8 Checks to Get Your Bike Ready for the Season (and PBP)

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Whether you are going to ride a brevet with an eye on qualifying for Paris-Brest-Paris, whether you plan to ride a century or race, or whether you just want to enjoy exploring this season, having your bike in good condition is the best way to guarantee success. If you are confident in your bike, you can enjoy the ride without worrying whether you’ll make it to the finish. Here are 8 things to look at:

1. Clean your bike

It’s much more fun to work on a clean bike, so the first step should be to clean your bike thoroughly. This is a good opportunity to check for cracks. Components and frames don’t fail suddenly (unless you jump off a huge cliff), but cracks form and grow until there isn’t enough material left, and the part breaks. Finding a crack before it grows and breaks can prevent a crash. Check for cracks especially on the cranks and rims. On the frame, inspect the area around the bottom bracket and the rear dropouts.

Also check that fenders, racks, lights and other bolted-on parts are tight. This is best done by checking each bolt, but if you are in a rush, just give each part a firm wiggle.

Once your bike is clean and found to be generally sound, it’s time to inspect individual components.

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2. Tires

Are your tires worn? How do you check? The best way is to remove the tire and flex it with your hands. Is the center part of the tread thinner than the shoulders? Then your tire often shows a groove in the center when you flex it. Replace the tire now, rather than risk having multiple flats – or worse, a blowout – during your brevet. Cut the old tire in half, so you can see how much tread remained. If there is 1 mm of rubber or less (not including the casing) in the center of the tread, then it was high time to replace. If there is much more, you could have ridden the tire a bit longer. It’s good to know for next time.

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3. Brake Pads

Are your brake pads worn out? Modern pads often seem to be made entirely out of rubber, but in reality, there is a metal carrier embedded in the rubber. When that gets exposed, it will score and ruin your rim. Most pads have a “wear line” molded into them that show how far you can wear them down.

Also make sure the pads hit the rims squarely. Check the pad itself. If a ridge has worn into the pad either at the top or bottom (photo above), then it doesn’t hit the rim correctly. Remove it, file off the ridge, then reinstall it with the correct alignment. Poorly aligned pads can cause blowouts if they hit the tire (with sidepull and centerpull brakes) or they can dive underneath the rim, causing a complete loss of braking (with cantilever brakes).

4. Rims

The second part of your braking system are your rims. They abrade as you brake, and eventually, they get so thin that they can explode from the tire pressure. Many modern rims have wear indicators, either a groove or a dot that are machined into the sidewall. When these wear indicators disappear, it’s time to replace the rim. On rims without wear indicators, look whether the sidewalls have become concave. That shows you how much wear has occurred. Worse, if the sidewalls start splaying outward near the tire bead, they are so thin that the tire pressure forces them outward. Replace them immediately!

If you replace the rim with a similar model that uses the same spoke length, you can just swap the spokes from one rim to the next without completely rebuilding the wheel. (For detailed instructions, refer to the “How-to” article in Bicycle Quarterly No. 50.)

5. Cables

Check your brake cables: Pull on the brake levers and feel whether the action is smooth. If you feel grinding or extra friction, then the cable is probably fraying. Replace it now!

If you have downtube shift levers, you can see whether the cables are fraying – it usually happens where the cables wrap around the shift lever. If you have bar-end or brake/shift levers, you may just replace the cables as a precaution at the onset of the season. If the rear shifter cable breaks, you’ll be reduced to your largest gear – not much fun during a long ride.

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6. Wheels and Spokes

Are your wheels true? Spin them and look at the distance between rim and brake pad. It should remain constant within 2 mm. Also squeeze the spokes in pairs and see whether any are loose or broken. You can also twang the spokes like guitar strings. The pitch should be similar for all spokes on the same side of the wheel.

If the wheel isn’t true, or spokes are loose or broken, either fix it yourself or take it to a qualified wheel builder. If you have broken two or more spokes in one wheel, it’s a sign that all spokes are getting fatigued. Rebuild the wheel with new spokes now, rather than having to deal with more broken spokes during the season.

