Tubesets for Our Bikes: Superlight

In addition to individual Kaisei frame tubes, Compass Cycles offers three tubesets. Each tubeset is based on bikes that we have found to work extremely well. These bikes have distinct characters that I’ll describe in a series of blog posts.

The Superlight tubeset is just that – the lightest, thinnest-wall tubeset you can buy today. In the unbutted center sections (“bellies”), the tube walls measure just 0.4 mm. At the butted ends, they go up to 0.7 mm for strength at the joints. We offer the Kaisei tubes in two lengths, with “bellies” optimized for short and tall frames.

What does a bike built from the Superlight tubeset feel like on the road?

My René Herse (above) is made from tubes with these dimensions. It’s my favorite bike for spirited rides. It’s the bike that exemplifies “planing” for me – a bike that gets in sync with my pedal strokes, and always seems to entice me to go faster. It’s the bike that I’ve ridden on some of my memorable rides, whether it’s “Charly Miller” times in Paris-Brest-Paris (top photo) and in the Cascade 1200 km brevet, or in the Raid Pyrénéen that goes non-stop from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean via 18 mountain passes (above).

In all these performances, the bike deserves a lot of credit. On long rides, it really helps to have a bike with just the right flex characteristics to synch with my pedal strokes. Pedaling becomes a subconscious routine. When we say that steel bikes can offer the same performance as modern racing bikes, it’s these bikes we are talking about.

The same characteristics make me pick the Herse for fast Saturday morning spins with the BQ Team. When we race each other up the Cascade foothills, this is the bike that I find easiest to pedal hard. It’s the fastest in these impromptu sprints because it lets me put out the most power. Compared to my other bikes, I am breathing harder at the top of the climbs, and I am more tired when I get home. And my smile is bigger, too.

The tubeset not only defines this bike’s performance, but also its feel. It always feels light, like a racehorse. Whether you like that or not depends on your taste in bikes. A very strong rider probably would find the superlight tubeset too flexible, but remember that Andy Hampsten won the 1988 Giro d’Italia on a bike made from tubes with the same dimensions. I was lucky enough to ride Hampsten’s bike once, so I can report that it feels very similar to my Herse.

While my Herse is equipped with some classic components, you could use “modern” brake levers and derailleurs without changing the feel of the bike. With a different fork, you even could use disc brakes…

How about descending on a bike this “flexible”? Despite rumors to the contrary, it feels the same as other bikes. When you look at the physics, you realize that the bike is always balanced, no matter how hard you corner. Otherwise, it would fall over. There are no significant side loads that could flex the bike when you are coasting.

Our on-the-road experience has confirmed this: During our ground-breaking double-blind test of frame stiffness, none of us felt any differences between the bikes on the downhills – whereas on the uphills, both Mark and I were measurably faster on the two bikes with superlight tubesets.

What about the durability? You often hear the description “paper-thin” for tubes this light, but when you pick up a raw tube, you realize that they are actually quite sturdy. Most of all, the walls at the ends measure 0.7 mm – not much thinner than those of other tubes (0.8-0.9 mm). And since frames rarely break in their unbutted center sections, I am not worried about the longevity, either. I’ve ridden my Herse for 6 years now, including the 360-mile Oregon Outback gravel race. After that ride (above), my rims had developed cracks (I use better ones now!), and my spare spokes had worn through the cloth tape I used to attach them to the fender stays, but the rest of the bike was no worse for wear.

Why not build all bikes from this tubing? First, there is the lightweight feel that some riders don’t enjoy. It really depends on your power, your riding style – these bikes work best with a light touch on the handlebars – and your preferences. Furthermore, with a tubeset this light, these bikes are more prone to shimmy. It hasn’t been an issue on my Herse, but that bike uses a needle bearing headset that dampens the steering slightly. Also, I wouldn’t recommend this tubeset on a bike that commonly carries a heavy load. The Herse is fine with a heavily loaded handlebar bag, but if I were to ride a lot with loaded front low-riders, I’d pick a stiffer down tube.

One last datapoint is that I am 181 cm tall (5’11”) and weigh 70 kg (154 lb). I ride a relatively large frame (58 cm seat tube, 57 cm top tube, c-c). Shorter tubes are inherently stiffer, so I feel that this tubeset makes even more sense for smaller frames. On the other hand, taller or significantly heavier riders may need a stiffer tubeset. Fortunately, we offer those as well…

Further Reading:

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.
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57 Responses to Tubesets for Our Bikes: Superlight

  1. Christian Bratina says:

    Jan,
    Thanks for making these available. The website does not list the wall thicknesses for the fork, chainstay, or set stay tubes, which would be nice to know How do these compare with Reynolds 531C?

