In uncertain times, it’s good to remember what is important to us and how we can continue to enjoy our lives. Cycling is what we do, and, fortunately, it’s something we can continue to do. Continue Reading →
In uncertain times, it’s good to remember what is important to us and how we can continue to enjoy our lives. Cycling is what we do, and, fortunately, it’s something we can continue to do. Continue Reading →
As last summer’s 1200 km Paris-Brest-Paris was approaching, my training went into high gear. That meant hill intervals and speedwork, but also occasional longer rides to maintain my endurance – and have fun!
When Mark and Steve suggested a weekend ride up the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River, we came up with an idea: They would take the bus to Mount Si, a popular hiking destination. I’d ride out there and meet them. I decided to add the climb to Lake Bessemer for some extra training. Continue Reading →
When the forecast predicted a rare break in Seattle’s relentless rain, Ryan Hamilton and I quickly decided: “Let’s head to Index!” It’s a favorite winter ride that spears deep into the Cascade Mountains, but stays in the valleys (mostly), so it remains rideable while the high passes are covered with snow.
This time, we added a challenge: “Let’s try to get back before dark!” We knew this was ambitious for a 150-mile (240 km) ride with more than 6,000 ft (1,830 m) of elevation gain. Winter days in the Pacific Northwest aren’t exactly long, and we didn’t want to leave too early in case there was ice on the roads. We met at 7, just before dawn, and rode out of Seattle at a good clip. Continue Reading →
I love the scenes in movies and the chapters in books when the hero is training and developing and working to become great; when you see that drive and ambition to face sacrifices and to improve. You see cold early mornings and sweat and pain become results. I want to live that story. I want to climb that mountain.
The beauty of climbing is that you won’t just have one experience. There will be fierce moments of riding into a driving wind, of your lungs flaming and your quads disintegrating to cinders, and then there will be absolute calm. The longer you stay out there, the more you’ll experience. Continue Reading →
In the last post, I talked about riding on the old road across Jikkoku Pass.
Where to go on the second day? We haven’t quite decided yet. The typhoon is getting closer, and we don’t know what the weather will be like. If it’s just raining, it’s OK, but this time, a huge typhoon is forecast, which may make riding in the mountains dangerous because of landslides. We will adjust our plans as the day develops. Continue Reading →
Usually, October in Japan is a month of good weather, with an occasional typhoon that needs to be considered when planning a cyclotouring trip. But when I visited Japan this autumn, October saw so many typhoons and rain. It’s very unusual.
We did not want to miss the short window of good weather as we planned a cyclotouring trip. Mr. Yo had time off and could join us. We decided to go on a two-day trip together. Where to go? Continue Reading →
Today’s Un-Ride, as Ted named it, was a blast. It was wet, it was tough, and it was great. We just rode hard and enjoyed the company of the group. There was no posing for the cameras – and it was too dark for good photos anyhow – but the few pics I managed to snap while keeping my heart rate close to the max probably tell the story just fine.
Just a quick reminder that our Un-Meeting-style ride with the ‘King of Gravel’ is this Sunday. The weather forecast is unseasonably good for Seattle – just a slight chance of rain in the morning. Here are the details:
Route sheet, GPS track and more info are in last week’s post. I look forward to riding with many of you on Sunday!
Join us on a ride with Ted King, the ‘King of Gravel’! We’ll head to the Tahuya Hills on some beautiful (and hilly) roads. There’ll be plenty of gravel, as well as an all-paved option.
When winter snow makes the high roads in the Cascade Mountains impassable, we turn to cyclocross. It’s our preferred winter sport – challenging, fun and a great way to hone our skills for the big summer gravel adventures. The skills of ‘cross are less about jumping across barriers – although that is fun, too – and more about learning the feedback from your tires. Being able to feel how much grip you can lean on is a useful skill for gravel riding. When you push your bike to the limit and beyond, you learn what it feels like when the tire is just before the point where it’ll slip. You’ll also learn how to recover when your bike slides. And if you don’t recover, speeds are slow and the mud is soft…
Last weekend’s Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting brought together cyclists from all over the United States. Despite an uncertain weather forecast, more than 70 riders met northwest of Portland for a weekend of riding, meeting friends and having a good time.
A choice of five courses ranged from the 47 mile (76 km) ‘Short’ to the 86 mile (139 km) ‘Adventure.’ Each route offered delightful backroads with rolling climbs and twisty descents. Natsuko and I took the ‘Short’ route, and we enjoyed every minute of it.
For the first 15 miles (25 km), all routes ran together to a breakfast stop in Vernonia (above). Food and conversation occupied most riders, but those who checked out the bikes saw a remarkable variety: beautiful customs, burly gravel bikes, slender racers, and many home-built machines that repurposed classic racing or mountain bike frames into cleverly conceived all-road and adventure bikes. The bikes illustrated the Un-Meeting’s motto – ‘Everyone is welcome’ – better than anything.
Each bike had special touches that revealed their owners’ preferences and experiences. On this weekend, they were all enjoyed to the max.
After a full day of riding, a few local riders headed back to Portland, while most participants came together at the beautiful campsite for a campfire. The sight of tents and bikes spread among the tall trees was one of the most memorable of this weekend.
The forecast rain materialized during the night, but the skies cleared just in time for the ride back to civilization. Tents were taken down, bags were packed, and then riders left in small groups, heading to Portland or beyond, to finish another great weekend of cycling, meeting acquaintances, and making new friends.
Thank you to all who attended, and especially to Ryan Francesconi of OMTM for designing the great courses. Now I can’t wait for next year’s Un-Meeting!
The 2019 Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting is less than a week away. We’re really excited to meet many of you near Portland next weekend!
On Friday, many of us will ride from Portland on Friday and camp at the park. The rides are on Saturday, and on Sunday, we’ll ride back to Portland.
This year’s routes are curated by our friends at OMTM, the Oregon route-finding group. There are four routes:
All routes ride together to Vernonia for breakfast and coffee at the Black Iron Cafe with outdoor seating and bike parking. After that, the routes continue together on the paved Timber road until nearing the town of Timber where they diverge.
After the rides, we’ll have a campfire on Saturday night at Stub Stewart State Park’s Brooke Creek Camp. We’ve reserved HIKE Sites 10, 11, 13, and 14 for both Friday and Saturday nights. These are walk-in only – there is no parking (except for bikes and tandems).
Click here for cue sheets and GPS tracks of the routes on RideWithGPS. Included are routes to Stub Stewart State Park from the Hillsboro MAX station (23 miles/36 km) and from Portland Union Station (42 miles/68 km).
A last word about logistics: Everyone is welcome to the Un-Meeting. There are no registration, no fees, no services and no sag wagon; you’ll carry your own gear. Simply show up on Saturday and ride with us. You don’t need a special bike, but there are no bike shops along the route, so make sure your bike is in perfect condition for this ride. And with many sharp corners on both the paved and gravel routes, please use caution and ride within your and your bike’s capabilities.
For me, the Un-Meeting is a highlight of the year. I hope to see you there!
This year’s Paris-Brest-Paris lived up to its reputation as an epic event. Organized without interruption since 1891, PBP is the oldest bike ride in the world. It takes riders back to the ‘Heroic Age’ when races featured stages that began before dawn and ran late into the night, and beyond.
Riding 1200 km (750 miles) in 90 hours or less is never going to be easy. This year, the difficulty of the relentlessly hilly course was augmented by strong head- and crosswinds right from the start. This meant working harder, much harder, because the advantage of the big pelotons that start in each wave was diminished by the crosswinds.
Multiple echelons formed, with groups of 6-8 riders working together. Riders who didn’t know how to ride in echelons strung out behind the last rider’s rear wheel, where they got no protection and wasted precious energy. For once, there was no hiding in the pack.
Another plus this year: I found that the riding skills in the groups around me were far better than they’d been in the past. And there also were fewer bags, bottles and other bike parts falling off. In fact, I didn’t witness a single crash during those early hours.
More than 6000 riders started in this year’s PBP from the historic chateau of Rambouillet. Each rider had a different experience. PBP was fun, stimulating, challenging, even painful for some. It required mental and physical stamina and strength. Every rider emerged from the experience having learned something about themselves.
In the Spring 2019 Bicycle Quarterly, we featured three riders who talked about their experiences in past PBP and their plans for this year’s ride. I’m excited that they all finished strong.
Sina Witte (left) completed the ride in 67:23 hours, as always with a smile and looking fresh at the finish. She rode with her partner Victor Decouard (right), who had hoped to ‘do a time’ until a tubeless failure cost valuable time and sapped his morale. When Sina caught him, they decided to ride together.
Lesli Larson also rode strongly in her second PBP after a eight-year hiatus. She looked good as she finished after 88:50 hours on the road.
Richard Léon is a PBP veteran, having ridden in every edition since 1975. (That makes this year’s event the 12th PBP he’s started!) Two months before this year’s event, he broke his shoulder. He was not sure whether he’d be able to ride at all, but he did line up on the start line in Rambouillet. On the road, he looked good on his ultralight Dejouannet, and he finished in 66:34 hours. His only mistake: “I took my favorite saddle from another bike, but it wasn’t good for the slightly different position of the Dejouannet. My bottom suffered as a result.”
A number of BQ contributors were also at the start this year.
Hahn Rossman pulled out all the stops. He made a superlight bike that he entered in the Concours de Machines technical trials, which were held in conjunction with PBP this year. His wife Jana (center) met him with a rented camper van at the controls to provide food, encouragement and a convenient place to rest. The effort paid off: His time of 66:36 hours was the best one yet of his three PBP rides. He also placed third in the Concours de Machines. Well done!
Not far behind, Ryan Hamilton rode unsupported. He also had broken his collarbone – too many accidents in the lead-up to the ride this year among my friends! – and was unable to train for five weeks in the run-up to PBP. And yet his time of 67:41 hours was his second-best yet. No wonder he was smiling at the finish!
David Wilcox (above) and Ryan Francesconi (top photo) finished in 71:52 hours in their first crack at Paris-Brest-Paris. They were impressed by the graciousness of the volunteers and the enthusiasm of the locals, who cheered on all riders regardless of how fast they went.
My own plan for this year’s PBP was to avoid mistakes: not to overextend myself on the way to Brest, to eat well, and to stay focused. My cautious approach paid off, and I finished after 56:36 hours, just within Charly Miller time. I met many wonderful people on the road, including a great number of readers and customers who introduced themselves as we traversed the hills of Normandy and Brittany. Most of all, I enjoyed 95% of those hours on the road. I slept for 38 minutes at the control in Tinténiac – and even got a private room!
As the 6000 PBP stories emerge, I enjoy hearing and reading them. And I’m already excited about PBP 2023!
Photo credits: Maindru (Photos 1, 3, 4, 5, 8), Natsuko Hirose (Photos 2, 6, 7, 10).
We’re looking forward to this year’s Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting – our annual get-together to share the joy of riding off the beaten path. It’s not an organized event – we just publish a date and time, and everybody is welcome to join. There are no fees, no registrations, and no services are provided.
The photos here are from last year’s Un-Meeting, when we spent a great two days along the Hood Canal and in the Tahuya Hills. This year, we’ll meet near Portland for another weekend of riding. Here are the details:
Stub Stewart State Park is 15 miles (24 km) from the end of Hillsboro MAX rail line, so it’s easy to reach from Portland. (And Portland is at the intersection of several Amtrak lines, so it’s easy to reach by train, plus there is an airport, too.)
On Saturday, we’ll start the day by riding together to the Black Iron Coffee House in Vernonia for breakfast. From there, we’ll have several route options that include pavement, gravel and dirt. We’ll publish details about the routes in the coming weeks.
On Friday and Saturday nights, we’ve reserved four walk-in camp sites at the Brooke Creek Hike-In Camp. If you have a small tent, you are welcome to share our sites. You also can book your own accommodations.
Join us either just on Saturday for a fun day of riding, or camp with us for a great weekend with new and old friends.
For me, the Un-Meeting is a highlight of the year. Riders come from all over the world, from all backgrounds, on all kinds of bikes, yet we all share a love of riding and discovering new roads.
A little bit about the logistics: The rides of the Un-Meeting are within reach of most cyclists, but please remember that we provide no services and no sag wagon: You’ll carry your own gear. You don’t need a special bike, but there are no bike shops along the route, so make sure your bike is in perfect condition for this ride. And with some of the terrain being challenging, please use caution and ride within your and your bike’s capabilities.
See you in Portland on September 14 and 15!
A recent hiking trip to Mount Rainier also provided an opportunity to revisit a favorite climb – and work on my form for the upcoming 1200 km (750 miles) of Paris-Brest-Paris.
This time, we headed to Mount Rainier by car, loaded with four people, backpacks and associated gear. Fortunately, the J.P. Weigle from the Concours de Machines is a Rinko bike, which packs quite small. The extralight bag protected our other luggage from the chain and sharp parts. The package took up little space in the car. It also was easy to store for the night in our room at the historic Paradise Inn.
I awoke at dawn, carried my bag downstairs and put together the bike. In less than ten minutes, I was ready to roll. It still amazes me how quickly a Rinko bike assembles.
The forecast predicted a sunny day, and for a moment, I got a peek of Rainier’s summit, before I started the long descent toward the Nisqually River valley. Within seconds, I dove into the clouds. I was glad to have fenders. The road was wet in places, dry in others. Without spray from the wheels, even descending in the clouds at this high altitude wasn’t as cold as I had feared. I carefully explored the grip of my tires on the wet pavement as I scythed around the many twists and turns. Warm weather improves the rubber’s coefficient of friction, and there was traction to spare. This meant I could relax and enjoy the descent on this beautiful road.
It did not take long until I traversed the bridge that, when it was built a century ago, was right at the mouth of the Nisqually Glacier. Today, the glacier has retreated out of sight. I passed Longmire, the second lodge in the park, still fast asleep. I continued toward the park boundary. Deep in the valley, the trees became bigger, and the road weaved its way between them. There was little traffic, all going the other way: Workers commuting to the park’s two lodges. Soon, that ebbed, and I had the road to myself.
Then it was time to turn around. I had come here not for the descent, but for the climb back up to Paradise.
The road climbs almost 900 m (3,000 ft) during the 18 km (11 miles) from Longmire to Paradise. It has a beautiful rhythm. With a maximum gradient of about 8%, it’s never really steep. The slope provides just enough resistance, so I can work hard without having to fight the constant ebb and flow of wind resistance that you get at high speeds on flat roads. It makes for a meditative, beautiful workout.
On this day, I wanted to test my form for PBP, and my plan was to climb in the ‘big’ ring of the Weigle. Of course, my big ring isn’t exactly huge (46 teeth), and the Weigle has a 27-tooth cog on the rear…
Having a superlight bike doesn’t hurt on a climb like this: The Weigle weighs a scant 20 pounds (9.1 kg) with lights, fenders, rack and even its pump. Even more important is a frame that flexes in unison with my pedal strokes and allows me to put out more power. The Weigle, with its super-thinwall, standard-diameter tubing, ‘planes’ extremely well. Would my 46×27 be enough for this hour-long climb?
I wound the bike up to speed on the relatively flat part in the lower reaches of the park. Once I passed Longmire, all I had to do was keep my momentum. That’s often easier said than done when the uphill stretches for an hour, but this morning, the bike performed beautifully as I climbed into the clouds.
The sunny forecast proved elusive, but the effort of spinning my gears kept me warm. When I reached Ricksecker Point at roughly the half-way point, I stopped briefly to remove my leg warmers and long-sleeve jersey. Sweat was beading on my forehead.
My memories of this climb are so varied, it’s hard to believe that it’s always been the same road. I recalled how, as a young racer, I gunned up this climb in just under 50 minutes during my preparation for the Race Around Mount Rainier in One Day (RAMROD). At other times, it’s taken me 50% longer, yet it was hard work. Today’s time was somewhere in between, but most of all, the climb was smooth. I could feel my body working hard, but it didn’t feel labored. Just how it should be!
The top appeared sooner than I remembered it, and then I pulled up to the historic lodge. It had been a short ride, well inside two hours, yet it had been thoroughly enjoyable and gratifying. (And I did make it all the way in the 46-tooth ring!)
As I rolled my bike inside, I got a last peek at Mount Rainier’s summit. Clouds were moving back in, and it soon started to drizzle. By pure luck, I had timed my ride perfectly.
Breakfast tasted twice as good after the effort of my ride. Then I packed my bike in its bag again. It vanished into the trunk of our car as we headed out on our hike. I was glad to have brought my bike on this trip – Rinko bikes are useful even if you aren’t traveling on Japanese trains!
During the summer solstice, Ryan Francesconi led a group of 14 friends on a truly amazing adventure: We took the train to Klamath Falls on the border between Oregon and California and then rode back to Portland on forest roads and trails traversing the Oregon Cascades. It was a 2-day, 640 km (400-mile) ride that challenged riders and bikes to the max. Not only was our route 90% gravel and single track, it also was anything but flat.
A highlight was climbing on deserted gravel roads to the top of Crater Lake (above), but even more memorable were the countless gravel climbs and descents. On a ride like this, you live entirely in the moment – just you, the bike and the other riders. I’m grateful to have friends – and a bike – that enable me to do rides like this.
What bike to ride for an event like this? We were heading into the country of the Oregon Outback – where my Rene Herse’s 42 mm tires already had proven a bit marginal in the past. The Herse’s ‘road’ gearing also wasn’t quite low enough for the steep gravel climbs that Ryan had scouted for his route.
So it was natural to take my Firefly. Equipped with ultra-wide 54 mm tires, it seemed an ideal choice for this ride. It’a bike that is completely dialed for riding fast and long on rough surfaces.
On a ride this long and challenging, small things make a big difference. Having handlebars that offer multiple comfortable positions is key for me to enjoy a ride this long. The Firefly is equipped with our Rene Herse Maes Parallel bars, which were perfect for this ride.
A low Q factor helps my spin and allows me to put out power, hour after hour. The Firefly has perfect clearances for its 54 mm-wide tires, and its beefy chainstays appear to be one reason why it climbs so well. Combining these features with a Q factor of just 148 mm is something I didn’t want to miss on this ride.
I reinstalled my 42×26 chainrings, so I could ride most of the time in the 42-tooth ‘big’ ring, but still had the option of dropping into the 26-tooth when the trails got really steep. This allowed me to run a tight 12-27 cassette with small steps between gears.
Having a favorite saddle is important, too. This Berthoud Aspin has been on many adventures, and it fits me like the proverbial glove. It works perfectly with the Berthoud saddlebag, but for this challenging two-day ride, I knew I’d need more capacity.
The Firefly’s fork is equipped with mid-fork eyelets intended for low-rider racks. The low-riders don’t work well on singletrack, as the panniers get caught on obstacles that are close to the trail. So I decided to use a handlebar bag instead. I installed a Rene Herse UD-1 rack to support the bag. Mounting the rack took all of five minutes.
The Berthoud GB-28 handlebar bag sits on the rack. Its soft bottom conforms to the shape of the rack, locking it in place.
At the top, I added a Rene Herse bag stiffener to make sure the bag didn’t move on the rough trails of the Oregon Cascades. The bag’s cavernous interior had more than enough space for the clothes, tools and food I needed for this ride (plus water filter, emergency blanket, backup power supply for the GPS, camera, and a few other things). Everything is easy to access, which is another big plus. I placed some heavy items that I didn’t plan to use (tubes, tools, rain jacket) in the saddlebag.
There aren’t any decaleurs for the Firefly’s four-bolt stem that have proven themselves on really rough terrain. So I used the bag’s leather straps to attach it to the handlebars. Together with the bag stiffener, this creates a very firm and reliable connection: The last thing you want in the middle of nowhere is your bag flying off. (This happened to one rider in our group, when the straps of his brand-new bikepacking bag broke.) Strapping my bag directly to the bars did not leave any space for my hands between bag and bars. On the road, I found that I could still use the on-the-tops handlebar position by sliding my hands underneath the top flap of the bag.
Three water bottles are useful on a ride where resupplies can be many hours apart. The Firefly is equipped with two lightweight Nitto 80 cages. For this ride, I mounted a Nitto T cage under the down tube – the only cage that has never dropped a bottle from that position during all my rides.
The first night, we arrived at our destination – Oakridge – just before sunset, but we knew that our second stage – more than 200 miles to Portland – would require riding at night. I needed lights. It would have been nice to build a wheel with a generator hub for the Firefly, but I didn’t have a spare 26″ rim. A battery-powered light would have to suffice. Fortunately, the nights during the solstice are short.
I usually strap my light underneath the handlebars, where it’s neatly tucked out of the way. However, that position was obscured by the bag now. The Maes Parallel bars are long, so I mounted the light on the end of the drops. I still could use all hand positions, but there was a problem: The bars angle slightly upward, and I want the light to illuminate the road, not the sky. A sliver of wood formed a wedge that allowed me to align the light by sliding it into the clamp as far as needed.
On the rear, I strapped a small rechargeable light to the seat tube, in the same position where our Rene Herse taillight mounts. With the lights’ run time somewhat limited, I turned off my lights when they weren’t needed, for example, when I was riding in the middle of a paceline.
The photos show the bike after I returned from the big ride. As expected, the Firefly performed flawlessly. Inflated to just 18 psi (1.25 bar), the big Rat Trap Pass Extralight tires soaked up the bumps and vibrations – even washboard – without fail. They floated over the loose surface where the narrower tires of the Herse had sunk deep into the gravel.
The low-trail geometry and handlebar bag worked great on the fast gravel descents. I used every single gear on the bike, from the 42×12 to the 26×27. I drank all my water during one particularly hot stretch. And when we returned to Portland at 4 a.m. after two days on the road, I had no aches or pains thanks to the comfortable saddle and ergonomic handlebars. The Dromarti leather shoes did their part, too – since wearing them, I no longer suffer from hot feet no matter how hard the ride and how hot the temperature.
The Firefly is one of my favorite bikes, and I was glad I could transform it from a stripped-down racer to a touring rig. Having the right bike made this challenging ride even more fun!
Paris-Brest-Paris, one of the world’s oldest long-distance events, is held every four years. 2019 is a ‘PBP Year,’ and thousands of cyclists all over the world are preparing to ride 1200 km (750 miles) from France’s capital to its westernmost city and back.
PBP is not just an epic ride – it’s an amazing event with a long history. Started as a ‘utilitarian race’ in 1891 to promote cycling as a means of travel, it became a professional race for half a century (above, the 1931 winner, the Australian Hubert Opperman). Back then, it was considered so hard that it was run only every 10 years. As PBP morphed into a randonneur event during the 1930s and 1940s, it was run every five, then every four years.
Before we can take the start on the outskirts of Paris in August, we have to prepare. Riding 1200 km in 90 hours (or less) isn’t something that most of us can do without training and planning. The preparation is part of the fun.
The prospect of climbing the bucolic, but relentless, hills of Brittany in August has us head into the mountains with more vigor than usual. The season starts with the new year…
What we lack in form during these early rides, we make up with fun. We aren’t in a big rush, so we stop at stores along the way. We have plenty of time to talk and rekindle our friendships after not seeing much of each other over the winter.
We rediscover favorite roads in the lower parts of the Cascade Mountains, and we breathe fresh mountain air.
We take backroads whenever we can.
We check on what is new since we last came out here. When will the Bush House in Index finally reopen? A nice option for lunch at the half-way point of our customary early-season ride would be nice!
With the coming of spring, the brevet season starts. Now we’re also working on our speed. In a ‘PBP Year,’ we have to ride the brevets, rain or shine: They are required to qualify for the big event. It’s actually the harder rides that create the greatest memories.
Last weekend’s 300 km brevet started with torrential rain. This was followed by ferocious winds as we rode up the coast. We drafted each other in silence, turning the pedals with smooth regularity. The landscape passed almost like a movie as we pedaled on flat roads, buffeted by the gusts.
Wind creates a strange disconnect between the effort and the landscape. Hills make it easy to predict how hard you need to work: You see them coming, you climb them, and then you are usually rewarded with a descent. In the wind, the effort changes with every gust. It makes it difficult to judge how much effort you can maintain.
And yet, we had a good time.
And then, after hours of hard effort, our ride came to a stop when the longest train I’ve ever seen crossed the road at a leisurely pace.
It was a good opportunity to rest and chat with our friends after battling the winds all day.
We headed out again the following day for a 200 km brevet. The course was beautiful, and we were excited to discover new roads…
… and new places.
And toward the end of the weekend, the roads even turned dry!
PBP is still four months away – there is plenty of time to prepare. From now on, the preparation will include our usual adventures as the snow melts in the Cascade Mountains. Fortunately, preparing for PBP requires doing what we like most: riding our bikes.
In the Spring 2019 Bicycle Quarterly, we feature four PBP Anciens (riders who’ve completed the long ride). Each has a different approach to the long ride, each has different goals, and each came away with different impressions. Yet they all agree that PBP changed their lives. And their advice for riders planning the big ride is remarkably similar: Take it one section at a time, and never give up! Click here for more information about this BQ edition.
Photo credits: Evelyne Champaux (Photo 3), Ryan Hamilton (Photo 6), Ryan Francesconi (Photos 9, 10), Tim Wainwright (Photo 16).
The first rides of the new year are very special to me. Getting out of the city, breathing the cold mountain air, and feeling my body get in unison with the bike again – those are sensations that I’ve been missing during my annual early-winter rest.
So I left just after 6 in the morning for an all-day ride. It was nice to just ride – no photoshoot for Bicycle Quarterly, no prototype components to test, no errands to run, just a day out on my bike.
By 8:30, the suburbs of Seattle were far behind me, and I made my first brief stop at the bakery in Snohomish. The hot chocolate and croissant tasted especially good on this cold, foggy day.
As I headed into the hills northeast of Snohomish, I thought about how much I love riding this bike. I enjoy testing a variety of bikes for Bicycle Quarterly, but I’m always happy to return to my Rene Herse. It really does feels like an extension of my body. Everything works exactly as I want, nothing requires attention, and I can completely immerse myself in the ride.
I don’t think about the bike when I ride. In fact, I rarely think about it at all. This morning, I just put a little food and some spare clothes in the handlebar bag, turned on the lights, and rode off. I didn’t need to think about charging batteries, how to carry my gear, or whether the fog would make the roads wet. I feel that a bike should be as easy to use as a car, and this one really does.
Looking at the photo above, I remember that the Herse will need its first overhaul soon. I have to be grateful for the eight years and 10,000s of thousands of miles the bike has covered without incident – including 2 Paris-Brest-Paris, 2 Raids Pyrénéen, the original Oregon Outback, and countless other adventures.
As I climbed and descended Reiter Road – one of my favorites – it was nice not to think about the bike, and just enjoy the road with its curves that flow in quick succession. There is no risk of getting bored here!
As I headed further into the Cascades, I remembered how much I enjoy riding solo. Don’t get me wrong – I love riding with friends: The day passes quickly as we chat and play like a flock of birds on the sinuous roads. Riding alone is different: I just become immersed in the ride. Nothing detracts from this meditative experience.
The fog dissipated and the sun came out. My legs were feeling the distance and the hills, but the bike continued to roll smoothly. I worked on my spin by keeping my cadence up, using one cog larger (=smaller gear) than I usually would. Winter rides are a good time to work on my pedal stroke.
I reached my destination, Index, just before noon. There isn’t much in terms of food here – although the Bush House hotel has just reopened and looks inviting. Today, my schedule was a bit tight, so I bought a few things at the small store for a quick picnic outside.
The scenery more than made up for my spartan meal: It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular place than Index, with its rushing river, towering mountains and quaint little town. It’s amazing that a place like this is within easy reach from Seattle, accessible on small roads even in winter.
My stop was brief, and yet, as I headed back, the clouds started moving back in. I had timed my visit to Index perfectly…
I didn’t stop on the way back, as I wanted to be home for dinner. Still, I couldn’t resist taking a photo of one of my favorite roads. It’s roads like these that inspire the bikes we ride…
Then I dropped down to Lake Washington and pedaled back into Seattle on the Burke-Gilman Trail. I returned home just after darkness fell. It was a day well-spent.
Many have asked for the routes of these rides. Here is a link to the main loop Seattle – Snohomish – Sultan – Monroe – Seattle. It’s a great ride by itself.
The out-and-back leg to Index adds 50 km, but they include some of my favorite roads. Some of the roads are shown as ‘unavailable’ on some online maps, but they are all rideable right now. Combined, this is one of the best all-paved rides in the Seattle area. (There is a 100 ft/30 m stretch of gravel just before Gold Bar as you turn off the highway.)
I hope that many of you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy this ride some day, or some variation that takes in these great roads – or similarly great rides! Where are your favorite Winter rides?
And if you’re curious about my Rene Herse, this post talks about the bike in more detail.
As 2018 comes to a close, it’s fun to look back on the great rides we’ve done. For me, it’s been a wonderful year full of exciting adventures. It started with the annual New Year’s Cycling of Tokyo’s Yama Saiken (Mountain Cycling Club), the famous passhunters. Jikkoku Pass is a great destination at any time, but climbing it in the snow was doubly fun, especially with such a great crew. It was also a great test of the Caletti Monstercross bike and of our Pumpkin Ridge dual-purpose knobbies.
February saw a return to favorite roads with a chilly ride across the Tahuya Hills. Steve and I enjoyed the ride so much that we decided to make this the venue for the BQ Un-Meeting.
March was even colder that February, but Mark and I were on a mission: We wanted to compare a high-trail monstercross bike with a low-trail all-road bike. We thought that the trail to Jack Pass might provide new insights, and so we headed out during a rainy day on fender-less bikes, all in the name of science. The results proved even more instructive than we thought, as we finally figured out why mountain bikes should have high-trail geometries, but all-road bikes are best with low-trail ones. And despite being chilled to the bone when it started to snow, we honestly enjoyed that ride!
April saw another trip to Japan. With the Yama Saiken, we headed to Ueno village at the foot of Jikkoku Pass to help with maintaining the old road that we had cycled a few months earlier. A campfire by the river, but also the great lunch with the villagers were highlights of this trip.
In May, during a short break from my busy schedule, I headed to Yabitsu Pass near Tokyo. The forecast was occasional showers, but it turned out to be a day of torrential downpours. And yet I was having so much fun that I headed up two additional climbs on closed roads for a full day of exploring. (My bike had fenders this time!)
The summer solstice was a great excuse for an ambitious plan: Ride around Mount Hood in Oregon almost entirely on gravel roads. It was a great day of challening climbs, super-fast descents, and breathtaking views. Our ride was too big to fit even into the longest day, and we returned to Portland at 1 a.m. – giddy with the joy of spending a day on our bikes with great friends.
In July, Natsuko and I headed to the Sawtooth Range. Would a new route finally make it possible to traverse these beautiful mountains? Just in case we’d have to portage our bikes, we carried our gear in backpacks loaded into the Farfarer trailer. The roads started out smooth enough, but soon, we were deep into a real passhunting adventure.
In August, we were reunited with our favorite tandem. We took the 1947 Rene Herse on a ride along the Mediterranean Coast, traversing miniature mountain passes and discovering small fishing villages almost untouched by the passage of time. It was a short trip, but no less memorable for it.
The Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting in September brought together a great crew of old and new friends. About 60 riders took the ferry from Seattle to enjoy two days of riding on backroads along the Hood Canal. A great camp at Scenic Beach State Park was filled with socializing and meeting like-minded cyclists. To be repeated…
October provided the last chance to enjoy the high passes of the Cascade Mountains. Ryan Francesconi and I charted a course around Mount Rainier on paved and gravel roads, riding through the (very cold) night to see the the giant volcano in the moonlight, before welcoming the warmth of the new day with a beautiful sunrise on the snow-covered peak. Our ambitious ride allowed for a comparison of two approaches to all-road bikes: Ryan’s Smeltzer set up as a backpacking rig, and ‘my’ MAP as a randonneur bike with a large handlebar bag.
November is cyclocross time. Riding around in circles is quite a change from our usual adventures that stretch beyond the horizon, but it’s great fun, too. With each lap, I get to hone my lines and technique until, by the end of the race, I feel I’ve learned the course and wish for more laps! I can’t wait for next year’s cyclocross season.
December brings us up to the present and another trip to Japan. Last weekend, the Alps Cycle Friends celebrated their 60th anniversary. It was an honor to join them for a weekend of riding in the mountains on beautiful bikes. The story and portraits of the innovative bikes from Alps and others will be in the next Bicycle Quarterly.
It’s been a fun year, and it’s been great to share these rides. Click on the images above for more about these rides.
As I plan next year’s adventures, I’m inspired by these rides and those of other cyclists. What has been your favorite ride this year? Post it in the comments. We all look forward to being inspired!
Photo credits: David Wilcox (Photo 6), Natsuko Hirose (Photos 7, 8, 11).
The 2018 Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting brought together a great crew of old and new friends. We want to thank all for making this a great weekend!
On Saturday morning, about 60 riders met at the Seattle Ferry Terminal to catch the boat to Bremerton. As always, the crowd was varied – all kinds of riders on all types of bikes. Some were BQ readers, some follow this blog, and others had heard about the Un-Meeting from friends. More than a quarter were women – Natsuko was especially happy to meet so many other female cyclotourists who share an interest in cycling off the beaten path.
As we rolled into the countryside, we fell into small groups. Most of the participants had only met this morning, but already felt like friends.
There were riders from all over the U.S., even Canada. Jennifer and Lance had come all the way from the Mississippi River. They were smiling all weekend, and then they extended the Un-Meeting into a five-day tour of the islands and peninsulas that make up the central Puget Sound.
The Tahuya Hills offered three routes. No matter which option riders chose, they raved about the great roads and beautiful surroundings. The clouds lifted, and the sun came out, making this a perfect day on the bike.
As we reached our campsite, everybody shared their day’s experiences, full of enthusiasm. “Wasn’t the stretch along the inlet beautiful?” – “Did you also suffer on Old Holly Hill Road?” – “Isn’t it amazing that there is such great riding just an hour’s ferry ride from Seattle?” There was much to talk about as we pitched our tents, bivvys and hammocks.
Reed had brought his ultrasonic metal thickness measuring device. “Want to know the wall thicknesses of your bike’s tubes?” In fact, I did. We found that 1940s Vitus tandem tubing has a lot more going on than we’d have thought. Inevitably, this led to much discussion about bike frames, but also many other topics, as we found that we shared many interests beyond bikes.
Conversations continued deep into the night.
On Sunday morning, most riders headed to nearby Seabeck for breakfast. We enjoyed comparing the different approaches to the same question: How to carry the gear for a weekend camping trip on a bike without detracting from its fun ride?
The large deck of the espresso stand turned into an impromptu bike show as everybody leaned their mount against the railing.
At this point, some opted for a leisurely breakfast, some headed back to the ferry, and others extended their trip to Bainbridge Island and beyond.
We’ll have a full report in the Autumn Bicycle Quarterly, including a look at many of the unique bikes at this year’s Un-Meeting.
After last weekend’s ‘pre-ride,’ we’ve finalized the routes for the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting. What is the Un-Meeting?
It’s simply a great weekend of riding off the beaten path: Everybody is welcome to join us. We publish a time and a destination. Beyond that, there are no services provided. No registration, no entry fee, no sag wagon, no rest stops. Just a ride with old and new friends. Click here for more about the 2018 BQ Un-Meeting.
We’ll meet in Bremerton, across the Puget Sound from Seattle, Washington. Most of us will take the 7:35 ferry from Seattle. Make sure you board the boat to Bremerton; not the ferry to Bainbridge that leaves from the same terminal.
