In Search of Hawaii’s Gravel Roads


During a recent family vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii, we did plenty of snorkeling and hiking, with a bit of surfing, and otherwise enjoyed the beaches. For me, the mountainous island presented the opportunity to explore a new landscape by bike. The Big Island is famous for the Ironman Triathlon, and most cyclists I saw were on the shoulder of the main highway, riding tri or racing bikes with narrow tires.

I had a different type of riding in mind. I wanted to explore the mountain roads of the island. After a few memorable road rides that will feature in an upcoming issue of Bicycle Quarterly, I set out to explore the gravel roads above Captain Cook during our last few days on the island. I had seen the roads on my map, and it looked like several nice loops were possible.

I had brought Alex Wetmore’s travel bike, which was designed to fit a large range of his friends. It packs into a suitcase as large as the front wheel, so it was simple to bring along.


Since I planned to spend the days with my family, I rode before breakfast. I left at the crack of dawn. Captain Cook is on the western slopes of Mauna Loa, one of the two big volcanoes on the island. Apart from the highway that circles the island, most roads switchback either up or down. I wasn’t interested in the beach, so that meant going up. Without a handlebar bag adding a little weight to the front of the bike, it was sometimes hard to keep the front wheel on the ground during steep climbs.


And steep they were, these roads. While the Hawaiian shield volcanoes look like a shallow shield from a distance, up close they are made up of individual lava flows, which breaks them up into flat plateaus and very steep ascents. The town of Captain Cook lies at the foot of such an ascent…


The first morning, I tried all kinds of small roads, often merely two tracks of asphalt with grass in the middle. I climbed and climbed, only to find dead ends. It was fun, but I was not successful in my goal to reach the gravel roads on the plateau above the town.

That night, I fired up my travel laptop and checked satellite images on Google maps. I prepared the next day’s ride in great detail, tracing routes on the map and checking the satellite images to make sure the roads really existed. I was excited, as it seemed certain that I’d reach my goal this time.


I climbed yet another vertiginous road that seemed to lead straight up to the sky. It was a fun 30-minute climb. On top, another disappointment awaited. The gravel road was there, but it led through farmland. There were gates and “No Trespassing” signs. The gates did not show up on the satellite images, which is why geographers insist on “ground truth” when they interpret these images.

A man walking his dog said: “You are the first cyclist I’ve seen up here!”  He confirmed that yet another promising side road ended up at “an estate”. I took it anyhow – it was a nice ride.


On top, I met two mules behind yet another gate. The mules came over to see what I was doing as I checked my map. I tried another road, with the same result – gates blocked off the access to the gravel roads.

I finally gave up and just enjoyed the ride. The climbs were so steep that I had to keep working hard all the time. The descents had me brake continuously. Where possible, I let the bike roll to cool the rims. Several times I stopped to check the rims’ temperature. Each time, they were too hot to touch, but not sizzling when I put a wet finger on them. No danger of melting the rubber on the tire bead and suffering a blowout, then.


I enjoyed my ride immensely, even the parts on the highway that connected the various hillclimbs. I passed a beautiful old church…


… and incredible trees. The vegetation on the island never ceased to amaze me. Depending on the slopes’ orientation to the prevailing winds and thus moisture, the landscape can be almost desert-like or the lushed rainforest. Captain Cook was on the lush side, although not as green as the northern side of the island.

I wish I had more time, because after looking at various maps, I now have found a few roads that look like they should connect to the gravel roads. Only “ground truth” can tell whether they really do. I guess I’ll have to come back…


Posted in Rides | 38 Comments

Rack Eyelets and Frame Alignment Gauges


It’s encouraging to see that handbuilt bicycles have made such a resurgence in recent years. Building a frame by hand is a labor-intensive process, but done right, the result is a bike that rides better and is more versatile than any mass-produced machine. The best bikes today have custom-made racks that are designed to fit the bike, so they do not need sliding adjustments and thus are lighter, stiffer and unlikely to rattle loose.

Making a good rack is a lot of work, especially if you use small tabs to attach the rack to the fork or frame. Compared to tubes or other attachments, the thin tabs put less torque on the bolt, and so the rack is less likely to loosen due to the vibrations of the road. If you file these tabs by hand, you’ll spend about 20 minutes per tab. And the rack shown above has six of them, so that is two hours of filing tabs! (How do I know? I made the tabs for the rack above.)


To make rack-building a little easier, Compass Bicycles now offers rack tabs. There are two versions:

  • Version 1 (top) is for the ends of rack tubes, so it has a 5 mm hole and a tab at the end that goes into the rack tube.
  • Version 2 (bottom) is intended as a frame braze-on, so it has a 4.2 mm hole that is ready for M5 threading.

