Three Weeks in Japan

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Bicycle Quarterly contributor Hahn Rossman and I just returned from a three-week trip to Japan. It was an incredible visit, filled with excitement, wonder and learning.

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We rode through wonderful landscapes. We met randonneurs, cyclotourists, bicycle collectors and many others. We rekindled old friendships and forged new ones.

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We visited amazing sites and marveled at the craftsmanship of ancient temples, castles and shrines. We were impressed by a culture that has made elaborate, beautiful things for thousands of years.

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We watched builders of Keirin frames and cyclotouring bikes at work. We saw them continue the Japanese tradition of craftsmanship. We marveled at their skills, which they have honed over decades by making hundreds of frames a year.

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We toured the southern Japanese Alps, where we enjoyed incredible roads, lonely mountain passes and grand vistas. We learned to watch for monkeys on the road.

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We visited the makers of bicycle components. At Panaracer, we saw how much hand-work goes into making a tire, and we discussed the benefits and drawbacks of various materials and casings. At Shimano, we learned how the company has built on a long tradition of metalworking to become one of the main innovators in the cycling industry. Nitto (above) showed us how they make racks, handlebars and stems. At Kaisei, we saw tubes being butted. At Honjo, we learned how much goes into making our favorite fenders.

What we saw and learned will benefit our future product development. We discussed exciting new components that we hope to make together with these excellent manufacturers.

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We enjoyed wonderful hospitality and a genuine enthusiasm for bicycles old and new. It was touching to see how much our hosts value our contributions to their passion. We loved seeing classic cycling components we only knew from photos and drawings, and we were grateful how freely our hosts shared their research and knowledge.

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We enjoyed many wonderfully presented and excellent meals, like this breakfast on our last day… We spent three weeks in Japan, and every day brought new surprises and delights. We’ve collected fascinating stories and insightful reports. We look forward to publishing them in future issues of Bicycle Quarterly.

 

Posted in Rides | 12 Comments

The Art of Compromise

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It may be popular to talk about “no-compromise” products, but the reality is that the best products involve a careful balance of features and properties. Take our new Compass tires…

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We could have made them lighter!
The only place to remove material is in the middle of the tread. We might save up to 50 grams on the 650B x 42 mm Babyshoe Pass, but the tire would wear out much faster.

So we removed all the weight we could, but left just the right amount of tread to provide a long service life.

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We could have made them faster!
A thinner tread flexes less, reducing the rolling resistance slightly. If we had reduced the tread thickness in the center, we might have increased the speed by up to 1%. The difference is very small, and it comes at the expense of longevity and puncture resistance.

We already use the most supple casing available. Our research has shown that the casing, more than anything else, influences the speed and comfort of a tire.

Our tires will be as fast and as light as “event” tires once you have ridden them for a few thousand miles. A friend of mine calls other companies’ super-thin event tires “pre-worn.”

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We could have made them sturdier!
Reinforcing the tire sidewalls, adding puncture-proof belts or making the tread thicker all will make the tire sturdier. The downside is that the tires would ride harshly and roll slower.

We decided that our tires needed to hold up in most off-pavement conditions. We have tested them on gravel roads and even moderate mountain bike trails (above) without problems. For us, that makes them sturdy enough.

Hint: Wider tires are inflated to lower pressures, so they roll over debris that would puncture a narrower tire. You get less flats that way.

worn_tire

We could have made them last longer!
A thicker tread gives you more rubber to wear down before you have to replace the tire. However, after a while, the tire becomes “squared off” and no longer corners well. The thicker tread also increases the tire’s rolling resistance. (The Grand Bois Hetre in the photo above may look squared off, but it’s actually still nice and round after about 10,000 km/6000 miles.)

We decided to make our tread thick enough that it will last thousands of miles, but not so thick that it will square off before wearing out. We feel that is a good compromise.

Hint: Wider tires spread the wear over more rubber and last longer.

