We Aren’t Models!


We aren’t models! Anybody who has looked at our photos will have noticed this… but what I really want to say is that every photo you see in Bicycle Quarterly, on this blog and on the Compass web site is totally authentic. It’s not a posed shot with – yes – a model gazing wistfully over a mountain landscape, where you instinctively feel that they’ve come up here in a van and there is a second truck parked nearby with equipment and perhaps a third one for the catering.


The riders in our photos actually rode their bikes to the location. The camera was carried in a handlebar bag. We may ride back and forth a few times to get the shot “just right”, but that is it. Our photos record actual rides.


In the photos that accompany BQ’s bike tests, you see the actual testers on the actual test rides. To us, that authenticity is important. We want to give you as much of the experience of being there as possible.

Even our famous “To us, it’s just another road” tire ad (above) was shot during a bicycle tour. The lighting was just right, the road looked great and we seized the opportunity.


Shooting photos during our rides keeps our marketing budget small. Those vans, equipment trucks and catering cost a lot of money. Professional photo shoots result in beautiful images, but another way to get great shots is to go out again and again, until everything turns out just right. Since we ride a lot, we get plenty of opportunities… and great rides make for much better stories than great photo shoots!

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues, Rides, Testing and Tech | 14 Comments

City Cycling in Kyoto, or How to Make a Fully Equipped Bike for $300

During a recent visit to Kyoto, we rented bikes for a day. Cycling is a great way to get around this beautiful old city, and it also presented an opportunity to experience Japanese city bikes.

Our guest house offered bike rentals for the equivalent of $ 5 per day. In Kyoto, bicycles are one of the main means of transportation. We saw them everywhere, ridden by everybody: men and women of all ages, some dressed in business attire, others carrying one or two children in child seats. Not only grown-ups rode bikes, but also teenagers and children. Only a few college students were on what you could call performance bikes; everybody else rode the ubiquitous Japanese city bikes. That is what we were going to ride as well.

After breakfast, we headed out on two almost-new Maruishi bikes. Our first destination was the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), one of the most famous Zen Bhuddist temples in Japan. In front of the gates, we saw signs for the bike parking lot.

And, this being Japan, there were instructions on how to park your bike in an orderly fashion. With a sign this cute, we tried our best to line up the bikes as shown.

I didn’t know what to expect from the Golden Pavilion, but as so often in Japan, the reality exceeded anything I could have imagined. Not only are the walls of the Golden Pavilion covered in real gold, but it’s next to a lake that shows its reflection. Islands with carefully trained trees are designed to enhance the view. Even on this overcast day, the temple was luminescent, but rather than gaudy, it looked beautiful and tasteful. It took my breath away.

After a visit to another temple, we had lunch at an former bathhouse that had been converted to a café. It was one of the beautiful old buildings that give Kyoto its charm.

After lunch, I looked over our bikes. Japanese city bikes are designed to offer basic transportation at a very affordable price. Our Maruishis – the brand hasn’t been imported to the U.S. in decades – were among the better city bikes. They had pleasing overall lines, and the chrome-plated frames and all-silver parts added to the appeal.

A little web searching showed that this model comes in a single size, designed to fit riders over 146 cm (4’9.5″) tall. At 181 cm (5’11”), I was at the upper end of the spectrum: With the seat post extended to its maximum, the saddle was still a bit low for efficient pedaling. I noticed that most people rode their bikes that way, making it easier to put a foot down when stopping. The handlebars aren’t adjustable, so they are either high (for tall riders) or very high (for shorter ones).

These Maruishis cost just 32,800 yen (about $ 300). For that price, you get a fully equipped bike, with fenders, lights, a basket and even a lock. There is nothing else you need to buy; the bike is ready for a few years of daily use.

To understand how a fully equipped, decent-quality bike can be so inexpensive, it’s perhaps best to compare it to a car. Imagine the Maruishi as a basic Honda Civic – one of the nicer mass-produced cars, but not something an enthusiast would want to drive. The low cost is the result of designing every part to be as inexpensive and as easy to assemble as possible – while maintaining adequate quality – and then producing huge numbers. For the Maruishi, the result surprised me in many ways.