7. Bearings

Check whether your bearings are in good shape. Remove the wheels and feel whether the axles spin smoothly. On modern sealed bearings, some resistance is fine, but it should be smooth, without any catching or roughness as you turn the bearing. Try to rattle the axles – they should not have play.

Check the bottom bracket the same way after dropping the chain to the inside of the cranks, so it rests on the frame’s bottom bracket shell. For the headset, turn the handlebars 90°, lock the front brake, and rock the bike back and forth. You should not feel any play. (If you don’t turn the handlebars, you may feel play in the brake and mistakenly conclude your headset needs adjustment.) Don’t forget to check the pedal bearings by turning and wiggling the pedals.

Worn bearings won’t slow you down significantly, but they make riding the bike less pleasant. Eventually, they’ll pack up and stop turning altogether. And then your ride is over!

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8. Drivetrain

Make sure that all gears can be shifted smoothly. Check whether your chain has lengthened because the bushings have developed play. There are gauges that show how much your chain has “stretched”, but you can also measure it with a ruler:

Pull the rear derailleur rearward to tension the chain. Take a ruler and hold it against the lower chain run. Line up the 0 with a chain pin. The 12″ (1 foot) mark should line up with another pin. If it is more than 1/16″ off, the chain has worn and should be replaced. Unfortunately, it’s likely that your cassette cogs are worn out, too. If you have a big event coming up, test-ride your bike to make sure the new chain meshes smoothly with the old cogs. Pedal hard in each gear for a block or two. If the chain skips over the cog, the cassette is worn out and should be replaced.

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Now you know your bike is in good condition. Unless you ride huge distances, it shouldn’t require much maintenance during the season. Check the chain wear every thousand miles or so, keep an eye on the brake pads and tires, and you should be fine. That allows you to enjoy the cycling season confident that your trusted steed won’t let you down. Now it’s time to plan your rides!

What other pre-season checks do you perform on your bike?

Also in this series:

Posted in Cycling Safety, PBP Preparation | 1 Comment

The First Brevet of the Year

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Every year, the first brevet of the season sort of sneaks up on me. I’ve been enjoying bucolic rides with friends for the first months of the year, and then suddenly, the 200 km brevet is just a few days away. It serves as a reminder that if I want to be in shape this summer, my training now needs to be a bit more focused. The brevets are part of that training…

There are many different approaches to riding brevets. I enjoy challenging myself to see how fast I can complete the course, in the tradition of the French randonneurs of the mid-20th century. This means that for the first time this year, “the clock is ticking”.

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Seattle has had a very warm and dry winter. The day before the brevet, errands took me to the University of Washington, where the cherry trees were in full bloom. Any hopes for a warm and dry brevet were dashed by the weather forecast, which called for rain and more rain. Welcome back to Seattle weather!

Having to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris this year means it is not an option to stay home and wait out the rain. As it turned out, that was a good thing, since the brevet was great fun.

A 200 km brevet is both easy and hard. Easy, because pacing isn’t too difficult – I go pretty much all-out all the way. Hard, because, well, I am going pretty much all-out for close to 8 hours.

The “Escape from Seattle” 200 km of the Seattle International Randonneurs used a nice course that starts and finishes just a few kilometers from my house, making logistics easy. The course goes north through Seattle, where there is little traffic this early in the morning. Then we follow scenic backroads in a large loop before returning to Seattle from the east. The course intersperses short hills, where  we get to stretch our legs, with flat roads, where we can recover from the hills. It’s a perfect early-season ride.

The start is always exciting. I greet acquaintances whom I have not seen all winter, and I meet new riders. We sign in, sign the waiver, and get our brevet cards. I fold my route sheets in what I think is the best way. (I prefer folds to be at a control or during a long stretch of road without turns, so I don’t have to turn over the sheet in a rush.) It’s a beehive of activity, and anticipation is in the air. And then there are a few words from the organizer, Mark Roberts, and we are off.

