Riding to the Sea of Japan

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Oceans have a strong appeal to me. The Raid Pyrénéen, a ride across the length of the Pyrenees mountains, starts at the Atlantic and ends at the Mediterranean. On our Flèche 24-hour rides, we often visit the Pacific Ocean. Oceans seem like limitless expanses of water from the shore, yet you know that way, way, way over there, on the other side, there are exciting foreign lands.

In Japan, we had cycled for many kilometers along the Pacific Ocean, yet it wasn’t so exciting. On the other side of the vast water is… Seattle! Riding along the Sea of Okhotsk during our tour of Hokkaido had more romance, since it freezes over during the winter, and Siberia is on the other side. But I really wanted to see the Sea of Japan… which links Japan to Asia, and really provides the context for our experiences there.

Kyoto is located where the main island of Honshu is narrowest, so the distance “from shining sea to shining sea” is less than 100 km “as the crow flies”. I already was in the mountains north of Kyoto, so the Sea of Japan really wasn’t that far, and my friends from I’s Bicycle suggested a bike ride to Obama on the promised shore. They’d drive across the first pass, while I’d ride, together with their employee Choco, an avid randonneur who would ride all the way from Kyoto.

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It was a frigid morning when I set out from the guesthouse where I was staying. Almost immediately, the road started climbing, gentle at first, then steeper as I approached the mountain pass. The cherry trees were in full bloom, but the temperature at the bottom of the pass was a frigid 39°F. I could not read the Kanji on the sign, so I didn’t know whether to expect snow on the pass. So I forged ahead…

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On the other side of the mountains, I found the small town where I was to meet Harumi and Ikuo. That is where I finally encountered Choco, too (above). We had planned for me to catch up to him shortly after leaving my guesthouse, so we could ride together. Somehow, I had passed him on the single highway across the mountains without either of us noticing. One of the mysteries of long-distance riding…

tunnel

Then we met up with Ikuo and Harumi Tsuchiya, the owners of I’s Bicycle. Together, we cycled up another mountain pass, which we traversed via a tunnel near the top. (There is no shortage of mountain passes in Japan!)

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Choco and I briefly explored the old road across the pass, which was great fun, but we decided that it would take too long, so we, too, went through the tunnel.

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We rode past cherry trees in full bloom (photo at the top of the post), along scenic backroads, and then, suddenly, there was…

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… the Sea of Japan! Obama is located on a large bay, so you don’t get the experience of a “limitless expanse of water”, but it was still moving to realize that out in the distance (actually, to the right in this photo), there is the vast continent of Asia.

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The bay may not give you a feeling of “limitless expanse of water”, but it makes the ride along the water much more interesting and varied. After lunch on the seaside and a short stretch on a busy highway…

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…we joined a cyclepath that went high on the cliffs above the water.

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The views of the water and shorelines were spectacular, but I was almost as interested in the slope stabilization projects on the other side. Faced with a very young and active landscape, the Japanese spend huge amounts to maintain their infrastructure and prevent damages before they occur. These concrete latticeworks span the mountains in Japan and stabilize slopes that otherwise might crumble into landslides.

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After a snack at a beautiful antique store-cum-bakery in a small seaside town, it was time to head back.

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Did I already mention that the cherry trees were in full bloom? I’ve always loved the “sakura”, but in Japan, they are incredible.

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Choco and I split up from Harumi and Ikuo, who took a more direct route back. We cycled back into the mountains, had a snack at a small store (above)…

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… and then it was just one more mountain pass for me. For Choco, getting back to Kyoto involved 70 km (44 miles) and four big passes. It didn’t faze him… but I have to admit that I was getting tired.

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Not so tired that I didn’t admire the “yama sakura” (mountain cherries) high in the valleys. I am deeply grateful to our friends who took me here and showed me these beautiful places. It was a great outing, and one that I will remember!

