“What’ll she do?”

HelensRocks

When I was a kid, I loved cars. My first question to any owner of a sports car was: “What’ll she do?” I approach bikes similarly – I care about how they ride first and foremost.

Some cyclists these days seem to be concerned what their bike is, not what it does. One camp will never ride anything but lugged steel frames. For another, it’s carbon or nothing. Some will never ride narrow tires, others would never consider a tire wider than 23 mm.

Bicycle Quarterly doesn’t fall neatly into any of these categories, even if we sometimes are perceived as biased toward steel frames, or French bikes, or wide tires. For example, Craig Calfee told me that he was surprised when I loved his “Adventure” carbon bike: “I thought you were more of a steel guy.” My answer was simple: “I like great bikes, and yours was a great bike.”

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It’s really that simple: We like any bike that performs. Our first question is: “How does it ride?” Given a choice, I’d rather be on a carbon bike that performs and handles well than a steel bike on which I bog down. I’d also much prefer supple 23 mm tires that fly over the pavement over 42 mm tires with stiff sidewalls that make the bike feel harsh and sluggish.

When I am on the bike, I don’t notice stickers or materials. What I care most about is whether the bike feels like an extension of my body. The best bikes do this, whether they are made from steel, carbon, titanium or aluminum. I am sure a good bamboo bike would, too, I just haven’t ridden one yet.

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When I stop, I do look at the bike, and I realize that a beautiful bike is important to me. To me, beauty is independent of the materials. I can appreciate the hand-wrapped carbon tubes of a Calfee (above) as much as the finely filed lugs on my Herse (below).

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More than the joints, I care about the line of the bike. Is the frame well-proportioned? If there are fenders, do they follow the outlines of the wheels? Does the rack sit nice and low above the wheel? Beauty for me is first about the entire bike, seen from 20 feet away.

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I also appreciate the craftsmanship that becomes evident when you move in close and look at the details. While I can appreciate the whimsy of ornamentation, I am drawn to simple, beautifully executed details that express the function of the bike. The dropouts of this 1952 René Herse are a case in point: There is nothing superfluous here, and yet everything is supremely refined. It’ll perform as well as it looks.

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“Form follows function” has become a pretty worn phrase by now, but it expresses my aesthetics better than anything else. And that also gets to the heart of what makes a great bike: It performs beautifully, it looks nice, and it is superbly crafted. These qualities are complementary. If a bike is lacking in one area, it affects the others as well. An inelegant fork bend doesn’t absorb shock well. A poor fender line that may cause an accident if debris gets stuck between tire and fender. An ill-proportioned frame rarely has the flex characteristics that enable the rider to get in sync with the bike. “What looks right performs right.” The corollary to the cliché is that an unattractive bike rarely performs as well as it could.

These qualities have little to do with simple labels like “steel is real” or “carbon is fast”. True craftsmanship is possible with any material, and the results are remarkably similar in their ride quality. And that is a good thing, because it’s always the same human body pedaling the bike.

So let’s look beyond labels and stereotypes and focus on what truly matters: “What’ll she do?”

Posted in Testing and Tech | 28 Comments

My Favorite Bottle Cages

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It’s rare that I fall completely in love with a product, but it happened with the Nitto bottle cages. Ever since I began cycling seriously, I have been looking for the perfect bottle cages. In the late 1980s, almost everybody used the aluminum TA bottle cages. They were lightweight, but they tended to break after a year or two. Then came a number of welded aluminum bottle cages that lasted a bit longer, but they were heavier and looked clumsy. Plastic cages also were durable, but I did not find them elegant.

When I discovered the American Classic bottle cages, I really liked them. Instead of welds that could fail, these were clamped in an ingenious way by the bolt that attached them to the frame. They lasted much longer than any of the bottle cages I had used before, but being made from aluminum, they turned black and marred my bottles. Nonetheless, I used them for more than a decade, and even stocked up after American Classic stopped making them. My old Alex Singer still is equipped with them.

Over the years, other bottle cages have become available that are durable, but I find most of them too bulky to match the aesthetics of a classic steel frame.

When I built up my Grand Bois Urban Bike seven years ago, I decided to give the Nitto bottle cages a try. They seemed expensive at the time, but they really have delivered on all my criteria. They are made from thin stainless steel, so they look in proportion to the steel tubes of my frame. Being stainless, they don’t mar my bottles. They grip my bottles securely, yet the bottles are easy to retrieve and insert. Over the years, they have proven remarkably durable. They have become the epitome of bottle cages for me.

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On my Urban Bike, I use the “R” (racing) model, with two loops that hold the bottle in a spring-loaded grip. The shape allows you to pull the bottle slightly upward (and push downward to put the bottle back in the cage), which makes it easy to get a drink without looking down.

