Gravel Racing on Compass Tires

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When the Australian Matt Hayman won the European Paris-Roubaix race yesterday, it came as a huge surprise to everybody, including Hayman himself. However, nobody was surprised that Hayman rode on super-supple tires. With their tan sidewalls, Hayman’s tires looked like FMBs or Dugasts, but first reports insist that they actually were made by Continental. It’s an indication how far we’ve come if Continental really is making 28 mm tubulars with tan sidewalls and supple casings. (Of course, with pros, you always wonder what they really ride.)

Closer to home, there is little mystery in the tires that long-time Bicycle Quarterly reader Matt Surch (above) used to win Ontario’s season-opening gravel race, the Steaming Nostril. He isn’t sponsored by anybody, and we were excited to learn that he chose Compass Bon Jon Pass tires for his winning ride. I used the opportunity to catch up with Matt and ask him about gravel riding, bike and tire choices, and his training.

JH: Congratulations on winning the Steaming Nostril. Can you tell us a bit more about the race?

Matt Surch: Thanks Jan! It felt fantastic to kick off the season so well with my teammates! The Steaming Nostril is a 70 km loop from St. Jacobs, Ontario. The course begins with pavement, then mostly covers gravel roads that are well packed and have the typical potholes for this time of year. Long straight lines and strong winds favour those with strength and pack-riding skills.

After covering about 55 km, the course gets exciting! A new sector this year saw us enter a Mennonite farm on a dirt lane. We descended an absolutely gnarly rutted path into a valley, where we followed a freshly cut trail of grass and mud to a veritable muur [wall] of muddy singletrack. Completely unrideable, on any bike, this climb required cyclocross shouldering (below). After this sector, the race took us over a beautiful span of twisting and undulating packed dirt, some more pavement, and the final challenge: 6 or 7 flights of wooden stairs. From there it was about 50 meters to the finish line. The eclectic mix of surfaces and features made for a tactical and fun race.

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You’ve been racing on gravel longer than most. What attracts you to that part of cycling?

I grew up through the 1990s obsessed with mountain biking, and that’s where I began racing. I raced cross-country for years, then transitioned to downhill, which I pursued through my early 20s. When I had enough of the grind of racing, I shifted focus to skills-based riding: dirt jumping, street (in the BMX sense), and park (skatepark) – squarely centered on fun and progressing skills. But then I was tempted to try a local ‘spring classic’ race, the Ottawa Bicycle Club’s Paris-Roubaix. Yes, that’s the real name.

Ian Austen started the event about 25 years ago, and it’s a cult classic in our region. It’s 75 km of mostly dirt roads with a number of forest sectors that are trails or double-tracks. The first year, I did it with a gang of friends, and we all rode fixed-gear bikes with 28 mm or larger tires. It was really fun, and a great way to get into ‘road racing,’ though it was obviously far from that. The next year I tried again, this time with gears, and was more of a participant in the race, though I had no idea what was going on up front. My third year, I was able to ride close enough to the front to finally understand what was happening, and that was the spark I needed to really latch onto road racing.

I love how the gravel races bring out a huge spectrum of riders, from those who take them seriously to those who consider them ‘challenge rides.’ We all ride the same courses, and we all struggle in our own ways. They also tend to be ‘open category’ races, so they let us friends race together, rather than being split us up into the usual race categories.

There’s generally a strong sense of camaraderie between riders, be they at the front, the middle, or the back. I love that, trying to smash each other in the race with attacks, then laughing about it and sharing food and drink afterwards. (My drink of choice is kombucha!) We all have war stories…

The community aspect of the gravel races really speaks to me, too. They tend to be run out of small towns that get behind the events, and that is really heartening. We get to travel to these places off the beaten track and learn about the history and culture of the regions. I love that.

There’s more to it. I’m rarely the strongest rider in a race, but I’ve got as much skill as just about anyone I face, so I always try to figure out how to leverage that. Often I race with team-mates, and we spend time in advance of the races trying to work out different strategies, scenarios, and contingencies. That’s really fun, and different from road racing, where you’ll often know that there’s a hard climb that will be decisive… Often it’s really simple on the road. For the gravel races, we think about at what point we want a break or split to happen, then try to execute that plan, knowing that at some point it will come down to pure power and skill to seal the deal. I find this really exciting.

The other aspect I find really fun is the equipment. Each race has different demands, and I love working out the puzzle every year according to the conditions we’ll face.

You mention the equipment. Tell us about your bike!

I tend to use my cyclocross bike for these races. I have a custom Steelwool cx bike built with Columbus Spirit for Lugs; it’s TIG welded. I don’t’ have anything against other frame materials, but this is a bike that fits me perfectly and has served me well for years. I’d like disc brakes and more tire clearance, but that would require a whole lot of new wheels! My frame has curved seat-stays for a bit of passive suspension, which I find works really well for me. On the cyclocross courses and gravel roads this frame is comfortable, which I believe makes me fast. It also ‘planes’ for me well, which I love. I go with a pretty typical ‘road position’ on my bike for all these races, just a bit less drop to the bars than my road race bike. The only change I make for cyclocross is moving my stem up 5 mm and rolling my bars up slightly.

