Japan in Autumn


I just returned from Japan. It was an amazing trip of talking to Compass Bicycles’ suppliers and of collecting material for future Bicycle Quarterly stories. Most of all, it was great fun!


We got to see old friends and acquaintances, and meet new ones. We rode bikes with some, went to Onsen baths with others, enjoyed great meals, and appreciated wonderful company.


We rode on the wonderful roads that criss-cross the Japanese mountains. They often are just a single lane wide, and the climbs (and descents) seem to go on forever. We love hairpin turns… and we got to do them continuously for over an hour during the descent of Shirabiso Pass – under a full moon! Japan was a great place to do the last pre-sale testing of our new Compass centerpull brakes.


We practiced our skills at Rinko. It is very satisfying to ride up to the train station, and 15 minutes later, our bikes are packed in relatively small bags that we can carry on our shoulders, even on crowded Tokyo subway trains. At the other end, it takes ten minutes to reassemble the bikes into full randonneur bikes with fenders, racks and lights. I had known about Rinko for years, but it took first-hand experience to understand the beauty of it.


Now that we know people, we aren’t treated as visitors as much, so we can actually see people at work. For an upcoming feature of TOEI, we were able to watch these legendary builders at work.


At the Poly Japon bike meeting, we admired some of the most beautiful bikes in Japan. (Not to mention the awesome ride into the mountains straight from the hotel. It was so good that I got up early the next morning to have another run at it.)


We savored the food and truly had a wonderful time. Thank you to all our Japanese friends who made this trip such a success!

Posted in Rides, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles – en Français!


Our first and best-selling book The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles is now available in a French edition. Published by Editions Vigot and printed by a quality printer in France, the new book turned out beautiful.

I am excited that the story of the constructeurs and their amazing bicycles is now available in its home country. As France re-discovers cycling, I hope the book has a similar influence as it has had in North America, where a new generation of young builders is crafting wonderful machines which are inspired by mid-century French craftsmen like René Herse, Alex Singer, Jo Routens, Camille Daudon, Paul Charrel and the many others featured in this book.


The book starts with some of the earliest cyclotouring bikes and their amazing gear changing mechanisms. Above is a Retro-Directe. There are two freewheels mounted side-by-side on the rear hub. The outer one works normally, when you pedal forward. The inner one is activated by pedaling backwards. See how pedaling backwards pulls on the lower chain run that goes over the larger freewheel?

This top-of-the-line Hirondelle has a front derailleur, too, so you get four speeds. I was able to ride this bike during our photo shoot – it rides very nicely, but my legs aren’t used to putting out power while pedaling backwards!


The bikes that we love today were developed during the classic age: 650B wheels with wide, supple tires; low-trail geometries; lightweight frames to offer a spirited ride… These bikes were perfected on the road, and that is one reason why they are so much fun to ride.


Even the porteur bikes of the newspaper couriers were designed for performance. Not only were the couriers paid for each run – the more newspapers they delivered to the newsstands, the more they earned – but they also had an annual race, where they fought for the title of the “Roi des Roule-Toujours” (King of the Always-Riding).


The constructeurs built many types of bikes. I am especially fascinated by their “camping” bikes: touring bikes designed to be ridden with a full camping load. There is so much to them – this 1985 Alex Singer has no fewer than five racks – and yet it’s all designed as a coherent whole to offer a wonderful ride.

The French edition is available through bookstores in France. We also have a few copies available in the Bicycle Quarterly bookstore. (Select the English version, and during checkout, you get a choice of language.)

After nine years and over 16,000 copies sold, the English edition of The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles is currently out of print. It will become available again next year. In the mean time, we have a few copies left – if you want it as a holiday gift, order your copy soon.

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The 4 Seasons of Mountain Roads


In Seattle, we don’t really have four seasons. The joke that we get a three months of summer and nine months of rain is fairly true.