The bike comes with a Shimano Nexus three-speed hub gear that should give years of reliable service. However, the gearing was so large that I never got out of first gear! These bikes aren’t intended for riders spinning at a high cadence.

At the rear, there is a band brake that serves as the main brake. Even on our almost-new bikes, this was barely able to skid the rear wheel. Once the friction surfaces wear on these brakes, the braking power is further reduced, but the metal-on-metal friction produces a high-pitched squeal that acts as a warning: The cyclist can’t stop, but pedestrians can jump out of the way!

There is a sturdy kickstand. Frame construction is adequate – there are real dropouts, not just squished chainstays as on older German city bikes. Look carefully, and you can see the non-adjustable fender stays. The fenders are designed to fit just right, and the stays are held by the rear axle bolts.

The aluminum fenders are perhaps the biggest surprise: They are made by Honjo, just like the fenders on the most expensive custom bikes. These ones don’t have a polished finish, and, while the edges are not crimped over, they are dipped in rubber to prevent cuts from sharp edges. And, as mentioned before, the stays are not adjustable, which eliminates most of the hardware. Features like these cut costs and reduce maintenance, but the function of the fenders is the same as on the more expensive Honjos we use on our own bikes: Uninterrupted interiors and rolled edges keep the water from dripping off the edges.

I’d like a little more fender coverage on the front wheel, but at the relatively low speeds of these bikes, spray from the front wheel doesn’t fly as high as it does during spirited riding, so it’s less of a problem. (And I suspect these bikes are shipped with the front wheel removed, hence the short-ish fender.) At least the fender extends far enough at the front to keep spray out of your basket…

The bridges are made from stamped steel (rather than tubing), but they incorporate fender mounts. Direct fender mounting speeds up assembly; it also ensures that the fenders will neither resonate nor break prematurely. And indeed, even older Japanese city bikes are silent as they roll around the city (except for the occasional high-pitched squeal of the brakes).

Despite its relatively low cost, the Maruishi comes standard with a generator hub. However, cost savings are evident in the fork: It doesn’t have dropouts. The ends of the fork blades are squeezed and slotted. At this price, don’t expect fine craftsmanship!

At the front, there is an LED headlight that provides sufficient illumination. The basket is permanently mounted on the bike, supported by stays that run down to the dropouts. The right stay curves around the headlight, doubling as a protector.

The front brake is a simple side pull, stamped from flat steel stock, but it worked adequately. The right lever operates the front brake, Italian- and British-style, yet most riders seem to use the rear brake, operated with the left hand. It’s not that most Japanese are left-handed, but it’s another indication that the debates over “which hand for which brake” are besides the point: It doesn’t matter!

Most Japanese city bikes don’t have taillights, just a very rudimentary reflector. More often than not, this tends to go missing after a while. It’s surprising to see thousands of almost-invisible cyclists zoom around Kyoto at night, yet there seem to be very few accidents. Drivers are used to cyclists being everywhere, and with narrow streets and the need to weave around utility poles in the roadway, “distracted driving” is not an option! You can’t help but feel that despite all this apparent anarchy, it’s actually safer than riding in Seattle.

The seatpost binder bolt only looks like a quick release: It’s just a lever for turning the bolt. That makes it easy to adjust the saddle height without tools, useful when a bike is shared among several family members. (It’s like a car’s seats that are easy to adjust for different drivers.)

The lock is permanently installed. The key stays on the bike; it can be removed only after you’ve locked it by pushing the ring through the spokes. That way, there is little risk of misplacing the key. The lock provides only basic protection: Somebody could carry away the bike. But at 19.5 kg (43 lb), it’s heavy enough to defeat most would-be thieves.

Another surprising spec: the wheels. Who said 27-inch wheels were obsolete? The tires are nominally 37 mm wide, but in reality, they probably measure closer to 32. They are sturdy Kendas, and they didn’t roll fast. Why such large wheels? I suspect it makes the bike more stable.