Posted in Rides | 25 Comments

Summer 2015 Bicycle Quarterly

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The Summer 2015 Bicycle Quarterly is at the printer and will be mailed next week. This summer’s theme is a “Journey of Discoveries”.

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We test the Breadwinner B-Road that won last year’s Oregon Outback. We take it on a journey to the ghost town of Monte Cristo. Join us as we discover the fascinating history of this region.

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A “Sub-24 Hour Overnight” adventure took us to Mount Rainier, where we searched for mountain goats. We discover the beauty of a place we don’t visit often enough.

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BQ contributor Gerolf Meyer rediscovered his roots when he looked at Communist era racing in East Germany. To obtain race-worthy bicycles, racers had to barter or even make their own components. For example, some racers made bike parts “on the side” and after hours at a medical device factory. His story is a fascinating glimpse behind the Iron Curtain.

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We take you to TOEI, the legendary Japanese constructeur, who make some of the most sophisticated and best-constructed frames in the world. We were allowed unprecedented access to document how these craftsmen make some of the most beautiful bikes in the world.

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After reading about how these bikes are made, join us on a visit to one of the most amazing bike shops in Tokyo, and marvel at the amazing machines on display there.

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Rounding off the feature on TOEI is a report on our editor’s Urban Bike. How does this TOEI-built machine hold up after seven years of hard work – commuting and hauling magazines, books and components. Which features have proven themselves, and what would he do differently if he were to order another bike tomorrow?

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For our “First Ride”, we evaluate another bike intended for the urban jungle. How does the Lynskey Urbanskey with its titanium frame and 650B wheels perform on the (urban) roads?

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We also tested MKS’ new Rinko pedals, both in a platform and a clipless version. You even can switch from one type to the other, without tools!

As always, there is much more in this issue of Bicycle Quarterly: our Skill and Icon columns, Readers’ Forum, News and more product reviews.

To enjoy the Summer issue without delay, click here to subscribe or renew.

 

 

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 14 Comments

10 Most Important Innovations in Cycling

scientist

A while back, another magazine published a list of the “10 Most Important Innovations in Cycling”. The list included things like electronic shifting and Lycra, but left out pneumatic tires…

This got us thinking: What are the ten most important innovations in cycling? To keep things straightforward, we’ll start after the invention of the chain-driven “safety bicycle” with two equal-sized wheels – otherwise, the invention of the wheel would be number 1.

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10. Indexed shifting has allowed many casual cyclists to enter the magic world of spirited riding on a multi-speed, derailleur-equipped bike. Indexed shifting goes back to the first derailleurs, which were indexed to convince skeptical cyclists that they were easy to use. But it really was Shimano with the 1985 SIS who introduced the idea to the masses. Today, all mainstream bicycles use indexed shifting.

(Photo by J-P Pradères: 1939 Super Champion from The Competition Bicycle.)

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9. Quick release attaches the wheels more securely than wingnuts, yet makes it easy to remove a wheel in case of a flat tire. Even though Tullio Campagnolo usually is credited with this invention, new research has put this in doubt. No matter; today, most performance bikes are equipped with cam-operated quick releases based on Campagnolo’s design.

(Photo by J-P Pradères: 1950s Campagnolo from The Competition Bicycle.)

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8. Aluminum components become possible when high-strength alloys were developed in the 1910s. During the early 1930s, aluminum revolutionized bicycle construction by reducing the weight of rims, cranks, handlebars and most other components. While the wonder material of the moment is carbon fiber, aluminum remains the material of choice for most bicycle components.

(Photo by J-P Pradères: 193os Stronglight and Caminargent aluminum bicycle from The Competition Bicycle.)

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7. Generator hubs have transformed night-time cycling by providing light at any time, at the flick of a switch. No longer do cyclists have to worry about battery charge, or endure the drag and noise of sidewall dynamos. (To say nothing of the hassles of carbide lamps!)  After many false starts since the 1930s, it was the German maker Schmidt Maschinenbau (SON) who introduced the first generator hub suitable for spirited night-time riding in 1995. Today, generator hubs are replacing sidewall generators on utility bikes throughout the world, and more and more performance bikes are equipped with them as well.

