15 Years of BQ: Plus Ça Change

With Bicycle Quarterly celebrating its 15th year, it’s been fun to look back over the decade-and-a-half of publishing the magazine. A lot has changed, most of all the size:

The first issue was a slim 20 pages, the latest one is more than five times as large!

As BQ grew and resources became available to hire professionals, black & white photos that charitably might have been described as ‘adequate’ have been replaced by beautifully reproduced color photography. The layout has improved, too. The first issues were little more than newsletters; the most recent ones are almost books in their own right.

What hasn’t changed is the quality of the content. The very first issue featured the story of the great French constructeur Alex Singer in comprehensive detail. It started with a fascinating interview with Singer’s successor, the late Ernest Csuka. We published previously unseen historic photos. And there was our first bike test, a 300 km brevet on a 1962 Alex Singer with a Nivex rear derailleur. With a mix of historic sources, original interviews and first-hand experience, this issue remains the best documentation of Cycles Alex Singer to this day.

That first issue also set the tone in another way: Rather than merely reporting what exists, we examined how to improve bicycles. I tested a 1962 Alex Singer in a 300 km brevet and found it to perform extremely well. I especially liked its gearing with 46×30 chainrings. A second article titled “Who Needs a Triple? Get Rid of Your Big Chainring!” suggested that component makers should offer compact cranks. This was at a a time when road bikes still came with 53/39 chainrings, as if we were all gearing up for a downhill Tour de France sprint finish.

Over the following years, Bicycle Quarterly continued to discover the great French cyclotouring culture. Inspired by photos of gravel roads in the Alps, we marveled at bikes that had been perfected for adventures off the beaten path. We realized that our bikes needed wide, supple tires and fully integrated fenders, racks and lights.

This was followed by more research into why these bikes worked so great. First, we studied front-end geometries and discovered that the best-handling bikes had much less geometric trail than most ‘experts’ (ourselves included) considered necessary. Then came our famous tire tests, which showed that wider tires can roll as fast as narrower ones. Later we studied frame stiffness and found that tuning the stiffness to the rider’s pedal stroke (and vice versa) could make bikes perform better. All this revolutionized our understanding of how bikes work.

As this research came along, small custom builders were among the first to adopt our findings. Hence most of our test bikes were what you might call ‘classic’ bikes made from steel tubing. We loved those bikes, and we continue to love them.

For a while, we seemed to inhabit a small niche in the cycling world, where adventurous souls rode beautiful bikes over long distances on scenic gravel roads.

Then the mainstream cycling industry realized that ‘allroad’ cycling (a term we had coined in 2007) presented a real opportunity. There wasn’t just the marketing appeal of rugged adventure, but these road bikes with wide tires actually were a lot more fun to ride than their narrow-tired predecessors. It was a rare case of marketing is backed by substance.

As these new bikes became available, it was natural for us to test them. When carbon and titanium bikes began appearing in Bicycle Quarterly, some readers wondered whether Bicycle Quarterly had changed its focus, or perhaps even ‘sold out’? The reality is that the mainstream bike industry finally has caught up with us.

For a long time, we lamented that it was almost impossible to buy bikes suited for the rides we enjoy. Today, you can go into a bike shop and choose among a large number of bikes designed for spirited riding on all kinds of roads, from smooth pavement to rough gravel. Our readers want to know how good these bikes really are – so we test the most interesting ones. Bicycle Quarterly never was about being retro; it’s always been about having more fun on your bike.

Where does the future lead? There are more discoveries to make. Rinko allows disassembling a complete, fully equipped bike into a small package with minimal tools and almost no modifications to the bike. Perhaps the mainstream bike industry will adopt this idea in the future, making life easier when we travel with our bikes.

We are exploring new tire treads that roll as well on pavement as they grip in mud. And we’ll keep pushing for bikes that fit our adventures, which include riding in any weather, even at night, unsupported. We are looking forward to the next 15 years. If the past is any indication, it’s going to be a fun journey!

Click here for more information about Bicycle Quarterly, including a sample issue you can browse online.

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 the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
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32 Responses to 15 Years of BQ: Plus Ça Change

  1. Allen Potter says:

    Jan (and everyone who contributes to BQ): I owe you a debt of gratitude! I’ve been reading for about 10 years. During that time, I’ve learned so much, and my rides have been longer, faster, more fun as a result. It started with Grand Bois tires on the old Motobecane, and now I have my own rando machine with your René Herse cranks. Without your tireless work, I would be totally ignorant of the possibilities on bikes like these. THANK YOU! Also, I want to tell you that many of the articles in recent issues of BQ have been breathtaking. The Copper Canyon adventure comes to mind. Just awesome, very inspirational to me. As a person whose oddball ideas (about education) are also becoming accepted as normal/best practice, I can assume that you are very proud of the whole thing. And you should be. Bravo! I’ll never let my subscription run out!

