The Hardest Ride of the Year

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With the new year, our cycling season has started again. Training now will get us in shape for the wonderful rides we’ve planned for later this year. During my “winter rest,” I have ridden very little for eight weeks. So these first “long, slow” rides always are hard for me.

It helps to ride with friends. Last weekend, we met at 6 a.m. for our first ride of the season. I enjoyed seeing faces I hadn’t seen in a month or two.

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It was a gorgeous morning, and by the time we dove into the Skykomish valley, the sky above the Cascades was turning orange. All of us were looking forward to riding up there, high in the mountains, in a few months’ time.

At least for me, there also was some trepidation. Every little hill on this relatively flat ride felt hard, so it was difficult to imagine climbing mountain passes! But that is how it is every year. My body needs to rest over the winter, so it can regain its former fitness. Trying to maintain the same fitness year-round is counterproductive, and you get slower and slower with every year. My goal each year is to reach peak fitness for a few big rides, and that means that I must be out of shape in January.

We were a bit concerned about ice on this chilly morning, so we selected a route with fewer hills. There is no way to avoid descending into the Skykomish valley, so we went slowly. Fortunately, the road was clear of ice on this twisting descent.

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In the valley, we hit fog, and it was cold! Fortunately, we were dressed for the occasion, so it wasn’t a problem. This early on a Sunday morning, traffic was light.

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As we rode through Snohomish, I noticed that icicles had formed on Mark’s beard.

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Mark laughed and pointed out that the front of my wool jersey (one of four layers I was wearing) was covered with hoar frost. As moisture was transferred to the outside, it froze on the surface of the outermost jersey, only to be pushed further by additional moisture coming from the inside. This created little columns of ice. Inside all those layers, I was perfectly warm, so warm in fact, that I had taken off my shell mittens. We joked that the freezing water released heat that helped keep me warm. (The effect is probably too small to make a difference, considering how much air goes by our bodies as we ride.)

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The sun came out, and the scenery was beautiful, but I was having a hard time keeping up. Whether I had been more successful in my quest to get out of shape, or whether I just had a bad day, I lost contact with the rear wheels in front. My friends were kind enough to wait for me time and again.

It may be hard to imagine that a flat ride at 15 mph is harder than the Raid Pyrénéen or the Volcano High Pass Super Randonnée, but it’s true. We rest during the winter and suffer during these early-season rides in part because they make the big rides so wonderful. It’s an amazing feeling when your body is in shape, and you can soar up mountain passes like an eagle playing in the thermal updraft, while the valley recedes in the haze below.

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On this ride, the lunch stop was welcomed by all. The stops are longer on these early rides, which partially makes up for the time on the bike being harder. I wasn’t surprised when I discovered that my water bottle was almost frozen solid, despite containing apple juice (1/3 with 2/3 water), which has a lower freezing point than pure water.

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It was warmer when we left the café. The fog had dissipated, and the icy conditions of the morning seemed like a distant memory. Some of us started taking off layers. As we left the Skykomish valley, I was focusing on trying to keep up with the others, when I heard Ryan at the front saying “Woah! Ice!” But it was too late for Ryan and me, as we both lost grip and fell. The entire road was covered with slick black ice. We were lucky, and no damage was done. We noticed some car tracks that led off the road, indicating we weren’t the first ones to get in trouble here. We walked up the hill (photo above) until we realized that we could ride on the grassy side, where traction was better.

We returned home well before dinner, having ridden a little over 100 miles. It was a great start to the season, and most of all, I look forward to the fact that from now on, the rides will be getting easier.

Posted in Rides | 65 Comments

Wide and Fast Tires

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Wider tires are faster – as outlined in this recent post. That isn’t the whole story, though, as many wide tires actually are quite slow. The reason for this is simple: Tire width is only one factor determining a tire’s speed. More important is how the tire is made: Is the casing supple or sturdy and stiff? Is the tread thin or thick? Are there puncture-proof layers?

