What Your Money Buys

It often is surprising that high-end components cost not just a little more, but several times as much as budget components. For example, the high-end Sugino cranks (above right) cost more than three times as much as the budget model from the same maker (above left). (This already takes into account that the bottom bracket is included with the expensive crank.)
Both are good cranks. Neither is likely to fail prematurely. Both will transmit your pedaling power to the chain. The high-end crank has some advantages: It is lighter, it has a narrower tread (Q factor), it probably is a bit stronger, and the finish is prettier.
In this post, I am not concerned about whether the high-end crank is worth the extra money. Instead, I will examine why it is so expensive. Many cyclists gladly would pay an extra 20% or maybe even 50% more for a nicer product, but isn’t the upcharge for high-end products excessive? Are the makers of high-end products getting rich? If not, where does all the extra money go? Here are some answers:

Better materials: High-strength steel and aluminum alloys are more expensive than more basic versions of the same metal. The same applies to carbon fiber.
Even for the same alloy, reputable suppliers charge more, but they also guarantee the composition and temper of their metals. Discount material suppliers have been known to “substitute” a less expensive aluminum without telling the company who places the order. (That is how they can undercut the prices of the competition.) There is a reason why quality materials are marked with complete product information (above).

Better manufacturing techniques: Forging parts (above) costs more than casting, which in turn costs more than stamping. Even for the same technique, employing skilled labor and the best machinery results in more precision and strength. For example, inexpensive castings can contain air bubbles that reduce the strength. A skilled craftsperson will get better results, but at a higher price.
Closer tolerances: A lightweight, high-performance part has less margin for error, so it must be made to closer tolerances. For example, the casing layers in a high-performance tire must be placed much more accurately into the mold than those of a utility tire, which has much more overlap between layers.

More manufacturing steps: Extra steps in manufacturing can improve performance and appearance, but add cost. For example, drilling out the center of a bottom bracket spindle reduces the weight, but takes an extra step of precision machining. A dedicated crank machining fixture can improve the runout of your chainrings. And polishing components requires extensive manual labor. All these things cost money.
More research and development: The more you optimize a component, the longer it takes to develop it. You need more prototypes, you need better engineers, and they need to spend more time.
More oversight: Getting suppliers do exactly what you want is extremely time-consuming. Our engineer in Taiwan has been working almost full-time on the René Herse crank project for months now. He visits the various factories weekly (or more often) to make sure everything is according to spec.
It is much easier (and cheaper) to send a set of drawings (or even just a photo and sketch) to a supplier and just accept what they come up with.
More testing: High-end parts usually are tested both by the company, as well as independent testing labs, to make sure they are safe. For lower-end parts from small companies, the customer often does the testing. If there is a failure, the company usually recalls the parts, but sometimes people may get hurt.
Smaller production runs: A high-end product tends to sell in smaller numbers because it costs more. This in turn means that the costs of R&D, molds, dies and setup must be amortized over smaller numbers, which increases the price.
For example, a tire mold costs about $18,000. If that cost is amortized over 100,000 tires, it adds 18 cents to the price of each tire. If it is amortized over 1000 tires, then it adds 18 dollars to each tire.
Knowledge costs money: We often think of geometries and other knowledge as “free.” After all, you can buy a copy of Bicycle Quarterly and learn all about optimized geometries for front-loading city bikes. And it doesn’t cost more to rake fork blades to 55 mm offset than it does to rake them to 43 mm. So why do many makers simply strap a rack or basket to their standard hybrid frames?
I have come to realize that knowledge isn’t free. Researching a topic and evaluating the results takes time. Making prototypes and testing them takes even more money and time. Making decisions within a company takes meetings, presentations and more time. Qualified people spending time on a project adds up very quickly to a lot of money. It is much cheaper to say “We’ll just copy the specs from our competitor’s catalogue.”

Prestige: In some cases, companies charge more for a product simply because they can. The Campagnolo Super Record cranks (above left) are virtually identical to the Record model (above right), yet the “top-of-the-line” Super Record model costs $120 more. While this practice is common in the mainstream (just think about cars!), it is rare among the small makers who make products for enthusiasts.
When you add it all up, I hope you are no longer surprised that better parts cost significantly more than the cheaper offerings. The sad truth for small manufacturers of high-end parts is that the profit margins usually are lower on the more expensive parts and bikes than they are on the cheaper ones. In the end, it is up to you to decide whether the improved performance warrants the higher price.

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Why Buy an Expensive Bicycle?

The two “randonneur” bikes above look roughly similar. Both have a front rack and both have gears. Yet the one on the right would cost more than five times as much as the one on the left, if you ordered one today.
Of course, there are obvious differences: One already is equipped with lighting and fenders, the other isn’t. But even if we add $500 for those parts to the bike on the left, we still have a remarkable difference in price. Why is the bike on the right so much more expensive?
The bike on the left is a mass-produced machine, whereas the bike on the right was hand-made by a small constructeur. The “cachet” of a handmade product is nice and well, but what do you get with the hand-made machine that the mass-produced bike does not offer?
The production bike is a fine machine that will make many cyclists happy. So what does the hand-made high-end bike offer that justifies its price? From my experience, the extra money buys you improvements in three areas:

1. Performance: The high-end bike has a geometry carefully conceived for its intended purpose. (The production bike typically is a standard “road” bike, to which a rack has been added.) For the custom bike, the tubing was chosen to offer the ultimate performance for its rider. The fork blades are thin and absorb shock better. The rack sits lower and is stiffer, so the load works in unison with the steering. The fenders attach to precisely located bridges without spacers, so they are less likely to rattle or resonate.
The high-end components work flawlessly. The cranks offer narrow tread and exactly the chainring choices the rider needs. The end result is a bike that handles better, climbs better, descends better and is less fatiguing to ride.

2. Durability: The hand-made bike has each tube carefully mitered. The best hand-made bikes are brazed by master craftsmen who knows their craft. You can be sure that there is braze in every joint, and that the frame will not fail prematurely. The bearings of the components are precision-ground, so they will last multiple times as long as those of a less expensive bike. The cranks are forged and thus stronger and more durable. Even the paint is more durable, because it has been applied over a primer coat, and then been baked and cured.
On the inexpensive production bike, the quality of construction simply is not the same. Every part of the bike is spec’d to the lowest cost, rather than the highest quality. This starts with the tubing, and continues to even the smallest screw. Depending on how much you ride, the production bike can be adequate, or it can be frustrating as parts wear out and have to be replaced.

3. Aesthetics: The careful construction of the handmade bike also shows in its appearance. The fork has a gentle curve rather than a dog-leg bend in the middle. The lugs are crisply filed. The rack sits in exactly the right place on top of the front wheel. The fenders follow the curve of the wheels. The components are polished rather than powdercoated. A bike like this is a joy to behold, and it will age well.

Do you deserve a better bike?
The question for most riders is whether all this makes enough of a difference to warrant the extra expense. I believe this depends on how much you plan to ride the bike. If the bike is to serve for occasional rides, then the production bike may be all you need. But if you plan to ride more often and longer distances, you soon will appreciate the performance and durability of an excellent bicycle. Even the appearance is important: A beautiful bike will beckon you to ride more often.
The initial investment may seem high, but the better bike will be less expensive in the long run. Not only will its quality components last longer and require less maintenance, but you also will be less tempted to upgrade to a “better” bike.
In the end, every cyclist chooses for him/herself where they are willing to make compromises. Some don’t care much about aesthetics, others don’t need speed. Knowing what the trade-offs are allows you to make an informed choice.

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Wide-Body SON Delux Generator Hub

I am excited about the new Wide-Body SON Delux generator hub. It allows you to enjoy a super-strong wheel, yet roll along with the less resistance than other generator hubs. It is available now in limited quantities with 32 or 36 holes.
When Schmidt Maschinenbau developed the standard SON Delux generator hubs, they optimized the hub’s performance in every way. The Delux is the lightest generator hub, with the lowest resistance, ever made.
To minimize both the weight and the internal air volume,* the hub shell closely hugs the generator inside. The hub flanges are spaced just 50 mm apart, rather than the 60-70 mm of most front hubs. While the resulting wheel is strong enough for most applications, the hub looks slightly odd in standard bicycle forks with 100 mm dropout spacing.
In September, Schmidt introduced their new SON28 hub with wider flange spacing and a more powerful generator. While I was excited about the wider flange spacing, I don’t need (or want) the more powerful generator, which has more resistance than the Delux hub. Modern LED lights powered by the Delux hub are plenty bright even at low speeds. The SON28 may be useful if you ride slowly, and need to charge electronic devices like cell phones or GPS systems while you have your lights on.
Following the introduction of the SON28, I asked Schmidt whether they could make a wide-flange version of the Delux. My dream hub would combine the strength of the SON28 with the low resistance of the Delux. The nice thing when dealing with a small company is that things can happen quickly. In today’s mail, we got a few of the new Wide-Body Delux hubs (below on the left, with a standard Delux hub on the right).

The new hubs are even nicer than I expected. Schmidt managed to increase the flange spacing to 68 mm. This not only is 18 mm wider than the standard Delux hub (above left), but even 6 mm wider than the SON28.
Schmidt designed the “Wide-Body” hub shell so it fits tightly around the generator. There appears to be less air volume inside than in the SON28.* Not only does this improve the longevity of the hub, but I find the resulting gentle curves of the new hubshell very attractive. As usual with Schmidt, the aluminum hub shell is polished to a mirror finish. For the first time, a generator hub not only is functional, but beautiful. This is the generator hub I always wanted to have!
The features that distinguish the “Wide-Body” from the standard Delux hub (in parentheses) are:

  • Wider flange spacing: 68 mm (50 mm)
  • Stainless steel axle (aluminum with stainless steel endcaps)
  • Weight: 412 g (386 g)
  • Cost: $ 305 ($ 285)

All other specifications (power output, resistance) are exactly the same. For me, the very slight increase in weight and cost are a small price to pay for a much stronger wheel. (The steel axle also will provide peace of mind, even though none of the aluminum axles have failed so far.) Most of all, I prefer the appearance of the wider flange spacing, which makes the wheel fill out the front forks of my bicycle.
I cannot wait to build a wheel with the new Wide-Body Delux hub for my new René Herse. (I intended to have two wheelsets for this bike: one with 28/32 spokes for events, and one with 32/36 spokes for all other rides. Now I’m glad that I never got around to building the second wheelset with an old SON20 hub.)
Compass Bicycles has a few “Wide Body” hubs available right now, with more on the way. In a few weeks, we also should have Edelux lights for “upside-down” mounting, so they can hang from a front rack.
In other “bright” news, we now have the standard SON Delux with 28 holes (in addition to 32 and 36 holes), as well as the B&M IQ Cyo without sensors. The latter is the least expensive generator-powered headlight that uses the superb “IQ” optics and high-output LEDs. Click here for more information.
* The internal air volume contracts when the hub cools, sucking outside air (and moisture) into the hub. SON generator hubs feature a pressure compensation system that prevents moisture from being sucked through the bearings; most other hubs do not have this system.

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People who have inspired us: Grant Petersen

An endeavor like Bicycle Quarterly does not happen out of the blue. There are many people who influence us as we develop tastes and ideas outside the mainstream.
A major influence for me was Grant Petersen. Grant was influential in making Bridgestone into a maker of slightly left-field production bicycles during the 1980s. I missed the “Bridgestone Years,” because I rode a hand-built racing bike and had little interest in mass-produced Japanese bikes. But I took notice when Grant started Rivendell Bicycle Works after Bridgestone closed its U.S. operation.

Here was a guy who looked at technical issues overlooked by the mainstream. I subscribed to the Rivendell Reader from the very first issue, and learned about tread (Q factor). I read that the then-current 53-tooth big rings were useless on most terrain and at most speeds, and saw that Grant was selling 50- and 48-tooth chainrings. (As a racer, I was skeptical…) Grant stressed the importance of craftsmanship at a time when fellow racers shook their heads in disbelief over my Brooks saddle and friction shifters. His company sold Simplex SLJ derailleurs, and I was reminded that there was a whole world of French components that had nothing to do with the crappy Peugeots of my childhood, even if the parts looked outwardly similar.
In the bike industry, Grant was the first person I met who questioned the wisdom of “newer = better.” A friend once called Grant the “poet of real-world bicycles,” and I think it is an apt description. For example, he wrote about a shipment of 3TTT handlebars:
“The decal adjacent to the sleeve […] reads: Computerized Hi-Tech Heat Treatment / High Vibration Control, with Vibration written as though the word itself was vibrating. Such gratuitous attempts at high tech imagery make it seem as though insecure, fresh-from-college marketeers have taken over the company, and the smart old guys are off somewhere bound and gagged. The decal comes off easily.”

As a customer with many questions, I often talked to Grant, and over time, we became friends. I visited him every year when I attended a geophysics conference in San Francisco. I was welcomed by him and his wonderful family. We rode up and down Mount Diablo, and discussed bicycles. I test-rode prototypes and production bikes, and was exposed to many new ideas. It was at Grant’s house that I first saw a photo of a bike with brazed-on centerpull brakes. I decided that I wanted those on my custom Rivendell frame, but Grant had reservations, because he felt that if I ever wanted to sell that frame, nobody would want such an odd brake arrangement. How things have changed…

When I took my new Rivendell to Paris-Brest-Paris, it was the start of a journey of discovery about French bicycles. Grant encouraged me along the way. As I discovered a new world of bicycles, I began writing articles for the Rivendell Reader. A classic was “Proud to be a Tourist,” which you can read here. When I decided to start Bicycle Quarterly, Grant published an announcement in the Reader, and before the first issue even was printed, the magazine already had more than 150 subscribers.
Today both of our endeavors have grown. Rivendell Bicycle Works is a significant force in the bicycle world. Bicycle Quarterly prints almost 6000 copies of each issue. Grant and I still are in touch, and I’ll never forget how his mentorship more than a decade ago got me started on this path.
P.S.: We did an extensive interview with Grant in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 4. The photos above are from that article.

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PBP: The Movie

Last week, Sur la Route de l’Extreme by Sandrine Lopez and Philip Dupuis was shown on French TV. It’s a well-done documentary of this year’s PBP, with beautiful shots showing the variety of randonneurs who participate, from the fastest to the slowest. There are great shots of the lead peloton. I loved a scene following a faired tricycle recumbent on a descent. In an evocative twilight scene, I spotted a friend leaning against a tree and napping. And I had tears in my eyes when a rider abandoned with back pain.
So you can watch it, too, we have put a recording on the Bicycle Quarterly server. Download it and watch it over the holidays (mp4 file, 155 MB, French language without subtitles). Enjoy!
We would like to wish Happy Holidays to all our readers and customers. May the new year bring you great rides and wonderful memories!

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Bike Tests

Good bike tests provide information that allow you to choose a bike that is right for you. Your bike need not look like the one that was tested, because it often can be customized to your personal tastes.
When we test a production bike, the bike we test is the bike that you would buy. If you don’t like the components, you’ll have to buy another set and replace them, which significantly increases the price of your bike. Thus, it makes sense to comment on each part and how it affects the feel and performance of the bike.
Testing custom bikes is different, as they are built to suit the customer’s preferences. That means if you don’t like the handlebar shape or derailleurs on a test bike, you can order your bike with different components. Or if you want a different geometry, the builder may be able to accommodate it. To reflect this, our tests of custom bikes convey two levels of information:

  1. How well the test bike performed for us. This is useful for readers who plan to order a similar bike, no matter which builder they choose. Here we discuss geometry, tubing choices, components, etc., and how everything works together.
  2. How well the builder crafted the bike. This is useful for readers who consider ordering a bike from this builder, even if their bike would be somewhat different from the one we tested. Here we look at the quality of the construction, the design and how well the various components and other parts (fenders, racks, lights) were integrated into the complete bike.

Of course, it often is hard to separate 1. and 2. After all, the builder sent us a bike they thought would work well, so if the geometry doesn’t offer precise handling, and if the components don’t work well together, then there is little guarantee that a customer’s bike with different parts would be much better. After all, a good builder will steer the customer toward a specification that works well, rather than leaving it up to the customer to figure out how to design the bike.
The best bikes we have tested worked together as a seamless unit. In those cases, the skills of the builder went beyond brazing the frame. The builder designed and built a complete bicycle where every part was carefully considered, and the whole was more than the sum of the parts.
This type of skill usually is transferable, rather than being limited the immediate bike we tested. For example, if somebody can build a great 650B randonneur bike, there is little doubt that their 700C version will ride just as well. (The corollary does not always apply: fitting wide 650B tires into a frame is much harder than designing a bike for narrower 700C tires.)

A good example is the Bilenky tandem we tested in Vol.  9, No. 2 (above). Our test bike was set up with multiple racks for a full camping load. It rode beautifully, but it was a bit on the heavy side. (This didn’t keep us from riding the tandem in a 400 km brevet at an average speed of 30 km/h, including stops.)
Does this mean that if you want a lightweight tandem, you should go somewhere else? Of course not; removing weight from the tandem we tested would be pretty easy.

In fact, Bilenky recently completed a similar tandem (above) that they claim to weigh 3 kg (6.6 lb) less than our test bike, simply by eliminating the extra racks and using lighter-gauge tubing.
We hope that most readers find our reviews useful and don’t get sidetracked by details that are easy to change.

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The Technical Trials

The Technical Trials are best known for the incredibly light bicycles that constructeurs built in the 1940s. (The 1946 Alex Singer above weighs a little over 17 pounds fully equipped.) More importantly, the Trials advanced bicycle technology by serving as a test bed for new bikes and components.
Low-trail geometries, braze-ons for all components, front derailleurs, low-rider racks, aluminum fenders, wide and supple 650B tires, aluminum cranks, cantilever brakes, sealed-bearing hub and bottom brackets, even aluminum frames: Almost everything we like in bicycles today proved its worth during the Technical Trials of the 1930s and 1940s.* These innovations did not come from racing, but were used first on cyclotouring bikes.
The laboratory for French cyclotouring bikes were the Technical Trials. What were the Trials? Simply put, they were competitions for the best bicycle, rather than the best rider. The Trials were started by a group of riders from Paris, who were loosely organized in the Groupe Montagnard Parisien.
These riders were dissatisfied with the bicycles available in the early 1930s. The heavy mass-produced machines of the time had many features, but were lacking in performance and handling. The riders from the Groupe Montagnard Parisien (GMP) envisioned lightweight bicycles with precise handling, excellent performance and utmost reliability.
In 1934, the GMP organized their first Concours de Machines (Technical Trials): an event where bicycles were judged based on features such as light weight, number of gears, etc. The rules required certain geometries (<50 mm trail, relatively short chainstays), wide tires (>35 mm) and braze-ons for all accessories. To stand a chance at winning, the bikes had to be much lighter than was the norm. “It can’t be done, superlight bikes would never hold up in everyday use,” said the many detractors.

To show that such bikes could hold up under the harshest “real-world” conditions imaginable, each bike was ridden over 460 km of rough gravel roads in the mountains of the Massif Central. This ride was done in three stages, and after each stage, the bikes were checked carefully for defects (below).

Penalties were assessed for any problem, whether a wheel was out of true, a bearing had developed play, or a derailleur no longer could shift every gear. After three days of hard riding, the winner was the bike which offered the best combination of:

  • most desirable features
  • lightest weight
  • fewest problems on the road

The result was truly amazing: At a time when most cyclotouring bikes weighed 20 kg (44 lb.) or more, the winning Barra weighed just 10.35 kg (22.8 lb.), fully equipped with fenders, lights, a rack and wide tires. Keep in mind that this was 1934. This is lighter than any of the current bikes that Bicycle Quarterly has tested.
Not only did the Trials prove that the GMP’s vision for lightweight, high-performance cyclotouring bikes was achievable, but the event also provided an opportunity for a new breed of builders to showcase their talents.
Builders like Reyhand, Barra and Uldry had tried to make racing bikes before, but with the big manufacturers sponsoring professional teams, they found it hard to sell their machines. The Technical Trials provided an opportunity to prove their worth without investing much money. A builder could make an excellent bike, have it ridden by a good rider, and their efforts would be noticed by a nation-wide audience of riders. (It’s a situation similar to today, where most young builders make cyclotouring bikes again, rather than trying to compete with the big names in the racing bike market.)

Progress was swift during the 1930s. Not only did the bikes become lighter, but they also suffered fewer problems on the road. The undisputed leader in the 1930s was Reyhand, who won the Trials three times in a row (above: the winning bike from 1936).
The bikes were ridden by the strongest randonneurs of the time: You got extra points for high speeds, because riding fast stresses the bike more. Among these pilotes were riders who soon would set up shop under their own names: Alex Singer, René Herse, Jo Routens, Lionel Brans, René André and others. Most of these builders then used the Trials to make their own names.
After World War II, little time was lost, and the next Technical Trials were held in 1946. Alex Singer won this event with the ligthest cyclotouring bike ever built. This machine weighed just 6.875 kg (15.16 lb) – without the tires. Quality tires were available only on the black market, so the bikes were weighed without tires. An Alex Singer bicycle from the 1946 Trials has been preserved, and is shown in the Japanese Alex Singer book (top of this post).

In 1947, it was René Herse’s turn to win the event. One of his bikes also still exists (above). It is featured in our book The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles.

Daniel Rebour documented the amazing features of these machines. Every part was modified to reduce the weight. Alex Singer even cut away the pedal bodies (No. 5 above), exposing the spindle.
The Technical Trials consisted of only nine major events (and a few smaller ones in the Paris area), spanning just 15 years. It was an amazing time, when every year saw huge progress. The high hopes of the constructeurs were either rewarded or dashed on the road. The list of the names who won the Technical Trials reads like a Who’s Who of the best constructeurs of the time: Barra, Reyhand (3x), Narcisse (2x), Alex Singer, René Herse, Jo Routens.

The technical innovations that proved their worth in these difficult events are still with us today: aluminum cranks, sealed cartridge bearings in hubs and bottom brackets, low-rider front racks, powerful cantilever brakes… The Concours de Machines were a resounding success, and their influence still is felt more than 60 years later.

The story of the Technical Trials was told in two consecutive issue of Bicycle Quarterly: Vol. 1, No. 4 and Vol. 2, No. 1, with details of each year’s Technical Trials. Photos bring you the atmosphere of these events. Result sheets allow you to find out who won and why. Translated reports from participants and spectators make a gripping read. More than 90 drawings by Daniel Rebour show the intricate details of the machines that competed for the title of “the best bicycle.” To find out how the bikes we enjoy so much today were developed, order your copies here.
* Some of these innovations were offered earlier, but had not become widespread, either because the technology did not yet exist (modern aluminum alloys) or because no one promoted these innovations.

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Pre-Orders for René Herse Cranks

Developing an excellent product takes time and care. The first run of our new René Herse cranks has been forged. Above, you see a raw forging being removed from the forging die.

Above are the raw forgings for the crankarms of the first production run (three containers in the foreground). Around the same time, the forge was making suspension linkages for 2013 model year mountain bikes (talk about a long lead-time!).

Now our chainring tabs, square tapers and pedal eyes have to be machined (above). The first batch of 50 cranksets is being machined right now, from which we will check all the tolerances to make sure the tapers are accurate and the chainrings have the absolute minimum runout possible. Once we have ensured that everything meets our high standards, the full production run will be machined.

Our engineer in Taiwan (above on the left) visits the forging and CNC shops every week to make sure everything is to spec.
The first 50 sets of cranks should arrive here in late December or early January, together with the 48-tooth and 32-tooth chainrings. Other chainring sizes, more cranks (including single-chainring and tandem models) will follow shortly thereafter.

We are now taking pre-orders for the René Herse cranks, which will be filled “first come, first served.” Obviously, if you order a 48-32 double, you’ll get yours from the very first shipment, whereas other sizes will take a little longer (but not much). Tandem cranks and triples for half-step gearing probably will come last. Click here for more information.
At this time, we also would like to announce that Compass Bicycles is the sole manufacturer of René Herse cranks.  Herse Bicycles Inc. of Boulder, CO, has decided to focus on their core competencies of making superb custom-made bicycles under the René Herse brand. The René Herse cranks will be available directly from Compass Bicycles. The cranks also will be available from bicycle retailers.

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New LED Taillight Solutions

Taillights can be very elegant and beautiful. Some are shaped like raindrops, others emerge from the fender like a submarine parting the waves. There are minimalist taillights like the beautiful JOS lights that René Herse mounted on the seat tubes of his randonneur bikes.
In recent years, the LED revolution not only has made headlights much brighter, but taillights have improved as well. More than added brightness, generator-powered LED taillights offer the advantage of a standlight, so you are visible when stopped at a stop sign or traffic light. However, even the nicest modern taillights, like the B&M Seculite (below), lack the elegance of the old lights.

Some American constructeurs are making their own taillights with modern LED internals. Others have converted classic taillights to modern LED circuits. Either approach requires considerable effort and expense.

We now offer a red LED insert (above) that screws into a classic taillight. It even includes a standlight circuit. It’s a clever design: The housing of the LED is shaped like an old incandescent light bulb. You can power your lights with a generator hub or even a classic sidewall dynamo.
You can simply replace the light bulb of your taillight with this LED bulb, without any other modification. If you ever want to return your light to original spec, you can put back the incandescent bulb.
We’ve tested the LED bulbs. They are bright. The standlight remains lit for at least a minute at full brightness. They work well with the higher voltage of modern LED headlights. Unlike incandescent bulbs, they don’t burn out, but last a very long time.

In other light news, Compass Bicycles now carries Busch & Müller‘s excellent and affordable generator-powered lights:
The IQ Cyo (above) has the same optics as the Schmidt Edelux. It even features a big cooling surface on top to keep the LED running cool and efficient. Unlike the Edelux, it is made mostly from plastic. The IQ Cyo is available in black and silver (shown). We sell the versions with a standlight and a light sensor that automatically switches on the light when it gets dark – for example, as you enter a tunnel. (They can be switched off, too.)

The Busch & Müller Lyt is an affordable LED light that offers remarkable performance. It was the clear winner of the “affordable light test” in Bicycle Quarterly. We were surprised how good this light is: Its beam is bright and broad, yet the Lyt does not blind oncoming traffic. You could ride all night with this light. It even has a standlight and an On/Off switch. For just $49, there is no reason to continue using your dim old halogen headlights. And of course, we also sell the Seculite taillights, as well as Schmidt’s excellent generator hubs. Brighten up your holidays and winter riding with a generator-powered lighting system!

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Bicycle Quarterly Charity Drive

We are grateful that we can ride beautiful bicycles, both for enjoyment and for transportation. We discuss issues like geometry, load placement and the advantages of generator over battery lights.
Much of the world is less fortunate. Even in the United States, one of the richest countries anywhere, there are many people whose most basic needs aren’t met. One of the ways Bicycle Quarterly Press has chosen to make a difference is our charity drive. We will donate half of all magazine subscriptions and selected book orders through December 8, 2011.

We will give 50% of the purchase price of each Bicycle Quarterly subscription and renewal, as well as of our book The Competition Bicycle, to charities that help make the world a better place. Simply order online or send a check. You do not need a special code or coupon. (If you send a check, make sure it is postmarked by December 8.)

