Two Years of Racing on Compass: Interview with Matt Surch

Long-time Bicycle Quarterly reader Matt Surch (above) put his name on the map when he won last year’s Steaming Nostril gravel race on Compass Bon Jon Pass tires. We checked back in with him to see how the tires performed in the year since then, and to hear about his road racing on Compass Cayuse Pass tires.

JH: With another season of riding and racing on the Bon Jon Pass tires, how do you feel about them?

Matt Surch: Frankly, the Bon Jons have been exactly what I’ve been hoping for in a gravel tire. This comes down to two key aspects: 1) volume – 35 mm is perfect for so much of the riding I do off paved roads. 2) tubeless – I love this format for its road feel and flat resistance. One of the things I’m really enjoying with the Bon Jons is that they are perfect for the rides where I head out the door without much more of a plan than to ride fun stuff. That tends to mean taking paved roads up to Gatineau Park, then piecing together spans of trail, some of which are very old dirt roads, in novel ways. I just go where I feel like going, try branches I don’t know, discover things. While the 32s are a bit small for rides like this, and the 38s bigger than required, the Bon Jons are the Goldilocks option: just right.

The Bon Jon has become my go-to for gravel, and I have them mounted on wheels that are on my cyclocross/gravel bike all summer. I have a pair of 32mm extralight Stampede Passes on another steel all-road bike for paved rides that I don’t need my aero road bike for.

Tell us about some memorable rides or races on these tires.

Sure, I have a couple that come to mind, from perhaps opposite ends of the spectrum. The first was our big annual local criterium in Ottawa’s Little Italy neighborhood, the Preston Street Criterium. This was the 44th edition of the race, which draws the best crit racers from Toronto and Montreal, in addition to our locals. I can still remember the first time I visited the crit, about 15 years ago, with my friend and longtime Compass tire evangelist, Rodd Heino. I barely touched my road bike then, and didn’t even consider racing.

I only took up racing criteriums in 2015, in fact, after waiting until I was sure I could ride at the front of the local training races as much as I needed in order to stay safe and learn the ropes. So last year, on Father’s Day, I raced the Preston St. Crit for the second time in the ‘Pro’ race. As I’d been doing all season, I was on the 26mm Compass Cayuse Pass Extralight tires on my Cervelo S5 aero road bike, mounted onto 55 mm-deep carbon Woven Precision Handbuilts wheels. This is a pretty aerodynamic set-up, and I’ve been very happy with this combination.

The race was pretty incredible. I missed the breakaway of 4 guys that went out about 30 minutes into the race, and decided to bridge up to them. One rider came with me, and we worked really hard together over the longest 8 minutes of my life to connect. The whole time friends and family were cheering me on so hard from the sidelines. I actually feel emotional as I write this….

We rode the rest of the race as a group of 6, ultimately lapping the field. Into the final turn I felt good and was positioned third, behind the two best sprinters. In an instant, I was sliding across the pavement. I’d slid out, not focusing enough on my cornering technique as we hit the final turn faster than any other lap. I lost a lot of skin and literally burned through my much-loved Giro SLX shoe, but my bones and bike were fine. My family found me, and they and a few guys from The Cyclery, one of Ottawa’s best bike shops, took care of me. I jumped back on my bike to salvage 5th, which was a bit of a consolation (I made a bit of money to help pay for repairs to my kit), but was just really happy to have delivered a peak performance that was only marred by one mistake. And having my family and everyone there supporting me was really special.

The other day that stands out was rather different. Iain Radford (fellow Compass devotee) and I decided to organize a gentleman’s race over an awesome road/off-road route at the beginning of July. Some of the most fun we’ve ever had on bikes has been when riding this format – teams of 4-6 riders team time trialling a big, hard route, unmarked, unofficiated – so we wanted to put one on. Our Ride of the Damned event is run in a team format, too, but it’s not a race. This time, we wanted to race.

We sketched out a route for a recon ride at the end of June and hit it up as a group of 4 on a rainy Sunday. I was on the 38 mm Compass Barlow Passes, Extralight (above), with Challenge latex tubes. I ended up with a tiny puncure on a rock, which I put down to the tubes being stretched so thin. The feel of the route wasn’t quite right, there was too much pointy rock on some of the sections of trail we used, which really interfered with the flow of the ride. We opted to tweak it, removing the pointy rock bits, and landed on a 117 km route that alternated between pavement, trail, and dirt road sectors.

On the morning of the event, El Camino, we had ten 4-man teams pre-registered, and we all headed off at roughly one minute intervals. My team was well balanced, and we leveraged our strengths well, riding mellow on the climbs, and absolutely drilling it everywhere else. It was a really hard effort on the bike, but so much fun! I’d opted to run the Bon Jons in tubeless format instead of the larger 38s with tubes, and this worked perfectly. Iain punctured, which saw us passed by a number of teams, then we chased them back down. It was exciting! At the end of the day we secured the fastest time, 3:51, beating our goal of 4 hours.

But the fun didn’t end there. We had everyone bring BBQ stuff, and got the grill at the park going for a great party after the ride. It was really simple logistically, and tons of fun hanging out after the ride as teams streamed in. Of all the racing I’ve done, this format is the most fun, I love it. Rather than a team working for one rider, everyone contributes to the whole team’s result. It requires a lot of strategy, it’s a bit of an art, like team trialing on the road, but more technical!