Right after the start, I found myself riding next to Theo Roffe, inveterate randonneur as well as Compass Bicycles’ newest employee. We spun up the long incline to warm our legs. We did not plan to ride the entire way together, but fortunately that is how it turned out, since our speeds and riding styles were well-matched on that day. Rather than drafting behind each other, we rode a little offset to avoid the spray on the wet roads. When it got truly wet and windy, we rode side-by-side and chatted a bit.

We climbed up the many short rises as the course traversed the hilly terrain north of Seattle. We swooped down the steep downhills in the aero tuck. We enjoyed roads that we rarely ride, and we took turns navigating, since our cue sheets were folded differently. This meant that turning the cue sheet could wait until a straight stretch of road made turning the cue sheet possible without stopping.

We did not stop unless we needed to. A few times a year, going all-out is an exciting challenge and welcome change of pace. We did have time for photos, cafes or taco trucks, which is a different pace and mindset from the rides I usually do. It reminds me of what I enjoyed about racing, but without the competition. It’s like being in a breakaway without having to worry about the final sprint. It’s pure teamwork, and it’s exhilarating.

It was a very windy day. No trees were blown over, but fallen branches littered the roads in the forests. On the open stretches, the wind was an invisible wall. Riding into head- and cross-winds isn’t either of our strengths, so we struggled at times. After the last control in Carnation, we slowed down a bit to recover before climbing the last big hills on the way into Seattle.

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As we descended toward Lake Washington, the clouds parted, and we got a gorgeous view of downtown with the Olympic Mountains behind. That’s when we decided that we wanted to try and finish the ride in less than 8 hours. So there was no time to stop, but I still snapped a few photos while descending at 30 mph – hence the blurry “impressionist” quality of the shot.

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We had a flat tire (sharp, long shard of glass picked up on a highway shoulder), and we didn’t know whether we’d make our goal until we climbed one last rise to the house of organizer Mark Roberts’ house. And then we were done! Volunteers signed our brevet cards for the last time. After 7:48 hours, with no more than 10 minutes off the bike (including fixing the flat), the clock stopped ticking.

It had been an intense experience, and great fun. One of the volunteers took our photo seconds after we dismounted our bikes in organizer Mark Roberts’ leafy garden (above). It was nice to finish the ride in such a nice setting, rather than a parking lot or a noisy pub.

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My bike was leaning against the railing, none the worse for wear. Thanks to its generous fenders, it wasn’t even very dirty despite having been ridden at speed in the rain all day. Unlike its rider, it was ready to continue for another 200 kilometers, or even 1000.

For me, it was time to sit down, catch my breath, enjoy a drink and some chili, and chat with friends.

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Sam (left) and Steve (right) arrived shortly after us…

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… and so did Ryan (right; with Theo). It was nice to see them all riding strong, but most of all, we all enjoyed the ride. It’s only the start to the season, but it bodes well for PBP. We’ll have a lot of fun this year!

Posted in Rides | 35 Comments

The Golden Age Classic Edition

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Rizzoli USA recently re-released The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles as part of their “Classics” series. This series offers their most popular books in a slightly smaller, handy format at a very attractive price.

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Of course, I am excited that this book is considered a bestseller (at least among art and architecture books) and a classic. When I decided to write a book about what were then obscure French bikes and their riders, I never dreamed that names like “René Herse” and “Alex Singer” would become recognized by many cyclists, and that “decaleur” and “constructeur” would enter the lexicon of cycling terminology in the U.S.

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The story of the constructeurs is truly fascinating, and once we had found the 50 bikes that are featured in the book and photographed them, the book almost wrote itself. During the research, I met many amazing people and forged lasting friendships with cyclists for whom cycling was not just a pastime, but a way of life. They have inspired me, and I was honored to be accepted as one of them. Sadly, some of them no longer are with us – we just published Gilbert Bulté’s obituary. (He is on the back of the tandem in the photo above.)