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We could have made them more colorful!
Our on-the-road experience has shown that colored rubber does not grip as well as black rubber, especially on wet roads. So our Compass tires use black tread rubber for optimum handling and safety, but the sidewalls are available in both tan and black, depending on your taste.

Fortunately, there are some things where compromise is not necessary. Handling is one of them.

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We could NOT have made them corner better!
We spent a lot of time researching tire treads, before selecting a pattern that offers optimum grip in wet and dry conditions. The tread pattern along with the grippy yet durable rubber make our tires corner better than any tire we have tried.

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We made many compromises when we designed our tires. We think they are the right compromises to provide you with tires that offer a maximum of performance, comfort and fun, while being suitable for everyday riding, commuting and even gravel roads. We are proud of the result, and we are glad to hear that others are enjoying these tires as much as we do.

Click here to find out more about our Compass tires.

Posted in Tires | 43 Comments

Flèche in Japan

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Last weekend, the Japanese randonneurs organized their Flèche 24-hour ride. We were honored to be part of the banquet at the finish. (The photo shows us with Maya Ide, the organizer.) Originally, we had been scheduled to ride with a team, but I broke my hand three weeks ago. With my injury, a non-stop 24-hour ride was not a good idea.

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Instead, we spent four days of touring in the Shinshu Mountains, and planned the end of our ride to coincide with the end of the Flèche. Above are our loaded bikes among the lightweight machines of the randonneurs.

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Seeing the Japanese Flèche was a wonderful experience. More than 50 teams from all over Japan participated this year, and more than 150 riders were present. It was huge – above is the bike parking area…

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… and this is a view inside the banquet hall. (Sorry for the crummy cellphone photo.) Everybody was happy, sharing stories and meeting friends. We were warmly welcomed – the Japanese really make you feel special when you visit.

What struck me about the Japanese randonneurs was how vibrant and diverse the sport is here. There were riders of all ages, from the 20s to a 77-year-old, with many riders in their 30s. There were many women, some of whom had ridden on all-women teams, and others who were part of mixed teams. Randonneuring in Japan truly seems to reflect the demographics of cycling…

The awards also emphasized the “big tent” of randonneuring. There were mentions of the oldest team, the team that had traveled the farthest to participate in the Flèche, and also the team that had covered the greatest distance: 536 km. The latter team had arrived at the final meeting point in Kamakura three hours ahead of schedule, so they continued all the way to Tokyo, before returning for the celebration. It was nice to see these riders being true to the spirit of the Flèche – of riding the maximum distance possible – yet there didn’t seem to be anything boastful about their performance.

Riders talked about plans for the season and rides they had done. Mountain passes and beautiful roads figured frequently in these plans. There was talk about the Super Randonnée 600 – Japan has three of these routes with 10,000 m of elevation gain. About 100 randonneurs have completed at least one of them. Having experienced the amazing mountain roads here, I hope to return to ride a Japanese SR 600 some day.

It was wonderful to see such a vibrant organization, so much enthusiasm, and so many young people. The Japanese randonneurs are a wonderful model of what our sport can be like.

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

When More Visible ≠ Safer: Target Fixation

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Looking at the photo above from our Flèche last year, it’s easy to think: “Two of these riders are much safer than the other two.” The reflective vests really stand out in the flash of the camera.

Being hit from behind is one of the primal fears of cyclists. It’s the one accident that we are almost powerless to prevent. We rely on drivers giving us enough room, so it’s important to be visible. It’s perhaps natural to think that if we are even more visible, we somehow can will drivers to give us more room.

In urban environments, the biggest danger for cyclists is being overlooked. There is a lot of visual clutter – even at night – that competes for the attention of drivers. In this scenario, more lights and reflective gear all can be useful to make the rider more visible.

