Helmets Wars – Missing the Point


In the U.S., most “responsible” cyclists wear helmets, yet when I cycle in Europe or Japan, I see many cyclotourists who ride without helmets. The Europeans or Japanese don’t seem like dare-devils or poorly informed. What is going on here? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve concluded that helmets don’t matter all that much, compared to other factors that that influence the safety of cycling.

Please note that I am not anti-helmet. When I was in college in Germany during the late 1980s, I was one of two cyclists in town who wore a helmet. I’ve worn a helmet on most rides since then. Even so, I have revised my views on this topic – while continuing to wear a helmet.

As an individual cyclist, safety comes from being able to control your bike and from being able to anticipate traffic’s often erroneous moves. On a societal level, safety comes from having so many cyclists on the road that cycling is normal and accepted.
A helmet is only the last line of defense when everything else fails.

What about the arguments in the “helmet wars”? Let’s look at them one by one:


1. Most cyclists who died didn’t wear helmets (used as proof that helmets save lives).

This analysis assumes that riders who wear helmets and those who don’t wear helmets otherwise behave identically. They don’t.

Consider that 25% of cycling fatalities occur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Most people who are getting killed aren’t randonneurs on night-time rides. They are people who lost their driver’s license because of drunk driving. (31% of cycling fatalities have blood alcohol levels of 0.08 or higher.) These fatalities were on their way home from the bar. Most of them don’t wear helmets, but they also are riding a bicycle while intoxicated, without lights, usually on busy highways, just after the bars close. The lack of helmets is their smallest problem.

To figure out how effective helmets really are, you’d need a randomized trial, where you assign riders randomly to wear helmets or not each day they ride. The riders shouldn’t know whether they are wearing a helmet, so you’d give the “no-helmet” riders a placebo – something that looks like a helmet, but doesn’t protect your head. Of course, you wouldn’t do a trial where you potentially put riders in harm’s way…

So these statistics are misleading. The good news for us is that the statistics also overestimate the dangers of cycling. If you do not ride drunk, without lights, after midnight, on busy highways, then you already have reduced your accident risk significantly.

A better way is to compare statistics from one country to the next. And there, we find little evidence that the countries where people wear helmets (like Sweden) see fewer cycling head injuries than those where people don’t wear helmets (like Denmark).

Conclusion: Helmet use doesn’t seem to have a great impact on cyclist fatality rates.


2. Helmets make cycling appear more dangerous than it is.

In the U.S., when I part with people and get on my bike, many say: “Be safe!” or “Be careful out there!” I don’t get that in France, where people encourage me with “Pedalez bien!” (Ride well!)

When I drive a car or walk, nobody says “Be safe!” Modern cars are equipped with airbags, so you don’t have a wear a helmet while driving. It would be cheaper and safer to wear helmets – race cars don’t have airbags, yet are much safer than the cars we drive on the road. But helmets would reinforce the message that you are about to engage in a dangerous activity, whereas airbags are invisible until you need them…

In reality, cycling becomes safer if more people ride. Cycling in Copenhagen is relatively safe not because the cyclists there are more skilled. Nor do the cyclepaths reduce the risk of accidents (they don’t). Cycling in Copenhagen is safe because everybody is used to looking for cyclists.

Furthermore, if everybody cycles, drivers no longer harbor resentments against cyclists for their presumed political views and social preferences. In the U.S., much of the animosity against cyclists stems from what people perceive cyclists to stand for – city dwellers, liberals, granola-crunchers – rather than from the minor inconvenience they may cause.

Conclusion: Emphasizing helmets discourages people from cycling, which makes cycling less safe.


3. Helmets provide a false sense of security, therefore people feel they can take more risks.

The initial argument for risk compensation was based on the fact that more cyclists die in countries where riders wear helmets (U.S., UK) than in countries where cyclists ride bare-headed (Europe). The conclusion was that helmets somehow make cycling less safe, and the best hypothesis seemed to be that riders who wear helmets feel invulnerable and take greater risks (risk compensation).

The data do not support this analysis. In the U.S., most riders who die don’t wear helmets (see 1), so the higher death rate in the U.S. cannot be explained by risk compensation of helmet-wearers. In fact, helmets take the “carefree” out of cycling and make people more aware of the risks (see 2.).