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Making the book was a formidable adventure. First I traveled to France to scout the bicycles we were going to include. A few months later, photographer Jean-Pierre Pradères, his assistant Eric and I spent a month touring around France with a portable photo studio.

In one location, we photographed the bikes in the chapel of a medieval grange. In Avignon, we worked in a carport. There, we could only shoot at night, since strong sunlight of Provence would have messed up the white balance of the photos. I still wonder what the neighbors thought when ultra-bright flashbulbs were going off all night.

For me, the best part was to prepare each bike for photography. For an hour or two, I cleaned each of them, fixed minor problems, sometimes even replaced incorrect components that had been added or were missing. Getting so closely involved with the bikes made it easy to  decide which details we were going to photograph. And one generous family of collectors even let me ride all the ones that were rideable, including the 1920s Retrodirecte (below). I learned a lot about these bikes during this process.

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When Rizzoli came to us last year with the idea of a new edition, we used the opportunity to update the text based on information that has come to light in recent years. We’ve also re-edited the images, often starting with the original medium-format positives, to make these wonderful bikes even more brilliant and seductive.

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The new book is a little smaller than the other editions. Above is my own well-used first edition underneath the new book. The significantly better image quality makes up for the slightly smaller page size. I think the latest edition is the best one yet!

The new edition is now in stock, for $ 35.

Posted in books | 16 Comments

Employee Appreciation!

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Compass Bicycles Ltd. is a small company. What we may lack in size, we make up with passion. And we love our employees – they truly are outstanding!

Theo, shown above crossing a stream, is our new hire as Compass Bicycle’s general manager. Theo gets to field customer questions and comments. He makes sure the hundreds of products we sell actually are in stock, maintains our ordering system, etc. He also assembles the Compass brakes and builds René Herse cranks with the individual chainring sizes for our customers. Theo has been a randonneur for most of his adult life, and he is as familiar with our products as anybody. We’ve known him for years, and we are excited that he is working with us now!

clark

Clark has been the man who gets your orders filled, answers your subscription questions, and gets Bicycle Quarterly mailed out to all four corners of the earth. Every box of Compass components you receive, every envelope of back issues, every book, all have been carefully packed by him. Clark enjoys the goings-on at Compass Bicycles, but his passion is his boat. Perhaps even more than we look forward to a big ride, he looks forward to the fishing season out here on the Puget Sound.

There are many others who contribute to our success, whether it’s Stefan, our German engineer in Taiwan; Hahn, whose machine shop serves as our prototyping facility (and who builds Rossman bicycles); as well many subcontractors. On the Bicycle Quarterly team, there are proof readers, copy editors, color specialists and many more. They all take great pride in their work, and they are instrumental in everything we do.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Compass Tires: Standard vs. Extralight

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Compass tires are available in two versions: standard and extralight. What is the difference between the two?

The difference is in the casing. The standard casing is already quite light and supple, but for the Extralight, we worked with Panaracer to push the envelope further. These tires use a casing material that is also used on high-end tubular tires, and not usually available for clinchers. Here are the differences between the tires:

  • Comfort: The standard casing offers exceptional comfort, but the extra-supple Extralight is yet another step closer to “Tire Nirvana”.
  • Speed: While we haven’t tested these tires under controlled conditions, the Extralight appears even faster than the already-fast standard version.
  • Puncture resistance: Both versions use the same tread rubber and thickness, so the puncture resistance is comparable.
  • Sidewall cut resistance: If the Extralight casing has one drawback, it’s that the sidewalls may be easier to cut on sharp rocks. Even so, I rode the Oregon Outback 360-mile gravel ride on Extralights without a flat or any damage to the sidewalls.
  • Weight: The Extralight casing is significantly lighter. Depending on the tire model, the weight difference is 25-35 g (10-15%).
  • Cost: The Extralight costs more.
  • Color: Both models are available with tan sidewalls. Only the Extralight is available with black sidewalls.

