Panel Discussion: The Wide Tire Revolution


“Buy the nicest, most supple tires you can afford; and buy them in the widest width that you can fit in your frame.”

That is Joshua Poertner’s summary of a panel discussion on Joshua used to be the president of Zipp, the makers of super-fast aero wheels, and he did a lot of research on how to make your bike faster.

The panel included Joshua, cycling journalist James Huang, and me, with Elden Nelson (who runs the blog “The Fat Cyclist”) moderating. The goal was to explain the science behind the current trend toward wider tires to an audience of racers and performance riders, who want to understand how to make their bikes faster.

In the podcast, we talk about why narrow tires feel faster, but aren’t. We discuss how lower pressures increase the internal resistance as the tire flexes, but decrease the suspension losses from the vibrations of the bike – the two effects cancel each other, hence your speed doesn’t change.

We also talk about the history of this research. I was amazed to find out that Zipp had been doing similar research to our own. They were trying to optimize tire pressures for the professional racers they sponsored. During their testing on rough surfaces like the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, lowering tire pressure made their racers faster – until their wheels broke. The next step was to go to wider tires, so the wheels could survive… And then they found that even on smooth roads, lower pressures and wider tires were faster. They considered these findings “trade secrets”, and yet the other teams just had to read Bicycle Quarterly to get the same information. And eventually they did…

To me, Joshua’s conclusion really is remarkable: “Buy the most supple and widest tire you can fit in your frame.” His words could just as well have been mine. To have the guy who designed wheels for Zipp say this… It shows that the wide tire revolution has reached cycling’s mainstream.

Click here to listen to the entire podcast.


Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 29 Comments

Autumn 2016 Bicycle Quarterly


The Autumn Bicycle Quarterly went to the printer today. It’s always a great sense of satisfaction to complete another issue.

A lot goes into each BQ: organizing trips and scheduling test bikes; photography on the road and in the studio; writing, editing, copy-editing and proofreading; photo selection and layout; color corrections to make the images jump off the page; and finally, checking and re-checking multiple sets of proofs. The last check will occur as the magazine comes off the printing presses.

It takes a hard-working team to do it. We are fortunate that almost everybody involved in Bicycle Quarterly is passionate about cycling…


Bicycle Quarterly continues to bring you the news you really want to read about: In France this summer, the famous Technical Trials were organized for the first time since 1949! It was exciting to be part of the jury at this event, where bicycles (and not riders) competed for the prize of the best “light randonneur bike”. Some of the bikes used tried-and-true solutions (above), but others featured suspension, disc brakes, and even a carbon frame with integrated fenders.


We bring you a full report from this great event, including on-the-road observations of the bikes as they were ridden over a very challenging course. We present two of the most amazing bikes – including the winning machine – in beautiful studio photos.


To complete our in-depth coverage of the Technical Trials, we tested one of the most surprising machines: The PechTregon combines its rack and fork into one lightweight unit.

The whole event was a truly great experience, because it was all about bike performance and reliability for real-world riding. Best of all, the Technical Trials will be organized in regular intervals, so builders can improve their bikes with each iteration.


The original Technical Trials were part of the mid-century cycling culture of France, when cyclotourists who used every opportunity to take the train to the mountains and go riding. Today, that lifestyle still exists in Japan. We join the cyclotourists of Tokyo and take you on three amazing autumn tours, each to a completely different destination.


Bicycle Quarterly is famous for its in-depth bike tests. The Autumn issue features the Litespeed T5g “gravel” bike. We’ve asked for bikes like this since the early days of Bicycle Quarterly: full-on racing bikes with extra clearance for wide tires. This leads to two questions: How good is the Litespeed on the rough? But also: How much of the “racing bike” remains – how fast is this “gravel bike” on smooth pavement?

To answer the first question, we took the Litespeed on the search for the “Lost Pass” in Cascade Mountains. You’ll read how the bike coped with a truly challenging ride. As so often during our adventures, the road started out smooth (photo), but it didn’t remain that way…

We also tested the Litespeed on pavement, because we know that many cyclists are wondering: If we go to wide tires, what are we giving up on smooth rides? Will we be able to keep up with our friends on fast Sunday morning rides that never stray from pavement?

For this issue, we tested whether wide and ultra-wide tires slow you down on steep climbs. By pitting the wide-tire machines against the fastest bike we’ve ever tested on our “reference” hillclimb, we find out!


Can you imagine importing high-end French Uragos to Detroit in the late 1930s? That was John Fletcher’s plan. Yet his friends remember him not for his business endeavors, but because he was a truly inspirational gentleman. His story, as well as that of his 1937 Urago, are told in a beautiful article. Evocative photos immerse you into a cycling culture that has almost been forgotten.


Back to the current day: Tom Moran takes you on a ride along the “Southern Tier” across the United States – in mid-winter. Tom is from Alaska, so he thought that the southern border of the U.S. would be warm and dry in winter. Not so – but that and other adventures led him to encounter strangers, whose kindness made his trip all the more memorable.

BQ 57 mudflap

If you get caught in the rain unexpectedly, you need mudflaps for your fenders. In our “Project” article, we show you how to make them from materials you can find virtually anywhere.


Our “Skill” article shows you how to corner with confidence. How do you guide the bike in a smooth arc? And what do you do if you find yourself going too fast in mid-corner?

There is a lot more in the Autumn issue… We hope this short overview is enough to whet your appetite!

Be sure to get your Bicycle Quarterly without delay: Click here to renew or subscribe.


Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 7 Comments

Riding a Tandem with Lyli Herse


No visit to France would be complete without seeing Lyli Herse. I first visited her after riding the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris on a 1946 René Herse tandem. I wanted to learn more about her father, the famous constructeur, and about Lyli’s own sporting exploits, which include eight French championships.


Over the years, we became friends. We rummaged around her garage and found suitcases of historic photos (above) that were published in our book on René Herse. It was a great honor when she asked me whether I wanted to become the custodian of the René Herse name and brand. That is how René Herse’s ground-breaking components are available once more, updated with the latest technologies.


Whenever we visit, we organize a reunion of the “pilotes de Herse”, the riders on Herse’s team. This year, it was just a small group (left to right): Jean-Marie Compte, Pierre Nédéllec, myself, Natsuko, Lyli and Robert Demilly. All of these gentlemen still ride their bikes, and their form remains inspirational. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, considering their past achievements in rides like Paris-Brest-Paris, where they came first (1965, Demilly) and second (1961, Nédéllec)…


Three years ago, we celebrated Lyli Herse’s 85th birthday by riding a lap around the course of the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race. It was a great honor to pilot Lyli on a tandem built by her father for this race. She has lost little of her competitive spirit – we dropped all but one young rider on the 14% climb from Chanteloup!

But then, Lyli won the tandem race of almost every Poly from 1945 until she became a racer in the mid-1950s.


Even at age 88, Lyli rides her trainer every day. Behind her, you can glimpse her training log, which shows almost 7000 km for this year! This year, we had lunch at a small restaurant on the old course of the Poly, but sadly, there wasn’t a ride planned. One of the riders had crashed into a newly installed barrier on his familiar route, another was recovering from a hospital visit, and Lyli didn’t feel up to riding, either.


But you never know, and that is why my friend Ivan Souverain had dropped off his lovely 1945 René Herse tandem at Lyli’s house. It’s sized perfectly for Lyli and I. We were keen to try it, and so Natsuko and I took a spin around the neighborhood. And then I asked Lyli whether she wanted to have a go. Her smile grew big. I was surprised how quickly she climbed on the back of the tandem, and then we were off.

We did one lap of the neighborhood, then another, then explored further. Lyli’s pedal stroke remains as fluid and strong as ever – it must have been a great experience to ride the Poly de Chanteloup with her. One year, she and Jacques Primout actually lapped the hilly course faster than the professional racers – and back then, the Poly drew the greatest stars from France and beyond. (To the pros defense, their race was almost three times as long, but still…)


I hope I’ll be able to do many more tandem rides with Lyli Herse.


When we said “Au revoir”, Lyli gave us a bouquet with roses from her garden. It survived the trip back to Paris, and graced our hotel room for the rest of our stay. What a charming lady!

