Orcas Island in the Snow


The San Juan Islands are only a short distance north from Seattle. Why not go cyclotouring for a weekend? It was still dark when we took the 7:30 ferry from Anacortes.


As our boat headed toward the islands, the sun rose over Mount Baker. Ferry rides are always beautiful, but in January, we didn’t linger on deck for long. The temperature was below freezing!


The sun started to make a tentative appearance as we disembarked at the Orcas Island ferry landing. We cycled along empty backroads across the island. January cyclotouring has an advantage: There is almost no traffic.


Orcas Island is my favorite among the San Juans. The roads dive in and out of the many bays, offering beautiful views. Eastsound was a great place for breakfast and warming up at a café, before we continued our exploration of the island.


A week of unseasonably cold temperatures had frozen the roadside springs into beautiful ice sculptures.


I hadn’t ridden my old Alex Singer camping bike in quite a while. When I bought it almost 20 years ago, it was one of my first 650B bikes. Back then, it was a revelation, and it has had a pronounced influence on our bikes today. On this trip, it was fun to re-acquaint myself with the Singer, even though it was loaded far below its capacity.


Orcas Island has an added attraction for cyclists: Mount Constitution is one of the few mountain climbs in Washington that are not closed in winter – at least usually. A winding road leads from sea level to the top at 731 m (2400 ft). Up there is a great view across the islands and the Puget Sound, framed by the Cascades to the east, the Olympic Mountains to the south, and the Vancouver Island Range to the West.

Yet during our visit, even this relatively low road was covered with snow. We started the climb anyhow…


…testing the slipperiness of the surface from time to time, and walking our bikes when it got too icy.


Instead of pushing all the way to the top, we took the road to Mountain Lake, about half-way up the mountain. At the end of the road, we continued on frozen trails.


A good thermos is essential equipment for winter cyclotouring. Hot tea made our picnic by the frozen lake enjoyable and fun.


It was dark by the time we returned to the ferry landing, where we had booked a room at the quaint Orcas Hotel. Another advantage of winter cyclotouring: Last-minute reservations are no problem.


Rain was moving in the next day, as we cycled along the water to Westsound and onward to Deer Harbor. This beautiful road winds along the water, with beautiful views of the neighboring islands.


The quiet roads invited us to stop and explore. When there is no traffic requiring your attention, you suddenly notice the little things by the roadside…


The rain showers became more frequent, and we decided to return to the hotel, where we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon tea before taking the ferry back to the mainland. It was a wonderful way to start this year’s cycling season.

Further reading:

Photo credits: Natsuko Hirose (Photo 3, 5, 9)

Posted in Rides | 18 Comments

Why Handlebar Shapes Are Important


Once again, riders are realizing the importance of handlebar shapes. In recent decades, makers tried to make ergonomic shapes by flattening the bars where the most useful hand positions are located. But human anatomies vary a lot, and locking riders into a few “anatomic” hand position rarely results in the promised comfort. In fact, rather than locking you in, the most ergonomic bars allow you to find the position that matches your very unique anatomy.

Compass Randonneur Bars 31.8 Clamp

The sweeping curves of classic handlebars allow you to do just that. Depending on the angle at which your wrists are most comfortable, you can move your hands to find exactly that angle. It’s something that was evident to riders and racers during the days when stages were longer and roads were rougher, but it has been somewhat forgotten in recent decades.

Riding classic handlebars, I was surprised how much more comfortable they were than the modern handlebars on my daily riders. That led us to explore classic shapes more and offer handlebars that are quite different from what you see on most bikes today.

Compass now offers two handlebars, the Maes Parallel and the Randonneur. I like them both, as they feel quite different on the road.

cobbles_fireflyThe Maes Parallel is great if you change hand positions a lot. The ramps are long and flat, giving you plenty of room to roam. I prefer these bars for fast-paced group riding, where speeds change constantly, and I am moving around to use the most efficient position for the power output required by the group’s speed. The drops are relatively shallow, which suits modern racing bikes with relatively low handlebars.

I use the Maes Parallel handlebars on my Firefly (above) and on our Specialized Diverge long-term test bike.


The Randonneur is great for longer efforts, where you find a good position and stay in it. It’s also great when you aren’t pedaling super-hard, and a little more weight rests on your arms and hands. This doesn’t mean you cannot use these bars to go fast: When it’s time to hammer, you use the hoods or drops for a lower, more powerful riding position. The drop is a bit deeper, to give you a more pronounced difference between riding positions: upright for lower efforts on the ramps, or low for higher speeds in the drops. In between, you have the hoods, and for sliding back on the saddle during climbs, I use the tops.

