My PBP Bike: Contact Points

My PBP Bike: Contact Points

This year’s rides have been more self-supported than usual – cafe stops aren’t really part of the program right now. So the ‘new’ bike that I built for last year’s Paris-Brest-Paris has seen a lot of use, since it’s designed for riding long distances without stopping. In our series about the individual part choices of this build, let’s talk about the contact points.

Riding the 1200 km (750 miles) of Paris-Brest-Paris means spending a lot of time on the bike with little rest. Last year, my longest stop was about 1.5 hours, when I slept after riding 870 km (545 miles). And yet when I arrived in Paris after 56 hours on the road, I was tired, but there weren’t any aches and pains.

Comfort on a bike really depends on two things. The first is absorbing vibrations through supple, wide tires and a little suspension in the fork. The second is to make the contact points, where your body touches the bike, as anatomical as possible.

Discussions of contact points start with the saddle. Every cyclist has their preferred saddle, and mine is a Berthoud Aravis. Even though my bike was brand-new for PBP – just a one-hour shake-down ride before it was packed for the trip to France – I wasn’t going to ride for 56 hours on a brand-new saddle. This one had seen duty on many Bicycle Quarterly test bikes, and it was nicely broken in. Actually, ‘breaking in’ isn’t quite the right term – the saddle shapes itself to the rider’s anatomy over time. For me, that means two very pronounced depressions where my sitbones go, and no off-the-shelf saddle offers that shape. Rather than try to fit my body into a pre-made ‘anatomical’ shape, a leather saddle allows me to create my own custom shape.

Leather is a wonderful material for a bicycle saddle. It breathes a bit, so even during hot days, the rider’s bottom stays comfortable. The Aravis has titanium rails. They don’t just save weight (80 g), but also add a little extra flex to make the saddle even more comfortable.

I love Berthoud saddles for the high quality of their leather. Mine has been comfortable from the first ride, and it just keeps getting better and better.

I mounted the saddle on a Nitto S-65 seatpost: It’s very light, yet it holds the saddle securely thanks to its close manufacturing tolerances. Nothing is more annoying than a saddle that starts slipping during a long ride. Years ago, I finished a cross-state race with my saddle pointing almost at 45-degree angle. Riding like that for three hours was almost tolerable, but I wouldn’t want to do it for much longer!

Handlebars are as important for long-distance comfort as the saddle. Generous curves allow moving my hands between different positions, which goes a long way toward avoiding numbness or even nerve damage.

During these long rides, it’s important that the handlebars have just the ‘right’ shape. That is where the Rene Herse randonneur handlebars come in. They bend upward to create a convex shape on the ramps that fits into my palms. You can see me holding the bars in that position – on the ramps behind the brake lever hoods. It’s a supremely comfortable position, and it’s the one I use the most when riding long distances. For it to work well, the shape has to be ‘just right’ – an ‘almost-right’ randonneur bar is worse than a standard handlebar. We tested dozens of bars until we found the perfect shape.

I also like the relatively deep drops, which allowed me to get very aero when heading into strong 3/4 crosswinds during the last stretch. Having very distinct hand positions means that my back isn’t always at the same angle, which also helps to prevent fatigue.

Our handlebars are made it from superlight and superstrong aluminum. At just under 300 g, they don’t give up much weight to carbon bars, while offering more comfort and safety. (They’ll bend rather than shatter if the bike falls over.) Mine are 42 cm wide. With my elbows bent, my forearms angle inward, and wider bars hurt my shoulders. Narrower bars also are more aero, which I appreciated during last year’s windy PBP.

There’s a lot of talk about padded bar tape and brake lever hood shapes. For me, these matters are less important. The brake hoods require my wrists to be parallel to the axis of the bike, but when I bend my elbows for shock absorption, my wrists don’t align that way. That is why I like bars with generous curves: I can find the angle where my wrists fall naturally. I use Campagnolo carbon brake levers since they are light, of high quality, and the shape is nice.