If you have been thinking about subscribing to Bicycle Quarterly or buying our book, please do so now, and do a good deed at the same time. Bicycle Quarterly sells these subscriptions and books below cost so that we can help make a difference.
In recent years, we have chosen two charities, Doctors without Borders and Save the Children, who help alleviate the most urgent needs all over the world. This year, we add the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization that works toward making the world a better place. The proceeds of the Bicycle Quarterly Press charity drive will be split evenly between the three charities.
We also encourage you to work within your local communities by contributing your time and/or your money. Thank you so much!

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Bottle Cages

When I knew Ernest Cuska, the long-time owner of Cycles Alex Singer, he did not have bottle cages on his bikes. After riding with him a few times, I realized why: He did not drink anything while riding. Imagine my surprise when I looked at old photos of him and saw a bottle on the down tube of every one of his bikes (above during the Tour de France Cyclotouriste 1950). When he was younger and one of the fastest cyclosportifs of France,  even he had to hydrate while riding.
When I was a teenager, putting a bottle cage on my bike was the first act of becoming a “serious” cyclist. No longer did I just ride around town, but I was riding for hours now, and I needed to carry a drink. (In those days, it was water with a little lemon juice.)

At the time, everybody used the inexpensive TA aluminum bottle cages. They worked well, but eventually, they broke. We tried extra-sturdy cages from Specialized, but they also broke, albeit a little later. When I moved to the United States, I discovered the American Classic bottle cages, which lasted much longer and held the bottles more securely. All these cages were made from aluminum, so they marked the bottles.
On my new bike, I did not want grungy-looking bottles, so I needed a steel bottle cage. TA used to make steel cages (above), but they were heavy, and they got rusty, especially if your bottles contained electrolytes (salt). Fortunately, Nitto offers stainless steel bottle cages that are lightweight, hold the bottle securely, don’t rust, and look beautiful.
There are three models:

The R Cage (above) consists of two wire loops that act like a spring. It holds your bottle very securely.

The R80 Cage is similar, but made from stainless steel tubing rather than wire. This reduces the weight by 20% (10 g).

The T Cage is the most beautiful cage I know. It has a closed loop on top, which holds the bottle very securely even when it is mounted underneath the top tube. However, because it has no spring action, inserting the bottle requires more precision, and some bottles may rattle.
Nitto bottle cages are hand-made in small batches. They can be hard to find. We sell the products we like and use on our own bikes, so Compass Bicycles now carries Nitto bottle cages. Click here for more information.

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Why Bolts Come Loose

Fenders, racks and other attachments can remain maintenance-free for 10,000+ miles, yet other bikes require tightening bolts on a regular basis. Why do some bolts stay tight, while others loosen quickly?
We have covered this in detail in Bicycle Quarterly’s article “Engineering a Bicycle” in Vol. 5, No. 4. The essential concept is simple: Vibrations of parts allow bolts and nuts to loosen. (At the end of the post is a link to a video that shows this in action.) The more parts you have that vibrate, the quicker your bolts loosen. Here is how to avoid this:
Do not use the same bolt to attach several things. The more “layers” you have, the more movement results, and the quicker the bolt will loosen. This is especially true for front racks that are attached to the posts of cantilever (or centerpull) brakes.

The rack above is more likely to come loose than the one below, which uses a bolt with a forward extension, onto which the rack is mounted.

Even simple metal washers increase the risk of bolts coming loose by adding another layer between bolt and the surface into which the bolt threads. Spacers are even worse, because they provide a longer lever arm for the forces that vibrate the bolt head.
Washers should be used only where they are needed, for example, to provide a smooth surface when a bolt head tightens onto paint or aluminum. Spacers should be avoided in most situations. (It is better to make your parts to fit together properly.)
All connections should be designed so that the bolts won’t tend to rotate. For example, the rack below attaches to the fork crown with straight tubes that are aligned to the vibrations of the rack (forward and backward).

If these connecting tubes were angled or even curved, then each vibration would tend to turn the bolt.

Another neat detail of this particular rack is the forked mount for the lower bolts that carry the weight of the load. This is the best possible attachment. Here is why:

With a simple mount (above), the surface underneath the bolt head and the surface underneath the nut move independently from each other. The bolts loosens as the parts vibrate.

With a forked mount (above), the two surfaces (under the bolt’s head and under the nut) no longer move against each other, so the bolt experiences much less force that could loosen it.
There is more to consider when designing good connections. And it’s true that even sub-optimal connections can work fine. The bottom line is simple: On a well-designed bike, there should be little need to re-tighten bolts.
Recently, Peter Meilstrup posted a link to video that shows how bolts loosen. I find it especially impressive to see how the nuts turn as they vibrate. And commonly used lockwashers actually make things worse! It is obvious that there is no substitute for good design. Click here to see the video.

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Farewell to a Dear Bike

Before packing up the Calfee “Adventure,” I took it out for one last ride. It was a lovely afternoon that did not feel like November. The sun was out, and it was 59 degrees F. The weather forecast was for rain in the lowlands and snow in the mountains. It seemed fitting to take a racing bike out on probably the last ride in shorts for the year.
The Calfee has become a friend. The combination of a superlight carbon fiber frame with 32 mm tires worked so well that I wrote: “I consider the Calfee ‘Adventure’ the racing bike of the future. It combines the clearance for wide tires with the light weight and performance of the best modern racing bikes.” I told Craig Calfee that I was tempted to buy the bike and keep it.

My previous ride on the Calfee had been a few weeks before Paris-Brest-Paris. Hahn, Sam, Ryan and I did speed intervals around Mercer Island. The Calfee was eager to go, and it was exhilarating to round the curves of the island road at speed. After one long pull, I asked Hahn how fast we were going. “50 km/h” was the answer. I was surprised, as it didn’t feel like 31 mph…
Since then, I had mostly ridden my new René Herse, with its frame from superlight, standard-diameter steel tubing. How would the Calfee feel after the Herse? I already knew from our comparative tests that objectively, it wasn’t any faster, but would it feel faster? Accelerate better? Stop better with its excellent brakes?
To find out, I headed to Mercer Island again. We’ve had some early frost, so the maple trees were spectacular in their yellow and red colors. After riding the wide 650B tires and the flexible fork blades of the Herse, the Calfee felt jarring at first, but I soon realized that it wasn’t overly harsh, just firm like the suspension of a good sports car.

I used to know Mercer Island like the pocket of my pants, because I went around the island several times a week. Now our rides venture further, and I don’t visit the island as often. It was fun to rediscover Mercer Island. The road curves as it winds around the island. The Calfee’s intuitive handling made these sharp corners thoroughly enjoyable. The challenging little rises and short climbs on Mercer Island came and went without upsetting the bike’s rhythm. The exhilarating acceleration of the Calfee was as I remembered it. It was fun to push harder on the pedals just to feel the bike go faster.

I added a little climb over the top of the island, then headed back. The setting sun played with golden light on the flaming trees. It was a beautiful sight, but a few minutes later, it started to get dark.  I had not thought about the end of Summer Daylight Savings Time when I left. Instead of becoming dark at 6, it now would be dark at 5. On my own bike, I’d turn the stem cap, and the lights would illuminate. On the Calfee, I was 30 minutes from home without lights. I looked at my watch: It was 4:30. If I hurried, I would make it. The Calfee did its best, and we got home a few minutes before 5.
It was nice to say farewell to the Calfee with such a nice ride. On smooth roads, it is as much fun to ride as my new Herse, which is high praise indeed. And when I brought the Calfee into the basement, I realized one advantage that the Calfee has over my Herse: An 18-pound bike is much easier to carry down the stairs than a 25-pound one.

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The Competition Bicycle – Price Reduced

As a small publisher, we don’t have a “publicist” who works full-time to promote our books. Therefore, we always are excited when one of our titles is mentioned in a major publication. Over the years, our books have been featured in the Sunday Times UK, one of Britain’s largest newspapers, in Outside magazine, the Seattle Times and on Cyclingnews.com. Just recently, Velo-News featured our The Competition Bicycle in their September 2011 issue in a prominent spot (above). We appreciate the positive press, and we think it speaks of the quality of our books when major publications discover them almost on their own.
In time for the holidays, we have reduced the price of The Competition Bicycle to $50. Next year, distribution of the book will be taken over by Rizzoli New York. Buying your copy from us now helps us finance future book projects. (Both editions will be identical except for the dustjacket, and both retail for $ 50.) You can find out more about our books and order your copies here.

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Paris-Brest-Paris – The Book

Paris-Brest-Paris is an event that captures the imagination. It’s not just the epic length of the ride – 1200 km or 750 miles – but also the history that makes this event special.
Paris-Brest-Paris (or PBP in short) was created in 1891 by Pierre Giffard, a colorful journalist, with two goals: Obviously, he wanted to increase the circulation of his newspaper, and what better way of doing that with reports from the most amazing bike racer ever? His second goal was more idealistic: Giffard wanted to showcase the utility of the bicycle at a time when it was mostly used as a fashionable pastime for rich young men, who paraded in parks and town squares.
Giffard saw the bike as a means of transportation, as a way to travel. His ideas for the race reflected this. He wrote:
“I dream of a truly utilitarian race, with racers who will ride the same machine from one end of the route to the other, and don’t change along the way, who will not try to devour the distance without taking an hour of sleep, who will sleep when their nature demands it, who will be true wandering cyclists, with bags and lanterns.” (Translated from French.)
Giffard dreamed of a randonneur event! Of course, this was long before randonneuring existed as a sport. As Giffard envisioned, the first PBP had numerous adventurous souls at the start. Among them were a handful of women, but they were not allowed to start.*
The limelight was stolen by two professional racers, whose newly-invented pneumatic tires gave them a huge advantage over the amateurs with their airless tires. In the end, Charles Terront, sponsored by Michelin, won over Jiel-Laval, who rode for Dunlop. Terront took only 71:27 hours for the long ride, whereas the last participants returned to Paris ten days after the start.

PBP was such a success that it was decided to hold the race every 10 years. The following events saw professional racers with full support, but also independents in the “Touriste-Routier” category. If you read French, you can read about the history of PBP, all the way up to this year’s ride, in Jacques Seray’s hardcover book Paris-Brest-Paris:12 ans, 1200 kilomètres.
For all readers, the main appeal of the book lies in the hundreds of photos. I thought I had seen most photos from the early days of PBP, but Seray found many more that I had never seen before.

The photos include true gems. Above you see the decisive moment of the 1911 race: The leaders are getting ready to change their bikes as the race enters the hills toward the finish. You see their helpers running alongside with the spare bikes. However, the rider in the center, Emile Georget, attacks instead of changing his bike. He breaks away and wins the race.
Why did the racers change their bikes? Seray doesn’t mention the background, but from other sources, we know that racers back then did not use multiple gears. In fact, Henri Desgrange, the “Father of the Tour de France,” famously wrote: “Derailleurs are only for old men, who don’t have the force to face a hill head-on any longer.” (Desgrange’s main motive appears to have been commercial: The bike makers that financed the racing teams wanted to sell simple single-speed bicycles, rather than retool their factories for modern derailleur-equipped bicycles.)
The racers soon found that they could go faster if they adjusted their gearing to the terrain. The rules forbade them to use derailleurs, but they said nothing about changing bikes. So when a racer needed a different gear ratio, he simply changed bikes, with the new bike having different gearing. It may have been hypocritical for Desgrange to claim: “True men don’t change their gears!” when his true men in fact changed their entire bicycles…

The race continued to hold the public’s attention every ten years. Most of the great riders associated with the famous event are shown in evocative photos in Seray’s book, including the Australian Hubert Opperman, who won the event in 1931 (above). Alas, there is no photo of Charly Miller, the only American ever to race in the professional PBP, unless he is one of the many unidentified racers shown in various photos. (It appears we don’t know what Miller looked like.)

In the 1950s, professional racers lost interest in the long race, but the randonneurs, who had been riding PBP since 1931, took over as the “Heroes of the Route Nationale.” Above is the start for the 1956 event, with Roger Baumann lined up in the center of the front row. He would be the first solo rider to return to Paris that year.

The randonneurs have grown in number in recent decades, and in 2011, almost 5000 riders took the start. Seray brings the story up to date with images and a report (in French) from this year’s PBP (above).
To make this wonderful book available to our readers, we are importing a few copies of Paris-Brest-Paris: 120 ans, 1200 kilomètres. Click here for more information.
* Women participated in unorganized randonneuring from the start. The randonneur PBP admitted women from the first edition in 1931.

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Net-Shape Forging and Crank Length

Net-Shape Forging
The new René Herse cranks will be offered in one length only, 171 mm, which allows us to have the cranks forged to their final shape. (The photo above shows the raw forging.) The process is called “net-shape forging.” The grain structure of the aluminum is aligned during the forging process, so that it follows the contours of the crank. Net-shape forging optimizes the crank’s strength and enables us to offer a lightweight part without undue concerns about reliability.
Machining Cranks to Length
When small-production cranks are offered in different lengths, they usually are made with an adaptable forging, like the raw forging for the TA “Pro 5 vis” cranks shown below.

On the right side, you see how the pedal eye area is elongated. The crank is machined to the correct length by cutting away material near the pedal eye. The following illustrates what happens when you do extensive machining on a forging.

Above is a schematic drawing of a raw forging. You can see how the grain structure conforms to the final shape. This makes for a very strong part.

When we cut off one end, we interrupt the grain structure at that end. Each of these interruptions is a weak spot. On a crank, the interruptions occur at the pedal eye – one of the places that are subject to the most stress. If a crank breaks, it often happens at the pedal eye. Machining the crank to length has eliminated the advantages of the forging process in this area.
“Net-shape” forging keeps the grain of the crank intact. The result is a stronger crank. If you want to offer multiple lengths, a better way is to make separate forging dies for each length. However, this multiplies the cost, especially with small production runs, whereas machining the cranks to length costs very little, because the cranks already are going to be machined for the pedal eye, chainring interfaces and spindle taper anyhow.
The Importance of Crank Length
But what about riders who need a different crank length? I used to think that I was highly sensitive to crank length. I found the 175 mm-long Shimano Deore triple cranks on my touring bike much harder to spin than the 172.5 mm Campagnolo cranks on my racing bike. It was obvious to me that the 2.5 mm extra length made the touring bike’s cranks difficult to spin.
Then I visited my friends Pamela and John in Boston. I had brought my Bike Friday along, but since we were to enter a 300 km brevet together, Pamela suggested that I should ride a bike with better performance. They were to ride their tandem, and John’s bike fit me fine, so why not take it instead? Very well, except it was equipped with 175 mm cranks, and I was concerned about being able to spin such long cranks. John scrounged around and tried to find shorter cranks for me, but his bike was optimized for narrow tread (Q factor), and none of the shorter cranks would fit. I decided to take a chance and ride John’s bike with the long cranks.
To my surprised, I could spin his 175 mm cranks very well. I had a great ride on the hilly roads of Connecticut with my friends, and never felt bogged down like I did on my touring bike. I realized that it had not been the length of the Deore cranks that inhibited my spin, but their width. Their tread (Q factor) was at least 20 mm wider than my Campagnolo cranks. John’s cranks were as long as the Deore cranks, but their tread (Q factor) was almost as narrow as that of my Campagnolo cranks.

Let’s look at the length by itself: The difference of 2.5 mm amounts to only 1.4% of the total crank length. The cranks in the photoshopped image show the range that most manufacturers offer, from 165 mm on the left up to 175 mm on the right. The cranks look similar because they are similar: The longest crank is just 6% longer than the shortest one.
Imagine putting five random people next to each other: Their leg lengths would not be within 6% like the lengths of the cranks in the image. If we wanted to scale our cranks to our leg length, we would need lengths between 140 and 210 mm, as Lennard Zinn suggests. And according to this formula, I would need 186 mm cranks.
TA at least offers their cranks in lengths between 150 and 185 mm, but most cranks are available only in a very narrow range between 165 and 175 mm. People’s inseams and thigh lengths vary by at least 30%, yet most cranks vary in length by less than 10%. There are two possible explanations:

  1. Crank length does not matter for most riders, and the small differences in the commonly available crank lengths don’t affect how the cranks feel and perform.
  2. Crank length matters, and the crank makers have it all wrong. They should offer lengths that vary by 30% or more.

My experience suggests that 1. is correct, that small differences in crank length do not make a big difference. Today, I am as happy spinning the 175 mm cranks on Mark’s bike as I am on an old René Herse with 165 mm cranks. Compared to other factors, such as the tread (Q factor) and the flex characteristics of the frame (my touring bike with the Deore cranks also had a stiffer frame that contributed to the “bogged-down” feeling), crank length appears to matter little for most riders.
If you are outside the “normal” size range of cyclists, then you may benefit from significantly longer or shorter cranks. By significant, I mean not just a 165 mm or a 175 mm crank instead of a 170 mm. For example, I went to some lengths to put 150 mm cranks on my children’s bikes, and very tall riders may benefit from significantly longer cranks.

We are confident that our 171 mm cranks will work well for the vast majority of cyclists. For those who “need” a 175 mm or a 165 mm crank, we ask them to re-consider whether the 2-3% shorter or longer René Herse cranks really will feel very different. If future research finds that crank length does matter after all, then all makers will have to start making 140 mm and 210 mm cranks. In that case, we will make additional forging dies for those lengths. Until then, we hope that most riders will be happy with our 171 mm cranks, even if they are 4 mm shorter or 6 mm longer than their preferred length. In our opinion, the advantage of a stronger crank is worth the slight compromise in the length.

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Winter 2011 Bicycle Quarterly

The Winter 2011 issue of Bicycle Quarterly is at the printer and will be mailed next week. Our full report from the Oregon Manifest (pictured on the cover) showcases the innovative and inspiring bicycles that excelled in the technical trials. We also take you on an epic ride across the Pyrenees mountains of southern France, to fuel your imagination over the winter months.

We discuss frame geometry and how it affects the fit and handling of your bike. And of course, we test bikes and equipment and bring you book reviews.

My personal favorite in Bicycle Quarterly is the “My Favorite Bike” column, where readers present a bike that is special to them. In the Winter issue, Wolfgang Habermeyer from Munich reports how he visited a bicycle chain store, found this wonderful 1970s Bertin in the basement among the unloved trade-ins, and bought it for a song. I wish we could all be that lucky!

Click here for more information on the Winter 2011 Bicycle Quarterly.

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Ode to a Road

The German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote his Ode to Joy in 1785, celebrating friendship and the unity of humanity. Ludwing van Beethoven set the poem to music and incorporated it into his 9th Symphony as the final movement.
I was thinking about the Ode as we rode a favorite road a few weeks ago. Cycling brings me intense joy, both for the friendship with my fellow riders and for the unity with the universe we experience on our rides. The catalyst for this is the road on which we cycle. One of the most joyful roads is Reiter Road.
Reiter Road connects the towns of Gold Bar and Index – click here for a map. Its official purpose appears to be an evacuation route for the town of Index in case the North Fork of the Skykomish River sweeps away the bridge that is the town’s main access, as it did about a century ago.
As long as the bridge is intact, Reiter Road sees almost no use. The road hugs the hillside high above the valley, and has a wonderful rhythm of climbs and descents. Challenging curves are linked by short straights.

On a sunny day, there is a wonderful pattern of light and shadow on the road. And on a sunny autumn day, the colors of the leaves are just spectacular, as they were when we visited. We had picked a short break in the rainy weather for our ride from Seattle.

On the approach to Index, the road swoops down from the hillside before crossing the railway. Going through this section at speed is part of the joyful experience of this road.

Then the road heads along the tracks for a while, giving us a chance to admire the mountain scenery.

As we rode into town, the Amtrak train from Chicago crossed the bridge across the North Fork on its descent from Stevens Pass. Bicycles and trains both put the emphasis on the journey, not just the destination.

Index is famous for the majestic cliffs that start at the edge of town. It also has a general store to augment our picnic lunch.

While we ate our lunch, we saw huge clouds move in and swirl around Mount Index. Time to head home!
Usually, out-and-back rides are not a favorite of mine, and most of our ride from Seattle formed a large loop. But Reiter Road feels different in each direction. After having cycled it both ways, I am always tempted to turn around and ride it again. But not today, as clouds were moving in, and the skies became dark. We made it out of the mountains before the rain started, and arrived home just as the first drops fell in Seattle. A good week lay ahead: the joy of these rides carries over into our daily lives.

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SON Generator Hubs and Lights

Compass Bicycles has added SON generator hubs and Edelux lights to our program. We are excited to carry the best bicycle lighting systems ever made.
A few years ago, a reporter asked me what I considered the most important innovation in bicycles during the last half-century. After thinking about the many innovations that have been branded as “game changers,” I answered: “Generator hubs and modern lights.” (The only other thing that comes close are clipless pedals.)
Generator hubs have made bikes far more useful, because you now can ride as well at night as during the day. No longer do you need to worry how much charge you have left in your batteries. Nor do you have to ride the brakes on descents, so you don’t outrun the beam of your dim lights that are powered by a sidewall dynamo. In the rain, you no longer worry about your generator slipping on the wet tire.
Generator hubs have made bicycles as convenient as cars: When it gets dark (or you enter a tunnel), you just flip a switch, and the lights come on. They are always there, not consuming significant energy when they are off, and very little when they are on. (In fact, we didn’t even wire a switch on my son’s bike. His lights are on all the time, like those of modern cars.)

Schmidt Maschinenbau (above), a small company with 28 employees, developed the first modern generator hubs. They continue to make the best generator hubs and LED lights in their small factory in Germany. Most of their suppliers are within cycling distance, and they pick up many parts by bicycle.
For years, we have collaborated with Schmidt Maschinenbau on testing the resistance of generator hubs and the beam patterns of lights and have made suggestions for products, such as the SON 20R (now called Delux) and the connector-less hubs, which transmit the current to a special dropout without wires to unplug when you remove the wheel. We have been using their hubs and lights for many years on our own bikes.

We are proud to announce that Compass Bicycles now sells Schmidt’s SON generator hubs and Edelux headlights. Click here for more information.

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A Future for Independent Bookstores?

About ten years ago, I walked into a small bookstore in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. I saw a beautiful book on motorcycles, and even though I am not particularly interested in motorbikes, I picked up the book. The photography in The Art of the Motorcycle was stunning. I liked it so much that I bought the book. My first thought was: “Wouldn’t it be great to do a similar book on bicycles?” Later I met one of the photographers who had worked on The Art of the Motorcycle and learned that he rode a René Herse. This meeting led to our books The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles and The Competition Bicycle.
Today, this story would be unlikely to happen. Even though Fremont is a vibrant neighborhood, the bookstore no longer exists, because most people buy their books online. Online, I never would have found the motorcycle book, because it is not within the standard profile of what I tend to buy.
A single company, Amazon, now controls almost 50% of the entire U.S. book business. A little while ago, Amazon introduced their new Kindle Fire tablet for digital readers. The new device is sold at a discount, but Amazon plans to make up for that because it “will corral users into a tightly walled garden around Amazon’s content and devices and may secure a new dominance for Amazon as an online retailer and technology company,” as the New York Times noted. The “dominance” enables Amazon to dictate their terms to publishers and others who generate “content.” They pay much less for books than the bookstore in Fremont. And as Amazon publishes more books themselves, there is little to prevent them from steering customers to their books instead of those from other publishers.
Amazon does not only control the book business, but the company is involved in all kinds of other retailing transactions. If you look for bicycle components online, you are likely to end up at Amazon’s web site. “Amazon Fresh” will bring groceries to your house. Even libraries, eager to offer e-books to their readers, have teamed up with Amazon. In the future, when I  borrow an e-book from our library, the final checkout will happen at Amazon. Not only does Amazon collect a fee from the library, but it also collects the personal data of library users.
As Amazon inserts itself into more and more of our purchasing and reading, my concern is not only that they are taking their cut every time. More than that, I fear that we are losing our diversity. I will miss the enchanting little bookstores, where I can browse books and discuss them with the owners, rather than obtain computer-generated “recommendations.” I will miss the quirky bike shops that have odd bikes gathering cobwebs under the ceiling and long-obsolete parts in back room drawers. I am glad that many of them still exist, and I hope they will continue to serve us forever, as long as we are willing to bring them our business.
When Bicycle Quarterly Press published our first book, we decided not deal with Amazon. Our books are available only from us directly or through independent bike shops and bookstores. And when you visit them, who knows what other treasures you will find?

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Product Test: Velo-Orange Grand Cru Brakes

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

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

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

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

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

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Damaged Books at a Discount

Every once in a while, we receive a shipment of books that got damaged in transit. Usually, the damage is slight, like a bump on a corner, and most bookstores would sell them as “new” books. We know that you value the cycling books you buy from us, and so we want to make sure your books are in pristine condition when you receive them.
Yet we have a few stacks of damaged books that would do more good being read by someone. We are selling these books at a 25% discount:

On most of these books, the damage is limited to bumped corners, and all of them have pristine insides. Quantities are limited to stock on hand. We have sorted all books by the amount of damage, and the first orders will get the best books.
Order your copy here, and select the second entry (“Damaged Copy”) when you order. If you prefer a pristine copy of these wonderful books, you can order it at the same link.
Update 11/2/2011: All damaged books have been sold.

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Coming up on 10 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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René Herse Cranks: Prices and Availability

The new René Herse cranks have entered production. The arms are being forged, the chainrings are being machined, and the crank bolts are being made, each by specialist manufacturers who are among the best in their trade. The photo above shows the final production version of the arms and chainrings. (The crank bolt still is a prototype.)
We plan to have the cranks in stock for the Holidays. We also have finalized the prices: $385 for single- and double-chainring cranksets, and $440 for a triple. We will offer tandem cranksets as well.
The double-chainring cranks are designed for a 113 mm JIS bottom bracket, resulting in a tread (Q factor) of 142 mm with a standard chainline. (If you ride mostly on the big ring, you can use a shorter BB spindle to move the cranks inward a bit, if your frame permits. This will reduce the tread/Q factor by up to 6 mm.)
The new René Herse cranks are compatible with many bottom brackets, including the excellent SKF bottom bracket available from Compass Bicycles.
I am looking forward to putting these cranks on my new randonneur bike!

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A Mountain Adventure

The Oregon Manifest in Portland was a great opportunity for another long ride in the mountains. The Bicycle Quarterly team took the train to Portland, rode in the Oregon Manifest, and then rode back to Seattle the next day.
We left Portland just before 7 a.m. on Sunday to head back to Seattle via the unpaved mountain roads of Panther Creek and Babyshoe Pass. We thought we’d arrive just after midnight.
The popular Seattle-to-Portland ‘STP’ ride takes a direct route through the densely populated Puget Lowland that isn’t very scenic and sees much traffic. Instead, we turned eastward and rode up the Columbia River. The Old Columbia River Highway is one of my favorite roads.
The road was built a century ago to access the beauty of the Columbia Gorge and the many famous waterfalls. The road has a beautiful rhythm. According to locating engineer John Arthur Elliott,

The ideals sought were not the usual economic features and considerations given the location of a trunk highway. Grades, curvature, distance and even expense were sacrificed to reach some scenic vista or to develop a particularly interesting point. All the natural beauty spots were fixed as control points and the location adjusted to include them.