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Wheels have always been a huge part of the picture for gravel racing, and I used to struggle with denting rims and puncturing. Over the last few years, I’ve been using Woven Precision Handbuilts carbon wheels, first for cyclocross (tubulars), then for everything I do on the road and cx bike. With the deep-dish rims, it took me a little time to adjust to the front end’s reaction to gusts of wind, but after a while I was fully adapted. I was amazed by how hard I could hit things with those wheels and not even have to true them. It turns out the deeper wheels can be very compliant, given their ability to bulge out their sidewalls (not the brake track) under impacts.

Believing that I am on equipment that gives me an edge gives me confidence. Most people would not tend toward deep wheels for gravel races, but I’ll take the aero gains whenever I can, even if going deeper adds a few grams.

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I’m a pretty massive tire nerd, and this applies to every discipline I ride. I started on 28s, but I’ve come to love larger tires for the rougher terrain. I’ve even used a Niner 29er mountain bike, set up with drop bars and 2” Schwalbe Furious Fred tires, for the roughest terrain, and it was great. But I’ve learned through trial and error that my preference is to use the least amount of tread possible and the least amount of volume possible for a given race, in order to strike the best balance of low rolling resistance and aerodynamics, so I use Compass Extralight tires whenever possible.

I can literally feel the aerodynamic difference between 32 mm Compass tires and 38 mm ones, so I think about the hardest section of a race and how narrow a tire I can use and survive with, usually. I choose the tire that will let me ride at 100% intensity and probably not puncture. Sure, I could use the 38 mm option, but they are overkill most of the time. Instead, I look at how rough the fastest descent will be, and what volume I’ll need to do that well and safely.

I choose tread (some sort of knobs, from a diamond file tread up) on my tires when there might be ice and snow (Continental Speed), a bit of off-road that will have some mud and/or aggressive turning (Clement LAS, Bontrager CX0), and a ‘full tread’ tire (Clement PDX) for off-road parts that are really gnarly and will be soft enough for full knobs to penetrate and grip into. However, it’s uncommon to need more than the LAS “diamond file” treads for anything I race.

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You won the Steaming Nostril on Compass Bon Jon Pass tires. You aren’t sponsored, so you could have chosen any tire. Many readers would expect you on knobbies for a muddy race. Why did you chose the Bon Jons?

I’d been testing the new tubeless 35 mm Bon Jons, and they were working extremely well in tubeless format on the pavement and dirt roads. Planning for the same course as last year, they seemed like a great choice, even if they were a bit bigger than I needed. If the Compass 32s were tubeless-compatible, I’d have considered them ideal. I wanted the low rolling resistance of the tubeless format and the puncture resistance!

As to the smooth tread, the gravel roads were totally wet and muddy, yet traction was not an issue at all. The only issue was keeping mud off my glasses and trying not to collect too much as it froze onto the bikes! We’d been told by a rival that there was a new crazy sector while we were lined up for the start, so we knew there would be a surprise. When I hit the rutted descent I knew that tire tread would be irrelevant; it would come down to having the front wheel swallowed or not. Mine was, and I went over the bars! Fortunately, mud is soft, so I was back on my feet within seconds.

The trail bits that followed were a bit more difficult on tires with minimal tread, but one can adjust by pushing a harder gear to reduce the torque that makes the rear wheel spin. In fact, I made up ground here on my rivals with their knobby tires, perhaps in part because the minimal tread of the Bon Jons was not picking up as much mud… Once out of that sector, I had the advantage back, as the rest was definitely suited to the smooth tires.

I always look at whether I can use Compass tires rather than my other options, which have more tread and are more robustly constructed. Essentially, I want the EL’s super-supple casing and low rolling resistance whenever I can use them. Because I’ve got the option of using up to the 38 mm-wide tires now, the tires can handle some pretty extreme rough stuff. With the wider tires, I can run low enough pressure that the tires can absorb sharp impacts rather than get cut. When I match the tire correctly to the conditions, I feel like I’m just floating along, totally in tune with the road. It’s the suppleness of the tires and the compound that contribute to attaining that harmony. I love that. Stiffer tires simply can’t feel that way, and there certainly are not any tires out there that compare in the 32, 35, and 38 mm 700c sizes.

I often think that I’m riding tires similar to the best tubulars the pros use for races like Paris-Roubaix, but without the hassles of tubulars, and with lower rolling resistance, especially with the tubeless Bon Jons. Honestly, I’m convinced the Bon Jons are the fastest rolling 35 mm tire the world has ever seen in tubeless format. I just can’t see how anything else could compare.

What tire pressure did you ride in the race?

