A Different Kind of Company

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A few months ago, Bicycle Retailer and Industry News (BRAIN) ran a feature on Compass Bicycles. It drove home a point that I hadn’t really thought much about: Compass is a different kind of bike company.

BRAIN quoted Elton-Pope Lance about Harris Cyclery’s experience: “The shop doesn’t introduce customers to the brand; they come in asking for Compass tires or parts.”

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This bottom-up approach is the opposite of the industry norm. Usually, a company launches a product. The company introduces the product to dealers at the big trade shows. The dealers then order it and present it to their customers, the cyclists. The cyclists usually are the last to find out that a new product exists.

With Compass, it’s the other way around: Riders go to their shops and ask for our products. Shops then contact us to set up a wholesale account. (It’s easy, because we aren’t a big company that makes shops jump through hoops.) Thanks to our customers, we now have more than 450 bike shops all over the world who carry Compass components.

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The difference goes deeper than just how our products are introduced – it’s also how we develop them. Compass didn’t start with a market analysis. Compass didn’t really have a business plan, either. Compass started with a bunch of us riding our bikes.

For the long and adventurous rides we liked to do, we needed tires and components that weren’t available. So we developed them ourselves. We made prototypes and then put them into production by working with the best suppliers in the industry. That is how Compass started, and that is how we operate today.

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We were surprised by the positive response to our products. We weren’t the only ones interested in tires for spirited rides that combined paved and gravel roads. Many riders also needed handlebars that were comfortable during all-day rides and beyond. They wanted cranks with chainrings that suited their gearing needs, rather than those of racers. And so on…

The BRAIN article quotes Kathleen Emry of Free Range Cycles: “Compass tires are much wider than even commuters are used to, yet almost everyone comments on how supple they are and how much faster they feel.” We are excited that customers enjoy our products as much as we do.

Thanks to customers like you, who spread the word about our products, we don’t have to go to trade shows or create marketing campaigns. Instead, we can focus all our resources on making better products.

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We develop every product to meet our own exacting standards. When we ride far beyond the horizon, when we crest mountain passes at night, when we take our bikes to the limit on hairpin after hairpin during twisty mountain descents, we must have complete confidence in our bikes. That is the standard we apply to everything we make.

And we realize that without our customers, these products wouldn’t exist. And we wouldn’t be out there riding and developing new products, because we’d have to market our existing program. Without you, Compass wouldn’t be possible! Thank you!

Posted in Components | 28 Comments

Utsukushigahara – The Perfect Day Ride

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My schedule in Japan is busy, but I really wanted to go for a ride in the mountains. “Why don’t you ride to Utsukushigahara?” suggested Natsuko. “It even has some gravel.” So on Saturday morning, I joined hundreds of hikers and cyclists who boarded the first Super Azuza Express that runs from Shinjuku to Matsumoto.

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Without fenders and racks, racing bikes are quite easy to Rinko – just remove both wheels and the handlebars – as long as you don’t mind a larger package that doesn’t stand on its own.

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Just five minutes after I got off the train in Chino, the Firefly was assembled and ready to roll.

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The Rinko bag I use for this bike is about 3x as bulky as the superlight Ostrich bags we sell, but I managed to strap it under the saddle just fine.

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After a 10-minute warm-up in the valley, the road started climbing. In Japan, this means 10-15% for a little over an hour. Fortunately, the Firefly “planes” wonderfully for me, and the climb was great fun.

At the top of the first pass (above), I stopped at a little souvenir/food shop. The owner gave me two tomatoes with salt and spices. “You need vitamins!” he said. They were delicious.

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The road dropped back down, before climbing what seemed like a vertical wall. The terrain was so steep that the hairpin turns were built on bridges, since there was no room for them otherwise. Signs by the roadside indicated the elevation: 1700 m, 1800 m, 1900 m. In the distance, I could see a huge volcano poke out of the clouds (photo at the top of the post).

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Utsukushigahara is a neat place: Roads lead up to it from both sides, but the top is connected only by gravel trails. It’s a popular destination for cyclists, and I saw a few riders walk their bike along the 5 km hike across the top. No need to walk on the Firefly, of course!

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The Utsukushigahara Highlands are very pretty. In the summer, they are used for pasturing cows. The path gets incredibly steep for the last hundred meters to the top. Fortunately, it’s paved, because maintaining traction on loose gravel would be next to impossible.

