with modern brake-shift levers, while others prefer the simplicity and light weight of downtube shift levers. There are good reasons to use either system that have nothing to do with being modern or retro.
Retro is painting your bike orange because Eddy Merckx was sponsored by an Italian sausage maker. Or putting horizontal dropouts on a bike with derailleurs because that is how it used to be done in the old days. Riding a bike with each part chosen for performance is not retro. Even if the result looks somewhat like a bike from 1952.
Some people wonder whether special bikes can be too precious to ride. They ask me about my bikes: “Aren’t you afraid that it will get scratched?” or “What if you crash it?” or “What if it gets stolen while you lock it up on the street?”
Those things do happen. I was bringing a mailing of Bicycle Quarterly to the post office, and arrived just seconds before closing. In a rush, I leaned my Urban Bike (below) against a concrete retaining wall. As I took the mailbags off the front rack, the bike scraped against the concrete, causing a big scratch in the seatstay. Ouch! On the way home, I was upset for while, but then my attention drifted to the lovely ride in the evening light and the vibrant autumn colors. I still need to touch up the scratch with paint. I have waxed the bike with car wax, like I do for all of my bikes, so no rust has formed in the two years since the bike got scratched. I got used to the scratch, and no longer notice it.
My new René Herse had been completed just before Paris-Brest-Paris last year. Sixty kilometers into the ride, another rider ran into my front wheel, wedged his seatpost-mounted rack underneath my handlebar bag, and we went down. As I was flying through the air, I was far more concerned about injuries to myself than about damage to my bike. All of us were lucky: The damage was limited to a few scrapes (on both the bikes and the riders). The next ride on the new Herse was a trip across the center of France in the rain and mud (below). I enjoyed riding the bike so much that even if I had known that those things would happen, I still would have taken the new Herse on these rides.
Both bikes are developing patina, and I actually prefer that over a shiny brand-new bike. I also find that high-quality products usually develop nicer patina than inexpensive ones. Plastics and powdercoats don’t age as well as aluminum, leather and paint…
What if it gets stolen? I have been lucky so far. But if it does happen, renter’s or homeowner’s insurance will cover your bike. There is a deductible, which means that your out-of-pocket expense is the same whether your bike costs $ 500 or $ 5000. Of course, replacing a custom-made bicycle is not as easy as going to a bike shop and getting a new one. After a theft, I might have to ride something else for a while. On the other hand, if I were overly protective of my nice bike, I’d be riding “something else” all the time!
Some truly rare classic bikes are more precious, and I take more precautions. There are different opinions, but I believe that even with irreplaceable classics, riding them keeps the intent of the builder alive. An unridden bike is like a painting kept in a safe: it no longer serves its purpose. I really appreciate when collectors let me ride their priceless machines, such as a twin-chain built by Vélocio, a Retro-Directe, the Schulz, and the only surviving René Herse from the Technical Trials. This generosity has enabled me to share first-hand experiences of these machines in the pages of Bicycle Quarterly.
I also felt that riding a 1946 René Herse tandem in Paris-Brest-Paris went a long way toward proving – to myself and others – that wide tires, 650B wheels and low-trail geometries were great alternatives to the then-current conventional wisdom of how to make a superb bike. It was great fun, and it brought wonderful memories to the older spectators, many of whom remembered these machines in their prime!
I recommend not worrying about your nice bike. Just go out and ride it! You don’t want to miss out on the fun!
I moved from Texas to Seattle 20 years ago and continued to ride and train year-round. At first, I refused to use fenders. I did not want to spoil the beautiful lines of my racing bike. After one miserably wet winter, I gave in. Like most of my teammates, I got a rain bike.
For those from drier climates, a rain bike is a racing bike equipped with fenders. It usually is a less-valuable bike intended to take the wear and tear of riding in the rain, while your “good” bike remains pristine and ready for rides and events in better weather.
My rain bike was built with an old Celo Europa Columbus SL frame and parts sourced at various swap meets. The only brand-new parts were German SKS fenders (back then made by Esge), the best available in Seattle at the time.
