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:

Posted in Rides | 59 Comments

Pro-Joy instead of Anti-Racing


These days, the “real-world” or “alternative” cycling world often seems to define itself by what it is not: It’s not racing. One company even made a patch that said: “Racing Sucks!”

Perhaps this sentiment is understandable, considering how much racing has dominated bike design and cycling culture in recent decades, often with negative consequences like narrow tires, poor fender clearances and a general attitude of “every ride a race.”

Even so, I prefer a positive vision.


Bicycle Quarterly is not against anything. We are in favor of the joy of cycling. The joy as we feel the wind in our faces. The joy of the bike leaning into one turn and then immediately transitioning into another. The joy of the tires singing on the road, and the bike picking up speed as we increase the pressure on the pedals. The joy of seeing the sun rise behind a mountain peak in the distance during an early-morning ride.

The joy of cycling has nothing to do with racing or un-racing. It’s about riding. Racers experience the joy of cycling as much as commuters, and everybody in between. Throwing up arbitrary divisions might make people feel better about themselves, but I prefer to share the joy with anybody who cares to ride a bike.


For me, the joy of cycling is inextricably linked with performance. Tires that glide over rough pavement, frames that get in sync with your pedal strokes, and steering geometries that make the bike follow your chosen line with precision – they all contribute to the joy of riding your bike.

Competition (although not necessarily racing) has brought us many of the advances in bicycles we enjoy today, whether lightweight frame tubing, supple tires or multiple gears. The best performance bikes are much more fun to ride than pedestrian machines that have not been optimized for speed and performance. Competition, whether it’s randonneurs trying to see how far they can ride in 24 hours, or racers climbing big mountain passes, provides a very effective test for performance. Without competition, we wouldn’t have the bikes we enjoy so much today.

Once bicycles no longer are used in competition, their performance, and with that the joy of riding them, tends to deteriorate.

Steel bikes used to be the fastest bikes, and even today, the best steel bikes still match the performance of the best carbon and titanium bikes. Unfortunately, few riders experience the joys of a truly exceptional steel bike any longer, since the performance of many steel bikes has regressed in recent decades. Manufacturers change tubing dimensions with scant consideration of how this will affect the bike’s ride and performance. Since these bikes no longer have to prove themselves in competition, their reduced performance has gone largely unnoticed. And they are less joyful to ride as a result.

In the 1930 and 1940s, many randonneurs rode wide tires in various cyclotouring competitions. Supple, fast and wide tires were offered by a variety of makers. When randonneurs switched to narrower tires, wide high-performance tires no longer were made. Until recently, the only wide tires you could buy were harsh-riding and slow.


You don’t have to go fast to enjoy the benefits of a high-performance bike. In fact, I enjoy a frame that “planes” and tires that smooth out road imperfections especially when I am just spinning along.

Making bikes that perform well and are a joy to ride takes diligence and dedication. “Don’t race!” and “Racing Sucks!” often seem to be a cheap excuses for: “We don’t want to spend the time and effort to make our bikes/tires/components faster and more enjoyable to ride.” Anti-Racing then turns into Anti-Joy. And whatever I think about racing, I cannot agree with that.


So let’s focus on the joys of cycling. Let’s see what we can learn from racers. Let’s lead by example, so the racers can learn from us as well. We all share the same goal: to have fun on our bikes.

Photo credits: Jack Taylor collection (top), Cycles Alex Singer (3rd from top).

Posted in Testing and Tech | 66 Comments

Three Weeks in Japan


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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…


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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…


… 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


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.


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


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?


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.


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