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For Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve tested the performance of more than 30 tires, both in roll-down tests and with a power meter on the track. We found that in order to be fast, a tire really needs to be made like a high-performance racing tire. Only then can you enjoy the magic ride (speed and comfort) that is possible with wide tires. Here is a list of wide tires that offer truly exceptional performance:

  • Vittoria Open Corsa CX: This tire comes only up to 25 mm wide, but it’s one of the fastest tires you can buy. The downside is that it seems to get more punctures than most other tires.
  • Grand Bois (standard model): These tires were developed based on our testing, so they optimize speed and comfort. They come in a variety of widths up to 32 mm (700C) and 42 mm (650B). Especially the wider models rarely suffer from flats.
  • Grand Bois Extra Léger: We haven’t run controlled tests of the new Grand Bois Extra Léger models yet, but we have logged thousands of miles on them. Our on-the-road experience indicates that they are another big step up in comfort and speed.
  • Pacenti Pari-Moto: Available only in 650B, the Pari-Moto uses a similar casing as the standard Grand Bois tires. We haven’t tested its performance, but it should perform a little better than the standard Grand Bois tires due to its thinner tread. That thin tread also means it doesn’t last as long (~1200 miles), so it may be best used as an event tire.
  • Challenge Parigi-Roubaix: At least the older models were as fast as the standard Grand Bois tires, albeit more fragile. Recently, Challenge added a thick puncture-proof layer to the inside of the tires, which seems to have spoiled some of the superb ride, and probably affects performance as well. (The puncture-proof layer is red and easily visible on the inside of the tire.)
  • Michelin Pro Race: We tested the Pro2 Race, and we’ll assume that the following iterations like the Pro4 are as good. On real roads, this tire isn’t as fast as steel drum tests suggest, but it’s a decent choice that combines speed with puncture resistance. Available only up to 25 mm wide.
  • Continental Ultra-Gator Skin: These tires now come up to 32 mm wide. They rolled relatively fast in our tests, but their relatively harsh and buzzy ride makes them less pleasant to ride.
  • Compass 26″: These 26″ tires use the same casing as the Grand Bois tires. They have a slightly thicker tread so they last longer, but that makes them a tad slower – still leagues ahead of most 26″ slick tires due to the casing.

The complete results for all tires we have tested were published in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 11, No. 3. It’s only when you choose among tires with similar construction, that a wider tire will offer more comfort and speed, as well as fewer flats. (That was the point of the previous post.)

Conclusion: To get the best performance, choose a high-performance tire. Then run that tire in the widest width you can fit on your bike to obtain the best comfort and puncture resistance.

Conflict of Interest? Some readers will have noticed that our company, Compass Bicycles Ltd., sells some of the tires listed above. Did that influence the test results? Actually, the opposite is the case: We sell tires that tested well. As a retailer of bicycle components, we can sell any tire that is available. We carry the tires that we find to offer the best all-round performance. (For example, we don’t sell the Vittoria because we find it too fragile for the riding most people do.)

Posted in Tires | 43 Comments

Tires: How Wide is too Wide?

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How wide a tire is too wide for optimum performance? Our research shows that wider tires don’t give up anything on smooth roads, and gain a significant advantage on rough roads. This has been shown for tires up to 31 mm wide.

It’s now a well-established fact that wider tires roll faster than narrow ones. Professional racers now use 25 mm tires, which are 20% wider than the tires that most racers used just 20 years ago. Will this trend continue? Can we expect racers to be on 30 mm tires in the future? No matter what the pros do – they are influenced by many factors that have little to do with science – the real question is: Up to what point are wider tires faster?

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It is obvious that the tires in the photo above will not roll very fast. Clearly, at some point, the performance benefits of wider tires (shorter contact patch and thus smaller hysteretic losses; reduced suspension losses) will be outweighed by the disadvantages of extra weight and increased wind resistance.

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In our original tire tests (above), we tested the same tires in 21, 23 and 25 mm widths on a moderately rough “backroad” surface. The results were clear: The 21 mm tires were slowest, 23 mm was in the middle, and 25 mm tires were fastest. The speed difference between 21 and 25 mm tires amounted to about 2.5%. Over a typical 200 km brevet, I would gain about 11 minutes. It’s not huge, but significant. These results appear to have prompted the current trend of racers using wider tires.

What about tires that are wider than 25 mm?

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Our testing on rumble strips showed that on very rough surfaces (the equivalent of cobblestones), 42 mm tires are faster than 25 mm tires. However, few of us ride all the time on cobblestones, and what we want to know is whether we give up anything on smooth roads when riding wider tires.

To determine this, we tested Grand Bois tires in 26, 29 and 31 mm widths on a super-smooth asphalt surface (see photo at the top of the post). The results were the same for all three tires. On the smoothest asphalt, you don’t gain anything by going to tires wider than 25 mm, but you also don’t give up anything.

Those tests were run at 25 km/h (16 mph). At higher speeds, the aerodynamic disadvantages of wider tires might be greater. Does that mean that 31 mm tires are a fine choice for riding at moderate speeds, but that you would be better off on 25 mm tires when you go faster?

