Coming up on 10 years

Bicycle Quarterly is entering its 10th year! We recently mailed Vol. 10, No. 1, the Autumn 2011 issue.

It has been a remarkable journey, and it is nice to see how much the bike industry has changed over the last decade – for the better. Quite a few things that we recommended over the years – often with a sigh, “Well, these are great, but good luck finding them” – are common today. Here are a few examples:

Compact Cranks
Compact cranks were popular with 1950s randonneurs. After I rode a 1962 Alex Singer in a long brevet, the first issue of BQ had an article titled “Who needs a triple? Get rid of your big chainring!” Back in 2002, most component makers offered only limited crank choices:

  • “racing” cranks with 53-39 chainrings: gearing that was too big for most riders
  •  triples: wide tread/Q factor and inferior shifting


We wrote that using a smaller “big” ring with the small ring of a triple, like 46-32, was close to an ideal combination for most riders. Others were thinking along the same lines: two years later, Campagnolo introduced their “Compact” cranks, starting a trend. Today, most riders choose compact cranks over racing cranks and triples. Campagnolo does not even offer triple cranks any longer!

Fully Integrated Bikes
When we started publishing Bicycle Quarterly, the concept of a constructeur, who makes a fully integrated bike, was almost unknown in North America. (There were a few pioneers, like Mike Barry in Toronto and Jitensha Studio in Berkeley.)

Even if you bought a custom-made cyclotouring bike, you usually bought a frame from a framebuilder, and equipped it with “components” (shifters, brakes, wheels) and accessories (racks, fenders, lights). The “accessories” were attached almost as an afterthought.

When we experienced 1950s bikes that were designed and built as fully integrated units, we found that they performed better, were more reliable, and were lighter than the bikes that were common in 2002.

Today, there are many constructeurs who build complete bikes with custom racks, integrated fenders and even custom lights. Even the big makers offer city bikes with integrated racks and fenders.

Front Loads
Nine years ago, hauling something on a performance bike meant you put it on a rear rack. For touring, you might use front low-riders, but you always expected to carry the bulk of your weight on the rear. Our research found that front loads are easier to balance, as long as the bike’s front-end geometry is designed for a front load.

Today, front racks have become accepted again. Many city bikes, even from large makers, are equipped with porteur-style racks.

Geometries
For a long time, many cyclists and bicycle makers believed that more geometric trail made bicycles more stable. If you wanted a more stable bike, you added trail.

When some older French bikes turned out to have much less trail than was common nine years ago, some experts declared them “unstable.” We actually rode these bikes, and found them to handle very well. As a result, a more nuanced view of front-end geometry has evolved, which takes into account wheel flop, front loads, tire width and riding position to make bikes handle better even at non-racing speeds and with real loads.

Wider Tires, Lower Pressures
The trend away from ultra-narrow tires already had started long before the first issue of Bicycle Quarterly came off the press. (Do you remember the 18 mm-wide Continental tires that were the non-plus-ultra during the late 1980s?)

However, the idea that higher pressures made tires roll faster remained ingrained in bicycle wisdom, and only narrow tires can be run at very high pressures. Thus, many riders believe that narrower tires are faster than wider ones.

We showed that on real roads, lower pressures did not reduce a tire’s performance. Thus, wider tires at lower pressures can offer the same performance as narrow, high-pressure tires. Since then, many professional riders have experimented with wider tires and lower pressures. And today, even carbon bicycle makers are offering bikes for wider tires.

650B and Other Components
I recall stocking up on 650B tires, afraid that soon I would not be able to get them any longer. I feared that I’d never get my dream 650B bike built, unless I found an old fork crown, since new ones no longer were available.

Today, new components are available, whether classic fork crowns, cranks, or even centerpull brakes. Aluminum fenders have gone from “boutique” items to mainstream.  Constructeurs turn out new 650B bikes that rival the best of the old ones. I find it incredible that today, I can ride a brand-new René Herse bicycle with 650B wheels, and soon, I’ll even be able to put René Herse cranks on the bike.