Today, the “economic considerations” prevail, and most travelers take the Interstate. On this Sunday morning, we had the road almost to ourselves.
At Multnomah Falls, we had a copious brunch at the historic lodge. We knew this would be our last “civilized” meal before we headed into the backcountry, where diners, gas stations and convenience stores often are the only food choices.
We had skirted the rain until we crossed the Columbia River at the Bridge of the Gods and headed into the Cascades. Before we even started climbing, the skies opened, and steady rain fell. Even in the rain, Panther Creek Road is a lovely backroad that climbs the slopes toward Mount St. Helens.
The Cascades are big! We had ridden for over an hour from Carson when we reached the end of the paved road. The next town, Trout Lake, was 30 miles away. The gravel road over the mountains was smooth, but the rain started coming down harder, and as we gained elevation, the temperature dropped precipitously. We added layers of clothes, and Hahn wished for a better rain jacket.
Approaching Trout Lake, we reached pavement again, and not just any pavement! The road resembled a rollercoaster, and we enjoyed the descent at speed.
In Trout Lake, we stopped for a long time at the diner. Hahn had told me for hours about the huckleberry milkshakes that supposedly were a specialty there, but now we ordered hot tea instead. As a vegetarian, my only food choice was huckleberry pie, and I ate two slices.
The rain had stopped when we finally left the cozy warmth of the diner, and we enjoyed the long climb out of town. However, after an hour of climbing, I realized that we were on the wrong road! Instead of heading to Babyshoe Pass, we were climbing straight up the slopes of Mount Adams. I had wondered why the road was steeper than I remembered it!
The return to Trout Lake took only 10 minutes, and we found the Y-junction that I never had noticed when I was riding the other way. As a result of our scenic detour, we arrived at Babyshoe Pass at 7 p.m. On the uphill, the gravel road’s washboard surface had been extreme, much worse than I remembered it. The low-hanging clouds parted only briefly to reveal the snow-covered flanks of Mount Adams across the valley. At least we only had steady rain, and no snow. The light was fading rapidly as we embarked on the 10-mile gravel descent.
A washboard gravel descent in the dark and in the rain could be a nightmare, but with the right equipment, it actually was a lot of fun. We had reduced the air pressure in our tires to about 25 psi. We adjusted our Schmidt Edelux lights to provide a long beam for the speedy descent. The beam was wide enough to illuminate the entire width of the road, and so low that the washboard showed up as shadows, helping us to pick a line on the smoothest part of the gravel surface. Our wide tires provided remarkable grip on the loose gravel. While we had to brake for the turns, there was little risk of overheating our (water-cooled) rims. Only once or twice did I misjudge my line and found myself on the rough washboard, with my bike shaking violently until I got back onto smoother surfaces.
After half an hour, we reached pavement again. I asked Hahn: “This was either awful or a lot of fun – which of the two?” He replied that it was fun. Indeed, I had not had this much fun on a bike in a long time. From here, it was another 35 miles to Randle. We had the road to ourselves, except for the occasional small frogs that were hopping out of our way when the beams of our headlights hit them.
We decided to spent the night in Randle. The first hotel was full, the bed-and-breakfast was closed, but we finally found accommodation in a motel. Our only food option was the convenience store at the gas station, but we didn’t care. After a quick shower, we both were fast asleep in minutes.
Instead of being back in the office Monday morning, the day started with breakfast at the motel in Randle. On the way out of town, we had no option but take Highway 12. In the rain, the spray from passing trucks was unpleasant even if we rode on the very edge of the shoulder, so it was with relief when we turned off the highway in Glenoma. I had scouted a route that would lead us straight into Morton.

A lovely road it was, but to my surprise, ‘Bridgeover Road’ turned out to be a logging road that clearly had not been used in years. At first, it was smooth gravel (see photo at the top of this post), but soon it turned into two tracks with grass growing in the middle. No problem for us, but if you are on a “road” bike, you may prefer to use Kosmos Road and then jump back on Hwy 12 before taking Davis Lake Road. The latter road is a lovely backroad that leads straight into the center of Morton, bypassing the gas station/supermarket sprawl that separates the town from the highway.
From Morton, we took familiar roads back to Seattle. (There are no photos from this section, because I had shot all my film, and Hahn’s digital camera had stopped working in the rain.) The rain had stopped, and we were making good progress, with only one more stop at the bakery in Eatonville.
Pushed by a strong tailwind, and after a few more off-pavement excursions due to construction sites, we arrived just after dinnertime. It was a memorable adventure and a hard test for our almost-new randonneur bikes. The bikes passed the test with flying colors: Nothing fell off or even needed adjustment, except for Hahn’s SRAM rear derailleur. (My Nivex has friction shifting, so there is nothing to go out of adjustment.) However, Hahn’s chain was squeaking at the end of the 24-hour, 450 km ride in the rain. He needs a mudflap on his front fender!
Most of all, despite the challenging weather, having the right equipment made all the difference between a miserable experience and an enjoyable ride.

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Science and Bicycles: Frame Stiffness

Lightweight frames, made from high-strength tubing, were thought to be stiffer than ordinary frames. They performed better for most cyclists, but the conclusion that stiffer frames were better was erroneous. Eventually, this led the makers of steel bicycles down the wrong path and may have hastened their demise.
When the plague ravaged Europe during the 14th century, people noticed that the disease arrived together with herds of cats. They concluded that the cats brought the disease and responded by killing as many cats as possible. Only much later was it discovered that the plague was transmitted by fleas that lived on rats. Cats arrived with the plague only because they preyed on the rats. So killing the cats actually made things worse, by allowing the rats to multiply.
This reminds me of bicycles and frame stiffness. For decades, riders have assumed that stiffer frames were more efficient, and thus faster. At the same time, physics tells us that a lighter bike is faster uphill and in accelerations. Stiffness and weight are conflicting goals: To make a frame stiffer, you need more material. To make it lighter, you need less material.

There was a apparent solution to this problem: high-strength steels allowed tubing makers to use less material without giving up strength. Reynolds 531 and other modern steel tubes enabled builders to craft lightweight frames. Even though these frames were light, they felt very stiff when the builders bent the tubes to align the frame. Many old builders have told me: “The lightweight Reynolds 531 was twice as stiff as ‘drainpipe’ (ordinary steel tubing). And the superlight 753 was three times stiffer than 531.”
The riders usually found that the “stiffer” bikes made from high-strength tubing performed better. This “confirmed” that stiffer bikes were faster:
1) Observation 1 (builders): high-strength tubing = stiffer frame
2) Observation 2 (riders): high-strength tubing = better performance
3) Conclusion: stiffer frame = better performance

However, Observation 1 is incorrect: The builders mistook yield strength for stiffness.
Yield strength determines how far you have to bend a frame until it no longer springs back, but “takes a set.” High-strength tubing has a higher yield strength.
Stiffness determines how much force is required to flex a frame a certain distance. All steels have roughly the same stiffness (modulus of elasticity). The only reason the high-strength frame is harder to bend is that you have to flex it further until you reach the yield point, where it does not spring back any longer.
Even though the high-strength tubing didn’t make the frames stiffer, the higher performance was no fluke. For most riders, a Reynolds 531 frame performed better than a “drainpipe” frame, and a Reynolds 753 frame performed better yet. The observation was correct, even though the explanation was incorrect.
For riders and builders, it didn’t matter that their “stiffer” frames in reality were more flexible (because the tubing walls were thinner), as long as they performed better. All was well for decades: Builders knew how to make well-performing frames, and riders loved riding them. Whether they really were stiff or not didn’t matter.
Things changed when new materials became more prominent during the 1980s: aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber. At first, most bikes made from these new materials were not very stiff, but they were very light. Many riders liked them.
How could the makers of steel bicycles counter the new competition? It was hard to compete on weight, so they focused on stiffness instead. To make a stiffer bike without a huge weight penalty, you increase the diameter of the tubes, and you get a great increase in stiffness with only a small increase in weight. That is how oversize steel tubing became popular.

Some makers also offered tubes in all kinds of shapes for improved stiffness in certain directions (above). There were even spiral-shaped reinforcements inside the tubes to increase stiffness (below).

It is ironic that by making their bikes stiffer, the makers of steel bikes may have hastened their demise. (In effect, they killed the cats instead of going after the rats and their fleas.) Instead of making their bikes perform better, they actually returned to the ride characteristics and performance of stiff frames from the early days of cycling.
The makers of aluminum bikes could make their bikes even stiffer, because aluminum’s lower density makes super-large tubing diameters possible with very little weight penalty. (In the medieval analogy, the aluminum bike makers invented a more efficient way of killing cats.) Their bikes also fell by the wayside. (Even Cannondale, the pioneer of oversized aluminum tubing, now uses carbon fiber for their top-of-the-line models.)
Carbon fiber and titanium became the preferred materials for high-end bikes. Ironically, the last steel bikes ridden by top-level amateur racers were made from the superlight (and super-flexible) Reynolds 753 tubing. I remember seeing them under riders whose sponsors would have loved to give them a new bike…
In recent years, it has become clear that many riders perform better on flexible frames, apparently because it allows them to apply their power more efficiently. Many riders and builders extol the virtues of a “lively” frame made from flexible tubing. When we tested different frame tubing in a double-blind test (Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 6, No. 4), we found that two of three riders preferred the most flexible frame both for constant efforts and for all-out sprints. (The third rider could not tell the – very small – differences between the frames in our test.)
Of course, the real story is more complex. There is more to bicycle performance than overall frame stiffness. Frames can be too flexible for a given rider and application. Some riders may even prefer very stiff frames. However, it is clear that the old mantra of stiffer = more performance is not true for most riders.
The main conclusion for me is: False explanations of real phenomena may work for a while, but eventually they will lead you down the wrong path. Whether it’s trying to combat the plague or producing bicycle frames with better performance, we need to examine the real explanations beyond the current beliefs. That is why Bicycle Quarterly does fundamental research to determine what really makes a bicycle perform, rather than just try and figure out how to make bikes stiffer.

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Riding the Oregon Manifest

Two years after the inaugural event, the second Oregon Manifest design contest and technical trials were held last weekend. The Oregon Manifest crew put together a great event, even better than the first. I see the Oregon Manifest as an idea lab for the future of the urban bike. Builders, design studios and universities bring all kinds of concepts, and then try them on the road. Riding alongside the participants, we got to see the bikes perform over a varied course.
This year, the course was shorter – 50 miles – and the gravel sections were perhaps a bit too smooth to really test the durability of the bikes. Even so, it was clear that the builders have made improvements since the last event. In 2009, just looking over the bikes, you could predict that racks would fall off, fenders would break… and so they did on the rough gravel of the course. This year, most bikes were much better in design and execution, and failures were rare.
Compared to the past, the entries were much more varied, ranging from lightweight porteur bikes to heavy-duty load haulers that can carry hundreds of pounds. There were whimsical entries like the sidecars to carry dogs and even passengers, a neat little “campus” bike, many varieties of cycletrucks, cargo bikes, a three-wheeler and more. A lot of thought had gone into the design of every single one of them.
I don’t envy the jury who had to pick a winner in the event, because it is almost impossible to decide whether a long-tail cargo bike with electric assist is a better machine than a lightweight porteur bike. It all depends on who rides it and for what purpose.

Rather than picking a “winner,” I am interested in the innovative ideas that many of the builders and designers presented at the Oregon Manifest. The Winter issue of Bicycle Quarterly will have a full report from the event, and showcase some bikes that we thought offered particularly clever solutions for urban riding.
For the Bicycle Quarterly team, the fun continued after the event, as we rode back to Seattle via the lovely Old Columbia Highway and the challenging gravel roads across Babyshoe Pass. It was a true adventure, and a truly rigorous test for our new randonneur bikes. I’ll report on that ride in a future post.

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A Trip to France

Going to France was a treat. Not just because PBP is a wonderful adventure, but because I love visiting France. In August, Paris loses some of its urban edge, and people become more relaxed. The city organizes Paris Plages (“Beach in Paris”): For a few weeks, sand is trucked in, and a freeway along the Seine are transformed into a beach. The square in front of the Hôtel de Ville (courthouse) becomes another beach with volleyball nets. It’s a lovely way to celebrate summer!

Another major change in Paris has been the Velib bike rental program. With more than 20,000 bicycles available at over 1000 stations, it has revolutionized how Parisiens get around. The operation is impressive. It includes mechanics who make rounds and fix bikes that need repairs.

After Paris-Brest-Paris, we had a get-together of Bicycle Quarterly readers and others at the historic starting place of PBP, the café Aux Trois Obus. It was nice to meet readers from all over the world in person, and go for a ride to the Alex Singer shop afterward.

Then I spent a week in France to visit friends and to research upcoming articles for Bicycle Quarterly. For these trips, I combined the TGV high-speed trains with the leisurely pace of my bike.
Riding in France is a different experience from the U.S. Thousands of years of human history are evident in the landscape. As I left Viviers, my friend Richard pointed out the Roman bridge at the edge of town, which dates to the 3rd century A.D. The bridge still is used to get to the fields on the other side of the river.

If you plan your trip with the help of the excellent Michelin 1:200,000 maps, you can cross most of France on little roads with almost no traffic. I rode 190 km in one day across the Ardèche and Cevennes Mountains. During this time, I cycled less than 15 km on roads that had a white centerline. Most roads looked like this:

These roads lead to quaint villages, with cobbled streets and beautiful buildings. Little restaurants tempted me to stop, and fortunately I was not in a rush. Ordering a crèpe at lunch-time took 20 minutes, but the food was so good that it was worth the wait.

Just before returning to Seattle, I was able to realize my long-held dream of riding the Raid Pyrénéen, a 720 km Randonée Permanente from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, via the great cols (mountain passes) of the Pyrenees. It was a true adventure! I will publish a full report soon in Bicycle Quarterly.

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Autumn 2011 Bicycle Quarterly

The Autumn issue of Bicycle Quarterly is at the printer. It will be mailed next week. On 72 pages, we cover a variety of topics, including:

  • High-wheeler racing in New Zealand today.
  • Test of the Calfee “Adventure” – a carbon fiber bicycle for the real world.
  • Braking: We test how it’s done best, and compare a few interesting brakes (Sram Force, Eebrake, Velo-Orange Gran Cru).
  • Many remember George Retseck’s illustrations from old Bridgestone catalogues. We talk to the man and show some rarely seen artwork.
  • A daytrip across the Yorkshire Dales immerses you into the landscape, culture and history of this beautiful region.
  • Our editor’s ultimate custom bicycle. How he designed it, and how it was built.

Click here for more details and photos from the Autumn 2011 Bicycle Quarterly. If you are not a current subscribers, sign up or renew today to make sure that the Autumn issue reaches you without delay.

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A Journey of Discovery: The Lure of Racing Bikes

When we wrote the “A Journey of Discovery” series for this blog, we started with the racing bikes we rode a little over a decade ago. However, my “journey” has been much longer…
I grew up in Germany, where all bikes had fenders, lights and racks. When I was ten years old, I got a bike that was the envy of my friends: a Peugeot “Semi-Racer” with derailleurs, 10 speeds and drop handlebars. It was just like the one shown in the catalog above, except mine was silver. Of course, my bike had a rack and fenders, as well as a sidewall generator that made a huge racket at night. The whole package must have weighed about 35-40 pounds, because most of the parts were made from steel.

My next bike was another Peugeot (above). It was a step up: It had rims and cranks made from aluminum. Of course, it still was equipped with fenders, lights and a rack, and it still was heavy.

Then I went to college, and a neighbor asked me to fix up his brother’s Bianchi racing bike. After overhauling the Bianchi’s bearings and brakes, I took it for a test ride. I was amazed at how different this bike felt compared to my Peugeot. The acceleration was incredible, and it held the road so much better, too. Hills that had been a chore on the Peugeot became an exhilarating experience on a bike that just wanted to go. I decided then and there that I needed a racing bike!
So I saved my money, bought a Campagnolo Victory group on closeout, and soon was the proud owner of a Bianchi “Reparto Corse” frameset, made from Columbus SL tubing. It was a true dream bike. The Campagnolo components gleamed, and their precision was a revelation after the cheap French components of the Peugeot. The performance was in another league, and I promised myself I’d never ride another bike with fenders again!

Even though I had planned to keep the Peugeot for touring, I preferred to strap a rack to the Bianchi for my cross-country trips in Germany. The Bianchi with its short chainstays was not ideal for carrying panniers, but it was much better than the sluggish performance of the Peugeot. I even commuted on the Bianchi, unless the weather was extremely bad. I remember watching my bike during a winter night as I sat in class: The lovely Bianchi was getting covered in snow as huge flakes fell. Fortunately, the snowy roads meant that traffic was light on the way home, because I didn’t have lights on the bike…
When I moved to Texas, I brought the Bianchi, but left the Peugeot in Germany. I ordered a custom Mercian touring bike (below on left), which had racks, but true to my promise, no fenders. Those fenders would have come in handy on my very first tour to Colorado. Every afternoon, we had to find shelter in advance of the daily rainshowers.

When I moved to Seattle, I resisted fenders for two rainy winters, because I didn’t want to go back to the sluggish performance of my childhood Peugeots. When my teammates finally made me put fenders on my bike, I couldn’t bring myself to “compromise” my racing bike. Instead, I equipped my touring bike with fenders, and even on that bike, I took the fenders off every spring.
In retrospect, it’s clear why the Bianchi was such an epiphany. Its Columbus SL frame was much lighter and more flexible than the “drainpipe” I was used to. For the first time in my life, I experienced “planing.” Of course, I still thought that stiffer frames were better, and I tried to explain the superior performance with the more obvious differences: the lack of fenders, lights and racks, plus the skinny tires. The Peugeot was fully equipped and slow, the racing bikes were lighter and thus faster (or so I thought).

It took a whole “Journey of Discovery” to figure out that my dislike of fenders was misguided. I learned slowly and over many years that I could have fenders, lights and racks without giving up the performance of the racing bikes which I loved so much.
To some, it may appear like I have come full circle, and that my current French-inspired bikes are similar to the Peugeots of my childhood. Nothing could be further from the truth. The randonneur machines I ride today (above) really are closely related to the racing bikes that transformed cycling for me. Their lightweight, flexible frames are responsible for their speed, and the fenders, lights and rack simply increase these bikes’ versatility without detracting from their performance.

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History of Aluminum Cranks

During the development of our new René Herse cranks over the last two years, I have been thinking a lot about crank design. Modern cranks are an interesting story of standards that evolved until nobody remembers why they were adopted in the first place. Here are a few questions that I tried to answer:

  • Why do triple cranks have two different bolt-circle diameters?
  • Why do makers offer “compact” and regular cranks, when you could make 53-tooth chainrings for “compact” cranks and offer only a single, more versatile model?
  • Why do “road” cranks have five-arm spiders, but many “mountain bike” cranks have only four, and some only three?

When something doesn’t appear to make sense, it often helps to look at how it evolved over time.
The first successful aluminum cranks were introduced in 1933 by Stronglight (photo at the top). They used a square taper fitting on the spindle instead of the cotters used by most steel cranks at the time. As their name implied, these cranks were strong and light.
They had one drawback. The chainring attached to a small flange on the right crankarm, as was common among cranks at the time. If you ran two or more chainrings, the additional chainrings attached to the big ring with bolts, nuts and spacers. Installing the chainrings on these cranks is a fiddly business. The small bolts are under-dimensioned. It is hard to tighten them enough without breaking them.

The next modern aluminum crank was offered by René Herse in 1938 (above; 1950s tandem version shown). Herse mounted his chainrings to a larger spider instead of a flange. Using three arms and a bolt-circle diameter of 70 mm, these cranks preserved all the advantages of the Stronglight, while making it much easier to attach the chainrings. The cranks could be set up as a single, double or triple with any chainring combination down to 24 teeth.
When Herse began to offer complete bicycles in 1940, his cranks were available only on his bikes.  If you wanted a René Herse crank, you had to buy a René Herse bike. This precluded a more widespread adoption of this great design.

Starting in the late 1940s, Tullio Campagnolo adopted a number of cyclotouring components for racing. The first was the Gran Sport derailleur, which was based on the Nivex parallelogram derailleur. (Campagnolo famously bought two Nivex derailleurs from Alex Singer the year before he introduced the Gran Sport. You can read Bicycle Quarterly’s article on the development of the Gran Sport here.) The Gran Sport was so successful that it set the mold for all modern derailleurs. Even Shimano’s electronic Di2 rear derailleur can trace its ancestry directly to the Gran Sport.
When Campagnolo offered his first cranks in 1958 (above, 1965 version shown), Campagnolo used five arms for the spider instead of Herse’s three arms. Perhaps he thought that racers needed more support for the chainrings? Like Herse, he considered the smallest chainring his customers would use.  At the time, most racers used a small chainring with 47 teeth. The result was a 151 mm bolt-circle diameter.

Around the same time, triple cranks were becoming popular among racers. Campagnolo offered a “Strada” model that simply used longer chainring bolts and nuts, plus spacers, so you could bolt a third chainring to your cranks. Of course, a triple with a small ring of 47 teeth was of little use to most riders.
Some mechanics instead retrofitted Campagnolo cranks with a third ring, with a smaller bolt circle (from Stronglight or TA). They drilled holes into the crank’s spider, tapped them, and attached the third ring with spacers. The photo above shows one of these home-made conversions. Since it’s a tandem, you see a fourth chainring, which is on the other side of the bike.
In the 1970s, Campagnolo began offering a factory-made version of this design. The Campagnolo triple appears to have been the first production crank with two different bolt-circle diameters.
For decades, most component makers copied Campagnolo, sometimes with small modifications. Shimano’s cranks used a 130 mm bolt-circle diameter that allowed using chainrings down to 38 teeth. Campagnolo reduced their bolt-circle diameter first to 144 mm (42-tooth chainrings), then to 135 mm (39-tooth chainrings).

When mountain bikes popularized triple chainrings, the crank makers copied the dual bolt-circle diameter of the old Campagnolo “retrofit” triple cranks (above; the second set of bolts is hidden on the other side of the crank). Component makers reduced the bolt-circle diameters to allow the use of smaller chainrings, but did not reexamine whether it made sense to have two different bolt circles on the same cranks.

During the 1980s, Campagnolo tried to break away from the dual-bolt circle diameter “retrofit” cranks. Their Gran Sport Touring, Victory and Triomphe cranks had a smaller 116 mm bolt-circle diameter (above), so they could be equipped as doubles or triples, with chainrings down to 36 teeth. (It appears that Campagnolo could not envision anybody using rings smaller than 36 teeth.)
The basic idea was sound, but it fell by the wayside as Shimano began to dominate the component market. When Campagnolo offered a road triple again in the 1990s, they were back to two different bolt circles.

In recent years, Shimano’s mountain bike cranks have moved away from the five-arm spider. To save weight, they now use four arms. However, the two bolt circles remain.

On triple cranks for the road, Shimano remains faithful to the tradition of five-arm spiders and multiple bolt circles, even though the extra arms and larger bolt circle for the outer rings provide no advantage.

In recent years, many riders found they needed chainrings smaller than the 39- or 38-teeth offered by racing cranks. Crank makers could have reduced the bolt-circle diameter further, just like Campagnolo had in the past. Instead, they offered additional “compact” models (above) with a 110 mm bolt circle. This bolt circle limits the smallest ring to 34 teeth, even though many riders could use smaller chainrings. The crank makers continue to offer the larger bolt circles for their “standard” cranks.

Even today, the old René Herse design remains the most logical: It allows using any chainring combination. It’s lighter than most modern cranks, because it uses only as much material as needed. The Herse cranks did not serve as a template for the industry because they were too rare and mostly unknown when “modern” cranks were introduced during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Instead, everybody copied the Campagnolo cranks, which initially were intended for ultra-strong racers, and then retrofitted with a third chainring for those not strong enough to climb hills in a 47-tooth (and later 42-tooth) chainring. It appears that nobody took a clean sheet of paper and tried to come up with a more rational design for a bicycle crank.
We are proud to reintroduce René Herse cranks, so that today’s cyclists can enjoy the benefits of light weight, narrow tread (Q factor), unlimited chainring choices, and easy setup.

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Pricing Small Parts

There are different philosophies on how to set prices. The traditional way is to figure out how much something costs to make, add a little profit, and determine the retail price. The more modern way is to keep your prices low on “high-visibility” items for which people comparison-shop, but inflate your margins on “add-on” products that people tend to buy without comparing prices.
I may be old-fashioned, but I dislike having to compare prices on everything I buy. I prefer to shop from companies whom I can trust to sell at fair prices, no matter what I buy. This is how we set prices at Compass Bicycles.

For example, we sell our Nitto handlebar shims for $ 12. Another popular cyclotouring mail-order company charges 25% more and sells them for $ 15.

We sell the Park Tool BBT-18, used to install SKF bottom brackets, for $ 12. Other companies charge between $ 17 and $ 19 for this tool.
For most customers, it may not make a huge difference, but I feel it’s  more honest to charge a normal markup on these “add-on” items, even though most people don’t compare prices on them.

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The Dangers of Narrow Tires

It is unfortunate that most “road” and even “hybrid” bikes are sold with tires so narrow that you cannot cross streetcar tracks at an oblique angle without risking a fall.
The Seattle Times reported recently about a rail line that crosses a city street not far from my house. “A bicyclist falls there daily,” the article reports. A business owner at the tracks found that “bike wrecks are so constant he keeps a first-aid kit at his front door.”
Over the past decade, there were 66 crashes serious enough to call out the fire department. Then there are the accidents on Seattle’s drawbridges, where cyclists fall into one-inch-wide cracks, sometimes with horrific consequences. There has been much talk about what could be done to make these places safer for cyclists, but gaps and tracks simply are part of the urban landscape in which we cycle.

I know that a skilled rider can bunny-hop across tracks and cracks, no matter at what angle they run. However, the fact is that many people ride bikes who are not that skilled. Nor should they need to be.
With the 42 mm-wide tires of my Urban Bike, I have experimented (at low speed) with the gap next to the rails. Even when crossing the tracks at a very shallow angle, the tires just rolled over the gap.
Since we cannot eliminate tracks and cracks from all roads, why don’t we fit 42 mm tires to the bikes that are sold to most cyclists? Wider tires would make cycling much safer. Besides, the current research indicates that wide tires are at least as fast as narrow tires. In fact, I never felt that I was handicapped during Paris-Brest-Paris last week by the 42 mm tires on my new randonneur bike. Of course, bikes with narrow tires would still be available for enthusiasts who really like the look and feel of narrow tires – but they’d come with warning labels.

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Report from Paris-Brest-Paris

I enjoy returning to Paris to ride  the Paris-Brest-Paris event. Paris is a place steeped in cyclotouring history. Several of us met in front of Notre Dame to ride to the start for the bike check; this is where the Flèche Vélocio used to start for the teams from Paris. We rode up the smooth cobblestones of the Champs Elysées (where the Tour de France ends each year), rounded the Arc de Triomphe, and continued through the Bois de Bologne. We passed by the 3.7 km-long cycling-only road around the horseracing track at Longchamps, where cyclists have met for almost a century to train. During World War II, when curfews made long randonnées difficult, cyclotourists had their tandem sprints and other competitions on this road. Lucien Détée once told me: “After work, I often went there, and within a few laps had met somebody I knew, and we rode together.”