How is it to ride one of these bikes? Unusual at first! Of course, Maruishi doesn’t publish the geometry of the bike, but measuring from photos, I came up with a super-shallow head angle of 67° and a whopping 135 mm of fork offset! This results in zero trail, and thus zero wheel flop…

With my heavy backpack in the front basket, the fork wanted to turn even without wheel flop, and at first, it was difficult to ride in a straight line. Then I realized that the problem was my trying to guide the bike with a gentle touch. With a firm grip on the bars and my elbows locked, the bike tracked straight and handled predictably. Even rising out of the saddle – necessary for me on the hills – the bike didn’t veer off its line. With no trail, it’s easy to turn the fork to avoid a bump, but since there is no wheel flop, the movement isn’t amplified. And the large, heavy front wheel’s inertia immediately recenters the fork. Now I understand why Japanese city cyclists look wobbly, but actually move in very straight lines.

This handling trait is actually very important in the congested Japanese cities. With cars, trucks and buses passing cyclists with just inches to spare, it’s crucial not to wobble or weave! As long as cyclists move in a straight line, they are predictable, and other traffic can avoid them. As a pedestrian here in Japan, I had to learn this. When cyclists come barreling toward me on the sidewalk, I tend to freeze, figuring they will go around me. But they head straight toward me, expecting me to jump out of the way. It’s the opposite of how we do it on the trails in Seattle. I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter who moves out of the way, as long as everybody is on the same page.

One place where nobody seems to be on the same page is traffic rules. Natsuko and I are used to riding out in the country, on the left side of the road. Imagine our surprise when cyclists coming toward us sometimes moved left, sometimes right, with no rhyme or reason. Cyclists are like pedestrians here – moving at low enough speeds that they don’t crash into each other, but not bound by rules beyond common courtesy and self-preservation. We didn’t see a single cyclists wearing a helmet, yet cycling injuries in Japan are extremely rare.

As the sun started to set on this autumn day, we headed to another public bath, this one still in operation. While I soaked in the hot water, I thought about the Maruishi. It’s a remarkable piece of engineering, designed for affordability and reliability above all. That you can buy a complete, fully-equipped bike for just $ 300 intrigues me. But then, the Maruishi’s car equivalent also offers remarkable value: If you calculated all the components of a Honda Civic at the prices charged for bicycle components, you’d end up with a price many times higher than the $ 19,000 that the Honda costs these days.

Both the Maruishi and the Civic achieve their low cost through sophisticated design and huge economies of scale. Everything on them is just ‘good enough’ for a daily user. What is remarkable is that a generator hub and high-quality fenders are among these “absolute necessities” for everyday riding. Neither the bike nor the car feature beautiful craftsmanship, but they will offer satisfactory service for those who buy them. And both feature a little extra – the Maruishi’s chrome-plated frame and the nice interior of the Honda – to instill some pride of ownership.

What if the same approach was used to make a bike for more spirited riding? Something that isn’t just for transportation, but is also fun to ride? For less than twice the price of a Civic, you can buy a real sports car, like the Mazda Miata or the Subaru BRZ. Imagine a fully equipped randonneur bike – with integrated fenders, lights and racks – for twice the price of the Maruishi! I guess you’d need to get the weight down and the performance up a bit, but even if you triple the price, you are still below $ 1,000. Imagine a bike that offers 80% of the performance and reliability of an expensive custom bike, but without any of the craftsmanship. I can’t see why this wouldn’t be possible, but it requires economies of scale that still elude the makers of performance bikes. But just think of the possibilities!

Posted in Rides | 25 Comments

Tubesets for Our Bikes: Superlight

In addition to individual Kaisei frame tubes, Compass Cycles offers three tubesets. Each tubeset is based on bikes that we have found to work extremely well. These bikes have distinct characters that I’ll describe in a series of blog posts.

The Superlight tubeset is just that – the lightest, thinnest-wall tubeset you can buy today. In the unbutted center sections (“bellies”), the tube walls measure just 0.4 mm. At the butted ends, they go up to 0.7 mm for strength at the joints. We offer the Kaisei tubes in two lengths, with “bellies” optimized for short and tall frames.

What does a bike built from the Superlight tubeset feel like on the road?

My René Herse (above) is made from tubes with these dimensions. It’s my favorite bike for spirited rides. It’s the bike that exemplifies “planing” for me – a bike that gets in sync with my pedal strokes, and always seems to entice me to go faster. It’s the bike that I’ve ridden on some of my memorable rides, whether it’s “Charly Miller” times in Paris-Brest-Paris (top photo) and in the Cascade 1200 km brevet, or in the Raid Pyrénéen that goes non-stop from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean via 18 mountain passes (above).