Bikes are getting better
When we began testing bikes, we were excited if a bike came equipped with a front rack and lights, even if it was just a Nitto rack bolted to the fork. That was all we could hope for back then.

For years, some readers complained because we compared custom bikes to my 1974 Alex Singer, and not many measured up. It was almost normal for fenders to rattle loose, lights to fall off and other issues to creep up during our 200-mile tests. In recent years, the best bikes available in North America have become so good that a good number now have eclipsed my trusty Singer. The new bikes are so good that I recently replaced my Singer with a new, North American-made bike.

And where we have been wrong
Our understanding has evolved as we conducted our research, and sometimes, we have been wrong. Here are a few examples of things we wrote in Bicycle Quarterly, where we should have thought twice before publishing it:

  • “A lower bottom bracket will corner much better…” (Vol. 1, No. 1). We now know that it makes no appreciable difference on the center of gravity of bike-and-rider combined. (The center of gravity of bike-and-rider is about 800-1000 mm off the ground. Lowering the  bottom bracket by 10 mm lowers the center of gravity by only about 1%.)
  • We believed that any bike could be equipped with a handlebar bag, as long as the bag was mounted low and on a stiff rack (Vol. 1, No. 3). Later, we realized that the front-end geometry should be modified to take the weight of the bag into account.
  • We postulated that a tire’s casing weight was a good predictor of a its performance (Vol. 4, No. 1). Since then, we found that casing construction matters much more than weight.
  • We thought that high-trail bikes rode poorly in cross-winds because of their large amount of wheel flop. Tony Foale pointed out that the culprit is the lever-arm of the trail, which gives the side force of the wind more leverage over the steering. (Our observation – high trail does not work well in cross-winds – was correct, but our explanation was wrong.)

The Future is Bright
In 2002, there seemed to be little to look forward to. Classic components had been discontinued. Racing bikes and extreme mountain bikes ruled. Custom framebuilders complained about declining orders. There was little hope for progress among “real-world” bicycles.

Today, there is a vibrant culture for real-world bikes. Bicycle Quarterly is proud to have contributed to this positive growth so that we may all enjoy our bicycles more.

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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23 Responses to Coming up on 10 years

  1. Dan Connelly says:

    Cool stuff. As today I was getting buffeted by the wind while descending San Bruno Mountain today on my Fuji SL/1 racing bike with its extremely 24mm light carbon fiber-rimmed wheels and narrow time trial tires, I was thinking about how BQ has evolved my understanding of the cross-wind issue. After all, long trail means high inertia, and it was “common knowledge” that rotational inertia was insignificant relative to trail (I hadn’t read Andy Ruina’s work). The relationship between trail and steering moment, and the importance of rotational inertia in addition to trail for stability, are both important lessons I got from your magazine. I hope your magazine continues to grow in popularity, and that its influence on the industry continues to expand.

  2. pdxharth says:

    Cheers, Jan. I don’t know how long I’ve been subscribing now – maybe four years, only. When I peruse your website, I often wonder what I’ve missed in the earlier editions (I know, they are available…I’ll get there sometime).

    I appreciate your contribution to my cycling world on a regular basis. Including Grant and Bstone/Rivendell, you have been one of the sources of knowledge and experience upon whom I have come to rely. Additionally, you have reason to be proud of creating a new printed product in an increasingly electronic world, going against the grain yet again.

    Thank you. It is a pleasure and an enlightening experience to read your magazine and your blog on a regular basis.

    Regards,
    Harth Huffman

  3. marmotte says:

    To all on BQ,

    Congrats, even if the tenth birthday is still a while off.

    I read BQ with great interest. Today for example I tried putting less pressure on my front tire, according to your table from Volume 5 Number 4. I get the impression that it works, and that the ride was more comfortable, while being as fast as before.

    I am tossing the idea of a randonneur bike around in my head, but not so much for the long distances as rather for my commute. That for me is the use, where such a bike would really come into it’s own, as it’s the only time, where I need to make a time limit of some sorts, and where, while being as fast as possible, I want to be as efficient as possible too (so as to limit transpiration to a strict minimum). These rides take place in any kind of weather, therefore the integrated fenders and lights are indispensable. And I need to carry a load, as I need to take a bag back and forth from work.

    That this bike could then serve for fast rides as well as running errands would be an additional benefit.

    The only thing I have to figure out from your many writings on this subject is the kind of geometry I need, as my bag needs to be attached to a rear rack, but I would like to be able to carry a front load as well and sometimes both, without the bike getting unstable. To use the car comparison you made on one of your posts here, such a bike would have the carrying capacity of a station wagon rather than a Lotus Elise, while still having the latter’s engine power…

    Marmotte

    • To use the car comparison you made on one of your posts here, such a bike would have the carrying capacity of a station wagon rather than a Lotus Elise, while still having the latter’s engine power…

      The engine power is the same on the station wagon and the Lotus Elise… and on a bike, you provide the power anyhow, so it is a given. You have to be efficient with the power you have. There is no reason why you cannot get a bike that provides the speed of a racing bike with some carrying capacity. (The added weight of fenders, lights and racks will slow you down a few seconds on your commute, but that difference will get lost among the variables of lights, stop signs, etc.)

      Regarding loads, a rear load isn’t a problem on a low-trail geometry as long as you load the front first. Or just increase the capacity of the front rack and carry all your stuff there, as on my “Urban Bike.”

      • marmotte says:

        Thanks Jan. Of course I should have said performance instead of engine power.

        As for the geometry question, judging from your tabkle in Volume 4 N° 3, I can have it both ways with a low trail geometry, front load only, or rear load only (or both at the same time), as I rarely go out of the saddle on my commute, that being mainly reserved for climbing mountain roads.

        The large front rack thing looks interesting, but I’d hate having to strap my bag to a rack again; I expressly bought a bag with Ortlieb Quick Lock, but that wont work on a front rack.

      • Maybe you can adapt the Ortlieb to the front rack? Or use two, and use low-riders? I am not sure I’d plan to ride a low-trail bike with a rear load only. Especially commuting, you do stand, for example, when you start from a light. Having the rear load “wag the bike by its tail” may not be very pleasant.

  4. valsidalv niksul says:

    Jan, thank you for the blog and the BQ. I enjoy reading both immensely. A couple of comments on Anniversary post:

    1. I believe in 2002 Bruce Gordon and Hiroshi at Jitensha were making bikes that were pretty darn close to your integrated bike ideal.

    2. Ten years ago, I was riding Ritchey cyclocross cranks with 110mm bcd, so compact cranks were definitely available back then.

    Keep up the great work.

    • You make some good points. The seeds for today’s great cycling culture were already out there, but it still is amazing how much has changed in just a little over 9 years.

      Regarding Bruce Gordon, he had stopped making custom bikes altogether. He re-started after a long hiatus and made his first custom bike again in 2005 – we featured that bike in Volume 3, No. 4. Jitensha always has sold nice bikes. When I visited them in 1999, they mostly had Rivendells and other frame-only offerings. I don’t know when they started selling their Ebisus. Of course, Cycle Alex Singer never stopped making their bikes in France. That said, the integrated bike idea was pretty much unknown among cyclists in 2002. It only really took off after Peter Weigle won the “People’s Choice” award for his first randonneur bike at the 2003 Cirque du Cyclisme.

      Ritchey cranks were lovely, I used the triple on several bikes. You are right, they did offer a compact double crank. I believe we mentioned the Ritchey cranks in the article in Vol. 1, No. 1, together with the Berthoud cranks that were a re-machined TA Zephyr, as two of the few “sensible” options out there.

  5. spandelles says:

    A most fabulous magazine which has transformed my knowledge if bicycles and cycling. Run by an empiricist historicist genius who I admire more than anyone in the bike trade. I do not always agree with what I read, but your approach allows me to make reasoned judgements: keep it up for another ten years at least!

