Guest Post: Cyclotouring Reunion in Hokkaido

In this guest post, Bicycle Quarterly editor Natsuko Hirose takes you on a cyclotouring reunion in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Translated from Natsuko’s blog Touge to Onsen:

I like bicycles and cyclotouring, but I especially like traveling. When I think about where I want to go next, my heart skips a beat with excitement. Passhunting, visiting Onsen hot springs, eating good meals… During my busy life, it’s easy to forget the small things that make this world so beautiful. When I go cyclotouring, I notice them all the more.

During the last few years, I’ve lived both in Seattle and Tokyo. As I spend more time away from Japan, I notice its beauty even more than I did in the past. This time, I visited the Soya area of Hokkaido, where Ms. K, a friend since college, now lives with her family. For a long time, I’ve wanted to visit her, but the opportunity didn’t present itself.

I use 1:50,000 scale topo maps and the ‘Mapple’ motorcycle atlas to plan my trips.

Last autumn, I went to lunch with my best friend, Mr. Y, and we talked about her. He immediately concurred: “Yes, let’s go!” We send a message to Ms. K, and she replied almost immediately: “Anytime! Please come and visit!” It felt like our university days – so easy to make plans.

Our plan quickly grew in scope. While we were in Hokkaido, we should go cyclotouring! So Mr. Y decided to bring his bike as well.

My bike travels in its lightweight Ostrich Rinko bag.

Our schedules didn’t allow traveling together, so we met in Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost town. I flew from Tokyo. Japan’s baggage handlers are reasonably careful, so I just packed my bike in its lightweight Rinko bag. Mr. Y came by overnight bus.

Our plan was simple: “Let’s meet at 8 a.m. at a small intersection in Wakkanai.” When we were in college, we often met at city parks or railway stations to start our trips. In the early morning, I received a message: “My bus is getting close to the intersection now.” So I left my hotel and cycled over to the meeting point.

Mr. Y was already there. Even though Wakkanai is almost 1000 km (640 miles) north of Tokyo, it was as easy as meeting somewhere in Tokyo. It was a giddy feeling to see him so far from home. I thought how much I appreciate cyclotouring and good friends.

Mr. Y already had put together his custom-built Toyo. Every time I see it, I marvel at the clearcoated frame that shows the brass of the fillet-brazing. It’s neat!

Mr. Y cycles along the Ororon Line road on the shore of the Sea of Japan. The clouds portend rain.

After saying “Hello,” we mount our bikes and cycle on the famous Ororon Line road along the Sea of Japan. Later, we’ll turn inland to Toyotomi town in the interior of the Soya region. Toyotomi is famous for its Onsen hot springs with black water that smells of petroleum. When I cycled around Hokkaido as a student, I just rode through the town. Now I am looking forward to staying here and enjoying the hot springs.

Minutes before a downpour… Mr. Y’s Toyo is on the left, with my Hirose on the right.

As we ride along, it suddenly starts raining incredibly hard. There is no time to put on my jacket, my rain pants, my saddle cover, nor even take a photo… Within seconds, I am completely soaked.

Fortunately, we reach Bakkai station just in time to escape from the rain. This train station is famous as the setting of the 1983 movie Nankyoku Monogatari. The story of the movie and its Disney remake Eight Below is famous in Japan, but too long to tell here.

Bakkai station is also famous among railroad enthusiasts, because it’s the northernmost wooden railway station in Japan. After waiting out the rain for two hours, we restart our ride. Fortunately, we are not in a rush today!

We haven’t planned our route in detail – just go south, then turn inland. We cycle on small, empty farm roads that meander through the fields.

The Sea of Japan is famous for its beautiful sunsets, so we decide to stay on the coast and watch the sunset. The Sarobetsu Wetlands form one of the largest meadows in Japan. The large scale of Hokkaido’s landscape really sinks in here – so different from the steep mountains and deep valleys that make up the rest of Japan. It’s Japan’s ‘Big Sky Country.’

When we arrive, the sun is already setting. There are no tourists at this late hour, and we enjoy the wooden walkways that lead across the meadows. The quiet magnificence makes our visit an almost spiritual experience.