When: Sept. 8-9, 2018 (Sat. & Sun.)
Meeting point: Bremerton, Washington, Ferry Terminal exit (Starbucks Coffee shop)
Meeting time: 9:30 a.m.
Ride distance: Day 1: 100 km (62 miles), Day 2: 35 km (22 miles) with options to go further.
From Bremerton, we’ll ride around the Hood Canal to Seabeck, where most of us will camp at Scenic Beach State Park. We have campsites reserved for about 24 people, but if you prefer, you can use other accommodations. Above is the suggested course. Click on the image to get the RideWithGPS page, where you can zoom in and check the course in detail. (A route sheet is at the bottom of this post.)
It’s a beautiful route with quiet roads along the waters of the Hood Canal, a fjord carved by the glaciers of the last ice age. We’ll enjoy great views of the Olympic Mountains. It’s a truly magic place.
Then we reach the Tahuya Hills, where we have three alternative routes. To put them all on the same map, I pretended to go back and forth across the Tahuya Hills three times. That is why the distances seem odd… All three routes gain a similar amount of elevation, and yet they feel very different.
The easternmost route (right red line on the map) is the paved ‘River Route.’ It’s a great choice if you prefer to get into a rhythm on longer climbs.
The ‘Hill Route’ is in the center. The total elevation gain is similar, but it’s a different riding experience. The first climb is very steep, but from there, you have a wonderful rollercoaster. If you like to carry speed across rolling terrain, choose this route. The two routes converge at Mile 3.6, so you’ll enjoy the same ride back to the coast.
The western ‘Gravel Route’ is very different in feel. It’s longer, so in theory, it has less climbing per mile. In reality, it’s the hardest of the three. The climbs are short and steep, and there are many of them.
And most of it is on gravel. At the end of the summer, the gravel tends to be hard-packed, with loose aggregate on top. Even if you are a good bike handler, use caution, because the surface is tricky. And there is one steep descent where you need to watch your speed to make the turn at the bottom.
Which one to pick? They are all nice – you can’t go wrong!
After camping in Seabeck, there are many options on Sunday. The route on the main route sheet (top photo) is the shortest way back to Bremerton, and you could be in Seattle by lunchtime.
Many of us will extend the ride and go to Poulsbo and then take backroads to Bainbridge Island, and take the ferry back to Seattle from there. The above route is just a rough draft – I haven’t ridden all of it, and we may have to alter it as we go.
Some riders probably will use the Un-Meeting as a jumping-off point to explore further. There is great riding toward Port Townsend on the Quimper Peninsula. And the vast Olympic Peninsula invites exploring places like Bon Jon Pass…
We’re looking forward to riding with many of you in less than two weeks!
With the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting approaching – Sept. 8 and 9 – I wanted to double-check the course. I had never ridden the new route out of Bremerton that by-passes the busy highway. And in the Tahuya Hills, landslides and floods can wipe out roads entirely. Better to check that our routes are still rideable!
Most of all, I wanted to go for a long ride. Rather than head out for an all-day trip, I decided to ride at night. That is how I boarded the 10:30 p.m. ferry to Bremerton on Saturday night. My plan was ambitious: Ride two loops of the Un-Meeting course, exploring different route options, before taking the 11:10 a.m. ferry back the next morning.
250 km (155 miles) in 11.5 hours should be plenty of time – until you consider the terrain. The Tahuya Hills are famous around here. They are as remote as they are challenging. I knew I’d have my work cut out for me, especially since I’d have to stop and update my route sheet at many intersections.
There is one bike in my stable that is ideal for a ride like this: my René Herse Randonneuse. It’s light and fast. Its wide tires handle all types of roads. Generator-powered lights make short work of long nights on the road. The large handlebar bag carries clothes and provisions. The Herse is ready to go any distance, at any time, and to do so swiftly.
The ferry docks in Bremerton at 11:20 p.m., right on schedule. But my ride out of town doesn’t go as planned: What had looked good on the map turns out to be a maze of one-way streets and extremely steep hills. I find a rideable alternative, but it zig-zags more than I like. I decide to continue my ride, and fine-tune the route during my second lap of the course.
It is with relief that I turn onto familiar roads. Belfair is fast asleep as I pass, and then I am riding along the Hood Canal. After weeks with smoke-filled air in Seattle, it is nice to see the hills on the other side of the water in the moonlight – the smoke already has cleared here!
I really enjoy riding at night. Apart from the moon and the lights across the water, the world is restricted to the beam of my headlight. With little to see, I become more attuned to sounds and smells. A small animals is rustling in the bushes. Then, a few miles later, I smell horses. I doubt the horses just moved here, yet I’ve never noticed them before. When I pass a little bay, the briny smell of the sea wafts up to the road.
In between, I am just riding. Cycling is always meditative, but doubly so at night. I don’t think about my bike. It runs straight without attention, yet tracks the sweeping turns without conscious input. My hand instinctively pushes the shift lever to change gears, without thought. With my 46-tooth large ring, my cruising gear is in the middle of my rear cluster. Shift one way to go faster on a slight downhill, the other way when the road turns uphill or the wind picks up a bit. Only a long-ish rise interrupts my meditation: Shift to the small ring or increase my effort? I have a long ride ahead, so I shift to the small ring, then go down two cogs in the rear to end up in the gear I need.
While I am spinning along, I really appreciate how evenly my SON Edelux headlight illuminates the road. It’s not too bright, but it puts the light in the right places. Thanks to its complex optics that put more light into the distance, where the beam hits the road at a shallower angle, I don’t have to strain my eyes to look through a bright spot right in front of the bike. It makes a huge difference during these long night rides.
Suddenly, a young deer appears in the beam of my headlight. It is standing on the road, as startled as I am. I hit the front brake hard, and just as I come to a stop, the deer bolts and disappears into the undergrowth.
Then come the hills. Climbing at night is a different experience, as I can only guess at where the hill crests. I haven’t ridden the ‘Hill Route’ across the Tahuyas before. It’s great fun, with fast descents that have my eyes out on stalks as my headlight scythes through the forest, and steep climbs that require multiple shifts. Meditation is replaced with full immersion into the experience of cycling. My bike feels like an extension of my body. The French call it “the taste for the effort,” and I feel it to the fullest tonight.
Checking the clock, I realize that I have to keep the pace up, if I want to complete two laps before my ferry leaves at 11:10. I return to Bremerton at 5:25 a.m., after 6 hours on the road. My second lap will have to be faster than the first!
The refinements to my new route out of Bremerton work out great, and I am excited that we now have a pleasant alternative to the unpleasant highway.
Dawn comes gradually on this overcast day. By the time I am rolling along the Hood Canal for the second time, I turn off my lights.
The big question is: Will I be able to complete the second lap of my ride? I’ve calculated that I have to reach the foot of the Tahuya Hills by 7:40, otherwise, I should head back to Bremerton. Coincidentally, 7:40 is also when I’d have to turn around to get back in time for the ferry.
Today, I won’t have time to ride the gravel option, but Steve and I rode that a few months ago, so there should not be any problems. Instead, I want to check the ‘River Route’ through the Tahuyas, since it’s the one most prone to interruptions due to floods and slides.
I reach the turn-off at 7:33, seven minutes before my calculated cut-off. Phew! But my calculation doesn’t include any extra time, so I’ll have to continue riding at maximum pace.
The Tahuya Hills consist of narrow valleys and steep climbs, punctuated by river valleys. I can’t resist taking a photo in this lovely spot, even if it costs me almost a minute.
As I lean my bike against the fence, I notice blackberry vines everywhere. The berries are almost ripe. I look forward to eating them in two weeks when we pass here during the Un-Meeting. We won’t be in a rush then!
As I penetrate further into the hills, the roads become smaller and more curving. It makes for wonderful riding. The two routes converge again, and even though I’ve ridden this section just a few hours earlier, it feels completely different during daytime.
A steep descent drops me back to sea level. This is one of my favorite parts of this ride.
Every once in a while, my favorite sign appears by the roadside. It seems superfluous: If drivers or cyclists don’t realize that this road is curving, they probably won’t make it this far! There was no traffic at all here during the night, and even on this Sunday morning, I meet only a single car on the entire traverse of the Tahuya Hills.
As I speed along the undulating, curving road, I reflect that a bicycle is pretty much the only vehicle you can enjoy to the limit of its performance on the road. Cars and motorcycles are just too fast, so you either have to stay far below their limits, or you have to take them to a racetrack.
Another long descent drops me into Seabeck, where we’ll spend the night during the Un-Meeting. It’s another lovely place.
By now, the two water bottles I’ve brought are empty, but I don’t have time to stop and get more fluids. I wanted to install the third bottle cage on the bike, but I ran out of time… But with less than two hours to go, I know I’ll be fine.
A light tailwind springs up, helping me along. Putting all the power I’ve left into the fearsome Anderson Hill with its three stairstep ascents, I climb stronger the second time than during my first loop.
And then I cross the bridge into Bremerton and reach the ferry terminal just as the boat pulls in. The time: 11:01. Nine minutes to spare! Without the tailwind, it would have been closer yet. I am glad my calculation has proven accurate. And perhaps best of all, the wind has cleared out the smoke here, too.
I park my bike in the belly of the big boat, and climb to the passenger deck on slightly wobbly legs. Finally, I can get a drink from the vending machine! Then I sleep for most of the ferry ride back to Seattle.
It’s been a fun ride, and I am glad that all the roads for the Un-Meeting are in good shape. Now I’m working on the updated route sheets. They will be posted tomorrow.
The Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting is just a month away! The Un-Meeting is our annual get-together with those who share our joy of riding off the beaten path. It’s not an organized event – we just publish a date and time, and everybody is welcome to join. There are no fees, no registrations, and no services are provided.
When: Sept. 8-9, 2018 (Sat. & Sun.)
Meeting point: Bremerton Ferry Terminal exit (Starbucks Coffee shop)
Meeting time: 9:30 a.m.
Ride distance (approx.): Day 1: 95 km (60 miles), Day 2: 35 km (22 miles)
There are two ride options: The unpaved ride (above) hugs the Hood Canal with beautiful views on a challenging route with many short, steep climbs. For those prefering to stay on pavement, there is an inland route that bypasses the gravel with longer, but less-steep, hills.
This year’s Un-Meeting is easy to access – the downtown Seattle ferry terminal is just minutes from the train station. We’ll take the 7:35 ferry to Bremerton. Make sure you board the right boat; the ferry to Bainbridge leaves from the same terminal.
We’ll meet at the exit of the Bremerton ferry terminal around 8:45 in front of the Starbucks coffee shop. (This has changed from the previously published time, as the ferry schedule for September is now available.) From here, we’ll start our ride. It’s not an organized group ride, but we usually fall into small groups that stay together.
Soon after leaving Bremerton, we’ll find ourselves on small roads. After a brief stop in Belfair – the last ‘services’ on the day’s ride – we’ll head along the Hood Canal. These are favorite roads that we’ve traveled during many rides. If the weather cooperates, we’ll enjoy sunshine and great views of the Olympic Mountains beyond the narrow fjord of the Hood Canal (above). (Despite its name, the Hood Canal a natural body of water.)
As we head into the Tahyua Hills, the gentle rollers make way to steep climbs, and the road turns to gravel. Riders who prefer to stay on pavement can use inland roads that climb higher, but are less steep. That route is equally spectacular.
Both routes converge again as we approach Seabeck. We ride along beautiful bays and finally reach the appropriately named Scenic Beach State Park. We’ve reserved three campsites that can sleep 24. If you have a small tent, you are welcome to share our sites. Otherwise, please book your own accommodations. There are also several hotels in the area for those who prefer to sleep under a roof.
Also make sure to bring food! Seabeck, the town near our overnight spot, doesn’t have much in the way of services. There is a lovely general store, but don’t expect a huge variety of food options. It’s best to bring your own and augment that with what you find at the store.
On Sunday, we’ll meet at the store at 9:30 a.m.
From Seabeck, we’ll return to Seattle on beautiful backroads – unless you want to use the Un-Meeting as a jumping-off point to further exploration of the Quimper Peninsula with historic Port Townsend to the North, or the Olympic Mountains with Bon Jon Pass to the West.
When we’ll board the ferry back to Seattle, many old friendships will have been rekindled, and new ones started.
A last word about logistics: The ride is within reach of most cyclists, but the first day’s stage is almost 100 km (65 miles) long; and the hills are steep. The Un-Meeting provides no services and no sag wagon; you’ll carry your own gear. You don’t need a special bike, but there are no bike shops along the route, so make sure your bike is in perfect condition for this ride. And with many sharp corners on both the paved and gravel routes, please use caution and ride within your and your bike’s capabilities.
For me, the Un-Meeting is a highlight of the year. I hope to see you there!
Click here for a preliminary link to the unpaved course. The paved course will be published later.
The votes are in! Giovanni Calcagno’s photo on the Via del Sale won the Compass Swift Campout photo contest! The Via del Sale criss-crosses the Italian-French border as it connects Limone Piemonte with Ventimiglia via the Maritime Alps.
To me, the photo embodies everything I love about cyclotouring off the beaten path: beautiful scenery, interesting and challenging roads, and the romance of discovering new places beyond the horizon. I can’t wait to hear the full story of Giovanni’s adventure: He’s agreed to share it in a future edition of Bicycle Quarterly.
Congratulations, Giovanni! You won a $ 200 gift certificate to Compass Cycles. The nine finalists receive a one-year subscription of Bicycle Quarterly, and their adventures also will be featured in our magazine.
Click here for more information about Bicycle Quarterly.
Entries for the photo contest keep pouring in – so far more than 250 photos have been submitted. Check them out on Instagram under #swiftcompasscontest!
It’s not too late to enter: Upload your best shots that show ‘cyclotouring off the beaten path’ to Instagram, add the hashtag, and you’re all set. On June 30, we’ll look at all the entries and select 8 finalists. They’ll appear here on the blog, and all of you get to vote for the winner, who receives a $ 200 gift certificate to Compass Cycles. All finalists also win a 1-year subscription to Bicycle Quarterly, and their photos will be published in the magazine.
A reminder: The Swift Campout is this coming weekend. Head over to their web site to get details and register. Most of all, have fun on your very own adventure!
Click here for the full rules of the contest.
Calling for the most evocative, inspirational, and just plain amazing photos that show ‘cyclotouring off the beaten path’! Share your adventures and win a $ 200 gift certificate and other prizes!
Simply post a photo – or several! – on Instagram by June 30 and add the hashtag #swiftcompasscontest. Anybody can enter – no need to register or become a customer. Just post your photos with the hashtag, and you are automatically entered. Of course, you can only enter photos you’ve taken yourself. The goal is to share the fun of cyclotouring, nothing more and nothing less. Enter your best photos!
We’ll chose 8 finalists, and put them here on the Compass blog for final vote by the public. The winner will be announced on July 11 and receive a $ 200 gift certificate toward Compass and Rene Herse components, Bicycle Quarterly magazines, or our books. All finalists will receive a one-year subscription to Bicycle Quarterly, and their photos will be published in the magazine.
Entrants give permission to repost their photos on Compass blog, web site and in Bicycle Quarterly, only for the purposes of this contest. Employees of Compass Cycles, Swift Industries and their families may enter, but are not eligible to win.
Photo credits: Nicolas Joly (Photo 1); Natsuko Hirose (Photo 3).
During my recent trip to Japan, I found myself with a free day in Tokyo. With no time to plan, I decided to head to Yabitsu Pass.
Yabitsu Pass is popular with cyclists, because it’s close to the capital, and yet it traverses a mountain range that is far off the beaten path. You could ride there from central Tokyo, but I decided to take the train for the first leg of the ride. Not only does this save time, but it keeps navigation simple. The way I did it, the ride across Yabitsu Pass has only three or four turns where one could get lost.
An hour’s train ride from the center of Tokyo brings me to Takao at the foot of the mountains. The first thing I do is un-Rinko my bike – remove the carrying bag and assemble it.
Twelve minutes later, I am ready to roll. My ‘Mule’ currently lives in Japan. It’s nice to have a bike waiting for me when I arrive – a bike that can handle anything from a fast group ride to loaded touring.
Heading out of town, I stop at my favorite shrine for a moment of contemplation. As is the Japanese custom, I pray for safety on the road. It reminds me to be careful and not take undue risks as I head out for an adventure.
After riding through suburbs for a while, I enjoy the short, steep climb as I reach Lake Miagase. The lake is formed by a large dam, and I have to climb that elevation all at once, with a gradient that feels like 18%. My Japanese is making only slow progress, but I don’t need to read Kanji to understand what this sign says. Alas, no cute monkeys are visiting the park today.
My effort is rewarded by the view across Lake Miagase. Today the mountains are shrouded in mist. The weather forecast predicted a 20% chance of showers. Usually, Japanese forecasts are very accurate, since they rely on the latest technology. So I hope that the rain I see falling on the lake is just one of those ‘showers.’
From here, the ride is heading into the mountains. I follow the beautiful road that skirts the shore of the lake.
When I reach the rugged valley that leads to Yabitsu Pass, rain starts falling in earnest. It’s not typhoon season, but it doesn’t feel all that different, except the rain is colder. I am glad the ‘Mule’ has generous fenders and a good mudflap. I am getting wet from above, but there isn’t the constant barrage of spray that can chill legs and feet to the bone. I am carrying enough clothes in my handlebar bag to deal with any conditions, as long as I keep moving: wool tights, extra layers and a rain shell. For emergencies, I carry a space blanket. It’s not so much equipment that it’ll slow me down, but it’s enough to be prepared.
The road to Yabitsu Pass is an all-time favorite. The first part is almost level as it goes along the lower reaches of the river. Curve follows after curve, and on a well-handling bike, it’s great fun.
Despite my limited Japanese, I do know the Kanji for rain: 雨. This sign indicates in the third line that if more than 20 mm (0.8″) of rain fall in one hour, the road will close. (The second line says that if 100 mm/4″ fall without a dry spell, it’ll close as well.) In this steep terrain, the danger of mudslides is ever-present. Today, I hoped it won’t come to that!
Just before the real climb to Yabitsu Pass starts, there is a side road that I have been wondering about. I’ve been making good time today, so this seems like good an opportunity to explore it.
The road is closed to motorized traffic with a big gate, but it seems that bikes are allowed. At another fork in the road, I turn left and go up a beautiful valley.
Soon I discover why the road is closed: Rockfalls have made it impassable for cars. No problem on a bike, but wide tires are a plus to avoid pinch-flats.
A big tree has fallen across the road. It’s only a minor obstacle. On wet and slippery ground, it’s not advisable to jump, cyclocross-style, so I take it at a more cautious pace. Click on the arrow to watch the video clip!
I pass a sign for Mt. Tanzawa. A hiking trail scales the steep valley side. I continue on the road, until it ends where another rockfall has completely obliterated the road. Time to turn around and explore the other fork…
The second road is steeper as it climbs the ridge between two valleys. The climbs have a nice rhythm, and I am having a good day. The ‘Mule’ and I get in sync, and the gradient feels much less steep than it probably is.
When I chart the ride on RidewithGPS later, I am surprised how the two sidetrips each climb more than the actual pass! (The steep downhill after the first climb is an artifact of my drawing a straight line on the map – the software doesn’t follow the closed road.)
The road climbs higher and higher in switchback after switchback. It is fun!
The top comes almost unexpected. It’s another trailhead for Mt. Tanzawa. It feels like I’ve climbed the 1567 m (5,141′) mountain from both sides. For a moment, I think of a passhunting adventure. I could hike with my bike to the top, then down the other side. Maybe another day!
The downhill is wet. Very wet! On the steep slope, I drag my front brake continuously, so my rims stays warm enough to evaporate the water. That way, I can brake for the hairpin turns. In conditions like this, powerful brakes are important. If your brakes are marginal in the dry, they cannot cut through the film of water that builds up on the rims when you ride in the rain. No problem with the Mule’s centerpull brakes, though.
When I return to the main road, I am starting to get cold. Fortunately, the gradual uphill invites an all-out effort. That is why it’s so popular with racers. Pushing myself and my bike to their limits, the curving road is great fun. Where sightlines allow it, I don’t slow for the bends, but use the entire road. At other times, I have to brake for the curves, even through the road is heading uphill.
There is no traffic at all. I remember the sign at the bottom of the pass and wonder whether it has rained more than 20 mm in an hour, and the road has been closed. It doesn’t matter – it’s too late to turn around.
As I reach the last, steep kilometer before Yabitsu Pass, I can feel the effort in my legs. I give it everything I have and reach the pass without slowing. Getting here feels like a real achievement today. The pass is deserted on this rainy weekday.
Now all I have to do is coast down the other side to the train station at Hadano. No more photo stops – I need to get down the steepest part of the descent before my body has a chance to get chilled. Then I reach the station. I Rinko my bike and get on the train. I am back in Tokyo for dinner.
If you find yourself in Tokyo looking for a great ride, I recommend Yabitsu Pass. It’s scenic; it sees little traffic (albeit a bit more on sunny weekends); and navigation is easy. The two optional out-and-back side trips add to the challenge if you feel so inclined.
The ride across Yabitsu Pass in numbers:
Last weekend, we headed to Jikkoku Pass to work on the old road that has featured in several Bicycle Quarterly adventures. Tokyo’s Yama Sai Ken, or Mountain Cycling Club, has ‘adopted’ the road and goes there twice a year to maintain it.
For us, this was a remarkable trip into the Japan of tales and movies. The melancholy as we passed through vestiges of the past was balanced by the joyful promise of early summer.
Like most cyclotouring trips here in Japan, it started by subway, with our bikes in their Rinko bags.
When you buy an old-style cardboard ticket to board a small train, it feels a bit like traveling back in time.
After we un-Rinko’ed our bikes at the final station, the mountains beckoned with fresh green.
The roads became smaller and smaller, until they were just a single lane. I remarked to Natsuko that anywhere else, this amazing road would be famous, but here in Japan, it’s just another mountain road.
We had brought some food for a picnic lunch…
… because there are no stores along the way. The next town was a mining town, but nobody lives there any longer. The old post office is the only building still operating, albeit not on Saturdays.
We explored the abandoned buildings.
The schoolhouse still had a blackboard and the teacher’s desk.
It could have been spooky, but the cherry trees were in full bloom. On a day like this, the world seemed young, and it felt completely normal that people had left after the town had outlived its usefulness.
Upvalley from the mining town, the road was closed for cars, but on our bikes, we could continue. After an hour of climbing, we crested the tunnel at the top of the pass.
We let our bikes fly down the descent. As we rounded a corner, we found the road blocked by a rockslide. Good thing our brakes worked well! Now we knew why the road was closed for cars. For us, it was only a minor obstacle.
A fast, winding descent brought us to the valley, where we joined the other Yama Sai Ken members on the riverbank. We pitched our tent and joined the campfire.
The next morning, we rode up to the village of Ueno-mura. The new road climbs at 14%, but we took the old road that is even steeper, because it’s shorter and nicer.
Nobody seems to know how steep the old road is, but it certainly is steep. After a while, we surrendered to the grade. Even when walking, it felt like I was pushing my bike up a vertical wall!
We joined the other members and the villagers on the old road to Jikkoku Pass. If you watched the video of riding across the pass on New Year’s Day, you saw the sea of dry leaves covering the road.
For many years, the Yama Sai Ken members have worked on removing the leaves, clearing small slides, and generally rebuilding the road. The local villagers also worked on the road, and they wondered about the invisible elves who sometimes already had done some of the work. Only three years ago did the cyclists and villagers finally meet on the trail. They decided to join forces and work together from then on.
As we used hoes and rakes to clear leaves and debris, I recognized the spot where, three-and-a-half years ago, my front wheel lost its footing, and my ‘Mule’ plunged into the ravine. The bike somersaulted more than 30 m (100 ft) down the steep slope, flying higher and higher each time it bounced off the ground. I thought my brand-new ‘Mule’ would be destroyed, but the bike only suffered a few minor dents – even ultralight steel is incredibly strong! I was unharmed, too. Today, I worked doubly hard to make sure the trail was in good shape here, because it’s not something I want anybody to repeat.
After we finished working on the trail, we joined the villagers for a delicious lunch. They told us how previous generations used the old road to carry rice across the pass.
After lunch, one of the ladies took us around the village to show us the flowers and vegetables. She told us another story from the history of the village: When Christianity was outlawed in Japan (the missionaries were feared as the vanguard of colonialism), the villagers took in Christians who did not want to renounce their faith. When Christians died, their gravestones were marked with disguised crosses. We went to the cemetery, where we found the old gravestones. (I didn’t take photos, because in Japan, it’s not proper to photograph graves.)
Then it was time to go. We cycled down the valley…
…climbed another mountain pass on a backroad that turned into narrow gravel trail…
…before arriving at the train station for the long trip back to Tokyo. What a wonderful weekend it had been!
At Compass Cycles, we are excited to sponsor the 2018 Swift Campout, a global call to go bike camping. On the weekend of the summer solstice (June 23 & 24), take your bike on an overnight trip – alone, with friends, or with one of the groups organized as part of the Campout. There are no rules and no fees; just go!
We love riding our bikes to the end of the road, pitching a tent and spending the night under the stars, then continuing to ride the next day. These overnighters are our most memorable rides, but they also can seem difficult to make happen. That is why we love the Campout – it inspires cyclists to make it happen and go on that bike camping trip they’ve only dreamed about!
As part of the Campout, Compass Cycles will sponsor a photo contest for the most evocative, inspirational, and just plain amazing photos that show cyclotouring off the beaten path. Details will be announced soon…
Now is the time to dream and make plans. Most of the BQ Team‘s rides start with a call or message: “I was looking at a map, and I noticed this road that we haven’t checked out yet…” From there, we brainstorm and string together new roads and old favorites, come up with plans, change them, and envision a great trip… The preparations are almost as much fun as the ride itself, and they heighten the anticipation. And then, when we finally are on the road, it always turns out even better than we thought. I can’t think of a single trip that we’ve regretted!
Why don’t you call or message your friends and start making plans, too? Click here for more information about the Swift Campout.
Need more inspiration? Here are some of my favorite trips from past issues of Bicycle Quarterly:
To inspire you for your own Campout, we now offer these Bicycle Quarterlies as a convenient four-pack. Click here for more information.
In this guest post, Bicycle Quarterly editor Natsuko Hirose takes you on a cyclotouring reunion in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Translated from Natsuko’s blog Touge to Onsen:
I like bicycles and cyclotouring, but I especially like traveling. When I think about where I want to go next, my heart skips a beat with excitement. Passhunting, visiting Onsen hot springs, eating good meals… During my busy life, it’s easy to forget the small things that make this world so beautiful. When I go cyclotouring, I notice them all the more.
During the last few years, I’ve lived both in Seattle and Tokyo. As I spend more time away from Japan, I notice its beauty even more than I did in the past. This time, I visited the Soya area of Hokkaido, where Ms. K, a friend since college, now lives with her family. For a long time, I’ve wanted to visit her, but the opportunity didn’t present itself.
To put our Caletti Monstercross test bike through its paces, we took it passhunting in the middle of winter. Watch the video for a sneak preview, and enjoy the full adventure and bike test in the Spring 2018 Bicycle Quarterly. Make sure to view in ‘full-screen’ mode!
Subscribe today to get your copy of the Spring Bicycle Quarterly without delay!
Lyli Herse would have turned 90 years old today (January 6) – and this post was written to celebrate her life that has inspired so many of us. But alas, I have to report instead that Lyli died on Thursday after a very short illness. Despite the great sadness of losing her, let’s celebrate her anyway, because that is what she would have wanted.
Until just a few days ago, she remained healthy and happy, living with her dog in the house built by her father, the famous constructeur René Herse, near the finish line of the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race. These two elements – her father’s bikes and cycling competition – were the defining elements of Lyli’s life.
Lyli first entered top-tier competition at the tender age of 16 years, when she raced in the 1944 Poly hillclimb race, which had categories for professional racers, randonneurs and mixed tandems. She told me: “Some people said that I was too young to compete… The famous Docteur Ruffier gave me a medical exam before and after the Poly.” Her heart rate actually was lower after the race, because she had been so nervous before the event! Partnering with Simon Feuillie, she placed fourth against many strong teams.
It was in the Poly where Lyli made her mark. For nine years, from 1948 until 1956, she was unbeatable in this tough event. Except when the team crashed in the sharp turn at the bottom of the ultra-fast descent… Lyli broke her collarbone, but that didn’t prevent them from finishing the race – only to be disqualified because their rear fender had broken in the crash. Lyli recalled: “My father then designed his fender reinforcement. He didn’t want that problem to happen again!”
She had many memories from that event: “My best captain was Prestat. He worked as a porteur de presse [newspaper courier]. One year, we set the fastest lap of the day, ahead of the professional racers.” The photo above shows her and Prestat during that record-setting ride, climbing the 14% grade smoothly with a single 46-tooth chainring on the front. And they never even used their largest (22-tooth) cog on the rear!
In 1955, Jean Lheuillot was organizing the first Tour de France Féminin, and he wanted Lyli to be part of the international field. It took some persuading, but he didn’t regret the effort: Lyli won two stages and wore the leader’s jersey for much of the race, before finally finishing fourth overall against accomplished riders like the British stars Beryl French and Millie Robinson. Despite her success, Lyli longed for her days as a cyclotourist: “I always felt more at home with the cyclos. The cutthroat competition of racing wasn’t to my liking.”
The best way to stay out of the fray was to ride off the front, which she did with much success, winning no fewer than eight French championships. She wanted to retire in 1966, but she placed third in that year’s championships. She recalled: “I didn’t want to stop racing after a defeat. […] So I said: ‘Papa, I’d like to give it another try.’ Papa had to make some sacrifices to give me more free time for training and such. That year, I won.”
Just before Lyli retired from racing, a few young women asked her if she could coach them. Lyli formed a team that was sponsored by her father. One of the racers, Geneviève Gambillon, told me, “Lyli was a tough master.” Lyli confirmed: “I told them, ‘Training for me starts at 5 o’clock in the morning, because I have to go to the shop afterward.'”
When Gambillon complained about the hard workouts, Lyli told her, “I am 18 years older than you, and I am riding with you, not following in a car behind. If I can do it, so can you!” Lyli’s methods were questioned by the French Cycling Federation, but they brought results: Gambillon won two world championships and more than 20 French championships on road and track.
All her adult life, Lyli worked in her father’s shop, shown above in 1962 with Lyli’s first five French championship victories proudly listed on the window. As a teenager, she rode across Paris to pick up parts from distributors. Then she learned to build wheels, and from then on, she was responsible for this important part of the magical bikes her father created. She also ran the shop and distributed Velosolex mopeds on the side to augment the meagre bike sales during the difficult years of the 1960s, when most French dreamed of a car, and not a custom bicycle.
When her father died in 1976, followed a few years later by her mother, she took over. She married Herse’s master framebuilder, Jean Desbois, and together they kept the shop running until 1986. When the word spread that Cycles René Herse was closing, many customers placed orders for one more bike. Lyli and her husband worked for two more years out of the garage of their house until all the orders were filled, and they finally could retire.
I first met Lyli after riding a 1946 René Herse tandem in the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris. She was delighted that we had continued the legacy she had worked so hard to build. As I visited her many times during the research for my book on her father and his bikes, we became friends, and she asked me to carry the René Herse name forward. I learned a lot from her and her late husband about the machines her father built. We organized annual reunions with the old riders of her father’s team, who also had much information to share.
Five years ago, to celebrate her 85th birthday, Lyli asked to ride one more lap of the Poly. We found a René Herse tandem, and I had the honor to pilot her around the course together with a number of riders from her father’s team. I was apprehensive about climbing the famous 14% hill on a tandem with an 85-year-old lady, but Lyli had trained by riding thousands of kilometers on her stationary bike.
On the climb, we dropped all the others, except my friend Christophe, who had been an strong amateur racer. And even he had to work hard to keep up. The slack upper connecting chain in the photo above says it all: Lyli was contributing more than her share of the power. 14% climbs have rarely felt so easy, and I suddenly could almost imagine how, 55 years earlier, she had ridden eight laps of this difficult course at an average speed of 35 km/h (22 mph).
Lyli continued to train every day, and she kept a log of every ride. When I called her on the phone, she often was out of breath: “Excuse me – I was training,” she explained. Always the champion, she wasn’t slowing down even as she approached the age of 90.
I had hoped to go for another tandem ride with her during my next visit – above a ride we took on our René Herse tandem two summers ago. Now Lyli is gone, but she’ll continue to inspire us!
During the second day of our recent cyclotouring trip to the Aizu mountains in northern Japan, we embarked on a little adventure to discover the ‘Forgotten Pass.’
In the evening of the first day, we climbed a small mountain pass, but found to our surprise that a tunnel now traversed the ridge that we had intended to climb.
It was getting dark, so we went through the bore, eager to reach our ryokan (inn) with its hot bath and sumptuous dinner. “Let’s climb the old road tomorrow,” suggested Natsuko.
Over breakfast, we looked at the topographic maps of the area. I was delighted to notice that the maps categorize roads by their width. The narrowest category is ‘less than 1.5 m (5 feet) wide.’ Even the tiny Japanese minitrucks won’t fit there. That is great information when choosing routes for cyclotouring! But for this ride, we had little to go by – the map hadn’t been updated since the tunnel was built. It still showed a road that was wide enough for 1-2 cars all the way across the pass.
The tunnel was built 10 years ago – as evidenced by a plaque on the portal – and at first, the old road looked in good shape.
But the new pavement didn’t last long. The road to the pass soon turned into a narrow, overgrown gravel path, with just a little pavement poking through once in a while. I was surprised how quickly the road had been reclaimed by nature once maintenance had ceased. It was fun to explore this ‘Forgotten Pass,’ as we named it. The autumn colors provided a beautiful backdrop for our ride, and without pavement or even gravel, we felt truly immersed in the scenery.
Through the trees, we could see fresh snow on the mountains around us.
It was hard to believe that this was a ‘real’ road just a decade ago. The curves were still lined with mirrors to see around the corner and check whether other traffic was approaching. One is visible in the center of the photo. A decade of typhoon rains had turned the mirrors completely blind. Not that we needed mirrors – the ‘Forgotten Pass’ was deserted.
Road signs warning of falling rocks had fared better than the mirrors: They looked almost new. We had to laugh at this one: The entire road was covered with soil and rocks. There was no doubt that a lot of rocks had fallen during the last ten years.
The ‘road’ became narrower and rougher, until it was little more than a hiking trail. Judging from the tracks in the soft soil, it was frequented only by deer.
Then we reached the ‘Forgotten Pass.’ The slope was less steep here, and the road was in better shape. Once, there was a parking lot with a trailhead to hiking trails. A sign still reminded visitors that they were entering public forests here.
It was a little easier cycling on the downhill. Dry leaves rustled under our tires. In places we had to portage our bikes where big rocks had fallen onto the road.
And then we were on the new road again, which seemed deliciously smooth and fast after our off-pavement adventure. To think that in ten years’ time, this road would look like the mountain trail we just came down if it wasn’t maintained continuously!
The ‘Forgotten Pass’ was a poignant reminder that our presence in these mountains is ephemeral. We are only visitors, grateful that we can come here, but the mountains only belong to themselves.
