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Archive | Testing and Tech

Tool Kit for Paris-Brest-Paris

Before I started the 750-mile (1200 km) Paris-Brest-Paris on a brand-new bike, I thought about the tools I needed to bring. After months of training and the expense of traveling to France, it would be a shame not to finish the ride because of a mechanical.

I love the feel of a lightweight bike. My new Rene Herse weighs just 10.3 kg (22.7 lb.) fully equipped with fenders, lights, racks and even the pump. I didn’t want to carry unnecessary weight. But I also know that a few grams wouldn’t make a significant difference in my PBP time, and not being able to fix a problem could end my ride.

How to decide which tools to bring? I realized that bike-related mishaps fall into three categories:

1. Avoidable Problems

Most problems can be avoided through careful design and good workmanship. Rather than fix problems, I prefer to make sure that they won’t happen in the first place. This is especially important for issues that will stop my ride because they are impossible to fix on the road – things like broken frames and failures of major components.

The components of my new bike use quality materials, good design and careful workmanship. Most have been tested thoroughly, both in the lab and during 100,000s of miles on the road. Even the prototype rear derailleur has covered thousands of miles during 1.5 years of testing. I was confident that all the parts of my bike were unlikely to fail.

Bolts coming loose also fall into this category. The attachments for fenders, rack and other parts on my new bike are based on decades of experience. Bolts are dimensioned correctly and made out of appropriate materials: Steel where strength is paramount; titanium where bolts are large because they need to hold big parts (like brake pad posts and water bottle cages); aluminum in one rare instance where the bolts just hold the rear bake arms in place. All these bolts are unlikely to cause trouble.

Careful assembly is equally important. I used beeswax on most screws, which first lubricates the threads – important to get the tightening torque right – and then hardens to act as a thread-locking compound. (Crank bolts are lubricated with grease due to their high torque and large size.) There is no Loctite anywhere on the bike, because it’s not needed with good design.

2. Wear and Tear

Most parts will fail eventually. For a ride as important as Paris-Brest-Paris, it makes sense to replace those that are easy to replace: tires, tubes and cables. With a new bike, these were not going to be an issue. Otherwise, I’d have replaced them before heading to France. On a bike that has seen a lot of use, I’d also check rims (or brake rotors) for wear, as well as brake pads.

Spokes on well-built wheels last 10,000s of miles – longer with wide tires, since they cushion the loads that reach the wheels – but eventually, they will fatigue and break. It was nice to have a fresh set of wheels for the ride. Otherwise, I would have carried a spare spoke and nipple, plus a spoke wrench.

3. Inevitables

Some problems are difficult to eliminate, but easy to fix. These are the only problems that I was prepared to fix on the road.

Flat tires fall into this category. They are not likely on the clean backroads of France: In six PBP, I’ve had just two flat tires. Both occurred during the same rainy 2007 ride, when I used part-worn tires in an attempt to gain speed, before we developed the Extralight casings. Still, no matter how few flats we get – whether it’s a flat every 3,600 km on my Rene Herse Extralights or every 10,000 km on ultra-tough, puncture-resistant tires, we need to be prepared for a flat tire.

I carried two spare tubes, not because that is the most flats I ever got in a single PBP, but because there is always a possibility of double pinch flats: Most roads in PBP are smooth, but there can always be construction sites, small curbs… I also carried a piece of tire casing as a tire boot. At night, I might run over something big and sharp that could cut my tire. I haven’t cut a tire in more than a decade, but I know it can happen. (An energy bar wrapper works as a tire boot in a pinch, but a dollar bill doesn’t.) My bike carries a pump on the seatstay, so I didn’t need to include one in my toolkit.

There was one other concern: On my new bike, the saddle height might need fine-tuning. For that, I would need a 5 mm wrench. And since I have a 4/5 mm combined wrench, I brought it. That way, I could adjust a fender stay if it got bent in a fall.

On bikes with narrow chains and integrated shift levers, chains can break. If my bike had that type of drivetrain, I might bring a lightweight chain tool. On my ‘manual’ bikes, I feel the gears engage, and I’ve never broken a chain.

During the 56+ hours on the road, I didn’t need any of my tools. My trouble-free bike brought me peace of mind. I was free to concentrate on pedaling well. My control stops were focused on getting food and rest, rather than messing with my bike. It made for an uneventful PBP, and that was a good thing.

What tools do you bring on long rides?

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A Bike for the Solstice Ride

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!

Click here to find out more about Rene Herse components.

 

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Tune Your Tires!


With wide tires, you can tune the ride of your bike to the terrain and to your personal preferences. This gives you options that simply did not exist in the past.
Gone are the days when we inflated our narrow tires to the maximum pressure and rode on rock-hard rubber. Even with narrow tires, you can lower the pressure a bit to get a (slightly) more comfortable ride. Of course, there is only so much you can do – the feel of the bike won’t really change. There is simply too little air, and you’ll get pinch flats if you reduce the pressure enough to make a real difference. The only way to transform the feel of a racing bike is to get different tires – that’s why professional racers have always run hand-made tubulars with supple casings (well, at least since the 1930s).
With wide tires, supple casings also make a huge difference. In addition, you can choose your tire pressure over a wide range: The 54 mm-wide Rene Herse Rat Trap Pass tires that Hahn is running in the photo above work great at pressures between 20 and 55 psi. That means you can cut the pressure to almost a third of the maximum, if you want. (For comparison, this is like running narrow 120 psi racing tires at 45 psi. Don’t try this with 25 mm tires!)

With wide tires, you can tune the feel of your bike by adjusting the tire pressure. The same tire will feel completely different depending on how hard you inflate it. This is something that you really start to notice with tires that are wider than 40 mm.

At 55 psi, my Firefly with its Rat Trap Pass tires feels firm and buzzy like a road bike on narrow tires. There is no noticeable flex in the tires, no matter how hard you corner, or how fast you sprint. You’ll feel every detail of the road surface almost unfiltered. The extra air does take off some of the harshness, and the extra rubber gives you more grip, but the feel is similar to a bike with narrow, high-pressure tires.

Why doesn’t the 54 mm Rat Trap Pass feel wallowy like a 25 mm tire at 55 psi? If you think of the tire as an air spring – a piston in a cylinder – then pressure is only one factor. The other is the diameter of the air cylinder. To compress a 54 mm tire takes more force than to compress a 25 mm tire, even if both are inflated to the same pressure.
Even with wide tires, you can get the feel of narrow tires, if you inflate them to (relatively) high pressure. But you also have options to tune your bike by letting out some air.

At first, not much is happening – 55 psi is far more than most riders will ever want to use in these tires. At 30 psi, you still get the firm feel of a ‘road bike,’ but more shock absorption and even better traction. This is the pressure I ride on very smooth roads.

At 25 psi, the tire has a lot more compliance. Now it really feels like an ultra-wide tire. It still corners great, but you can go over bumpy roads and really feel the suspension. This is the pressure I use on most paved roads.

On rough gravel, I let out even more air. At 20 psi, the tire really floats over the gravel. This is how I imagine a rally car with ultra-expensive shock absorbers feels: ‘breathing with the surface,’ gently going up and down over bigger undulations, but insulating you from the smaller bumps and vibrations. It’s an amazing feeling, and, without the bike bucking under you, you can put down power at all times. It’s fun to ride at ‘road’ speeds on rough gravel.
And even at this low pressure, there is enough air to prevent the tires from bottoming out. Even with tubes, I don’t get pinch flats – unless the terrain is really rough and rocky and speeds are ultra-fast.

When you’re descending at very high speeds on very rough terrain, you’ll have to increase the tire pressure a bit to avoid bottoming out too often. Even if you run your tires tubeless, you risk cutting your tires and damaging your rims if you bottom out too often and too hard.

When you return to pavement, 20 psi isn’t enough. The tire starts to squirm and run wide in corners. When you rise out of the saddle, it feels wallowy as it compresses under the thrust of your pedal strokes. And if you really push the limit, the tire can collapse in mid-corner.
Back on pavement, I inflate the tires back to 25-30 psi. If my ride includes both pavement and gravel sectors in quick succession, I often just keep the pressure around 25 psi, so I don’t have to mess with it.

Tire pressure is not just about shock absorption – it also affects the power transfer of your bike. A frame that is too stiff for the rider’s power output and pedaling style is harder to pedal – a little compliance smoothes out the power strokes and allows the rider to put out more power. We call this ‘planing,’ but it’s hardly a revolutionary idea.
Usually, that compliance comes from the frame. That is why high-end, superlight bikes perform so well, even on flat roads where the weight doesn’t matter. The lighter frames use less material, which makes them more flexible. Conversely, ultra-stiff bikes can feel ‘dead’ and hard to pedal to many riders.
With wide tires, that compliance can come from the tires, too. When we tested the Jones (above), we found it to perform wonderfully with its tires at ‘gravel pressure.’ When we aired up the tires for a fast road ride, the bike suddenly felt sluggish. This is the opposite of what conventional wisdom might tell you, but when we lowered the tire pressure again, the wonderful performance of the Jones was back. This has nothing to do with rolling resistance – it’s all about how much power we could put out thanks to the added compliance in the system. The Jones ‘planed’ best with its tires at relatively low pressure. This means that you can use tire pressure to adjust how much ‘give’ you have in your bike’s power transmission. I’ve found this a useful tool to get the most out of many Bicycle Quarterly test bikes.
Speaking of rolling resistance – don’t tires roll slower when you let out air? At least with supple tires, tire pressure makes no discernible difference, not even on smooth roads. As long as you have enough pressure that the bike is rideable, your tires roll as fast as they do at higher pressures. And on rough roads, lower pressures will be faster, both because the suspension losses are reduced and because you can put out more power.

Tuning your tires is fun. It optimizes your bike for your preferences and for the terrain you ride. Of course, tire pressure first and foremost depends on your weight – the numbers in this post assume a bike-and-rider weight of about 80 kg (175 lb).

Tire pressure also depends greatly on the casing of your tires. The values in this post are for Rene Herse Extralight tires. With Standard or Endurance casings, you can run about 10% less pressure. With a stiffer casing, you run even less air, all the way to airless tires that run at zero pressure. As your tires get stiffer, you lose the ability to tune your ride, because air pressure plays a smaller role in supporting the bike-and-rider’s weight. The beauty of supple tires is that air pressure is the main component that holds up the weight of bike and rider. This makes it easy to tune your tires.
Rather than inflate your tires to a set number, experiment with tire pressures to see how this changes the feel of your bike. Also remember that the gauges on pumps aren’t always accurate – use them only to replicate a setting that you’ve found useful in the past, rather than try to inflate your tires to an exact pressure. Once you’ve found values that work, you can quickly change the feel of your bike based on where you’ll ride and how you want your bike to feel. This makes cycling even more fun!
Further information:

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Riding the new Open WIDE


Every BQ test bike that arrives at our office is greeted with enthusiasm. When OPEN hinted that they had a revolutionary, top secret, new bike they wanted us to try, we were even more excited than usual. Until now, we’ve had to keep the new bike under tight wraps, but it’s just been launched, so we can tell you about it.

So what makes the new OPEN WI.DE. special? Officially, WI.DE. stands for ‘Winding Detours,’ but it really means that the new OPEN fits really, really wide tires. And yet you can run road cranks with a narrow Q factor. Almost as exciting are the fender mounts that you can see lurking in shadows – OPEN’s new fender system will debut later this year.

How wide are the tires on the WI.DE.? Our test bike’s 650B boots measure a whopping 61 mm, and they are about as wide as will fit.

OPEN pioneered the dropped chainstay. The stay no longer sits between the tire and the chainring, but underneath. That means that the tire can be wider without pushing the chainring outward: You can run road cranks with a narrow Q factor, rather than mountain bike cranks. For most cyclists, a narrow Q factor means a more natural spin, more power and less fatigue. And yet you can run 61 mm tires. That is amazing.

New for the WI.DE. is the left chainstay: It also drops downward. This isn’t just to provide more clearance, but to create a box section that stiffens both chainstays. It’s often said that stiffer chainstays make a bike perform better. Does the WI.DE. deliver?
[youtube https://youtu.be/PMOkSzwJ-Sc?rel=0&w=640&h=360]
We’re only in the early stages of our test, but first impressions are… well, the WI.DE. is really amazing. I never thought that I’d want tires wider than 54 mm, but now I am riding with 24% more air. And I could feel it during my first rides in the city. Rough streets are smoothed out, and riding in traffic, I can pick the best line regardless of the road surface. And best of all, the WI.DE. really likes to go fast. It’s a bike that entices me to push myself harder, to squeeze out that little bit of extra speed and fun. When I return home, I am tired, but elated.

Now I’m dreading the day when OPEN asks for their bike back. That will be very soon, because many magazines are lining up to test the new bike. We’re glad to be the first to ride it, and I’m determined to enjoy it as much as possible. We’ve already planned a great adventure for it, and the full test report will be in Bicycle Quarterly soon.
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Oregon Outback: the event that changed all-road bikes


It’s hard to believe that the first Oregon Outback, that incredible 363-mile gravel race, was just five years ago. It’s almost like we live in a different world now, so much has changed…

Back then, the idea of running a race that traversed the entire state of Oregon from south to north – on gravel roads! – seemed completely outrageous. So seemed the idea of riding the entire distance non-stop. And the idea of riding a road bike on these gravel roads. More than one rider told me at the start that they were astonished to see me on my Rene Herse for this grueling event. I am sure Ira Ryan, on his Breadwinner B-Road, heard similar comments.

A joyful crew rolled out of Klamath Falls on Memorial Day weekend in 2014. Most were on mountain bikes equipped with bikepacking gear. Nobody knew what to expect. Would it take two days or a whole week to reach the Columbia River at the other end of the state? There were few options for bailout; there was no support – this was a real adventure.

It did not take long for the race positions to shake out. By the time we reached Switchback Hill (above), there were three riders at the front. Ira Ryan was the favorite, having won the Trans Iowa race in his home state. He was riding on 35 mm tires – which was considered wide! Another strong racer was on a mountain bike. He had opted for narrower 700C tires. I was on the widest rubber, with our just-released 650B x 42 Babyshoe Pass Extralights.

I couldn’t match the speed of the other two, not helped by a broken hand that was still in a brace… With almost 300 miles to go, I settled into my own pace.

As the day wore on and the ground got softer, I could see Ira’s tracks swerving wildly from side to side. There was only one set of recent tracks, so I knew that the second rider had abandoned by now… Even on my 42 mm tires, I was struggling. And yet, on the (even softer) edge of the road, I could see the tracks of two mountain bikers who had come through here a few days earlier. Their wide tires had enabled them to ride in a straight line…
A few hours later, I reached one of the three towns on the route, where I met Ira Ryan’s camera crew. I learned that he was just 15 minutes ahead. Even though I had struggled on the loose surface, I had made up a lot of time – probably because my tires were wider.

The solitude of the long day on the road gave me time to think. I remembered how the Paris-Dakar Rally had fascinated me as a teenager. I could see parallels to the Oregon Outback: In the early Dakars, competitors used 4×4 trucks, which seemed the best vehicles to traverse the deserts of northern Africa. Then Porsche developed a four-wheel-drive version of their 911 sports car and won the Dakar in their first attempt (above).
Here in the Oregon Outback, it was obvious that the wide tires of mountain bikes provided an advantage on very loose gravel. Yet it was also clear that the mountain bikes themselves were holding back their riders on what really were roads after all. For the Dakar, Porsche had allied four-wheel drive with sports-car performance. Could we do the same and combine the wide tires of a mountain bike with the performance of a road bike?

By the time I climbed Antelope Hill, I had a plan: We’d take our all-road bikes beyond the 42 mm-wide tires that we’d been riding until then. I was certain that ultra-wide road tires would transform our bikes’ performance on gravel and other loose surfaces.

The last miles of the race went by in a blur. When I saw that Ira had written “Go Jan!” into the gravel, I knew I was on the home stretch. (Thank you, Ira, for encouraging me!)

After losing much time in the middle of the night – I back-tracked for more than an hour to make sure that I was on course – there was no hope of catching Ira. (He was faster anyhow!) My goal now was to finish in 30 hours. I redoubled my efforts and let the bike fly on the descent to the Columbia River.

I made my goal – and took the photo above after realizing that there was nobody at the finish. But I also wondered how much faster (and more fun) the ride would have been on wider tires.

Back in Seattle, I went to work on making road bikes with ultra-wide tires. My only concern was that nobody had ever ridden supple road tires that wide. Would they even be rideable? Or would the wheels bounce down the road like basketballs? Before we invested in tire molds, we needed to test this. So I asked the engineers at Panaracer in Japan (who makes our tires) to make prototype tires with our Extralight casing, using a mountain bike tire mold. A few weeks later, eight completely hand-made tires arrived. Now we had super-supple knobbies, but we wanted road tires.
The next step was to send the prototype tires to Peter Weigle, the famous framebuilder and constructeur. Years ago, he built a machine to shave the tread off tires, before we offered wide high-performance tires with just the right amount of tread. Peter shaved off the knobs to turn our prototype tires into slicks (above). The result were probably the most expensive bicycle tires ever made, but now we finally had 54 mm-wide, supple, slick tires that we could test.

Alex Wetmore had a 26″ bike that fit tires this wide, his Travel Gifford. We borrowed it and installed the new tires. If you look carefully, you can still see where the knobs were on the prototype tire above. It’s hard to describe our excitement: We were about to try something completely new.
enduro_allroad_cobbles
Then we started testing the new tires. On gravel, the 54 mm-wide tires were amazing. The bike just cruised over stuff that would have meant serious ‘underbiking’ on 42 mm tires. It was fun!
enduro_allroad_web1
What surprised us even more was the new tires’ performance on pavement. The grip was just incredible, both because there was so much rubber on the road and because the soft, supple tires no longer skipped over bumps. On this difficult descent in Leschi, you usually have to be cautious and brake for the bumpy turns. With the new tires, we pedaled as hard as we could, yet we weren’t able to reach the limits of grip. Did I say the testing was fun?

Knowing that the ultra-wide road tires worked as well as we had hoped, we ordered molds for two new tires: the Rat Trap Pass 26″ x 2.3″ and the Switchback Hill 650B x 48 (above). Both were revolutionary at the time, by far the widest high-performance road tires anybody had made in more than half a century. (Some very early pneumatic tires had been quite wide, too.)

There were no road bikes yet for such wide tires, so we worked with Firefly to make us a custom titanium road bike designed around the 26″ Rat Trap Pass tires. We took it to 13,000 ft (4000 m) on the Paso de Cortes in Mexico (above), where it performed even better than we had hoped. (Testing the new tires was definitely fun!)

26″ wheels make sense for tires this wide, but the 650B wheel size had more traction at this point – that is why we introduced tires for both wheel sizes. The next step was obvious: Bike makers needed an inexpensive OEM tire before they could commit to making bikes for tires this wide. As a small company specializing in high-performance components, this wasn’t something we were equipped to do.
Fortunately, others were taking note of our pioneering work. In 2016, WTB launched its Byway tires. Now there were ultra-wide 650B road tires at OEM price points. Bike manufacturers were quick to act, and before long, almost every bike maker designed bikes around this tire size. Today, the size introduced with our Switchback Hill tires has become a new industry standard.

It’s hard to believe that all this started just 5 years ago, with the first Oregon Outback, that incredible 363-mile gravel race.

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Myth 16: Higher Tire Pressure is Faster


This used to be one of the first things you learned as a cyclist: If you want to go fast, make sure your tires are pumped up to the maximum pressure. The harder your tires are inflated, the faster they roll.

We now know that this isn’t true. The realization that tire pressure does not affect performance is the key to the revolution that has swept through the cycling world in recent years. Without this new-found knowledge, all-road bikes and their supple, wide tires would make no sense at all. Here is how it works.

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What Makes a Good Winter Tire?


Winter riding is fun. The crisp air, the clear skies and the beautiful views. Getting out and breathing fresh air. There are many reasons to enjoy it.
Winter riding requires preparation. The most obvious is clothing – which we’ll leave for another post. Today, let’s talk about what makes a good winter tire.

Cold temperatures make rubber less grippy. There is no way around this. In theory, it should be possible to formulate rubber compounds specially for optimum grip in cold conditions. In practice, many ‘Winter Compound’ bicycle tires offer less grip in cold conditions, rather than more.
With all tires, you need to consider the reduced grip when it’s cold. Especially on familiar routes, it can come as a surprise when the grip suddenly bleeds away, at speeds that are well within the limits when the temperatures are warmer.

Having ridden many tires in cold conditions, I can say with confidence that the rubber compound of our Compass tires is among the most grippy you’ll find anywhere, cold or warm, wet or dry.

The chevron tread of Compass road tires helps to improve traction by interlocking with the road surface – which works regardless of the temperature. Even so, take it easy during cold days!

What about snow? Snow is surprisingly grippy. How much tread you need depends on the temperature: Cold snow requires only a chevron tread, like that of our road tires, to hook up. (You’ll see an imprint of the tire tread on the snow surface.) But when the temperatures are around freezing, the slushy snow is slippery, and you really need knobs to get good grip. (The knobs don’t hurt when it’s colder, either.)
Should a snow tire be wide – to float over the snowpack? Or narrow – to cut through the snow and try to find grip on the ground underneath?

Rally cars use narrow tires in snow. They are heavy and powerful, which allows their tires to dig down to a firm surface underneath the snow.

Snow cats use the opposite approach: Their wide tracks allow them to travel on top of deep snow without sinking in.

For bicycles, wide tires seem to be a better choice. Compressing the snow takes energy, and the less you sink in, the easier you roll. And cyclists don’t have enough weight and power to dig through the snow into the firm ground below.
What about ice? Under most conditions, only studded tires grip on ice. They punch holes into the ice that allows them to interlock with the surface. However, studded tires aren’t much fun to ride on dry roads. I suspect that a supple tire with studs wouldn’t work well – you probably need a stiff tire to push the studs into the (hard) ice.
There is one other issue: When it snows, many communities spread fine aggregate on the roads for better traction. Often, that aggregate contains freshly crushed rocks that can be very sharp and cause flat tires. In our area, we’ve found that the crushed rock will puncture worn tires – probably both because they are thinner and because aged rubber is easier to cut. Running relatively new tires has eliminated that concern for us.

If you live in a place that sees snow, but also dry roads, our dual-purpose knobbies are hard to beat as all-round winter tires. They roll as fast on dry roads as most racing tires. They corner as well as most road tires (above). And yet on mud and snow, they offer the grip of the best knobbies. Available in 700C x 38 and 650B x 42 mm, they are a great choice for rides where you may encounter all kinds of conditions.
Click here for more information about our tires.

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Bicycle Quarterly Movie: A 30-Hour Ride

[youtube https://youtu.be/MBUSuXHhsBQ?rel=0&w=640&h=360]
How do you test a bike like Mitch Pryor’s latest MAP All-Road? With its 48 mm-wide tires, fenders, racks and full lights, this is a bike designed for epic rides. How about taking it on a 30-hour, non-stop ride that traverses four mountain passes and crosses the crest of the Cascade Mountains twice?
Enjoy our little movie about this adventure! (Make sure to click on the ‘full-screen’ icon.)
Read the full story in the Winter 2018 Bicycle Quarterly. Subscribe today, and you’ll get your copy before the holidays.
Click here to subscribe to Bicycle Quarterly.

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Myth 15: Marginal Gains


‘Marginal gains’ are the latest buzzword in cycling. The idea is that many tiny improvements can add up to make a meaningful difference. Make 10 changes that each save 3 Watts, and you’ll have gained 30 Watts…

Think of Greg LeMond winning the 1989 Tour de France by eight seconds… If the second-placed rider, Laurent Fignon, had used ceramic bearings, he might have won that year.

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Disc Brakes in the Tour de France


This year’s Tour de France has had its share of drama, and the winner won’t be the one most observers predicted. Among the sporting achievements, the technological innovation was easy to overlook: Finally, the UCI approved disc brakes, and the Tour is the first big stage race where they’ve been used.
Reading the previews of Tour bikes, it sounded like all racers would make the switch. Just in time for the big race, several big bike manufacturers rolled out new race bikes with disc brakes that approach the UCI-required minimum weight. With no weight penalty to speak of, adopting disc brakes seemed like a no-brainer.

After all, brakes are maybe the most important components of a racing bike. When Mafac introduced their first centerpull brakes in 1952 (above), it didn’t take long until almost all racers adopted them, so superior was their performance. It didn’t matter whether they rode for French, Italian or even the ‘International’ teams – braking hard before the corners was more important than allegiance to national sponsors. And when Campagnolo rolled out their sub-optimal ‘Delta’ brakes, racers refused to use them. Campy backpedaled and resurrected their old sidepulls in a hurry. With disc brakes being heralded as the most important innovation in decades, most expected shiny metal circles to appear on the hubs of the entire peloton.

And indeed, during the first stages, most teams rolled out on bikes with disc brakes (above the finish of Stage 5). Ironically, most of the disc brakes were on aero bikes used for flat stages, where brakes make no difference in the bike’s performance.

As the race continued, most racers quietly switched back to rim brakes. The yellow jersey contenders had used rim brakes from the beginning. Why?
The racers were concerned about flats. Through axles require extra time during wheel changes. Worse, the inevitable manufacturing tolerances change the alignment of the disc rotors on different wheels, even if the same model of hub is used. Unless the disc calipers are adjusted, the new wheel’s rotor will rub. (We realized this during our most recent tire tests, where we thought we could speed up the changes between different wheel sizes, but had to adjust the disc brake calipers after every run.)
BMC Racing found a work-around solution to the problem: When a rider flats, they don’t change wheels, but the entire bike. However, this also means they no longer can use neutral support. Most other teams weren’t willing to run that risk.

When the Tour entered the mountains, many observers expected the racers to switch back to disc brakes.

If disc brakes have an advantage, it’s on the vertiginous descents of the Alps and Pyrenees. Since racers have moved to wider tires with more grip, descents have become much more exciting, with higher speeds and more attacks than in the past. Braking is more important than ever. And yet, there was hardly a disc brake in sight.

What happened? I asked a former mechanic of the French national team. He indicated that the introduction of disc brakes was due to sponsors’ demands. With the big component and bike makers pushing discs, it was useful if pro racers used the new technology.
So why did the racers use rim brakes when their sponsors wanted them to use discs? If discs were superior, racers would have used them, especially in the mountains. After all, a real advantage on the many descents of this year’s Tour would have outweighed the relatively small risk of losing time due to a wheel change.
The answer is simple: Really good rim brakes stop just as well as even the best disc brakes. And many riders find that rim brakes offer superior feel: The brake lever is directly connected to the rim via a cable, rather than having the feedback dulled by the wind-up of the spokes and by hydraulic fluid. It’s refreshing that even today, where bike racing has become big business, winning races still is more important than pleasing sponsors.

In the future, I expect that the problems with wheel changes will be overcome by standardizing the disc location. A friend has already done this, using thin washers to make sure all his wheels fit all his bikes without adjusting the brakes. It’s a lot of work, and team mechanics will not be happy…
Rotors will also have to be standardized – currently, teams use both 140 and 160 mm on the front – to simplify neutral support. And then, the sponsors finally will be able to showcase bikes with disc brakes in the Tour. For now, it’s clear that disc brakes don’t offer a big advantage over the best rim brakes.

Back in 1952, it was different: Centerpull brakes swept through the pro peloton. With their pivots placed next to the rim, they offered greatly superior stopping power and modulation to previous brakes. In fact, the rim brakes that dominated the 2018 Tour de France use the same principle – only the actuation is different to eliminate the need for straddle cables and cable hangers.
Further reading:

Photo credits: A.S.O./Tour de France.

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A knobby faster than most road tires?


At Compass, we see little point in replicating what you already can buy from others. When we made our first knobby tires, we wanted true dual-purpose tires. Could the new knobbies match the on-pavement of good road tires, yet grip as well in mud as true cyclocross tires. Impossible? You’ll never find out unless you try…

After a few seasons of cyclocross, there is no doubt that the Compass Steilacoom (700C x 38 mm) and Pumpkin Ridge (650B x 42 mm) offer plenty of grip and shed mud well – as you’d expect from their widely spaced knobs.
How about their on-pavement performance? I’ll let others speak on that. Matt Surch, the well-known Canadian gravel racer, wrote: “I don’t understand how the tread rolls so fast and quiet… these are wild!”

When BQ tester Mark tried them, he wrote: “Once the wind drowned out the tire roar at high speed, I was thinking about how unremarkable the Steilacoom tires had rolled on the paved descent. I had pretty much forgotten that I was riding on knobbies.” Yet he was glad to have them when a road closure detoured us via a muddy trail (above).

And now Mike Stead tested a set of Steilacooms for www.road.cc. Among other adventures, he set two Strava records on these tires. One was for a gravel descent. His comment: “I wasn’t even pushing that hard. […] The Steilacooms make you a better, faster descender than you deserve to be.”
The second KOM surprised not just him, but us as well: He set a new record for a flat-out 60-second sprint – on pavement. He wrote: “Averaging 45 kph, the Steilacooms made an awesome high-pitched noise as I fanged along the straight. Just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, I went back the next week and recorded exactly the same time to the second.”
Mike’s time on the Steilacooms was two seconds faster than the previous KOM record, which he had set on our Barlow Pass tires. Does that mean our knobbies are faster than our road tires? Not necessarily – there are too many variables – but it shows that they certainly aren’t much slower. And that is remarkable, considering that our road tires are among the fastest in the world.

In a future post, I’ll explain how we created a knobby that doesn’t ride like a knobby… until you hit mud or snow, when it behaves exactly like a knobby. But don’t take our word for it – read Mike Stead’s review.

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Myth 9: Fork Blades Don’t Flex


When we first started talking about shock absorption and fork blades, it was commonly believed that fork blades didn’t flex significantly. Experts told us: “All the flex in a fork is in the steerer tube, where the lever arm is longest.” And yet, when we rode bikes with flexible fork blades, they clearly took the edge of bumps. Was this another myth in need of debunking? Continue Reading →

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How to Test Tire Performance


In the 15 years of Bicycle Quarterly, one of our discoveries has been that testing bicycle performance isn’t easy, and that taking shortcuts often has led to erroneous conclusions.
Carefully designed tests that replicate what happens when real cyclists ride on real roads have allowed Bicycle Quarterly to debunk several myths. Certainly, the biggest change in our understanding of bicycles has been about tires.
Tires, more than anything else, change the performance, feel and comfort of your bike. We now know that fast tires can increase your on-the-road speed by 10% or more. But how do we know which tires are fast?
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Lab testing is the most common way to test tire performance, usually on a steel drum (above). In the past, these steel drums were smooth. Now the testers have added some texture to simulate the roughness of the road surface. Unfortunately, that doesn’t address the fundamental flaws of drum testing:
1. The curved drum pushes deep into the tire

Since the drum is convex, it pushes deep into the tire, unlike a real road, which is flat. The more supple the tire, the deeper the drum pushes. This makes the tire flex more, which absorbs more energy. That is why a stiff tire performs well on the drum, and a supple tire does not. We know that the opposite is the case on real roads.
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Increasing the tire pressure also makes the tire harder, and so the drum won’t push as far into the tire. That is one reason why drum tests show higher pressures rolling much faster (above). According to this data, increasing your tire pressure from 60 to 120 psi (4.1 to 8.3 bar) reduces the resistance by 30%!

Bicycle Quarterly‘s real-road testing (above) has shown that the opposite is true, especially for supple tires: They roll slower at 100-120 psi than at lower pressures. (Higher power = slower.)

This problem with drum tests has been recognized for a long time. There is a way around this problem, but it’s very expensive: Make the drum so large that it’s barely convex. One of the best drum testing rigs is in Japan, and from what I’ve heard, it measures about 7 feet in diameter. That means it’ll push into the tire much less, and thus it won’t make stiff tires seem faster than they really are.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have efforts to measure tire performance on small-diameter rollers,  like those used for training. That will always be futile: Anybody who has ridden on rollers knows how high the resistance is, because the rollers push so deep into the tires. And if you want to increase the resistance further, you just let some air out of the tires…
Not surprisingly, tests on small-diameter rollers show the ultra-supple Compass ‘Extralight’ casing rolling not much faster than the ‘Standard’ version. On real roads, the performance difference between the two is quite noticeable.

TOUR magazine in Germany has designed a test rig that eliminates the problems associated with the convex drums: Two wheels carry weights that are off-center, so they rock the wheels like a pendulum. This test rig rolls back and forth on a flat surface. You could even use it to test on real roads. The longer the test rig rocks from side to side, the lower the tires’ rolling resistance.

This test showed the Compass Bon Jon Pass as the fourth-fastest tire they’ve ever tested. (‘Rollwiderstand’ means ‘rolling resistance;’ the dark bars are for ‘rough asphalt;’ the light ones for ‘smooth asphalt;’ to convert the pressure from bar to psi, multiply by 14.5)
It’s interesting to compare the same tires – Compass Bon Jon Pass 700C x 35 mm tires (standard casing) vs. Continental 4000 S II in two tests:

  • www.bicyclerollingresistance.com tested on a steel drum:
    • Compass (6 bar / 90 psi): 15.8 W
    • Continental (7 bar / 100 psi): 12.9 W
    • Conti has 18% lower rolling resistance.
  • TOUR magazine used their rocking test rig:
    • Compass: 17 W
    • Continental: 17.5 W
    • Conti has 3% higher rolling resistance.
    • Compass is fourth-fastest of all tires TOUR tested (graphic above).

It’s clear that the drum test disadvantages a supple tire – the stiffer Conti performs much better. Adding to the confusion, www.bicyclerollingresistance.com gets lower resistance values than TOUR – it should be the other way around with the drum pushing into the tire.
There is another odd thing: TOUR shows the wider Compass tire in 4th place on the smooth road surface, but in 5th place on the rough surface, where it gets beaten by the narrower Conti rolling at higher pressure. That isn’t how it works in the real world, where the advantages of wider tires and lower pressures are greatest on rougher roads. That brings us to the second problem of these lab tests:
2. No rider on the bike
rumble_smooth
Without a rider, you have no significant suspension losses. Suspension losses are the energy that is absorbed when vibrations cause friction between the tissues of the rider’s body. Without a rider, there is nowhere to absorb the energy – steel weights don’t behave like human tissue.
Without suspension losses:

  • vibrations wouldn’t slow you down.
  • wider tires would be slower than narrow ones.
  • higher tire pressure would make your bike faster.

On the road, with a rider on board, all these statements are false – because suspension losses absorb energy, and reducing suspension losses is key to making a bike go faster. Understanding suspension losses has revolutionized our understanding of tire performance. It’s the underpinning of the ‘wide tire revolution.’

The lab tests described above are like a return to the last century, when we all ‘knew’ that narrow tires rolled faster because they could run at higher pressures. So we ran 19 mm tires (above) and inflated them rock-hard for optimum performance. That was long ago – when did you last see a short-reach racing brake with so much tire clearance?
Today, even professional racers run 25 mm tire at 80 psi. They have found that this is faster, no matter what the steel drum tests say. Racers have concluded: When tests don’t replicate the real world, they aren’t of much use.
At least TOUR‘s test rig gives us some indication about the energy absorption in the casing. It neglects one half of the equation – the suspension losses – but it’s useful if we understand its limitations. On the other hand, tests on small-diameter drums are just misleading – because if you design a tire to perform well in these drum tests, it’ll have a stiff casing and ultra-high pressures. And that means it won’t perform well on real roads.
A better lab test?