When I built my René Herse, I was trying to keep the weight of the bike as light as possible, so I chose the “R80″ bottle cages. They have the same shape, but are made from tubular steel instead of solid rod (photo at the top of this post). The “R80″ is 20% lighter than the “R”. At just 40 grams, its weight is competitive with many carbon fiber bottle cages.

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For the third bottle cage underneath the down tube, I use the “T” (touring, above). It forms a closed loop, so the weight of the bottle cannot open the cage as it hangs underneath the down tube. Even during the 360 miles of (mostly) rough gravel roads during the Oregon Outback, my third bottle remained secure. You can also use the “T” in a more conventional location, but it requires a little more precision when retrieving or replacing the bottle. (I’ve done it on the move even with the bottle mounted under the down tube, so it’s not a big deal.)

Made by craftsmen in Japan, these are all the bottle cages I’ll ever need. Mine have withstood many hard miles. They represent the finishing touch on a beautiful bike. These bottle cages are so good that we decided to offer them in our Compass Bicycles program.

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To go with these cages, we use our Compass water bottles. Made by Camelbak, these are another product we found to be so good that we decided to offer them through Compass Bicycles. We love the ease of squirting a mouthful of water from these bottles, yet they don’t leak significantly, even if you leave the top valve open.

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We also offer the Iribe bottle cages, which are silver-brazed from tubular stainless steel by Mr. Iribe, a master Keirin framebuilder. (He was portrayed in the Summer 2014 issue of Bicycle Quarterly.) While these cages are completely functional and superlight, they really are works of art. I love the little reinforcing plates that Mr. Iribe wraps over the joints to act as lugs, since you cannot easily fillet-braze stainless steel. I am glad the Iribe cages exist, but for my own bikes, the simpler Nitto cages are all I need.

Click here for more information on the cages and bottles.

Posted in Bottle cages | 41 Comments

Out of Reach

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When I am riding alone, cycling is meditation for me. When riding with friends, it’s uninterrupted time together. In both cases, it means leaving my busy life behind. No random e-mails, no urgent phone calls, nobody coming to my desk. Usually no one even knows exactly where I am (although I leave an itinerary with my family just in case something unexpected happens).

It’s an important for me to keep relearning the ability to live in the moment – for significant periods of time. I value it greatly. I need it in order to refresh my creativity which is behind every issue of Bicycle Quarterly and every product we develop for Compass Bicycles.

You may have figured out that I don’t have a cell phone. Of course I have been told repeatedly how cell phones have saved lives when they were used to call for help in emergencies. That is undeniable. One can also argue that these are rare exceptions. In any case, it’s a risk that I find is an acceptable trade-off for being out of reach.

GravelHelens

For me, careful planning, anticipating problems and being alert are more important than the ability to call for help – if there is cell phone connection at all. (Many of our favorite rides are out of range.)

So for some of you readers and customers, this means that it can take a few days until your e-mails are answered or your comments on this blog are approved (although staff addresses some of them). That is OK – we don’t deal with life-threatening crises at Compass Bicycles and Bicycle Quarterly.

In today’s busy, hyper-connected world, being out of reach is a rare, profound freedom.

Posted in Rides | 56 Comments

The Stem formerly known as Nitto Pearl

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Once upon a time, most stems had quills that inserted into the steerer tube. The stems were made from forged aluminum. Cinelli, 3TTT and others offered them. They were attractive and relatively lightweight, and stem failures were unheard of. Many of these old stems are still ridden daily, decades after they were made.

Today, most stems are for Aheadsets and clamp directly to the steerer tube. The first ones usually were welded or CNC-machined. Today, most are forged as well, and they no longer break as often as they used to when this technology was still new. They are a little lighter, but the most important reason for the switch is that the fork makers no longer have to thread the steerer tubes. The threads had to match the frame head tube, which required a different fork for each frame size. With threadless forks, one size fits all.

One manufacturer has continued to make forged aluminum quill stems during this time:  Nitto in Japan. Their top-of-the-line model was called “Pearl” until recently. For some reason, Nitto cannot use the name “Pearl” any longer, so now they are simply called “NP”. I imagine this being short for “Nitto Pearl”. What hasn’t changed are the high quality and the beautiful finish. The classic Italian stems never looked this nice.

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Another reason to like the Nitto “NP” is that it can be equipped with the Grand Bois/Compass decaleur – the only decaleur with tolerances tight enough that your bag doesn’t jump out when you ride on bumpy roads.