We recall our college antics and jump in the air. When we look at the photos, we laugh: We don’t jump as high as we used to!

The sun vanishes into the Sea of Japan and illuminates Rishiri Island, a 1700 m (5600 ft) volcano that seems to float on the sea. I decide that, some day, I’ll climb Mt. Rishiri!

The sunset is beautiful, but it also reminds us that we must hurry to our hotel. There are no streetlights in rural Hokkaido! We enjoy half an hour of night riding before arriving at our hotel in complete darkness. (We have good lights.) We head to the Onsen hot bath with its pungent, black water. Even though the reputation of this Onsen is well known, we are surprised how strong the smell and how dark the water really is. Even though I love Onsen, I cannot stay in the water very long. But it is fun!

The next morning, we continue our inland ride until we have crossed over to the Sea of Okhotsk.

Once again, we don’t have a set route. We check the map and pick small roads toward Sarufutsu village, where our friend Ms. K lives. How about trying some gravel roads? We don’t know how rough the gravel will be… If it’s no fun, we can return to the main road. Today, we have time for exploring.

We find a wide farm road that is remarkably smooth, and we follow it for 17 km (10 miles).

Another detour takes us to the North Okhotsk cyclepath. In some parts, this paved path is bumpier than the gravel road we rode on earlier! As a former railroad grade, this path is very flat. My mind wanders, and I imagine old B&W photos of steam trains chugging along this route. Even on this sunny and bright day, I feel nostalgic.

Adding to our collection of roads is the Esanuka Line, which is famous among cyclists and motorbike riders because it spears in a straight line across a totally flat landscape, with not even a power line interrupting its ‘horizontalness.’ For Japanese, riding in a straight line beyond the horizon is very remarkable. For 30 minutes, it feels almost like the famous Route 66 across the American West.

Moving closer to the sea, we find a narrow road paved with white gravel. We can smell the ocean as the stones crunch under our tires. Suddenly, we realize that the road is not paved with stones at all – we are riding on crushed seashells!

Small paths lead to the water. We look over the sea on one side and the landscape of Soya on the other, and we talk about how this region’s great variety and unique feel make it a perfect destination for cyclotourists.

Our cycling trip ends as we pull up at Ms. K’s house. It’s fun to arrive by bike, as if we just had ridden across Tokyo to visit a friend. But nobody is home!

We call Ms. K, and learn that she is waiting on the main road, wanting to surprise us and take our photo as we arrive. But we took a backroad and reached her house from the other side. We laugh about this ‘mishap’ – again, it feels just like our college days.

Sarufutsu is famous for its ‘free-range’ scallops. For dinner, Ms. K teaches us the different ways to cook the fresh mollusks that have been harvested only this morning. We make sashimi, we fry them, and we sautée them with butter. Accompanied by lively conversation, we enjoy our private reunion.

For our last day on Hokkaido, we’ve planned to go sightseeing with Ms. K and her family, but the hard rain keeps us in the car. We talk about our school days, our present lives and our plans for the future – just like we’ve always done when we meet.

I am very happy. Visiting Ms. K together has made the trip even more special. In the past, Mr. Y or I have visited her alone and sent photos, which made the other all the more envious. Now we can all share the fun.

That afternoon, we say goodbye at Wakkanai Airport. Mr. Y has to return to Tokyo, while I will cycle around Hokkaido for another week. This trip has been filled with small adventures and exciting discoveries, and I look forward to more…

This and other stories are available in Japanese on Natsuko’s blog, Touge to Onsen (From Mountain Pass to Hot Spring).

Posted in Rides | 8 Comments

Live Interview on Path Less Pedaled

I love the unscripted spontaneity of live interviews, where neither side knows the questions and answers in advance. When I sat down down with Russ Roca of Path Less Pedaled, we talked about how Bicycle Quarterly got started, what inspires Compass products, and how the bikes we ride have changed dramatically in recent years. Click on the image above to watch the interview. Enjoy!

