Summer 2019 Bicycle Quarterly

The Summer Bicycle Quarterly is back from the printer! In this edition, we test two bikes that wowed visitors at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. How do they ride?

The Calfee’s latest bike uses carbon-lined bamboo tubes for an even lighter and stronger frame. The show bike is equipped with Rotor’s long-awaited hydraulic shifting. How does it perform at the limit, exploring long-abandoned gravel trails high in the Cascade Mountains?

The Frances All-Road bike combines ultra-wide tires with a small frame. Natsuko took it to the trails and fire roads of Marin County. She visited the pioneers of mountain biking, Jacquie Phelan, Charlie Cunningham and Joe Breeze, and she reflected on how the unique Californian landscape gave birth to the mountain bike.

Adventures don’t get much more adventurous than cycling in Eritrea. Long closed to the outside world, this fascinating northern African country finally is open to visitors again. Gregor Mahringer and his friends may have been the first foreign cyclists to explore Eritrea’s beautiful landscapes. Their report of empty roads and friendly people will make you want to go to Eritrea, too!

Brian Chapman has become well-known for his meticulously crafted bikes. He even makes his own brakes, cranks and other components. We visit his shop in Rhode Island to find out how he makes his bikes and components. He explains why he likes taking the idea of the custom bike further than almost any builder today.

To celebrate the 80th anniversary of Cycles Alex Singer, the famous French constructeur, we look at how Alex Singer bikes changed over time. An early 650B bike (above) reflects the unpaved mountain roads that were common in the 1940s, while a mid-1950s machines was built for fast randonneur rides on smooth roads. The styles of the bikes are quite different, too. Do they also reflect a change in philosophy between Alex Singer and his successor, Ernest Csuka?

To round off this 20-page feature, we take you into the workshop where Olivier Csuka, Ernest’s son, continues to build beautiful bikes that respect the tradition of Cycle Alex Singer, but are made for today’s riding styles.

In Tokyo, a small two-person shop crafts beautiful custom bags from leather and canvas. We take you to Guu-Watanabe and follow the bags from the first sketch to the finished product.

Each BQ combines inspiration with useful information: There are many small tricks for adjusting cantilever brakes – not just to get the brake pads to hit the rim at the correct angle, but also to obtain a perfect fit of the brake arms on your cantilever posts.

These are just a few of the exciting stories you’ll read in the Summer 2019 Bicycle Quarterly. Click here for a full table of contents. Or even better, subscribe and enjoy the entire 108-page edition.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 1 Comment

Why Contact Points Matter: Handlebars

Riding long distances – especially on rough roads – puts different demands on your body and your bike than short and fast-paced races. The contact points with the bike become more important the longer you ride. These days, you don’t hear much about them, especially the saddle and handlebars.

If you compete in relatively short races, this makes sense: When you pedal at maximum effort, your hands barely touch the bars, and your saddle only serves to stabilize you on the bike, but not to support you. All your weight is borne by your feet as you push the pedals with great force. And indeed, racers are more likely to complain about foot pain than other problems.

It’s a totally different matter when you are riding long distances, whether it’s touring, randonneuring or racing gravel events like Dirty Kanza: Inevitably, your power output over ten or more hours on the bike is lower than it would be in a three- or four-hour race. And so you’ll put more weight on your handlebars and saddle than the average racer.

Gravel racing and long-distance cycling aren’t new ideas – until World War II, most mountain roads weren’t paved, and the racers of the ‘Heroic Age’ were used to riding on gravel. Stages were much longer, and thus speeds were a little lower.

Back then, each racer had their personal saddle and handlebars, which they moved from bike to bike as they had new frames made. The handlebars were custom-bent to the racers’ specifications.

In the photo above, you see Nicolas Frantz, winner of the 1928 Tour de France, climb the Aubisque. The stage that traversed the Pyrenees was 387 km (240 mi) long! Racing on roads and distances like that is closer to modern gravel races or randonneur brevets than to it is to today’s Tour de France. Frantz took 16 hours and 20 minutes to complete this monster stage. And when you look closely, you see that his handlebars are what we’d call ‘Randonneur’ bars today.

Classic handlebars are characterized by their generous reach and subtle curves. They give your hands room to roam and support them in many positions.