Is there a way to design a realistic lab test for tire performance? After all, Bicycle Quarterly‘s test procedures – testing only on totally calm days; when temperatures are constant; with a rider who has trained to keep the same position for lap after lap – are fine if you are doing scientific research. But they are not feasible for commercial applications, where you need to be able to just mount a tire on a wheel, take it to the lab, and get an immediate reading of its performance – without having to wait until the weather is right, the wind has died down, and the temperature is constant.
At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve been thinking about this. Current drum tests load the tire with metal weights that don’t absorb much energy as they vibrate. Is there another material that behaves similar to a human body? ‘Ballistic gelatin’ is used to simulate gunshot wounds in human tissue. It closely simulates the density and viscosity of human tissue. Using a material like that to weigh down the wheel might simulate the suspension losses.
Suspension losses vary with speed (higher/lower vibration frequency), so TOUR‘s rocking rig probably would not work – it simply moves too slowly to replicate suspension losses at normal cycling speeds.
That brings us back to the steel drums. You’d have to make the drum huge to reduce the problems with the convex surface. The drum surface itself would have to be a true replica of actual pavement, not just a diamond tread. You’d probably want to map a bunch of road surfaces with a laser and then use EDM (electrical discharge machining) to engrave an ‘average’ road surface into the steel drum surface. You could make interchangeable plates covering the drum with several road surfaces that feature different roughnesses. And why not a gravel road, too?
Validation

To validate your test rig, you’d take a fast, a middling and a slow tire, and test them on the road, just like Bicycle Quarterly has done. If your drum test results match those on the real road, then you can be confident that they replicate real-world conditions.
Back to Real-Road Testing
tire_test
As you can see, making a useful test rig is a huge undertaking, which is probably why nobody has done it yet. For now, tire companies continue to develop their tires with the help of simple steel drum tests. That may be the reason why they don’t offer their supple high-performance models in truly wide versions: The steel drum tests indicate that you lose performance quickly as you run tires at lower pressures. And since supple, wide tires cannot support high pressures, steel drum tests suggest that wider tires should strong and not supple.
At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ll continue to test tires on real roads. To get good results, we can’t just put a power meter on a bike and go for a ride, then change the tires and repeat. We must keep the conditions the same for all tests. First, this means testing in a controlled setting, like a track. Second, we must control the variables tightly: test only on days with no wind and constant temperature, test each tire multiple times, and do a rigorous statistical analysis of the results.
The statistics are important, because there always will be some ‘noise’ – even in a lab test, because the tire warms up the longer you run it on the machines. The statistical analysis shows where you are recording real differences between tires and where you just see ‘noise.’
After more than a decade of testing tires under real-world conditions, we can say with certainty:

  • Supple casings, more than anything else, determine the performance of your tires.
  • Wider tires roll as fast as narrow ones on smooth surfaces, and faster on rough ones.
  • Higher tire pressures don’t make the bike faster.

There is little doubt about these findings any longer – they’ve become widely accepted, even though the lab tests still haven’t caught up to the new science. But for us as riders, what matters is how well our tires perform on real roads, not on a steel drum.
Further reading:

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Myth 8: Modern Components are Lighter


To celebrate Bicycle Quarterly‘s 15th anniversary, we are looking at myths in cycling – things we all used to believe, but which we’ve since found out not to be true. During these 15 years we’ve learned a lot, and perhaps the most intriguing discovery is that modern parts aren’t as light as some classics. In some cases, there are functional reasons why modern parts are heavier. At other times, modern parts really could be lighter. Continue Reading →

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Myth 7: Tubeless Tires Roll Faster


When tubeless tires first became available, they were designed for mountain bikes and it was their resistance to pinch flats (above) that made them popular. Off-road, there are few nails or broken bottles that can cause punctures (and even those usually will be pushed into the soft ground rather than puncture the tire), but rims can bottom out on sharp rocks and other obstacles. So much so, in fact, that top mountain bike racers used to race on tubular tires – because tubular rims make pinch flats less likely. Eliminating tubes did the same, and while you still could ‘burp’ the tire, in general, tubeless allowed running lower pressures with fewer problems. Continue Reading →

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How are Compass Tires Different from Panaracers?


From time to time, a customer will ask us: “How are Rene Herse and Compass tires different from Panaracers?” It’s no secret that Panaracer makes our tires – we benefit from the research and technology of one of the best tire makers in the world. Panaracer’s engineers know more about casings and tread rubber than almost anybody, and they translate our ideas into tires that outperform all others in their intended environments.
That also means that it may not be immediately obvious how our tires are different from Panaracer’s own tires, like the Gravelking – or even Panaracer’s budget model, the Pasela. At first sight, with tan sidewalls and black tread rubber, they can look very similar. They are even made in the same factory!

Recently, we had the opportunity to spend some time with Mark Okada from Panaracer Japan (right) and Jeff Zell from Panaracer USA (left). When I mentioned the Pasela, Mark just laughed: “They are completely different tires that have almost nothing in common.” 
I guess it’s the same as asking whether a Bugatti Veyron supercar has the same engine as a base-model Volkswagen Golf, since both engines are made in the same German factory…
What about the Gravelkings, which are available with a tread pattern similar to that of Compass road tires – evidence that the technology transfer between Compass and Panaracer goes in both directions. Jeff said that Panaracer gets the same question, and this is their reply:
“The Gravelkings and the Compass tires are two different types of tires. The reason that Compass tires are so successful is that Jan and Compass have a clear vision for what they want in a tire, and Panaracer has the technology to deliver that. The materials and the construction of the Compass tires vary from the Panaracer line, because of the performance that Compass wants to deliver to the customer. The components that go into the Compass tires, and the processes to make them, cost more, hence the price difference. Both are high-quality tires, but the ride and performance are different. If you’re looking for the most supple tire that incorporates all cutting-edge tire technology, you’ll choose Compass. If you’re willing to sacrifice the ultimate ride quality Compass is known for, to get a little more puncture and sidewall protection, then Panaracer has you covered there.”

Which tire is best for you really depends on your riding style and terrain. Natsuko rides her 30 mm-wide Compass Elk Pass Extralights on really rough gravel with little trouble (above), but if you are somebody who tends to get a lot of flats or destroys tires with rock cuts, we’d recommend the Gravelkings. As the name implies, they are designed for riding on rough gravel, which also means that they can be a bit overbuilt for riding on the road.
The Compass tires (above) are designed for riding on the road, but they also work well – and offer superior performance – on gravel, provided the rider lets the bike move around and doesn’t force it into rocks that could cut the sidewalls. It helps if you ride wide tires. Not only are they faster on rough surfaces, but their lower pressures also make the sidewalls less susceptible to cuts: the tire just deforms when hitting a rock.
Around here, we ride Compass tires – even on our Urban Bikes – because they offer world-class performance while being strong and durable enough for everyday use.
Click here for more information about Compass tires.

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Myth 6: Tread Patterns Don’t Matter on the Road


To celebrate 15 years of Bicycle Quarterly, we are examining 12 myths in cycling – things that we (and most others) used to believe, but which we have found to be not true. Today, let’s look at tire tread.

“Bicycles don’t hydroplane,” declared some experts many years ago. “Hence, tire tread patterns don’t matter on the road.” The first part is true – even wide bicycle tires are too narrow to lose traction due to hydroplaning – but the conclusion assumes that tread pattern only serves to evacuate water from the tire/road interface. Continue Reading →

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Myth 3: Fenders Slow You Down


To celebrate 15 years of Bicycle Quarterly, we are looking at ‘12 Myths in Cycling’ – things that aren’t quite what we (and most other cyclists) used to believe. Part 3 of the series is about fenders.

Many cyclists here in Seattle install fenders when the rainy season starts, and remove them for the dry summer months. British time trialists even had quick-release fenders that they used on the ride to the start; then they took off the fenders for the actual competition. Our research indicates that this isn’t necessary – fenders don’t slow you down. Here is why: Continue Reading →

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Myth 2: Titanium is Lighter than Steel


In part 2 of our series ’12 Myths in Cycling,’ we’ll look at why titanium isn’t always lighter than steel. I can hear you saying, “What? Everybody knows that titanium has half the density of steel.”

That much is true: The same part made from titanium will weigh half as much as the equivalent from steel. But titanium has only half the stiffness, so the part will be half as stiff. To make the parts of the same stiffness, you need to use twice as much material with titanium, and the weight will be equal. The same applies to aluminum, which is one-third as heavy and one-third as stiff. (These numbers are for the high-strength alloys; raw aluminum, titanium and iron are not strong enough to be used for cycling applications.) Continue Reading →

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Myths in Cycling (1): Wider Tires Are Slower


When we started to publish Bicycle Quarterly 15 years ago, it seemed that most of the technical aspects of bicycles were well-established. And yet, as we tested many different bikes, we started to question many of the things we had accepted as ‘facts.’ To celebrate our 15th anniversary, we’ll look at some of these myths. We’ll explain why we (and everybody else) used to believe them, and how things really work. Let’s start this series with the biggest one:

Myth 1: Wider Tires Are Slower Continue Reading →

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We Aren't Models!

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!

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The Best Drivers' Cars are 50 Years Old


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Ultra-wide tires: Unfair advantage in ‘cross?


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).

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Cyclodonia on the J. P. Weigle from the Concours de Machines

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)

  • 2nd place,  Concours de Machines
  • Prix de la Légèreté [Prize for the lightest bike]

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.

weigle concours de machines entier.JPG

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.)

weigle pedalier herse.JPG

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:

weigle canti arriere b.JPG

Other components were drilled and machined to remove material. One of the most noticeable pieces of work were the quick release levers:

weigle patte arriere.JPG

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.

weigle canti

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:

weigle levier vitesse.JPG

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:

weigle canti 2.JPG
weigle perso canti mafac.JPG

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:

weigle decaleur.JPG

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:

weigle bavette

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:

CM weigle BdP.JPG

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.]

CM Weigle arrivee

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.

weigle pompe

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.

weigle leviers qr.JPG

Lighting
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:

weigle feu compass.JPG
weigle feu catadioptre.JPG

Rinko
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:

weigle ferule

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:

weigle garde boue arriere scindable.JPG

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.]

weigle butee gaine

Classic
What makes the Weigle so classic is that its aesthetic decisions always appear to be justified by practical function.

weigle porte paquet
Weigle chape herse avant.JPG
Weigle fentes.JPG
weigle garde boue

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:

weigle sonnette

The Rene Herse components have been featured in an earlier article of the blog.
More information about the J. P. Weigle bike:

 

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Two Years of Racing on Compass: Interview with Matt Surch


Long-time Bicycle Quarterly reader Matt Surch (above) put his name on the map when he won last year’s Steaming Nostril gravel race on Compass Bon Jon Pass tires. We checked back in with him to see how the tires performed in the year since then, and to hear about his road racing on Compass Cayuse Pass tires.
JH: With another season of riding and racing on the Bon Jon Pass tires, how do you feel about them?
Matt Surch: Frankly, the Bon Jons have been exactly what I’ve been hoping for in a gravel tire. This comes down to two key aspects: 1) volume – 35 mm is perfect for so much of the riding I do off paved roads. 2) tubeless – I love this format for its road feel and flat resistance. One of the things I’m really enjoying with the Bon Jons is that they are perfect for the rides where I head out the door without much more of a plan than to ride fun stuff. That tends to mean taking paved roads up to Gatineau Park, then piecing together spans of trail, some of which are very old dirt roads, in novel ways. I just go where I feel like going, try branches I don’t know, discover things. While the 32s are a bit small for rides like this, and the 38s bigger than required, the Bon Jons are the Goldilocks option: just right.
The Bon Jon has become my go-to for gravel, and I have them mounted on wheels that are on my cyclocross/gravel bike all summer. I have a pair of 32mm extralight Stampede Passes on another steel all-road bike for paved rides that I don’t need my aero road bike for.

Tell us about some memorable rides or races on these tires.
Sure, I have a couple that come to mind, from perhaps opposite ends of the spectrum. The first was our big annual local criterium in Ottawa’s Little Italy neighborhood, the Preston Street Criterium. This was the 44th edition of the race, which draws the best crit racers from Toronto and Montreal, in addition to our locals. I can still remember the first time I visited the crit, about 15 years ago, with my friend and longtime Compass tire evangelist, Rodd Heino. I barely touched my road bike then, and didn’t even consider racing.
I only took up racing criteriums in 2015, in fact, after waiting until I was sure I could ride at the front of the local training races as much as I needed in order to stay safe and learn the ropes. So last year, on Father’s Day, I raced the Preston St. Crit for the second time in the ‘Pro’ race. As I’d been doing all season, I was on the 26mm Compass Cayuse Pass Extralight tires on my Cervelo S5 aero road bike, mounted onto 55 mm-deep carbon Woven Precision Handbuilts wheels. This is a pretty aerodynamic set-up, and I’ve been very happy with this combination.
The race was pretty incredible. I missed the breakaway of 4 guys that went out about 30 minutes into the race, and decided to bridge up to them. One rider came with me, and we worked really hard together over the longest 8 minutes of my life to connect. The whole time friends and family were cheering me on so hard from the sidelines. I actually feel emotional as I write this….
We rode the rest of the race as a group of 6, ultimately lapping the field. Into the final turn I felt good and was positioned third, behind the two best sprinters. In an instant, I was sliding across the pavement. I’d slid out, not focusing enough on my cornering technique as we hit the final turn faster than any other lap. I lost a lot of skin and literally burned through my much-loved Giro SLX shoe, but my bones and bike were fine. My family found me, and they and a few guys from The Cyclery, one of Ottawa’s best bike shops, took care of me. I jumped back on my bike to salvage 5th, which was a bit of a consolation (I made a bit of money to help pay for repairs to my kit), but was just really happy to have delivered a peak performance that was only marred by one mistake. And having my family and everyone there supporting me was really special.

The other day that stands out was rather different. Iain Radford (fellow Compass devotee) and I decided to organize a gentleman’s race over an awesome road/off-road route at the beginning of July. Some of the most fun we’ve ever had on bikes has been when riding this format – teams of 4-6 riders team time trialling a big, hard route, unmarked, unofficiated – so we wanted to put one on. Our Ride of the Damned event is run in a team format, too, but it’s not a race. This time, we wanted to race.
We sketched out a route for a recon ride at the end of June and hit it up as a group of 4 on a rainy Sunday. I was on the 38 mm Compass Barlow Passes, Extralight (above), with Challenge latex tubes. I ended up with a tiny puncure on a rock, which I put down to the tubes being stretched so thin. The feel of the route wasn’t quite right, there was too much pointy rock on some of the sections of trail we used, which really interfered with the flow of the ride. We opted to tweak it, removing the pointy rock bits, and landed on a 117 km route that alternated between pavement, trail, and dirt road sectors.
On the morning of the event, El Camino, we had ten 4-man teams pre-registered, and we all headed off at roughly one minute intervals. My team was well balanced, and we leveraged our strengths well, riding mellow on the climbs, and absolutely drilling it everywhere else. It was a really hard effort on the bike, but so much fun! I’d opted to run the Bon Jons in tubeless format instead of the larger 38s with tubes, and this worked perfectly. Iain punctured, which saw us passed by a number of teams, then we chased them back down. It was exciting! At the end of the day we secured the fastest time, 3:51, beating our goal of 4 hours.
But the fun didn’t end there. We had everyone bring BBQ stuff, and got the grill at the park going for a great party after the ride. It was really simple logistically, and tons of fun hanging out after the ride as teams streamed in. Of all the racing I’ve done, this format is the most fun, I love it. Rather than a team working for one rider, everyone contributes to the whole team’s result. It requires a lot of strategy, it’s a bit of an art, like team trialing on the road, but more technical!

You run the tires tubeless. Any tips on how to set them up? What rims do you use?
Yes, I run the Bon Jons tubeless. I’ve had them on 55 mm-deep carbon Woven Precision Handbuilt wheels (above), which use a different tubeless bead design, so there has been a bit of a learning curve. The wheels are designed with a fairly deep centre channel for easy of tire mounting, with a tubeless bead shelf that has a lip on the inside, along the channel, for the tire bead to climb over when inflated. Early on, I realized that I needed a bit more tubeless tape than required for sealing the rim. I was having some trouble airing the tires up, which can be caused by a weak compressor or obstruction in the valves. I added another layer of tape (Gorilla tape, in fact) to see if that’d do the trick. It did, the tires mounted immediately when I beefed up the channel this way. So this is my #1 tip: if you don’t have a snug fit at the channel, add tape and try again.
The other tips are standard:

  • Use a bit of water on the bead when mounting, it really helps. I don’t bother with soapy water, but just grab a bottle and drop some onto the tire.
  • Remove the valve core of your tubeless valve when mounting the tire. I use the air-gun nozzle on my air compressor, sticking it into the valve. This allows more air to pass through.
  • Don’t put sealant into the tire until you’ve mounted it. Trust me on this, you don’t want that stuff spraying all over you, it stains! Air up the tire, get the beads locked in, then use an injector to put sealant into the tire. I use one scoop of Stan’s regular formula sealant.
  • You really need to shake the tires all over the place, especially on their sides, to get complete sealing. I’ll do that, then rest the wheel on its side for an hour or more, then flip it. This works well. Sometimes you actually need to ride a tire a bit to get it to seal. This isn’t a Compass-specific thing.
  • If you don’t have an air compressor or access to one, yes, you can use CO2 to air up your tubeless tires. Obviously, this is wasteful and more costly than using a compressor. But it will work for a tire with a tight enough bead. DO NOT inflate with CO2 with sealant in your tire; the sealant will solidify into a ball. If you use CO2, let it all out after locking the beads, then replace with air.
  • If you use a carbon rim, don’t overtighten your valves. If you do, you can deform the brake track, which you’ll feel under braking. Silca makes a nice valve set with a fairing that helps reduce the possibility of creating this deformation.
  • If you don’t ride wheels you’ve set up tubeless often, your sealant will dry up sooner than if you ride it regularly. If you only use one scoop of sealant, odds are it’ll be mostly dry when you’re riding. You’ll want to make sure you keep some liquid sloshing round in the tires. Always bring at least one spare tube, two for more risky rides.
  • Tubeless sealant really only seals small holes, like those from glass, thorns, wire. Medium-sized (a few mm long) can sometimes be sealed with the help of some cotton or similar fabric. Cut some small strips from scrap fabric at home (I’ve recently tried a cloth number plate/dossard) and pack them into your flat kit. If you puncture, try poking that fabric into your tire to create a dam for your sealant to seal around/soak into. This is best done while the tire is still fairly well inflared. I’d have this work, as have others, it’s worth a shot.
  • You’ll need to air the tires up pretty high to get the beads to seat – this is normal. Bring the pressure back down to where you like it after seating the bead.
  • Experiment with your air pressure. For very light tires like the extralight Compass Bon Jon, the sidewall is so compliant you’ll need a bit more pressure – with tubes or not – than you might imagine. Start on the firm side, then gradually drop your pressure during a ride until you find the best balance of ride feel you are looking for.
  • Experiment, this is how you’ll get the most from your tires, and remember, tires cut more easily when their pressure is high.


Are you still on your first set of tires? Or if you replaced them, how many kilometers/miles did you get out of them?
I’m on my second set of Bon Jons now, but after 3000km my first pair are still rolling on my old bike. I mounted a fresh pair of the tan-walls on my new Brodie Romax (above) in the spring, and they’ve been perfect ever since.
Any durability concerns?
No, I have had no durabillity concerns whatsoever, I’ve been really pleasantly surprised. I find climbing is the toughest on tires for wear, and most of the climbing I do on this bike is on unpaved roads, which is why I think I’m getting quite good wear out of them. Because the tread wraps around the tire well, I don’t have any sidewall damage, which is somewhat incredible considering some of the trails I’ve ridden!
What tire pressure do you run? And how much do you weigh?
I weight about 172 lbs in the spring… up to about 177 lbs during the season. I used to run 50 psi rear, 47 front on the Bon Jons, but now I tend to run closer to 40. I spent a week in South Carolina riding big climbs and fast descents, and settled on about 55 psi in the 32 mm tires, which felt fantastic in the turns…

Our tires have a tread pattern that is optimized for road use. How do you find their grip on dry gravel?
Yeah, good question, I think this is something a lot of people are wondering about. I learned years ago at the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnée that tread doesn’t do much for you on gravel. I rode 28 mm Grand Bois tires the first year there, then the 32s. Same tread, more volume with the 32s. On the descents, I didn’t have grip issues with either, but the loose climbs were always where the challenge lay. It was clear that more volume, more tread on the surface, was key. So I kept going up in size as I was able to get bigger tires on bikes, and confirmed that volume is all that matters for gravel. When the substrate is not locked in place, knobs have no effect. It’s like snowshoeing: all about surface area.
The tricky part comes when we need to deal with routes that have a mix of surfaces: pavement, gravel/dirt road, and trails. Trails, when gravelly, are fine with no tread. But knobs become useful if they have something to cut into. Slick patches of mud are an example. The standard Compass tread is scary on these, one has to ride completely upright. A bit of tread can cut through a bit of mud and dig into dry dirt below. On snow and grass, a little tread goes a long way too. At the Steaming Nostril race last year, we had some grass on the course, and I really had to use a lot of energy to keep moving with just the “Road” tread. But it was worth it! On the snow side – I know some are thinking, ‘What the….’ – the 2015 Rasputitsa Gravel Road race had an extended packed snow/ice sector that we absolutely HAD to use a file tread tire for. That was a shame, as the rest of the course would have been faster on the Compass tread.
On the El Camino route we capped things off with a very steep gravel trail climb, which kicks up to 23% in grade. With the Bon Jons I made it up, despite having no knobs on the tire. It was more a matter of smooth power transmission than tire grip.
When we face exposed rock, especially wet, we also tend to want some tread. A file tread tends to work well for this, as they have so many little edges.
I’ve recently spend some time on the 650B Switchback Hill 48s and 42 mm Babyshoe Passes, since my new cyclocross / gravel bike has disc brakes; I can run different wheel diameters. Both these tires climb really well on loose surfaces, due to their volume. That volume can also make them a little skittish on corners with pebbles over hardpack, which allow narrowed tires to cut to the firm surface more readily. That’s not a matter of tread, but width. I’m very much looking forward to trying the new Pumpkin Ridge 42mm 650Bs on mixed terrain, which will definitely work well in mud.

During the road racing season, you’ve been riding our Cayuse Pass 700C x 26 mm tires. How have those tires worked for you?
I’ve been riding the 26 mm Cayuse Pass tires on my Cervelo S5 aero road bike for almost two seasons now, and they have been somewhat transformative. Previously, I used Hutchinson’s tubeless tires on the bike, which were wooden, but reliable. In 2015, I used Continental GP4000s and Michelin Pro Race 4s. I punctured all but one of these tires badly enough to write them off. They were all 23 mm tires on my 19 mm (internal width) Woven wheels. While the Contis test very fast for aerodynamics and rolling resistance on rims like mine, in practice, I found them ill-suited.
The problem is that their tread – and this is true for the Michelins too – does no wrap around the casing enough to protect the tire’s casing. The tires handled well, somehow, but I had all kinds of flats on the shoulder of the tires. Because they were 23 mm tires (their 25s were too big for my frame/fork), they were somewhat squared off on my rims, and I had to run 100psi to avoid pinch flats. But this created too much casing tension, which makes it easier to cut the tire! In the spring, I was delighted to discover that the 26 mm Cayuse Pass fit my bike, so I’ve been on them all season. I experimented with pressure, working down from 95 psi to 80, where I’ve stayed. Wow, what a difference! I’ve got more grip, lower rolling resistance, and my bike feels so much more comfortable than it used to. I thought it would always suck on long rides, especially on typical roads with cracks, but I’ve found myself grabbing the bike so much more often, because it feels good. I’ve had only one flat on these tires in about 5,600 kms, a pinch on a pothole in the dark. I’ve still had no flats on the Bon Jons.
So, on top of being far more reliable than what I used to use on my road bike, I’ve found the Cayuse Passes roll really fast, and any aerodynamic hit I’ve taken as a result of them being a little wide for my rims and taking up more space within my frame and fork are outweighed by their fast rolling, grip, and reliability. I’m stoked to be on these tires, and don’t plan to change. I used to wish for a tubeless version of these tires, but now I am happy to stick with latex tubes. It’s hard to argue with no punctures in two years.
I wish I had a power meter, because I’d love to compare the Bon Jons on my CX bike against the Cayuse Pass. They feel slower on smooth paved roads, but I want quantification of the difference, ideall on the same bike. When it comes to our highest speed and intensity races, the crits and road races, I still feel I need to favour my system’s aerodynamics, and the 26s are the max I can fit in my Cervelo. But what if that bike was designed to be optimal with 28 mm, 30 mm, or 32 mm tires? Would it be as fast? I wish I could find out…
You’ve been trying the knobby Compass Steilcoom tires lately. How did that go?
I wanted to use the Steilacooms at the Steaming Nostril this year – our region was getting epic rain, and we experienced swampy conditions. But first I had to build my confidence in their pavement performance. I’d seen your post about them, so I was cautiously tentative. Results were good! I found that the faster I went, the better they rolled, as they sort of plane above 25-30 km/h, and really hum along around 40-45. We had some fast corners to deal with, one totally sand-covered, and I had zero issues. The profile really is great for cornering on the road. Ultimately, I was able to ride where I wanted to be and pull as long as I wanted to pull the whole time, and it was a total succes. I won’t make a habit of riding them for smooth stuff like this, but I am stoked that they are able to perform well on pavement, gravel and in mud.
You placed 2nd in this year’s Steaming Nostril. How did the Steilacoom tires perform in the actual race?
The Steilacooms performed really well in April at the Steamin Nostril. I had to make a tough call, between them and Bon Jons for race day. The region had seen a lot of rain leading into the race, and I was expecting the crux section to be waterlogged and slippery. Knowing that was where I’d want to break away from the front group and try to go on solo for the remaining 10k or sp to the finish, I opted for the Steilacooms. Ultimately, the section was quite dry, and I didn’t wind up needing the knobs. I managed to break away and went for it solo, but was fading into the wind as Sjaan Gerth pursued me, ultimately overtaking and holding me off for the victory. The Bon Jons would have been the faster tire on the day, but it was a game-time decision, and sometimes you just have to roll the dice and see. The Steilacooms were incredibly good in a few cyclocross races I did in 2016, and I remain really fond of them. I might just have to shave some down over the winter…
If we made a tire that isn’t in the program yet, what would you like to see from Compass in the future?
My dream tire, if I could pick just one, would be based on the Bon Jon casing (tubeless, same size), and add a file (diamond) tread. That would allow me to use the Compass tire for most of the gravel rides and races. The Continental CX Speed tread is probably the closest to ideal I can think of. There would still be some events that required more volume and tread, but a file tread would cover the bigger existing gap. It would also be a more sure-footed feeling tire for those less comfortable with a bit of sliding out there on unpaved surfaces!
We’ll consider that. Thank you very much, Matt, and good luck with the other races this season!
Further reading:

Photo credits:
All photos by Matt Surch, except:
1. Preston Street Criterium 2016
6. Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race 2016
7. Grégoire Crevier, Canadian Criterium Championships 2016

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How to Make a Superlight Bike for the Concours de Machines


The official results of the 2017 Concours de Machines are in! Peter Weigle’s bike did even better than we thought:

  • Lightest bike: First place
  • Choice of the jury: First place
  • Technical points (bonus for features, penalties for problems): First place
  • Zero penalties for technical problems
  • Faster than required speed on each stage: zero penalties
  • Overall: Second place

We were especially excited to find that the jury appreciated Peter’s bike for its craftsmanship and functionality. Small things like the placement of the headlight make a difference on the road – you don’t ride into a shadow when you corner at night – but they are easy to overlook when evaluating a bike without riding it. The jury consisted of experienced randonneurs who understood the importance of these small details. It appears that they also were impressed by the ease of Rinko’ing the Weigle for travel by car, train or airplane.


You may wonder why the J. P. Weigle didn’t win first prize. The bike scored lower in three areas that were less about the quality of the bike, but were an important part of the Concours:

  • People’s Vote: 6th (out of 24). Most of the visitors were amateur racers participating in that weekend’s cyclosportive, and they probably voted for other, more “modern” bikes.
  • Builders’ Vote: 7th. I don’t think it’s fair to ask the builders to vote, since it’s in their interest to vote ‘strategically’ to give their own bike the best chance at winning.
  • Documentation: 15th place. Each builder had to submit a presentation that documented the construction of the bike and explained its features. Peter Weigle was so busy building the bike that he didn’t take photos during its construction, and the bike was finished only the evening before the event. We put together the presentation on the train ride to Ambert…

We are honored by the recognition the bike received, and the second place seems entirely fair – the rules were known beforehand. For us, the goal was not to win the event, but to show our vision of the best randonneur bike available today.


Many observers were astonished by how little the bike weighed: 9.1 kg (20.0 lb) is remarkably light for a bike with full fenders, generator-powered lighting, rack, bell, pump, bottle cages and even a mudflap. The Weigle weighs exactly the same as the lightest carbon bike we’ve tested recently, the Open U.P., without fenders, racks or lights. How can a fully equipped steel bike be so light?


Peter Weigle is a master of trimming unnecessary weight from his frames. He went to the limit on this bike, and he also built a superlight stem and rack. For our report in the next Bicycle Quarterly, we will disassemble the bike and weigh each component to show in detail how the light weight was achieved.


We already can tell you that most of the components are standard parts that either are already available, or will be available soon. We used the Concours de Machines as an opportunity to work with our suppliers and partners to reduce the weight of our parts even further. Here are some of the components we used on the Weigle:

  • SON Widebody hub: We used the Widebody version of the SON Delux generator hub even though it weighs a few grams more, because wider flange spacing makes for a stronger wheel – useful on the rough course of the bike test. We asked SON to make this hub for 28 spokes – plenty on a bike with wide tires.
  • Pacenti Brevet 650B rims: Finally, 28-hole 650B rims are easily available. Peter Weigle drilled a few extra holes in the rim beds to save a few grams, but otherwise, the rims were standard.
  • Rene Herse Maes Parallel handlebars: We worked with Nitto to make our handlebars even lighter. The latest Rene Herse bars are made to our new, exclusive Superlight specifications. (Only for bars up to 42 cm wide – wider handlebars require extra strength to resist the longer leverage.)
  • Titanium brake pad eyebolts: The Weigle is equipped with prototypes of the Rene Herse cantilever brakes. The eyebolts for the pad holders are made from titanium. Usually, replacing steel bolts with titanium is not a good idea, because titanium has only half the strength. However, the eyebolts are big to fit over the posts of the pad holders, not because they need to be super-strong – a perfect application for titanium. A limited quantity of these titanium eyebolts is available right now. They fit Rene Herse and Mafac centerpull brakes, as well as classic Rene Herse cantilevers.
  • Rene Herse Loup Loup Pass Extralight 650B x 38 mm tires: As hand-made tires, the weight of Rene Herse tires varies a bit from batch to batch. The latest 650B x 38 mm tires happen to be especially light.
  • Rene Herse cranks. A little material was removed from the arms, and the chainring bolts were replaced with aluminum, but the standard cranks are only a few grams heavier. Peter Weigle drilled the chainrings mostly for aesthetic reasons – to emphasize that this bike was special.
  • Gilles Berthoud Galibier saddle: remarkably light for a leather saddle, yet supremely comfortable. We removed the stiffening bracket – needed only with seatposts that don’t clamp the rails securely – to reduce the weight further.
  • Nitto 80 bottle cages: As light as many carbon cages, but removing and replacing bottles is much easier with these cages. Plus, they gripped the bottles securely even on the rough mountain bike trails that made up much of the bike test of this year’s Concours.
  • Maware handlebar tape: Made from pigskin, this leather tape is beautiful and comfortable, yet remarkably light.


For the Concours, the bikes were weighed with bags and tools. Fully equipped for the road, the Weigle came in at just 9.7 kg (21.4 lb). We chose not to bring any tools, because we had total confidence in the bike. That saved valuable grams. Other bikes carried ultralight tools, but we’ve found that a well-built and well-assembled bike rarely needs work on the road.

Back to the bags, we worked with Gilles Berthoud to make a superlight prototype handlebar bag that weighs just 266 g (left). It uses the same materials as standard Gilles Berthoud bags (right). The weight savings are the result of leaving off all side pockets and reducing the size of the leather trim to a minimum.

Our goal was not to make a crazily-light machine that would last only one weekend, but to show what can be done with functional and durable components, if every part is optimized for light weight and performance. Some parts, like the SON Edelux II headlight, were chosen for their function more than their light weight. There were a few superlight parts, like the titanium bottom bracket, the Campagnolo Record titanium cassette, and the titanium Crank Brothers pedals, but they are all proven components that should work well under a smooth rider. Apart from the superlight frame, there isn’t much magic in the bike, just a careful choice of components. When spec’ing the bike, we avoided anything that could compromise reliability or performance. And since this will be my own bike, I look forward to riding it for many years to come.


Click on the links in the text to find out more about the components. Click here to read Cyclodonia’s report about the bike.

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What Is a Road Bike?


In past decades, there was little doubt about what made a “road” bike: narrow tires, drop handlebars, no fenders.

Then randonneur bikes were re-introduced into cycling’s mainstream, leading to some confusion. “That is a touring bike,” said many. “It has a rack and fenders.” But the performance of the randonneur bike is the same as that of a racing bike, and far from a touring bike. Basically, the randonneur bike is a racing bike with integrated fenders, lights and a small rack. (The geometry also has been tweaked to carry the load.) If you take the meaning of “road bike” literally, a randonneur bike fits it at least as well as any other bike.

And then along came wide tires, and suddenly you have a bike like the Open U.P. (above) or my Firefly. “It has 26″/ 27.5″ wheels and fat tires. It’s a rigid mountain bike with drop bars,” opined some when they saw me on one of these bikes. But it isn’t.
Imagine replacing the wheels on these bikes with 700C and installing 28 mm tires – easy enough with disc brakes. Now everybody would accept them as “road” bikes, yet the riding position, handling and even the performance would be unchanged. In fact, I would go one step further, and call them “racing bikes”, not just “road bikes”. Let me explain what I mean by “racing bike.”

The photo above shows me during my racing days. You can’t even see the bike, but there is little doubt I am riding a racing bike, not a mountain or touring bike. You can see it from my riding position.
For me, the definition of a racing bike comes down to how the bikes feels when I ride it. This is determined by:

  • Riding position: A racing bike has a relatively low, stretched-out riding position.
  • No equipment: A racing bike doesn’t carry a load, nor does it have fenders. Why is this important? These parts actually do change how the bike feels. When you ride out of the saddle and rock the bike from side to side, extra weight makes a difference. With less weight, the bike rocks much more easily. Even lightweight fenders and an empty rack change that feel – more so when that load is placed higher.

When I conceptualized this post, I expected this list to be long, but these two points already define the racing bike for me. There are other factors that are important, but they aren’t unique to a racing bike:

  • Performance: A racing bike – in fact, any performance bike – should entice its rider to go faster. It either “planes” and gets in sync with its rider, or it’s stiff and ready to sprint forward as long as the rider stays on top of his or her pedal stroke.
  • Nimble handling: A good performance bike goes exactly where you point it. It’s stable and holds its line until you ask it to change direction. Then it assumes the new course with precision and without delay. On a racing bike, most of this is due to the rotational inertia of the wheels. Whether you use 650B wheels with ultralight carbon rims and tubeless tires (as on the Open) or 26″ wheels with a more traditional setup (like the Firefly), the rotational inertia is about the same as that of a traditional racing bike with 25 mm tires. And that, as much as anything, determines how an unloaded bike feels.

On the road, this is borne out. The Open feels like a racing bike. So does my Firefly. They sprint like racing bikes. They corner like racing bikes. The biggest difference to a racing bike with narrow tires is that these bikes feel great on all roads, not just smooth ones.

This doesn’t mean that every bike with wide tires, no fenders and drop handlebars feels like a racing bike. Even before I installed a handlebar bag, the Specialized Sequoia (above left) felt like a mountain bike. Seeing the Sequoia next to my Firefly illustrated the difference between a mountain and a road bike: a more rearward weight distribution, a (slightly) more upright riding position, and much wider handlebars. The front-end geometry is different, too, with a slacker head angle and much more trail.
Riding both bikes back-to-back on mountain bike trails drove home the point: The Firefly had to be guided rather than forced, whereas the Sequoia was easy to manhandle across the bumpy terrain. The rougher the trail got, the less the Firefly was in its element, and the more the Sequoia came into its own. On gravel and paved roads, the tables were turned, and the Firefly shone with its easy, intuitive handling. Despite being superficially similar, the two bikes couldn’t have felt more different.

If the Firefly is a road bike – despite it wide tires and 26″ wheels – then what is it when equipped with low-rider racks? And what about the Specialized Diverge, a 700C bike with medium-width tires, which we also equipped with low-rider racks (below)? 
Both bikes carried a camping load, but they didn’t feel like touring bikes. Of couse, the extra weight was noticeable, but all that weight is down low, so it doesn’t have a huge effect, even when riding out of the saddle. Even with a camping load, these bikes felt like performance road bikes.

If we try to categorize the Firefly or the Sequoia (above) in this form, what would they be? Should we make up a new category: Performance tourer? Gran Turismo? Loaded racer? It starts getting silly, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The categories between my favorite bikes are blurring, but what they all have in common is that they are performance bikes. And that is the important thing, because it makes them great fun on the rides that I enjoy!

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Concours de Machines: Results


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).

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J. P. Weigle for the Concours de Machines


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):

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Technical Trials – What is Innovation?