A little out of Paris proper, we looked at the plaque commemorating the last stop of Charles Terront on his way to win the very first Paris-Brest-Paris in 1891. The plaque used to be on the building that housed the café where he got some food and drink. When the building was torn down, the plaque was saved and mounted on a plinth. The plaque explains that when Terront reached this point, he had covered 1170 km in 71:16 hours “without rest.”

A little down the road, we passed in front of the Chateau of Versailles and made a quick detour into the gardens, which were full of Parisians enjoying the sunny weekend.
PBP itself was exciting as always. A bit too exciting for me, as I was involved in an unfortunate crash early on, one of many crashes caused by excited riders on racing bikes with compromised handling due to some adventurous bag arrangements.  Fortunately, neither bike nor I were too damaged to continue.
Riding with a few friends, we enjoyed the applause of the locals in the little villages we traversed. As planned, we eventually split up to ride at our own pace. The ocean in Brest was beautiful, and the going was good into the second night. Then we hit a huge thunderstorm that followed us all night, for 9 hours of torrential downpour. We rode through sheets of water on the road, while the lightning was so bright that we could see for miles. It was impressive, but not the best conditions for riding a bike. I was glad for my big fenders, mudflap, and wide 650B tires that allowed me to descend in the rainy night without worrying too much about potholes, cracks and debris on the road.
Despite my layers of wool jerseys and my rain jacket, I became miserably cold by morning, so I decided to take a 30-minute sleep break at a control. I felt totally refreshed after that, and the remaining 340 km to Paris went by quickly, helped along by a tailwind that made up for the headwinds we had faced on the way out. One of the quiet joys of PBP is to meet up with fellow riders who ride at a similar pace; I came across a nice group and together we sped up for the last leg. We finished the ride in great spirits.
I returned the next morning and saw more of my Seattle friends finish their PBP, looking good and strong. I was glad to see that most of them were happy with their rides. At the awards ceremony, we saw the three first riders from 50 years ago mount the podium. Lyli Herse handed out trophies for the oldest and youngest riders, making a touching end to a memorable event about bicycles, French roads, and people from around the world.

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Letters to the Editor

We get many letters and e-mails. We read them all, but we cannot reply to each and every one. We select a few for inclusion to Bicycle Quarterly “Readers’ Forum” pages. How do we select these letters?
To be published, a letter must add something new to the discussion. We really enjoy the many letters that say “I love Bicycle Quarterly, and you guys have changed the way I ride!” However, publishing them would amount to self-congratulation, and add little new material to the discussion.
Sometimes, readers ask specific technical questions, like: “Should I choose 700C or 650B wheels for my new bike?” Unfortunately, we cannot answer these questions, because there are too many variables involved. They are best addressed to a bike builder, a bike fitter, or perhaps an internet forum like the i-Bob list. You may also look through the index of Bicycle Quarterly back issues. The back issues contain a lot of information that will help you make your decision.
A letter that says: “I read your article on mounting handlebar bags, and decided to build my own rack. Here is a photo.” is of interest to our readers, especially if the photo shows something different from what our article recommended.
If somebody adds a detail to an article, like a date to a historical article, we will publish that contribution, unless it’s obviously in error. Personal experiences – say a reader who visited the shop of a builder we portrayed – also are wonderful contributions.
As with all cutting-edge research, our findings can be controversial. We are well-aware of that, and we welcome open discussions of our methods, data and interpretations. If a reader disagrees with our findings, and spells out why, they are almost guaranteed to have their letter published. (If they prefer to write an entire article that rebuts our findings, the article will be published if it makes it through our standard outside review process, that is, if it is well-researched and if the data presented supports the conclusions.)
I consider Bicycle Quarterly’s “Readers’ Forum” an essential part of the magazine. It is part of the two-way flow of information that connects us with the community of our readers.

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The Big Picture

It’s amazing to me that  the big picture often gets overlooked. I am not talking about willful distortion, but about well-intentioned people looking at only one part of the equation in an attempt to arrive at a good but simple solution. Here are two examples, both concerned with reducing pollution.
All over the world, incandescent light bulbs are being phased out in favor of compact fluorescent lamps, which use less energy to emit the same amount of light. Incandescent bulb filaments create light by glowing white-hot, so a lot of electricity is converted into the wasteful byproduct of heat.
Compact fluorescent light bulbs have their own disadvantages: They contain mercury and are toxic, creating a disposal problem. (Don’t throw them in the trash!) They emit a colder, bluish light, which can contribute to the “winter blues” (now called “seasonal affective disorder”). However, the consensus is that to save the Earth, these negatives are worth it.
One question few people have asked is: “Where does the “wasted” energy of an incandescent bulb go?” The answer is simple. It heats the room.
I live in Seattle, where we turn on the lights mostly in winter, when it is cold. When it is cold, we also run the heater. Switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs will decrease my electricity consumption, but it will increase the gas used by my heating system. The net result will be zero energy savings.
For northern regions, the phase-out of incandescent bulbs looked only at one part of the equation, but not the big picture. Of course, if I still lived in Texas, and if I lived in an air-conditioned house rather than one with ceiling fans and cross-ventilation, then the switch to compact fluorescent bulbs would save energy twice: Once with the reduced consumption of the light bulb, and again with the reduced energy use of the air conditioning system. Also, the “winter blues” aren’t so much of a problem in Texas. So it would make sense to phase out incandescent light bulbs in Texas, but keep them in Seattle.

Cars are another issue that requires a nuanced view. Many people recommend replacing older cars with newer ones that get better gas mileage to reduce emissions. Such generalizations overlook the emissions and environmental impact of making the new car. Producing raw materials and manufacturing at car factories cause a lot of pollution. Car parts and finished cars are shipped all over the world, which uses a lot of energy. Generally, it is recognized that 10-15% of a car’s pollution is caused by its manufacture, the rest by driving it. (There also is the environmental impact of disposing of the old car.)
My car is 19 years old, and gets about 25 mpg. That isn’t great: I could buy a Honda Fit that gets 33 mpg – a huge improvement of almost 30%. Wouldn’t that be great for the environment?
The surprising answer is “No.” Our car is driven about 4000 miles a year. That means that the Honda Fit would reduce my annual gasoline consumption from 160 gallons to 121 gallons, a savings of 39 gallons. If the pollution of making the car is equivalent to about 600 gallons of gas (200,000 miles lifespan : 33 mpg x 10%), then the Honda Fit would take over 15 years to “amortize” the pollution caused by its manufacture – if it lasts that long.
Of course, if you drive 40,000 miles a year, then your Honda Fit would amortize its manufacture in less than 2  years, and both the environment and – somewhat later – your budget would come out ahead.
These examples show that simple “one size fits all” solutions tend to overlook crucial nuances. Compact fluorescent light bulbs make a lot of sense in hot climates, but not in Seattle. Replacing an old car with a new, more fuel efficient one makes sense for people who drive a lot, but not for many cyclists who use their bikes as their main transportation.

Similar questions occur in cycling. For example, are wider tires faster? Once again, the answer is: “It depends.” On a smooth indoor track at very high speeds (above), relatively narrow tires at high pressures may be most efficient.

For a long-distance ride at lower speeds (where aerodynamic drag is less important), on rougher roads (where suspension losses can be very large), much wider tires at much lower pressures undoubtedly roll faster.
Simple answers tend to overlook crucial factors. You really have to look at the big picture to make good decisions for your situation.

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PBP Preparation: Bike Route from Paris to the Start

For those staying in Paris before PBP, here is a bike route from the Arc de Triomphe to the start in Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines.
The route is easy to follow, yet it doesn’t see a lot of traffic. There is a nice bike path after you ride past the Chateau of Versailles. The only tricky turn is toward the end, the left onto the D129 “Rue Emile Zola,” which is a small street on a steep hill. The total distance is just under 25 km: A perfect warm-up for the big ride.

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PBP Preparation: Quality Time Off the Bike

Many people think that the difference between a fast ride and a slow one is a superhuman power output. While some riders ride somewhat faster than others, especially on hills, the main factor affecting the time to complete a ride is off-the-bike time.
In Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), imagine riding from Carhaix to Brest at an average speed of 25 km/h (15.6 mph). It takes 3:43 hours to complete this 93 km stretch. Now imagine increasing your pace by 2 km/h (1.2 mph). That requires working a lot harder on the bike. When you get to Brest, you have gotten ahead 16 minutes.
Sixteen minutes can be quickly spent when you are stopped. I timed myself taking off my leg warmers (without removing shoes) in a hurry. It took 54 seconds – almost a minute. Some riders spend 5 minutes at a control, others an hour. The extra 55 minutes are lost. It is impossible to make up that much time on the road, no matter how fast you ride. If you bring your camera and plan to spend time photographing yourself and fellow cyclists during the ride, consider that professional photographers will take great pictures of you cycling at a number of scenic spots along the route. You can buy the photos after you finish the ride.
To minimize your time off the bike, make every stop count. Plan ahead before you reach a control, and think of what you want to do there. Stay focused and take everything you need off the bike before you enter the control, so you don’t walk back and forth between your bike and the control to get your wallet, and then your spare clothes, and then your water bottles, etc.
However, this does not mean that all your stops should be the bare minimum. I plan a few longer stops that will restore body and soul. During our tandem ride in PBP 2003, we spent 30 relaxed minutes off the bike in Loudéac (see photo above). The rest was very salutary. It gave us renewed vigor for the following hills toward Carhaix.
Here are some ideas to maximize your rest while you are off the bike:

  • Don’t stand if you can sit. Riding a bicycle is a weight-bearing activity like walking. Sitting down allows your leg muscles to rest.
  • If you really need a rest, lay down. Your body recovers best if it does not have to expend any energy on holding itself up.
  • Close your eyes when you don’t need to see (not while riding, of course). Riding for long times strains your eyes more than any other part of your body. I may sound funny, but I chew with my eyes closed when I eat during PBP.
  • If you plan to sleep, get to bed quickly, rather than lingering over dinner because you are too tired to get up.

A few strategically planned rests provide significant benefits and enjoyment, whereas simply wasting time due to fatigue at a control does not do you much good. If things are not going according to plan, consider adding an unscheduled rest. You probably will feel so much better on the bike afterward that you may even make up the time you lost. Make sure that your schedule has you far enough ahead of the time limit to allow for these quality stops.
The roadside stands with food and drink along the PBP route can be very memorable stops. Plan to enjoy a piece of cake or a cup of tea, and practice your French as you say “Merci beaucoup” before making room for the next rider and heading on your way. It only takes two or three minutes, and your PBP experience will be the richer for it.

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PBP Preparation: Mavic Reflective Vest

In my quest for a suitable reflective vest that meets the PBP regulations, that is comfortable to wear, and that doesn’t take much space in my handlebar bag, I now have bought a Mavic reflective vest. How does it compare to the “official” PBP  and the Rapha vests, which I tested earlier?
Mavic Vision Vest
Cost: $ 110
Size tested: Medium
Weight: 153 g
Country of manufacture: Indonesia
Availability: various sources, I bought mine from www.expeditionco.com

The Mavic vest is a “wind breaker” vest that doubles as a reflective vest. The front uses a nylon shell material, while the upper back panel is a breathable, closely-woven mesh. A large zippered pocket on the lower back could be left open to increase ventilation. (Otherwise, you’ll have two layers of nylon shell material on your lower back.) The vest is heavier and bulkier than the Rapha vest, but lighter and smaller than the “official” vest.
Mavic’s vest has ample amounts of reflective material on the back, some of it placed low enough to be visible when the rider is in the drops. It reflects well (below), and it meets the EN 1150 standard that now is required in PBP.

I usually wear medium-sized cycling jerseys, and Mavic’s size Medium vest fit snugly over two wool jerseys. When in doubt about sizing, I recommend ordering the next size up.
The vest does not have mesh panels at the front or on the sides, so it will keep you warm. This can be good on cold nights during PBP, but may cause you to overheat during hot nights.
Of the vests reviewed so far, this one is my favorite. It isn’t perfect: I usually do not wear wind breakers, so I would prefer a vest that is more ventilated. At least the Mavic vest fits snugly. It does not absorb much moisture. Most importantly, it reflects well and meets the EN 1150 guidelines. I probably will wear this one at PBP.

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The Aunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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René Herse Crank Weight

In our original announcement of the new René Herse cranks, we wrote that they were lighter than Campagnolo Record Carbon cranks. A few readers asked us to substantiate this. We weighed the cranks on Bicycle Quarterly’s precision scale (above).
We don’t have the final chainrings for our new cranks yet, so the weight may still change by a few grams, but here is the comparison:
René Herse (171 mm):
Right crank (48-32 chainrings, steel bolts): 385 g
Left crank: 163 g
Set: 548 g
Campagnolo Record Carbon (2006 model, square taper, 175 mm):
Right crank (53-39 chainrings, aluminum bolts): 444 g
Left crank: 225 g
Set: 669 g
The two cranks are not directly comparable, since the Campagnolo crank is slightly longer and has somewhat larger chainrings. However, comparing the left crankarms (which don’t have chainrings), you see that the Campagnolo arms are 62 grams (38%) heavier than the René Herse crankarms. The right arms are 59 grams heavier, indicating that chainrings and bolts weigh about the same on both cranks. (Campagnolo’s larger chainrings are thinner, and they use aluminum bolts, which makes up for their slightly larger size and greater number of bolts.)
We weighed the 2006 model, because it was the last time Campagnolo offered a separate crank without an integrated bottom bracket. Current Campagnolo cranks have integrated bottom bracket spindles. The spindles have thin walls and use very small bearings, which saves significant weight. If we include a 1950s-style René Herse bottom bracket with extra-large bearings that are pressed straight into the bottom bracket shell, the comparison is as follows:
René Herse:
Cranks: 548 g
Bottom bracket (110 mm, with bearings and dust caps): 235 g
Crank bolts (2): 31 g
Total: 814 g
Campagnolo (2011 Record Ultra-Torque, 50-34 rings):
Cranks with BB spindle: 622 g*
BB cups: 54 g*
Total: 679 g*
*Campagnolo’s claimed weight.

Clearly, the low weight of modern cranks is mostly due to the superlight bottom brackets, rather than the cranks themselves. With the bottom bracket, the latest Campagnolo carbon cranks weigh 135 grams less than an equivalent set of René Herse components. Much of the Herse’s extra weight is in the large bearings (72 g for two bearings). On the plus side, the bearings last for decades without overhaul. For me, that is worth a few extra grams.

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PBP Preparation: Reflective Vests and Rapha Jersey

Rapha recently introduced their “Paris-Brest-Paris Jersey.” It is designed specifically for randonneuring, and as a bonus, it comes with a reflective vest. The vest has generated considerable interest among randonneurs…
Randonneuring requires riding at night. To improve rider safety, randonneuring rules not only require lights, but also reflective clothing. Reflective vests are a good idea also for all other cyclists who ride at night.
At the PBP equipment check, riders will have to show that their lights are operable, that they have spare batteries if they use battery-powered lights, and that they have an EN-approved reflective vest. This last requirement has changed recently, and most of the reflective clothing that riders have been using does not meet the new EN standard 1150. As a result, many randonneurs are looking for a new reflective vest to take to PBP.
At the check-in for PBP, the organizers will sell the “official” PBP vest that meets the requirements (right in photo above). Our club ordered these vests this spring, so I got to try it before arriving in Paris. In addition, Rapha sent me a jersey and their vest (left in photo above) for a test.
Official PBP Vest
Cost: $ 35
Size tested: Small
Weight: 183 g
Country of manufacture: not indicated
Availability: PBP check-in

The “official” vest is a substantial garment made from polyester, with numerous reflective stripes glued and sewn on. When I did not wear it, the vest took up more space in my handlebar bag than my (admittedly very small) raincoat. At 183 g, it is relatively heavy.
The sizing runs large. I usually wear Medium cycling jerseys, but a size Small vest fit me well even with two wool jerseys underneath. I wore the vest during our 600 km brevet. The night was cool, but not cold, and the vest provided a little additional insulation. The vest was well-fitted and did not flap much even during high-speed descents. The vest absorbs significant amounts of water when riding in the rain. Randonneurs from the American South have reported that the vest got soaked in sweat during hot nights on the bike, making it uncomfortable to wear.
While the “official” vests reflects well and meets the PBP rules, its bulkiness, heavy weight, and limited use in a layering system makes this vest a relatively poor choice for randonneurs.
Rapha Paris-Brest-Paris Jersey and Vest
Cost: $ 205 (registered PBP entrants get a 20% discount after they e-mail their registration confirmation)
Size tested: Medium
Weight: 293 g (jersey)/73 g (vest)
Country of manufacture: China
Availability: www.rapha.cc

Rapha recently introduced their PBP jersey, which comes with a “complimentary” reflective “gilet.” I really liked Rapha’s bib shorts (Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 9, No. 3), so I had high expectations for the jersey.
The “Paris-Brest-Paris” jersey has as many features as you’d expect from a cycling jersey for James Bond. Two of its 6 pockets are hidden, and there are multiple zippers. I carry my luggage in a handlebar bag, so these features are of  little use for me. The jersey is relatively heavy at 293 g. (A “racing” Polyester jersey weighs 143 g.)
On the road, the Medium jersey did not fit very well. I found that its cut was restrictive over my shoulders, and the fabric bunched up under my armpits. The 60% Polyester/40% Wool fabric felt clammy once I started to sweat, even though it was not very hot. The jersey features a lined pocket on the left side of the chest, which blocked the air circulating through the jersey on one side only.
Contrasting with the feature-laden jersey, Rapha’s reflective vest uses a minimalist design. It is built like a “windbreaker” vest with ample mesh panels on the sides and back. The vest folds into the space of a small apple, and it weighs just 73 g. The Rapha vest does not meet the EN standard, but some riders have suggested asking whether it could be used in PBP. (It is unfortunate that Rapha did not consult with the PBP organizers to make their PBP vest meet the new rules.)
The Rapha vest’s pink color may be less suitable for riding in rural America, but in France, it should not raise any concerns. The Medium size fit me well. In the rain, the vest does not absorb significant amounts of moisture. My only concern is the placement of the reflective material. This consists of a black and a white stripe on the front and back. The stripes on the back are placed so high that they are barely visible on a rider who is riding in the drops (see photo below). The black Rapha logo also is reflective. However, the black reflective material is not very effective (see photo at the top of this post).

The official PBP vest offers good reflectivity, but its bulk and non-technical fabric make it a less appealing choice. On the plus side, it is affordable.
The Rapha reflective vest is a lightweight performance garment with great potential. Unfortunately, it falls short on its main purpose, which is to increase the rider’s visibility. Only the white stripe offers good reflectivity, and it is attached too high for optimum visibility from behind. The black reflective material is not very effective. And you have to buy the jersey to get the vest.
I still haven’t found the ideal vest, and it’s a disadvantage to have so little time before the event to figure it out. Here are the current PBP rules. The ideal vest would use Rapha’s minimalist design with the “official” vests reflective materials. Come to think of it, I might be able to sew some of the “EN-approved” reflective material onto the Rapha vest…

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Bicycle Quarterly Get-Together at PBP

Following Paris-Brest-Paris 2011, Bicycle Quarterly readers (and others) are invited to an informal get-together at the historic start and finish of the famous 1200 km ride. On Friday, 26 August 2011, starting at 11 a.m., we plan to meet at the Brasserie Aux Trois Obus.
During the 1940s and 1950s, randonneurs started from this café at the Porte de Saint-Cloud on the western edge of Paris, and returned there after 50+ hours on the road. Shown in the photo above is Roger Baumann, who was the first single-bike rider to arrive in 1956. (Many of you have read the interview with him in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 2.)
Today, the café remains almost as it was back then. Even the huge trees are still there. I look forward to meeting many readers and other randonneurs in person. We’ll exchange PBP experiences, look at bikes and have a good time. I will invite several old French randonneurs about whom you may have read in Bicycle Quarterly, so brush up on your French!
The Brasserie Aux Trois Obus is at 120 rue Michel-Ange, 75016 Paris. Please plan to be an ordering customer at the Brasserie (no host event).

It is easy to reach from Paris by subway (Métro station Porte de Saint-Cloud) or from Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines via the SNCF suburban trains (Issy Val de Seine station and short walk/ride across the Seine River). See you there!

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The Beauty of Paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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René Herse Cranks – Strong Enough?

When we presented the new René Herse cranks last week, a number of people wondered whether they would be strong enough. After all, most cranks have four or five spider arms, whereas the Herse cranks use only three. And what about the small bolt-circle diameter? Does it support the chainrings sufficiently?
Classic components have one major advantage: They have proven themselves. We don’t have to guess whether they are a good design, we can look at their record. Or records – because numerous performance records have been set with René Herse cranks.
The photo above is from the Summer 2011 Bicycle Quarterly. It shows Lucien Détée and Gilbert Bulté on their way to a record in the Journée Vélocio hillclimb. That climb was about 3 km (2 miles) long, up a steep hill near Paris that maxed out at 15%.
Their Herse tandem is equipped with Herse cranks. Think of the forces on that large 54-tooth chainring as this powerful team sprints out of the saddle, up this steep hill, in an all-out effort.
Détée and Bulté were among the strongest randonneurs of their era. They just had been the fastest riders in the 1956 Paris-Brest-Paris. They also set a record in the 100 km (64 mile) time trial, averaging over 43 km/h (27 mph). All these rides, and many more, were on René Herse cranks. I asked them whether they ever had problems with their cranks or chainrings, and the answer was: “No.” If Herse cranks were stiff enough for the combined forces of these two riders, they will be fine even for the most powerful racers.

Speaking of powerful racers, here is Geneviève Gambillon on the way to winning the 1972 world championships, on a René Herse bike with Herse cranks. She was known for her powerful sprint, and she used it to devastating effect at the world championships. She repeated her performance two years later, winning the 1974 world championships in Montreal. (The photo is taken from our book The Competition Bicycle.)
René Herse cranks has proven themselves over decades and millions of kilometers of hard riding. We are confident that the new production will be at least as reliable.
So why do other makers use more arms on their spiders and larger bolt circles? That is a topic for a separate post: stay tuned.

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René Herse Cranks

Compass Bicycles and René Herse Bicycles are proud to introduce a modern version of the classic René Herse crank. The new crank will be available this fall.
Some products are hard to improve; they make you wonder why all components are not made that way. The classic René Herse cranks are like that. Here are some of the features that make them stand out:

  • Three-arm spider to support the chainrings: Most cranks today use four or five arms, but they only add weight. Three arms support the chainrings well. Two arms would not be enough, since they do not triangulate the chainring support. (If you wonder whether three bolts can handle the torque of a strong rider, check out this Renault Alpine sports car. Its wheels attach with three bolts each.)
  • 70 mm bolt-circle diameter: Herse determined that a 24-tooth chainring was the smallest chainring that riders might want. This determined the bolt-circle diameter of 70 mm. All chainrings have the same bolt-circle diameter.
  • Single, double or triple: One, two or three chainrings can be bolted to the spider. There is no need to buy new cranks if you want to go from a double to a triple chainring setup.
  • Unlimited chainring combinations: Since all chainrings have the same bolt circle diameter, you can use any chainring combination from 24 teeth upwards. Most cranks today use bolt-circle diameters that make it virtually impossible to set up useful combinations like 48-32 or 46-30.
  • Light weight: With only three arms on the spider, only three chainring bolts, and a smart overall design, the Herse cranks are very light, lighter even than carbon-fiber Campagnolo Record cranks.
  • Low tread (Q factor): Most classic Herse cranks were between 130 and 140 mm wide, even with triple chainrings.
  • Great reliability: Herse cranks have been ridden to world championships. They were used on tandems that climbed the 15% hill of the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race in the big ring. Over decades of hard riding, they have proven extremely reliable.
  • Elegance: Highly polished, with a beautiful circle pattern formed by the arms and chainrings.

The new cranks are faithful to the original design in most points. Over 2 years of research and development, we have modernized the cranks in ways that Herse might have done as well, if the technology had been available back then:

  • 6066 forged aluminum arms: This alloy offers most of the strength of 7000-series alloys without that material’s risk of stress corrosion cracking.
  • 7075 CNC machined chainrings: This high-strength alloy greatly increases the lifespan of the chainrings. The rings are clear anodized for protection against corrosion.
  • Gently curved arms: While preserving the classic appearance, the slight curve of the arms (see photo above) provides extra ankle clearance. (Modern CNC machining makes it easier to create curved forging dies, which would have been difficult in Herse’s day.)
  • JIS square taper bottom bracket: The curved arms use a shorter, and thus lighter, spindle (110 – 113 mm for double; 121 – 126 mm for triple).
  • 22 mm extractor: The standard tool to remove the cranks is in almost every cyclist’s tool box.
  • Compatible with 10-speed drivetrains. A little extra space between the arm and outer chainring provides room for the “sculpted” cages of most modern front derailleurs. Moving the arms slightly outward also keeps the chain from hitting the end of the crank in the largest gear with modern, wide cassettes. As a result, the new cranks’ tread (Q factor) is slightly wider than that of the originals: about 142 mm for a double. This still is lower than most cranks available today.

The new cranks will be available in the Fall with a large range of ring sizes from 24 to 48 teeth. We will offer the cranks with single, double and triple chainrings, as well as a tandem model.

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Fully Equipped Bikes – Follow-Up

A little while ago, we talked about how sports cars are equipped with lights and fenders, and nobody thinks they are less sporty for it.
Performance bicycles don’t have lights and fenders, because most “weekend warriors” don’t think they need them. After all, they usually ride during daytime and in sunny weather. Plus racers don’t use lights and fenders, either.

Racers may want to rethink the equipment of their bikes. Tour de France champion Alberto Contador (above) was stopped recently by the French police.
For once, the issue was not doping, but riding a bike without lights. Contador was checking out the route of this summer’s Tour de France. There is a long, unlit tunnel at the top of the Col du Galibier (see photo at the top of the post). The police did not accept Contador’s argument that his team car would illuminate the road for him. He had a choice of turning around or getting into his team car. You can read the full story here. I wonder whether the police will stop the entire peloton when the Tour de France comes through in July…
I doubt we’ll see generator hubs and lights on Tour de France bikes this summer. Can we even envision a racing bike with lights and fenders?
Just a few weeks ago, we did see race cars at the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans fully equipped with fenders and lights. You see, the 24 Heures du Mans is a race for “sports cars.” They race at night and in the rain, and the rules require fenders and lights. Even with this equipment, Le Mans racers are the fastest race cars in the world, faster than the less aerodynamic Formula 1 racers.

Audi (above) competes at Le Mans and not in Formula 1, because people see the “sports cars” as more closely related to the cars they can buy. Winning Le Mans translates directly into selling more cars.
A similar “sports bike” category might reinvigorate bike racing, now that many teams are sponsored by bicycle manufacturers. Then manufacturers could sell city bikes with the sales pitch that a similar machine (more or less) had won the Tour de France.
And then we might see a new version of the 1954 Alex Singer below, with carbon-fiber fenders and integrated lights as part of a complete, lightweight package. Marketing aside, the real benefit would be to allow Contador and the weekend warriors to continue riding safely even if they encounter fog or a tunnel on their rides.

