Why Only Black Tread?

Autumn means colder temperatures and rainy weather, here in the Cascade Mountains and in many parts of the world. More than ever, the grip of our tires is on our minds. Why do all Rene Herse tires have black tread? Colorful treads can look nice, but black rubber offers the best grip.

That is one reason why all car tires today are black. In the early days of motoring, tires were made from natural rubber, which is white or gray. (That is why the famous Michelin man is white…) By the 1910s, it was becoming apparent that white rubber didn’t last well, and tire makers discovered that adding carbon black to the rubber made it last much longer. As a positive side effect, it increased the tire’s grip, too – and it made the tires black. Even today, you can get car tires in many colors, but they are considered a novelty and not intended for daily use, much less for performance driving.

It may come as a surprise that the color of rubber and plastic affects many other properties, too. For example, gray resins are stronger than black or colored varieties. That is why the frames of Berthoud saddles are gray. With rubber, blue appears to be the least durable – which is why the blue hoods for old Mafac brake levers are almost unfindable today. And red backpacks fade far more quickly than other colors…

The reason is simple: Colors are additives, and often, surprisingly large amounts of the colorants are needed to create the color. This often changes the physical properties of the raw material. The black color of tires works the opposite way: Carbon black is an additive chosen for its performance-enhancing properties, and it just happened to change the color to black.

Before we made our Rene Herse tires, we rode tires from many makers. When I was racing in the 1990s, Vittoria introduced their ‘Professional All Weather’ model with softer green rubber on the shoulders. This was supposed to be grippier when leaning the bike into wet corners. It seemed like the perfect tire for Seattle’s infamous rainy season.

We tried the ‘All Weathers,’ and immediately scared ourselves: They seemed to grip fine at first, while we were still riding on the black center tread. Leaning further, grip was lost very suddenly as we transitioned to the green rubber. Then TOUR magazine did one of their famous tire tests. They measured tire grip on wet roads and confirmed that the ‘All Weather’ was less grippy than Vittoria’s standard, all-black tires! We never found out what the Italians were thinking when they developed these tires. I recall a big marketing push with all kinds of colors around that time, but it didn’t last long. Today, all Vittoria tires have black tread again.

Later, we imported the first supple, wide 650B tires from Japan. Made to resemble classic French rubber, the first model was available only in red and white. We loved the supple casings, but we found that in the wet, the white version was noticeably lacking in traction. Riding the red model, we also felt the grip bleed away earlier than we expected. We requested a special run of tires with black tread, and those gripped much better.

Of course, black tread alone isn’t a guarantee for excellent traction. I recall one tire from a small company that would spin when accelerating from a stop on cold, wet (but clean) pavement. Clearly, not all rubber is made equal.

When we first talked to the engineers at the tire factory in Japan about the tires we wanted to make, they showed us many beautiful colors. There was a very attractive tea green… When we asked about the performance, the engineers left no doubt: “Black has the best grip.” What about the colored treads? “It’s all about fashion. It allows small companies to offer tires that are different from the mainstream.”

There is nothing wrong with fashion, but for us, performance is more important. On the steep, twisty descents of the Cascade Mountains, we need tires that grip. And fortunately, Panaracer’s top-level tread rubber is among the grippiest you’ll find anywhere.

Of course, there is much more to making a tire grip than just the tread compound. Our herringbone tread pattern has many ribs that interlock with the road surface. When we tested the herringbone tread back-to-back with slick tires, the difference was very noticeable. A supple casing also grips better because it keeps its tread in contact with the road surface. A stiffer tire will bounce more and have less traction. For our Rene Herse tires, we’ve optimized all these parameters to offer you tires with more grip than just about any other tire – on dry and wet roads.