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We tested both 25 and 31 mm-wide tires in the wind tunnel. The result: The raw data showed a 1% increase in wind resistance for the wider tires, but the results weren’t statistically significant. Even if we accept them at face value, the added wind resistance is too small to make a noticeable difference. For example, at a very high speed of 40 km/h, decreasing your wind resistance by 1% only adds 0.4% (or 0.14 km/h) to your speed.

What about the heavier weight of wider tires blunting the acceleration of your bike? That doesn’t appear to be a major factor either, since wheel weight is less important than many riders believe. (See this recent post for a discussion of wheel weight on professional racers’ bikes.) If you use smaller 650B wheels, you make up some of the greater weight of a wider tire through a lighter rim.

All this data shows that 31 mm tires roll as fast as 25 mm tires, even on very smooth roads. And when the roads get rougher, the wider tires roll faster.

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What about even wider tires? Our on-the-road experience suggests that even 42 mm-wide tires do not roll slower than 25 mm tires (above), but without rigorous testing under controlled conditions, we can not say for sure. We hope to test this soon.

Of course, there are other reasons beyond performance to ride wider tires. You gain comfort. You will incur fewer flats, since you run wider tires at lower pressures, so they roll over obstacles that would get hammered into narrower tires. You’ll be safer, since a wider tire will be less affected by small cracks and railroad tracks.

Most of all, you’ll be enticed to go on small roads that have great scenery and little traffic – roads you might have avoided with narrow tires because the pavement tends to be rough. With more comfortable tires, you can even enjoy roads with no pavement at all!

To answer the question in the headline: Even 42 mm does not yet appear to be “too wide.” Tires wider than that are hard to fit into the rear triangle of a bike without compromising performance (tread/Q factor, chainstay length), so perhaps frame design more than other factors limit the maximum tire width on a performance bike.

Wide tires are one of the few things with a lot of advantages, but very few disadvantages. (There are some downsides to wide tires, which we’ve mentioned here.)

For all our tests, we used tires that had the same casing material, tread pattern, etc., to isolate the effects of tire width. Of course, there are many other factors that influence tire performance, and width is only one important factor.

This post is just a summary of the research. The original data and much more detail were published in Bicycle Quarterly. Here are a few resources for further reading:

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 48 Comments

Charity Drive and Saronni’s Colnago

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Our charity drive for the Museo del Ghisallo was a great success. We sold 80 calendars and have donated the entire proceeds – more than $ 1200 (900 Euros) – to the Museo. Not only will the donations help re-open the museum, but they also show the interest and passion for this unique place. Hopefully this will help secure the public funding that any museum needs.

Above is one of the amazing bikes I saw at the Museo when I visited: a beautiful Colnago with 650C wheels. It is said to have been built for Guiseppe Saronni in 1982, the year he won the World Championships.

Saronni, as a sprinter, should have benefited from smaller wheels, which weigh less and thus “spin up” faster. It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way, since race photos show him on a 700C bike in 1982. Why didn’t Saronni use the advantage of the smaller wheels?

If you have a flat on 650C wheels, you’d have to wait for your team car, since no “neutral support” would carry the correct wheels. As a secondary concern, the handling of a small-wheeled bike inherently is less stable. (Our 650B bikes are stable because they use much larger and heavier tires than a 21 mm-wide tubular.) Despite these disadvantages, if the smaller wheels provided a significant benefit in a sprint, then a strong sprinter like Saronni would gladly accept the disadvantages. He might have to be a bit more careful in corners, but then he’d win every race in which he doesn’t have a flat!

The fact that Saronni – and many others who experimented with smaller wheels – didn’t race them indicates that the rotational inertia does not make a big difference in how fast a bike accelerates. Physics tells us that even world-class sprinters don’t accelerate all that quickly – a sprint begins at 65 km/h and about 100 meters later, racers may reach 85 km/h.

While we are at it, did you notice something else that is unusual about the Colnago? The cranks have six arms to hold the chainring. Knowing that the three arms of a René Herse crank are plenty to transmit the torque of even a strong tandem team, I wonder why they came up with that idea.

Those who contributed to the charity drive will enjoy this Colnago on their wall come May next year. For those who missed out on the charity drive, you can still donate to the Museo here.

And if you still don’t have the 2014 calendar, limited quantities still are available here.

Posted in books | 13 Comments

Happy Holidays!

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Image | Posted on by | 7 Comments

Who are you calling Fast and Fearless?!

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I am a careful rider, who looks ahead and tries to foresee possible danger spots in order to avoid them. After decades of riding in traffic, I feel competent and confident. I was surprised that cycling advocates characterize riders like me, who are comfortable of riding on most roads, as “Fast and Fearless”.