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6. Drop handlebars have multiple, ergonomic hand positions that make it possible to ride long distances in comfort. Invented by cyclotourists around the turn of the 20th century, drop bars have persisted, despite many efforts to come up with alternative shapes. Today, all racing bikes use drop bars.

(Illustration: Lucien Buysse in the 1926 Tour de France, from The Competition Bicycle.)

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5. Clipless pedals for walkable shoes are a development from racers’ clipless pedals. Originally, clipless pedals were sold as safety equipment: they release in a crash. Otherwise, they worked like racing pedals with toeclips and straps. Once clipless pedals became available for shoes you could walk in, they revolutionized cycling. Intended originally for mountain biking, they were adopted by cyclotourists, commuters, weekend riders and randonneurs as well. No longer did you have to choose between waddling like a duck with cleated shoes, or risk coming out of your toeclips on steep hills and in sprints. Shimano’s SPD system was the first, and it remains the predominant one.

(Photo: 1980s Shimano M737 from Bicycle Quarterly.)

Nivex

4. Derailleurs really made cycling in the mountains not just possible, but enjoyable, with all due respect to hub gears, floating chains and Retro-Directs. It is simply revelatory to be able to select just the right gear with the flick of a lever, without having a heavy hub in the rear change the feel of the bike. The derailleur appears to have been invented in Britain, but it was popularized in France starting in the 1910s. Despite some comebacks from hub gears, derailleurs equip most performance bicycles today.

(Photo by J-P Pradères: 1950 Nivex from The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles)

ReyhandBrake

3. Cable-operated brakes are often overlooked, but we don’t realize that the biggest problem for early mountain cyclists was slowing down. Some cyclists cut down small trees and attached them to their rear triangles, so they dragged on the ground during descents. The first French Technical Trials in 1901 were concerned only with brakes. The cable-operated rim brake showed its superiority back then, and it continues to equip most performance bikes today.

(Photo: 1930s Jeay from Bicycle Quarterly.)

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2. Butted, thinwall frame tubing makes the frame sing, even though the idea of “planing” may not yet be universally accepted. Few people will deny that cycling on a lightweight frame is more fun than on a frame made from “drainpipe”. When thinwall, butted frame tubing became common on racing bikes during the 1930s, Tour de France speeds increased more than at any time in history. Today, butted steel tubing still is competitive against newer materials, and even the latest carbon machines use variable wall thicknesses and diameters to mimic the feel and performance of the best steel frames.

(Photo: Bikes for Bicycle Quarterly’s double-blind test of frame tubing.)

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1. Pneumatic tires are by far the most important innovation in cycling. Cycling saw many false starts until it finally found enduring popularity in the 1890s. One major reason for the breakthrough were pneumatic tires. No longer did bicycles deserve the name “boneshakers”. The air-filled tires were more comfortable and much faster. Invented in Britain and Ireland (twice!), the invention spread around the world, and today, virtually all bicycles are equipped with pneumatic tires.

(Photo by J-P Pradères: 1894 Humber from The Competition Bicycle.)

What do you consider the most important innovation in cycling?

Posted in Testing and Tech | 92 Comments

Red Lights and the Idaho Experiment

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Running Red Lights
Few things raise the ire of motorists (and some cyclists) more than cyclists running red lights. Yet anybody who has ridden in major cities has seen riders proceeding through red lights. Why do they do this?

Cyclists operate on streets that are designed for cars. The current traffic infrastructure does not work as well for cyclists:

  • Many lights have sensors that do not pick up cyclists. Cyclists often wait at red lights for minutes, and the light only changes when a car pulls up behind them. If there is no traffic, they may wait for a very long time.
  • Cars travel mostly on big streets with few stop signs and timed lights. Cyclists tend to use side streets where they encounter stop signs or red lights every few blocks.
  • Cyclists travel at lower speeds and are less insulated from their surroundings, so they are more aware of traffic around them. As they approach an intersection, they usually know where other traffic is, without needing to come to a complete stop before checking for traffic from the right and left.