Next weekend, the Concours de Machines (Technical Trials) will be held in Ambert, France. The Concours is a competition between bikes, not riders, with the goal to find the best “light randonneur bike”. Bikes will be weighed, judged on their features, and then sent on a challenging course over three days to see how they hold up in real-world riding. It’s an exciting event with an illustrious history: Many of the things we now take for granted – aluminum cranks, front derailleurs, cartridge bearings in hubs and bottom brackets, even low-rider racks – first proved their worth in the original Concours de Machines of the 1930s and 1940s (above). The question for this year’s event is how much our current machines can still be improved. The organizers place special emphasis on innovation in the judging of the bikes.
Last year, I was a member of the jury. This year, my role is that of a participant, riding a J.P. Weigle – coincidentally the only American entry in an international field of 30 builders. The bike for the Concours is collaboration between Peter Weigle and Compass. Peter built the bike, and Compass worked on sourcing the components. Together, we spent quite some time thinking about the goals of the event: to find the best “light randonneur bike”, with a special focus on innovation.

What is innovation? Is it a radical departure from the diamond-frame bicycles most of us ride today? Already in the 1930s, recumbents were popular for a while (above), but they’ve never made a break-through… because the classic diamond frame just works incredibly well.

Or is it a bike with special features that aren’t found in the mainstream? At last year’s Concours, there was a fully suspended bike, but neither the front nor the rear of the bike moved when I pushed on the handlebars and saddle. Perhaps it was for the better – the “rigid” bike performed quite well on the road – but to us, innovation that doesn’t work isn’t innovation.

For us, true innovation has to improve the riding experience or the performance of the bike. We examined every part to see whether it could be improved. We considered disc brakes, but decided against them because they a) are heavy and b) preclude the use of flexible fork blades that do so much to absorb road shock during long rides. We thought about carbon fenders until we found that aluminum ones are lighter. In the end, the bike that I’ll ride in the Concours looks remarkably similar to the bikes that Peter usually builds (above one of his recent machines). Perhaps that isn’t surprising, because these bikes are the result of decades of fine-tuning and evolution. So if “radical innovation” isn’t possible, what else could we do?

The second consideration of the Concours is light weight. Bikes have to weigh less than 10.5 kg (23.15 lb) to avoid heavy penalties. That sounds achievable until you realize that this weight includes bags to carry a load provided by the organizers, spare tubes, tools, etc. – the motto is “Nothing in the rider’s pockets.” And the bike has to be equipped with “autonomous” lighting (no batteries), fenders, a bell and even a pump. All this adds up, and suddenly you realize that unless you resort to crazy lightweight parts that will barely last through the weekend, it won’t be easy to avoid the penalties.
The course includes plenty of rough gravel roads, so wide tires are a necessity. Fixing flats will slow you down, and if you don’t make the required 22.5 km/h (14.0 mph) average speed over the mountainous 250 km/160 mile course, you will incur penalties, too. The idea is that the bike must offer good performance, and it should be ridden hard to show up any deficiencies.
So we went through every part of the bike, especially the Compass components: How could we lighten them without compromising reliability or performance. The gains were incremental, but they added up to a significant weight savings on parts that already are among the lightest available today.
One example is the ultralight rack Peter Weigle built (above). At 137 g, it’s incredibly light, and Peter cautions that it’s not designed for much more than the 3 kg (6.6 lb) load the bikes will carry during the Concours. And yet it is only 31 g lighter than our standard Compass rack that has withstood years of hard riding with heavy loads on rough roads. There were other parts where we felt that even for hard use, we could lose some weight. This means that the bike for the Concours will lead to better – or at least lighter – components that our customers will be able to buy in the future. But first the superlight parts have to prove their worth during the harsh test of the Concours and beyond, because Peter Weigle’s bike isn’t just intended for one weekend. It will be ridden, and ridden hard, for many miles.

Once all the participants meet in Ambert at the end of this week, I’ll report more on the details of our bike, as well as the machines of the other competitors. The goal of this event is pushing the development of real-world bicycles to new heights, and I already know that in the case of Compass, the goal has been achieved.
Photo credit: Peter Weigle (rack); Nicolas Joly (night photo)

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Choosing Your Tires


We’ve experienced a profound revolution in road bikes in recent years: It used to be that to go fast, you rode narrow tires and pumped them up to the maximum pressure. If you wanted more comfort, you used wider tires and (maybe) lower pressures, but you knew that you’d be slower.
Now we know that comfort and speed aren’t opposed, but inextricably linked: A bike that absorbs shocks better rolls faster. Narrow tires don’t have any speed advantage, and inflating your tires to the maximum often makes your bike slower.
But what does this means in practical terms, when it comes to choosing new tires for your bike? Do you need to get a new bike with clearances for ultra-wide tires? Or is there a way to benefit from the “tire revolution” on your existing bike?
The simple guidelines below are based on more than a decade of research into the performance of tires, and they’ve proven themselves on the road time and again.

Supple Casing
The most important part of the “tire revolution” is the supple casings. In the past, we thought that supple casings and wide tires didn’t go together well, because supple, wide tires have to be run at relatively low pressures. Now we know that lower pressures don’t make tires roll slower. And that makes a supple casing better in the two important areas of tire performance: A supple casing has less resistance as it flexes (hysteretic losses) and it transmits less vibrations from the road (suspension losses). It’s a win-win scenario.
Compared to the casing, all other factors – width, tread thickness, weight, etc. – are of minor importance. In Bicycle Quarterly‘s tire tests, the five fastest tires ranged in width from 24 to 36 mm, but they all had one thing in common: a supple casing. In practical terms, this means that a supple 25 mm-wide racing tire will be more comfortable and faster than a 42 mm touring tire with stiff sidewalls.
So don’t fret if your bike can only fit relatively narrow tires. Just get the best, most supple ones you can find, and enjoy most of the benefits of the “tire revolution”.

Width
When in doubt, use wider tires. At least up to 42 mm, wider simply is better. More grip, more comfort, same speed, fewer flats. What about the aerodynamics of wider tires? In our testing, both in the wind tunnel and on the test track, we found the effect too small to measure. And when you factor in the greater shock absorption (lower suspension losses) of the wider tires, it’s likely that any small increase in wind resistance is made up by the smoother rolling of the wider tires. On smooth roads, it comes out the same, on rough surfaces, wide tires are demonstrably faster.
Of course, you’ll have to work with the clearances of your bike. Don’t try to squeeze the largest possible tire in there with just a hair’s breadth of clearance. Your tire may “grow” with age or your wheel may go slightly out of true. I recommend a minimum of 3 mm clearance all around the tire. When in doubt which tire will fit, go with a slightly narrower one. If you find that you have more clearance than expected, get the bigger size the next time around.

Wheel Size
When you get a new bike, wheel size is an important consideration. Smaller and/or lighter wheels will be more nimble, larger and/or heavier wheels will be more stable. Ideally, your bike is both stable and nimble: It should stay faithfully on a chosen line, but it shouldn’t resist if you want to change its trajectory. How do you achieve that?
The forces of trail and wheel flop cancel each other, especially on a bike without a front load. That is why the wheel size plays such an important role – you can’t really compensate for a front wheel that is too large or too small.
The bike industry is only slowly waking up to this. Too many gravel bikes still come with the same 700C wheels that you find on racing bikes with much narrower tires. Smaller 650B wheels are a better choice for wide tires – from 40 to 50 mm –  and for even wider tires, I prefer 26″ wheels. That way, you can enjoy the nimble feel of a good road bike and the surefootedness of wide tires…
If you use ultralight carbon rims and superlight tires (like our Compass Extralights), you can go up one wheel size. The larger diameter compensates the light weight to keep the rotational inertia in the “optimum” range.

My “dream bikes” are equipped with either 650B x 42 mm tires (left) or 26″ x 54 mm, depending on whether they will see mostly paved or mostly gravel roads. But in practical terms, I am perfectly happy on a bike with 700C x 32 mm tires (right), provided the tires are supple performance models and not sluggish “touring” tires.

The importance of supple casings isn’t a new discovery. For almost a century, professional racers have ridden supple, handmade tires, no matter whether the fashion was for 30, 20 or now 25 mm-wide tires. In fact, tires are the only thing that hasn’t changed significantly on pro racing bikes during the last 70 years. You could put Fausto Coppi’s tires on Christopher Froome’s bike, and he’d never know the difference.
Outside the pro peloton, the importance of supple tires was largely forgotten as riders became more concerned about flat resistance than the joy of gliding along on a cushion of air. Only recently, supple clinchers have become available that offer the feel and performance of great racing tubulars, but in much wider widths.

Speaking of flats, that is the one drawback of staying with narrow tires. Since they run at higher pressures, they are more likely to puncture. And yet, in my experience, the fear of flats is often overstated. On the beautiful backroads that offer the best cycling experience, flats are relatively rare.
Debris accumulates where cars don’t go, hence you get so many flats when riding on the shoulders of busy highways. On backroads, you ride in the traffic lane (but with little traffic, you don’t bother anybody), so there isn’t much debris that could puncture your tires.
downhill
To summarize, you don’t need a new bike to enjoy the “tire revolution”. For your existing bike, choose tires with supple casings, and use the widest model your bike can fit with safe clearances. And when it’s time to get a new bike, consider getting a bike designed for wider tires and perhaps smaller wheels to get the performance of wide tires with the nimble handling that makes a good racing bike so much fun. It’s that simple!
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Photo credit: Goggles & Dust / Brett Horton Collection (classic racers).

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Riding My René Herse


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.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lZ5CYzzm_w?rel=0&w=640&h=360]
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…

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Expert Discussion on Frame Stiffness


“I no longer believe that the ultimate rigidity defines the ultimate bike!” That revolutionary statement came from Damon Rinard, Road Engineering Manager at Cannondale, in a recent Cyclingtips.com podcast on frame stiffness and “planing”.
For many decades, stiffer frames were thought to perform better. Frame flex was equated with wasted energy. And yet there were some who had doubts about this. I recall Peter Weigle telling me many years ago, when I complained about a test bike that just didn’t seem to perform: “Perhaps it’s too stiff for you?”

Back then, the idea that frame stiffness could negatively affect performance seemed far-fetched, but the more we researched it, the more we found that some frames performed better than others. And for us, more flexible frames – as long as the flex was in the right places – performed better. We coined a term for this: “Planing” took the image of a boat that rises out of the water and goes faster with less energy than when it was fully submerged.

Even though the concept wasn’t entirely new, “planing” went against decades of accepted wisdom in the bike industry. Our double-blind studies (above) were carefully designed, but at first, they were met with incredulity or even derision. After all, bike makers spent significant resources figuring out how to make their frames stiffer, and magazines determined the “stiffness-to-weight ratio” as the ultimate measure of a frame’s performance. How could all this be wrong?
Recently, James Huang, technical editor of the popular web site Cyclingtips.com, asked me whether I could participate in a podcast on frame stiffness with Damon Rinard from Cannondale. Cannondale! The company’s bikes are famous for their stiff frames, and Damon is one of the foremost researchers on frame stiffness. I was bracing for a heated discussion!
But Damon is a smart guy, and rather than accept the conventional wisdom that frame flex is lost energy, he has tried to quantify these losses. And he came up empty-handed. It appears that no energy is lost when the frame flexes. There is no doubt that bike frames flex, but apparently, that energy is returned to the drivetrain, so it powers the bike forward.
That formed a fascinating basis for our discussion. We both agree that frame flex doesn’t rob energy. But could it be beneficial? Click here to listen to the podcast and hear the entire discussion.
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The Trouble with 'Road Tubeless'


It’s always interesting when bike industry people talk among each other, off-the-record. On the ride from the airport to Paul Camp a few weeks ago, one bike tester was still visibly shaken when he related: “My tubeless tire blew off the rim yesterday. I almost crashed.” Worried that this might have been one of our tires, I asked about the brand. He mentioned a big maker, known as a pioneer of  ‘Road Tubeless.’ The tester continued: “I had it inflated to 90 psi, well under the max. I was just riding along, when suddenly – bam!”
Tubeless tires are becoming popular these days. Using inner tubes inside your tire almost seems like a throwback to the 1950s. Cars have not used inner tubes in over half a century, and mountain bikes have gone tubeless, too. Many of us have been riding our Allroad bikes, with their wide tires, tubeless for years.
Finally, road bikes, with narrower tires, are going tubeless, too. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing: There are more and more reports of tires blowing off the rims. What is going on? Why are tires with inner tubes safe at high pressures, but the same tires sometimes blow off the rim when mounted tubeless?

An inner tube doesn’t just hold air, it also reinforces the joint between the tire and the rim. Air pressure pushes the tube against the tire so that it no longer can move independently. For the tire to blow off, a very small section of the tube must stretch tremendously, so the tire can climb over the rim’s edge. As flexible as inner tubes are, they get to a point where they don’t stretch any farther – pull on a tube, and you’ll notice this. That makes it very hard for the tire to blow off the rim.
Without an inner tube, there is nothing reinforcing that joint. If the fit between rim and tire is even just the slightest bit loose, the tire can slide upward, and – bam! In fact, even with a perfect fit, there is a point at which a tire blows off the rim: Tire beads can stretch a little, and the higher you inflate the tire, the more force there is stretching the bead. That appears to be the root cause of the problem: Road tires typically are run at relatively high pressures.

Thinking about this, I realized that ‘Road Tubeless’ is a bit in uncharted waters: Usually, tubeless tires run at much lower pressures. Tires for cars and motorcycles are generally inflated to less than 45 psi. (The exception is airplane tires with up to 200 psi, but those are a very special design.)
All these tires also are much stiffer than bicycle tires, which helps them stay on the rim. A supple tire can move in just one small spot, which makes it much easier to climb over the rim’s edge. I was surprised at Paul Camp to hear about the tester’s experience with a tire that isn’t even known for its supple casing. But compared to car or motorcycle tires, even stiff bicycle tires are supple…

To test the limits of our tires with tubeless mounting, I installed a Compass Bon Jon Pass 700C x 35 mm tire on a wheel that we had measured carefully to make sure its diameter was exactly to spec. I inflated the tire to its maximum pressure of 90 psi (6.2 bar) – without problems. The pressure has already gone down to 85 psi by the time I took the photo – there was no sealant in the tire for reasons that will become apparent in the next paragraph.
I then inflated the tire further. 100 psi was fine. 105 psi, no problem. A few more pump strokes, about 108 psi, and – bam! The tire blew off the rim. I was wearing ear protection, and there was no sealant inside the tire, so no damage was done.
Of course, few people would inflate a 35 mm tire to 108 psi (7.6 bar). Even with tubes, the Bon Jon Pass is rated to a maximum of 90 psi (6.2 bar). And as long as everything is perfect, you can run them tubeless at this pressure, too. But in the real world, not everything is perfect. The diameter of different rims can vary considerably. We’ve found that the rims on many production bikes are a bit smaller than spec, because that makes it easier to mount the tires on the assembly line. Of course, this also results in a looser fit of the tires. If you build up the rim bed with extra rim tape – some mechanics even use thicker ‘Gorilla Tape’ – you can improve the fit of the tire on the rim.

Over the last year, I’ve been testing every model of tubeless-compatible tire in the Compass program. I’ve mounted them without tubes on a range of bikes, both Bicycle Quarterly test bikes and my own machines. I’ve experienced zero problems, but I also run them at pressures of 60 psi (4 bar) or lower. I remounted the Bon Jon Pass that blew off the rim and inflated it to 60 psi, put in some sealant, and took it for a couple of rides. As expected, it was fine. (However, we don’t recommend reusing tires that blew off the rim, as the bead can get damaged.)
Based on this experience, we recommend: Do not exceed 60 psi (4 bar) when running Compass tires tubeless. If you need higher pressures, please use tubes. Since the problems with running tubeless tires at high pressures are not limited to Compass tires, I’d recommend this for all tubeless tires – and especially for high-performance tires that are relatively supple.
BJPASS_result-750x481
However, you also don’t want to run too low a pressure with tubeless tires. If the tire flexes excessively, this will break down the casing until it starts to leak (above). With a narrow tire, you have a narrow window between “too high” and “too low” pressures. On a 35 mm tire, 60 psi (4 bar) still is plenty for most riders. (I usually ride my Bon Jons at about 35-40 psi.) But if we were to offer a 26 mm-wide tubeless-compatible tire, 60 psi isn’t enough even for a light rider. Yet going higher than 60 psi would risk blowing the tire off some rims.

With wider tires, you don’t have that problem. I run the 54 mm-wide Rat Trap Pass tires on my Firefly at 40 psi (2.8 bar) on smooth roads. At such a ‘high’ pressure (for tires this wide), the bike feels like a racing bike. On gravel, I can go down to 22 psi (1.5 bar) without risking damage to the casings. I run them tubeless now, after suffering two pinch flats during the Otaki 100 km Mountain Bike Race in Japan (above). As I found out, riding over really rough ground at very high speed will pinch-flat even 54 mm tires!
I feel that for riding on rough gravel, tubeless really is the way to go. Choose tires that are wide enough, run them at low pressure, and you shouldn’t have trouble. (Unless your rims are way out of spec.)
For road riding, the advantages of tubeless tires are less clear. Pinch flats are much less of an issue on the road, unless you still ride ultra-narrow tires. All the testing I’ve seen – including our own – indicates that the rolling resistance of tubeless tires is no lower, and perhaps even higher, than using thin, lightweight inner tubes. That isn’t surprising: You replace an ultra-supple inner tube with a liquid sloshing around inside your tire.
What about flats? One nice feature is that the sealant inside the tubeless tire automatically seals small punctures. You don’t have to go tubeless for that: Some riders use sealant inside their tubes. They report that it also seals small punctures in the tube – provided you use it from the start, when you mount a new tire. (With an old tire, during a puncture, the air may not escape through hole that is right above the puncture in the tube, but through a bigger hole from a previous puncture that is elsewhere in the tire. Then the sealant flows into the space between tire and tube, creating a mess without sealing the tube.)
Based on all of the above, we – as well as other tire makers like Pirelli – have concluded that at this time, running high-pressure tires tubeless isn’t worth the risks. Can these issues be resolved? It’s difficult to say. Perhaps ‘Road Tubeless’ is the way of the future, or perhaps it’ll be like radial tires for bicycles. Cars have used radials for decades, but for bicycles, they never caught on.
What needs to happen to make tubeless tires safe even at high pressures? Clearly, the interface between tire bead and rim must become more standardized, and manufacturing tolerances must become tighter. With a ‘perfect’ rim, it’s already fine to run our 35 mm tires tubeless at 90 psi, but how do we get all rims to be perfect?

For now, here is the take-home message for running tubeless tires:

  • For tubeless, we recommend a maximum pressure of 60 psi (4 bar).
  • If you are riding on gravel or rough stuff, tubeless eliminates pinch flats. And you’ll be running less than 60 psi anyhow.
  • If you ride on the road and need more than 60 psi, use inner tubes. Not just with Compass tires, but with other brands as well.
  • Even on smooth roads, Compass’ wide tires roll as fast as our narrow ones. Getting wider tires and running them at pressures below 60 psi is a good way to use tubeless on the road.
  • When mounting a tire tubeless, first inflate it 20% higher than the pressure you’ll be riding. Let it sit for a while to make sure it will not blow off your rim. Then decrease the pressure before you ride the bike. That way, you know that you aren’t at the upper pressure limit for that particular tire/rim combination.

Tubeless technology holds great promise, but like everything, it should be applied where it makes sense and where it is safe. In a future post, we’ll talk about tips on how to set up Compass tires tubeless.
Photo credits: Nicola Joly (exploded tire), Cyclocross Magazine (damaged casing), Toru Kanazaki (Otaki 100 km Race)

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A True Dual-Purpose Knobby

steilacoom_paved
“Don’t do this on knobby tires!” would be most cyclists’ advice when looking at the photo above. Everybody knows that cornering hard on pavement and knobby tires don’t go together.
And yet, the photo shows me on Compass Steilacoom knobby tires. And I didn’t take any undue risks. It was a cold winter day, and the pavement was still moist from a recent snowfall, so I didn’t push the limits, and the tires always had plenty of grip in reserve. (I apologize for the blurry photo – there wasn’t enough light for high-speed photography on this dark winter day.)
We took this photo during an all-paved ride around Mercer Island – a fast-paced route with many corners and subtle (and not-so-subtle) ups and downs. It’s a challenging course to ride fast. And it’s even more challenging when riding with my friend Ryan, who trains here several times a week and knows every inch of the road.
I rode a bike with Compass 700C x 38 mm Steilacoom knobbies (above), because I wanted to find out how well they perform as dual-purpose tires.
steilacoom_action
After a full season of cyclocross, we already know the Steilacooms work great on mud and loose surfaces… What about rides that are mostly on pavement, but include enough muddy trails that you’d want some knobs on your tires?
I had always been bothered by how terrible my cross bike felt on the few paved sections of the race course. Those sections rarely measured more than a few meters, but if there was a corner, I had to take it carefully. Annoying when I really wanted to go all-out. I figured that there had to be a better way. And when designing the Steilacooms, we thought hard about how to make a knobby perform well on pavement, too.
steilacoom_on_pavement
How do you make knobbies that perform well on pavement? We designed the tread pattern together with the engineers at Panaracer. They were excited to bring all their knowledge to the project, with no concern about “what people expect a knobby tire to look like.” Together, we spent a lot of time thinking about knob shapes and spacing, and how the tire transitions from one knob to the next.
The key difference to previous knobbies is that we didn’t look at each knob individually. We treated them as a system that interacts, not just as the tire is rolling forward, but also as it leans into a turn. We made sure that there always is the same amount of rubber on the road, not sudden changes as you transition from one row of knobs to… sometimes almost almost no rubber at all.
We also discussed knob sizes with Panaracer’s engineers. They have to be small enough to dig into the mud, but large enough that they don’t fold over during hard cornering. It’s not rocket science, but it requires visualizing what the tire will do as it rolls and corners.
On the Steilacoom, you don’t fall off one knob and then climb onto the next, so the tires roll more smoothly than most knobbies. And the knobs are big enough that they don’t squirm, which also helps with your speed and cornering.
steilacoom_corner2
I had high expectations for the Steilacooms, but even I was surprised how well they perform on pavement. On that ride around Mercer Island, I had no trouble keeping up with Ryan, even though he was riding his new titanium bike with smooth Compass Babyshoe Pass Extralight tires. The Steilacoom knobbies did not just perform well on the straights, I also didn’t lose any ground in the corners. Of course, this doesn’t prove that the Steilacooms roll quite as well as the Babyshoes, but if there is a difference, it is much smaller than I anticipated.
During our next “BQ Team” ride, I switched bikes with Mark. At first, he was reluctant. “Why would I ride knobbies on the road?” he asked. But then he, too, was surprised. He said: “When you hear the knobs sing on the pavement, you think the bike will be slow. But on the downhills, the wind drowns out the tire noise, and then you realize that they perform pretty much like a good 38 mm road tire would.” And this from the guy who had sworn off knobbies for good when he designed his 650B randonneur bike.
Now, we understand that many readers will be skeptical when a maker claims that their new tire revolutionized how well a knobby tire rolls. So we took a few photos… with a little tree to show that we didn’t just tilt the photo to make it look more dramatic. The Steilacoom really raises the bar beyond what even we thought possible.
steilacoom_sx
The optimized arrangement of knobs is only part of the story. Just as important for the Steilacoom’s speed is the supple Compass casing. The result is a knobby tire that is faster than most slick road tires.
Are there drawbacks of the Steilacoom tread pattern? Of course, otherwise, we’d all ride knobbies from now on. First, once we test them on the track with a power meter, I fully expect that they will roll a little bit slower than our other tires. That is unavoidable, but the difference is too small to notice on the road. That is pretty remarkable.
The knobs also add weight to the tire. And the bigger you make the knobs, the heavier the tire gets. Thanks to our lightweight casings, the Steilacoom still isn’t a heavy tire, but it weighs about 30 g more than our Barlow Pass with smooth tread. This won’t slow you down much even when climbing mountain passes, but if you don’t need knobs, why carry the extra weight?
Like all knobbies, the Steilacooms tend to wander a bit while going straight. You are rolling from one knob to another, rather than on a continuous tread. Again, it’s not a huge deal, but if your ride doesn’t require knobbies, I would pick one of the other Compass tires with their road-optimized tread. And finally, there is more noise from the tires as they roll. But compared to other knobbies I have ridden, all these disadvantages are very subdued.
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The Steilacoom’s excellent pavement performance opens up completely new rides. Imagine you are heading into the mountains and expect muddy sections along your course, but most of the ride will be paved. No problem with the Steilacooms. They will make short work of the mud, without holding you back on the paved portions of your ride. That makes the Steilacoom the ultimate multi-purpose tire.
Click here to find out more about the Steilacoom 700C x 38 mm tires.
Photo credits: Ryan Hamilton (Photo 1, 4), Heidi Franz (Photo 2), Duncan Smith (Photo 5), Hahn Rossman (Photo 6).

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When to Use Knobby Tires

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Compass has long championed the use of “road” tires on gravel. More and more gravel racers agree: When gravel is sliding on gravel, knobbies are of little use.
So then why does Compass offer a knobby tire, the Steilacoom 700C x 38 mm? Knobs are useful in mud. They dig into the surface, and since the mud is viscous (gooey), it provides something for the knobs to push against. That is why cyclocross bikes use knobby tires.
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It’s important is to space the knobs widely, so the mud is ejected as the tire rotates. Otherwise, the tire just clogs up, and soon you are riding on slick tires again, except that their tread is made of mud instead of rubber. What you want is a muddy bike, but clean tires (above) – the tires pick up mud only briefly before it is flung off.
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Snow is a different story again. Depending on your speed, it behaves differently. At high speeds, you glide through the snow almost as if you were skiing, and tread patterns make little difference. At low speeds, you compact the snow and create the surface on which you ride. Knobs dig into that surface and give you extra grip. Even a herringbone tread works OK. Slick tires or longitudinal ribs act like the runners of a sled – they just slide and offer very little traction.
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What about ice? Ice is too hard for rubber tread to dig into. You need metal studs that bore into the ice to find traction. Sometimes, snow compacts to ice (above). I prefer to walk rather than risk a fall when I see ice on the road. (Unfortunately, I don’t know of a good method to see “black ice” before it’s too late.)
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Back to mud, where knobbies make the biggest difference: Designing a good mud tire isn’t hard – space your knobs widely, and the tire will self-clean as it rotates. The downside is that it’ll be buzzy and slow on pavement. I love the FMB Super Mud tires (above) on my old ‘cross bike (our Steilacooms don’t fit!), but their secret isn’t in the tread pattern – the extra-supple casing makes them wonderfully fast and contributes to their great traction. The tread is incredibly buzzy on pavement. It’s good that most ‘cross courses include no more than a few meters on pavement.
The knob shape itself makes little difference. “It’s all about ‘design'” a Panaracer engineer confided.
dual_purpose_tireDesigning a knobby tire that rolls OK on pavement is not too hard, either. Space your knobs closely, and the tire will roll fine. But when it gets muddy, the tire will clog up, depriving you of the advantages of a knobby tire. You get only the disadvantages of knobbies, without many of the benefits.
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Designing a tire that rolls well on pavement and grips well in mud is much harder. If you also want the tire to corner well without knobs folding over and suddenly losing traction, it seems almost impossible. And yet… with the engineers at Panaracer, we spent a lot of time analyzing and testing knob designs during the development of our Compass Steilacoom 700C x 38 mm knobbies. We found a few things that can greatly improve a knobby’s performance on pavement, without detracting from its ability in mud. More about that in a future post…
Click here for more information about Compass tires.
Photo credit: Wade Schultz (bottom photo)

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Disc Brake Pros and Cons

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Disc brakes have become increasingly popular on bicycles in recent years, especially on “Allroad” bikes with wide tires. Bicycle Quarterly has tested more than 20 bikes with disc brakes. Our challenging adventures have provided excellent opportunities to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of modern “Road” disc brakes.
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I remember enjoying the excellent power and modulation of the then-new SRAM Red hydraulic discs on the descent from Naches Pass, but the caliper flexed the fork blade so much that the front wheel turned right each time I braked hard. At the other end of the spectrum, I sailed through a red light on a steep Seattle street, because an early mechanical “road” disc simply lacked the power to stop the bike.
What you’ll read here is a more detailed and differentiated view than the usual “discs offer great stopping power” generalizations. As with many things, disc brakes have advantages and disadvantages. Whether they are right for you (and which ones to choose) depends on how you ride.
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Experts like to point out that rim brakes are in fact disc brakes – the bicycle’s rim acts as the disc rotor (above). That is true in a technical sense, but it also points out the main differences between the two types of brakes.
On rim brakes:

  • Good: The “rotor” – the rim – is very large (close to 600 mm on most road bikes). With such a long lever arm, the brake caliper does not need to squeeze the rim extremely hard to stop the bike.
  • Bad: The brake caliper must reach around the tire. This means that brakes for wider tires are heavier and more flexible than those for narrow tires.

On a disc brake, the opposite is the case:

  • Bad: A disc brake’s separate rotor is much smaller (140 – 200 mm on most bikes). The caliper must squeeze the rotor very, very hard to slow the bike.
  • Good: A disc brake caliper only has to reach around a very thin rotor. Thanks to the caliper’s small size, flex is not an issue.

The advantages of disc brakes are most pronounced on bikes with wide tires. That is why disc brakes are so popular for Allroad bikes: Most rim brakes for wide tires offer sub-par performance. Here is why:
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Scaling up the dual-pivot brake of a racing bike may provide clearance for 35 mm tires, but it results in a heavy and flexible brake. See the long lower arm of the brake in the photo above? When you brake hard, it will flex significantly.
Such a brake may feel fine during moderate braking, but pulling harder on the brake lever only flexes the brake, without increasing brake power on the rim. That is a problem during emergency stops. It’s an even bigger issue during wet rides, when you need extra braking power to squeeze the water off the rim. Anybody who has descended a mountain pass in the rain and squeezed the brake lever as hard as they could without being able to stop is going to look for a better solution.
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The problems of rim brakes can be solved by moving the pivots closer to the rim. This reduces the flex, since only the part between the pivot and the brake pad flexes significantly. (It’s the part that gets twisted as the brake pads are pulled along with the rim.)
Cantilever brakes (above) locate the pivot close to the rim. That makes them very stiff. The problem is that the stiff brake is attached to the flexible fork blades or seatstays, which twist when you brake very hard. This changes the toe-in of the brake pads and results in poor modulation.
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Centerpull brakes (above) have pivots near the fork crown or brake bridge, so flex is less of an issue. That is why they generally offer better modulation than cantilevers. The best models also have very stiff arms, and almost no brake lever travel is wasted to brake flex.
Placing the pivots next to the rims is such a logical solution that it’s now used on racing bikes, too: the latest “Direct Mount” brakes use the same geometry. The only difference: The arms are actuated by a linkage (which adds weighs and friction, but eliminates the need for a straddle cable).
Really good rim brakes for wide tires exist, but they aren’t very common. This may be one reason why disc brakes have taken over. They are better than “average” rim brakes.
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How do disc brakes compare to rim brakes?
The advantages of disc brakes are easy to understand:

  • Power independent of tire size: Brake design (and power) are not constrained by tire size. You can use the same brake for any tire, and you get as much brake power with wide tires as you do with narrow ones.
  • Wet-weather performance: Because the rotor is small, the caliper must squeeze the rotor much harder than it does on a rim brake. This means that water will be scraped off the rotor quickly when riding in the rain. The best rim brakes also have enough power to offer decent wet-weather performance, but with disc brakes, even relatively inexpensive models work fine in the rain.
  • Separating tire and brake eliminates the risk of cutting into the tire with maladjusted brake pads. There is no risk of overheating the tire during long mountain descents. It also keeps rim and tire cleaner.
  • Switch wheels sizes on the same bike. For example, I could ride my Firefly (photo at the top) with superwide 26″ tires on rough gravel, with moderately wide 650B wheels on rough roads, and with skinny 700C tires on super-smooth roads. The outer diameter of all three wheelsets would be the same, and where the rim is located doesn’t matter with disc brakes. (In practice, this isn’t really an advantage, since the latest research by Bicycle Quarterly shows that wide tires roll as fast as narrow ones even on smooth roads.)

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As so often, the same features that are responsible for the advantages of disc brakes also can be disadvantages:

  • Mechanical disc brakes often are not very powerful, because their rotors are so small. With 160 mm rotors, mechanical disc brakes don’t stop you as well as good centerpull (or racing dual pivot) brakes. This problem can be solved with bigger rotors. Stay away from “road” bikes with tiny 140 mm rotors. They are simply too small for optimum braking on pavement.
  • Hydraulic disc brakes offer plenty of power, but their hydraulic lines tend to be fragile. On one test bike, we had a brake line blow out after it got kinked slightly during shipping. Fortunately, this didn’t happen on the road, but in the workshop while adjusting the brakes.
  • Grabby: The most powerful disc brakes can suddenly lock onto the rotor. Especially at low speeds, braking power is hard to modulate. This isn’t a huge deal, but it shows that disc brake technology is still evolving.
  • Pad rub: Disc brakes must be very close to the rotor – this is the flip side of the high mechanical advantage that scrapes off the water so effectively in the rain. If the rotor is slightly out of true, it will rub on the pads and make annoying squeaking sounds.

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  • Pad wear: Disc brake pads are relatively thin, and they wear out much faster than rim brake pads. On long, wet rides, you can run out of brakes completely, so carry spare pads! Fortunately, pad replacement is easy on most models.
  • Weight: Many bikes with disc brakes are heavier than their rim brake counterparts, but this needn’t be the case. Yes, the extra rotor and heavy caliper add significant weight, but much of that weight can be saved again on the rim, which doesn’t need a brake track, nor extra material to accommodate wear. With high-end carbon rims, a disc brake bike will weigh almost the same as with a good rim brake setup. The down side is the high price of carbon rims.
  • Stiff fork blades: Disc brakes require relatively stiff fork blades, because the caliper is mounted near the bottom of the fork. This means that the small-diameter, shock-absorbing fork blades of our favorite custom bikes don’t work well with disc brakes. For production bikes, this isn’t really an issue. Most production forks don’t offer much shock absorption anyhow: They are plenty stiff for disc brakes.

In a single sentence, the conclusion may be as follows: Even mid-range disc brakes offer adequate performance. The best rim brakes also offer plenty of power, but cheaper models for wide tires do not offer good braking, especially in the rain.
For a custom Allroad bike, where I can choose the best brakes and design the bike around them, I still prefer rim brakes. The best centerpulls (with brazed-on pivots) offer a sweet modulation that discs cannot yet match. Their pads last much longer. And they can be used with the flexible fork blades that increase comfort and speed, especially on rough roads. Just watch your pads to make sure they don’t cut into the tire. And be prepared to get muddy legs during long, rainy mountain descents (below).
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But if you are looking for a production bike, centerpulls with brazed-on pivots aren’t really an option – too few bikes come equipped that way. Cantilevers offer fine stopping power, but especially with carbon forks, you often get fork judder. Disc brakes often are the best option for these bikes. Choose good brakes, maintain them well, and they won’t detract from the enjoyment of your bike. Here is what to look for in disc brakes:

  • For the ultimate in stopping power, get hydraulic calipers.
  • The best mechanical discs are fine for most riding. We’ve had good experiences with the TRP Spyre. Make sure your front rotor is no smaller than 160 mm. I’d prefer 180 mm (200 mm tends to be too grabby at low speeds), but few bikes come equipped that way.
  • Check your pad wear regularly. On long rides, carry spare pads.
  • Be prepared for the occasional squealing as your pads rub. On most mechanical brakes, centering the pads is easy with a 3 mm Allen wrench.

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Further reading:

Photo credits: Natsuko Hirose (photos 1, 10, 11); Duncan Smith (6, 7); Hahn Rossman (2, 8).