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“Fast and Fearless” appears to be a reference to “The Fast and the Furious”, a movie franchise about illegal street racing in cars (above). The movies show the sort of thing that any responsible driver would abhor, rather than the skills and control that real car racers possess. Unfortunately, this was affirmed by the recent death of the lead actor in a fiery car crash while driving on the open road.

I am still stunned that experienced, confident cyclists are compared to illegal car racers who are a menace to all, including themselves. I am even more surprised that this characterization has made it into official government planning documents for cycling facilities in Seattle, Portland, New York and probably elsewhere.

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Competent and Confident. I think this is a better term to describe riders who know how to cycle in traffic, and who weigh the risks and realize where the dangers lurk. We know it’s safer to take the lane at 20 mph than to weave in and out of parked cars at 7 mph. To understand why “fast” and “fearless” don’t necessarily go together, think about driving a car.

Imagine driving your car down the freeway at 20 mph, because you think it’s safer to go slow. You’d be much safer flowing with traffic at 65 mph. Nobody would label you “Fast and Fearless” when you drive at the speed limit. Everybody knows that competence and confidence go a long way toward making you a safer driver.

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The same holds true for cyclists. Being able to keep up with traffic, knowing how to maneuver your bike, being able to stop quickly, and especially being visible all make you safer.

Why do cyclists label each other negatively as “Fast and Fearless”? One part is purely political. Many experienced cyclists are opposed to new plans to build European-style cyclepaths in North America. Attaching the label of “Fast and Fearless” to these experienced cyclists makes it easy to disregard their input when planning new facilities, rather than having to consider the expertise they have built during decades of riding.

However, the label would not resonate with many casual cyclists if there wasn’t some resentment toward faster riders. Why the resentment? Unfortunately, racers and especially racer wannabes can be less than welcoming to new riders, whether it’s calling them “Freds” or chasing down anybody who looks like they might be an “easy target”. And since the bike industry still promotes racing as the only valid form of cycling, it’s not surprising that there is resentment toward racing, and by extension, to all riders who enjoy going fast.

Where will all this end up? Are experienced cyclists going to label those who weave in and out of parked cars and ride in the “door zone” as “Slow and Stupid”? I sincerely hope not! I don’t think we want animosity between cyclists. Here are my hopes:

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Let’s encourage newcomers to cycling, and not pass them at all costs. Let’s respect those who are competent and confident – without envy. Let’s find the best solution for getting people to ride bikes more often, safer and with more fun – without resorting to underhanded tactics to “win” the argument. And perhaps most importantly, let’s respect every cyclist – no matter how they like to ride.

Posted in Cycling Safety, Rides | 51 Comments

Charity Drive: Museo del Ghisallo

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We are donating all proceeds from our calendar sales for the next day to help the Museo del Ghisallo reopen their doors. I was quite shocked when I learned that the Museo had closed its doors this autumn due to lack of funding. Years ago, I spent a wonderful time there while working on the photography for our book The Competition Bicycle.

I was glad to receive news this morning that the Museo is trying to reopen in the spring. They are looking for donations to ensure its survival. Spontaneously, we decided to have a charity drive to do our part. Here’s our idea: for the next 24 hours, all sales of our Calendar of Classic Bicycles will be donated to the Museo.

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It’s only fitting to use the calendar to help the Museo, since it includes a bike we photographed there: A lovely Colnago with 650C wheels made for Guiseppe Saronni. It’s one of dozens of bikes that were on display. (The exhibits change, so I don’t know whether the bike still is on display today.)

Here is how it works: Until noon tomorrow (12/19/2013, Pacific time), the entire purchase price ($ 15) of all calendars we sell will be donated to the Museo.

Usually, our charity drives are addressing the most pressing needs and help to make the world a better place. A museum dedicated to bicycle racing may not quite qualify under those criteria, but I do feel that preserving the rich history of our sport is an important goal. As we do every year, we will continue to donate 5% of our profits to charities that make a real difference in people’s lives and in the future of our planet (Doctors Without Borders, Union of Concerned Scientists).

So use the opportunity to buy one calendar for yourself, and buy some more for your cycling friends. They’ll enjoy the beautiful studio photos of amazing bikes all year long, and the money will go toward preserving a unique cultural heritage. Select “Priority Mail” shipping, and the calendar should arrive in time for the holidays, at least for U.S. customers. Click here to order and donate.

If you prefer to donate directly to the Museo del Ghisallo, click here to make your donation. Their website is in Italian, but the donations can be made using credit cards or Paypal without needing much knowledge of Italian.

Let’s hope we can keep this unique museum open!

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments