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 | 39 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?

38_final_width

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?

38_final_width

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

A Reappraisal of Tullio Campagnolo

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When Bicycle Quarterly did an article on Tullio Campagnolo, you knew it wasn’t going to be another fluff piece re-hashing the same old stories and myths. We did some real research, and we were surprised by what we uncovered.

Cyclists who know their history have heard how in 1927, Campagnolo raced in the Gran Premio della Vittoria, got stuck in the snow when he could not open the wingnuts on his rear wheel, and lost the race. He then invented the quick release, which became the foundation of the company that bears his name.

That is the legend, but what is the real story of Campagnolo? Working with well-known cycling historian David Herlihy and other experts, we’ve pieced together the history of Campagnolo. Based on research in European archives, patent searches and contemporary accounts, the conclusions were published in a 19-page article in the Summer 2014 Bicycle Quarterly. The true story is different from the myth, but it’s no less fascinating.

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Campagnolo was less of an inventor of ground-breaking innovations, and more of a visionary who foresaw trends and even shaped them. He adopted other manufacturer’s promising, but overlooked, ideas. He showed great ingenuity in improving those ideas to give racers exactly what they wanted.

Back to the quick release: It appears that Campagnolo did not invent it at all. The story of the race in the snow is a myth. There was a snowy Coppa della Vittoria, but in a different year (1925), and Campagnolo isn’t mentioned in the race reports as a favorite in any of the Coppas della Vittoria of the 1920s.

The original patent for the quick release, said to date from 1930, does not exist. Later patents by Campagnolo are written very narrowly for improvements or special features of the quick release, indicating that he could not patent the cam-actuated quick release itself.

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Campagnolo’s next major innovation was a parallelogram derailleur, which introduced the general shape and operating principle for all rear derailleurs to this day. Campagnolo got this idea from a French cyclotouring derailleur, the Nivex (left). He was not the first to adapt the parallelogram derailleur for racing bikes, either: That honor goes to the JIC derailleur (middle). As so often, Campagnolo integrated these ideas into a product that was more elegant and better finished (right). His derailleur was successful where the other parallelogram derailleurs were not.

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Campagnolo’s true strike of genius was the idea of the “gruppo” – a group of matching components. Before, customers of high-end bikes had to choose each component individually: brakes from Mafac, derailleurs from Simplex or Huret, hubs from FB, cranks from Stronglight or Gnutti, etc. Tullio Campagnolo made the customer’s choice easy by offering a full group of components. “Full Campy” became the hallmark of a top-of-the-line bike during the 1970s bike boom.

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Campagnolo focused on the complete customer experience long before Apple popularized the concept. Campagnolo’s packaging was beautiful. The components showed balanced proportions and a beautiful finish. The quality was without reproach. The parts were easy to install and pleasant to use. Campagnolo backed their components with an unconditional lifetime warranty. And the company sponsored so many professional racers that more than 90% of professionals rode on Campagnolo (below). As a result, Campagnolo dominated the high-end component market for decades.

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This is a major re-assessment of Campagnolo’s legacy. It reminds me of the re-evaluation of car maker Ettore Bugatti’s contribution in recent decades, from undisputed genius to a more human entrepreneur, who nonetheless imbued his products with a quality and mystique all of their own. I feel that understanding Tullio Campagnolo’s true contributions, as a visionary more than as an inventor, will only increase the appreciation of him and his company.

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The Bicycle Quarterly article delves into many other questions. Why did Campagnolo patent and introduce his quick release not as a wheel retention mechanism (as we know it today), but only as a shifting aid? Why did he introduce a Nivex-style chainrest in the 1970s? Why did a French inventor who developed bar-end shifters and a novel front derailleur become the distributor for Campagnolo in Paris? And why did Campagnolo not continue to develop his components during the 1970s, which left an opening for Shimano’s rise in the 1980s? It’s a fascinating story – it probably would make a great movie!

Click here for more information on the Summer 2014 Bicycle Quarterly.