So the Extralight is more comfortable, faster, lighter and available in more colors. The standard model is less expensive and less likely to suffer from sidewall cuts. Both offer the same puncture resistance.

I ride the Extralight on all my bikes, because I love their feel and comfort. If you are on a budget or ride on rocky trails a lot, the standard version may be a better choice.

Note that the narrow 700C versions (26 and 28 mm) are only available with Extralight casings. For the standard casing, we recommend the very similar Grand Bois Cerf in the same widths.

Click here for more information about Compass tires.

What about the photo? Hahn took it at the 2014 Washington State Championships, where a rider on Compass 28 mm tires took 3rd place in the (very competitive) 50+ age category. The good placing was due to his legs, but it’s nice to know that his tires didn’t hold him back.

Posted in Tires | 42 Comments

Spring 2015 Bicycle Quarterly

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The Spring 2015 Bicycle Quarterly picks up where the 50th issue left off: After reviewing the progress of “real-world” bicycle over the last decade, we are looking into the future. How can we improve our riding experience further?

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Could we fine-tune the tubing configuration of our 650B bikes to supercharge their performance and perhaps reduce their tendency to shimmy? We built a prototype and put it through its paces…

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Can a titanium mountain bike equal the performance of a good Allroad bike? Jeff Jones thinks so, and he sent us a test bike to prove it. To find out, we headed out into the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula for a mid-winter bikepacking trip. We saw wolf tracks… and realized that we had to rethink some of our assumptions about how bicycles work.

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How wide can you make supple tires and still end up with a high-performance bike? Asking that question, we came up with the idea of the Enduro Allroad Bike: a road bike with 26″ x 54 mm tires. How do tires this wide perform on gravel? And perhaps even more importantly, how do they perform on the road? During our testing, we were charting new territory, and inevitably, there were a few surprises.

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We’ve been fascinated with Rinko, the Japanese system of packing bikes for train travel. We like that a Rinko bike has no significant modifications like couplers or wire splitters that affect its performance or cost. Yet a complete randonneur bike – with fenders, rack and lights – disassembles in less than 15 minutes and fits into a relatively small bag, making it easy to carry. To find out more, we built our own Rinko bikes and headed to Japan to put them to the test.

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Of course, we didn’t just go to Japan to carry our bikes on its excellent trains. We went on a bicycle tour of Hokkaido, exploring Japan far from the hustle of the big cities. We followed this by an attempt at the Nihon Alps Super Randonnée 600 km ride. Never before have I descended passes like these, with over 150 turns on Shirabisu Pass (above). That ride was even more memorable because it happened during a full-moon night.

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Bicycle Quarterly‘s adventures can be leisurely, too. Tim Bird takes you on a wonderful midsummer ramble across the Yorkshire Dales, exploring the landscape and its history from the saddle of his bike.

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We also tested the Soma Wolverine for our “First Rides” (above), as well as Soma’s Cazadero multi-surface tires, and the revolutionary Velogical rim dynamo from Germany. We celebrate Jack Taylor’s life, show you how to do a track stand, and much, much more.

Click here for a full table of contents.

Click here for more information about Bicycle Quarterly or to subscribe.

 

 

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 41 Comments

Why not “Made in U.S.A.”?

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At Compass Bicycles, we think a lot about manufacturing. We know what we want to make, but how should we make it, and where? We are not looking for the lowest cost, but for the highest quality. The conditions under which our products are made are an important consideration as well.

There are a number of small companies who make bicycle components in the U.S., but they are often limited by the technology that is available to them. For example, CNC machines are relatively affordable and small. That is the reason why you see so many CNC-machined cranks and brakes, even though forging would make them lighter and stronger. (CNC machining is a good way to make other parts, like hubs and headsets.) CNC machining also is quite wasteful, as a lot of aluminum is turned into shavings.

