Cyclotouring in the Rain

friends

On a rainy weekend in late September, a group of seven friends headed out for a weekend tour in the mountains. We took a long train ride from Tokyo to Fukushima. We started climbing almost as soon as we left the station. Up an up we went, into a landscape hidden by clouds and rain.

clouds

When the clouds opened up for a moment, I saw mountains shrouded by mist. Then they were gone again. As I pondered the mystery of this elusive landscape, I realized how much I enjoy discovering a new place.

road_trees

Riding in the fog was almost meditative. The muted sounds reinforced the quiet and solitude of the small roads.

onsen_steam

I looked up from my musings to see steam coming out of the mountainside. This was a mesmerizing spectacle for me, but for my friends it was nothing unusual. A volcanic spring emerged from the mountainside here, and the water was traveling to an Onsen bath through ancient wooden pipes.

boats

The rain stopped as we passed a beautiful lake, where an inviting line of row boats beckoned us to enjoy the still waters. But cyclotourists cannot linger too long, if they want to reach their destination. Riding our bikes, we experience the world quite intimately with every hill and valley, yet we are also outsiders who observe more than we participate. I often think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s romantic descriptions of this feeling. A mail pilot during the 1920s, he landed his plane in exotic places for half a day, then took off into his own world, up in the clouds, again.

little_road

The lure of a mysterious road and a sense of discovery are big parts of cyclotouring. And, as my Japanese is still limited, I had no idea where we were going. I could only follow my friends. This made the ride up this tiny mountain road full of anticipation.

nuruyu_onsen

The mountain road dead-ended in a narrow valley at a centuries-old Onsen bath and Ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn). This was our destination. Soaking in the hot bath, we relaxed and warmed up after a day of riding in the rain.

onsen_window

After the bath, we left our wet cycling clothes hanging to dry and donned the hotel’s yukata robes. These cotton robes mean that you don’t need to bring a complete change of clothes when you travel. On this chilly day, we also used the woolen capes that the hotel provides.

We sat down to a wonderful dinner of traditional Japanese fish, meats and vegetables. There was much laughter and merriment during the drawn-out meal. I caught snippets of stories about mountain passes (“touge”), bicycles (“jitensha”), the weather (“tenki”)… Even though I couldn’t follow most of what was being said, I was aglow with a warm and happy feeling. Cyclotouring is even more enjoyable with friends.

The first time I rode in these mountains was on a beautiful spring day, and it was spectacular. But despite the lack of cooperation from the weather on this rainy weekend, we had a great time. Perhaps cyclotouring’s greatest appeal is that it can be enjoyed almost anywhere, almost anytime.

Posted in Rides | 40 Comments

Steilacoom Tire Testing

surch_pack

We thoroughly test every Compass product before we release it. We also seek unbiased evaluations from experienced riders who weren’t involved in the development of the products. For the new Compass Steilacoom cyclocross tires, we gave them to a number of cyclocross and gravel racers. Two of them have reported back in detail, and we are happy that they like the new tires even more than we do. Matt Surch (above) is one of the fastest gravel racers in Ontario. Wade Schultz (below) is a Category 2 ‘cross racer from Seattle.

remount

Both liked the performance on damp surfaces and mud – Matt commented: “The grip is fantastic, allowing extreme lean angles” – but that was to be expected on a tire with big, widely spaced knobs. What surprised them both was the excellent performance on pavement.

surch_pavement

Wade: I expected these tires to be appropriately slow on smooth pavement, but was frankly surprised by how well they did. Their rolling resistance is lower than other pure mud CX tires (tight center knob spacing helps). I love the excellent transition from center to side-knobs. I did not experience any on/off traction vagary on corner lean initiation.

Matt: My Woven rims have a very good tubeless bead shelf and inner ridge that holds the bead in place. They mounted easily, and I went out for a cx rip. Wow! Seriously, I didn’t expect this tread to roll so well. Yes, it’s pretty close to linked in the centre, but with so much open space, I thought they’d feel slow on pavement. Nope. Instead, they just feel like they roll sort of crazy fast, like faster than they should.

