How Far We've Come

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

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Comments (33)

  • Wilson

    Are classic high tension forks considered in your group of “flexible blade” or must this be done fancy tubing?

    September 2, 2015 at 5:39 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The flex of a steel tube is determined by its diameter and wall thickness. However, if you use thin walls and/or small diameters, you need “fancy” tubing simply so that it flexes and springs back, rather than taking a permanent bend…

      September 2, 2015 at 5:41 am
      • Wilson

        Ha. Fair enough. Guess I’ll go get a new fork for my old Bridgestone.

        September 2, 2015 at 6:07 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          The fork can make a huge difference in how the bike handles, and how it absorbs larger bumps. I know that some Rawland owners placed a combined order for new forks with Jeff Lyon, and they’ve been very happy with the results.

          September 2, 2015 at 6:15 am
  • Greg

    It *is* impressive how much has happened in the development of “non-racing” bicycles over the past 10-15 years. The mainstream cycling industry (in the USA, at least) has pretty much always chased the same affluent, 40-70 year-old male “racer wannabe” demographic, for the most part. They have to come up with the “next new must-have thing” every couple of years in order to get those (primarily) men to buy yet another bicycle, and they have to tell them that what they told them was “awesome” last year is now just leftover junk, so please buy one of these “new, amazingly awesome-r” things. Expensive bicycles became a fashion statement for some people. First it was carbon-fiber frames, then carbon-fiber glued to existing components, then carbon-fiber components, then carbon-fiber wheels/rims. I’m waiting for carbon-fiber tires and carbon-fiber water bottles before jumping in! 😉
    That is (finally!) evolving, to a significant extent, at least in a non-trivial portion of the market. And the common-sense effects are becoming far-reaching: even TdF riders are running slightly wider tires now, in many stages, as well as compact cranksets and larger freewheel (sorry, cassette!) cogs. It turns out that a less-punishing bicycle is less fatiguing for a pro. that is in the saddle up to six hours per day. Who’d-a thunk it?
    In the “old days” a.k.a. the 1970s, the Clement Campionato del Mondo Seta (silk) was the ultimate tubular tire, in many ways, and “racing” frames were built with 57-mm brakes and frame details that allowed 700c tires as wide as 32 mm to be installed (I have 32 mm GB EL tires on my 1975 Cinelli, for example – they just barely fit, but are do-able, without fenders), so the idea has been around, just not widely accepted (again…) until recently. Forks that can’t take a tire wider than 25 mm are silly! Even a full-on race bike from 1980 or so can take a 28-29 mm tire.
    Thank you, Jan, for all of the work you and your cohort have done, especially in the areas of tire and frame/fork development, not to mention several others! I still love my old, 21-mm-tubular-tired vintage racing bikes, but my horizons have been greatly broadened over the past decade, shall we say?

    September 2, 2015 at 8:04 am
  • marmotte27

    Now you only have to send missionaries to the other countries who are not following this “religion” yet, or who have lapsed (such as France…).

    September 2, 2015 at 8:11 am
    • Jason Hansen

      Hah! On PBP, if I saw a Berthoud bag it was probably an American rider. The British had saddle bags but not always fenders, and I did not notice any mud flaps on those who did have mudguards.
      I rode with a trio from Spain for a stretch after Loudeac and one of them asked me “why do you American like the, uh, vintage?”

      September 2, 2015 at 9:22 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        We had the same question from some Italians we met after the bike check. My Italian was not sufficient to explain that their bikes were the old-fashioned ones… since they still rode 23 mm tires!

        September 2, 2015 at 9:46 am
      • Rémi

        What a pleasure to see all these Randonneuses on PBP!
        It’s so unusual in France…

        September 2, 2015 at 2:28 pm
      • John Oswald

        I had crowds of 4-5 French men verbally dissecting the bike at each control and regularly did a 5-10 minute interview in French about the steel frame, fenders, leather saddle and Berthoud bag. It enabled us to connect with the locals in an unexpected way and added to the PBP experience.
        A group of Italians we rode with off and on thought riding a bike that heavy was insane and unfortunately my Italian (learned from childhood friends of Italian immigrant parents and mostly limited to phrases not fit for public consumption) was not up to the task of espousing the merits of a randoneuse-style bike either. We did finish ahead of them though…

        September 2, 2015 at 4:30 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          We did finish ahead of them though…

          That is often the best way to show that one’s bike at least isn’t slowing one down…

          September 2, 2015 at 9:50 pm
  • Paul Richard

    Well Done, Jan! You deserve much credit for this revolution in bikes and cycling. I just mounted my new Compass 26×2.3s on my old Koga Miyata. I am amazed at the availability of such a tire!