Yet I love to see the landscape change with the seasons and the weather. That is why I love the Cascade Mountains. Every time I ride there, the landscape looks and feels different. Above is Tipsoo Lake near Chinook Pass in early April. The roads across the Cascades were closed for the winter. We skied 10 miles to core the lake during my Ph.D. field work as a geologist. We drilled through 15 feet (5 m) of snow before we reached the ice on top of the lake.


I was thinking of that geology trip when I rode across Chinook Pass a few weeks ago. In late Summer, Tipsoo Lake was easily accessible from the road, and dozens of visitors milled around on the trails that surround the lake. It really is the same view as in the first photo.

Looking through my photos, I compiled a selection that shows the road to Chinook Pass at different times in the year.


During that geology trip, Chinook Pass looked like this in early April. It was hard to imagine that just six weeks later, one could ride a bike up here.


On the way back, we encountered a snow storm as we skied down the road. We wore all the clothing we had brought despite working hard to pull heavy sleds with coring equipment.


In the spring, the snow melts fast. When I returned from the Oregon Outback last May, the road had just reopened after the winter closure. There still were huge snowbanks on either side.


It was raining, and visibility was reduced to half a mile or so. Even though I passed within a few miles of Mount Rainier’s summit, I didn’t even get a glimpse of the mountain. The brooding atmosphere of the high mountains in the clouds had its own appeal.


Same time of year, but on a sunny day. It was a pleasant place, we were wearing shorts, and sunscreen was at the top of our minds. The mountain views were spectacular.


In late summer, all the snow is gone. Hard to imagine that this road is closed 7 months out of the year, and that we worried about avalanches when we came through here on skis during that winter research trip.


Or perhaps not? Just a month after the above photo was taken, the snows start again… Above is the road in early October, just before it was closed for the season.

The dramatic changes are part of what makes the mountains so appealing. I ride this road 2 – 3 times a year. There may only be three months of summer in Seattle, but the mountains are spectacular even when it’s not sunny and dry.




Posted in Rides | 10 Comments

Bicycle Quarterly Wool Jerseys


When we received our first shipment of Bicycle Quarterly wool jerseys, they sold out within days. They are specially sourced from Italy. The weaving of the fabric, sewing of the jerseys, embroidering of the lettering – all takes a lot of work and time, so supplies can be a little erratic. We just received another shipment.

People around Seattle recognize me by the jerseys I wear. They are simply the most comfortable jerseys I’ve tried. They are scratch-free and comfortable in a wide range of temperatures. Unlike synthetic clothing, they don’t retain body odors, even when you’ve been on the road for days during a long brevet. And they are remarkably durable: I am still using the very first Seattle Randonneurs jersey we ordered from Woolistic 14 years ago!

They are also easy to care for – I wash mine on the “wool” cycle in the washing machine, and then hang them out to dry, if the weather permits, or put them in the dryer on the lowest setting. Over the years, my jerseys have gone through hundreds of washes without shrinking or getting threadbare.

The one thing that will ruin wool jerseys is putting heavy things in the back pockets. Have your bike carry your stuff! It’s more comfortable that way, too.

They are available with long and short sleeves, in sizes from S to XL. Click here for more information.

Posted in Clothing | 17 Comments

Riding to the Concours d’Elegance


When my friend David Cooper from Chicago mentioned that he was a judge at the Pacific Northwest Concours d’Elégance in Tacoma, I decided to go and join him there. I don’t get to see him often, and attending the Concours as his guest was sure to be fun. The ride to Tacoma promised a change in scenery from other routes I take.

“For the evening dinner reception, cocktail attire is required,” David mentioned as we finalized our plans. That added a layer of complication, since a jacket and pants don’t easily fit into a handlebar bag.


So I decided to take the Urban Bike instead of my randonneur bike. My clothes were packed neatly into a messenger bag that went onto the front rack. The photo above is at the ferry dock: instead of riding through the congested industrial corridor that extends from Seattle to Tacoma, I decided to take the ferry to Vashon Island. I would ride across the rural island from north to south, where another ferry would take me straight into Tacoma.