After waiting at lights that don’t change and after stopping at stop signs without encountering cross traffic, some cyclists take matters in their own hands and ignore these devices that clearly were not designed for them. Unfortunately, we don’t provide any guidance in this process, so many cyclists seem to see only two alternatives:

  • Obey all lights and stop signs
  • Ignore all lights and stop signs

The former are the cyclists who are waiting at a red light at 5 a.m., with no traffic anywhere nearby. The latter are the people who just blast through intersections on their bike without ensuring their safety or others’. Neither makes sense.

The “Idaho Stop”
An interesting alternative has been used in Idaho since 1982. There, cyclists are allowed to treat red lights as stop signs, and stop signs as yield signs. It’s commonly referred to as the “Idaho Stop”. Let’s look at what this means in practice:

  • Red light = stop sign: Cyclists stop and look right and left. If there is no cross traffic, they can proceed. If there is cross traffic, they wait.
  • Stop sign = yield sign: Cyclists look right and left. If there is no cross traffic, they can proceed without fully stopping. If there is cross traffic, they stop and yield.

These rules are clear and make sense. They don’t allow cyclists to run lights, nor be inconsiderate and cut off other traffic. But they do free cyclists from the unreasonable burden of having to stop or wait at empty intersections, time and again.

In Idaho, the law has been a success. There has been no increase in the numbers of cyclists involved in accidents. According to one official, cyclists “have more respect for a law that legalized actual riding behavior.” In other words, if you give people rules that make sense, most will follow them. And that may well reduce the number of inconsiderate cyclists who run lights and cut off other traffic. It adds a sensible alternative to the false choice of either “obeying” or “ignoring” all lights and stop signs. The “Idaho Stop” provides sensible rules of when to proceed and when to stop and wait.

Would it work in the city?
Idaho is a sparsely populated state with little traffic. Would the “Idaho Stop” work in a big city like Seattle? There is only one way to find out: Try it!

For six months, I used the “Idaho Stop” in Seattle. As outlined above, I didn’t run any lights, but after stopping, I proceeded if there was no traffic. At stop signs, I slowed down, but only came to complete stop if there was traffic.

In this experiment, I wanted to find out two things:

  1. Would this be dangerous? Traffic rules are there to protect us and others.
  2. What would be the reactions from other road users? One of the main arguments against proceeding through red lights is that it “gives cyclists a bad name”.

Well, for three months, I tried this experiment and I was upfront about it by wearing my Bicycle Quarterly jersey. Here is what I found:

It’s not dangerous
I did not have a single close call or near-miss. This was not surprising: I proceeded through intersections only if there was no cross traffic. During this whole time, I had one instance where I regretted turning in front of a car that was accelerating much faster than most cars around here. This happened during a legal “right-on-red” turn, not during the “Idaho Stop”. It wasn’t dangerous, but I felt inconsiderate. Note to self: Don’t cut it close during “right-on-red” or “Idaho Stops”.

I did have a few close calls with cars, but all of those happened when I was riding through green lights and oncoming cars turned left in front of me. This situation does not apply to the “Idaho Stop”, but it does show that simply following the traffic rules isn’t enough to make you safe. You need to take extra precaution to make up for the errors of other road users.

Complex situations
Once in a while, I encountered a complex situation, where it wasn’t obvious whether the Idaho Stop would be safe. For example, at some intersections, my direction only had a “plain” red light, but oncoming traffic had a turn lane with a “left arrow” light. Once, I was about to proceed through the intersection against a red light when, invisibly to me, the oncoming turn lane got a green light. If I had been in the middle of the intersection, this would have been inconsiderate. Note to self: Make sure you understand the intersection fully before using the “Idaho Stop”. Or perhaps even better: Don’t use the “Idaho Stop” if there is oncoming traffic waiting at the other side of the intersection.