There is a concern about helmets, though: If we tell new cyclists that a helmet is all they need to guarantee their safety, we are putting them in harm’s way. Real safety comes from accident avoidance through looking ahead, anticipating others’ behavior, and judging the road conditions correctly.

We see the same in cars, where we North Americans focus on buying big cars with the best safety ratings, but not on learning to drive well. And our traffic fatalities are among the highest in the industrialized world, much higher than in countries where people drive small (and relatively unsafe) cars with greater skill.

Conclusion: As a society, a focus on helmets detracts from teaching about real safety.


So where does all that leave us? From my perspective, there are two conclusions:

  1. On an individual level, wearing a helmet is a good idea. It is likely to reduce your injuries in many crashes, and it rarely seems to do any harm. The “rotational brain injuries” often quoted by helmet opponents seem to be very, very rare, if they occur at all. (I hit my head and cracked my helmet in a recent accident, and fortunately did not sustain a head injury. I only broke my hand.)
  2. On a societal level, insisting on helmets is detrimental. It detracts from the facts that a) cycling is relatively safe, and b) that safety lies in preventing accidents more than in trying to survive them.

Wear a helmet if you are an “optimizer” – the type who worries about the last 5% in performance or safety. (I do wear a helmet!) But don’t tell anybody else to wear one, or not to wear one! Instead, let’s focus on teaching cycling and traffic skills.

Will this analysis end the “helmet wars”? I am not holding my breath… and with that, I am opening up the comments, and ducking for cover.

Posted in Cycling Safety | 211 Comments

Bicycle Quarterly Jerseys


We’ve been wearing Woolistic’s merino 100% wool jerseys for fourteen years now, since we first ordered these for the Seattle Randonneurs. We appreciate the scratch-free comfort and the wide range of temperatures in which these wool jerseys are comfortable. During long rides, we are glad these jerseys don’t smell like synthetic clothing… They’ve been remarkably durable: I am still wearing the very first jersey I ordered in 2000.

When I designed the Seattle Randonneurs jerseys back then, I tried to find a color that was brightly visible but not garish when we are out on our bikes. The “Italian Champion Blue” with simple white lettering doesn’t clash with most bicycle colors.


We now decided to have Bicycle Quarterly jerseys made along the same lines. They are  made by Woolistic in Italy, and they simply show our logo on the front and the back. Three rear pockets, short zipper, long or short sleeves. Limited quantities.

Click here for more information or to order.

Posted in Product News | 20 Comments

Oregon Outback and The Long Way Back


Last week, I rode the 363-mile Oregon Outback gravel road race/ride. It was an epic adventure, and a full report will come soon, either here or in Bicycle Quarterly. In the mean time, you can enjoy first-finisher Ira Ryan’s report here.


I saw Ira’s tire tracks much of the time, and he even wrote “Go Jan!” in the gravel during one particularly hard stretch toward the finish. Thank you, Ira!

I finished second, a bit less than two hours after Ira. My goal was to beat 30 hours, and I made it with 2 minutes to spare. (I took the photo above after trying to find somebody at the finish, but realized as an “unorganized” event, there wasn’t anybody there.)

After resting for 30 minutes, it was time to take stock. I was 100 miles from the next train station in Portland, and the wind was howling up the Columbia Gorge. Riding into that wind would not be fun. And on Memorial Day weekend, the trains (or at least the bike spaces) might be fully booked. There was some vague talk about a shuttle to Portland from a bike shop nearby, but I didn’t know the details, nor the schedule.


My bike was in great shape, having survived the challenges of the Oregon Outback better than its rider. Not a single flat on the Compass Babyshoe Pass Extralight tires, nothing broke or fell off during hundreds of miles of rattling and bouncing from rock to rock.

The chain squeaked because it was so dry – I should have lubed it before the event! And the spare spokes that I had attached to my fender stays with cloth handlebar tape were gone. The vibrations had worn through the tape, and the spokes had fallen off. That shows how punishing this ride was, but neither were significant issues…

Before I left Seattle, I had heard that Chinook Pass was to open this weekend. So I chose Option 2: just ride home. I figured I could cover the roughly 350 km (220 miles) in two days.