Further reading:

Posted in Rides | 14 Comments

The Missing Piece: Suspension Losses


How does it work that wide tires are as fast as narrow ones? It is really simple:

Comfort = Speed

When your bike vibrates, energy is dissipated as friction. That energy must come from somewhere – it no longer is available to propel the bike forward, so your bike slows down. That is why your bike rolls faster on smooth pavement than on rough chipseal.

At Bicycle Quarterly, we started testing tires on real roads, with a real rider, in 2006. We found that higher tire pressures don’t make your bike faster. Back then, that was pretty revolutionary. Previous tests on smooth drums had shown that the harder you pumped up your tires, the faster you went. But smooth steel drums aren’t a good model for what happens on real roads, and the results were misleading.

Over the last couple of years, our findings have become generally accepted. Most tech writers now talk about vibrations that slow down your bike. The missing piece is: How do vibrations slow you down? The most common explanation is that your bike goes up and down as it vibrates. All that climbing adds up and costs a lot of energy.

It’s true that vibrations slow you down, but it’s a bit more complicated. Energy cannot disappear. The only way to “lose” energy is to convert it to heat through friction. When you climb a mountain pass, you put in energy as you gain elevation. As you descend on the other side, you get some of it back – you can coast downhill without pedaling – but most of it is converted to heat by your wind resistance. During the descent, your bike accelerates until you reach “terminal velocity”, where the energy input from the elevation loss equals the energy consumed by wind resistance.

That explains where the energy goes when you cross a mountain pass. It cannot explain what happens when your bike vibrates on flat roads.


We tested various equipment on rumble strips to get a maximum value for the energy that is lost to vibrations. We found that riding on this “very rough” road can take up to 290 Watt more power than riding on smooth pavement at the same speed. So it’s true, vibrations can absorb a huge amount of energy. It was almost impossible to keep the bike moving at our testing speed on the “very rough” road. (Of course, in real life, you don’t ride on rumble strips, but the point was to see how much energy could be lost just by changing the surface roughness, and keeping everything else the same.)

Since we were going at the same speed as on the smooth pavement, the our wind resistance was the same, and yet we had to push the pedals with 290 Watts more. So where did all the energy go?


A little bit went into heating the tire as it flexes, but pneumatic tires don’t absorb much energy even when they bounce. Think of a basketball. When you drop it, it bounces back almost as high as before. Very little energy is lost, even though it deflects as it hits the ground. As the basketball hits the ground, it compresses and becomes an air spring. Then it stops, before it starts accelerating upward again. The “spring” in the ball returns most of the energy, and the ball bounces almost as high as it did with the last bounce.


Tires work the same way. When a tire hits a bump (left), it deforms (arrow). Energy is stored – the tire becomes a compressed spring. On the other side of the bump (right), the energy is released, pushing the tire off the bump. The net loss of energy is small.

If the energy isn’t lost in the tire, then where does it go?


The answer is simple: As the rider’s body vibrates, the tissues (muscles, tendons, skin, etc.) rub against each other. This can convert an enormous amount of energy into heat. How much? In a study of vibrating tank seats, the U.S. Army found that up to 2000 Watt were absorbed by a human body before the vibrations became too painful to endure. The discomfort was directly proportional to the energy loss.

2000 Watt! That is more than the power output of a pro racer. Clearly, a lot of energy can be lost due to these vibrations. The technical term for this is “suspension loss”. It also occurs in shock absorbers of cars – rally cars’ shock absorbers absorb so much energy that they get hot – so hot that they need dedicated cooling.


We also tested different types of equipment on the new, super-smooth pavement next to the rumble strips. We were surprised that even on very smooth pavement, reducing vibrations through supple tires – and even, to a lesser degree, a suspension fork – resulted in significant performance gains.

