The Trouble with “Road Tubeless”

It’s always interesting when bike industry people talk among each other, off-the-record. On the ride from the airport to Paul Camp a few weeks ago, one bike tester was still visibly shaken when he related: “My tubeless tire blew off the rim yesterday. I almost crashed.” Worried that this might have been one of our tires, I asked about the brand. He mentioned a big maker, known as a pioneer of  “Road Tubeless”. The tester continued: “I had it inflated to 90 psi, well under the max. I was just riding along, when suddenly – bam!”

Tubeless tires are becoming popular these days. Using inner tubes inside your tire almost seems like a throwback to the 1950s. Cars have not used inner tubes in over half a century, and mountain bikes have gone tubeless, too. Many of us have been riding our Allroad bikes, with their wide tires, tubeless for years.

Finally, road bikes, with narrower tires, are going tubeless, too. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing: There are more and more reports of tires blowing off the rims. What is going on? Why are tires with inner tubes safe at high pressures, but the same tires sometimes blow off the rim when mounted tubeless?

An inner tube doesn’t just hold air, it also reinforces the joint between the tire and the rim. Air pressure pushes the tube against the tire so that it no longer can move independently. For the tire to blow off, a very small section of the tube must stretch tremendously, so the tire can climb over the rim’s edge. As flexible as inner tubes are, they get to a point where they don’t stretch any farther – pull on a tube, and you’ll notice this. That makes it very hard for the tire to blow off the rim.

Without an inner tube, there is nothing reinforcing that joint. If the fit between rim and tire is even just the slightest bit loose, the tire can slide upward, and – bam! In fact, even with a perfect fit, there is a point at which a tire blows off the rim: Tire beads can stretch a little, and the higher you inflate the tire, the more force there is stretching the bead. That appears to be the root cause of the problem: Road tires typically are run at relatively high pressures.

Thinking about this, I realized that “Road Tubeless” is a bit in uncharted waters: Usually, tubeless tires run at much lower pressures. Tires for cars and motorcycles are generally inflated to less than 45 psi. (The exception is airplane tires with up to 200 psi, but those are a very special design.)

All these tires also are much stiffer than bicycle tires, which helps them stay on the rim. A supple tire can move in just one small spot, which makes it much easier to climb over the rim’s edge. I was surprised at Paul Camp to hear about the tester’s experience with a tire that isn’t even known for its supple casing. But compared to car or motorcycle tires, even stiff bicycle tires are supple…

There have been a few isolated reports of our 700C x 35 mm Bon Jon Pass tires blowing off the rims, too. We’ve wondered whether perhaps there was a manufacturing error. We mounted one of the tires from that production run on a wheel with a Reynolds carbon rim that we had measured carefully to make sure its diameter was exactly to spec. We inflated the tire to its maximum pressure of 90 psi (6.2 bar) – without problems. The pressure has already gone down to 85 psi by the time I took the photo – there was no sealant in the tire for reasons that will become apparent in the next paragraph.

I then inflated the tire further. 100 psi was fine. 105 psi, no problem. A few more pump strokes, about 108 psi, and – bam! The tire blew off the rim. I was wearing ear protection, and there was no sealant inside the tire, so no damage was done.

Of course, few people would inflate a 35 mm tire to 108 psi (7.6 bar). Even with tubes, the Bon Jon Pass is rated to a maximum of 90 psi (6.2 bar). And as long as everything is perfect, you can run them tubeless at this pressure, too. But in the real world, not everything is perfect. The diameter of different rims can vary considerably. Panaracer’s engineers found that the rims on many production bikes are a bit smaller than spec, because that makes it easier to mount the tires on the assembly line. Of course, this also results in a looser fit of the tires.

This also explains why the few instances of Compass tires blowing off the rims have mostly been with Bon Jon Pass tires: They are our narrowest tubeless-compatible tire – 35 mm wide – and people tend to run them at higher pressures. On the other hand, the gravel racers love this tire and report zero problems despite the often brutal riding conditions. But they run their Bon Jons at 60 psi or less…

Over the last year, I’ve been testing every model of tubeless-compatible tire in the Compass program. I’ve mounted them without tubes on a range of bikes, both Bicycle Quarterly test bikes and my own machines. I’ve experienced zero problems, but I also run them at pressures of 60 psi (4 bar) or lower. I remounted the Bon Jon Pass that blew off the rim and inflated it to 60 psi, put in some sealant, and took it for a couple of rides. As expected, it was fine.