During a recent trip to Japan, we went on a short trip to the Aizu mountains in northern Honshu (Japan’s main island). It was a beautiful day, and the famous kouyou (‘autumn red leaves’) were at their best.
Like most rides in Japan, we started by taking the train. A Shinkansen bullet train whisked us a few hundred kilometers northward, then we took a small train into the hills.
We assembled our bikes, ate a late breakfast, and headed into the mountains on a small road that meandered up the slopes. There was no traffic at all. The sunlight painted the road surface into a dappled pattern of light and shade. It was a wonderful day for a ride.
With plenty of time, we explored side paths like this one that forded a creek. We climbed higher and higher until we reached a small pass. When we checked the time, we realized that we had to speed up a little if we wanted to reach our destination before dark.
We started zooming down the descent, but after a few turns, the road ahead was blocked. A recent typhoon had caused numerous washouts on the roads of this area. We had been able to pass a few, but here workers were installing concrete shoring. We had to turn around and retrace our steps, all the way back to the train station!
It wasn’t a huge loss, because the main road was beautiful, too. The rice fields in the valley had been harvested, and the hillsides were covered in red colors. A chill in the air betrayed that it was autumn, but with the right clothing, cycling was very pleasant.
From time to time, dark tunnels swallowed us, until we emerged into snow galleries that created a beautiful light in the afternoon sun.
In one village, a huge Gingko tree had dropped its leaves, coloring the ground in vivid yellow.
Natsuko couldn’t understand why I took a photo of the nearby parking lot. For her, this is a normal scene. The pickup trucks of rural Japan are small minitrucks. They are less menacing on the road than their North American counterparts. I suspect the diminutive size of the vehicles is one reason why Japanese rural drivers are so friendly towards cyclists. This makes cycling in the Japanese mountains very pleasant.
Darkness had fallen when we reached our beautiful ryokan (inn). After a hot bath, we enjoyed a traditional meal. We were the only guests that night, so we talked to the owner about the challenges of living in these mountains where typhoons are common, winters are long, and jobs are scarce.
The next morning, we continued our ride on little roads.
We visited a beautiful old village…
…with a restored grist mill. Every twenty seconds, the bucket under the flume filled with water. The weight lowered the end of the beam, until its angle was so steep that the water spilled out of the bucket. Then the beam dropped back, pushing the round pestle into the hole that held the grain. The periodic sound of “poc … poc … poc” used to accompany life in the villages, and here it still does today.
Autumn in northern Japan is a melancholic time. The colors of the trees were incredibly vibrant, but snow poles already lined the road as a sign that winter is coming. On this day, the skies turned from sunny to cloudy, and as we approached the station, it began to rain.
We could feel that the rains soon would turn to snow. In the villages, we had seen snowplows, freshly overhauled and repainted, standing by to keep the main roads open. The small roads we enjoy so much won’t be plowed – they will be closed until late spring.
We reached the train station just as it got dark. We packed our bikes for the long trip back and then locked up our Rinko bags. We had intended to visit a public bath near the station, but today was the one day of the week when it was closed. So we went to a bakery instead.
An hour later, our train arrived, and we boarded for the first leg of the trip back to Tokyo. It was a short tour, but our memories will last a long time.
We aren’t models! Anybody who has looked at our photos will have noticed this… but what I really want to say is that every photo you see in Bicycle Quarterly, on this blog and on the Compass web site is totally authentic. It’s not a posed shot with – yes – a model gazing wistfully over a mountain landscape, where you instinctively feel that they’ve come up here in a van and there is a second truck parked nearby with equipment and perhaps a third one for the catering.
The riders in our photos actually rode their bikes to the location. The camera was carried in a handlebar bag. We may ride back and forth a few times to get the shot “just right”, but that is it. Our photos record actual rides.
In the photos that accompany BQ’s bike tests, you see the actual testers on the actual test rides. To us, that authenticity is important. We want to give you as much of the experience of being there as possible.
Even our famous “To us, it’s just another road” tire ad (above) was shot during a bicycle tour. The lighting was just right, the road looked great and we seized the opportunity.
Shooting photos during our rides keeps our marketing budget small. Those vans, equipment trucks and catering cost a lot of money. Professional photo shoots result in beautiful images, but another way to get great shots is to go out again and again, until everything turns out just right. Since we ride a lot, we get plenty of opportunities… and great rides make for much better stories than great photo shoots!
During a recent visit to Kyoto, we rented bikes for a day. Cycling is a great way to get around this beautiful old city, and it also presented an opportunity to experience Japanese city bikes.
Our guest house offered bike rentals for the equivalent of $ 5 per day. In Kyoto, bicycles are one of the main means of transportation. We saw them everywhere, ridden by everybody: men and women of all ages, some dressed in business attire, others carrying one or two children in child seats. Not only grown-ups rode bikes, but also teenagers and children. Only a few college students were on what you could call performance bikes; everybody else rode the ubiquitous Japanese city bikes. That is what we were going to ride as well.
After breakfast, we headed out on two almost-new Maruishi bikes. Our first destination was the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), one of the most famous Zen Bhuddist temples in Japan. In front of the gates, we saw signs for the bike parking lot.
And, this being Japan, there were instructions on how to park your bike in an orderly fashion. With a sign this cute, we tried our best to line up the bikes as shown.
I didn’t know what to expect from the Golden Pavilion, but as so often in Japan, the reality exceeded anything I could have imagined. Not only are the walls of the Golden Pavilion covered in real gold, but it’s next to a lake that shows its reflection. Islands with carefully trained trees are designed to enhance the view. Even on this overcast day, the temple was luminescent, but rather than gaudy, it looked beautiful and tasteful. It took my breath away.
After a visit to another temple, we had lunch at an former bathhouse that had been converted to a café. It was one of the beautiful old buildings that give Kyoto its charm.
After lunch, I looked over our bikes. Japanese city bikes are designed to offer basic transportation at a very affordable price. Our Maruishis – the brand hasn’t been imported to the U.S. in decades – were among the better city bikes. They had pleasing overall lines, and the chrome-plated frames and all-silver parts added to the appeal.
A little web searching showed that this model comes in a single size, designed to fit riders over 146 cm (4’9.5″) tall. At 181 cm (5’11”), I was at the upper end of the spectrum: With the seat post extended to its maximum, the saddle was still a bit low for efficient pedaling. I noticed that most people rode their bikes that way, making it easier to put a foot down when stopping. The handlebars aren’t adjustable, so they are either high (for tall riders) or very high (for shorter ones).
These Maruishis cost just 32,800 yen (about $ 300). For that price, you get a fully equipped bike, with fenders, lights, a basket and even a lock. There is nothing else you need to buy; the bike is ready for a few years of daily use.
To understand how a fully equipped, decent-quality bike can be so inexpensive, it’s perhaps best to compare it to a car. Imagine the Maruishi as a basic Honda Civic – one of the nicer mass-produced cars, but not something an enthusiast would want to drive. The low cost is the result of designing every part to be as inexpensive and as easy to assemble as possible – while maintaining adequate quality – and then producing huge numbers. For the Maruishi, the result surprised me in many ways.
The bike comes with a Shimano Nexus three-speed hub gear that should give years of reliable service. However, the gearing was so large that I never got out of first gear! These bikes aren’t intended for riders spinning at a high cadence.
At the rear, there is a band brake that serves as the main brake. Even on our almost-new bikes, this was barely able to skid the rear wheel. Once the friction surfaces wear on these brakes, the braking power is further reduced, but the metal-on-metal friction produces a high-pitched squeal that acts as a warning: The cyclist can’t stop, but pedestrians can jump out of the way!
There is a sturdy kickstand. Frame construction is adequate – there are real dropouts, not just squished chainstays as on older German city bikes. Look carefully, and you can see the non-adjustable fender stays. The fenders are designed to fit just right, and the stays are held by the rear axle bolts.
The aluminum fenders are perhaps the biggest surprise: They are made by Honjo, just like the fenders on the most expensive custom bikes. These ones don’t have a polished finish, and, while the edges are not crimped over, they are dipped in rubber to prevent cuts from sharp edges. And, as mentioned before, the stays are not adjustable, which eliminates most of the hardware. Features like these cut costs and reduce maintenance, but the function of the fenders is the same as on the more expensive Honjos we use on our own bikes: Uninterrupted interiors and rolled edges keep the water from dripping off the edges.
I’d like a little more fender coverage on the front wheel, but at the relatively low speeds of these bikes, spray from the front wheel doesn’t fly as high as it does during spirited riding, so it’s less of a problem. (And I suspect these bikes are shipped with the front wheel removed, hence the short-ish fender.) At least the fender extends far enough at the front to keep spray out of your basket…
The bridges are made from stamped steel (rather than tubing), but they incorporate fender mounts. Direct fender mounting speeds up assembly; it also ensures that the fenders will neither resonate nor break prematurely. And indeed, even older Japanese city bikes are silent as they roll around the city (except for the occasional high-pitched squeal of the brakes).
Despite its relatively low cost, the Maruishi comes standard with a generator hub. However, cost savings are evident in the fork: It doesn’t have dropouts. The ends of the fork blades are squeezed and slotted. At this price, don’t expect fine craftsmanship!
At the front, there is an LED headlight that provides sufficient illumination. The basket is permanently mounted on the bike, supported by stays that run down to the dropouts. The right stay curves around the headlight, doubling as a protector.
The front brake is a simple side pull, stamped from flat steel stock, but it worked adequately. The right lever operates the front brake, Italian- and British-style, yet most riders seem to use the rear brake, operated with the left hand. It’s not that most Japanese are left-handed, but it’s another indication that the debates over “which hand for which brake” are besides the point: It doesn’t matter!
Most Japanese city bikes don’t have taillights, just a very rudimentary reflector. More often than not, this tends to go missing after a while. It’s surprising to see thousands of almost-invisible cyclists zoom around Kyoto at night, yet there seem to be very few accidents. Drivers are used to cyclists being everywhere, and with narrow streets and the need to weave around utility poles in the roadway, “distracted driving” is not an option! You can’t help but feel that despite all this apparent anarchy, it’s actually safer than riding in Seattle.
The seatpost binder bolt only looks like a quick release: It’s just a lever for turning the bolt. That makes it easy to adjust the saddle height without tools, useful when a bike is shared among several family members. (It’s like a car’s seats that are easy to adjust for different drivers.)
The lock is permanently installed. The key stays on the bike; it can be removed only after you’ve locked it by pushing the ring through the spokes. That way, there is little risk of misplacing the key. The lock provides only basic protection: Somebody could carry away the bike. But at 19.5 kg (43 lb), it’s heavy enough to defeat most would-be thieves.
Another surprising spec: the wheels. Who said 27-inch wheels were obsolete? The tires are nominally 37 mm wide, but in reality, they probably measure closer to 32. They are sturdy Kendas, and they didn’t roll fast. Why such large wheels? I suspect it makes the bike more stable.
How is it to ride one of these bikes? Unusual at first! Of course, Maruishi doesn’t publish the geometry of the bike, but measuring from photos, I came up with a super-shallow head angle of 67° and a whopping 135 mm of fork offset! This results in zero trail, and thus zero wheel flop…
With my heavy backpack in the front basket, the fork wanted to turn even without wheel flop, and at first, it was difficult to ride in a straight line. Then I realized that the problem was my trying to guide the bike with a gentle touch. With a firm grip on the bars and my elbows locked, the bike tracked straight and handled predictably. Even rising out of the saddle – necessary for me on the hills – the bike didn’t veer off its line. With no trail, it’s easy to turn the fork to avoid a bump, but since there is no wheel flop, the movement isn’t amplified. And the large, heavy front wheel’s inertia immediately recenters the fork. Now I understand why Japanese city cyclists look wobbly, but actually move in very straight lines.
This handling trait is actually very important in the congested Japanese cities. With cars, trucks and buses passing cyclists with just inches to spare, it’s crucial not to wobble or weave! As long as cyclists move in a straight line, they are predictable, and other traffic can avoid them. As a pedestrian here in Japan, I had to learn this. When cyclists come barreling toward me on the sidewalk, I tend to freeze, figuring they will go around me. But they head straight toward me, expecting me to jump out of the way. It’s the opposite of how we do it on the trails in Seattle. I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter who moves out of the way, as long as everybody is on the same page.
One place where nobody seems to be on the same page is traffic rules. Natsuko and I are used to riding out in the country, on the left side of the road. Imagine our surprise when cyclists coming toward us sometimes moved left, sometimes right, with no rhyme or reason. Cyclists are like pedestrians here – moving at low enough speeds that they don’t crash into each other, but not bound by rules beyond common courtesy and self-preservation. We didn’t see a single cyclists wearing a helmet, yet cycling injuries in Japan are extremely rare.
As the sun started to set on this autumn day, we headed to another public bath, this one still in operation. While I soaked in the hot water, I thought about the Maruishi. It’s a remarkable piece of engineering, designed for affordability and reliability above all. That you can buy a complete, fully-equipped bike for just $ 300 intrigues me. But then, the Maruishi’s car equivalent also offers remarkable value: If you calculated all the components of a Honda Civic at the prices charged for bicycle components, you’d end up with a price many times higher than the $ 19,000 that the Honda costs these days.
Both the Maruishi and the Civic achieve their low cost through sophisticated design and huge economies of scale. Everything on them is just ‘good enough’ for a daily user. What is remarkable is that a generator hub and high-quality fenders are among these “absolute necessities” for everyday riding. Neither the bike nor the car feature beautiful craftsmanship, but they will offer satisfactory service for those who buy them. And both feature a little extra – the Maruishi’s chrome-plated frame and the nice interior of the Honda – to instill some pride of ownership.
What if the same approach was used to make a bike for more spirited riding? Something that isn’t just for transportation, but is also fun to ride? For less than twice the price of a Civic, you can buy a real sports car, like the Mazda Miata or the Subaru BRZ. Imagine a fully equipped randonneur bike – with integrated fenders, lights and racks – for twice the price of the Maruishi! I guess you’d need to get the weight down and the performance up a bit, but even if you triple the price, you are still below $ 1,000. Imagine a bike that offers 80% of the performance and reliability of an expensive custom bike, but without any of the craftsmanship. I can’t see why this wouldn’t be possible, but it requires economies of scale that still elude the makers of performance bikes. But just think of the possibilities!
Last weekend was the first cyclocross race in Seattle. Almost every year, the first race catches me by surprise. Summer is over? It’s ‘cross season already?
Usually, I oil the chain on my trusty Alan ‘cross bike and head to the races. This year, the Alan’s tubular tires needed regluing. The glue must cure for 24 hours, and the race was too close for that.
What to do? I looked at my Firefly, still dusty from the Volcano High Pass Challenge and the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting. What if I raced it instead?
The morning of the race, I took off the low-rider rack and two bottle cages, then rode the 25 miles (40 km) to the start. I arrived with just enough time to remove the last bottle cage, unclip the underseat bag, and do a practice lap. I let some air out of the tires, and then it was time to race.
At the start, I was a bit nervous, because I had forgotten to swap my touring pedals for dual-sided mtb pedals. On the bumpy course, clipping in after a remount wasn’t easy. I knew I’d lose some time. And I worried about the grip of my “road” tires at race speeds on the loose stuff, especially the grass. I had entered the Category 4 race. It’s the lowest of the three categories offered, but the fastest racers come out of a season of road racing and are quite fast.
Then we were off! I’ve never been an explosive sprinter, and so I found myself somewhere around 15th position as we went into the first corner. A long straight followed, and I was surprised by how fast my bike went. I know what bumpy grass feels like on 34 mm tires, and it was a totally different experience on 54s. Instead of bouncing, I was able to put down power and ride smoothly.
I had moved up to 3rd position when we reached the first sandpit. And since I hadn’t been working as hard as the others on their narrower tires, I could outrun them. (In the deep sand, even my 54 mm tires didn’t provide enough floatation to make riding more efficient than running.) I took the lead at the exit of the sand pit and never looked back (top photo).
I ran through the next sand pit, too, but the third one was relatively short, and I found that momentum carried me across. Just accelerate hard on the approach and keep going! Where the course doubled back on itself, I could see my pursuers. I was surprised how quickly my gap had grown. I would like to claim superior fitness, but I think the bike’s speed deserves more credit. I’ve raced Cat. 4 in the past, and I’ve never experienced such a speed difference.
With so much grip, I rarely touched my brakes. I did realize why ‘cross bikes have higher bottom brackets: After leaning deep into a corner, I righted the bike until I thought that I was straight again. When I started pedaling, I was still leaning much further than I thought. I clipped a pedal, and next thing I knew, I was on the ground. My lap times show that I lost 10 or 15 seconds, and my pursuers came back into sight. But adrenalin enhances performance, and I managed to hold onto my lead to take the win after 42 minutes of all-out racing.
What did I learn? First, on bumpy terrain, wider tires are much faster. We already knew this, but the magnitude of the effect surprised even me. Being able to pass other racers at will really represents an unfair advantage. Cornering grip on the loose, but dry, surfaces also was far superior to what I am used to.
What about the lack of knobs on my tires? We know that on gravel, knobs don’t make any difference, and I found that the same holds true on dirt and even dry grass. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised: Traditional dry-weather ‘cross tires (above) have almost no tread – in fact, they are so smooth that we used to ride them on the road, since they were a little bit wider than the 21 mm racing tubulars we had back then.
Of course, riding the Firefly with its 54 mm tires in a ‘cross race is unfair. The best rider should win, not the rider on the widest tires. Road racing and its muddy cousin, cyclocross, are traditional sports, and the bikes are clearly defined by the rules. It may be possible to make faster bikes, but finding the fastest bike isn’t the point of racing – it’s finding the fastest rider. As BQ contributor Hahn Rossman (below) put it: “Cross is about riding a road bike off-road. You really shouldn’t ride across bumpy terrain on narrow tires, but it’s great fun.”
Cyclocross has an element of underbiking, and that is why the UCI has limited tire widths for professional racers. For amateurs in the U.S., the UCI rules usually don’t apply, but I feel it isn’t in the spirit of the sport to ride a bike that is so blatantly outside the accepted norm.
I am also not sure my advantage would persist as the weather turns rainy. On a muddy course, my ultra-wide tires may not work so well. A narrower tire – say 35 to 40 mm wide – digs into the mud and probably creates more lateral resistance when cornering. A super-wide tire may just skate across the muddy surface without finding any grip. Once the weather turns muddy, I could put a set of mountain bike knobbies on the Firefly to find out.
Or I’ll just ride my Alan (above) again, because it’s already set up for muddy riding. In the end, my experiment hasn’t shown anything we didn’t know already: On bumpy surfaces in the dry, wider tires are much faster. We also know that in mud, you need knobs to dig into the surface and generate grip.
If you have been intrigued by cyclocross, give it a try. It’s great fun, and what you learn about bike handling will improve your skills on all surfaces, year-round. Don’t worry if you don’t have a cyclocross bike. Just ride the most suitable bike you have. Cyclocrossers are very relaxed about the competition – nobody complained that I rode ultra-wide tires. Last weekend, old road bikes, a randonneur bike (with the fenders removed), and mountain bikes mixed it up with the purpose-built ‘cross bikes.
And if you need cyclocross tires – whether for dry or muddy conditions – our Steilacoom 700C x 38 mm and Pumpkin Ridge 650B x 42 mm knobbies are hard to beat. I just wish they fit my old Alan, which dates from a time when 28 mm tires were “huge”. It would save me from having to re-glue my tires!
Photo credits: Westside Bicycle (Photos 1, 3, 4, 5), Natsuko Hirose (Photo 8).
The results are coming in for the Volcano High Pass Challenge. As the name implies, it was a challenging ride with much elevation gain, much gravel, and much scenic beauty.
Fifteen intrepid riders set out from the Packwood Library shortly after 5 a.m. on Saturday.
The long gravel climb up to Walupt Lake – more than 3000 ft up – separated the pack into small groups.
Even the race leaders stopped in awe when the forest opened up, and the giant peak of Mount Adams came into view.
The first control was at Walupt Lake, which most riders reached just as the sun was rising.
As proof of passing, riders had to take photos of their bikes at these scenic locations. I really enjoyed seeing the different view of the same places. Cyclotourists always have been keen photographers, and it’s nice that the Challenge brought out that element of our sport.
Takhlakh Lake is perhaps the most photographed spot in the Cascades, but it seems impossible to tire of the spectacle…
…of Mount Adams’ reflection in the beautiful lake.
From Takhlakh Lake, it was a quick descent to Babyshoe Pass, and then further downhill to Trout Lake.
Trout Lake is dwarfed by its scenic surroundings, but it’s a cute town in its own right, with fabulous huckleberry shakes and pies that invite for a rest. But beware, there is a Sasquatch hiding behind the general store…
The climb up to Goose Lake seems to be hot every time I ride it, and the lake invites to a swim.
Several racers took advantage of the cooling waters.
After cresting the last big climb, a sinuous descent brought participants to the finish at the Carson General Store after 166 km / 103 miles. The full route is at the bottom of this post.
As the ride finished, we could see the smoke rising from the Eagle Creek fire that had started on the other side of the Columbia River earlier in the day. The two first finishers returned to Portland that night, having completed a two-day ride/race from Portland to Packwood and back via Mount St. Helens on the way out and via Mount Adams on the way back. Chapeau! Others headed to the campground to join the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting, with great camaraderie and beautiful riding over this long weekend.
Rider continued to trickle in until late in the evening. We don’t have all results yet, especially from the riders who completed the ride over multiple days. Please e-mail your photos and arrival time to firstname.lastname@example.org. Some riders were unable to complete the ride. Fortunately, Jerry, Pat and Jean from Branford Bike in Seattle were on the course to help riders in trouble. Thank you for the support!
Here are the results so far:
Here is the full route of the Volcano High Pass Challenge. Click here for a link to the RidewithGPS file. If you missed this year’s event, it’s a great ride on your own.
Photo credits: Ryan Francesconi (Photos 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 14), Tim Clark (Photos 6, 8), Larry Kaufman (Photo 12).
Smiles all around: That is perhaps the best summary of the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting. A couple of dozen cyclists met in Carson, WA, for a weekend of exploring with like-minded cyclists.
This year, the weekend started with the Volcano High Pass Challenge, an unsactioned ride/race over 103 miles (166 km) and 10,000 ft (3000 m) of climbing. Fifteen riders set out on Saturday morning, plus others had started earlier to enjoy the beautiful course over several days.
Riding along the flanks of Mount Adams on gravel roads made for a beautiful ride after the challenging initial climb out of the Cowlitz River valley.
The number of riders increased further for the actual Un-Meeting itself. A forest fire brought smoke into the mountains, so we changed course, but the routes we discovered were at least as nice as those we had intended to ride.
Riders came from all over the United States – as far as Colorado, Wisconsin and Philadelphia – with Monica even coming directly from riding the Tour Divide from Canada all the way to New Mexico. Everybody had great stories to share, and the day passed all too quickly.
Monday saw many of the riders return to Portland in small groups. It was another fun Un-Meeting, and I can’t wait for the next one.
For the participants of the Volcano High Pass Challenge, we ask to please e-mail your photos from the controls, together with your complete name and arrival time in Carson, to email@example.com. Results and additional photos will be published as they come in.
Part race, part scenic ride with friends, this unsanctioned event challenges riders of all abilities. The distance is 170 km (105 miles), with half on gravel and half on pavement, from Packwood, at the foot of Mount Rainier, to Carson, on the Columbia River.
Anyone is welcome: Just ride the course and have fun. For the one-day ride/race, show up at the start at 5 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 2, in front of the Packwood Library. Whether you compete for the fastest time, ride with friends, or start early and complete the ride at a more relaxed pace over multiple days, it’ll be an unforgettable experience.
Riders will need to be self-sufficient as no services will be provided. Be sure to review the route and print a copy of the cue sheet (links below). A few pointers on the route:
Camping: We have a group tent site at the Wind River RV Park and Lodge in Carson for Saturday and Sunday nights. Cost is $15 per tent per night. In exchange for this reduced group rate, the campground asks for a single payment, so please give Theo cash before setting up your tent. There will be enough space for everybody who wants to camp.
On Sunday we’ll have two rides:
To Trout Lake on the Volcano High Pass route, then circling Weigle Hill and Buck Mountain on beautiful gravel roads. This route covers approximately 150 km (93 miles), almost all on gravel. Route details are subject to change.
Route on RWGPS
This is a mostly paved course (with a little light gravel in places) on one of the most amazing mountain roads in the Pacific Northwest. This is an out-and-back course, allowing you to shorten or extend the ride as you like. The distance is 70 – 90 km (43 – 56 miles), depending on where you turn around.
Route on RWGPS
On Monday, after the Un-Meeting, many of us will ride to Portland via the Bridge of the Gods and Historic Highway 30 in the Columbia River Gorge. This is a wonderful scenic, paved route of about 100 km (62 miles). There are many waterfalls and viewpoints along the way. Bring $1 to pay the bicycle toll after crossing the Bridge of the Gods. There is a staircase about 19 km (12 miles) into the route where you will need to carry your bike.
Route on RWGPS
Photo credits: Theo Roffe (3, 4)
The Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting and the Volcano High Pass Challenge are just a little over a week away! These separate events will take place consecutively on Labor Day Weekend (Sept. 2-4). You can do one or the other, but of course, we hope you will join us for both!
The Volcano High Pass Challenge is a race or ride – as you desire – from Packwood at the foot of Mount Rainier to Carson on the Columbia River. The route climbs steeply out of the Cowlitz River Valley, then skirts the majestic volcano of Mount Adams, passes through quaint Trout Lake (with excellent huckleberry shakes), climbs another gravel pass, before dropping down toward the Columbia River in a vertiginous descent along Panther Creek. It’s one of the most scenic routes in the Cascades, with spectacular views of Mount Adams and stops at the beautiful Walupt and Takhlakh Lakes.
The distance is 170 km (105 miles), with half on gravel and half on pavement. Much of the pavement is during descents, so you’ll spend most of your time on gravel. The ride is unsupported, but our partners Branford Bike will be at Walupt Lake (after the first and biggest climb) with limited mechanical help, just in case. However, you’ll be riding outside of cell coverage, so please be prepared to ride on your own. The Challenge is an unsupported ride, so please no support cars…
The Volcano High Pass Challenge is open to everybody. We offer two options:
The start is at the Packwood Library. At each control, including the start, you take a photo of your bike:
Record the time when the photo was taken. (Most digital cameras do this automatically.) At the finish, show us the photos, or, if you finish late, e-mail them.
The road conditions vary between smooth and somewhat rough gravel. I know of riders who have ridden on these roads on 35 mm tires, but I prefer 42s or wider. It’s a fun course, but as the name “Challenge” implies, it’s more strenuous than most “centuries”. Pace yourself and enjoy it!
The following day is the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting. As in the past, it’s a simple formula: Show up and enjoy a day of riding with like-minded cyclists. Start is at 9 a.m. at the Carson General Store. There are no fees, no registration, and no services. Simply show up and join us for the ride. There will be two rides:
Everybody is welcome at both events. Please make sure your bike is in good condition – there will be no support and no sag wagon.
Riders organize their own accommodations. We have reserved a group tent site at the Wind River RV Park and Lodge in Carson, first come, first served, for $ 10 per night.
On Monday, many of us will ride to Portland, from where trains and other transportation are available… Start for the “Ride Back” is also at 9 a.m. at the Carson General Store.
I hope to see you there. Stay tuned for route sheets for these rides early next week…
Jan’s comment: It’s always interesting to read others’ impressions of our work. Cyclodonia discussed several bikes from the Concours de Machines in detail. Translated and reposted with permission. The French original is available here. The views expressed are those of the original author, not mine. Enjoy!
J. P. Weigle (Lyme – USA)
Looking at this bike, the unsuspecting public (and ‘unsuspecting’ includes a good part of the riders in the Cyclosportive Les Copains held the same weekend as the Concours de Machines) might think this is an old bike, built 60 or 70 years ago and restored carefully. And yet, the bike presented by J. P. Weigle did not use any old parts that had been pulled from the drawers of a collector.
But why redo what already had been done 70 years ago, especially in a competition where originality was the best way to distinguish your bike? The conviction of Jan Heine, rider and future owner of this bike, a conviction which he has defended for several decades in his magazine Bicycle Quarterly, and which is supported by tests that are of a rigor which we would love to see in the French cycling press, is as follows: During the 1940s and 1950s, the French randonneur bike, thanks in part due to the influence of the Concours de Machines, had achieved a perfect balance of performance, light weight, reliability, comfort and elegance.
Evidently, this is a counterintuitive opinion when the cycling industry has introduced multitudes of new standards and innovations. In any case, it was difficult to show the potential of the products and standards of the randonneur bike of the “grande époque,” when they had mostly disappeared. Hence Jan Heine has re-issued a selection of components that no longer were available, under the Rene Herse brand, notably tires, brakes and cranks. The J. P. Weigle presented an opportunity to showcase Rene Herse products in the Concours de Machines.
The absence of any technical mishaps on the difficult roads of the bike test, the speed of its pilot, and the award for the lightest bike, which the Weigle obtained in addition to the silver medal overall, all show that this was undoubtedly one of the best-performing bikes in the event.
A lightweight bike
The light weight of the bike is first and foremost the result of J. P. Weigle skill. He chose a selection of lightweight tubes, and then he chased every gram while building the frame. The tubes are a “Special Mix” according to the sticker. One can assume that the builder used Kaisei fork blades, but that is all we’ll know: J. P. Weigle keeps his secrets to himself.
But it is also a careful selection of the components that brought this fully equipped randonneur bike very close to 9 kg (9.1 kg with pump and bottle cages, but without bag).
The Herse cranks showed the intent: Drilled chainrings brought only marginal weight savings, and they also spoiled the beautiful lines a little, but they drew attention to the fact that this was a bike for the Concours de Machines. (Last year, it was Andouart who gave in to the same temptation.)
This crank is far from a relic. It is interesting for two reasons: It is one of the lightest on the market, and it offers an unrivaled choice of chainrings with the same bolt-circle diameter: single, double or triple. In each configuration, it can be equipped with chainrings from 24 to 52 teeth. Here it was assembled with 46 and 30 teeth, particularly well-suited to hilly terrain, and yet practically impossible to obtain on a classic double crank with a five-arm spider.
The use of titanium was another means of saving a few grams. There were, for example, the bolts for the brake pads, difficult to see:
Other components were drilled and machined to remove material. One of the most noticeable pieces of work were the quick release levers:
The choice of brakes and cables provided another significant weigh reduction. One notes that the three lightest bikes at the Concours (Weigle, Grand Bois and Tegner) all featured downtube shift levers and centerpull brakes – while the vast majority had chosen the obvious solution of disc brakes and shift levers on the handlebars.
Downtube shift levers (together with non-aero brake levers) are among the distinctive features of vintage bikes. For many cyclists, it’s unimaginable to return to such a shifter. And yet the great speed of the rider during the two bike tests of the Concours shows that this type of shifting system remains perfectly fine for cyclotouring, even at a very intense pace.
Who knows, after the return of vinyl records and Polaroid photos, perhaps downtube shifters will be the next great revival of the early 21st century? Note that Weigle’s solution is far from outdated:
Exposed cables are lighter, have less friction and are easier to remove (thanks to split cable stops) for maintenance or when disassembling the bike. We will see later that this choice of brakes and shifters also was chosen to facilitate packing of the bike for travel. And in the rare cases where cable housing was used, it was extralight and made from aluminum.
But even if the bike won the prize for the lightest bike, several of J. P. Weigle’s choices show that weight reduction was not the only concern. Without a doubt, aesthetics also played a role, starting with the frame’s lugs that must have added a few dozen grams compared to a fillet-brazed frame. The Rene Herse straddle cable holders also are more refined aesthetically than simple Mafacs, but also heavier. To make up for it, the screws that hold the brakes are drilled:
The stem isn’t made from aluminum, but custom-fabricated from steel. One can bet that J. P. Weigle has used all his skill to limit its weight to an absolute minimum:
And as if to show that light doesn’t mean spare, J. P. Weigle even allowed himself the luxury of integrating a system to lock the decaleur, a good idea in view of Ambert’s rough roads:
And the comfort of a leather saddle clearly had priority over the light weight of a carbon saddle.
Proof that extra light does not mean poorly equipped, the mudflap – an accessory that is very dear to J. Heine – had not been forgotten:
The all-day ride in the rain and through mud was a perfect occasion to test, under real-life conditions, the efficiency of this accessory intended to protect the rider’s feet and the front of the drivetrain. The result is a bit mixed:
To the defense of the Weigle team, the other bikes of the Concours were not in better condition as they crossed the finish line, and the Weigle remained quite clean after such a hard ride. [JH: I had to remove the mudflap on the rough trails during the first day, because it got caught on the long grass and huge rocks we had to traverse.]
I had doubts about the positioning of the pump on seatstay, close to the rear wheel and thus in the path of spray. But the verdict was rather clearer, even on this rainy day. The pump remained as shiny as it had been before the morning start.
The choice of the generator hub was another example where the search for the lightest weight was not the last word. The SON Delux hub is a descendant of a model intended for small wheels where the dropout spacing often is 75 mm. Used on a large wheel, the resistance is lower, but it also produces less current. The latter point has stopped being a real issue with the amelioration of LED headlights, and the Delux has become interesting for cyclotourists looking for performance. Its only fault stems from its origins: the flange spacing is narrower than ideal for a 100 mm axle. The Wide-Body version corrects this problem and offers a flange spacing optimized for standard forks.
In fact, the greater the flange spacing, the stronger is the wheel when subjected to lateral loads. J. P. Weigle chose this version even though it weighs almost 30 grams more than the standard version. To make up for this, the dropouts have been custom-made and are smaller than the standard SON SL dropouts. They incorporate the insulated plate that allows connecting the hub electrically without any apparent wires. In addition to its elegance, the SL system simplifies the removal of the front wheel.
Lighting is one of the few places where Jan Heine agrees that current components are superior: Over the last 20 years, generator hubs, LED headlights and optics specifically designed to project an even beam onto the road have greatly improved night-time cycling.
The electrical circuit on this bike is especially well thought-out: SON SL connector-less hub, switch integrated into the stem cap, and a taillight that is brazed onto the seat tube and connected by internal wires:
Several builders at the Concours showed ideas for folding or disassembling the frame, so the more discreet Rinko bike risks being overlooked: The idea of Rinko consists of choosing the components in such a way that a quick and simple disassembly is possible without any modification of the frame itself, thus avoiding extra weight or, worse, a change in the ride characteristics of the frame. In fact, when pressed for time, the possibility to disassemble the bike in less than 15 minutes makes the Rinko method competitive with frame couplers, which are more costly and not always results in a package that is stable enough to stand on its own.
[JH: Cyclodonia did not have a photo of the bike in its Rinko’ed state, so I added this image of the free-standing package to illustrate how it works.]
When packing a bike Rinko-style, the wheels are placed on either side of the frame. The most compact method consists of removing the fork, while the front wheel remains installed. This requires removing the handlebars, which will be placed on one of the wheels. On the Weigle, the handlebars can be removed from the bike in a few instants: the slotted housing stops and the cantilever brakes allow removing the brake cables in just seconds:
A chain hook is placed very high on the seat stay, and the rear fender can be split to facilitate the operation. The little wing nut allows to remove the upper part of the rear fender without tools:
The chainstays and fork blades are nickel-plated: This lends the bike a timeless beauty, but most of all, it protects against the scratches: The rear dropouts form two of the three contact points with the ground of the Rinko package. [JH: The back of the saddle forms the third.]