Even with the best tires, riding in Autumn and Winter requires extra caution. There are many factors that decrease traction when it’s wet and/or cold:

  • Cold rubber is less grippy – your traction is reduced when the temperature drops. This is quite significant, especially once the temperature drops below 10°C (50°F).
  • On wet roads, tread patterns that interlock with the road surface offer the greatest benefits. With the right tires, you can lean quite far into corners (top photo) – if the asphalt is clean.
  • After the first rain, the water mixes with dust, oil and other airborne pollution to form a very slippery surface layer. Use extreme caution when it hasn’t rained in a long time.
  • Your tires stay wet for a while after you ride through water. Remember this when you cross a wet patch on the road: Your tires may still be wet in the next corner, even if the road surface there is dry.
  • Painted traffic markings on the asphalt can be very slippery in the wet. Metal surfaces – grates, manhole covers, railroad tracks, plates covering trenches at construction sites – are even worse. Avoid them if you can. If you must ride over them, straighten your bike before you reach them, so you aren’t leaning while you are on the slippery surface.
  • Scan the road for shiny oil that has dripped from cars with leaky crankcases.
  • Tire sealants that use latex – which means most brands – won’t seal when it’s cold. (Latex doesn’t cure well when it’s colder than 10°C/50°F.)
  • Snow and ice require special considerations.

We enjoy riding our bikes year-round, so we’ve developed components that perform well in wet and cold conditions, not just when it’s dry and warm. With the right equipment and skills, riding in all weather can be safe and enjoyable.

Further reading:

P.S.: I apologize for re-using the same opening photo. There aren’t many that show us cornering hard in the rain – when it’s wet and cold, we prefer keep going to stay warm, rather than stop for photos!

Posted in Tires | 40 Comments

The Biggest Bicycle Quarterly Ever

When we started putting together the Autumn Bicycle Quarterly, we realized that, for each article, we had more material than planned – longer stories, more photos, and new angles.

Usually, we test two bikes, but for this edition, we had the chance to ride five: two OPEN all-road bikes, plus the Trek Checkpoint in three different versions. We figured our readers would be interesting in Natsuko’s comparison between the men’s and women’s Checkpoints – especially since she preferred the men’s bike!

The two OPENs push the idea of the gravel bike to its outer limits: The U.P.P.E.R. is as light as most carbon racing bikes, while the WI.DE. rolls on tires as big as most mountain bikes. They made for a fascinating comparison, inviting us to look at it from different angles – and have three riders give their opinion on the bikes. The result is a whopping 26-page article. When I presented the story to Natsuko, BQ’s editor, I pointed out that this was just 13 pages per bike…

We had planned a story on this year’s Paris-Brest-Paris that focused on the ride itself. When the first photos of the Rene Herse team’s bikes leaked out on social media, people asked so many questions that we decided to do a bike feature, too. We quickly scheduled a studio photoshoot with Nicolas Joly that shows all three bikes in great detail.

Then Natsuko, who had followed PBP from Paris, shared her observations with us. “Did you know that all riders slow down after 30 hours?” she asked. We realized that by following more than 30 friends on the PBP tracking app, she got a unique insight into the ride. What she found surprised even those of us who had ridden PBP several times, so we persuaded her to write an article, too.

I’d been looking forward to interviewing Ted King. Casually talking to him, I appreciated his insights on what it’s like to race as a professional in Europe – and his ultra-positive, yet honest, attitude about the experience. Just as fascinating was how he got involved in gravel racing. Ansel Dickey contributed his stunning photos of gravel races in Kansas and Iceland. Squeezing all this wonderful content into the four pages allocated for this article would have been a shame.

The same thing happened when we visited Cherubim, the iconic Japanese framebuilder.  We got to see so many cool fixtures and tools… even a pantographing machine for engraving logos on components, lugs and other parts. We talked with Shin-ichi Konno, the owner of Cherubim, on what makes a great bike. He told us about matching the frame stiffness to the rider. He explained that this is especially important for Keirin racers, whose livelihoods depend on the performance of their bikes, and he finished the interview by stating: “A lifetime is not enough to learn everything there is about making bicycle frames.”

As a bonus, we got to photograph a frame Cherubim made for the most-winning racer in Keirin history. It pushes the art of framebuilding (and painting and chrome-plating) to rarely seen heights. Of course, we had to include all that content!