Based on this experience, we recommend: Do not exceed 60 psi (4 bar) when running Compass tires tubeless. If you need higher pressures, please use tubes. Since the problems with running tubeless tires at high pressures are not limited to Compass tires, I’d recommend this for all tubeless tires – and especially for high-performance tires that are relatively supple.

BJPASS_result-750x481

However, you also don’t want to run too low a pressure with tubeless tires. If the tire flexes excessively, this will break down the casing until it starts to leak (above). With a narrow tire, you have a narrow window between “too high” and “too low” pressures. On a 35 mm tire, 60 psi (4 bar) still is plenty for most riders. (I usually ride my Bon Jons at about 35-40 psi.) But if we were to offer a 26 mm-wide tubeless-compatible tire, 60 psi isn’t enough even for a light rider. Yet going higher than 60 psi would risk blowing the tire off some rims.

With wider tires, you don’t have that problem. I run the 54 mm-wide Rat Trap Pass tires on my Firefly at 40 psi (2.8 bar) on smooth roads. At such a “high” pressure (for tires this wide), the bike feels like a racing bike. On gravel, I can go down to 22 psi (1.5 bar) without risking damage to the casings. I run them tubeless now, after suffering two pinch flats during the Otaki 100 km Mountain Bike Race in Japan (above). As I found out, riding over really rough ground at very high speed will pinch-flat even 54 mm tires!

I feel that for riding on rough gravel, tubeless really is the way to go. Choose tires that are wide enough, run them at low pressure, and you shouldn’t have trouble. (Unless your rims are way out of spec.)

For road riding, the advantages of tubeless tires are less clear. Pinch flats are much less of an issue on the road, unless you still ride ultra-narrow tires. All the testing I’ve seen – including our own – indicates that the rolling resistance of tubeless tires is no lower, and perhaps even higher, than using thin, lightweight inner tubes. That isn’t surprising: You replace an ultra-supple inner tube with a liquid sloshing around inside your tire.

What about flats? One nice feature is that the sealant inside the tubeless tire automatically seals small punctures. But it appears you don’t have to go tubeless for that: Some riders use sealant inside their tubes. They report that it also seals small punctures in the tube – provided you use it from the start, when you mount a new tire. (With an old tire, during a puncture, the air may not escape through hole that is right above the puncture in the tube, but through a bigger hole from a previous puncture that is elsewhere in the tire. Then the sealant flows into the space between tire and tube, creating a mess without sealing the tube.)

Based on all of the above, we concluded that at this time, running high-pressure tires tubeless isn’t worth the risks. Can these issues be resolved? It’s difficult to say. Perhaps “Road Tubeless” is the way of the future, or perhaps it’ll be like radial tires for bicycles. Cars have used radials for decades, but for bicycles, they never caught on.

What needs to happen to make tubeless tires safe even at high pressures? Clearly, the interface between tire bead and rim must become more standardized, and manufacturing tolerances must become tighter. With a “perfect” rim, it’s already fine to run our 35 mm tires tubeless at 90 psi, but how do we get all rims to be perfect?

It might also help to increase the size of the interface between rim and tire bead. Modern cars have rim flanges that are 17.5 mm tall – three times as tall as most bicycle rims. However, that means a complete redesign of the tire/rim interface, with the result that the new tires would not be compatible with old rims, and vice versa.

The tire bead also might have to become less stretchy, but there are downsides to this. Tubeless-compatible tires already have stiffer beads than “standard” models. There aren’t any stiffer materials than what is being used, so making them even stiffer means adding weight and bulk. We haven’t given up hope yet: Together with Panaracer, who make our Compass tires, we continue to research tubeless technology in the continuing quest to improve our tires further.

For now, here is the take-home message for running tubeless tires:

  • For tubeless, we recommend a maximum pressure of 60 psi (4 bar).
  • If you are riding on gravel or rough stuff, tubeless eliminates pinch flats. And you’ll be running less than 60 psi anyhow.
  • If you ride on the road and need more than 60 psi, use inner tubes. Not just with Compass tires, but with other brands as well.
  • Even on smooth roads, Compass’ wide tires roll as fast as our narrow ones. Getting wider tires and running them at pressures below 60 psi is a good way to use tubeless on the road.
  • When mounting a tire tubeless, first inflate it 20% higher than the pressure you’ll be riding. Let it sit for a while to make sure it will not blow off your rim. Then decrease the pressure before you ride the bike. That way, you know that you aren’t at the upper pressure limit for that particular tire/rim combination.