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Myth 7: Tubeless Tires Roll Faster

When tubeless tires first became popular on mountain bikes, it was their resistance to pinch flats (above) that made them popular. Off-road, there are few nails or broken bottles that can cause punctures (and even those usually will be pushed into the soft ground rather than puncture the tire), but rims can bottom out on sharp rocks and other obstacles. So much so, in fact, that top mountain bike racers used to race on tubular tires – because tubular rims make pinch flats less likely. Eliminating tubes did the same, and while you still could ‘burp’ the tire, in general, tubeless allowed running lower pressures with fewer problems.

Many also believed that tubeless tires were faster. It made sense: an inner tube, even a thin one, added a membrane that flexed and absorbed energy. A tire without a tube had to be faster, even if only by a small amount! One big manufacturer advertised their tubeless tires with the slogan “Nothing is always faster than something.”

This turned out to be another myth. Tubeless tires have real advantages, but speed isn’t one of them. To seal the tire, you have to add sealant. Pouring liquid into your tires inevitably slows them down. Old-timers tell stories of how they put water in the inner tubes of their friends’ bikes as a practical joke. The inertia of the water made the bikes impossibly hard to pedal.

The website Bicycle Rolling Resistance (www.bicyclerollingresistance.com) measured tires with and without sealant (above). Testing on a steel drum measures only the hysteretic losses, so ignore that the graph shows higher pressures having less resistance. (That isn’t true on real roads.) But for the effects of sealant inside the tires, it’s the hysteretic losses that are important, so the drum test works in this case.

What you can see is that once you add enough sealant (40 ml) to have actual liquid inside the tire (after the tire casing has become saturated), the energy required to turn the wheel increases significantly.

Our own testing confirms this. We tested the very same tires mounted tubeless with as little sealant as possible – a best-case scenario for tubeless. Then we removed the sealant and installed tubes. The tires rolled at almost the same speed. Even with almost no liquid sealant inside, the tubeless setup rolled only marginally faster.

Riding the tires with that little sealant is inviting trouble. I set up another wheelset the same way, and the tires worked themselves loose from the rim walls when the sealant dried up a week into the experiment. (Supple tires always move slightly on the rim, and sealant is necessary to keep tubeless tires sealed on the rims.) Once you add enough sealant for the tire to work reliably, it will be slower than it was with a lightweight inner tube.

How about making the tires themselves airtight? There are tubless tires that you can run without sealant, but to make these tires airtight, they need thick rubber coatings on their casings. And this makes them less supple, so they are in effect slower than a more supple tire with a lightweight inner tube – as shown by the steel drum test of a Schwalbe Tubeless vs. Standard tire (above, from http://www.bicyclerollingresistance.com).

Most of these differences are small. A tire set up tubeless won’t be faster than a lightweight inner tube, but also not significantly slower. The simple fact is that a tube, especially a lightweight one, is extremely supple and adds very little resistance. The sealant required to run a supple tire tubeless will cancel out the gains from eliminating the tube.

What will be significantly slower on real roads (much more than the drum test above suggest) is an airtight ‘tubeless’ tire, since its stiffer sidewalls don’t absorb vibrations as well, which increases the suspension losses. Better to add a little sealant to a not airtight tire, if you want to run tubeless…

Tubeless tires have their place: They are great for preventing pinch flats, and most of Compass’ wider models, which are intended to be ridden off-pavement, are tubeless-compatible. And yet for most of us, pinch flats aren’t really an issue any longer, even on gravel roads, because we now run wide tires – mostly because they roll faster on rough surfaces, but also because they are less likely to bottom out and pinch-flat.

What about puncture resistance? The sealant inside the tires can seal small punctures. However, in my experience, the hassle of dealing with the setup and maintenance of tubeless tires outweighs the hassle of fixing the occasional flat tire. If you want the simplicity of tubes with the puncture resistance of sealant, simply pour some sealant into your inner tubes – many riders report that this self-seals punctures, too.

In the future, I will run my tires tubeless when I ride across really rough terrain – like our recent passhunting adventure in Japan (above) – but not for my normal riding on paved and gravel roads.

If you’ve been curious about running your tires tubeless, check out the illustrated how-to guide on setting up tires tubeless in the Spring 2018 Bicycle Quarterly. With the right technique, it’s possible to seat the tire even without an air compressor. This makes it easy to set up tubeless tires at home or even when traveling.

