Why We Choose Steel Bikes

At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve been testing quite a few titanium and carbon bikes lately, and even a bike made from bamboo. We really liked most of these bikes. And yet our own bikes continue to be made from steel. Why don’t we ride carbon or titanium (or bamboo) bikes?

We choose steel because this material allows us to build custom bikes that are dialed in to the nth degree. High-end steel bikes have benefited from decades of research and development. They now offer a performance that is difficult to equal with other materials. With performance, I don’t just mean speed – although the best steel bikes have no trouble keeping up with ti or carbon racers – but also handling, reliability and all-weather, all-road capability.

Steel tubing is available in many diameters and wall thicknesses, so it’s easy to fine-tune the ride quality and performance of our bikes. For example, my Mule (above) – intended for hauling heavier loads – has a stiffer main triangle than my René Herse (second from top), which is intended for speed first and foremost. With steel, it’s relatively easy to fine-tune the bike’s flex characteristics for optimum performance – what we call “planing”.

Steel is easy to shape. That means that it isn’t too difficult to bend the chainstays slightly, so they curve around wide tires. You can indent the stays to create even more clearance. And steel is stiffer for a given volume than all other materials, so slender tubes are sufficient: Steel chainstays need less of that valuable space between tire and cranks.

Steel is easy to machine, which helps when making dropouts, braze-ons and other parts. Pump pegs and braze-ons for centerpull brakes are readily available in steel. Making those parts out of titanium isn’t as easy as it sounds.

What about the weight and performance of the frame itself? Titanium, steel and aluminum all have the same stiffness-to-weight ratio. Titanium weighs half as much as steel and is half as stiff. For aluminum, it’s 1/3.

If you made frames from each material, with the same tubing diameters and the same stiffness, you’d get three frames that weigh the same. The titanium tubes would have walls that are twice as thick, the walls of the aluminum tubes would be three times as thick.

In the real world, titanium frames tend to be lighter than steel. They use larger-diameter tubes with thinner walls, which require less material to obtain the same stiffness. However, you can make the walls of a frame tube only so thin before the tube risks buckling, denting or cracking. That is the limit with steel – remember that for the same stiffness, a steel tube’s walls will be only half as thick as those of a titanium tube. If you wanted to make a steel frame that is as light as the best titanium frames, the tubing walls would get too thin. So you keep the tube diameter smaller, with the result that the frame weighs a little more.

The weight advantage of titanium frames is smaller than you might expect. Remember that the frame makes up only 20% of a bike’s weight. And once you factor in the rider’s weight, the weight advantage of a titanium bike practically disappears.

Carbon can be even lighter and stiffer. The down side of most carbon frames is that they are made in molds. If you want to change something, you have to make a new mold. That makes it almost impossible to fine-tune the ride characteristics to your preferences. Carbon also works best in uninterrupted shapes. That means it’s not so easy to install braze-ons for racks and other parts that feed significant point loads into the frame or fork. Carbon also tends to be more fragile. Where a metal tube may at worst dent in a fall, carbon often cracks.

For forks, steel and carbon are the only materials that are commonly used today. Most carbon forks are made in molds, so if you want a different geometry, you need a new (and expensive) mold. None of the carbon forks available today have enough offset for a low-trail bike. With steel, you just rake the fork blades a little further. That is why my titanium bike has a steel fork – I wanted to get a geometry optimized for wide tires. Every time I carve into a turn during a steep, twisty descent, I am glad about the precise handling this allows.

Steel also has a longer fatigue life than carbon, which means you can make smaller-diameter fork blades that flex and absorb shocks. If a carbon fork flexed as much as our Kaisei “TOEI Special” fork blades (above), the carbon layers soon would delaminate, and the fork would fail. To be durable, carbon forks have to be relatively stiff. That transmits more shocks to the handlebars, making the bike less pleasant to ride on rough roads.

What about the performance of a steel bike? We’ve tested our steel bikes against the best titanium and carbon bikes. We expected the steel bikes to be a little slower, but we were surprised: The best bikes’ performances were indistinguishable. (And quite a few titanium and carbon bikes actually were slower, because their flex characteristics didn’t work as well with our pedal strokes.)

One carbon bike was a tiny bit faster up a steep hill, because it was lighter. Once we equalized the weights of the bikes, their performance was the same. The extra weight of our bikes came mostly from the fenders, lights and rack. The frame tubes themselves don’t actually weigh that much. We added two full water bottles to the carbon bike, and it was as heavy as the steel bikes.