Low pressures are key for traction and floatation on gravel. I used 50 psi (3.5 bar) on the rear and 47 psi (3.2 bar) on the front. I weigh about 162 lb (73.5 kg).

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Sounds like there is an active gravel racing scene in Ontario. Tell us about it!

Around Toronto and Ottawa (my home town) there are a good number of gravel events that mostly focus on spring. Both cities have strong cyclocross and road scenes, which contribute to the popularity of these events. The season kicks off with the Hell of the North (formerly organized by Mike Barry of Mariposa) in March, followed by the Steaming Nostril (both in the Toronto area), Paris-Roubaix (we call it the Almonte Roubaix), the Clarence-Rockland Classic (outside Ottawa), and Paris to Ancaster (Toronto area), which is the biggest, pulling in thousands or riders, including cyclocross stars from the US. We head down to Vermont for the Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race in April, which is a favourite.

Later into the season we return to New England  for the fantastic Vermont Overland race, which is really hilly, and has some very challenging Class 4 ‘road’ sectors, which are referred to by locals as ‘Vermont Pavé’. This race is awesome, my favourite parcours of all, because it’s so technical and exciting. Plus, the event brings in such an amazing crowd, and their meal after is incredible.

How do you prepare for the races?

The spring races are the hard ones to prepare for, because we have full-on winter here in Ottawa. It’s dark, cold, snowy and icy from December through March, so we really have to be disciplined in order to get the fitness where it needs to be to be good for these races. While many locals head south during the winter for training camps, I stay home and put in lots of time on the trainer in the basement. I don’t really take a break after cyclocross season ends at the close of November, but just get onto the bike every day – normally in the morning before work, then at night – and keep moving. I go by feel rather than follow a rigid training schedule. That means I ride hard when I feel good, and I ride easy when I don’t.

There are a couple ‘anchors’ to my weeks over the winter.  On Thursday nights I started doing Zwift races this past winter, which ended up being amazingly high intensity training. I found I was able to push to 100%, whereas I couldn’t normally do that inside. These sorts of workouts are key for me through the winter, along with the shorter interval sessions I pepper in. I also like to work on things like high cadence, prolonged standing, and low cadence on the trainer. All of these things are meant to target weaknesses and give me more tools to work with in the races.

Every Sunday in the winter (except when the weather/roads are insane), 3 to 12 friends ride a three-hour loop on snow-covered dirt roads. We tend to draw a line at colder than -15° C at the start; if it’s colder than that, our feet have a hard time staying unfrozen. We do the loops at a pretty steady tempo, and the great thing is that the climbs are not so long that we get really hot, and the descents are not so long that we freeze. After a week of pedaling inside, these Sundays are special, even if we have to wear ski helmets, goggles, mitts and two pairs of shoe covers over winter shoes.

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Obviously, you train a lot. As in most races, you probably won mostly because of your fitness. What other factors played a role?

Fitness was definitely a big factor, but my team-mates were also key to making the win possible. Marc Hunt was out in a break of 2 for 20 km, which forced our main rivals, Wheels of Bloor, to try to bridge. Iain Radford and I simply could chase down each attempt, and other riders helped. So that was pretty straightforward. Once they were absorbed, a split occurred, and it was a matter of reacting to attacks. I ended up going into that gnarly sector with just two others, one being last year’s winner.

What about rider skill? How is racing on gravel different from racing on pavement?

Because ‘gravel’ events can vary widely in terms of what they throw at riders, the range of skills required also varies for a rider who wants to do well across the board. The most road-like events we do, like the Clarence-Rockland Classic, only use actual roads – paved and gravel. There’s not a lot of turning, so riders don’t need to be really adept there. They do, however, need to know how to ride relaxed over rough surfaces, and choose their tires well. Wind is usually a factor in races like this, so if a rider is strong, but doesn’t have good pack riding skill, they won’t be able to do well. The longer races in the US, like the Dirty Kanza, are similar in that they are quite open and windy. If I was doing that race, I’d be all about my aerodynamics and making sure I was not riding alone until I had to.

The more technical courses, like the Almonte Roubaix, Paris-to-Ancaster, and Vermont Overland require specific off-road skills for riding light over roots, rocks, mud, and steep ascents and descents. The sectors these races use are essentially trails people would normally ride mountain bikes on. In our case, cyclocross bikes are the best choice for all the faster and smoother parts, so one has to be able to ride drop bars with skinny tires through all that rough stuff. So looking way ahead is essential, as is being light and fluid on the bike to ‘roll with’ changes of direction when the wheels deflect off rocks and roots. Or mud ruts!

Mountain biking teaches riders to stay calm, let go of the brakes, and just go with it when facing difficult sections, and this is exactly what is required on the ‘gravel bikes.’ Without suspension, it’s key to be able to hop over the worst obstacles that can smash wheels, and even slide both wheels through turns at times. Really, all the skills riders learn in cyclocross translate well, though there is often much more speed involved in these races, which is where mountain bike experience helps. But shouldering and running with the bike is a cyclocross skill that will sometimes be key in a ‘gravel race’. If you can get off and run, and be faster than riding, you should run!