  6. Bob says:

    Jan, your magazine fills a definite void in the cycling world and I look forward to each issue as well as the blog entries. I had to laugh when I read your comment in the current issue about hanging up a bike from the rafters that was supposed to be your ultimate custom bike. I haven’t done that yet, but what was once my “dream machine” is losing its appeal as I learn more about the benefits of wider, low pressure tires and practical bikes designed around real fenders.

  7. Ross says:

    Jan,

    Just wanted to say THANKS A BUNCH for your last decade of work!! (I only wish that in 2002 I had realized the value of “Vintage Bicycle Quarterly” to us non-collectors.) I’m still catching up.

    Ross

  8. Michael says:

    Just wondering, did you purchase the Calfee?

    • It was tempting to purchase the Calfee, but in the end, it’s hard to justify a bike I can ride only if it’s dry out, if I know I’ll be home before dark, and if I don’t need to carry much. That eliminates it from my most wonderful rides. Plus, I just got a new bike which performs at least as well and does everything I need it to do.

  9. Jean Claude says:

    Jan,
    Happy anniversary, congratulations, and thanks for all your good work.
    After 18 years in the corner, I am breathing a new and different life into my 1973 Motobecane Grand Record. Your blog post says you “found that front loads are easier to balance, as long as the bike’s front-end geometry is designed for a front load.” Does my Moto have front-end geometry that is designed for a front load? If you don’t know, what measurements would tell me?
    Thanks for your help.

    • I suggest you start by reading Vol. 5, No. 3 on front-end geometry. You need to know the head angle and fork offset to calculate the geometric trail. For a 700C bike with tires that are 25 mm or wider, I’d look for 40-50 mm trail for a good front-loading bike.

    • Greg says:

      Jean Claude, my strong guess is that your Grand Record will have geometric trail in that range, perhaps closer to 50 mm than 40. Frames of that time period that weren’t the absolute top-level race bike were usually quite sensible in geometry, clearances, etc.

      Jan, as a subscriber since day one, it has been really fun to watch BQ grow. As an admittedly non-apologetic retrogrouch myself, I have enjoyed it when the mainstream ‘powers that be’ have had their knickers in a twist over some article or comment from BQ. I don’t agree with everything that BQ says, all of the time, but that’s kind of the point, I think. Life would be boring indeed if everyone and everything were the same bland, middle-of-the-road pablum. Your timing with your venture has probably been exquisite as well, and I think it is safe to say that you have personally been quite a significant influence in the direction that the high-end lugged steel road bicycle market has moved over the past several years. If I may be so bold, you are ‘an overnight success after only a decade of hard work.’ ;-)

  10. Mark Williams says:

    Jan, congratulations on reaching this significant milestone with BQ, and thanks for everything you’re doing to broaden the perception of bicycles in this market.

    That the U.S. seems to be hitting critical mass in the use as bicycles not only for urban transportation, but as practical, fast, long distance vehicles is to a large degree thanks to your contribution.

    Also, I think many of us appreciate your empirical approach to evaluation of equipment, your contrarian perspective on the (current) conventional wisdom in this discipline, and the creative dissondance that that engenders.

  11. JO says:

    Jan, congratulations for 10 years of BQ. Your magazine is always nice to read.

    But here Sweden your magazine, and your tests, ideas is not accepted by major “cyclists”, specified on the forum of happymtb.

    JO

    • Europe is still catching up to all these changes that have occurred in the last decade. In France, you still see almost all randonneurs on 23 mm tires. In Germany, people still tell you that you should never put a load on the front of your bike. And of course, there are hardly any framebuilders or constructeurs in Europe. Even the “small” shops that spring up everywhere don’t actually make their own bikes, but farm this out to the former eastern bloc or Asia. Even fixed-gear bikes are only now becoming popular in Europe. Maybe randonneur bikes will be next?