    • The web site lists the wall thickness of the chainstays (0.8 mm) and seatstays (0.6 mm). Listing wall thicknesses of the fork doesn’t make much sense, as the taper affects things so much. It’s better to compare weights of the blades – you’ll get a good idea about the walls. The Kaisei fork blades we sell are light, but not excessively so. They rake easily without ripples and have proven extremely durable.

      Reynolds 531C had walls that were a bit thicker. I don’t have the non-metric specs in front of me, but I believe the top tube had roughly 0.8-0.5-0.8 mm walls, while the down tube was 0.9-0.6-0.9.

  2. Matthew J says:

    How would a loaded panniers effect handling of a bike built with the light tubing? Would it lead to twitchy steering?

    Would a mix of light tubes for the top and seat with heavier for down, fork and chain stays address some of the concerns?

    • I don’t have much experience with superlight frames and panniers. What happens with a really big front load is that you have two points with much inertia – the cyclist on the saddle and the load on the fork – which can lead to oscillations similar to shimmy. The Mule (topic of the next post) handles heavily loaded panniers very well, so I’d recommend that tubeset for big front panniers.

    • james says:

      The frame stiffness is affected more by tube diameter than tube wall thickness. One inch tubes tend to be a bit noodle like, where as inch and quarter or inch and an eighth can make the same size frame very much stiffer. Small diameter chain and seat stays versus oversize diameter stays likewise.
      I have an 853 frame with 1″ tubes and it is not at all stiff, and would wobble all over the place if I put a load on it.
      By contrast my Columbus Spirit frame made with oversize tubes handles a load far better.

  3. Ed says:

    I like the first picture with the Church in the background. The Crit-like speed of the riders is not obvious from the photo but the rear tire shows it. The frame obviously corners and climbs well. You probably don’t know it but tons of spectators were swooning over your machine in various languages at Loudeac or Carhaix….I forget which but your bike was really nice and I really enjoyed looking at it, too. Cool bike.

  4. larryatcycleitalia says:

    My wife has a bike with the same tubeset as used to build Hampsten’s Giro machine. I’ve ridden it a few times (we ride the same size frame) and agree with your descriptions of its ride characteristics. It has the “feel” you describe – a ride I could previously only describe as lively or springy. The only other bike I’ve ridden with such characteristics was a bike (again in my size) made from Columbus Ultra-foco tubes.

  5. Bert Platzer says:

    Very interesting. What is the weight of this superlight frameset?

    • I haven’t weighed it by itself, but in any case, the weight of the frame is determined more by lugs, braze-ons and framebuilding techniques than by the tubes alone. For example, I am always amazed how much weight a great craftsman like Peter Weigle can shave from a frame that is made from the same materials.

  6. Mark Schneider says:

    Interesting, how does the ultralight tubing compare to old 531c or Columbus tubing. I have an old Treck 613 that rides very nice and a old Masi that also feels very fast and lively.
    Does the shimmy occur in higher trail bikes with thin tubing, or just with thin tubing and low trail. Needle bearing headsets are getting hard to find, IRD makes one that has needle bearings on the bottom only, but only for 1 inch threaded I believe.

    • The original Reynolds 753 tubing was similar. It was listed as 0.3 mm in the “bellies”, but it was a non-metric standard that worked out to 0.35 or so – very similar. Columbus made the EL that also was similar and produced some great-riding bikes, it appears. The “standard” Columbus SL and Reynolds 531C had thicker walls, but still made very nice-riding bikes. My Alex Singer that I rode for many years used 531C tubing, and it climbed very well for me – albeit not as great as the bikes with the superlight tubing. As you mention, there are many great bikes from the era when even production steel bikes still were built for performance above all.

    • Charlie says:

      IRD just released the Double Roller Drive, two fully needle bearing headsets in 1″ threaded and 1-1/8″ threadless. Your shop can get them through Merry Sales.

      • The IRD headset appears to be a re-issue of the old Tange, with needle bearings at the bottom and ball bearings on top. I used the aluminum Tange headset for many years, and it worked great. If these lower-end steel versions work just as well, they may help (sort of a 50% solution).