 

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues, People who inspired us | 26 Comments

Our Last Mountain Passes in Japan

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It all started innocently enough. We had taken the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto in the morning. We were to spend our last weekend in Japan with our hosts, Ikuo and Harumi Tsuchiya of I’s Bicycles, in Miyama. Wouldn’t it be splendid to ride to Miyama, rather than drive? It was only 80 km (50 miles), just across a little mountain pass. We’d been up the pass from the other side. It shouldn’t take more than 3 hours to do the ride. What could possibly go wrong?

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It was a warm afternoon when we left Cycles Grand Bois in Kyoto, wearing just our short sleeves. We left our touring bags with our hosts, who would carry them in their car. We didn’t bother to re-pack and transfer extra clothes into our handlebar bags. This was just a quick ride, after all!

02_first_climb

We found our way out of Kyoto without problems. Then the road started climbing. Steeply. For kilometer after kilometer, we worked hard in our small gears. Then we remembered that Kyoto is almost at sea level, but Miyama is located in a mountain valley. No wonder the pass was longer from this side.

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Finally, we reached the top. To our surprise, it wasn’t the pass we had climbed from the other side. We checked our map and the GPS: We were on the right road. Then it dawned on us: There were two passes. We only had climbed the first one, and we had one more to go. It was getting late, and this high in the mountains, the temperature plummeted. The sign indicated 5°C. That translates to 41°F.

05_goosebumps

And here we were in shorts and short sleeves. Hahn was lucky to have a vest, but he had goosebumps, too. Without any extra clothing, I just shivered.

We embarked on the descent. It was as steep as the climb had been. We got into the aero tuck, not to gain speed, but to minimize our exposure to the wind.

06_vending_machine

Just as I started to worry about hypothermia, we entered a tiny village. Hahn spotted a beverage vending machine on the roadside. Can you believe it? A machine that serves hot and cold beverages. Japan really is a dream country for randonneuring!

Neither of us spoke or read Japanese, but fortunately, the hot beverages had red labels to distinguish them from the cold beverages with their blue labels. We almost randomly pushed red buttons, and I ended up with lemon-flavored tea. It tasted great, but even more importantly, it was the perfect temperature: ready to drink, yet warming me from the inside.

07_airline_reservation

I felt better now, but there was more descending ahead. I rummaged through my handlebar bag and found our airline confirmation printouts. Just like racers in the old days, I put the papers under my jersey to act as a windbreaker.

08_valley

Somewhat warmer now, we could enjoy the beautiful mountain valley. There was no traffic at all, just little villages dotting the hillsides. We drank in the scenery, knowing that we’d miss Japan once we left a few days later.

09_sakura

All throughout our trip, we had chased the cherry blossoms, which mark the onset of spring. We started in the southern lowlands of Osaka and ended in the northern city of Fukushima, traveling alongside the cherry trees in full bloom, as spring moved northward.

Now the trees in the high mountain valleys were blooming. It was a magical sight in the twilight. Spring had arrived even here, just as our trip was coming to its end.

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Not speaking Japanese had added interesting challenges to our trip. But you don’t need to read Kanji to understand this sign: More climbing ahead! We were approaching the second pass.

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And climb we did. Japanese mountain roads are incredible: beautifully laid out, with switchback following switchback. Often, they are just a single lane wide, but convex mirrors at each blind turn allow you to see the road ahead, so you can corner with confidence.

It was fun to ride here, but darkness was falling. I was concerned that the second descent would be even colder than the first.

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In the twilight, we finally reached the pass. To our relief, it was the same pass we had climbed from the other side. At least there wasn’t a third pass!

Now it mostly downhill to Miyama. We enjoyed the dozens of switchbacks on the descent. We were lucky – the temperature had not fallen any further. There was no ice on the road!

At the bottom of the pass, we turned on our headlights. We time-trialled the last 30 km or so to Miyama. This kept us warm, but mostly, we were concerned that our hosts might be worried when we didn’t show up on time. We arrived half an hour late, but with great memories of an amazing ride.

And we learned once more that dangers lurk not in the big adventures, where every detail is meticulously planned. It’s when you think a ride is not a big deal that you let your guard down and don’t think of the risks that hide in plain sight. Lesson learned: From now on, I will pack my long-sleeve jersey and tights on every ride over unknown terrain.

Photo credit: Harumi Tsuchiya (2nd from top).

Posted in Rides | 10 Comments