Where could we find space for all this content? We didn’t want to shorten Christopher Shand’s wonderful story of riding from France to Istanbul…

…nor take out our Project, Skill and Icon features, nor our technical article about how hookless rim and tubeless tire installation affect the safe pressure of your tires. At this point, it became clear: This would be our biggest edition ever – with no fewer than 128 pages.

Usually, when a magazine publishes a ‘biggest-ever,’ it’s to drive up newsstand sales. Additional advertisers are recruited to pay for the extra content (and benefit from the increased sales), an extra-splashy cover is designed, and an ad campaign runs just ahead of the release date.

Here at Bicycle Quarterly, newsstand sales and ads are not a big source of revenue. BQ is financed by our subscribers. When we decided to increase the page count, the most important question was: “Will the bigger magazine fit in the envelopes we use for our mailings?” A quick check confirmed that it would (barely), so we decided to go ahead. The extra cost of printing and mailing will be offset if more readers are tempted by all this great content. If you are a reader who has enjoyed this edition, please tell your friends! And if you’ve been thinking about subscribing to BQ, now is a great time to give it a try!

Click here to start your Bicycle Quarterly subscription with our biggest-ever edition.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 24 Comments

Tool Kit for Paris-Brest-Paris

Before I started the 750-mile (1200 km) Paris-Brest-Paris on a brand-new bike, I thought about the tools I needed to bring. After months of training and the expense of traveling to France, it would be a shame not to finish the ride because of a mechanical.

I love the feel of a lightweight bike. My new Rene Herse weighs just 10.3 kg (22.7 lb.) fully equipped with fenders, lights, racks and even the pump. I didn’t want to carry unnecessary weight. But I also know that a few grams wouldn’t make a significant difference in my PBP time, and not being able to fix a problem could end my ride.

How to decide which tools to bring? I realized that bike-related mishaps fall into three categories:

1. Avoidable Problems

Most problems can be avoided through careful design and good workmanship. Rather than fix problems, I prefer to make sure that they won’t happen in the first place. This is especially important for issues that will stop my ride because they are impossible to fix on the road – things like broken frames and failures of major components.

The components of my new bike use quality materials, good design and careful workmanship. Most have been tested thoroughly, both in the lab and during 100,000s of miles on the road. Even the prototype rear derailleur has covered thousands of miles during 1.5 years of testing. I was confident that all the parts of my bike were unlikely to fail.

Bolts coming loose also fall into this category. The attachments for fenders, rack and other parts on my new bike are based on decades of experience. Bolts are dimensioned correctly and made out of appropriate materials: Steel where strength is paramount; titanium where bolts are large because they need to hold big parts (like brake pad posts and water bottle cages); aluminum in one rare instance where the bolts just hold the rear bake arms in place. All these bolts are unlikely to cause trouble.

Careful assembly is equally important. I used beeswax on most screws, which first lubricates the threads – important to get the tightening torque right – and then hardens to act as a thread-locking compound. (Crank bolts are lubricated with grease due to their high torque and large size.) There is no Loctite anywhere on the bike, because it’s not needed with good design.

2. Wear and Tear

Most parts will fail eventually. For a ride as important as Paris-Brest-Paris, it makes sense to replace those that are easy to replace: tires, tubes and cables. With a new bike, these were not going to be an issue. Otherwise, I’d have replaced them before heading to France. On a bike that has seen a lot of use, I’d also check rims (or brake rotors) for wear, as well as brake pads.

Spokes on well-built wheels last 10,000s of miles – longer with wide tires, since they cushion the loads that reach the wheels – but eventually, they will fatigue and break. It was nice to have a fresh set of wheels for the ride. Otherwise, I would have carried a spare spoke and nipple, plus a spoke wrench.

3. Inevitables

Some problems are difficult to eliminate, but easy to fix. These are the only problems that I was prepared to fix on the road.