As I wrote above, the “rain bike is intended to take the wear and tear of riding in the rain.” And wear and tear it took indeed, my poor rain bike. The drivetrain always felt gritty from the spray of the front wheel that went straight onto the chain. Lubricating the chain was a ritual after every long ride in the rain, because it squeaked terribly and turned a rusty orange as soon as it dried out. After each ride in the rain, my bike was covered in filth, and so was I. I overhauled my bottom bracket at least twice a year to remove the grit that had found its way into the bearings. I was glad to spare my “good” bike this ordeal. It always was a relief when the forecast had no rain, and I could take out my good bike, with its smooth drivetrain that seemed to run like clockwork.
Today, I don’t have a rain bike any longer. Neither do the people with whom I ride. We ride our “good” bikes all year round. It’s not that it rains less in Seattle than it did in previous decades. Nor have we resigned ourselves to riding ugly bikes with gritty drivetrains. It’s just that our good bikes now have aluminum fenders that don’t spoil the lines of the bike, and more importantly, keep the grit and spray off our bikes. We no longer oil our chains after a rainy ride, nor do we overhaul bottom brackets every year. How are our fenders today different from the SKS plastic fenders?
My rain bike never got photographed, so this bike will serve as a stand-in. The “spray zone” of the front wheel is shown, as well as the drip from the fender stays. Here are the characteristics of plastic fenders:
- Front fender covers just 90°: Spray from the front wheel goes directly onto feet and drivetrain.
- Fenders attach to stays with brackets that form dams on the inside of the fender: Water gets diverted and drips off the stays – onto your feet and chain.
- Fenders are flexible: They resonate annoyingly on rough roads.
- Fenders have to be pulled into shape for mounting: Inbuilt stresses cause them to break after 2-3 seasons.
- Bike frame not designed for fenders means: Clearances are tight. Fenders tend to rub on tires. Fenderlines aren’t perfect, so the bike’s appearance is compromised.
The spray zone of my current bikes’ front wheel is much reduced, and no longer reaches the pedals or the chain. Here are the characteristics of our aluminum fenders:
- Front fender and mudflap reach within 5 cm (2 in) of the ground: No spray reaches feet or drivetrain.
- Fenders have uninterrupted interior and rolled edges: All water stays inside. Most water exits at the bottom, where it drips off the mudflap straight back onto the road.
- Stiff aluminum fenders bolts directly to the stays: Silent even on the roughest roads.
- Metal fenders can be shaped to the desired profile: No inbuilt stresses, so fenders last for decades.
- Bike frame designed for fenders: Perfect clearances everywhere and no rubbing ever. Fenders no longer detract from the appearance of the bike.
We never would have thought that better fenders would make such a difference. I discovered aluminum fenders almost by accident, attracted to the classic appearance of a set of hammered Honjo fenders that I put on my touring bike. It came as a surprise that my feet stayed so much drier.
Now we pity the riders we see riding in the rain with short plastic fenders. We have been there. Like most riders, we used to think that fenders were fenders, and spray and grit were an inevitable byproduct of riding in the rain. Now we know that it doesn’t have to be that way.
“You ride the bike you have, not the bike you might want or wish to have at a later time,” said a famous secretary of defense. (More or less. He was talking about armies, not bikes, but both are tools toward achieving an end.)
That statement paraphrases my thoughts about bicycles. Last year, we posted our series A Journey of Discovery, where we explained how we came to prefer certain bikes. Many readers were surprised that at the time, I did not have my ideal bike. “What, you don’t have a 650B randonneur bike?” was one incredulous comment.
For years, I was riding a bike that was made from stiffer tubing than I considered ideal, that had narrower tires than I prefer, and that had a geometry that was not optimized for the handlebar bag I made it carry. It was a very good bike, but as my preferences evolved, it no longer was what I would have picked, given a totally free choice.
Did this detract from the riding experience? Not much! I had a wonderful time on the bike. I rode it to my best-ever Paris-Brest-Paris finish and many other memorable rides. Only very rarely did I think during a ride “Oh, I wish my bike had less trail/wider tires/thinner tubing walls.”
In fact, I rarely think about the bike during rides at all. I just enjoy the ride. And even though I knew that I eventually wanted a different bike, I was in no rush. I knew my old bike would need replacement eventually – when I got that bike, it already had more than 30 years and 100,000+ miles of hard riding under its wheels.