In all these performances, the bike deserves a lot of credit. On long rides, it really helps to have a bike with just the right flex characteristics to synch with my pedal strokes. Pedaling becomes a subconscious routine. When we say that steel bikes can offer the same performance as modern racing bikes, it’s these bikes we are talking about.

The same characteristics make me pick the Herse for fast Saturday morning spins with the BQ Team. When we race each other up the Cascade foothills, this is the bike that I find easiest to pedal hard. It’s the fastest in these impromptu sprints because it lets me put out the most power. Compared to my other bikes, I am breathing harder at the top of the climbs, and I am more tired when I get home. And my smile is bigger, too.

The tubeset not only defines this bike’s performance, but also its feel. It always feels light, like a racehorse. Whether you like that or not depends on your taste in bikes. A very strong rider probably would find the superlight tubeset too flexible, but remember that Andy Hampsten won the 1988 Giro d’Italia on a bike made from tubes with the same dimensions. I was lucky enough to ride Hampsten’s bike once, so I can report that it feels very similar to my Herse.

While my Herse is equipped with some classic components, you could use “modern” brake levers and derailleurs without changing the feel of the bike. With a different fork, you even could use disc brakes…

How about descending on a bike this “flexible”? Despite rumors to the contrary, it feels the same as other bikes. When you look at the physics, you realize that the bike is always balanced, no matter how hard you corner. Otherwise, it would fall over. There are no significant side loads that could flex the bike when you are coasting.

Our on-the-road experience has confirmed this: During our ground-breaking double-blind test of frame stiffness, none of us felt any differences between the bikes on the downhills – whereas on the uphills, both Mark and I were measurably faster on the two bikes with superlight tubesets.

What about the durability? You often hear the description “paper-thin” for tubes this light, but when you pick up a raw tube, you realize that they are actually quite sturdy. Most of all, the walls at the ends measure 0.7 mm – not much thinner than those of other tubes (0.8-0.9 mm). And since frames rarely break in their unbutted center sections, I am not worried about the longevity, either. I’ve ridden my Herse for 6 years now, including the 360-mile Oregon Outback gravel race. After that ride (above), my rims had developed cracks (I use better ones now!), and my spare spokes had worn through the cloth tape I used to attach them to the fender stays, but the rest of the bike was no worse for wear.

Why not build all bikes from this tubing? First, there is the lightweight feel that some riders don’t enjoy. It really depends on your power, your riding style – these bikes work best with a light touch on the handlebars – and your preferences. Furthermore, with a tubeset this light, these bikes are more prone to shimmy. It hasn’t been an issue on my Herse, but that bike uses a needle bearing headset that dampens the steering slightly. Also, I wouldn’t recommend this tubeset on a bike that commonly carries a heavy load. The Herse is fine with a heavily loaded handlebar bag, but if I were to ride a lot with loaded front low-riders, I’d pick a stiffer down tube.

One last datapoint is that I am 181 cm tall (5’11”) and weigh 70 kg (154 lb). I ride a relatively large frame (58 cm seat tube, 57 cm top tube, c-c). Shorter tubes are inherently stiffer, so I feel that this tubeset makes even more sense for smaller frames. On the other hand, taller or significantly heavier riders may need a stiffer tubeset. Fortunately, we offer those as well…

Further Reading:

Posted in Framebuilding supplies | 57 Comments

Reader Feedback on the Autumn Issue

The Autumn Bicycle Quarterly marks the 15th anniversary of the magazine. To celebrate, we assembled a very special selection of articles into our largest issue yet. Many readers have written to voice their excitement about the latest edition. Here are a few examples:

“Issue no. 61 is absolutely the greatest I have seen: so packed with well-written and interesting feature articles, pictures and data, that I doubt if I will have absorbed it by the next issue. The coverage of the Concours de Machines is superb; but at the same time, the balance between the technical and the spiritual–which, after all, is the essence of randonneur cycling–is pitch-perfect.”