Flat tires fall into this category. They are not likely on the clean backroads of France: In six PBP, I’ve had just two flat tires. Both occurred during the same rainy 2007 ride, when I used part-worn tires in an attempt to gain speed, before we developed the Extralight casings. Still, no matter how few flats we get – whether it’s a flat every 3,600 km on my Rene Herse Extralights or every 10,000 km on ultra-tough, puncture-resistant tires, we need to be prepared for a flat tire.

I carried two spare tubes, not because that is the most flats I ever got in a single PBP, but because there is always a possibility of double pinch flats: Most roads in PBP are smooth, but there can always be construction sites, small curbs… I also carried a piece of tire casing as a tire boot. At night, I might run over something big and sharp that could cut my tire. I haven’t cut a tire in more than a decade, but I know it can happen. (An energy bar wrapper works as a tire boot in a pinch, but a dollar bill doesn’t.) My bike carries a pump on the seatstay, so I didn’t need to include one in my toolkit.

There was one other concern: On my new bike, the saddle height might need fine-tuning. For that, I would need a 5 mm wrench. And since I have a 4/5 mm combined wrench, I brought it. That way, I could adjust a fender stay if it got bent in a fall.

On bikes with narrow chains and integrated shift levers, chains can break. If my bike had that type of drivetrain, I might bring a lightweight chain tool. On my ‘manual’ bikes, I feel the gears engage, and I’ve never broken a chain.

During the 56+ hours on the road, I didn’t need any of my tools. My trouble-free bike brought me peace of mind. I was free to concentrate on pedaling well. My control stops were focused on getting food and rest, rather than messing with my bike. It made for an uneventful PBP, and that was a good thing.

What tools do you bring on long rides?

Posted in Testing and Tech | 59 Comments

Video: Open WI.DE. vs U.P.P.E.R.

For the Autumn Bicycle Quarterly, we tested two amazing OPEN all-road bikes. The brand-new WI.DE. can run 60 mm-wide tires – wider than many mountain bikes. The ultralight U.P.P.E.R. is a true racing machine – and yet it handles even rough trails with confidence.

Which would you prefer? Enjoy the video of these bikes in action, then read the full story in the Autumn Bicycle Quarterly.

Subscribe today to get your copy of the 128-page Autumn BQ!

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 4 Comments

Gravel Before It Was a ‘Category’

I’ve been wanting to thank Bicycle Retailer and Industry News for the nice article about Rene Herse on the front cover of a recent edition. It’s not often that the media talks about the contributions of small companies, especially those without a big ad budget. BRAIN’s Steve Frothingham wrote that Rene Herse “has nurtured the [gravel] category’s growth since before it was a category.”

Steve and I met when he reported about an industry meeting, where tire and rim makers discussed new standards to address new, wider tires and rims, as well as tubeless technologies. The article about that meeting also made the front page. It shows how far we’ve come in the 13 years since Bicycle Quarterly coined the term ‘all-road bike.’ Back then, high-performance drop-bar bikes with wide tires simply didn’t exist, and we knew that without a good name, our ideas would never gain traction. Now the industry (finally) is creating new standards for these bikes!

We’re excited that what used to be a ‘niche’ is now enjoyed by so many cyclists: Rides that combine paved backroads and gravel trails, far from traffic and fully immersed in the experience. It’s a great time to be a cyclist!

Click here to read the full article on BRAIN’s web site.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Rene Herse Fenders in Black

In the northern hemisphere, we are moving into the season where we need good fenders: They can make the difference between enjoying the ride and enduring it. The Pacific Northwest, where we live and ride, is known for its long rainy season. We cycle year-round, so it’s natural that we obsess about fenders.

We’re excited to offer our all our Rene Herse fenders in black: smooth, fluted and hammered, in 700C, 650B and 26″ sizes. In the past, black fenders were prone to scratching. The silver aluminum showed through the paint, making the fenders unsightly. Now Honjo, who makes our Rene Herse fenders, has improved the manufacturing process: The black coating is much more durable. We had been waiting for this, and now we offer all our fenders models in black as well as the classic polished aluminum.