You run the tires tubeless. Any tips on how to set them up? What rims do you use?

Yes, I run the Bon Jons tubeless. I’ve had them on 55 mm-deep carbon Woven Precision Handbuilt wheels (above), which use a different tubeless bead design, so there has been a bit of a learning curve. The wheels are designed with a fairly deep centre channel for easy of tire mounting, with a tubeless bead shelf that has a lip on the inside, along the channel, for the tire bead to climb over when inflated. Early on, I realized that I needed a bit more tubeless tape than required for sealing the rim. I was having some trouble airing the tires up, which can be caused by a weak compressor or obstruction in the valves. I added another layer of tape (Gorilla tape, in fact) to see if that’d do the trick. It did, the tires mounted immediately when I beefed up the channel this way. So this is my #1 tip: if you don’t have a snug fit at the channel, add tape and try again.

The other tips are standard:

  • Use a bit of water on the bead when mounting, it really helps. I don’t bother with soapy water, but just grab a bottle and drop some onto the tire.
  • Remove the valve core of your tubeless valve when mounting the tire. I use the air-gun nozzle on my air compressor, sticking it into the valve. This allows more air to pass through.
  • Don’t put sealant into the tire until you’ve mounted it. Trust me on this, you don’t want that stuff spraying all over you, it stains! Air up the tire, get the beads locked in, then use an injector to put sealant into the tire. I use one scoop of Stan’s regular formula sealant.
  • You really need to shake the tires all over the place, especially on their sides, to get complete sealing. I’ll do that, then rest the wheel on its side for an hour or more, then flip it. This works well. Sometimes you actually need to ride a tire a bit to get it to seal. This isn’t a Compass-specific thing.
  • If you don’t have an air compressor or access to one, yes, you can use CO2 to air up your tubeless tires. Obviously, this is wasteful and more costly than using a compressor. But it will work for a tire with a tight enough bead. DO NOT inflate with CO2 with sealant in your tire; the sealant will solidify into a ball. If you use CO2, let it all out after locking the beads, then replace with air.
  • If you use a carbon rim, don’t overtighten your valves. If you do, you can deform the brake track, which you’ll feel under braking. Silca makes a nice valve set with a fairing that helps reduce the possibility of creating this deformation.
  • If you don’t ride wheels you’ve set up tubeless often, your sealant will dry up sooner than if you ride it regularly. If you only use one scoop of sealant, odds are it’ll be mostly dry when you’re riding. You’ll want to make sure you keep some liquid sloshing round in the tires. Always bring at least one spare tube, two for more risky rides.
  • Tubeless sealant really only seals small holes, like those from glass, thorns, wire. Medium-sized (a few mm long) can sometimes be sealed with the help of some cotton or similar fabric. Cut some small strips from scrap fabric at home (I’ve recently tried a cloth number plate/dossard) and pack them into your flat kit. If you puncture, try poking that fabric into your tire to create a dam for your sealant to seal around/soak into. This is best done while the tire is still fairly well inflared. I’d have this work, as have others, it’s worth a shot.
  • You’ll need to air the tires up pretty high to get the beads to seat – this is normal. Bring the pressure back down to where you like it after seating the bead.
  • Experiment with your air pressure. For very light tires like the extralight Compass Bon Jon, the sidewall is so compliant you’ll need a bit more pressure – with tubes or not – than you might imagine. Start on the firm side, then gradually drop your pressure during a ride until you find the best balance of ride feel you are looking for.
  • Experiment, this is how you’ll get the most from your tires, and remember, tires cut more easily when their pressure is high.

Are you still on your first set of tires? Or if you replaced them, how many kilometers/miles did you get out of them?

I’m on my second set of Bon Jons now, but after 3000km my first pair are still rolling on my old bike. I mounted a fresh pair of the tan-walls on my new Brodie Romax (above) in the spring, and they’ve been perfect ever since.

Any durability concerns?

No, I have had no durabillity concerns whatsoever, I’ve been really pleasantly surprised. I find climbing is the toughest on tires for wear, and most of the climbing I do on this bike is on unpaved roads, which is why I think I’m getting quite good wear out of them. Because the tread wraps around the tire well, I don’t have any sidewall damage, which is somewhat incredible considering some of the trails I’ve ridden!

What tire pressure do you run? And how much do you weigh?

I weight about 172 lbs in the spring… up to about 177 lbs during the season. I used to run 50 psi rear, 47 front on the Bon Jons, but now I tend to run closer to 40. I spent a week in South Carolina riding big climbs and fast descents, and settled on about 55 psi in the 32 mm tires, which felt fantastic in the turns…

Our tires have a tread pattern that is optimized for road use. How do you find their grip on dry gravel?

Yeah, good question, I think this is something a lot of people are wondering about. I learned years ago at the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnée that tread doesn’t do much for you on gravel. I rode 28 mm Grand Bois tires the first year there, then the 32s. Same tread, more volume with the 32s. On the descents, I didn’t have grip issues with either, but the loose climbs were always where the challenge lay. It was clear that more volume, more tread on the surface, was key. So I kept going up in size as I was able to get bigger tires on bikes, and confirmed that volume is all that matters for gravel. When the substrate is not locked in place, knobs have no effect. It’s like snowshoeing: all about surface area.

