Midwinter Ride across the Tahuya Hills

In Seattle, we are lucky: We can cycle year-round. Rarely is it so cold or so icy that cycling becomes difficult. Our cycling season usually starts with the new year. “What about the rain?” you may ask. It’s not a big deal if you have the right equipment.

Last weekend was the middle of winter – halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It was a good excuse to celebrate with a bike ride. The weather forecast was for ‘showers’ – as good as it gets around here this time of the year. At least we wouldn’t get snow like we did when we ventured into the mountains last week!

Busy schedules meant that only two of the BQ Team could make it. Steve and I met at 6 a.m. to take the ferry to Bremerton. We rolled on quiet backroads through the hills to Belfair.

There we had a second breakfast – knowing that this was the last opportunity to obtain food for a few hours.

From here, we headed into the Tahuya Hills. To me, even the name sounds romantic, and the hills always live up to our expectations.

North Shore Road goes along the water of the Hood Canal, a fjord carved by the glaciers of the last ice age. On the other side are the Olympic Mountains, but on this cloudy, rainy day, we only saw glimpses of the snow-covered peaks.

It’s an amazing gravel road that winds its way in and out of the many little ravines in the mountainside.

At the same time, the road is relentlessly hilly – it was built with minimal earthworks because it wasn’t worth making big improvements for a road that sees very little traffic. This combination of attributes – minimal ‘improvements’ and little traffic – made it perfect for our ride!

It’s a course that challenged our leg power as much as our bike handling skills. The road dives into each ravine, turns sharply, and immediately heads steeply uphill again. The more speed we carried through those gravel turns, the less we had to pedal on the next hill.

Back on pavement after a few hours, we climbed high above the water, only to drop back down and roll along the shore. It was great fun.

The clouds opened briefly to hint at the views we would have enjoyed on a sunny day. We smiled at each other as we got in the aero tuck to maximize our speed on the downhill, remembering at the last second that the turn at the bottom has a wickedly decreasing radius, which caught both of us out the first time we rode it. No problem today: The low-trail geometry of my bike allowed easy midcorner adjustments of my line.

After a few hours of riding on deserted roads, we reached Seabeck on the other side of the Tahuya Hills, where we enjoyed a sandwich at the store. It had been raining on and off, and the gravel was a bit muddy, but you’d never know it from looking at our bikes. Remembering the days when we rode with plastic fenders, it never ceases to amaze me how clean and dry both rider and bike remain with a set of really good fenders. There only was a little dirt on the fork blades where the brake pads had sprayed the water they had scraped off the rims. The chain didn’t squeak, and my feet remained dry even though I didn’t wear booties.

Steve was riding his Frek, the old Trek he converted into a randonneur bike, with similar features as my bike. Neither of us even bothered putting on rain jackets, because we would have overheated on the steep climbs. Keeping the road spray off our bodies was key; our layered wool jerseys took care of the comparatively little water that was falling from the sky.

The hardest part of the ride was yet to come: the incredible Anderson Hill Road with its 14% stairstep climb. We made it up that just fine, and then we upped the pace on the last few miles back to Bremerton.

We boarded the ferry, parked our bikes, and enjoyed the scenic boat ride through the islands back to Seattle.

The Tahuya Hills course makes a beautiful 80-mile ride that goes along the water for much of the way. It sees very little traffic apart from the first and last kilometers near Bremerton. Easily accessible from downtown Seattle via a direct ferry, it’s a ride I highly recommend!

Click here for a link to the RideWithGPS route with a detailed map of the course.

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Global Cycling Networks Video on Frame Flex

Global Cycling Networks just published a video in which they did an experiment that many of us have been talking about: Load up a frame with flex, and then release that energy. The rear wheel turns as the energy is returned to the drivetrain. It’s nice to see it in practice…

Also nice to hear: “I wonder whether frame flex is going to be the new tire pressure. Go back 10 years, and we all knew that harder tires rolled faster. And you could feel it as well. Except that now, we know that lower pressures can roll faster.”

Watch the video above, or click here to see it directly on YouTube. Enjoy!

To read our recent post about how frame flex actually can contribute to making you faster, scroll down or click here.

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One of the 5 Fastest Tires in the World

Recently, the German magazine TOUR published a table showing the ‘five fastest tires in the world.’ We are excited to see our Compass Bon Jon Pass 700C x 35 mm tires on this list, in the company of the fastest racing tires. A 35 mm-wide tire on a list that otherwise includes only tires between 23 and 26 mm wide! That by itself is already cause for celebration. It means that our casings really are among the very fastest in the world.

And since all our tires use the same casings and construction, TOUR’s results apply not just to the Bon Jon Pass, but to all Compass tires. I was surprised that they tested the Standard casing. I would love for them to test the Extralight, which we know from our own experience to be even faster.

What is interesting is that the Compass tire scored superbly on smooth asphalt (light gray bars), but a little less well on rough asphalt (dark bars). This doesn’t match our experience, where wider tires provide advantages especially on rough roads. The reason is simple: TOUR tested without a rider on the bike. This measures the hysteretic losses in the tire, but it neglects the (much more important) suspension losses that occur as the rider’s body and bike vibrate. (Click here to learn more about suspension losses.)

This means that TOUR’s testing overlooks one of the main advantages of wide tires: their superior comfort, which also makes them faster. In other words, with a rider on the bike, especially on rough asphalt, the Compass tire probably is even faster than it appears in TOUR’s testing.

We are proud that the Compass Bon Jon Pass scored so well, especially since it is intended as an all-round tire, not an all-out racing tire. The Bon Jon Pass is suitable for gravel racing and has 3 mm-thick tread for many miles on the road. Compare that to the Vittoria with its 0.8 mm-thick tread, which is intended only for time trials, and even then, it’ll wear out quickly.

The excellent performance of the Compass tire shows once again why wide tires have revolutionized cycling: You wouldn’t want to ride the other tires on TOUR’s list on anything but the smoothest, cleanest roads for fear of flats and premature wear. And yet with wider tires, we can ride some of the world’s fastest tires on the backroads where cycling is at its most beautiful.

Further reading:

Correction (1/31/2018): The testing method of TOUR’s test had been reported as a steel drum. Also, TOUR tested the Standard casing, not the Extralight, as we previously assumed.

Posted in Tires | 51 Comments

Myth 4: Stiffer Frames Are Faster

To celebrate 15 years of Bicycle Quarterly, we are examining 12 myths in cycling – things we (and most others) used to believe, but which we have found to be not true. Today, we’ll look at frame stiffness.

When we started Bicycle Quarterly, the thinking about frame stiffness fell into two camps. The majority of cyclists subscribed to the notion that frame flex wastes energy and that stiffer frames are faster. A few scientific types believed that the energy lost to frame flex was small, and thus frame stiffness probably does not matter. There were a few builders, like Bill Davidson, who extolled the ‘lively ride’ of lightweight tubes, but they were mostly ignored.

At Bicycle Quarterly, we mostly subscribed to the notion that it didn’t matter. And so we were happy riding relatively flexible frames… Sure, stiffer frames might offer marginally better performance, but seeing pros win on Vitus and Alan frames that had a reputation for being ‘noodles,’ we figured that if a frame was stiff enough for Tony Rominger and Sean Kelly, it would be stiff enough for us.

Then we tested a bike that didn’t perform well for us. It seemed to bog down on the climbs. It was harder to maintain a high cadence. It wasn’t as much fun to ride. I described this to the framebuilder Peter Weigle, adding: “The frame is made from heavy-wall, oversized tubing, so it must be plenty stiff. I can’t figure out why it doesn’t perform.” Peter paused for a while, then he said: “What if the frame is too stiff for you?”

That was something I’d never considered! It was like saying that my bike was too light, or that I had too much power. But it got me thinking.

Along came another Bicycle Quarterly test bike (above). This one performed better than expected. It wasn’t particularly lightweight, and our initial expectations weren’t all that high. And yet, whether it was me or Mark (our second tester) riding it, this bike climbed faster than our other bikes. It turned out that it was made from very thinwall, and thus flexible, tubing.

So we had tested one bike that was stiffer than our own, and it didn’t perform as well. A second one was more flexible, yet it performed better. Even more startling was the difference in feel. On the flexible bike, pedaling faster didn’t seem as hard. We were out of breath, but our legs didn’t hurt. Once we got in sync with the frame, its response to our pedal strokes felt like a boat rising out of the water, going faster with only a little extra energy input. “You mean, it ‘planes’,” said Matthew Grimm of Kogswell, when I described the phenomenon to him. Deciding that the phenomenon needed a name, we used the term ‘planing’ to describe it.

We could only guess at the physical explanations for what we observed, so a term that was purely descriptive of our observations seemed best and most honest. Sort of like saying that a bike ‘flies’ up a hill, when in reality, its tires don’t leave the ground…

How to test whether our experience was real, and not just our perception? (Perhaps Mark and I just liked red bikes?) All the other magazines were still talking about ‘laterally stiff and vertically compliant frames’ as the ultimate goal… We decided to do a double-blind test with four identical frames, made from three different tubesets. (The duplicate frame served as a control.) Apart from the top and down tubes, the bikes were identical down to the last component. Their weights were equalized to make them truly the same – except that their flex characteristics were different.

The only way to identify them was by their stem cap, and that was switched by the test adminstrator between test runs. And of course, the testers weren’t allowed to talk to each other until the experiment was unblinded at the very end. This test was a huge (and expensive) undertaking for a small magazine, but we felt it was important to do this right.

The results confirmed our previous impressions: Two of our three testers could identify which frame they were riding with 100% accuracy, just based on how the frames performed under hard pedaling. Not only that, these riders were consistently faster on the more flexible frames. Power meters showed that they put out up to 12% more power on the frames that ‘planed’ best for them, yet they felt easier to ride hard. (Our third tester couldn’t tell the – very small – differences. All the bikes in this test were relatively flexible by today’s standards.)

Whether it’s 12% more (for Mark) or a bit less (for me), the difference in power output was very significant! What is happening when a frame planes? A frame that is too stiff apparently ‘pushes back’ against the rider’s pedaling. The rider cannot apply maximum power during the downstroke before their legs start hurting. Imagine pushing against a brick wall – the wall doesn’t move, so no work is done, yet your legs fatigue quickly.

If the bike ‘planes’ in sync with your pedal strokes, then your legs no longer are the limiting factor. Now your cardiovascular system determines how fast you can go: Your maximum heart rate is the limit.

On the stiffer bikes, our legs hurt, but we never reached our maximum heart rate. On the more flexible bikes, our legs didn’t hurt, but we were completely out of breath when we reached the top after putting out significantly more power on the climb.

In the decade since we published our double-blind tests, the belief that stiffer frames are better has lost a lot of traction. Experts finally have tried to measure the energy lost to frame flex, and they came up empty-handed. When Damon Rinard, Road Engineering Manager at Cannondale, proclaims, “I no longer believe that the ultimate rigidity defines the ultimate bike!” you know that the world is changing.

The challenge for the future is to fine-tune frame stiffness to the rider. It’s not simply that ‘more flex is better.’ Our tests indicate that more powerful riders may benefit from (slightly) stiffer frames. It all depends on your pedal stroke and power output.

Our subsequent research shows that flex needs to be in the right places for the frame to get in sync with the pedal strokes, so that the rider can reach their maximum power output. We now realize that the frame doesn’t just serve to connect the parts, but that it is literally the heart of the bike. Like the right amount of flex in a gym floor allows you to jump higher, or the right amount of flex allows pole vaulters to reach incredible heights, the right amount of frame flex allows cyclists to reach their maximum potential.

Further reading:

Acknowledgments: We thank framebuilder Jeff Lyon who made the frames for the double-blind test, Hank Folsom of Henry James who donated the True Temper tubing, and Hahn Rossman who administered the experiment.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues, Testing and Tech | 40 Comments

Back in Stock and New Products

For us, cycling is part of our lives. Our bikes are the most important tools we own. We use them for transportation, and we use them for enjoyment, often combining the two. That means our bikes need to be ready at a moment’s notice. If we can’t get a part, it leaves us stranded. The same applies to most of our customers, who consider the components we sell essential.