Padded bar tape is one of those things that make sense at first sight: It’s intended to absorb vibrations that fatigue your body and hurt your hands. Yet vibrations must be absorbed close to the source – near the road surface. Once the entire bike is vibrating, there’s too much mass going up and down to absorb with just a bit of foam. That’s why I run supple tires, where only a few grams of tire casing have to flex to absorb the ‘road buzz,’ rather than 9.2 kg (20.3 lb) of bike.

For me, bar tape serves to make the bars less slippery and nice to the touch. That’s why I like Maware leather tape. It’s made from pigskin, so it’s thin and doesn’t have raised edges like many leather tapes. And it feels wonderful, making me smile every time I touch it during the long ride.

The last contact point are the pedals. I use spd pedals because I need walkable shoes. Even though Rene Herse sells wonderful MKS pedals, I prefer the simple shape of Shimano’s A600. If I could get the A600s with the silky-smooth MKS bearings, I’d be even happier.

Even more important than the pedals are the shoes. I’ve been riding Dromarti’s leather shoes for years now, because they are simply perfect. The soles are stiff enough, so the small spd cleats don’t cause pressure points even after 56 hours on the road. And yet the shoes have a little flex, which prevents my feet from getting tired. They Dromartis are great for walking, and the leather upper breathes, so I don’t have problems with hot feet any longer. (When I used shoes made from artificial leather, I often stopped and stepped into puddles or creeks during hot days, because my feet hurt so much.) When Dromarti closed a few years ago, I almost panicked. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t live without these shoes, and Dromarti was bought by a long-time customer. I’m glad the shoes are available again, even though mine don’t show any signs of wearing out.

People often wonder how we can ride 1200 km (750 miles) without any real stops. Having a bike that is comfortable from the first to the last moment is a big part of that. The sophistication of a good randonneur bike lies in hundreds of small details. Things like a great handlebar shape aren’t immediately obvious. They make a big difference not just on these long rides, but every time I head out on my bike.

Other parts in this series:

Photo credit: Nicolas Joly (all photos).

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Comments (42)

  • Pk

    The functional saddle is naturally going to be aesthetically pleasing.
    The beautiful saddle will most likely be painful.

    September 9, 2020 at 11:41 am
  • David Kamp

    Jan: I’m with you on the contact points issues. I have a carbon gravel bike, a 2017 Norco Search, purchased at employee pricing (bargain, end of year) and use it for brevets. I have also found 35c tires improve comfort. I would like to have a small handlebar bag, but can’t mount a front rack because of the carbon fork. Any suggestions? Dromarti shoes are nice, but quite expensive at nearly $300/pair, so I use Specialized Rime shoes, which I could find at the local garage sale for $5, and M535 SPD pedals from my mt bike to get around the cost of A600s which you recommend (are they even available?) My saddle is a Rivet Pearl Ti, and required break-in, as it appears your Berthoud did also, even though you said it didn’t. I believe the Rivet is something like the Berthoud, requiring break-in. Creating those impressions and possible asymmetries are what I call “break-in”. Am I missing something there? I appreciate your choices, but some are quite expensive. A valuable addition for randonneuring is a SON generator hub with a Schmidt LED front light. I get the impression that you own more than one bike, again an expensive proposition for some of us. I’m generally using what I have in the garage.

    September 9, 2020 at 12:00 pm
    • Jan Heine

      Bargain bikes can be great fun, too, and we all have to live within our budgets. When I was in college, I made sacrifices elsewhere, and I still had to compromise a bit when I bought my bike. These days, when I train all year, travel all the way to France, and then ride for 50+ hours, I don’t regret a little extra money spent on the bike that works perfectly.