We aren’t the only ones who’ve rediscovered steel. I was surprised when I recently heard about Global Cycling Network’s new “dream bike”. The frame is made from steel, and they absolutely love it. Click on the video below to watch their first ride on the steel machine.

It’s important to remember that these steel bikes are true high-performance machines. They have little in common with most production steel bikes available today, which are mid-priced bikes that make little pretense to performance. Made from sturdy tubing, these bikes often are very stiff and don’t exhibit the “lively” feel that makes the best bikes perform so well.

Great bikes can be made from many materials. My titanium Firefly and my steel René Herse both feel remarkably similar in how they respond to my pedal strokes – and both are worlds apart from most steel production bikes.

The bikes we love and ride are handbuilt from ultra-thinwall tubing in carefully selected diameters and wall thicknesses. They incorporate things like dropouts with built-in connectors for the generator lighting. Their racks are custom-built for ultimate strength, stiffness and light weight. Their cranks have low tread (Q factor) for optimum pedaling efficiency, yet we can run wide tires. There is a lot that goes into making a great bike. When it comes to our most challenging adventures, we usually choose our steel bikes, because they are no-compromise machines designed to perform under all conditions that we may encounter on the “road”.

This isn’t to say that the other materials cannot be used to make great bikes. Some day, somebody will make a fully integrated “real-world” bike from titanium or carbon, maybe even bamboo. It’ll match the performance of our steel bikes, but it won’t do anything significantly better. It’ll be cool because it’s different. If it’s made from titanium, it won’t dent as easily as our steel bikes. If it’s made from carbon, you can bring an extra water bottle without a weight penalty. Such a bike will probably cost significantly more than our steel bikes (which aren’t cheap by any means!). I really look forward to riding that bike when it becomes available, but I doubt it’ll start a revolution that makes our steel bikes obsolete.

The biggest problem with steel bikes is that the truly great ones aren’t easily available. You have to order one from a custom builder. That is a bit more difficult than going to a bike shop and picking up a bike. But for us, it’s worth the effort, because a custom bike offers things you cannot get with a production bike. Your bike will be exactly as you want it – with features that no production bike offers. And since you are buying it directly from the maker, it’s surprisingly affordable for something that is truly handcrafted to the highest specifications.

Compass offers custom builders a variety of framebuilding parts, like fork crowns, braze-ons, and – soon – a bottom bracket shell specially designed for wide tires (prototypes shown above). We are also adding high-quality frame tubing to our selection. Fewer makers offer frame tubing for bicycles these days, because demand for steel bikes is not as high as it once was.

One place where steel bicycles are still made in large numbers is Japan. Japan’s more than 2000 Keirin racers ride steel bikes, and that creates a significant demand. Many of these bikes are made from Kaisei tubing, which is chosen for its excellent quality. Keirin racers are not allowed to change bikes during a weekend of racing. If their frame breaks, they are out of the races. And since they live off prize and starting money, that is something to be avoided at all costs. So everything about their bikes has to be absolutely top quality.

In the past, Kaisei tubing was difficult to get outside Japan, and the tube lengths were optimized for smaller frames built for Japanese racers (who tend to be less tall than many westerners.) That is why you may never have heard of Kaisei despite its excellent track record. My Urban Bike (above) is made from Kaisei tubing, and it’s held up great over a decade of really hard service.

Starting this summer, Compass Cycles will distribute Kaisei tubing. When we visited their factory (above their tube butting machine), we were really impressed with the quality of their tubing. We have worked with Kaisei to offer tubes with longer unbutted center sections that are designed for larger frames, in addition to their existing tubes. We will offer a large selection of Kaisei tubing in standard and oversize diameters, with ultra-thin walls (0.7-0.4-0.7 mm) that we use on our own steel bikes.

We’ve found that when you want the very best performance in every way, a custom steel bike is hard to beat. Our goal is to provide what your builder needs to make one of these exceptional bikes for you!

Click here to find out more about Compass framebuilding supplies.

Posted in A Journey of Discovery, Framebuilding supplies | 10 Comments

Summer 2017 Bicycle Quarterly

The new Bicycle Quarterly is at the printer. It’s our biggest issue yet – well over 100 pages filled with exciting adventures. Here are a few of them:

Renowned framebuilder and constructeur Peter Weigle joins us on a trip to Japan. Read his experiences with Rinko-ing his bike, riding the incredible Japanese mountain roads, and visiting the great constructeurs Toei and C.S. Hirose. Peter sees Japan with new eyes, and his impressions make a fascinating read. As a bonus, we test the amazing bike that Peter built for his trip to Japan.