Tubeless technology holds great promise, but like everything, it should be applied where it makes sense and where it is safe. In a future post, we’ll talk about tips on how to set up Compass tires tubeless.

Photo credits: Nicola Joly (exploded tire), Cyclocross Magazine (damaged casing), Toru Kanazaki (Otaki 100 km Race)

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 131 Comments

Fun at Paul Camp!

A few weeks ago, the Bicycle Quarterly editors went to Paul Camp – a get-together for the media at Paul Components, the famous maker of brakes and other parts. The idea was simple: Instead of attending a big trade show, why not get the media together, bring them to Paul in Chico, CA, show them the company, and ride bikes?

Even better, Paul partnered with eleven custom builders, who built mountain and monstercross bikes for us media types to ride. Of course, they were outfitted with Paul’s latest components in this year’s blue anodized color, as well as some parts from co-sponsor White Industries.

Coming from rainy Seattle, it was wonderful to be in warm and sunny California. Before the official program started, there was just enough time to look around Paul’s small factory and admire his neat Dune Buggy. Did I mention that Paul Components is in California?

First, each of us grabbed the bike that we were to ride for the three days of the Camp. Natsuko and I both ended up on beautiful bikes built by local builder (and fellow randonneur) Steve Rex. We couldn’t have made a better choice!

And then we headed out. After traversing the quiet streets of Chico, we rode into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This is where we got to play on “our” new custom bikes for two days in a row. It couldn’t have been better!

Paul led the way, and he really does know how to ride. No wonder his components have such a great reputation – they are tested out here in the real world!

It was neat to do a little mountain biking, so different from the riding we usually do in the Cascades: Here we rode at a social pace until reaching a difficult spot, where we each tried to “clear” it the best we could. It was fun!

Paul’s employees had hauled a wonderful picnic to the end of the trail, where we sat by the river and enjoyed our lunch. It was the perfect time of year in Chico – everything was lush from the winter rains, the temperature was warm and pleasant, but the summer heat had not yet arrived.

On the way back into town, we stopped to take in the view of a deep canyon. We talked about bikes and riding. We caught up with old acquaintances and made new friends. It was everything a get-together should be, and everything the big trade shows aren’t.

That night, we went to the Sierra Nevada Brewery for a beer tasting, brewery tour and dinner. Meanwhile, our bikes were displayed to the public in the brewery. It was a great setting for a bike show.

After all that fun, the best part was still to come – Paul took us on a tour of his factory. It’s amazing – at one end, bars and rods of aluminum and steel go in, at the other end, finished parts come out. Almost everything is CNC-machined in-house. We saw fixtures and tools, polishing drums and a plethora of other machines. Paul’s components truly are made in Chico from start to finish. As so often, the art lies in optimizing the processes you have at your disposal, and Paul has decades of experience with that.

After an excellent lunch under the trees in Paul’s yard, each builder talked about their bikes, their history and their philosophy. Here is Adam Sklar explaining how the curved top tube became his signature design. It was most interesting to meet the builders in such a leisurely setting, where we could ask questions and continue our discussions until it was time to head back to the airport.

A quick group photo, and then we packed our bags, hopped into a huge limo Paul had rented for us, and went back to Sacramento. Thanks to all who made Paul Camp such a fun event (left to right): Cameron Falconer, Rick Hunter, Robert Ives (Blue Collar Bikes), Steve Rex, Alec White (White Industries), Adam Sklar (mostly hidden), Paul Price (Paul Components), Sean Burns (Oddity Cycles, partly hidden), Curt Inglis (Retrotec), John Caletti, Jeremy Sycip, Chris McGovern.

Paul Camp was three days filled with fun, and we learned a lot about Paul and CNC-machining components. You’ll read more about his company and the Steve Rex bikes we rode in a future Bicycle Quarterly. For now, we just cherish our great memories!

Posted in Rides | 9 Comments

Why We Choose Steel Bikes

At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve been testing quite a few titanium and carbon bikes lately, and even a bike made from bamboo. We really liked most of these bikes. And yet our own bikes continue to be made from steel. Why don’t we ride carbon or titanium (or bamboo) bikes?

We choose steel because this material allows us to build custom bikes that are dialed in to the nth degree. High-end steel bikes have benefited from decades of research and development. They now offer a performance that is difficult to equal with other materials. With performance, I don’t just mean speed – although the best steel bikes have no trouble keeping up with ti or carbon racers – but also handling, reliability and all-weather, all-road capability.

