Technical Trials – What is Innovation?

Next weekend, the Concours de Machines (Technical Trials) will be held in Ambert, France. The Concours is a competition between bikes, not riders, with the goal to find the best “light randonneur bike”. Bikes will be weighed, judged on their features, and then sent on a challenging course over three days to see how they hold up in real-world riding. It’s an exciting event with an illustrious history: Many of the things we now take for granted – aluminum cranks, front derailleurs, cartridge bearings in hubs and bottom brackets, even low-rider racks – first proved their worth in the original Concours de Machines of the 1930s and 1940s (above). The question for this year’s event is how much our current machines can still be improved. The organizers place special emphasis on innovation in the judging of the bikes.

Last year, I was a member of the jury. This year, my role is that of a participant, riding a J.P. Weigle – coincidentally the only American entry in an international field of 30 builders. The bike for the Concours is collaboration between Peter Weigle and Compass. Peter built the bike, and Compass worked on sourcing the components. Together, we spent quite some time thinking about the goals of the event: to find the best “light randonneur bike”, with a special focus on innovation.

What is innovation? Is it a radical departure from the diamond-frame bicycles most of us ride today? Already in the 1930s, recumbents were popular for a while (above), but they’ve never made a break-through… because the classic diamond frame just works incredibly well.

Or is it a bike with special features that aren’t found in the mainstream? At last year’s Concours, there was a fully suspended bike, but neither the front nor the rear of the bike moved when I pushed on the handlebars and saddle. Perhaps it was for the better – the “rigid” bike performed quite well on the road – but to us, innovation that doesn’t work isn’t innovation.

For us, true innovation has to improve the riding experience or the performance of the bike. We examined every part to see whether it could be improved. We considered disc brakes, but decided against them because they a) are heavy and b) preclude the use of flexible fork blades that do so much to absorb road shock during long rides. We thought about carbon fenders until we found that aluminum ones are lighter. In the end, the bike that I’ll ride in the Concours looks remarkably similar to the bikes that Peter usually builds (above one of his recent machines). Perhaps that isn’t surprising, because these bikes are the result of decades of fine-tuning and evolution. So if “radical innovation” isn’t possible, what else could we do?

The second consideration of the Concours is light weight. Bikes have to weigh less than 10.5 kg (23.15 lb) to avoid heavy penalties. That sounds achievable until you realize that this weight includes bags to carry a load provided by the organizers, spare tubes, tools, etc. – the motto is “Nothing in the rider’s pockets.” And the bike has to be equipped with “autonomous” lighting (no batteries), fenders, a bell and even a pump. All this adds up, and suddenly you realize that unless you resort to crazy lightweight parts that will barely last through the weekend, it won’t be easy to avoid the penalties.

The course includes plenty of rough gravel roads, so wide tires are a necessity. Fixing flats will slow you down, and if you don’t make the required 22.5 km/h (14.0 mph) average speed over the mountainous 250 km/160 mile course, you will incur penalties, too. The idea is that the bike must offer good performance, and it should be ridden hard to show up any deficiencies.

So we went through every part of the bike, especially the Compass components: How could we lighten them without compromising reliability or performance. The gains were incremental, but they added up to a significant weight savings on parts that already are among the lightest available today.

One example is the ultralight rack Peter Weigle built (above). At 137 g, it’s incredibly light, and Peter cautions that it’s not designed for much more than the 3 kg (6.6 lb) load the bikes will carry during the Concours. And yet it is only 31 g lighter than our standard Compass rack that has withstood years of hard riding with heavy loads on rough roads. There were other parts where we felt that even for hard use, we could lose some weight. This means that the bike for the Concours will lead to better – or at least lighter – components that our customers will be able to buy in the future. But first the superlight parts have to prove their worth during the harsh test of the Concours and beyond, because Peter Weigle’s bike isn’t just intended for one weekend. It will be ridden, and ridden hard, for many miles.

Once all the participants meet in Ambert at the end of this week, I’ll report more on the details of our bike, as well as the machines of the other competitors. The goal of this event is pushing the development of real-world bicycles to new heights, and I already know that in the case of Compass, the goal has been achieved.

Photo credit: Peter Weigle (rack); Nicolas Joly (night photo)

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
This entry was posted in Testing and Tech. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Technical Trials – What is Innovation?

  1. Niels Lillevang Hansen says:

    Nice wtite-up Jan! Do you have a guess to why full length cable housing is still not common for these very practical, long distance bikes?

    • Bare cables are lighter and have less stretch than cable housing. Compression-less housing can alleviate the latter concern, but at least with rim brakes, shorter cable housing generally is better.

      • Niels Lillevang Hansen says:

        Well granted you save a few grams. But I don’t think there’s any performance lost with either shifting or braking; with modern cables you just can’t tell any difference, and shifting is as crisp as anything even with modern 10 speed cassettes. Where the full length housing really shines is on durability – they just last sooo much longer than their open equivalents. What we do need though is some elegant solutions for routing the housing.