      • Bigschill says:

        The new double roller bearing IRD headset uses aluminum cups. Can’t find them anywhere yet online.

      • Charlie says:

        It was just announced to dealers yesterday, so it’s no surprise that you couldn’t find it.

  7. Ty says:

    Great blog post as usual Jan!

    I’ve been a subscriber of BQ for over seven years and the concept of “planning” has always been compelling to me, but I have been wondering if attaining it with a bike with thin tubing is simply not realistic or just not a good idea because I am 6’1″ and am in the 200-220 lb range depending on how I am on diet and how much riding I do! ;). Your blog post appears to support this.

    So I’ve resigned myself that 200 lbs is about lowest I can go. But taking the glass half-full attitude, maybe that means I don’t need a custom bike to plane but can simply go “off the shelf” to some degree since the average bike has thicker tubing and maybe it will plane for me anyway? Looking back, I don’t recall feeling any bike fighting me in recent memory. In particular, my Salsa Casseroll with 32mm extra light Stampede tires and re-raked low-trail fork feels great to me, but so does my Brompton and my Xtracycle.

    So though my size is definitely a hindrance on the numerous climbs here in the SF Bay Area and a bonus on descents, possibly my weight is also an advantage and allowing most bikes to plane for me whether off the shelf or not? If so, then I’ll feel even better about that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at the end of a ride!

    Jan – Does my reasoning make sense or am I missing something here? I’d also love to hear from any other big riders with their take/experience on this.

    Ty Smith
    San Francisco Bay AreA

    • I think you are onto something. I’ve ridden some stiff bikes that “planed” only when loaded heavily. The only way I can explain it is that the added resistance of the extra weight means that the frame flexes more, rather than just move forward.

      • Ty says:

        I think that is the case, but never realized it before. My Xtracycle (converted Specialized mountain bike) does feel better to ride the heavier I load it, almost springy. I think the Xtracycle extension which adds 14 inches to the wheelbase, adds to the flex as well. So the upshot is I can climb an overpass from Costco with my 200+ lbs, the bike laden with cases of water, etc., yet peddling feels real good. It’s not fighting me and in fact feels like it moves with me. I guess it planes!

        My Brompton also feels like it “planes,” which you wouldn’t think would be the case with a bike with small wheels and fairly thick frame tubes. Like with my Salsa Casseroll and my Xtracycle, my weight is also a big factor why, but I think that is because I swapped out the standard seat post to a Titanium one. Once I did that, it felt much better to ride, very flexy and feels quite good when I climb as well.

      • Ty says:

        addition to below:

        Meant to put in the Titanium extended seat post on the Brompton is 570mm. That length really helps with the flexing.

    • Matt Gilkey says:

      So as a large rider myself (5’10” 215lbs) I wondered about the same issue. I was very curious about such a frame based on the BQ testing and Jan’s inspiring stories. I decided to order a L’avecaise from Jeff Lyon. He talked me out of a tubing selection as light as Jan’s, but still relatively light weight. I don’t know the exact specs, perhaps an oversized down tube? Anway, I have been very happy with the bike, and do feel that it is more responsive and climbs better for me than previous steel frames, a Bob Jackson and a more modern Trek. I have never ridden a frame as light as Jan’s, but suspect that my weight would overwhelm it. Hope that helps. If you are interested in such a bike I would highly recommend an experienced frame builder to guide you.

      -Matt Gilkey

      • Ty says:

        Thanks Mike!

        That does make perfect sense going lighter than standard tubing where appropriate, but not superlight. Build the bike around the size and weight of the rider.

    • John Duval says:

      100 kilo and 2m tall here. I have one bike made with 1/7/1 tubing, and another with 9/6/9. Both with oversized tubing. Though this isn’t the only difference, the difference in pedaling action is quite noticeable. Both will go fast when pushed hard, but the thicker one feels like a linear increase for the effort, while thinner one suddenly leaps forward at a specific level of effort. It really encourages me to keep the pace up, but is also better for my endurance as well. I suspect that 7/4/7 oversized would ‘plane’ at a lower threshold.

      Having cranks that are too short for your legs can make a bike feel dead. But that is another topic.

  8. Adam Paiva says:

    “remember that Andy Hampsten won the 1988 Giro d’Italia on a bike made from tubes with the same dimensions”
    I’m curious if you know the specs of that bike’s tubing? I know it was the Huffy 711 Landshark and have seen mention of it being Tange tubing. Would be curious on the actual tubing profile if its known. I have another Landshark that was supposedly built to the same spec as Andy’s.