The upsweep next to the stem isn’t there to raise your bars – it creates a three-dimensional shape that fits perfectly into the palm of your cupped hands. With Randonneur handlebars, it’s extremely important to get the shape “just right”. Otherwise, your bars are less comfortable than handlebars without the upsweep. We tested numerous designs before settling on the shape of the Compass Randonneur handlebars.  The differences are subtle, but you’ll notice them soon after you start riding. And the longer you ride, the bigger the differences become. We now offer the Compass Randonneur handlebars in a 460 mm version for those who prefer wide handlebars.

I use the Randonneur bars on my Mule (above) and on the René Herse that I ride in brevets.



Two different handlebars for different riding styles – each optimized for its purpose. Available in a variety of widths and with 25.4 mm and 31.8 mm clamp diameters. We think you’ll enjoy them as much as we do.

Click here for more information about our handlebars.

Posted in Handlebars | 42 Comments

Disc Brake Pros and Cons


Disc brakes have become increasingly popular on bicycles in recent years, especially on “Allroad” bikes with wide tires. Bicycle Quarterly has tested more than 20 bikes with disc brakes. Our challenging adventures have provided excellent opportunities to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of modern “Road” disc brakes.


I remember enjoying the excellent power and modulation of the then-new SRAM Red hydraulic discs on the descent from Naches Pass, but the caliper flexed the fork blade so much that the front wheel turned right each time I braked hard. At the other end of the spectrum, I sailed through a red light on a steep Seattle street, because an early mechanical “road” disc simply lacked the power to stop the bike.

What you’ll read here is a more detailed and differentiated view than the usual “discs offer great stopping power” generalizations. As with many things, disc brakes have advantages and disadvantages. Whether they are right for you (and which ones to choose) depends on how you ride.


Experts like to point out that rim brakes are in fact disc brakes – the bicycle’s rim acts as the disc rotor (above). That is true in a technical sense, but it also points out the main differences between the two types of brakes.

On rim brakes:

  • Good: The “rotor” – the rim – is very large (close to 600 mm on most road bikes). With such a long lever arm, the brake caliper does not need to squeeze the rim extremely hard to stop the bike.
  • Bad: The brake caliper must reach around the tire. This means that brakes for wider tires are heavier and more flexible than those for narrow tires.

On a disc brake, the opposite is the case:

  • Bad: A disc brake’s separate rotor is much smaller (140 – 200 mm on most bikes). The caliper must squeeze the rotor very, very hard to slow the bike.
  • Good: A disc brake caliper only has to reach around a very thin rotor. Thanks to the caliper’s small size, flex is not an issue.

The advantages of disc brakes are most pronounced on bikes with wide tires. That is why disc brakes are so popular for Allroad bikes: Most rim brakes for wide tires offer sub-par performance. Here is why:


Scaling up the dual-pivot brake of a racing bike may provide clearance for 35 mm tires, but it results in a heavy and flexible brake. See the long lower arm of the brake in the photo above? When you brake hard, it will flex significantly.

Such a brake may feel fine during moderate braking, but pulling harder on the brake lever only flexes the brake, without increasing brake power on the rim. That is a problem during emergency stops. It’s an even bigger issue during wet rides, when you need extra braking power to squeeze the water off the rim. Anybody who has descended a mountain pass in the rain and squeezed the brake lever as hard as they could without being able to stop is going to look for a better solution.


The problems of rim brakes can be solved by moving the pivots closer to the rim. This reduces the flex, since only the part between the pivot and the brake pad flexes significantly. (It’s the part that gets twisted as the brake pads are pulled along with the rim.)

Cantilever brakes (above) locate the pivot close to the rim. That makes them very stiff. The problem is that the stiff brake is attached to the flexible fork blades or seatstays, which twist when you brake very hard. This changes the toe-in of the brake pads and results in poor modulation.


Centerpull brakes (above) have pivots near the fork crown or brake bridge, so flex is less of an issue. That is why they generally offer better modulation than cantilevers. The best models also have very stiff arms, and almost no brake lever travel is wasted to brake flex.

Placing the pivots next to the rims is such a logical solution that it’s now used on racing bikes, too: the latest “Direct Mount” brakes use the same geometry. The only difference: The arms are actuated by a linkage (which adds weighs and friction, but eliminates the need for a straddle cable).