However, the photo above was taken during a moonless night on a backroad miles from the next light. Here, a single red light usually suffices to be seen. Adding a pedal or ankle reflector helps identify the rider as a cyclist. This can be useful for traffic approaching from behind to judge the cyclist’s speed.

Adding even more lights and reflectors may not be a good idea. Most fatalities during U.S. brevets were caused by drivers hitting cyclists who were NOT in their lane of traffic. The victims were on the shoulder or even on the other side of the road, facing the other way. It does not appear that lacking visibility was a concern here – on the contrary, target fixation may have contributed to the accidents.

Target fixation occurs when drivers (or pilots) focus on a light source. As most cyclists know, your bike, car or airplane goes where you look, so if you look at the taillight of a cyclist riding on the shoulder, you are more likely to drift onto the shoulder yourself. This is not a theoretical concern – it has been documented in simulators.

Target fixation appears more pronounced for impaired drivers (whether sleepy or drunk). It also appears to be more pronounced with blinking lights than steady ones. And the brighter the lights, the stronger the target fixation becomes.

Police cars, which are on the shoulder during a traffic stop, are frequently hit by drunk drivers. You would expect drunk drivers to do all they can to avoid police cars, yet they plow right into them. Google “police car hit on shoulder”, and you’ll find many reports of such accidents, and even a video of a car that veers right, glances off a police car, and then hits the car the police has pulled over. Faced with the dangers of target fixation, some police officers now recommend turning off the flashing lights during traffic stops on the shoulder.

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What does this mean for cyclists? Really, the safest illumination is one that is powerful enough to show your location, but not so strong that it causes target fixation. When it’s completely dark, even a single red light will be plenty visible.

In fact, when riding on a shoulder at night, it may be safest to be invisible. The odds that a driver will swerve randomly onto the shoulder and hit you may be smaller than the odds of attracting an impaired driver through target fixation.

(However, if you ride without taillights on the shoulder, you are not complying with the law and randonneuring rules, and there is the risk that you will forget to switch on your taillight when you leave the shoulder and ride on the road again.)

When you think about target fixation, you also realize that blinding oncoming traffic with high-powered or even flashing lights appears to be downright suicidal. The same applies to helmet lights – if you are looking at a car coming the other way, you guide them right toward you!

For me, this means that in urban environments, I wear reflective materials. Even there, I don’t see the need to light up my bike like a Christmas tree, because my headlight actually makes me much more visible at night than I am during daytime. On dark rural roads, I will take off my reflective vest. I will rely on my taillight and reflective ankle bands to broadcast my location and speed, without dazzling drivers or having them lock onto me in a bout of target fixation.

How do you stay safe when riding at night?

Further reading:

Posted in Cycling Safety, Rides | 63 Comments

BQ in Japan

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The Bicycle Quarterly team is in Japan for a few weeks of visiting manufacturers and builders, enjoying the culture, and cycling. Above is the view from our window in Kyoto. Doesn’t it look like a dream spot, with temples in the foreground and rugged mountains in the background?

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Our wonderful hosts for the first part of the trip are Harumi and Ikuo Tsuchiya of Cycles Grand Bois. Spring is starting, and the cherry blossoms are painting the landscape white and pink. They are barely budding in the mountains, but already fully blooming in the ancient city of Nara in the lowlands.

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The riding is spectacular. Small roads with almost no traffic that go up and down incredible mountains in series of switchbacks. Many of the passes are still covered with snow from the winter, so we’ve done a lot of out-and-back exploration…

The food is great and the people are incredibly friendly. Japan really seems like a dream destination for cycling.

Hahn is using Instagram (search for user hahn_rossman) with the hashtag #bqinjapan, so you can follow our travels here. A full report will come in the Summer issue of Bicycle Quarterly.

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Handlebars with Generous Curves

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Traditional handlebars have generous curves that support your hands well. They offer a multitude of hand positions for long-distance comfort. We are glad that today, Grand Bois offers three proven, useful drop handlebar shapes.