  2. Francisco says:

    Recently I weighed a set of full-length 41mm carbon fenders (same make as the fenders installed in last year’s Technical Trials winner) at 175g without hardware. I understand the Honjo H-30, of comparable width, weighs 240g. It is arguable which is better (e.g. the Honjo’s have rolled edges) but is it correct to state that alloy is lighter?

    • There are many factors to compare – the aluminum fenders offer more coverage, so if you cut them down to be as short as the carbon ones, you’d reduce the weight significantly. Plus, we were able to change the fender mounting by riveting the stays to the fenders. This eliminates the bolts and saves further weight, but it wouldn’t work with carbon fenders… The end result was a slight advantage for the aluminum fenders.

      • Francisco says:

        Thank you for your answer. These Swarf fenders are quite long, having the same length as the Velo Orange 45’s I currently use (ca. 90 + 120cm). The installed weight will increase with the reinforcement needed around the bolt holes. I still do not know by how much, as I will not use the original reinforcing sleeves (they run edge to edge, likely causing spill-out).
        I ask that this reply not be published as I prefer to give full feedback after installing and using the fenders, come next winter.

  3. 23lbs? How can that be?

    Paul Knopp Polkadot Steel Bicycles 3863 South Street Lincoln, NE 68506 402.730.1820 OSISBS@GMAIL.COM

  4. grant diamond says:

    In theory, shouldn’t wider tires allow for weaker (lighter) rims? Have you experimented with intentionally under-spec’d rims? (I wish no harm to you!)

    • You can use fewer spokes. Rim weight mostly is due to the brake tracks. I have thought about using a pre-used rim at the rear, since I rarely use the rear brake. Even if my rim had much less material to scrub off, it would last a very long time.

      • Peter says:

        Good idea. You could replace rims with the same system as tires. When the front rim starts to get old, move it to the back and put a new one on the front. When the rear rim is done just recycle it.

  5. Gugie says:

    I follow Peter’s Flickr site as if it were an announcement from The Oracle. It appears that the Technical Trial bike is the fantastic Rinko bike written about in the current issue. It will be interesting to see more details, including if the 10.5kg goal was reached. As a True Believer in steel frames, I’m rooting for the Weigle/Compass entry.

    Any offshore betting sites handicapping the entries?
    😉

    • marmotte27 says:

      ” It appears that the Technical Trial bike is the fantastic Rinko bike written about in the current issue.”

      I don’t tyhink so, the Rinko bike from BQ 60 is yellow ,from the Instagaram pictures Jan posted, it appears that the Concours bike is a light blue…

  6. Peter says:

    I would love to see some innovation in the aerodynamics of audax bikes.

    This may be as simple as mounting tri-bars (and yes, I know PBP doesn’t allow them, and they interfere with a “classic” front bag). Deep, wide rims with tyres roughly the same width as the rim; maybe different tyre widths front/back? Can the diamond frame be tweaked for reduced drag without making it too uncomfortable to ride for 600km?

    The savings may be small, especially at the speeds we are riding, but cumulative over these long rides it may be worthwhile. Not to mention the real and psychological benefits when you’re battling a ferocious headwind for hours 😉

    Will you write about the Weigle/Compass entry here on your blog after the concours? Don’t skip on the details (want to know all about any alloy or Ti bolts you did or did not use…)

  7. Rick Thompson says:

    On brakes: A centerpull rim brake on the front for best stopping and modulation with flexible forks makes perfect sense. On long downhills in the mountains I’d like a way to scrub speed without heating the rims. Does a disc on the rear only make sense? I’ve never seen that setup on a single bike. Tandems used to have a supplemental drum brake just for that purpose.

    • Old camping bikes often had a cantilever at the front and a drum at the rear for exactly the same reason. There is no reason why it shouldn’t work with a disc, although you risk warping the disc if you brake constantly. Perhaps a drum would be a better choice?

      • Rick Thompson says:

        A rear drum, that would be a retro solution for sure. I see that Santana now uses front rim and rear 10″ disc on their tandems, saying the big disc can handle peak stopping power and drag brake loads. Maybe an 8″ rear disc on a single bike could work.
        Back to the technical trials – I too am following Weigle’s Flickr and eagerly waiting to see what you guys have done.

      • Cecil says:

        I believe the UK bike makers, Thorn, made, and perhaps still do make, bikes with rim front brakes & disc rear brakes. The front brake was usually a V-brake. I think it was only recently that they endorsed any steel tubing as suitable for use with front disc brakes. Thorn has much experience with Audax and tandem bikes.

      • Cecil says:

        Subsequent to my original reply, I’ve checked the Thorn website: they indeed still offer bikes with rear disc & front rim brakes. With a great deal of experience with touring & expedition bikes, their approach to building and marketing is robust, practical, and with regard to advertised weights, refreshingly honest. They advertise their Audax/touring bikes in weights (incl. mudguards, leather saddles, triple cranks, and often Tiagra and Deore level components) around 10–12 kg. We don’t hear much about the British tradition of randonneuring on these pages, but they’re interesting bikes.