Really good rim brakes for wide tires exist, but they aren’t very common. This may be one reason why disc brakes have taken over. They are better than “average” rim brakes.


How do disc brakes compare to rim brakes?

The advantages of disc brakes are easy to understand:

  • Power independent of tire size: Brake design (and power) are not constrained by tire size. You can use the same brake for any tire, and you get as much brake power with wide tires as you do with narrow ones.
  • Wet-weather performance: Because the rotor is small, the caliper must squeeze the rotor much harder than it does on a rim brake. This means that water will be scraped off the rotor quickly when riding in the rain. The best rim brakes also have enough power to offer decent wet-weather performance, but with disc brakes, even relatively inexpensive models work fine in the rain.
  • Separating tire and brake eliminates the risk of cutting into the tire with maladjusted brake pads. There is no risk of overheating the tire during long mountain descents. It also keeps rim and tire cleaner.
  • Switch wheels sizes on the same bike. For example, I could ride my Firefly (photo at the top) with superwide 26″ tires on rough gravel, with moderately wide 650B wheels on rough roads, and with skinny 700C tires on super-smooth roads. The outer diameter of all three wheelsets would be the same, and where the rim is located doesn’t matter with disc brakes. (In practice, this isn’t really an advantage, since the latest research by Bicycle Quarterly shows that wide tires roll as fast as narrow ones even on smooth roads.)


As so often, the same features that are responsible for the advantages of disc brakes also can be disadvantages:

  • Mechanical disc brakes often are not very powerful, because their rotors are so small. With 160 mm rotors, mechanical disc brakes don’t stop you as well as good centerpull (or racing dual pivot) brakes. This problem can be solved with bigger rotors. Stay away from “road” bikes with tiny 140 mm rotors. They are simply too small for optimum braking on pavement.
  • Hydraulic disc brakes offer plenty of power, but their hydraulic lines tend to be fragile. On one test bike, we had a brake line blow out after it got kinked slightly during shipping. Fortunately, this didn’t happen on the road, but in the workshop while adjusting the brakes.
  • Grabby: The most powerful disc brakes can suddenly lock onto the rotor. Especially at low speeds, braking power is hard to modulate. This isn’t a huge deal, but it shows that disc brake technology is still evolving.
  • Pad rub: Disc brakes must be very close to the rotor – this is the flip side of the high mechanical advantage that scrapes off the water so effectively in the rain. If the rotor is slightly out of true, it will rub on the pads and make annoying squeaking sounds.


  • Pad wear: Disc brake pads are relatively thin, and they wear out much faster than rim brake pads. On long, wet rides, you can run out of brakes completely, so carry spare pads! Fortunately, pad replacement is easy on most models.
  • Weight: Many bikes with disc brakes are heavier than their rim brake counterparts, but this needn’t be the case. Yes, the extra rotor and heavy caliper add significant weight, but much of that weight can be saved again on the rim, which doesn’t need a brake track, nor extra material to accommodate wear. With high-end carbon rims, a disc brake bike will weigh almost the same as with a good rim brake setup. The down side is the high price of carbon rims.
  • Stiff fork blades: Disc brakes require relatively stiff fork blades, because the caliper is mounted near the bottom of the fork. This means that the small-diameter, shock-absorbing fork blades of our favorite custom bikes don’t work well with disc brakes. For production bikes, this isn’t really an issue. Most production forks don’t offer much shock absorption anyhow: They are plenty stiff for disc brakes.

In a single sentence, the conclusion may be as follows: Even mid-range disc brakes offer adequate performance. The best rim brakes also offer plenty of power, but cheaper models for wide tires do not offer good braking, especially in the rain.

For a custom Allroad bike, where I can choose the best brakes and design the bike around them, I still prefer rim brakes. The best centerpulls (with brazed-on pivots) offer a sweet modulation that discs cannot yet match. Their pads last much longer. And they can be used with the flexible fork blades that increase comfort and speed, especially on rough roads. Just watch your pads to make sure they don’t cut into the tire. And be prepared to get muddy legs during long, rainy mountain descents (below).