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Then I reached the top. A stone engraving showed the altitude: 2034 m (6673 ft). It really feels like the top of the world.

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Taking the bike around the switchbacks on the gravel downhill was fun. So was experimenting with the self-timer of my small camera!

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What followed was that Japanese specialty, the Skyline: a road that runs along the ridgeline. It’s always up or down, but the gradients are never steep nor long, so you can go really fast. Key is knowing when to pedal, when to coast, when to tuck… It’s a great place to work on your technique, and it’s great fun.

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The real downhill was even more enjoyable. It’s impossible to photograph the incredible series of hairpin turns, with hardly any straight sections in between. The map below gives you an idea of what this road is like. In just 12 km (7.5 miles), the road drops 850 m (2800 ft) – it’s fast and the many hairpins really challenge the bike’s handling.

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It’s as if this road was custom-designed for the Firefly. The grippy, wide tires offered incredible cornering traction. I pushed the bike into the turns harder and faster until I finally could feel the limits of grip approaching – way beyond anything I’ve ever done on a bike.

Just as important is this bike’s low-trail geometry. It allowed me to adjust my line in mid-corner, because many of the hairpins have decreasing radii. With a high-trail bike on a steep downhill like this, I’d have run wide, into the oncoming traffic, many times… (Actually, I would have gone much slower to avoid this.)

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Down, down, down I went. I passed a number of riders on racing bikes, whose narrow tires were limiting their speed. Motorcyclists who saw me corner at crazy lean angles waved enthusiastic encouragement. It was fun.

Then I reached a lake, and to my surprise, saw a sign for the Café Il Pirata. It’s run by a couple who are cycling fans, who serve food and drink. I got to watch a stage of the Vuelta à España while they admired my “very strange” bike. Their own fleet included racing and mountain bikes, but road bikes with wide tires still are a rarity in Japan.

A few more hairpins dropped me right into Matsumoto. It was getting dark, so I didn’t visit the famous castle, but went straight to the station and boarded the train back to Tokyo.

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As I fell asleep in my seat, I dreamt of this amazing ride. It combines everything I love: epic mountain climbs, vertiginous descents, gravel roads, and great scenery. It climbs more than 2900 m (9500 ft) in 90 km (55 miles).

The ride to Utsukushigahara can be done on any bike, but the Firefly really is the perfect machine for it: It combines the speed of a racing bike with the surefootedness of wide tires. I can’t wait to go back and ride it again!

Posted in Rides | 72 Comments

René Herse Rear Cable Hanger

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Compass Cycles is re-introducing the René Herse rear cable hanger. I have loved these simple, lightweight, elegant cable hangers – so much that I made my own when I built my Mule. There are many ways to design a rear cable stop for centerpull and cantilever brakes – this is the one I like best.

The hanger is held by the seatpost binder bolt – just make sure your slot is at least 2.5 mm thick. This is a much better solution than a cable hanger that uses a seatstay bridge (or even worse, a single post): Since the René Herse hanger is loaded in tension rather than torsion, it can be lighter, and yet it will flex less. That results in a more positive braking action, removing some of the springiness that you often feel in rear brakes.

There are other cable hangers that attach to the seatpost binder, but none are as small and light as the Compass René Herse model, which weighs just 3 grams.

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The secret is simple: Instead of making the hanger large enough to hold the cable housing and a superfluous ferrule, the Compass René Herse hanger is sized to fit the housing without the plastic covering. Stripping the plastic covering (and deleting the extra ferrule) gives you a metal-on-metal connection that also reduces the flex between housing and hanger – again improving the braking action. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a better, more elegant way of doing this. Of course, to make the René Herse rear cable hangers requires custom-machined parts, which are more expensive than standard ferrules.

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The Compass René Herse rear cable hanger is made by Nitto to our specifications. Hand-brazed from steel, it’s polished to a mirror shine and then chrome-plated for durability and beauty. It’s equipped with a slot to make removing the brake cable easy – useful for Rinko and travel bikes.

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To match the minimalist cable hanger, we also offer cable stop braze-ons in the same size. I’ve often been bothered by the huge cable stops used on most modern bikes – they seem almost as large as the top tube! Even though I intended my Mule to be just a “working bike”, I couldn’t bring myself to using those oversized stops. Instead, I made my own, smaller stops by cutting down derailleur cable stops.