What this means for cyclists is simple: If your bike’s vibrations are uncomfortable, it’s because energy is converted into heat, inside your body. This energy is lost from the forward motion of the bike. As far as vibrations are concerned, being uncomfortable slows you down. Or seen the other way around, the more comfortable your bike is, the less power goes to suspension losses, and the more power is available to drive it forward:

Comfort = Speed

It really is that simple. And it’s revolutionized how we think about bikes: Wide, supple tires are faster because they vibrate less. Fork blades that absorb road shocks – even suspension forks – are faster, not just on rough roads, but even on relatively smooth roads, because they reduce vibrations. On real roads and at the speeds most of us ride (<25 mph), the best “gravel” and “Allroad” bikes actually are faster than their racing bike cousins.


This means that the biggest improvement in your bike’s performance comes from a set of wide, supple tires. “Supple” means that the casing is thin and easy to flex. This has two benefits:

  1. Supple tires are easy to flex, so they transmit fewer vibrations (lower suspension losses). That is Reason 1 why they are faster.
  2. Supple tires are easy to flex, so it takes less energy as they deform them as they rotate (lower hysteretic losses in the tire casing itself). Reason 2 why they are faster.

Wide tires also transmit fewer vibrations, which makes them faster than narrower ones.

Our testing shows that supple casings are more important than width. A supple 26 mm tire is much faster (and more comfortable) than a stiff 38 mm “touring” tire. Of course, ideally, you’ll get it all – a wide and supple tire.

This research led us to develop our Compass tires. While quite a few makers offered supple racing tires in widths up to 25 mm, there weren’t (and still aren’t) many great high-performance tires in wider widths. So we worked with one of the best and most experienced makers of bicycle tires – Panaracer in Japan – to create the fastest, most supple tires possible.


For our Extralight series, we use a casing that usually is reserved for high-end, hand-made racing tubulars. On top goes a layer of extra-grippy, yet long-wearing, rubber with our trademark tread pattern that interlocks with the road surface for extra grip. The result are our Compass tires – available in widths from 26 mm to 54 mm.


Before releasing these tires in 2014, we tested them extensively on some of the roughest gravel roads to ensure they were durable enough for real-world riding. Since then, they’ve proven themselves in gravel races, but also on paved courses like Paris-Brest-Paris. They even took second place in the Washington State Road Racing Championships. The riders who use them are our best advertisers, recommending them to everybody who is willing to listen. We rarely advertise – instead, we focus on new research that will improve our products even further.

Further reading:

Photo credit (gravel racing): Chyla’s Race Photos.

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 62 Comments

Choosing Your Crank Length


Our Compass René Herse cranks are available in three lengths to cover the needs of nearly all cyclists. The lengths we offer are a bit unusual, but there is a reason for this: Our cranks use dedicated forgings for each length. The “net shape forging” makes our cranks stronger than if we machined them to length. Our cranks are the only classic models that pass the most stringent EN “Racing Bike” standard for fatigue resistance.

However, this also means that we need a new forging die for each crank length. The investment is substantial. We thought hard about which lengths we need, so that nearly all cyclists would find the most biomechanically efficient cranks in our program. We selected 165, 171 and 177 mm.

Other makers may offer more lengths, but they either are huge companies (Shimano, Campagnolo) who amortize their forging dies over much larger numbers, or they machine their cranks to length (virtually all small makers). Machining the pedal eye weakens the area that is most likely to break, so that wasn’t an option for us: All Compass parts must meet or exceed the performance of the world’s best components.

We settled on three crank lengths (and three forging dies), because a millimeter or two really does not make a difference in how a cranks feel or perform. Here is how our crank lengths translate to the more common ones used by most cyclists:


For example, if you currently use a 175 mm crank, we recommend a 177 mm. It’s just 1.1% longer. (Consider that the tolerances of crank lengths are about 1 mm anyhow, so if you measured your 175 mm cranks carefully, they might actually turn out to be 176 mm long.)

It’s generally accepted that only differences of more than 5% are significant. The largest difference between the Compass René Herse cranks and the common lengths is just one-third of that threshold. Riders who’ve tried our cranks report that they cannot tell any difference compared to the lengths they used before. This means that 95% of cyclists can use Compass René Herse cranks and get the feel and performance they are used to. (Fewer than 5% of cyclists need cranks that are significantly shorter than 165 mm or significantly longer than 180 mm.)