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PBP Training: Recovery

In the past, we’ve discussed hill intervals and how they make you stronger. They’ve certainly worked for me this spring, as I achieved one of my big goals this year: I completed my Cyclos Montagnards R60 Honors.
You get faster and stronger through overload and recovery. This means not only that you have to work hard enough during your intervals to overload your body, but also that you need to rest long enough to give your body time to adapt to the new demands that you place on it. How do you know whether you have recovered enough to do another set of intervals? How long after a big event should you rest before you start training seriously again?
The amount of recovery needed varies with a number of factors. How you feel on the bike indicates whether you have recovered or not. I find that I need 24-48 hours to recover from a hard training session, and as much as 5-6 days to recover from a long brevet.
How do I know whether I have recovered enough when I head out for another session of intervals? I start the ride as usual. If the first two intervals are sluggish, I am not concerned; my muscles have to flush out the left-over lactic acid or whatever it is that makes your legs sluggish after a hard effort. However, by the third time up the hill, my legs usually feel better. If my legs still don’t have much power, and I bog down where I usually soar, I know I have not recovered enough. I go for an easy spin, and try again a day or two later.
It helps to ride a favorite bike on days when your motivation is flagging a bit. If I am on a bike that does not work well with my pedal stroke, staying motivated is a lot harder.
Beyond the recovery from my training sessions, I also need a week-long period of recovery from time to time to recharge my body. After three weeks of training with increasing intensity, I take a whole week of rest.
I increase the intensity throughout the three weeks of training. During the third week, I train more often and with the most intensity. I may even do intensive workouts on consecutive days toward the end of that week (assuming I can find the time!). By the end of that third training week, I feel less eager to ride, and it is getting harder to keep up with friends who are training less. This is a clear sign that I am on the verge of overtraining – as I should be before taking a rest week. It is clear that overload alone does not make me faster, and that is why the rest week is important.
I schedule my rest weeks so that they fall before big events in which I hope to do a personal best. After the rest week, I feel eager to ride. I may take a few miles until my legs spin smoothly again, but then they feel stronger than ever before.
Everybody is different, and our bodies change as we train. With some experience, you can tell whether you are training too much. If you are not having fun even mid-way through a ride, it’s probably a good idea to increase your rest periods.
I ride my bike fast because I enjoy it. For that, I need what the French call “the taste for the effort” (le gout de l’effort). If that “appetite” is not present any longer, I know I need to change my training.
The photo is from the Summer 2011 Bicycle Quarterly. It shows the fastest riders in Paris-Brest-Paris 1956 a day after the ride, as they wait to do a “lap of honor” in the Parc des Princes velodrome.

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Summer 2011 Bicycle Quarterly

Happy Solstice! This means that summer officially has started, and the Summer issue of Bicycle Quarterly is at the printer. It will be mailed next week. The topics include:

  • Do larger wheels roll faster on bumpy roads than small ones?
  • Collecting roads: How to find the best backroads.
  • Test of the Ellis Randonneur bike that won “Best Frame” at the 2011 North American Handmade Bicycle Show.
  • How we test bikes and measure their geometries.
  • The story of the René Herse tandem that come first in Paris-Brest-Paris and won the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race, then was restored from a complete wreck.
  • More experiments on shimmy: What contributes to it, and what you can do to prevent or at least reduce it.
  • Peter Weigle explains in the “Builders Speak” series how he shaves tires to improve their performance.

Click here for more details and photos from the Summer 2011 Bicycle Quarterly. If you are not a current subscribers, sign up or renew today to make sure that the Summer issue reaches you without delay.

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Fully Integrated Design

Car drivers are lucky: They can buy sports cars that are fully equipped to be driven in the rain and even at night. And their fenders rarely rattle loose, their lights don’t fall off, and most car owners think little of driving 1200 km without having to tighten bolts or do other maintenance. The secret to this reliability and performance is a fully integrated design.
It wasn’t always like that. In the early days of the automobile, car makers provided just the chassis. Below is a brand-new Bugatti sports car ready for delivery.

Of course, the owner didn’t drive it like that, but took it to a body builder, where a body and all the other accessories were added. The owner got to choose the body style, the fender shape, lights and many other details. The resulting cars could be breathtakingly beautiful and elegant.

For the time, they offered great performance, too. Equipped with a 3.3 liter compressor engine, this Bugatti Type 57 could go 180 km/h (112 mph), and few cars could keep up with it on the open road during the late 1930s.
Fast forward 12 years, and suddenly you had a new breed of sports cars with smaller engines and much fewer horsepower that were not just able to keep up with the Bugatti, but outperform it with ease on a curving road.

What had happened? The Lancia above no longer used a separate chassis, but featured unibody construction. The body was the load-bearing structure. The fenders were integral to the design, and so were the lights. Not only was this structure lighter and more rigid, but it also greatly improved the reliability of the car. Gone were the days when fenders rattled loose, lights vibrated until their bulbs broke, and bodies cracked because they flexed independently of the chassis. Everything was conceived as a unit, everything worked together, and the result was a car with modern performance.
In the bike world, we are still stuck in the 1930s. If you buy a “real-world” performance bike at most bike stores, you get the equivalent of a rolling chassis, whether it’s a cyclocross, a touring or a “randonneur” bike. Here is an example:

The manufacturer expects you to add the various parts you need to make the suitable for real-world riding. The result usually looks something like this:

This bike has all the drawbacks of a 1930s cars and then some: The many clamps and adjustable sliders add a lot of weight. They are likely to come loose. You are bound to get rattles and resonances from the fenders. Lighting wires are zip-tied to the outside of the frame, where they are vulnerable. And the resulting bike doesn’t even look as elegant as a 1930s Bugatti. No wonder many cyclists prefer to ride just the rolling chassis, rather than deal with all the clamped-on “accessories.”
Now imagine a bike where all the parts you need have been integrated into the original design. For a loaded touring bike, it would look something like this bike from our book The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles (as always, click on the photo for a more detailed view):

The racks are custom-made for the frame. They fit exactly, with no adjustments necessary or even possible. That makes them lighter and above all stiffer, which improves the handling of the bike. It also means that they are unlikely to need tightening – ever.  The fenders attach directly to the frame, without spacers or tabs, providing a more solid attachment that is unlikely to flex,  resonate or crack. The lights are integrated into the rack (front) and fender (rear).
In the photo at the top of the post, you see a detail of such a fully integrated bike. Note how the fender attaches directly to the frame, with a reinforcement at the spot where the stresses are greatest. See the remote control lever for the generator, so you don’t need to stop if you want to turn on the lights. The fender has a small bulge to make room for the generator’s wheel. The lighting wires run inside the fenders and frame. This is not only prettier, but also reduces the risk of the wires getting snagged and broken.
The result is a lighter, stronger, more reliable and more elegant bike. It also offers better performance. It’s the bicycle equivalent of a modern car. Once you have experienced a fully integrated bicycle, it is hard to go back to the equivalent of a 1930s car.

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A Performance Bike

In recent years, the bike industry has realized that most riders don’t race, and so the racing bike has been renamed: It’s now called a “road bike” or a “performance bike.” In the minds of most cyclists, a performance bike has narrow tires, no fenders, no lights, no racks. My randonneur bikes (above) don’t fit that pattern. People ask me: “Is that a touring bike? Or is it a rain bike?” The implication is: That bike must be slow, because it has fenders, lights and a rack.
Let’s move away from bicycles for a moment, to another popular mode of transportation: cars. Imagine going to a car dealer, and asking for a “performance car.” What if the dealer offered you this model?

Imagine the sales pitch: “It’s our best model. It’s won many Grand Prix races. Perfect for your weekend drives, and if you like, you can commute in it to work as well. For the winter, you can add fenders and lights. We have various models of fenders in stock, and we have clamps to attach them, too. Here is a slightly older model that we converted for year-round use:

“And when the weather turns nice, of course, you’ll take off the fenders and lights. You’ll carry your stuff in one of our stylish shoulder bags, or we can clamp a rack to the rear suspension.”
You see where this is going? The Formula V “road car” above may be (barely) street-legal, but it is hardly anybody’s idea of a “performance car.” Instead, most people envision something like the cars below when they think “performance car”:

The Lotus Elise is one of the most radical sports cars you can buy in this country. Superlight and with a great chassis, it is at home on curving backroads as well as on the racetrack.
But wait a minute, how can the Lotus be a performance car, when it has lights? Fenders that don’t come off? Two seats and even a trunk? Shouldn’t we call that a “touring car” or a “rain car”?
Somehow, in the sports car world, nobody thinks a car is less sporty just because it has lights, fenders and can carry a few bags of groceries. One day, you can commute to work in the Lotus, and the next day, you can race it on the track. Why can’t “performance bikes” be fully equipped for the real world, while still offering exciting performance?
Perhaps it’s the racing stripes that make the Lotus look sporty in spite of its “touring” accessories. Will adding stripes to my randonneur bike make it look faster in the eyes of most cyclists?

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PBP Training: Hill Intervals

Whether you are training for Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), a century ride or racing, speed is an essential part of a successful event. Simply put, the faster you are able to ride, the more enjoyable (and less stressful) your ride will be. You’ll be able to work with pacelines, rather than just hang on. You’ll be able to take leisurely stops, rather than worry about running out of time. And hills will provide a welcome challenge rather than a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
Fortunately, it’s easy and fun to get faster. There is little mystery about how to acquire speed. The key concept is “overload and recovery/adaptation”. That means that you push your body beyond its comfortable maximum. Your body then adapts to this unfamiliar demand by becoming stronger. You need to give your body time to adapt by resting.
The overload part of the training is best done through structured intervals. During normal riding, even if you try hard, it’s difficult to achieve the “overload” that generates the maximum effect. Intervals allow you to ride as hard as you can, and then rest.
I find that a little friendly competition gives me the incentive to work harder than I usually would, so I often do the intervals with a friend or two. Plus, the rest periods between the intervals are a great time to talk, once we have recovered our breath.
Since climbing is the place where speed provides the greatest benefit, we pick a hill that is a little less than half a mile long. Our favorite is Alder Street in Seattle, because it undulates and curves, making it more interesting than a unrelenting, straight slog uphill. This street also offers great views, and a tree canopy offers shade on hot summer days.

To accommodate differences in our speed and daily form, we use a handicap for the climb. One of us starts a bit ahead (above), and then we race each other to the top. The slower rider tries to stay ahead, while the faster rider slowly catches up.

Ideally, we get to the top in a lung-busting sprint with less than a bike-length separating us.

During the climb, our legs should feel warm, maybe even with a slight burning sensation. On top, we should be so out of breath that we can hardly talk. It’s truly a maximum effort.
If we did a good job and achieved our absolute maximum, we take a little detour on the way down to get some extra rest (and work on our descending skills). If we misjudged the handicap, then either the “chaser” didn’t catch the leader, or passed too early. As we descend the hill, we adjust the handicap for the next run.
The handicap really makes it fun, because the rider who is most exceeding expectations gets to the top first, rather than the fastest rider. I think handicaps would be a great way to make competition interesting for riders of all abilities.
After four or five intervals, we spin along Lake Washington for half an hour before we do the same thing over. Then it’s time to go home – usually rather slowly, because we are tired. The whole training session takes less than two hours.
The recovery part of the “rest and recovery” equation is easy: No training the next day. We may run errands on the bike, or just stay in the office and get some work done!
The effects of the interval training are almost immediate and profound. Two or three interval sessions make a huge difference during the next big ride, whether it’s climbing a mountain or riding into a sustained headwind. Just make sure to rest enough to allow your body to adapt to the new demands you are placing on it.

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Keeping an Eye on Cranks

I spend so much time assembling test bikes, testing components, etc., that I have little time to work on my own bikes. Fortunately, my Alex Singer (above) has been very reliable, even though it is 38 years old and has been ridden at least 200,000 km (120,000 miles) in its lifetime, mostly under its first owner.
Before our Flèche ride, I adjusted the front brake pads, which had worn and started to touch the tire. After that 600 km ride, the chain was overdue for replacement. I replace the chain every 1600-1800 km to limit wear on the hard-to-replace freewheel cogs.
As so often, I only got around to replacing the chain the evening before the next big ride, our club’s 400 km brevet. After taking off the chain, I inspected the chainrings. The large 48-tooth chainring had worn so much that the teeth were very thin at their tops. In the photo below you can see the roots of the teeth, where they still feature their original thickness.

I was pondering this rapid rate of wear when I realized that I last had replaced the chainring four years ago. Since then, I had ridden the Singer about 25-30,000 km. Considering that I use the big-big combination frequently, which runs the chain at an extreme angle, that is a very acceptable rate of wear from the TA chainring. The small 32-tooth ring sees much less use. It remains in very good condition. Fortunately, I had a spare 48-tooth chainring, and it was a quick job to replace it.
On TA “Pro 5 vis” cranks, you need to remove the crank to replace the chainrings. In any case, it is a good idea to take the cranks off your bike every few years. As I unscrewed the crank bolts, I noticed that one had loosened a bit. Next I checked the bottom bracket. Four years ago, I had pressed new bearings into the Alex Singer bottom bracket, and as expected, they still spun smoothly. The first set of bearings had lasted 34 years, so I hope to get similar mileage out of these. (I really don’t miss the annual overhauls of cup-and-cone bottom brackets.)
After removing the chainrings from the crank, I inspected the cranks for cracks. To my shock, the left crank had a nick, from which two small cracks seemed to emanate (arrows in photos below). Or was it just a scratch?

I decided to remove the nick and see how deep the crack/scratch went. I clamped the crankarm between two small wooden blocks in a vise. A few file strokes removed the nick and cracks/scratches (see below), as they were just on the surface of the crankarm. If it had been a deep crack, the crank would have been retired immediately: A broken crank is no laughing matter. Sorry for the mediocre photo quality, but the main focus was to get the bike ready for the ride, not to work on the lighting for the photos.

Classic TA cranks are not anodized, so restoring the finish was easy. I started with “wet-and-dry” sandpaper (400 grit up to 1200 grit) under a trickle of water to remove the dust and prevent the sandpaper from clogging. I used the opportunity to lightly sand the remainder of the crankarm as well. Then I polished it with some polishing compound on an old rag. When I re-checked the polished surface, the cracks had disappeared completely. The other crankarm also had a few nicks, which I also filed and sanded off. After polishing both arms, I rubbed on a little car wax to protect the cranks’ and chainrings’ finish. The shiny cranks match the new chainring and look nice on the bike.

Installing the new chain and oiling it completed the maintenance job, which took about 90 minutes. And the bike worked flawlessly during the long ride the following day.

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Who Pays for Your Magazine?

My wife was an avid reader of Gourmet magazine. She was disappointed when the magazine ceased publication a little over a year ago. It wasn’t that Gourmet was not popular – it had as many readers as before. But in the recession, ad revenues had declined
This points out how modern magazines are financed. Most of their revenue comes from advertisements. In fact, 2010 was a good year for magazines, not because readership increased, but because more car companies ran ads. The subscriptions play a minor role in the balance sheet, which is why you see so many “specials,” where you can subscribe for 50%, 70% or even 90% off the cover price. (More readers mean the magazines get paid more for the ads.)
Mainstream magazines contain just enough editorial content to keep you reading, and thus looking at the ads. With that business model, it also is obvious that the editorial content should not contradict the ads.
When the Detroit News a few months ago changed a car review after a major advertiser complained, many were shocked, but in the bike world, this is much more common. I write for other magazines from time to time, and last year, my editors changed an article I wrote. Why? I had criticized a material used in a bag that they were selling through their online shop.
Most of the time, however, this is more subtle. Modern magazines represent the industry, not the readers. (After all, it’s the industry who pays them, not the readers.) This means that certain questions just won’t get raised…
You rarely find a mainstream car magazine telling you that the quality of  many modern cars is lower than it was 20 years ago. (Toyota pays 30% less for the same parts today than they did 10 years ago. How do their suppliers make ends meet? By cutting corners.) Mainstream bike magazines rarely tell you that modern bicycles could be improved. (It wasn’t VeloNews or Bicycling who figured out that wider tires roll faster on real roads.)

None of this means that mainstream magazines are bad. They are what they are – vehicles created to make you look at advertisements. There are a few exceptions, among them Consumer Reports, which does not solicit advertising at all.

Similarly, Bicycle Quarterly tries to represent the interests of our readers, not of the bike industry. More than 90% of our revenue comes from our readers. Our income from ads has gone down in recent years, not so much because of the recession, but because of our honest reporting and testing. We don’t mind: We can afford to lose advertisers, because our readers, who pay our bills, appreciate honest reporting. And the growth in readership has more than made up for the lost ad revenue. Most of all, as cyclists, we see ourselves as partners, but not servants, of the bike industry.

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Preventing Flat Tires

Every cyclist knows the sensation: You ride along, feeling at one with your bike and the world. Suddenly you notice your tire going soft, often accompanied by a hissing sound. Like Icarus, who flew too high and got singed by the sun, your euphoria is dashed as you come to a wobbling halt on the side of the road.
Unlike Icarus, who perished as he lost his feathers, flat tires are merely inconvenient. In the video below, Mark shows how to change a tire in less than 90 seconds.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bWNOLuEBag?rel=0&w=425&h=349]
Even though you need some additional time to find the debris that caused the flat in the first place, a flat tire needn’t keep you off the bike for long. Nonetheless, we all would like to avoid flat tires as much as possible.
There are two main causes for flat tires. The first are pinch-flats, when your tire deflects so much upon hitting an obstacle that the tube gets pinched between obstacle and rim. The tube punctures, and sometimes your rim dents as well. (The photo below is from Paris-Roubaix, where racers use tubular tires, which are less likely to pinch-flat.)

If you suffer from pinch flats, raise the pressure of your tires. If your pressure already is at the recommended value, then your tires are too narrow for your weight and the road surface. With wide tires, pinch flats no longer are a cause for concern.
The second, more common, cause for flat tires is a puncture. Sharp objects work their way through the tire tread until they puncture the tube inside. There are three ways to reduce the incidence of punctures:

  • Avoidance: Don’t ride over debris that will puncture your tires.
  • Removal: Remove debris before it can get lodged in your tires.
  • Barrier: Introduce barriers that prevent debris from puncturing your tires.

Avoidance is why some riders have far fewer flats than others, even on the same roads and with the same tires. Debris accumulates especially on the sides of major highways. In the main traffic lanes, cars displace the debris until it ends up in the places where cars rarely tread – usually the side of the road or the shoulder, but also some spots at intersections.
If you ride in the traffic lane, you automatically avoid most debris. On busy highways, this is not an option, but at night or on lightly trafficked roads, there is no need to ride on the shoulder. On backroads without shoulders, you ride in the traffic lanes anyhow, greatly reducing your risk of flat tires. Check your maps and see whether you can avoid major highways, not only to reduce your risk of flat tires, but also for a more enjoyable ride. If you have to ride on the highway, don’t ride on the shoulder unless there is significant traffic. In the city, don’t hug the curb, where debris accumulates.
No matter where you ride, scan the road ahead. When you see debris, give it a wide berth. Debris to avoid includes:

  • Gravel left over from winter snowfalls. Freshly crushed gravel contains sharp rock shards that can puncture most tires. Gravel roads rarely see flats, though, perhaps because the gravel’s sharp edges are worn off as it is moved around when the road is built.
  • Glass. Bottle glass is sharper than the glass from broken car windows.
  • Exploded truck tires. Their insidious steel wires will work their way through most tires.
  • Plants with thorns that overgrow the pavement.

If you see debris up ahead on the shoulder of a highway, check whether traffic is clear, and if it is safe, ride in the main traffic lane for a few hundred feet. Debris tends to spread “downstream” from its source, as it gets moved by vehicles and their slipstream.

Debris removal can prevent many flats. Many racers wipe their tires with their gloves after riding through debris. More effective are “tire wipers” (see photo above), which also work on bikes with fenders. The wires of tire wipers very lightly brush the tire tread. They scrape off debris before it gets hammered into the tire as it rotates. When I raced on tubular tires, I used tire wipers (also called “tire savers”), and had only one flat in 4 years. That flat occurred when the wire of my tire wiper had moved and no longer brushed the tire. I have been thinking of putting tire wipers on my bike, but I have so few flats that it hardly seems worth while.

Barriers can prevent some debris from penetrating your tires. Puncture-resistant belts are effective against glass, because the glass gets pulverized between the belt and the road, rather than hammered into the tube. Sharp flints do not give up so easily, and usually penetrate the “puncture-resistant” belt all the same, just taking a bit longer to puncture the tube. Some tire manufacturers have increased the thickness of their tread so much that many obstacles no longer can get through, but remain stuck inside (see above). Unfortunately, extra belts and thicker tread make tires less supple, greatly reducing their comfort and speed.
Another way of creating a barrier is making the tire rubber itself harder to puncture. Many professional racers “age” their tires before they use them. Lance Armstrong famously had a mechanic with a cellar full of tires. As the natural rubber used in many high-end tires cures more, it is supposed to get more puncture-resistant. Does it really work? It’s hard to say, because flats can be random. However, it appears that when I ride on tires that have been manufactured recently, I get more flats than if I ride tires from a batch made a year or two ago. For Paris-Brest-Paris, I have stashed away a few tires, just in case.
I recommend avoidance as a first line of defense, with tire wipers as a backup in case you have too many flats. Both methods do not detract from the performance and feel of your tires. Aging your tires for a year or two may make them more puncture-resistant, and it doesn’t hurt.
Barriers are a good idea only if you suffer from a very large number of flats, and everything else has failed. Icarus may have soared too high, but without wings, he would had stayed on the ground and not got anywhere, either. To me, riding on puncture-resistant tires is like trying to fly with clipped wings. I prefer to fix a flat every couple of months.
Update (7/1/2013): Compass Bicycles now sells Tire Wipers.

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The Cover Photo

A number of readers have asked where the cover photo of our blog (above) was taken. Here is the story:
An old road above Leschi in Seattle switchbacks though an Olmsted Park, with a set of  S-curves that we use for assessing a bike’s handling. It’s downhill, and with a bit of pedaling, you can build enough speed to make this truly challenging.

The first curve is an off-camber left with a decreasing radius (above). The best way around is cutting across the centerline in mid-corner once you get a clear sight line ahead. In the rare case that there is oncoming traffic, you get to test the brakes: Straighten the bike briefly while braking hard, then make a sharper turn at lower speed. Good brake modulation is key, so you can brake while the bike still is leaning into the curve.

If you rounded the left-hand curve at maximum speed, you immediately have to line up for the second curve. This right-hander is not particularly tricky, but the severe bumps make it crucial to pick a line close to the curb, where the pavement is a little smoother (above). For this, you need a bike that corners on a constant radius and can be placed on the road with precision.
Most modern racing bikes tend to drift outward once they are past the apex of the turn. In this corner, this puts you on the worst bumps. As you lose traction, you tend to run even wider and into the oncoming lane. This is a bad idea as a tunnel under an abandoned cablecar right-of-way obscures the occasional uphill traffic. In addition to precise handling,  you want wide, supple tires for optimum traction on the bumpy pavement.
For the photo, the cornering was the easy part, as the low-trail MAP test bike with its 42 mm tires went exactly where I directed it. However, the digital camera we carried on this ride had a hard time focusing. We wanted a nice lean angle, which meant approaching the camera at considerable speed. We did a good number of runs, and in the end, only one photo was in focus, more through luck than anything else. (I wished I had brought my old Nikon with manual focus, which you focus on a crack in the pavement and then hit the shutter release when the rider arrives at that spot.) Fortunately, that one useful photo, taken by Hahn Rossman, turned out to be just about perfect.
Further reading:

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The History of Bicycle Brakes

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

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

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

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

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

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Bicycle Stability – Everything Works Together

New theoretical research in bicycle stability shows that many parameters interact to make a bicycle stable. No single parameter (e.g.: trail, head angle, wheel size, weight distribution) determines whether a bicycle is stable or not. When one parameter is altered, then the other parameters may need to be changed to arrive at a stable bicycle again. This matches our on-the-road experience of having to adjust a bike’s geometry for different wheel sizes, load placements, etc.
For more than a century, scientists have tried to resolve why bicycles are self-stable, that is, why they tend to stay upright even without rider input. When a bicycle starts falling over, it automatically steers into the lean, thus righting itself (see video below). In the past, it has been assumed that either the gyroscopic forces of the front wheel cause the wheel to steer into the lean, or that geometric trail and related forces re-align the front wheel.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0ilP8kb8dM?rel=0&w=640&h=390]
Bicycle Quarterly contributor Jim Papadopoulos was part of a team of researchers from the Technical University in Delft (Netherlands) and Cornell University who examined the stability of bicycles. Their paper was published in the prestigious journal Science this month, so we now can share their findings and discuss the implications.
Based on theoretical calculations, they discovered that neither trail nor gyroscopic forces are required to make a bicycle stable. To test this, they built a bicycle with negative trail and a second set of wheels that spin in the opposite direction and cancel the gyroscopic forces of the wheels (see photo on top of this post).
As predicted by their calculations, this bicycle was able to roll without falling over, as long as it remained above a certain speed. Even if it was pushed sharply sideways (see the researcher push the bike in the movie below), it would right itself and continue to roll. The authors concluded that the bike steered into the lean because the mass distribution makes the front fork fall faster than the rear frame when the bike starts to lean. If the bike falls to the left, the front wheel turns to the left. Moving the front wheel to the left steers both wheels underneath the center of gravity. The bike is upright again and goes straight.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6GUZ2aEPLM?rel=0&w=640&h=390]
The “no trail/no gyro” test bike was a final validation of the bicycle stability calculations. The researchers found that no single number could predict whether a bike was stable. There are many possible designs with and without trail, and with and without gyroscopic forces, that are unstable. Many factors are interrelated, and together, they determine the self-stability of a bicycle.
Does this mean that trail and gyroscopic forces are unimportant in determining a bicycle’s handling? Not at all. However, the research confirms that these factors should not be taken in isolation. All factors are interdependent, and if you change one, you need to change the others to retain the desired handling characteristics of your bicycle. That means that to offer similar handling, a bike with a handlebar bag should have a different geometry from a bike carrying a saddlebag. A geometry optimized for single bike will not work the same on a tandem. Simple statements like “xx mm of trail offers neutral handling” only make sense in very narrow applications (for example, racing bikes with 23 mm tires), if at all.
I hope this research will lead to a confluence of theory and practice of bicycle handling. In the past, bicycles have been designed by trial-and-error. Similarly, Bicycle Quarterly’s articles on bicycle handling came from riding different bicycles, and making observations about them, rather than trying to solve the problem of bicycle handling mathematically. Theoretical studies still have a long way to go, since they do not yet include rider inputs. That said, a better understanding of the physics of bicycle stability can only help with our understanding of these fascinating machines.
Further reading:

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An In-Depth Look at Copenhagen

We finally got our shipment of Cecilia Vanman’s book Copenhagen – City of Bicycles. You can order your copy here. City of Bicycles is a full-color, hardcover, 196-page book that provides an in-depth look at what makes Copenhagen the most bicycle-friendly city in the world. Vanman explains how Copenhagen was on track to becoming yet another car-centric city during the 1950s and 1960s, but then turned toward bicycles instead. City of Bicycles vividly illustrates how much cycling has become a part of everyday life in Copenhagen.