What makes the Weigle so classic is that its aesthetic decisions always appear to be justified by practical function.
Finally, chance sometimes does a good job, too. The integration of the bell into the stem had been forgotten, so J. Heine placed it under the saddle. A position that is hard to reach in emergencies, but a beautiful reference to the bikes of the classic age:
The Rene Herse components have been featured in an earlier article of the blog.
More information about the J. P. Weigle bike:
During its last week, the Tour de France heads for a final showdown in the Alps. This year’s race is incredibly close, with less than 30 seconds separating the first three riders. The penultimate stage is a time trial, so we may even see an almost-repeat of 1989, when Greg LeMond won the big race on the last stage by just 8 seconds. Anything remains possible – a welcome change from previous Tours that often were all but decided by the half-way point.
Yesterday’s stage began in La Mure – a small town in the mountains above Grenoble that we visited a little over a week ago. Already, the town was preparing for the Tour.
The mairie (town hall) was decorated for the occasion, with a big count-down board over the entrance showing the time left until the start of the stage, down to the very second!
Many businesses in town were decorated for the Tour…
Dozens of yellow bicycle wheels were distributed around town, with the names of famous racers from the past and present. Local children and teenagers were engaged in a game of finding them all to win prizes. It was fun seeing the name of one of my heroes, the Eagle of Toledo, next to a Peugeot Demi-Course kid’s bike similar to the one I had when I was ten years old.
It seemed that every other resident had pulled an old bike out of their barn or basement to celebrate the Tour, creating a veritable museum of cycling history. Le Mure is in the mountains, so all the bikes were interesting machines with derailleurs and good brakes – to ride here at all, you need at least a decent bike.
Just like the local children had fun finding the yellow wheels, we enjoyed discovering bikes during our evening stroll around town. (Click on the photos for high-resolution images to see the details of the bikes.)
One display had a full complement of Mafac brakes, from the lowly Racer on this Liberia…
… via the Raid model on this lovely Peugeot 650B mixte…
… to the top-of-the-line Competition brakes on this neat Jeunet.
It was getting dark when we stumbled upon a real treasure: a 1940s women’s bike leaning inconspicuously against a wall.
I’d never heard of Belledonne, but this mixte was a very nice cyclotouring bike with quality components. A little more Internet research found that Belledonne was the brand of a cycling wholesaler in nearby Grenoble.
The fillet-brazed frame was nicely made, with the single main tube and extra set of well-braced stays that make for a much-better performing frame that the more common twin-lateral mixtes (as on the Peugeot above). The minimal fillet joining the seat and diagonal tubes may have been inspired by Jo Routens, who was also in Grenoble… Or perhaps both employed the same framebuilder?
Originally, this bike had front and rear derailleurs, with the popular Cyclo at the rear mounted on a brazed-on support made from two tubes. The front derailleur was missing, but otherwise, the bike seemed complete and original, with only a thorough overhaul required to get it back on the road.
The more I looked, the more I discovered neat parts: custom racks and powerful Jeay roller-cam brakes…
… and full generator lighting courtesy of the sought-after JOS components. Even in France, where bikes that we might revere as classics remain in daily use, the “Belledonne” stood out as a quality machine. It was sad to think that, some day, it may end up in a landfill.
In fact, most of the bikes on display looked like they should be ridden, rather than just
serve as display pieces. Let’s hope that some of their owners will be inspired by the Tour to get them on the road again!
The 2017 Concours de Machines in Ambert (France) was a great success for everybody involved. The bikes were amazing – and much-improved over last year’s machines – the routes were truly challenging, and most of all, the spirit among all participants was wonderful.
The goal was to find the best “light randonneur bike”, with 24 builders bringing their interpretations of this theme. Most participants were French builders, but others came all the way from Sweden, Slovakia, Great Britain, the USA and even Japan. Builders from Germany and Spain had entered the Concours, too, but weren’t able to finish their bikes before the start of the event.
After two days of challenging rides, 18 bikes made it to the finish. The course was very hard: The first day, we covered 230 km (140 miles) on backroads and mountain bike trails with more than 4600 m (15,000 ft) of climbing and many sections that exceeded 15%.
The second day’s roads were smoother, but the route went over four mountain passes. It was a perfect test for the bikes: Some riders chose to go slow to reduce the risk that their bikes broke (above), but they were penalized for their low average speed. Others went faster, but their bikes suffered mechanical problems. To place well, you had to go fast and your bike had to hold together – just as it should be in a Technical Trial.
First place went to Pechtregon. The details of the results are not yet available, but it’s clear that the Pechtregon’s combination of relatively light weight (around 10.5 kg / 23.2 lb), flawless performance, high-enough speed and remarkable innovation put it in first place.
Apart from the girder fork which doubles as a rack, the Pechtregon featured a pump inside the steerer tube and a rear triangle that folds forward to transport the bike, Rinko-style. Builder Matthieu Chollet had even made a Rinko headset nut to facilitate disassembly. It was another amazing machine from this builder and a worthy winner.
Second place went to J. P. Weigle’s randonneur bike. At 9.7 kg (21.4 lb) fully equipped –including the handlebar bag, spare tubes and tools – it also received the prize for the lightest bike. (The bike alone weighs just 9.1 kg / 20.0 lb.)
I am proud to have been involved in this machine, both as a supplier of components and as the rider. The bike gained points for its light weight and many custom features. It completed the challenging course without any problems – I didn’t carry any tools except spare tubes, since everything counted in the weight. The Weigle also was among the first finishers each day, so it avoided penalties on both counts. What it lacked compared to the winner was “innovation” – most of its features, whether the ability to be disassembled for Rinko, the SON SL generator hub without wires, or the switch on the stem that operated the headlight, had been seen before.
The amazing Cyfac took third place. Ridden by a strong racer, it finished each stage with the fastest speed, yet there were no technical problems. Constructed mostly from carbon fiber (with some stainless steel), this machine also received the prize for the most innovative machine, as well as the vote of the public. The bike sported fenders that could be removed without tools, as well as indicators in the bar plugs that were operated by the left-hand shift lever. (The 1×11 drivetrain does not have a front derailleur.) Pushing the lever for a longer time turned the lights on (or off). It was a technical tour de force that showed what the dedicated team at Cyfac – the biggest maker of custom bikes in France – can do. The only thing that kept it from first place was its relatively heavy weight of 12 kg (26.5 lb).
When asked why their all-carbon bike was 33% heavier than the steel-and-aluminum Weigle, Cyfac’s design engineer explained: “Take our carbon rack, for example. A steel rack can flex, but with carbon, flexing leads to failure. So we overbuilt it, and it weighs 400 g. [The Weigle’s rack weighs 137 g.] And we used a relatively heavy Ortlieb bag.” It was a brave decision to bring a carbon bike that weighs more than steel, but it allowed Cyfac to showcase their specialty: custom-made carbon bikes.
The special prize of the jury went to the Vagabonde, an elegantly simple randonneur bike that was ridden well throughout the event.
The prize for the best presentation went to Grand Bois. At the start of the event, their bike was the lightest by a small margin, with many parts sporting cut-outs that left only a skeleton of material. While everybody appreciated the work that went into this bike, many questioned whether the parts would be strong enough to hold up on the road. On the first day, the rear derailleur developed a fatigue crack and broke, putting the Grand Bois out of the event.
There were other innovative machines. The Perrin (in back) not only featured a double-decker rack (a tent is intended to go on the bottom “shelf”), but more interestingly, its fenders were attached with strong magnets. I had doubts whether the magnets would stay in place on the rough course, but it appears that they did. Imagine a Rinko bike where the rear fender just snaps in place!
Others, like the Brevet Cycles of Sebastien Klein, were excellent machines that completed the challenging course without problems – not even a flat tire in his case – but didn’t have the light weight or innovation to place high in the final standings. These bikes are great machines even if they don’t figure in the results of the Concours.
This year, there were no “crazy-light” parts on the bikes, perhaps because the organizers had made it clear that the course would be more challenging. And yet overall, the bikes were lighter than before.
Whereas last year, hardly any bikes completed the course without mechanical problems (including the winner!), this year, failures were rare. Tires were wider than last year, ranging from 700C x 32 mm (Vagabonde) to 650B x 48 mm (Pechtregon). I was surprised that of the 24 starters, no fewer than 16 rode on Compass tires (including the first three places), even though there was no sponsorship, and builders had to pay for their tires. It appears that when high speeds on rough roads are required, French builders choose Compass tires.
The Concours de Machine 2017 was a rousing success. As intended, it has improved the real-world capabilities of the bikes riders can buy. It has shown interesting ideas for future innovation. And most of all, the participants (as well as the spectators) had a great time!
A full report will follow in Bicycle Quarterly.
Photo credit: Victor Découard (Photo 2), Natsuko Hirose (all other photos).
In this year’s Concours de Machines technical trials, I am riding J. P. Weigle’s entry (above). The Concours is a competition for the best ‘light randonneur bicycle.’ The rules stress light weight, reliability and innovation. Bikes must be fully equipped with lights and the ability to carry luggage, plus a pump and a bell. There are bonus points for fenders.
Bikes are examined at the beginning, with points for light weight and desirable features. Then they are ridden over an extremely challenging course to see how well they hold up, with penalties for anything that goes wrong. Click on the link for the complete rules of the Concours (also available in English).
Building a bike for the Concours is a major undertaking, because most parts have to modified for light weight and other features. It’s almost unavoidable that the bike is finished barely in time for the event. In our case, the bike arrived in France almost ready, so we took it to our friends at Cycles Alex Singer to finish it. Then Olivier Csuka hung it from the scale that already weighed the Singers that won in the 1940s Concours.
We were excited to see that the bike (with pump and pedals) weighed just 9.1 kg (20.0 lb). That is incredibly light for a fully equipped randonneur bike, especially since we didn’t want to make a ‘one-event’ bike, but a bike that will be fun to ride for many years. So we built the bike with a generator hub instead of a superlight sidewall generator (which is noisy and can slip in the rain), with a comfortable Berthoud leather saddle and ergonomic Compass Maes Parallel handlebars. We avoided the temptation of ‘crazily light’ components with limited lifespans.
How do you make a bike so light? You choose the very light components, and then modify them to make them even lighter. Peter Weigle even cut pieces out of the headset crown race. (The race only locates the cartridge bearings, so there are no balls that could fall into the cutouts).
The Rene Herse cranks already are among the lightest in the world, but they were reprofiled to reduce their weight further. The holes drilled in the chainrings save another 10 g.
Prototypes for the new Rene Herse brakes save even more weight. They are modeled on the classic originals, but adapted for current-style posts. With hardware made from titanium and aluminum, they probably are among the lightest brakes available today, yet they offer great stopping power.
Peter Weigle also made a superlight rack. It weighs just 137 g when a standard Rene Herse rack tips the scales at 168 g, and most production racks weigh 200 g or more.
Peter even reprofiled the Compass taillight to save a few more grams.
We worked with Gilles Berthoud to make a superlight handlebar bag that weighs just 266 g. Made from the same canvas and leather as the standard Berthoud bags, it eliminates all outside pockets and reduces the leather reinforcements to a minimum. Even though it’s the lightest handlebar bag I’ve ever seen, it still incorporates a map case on top. Because without it, you risk getting lost!
When the bike was weighed at the Concours ready to go, loaded up with its bag, spare tube and tools, it weighed just 9.7 kg (21.4 lb).
Despite the focus on light weight, we wanted to include innovative features. The bike disassembles Rinko-style, so it’s easy to carry in cars, airplanes and trains. In fact, this came in very handy on the way to the Concours, when we had to fit five people, their luggage, and three bikes into a station wagon…
A switch on the stem operates both head- and taillights. When descending mountain roads, it’s easy to switch on the lights when a tunnel appears. At dusk, you can ride without lights to save a little resistance, but turn them on when a car appears in the distance. And if the bike is used in Paris-Brest-Paris, where you often ride in pelotons at night, you can turn the headlight off when it reflects off the calves of the riders in front of you. (The standlight still makes your position obvious to the riders around you.)
For reliability, Peter did all the standard things of directly mounting the fenders to the frame, etc. The generator hub uses Schmidt’s SL system, which eliminates the external wires that connect the hub to the lights. Instead, an insulated ring on the hub connects to a similarly insulated plate on the left dropout, with the axle and the frame forming the ground. The positive wire runs through the frame and rack to the headlight and taillight. Not having wires means there is one less thing to go wrong.
We didn’t take the weight savings to an extreme: We used a Delux Wide-Body hub, which is a few grams heavier, but makes for a lot stronger wheel. There are other places where we could have saved weight, but we opted for comfort, performance and reliability instead.
Today was the first stage of the bike test. With more than 4000 m (13,000 ft) of climbing, the test was more challenging for the rider than for the bike. The photo below shows the Weigle after the 230 km (140 mile) stage over mountain bike trails and muddy forest paths (above). The bike passed the examination of the jury without a single complaint, and it even remains remarkably clean for what it’s been through today.
Tomorrow is another stage of the bike test, then comes the final reckoning. The jury, the builders and the public each also get to award some points. Together with the points for the features and penalties for any malfunction, this determines the final score. At the end, the bike with the most points will win the 2017 Concours de Machines.
Further reading (added 8/30/2017):
In recent months, I’ve been traveling and testing so many bikes for Bicycle Quarterly that I my “main” bike, the René Herse, hasn’t seen much use. But now the Summer BQ is out, and I am back on my favorite bike. We built it six years ago as a prototype to try new ideas – wide, supple tires; superlight tubing; centerpull brakes; low-trail geometry; and even some special 1940s derailleurs: the front is operated by a direct lever, while the rear is a Nivex with desmodromic actuation and constant spring tension.
To some, the Herse may look like a classic from a bygone time, but its performance is totally modern. I choose it when I want to go far and fast, so I’ve ridden it in 2 Paris-Brest-Paris, 2 Raids Pyreneen, the Oregon Outback, many other brevets and adventures, plus our usual fast-paced rides around Seattle.
Check out the video above to see what it’s like to ride the bike, and how those derailleurs work. (Make sure to view it in “Full Screen” mode.)
What the video can’t convey is how the bike feels. It’s quite different from riding the modern machines: If I had to summarize it in a single word, it feels light. Not because it weighs very little (although at 11.3 kg / 25 lb, it is lighter than most fully equipped bikes). BQ‘s recent test bikes didn’t have fenders, racks and lights, so they weighed even less. The Herse feels light and small to the point where it almost disappears underneath me.
The narrow tread (Q factor) of the cranks lets my pedal stroke flow easily, whether I’m just spinning along or racing uphill at maximum speed. The low-trail geometry requires only a light touch to direct the bike where I want to go. The thin handlebars, wrapped only in cloth tape, invite this light touch. The brakes don’t require manhandling either, yet they aren’t as grabby as some hydraulic discs. Even the derailleurs’ action is light – they feel lighter than even Di2 paddles. And all these controls have similar weights – which is very important to me, because it makes every action on the bike feel completely natural.
I find it interesting to compare the Herse to the other bikes I’ve ridden in recent months. The closest in feel is my Firefly. This may come as a surprise, as the Firefly is a modern titanium bike, but both frames respond similarly to my pedal strokes. The Campagnolo Ergopower feels similar to the Nivex, too: Shifts require only small hand movements, but both derailleurs respond best to decisive shifts. Punch the levers home, and you get quick shifts. If you are hesitant, the gears may not engage cleanly.
Both bikes have low-trail geometries, and the inertia of the wheels is similar, too: The Firefly has wider 54 mm tires, but smaller 26″ rims, whereas the Herse runs 650B x 42 mm tires. That means their handling is similarly intuitive. Where the two feel different is when riding out of the saddle: The Firefly has less inertia to rocking the bike from side to side, since it doesn’t have fenders nor a rack. So I enjoy the Firefly as a racing bike, for fast-paced rides that don’t require carrying much in terms of supplies. The Herse is a bike that can traverse entire states without stopping. And since their frames allow me to reach my maximum power output, their speed is exactly the same.
How about the Mule? Outwardly similar – it’s also a 650B randonneur bike made from steel – it feels quite different. Due to its oversized down tube, the frame responds differently to my pedal strokes. Designed to carry a heavier front load, the Mule also has a little more trail. As a result, the Mule feels more planted – more “modern”, if I dare say so – than the Herse. The Mule is a great bike that especially comes into its own when carrying heavy front panniers on the low-rider rack.
I greatly enjoyed our last two test bikes, the Open (above) and the Boo. Made from carbon and bamboo, they had stiffer frames and a completely different feel. They required me to be more on top of my game, to think more about pedaling smoothly and with power. Their geometries had more trail, which makes them better suited to riders who grip the handlebars firmly. I prefer to guide the bike with a light touch – like a good horse – so I enjoy low-trail geometries for the precision (not much trail) and stability (not much wheel flop). Don’t get me wrong – these are great bikes, but for me, they’d work better if they had more frame flex and less trail.
In the end, I enjoy the Herse so much because it feels like an extension of my body. When I ride it, I don’t think about the bike. And that let’s me enjoy the ride even more.
As to the prototype parts that I’ve tested on this bike, many now are available from Compass Cycles: Supple, wide tires that combine speed with comfort. Handlebars shaped for comfort even after ten hours on the bike. Centerpull brakes that are superlight in weight and offer great stopping power and modulation. René Herse cranks that allow you to choose gearing suited to your riding style. Supple fork blades for a little extra suspension.
What about those eye-catching derailleurs? I put them on the bike because I was curious about them. I like them a lot, but I don’t think they change the riding experience as much as the parts mentioned above. I’m perfectly happy with the “standard” derailleurs on my Mule, and I also enjoy the Campagnolo Ergopower on my Firefly. That said, the Nivex rear derailleur in particular does point out areas on modern derailleurs that could be improved, but that is a story for another day…
Unpublished photos are fun, especially when they tell a different story from the one featured in Bicycle Quarterly. When I was cleaning out old photo files, I was reminded of our trip to Mexico City a little over a year ago. The main reason to visit Mexico with our bikes was to cycle across the Paso de Cortès (BQ 56) and around Cuernavaca (BQ 59). In between these trips, we were based in Mexico City, and we used the opportunity to explore this fascinating city on our bikes. Part of the reason for our early-morning exploration was to photograph the Firefly test bike for the magazine… but as it turns out, the photos talk as much about the setting as they do about the bike.
Most of our rides were in the morning, before the city woke up. As our tires pattered over the ancient stone pavements, we rolled by the stalls of the shoe-shine people, still folded up and waiting for the day’s work.
The stores were still closed, too. From the signs, we could tell that each street specialized in one product, making shopping easy. If you need a wedding dress, you come to Calle Honduras (Honduras Street), where you can choose among at least a dozen stores with bridal gowns and dresses.
We could not figure out what the “Fancy Moustache” store sells. Whatever it is, the shutters say: “For connoisseurs only…”
The streets were empty. Except for the early-morning deliveries. Many came by bicycle, like the ice delivery on this ancient-looking bicycle with a sidecar. At each shop, the man chopped off a block of ice and dragged it into the shop with his special pliers. Then he continued to the next store, leaving behind a faint trace of water as his giant ice cubes slowly melted.
Mexico City is incredibly colorful…
…but also full of ancient history. The colonial architecture is amazing, with beautiful old woodwork…
…and many of the old buildings reuse stones from the great pyramids of Tenochtitlan, as this city was called before the Spanish conquered it. Seeing all this in the magic early morning light was special.
By the time we returned to the main square with its giant cathedral, the city was waking up. We visited during the Semana Santa (Easter Week), so the main square was closed to cars. Every day, a different festival was taking place: a rock concert on the night we arrived; a baseball game the next day…
Cyclists joined the many pedestrians that were beginning to crowd the streets. The sun was getting too high for photography. Time to return to our hotel for breakfast.
From the rooftop terrace of the hotel’s restaurant, we saw the small volcanos that dot the Valley of Mexico. In the distant haze, we could see the giant peaks that were the destination of our cyclotouring adventures. But in the mean time, cycling in Mexico City was worth the trip by itself.
During future travels, I plan to do more exploring by bike. It’s a unique way of seeing a city. You cover ground more quickly than on foot, yet it’s easy to slow down or stop to take in the sights. In many cities, you don’t even have to bring your own bike, since there are excellent bikesharing programs, like Mexico’s Ecobici. I hope this summer will take you exploring to great places!
And if you missed the Bicycle Quarterlies with the stories about Mexico (BQ 56 and 59), back issues are available. Or order the complete set of the last year’s four issues, which includes these and many other exciting articles.
A few weeks ago, the Bicycle Quarterly editors went to Paul Camp – a get-together for the media at Paul Components, the famous maker of brakes and other parts. The idea was simple: Instead of attending a big trade show, why not get the media together, bring them to Paul in Chico, CA, show them the company, and ride bikes?
Even better, Paul partnered with eleven custom builders, who built mountain and monstercross bikes for us media types to ride. Of course, they were outfitted with Paul’s latest components in this year’s blue anodized color, as well as some parts from co-sponsor White Industries.
Coming from rainy Seattle, it was wonderful to be in warm and sunny California. Before the official program started, there was just enough time to look around Paul’s small factory and admire his neat Dune Buggy. Did I mention that Paul Components is in California?
First, each of us grabbed the bike that we were to ride for the three days of the Camp. Natsuko and I both ended up on beautiful bikes built by local builder (and fellow randonneur) Steve Rex. We couldn’t have made a better choice!
And then we headed out. After traversing the quiet streets of Chico, we rode into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This is where we got to play on “our” new custom bikes for two days in a row. It couldn’t have been better!
Paul led the way, and he really does know how to ride. No wonder his components have such a great reputation – they are tested out here in the real world!
It was neat to do a little mountain biking, so different from the riding we usually do in the Cascades: Here we rode at a social pace until reaching a difficult spot, where we each tried to “clear” it the best we could. It was fun!
Paul’s employees had hauled a wonderful picnic to the end of the trail, where we sat by the river and enjoyed our lunch. It was the perfect time of year in Chico – everything was lush from the winter rains, the temperature was warm and pleasant, but the summer heat had not yet arrived.
On the way back into town, we stopped to take in the view of a deep canyon. We talked about bikes and riding. We caught up with old acquaintances and made new friends. It was everything a get-together should be, and everything the big trade shows aren’t.
That night, we went to the Sierra Nevada Brewery for a beer tasting, brewery tour and dinner. Meanwhile, our bikes were displayed to the public in the brewery. It was a great setting for a bike show.
After all that fun, the best part was still to come – Paul took us on a tour of his factory. It’s amazing – at one end, bars and rods of aluminum and steel go in, at the other end, finished parts come out. Almost everything is CNC-machined in-house. We saw fixtures and tools, polishing drums and a plethora of other machines. Paul’s components truly are made in Chico from start to finish. As so often, the art lies in optimizing the processes you have at your disposal, and Paul has decades of experience with that.
After an excellent lunch under the trees in Paul’s yard, each builder talked about their bikes, their history and their philosophy. Here is Adam Sklar explaining how the curved top tube became his signature design. It was most interesting to meet the builders in such a leisurely setting, where we could ask questions and continue our discussions until it was time to head back to the airport.
A quick group photo, and then we packed our bags, hopped into a huge limo Paul had rented for us, and went back to Sacramento. Thanks to all who made Paul Camp such a fun event (left to right): Cameron Falconer, Rick Hunter, Robert Ives (Blue Collar Bikes), Steve Rex, Alec White (White Industries), Adam Sklar (mostly hidden), Paul Price (Paul Components), Sean Burns (Oddity Cycles, partly hidden), Curt Inglis (Retrotec), John Caletti, Jeremy Sycip, Chris McGovern.
Paul Camp was three days filled with fun, and we learned a lot about Paul and CNC-machining components. You’ll read more about his company and the Steve Rex bikes we rode in a future Bicycle Quarterly. For now, we just cherish our great memories!
Guest post by Natsuko Hirose, Bicycle Quarterly.
On a rainy Sunday, I visited a farmers’ market in Seattle, instead of going cyclotouring. I saw many tulips for sale. Often, I forget about the seasons, because I am so busy. I wondered why there were so many tulips. Jan explained: “It’s the season of tulips.”
Later that day, I researched places to go cyclotouring near Seattle. I asked Jan: “Where is the Skagit Valley?” – “Not too far from here.” Jan explained that it was a popular tourist attraction, so he had never seen the tulips, because cyclotourists often try to avoid the crowds. But I am a tourist, so I wanted to visit!
The next Sunday, we were greeted by sunny weather as we started our ride in Mount Vernon. I was surprised how much traffic there was, and tulip symbols were everywhere. I was excited – it was a clear sign that there would be many tulips to see. And we hoped to avoid the traffic by staying off the main highways.
We rode on back roads and even atop a levee, and we had the roads to ourselves. Cycling here was fun. And it was sunny! Finally, after all the rain in Seattle, it felt like spring had arrived.
We passed Jackpot Lane, and saw a classic car for sale. “Comes with spare engine” said the sign on the windshield. In Japan, cars usually are sold at dealers, so this was an interesting discovery.
The fields were colorful with yellow flowers: dandelions. Spring really had come. But where were the tulips?
We joined a road that was marked as part of the Tulip Route. But still no tulips!
Our hearts beat faster when we saw yellow blossoms in the distance, but they turned out to be daffodils. Beautiful, but no tulips!
Finally we saw a long line of parked cars in the distance. And to the side were colorful fields. We had found the tulips!
For me, it was an amazing sight. After the gray winter in Seattle, seeing so many vivid blossoms reminded me that life can be full of color and joy!
The tourists all gathered in one place where the tulips were in full bloom. We explored dirt paths and found the fields where workers were picking the tulips that we had seen at the farmers’ market. The blossoms had not yet opened. They looked so fresh and crisp. We realized that the other tulips were planted for the tourists, to show how beautiful tulips can be. These ones were going to bring joy to people’s lives all over.
We left the tulip fields behind and continued to the fishing town of La Conner, where we ate lunch on the bank of the Swinomish Channel.
The Skagit Flats are really flat and criss-crossed by the many arms of the Skagit River. Around Tokyo, the flat areas are densely populated and not so good for cycling. But here, we could find small roads that had no traffic. It reminded me of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. It was very romantic.
The sun was almost setting when we returned to Mount Vernon. It had been fun to meander through the fields, cross the rivers and channels on high bridges, and cycle on quiet backroads.
We had bought postcards from a local artist at a small store in the countryside, so the tulips continued to ride with us.
Now I remember the tulips we bought on that rainy Sunday, which led us to explore the Skagit Valley. It was a fun ride, and of course, we bought more tulips. They continue to brighten our dining room. Tulip season continues. Enjoy the spring!
Drew Wilson won the Ragnarok 105-mile gravel race on Compass tires recently, so we used the opportunity to ask him about his race and gravel riding in general.
JH: Congratulations on your win at the Ragnarok 105. It’s a tough event – tell us a bit about it.
DW: The Ragnarok is a traditional midwest gravel race, now in its tenth year. It is free with postcard entry and is self-supported. Many in the region consider it an essential part of spring. The course is 107 miles, with around 8000 feet of vertical ascent across 14 climbs. The road surface is roughly 85% gravel, 10% minimum maintenance ‘gravel’ and 5% paved. The largest climbs are back to back, at about mile 55. “Heath’s Hill” at mile 87 is an ATV/Snowmobile trail that takes about 9 minutes and often decides the outcome of the race. In some years, it has been completely covered in unrideable snow. It’s the hardest ~100 mile gravel race I’ve done, and it always feels like an accomplishment to finish.
JH: How did the race go for you this year?
DW: My plan was just to stay upright and to react to the chaos during the first part of the race, until we got over the steepest of the hills, where I would be at a relative disadvantage. Then I’d look for a way to go solo. The finishing climb is steep and does not suit me well, so I hoped to find a way to get to it alone.
I was dropped at mile 15 by a huge group of riders, but caught back on 4 miles later by descending fast. Had to decide at mile 24 whether or not to go with a solo attack and again at mile 30 when another rider went to bridge up… I decided ‘No’ on both. Got nervous about the gap they were creating at mile 45 or so and attacked, only to pull my foot out of my pedal and drop my chain, which forced me to tuck tail and regain the chase group. As expected, I was dropped from the chase group of eight riders on the large hills at mile 55, then overcooked a corner into a ditch while chasing on the descent. Caught back on when there was a bit of a lull.
Around mile 68-70, I tried to rally the group to go after the solo leader (one of the pair up front had flatted out) and found the group didn’t have much interest in chasing. So I snuck off the front and chased solo. I know now that we were 8 minutes behind, but we had no idea at the time. Caught the solo leader with 6 miles to go, went by and held a 2-minute gap to the line. Got to high-five my four-year-old daughter as she ran beside me on the final climb!
JH: That was a truly eventful race! How did you get into gravel racing?
DW: I decided in August of 2008 to get into bike racing, and I tried some mountain biking. The following spring, I saw an article in the local paper about the Almanzo 100 and an interview with founder Chris Skogen. The race was only two weeks out at that point, and I had never ridden 100 miles. I sent Chris an email that basically said: ‘Hey, I think I can ride 100 miles. Can I get in?’ I rode the Almanzo that year in 8:04 hours on a 1996 Marin Pine Mountain I had equiped with drop bars and 26′ x 1.5′ slicks. The wind blew about 30 mph all day. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, and I was hooked!
JH: In your experience, how is racing on gravel different from road racing?
DW: Gravel races have time to breathe. Morality, friendship, betrayal and vengeance all have room to grow. Road races around here are not hard enough for that same development. You watch the pros in the classics and world championships, or a break-away near the end of a grand tour stage, when they race each other… that’s the dream. The opportunity to have those emotions in our racing. Individual riders pushed to the limit by each other and the course. Even when the larger road teams show up, by the end of 3 or 4 hours on gravel, they’ve lost control. On the road, there is much more control.
At the same time, gravel is about participation and camaraderie, too. No categories. Riders who wouldn’t be comfortable ever racing on the road are welcomed. Riders from different disciplines, walks of life, etc., ride together for hours. It’s very inclusive and approachable. The magic is that everyone can find something in it, regardless of where they come from, what they ride, or what their goals are.
JH: Any tips for riding on gravel?
DW: I live on a gravel road. Every ride I go on is a ‘gravel ride’. Don’t be afraid to ride any bike you own on gravel. Just go!
From a skills perspective? Stay loose, don’t try to force the bike. Always look for the best line. If you have to ride in the grass on the edge of the road, ride in the grass. If you have to cross the road to find firm ground, cross the road. Don’t get down about your average speed if you are used to riding on the road, just let it happen. Gravel will find you.
JH: There are many opinions on what makes a perfect gravel bike. Tell us about yours!
DW: This is my 5th season on the same bike with fairly minimal changes. I’ve ridden countless other gravel and cyclocross bikes over the years, but haven’t found anything I liked better for gravel racing. The frame is a 56cm 2010 Tommaso Diavolo. I purchased the frameset really cheaply with minor damage to the stays. Later, I broke it clean through the downtube at CX Nationals in Madison, and I repaired that. It has about 11 or 12000 miles on it now, after the repairs. I replaced the fork with a carbon Trek that is 5 mm longer than stock, but with the same offset. This was primarily because the stock fork was miserably flexy and likely dangerous. There is nothing particularly special or high-quality about the frame itself, it just happens to fit my needs. It is relatively light and has canti bosses, which also help to save weight. I run 10-speed Shimano Ultegra electronic, a Dura-Ace 7900 crankset with a powermeter, Paul cantis, Industry Nine I25 wheels and Compass tires. Everything is pretty standard, with an eye toward durability. The one notable deviation would be my custom aerobars, constructed from Bontrager XXX Lite aero extensions and XXX Lite 44cm traditional drop bars.
JH: There aren’t many gravel racers using aerobars…
DW: There are several advantages to aerobars. Mine are a little different from a traditional clip-on bar, though. My extensions actually go right through the main portion of the bars, and everything is integrated together for stiffness and fit. Having the extensions down as low as possible, and the pads sitting low on the tops of the bars allows me to have a very aero position when in the aerobars, but a comfortable all-day position on the hoods. I run a relatively deep drop road bar for much the same reason. Aerobars allow me to drastically change positions and recruit different muscles in pedaling. It’s amazing how much better it feels sometimes to drastically vary my position, and even my cadence. They also allow me to take weight off my hands on longer rides. Of course, they are also more aerodynamic.
JH: That must have helped when you were off the front! Which tires did you run?
DW: I was on Compass Bon Jon Pass 35s, set up tubeless with 1.5 oz of Orange Seal Endurance sealant, on Industry Nine I25 wheels.
JH: You wrote on Instagram that the second finisher also was on Compass tires?
DW: Yes, he was on the same tires. Over the last year or so, in our bigger gravel events (Ragnarok, Almanzo, Filthy 50 etc.), a large portion of the podiums have been on Compass tires. People who could ride other tires they can get at a team discount have been choosing instead to buy Compass tires.
JH: What do you like about Compass tires for gravel racing?
DW: Rolling resistance is the primary factor. Along with that they have amazing ride quality and traction. They are the lightest, fastest, most supple tires available in these wider sizes. Suppleness is really the key. A supple tire conforms to the road, which creates both traction and speed. At first, it was a little weird not having knobs. We’ve all been indoctrinated that knobs are needed for traction. Of course, that isn’t true.
I had previously been racing FMB tubulars on Dura-Ace carbon tubular wheels. Not only are the Compass tires significantly faster, there is zero drop off in handling and my I9 wheels/tubeless Bon Jon pass setup is nearly the same weight too. My front wheel/tire only weighs 1090 g as raced.
JH: You told me a neat story how you discovered Compass tires…
DW: I had been racing on tubulars. For longer rides and touring, I had been using very heavy/slow ‘touring’ tires. I had a ride planned from Stewartville, MN to Copper Harbor, MI, which I wanted to do as rapidly as possible. There was a gap in my season, and I wanted to challenge myself with the pace/distance. I had been following along with Bicycle Quarterly a little and knew of the Compass tires. The Stampede Pass seemed like it might work for the mixed surface route, and I thought I’d be able to fit them on my 1990 Focus road bike, which I planned to ride. They did fit with a little modification to the rear brake. I had a great trip. Finished the 507 miles (810 km) in just under 50 hours including a good night of sleep at a hotel. I’ve been using Compass tires for a wide range of situations ever since.
On another trip, I was talked into riding the bike leg of a team triathlon (above). I only had my touring bike with the Stampede Pass tires on it. I shocked myself by averaging 25.1 mph (40.4 km/h), nearly as fast as I could ride a ‘proper’ TT bike.
JH: Do you run the tires tubeless?
DW: Yes. I am currently. However, I’ve put about 5000 miles on the Barlow Pass and Stampede Pass tires over the last couple years with tubes. Tubeless is great. But I’ll take a great tire with a tube over a good tubeless tire any day. I generally run tubes when touring rather than racing.
JH: What is your experience with tubeless tires?
DW: Two weeks ago at Lakeville-Milltown-Lakeville, I hit a pothole very hard early in the race. The pack was still over 100 riders large, and I had zero warning. I lost a bottle, and my saddle turned about 30 degrees to the side from the impact. I’m convinced I would have flatted, possibly double-flatted, with tubes. I was able to straighten my saddle and continue to finish second in the race. Tubeless saves a little weight, maybe a little rolling resistance, but, more importantly, it saves pinch flats.
