Watch the Video: Ride into the Unknown

The Winter Bicycle Quarterly features the story of a remarkable adventure: Touring unknown mountain roads in the French Alps on an unrestored, 70-year-old René Herse. To bring you right into the action, we made a little video about the ride. Click on the image above to watch, before reading the full story in BQ 62 (available soon). Subscribe today to get your issue in time for the holidays.

Make sure to watch in full-screen mode. If the video does not display above, click here to watch it on YouTube.

Camera: Nicolas Joly.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 22 Comments

Introducing René Herse Cantilever Brakes

The new René Herse cantilever brakes are here! Prototypes of these brakes were one of the secrets that made Peter Weigle’s bike at this year’s Concours de Machines so light. They weigh just 75 g per wheel including bolts, springs and pad holders (without pads).

How can the René Herse cantilever brakes be that light? After all, even carbon cantilevers like the TRP RevoX are 50% heavier at 113 g. The TRP shows what happens when you take a standard brake and try to make it lighter – there is only so much you can do.

The secret of our new cantilevers is simple: They are different in many ways from most current brakes. The credit goes to René Herse, who designed these brakes for the 1940s Concours de Machines technical trials, where his bikes were among the lightest ever made. And yet his brakes weren’t just for weight weenies – they even equipped his tandems. I’ve ridden Herse tandems in the mountains, and the stopping power of the brakes was definitely sufficient.

How do you make a superlight brake? You start with an absolutely minimalist arm. Ours is forged from aluminum for ultimate strength.

Just as important is the shape – we used Finite Element Analysis (FEA) to model the stress distribution in the arms (above). Blue and green means low stresses. As you can see, Herse’s original design showed no stress concentrations. (The small spot of red is caused by a lack of reference points near the edge, not because the arm is likely to break there.) The FEA model confirms the genius of the ‘magician of Levallois,’ who didn’t need computers to make parts that were light and strong.

The arms are so minimalist that there is nowhere to attach the springs. Drilling holes would weaken the arms, so the springs wrap around them instead. You’ll also notice that there are no screws to dial in the spring tension. They aren’t necessary, because our springs are carefully equalized. You only need to adjust the tension if one spring is stronger than the other – which unfortunately is the case on many cantilevers. Making springs to such close tolerances is more expensive, but it also makes setup easier.

René Herse used post-style pads. (In fact, he may have invented them – earlier cantilever brakes used the same pads as sidepulls, which attach directly with screws.) The advantages of post-style pads are many. First, it makes it easy to adjust for pad wear – you just slide the pads inward. This means that the brakes fit on bikes with a wide range of canti post spacing. The posts also allow adjusting for minor variations in canti post height (as you slide the pads inward, the arm rotates outward, which lowers the contact of the pad on the rim.)

Post-style pads make it possible to make the arms lighter, because they don’t need flat spots with slots where the pads attach. Herse used large eyebolts to attach the pads to the arms. This is one place where our new brakes are even lighter than the originals: Optional titanium eyebolts for the pad holders save weight without sacrificing strength – these bolts are large to fit over the pad holder posts, not because they have to withstand big stresses.

To adjust the toe-in of the brake pads, René Herse simply bent the arms. That worked for him, because his brakes were used only on custom bikes, which were set up in his shop by experienced mechanics. The advantage of this method is that you only bend the arms once, and the toe-in is set forever. Later, you can replace the brake pads without having to set the toe-in again.

For our new brakes, we offer the option of angled washers that let you set the toe-in (part 28/28T, shown above in blue). This is super-simple and permanent, too, so pad replacement is easy. Since the washers take up extra space, we replace the large aluminum nut on the eyebolt with a shorter steel one. The weight goes up a fraction (4 g), but it’s a great solution for customers who aren’t comfortable bending their brake arms, or for brakes that may be used on many different bikes. (Bending the arms too often can weaken them.)