One cool thing about some of the gravel races is that riders with very good descending speed can use it to catch back up after being dropped on climbs. You can’t win on the descents, but you can often ease up a bit on the last part of the climbs then catch back on without using extra energy. I love that.

What advice do you have for riders who want to try riding on gravel?

Riding on gravel must seem scary to a lot of riders, and I understand why. The fact that most ‘road bikes’ are sold with narrow tires (23 – 25 mm) can’t help the situation. Whenever I counsel friends and colleagues on new road bike purchases, I always encourage them to get a bike that fits at least 30 mm tires. A bike with 30 mm tires is so much more stable on gravel. But ‘gravel,’ as a category, is so ambiguous; the truth is that lots of dirt roads around here are actually really smooth in the summer, and don’t require anything special to ride. But if we’re talking about loose gravel, more volume in the tires is the name of the game. Over the years we’ve learned that volume is the key to stability on unpacked surfaces like those of gravel and dirt roads; knobs can’t do any work when the substrate under them is shifting.

Gearing might need to be lower than usual for getting out into the gravel, as these roads are often steeper than what we usually find paved. Compact cranks are always a great place to start!

A good pump is key to fixing the flats you’re likely to encounter while on gravel adventures! That’s ok, it’s part of the learning curve! It’s really important not to overinflate tires. Riding a low pressure avoids unnecessary cuts and improves comfort and stability. Don’t be afraid to get it wrong sometimes! Just stop to add air to your tires mid-ride, if they don’t feel stable enough, or they are bottoming out on the bigger bumps.

If you want to try an event, I’d suggest finding one close to home and jumping right in! While riders like me geek out on marginal gains stuff for all these races, the majority of riders don’t need to worry about any of that. Lots of events are doable on a ‘normal’ road bike with 28 mm tires or a mountain bike. If there are technical parts that will be hard to navigate, use mountain bike shoes and pedals so you can walk. It’s not a big deal to get off and take the safe way. If riders have rando bikes, awesome, those are great for these events! I’d suggest removing the fenders if grassy or freezing mud is involved, unless you have huge clearance. At the Steaming Nostril, fenders would not have worked at all. Ride with one or more friends and share the experience, or, make new ones! I’ve met so many fantastic people while doing D2R2 (Deerfiled Dirt Road Randonnee) over the years. Just give it a try!

Thank you very much, Matt, and good luck with the other races this season!

Further reading:

Photo credits (in the order they appear):
1. Zara Ansar, from Clarence-Rockland Classic 2015
2. Cycle Waterloo, Steaming Nostril 2016
3. Matt Surch
4. Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race 2015
5.  Matt Surch
6. Paris-to-Ancaster 2015 (photographer unknown)
7. Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race 2015

Correction: Initially, the front and rear tire pressures were reversed, showing a higher front tire pressure. Matt runs slightly more air in his rear tire than his front.

Posted in Rides, Testing and Tech, Tires | 26 Comments

Straddle Cables Done Right

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Straddle cables provide a light and elegant way of transferring the brake force: Every cable-actuated rim brake needs to transmit the force of the single brake cable onto two brake pads that squeeze the rim.

In recent years, straddle cables been replaced by direct-action V-brakes or complex linkages (on modern Shimano sidepull brakes). There are reasons for this: Current practice for straddle cables is less than optimal. However, these flaws can be eliminated with good design, resulting in brakes that are lighter and more powerful than the alternatives.

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Above is a typical straddle cable arrangement. The straddle cable is as thick as the brake cable, and that makes it very springy. You can see how it bends around the cable hanger in a gentle arc. When you apply the brake, you first have to straighten the straddle cable. This is lost motion – you pull on the brake lever, but you don’t get any brake power yet. If there is too much “lost motion”, you risk bottoming out your brake levers against the handlebars. To prevent this, you have to set your brake pads very close to the rims. Experienced mechanics “pre-bend” the straddle cable, so it better conforms to the cable hanger, but it’s always going to have some of that springiness.

Why is the straddle cable so thick and springy? It carries only roughly half the load of the brake cable, so it needs to be only half as strong. A thinner cable is less springy and conforms much better to the bend of the cable hanger. The top photo shows our Compass brakes, which use a thin shifter cable as the straddle cable. You can see how straight the cable runs. When you squeeze the brake lever, there is no lost motion.

There is a reason to use a thicker straddle cable: to prevent it from fraying where it clamps to the brake arms. The angle of the cable changes here as you apply the brakes: The cable becomes more vertical as the hanger moves upward and the brake arms move inward.

If the cable is clamped firmly to the brake arms, you bend the cable every time you brake, which eventually may cause it to fray. The angle change is more severe on centerpull brakes than on cantilevers. And when the cable frays, it’s only a matter of time until it breaks, and then you lose all brake power.