So I started working on my new bike. I planned to change the things that did not match my preferences. Building that new bike took time, since I made many of the parts myself. In the mean time, I continued to ride my bike on more memorable rides. I used the bike in a number of fast 600 km brevets as I chased the Cyclos Montagnards R60 honor. I rode it on fast Sunday morning rides with friends. I ran errands on it around town. And I enjoyed every one of those rides.
Now I have my new bike. It performs exactly as I had hoped. I love riding it. I still enjoy riding the old bike from time to time. In the end, it’s not about the bike, it’s about the ride.
From the archives: My ride in Paris-Brest-Paris 2007.
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.
I am the fortunate custodian of a lovely 1962 Alex Singer that is in almost-new condition. It has all the features that make an Alex Singer special, and really represents Alex Singer’s ideal of the perfect bike: lightweight, elegant and performing.
Years ago, Ernest Csuka sent the bicycle my way. I had wanted to order a new Singer with the same features. I remember him growling: “Those features are too difficult to make. I’ll have to find you an old one.” And he did!
The original owner ordered it for his retirement. He was a good customer, who already had bought several Singers. Orders were slow in 1962, and extra care was spent on this bike. All Singers from this period are very nice, but this one is nicer still. The original owner appears to have ridden it very little, so it rides like it did when it was new.
This year, the bike is a half-century old. To celebrate, I took it on a ride with my friend Sam.
Rolling along, this was the view of the bike. The bag is a special model made for Alex Singer by Sologne. (Today, it is made by Gilles Berthoud and available from Compass Bicycles.) Looking down put a smile on my face.
Both Sam and I had been working too many long hours, so we were especially eager to ride. Our pace was high, but the Singer had no trouble keeping up. Its handling was stable, yet agile. It responded well to my pedaling stroke, in the way the French call “nervous,” a term borrowed from racehorses. I would translate it with “eager.”
The Nivex derailleur shifted as precisely as always, but I had to adjust my technique. Having ridden my 1970s bike with a more “modern” derailleur lately, I had to stop “overshifting.” With the Nivex, you move the lever until the new gear engages, and that is it. No fine-tuning necessary. The compensator lever on the spring keeps the chain tension constant, so every shift is exactly the same, no matter where you are in the gear range.
The front derailleur probably is the lightest ever made. Including the braze-ons, it weighs less than 50 grams. (An Ultegra front derailleur alone weighs 85 g, and then you have to add the cables, housing, shift lever…) It works remarkably well, even though the large step from the 32- to the 46-tooth chainring on this bike is not an easy shift. The “compact” gearing allowed me to ride in the big ring most of the time.
This bike is equipped with a chainrest. Next to the smallest cog, a ring is brazed onto the dropout. You can shift the chain onto the ring, and then remove the wheel without touching the chain. (Aren’t those Bell wingnuts lovely?)
On a long downhill, I moved the chain to the chainrest. Now the chain no longer was on the freewheel, which allowed the freewheel to spin with the wheel. It was fun to coast in silence. Sam thought the reduced resistance made me go faster, but that is unlikely to be significant.
The Singer brakes are the lightest brakes I know, much lighter than modern Eebrakes and other minimalist designs. They work like this: Pulling on the cable rotates the cams, which push the pads toward the rim. There was plenty of brake power, but the brakes juddered terribly. I’ll need to file the pads to the correct toe-in again.
As we stopped at a cafe, I looked over the bike. I love the stickers on the Mephisto rims. The rims are superlight, and feature small wooden blocks inside the extrusions at every spoke hole to support the spoke tension.
I was grateful for the sealed bearings in Singer’s custom bottom bracket and in the Maxi-Car hubs. Neither have been overhauled – ever! – yet they still spin smoothly half a century after they were made.
Fortunately, we did not ride at night. The small light is cute, but it cannot compete with modern lights for illumination. Singer’s light mount is hollow, and the wire goes inside and then runs inside the rolled edge of the fender.
The taillight mounts to a dedicated braze-on under the chainstay. It’s well-protected there, and not blocked if you use a rear rack and carry a load. The frame is one of the most finely crafted I have seen regardless of maker or age; check out the connections of the stays to the dropouts.
The lugs have a fillet added to the crease to make them stronger and (more importantly) prettier. Roland Csuka, who brazed the frames, added a long tang to the seatlug. I suspect he welded the pump peg onto the lug before he brazed the frame. That prevented heating the seat tube again. The small cylinder on the seatstay is a lever control for the sidewall generator. You can see the ball end of the lever. You reach down to switch the lights on and off while moving. The fender has a neatly formed bulge to allow the generator to touch the tire.