The tricky part comes when we need to deal with routes that have a mix of surfaces: pavement, gravel/dirt road, and trails. Trails, when gravelly, are fine with no tread. But knobs become useful if they have something to cut into. Slick patches of mud are an example. The standard Compass tread is scary on these, one has to ride completely upright. A bit of tread can cut through a bit of mud and dig into dry dirt below. On snow and grass, a little tread goes a long way too. At the Steaming Nostril race last year, we had some grass on the course, and I really had to use a lot of energy to keep moving with just the “Road” tread. But it was worth it! On the snow side – I know some are thinking, ‘What the….’ – the 2015 Rasputitsa Gravel Road race had an extended packed snow/ice sector that we absolutely HAD to use a file tread tire for. That was a shame, as the rest of the course would have been faster on the Compass tread.

On the El Camino route we capped things off with a very steep gravel trail climb, which kicks up to 23% in grade. With the Bon Jons I made it up, despite having no knobs on the tire. It was more a matter of smooth power transmission than tire grip.

When we face exposed rock, especially wet, we also tend to want some tread. A file tread tends to work well for this, as they have so many little edges.

I’ve recently spend some time on the 650B Switchback Hill 48s and 42 mm Babyshoe Passes, since my new cyclocross / gravel bike has disc brakes; I can run different wheel diameters. Both these tires climb really well on loose surfaces, due to their volume. That volume can also make them a little skittish on corners with pebbles over hardpack, which allow narrowed tires to cut to the firm surface more readily. That’s not a matter of tread, but width. I’m very much looking forward to trying the new Pumpkin Ridge 42mm 650Bs on mixed terrain, which will definitely work well in mud.

During the road racing season, you’ve been riding our Cayuse Pass 700C x 26 mm tires. How have those tires worked for you?

I’ve been riding the 26 mm Cayuse Pass tires on my Cervelo S5 aero road bike for almost two seasons now, and they have been somewhat transformative. Previously, I used Hutchinson’s tubeless tires on the bike, which were wooden, but reliable. In 2015, I used Continental GP4000s and Michelin Pro Race 4s. I punctured all but one of these tires badly enough to write them off. They were all 23 mm tires on my 19 mm (internal width) Woven wheels. While the Contis test very fast for aerodynamics and rolling resistance on rims like mine, in practice, I found them ill-suited.

The problem is that their tread – and this is true for the Michelins too – does no wrap around the casing enough to protect the tire’s casing. The tires handled well, somehow, but I had all kinds of flats on the shoulder of the tires. Because they were 23 mm tires (their 25s were too big for my frame/fork), they were somewhat squared off on my rims, and I had to run 100psi to avoid pinch flats. But this created too much casing tension, which makes it easier to cut the tire! In the spring, I was delighted to discover that the 26 mm Cayuse Pass fit my bike, so I’ve been on them all season. I experimented with pressure, working down from 95 psi to 80, where I’ve stayed. Wow, what a difference! I’ve got more grip, lower rolling resistance, and my bike feels so much more comfortable than it used to. I thought it would always suck on long rides, especially on typical roads with cracks, but I’ve found myself grabbing the bike so much more often, because it feels good. I’ve had only one flat on these tires in about 5,600 kms, a pinch on a pothole in the dark. I’ve still had no flats on the Bon Jons.

So, on top of being far more reliable than what I used to use on my road bike, I’ve found the Cayuse Passes roll really fast, and any aerodynamic hit I’ve taken as a result of them being a little wide for my rims and taking up more space within my frame and fork are outweighed by their fast rolling, grip, and reliability. I’m stoked to be on these tires, and don’t plan to change. I used to wish for a tubeless version of these tires, but now I am happy to stick with latex tubes. It’s hard to argue with no punctures in two years.

I wish I had a power meter, because I’d love to compare the Bon Jons on my CX bike against the Cayuse Pass. They feel slower on smooth paved roads, but I want quantification of the difference, ideall on the same bike. When it comes to our highest speed and intensity races, the crits and road races, I still feel I need to favour my system’s aerodynamics, and the 26s are the max I can fit in my Cervelo. But what if that bike was designed to be optimal with 28 mm, 30 mm, or 32 mm tires? Would it be as fast? I wish I could find out…

You’ve been trying the knobby Compass Steilcoom tires lately. How did that go?

I wanted to use the Steilacooms at the Steaming Nostril this year – our region was getting epic rain, and we experienced swampy conditions. But first I had to build my confidence in their pavement performance. I’d seen your post about them, so I was cautiously tentative. Results were good! I found that the faster I went, the better they rolled, as they sort of plane above 25-30 km/h, and really hum along around 40-45. We had some fast corners to deal with, one totally sand-covered, and I had zero issues. The profile really is great for cornering on the road. Ultimately, I was able to ride where I wanted to be and pull as long as I wanted to pull the whole time, and it was a total succes. I won’t make a habit of riding them for smooth stuff like this, but I am stoked that they are able to perform well on pavement, gravel and in mud.

You placed 2nd in this year’s Steaming Nostril. How did the Steilacoom tires perform in the actual race?