JH: Tell us about your business! You repair carbon frames and paint bikes…
DW: I repair 3-8 frames a week and recently have been painting 2 or 3. I have a background in composite work from long before I started riding. When I broke my personal Look 585 in 2011, I decided to fix it myself. Roughly 700 frames later, I’ve been doing this full-time since quitting my day job early in 2015, and I couldn’t be happier. The best way to follow along is via https://www.facebook.com/cyclocarbon
JH: I heard you are putting on a gravel race yourself. Tell us about it – I am sure some of our readers will want to ride it.
DW: The Dickie Scramble is coming up on the 22nd of this month in Elgin, MN. The Dickie is a challenging 84 mile route with roughly 75% gravel, 15% pavement and the remainder minimum maintenance road or ATV/Snowmobile trail. The route meanders through river valleys in the bluff country near Whitewater State Park and is punctuated by four very long climbs. We do a potluck style checkpoint, where riders can drop off food at the start and choose from a large spread as they roll through. Registration is open until the day of the event, and more information is available here.
I also organize a fall ride/race out of Lanesboro, MN called the Tour of Fillmore. I have not yet set a date for this year’s event. The Tour of Fillmore course is the hardest 77 miles you’ll find in Minnesota, but the views and descents are worth the effort. What really sets it apart is the high percentage of winding single-lane climbs and descents.
And anyone reading this from the midwest should also certainly make the trip to one of the Almanzo events in May.
JH: Thank you, Drew, and good luck with the upcoming races!
Compass Cycles is proud to sponsor the Swift Campout for the second year. The Swift Campout is a global event, allowing riders to participate where and as they choose: On Saturday, June 24, cyclists will head out for camping trips to a destination they select, then return on Sunday. It’s fun to be part of this and knowing that, all over the world, riders are sharing similar experiences.
For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it’s also an opportunity to make use of the long days near the solstice to ride far out into the wild, camp at the end of the road, and return the following day.
In the twelve weeks leading up to the event, Swift Industries will offer information about bike camping on their website. They also encourage riders to register their rides, in an effort to create a community by sharing our destinations and adventures. They’ll raffle some prizes, too.
For me, the Campout is a neat opportunity to put a date on the calendar and think of a great route. Two years ago, Mark and I headed to the end of the road at Carbon Glacier on Mount Rainier (top photo). Last year, the Campout coincided with the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting, so I headed across the Cascades (above at Takhlakh Lake) to Carson for a weekend of fun.
Where will you head for this year’s Swift Campout?
Compass Cycles and Branford Bikes are excited to announce the Volcano High Pass Challenge as part of a Labor Day weekend filled with great rides. Part race, part scenic ride with friends, this unsanctioned event challenges riders of all abilities. The one-day route goes from Packwood, at the foot of Mount Rainier, to Carson, on the Columbia River.
When: Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017, 5 a.m.
Where: Packwood Timberland Library
What: 166 km (102) mile self-supported ride/race
The 166 km (102 mile) course traverses the southern Cascade Range, skirts the mighty volcano of Mount Adams, and crosses Babyshoe Pass, before dropping down to Trout Lake, climbing another pass, and finally descending the amazing Panther Creek Road. When they reach the Columbia River, riders will have climbed 3000 m (10,000 ft) and descended a little more. Half of the course is on gravel, the other half is paved, including some ultra-fast descents. This mix of surfaces is best tackled on a good Allroad bike.
The scenic beauty more than makes up for the challenging terrain, with great views of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams, plus the beautiful Walupt and Takhlakh Lakes. Participants will take photos of their bikes at iconic locations as proof of passage.
September is our favorite time to ride these roads. The days are still long and sunny, but usually not too hot. The last vestiges of the snow that currently blankets the high roads and blocks the passes will have melted, and the roads usually are dry.
Riders will need to be self-sufficient as services will be limited to an online route sheet. A roving mechanic will be on the course, provided by Branford Bike. Water is available at campgrounds. Anyone is welcome: Just show up at the start at 5 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 2, in front of the Packwood Library, and ride!
Whether you compete for the fastest time, ride with friends, or start early and complete the ride at a more relaxed pace over multiple days, it’ll be an unforgettable experience. For more information, and to RSVP, click here.
Course map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/18802349/
Following the Challenge, the 2017 Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting will gather in Carson, WA, on Sunday and Monday (Labor Day).
When: Sunday & Monday, Sept. 3 & 4, 2017, 9 a.m.
Where: Carson General Store
What: 2 days of self-supported rides off the beaten path, different route options
The formula of the Un-Meeting is simple: Every cyclist is welcome to join us for two days of great camaraderie and riding off the beaten path. There are no fees, and no services are provided. We simply publish a date and time. Last year’s ride across Big Huckleberry Mountain was a highlight for those who chose that route. Join us in September for a repeat of this amazing ride!
While participants will be responsible for their own accommodations, we will book a group campsite at the Wind Mountain RV Park on the Columbia River, not far from the St. Martin hot springs. Meet us at the Carson General Store at 9 a.m. on both days of the Un-Meeting.
Sunday’s ride will explore the mountains above the Wind River Canyon. Monday’s ride will head to Portland to bring participants back to “civilization”. More details will be posted as the date approaches. Mark your calendars for a great weekend of riding off the beaten path!
Note: The Volcano High Pass Challenge is unrelated to the Cascade Bicycle Club’s “High Pass Challenge,” which goes over paved roads in the same region.
The other rider passed us at great speed. Getting passed by “hobby racers” while cyclotouring with my Japanese friends isn’t unusual, especially on valley-bottom roads that see many cyclists.
From behind, the rider looked odd. His position was very low. He was turning a large gear. All this sounds like a novice rider, but there was something about his cyclist that piqued my interest.
I decided to speed up to catch the rider and get another look. I told my friends that I’d ride ahead. By now, the rider was maybe 400 m (1/4 mile) ahead of me. It seemed like a good opportunity to stretch my legs and do a little speedwork. I accelerated, shifted a few cogs on the rear, and got into a good rhythm.
My first acceleration simply saw me maintain my distance, but not gain on the other rider. I had underestimated his speed. I dug deeper and made up some ground, but then the gradient of the road steepened a little. My speed dropped, while he continued with metronomic precision. I was back in a holding pattern, not gaining any ground, yet riding at a speed that was a little too fast to be sustainable after the previous effort. I remembered my racing days, caught in “no-man’s land” after being delayed by a crash or being blocked by dropped riders. In this unsustainable situation, you have two choices: abandon the chase or muster all your reserves and close the gap in a sprint. I chose the latter…
That is how I caught him. Out of breath, I looked at the rider. His position was incredibly low – his hands were lower than his knees, and his back was truly flat. Just look at his shadow on the road!
I drew alongside, greeted him and asked: “Suminasen, shashin totte mo iidesuka.” (“Excuse me, is it OK to take a photo?”) He looked up, and I was surprised to see a wrinkled face that seemed at odds with his speed. This was no novice “hobby racer”!
He seemed startled, too. Was he not used to having another rider come up from behind? Or was my broken Japanese the source of wonder? He nodded his permission and put his head down again. Clearly, he had better things to do than talk to strangers on randonneur bikes!
I looked over his bike. It was a track bike with beautiful Dura-Ace track cranks and, of course, a fixed gear. Contrasting with the superb frame and drivetrain, the brakes were almost an afterthought. The right brake lever was higher than the left, and both were hard to reach. I suspected they were only for emergencies, or perhaps to satisfy traffic rules. A spare tubular tire was strapped under the saddle, and a pump attached a bit haphazardly to the top tube. It was obviously a track bike to which the parts that made it street-legal had been added only reluctantly.
The rider’s tights were inscribed “All-Star Keirin”, and the legs they hid were large and muscular. His feet turned classic pedals with toeclips and -straps. The Arai hardshell helmet confirmed: I was riding next to a true Keirin racer. That explained the ultra-low position and the slow, but smooth and powerful, pedal stroke. I had seen this on the track, where Keirin racers pedal at (for them) moderate speeds, waiting until one of them unleashes the sprint. Then they rise out of the saddle, throw their bikes from side to side as they jockey for position under full acceleration. They dash toward the finish line at a speed and cadence that is fast and furious, whereas before it was slow and deliberate.
I wanted to ask the Keirin racer how far he was riding. Was he still racing, or, more likely, had he retired from the track? I know a few retired Keirin racers, but I’ve never had the opportunity to ride with them on the road. But I felt that I had intruded enough. In any case, my Japanese probably wasn’t up to understanding his answers. So I let him go. I turned around to ride back to my friends. I had ridden next to him for less than a minute, and yet the image of this unexpected figure, turning his pedals with deceptive ease in a huge gear, remains etched in my mind. I hope to meet him again some day.
Tokyo’s Mountain Cycling Club reminds me of the Groupe Montagnard Parisien: almost unknown, yet fascinating and influential far beyond their limited membership. The French riders brought us the Technical Trials and modern randonneur bikes, while their Japanese counterparts co-invented mountain bikes.
The Mountain Cycling Club started exploring the mountain passes in the Japanese Alps decades ago. For their incredible rides on single-track or even hiking with their bikes on their backs, they developed “Passhunter” bicycles: wide tires, derailleurs, flat handlebars and cantilever brakes… meeting all the definitions of what makes a mountain bike.
Around the same time, Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze and all the others in Marin County started putting derailleurs on their “Klunkers,” so they could go up, and not just down the mountains. I’m still learning about Passhunters, but it’s clear to me that they were initially designed to go uphill, whereas mountain bikes started with the idea of going downhill… Imagine if the Japanese riders had been as ambitious in marketing their ideas as their Californian counterparts – mountain bikes might look quite different today!
Natsuko has been a member of the Mountain Cycling Club for many years, and she introduced me to the club. Every year in late February, the club organizes a hillclimb race. That is why last weekend, we left central Tokyo at sunrise with our bikes in their Rinko bags and headed into the mountains by train.
We assembled our bikes and rode to the start. The race goes up a pass that climbs more than 700 m (2300 ft) in about 8 km (5 miles). The road is paved, but this early in the season, there often is snow on the upper reaches. As you’d expect from the Mountain Cycling Club, this isn’t an ordinary race!
Riders show up on a variety of machines. This winter hasn’t seen much snowpack, and conditions were rumored to be dry, so two riders came on carbon-fiber racers. Others had brought cyclocross bikes, like this lovely Amanda (above), in case there was snow after all.
And then there were purpose-built machines like Makio-san’s old Toei, with 650A wheels, cut-off randonneur handlebars and low gears. This machine exists only to climb hills as fast as possible.
At 11 o’clock, we lined up for the start. We could see the pass in the distance, looming high above and doing its best to intimidate us.
As the club has aged, there aren’t as many racers as in the past, but those who came were serious about the task ahead. In fact, two participants weren’t members of the club, but racers who had come just to measure themselves against the mountain. Natsuko, who was the only woman, had started 15 minutes earlier together with the oldest rider…
The first few kilometers were on a moderate gradient, and the group rode together to warm up. Then the valley steepened, the road narrowed, and the race began in earnest.
Obviously, I didn’t have time to take photos while racing… I got a good start and opened a small gap on a short downhill section – the only one on the course – but then the two racers reeled me in relentlessly. As the road steepened to about 18%, I struggled as they caught me. Knowing the course, they accelerated before a sharp turn after which the gradient relented a bit. I didn’t have the legs to stay with them, and they vanished into the distance.
The course was un-marked, and twice, I reached forks in the road not knowing which way to go – until I heard the organizer’s trumpet from above. It was a very romantic way to guide me and the other racers in the right direction.
After a final sprint to the top, I finished in 54 minutes and a few seconds. The winner was an impressive 4 minutes faster. When I arrived, he and the second-place finisher already were eating Oden soup that the organizer had cooked on a camping stove. Makio-san on his Toei hillclimber came fourth.
One by one, the riders arrived. We enjoyed gorgeous views and lively conversation. Unlike most “real” races, this unsanctioned event had a great mix of competition and camaraderie.
To cool down, I went across the pass. The other side was in the shade, and there, I did encounter snow and ice. Now I believed the stories of running through the snow, cyclocross-style, on the upper reaches of the climb.
There was a brief awards ceremony – Natsuko was the fastest (and only) woman, while my third place made the fastest member of the club. Clouds were covering the sun, and it was getting chilly so high up in the mountains, so we headed back down.
Only then did I realize how steep this road really was. The descent was twisty, technical, very fast, and great fun. When we reassembled at the bottom, everybody agreed that it had been a great day. I can’t wait until next year. Hopefully, I’ll be in Tokyo again for the race. Now that I know the course, perhaps I can improve my time?
The San Juan Islands are only a short distance north from Seattle. Why not go cyclotouring for a weekend? It was still dark when we took the 7:30 ferry from Anacortes.
As our boat headed toward the islands, the sun rose over Mount Baker. Ferry rides are always beautiful, but in January, we didn’t linger on deck for long. The temperature was below freezing!
The sun started to make a tentative appearance as we disembarked at the Orcas Island ferry landing. We cycled along empty backroads across the island. January cyclotouring has an advantage: There is almost no traffic.
Orcas Island is my favorite among the San Juans. The roads dive in and out of the many bays, offering beautiful views. Eastsound was a great place for breakfast and warming up at a café, before we continued our exploration of the island.
A week of unseasonably cold temperatures had frozen the roadside springs into beautiful ice sculptures.
I hadn’t ridden my old Alex Singer camping bike in quite a while. When I bought it almost 20 years ago, it was one of my first 650B bikes. Back then, it was a revelation, and it has had a pronounced influence on our bikes today. On this trip, it was fun to re-acquaint myself with the Singer, even though it was loaded far below its capacity.
Orcas Island has an added attraction for cyclists: Mount Constitution is one of the few mountain climbs in Washington that are not closed in winter – at least usually. A winding road leads from sea level to the top at 731 m (2400 ft). Up there is a great view across the islands and the Puget Sound, framed by the Cascades to the east, the Olympic Mountains to the south, and the Vancouver Island Range to the West.
Yet during our visit, even this relatively low road was covered with snow. We started the climb anyhow…
…testing the slipperiness of the surface from time to time, and walking our bikes when it got too icy.
Instead of pushing all the way to the top, we took the road to Mountain Lake, about half-way up the mountain. At the end of the road, we continued on frozen trails.
A good thermos is essential equipment for winter cyclotouring. Hot tea made our picnic by the frozen lake enjoyable and fun.
It was dark by the time we returned to the ferry landing, where we had booked a room at the quaint Orcas Hotel. Another advantage of winter cyclotouring: Last-minute reservations are no problem.
Rain was moving in the next day, as we cycled along the water to Westsound and onward to Deer Harbor. This beautiful road winds along the water, with beautiful views of the neighboring islands.
The quiet roads invited us to stop and explore. When there is no traffic requiring your attention, you suddenly notice the little things by the roadside…
The rain showers became more frequent, and we decided to return to the hotel, where we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon tea before taking the ferry back to the mainland. It was a wonderful way to start this year’s cycling season.
Photo credits: Natsuko Hirose (Photo 3, 5, 9)
In Seattle, the cycling season has ended. Snow has closed most mountain passes. Our bodies welcome a little rest from the long adventures. The time has come to pour a cup of tea and review the rides of this year.
Here are some of the most memorable rides of this year. Click on the links to read blog posts (blog) or see Bicycle Quarterly issues with these rides (BQ), where available.
My season started with a great ride up Yabitsu Pass in Japan. It had snowed that week, but the road was (mostly) passable. I enjoyed having the mountain all to myself, and as a bonus, I crested the pass at sunset and was treated to a most glorious view of Mount Fuji. (Blog)
February saw us explore a local favorite, the Tahuya Hills, on a part-pavement/part-gravel road that we hadn’t ridden before. We were rewarded with a fun ride, great views, and a huge bald eagle flying next to us. (Blog)
In March, Hahn and I embarked on our biggest adventure yet: We climbed the 4000 m-high Paso de Cortés in Mexico on Enduro Allroad bikes. It was an amazing feeling to cycle almost as high as the top of our Mount Rainier. The loose volcanic soil provided a great test for our ultra-wide tires. And the night-time ride into Mexico City was an adventure all of its own. In the process, we discovered that the central highlands of Mexico are a great place to ride a bike, and remarkably accessible from the U.S. (BQ)
Spring is a great time to ride almost anywhere, and there were many wonderful rides. One that stands out was a trip to the mountains in Japan with a group of friends who’ve been touring together since college. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom, the small mountain roads were beautiful, the conversation was full of laughter – it was a great two-day ride with no thought given to speed or distance. (Blog)
In May, I entered what is billed as the “hardest bike race in Japan”, the Otaki 100 km Mountain Bike Race. Since the race goes over gravel roads, I thought that a mountain bike would be overkill, and I brought my Enduro Allroad bike with its 54 mm tires. I was in for a surprise: The roads were incredibly rough, and the organizers weren’t kidding when they recommended full suspension bikes.
What happens when a road cyclist on a road bike (albeit with wide tires) enters a full-on mountain bike race? The full story is in the current Bicycle Quarterly.
Right after that epic race, we enjoyed a tour of the Hanto Peninsula. It was a beautiful place, off the beaten path and yet easy to reach from Kyoto or Osaka, and with just enough tourism to provide the services we needed without ever feeling remotely crowded. (BQ)
June saw a great all-day ride with the “BQ Team” as we tried to find the “Lost Pass” in the central Cascades. We did not find the elusive connection between two valleys, but our ride was a great test for the Litespeed T5g Allroad bike. And this winter, we’ve already identified a few more promising roads on our maps: The search for the “Lost Pass” continues! (BQ)
The Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting was another unforgettable experience. A great variety of riders came out for a great weekend of riding off the beaten path. The weather turned sunny just in time for the Un-Meeting, but on the way to the gathering, many riders crossed the rain-soaked Cascades for an added dose of adventure. (Blog and BQ)
A few days after the Un-Meeting, I headed to France to participate as a judge in the first Technical Trials since 1949. It was exciting to meet young and established constructeurs, who are continuing the great tradition of French cyclotouring bikes. Riding with them over challenging mountain roads in the heart of France was a great experience. (Blog and BQ)
A trip to France would not be complete without visiting Lyli Herse. My tandem ride with the 88-year-old daughter of the great constructeur was one of the shortest rides this year, but also one of the most emotional. To pilot her not far from the roads where she used to dominate the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race during the 1940s and 1950s was a great experience, especially since we rode a tandem built in 1946 by her father! (Blog)
A summer ride to Bon Jon Pass sounds like a great way to test a modern Allroad bike, but the weather forecast’s “slight chance of showers” turned into solid rain. Despite the inclement weather, Ryan (left), Gabe (right) and I had a great ride. The full story and test of the Moots Routt are in the current Bicycle Quarterly.
September saw me back in Japan, where I discovered the ride to Utsushigahara. With beautiful scenery, challenging climbs, a gravel road above 2000 m, and the most incredible (paved) descent, it’s one of my favorite rides anywhere. (Blog)
Japan offers a wonderful mix of challenging adventures and beautiful rides at a more casual pace, like this weekend ride in the mountains near Fukushima. (Blog)
October saw a great ride over an incredible mountain pass. Since the story and bike test will be published in the Spring 2017 Bicycle Quarterly, I cannot talk about it without being a spoiler. Suffice to say that it was another highlight in a year full of great rides.
In November, the end of the cycling season was approaching quickly, so I snuck out for a last ride over the gravel passes of the Cascades. Snow was already accumulating on the ground at the higher elevations, but the sun came out and bathed my favorite landscape in a beautiful light. It’s always bitter-sweet to enjoy the mountains for a last time, before the snow closes my favorite roads for 6 months.
And just when I thought the cycling season was over, I found out that the Washington State Cyclocross Championships were in early December. So I dusted off the old Alan, checked that the FMB tubulars still held air, and headed north for my first ‘cross race in more than a year. What fun it was, and what a great way to close the season!
And after this encore, the season now is truly over. Memories keep the dream alive. Now it’s time to pull out the maps and start planning next year’s adventures!
What were your favorite rides this year?
Photo credits: Carlos (Photo 4), Toru Kanazaki (Photo 6), Natsuko Hirose (Photos 10, 11, 15, 17).
When I returned from my first ride to Utsukushigahara, I was ecstatic about the amazing climb, the wonderful scenery and lonesome gravel road at the top, and the incredible descent where hairpin turns followed one another so quickly. But Natsuko was a little disappointed: “You didn’t go on the other gravel road.” It’s true, I had missed the turn-off for the “beautiful” gravel road that she had indicated on the map. I had realized my mistake only when I was already half-way down the mountain. So just before I left Japan, I snuck out for another ride to Utsukushigahara.
Two-thirds up the first, hour-long climb, I stopped at the stone statues that guard a particularly steep hairpin turn. It was autumn now, and clouds were covering the mountains. It seemed prudent to say a quick prayer and ask the gods for safety on this ride.
On this ride, you gain elevation quickly, and soon I was above 5000 ft.
I passed the little restaurant where the owner had given me two tomatoes with salt and pepper during my first ride, saying: “You need vitamins!” I recalled this nice gesture fondly, but on this weekday, the restaurant was closed.
I’d love to photograph the incredible road that scales the steep cliff wall leading to the plateau of Utsukushigahara, but without a helicopter, it’s impossible. Except when you ride a bike, and the hairpins unfold in front of your eyes as you cycle them, one by one.
The sun came out just as I reached the top, offering great views of the surrounding mountains. Up to here, I had just retraced my steps, but now my challenge was to find the “other” road to Matsumoto.
I had to try a few of the roads that led down the mountains before I found one that looked promising. I still don’t read enough Japanese to understand the wooden sign, but the forest track went in the direction indicated on my map.
It was the right road, and it lived up to Natsuko’s description. Flowing along the mountainside, it was fast and smooth in places…
…a bit rough in others, but always fun and challenging.
And when the forest opened up, the views were stunning. In fact, I enjoyed this road so much that at the end, I turned around, rode back, and then enjoyed the incredible descent to Matsumoto as a bonus.
The mountain road took me right to Matsumoto – I almost could have coasted to the train station. It was autumn now, so I just barely made it before it got too dark to ride safely without lights.
After dinner on the Azusa Super-Express – the Bento boxes sold on Japanese trains are excellent food – I arrived at Shinjuku Station in the middle of Tokyo. To think that just two hours earlier, I was still riding the old gravel road high in the mountains…
If you ever find yourself in Japan, I highly recommend the ride to Utsukushigahara. I put a map and route description of the ride on RideWithGPS.com.
Recently, I cleaned out old files on our computers, and came across this treasure trove of unpublished photos from Bicycle Quarterly‘s “Secret Pass” adventure. It took me back three years, when Hahn and I headed into the Cascade Mountains to test the MAP 650B Randonneur.
Like all of Mitch’s bikes, his latest machine was stunningly beautiful – and its ride matched its appearance. We left in the middle of the night, and by the time the sun came up, we already were on old logging roads that parallel Highway 410 on the way to Mount Rainier. It was time to let out some air and adjust the tires to gravel pressure.
After a good breakfast in Greenwater, we left civilization behind as we climbed toward Naches Pass. Hahn was riding his first 650B randonneur bike, and we both carried our camping gear in low-rider panniers. It was the first time we tried the now-common idea of a high-performance bike with front low-riders, rather than full touring bikes with stiff frames that feel “dead” and don’t “plane” for us.
Even though we were only heading out for two days, we were giddy with a sense of adventure. Back then, nobody we knew had cycled across Naches Pass. We could see roads on the map, but we had no idea what they’d look like…
We were surprised to find a boardwalk as we approached the pass. With our wide, supple tires, riding on the wooden planks was easy. Patches of snow lined the trail – remnants of the first autumn snowfall at this high elevation.
The boardwalk gave way to a bumpy, muddy trail, and Hahn learned the hard way about the importance of generous fender clearances. Where the MAP had passed without problems, his fenders clogged up with mud, and his wheels no longer turned. Several times, he removed the wheels and scraped out the mud.
Naches Pass is on a beautiful highland. The sandier gravel no longer clung to the tires, and the riding was smooth. The dense forest opened into meadows, and the sparser tree coverage that was prescient of what we’d find east of the Cascades. We were elated: We had found Naches Pass!
As we started descending, we entered a maze of logging roads. Only educated guesswork (and luck!) kept us from getting completely lost. We were relieved when we reached the valley. The sun had already set as we approached Cliffdell, but even in the twilight, the autumn leaves were stunning.
We slept well despite our rudimentary camping gear. In the morning, our sleeping bags were covered in frost. This enticed us to pack up quickly and head into the next leg of our adventure: the search for the “secret passes” that separate the valleys of the Naches and Yakima Rivers. We felt like explorers on an important mission: A good route across these mountains would be as useful to cycling in the Cascades as the “inside passage” was to commerce during the 19th century.
Our search started well. Based on a tip from a local at the campground where we had spent the night, we found the road out of the Naches River Valley. The climb was spectacular.
The dark basalt cliffs provided a beautiful backdrop for the green pine and yellow aspen trees. We warmed up quickly as we rode up the steep, long gravel road.
A few hours later, our prospects looked less good: Our road simply petered out. We rode across boulder fields and roadless grasslands as we searched for roads. The beautiful scenery kept us happy even when it wasn’t clear whether we’d find our way or not.
We finally found something that resembled a road. In the mud, we saw the tracks of deer, but no human footprints or vehicle tracks. It was fun to make the first tire tracks here. Most importantly, the “road” seemed to lead in the right direction.
We were lucky, as the road brought us to the tiny hamlet of Wenas. Our hope to find food there – we had run out of supplies – was futile. Wenas consists of four or five houses, and there wasn’t a person to be seen, much less a store.
From Wenas, we climbed Ellensburg Pass. Even on this “main road” (above), we encountered almost no traffic and wonderful riding. After cresting the pass and a screaming descent, we made it to Ellensburg in time for an early dinner. More gravel riding returned us to Seattle late that night.
The passage across the “secret passes” had proved elusive, but what a grand adventure it had been! And perhaps, somewhere in those mountains, there still may be a passable gravel road. And so the search for the “lost pass” continues…
On a rainy weekend in late September, a group of seven friends headed out for a weekend tour in the mountains. We took a long train ride from Tokyo to Fukushima. We started climbing almost as soon as we left the station. Up an up we went, into a landscape hidden by clouds and rain.
When the clouds opened up for a moment, I saw mountains shrouded by mist. Then they were gone again. As I pondered the mystery of this elusive landscape, I realized how much I enjoy discovering a new place.
Riding in the fog was almost meditative. The muted sounds reinforced the quiet and solitude of the small roads.
I looked up from my musings to see steam coming out of the mountainside. This was a mesmerizing spectacle for me, but for my friends it was nothing unusual. A volcanic spring emerged from the mountainside here, and the water was traveling to an Onsen bath through ancient wooden pipes.
The rain stopped as we passed a beautiful lake, where an inviting line of row boats beckoned us to enjoy the still waters. But cyclotourists cannot linger too long, if they want to reach their destination. Riding our bikes, we experience the world quite intimately with every hill and valley, yet we are also outsiders who observe more than we participate. I often think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s romantic descriptions of this feeling. A mail pilot during the 1920s, he landed his plane in exotic places for half a day, then took off into his own world, up in the clouds, again.
The lure of a mysterious road and a sense of discovery are big parts of cyclotouring. And, as my Japanese is still limited, I had no idea where we were going. I could only follow my friends. This made the ride up this tiny mountain road full of anticipation.
The mountain road dead-ended in a narrow valley at a centuries-old Onsen bath and Ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn). This was our destination. Soaking in the hot bath, we relaxed and warmed up after a day of riding in the rain.
After the bath, we left our wet cycling clothes hanging to dry and donned the hotel’s yukata robes. These cotton robes mean that you don’t need to bring a complete change of clothes when you travel. On this chilly day, we also used the woolen capes that the hotel provides.
We sat down to a wonderful dinner of traditional Japanese fish, meats and vegetables. There was much laughter and merriment during the drawn-out meal. I caught snippets of stories about mountain passes (“touge”), bicycles (“jitensha”), the weather (“tenki”)… Even though I couldn’t follow most of what was being said, I was aglow with a warm and happy feeling. Cyclotouring is even more enjoyable with friends.
The first time I rode in these mountains was on a beautiful spring day, and it was spectacular. But despite the lack of cooperation from the weather on this rainy weekend, we had a great time. Perhaps cyclotouring’s greatest appeal is that it can be enjoyed almost anywhere, almost anytime.
The Autumn 2016 Bicycle Quarterly includes a photo feature about riding in the Hirose Owners’ Meeting. I really enjoy these events, because they combine amazing bikes with wonderful rides. Many Japanese custom bikes are incredibly elaborate and beautifully crafted, yet they are intended to be ridden.
What makes “Hirose watching” so much fun is that each bike is completely different. Some have Hirose’s custom rear derailleurs, which are based on the classic Cyclo “pizza cutter” derailleur – except they are 10-speed compatible. I have seen at least four completely different front derailleurs Hirose has made. One bike shown in the BQ article has Mafac cantilevers, with an extra pulley to double the mechanical advantage of each brake.
Whereas most builders will turn you away if your ideas are too crazy, Hirose-san will look at you for a while and say: “That is an interesting question. Let me see how I can solve it.” The amazing thing is that he really does solve it: All his bikes work great. They have nothing of the “not-quite-there prototype” quality that you often get with one-offs.
At the last Owners’ Meeting, I was especially fascinated by this Mini-Velo. Mini-Velos use smaller wheels to make them easier to portage on narrow mountain trails. They also are popular for city riding because they are especially nimble. This one looked simple at first, but a closer look showed that it was anything but. Click on the images for higher resolution.
On this Mini-Velo, all cables run inside the frame tubes (except the front brake, which would require a cable run too convoluted to work well).
In the photo above, you can see the cables for front and rear derailleur, as well as the rear brake, enter the frame.
Here you see the crossed-over seatstays, and the exit for the brake cable, which then runs through the seat tube to the rear brake. Clever – but there is another reason why Hirose used the crossed-over seatstays.
The rear derailleur cable also runs through the top tube. This avoids having to route it around the bottom bracket – the straighter cable run makes for better shifting. The crossed-over seatstays allow the cable to enter the stay without having to get around the seatpost. If you didn’t know the cable was in there, you would never guess. All cables run inside small tubes that connect entry and exit points, so replacing a cable is easy. But just imagine assembling it all as you braze the frame!
The shifter cable exits the seatstay – also with a straighter cable run than if it used the usual path along the chainstay. The shifting is superb, which isn’t always the case with internally routed cables.
With the crossed-over seatstays and the elegant brake cable routing through the seat tube, the rear brake must be on the front of the seatstays. Hirose-san prefers centerpull brakes, and for this bike with narrow tires, he used an old set of Mafac Competitions. But with the small wheels, the brake sits much lower than usual, and the angled stays are too far apart for the brake bosses.
The solution? A curved bridge that provides the mounting points for the brake pivots with the right spacing. The brake pad holders are custom-made, too – Hirose-san does not like the riveted Mafac originals (which can loosen – this is not a problem with the one-piece Compass brake shoe holders). So he machines his own posts that screw onto modern pad holders, so he can use them with classic centerpull and cantilever brakes.
The decaleur also is a fabrication tour de force. It attaches both to the front and the rear of the (custom-made) stem! This is necessary to make it stronger and more stable, since there is no rack to support the bag. There top part of the part that attaches to the bag doubles as a handle.
The elegant bag support doesn’t need triangulation, since the weight of the bag is suspended from the saddle.
Chrome-plated lugs and fork crown add beauty, but the bike doesn’t take itself too serious – how about the custom-made holder for a whimsical front light?
The reflector attaches to the pump, making it easy to remove if you don’t think you’ll need it.
A custom bottle cage…
… and a beautiful taillight provide the finishing touches to this amazing machine. And having seen it on the road, it appears that it rides as well as it looks. It’s truly a show-case of Hirose’s genius.
My schedule in Japan is busy, but I really wanted to go for a ride in the mountains. “Why don’t you ride to Utsukushigahara?” suggested Natsuko. “It even has some gravel.” So on Saturday morning, I joined hundreds of hikers and cyclists who boarded the first Super Azuza Express that runs from Shinjuku to Matsumoto.
Without fenders and racks, racing bikes are quite easy to Rinko – just remove both wheels and the handlebars – as long as you don’t mind a larger package that doesn’t stand on its own.
Just five minutes after I got off the train in Chino, the Firefly was assembled and ready to roll.
The Rinko bag I use for this bike is about 3x as bulky as the superlight Ostrich bags we sell, but I managed to strap it under the saddle just fine.
After a 10-minute warm-up in the valley, the road started climbing. In Japan, this means 10-15% for a little over an hour. Fortunately, the Firefly “planes” wonderfully for me, and the climb was great fun.
At the top of the first pass (above), I stopped at a little souvenir/food shop. The owner gave me two tomatoes with salt and spices. “You need vitamins!” he said. They were delicious.
The road dropped back down, before climbing what seemed like a vertical wall. The terrain was so steep that the hairpin turns were built on bridges, since there was no room for them otherwise. Signs by the roadside indicated the elevation: 1700 m, 1800 m, 1900 m. In the distance, I could see a huge volcano poke out of the clouds (photo at the top of the post).
Utsukushigahara is a neat place: Roads lead up to it from both sides, but the top is connected only by gravel trails. It’s a popular destination for cyclists, and I saw a few riders walk their bike along the 5 km hike across the top. No need to walk on the Firefly, of course!
The Utsukushigahara Highlands are very pretty. In the summer, they are used for pasturing cows. The path gets incredibly steep for the last hundred meters to the top. Fortunately, it’s paved, because maintaining traction on loose gravel would be next to impossible.
Then I reached the top. A stone engraving showed the altitude: 2034 m (6673 ft). It really feels like the top of the world.
Taking the bike around the switchbacks on the gravel downhill was fun. So was experimenting with the self-timer of my small camera!
What followed was that Japanese specialty, the Skyline: a road that runs along the ridgeline. It’s always up or down, but the gradients are never steep nor long, so you can go really fast. Key is knowing when to pedal, when to coast, when to tuck… It’s a great place to work on your technique, and it’s great fun.
The real downhill was even more enjoyable. It’s impossible to photograph the incredible series of hairpin turns, with hardly any straight sections in between. The map below gives you an idea of what this road is like. In just 12 km (7.5 miles), the road drops 850 m (2800 ft) – it’s fast and the many hairpins really challenge the bike’s handling.
It’s as if this road was custom-designed for the Firefly. The grippy, wide tires offered incredible cornering traction. I pushed the bike into the turns harder and faster until I finally could feel the limits of grip approaching – way beyond anything I’ve ever done on a bike.
Just as important is this bike’s low-trail geometry. It allowed me to adjust my line in mid-corner, because many of the hairpins have decreasing radii. With a high-trail bike on a steep downhill like this, I’d have run wide, into the oncoming traffic, many times… (Actually, I would have gone much slower to avoid this.)
Down, down, down I went. I passed a number of riders on racing bikes, whose narrow tires were limiting their speed. Motorcyclists who saw me corner at crazy lean angles waved enthusiastic encouragement. It was fun.
Then I reached a lake, and to my surprise, saw a sign for the Café Il Pirata. It’s run by a couple who are cycling fans, who serve food and drink. I got to watch a stage of the Vuelta à España while they admired my “very strange” bike. Their own fleet included racing and mountain bikes, but road bikes with wide tires still are a rarity in Japan.
