Riding with the Compass Crew


Most of the staff at Compass Cycles consists of avid cyclists. In fact, we knew each other on the bike long before we started working together. Occasionally, Compass has a “company ride”.


Our last ride went north. It was one of those perfect mid-winter rides. The snow-covered mountains were crisp and clear, full of promise for our summer adventures. Conversation alternated with working together in a paceline. We enjoyed the steep, curving descent into the Snoqualmie Valley (above).


While we enjoyed pastries in Snohomish, our trusty steeds were parked outside. Left to right: Theo’s MAP randonneur bike, my Firefly fat-tire racer, and Gabe’s Pelican city bike. Very different machines, and yet similar in many ways: All are designed for performance, with low-trail geometries, Compass tires and René Herse cranks.


We rode through the bucolic Snoqualmie Valley, enjoyed a second food stop at our favorite taco truck in Monroe, and then headed home on beautiful backroads (above). It was nice to get out of the city, and we still made it back at the office for the 3:30 Fedex pickup… Now we just wish we could find time for a Compass ride every week!

Posted in Rides | 13 Comments

When to Use Knobby Tires


Compass has long championed the use of “road” tires on gravel. More and more gravel racers agree: When gravel is sliding on gravel, knobbies are of little use.

So then why does Compass offer a knobby tire, the Steilacoom 700C x 38 mm? Knobs are useful in mud. They dig into the surface, and since the mud is viscous (gooey), it provides something for the knobs to push against. That is why cyclocross bikes use knobby tires.


It’s important is to space the knobs widely, so the mud is ejected as the tire rotates. Otherwise, the tire just clogs up, and soon you are riding on slick tires again, except that their tread is made of mud instead of rubber. What you want is a muddy bike, but clean tires (above) – the tires pick up mud only briefly before it is flung off.


Snow is a different story again. Depending on your speed, it behaves differently. At high speeds, you glide through the snow almost as if you were skiing, and tread patterns make little difference. At low speeds, you compact the snow and create the surface on which you ride. Knobs dig into that surface and give you extra grip. Even a herringbone tread works OK. Slick tires or longitudinal ribs act like the runners of a sled – they just slide and offer very little traction.


What about ice? Ice is too hard for rubber tread to dig into. You need metal studs that bore into the ice to find traction. Sometimes, snow compacts to ice (above). I prefer to walk rather than risk a fall when I see ice on the road. (Unfortunately, I don’t know of a good method to see “black ice” before it’s too late.)


Back to mud, where knobbies make the biggest difference: Designing a good mud tire isn’t hard – space your knobs widely, and the tire will self-clean as it rotates. The downside is that it’ll be buzzy and slow on pavement. I love the FMB Super Mud tires (above) on my old ‘cross bike (our Steilacooms don’t fit!), but their secret isn’t in the tread pattern – the extra-supple casing makes them wonderfully fast and contributes to their great traction. The tread is incredibly buzzy on pavement. It’s good that most ‘cross courses include no more than a few meters on pavement.

The knob shape itself makes little difference. “It’s all about ‘design'” a Panaracer engineer confided.

dual_purpose_tireDesigning a knobby tire that rolls OK on pavement is not too hard, either. Space your knobs closely, and the tire will roll fine. But when it gets muddy, the tire will clog up, depriving you of the advantages of a knobby tire. You get only the disadvantages of knobbies, without many of the benefits.


Designing a tire that rolls well on pavement and grips well in mud is much harder. If you also want the tire to corner well without knobs folding over and suddenly losing traction, it seems almost impossible. And yet… with the engineers at Panaracer, we spent a lot of time analyzing and testing knob designs during the development of our Compass Steilacoom 700C x 38 mm knobbies. We found a few things that can greatly improve a knobby’s performance on pavement, without detracting from its ability in mud. More about that in a future post…

Click here for more information about Compass tires.

Photo credit: Wade Schultz (bottom photo)

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 33 Comments

Compass “Hirose Design” Decaleurs


Compass is proud to introduce what we consider the ultimate decaleur. Combining the ideas of René Herse and H. Hirose with Nitto’s craftsmanship, the new Compass decaleurs are strong, light, beautiful and reliable.


Here is why decaleurs are important: We love handlebar bags. They are a great way to carry the things you need during your ride: accessible without having to get off the bike. The map holder on top greatly reduces your chances of getting lost, since you have your map or cue sheet visible at all times. And with a handlebar bag, your bike handles better than with a rear bag: It’s much easier to ride out of the saddle – none of that “tail wagging the dog” effect.

A little less important, the bag shields your legs when riding in the rain. On chilly mountain descents, you can tuck your hands under the flap for a little extra protection from the wind. Handlebar bags are more aerodynamic than rear bags, too. (We tested that in the wind tunnel.) Lots of pluses…


The only minuses are that
a) you need a rack to support the bag optimally (we’ve solved that with the various racks Compass now offers), and
b) the bag attaches to the handlebars, which can get in the way of your hands in the “on the tops” position.


Enter the decaleur, which keeps the bag away from the handlebars. (Decaler” means “to move out of the way” in French). A good decaleur also provides a handy quick-release for your bag. Just pull the bag upward, attach your shoulder strap, and take your important belongings with you when you lock up your bike. (The photo above shows the decaleur on a 1952 René Herse. The U-shaped piece on top prevents water from getting into the decaleur tubes when no bag is mounted.)

All this would be great, if decaleurs didn’t have their own problems. There are many designs, but none of the off-the-shelf versions have worked well in the past. One popular model attached to a stem spacer – and quickly broke from the vibrations as the bike rolled over rough roads. Another is adjustable in every conceivable way, but the adjustments never stayed put. A friend finally had his brazed together to make it “non-adjustable”, but then it broke, too.


The best solution is the simple two-prong decaleur that attaches to the stem’s handlebar clamp bolts, as pioneered by the great French constructeurs. These decaleurs are strong and reliable, provided you have a perfect friction fit between the mating parts on the bag and on the stem. The constructeurs achieved that fit through careful handwork, but this has been difficult to recreate in a production setting.


Modern versions of these decaleurs often had too little friction. On Bicycle Quarterly test bikes, no fewer than four handlebar bags have flown off mid-ride. It’s not much fun… On one bike, I was braking for a stop, and the bag flew forward, landed in front of the bike, and I rode over it. On another test ride (different bike), a BQ camera met an untimely demise when the bag ejected during a gravel descent at high speed. The third one was a poorly mounted decaleur that broke off. And the fourth bike didn’t have a decaleur, instead attaching the bag only to the rack (above)…


When I visited Tokyo in 2014, I finally saw a solution that looked promising. H. Hirose had designed a simple locking mechanism which prevented the bag from coming off inadvertently. A spring-loaded pin on the stem-mounted part of the decaleur engaged with a groove on one of the prongs on the bag mount. Brilliant!

To release the bag, you push in the spring-loaded pin and pull the bag upward. To install it again, you align the two prongs on the bag with the tubes, and push the locking pin as you slide the bag downward. Release the pin after the bag is all the way down, and the bag is locked. It couldn’t be simpler.


As soon as I got back to Seattle, I modified the decaleur on my “Mule” with a similar locking mechanism to test it (above). I am happy to report that it has been working flawlessly for over two years now.


The next time I visited Tokyo, I asked H. Hirose whether Compass could license his design. He examined my prototype  – and the “Mule” I had brought along with it – for a long time, before he agreed.

While we were coming up with a new design, we thought of other ways to improve the decaleurs that Compass was selling at the time. René Herse’s last bikes had decaleurs that joined the two tubes to form a “U”. That is much stiffer, so there is less risk that the decaleurs will bend and the tubes will get misaligned.


We worked with Nitto to put this ambitious design into production. It’s hard enough to make as a one-off, but as a production run, it’s even more challenging. We figured that if anybody could do it, it would be Nitto. And they came through.

Now we are proud to introduce the new Compass “Hirose Design” decaleurs. We offer one version to fit Compass and Grand Bois (and classic René Herse) stems and another for Nitto NP (Pearl) stems. We feel confident that these are the best decaleurs anywhere – a combination of the expertise and experience of René Herse and H. Hirose. And handlebar bags flying off bikes will be a thing of the past!

Click here for more information about Compass stems and decaleurs.

Posted in Racks/Bags, Stems | 29 Comments

Spring 2017 Bicycle Quarterly


We are always excited when the final files for Bicycle Quarterly go to the printer. We think that our readers will especially enjoy the Spring 2017 issue.


We tested no fewer than three really amazing bikes. The Open U.P. (above) promises the performance and feel of a modern carbon racing bike and the go-anywhere ability of wide tires. Does it deliver?


To find out, we took it to one of the highest mountain passes in Japan. The first day, we climbed more than 2000 m (6500 ft) on pavement. The next day, we descended via a vertiginous gravel road. This wasn’t just a bike test – it was an adventure.