It’s faster
My travel times across town went down significantly. During a 30-minute ride, I often spend 5 or more minutes waiting for lights to change, even though there is no traffic. And not stopping for all the stop signs kept my speed up and saved energy by not having to accelerate all the time. I could use that energy to ride faster. (A positive side effect is that riding faster allows you to flow better with traffic, decreasing your accident risk.)

It bothers few people
The most surprising result is that my “outlaw behavior” seemed to bother neither cyclists nor drivers (with one exception). If they thought I was “giving cyclists a bad name”, they kept their opinions to themselves. Perhaps they appreciated that I first stopped, and then proceeded, rather than “ran” the light. And no-one saw me rolling through the stop signs, since I only did so when the intersections were empty.

Once, I stopped right in front of a police officer directing traffic at the exit of a construction site. There was no traffic, so he was chatting with one of the construction workers. I was facing a red light, and I was not going to do the “Idaho Stop” this time… until the police officer, without breaking off his conversation, waved me through the intersection. It seems that the “Idaho Stop” might not be a big deal any more, even for the police.

During the three months of this experiment, three drivers yelled at me to “get off the road and use the bike path”. In two cases, the bike path was a block away. In the third case, the bike path was half a mile down the valley and going in an entirely different direction. Some drivers seem to think that if we spend money on separate infrastructure, then cyclists no longer have the right to ride on the road. This is something to consider as we build more “separated cyclepaths”.

One driver was bothered by my experiment. He was driving a van from the city parks department. He had leapfrogged me for a while, so he had seen me roll through two stop signs and proceed through one or two red lights. When he caught up with me again, he was livid about my “incredibly dangerous” behavior. I usually don’t stop and talk to irate drivers, but with him being in an official vehicle, I thought the risk of assault was low. As I explained the experiment, he calmed down and became very interested. Once he understood that I wasn’t just running lights and stop signs, but actually following rules that made sense, he wanted to learn more. I was impressed by his openness to these new ideas, and we parted very amicably. I promised to send him a note when this blog post goes up. If anything, this shows that if the “Idaho Stop” becomes law, some public outreach is needed to explain the new rules, not just to cyclists, but also to the general public.

To sum it up, three times as many drivers objected to me being on the road in the first place than objected to me doing the “Idaho Stop”.

Legalizing Actual Riding Behavior
The “Idaho Stop” has the potential to “legalize actual riding behavior”. Its clear rules provide guidance for cyclists who are tired of stopping and waiting at empty intersections.

One argument against the “Idaho Stop” is that compared to the hard-and-fast rules of “red light means stop”, the “Idaho Stop” requires more judgement and discretion from cyclists. But so do all stop and yield signs. And nobody has started a campaign to abolish all stop and yield signs…

What if other traffic does not know about the “Idaho Stop”? Isn’t that dangerous? I think the answer is “No”, because the “Idaho Stop” may only be used when there is no other traffic that could be impacted. When you do the “Idaho Stop”, you still don’t have the right-of-way. Period.

Right on Red
Some may be concerned about an erosion of the rule of law if we allow traffic to proceed through red lights. However, we already do that: Most states already allow a “Right on Red” when there is no traffic approaching from the left. You stop, check for traffic, and proceed if there isn’t any. The “Idaho Stop” simply adds a second exemption to an already existing one.

The “Right on Red” is beneficial for pedestrian safety when it moves right-turning cars through the intersection before pedestrians get a green light, reducing the risk of getting hit by a right-turning car.

Social acceptance
When I told my German relatives about the “Right-on-Red” after my first visit to the United States 25 years ago, they were incredulous. It offended their sensibilities that you could proceed even though the light was red. “But that is so dangerous!” they exclaimed. “It cannot work!” said others. The consensus was: “That is crazy!”