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I won’t need to do this in the future, as we now offer these stops. Of course, you can use the René Herse rear cable hanger on many bikes, but if you build a new frame, these braze-ons result in a more elegant, lighter and more functional setup. More functional? Less flex because there is no ferrule and no outer lining of the housing.

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At the front, where the brake cable housing turns with the handlebars, we recommend using a guide (arrow) to prevent the housing from getting kinked at the exit of the stop. This is a good idea no matter what type of cable stop you use. It’s just a short piece of tubing. On this bike, it’s been slotted to allow removing the brake cables when the bike is disassembled for Rinko.

Click here for more info on the René Herse cable hangers and housing stops.

The René Herse® name, logo and designs are registered trademarks of Compass Cycles.

Posted in Brakes, Framebuilding supplies | 27 Comments

Riding the First Recumbent

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Bicycle Quarterly hasn’t really covered recumbents much. It’s not that we aren’t interested, it just seems difficult to do such totally different machines justice. And yet recumbents are a perfect fit with Bicycle Quarterly‘s research into the history of cyclotouring. During the mid-1930s, recumbents were quite popular among French cyclotourists.

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Many saw them as the bikes of the future. While the racing world outlawed recumbents soon after Francis Faure set an hour record on a recumbent in 1933, cyclotourists and randonneurs couldn’t have cared less about what the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) thought: That recumbents weren’t “real” bicycles.

Recumbents appealed to “real-world” riders because they seemed to offer speed and comfort, in addition to novelty. Quite a few companies offered them: Mochet, Ravat, Vélostable… They even participated in the 1930s Technical Trials, where they were given their own category, because they couldn’t compete on weight with upright bicycles. Randonneurs in Paris-Brest-Paris were allowed to ride them, too. And for a while, recumbents received a lot of positive press.

But then they faded away. By the late 1930s, almost half of the “for sale” ads in magazines like Le Cycliste listed recumbents. I’ve often wondered: What happened?

The literature is silent on this issue – they just stopped talking about recumbents. Most riders who rode recumbents back then unfortunately no longer are with us. The best way to understand 1930s recumbents today is to ride one.

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Imagine my excitement when Christophe Courbou, the organizer of the French Technical Trials, showed me his latest find: a mid-1930s Mochet Vélo-Vélocar. Mochet was the brand that started the recumbent craze of the 1930s. His machine was ridden to that infamous hour record.

Georges Mochet first developed a four-wheeled, pedal-powered car, the Vélocar. This became quite popular – people even rode across the country in them. Then Mochet had the idea of cutting the car in half, and making a bicycle out of it. Hence the strange name: Vélo-Vélocar. (It’s the bike version of the Bike Car.)

“Can I ride it?” was my immediate question. Classic bikes fascinate me, but I am not a collector. I want to ride them: How do they work? What are their strenghts and weak points? What can we learn from them. Could this be another forgotten gem like the 650B randonneur bikes that we discovered in the dusty annals of history?

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Fortunately, Christophe’s Mochet remains in perfect condition. It clearly hasn’t been ridden a lot. Unfortunately for me, I am too tall for the bike. The size can be adjusted, but this requires a lot of work, including lengthening the chain. After the Technical Trials, there simply wasn’t enough time for this.

So I tried to ride the Mochet as is. I had to splay my legs to clear the handlebars. And I found I couldn’t keep the bike upright.

Perhaps I was too tired from riding that day’s gravel stage of the Technical Trials. Having to keep my knees from hitting the handlebars (which immediately turned them sharply) didn’t help. I am glad nobody photographed my attempts: They were too busy catching me as I kept falling over!

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Christophe has more practice, and he managed to ride the Mochet impressively well. But even he wasn’t keen on heading into the surrounding hills to try the Mochet on steep ups and downs.

The problem seems to stem from the universal joint in the steering. It’s beautifully made, just like the rest of the bike, and it turns very smoothly. But the handlebars only have an indirect connection to the front wheel.

On an “upright” bicycle, you simply look where you want to go, and the bike follows. On the Mochet and similar 1930s recumbents, you have to think about where you turn the handlebars and how far. That active thought process made it so difficult for me to ride the Mochet. It apparently takes a while to become intuitive. I can’t imagine that you’ll ever get the same feedback about what your contact patches are doing as you do on a “regular” bike.