But if you are looking for a production bike, centerpulls with brazed-on pivots aren’t really an option – too few bikes come equipped that way. Cantilevers offer fine stopping power, but especially with carbon forks, you often get fork judder. Disc brakes often are the best option for these bikes. Choose good brakes, maintain them well, and they won’t detract from the enjoyment of your bike. Here is what to look for in disc brakes:

  • For the ultimate in stopping power, get hydraulic calipers.
  • The best mechanical discs are fine for most riding. We’ve had good experiences with the TRP Spyre. Make sure your front rotor is no smaller than 160 mm. I’d prefer 180 mm (200 mm tends to be too grabby at low speeds), but few bikes come equipped that way.
  • Check your pad wear regularly. On long rides, carry spare pads.
  • Be prepared for the occasional squealing as your pads rub. On most mechanical brakes, centering the pads is easy with a 3 mm Allen wrench.


Further reading:

Photo credits: Natsuko Hirose (photos 1, 10, 11); Duncan Smith (6, 7); Hahn Rossman (2, 8).

Posted in Brakes, Testing and Tech | 161 Comments

Join Us at ‘Stoked Spoke’

Basic RGB

Every year in Seattle, Swift Industries organizes the ‘Stoked Spoke’ series of presentations about cyclotouring trips. On January 18, I’ll talk about our ride across the Paso de Cortés in Mexico.

Hear the story behind the ride, discover the inspiration that had us pack up the bikes and head to Mexico, and finally, find out what it would take to ride this amazing route yourself. (Hint: It’s not as hard as it sounds.)


I’ll show previously unpublished photos from the ride, and I’ll bring the Firefly that took me over the amazing variety of terrain on this route. I’ll see whether Hahn can attend and bring his bike, the Ex-Bontrager.

It’ll be fun to meet many readers and customers in person. Most of all, the ‘Stoked Spoke’ events are a great opportunity to meet cyclists who like venturing off the beaten path. If you are in Seattle (or had planned to visit soon), make sure you’ll attend this fun event!

When: January 18, 2017, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Rhino Room, 1535 11th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122
Cost: $5

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A Better Way to Mount Lights



Small parts often get overlooked, but they can make a big difference in your cycling experience. Take light mounts, for example. Adjusting the angle of your headlight beam is useful: In town, you want to angle the headlight low so it doesn’t blind oncoming traffic. Out in the mountains, you need a higher beam. Otherwise, you ride into the dark when you descend at speed and go into a dip in the road.

Yet trying to adjust the headlight by hand usually results in one of two outcomes: Either the mounting bolt is really tight and doesn’t move at all. Or light moves to the desired position, but the bolt turns and loosens in the process, and soon the light rotates on its own.

Of course, your headlight should never come loose. In the real world, even if it’s tight to start with, vibrations tend to loosen many headlight mounts, no matter how much Loctite you use during assembly. And the faster you ride, the greater are the vibrations…

There had to be a better solution! Working as a team, Compass Cycles has developed new headlight mounts that finally meets our expectations.


It all started with my own bikes, where I’ve slotted the mounts of the Edelux headlights, so that the attachment of the rack goes in between. That way, the bolt clamps both sides of the light mount, and no matter how often I adjust the headlight’s angle, it won’t come loose. Unfortunately, slotting the headlight’s mount is difficult, especially on the latest headlights.


Hahn figured out a way to use the same concept without modifying the light itself: Secure the light with a locknut. The bolt is tightened only so much that the light doesn’t rotate on its own. That way, you can adjust the light angle by hand. The locknut locks in this adjustment and prevents the bolt from coming loose. (It’s just like the adjustment of a cup-and-cone bearing in many hubs and classic bottom brackets.)

On one side, we use a Nylon washer that provides a little “give” and allows the adjustment. The washer between the light and the mount must be metal, otherwise, there is no good “ground” to the frame, which is a problem if you run a taillight or the “connector-less” SL system.

We now include this setup with all Compass racks that are equipped with a light mount. For those with older racks, we offer the bolts and washers as a retrofit. When you use B&M lights, the new Compass light mount has another advantage: The bolt isn’t so tight that it risks cracking the plastic mounting eyelet. Yet thanks to the locknut, it won’t come loose.


If your rack has only an eyelet for mounting lights, we designed a light mount that offers the same functionality. It incorporates Nitto’s proven stainless steel light mount, but with our own hardware. A toothed lockwasher prevents the mount from rotating (top bolt). The light itself attaches to the mount (bottom bolt) with a set of locknuts that allow the adjustment.

We also worked out a solution to another problem: With a light mount on the left side of the bike, the weight of the headlight tends to loosen the attachment bolt by turning it counter-clockwise.

Theo had the idea of mounting the light mount to the inside of the rack. That way, the weight of the headlight tightens, rather than loosens, the bolt. It’s a small detail, but it can make a big difference.