Today “Right-on-Red” is legal in Germany at certain intersections, and everybody is fine with it. It’s less dangerous than turning right on green, when you share the intersection with pedestrians and cyclists. Drivers who do so don’t give motorists a bad name. They aren’t scofflaws. All the “Right-on-Red” does is make traffic flow more smoothly and safely.

Conclusion
My experiment suggests that adopting the “Idaho Stop” everywhere would pose few risks and complications. It would make traffic flow more smoothly. It would provide rules that reflect actual cyclist behavior. And my experience in Seattle shows that even in a city whose citizens are known for policing each other, few people mind if cyclists ride responsibly, but don’t wait at empty intersections.

For those who prefer to follow the existing rules, there would be nothing to force them to change their behavior. By reducing the impression of “scofflaw cyclists” who “give cyclists a bad name” and increasing a positive view of cyclists, the roads would get safer for everybody. It’s a win-win situation.

To eliminate the problems I encountered at complex intersections, I suggest adding “if no traffic going in other directions is present at the intersection” to the rule.

Hopefully, the various bicycle advocacy groups will pick up the drive to make the “Idaho Stop” universal law. Why don’t you contact the League of American Bicyclists and your state’s bicycle advocacy organization and suggest a coordinated effort to adopt this positive change. Adopting the “Idaho Stop” is easy, and it doesn’t cost much (no new signs or infrastructure required, just outreach to inform citizens of the change in law). Most of all, it makes cycling safer and more efficient, and it encourages cyclists to follow the law.

Already, there is a Washington state law under consideration that allows cyclists to proceed through red lights if the trigger sensors don’t react to bicycles. Motorcyclists already have that exemption. Hopefully, this is one steop toward making the “Idaho Stop” universal law.

As for me, my experiment is over, and I’ll now return to abiding the law. I’ll try to wait at every red light and stop at stop signs. I’ll plan some extra time during my commutes for this. And I’ll hope that our traffic laws will follow Idaho’s example soon and “legalized actual traffic behavior.”

Further reading:

More posts on Cycling Safety:

Posted in Cycling Safety | 120 Comments

Hanging Edelux II Headlights

edelux_hang_wire_850

When the new Edelux II headlights came out a little over a year ago, they were another big step forward in lighting technology. Compared to the first Edelux, the new version features a much wider and more evenly lit beam. Compared to older halogen headlights, the difference is night and day. (Sorry for the pun.)

At first, the Edelux II was available only for “standing” attachments. This works well if you mount your light on the fork crown or with a rack designed for such a light (like the Compass CP1 rack), but if you prefer to mount your light under the handlebars or on a custom rack, the hanging attachments has several advantages.

It took a while to redesign the Edelux II for hanging attachment, but we are glad to report that the first production samples have arrived. There are two versions:

edelux_hang_wire2_850

The first features the standard on/off switch, the standard co-axial wire and a second connector for a taillight. The taillight connector is different from the standing Edelux, in that it uses a screw that attaches a connector, rather than a plug-in connector (see photo below).  The screw makes sure no water can enter through the connector. (The screw should always be installed, even if no taillight is attached.)

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The second version is intended for bikes with separate light switches. This version has no switch, no wire and only a screw connector to attach the wire from the generator hub. (Both versions have the “Ground” connected to the light’s housing.)

 

At first, I was surprised that there wasn’t a single-strand wire as on the previous hanging Edelux lights, but I now realize the connector is better: Since most custom bikes will use wiring that runs inside the fork blades, fenders and/or rack tubes, having a screw connector allows you to remove the light without disturbing the wires.

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The hanging Edelux II does not have a light sensor – if you use a handlebar bag, the bag shades the light, and the sensor always would turn the light on. Otherwise, they are functionally identical to the standing versions.