The Steilacooms performed really well in April at the Steamin Nostril. I had to make a tough call, between them and Bon Jons for race day. The region had seen a lot of rain leading into the race, and I was expecting the crux section to be waterlogged and slippery. Knowing that was where I’d want to break away from the front group and try to go on solo for the remaining 10k or sp to the finish, I opted for the Steilacooms. Ultimately, the section was quite dry, and I didn’t wind up needing the knobs. I managed to break away and went for it solo, but was fading into the wind as Sjaan Gerth pursued me, ultimately overtaking and holding me off for the victory. The Bon Jons would have been the faster tire on the day, but it was a game-time decision, and sometimes you just have to roll the dice and see. The Steilacooms were incredibly good in a few cyclocross races I did in 2016, and I remain really fond of them. I might just have to shave some down over the winter…

If we made a tire that isn’t in the program yet, what would you like to see from Compass in the future?

My dream tire, if I could pick just one, would be based on the Bon Jon casing (tubeless, same size), and add a file (diamond) tread. That would allow me to use the Compass tire for most of the gravel rides and races. The Continental CX Speed tread is probably the closest to ideal I can think of. There would still be some events that required more volume and tread, but a file tread would cover the bigger existing gap. It would also be a more sure-footed feeling tire for those less comfortable with a bit of sliding out there on unpaved surfaces!

We’ll consider that. Thank you very much, Matt, and good luck with the other races this season!

Further reading:

Photo credits:
All photos by Matt Surch, except:
1. Preston Street Criterium 2016
6. Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race 2016
7. Grégoire Crevier, Canadian Criterium Championships 2016

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 9 Comments

1995 Rivendell: Turning the Tide

When Bridgestone USA closed in 1994, many mourned the loss of what they saw as the last bastion of sensible design in the quickly changing world of bicycles. They rejoiced when later that year, Bridgestone’s marketing manager Grant Petersen started Rivendell Bicycle Works. The new company’s first project were three hand-built frames, the Road, Mountain and All-Rounder.

Looking back, it is hard to appreciate the significance of these first Rivendells, because what they championed has become commonplace. They were a turning point in the decline of custom steel bicycles in the U.S. By the early 1990s, steel was rapidly being replaced by aluminum and titanium among high-end bikes. Almost overnight, steel was relegated to inexpensive production bikes. Sure, custom builders still built beautiful steel bikes, but more and more, they seemed like hold-overs from a glorious past when great champions still won big races on steel bikes. It was a dying craft – the idea that young cyclists might pick up the torch and become framebuilders seemed almost laughable.

Then along came Rivendell and made steel cool again. “Steel is still the best choice for frames,” was the message, “and now steel is better than ever before!” It was a breath of fresh air welcomed by all who harbored doubts about the “newer is better” ethos that had taken over the bike industry. For Grant Petersen, it may have been the logical next step – to take the customer base he had built at Bridgestone in a more up-market direction – but it also legitimized and revitalized the entire genre of hand-built steel bikes.

The Rivendells were also the first bikes in more than a decade to feature a headbadge. Fitting for a purely ornamental part, the headbadge was perhaps the most over-the-top part of the frames, with cloisonné inlays that were devilishly difficult to produce. In the days before Internet marketing, Rivendell published the Reader, a zine that detailed all the trials and tribulations of the young company. It is telling about Rivendell’s influence that headbadges have become a must-have accessory, even on mass-produced frames.

During his Bridgestone days, Grant had been a defender of lugs against the encroachment of less-expensive TIG-welding. At Rivendell, he coined the slogan: “I ride lugged steel, and I vote”. The lugs of the first “Road” frames were based on a design Richard Sachs had carved for Bridgestone. They had lingered in a drawer for years, perhaps because they would have been too difficult to braze on a production line. Playful and yet elegant, they’ve rarely been bettered. They were perfect for a bike named after a mythical place taken from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. With that headbadge and those lugs, it almost seemed like the frames were made by elves.

The elves who made the first Rivendells lived in Waterford, Wisconsin, where Richard Schwinn had resurrected the old Paramount shop after the first of Schwinn’s many bankruptcies. The Rivendell frames were built to order with a wide choice of sizes, braze-ons and colors. The basic frame design was fixed, an evolution of the much-loved Bridgestone RB-1. To many, the early Rivendells were the bikes that Bridgestones should have built, had price not been a concern.

These first Rivendells were dream bikes of their era. The tubing was the best of the best, Reynolds’ mythical 753, the first “supersteel”, custom-drawn to Rivendell’s specifications. Grant even had special stickers made, with French lettering referring obliquely to the great French constructeurs, recently discovered by another Grant (Handley), in whose bike shop Planetary Gear Grant Petersen sometimes hung out.

The early Rivendells were as sensible as they were beautiful. They were designed for performance. Clearances were optimized to fit the widest tires with the then-available brakes. A head-tube extension enabled a comfortable riding position. Braze-ons for racks allowed converting the bikes for touring. These were bikes intended to be ridden, bikes that promised to go wherever their riders wanted to take them – racing, touring, exploring, even commuting.

Everything that followed – the steel bikes from Surly, Soma, All City, etc.; the renewed popularity of handbuilt custom bicycles that since has swept the world; the comeback of classic components; even Compass Cycles – can trace its roots to the moment when Grant Petersen stood up and said: “I love steel and lugs. Why not?”