As I was about to cross the Columbia River, I ran into a group of bicycle tourists. One of them, a Bicycle Quarterly reader, recognized my bike and offered some chain lube, which was greatly appreciated. The climb out of the Columbia River Gorge was slow into the howling winds, but the shower and bed in Goldendale’s nice motel were welcome.


I only had brought maps for the course of the Oregon Outback, but at the upper edge of the last map, I could see some small roads going through the Simcoe Mountains as an alternative to the busy Highway 97. It was an easy choice…

So I found myself on the edge of town, heading into the hills. Ahead was a gorgeous view of Mount Adams. Wildflowers were in full bloom. Life was good.

I had planned to re-inflate my tires to their “road” pressures, but had been too tired the night before. Now I was glad…


After a few hours of riding on empty roads, I came to the boundary of the Yakima Indian Reservation. The signs had very specific instructions on what was not allowed: Hunting? No. Alcohol or controlled substances? No. Firearms? No. Sightseeing? Well, I was just traveling through. I thought I passed the entrance exam and continued along the inviting road.


I didn’t see anybody for the next few hours. From time to time, I caught a glimpse of Mount Adams in the distance, so I knew I was still traveling in roughly the right north-easterly direction. (I was off my maps by now.) After a few hours of riding, I got on pavement again, and then saw a sign for a gate ahead.


At the guard station, I was detained by two officers of the tribal police. It turns out that these mountains are restricted tribal land of the Yakima Nation, and non-members of the tribe are not allowed there. The officers were surprised to see a cyclists: “That is definitely a first!” They radioed the head game warden to come and deal with me. They were friendly, and we chatted for an hour while we waited.

Things became a little more tense when the head warden arrived, radioed for a case number for trespass, and wrote me a ticket for $ 100. I don’t think any of us expected that, since I had no ill intent. If I wanted to argue my case, I could take it to tribal court. At least I was free, and allowed to continue… and the game wardens had mapped me a nice route through the reservation.


Eastern Washington has a feel of the “Old West” to it, and nowhere more so than on the reservation. When I passed this man looking for a ride at this lonesome intersection, I called out: “Hi!” His reply was “I don’t get high!” His joke had me smile for miles thereafter.


Food is a problem east of the Cascades – Coca-Cola, potato chips and candy bars get old very quickly. Fortunately, this fruit stand had fresh cherries. I bought a container, put it in my handlebar bag, and ate them while riding through the afternoon heat. Like Hänsel and Gretel, you could follow my tracks by the cherry pits I left behind.


Trying to get around Yakima, I got a bit lost as I went up the wrong canyon, although the lovely roads made the detour well worth the while. Finally, I found my way to Cowiche. A few sprinkles fell as a huge thunderstorm passed to my East.


I had a final fright when the road to Naches was closed – which would have meant a long, long detour most of the way to Yakima, and then riding back on the busy roads I was trying to avoid. But the repaving was done, and I was able to pass through on a road that just lacked striping. I was even more lucky to find a hotel room in Naches…


The next day took me across the Cascades. Chinook Pass is a long slog – 80 km (50 miles) uphill. Clouds were covering the mountains, but there also were sunbreaks. The rainbows were beautiful. I only got hit by a few sprinkles, but the roads were wet, so I was glad to have fenders on my bike – even though they had been of little use during the Oregon Outback.


After a few hours of gentle climbing in the valley, the road pitched up for the final ascent to the pass. With clouds obscuring the view, it was wintry up here.


The top: Time to put on every piece of clothing I carried in my handlebar bag!


On the other side of the pass, it was raining hard, but fortunately, it wasn’t very cold. Once I left the mountains, the sun came out, and it became another transport stage back to Seattle. I missed my goal of getting home in time for dinner by an hour and a half, though…

The trip back added an adventure to the adventure. Thank you to the guys from VeloDirt for putting on the Oregon Outback – definitely one of the most challenging rides I have done – and enticing me to ride all the way from southern Oregon to Seattle over the course of a long weekend.

