Mountain Cycling Club Hillclimb Race


Tokyo’s Mountain Cycling Club reminds me of the Groupe Montagnard Parisien: almost unknown, yet fascinating and influential far beyond their limited membership. The French riders brought us the Technical Trials and modern randonneur bikes, while their Japanese counterparts co-invented mountain bikes.

The Mountain Cycling Club started exploring the mountain passes in the Japanese Alps decades ago. For their incredible rides on single-track or even hiking with their bikes on their backs, they developed “Passhunter” bicycles: wide tires, derailleurs, flat handlebars and cantilever brakes… meeting all the definitions of what makes a mountain bike.

Around the same time, Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze and all the others in Marin County started putting derailleurs on their “Klunkers,” so they could go up, and not just down the mountains. I’m still learning about Passhunters, but it’s clear to me that they were initially designed to go uphill, whereas mountain bikes started with the idea of going downhill… Imagine if the Japanese riders had been as ambitious in marketing their ideas as their Californian counterparts – mountain bikes might look quite different today!


Natsuko has been a member of the Mountain Cycling Club for many years, and she introduced me to the club. Every year in late February, the club organizes a hillclimb race. That is why last weekend, we left central Tokyo at sunrise with our bikes in their Rinko bags and headed into the mountains by train.


We assembled our bikes and rode to the start. The race goes up a pass that climbs more than 700 m (2300 ft) in about 8 km (5 miles). The road is paved, but this early in the season, there often is snow on the upper reaches. As you’d expect from the Mountain Cycling Club, this isn’t an ordinary race!

Riders show up on a variety of machines. This winter hasn’t seen much snowpack, and conditions were rumored to be dry, so two riders came on carbon-fiber racers. Others had brought cyclocross bikes, like this lovely Amanda (above), in case there was snow after all.


And then there were purpose-built machines like Makio-san’s old Toei, with 650A wheels, cut-off randonneur handlebars and low gears. This machine exists only to climb hills as fast as possible.


At 11 o’clock, we lined up for the start. We could see the pass in the distance, looming high above and doing its best to intimidate us.

As the club has aged, there aren’t as many racers as in the past, but those who came were serious about the task ahead. In fact, two participants weren’t members of the club, but racers who had come just to measure themselves against the mountain. Natsuko, who was the only woman, had started 15 minutes earlier together with the oldest rider…


The first few kilometers were on a moderate gradient, and the group rode together to warm up. Then the valley steepened, the road narrowed, and the race began in earnest.

Obviously, I didn’t have time to take photos while racing… I got a good start and opened a small gap on a short downhill section – the only one on the course – but then the two racers reeled me in relentlessly. As the road steepened to about 18%, I struggled as they caught me. Knowing the course, they accelerated before a sharp turn after which the gradient relented a bit. I didn’t have the legs to stay with them, and they vanished into the distance.

The course was un-marked, and twice, I reached forks in the road not knowing which way to go – until I heard the organizer’s trumpet from above. It was a very romantic way to guide me and the other racers in the right direction.


After a final sprint to the top, I finished in 54 minutes and a few seconds. The winner was an impressive 4 minutes faster. When I arrived, he and the second-place finisher already were eating Oden soup that the organizer had cooked on a camping stove. Makio-san on his Toei hillclimber came fourth.


One by one, the riders arrived. We enjoyed gorgeous views and lively conversation. Unlike most “real” races, this unsanctioned event had a great mix of competition and camaraderie.


To cool down, I went across the pass. The other side was in the shade, and there, I did encounter snow and ice. Now I believed the stories of running through the snow, cyclocross-style, on the upper reaches of the climb.


There was a brief awards ceremony – Natsuko was the fastest (and only) woman, while my third place made the fastest member of the club. Clouds were covering the sun, and it was getting chilly so high up in the mountains, so we headed back down.


Only then did I realize how steep this road really was. The descent was twisty, technical, very fast, and great fun. When we reassembled at the bottom, everybody agreed that it had been a great day. I can’t wait until next year. Hopefully, I’ll be in Tokyo again for the race. Now that I know the course, perhaps I can improve my time?

Posted in Rides | 4 Comments

Berthoud Saddles and Bags

theo_bikeWe’ve been fans of Gilles Berthoud saddles and bags for many years. Above is Theo’s bike with Berthoud GB28 bag and Aspin saddle. These parts have been incredibly durable: I still use the very first Berthoud handlebar bag that he bought 17 years ago, and the prototype Berthoud saddle on my Urban Bike is still going strong after a decade of hard use. There simply aren’t better-quality or higher-performance bags and saddles anywhere.


We’ve recently added Berthoud saddles to the Compass-exclusive bags we’ve been selling for years. Leather saddles have long offered the ultimate in comfort for long-distance cycling, because they shape themselves to your unique anatomy. Gilles Berthoud wasn’t satisfied with other leather saddles, because quality had declined over time. Most companies now try to get as many saddles as possible from each hide, without regard for irregularities and direction of grain. So, he decided to make his own saddles.

Berthoud saddles start with the best vegetable-tanned cow hides, which are dyed in-house. Each saddle top is then cut in the direction of the leather grain. While this results in fewer saddles from each hide, it ensures that the saddle doesn’t sag. The remnant leather is used to make fender washers and other small parts, so there isn’t any wasted material.

The leather is thick and initially firm, but Berthoud saddles are comfortable out of the box due to their excellent shape. Pre-softened to shorten the break-in, they will last many years with occasional treatment. (We recommend Obenauf’s leather treatment, which we now also carry.) Berthoud saddles rarely need tensioning, but when they do, all you need is a 5 mm allen key.