      Regarding saddle break-in, there are two factors. First, the best leather comes from free-range cows, and it’s softer, yet tighter, so it doesn’t stretch. Of course, that leather is expensive, so budget saddles use leather that’s not the same quality. Those saddles will be harder at first, but then start sagging sooner. The second factor is how old the saddle is. Leather dries out unless you ride the saddle and keep it soft. A saddle that’s been in warehouses for years will take more time to break in. The saddle we get from Berthoud are made to order, and we keep our inventory as small as possible, so you’re guaranteed a ‘fresh’ saddle.

      I’ve found that Berthoud saddles are comfortable almost out of the box, but I limit my first rides to 5 hours or so. The saddles get better with age, and even the first one I got in 2007 (serial No. 024) is still going strong on my Urban Bike. And if it ever wears out, replacement leather tops are available, and you just need a 5 mm Allen and a Torx to replace it.

      September 9, 2020 at 12:32 pm
  • David Kamp

    Your ability to ride without or with few sleep breaks is impressive, and for safety reasons might not be recommended for randonneurs with lesser abilities. Most mortals need something like a 3 hour sleep minimum every (24 hr) circadian cycle. One year at PBP we rode with Lon Haldeman (of RAAM fame) who took nearly the entire 90 hours, although he was fully capable of going closer to 50 hours. He staged sensible sleep breaks. Most of us arrived at pre-arranged break points much later than he did. He got back to the start feeling pretty good. We were pretty bleary.

    September 9, 2020 at 12:29 pm
    • Jan Heine

      There’s definitely an element of experience and adaption to riding long distances with little sleep. My first non-stop 600 was difficult… I also don’t recommend riding when you get sleepy. It’s dangerous, and the joys of cycling don’t lie in taking risks.

      For me, the secret is to ride at a good enough clip to keep adrenalin flowing, so I don’t get sleepy. And then stop and sleep. It’s easy to waste a lot of time messing with my bike, or just sitting around. My strategy is to ride, or eat, or sleep. My sleep stop included a big breakfast and 45 minutes of sleep, yet it was only about 1:20 hours long.

      September 9, 2020 at 12:38 pm
  • Harald

    Can you say more about what you like about the A600 pedals? I’ve tried a couple different SPD pedals, some with a platform, some without, and I don’t really notice a difference.

    September 9, 2020 at 12:37 pm
    • Jan Heine

      Agreed – most spd pedals are designed to use the shoe’s sole to stabilize the foot. I like the A600 because they are light – only one mechanism per side – and the bearings are of acceptable quality. I tried the lower-end A520, but I got foot pain even though the bearings spun smoothly in the stand. It appears that under high pedaling loads, the bearings were binding, and my foot hurt as a result. Whatever it was, switching to the A600 made the problem go away.

      I still dream about a pedal that combines a Look-style cleat (with a much larger interface) with walkability. Look actually made one many years ago, before spd. It used their standard road mechanism on the pedal, but a T-shaped cleat that fit on the first Sidi Dominators. I used it for a few years. It wasn’t perfect, as the cleat stuck out beyond the sole of the shoe, but it shows the potential. It’s too bad that the component makers think only in the categories ‘road racing’ and ‘mountain bike,’ and forget that most road riders actually stop at bakeries, etc.

      September 9, 2020 at 1:36 pm
      • Owen

        The Time ATAC cleat design with more float is a real boon for those of us with knee issues. Now if only MKS would make a lightweight, one-sided version with a platform using their great bearings I’d be in absolute heaven 🙂

        September 9, 2020 at 3:37 pm
      • Stuart Fogg

        This road rider stops at every bakery.

        September 10, 2020 at 6:13 am
      • John B.

        Regarding your dream pedal, Time came very close, conceptually at least, with their MID 57 pedals ( Unfortunately, their implementation was poor. They were wonderful to use when new. However, the cleat retention spring was covered in plastic, which quickly wore and fell off, creating slop in the interface. Also, the cleat contact point on the pedal body was aluminium, which also wore quickly, creating further slop.