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There is a better solution to this problem: cable attachments that swivel. Then the changes in angle don’t bend and stress the cable at all. You can use a thin straddle cable, which doesn’t “spring”, and you’ve eliminated all the disadvantages of straddle cables, while keeping their advantages.

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With optimized straddle cables, our Compass brakes work effectively the same way as Shimano’s latest racing sidepulls – the two pivots are next to the tire, and the lower arms are short to offer great braking power. Yet the Compass brakes use straddle cables instead of complex linkages, so they are much lighter than Shimano’s racing brakes, and they have less friction. When you use them on the road, you can feel the difference.

Click here to find out more about Compass brakes.

Photo credit (PBP photo): Maindru, used with permission.

 

Posted in Brakes, Testing and Tech | 76 Comments

Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting 2016

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This year’s Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting will be held on June 25 and 26 in Carson, Washington. Carson is located on the Columbia River near the Bridge of the Gods. It is easily accessible by bike from Portland along the Columbia River (90 km/50 miles).

From Carson, there are many options for great rides. On gravel, we can head to Trout Lake for the famous huckleberry shakes. On pavement, the ride over Old Man Pass to Northwoods at the foot of Mount St. Helens is truly spectacular. Both are part of the Volcano High Pass course that has featured repeatedly in Bicycle Quarterly, most recently as part of the “Road to Takhlakh Lake” in the Spring 2016 issue. We are exploring other route options that promise to be even nicer.

Carson has several campgrounds in town and nearby, as well as the Hotel St. Martin with its iconic hot springs. Food options include a brew pub, a grocery store, as well as more restaurants in nearby Stevenson.

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The Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting has a simple format: A meeting time and place are announced, a few routes are scouted, and everybody is welcome to join us for a day of cycling “off the beaten path”. The following day, there is the option of joining the group for the ride back to Portland via the scenic Historic Columbia Highway.

Logistics are up to each participant. The Un-Meeting has no entry fees, no waivers and provides no services. Everybody is welcome on any type of bike. However, because there are no services, riders must be self-sufficient. There will be no sag wagon…

Un-Meeting Dirt

Un-Meetings are unscripted get-togethers of cyclists who enjoy riding off the beaten path. We will ride together in the mountains, on routes that are accessible to most cyclists – no need to be a Super Randonneur to keep up. The rides vary in length between 80 and 150 km (50 and 90 miles). The focus is on fun and exploration more than performance.

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After the day’s ride, we will congregate at a campfire and share stories and experiences. Part of the fun is looking at each others’ bikes, because the machines at the Un-Meeting are as individualistic as their riders. By the end of the Un-Meeting, we hope many new friendships will be made and old ones rekindled.

Join us at 9 a.m. on June 25, 2016 at the grocery store in the center of Carson. (There is only one!) We’ll have more information in the weeks leading up to the event. I hope to see you at the Un-Meeting!

Photo credit: Andrew Squirrel (campfire).

Posted in Rides | 1 Comment

New Bicycle Quarterly 4-Packs

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The popularity of our 4-packs of Bicycle Quarterly back issues has surprised us.  They provide a neat way of reading up on a topic that interests you, whether it’s tire performance, American framebuilders, or tandems.

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Especially popular has been “Our best interviews”, which includes Grant Petersen; the legendary builders at TOEI; a double feature with Jacquie Phelan/Charlie Cunningham; and Paulette Porthault.

You may not know Madame Porthault, but you’ve probably seen her: On the Bicycle Quarterly web site, she is climbing the Galibier in 1936. You’ll want to read her story: She toured all over Europe during the 1930s. During the war, she won the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race (above). Then she rode for René Herse in the Technical Trials. She was incredibly strong, yet she really enjoyed leisurely touring, too. Her stories have been an inspiration for all of us at Bicycle Quarterly.

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We put together two new 4-packs:

  • Our best bike tests. Of course these are not just cut-and-dry bike tests. We take our test bikes on adventures that you’ll enjoy whether you are in the market for a new bike or not: Descending gravel-road mountain passes at night on a Calfee carbon bike during the Volcano High Pass 600 km Super Randonnée. Riding a MAP in search of the secret passes of the Cascades (above). Taking a J. P. Weigle to the original Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting. And going bikepacking in the snow on a Jeff Jones titanium 29er.

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  • Classic Bike Technology. Read what it’s like to ride a Bi-Chain, Retro-Directe and the early racing derailleurs like the Super Champion. Learn to shift Campagnolo’s Cambio Corsa, which requires opening the rear quick release and backpedaling. We’ve ridden them all! How do they compare to Campagnolo’s ground-breaking Gran Sport or its predecessor, the Nivex? What about Simplex and Huret Jubilee? Or the marvellous Spirax with its automatic chain tension adjustment? Discover the 1930s ancestor of the Huret Duopar with its two separate parallelograms. Fascinating stuff! This 4-pack also includes Bicycle Quarterly‘s “Brake Special” (imagine a Dancing Chain about brakes). You’ll be amazed how many different brake designs there have been over the last century (above). And we explain how Retrofriction and PowerRatchet shift levers work, with specially commissioned drawings by George Retseck.