To me, the main appeal of the book were the portraits of dozens of cyclists, from all walks of life: Students, retired people, middle-aged professionals, young fashion models, recent immigrants, etc. It becomes apparent that nearly everybody in Copenhagen cycles. Eight out of ten Copenhageners cycle regularly, and more commute to work by bike than by car.
The bikes are as varied as their riders: classic city bikes, tandems, mountain bikes, recumbents, fully-faired velomobiles, two- and three-wheeled cargo bikes… a kaleidoscope of human-powered machines.
City of Bicycles goes on to explore Copenhagen’s bike builders, from the famous hippie commune of Kristiana that resurrected the Dursley Pedersen to modern design studios. Vanman examines messenger culture, bike polo and “bike wars,” where bike-mounted riders clash like medieval knights. She also reports on Copenhagen’s urban planners and their models for recreating Copenhagen’s success in other parts of the world. It is to Vanman’s credit that the book not only is comprehensive and well-researched, but also enjoyable to read.

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Bottle Cages, Bike Stands and Leather Washers

At Compass Bicycles, we carry products we value, even if we don’t expect them to be very profitable. The Iribe bottle cage is a case in point. On the face of it, $ 150 for a bottle cage is a lot of money. It’s only slightly lighter than a Nitto cage. Without a bottle, it looks slightly odd. So what is the appeal?
It’s really a piece of artwork first, and a fully functional bottle cage second. The craftsmanship reminds me of a Samurai sword. Mr. Iribe mostly builds Keirin track frames, and he makes a few bottle cages as well. Each is crafted by hand from stainless steel tubing. Stainless steel must be silver-brazed, and silver does not lend itself to fillet-brazing, so Mr. Iribe wraps tiny plates of steel over each joint to give it enough surface area for the silver-brazed joint. Then the entire cage is polished, not plated, and so you can see how it was made.

The shape actually makes perfect sense once you see it with a bottle inside. When somebody expends that much care on a simple bottle cage, we want to support them.

The Nitto Bike Stand is another simply beautiful object. It’s fillet-brazed from steel tubing, like an upside-down rear rack. It holds the bike securely, making it easy to carry the bike with the stand attached. It’s a very elegant way to display a bike.

Classic bikes are relatively easy to maintain, but the rubber brake lever hoods tend to deteriorate over time, and there is no way of refurbishing them. For classic Weinmann brake levers, we now offer Japanese reproduction hoods that are at least as nice as the originals. (Update: the hoods are no longer available.)

Finally, here is an item that most “real-world” riders need. Leather washers keep your metal fenders quiet and prevent the bolts from vibrating loose. We’ve been frustrated by washers that were too soft and squishy, but these are hand-made by Phil Woosley in California from firm, thick leather. A package of five will be enough for even the most completely-equipped constructeur bike: One for each bridge on the rear, plus two for the fender attachments of the rear rack, and one for the fender attachment of the front rack. (There should not be any washers on the fender stay attachments.) We include these washers with every set of fenders we sell, and we now offer them separately as well.

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Braking Technique

For an article in Adventure Cyclist, I needed a photo on braking technique, so my children and I went to a steep hill in Discovery Park. They rode up and down the hill while I snapped photos. Even though the photo above has a little speed blur, I like it so much that I want to share it with a wider audience. You really can see how braking on a bike works:

  • The front tire compresses a lot as the inertia of bike and rider put most of the weight on the front wheel.
  • The rear wheel is barely touching the ground.
  • To counter this forward weight transfer, the rider pushes his body backward.
  • He locks his arms to prevent going over the bars. (Cyclists go over the bars not because the bike rotates around the front hub, but because they fly forward when the bike slows down.)
  • He picked a line on clean asphalt away from the mossy edge of the road for better traction.
  • With good traction, the rider uses only the front brake. (The rear wheel is barely touching the ground, so any braking there would cause a skid.)

Add to that powerful V brakes and grippy tires, and it’s amazing how quickly a bike can stop. I am glad my children have practiced braking hard. Hopefully, it will be instinctive when they need to stop in a hurry.

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Smart Move Books – Reduced Price for Damaged Copies

The book Smart Move is now out of print. We have a few copies with slightly bumped corners, which are for sale at 20% off the normal price: $ 68. Once they are gone, there will be no more. (Update: All Smart Move books are sold out.)

We also have a few copies of The Dancing Chain, also with bumped corners. These are 25% off: $ 45.

And we’ve finally received more Japanese Alex Singer books. To order any of these, click here.

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A Journey of Discovery, Part 7: The Future

In this series, we have explored how our preferences changed from mid-trail geometries, 700C x 28 mm tires and saddlebags to low-trail 650B bikes with much wider tires and handlebar bags. What will come next? Will we soon ride fully-faired carbon bikes with fenders and racks that form structural parts of the frame (see concept drawing above)?
In the last few years, our preferences haven’t changed further, despite riding very different bikes, like the Moulton with full suspension, the Dursley Pedersen with a hammock seat, and a variety of carbon bikes. Have we arrived at (or rediscovered) something that approaches the ultimate form of the bicycle, at least for the riding we do?
It’s hard to predict the future…
That said, we’ve spend considerable saddle time on more than 50 bikes that cover the available spectrum of bicycles:

  • trail figures between 11 and 76 mm
  • wheel sizes between 20″ and 27″
  • tires between 21 and 42 mm wide
  • different suspension systems
  • made from the lightest, most flexible tubes you can buy, as well as pretty sturdy and stiff frames
  • loads on the front and the rear
  • and most possible combinations of these various factors.

While we haven’t ridden recumbents and tricycles, we have studied their performance and found little indication that they would work better for us than the bikes we currently prefer.
It appears that our journey of discovery has arrived at its destination. I am now confident that I can specify a bicycle that will remain close to optimal for a long time, rather than becoming obsolete quickly like the bikes we used to ride. In fact, Mark ordered his “new” bike in 2006. In the five years since, the only things he would change are a slightly lighter tubeset and slightly wider tires.  Mark also changed his handlebars to the Rene Herse Randonneur and installed the latest-generation LED headlight, but those were relatively simple modifications. Compare that to the radical changes our bikes underwent in the five years prior.
Of course, everybody’s “ultimate” bicycle will be different. Much depends on where you ride. If your roads are as smooth as glass, then tires wider than 28 mm offer little advantage. If you live in the Atacama Desert, then fenders are of little use, except to protect you from dust.
Some choices are about aesthetics. I like lugs, even though a fillet-brazed or TIG-welded frame can be slightly lighter and easier to adapt to various geometries. (Lugs may be better at distributing stresses, though.) Similarly, narrow tires and racing bikes are aesthetic choices that offer few functional advantages, but that have an appeal of their own.
At Bicycle Quarterly, we try to provide information on how different bicycles perform. With this information, our readers can make informed choices and form their own preferences. What is your “ultimate” bicycle?
Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.

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Quality over Quantity

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan were terrible, and the unfolding nuclear catastrophe threatens to overshadow even those disasters. Our thoughts go out to the people who are affected, and we must do what we can to help them. Beyond that, Japan has shown me once again that there is no technological way to “build our way out” of the energy and climate crisis we face.
Renewable energy sources, especially wind, have great potential, but the simple fact is that we cannot continue to consume such enormous quantities of energy – nor do we have to. Here is how I have been trying to decrease the energy I consume, while improving my quality of life at the same time.
The majority of my energy consumption is in four areas:

Daily transportation: Some people tell me that electric cars are the answer, but if everyone drove one, we’d need so much electricity that nuclear power would be almost unavoidable. They batteries are toxic as well.  When I ride my “Urban Bike” for deliveries, I get to go for a beautiful ride instead of sitting in traffic in my car.

Home heating/cooling: Keeping our heater thermostat at 67 instead of 70 degrees in Seattle cuts our home heating bill (and pollution) almost in half, while remaining perfectly comfortable. (And our house is much smaller than the one in the photo, so it takes less energy to heat.) Bicycle Quarterly’s offices are heated even less, and we wear warm underlayers at work. Simple and effective.

Airline travel: This is a big one. A commercial jetliner gets about 50-70 mpg per passenger, about the same as a small car. However, the distances I fly are huge. One trip to Europe consumes more gasoline than all my driving in 5 years!
To reduce the impact of my traveling, I focus on quality over quantity. Instead of jetting to places for a weekend, I make one trip a year, but take the time to make the trip worth while. When I went to the Cirque du Cyclisme, I spent a week in Chicago to visit friends and explore the city. When I go to Paris-Brest-Paris this summer, I will spend an entire month visiting family and friends and doing research for Bicycle Quarterly.

When possible, I take the train instead of flying or driving. Europe’s high-speed rail network allows me to travel extensively within Europe with minimal pollution. It would be nice to have such a system in the U.S.
Most of my travels are close to home. There are so many neat places to explore around here (see photo at the top). I find a week-long bicycle tour, starting from home, a much more rewarding experience than “36 hours” in an exotic location.
Manufactured goods: Everything I buy is made from materials that are carried around the world. I try to buy quality things that will last me a long time. This not only reduces pollution and saves money in the long run, but well-made things also are more enjoyable to use. When something breaks, I try to fix it, whether it’s cost-effective or not. I find this very satisfying. And when I order things, I select “Ground Shipping” over “Next Day Air.” (At Compass Bicycles, we also avoid air shipping as much as possible.)
All these choices not only reduce the energy I consume, but they also improve the quality of life I enjoy.

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The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles in Japan

When I became interested in the bicycles of the French constructeurs many years ago, the little information that was available came from Japan. I am happy to return the favor: Our book The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles now is available in Japanese. Maybe it will broaden the appreciation of fully integrated cyclotouring bikes beyond the small circle of Japanese bicycle collectors, just like the English version has done in North America.
It would be nice to do a French edition, too, but the French publishing industry is really hard to crack. Today, these wonderful bikes are more appreciated in North America and Japan than their native country.

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Which Bike to Ride?

Most of the time, I ride two bicycles: My 1973 Alex Singer Randonneur for spirited rides with friends, and my Urban Bike for rides that involve carrying loads that do not fit in a handlebar bag. (Due to lack of time, my Alex Singer Camping bike does not see much use these days.)
Last year, Bicycle Quarterly tested a number of great bikes. I enjoyed some of those bikes so much that I rode them much further than the customary 300-400 km that constitute a normal Bicycle Quarterly test. Out of curiosity, I tallied up the kilometers I rode last year on various bicycle types:

  • Alex Singer randonneur and similar 700C bikes: 5061 km (40%)
  • 650B randonneur test bikes: 4485 km (35%)
  • Urban Bike: 2003 km (16%)
  • Other test bikes: 1071 km (9%)

The truly surprising part is that 650B randonneur bikes accounted for 35% of my annual distance, even though I don’t have a 650B randonneur bike! This means that when I had a 650B test bike in my basement, I rode it almost exclusively. As my friend Ryan joked: “I see you are riding the 650B test bike again. I guess you need to check out one more detail of it!” (In fact, I asked the builders’ permission to “extend” the tests.)
It’s not so much the wheel size as the tire width that made these bikes so appealing. The 42 mm-wide 650B tires not only smooth out the rough pavement of Seattle’s streets, but they also allowed me to explore gravel roads in the mountains that would not have been much fun on narrower tires.
It also is interesting that 16% of my riding distance involved hauling loads. If I did not have my Urban Bike, I probably would have driven a car for a good portion of that distance. That would have been a lot of time spent in a car and not on a bike, plus a lot of gasoline burnt.
Most of all, I have concluded that I really need a 650B randonneur bike of my own! (The 1948 René Herse in the drawing above would suit me fine, if we can update it with modern lights.)
Which bike did you ride most last year?

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PBP Preparation: Flèche Vélocio

By March, the distance/base mile phase of my training is over. It is time to work on speed and strength. This transition is hard every year. I remember how strong I felt when I climbed mountain passes last September, and now it seems like even small hills have grown into mountains over the winter. Wouldn’t it be easier to continue our nice rides in the valleys at a social pace?
At that point, my friend Ryan usually says: “We’ll be so glad we rode these hills when we are riding the next event, feeling great after 20 hours on the road.” Goals really are a great motivator. After all, last September’s form did not come out of nowhere.
Our next goal is the Flèche Vélocio. The Flèche is a 24-hour team ride in spring. Each team plans their route in order to ride the maximum distance they can in 24 hours. At the end of the ride, all teams congregate at a scenic location to enjoy each other’s company.
Today, the Flèche is one of the last traditional randonneuring events. It focuses on teamwork and performance, as is spelled out in the official rules of the Flèche:

  • Create a team spirit during training and during the ride.
  • Complete the longest route possible in 24 hours.
  • Arrive at a symbolic place to meet with like-minded cyclists.

As a 24-hour ride, the Flèche is a great dry run for PBP since it includes all-night riding. However, the Flèche is a great event in its own right. Follow this link for a list of Flèche rides organized in the U.S.
To increase participation in the Flèche, the Cyclos Montagnards are proposing the Flèche Challenge: Form a team and design a Flèche ride in the original spirit of the event. Challenge yourself how far you can go, but with a focus on a scenic course. After completing the ride, send in your route and ride report (and photos, if you have any). They will be published on the Cyclos Montagnards web site, so they can serve as inspiration to others. More information about the Flèche Challenge is at the Cyclos Montagnards web site.
(The photo above shows the start to the very first Flèche Vélocio in 1947. The original ride report was translated and reprinted in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 1. And Paulette Callet/Porthault (second from left) today is a sprightly 97-year-old and invaluable resource when I research articles about the history of randonneuring.)

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Earthquake in Japan

The terrible news from Japan are not getting any better. Our thoughts are with the people who suffer, those who are displaced, and those who worry about their loved ones.
We are glad to report that our friends at I’s Bicycle in Kyoto are fine. Most of our other contacts and suppliers aren’t in the worst-affected zone, either, except Nitto, but they are are OK as well. Of course, we don’t expect business as usual any time soon, as our Japanese friends have more pressing concerns right now.
It’s too early to determine how to help, but we are glad we made our year-end donations in our “5% to Charity” program to organizations like Doctors without Borders and Save the Children.

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A Journey of Discovery, Part 6: The Way We Ride

In the previous parts of this series, we have looked at how our preferences in bicycles changed over time. More important is how the changes in our bikes have expanded the way we ride.
Indeed, we replaced saddlebags with handlebar bags, triple cranks with compact doubles, mid-trail geometries with low-trail ones, and medium-width 700C tires with wide 650B tires. But my joy lies not in arcane technical details, but in the changes this has brought to our enjoyment of cycling.
In 1999, a 16-hour ride was about the longest I could fathom non-stop. With our 28 mm tires, we could handle the occasional gravel road, but for the most part, we stayed on pavement. Corners always were fun, but we did not go out of our way to find twisting backroads.
Today, an all-night “transport stage” is an enjoyable way to begin a long ride. Riding for 24 hours non-stop allows us to experience places that are beyond the reach of even an all-day outing. Gravel roads offer a wonderful respite from traffic, as well as providing access to beautiful scenery. A challenging descent is worth an hour-long detour.
All this has been made possible in part by the bikes we now ride. The handlebar bags allow us to access our luggage while riding. The low-trail geometries require less concentration to keep pointed in the right direction. The precise cornering makes winding back roads especially engaging. Integrated fenders keep us dry even when it rains, and can be forgotten the rest of the time. The wide tires greatly increase the range of roads we enjoy, while rolling faster than the stiffer tires we used to ride. And technical progress has brought us generator-powered LED headlights that make riding at night much more enjoyable. In the end, it’s all about the ride, not the bike.
How has your riding changed in recent years?
Click here to go to Part 7 of this series.
Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.

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A Journey of Discovery, Part 5: Frame Stiffness

In the previous parts of this series, we have looked at how our preferences in bicycles changed over time. We started out on “state-of-the-art” bikes with mid-trail geometries, 700C x 28 mm tires and saddlebags. How did we come to prefer low-trail 650B bikes with much wider tires and handlebar bags? And is habituation stronger than optimization? In other words: Do riders prefer the bikes they usually ride, or are there bikes that really are superior, even if they are unfamiliar?
Both Mark and I never had cared much about frame stiffness. Then we tested a few bikes with oversize tubing and relatively thick walls. We were baffled by their relatively poor performance. It was framebuilders and constructeur Peter Weigle who suggested: “Maybe those frames are too stiff for you.” After a lot of thinking and even more riding of different bikes, I hypothesized that relatively flexible frames were easier to pedal, because they did not resist our pedal strokes. We could get in sync with the frame, pushing down harder during the power stroke. The frame stored the excess energy as it flexed, and returned it to the drivetrain during the “dead spots” at the top and bottom of the stroke.
I compared the phenomenon to a boat rising out of the water at a certain speed – “planing.” At a certain power output, some bikes felt easier to pedal even though I was going faster than before. Mark was skeptical. He was unwilling to give up the belief that frame stiffness did not matter at all.
Mark and I both agreed that a classic Columbus SL/Reynolds 531C frame offered a great ride. After all, how could decades of racers be wrong? Both my Singer and Mark’s new bike used those tubes, and we liked these bikes a lot.

Then came the first Terraferma test bike (above). It was a racing bike. I didn’t know anything about the tubing. The bike wasn’t particularly light. I didn’t find it very appealing at first, but I was surprised when I felt faster than usual when riding it. Was there something special about this bike, or did I just have a particularly good day when I rode the Terraferma?
To better assess the performance of our test bikes, Mark and I ride a loop around the north end of Lake Washington that has several long, sustained climbs. We usually are well-matched in our climbing speeds. On this day, Mark started on the test bike, while I was on my Singer. I was careful not to let on to Mark what I thought about the test bike to avoid biasing his judgment.
On the first long hill, I accelerated in two stages. As usual, Mark remained on my wheel for the first acceleration. When I looked back after upping the pace again, I couldn’t see Mark behind any longer. “Wow,” I thought, “Mark is gone. That test bike is not very fast after all.” Then I realized that Mark was in the blind spot on my other side, passing me. He shifted into a higher gear, and let out a laugh as he accelerated up the hill. Try as I might, I could not catch him.
Then we switched bikes, and it was Mark who was dropped, riding my Alex Singer. We added weight to the Terraferma, and it still was faster. So we hypothesized that it used lighter, more flexible tubing that made it “plane” better. I called Mike Terraferma, and he confirmed that the bike was made from “superlight” tubing, with walls that were about 0.1 – 0.2 mm thinner than those of the bikes we ride all the time. And Mark wrote an article for Bicycle Quarterly titled: “Confessions of a Lapsed Skeptic on Planing.”
We later conducted a double-blind test of three frames: two superlight and one from tubing like the bikes we usually ride (see photo at the top). The results confirmed what we had observed on the Terraferma: For Mark and I, the bikes with the superlight tubing were easier to pedal without our legs hurting during all-out efforts. We could go faster on them. (Our third tester could not tell the relatively small difference between the bikes.)
Both Mark and I were faster on the superlight bikes, even though the “standard” bike was very similar to the bikes we had ridden (and continue to ride) all the time. So from our experience, it appears that there is an “optimal” configuration out there. Of course, the optimum may vary depending on what you want to do with your bike.
That doesn’t mean that other bikes are no fun to ride. Both Mark and I still have the bikes we ordered in 1999. They still do everything we wanted them to do back then. However, we have found that we can ask much more of a bike than we ever thought possible.
Click here to go to Part 6 of this series.
Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.
Further reading:
– Double-blind tests of frame stiffness and planing, Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 6, No. 4.

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A February Ride

Last week, we went on a “training ride” into the hills northeast of Seattle. We met at 7:30 and rode to Snohomish (above). The valley of the Skykomish River was filled with cold fog, so a stop at our favorite bakery provided a welcome warm-up.

As we headed through the hills near Lake Roesinger, the frost was melting in the meadows, and the sun broke through the fog to start a glorious day.

February in Seattle isn’t always rainy! Matt’s on-bike photographs capture the gorgeous morning. (All photos by Matt Delcomyn.)
All winter long, we had been looking forward to one of our favorite roads. Reiter Road is a scenic, winding backroad that connects Gold Bar with Index. It runs high above the valley in a long series of short climbs and exhilarating descents.

Alas, the road was closed. A clogged culvert had caused a large washout. (Budget cuts in road maintenance don’t always save money.)  Fortunately for us, the road is needed as an alternative evacuation route for the town of Index, so it will be repaired. By next year, we should be able to return to Reiter Road.

We explored for an alternative route, and found a road that happened to go to a fish hatchery. From there, a pipeline maintenance trail led along the scenic Skykomish River.

When this dead-ended at a creek, we stopped for a picnic lunch. The photo shows (left to right): Hahn, Ryan, Jan. On the way back, we stopped at our favorite taco truck in Monroe for a second lunch. Riding in the cold makes you hungry!

While we don’t talk much about bikes on our rides, we do notice each other’s equipment. Matt was intrigued by the patina on Jan’s handlebar bag. It has been in daily use for a decade, yet it’s still waterproof.

The shadows were getting long as we headed into the hills that separate the Skykomish River from Lake Washington. It was dark by the time we got home. A day well-spent on beautiful roads in the company of good friends was ending!

For Seattle area readers, here is the essential part of our route. (Bikeroute Toaster does not display routes along bike trails; we took the Burke-Gilman Trail and the Centennial Trail near Snohomish.) See you out there!

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A Journey of Discovery, Part 4: Front-End Geometry

How did our preferences change from our familiar bikes with mid-trail geometries, 700C x 28 mm tires and saddlebags to low-trail 650B bikes with much wider tires and handlebar bags? In the previous parts of this series, we related how we found out about the advantages of handlebar bags, aluminum fenders, and supple, wide tires.
Then we discovered how much difference front-end geometries can make. Both Mark and I had ridden tens of thousands of miles on bikes with “mid-trail” geometries – about 55 mm trail with 700C x 28 mm tires. In 1999, we each had custom bikes made with that geometry, because at the time, we felt that they offered the best handling we had experienced on a bike. When an American bicycle maker asked Bicycle Quarterly about ideas for the perfect randonneur bike, I talked at length about lights and racks. When the maker asked about geometry, I replied: “Your slightly relaxed geometry probably is just about perfect for a randonneur bike.”
Then I started riding an old Alex Singer randonneur bike (see above) once in a while. The Singer surprised me: “Tricky” corners suddenly were less difficult. When I noticed a pothole too late, and thought that I would not be able to steer around it, I braced myself for the impact. To my surprise, the bike responded quickly enough to avoid the pothole. When I got tired, the Singer was easier to keep on a straight line – in fact, I could ride on the white painted “fog line” for miles with little concentration (see photo at the top of the post). Riding no-hands at moderate speeds was easier, too. This confused me: The Singer had “quicker,” more precise steering, yet it was more stable.
When I switched back to my normal bike after a single ride on the Singer, I found myself running wide in corners. I hit potholes that I thought I would miss. And the bike sometimes weaved unexpectedly when I was getting tired. Both bikes had a similar positions, both had handlebar bags, but something was different. To my surprise, the bike I rode all the time felt less intuitive than the new-to-me Singer.
That is when we started measuring geometries. We realized that the Singer’s geometry was anything but the “relaxed” geometry we had expected. The bike had a steep head angle and less trail than was common at the time.
During Mark’s first ride on my Singer, over a challenging stretch of road, he exclaimed: “Now I know how a bike should handle.” We both immediately preferred the “optimized” bike over the ones we usually rode.
This raises an interesting question: Is habituation stronger than optimization? Will a rider just prefer the bike they usually ride, or is there an “optimum” setup that will appear superior even to those who are not used to riding it? Based on our experiences with front-end geometry, we prefer “optimimized” bikes over those we usually ride.
I began riding the old Singer more and more, until it had replaced my usual bike. And Mark ordered a new custom bike altogether.

Mark’s new bike was designed around the Mitsuboshi 650B x 38 mm tires that I had used in the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris. It used the geometry of the 1952 René Herse that I had liked so much. Of course, Mark’s new bike was equipped with a handlebar bag and aluminum fenders. And by now, we also had discovered that we did not need very large gears. The “compact doubles” used on many classic randonneur bikes allowed us to ride most terrain in the big chainring, thus eliminating many front shifts.
Mark initially intended his new bike as a special bike for fast events. He planned to use his old bike on gravel roads, for touring and many other rides. In the end, he preferred his new bike so much that he rode it all the time. He even made a low-rider rack for it, so he could take it touring.
So by 2005, our “best bikes in the world” had been replaced by a 1973 French Alex Singer and by a modern bike inspired by a 1952 René Herse. But our journey of discovery was not yet over…
Click here to go to Part 5 of this series.
Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.
Further reading:
– Front-End Geometry for Different Loads, Speeds and Tire Sizes. Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 3.
– What Makes a Well-Handling Bike” with sample geometries for all applications. Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 5, No. 3.

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PBP Preparation: Planning Your Trip To France

If you are planning to ride Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) this August, you probably have started training already. We are adding some hills to our “base miles” now as the brevet season approaches.
Now also is the time to plan the trip. Booking airfares early usually results in less expensive tickets, and hotels often fill up early as well. Here are a few thoughts from my perspective after having completed three PBP rides, as well as talking to many other participants:
Packaged Tours?

Traveling in France is easier than you may think. Paris is accustomed to tourists, and most hotels, restaurants, etc., have somebody who speaks English. You will have little trouble getting around on your own. (Learning a little French still is a good idea.) There is little need to book a packaged tour.
On the plus side, a packaged tour will offer you peace of mind and help with getting your bike from the airport to your hotel. Negotiating the Charles de Gaulle airport is always challenging, and it’s not made easier by having to carry your bike up and down flights of stairs.
Staying in Paris or Saint-Quentin?
For me, the main reason to ride in Paris-Brest-Paris is to experience riding in France and being part of the history of Paris-Brest-Paris. If my goal was just to ride a 1200 km brevet, I could do this closer to home…
Paris-Brest-Paris now starts in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in the outer suburbs of Paris. The good part is that tired riders no longer have to navigate Paris traffic at the end of this 750-mile ride. The bad part is that Saint-Quentin is a “ville nouvelle,” a modern suburb  (see photo below) lacking the charm, museums, restaurants, cafés and parks of Paris.

Contrasting this, Paris is a city with more than 1000 years of history, and worth a visit by itself (see photo below). It is a good idea to arrive a few days before the start of PBP to get over your jet lag and acclimatise to France. I think it is more fun to hang out in Paris than in Saint-Quentin.