The tabs are laser-cut from 2.5 mm-thick steel and dimensioned for 1/4″, 7 mm or 8 mm rack tubing. More details are here.


Also new are these nifty frame alignment gauges. Developed by Bicycle Quarterly contributors Alex Wetmore and Hahn Rossman, they greatly facilitate checking the alignment of the frame during and after the build process. There are two versions, one for bikes with 130 – 142 mm rear spacing (top), and one for bikes with 120 – 135 mm spacing (bottom). More details are here.

These new products complement our existing range of fork crowns, fork blades, centerpull brake pivots and other framebuilding supplies. Click here for more information about our framebuilding supplies.

Posted in Framebuilding supplies | 20 Comments

“What’ll she do?”


When I was a kid, I loved cars. My first question to any owner of a sports car was: “What’ll she do?” I approach bikes similarly – I care about how they ride first and foremost.

Some cyclists these days seem to be concerned what their bike is, not what it does. One camp will never ride anything but lugged steel frames. For another, it’s carbon or nothing. Some will never ride narrow tires, others would never consider a tire wider than 23 mm.

Bicycle Quarterly doesn’t fall neatly into any of these categories, even if we sometimes are perceived as biased toward steel frames, or French bikes, or wide tires. For example, Craig Calfee told me that he was surprised when I loved his “Adventure” carbon bike: “I thought you were more of a steel guy.” My answer was simple: “I like great bikes, and yours was a great bike.”


It’s really that simple: We like any bike that performs. Our first question is: “How does it ride?” Given a choice, I’d rather be on a carbon bike that performs and handles well than a steel bike on which I bog down. I’d also much prefer supple 23 mm tires that fly over the pavement over 42 mm tires with stiff sidewalls that make the bike feel harsh and sluggish.

When I am on the bike, I don’t notice stickers or materials. What I care most about is whether the bike feels like an extension of my body. The best bikes do this, whether they are made from steel, carbon, titanium or aluminum. I am sure a good bamboo bike would, too, I just haven’t ridden one yet.


When I stop, I do look at the bike, and I realize that a beautiful bike is important to me. To me, beauty is independent of the materials. I can appreciate the hand-wrapped carbon tubes of a Calfee (above) as much as the finely filed lugs on my Herse (below).


More than the joints, I care about the line of the bike. Is the frame well-proportioned? If there are fenders, do they follow the outlines of the wheels? Does the rack sit nice and low above the wheel? Beauty for me is first about the entire bike, seen from 20 feet away.


I also appreciate the craftsmanship that becomes evident when you move in close and look at the details. While I can appreciate the whimsy of ornamentation, I am drawn to simple, beautifully executed details that express the function of the bike. The dropouts of this 1952 René Herse are a case in point: There is nothing superfluous here, and yet everything is supremely refined. It’ll perform as well as it looks.


“Form follows function” has become a pretty worn phrase by now, but it expresses my aesthetics better than anything else. And that also gets to the heart of what makes a great bike: It performs beautifully, it looks nice, and it is superbly crafted. These qualities are complementary. If a bike is lacking in one area, it affects the others as well. An inelegant fork bend doesn’t absorb shock well. A poor fender line that may cause an accident if debris gets stuck between tire and fender. An ill-proportioned frame rarely has the flex characteristics that enable the rider to get in sync with the bike. “What looks right performs right.” The corollary to the cliché is that an unattractive bike rarely performs as well as it could.

These qualities have little to do with simple labels like “steel is real” or “carbon is fast”. True craftsmanship is possible with any material, and the results are remarkably similar in their ride quality. And that is a good thing, because it’s always the same human body pedaling the bike.

So let’s look beyond labels and stereotypes and focus on what truly matters: “What’ll she do?”

Posted in Testing and Tech | 39 Comments

My Favorite Bottle Cages


It’s rare that I fall completely in love with a product, but it happened with the Nitto bottle cages. Ever since I began cycling seriously, I have been looking for the perfect bottle cages. In the late 1980s, almost everybody used the aluminum TA bottle cages. They were lightweight, but they tended to break after a year or two. Then came a number of welded aluminum bottle cages that lasted a bit longer, but they were heavier and looked clumsy. Plastic cages also were durable, but I did not find them elegant.

When I discovered the American Classic bottle cages, I really liked them. Instead of welds that could fail, these were clamped in an ingenious way by the bolt that attached them to the frame. They lasted much longer than any of the bottle cages I had used before, but being made from aluminum, they turned black and marred my bottles. Nonetheless, I used them for more than a decade, and even stocked up after American Classic stopped making them. My old Alex Singer still is equipped with them.

Over the years, other bottle cages have become available that are durable, but I find most of them too bulky to match the aesthetics of a classic steel frame.