Singer’s specialty was the unified head tube. Roland welded the lug sockets onto the head tube, before brazing the frame. The stem also is welded from steel tubing.
The saddle, a 1950s Brooks B17, is one of the most comfortable I have ridden. Its quality puts modern Brooks offerings to shame. Singers often featured a seatpost with an internal expander, which gave a nice and clean look to the seatlug. You can see the expander bolt on top of the seatpin.
We rode 190 km that day, sprinting up hill after hill until we completely bonked. After we took a rest, we continued our manic ride. (It’s February, and rides like that help us get in shape for the season after losing much of our form over the winter.) The only allowance I made for the age of the bike was at stoplights. I accelerated a little more slowly to limit the torque on the rear wheel. There is no need to break half-century-old spokes!
Some may wonder whether such a pristine bike should be ridden at all, or whether it should be sealed away hermetically. I agree that it should not be allowed to deteriorate, but much of what makes such a bike special can be accessed only by riding it. Bikes like the 1962 Alex Singer have inspired Bicycle Quarterly’s vision of what a bike can be, both functionally and aesthetically.
P.S.: This 1962 Alex Singer is featured in our book The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, where you will find studio photos of this and 49 other special machines. Continue Reading →
Car drivers are lucky: They can buy sports cars that are fully equipped to be driven in the rain and even at night. And their fenders rarely rattle loose, their lights don’t fall off, and most car owners think little of driving 1200 km without having to tighten bolts or do other maintenance. The secret to this reliability and performance is a fully integrated design.
It wasn’t always like that. In the early days of the automobile, car makers provided just the chassis. Below is a brand-new Bugatti sports car ready for delivery.
Of course, the owner didn’t drive it like that, but took it to a body builder, where a body and all the other accessories were added. The owner got to choose the body style, the fender shape, lights and many other details. The resulting cars could be breathtakingly beautiful and elegant.
For the time, they offered great performance, too. Equipped with a 3.3 liter compressor engine, this Bugatti Type 57 could go 180 km/h (112 mph), and few cars could keep up with it on the open road during the late 1930s.
Fast forward 12 years, and suddenly you had a new breed of sports cars with smaller engines and much fewer horsepower that were not just able to keep up with the Bugatti, but outperform it with ease on a curving road.
What had happened? The Lancia above no longer used a separate chassis, but featured unibody construction. The body was the load-bearing structure. The fenders were integral to the design, and so were the lights. Not only was this structure lighter and more rigid, but it also greatly improved the reliability of the car. Gone were the days when fenders rattled loose, lights vibrated until their bulbs broke, and bodies cracked because they flexed independently of the chassis. Everything was conceived as a unit, everything worked together, and the result was a car with modern performance.
In the bike world, we are still stuck in the 1930s. If you buy a “real-world” performance bike at most bike stores, you get the equivalent of a rolling chassis, whether it’s a cyclocross, a touring or a “randonneur” bike. Here is an example:
The manufacturer expects you to add the various parts you need to make the suitable for real-world riding. The result usually looks something like this:
This bike has all the drawbacks of a 1930s cars and then some: The many clamps and adjustable sliders add a lot of weight. They are likely to come loose. You are bound to get rattles and resonances from the fenders. Lighting wires are zip-tied to the outside of the frame, where they are vulnerable. And the resulting bike doesn’t even look as elegant as a 1930s Bugatti. No wonder many cyclists prefer to ride just the rolling chassis, rather than deal with all the clamped-on “accessories.”
Now imagine a bike where all the parts you need have been integrated into the original design. For a loaded touring bike, it would look something like this bike from our book The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles (as always, click on the photo for a more detailed view):
The racks are custom-made for the frame. They fit exactly, with no adjustments necessary or even possible. That makes them lighter and above all stiffer, which improves the handling of the bike. It also means that they are unlikely to need tightening – ever. The fenders attach directly to the frame, without spacers or tabs, providing a more solid attachment that is unlikely to flex, resonate or crack. The lights are integrated into the rack (front) and fender (rear).