That is why we work hard to keep our parts in stock. Usually we are successful, but sometimes an item runs out before a new shipment arrives. It might be that demand is greater than we anticipated. Or there could be a delay at the manufacturer – often because a supplier is running behind schedule. Or a shipment can be held up somewhere. We’ve encountered all these issues in recent months, but we are glad that 98% of Compass parts are back in stock as we prepare our bikes for the next cycling season. Here are a few things that just arrived:

As one of the key contact points, good handlebars are key to a comfortable ride. Many modern bars are very shallow and short, leaving your hands cramped and uncomfortable during long hours in the saddle. The classic handlebars we offer were designed for long days on rough roads, where comfort is paramount. The Maes Parallel (above) give you lots of room to roam, and the Randonneur provides a super-comfortable position on the ramps.

All Compass handlebars are available with 25.4 and 31.8 mm clamp diameters. If you have a 26.0 mm stem, we offer a shim to reduce the diameter to 25.4 mm. We have added wider models, so all our bars now come in widths between 400 and 460 mm.

Saddles are the other important contact point with your bike. We’ve found Berthoud saddles to offer superior comfort and quality. The composite frame is lightweight and flexes a bit to improve the comfort of a traditional leather saddle even further.

Berthoud’s leather quality is second to none. We carry the medium-width touring and the narrow racing saddle, plus a shorter women’s model (above). They are available in different colors, with titanium or steel rails, and also in an ‘open’ version to alleviate pressure. All models are in stock again.

Handlebar tape is a matter of personal taste. Riders with a light touch on the bars often prefer thin bar tape, but most modern tape is heavily padded and too thick for our liking. Maware’s beautiful leather tape is made in Japan from pigskin, so it’s thinner than the others we’ve tried. It’s also superlight, so we used it on the J. P. Weigle for the Concours de Machines technical trials last summer.

Compass now distributes Maware’s bar tape and their leather frame protectors in North America, but the small company was overwhelmed by the demand. Now they’ve caught up, and all products are in stock again.

And if you prefer thicker handlebar tape, we also stock Berthoud’s excellent cowhide tape.

Tires change the feel of your bike more than any other component, and tires are why we got into the component business in the first place: There were no wide tires that offered the ride and performance we wanted. We offer tires in many sizes and models, and a few of them have been in short supply lately. We always make sure that at least one or two models in every size are in stock, so your bike won’t be left immobilized for lack of tires. In time for the new season, all models are on hand again.

We developed the new René Herse cantilever brakes for the Concours de Machines, where the prototypes helped J. P. Weigle’s bike win the prize for the lightest bike. We began to offer the production version last autumn. These are made in small numbers, and sometimes, demand overwhelms supply. They are back in stock, but since they are assembled to order, allow a few extra days for delivery.

We appreciate your patience while some of these components were in short supply. Most parts are back in stock now, and we’ll work on keeping it that way, so you can enjoy your cycling season without worrying about spare parts. Click on the links above for more information, or click here to go directly to www.compasscycle.com.

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Myth 3: Fenders Slow You Down

To celebrate 15 years of Bicycle Quarterly, we are looking at ‘12 Myths in Cycling’ – things that aren’t quite what we (and most other cyclists) used to believe. Part 3 of the series is about fenders.

Many cyclists here in Seattle install fenders when the rainy season starts, and remove them for the dry summer months. British time trialists even had quick-release fenders that they used on the ride to the start; then they took off the fenders for the actual competition. Our research indicates that this isn’t necessary – fenders don’t slow you down. Here is why:

Aerodynamics

Bicycle Quarterly did extensive wind tunnel research on the aerodynamics of real-world bicycles. Among things like riding position, clothing and bags, we tested the aerodynamics of fenders. We made a telescoping front fender, which allowed us to test various configurations. Here is what we found:

  • The portion of the fender in front of the fork crown reduces the drag. This is because the tire rotates at twice the speed of the bike, and the fender acts as a fairing that shields it. This works only if the fender extends beyond the top of the tire and drops down in front. (We found that it’s not necessary to extend the fender as far as shown in the photo above.)
  • The portion behind the fork crown adds a little drag. So does a mudflap.
  • The overall effect of the full fender and (small) mudflap neither increases nor decreases the wind resistance of the bike.