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Steilacoom Tire Testing

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We thoroughly test every Compass product before we release it. We also seek unbiased evaluations from experienced riders who weren’t involved in the development of the products. For the new Compass Steilacoom cyclocross tires, we gave them to a number of cyclocross and gravel racers. Two of them have reported back in detail, and we are happy that they like the new tires even more than we do. Matt Surch (above) is one of the fastest gravel racers in Ontario. Wade Schultz (below) is a Category 2 ‘cross racer from Seattle.
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Both liked the performance on damp surfaces and mud – Matt commented: “The grip is fantastic, allowing extreme lean angles” – but that was to be expected on a tire with big, widely spaced knobs. What surprised them both was the excellent performance on pavement.
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Wade: I expected these tires to be appropriately slow on smooth pavement, but was frankly surprised by how well they did. Their rolling resistance is lower than other pure mud CX tires (tight center knob spacing helps). I love the excellent transition from center to side-knobs. I did not experience any on/off traction vagary on corner lean initiation.
Matt: My Woven rims have a very good tubeless bead shelf and inner ridge that holds the bead in place. They mounted easily, and I went out for a cx rip. Wow! Seriously, I didn’t expect this tread to roll so well. Yes, it’s pretty close to linked in the centre, but with so much open space, I thought they’d feel slow on pavement. Nope. Instead, they just feel like they roll sort of crazy fast, like faster than they should.
This isn’t a complete surprise – much thought and development went into the spacing of the knobs. We didn’t want to space them so close that they’d clog up and no longer grip on mud, but we alternated them in a way that keeps the tire supported, rather than have it bump up and down as the knobs pass underneath.
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The other question is what tire pressure is ideal for these tires? Matt tested the absolute minimum he could run:
Matt: I took pressure down to 27, which was low enough to fold the rear on off cambers and fold the front on some soft to hard transitions. This is the same sort of folding I’d expect from my tubulars, and I figure if I can get a tubeless tire to fold but not burp, I’m good. I lost no pressure at all after 40 minutes of trying to get them to burp. And this is minutes after mounting.
A minor note of caution: Running your tires at pressures this low gives you the ultimate in traction for cyclocross racing, but it can reduce the life expectancy of the tires, as the casings are under a lot of stress when they fold over.
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Matt raced the tires in the first races of the season. He reported after the first one:
Matt: My experience through the 60 minutes of racing was overwhelmingly positive. I didn’t feel at 100% physically at the start, yet I had my best cx race I can remember, finishing closer to a few adversaries than ever before, for 4th overall in the Senior / Master 1 race.
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It’s exciting that the tires work as well as we had hoped. A lot of thought went into that tread design – it’s much more than just a few widely spaced knobs – and we are glad that the tires offer the on-pavement speed and smooth cornering that we wanted to achieve. Here are the final words from these two experienced racers:
Wade: Is my satisfaction with this tire linked more directly to the casing volume (vs traditional cx tubulars) or the tread design? [I suspect the answer is: Both.]
Matt: I am extremely happy with them. Congrats on making an awesome tire.
Further info:

Photo credits: Andrea Emery (Photos 1, 4, 5); Heidi Franz (Photos 2, 6) Alain Villeneuve (Photo 3).

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Riding the First Recumbent

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

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Transcontinental Race on Compass Tires

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Congratulations to Andreas Behrens of LaFraise Cycles for completing the amazing Transcontinental Race. Riding unsupported for almost 2,400 miles (3900 km) over a course that traversed all of Europe, Andreas completed the non-stop race in 15 days and 12 hours.
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The course traversed the highest mountain ranges of Europe – above the view from the Grimsel Pass to the Furka Pass in Switzerland. All in all, Andreas climbed more than 40,000 m (130,000 ft).
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Andreas builds bikes himself. The one he rode in the Transcontinental Race was equipped with Compass Loup Loup Pass Extralight 650B x 38 mm tires. After the finish, he sent us photos of his tires:
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Even after 4000 km, the front tire still has plenty of life left.
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The rear tire is a bit more worn. The wear is almost entirely in the center of the tread – an indication that Andreas is running slightly higher tire pressures than we’d recommend. He might be more comfortable and even faster if he let out a tiny bit of air.
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When he dipped his wheels into the Dardanelles at the finish in Turkey, he hadn’t suffered a single flat tire!
Andreas isn’t a sponsored rider – he bought the tires with his own money. I asked him why he chose Compass tires. His response:
“I have a few bikes with wider tires, between 32 and 42 mm. From experience, I knew that on these bikes, I wasn’t any slower than other riders on their racing bikes. In the past, the tires from Panaracer and Grand Bois always felt a bit stiff. When I visited JP  at 2-11 Cycles [Compass’ French importer], I had the opportunity to test the Compass tires. I liked the ride very much and decided to use the 38 mm version on my bike for the Transcontinental Race.
“Of course, it also was a test to see whether the Compass tires would survive the race. I only recommend products to my customers that I use myself. My experience confirms your testing: the tires reduce vibrations and fatigue. Of course, it wasn’t only the tires: The steel frame, custom geometry, comfortable saddle and ergonomic handlebars helped me finish the race without soreness or injury. No saddle problems, no numb hands, even though I mostly rode without gloves. I credit the comfort of the bike.”
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Riding from Belgium to Turkey, all the way across Europe, without any major aches and pains – that is truly inspirational. Congratulations!
Click here for information on Andreas’ bikes: LaFraise Cycles.
Photo credits: Andreas Behrens (LaFraise Cycles).

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I Bought a Titanium Bike!

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The Firefly we tested for the Summer Bicycle Quarterly is one of a new breed – an Enduro Allroad Bike with tires much wider than we usually ride. Our usual routes in the Cascades didn’t seem enough of a challenge for this machine and its 54 mm tires, so we took it on a challenging ride across the Paso de Cortés in Mexico, reaching elevations of 4000 m (13,120 ft) –  almost as high as the summit of our own Mount Rainier.
Taking a test bike on a big trip like that always carries some risk. With our own bikes, we know how they perform. We know that they will totally reliable. With test bikes, there can be surprises…
The Firefly did not disappoint. Its titanium frame climbed well on the rough gravel road to the pass. The big tires floated over the very loose surfaces of our side trip up Iztacchihuatl volcano (photo above), where we would have been walking on our usual bikes.
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During the sinuous descent into the “Valley of Mexico”, the bike surprised with its incredible cornering grip (above). And during our night-time dash into Mexico City, I enjoyed the scintillating performance offered by truly great bikes, whether they are made from steel, carbon, titanium or aluminum.
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After that memorable adventure, I rode the Firefly in many different settings. I used it for interval training on the big avenidas of Mexico City.
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I took it to the limit on the loose gravel descents of the Cascade Range. We even tested its performance against the clock to see how much it gives up on pavement due to its ultra-wide tires. (The report is in the new issue of Bicycle Quarterly.)
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It came with me to Japan, where it went on a cyclotouring trip that included a visit to the Panaracer factory.
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In Tokyo, the bike drew an admiring comment from a pedestrian. Considering how reserved the Japanese usually are, that was high praise. I agreed with the stranger – I really like the way it looks. The proportions seem “just right”; the logos are tasteful; the craftsmanship is superb; the custom titanium stem and seatpost add a “constructeur” touch. It’s a beautiful bike.
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When the time came to send our test bike back to Firefly, I realized how much I would miss it. I don’t have my own Enduro Allroad bike with 50+mm-wide tires yet. More than that, I really like riding this bike. It’s not the first test bike I’ve been reluctant to return, but this one that fills a need in my “stable” that currently isn’t met.
Kevin from Firefly proposed a price, taking into consideration that the bike now is “used”, and that is how I now own my first titanium bike. It’s also my first bike with Campagnolo Ergopower and with disc brakes. I am quite excited about it.
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Most of my bikes use classic components that require almost zero maintenance. How will a modern 11-speed drivetrain fare on the challenging rides we enjoy? How will the disc brakes work out in the long run? And does titanium offer something that my steel bikes can’t match? We’ll find out soon!
I’ve already started to modify the bike. The White Industries bottom bracket was running roughly after just a few hundred miles, so it has been replaced with an SKF bottom bracket. I installed Compass René Herse cranks to save more than 100 grams and get the 48-32 chainrings that I want to use on the Firefly. I’ve set up the Compass Rat Trap Pass tires tubeless. But most of all, I’ve ridden the bike a lot. And now that it’s mine to keep, you’ll see more of it here and in the pages of Bicycle Quarterly.
Further reading:

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Steilacoom: Our First Cyclocross Tire

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It’s no secret that we love cyclocross. It was only a matter of time until Compass Cycles would introduce a ‘cross tire. Like all our products, the new Steilacoom fills a need that currently isn’t being met: a supple, wide ‘cross clincher that is tubeless-ready and that approaches the ride and performance of my beloved FMB ‘Super Mud’ tubulars.
The Steilacoom is named after an iconic ‘cross course near Seattle. It’s where I won my first cyclocross race on a course that (back then) featured a daunting descent and a brutal run-up. What makes the new Compass tire special is its width: 38 mm is wider than most ‘cross tires.
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Some will argue that the UCI limits ‘cross tires to 33 mm. True, but most of us don’t race in UCI-sanctioned categories. In the U.S., this rule appears to apply only to the national championships. If you are competing at that level, you probably already have a bunch of FMB or Dugast tubulars and expensive wheels to glue them onto. For the rest of us, the UCI rule is irrelevant, yet most ‘cross tires are limited to a maximum width of 33 mm. If you ride clinchers, this is less than optimal.
To provide the same traction and comfort, a clincher needs to be about 10-15% wider than an equivalent tubular. Scaling up a 33 mm tubular gets you a 38 mm clincher. This tire still fits into most current cyclocross frames – no need to go ‘monster-cross’ to fit the new Steilacoom tires.
The Steilacoom ‘cross tires are available with our Extralight casing that usually is used for handmade tubulars. It’s one of the best, fastest-rolling casings anywhere. For those on a budget or with a propensity to cut their tire sidewalls, we also offer them with the Standard casing that still offers superb performance. The Steilacoom tires are tubeless-compatible – that is, they are designed to be used with tubeless rims and sealant. Of course, you also can set them up with tubes.
cross_nats_96
What about the tread pattern? It’s based on more than 20 years of experience racing cyclocross. The 1996 newspaper article above shows me at the very first collegiate cyclocross nationals ever held in the U.S., with my Alan – the bike I still race today.
WOLBERCROSSSUPERXSP1
Back then, cyclocross tires were quite simple: The best ones used a tread pattern that consisted of round knobs. Key was to have them spaced widely enough so that they didn’t clog up with mud. Traction was great – I just wish they had been wider than the 25 mm or so that they measured. (It’s incredible that back then, we raced ‘cross on tires as wide as those that the pros use today on the smooth roads of the Tour de France!)
When I discussed tread patterns with the engineers from Panaracer, their opinion was succinct: “With knob shapes, it’s mostly about fashion.” I thought about that and realized that the old round knobs made a lot of sense: You don’t want the tread to clog up with mud, so the fewer edges you have, the harder it is for the mud to stick to the tire. A round knob has the smallest surface area for mud to stick.
steilacoom_testing
Panaracer’s engineers cautioned that round knobs might slide through the mud too easily. A straight edge provides more traction. That is why our knobs are square, with rounded corners. That way, the knobs present straight edges for the forces of pedaling and braking (front/back), as well as cornering (right/left). It’s logical.
What matters more than the knob shape is their size and especially their pattern on the tire. We placed the knobs so that there are a few more in the center. The square knobs are harder to deform than thinner, irregular shaped ones. This reduces the squirm on hard surfaces. The knobs are placed so that the transition from the center tread to the shoulders is smooth and gradual. The slightly larger shoulder knobs resist squirm during hard cornering. That way, the tire rolls smoother and corners better on hard-packed dirt and pavement. The first rides by cyclocross racers have confirmed this: On pavement, the Steilacoom exhibits none of the sudden breakaway that you get with most other knobbies. Many riders will want to use these tires for mixed-surface rides where they expect significant mud.
What has been most surprising during our testing of the prototype Steilacooms is how well the new tires roll and corner on pavement. We always intended the tire as a dual-purpose tire that excels on all surfaces, paved or not, but we weren’t sure whether it was possible to create a knobby that excels on pavement, too. At the same time, they shed mud like my FMB ‘Super Muds,’ which is about the highest benchmark we can imagine. The ride is as great as you’d expect from our supple casings, and the knob pattern delivers on its promises.
cross_race
I can’t wait to race on them. I have a (slightly) more modern Alan with clearance for tires this wide. Now I just have to build it up with a set of tubeless rims!
Click here for more information about the new Steilacoom tires.
Photo credits: Heidi Franz (top); Wade Schultz (second from bottom), Leander Vandefen (bottom).

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Minimum Tire Pressure

Hahn_Paso

Over the last few years, the idea that higher pressures don’t make your bike faster finally has become accepted. Many cyclists now run lower pressures to improve comfort and traction, without giving up anything in speed.

On gravel, lower pressures actually make you faster, since the bike bounces less. On soft gravel, like we encountered during our ride across the Paso de Cortés in Mexico (above), lower pressures (and wider tires) allow you to float on top of the surface, rather than sink in. Again, that makes you faster and more secure.

So lower pressure is better in many cases, but how low can you go?

contact_patch

Here is a detail from the photo of Hahn on the Paso de Cortés. You can see how long that contact patch is – there is a lot of tire on the ground, which spreads the rider’s weight over a larger surface area.

Yet the pressure is not too low. The tire still holds its shape: Seen from the side, the tire sidewalls form a nice circle. That is the reason why it still rolls as fast as it did at higher pressures: The flex in the tire is limited to a relatively small area.

Only when viewed from above, can you see the contact patch bulge outward – but even that should not be excessive.

paso_cortes_descent

What happens if your tire pressure is too low?

  1. The tire can collapse when cornering. During our Mexican adventure, we pumped up our tires when we reached pavement, so we could tackle the fast and twisty descent with confidence (above). Even on gravel, a tire can collapse under the forces of cornering, if it’s not inflated high enough.
  2. You can pinch-flat, if the tire bottoms out, and the tube gets crushed between rim and road surface.

BJPASS_result-750x481

3. The tire can get damaged. When the tire gets kneaded too much with each revolution, it’s not only slower. (Yes, lower pressures do get slower at some point.) It also puts very high stresses on individual threads of the casing, which then can break. The tire needs a certain pressure to hold its shape and distribute the stresses uniformly over all the threads in the casing.

In the photo above, you can see a cross-hatched pattern where the casing threads have broken. This tire was tested by a magazine, and they rode these 35 mm tires at extremly low presssures of just 35 psi (2.4 bar).

The tire probably is still fine to ride, but if you try to run it tubeless, air (and sealant) will seep out of the tiny holes caused by the broken threads. (The sealant colored the sidewall where it leaked.) If you see a single zigzagging line in the tire sidewall where one thread has broken, increase your air pressure slightly to prevent further damage.

What is the minimum pressure that is OK to ride?
This depends on many factors, including:

  • Rider weight. Obviously, heavier riders need to run higher pressures to prevent the tires from collapsing.
  • Surface grip: The more grip you have, the higher are the forces generated during cornering. To withstand those forces, your tire needs to be inflated harder.
  • Tire construction: A stiff tire is held up by its sidewalls as much as by the air pressure inside. A supple tire’s sidewalls do little to support the bike’s weight, so you need higher pressure. Thanks to the supple sidewalls, this tire still is more comfortable and faster, even at the higher pressure.
  • Riding style: A rider who has a round spin can run lower pressures. If your bike starts to bob up and down with each pedal stroke, your tire pressure is too low. Fast riders need to run slightly higher pressures, since they hit obstacles with more force. And riders who corner on the limit need higher pressures to prevent the tire sidewalls from collapsing.

I polled the riders on the Bicycle Quarterly team about the tire pressures they ride. I was surprised how consistent they are. Some riders are a bit heavier and use a bit more air, so we equalized the values for weight of 82 kg / 180 lb.
tire_pressure_chart_psi

Or if you prefer metric values:

tire_pressure_chart_bar
Of course, we’ll adjust these values if needed, for example, on rough gravel, we increase the pressure to prevent pinch flats… And remember that different pressure gauges can vary by up to 15%, so your 45 psi may be quite different from our 45 psi! Still, this provides a starting point for thinking about the right tire pressure.
For the majority of riders today, the advice “When in doubt, let out some air!” still holds true, but as we lower our tire pressures, we need to be aware that too little air also can cause problems.
Further reading:

Photo credit: Cyclocross magazine (damaged casing)

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Panel Discussion: The Wide Tire Revolution

cyclingtips
“Buy the nicest, most supple tires you can afford; and buy them in the widest width that you can fit in your frame.”
That is Joshua Poertner’s summary of a panel discussion on Cyclingtips.com. Joshua used to be the president of Zipp, the makers of super-fast aero wheels, and he did a lot of research on how to make your bike faster.
The panel included Joshua, cycling journalist James Huang, and me, with Elden Nelson (who runs the blog “The Fat Cyclist”) moderating. The goal was to explain the science behind the current trend toward wider tires to an audience of racers and performance riders, who want to understand how to make their bikes faster.
In the podcast, we talk about why narrow tires feel faster, but aren’t. We discuss how lower pressures increase the internal resistance as the tire flexes, but decrease the suspension losses from the vibrations of the bike – the two effects cancel each other, hence your speed doesn’t change.
We also talk about the history of this research. I was amazed to find out that Zipp had been doing similar research to our own. They were trying to optimize tire pressures for the professional racers they sponsored. During their testing on rough surfaces like the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, lowering tire pressure made their racers faster – until their wheels broke. The next step was to go to wider tires, so the wheels could survive… And then they found that even on smooth roads, lower pressures and wider tires were faster. They considered these findings “trade secrets”, and yet the other teams just had to read Bicycle Quarterly to get the same information. And eventually they did…
To me, Joshua’s conclusion really is remarkable: “Buy the most supple and widest tire you can fit in your frame.” His words could just as well have been mine. To have the guy who designed wheels for Zipp say this… It shows that the wide tire revolution has reached cycling’s mainstream.
Click here to listen to the entire podcast.
cyclingtips

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The Missing Piece: Suspension Losses

old_road_to_mexico

How does it work that wide tires are as fast as narrow ones? It is really simple:

Comfort = Speed

When your bike vibrates, energy is dissipated as friction. That energy must come from somewhere – it no longer is available to propel the bike forward, so your bike slows down. That is why your bike rolls faster on smooth pavement than on rough chipseal.

At Bicycle Quarterly, we started testing tires on real roads, with a real rider, in 2006. We found that higher tire pressures don’t make your bike faster. Back then, that was pretty revolutionary. Previous tests on smooth drums had shown that the harder you pumped up your tires, the faster you went. But smooth steel drums aren’t a good model for what happens on real roads, and the results were misleading.

Over the last couple of years, our findings have become generally accepted. Most tech writers now talk about vibrations that slow down your bike. The missing piece is: How do vibrations slow you down? The most common explanation is that your bike goes up and down as it vibrates. All that climbing adds up and costs a lot of energy.

It’s true that vibrations slow you down, but it’s a bit more complicated. Energy cannot disappear. The only way to ‘lose’ energy is to convert it to heat through friction. When you climb a mountain pass, you put in energy as you gain elevation. As you descend on the other side, you get some of it back – you can coast downhill without pedaling – but most of it is converted to heat by your wind resistance. During the descent, your bike accelerates until you reach ‘terminal velocity,’ where the energy input from the elevation loss equals the energy consumed by wind resistance.

That explains where the energy goes when you cross a mountain pass. It cannot explain what happens when your bike vibrates on flat roads.

RumbleStrip

We tested various equipment on rumble strips to get a maximum value for the energy that is lost to vibrations. We found that riding on this “very rough” road can take up to 290 Watt more power than riding on smooth pavement at the same speed. So it’s true, vibrations can absorb a huge amount of energy. It was almost impossible to keep the bike moving at our testing speed on the “very rough” road. (Of course, in real life, you don’t ride on rumble strips, but the point was to see how much energy could be lost just by changing the surface roughness, and keeping everything else the same.)

Since we were going at the same speed as on the smooth pavement, the our wind resistance was the same, and yet we had to push the pedals with 290 Watts more. So where did all the energy go?

basketball

A little bit went into heating the tire as it flexes, but pneumatic tires don’t absorb much energy even when they bounce. Think of a basketball. When you drop it, it bounces back almost as high as before. Very little energy is lost, even though it deflects as it hits the ground. As the basketball hits the ground, it compresses and becomes an air spring. Then it stops, before it starts accelerating upward again. The ‘spring’ in the ball returns most of the energy, and the ball bounces almost as high as it did with the last bounce.

tire_push_off_2

Tires work the same way. When a tire hits a bump (left), it deforms (arrow). Energy is stored – the tire becomes a compressed spring. On the other side of the bump (right), the energy is released, pushing the tire off the bump. The net loss of energy is small.

If the energy isn’t lost in the tire, then where does it go?

rough_road

The answer is simple: As the rider’s body vibrates, the tissues (muscles, tendons, skin, etc.) rub against each other. This can convert an enormous amount of energy into heat. How much? In a study of vibrating tank seats, the U.S. Army found that up to 2000 Watt were absorbed by a human body before the vibrations became too painful to endure. The discomfort was directly proportional to the energy loss.

2000 Watt! That is more than the power output of a pro racer. Clearly, a lot of energy can be lost due to these vibrations. The technical term for this is “suspension loss”. It also occurs in shock absorbers of cars – rally cars’ shock absorbers absorb so much energy that they get hot – so hot that they need dedicated cooling.

rumble_smooth

We also tested different types of equipment on the new, super-smooth pavement next to the rumble strips. We were surprised that even on very smooth pavement, reducing vibrations through supple tires – and even, to a lesser degree, a suspension fork – resulted in significant performance gains.

What this means for cyclists is simple: If your bike’s vibrations are uncomfortable, it’s because energy is converted into heat, inside your body. This energy is lost from the forward motion of the bike. As far as vibrations are concerned, being uncomfortable slows you down. Or seen the other way around, the more comfortable your bike is, the less power goes to suspension losses, and the more power is available to drive it forward:

Comfort = Speed

It really is that simple. And it’s revolutionized how we think about bikes: Wide, supple tires are faster because they vibrate less. Fork blades that absorb road shocks – even suspension forks – are faster, not just on rough roads, but even on relatively smooth roads, because they reduce vibrations. On real roads and at the speeds most of us ride (<25 mph), the best gravel and all-road bikes actually are faster than their racing bike cousins.

diverge_skagit

This means that the biggest improvement in your bike’s performance comes from a set of wide, supple tires. “Supple” means that the casing is thin and easy to flex. This has two benefits:

  1. Supple tires are easy to flex, so they transmit fewer vibrations (lower suspension losses). That is Reason 1 why they are faster.
  2. Supple tires are easy to flex, so it takes less energy as they deform them as they rotate (lower hysteretic losses in the tire casing itself). Reason 2 why they are faster.

Wide tires also transmit fewer vibrations, which makes them faster than narrower ones.
Our testing shows that supple casings are more important than width. A supple 26 mm tire is much faster (and more comfortable) than a stiff 38 mm “touring” tire. Of course, ideally, you’ll get it all – a wide and supple tire.

This research led us to develop our Rene Herse tires. While quite a few makers offered supple racing tires in widths up to 25 mm, there weren’t (and still aren’t) many great high-performance tires in wider widths.

For our Extralight series, we use a casing that usually is reserved for high-end, hand-made racing tubulars. On top goes a layer of extra-grippy, yet long-wearing, rubber with our trademark tread pattern that interlocks with the road surface for extra grip. The result are our Rene Herse tires – available in widths from 26 mm to 55 mm.

tekne_gravel

Before releasing these tires in 2014, we tested them extensively on some of the roughest gravel roads to ensure they were durable enough for real-world riding. Since then, they’ve proven themselves in gravel races, but also on paved courses like Paris-Brest-Paris. They even took second place in the Washington State Road Racing Championships. The riders who use them are our best advertisers, recommending them to everybody who is willing to listen. We rarely advertise – instead, we focus on new research that will improve our products even further.

Further reading:

Photo credit (gravel racing): Chyla’s Race Photos.

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The 2016 Technical Trials

village
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.
HerseCh1147_0
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?
pechtregon
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.
julie_racing
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.
pechtregon_singer
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.
victoire_winner
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.
Further reading:

Photo credits: Cycles Victoire (winning bike).

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The "Friend", an Affordable Touring Bike

34-front
During a recent cyclotouring trip in Japan, we stopped at an onsen hot bath. As we locked up our bikes, I noticed an interesting touring bike, chained to a lamppost.
“A few decades ago, a bike like this was every boy’s dream,” my friends remarked. Looking over the bike, I can understand why. It’s a smartly designed, yet affordable, campeur in the French tradition. As a teenager, I would have dreamt of a bike like this, too.
seatlug
The frame looks nicely made, with Nervex “Professional” lugs. The seatstays cross over the seat tube. This is intended to stiffen the frame at the seat tube, useful when you carry heavy loads on the rear rack. The seat tube is less likely to act like a hinge that has the bike flex in undesirable ways. The lack of logos is a marked contrast to the mountain bike next to it.
badge
The seat tube sticker reads “Friend – since 1933 – hand made”. The pump peg on the seatstay is a nice touch. It frees up the frame’s main tubes to carry bottle cages. And it keeps the top tube clear, so you can shoulder the bike and carry it. A true adventure probably includes portaging the bike…
rack
The front rack is made from tubular steel. Its large platform allows carrying a big handlebar bag, or even a small bundle of firewood. The clamps are for a flashlight – useful to illuminate the road when riding after dark, and easy to remove to use while setting up camp. In addition, there is a generator-powered headlight on the other side.
front_rack
The fork and the rack stay both have attachments for low-riders. The kink in the rack stay is an interesting design feature: When using a low-rider, it spreads the attachment points further apart, and yet the rack remains triangulated.
rear_lowrider
There are low-rider attachments on the seatstays as well. Mafac cantilever brakes provide plenty of stopping power. Wheels are 650A (590 mm, rather than 650B/584 mm).
rinko_fender
The bike is prepared for Rinko, with a split rear fender. The generator that attaches to the bottom of the seatstay is missing.
suntour_derailleur
The SunTour Vx derailleur was one of the best-shifting derailleurs of its time. Together with the triple cranks, it provided a wide spread of gears. There is even a rubber strap to protect the chainstay from getting scratched by chain slap on bumpy roads. Vertical dropouts make it easy to remove the rear wheel even with fenders – important for Rinko.
seatpost
Another nice touch is the seatpost: a Japanese SR copy of my all-time favorite, the classic Simplex seatpost. The Brooks Professional saddle looks like a later upgrade to me. It shows that somebody has loved this bike.
headbadge
The headbadge finally gives away the maker of this well thought-out machine: Leopard. A quick Internet search turned up a bike maker with that name, but it was founded in 2004, not 1933 like the seat tube sticker of this bike proclaims. So it must be another company, unrelated to the maker of this bike.
I didn’t meet the owner of the bike. I would have liked to know more about its history, and especially find out how it rides. It’s probably great. The relatively steep head angle and a good amount of fork offset result in a low-trail geometry perfect for precise handling with a load, but also handles well unloaded. Even in this very small size, it doesn’t seem to have toe overlap. Whoever designed this bike knew what they were doing.
profile
In fact, the entire bike would fit right in with the machines we ride today, after our decade-long “Journey of Discovery” has taught us the merits of fully integrated bikes, aluminum fenders, low-trail geometries and wider tires on smaller wheels. To think that in Japan, as a teenager, I could have bought a bike like this off the shelf…
It’s really a shame that bikes like these no longer are available, except as expensive custom bikes. Cyclotouring is resurgent, and this bike once again could be the machine of many dreams. Today, it’s not just boys who dream of taking to the road by bike, but girls (and women), too.
Just imagine if you could buy a bike like this at an affordable price: A nicely made, lugged steel frame. Low-trail geometry. Wide tires and good components. Even comfortable handlebars. (The shape is remarkably similar to the Compass Maes Parallels.) Aluminum fenders, lights, and a front rack as standard equipment. Front and rear low-riders as optional extras that you can add later, when you are heading out on a tour. And most of all, the “Friend” looks purposeful, yet elegant and beautiful.
Camping
Touring by bike is a dream, and bikes like these made the dream more attainable. Before and after the grand tour, the “Friend” would be fun to ride around town and on weekend jaunts.
Who will be the first to make a bike like this again? I have no doubt that it will be successful.
Further reading:

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Suspension Losses Confirmed

RumbleStrip
Recently, Bicycle Quarterly’s experiments on suspension losses have been replicated and confirmed: Higher tire pressures don’t result in faster speeds – even on smooth pavement. Replicating results is a crucial part of science, which makes the new results an important milestone in the understanding of bicycle performance. No longer is it just Bicycle Quarterly talking about suspension losses and lower tire pressures – the science is becoming widely accepted.
When Bicycle Quarterly’s tire tests (below) showed that higher pressure didn’t make your tires faster, few people believed it. Back in 2007, everybody “knew” that pumping up your tires harder made them faster.
We had doubts, too. So we tested again and again, and our results always were the same. We concluded that it was true, even if it went against the accepted wisdom of almost 100 years of cycling knowledge.
MarkTiretesting
Looking through the literature and talking to experts like Jim Papadopoulos, we found a mechanism that could explain this: suspension losses caused by vibrations. As the tissues in the rider’s body rub against each other, friction turns energy into heat. And that energy must come from somewhere: It is taken from the forward momentum of the bike. Your body vibrates, and that slows down the bike. (The bike also vibrates, but it’s not as significant, since it’s mostly made from hard materials that don’t generate much friction.)
The next step was to prove that these vibrations could cost significant power. We went to rumble strips on the shoulder of a highway (photo at the top), because they allowed side-by-side comparison between smooth pavement and a “standardized” rough surface. The results were surprising: Riding on the rough surface took up to 290 Watts more than riding on the smooth surface (below).
BQ8-1_chart
Where did those 290 Watts go? After testing various pieces of equipment on the rumble strips all day, I knew where the energy went: My body was sore all over. I had experienced suspension losses on my own body!
Careful testing is only a first step. Real science demands that all scientific experiments are repeatable and replicable.
Repeatable means that if you run the same experiment twice, you must get the same result. We did that multiple times: Each configuration was run at least three times. And we ran the same equipment at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the test, to make sure that conditions (wind, temperature, etc.) did not change and affect the results.
Replicable means that others must be able to do the same experiment, and get the same results. We published our methodology for testing suspension losses in Bicycle Quarterly. That was back in 2009, and we’ve been waiting for others to replicate them. We are excited that now Joshua Poertner has done similar test, also using rumble strips. And his results are similar to ours:
rumble strip test web
The blue line at the bottom shows the old-style steel drum tests: Higher pressure makes your tires faster. But that is true only if you don’t have a rider on board. (No rider = few suspension losses)
Once you put a rider on the bike, things start to look very different: The green line shows brand-new asphalt, the yellow line coarse intermediate asphalt, and the red line are the rumble strips. You can see that resistance increases beyond a certain pressure. This is the opposite of the old wisdom, which is expressed by the blue line.
It’s important to remember that the green, yellow and red lines are real-world testing. The blue line is done in the laboratory. And when laboratory tests don’t match the real world, then they are useless.
track_tire_test
The article doesn’t mention Joshua Poertner’s methodology. I am a bit surprised that the dropoff in performance at higher pressures is so large. Our own testing (above) – on very smooth pavement – showed that very high pressures actually resulted in the same performance as lower pressures – not worse performance, as Joshua Poertner’s data seem to indicate. In the future, we’ll have to figure out which is correct. Or perhaps it’s a simple matter of Joshua Poertner’s “smooth” asphalt being rougher than ours…
However, everybody now agrees that higher pressures do not make you faster. We also agree that when things get rough, higher pressures are actually slower.
For riders, what matters most is how you can make your bike faster. And Joshua Poertner’s advice mirrors what we’ve been saying for years: “It turns out that it’s much better to be 10 or even 20 psi lower than the ideal tire pressure than 10 psi higher.” And: “Here’s the next thing you have to think about. As tire width increases, tire pressure decreases. So a wider tire performs better in terms of rolling performance.”
tire_test
Looking into the future, Poertner said: “I remember when wheels went from 19 mm to 23 mm. It was a very gradual process. And then we went from 23 mm to 25 mm. Now we’re seeing 28 mm wheels. Where does it stop? I don’t know.”
And we all agree that wider tires are faster because they can run at lower pressures over a mix of surfaces. Joshua Poertner is comparing identical tires at different widths. It is understood that to offer good performance, the wider tires must be supple, otherwise, you lose too much energy to flexing the tire casing at it deforms with each wheel revolution.
In other words: On most roads, and especially on rough ones, a 32 mm Compass tire will be faster than a 26 mm Compass tire. But a 42 mm Schwalbe Marathon will be slower than both, even though it’s wider – because it’s so stiff that its casing absorbs way more energy.
Here is what it means in practical terms:

  • Run the widest tire that fits your frame, at least within reason. Bicycle Quarterly’s tests have shown that 32 mm tires roll as fast as 25 mm even on very smooth asphalt, and faster than 23 mm or 20 mm. On rough roads, the wider tires are clearly faster. Since we measured this at 22 mph (35 km/h) with a rider, this takes into account the wind resistance at typical “spirited” cycling speeds.
  • Run your tires at a relatively low pressure that still offers good handling. You don’t want your tires collapse under hard cornering, but beyond that, there is no benefit to adding more air. Experiment with different pressures, but don’t be afraid to let out some air.
  • Select the most supple tire for the best performance.

It’s taken almost a decade, but it’s nice that our results finally have been replicated and confirmed. What once was controversial is becoming universally accepted. And as Joshua Poertner points out (“Where does it stop?”), there is more research to be done. Fortunately, Bicycle Quarterly is already working on this!
Further reading:

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The Paso de Cortés

not_for_publication
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…
paso_uphill_turn
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.
paso_de_cortes
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…
hahn_corner
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!
popocatepetl
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!
hahn_and_sheep
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.

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Weekend Rides on Film: Gravel Racing and Rinko

rasputisa
Spring is coming to many places, and this weekend was filled with wonderful rides. Two of them were captured on video, and they inspire me as I plan upcoming outings on my bike. One is from the Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race in Vermont, the other from the Flèche Northwest. Both rides are challenges, but in very different ways. The Rasputitsa is all about speed, whereas the Flèche is about endurance. Both favor teamwork and put friendship above competition.
https://www.facebook.com/ansel.dickey/videos/vb.1441302451/10209667097421163/?type=2&theater
 
In the Rasputitsa Gravel Road RaceBicycle Quarterly reader Matt Surch was in a breakaway of four riders. In the video, you see them working smoothly on the gravel as they race to the finish. The top photo shows Ansel Dickey (left) as he made his winning attack. Matt Surch came second in this race, riding his Compass Bon Jon Pass 700C x 35 mm tires.
Matt’s teammate Iain Radford came seventh. Iain reported: “The Bon Jon’s allowed me to roll faster with less effort compared to everyone else in the chase group. I was able to let gaps go on the climbs to save effort and easily get back on the group using the descents.” (And unlike sponsored pros, these guys say this even though they paid for their Compass tires with their own money.)

Before departing for the Flèche, Hahn Rossman packed his bike for Rinko. The team started their ride in Olympia, but there weren’t enough bike spots for the entire team on the Talgo train. Hahn was glad that he could just carry on his bike after putting it into its Rinko bag. Theo took the time-lapse video. Even in real time, the entire process took less than 10 minutes.
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The team had a great ride, enjoying a challenging course over the gravel roads of the Willapa Hills. And the sunrise after riding through the night was gorgeous!
Enjoy the videos!
Further reading:

Photo credits:

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Gravel Racing on Compass Tires

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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.
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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.
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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.
nostril_tires
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.
nstoril_bikes_after
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).
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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.
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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!
Further reading:

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.

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Straddle Cables Done Right

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Straddle cables provide a light and elegant way of transferring the brake force: Every cable-actuated rim brake needs to transmit the force of the single brake cable onto two brake pads that squeeze the rim.
In recent years, straddle cables been replaced by direct-action V-brakes or complex linkages (on modern Shimano sidepull brakes). There are reasons for this: Current practice for straddle cables is less than optimal. However, these flaws can be eliminated with good design, resulting in brakes that are lighter and more powerful than the alternatives.
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Above is a typical straddle cable arrangement. The straddle cable is as thick as the brake cable, and that makes it very springy. You can see how it bends around the cable hanger in a gentle arc. When you apply the brake, you first have to straighten the straddle cable. This is lost motion – you pull on the brake lever, but you don’t get any brake power yet. If there is too much “lost motion”, you risk bottoming out your brake levers against the handlebars. To prevent this, you have to set your brake pads very close to the rims. Experienced mechanics “pre-bend” the straddle cable, so it better conforms to the cable hanger, but it’s always going to have some of that springiness.
Why is the straddle cable so thick and springy? It carries only roughly half the load of the brake cable, so it needs to be only half as strong. A thinner cable is less springy and conforms much better to the bend of the cable hanger. The top photo shows our Compass brakes, which use a thin shifter cable as the straddle cable. You can see how straight the cable runs. When you squeeze the brake lever, there is no lost motion.
There is a reason to use a thicker straddle cable: to prevent it from fraying where it clamps to the brake arms. The angle of the cable changes here as you apply the brakes: The cable becomes more vertical as the hanger moves upward and the brake arms move inward.
If the cable is clamped firmly to the brake arms, you bend the cable every time you brake, which eventually may cause it to fray. The angle change is more severe on centerpull brakes than on cantilevers. And when the cable frays, it’s only a matter of time until it breaks, and then you lose all brake power.
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There is a better solution to this problem: cable attachments that swivel. Then the changes in angle don’t bend and stress the cable at all. You can use a thin straddle cable, which doesn’t “spring”, and you’ve eliminated all the disadvantages of straddle cables, while keeping their advantages.
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With optimized straddle cables, our Compass brakes work effectively the same way as Shimano’s latest racing sidepulls – the two pivots are next to the tire, and the lower arms are short to offer great braking power. Yet the Compass brakes use straddle cables instead of complex linkages, so they are much lighter than Shimano’s racing brakes, and they have less friction. When you use them on the road, you can feel the difference.
Click here to find out more about Compass brakes.
Photo credit (PBP photo): Maindru, used with permission.
 