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The decaleur is modeled on an old Alex Singer design. It replaces the bar clamp bolt of the stem, and it comes with all the hardware needed to install it. We also offer Grand Bois wonderful fillet-brazed steel stems (which are also made by Nitto), but they are expensive, so you better know your stem length before ordering one. The Nitto Pearl is a great and more affordable solution to getting a reliable decaleur.

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The decaleur is a quick release for your handlebar bag. It keeps the bag away from the bars, so you can use all hand positions. And when you leave your bike, you simply pull the bag upwards and take it with you. You still need a rack to support the bag, as the decaleur only serves to stabilize it at the top. Rack and decaleur combined weigh less than most bag attachments that only attach to the handlebars, plus, it puts the bag low over the front wheel, so your bike handles better.

The Grand Bois/Compass decaleur has proven itself very durable. After having seen too many decaleurs that failed, usually far from home in the middle of long rides, we are glad to offer a solution that works reliably.

Compass Bicycles now offers the Nitto “NP” stem in lengths between 80 and 120 mm, as well as the matching decaleurs. Click here for more information.

Posted in Stems | 31 Comments

The Actual Width of Tires?

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Sometimes we get an e-mail or a phone call from a customer asking, “I bought the Compass 32 mm tires, but they only measure 28.5 mm on my rims. Why is this?”

Decades ago, some tire makers cheated when stating tire widths. Why? To make their tires appear lighter than they really were. By selling a 25 mm tire as a 28 mm, they made the tire seem lighter than the competition’s tires, which actually were 3 mm wider.

That was long ago, and it’s not what is going on here. We label our tires as close to their actual width as possible. Here is why different people report different widths for their tires:

  1. It can be difficult to accurately measure the width of a supple tire.
  2. The casing of supple tires stretches for a few weeks or even months after they have been installed.
  3. Tire width depends on tire pressure and rim width. That means the actual width can be a little narrower or wider than the nominal width.

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I recently installed a set of Compass Barlow Pass Extralight 700C x 38 mm tires on a Bicycle Quarterly test bike. How wide are they really?

When you measure metal with calipers, you squeeze the calipers until they won’t go any further, and then read your measurement. If you compress the calipers on a rubber tire, the tire will deflect. In this case, I measured 34 mm. But that isn’t the actual width of the tire: If you tried to fit the tire into a frame with just enough clearance for 34 mm tires, it would rub.

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Here is how you measure tire width: Open up your calipers in 0.5 mm increments. Check whether there is “play” between the caliper jaws and the tire. In the photo above, I am already at 35.5 mm, and the calipers still fit snugly on the tire.

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At 36.5 mm, I am finally getting some wiggle. This means that the tire is just over 36 mm wide. That is the width when it’s new.

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Two weeks later, I measured the tire again. It has stretched to 36.5 mm. I was surprised that it was still so narrow, until I checked the tire pressure. I had let the pressure drop to about 30 psi. How wide would the tire be at its maximum pressure?

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I inflated the tire to 75 psi, and lo and behold, it now measured 37.5 mm. It probably will stretch a little more, and achieve its full 38 mm width before long. Of course, I wouldn’t ride it at that pressure (unless I put it on a tandem), so at the pressures I usually ride, the tire will be a tad narrower than its nominal width.

Should I inflate my tires to a higher pressure to make them wider? No, that doesn’t make sense. Your tire’s comfort and performance is determined by the tire width at the contact patch, which gets larger at lower pressure. Putting more air than necessary into the tire defeats the purpose, even if it makes the tire wider where it does not touch the ground.

For narrower tires, rim width also plays a role. The Compass Stampede Pass tires measure about 31 mm on a 20 mm-wide rim, like a Mavic MA-2, but 33 mm wide on a 23 mm-wide rim, like a Grand Bois rim. For wider tires, this is less of a factor, since all the rims we use are narrow when compared to the wide tire.

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In any case, our testing has shown that the material and construction of the casing are more important for comfort and speed than a millimeter or two in width. When you put a set of supple Compass tires on your bike, you’ll notice a huge difference in how the bike feels and performs.

And when you buy your next bike, make sure to spec a frame that provides ample tire width. On my own bikes, I am not too concerned whether the tires measure 39 or 41.5 mm. Either is ample for most of the riding I do.

Further reading: How Wide a Tire Can I Run?

Posted in Tires | 26 Comments

A Japanese Book on Simplex

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Hideki Sasaki has released the second book in the “Derailleurs of the World” series. The new book covers Simplex, perhaps the most influential derailleur maker of all. From the earliest 1920s designs to the last slant parallelogram derailleurs of the 1990s, they are all documented in their many variations.