Posted in Rides, Uncategorized | 58 Comments

Summer 2014 Bicycle Quarterly


The Summer 2014 Bicycle Quarterly is at the printer. We spent most of April in Japan, where we found cycling, culture, and bicycle manufacturing that were even more amazing than we ever imagined. This issue features our first reports.

For our tour of the Shinshu Mountains (cover), we set out with a rudimentary map and no Japanese language skills. We discovered empty roads, met monkeys and climbed mythical mountain passes. Join us in this splendid adventure!


We got to look over the shoulders of two Keirin framebuilders. Learn about the mythical “NJS-approved” bicycles used for this unique sport. Join us as we visit Panaracer to find out how tires are made, and discuss tire technology with Panaracer’s engineers.


We witnessed an impressive demonstration of “Rinko”, which transformed a full randonneur bike into a travel-ready package – in just 12 minutes.


From today’s Japan, we take you to mid-century Italy: After more than a decade of research on Tullio Campagnolo, the time has come to reassess a few of the legends that surround the most revered of all bicycle companies. Did Campagnolo really invent the quick release? Where did the inspiration for the parallelogram derailleur come from? More importantly, we explore how Campagnolo’s concept of a component group, with all parts designed to work together seamlessly, revolutionized bicycles. We look at many of Campagnolo’s large and small innovations that continue to be used today.


Closer to home, we rode two wide-tire titanium bikes. Can Lynskey’s 650B machine combine the joyous performance of their racing model with the comfort and handling of wide tires?


Bilenky’s tandem has it all: titanium frame, couplers, full touring racks, wide 650B tires, low-trail geometry… How does this impressive feat of fabrication perform on the road?


Who doesn’t want to go faster with less energy? Learn about the aero tuck in our Skills column. We show you how to increase your downhill speed. Stop pedaling and tuck instead!

Those are just a few of the articles in the Summer 2014 Bicycle Quarterly. Subscribe today to receive the new issue without delay.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 8 Comments

Bicycle Quarterly Meeting in September


On September 13-14, 2014, we’ll have a Bicycle Quarterly Meeting in Packwood, WA. The “meeting” is a simple get-together of cyclotourists, not an organized event. Perhaps “un-meeting” would be a better term: there is no registration, no fee, and no services will be provided. Several of us will be there on that given date, and anyone can join us on rides into the surrounding mountains. We’ll have a few route sheets for a number of rides, both on gravel and on pavement, covering between about 50 and 100 miles each. (No sag wagons, obviously.)


The Bicycle Quarterly Meeting is inspired by Vélocio’s “meetings” of the 1920s. Vélocio simply put a note with the date and location in his magazine, Le Cycliste, and anybody could show up. Vélocio rode to these meetings from Saint-Etienne – which meant that he didn’t always make it, especially if the winds were unfavorable or his progress was slowed by other circumstances. Whether the maitre was there or not, everybody had a good time.


Our meeting this year will be in Packwood, a little town nestled in a deep valley within the Cascade Mountains, between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. You will have the opportunity to ride on some of the roads you’ve read about in Bicycle Quarterly, including Skate Creek Road (below) and parts of the course for the Volcano High Pass Super Randonnée.


You’ll need to make your own travel arrangements. Packwood has a few small hotels. The Hotel Packwood (360.494.5431) is especially recommended. There is a campground (www.packwoodrv.com) as well. The surrounding national forests allow camping as well.

To remain in the spirit of Vélocio’s meetings, we invite you to travel to the meeting by bike and train, rather than by car. The nearest train station is Centralia, WA. From there, it is a 127 mostly flat kilometers (71 miles) to Packwood. We hope to see you there.

More details will follow – start location and time for the ride, and maybe an informal get-together that night at the Packwood pizza place. (Unfortunately, the dining options don’t match the scenery.) It’ll be fun!

Posted in Rides | 16 Comments

Setting Our Own Trends


“You don’t want to give people what they want. Give them something they didn’t know that they wanted.”
Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet.

This quote really resonated with me. When I pick up other cycling magazines, I am often disappointed. They talk about the trends of the moment. Right now I’m pleased that they seem to be wider tires, gravel racing, 650B wheels, and city bikes with porteur racks. I should be happy, and yet there isn’t anything inspirational or new. It’s like reading yesterday’s newspaper…

During a recent solitary ride, I finally realized why this is so. Most magazines live off their advertising revenue. The magazines rely on the bike industry to bring them ideas and content, and so they report on what the industry is pushing at any given time.