Cyclotouring and the Tour de France share a common history – cyclotourists inspired the great race to head into the mountains for the first time. We retrace that history during a tour in the Cevennes mountains of southern France, while the Tour races in the valley below.

While in France, we visited Gilles Berthoud to see how modern technology and traditional craftsmanship are combined to make some of the finest saddles and bags in the world.

Our test bike is a bit unusual: a gravel bike made from Bamboo. We took the Boo on an adventurous ride into the unknown. How does it perform on the most challenging roads the Cascade Mountains can offer?

We’ve had our Specialized Diverge long-term test bike for two years now. What is it like to live with a modern, high-end, production bike on a daily basis? Did the lure of the “carbon race bike for the real world” endure? How did the superlight parts perform in the long run?

These are just a few of the features you’ll read in the Summer 2017 Bicycle Quarterly. Subscribe today to get your copy without delay.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 2 Comments

Compass Tires Back in Stock

The container with Compass tires has arrived, and all sizes are now available again. We thank you for your patience as we continue to work hard to keep all our products in stock. Enjoy the little video of our Elk Pass 26″ x 1.25″ Extralight tires in action!

Click here for more information about our tires.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Tires Have Landed – Pre-Order Now!

We try to keep our products in stock. For us, bicycles are necessities, and their parts should be available at all times. So we are really sorry that some of our tires have been out of stock. We simply hadn’t planned on demand in Europe taking off as it has. And making tires by hand takes time, so we couldn’t just ask Panaracer in Japan to make more at the drop of a hat. Fortunately, our most popular sizes have been in stock all along.

We are glad to report that the NYK Nebula that carries the container with our latest tire shipment from Japan has docked in Tacoma. After unloading and customs’ clearance, the shipment will arrive at the Compass warehouse next week. Then, Compass tires will be in stock again in all sizes, including the new tubeless-compatible Barlow Pass 700C x 38 mm.

Many customers have asked to be alerted when the tires arrive. We are now taking pre-orders, so that you can be among the very first to get your tires. Your credit card will be charged now, and your order will be shipped as soon as the tires arrive. At that time, you’ll receive a shipping confirmation, so you know your tires are on the way.

Or you can just wait until the tires are in our warehouse. We’ll make another announcement then.

Click here to order your Compass tires.

Posted in Uncategorized | 22 Comments

Paul Components Interview

7 Questions with Jan Heine, of Bicycle Quarterly

We always enjoy to learn how others see Compass Cycles and Bicycle Quarterly. Paul Component Engineering has been making CNC-machined bike components in Chico, California for over 25 years. Like Compass, Paul focuses on quality, craftsmanship and making parts that last a lifetime.

Paul’s monthly email newsletters show how their components are made, provide stories of rides and events, and interview leaders in the bike industry. Past interviews have included Steve Rex, Curt Inglis, Mark Norstad (Paragon Machine Works), Ira Ryan and others. When Paul Components asked to interview me, I was delighted to say yes. Some of the questions were quite unexpected. Here is the interview as it appeared in the Paul Components newsletter. Enjoy!

Paul has been a fan of Jan’s for a long time, especially after discovering a shared interest in vintage sports cars and, of course, vintage bikes.

Bicycle Quarterly has great photography, it’s never dumbed down, and that’s one of the main reasons people like Paul love it – because it’s smart.

Because Jan gives scientific explanations as to why something works or doesn’t work. It’s a slightly more serious, more technical publication, a niche much appreciated and needed. You learn things from reading Jan.

So we want to learn a few things about him:

1. Your original magazine was Vintage Bicycle Quarterly – Where did the idea come from for starting that magazine?

I wrote for a bunch of other magazines back then as a hobby – Bicycle Trader, On The Wheel, Rivendell Reader. One by one, they stopped publishing, but I had all those amazing stories about French cyclotourists, builders and their bikes. I wanted to share them, so I decided to put together a little newsletter for a few friends. Grant Petersen published a note underneath my article in his Reader, and I had 150 subscribers before I even had put the first word to paper. I realized that a xeroxed newsletter wouldn’t do, so I took the plunge and made a real magazine. Over the last 15 years, it has grown steadily from there – we now have more than 15,000 readers all over the world.

2. One of your biggest campaigns was that skinny, high pressure tires don’t roll any faster than a fatter low pressure tires. How does it feel to be vindicated on this?

It feels good that so many people enjoy their rides more, because they don’t have to choose between comfort and performance any longer. The latest “Allroad” bikes we test for Bicycle Quarterly are so much fun to ride, because they can go on any road – paved, gravel and even single-track – without giving up anything in speed to a classic racing bike with narrow tires. This has changed how we ride, and it’s gratifying to share this experience with cyclists all over the world.