Gilles Berthoud’s saddles use thoroughly modern materials and construction methods, while maintaining the advantages of a tensioned leather saddle. The composite frame is stronger than steel and absorbs shocks better. Berthoud placed the bolts outside the sitting area, sparing your cycling clothes from snags and abrasion. We’ve been riding these saddles for years and appreciate their quality and re-buildable design – every part can be replaced.

Compass offers three models of Berthoud saddles: the Aspin, Aravis and Galibier. Each is available in tan, (dark) brown, black or Berthoud’s distinctive cork finish (below).


The Aspin (shown above) is a high-performance leather saddle with a medium width – designed for an intermediate riding position that most cyclists find comfortable over long distances. Named for the 1,489 m (4,885 ft) Col d’Aspin in the Pyrénées, the Aspin uses Stainless Steel rails for strength and affordability. The Aravis saddle, named for the 1,487 m (4,878 ft) Col des Aravis in the Alps, combines the same shape with ultralight titanium rails for lighter weight.


Berthoud’s lightest high-performance saddle combines a narrow shape with titanium rails for a weight of only 346 g. Named for the 2,645 m (8,677 ft) Col du Galibier in the Alps, this saddle is designed for spirited riding in a stretched-out position, yet features the same thick, luxurious leather upper as Berthoud’s other top-quality saddles.


Berthoud is best-known for their beautiful and functional bags. Handlebar bags place supplies within easy reach while riding, and keep your map, or cue sheet, in view. On a bike with suitable front-end geometry, they affect the handling less than a rear load.

In the early days of randonneuring, Sologne pioneered what we now consider the classic handlebar bag. When Sologne went out of business, Gilles Berthoud bought the patterns and know-how, so that these classic handlebar bags remain available today. With more than 50 years of experience, their bags are sewn in France from cotton and leather. While we love their classic appearance, we use Berthoud bags mostly for their superior performance: They are lighter and more waterproof than most “modern” bags.

Based on our decades of riding with Berthoud bags, Compass asked Berthoud to make small improvements to the “Compass-exclusive” bags: All our bags have shoulder straps, and we offer them also without side pockets for better aerodynamics and even-lower weight.


We also offer Berthoud’s panniers with classic leather straps and springs for an ultra-secure mounting that doesn’t rattle against your rack (above).


We sell these Berthoud products directly to our customers, and we now also wholesale them to bike shops who carry the Compass product line. If your local shop doesn’t have an account with us yet, please put them in touch.

For our complete line of Berthoud saddles and bags click here.

Posted in Product News, Racks/Bags | 30 Comments

Compass Centerpull Brakes for Bolt-On Mounting


We now offer Compass centerpull brakes with a backing plate for bolt-on mounting, in limited quantities. Many customers have asked for this: Wouldn’t it be nice to get the superlight weight and superior performance of these brakes on an existing bike?

A backing plate connects the pivots with the fork crown, which makes it possible to bolt these brakes onto any bike with brake-mounting holes in the fork crown and in the rear seatstay bridge. You’d get much better performance than most other long-reach brakes, which often suffer from excessive flex and offer only poor braking performance.

For us, the problem was cost: A backing plate requires a new forging die, which is very expensive. We would have to sell hundreds of bolt-on brakes to amortize this cost. We could CNC-machine the plate, but then it would have to be much larger to offer the same strength, negating the light weight and elegance of the forged Compass brake arms. What to do?


At this point, I was reminded of Preston Tucker, who introduced his revolutionary “Torpedo” in 1948 (above). Unable to get his new torque converter transmission ready in time for the car’s launch, Tucker’s engineers realized that transmissions from old Cords could be used in the new Tucker. So Tucker’s team scoured scrapyards to recover these transmissions, which were rebuilt with strengthened parts and installed in the first Tuckers.


I realized that the backing plates we needed also were lying around in parts boxes and junk bins: They had come off old Mafac Raids when builders used those brakes with brazed-on pivots. In fact, I had a set myself, left over from building my René Herse way back before Compass brakes were available. The backing plates don’t wear out – any play in the bushings comes from wear of the aluminum arms, not the steel pivots – so the old Mafac backing plates remain as good as new. We found a number of these, and had them refurbished and polished by our friends at Norther Cycles in Portland.

Now we are offering the Compass centerpull brakes with backing plates. The brakes are sold individually, with all the hardware needed for bolt-on mounting. If your frame has recessed brake holes, you can either use the supplied bolt and nut, or you can modify the bolts and use recessed nuts.


Of course, the backing plates add some weight and flex, so they’re not the ultimate solution. If you are thinking about repainting your frame anyhow, just have a framebuilder add the braze-ons and use our standard centerpulls. That is what Steve Frey did on his “hot-rodded” Trek (above), which we featured in the Winter 2016 Bicycle Quarterly. Or add braze-ons to the fork (as well as rack-mounting eyelets) and use a bolt-on brake on the rear, where you don’t need that much braking power.

Quantities of the bolt-on centerpulls are limited by our supply of backing plates. And if you have a spare set of Mafac Raid backing plates (distance between pivots: 75 mm), or a spare set of bolts and hardware for bolting the backing plates onto the frame/fork (all models), please get in touch. Like Preston Tucker, we are paying good money for what otherwise would be useless parts.

Click here for more information about Compass centerpull brakes.

Posted in Brakes | 18 Comments

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