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