Like our centerpull brakes, the new René Herse cantilevers use an extra-thin straddle cable. This is made possible with swiveling attachments to the arms, which eliminate stresses to the cable that occur with standard clamp bolts. The thinner straddle cable isn’t just lighter, it also bends more easily around the straddle cable holder. This eliminates the flex you get with thicker straddle cables, which have to straighten first when you apply the brakes, before they can transmit brake power. The thinner straddle cable makes the René Herse brakes more powerful, yet the minimal ‘lost motion’ allows you to set the pads with plenty of clearance to the rim – without the risk of bottoming out the levers. This also means that the René Herse cantilever brakes work equally well with modern ‘aero’ and with classic ‘non-aero’ brake levers.

We’ve tested the new René Herse cantilevers on a variety of bikes over hundreds of miles. They fit over 42 mm-wide tires with 62 mm-wide fenders, or 54 mm-wide tires without fenders. They are designed to work with cantilever posts that are spaced between 62 and 84 mm wide. To work with the ultralight design of these brakes, the height of your frame’s cantilever posts must be within standard tolerances. (Your current brake’s pads should be roughly in the middle of the slots.) If the pads of your current brakes are at the top or bottom of the slots, the René Herse brakes may not fit on your frame.

We are excited that we now can use these amazing brakes on many of our own bikes. For more information about the René Herse brakes or to order a set, click here. And if you’re curious about René Herse himself, we recommend our book on the ‘magician of Levallois.’

Posted in Brakes | 52 Comments

The Forgotten Pass

During the second day of our recent cyclotouring trip to the Aizu mountains in northern Japan, we embarked on a little adventure to discover the ‘Forgotten Pass.’

In the evening of the first day, we climbed a small mountain pass, but found to our surprise that a tunnel now traversed the ridge that we had intended to climb.

It was getting dark, so we went through the bore, eager to reach our ryokan (inn) with its hot bath and sumptuous dinner. “Let’s climb the old road tomorrow,” suggested Natsuko.

Over breakfast, we looked at the topographic maps of the area. I was delighted to notice that the maps categorize roads by their width. The narrowest category is ‘less than 1.5 m (5 feet) wide.’ Even the tiny Japanese minitrucks won’t fit there. That is great information when choosing routes for cyclotouring! But for this ride, we had little to go by – the map hadn’t been updated since the tunnel was built. It still showed a road that was wide enough for 1-2 cars all the way across the pass.

The tunnel was built 10 years ago – as evidenced by a plaque on the portal – and at first, the old road looked in good shape.

But the new pavement didn’t last long. The road to the pass soon turned into a narrow, overgrown gravel path, with just a little pavement poking through once in a while. I was surprised how quickly the road had been reclaimed by nature once maintenance had ceased. It was fun to explore this ‘Forgotten Pass,’ as we named it. The autumn colors provided a beautiful backdrop for our ride, and without pavement or even gravel, we felt truly immersed in the scenery.

Through the trees, we could see fresh snow on the mountains around us.

It was hard to believe that this was a ‘real’ road just a decade ago. The curves were still lined with mirrors to see around the corner and check whether other traffic was approaching. One is visible in the center of the photo. A decade of typhoon rains had turned the mirrors completely blind. Not that we needed mirrors – the ‘Forgotten Pass’ was deserted.

Road signs warning of falling rocks had fared better than the mirrors: They looked almost new. We had to laugh at this one: The entire road was covered with soil and rocks. There was no doubt that a lot of rocks had fallen during the last ten years.

The ‘road’ became narrower and rougher, until it was little more than a hiking trail. Judging from the tracks in the soft soil, it was frequented only by deer.

Then we reached the ‘Forgotten Pass.’ The slope was less steep here, and the road was in better shape. Once, there was a parking lot with a trailhead to hiking trails. A sign still reminded visitors that they were entering public forests here.

It was a little easier cycling on the downhill. Dry leaves rustled under our tires. In places we had to portage our bikes where big rocks had fallen onto the road.

And then we were on the new road again, which seemed deliciously smooth and fast after our off-pavement adventure. To think that in ten years’ time, this road would look like the mountain trail we just came down if it wasn’t maintained continuously!