This isn’t a complete surprise – much thought and development went into the spacing of the knobs. We didn’t want to space them so close that they’d clog up and no longer grip on mud, but we alternated them in a way that keeps the tire supported, rather than have it bump up and down as the knobs pass underneath.

surch_sand

The other question is what tire pressure is ideal for these tires? Matt tested the absolute minimum he could run:

Matt: I took pressure down to 27, which was low enough to fold the rear on off cambers and fold the front on some soft to hard transitions. This is the same sort of folding I’d expect from my tubulars, and I figure if I can get a tubeless tire to fold but not burp, I’m good. I lost no pressure at all after 40 minutes of trying to get them to burp. And this is minutes after mounting.

A minor note of caution: Running your tires at pressures this low gives you the ultimate in traction for cyclocross racing, but it can reduce the life expectancy of the tires, as the casings are under a lot of stress when they fold over.

matt_off_camber

Matt raced the tires in the first races of the season. He reported after the first one:

Matt: My experience through the 60 minutes of racing was overwhelmingly positive. I didn’t feel at 100% physically at the start, yet I had my best cx race I can remember, finishing closer to a few adversaries than ever before, for 4th overall in the Senior / Master 1 race.

wade_woodland

It’s exciting that the tires work as well as we had hoped. A lot of thought went into that tread design – it’s much more than just a few widely spaced knobs – and we are glad that the tires offer the on-pavement speed and smooth cornering that we wanted to achieve. Here are the final words from these two experienced racers:

Wade: Is my satisfaction with this tire linked more directly to the casing volume (vs traditional cx tubulars) or the tread design? [I suspect the answer is: Both.]

Matt: I am extremely happy with them. Congrats on making an awesome tire.

Further info:

Photo credits: Andrea Emery (Photos 1, 4, 5); Heidi Franz (Photos 2, 6) Alain Villeneuve (Photo 3).

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 10 Comments

Hirose Mini-Velo

minivelo_full2

The Autumn 2016 Bicycle Quarterly includes a photo feature about riding in the Hirose Owners’ Meeting. I really enjoy these events, because they combine amazing bikes with wonderful rides. Many Japanese custom bikes are incredibly elaborate and beautifully crafted, yet they are intended to be ridden.

What makes “Hirose watching” so much fun is that each bike is completely different. Some have Hirose’s custom rear derailleurs, which are based on the classic Cyclo “pizza cutter” derailleur – except they are 10-speed compatible. I have seen at least four completely different front derailleurs Hirose has made. One bike shown in the BQ article has Mafac cantilevers, with an extra pulley to double the mechanical advantage of each brake.

Whereas most builders will turn you away if your ideas are too crazy, Hirose-san will look at you for a while and say: “That is an interesting question. Let me see how I can solve it.” The amazing thing is that he really does solve it: All his bikes work great. They have nothing of the “not-quite-there prototype” quality that you often get with one-offs.

minivelo_rear

At the last Owners’ Meeting, I was especially fascinated by this Mini-Velo. Mini-Velos use smaller wheels to make them easier to portage on narrow mountain trails. They also are popular for city riding because they are especially nimble. This one looked simple at first, but a closer look showed that it was anything but. Click on the images for higher resolution.

minivelo_cableentry

On this Mini-Velo, all cables run inside the frame tubes (except the front brake, which would require a cable run too convoluted to work well).

minivelo_internal_cables

In the photo above, you can see the cables for front and rear derailleur, as well as the rear brake, enter the frame.

minivelo_seatcluster

Here you see the crossed-over seatstays, and the exit for the brake cable, which then runs through the seat tube to the rear brake. Clever – but there is another reason why Hirose used the crossed-over seatstays.