A few more hairpins dropped me right into Matsumoto. It was getting dark, so I didn’t visit the famous castle, but went straight to the station and boarded the train back to Tokyo.
As I fell asleep in my seat, I dreamt of this amazing ride. It combines everything I love: epic mountain climbs, vertiginous descents, gravel roads, and great scenery. It climbs more than 2900 m (9500 ft) in 90 km (55 miles).
The ride to Utsukushigahara can be done on any bike, but the Firefly really is the perfect machine for it: It combines the speed of a racing bike with the surefootedness of wide tires. I can’t wait to go back and ride it again!
No visit to France would be complete without seeing Lyli Herse. I first visited her after riding the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris on a 1946 René Herse tandem. I wanted to learn more about her father, the famous constructeur, and about Lyli’s own sporting exploits, which include eight French championships.
Over the years, we became friends. We rummaged around her garage and found suitcases of historic photos (above) that were published in our book on René Herse. It was a great honor when she asked me whether I wanted to become the custodian of the René Herse name and brand. That is how René Herse’s ground-breaking components are available once more, updated with the latest technologies.
Whenever we visit, we organize a reunion of the “pilotes de Herse”, the riders on Herse’s team. This year, it was just a small group (left to right): Jean-Marie Compte, Pierre Nédéllec, myself, Natsuko, Lyli and Robert Demilly. All of these gentlemen still ride their bikes, and their form remains inspirational. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, considering their past achievements in rides like Paris-Brest-Paris, where they came first (1965, Demilly) and second (1961, Nédéllec)…
Three years ago, we celebrated Lyli Herse’s 85th birthday by riding a lap around the course of the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race. It was a great honor to pilot Lyli on a tandem built by her father for this race. She has lost little of her competitive spirit – we dropped all but one young rider on the 14% climb from Chanteloup!
But then, Lyli won the tandem race of almost every Poly from 1945 until she became a racer in the mid-1950s.
Even at age 88, Lyli rides her trainer every day. Behind her, you can glimpse her training log, which shows almost 7000 km for this year! This year, we had lunch at a small restaurant on the old course of the Poly, but sadly, there wasn’t a ride planned. One of the riders had crashed into a newly installed barrier on his familiar route, another was recovering from a hospital visit, and Lyli didn’t feel up to riding, either.
But you never know, and that is why my friend Ivan Souverain had dropped off his lovely 1945 René Herse tandem at Lyli’s house. It’s sized perfectly for Lyli and I. We were keen to try it, and so Natsuko and I took a spin around the neighborhood. And then I asked Lyli whether she wanted to have a go. Her smile grew big. I was surprised how quickly she climbed on the back of the tandem, and then we were off.
We did one lap of the neighborhood, then another, then explored further. Lyli’s pedal stroke remains as fluid and strong as ever – it must have been a great experience to ride the Poly de Chanteloup with her. One year, she and Jacques Primout actually lapped the hilly course faster than the professional racers – and back then, the Poly drew the greatest stars from France and beyond. (To the pros defense, their race was almost three times as long, but still…)
I hope I’ll be able to do many more tandem rides with Lyli Herse.
When we said “Au revoir”, Lyli gave us a bouquet with roses from her garden. It survived the trip back to Paris, and graced our hotel room for the rest of our stay. What a charming lady!
After the Technical Trials, we spent a few days with our friend Richard Léon in the Ardèche region. It was fun to explore this area at a cyclotouring pace.
The region is criss-crossed by tiny roads, and Richard knows them all. It’s hilly, which makes for beautiful climbs where we can appreciate the scenery…
… and fast downhills to enjoy the winding roads.
Most roads were paved, but some were on gravel. All day, we saw just a handful of cars.
The landscape is amazing, with tiny villages dotting the volcanic terrain.
People seem to enjoy a lifestyle that combines the best of today with cherished traditions. There has been an effort to keep bakeries and cafés open in almost every town, and we even saw this lady in an old Citroën Mehari arrive for her shopping. “We bought it 32 years ago, and we really like it,” she told us. It’s nice to see that the France of my childhood still exists…
The lavender fields were in full bloom, adding amazing dots of color to the patchwork of small fields.
We leaned out bikes against ancient stone walls and ate lunch at small restaurants before continuing our rides. It was a most enjoyable visit.
This summer saw the first Technical Trials in France since 1949. Then as now, the goal was to find the best “light randonneur” bike. Organized by Christophe Courbou, the magazine 200, and Victoire Cycles, this year’s event was a great success.
The original Technical Trials of the 1930s and 1940s brought incredible progress to bicycles. They proved that bicycles could be lightweight and reliable. Aluminum cranks, front derailleurs, cartridge bearings in hubs and bottom brackets and even low-rider racks all were pioneered and proven in the Technical Trials. The Trials allowed small constructeurs like René Herse, Alex Singer and Jo Routens to show that their bikes were better than those of the big mass producers. Unfortunately, the original Trials ended in 1949, when cars became popular, and interest in improving bicycles waned. Who knows what advances we’d have seen if the Trials had continued?
Now the Technical Trials (Concours de Machines in French) have been revived. This year’s event saw 19 makers compete for the prize of the “best bike”. The focus was not just on impeccable function, but also on innovation. Each maker brought their interpretation of the future of randonneur bikes. There was the Pechtregon (above) with its amazing truss fork. One of the Cyfac bikes had a carbon fiber and titanium frame with integrated carbon fiber fenders. The Milc/Goblin had front and rear suspension.
The bikes had to prove their worth on a challenging course. The first stage went over an extremely hilly 235 km (146 miles) with two mountain passes. The following day had bikes (and riders) compete in a timed climb up the Col du Béal. The event finished with a 73 km (45 miles) stage over rough gravel roads. After each stage, the bikes were carefully checked, and points were deducted for anything that no longer worked.
As a member of the jury, I rode the entire event, observing the bikes on the road. It was a fun weekend, and we learned a lot about what works in a bike and what doesn’t. That part was relatively easy – although it’s always surprising how many things no longer work after a weekend of hard riding – but the hard part was awarding points for the merits of each design. There were many discussions, but in the end, we all felt that the winners were worthy.
The winning bike from Victoire Cycles was a well-designed machine, ridden by an excellent pilote. (Average speed counted in the results to make sure the bikes were ridden hard.) For Compass Bicycles, it was nice to see that 9 of the 19 builders chose Compass tires, including the winner, 2nd place, and best rookie. And the best team – the Julie Racing Design tandem – even featured three Compass tires (one on their custom-built trailer).
A full report of this amazing event, with a presentation of the bikes and a test of the amazing Pechtregon that took third place (second photo from top) will be appear in Bicycle Quarterly soon.
Photo credits: Cycles Victoire (winning bike).
The third Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting met in scenic Carson, on the Columbia River. More than 70 cyclists attended, and everybody had a lot of fun. BQ published a place, date and time, and then cyclists from all over congregated for a great day of riding together.
We started the ride together by climbing up the Wind River valley. Soon, a few riders chose the all-paved route to Old Man Pass, while the rest headed up the wonderful Panther Creek Road (above) and continued onto the gravel of the Carson-Guler Road. The previous days’ rain had compacted the surface nicely, and there was no dust, which made for pleasant riding. The rainclouds were dissipating, and we got spectacular views of Mount Adams.
Back on pavement, we descended to Trout Lake, where we enjoyed the famous huckleberry shakes while sitting under shady trees on this sunny summer day.
Instead of returning the same way we came, we explored Forest Road 86. This road surprised us with great riding and next to no traffic: We encountered four cars in five hours!
We enjoyed an amazing gravel descent, and then our group split again. Half went over yet another pass back to Carson, while the others took a more direct route to the Columbia River.
For the last miles along the mighty river, the stronger riders provided shelter from the powerful headwinds that blew through this magnificent gorge.
The Un-Meeting drew a variety of riders on a variety of bikes: old mountain bikes, mass-produced and custom-built Allroad machines, and carbon gravel bikes were among the machines that tackled the beautiful course.
The sun was getting low in the sky when we returned to Carson after a great day of riding and of meeting new and old friends.
The following day, several groups rode to Portland via the magnificent Bridge of the Gods and the beautiful Historic Columbia River Highway. It was a great weekend, and there already is talk of the next Un-Meeting. I hope you’ll join us next time!
The Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting is next weekend. Join us for two days of riding, camaraderie and exploration! We’ll meet at the General Store in Carson, WA, on Saturday, June 25, 2016, at 9 a.m. There is only one store in Carson, so it’s easy to find.
From there, we’ll ride up Panther Creek Road to Trout Lake. Faster riders can explore some side trips – I’ve been intrigued by the Guler Ice Caves for some time. We’ll have lunch at the diner in Trout Lake that is famous for its huckleberry shakes. Then we’ll return to Carson. The round trip is about 70 miles (115 km), with about 1/3 on gravel.
Unfortunately, Takhlakh Lake (top photo) is a bit far, but the scenery in that part of the Cascades is spectacular anywhere. Usually, we get great views of Mt. Adams on our rides in these parts.
I hope to have time for a bath at the famous Hotel St. Martin with its volcanic hot springs. Dinner is at the brew pub in Carson. Most of us probably will stay at the Panther Creek National Forest campground, where we’ll have a campfire that night. There are hotels for those who prefer a real bed.
On Sunday, we’ll return to Portland via the Bridge of the Gods and the Old Columbia Highway (above). It’s going to be a fun weekend, and I look forward to seeing many of you there!
About the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting:
A few years ago, I wrote in Bicycle Quarterly how I collect roads. Others collect bikes, or rare components, or photos of racers. My collection is more esoteric: I collect roads. Not the physical roads, but the experience of riding on them. Like all collectors, I have criteria of which roads are worthy for inclusion in my collection, and which are merely conveyances that transport me where I want to go.
During the recent Golden Week cyclotouring trip, I was excited to add another road to my collection: Road 327 near Matsumoto in Japan. I explored this incredible road during a solo early-morning ride. And I don’t regret getting up at 5 a.m. to ride it.
The previous night, I had seen a valley in the distance, leading up to snow-covered peaks. If a road went up there, it could be spectacular. It seemed worth exploring…
A quick lock on Google Maps showed a promising road up the valley. The road dead-ends at an onsen hot springs high up in the mountains. “Dead-end” means little traffic… “High in the mountains” promises great climbs and descents.
The next morning, I headed out before breakfast. And the road fully lived up to my expectations.
The climb started with a set of amazing hairpin turns. The map and photo above show that first part of the road. The road wasn’t so steep that I was struggling, and it was fun to push myself on this stretch. I gained elevation quickly. Looking back, I could see several levels of the road below me.
The next section was more open as it ran along a steep cliff. This part offered great views of the valley below and of the mountains ahead.
I rode past waterfalls and across little bridges, even traversed a short tunnel.
The entire time, I saw no more than three or four cars, as well as a very short tour bus. Its driver clearly had driven this road many times, as he took very confident lines around the tight turns.
After an hour of climbing, I reached a small pass and realized that it was time to return, if I wanted to eat breakfast. Later, checking the maps, I realized that I had climbed 800 m (2500 ft) in just 14 km (8 miles). The maps also show that the road continues for another 3 km, with another 250 m of elevation gain. I’ll have to come back!
The descent was even more fun than the climb. I quickly gained speed on the wide-open stretches. My brakes got a workout as I approached the tight hairpin turns at high speed. As I leaned the bike hard, I could feel my wide, supple tires bite into the pavement. It’s nice to get feedback that there is grip in reserve.
The best part of the downhill was the section along the cliffside. With hardly any braking, I threw the bike right, left, right again. Japanese mountain roads have useful mirrors that allow you to see around the corners: It’s important to make sure that there is no oncoming traffic when you take the best line on a single-lane road!
In twisty sections like that, I appreciate a bike that handles with precision and corners without reluctance. Descents like these are the reason we spent so much time studying front-end geometry, think endlessly about bike handling, and optimize tire construction. On this empty road, nobody could see the smile on my face, but it was huge.
And I made it back for breakfast (almost) on time.
Golden Week is one of the biggest vacation times in Japan. It’s a combination of one-day holidays that result in a little over a week of time off. And it’s springtime, so virtually every cyclist takes to the road. This year, we went on a ride in the Japanese Alps with a group of friends.
Spring in Japan is a great time for cycling. It’s warm, but not yet hot. The skies are blue, and the fresh green of the forests looks especially vivid in the bright sunlight. The rice fields are being flooded. It’s the Japan you imagine in children’s picture books.
The best roads of Japan go through the mountains, and this pass was especially spectacular. The cliffs were so steep and loose that the road was built into the mountain, with avalanche galleries protecting it from falling rocks (and snow in the winter). At the top, we exited a tunnel to see a spectacular view of the Japanese Alps (top photo).
This area really deserves the name “Japanese Alps”, as the steep mountains and broad valleys look remarkably similar to Switzerland. So do the small fields, and even the ski slopes.
We cycled on tiny roads past bucolic lakes.
The roads rarely were flat, which made the cycling more interesting.
The pace was unhurried, with plenty of time for exploring…
… visiting local shrines…
…and even a farm where wasabi (Japanese horseradish) is grown in the shade of a little valley.
We avoided large roads as much as possible, preferring little byways and even dirt paths.
Our ride ended in Matsumoto with its magnificent castle.
After some more sightseeing, we Rinko’d our bikes and returned to Tokyo. Thank you to our friends for organizing this great trip!
Photo credit: Natsuko Hirose (top photo).
Where is the best place to test an Enduro Allroad bike? That is what we asked ourselves as we planned the Summer 2016 Bicycle Quarterly. It had to be a ride that went beyond the capabilities of the Allroad bikes we usually ride, with their 42 mm-wide tires. And yet we couldn’t just take it to a mountain trail, because the Enduro Allroad bike still is a road bike…
We found the perfect road in Mexico. The Paso de Cortés is one of the highest passes in North America. The uphill is made from very soft gravel, perfect to test whether 54 mm tires are wide enough to float over loose surfaces rather than sink into them.
After climbing to an elevation of 4000 m (13,100 ft), we launched into a paved downhill with dozens of challenging turns. It was one of the best descents I’ve ridden anywhere in the world, and that includes the incredible Shirabiso Pass in Japan…
This rollercoaster ride would challenge any bike’s handling. How does a 54 mm tire feel on pavement? There is only one way to find out!
It was a ride that pushed the limits of our endurance. After 12 hours on the bike, you notice whether your bike performs well or not!
Our ride took us deep into Mexico, with its beautiful mountains and fascinating history. We explored a country that isn’t known as a cycling destination, yet we found wonderful riding and amazing landscapes. Riding over the Paso de Cortés was our greatest adventure yet! The full story and bike tests will be published in the Summer 2016 Bicycle Quarterly, which is going to print today.
Subscribe to receive the Summer issue without delay.
Short trips often are the most enjoyable. Last weekend, we did not venture far from Tokyo. After an hour on the commuter train, we were assembling our bikes in a mountain valley.
Our ride started on backroads. In Tokyo, the cherry blossoms are long gone, but here in the mountains, the whispy “sakura” still herald the coming of spring. We were only three at this point; our fourth rider was going to join us later.
The weather forecast was mixed, but the day unexpectedly turned sunny.
Cycling in the mountains of Japan feels different from the Cascades in Washington: Lunch was at a 300-year-old restaurant. After the delicious meal, we got a tour around the building.
The mountains were lush with the fresh green of spring. It was nice to see different touring styles. If you thought all Japanese cyclotourists rode on classic, French-inspired machines… The bike on the left is mine, whereas the Cannondale belongs to our Japanese friend.
We climbed a beautiful mountain pass. The road has many sharp curves, and it’s equally popular with cyclists, motorcyclists and car enthusiasts. Drivers and riders were skilled, and clearly enjoying themselves.
The top of the pass was in the clouds, at 1146 m (3760 ft).
In Japanese, “cute” is always considered a positive attribute… The sign indicating the pass certainly qualifies!
During the descent, we met up with our fourth rider. He had to work late, so he went to another train station and backtracked along the course until he met us. We enjoyed the long descent together.
Japan has no shortage of beautiful hotels. We enjoyed a hot bath, as well as a great dinner and breakfast, before heading out again the next morning.
Our ride continued on old road that see hardly any traffic, because new highways bypass them.
We visited what must be one of the tallest fish ladders in the world. You see about 1/3 of it in the photo above. It allows the fish to climb up to a 27 m (89 ft) tall dam.
We stopped to visit beautiful old buildings…
… and to watch a procession for a local religious festival.
Our ride ended in the suburbs, where we joined more friends for dinner, before boarding the train that took us back to the city. These friends hadn’t toured together in many years, but at the end, everybody decided that it was a fun weekend in every way. Hopefully the next trip will be planned soon.
What short weekend tours have you taken lately, or plan to take this year?
Photo credits: Natsuko Hirose (photos 3, 4, 12, 14)
When the Australian Matt Hayman won the European Paris-Roubaix race yesterday, it came as a huge surprise to everybody, including Hayman himself. However, nobody was surprised that Hayman rode on super-supple tires. With their tan sidewalls, Hayman’s tires looked like FMBs or Dugasts, but first reports insist that they actually were made by Continental. It’s an indication how far we’ve come if Continental really is making 28 mm tubulars with tan sidewalls and supple casings. (Of course, with pros, you always wonder what they really ride.)
Closer to home, there is little mystery in the tires that long-time Bicycle Quarterly reader Matt Surch (above) used to win Ontario’s season-opening gravel race, the Steaming Nostril. He isn’t sponsored by anybody, and we were excited to learn that he chose Compass Bon Jon Pass tires for his winning ride. I used the opportunity to catch up with Matt and ask him about gravel riding, bike and tire choices, and his training.
JH: Congratulations on winning the Steaming Nostril. Can you tell us a bit more about the race?
Matt Surch: Thanks Jan! It felt fantastic to kick off the season so well with my teammates! The Steaming Nostril is a 70 km loop from St. Jacobs, Ontario. The course begins with pavement, then mostly covers gravel roads that are well packed and have the typical potholes for this time of year. Long straight lines and strong winds favour those with strength and pack-riding skills.
After covering about 55 km, the course gets exciting! A new sector this year saw us enter a Mennonite farm on a dirt lane. We descended an absolutely gnarly rutted path into a valley, where we followed a freshly cut trail of grass and mud to a veritable muur [wall] of muddy singletrack. Completely unrideable, on any bike, this climb required cyclocross shouldering (below). After this sector, the race took us over a beautiful span of twisting and undulating packed dirt, some more pavement, and the final challenge: 6 or 7 flights of wooden stairs. From there it was about 50 meters to the finish line. The eclectic mix of surfaces and features made for a tactical and fun race.
You’ve been racing on gravel longer than most. What attracts you to that part of cycling?
I grew up through the 1990s obsessed with mountain biking, and that’s where I began racing. I raced cross-country for years, then transitioned to downhill, which I pursued through my early 20s. When I had enough of the grind of racing, I shifted focus to skills-based riding: dirt jumping, street (in the BMX sense), and park (skatepark) – squarely centered on fun and progressing skills. But then I was tempted to try a local ‘spring classic’ race, the Ottawa Bicycle Club’s Paris-Roubaix. Yes, that’s the real name.
Ian Austen started the event about 25 years ago, and it’s a cult classic in our region. It’s 75 km of mostly dirt roads with a number of forest sectors that are trails or double-tracks. The first year, I did it with a gang of friends, and we all rode fixed-gear bikes with 28 mm or larger tires. It was really fun, and a great way to get into ‘road racing,’ though it was obviously far from that. The next year I tried again, this time with gears, and was more of a participant in the race, though I had no idea what was going on up front. My third year, I was able to ride close enough to the front to finally understand what was happening, and that was the spark I needed to really latch onto road racing.
I love how the gravel races bring out a huge spectrum of riders, from those who take them seriously to those who consider them ‘challenge rides.’ We all ride the same courses, and we all struggle in our own ways. They also tend to be ‘open category’ races, so they let us friends race together, rather than being split us up into the usual race categories.
There’s generally a strong sense of camaraderie between riders, be they at the front, the middle, or the back. I love that, trying to smash each other in the race with attacks, then laughing about it and sharing food and drink afterwards. (My drink of choice is kombucha!) We all have war stories…
The community aspect of the gravel races really speaks to me, too. They tend to be run out of small towns that get behind the events, and that is really heartening. We get to travel to these places off the beaten track and learn about the history and culture of the regions. I love that.
There’s more to it. I’m rarely the strongest rider in a race, but I’ve got as much skill as just about anyone I face, so I always try to figure out how to leverage that. Often I race with team-mates, and we spend time in advance of the races trying to work out different strategies, scenarios, and contingencies. That’s really fun, and different from road racing, where you’ll often know that there’s a hard climb that will be decisive… Often it’s really simple on the road. For the gravel races, we think about at what point we want a break or split to happen, then try to execute that plan, knowing that at some point it will come down to pure power and skill to seal the deal. I find this really exciting.
The other aspect I find really fun is the equipment. Each race has different demands, and I love working out the puzzle every year according to the conditions we’ll face.
You mention the equipment. Tell us about your bike!
I tend to use my cyclocross bike for these races. I have a custom Steelwool cx bike built with Columbus Spirit for Lugs; it’s TIG welded. I don’t’ have anything against other frame materials, but this is a bike that fits me perfectly and has served me well for years. I’d like disc brakes and more tire clearance, but that would require a whole lot of new wheels! My frame has curved seat-stays for a bit of passive suspension, which I find works really well for me. On the cyclocross courses and gravel roads this frame is comfortable, which I believe makes me fast. It also ‘planes’ for me well, which I love. I go with a pretty typical ‘road position’ on my bike for all these races, just a bit less drop to the bars than my road race bike. The only change I make for cyclocross is moving my stem up 5 mm and rolling my bars up slightly.
Wheels have always been a huge part of the picture for gravel racing, and I used to struggle with denting rims and puncturing. Over the last few years, I’ve been using Woven Precision Handbuilts carbon wheels, first for cyclocross (tubulars), then for everything I do on the road and cx bike. With the deep-dish rims, it took me a little time to adjust to the front end’s reaction to gusts of wind, but after a while I was fully adapted. I was amazed by how hard I could hit things with those wheels and not even have to true them. It turns out the deeper wheels can be very compliant, given their ability to bulge out their sidewalls (not the brake track) under impacts.
Believing that I am on equipment that gives me an edge gives me confidence. Most people would not tend toward deep wheels for gravel races, but I’ll take the aero gains whenever I can, even if going deeper adds a few grams.
I’m a pretty massive tire nerd, and this applies to every discipline I ride. I started on 28s, but I’ve come to love larger tires for the rougher terrain. I’ve even used a Niner 29er mountain bike, set up with drop bars and 2” Schwalbe Furious Fred tires, for the roughest terrain, and it was great. But I’ve learned through trial and error that my preference is to use the least amount of tread possible and the least amount of volume possible for a given race, in order to strike the best balance of low rolling resistance and aerodynamics, so I use Compass Extralight tires whenever possible.
I can literally feel the aerodynamic difference between 32 mm Compass tires and 38 mm ones, so I think about the hardest section of a race and how narrow a tire I can use and survive with, usually. I choose the tire that will let me ride at 100% intensity and probably not puncture. Sure, I could use the 38 mm option, but they are overkill most of the time. Instead, I look at how rough the fastest descent will be, and what volume I’ll need to do that well and safely.
I choose tread (some sort of knobs, from a diamond file tread up) on my tires when there might be ice and snow (Continental Speed), a bit of off-road that will have some mud and/or aggressive turning (Clement LAS, Bontrager CX0), and a ‘full tread’ tire (Clement PDX) for off-road parts that are really gnarly and will be soft enough for full knobs to penetrate and grip into. However, it’s uncommon to need more than the LAS “diamond file” treads for anything I race.
You won the Steaming Nostril on Compass Bon Jon Pass tires. You aren’t sponsored, so you could have chosen any tire. Many readers would expect you on knobbies for a muddy race. Why did you chose the Bon Jons?
I’d been testing the new tubeless 35 mm Bon Jons, and they were working extremely well in tubeless format on the pavement and dirt roads. Planning for the same course as last year, they seemed like a great choice, even if they were a bit bigger than I needed. If the Compass 32s were tubeless-compatible, I’d have considered them ideal. I wanted the low rolling resistance of the tubeless format and the puncture resistance!
As to the smooth tread, the gravel roads were totally wet and muddy, yet traction was not an issue at all. The only issue was keeping mud off my glasses and trying not to collect too much as it froze onto the bikes! We’d been told by a rival that there was a new crazy sector while we were lined up for the start, so we knew there would be a surprise. When I hit the rutted descent I knew that tire tread would be irrelevant; it would come down to having the front wheel swallowed or not. Mine was, and I went over the bars! Fortunately, mud is soft, so I was back on my feet within seconds.
The trail bits that followed were a bit more difficult on tires with minimal tread, but one can adjust by pushing a harder gear to reduce the torque that makes the rear wheel spin. In fact, I made up ground here on my rivals with their knobby tires, perhaps in part because the minimal tread of the Bon Jons was not picking up as much mud… Once out of that sector, I had the advantage back, as the rest was definitely suited to the smooth tires.
I always look at whether I can use Compass tires rather than my other options, which have more tread and are more robustly constructed. Essentially, I want the EL’s super-supple casing and low rolling resistance whenever I can use them. Because I’ve got the option of using up to the 38 mm-wide tires now, the tires can handle some pretty extreme rough stuff. With the wider tires, I can run low enough pressure that the tires can absorb sharp impacts rather than get cut. When I match the tire correctly to the conditions, I feel like I’m just floating along, totally in tune with the road. It’s the suppleness of the tires and the compound that contribute to attaining that harmony. I love that. Stiffer tires simply can’t feel that way, and there certainly are not any tires out there that compare in the 32, 35, and 38 mm 700c sizes.
I often think that I’m riding tires similar to the best tubulars the pros use for races like Paris-Roubaix, but without the hassles of tubulars, and with lower rolling resistance, especially with the tubeless Bon Jons. Honestly, I’m convinced the Bon Jons are the fastest rolling 35 mm tire the world has ever seen in tubeless format. I just can’t see how anything else could compare.
What tire pressure did you ride in the race?
Low pressures are key for traction and floatation on gravel. I used 50 psi (3.5 bar) on the rear and 47 psi (3.2 bar) on the front. I weigh about 162 lb (73.5 kg).
Sounds like there is an active gravel racing scene in Ontario. Tell us about it!
Around Toronto and Ottawa (my home town) there are a good number of gravel events that mostly focus on spring. Both cities have strong cyclocross and road scenes, which contribute to the popularity of these events. The season kicks off with the Hell of the North (formerly organized by Mike Barry of Mariposa) in March, followed by the Steaming Nostril (both in the Toronto area), Paris-Roubaix (we call it the Almonte Roubaix), the Clarence-Rockland Classic (outside Ottawa), and Paris to Ancaster (Toronto area), which is the biggest, pulling in thousands or riders, including cyclocross stars from the US. We head down to Vermont for the Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race in April, which is a favourite.
Later into the season we return to New England for the fantastic Vermont Overland race, which is really hilly, and has some very challenging Class 4 ‘road’ sectors, which are referred to by locals as ‘Vermont Pavé’. This race is awesome, my favourite parcours of all, because it’s so technical and exciting. Plus, the event brings in such an amazing crowd, and their meal after is incredible.
How do you prepare for the races?
The spring races are the hard ones to prepare for, because we have full-on winter here in Ottawa. It’s dark, cold, snowy and icy from December through March, so we really have to be disciplined in order to get the fitness where it needs to be to be good for these races. While many locals head south during the winter for training camps, I stay home and put in lots of time on the trainer in the basement. I don’t really take a break after cyclocross season ends at the close of November, but just get onto the bike every day – normally in the morning before work, then at night – and keep moving. I go by feel rather than follow a rigid training schedule. That means I ride hard when I feel good, and I ride easy when I don’t.
There are a couple ‘anchors’ to my weeks over the winter. On Thursday nights I started doing Zwift races this past winter, which ended up being amazingly high intensity training. I found I was able to push to 100%, whereas I couldn’t normally do that inside. These sorts of workouts are key for me through the winter, along with the shorter interval sessions I pepper in. I also like to work on things like high cadence, prolonged standing, and low cadence on the trainer. All of these things are meant to target weaknesses and give me more tools to work with in the races.
Every Sunday in the winter (except when the weather/roads are insane), 3 to 12 friends ride a three-hour loop on snow-covered dirt roads. We tend to draw a line at colder than -15° C at the start; if it’s colder than that, our feet have a hard time staying unfrozen. We do the loops at a pretty steady tempo, and the great thing is that the climbs are not so long that we get really hot, and the descents are not so long that we freeze. After a week of pedaling inside, these Sundays are special, even if we have to wear ski helmets, goggles, mitts and two pairs of shoe covers over winter shoes.
Obviously, you train a lot. As in most races, you probably won mostly because of your fitness. What other factors played a role?
Fitness was definitely a big factor, but my team-mates were also key to making the win possible. Marc Hunt was out in a break of 2 for 20 km, which forced our main rivals, Wheels of Bloor, to try to bridge. Iain Radford and I simply could chase down each attempt, and other riders helped. So that was pretty straightforward. Once they were absorbed, a split occurred, and it was a matter of reacting to attacks. I ended up going into that gnarly sector with just two others, one being last year’s winner.
What about rider skill? How is racing on gravel different from racing on pavement?
Because ‘gravel’ events can vary widely in terms of what they throw at riders, the range of skills required also varies for a rider who wants to do well across the board. The most road-like events we do, like the Clarence-Rockland Classic, only use actual roads – paved and gravel. There’s not a lot of turning, so riders don’t need to be really adept there. They do, however, need to know how to ride relaxed over rough surfaces, and choose their tires well. Wind is usually a factor in races like this, so if a rider is strong, but doesn’t have good pack riding skill, they won’t be able to do well. The longer races in the US, like the Dirty Kanza, are similar in that they are quite open and windy. If I was doing that race, I’d be all about my aerodynamics and making sure I was not riding alone until I had to.
The more technical courses, like the Almonte Roubaix, Paris-to-Ancaster, and Vermont Overland require specific off-road skills for riding light over roots, rocks, mud, and steep ascents and descents. The sectors these races use are essentially trails people would normally ride mountain bikes on. In our case, cyclocross bikes are the best choice for all the faster and smoother parts, so one has to be able to ride drop bars with skinny tires through all that rough stuff. So looking way ahead is essential, as is being light and fluid on the bike to ‘roll with’ changes of direction when the wheels deflect off rocks and roots. Or mud ruts!
Mountain biking teaches riders to stay calm, let go of the brakes, and just go with it when facing difficult sections, and this is exactly what is required on the ‘gravel bikes.’ Without suspension, it’s key to be able to hop over the worst obstacles that can smash wheels, and even slide both wheels through turns at times. Really, all the skills riders learn in cyclocross translate well, though there is often much more speed involved in these races, which is where mountain bike experience helps. But shouldering and running with the bike is a cyclocross skill that will sometimes be key in a ‘gravel race’. If you can get off and run, and be faster than riding, you should run!
One cool thing about some of the gravel races is that riders with very good descending speed can use it to catch back up after being dropped on climbs. You can’t win on the descents, but you can often ease up a bit on the last part of the climbs then catch back on without using extra energy. I love that.
What advice do you have for riders who want to try riding on gravel?
Riding on gravel must seem scary to a lot of riders, and I understand why. The fact that most ‘road bikes’ are sold with narrow tires (23 – 25 mm) can’t help the situation. Whenever I counsel friends and colleagues on new road bike purchases, I always encourage them to get a bike that fits at least 30 mm tires. A bike with 30 mm tires is so much more stable on gravel. But ‘gravel,’ as a category, is so ambiguous; the truth is that lots of dirt roads around here are actually really smooth in the summer, and don’t require anything special to ride. But if we’re talking about loose gravel, more volume in the tires is the name of the game. Over the years we’ve learned that volume is the key to stability on unpacked surfaces like those of gravel and dirt roads; knobs can’t do any work when the substrate under them is shifting.
Gearing might need to be lower than usual for getting out into the gravel, as these roads are often steeper than what we usually find paved. Compact cranks are always a great place to start!
A good pump is key to fixing the flats you’re likely to encounter while on gravel adventures! That’s ok, it’s part of the learning curve! It’s really important not to overinflate tires. Riding a low pressure avoids unnecessary cuts and improves comfort and stability. Don’t be afraid to get it wrong sometimes! Just stop to add air to your tires mid-ride, if they don’t feel stable enough, or they are bottoming out on the bigger bumps.
If you want to try an event, I’d suggest finding one close to home and jumping right in! While riders like me geek out on marginal gains stuff for all these races, the majority of riders don’t need to worry about any of that. Lots of events are doable on a ‘normal’ road bike with 28 mm tires or a mountain bike. If there are technical parts that will be hard to navigate, use mountain bike shoes and pedals so you can walk. It’s not a big deal to get off and take the safe way. If riders have rando bikes, awesome, those are great for these events! I’d suggest removing the fenders if grassy or freezing mud is involved, unless you have huge clearance. At the Steaming Nostril, fenders would not have worked at all. Ride with one or more friends and share the experience, or, make new ones! I’ve met so many fantastic people while doing D2R2 (Deerfiled Dirt Road Randonnee) over the years. Just give it a try!
Thank you very much, Matt, and good luck with the other races this season!
Photo credits (in the order they appear):
1. Zara Ansar, from Clarence-Rockland Classic 2015
2. Cycle Waterloo, Steaming Nostril 2016
3. Matt Surch
4. Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race 2015
5. Matt Surch
6. Paris-to-Ancaster 2015 (photographer unknown)
7. Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race 2015
Correction: Initially, the front and rear tire pressures were reversed, showing a higher front tire pressure. Matt runs slightly more air in his rear tire than his front.
This year’s Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting will be held on June 25 and 26 in Carson, Washington. Carson is located on the Columbia River near the Bridge of the Gods. It is easily accessible by bike from Portland along the Columbia River (90 km/50 miles).
From Carson, there are many options for great rides. On gravel, we can head to Trout Lake for the famous huckleberry shakes. On pavement, the ride over Old Man Pass to Northwoods at the foot of Mount St. Helens is truly spectacular. Both are part of the Volcano High Pass course that has featured repeatedly in Bicycle Quarterly, most recently as part of the “Road to Takhlakh Lake” in the Spring 2016 issue. We are exploring other route options that promise to be even nicer.
Carson has several campgrounds in town and nearby, as well as the Hotel St. Martin with its iconic hot springs. Food options include a brew pub, a grocery store, as well as more restaurants in nearby Stevenson.
The Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting has a simple format: A meeting time and place are announced, a few routes are scouted, and everybody is welcome to join us for a day of cycling “off the beaten path”. The following day, there is the option of joining the group for the ride back to Portland via the scenic Historic Columbia Highway.
Logistics are up to each participant. The Un-Meeting has no entry fees, no waivers and provides no services. Everybody is welcome on any type of bike. However, because there are no services, riders must be self-sufficient. There will be no sag wagon…
Un-Meetings are unscripted get-togethers of cyclists who enjoy riding off the beaten path. We will ride together in the mountains, on routes that are accessible to most cyclists – no need to be a Super Randonneur to keep up. The rides vary in length between 80 and 150 km (50 and 90 miles). The focus is on fun and exploration more than performance.