Photo ©Gary Johnston
From Paris, it is relatively easy to get to Saint-Quentin by train. The trains leave from the Gare St. Lazaire and Gare Montparnasse (near the Latin Quarter), which you can take into account when booking your hotel. You can find public transit connections in Paris at this web site.
The suburban trains in Paris take bikes – you just roll them on. (It’s more difficult, but possible, to take a bike on the Metro and RER trains.) Since your bike must be checked the day before the start, you get to practice the itinerary without any stress. (You can show up to the bike control at any time you want.) After that practice run, there is little risk of getting lost when you are going to the start of the actual event.
Riding your bike in Paris is a fun and easy way to get around, but finding your way through Paris’ suburbs can be tricky. Perhaps I’ll map a bike route from Paris to the start of PBP when the time approaches and put it in the blog.
On the other hand, if you enjoy socializing with other American, British and Australian riders, then Saint-Quentin is the place to be. You’ll be near the start, and from the finish, it won’t be far to your hotel.
No matter where you stay, you don’t have to pay for the hotel while you ride the event. Leaving a suitcase or two for a couple of days while you are on the road usually is no problem if you return to the hotel for a couple of nights after the ride.
Start Group?
If you are at all uncertain about making the time limits, choose the 90 hour start group. That way, you have ample time to complete the ride. For faster riders, there are two additional start groups: The 80-hour group starts ahead of the crowds, ensuring open roads and empty controls. Clean bathrooms, too. These two groups start in the late afternoon. The 84-hour group starts in the morning. Some riders do not like riding at night, and prefer this group. I have tried each start time. Here is what I found:

Photo ©Gregg Bleakney
84-Hour Start
For my first PBP in 1999, I chose the morning start. I slept poorly that night, afraid I’d oversleep. With the excitement of the event, I was not tired until 24 hours into the ride. So I went to sleep at 5 in the morning, and my daily rhythm was upset. Furthermore, as the morning group started last, I found many of the controls to be crowded as we ran into the main wave of riders.
80- and 90-Hour Starts
Since then, I have started in the evening. The day of the start, I get up late, then take a lunch-time nap, and still have plenty of time to arrive the start with little stress. (This year, PBP will start a few hours earlier, so I may have to go without the nap.) Most of all, I really enjoyed riding through the night to leave Paris on empty roads with little car traffic. When the day broke, I was in Britanny, right in the heart of this remarkable event.
Hotels along the Course?
PBP is a well-organized ride. All you need to do is show up at the start with your bike and about 200 Euros in your pocket. (Don’t plan to use credit cards or ATM machines during the event.) The Audax-Club Parisien keeps the entry fee low, and you pay as you go for food and other services.
Some riders book hotels along the course. While it may sound nice to have a clean bed and shower half-way through the ride, the potential drawbacks may outweigh the benefits. Not only does a pre-booked hotel room detract from the adventure of PBP, it also locks you into a schedule that you may not be able to maintain. I have heard of many riders who arrived at their pre-booked hotel room, but were not yet tired. Others got there so late that there was no time to sleep. Yet others spent an hour or two just finding their hotel, losing valuable time.
PBP controls usually are located in high schools. The gym has sleeping arrangements. For a few Euros, you get a cot and a blanket. (Bring earplugs, because some randonneurs snore.) A volunteer who will wake you up at a pre-determined time. During a randonneur ride, you stop only when you truly are tired, and that is all you need. Food is next door in the cafeteria, and you are back on the road without much delay. Key to this is arriving ahead of the biggest crowds. I will discuss strategies for staying ahead of the crowds in a future part of this series.
Which PBP start times and travel arrangements do you prefer?

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A Journey of Discovery, Part 3: Wide 650B Tires

How did our preferences change from our familiar bikes with mid-trail geometries, 700C x 28 mm tires and saddlebags to low-trail 650B bikes with much wider tires and handlebar bags? In the first two parts of this series, we talked about discovering handlebar bags and aluminum fenders.
Inspired by the old randonneurs, I decided to ride a tandem in Paris-Brest-Paris 2003. I had met a randonneuse from Toronto, Jaye Haworth, whose strength and souplesse impressed me. Our pedal strokes matched perfectly.
A few months before the event, my friend Hervé found a 1946 René Herse tandem in France. Wouldn’t it be neat to do the event on a classic machine of the type that had been associated with this event for so long?
So far, so good, but the old machine was equipped with wide 650B tires. On the one hand, accepted wisdom said that narrow tires were faster because they could accept higher pressures. On the other hand, in my research for Bicycle Quarterly, I had met riders on 650B bikes completing Paris-Brest-Paris in 50 hours or less, more than 50 years ago. If their bikes were slow, then their leg power must have been superhuman.

The only way to find out was to try it! I borrowed a lovely 1952 René Herse with 650B wheels (above, click on images for higher resolution). Bob Freeman of Elliott Bay Bicycles found some Mitsuboshi 650B tires that he claimed would offer great performance. I was skeptical – they looked like rather ordinary tires to me, with their wire beads and center-rib tread.
I rode the old Herse in our club’s season-opening 100 km Populaire brevet. The season opener was an eye opener as well: The Herse was surprisingly fast. Only one rider, on a titanium racing bike, could keep up. Our time was the fastest over that course so far. Clearly, the wide 650B tires were rolling at least as fast as the medium-width 700C tires that I used on my own bike. (The Mitsuboshi’s center rib in fact was cosmetic only, and not raised like those on many tires offering less performance.) And on the way home from the event, I was pleasantly surprised how little I felt the ridges on the Burke-Gilman Trail, where roots had pushed up the pavement. Speed and comfort, in the same tire!
We did ride the old René Herse tandem in Paris-Brest-Paris 2003. It was a lovely experience that left me (and my stoker Jaye) with a new appreciation for these old machines, and for wide 650B tires.
When Mark and I later tested tires for Bicycle Quarterly, we found that the tires we used on our own bikes actually were among the slower tires, while the wider and more supple 650B tires were significantly faster. Wouldn’t it be nice to ride those tires all the time?
Click here to go to Part 4 of this series.
Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.

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SKF Bottom Brackets: World Exclusive

Compass Bicycles is proud to be the sole distributor of SKF bottom brackets world-wide. Svenska Kugellagerfabriken (SKF) has been the leader in bearing technology since 1907. Today, SKF is the largest bearing manufacturer in the world, and their bearings are used in Formula 1 racecars and other high-end applications.
SKF’s ball bearings have been used on many of the best bicycles. Campagnolo’s famous ball bearings were made by SKF. Starting in the 1940s, Alex Singer and René Herse equipped their custom-made bottom brackets with pressed-in SKF cartridge bearings, because they were the best available.

When SKF decided to make bottom brackets, using the highest-quality bearings was a given. Bearings run smoothly only if they are kept clean and well-lubricated, so the company developed and patented custom seals that keep the grease in and contamination out. SKF designed the bottom brackets as completely integrated units. By running the balls and rollers directly on the spindle and shell, the design saves valuable space, allowing the use of larger bearings for greater strength and durability.
Why is this such a big deal? Many other high-end bottom brackets use standard bearings pressed onto the spindle and into the shell. There is only so much space inside a bicycle’s bottom bracket shell, so the ball bearings have to be much smaller (usually 2.8 mm diameter vs. 4.5 mm on the SKF). And many expensive bottom brackets don’t use any seals, relying on the dust seals of the bearings to keep them clean. These dust seals aren’t designed to keep out water… and they don’t. As a result, riders who ride through rain and snow have to replace their bearings annually.
SKF wanted to design a bottom bracket with a maintenance-free life expectancy of 10 years or 100,000 km (65,000 miles) under harsh conditions, so they had to address these concerns. They also made all parts from stainless steel or aluminum, so corrosion is not an issue.

With such an excellent product, SKF did not anticipate the difficulty of selling their bottom brackets. Without their own access to bicycle shops, the company relied on a variety of distributors world-wide, who often buried the bottom brackets deep in their catalogues. Without adequate promotion, sales lagged behind their targets.
When we heard that SKF might stop selling their bottom brackets, we offered to distribute the bottom brackets for the company. SKF bottom brackets will remain available directly from Compass Bicycles and through our network of quality bicycle shops. We are committed to keeping all available sizes in stock at all times. Below, you see our latest shipment from Germany as it arrived…

To reflect the superior quality of SKF bottom brackets, we have extended the warranty to 10 years or 100,000 km (65,000 miles), whichever comes first. This warranty includes the bearings. (We are unaware of any other maker of bottom brackets whose warranty includes the bearings.) We are confident that these are the best bottom brackets ever made, and we are proud to make them available to cyclists world-wide.

We now offer the Park BBT-18 installation tool, because it is important to use the correct tool when installing these bottom brackets. We aren’t making money on the tools (we sell them at a discount), because we want you to be happy with your SKF bottom brackets!

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A Journey of Discovery, Part 2: Handlebar Bags and Aluminum Fenders

In the last installment of this series, we looked at the bikes we rode when Bicycle Quarterly got started almost a decade ago. How did our preferences change from our familiar bikes with mid-trail geometries, 700C x 28 mm tires and saddlebags to low-trail 650B bikes with much wider tires and handlebar bags?
Influenced by Mike Kone (then of Bicycle Classics) and Grant Handley, I had admired the French cyclotouring bikes from René Herse and Alex Singer for a while. The consensus back then was that they were beautiful, but probably not great to ride. Except that nobody I knew had ridden one for any significant distance…
Paris-Brest-Paris 1999 was a bit of an eye-opener for me. At the finish, I bought Bernard Déon’s wonderful book Paris-Brest et Retour, which chronicles the history of this fascinating event. And there I learned about the amazing performances of randonneurs in the 1940s and 1950s, on classic cyclotouring bikes. I also visited Cycles Alex Singer, and saw bikes that were far more sophisticated than my own.
As I did more randonneuring, I realized that having my luggage accessible in a handlebar bag would be better than having to stop every time I needed something out of my saddlebag. However, I had heard that handlebar bags negatively affected the handling of the bike. How did the randonneurs in Déon’s book ride 765 miles with their full handlebar bags? I noticed that the French bikes all used a bag-support rack that securely mounted the bag as low as possible, rather than suspending a floppy bag from the handlebars high above the front wheel. On a return visit to Paris, I asked Ernest Csuka at Cycles Alex Singer about this, and he confirmed that a stiff rack was key to good handling with a handlebar bag.

When my frame needed some repairs, I used the opportunity to incorporate what I had learned. I had a custom rack made, as well as a decaleur. I made the correct braze-ons, and the builder added them to the fork. When I rebuilt the bike, I replaced the plastic fenders with aluminum ones, mostly because I preferred the way they looked. My bike now began to look like a French randonneur bike (see above, click on photos for higher resolution).
The handlebar bag was great, and with the rack supporting it, the handling was fine. The biggest surprise were the aluminum fenders. Not only did they offer more coverage, but they also kept the water inside, rather than have it drip from the edges. My feet (and my bike’s chain) stayed much drier and cleaner. And they were lighter, too! I began to realize that the French constructeur bikes were not just about aesthetics, but also about function.

My friend Mark also saw the advantages of a handlebar bag, and came up with his own solution: He attached a second (threadless) stem to his original one. Where the steerer tube usually goes, he inserted a short length of PVC pipe. Now he had a secure, low mount for his Ortlieb handlebar bag. And soon thereafter, he also installed a set of Honjo aluminum fenders. For the time being, we were very happy with our bikes.
But our journey of discovery was far from over…
Click here to read Part 3 of this series.
Click here to return to Part 1.

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A Journey of Discovery, Part 1: What We Used to Ride

We sometimes hear people criticize our technical analyses:
“Bicycle Quarterly’s testers simply prefer they bikes that they ride most. You get used to anything, and then you prefer it.”
“Jan has got his preferences. He started a magazine so he could have a place to talk about them.”
The reality is a bit different. Both our main testers (Mark and I) started riding seriously on racing bikes. Mark had a Cannondale; I had a classic Bianchi and later a Marinoni. Mark rode triathlons; I raced for 10 years and did some triathlons and cyclocross as well. I even toured on my racing bike.

In 1999, in part due to Grant Petersen’s influence, we both had come to realize that (slightly) wider tires, fenders and lights offered more versatility for the riding we enjoyed. Even though we didn’t know each other yet, we independently ordered almost identical state-of-the-art custom bikes with:

  • mid-trail geometry
  • 700C x 28 mm tires
  • plastic fenders
  • triple cranks
  • Carradice saddlebags

We selected the best components for our bikes, and we both were convinced that we owned the best bikes in the world. I rode about 20,000 miles on my bike, including the 1999 Paris-Brest-Paris (see photo above and top) and many brevets and long-distance races.

Mark rode at least as far on his machine. Those were the bikes we rode when Bicycle Quarterly got started almost nine years ago. We still have those bikes. They still are very good machines, but the bikes we enjoy most these days are quite different.
How did we come to prefer bikes with

  • low trail
  • 650B x 42 mm tires
  • aluminum fenders
  • compact double cranks
  • handlebar bags

over a short period of just 8 or 9 years? It has been a remarkable journey of discovery, which we’ll share in this series. How have your preferences changed in recent years or decades?
Click here to read part 2 of this series.

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A New Book on Cycles Alex Singer

From 1938 until today, Cycles Alex Singer has made some of the most wonderful bicycles ever made. (I may be biased, since I ride my 1973 Alex Singer randonneur bike more than any other bike.) Alex Singers have been appreciated especially by Japanese cyclists. This new hardcover book celebrates Cycles Alex Singer, seen through a Japanese lens.

On 168 pages, the large-format book shows studio photographs of 44 Alex Singer bicycles. The highlight is the machine that won the 1946 Concours Duraluminum technical trials (above, click on images for higher resolution). Weighing only 6.875 kg (15.16 lb) fully equipped with fenders, rack, lights and even a pump (but without tires),* this probably was the lightest “real-world” bike ever built. Detail photos show how every part was modified to save weight. Even the pedal bodies were cut away, exposing the spindle and bearings.
Renovating this bike was Ernest Csuka’s last project before he died in late 2009. This book is an homage to this builder, who was the soul of Cycles Alex Singer for half a century. Between the studio photos of the bicycles are historic photos of Alex Singer bicycles in action and wonderfully evocative views of Ernest Csuka in his shop.

Most of the bikes featured in this book were built during the last two decades for Japanese customers. At first sight, they look like historic machines from the 1940s and 1950s, because they are outfitted with classic components like Cyclo derailleurs, Stronglight cranks and Maxi-Car hubs. Only some details of the frame construction (and their serial numbers) give away their recent age.
Reprints of Alex Singer catalogues with their artful Daniel Rebour drawings complete this book. The text is in Japanese, but a (sometimes rough) English translation of a few chapters is included with the book. The texts don’t offer much new, certainly not an in-depth history of Cycles Alex Singer, and they contain a few errors. Even so, I enjoyed Olivier Csuka’s reminiscences of visiting suppliers in the Paris region with his mother.
For Alex Singer aficionados and those who appreciate beautiful bikes, this book is worth the price for the photos alone. We expect an airshipment of books in the next two weeks, and the rest should arrive in late February/early March. Each large-format (9.25″ x 12″), hardback, full-color book costs $80. Pre-order your copy now.
* Lightweight bicycle tires were available only on the black market in 1946, so the bikes were weighed without tires and tubes to level the playing field. For comparison, the lightest randonneur bike Bicycle Quarterly has tested, with carbon fiber frame, fork and fenders and a titanium rack, weighed 8.825 kg (19.46 lb) without tires, or 1.95 kg (4.3 lb) more than the 1946 Alex Singer.

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Preparing the 2011 Cycling Season

Happy New Year! After my December rest period, it’s time to start training for the 2011 cycling season. Whether you race and prepare for a specific event, whether you plan to ride your first double century or brevet series, or whether you want to be in shape for a week-long tour, having a goal gives the season a nice focus.
It’s like being a farmer: You sow your crops, you tend them as they grow, and it all culminates in the harvest. Similar to the seasonal cycle that allows the soil to replenish itself, a seasonal training cycle allows you to “peak” and reach a top form that is far higher than the form you can maintain throughout the year. For me, this keeps cycling interesting, and prevents burn-out and boredom.
My goal for 2011 is Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), the 765-mile ride in France. PBP is in August, so I have outlined my training roughly as follows:

  • January through mid-March: base miles
  • Mid-March through early June: endurance (qualifying brevets) and speed training
  • Mid-June through late July: speed training
  • Early August: rest
  • Mid-August: Paris-Brest-Paris

To stay with the farming analogy, it’s time to sow right now, to work on my basic form. Having a good base provides a sound foundation for working on speed and endurance later in the season. Training hard without a base often causes injuries or excessive fatigue.
My base miles consist of a weekly ride of 80-120 miles with a friend or two, at a moderate pace, with a stop at a café along the way. For now, we stay on relatively flat roads. Bike trails are great for this sort of training. It’s nice to revisit lowland roads and trails that we haven’t ridden since last January. (We don’t miss much doing this, as the mountains aren’t accessible right now anyhow… see the photo above taken near Paradise, Mount Rainier, in May.)
This also is the time to think about changes to your equipment. Are your handlebars comfortable? Do your feet get numb? Do you have the right gearing? Are you thinking about adjustments to your position (longer/shorter/higher/lower stem, etc.). Do you plan to get a new bike? Making changes now enables you to fine-tune them during the base miles, rather than when the events of the season start in the spring. You also can try out new nutrition on these rides. My goal is to have well-honed equipment and strategies when the season starts.
Most of all, I enjoy these casual rides with friends. Spending a day on the bike really does keep the winter blues at bay. What are your goals for the season?

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Handlebar Width

A few people have asked about handlebar width in our handlebar discussion. Compass handlebars come in widths between 40 and 46 cm, which may appear narrow by some standards.

Many riders, even very tall ones, prefer relatively narrow handlebars. Above is my friend Ryan, who is 6′ 4″, riding on 41 cm-wide Randonneur handlebars (click on the photo for a bigger version). On his previous bike, he used 46 cm-wide carbon handlebars, but he loves the improved comfort of the narrower Randonneur bars on 24+ hour rides. (His new bike also has a different steering geometry that requires less leverage to guide the front wheel, see below. By the way, all measurements in this post are center-to-center.)
Ryan’s bars are narrower than his shoulders, but human elbows articulate, and we can adjust to different handlebar widths without restricting our breathing. Otherwise, no racer would climb with their hands on the tops of the bars, where they are much closer together than even the narrowest handlebars. Andy Schleck seems to be breathing just fine in the photo below. He wore the yellow jersey in this year’s Tour de France…

From the 1930s until a few decades ago, most riders used handlebars that would be considered very narrow today. Fausto Coppi was 6 feet tall, and he rode 40 cm-wide handlebars. (My height is similar, and I also prefer narrow handlebars.)
Contrasting this, handlebars as wide as 46 cm were popular in the 1920s, when front-end geometries had a lot of wheel flop. The extra leverage of the wide bars may have helped to keep those bikes on course. By the 1930s, head angles got steeper (which reduced wheel flop), and handlebars became narrower. When I measured the geometries of all the bikes featured in our book The Competition Bicycle – A Photographic History, I found a strong correlation of handlebar width with wheel flop, rather than with rider size. Handlebars became wider again in the 1970s, when wheel flop increased as geometries were adjusted for narrower tires.
Aerodynamics can be another reason to choose narrow handlebars. When we tested “real-world” bicycles in the wind tunnel, we found that frontal area is the most important factor in determining wind resistance. Wider handlebars increase your frontal area, and thus probably increase your wind resistance. Aerobars are so effective because they put the rider’s hands closer together, and reduce the frontal area, as well as shielding the cavity formed by the rider’s chest.
Handlebar width is influenced by many factors, including personal preference. We recognize that many riders today like wider handlebars, that is why we offer 46 cm-wide handlebars. However, we encourage you to try narrower handlebars – you may like them.
Click here to learn more about Compass handlebars.
Note: This post was updated in September 2016.

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Urban Delivery

My favorite bookseller called and said: “We just sold the last copy of The Competition Bicycle, and there is a gaping hole next to your other book in our window display.” There was only one thing to do:

I loaded up the trusty Urban Bike with a 40-lb box of books and headed toward downtown Seattle. On the narrow bike path on the Ballard Bridge, I appreciated the secure handling of this bike even with a heavy load.

Approaching downtown, I rode on the scenic trail along Elliott Bay, with Mount Rainier in the background. (Click on the image for a larger version.)
Rides like these are among the most valuable. They allow me to get away from my desk for a few hours, breathing fresh air and restoring my spirits. I really appreciate having a great bike made specifically for rides like these. A scenic ride in the mountains probably would be fun on any bike, but on these urban rides, a great bike doubles the fun. I used to pull a Burley trailer when I had to carry a box of books, but my rides were more a chore than recreation.

On a bike, you meet interesting people. This afternoon, I rode with a young chef from El Salvador commuting to work. (He took the action photos you see above.) We stopped briefly to admire the setting sun on this beautiful autumn day.

A steep climb took me from the Pike Place Market to downtown Seattle. The road here is rough, but my wide tires glided across the broken bricks and cobblestones.

At Peter Miller Books, it’s always inspiring to browse the wonderful architecture and design books on display. It’s even nicer to chat with Peter Miller.

As I headed home, Peter Miller was placing one of the books I had delivered in the shop window.

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Free Priority Mail Shipping Upgrade

At Bicycle Quarterly, we get to review almost every cycling book that is published. We select only the best books for sale in our online bookstore.
Buy any two books from the Bicycle Quarterly bookstore, and receive a free upgrade to Priority Mail shipping to get your books in time for the holidays. (Select “Media Mail” in the check-out basket, we take care of the upgrade.)
The offer is good through 12/22/2010. (International customers: Delivery times are longer, sorry.)

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PBP 2011: "We Hope to Accommodate All Riders"

Many randonneurs are planning to ride in Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), the famous 765-mile ride in 2011. The next edition of PBP will bring some changes to deal with the large number of participants. PBP is organized by the Audax-Club Parisien (ACP), the influential cycling club founded in 1903. The ACP created the Randonneur PBP, the Flèche Vélocio 24-hour rides and many other events. Today, the ACP continues to issue the rules for all randonneur brevets world-wide and validates the results.
I recently spoke with Jean-Gualbert Faburel, president of the ACP, about the 2011 PBP and other randonneuring topics. Translated from French:
JH: Many randonneurs are worried that they may not get to start in the upcoming Paris-Brest-Paris, even if they complete the qualifying brevets. Will there be many randonneurs who cannot enter the event due to a rider limit?
Faburel: We hope to accommodate all riders who want to participate in the 2011 PBP, but we will do this only under two conditions: 1. We find the means to accommodate more than 6000 people. 2. The French government does not impose a rider limit. Today we are assuming 6000 starters, a number which may increase or decrease. We hope that we won’t have to turn anybody away.
JH: If there is a problem in PBP, it’s the crowding in the controls just before closure time. Riders who already are at the time limit spend hours in line at the check-in, at the cafeteria, at the bathrooms, etc. Do you have any ideas to improve that situation?
Faburel: To reduce the waiting at the controls, we have chosen a new control system. There still will be a brevet card that is stamped, but the magnetic card will be replaced by a chip that is attached close to the rider’s foot. The chip will be detected automatically when the rider enters the controls. We also will open new facilities between Loudéac and Carhaix, at Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem. This will not be a control, but only a spot to eat and sleep. We are looking for similar facilities on other parts of the route.
JH: The Audax-Club Parisien (ACP) has a glorious past. You created the “allure libre” brevets, the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race that proved the superiority of derailleurs over other gear changing systems, the Flèche Vélocio… A strong emphasis on performance runs through all these events. Does this spirit still exist at ACP?
Faburel: The “performance” spirit still is at the heart of the Audax-Club Parisien, but we are open to all forms of cycling. Above all, we believe that the bike is a wonderful vehicle to discover new landscapes and new people. Friendship and friendliness are our primary goals. With that in mind, we can enjoy riding fast from time to time – why not? But it’s important that it remains friendly.
JH: In the Flèches Vélocio, many teams ride the minimum of 360 km and stop on the way to sleep (only for two hours with the new rules). You have done a Flèche with many more kilometers. What was your goal? And how do you see the spirit of this event?
Faburel: The rules of the Flèche Vélocio have been poorly translated into English. We are looking at publishing a new translation to improve the understanding of this event. Many people think the goal is to ride 360 km in 24 hours. However, the goal is to ride 24 hours without stopping, more or less, and to do the maximum distance the team can do. The basic principles of this event are: 1. Creating a team spirit, starting with the preparation, to enjoy a great cycling experience in a group. 2. Complete a beautiful randonneur ride, even with difficult weather. 3. Arrive at a wonderful destination to meet other riders, and have a good time together talking about our rides… or anything else!
When I participate in the Flèche Vélocio, my team usually rides more than 600 km, but we carefully choose our route so that it is as flat as possible. Continue Reading →

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Avoiding Numb Hands

Hand numbness can spoil the most wonderful long distance ride. A cyclist’s hands can get numb from vibration and pressure.
The first step is to eliminate as much vibration as possible near the source (road surface). Supple, wide tires, run at moderate pressures, are key. Flexible fork blades and suspension are less effective at absorbing high-frequency vibrations, but they can absorb bigger bumps. Cushy handlebar tape is ineffective at absorbing vibrations, but it can reduce pressure.
Why are vibrations easiest to absorb at the source? It is relatively easy to stop a few grams of tire contact patch from moving up and down. This insulates the rest of the bike from the vibrations at the road surface. If your tire doesn’t absorb the vibrations, then your entire front wheel moves up and down a few hundred times every second as it rolls over rough pavement. These forces are then too large to be absorbed elsewhere.
Imagine somebody throwing a peanut at you: It is easy to catch with one hand. Now imagine having to catch a 5 lb weight – much harder. That peanut at the road level becomes a 5 lb weight at the handlebars, if the whole front of the bike vibrates.
Pressure can cause nerve damage in your hands, making them numb or tingly. When you look at the nerves in your hand, you see that there are only a few nerve endings in the base of your thumb, making this area ideal for resting on the handlebars.

The “on the ramps” hand position (behind the brake hoods) supports your weight with the base of your thumb, and therefore tends to be very comfortable (see photo at the top). This works best with handlebars that have flat ramps to support your hands well in that position.
Moderately soft handlebar tape can help distribute the pressure of your hands as they rest on the handlebars. Also, your hands should rest on the bars, rather than grip them tightly. Wrap your fingers around the bars loosely for safety on rough roads.
Beyond that, it helps to switch hand positions from time to time, so that you don’t put pressure on the same spot for too long. Furthermore, raising your handlebars or tilting your saddle nose slightly upward will prevent you from sliding forward and putting more pressure on your arms and hands. (However, tilting your saddle upward may cause other problems for some riders…)
Numb hands can lead to lasting damages. With the right technique and equipment choices, numb hands usually can be avoided even on rides as long as Paris-Brest-Paris (765 miles non-stop).

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Mr. Pedersen – A Man of Genius

David Evans spent more than a decade researching the life of Mikael Pedersen, who is best known for his unconventional bicycles. I have been fascinated by these machines since we photographed a rare racing version for our book The Competition Bicycle (see photo below). I have ridden a reproduction Pedersen, and to my surprise, the unconventional design worked quite well.

David Evans’ book doesn’t have studio photos, but it’s full of historic images and fascinating anecdotes. When Pedersen designed his bicycle, he built a prototype from wood, and rode it for thousands of miles! Later, he built a cycling track in the garden of his house to train and to test bicycles.

I marveled at the Pedersen quadruplet, the record-setting exploits of “Goss” Green on a Pedersen that was not just equipped with pedals, but also with oscillating handlebars that powered the front wheel, making his bike an all-wheel-drive machine! Over 224 pages, David Evans traces the ups and downs of Pedersen, whose brilliant inventions were not limited to bicycles. Until now, the book hasn’t been available in North America… so we decided to add it to our online bookstore.

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Bicycle Quarterly Press Around the World

Does this book look familiar? Look again: It’s the German edition of The Competition Bicycle – A Photographic History, published by Covadonga in 2009. Our books and Bicycle Quarterly are being read all over the world. Here are a few examples:

The Times (London, UK) mentioned Bicycle Quarterly’s article on Tour de France speeds and bicycle technology in a recent issue of their monthly science magazine Eureka.