In contrast, a forging hammer (photo above) is an investment that only one bicycle company has amortized on their own: Shimano is said to forge their own components. All others, including industry leaders like Campagnolo and SRAM, do not run their own forge.

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The U.S. bicycle industry never specialized in making high-end components. Schwinn’s famous operation in Chicago was a self-contained factory. Rolls and bars of steel went in on one side, complete bicycles came out on the other side. Yet when Schwinn needed derailleurs or other high-end parts, they imported them from Europe. There simply were no makers of derailleurs and aluminum cranks in the U.S., and even mighty Schwinn wasn’t big enough to make their own. Very few, if any, square-taper crank have ever been forged in the U.S.A. Basically, the technology does not exist here.

Where does the technology exist? Today, the answer usually is Taiwan, which has developed a diverse bicycle industry capable of high quality, along with acceptable work and environmental conditions. Our engineer in Taiwan lives within easy motorcycling distance of the companies involved in our crank project:

  • Forge: They forge the crank blanks.
  • Machine Shop 1: They machine the chainrings tabs, square tapers and pedal threads of the cranks.
  • Machine Shop 2: They make the chainrings.
  • Screw Maker: They make our custom crank and chainring bolts.
  • Laser Cutting Specialist: They make the pedal washers.

All these companies have experience with bicycle components. Supply paths are short, and oversight is easy. Our engineer can visit the factories while production is under way, which makes it easy to solve small problems that inevitably occur when things are being made. If we made one part in Chicago, another in Texas and a third in Connecticut, this would be very difficult. (The last part of our cranks, the custom boxes, are made in the U.S.)

The Taiwanese are also willing to work with small production runs. When we asked a German screw maker about crank bolts, they told us that the minimum order was 50,000. We would have a lifetime supply of crank bolts!

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The photo shows a freshly forged René Herse crank. Taiwanese workers earn good wages and work under decent conditions, comparable to North American workers. Taiwan’s environmental regulations are not as good as they could be, but they appear to be better than most countries outside Europe, Japan, and the U.S.

Many of us would like to see products made closer to home. We would like to support the economies of the places where we live. However, you need an infrastructure to make things.

Paul Krugman explained this in the New York Times: “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. This is familiar territory to students of economic geography: the advantages of industrial clusters — in which producers, specialized suppliers, and workers huddle together to their mutual benefit — have been a running theme since the 19th century.”

Unfortunately, we have been allowing these clusters to disappear all over the U.S. and Europe. In France, there was the cluster of bicycle component makers in Saint-Etienne: Manufrance, Automoto, Stronglight, Maxi-Car and dozens of other companies. Not a single one of them exists any longer!

Another cluster was Levallois-Perret in Paris with its hundreds of machine shops, chrome-platers, casters and other shops. They mostly served the automobile industry (Citroën, Delage, Hispano-Suiza, etc.), but also enabled the small constructeurs of bicycles (and the component maker TA) to do things that would have been difficult elsewhere.

These clusters no longer exist. Ernest Cuska of Cycles Alex Singer once told me how they used to have two chrome-platers within a block of the shop. Now they take their frames, racks and stems to a plater who is almost 100 miles away. TA obtains its forgings from Taiwan. So does Campagnolo. And so do we at Compass.

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When you consider that our cranks and brakes are assembled right here in Seattle, perhaps we should label them “Made in the U.S.” (Legally, they are made here from imported parts.) But we aren’t trying to obfuscate, so we say that they are made in Taiwan, since most of the essential parts come from there.

And where possible, we do make products in the U.S. Our taillights, our rack tabs, the leather washers for fender mounting, our alignment tools, and our tire wipers are made by local companies and craftspeople in the U.S. And of course, Bicycle Quarterly is printed right here in Seattle.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that to the best of our knowledge, no square taper crank had ever been forged in the U.S. There may have been some cranks made from U.S. forgings in the 1990s (see comments).

Posted in Rene Herse cranks, Testing and Tech | 86 Comments