Further reading: The full story of the first Rivendell Road lugs is told in the Summer 2017 Bicycle Quarterly.

P.S.: The frame featured here is for sale on ebay.

Posted in Uncategorized | 38 Comments

Classics Celebrate the Tour de France

During its last week, the Tour de France heads for a final showdown in the Alps. This year’s race is incredibly close, with less than 30 seconds separating the first three riders. The penultimate stage is a time trial, so we may even see an almost-repeat of 1989, when Greg LeMond won the big race on the last stage by just 8 seconds. Anything remains possible – a welcome change from previous Tours that often were all but decided by the half-way point.

Yesterday’s stage began in La Mure – a small town in the mountains above Grenoble that we visited a little over a week ago. Already, the town was preparing for the Tour.

The mairie (town hall) was decorated for the occasion, with a big count-down board over the entrance showing the time left until the start of the stage, down to the very second!

Many businesses in town were decorated for the Tour…

Dozens of yellow bicycle wheels were distributed around town, with the names of famous racers from the past and present. Local children and teenagers were engaged in a game of finding them all to win prizes. It was fun seeing the name of one of my heroes, the Eagle of Toledo, next to a Peugeot Demi-Course kid’s bike similar to the one I had when I was ten years old.

It seemed that every other resident had pulled an old bike out of their barn or basement to celebrate the Tour, creating a veritable museum of cycling history. Le Mure is in the mountains, so all the bikes were interesting machines with derailleurs and good brakes – to ride here at all, you need at least a decent bike.

Just like the local children had fun finding the yellow wheels, we enjoyed discovering bikes during our evening stroll around town. (Click on the photos for high-resolution images to see the details of the bikes.)

One display had a full complement of Mafac brakes, from the lowly Racer on this Liberia…

… via the Raid model on this lovely Peugeot 650B mixte…

… to the top-of-the-line Competition brakes on this neat Jeunet.

It was getting dark when we stumbled upon a real treasure: a 1940s women’s bike leaning inconspicuously against a wall.

I’d never heard of Belledonne, but this mixte was a very nice cyclotouring bike with quality components. A little more Internet research found that Belledonne was the brand of a cycling wholesaler in nearby Grenoble.

The fillet-brazed frame was nicely made, with the single main tube and extra set of well-braced stays that make for a much-better performing frame that the more common twin-lateral mixtes (as on the Peugeot above). The minimal fillet joining the seat and diagonal tubes may have been inspired by Jo Routens, who was also in Grenoble… Or perhaps both employed the same framebuilder?

Originally, this bike had front and rear derailleurs, with the popular Cyclo at the rear mounted on a brazed-on support made from two tubes. The front derailleur was missing, but otherwise, the bike seemed complete and original, with only a thorough overhaul required to get it back on the road.

The more I looked, the more I discovered neat parts: custom racks and powerful Jeay roller-cam brakes…

… and full generator lighting courtesy of the sought-after JOS components. Even in France, where bikes that we might revere as classics remain in daily use, the “Belledonne” stood out as a quality machine. It was sad to think that, some day, it may end up in a landfill.

In fact, most of the bikes on display looked like they should be ridden, rather than just
serve as display pieces. Let’s hope that some of their owners will be inspired by the Tour to get them on the road again!

Posted in Rides | 6 Comments

How to Make a Superlight Bike for the “Concours de Machines”

The official results of the 2017 Concours de Machines are in! Peter Weigle’s machine did even better than we thought:

  • Lightest bike: First place
  • Choice of the jury: First place
  • Technical points (bonus for features, penalties for problems): First place
  • Zero penalties for technical problems
  • Faster than required speed on each stage: zero penalties
  • Overall: Second place

We were especially excited to find that the jury appreciated Peter’s bike for its craftsmanship and functionality. Small things like the placement of the headlight make a difference on the road – you don’t ride into a shadow when you corner at night – but they are easy to overlook when evaluating a bike without riding it. The jury consisted of experienced randonneurs who understood the importance of these small details. It appears that they also were impressed by the ease of Rinko’ing the Weigle for travel by car, train or airplane.

You may wonder why the J. P. Weigle didn’t win first prize. The bike scored lower in three areas that were less about the quality of the bike, but were an important part of the Concours:

  • People’s Vote: 6th (out of 24). Most of the visitors were amateur racers participating in that weekend’s cyclosportive, and they probably voted for other, more “modern” bikes.
  • Builders’ Vote: 7th. I don’t think it’s fair to ask the builders to vote, since it’s in their interest to vote “strategically” to give their own bike the best chance at winning.
  • Paperwork: 15th place. Each builder had to submit a presentation that documented the construction of the bike and explained its features. Peter Weigle was so busy building the bike that he didn’t take photos during its construction, and the bike was finished only the evening before the event. We put together the presentation on the train ride to Ambert…

We are honored by the recognition the bike received, and the second place seems entirely fair – the rules were known beforehand. For us, the goal was not to win the event, but to show our vision of the best randonneur bike available today.

Many observers were astonished by how little the bike weighed: 9.1 kg (20.0 lb) is remarkably light for a bike with full fenders, generator-powered lighting, rack, bell, pump, bottle cages and even a mudflap. The Weigle weighs exactly the same as the lightest carbon bike we’ve tested recently, the Open U.P., without fenders, racks or lights. How can a fully equipped steel bike be so light?