Simplex is a fascinating story. I loved seeing the early front derailleurs that were found on those wonderful 1930s Reyhands. The ubiquitous “Tour de France” model that equipped so many post-war racing bikes. The crazy Juy 543 that fetches such incredible prices on eBay. The first twin-pivot parallelogram derailleurs, which then led to the wonderfully light and jewel-like SLJs of the 1970s and 1980s. Mixed in with these gems are the abysmal plastic derailleurs that ruined Simplex’ reputation once and for all. Yet even those somehow look appealing when photographed in brand-new condition in the studio.

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If you ever wondered how to distinguish an SLJ from the 1970s from a later 1980s one, or what the difference between the SX and the SLJ was, you’ll find the answers here. The text is in Japanese, but the photos – now in full color – are wonderful, and you don’t need to read Kanji to figure out model number, capacity, weight and manufacturing dates.

These books are hard to find outside Japan. We placed a one-time order of 15 copies. I am keeping one, and the others are available while supplies last. The Campagnolo book in the same series sold out within two hours, so if you want a copy, don’t delay.

The book has 117 pages, softcover, and costs $ 68. Since this is a special order, we won’t put up a page for it in the Bicycle Quarterly bookstore. Instead, go straight to our shopping basket to order.

Update 7/12/2014: All the Simplex books are sold. Thank you for your interest.

Second and last order 7/14/2014: Due to the number of disappointed customers who missed out on the first batch, we’ll place another order. We’ll also receive another shipment of the first volume on Campagnolo. To receive a copy, you must pre-order here by 7/16/2014.

Posted in books | 2 Comments

Thoughts about Getting Children Engaged in Cycling

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Many avid cyclists would love to share their joy of cycling with their children, but some find that their children aren’t interested at all. I am lucky – for now – that my son shares my love of the sport. How did this happen?

It’s a good question, and I cannot claim to have found the magic bullet. I think the most important aspect is that your children need to discover cycling for themselves. If you push them into any sport, there are typically two outcomes: They either become compliant clones of you without much personality of their own, or they rebel against you and never touch a bike. Neither outcome is what you want.

My son showed no interest in bikes for a long time. It was only when his younger sister taught herself to ride with a neighbor’s bike, that he, too, wanted to learn to ride. We have an alley with infrequent traffic and they typically rode there with the neighbor children. We then went on some rides around the neighborhood as a family, and we took the opportunity to teach them how to ride in traffic and anticipate problems before they occur.

A year or two later my son graduated from a $3 yard sale one-speed to his first real kid’s cyclocross bike (shown below). Then he started to enjoy cycling. We equipped his bike with a custom-made rack, fenders and lights. I made up outings that the two of us could go on, like around Magnolia (5 to 10 miles), and I’ll have to admit to adding an enticement of a stop at a local ice-cream shop.

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We rode together to music lessons, basketball, soccer, museums… He soon started riding by himself to his activities. Then, one day, he decided to “go on a ride” by himself. He tried to retrace a route we had taken before. He got lost and discovered some interesting streets and sites. When he found his way home, he clearly had been bitten by the bug of cycling. He tested his new-found freedom by riding places that I thought a bit challenging, but he did OK. He learned to navigate by landmarks, such as the ship canal that bisects Seattle, and he always found his way home. (He knows our phone number, just in case, and I taught him how to fix a flat.) When he’s “bored”, many times he’ll decide to go for a ride or out for a run.

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When the Islabike test bike arrived last summer, he read in the product description that it was suitable for cyclocross, and he wanted to try that. The result was a wonderful season of ‘cross last autumn. Lately, he’s joined me on longer rides on this bike. We’ll see where it all goes. He is still young, and his interests range wide. I don’t know whether he’ll enjoy cycling for the rest of his life – for the moment, I am just enjoying our rides together.

The impetus for each step in his cycling came from him, and I think that is important. On the other hand, my daughter had little interest in cycling for a few years, and that was OK, too. Both have to develop their own, unique personalities, and it’s my job to connect to them in their own worlds, rather than try to drag them into mine.

To summarize, my suggestions include:

  1. Don’t push your child toward cycling, but allow them to join you when they want to. Make sure your rides together are suited to their abilities.
  2. Buy a good bike for your kids. The cheaper ones are usually not much fun to ride. Don’t worry that they’ll outgrow it – good bikes have high resale values, so you’ll get most of your money back. More importantly, you don’t want to miss the opportunity to have them enjoy cycling.
  3. Trust your kids, and work with them to increase their responsibilities and range. Don’t be afraid to let them ride by themselves once they have shown that they are competent in traffic.
  4. Let your passion be a habit that your children observe in you, and allow them to define their own passion.
  5. Be proud of your child(ren).
Posted in Rides | 30 Comments