The rear derailleur cable also runs through the top tube. This avoids having to route it around the bottom bracket – the straighter cable run makes for better shifting. The crossed-over seatstays allow the cable to enter the stay without having to get around the seatpost. If you didn’t know the cable was in there, you would never guess. All cables run inside small tubes that connect entry and exit points, so replacing a cable is easy. But just imagine assembling it all as you braze the frame!

minivelo_cableexit

The shifter cable exits the seatstay – also with a straighter cable run than if it used the usual path along the chainstay. The shifting is superb, which isn’t always the case with internally routed cables.

minivelo_rearbrake

With the crossed-over seatstays and the elegant brake cable routing through the seat tube, the rear brake must be on the front of the seatstays. Hirose-san prefers centerpull brakes, and for this bike with narrow tires, he used an old set of Mafac Competitions. But with the small wheels, the brake sits much lower than usual, and the angled stays are too far apart for the brake bosses.

The solution? A curved bridge that provides the mounting points for the brake pivots with the right spacing. The brake pad holders are custom-made, too – Hirose-san does not like the riveted Mafac originals (which can loosen – this is not a problem with the one-piece Compass brake shoe holders). So he machines his own posts that screw onto modern pad holders, so he can use them with classic centerpull and cantilever brakes.

minivelo_decaleur2

The decaleur also is a fabrication tour de force. It attaches both to the front and the rear of the (custom-made) stem! This is necessary to make it stronger and more stable, since there is no rack to support the bag. There top part of the part that attaches to the bag doubles as a handle.

minivelo_bagsupport

The elegant bag support doesn’t need triangulation, since the weight of the bag is suspended from the saddle.

minivelo_headlight

Chrome-plated lugs and fork crown add beauty, but the bike doesn’t take itself too serious – how about the custom-made holder for a whimsical front light?

minivelo_reflector

The reflector attaches to the pump, making it easy to remove if you don’t think you’ll need it.

minivelo_bottlecage

A custom bottle cage…

minivelo_taillight2

… and a beautiful taillight provide the finishing touches to this amazing machine. And having seen it on the road, it appears that it rides as well as it looks. It’s truly a show-case of Hirose’s genius.

Further reading:

Posted in Rides | 28 Comments

A Different Kind of Company

Unknown

A few months ago, Bicycle Retailer and Industry News (BRAIN) ran a feature on Compass Bicycles. It drove home a point that I hadn’t really thought much about: Compass is a different kind of bike company.

BRAIN quoted Elton-Pope Lance about Harris Cyclery’s experience: “The shop doesn’t introduce customers to the brand; they come in asking for Compass tires or parts.”

wright_bros

This bottom-up approach is the opposite of the industry norm. Usually, a company launches a product. The company introduces the product to dealers at the big trade shows. The dealers then order it and present it to their customers, the cyclists. The cyclists usually are the last to find out that a new product exists.

With Compass, it’s the other way around: Riders go to their shops and ask for our products. Shops then contact us to set up a wholesale account. (It’s easy, because we aren’t a big company that makes shops jump through hoops.) Thanks to our customers, we now have more than 450 bike shops all over the world who carry Compass components.

bike_test_group_fb

The difference goes deeper than just how our products are introduced – it’s also how we develop them. Compass didn’t start with a market analysis. Compass didn’t really have a business plan, either. Compass started with a bunch of us riding our bikes.

For the long and adventurous rides we liked to do, we needed tires and components that weren’t available. So we developed them ourselves. We made prototypes and then put them into production by working with the best suppliers in the industry. That is how Compass started, and that is how we operate today.

GravelHelens

We were surprised by the positive response to our products. We weren’t the only ones interested in tires for spirited rides that combined paved and gravel roads. Many riders also needed handlebars that were comfortable during all-day rides and beyond. They wanted cranks with chainrings that suited their gearing needs, rather than those of racers. And so on…

The BRAIN article quotes Kathleen Emry of Free Range Cycles: “Compass tires are much wider than even commuters are used to, yet almost everyone comments on how supple they are and how much faster they feel.” We are excited that customers enjoy our products as much as we do.

Thanks to customers like you, who spread the word about our products, we don’t have to go to trade shows or create marketing campaigns. Instead, we can focus all our resources on making better products.

big_rock_snow

We develop every product to meet our own exacting standards. When we ride far beyond the horizon, when we crest mountain passes at night, when we take our bikes to the limit on hairpin after hairpin during twisty mountain descents, we must have complete confidence in our bikes. That is the standard we apply to everything we make.