Peter Weigle is a master of trimming unnecessary weight from his frames. He went to the limit on this bike, and he also built a superlight stem and rack. For our report in the next Bicycle Quarterly, we will disassemble the bike and weigh each component to show in detail how the light weight was achieved.

We already can tell you that most of the components are standard parts that either are already available, or will be available soon. At Compass, we used the Concours de Machines as an opportunity to work with our suppliers and partners to reduce the weight of our parts even further. Here are some of the components we used on the Weigle:

  • SON Widebody hub: We used the Widebody version of the SON Delux generator hub even though it weighs a few grams more, because wider flange spacing makes for a stronger wheel – useful on the rough course of the bike test. We asked SON to make this hub for 28 spokes – plenty on a bike with wide tires.
  • Pacenti Brevet 650B rims: Finally, 28-hole 650B rims are easily available. Peter Weigle drilled a few extra holes in the rim beds to save a few grams, but otherwise, the rims were standard.
  • Compass Maes Parallel handlebars: We worked with Nitto to make our handlebars even lighter. The latest Compass bars are made to our new, exclusive Superlight specifications. (Only for bars up to 42 cm wide – wider handlebars require extra strength to resist the longer leverage.)
  • Titanium brake pad eyebolts: The Weigle is equipped with prototypes of the Compass René Herse cantilever brakes. The eyebolts for the pad holders are made from titanium. Usually, replacing steel bolts with titanium is not a good idea, because titanium has only half the strength. However, the eyebolts are big to fit over the posts of the pad holders, not because they need to be super-strong – a perfect application for titanium. A limited quantity of these titanium eyebolts is available right now. They fit Compass and Mafac centerpull brakes, as well as classic René Herse cantilevers.
  • Compass Loup Loup Pass Extralight 650B x 38 mm tires: As hand-made tires, the weight of Compass tires varies a bit from batch to batch. The latest 650B x 38 mm tires happen to be especially light.
  • Compass René Herse cranks. A little material was removed from the arms, and the chainring bolts were replaced with aluminum, but the standard cranks are only a few grams heavier. Peter Weigle drilled the chainrings mostly for aesthetic reasons – to emphasize that this bike was special.
  • Gilles Berthoud Galibier saddle: remarkably light for a leather saddle, yet supremely comfortable. We removed the stiffening bracket – needed only with seatposts that don’t clamp the rails securely – to reduce the weight further.
  • Nitto 80 bottle cages: As light as many carbon cages, but removing and replacing bottles is much easier with these cages. Plus, they gripped the bottles securely even on the rough mountain bike trails that made up much of the bike test of this year’s Concours.
  • Maware handlebar tape: Made from pigskin, this leather tape is beautiful and comfortable, yet remarkably light.

For the Concours, the bikes were weighed with bags and tools. Fully equipped for the road, the Weigle came in at just 9.7 kg (21.4 lb). We chose not to bring any tools, because we had total confidence in the bike. That saved valuable grams. Other bikes carried ultralight tools, but we’ve found that a well-built and well-assembled bike rarely needs work on the road.

Back to the bags, Compass worked with Gilles Berthoud to make a superlight prototype handlebar bag that weighs just 266 g (left). It uses the same materials as standard Gilles Berthoud bags (right). The weight savings are the result of leaving off all side pockets and reducing the size of the leather trim to a minimum.

Our goal was not to make a crazily-light machine that would last only one weekend, but to show what can be done with functional and durable components, if every part is optimized for light weight and performance. Some parts, like the SON Edelux II headlight, were chosen for their function more than their light weight. There were a few superlight parts, like the titanium bottom bracket, the Campagnolo Record titanium cassette, and the titanium Crank Brothers pedals, but they are all proven components that should work well under a smooth rider. Apart from the superlight frame, there isn’t much magic in the bike, just a careful choice of components. When spec’ing the bike, we avoided anything that could compromise reliability or performance. And since this will be my own bike, I look forward to riding it for many years to come.

Click on the links in the text to find out more about the components. Click here to read more about the 2017 Concours de Machines. A full report of this amazing event will be in the Autumn 2017 Bicycle Quarterly.

Posted in Testing and Tech | 72 Comments

MKS Allways Pedals

Allways pedal

At Compass Cycles, we sell only parts that we want to ride on our own bikes. It’s important that we can rely on the components we use to carry us through all conditions, problem-free. This is why we offer the top-of-the-line pedals from MKS.

Each of the MKS pedals we offer features silky smooth cartridge bearings, beautifully finished bodies and elegant design. Our most recent addition, the Allways platform pedal, is a great choice for urban riding, when you don’t necessarily want to wear cycling-specific shoes.

When I saw the prototypes of the Allways pedals this spring in Tokyo, I was impressed by their light weight and silky-smooth bearing. When I spun the pedals, they seemed to rotate forever. Then the engineers from MKS explained the other features behind the pedals: The large platform has a slightly concave surface so that your foot doesn’t slip. Removable pins provide further retention of your shoe. They told me that the name  “Allways” is a play on the fact that these pedals are intended to be used “always” and on “all ways and roads”.