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Of course, each back issue contains many other articles that you’ll find enjoyable. In fact, many readers have been ordering our complete set of BQ 1 – 50, which give you 2844 pages of reading enjoyment at a special price.

Click for further information about Bicycle Quarterly:

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues

Carbon and Leather

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The Bicycle Quarterly‘s Specialized Diverge test bike came out of the box all black. Specialized’s photo (below) makes it look like a shadow, but when I saw the actual bike, I found quite unappealing. Everything looked like it was made from plastic.

I dreaded taking the bike to the photo studio, where it’s our job to make test bikes look good. And I wasn’t particularly looking forward to riding it, either.

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As it turned out, I had to make a few changes to the Diverge before I could take it on the adventure that we planned for this bike test. With its stock tires, the deck was stacked against the Diverge, so on went a set of Compass Extralights. The handlebars gave me numb hands just riding around town, so I installed a set of Compass Maes Parallel 31.8 bars instead. And the Body Geometry saddle clearly didn’t fit my “geometry”, so it was replaced with a Rivet leather saddle that we were also testing for BQ.

These changes gave me an opportunity to do something about the appearance of the bike, too. Even though Compass tires are available in all-black, I opted for tan sidewalls to accentuate the wheels. Instead of reusing the original tape that looked like somebody had wrapped the bars in an inner tube, I used leather bar tape that matched the honey color of the saddle.

With these small changes, the bike was transformed, both functionally and aesthetically. The tan splashes of color directed the focus on the parts of the bike that matter: the tires that make the bike roll; and the handlebars and saddle as the important contact points with the rider. The black carbon frame connected these parts with smooth lines. To me, the bike now looked really appealing, and I could hardly wait to ride it.

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Imagine my surprise when I saw a similar juxtaposition of carbon and leather on a BMW concept car in a Munich showroom. The “328 Homage” has a body made from carbon fiber. The wheels are silver (not black!), and there are leather straps on the hood.

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The interior is covered with beautiful tan leather. It is a rather appealing mix, and I wish I could have sat in those leather seats. For me, leather isn’t about luxury or status, but its texture feels nice to touch. Leather develops a nice patina with age and use.

I imagine how the concept car would look if it was driven for a few thousand miles and then put on display. I was glad that I was able to ride the Diverge. The colors of its bar tape and saddle became even richer with use.

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For a fast camping trip on the Diverge, I took the contrast even further by adding a set of Gilles Berthoud panniers. There was a practical reason to use the Berthouds, as my modern front panniers were too small to carry a weekend’s camping gear. But once the panniers were on the bike, I realized how nice the gray-blue canvas looked with the black carbon…

I believe that timeless materials like leather and “classic” aesthetics can have a place on a modern bike. When you look at your bike, you want to think how wonderful it looks, and have the anticipation that it will deliver a great ride.

Until the bike industry wakes up to this potential, you can take matters in your own hands: A few small changes can radically change the appearance of your bike. And if, as in the case of the Diverge, the function is improved as much as the appearance, then you have two reasons to enjoy riding your bike more.

Posted in Handlebars | 52 Comments

Prepare for Gravel Riding

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Gravel riding is becoming increasingly popular, and we are very happy about it! It was natural for Bicycle Quarterly to become a co-sponsor of the Eroica California ride in April, since it combines two things we love: gravel roads and classic bikes. But gravel riding isn’t limited to riders trying to recreate the glory days of mid-century racing – almost any bike shop in North America will have a selection of carbon fiber “gravel bikes”.

There are many reasons why cyclists have discovered gravel: Gravel roads see much less traffic than paved ones. Gravel roads often traverse magnificent scenery. And riding on gravel enhances the simple experience of cycling, as your bike slides a bit – whereas on pavement, a slide usually results in a crash. On gravel, you can play with the limits of adhesion. It’s fun.

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For more than a decade, Bicycle Quarterly has featured cycling on unpaved roads: dirt roads, gravel roads, even mountain paths. As people have become interested, they often ask us: “What do we need to ride on gravel?” 

Here are some thoughts based on our experience of testing many different bikes on many different gravel roads.

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Bike

Almost any bike can be ridden on gravel. When I was a college student, my friends and I rode our racing bikes through the forest – on 20 mm tires! Today, we call that “underbiking” – riding a bike that is only marginally suited to the environment where we ride. That can be fun for a short while, and it hones your skills, but in the long run, you’ll want a bike that is better suited to the task.

A good gravel bike combines the performance of a racing bike with the ability to use wide tires. If you have a choice, stay away from touring bikes and hybrids! Their stiff and heavy frames limit their performance. You’ll have more fun on a bike that offers a spirited ride and encourages you to go faster and further. Cyclocross bikes are great for gravel, as are the increasingly popular gravel bikes. A good randonneur bike with wide tires is an excellent choice as well. Classic racing bikes often have clearance for wider tires, too. On these bikes, you fly over the gravel, rather than grind through it.

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Knobs vs. Smooth Tires

Tires are the most important choice of your gravel bike. Contrary to what many cyclists expect, you don’t need knobs to ride on gravel. When you slide, it’s because the gravel layers slide against each other, not because your tires slide on top of the gravel. Knobbies don’t improve your traction. (Knobbies mostly give you an advantage on mud.) Most gravel rides include a fair amount of pavement, where knobbies roll slowly and corner unpredictably. That is why most gravel riders choose “road” tires with relatively smooth tread patterns.

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Tire Width

You want the widest tire you can fit on your bike. At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve ridden tires between 20 and 54 mm wide on gravel. The verdict is clear: The widest tires are by far the fastest and most fun. Three reasons:

  1. When your bike bounces on the gravel, that energy is lost from the forward motion. (The technical term is called “suspension losses”.) The more your bike bounces and vibrates, the slower it is. With wider tires, you can run lower pressure, so your tires bounce much less. You get more speed and more comfort.
  2. The more rubber you have on the “road”, the more sure-footed your bike becomes. Your bike slides sideways in corners when the stones under your tires roll or slide. A wider tire spreads the cornering forces over more stones, so it’s less likely to slide.
  3. On soft surfaces, a narrow tire sinks into the gravel. Displacing gravel takes energy. (Imagine walking on a soft sandy beach or in deep snow. It’s hard!) The ideal tire leaves almost no track in the gravel, but just floats over it. (Imagine snowshoes. They distribute your weight, making hiking through deep snow easier.)

Your tire width is limited by the clearances of your bike’s frame and fork. Read this post about determining how wide a tire you can fit on your bike. And then use the widest tires that safely clear your frame.

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Tire Choice

Many riders imagine that you need a reinforced tire for gravel, but that isn’t necessarily the case. On gravel, you are much less likely to get flats. Here is why: As you roll over debris, your tires push it into the ground. It’s the opposite of unyielding pavement, which pushes the debris into your tires – they puncture.

For some riders, sidewall cuts can be a problem when riding over sharp rocks. We don’t really know why some riders cut their sidewalls and others don’t. Many experienced cyclocross racers use hand-made tubular tires with thin cotton casings. Others tend to slash the sidewalls even if they use reinforced tires. Experiment and see what works for you.

There is a good reason to ride high-end tires with thin, flexible sidewalls: Supple tires are especially fast and comfortable on gravel. (That is why ‘cross racers use those expensive tubulars.) Supple tires reduce vibrations, so less energy is lost to the bike bouncing. You go faster. Less bouncing also means that your body doesn’t suffer as much. It’s a win-win situation.

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Brakes

On gravel, your braking power is limited by the lack of friction between tire and road. You can only brake until your tires start sliding. This means that absolute brake power is less important, but modulation is key.

On gravel, you often need to keep your wheels right at the lockup point to slow down for a corner. You need brakes that provide good feel and feedback. Many modern disc brakes are still lacking in that respect. At Bicycle Quarterly, we have found classic centerpull brakes to be so excellent that we re-introduced them through our sister company, Compass Bicycles.

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Fenders

Most gravel bikes don’t come with fenders. It’s really a shame! Fenders will keep you and your bike much cleaner than Hahn in the photo above. Gravel roads remain muddy long after paved roads have dried out. And even the most beautiful ride can be miserable, if you are getting coated with mud.

Why don’t bike makers install fenders on their gravel bikes? Unfortunately, most commonly available fenders will not withstand the vibrations of gravel roads for long. There are alternatives: Well-mounted, high-quality aluminum fenders, like the Honjos on our bikes, will last as long as the bikes they are mounted on.

Make sure that your fenders have adequate clearances around your tires. Ideally, you want 20 mm on top of the tire, so that gravel picked up by the tires doesn’t grind against the fender. If you hear constant “Scrrrshh” sounds, your fenders are too tight. This isn’t just a cosmetic problem: Debris can collapse your front fender, jam it into the fork crown, and send you over the bars. Don’t use fenders that are sub-optimal! When in doubt, it’s better to get muddy than to risk injury.

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Pedals/Shoes

Walkable shoes are useful. On gravel roads, you may have to carry your bike across small washouts or landslides. Sometimes, it’s easier and more efficient to hike up very steep passages. Use a pedal system with cleats that don’t get mashed up when you walk across gravel. SPD pedals have proven themselves in this environment. Others use touring shoes or even light hiking boots with traditional pedals and toeclips.