        September 10, 2020 at 7:28 am
    • Joseph Dowski

      Hi Harald,
      I too have been a big proponent for years on the Shimano PD-A600 pedals. They are light, have terrific bearings, and are one of the few, “set it & forget it”, components on my bike. Shimano came out with an updated version, PD-ES600, but the reviews have been mixed. I was about to say that you can still find the PD-A600 around but when I googled just now, I could not find any for sale? Yikes!

      September 10, 2020 at 8:18 am
  • David Lewis

    One small thing that I’ve found enhances the A600 is to remove the spindle, clean the grease out, fill the pedal with Phil Waterproof grease, and reinsert the spindle. That pushes the relatively stiff Shimano grease out and fills the bearings with the thinner Phil grease, which makes the pedals hang at the same angle every time so they’re easier to clip into. Also, of course, here in the PNW waterproof grease is a plus anyway.

    September 9, 2020 at 3:35 pm
    • Jan Heine

      Good advice. Mine have freed up nicely just by riding them…

      September 9, 2020 at 3:59 pm
  • Damon

    I am glad to see that hand position being favoured. I had been wondering if my reach was too long, as I love that position myself over the hoods for extended periods.
    Whatever works!

    September 9, 2020 at 7:18 pm
  • Peter Alspach

    Jan, I’m curious about your recommendations for vegan options (saddles, bar tape, and shoes). The Brooks Cambium I find uncomfortable and not close the B17. But I’m trying to move towards a more vegan lifestyle and would appreciate any options you or others would recommend.

    September 9, 2020 at 8:16 pm
    • Jan Heine

      For vegan bar tape, cloth bar tape covered with shellac is a great option unless it’s really hot and humid. For saddles, like you, I can’t really ride the Cambium, but I know others who love it. And I haven’t found plastic shoes that work as well as leather.

      I respect vegans. My own approach is to limit my impact by reducing rather than eliminating. So rather than buy lots of inexpensive products, I buy few that are of high quality. My first Berthoud saddle from 2007 is still going strong…

      September 9, 2020 at 9:15 pm
      • Johannes

        Yes, cotton tape is vegan, but shellac is not. So no option, if you want to keep you bike vegan.
        I guess there is no really good option to replace leather, be it for a saddle or for shoes.
        If Dromartis are out of your budget, you might have look at Runon from Japan—I really see no differences besides are hole and stitching patterns— or at Quoc from UK.

        September 10, 2020 at 8:26 am
        • Jan Heine

          I really see no differences besides are hole and stitching patterns

          As with most things, there’s more to cycling shoes than just looks… I have no interest in the company, but I’d say the Dromartis are well worth the money. I’ve ridden many cycling shoes, including some you mentioned, and none have been as good for the riding I do. If I were to race again, I’d dig out my Sidis and put my old Look pedals back on the bike, but for long distances, touring and commuting, the Dromartis are in a league of their own.

          September 10, 2020 at 12:33 pm
      • marmotte27

        Shellac is an animal product, don’t think it qualifies as vegan.
        As many vegan products are made from plastics I’m not totally convinced they’re beneficial overall to environment.
        I try to follow the same approach as you, Jan, trying to buy high quality goods that last. From what you say about the premium saddle leather, one can conclude that this quality goes at least some way to ensure that animals haven’t suffered for the products (which I hope is the case for those free range cows).

        September 10, 2020 at 8:31 am
  • Kai S

    your pants is a contact point as much as your shoes:)

    many cyclists swear by their chamois and no underwear. i prefer a comfy saddle over the chamois and have no problems using speedo-style underwear.

    having such a setup makes commuting with any pants appropriate that much easier, and having the concept up and properly running i use it with success at all my cycling.

    but what is your personal take on this pandora’s box? do you make special arrangement for rando vs touring?