The ‘Forgotten Pass’ was a poignant reminder that our presence in these mountains is ephemeral. We are only visitors, grateful that we can come here, but the mountains only belong to themselves.

Posted in Rides | 9 Comments

Free World-Wide Shipping on René Herse Components

At Compass Cycles, we’ve been excited to see interest in our components grow all over the world. We now work with more than 500 bike shops, as well as a number of international distributors. However, some components are difficult for shops to stock. Our cranks are a typical example: They are available in three lengths, as singles, doubles or triples, with dozens of chainring combinations. And then there are the tandem cranks… Every crank is custom-assembled to order here in Seattle. It makes for a great product, but it also means that it’s difficult for most bike shops to stock all the parts needed to build these cranks.

This means that ordering directly from Compass Cycles often is the most practical solution. To make this easier for our international customers, we now offer free shipping worldwide on René Herse components. This offer includes big components like cranks and, soon, the new cantilever brakes, but not small parts like bolts, chainrings and cable hangers.

For our less specialized components, like Compass tires and handlebars, as well as the parts we distribute from Gilles Berthoud (saddles, bags), Schmidt Maschinenbau (lights, generator hubs), Honjo (fenders) and MKS (pedals), we encourage you to buy from local shops that carry these products.

Click here to find out more about René Herse components.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Autumn Trip to the Japanese Mountains

During a recent trip to Japan, we went on a short trip to the Aizu mountains in northern Honshu (Japan’s main island). It was a beautiful day, and the famous kouyou (‘autumn red leaves’) were at their best.

Like most rides in Japan, we started by taking the train. A Shinkansen bullet train whisked us a few hundred kilometers northward, then we took a small train into the hills.

We assembled our bikes, ate a late breakfast, and headed into the mountains on a small road that meandered up the slopes. There was no traffic at all. The sunlight painted the road surface into a dappled pattern of light and shade. It was a wonderful day for a ride.

With plenty of time, we explored side paths like this one that forded a creek. We climbed higher and higher until we reached a small pass. When we checked the time, we realized that we had to speed up a little if we wanted to reach our destination before dark.

 

We started zooming down the descent, but after a few turns, the road ahead was blocked. A recent typhoon had caused numerous washouts on the roads of this area. We had been able to pass a few, but here workers were installing concrete shoring. We had to turn around and retrace our steps, all the way back to the train station!

It wasn’t a huge loss, because the main road was beautiful, too. The rice fields in the valley had been harvested, and the hillsides were covered in red colors. A chill in the air betrayed that it was autumn, but with the right clothing, cycling was very pleasant.

From time to time, dark tunnels swallowed us, until we emerged into snow galleries that created a beautiful light in the afternoon sun.

In one village, a huge Gingko tree had dropped its leaves, coloring the ground in vivid yellow.

Natsuko couldn’t understand why I took a photo of the nearby parking lot. For her, this is a normal scene. The pickup trucks of rural Japan are small minitrucks. They are less menacing on the road than their North American counterparts. I suspect the diminutive size of the vehicles is one reason why Japanese rural drivers are so friendly towards cyclists. This makes cycling in the Japanese mountains very pleasant.

Darkness had fallen when we reached our beautiful ryokan (inn). After a hot bath, we enjoyed a traditional meal. We were the only guests that night, so we talked to the owner about the challenges of living in these mountains where typhoons are common, winters are long, and jobs are scarce.

The next morning, we continued our ride on little roads.

We visited a beautiful old village…

…with a restored grist mill. Every twenty seconds, the bucket under the flume filled with water. The weight lowered the end of the beam, until its angle was so steep that the water spilled out of the bucket. Then the beam dropped back, pushing the round pestle into the hole that held the grain. The periodic sound of “poc … poc … poc” used to accompany life in the villages, and here it still does today.

 

Autumn in northern Japan is a melancholic time. The colors of the trees were incredibly vibrant, but snow poles already lined the road as a sign that winter is coming. On this day, the skies turned from sunny to cloudy, and as we approached the station, it began to rain.