I am looking forward to installing these lights on my next bike. We now have a very limited quantity in stock. More will arrive, but we don’t know when. Eventually, they will become regular products in the Compass Bicycles line.

For a photo of this light installed on a bike, see Anton Tutter’s photos.

Click here for more information or to order.

Posted in Lighting, Uncategorized | 22 Comments

400 km Brevet: Teamwork is Fun!

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“Let the guys on the 650B bikes to the front. They’ll be ahead anyhow.” That is what the organizer of the Seattle International Randonneurs 400 km brevet said before the start. We laughed – what a change from just a few years ago when many people thought I was exceptionally strong, since I could ride such a “slow” bike so fast.

early

So we rolled out together, but on the first twisty downhill, Wade, Theo and I got a gap on the rest of the field. Those wide tires really do corner faster…

fog

We sped with ease over the rolling roads along the Snoqualmie Valley. Fog covered the meadows, but above, we could already see the sunny skies.

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It turned into a gorgeous morning as we made our way up north. The course went from Redmond in the suburbs of Seattle almost to the Canadian border, where it would climb the lower slopes of Mount Baker. The sun was shining, and Wade’s shadow outlines what a fast brevet bike apparently looks like these days: Wide, supple 650B tires, fenders, handlebar bag. It helps that Wade is a very strong rider who races cyclocross as a Category 2. Theo has a perfectly smooth pedaling stroke as he spins up the steepest hills without apparent effort. Both ride predictably and are good company for a long, fast ride.

near_oso

The second group came into view once in a while, but each time, the terrain turned hilly, and the gap opened again. Finally, about 100 km into the ride, they started catching us. Just then, I had a flat (super-sharp glass shard). Bad luck with flats this year, two already, whereas last year, I had only one all year…

oso_slide

The flat tire didn’t take long to repair, and then we suddenly found ourselves on brand-new pavement, and the scars of the terrible Oso landslide came into view. Even as a former geologist, it amazes me how far the debris from a deep-seated rotational slide can travel. The headscarp of the slide was more than half a mile away, yet all around us was the debris that had covered the highway (and adjacent houses). The mood was somber as we continued our ride…

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We saw the last riders of the lead group leave Darrington as we arrived, but their legs were fresher from a longer stop, so they slowly pulled away from us. We enjoyed the lightly travelled backroads, including the wonderful Sauk River-Concrete Road (above).

concrete

In Concrete, the climbing started in earnest. The road that leaves the valley is incredibly steep, especially after having ridden a spirited 180 km. We saw the lead group struggle on the slope ahead.

walking

We had agreed beforehand to walk the steepest stretch. It was good to stretch our legs (the slope is steep, perfect for a calf stretch). The brisk walk kept our heart rates up, but our cycling muscles were well-rested as we reached the top. The lead group was out of sight – riding is a little faster even on a hill this steep.

lead_group

Our strategy was to use our well-rested legs and power over the stair-step climbs toward Mount Baker, while the lead group would struggle after exerting themselves on the steep climb.

It didn’t take long until the lead group came into sight. Our strategy worked exactly as planned. As we surged past the other group, several riders tried to jump on our wheels, but they later told us that their legs indeed were tired.

The competition between the two groups is friendly – in fact, several of my best friends were in the other group. The competition serves mostly as an incentive to keep riding hard as we chase each other around the course. It’s a game, not a fight. It helps us excel at what we love doing: Trying to cover the course as fast as possible.

mt_baker

For the time being, we were distracted by the scenery. My camera had a hard time capturing Mt. Baker in the mid-day sun, but the view was truly outstanding.