I made it to the ferry terminal in West Seattle with time to spare, but I knew that on the Vashon side, my schedule was tight. The road across Vashon Island measures 22.3 km (13.9 mile) from north to south. The time between the Seattle ferry’s scheduled docking and the Tacoma ferry’s scheduled leaving is 50 minutes.

Riding an average speed of 26.8 km/h (16.7 mph) for a little under an hour doesn’t sound too hard, but Vashon Island is relentlessly hilly. According to RideWithGPS, there are 303 m (1000 ft) of elevation gain in that short distance. My outlook: it would be good training!

I don’t have any photos from the ride, because I didn’t have time to stop or even sit up to snap a shot. When the ferry docked – fortunately on schedule – I was the first one off the boat. I sprinted up the ramp, and then attacked the long climb from the ferry. That was perhaps the hardest part of the ride. Without a proper warm-up, my legs hurt, and this hill always is steeper than it seems at first. The rolling roads toward the town center brought a welcome respite, but my favorite part is where the road drops back down to the water and runs alongside the bay that separates Vashon and Maury Islands.

From there, the remaining 5 km are a roller-coaster of hills. I glanced at my watch, and I realized I had to keep my speed up if I wanted to make the ferry. Many years ago, on a similar ride to Tacoma for an important meeting, I missed the boat by less than a minute: The ferry was just a few meters from shore when I came racing down the hill to the dock. I wanted to avoid a repeat of this today. Fortunately, my legs were properly warmed-through now, and the last hills were fun. I arrived at the ferry dock after 48 minutes of all-out riding. The ferry was still there – I made it!


With the bike securely parked, I got to rest and enjoy the ferry ride on this gorgeous late summer day.


The views from the ferry were magnificent. Mount Rainier is so much closer to Tacoma than to Seattle – it looked only a few miles away.


A short ride through Tacoma brought me to our hotel. I love the old city with its great architecture, its distinctive drawbridge, and its laid-back feel.


After a shower and a quick ironing of my shirt, we were ready for the dinner reception in the LeMay car museum. It was fun to explore the museum after hours, and to catch up with David. The food and company at dinner were great, too. Many car people love bicycles, and when I told them that I had ridden to the event, the older gentleman next to me said he was envious, especially since traffic on the Interstate had not been much fun. (On the other hand, his beautiful 1930s Alvis would have been hard to tow behind my bike!)


The main event started the next morning. As a guest of a concours judge, I was able to get in before the public, and watch as all the cars arrived and were parked on the lawn in front of the museum. The cars were gleaming in the morning sun, and hearing their engines purr (as on this Rolls Royce) or roar (as on a racing Mustang) added a layer to the experience that the static displays cannot convey.


Participants used the time for a last bit of polish, but most were happy to be distracted and talk about their cars.


The cars were lovely, with many fascinating details. The lap counter under the dashboard of this 1914 Grand Prix Mercedes was really neat.


There was a wonderful variety of cars at the concours, and I could have spent many more hours looking at the details.


The horn on this more-than-a-century-old Peugeot still worked!


I loved the interior of this 1930s BMW 327…


… and the outrageous wings and flares (and paint!) of this 1970s BMW racer.


All too soon, it was time to go home, and I returned to Seattle by train at the end of an enjoyable weekend. Riding my bike to the concours doubled the fun, and put me in the mood for the event. Now David has invited me to a similar event in Chicago. I would love to see his wonderful workshop again, but that would be a very long bike ride!



Posted in Rides | 26 Comments

2015 Calendar of Classic Bicycles


Bicycle Quarterly‘s Calendar of Classic Bicycles is now available, and we are  thrilled to think of how many of you will use the calendar to plan great outings in the coming year. Let yourself be inspired by the great selection of bikes featured in the coming year: The focus is on road, track and randonneur bikes, but we also included a cyclocross bike and a touring tandem.