In the photo at the top of the post, you see a detail of such a fully integrated bike. Note how the fender attaches directly to the frame, with a reinforcement at the spot where the stresses are greatest. See the remote control lever for the generator, so you don’t need to stop if you want to turn on the lights. The fender has a small bulge to make room for the generator’s wheel. The lighting wires run inside the fenders and frame. This is not only prettier, but also reduces the risk of the wires getting snagged and broken.
The result is a lighter, stronger, more reliable and more elegant bike. It also offers better performance. It’s the bicycle equivalent of a modern car. Once you have experienced a fully integrated bicycle, it is hard to go back to the equivalent of a 1930s car.
In recent years, the bike industry has realized that most riders don’t race, and so the racing bike has been renamed: It’s now called a “road bike” or a “performance bike.” In the minds of most cyclists, a performance bike has narrow tires, no fenders, no lights, no racks. My randonneur bikes (above) don’t fit that pattern. People ask me: “Is that a touring bike? Or is it a rain bike?” The implication is: That bike must be slow, because it has fenders, lights and a rack.
Let’s move away from bicycles for a moment, to another popular mode of transportation: cars. Imagine going to a car dealer, and asking for a “performance car.” What if the dealer offered you this model?
Imagine the sales pitch: “It’s our best model. It’s won many Grand Prix races. Perfect for your weekend drives, and if you like, you can commute in it to work as well. For the winter, you can add fenders and lights. We have various models of fenders in stock, and we have clamps to attach them, too. Here is a slightly older model that we converted for year-round use:
“And when the weather turns nice, of course, you’ll take off the fenders and lights. You’ll carry your stuff in one of our stylish shoulder bags, or we can clamp a rack to the rear suspension.”
You see where this is going? The Formula V “road car” above may be (barely) street-legal, but it is hardly anybody’s idea of a “performance car.” Instead, most people envision something like the cars below when they think “performance car”:
The Lotus Elise is one of the most radical sports cars you can buy in this country. Superlight and with a great chassis, it is at home on curving backroads as well as on the racetrack.
But wait a minute, how can the Lotus be a performance car, when it has lights? Fenders that don’t come off? Two seats and even a trunk? Shouldn’t we call that a “touring car” or a “rain car”?
Somehow, in the sports car world, nobody thinks a car is less sporty just because it has lights, fenders and can carry a few bags of groceries. One day, you can commute to work in the Lotus, and the next day, you can race it on the track. Why can’t “performance bikes” be fully equipped for the real world, while still offering exciting performance?
Perhaps it’s the racing stripes that make the Lotus look sporty in spite of its “touring” accessories. Will adding stripes to my randonneur bike make it look faster in the eyes of most cyclists?
I spend so much time assembling test bikes, testing components, etc., that I have little time to work on my own bikes. Fortunately, my Alex Singer (above) has been very reliable, even though it is 38 years old and has been ridden at least 200,000 km (120,000 miles) in its lifetime, mostly under its first owner.
Before our Flèche ride, I adjusted the front brake pads, which had worn and started to touch the tire. After that 600 km ride, the chain was overdue for replacement. I replace the chain every 1600-1800 km to limit wear on the hard-to-replace freewheel cogs.
As so often, I only got around to replacing the chain the evening before the next big ride, our club’s 400 km brevet. After taking off the chain, I inspected the chainrings. The large 48-tooth chainring had worn so much that the teeth were very thin at their tops. In the photo below you can see the roots of the teeth, where they still feature their original thickness.
I was pondering this rapid rate of wear when I realized that I last had replaced the chainring four years ago. Since then, I had ridden the Singer about 25-30,000 km. Considering that I use the big-big combination frequently, which runs the chain at an extreme angle, that is a very acceptable rate of wear from the TA chainring. The small 32-tooth ring sees much less use. It remains in very good condition. Fortunately, I had a spare 48-tooth chainring, and it was a quick job to replace it.
On TA “Pro 5 vis” cranks, you need to remove the crank to replace the chainrings. In any case, it is a good idea to take the cranks off your bike every few years. As I unscrewed the crank bolts, I noticed that one had loosened a bit. Next I checked the bottom bracket. Four years ago, I had pressed new bearings into the Alex Singer bottom bracket, and as expected, they still spun smoothly. The first set of bearings had lasted 34 years, so I hope to get similar mileage out of these. (I really don’t miss the annual overhauls of cup-and-cone bottom brackets.)