  2. Great contribution to cycling community, Jan. Congratulations!
    All the best for your work!

  3. Vincent says:

    I’m an great supporter of your approach: observe – understand – learn – build – observe – refine etc.

    It’s amazing how most people corner us in a category of whingers, or in the field of classic bike designs, of “passéistes” (French, for old schhool) when we simply are reluctant to accept novelty as improvements if value can’t be demonstrated and/or explained.
    Your contribution to providing the insights both theoretical and empirical needed to stand by our own findings (and challenge us too) is invaluable.

    I remember the face of my local dealer when I walked in his shop with an early 80s French randonneuse purchased second hand for a few hundred Euros. I tried to explain that I chose it for specific reasons and that I could not find any bike that met my needs in his bike shops, and not because it was a classic bike. He never believed me.
    This was 5 years ago.

    Things are becoming different. Eventually, I will be able to buy a new bike that suits my needs at prices that I consider OK in a “normal” bike shop. We’re not quite there, but soon will be. Thanks to you and your team for fueling that change.

  4. Walter Froese says:

    Bicycle Quarterly has helped shape how I think about cycling and bikes. I’m edging up to that time when I buy a new bike and I’d like it to have the basics; great comfort, performance and appealing looks, but also fenders, built in lights, front racks and the ability to rinko. I live in a rural area and the local bike shops don’t really support the type of bike I want. Without expert input it is daunting to think about all the factors and how to achieve those attributes in the purchasing process. Maybe BQ could help with an article on things to consider and how to make a good decision?

  5. Sukho in PDX says:

    Definitely. I’m glad you wrote this piece. BQ has been trailblazing this whole time, and has taught (and continues to teach) the mainstream bike industry what “real world” cycling is all about. Looking at it, it’s amazing how much BQ has influenced the bikey world overall, from custom builders to social media stars talking about the “supple life” to major manufacturers quietly copying Compass tires. It’s all a positive sea change.

    My personal BQ lesson? That you can ride a beautiful “vintage” (even if it’s not old) steel bike, fully fendered, with a rack/bag and lights front and rear, wearing non lycra clothing, and not feeling weird about clicking in and hammering. (Maybe that’s more of Jan lesson 🙂

    Much props.

    Sukho in PDX

    • Absolutely. Performance doesn’t require a ‘racer’ look. The car world discovered this long ago, and today, there are many sedans and wagons that match the performance of 2-door sports cars. Going fast is about performance, not about looks. And perhaps even more importantly, a true performance bike is fun to ride even when you aren’t pushing the pace.

      • marmotte27 says:

        “there are many sedans and wagons that match the performance of 2-door sports cars”
        Soory to butt in, but can we just stop with hese car comparisons? Cars like those sedans are simply madness. We’re living through yet another heatwave here in Europe, and the mentality that builds such cars is a major contributor to this. The bikes you’re such a great help of bringing about should be part of a different world…

      • Your aversion to cars is understandable. And yet, bikes can learn a lot from cars as far as usability and reliability goes. As long as most performance bikes are toys that get loaded onto cars to take them to their playgrounds, they aren’t really part of the solution. And with most utility bikes being so limited in their range, they also won’t replace cars for anything but the shortest trips. So when I mention cars, it’s as an example of what bikes should be able to do: combine performance with utility and reliability in ways that are still rare today.

      • Rick Thompson says:

        If you are talking about bikes replacing cars, then I hope you do not mind a mention of e-bikes. Until a few months ago I had considered electric boost as something I might use in the future, when my aging bod started giving out, as a way to keep on riding. Then I started researching their capabilities, and have now converted an old hardtail mountain bike into a fast 25-30 mph e-bike commuter. My trip to work is 30 miles and 1700′ of hills each way, even with the supple-tired allroad that is just not possible to do regularly. The e-bike will not replace the allroad for pleasure riding, nor will it replace the town bike for grocery trips, but it does replace the car for commuting. Plus it’s rolling on Rat Trap Pass tires, so BQ is contributing to the efficiency!