3. Tell us a little about the progression from writing about bikes to actually producing and selling products? What inspired you to take that leap?

It’s easy to be a critic, much harder to do things better. I love riding bikes, so instead of bemoaning that the parts I wanted to use weren’t available, I decided to make them – starting with supple high-performance tires in useful widths, and continuing with handlebars, cranks, racks and other parts. Each product we sell or import starts with our own riding experience, where we ask: “Wouldn’t it be neat if we had a part like this?” And then we make prototypes, test them, modify them, and finally OK a new component for production.

4. Did you come from a publishing background and then acquire the business acumen later or was it the other way around?

Actually, I came from a science background. For my Ph.D., I studied climate change on a fellowship from NASA. And I have always loved riding bikes. So it was natural to do real scientific studies of how to make better bikes for the type of riding I love. I really don’t know much about business. Compass just makes the parts that we need for our own adventures, and we hope that others want them as well. We make them to the highest quality possible, rather than to a pre-determined price. That is our entire business plan, and so far, it’s worked out OK.

I also know very little about publishing, so I started a magazine that is financed by subscribers rather than advertisers. Everybody says that is the wrong way around, but it is liberating not to worry about advertisers when writing articles or doing research. We did our first tire tests during the Lance Armstrong years. I doubt a mainstream magazine could have asked the question whether wider tires roll as fast as narrow ones, when the bike industry was pushing narrow-tire racing bikes.

5. Where did your love of vintage bikes come from and was it a tough move to move into more contemporary bikes?

I love riding bikes. That is really what has inspired all my work. I love the stories and photos of riders on lonesome gravel roads high in the mountains more than vintage bikes that you also see in these photos. Even our best-selling book about the French constructeurs – The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles – is really about the stories that these bikes tell, and not so much about the bikes and their components.

These stories have inspired us to seek out old gravel roads in the Cascades, and we’ve found that sometimes, classic components work better for this type of riding than new ones. That is how I came to discuss centerpull brakes with Paul, which led to the development of the Paul Racer… Or we discovered that certain classic handlebar shapes work much better for long rides, so Compass offers them again.

Now that modern bikes once again are suitable for the type of riding I love, it’s natural that you see them in Bicycle Quarterly more. It’s not about modern or classic – what I want is a bike that beckons me to seek out little mountain roads that lead into adventure.

6. You’re a lover of vintage sports cars – have you worked in that field at all? Do you currently restore old cars or have other project on the burner in that area?

My love for cars is almost entirely platonic. I admire the beauty and creative engineering solutions of many great old cars. A friend is restoring an amazing 1940s Cisitalia that is made from bicycle tubes – the first car with a spaceframe, which revolutionized race car construction. I have a similar appreciation for steam locomotives, but owning one of those would be even less practical than owning a classic car. For photoshoots and book projects, I do get to work on classic bikes. I love the machines made by the great French constructeurs: René Herse, Alex Singer, Jo Routens, Daudon. They have taught me a lot about bicycles, and especially that the current way of doing things may not always be the best!

7. On a scale of 1-10, how afraid of the dark are you?

Zero. I love the dark. I love riding my bike across the mountains during full moon nights. Sometimes, I turn off my headlight and ride by the moonlight alone. I am a great fan of the night-time photography of Ansel Adams, Winston Link and Jim Shaughnessy (the latter two photographed steam railroads).

Further reading:

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Better Headset Spacers

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Spacers with a flat surface on the inner diameter can help prevent your headset from loosening. Just to clarify: If your headset stays put as it is, then don’t change it! It’s just that my headsets kept loosening on two different bikes, and so I was looking for a solution.

Classic headsets use a locknut at the top to maintain the headset’s adjustment. It’s essential to prevent the upper headset cup and locknut from turning together, as this would loosen the headset. A keyed washer between the top cup and nut stops that rotation – in theory. In practice, this system does not always work: The keyed washer tends to turn anyhow, because the key is too small. And you cannot make it bigger without weakening the steerer tube.

When the washer is made from steel, it can mess up your steerer tube’s threads if it turns (very bad). With an aluminum washer, the steerer tube simply cuts new threads as the washer turns (not good). In both cases, the key is not sufficient to stop the washer from rotating.

spacer_installed

The solution is simple: Use a flat surface on the steerer tube, and a matching flat surface on the spacer, to provide more material area than a narrow key. French bikes (and some British ones) used that system, and it worked better. The headset cup doesn’t turn with enough force to cut threads into all that aluminum.