 

Allways Rinko pedal

The Rinko version of the Allways pedals allows removing the pedal without tools in just seconds with the EZY-Superior quick-release system. It’s convenient for travel, to store your bike in tight spaces, or if you want to ride with platform pedals one day and with clipless pedals the next.

Click here to learn more about the Allways and our other MKS pedals.

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What Is a Road Bike?

In past decades, there was little doubt about what made a “road” bike: narrow tires, drop handlebars, no fenders.

Then randonneur bikes were re-introduced into cycling’s mainstream, leading to some confusion. “That is a touring bike,” said many. “It has a rack and fenders.” But the performance of the randonneur bike is the same as that of a racing bike, and far from a touring bike. Basically, the randonneur bike is a racing bike with integrated fenders, lights and a small rack. (The geometry also has been tweaked to carry the load.) If you take the meaning of “road bike” literally, a randonneur bike fits it at least as well as any other bike.

And then along came wide tires, and suddenly you have a bike like the Open U.P. (above) or my Firefly. “It has 26″/ 27.5″ wheels and fat tires. It’s a rigid mountain bike with drop bars,” opined some when they saw me on one of these bikes. But it isn’t.

Imagine replacing the wheels on these bikes with 700C and installing 28 mm tires – easy enough with disc brakes. Now everybody would accept them as “road” bikes, yet the riding position, handling and even the performance would be unchanged. In fact, I would go one step further, and call them “racing bikes”, not just “road bikes”. Let me explain what I mean by “racing bike.”

The photo above shows me during my racing days. You can’t even see the bike, but there is little doubt I am riding a racing bike, not a mountain or touring bike. You can see it from my riding position.

For me, the definition of a racing bike comes down to how the bikes feels when I ride it. This is determined by:

  • Riding position: A racing bike has a relatively low, stretched-out riding position.
  • No equipment: A racing bike doesn’t carry a load, nor does it have fenders. Why is this important? These parts actually do change how the bike feels. When you ride out of the saddle and rock the bike from side to side, extra weight makes a difference. With less weight, the bike rocks much more easily. Even lightweight fenders and an empty rack change that feel – more so when that load is placed higher.

When I conceptualized this post, I expected this list to be long, but these two points already define the racing bike for me. There are other factors that are important, but they aren’t unique to a racing bike:

  • Performance: A racing bike – in fact, any performance bike – should entice its rider to go faster. It either “planes” and gets in sync with its rider, or it’s stiff and ready to sprint forward as long as the rider stays on top of his or her pedal stroke.
  • Nimble handling: A good performance bike goes exactly where you point it. It’s stable and holds its line until you ask it to change direction. Then it assumes the new course with precision and without delay. On a racing bike, most of this is due to the rotational inertia of the wheels. Whether you use 650B wheels with ultralight carbon rims and tubeless tires (as on the Open) or 26″ wheels with a more traditional setup (like the Firefly), the rotational inertia is about the same as that of a traditional racing bike with 25 mm tires. And that, as much as anything, determines how an unloaded bike feels.

On the road, this is borne out. The Open feels like a racing bike. So does my Firefly. They sprint like racing bikes. They corner like racing bikes. The biggest difference to a racing bike with narrow tires is that these bikes feel great on all roads, not just smooth ones.

This doesn’t mean that every bike with wide tires, no fenders and drop handlebars feels like a racing bike. Even before I installed a handlebar bag, the Specialized Sequoia (above left) felt like a mountain bike. Seeing the Sequoia next to my Firefly illustrated the difference between a mountain and a road bike: a more rearward weight distribution, a (slightly) more upright riding position, and much wider handlebars. The front-end geometry is different, too, with a slacker head angle and much more trail.

Riding both bikes back-to-back on mountain bike trails drove home the point: The Firefly had to be guided rather than forced, whereas the Sequoia was easy to manhandle across the bumpy terrain. The rougher the trail got, the less the Firefly was in its element, and the more the Sequoia came into its own. On gravel and paved roads, the tables were turned, and the Firefly shone with its easy, intuitive handling. Despite being superficially similar, the two bikes couldn’t have felt more different.

If the Firefly is a road bike – despite it wide tires and 26″ wheels – then what is it when equipped with low-rider racks? And what about the Specialized Diverge, a 700C bike with medium-width tires, which we also equipped with low-rider racks (below)? 

Both bikes carried a camping load, but they didn’t feel like touring bikes. Of couse, the extra weight was noticeable, but all that weight is down low, so it doesn’t have a huge effect, even when riding out of the saddle. Even with a camping load, these bikes felt like performance road bikes.

If we try to categorize the Firefly or the Sequoia (above) in this form, what would they be? Should we make up a new category: Performance tourer? Gran Turismo? Loaded racer? It starts getting silly, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The categories between my favorite bikes are blurring, but what they all have in common is that they are performance bikes. And that is the important thing, because it makes them great fun on the rides that I enjoy!

Posted in Testing and Tech | 46 Comments

Concours de Machines: Results

The 2017 Concours de Machines in Ambert (France) was a great success for everybody involved. The bikes were amazing – and much-improved over last year’s machines – the routes were truly challenging, and most of all, the spirit among all participants was wonderful.