The photos show prototypes on the bikes of our Paris-Brest-Paris team. They still were equipped with silver stays, but now we have black stays in stock to match the fenders.

With the right fenders, riding in the rain can be fun. Once you eliminate the spray from the road, you realize: There isn’t that much water falling from the sky. It’s the deluge spraying up from the road onto your feet, legs and backside that can make cycling in the rain so miserable. Your backside is easy to protect – even the most basic clip-on fenders do that. However, most fenders do little to protect your feet and legs.

Aluminum fenders work much better than plastic ones: They wrap further around the tire, and the rolled edges keep the water inside, rather than having it drip onto your feet. Both fender blades and stays are stiffer, so the fenders are quiet even when you ride over rough roads. Mounted correctly, they last for decades of hard use. (We provide detailed, illustrated installation instructions with our Rene Herse fenders.)

Honjo in Japan make the best fenders in the world. We’ve worked with them to spec our Rene Herse fenders for the ultimate performance. Our front and rear fenders are longer than usual to provide better coverage. This greatly reduces the spray that goes onto your feet, your legs, and your drivetrain.

We use our own hardware to attach the fender stays. Our 7 mm bolts are only as long as necessary, so they don’t stick into the fender, where they can catch debris. The nuts with their built-in serrated washer make sure your stays remain tight. Small details like this add up to create fenders that you can install and forget – until you are hit by a rainstorm, and you realize that being cold and miserable isn’t a necessity.

At Rene Herse Cycles, we’re all about performance. Our fenders are already among the lightest in the world – much lighter than most plastic fenders (which use heavy steel stays). If you really care about weight, we offer tubular aluminum stays that save another 35 g without any loss in strength. The tubular stays are now available in black, too.

To mount your front fender noise-free and safely, we strongly recommend a third attachment point in front of the fork crown. Rene Herse racks have an integrated fender mount. For rack-less bikes, we offer individual stays and hardware so you can install your fenders properly without having to buy multiple fender sets to get all the hardware you need.

Honjo recently introduced a fender reinforcement. It goes under the seatstay bridge, where it distributes the stress. It’s patterned after the reinforcement that Rene Herse used on many of his bikes.

Even without the reinforcement, well-made and properly mounted aluminum fenders last as long as the bikes they are mounted to. Most Rene Herses made in the 1940s and 1950s still wear their original fenders – and many of them have been ridden hard.

Further reading:

Posted in Fenders | 29 Comments

Fun at the Un-Meeting

Last weekend’s Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting brought together cyclists from all over the United States. Despite an uncertain weather forecast, more than 70 riders met northwest of Portland for a weekend of riding, meeting friends and having a good time.

A choice of five courses ranged from the 47 mile (76 km) ‘Short’ to the 86 mile (139 km) ‘Adventure.’ Each route offered delightful backroads with rolling climbs and twisty descents. Natsuko and I took the ‘Short’ route, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

For the first 15 miles (25 km), all routes ran together to a breakfast stop in Vernonia (above). Food and conversation occupied most riders, but those who checked out the bikes saw a remarkable variety: beautiful customs, burly gravel bikes, slender racers, and many home-built machines that repurposed classic racing or mountain bike frames into cleverly conceived all-road and adventure bikes. The bikes illustrated the Un-Meeting’s motto – ‘Everyone is welcome’ – better than anything.

Each bike had special touches that revealed their owners’ preferences and experiences. On this weekend, they were all enjoyed to the max.

After a full day of riding, a few local riders headed back to Portland, while most participants came together at the beautiful campsite for a campfire. The sight of tents and bikes spread among the tall trees was one of the most memorable of this weekend.

The forecast rain materialized during the night, but the skies cleared just in time for the ride back to civilization. Tents were taken down, bags were packed, and then riders left in small groups, heading to Portland or beyond, to finish another great weekend of cycling, meeting acquaintances, and making new friends.

Thank you to all who attended, and especially to Ryan Francesconi of OMTM for designing the great courses. Now I can’t wait for next year’s Un-Meeting!

Posted in Rides | 1 Comment