“I just received my Autumn issue of BQ and am floored! I opened it and just flipped through the magazine and was blown away by the photos of the Concours de Machines. The one thing that filled my mind was what an absolutely amazing film documentary this would make. I’m just blown away!”

“The grandiose solitude of Kurakake Pass, the latest Concours de Machines and its history, and, perhaps even more moving, J.P. Weigle and Olivier Csuka assembling the bike at Cycles Alex Singer. It brings together past and present in the most beautiful images. Magnificent!”

It wasn’t just these two features that got our readers excited. One wrote: “Great review of the Brian Chapman!” The reader above was even more succinct: “Woof!” We take it as a compliment.

Readers enjoyed touring the factory of Paul Component Engineering. One reader even suggested: “I hope you keep this issue in print and continue to offer it as a stand-alone in your catalog.” Unfortunately, that isn’t feasible.

Subscribe now to enjoy the 15th Anniversay Bicycle Quarterly, as well as future magazines that will be equally rich and varied in content. If you already have the Autumn Bicycle Quarterly, which was your favorite feature?

Photo credits: Natsuko Hirose (Photo 1), Nicolas Joly (Photo 2), Rob van Driel (Photo 3), Brian Chapman (Photo 5).

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 17 Comments

Why René Herse Cranks Aren’t Anodized

Sometimes, we get questions about why our René Herse cranks aren’t anodized. Some even wondered if this was a cost-saving measure. Rest assured, Compass never will choose a cheaper process over a better one. There is a reason why our cranks aren’t anodized:

When I was racing, I bought a beautiful used Campagnolo Croce d’Aune crankset (above). Named after the pass on which Tullio Campagnolo suffered from frozen fingers and no longer could open the wingnuts of his rear wheel to change gears, the Croce d’Aune group was second only to the C-Record in the Campagnolo lineup. They were a smart design and beautifully made.

The cranks had very few miles on them, as witnessed by the (then) almost-new chainrings. Even so, I paid very little for the cranks – because they had lost some of their beauty. The previous owner’s ankles had rubbed against the crankarms and worn through the anodizing. You can see it between the Campagnolo logo and the crank extractor bolt.

It wasn’t a functional problem, and since they went on a bike that I was racing hard, I didn’t care too much about the cosmetics. In fact, I soon added to that “polish” with my own ankles. The rough life of racing led to more scratches over the next few years.

And yet: if the cranks had just been polished, instead of anodized, the buffing from the rider’s ankles wouldn’t have disfigured the cranks. Even the scratches would have been easy to polish out. Polishing out scratches isn’t just about aesthetics: It allows checking whether a scratch really is a scratch, or whether it’s a crack that might cause the crankarm to break. Of course, you can polish out a scratch on an anodized crank, too, but doing so removes the anodizing, and then the crank doesn’t look good any longer.

So why do some component makers anodize their cranks? High-strength aluminum tends to corrode. Different from steel, where the corrosion flakes off until the part is gone, aluminum oxide forms a protective layer that prevents further oxidation. But it means that the aluminum turns gray. Anodizing forms a hard oxide layer that protects the alloy. Clear anodizing means that the aluminum won’t tarnish. But if the anodizing wears off in one place, the part looks worse than if it hadn’t been anodized in the first place. That is why it only makes sense to anodize components that won’t get scratched.

René Herse never anodized his cranks. The cranks on this 1952 bike still look nice after many thousands of miles. If you ride these cranks in the rain, use a high-quality car wax to protect them. That is what we do on the modern Compass René Herse cranks when we assemble them. Reapply the wax once or twice a year, and your cranks will look as nice as these, even after 65 years of hard use.

We don’t anodize our crankarms, but the chainrings are anodized. Why? They are made from 7075 aluminum for the ultimate in wear resistance. 7075 aluminum contains zinc as its main alloying agent. It oxidizes much more readily than other aluminum alloys. Without anodizing, the chainrings soon would develop ugly spots. And since your ankles (hopefully) won’t rub on the chainrings, there is little risk of wearing through the anodizing.