Further reading:

Photo credits: Ryan Hamilton (Photo 1), Westside Bicycle (Photo 2), Natsuko Hirose (Photos 6 and 7).

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 82 Comments

Road.cc Reviews the Compass Barlow Pass

“A supremely grippy, comfortable, fast tubeless tyre with no downsides” is the verdict of the popular British web site www.road.cc. Tester Mike Stead goes on to explain how he used the Barlow Pass tires: “After months of trying, I smashed a 1km Strava sprint segment, knocking five seconds off my previous best and setting a KOM benchmark that the previous holder is going to be hurting to regain.”

Of course, Compass tires aren’t just known for their speed, and Mike enthuses about the “supreme comfort” and “prodigious amounts of grip for cornering and braking.” Reading this, you might think that he’s a friend or relative, or that we paid him to review these tires. But no, all our British distributor Sven Cycles did was send a set of tires.

When Mike went “properly off-road into rooted and rocky singletrack,” he found that “the super-supple casing deformed around and gripped to trail irregularities with amazing ease.” When I read this, I really wanted to join Mike Steed on his rides. It sounds like he was having a lot of fun on his Compass tyres! But instead of telling you more about the review, why don’t you read it yourself?

Further reading:

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Spring 2018 Bicycle Quarterly

The Spring 2018 Bicycle Quarterly celebrates how past, present and future have come together to enrich our cycling enjoyment. As we venture off the beaten path into amazing landscapes and toward memorable adventures, we take inspiration from the past, benefit from current technical developments, and shape the future of cycling.

Take the Torino-Nice Rally, which straddles the crest of the Alps all the way from Northern Italy to the Mediterranean Sea: Thomas Hassler describes the landscapes and emotions of this incredible ride. His stunning photos will make you dream of putting some wide tires on your bike, packing a lightweight bag or two, and heading into the mountains yourself!

It was for this terrain that Jo Routens designed his bikes. We bring you the full story of this inspirational randonneur and builder, whose skill with the torch was matched by his riding prowess. Studio photos of three wonderful classics complement evocative images from the Routens family archives.

With Lyli Herse we have lost one of the greats of French cycling. To celebrate her life, we take a very personal look at Lyli beyond her role as eight-time French champion and daughter of the ‘magician of Levallois.’ Discover the real Lyli through stories and anecdotes, many told in her own words.

Perhaps you’ve already seen the video of our passhunting adventure in the Japanese Alps. It was the perfect ride that played to the strengths of our test bike, a beautiful titanium Caletti Monstercross.

We didn’t just hunt passes in Japan, we also took the Caletti on some of our favorite rides in the Cascades, where we compared it to my Firefly allroad bike. Both bikes are equipped with titanium frames, wide tires and drop handlebars, and yet they couldn’t be more different. Where does the Caletti’s high-trail geometry shine, and where does the Firefly’s low-trail setup bring advantages? We took both bikes to the limit to find out. The result surprised us, and it adds to our growing understanding of bicycle geometry and handling.

It was on the roads and trails of the Cascades that the idea of the ‘allroad’ bike was first conceived more than a decade ago. When we realized that wide tires could roll as fast as narrow ones, our riding was liberated: No longer did we need to seek out smooth pavement to enjoy the sensation of effortless gliding. Looking back over 15 years of Bicycle Quarterly (and beyond), we chronicle the development of wide high-performance tires, including anecdotes like Peter Weigle (above) shaving the tread off prototype tires for our testing. This is the story behind the trend that is now sweeping the bike industry.

We take you inside Davidson & Kullaway, one of the oldest custom frame shops in the country, and just around the corner from us here in Seattle. Bill Davidson reminisces about the days when the shop made 750 frames a year, and when he traveled to Japan to have the very best lugs custom-made, which allowed Davidson to make bikes efficiently without cutting corners. He tells us why he prefers brass over silver brazing, and why it’s so hard to make the current generation of allroad bikes. Davidson’s partner Max Kullaway provides insights into the origins of titanium bikes and discusses the intricacies of welding frames.