    • Peter says:

      This is a fairly cheap and easy aftermarket addition to any steel bike. Because the rear brake can’t develop very much torque before the tire loses traction, you can safely add disk brake mounts to even lightweight steel bikes. To be extra secure you can also add a small brace, as seen on the Crust Romanceur for example.

  8. Monty says:

    Recently I have been caught in 2 major rain storms. On one I had calipers on the other I had disks (similar bikes). Both rides were hilly. Quite frankly the calipers were scary while the disks worked exactly as they did in the dry. I don’t understand why, in selecting brakes, the nod would go to calipers.

  9. Bert says:

    Does the rider also judge the bike, or is it only about testing that the gear is holding up?

    While I have no doubts in your integrity whatsoever, it would seem to be a strange setup that a person with a stake in a bike would also evaluate it.

    • I am just riding it. The jury is evaluating it before and after each stage. They check whether everything is working, they also assess the features, and they weighed the bike today… It’s well-organized, and there are no questions about how the bikes will be judged.

  10. starground says:

    Peter Weigle is smart, painting his bikes light blue…might be slower than red, but may save some grains. I follow the same route.

  11. Sim Richards says:

    Showing a picture of Velocar recumbents from the 1930s and saying that recumbents are therefore a bad idea is a bit like saying aeroplanes will never work because the Wright Flyer wasn’t very refined. Modern recumbents can be light, aerodynamic, incredibly comfortable and huge FUN – something that appeals to most normal people. To discount them based on what their predecessors were like 90 years ago is at best narrow minded and at worst will condemn cycling to remain a marginal pastime for masochists. Recumbent cycles have the power to get people out of their cars and start enjoying themselves again, something conventional bicycles have seemingly failed to do en-masse.

    • The Velocar from the 1930s serves to illustrate that recumbents aren’t really new. I am sure recumbents can be great, but for the design brief of a “light randonneur bike that can be used on very rough roads”, it seemed to us that a diamond-frame bike was more suitable.

  12. erick says:

    Aparently grand bois is goin with a full rando bike weighting 9.5 kg with bags and tools in size 55, thats is pretty impressive

  13. David Pearce says:

    Dear Jan & Team,

    You are right, the diamond frame is just such a good, “robust”, (and I think compromise, good sense) solution to carrying a rider & putting two wheels on the road. My only criticism of the diamond frame is that the rider must crane his/her neck to some degree, depending on how radical the frame geometry is. That is one thing I miss from the Bike-E I used to have.

    Although the Bike-E I had was the long model, and I’m not tall. Turning that beast around in my house (because of course one keeps one’s bikes out of the weather) felt like turning the U.S. presidential limousine around in front of 10 Downing Street! But that’s another story!

    On the Berthoud saddles, how cool, they use beautiful machine bolts and countersunk washers, instead of “one-way” fasteners, hammered rivets on the Brooks saddles. Easy for the owner to repair the Berthoud. Nice!

    Loved your video of shifting the your front derailleur (it’s Herse, right?). Boy am I stupid! BETWEEN your pedaling legs! Of course! I always thought you reached BEHIND your leg on the downstroke and somehow made the shift. Not certain if your video showed the patented action of the rear derailleur. Actually not certain the action WAS patented, but you’ve said it was a breakthrough in rear derailleur motion, and I’d love to see it in motion.

    Thanks, Jan & Team!

  14. David Pearce says:

    As far as rim brakes vs. disk brakes, call me an old fogey, but I like rim brakes for the aesthetics, and I do believe the front disk destroys the ability to have a flexible front fork. Am I right about that?

    Anyway, I just love a beautifully created front fork, curving so gracefully, and actually functional too.

    I don’t suppose their are any hybrid solutions, with a front rim brake and disk on the rear?

    The one time I tried a new mountain bike with disks in the parking lot of the bike store, I nearly crashed when I applied the brakes! I obviously was a neophyte to disk brakes, but man, they seemed “grabby” to me. Then I realized the small hand levers were for one- or at most two-finger usage! That was a learning experience!

    I’m for the old fashioned, beautiful, shaped by the test of time, bicycle systems, cables pulling carefully adjusted rim brakes. Awfully nice, simple systems. I’m sure wire- or hydraulic-actuated disks stop better, but the maintenance on the rim brakes is just so nice & simple!

    Gotta admit, that Herse front derailleur is efficient & very sweet!

  15. Hi Jan,

    I wish you and Peter the best of the luck at the event. I think the fact that the bike is both light and Rinko ready is a pretty exciting development. Plus the bike is elegant and minimalist at the same time.

    Competition truly improves the breed!

    Jacob Russell

Comments are closed.