Compass made the spacer taller than a simple washer, which provides even more material to resist the turning torque. And since the spacer is so effective in preventing the system from rotating, it’s not necessary to tighten the headset locknut with force. A little more than finger-tight is sufficient to keep it from loosening. You can use a single headset wrench: Tighten the top headset cup first, insert the spacer, then (lightly) tighten the locknut. Don’t overtighten the locknut, otherwise, the spacer can jam.

flat_steerer

It’s easy to retrofit your bike with this system: Machine or file a flat on the back of the steerer tube that matches the inside of the spacer. This doesn’t weaken the fork: You only remove the raised portion of the thread, which didn’t add any strength to the steerer.

complete_headset

I’ve used prototypes of these spacers on my Mule for thousands of miles and dozens of Rinko disassemblies. They have performed great, and they’ve solved the loosening of the headset on this bike.

2spacers

We now offer the spacers in 5 mm and 10 mm thickness. If you need an in-between thickness, just add standard headset washers (without tabs) to make up the difference. Or cut a few millimeters off your steerer tube to match the spacer, as I did on my Mule.

Click here for more information or to order these spacers. As I said before, if your headset works fine, don’t change it. But if it keeps coming loose, this may be the solution.

Posted in Stems | 31 Comments

Using Handlebar Bags on Modern Bikepacking Bikes

Bikepacking is popular because it allows you to go places where bikes with panniers face difficulties. Bikepacking bags are inside the outline of the bike, so you can go anywhere an “empty” bike can go. Pushing the bike is easier, too, when there are no bags hanging off the sides.

The only problem with bikepacking bags is that their carrying capacity is limited. Frame bags must fit between your legs, making them very narrow. Top tube bags are even smaller, plus they can get in the way of your knees when you rock the bike while riding out of the saddle. Large saddlebags hold a bit more, but they can give the bike that dreaded “tail wagging the dog” feel.

That is why more and more riders adopt handlebar bags as part of their bikepacking luggage. Handlebar bags fit inside the handlebars, so they don’t encumber the bike in rough terrain. Shaped like a cube, they offer an excellent volume-to-weight ratio. Putting the load on the front helps keep the front wheel on the ground during steep climbs, yet the wheels are easy to lift across logs and other obstacles on the trail.

Handlebar bags have one drawback: They work best when supported by a small front rack. How do you fit a rack on a modern bike?

The Compass UD-1 rack was specifically designed for this purpose. (UD stands for “Universal/Disc”.) The rack is adjustable to make it compatible with many bikes. It is available with two lengths of struts, depending on where the braze-ons are located on your fork. The extra-long struts work even with eyelets on the front dropouts. The rack is lightweight, yet strong enough to support a large handlebar bag.

I recently mounted a UD-1 rack on Bicycle Quarterly‘s Specialized Sequoia test bike. Installation was easy: I used the standard-length struts. After mounting the rack, I marked where the struts extended above the rack platform, then removed the struts to cut them to length. With a file, I rounded the ends of the struts. After mounting the struts again, the bike was ready to roll.

The UD-1 rack’s simplicity is key to its strength and light weight. The platform is made from ultra-strong and lightweight CrMo, while the aluminum struts are easy to shorten to the required length. The rack platform sits level above the front wheel, and it incorporates a mounting point for a front fender.

Key to the rack’s elegance is the strut attachment on the inside of the platform, rather than on the outside as on many other racks. Compared to the other Compass racks, we widened the platform to make it all come together functionally and aesthetically.

The crown of the Sequoia’s carbon fork has a countersunk hole, so I used a brake nut (above) to attach the rack. That provides a very clean look, as the nut is recessed into the fork. For the Sequoia’s large fork crown, I used an extra-long nut (not shown).

With the rack installed, the Sequoia became much more versatile. With a handlebar bag, I finally could carry the gear I needed for my rides with ease. And I found that the Sequoia’s high-trail geometry tolerates a front load well.

The next step to make the bike even more enjoyable would be installing the Compass light mount, a headlight and a generator hub. Then I could enjoy the bike even after the sun goes down.

The UD-1 rack is a great solution for bikes with disc or cantilever brakes that aren’t specifically designed for rack mounting. As long as you have eyelets on the fork blades or on the dropouts, and a hole in the fork crown, you should be able to mount this rack. And yet it’s not a compromise solution: It offers performance, durability and beauty similar to other Compass racks.

Click here for more information about Compass racks.

Posted in Racks/Bags | 45 Comments