Omega Lifetime, the magazine of the famous Swiss watch maker, focused their latest issue on sustainable technology. They featured both The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles and The Competition Bicycle… Click on the links above for more reviews of these books. And if you are in North America and want a copy of the German edition, contact us. We have a few for sale.

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Preparing for 2011 and PBP

At this time of year, we reflect on the cycling season that just has ended, and make plans for the next season. For me, the highlight of 2011 will be Paris-Brest-Paris. The famous 765-mile ride still is 9 months in the future, but now is the time to begin preparing for the upcoming season, whatever your goals may be.
I don’t ride much during most of November and December. It’s important for my body and mind to recover and rest, so that I can start the new year fresh and excited about cycling. It’s not that I have stopped cycling altogether: I still go on a leisurely 60-mile ride with a friend or two every 7-10 days. It’s nice to get out, and I don’t want to lose my body’s adaptation to cycling. Otherwise, my cycling consists of commuting for deliveries to local bookstores and bike shops, to pick up mail, etc.
So what do I do during the “off-bike” season? My core strength and flexibility are not what they should be. This is a common problem among cyclists that can manifest itself in knee problems (from the kneecap being pulled out of alignment by tight hamstrings and muscle imbalances) and even in shoulder, neck and hand pain (due to the upper body not holding itself up on the bike, and resting too heavily on the arms and hands).
To work on core strength and flexibility, I do a combination of yoga and strength-building exercises. It’s not something I greatly enjoy, but it makes for a much better cycling season. I try to fit in 5-10 minutes every day, doing stretching exercises recommended by a physical therapist together with others learned in a yoga class, plus some push-ups and sit-ups. Running also seems to help my core strength, so I go for a run twice a week, including some stairs (can’t resist that cycling-specific training!).

I poked around online a bit, and Bicycling magazine has an article on core strength with some exercises that could serve as a good starting point. Most of us know what we need to work on… and now is a good time to lay the foundations to a successful season. How do you prepare your 2011 season?

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Oregon Manifest Technical Trials 2011

The 2011 Oregon Manifest Constructor’s Design Challenge will be held in Portland, Oregon, on September 23-24, 2011. The goal is to determine what the ultimate modern utility bike looks like and who can build it.

The 2009 Constructor’s Design Challenge was an innovative event that focused on riding bikes over a challenging course. Inspired at least in part by the famous French Technical Trials, the Challenge awarded points for desirable features. Unfortunately, the penalties for “problems” were inconsequential in 2009, even though several bikes had racks coming loose, fenders breaking, unsuitable tires, and a host of other problems. Thus, the on-the-road test was instructive to observe, but neither on-the-road performance nor failures influenced the final results.
Over the last year, it appears that the Oregon Manifest crew has examined what worked in 2009 and what needs to be improved. I hope that there will be clear rules, published months before the event, so that builders can determine their likely scores as they design their bikes. Performance on the road should be required (for example, by imposing a minimum speed), and failures should be penalized. One thing probably should not change: The course was both challenging and scenic (see photo above), and it truly tested the bikes. The 2009 event was great fun, but with some careful fine-tuning, the 2011 event has the potential to be much better. I really look forward to next year’s Challenge. More info is at the Oregon Manifest web site.

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A Neat Bike

When I was working with Peter Weigle on an article on fender mounting for the Winter 2010 issue of Bicycle Quarterly (now at the printer), Peter sent me a photo of his latest bike (above). His bikes always have been special, but on this one, I noticed a lot of features that went beyond what you commonly see even on custom bicycles.
The rack clearly shows the influence of Jo Routens, the legendary constructeur from Grenoble. The entire bike is an alluring mixture of old and new. The frame is made from a vintage tubeset, including my favorite Reynolds 531 “Super Resilient” fork blades that make my Alex Singer so comfortable. Here they are combined with our fork crown to provide room for 42 mm-wide Grand Bois “Hetre” 650B tires. The tires themselves have been “shaved,” removing the tread to make them even more supple and even faster.
The hubs are Campagnolo Tipo hubs. Inspired by Campagnolo’s first high-flange hubs, Peter drilled extra holes into the flanges. Instead of quick releases, Peter’s special wing nuts hold the wheels in the dropouts. The Stronglight cranks have been reshaped and profiled to remove excess material.
The shellacked handlebar tape covers what look like 1950s Philippe “Professionel” handlebars. The Shimano aero brake levers are not to my taste, but they offer undeniable advantages on the road. Functionally, they harmonize well with the old Mafac cantilever brakes.
At the back of the seat tube is Peter’s custom-made taillight. (The front light is hidden by the tires in the photo above.) The rear reflector is a vintage item from Peter’s collection, as are the reliable Simplex seatpost and the superlight Huret Jubilee derailleurs.
While I admired all this, I did not even notice the fender attachments until Peter pointed them out to me. The fender stays are flush against the fender, and the drawbolts do not appear to have cups. This is not just elegant, but also provides optimum support for the fender.

I had seen this arrangement on a few special French bikes, but never really had figured out how it worked. So I asked Peter about it. From that came the a Builders Speak article for the Winter issue, in which he shares some of the secrets of his fender installation. On Peter’s bikes, the details tend to be subtle, but they all combine to create a bike that is very elegant. And judging from the Weigles I have ridden, it probably rides as well as it looks. Click here for more photos on Peter’s bike.

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COMPASS BICYCLES: Components for Real-World Riders

At Bicycle Quarterly, we sometimes discover products that are superb, but nobody imports them to North America. Or our research indicates that certain classic components work better than those available today, but nobody is making them.
We have suggested some of these products to existing manufacturers. I told Paul Price how wonderful centerpull brakes were, and sent him a set of Mafac Racers. The Paul “Racer” centerpull brakes were the result. In other cases, we have imported cycling components to make them available to North American cyclists. For example, we now import Grand Bois tires and components, as well as SKF bottom brackets. There are plenty more components that we would like to have available.
We are starting Compass Bicycles Ltd. to provide these components. Compass Bicycles will take over the bicycle components from Bicycle Quarterly Press, which focuses on publishing the magazine and books. In addition to the components already on offer, we are working on a number of new components.
Compass Bicycles’ first new products are the 650B fork crowns with matching Kaisei “Toei Special” fork blades. These classic fork crowns provide the right amount of tire clearance for 38-41 mm tires. The crowns are a reproduction of those used by René Herse and Alex Singer, which have proven themselves over decades of hard use.

The fork blades use the “Imperial Oval” cross section at the fork crown for strength, and a small diameter in their lower half for optimal shock absorption.

The small diameter near the bottom also makes them easy to rake to a graceful curve, as on this fork raked by Mark Nobilette for a René Herse bicycle.

For the future, I dream of a Nivex derailleur, with constant chain tension, superlight weight, and immediate, light-action shifting due to its twin-cable operation without a return spring.

I still use Maxi-Car hubs on my bikes, with twin labyrinth seals and adjustable cartridge bearings. A cassette-hub version of these would be nice. I also would like to see a centerpull brake with forged arms for light weight and safety, so that riders no longer have to scour eBay for “new old stock” Mafac “Raid” brakes.
As before, the Bicycle Quarterly team will develop and test all components before they become available. You will know that the components you buy from Compass Bicycles have proven themselves over thousands of kilometers. Check out the new web site www.compasscycle.com.

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Farewell to the Mountains

Autumn is a melancholy time. In Seattle, it is hardly noticeable, as the weather gradually gets cooler and wetter. But in the Cascade Mountains, the change of the seasons is swift and spectacular: Cold nights turn deciduous foliage into bright hues of yellow for a brief time, before snow falls and closes most of the scenic passes until June or July.

What better way for a last farewell ride than to string together many of my favorite roads? My pre-PBP-year* training usually includes a ride at least 3/4 as long as the event itself, so I quickly mapped a 930-km course. The route out of Seattle isn’t exactly the one I followed, as some roads are closed for cars, and the mapping program doesn’t allow using them (click here for course).

* Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1200-km (765-mile) randonneur event held every 4 years in France.

Last week, the forecast predicted snow levels dropping to 3000 feet, and I realized that my last chance for this ride had come. Without much time to plan, my route sheet for the unfamiliar parts of the ride was a bit rudimentary, but navigation in the mountains isn’t complicated since there are few roads.

Next came planning my schedule. I prefer to descend mountain passes in daylight. Not only can it be very cold descending for half an hour or more in late October, but the fall colors cannot be enjoyed at night. I jotted down a quick schedule and worked out that if I left around 4 in the morning, I could cover all but one pass in daylight, and might even get back at a reasonable time the following evening. The schedule was even rougher than the route sheet, as I did not adjust the average speeds for the terrain. My actual times are in the last column, which will help me plan future rides along these roads. (Click on the images for larger versions.)

So I left at 4:30 in the morning. After enduring morning commuter traffic (fortunately headed the other way), I reached Orting just after sunrise. Orting is the last of the suburbs, where the landscape transitions to meadows and forests. I turned off the highway. Fog was rising from meadows heavy with dew, and blue skies above were announcing a gorgeous autumn day.

“My favorite roads” was the theme of this ride, and few are more favorite than Orville Road along Ohop Lake. Its gentle undulations lent a nice rhythm to my effort. I enjoyed looking at the beautiful patterns of light and shade on the pavement. Between the trees, I caught glimpses of the meadows, lakes and even Mount Rainier in the distance.

Skate Creek Road is another favorite, and well worth the two-hour detour it took to get there. During my first summer in Washington, I rode and hiked almost every inch of this valley as I mapped its glacial geology. Under the bucolic cover of trees are the scars of an eventful past, with landslides, floods, debris flows and other events eroding and depositing material, as is visible in the photo in the river bank. Today, I just enjoyed the views of Mount Rainier at its barest, before new snow covers its flanks.

The sign at Bear Prairie reminded me why it’s always an effort to get there. Almost imperceptibly, the Nisqually River valley climbs 1200 feet in just under 20 miles.

Skate Creek Road then drops 700 feet in a few miles. It’s not so steep that you can coast, but the gradient helped me speed along. I took the challenging turns (below) at good speed, and that was great fun.

In Packwood, I turned westward again, taking in some recently discovered side roads as pleasant alternatives to the main highway. In Randle, I turned south toward Mount Saint Helens.

I passed the sign that announces 30 miles of beautiful, almost uninterrupted, mountain climbing. It starts with shady, curvy Forest Road 25 (below).

Forest Road 26 (below) is even better than FR25, since it sees almost no traffic.  It is a steep, single-lane ribbon of asphalt that winds up the slopes of the mighty volcano, Mount St. Helens. Every time I start this climb, I feel that the outcome of the battle between cyclist and mountain is slightly uncertain. Will I make it?

This time, I climbed smoothly and stopped only once, briefly, to stretch my legs on the steepest stretch. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I reached Norway Pass and joined the “main” road to Windy Ridge. The blasted trees from the 1980 eruption make this area a bit desolate. The lack of trees allows you to look over the Cascades and see the volcanic peaks of Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood in the distance (see opening photo). It’s a rare feeling of being on top of the world. The descents on the return from Windy Ridge are spectacular, with the road forming a continuous string of curves that test the bike’s handling to the limit.

I resisted the temptation to take one scenic photo after another. October days are short, and my schedule called for descending Forest Road 25 before dark.

After a brief rest stop in Packwood, where the food is best forgotten, I headed up Cayuse Pass, then Chinook Pass. Mount Rainier was gleaming in the moonlight, and for almost two hours of climbing, I did not see a single car. Even though it was warm for an October night, I wore every bit of clothing I brought for the descent from Chinook Pass: wool shorts, Windstopper leg warmers, wool tights, wool socks, booties, two long-sleeve wool jerseys, rain jacket, fleece gloves, shell overmitts, skull cap and helmet. Tonight, the long descent offered views of the valley below and of the rocky slopes in the silvery light.

My small digital camera could capture only the moon, which is why you don’t also see Mount Rainier in the photo. I understood why Ansel Adams kept coming back to the western mountain ranges in the moonlight… It’s magical, especially on a warm night like this one.

When I finally did feel sleepy, I stopped in Cliffdell, removed my helmet and lay down on the porch of a shop for a short nap. I fell asleep immediately. I woke up because I was getting cold. I checked my watch: Only 9 minutes had passed, but I was ready to go.

I try to find backroad alternatives to the main highways, but I hadn’t investigated this area on a map yet. As “luck” would have it, a massive landslide has blocked the main highway, and traffic was re-routed over an older road that meanders along the river. Eventually, the highway will be rebuilt, but I will continue to use that backroad.

My hasty preparation let me down in Yakima.  My cue sheet showed a “T-junction.” I anticipated that junction for a long time… until I found myself on the main highway to Yakima again. After more than an hour riding on various highways, I found a gas station and borrowed a map. I realized that my “T junction” was actually a small sideroad to the left in the middle of a curve to the right. I had followed the road to the right, and never noticed the small sideroad I should have taken.

It was with great relief that I finally found myself on Canyon Road toward Ellensburg. Canyon Road is lovely, but the moon had set, and it was too dark to see much. I enjoyed the road rising and falling along the sides of the canyon, although I was distracted with thoughts of breakfast. One of my favorite restaurants, the Valley Cafe, is in Ellensburg. I arrived at 7 in the morning; alas, the cafe opened at 11. Instead of breakfast, I got to fix a flat tire at a grocery store! A long thorn had punctured my tube.

At least it was a gorgeous morning. My misfortune in Yakima had put me behind schedule. I decided to forgo the short detour over Old Highway 10 that loops above the Yakima River. Instead, I headed straight toward old Blewett Pass. The old road up this pass blends into the landscape: You can barely see it in the middle of the photo below.

The mountain continuously tries to reclaim this road. I rounded a sharp bend and came upon a few rocks that had fallen onto the road. I was reminded once more why I prefer bikes that allow adjusting their line in mid-corner. Good brakes are useful, too.

Favorite roads aren’t always super-spectacular. Sometimes, they just provide a pleasant alternative to a major highway. Between Peshastin and Leavenworth, there is a lovely road winding its way on the glacial terraces above the Wenatchee River (below). Who wouldn’t rather ride through the orchards up here than on the busy highway in the valley?

I haven’t found any alternatives to most of the main highway up to Stevens Pass, but traffic was light, the shoulder was clean, and the trees had beautiful fall colors.

I reached Stevens Pass as the light began to fade on the second day of my ride.

On the other side of the pass, the old highway remains intact for many miles, often just a hundred feet from the busy highway. Instead of trucks thundering down the grade, you hear the burbling of a brook, which eventually will become the mighty Skykomish River. That evening, lots of chipmunks scampered off the road as I approached.

I zoomed through Skykomish, then took the side road to Index. I climbed over Reiter Road as the sun was setting in the Puget Lowland far to the west. Reiter Road is perhaps the crown jewel of any ride. I was afraid that after more than 800 km on the road, I would regret taking this rolling road instead of the downhill highway, but the opposite happened. I felt inspired by the road, and it mobilized energies I did not know I had. This invigoration carried me all the way to the outskirts of Seattle. I was home before midnight and  back at my desk the next morning.

Two days later, the snow started, and today, the passes were covered in snow. This also completed my PBP training for the year. Now I will rest for two months until I start training again for the new season with a focus on PBP. In the coming months, I will talk about preparing and training for this wonderful 1200 km event.

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Science and Bicycles 1: Tires and Pressure

Most cyclists are interested in improving their bike’s performance, because rolling along at considerable speed while expending relatively little effort is one of the great appeals of cycling. Before you can improve your bike’s performance, you need to know what makes your bike faster, and that is where science comes in. Science is a fascinating process. Here is how we determined that higher tire pressures (beyond a certain point) don’t make your bike faster.
Science usually starts with a hypothesis. In 2005, the German magazine TOUR published performance tests of racing tires, and found that at 50 km/h (31 mph), the differences between racing tires were relatively small. Looking at the data, I realized that at more moderate speeds, the differences in rolling resistance could be quite significant. We designed a roll-down test. Our preliminary results showed that some tires rolled much faster than others. We refined our test protocol, and started testing dozens of tires (see BQ Vol 5 No 1 for more details and complete results).
Science also is hard work: Mark Vande Kamp rode up and down the same hill about 300 times over the course of several months, always in the early morning, when the chances of zero wind are greatest. And several times, we got up at 4 a.m., set everything up, only to have a slight wind rise despite a forecast of perfect conditions… All we could do is go back home. (And because our test track was next to a BMX practice track, we had to sweep the pavement – all 245 m of our test hill – the evening before to create a clean surface for testing.)

We also tried to find out how much performance improved with higher tire pressures. We knew that higher pressures are less comfortable, so we wanted to find out just how much speed you give up for that added comfort. To our surprise, the answer was: “None.” We found that higher pressures beyond a certain point did not make the bike roll faster. This was counter to our and almost everybody else’s expectations…  To rule out that these results were just noise in the data, we did more tests of different tires at various pressures. The results were consistent with our previous tests. Statistical analysis showed us that the results were highly significant, that means, they are unlikely just noise in the data.
Suspension Losses
The next step was to develop a hypothesis that explained what we had observed: Suspension losses are caused by friction in the the rider’s body tissues as they are vibrating. Higher pressures cause more vibrations, and hence higher suspension losses. This appears to cancel any gains at higher pressures from reduced flexing of the tire (hysteretic losses), as the tire deforms less at the contact patch as the wheel rotates.
This hypothesis also allowed us to explain why the drum test results were different – by neglecting the suspension losses, they measured only one half of the equation.
To test this hypothesis, we had to establish that suspension losses really were a significant factor, rather than some theoretical construct. (OK, the U.S. army already had established this for vibrating tank seats, but we had to show that it happens on a bicycle, too.) We did this by testing power output at constant speed on a smooth and on a very rough surface, side by side (see photo below). The differences were huge. On the rough surface (rumble strip), our rider had to put out 290 Watts more than on the smooth surface (right next to the rumble strip). That means that 290 Watts were lost through vibrations of the bike and rider’s body.

The Army studies had shown that energy absorption in human bodies was directly correlated to discomfort. After having ridden up and down our test hill 300 times, Mark wasn’t keen on riding 11 miles on rumble strips. That task instead fell upon me. I was able to confirm the Army’s results on the discomfort of absorbing hundreds of Watts as your body vibrates. Did I mention that science is hard work?
As a side effect, the suspension loss tests confirmed once again that higher pressures don’t make the bike faster even on very smooth pavement. And this time, we tested with a power meter instead of a roll-down test. So we had confirmed the results with two different methodologies. (This is much more powerful than just reproducing our initial results, which simply means running the same tests again, and finding the same results. We have done that as well, multiple times.)

After all this testing, we now can say with great certainty that increasing your tire pressure (beyond a certain point) does not make your bike faster on road surfaces that range from very rough to very smooth. In fact, on very rough road surfaces, higher pressures are a lot slower than lower pressures, because the suspension losses are so great. On most surfaces, tire pressure (beyond a certain point) simply doesn’t make a difference in speed.
Optimized Tire Pressure
Our initial tests even established at what point the performance no longer increases with higher tire pressures. For most tires and on “average” roads, this point appears to be a little higher than the 15% tire drop measured by Frank Berto. Note that the loads are given per wheel, not for the entire bike.

This means that Berto’s values are a good starting point for experimenting with tire pressures. If you want to optimize performance, you may want to go a little higher. If you are mostly concerned about comfort, you might prefer a tad lower pressure.
As always in science, there remain open questions. Is this cut-off point the same for different tires? Or do stiff tires benefit from higher pressures more than those with supple sidewalls? After all, a stiffer sidewall takes more energy to flex, so reducing that flex by all means may be helpful, even if it makes the bike vibrate more. Or is it the opposite, that stiff tires vibrate so much that running them at lower pressures is better, even if it increases the losses due to tire flex? Rest assured, we are working on this…

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Oregon Handmade Bicycle Show

The Oregon Handmade Bicycle Show was a celebration of finely crafted bicycles. With natural overhead light in a former industrial building, the bicycles were displayed well. Tony Pereira (above) showed a replica of his Oregon Manifest-winning commuter machine with its integrated lock.  We hope to get this one for a test soon.
About 2 dozen builders showed interesting bikes. It was nice to see Mark DiNucci active again, with the most finely thinned lugs I have seen on a bike. The paint motif on this 1970s (?) frame caught our attention.

Show organizer Andy Newlands of Strawberry Bicycles asked us to bring an “interesting classic bike.” We were able to bring a 1952 Rene Herse (below). Riding this bike years ago persuaded us of the virtues of the “constructeur” approach to building bicycles that combine the speed of a racing bike with the versatility of wide tires, fenders, racks and lights. It’s a bike Bicycle Quarterly readers rarely have seen in its entirety, but its geometry, its integrated rack, the way the chainstays bend around the wide 650B tires and fenders, and many other features have been shown in the magazine to illustrate technical articles. One could say that there is a direct lineage from the old Herse to many of the bikes on display, including Mitch Pryor’s MAP which we tested for the current issue of Bicycle Quarterly. Seeing that MAP at the show was like greeting an old friend – I rode this bike more than any other BQ test bike to date.

Most of all, BQ contributor Hahn Rossman and I enjoyed seeing old friends, meeting many BQ readers, as well as discussing bicycles with fellow cyclists.

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Carbon Fiber Handlebar 911

Emergency Roadside Repair in 3 Easy Steps

Materials required:
• wooden stick
• steel strap
• big rock
• 5 mm Allen wrench (optional)
Time required: 25 minutes.
On a spring-time ride in the Cascades, we took a side road from Sultan to Gold Bar in the Skykomish River Valley. Our destination was Index, and we were looking forward to the fabulous Reiter Road that runs high on the hillsides above the valley between Gold Bar and Index. Presently, the road turned to gravel, and then we found ourselves in the railyard at Gold Bar. Suddenly, Ryan crashed.

His front wheel had picked up a steel strap, which locked up the wheel. Ryan fell over at low speed. He was relatively unhurt, but his carbon-fiber handlebars broke in half when they impacted the ground. (Here is a photo of Ryan on his carbon-fiber bike.)
We were 80 km (50 miles) from home, so our repair had to be durable enough to get back to Seattle safely.

Step 1: We found a stick of suitable diameter and jammed it into the handlebars. We had to remove the rear brake, because the cable was too short to get the broken end onto the stick. Ryan’s handlebars had a groove for the brake cable, so the cross-section wasn’t round, and the stick was not a perfect fit. The stick served only to preserve the alignment; it was not strong enough to support the weight of the rider on the handlebars.
Step 2: We decided to splint the handlebars like a broken bone. Fortunately, a railyard is full of useful materials. A steel strap was perfect for the job.

A big rock served as a hammer to form the strap into an “L” profile, giving it more strength. The gap between two rails served as a vise. (This was a siding, there was no danger of being run over by a freight train descending Stevens Pass.)

Step 3: We carefully removed the handlebar tape and used it to wrap the splint tightly onto the handlebars. Ryan had gel tape on his handlebars, which we used to cover the sharp edges of the steel plate.

We used two toestraps to secure the splint further. It certainly looked odd, but the bike was ready to ride. We didn’t want to press our luck, so we decided to forego the final, most beautiful leg of our ride, and instead turned back toward Seattle.

The ride home was uneventful. Ryan still could use his right shift lever with confidence, but wasn’t so confident resting his weight on the hoods or drops. Fortunately, the lever for his front brake was on the intact left end of the handlebars, so his braking was not impaired. Of course, this is only a temporary fix. Ryan replaced the handlebars for his next ride. Use your judgment before riding with similar repairs.

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Seattle to Portland through the Backdoor

Recently, I had to return a Bicycle Quarterly test bike to MAP Cycles in Portland. I really don’t like boxing up bikes, and very much prefer to ride them. Boxing a bike takes half a day, riding to Portland about a day, so it was an easy choice to ride to Portland.

Seattle to Portland (STP) is a popular ride that draws thousands of riders every year. The 320 km (200 miles) ride goes through the densely populated Puget Lowland. It’s flat, but not what I would call scenic. I love riding in the mountains, away from traffic and civilization. So I designed an alternate course to the STP route, which minimizes the time spent on busy roads. (Click here for a course map.)

I left Seattle after dinner, and rode on empty roads through the city and the industrial areas of Renton. Then I continued on empty winding roads to Orting and Eatonville. I skirted Mount Rainier and stopped for a resupply in Morton just past midnight. In Randle, I turned toward Mount Adams on Cispus Road. With a new moon and cloudy skies, the landscape outside the beam of the MAP’s Edelux headlight was so dark that I rode through the hamlet of Cispus without noticing it. The gravel road up Babyshoe Pass was rougher than I remembered, but the MAP’s  650B x 42 mm tires coped very well after I had reduced the tire pressure. Daybreak saw me approaching Babyshoe Pass. I had not seen a car in at least 4 hours.

A huge grader was parked on the pass, so hopefully the road will be better next time I ride it.

The sun rose, and by 8:20, when I rolled into Trout Lake, it was the beginning of a beautiful day. I arrived in perfect time for breakfast at the general store.

From here, the back road to Carson winds through the forest, with occasional views of Mount Adams in the meadows.

There was almost no traffic. Soon, a sign appeared that delights riders of Allroad bicycles:

Unlike the gravel on Babyshoe Pass, Carson-Guler Road road was smooth. After the rain of the previous days, the gravel was soft, so once again, I let out some air from my tires to increase floatation. After a few hours, I was back on pavement, with a magic, twisty descent toward Carson. The MAP handled beautifully and the wide tires (re-inflated to their normal 40 psi) hugged the undulating pavement. Sunlight filtered through the trees, dappling the pavement with a beautiful pattern of light and shade. I could have continued to ride like this for hours…

After an early lunch in Carson, I crossed the Columbia River on the Bridge of the Gods. I huge wind was blowing down the gorge, but fortunately, the MAP’s geometry was not overly affected by the crosswind.

The name “Bridge of the Gods” stems from a Native American legend of an ancient stone bridge that crossed the river here. One day, during a quarrel between two gods over a beautiful maiden, the earth shook, and the bridge collapsed. Its stones fell into the water, where they formed the rapids of The Dalles. More recently, geologists have found evidence of a giant landslide that dammed the river, forming the “bridge.” Eventually, the mighty Columbia River breached the dam, and the bridge was destroyed.

On the south shore of the great river, a series of trails leads along Interstate 84. Going west, I had to travel about two miles on the shoulder of the freeway, the rest was on trails and then the beautiful Historic Columbia River Highway. This road winds its way through the forest, past the famous waterfalls, crossing bridges with art nouveau railings that are covered with moss: The road was built in the 1920s, and today sees little traffic as most drivers use the Interstate highway that now parallels it. The old road then climbs in a wonderful series of switchbacks to a series of scenic overlooks.

To think that most travelers to Portland drive on the freeway and never get to see these views… The old highway ends in the suburbs of Portland, but fortunately, Marine Drive along the river has a wonderful bike trail that got me close to the center of town. I arrived at Mitch Pryor’s MAP Bicycles in the afternoon, after 21 hours on the road. I had a little less than two hours to freshen up, buy dinner and walk to the train station for the ride home.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable ride. If you think of riding from Seattle to Portland, I recommend taking an “inland” route away from traffic. If your bike is ill-equipped to handle gravel roads, you can go from Randle up Forest Road 25 to Elk Summit, and then continue to Randle via Northwoods.

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