After the day’s ride, we will congregate at a campfire and share stories and experiences. Part of the fun is looking at each others’ bikes, because the machines at the Un-Meeting are as individualistic as their riders. By the end of the Un-Meeting, we hope many new friendships will be made and old ones rekindled.
Join us at 9 a.m. on June 25, 2016 at the grocery store in the center of Carson. (There is only one!) We’ll have more information in the weeks leading up to the event. I hope to see you at the Un-Meeting!
Photo credit: Andrew Squirrel (campfire).
The Bicycle Quarterly “Team” is the inspiration for much of what we do. Whether it’s the ride stories in Bicycle Quarterly or the components made by Compass Bicycles, it all starts with a bunch of friends riding bikes. You may have noticed that “team” is in quotation marks, because it’s not an official team, but a really remarkable group who have found each other over the years.
We all are of similar strength, which means that a common pace comes naturally. We’ve ridden many thousands of miles together, so we have developed similar styles. We can paceline on gravel descents, because we know that nobody will suddenly brake or swerve. Riding with people you know so well is relaxing and safe. Our conversations during these rides are animated and inspiring. Our friendships extend far beyond the bike.
At this time of year, we usually ride in the foothills of the Cascades and train to see our form return, while we wait for the snow to melt on the high mountain passes. We really live for those summertime adventures!
Whether it’s riding 530 km (330 miles) from Seattle to the highest roads on Mount St. Helens (above) and Mount Rainier, and back, in 24 hours, during the original Cyclos Montagnards Challenge…
… or climbing gravel mountain passes at night (and hiking through snow at the top), it’s great to have a group of friends who share the excitement of planning rides that go a bit beyond what many consider possible on a bike.
We like to ride at a spirited pace and over long distances. That is demanding on our bikes, and more than one idea for Compass components has originated on a ride, when we found that the available equipment wasn’t up to the task. “There must be a better way!” has been the start for many a new product. We then return to the workshop to make prototypes. We test them on the following rides. Once we’ve found them up to the task, we put them into production.
Similarly, we take Bicycle Quarterly’s test bikes on adventures that explore the limits of rider and bike alike. If a bike performs well in our testing, readers can be assured that it’s an excellent machine.
Of course, not every ride is a magnificent adventure. Often, we just head out for six to eight hours. We ride into the foothills of the Cascades (above), or through Western Washington’s marvellous coastal landscapes.
Whether our rides are short or long, we are lucky to have these friends, because as much as we love our bikes, they are an end to a means: enjoying our rides even more.
The best of these rides are turned into stories for Bicycle Quarterly. You can read about one of the most memorable rides, the Volcano High Pass 600 km Super Randonnée, in our sample issue online.
The Bicycle Quarterly Team’s early-season rides usually head into the Cascade foothills to our east. There are plenty of quiet roads that seem to dead-end in the mountains… until you realize that they are connected by gravel roads! This allows us to string together a variety of rides – free of traffic and in beautiful surroundings.
We love those rides, but sometimes, a change of scenery heightens our sense of adventure. When Mark suggested a ride along the Hood Canal and through the Tahuya Hills, it didn’t take much to persuade us. Especially since he promised some gravel in the mix.
Steve (black), Mark (yellow) and I met on the 6 o’clock ferry from Seattle to Bremerton. By the time we prepared to disembark, dawn announced the new day. Spring is coming, and the days are getting longer!
The first kilometers along a busy highway were quickly forgotten, because we soon found ourselves on smaller roads. From Belfair, we headed along the Hood Canal into the Tahuya Hills. This is a favorite road that we’ve traveled during many a Seattle International Randonneurs brevets, usually in the middle of the night.
This morning, the scenery was especially spectacular. We saw three layers of clouds hovering above the sound. The water in the distance was still blanketed by a thick layer of fog. Above were low clouds (or perhaps dissolving fog), with a high cloud cover above. And best of all, the sun was shining on us!
A little further, we surprised a huge bald eagle by the roadside. The eagle looks big in the photo, but you cannot see its wingspan: It was at least 1.8 m (6 ft). I did not realize how large these birds really are, until one flew right by my shoulder!
Soon we entered the Tahyua Hills. This time, we did not take paved inland route, but a gravel road that hugs the coast line. We had seen only three or four cars since leaving Belfair, and now we had the road entirely to ourselves.
A coastal route may sound flat, but the Tahyua Hills deserve their name. Cyclists whisper about these hills – most have heard about them, but only the hardiest actually have ridden here. I reality, the Tahuya Hills are fun – a rollercoaster of ups and downs with tight turns that test the skills of the riders and the quality of their bikes. Mark and Steve’s randonneur bikes were up to the task. The terrain was a bit more challenging for my Specialized Diverge long-term test bike, but I made it fine, too.
We rode into the fog that we had seen in the distance, just as it started to lift. We were glad to have fenders, because the previous day’s rain had left the gravel muddy. (A gravel bike without fenders makes little sense around here, even on sunny days.)
We rode along beautiful bays, now back on pavement, but still away from traffic. Time flew by, with spirited pedaling and animated conversations to distract us. It was a typically wonderful ride with friends.
Just as we were getting hungry, we reached Seabeck with its general store. Weekend rides like this one aren’t timed events, so we stopped for a leisurely lunch.
After lunch, we soon turned off the main road again. Flanked by the Puget Sound on one side and a Navy base on the other, there was hardly any traffic until we reached Bainbridge Island.
Here, we split up. My companions were keen to get home, so they continued on the busy highway. I preferred the backroads for a wonderful spin over the narrow, twisting two-lane blacktop. It’s hillier and thus takes longer than the highway, but for me, it was a nice end to a great ride.
I would have caught the same ferry if I hadn’t stopped at the store in Winslow to buy a second lunch. The sun had come out, and I enjoyed my picnic at the ferry dock. An hour later, I was riding home along the Seattle waterfront. These are the best kind of pre-season rides: interesting, enjoyable and thoroughly low-key.
Where to go for my first ride after recovering from my accident? I had commuted around Tokyo to make sure it was fine to ride my bike again, but now I wanted to experience the Japanese mountains once more before returning to Seattle. And so I headed to one of my favorite routes: Yabitsu Pass.
My outing started like most rides in Tokyo: I rode to the station, Rinko’d my bike, and boarded a train. Even after dozens of “Rinkos”, it remains very satisfying to reduce my bike to such a small and convenient package in such a short time. An hour after leaving central Tokyo, I arrived at Takao, the final station of the suburban line.
After reassembling my bike, the first thing was to buy supplies at a typical Japanese convenience store. These stores bear little resemblance to their North American counterparts. Here, they don’t sell gasoline, but fresh food and even flowers! It was easy to find what I needed for lunch: onegiri (rice with filling wrapped in nori seaweed), hot tea and an ice cream bar for dessert. For the road, I bought juice, dark chocolate and a package of cookies.
A beautiful shrine provided a good spot for the meal, and in the sun, it was warm enough to sit outside. While I was at the shrine, I prayed for safety on the road. It’s a common practice among Japanese cyclists, and after my recent experience, I figured it couldn’t hurt…
The road started climbing almost immediately, but the grades were not very steep – perfect for getting back into a rhythm after a long time off the bike. Snow was lining the road when I reached Lake Miyagase. I had been here with Hahn during our very first trip to Japan. Then it was crowded with tourists on a weekend during the cherry blossom season. Now it was deserted. Both times, it was beautiful.
A few kilometers further, I turned onto the narrow road to Yabitsu Pass. The mirrors that allow looking around corners came in handy not just to check for traffic – there was none – but also to see whether there was ice on the shaded parts of the road. I did meet a mountain biker and a motorcyclist, who gave me a big thumbs up as I began the climb in the late afternoon.
The road winds its way along a valley, so it’s not steep, but very narrow and twisty: great fun!
I had calculated that I should reach the pass before dark, so I could descend the other side before temperatures dropped. I was concerned that meltwater might freeze on the road. However, I had not counted on ice and snow on the road up to the pass. Not wanting to risk a fall, I walked my bike on the icy parts.
I was still about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the top. If the entire road over the pass was icy, I would hike late through the night… Turning around was an option, but I really wanted to ride across the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. I decided to push on until 4:30 p.m. and decide then whether to continue or to turn around.
Just when I was giving up hope to reach the pass, the road cleared. I remembered that higher up, the road was more exposed. I figured (hoped?) that I’d be able to ride most of the way. I pushed my “decision time” out to five o’clock. If I made it to the top by then, I’d be fine. If I had to turn around, I knew where the icy spots were and could negotiate them in the dark.
Fortunately, the road was ice-free for most of the way to the pass. I reached the top just before five.
The climb seemed less challenging than I remembered it. When I rode here with Hahn almost two years ago, I had engaged in an impromptu race with an older gentleman on a racing bike. His age handicap was balanced by my loaded panniers, so our speeds were well-matched, and the climb seemed much longer at full effort.
The other side of the mountains is exposed to the mid-day sun, so there was no snow on the road. I was relieved. The descent was less challenging, which was welcome, as the light was fading fast. I was happy to enjoy the winding road.
After a few tight turns, I rounded the cliff face and saw the edges of the Tokyo-Yokohama agglomeration below and the Pacific Ocean beyond. It was as beautiful as I remembered it from our first ride here.
My late timing had an unforeseen benefit: a most spectacular view of Mount Fuji (photo at the top of the post). When I rode here with Hahn, the sky had been overcast, and we didn’t even know that the mountain usually was visible. Tonight, the unexpected view, and having the mountain all to myself, made it all the more special.
The remainder of the descent was uneventful, and 30 minutes later, I was at the train station in Hadano. I warmed up with a hot chocolate at a café…
… before Rinko’ing my bike again and returning to Tokyo in time for dinner. It was great to be back on my bike, and I am grateful that the recovery from my accident has been so smooth and uneventful.
We wrote about our first trip to Japan, including our tour that also went over Yabitsu Pass, in Bicycle Quarterly 48.
A few weeks ago, we went back to Houshi Onsen, my favorite hot springs in Japan. Our friends had taken Hahn and me to this wonderful place on a ride that coincided with a typhoon hitting Japan. Despite the torrential rain and lashing wind, we took the old road that travelers used centuries ago, when they crossed the mountains to arrive at the ancient inn that was built around the hot springs.
We wrote about that adventure in the latest Bicycle Quarterly. Riding on narrow trails and portaging our bikes over stairs made from wooden logs was memorable and fun.
This time, we hadn’t brought our bikes, but went hiking in the snow instead. Instead of torrential rain, we enjoyed a sunny day, as we climbed up the same wooden steps.
I was a bit afraid that the trail, which had seemed so adventurous in the typhoon, would appear benign on a sunny day. Instead, the trail was much steeper and narrower than we remembered. “Did we really carry our bikes down this in a typhoon?” we kept asking with incredulity.
The trail was a reminder how geologically active Japan is. The steep slopes keep sliding downhill. Trees tilt as the soil moves, but they always grow upward, so over time, their trunks develop pronounced curves.
We saw some spectacular needle ice, which occurs when the air is below freezing, but the water in the soil remains liquid. It was straight out of a geomorphology textbook: When the ice needles thaw, they’ll fall over and transport the soil that is on top downslope – very effective soil erosion.
We were the only ones out on the trail, except a fox who’d left footprints, and a horde of monkeys who scattered excitedly as we approached. Their handprints were easy to make out in the fresh snow (above).
After climbing 300 m (1000 feet) in just 2.4 km (1.5 miles), we turned around to a gorgeous view of the mountains, with Houshi Onsen cradled deep in the valley. During the typhoon, it was raining so hard that there was no view at all. Back then, we hiked into the unknown…
That time, we rode through the tunnel that pierces the mountain, and I regretted a little that we didn’t go over the old pass. Now was our chance to redress the balance!
As we gained more elevation, the snow got deeper and deeper. It was fun to run up the trail, but after a while, we had to turn around, since the days are still short, and we wanted to get back before darkness.
We returned to the ancient inn, where I visited the oldest, smallest bath for the first time. (The baths alternate between men and women, so everybody can enjoy each bath.) After hiking in the cold, it was wonderful to soak in the hot water…
… before enjoying a fabulous dinner.
The next morning, it snowed even more, and the entire valley was covered in white. It was a view like a postcard, capping a great visit to one of my favorite places in Japan.
Click here for more information about the Winter Bicycle Quarterly.
I recall a great ride up Tsuchiyu Touge (touge = pass) almost two years ago. This ride was organized for Hahn and me by friends from Tokyo. It was a day of much climbing, even more laughter, and the beginnings of wonderful friendships.
We were in Fukushima to visit the Nitto factory, and the following day, we set out from the lovely Onsen hotel where we spent the night. As bikes are readied, Hitoshi discovers that his tire is flat. This minor mishap does little to discourage us on this glorious morning.
The climbing starts right away, and we settle into a comfortable pace. Here, Hitoshi and Ikuo lead, with Hahn and Natsuko following. Harumi is already ahead.
Even though the cherry trees are in full bloom down in Fukushima, we soon encounter the first snow: We are gaining altitude quickly.
Along the road, we observe how the snow has melted around the trees. Different hypotheses are proposed for the cause. Is it meltwater that runs down the trunks? Or does the sun heat the dark trunks more than the white snow?
We learn that the road has only recently been opened for traffic. In several places, we see giant snowplows parked by the road. Some have fresh snow on their blades! It rained last night in Fukushima, but here in the mountains, the rain has fallen as snow – even though it’s the middle of April, and we aren’t even half-way up the pass yet!
The road climbs along the ridges, then breaks into tight hairpins where the hillside is too steep for a direct ascent.
Even on this weekday, there is some traffic, including this “bad boy” motorcyclist. His beautifully turned-out machine includes a pristine leather bag underneath the frame. Perhaps not the most practical spot on a fenderless bike…
After a picnic lunch, we stop at a viewpoint. Several times we reach spots that seem like the top, but then we just keep climbing further.
Our group stays together loosely as the snowbanks on the side of the road grow taller and taller. Above 1000 m (3300 ft), the elevation is written on the road in 100 m increments. When we cross the 1500 m (4921 ft) mark, I climb atop the snowbank to take a photo (top of the post), figuring this will be the highest we’ll reach. Of course, the road continues to climb, and we soon see 1600 m written on the pavement.
When we finally do reach the pass, we have climbed close to 1500 m (5000 ft) since starting in the morning! The snowbanks are about 3 m (10 ft) tall, but fortunately, the road is wide enough to offer great views of the mountains.
Not far away, steam rises from a peak, indicating volcanic activity that also is responsible for the many Onsen hot springs we have passed.
After a second lunch at a cafeteria near the pass, we descend into a desolate landscape. Little vegetation grows here because the winds are so severe.
It’s so windy that a van with a highway maintenance crew stops to warn us. The worker has to hold onto his hard hat, so it doesn’t get blown away.
With good bikes and some skill, everybody makes it across the windy parts without trouble, and then we launch into an amazing descent. Tight hairpins are joined by long straights, so we get to feel the rush of speed, before braking hard for the next turn. This continues for a while…
…until we reach the turn-off to an Onsen hot spring. It’s a surprise for us, but our companions have planned to stop here. To everybody’s disappointment, we have just missed the closing time.
Undeterred, Natsuko cycles across the suspension bridge that links the Onsen with the road. We’ll never know how she persuades the staff to let us in after hours, but when she returns, it is clear that she has been successful.
After soaking in the hot water at the Onsen, we descend the final kilometers back to Fukushima. We Rinko our bikes and lock them at the station. After a nice dinner, we take the Shinkansen train back to Tokyo.
The route up Tsuchiyu Pass probably isn’t ideal to ride with newly-healed shoulders and arms, and in any case, it’ll be snowbound for a while. But just like our friends planned this beautiful trip for us, I anticipate they will find a perfect route for my first ride, and I look forward to it!
As the cycling season draws to a close, I look back over the memorable rides that I have enjoyed. This year, my cycling season ended abruptly when a car turned in front of me in Taiwan, but my recovery has been helped by remembering many wonderful rides. It’s been a fun-filled year with everything from contemplative cyclotouring to ultra-fast brevets, with loaded touring and even a little cyclocross thrown into the mix.
After a 6-week winter break from riding, it’s always amazing to see the mountains again and get out of Seattle for day-long rides. Last January’s gorgeous weather made these early-season rides even more special.
Over the years, these early-season rides have incorporated more and more gravel, and now it’s a rare ride that doesn’t venture off the pavement for the fun and solitude that is found on these forest roads. As much fun as it is to cycle with all over the world, my hometown friends are absolutely the best.
2015 was a “PBP year”, which meant making sure to ride the 200, 300, 400 and 600 km brevets. This was no hardship: The courses of the Seattle International Randonneurs get better every year, and there are plenty of great people to ride with. Thanks to excellent teamwork, several of us were able to qualify for the Cyclos Montagnards’ R60 honors. The brevets were fun, and they helped us to get in shape for the big ride in France.
April saw me in Japan, where I had been invited to join a team for the 24-hour Flèche team ride. In addition to that memorable experience, I enjoyed lovely mountain rides with friends. The cherry trees were in full bloom, making Japan even more special than usual.
Testing bikes to the limit is memorable, no matter what. A trip with Ryan to the San Juan Islands culminated with climbing Mount Constitution at midnight. A few weeks later, Mark and I went on a “fast camping trip” to the end of the road at Carbon Glacier on Mount Rainier. We encountered some pretty rough terrain, but the lasting memory was how much fun it was to get away for 24 hours of fast-paced touring.
The big event of the year was Paris-Brest-Paris. While I was in France, I was able to enjoy other memorable rides. We rode a lap of the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb course with 1965 PBP winner Robert Demilly (above on the left).
Together with my friend Richard Léon (himself a veteran of many PBPs), we visited Jean Hoffmann, a randonneur who turned professional and rode in the Tour de France, before returning to the ranks of the randonneurs and riding PBP several times. (He is in the center of the photo above, holding the stem of Lyli Herse’s bike.) Now aged 81, Monsieur Hoffmann took us on a ride over a small mountain pass, displaying the form of an ancien professional. (The full story with photos from his career is in the Winter 2015 Bicycle Quarterly.)
A highlight of returning to Seattle was the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting (above) – a weekend of riding on paved and gravel roads in the company of riders who quickly became friends. What fun it was!
There were more memorable cycling adventures, like exploring the old roads near Kobuchizawa in Japan (above), touring in the Cascades (photo at the top of this post), and other rides in Washington State, Japan and Taiwan. One theme that weaves itself through most of these rides is that they’ve been enjoyed in the company of friends. For me, that is the best part of any ride.
What were your most memorable rides of the past year?
I like climbing, and I like mountain scenery, so I was excited when the Audax-Club Parisien introduced the Super Randonnée 600 (SR 600) brevets a few years ago. The idea behind the SR 600 is simple: Over 600 km (373 miles), the route climbs at least 10,000 m (33,000 ft). The best courses for me are not pure climb-fests, but beautiful routes with a good rhythm of climbing and descending.
The Super Randonnées have taken off in Japan – little wonder in a country with so many mountain roads. A year ago, Hahn and I attempted the Nihon Alps SR 600, but had to abandon at the half-way point due to a variety of factors, not least the navigation problems when we could not read the cue sheet and our phone’s GPS stopped working (BQ 51).
This autumn, while staying in Japan, I wanted to make another attempt at completing a SR 600. Unfortunately, the Nihon Alps route is currently interrupted by a landslide on Iida Pass, so I opted for the Fuji SR 600 instead. This route includes more than 11,000 m of climbing, so you get an extra 2 hours beyond the standard 50 hour time limit. 600 km in 52 hours – that should be do-able!
I brought the “Mule”, my Rinko bike, to Japan. Like the Japanese, I took the train to the starting point with my bike in its Rinko bag.
An hour after leaving Tokyo, I assembled my bike at the Takao train station and started my ride. The first part went through relatively densely populated areas. This time, I had opted to bring a GPS system. Fellow randonneur Tak Kawano had helped me set up the Fuji SR 600 route.
In addition to the route sheet (which was all in Kanji), the organizers’ web site had pictograms for each change of direction. Lacking a printer, I copied them onto several pieces of paper. A little over 100 turns seemed manageable for that long a ride.
I often think of music when describing cycling routes. Rolling courses can be light-hearted like a Schubert Waltz, mountainous ones often have the drama and pathos of a Beethoven symphony. The Nihon SR 600 course reminded me of the modern composer Stockhausen, with a disjointed rhythm that was hard to discern. Just like Stockhausen’s music probably puts exceptional demands on the skills of performers, I found the Fuji SR 600 to be an exceedingly challenging ride.
The first 125 km included a very nice mountain pass (above), but otherwise were mostly flat. How could this be on a Super Randonnée 600? Simple math dictates that the course had to climb at an average of 3.7%, if one assumes that half of it is up, and half is down! I already had covered more than 20% of the distance, and yet hadn’t really started climbing yet.
The answer became apparent during the first night, which turned into a surreal, vertiginous ride that went from almost sea level to more than 1800 m (6000 ft) – multiple times.
It started with a very nice, 25 km-long climb. SR 600 rides have control points where you take a photo of your bike, complete with the red-and-white SR 600 plate. Control Point 3 was this amazing viaduct. It’s incredible to me that a railroad used to go up this huge mountain pass!
Night had fallen by the time I reached the top. I stopped at a convenience store to eat dinner. Japanese convenience stores offer a decent selection of deli foods, so this was no hardship.
Then the climbing started in earnest. I went up and up for hours, then down at incredible speeds, before launching straight into the next climb, over and over again. I passed through a town built around Onsen hot springs that smelled like sulphur, then climbed a few hours more. Sometimes the gradient was so steep that I had to rise out of the saddle. Most of the time, I worked hard to crank my smallest gear. This is where the course was making up for the flat portion during the first part of the ride!
Without much rest, my legs were getting tired.
The night was clear, but there was no moon. As I gained elevation and left the trees behind, I saw an incredible panorama of stars. The Milky Way stretched almost from horizon to horizon.
There was hardly any traffic, but when a car passed me, I got to experience a “musical road”. Tiny grooves had been cut into the road, perpendicular to the direction of travel, at varying intervals. When a car went over these grooves, the tires made high-pitched sounds. If the car went at the recommended speed, it all coalesced into a recognizable piece of music. Only in Japan! It added to the surreal effect of the ride.
When I reached the highest point (above) in the early morning hours, I saw a sign indicating a temperature of -1°C (30°F). I had 1600 m (5200 ft) of vertical descending ahead. I didn’t waste much time at the top. I donned all the clothes that I had removed during the steep climb before launching into the abyss.
The cold air and lack of pedaling made me sleepy. Once I reached lower elevations, I stopped at the first convenience store, ate, and then napped for an hour.
The next day saw another climb above the clouds. This was another beautiful road, frequented mostly by sports cars. When a car passed me every ten minutes or so, there was a 50% chance that it was a Porsche, Lotus, older Nissan GT-R or other interesting machine, all driven respectfully.
A few hours later, I was on top of the world again, with a view down onto clouds and mountain ranges (photo at the top of the post).
The descent was amazing, with the autumn colors out in full force. What followed were a long set of rollers, for lack of better word, except that each roller was 3 miles long and climbed rather steeply. By now, my legs were most definitely getting tired.
When I pined for a cold drink, I followed signs to a small pass slightly off the course, surprised to find a full restaurant. Two old ladies were cooking, and in my broken Japanese, I asked them what would be quickest. Almost immediately, they brought a steaming bowl of soba. What a great second breakfast!
The relentless up-and-downs took me to the Yatsugatake Mountains. This volcanic range is one of my favorite landscapes in Japan. Its dry, loose soil makes for a more open landscape and more even gradients. It’s an area of grand vistas and great roads.
Night was falling again when I reached the second-highest pass of the ride. The exhilarating descent went through switchback after switchback. Then the course joined a major highway that wound its way through the mountains. Without warning, the road plunged downhill for another 25 miles (40 km). In the dark, I jockeyed for position with cars while coasting downhill at probably more than 60 km/h (40 mph) for more than 30 minutes. It was intense!
I was glad to reach Kofu and start a long tour of this major town, fortunately on backroads. Now in the second night of my ride, a beautiful climb up a deserted river valley was greatly enjoyable. A surreal element was an abrupt mile-long, brightly lit tunnel that was totally deserted, which brought me to the high-elevation lakes on the flanks of Mount Fuji.
The Fuji SR 600 derives its name from the fact that it circles Mount Fuji. At Lake Yamanaka, I was supposed to take a photo of my bike in front of the majestic volcano. In the pitch-dark night, all I could do is position my bike in front of the characteristic fence, and hope the ride organizers would accept this as proof of passage.
I traversed yet another small mountain pass, and then entered the final descent. Hahn and I had ridden this road during our first visit to Japan (BQ 48). It was even more fun at night, since there was hardly any traffic. I freewheeled for most of the next 45 km (28 miles) as the road lost almost 1000 m (3300 feet) of elevation, punctuated once in a while by a short burst of effort to crest a roller.
It was starting to rain as I approached my goal, but it didn’t matter any longer. I had intended to catch the last train from Takao to Tokyo at midnight, but instead, I was on the first train in the morning, at 4:30. I had just enough time to Rinko my bike and eat a little before I boarded the train back to Tokyo and fell asleep, just like many of the early commuters.
It took me 42:40 hours to complete the course – more than the Volcano-High Pass SR 600 that includes 110 km of gravel roads; more than the Raid Pyrénéen that climbs as high, but is more than 100 km longer. Why is the Fuji SR 600 so challenging?
I think it’s the rhythm – the climbing is concentrated in the middle portion, and it’s very steep. This means that you face the last third of the ride with tired legs. Add to that the cold nights in October, and it’s a true challenge. Each Super Randonnée 600 is different. They all are challenging, and you get a great sense of achievement when you complete one.
And for those not keen on riding almost non-stop, there is the Touriste version, which requires just riding 80 km (50 miles) a day, until you have completed the ride.
If you have ridden a Super Randonnées, we’d love to hear about your experience in the comments!
My trip to Asia reached a premature end. During the descent from Hehuanshan Pass, the highest road in southeast Asia, a car going in the opposite direction suddenly turned left right in front of me. Even though I was going at moderate speed, I could not avoid it. I hit the car’s side head-first…
I was very lucky to escape without life-changing injuries, but the impact was hard enough to break my shoulder, my arm, one or two vertebrae and a few ribs. Stefan, our German engineer in Taiwan, accompanied me to the hospital, first in Puli and then in Taichung. Care in Taiwan seemed overwhelmed by these complex injuries, and I was lucky that my friend Natsuko immediately came from Tokyo and got me on a plane to Seattle. The 20-hour trip was a bit of an ordeal, and we were so happy when we saw Hahn at the Seattle airport. He already had made arrangements, so we checked into the hospital, and a few days ago, surgery bolted my collarbone back together, so that my scapula can heal as well. (Two fractures had my left arm no longer connected to my torso by bones.) I am extremely grateful to these friends who have ensured that my outlook is as good as possible. Fortunately, a full recovery is expected.
I am encouraged that all the healing happens simultaneously, so the multiple injuries don’t mean it’ll take much longer to heal. I am looking forward to riding with my Seattle friends when the new cycling season starts again.
Meanwhile, the awesome crew at Compass Bicycles will fill your orders and handle Bicycle Quarterly subscriptions with their usual efficiency. Sometimes blog comments and other areas that I handle may take a bit longer in the coming months as I focus on healing first and foremost.
As I work through this long road to recovery, I remember the great cyclotouring adventures of the past month-and-a-half. One memorable trip was a 5-hour ship voyage to a mini-Hawaii off the Japanese coast, where we spent two beautiful days of cyclotouring organized by the Tokyo Cycling Association.
I’ll think of the amazing bikes and great company at the Hirose Owners’ Meeting. I’ll recall riding a 600 km Super Randonnée with 11,000 m of elevation gain through the autumn leaves of the Shinshu and Yatsugatake Mountains. I will cherish touring through the clouds in the mountains above Kyoto.
Visiting the factories that make our Compass products in Japan and Taiwan always is instructive, and discussing new ideas and projects was fun. And even the climb up the 3,422 m (11,227 ft) Hehuanshan was a great experience until it’s premature end. I’ll be busy writing all this up for Bicycle Quarterly and this blog over the coming months.
In the mean time, wish me well, and ride safely!
Click here for an update on Jan’s recovery.
It’s a common dilemma: You want to ride to the start of a cyclocross race. The distance of 20 miles to the start doesn’t bother you – it’s a good warm-up. But your expensive cross tubulars will wear off their knobs quickly if you ride them on pavement. What to do?
One solution is equip your bike for the commute with a spare wheelset with road tires, and carry your cross wheels to the race. I have seen various setups, from single-wheel Bob trailers to strapping the wheels to a backpack, but all leave something to be desired.
Years ago, I read how British time trialists faced a similar problem. They did not want to wear out their tubulars on the way to their events, or worse, get a flat that couldn’t easily be repaired on the road. So they made spare wheel carriers that allowed carrying a second wheelset on the bike.
I suspect the first of these were hand-made, but the British Cyclo company offered an aluminum version. I tracked down a set, figuring that they might come in handy for cyclocross.
You can see how simple the carriers really are: a flat piece of aluminum, bent to provide some offset for the wheels to clear the cantilever brakes. There is a hole at each end. One goes over the axle of the bike’s front wheel, the other receives the axle of the spare wheel.
Toe-straps stabilize the wheels on the handlebars. With quick releases instead of wingnuts, I had to put washers under the unsupported side, so the quick release could tension, but otherwise, installation was simple.
Riding with this setup was fine, but there were a few surprises:
Switching wheels at the race took less than a minute. My old Alan still is more than competitive against modern bikes. Or perhaps more importantly, the FMB tubulars it wears are absolutely wonderful. The race went well, too.
It was a dry day, so we didn’t get muddy, just lots of dust on our sweaty faces. The photo was taken seconds after the finish: It was fun!
Cross season is still going on. Give it a try! Do you have a way to bring along your spare wheels?
I thoroughly enjoyed the second Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting this last weekend. It had seemed hard to top the first-ever Un-Meeting, but this year’s gathering was at least as much fun!
About 50 cyclists met in Cle Elum for a day of riding and good company. The group split up into a “paved” ride that went up Old Blewett Pass and an “unpaved” ride that explored the Teanaway Hills. Both had a lot of fun.
We had gorgeous weather, and we found some amazing roads and trails.
A great variety of bikes and riders attended, with a large share of 650B wheels and wide tires. Many of us were surprised what you can do on randonneur bikes, but others did fine on cyclocross bikes. The riders on road bikes preferred the “paved” ride.
Despite the somewhat rough terrain of some of the rides, there were next to no mechanical issues: just a few flat tires and a broken light mount. Clearly, the participants knew how to ride, and their bikes were set up well with reliable parts. This meant that there was very little down time required to deal with bike-related issues, and all the more time to enjoy the ride.
Out-of-towners included George Retseck from Philadelphia, perhaps best known as the illustrator of the iconic 1990s Bridgestone catalogues. He is becoming an Un-Meeting regular…
…Fred Matheny, from Colorado, who was one of Bicycling magazine’s bike testers and Training and Fitness Editor during the 1980s…
… and Gerolf Meyer from Germany, formerly of the magazine Fahrstil, who now has his own radio show about bicycles! They really enjoyed getting a glimpse of riding off the beaten path in the Pacific Northwest.
The remainder of the crowd were from closer by in the Northwest. Since this was an “Un-Meeting”, it was slightly “un-organized” and thus impossible to get everybody into a single photo.
Despite a burn ban, we managed to find a fire pit at a local pub, where most of the riders congregated on Saturday night. (I had arrived only at 4 a.m. that morning after an night-time gravel ride out there, so I didn’t join the festivities this year, but went to sleep instead!)
On Sunday, many of us rode back to Seattle via the Iron Horse trail.
And coming back to Seattle, we were even treated to great views of the lunar eclipse and the sunset… a great ending to a wonderful weekend.
Let’s do it again next year!
For more photos from Un-Meeting participants, check out the hashtag #bqunmeeting on Instagram.
Update 10/2: Fred Matheny’s home state and job title at Bicycling magazine have been corrected.
The first Paris-Brest-Paris was held as a “utilitarian race” in 1891. Organized by the newspaper Le Petit Journal, the big event started with a parade through Paris, before the cyclists raced off toward France’s westernmost city, some 600 km distant.
On our way to the pre-ride bike check of this year’s PBP, Hahn, Theo and I decided to retrace the beginning of the very first Paris-Brest-Paris.
We met in front of Notre Dame. The original PBP did not go here, but Notre Dame is considered the “center of France”, and the first Flèches Vélocio started here. Left to right: Steve T. (who couldn’t join us), Hahn, Jan, Theo.
The original PBP started at the building of Le Petit Journal in the Rue Lafayette. The offices of Le Petit Journal occupied the center of the block (above), but they’ve been replaced by a modern building that attempts in vain to echo the grand portal of the original (below).
However, the adjacent buildings remain, giving a feel for the architecture. And best of all, cyclists still parade down Rue Lafayette. Today, they ride the wildly popular Vélib ride-share bikes.
Led by organizer Pierre Giffard and by the president of the Union Vélocipédique de France, more than 200 racers paraded through town, followed by hundreds of spectators on bicycles.
We followed their original route via the Place de l’Opéra and the Place de la Concorde (above). In 1891, thousands of spectators were lining the streets, and on each square, marching bands and orchestras played. In 2015, we were almost alone on the streets of Paris on this Saturday morning.
From here, we went up the Champs Elysées toward the Arc de Triomphe (photo at the top of the post). The actual race then started in the Bois de Boulogne, a large park that borders the Seine. We don’t know exactly where the start was.
The racers climbed the hill of Suresnes and went through Saint-Cloud (above). Back then, the Eiffel Tower was brand-new and highly controversial. Today, it’s one of the icons of Paris.
The first real hill of the race was the Côte de Picardie. The eventual winner, Charles Terront, was the first to arrive at the top, led by his pacemakers (which were then allowed in the race). Spectators lined the road, and wondered: “How long until he will come the other way?” Estimates ranged from 70 hours to 5 days…
The racers then “flew” through Versailles and passed the famous chateau. We took our time to stop and look at the impressive façades.
From here, we followed the original course for a few more kilometers, before turning off to head to today’s start in Guyancourt. On the way back, we retraced our steps and passed a commemorative plaque that answers the early-day spectators’ question.
At the exit of Versailles, Terront was in the lead again after a most exciting and eventful race. 71:16 hours after he started, he stopped for a last time before heading to Paris as the winner of the great race. After Terront’s death in 1933, this stone plaque was mounted on the restaurant where he had rested for a few minutes. When the building was demolished, the plaque was saved and mounted on a stone.
On our way back, we decided to follow the course of the post-war Paris-Brest-Paris instead of retracing our steps: We headed across the Seine to arrive at the restaurant Aux Trois Obus at the Porte de Saint-Cloud.
Theo recreated the famous photos taken at the finish by the great photographer Maurice Berton. Below is Roger Baumann, the fastest single-bike riders in 1956.
It is remarkable how little Paris has changed over the 124-year history of Paris-Brest-Paris. To me, that is one of the main appeals of riding this event: You really feel like you are riding in the wheel tracks of great riders like Charles Terront and Roger Baumann.