When I built up my Grand Bois Urban Bike seven years ago, I decided to give the Nitto bottle cages a try. They seemed expensive at the time, but they really have delivered on all my criteria. They are made from thin stainless steel, so they look in proportion to the steel tubes of my frame. Being stainless, they don’t mar my bottles. They grip my bottles securely, yet the bottles are easy to retrieve and insert. Over the years, they have proven remarkably durable. They have become the epitome of bottle cages for me.


On my Urban Bike, I use the “R” (racing) model, with two loops that hold the bottle in a spring-loaded grip. The shape allows you to pull the bottle slightly upward (and push downward to put the bottle back in the cage), which makes it easy to get a drink without looking down.

When I built my René Herse, I was trying to keep the weight of the bike as light as possible, so I chose the “R80″ bottle cages. They have the same shape, but are made from tubular steel instead of solid rod (photo at the top of this post). The “R80″ is 20% lighter than the “R”. At just 40 grams, its weight is competitive with many carbon fiber bottle cages.


For the third bottle cage underneath the down tube, I use the “T” (touring, above). It forms a closed loop, so the weight of the bottle cannot open the cage as it hangs underneath the down tube. Even during the 360 miles of (mostly) rough gravel roads during the Oregon Outback, my third bottle remained secure. You can also use the “T” in a more conventional location, but it requires a little more precision when retrieving or replacing the bottle. (I’ve done it on the move even with the bottle mounted under the down tube, so it’s not a big deal.)

Made by craftsmen in Japan, these are all the bottle cages I’ll ever need. Mine have withstood many hard miles. They represent the finishing touch on a beautiful bike. These bottle cages are so good that we decided to offer them in our Compass Bicycles program.


To go with these cages, we use our Compass water bottles. Made by Camelbak, these are another product we found to be so good that we decided to offer them through Compass Bicycles. We love the ease of squirting a mouthful of water from these bottles, yet they don’t leak significantly, even if you leave the top valve open.


We also offer the Iribe bottle cages, which are silver-brazed from tubular stainless steel by Mr. Iribe, a master Keirin framebuilder. (He was portrayed in the Summer 2014 issue of Bicycle Quarterly.) While these cages are completely functional and superlight, they really are works of art. I love the little reinforcing plates that Mr. Iribe wraps over the joints to act as lugs, since you cannot easily fillet-braze stainless steel. I am glad the Iribe cages exist, but for my own bikes, the simpler Nitto cages are all I need.

Click here for more information on the cages and bottles.

Posted in Bottle cages | 41 Comments

Out of Reach


When I am riding alone, cycling is meditation for me. When riding with friends, it’s uninterrupted time together. In both cases, it means leaving my busy life behind. No random e-mails, no urgent phone calls, nobody coming to my desk. Usually no one even knows exactly where I am (although I leave an itinerary with my family just in case something unexpected happens).

It’s an important for me to keep relearning the ability to live in the moment – for significant periods of time. I value it greatly. I need it in order to refresh my creativity which is behind every issue of Bicycle Quarterly and every product we develop for Compass Bicycles.

You may have figured out that I don’t have a cell phone. Of course I have been told repeatedly how cell phones have saved lives when they were used to call for help in emergencies. That is undeniable. One can also argue that these are rare exceptions. In any case, it’s a risk that I find is an acceptable trade-off for being out of reach.


For me, careful planning, anticipating problems and being alert are more important than the ability to call for help – if there is cell phone connection at all. (Many of our favorite rides are out of range.)

So for some of you readers and customers, this means that it can take a few days until your e-mails are answered or your comments on this blog are approved (although staff addresses some of them). That is OK – we don’t deal with life-threatening crises at Compass Bicycles and Bicycle Quarterly.

In today’s busy, hyper-connected world, being out of reach is a rare, profound freedom.

Posted in Rides | 56 Comments

The Stem formerly known as Nitto Pearl


Once upon a time, most stems had quills that inserted into the steerer tube. The stems were made from forged aluminum. Cinelli, 3TTT and others offered them. They were attractive and relatively lightweight, and stem failures were unheard of. Many of these old stems are still ridden daily, decades after they were made.

Today, most stems are for Aheadsets and clamp directly to the steerer tube. The first ones usually were welded or CNC-machined. Today, most are forged as well, and they no longer break as often as they used to when this technology was still new. They are a little lighter, but the most important reason for the switch is that the fork makers no longer have to thread the steerer tubes. The threads had to match the frame head tube, which required a different fork for each frame size. With threadless forks, one size fits all.

One manufacturer has continued to make forged aluminum quill stems during this time:  Nitto in Japan. Their top-of-the-line model was called “Pearl” until recently. For some reason, Nitto cannot use the name “Pearl” any longer, so now they are simply called “NP”. I imagine this being short for “Nitto Pearl”. What hasn’t changed are the high quality and the beautiful finish. The classic Italian stems never looked this nice.