    September 9, 2020 at 9:18 pm
    • Jan Heine

      Good point. I noticed that in recent years, saddles have become harder and chamois more padded. I guess it makes the bike lighter by transferring the weight to the rider… I find that a relatively thin chamois works best for me. I used to prefer real leather chamois, but they are hard to find, and the latest synthetic ones work fine even during the longest rides. In the city, I just ride in street clothes… For cyclotouring, I wear our knickers over cycling shorts.

      September 10, 2020 at 12:24 pm
    • Garth

      I like cotton bar tape but without the shellac.

      I agree the first step we can all take is to reduce our consumption and purchase as ethically as possible.

      I recently read an article that discussed how washing synthetic clothes releases fake hormones into the environment that’s seriously affecting biology. So, a few articles of well made ethically produced wool would be better, right?

      September 11, 2020 at 5:11 pm
  • Trevor

    What would you recommend doing with a Berthoud saddle if you got an ‘old’ one? I bought a beautiful cork finish Avaris (?) for my Ebisu that seems to have been sitting around for some time before I got it. After two years of use, it was still hard as a board! I eventually sold it and put an old Ideale Diagonal 92 on my bike. Could this saddle have been softened somehow?

    September 9, 2020 at 10:15 pm
    • Jan Heine

      I have little experience trying to rejuvenate dried-out leather saddles. I’d start by putting Obenauf’s on the underside and then ride it… If the leather isn’t cracked, it should be possible to bring it back.

      September 10, 2020 at 12:29 pm
  • Gunther

    I am not a specialist. My guess is shellac is not vegan either, however sensible (or funny) this is.

    September 10, 2020 at 3:08 am
    • Jan Heine

      You are right! Sorry about that. Then just cotton tape… or one of the plastic ones.

      September 10, 2020 at 10:10 am
      • Singlespeedscott

        Even Cotton isn’t a great choice for a Vegan cyclist. The cotton is one off the ag Industries biggest environmental polluters in regard to pesticide use. It also wastes an obscene quantity of water.

        If you really want to get into the semantics aluminium is also not the great in regards to its energy consumption in production nor waste from production and mining.

        Unfortunately the modern cycling industry has become very wasteful with the constant market hype to buy the latest products that tend to not be as durable as products from the past

        If you really care about your environmental foot print as a cyclist you should really seek out high quality second hand parts that can be sourced locally or purchase stuff that has a very long useful life.

        September 10, 2020 at 12:39 pm
        • Jan Heine

          There are lots of issues, and we try to consider them as we make stuff. Forging is less wasteful than CNC-machining, where you turn most of the aluminum into chips. (They can be recycled, but that’s more a band-aid than an actual solution.) The main one is how long stuff lasts and how much you buy of it. We make our parts backward and forward compatible where possible, even if it means less profits. We also try to ship the most energy-efficient way possible.

          September 10, 2020 at 2:28 pm
  • Reuel

    The Ergon ST Core Prime saddle is quite a good synthetic alternative to the Brooks B17. After being a steady B17 user for 10 or so years, I’ve switched to the Ergon.

    September 10, 2020 at 3:59 am
  • scott sisamis

    Hey Jan, the bike is beautiful, can yo break it down in detail, also can you describe the wheels, 700 vs 650b on this bike, tire size?
    Thank you in advance

    September 10, 2020 at 12:52 pm
  • Roland

    Just an additional comment on shoes: I found out the hard way that choosing the right shoe size is really important if you want to avoid problems like numbness of the toes or pain on the soles of the feet. It is better to buy them a little bigger. When I bought my last leather shoes, they fit perfectly in the store, but on long rides my and probably everyone’s feet expand. This seems to inhibit blood circulation, which in my case leads to persistent numbness in certain toes. After PBP, it took several weeks for the sensitivity in my toes to return completely (certainly not healthy in the long run!). For me, it helps to loosen the laces a bit with every short stop or even to take off the shoes during a longer break. The next time I have to buy cycling shoes, I will probably buy them half a size larger than the perfect fit seems to be in the shop.