For further reading about the fascinating history of Paris-Brest-Paris, we recommend:
It’s less than two weeks to the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting! What’s unique about our approach is that it is not a set, planned route, but rather the opportunity to loosely gather and explore together. Last year’s meeting near Mount Rainier was great fun (above). This year we will meet on September 26 and 27 in Cle Elum, Washington.
The idea is to get together to ride bikes and talk in an informal setting. We really don’t need much more organization, fees, or prepared services. We are setting up a time and place and hope you’ll meet us there if you’d like to ride with like-minded cyclists. You’ll be able to figure out how to get there and where to stay.
Hahn did a recon trip up to Cle Elum and scouted the accommodations. For those who want to camp, we’ll be at the Whispering Pines RV Park in a nice, secluded area by the pond. There are showers, bathrooms and a propane grill. There is a burn ban as of today, so we won’t be able to talk around a campfire, but I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to hang out at night near our campsites. Cle Elum also has a number of inns and motels.
The Bicycle Quarterly crew will arrive on Friday night. Saturday’s ride will start at 8 in the morning at the campground. At 8:15, we’ll stop at the Cle Elum bakery (E 1st and NE Peoh Ave) for supplies. You can meet us there, too.
From there, we’ll head into the mountains. Most of us probably will explore a gravel loop, possibly the old road from Liberty to Swauk Pass. If you prefer to stay on pavement, you can head up the highway over Swauk Pass and then return via the old road on Old Blewett Pass. Or you can just go up to Old Blewett Pass and back. There are many options… The rides will probably be between 60 and 80 miles (100-135 km), but you can shorten the rides by turning around early. We plan to be back in Cle Elum for dinner.
On Sunday, we’ll ride back to Seattle via the John Wayne Trail – again on gravel, avoiding the highways except for a short section around Snoqualmie Falls.
Please note that no services will be provided, so make sure that you and your bike are in shape to do these rides (ie: there will be no sag wagons!) Bringing a map of the area is a good idea, too. (We recommend the Delorme Washington State Atlas & Gazetteer, where we cut out the sheets we need for a given ride.)
Last year’s Un-Meeting was great fun, and I am sure this year’s will be great, too. See you there!
After Paris-Brest-Paris, Theo and I rode out to Chanteloup in the hills west of Paris. After every PBP, we organize a small reunion of the Pilotes de René Herse (the riders on René Herse’s team) at the restaurant where the team used to eat after the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race. During recent reunions, some of the pilotes brought their bikes, and we rode around the course of the Poly.
Due to a relatively short notice, only six people participated, but it was a fun event nonetheless. Left to right: Theo, Lyli Herse, Jan, Jean-Marie Comte, Max Audouin (current-day randonneur and friend) and Robert Demilly.
Readers of the René Herse book will know Comte as one of the four riders who were a formidable presence in the randonneuring competitions that were popular at the time, including the Poly hillclimb races. However, they also were capitaines de route who guided the group rides of the Audax brevets… Being able to ride fast was an asset when trying to keep these groups together.
Robert Demilly, the other pilote at the reunion, came first in the 1966 Paris-Brest-Paris, together with Maurice Macaudière. They set a record of 44:21 hours in the process. The photo above shows Demilly leading Macaudière on the approach to Paris during the final stages of this amazing ride. (Their story was published in Bicycle Quarterly 21.)
We all enjoyed an excellent dinner, then Robert Demilly changed into his cycling clothes and led us during a lap around the course of the Poly de Chanteloup. On our way to the restaurant, we already had climbed the famous 14% hill that the randonneurs ascended 11 times during their 100+ km event.
We started our ride on the forested plateau of Hautil, then launched into the descent toward Maurecourt. The road is very steep and bumpy, but Monsieur Demilly handled his Look racing bike with aplomb. Max and Lyli followed in the car – Lyli wanted to relive her many tandem exploits in the Poly, but we couldn’t find a tandem to fit her. Two years ago, to celebrate her 85th birthday, I had the honor to pilot her around the course on an Herse “Chanteloup” tandem (with curved seat tube for better performance up- and downhill)!
In Maurecourt, we had to detour due to construction, but soon we found ourselves on the original course again.
After a short ride along the Seine, we turned up the hill of Andrésy. It’s not the main hill, but it’s steep and long. I had admired Monsieur Demilly’s pedal stroke on the flats, but now I could see that he also had plenty of power. Especially impressive for a 75 year-old!
We rolled along a false flat, then we turned a corner and found ourselves right in front of the beautiful church of Chanteloup. I couldn’t take a photo, since I was too busy shifting to the small chainring. Now the famous climb began in earnest. I sprinted ahead to take the photo above, and then had a hard time catching up to Theo and Monsieur Demilly. Part of it was the 1200 km of PBP that still were in my legs, but those two really climbed well (see also photo at the top of the post).
The hill was long, and it was hot. When we finally reached the top, we stopped at the monument for a professional racer who died in his 20s. Monsieur Demilly, who used to work as a mechanic for the French national team, filled us in on the details of this racer and his untimely death.
Then we went to Lyli Herse’s house for refreshments and more reminiscences. We talked until late in the evening, and the sun was setting when Theo and I set out to return to Paris.
We rode along the Seine, then crossed the Pont d’Asnières, passed near the Alex Singer shop in Levallois-Perret, before launching into Paris traffic on the way back to our hotel. As we jostled with taxicabs for position on the cobblestone roundabout of the Place de la Bastille, we shouted at each other: “What a fun day!”
Correction 8/24: The original post listed the square with the cobblestones as Place de la Nation. We traversed both, but only the Place de la Bastille has cobblestones.
A recent ride with BQ contributor Mark was typical: a combination of great training, enjoying the sights, and stimulating conversation. Except that this one was enriched by encountering some of my favorite cars… (I am aware of the many problems cars have caused, and I rarely drive them, but I do enjoy them from an engineering and design perspective.)
After warming up on the Burke-Gilman Trail on our way out of Seattle, Mark and I raced each other up Juanita Hill. This long hill has just enough variation in pitch to make it truly challenging. By myself, I never ride it as fast as I do when Mark is either pulling ahead, or right on my tail. On this day, I thought I had made a winning break, until Mark reeled me in and passed me a few meters from the top. My legs were so exhausted that I hardly could keep the bike rolling on the plateau at the top. (I did a similar from-behind comeback on the climb out of Holmes Point, so we were even.) It’s fun and great training for the long-distance rides we have planned for the summer.
As we rolled into Kirkland, we noticed a rare Citroën DS convertible parked on a sidestreet. Somehow, the two-door body accentuates the futuristic profile of the DS even further.
I explained to Mark that Henri Chapron, the coachbuilder who made these Citroën convertibles, was located in Levallois-Perret, not far from René Herse’s shop. So my bike and this car are from the same place. Then I remembered that my new Herse was made in Colorado… and because original DS convertibles are incredibly rare, this “Décapotable” (convertible) may well have been converted from a standard Citroën DS in the U.S.
Just then, we spied a rare Citroën SM in the driveway. This luxury coupe used a Maserati engine and was probably the most advanced car of the 1970s. As a little boy, I always looked inside exotic cars to see how far the speedometer went. The SM’s goes to 160 mph…
One of the most amazing features of the European-spec SMs are the six headlights. The innermost ones turn when you steer the car. Only Citroën would dare to make a car like that – totally different from anything else on the market, and yet making a lot of sense. Looking inside, we admired the oval steering wheel. From the outside, we could see how the car tapered to the rear for better aerodynamics, which meant that the rear track is much narrower than the front. It’s even more unconventional underneath the avant-garde sheetmetal… You have to admire the audacity!
There was a third Citroën parked on the street, a 1980s 2CV. A much more prosaic machine, but no less audacious. Designed in the 1940s, this utilitarian car had a 602 cc flat-twin engine that revved to 7000 rpm. Who but Citroën would put a miniature race car engine in an economy car? And make the suspension interconnected, so the rear wheels react to bumps encountered by the front wheels, to smooth out the ride? There even was a four-wheel-drive version with two engines, one for each axle…
The 2CV was also one of the last (perhaps the last?) car to feature separate headlights. On this “Charleston” model, they are round and chrome-plated…
After this pleasant interlude, we stopped at a café. To continue the French theme, I ordered an almond croissant, and to my surprise, it was just as good as those I had eaten in Levallois-Perret, where the Citroën factory was located.
Looking at my bike, I realized I really have to re-wrap the handlebar tape… The wear pattern shows that I mostly use the “on the ramps” position that makes the Maes Parallel handlebars so comfortable.
We then continued our ride, with Mark excitedly describing his recent interest in Bayesian Statistics. In short, Bayesian statistical modeling involves specifying initial beliefs by defining a prior distribution and comparing it to each new piece of data, adjusting the distribution as you go along. This is radically different from the standard approach of testing a “null hypothesis”. It eliminates many opportunities for error and yields a more reliable result. It’s also more intuitive – it sort of replicates what we do when we make real-life decisions based on emerging data… (Mark and I rarely talk about bikes on our rides, since there are so many fascinating topics.)
On the way back into Seattle, we saw a fourth Citroën, this one a late-model DS in my favorite color (photo at the top of the post). It was a pretty good day out on our bikes!
Recommended reading: Wikipedia on the fascinating history of the Citroën 2CV.
This year’s Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting will take place on September 26 and 27 in Cle Elum, Washington. The Un-Meeting is a simple idea for an event: Anybody is invited, but there is no organization, there are no entry fees, and no services are provided. The logistics of how to get to the Un-Meeting, where to stay, and where to eat are up to you.
We’ll go on some rides together and enjoy an evening campfire. The idea is based on the “Meetings” of Vélocio in 1920s France, where cyclotourists would gather to ride and exchange ideas.
Last year’s Un-Meeting (above) saw a diverse group of about 35 riders, who enjoyed at grand day out. To participate in the Un-Meeting, a basic level of fitness and a well-working bike are recommended, but you don’t need an Allroad bike, nor professional-level fitness. Last year’s event saw a rider on 23 mm tires and another on a hybrid commuter. All had a great time.
This year’s rides will vary in length between approximately 40 and 80 miles. Some will be paved, others will include gravel.
Cle Elum has some amazing roads. There is the Old Blewett Pass (above), which winds its way up to the crest of the Cascades, before plunging back down in a series of fast hairpin turns.
Canyon Road (above) is a wonderful road to Ellensburg that is all paved and smooth…and there is one of my favorite restaurants at the end. One of our rides probably will explore the gravel road that goes from the town of Liberty to Swauk Pass (aka New Blewett Pass).
Unlike last year in Packwood, there are numerous dining options in Cle Elum (not limited to this quaint burger place), and getting there is easy, too. In line with the spirit of Vélocio’s meetings, we encourage you to travel to the Un-Meeting by bike or public transportation, rather than by car. By bike, Cle Elum is about 90 miles from Seattle, with plenty of backroad options. The Greyhound bus serves Cle Elum, too, but unless you have a Rinko bike, you’ll have to box your bike. You could even enjoy the scenic train ride to Leavenworth and then enjoy the jog over Old Blewett Pass in anticipation of the Un-Meeting. We’ll post more details about where we’re meeting as the date approaches.
Mark your calendars! All of us at Bicycle Quarterly hope to see you in Cle Elum in September.
Last weekend was the Seattle International Randonneurs 600 km brevet. Not only was it the last brevet we needed to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris, but we also had a goal of finishing it in R60 time: 24 hours for 600 km.
Some readers my be surprised by our secrets on how to post such a fast time: We coasted a lot, and we walked a lot. (Of course, we pedaled as efficiently as possible in between coasting and walking.)
As usual, I rode my bike to the start. It was fun to ride through a deserted downtown Seattle so early on Saturday morning. It’s a moment full of anticipation, of looking forward to an extraordinary day on the bike.
The ride started at 6 a.m, and almost immediately stopped again. A long freight train was blocking a level crossing. Rather than wait (these trains can take 15 minutes or longer to get moving), some of us decided to head a few blocks to the North, where there is an overpass across the tracks.
We climbed up the steep hill to leave the Duwamish River valley, rode through the tunnel on top of I-90, then coasted down onto the Lake Washington bridge. Hidden behind Wade is Theo, in the aero tuck to make the most of his slender build. It’s amazing how low and narrow you can get on a bike… In the back, Ryan is leading the second group, also in the aero tuck to maximize his speed and catch back on without wasting any energy. As you can see, the coasting started early in the ride…
The morning was overcast, but the views were no less spectacular for it. The sun was peeking out from behind the clouds as we looked toward Bellevue. It was surprising to me how unstable my bike was as I took the photo. “Look where you want to go,” I wrote in one of Bicycle Quarterly‘s “Skill” columns. This is even more true when riding no-hands.
Our group smoothly climbed the Cascade foothills as we made our way south toward Mount Rainier. The reason you see so few photos of riders pedaling is simple: It’s hard to take photos while working hard. It’s only when coasting that I can easily reach into my handlebar bag and pull out the camera.
We weren’t the only ones having fun on the deserted roads this morning. It seems like we see this red Ferrari during every brevet that goes through the May Valley. Later during the day, when the going wasn’t always easy, I sometimes pined for something a bit more motorized than my mount…
With a time goal in mind, there wasn’t much time for slowing or stopping, and corners were taken at speed. I appreciated that even in mid-corner, Wade had a quick wave for the driver who had stopped for us. (We had the right-of-way, but unfortunately, not all drivers respect that.)
A few hours later, and we were approaching Mount Rainier. It looks so different every time I see it, depending on my viewpoint and the season. Right now, the volcanic cone still is covered with snow. It’s a long climb up the Nisqually River valley, but the gradient is almost imperceptible. So it’s easy to work too hard here trying to keep the speed up. The secret is to relax and go a little slower, rather than ride yourself into the ground.
Skate Creek Road always is a favorite, and on this glorious day, it was no exception. We played during the descents, here Steve is in the aero tuck, rapidly catching up to Wade who hasn’t tucked his arms and is visibly less aerodynamic.
As expected, we encountered fierce headwinds in the Cowlitz River valley as the warm air from the lowland rose up the slopes of the Cascades. Fortunately, our group of 7 was large enough to form an efficient rotating paceline. The wind was slightly from the left, and you can see that only Steve (first on the right) is bent low over the handlebars. He is just getting to the front, so he’ll be facing the wind head-on. But he has momentum from drafting the rider to his left, and he is about to pull off himself and slow down. The riders on the left are facing the wind with less protection, but they are riding slower than the protected riders on the right. This means that no rider ever faces the wind for more than a few seconds.
We went about 2 mph (3.2 km/h) faster than if we had just ridden in a standard double paceline, and expended less energy. And it was fun.
We had asked the organizer for permission to use backroads that took us off the “official” course that ran along the highway. We were assured there were no secret controls on these stretches of relief from the monotony and traffic of the highway. As an added bonus, the wind was much less strong on the sides of the valley.
The pace started to take its toll, and several riders elected to make a longer stop in Morton, so our group now was down to four. Here we enjoy the golden evening light on the way to the “overnight” control in Elma. The rough pavement seemed to take a toll on James on his racing bike, and he decided to stop and sleep, while Steve, Wade and I continued.
Steve, Wade and I have ridden a lot together. We know each other’s styles, so we can ride through the night without having to worry about touching wheels and crashing. Each of them is very smooth and predictable. The photo at the top of the post is typical: Coasting downhill, playing with each others’ drafts, so we are rotating even as we are in the aero tuck. Both also are great conversationalists, so the time never gets long with them!
Night fell as we rode along the Hood Canal, a glacial fjord that was most beautiful in the twilight. The hillsides were reflected in the water, and a few lights shimmered on the other side, while the sky slowly turned dark. (Unfortunately, my “on-the-bike” photos did not turn out.)
At midnight, we reached the control at the edge of the Tahuya Hills, where we enjoyed the hospitality of the volunteers, who made us hot soup. It was fun to sit around a campfire for a few minutes and relax, before tackling the pièce de résistance of this ride.
The Tahyua Hills are a magical landscape. Illuminated by the moon, the hills and valleys looked even more mystical than usual. These hills are steep and relentless, and depending on your form and state of fatigue, they can be daunting or a lot of fun. For us, it was the latter. The rises and falls of the road have a good rhythm, and we climbed them smoothly. Our headlight beams pierced the night as we speared down the descents, trying to discern where the road was leading.
When we reached the highway again with its punishing climb, we decided to walk. This allowed us to reach the long false flat on the approach to Seabeck with fresh legs. Instead of trying to recover on that long uphill, we started it with relatively fresh legs. Walking probably saved us time in the end.
We rested for three minutes in Seabeck, laying down on a picnic table. Then we headed up Anderson Hill Road. This road is the most punishing, and I don’t know anybody who enjoys it. The first part is steep. Then follows a super-fast downhill and an even steeper uphill. On top of that comes an even steeper hill. We walked the first hill, then coasted the downhill to gain speed that carried us up the next hill, before walking the third.
From there, it was relatively smooth sailing. Knowing that the finish was close made us forget the little aches and pains that are an inevitable part of such a long ride. Twilight announced the new day as we approached Port Gamble, and more backroads took us back to Bainbridge Island and the finish. We completed the ride in 23:35 hours and now are on our way to PBP! It was a hard ride, I cannot deny that, but the teamwork with friends is memorable and makes it special.
Oceans have a strong appeal to me. The Raid Pyrénéen, a ride across the length of the Pyrenees mountains, starts at the Atlantic and ends at the Mediterranean. On our Flèche 24-hour rides, we often visit the Pacific Ocean. Oceans seem like limitless expanses of water from the shore, yet you know that way, way, way over there, on the other side, there are exciting foreign lands.
In Japan, we had cycled for many kilometers along the Pacific Ocean, yet it wasn’t so exciting. On the other side of the vast water is… Seattle! Riding along the Sea of Okhotsk during our tour of Hokkaido had more romance, since it freezes over during the winter, and Siberia is on the other side. But I really wanted to see the Sea of Japan… which links Japan to Asia, and really provides the context for our experiences there.
Kyoto is located where the main island of Honshu is narrowest, so the distance “from shining sea to shining sea” is less than 100 km “as the crow flies”. I already was in the mountains north of Kyoto, so the Sea of Japan really wasn’t that far, and my friends from I’s Bicycle suggested a bike ride to Obama on the promised shore. They’d drive across the first pass, while I’d ride, together with their employee Choco, an avid randonneur who would ride all the way from Kyoto.
It was a frigid morning when I set out from the guesthouse where I was staying. Almost immediately, the road started climbing, gentle at first, then steeper as I approached the mountain pass. The cherry trees were in full bloom, but the temperature at the bottom of the pass was a frigid 39°F. I could not read the Kanji on the sign, so I didn’t know whether to expect snow on the pass. So I forged ahead…
On the other side of the mountains, I found the small town where I was to meet Harumi and Ikuo. That is where I finally encountered Choco, too (above). We had planned for me to catch up to him shortly after leaving my guesthouse, so we could ride together. Somehow, I had passed him on the single highway across the mountains without either of us noticing. One of the mysteries of long-distance riding…
Then we met up with Ikuo and Harumi Tsuchiya, the owners of I’s Bicycle. Together, we cycled up another mountain pass, which we traversed via a tunnel near the top. (There is no shortage of mountain passes in Japan!)
Choco and I briefly explored the old road across the pass, which was great fun, but we decided that it would take too long, so we, too, went through the tunnel.
We rode past cherry trees in full bloom (photo at the top of the post), along scenic backroads, and then, suddenly, there was…
… the Sea of Japan! Obama is located on a large bay, so you don’t get the experience of a “limitless expanse of water”, but it was still moving to realize that out in the distance (actually, to the right in this photo), there is the vast continent of Asia.
The bay may not give you a feeling of “limitless expanse of water”, but it makes the ride along the water much more interesting and varied. After lunch on the seaside and a short stretch on a busy highway…
…we joined a cyclepath that went high on the cliffs above the water.
The views of the water and shorelines were spectacular, but I was almost as interested in the slope stabilization projects on the other side. Faced with a very young and active landscape, the Japanese spend huge amounts to maintain their infrastructure and prevent damages before they occur. These concrete latticeworks span the mountains in Japan and stabilize slopes that otherwise might crumble into landslides.
After a snack at a beautiful antique store-cum-bakery in a small seaside town, it was time to head back.
Did I already mention that the cherry trees were in full bloom? I’ve always loved the “sakura”, but in Japan, they are incredible.
Choco and I split up from Harumi and Ikuo, who took a more direct route back. We cycled back into the mountains, had a snack at a small store (above)…
… and then it was just one more mountain pass for me. For Choco, getting back to Kyoto involved 70 km (44 miles) and four big passes. It didn’t faze him… but I have to admit that I was getting tired.
Not so tired that I didn’t admire the “yama sakura” (mountain cherries) high in the valleys. I am deeply grateful to our friends who took me here and showed me these beautiful places. It was a great outing, and one that I will remember!
“Let the guys on the 650B bikes to the front. They’ll be ahead anyhow.” That is what the organizer of the Seattle International Randonneurs 400 km brevet said before the start. We laughed – what a change from just a few years ago when many people thought I was exceptionally strong, since I could ride such a “slow” bike so fast.
So we rolled out together, but on the first twisty downhill, Wade, Theo and I got a gap on the rest of the field. Those wide tires really do corner faster…
We sped with ease over the rolling roads along the Snoqualmie Valley. Fog covered the meadows, but above, we could already see the sunny skies.
It turned into a gorgeous morning as we made our way up north. The course went from Redmond in the suburbs of Seattle almost to the Canadian border, where it would climb the lower slopes of Mount Baker. The sun was shining, and Wade’s shadow outlines what a fast brevet bike apparently looks like these days: Wide, supple 650B tires, fenders, handlebar bag. It helps that Wade is a very strong rider who races cyclocross as a Category 2. Theo has a perfectly smooth pedaling stroke as he spins up the steepest hills without apparent effort. Both ride predictably and are good company for a long, fast ride.
The second group came into view once in a while, but each time, the terrain turned hilly, and the gap opened again. Finally, about 100 km into the ride, they started catching us. Just then, I had a flat (super-sharp glass shard). Bad luck with flats this year, two already, whereas last year, I had only one all year…
The flat tire didn’t take long to repair, and then we suddenly found ourselves on brand-new pavement, and the scars of the terrible Oso landslide came into view. Even as a former geologist, it amazes me how far the debris from a deep-seated rotational slide can travel. The headscarp of the slide was more than half a mile away, yet all around us was the debris that had covered the highway (and adjacent houses). The mood was somber as we continued our ride…
We saw the last riders of the lead group leave Darrington as we arrived, but their legs were fresher from a longer stop, so they slowly pulled away from us. We enjoyed the lightly travelled backroads, including the wonderful Sauk River-Concrete Road (above).
In Concrete, the climbing started in earnest. The road that leaves the valley is incredibly steep, especially after having ridden a spirited 180 km. We saw the lead group struggle on the slope ahead.
We had agreed beforehand to walk the steepest stretch. It was good to stretch our legs (the slope is steep, perfect for a calf stretch). The brisk walk kept our heart rates up, but our cycling muscles were well-rested as we reached the top. The lead group was out of sight – riding is a little faster even on a hill this steep.
Our strategy was to use our well-rested legs and power over the stair-step climbs toward Mount Baker, while the lead group would struggle after exerting themselves on the steep climb.
It didn’t take long until the lead group came into sight. Our strategy worked exactly as planned. As we surged past the other group, several riders tried to jump on our wheels, but they later told us that their legs indeed were tired.
The competition between the two groups is friendly – in fact, several of my best friends were in the other group. The competition serves mostly as an incentive to keep riding hard as we chase each other around the course. It’s a game, not a fight. It helps us excel at what we love doing: Trying to cover the course as fast as possible.
For the time being, we were distracted by the scenery. My camera had a hard time capturing Mt. Baker in the mid-day sun, but the view was truly outstanding.
We appreciated a brief rest at the control that was staffed by the SIR organizers, then plunged back into the valley. We battled terrible headwinds on flat roads (a most demoralizing combination), saw the other group briefly at the last control, and then rolled at full speed with a nice tailwind. No photos from this portion, since we were working hard, with smooth, efficient pulls.
When we reached Snohomish, we calculated that if we kept our speed up, we might finish the brevet in less than 14:30 hours. That became our new goal. (Four years ago, I finished in 14:52…) Here we are waiting for a red light near the finish: Like the rest of us, Theo looks a little tired, but none the worse for wear.
Just as the last light was fading, we turned into Mark Thomas’ driveway and completed the ride. Our official time was 14:27 – not bad for a challenging 400 km brevet. It showed what a well-matched team can accomplish. Thanks to my riding buddies – it was a fun ride!
Postscript: After an hour of recovery and socializing, we headed back to Seattle under an almost full moon. It was a magic ride and a great way to finish a wonderful day.
I am back in Japan to discuss our new tires with Panaracer, talk to other suppliers, ride bikes, visit friends, enjoy great food… It is delightful to return to places that are starting to become familiar.
My Rinko bike that we call the “Mule” is back in Japan – now actually finished and painted, unlike last time, when I had completed building it just hours before the plane left, with no time to have it painted.
I had a great view of Mt. Fuji from the train. The Shinkansen bullet train is fast! In the time it took the camera shutter to move from top to bottom of the photo, the railings in the foreground already had moved backward!
I had planned to work on the Summer 2015 Bicycle Quarterly on the train, but by the time I was done with breakfast, we were almost in Kyoto.
It was nice to see my good friends at I’s Bicycles (who also were going to take my suitcase to Miyama, where I am staying for a few days.) I un-Rinko’ed my bike, and headed into the mountains for the 80 km (50-mile) ride to Miyama. The road starts climbing right in front of I’s Bicycles shop. I have more than 1600 m (5500 ft) to climb before I get to Miyama. Click here for the route.
The cherry trees are in full bloom in Kyoto and amazingly beautiful. I apologize for the poor cell phone photos – I left my camera in my suitcase, not planning to take any photos on this ride with its tight schedule. The scenery turned out too beautiful to resist…
I soon reached Kurama with its beautiful temple. I didn’t have much time – dinner in Miyama was in 4 hours, and even though that seems like ample time for 80 km, once I had bought food and made it through Kyoto’s rush-hour traffic, my schedule was getting tight. But I couldn’t pass the temple without at least a brief visit. Above is just one of the many temple buildings that dot the entire slope of Mount Kurama.
Past Kurama, the road starts climbing in earnest, with hairpin following upon hairpin, until it reaches Hanase Pass at 750 m (2500 ft elevation). It was raining, but after all that climbing – Kyoto is almost at sea level – I wasn’t cold.
The descent was exciting and a good place to bed in my new brake pads, since I couldn’t just let the bike roll at speed in the dense fog.
A brief interlude in a bucolic valley was followed by the ascent to Sasari Pass. This is an absolute gem with a beautiful flow to it. The sign at the bottom says “10%”, but it’s not as steep as the Hanase pass (which obviously must be steeper than 10%). When I crested, it was dark.
Unlike the first time, when we underestimated the severity of the weather in the mountains, I was prepared this time. It was still warm enough that I didn’t need my puffy vest, but I put on my jacket and wool gloves for the descent.
At the first hairpin of the downhill, I encountered snow! To think that just down in the valley, the cherry trees are in full bloom! The descent, despite the rain and fog, was great fun. I remembered the road, having ridden this descent twice almost a year ago. I only held back a bit because I was afraid of hitting deer. I did encounter a few white-tailed creatures, but they scampered up the impossibly steep slopes as I approached.
Once I reached the valley, it was a time trial, with a slight downward gradient, but also a headwind, for an hour to reach my destination. A last brief climb over the “Exciting Team Risk Pass”, and I was in Miyama – just in time for a delicious dinner. And the hot bath afterward felt especially good!
Every year, the first brevet of the season sort of sneaks up on me. I’ve been enjoying bucolic rides with friends for the first months of the year, and then suddenly, the 200 km brevet is just a few days away. It serves as a reminder that if I want to be in shape this summer, my training now needs to be a bit more focused. The brevets are part of that training…
There are many different approaches to riding brevets. I enjoy challenging myself to see how fast I can complete the course, in the tradition of the French randonneurs of the mid-20th century. This means that for the first time this year, “the clock is ticking”.
Seattle has had a very warm and dry winter. The day before the brevet, errands took me to the University of Washington, where the cherry trees were in full bloom. Any hopes for a warm and dry brevet were dashed by the weather forecast, which called for rain and more rain. Welcome back to Seattle weather!
Having to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris this year means it is not an option to stay home and wait out the rain. As it turned out, that was a good thing, since the brevet was great fun.
A 200 km brevet is both easy and hard. Easy, because pacing isn’t too difficult – I go pretty much all-out all the way. Hard, because, well, I am going pretty much all-out for close to 8 hours.
The “Escape from Seattle” 200 km of the Seattle International Randonneurs used a nice course that starts and finishes just a few kilometers from my house, making logistics easy. The course goes north through Seattle, where there is little traffic this early in the morning. Then we follow scenic backroads in a large loop before returning to Seattle from the east. The course intersperses short hills, where we get to stretch our legs, with flat roads, where we can recover from the hills. It’s a perfect early-season ride.
The start is always exciting. I greet acquaintances whom I have not seen all winter, and I meet new riders. We sign in, sign the waiver, and get our brevet cards. I fold my route sheets in what I think is the best way. (I prefer folds to be at a control or during a long stretch of road without turns, so I don’t have to turn over the sheet in a rush.) It’s a beehive of activity, and anticipation is in the air. And then there are a few words from the organizer, Mark Roberts, and we are off.
Right after the start, I found myself riding next to Theo Roffe, inveterate randonneur as well as Compass Bicycles’ newest employee. We spun up the long incline to warm our legs. We did not plan to ride the entire way together, but fortunately that is how it turned out, since our speeds and riding styles were well-matched on that day. Rather than drafting behind each other, we rode a little offset to avoid the spray on the wet roads. When it got truly wet and windy, we rode side-by-side and chatted a bit.
We climbed up the many short rises as the course traversed the hilly terrain north of Seattle. We swooped down the steep downhills in the aero tuck. We enjoyed roads that we rarely ride, and we took turns navigating, since our cue sheets were folded differently. This meant that turning the cue sheet could wait until a straight stretch of road made turning the cue sheet possible without stopping.
We did not stop unless we needed to. A few times a year, going all-out is an exciting challenge and welcome change of pace. We did have time for photos, cafes or taco trucks, which is a different pace and mindset from the rides I usually do. It reminds me of what I enjoyed about racing, but without the competition. It’s like being in a breakaway without having to worry about the final sprint. It’s pure teamwork, and it’s exhilarating.
It was a very windy day. No trees were blown over, but fallen branches littered the roads in the forests. On the open stretches, the wind was an invisible wall. Riding into head- and cross-winds isn’t either of our strengths, so we struggled at times. After the last control in Carnation, we slowed down a bit to recover before climbing the last big hills on the way into Seattle.
As we descended toward Lake Washington, the clouds parted, and we got a gorgeous view of downtown with the Olympic Mountains behind. That’s when we decided that we wanted to try and finish the ride in less than 8 hours. So there was no time to stop, but I still snapped a few photos while descending at 30 mph – hence the blurry “impressionist” quality of the shot.
We had a flat tire (sharp, long shard of glass picked up on a highway shoulder), and we didn’t know whether we’d make our goal until we climbed one last rise to the house of organizer Mark Roberts’ house. And then we were done! Volunteers signed our brevet cards for the last time. After 7:48 hours, with no more than 10 minutes off the bike (including fixing the flat), the clock stopped ticking.
It had been an intense experience, and great fun. One of the volunteers took our photo seconds after we dismounted our bikes in organizer Mark Roberts’ leafy garden (above). It was nice to finish the ride in such a nice setting, rather than a parking lot or a noisy pub.
My bike was leaning against the railing, none the worse for wear. Thanks to its generous fenders, it wasn’t even very dirty despite having been ridden at speed in the rain all day. Unlike its rider, it was ready to continue for another 200 kilometers, or even 1000.
For me, it was time to sit down, catch my breath, enjoy a drink and some chili, and chat with friends.
Sam (left) and Steve (right) arrived shortly after us…
… and so did Ryan (right; with Theo). It was nice to see them all riding strong, but most of all, we all enjoyed the ride. It’s only the start to the season, but it bodes well for PBP. We’ll have a lot of fun this year!
If you have been around randonneurs lately, you’ll have noticed a buzz around three letters: PBP. The 1200 km ride from Paris to Brest and back has captured the imagination of cyclists for more than a century. It’s now organized every four years, and 2015 is one of those years!
Randonneurs sometimes have a hard time communicating why they love this ride. They tend to focus on the easy-to-convey logistics instead – how to qualify, which start time to pick, etc. It makes it sound like it’s all about logistics and sleep deprivation.
Don’t be mislead: it’s one of the greatest rides in the world! Here are nine reasons why this unique ride is so appealing:
1. Ride with randonneurs from all over the world
As you settle into the long ride, you’ll find yourself riding with others who ride at a similar pace. During my first PBP in 1999, I rode with randonneurs from Texas, Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, England, Australia, and a few other countries. By pure chance, I rode for half a day with an old friend from Toronto (above), and I met another rider from the Bay Area with whom I had corresponded via e-mail.
With more than 5000 riders at the start, you’ll rarely ride alone. Unless you need a break from all the stimulation. Then you can just wave good-bye and speed up or slow down a bit so that the road is yours alone.
2. Be a hero in a festival of cycling
You’ll ride through little villages at 2 a.m., and people will be standing by the roadside, cheering you on with shouts of: “Bravo! Allez, allez!” In many places, locals put up tables with food and water. They cheer as much for the last rider as for the first. They are excited to be part of this event, and they make you feel special. Some riders have said they feel like riding in the Tour de France, but I think it’s even better, because these are local peole, not cycling fans, and their enthusiasm is all the more heartwarming for it.
3. Ride on great roads
Most of the time, PBP goes over the bucolic backroads of Brittany. Cattle graze languidly on green pasture. Hedgerows line the road. Birds chirp in the brushes. The road curves as it dips and rises with the landscape. There is hardly any traffic, and drivers are very considerate. It’s some of the best cycling anywhere.
4. Ride into history
When you ride on those little roads in Normandy, you are riding in the tire tracks of the pioneers of cycling. You can imagine friendly ghosts populating the landscape: Charles Terront, who won the very first edition (top photo); Hubert Opperman (above), the Australian racer who came first in 1931; Juliette Pitard, who completed every PBP over a 30-year period (1921, 1931, 1948, 1951).
If you talk to the spectators, you realize that many of them rode PBP in the post-war years, and are glad to share their memories. Being able to rub shoulders with the greats of our sport is special. Also, don’t skip the awards ceremony! Last time, you were able to meet the three fastest riders in 1961, plus Lyli Herse, Roger Baumann (fastest in 1956 and finisher of 10 PBP), the late Gilbert Bulté (fastest tandem in 1956 and organizer in 1966) and a number of other great anciens.
5. Experience France as it used to be
During PBP, you traverse hundreds of ancient villages that have not changed much in decades, if not centuries. You pass by old churches and canals with beautifully kept lockkeepers’ houses. In the stone villages, there are small bakeries, little brasseries and tiny grocery stores that invite you to stop, eat a meal or refill you supplies.
99% of the time, you ride through a bucolic landscape that is far from the megastores and shopping malls that now infest much of France. If you want to experience France as it used to be, PBP is a great way to do so.