      • With the Rat Trap Pass tires, you’ll get a lot more miles out of your battery charge than you’d get with the usual e-bike tires! I really like the e-assists that Bill Davidson installs in his custom bikes. Just enough to give a little boost, without destroying the feel of a performance bicycle.

  6. Daniel L. Pack says:

    I’m happy to say I own every issue. They are an invaluable source for information on both the design and history of bikes. I find myself constantly returning to back issues for technical information and inspiration. Thanks for all your hard work!

  7. Bryan says:

    I’ve lost count as to how many years I’ve been subscribing. I do recall that the binding was stapled and the photos were black and white. I look forward to every issue and frequent quote your research when discussing bikes with the racing – roadie folks. 🙂

  8. Kirt T. says:

    BQ remains something to actually READ, as opposed to most mainstream magazines that seem to be more catalog or buyers guide with paragraphs thrown in. I would lump you in with Grant Peterson as the real inspirational thinkers in the bicycle industry. I would be interested in hearing your take on nutrition and using your travels to help guide others to areas you’ve frequented [France and Japan come to mind].

  9. Preston R Grant says:

    I must add my congratulations, and also my gratitude to you, Jan, for 15 years of BQ. Also thanks to your blog, and a post by Rick Thompson about his Fitz bicycle, I am now the very pleased owner of a Fitz randonneuse built with tubing that suits my weight and riding style, and truly enhances my efficiency. Regarding photos, I still find that black and white photo above, of the Col du Galibier, I believe, to be equal to any color photo, and an inspiration for us cyclists.

    • Yes, black & white photos can be truly inspirational. In fact, the editorial team chose B&W photos for the covers of the last two editions. And the photo of Madame Porthault on the Galibier remains a favorite BQ cover for me.

    • Sukho in PDX says:

      Preston where is this post about Rick T’s Fitz? I’m also a prior customer of FitzCyclez and believe John is one of the best unheralded young builders out there. Hey Jan, you should consider a BQ review! I believe Fitz is thinking about coming up from Santa Rosa with one of his bikes to the UnMeeting in Sept.

  10. Rick Thompson says:

    Jan – You and Grant have restored my enthusiasm for cycling over the last few years. The choice used to be skinny tire carbon fiber racer, off-road mountain bike, or clunky cruiser. Now I’m very happy to say that a wide tire, steel frame, fendered and lighted allroad takes me almost anywhere I like to ride in speed and comfort. What a joy.
    On rinko: The ability to quickly break a full size bike down into a package that fits in a car trunk has been more useful than I had anticipated. It is so much more practical to transport a fairly expensive bike this way, not risking theft, weather or damage on a roof rack. Mine works old school, with top tube shifters and easy to disconnect cable brakes. Wireless electronic shifting should be good for rinko, but I would think hydraulic disc brakes would not. I don’t remember any discussion of this, but have you seen any way to rinko a bike with hydraulic discs?

    • If by rinko you mean using a rinko bag on a Japanese train then you can find bags that will fit a disc brake bike with either just the front or both wheels off and the handlebars (with the hydraulic hose) either turned and/or lowered and/or or removed—the fork stays in place. You have to be careful with the hose & cables, but you can make a reasonably small package that’ll still fit in a car boot. I’ve done variations of this many times without any problems, but, to repeat, you must be careful with the hoses. You *can* pack a hydraulic disc brake bike in a similar way to the concours bike—both wheels off, handlebar & forks removed, and the whole thing tied together—but you have to be careful, patient & adaptable. The bars and fork, cables and hoses &c can tangle or bend easily, esp. if some or all of them are internally routed. I’ve done this a couple of times and wouldn’t describe them as happy or time-efficient experiences. If the hose & cables are routed externally it’d be easier. Cable or TRP HY/RD discs make it all much easier ‘cos you’re not dealing with hoses. I believe racing motorbikes can use quick disconnect couplers (Staübli, Venhill &c), and I read somewhere they’ll make couplers in any size, but I’m waiting for someone else to be the first to test them on a bike! Hydraulic discs are great, but to *quickly* make a really small travel package, cable brakes are easier, cable rim brakes prob. best.

      • That matches my experience. The Firefly with its mechanical discs travels quite easily – without fenders, I can leave the fork in place, and the package is only a bit larger than a full randonneur bike like my Mule. When we tested the Open UP in Japan, travel was a bit more complicated, and on the way back (fortunately!) we had a disc hose kink and leak fluid.

  11. tony says:

    Congrats and bravo!

  12. Nestor Czernysz says:

    Congratulations!