Another reason to like the Nitto “NP” is that it can be equipped with the Grand Bois/Compass decaleur – the only decaleur with tolerances tight enough that your bag doesn’t jump out when you ride on bumpy roads.


The decaleur is modeled on an old Alex Singer design. It replaces the bar clamp bolt of the stem, and it comes with all the hardware needed to install it. We also offer Grand Bois wonderful fillet-brazed steel stems (which are also made by Nitto), but they are expensive, so you better know your stem length before ordering one. The Nitto Pearl is a great and more affordable solution to getting a reliable decaleur.


The decaleur is a quick release for your handlebar bag. It keeps the bag away from the bars, so you can use all hand positions. And when you leave your bike, you simply pull the bag upwards and take it with you. You still need a rack to support the bag, as the decaleur only serves to stabilize it at the top. Rack and decaleur combined weigh less than most bag attachments that only attach to the handlebars, plus, it puts the bag low over the front wheel, so your bike handles better.

The Grand Bois/Compass decaleur has proven itself very durable. After having seen too many decaleurs that failed, usually far from home in the middle of long rides, we are glad to offer a solution that works reliably.

Compass Bicycles now offers the Nitto “NP” stem in lengths between 80 and 120 mm, as well as the matching decaleurs. Click here for more information.

Posted in Stems | 31 Comments

The Actual Width of Tires?


Sometimes we get an e-mail or a phone call from a customer asking, “I bought the Compass 32 mm tires, but they only measure 28.5 mm on my rims. Why is this?”

Decades ago, some tire makers cheated when stating tire widths. Why? To make their tires appear lighter than they really were. By selling a 25 mm tire as a 28 mm, they made the tire seem lighter than the competition’s tires, which actually were 3 mm wider.

That was long ago, and it’s not what is going on here. We label our tires as close to their actual width as possible. Here is why different people report different widths for their tires:

  1. It can be difficult to accurately measure the width of a supple tire.
  2. The casing of supple tires stretches for a few weeks or even months after they have been installed.
  3. Tire width depends on tire pressure and rim width. That means the actual width can be a little narrower or wider than the nominal width.


I recently installed a set of Compass Barlow Pass Extralight 700C x 38 mm tires on a Bicycle Quarterly test bike. How wide are they really?

When you measure metal with calipers, you squeeze the calipers until they won’t go any further, and then read your measurement. If you compress the calipers on a rubber tire, the tire will deflect. In this case, I measured 34 mm. But that isn’t the actual width of the tire: If you tried to fit the tire into a frame with just enough clearance for 34 mm tires, it would rub.


Here is how you measure tire width: Open up your calipers in 0.5 mm increments. Check whether there is “play” between the caliper jaws and the tire. In the photo above, I am already at 35.5 mm, and the calipers still fit snugly on the tire.


At 36.5 mm, I am finally getting some wiggle. This means that the tire is just over 36 mm wide. That is the width when it’s new.


Two weeks later, I measured the tire again. It has stretched to 36.5 mm. I was surprised that it was still so narrow, until I checked the tire pressure. I had let the pressure drop to about 30 psi. How wide would the tire be at its maximum pressure?


I inflated the tire to 75 psi, and lo and behold, it now measured 37.5 mm. It probably will stretch a little more, and achieve its full 38 mm width before long. Of course, I wouldn’t ride it at that pressure (unless I put it on a tandem), so at the pressures I usually ride, the tire will be a tad narrower than its nominal width.

Should I inflate my tires to a higher pressure to make them wider? No, that doesn’t make sense. Your tire’s comfort and performance is determined by the tire width at the contact patch, which gets larger at lower pressure. Putting more air than necessary into the tire defeats the purpose, even if it makes the tire wider where it does not touch the ground.

For narrower tires, rim width also plays a role. The Compass Stampede Pass tires measure about 31 mm on a 20 mm-wide rim, like a Mavic MA-2, but 33 mm wide on a 23 mm-wide rim, like a Grand Bois rim. For wider tires, this is less of a factor, since all the rims we use are narrow when compared to the wide tire.


In any case, our testing has shown that the material and construction of the casing are more important for comfort and speed than a millimeter or two in width. When you put a set of supple Compass tires on your bike, you’ll notice a huge difference in how the bike feels and performs.

And when you buy your next bike, make sure to spec a frame that provides ample tire width. On my own bikes, I am not too concerned whether the tires measure 39 or 41.5 mm. Either is ample for most of the riding I do.

Further reading: How Wide a Tire Can I Run?

Posted in Tires | 26 Comments