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Prepare for Gravel Riding

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Gravel riding is becoming increasingly popular, and we are very happy about it! It was natural for Bicycle Quarterly to become a co-sponsor of the Eroica California ride in April, since it combines two things we love: gravel roads and classic bikes. But gravel riding isn’t limited to riders trying to recreate the glory days of mid-century racing – almost any bike shop in North America will have a selection of carbon fiber “gravel bikes”.
There are many reasons why cyclists have discovered gravel: Gravel roads see much less traffic than paved ones. Gravel roads often traverse magnificent scenery. And riding on gravel enhances the simple experience of cycling, as your bike slides a bit – whereas on pavement, a slide usually results in a crash. On gravel, you can play with the limits of adhesion. It’s fun.
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For more than a decade, Bicycle Quarterly has featured cycling on unpaved roads: dirt roads, gravel roads, even mountain paths. As people have become interested, they often ask us: “What do we need to ride on gravel?” 
Here are some thoughts based on our experience of testing many different bikes on many different gravel roads.
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Bike
Almost any bike can be ridden on gravel. When I was a college student, my friends and I rode our racing bikes through the forest – on 20 mm tires! Today, we call that “underbiking” – riding a bike that is only marginally suited to the environment where we ride. That can be fun for a short while, and it hones your skills, but in the long run, you’ll want a bike that is better suited to the task.
A good gravel bike combines the performance of a racing bike with the ability to use wide tires. If you have a choice, stay away from touring bikes and hybrids! Their stiff and heavy frames limit their performance. You’ll have more fun on a bike that offers a spirited ride and encourages you to go faster and further. Cyclocross bikes are great for gravel, as are the increasingly popular gravel bikes. A good randonneur bike with wide tires is an excellent choice as well. Classic racing bikes often have clearance for wider tires, too. On these bikes, you fly over the gravel, rather than grind through it.
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Knobs vs. Smooth Tires
Tires are the most important choice of your gravel bike. Contrary to what many cyclists expect, you don’t need knobs to ride on gravel. When you slide, it’s because the gravel layers slide against each other, not because your tires slide on top of the gravel. Knobbies don’t improve your traction. (Knobbies mostly give you an advantage on mud.) Most gravel rides include a fair amount of pavement, where knobbies roll slowly and corner unpredictably. That is why most gravel riders choose “road” tires with relatively smooth tread patterns.
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Tire Width
You want the widest tire you can fit on your bike. At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve ridden tires between 20 and 54 mm wide on gravel. The verdict is clear: The widest tires are by far the fastest and most fun. Three reasons:

  1. When your bike bounces on the gravel, that energy is lost from the forward motion. (The technical term is called “suspension losses”.) The more your bike bounces and vibrates, the slower it is. With wider tires, you can run lower pressure, so your tires bounce much less. You get more speed and more comfort.
  2. The more rubber you have on the “road”, the more sure-footed your bike becomes. Your bike slides sideways in corners when the stones under your tires roll or slide. A wider tire spreads the cornering forces over more stones, so it’s less likely to slide.
  3. On soft surfaces, a narrow tire sinks into the gravel. Displacing gravel takes energy. (Imagine walking on a soft sandy beach or in deep snow. It’s hard!) The ideal tire leaves almost no track in the gravel, but just floats over it. (Imagine snowshoes. They distribute your weight, making hiking through deep snow easier.)

Your tire width is limited by the clearances of your bike’s frame and fork. Read this post about determining how wide a tire you can fit on your bike. And then use the widest tires that safely clear your frame.
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Tire Choice
Many riders imagine that you need a reinforced tire for gravel, but that isn’t necessarily the case. On gravel, you are much less likely to get flats. Here is why: As you roll over debris, your tires push it into the ground. It’s the opposite of unyielding pavement, which pushes the debris into your tires – they puncture.
For some riders, sidewall cuts can be a problem when riding over sharp rocks. We don’t really know why some riders cut their sidewalls and others don’t. Many experienced cyclocross racers use hand-made tubular tires with thin cotton casings. Others tend to slash the sidewalls even if they use reinforced tires. Experiment and see what works for you.
There is a good reason to ride high-end tires with thin, flexible sidewalls: Supple tires are especially fast and comfortable on gravel. (That is why ‘cross racers use those expensive tubulars.) Supple tires reduce vibrations, so less energy is lost to the bike bouncing. You go faster. Less bouncing also means that your body doesn’t suffer as much. It’s a win-win situation.
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Brakes
On gravel, your braking power is limited by the lack of friction between tire and road. You can only brake until your tires start sliding. This means that absolute brake power is less important, but modulation is key.
On gravel, you often need to keep your wheels right at the lockup point to slow down for a corner. You need brakes that provide good feel and feedback. Many modern disc brakes are still lacking in that respect. At Bicycle Quarterly, we have found classic centerpull brakes to be so excellent that we re-introduced them through our sister company, Compass Bicycles.
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Fenders
Most gravel bikes don’t come with fenders. It’s really a shame! Fenders will keep you and your bike much cleaner than Hahn in the photo above. Gravel roads remain muddy long after paved roads have dried out. And even the most beautiful ride can be miserable, if you are getting coated with mud.
Why don’t bike makers install fenders on their gravel bikes? Unfortunately, most commonly available fenders will not withstand the vibrations of gravel roads for long. There are alternatives: Well-mounted, high-quality aluminum fenders, like the Honjos on our bikes, will last as long as the bikes they are mounted on.
Make sure that your fenders have adequate clearances around your tires. Ideally, you want 20 mm on top of the tire, so that gravel picked up by the tires doesn’t grind against the fender. If you hear constant “Scrrrshh” sounds, your fenders are too tight. This isn’t just a cosmetic problem: Debris can collapse your front fender, jam it into the fork crown, and send you over the bars. Don’t use fenders that are sub-optimal! When in doubt, it’s better to get muddy than to risk injury.
walking
Pedals/Shoes
Walkable shoes are useful. On gravel roads, you may have to carry your bike across small washouts or landslides. Sometimes, it’s easier and more efficient to hike up very steep passages. Use a pedal system with cleats that don’t get mashed up when you walk across gravel. SPD pedals have proven themselves in this environment. Others use touring shoes or even light hiking boots with traditional pedals and toeclips.
Prevent Mechanicals
On gravel, your bike inevitably vibrates more than it does on pavement. Make sure that all your bolts are tight. Check that straps and other parts don’t rub through. During the 360-mile Oregon Outback, the spare spokes that I had taped to my fender stays rubbed through two layers cloth tape until they fell off! The faster you go, the higher the vibration frequencies, and the more you demand of your bike.
It is possible to design and build a bike that can withstand thousands of miles of gravel riding without requiring maintenance or tightening of bolts. The lost spokes were the only problem I encountered during that epic trek across Oregon. (Below is my bike after the race.)
herse_outback
What to Carry?
Gravel riding takes you into remote places. Don’t count on getting outside help – you’ll often be out of cell phone range. Make sure your bike is reliable, and carry a few essentials.
Be prepared for flat tires. Carry two spare tubes and also a patch kit, in the unlikely case that you have more than two flats. Bring a pump, and not a CO2 inflator. (You may need to inflate multiple tires.) A spare tire is useful if you slice your tire. (Or bring a piece of tire casing that makes an excellent boot – much better than the stuff you can buy for this purpose.) When I carry a spare, I bring a narrower, lighter tire than I usually use – it’s only intended to get me home…
Obviously, a few wrenches, for the bolts that are most likely to loosen, should be in your tool kit. If you ride with friends on similar bikes, you can pool your spares. For example, one spare tire will suffice for the group if all use the same wheel size…
Bring water and food, plus clothing for all expected weather conditions: Be prepared for hot climbs, cold descents, and everything in between. Use a layering system that packs small. Your bike should have the capacity to carry that luggage. Backpacks are a last resort: They tend to be uncomfortable during long rides.
A good gravel bike will have lights, so you aren’t stranded if you get lost and have to ride after dark. Bring a small emergency blanket and a small first aid kit, just in case.
With these precautions, you’ll be able to enjoy gravel roads with little worry. Riding off the beaten path is quite safe. The biggest danger for cyclists, drunk drivers, are rarely found on  twisting gravel roads in the mountains. In the unlikely event that your bike breaks and you cannot continue, you’ll hike back to civilization. That might be uncomfortable, but not dangerous. And on many gravel roads, you’ll still encounter a car or truck every few hours.
And during events like the Eroica, you can experience gravel riding without the need to be self-sufficient. It’s a great way to get a taste of gravel riding, before heading out on your own or with friends.
GravelHelens
If you don’t have a perfect bike, don’t let that keep you from enjoying riding on those unpaved roads. If all you have is a hybrid, make sure it’s in good shape, maybe put on new tires, pack your gear in a backpack, and head out. It’s good to be prepared, but once you are out there, don’t worry and enjoy the ride!
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Tire Pressure Take-Home

un-meeting_uphill

What is the ‘correct’ tire pressure for your bike? The simple answer is: Whatever feels right to you. Confused? Here is how it works:
In the past, many riders inflated their tires to the maximum pressure rating. Now most cyclists now recognize that the optimum pressure often is much lower.

But what is the right tire pressure? At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve done a lot of research into the rolling resistance of tires at various pressures, and on various road surfaces.

Frank Berto’s tire pressure chart (above), first published in Bicycle Quarterly many years ago, has received much attention. (Note that the weights are per wheel, not for the entire bike.)

Berto made the chart in the 1990s, when tires were much narrower. Hardly anybody today still rides on 20 mm tires, and even 23 mm are on their way out! At the other end, 37 mm no longer is huge, as many of us ride 42 mm tires on pavement, and even wider ones on gravel. How does it all translate into the modern world?
tire_drop
Much of it depends on the tires you run. Berto measured the tire drop (above; how much the tire deflects for a given load and pressure) for dozens of tires. He then averaged the values, and drew his chart for a tire drop of 15%.

The 15% as desirable tire drop was based on the recommendations of several tire manufacturers, but not on actual testing. So the chart shows how much you need to inflate an average 1990s tire to achieve a tire drop of 15% – nothing less and nothing more.

A few years ago, Berto sent me all his original data. Looking over his measurements, it’s clear that supple tires – back then pretty much only the Michelin Hi-Lite – deflect much more than stiff ones, at the same pressure. This means that specific tires can vary quite a bit from the averages shown in the chart.

golden_gardens

To get the same tire drop with supple tires, you would need to run them at higher pressures. But is 15% tire drop really what you want with supple tires?

The answer is “No.” The 15% tire drop is an arbitrary value. However, even if it’s only by coincidence, the values in Berto’s chart actually work quite well for Rene Herse tires. They’ll result in more than 15% tire drop, but that is OK: Comfort and speed are optimized. And that is what really matters.

track_tire_test

The biggest surprise of all our testing (above) was this: For supple tires, pressure makes little difference in performance. We tested three Vittoria tires (Rubino, CX clincher, CX tubular; all 25 mm wide) and found that the supple CX models roll as fast at 70 psi as they do at 130 psi. (For the rest of the world, that is 5 bar and 9 bar.)

The reason is simple: Higher pressure decreases the energy required to flex the tire. Less energy is lost due to internal deformation (hysteresis). But higher pressure increases the losses due to the vibrations of bike and rider. More energy goes to suspension losses. The two effects cancel each other. Whether you pump up your supple tires super-hard or ride them squishy-soft, they have the same resistance.

On the other hand, truly stiff tires feel sluggish at 15% tire drop. The stiff tire is much harder to flex, so it’s useful to minimize that flex by increasing the pressure. For stiff tires, the suspension losses do not vary as much with pressure – they’re always high – since the stiff casing transmits a lot of vibration at any pressure.

Recently, Velo-News confirmed our results: The performance of a hand-made tire with cotton casing did not change at different tire pressures. And a stiffer tire rolled slower at lower pressures than at higher ones. (It’s nice to see that our results, after having been highly controversial for years, now are becoming generally accepted.)

It can be hard to believe this, because higher pressure feels faster. Here is why: When you go faster, your bike hits more road irregularities per second: The road buzz increases in frequency. Most cyclists know: higher speed = higher frequency.

Higher tire pressure cheats you into thinking that you are going faster, because it also increases the frequency of the vibrations: higher pressure = higher frequency.

It’s natural to assume that this means: higher pressure = higher frequency = higher speed, but that is incorrect. Instead, you are looking at two different mechanisms that both increase the frequency of the road buzz.

Even after years of riding supple, wide tires, this ‘placebo’ effect sometimes plays tricks on me. A supple tire absorbs vibrations better, so it can feel slower – until you look at your speedometer.

hahn_un-meeting

What does it all mean? Here is the take-home summary:

  • Stiff casings always will be slow. They are even slower at lower pressures.
  • Supple casings are fast, and pressure doesn’t matter.
  • On smooth roads, tire pressure is a matter of personal preference (at least with supple tires). High and low pressures offer the same performance.
  • On rough roads, lower pressures are faster. So if you want to optimize your speed on all roads, including rough ones, go with a relatively low, but safe, pressure.
  • Your tire pressure needs to be high enough to avoid pinch flats. If you get pinch flats, increase your tire pressure, or better, choose wider tires. Pinch flats are rare with wide tires.
  • On pavement, your pressure needs to be high enough that the tire does not collapse during hard cornering.
  • The minimum safe pressure is higher for more supple casings. Stiff casings hold up the bike more, and thus require less air pressure.
  • On gravel, you can run lower pressures than on pavement. On loose surfaces, the tires don’t collapse as easily, because the cornering forces are much lower.
  • Don’t run your tires so low that the casing cords start to break. That happens only at very low pressures, but if you start seeing multiple lines across the casing where cords have broken, inflate the tires a bit more.
  • Berto’s chart still is a good starting point. Inflate your tires to the pressures it recommends, then experiment by adding or letting out some air.
  • See what feels best to you. That is the optimum tire pressure for you. Don’t worry about tire pressure any further! At least on paved roads, you won’t go faster or slower if you change your tire pressure.

Even simpler, here is a summary in two sentences:

  • Ride the tire pressure that feels good to you.
  • When in doubt, let out some air.

It’s really that simple!

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Visiting Panaracer

panaracer_mt
As a child, I used to think of Japan as a densely populated place full of skyscrapers and freeways. Of course, those big cities exist, but much of Japan is very rural. So when I travel from Tokyo to visit the Panaracer factory, I get to experience that transition from city to countryside.
shinkansen
My trip starts with one of the incredible Shinkansen trains. These trains now travel at up to 320 km/h (200 mph). Their shapes are designed to reduce turbulence when two of these projectiles meet at full speed in a tunnel. (Imagine the pressure wave!)
fuji_shinkansen
On the way, the train speeds by Mount Fuji, and I am reminded why the Japanese revere this volcano so much. It really is stunning.
super_nozomi
In less than 2 hours, I am in Osaka, more than 500 km (310 miles) from Tokyo. But my trip is far from over. I now switch to the standard narrow-gauge Japanese railways, and board the “Kounotori Super Express” (above).
single_track
By American standards, it’s a fast train, and the trip through gorges and tunnels is spectacular. After 1.5 hours, I have crossed an entire mountain range, but my trip isn’t over yet.
green_orange_train
I now change to a local train, the kind that is used by schoolchildren and people going shopping in the next town. This train finally takes me to the small town where the Panaracer factory is located. From the station, it’s just as brief walk to the place where our Compass tires are made.
panaracer_mountains
What inspired our tires is also what the workers see when they look out of the factory gate: mountains.
panaracer_engineers
It’s always a privilege to meet Panaracer’s engineers (above). We present them with our ideas, they give us their feedback, and we discuss how we can further improve our tires. We discuss rubber compounds, casing materials, tread patterns, and other things that make our tires perform as well as they do.
yabitsu_tunnel
Several Panaracer engineers are avid riders themselves. All are as passionate about bicycle tires as we are, and I enjoy working with them immensely. And best of all, I get to enjoy the tires’ performance in the mountains that have inspired them.

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When Experts Are Missing Something

hahn_shiretoko
Recently, I posted about slick tires and why they tend to offer poor traction, especially in the wet. Almost predictably, some Internet “experts” declared that it was all wrong. One of the more polite comments was: “Wow, lots of misinformation in this article.”
I guess it’s normal: If your research is breaking new ground, the results aren’t what people think they know. But the unexpected isn’t always wrong.
What the “experts” really are saying is: “This isn’t what most people believe right now. It may take a few years until it becomes widely accepted.”
Illus.BQ.RollTest
The same thing happened when we first published Bicycle Quarterly’s real-road tire tests a little over eight years ago. Back then, the idea that higher tire pressures do not increase speed bordered on heresy.
The idea that tires roll faster the harder you pump them up seemed so evident that there wasn’t even a need to discuss this. Every tire company expert agreed with this. End of story. Or so it seemed.
MarkTiretesting
We were just as surprised by our results as everybody else. But after double- and triple-checking the results by running more tests, we concluded that the results were real.
Bicycle Quarterly has two people with Ph.D.’s on our editorial team, so we know how to design experiments, test hypotheses, and do statistical analyses to ensure that we are measuring real differences between tires and not just variations in the testing conditions. (The last point is very important, yet it’s often omitted in cycling research.)
How to explain these new findings? We realized that the “accepted wisdom” overlooked an important factor: Suspension losses caused by the vibrations of bike and rider consume significant energy. With higher tire pressure, suspension losses go up, and they cancel out any reduction in rolling resistance that comes from less internal deformation of the tire.
Previous testing had been done on smooth drums, were suspension losses don’t occur. That is why the experts missed a crucial part of the equation, and their conclusions did not match the real-road testing.
Roubaix94
Test results are fine and well, but the results must confirmed on the road. Apart from BQ staff and readers, professional racers were the first to adopt our idea of running wider tires at lower pressures. On the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, you now find many pros running 30 mm-wide tubulars at 70 psi. The days when racers used suspension forks and narrow tires pumped to high pressures (above) are long past.
And even on the smooth roads of the Tour de France, the pros run 25 mm-wide tires, which is a huge step up from the 21.5 mm tires that were standard when I last raced on the road 15 years ago. In fact, I am envious that today’s racers have 35% more air volume in their tires than I did!
velonews
And finally, even the “experts” have come around. It was gratifying to read a decent explanation of suspension losses in Lennard Zinn’s recent Velo tire test:
“If you were riding on smooth glass, higher pressure would be better. On rough surfaces, however, a tire at lower pressure is better able to absorb bumps, rather than deflecting the entire bike and rider upward.[…] The less energy is sent upward with each bump, the less energy it takes to keep the bike rolling.” 
Even though most Internet experts now accept our tire pressure research, they aren’t any more open to new ideas than they were eight years ago. I read that tire tread is purely cosmetic, because tires don’t hydroplane. (True, but tire tread isn’t there to displace water.)  That slick tires stick better, because they put more rubber on the road. Various tire experts were quoted.
Could it be that the experts once again are overlooking something? Back in 2007, they didn’t realize that suspension losses were important.
Perhaps now the idea that the bicycle tire tread can interlock with road surface irregularities is still a little “out there” – even though it’s long been known and accepted by many tire experts. (I first read about it in a 1980s paper authored by a Michelin tire engineer.) Perhaps we have to wait another eight years until the idea is generally accepted…
GravelHelens
In the mean time, we’ll continue to do what we always do: ride our bikes. And we already know that the new Compass tires offer excellent traction, both on dry and wet roads. Everybody who has ridden them seems to agree. To me, that is all that matters. Because when it comes down to it, I’d rather be riding than discussing bikes online.

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Why Wider Tires Corner Better

corner_adams
In our last post, readers noticed the image above and asked about cornering. How am I able to lean the bike so far?
Wider bicycle tires corner better than narrower ones. This may run counter to what many cyclists believe, but it’s easy to explain. The reason is the lower pressure at which you can run wider tires without risking pinch-flats. This has two effects:
1. Wider tires run at lower pressures and thus have a larger contact patch. This simply puts more rubber on the road and increases cornering grip. While simple physical theory suggests that friction should be independent of tire width – narrower tires are pushed onto the road with more pressure – in practice, wider tires provide more interlocking surfaces between road and tire, and thus provide more grip. If you don’t believe this – after all racing bikes use relatively narrow tires – look at racecars or racing motorcycles.
2. Wider tires absorb bumps better. This keeps the wheels on the road and provides more consistent adhesion. A narrow, high-pressure tire skips over the surface, which limits its grip. Even the smoothest asphalt is surprisingly rough. That is why race cars and racing motorbikes have suspension, and why they run their tires at 35-40 psi. If you inflate your tires to 90 psi or more, you are giving up a lot of cornering adhesion. (For the same reason, tires with stiff sidewalls don’t corner as well, because they don’t absorb the vibrations and bumps like tires with supple sidewalls.)
uphill_racer_rando
So much for the theory – how does it translate into the real world? A few years ago, we tested two titanium racing bikes against a 650B randonneur bike. We raced two bikes side-by-side up a steep hill (above), then turned around and rode back down the twisty descent.
I have talked about the uphill part of this test elsewhere, but the downhill part was equally surprising: In the corners, the racing bike with its 25 mm tires could not keep up with the randonneur bike on its 42 mm tires. The riders changed bikes, but it was always the randonneur bike that went down the hill faster. There were two corners, one extra-smooth with new pavement, the other bumpy. The wider tires were better in both corners. Not surprisingly, the advantage was magnified in the bumpy corner. And since the randonneur bike exited the corner faster, it also went faster on the straight that followed.
How did it feel riding the racing bike? I was one of the riders, and I consider myself a good descender, so I wasn’t happy when second tester Mark distanced me while he was on the randonneur bike. While I was riding the racing bike, I had to try hard to keep up. The first, smooth corner felt a bit unsettled, but then I really frightened myself in the second corner. I picked a good line that avoided the bumps, but my front wheel started skipping across the surface. I had to open the radius of my corner and went about a foot into the oncoming lane at the corner exit. In the same spot, the randonneur bike’s wide front tire simply keyed into the surface and rounded the corner without drama. (Both bikes were equipped with Compass tires, so the tread compound was the same.)
descent_blewitt
Of course, you can’t just slap wider tires onto any bike and expect it to corner like a machine custom-designed to optimize the handling. Here are some of the issues:

  • A wider tire’s larger contact patch stabilizes the bike. (This is called pneumatic trail.) If your bike’s geometry isn’t designed for wide tires, then your bike can feel sluggish in its response to steering inputs when you increase the tire size.
    Solution: Decrease the geometric trail to account for the pneumatic trail of the tires.
  • Wider tires tend to be a bit heavier, and thus have more rotational inertia. This makes the bike more reluctant to turn into a corner, or to change its line in mid-corner.
    Solution: Reduce the wheel size as the tire gets wider, to keep the rotational inertia within the range that gives the best handling.
  • Wide tires run at low pressures, but too low pressures can allow the tire sidewall to collapse under the cornering forces, which is not good at all.
    Solution: Make sure your tires are inflated enough to prevent sidewall collapse even under hard cornering. Especially supple tires don’t have much sidewall stiffness, and need a little more air pressure to hold them up.

Beyond that, technique can help. On bikes that are too stable because their tires are wider than is optimal, you may need to actively countersteer (that is, push the handlebars to the outside of the curve) to get the bike to lean. On optimized bikes, you do that, too, but you never notice it because the amount of countersteer is totally intuitive.
Overall, there is little doubt that wider tires corner better, all things being equal.
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Riding my Own Bike Again

diverge_skagit
When I test bikes for Bicycle Quarterly, I treat them like my own bike. I ride them for several weeks, often exclusively so I get used to the bike and get attuned to its peculiarities. Features that were unfamiliar at first soon become second nature. And conversely, minor issues may become significantly annoying with repeated use.
jan_herse_gravel
It’s always interesting to go back to my own bike. The most noticeable adjustments happen after riding a modern machine with electronic shifting. Everything on my bike feels different at first, and I wonder whether my Herse isn’t terribly outdated. It seems odd that I need to take my hands off the bars to shift. And the frame and fork feel so flexible at first…
snoqualmie_valley
But then it all comes back to me. I enjoy the light touch and immediate action of the Nivex rear derailleur. Yes, that is how I like shifting to be!
I also notice how the bike breathes with the surface, almost floating over the bumps and undulations, yet never feeling soft or under-damped. It’s a great feeling, with none of the chatter you get with stiff forks and relatively narrow tires.
corner_adams
More recently when I was back on my own bike, I was having trouble rounding corners. At first, I turned in too abruptly, and then in mid-corner, I was running wide. I realized that the bike I had ridden for a few weeks had much more trail. It required larger steering inputs to get it to lean, but then it fell abruptly into the turn. I had become used to almost yanking on the bars, but then compensating by “catching” the bike to prevent it from leaning too far.
On my bike, the cornering response is much more linear, and none of these adjustments are needed. Once I adapted to my bike again, I was happy to rediscover how precise a bike can handle. I also had to readjust to the greater cornering grip of the 42 mm-wide tires. It’s amazing how much more traction they have compared to 32 mm tires. It took a little time until I was comfortable staying off the brakes in corners where I had to slow down a little on the test bike.
diverge_mtconstitution
I always write my test report before riding my own bike again. That ensures that my impressions are true to that bike, and not relative to my favorite bike. I want the article in Bicycle Quarterly to express how an owner would experience the bike, and I’m sure that many, many owners will love whatever bike I am testing. With our reputation for honest appraisals, it’s rare that somebody sends us a mediocre bike…
Every bike has its strengths and weaknesses, and I think some riders might not like my Herse at all. If you prefer a firm grip on the handlebars, the low-trail geometry may feel scary. It reacts precisely to your inputs, which means it works well with a light touch on the handlebars. And the shifting, especially for the front derailleur with its rod behind the seat tube, might challenge riders who are not so comfortable riding with just one hand on the handlebars. And the extra cornering traction of the wider tires doesn’t mean much if you are a cautious descender…
There definitely are preferences in how we like our bikes to respond, and it’s great that different bikes are available to cater to those preferences. For us as testers, the goal has to be to determine which rider would like the bikes we test, and evaluate them in that context.
diverge_6hands
The differences between test bikes and our own machines often disappear when it comes to how they respond to our pedals strokes. Both my “classic” bike and the recent modern machine “planed” extremely well. The best bikes, whether modern or classic, feel remarkably similar, whether you pedal all-out or whether you are just spinning along. They put a smile on my face, and to me, that is the most important aspect of any bike.

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Spare Wheel Carriers for Cyclocross

riding_to_cross
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.
cyclo_wheel_carriers
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.
cross_wheel_carrier_above
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.
ride_to_cross
Riding with this setup was fine, but there were a few surprises:

  1. Toe overlap was severe. Perhaps not a surprise if I had thought about the geometry of the setup. Tight turns are impossible: The spare wheel hits the down tube.
  2. The wind resistance of the two extra wheels is enormous. Now I know why even racing tricycles are so slow. On this windy day, I just was riding across town to Hahn’s house to get a ride, and I almost didn’t make it on time.
  3. With the most of the two extra wheels ahead of the steerer axis, cross-wind instability was severe. Fortunately, my old Alan has a low-trail geometry that is relatively unaffected by cross-winds, but on a modern ‘cross bike with a mountain bike-inspired front-end geometry, this setup might become an unmanageable handful.

old_alan
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.
after_race
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!
womens_race
Cross season is still going on. Give it a try! Do you have a way to bring along your spare wheels?

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Aesthetic Choices

speed_003
The bike above is the icon of my youth – a 1980s Cinelli Supercorsa with Campagnolo Super Record components. Back then, I was riding a crummy Peugeot 10-speed with heavy tires, rattling fenders and poorly-shifting derailleurs, and I dreamt of a lithe racing bike.
When I finally was able to afford one (a Bianchi, since Cinellis were out of reach), I loved the fender-less wheels, the narrow tires, and the almost ethereal appearance of my bike. I promised myself that I’d never ride a bike with fenders again.
JHHerse_full
A few decades later, my preferences have changed. To my youthful eyes, my current bike would have seemed bulky and unappealing. The big tires, the wide fenders, the racks, the lights… It is a lot of bike, and it wouldn’t have squared with my vision of the ultimate performance bike. Most of all, I would have thought that the randonneur bike offered less performance than the racing machine.
Today, we know that both bikes perform equally well. We now know that wider tires don’t roll slower than narrower ones, provided they use the same supple casing. Physics tells us that the weight of fenders and lights has only an insignificant effect on climbing performance, and our on-the-road testing has confirmed this.
For me, the randonneur bike, with its lighter-gauge frame tubing, actually climbs better than the Cinelli with its heavier frame. The Cinelli is geared more toward a strong sprinter, and I am more of a climber and long-distance rider. But a racing bike could be built with a lighter-weight frame that would perform like my randonneur bike, so that isn’t a good reason to prefer one over the other.
It’s also churlish to chastise a rider on a sunny day for not having fenders, or to look down upon a weekend rider who may never ride all the way through the night, but prefers to ride a fully-equipped randonneur bike.
RH1960sDiagonale
In the end, it comes down to aesthetic choices. I have grown to love the look of a good randonneur bike. The fenders serve to accentuate the wheels, the small rack makes the entire bike look as if it is moving forward, and the lights add interest to the bike. To me, a racing bike now almost looks incomplete, as if the builder had not yet finished his or her task.

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

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Weight Limits?

cyclist_puffing
We sometimes get the question whether there is a weight limit for Compass tires or components. The answer is “No”. That doesn’t mean that our components are indestructible. It’s just that we have found rider weight to be a poor predictor of component failure. Neither is power output.
Heavy and strong riders, who pedal smoothly and ride “light”, rarely break components. On the other hand, there are light riders with modest power outputs who tend to destroy components. So instead of simple weight limits, we ask you to look at each part and your riding style.
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For tires, there is a weight limit of sorts: the maximum tire pressure that the casings can support. Your tire pressure is related to your weight, and if you don’t inflate your tires enough, you will get pinch flats. Our wider tires have a higher “weight limit” than narrow ones, even if their maximum inflation pressure is lower.
For example, Compass 38 mm-wide tires have a maximum inflation pressure of 75 psi (5.2 bar). At the maximum pressure, these tires will support about 150 kg (330 lb) of bike/rider weight. Our 26 mm tires have a maximum inflation pressure of 105 psi (7.2 bar). At that pressure, it will support about 110 kg (240 lb) of bike-cum-rider. There is a margin of safety in these numbers. You can overinflate your tires a bit (say 10%) if your rim is within normal tolerances. And if you weigh a bit more, your tires will deflect a bit more, too. That isn’t ideal, but usually it’s fine.
This is especially important for tandems. It’s pretty much impossible to find a good tandem tire that is narrower than 30 mm. A narrow tire that can support the pressure required for the weight of a tandem team will be harsh-riding and relatively slow. However, if you go to a 38 mm tire, you’ll find that most tandem teams can ride them at the 75 psi for which these tires are designed.
(Of course, if you weigh less, you should inflate your tires to lower pressures. The limit is just the maximum, not the recommended, pressure.)
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For components, it’s trickier. Compass components are high-performance parts intended for spirited riding. We test our components to the highest “racing bike” standards for fatigue resistance, but that does not mean that they are indestructible. If you are a rider who has a history of breaking parts, then our components may not be suitable for you.
We could make our components strong enough for the riders who are hardest on their components. However, that would make them so bulky and heavy that they no longer would appeal to the other 90% of riders. It’s a trade-off, and we want to be honest about it.
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So if you are a “normal” rider, even a very strong one, you probably will have no problems with our components. Compass parts are designed to the highest standards in the bike industry, and tested to the most rigorous “racing bike” test protocols. (Unfortunately, that can’t be said for all “boutique” component makers.)
And for everybody, it’s a good idea to work on a smooth pedal stroke and on “riding light” and working with the bike, rather than let it crash into the irregularities of the road. It makes you a better rider, it makes cycling more enjoyable, and it makes your components less likely to break.

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Allroad Bikes Hit the Mainstream!

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

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Compass Tire Prototypes: Really Big Tires!

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Our very first Enduro Allroad prototype tires started out as knobbies with supple casings – then we had the knobs shaved off by Peter Weigle. We wanted to test the concept of a very wide, supple tire before committing to expensive tire molds. We were happy to report that the tires performed even better than expected! So we decided to proceed.
Last week, the project reached another milestone: We received prototypes made from the actual production molds. So while these are made as a very small batch and required even more hand-work than the final tires, they are basically the tires that you will be able to buy and ride in a few months.
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The first samples we received were the 26″ x 54 mm tire. (For some reason the tire mold was changed to 58 mm after we approved the text!) This batch uses the “standard” (supple) casing. When we put one of the tires on the scale, it weighed 454 grams – quite light for a tire this wide.
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Mounted on a 23 mm-wide rim, the tire measured a little over 49 mm. In the two days since, the tire has “grown” by 2 mm. The “Extralight” tires tend to stretch even more, so when used with wider rims, they’ll probably be close to the anticipated 54 mm.
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Then we received a second box… This time, it contained the 650B x 48 mm tires – made with the extra-supple “Extralight” casing. Out came the scale again, and we measured 413 grams – remarkable for such a big, puffy tire.
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Mounted on a 23 mm-wide rim, this tire measured just over 48 mm right away, and like the 26″ tire, it has grown 2 mm in the days since we mounted it. That means that this tire is slightly wider than planned. Its width is just a millimeter or two narrower than the 26″ tire.
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Of course, measurements don’t tell us much about the tires: What we really want to know is how they ride. Fortunately, our friend Alex Wetmore has two bikes with similar front-end geometries (both have 40 mm trail). One is his “normal” bike, set up for 650B tires (above). The other is his “Travel Gifford”, which runs 26″ tires (photo at the top of the post). These two bikes are perfect candidates to compare the new tires.
Aired up to about 28 psi, I took to the streets and trails in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. On the broken pavement of the residential streets, I wondered why we don’t ride these tires all the time. Even the 42 mm Babyshoe Pass tires of my Urban Bike, which I had ridden to Alex’ house, were surpassed for comfort and secure handling by these even bigger tires.
Riding the two bikes back-to-back, the differences due to the different wheel sizes were very noticeable. The 26″ bike felt very nimble and agile. It was easy to pick a line, but the handlebars required a light touch to maintain that line. The 650B bike, with its larger wheels and greater rotational inertia, felt much more stable. It required more input to change its line, and catching a slide on gravel took a hair longer than it had on the 26″ bike. The 650B bike also had an (empty) front rack, which further stabilizes the steering. While the steering of the unloaded 26″ bike was a tad light, adding a rack and handlebar bag would make it more stable. Both bikes handled fine, they were just at the opposite ends of what I consider “fine handling”.
The real revelation came on gravel. Both bikes felt like good road bikes. The uphill traction was amazing. Sprinting out of the saddle was easy. Only the cornering speeds were lower than on pavement – when the gravel starts sliding under your wheels, no tire can maintain traction. These tires really are a revelation – they have changed how I think a bike can perform on gravel.
Production of the new tires is scheduled, and we hope to have them in stock by July or August. Click here for more information about Compass’ existing tire program.