Most modern bars are short and square. You usually hold onto the brake hoods, sometimes use the tops, and very rarely ride in the drops. There is a reason why drop handlebars have become so short: For many riders, the low handlebars of racing bikes were difficult to reach, because the ‘aggressive’ riding position did not match their strength. To accommodate recreational riders, handlebars (and top tubes) became shorter, allowing an upright position while maintaining the ‘racy’ look of low handlebars.

Fortunately, modern all-road and adventure bikes don’t have ultra-low bars, and there is no need for ultra-short reach handlebars any longer.

Handlebars with a longer reach give you choices between multiple riding positions, from relatively upright ‘on the tops’ to low and fast ‘in the drops’ – and many positions in between. This means that you can change the angle of your back as you ride, which greatly helps reduce fatigue.

The best handlebars are carefully designed to support your hands in multiple positions, eliminating pressure points that can lead to numbness and even nerve damage during long rides.

We have developed two different handlebar shapes, based on classic designs that have proven themselves over millions of miles – literally. The Maes Parallel (above) is a generous shape that provides much room for your hands to roam. I love it for fast-paced rides where my position changes frequently.

The Randonneur bars echo the shape that Nicolas Frantz used to win the Tour de France. Their upward curve is designed to support your hands as they rest ‘on the tops,’ behind the brake levers.

This is a very comfortable position – above I’m using it during the 2015 Paris-Brest-Paris – but it’s important that the curves are ‘just right.’ Before we found this shape, I’ve used many ‘Randonneur’ bars that actually were less comfortable than their standard counterparts.

What about padded handlebar tape? It can help a little with relieving pressure points, but it cannot make up for a poor handlebar shape.

New in the Rene Herse program are the Nitto ‘Monkey Banana’ bar pads (above) for the corners of your handlebars. They go under the bar tape to help support your hands in the ‘on the tops’ position, plus they offer a little extra shock absorption. They are designed to fit our Rene Herse Maes Parallel and Randonneur handlebars, but they are flexible and can be adapted to many other bar shapes.

Whether you are racing long gravel events, preparing for Paris-Brest-Paris, or planning a long tour, well-designed handlebars can make all the difference in enjoying the long hours on your bike. And even if you aren’t riding for ten hours or more, having comfortable bars makes cycling more fun.

Click here for more information about Rene Herse handlebars.

 

Posted in Handlebars | 25 Comments

Riding 600 km (Almost) Non-Stop

As part of preparing this year’s Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), riders qualify by riding 200, 300, 400 and 600 km brevets. More than just preparation for the long ride in France, these rides are fun challenges in their own right.

The last of the Seattle qualifiers started at 6 a.m. just south of downtown. It was easy to find the spot – a coffee shop surrounded by bikes leaning against walls, street signs, trees – any available surface. Cyclists were milling around, greeting friends, folding route sheets and placing them in their map holders, taking off layers in anticipation of warming temperatures…

Our course would describe a big loop, first heading south to Mount Rainier, then west almost to the Pacific Ocean. We’d ride north to the foot of the Olympic Mountains and glide along the shores of the Hood Canal. After 300 miles (480 km) on the road, we’d traverse the steep and relentless Tahuya Hills, before ending the ride on Bainbridge Island and returning to Seattle by ferry.

The course offers variety that keeps the riding interesting, from the deep valleys of the Cascades to the sparkling inland waters that make Washington State so special. It’s not a truly mountainous route, but over the course of 600 km, the climbs add up to almost 4800 m (15,700 ft) – about the same ratio of climbing per mile (or kilometer) as Paris-Brest-Paris.

The map above also shows the controls, the checkpoints where we’ll have our brevet cards signed as proof that we’ve completed the course. There is a time limit of 40 hours to finish the ride – and as in all randonneur rides, it’s overall time, not riding time, that counts.

On this Saturday morning, the sky was overcast. By the time we crested the first ridge and headed toward Lake Washington, the sun already made its first attempts to pierce the clouds.

Riding with friends is a great way to cover long distances efficiently – and the conversations make the time pass quickly. We joined other groups from time to time, then split up again. We know each other well after riding together for so many years, and our paceline was smooth, relaxed and safe.

We enjoyed some of our favorite roads that skirt the flanks of Mount Rainier. With no traffic to speak of and a beautiful rhythm, it was fun to push our pace a bit, while being mindful of the long way we still had to go: almost 500 km (300 miles) remained ahead of us.

If I thought about the distance that lay ahead, it might have been a bit daunting, but instead, I focus on the moment during these long rides. Feel my bike, spin the pedals smoothly, time my effort perfectly for the little ups and downs, and enjoy the ride. Listen to my body and keep the pace at a sustainable level. I didn’t think about what was behind or what lay ahead, but instead focused on becoming one with the bike. Shifts happened automatically without me thinking about them. The bike followed the road as I looked in the direction where I wanted to go, without any conscious input. The tires hummed on the pavement, and these early stages of the ride felt effortless.

The long climb to Bear Prairie at 2600 ft (800 m) elevation was punctuated by views of Mount Rainier (top photo). The reward for the climb was the wonderful descent on Skate Creek Road. Undulating, with little dips and rises, and sunlight filtering through the trees, this is one of the most wonderful roads. It’s just enough of a descent to go fast while spinning effortlessly. Skate Creek Road is the highlight of any ride, and it didn’t disappoint on this day.

Then we headed west again. There is always a headwind in the Cowlitz River valley: Warm air rises from the lowlands up the slopes of the Cascade Mountains and of Mount Rainier. On this day, the wind was blowing even stronger than usual, and we formed a larger group to work together.

Riding into a headwind for hours can be hard for me. Unlike climbs, headwinds don’t offer rewards. There is no downhill on the other side – the best you can hope for is that the wind will stop. It was nice to be in a group here – the others not only provided shelter, but also encouragement. Plus, it was fun to catch up with others on this ride.

Hahn has entered the Concours de Machines, held in conjunction with PBP this year, and so he’s experimenting with new ideas – including this ultralight, see-through handlebar bag.

At the next control, we split up again. Now it was just Ryan Francesconi and me, forging ahead. We reached the ‘overnight control’ at sunset: Our club rents some rooms in a hotel for those wanting to sleep a few hours. We stopped only briefly, ate bowls of soup, then headed into the night. Our plan was to ride ‘straight through.’ Another control – another gas station – provided an opportunity to refill bottles, stock up on food and stretch briefly, before heading into the night again.

The Hood Canal in moonlight was a beautiful experience. The roads were almost deserted. The lights of the small communities reflected in the water. Night riding really is a lot of fun. There was another control with volunteers in Tahuya – more soup and encouragement – and then it was just us and the night: Now we entered the almost mythical Tahuya Hills.

Climbing the remotest parts of the Puget Sound region at night is a surreal experience. The few houses that dot the landscape are invisible in the dark. The hills seem longer, and yet time passes more quickly. This part of the course has a beautiful rhythm, and I enjoyed it very much.

You’d expect to get sleepy in the middle of the night, but working hard on the uphills is the best way of staying awake, followed closely by the excitement of descending curving roads in the dark. A good headlight with an even beam is a big plus – almost a requirement – for this type of riding. We both welcomed the first signs of dawn with that special feeling of having ridden through the night.

The sun rose just as we descended into Seabeck. The little town was deserted and the quaint store on the water was still closed. Instead of getting a signature at this control, we answered a question on the control card. With the finish approaching – less than 100 km/62 miles away – we didn’t linger, but pressed on.

The hardest part of the ride was yet to come: Anderson Hill Road is feared by most cyclists who’ve experienced it. It’s a triple climb that rises like a stairstep, with a vertiginous 18% descent between the first and second step. We crouched in the full aero tuck, hit almost 90 km/h (56 mph) on the descent, and made it up most of the second climb, but there was no momentum to carry us up the third climb: It was just hard work.

It was over quickly: The overall elevation gain is modest, and while harsh, Anderson Hill Road climbs for just a mile. From there, we rode on (hilly) backroads to the finish on Bainbridge Island.

No records were beaten on this windy weekend – we took 26:15 hours to complete the course. The next ferry left just 15 minutes after we arrived, so after the briefest of rests, we rolled down to the harbor – tired, but happy.

On this Sunday morning, the ferry was full of bikes. Most were heading out for their Sunday rides, while we had just finished ours. We parked our bikes, tied them to the railing, and for the first time in more than a day, the clock no longer was ticking for us. It was as if the world had suddenly switched to slow motion.

As the ferry headed back to Seattle, we climbed upstairs, stretched out on a bench, and enjoyed a restful crossing. Despite – or perhaps because of – the challenge, brevets are fun: They are (mostly) fun on the road; you’re glad when you arrive; and you feel a great sense of accomplishment afterward.

Paris-Brest-Paris is just two months away. Now is a good time to look back over the experience gained from the brevets. Where are our strengths and weaknesses? Do we need to condition our bodies to riding long distances, or do we need to work on our speed? Shall we train on hills, or improve our speed on the flats? Now is also the time to deal with aches and pains that are caused by a lack of flexibility or by muscle imbalances.

This is also the last opportunity to use the experience gained in the brevets and make changes to our bikes. Apart from general maintenance – new tires, gear cables, chain and other wear-and-tear parts – are there parts that could be improved? Like a different handlebar shape to alleviate hand problems? Or a more comfortable saddle? A headlight with a better beam pattern to make night riding less fatiguing? A handlebar bag that makes food and clothes easily accessible while riding? We don’t want to make changes shortly before the big ride – now there still is time to dial in new components and make sure they work flawlessly by the time we line up on the start line just outside of Paris. In the next post, I’ll talk about some of these equipment choices and what has worked well for us.

Posted in PBP Preparation | 13 Comments

“Why I love Dirty Kanza” – Interview with Ted King

Last weekend was the 14th running of the Dirty Kanza, the famous 200-mile gravel race in Kansas. After the race, I was chatted with Ted King (TK), winner in 2016 and 2018, about what makes Dirty Kanza so special.

JH: Congratulations to another great finish in Dirty Kanza!

TK: This was my 4th go at DK, and it was the hardest edition that I’ve experienced.

JH: Tell us about the race!

TK: After the initial easy ride down Commercial Street, it ended up being a relatively slow roll-out where nobody really wanted to show their cards for the first 25 miles. At that point, with enormous faith in my equipment and tire choice, I gave it a good hard pull at the front of the group to break up the field. That dwindled the lead group from about 500 down to 50. The hours ticked by, and DK took its toll as riders dropped back from the typical places over such a tough slog: exhaustion, cramping, flat tires, or any number of other issues. 50 riders in the lead group became 25, then 10, then 8.

Colin (Strickland) rolled off the front on a hilly section and our group kept on the gas to keep him in sight. His advantage grew and grew, and it was clear that he meant business. Our pace picked up, Josh Berry went backwards from the group, and, a handful of miles later, so did I. I reunited and rode with Josh for a bit, then we separated and, with 4 miles to go, he and Kiel Reijnen caught me. We’re all buddies from our previous lives racing on the road together and amicably finished as a group.

JH: It sounds like a long, tough day. Tell us about the appeal of Dirty Kanza!

TK: For me, it’s the community and who shows up. Emporia is a pretty isolated location, smack in the middle of the country, and yet it’s such a fun, friendly, welcoming community. It starts right with the founders, Jim Cummins, Kristi Mohn, and Lelan Danes. They’re doing an amazing job celebrating everyone at the race, from first place to last, whether you finish or just line up. Emporia is not a quintessential cycling town, so it’s really palpable how they’ve persuaded a lot of people to get into cycling. For example, right there on Commercial Street in downtown, there are three bike shops, just four blocks apart! Every coffee shop, ice cream shop, and pub in town has some bicycle-related aspect to it. The whole community has embraced the sport so that it really is ‘Gravel Central.’ Then, at the finish, as the party engulfes the main street, it becomes a circus. It’s hilarious and really fun to be part of. It’s a wonderful critical mass, all backed by the community.

There is also a lot of history to the race. 2006 was the first year with just 34 riders. Back then, it was such an abominably long ride, before DK was DK. It grew a bit over the years until it suddenly became the event for a long single day of racing. Now 3400 or so people are racing it, with another thousand or more who haven’t won ‘the lottery.’ What I enjoy most is this community of friendly faces. It’s coming back year after year, seeing friends and folks I haven’t seen in a year, ready for another edition of an amazing race.

I think the distance is a huge part of the appeal. I do a lot of other long races, but 200 is such an interesting distance. You couldn’t do a 200-mile race in Vermont, for example, because it’s too hilly.

It’s such an iconic event too. Not much has changed since 2006. It’s still largely self-supported. If you started an event now, you’d need to put an aid station every few hours, have sag support, provide signage, and a bunch of other things. But they’ve kept DK pure over the years, really strongly tied to its roots. I love that it’s self-navigated. Sign pollution or sign sabotage can be a big issue in events, but being self-reliant makes for a really amazing day.

JH: What is it like to ride gravel in Kansas?

TK: The whole landscape is very wide-open and exposed. You start in downtown Emporia and roll out in a mass group. This is over relatively flat terrain. Then, the further out you get, the more gargantuan the hills get. You are on top of a crest and see the next one, and you think: “Geez, that’s a big hill. Who knew Kansas had climbs like these.”

And then you get into the deep gullies, where you drop down to a creek and then back up on steep climbs. It’s 12, 15, or 18%, and it takes quite some bike handling skills to get up, with the super sharp rocks and loose surfaces. Especially with all the precipitation they had this year.

Add to that, the wind always picks up in the afternoon. And since the course doesn’t go in one direction, the wind always changes. So you are blessed with a tailwind at times, and demoralized by cross- and headwinds at others.

Cows. Barns. Farms. You see lots of those things. It cattle country. You see farmers in huge pickup trucks, but unlike in many places, they are friendly folks who just drive by and wave.

JH: What is your equipment advice for Dirty Kanza?

TK: What I tell everybody who shows up at DK is to be confident about their equipment. It’s too late to arrive and start second-guessing, which inevitably everybody does. They come and say “My tire is too much”or My tire is too little,” “My gearing is too much” or “too little,” and so on. Focus on the ride and don’t worry about the bike.

JH: Tell us about your equipment choices.

TK: I’d say the biggest thing at DK is tires. You need tires that are tough enough not to flat on the incredibly sharp stones they have there in the Flint Hills. They’re truly unlike anything else I’ve ever ridden; it’s like riding on knives. I knew I was going to be on Rene Herse Endurance Plus casings, which gave me a huge confidence boost, and they performed flawlessly.

The weather was predicted to be wet, so I went with the Hurricane Ridge knobbies for the race. Then, on race day, it got really hot, and the course dried out completely. I was still happy with having knobs – there are so many corners that we took at high speed, and having extra tread gave me the confidence to stay off the brakes.

JH: This year, you use a double crank after a few years on a 1x. How do they compare?

TK: I’m a long-time SRAM athlete, and 1x has been their simple gravel setup in the past. Meanwhile, on the road, I’ve been racing eTap for half a dozen years or so, and I became a convert long ago. When the two combined, with confidence of eTap and the huge gear range with AXS, honestly, I find shifting fun with eTap. Certainly, I notice much smaller jumps between gears. Now I have 24 gears instead of 11. It’s truly fun to use, and it performed flawless out on the gravel.

JH: Why did you choose a Berthoud saddle?

TK: Mostly because I’ve used it for the entire year. It’s amazing in terms of comfort. It’s equally amazing how much attention it gets. My social media has become a forum where people ask me all the time what saddle am I using.

JH: Tell us about your new gravel ride/race, Rooted Vermont. What inspired you and Laura to organize the event?

TK: It’s a mix of a few things. After moving back east, we were immediately welcomed by the neighbors, who came and gave home-warming gifts and helped us move furniture into the house. Arriving in Richmond was truly special. On top of that, the riding is equally special: Right out of our house, we have mountain bike trails, gravel, paved roads. There’s an alpine ski area two miles away and nordic skiing maybe five miles from home. It’s an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, and we wanted to showcase this friendly local community to the greater cycling community. Laura and I have been lucky to have experienced so many events, and we want to take the best from each of them and bring it to our home roads.

JH: I understand that this year filled up quickly…

TK: We’re excited with the popularity in our inaugural event, but come back in 2020!

Photos by Ansel Dickey (except Photo 9).

Posted in Uncategorized

Bicycle Quarterly Summer 2019 Preview

The Summer 2019 Bicycle Quarterly is at the printer. It’s an another exciting edition, full of bike tests, adventures and great stories. As a preview, we made the little video clip above of Natsuko riding the Frances All-Road. Perhaps you admired this beautiful bike at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show – now you’ll find out how it rides! Natsuko took the Frances to Marin County, where she visited mountain bike pioneers Jacquie Phelan, Charlie Cunningham and Joe Breeze. And she rode the bike on the trails where mountain bikes were born.

It’s just one of many great stories in the Spring 2019 BQ. We are finalizing our mailing list tomorrow: If you’ve been thinking about subscribing, sign up today to be among the first to get your copy when it’s mailed next week. Thank you!