As a result, the magazines are unlikely to present new ideas. Why would a bike magazine clamor for a way of riding for which the bikes do not yet exist? Why would they suggest products that their advertisers do not yet sell? Why would they do testing that refutes commonly-held beliefs (and the advertising claims that are based on them)?

Bicycle Quarterly has a different business model from most magazines: We are financed by our readers – by cyclists. This results in a fundamentally different point of view, which has led us to think about what we – the cyclists – need, not what the industry wants to sell.


We are pleased to have been trend-setters in many instances. Looking back over 12 years of publication, here are some things we suggested long before they became commonplace:

  • Compact double cranks: In our very first issue, we rode an Alex Singer with 46-32 chainrings. We found this gearing ideal for most riding. At the time, the big makers only offered 53-39 racing cranks or triples.
  • Gravel riding: Nine years ago, we wrote about the beauty of riding on gravel roads in the mountains.
  • Tire performance: At a time when the industry still was fawning over ceramic bearings, we looked at tires and found that they make the biggest difference in your bike’s performance. Through careful testing, we identified what makes a tire fast.
  • Front loads: Our testing showed that front loads are easier to balance and much better when riding out of the saddle – as long as your bike has the appropriate frame geometry.
  • Metal fenders: We pointed out that the uninterrupted interior and better coverage of a longer front fender kept you drier. We also weighed aluminum fenders and found that they were lighter than plastic ones.

It has been nice to see these trends adopted by the industry and – finally – by the magazines. But it’s also sad to see that many great things still don’t get exposure in mainstream magazines:


Fully integrated performance bikes: We are starting to see a few city bikes that come with racks, fenders and lights, but if you like spirited riding, you are still told to buy a racing bike that is not much fun in the rain or at night. Bicycle Quarterly has featured and tested many bikes that combine performance with the utility of fenders, lights and a bag. What we want is the Porsche 911 of bicycles – a great performance machine that can be used every day, even when you are running errands.


Truly wide high-performance tires: I am encouraged when I read about “wider tires” being “hot.” Then I realize that the magazines are talking about 25 mm tires. Why not ask for bikes with 38 mm tires and the performance of a racing bike?


Well-designed lights: Most current lights use simple beam patterns that would be illegal in cars. Not only do they blind oncoming traffic, but they also put too much light in the near field and not enough into the middle distance. This makes riding at night tiring and difficult. Better optics put a well-distributed beam of light on the road, and only on the road. These lights are available, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the big bike magazines.

These are just a few examples of products that the industry doesn’t push and that the magazines don’t ask for. These products tend to be hard to make or expensive, so the bike industry isn’t too keen to offer them.

At Bicycle Quarterly, we are proud to write from the perspective of riders. Our concern never has been “What does the industry want?” but “What do we need to take our cycling to the next level?”

As a result, we have nudged and pushed the industry toward better, more versatile bikes that are also more fun to ride. And when some of these trends finally make it into the mainstream, we are happy to have contributed to making cycling more fun for more people.

Click here for more information about Bicycle Quarterly.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues, Testing and Tech | 28 Comments

Flèche Northwest: 24 Hours, Mostly Rainy


“Le tandem avale la distance,” I thought as we pedaled through the night. “The tandem gobbles up the distance.” Long stretches of road seemed to be compressed during the weekend’s ride, with the difference being that I wasn’t riding my own bike, but rather sitting on the back of a tandem.

We choose to include a tandem this year for our annual Flèche Northwest 24-hour ride. We were a team of five friends, and our course took us counterclockwise around the Olympic Peninsula.


It’s a course that takes us far from civilization and traffic. It feels like a real accomplishment when you can trace your ride on a map of the entire continent… You can see the course here – but beware that “Ride with GPS” appears to overestimate the elevation gain by a considerable margin. It’s a hilly course, but not that hilly.