It would be easy to anodize our René Herse crankarms, and it would make them easier to sell, because anodizing still is taken as a sign of quality. But we prefer crankarms that we can polish and restore to “as good as new” condition, no matter how hard they have been used. Because we fully expect you to ride our cranks for many decades, just like René Herse’s riders did with their original cranks.

Click here for more information about Compass René Herse cranks.


Posted in Rene Herse cranks | 21 Comments

Wool Jerseys: Continue Riding Even as the Weather Cools

Now that it’s officially autumn in the northern hemisphere, the temperatures are getting colder, the days are shorter, and there’s often a chance of rain in the forecast. For me, that makes riding my bike all the more important. I enjoy breathing fresh air, feeling the wind in my face, and seeing the landscape change with the season. I come home invigorated.

Speaking to my riding companions, everybody agrees that the hardest part is heading out. It’s rare that we went on a ride and then thought: “I should have stayed home.” Usually, it’s the opposite, and one of us exclaims: “So glad this ride was on the schedule. Otherwise, I might not have gone, but this is a great!”

How do you avoid being miserable when it’s cold (and maybe damp) outside? “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” That old saying is especially true for cycling: On a warm, sunny day, you can ride in almost anything, but in more demanding weather, good cycling clothes make all the difference.

In time for the colder seasons, we have the Bicycle Quarterly wool jerseys back in stock in all sizes, with short and long sleeves. You’ve seen them in many photos, because it’s pretty much all we wear on our rides. Wool is an almost magic material: It’s comfortable over a wide range of temperatures. It insulates equally well wet and dry. And it doesn’t absorb odors. These qualities make it ideal for cycling jerseys, especially at this time of year.

Great wool jerseys can be hard to find. The best Merino wool is soft to the touch, doesn’t scratch or shrink in the wash, and lasts for many years. That is why we offer the Bicycle Quarterly wool jerseys, made by Woolistic in Europe.

We chose the blue color of the Italian champion jerseys, because it offers high visibility, yet looks classy – something that isn’t easy to achieve. We used the same color for the Seattle Randonneurs jerseys, so we get to see them on the road quite frequently. They really stand out from a long ways in any weather.

Why wool over all other materials? I have found that it’s important that the innermost layer remains dry – it’s next to my skin! That is why wool jerseys are much more useful than windbreakers and other jackets. Even breathable shells tend to get damp on the inside. I get sweaty, and on the next downhill, the moisture chills me to the bone.

When I layer up in wool, the moisture is transferred outward, and I stay dry on the inside. This becomes obvious on very cold days, when the moisture generated by my body freezes on the outside of my jersey (above), but inside, I remain warm and dry. (I wore four layers of wool that day. Usually, it’s not that cold on our rides.)

Even in light rain, I prefer not to wear a shell. I find that if the outer wool layer gets moist, it’s OK, as long as the inner layers next to my skin remain warm and dry. Shells have their place: I wear them in downpours, when there is so much water that my body heat cannot keep me dry; and during long mountain descents, when I don’t pedal and thus generate little heat.

Once you have the right clothing, temperatures – at least down to freezing – no longer need to discourage you from riding. It’s truly liberating when you realize that you can go for a ride when you want, not just when the weather is “nice”.

Once you have your clothing dialled in, you may consider installing fenders on your bike, not so much because you want to ride in the rain, but for all those days when there is merely a “chance of rain”. Being prepared allows you to head out and enjoy the day, and most days, the rain never materializes. Even more independence comes with generator-powered lights. They free us from being limited by the short days at this time of year. But those are topics for future discussion.

If you are new to autumn cycling, focus on your clothing first, so you can enjoy riding on those many dry, but chilly, days.

Readers who live in the southern hemisphere are heading into spring. We envy you! And yet, you’ll want good clothing, too, since the weather in spring is as unpredictable as it is in autumn. Having a good wool jersey in your wardrobe will allow you to enjoy many more memorable rides.

Click here for more information about our wool jerseys.

Posted in Clothing | 32 Comments

The Best Drivers’ Cars are 50 Years Old

Quite a few people were surprised at the 2017 Concours de Machines when Peter Weigle’s bike was the lightest by a big margin. With a steel frame and mostly metal components, the Weigle weighed just 9.1 kg (20.0 lb) fully equipped with wide tires, fenders, lights, a rack, even a pump and a bell. To date, no carbon or titanium bike has been as light, while being similarly outfitted for real adventures.