The Specialized Sequoia is an affordable Allroad bike intended for bikepacking. Initially planned as a one-day “First Ride”, we ended up riding the Sequoia more than 300 km (190 miles) over a variety of terrain. How do the Sequoia and and its bikepacking bags (right) compare to a more traditional randonneur bikes like the one framebuilder Corey Thompson (left) brought on one of our test rides?


The third test bike was made by BQ contributor Hahn Rossman, whose main job is building custom bikes. I suddenly realized that even though I had ridden with Hahn for thousands of miles, I’d never really been on one of his bikes. We took one of his custom machines to San Francisco. How did it perform on the steep hills and challenging descents of this beautiful city?


Natsuko Hirose tells the story of a tour in the Mexican cordillera during Easter week. Read about meeting a group of pilgrims who traversed the mountains on old racing bikes. It was one of those encounters you could only have when riding a bike.


In Germany, we visited Schmidt Maschinenbau, makers of the best bicycle lighting anywhere. During our factory tour, we saw many innovative ideas that make Schmidt’s components so exceptional. In the process, we discovered a company that cares about more than just making outstanding products.


When BQ reader Brian Sampson told me that he was going to restore a 1946 René Herse – which included making replicas of the original Speedy brakes – I had some doubts whether he’d succeed. He proved me wrong and tells the story of this heroic rebuild.


We are always excited when a company introduces new “Allroad” tires, and we were eager to test Specialized’s new Sawtooth tires. We also tried a Revelate saddlebag, and we reviewed Brooks’ new book, the Compendium of Cycling Culture.


How do you carry a bike with full fenders on a car-top roof rack? We show you how to make a detachable fender section from simple parts.



One of my favorite features is our “Icon”, where we tell the story behind a famous cycling component. In this issue, we look at the helmet that won the Tour de France. Or did it?

This and many other features make up the Spring 2017 Bicycle Quarterly. Subscribe today to make sure you get this exciting issue without delay.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 18 Comments

Bicycle Quarterly Instagram


During our Bicycle Quarterly adventures and travels, we generate hundreds – sometimes thousands – of photos. Only a fraction of them make it into the magazine, and there are many great shots that linger in the archives forever. Now Bicycle Quarterly has its own Instagram account (@bikequarterly) to share more of these inspirational photos with our readers. It’s a collaborative project of the BQ editors and contributors, who’ll also give you a behind-the-scenes look at your favorite magazine. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Click on the link below to follow Bicycle Quarterly on Instagram.


Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 2 Comments

Why We Don’t Make “Gravel” Tires


At Compass Cycles, we love riding on gravel roads, so it may come as a surprise that we don’t make “gravel” tires. Compass tires are road tires, perfected for use on paved roads. The rubber compound is optimized for grip on pavement, and the “chevron” tread pattern interlocks further with the road surface. Everything about our tires is optimized for performance, both in a straight line and around corners, in dry and wet conditions.


So why do gravel racers love our tires? Because they are supple and ultra-fast. What about the “road” tread? Wouldn’t you want knobbies for riding fast on gravel?

The truth is that on gravel, knobs don’t make any difference. Without semi-firm ground to dig into, knobs can’t do anything. When you slide, it’s because gravel is sliding on gravel, not because your tires are sliding on the top layer of rocks.


Rally drivers made a similar experience. During the early 1980s, they found that, to their surprise, the slick tires they used on the paved roads were faster on gravel than tires with more tread (above). Even though slick tires aren’t allowed on rally cars any longer for a variety of reasons, the lesson may remain valid: On gravel, tread patterns make little difference.

For bicycles, what makes a good road tire also makes a good gravel tire:

  • Supple casing: on the road, this gives you speed and comfort. On gravel, the same still holds true, but it also gives you traction, because the tire conforms to the surface, and thus has more grip. (One advantage of the rally cars’ slick tires was that they were super-soft.)
  • Large width: On smooth roads, more air just means more comfort. On rough roads and gravel, it also means more speed, because your bike doesn’t bounce (which loses energy through suspension losses).

The same features that make our tires perform so well on pavement also make them great on gravel. We’ve resisted the temptation to add knobs for a more “rugged” appearance. Instead, Compass tires offer you the best performance on a variety of surfaces. That is why we call them “Allroad” tires.

If knobbies don’t help on gravel, why does Compass now offer a knobby tire?


The answer is simple: mud. When it’s muddy, knobs dig into the surface. You get more traction, because a knobby tire needs to displace much more material to spin. We designed our Steilacoom knobbies to offer good performance on pavement, too. In fact, first tests show that they are faster than any knobby we’ve tested, but they’ll never equal the performance of our “Allroad” tires.