We could feel that the rains soon would turn to snow. In the villages, we had seen snowplows, freshly overhauled and repainted, standing by to keep the main roads open. The small roads we enjoy so much won’t be plowed – they will be closed until late spring.

We reached the train station just as it got dark. We packed our bikes for the long trip back and then locked up our Rinko bags. We had intended to visit a public bath near the station, but today was the one day of the week when it was closed. So we went to a bakery instead.

An hour later, our train arrived, and we boarded for the first leg of the trip back to Tokyo. It was a short tour, but our memories will last a long time.

Posted in Rides | 20 Comments

Compass 11-speed Chainrings

Compass Cycles is introducing the first-ever 11-speed-compatible René Herse cranks and chainrings. And the first-ever René Herse chainrings with ramps and pins. These are not just any ramps and pins: They’re carefully engineered to shift as well as the best cranks from the big manufacturers. We are proud to offer this performance with useful chainring sizes – plus the beauty and light weight of the classic René Herse cranks.

The shifting performance of our new cranks is a bigger deal than it may sound at first, because developing chainrings at this level is a major undertaking. Our engineering team has spent almost 18 months on this project. We tested prototypes for thousands of miles (above) before settling on a final design. (Many readers have wondered how the Firefly’s 11-speed drivetrain worked with the René Herse cranks, and why that simple question didn’t get a simple answer…)

There are plenty of ‘ramped-and-pinned’ chainrings out there, because it’s not hard to cut a few ramps into chainrings and rivet in some pins. But, the ramps and pins don’t do much unless they are carefully aligned with the chain path. To work well, the chain has to hit the pin just right, in the middle of an outer link. Then it gets transported seamlessly to the big ring, and the ramp only acts as a cut-out to provide an easier path for the chain.

Another key element is to treat this as a dynamic system, spinning at 50-130 rpm. When we looked at other chainrings, we quickly discovered that this was the biggest difference between the best-shifting chainrings and those that offer only so-so performance. It became clear that the three big makers understand this, but everybody else seems to design their chainrings as a static system. Here is what ‘static’ means: When you put a chain half on the small and half on the big ring (above), it fits beautifully. But when you shift while pedaling, the teeth don’t have time to snug in between the links of the chain (which is running at an angle during the shifts). As a result, the chain rides up on the chainring and the carefully-planned alignment of the chain path is compromised.

By comparison, the chain seems to fit a little less perfectly on the ‘dynamic’ chainrings from the big makers – until you are pedaling. Then you are surprised by the smooth shifts. We benchmarked Shimano’s Ultegra cranks – widely known as the best-shifting in the business – for the performance that our 11-speed René Herse cranks had to match. Now we feel that we have achieved that goal, and so we are introducing the first 11-speed-compatible René Herse chainrings in a 46-30 combination. And of course, the excellent shifting performance of these rings works with 10- and 9-speed derailleurs, too.

While the upshifts get a lot of attention, the downshifts are just as important with 11-speed, because the distance between the rings is so small that the chain no longer can just be ‘thrown’ to the inside and then land on the inner ring, as it was with older systems. The new René Herse 11-speed chainrings feature special tooth profiles to facilitate downshifts. The chainrings also are machined specifically to reduce the gap between the rings, so the ultra-narrow 11-speed chains cannot get caught between the rings.

Instead of requiring you to buy completely new cranks, only the outer chainring is new. What this means is that older Compass-made René Herse cranks can be retrofitted. However, the 46-30 ring should be used with a 30-tooth inner ring, otherwise, the chain path doesn’t work properly. The small chainrings remain unchanged, because they don’t do anything during shifts, except release the chain upward. Because only the outer ring is new, this also means that our 46-30 tandem cranks (below) are 11-speed-compatible, too.

 

The production chainrings have just arrived, so we don’t have photos yet, but rest assured that they match the beautiful finish of our other chainrings. (The photo of the ramped-and-pinned rings show unpolished prototypes.) In the future, we also plan to offer other popular chainring combinations with 11-speed compatibility.