We also offer a version for racks that don’t have eyelets, but separate, adjustable struts (above). It incorporates all the neat details of the other mounts, making it a great solution for those racks.

We’ve tested all these mounts extensively before offering them to our customers. It’s not really rocket science, but once you have a headlight that you can adjust on the road, without tools, you won’t want to miss that feature. As to lights coming loose in mid-ride – that just shouldn’t happen. Because in the end, there was a better way – it just took commitment and teamwork to figure it out.

The new light mounts are one example of how at Compass, we design products that meet our own high expectations. When we are out on spirited, multi-day rides in the mountains, we want our bikes to fade into the background, so we can enjoy the amazing roads, the stunning scenery, and the wonderful company of our friends.

Click here for more information about the Compass lights and mounts.

Posted in Lighting, Racks/Bags | 19 Comments

Happy New Year!


Let your 2017 be filled with wonderful rides and passionate pursuits!

—The team at Bicycle Quarterly and Compass Cycles

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Bicycle Shop Gen


In Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve featured a number of the great bicycle builders in Japan: TOEI, C.S. Hirose, Iribe and Level. We did a brief feature on Bicycle Shop Gen – one of my favorite shops anywhere in the world. This year, I had the opportunity to visit again.


Bicycle Shop Gen is the passion of Genzo Yoshizawa (above). The shop is tiny – it occupies what used to be a single-car garage – yet it contains one of the most amazing collections.


Inside, the shelves are overflowing with beautiful and rare components. Classic French headlights… Every model of the sought-after Ad-Hoc pumps… Derailleurs…


Bicycle Shop Gen specializes in building up TOEI frames. On display are Mr. Yoshizawa’s eight TOEIs, each equipped with very special components.


It’s difficult to photograph the shop, because it holds so much in such a limited space. I could look for hours and still discover new details. Some things are easy to notice, like the beautiful fork rake for which TOEI’s bikes are famous…


… or the chainguard with the elegant cutout of the TOEI logo.


Each bike is special and unique. This “Sports Model” has different lugs from the others. I like the pump peg that is brazed onto the lug.


Aficionados will appreciate the super-rare mid-1970s first-generation Super Record derailleur. This was Campagnolo’s response to Huret’s superlight Jubilee derailleur. For the Super Record, Campagnolo used titanium bolts to save weight and black paint to update the optics a bit. Most importantly, this derailleur was the start of the Super Record groupset that became the dream of a whole generation of cyclists (myself included).


The TOEI even features the rare Porta Catena, a chainrest that allowed wheel changes without having to touch the chain. There is an interesting story behind this part: When Tullio Campagnolo bought two Nivex derailleurs from Alex Singer at the 1948 Salon du Cycle, they came with dropouts that incorporated a chainrest like this. The Nivex derailleur inspired the immortal Gran Sport – the first parallelogram derailleur for racing bikes. Today, all derailleurs trace their ancestry to the Gran Sport and the Nivex that guided its design.

What about the chainrest? I imagine that in the 1970s, somebody at Campagnolo found the dropouts with the chainrests in a drawer and decided that this was a neat idea…

Originally it was intended to be used with a 5-speed freewheel, but 6-speed spacing (the chain rest sits where the sixth cog usually goes). The craftsmen at TOEI went one better and mated it to a six-speed freewheel.


The system came with a special shift lever that had a lock-out for the last position, so you didn’t accidentally shift onto the chainrest when you slammed the lever all the way forward for an all-out sprint.

The Porta Catena wasn’t a big success, but its importance for cycling history goes beyond its rarity value: Campagnolo’s chainrest looks exactly like the Nivex, and it corroborates Alex Singer’s story that the Nivex inspired Tullio Campagnolo when he developed the Gran Sport derailleur.


In addition to the wonderful TOEI bikes, Bicycle Shop Gen has numerous classics on display, like this Lygie with Campagnolo’s Cambio Corsa shifter…


…as well as Alex Singers (foreground) and René Herses (background). The bikes are in spotless condition, yet they all get ridden, because Mr. Yoshizawa is an avid cyclotourist. For me, that is the best part.


If you are ever in Tokyo, Bicycle Shop Gen is definitely worth a visit. Their address is:

Nishigaoka 1−27−8, Kita-ku, Tokyo, Japan; Zip code: 115-0052. Their web site is in Japanese, but it includes a map. Make sure that they are open before you head their way – Mr. Yoshizawa’s hours are variable.

Thank you to Misao Takigawa for taking me to Bicycle Shop Gen.

Further reading:

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments