A Journey of Discovery, Part 6: The Way We Ride

In the previous parts of this series, we have looked at how our preferences in bicycles changed over time. More important is how the changes in our bikes have expanded the way we ride.

Indeed, we replaced saddlebags with handlebar bags, triple cranks with compact doubles, mid-trail geometries with low-trail ones, and medium-width 700C tires with wide 650B tires. But my joy lies not in arcane technical details, but in the changes this has brought to our enjoyment of cycling.

In 1999, a 16-hour ride was about the longest I could fathom non-stop. With our 28 mm tires, we could handle the occasional gravel road, but for the most part, we stayed on pavement. Corners always were fun, but we did not go out of our way to find twisting backroads.

Today, an all-night “transport stage” is an enjoyable way to begin a long ride. Riding for 24 hours non-stop allows us to experience places that are beyond the reach of even an all-day outing. Gravel roads offer a wonderful respite from traffic, as well as providing access to beautiful scenery. A challenging descent is worth an hour-long detour.

All this has been made possible in part by the bikes we now ride. The handlebar bags allow us to access our luggage while riding. The low-trail geometries require less concentration to keep pointed in the right direction. The precise cornering makes winding back roads especially engaging. Integrated fenders keep us dry even when it rains, and can be forgotten the rest of the time. The wide tires greatly increase the range of roads we enjoy, while rolling faster than the stiffer tires we used to ride. And technical progress has brought us generator-powered LED headlights that make riding at night much more enjoyable. In the end, it’s all about the ride, not the bike.

How has your riding changed in recent years?

Click here to go to Part 7 of this series.

Click here to start reading with Part 1 of this series.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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11 Responses to A Journey of Discovery, Part 6: The Way We Ride

  1. Brad says:

    How has my cycling changed over the past few years? Well in an analogous development, A kid trailer has allowed me to carry my young children around without a car. The 24 front ring coupled with a 32 rear cog allow me to pull the trailer, my two growing children, all of their toys and various found objects, up just about any hill. The recently acquired Big Dummy with 559/57 mm “not demi, maxi balloon” tires really smooth out the bumps but the bike has certain limitations of range when transporting said children as they are not covered from the elements but do enjoy more parental interaction and statistically, a heightened level of danger.

    My front bag allows me to carry rain gear, tools, and various snacks which I can whip out at the first child complaint to soothe the darling savages.

    Full fenders with mudflaps and on the Dummy, chrome fenders stolen from a beach cruiser really do keep me clean, if not dry, even in Wednesday’s downpours. Truthfully, I only have one bike without fenders and it doesn’t get ridden very much if at all.

    I’m now a little limited on all night transport stages, since the little ones tend to wake up at various times in the night and I can’t really put that all on my spouse, but the high powered LED lights powered by generators really do help when I’m riding home after playing a concert with my cello strapped on the trailer and the rear LED light wired on the trailer and grounding back through the frame, becoming a full featured vehicle.

    As a budding but occasional randonneur (my longest so far was a 600k last summer), your insights into transportational cycling as a sideline to randonneuring have been wonderful and really improved my day to day cycling experience as well as my hard found brevet schedule.

    There are always quibbles, such as that I still think that tire size should scale with frame and rider size or that Schwalbe Marathons are the best city tire ever made, but heck Jan, you sure do nice work, both here and in the Quarterly, my favorite publication in the universe. Keep up the series; it looks as though you are trying to wind it down.

    End of mash note. Ride well.

  2. Brad says:

    And it should be mentioned that as the proud owner of one of BQ’s actual reviewed bikes, (the Specialized Hotrock 16, which my son rides and I occasionally play around on) we have benefited as a from studies into optimized geometry.

  3. Ed says:

    Hello Jan,
    Thanks for the interesting series of articles. A lot of good ideas and food for thought.

  4. MSRW says:

    It’s true that Rando bikes, at least for me, have led to a transformation in how, when, where and why I ride.

    They offer all the effortless magic of racing bikes, combined with greater comfort on long rides, better descending, pleasant riding in the rain, at night, when loaded etc–all of which present vastly greater options and versatility.

    Riding during late evening and at night in particular is extremely pleasant–I did it rarely when my main bikes were racing bikes.

  5. Augusto Pereira says:

    I too often prefer the less traveled road. And wide tyres are a must for exploring the back roads, which frequently turn out to be the most beautiful ones.

    Regarding wheel size and tyre width, doesn’t the larger diameter of 700C wheels provide some extra comfort (perhaps due to its ability to “run over things” more easily — for lack of a proper scientific term) over smaller diameter wheels (say, 650B or 26″)? With that in mind, wouldn’t smaller width tyres (700C) be comparable to wider tyres (650B, 26″)?

    • The size difference between 622 mm (700C) and 584 mm (650B) is only less than 10%. We plan to measure whether the larger tires have lower suspension losses (i.e., roll faster over bumps and are more comfortable). The biggest issue regarding wheel size is handling – a 700C bike with very wide tires never will be as nimble as a 650B bike with the same width tires (or a 700C bike with narrower tires). That is the main reason I prefer 650B.

      • Augusto Pereira says:

        And what is it that makes a 650B bicycle more nimble than a 700C one? Even with the same trail and wheel flop they would handle differently (with the 650B one being more nimble)?

        Also, is the nimble handling present in 650B bicycles the “optimum” (if there is such a thing) handling? From one of your previous posts, it seemed 650B bikes were a revelation which provided better handling. I would assume that this nimbleness is linear, and thus, a 26″ bike would be even more nimble. Is there such a thing as too nimble?

      • Gyroscopic stability is a key factor in how a bike holds its line. Too much makes the bike hard to turn, and even harder to adjust its line in mid-corner. Too little, and the bike doesn’t hold its line around a corner (or even on the straight).

        We tested this with three bikes that were otherwise identical (same trail, wheel flop, geometry), but different wheel sizes. All testers liked 700C best for 32 mm tires, but 650B for 38 mm tires. Basically, a 700C x 32 mm bike handled very similar to a 650B x 38 mm bike, and a 26″ x 44 mm bike was very similar again. When we calculated the gyroscopic stability of each setup after the tests, we found that it was roughly the same.

        So 650B isn’t magic, in fact, for <32 mm tires, I don't consider it ideal at all. It's just that I like 38-42 mm tires, and for that tire width (and thus tire and tube weight), 650B offers the handling I like. (Even wider tires might be nice, but then you cannot get the low-tread (Q factor) cranks that work well for me.)

  6. Garth says:

    Thank you Jan, and concerning an earlier post, I do believe you about the value of supple tires.

    I am hypothesizing that there is a direct relationship between the gyroscopic force of the front wheel (back wheel too?) and the total mass of the bike, luggage and rider. So, a 700c touring bike with 42-45mm tires would regain better handling fully loaded with, say, 80 lbs. Though it is definitely more inertia to maneuver, it might hold it’s line better. Do you have experience in this regard?

    Sincerely,
    Garth

    p.s. I’ve been reading past issues, particularly the one about the Moulton’s suspension. I am curious how the Brooks sprung seats respond to amplitude and frequency of road irregularities. Can you point to any research already done?

    • The weight of the bike doesn’t affect the steering much, but the load on the front will. introduce some inertia to the steering. Jim Papadopoulos once told me that they had a small-wheeled bike that was impossible to ride no-hands, until they put a small weight far ahead of the steering tube, connected to the fork. That stabilized the bike.

      Regarding sprung saddles, I suspect that they will bounce under vigorous pedaling. I don’t think they are intended for spirited riding.

  7. Willem says:

    I started cycle touring (with a tent) in the later 1970’s when I was working the UK. So I bought a 27 inch wheeled road bike with 35 mm tyres. This is what a used for years, later with 32 mm tyres when anything wider was no longer available in this size. The big change came in 1990’s when we had our first child. We had far more luggage, so on our holidays in Holland we used our Dutch city bikes with a trailer (we did not have a car). We needed all the money we could spare for a new tent and all the other stuff you suddenly need. The big change came when we decided the time had come for longer trips, abroad. We bought a Thorn childback tandem for the older child to sit on, while the younger would still sit in a seat on my wife’s 24 speed urban hybrid. The 26 inch wheels on the tandem were a revelation. They allowed us to extend our range to the quiet small roads that you need when you are cycling with children. We rode from Maastricht to Luxemburg one holiday, right through the hiliest parts of the Ardennes. Three years later our older child of then 7 could ride her own 18 speed 24 inch bike, and my younger son moved to the tandem. By that time my (short) wife had her own 26 inch tourer, and a year later my daughter did as well. We did Luxemburg to Strassbourg, and Basle to Como. See http://www.cyclingeurope.nl/rome We used a premapped route to avoid heavy traffic, and I think that is the key. Traffic has become so much busier than it was in the 1970’s that in many parts of Europe you now need to use these route books, and they often take you along stretches of gravel road. So when it was time to sell the tandem, I stayed with 26 inch wheels, but now on a custom Rohloff tourer, but still with drop bar and clearance for 26×2.0 inch tyres. In short, I went the same route, as Jan and many others here but went even further to 26 inch, primarily because this was always for loaded touring. On that bike 26 inch is perfect, with lighter tyres such as 26×1.75 Pasela’s the handling is nimble, width wider but still relatively light rough condition tyres such as Marathon Extremes the handling is slower but not yet sluggish, and with heavier 50mm Big Apples the ride is superb, but the handling a bit too slow to may taste (but the 2011 Big Apples will be lighter).
    I still have my old road bike, and I still use it for unloaded solo rides. Such rides are becoming more frequent because now that the kids are growing up they are becoming apprehensive about cycle touring. I like the nimbleness of the old road bike, but I now find it too uncomfortable and awkward on forest trails of which there are many where I live. So I am a planning to add a 650B rando bike to replace the old road bike, for long solo rides, and also for short ultralight camping trips. Two years ago I worked in Jerusalem for half a year, and I took the old bike, on great climbs in the steep hills west of the city. I had a lot of time to think about the gearing, and realized that the lowest 36×28 gearing the bike had was not really enough, but only just. I did not need a triple, and riding unloaded a more compact double like would do the job just fine, and be lighter and with lower q. So the new bike will have ultracompact cranks with something like 42/26 chainrings.
    My urban riding is different from most of you. Distances are short, and the terrain in Holland is completely flat. So I have an old single speed ladies bike with coaster brake. It needs no maintenance other than the occasional new tyre. And if it is stolen (which is unfortunately not implausible) I will just get another second hand one. I do not need a fancy bike for this.
    Willem

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