After removing the chainrings from the crank, I inspected the cranks for cracks. To my shock, the left crank had a nick, from which two small cracks seemed to emanate (arrows in photos below). Or was it just a scratch?
I decided to remove the nick and see how deep the crack/scratch went. I clamped the crankarm between two small wooden blocks in a vise. A few file strokes removed the nick and cracks/scratches (see below), as they were just on the surface of the crankarm. If it had been a deep crack, the crank would have been retired immediately: A broken crank is no laughing matter. Sorry for the mediocre photo quality, but the main focus was to get the bike ready for the ride, not to work on the lighting for the photos.
Classic TA cranks are not anodized, so restoring the finish was easy. I started with “wet-and-dry” sandpaper (400 grit up to 1200 grit) under a trickle of water to remove the dust and prevent the sandpaper from clogging. I used the opportunity to lightly sand the remainder of the crankarm as well. Then I polished it with some polishing compound on an old rag. When I re-checked the polished surface, the cracks had disappeared completely. The other crankarm also had a few nicks, which I also filed and sanded off. After polishing both arms, I rubbed on a little car wax to protect the cranks’ and chainrings’ finish. The shiny cranks match the new chainring and look nice on the bike.
Installing the new chain and oiling it completed the maintenance job, which took about 90 minutes. And the bike worked flawlessly during the long ride the following day.
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.
Most of the time, I ride two bicycles: My 1973 Alex Singer Randonneur for spirited rides with friends, and my Urban Bike for rides that involve carrying loads that do not fit in a handlebar bag. (Due to lack of time, my Alex Singer Camping bike does not see much use these days.)
Last year, Bicycle Quarterly tested a number of great bikes. I enjoyed some of those bikes so much that I rode them much further than the customary 300-400 km that constitute a normal Bicycle Quarterly test. Out of curiosity, I tallied up the kilometers I rode last year on various bicycle types:
- Alex Singer randonneur and similar 700C bikes: 5061 km (40%)
- 650B randonneur test bikes: 4485 km (35%)
- Urban Bike: 2003 km (16%)
- Other test bikes: 1071 km (9%)
The truly surprising part is that 650B randonneur bikes accounted for 35% of my annual distance, even though I don’t have a 650B randonneur bike! This means that when I had a 650B test bike in my basement, I rode it almost exclusively. As my friend Ryan joked: “I see you are riding the 650B test bike again. I guess you need to check out one more detail of it!” (In fact, I asked the builders’ permission to “extend” the tests.)
It’s not so much the wheel size as the tire width that made these bikes so appealing. The 42 mm-wide 650B tires not only smooth out the rough pavement of Seattle’s streets, but they also allowed me to explore gravel roads in the mountains that would not have been much fun on narrower tires.
It also is interesting that 16% of my riding distance involved hauling loads. If I did not have my Urban Bike, I probably would have driven a car for a good portion of that distance. That would have been a lot of time spent in a car and not on a bike, plus a lot of gasoline burnt.
Most of all, I have concluded that I really need a 650B randonneur bike of my own! (The 1948 René Herse in the drawing above would suit me fine, if we can update it with modern lights.)
Which bike did you ride most last year?
In the previous parts of this series, we have looked at how our preferences in bicycles changed over time. More important is how the changes in our bikes have expanded the way we ride.
Indeed, we replaced saddlebags with handlebar bags, triple cranks with compact doubles, mid-trail geometries with low-trail ones, and medium-width 700C tires with wide 650B tires. But my joy lies not in arcane technical details, but in the changes this has brought to our enjoyment of cycling.
In 1999, a 16-hour ride was about the longest I could fathom non-stop. With our 28 mm tires, we could handle the occasional gravel road, but for the most part, we stayed on pavement. Corners always were fun, but we did not go out of our way to find twisting backroads.
Today, an all-night “transport stage” is an enjoyable way to begin a long ride. Riding for 24 hours non-stop allows us to experience places that are beyond the reach of even an all-day outing. Gravel roads offer a wonderful respite from traffic, as well as providing access to beautiful scenery. A challenging descent is worth an hour-long detour.