We met in downtown Seattle. It’s not as romantic as the traditional start of the French Flèche Vélocio in front of Notre Dame in Paris, but it’s still neat to leave the city, and the next morning find ourselves on the other side of the Olympic Mountains by the beaches of the Pacific Ocean.


We started with a pre-ride meal. This year, there were only four bikes, since Mark and I were riding a tandem. My broken hand is healing well, but I wasn’t sure whether holding onto the handlebars for 24 hours was going to be good for it. In addition, we love tandems, and I hadn’t ridden one with Mark in a long time.


We took the ferry to Bainbridge Island, then waited 15 minutes for the ferry traffic to get out of town. Fifteen minutes wasn’t quite enough – tandems really do compress space and distance. By the time we had crossed Bainbridge Island and headed across Agate Passage, we had caught up to the traffic. The weather was still nice, but the windsock indicated that we had a blustery ride ahead. Fortunately, we then turned off the highway and only saw a handful of cars during the next few hours.

One advantage of being on the back of the tandem is that I was able to take photos while riding…


Clouds had moved in by the time we crossed the Hood Canal. The forecast was for a 70% chance of rain.


We enjoyed the backroads of the Quimper Peninsula. The uphills were a great time to chat and catch up. On the flats, things were less social because we were going a bit too fast and the wind made too much noise. We didn’t have a computer on the tandem, but one of us later uploaded the ride to Strava. We found that we were cruising at about 36 km/h (22 mph) on the flats – into a headwind. The three riders on single bikes needed to use their best drafting skills, otherwise, they stood no chance of keeping up.


The weather forecast – 70% chance or rain – turned out to be optimistic. It started with a thundershower that doused us with huge raindrops. They surely must have been hailstones not long before they hit us, they were so large and forceful. Fortunately, we had added all kinds of mudflaps to our bikes, so neither our pace nor our spirits were much dampened by the deluge. Then the clouds tore apart for a few minutes to give us a spectacular sunset.


Riding on the shoulder of a busy highway in the rain greatly increases your risk of flats. The almost inevitable happened: A piece of steel wire punctured the rear tire of the tandem. With four able-bodied riders, it didn’t take long to remove the wheel and tube, but it took considerably longer to get the little steel wire out of the tire. We often have talked about bringing tweezers, but I think now we’ll really start doing so. A pocket knife finally enabled us to dig out the offending wire without damaging the tire.


After a brief resupply stop in Port Angeles, we were swallowed by the night. We passed a house or two every few hours, but otherwise, it was dark. I had been navigating, but that task was easy now: “At the next T-intersection in about three hours, we turn left, then merge with Highway 101 two hours later, and turn left again around 7:30 in the morning.”

With nothing to do except pedal, I was free to daydream – or should that be “night-dream”? Time went by much quicker than it ever has on a night-ride.

Before I knew it, we had climbed the ridge overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca – did I mention that the tandem climbed very well, too? The twisty descent always is fun at night. With the new generation of LED headlights, it was twice as much fun this time. At the bottom, we heard the waves lap against the shore, even though we could not see the water in the darkness.

The rain had stopped, and we saw a sliver of moon overhead, as well as many stars. We seemed to fly through the night. When I sat up to stretch my back, I was surprised how hard the wind blew into my face. Either we were going very fast or the headwinds were quite strong. In fact, it was a combination of both.


One of the modern bikes developed a shifter problem, so we stopped in Forks, the only place with a 24-hour store on this side of the peninsula. We got some lubricant and took a quick break. It was 1:30 a.m. when we rolled out of town. Several pedestrians did a double take as our paceline of four bikes, led by the tandem, cruised through this remote logging town in the middle of such a blustery night.


As the new day broke, we reached Lake Quinault. Usually, we have breakfast here, but the historic lodge opens only at 7. It was just after 5, so we signed our cards, then continued our ride.


We had been lucky, and the night had been mostly dry. Now the clouds made up for lost time. It was pouring. Hahn spotted the “OPEN” sign on the Humtulips store, and we stopped for a warm drink and snack.

The storekeeper, like so many on this ride, was delighted by the change from her usual routine, and practically adopted us for time we spent there. We learned that Humtulips means “hard to pole,” referring to the challenges the Native Americans faced when poling their canoes up the river here.