    • Hampsten’s bike is an interesting story. Of course, it was branded “Huffy”, but the team bikes were made by Serotta. Hampsten’s Serotta broke that spring, so he had John Slawta (Landshark) make him a replacement, not wanting to risk another broken frame. I’ve seen the build sheet – the tubing spec was Tange Prestige tubing with 0.7-0.4-0.7 wall thicknesses (and, of course, standard diameter). We had the bike on loan for the photography of our book “The Competition Bicycle”, and I asked whether I could ride it. Andy and Steve Hampsten approved, and so I took it for a memorable ride up Seattle’s hills.

  9. james says:

    There is a tube set with thinner centre section than 0.4mm. Tange Ultimate is at 0.35mm. https://www.tange-design.com/tubing_detail.php?sn=46

    • That is interesting! I haven’t really followed Tange since the company went out of business. Recently, the name was resurrected by a Taiwanese company with no connection to the old Tange. I’d be a bit wary of tubes thinner than 0.4 mm, especially considering the quality standards of most Taiwanese tubing… You really need very uniform extrusions on tubing this thin, otherwise, you risk creating stress risers that can led to failures. Kaisei tubing is renowned for being straight and evenly drawn, and yet even they recommended not going thinner than 0.4 mm for the standard-diameter tubes.

      • james says:

        IIRC, Columbus Spirit tubes _were_ 0.38mm wall thickness, but now appear advertised as 0.4mm. My own Spirit tube frame was built when they were advertised as 0.38mm. The only downside I have experienced with thinner walled tubes is that they are quite easy to dent. My frame went in for a repair and respray at 45,000km, and has now completed 75,000km. The roads where I live now are more potholes and patches than original bitumen in places.
        I have on occasion towed a Bob Yak style trailer behind it, and it works just fine (so long as the hills are not too steep for typical roadie gearing of 39×23).
        http://www.gelliecustombikeframes.com.au/blog/james-spirit-tubing-road-bike-the-45000km-re-paint/

      • I suspect that the difference between 0.38 and 0.4 lies within the tolerances for Columbus…

      • Jacob Musha says:

        Since it’s unrealistic to make tubing thinner than 0.4mm, would it make sense to get tubing in a diameter smaller than “standard”? Especially for smaller frames and lighter riders. I know that would require new lugs and a smaller seatpost… But it doesn’t seem like you’ve observed a frame being *too* flexible so far.

      • We’ve often discussed “undersized” tubing. It seems to make sense, but it would require a significant investment in tubing dies, lugs, seatposts, and perhaps headsets… For a production bike, none of these would be a big hurdle, but for one-off customs, it would be hard to justify the expense.

      • Charlie says:

        One way to dip a toe into this current would be to develop a smaller top tube. As long as it’s fillet brazed or TIG welded no further tooling investment should be necessary. Or instead of pursuing smaller diameter tubing, maybe a mixte design could provide additional flex?

  10. ascpgh says:

    Now for some builders who see the benefits of this paradigm and geometry to build for us interested buyers.

  11. aquilaaudax1 says:

    With regards to your discussion about smaller diametre tubing, I wonder whether the reason your 531 Singer pedaled so well for you was that it would have been constructed from French spec metric Reynolds tubing?

  12. Nicolas P says:

    Hi, thank you for this great post Jan.
    I wonder if 7-4-7 tubing should be ok for me, i’m 177cm and 80kg and i’m thinking about a custom 650B randonneuse?

    • It all depends, but your height and weight aren’t very different from mine. If you have a relatively smooth pedal stroke and a light touch on the handlebars, such a bike might be just what you want!

      • Nicolas P says:

        I think it’s the case. Thank you for your help Jan.
        I know it’s out of subject but i wanted to thank you for the wonderful work done on compass tires, i’ve recently installed bon jon pass tyres ( standard casing) on my ridgeback panorama ( good bike but much too stiff when unloaded, oversized reynolds 725) and i rediscover my bike on the rough baxkroads in the south west of France, much more comfortable ( vittoria voyager hyper before) much faster and a bike more fun and a pleasant light feeling. I’m sure il will continue forever with compass wide tyres.

  13. fnardone says:

    > … it lets me put out the most power.