All this has been made possible in part by the bikes we now ride. The handlebar bags allow us to access our luggage while riding. The low-trail geometries require less concentration to keep pointed in the right direction. The precise cornering makes winding back roads especially engaging. Integrated fenders keep us dry even when it rains, and can be forgotten the rest of the time. The wide tires greatly increase the range of roads we enjoy, while rolling faster than the stiffer tires we used to ride. And technical progress has brought us generator-powered LED headlights that make riding at night much more enjoyable. In the end, it’s all about the ride, not the bike.
How has your riding changed in recent years?
Click here to go to Part 7 of this series.
Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.
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.
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– Double-blind tests of frame stiffness and planing, Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 6, No. 4.
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.
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– 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.
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?
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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…
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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.
My favorite bookseller called and said: “We just sold the last copy of The Competition Bicycle, and there is a gaping hole next to your other book in our window display.” There was only one thing to do:
I loaded up the trusty Urban Bike with a 40-lb box of books and headed toward downtown Seattle. On the narrow bike path on the Ballard Bridge, I appreciated the secure handling of this bike even with a heavy load.
Approaching downtown, I rode on the scenic trail along Elliott Bay, with Mount Rainier in the background. (Click on the image for a larger version.)
Rides like these are among the most valuable. They allow me to get away from my desk for a few hours, breathing fresh air and restoring my spirits. I really appreciate having a great bike made specifically for rides like these. A scenic ride in the mountains probably would be fun on any bike, but on these urban rides, a great bike doubles the fun. I used to pull a Burley trailer when I had to carry a box of books, but my rides were more a chore than recreation.
On a bike, you meet interesting people. This afternoon, I rode with a young chef from El Salvador commuting to work. (He took the action photos you see above.) We stopped briefly to admire the setting sun on this beautiful autumn day.
A steep climb took me from the Pike Place Market to downtown Seattle. The road here is rough, but my wide tires glided across the broken bricks and cobblestones.
At Peter Miller Books, it’s always inspiring to browse the wonderful architecture and design books on display. It’s even nicer to chat with Peter Miller.
As I headed home, Peter Miller was placing one of the books I had delivered in the shop window.
Emergency Roadside Repair in 3 Easy Steps
• wooden stick
• steel strap
• big rock
• 5 mm Allen wrench (optional)
Time required: 25 minutes.
On a spring-time ride in the Cascades, we took a side road from Sultan to Gold Bar in the Skykomish River Valley. Our destination was Index, and we were looking forward to the fabulous Reiter Road that runs high on the hillsides above the valley between Gold Bar and Index. Presently, the road turned to gravel, and then we found ourselves in the railyard at Gold Bar. Suddenly, Ryan crashed.
His front wheel had picked up a steel strap, which locked up the wheel. Ryan fell over at low speed. He was relatively unhurt, but his carbon-fiber handlebars broke in half when they impacted the ground. (Here is a photo of Ryan on his carbon-fiber bike.)
We were 80 km (50 miles) from home, so our repair had to be durable enough to get back to Seattle safely.
Step 1: We found a stick of suitable diameter and jammed it into the handlebars. We had to remove the rear brake, because the cable was too short to get the broken end onto the stick. Ryan’s handlebars had a groove for the brake cable, so the cross-section wasn’t round, and the stick was not a perfect fit. The stick served only to preserve the alignment; it was not strong enough to support the weight of the rider on the handlebars.
Step 2: We decided to splint the handlebars like a broken bone. Fortunately, a railyard is full of useful materials. A steel strap was perfect for the job.
A big rock served as a hammer to form the strap into an “L” profile, giving it more strength. The gap between two rails served as a vise. (This was a siding, there was no danger of being run over by a freight train descending Stevens Pass.)
Step 3: We carefully removed the handlebar tape and used it to wrap the splint tightly onto the handlebars. Ryan had gel tape on his handlebars, which we used to cover the sharp edges of the steel plate.
We used two toestraps to secure the splint further. It certainly looked odd, but the bike was ready to ride. We didn’t want to press our luck, so we decided to forego the final, most beautiful leg of our ride, and instead turned back toward Seattle.
The ride home was uneventful. Ryan still could use his right shift lever with confidence, but wasn’t so confident resting his weight on the hoods or drops. Fortunately, the lever for his front brake was on the intact left end of the handlebars, so his braking was not impaired. Of course, this is only a temporary fix. Ryan replaced the handlebars for his next ride. Use your judgment before riding with similar repairs.