The goal was to find the best “light randonneur bike”, with 24 builders bringing their interpretations of this theme. Most participants were French builders, but others came all the way from Sweden, Slovakia, Great Britain, the USA and even Japan. Builders from Germany and Spain had entered the Concours, too, but weren’t able to finish their bikes before the start of the event.

After two days of challenging rides, 18 bikes made it to the finish. The course was very hard: The first day, we covered 230 km (140 miles) on backroads and mountain bike trails with more than 4600 m (15,000 ft) of climbing and many sections that exceeded 15%.

The second day’s roads were smoother, but the route went over four mountain passes. It was a perfect test for the bikes: Some riders chose to go slow to reduce the risk that their bikes broke (above), but they were penalized for their low average speed. Others went faster, but their bikes suffered mechanical problems. To place well, you had to go fast and your bike had to hold together – just as it should be in a Technical Trial.

First place went to Pechtregon. The details of the results are not yet available, but it’s clear that the Pechtregon’s combination of relatively light weight (around 10.5 kg / 23.2 lb), flawless performance, high-enough speed and remarkable innovation put it in first place.

Apart from the girder fork which doubles as a rack, the Pechtregon featured a pump inside the steerer tube and a rear triangle that folds forward to transport the bike, Rinko-style. Builder Matthieu Chollet had even made a Rinko headset nut to facilitate disassembly. It was another amazing machine from this builder and a worthy winner.

Second place went to J. P. Weigle’s randonneur bike. At 9.7 kg (21.4 lb) fully equipped –including the handlebar bag, spare tubes and tools – it also received the prize for the lightest bike. (The bike alone weighs just 9.1 kg / 20.0 lb.)

I am proud to have been involved in this machine, both as a supplier of components and as the rider. The bike gained points for its light weight and many custom features. It completed the challenging course without any problems – I didn’t carry any tools except spare tubes, since everything counted in the weight. The Weigle also was among the first finishers each day, so it avoided penalties on both counts. What it lacked compared to the winner was “innovation” – most of its features, whether the ability to be disassembled for Rinko, the SON SL generator hub without wires, or the switch on the stem that operated the headlight, had been seen before.

The amazing Cyfac took third place. Ridden by a strong racer, it finished each stage with the fastest speed, yet there were no technical problems. Constructed mostly from carbon fiber (with some stainless steel), this machine also received the prize for the most innovative machine, as well as the vote of the public. The bike sported fenders that could be removed without tools, as well as indicators in the bar plugs that were operated by the left-hand shift lever. (The 1×11 drivetrain does not have a front derailleur.) Pushing the lever for a longer time turned the lights on (or off). It was a technical tour de force that showed what the dedicated team at Cyfac – the biggest maker of custom bikes in France – can do. The only thing that kept it from first place was its relatively heavy weight of 12 kg (26.5 lb).

When asked why their all-carbon bike was 33% heavier than the steel-and-aluminum Weigle, Cyfac’s design engineer explained: “Take our carbon rack, for example. A steel rack can flex, but with carbon, flexing leads to failure. So we overbuilt it, and it weighs 400 g. [The Weigle’s rack weighs 137 g.] And we used a relatively heavy Ortlieb bag.” It was a brave decision to bring a carbon bike that weighs more than steel, but it allowed Cyfac to showcase their specialty: custom-made carbon bikes.

The special prize of the jury went to the Vagabonde, an elegantly simple randonneur bike that was ridden well throughout the event.

The prize for the best presentation went to Grand Bois. At the start of the event, their bike was the lightest by a small margin, with many parts sporting cut-outs that left only a skeleton of material. While everybody appreciated the work that went into this bike, many questioned whether the parts would be strong enough to hold up on the road. On the first day, the rear derailleur developed a fatigue crack and broke, putting the Grand Bois out of the event.

There were other innovative machines. The Perrin (in back) not only featured a double-decker rack (a tent is intended to go on the bottom “shelf”), but more interestingly, its fenders were attached with strong magnets. I had doubts whether the magnets would stay in place on the rough course, but it appears that they did. Imagine a Rinko bike where the rear fender just snaps in place!

Others, like the Brevet Cycles of Sebastien Klein, were excellent machines that completed the challenging course without problems – not even a flat tire in his case – but didn’t have the light weight or innovation to place high in the final standings. These bikes are great machines even if they don’t figure in the results of the Concours.

This year, there were no “crazy-light” parts on the bikes, perhaps because the organizers had made it clear that the course would be more challenging. And yet overall, the bikes were lighter than before.

Whereas last year, hardly any bikes completed the course without mechanical problems (including the winner!), this year, failures were rare. Tires were wider than last year, ranging from 700C x 32 mm (Vagabonde) to 650B x 48 mm (Pechtregon). I was surprised that of the 24 starters, no fewer than 16 rode on Compass tires (including the first three places), even though there was no sponsorship, and builders had to pay for their tires. It appears that when high speeds on rough roads are required, French builders choose Compass tires.

The Concours de Machine 2017 was a rousing success. As intended, it has improved the real-world capabilities of the bikes riders can buy. It has shown interesting ideas for future innovation. And most of all, the participants (as well as the spectators) had a great time!

A full report will follow in Bicycle Quarterly.

Photo credit: Victor Découard (Photo 2), Natsuko Hirose (all other photos).

Posted in Rides, Testing and Tech | 68 Comments