And we realize that without our customers, these products wouldn’t exist. And we wouldn’t be out there riding and developing new products, because we’d have to market our existing program. Without you, Compass wouldn’t be possible! Thank you!

Posted in Components | 32 Comments

Utsukushigahara – The Perfect Day Ride

volcano

My schedule in Japan is busy, but I really wanted to go for a ride in the mountains. “Why don’t you ride to Utsukushigahara?” suggested Natsuko. “It even has some gravel.” So on Saturday morning, I joined hundreds of hikers and cyclists who boarded the first Super Azuza Express that runs from Shinjuku to Matsumoto.

rinko_bag

Without fenders and racks, racing bikes are quite easy to Rinko – just remove both wheels and the handlebars – as long as you don’t mind a larger package that doesn’t stand on its own.

assembled

Just five minutes after I got off the train in Chino, the Firefly was assembled and ready to roll.

rinko_strapped

The Rinko bag I use for this bike is about 3x as bulky as the superlight Ostrich bags we sell, but I managed to strap it under the saddle just fine.

first_touge

After a 10-minute warm-up in the valley, the road started climbing. In Japan, this means 10-15% for a little over an hour. Fortunately, the Firefly “planes” wonderfully for me, and the climb was great fun.

At the top of the first pass (above), I stopped at a little souvenir/food shop. The owner gave me two tomatoes with salt and spices. “You need vitamins!” he said. They were delicious.

hairpins

The road dropped back down, before climbing what seemed like a vertical wall. The terrain was so steep that the hairpin turns were built on bridges, since there was no room for them otherwise. Signs by the roadside indicated the elevation: 1700 m, 1800 m, 1900 m. In the distance, I could see a huge volcano poke out of the clouds (photo at the top of the post).

near_top

Utsukushigahara is a neat place: Roads lead up to it from both sides, but the top is connected only by gravel trails. It’s a popular destination for cyclists, and I saw a few riders walk their bike along the 5 km hike across the top. No need to walk on the Firefly, of course!

highlands

The Utsukushigahara Highlands are very pretty. In the summer, they are used for pasturing cows. The path gets incredibly steep for the last hundred meters to the top. Fortunately, it’s paved, because maintaining traction on loose gravel would be next to impossible.

2034m

Then I reached the top. A stone engraving showed the altitude: 2034 m (6673 ft). It really feels like the top of the world.

gravel_hairpin

Taking the bike around the switchbacks on the gravel downhill was fun. So was experimenting with the self-timer of my small camera!

skyline

What followed was that Japanese specialty, the Skyline: a road that runs along the ridgeline. It’s always up or down, but the gradients are never steep nor long, so you can go really fast. Key is knowing when to pedal, when to coast, when to tuck… It’s a great place to work on your technique, and it’s great fun.

downhill

The real downhill was even more enjoyable. It’s impossible to photograph the incredible series of hairpin turns, with hardly any straight sections in between. The map below gives you an idea of what this road is like. In just 12 km (7.5 miles), the road drops 850 m (2800 ft) – it’s fast and the many hairpins really challenge the bike’s handling.

skyline_map

It’s as if this road was custom-designed for the Firefly. The grippy, wide tires offered incredible cornering traction. I pushed the bike into the turns harder and faster until I finally could feel the limits of grip approaching – way beyond anything I’ve ever done on a bike.

Just as important is this bike’s low-trail geometry. It allowed me to adjust my line in mid-corner, because many of the hairpins have decreasing radii. With a high-trail bike on a steep downhill like this, I’d have run wide, into the oncoming traffic, many times… (Actually, I would have gone much slower to avoid this.)

cafe_pirata

Down, down, down I went. I passed a number of riders on racing bikes, whose narrow tires were limiting their speed. Motorcyclists who saw me corner at crazy lean angles waved enthusiastic encouragement. It was fun.