      • Maybe I can comment a bit on the European or at least the scene in Germany – where I live. Fixed gear bikes have been a big trend over the last couple of years at least in Germany but also in other countries like UK. The riders are mostly younger people, to whom a fixie is as fashionable as, say, skateboarding. While the fixed gear trend already is fading or rather: is becoming mainstream, an interesting aspect of it remains: Many young fixie riders were doing conversions of old steel racing bikes from garage sales etc. on their own because they didn’t have money and working on your bike is fun and cool. Now the same people still restore old bikes, but not to convert them to fixed, but actually make them into useful real road bikes. Some even became framebuilders!

        Then there is the “kopenhagen chic” movement spreading over the rest of Europe with: Dutch or cruiser cycles, non-cycling fashion or even cycling-inspired fashion (i.e. cycling cap, bonnets, Rapha, etc.) This is visible in the bigger German cities as well.

        Glossy new print magazines like “Fahrstil” (the first issue from a year ago also included some translated BQ articles/interviews, as you know) report on these scenes and have been very successful.

        OTOH the real mainstream of cycling and the cycling press in Germany is not willing to question in the slightest bit what the mainstream bike industry is offering every year. It’s divided into the trekking bike and the racing bike (road and MTB) markets, maybe much more so than in the US. It’s interesting to compare the model range of Raleigh USA http://www.raleighusa.com and Raleigh Germany http://www.raleigh-bikes.de in this context. However these are all affordable mass market bikes. AFAIK there is no affordable mass market “low trail, wide tires BQ-approved randonneur” bicycle available anywhere, so Europe is not to blame too much.

        Anyway the state of the cycling press in Germany became pretty disastrous. Bike tests in racing magazines like “Tour” today are completely useless and consist of only a single paragraph. Instead you get some silly numbers and school grades where stiffer and ligher will give you A+. At least they reported on PBP in their last issue, interestingly without showing a single fendered bike in their pictures. Was there no rain this year?

        Regarding the number of small framebuilders, the situation in Europe maybe is not as bad as it seems. This German blog: http://stahlrahmen-bikes.de/ has a nice list of steel bike companies (incl. framebuilders) in various countries. Yes, some farm out production to cheaper countries, but so do US-companies like VO, Rawland or Compass. :)

      • Thank you for the added perspective. Yes, I was simplifying things a bit in the context of how our understanding of technical issues has evolved. Neither the German Internet discussion groups nor Fahrstil appear to have any discussion of technical issues like geometric trail and handling, frame flex or whether wider tires at lower pressures can offer the same performance as narrow ones. The little technical analysis that is done comes from the ADFC (the German equivalent of the League of American Bicyclists) and mostly concerns lighting. (We have published some of their results in Bicycle Quarterly.)

        Compared to the U.S., there are very few young framebuilders in Europe who actually hold a torch. Most of those who actually make their own bikes, rather than farm them out, are older builders and established shops. The young brands are farming out their products, but still charge a premium price. Compare that to Tony Pereira, Mitch Pryor, Dan Boxer, Hahn Rossman, Hubert D’Autremont and dozens of others who have started building frames over the last decade here, building frames by hand in one or two-man shops. VO and Rawlands acknowledge that they want to offer inexpensive options, and nobody considers them a premium product.

        Since you mention producing components abroad, that is not always a question of cost, but often of know-how. There is no company in the U.S. with experience in making high-end bicycle tires or forged aluminum bicycle cranks. Wages in Taiwan and Japan aren’t much lower than they are here, but the expertise and tooling is available in those countries. The alternative is to work with the expertise you have on hand, but it often means sub-optimal products, like the CNC-machined cranks from small American makers that lack the strength and low weight of a properly forged crank.

  12. Henry says:

    Congratulations Jan, here’s hoping for quite a few more decades. I’ve gotten more useful information on the subject of cycling from BQ and from your contributions on forums then all other sources combined. It’s made a real positive difference in my riding experience.

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