What about flats? Shouldn’t a gravel tire be reinforced to fend off flats?

It depends. Punctures are less likely on gravel, because the tire pushes sharp objects into the (relatively soft) ground. On pavement, the hard road surface forces the object into the tire. That is why punctures from glass or nails are rare on gravel.

Sidewall cuts from sharp-edged rocks can be a problem for some riders, and many “gravel” tires have reinforced sidewalls. But that also makes them slower, less comfortable, and reduces their traction. Cyclocross racers have ridden on high-end tubulars with very supple (and unprotected) sidewalls for decades. And many gravel racers use Compass tires without suffering from cuts. It really depends on your riding style – experienced cyclists usually ride “light” and let the bike move under them. They usually suffer from few problems. Tire pressure also plays a role. If the pressure is too high, it’s easier to damage the sidewall. A softer sidewall deflects as it hits a sharp rock rather than getting cut.


Just before winter snow closed my favorite roads last November, I was heading into the Cascades to explore gravel roads on a 700C test bike for Bicycle Quarterly. As I set up the bike for this challenging ride, I had to choose betweeen knobbies and road tires. My decision was easy: Road tires roll much better on the paved portions of the ride, while giving up nothing on gravel. They were an obvious choice.

But now I am plotting a truly muddy ride, so I can take our new Steilacoom knobbies for an adventure, rather than using them only for cyclocross…

Click here for more information about Compass tires.

Addition (2/21/2017): Several rally experts have questioned whether early-1980s rally cars used slick tires on gravel. At the time, it was reported in the German magazine Auto, Motor & Sport, but the use of slick tires on gravel may just have been isolated to a few rallies. Shortly after that report, the rules of rallying changed, and slick tires no longer were permitted, either on gravel or pavement.

Posted in Tires | 97 Comments

Reducing Our Environmental Impact


You may have seen the headlines that global temperatures have hit record highs each of the last three years. There is little doubt that global climate change is real and accelerating. The signs have been there for decades: When I worked in the Cascade Mountains on my Ph.D. in geology, I noticed how much smaller the glaciers in the Cascades were than shown on topographic maps – which had been created in the late 1950s.


For my Ph.D., I studied past climate changes, so I know that the science is complex, but it should be obvious that burning all the carbon, which was stored inside the earth over hundreds of millions of years, is not a good idea. So what should we do about it? In the absence of a coordinated response, we each can reduce our “carbon footprint” as much as possible. That is what we’ve done at Compass and Bicycle Quarterly. Here are a few things we do to minimize our emissions:

  • Shipping to our customers: Probably our greatest environmental impact is shipping Compass products to our customers. Over the last year, we switched from Priority Mail to FedEx Ground as our preferred shipper – from airplanes to more fuel-efficient trucks or trains. When you place an order anywhere, it’s worth thinking about: “Next Day” sounds tempting, but “Ground” creates much less carbon emissions.
  • Shipping products from our suppliers: We choose ocean shipping whenever possible. It requires planning ahead, but it’s also less expensive, which allows us to keep our products affordable.
  • Durable products: Manufacturing things inevitably creates emissions. We make products that last a very long time, which spreads the impact over more miles and more years of use. Our customers buy fewer products and enjoy them longer, which reduces the emissions.
  • Careful design and manufacturing: A significant portion of products never leave the factories, because the design is flawed or they get rejected by quality control. We carefully design our products and work with the best manufacturers to reduce this type of waste (and the associate emissions) to an absolute minimum.
  • Office/warehouse: 80% of our employees commute by bike or bus. We turn down the thermostat in our office and warehouse to reduce our emissions further.
  • Travel: For many of us, airplane trips represent the biggest carbon emissions. For each passenger mile, airplanes consume as much fuel as a small car with two occupants, but airplanes fly over huge distances. At Compass, we combine trips as much as possible. We fly to Japan or France not only to visit our suppliers, but also work on Bicycle Quarterly features and to visit family and friends. We try to take fewer, longer trips rather than fly all over the world multiple times. When traveling in the U.S. (and not riding our bikes), we take the train when possible, such as during our recent trip to San Francisco. Trains not only generate the least emissions, but they also are a much more relaxing way to travel.
  • Ride from home: Whenever possible, we start our bike rides at our back door. For us, there is no need to start up a car when we just want to ride our bikes. With bikes that are fully equipped for riding long distances, the “ride to the ride” is part warm-up, part meditation and part anticipation.


As cyclists who enjoy venturing off the beaten path, we love this world as much as anybody. We try to do our part to preserve the joys we know so well.

Posted in Uncategorized | 49 Comments