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10 Most Important Innovations in Cycling

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A while back, another magazine published a list of the “10 Most Important Innovations in Cycling”. The list included things like electronic shifting and Lycra, but left out pneumatic tires…
This got us thinking: What are the ten most important innovations in cycling? To keep things straightforward, we’ll start after the invention of the chain-driven “safety bicycle” with two equal-sized wheels – otherwise, the invention of the wheel would be number 1.
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10. Indexed shifting has allowed many casual cyclists to enter the magic world of spirited riding on a multi-speed, derailleur-equipped bike. Indexed shifting goes back to the first derailleurs, which were indexed to convince skeptical cyclists that they were easy to use. But it really was Shimano with the 1985 SIS who introduced the idea to the masses. Today, all mainstream bicycles use indexed shifting.
(Photo by J-P Pradères: 1939 Super Champion from The Competition Bicycle.)
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9. Quick release attaches the wheels more securely than wingnuts, yet makes it easy to remove a wheel in case of a flat tire. Even though Tullio Campagnolo usually is credited with this invention, new research has put this in doubt. No matter; today, most performance bikes are equipped with cam-operated quick releases based on Campagnolo’s design.
(Photo by J-P Pradères: 1950s Campagnolo from The Competition Bicycle.)
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8. Aluminum components become possible when high-strength alloys were developed in the 1910s. During the early 1930s, aluminum revolutionized bicycle construction by reducing the weight of rims, cranks, handlebars and most other components. While the wonder material of the moment is carbon fiber, aluminum remains the material of choice for most bicycle components.
(Photo by J-P Pradères: 193os Stronglight and Caminargent aluminum bicycle from The Competition Bicycle.)
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7. Generator hubs have transformed night-time cycling by providing light at any time, at the flick of a switch. No longer do cyclists have to worry about battery charge, or endure the drag and noise of sidewall dynamos. (To say nothing of the hassles of carbide lamps!)  After many false starts since the 1930s, it was the German maker Schmidt Maschinenbau (SON) who introduced the first generator hub suitable for spirited night-time riding in 1995. Today, generator hubs are replacing sidewall generators on utility bikes throughout the world, and more and more performance bikes are equipped with them as well.
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6. Drop handlebars have multiple, ergonomic hand positions that make it possible to ride long distances in comfort. Invented by cyclotourists around the turn of the 20th century, drop bars have persisted, despite many efforts to come up with alternative shapes. Today, all racing bikes use drop bars.
(Illustration: Lucien Buysse in the 1926 Tour de France, from The Competition Bicycle.)
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5. Clipless pedals for walkable shoes are a development from racers’ clipless pedals. Originally, clipless pedals were sold as safety equipment: they release in a crash. Otherwise, they worked like racing pedals with toeclips and straps. Once clipless pedals became available for shoes you could walk in, they revolutionized cycling. Intended originally for mountain biking, they were adopted by cyclotourists, commuters, weekend riders and randonneurs as well. No longer did you have to choose between waddling like a duck with cleated shoes, or risk coming out of your toeclips on steep hills and in sprints. Shimano’s SPD system was the first, and it remains the predominant one.
(Photo: 1980s Shimano M737 from Bicycle Quarterly.)
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4. Derailleurs really made cycling in the mountains not just possible, but enjoyable, with all due respect to hub gears, floating chains and Retro-Directs. It is simply revelatory to be able to select just the right gear with the flick of a lever, without having a heavy hub in the rear change the feel of the bike. The derailleur appears to have been invented in Britain, but it was popularized in France starting in the 1910s. Despite some comebacks from hub gears, derailleurs equip most performance bicycles today.
(Photo by J-P Pradères: 1950 Nivex from The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles)
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3. Cable-operated brakes are often overlooked, but we don’t realize that the biggest problem for early mountain cyclists was slowing down. Some cyclists cut down small trees and attached them to their rear triangles, so they dragged on the ground during descents. The first French Technical Trials in 1901 were concerned only with brakes. The cable-operated rim brake showed its superiority back then, and it continues to equip most performance bikes today.
(Photo: 1930s Jeay from Bicycle Quarterly.)
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2. Butted, thinwall frame tubing makes the frame sing, even though the idea of “planing” may not yet be universally accepted. Few people will deny that cycling on a lightweight frame is more fun than on a frame made from “drainpipe”. When thinwall, butted frame tubing became common on racing bikes during the 1930s, Tour de France speeds increased more than at any time in history. Today, butted steel tubing still is competitive against newer materials, and even the latest carbon machines use variable wall thicknesses and diameters to mimic the feel and performance of the best steel frames.
(Photo: Bikes for Bicycle Quarterly’s double-blind test of frame tubing.)
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1. Pneumatic tires are by far the most important innovation in cycling. Cycling saw many false starts until it finally found enduring popularity in the 1890s. One major reason for the breakthrough were pneumatic tires. No longer did bicycles deserve the name “boneshakers”. The air-filled tires were more comfortable and much faster. Invented in Britain and Ireland (twice!), the invention spread around the world, and today, virtually all bicycles are equipped with pneumatic tires.
(Photo by J-P Pradères: 1894 Humber from The Competition Bicycle.)
What do you consider the most important innovation in cycling?

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Not A Museum Piece

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When bikes are as stunningly beautiful as the machines from René Herse, Alex Singer and other French constructeurs, it is easy to dismiss them as “beauty queens” or “show bikes.” This would be a mistake: The performance of these bikes is as outstanding as their appearance. They confirm the old saying: “What looks right usually is right.”
When I first became interested in the bikes of René Herse and Alex Singer, collectors told me: “Yes, they are beautiful to look at, but they probably aren’t so great to ride.” As a rider, that dampened my interest in these machines. 

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So imagine my surprise when I read Bernard Déon’s classic book Paris-Brest et Retour about the history of the famous 1200 km PBP randonneur event, and saw that these bikes had not only been ridden for that long distance, but ridden at incredible speeds. For example, Roger Baumann (above) completed the 1956 PBP, one of the windiest and rainiest ever, in 52:19 hours, riding completely unsupported.
Whatever the merits of the rider, his René Herse must have performed well to enable such a performance. I decided to find out more.
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So I started experimenting, with the generous help of friends. For two seasons, I had two wonderful constructeur bikes in my garage: a 1952 René Herse 650B bike (above) and a 1954 Alex Singer 700C bike (photo at the top of the post). I started using these machines together with my brand-new custom bike.
One of the fastest riders at the Seattle International Randonneurs at that time was Kenneth Philbrick. He was training for the Furnace Creek 508 race. On his Campagnolo-equipped Litespeed, he could set a ferocious pace on the flats. We engaged in a little bit of friendly competition. Sometimes, we finished together, at others one of us would take the lead and finish alone.
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Toward the end of the second season, Ken asked me during a ride: “How much does your new bike weight? It must be a lot heavier than the old ones, since you seem so much faster on the old bikes.” This surprised me, since the three bikes all weighed the same – about 26 pounds fully equipped.
Thinking about this, I realized that Ken was wrong about the weight, but right about the performance: Whenever I had ridden the new bike (above), he had dropped me. I sometimes had managed to catch him again when he got confused about navigation (his Litespeed did not allow him to keep the route sheet in sight), but there was no question that he was the stronger rider. However, when riding the Singer or the Herse, I had dropped him every time, and finished alone. It appeared that those bikes worked better for me.
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Eight brevets are not enough to obtain statistically significant results, but a 100% correlation is interesting nonetheless. Combined with the better handling of the old bikes and the better shock absorption of their slim forks, I decided to get my own classic constructeur bike, and I bought the 1974 Alex Singer that I rode for many years. The trend continued to hold – my times during brevets improved on the classic machine.
Clearly, the old constructeurs knew what they were doing. It’s only been through our recent research into superlight tubing that we have been able to design bikes that, for us, surpass the performance of the old machines. But even now, the old machines offer a performance that few modern bikes can match. And we finally have tires again that perform as well as the hand-made clinchers the old randonneurs raved about.
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Classic bikes are interesting, because the engine – the human body – has not changed over the last half-century. Modern materials may reduce the weight by a few percent (when you look at the entire system of bike-and-rider), but the things that really matter haven’t changed much over the years. The bikes that worked so well back then still work well now, and the “hottest” trend of the moment – wide, supple tires – is only a re-discovery of what these riders already knew more than half a century ago.

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The Enduro Allroad Bike

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Last year’s Oregon Outback was a great test for the ultimate gravel bike. The course consisted of 1/3 rough and soft gravel, 1/3 smooth gravel and 1/3 pavement. The situation is similar to our favorite local rides: We leave from our backdoor on pavement and ride up to the mountains, where we explore gravel passes far off the beaten path.
What is the ideal bike for this type of riding? We approached the subject by evaluating the real-world performance of different bikes, without regard to tradition and established practice. As we reported in more detail in the Spring 2015 Bicycle Quarterly, we found:

  • Road bikes are faster than other categories (mountain bikes, fat bikes, etc.).
  • The widest tires that can fit between the chainstays of a road bike measure about 52-54 mm. Any wider, and you have to use mountain bike cranks with wider tread/Q factor.
  • Using 26″ rims keeps the outer diameter of the wheel similar to a 42 mm-wide 650B wheel. This makes it possible to use short chainstays, and it also maintains the nimble handling we enjoy in our bikes.
  • Our testing has shown that the small differences in wheel size between 26″, 650B and 29″/700C don’t affect how well a tire rolls over moderately bumpy terrain.

With one question remaining:

  • We’ve already seen that supple casings are faster and more comfortable, but what happens if we make a supple tire that is 50+ mm wide? Nobody had ridden supple tires that wide on the road, simply because no such tires have been available.

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There was only one way to find out: Make some prototype tires! Thanks to our cooperative effort with Panaracer (who made a few sets of knobbies with the Compass Extralight casing) and Peter Weigle (who then shaved off the knobs), we were able to get prototype tires with the extra-supple casings, but in a 26″ x 2.3″ size (above). Then we went out to test them, using Alex Wetmore’s “Travel Gifford”, a road bike that is designed for wide 26″ tires (below).
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What did we find out? Off-pavement, the wider tires are absolutely amazing. Perhaps that is not surprising, since the tires hold 70% more air than a 650B x 42 mm tire! On these 51 mm-wide prototype tires, the bike simply floats over rough gravel, yet the sensations are those of riding a road bike on pavement. With the low tire pressure and supple casing, traction is amazing. Sprinting up hills out of the saddle is easy, where bikes with narrower tires simply spin their rear wheel. Now I understand why many professional mountain bike racers ride on FMB or Dugast tubulars.
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The biggest question for us was how the new tires would perform on the road. After all, tires are big air springs, and the more supple the casing, the less damping you get. Would the bike bounce down the road like a basketball?
We are glad to report that this isn’t the case. If the tire pressure is too high, the bike gets a little unsettled on undulating pavement. The window between “too high” and “too low” pressure is smaller than on narrower tires. In that sweet spot, the bike rides and corners like a road bike, except with much, much more grip on dry roads. The contact patch is huge, and more rubber on the road results in more traction. The lower tire pressure means the wheel doesn’t skip over surface irregularities, so it never loses traction. It’s amazing how far you can lean over on these tires without even getting close to the limits of tire adhesion. (That is why racecars have extremely wide tires.)
What about rolling resistance? We have not done any carefully controlled tests yet, but our on-the-road experience indicates that it’s no higher than narrower tires. Whoever rode the Enduro Allroad Bike during our testing easily kept up with the rest of the group.
So what are the drawbacks? Well, there are a few:

  • You can use these tires on most mountain bike frames, but if you want to use “road” cranks with narrow tread (Q factor), your frame needs to be carefully designed and built to fit the ultra-wide tires.
  • Fenders will not be able to wrap around the tire as they do on bikes with narrower tires, since you cannot make the fenders much wider than 60 mm while keeping a “road” chainline. (The chain would hit the fender in the smaller gears.) The solution probably is to use a 60 mm-wide fender with a shallow profile and mount it a little higher above the tire.
  • As noted earlier, the tire pressure needs to be maintained more carefully.
  • Since the tires are so soft, the bike tends to get deflected by longitudinal depressions in the pavement a little more than bikes with narrower tires.
  • It appears that the bike is more likely to shimmy with tires that wide.

For bikes that see mostly pavement use, with only occasional forays onto gravel, 650B x 42 mm tires will remain my preferred option. But I know I’ll add an Enduro Allroad Bike to my stable for those rides where we spend significant time on gravel.
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What about the name “Enduro Allroad Bike”? We wanted to emphasize that it’s a road bike, not a mountain bike. Yet it’s not limited by its narrow tires like a typical road bike. We already use “Allroad” for our 650B bikes. To emphasize the “go-anywhere” capabilities, we added “Enduro”. A road bike that can go on any road and beyond…
For those of us who would prefer to float over gravel rather than “grind” through it, the Enduro Allroad Bike is an exciting new development. Compass Bicycles will offer the Rat Trap Pass, a 26″ x 2.3″ (54 mm) tire specifically designed for this type of bike. Rawland is working on their Ravn, the first production Enduro Allroad Bike that is designed around this tire. MAP also is considering making a small production run of Enduro Allroad Bikes. Of course, custom builders can make them, too. And other companies will probably offer them as well, since they make so much sense and are so much fun to ride.
If you want to try supple, ultra-wide tires but still prefer to stick with 650B wheels that you may already have, Compass will offer the Switchback Hill, a 650B x 48 mm tire. There are many 650B bikes that can fit a tire that wide, and you’ll get 30% more air volume than a 42 mm tire offers. Both new tires will be available this summer.

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Why not "Made in U.S.A."?

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At Compass Bicycles, we think a lot about manufacturing. We know what we want to make, but how should we make it, and where? We are not looking for the lowest cost, but for the highest quality. The conditions under which our products are made are an important consideration as well.
There are a number of small companies who make bicycle components in the U.S., but they are often limited by the technology that is available to them. For example, CNC machines are relatively affordable and small. That is the reason why you see so many CNC-machined cranks and brakes, even though forging would make them lighter and stronger. (CNC machining is a good way to make other parts, like hubs and headsets.) CNC machining also is quite wasteful, as a lot of aluminum is turned into shavings.
In contrast, a forging hammer (photo above) is an investment that only one bicycle company has amortized on their own: Shimano is said to forge their own components. All others, including industry leaders like Campagnolo and SRAM, do not run their own forge.
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The U.S. bicycle industry never specialized in making high-end components. Schwinn’s famous operation in Chicago was a self-contained factory. Rolls and bars of steel went in on one side, complete bicycles came out on the other side. Yet when Schwinn needed derailleurs or other high-end parts, they imported them from Europe. There simply were no makers of derailleurs and aluminum cranks in the U.S., and even mighty Schwinn wasn’t big enough to make their own. Very few, if any, square-taper crank have ever been forged in the U.S.A. Basically, the technology does not exist here.
Where does the technology exist? Today, the answer usually is Taiwan, which has developed a diverse bicycle industry capable of high quality, along with acceptable work and environmental conditions. Our engineer in Taiwan lives within easy motorcycling distance of the companies involved in our crank project:

  • Forge: They forge the crank blanks.
  • Machine Shop 1: They machine the chainrings tabs, square tapers and pedal threads of the cranks.
  • Machine Shop 2: They make the chainrings.
  • Screw Maker: They make our custom crank and chainring bolts.
  • Laser Cutting Specialist: They make the pedal washers.

All these companies have experience with bicycle components. Supply paths are short, and oversight is easy. Our engineer can visit the factories while production is under way, which makes it easy to solve small problems that inevitably occur when things are being made. If we made one part in Chicago, another in Texas and a third in Connecticut, this would be very difficult. (The last part of our cranks, the custom boxes, are made in the U.S.)
The Taiwanese are also willing to work with small production runs. When we asked a German screw maker about crank bolts, they told us that the minimum order was 50,000. We would have a lifetime supply of crank bolts!
Forge
The photo shows a freshly forged René Herse crank. Taiwanese workers earn good wages and work under decent conditions, comparable to North American workers. Taiwan’s environmental regulations are not as good as they could be, but they appear to be better than most countries outside Europe, Japan, and the U.S.
Many of us would like to see products made closer to home. We would like to support the economies of the places where we live. However, you need an infrastructure to make things.
Paul Krugman explained this in the New York Times: “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. This is familiar territory to students of economic geography: the advantages of industrial clusters — in which producers, specialized suppliers, and workers huddle together to their mutual benefit — have been a running theme since the 19th century.”
Unfortunately, we have been allowing these clusters to disappear all over the U.S. and Europe. In France, there was the cluster of bicycle component makers in Saint-Etienne: Manufrance, Automoto, Stronglight, Maxi-Car and dozens of other companies. Not a single one of them exists any longer!
Another cluster was Levallois-Perret in Paris with its hundreds of machine shops, chrome-platers, casters and other shops. They mostly served the automobile industry (Citroën, Delage, Hispano-Suiza, etc.), but also enabled the small constructeurs of bicycles (and the component maker TA) to do things that would have been difficult elsewhere.
These clusters no longer exist. Ernest Cuska of Cycles Alex Singer once told me how they used to have two chrome-platers within a block of the shop. Now they take their frames, racks and stems to a plater who is almost 100 miles away. TA obtains its forgings from Taiwan. So does Campagnolo. And so do we at Compass.
RHCrank2
When you consider that our cranks and brakes are assembled right here in Seattle, perhaps we should label them “Made in the U.S.” (Legally, they are made here from imported parts.) But we aren’t trying to obfuscate, so we say that they are made in Taiwan, since most of the essential parts come from there.
And where possible, we do make products in the U.S. Our taillights, our rack tabs, the leather washers for fender mounting, our alignment tools, and our tire wipers are made by local companies and craftspeople in the U.S. And of course, Bicycle Quarterly is printed right here in Seattle.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that to the best of our knowledge, no square taper crank had ever been forged in the U.S. There may have been some cranks made from U.S. forgings in the 1990s (see comments).

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Research & Development

Shirabisu_Pass
Over the last decade-and-a-half, I’ve thought a lot about product development. Long before Bicycle Quarterly and Compass Bicycles, I was involved with several companies as a technical writer and translator. Part of my job was writing instructions, so I got to see product development up close.
From my experience, product development ideally has three components:

  1. Skilled users who are sensitive enough to report what they experience.
  2. Scientists who design tests to confirm those observations and isolate the factors involved.
  3. Engineers who translate those findings into better products.

With Bicycle Quarterly, it didn’t take long until we got involved in No. 1. We rode many bikes over challenging courses, and we noticed differences in how they performed, how they handled, and how they felt.
From those observations, it was a small step to No. 2. After all, our editorial team is made up of scientists, so the question “Why do some bikes ride/perform/handle better than others?” came up quickly. We began testing tires, we tested our hypotheses about frame stiffness, and we rode different front-end geometries.
No. 3 was a logical next step – what good are scientific findings if they don’t lead to bicycles people can ride? So we started Compass Bicycles to translate the results of our research into better bicycle components.
reifen_1005-2
Sometimes, steps 1 and 2 are reversed. That is how our tires came about. I hadn’t thought much about tires, until I saw a tire test in the German magazine TOUR. (By the way, the title in the photo above translates to “Roll Well”.)
Among other things, TOUR tested the tires’ rolling resistance. They found significant differences, but downplayed them by saying that the difference would “only” amount to 138 seconds in a 40 km time trial. That got me thinking: First of all, more than 2 minutes in a time trial is a huge difference. When I raced, 10 seconds over 10 km made the difference between first and fifth place. Could the faster tires have made me a consistent winner? More importantly, speeds are lower for the long rides we now enjoy, so rolling resistance is even more important.
Talking with Mark Vande Kamp (friend, riding companion and fellow Ph.D. on Bicycle Quarterly‘s editorial board), we decided to see whether we could replicate TOUR‘s results, but at lower speeds. We bought a set each of the fastest tire in the TOUR test, as well as a slower one. We scouted a location for a rolldown test, and one Saturday morning, we installed the test tires on our bikes and headed to the hill. I rolled downhill, first on one tire, then on the other (always using the same bike, of course). Mark timed me and found that the differences were quite large: about 10% faster with one tire than the other. We repeated the experiment, and the results were the same. Wow! Tires did make a larger difference than we thought. We knew we had to test this further.
We then went on a long ride and discussed what we wanted to test. Different tire models, obviously, but also different pressures. After all, we always were torn between inflating our tires to the maximum pressure to obtain the highest speed, and reducing the pressure a little to improve comfort. How much speed did we lose if we went for comfort? We also decided to test the same tires in different widths. And worn tires against new ones, to determine how much of a difference tread thickness makes. (Worn tires have a thinner tread, but otherwise are the same as new ones.)
Test_Woodland
The testing took a lot of time and effort, but the results were worth everything we put into it. We found out that the tires I had been using were among the slowest tires in our test. Simply replacing my tires allowed me to stay with previously faster riders during brevets. And when I rode alone, I consistently set personal bests, despite my training being the same as before.
As a positive side effect, the faster tires also were more comfortable. However, comfort was relative: The fastest tires in our test were only 24 mm wide – too narrow for true comfort on backroads.
Our research showed ways to improve these tires. We found that tire pressure did not have a significant effect on speed. This opened up a whole new way forward for tire design. Instead of trying to make wider tires withstand high pressures (which requires strong, stiff casings), wider tires should be made supple casings. Despite running at lower pressures, they’d be much faster.
GrandboisCypres
At the time of our tire tests, we just had started to sell the first-generation Grand Bois tires (above). We were disappointed that they did not score well in our tests. We shared our results with Grand Bois and Panaracer, and they came up with an improved version that had a more supple casing. That was the first product that came directly out of Bicycle Quarterly‘s testing.
Over the next few years, the Grand Bois tire program expanded, and we were able to test our findings on the road. We found that even with 42 mm-wide tires, our bikes were no slower than bikes with narrower tires.
tires_comp_700_28
We felt that further improvements were possible by optimizing the tire tread for performance. The tread on the shoulders of the tire only contacts the road during hard cornering, so it doesn’t wear out. We could make this thinner, so the tires would be even more supple and faster. We tested many tread patterns to obtain an optimum of cornering traction both on dry and wet roads. The result were our Compass tires. Our customers rave about their comfort, speed, cornering grip…
Our tires are just one example of the symbiotic relationship between Bicycle Quarterly and Compass Bicycles. Without Bicycle Quarterly‘s research, we wouldn’t have known that the tires we were using were slow. And without Compass Bicycles, our research would have remained of little use to riders. We would have outlined “ideal” performance tires, but without anybody making them, that knowledge would not have improved our riding experience.
cascade_ride
The main reason Compass components exist is so we can use them on our own bikes! And I truly believe that our riding experience has improved in many ways since we starting riding on wide, supple tires.
Click here to learn more about Compass tires.

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Tire Pressure: Data and Details

Illus.BQ.RollTest
A little while ago, I wrote about how new scientific research has allowed us to design wide, supple tires that offer the speed of narrow, high-end racing tires. The key finding is that above a certain threshold, increasing tire pressure no longer results in lower rolling resistance. While these new data have become widely accepted – witness professional racers adopting wider tires and lower pressures – it’s natural that new ideas are met with skepticism. In order to contribute to a better understanding of how tires work, I’d like to share more data from Bicycle Quarterly‘s testing.
tire_pressure_rolldown
The data above came from Bicycle Quarterly rolldown tests of various tires. The results indicate that above a certain threshold, for clinchers, tire performance increases only very slightly, if at all. It’s not surprising that the 38 mm-wide Mitsuboshi tire rolled faster at 35 psi than at 25 psi – it was hardly rideable at the lower pressure. But increasing pressure to 55 psi resulted in no speed increase.
We saw the same for the 27 mm-wide Rolly-Poly. Somewhere between 55 and 85 psi, higher pressure no longer resulted in significantly increased performance. Going from 85 to 105 psi resulted in only a minimal increase in speed. For the two tubular tires, the effect was reversed: Higher pressures actually reduced performance.
tire_pressure_rolldown_2
We’ve confirmed this finding numerous times. Above is another set of test runs (pressures are in bar/psi). For these 32 mm tires, increasing the pressure from 7o psi to 85 psi brought no significant change in performance. (The apparently slower speed at 85 psi is not statistically significant.) Please note that the values you see here are not corrected for temperature, so you can’t compare different tires. (The pressure runs were done consecutively, so temperature didn’t change from one pressure to the next.)
tire_pressure
We discussed the measurements with power meters in the previous post (above). That data also has been confirmed multiple times, at different speeds.
cypres_pressure
Above is data from running ultra-high pressures, up to 200 psi. Performance did not change with increasing pressures. (Don’t do this at home, 14 bar/200 psi is not safe with these tires!) I could bore you with even more data, but I think this is pretty convincing, especially since we’ve confirmed numerous times that our tests are repeatable (testing the same setup multiple times yields the same results) and statistically significant (meaning we aren’t just looking at random noise in the data). That is important, because all too many studies are based on single test runs, which don’t meet basic scientific requirements. Now that we’ve conclusively debunked the old view of “higher pressure = more speed”, let’s look at some of the details in the data above.
Rough vs. Smooth Pavement
The rolldown tests were performed on relatively rough pavement. No holes or bumps, but the tar between the aggregate had washed away over decades of Seattle weather. Interestingly, high pressures generally did result in slightly higher speeds for some clincher tires. It’s not a lot, but it’s statistically significant.
The track tests were run on very smooth, newly laid asphalt pavement. There, we see the opposite. High pressures of 100-110 psi result in slightly lower speeds. How can we explain this? One hypothesis is that the tire deforms more on the rougher pavement to conform to the surface irregularities. At lower pressure, you create an imprint of the road surface in the tire as it rolls. At higher pressure, the tire bridges the gaps between the high points, and thus deforms less. On the smooth road, there aren’t any gaps to bridge, and so the high pressure loses its advantage.
Moderately high pressure = worst performance
On the smooth track, moderately-high pressure (100-110 psi) is worse than either lower or higher pressures. Why is that? Here is a possible explanation: As you increase the pressure, the suspension losses (vibrations) increase faster than the flexing of the tire (hysteresis) is reduced. So you lose performance as you increase pressure. At a certain point, the bike is vibrating as much as it can, but higher pressures still reduce the flexing of the tire. So from that point onward, higher pressures improve performance – until you end up back where you started at lower pressures.
Tubulars vs. Clinchers
What about the worse performance of tubulars at higher pressures? Tubulars derive much of their performance from their suppleness and low suspension losses. Increasing the pressure increases vibrations faster than it reduces the flexing of the tires. These explanations are just hypotheses – our best guesses to explain what we see. The data itself – higher pressures don’t lead to improved performance – is beyond doubt.
hawaii_01
Take-Home Message
For most riders, the take-home message is simply this: As long as you inflate your tires enough that they are safe to ride, tire pressure doesn’t matter much. Find a pressure that feels good when cornering, and ride your tires at that pressure. When in doubt, let out some air – you’ll be more comfortable and have better cornering grip. (If you ride narrow tires, beware of pinch flats, though!)
If you worry about the last bit of performance, then you can try to use the data above to tease out that last 2%. On smooth roads, low tire pressures yield the best performance. On rough pavement that doesn’t have holes or bumps, increasing your pressure may make your tires a little bit faster. That may seem counter-intuitive, and of course, it also will be less comfortable. But if you are doing a short time trial on a country road, it may be worth considering. Ideally, you’d run a few experiments with a power meter to dial in your tire pressure for that particular road surface.
If you run tubular tires, you should definitely run them at relatively low pressures. This provides the best performance and the best comfort on all surfaces we’ve tested. As for me, I run my tires at relatively low pressures on all roads. My rides encompass a multitude of surfaces, and on truly bumpy roads, we’ve shown that lower pressures always are faster, because the bike bounces less. But that is a topic for another day…

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The Tire Pressure Revolution

reiter_road_to_index
Of all our research on tires, the most revolutionary finding is this: Tire pressure has almost no effect on a tire’s speed. We did not believe it at first, either, so we’ve tested it numerous times. It’s been confirmed numerous times, with different methodologies.
The real revolution is not how you use your pump… What has totally changed our riding are the wide, supple tires, which only work because of this new insight.
track_tire_test
First, let’s look at the data. Here is one experiment: We ran three different 25 mm tires (a supple clincher, a supple tubular and a harsher-riding clincher) at pressures from 4.5 and 9 bar (65 and 130 psi). These tests were done on very smooth asphalt (above), a surface where high pressures should offer the greatest advantages. The graphs below show the power required to ride the bike (above) with the tires at a constant speed of 27.8 km/h, but with different tire pressures.
tire_pressure
There is no relationship between tire pressure and performance in the tested range. (Lower and higher pressures are unsafe to ride.) The graph above shows some variation in power output (lower is better), but there is no trend. The CX tubular rolls fastest at 5.5 bar, the CX clincher is a little faster at 6 bar, while the Rubino is fastest at 9 bar, but almost as fast at 6.5 bar.
Take-home message: Don’t stress about tire pressure!
IMG_0397
This finding has revolutionized our understanding of tires. In the past, we all thought that higher tire pressures made tires roll faster. And that presented a problem for wide tires: A wider tire puts greater loads on the casing than a narrow one. To compensate, you have two choices:

  1. Beef up the casing, which makes the tire less supple and slower.
  2. Lower the pressure, which we thought made the tire slower.

No matter which route you took, then-available science predicted that your wider tire would be slower. It was a catch-22, and for the best performance, you stuck with narrow tires, where you could have a supple casing and high pressure at the same time.
But after realizing that tire pressure doesn’t matter for performance, we were able to explore new possibilities. If lowering the pressure does not make tires slower, you can make supple, wide tires. You run them at lower pressures, and you don’t give up any performance on smooth roads. On rough roads, you gain speed, because the tire (and you) bounce less. And on all roads, you are more comfortable. Instead of a catch-22, you have a win-win-win situation.
tires_comp_650_42
It’s this research that has led professional racers to adopt wider tires. They are up to 25 mm now. (Wider ones won’t fit on their bikes!) For the rest of us, there is no reason not to go wider. I now ride 42 mm tires at 3 bar (43 psi), knowing that they roll as fast as a 25 mm tire at 6 bar (85 psi) – or 9 bar (130 psi), for that matter.
fmb_tread
To get the most benefit out of these lower pressures, you need supple tires. A stiff sidewall takes more energy to flex, so the tire will be slower. And since the sidewall is stiffer, it also will be less comfortable. You could call it a “lose-lose” situation.
Professional racers have known this all along: As much as their equipment has changed over time, they’ve always ridden supple tires. They usually ride hand-made tubulars (above), but for the rest of us, supple, wide clincher tires now make it possible to enjoy the ride and speed of supple tires on any road.

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The Biomechanics of Planing

hillclimb
We discussed “planing” in a recent post by looking at power data from a double-blind test of two different bikes. (If you haven’t read that post, we suggest you start reading there.) The data showed that the same rider’s power output was consistently higher on a bike with a more flexible frame than on a stiffer one.
On a bike with optimized frame flex characteristics, the rider can put out more power with less fatigue. We named this phenomenon ‘planing.’ How does it work?
TrackRacer
A cyclist’s power output is very uneven during the pedaling stroke. Even a professional racer with a beautiful spin puts out almost all of his/her power during the down stroke. This means that the bike is propelled forward by a series of brief accelerations, rather than a steady force. You can accelerate the bike/rider only so much during the short power stroke. Trying to pedal harder feels as if your legs are pushing against a brick wall.
The brick wall analogy is useful, because it shows that you can fatigue even when you aren’t doing work in the sense of physics. When you push against a wall, the wall doesn’t move – no work is done. Yet lactic acid builds up in your muscles, and you fatigue quickly.
Back to the bike and the power stroke: Imagine a bike that accepts extra power during the down stroke, rather than pushing back against your pedal stroke. Imagine that the frame stores the energy, and releases it at the end of your power stroke. This would lengthen the power phase of your stroke. Without having to accelerate the bike more, you would be able to put more power into it.
finite_element
Frame flex acts like a spring. Finite element analysis models (above) have shown that almost all energy that you input into the frame as flex gets returned into the drivetrain, powering the bike. (Very little is lost to hysteresis – bike frames don’t get hot as they flex.)
This stored energy is released when the pedal stroke approaches the dead spots. The right type of frame flex thus prolongs your power stroke, allowing you to put more power into the bike without having to accelerate it more.
pole vaulter
In other sports, it is not a new idea to use flex to store energy and then releasing it in a beneficial manner. Pole vaulters use this phenomenon, and so did native American hunters with their atlatls. (Atlatls are sticks that throw darts with such force that they could pierce the Spaniards metal armour.) Jump-roping on a sprung gym floor is less fatiguing than it is on concrete.
going_hard
We know that riders can put out 12% more power on bikes with optimized flex characteristics. Our observations during our double-blind test – where we rode bikes that were identical except one was stiffer than the others – are consistent with the idea that the best frames allow us to input more energy with less fatigue. On the stiffer bikes, our legs hurt with a burning sensation. This limited our power output. When we reached the top of the hill after an all-out effort, our heart rate was lower than its absolute maximum.
On the more flexible bikes that ‘planed’ optimally for us, our legs did not hurt. The sensation was one of pleasant warmth in our legs, maybe a little tingling. With the legs no longer the limiting factor, our cardiovascular system set the ceiling on our power output. At the top of the hill, we were completely out of breath. Riding these bikes fast was more fun, because our legs didn’t hurt.
The last part is the most important for me. I ride my bike for fun, and a bike that is more fun the harder I ride provides more of the exhilaration that draws me to cycling in the first place.

The bikes that ‘plane’ best for us also are less fatiguing and more fun to ride at more moderate power outputs. On these bikes, we can ride long distances with relatively little mental effort. The act of pedaling becomes subconscious, allowing us to focus on the enjoyment of the ride, the scenery, and the friends with whom we ride. It’s also the secret to covering the ultra-long distances, like the 765 miles of Paris-Brest-Paris, almost non-stop. If the bike flexes in harmony with your pedal strokes, it’ll entice you to go further and faster than you imagined.
Notes:
Information about Bicycle Quarterly, the magazine that did this research.
• Further reading: Double-blind experiment: Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 6, No. 4. Power data from double-blind tests: Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 7, No. 4.
• Finite element analysis was done by Gary Houchin-Miller.

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What is Planing?

rando_ti
Can a 650B randonneur bike climb as well as the best titanium racing bikes? It did climb as well in a Bicycle Quarterly test, and that raised a few eyebrows. After all, the randonneur bike weighed 10 pounds more…
Theoretically, assuming equal power output on each bike, the lighter bike will be faster up the hill. So how could the heavier randonneur bike keep up?
The assumption of “equal power output” lies at the root of many misunderstandings about bicycle performance. A rider’s power output varies with many factors, like fatigue and comfort. One factor often has been overlooked: How well the bike’s frame gets in sync with the rider’s pedal strokes also affects how much power the rider can put out.
On different bikes, the same rider will have different power outputs. Optimize the bike’s flex characteristics, and your rider will be able to put out more power.
rando_race
First, let’s look at how much that weight difference really amounts to. For a rider who weighs 165 pounds and a bike that weighs 15 pounds, adding 10 pounds increases the weight of rider-and-bike by 5%. To keep up with the titanium racing bike, the rider on the randonneur bike has to put out about 4% more power. Is that feasible?
double_blind
The answer is yes.
A few years ago, we did a double-blind test. Jeff Lyon built four frames for us. They were identical, except for minor variations in frame tubing (and hence frame stiffness). The differences were small – just 0.2 mm difference in the wall thicknesses of top and down tubes (Bike 2), or 1/8″ in the diameter (Bike 3). Bike 4 was a duplicate of Bike 1, as an additional check of our results. Apart from those two frame tubes, all four bikes were absolutely identical – same tubes, same geometry, same paint, same components. Even the same weight: The lighter frames had weights inside to equalize the weight.
The goal of this experiment was simple: We wanted to see whether small differences in frame tubing are discernible to the riders, and whether they make a measurable difference in performance. Would our riders prefer the stiffest bike? Or the most flexible? Or would it make no difference at all?
The test was a true double-blind test. Neither test riders nor test administrator knew which frame was made from which tubing. To hide the tubing diameter (one frame used oversized tubing), the bikes were wrapped in foam insulation. In every way, the test met the most rigorous scientific standards.
We rode the bikes in a variety of tests. One of them was an uphill sprint for 340 m (1100 ft), with two testers racing each other. Both bikes were equipped with calibrated power meters. We repeated the sprints five times, with the riders switching bikes after each run. After the fifth run, the riders were exhausted, so we stopped the experiment. It’s one of half a dozen experiments that all showed the same: Small differences in frame tubing can lead to a significantly different feel and performance.
power_vs_frame_corr
The results for one rider were especially clear (above). Despite starting the experiment on Bike 1, the rider consistently put out more power on Bike 2 than on Bike 1. The rider was also consistently faster on Bike 2. The inferior performance of Bike 1 wasn’t for a lack of trying – nobody likes to get dropped! In fact, the rider’s “effort” and “perceived exertion” were greater on Bike 1. In other words, the rider was working harder, yet putting out less power. (The low power output for Run 5 simply shows that the rider is exhausted…)
The difference in power output was about 12%. That is huge, and it shows that the frame’s tubing, and how it interacts with the rider’s pedal strokes, affects how fast a bike climbs – more than almost anything else (except the rider’s fitness).
To give this phenomenon a name, we called it “planing” – like a boat that rises out of the water and requires less energy to go at higher speed than it did fully submerged at lower speeds.
mark_jan
Back to the comparison between the randonneur bike and the titanium racing bike: Yes, it does weigh 10 pounds more, but we now know that a difference in power output of about 4% is well within the range of possibilities. And that extra power can compensate the heavier weight of the randonneur bike, making both bikes climb at the same speed.
How does it all work? Read about it in the next post about the biomechanics of “planing.”
Further reading:

Thank you to all who made the original research possible: Jeff Lyon built the test frames; Hahn Rossman assembled them and administered the test; Mark Vande Kamp and Alex Wetmore volunteered as testers.