Prevent Mechanicals

On gravel, your bike inevitably vibrates more than it does on pavement. Make sure that all your bolts are tight. Check that straps and other parts don’t rub through. During the 360-mile Oregon Outback, the spare spokes that I had taped to my fender stays rubbed through two layers cloth tape until they fell off! The faster you go, the higher the vibration frequencies, and the more you demand of your bike.

It is possible to design and build a bike that can withstand thousands of miles of gravel riding without requiring maintenance or tightening of bolts. The lost spokes were the only problem I encountered during that epic trek across Oregon. (Below is my bike after the race.)

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What to Carry?

Gravel riding takes you into remote places. Don’t count on getting outside help – you’ll often be out of cell phone range. Make sure your bike is reliable, and carry a few essentials.

Be prepared for flat tires. Carry two spare tubes and also a patch kit, in the unlikely case that you have more than two flats. Bring a pump, and not a CO2 inflator. (You may need to inflate multiple tires.) A spare tire is useful if you slice your tire. (Or bring a piece of tire casing that makes an excellent boot – much better than the stuff you can buy for this purpose.) When I carry a spare, I bring a narrower, lighter tire than I usually use – it’s only intended to get me home…

Obviously, a few wrenches, for the bolts that are most likely to loosen, should be in your tool kit. If you ride with friends on similar bikes, you can pool your spares. For example, one spare tire will suffice for the group if all use the same wheel size…

Bring water and food, plus clothing for all expected weather conditions: Be prepared for hot climbs, cold descents, and everything in between. Use a layering system that packs small. Your bike should have the capacity to carry that luggage. Backpacks are a last resort: They tend to be uncomfortable during long rides.

A good gravel bike will have lights, so you aren’t stranded if you get lost and have to ride after dark. Bring a small emergency blanket and a small first aid kit, just in case.

With these precautions, you’ll be able to enjoy gravel roads with little worry. Riding off the beaten path is quite safe. The biggest danger for cyclists, drunk drivers, are rarely found on  twisting gravel roads in the mountains. In the unlikely event that your bike breaks and you cannot continue, you’ll hike back to civilization. That might be uncomfortable, but not dangerous. And on many gravel roads, you’ll still encounter a car or truck every few hours.

And during events like the Eroica, you can experience gravel riding without the need to be self-sufficient. It’s a great way to get a taste of gravel riding, before heading out on your own or with friends.

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If you don’t have a perfect bike, don’t let that keep you from enjoying riding on those unpaved roads. If all you have is a hybrid, make sure it’s in good shape, maybe put on new tires, pack your gear in a backpack, and head out. It’s good to be prepared, but once you are out there, don’t worry and enjoy the ride!

More information:

Posted in Testing and Tech | 41 Comments

The Bicycle Quarterly “Team”

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The Bicycle Quarterly “Team” is the inspiration for much of what we do. Whether it’s the ride stories in Bicycle Quarterly or the components made by Compass Bicycles, it all starts with a bunch of friends riding bikes. You may have noticed that “team” is in quotation marks, because it’s not an official team, but a really remarkable group who have found each other over the years.

We all are of similar strength, which means that a common pace comes naturally. We’ve ridden many thousands of miles together, so we have developed similar styles. We can paceline on gravel descents, because we know that nobody will suddenly brake or swerve. Riding with people you know so well is relaxing and safe. Our conversations during these rides are animated and inspiring. Our friendships extend far beyond the bike.

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At this time of year, we usually ride in the foothills of the Cascades and train to see our form return, while we wait for the snow to melt on the high mountain passes. We really live for those summertime adventures!

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Whether it’s riding 530 km (330 miles) from Seattle to the highest roads on Mount St. Helens (above) and Mount Rainier, and back, in 24 hours, during the original Cyclos Montagnards Challenge…

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… or climbing gravel mountain passes at night (and hiking through snow at the top), it’s great to have a group of friends who share the excitement of planning rides that go a bit beyond what many consider possible on a bike.

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We like to ride at a spirited pace and over long distances. That is demanding on our bikes, and more than one idea for Compass components has originated on a ride, when we found that the available equipment wasn’t up to the task. “There must be a better way!” has been the start for many a new product. We then return to the workshop to make prototypes. We test them on the following rides. Once we’ve found them up to the task, we put them into production.

Similarly, we take Bicycle Quarterly’s test bikes on adventures that explore the limits of rider and bike alike. If a bike performs well in our testing, readers can be assured that it’s an excellent machine.

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Of course, not every ride is a magnificent adventure. Often, we just head out for six to eight hours. We ride into the foothills of the Cascades (above), or through Western Washington’s marvellous coastal landscapes.

Whether our rides are short or long, we are lucky to have these friends, because as much as we love our bikes, they are an end to a means: enjoying our rides even more.

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The best of these rides are turned into stories for Bicycle Quarterly. You can read about one of the most memorable ride, the Volcano High Pass 600 km Super Randonnée, in our sample issue online.

Posted in People who inspired us, Rides | 7 Comments