Christophe also reports that sitting on the Mochet isn’t very comfortable – recumbent seats have come a long way since 1933. When you consider how highly evolved the best French cyclotouring bikes already were in the 1930s, it’s no wonder the recumbents didn’t really catch on. They clearly needed more development before they’d become viable alternatives to “upright” bikes.

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So we now know that it wasn’t the UCI banning recumbents that caused their fall from popularity. The machines simply didn’t work well enough. The riders who bought them, often sold them after the novelty had worn off.

And yet – I want to try one for a longer ride. The old photo of the touring countryside is just too evocative. Christophe has promised that the next time I visit, we’ll fit the Mochet to my taller body, and then I can have a go. I can’t wait!

Further reading:

Posted in A Journey of Discovery, Testing and Tech | 41 Comments

New Compass Tires: Naches and Snoqualmie Pass

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Compass Cycles is introducing two new models to its tire line. We’ve had many requests for 700C and 26″ versions of our iconic 650B Babyshoe Pass tires. Here they are!

We’ve added 2 mm to the width, because we found that 44 mm-wide tires will fit most bikes designed for wide 700C and 26″ tires. As with all our tires, we named them after the places that inspired them.

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Most cyclists cross Snoqualmie Pass on the “Iron Horse Trail” that uses an old railroad right-of-way. Back in the day, the Milwaukee Railroad’s Olympian Hiawatha raced across the Cascades here. Today, it’s a trail that is covered with loose gravel in places. High-volume tires are key to an enjoyable ride here. Traversing the 2.3-mile tunnel right on the pass is an exciting part of the adventure.

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The original Hiawatha trains were the fastest in the world – their streamlined locomotives were easily capable of 124 mph (200 km/h).* As befits a train named after an Indian legend “so fleet of foot” that he could outrun an arrow shot from his own bow. It’s nice to think of our tires in these terms: They are among the fastest in the world.

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Our tires are not just “fleet of foot”, but also intended for some pretty rough “roads”. Naches Pass is one of the “secret passes” that cross the Cascades. The new Compass Naches Pass tires measure 26″ x 1.8″ (44 – 559 mm), making them perfect for many touring bikes with 26″ tires. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to chart an alternative cross-country route using only little-known byways, starting with Naches Pass. I am tempted…

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The Naches Pass also is a great tire for small bikes, where 650B wheels make it difficult to avoid toe overlap and other design compromises. The nice thing is that you all the parts designed for 650B bikes fit 26″ tires as well: Compass centerpull brakes and rack, fork crown, etc. It’s a great way to go on a smaller frame.

The new tires are tubeless-compatabile. As with most of our tires, they come in several versions:

  • Standard casing: a supple casing that offers excellent durability and cut resistance. Available with tan sidewalls.
  • Extralight casing: an extra-supple casing usually reserved for hand-made tubulars. Compass Extralight tires offer the ultimate in performance and shock absorption. Available with tan or black sidewalls.

Click here for more information about Compass tires.

* Note: The Olympian Hiawatha apparently did not use the streamlined locomotives, and it certainly never reached 200 km/h. Those speeds were achieved on flatter routes in the Midwest.

Posted in Tires | 53 Comments

Transcontinental Race on Compass Tires

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Congratulations to Andreas Behrens of LaFraise Cycles for completing the amazing Transcontinental Race. Riding unsupported for almost 2,400 miles (3900 km) over a course that traversed all of Europe, Andreas completed the non-stop race in 15 days and 12 hours.

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The course traversed the highest mountain ranges of Europe – above the view from the Grimsel Pass to the Furka Pass in Switzerland. All in all, Andreas climbed more than 40,000 m (130,000 ft).

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Andreas builds bikes himself. The one he rode in the Transcontinental Race was equipped with Compass Loup Loup Pass Extralight 650B x 38 mm tires. After the finish, he sent us photos of his tires:

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Even after 4000 km, the front tire still has plenty of life left.

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The rear tire is a bit more worn. The wear is almost entirely in the center of the tread – an indication that Andreas is running slightly higher tire pressures than we’d recommend. He might be more comfortable and even faster if he let out a tiny bit of air.

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When he dipped his wheels into the Dardanelles at the finish in Turkey, he hadn’t suffered a single flat tire!