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Putting Our Lives on the Line

corner_adams
Testing bicycles may sound like a dream job – you get to ride all kinds of bicycles without having to pay for them – but it comes with risks. We ride the bikes hard, although we don’t abuse them. We are smooth riders, so we don’t stress components unduly. Even when riding the bikes as intended, problems often manifest themselves during our two-week test. We’ve tested more than 60 bikes, and there have been a number of close calls and actual injuries.
On one test bike, the headlight fell off and hung from its wire, dangling in the spokes. On another, a poorly mounted front fender broke loose and wrapped itself around the front wheel during a high-speed descent on a busy road (below). I was lucky not to crash, but a friend of a friend suffered a similar failure on a bike from the same maker and is still dealing with a the consequences of a brain injury.
civia-front-fender
I’ve broken my thumb when the tires of a test bike offered next to no grip in the wet, and I crashed as I braked for the first corner. Two handlebar bags have flown off the front rack from decaleurs that were too loose or broke off entirely. I rode over one, the other one went sideways. A year ago, I approached a stoplight at the bottom of a steep hill when the straddle cable pulled out of the front cantilever brake, leaving me with only the rear brake and almost no brake power. That certainly was exciting!
I’ve had other close calls. A just-introduced hydraulic disc brake was recalled two weeks after our test. The seals could blow out in cold temperatures, “resulting in abrupt loss of brake power, and an inability to stop the bike,” according to the manufacturer. And I just had taken the bike with those brakes on steep mountain descents and braked so hard that I could feel the left fork blade flex and affect the bike’s steering. Good thing it wasn’t very cold during my night-time descents on the bike.
A carbon fork I had been testing was recalled the next month, because several of them had broken after just a few months of riding. On another bike, a tire was mounted incorrectly with a large wobble. On yet another, a front brake pad came loose. Fortunately, I noticed it before it fell off completely.
Why write about these incidents? There is no glory in road rash or broken bones. I write about them because all these problems were avoidable, and we don’t want the same things to happen to you. The problems were due to poor design, careless manufacture or faulty installation. On our own bikes, these incidents simply don’t happen. We choose parts that have proven themselves over many years of riding. We are careful to assemble our bikes well. If something breaks, it’s usually after many years of hard use.
If you are fastidious, you’ll completely strip down any bike you buy and re-assemble it correctly before you ride it. Car racers do that when they buy a race car… For most people, this isn’t practical, but here are five safety checks that can eliminate some of the biggest risk factors:

  • Brakes: Pull on the lever for the front brake as hard as you can. The brake pads should squish, the brake may flex, but the cable should not pull out of its anchor on the brake. I’ve done this test on three new bikes recently, and on two, the cable pulled out of the brake. On these bikes, the brakes work fine until you really need them in an emergency situation!
  • Check that both tires are seated correctly. Most tires have a line molded into the sidewall that should sit just above the edge of the rim. That line must be concentric with the rim. If it dives under the rim edge, the tire isn’t seated correctly and could blow off while you ride.
  • Push down sharply on the brake levers (with drop bars) or the ends of the handlebars (with swept-back bars). The bars should not rotate in the stem.
  • If your bike has a decaleur, insert the bag and remove it. Is it tight enough to stay put when you go over big bumps? If it isn’t, use additional straps to secure the bag on the rack platform.
  • Problems with wheel quick releases have been publicized so much that they hopefully are rare. Even so, check that they are closed tightly.

Assembly problems are usually easy to correct or mitigate. More difficult is dealing with issues of poor design. Often, the only solution there is to walk away. There are also some things that I prefer not to test, because they are simply too dangerous:

  • Inexpensive carbon forks. There are just too many cases of them breaking.
  • Bikes that have anything clamped to a tapering fork blade. It’s bound to come loose.
  • Fenders that are poorly mounted or have inadequate clearances.
  • Sorry to say, but anything sold by Civia. Too many recalls, and too poorly designed are their bikes. (Both the fender incidents described in the post were on Civias – with two different fender designs – as well as the fork recall.)

Cycling is not a particularly dangerous sport, but like any activity, taking sensible precautions greatly reduces your risk. I wish companies would take more care when they design their bikes and components – they are playing with our lives!
At Bicycle Quarterly, we will keep pushing bike builders and manufacturers to make their bikes safer. As avid riders, our own health and safety depends on it.
Do you have any additional tests you use to reduce the risk on a newly-assembled bike?

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"What'll she do?"

HelensRocks
When I was a kid, I loved cars. My first question to any owner of a sports car was: “What’ll she do?” I approach bikes similarly – I care about how they ride first and foremost.
Some cyclists these days seem to be concerned what their bike is, not what it does. One camp will never ride anything but lugged steel frames. For another, it’s carbon or nothing. Some will never ride narrow tires, others would never consider a tire wider than 23 mm.
Bicycle Quarterly doesn’t fall neatly into any of these categories, even if we sometimes are perceived as biased toward steel frames, or French bikes, or wide tires. For example, Craig Calfee told me that he was surprised when I loved his “Adventure” carbon bike: “I thought you were more of a steel guy.” My answer was simple: “I like great bikes, and yours was a great bike.”
mark_jan_ti_bikes
It’s really that simple: We like any bike that performs. Our first question is: “How does it ride?” Given a choice, I’d rather be on a carbon bike that performs and handles well than a steel bike on which I bog down. I’d also much prefer supple 23 mm tires that fly over the pavement over 42 mm tires with stiff sidewalls that make the bike feel harsh and sluggish.
When I am on the bike, I don’t notice stickers or materials. What I care most about is whether the bike feels like an extension of my body. The best bikes do this, whether they are made from steel, carbon, titanium or aluminum. I am sure a good bamboo bike would, too, I just haven’t ridden one yet.
CalfeeLkWA
When I stop, I do look at the bike, and I realize that a beautiful bike is important to me. To me, beauty is independent of the materials. I can appreciate the hand-wrapped carbon tubes of a Calfee (above) as much as the finely filed lugs on my Herse (below).
bikeinfrance2
More than the joints, I care about the line of the bike. Is the frame well-proportioned? If there are fenders, do they follow the outlines of the wheels? Does the rack sit nice and low above the wheel? Beauty for me is first about the entire bike, seen from 20 feet away.
rh52_dropout
I also appreciate the craftsmanship that becomes evident when you move in close and look at the details. While I can appreciate the whimsy of ornamentation, I am drawn to simple, beautifully executed details that express the function of the bike. The dropouts of this 1952 René Herse are a case in point: There is nothing superfluous here, and yet everything is supremely refined. It’ll perform as well as it looks.
title_switchback
“Form follows function” has become a pretty worn phrase by now, but it expresses my aesthetics better than anything else. And that also gets to the heart of what makes a great bike: It performs beautifully, it looks nice, and it is superbly crafted. These qualities are complementary. If a bike is lacking in one area, it affects the others as well. An inelegant fork bend doesn’t absorb shock well. A poor fender line that may cause an accident if debris gets stuck between tire and fender. An ill-proportioned frame rarely has the flex characteristics that enable the rider to get in sync with the bike. “What looks right performs right.” The corollary to the cliché is that an unattractive bike rarely performs as well as it could.
These qualities have little to do with simple labels like “steel is real” or “carbon is fast”. True craftsmanship is possible with any material, and the results are remarkably similar in their ride quality. And that is a good thing, because it’s always the same human body pedaling the bike.
So let’s look beyond labels and stereotypes and focus on what truly matters: “What’ll she do?”

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How much faster are supple tires?

willapa_fleche
Improving your tires can make the biggest impact in the speed of your bike (apart from changing the motor!). The difference is especially pronounced for slower riders, whose wind resistance is less than that of faster riders.
Most cyclists know that supple tires make you faster on your bike. But so do ceramic bearings in your derailleur pulleys. The important question is: “How much faster?” For ceramic bearings, the difference is too small to notice on the road, because standard ball bearings already have close to zero resistance.
For supple tires, the difference is much greater. If you have a hard time staying with a group, changing your tires to a faster model may help you avoid getting dropped. And if you get close to the time limit in brevets, faster tires can provide you with a significant time cushion, so that a flat tire or a slight detour due to misreading the route sheet no longer results in a DNF.
Here is a comparison between three tires from Bicycle Quarterly‘s tire tests. These are all marketed as performance tires, and none of them have puncture-proof layers that would further slow them down.

  • Vittoria Open CX Corsa 700C x 25 mm
  • Grand Bois Cyprès (standard casing) 700C x 32 mm
  • Rivendell Rolly-Poly 700C x 27 mm

rolldown
Our first tests were rolldown tests on relatively rough pavement, like you typically find on American backroads. The speed was between 23 and 25 km/h (13.5 – 15.5 mph).
On this surface, the fastest tire rolls 13.5% faster than the slowest. That is a huge difference. Imagine going 15 mph with the slower tire, and on your next ride, after changing your tires, riding at 17 mph with the same effort. During a century ride, you’d be 45 minutes faster!
track_power
We also tested these (and many other) tires on a very smooth asphalt surface at constant speed with a Power Meter. The speed was higher (27.9 km/h; 17.3 mph), and the ultra-smooth surface reduced the vibrations. However, even under these “ideal” conditions, the rider on the slowest tire had to put out 13.5% more power to keep up with the rider on the fastest tire. That can make the difference between “hanging with a group” and getting dropped within a few miles.
If you calculate the speed difference for the same power output, it’s 5%. (Wind resistance going up exponentially with speed, so you need 13.5% more power to increase your speed by 5% to stay with the rider on the faster tires.)
As you can see, supple tires make the greatest difference on rougher surfaces, and at lower speeds. But even at high speeds, make the largest difference in the performance of your bike. For comparison, aero wheels make you about 1% faster. And when you are drafting, your wind resistance goes down, so rolling resistance becomes even more important. That is why the pros always have ridden supple tires.
Does this mean we all should ride Vittoria CX tires? Not exactly. The CX is optimized for ultimate performance, and it has a very thin tread. This means it will wear out quickly and suffer more punctures on the way. If you are racing or riding a timed event, these compromises may be worth making. For everyday use, it often makes sense to give up some speed to obtain twice as much service life and fewer punctures.
The Grand Bois Cyprès is designed as an all-round tire. It has a thicker tread that will last thousands of miles. It will get faster as it wears. The Grand Bois also has a sturdier casing that resists sidewall cuts better. As a result, it rolls a little slower. (Disclosure: Compass Bicycles sells Grand Bois tires.)
The Rivendell Rolly-Poly has an ultra-tough casing that provides peace of mind when you ride through debris and are afraid of cutting your tire’s sidewalls. This may be overkill for most riders. The more rigid casing slows the tire down significantly.
tires_comp_700_28
When we designed our Compass tires, we started with the Grand Bois tires, and then optimized the performance further, without making the tires into “event” tires that are not very suitable for everyday riding. We reduced the tread thickness on the shoulders of the tire, where it does not wear out, but kept it the same in the middle, where it wears.
For the Extralight models, we used a casing that is significantly more supple than the “standard” casing shown in the test results above. We haven’t measured the performance under controlled conditions yet, but our (and others’) on-the-road experience suggests that they are significantly faster than the standard models.
Tires really make a big difference. When I switched from tires with stiff sidewalls to supple ones, not only did I set many personal bests on long rides, but I also found that I could rest while drafting, whereas before, I was working hard just to hang on.
Take our Flèche team in the photo at the top: If one of us had significantly slower tires than the others, he would have to be much stronger just to keep up. We’d rather have the stronger rider take longer pulls at the front!
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What if you don’t care about speed? Supple tires also are much more comfortable. And they just feel different, making cycling much more fun. To me, that is the most important difference, and why I ride them on all my bikes.
Further reading:

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The 650B Ancestor: René Herse Randonneur

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I had the opportunity to ride a favorite classic René Herse again recently. This is the bike that started the current trend of 650B bikes in North America. It’s the bike that made us re-evaluate front-end geometries and wide tires. It’s truly the ancestor of the bikes we ride today, and it has been hugely influential. I first rode this 1952 René Herse more than a decade ago. I didn’t have very high expectations. Wide tires at low pressures? Must be slow. “Suicide” front derailleur? Must be difficult to shift. Huge amount of fork rake? A clear sign they didn’t understand front-end geometry back then. Today, we smile about these assumptions, but back then, they were deeply ingrained in all of us. Imagine my surprise then when the old Herse was faster than my custom bike. It handled better and was more fun to ride. I set a few personal bests on this bike, and to this day, it holds the fastest time on the challenging “Three Volcano 300 km” brevet. The old Herse made me realize the merits of 650B tires. I talked about this bike with Grant Petersen from Rivendell, who took up the idea of 650B tires. Then Kogswell asked me for a bike design, and I modeled the P/R’s low-trail geometry on this Herse. And the rest is history… Seeing and riding the bike again was a lot of fun. Underneath the lovely patina of its 62 years, it amazed me once again how aesthetically and functionally resolved this bike is.
rh52_stem
The Herse stem still is one of the most beautiful ever made. It’s also quite lightweight. The bell is directly attached, and the original owner’s name remains engraved on the stem cap.
rh_crank The René Herse crank has become a more common sight these days, but it’s still one of the most beautiful ever made. Too bad about the 38-tooth middle ring, which is the largest ring that didn’t always have the triangular cutouts. I think it would look a lot nicer with the cutouts, so we added them to the 38-tooth rings on the current-production René Herse cranks. rh52_brake
The Herse cantilever brakes are among the lightest ever made, yet they work very well. Details like the rack attachment to a forward extension of the brake attachment bolt are elegant and functional. (Several companies now offer copies of these bolts.) Every component and every bolt is only as large as it needs to be. This doesn’t only save weight, but also makes the bike so elegant.
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The Herse front derailleur shifts very smoothly, even on a triple. At first, I found it difficult to move the chain from the big to the middle chainring – it went straight to the small ring. After a few shifts, it became second nature, and I never thought about it again.
rh52_cycloder
The Cyclo rear derailleur has an aesthetic purity that must have appealed to René Herse. It shifts surprisingly well. This one needed a little lubrication: Front shifts tended to rotate the entire derailleur on its support, rather than just the chain tensioner arm. The result was an unexpected rear shift every other time I shifted on the front. When I rode the bike years ago, it didn’t have that problem…
rh52_shiftlever
Herse made an eccentric shift lever, since the Cyclo derailleur moves inward and outward as you shift. Otherwise, the shifter cable goes slack on the largest cogs. One thing that is easy to miss in this photo: There is no lighting wire going from the fork to the frame. The current is transmitted via a carbon brush inside the head tube.
rh52_taillight
You can see where the inspiration for the Compass taillight came from! We had to modify the shape so it looked good with a flat reflector instead of the curved lens of this old JOS taillight. You also notice how the rear brake cable runs parallel to the seatstay. That is one of the reasons the classic Herse’s look so light and elegant.
rh52_headlight
I wish somebody would make a headlight that was nearly as pretty as the old JOS. This is Herse’s special version, with no mounting bracket, since it attaches directly to the support on the rack. The lighting wire runs inside the rack tubes.
rh52_fender
The only lighting wire that is exposed on the entire bike is at the rear. Here, it leaves the fender and immediately enters the seatstay.  A little further down, it exits the seatstay at the bottle generator. All other lighting wires are internal. I love the blue line painted on the “Le Paon” fenders, outlined in gold.
rh_BBshell
The bottom bracket shell doesn’t look special, until you realize that it was fabricated from pieces of tubing that were welded together. On the inside, there are shoulders to locate the pressed-in SKF cartridge bearings for Herse’s custom bottom bracket. The bearings have never been overhauled in the bike’s 62-year life, yet they still spin smoothly.
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This photo epitomizes the craft of René Herse for me. The stays extend as far as possible toward the rear axle. As a result, the custom-made dropouts are tiny, which saves significant weight and also makes the frame stronger. The workmanship is close to perfect. (The slight rounding-off you see on the stay ends happened during the polishing for chrome-plating.)
Notice how fender eyelet is placed on a smaller radius than the smallest freewheel cog. That way, the nut that protrudes on the inside doesn’t interfere with the chain on the smallest cog. Few makers, past or present, have resolved details like these in such a neat and unobtrusive way.
So how was it to ride the 1952 Herse again? When I first rode it 11 years ago, it was a revelation, but today, it feels surprisingly familiar. The main reason is that my current bike is basically an updated version of the 1952 Herse. (So are about a dozen test bikes I’ve ridden for Bicycle Quarterly.) The differences are slight: My own bike feels like a 105% version of the 1952 machine, with slightly more flexible fork blades, a slightly more responsive frame, slightly better shifting (my Nivex vs. the Herse’s Cyclo) and slightly better brakes (centerpulls vs. cantilevers). Even the weight of the 1952 Herse (11.2 kg/24.8 lb including the pump) remains more than competitive for a modern bike that is fully equipped.
I rode the bike on a beautiful spring day. Mark and I headed out on our “standard” loop around the North End of Lake Washington. We rode up Juanita Hill, and it was obvious that Mark was feeling strong that day. We raced up the hill with abandon, and more than once I felt like surrendering. But somehow the bike kept going, and toward the top, I even felt good enough to try to outsprint Mark. I managed a clean shift with the Cyclo derailleur, but when I rose out of the saddle, my legs almost buckled, and Mark pulled away. Can’t blame the old bike for that!
rh_with_tracer
We stopped at a café in Kirkland, and just as we were leaving, a Ford Model T racer pulled up. Now here was a machine that was even older than this Herse. However, unlike the Herse, which easily holds its own with modern machines, I doubt the Model T holds any course records today!

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Setting Our Own Trends

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“You don’t want to give people what they want. Give them something they didn’t know that they wanted.”
Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet.

This quote really resonated with me. When I pick up other cycling magazines, I am often disappointed. They talk about the trends of the moment. Right now I’m pleased that they seem to be wider tires, gravel racing, 650B wheels, and city bikes with porteur racks. I should be happy, and yet there isn’t anything inspirational or new. It’s like reading yesterday’s newspaper…
During a recent solitary ride, I finally realized why this is so. Most magazines live off their advertising revenue. The magazines rely on the bike industry to bring them ideas and content, and so they report on what the industry is pushing at any given time.
As a result, the magazines are unlikely to present new ideas. Why would a bike magazine clamor for a way of riding for which the bikes do not yet exist? Why would they suggest products that their advertisers do not yet sell? Why would they do testing that refutes commonly-held beliefs (and the advertising claims that are based on them)?
Bicycle Quarterly has a different business model from most magazines: We are financed by our readers – by cyclists. This results in a fundamentally different point of view, which has led us to think about what we – the cyclists – need, not what the industry wants to sell.
all_bq
We are pleased to have been trend-setters in many instances. Looking back over 12 years of publication, here are some things we suggested long before they became commonplace:

  • Compact double cranks: In our very first issue, we rode an Alex Singer with 46-32 chainrings. We found this gearing ideal for most riding. At the time, the big makers only offered 53-39 racing cranks or triples.
  • Gravel riding: Nine years ago, we wrote about the beauty of riding on gravel roads in the mountains.
  • Tire performance: At a time when the industry still was fawning over ceramic bearings, we looked at tires and found that they make the biggest difference in your bike’s performance. Through careful testing, we identified what makes a tire fast.
  • Front loads: Our testing showed that front loads are easier to balance and much better when riding out of the saddle – as long as your bike has the appropriate frame geometry.
  • Metal fenders: We pointed out that the uninterrupted interior and better coverage of a longer front fender kept you drier. We also weighed aluminum fenders and found that they were lighter than plastic ones.

It has been nice to see these trends adopted by the industry and – finally – by the magazines. But it’s also sad to see that many great things still don’t get exposure in mainstream magazines:
JanSinger
Fully integrated performance bikes: We are starting to see a few city bikes that come with racks, fenders and lights, but if you like spirited riding, you are still told to buy a racing bike that is not much fun in the rain or at night. Bicycle Quarterly has featured and tested many bikes that combine performance with the utility of fenders, lights and a bag. What we want is the Porsche 911 of bicycles – a great performance machine that can be used every day, even when you are running errands.
cascade_ride
Truly wide high-performance tires: I am encouraged when I read about “wider tires” being “hot.” Then I realize that the magazines are talking about 25 mm tires. Why not ask for bikes with 38 mm tires and the performance of a racing bike?
big_rock_climb
Well-designed lights: Most current lights use simple beam patterns that would be illegal in cars. Not only do they blind oncoming traffic, but they also put too much light in the near field and not enough into the middle distance. This makes riding at night tiring and difficult. Better optics put a well-distributed beam of light on the road, and only on the road. These lights are available, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the big bike magazines.
These are just a few examples of products that the industry doesn’t push and that the magazines don’t ask for. These products tend to be hard to make or expensive, so the bike industry isn’t too keen to offer them.
At Bicycle Quarterly, we are proud to write from the perspective of riders. Our concern never has been “What does the industry want?” but “What do we need to take our cycling to the next level?”
As a result, we have nudged and pushed the industry toward better, more versatile bikes that are also more fun to ride. And when some of these trends finally make it into the mainstream, we are happy to have contributed to making cycling more fun for more people.
Click here for more information about Bicycle Quarterly.

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Pro-Joy instead of Anti-Racing

TourBritain
These days, the “real-world” or “alternative” cycling world often seems to define itself by what it is not: It’s not racing. One company even made a patch that said: “Racing Sucks!”
Perhaps this sentiment is understandable, considering how much racing has dominated bike design and cycling culture in recent decades, often with negative consequences like narrow tires, poor fender clearances and a general attitude of “every ride a race.”
Even so, I prefer a positive vision.
SingerHelensSbend
Bicycle Quarterly is not against anything. We are in favor of the joy of cycling. The joy as we feel the wind in our faces. The joy of the bike leaning into one turn and then immediately transitioning into another. The joy of the tires singing on the road, and the bike picking up speed as we increase the pressure on the pedals. The joy of seeing the sun rise behind a mountain peak in the distance during an early-morning ride.
The joy of cycling has nothing to do with racing or un-racing. It’s about riding. Racers experience the joy of cycling as much as commuters, and everybody in between. Throwing up arbitrary divisions might make people feel better about themselves, but I prefer to share the joy with anybody who cares to ride a bike.
csuka_tdf
For me, the joy of cycling is inextricably linked with performance. Tires that glide over rough pavement, frames that get in sync with your pedal strokes, and steering geometries that make the bike follow your chosen line with precision – they all contribute to the joy of riding your bike.
Competition (although not necessarily racing) has brought us many of the advances in bicycles we enjoy today, whether lightweight frame tubing, supple tires or multiple gears. The best performance bikes are much more fun to ride than pedestrian machines that have not been optimized for speed and performance. Competition, whether it’s randonneurs trying to see how far they can ride in 24 hours, or racers climbing big mountain passes, provides a very effective test for performance. Without competition, we wouldn’t have the bikes we enjoy so much today.
Once bicycles no longer are used in competition, their performance, and with that the joy of riding them, tends to deteriorate.
Steel bikes used to be the fastest bikes, and even today, the best steel bikes still match the performance of the best carbon and titanium bikes. Unfortunately, few riders experience the joys of a truly exceptional steel bike any longer, since the performance of many steel bikes has regressed in recent decades. Manufacturers change tubing dimensions with scant consideration of how this will affect the bike’s ride and performance. Since these bikes no longer have to prove themselves in competition, their reduced performance has gone largely unnoticed. And they are less joyful to ride as a result.
In the 1930 and 1940s, many randonneurs rode wide tires in various cyclotouring competitions. Supple, fast and wide tires were offered by a variety of makers. When randonneurs switched to narrower tires, wide high-performance tires no longer were made. Until recently, the only wide tires you could buy were harsh-riding and slow.
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You don’t have to go fast to enjoy the benefits of a high-performance bike. In fact, I enjoy a frame that “planes” and tires that smooth out road imperfections especially when I am just spinning along.
Making bikes that perform well and are a joy to ride takes diligence and dedication. “Don’t race!” and “Racing Sucks!” often seem to be a cheap excuses for: “We don’t want to spend the time and effort to make our bikes/tires/components faster and more enjoyable to ride.” Anti-Racing then turns into Anti-Joy. And whatever I think about racing, I cannot agree with that.
uphill_racer_rando
So let’s focus on the joys of cycling. Let’s see what we can learn from racers. Let’s lead by example, so the racers can learn from us as well. We all share the same goal: to have fun on our bikes.
Photo credits: Jack Taylor collection (top), Cycles Alex Singer (3rd from top).

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Winter Clothing: Shell or No Shell?

friends_rideby
Quite a few readers have asked about winter clothing. Most of all, they seem surprised that I don’t wear windbreakers or shells unless it is very cold (way below freezing) or raining very hard. What is the best clothing for winter riding?
I think the answer depends. If you ride at a brisk pace, you tend to generate so much heat that you tend to stay warmer. The extreme example are cyclocross races. Even in 45-degree weather, I race in shorts and an extralight wool jersey with short sleeves, without being cold. Climbing mountain passes at night, we often wear just shorts and an extralight short-sleeve jersey, despite the temperatures being rather nippy (in the photo below, we ran into snow just a little higher up the climb).
tinkham_rd
During winter rides, I layer up in wool. I often wear three or even four layers, starting with a short-sleeve undershirt, then a long-sleeve base layer, followed by a long-sleeve jersey, and, if it is really cold, a thicker wool jersey on top. For my legs, wool usually tights suffice. If I add shells to this, I tend to get clammy, because the brisk pace not only generates heat, but also transpiration.
Even when it rains, I prefer to have my outer layer get wet, since even the most breathable shell tends to disrupt the moisture transfer. The heat transfer from my body outward keeps the inner layers dry. (I have to add that I use fenders that keep all spray off my body, and a handlebar bag that shields my legs from the rain.) However, if it rains so much that more moisture comes down than goes outward from my body, I use a shell to keep myself (marginally) drier.
cascade_ride
I also use a shell for mountain descents. I don’t pedal much on long downhills, so the outward heat and moisture transfer are much-reduced, while the wind (and rain) come at much greater velocity. A shell keeps cold air from penetrating my clothing and reaching my skin.
If you pedal without generating as much heat, then a shell may be useful even while riding on the flat. As always, experiment to find out what works for you. Every rider has a unique body, so all these thoughts are just starting points for figuring out what works for you.
You also may be interested in our previous post about how to stay warm on a ride.

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Tires: How Wide is too Wide?

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How wide a tire is too wide for optimum performance? Our research shows that wider tires don’t give up anything on smooth roads, and gain a significant advantage on rough roads. This has been shown for tires up to 31 mm wide.
It’s now a well-established fact that wider tires roll faster than narrow ones. Professional racers now use 25 mm tires, which are 20% wider than the tires that most racers used just 20 years ago. Will this trend continue? Can we expect racers to be on 30 mm tires in the future? No matter what the pros do – they are influenced by many factors that have little to do with science – the real question is: Up to what point are wider tires faster?
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It is obvious that the tires in the photo above will not roll very fast. Clearly, at some point, the performance benefits of wider tires (shorter contact patch and thus smaller hysteretic losses; reduced suspension losses) will be outweighed by the disadvantages of extra weight and increased wind resistance.
Test_Woodland
In our original tire tests (above), we tested the same tires in 21, 23 and 25 mm widths on a moderately rough “backroad” surface. The results were clear: The 21 mm tires were slowest, 23 mm was in the middle, and 25 mm tires were fastest. The speed difference between 21 and 25 mm tires amounted to about 2.5%. Over a typical 200 km brevet, I would gain about 11 minutes. It’s not huge, but significant. These results appear to have prompted the current trend of racers using wider tires.
What about tires that are wider than 25 mm?
RumbleStrip
Our testing on rumble strips showed that on very rough surfaces (the equivalent of cobblestones), 42 mm tires are faster than 25 mm tires. However, few of us ride all the time on cobblestones, and what we want to know is whether we give up anything on smooth roads when riding wider tires.
To determine this, we tested Grand Bois tires in 26, 29 and 31 mm widths on a super-smooth asphalt surface (see photo at the top of the post). The results were the same for all three tires. On the smoothest asphalt, you don’t gain anything by going to tires wider than 25 mm, but you also don’t give up anything.
Those tests were run at 25 km/h (16 mph). At higher speeds, the aerodynamic disadvantages of wider tires might be greater. Does that mean that 31 mm tires are a fine choice for riding at moderate speeds, but that you would be better off on 25 mm tires when you go faster?
drafting
We tested both 25 and 31 mm-wide tires in the wind tunnel. The result: The raw data showed a 1% increase in wind resistance for the wider tires, but the results weren’t statistically significant. Even if we accept them at face value, the added wind resistance is too small to make a noticeable difference. For example, at a very high speed of 40 km/h, decreasing your wind resistance by 1% only adds 0.4% (or 0.14 km/h) to your speed.
What about the heavier weight of wider tires blunting the acceleration of your bike? That doesn’t appear to be a major factor either, since wheel weight is less important than many riders believe. (See this recent post for a discussion of wheel weight on professional racers’ bikes.) If you use smaller 650B wheels, you make up some of the greater weight of a wider tire through a lighter rim.
All this data shows that 31 mm tires roll as fast as 25 mm tires, even on very smooth roads. And when the roads get rougher, the wider tires roll faster.
rando_ti
What about even wider tires? Our on-the-road experience suggests that even 42 mm-wide tires do not roll slower than 25 mm tires (above), but without rigorous testing under controlled conditions, we can not say for sure. We hope to test this soon.
Of course, there are other reasons beyond performance to ride wider tires. You gain comfort. You will incur fewer flats, since you run wider tires at lower pressures, so they roll over obstacles that would get hammered into narrower tires. You’ll be safer, since a wider tire will be less affected by small cracks and railroad tracks.
Most of all, you’ll be enticed to go on small roads that have great scenery and little traffic – roads you might have avoided with narrow tires because the pavement tends to be rough. With more comfortable tires, you can even enjoy roads with no pavement at all!
To answer the question in the headline: Even 42 mm does not yet appear to be “too wide.” Tires wider than that are hard to fit into the rear triangle of a bike without compromising performance (tread/Q factor, chainstay length), so perhaps frame design more than other factors limit the maximum tire width on a performance bike.
Wide tires are one of the few things with a lot of advantages, but very few disadvantages. (There are some downsides to wide tires, which we’ve mentioned here.)
For all our tests, we used tires that had the same casing material, tread pattern, etc., to isolate the effects of tire width. Of course, there are many other factors that influence tire performance, and width is only one important factor. (A wide “touring” tire with a stiff puncture-resistant casing is much slower than a narrow “performance” tire with a supple casing.)
This post is just a summary of the research. The original data and much more detail were published in Bicycle Quarterly. Here are a few resources for further reading:

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The Price of Performance


Why do high-end bikes and components cost so much more than budget offerings? Both racing bikes in the photo above are made from carbon fiber. Both are equipped with multi-speed drivetrains and Shimano STI shifters. Both have narrow 700C tires. One may be a little lighter, but does that justify charging so much more? Both are fine bikes, so what do you get when you pay so much more in a bike?
If you look at it from the perspective of buying cars (or washing machines, or furniture), the pricing of bikes does indeed seem odd. When you buy a more expensive car from the same maker, you usually get a larger car, with a bigger engine. More money buys more car.

Many car buyers would be surprised to learn that a larger car (or refrigerator) does not cost more to make. The steel, aluminum and plastic that goes into a car makes up only a small fraction of the price you pay. It’s insignificant, really. Yet car makers charge significantly more for bigger cars, because they can. And they push their larger models, because their profits are so much higher.
In the bike world, it rarely makes sense to promise you “more” in return for a higher price. Imagine the salesperson telling you: “For just $250 extra, I can put you on a 62 cm frame instead of the 60 you are looking at now.” Instead, more money usually buys you a product with better performance.
How do you get more performance?
In a car, you can increase performance simply by increasing the engine size. A 3-litre engine has more power than a 2-litre engine, all things being equal. On a bicycle, the engine size cannot be changed: You are the engine!
Bicycles are like race cars. In race cars, the rules restrict engine capacity and power output. The only way to obtain extra performance in a race car comes through optimizing every component. Of course, that costs much more than boring larger holes into the engine block to increase the cylinder size and thus get more horsepower.
Small race cars are no less expensive than large ones. A competitive race car easily can cost ten times the price of a similar production model. The two Subarus below ostensibly were the same car, both with a 2.0 liter turbo engine. Yet they shared few components, and the race-prepared car cost ten times as much as the production model.

With bicycles, it’s similar, albeit usually not as extreme. You can buy a mass-produced steel touring bike with triple cranks, cantilever brakes and racks for $1500. Why does a custom-made steel randonneur bike cost four times as much?
Like the racing car, the custom-made randonneur bike has every component optimized for performance. A good builder also tends to have more know-how than the “production managers” who spec production bikes, and the bike’s design can be adapted to your needs and desires. So the custom bike already is a better machine for you before it even leaves the drawing board. When it comes to making the bike, the builder starts with better raw materials. He or she uses more expensive processes and much more hand-work to arrive at a final product that performs much better.
How much better? Everybody will notice things like the shock absorption of the fork and the better ride of more supple tires. Other details become more important the harder you ride. When you approach the cornering limit, you really appreciate a bike that has predictable, precise handling. When you ride fast over indifferent roads, you don’t want things to rattle and shake loose. When you ride at night, you notice if your light is mounted so it illuminates the road without blinding you. The harder you pedal, the more you appreciate a frame that gets in sync with your pedal strokes. And the more you ride, the more you will appreciate the increased longevity and safety that comes with higher-quality bikes.
CampyCranks2
There is no denying that some bicycle companies charge more just because the market will bear it. The Campagnolo Super Record cranks (above left) are by all reasonable measures identical to the Record ones (above right), yet cost significantly more. However, my experience shows that budget parts and bikes rarely work as well as high-end ones. The difference often is in small details, like the effort required to shift gears, or the quality of the bearings. The reduced weight of the high-end components is less important the extra enjoyment they provide while you ride.
My conclusion: You can have fun on any bike, and skill and fitness will make more of a difference than an expensive bike. Often, good enough is just that: good enough. (For example, I’d be perfectly happy with the production Subaru that cost £18,000.) That said, more expensive, better bikes often are more fun to ride, and if you ride a lot, they can be worth the extra money. However, that $ 11,000 Trek seems overpriced for a production bike.