Highlights include a superlight René Herse built for the famous Technical Trials, an early 1900s Dursley Pedersen, and a twin-chain bicycle built by Vélocio, the founder of the cyclotouring movement. Fans of racing will delight in Gino Bartali’s bike from the 1948 Tour de France, Tony Rominger’s hour record bike, and the beautiful 1930s Delangle track bike on the cover.


Each bike is presented in beautiful studio photographs, with captions that provide a brief history of each bicycle. In some years, the calendar has sold out within days. Get your copy while they last, and put it to good use to make 2015 an outstanding year!

Click here for more information or to order.



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Compass Centerpull Brakes


When we started Compass Bicycles, we dreamed of a new centerpull brake. We started developing and testing right away, but it has taken a few years for that work is coming to fruition. We just received the first production samples! The new Compass brakes will be in stock in early November.

For a bike with wide tires, centerpull brakes with brazed-on pivots are the best brake option. With pivots on the fork blades, there is little flex compared to a sidepull (or dual pivot) brake that reaches all the way around the tire. And since the pivots are close to the fork crown, they don’t twist like those of cantilever brakes. As a result, centerpull brakes offer more brake power and better modulation than other rim brakes. (The fact that Shimano’s latest rim brakes also use pivots high up on the fork blades shows that we aren’t the only ones who have figured this out.)

Of all the centerpull brakes, the Mafac Raids stand out. Mafac designed them in the 1970s, when they had decades of experience with this type of brake. The relationship between the upper and lower arms is perfect, which means you get lots of brake power, yet the pads don’t have to be set very close to the rims to prevent the brake levers from bottoming out. The brakes work well both with modern aero levers and with traditional levers. (Their cable pull is right in the middle between sidepull and cantilevers.) We tried many other centerpull brakes, but none came close in performance and feel.

During the development of our brakes, we did finite element analyses of various centerpull brake arms. We found that they varied greatly in their stiffness. Once again, the Mafac Raid came out on top. So when it came to decide on the shape and general design of our brakes, we couldn’t improve on the Raids.


We wanted a lightweight brake, so of course we forged the brake arms. Like the Mafac originals, our new brakes use custom hardware throughout – a huge project when you look at how many special bolts, nuts and washers there are on these brakes. (When you design a brake for standard screws that you can buy at hardware stores, you inevitably have to compromise weight and performance.) The hardware is made from chrome-plated steel, which is stronger than stainless steel.

We did improve a few things compared to the original Mafacs:

  • We made the arms slightly thicker, to make sure the brakes work with the higher brake forces generated by modern pad compounds. The weight gains are minimal.
  • The bushings of the original were cheap plastic and often developed play. Ours are special IGUS bearings that should last a long time.
  • The original pad holders were made from stamped aluminum, and the posts could come loose. Ours are cast as a single piece, with integrated posts.
  • The mounting bolts of the Mafacs, with their thin heads, also are known to fail when you aren’t careful during tightening. Ours are stronger, with integrated washers based on a René Herse design.
  • We improved the finish of the arms and the plating of the screws.
  • Our braze-on pivots don’t have the ugly aluminum plates to hold the spring. Instead, there is a ring with the spring hole that the builder brazes onto the post. (The photos still show the Mafac/Dia Compe braze-ons, since ours weren’t ready when the frame was built.)


To go with the brake, we’ll also offer a small rack to support a handlebar bag. The rack is made in Japan from CrMo tubing, so it is very light, yet strong. It’s patterned after the racks René Herse made for his randonneur bikes. The rack requires braze-ons on the fork, so it’s not a retrofit. If you plan to get a new bike, these brakes and rack are a big step forward.

We’ve been testing prototypes for quite a while, and we are excited that the new brakes will be available soon. We’ll also offer the hardware separately, so you can make your old Mafacs as good as new with new bushings, new hardware and new pads.

Posted in Brakes | 125 Comments