Click here to subscribe.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues

Riding the new Open WIDE

Every BQ test bike that arrives at our office is greeted with enthusiasm. When OPEN hinted that they had a revolutionary, top secret, new bike they wanted us to try, we were even more excited than usual. Until now, we’ve had to keep the new bike under tight wraps, but it’s just been launched, so we can tell you about it.

So what makes the new OPEN WI.DE. special? Officially, WI.DE. stands for ‘Winding Detours,’ but it really means that the new OPEN fits really, really wide tires. And yet you can run road cranks with a narrow Q factor. Almost as exciting are the fender mounts that you can see lurking in shadows – OPEN’s new fender system will debut later this year.

How wide are the tires on the WI.DE.? Our test bike’s 650B boots measure a whopping 61 mm, and they are about as wide as will fit.

OPEN pioneered the dropped chainstay. The stay no longer sits between the tire and the chainring, but underneath. That means that the tire can be wider without pushing the chainring outward: You can run road cranks with a narrow Q factor, rather than mountain bike cranks. For most cyclists, a narrow Q factor means a more natural spin, more power and less fatigue. And yet you can run 61 mm tires. That is amazing.

New for the WI.DE. is the left chainstay: It also drops downward. This isn’t just to provide more clearance, but to create a box section that stiffens both chainstays. It’s often said that stiffer chainstays make a bike perform better. Does the WI.DE. deliver?

We’re only in the early stages of our test, but first impressions are… well, the WI.DE. is really amazing. I never thought that I’d want tires wider than 54 mm, but now I am riding with 24% more air. And I could feel it during my first rides in the city. Rough streets are smoothed out, and riding in traffic, I can pick the best line regardless of the road surface. And best of all, the WI.DE. really likes to go fast. It’s a bike that entices me to push myself harder, to squeeze out that little bit of extra speed and fun. When I return home, I am tired, but elated.

Now I’m dreading the day when OPEN asks for their bike back. That will be very soon, because many magazines are lining up to test the new bike. We’re glad to be the first to ride it, and I’m determined to enjoy it as much as possible. We’ve already planned a great adventure for it, and the full test report will be in Bicycle Quarterly soon.

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Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues, Testing and Tech | 38 Comments

Oregon Outback: the event that changed all-road bikes

It’s hard to believe that the first Oregon Outback, that incredible 363-mile gravel race, was just five years ago. It’s almost like we live in a different world now, so much has changed…

Back then, the idea of running a race that traversed the entire state of Oregon from south to north – on gravel roads! – seemed completely outrageous. So seemed the idea of riding the entire distance non-stop. And the idea of riding a road bike on these gravel roads. More than one rider told me at the start that they were astonished to see me on my Rene Herse for this grueling event. I am sure Ira Ryan, on his Breadwinner B-Road, heard similar comments.

A joyful crew rolled out of Klamath Falls on Memorial Day weekend in 2014. Most were on mountain bikes equipped with bikepacking gear. Nobody knew what to expect. Would it take two days or a whole week to reach the Columbia River at the other end of the state? There were few options for bailout; there was no support – this was a real adventure.

It did not take long for the race positions to shake out. By the time we reached Switchback Hill (above), there were three riders at the front. Ira Ryan was the favorite, having won the Trans Iowa race in his home state. He was riding on 35 mm tires – which was considered wide! Another strong racer was on a mountain bike. He had opted for narrower 700C tires. I was on the widest rubber, with our just-released 650B x 42 Babyshoe Pass Extralights.

I couldn’t match the speed of the other two, not helped by a broken hand that was still in a brace… With almost 300 miles to go, I settled into my own pace.

As the day wore on and the ground got softer, I could see Ira’s tracks swerving wildly from side to side. There was only one set of recent tracks, so I knew that the second rider had abandoned by now… Even on my 42 mm tires, I was struggling. And yet, on the (even softer) edge of the road, I could see the tracks of two mountain bikers who had come through here a few days earlier. Their wide tires had enabled them to ride in a straight line…

A few hours later, I reached one of the three towns on the route, where I met Ira Ryan’s camera crew. I learned that he was just 15 minutes ahead. Even though I had struggled on the loose surface, I had made up a lot of time – probably because my tires were wider.

The solitude of the long day on the road gave me time to think. I remembered how the Paris-Dakar Rally had fascinated me as a teenager. I could see parallels to the Oregon Outback: In the early Dakars, competitors used 4×4 trucks, which seemed the best vehicles to traverse the deserts of northern Africa. Then Porsche developed a four-wheel-drive version of their 911 sports car and won the Dakar in their first attempt (above).