Click here to order 11-speed cranksets or chainrings.

Posted in Rene Herse cranks | 38 Comments

Tubesets for our Bikes: Mule

In addition to individual Kaisei tubes, Compass Cycles offers three tubesets: Superlight, “Mule” and Oversize. Each tubeset is based on bikes that we have found to work extremely well. After describing the Superlight set, today we’ll look at the Mule. Named after my most versatile bike, it features an unusual configuration: an oversized down tube (31.8 mm diameter) for added stiffness, and a standard-diameter top tube (25.4 mm) for the flex characteristics that give our favorite bikes their “lively” feel.

Originally, I built the Mule for a trip to Japan as a Rinko bike that could handle both fast randonneur rides and loaded tours. The bike was intended as a test-bed for components and parts, and it was built in a rush, so we nicknamed it “The Mule”, a name used by Italian race car builders for the bare chassis that they road-tested with rudimentary bodies to finalize suspension and engines, before the car went to the carrozzeria to have its real body added.

What makes the Mule different from most bikes is that it uses an oversized down tube (31.8 mm diameter), but a standard-diameter top tube (25.4 mm). While unusual, this configuration is not without precedent: René Herse built some camping bikes, as well as some tall frames, with similar configurations. Japanese Keirin builders also build bikes with this combination of tubing diameters. And when you look at modern high-performance carbon bikes, they usually have very slender top tubes and relatively massive down tubes.

This is very different from some bikes that use an oversized top tube and a standard down tube, making both tubes the same diameter (28.6 mm). With their stiffer top tubes, these bikes don’t perform well for the BQ Team and many other riders. They also tend to shimmy, probably because both tubes have very similar resonant frequencies.

Going with a smaller top tube and larger down tube was an experiment. Would tweaking the balance of frame stiffness supercharge the Mule’s performance beyond anything we’d experienced thus far? The Mule has performed very well on many rides, but it isn’t a magic bullet: Careful back-to-back testing has shown that, for me, the Superlight tubeset gives the bike slightly better performance.

The Mule’s oversized down tube adds stiffness, yet the standard-diameter top tube keeps the flex characteristics that make for a “lively” feel. That makes the Mule perfect for carrying heavy front panniers. (I avoid loading up the rear, as that requires a much stiffer frame and also makes it difficult to rise out of the saddle.)

But the Mule isn’t just for loaded touring. Some riders who’ve ridden the Mule really like the stiffer, more planted feel compared to the Superlight spec. The Mule doesn’t shimmy as easily – even with a Chris King headset, which is prone to shimmy, the Mule is well-behaved under most conditions.

My Mule is built with a down tube that has just 0.35 mm-thick walls. With the large diameter and super-thin walls, I have found that this tube is very easy to dent. So for the Kaisei tubes, we chose 0.5 mm walls for the unbutted center sections. We offer the tubes with longer thinwall “bellies”, so the overall flex characteristics are very similar.

Even though I prefer the Superlight tubing for all-out performance, I am probably faster on the Mule than on 90% of the bikes we’ve tested at Bicycle Quarterly. I’ve ridden the Mule in a Japanese 600 km Super Randonnée with 11,000 m (36,000 ft) of climbing, and the bike felt great throughout the ride. It was only during the back-to-back testing that I realized its (slight) performance deficit. Would I do the 765-mile Paris-Brest-Paris on the Mule, if my Superlight bike wasn’t available for some reason? Absolutely!

If I could have only one bike, I probably would choose the tubing spec of the Mule. How about you? Obviously, if you plan to go touring, the oversized down tube is a great choice. If you are concerned that the Superlight tubeset may make your frame feel too flexible, especially if you are a heavier or stronger rider, I would recommend the Mule’s tubeset as well. And if you are concerned about shimmy, the very different resonant frequencies of the top and down tubes apparently keep it from developing in most cases. Compared to the more specialized bikes in my stable, the Mule is a great allrounder.

Further Reading:

Posted in Framebuilding supplies | 35 Comments