    I read often remarks like this or about “power transfer”. I never understood what is meant by them, is it about power losses between the cranks and the wheel ? I don’t get how frame flexibility or geometry can influence that. Can you please explain ? Which caracteristics of the frame influence this ?

    • You are right, the age-old belief that frame flex somehow wasted power has been thoroughly debunked. That energy returns to the drivetrain.

      However, that doesn’t mean that frame flex doesn’t matter. On the “right” frame, the rider can put out more power, because the frame flexes to store the “excess” power during the down stroke, to release it during the “dead spots” of the pedal stroke. Compare it to jumping on a sprung floor. It doesn’t save energy, but it allows the jumper to put out more. A flexible pole for pole vaulting is the extreme example. Again, no energy saved, but the pole allows higher input, which is released at the right time to launch the athlete across the bar.

      In the realm of bicycles, when the rider gets into sync with the bike, it feels like a boat rising out of the water, and going faster with less input. That is why we have called it “planing”. It’s a complex subject, and if this interests you, I suggest reading the back issues on frame flex, where we showed this in a double-blind test (neither riders nor administrators knew which bike was which) of identical bikes with just two tubes different in their wall thicknesses. The bikes had the same geometries, the same paint, the same components, even the weight was equalized to make up for the thinner tubes of the “superlight” test bikes.

  14. Andrew Cohen says:

    I thought I saw it reported somewhere that some of the stainless tubesets (Reynolds 953?) have walls as thin as .3 (maybe .5-.3-.5). I am no framebuilder, so this could be wrong . . ..

    • I think the superthin Reynolds is available only oversized, which makes it stiffer. However, I don’t think it’s useful to engage in a “race to the thinnest”. More flex isn’t better, but the right amount. Since we offer custom-made tubing, for which we had the tooling made, we could have asked Kaisei (or somebody else) to make tubes with even thinner walls, if we felt it was useful (and safe).

  15. Goff V in PDX says:

    Speaking of “undersized” tubing, have you guys seen the Fairlight Cycles frames with the skinny top tubes? http://fairlightcycles.com/strael/?v=7516fd43adaa
    I wonder how they ride; looks interesting.

  16. Russ Paprocki says:

    In 1980 my brother ordered a TI Raliegh Team time trial frameset from the works at Ilkeston. Built with full Campagnolo Super Record including freewheel It weighed just 17 pounds including the frame pump and water bottle. “Planing” understates its’ ride quality, as magic carpet ride comes to mind as a more apt description. However, before the order was accepted he received a memo signed by GOD (Gerald O” Donovan) stating that given its’ 60cm. size the frame should not be sold to a rider weighing more than 160 pounds. Confirmation of this fact had to be returned before the order could be processed.

    • Thank you for sharing that great story! When I started racing in 1990, many high-level racers continued to ride the old Reynolds 753 frames, even though their sponsors would have loved to put them on newer bikes. Back then, I couldn’t explain it, but now I suspect it was because their performance was superior.

  17. zigak says:

    Would you consider the fact that the seat tube offers “only” 80-90 mm of grip to the seat post problematic in some cases? I know there are seat tubes that are externally butted to offer the same inner diameter.

  18. Scott Bontz says:

    Assuming all previous notes are from people on bikes with multiple gears, I’ll ask how superlight tubes and planing might affect riding fixed gear. Would thin bellies matter only for high power delivered at high, Heine-level cadence of 110 rpm? With usual gearing of 75 to 80 inches, I hit that tempo only with a good tailwind assist or descending “coast”. Working aerobically hard on the level I’m probably closer to 85-95 rpm. Muscling uphill out of the saddle or pushing into a Kansas headwind I often drop to 50-60 rpm — and with both challenges, sometimes even lower. I am just under 5 feet 10 inches and weigh about 130 pounds — Hampsten-like but with far less power. My cargo goes in a saddlebag, and often weighs at least 10 pounds, occasionally maybe close to 15. My current bike is a 56cm Surly Steamroller. I don’t know the tube thickness, but, although butted, the frame has the reputation of being relatively heavy. No shimmy. I would have a custom frame made a centimeter or two smaller, and use a stem with more rise. I’d appreciate any thoughts from experience or theory.

    • I think “planing” is more important on a single speed or fixed gear. You can’t shift down, so your best option is to climb relatively fast. For me, bikes that “plane” require fewer shifts because I am comfortable over a wider range of cadences – exactly what you need when you can’t shift. I’ve only ridden one “fixie” – an old British bike, and it planed beautifully, which made it great fun.

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