Apart from the strength and beauty, the main thing we like about our René Herse cranks is the almost unlimited chainring choice. These days, even the big makers offer only a handful of chainring combinations. The Compass René Herse cranks allow you to get the gearing that works best for you. We offer chainrings from 52 to 24 teeth, in single, double and triple configurations, even for tandems.

For example, I use 48-32 rings for Paris-Brest-Paris, 46-30 rings for general randonneuring, and 44-28 rings for cyclotouring. They are easy to swap, if needed – you don’t even have to remove the cranks. This means that the Compass René Herse cranks can be tailored to your body and riding style more than any other crank on the market.

Further reading:

  • Blog post on how to choose your chainrings.
  • Click here to find out more about Compass René Herse cranks.
Posted in Rene Herse cranks | 31 Comments

Cyclotouring in the Ardèche


After the Technical Trials, we spent a few days with our friend Richard Léon in the Ardèche region. It was fun to explore this area at a cyclotouring pace.


The region is criss-crossed by tiny roads, and Richard knows them all. It’s hilly, which makes for beautiful climbs where we can appreciate the scenery…


… and fast downhills to enjoy the winding roads.


Most roads were paved, but some were on gravel. All day, we saw just a handful of cars.


The landscape is amazing, with tiny villages dotting the volcanic terrain.


People seem to enjoy a lifestyle that combines the best of today with cherished traditions. There has been an effort to keep bakeries and cafés open in almost every town, and we even saw this lady in an old Citroën Mehari arrive for her shopping. “We bought it 32 years ago, and we really like it,” she told us. It’s nice to see that the France of my childhood still exists…


The lavender fields were in full bloom, adding amazing dots of color to the patchwork of small fields.


We leaned out bikes against ancient stone walls and ate lunch at small restaurants before continuing our rides. It was a most enjoyable visit.

Further viewing:

Posted in Rides | 14 Comments

The Inspiration: Bicycle Quarterly


Bicycle Quarterly is the inspiration for everything we do. It’s the basis for our research and development: The all-road performance of Compass tires was developed through Bicycle Quarterly’s testing of tires. The supreme comfort of Compass’ Randonneur handlebars became apparent as we rode many bikes across varied terrain for BQ features. But more than that, Bicycle Quarterly has been the inspiration for the riding we do. All the wonderful parts in the world really serve only one purpose: to make your and our rides more memorable and fun.


The latest BQ is a good example: We test a Firefly Enduro Allroad bike on the amazing road over the Paso de Cortés in Mexico (above). Rides like these inspire us to search for improvements, not just in our own components, but also in the way things are done across the bike industry. The recent move toward wider tires is a good example.


Who would have thought that 54 mm-wide high-performance tires offer so much cornering grip that the low-rider panniers scraped on the road when we leaned deep into corners?


Studying the past can be an inspiration for the future, too. Takayuki Nishiyama’s big article about Suntour in the current Bicycle Quarterly has us thinking about derailleur design. Should we look at slant parallelograms not just for rear derailleurs, but also for fronts?


The most important inspiration is to go and ride. Natsuko Hirose’s article about touring Hokkaido with a group of students shows that any bike can be used for memorable trips – just go, and figure it out as you go along. These are just three of the articles in the current Bicycle Quarterly.

The best part of my job as editor of Bicycle Quarterly is when readers write to us how much they enjoy the magazine. The last issue received more mail than any before – here are a few samples:

  • “Why can’t this amazing quarterly come out six times a year?”
  • “The magazine is the only one, on any subject, I always read cover to cover, and it just keeps getting better. The current mix of travel stories, reviews, historical information, and technical stories is, for me, ideal.”
  • “The ride across the Paso de Cortés was a great read.”


We are already working on the Autumn BQ, but you don’t want to miss the Summer issue. Subscribe today, and you’ll get the Summer issue automatically as the first of your subscription. If you enjoy what we do, you’ll enjoy the magazine – guaranteed. (We actually refund the unused portion of your subscription if you cancel, yet that happens only once or twice a year.)

Which was your favorite article in a recent Bicycle Quarterly?

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 10 Comments