Steel tubing is available in many diameters and wall thicknesses, so it’s easy to fine-tune the ride quality and performance of our bikes. For example, my Mule (above) – intended for hauling heavier loads – has a stiffer main triangle than my René Herse (second from top), which is intended for speed first and foremost. With steel, it’s relatively easy to fine-tune the bike’s flex characteristics for optimum performance – what we call “planing”.

Steel is easy to shape. That means that it isn’t too difficult to bend the chainstays slightly, so they curve around wide tires. You can indent the stays to create even more clearance. And steel is stiffer for a given volume than all other materials, so slender tubes are sufficient: Steel chainstays need less of that valuable space between tire and cranks.

Steel is easy to machine, which helps when making dropouts, braze-ons and other parts. Pump pegs and braze-ons for centerpull brakes are readily available in steel. Making those parts out of titanium isn’t as easy as it sounds.

What about the weight and performance of the frame itself? Titanium, steel and aluminum all have the same stiffness-to-weight ratio. Titanium weighs half as much as steel and is half as stiff. For aluminum, it’s 1/3.

If you made frames from each material, with the same tubing diameters and the same stiffness, you’d get three frames that weigh the same. The titanium tubes would have walls that are twice as thick, the walls of the aluminum tubes would be three times as thick.

In the real world, titanium frames tend to be lighter than steel. They use larger-diameter tubes with thinner walls, which require less material to obtain the same stiffness. However, you can make the walls of a frame tube only so thin before the tube risks buckling, denting or cracking. That is the limit with steel – remember that for the same stiffness, a steel tube’s walls will be only half as thick as those of a titanium tube. If you wanted to make a steel frame that is as light as the best titanium frames, the tubing walls would get too thin. So you keep the tube diameter smaller, with the result that the frame weighs a little more.

The weight advantage of titanium frames is smaller than you might expect. Remember that the frame makes up only 20% of a bike’s weight. And once you factor in the rider’s weight, the weight advantage of a titanium bike practically disappears.

Carbon can be even lighter and stiffer. The down side of most carbon frames is that they are made in molds. If you want to change something, you have to make a new mold. That makes it almost impossible to fine-tune the ride characteristics to your preferences. Carbon also works best in uninterrupted shapes. That means it’s not so easy to install braze-ons for racks and other parts that feed significant point loads into the frame or fork. Carbon also tends to be more fragile. Where a metal tube may at worst dent in a fall, carbon often cracks.

For forks, steel and carbon are the only materials that are commonly used today. Most carbon forks are made in molds, so if you want a different geometry, you need a new (and expensive) mold. None of the carbon forks available today have enough offset for a low-trail bike. With steel, you just rake the fork blades a little further. That is why my titanium bike has a steel fork – I wanted to get a geometry optimized for wide tires. Every time I carve into a turn during a steep, twisty descent, I am glad about the precise handling this allows.

Steel also has a longer fatigue life than carbon, which means you can make smaller-diameter fork blades that flex and absorb shocks. If a carbon fork flexed as much as our Kaisei “TOEI Special” fork blades (above), the carbon layers soon would delaminate, and the fork would fail. To be durable, carbon forks have to be relatively stiff. That transmits more shocks to the handlebars, making the bike less pleasant to ride on rough roads.

What about the performance of a steel bike? We’ve tested our steel bikes against the best titanium and carbon bikes. We expected the steel bikes to be a little slower, but we were surprised: The best bikes’ performances were indistinguishable. (And quite a few titanium and carbon bikes actually were slower, because their flex characteristics didn’t work as well with our pedal strokes.)

One carbon bike was a tiny bit faster up a steep hill, because it was lighter. Once we equalized the weights of the bikes, their performance was the same. The extra weight of our bikes came mostly from the fenders, lights and rack. The frame tubes themselves don’t actually weigh that much. We added two full water bottles to the carbon bike, and it was as heavy as the steel bikes.

We aren’t the only ones who’ve rediscovered steel. I was surprised when I recently heard about Global Cycling Network’s new “dream bike”. The frame is made from steel, and they absolutely love it. Click on the video below to watch their first ride on the steel machine.

It’s important to remember that these steel bikes are true high-performance machines. They have little in common with most production steel bikes available today, which are mid-priced bikes that make little pretense to performance. Made from sturdy tubing, these bikes often are very stiff and don’t exhibit the “lively” feel that makes the best bikes perform so well.

Great bikes can be made from many materials. My titanium Firefly and my steel René Herse both feel remarkably similar in how they respond to my pedal strokes – and both are worlds apart from most steel production bikes.