We appreciated a brief rest at the control that was staffed by the SIR organizers, then plunged back into the valley. We battled terrible headwinds on flat roads (a most demoralizing combination), saw the other group briefly at the last control, and then rolled at full speed with a nice tailwind. No photos from this portion, since we were working hard, with smooth, efficient pulls.

almost_done

When we reached Snohomish, we calculated that if we kept our speed up, we might finish the brevet in less than 14:30 hours. That became our new goal. (Four years ago, I finished in 14:52…) Here we are waiting for a red light near the finish: Like the rest of us, Theo looks a little tired, but none the worse for wear.

finish

Just as the last light was fading, we turned into Mark Thomas’ driveway and completed the ride. Our official time was 14:27 – not bad for a challenging 400 km brevet. It showed what a well-matched team can accomplish. Thanks to my riding buddies – it was a fun ride!

Postscript: After an hour of recovery and socializing, we headed back to Seattle under an almost full moon. It was a magic ride and a great way to finish a wonderful day.

Posted in Rides | 40 Comments

Not A Museum Piece

Singer195434AV800

When bikes are as stunningly beautiful as the machines from René Herse, Alex Singer and other French constructeurs, it is easy to dismiss them as “beauty queens” or “show bikes.” This would be a mistake: The performance of these bikes is as outstanding as their appearance. They confirm the old saying: “What looks right usually is right.”

When I first became interested in the bikes of René Herse and Alex Singer, collectors told me: “Yes, they are beautiful to look at, but they probably aren’t so great to ride.” As a rider, that dampened my interest in these machines. 

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So imagine my surprise when I read Bernard Déon’s classic book Paris-Brest et Retour about the history of the famous 1200 km PBP randonneur event, and saw that these bikes had not only been ridden for that long distance, but ridden at incredible speeds. For example, Roger Baumann (above) completed the 1956 PBP, one of the windiest and rainiest ever, in 52:19 hours, riding completely unsupported.

Whatever the merits of the rider, his René Herse must have performed well to enable such a performance. I decided to find out more.

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So I started experimenting, with the generous help of friends. For two seasons, I had two wonderful constructeur bikes in my garage: a 1952 René Herse 650B bike (above) and a 1954 Alex Singer 700C bike (photo at the top of the post). I started using these machines together with my brand-new custom bike.

One of the fastest riders at the Seattle International Randonneurs at that time was Kenneth Philbrick. He was training for the Furnace Creek 508 race. On his Campagnolo-equipped Litespeed, he could set a ferocious pace on the flats. We engaged in a little bit of friendly competition. Sometimes, we finished together, at others one of us would take the lead and finish alone.

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Toward the end of the second season, Ken asked me during a ride: “How much does your new bike weight? It must be a lot heavier than the old ones, since you seem so much faster on the old bikes.” This surprised me, since the three bikes all weighed the same – about 26 pounds fully equipped.

Thinking about this, I realized that Ken was wrong about the weight, but right about the performance: Whenever I had ridden the new bike (above), he had dropped me. I sometimes had managed to catch him again when he got confused about navigation (his Litespeed did not allow him to keep the route sheet in sight), but there was no question that he was the stronger rider. However, when riding the Singer or the Herse, I had dropped him every time, and finished alone. It appeared that those bikes worked better for me.

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Eight brevets are not enough to obtain statistically significant results, but a 100% correlation is interesting nonetheless. Combined with the better handling of the old bikes and the better shock absorption of their slim forks, I decided to get my own classic constructeur bike, and I bought the 1974 Alex Singer that I rode for many years. The trend continued to hold – my times during brevets improved on the classic machine.

Clearly, the old constructeurs knew what they were doing. It’s only been through our recent research into superlight tubing that we have been able to design bikes that, for us, surpass the performance of the old machines. But even now, the old machines offer a performance that few modern bikes can match. And we finally have tires again that perform as well as the hand-made clinchers the old randonneurs raved about.

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Classic bikes are interesting, because the engine – the human body – has not changed over the last half-century. Modern materials may reduce the weight by a few percent (when you look at the entire system of bike-and-rider), but the things that really matter haven’t changed much over the years. The bikes that worked so well back then still work well now, and the “hottest” trend of the moment – wide, supple tires – is only a re-discovery of what these riders already knew more than half a century ago.

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