Tubeless tires are useful to avoid pinch flats when riding in rough terrain. Our illustrated step-by-step guide shows you how to set up your tires tubeless with just a floor pump. A few tricks will go a long way toward making your first tubeless installation a success.

It’s exciting to see a BQ-inspired bike at an affordable price point. For $ 1420, the Masi Speciale Randonneur features wide tires, a low-trail geometry, and even metal fenders. How does it ride on the road? We tested it to find out.

Mountain bikes have dropped a bit out of the limelight lately, but they still have their place. Natsuko Hirose talks about her ride on a beautiful custom-made Steve Rex mountain bike, and how it feels different from riding the passhunter she uses to explore the Japanese Alps.

Subscribers will get the Spring 2018 Bicycle Quarterly within the next few weeks. Don’t miss it – subscribe today!

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 2 Comments

How are Compass Tires Different from Panaracers?

From time to time, a customer will ask us: “How are Compass tires different from Panaracers?” It’s no secret that Panaracer makes our tires – we benefit from the research and technology of one of the best tire makers in the world. Panaracer’s engineers know more about casings and tread rubber than almost anybody, and they translate our ideas into tires that outperform all others in their intended environments.

That also means that it may not be immediately obvious how our tires are different from Panaracer’s own tires, like the Gravelking – or even Panaracer’s budget model, the Pasela. At first sight, with tan sidewalls and black tread rubber, they can look very similar. They are even made in the same factory!

Recently, we had the opportunity to spend some time with Mark Okada from Panaracer Japan (right) and Jeff Zell from Panaracer USA (left). When I mentioned the Pasela, Mark just laughed: “They are completely different tires that have almost nothing in common.” 

I guess it’s the same as asking whether a Bugatti Veyron supercar has the same engine as a base-model Volkswagen Golf, since both engines are made in the same German factory…

What about the Gravelkings, which are available with a tread pattern similar to that of Compass road tires – evidence that the technology transfer between Compass and Panaracer goes in both directions. Jeff said that Panaracer gets the same question, and this is their reply:

“The Gravelkings and the Compass tires are two different types of tires. The reason that Compass tires are so successful is that Jan and Compass have a clear vision for what they want in a tire, and Panaracer has the technology to deliver that. The materials and the construction of the Compass tires vary from the Panaracer line, because of the performance that Compass wants to deliver to the customer. The components that go into the Compass tires, and the processes to make them, cost more, hence the price difference. Both are high-quality tires, but the ride and performance are different. If you’re looking for the most supple tire that incorporates all cutting-edge tire technology, you’ll choose Compass. If you’re willing to sacrifice the ultimate ride quality Compass is known for, to get a little more puncture and sidewall protection, then Panaracer has you covered there.”

Which tire is best for you really depends on your riding style and terrain. Natsuko rides her 30 mm-wide Compass Elk Pass Extralights on really rough gravel with little trouble (above), but if you are somebody who tends to get a lot of flats or destroys tires with rock cuts, we’d recommend the Gravelkings. As the name implies, they are designed for riding on rough gravel, which also means that they can be a bit overbuilt for riding on the road.

The Compass tires (above) are designed for riding on the road, but they also work well – and offer superior performance – on gravel, provided the rider lets the bike move around and doesn’t force it into rocks that could cut the sidewalls. It helps if you ride wide tires. Not only are they faster on rough surfaces, but their lower pressures also make the sidewalls less susceptible to cuts: the tire just deforms when hitting a rock.

Around here, we ride Compass tires – even on our Urban Bikes – because they offer world-class performance while being strong and durable enough for everyday use.

Click here for more information about Compass tires.

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 37 Comments

Preview of BQ 63: Passhunting in Japan

To put our Caletti Monstercross test bike through its paces, we took it passhunting in the middle of winter. Watch the video for a sneak preview, and enjoy the full adventure and bike test in the Spring 2018 Bicycle Quarterly. Make sure to view in ‘full-screen’ mode!

Subscribe today to get your copy of the Spring Bicycle Quarterly without delay!

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues, Rides | 2 Comments