  13. Tim Nielsen says:

    Many good reads over the years, a few dog-eared issues lent here and there to friends, and a dedicated bookshelf. Still the best bicycle publication, with a much needed scientific approach.
    Rinko seems too good to be true, would it work for me on my existing classic 25-26” center-to-center touring frames do you think? I’m studying your pictures trying to figure it out.

    • Rinko doesn’t require much in the way of the bike frame. Slotted cable stops and centerpull or cantilever brakes make removing the handlebars easier, and downtube shift levers eliminate the need to think about shifter cables. Beyond that, you need a Rinko nut in the rear fender, and you are done!

  14. PS: I’ve done all that on both carbon and titanium & carbon (fork) bikes. Packing up an hydraulic disc bike à la the concours bike would be much easier with all steel, or titanium/wood/bamboo & steel (fork) bikes—you’d have to worry less about scratching or denting. I have to say I think the worries about durability and damage render carbon about the least useful material from which to make a bike, esp. ones you travel with. I regret being too impatient to wait to build a custom steel bike when I lost my titanium bike. Among other things, Bicycle Quarterly has done a great job in helping to reinforce the great qualities of all steel bikes.

  15. Steve says:

    After years of reading BQ I made the leap last year and ordered a fully equipped randonneuring bike, with 650 x 42mm tyres, integrated lights, fenders etc. I’m just back from a ride in the Vendée where I have ridden for years, but this time I could explore the wonderful network of gravel roads at high speed and in comfort – a delight. Thanks for everything you do.

  16. Toby says:

    Thanks for all of the discoveries, stories and for advancing the state of the art!
    A couple of years ago I bought the entire back catalogue (I discovered BQ and started subscribing at about issue 48). I have read and reread each issue, and continue to go back to relearn and think about things all the time.
    My riding and bicycles are what they are because of BQ and your work. Thanks!

    Toby Whitfield

  17. Wilson Wilson says:

    I had heard of this site years ago, but it wasn’t until a year ago I’d actually seen a magazine. Someone dropped into Proteus Bicycles in College Park, MD and dropped off a number of old issues. I started thumbing through them and was amazed at how sturdy the paper is and the black and white photos. It reminded me of the magazines I would read at the library like National Geographic as a kid. I use to tear the pages out and sneak them with me to make legit paper airplanes. It wasn’t until the July 3, 2018 blog post did I finally decide to subscribe. I do not care for the technical aspect, but I love history and spectacular images.

  18. Preston R Grant says:

    Sukho, Sorry I missed your question. If you look for Rick Thompson Fitz bike on Flickr, you will find the photos.

  19. Mitch Harris says:

    Congratulations. A lot of us have complained before about stuff that should exist for bikes and cycling but doesn’t. You went ahead and found a way to make those things exist (through BQ and Compass), and some of those were things I didn’t know I wanted (wide supple road tires). A lot of us argued against or for conventional cycling knowledge, and had to trust tradition, authority, and our sense of what feels fast. You subjected a lot of those questions to empirical testing, so now we have some answers and are closer to others. My cycling has benefitted and I’ve learned a lot, and enjoyed myself more riding. Thanks.

    • It wasn’t just me, or the team at BQ and Compass. We were able to expand on the knowledge of decades, from René Herse and Alex Singer (whose successors taught me a lot) to American builders like Peter Weigle and John Murphy. Along the way, there were the Taylor brothers in Britain, and, of course, Japanese masters like Hirose and the craftsmen at TOEI, Level and Cherubim. Discussions with riders from the old days and current riders like Mark, Ryan and John Bayley enabled us to figure out what our observations really meant. Working with craftsmen like Hahn Rossman and Jeff Lyon allowed turning these observations into things that finally improved our cycling in ways that even I would not have thought possible. The best part of these 15 years is the enthusiastic assistance that all these great people brought to this project. Without them, none of this would have been possible.

  20. Frank B says:

    Congratulation to 15 years of BQ!
    It’s a pity, that low trail geometry and more flexible tubesets didn’t become as popular as wide tires did. I wish makers would build more production bikes like the Rawland Stag.

    • Many of the lightest carbon and titanium bikes are quite flexible. The 3T Exploro LTD we tested in the current edition of Bicycle Quarterly ‘planed’ extremely well for me. Low-trail geometries may not be ideal for many production bikes, as they require a light touch on the handlebars. Less experienced cyclists often grip the handlebars tightly; a low-trail bike works much better if it’s guided with a light hand.

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