Then I reached a lake, and to my surprise, saw a sign for the Café Il Pirata. It’s run by a couple who are cycling fans, who serve food and drink. I got to watch a stage of the Vuelta à España while they admired my “very strange” bike. Their own fleet included racing and mountain bikes, but road bikes with wide tires still are a rarity in Japan.

A few more hairpins dropped me right into Matsumoto. It was getting dark, so I didn’t visit the famous castle, but went straight to the station and boarded the train back to Tokyo.

dream

As I fell asleep in my seat, I dreamt of this amazing ride. It combines everything I love: epic mountain climbs, vertiginous descents, gravel roads, and great scenery. It climbs more than 2900 m (9500 ft) in 90 km (55 miles).

The ride to Utsukushigahara can be done on any bike, but the Firefly really is the perfect machine for it: It combines the speed of a racing bike with the surefootedness of wide tires. I can’t wait to go back and ride it again!

Posted in Rides | 72 Comments

René Herse Rear Cable Hanger

RH_hanger

Compass Cycles is re-introducing the René Herse rear cable hanger. I have loved these simple, lightweight, elegant cable hangers – so much that I made my own when I built my Mule. There are many ways to design a rear cable stop for centerpull and cantilever brakes – this is the one I like best.

The hanger is held by the seatpost binder bolt – just make sure your slot is at least 2.5 mm thick. This is a much better solution than a cable hanger that uses a seatstay bridge (or even worse, a single post): Since the René Herse hanger is loaded in tension rather than torsion, it can be lighter, and yet it will flex less. That results in a more positive braking action, removing some of the springiness that you often feel in rear brakes.

There are other cable hangers that attach to the seatpost binder, but none are as small and light as the Compass René Herse model, which weighs just 3 grams.

de-insulated

The secret is simple: Instead of making the hanger large enough to hold the cable housing and a superfluous ferrule, the Compass René Herse hanger is sized to fit the housing without the plastic covering. Stripping the plastic covering (and deleting the extra ferrule) gives you a metal-on-metal connection that also reduces the flex between housing and hanger – again improving the braking action. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a better, more elegant way of doing this. Of course, to make the René Herse rear cable hangers requires custom-machined parts, which are more expensive than standard ferrules.

Cable_hanger

The Compass René Herse rear cable hanger is made by Nitto to our specifications. Hand-brazed from steel, it’s polished to a mirror shine and then chrome-plated for durability and beauty. It’s equipped with a slot to make removing the brake cable easy – useful for Rinko and travel bikes.

cable stop_on_frame

To match the minimalist cable hanger, we also offer cable stop braze-ons in the same size. I’ve often been bothered by the huge cable stops used on most modern bikes – they seem almost as large as the top tube! Even though I intended my Mule to be just a “working bike”, I couldn’t bring myself to using those oversized stops. Instead, I made my own, smaller stops by cutting down derailleur cable stops.

housing_stops

I won’t need to do this in the future, as we now offer these stops. Of course, you can use the René Herse rear cable hanger on many bikes, but if you build a new frame, these braze-ons result in a more elegant, lighter and more functional setup. More functional? Less flex because there is no ferrule and no outer lining of the housing.

housing_guide_arrow

 

 

At the front, where the brake cable housing turns with the handlebars, we recommend using a guide (arrow) to prevent the housing from getting kinked at the exit of the stop. This is a good idea no matter what type of cable stop you use. It’s just a short piece of tubing. On this bike, it’s been slotted to allow removing the brake cables when the bike is disassembled for Rinko.

Click here for more info on the René Herse cable hangers and housing stops.

The René Herse® name, logo and designs are registered trademarks of Compass Cycles.

Posted in Brakes, Framebuilding supplies | 27 Comments

Riding the First Recumbent

mochet_coming

Bicycle Quarterly hasn’t really covered recumbents much. It’s not that we aren’t interested, it just seems difficult to do such totally different machines justice. And yet recumbents are a perfect fit with Bicycle Quarterly‘s research into the history of cyclotouring. During the mid-1930s, recumbents were quite popular among French cyclotourists.

mochettour

Many saw them as the bikes of the future. While the racing world outlawed recumbents soon after Francis Faure set an hour record on a recumbent in 1933, cyclotourists and randonneurs couldn’t have cared less about what the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) thought: That recumbents weren’t “real” bicycles.