As impressive as that weight was, for the Concours, being light was not enough. In this competition for the best “real-world” bike, the contestants were ridden over hundreds of miles on very challenging courses, including rough mountain bike trails, with more than 5,000 m (16,000 ft) of elevation gain over two days. Not only did they get penalized if something broke, but they also had to perform well. Any bike that didn’t maintain a high average speed incurred further penalties.

The Weigle was one of the fastest bikes in the event, bettered only by bikes that were ridden by strong amateur racers whose power output gave them an advantage. How can this bike be so light and perform so well, when, at least on the surface, it lacks the latest technology?

Car enthusiasts probably aren’t surprised. Ask ten motoring journalists which cars are the best to drive, and they won’t point to the the latest carbon-fiber supercars, though they are amazing technological achievements. Instead, the best driving machines trace their roots 50 years back, but they have been honed to the nth degree by small, dedicated companies.

Top of the current crop is a Porsche “reimagined by Singer”. This small Californian company takes air-cooled Porsche 911 – 25-year-old cars built to a design introduced in 1962 – and replaces almost every part with a hand-made component that is outwardly similar, but has been improved in every way possible. The price tag for these “used cars” starts at $ 350,000. And everybody who has driven one says it’s worth the money. That is reflected in the two-year wait list if you want one. (I’d love to experience driving one!)

If you just care about the driving, and don’t need things like a roof or a trunk, the Caterham 7 is supposed to be even more amazing. For me, the most surprising part is that this is a car introduced in 1957 (as the Lotus 7)! You have to be an expert to distinguish the latest model from one made decades ago, but the Caterham also has been refined, with new engines, modern tires, and numerous other tweaks. And yet the basic concept is the same as it was 60 years ago. On paper, it’s archaic, but in practice, it is said to offer a performance that belies its age.

On a ride with the BQ Team, we talked about these cars and wondered: How can they be better to drive than the latest supercars? On paper, it looks like a Lamborghini Aventador should be the far better car. It’s developed by a huge engineering team and made in an advanced carbon fiber production facility. How can small companies like Singer and Caterham, that most people haven’t even heard of, make cars that are better to drive?

I think there are a few reasons for this:

  • Refining the same design over many years allows small manufacturers to make each car better than the last. The big makers have to introduce new products all the time. Then they spend the first few years ironing out the bugs. Once the product approaches maturity, it’s time for the next model.
  • The cars from the small makers sell to an educated clientele, so they don’t have to play the “numbers game”. They can give up a little in horsepower, 0-60 times and top speed to focus on what really matters: performance and enjoyment on real roads.
  • Without large overheads and the need to compete on price, every part can be the best in the world. For example, the Singer Porsche’s shock absorbers cost more than some brand-new cars. Small makers can choose a part that is 10% better, but costs 30% more, knowing that their customers will appreciate it. For big companies, it’s more cost-effective to spend that money on marketing, and keep their per-unit costs low.
  • These factors outweigh the small advantages that modern materials may offer in theory.

There is a direct parallel between these cars and randonneur bikes like the Weigle or my René Herse (above). Like that Porsche or the Caterham, they may look like classics, but they, too, have benefitted from decades of development. Every part has been refined until these bikes offer a performance that is hard to match. “Modern” mass-produced bikes may be lighter, stiffer or have more gears – impressive “numbers” – but none offer superior performance across real-world terrain.

With so many beautifully designed and meticulously crafted details, it’s easy to overlook that these bikes are great to ride. Or as a journalist put it about the Singer Porsches: “They may be engineered to perfection, but they’re also engineered to be fun.”

If you are in the Boston area, you can see Peter Weigle’s amazing Concours bike at the New England Builders’ Ball this weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017.

And the full story of the 2017 Concours de Machines is in the Autumn 2017 Bicycle Quarterly, including an article by Peter Weigle on building the bike and going to France for the Concours.

Photo credits: evo magazine (Photo 1), Natsuko Hirose (Photo 3), Caterham (Photo 4), Maindru (Photo 5).

Posted in A Journey of Discovery, Testing and Tech | 54 Comments