If this comes as a surprise, check out modern Moto GP racing motorcycles (below). They all have fenders covering the forward-facing portions of their tires to improve their aerodynamics. Bicycle racing specifically prohibits fairings, otherwise we might see similar fenders in the Tour de France

Weight

What about the added weight of the fenders? The best fenders don’t weigh much: Honjo aluminum fenders provide generous coverage, yet they weigh between 423 and 540 g, depending on the width, including all the hardware to attach them. That is roughly the weight of half a bottle of water. The increased versatility of having fenders on your bike is well worth the extra weight – just like a water bottle will slow you down, but you still carry one.

Plastic fenders weigh more – they are more flexible, so they need heavier stays made from steel, whereas the stiffer Honjo fenders use lightweight aluminum stays. Weight-wise, the worst are aluminum fenders with heavy stays designed for plastic fenders – the Planet Bike Cascadia ALX fenders weigh 50% more than their Honjo equivalents, despite offering less coverage.

Reasons not to Use Fenders

There were other reasons why I used to take my fenders off the bike every spring. The plastic fenders I used back then resonated on rough roads. They tended to rub on the tires. The gaps around the tires were uneven, making the fenders look like an afterthought. And every few thousand miles, the rear fender broke and needed replacement. During the summer months, I wanted to enjoy a quiet, smooth and sleek-looking bike. And if that meant getting soaked during the occasional downpour, it seemed worth the trade-off.

With a bike that is designed from the get-go for fenders, like the J. P. Weigle from the Concours de Machines (above), those drawbacks no longer exist. The metal fenders are stiff, so they are quiet. The bike is designed with sufficient clearances, so the tire never rubs on the fender. The fenders follow the outlines of the tires, so they enhance the appearance of the bike. And since the fenders are securely mounted without stresses, they will last as long as the bike. (And the whole bike weighs just 9.1 kg/20.0 lb, so the weight isn’t an issue, either.)

There are some conditions where bikes without fenders work better: deep mud and snow – the same conditions that call for knobby tires. For all other rides, I prefer a bike with fenders, because it gives me the option of heading out even when the weather forecast is uncertain. And I am glad to know now that the fenders won’t slow me down.

Further reading:

Photo credits: Maindru (Photo 1), Alex Wetmore (Photo 2), Motoracereports (Photo 3), Nicolas Joly (Photo 4), Mariposa Bicycles/Walter Lai (@onlywalt, Photo 5).

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues, Testing and Tech | 64 Comments

Berthoud Saddlebags

Gilles Berthoud’s are my favorite under-seat bags: lightweight, beautiful and functional. Since using one on a tandem in the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris, I’ve found them useful whenever my handlebar bag doesn’t have enough capacity, or as the only bag on bikes without a front rack. Berthoud now offers a version that attaches neatly to their saddles with the KlickFix system. We’ve added these bags to the Compass Cycles program.

Like the other Gilles Berthoud bags, the saddlebags are made from waterproof canvas and edged with leather. These traditional materials work well, keeping the contents dry even during my rainy 50-hour ride in the 2007 Paris-Brest-Paris, a year that remains infamous for its wet conditions. The canvas is lighter than most ‘modern’ materials, too – the Berthoud saddlebag weighs just 242 g (254 g for the KlickFix model). And yet it has enough room for two spare tubes, a spare tire, a few tools, a wallet and a pair of arm warmers. The elastic loop closure is easy to open with one hand. I usually run both ends of the elastic loop through the hook for an ultra-secure closure.

The KlickFix attaches to Gilles Berthoud saddles (except the superlight Galibier) with two screws. The saddlebag then slides into the attachment and locks firmly into place. A strap around the seatpost further stabilizes it. To remove it, you open the strap, push the two red tabs inward, and then pull the bag upward. It’s an elegant solution that is simple to use. The second version attaches to the saddle rails of (almost) any saddle with a toestrap.

Like all products we sell, we’ve tested these bags for thousands of kilometers – including the Volcano High Pass Challenge – to make sure they work well even on the roughest roads. I’m sure you’ll find them as useful as I do.

Click here for more information about Berthoud bags.

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