    September 2, 2015 at 1:04 pm
  • Dr J

    Surely, a lot has changed. But you are wrong on this one:
    “No good brakes that could reach around wide tires and fenders.”
    In 2003 (the year of BC Vol. 1) v-brakes were the most popular brakes on mountain bikes and they worked well with tires far wider than what you run on your rando bike. Not to mention that disc brakes were available as well so saying that no good brakes were available in 2003 is a stretch, at best.

    September 2, 2015 at 5:09 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      When I wrote the post, I thought about it, and I phrased it to say “reach around” rather than “work with”. I did this, because I didn’t want to go into the specifics of why I don’t consider cantilevers or V-brakes “good brakes”, leaving this instead for the discussion in the comments, so thank you for bringing it up.
      Cantilevers were available and a decent choice, but they suffer from sub-optimal modulation because the fork blades flex outward as the brake is applied. The difference to a good centerpull, which attaches close to the fork crown where the fork is much stiffer, is stunning, especially when braking hard while approaching a corner.
      V-brakes don’t work with randonneur bikes, wide tires, and front racks. There is no place to attach the top of the rack to the fork crown… because that is where the transverse cable goes, even if it clears the wide tires and fenders. To say nothing of the poor modulation of V-brakes, which makes them less than “good” in my experience.
      Disc brakes – I don’t think there were any “good” disc brakes for road bikes available in 2003.
      So while we could argue over traditional cantilevers, there is little doubt that much better brakes are available today.

      September 2, 2015 at 10:00 pm
      • Steve Palincsar

        Also, don’t V-brakes cause fork blades to flex outward as the brake is applied, just as cantilever brakes do?

        September 3, 2015 at 5:37 am
      • Conrad

        In my experience, shimano V brakes paired with the Cane Creek V brake levers are quite powerful, have excellent modulation, and no chatter or squeal. There is the issue with interference with a rack attachment at the fork crown in front. Because the cable clamps directly to the brake, there is none of the bowstring effect that creates chatter in cantilevers. In my experience, a cantilever brake in the front requires a fork crown mounted cable stop to eliminate chatter which of course will not work with a front rack either. A wide profile cantilever has excellent mud clearance and reliability but leaves a little to be desired in terms of power. I agree that there are better brake options these days, but if you don’t have a bike that is compatible with centerpulls or discs I would not overlook the good ‘ol V brake.

        September 3, 2015 at 9:31 am
  • Willem

    For loaded touring bikes there was the Magura HS66 hydraulic rim brake for drop bars. Unfortunately Magura discontinued them, but I still think they are the best brakes for a loaded touring bike. Braking power is impressive, and so is modulation. In addition, the lever hoods are very comfortable. I am so glad I have them on my tourer. The only disadvantage is that they are heavy, but so are discs.
    As for the modulation of V brakes, I think this principally depends on the levers. On bikes with a straight bar, the top of the range Shimano levers are fine. I have no personal experience with the Tektro levers for drop bars.
    So what will be the ideal brake for the new wide Compass tyres? For loaded bikes my vote will go to the HS66 (from ebay). But for fast unloaded bikes where weight is a concern?

    September 3, 2015 at 12:51 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      V brakes, like cantilevers, flex the fork blades, and there is little you can do about it except beef up the fork blades (and perhaps make a brace for the front of the brakes).
      For the new 48 and 54 mm tires, I think cantilevers or discs are your best option. On gravel, braking power is much-reduced due to traction, and fork blade flex is less of an issue. Or you could use some old U-brakes as extra-large centerpulls, but they’d be pretty ugly!

      September 3, 2015 at 1:28 am
  • John Duval

    I have mixed feelings as I see the the bikes I enjoy becoming more mainstream. First it was French and Italian racing bikes when Americans didn’t think cycling was even a sport. Times when I had the roads all to myself on Saturday mornings. Soon there were many other riders out in wool jerseys and perforated leather shoes. Then came the horrible first mountain bikes. More recently the yearly double digit increases in bicycle ridership in general.
    So now that “adventure bikes” are promising the wide tires and integration to the masses, I take pause. But then again, this is Los Angeles. Nobody has yet called my Randonneuse an “adventure bike”. Nobody that has asked me about it wide eyed has even recognized the term “Randonneuse”, and I have personally seen only two others.
    I find myself torn between my solo and independent spirit, and wanting to share the camaraderie and joys of riding these special bikes with others. And I look forward to seeing contemporary materials and methods applied to these bikes, and seeing what comes of it.

    September 3, 2015 at 12:55 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The mountains are big, and I’d actually be happy to encounter two or three cyclists a day on our off-pavement adventures. So far, I haven’t encountered a single one.
      I was actually quite delighted when last year, for the first time, I encountered a group of cyclists (all fellow randonneurs and BQ readers) on one of my favorite paved roads, Reiter Road toward Index. I haven’t met any on my more recent rides there. Despite that road having been featured in numerous BQ articles and on this blog, there is little risk that it’s becoming overrun with cyclists.

      September 3, 2015 at 1:32 am
      • B. Carfree

        Many are the two-thousand mile months in which I encountered zero cyclists more than ten miles from home. I would love to see more people riding, particularly out on the wonderful paved and unpaved roads that are abundant in my neck of the woods (Eugene, OR).
        I rather miss all the cyclists I used to encounter in the Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Yolo Counties of NorCal when I was younger.

        September 3, 2015 at 6:58 pm
  • Jan-Olov Jansson

    It is not only US or CA riders at PBP on bikes with fenders, h’bar bag, wide tires. I meet some French, and also some swedes use this kind of bike. Including myself, Even Theo R make a comment on my orange MAP RP 650B bike I was using, when I meet him after bikecontrol. On my all three PBP Randonnee I have use h’barbag, fenders, SON dynamo hub, and more wider tires for every time. This time was Pari-Moto 38 mm, but it always the engine is matters. And I saw Jan outside of Trévé, he on way back and I way out.

    September 3, 2015 at 3:52 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The French riders on bikes with fenders and handlebar bags usually are riding classic machines. A good friend rode his 1970s René Herse in the event, with original Sologne bags made before Berthoud took over the manufacture.

      September 3, 2015 at 3:55 am
    • Rando Theo

      Ah, that was you with the orange MAP! I hope you had a great PBP. I see in the results that you finished, but that is only a small (albeit important) part of the ride.
      I am glad that the US and CA are not the only countries with this kind of bike at PBP. That would be too easy to dismiss as a local trend or fashion. Maybe as more people see us riding and finishing PBP on fully-equipped randonneuring bikes, they’ll consider riding them, too.
      I also liked seeing variations on the traditional, such as a pair of very functional-looking bikes from Finland with double Luxos generator headlights, fenders, not-too-narrow tires (from what I could see), and lightweight frames. They didn’t have handlebar bags, nor did their bikes look classic, but they held their line, lit up the road, and were ready for varied terrain and weather.

      September 3, 2015 at 12:59 pm
  • Paul

    Jan, what knickers are those that you are wearing in the photo of you riding the Specialized?

    September 3, 2015 at 11:01 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Those are final prototypes of the new Compass knickers, which I tested for a few thousand kilometers… More information on the knickers is in the Autumn 2015 Bicycle Quarterly, and, as soon as they are available, here on the blog as well.

      September 3, 2015 at 10:47 pm
  • Steve Pells

    I think you’re overplaying it a bit, both how hard it was/is to get useful stuff, and BQ’s role in making things better. Here in the UK at least, there has never been a time when there weren’t framebuilders who made steel framed, practical bikes. My Bob Jackson World Tour (2005) has a fork crown that would have no trouble with tyres that wide. (Although I disagree that they’re necessary; IME the sweet spot is 28mm; good for roads, landrover tracks, bridleways, etc with bivvying/light camping kit; I’ve only needed that sort of width in challenging areas). Tyres were available. Michelin have always been good for offering quick tyres in larger sizes, I have found. Stronglight (and, I think, TA) offered double chainsets suitable for small rings back then, and modern style “compact chainsets” *were* available: Tyler Hamilton used one in the 2003 TdF when he broke his collarbone. Although things got worse as MTBs moved to V brakes and then discs, there have always been a few types of brake that could be used with mudguards and wide tyres-it’s wrong (and too prescriptive) to claim, if only by implication, that only centrepulls are adequate. >2

    September 4, 2015 at 6:34 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      In Britian, the situation may have been better than in the U.S. Many of the established builders, like Bob Jackson, had old stocks of fork crowns, etc. Also, it’s one thing to build a steel frame that can take 28 mm tires, but building a fully integrated randonneur bike with 42 mm tires is an entirely different matter. And even Michelin didn’t offer their top-of-the-line tires in widths larger than 25 mm.

      September 4, 2015 at 8:03 am
  • Steve Pells

    2> I think the issue is one that will really never go away: the global bike industry isn’t interested in the touring market (audax is really just a subgenre of cycle touring, if you think about is) as it’s too small. There are two markets they care about: road racing and MTB, as they are both lucrative and large, and a third, cheaper market large enough to be worth serving even though it’s not “interesting”: utility bikes. Tourists have always had to hunt about, look for niche manufacturers and mix-and-match equipment designed and marketed for other purposes to set up their bikes as they need.
    P.S. Occasionally this happens to other people too: In the 90s, many otherwise very expensive and high end time trial bikes were equipped with low-end Dia Compe 188 brake levers designed for commuter bikes. Although cheap and nasty, they were the best for the bullhorn bars found on triathlon and time trial bikes.

    September 4, 2015 at 6:35 am
    • Jon Blum

      Ironic that tourists and randonneurs have had to scrounge for parts from mountain bikes, since the mountain bike industry began by scrounging parts from them. I remember an early 1980s Ritchey with a TA touring crankset and Huret Duopar derailleurs; even the first Stumpjumper had that crank, brake levers from a motorcycle, and derailleurs and cantilever brakes from a touring bike. If it were not for mountain bikes, I wonder if we would have been able to find wide-range gearing setups at all for the last two decades.
      The big companies respond to demand, and sometimes succeed in creating demand. Small markets are not worth their while, and attract the interest of smaller manufacturers, for whom the per-unit cost will tend to be higher. It is nice to see the products from Compass and others that meet a need, as well as the occasional favorable trend (often rediscovery of things like wider tires or actual low gears for non-Olympians who would like to go uphill) from the bigger companies.
      Jon Blum

      September 4, 2015 at 1:45 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        The mountain bike was perhaps the last time the industry created a trend, rather than just responding to what people already were doing. Fixies, cyclocross… only were “discovered” long after riders were doing it. Back then, it was Specialized who saw the potential, and everybody followed.
        Today, gravel bikes have the potential to revolutionize cycling again, just like mountain bikes did back then. Like mountain bikes, it’s not just about riding on gravel, but about a bike that is more fun on every surface. What makes me so hopeful this time is that gravel bikes are actually great fun to ride, even on smooth pavement. It’s a trend that can change how most people experience cycling, for the better. And a better cycling experience means more people will ride bikes.

        September 4, 2015 at 10:38 pm
  • marmotte27

    What I like about my randonneur bike is, how it really enables me to do all my riding on one really good bike. I use it for my weekend rides through the mountains, as well as for commuting, shopping, I could go camping with it etc. and that in any kind of weather, day or night. It’s thanks to BQ that I found out about these bikes.
    I don’t do any mountain biking, I might need another bike for that. I do however need another bike in winter, if I don’t want to mess up the randonneur with the salt on the roads. I’m going to build another bike for that but I will make it resemble a randonneur as much as possible.

    September 6, 2015 at 12:44 am

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