The bikes we love and ride are handbuilt from ultra-thinwall tubing in carefully selected diameters and wall thicknesses. They incorporate things like dropouts with built-in connectors for the generator lighting. Their racks are custom-built for ultimate strength, stiffness and light weight. Their cranks have low tread (Q factor) for optimum pedaling efficiency, yet we can run wide tires. There is a lot that goes into making a great bike. When it comes to our most challenging adventures, we usually choose our steel bikes, because they are no-compromise machines designed to perform under all conditions that we may encounter on the “road”.

This isn’t to say that the other materials cannot be used to make great bikes. Some day, somebody will make a fully integrated “real-world” bike from titanium or carbon, maybe even bamboo. It’ll match the performance of our steel bikes, but it won’t do anything significantly better. It’ll be cool because it’s different. If it’s made from titanium, it won’t dent as easily as our steel bikes. If it’s made from carbon, you can bring an extra water bottle without a weight penalty. Such a bike will probably cost significantly more than our steel bikes (which aren’t cheap by any means!). I really look forward to riding that bike when it becomes available, but I doubt it’ll start a revolution that makes our steel bikes obsolete.

The biggest problem with steel bikes is that the truly great ones aren’t easily available. You have to order one from a custom builder. That is a bit more difficult than going to a bike shop and picking up a bike. But for us, it’s worth the effort, because a custom bike offers things you cannot get with a production bike. Your bike will be exactly as you want it – with features that no production bike offers. And since you are buying it directly from the maker, it’s surprisingly affordable for something that is truly handcrafted to the highest specifications.

Compass offers custom builders a variety of framebuilding parts, like fork crowns, braze-ons, and – soon – a bottom bracket shell specially designed for wide tires (prototypes shown above). We are also adding high-quality frame tubing to our selection. Fewer makers offer frame tubing for bicycles these days, because demand for steel bikes is not as high as it once was.

One place where steel bicycles are still made in large numbers is Japan. Japan’s more than 2000 Keirin racers ride steel bikes, and that creates a significant demand. Many of these bikes are made from Kaisei tubing, which is chosen for its excellent quality. Keirin racers are not allowed to change bikes during a weekend of racing. If their frame breaks, they are out of the races. And since they live off prize and starting money, that is something to be avoided at all costs. So everything about their bikes has to be absolutely top quality.

In the past, Kaisei tubing was difficult to get outside Japan, and the tube lengths were optimized for smaller frames built for Japanese racers (who tend to be less tall than many westerners.) That is why you may never have heard of Kaisei despite its excellent track record. My Urban Bike (above) is made from Kaisei tubing, and it’s held up great over a decade of really hard service.

Starting this summer, Compass Cycles will distribute Kaisei tubing. When we visited their factory (above their tube butting machine), we were really impressed with the quality of their tubing. We have worked with Kaisei to offer tubes with longer unbutted center sections that are designed for larger frames, in addition to their existing tubes. We will offer a large selection of Kaisei tubing in standard and oversize diameters, with ultra-thin walls (0.7-0.4-0.7 mm) that we use on our own steel bikes.

We’ve found that when you want the very best performance in every way, a custom steel bike is hard to beat. Our goal is to provide what your builder needs to make one of these exceptional bikes for you!

Click here to find out more about Compass framebuilding supplies.

Posted in A Journey of Discovery, Framebuilding supplies | 80 Comments

Summer 2017 Bicycle Quarterly

The new Bicycle Quarterly is at the printer. It’s our biggest issue yet – well over 100 pages filled with exciting adventures. Here are a few of them:

Renowned framebuilder and constructeur Peter Weigle joins us on a trip to Japan. Read his experiences with Rinko-ing his bike, riding the incredible Japanese mountain roads, and visiting the great constructeurs Toei and C.S. Hirose. Peter sees Japan with new eyes, and his impressions make a fascinating read. As a bonus, we test the amazing bike that Peter built for his trip to Japan.

Cyclotouring and the Tour de France share a common history – cyclotourists inspired the great race to head into the mountains for the first time. We retrace that history during a tour in the Cevennes mountains of southern France, while the Tour races in the valley below.

While in France, we visited Gilles Berthoud to see how modern technology and traditional craftsmanship are combined to make some of the finest saddles and bags in the world.

Our test bike is a bit unusual: a gravel bike made from Bamboo. We took the Boo on an adventurous ride into the unknown. How does it perform on the most challenging roads the Cascade Mountains can offer?

We’ve had our Specialized Diverge long-term test bike for two years now. What is it like to live with a modern, high-end, production bike on a daily basis? Did the lure of the “carbon race bike for the real world” endure? How did the superlight parts perform in the long run?