As professional races have become shorter and faster, modern handlebars have become shorter and shallower. For racers, that is fine, since they put out so much power that their hands barely touch the bars. The rest of us may consider the handlebars racers used during the “heroic age,” when races were longer, speeds were lower, and the roads rougher. Above is Nicolas Frantz on the way to winning the 1928 Tour de France in a photo from The Competition Bicycle.

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One thing you’ll notice about many classic handlebar shapes is their long reach and flat ramps. This gives you an additional hand position behind the brake hoods. Theo Roffe took this photo of me during a 600 km brevet. You can see how I am resting the ball of my thumb on the ramps. That part of your palm has the fewest nerves, so it’s a good semi-upright position for riding long distances. For a more stretched-out position, I still have the position “on the hoods”, as well as the drops for a more aerodynamic position.

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“Randonneur” handlebars (above) sweep upward slightly to offer even better support of your hands in the position behind the brake hoods – when you cup your hands slightly, the upsweep on the ramps supports your hands perfectly. However, this upsweep must be carefully designed to match the curve of the human hand.

The Grand Bois Randonneur handlebars are based on a tried-and-true French design that has proven itself over millions of miles. Unfortunately, many other “Randonneur” handlebars only echo the general shape, but don’t adequately support your hands in the right spots, so their curves may put more, not less, pressure on your hands.

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Grand Bois’ “Maes Parallel” shape doesn’t have the upsweep of their “Randonneur” bars, so the top and bottom of the bars are almost parallel. This means that the tops provide a great hand position, with the advantage that you can move around your hands a bit as you ride.

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One disadvantage of the parallel ramps is that your wrists can hit the bars when you throw the bike from side to side in an all-out sprint. The “Maes 1970s” handlebars curve a bit more to provide a little more room in a sprint. Their name stems from the fact that by the 1970s, racers sprinted out of the saddle more often, and thus the popular Philippe “Professionel” handlebar was redesigned to accommodate this change in riding style.

We are glad that Grand Bois offers these three excellent and proven handlebar shapes. They recently added a wider 42 cm version of the “Randonneur” model. (The other two models already have been available in the 42 cm width.)

Click here to find out more about Grand Bois handlebars.

 

 

 

Posted in Handlebars, Testing and Tech | 34 Comments

Switching to Zero Emissions

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Cycling used to be the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation available, but with recent technological developments, this no longer is the case.

Even though the emissions of riding bikes are small, they are not insignificant. As we cyclists convert carbohydrates into energy to power our legs, we emit CO2. The faster we ride, the higher the emissions. One could think of a cyclist’s nostrils as an exhaust pipe. The mouth forms an auxiliary exhaust, which opens automatically when the emissions exceed the capacity of the primary exhaust.

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New technology has brought us a better option. There now are cars with zero emissions (above).

At Bicycle Quarterly, we still promote riding for leisure and health, but for transportation, you should consider using a less-polluting vehicle. Although in some circles it was considered virtuous to ride your bike to the start of a ride or event, now you should strap your bike onto the roof of a “zero emissions” vehicle to reduce the environmental impact of your pastime.

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Several companies are working on solutions to make cycling more environmentally friendly. One of the most promising is to create more distance between the emissions and the cyclist (above), following the model of “zero emission” cars, which run on power generated by polluting power sources – it’s just that they aren’t in close proximity to the car. Some cyclists already have adopted diving snorkels to reduce their emissions that way.

An even easier solution may be to redefine “bicycle” to encompass just the machine, without the power source. The bicycle’s emissions already are zero, it’s just the cyclist who pollutes. The bicycle industry has started an aggressive lobbying campaign to change the relevant regulations.

As you can see, even small steps can go a long way toward protecting our planet’s future! The bike industry is working on decreasing the emissions from their products. Hopefully, we can announce a “zero emissions” bicycle soon.

Posted in Uncategorized | 52 Comments