Here in the Oregon Outback, it was obvious that the wide tires of mountain bikes provided an advantage on very loose gravel. Yet it was also clear that the mountain bikes themselves were holding back their riders on what really were roads after all. For the Dakar, Porsche had allied four-wheel drive with sports-car performance. Could we do the same and combine the wide tires of a mountain bike with the performance of a road bike?

By the time I climbed Antelope Hill, I had a plan: We’d take our all-road bikes beyond the 42 mm-wide tires that we’d been riding until then. I was certain that ultra-wide road tires would transform our bikes’ performance on gravel and other loose surfaces.

The last miles of the race went by in a blur. When I saw that Ira had written “Go Jan!” into the gravel, I knew I was on the home stretch. (Thank you, Ira, for encouraging me!)

After losing much time in the middle of the night – I back-tracked for more than an hour to make sure that I was on course – there was no hope of catching Ira. (He was faster anyhow!) My goal now was to finish in 30 hours. I redoubled my efforts and let the bike fly on the descent to the Columbia River.

I made my goal – and took the photo above after realizing that there was nobody at the finish. But I also wondered how much faster (and more fun) the ride would have been on wider tires.

Back in Seattle, I went to work on making road bikes with ultra-wide tires. My only concern was that nobody had ever ridden supple road tires that wide. Would they even be rideable? Or would the wheels bounce down the road like basketballs? Before we invested in tire molds, we needed to test this. So I asked the engineers at Panaracer in Japan (who makes our tires) to make prototype tires with our Extralight casing, using a mountain bike tire mold. A few weeks later, eight completely hand-made tires arrived. Now we had super-supple knobbies, but we wanted road tires.

The next step was to send the prototype tires to Peter Weigle, the famous framebuilder and constructeur. Years ago, he built a machine to shave the tread off tires, before we offered wide high-performance tires with just the right amount of tread. Peter shaved off the knobs to turn our prototype tires into slicks (above). The result were probably the most expensive bicycle tires ever made, but now we finally had 54 mm-wide, supple, slick tires that we could test.

Alex Wetmore had a 26″ bike that fit tires this wide, his Travel Gifford. We borrowed it and installed the new tires. If you look carefully, you can still see where the knobs were on the prototype tire above. It’s hard to describe our excitement: We were about to try something completely new.

enduro_allroad_cobbles

Then we started testing the new tires. On gravel, the 54 mm-wide tires were amazing. The bike just cruised over stuff that would have meant serious ‘underbiking’ on 42 mm tires. It was fun!

enduro_allroad_web1

What surprised us even more was the new tires’ performance on pavement. The grip was just incredible, both because there was so much rubber on the road and because the soft, supple tires no longer skipped over bumps. On this difficult descent in Leschi, you usually have to be cautious and brake for the bumpy turns. With the new tires, we pedaled as hard as we could, yet we weren’t able to reach the limits of grip. Did I say the testing was fun?

Knowing that the ultra-wide road tires worked as well as we had hoped, we ordered molds for two new tires: the Rat Trap Pass 26″ x 2.3″ and the Switchback Hill 650B x 48 (above). Both were revolutionary at the time, by far the widest high-performance road tires anybody had made in more than half a century. (Some very early pneumatic tires had been quite wide, too.)

There were no road bikes yet for such wide tires, so we worked with Firefly to make us a custom titanium road bike designed around the 26″ Rat Trap Pass tires. We took it to 13,000 ft (4000 m) on the Paso de Cortes in Mexico (above), where it performed even better than we had hoped. (Testing the new tires was definitely fun!)

26″ wheels make sense for tires this wide, but the 650B wheel size had more traction at this point – that is why we introduced tires for both wheel sizes. The next step was obvious: Bike makers needed an inexpensive OEM tire before they could commit to making bikes for tires this wide. As a small company specializing in high-performance components, this wasn’t something we were equipped to do.

Fortunately, others were taking note of our pioneering work. In 2016, WTB launched its Byway tires. Now there were ultra-wide 650B road tires at OEM price points. Bike manufacturers were quick to act, and before long, almost every bike maker designed bikes around this tire size. Today, the size introduced with our Switchback Hill tires has become a new industry standard.

It’s hard to believe that all this started just 5 years ago, with the first Oregon Outback, that incredible 363-mile gravel race.

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 23 Comments