Alas, our hope that the rain was just a shower turned out to be optimistic, and after 15 minutes, we headed out into the deluge. At least traffic was light, so we did not have to ride on the shoulder, where we’d have risked more flats.


Our real “resupply” stop came in Aberdeen, after 411 kilometers. Our handlebar bags were empty black holes, since we wore all our clothes and had eaten all our food. The local Safeway grocery store had a café that provided hot drinks and oatmeal. We bought Ensure Plus meal replacement drinks and chocolate for the road ahead. It wasn’t quite the same as the usual, civilized breakfast at Lake Quinault, but it fueled us for the second portion of the ride.


From Aberdeen, we headed south along the Pacific Coast. The strain of riding in wind and rain for 16 hours with no real stops began to show on my companions’ faces. Steve Frey is doing a great job drafting, so he is hidden behind Steve Thorne (left). Hahn (right) is taking a break from having to focus on the wheel in front. In a paceline, you get to rest mentally when you are at the front, but with the tandem leading the way, the other three never got to the front, and thus never got to rest. (Life can be unfair – I could rest the entire way.)


The wind was still unfavorable to our progress, and without the tandem, it would have been tough going. The surf on the shore of Willapa Bay was much higher than I’ve ever seen it. Fortunately, our tandem has a much shorter rear top tube than most modern machines, and it sliced through the wind without much trouble. We truly had twice the power with the same wind resistance as a single bike.


Vélocio once wrote how riding through the night made you appreciate the things you see much more “because your senses are amplified through the effort of riding.” The trees lining the roadside and the hills with their fresh green of spring did seem much more amazing than they usually are. I was having a great time.


We made another stop at a convenience store in Raymond, where we stocked up for the next 80 km (50 mile) without services. Five minutes later, we stopped again to sign our cards for the 22-hour control. We had ridden 501 kilometers, yet the most challenging part of the course was still ahead.


We headed into the Willapa Hills, where we faced two long climbs (and descents) on gravel roads. A few years ago, we were held up here by a car rally, but this year, we had checked to make sure the roads were clear. In years past, our friends from Olympia had acted as spotters and provided us with updates on the road conditions, but this year, we were winging it.

We had equipped the tandem with 38 mm-wide tires, but when you consider the weight of both riders, that isn’t very wide at all. We later calculated that in order to get the same air cushion as we do on our single bikes with their 42 mm tires, we’d need 60 mm-wide tires on the tandem.

This means that there are no photos of this stretch, since we were underbiking, and I needed my hands on the bars, rather than taking photos. We walked up the steepest, roughest portion of the first climb, and I spent much time out of the saddle on the coarsest gravel, which looked more like railroad ballast than the gravel used for building roads. (The above photo was taken on a smooth stretch where I could sit on the saddle and take my hands off the bars.)


Almost inevitably, we had a pinch flat. We were on the second gravel section, about five minutes away from 24 hours, so we continued on foot. Then our time was up (above), and we established our position. We had ridden 536 kilometers in the last 24 hours. We were tired and wet, but we felt a great sense of accomplishment. Everybody had been riding strong, and considering the rain and headwinds we had faced most of the way, we were very happy with our performance.

Then we took stock: We were 65 km from Olympia, and we were out of tubes for the tandem. We tried patching a tube in the rain, but even drying the tube with our last piece of clean clothing and then shielding it with a handlebar bag was not enough – the patch would not hold. Fortunately, Hahn’s 650B x 42 mm tires hadn’t suffered any flats, and we used one of his tubes to get the tandem moving again.


All that was left now was completing our ride to Olympia. Mark and I were starting to be hungry, so we pushed the pace a bit. I took the photo above without looking back. Only later did I realize that our friends were struggling a bit on this stretch. The upside was that we arrived in Olympia at 6:30, in perfect time for a shower and dinner, after 600 km on the road.


The next morning, we met the ten other Flèche teams for brunch. It was great to hear their stories, see the courses the other teams had charted, and reconnect with old friends, as well as make new ones.

Then we rode to the train station and took the train back to Seattle. It was a memorable, challenging ride, spent in the company of great friends – which is what the Flèche is supposed to be.

Further reading:

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