Recumbents appealed to “real-world” riders because they seemed to offer speed and comfort, in addition to novelty. Quite a few companies offered them: Mochet, Ravat, Vélostable… They even participated in the 1930s Technical Trials, where they were given their own category, because they couldn’t compete on weight with upright bicycles. Randonneurs in Paris-Brest-Paris were allowed to ride them, too. And for a while, recumbents received a lot of positive press.

But then they faded away. By the late 1930s, almost half of the “for sale” ads in magazines like Le Cycliste listed recumbents. I’ve often wondered: What happened?

The literature is silent on this issue – they just stopped talking about recumbents. Most riders who rode recumbents back then unfortunately no longer are with us. The best way to understand 1930s recumbents today is to ride one.

mochet_side_2

Imagine my excitement when Christophe Courbou, the organizer of the French Technical Trials, showed me his latest find: a mid-1930s Mochet Vélo-Vélocar. Mochet was the brand that started the recumbent craze of the 1930s. His machine was ridden to that infamous hour record.

Georges Mochet first developed a four-wheeled, pedal-powered car, the Vélocar. This became quite popular – people even rode across the country in them. Then Mochet had the idea of cutting the car in half, and making a bicycle out of it. Hence the strange name: Vélo-Vélocar. (It’s the bike version of the Bike Car.)

“Can I ride it?” was my immediate question. Classic bikes fascinate me, but I am not a collector. I want to ride them: How do they work? What are their strenghts and weak points? What can we learn from them. Could this be another forgotten gem like the 650B randonneur bikes that we discovered in the dusty annals of history?

mochet_side

Fortunately, Christophe’s Mochet remains in perfect condition. It clearly hasn’t been ridden a lot. Unfortunately for me, I am too tall for the bike. The size can be adjusted, but this requires a lot of work, including lengthening the chain. After the Technical Trials, there simply wasn’t enough time for this.

So I tried to ride the Mochet as is. I had to splay my legs to clear the handlebars. And I found I couldn’t keep the bike upright.

Perhaps I was too tired from riding that day’s gravel stage of the Technical Trials. Having to keep my knees from hitting the handlebars (which immediately turned them sharply) didn’t help. I am glad nobody photographed my attempts: They were too busy catching me as I kept falling over!

mochet_turning

Christophe has more practice, and he managed to ride the Mochet impressively well. But even he wasn’t keen on heading into the surrounding hills to try the Mochet on steep ups and downs.

The problem seems to stem from the universal joint in the steering. It’s beautifully made, just like the rest of the bike, and it turns very smoothly. But the handlebars only have an indirect connection to the front wheel.

On an “upright” bicycle, you simply look where you want to go, and the bike follows. On the Mochet and similar 1930s recumbents, you have to think about where you turn the handlebars and how far. That active thought process made it so difficult for me to ride the Mochet. It apparently takes a while to become intuitive. I can’t imagine that you’ll ever get the same feedback about what your contact patches are doing as you do on a “regular” bike.

Christophe also reports that sitting on the Mochet isn’t very comfortable – recumbent seats have come a long way since 1933. When you consider how highly evolved the best French cyclotouring bikes already were in the 1930s, it’s no wonder the recumbents didn’t really catch on. They clearly needed more development before they’d become viable alternatives to “upright” bikes.

mochet_going

So we now know that it wasn’t the UCI banning recumbents that caused their fall from popularity. The machines simply didn’t work well enough. The riders who bought them, often sold them after the novelty had worn off.

And yet – I want to try one for a longer ride. The old photo of the touring countryside is just too evocative. Christophe has promised that the next time I visit, we’ll fit the Mochet to my taller body, and then I can have a go. I can’t wait!

Further reading:

Posted in A Journey of Discovery, Testing and Tech | 41 Comments