    September 10, 2020 at 2:21 pm
    • Jan Heine

      In the past, cyclists soaked their (leather) shoes in water before the first ride, to make them conform to their feet…

      September 10, 2020 at 2:29 pm
  • Scott Bontz

    When you say “we” tested dozens of bars before finding the perfect shape, how many testers do you mean? Are bars not like saddles, very personal in fit? Or did this bar satisfy several people other than than you?

    I tried it and gave up because the reach seemed so long and drops — with the ramps properly level — too steep and distant. And this with the tops near enough that they got little use. But I’m not a long-distance rider.

    September 10, 2020 at 3:33 pm
    • Jan Heine

      One rider testing would just get a bar that matches their preferences. That’s why we have the BQ team, where we have several riders who can try new products. We also work with racers like Ted King and Lael Wilcox, who test products for us.

      Sorry the bars did not work for you – generally, the idea is to get positions that are quite distinct, so the drops should be lower than the hoods and ramps. Most modern bars seem more like the ‘cowhorn bars’ that used to equip time trial bikes, which had one position only. For time trials, that makes sense, since you only need the position for maximum speed, not for sitting up and relaxing.

      September 10, 2020 at 4:06 pm
      • Stuart Fogg

        I use a TT bar (Deda Elementi Dabar) on my everyday bike. It gives me three usable positions. When I previously had a drop bar I found myself holding the hoods most of the time but hardly ever using the drops. The end position on the TT bar is a lot like the hoods on a drop bar but I’m stretched forward a little more (which I like better than reaching down) and the brakes are easier to apply. Like you say everyone is different. Also without the drops it’s much easier to lean the bike on things. 🙂

        September 11, 2020 at 12:46 am
        • Jan Heine

          Flared drop bars are even better for leaning the bike against walls, as they lay flat against the wall when the bike is leaning against it. That’s not the main reason why Rene Herse bars are flared: With long-reach bars, your wrists would hit the tops when you sprint (or climb) in the drops and rock the bike from side to side. A little flare takes care of that issue.

          September 11, 2020 at 9:19 am
    • Jacob Musha

      On a short ride, nearly any bar will work.

      Long distance is where the Rene Herse Randonneur handlebars shine. I’ve ridden double centuries on mine and was comfortable the entire time. I cannot say that about any other handlebar. I wish they came in 38cm though. 🙂

      Last month I rode 140 miles on my MTB with flat bars. I still have occasional stabbing nerve pain in my right hand, though it seems to be improving. Hand discomfort is not something to ignore. The damage can be permanent.

      September 10, 2020 at 7:51 pm
      • Jan Heine

        I wish they came in 38cm though.

        Your wish was granted: We just added a 37 cm version.

        September 11, 2020 at 8:42 am
      • Conrad

        yeah, I developed severe hand weakness after a long ride once. I switched to a Nitto noodle and the Herse bars when they were available later on and haven’t had a problem since.
        On a mountain bike with flat bars i like the Ergon grips but they still are not as comfortable as a good road bar.

        September 11, 2020 at 9:41 pm
    • Conrad

      These bars indeed have a long reach compared to most. I installed a shorter stem to compensate. The Nitto bars are a curse in that i had to switch the whole fleet over because once I tried them I couldn’t go back to the others.

      September 11, 2020 at 9:32 pm
  • john hawrylak


    I have your RH Rando 44cm bar and like it. I have it rotated so the ramp is flat or slightly up, and I can feel the convex area behind the hoods. it’s a nice feature, but I would not say it’s a ‘gamechanger”.

    Have you considered lengthening the the end of drops by approximately 2cm?? It brings the drops a little closer. My no name Sakae radonnuer type bar from the 70’s had the drops extend about 2 cm beyond the flats on top. I found the feature to be comfortable, but have not seen it on other bars,. On most bars, the drops end even with the tops

    September 10, 2020 at 6:43 pm

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