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How to Brake on a Bicycle

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Whether you ride fast or slow, being able to stop quickly is an important skill. Your ability to stop also depends on how well your brakes perform. In Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 1, we tested brake performance to determine:

  • How do you brake most effectively?
  • Do brakes with different stopping power affect braking distances?
  • Do brake shoes and pads make a big difference?

brake_test
For this test, we coasted from a set point down a steep hill (always using the same riding position), and then braked at a predetermined point. Two testers performed the tests, to differentiate the “rider” factor in brake performance.
Why test on a downhill? The stopping distance on a hill is longer, and thus the differences between brakes and techniques are more pronounced. Afterward, we performed a statistical analysis to evaluate whether we were measuring real differences in braking performance and not just seeing noise in the data.
This test confirmed quite a few things about effective braking technique:
Front vs. Rear Brake
On dry pavement, the front brake alone halts the bike over the shortest distance.
Many riders think they need both brakes to stop effectively, if only because most bikes are outfitted with 2 brakes and that implies that one should use both. Here’s the way to think about it: the momentum of your body continues to move forward as your bike is slowing down, so your weight shifts forward. That’s why your rear wheel can come off the ground when braking hard. When your weight comes forward during hard braking, your rear wheel has close to zero traction. If you apply the rear brake under these conditions, the rear wheel will lock up without contributing significantly to the braking effort.
If you can apply the rear brake without locking up the rear wheel, then your weight isn’t shifting forward – a clear sign that you aren’t braking as hard as you should!
We tried braking with both brakes and with the front brake alone, and consistently found that if we focused all our attention on the front brake, we achieved much shorter stopping distances.
rear_brake
When we braked with the rear brake only, the stopping distance was more than three times as long. In fact, Hahn overshot the stop sign and went into the road at the bottom of the hill (above). This was despite Hahn modulating his rear brake carefully to keep it below the lockup point as much as possible. Skidding the wheel would have increased the stopping distance further.
While we couldn’t test this on dry pavement, the rear brake comes in handy when it is so slippery that even moderate braking will lock up your wheels – when you encounter ice, wet leaves, loose gravel, or other very slippery pavement during the first rain after a long dry spell.
Under these conditions, you cannot brake hard, and the forward weight transfer is much less pronounced. In that case, the rear brake provides added friction that will slow you more quickly. Rear brakes also are useful on tandems, where much more weight is on the rear wheel.
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How Hard Can You Brake?
Very, very hard. We found that to get the shortest stopping distance, we had to pull the front brake lever with all our might. Witness the tester’s bulging muscles on his right arm – which controlled the front brake on this bike!
This is despite using very powerful short-reach Dual-Pivot rim brakes. Some hydraulic disc brakes require less force at the lever, but with rim brakes, you really need to pull very hard on the lever.
When we came to a stop, the smell of burnt brake pads wafted through the air. After 21 full-on emergency braking maneuvers, the Aheadset of the test bike had developed play, because the stem had slipped on the fork steerer. Even the quick release of the front hub had loosened. Braking hard is a very violent affair. Not once did our front wheel lock up.
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Going Over the Bars
Many riders are afraid of “going over the handlebars” when braking hard with the front brake. They fear that the braking force will cause the bike to rotate around the front wheel. In practice, we found that even on a steep hill, the rear wheel stayed planted for most of our braking. Wind resistance helps you here: It pushes the rider backward.
Once we had slowed to less than 6 mph, the rear wheel tended to rise. In the photo above, you can see how the front wheel has stopped, while the (unbraked) rear still is spinning. The wheel came up very slowly. This was far from dangerous: The rider simply opened the front brake slightly to make it come back down.
The shortest braking distances were obtained when we slightly decreased our braking power just before we came to a stop, so the rear wheel stayed on the ground.
Since few riders ever brake this hard, how come they still go over the bars? Here is what appears to happen to most riders who go over the bars: If riders don’t brace themselves against the handlebars, their momentum will push them forward over the handlebars as the bike slows. (Imagine being a passenger in a car without a seatbelt as the driver brakes hard.)
To avoid this, Hahn in the photo above braces himself against the handlebars and locks his elbows. He has shifted his weight as far back as possible. You can see his bicycle’s saddle underneath his belly. With this technique, he did not “go over the bars.” And if your bike’s rear wheel does lift, it happens slowly enough that you can counter it by slightly releasing the front brake lever.
Conclusion
We found that we could brake much harder than we thought.
Car companies have found the same thing: Drivers tend to be too timid when braking in emergencies. Many modern cars are equipped with “brake assists” that apply the brakes with full force during emergency stops. (ABS makes sure the wheels don’t lock up.)
On bicycles, the “brake assist” and “ABS” are quite literally in our hands. Fortunately, instead of having to manage four brakes during an emergency stop, we can focus on the front brake alone.
Without electronics to assist us, we can benefit from practicing braking hard. (In fact, the same applies to your car, where practicing braking will make you a safer driver.) Practice on an empty road, preferably on a downhill where you can reach higher speeds. It takes a lot of confidence to pull on the brake levers with all your might, but it can make the difference between stopping safely and running into something in an emergency.
For the other parts of this research (differences between the two tested brakes and between brake pads), check out Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 1.
Further reading:

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Walking Your Bike


When the terrain is incredibly steep or rough, cyclists tend to crank it out instead of walking. Walking might feel like defeat – they didn’t “clear” that section.
I have gotten to the point where I don’t mind walking when the terrain gets too steep or too rough. Walking stretches my legs, and generally is no slower than spinning in an ultra-low gear. Perhaps it’s from the days when I raced cyclocross, where you quickly learn that it’s faster to run up very steep slopes than it is to ride up them.
As a randonneur, I am not that much in a rush. I don’t run, but really focus on walking, on moving my legs differently, on the different posture in my back and shoulders. It gives me an opportunity to be aware and readjust. I probably even look around a little more.
During brevets, many will ride even the steepest bits, but they don’t arrive at the top more than a few bike lengths ahead. Whereas their legs will feel tired from the effort, my legs feel fresh after walking, and I quickly catch up. In fact, my fastest-ever 600 km brevet, ridden in 22:48 hours, included a walk up the steepest hill of the route.
Most routes are not that steep or rough, so I rarely walk. But a few times a year, usually on long rides, I get off the bike and walk a short way. My bike doesn’t have ultra-low gears, which I’d be carrying around all year, but use only once or twice.
What is your thought on walking with your bike?

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It's Not Easy to Be Honest


I used to wonder why manufacturers offer things that are popular, even though they don’t work well. I recently read an interview with a BMW engineer, who complained about the huge wheels that the company now puts on their cars. It turns out the large (and heavy) wheels ruin the car’s dynamics, making it drive less well than it would otherwise. “Customers like them, though,” the engineer said. BMW faced a choice of making a better car, or giving customers what they want. They chose the latter.
BMW isn’t the only company that follows trends rather than setting them. Almost everything these days, from soap dispensers to political messages, is focus-grouped, rather than made with conviction. When somebody complains, they hear: “What do you want? Customers asked for it.”
To me, that sounds like a sorry excuse. After all, we pay experts because we don’t know the answers ourselves. How many car buyers are aware of the compromises they incur when specifying larger wheels? (Larger wheels allow you to fit bigger brakes inside, which is why sports cars used to have larger wheels than other cars. However, the increase in unsprung mass compromises comfort and handling.) And how many customers would choose differently if they knew?
I don’t have to think too hard to realize why this is upsetting to me: I want the best! I want a great, responsive ride in a car. I want the same in a bike, and that is why Compass Bicycles doesn’t compromise on our products.
At Compass Bicycles, we do a lot of research that guides our product development. Our research isn’t “market research,” but research into how bicycles and components work. Then we try to communicate our findings to our customers. Unlike most car companies, we sell to enthusiasts who are knowledgeable about what makes a bike perform. This makes our job easier.
I can see the temptation to follow the path of least resistance. Consider our René Herse crank project, where we made a number of decisions that we feel improved the product, but which go against popular opinion:

Crank length: Traditionally, cranks have been offered in multiple, yet very similar lengths, from 165 to 175 mm. (The montage above shows that range. The cranks look similar because they are similar: The longest crank is just 6% longer than the shortest one.)
Large makers use separate forgings for each length, but small makers use one forging with extra material, and then machine the cranks to the desired length. This interrupts the grain structure of the aluminum and weakens the cranks.
For the René Herse cranks, we use a net-shape forging with a perfect grain structure. This means that our cranks are available in one length only, but on the upside, our cranks passed the stringent EN “Racing Bike” standard for fatigue resistance (EN 14781). I know of no other small-production crank that has passed this test.
It may take a little time for cyclists to give up a long-held belief, but in the end, I am confident that our customers prefer a stronger crank, even if it means riding a crank that is 2% shorter or 3% longer than what they usually ride.

Chainring ramps: Chainring ramps only work for matched pairs of rings, and even then it is debatable how much they contribute to better shifting. (Above are two random shifts: One used the ramp, the other did not.)
The René Herse cranks are available with a huge selection of chainrings, so you can get gearing that is perfectly matched to your strength and riding style. This means that we cannot offer matched pairs of rings.
Many aftermarket chainrings aren’t designed as matched pairs, either, and instead feature “cosmetic” ramps that don’t do much. Such a “make-believe” feature is counter to our beliefs. Instead, we optimized the chainring tooth profiles for smoother shifting with any chainring combination. But many customers still wonder why our chainrings don’t have ramps.
Anodized arms: Anodizing still is seen by many as a sign of quality. It protects the finish of aluminum parts, but only until it gets worn off where toestraps or booties touched the arms, to say nothing of scratches. Then the cranks look scruffy, and the aluminum isn’t protected any longer.
The René Herse cranks use a corrosion-resistant alloy that does not need to be protected from the elements. Even after several Colorado winters, customers report that their cranks remain shiny and bright. And if they get scratched, you can re-polish them.

Stainless steel crank bolts: Many people love stainless steel. It’s shiny and does not rust.  What’s not to like? Most people don’t realize that stainless steel is more brittle and not as strong as other steels. We make our crank bolts from strong steel and then have them chrome-plated, so you can can rely on your crank bolts.
We stand behind these choices, which make our cranks stronger, better-looking and more versatile than they would be otherwise. Even so, I know we sell fewer cranks than we would otherwise: Some customers will be turned away because the cranks aren’t available in “their” length, or they want ramped chainrings, anodized arms, and/or stainless steel bolts.
Why didn’t we take the path of least resistance and offer what customers want? We’d save money during production, we’d save time explaining, and we’d sell more cranks.
The reason is simple: We ride these cranks on our own bikes, and we wouldn’t want them compromised in any way. We want the best, and fortunately, we have the freedom to make our components the way we want them.

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Chainring Choice or Shifting Ramps?


The chainring choices of our René Herse cranks are not limited by dedicated shifting ramps, so you can use any gear combinations you like. We have optimized the chainring tooth profile to shift well at all times, and not only twice per crank revolution when a ramp and pin are aligned correctly.
During the development of our cranks, we spent a lot of time testing different prototype chainrings (above), as well as the ramped-and-pinned cranks of other makers (below).
good_shift
Modern chainrings have ramps and pins on the backside below the teeth. The ramps and pins are located where there is an optimal path for the chain from one ring to the other. For that reason, modern chainrings only work in sets of two (or three for triples).
If you put a small chainring with a different tooth count on the cranks shown above, then the ramps of the big ring no longer line up where they should. That is why the large rings are marked not just with their own size, but also with the size of the small ring that is part of the set. In the photo below, the large ring is a 50/34 ring, with ramps that don’t work with other small chainrings, like a 39-tooth ring.

Most component makers offer very limited chainring choices, otherwise they would have to develop a multitude of chainring pairs. Most double cranksets today are available only with 53/39 and 50/34 chainrings.
Some smaller manufacturers offer ramped chainrings that are not designed in pairs. (They are easily recognizable, because they don’t specify for which small ring they are designed.) These ramps are not very effective and mostly serve to reassure customers who see ramps as an important asset of chainrings.
For many decades, chainrings did not have ramps and pins, and yet they shifted fine. Ramps and pins serve only as “insurance” against bad shifts that occur when the rider doesn’t push the lever far enough, or when they forget to let up on the pedals during the shift. Most of the time, the rider initiates the shift when no ramp is aligned correctly, and the chain just moves to the big ring without the help of ramps and pins. (An exception are Shimano STI triples, which don’t work without ramps and pins.)
For the new René Herse cranks, we had to make a choice: Design a few chainring combinations with ramps that offer insurance against bad shifts, or offer almost unlimited chainring choices without ramps. (The third option, to provide “cosmetic” ramps, was not considered.)
It would be prohibitive to provide ramped chainring pairs for each of the dozens of chainring combinations possible with the new René Herse cranks. We would need to develop no fewer than six 48-tooth chainrings, depending on whether you want to use a small chainring with 32, 34, 36, 38, 42 or 44 teeth. And so on for each chainring size! (Now you can understand why even big makers offer only very few chainring choices.)

Instead, we focused on the tooth profile to make sure the chain has an easy path onto the chainring – not just in a few places where there are ramps and pins, but at any spot in the pedal stroke. We tested a number of tooth profiles with a variety of derailleurs to determine how to optimize the shifts without ramps. In the photo above, you can see how the chain runs diagonally between the teeth at the onset of the shift. We use an asymmetric tooth shape that provides more room for this shift. (The teeth bear the chain load only on one side, so there is no need to have as much material on the other side.)

Here’s a bad shift, just what we don’t want, where the chain rides up on the chainring at first, and only engages after half a chainring revolution! This “prototype tooth shape C” was not selected for production…

The downshift to a smaller chainring is relatively simple (above). The chain simply drops down onto the smaller ring. It works every time, without any ramps, pins or special tooth profiles. Small rings wear faster than big ones, so ours use a different tooth profile from the large ones, one that is optimized for durability.
rh_crank_triple_2
You probably will not notice the optimized chainring tooth profiles when you install your René Herse cranks, but we hope you will notice the difference once you ride them on your bike. Click here for more information about the René Herse cranks.
Further reading:

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Trouble with STI Triples

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Triple cranks are a good choice for some riders. The most common shifting system for triple cranks, Shimano’s STI, only works with Shimano chainrings. Unfortunately, Shimano’s chainring combinations are of limited use to most riders. If you want to customize your chainring sizes, you will have to use downtube or bar-end shifters, plus a front derailleur with a smooth inner cage, to make more useful triple cranks work.
On current-production road bikes, triples have almost become obsolete, because 11-speed cassettes provide such a large gear range that a third chainring no longer is needed. SRAM doesn’t even make “road” triples, but Shimano still offers them, and Campagnolo did so until recently.
Even with 10-speed cassettes, triples remain a good choice for loaded bikes and/or slower riders. These bikes and riders need a relatively small “base gear,” yet they still pedal at high speeds on slight downhills and with strong tailwinds, so they need reasonably large gears, too.
For these riders, it makes sense to have a large “top speed” chainring, a middle “cruising” chainring, and a small “climbing” chainring for steeper hills. (Stronger riders can combine the “top speed” and “cruising” chainrings into a single chainring and use a compact double.)
For triples to work well, you want to select your chainrings based on your riding style. However, Shimano offers only a single combination: 50-39-30. This is an odd combination: A rider who finds the relatively small 39-tooth “cruising” chainring useful will probably need a “climbing” chainring with fewer than 30 teeth.
More useful triple chainring combinations would be 46-40-26 or 44-38-24, with large rings small enough to be useful for normal riders, with middle rings sized for general riding, and small rings that allow climbing steep hills at low speeds.
One of the appeals of our René Herse cranks is the custom gearing. You can choose any ring combination from 24 to 50 teeth. The René Herse crank is designed to drop right into the clearances of a modern crank, so you can replace your existing crank with one that has more appropriate gearing. The René Herse cranks work great for most riders, with one exception: riders who use Shimano STI with a triple. It took us a while to figure out why STI triples are so troublesome.
After doing a lot of testing, we found that there are two separate problems. One concerns front derailleurs, the other is related to the way STI executes front shifts.
funky_cage
Many front derailleurs for triples have a channel pressed into the inner cage. This is designed to lift the chain onto the big chainring when you upshift. It works only if the channel matches the position of the chain on the middle ring. A derailleur like this works only with a very narrow range of chainring combinations.
triple_fd
If you use a differently-sized middle ring, the channel no longer lines up with the chain as you start the shift. In the photo above, the channel is above the chain. The chain gets stuck below the channel, and it’s almost impossible to shift to the large ring.
smooth_cage
The solution to this problem is simple: Use a front derailleur for doubles, which has a smooth cage and no channels (above).
Won’t the lack of channels and other “shift aids” make it shift poorly? Front shifts are not  demanding: The derailleur only needs to push the chain into the rotating teeth of the larger chainring, which picks up the chain and executes the shift. A front derailleur does not need a complex shape to work well.
matching_curve
A good option is the Shimano CX-70 front derailleur (above). This derailleur is designed for cyclocross bikes with smaller chainrings, so its curve matches that of the smaller rings, and its cage is short enough that it doesn’t hit the chainstays, which can happen when you use standard derailleurs with small chainrings. The CX-70 derailleur is a great choice, whether you run a double or a triple.
bad_front_shift
Using a front derailleur with a smooth cage addresses one problem, but another problem remains: During shifts from the small to the middle ring, to prevent the chain from overshifting straight onto the big ring, triple levers for STI/Ergopower move the chain only part-way, just far enough for a pin on the middle ring to pick up the chain.
This is very different from how shifters for two chainrings work: The derailleur pushes the chain sideways until it catches on any tooth of the larger chainring. The chain then is lifted up and threads itself onto the larger chainring, no matter how the teeth are aligned.
Now you see why STI and Ergopower triples won’t work with our cranks: Without properly designed ramps and pins, the derailleur won’t move the chain far enough to be picked up by the next chainring! Many aftermarket chainrings with “cosmetic” pins and ramps that are not aligned in the optimal chain path also will not work well with STI. (Sometimes, careful setup can make it sort of work, but the shifting won’t be as reliable.)
Why don’t we make triple-crank chainrings with ramps and pins? To offer truly outstanding shifting performance, ramped-and-pinned chainrings must be designed in matched sets. The appeal of the Rene Herse cranks is that you can mix and match chainrings as you like, but that means that there simply are too many possible chainring combinations. We’d have to make hundreds of different chainrings!
Conclusions:

  • If you want to use STI/Ergopower and triple cranks, you have to stick with Shimano’s stock cranks and chainrings, whether the gear ratios work for you or not.
  • If you want to use a triple with custom gearing, use downtube or bar-end shifters. Make sure you use a smooth-cage front derailleur no matter which shifting system you use.
  • If you don’t want to give up STI/Ergopower, maybe an ultra-compact double will work better for you. A 44-28 may give you more useful gears than Shimano’s triple chainring combinations.

What about STI for double cranks?
Shimano’s STI for double chainrings shifts fine with chainrings that don’t have pins and ramps, but for optimum shifting performance, we now offer the Rene Herse 9/10/11-speed cranks with ramped-and-pinned chainrings.
Addition (3/7/2015): A reader pointed out that the “top pull” version of the CX-70 derailleur does not swing far enough to shift a triple crank. Only the standard “bottom pull” version works for triples.
Further reading:
– Blog post on How to select your chainrings.
How Ramped Chainrings Work. Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 11, No. 2.
– More information about Rene Herse cranks.

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Laws of Physics

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In the last issue of Bicycle Quarterly, we compared the performance of a 17-pound titanium racing bike and of a 26-pound steel randonneur bike. We were surprised when both bikes climbed at the same speed in a set of controlled experiments. Others shared our surprise, but added: “That cannot be true. Physics require that the heavier bike climbs slower.”
Having ridden the bikes myself, I know that their performance was evenly matched. And as a scientist, I also know that this result does not contradict the laws of physics.
Our critics assume a constant power output. If we always put out 600 Watts during these climbs, then any added weight will slow us down, all other things being equal. And an extra 9 pounds is significant enough that it should be measurable. There is little disagreement on this.
And yet the two bikes did climb at the same speed, despite their different weights. It’s clear then that our power output was not constant. On one bike, we were able to put out slightly more power than on the other – just enough extra power to equalize the weight handicap.
It should not come as a surprise that one frame performed better than another. We documented the same effect in Bicycle Quarterly’s double-blind test of frame stiffness. There, we sprinted up a hill five times, side-by-side, on two bikes. The frames had different frame tubes, but otherwise, the bikes were identical. They even weighed the same.
We switched bikes after each run. We used a PowerTap to measure power output without the rider being able to see the numbers. We found that one frame consistently was faster than the other – no matter who rode it. It wasn’t for lack of trying – as most racers know, nothing makes you ride harder than another rider pulling away.
When we downloaded the numbers from the power meter, we found that our power output was higher on the faster frame – not just a little bit, but about 5% for Mark, and 2% for me. And these were relatively similar frames, both made from lightweight, standard-diameter steel tubing.
Why did we put out more power on some frames than on others? In the above-mentioned double-blind test, we found that frame stiffness and how the frame works with our pedal strokes influences our power output. Here is how we think this works: There are different factors that limit our power output on a bike. Our hearts beat at their maximum, we are gasping for air, our legs start burning…
Our absolute maximum probably is determined by our maximum heart rate. As anybody who has trained with a heart rate monitor knows, it often is impossible to reach one’s maximum heart rate. (I used to reach ultra-high heart rates during runs that I could not achieve on my bike.)
Why can’t we always reach our maximum heart rate? The limiting factor is our muscles. If the muscles aren’t able to use the oxygen our heart pumps to them, then there is no use for our hearts to beat faster. And if one bike frame leads to more rapid muscle fatigue than the other, then our power output will be lower on that frame. (In running, I may use more muscle groups, so the cumulative oxygen use is higher, hence the higher heart rate.)
This straightforward explanation does not require invalidating the laws of physics. The simple fact is that the human body is a complex machine, and doesn’t have a constant power output.
Most cyclists have experienced inexpensive bikes that simply were “dogs” and did not perform well. We often try to explain that lack of performance with extra weight or other factors, but these bikes don’t perform well even on the flats, so one has to look for other reasons. And most of these inexpensive bikes have heavy, stiff frames that may fatigue our muscles prematurely.
Now none of the titanium bikes we tested for the Winter 2012 issue of Bicycle Quarterly were “dogs.”  They all offered awesome performance and were great fun to ride, but even near the absolute top, there were some slight, but noticeable differences in how these bikes performed for us.
Further reading:

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No Mudflap: What a Mess!

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Just one week of riding without a mudflap, and look at my bike! It’s a mess!
I ride my Urban Bike year-round in rainy Seattle, but thanks to its generous fenders, it rarely gets dirty. I clean it only once a year, because it doesn’t need it more often.
Then, last week, the mudflap on the front fender came off when I reversed the heavily loaded bike up a home-built ramp out of the basement. The flap got caught underneath the front tire at the end of the ramp, and pulled out of the fender.
GBwhitetires
It’s surprising to me – the front fender is as good as they get: It extends as low as it can without hitting curbs. Yet without the mudflap, spray hits the bottom bracket and entire rear of the bike, to say nothing of my feet. And with the rubber mudflap (above), the bike stays almost totally clean.
This experience shows once again how important those “minor” details really are. This weekend, I’ll install the mudflap again!

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North American Handmade Bicycle Show

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This year’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show will take place in Denver, CO, on the weekend of February 22-24. NAHBS is a great place to see many builders showing their craft. The event is a showcase of the vibrant custom framebuilding scene in North America.
As you admire the gleaming machines, you may wonder how they ride. Bicycle Quarterly has tested a number of NAHBS show bikes over the years, including several show winners. I am happy to report that most rode as well as they looked.
Pereirafull
First among these was Tony Pereira’s first randonneur bike, winner of the “Best Road Bike” award in 2007 (above). It’s still one of my favorite bikes among the more than 50 we’ve tested. I loved the aesthetics, which were different from the French constructeurs, yet just as functional. I enjoyed using Pereira’s excellent lever-operated front derailleur, and I smiled at the juxtaposition with the Campagnolo carbon cranks. Most of all, I loved how that Pereira flew over our favorite “Mountain 100 km” course!
We also tested show bikes from Rebolledo, Coho and Ellis (photo at the top of this post), as well as a Bilenky tandem. Historic bikes shown at NAHBS by Peter Weigle and Landshark were featured in our book The Competition Bicycle. It’s been fun to spend more time with these machines, but even if you just can admire them in the show booths, NAHBS presents a unique opportunity to see many bikes in person that you will rarely meet on the road.
Randonneuse1974-03
This year, Boulder Bicycles is organizing an “unaffiliated” display in Denver on Saturday evening (February 23) at the Denver Marriott City Center Hotel.  They will be joined by three other well-known builders: Mark DiNucci, Bruce Gordon and Mark Nobilette. Boulder Bicycles will show a collection of classic René Herse bicycles together with the latest machines carrying the famous name. (Boulder Bicycles is the home of modern René Herse bicycles.) The photo above shows a 1974 Randonneuse from our René Herse book, similar to a bike that will be on display at the show. You’ll also be able to browse the René Herse book (and buy a copy).
If you are in the Denver region that weekend, both NAHBS and the Herse/Nobilette/Gordon/DiNucci display are well worth your time. Click here for information on NAHBS, and click here for information on the second show.
Further reading: Test report of the Pereira Randonneuse. (Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 6, No. 2), also available online.

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Why We Don't Need Rain Bikes Any Longer


I moved from Texas to Seattle 20 years ago and continued to ride and train year-round. At first, I refused to use fenders. I did not want to spoil the beautiful lines of my racing bike. After one miserably wet winter, I gave in. Like most of my teammates, I got a rain bike.
For those from drier climates, a rain bike is a racing bike equipped with fenders. It usually is a less-valuable bike intended to take the wear and tear of riding in the rain, while your “good” bike remains pristine and ready for rides and events in better weather.
My rain bike was built with an old Celo Europa Columbus SL frame and parts sourced at various swap meets. The only brand-new parts were German SKS fenders (back then made by Esge), the best available in Seattle at the time.
As I wrote above, the “rain bike is intended to take the wear and tear of riding in the rain.” And wear and tear it took indeed, my poor rain bike. The drivetrain always felt gritty from the spray of the front wheel that went straight onto the chain. Lubricating the chain was a ritual after every long ride in the rain, because it squeaked terribly and turned a rusty orange as soon as it dried out. After each ride in the rain, my bike was covered in filth, and so was I. I overhauled my bottom bracket at least twice a year to remove the grit that had found its way into the bearings. I was glad to spare my “good” bike this ordeal. It always was a relief when the forecast had no rain, and I could take out my good bike, with its smooth drivetrain that seemed to run like clockwork.
Today, I don’t have a rain bike any longer. Neither do the people with whom I ride. We ride our “good” bikes all year round. It’s not that it rains less in Seattle than it did in previous decades. Nor have we resigned ourselves to riding ugly bikes with gritty drivetrains. It’s just that our good bikes now have aluminum fenders that don’t spoil the lines of the bike, and more importantly, keep the grit and spray off our bikes. We no longer oil our chains after a rainy ride, nor do we overhaul bottom brackets every year. How are our fenders today different from the SKS plastic fenders?

My rain bike never got photographed, so this bike will serve as a stand-in. The “spray zone” of the front wheel is shown, as well as the drip from the fender stays. Here are the characteristics of plastic fenders:

  • Front fender covers just 90°: Spray from the front wheel goes directly onto feet and drivetrain.
  • Fenders attach to stays with brackets that form dams on the inside of the fender: Water gets diverted and drips off the stays – onto your feet and chain.
  • Fenders are flexible: They resonate annoyingly on rough roads.
  • Fenders have to be pulled into shape for mounting: Inbuilt stresses cause them to break after 2-3 seasons.
  • Bike frame not designed for fenders means: Clearances are tight.  Fenders tend to rub on tires. Fenderlines aren’t perfect, so the bike’s appearance is compromised.


The spray zone of my current bikes’ front wheel is much reduced, and no longer reaches the pedals or the chain. Here are the characteristics of the aluminum fenders:

  • Front fender and mudflap reach within 5 cm (2 in) of the ground: No spray reaches feet or drivetrain.
  • Fenders have uninterrupted interior and rolled edges: All water stays inside. Most water exits at the bottom, where it drips off the mudflap straight back onto the road.
  • Stiff aluminum fenders bolts directly to the stays: Silent even on the roughest roads.
  • Metal fenders can be shaped to the desired profile: No inbuilt stresses, so fenders last for decades.
  • Bike frame designed for fenders: Perfect clearances everywhere and no rubbing ever. Fenders no longer detract from the appearance of the bike.

We never would have thought that better fenders would make such a difference. I discovered aluminum fenders almost by accident, attracted to the classic appearance of a set of hammered Honjo fenders that I put on my touring bike. It came as a surprise that my feet stayed so much drier.
Now we feel pity for the many riders we see riding in the rain with short plastic fenders. We have been there. Like most riders, we used to think that fenders were fenders, and spray and grit were an inevitable byproduct of riding in the rain. Now we know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

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Ride the Bike You Have


“You ride the bike you have, not the bike you might want or wish to have at a later time,” said a famous secretary of defense. (More or less. He was talking about armies, not bikes, but both are tools toward achieving an end.)
That statement paraphrases my thoughts about bicycles. Last year, we posted our series A Journey of Discovery, where we explained how we came to prefer certain bikes. Many readers were surprised that at the time, I did not have my ideal bike. “What, you don’t have a 650B randonneur bike?” was one incredulous comment.
For years, I was riding a bike that was made from stiffer tubing than I considered ideal, that had narrower tires than I prefer, and that had a geometry that was not optimized for the handlebar bag I made it carry. It was a very good bike, but as my preferences evolved, it no longer was what I would have picked, given a totally free choice.
Did this detract from the riding experience? Not much! I had a wonderful time on the bike. I rode it to my best-ever Paris-Brest-Paris finish and many other memorable rides. Only very rarely did I think during a ride “Oh, I wish my bike had less trail/wider tires/thinner tubing walls.”
In fact, I rarely think about the bike during rides at all. I just enjoy the ride. And even though I knew that I eventually wanted a different bike, I was in no rush. I knew my old bike would need replacement eventually – when I got that bike, it already had more than 30 years and 100,000+ miles of hard riding under its wheels.
So I started working on my new bike. I planned to change the things that did not match my preferences. Building that new bike took time, since I made many of the parts myself. In the mean time, I continued to ride my bike on more memorable rides. I used the bike in a number of fast 600 km brevets as I chased the Cyclos Montagnards R60 honor. I rode it on fast Sunday morning rides with friends. I ran errands on it around town. And I enjoyed every one of those rides.
Now I have my new bike. It performs exactly as I had hoped. I love riding it. I still enjoy riding the old bike from time to time. In the end, it’s not about the bike, it’s about the ride.
From the archives: My ride in Paris-Brest-Paris 2007.

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How to Choose Your Chainrings


When we received another shipment of René Herse cranks recently, we built up and filled our pre-orders first. Some are shown above. All the cranks shown have different setups, except two. (Can you spot the two identical ones?) There are a dozen different chainring combinations in the photo above, yet they represent only a small fraction of the possible chainring choices with our new cranks. We currently offer more than 100 different useful crank configurations to customize the crank to your power output and pedal style.
You can compare that to most makers: Not counting track cranks, Shimano offers seven chainring combinations for their Dura-Ace cranks. Ultegra is available in four combinations, including a single triple. Campagnolo offers just three combinations for their Record cranks. None of the big makers offer 48-32, 44-28 or 46-36-24, combinations that are very useful for many riders.
Our René Herse cranks can be set up in even more chainring combinations, but our 100 combinations count only those that make sense and offer excellent shifting performance. Here is how to figure out an ideal chainring choice for you. (This post is excerpted from a more detailed article on gearing in the Summer 2012 issue of Bicycle Quarterly.)
One big rule is that the difference between adjacent chainrings ideally should not be larger than 16 teeth. You can use a larger difference – I once tested a classic René Herse bicycle with a 52-26 double – but your shifting will not be ideal. For example, a 48-32 (16 tooth difference) will shift fine with most front derailleurs, but a 48-30 (18 tooth difference) may require trimming of the front derailleur after each front shift. A large chainring difference also can result in the chain rubbing on the large chainring when you ride in the small chainring in the front and on one of the smaller cogs in the rear.
With this in mind, you can freely spec your favorite chainring combination. When I select my gearing, I think of three gears:

  • Base gear: This is the gear I mostly use on flat roads when spinning along.
  • High gear: This is the largest gear that I use when I am sprinting for a city limit sign with friends, or riding with a powerful tailwind.
  • Low gear: This is the smallest gear I need on the roads I usually ride.

In addition to covering the range from low to high gear, a good gear selection will do the following:

  • Put the base gear in the middle of the rear freewheel/cassette, so that I can adjust to changes in speed and terrain with a simple shift or two in the rear.
  • Provide small enough steps between gears, so that I can continue pedaling seamlessly.

I don’t worry about duplicate gears, if they fall in the range where I ride frequently. In fact, some overlap is not just OK, it’s desirable.
The worst gearing I have ever ridden was that bike I mentioned above with the 52-26 chainrings. It had a 14-28 freewheel. On paper, this might look ideal: a huge gear range, and only one duplicate gear. On the road, it was far from perfect: In the big ring, the gearing was just a tad too large for slight uphills, while in the small ring, the gears were too small for the flats. As a result, I was shifting all the time, not only the front, but also almost all the way across the rear. This really broke my rhythm.
If I were riding that bike all the time, I’d simply add a third chainring (which is relatively easy with René Herse cranks)*. Adding a 44-tooth ring would not have changed the gear range, and added five duplicate gears. On paper, that would be useless, but on the road, those would be the gears I would use 90% of the time! With the 44-tooth chainring, my base gear would be in the middle of the freewheel, and if the road tilts up or down a bit, I’d just need a simple shift on the rear to be in the right gear again. The 50-tooth chainring might be useful for super-fast rides, while the 26-tooth ring would get me up any hill.
Double or Triple?
The decision comes down to the gear range you need and which gears you ride most of the time. If your “base gear” is close to your “high gear,” then you can accommodate both on the same chainring. That means that you can use a double.
If your base gear is right in the middle between your “high” and “low” gears, then a double would put you between the two rings most of the time. Get a triple instead!
Alternatively, if you don’t like the wider tread (Q factor) of a triple, think about reducing your high gear. You don’t give up much – pedaling on steep downhills is slower than tucking in the aero tuck anyhow – and you may be able to use a double.
Choosing your gearing well will increase the enjoyment of your ride. Click here to see the chainring choices that are available for the René Herse cranks. For a more detail and examples of chainring choices, check out the Summer 2012 issue of Bicycle Quarterly.
* To convert a double René Herse crank to a triple, you need an extra chainring, longer chainring bolts, and (usually) a longer bottom bracket spindle.

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Bike Tests: Design Specifics vs. Intended Use


There are two common yet different approaches to testing products:

  1. You can compare design specifics. For example, you test hybrid bikes with disc brakes. Or in the car world, mid-size SUVs. You figure out which company makes the best one in that category.
  2. You can look at the intended use and figure out which design will work best. For example, you try to find the best bike for carrying its rider and briefcase in urban traffic, year-round. Or the best car to haul a family of four, a baby jogger and a dog.


With Approach 1., part of the test results is a foregone conclusion: The best hybrid bike with disc brakes will be, well, a hybrid with disc brakes. In the SUV test, you do not ask whether an SUV is a good solution to carrying a family of four, a baby jogger and a dog. These underlying assumptions are not examined. The test is “thinking inside the box.”
With Approach 2., the test result is much less predictable: Even the best SUV may be less than ideal. Something entirely different may be best for the purpose; it may even be something that does not exist yet. The reviewers are “thinking outside the box.”
The industry likes Approach 1. This gives them a clear target: “Design an SUV that beats the Ford Explorer.” Or: “Come up with a derailleur that shifts as well as Shimano Dura-Ace.”
For testers, this is easy as well. You compare a handful of products and declare a winner. There is no need to think about the “what ifs” that require additional research, thought and imagination.
For consumers, Approach 1 is less satisfactory, because it does not examine whether the underlying assumptions are valid. The best solution to the “4 people, baby jogger, dog” transportation problem may be a station wagon, a mini-minivan or something else that did not enter the discussion. For carrying a cyclist and their briefcase, a hybrid may not be ideal, and a better choice may be an urban bike with integrated fenders and lights. The briefcase might be best carried on a front rack (with suitable geometry) that allows riders to start from a light without wobbling.
Of course, Approach 2 also can be unsatisfactory. If a reader really likes the image or looks of an SUV, they might not want to read that they really should buy a different car. “Just tell me which of the five SUVs on my list is best, and leave me alone,” that reader may think. Worse, the “ideal” product may not even be easily available.

If you were car-shopping in the U.S. in 1955, you probably were thinking which tailfin shape you liked better and whether to pay a little extra for the new 427 cubic inch V8. Then you picked up Road & Track and read that unibody construction was better than Detroit’s separate chassis, and had you considered the new Alfa Romeo (below) with its efficient 1.3 litre engine and excellent handling?

Of course, that Alfa was not easily available, and getting it serviced by people who had never seen such a car was difficult at best. So there were real practical reasons to buy the tailfinned behemoth instead. Even so, Road & Track helped push American makers toward building better cars by showing what was possible, rather than what was easily available.
At Bicycle Quarterly, we try to combine both approaches. On the one hand, we consider what riders can buy today, but on the other hand, we often suggest improvements to the products we test.

Today, cyclists have more choices outside the “standard” categories than just a few years ago. I don’t think the mainstream magazines with their “Best Road Bike for under $2000” approach caused the industry to broaden their scope. Instead, many people outside the industry pushed for these designs, and small makers introduced them. Finally, the bigger manufacturers are beginning to copy them, to the benefit of every cyclist.

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