Andreas isn’t a sponsored rider – he bought the tires with his own money. I asked him why he chose Compass tires. His response:

“I have a few bikes with wider tires, between 32 and 42 mm. From experience, I knew that on these bikes, I wasn’t any slower than other riders on their racing bikes. In the past, the tires from Panaracer and Grand Bois always felt a bit stiff. When I visited JP  at 2-11 Cycles [Compass’ French importer], I had the opportunity to test the Compass tires. I liked the ride very much and decided to use the 38 mm version on my bike for the Transcontinental Race.

“Of course, it also was a test to see whether the Compass tires would survive the race. I only recommend products to my customers that I use myself. My experience confirms your testing: the tires reduce vibrations and fatigue. Of course, it wasn’t only the tires: The steel frame, custom geometry, comfortable saddle and ergonomic handlebars helped me finish the race without soreness or injury. No saddle problems, no numb hands, even though I mostly rode without gloves. I credit the comfort of the bike.”

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Riding from Belgium to Turkey, all the way across Europe, without any major aches and pains – that is truly inspirational. Congratulations!

Click here for information on Andreas’ bikes: LaFraise Cycles.

Photo credits: Andreas Behrens (LaFraise Cycles).

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 24 Comments

I Bought a Titanium Bike!

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The Firefly we tested for the Summer Bicycle Quarterly is one of a new breed – an Enduro Allroad Bike with tires much wider than we usually ride. Our usual routes in the Cascades didn’t seem enough of a challenge for this machine and its 54 mm tires, so we took it on a challenging ride across the Paso de Cortés in Mexico, reaching elevations of 4000 m (13,120 ft) –  almost as high as the summit of our own Mount Rainier.

Taking a test bike on a big trip like that always carries some risk. With our own bikes, we know how they perform. We know that they will totally reliable. With test bikes, there can be surprises…

The Firefly did not disappoint. Its titanium frame climbed well on the rough gravel road to the pass. The big tires floated over the very loose surfaces of our side trip up Iztacchihuatl volcano (photo above), where we would have been walking on our usual bikes.

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During the sinuous descent into the “Valley of Mexico”, the bike surprised with its incredible cornering grip (above). And during our night-time dash into Mexico City, I enjoyed the scintillating performance offered by truly great bikes, whether they are made from steel, carbon, titanium or aluminum.

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After that memorable adventure, I rode the Firefly in many different settings. I used it for interval training on the big avenidas of Mexico City.

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I took it to the limit on the loose gravel descents of the Cascade Range. We even tested its performance against the clock to see how much it gives up on pavement due to its ultra-wide tires. (The report is in the new issue of Bicycle Quarterly.)

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It came with me to Japan, where it went on a cyclotouring trip that included a visit to the Panaracer factory.

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In Tokyo, the bike drew an admiring comment from a pedestrian. Considering how reserved the Japanese usually are, that was high praise. I agreed with the stranger – I really like the way it looks. The proportions seem “just right”; the logos are tasteful; the craftsmanship is superb; the custom titanium stem and seatpost add a “constructeur” touch. It’s a beautiful bike.

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When the time came to send our test bike back to Firefly, I realized how much I would miss it. I don’t have my own Enduro Allroad bike with 50+mm-wide tires yet. More than that, I really like riding this bike. It’s not the first test bike I’ve been reluctant to return, but this one that fills a need in my “stable” that currently isn’t met.

Kevin from Firefly proposed a price, taking into consideration that the bike now is “used”, and that is how I now own my first titanium bike. It’s also my first bike with Campagnolo Ergopower and with disc brakes. I am quite excited about it.

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Most of my bikes use classic components that require almost zero maintenance. How will a modern 11-speed drivetrain fare on the challenging rides we enjoy? How will the disc brakes work out in the long run? And does titanium offer something that my steel bikes can’t match? We’ll find out soon!

I’ve already started to modify the bike. The White Industries bottom bracket was running roughly after just a few hundred miles, so it has been replaced with an SKF bottom bracket. I installed Compass René Herse cranks to save more than 100 grams and get the 48-32 chainrings that I want to use on the Firefly. I’ve set up the Compass Rat Trap Pass tires tubeless. But most of all, I’ve ridden the bike a lot. And now that it’s mine to keep, you’ll see more of it here and in the pages of Bicycle Quarterly.

Further reading:

Posted in Testing and Tech | 45 Comments