These are just a few of the features you’ll read in the Summer 2017 Bicycle Quarterly. Subscribe today to get your copy without delay.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 2 Comments

Compass Tires Back in Stock

The container with Compass tires has arrived, and all sizes are now available again. We thank you for your patience as we continue to work hard to keep all our products in stock. Enjoy the little video of our Elk Pass 26″ x 1.25″ Extralight tires in action!

Click here for more information about our tires.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Tires Have Landed – Pre-Order Now!

We try to keep our products in stock. For us, bicycles are necessities, and their parts should be available at all times. So we are really sorry that some of our tires have been out of stock. We simply hadn’t planned on demand in Europe taking off as it has. And making tires by hand takes time, so we couldn’t just ask Panaracer in Japan to make more at the drop of a hat. Fortunately, our most popular sizes have been in stock all along.

We are glad to report that the NYK Nebula that carries the container with our latest tire shipment from Japan has docked in Tacoma. After unloading and customs’ clearance, the shipment will arrive at the Compass warehouse next week. Then, Compass tires will be in stock again in all sizes, including the new tubeless-compatible Barlow Pass 700C x 38 mm.

Many customers have asked to be alerted when the tires arrive. We are now taking pre-orders, so that you can be among the very first to get your tires. Your credit card will be charged now, and your order will be shipped as soon as the tires arrive. At that time, you’ll receive a shipping confirmation, so you know your tires are on the way.

Or you can just wait until the tires are in our warehouse. We’ll make another announcement then.

Click here to order your Compass tires.

Posted in Uncategorized | 22 Comments

Paul Components Interview

7 Questions with Jan Heine, of Bicycle Quarterly

We always enjoy to learn how others see Compass Cycles and Bicycle Quarterly. Paul Component Engineering has been making CNC-machined bike components in Chico, California for over 25 years. Like Compass, Paul focuses on quality, craftsmanship and making parts that last a lifetime.

Paul’s monthly email newsletters show how their components are made, provide stories of rides and events, and interview leaders in the bike industry. Past interviews have included Steve Rex, Curt Inglis, Mark Norstad (Paragon Machine Works), Ira Ryan and others. When Paul Components asked to interview me, I was delighted to say yes. Some of the questions were quite unexpected. Here is the interview as it appeared in the Paul Components newsletter. Enjoy!

Paul has been a fan of Jan’s for a long time, especially after discovering a shared interest in vintage sports cars and, of course, vintage bikes.

Bicycle Quarterly has great photography, it’s never dumbed down, and that’s one of the main reasons people like Paul love it – because it’s smart.

Because Jan gives scientific explanations as to why something works or doesn’t work. It’s a slightly more serious, more technical publication, a niche much appreciated and needed. You learn things from reading Jan.

So we want to learn a few things about him:

1. Your original magazine was Vintage Bicycle Quarterly – Where did the idea come from for starting that magazine?

I wrote for a bunch of other magazines back then as a hobby – Bicycle Trader, On The Wheel, Rivendell Reader. One by one, they stopped publishing, but I had all those amazing stories about French cyclotourists, builders and their bikes. I wanted to share them, so I decided to put together a little newsletter for a few friends. Grant Petersen published a note underneath my article in his Reader, and I had 150 subscribers before I even had put the first word to paper. I realized that a xeroxed newsletter wouldn’t do, so I took the plunge and made a real magazine. Over the last 15 years, it has grown steadily from there – we now have more than 15,000 readers all over the world.

2. One of your biggest campaigns was that skinny, high pressure tires don’t roll any faster than a fatter low pressure tires. How does it feel to be vindicated on this?

It feels good that so many people enjoy their rides more, because they don’t have to choose between comfort and performance any longer. The latest “Allroad” bikes we test for Bicycle Quarterly are so much fun to ride, because they can go on any road – paved, gravel and even single-track – without giving up anything in speed to a classic racing bike with narrow tires. This has changed how we ride, and it’s gratifying to share this experience with cyclists all over the world.

3. Tell us a little about the progression from writing about bikes to actually producing and selling products? What inspired you to take that leap?

It’s easy to be a critic, much harder to do things better. I love riding bikes, so instead of bemoaning that the parts I wanted to use weren’t available, I decided to make them – starting with supple high-performance tires in useful widths, and continuing with handlebars, cranks, racks and other parts. Each product we sell or import starts with our own riding experience, where we ask: “Wouldn’t it be neat if we had a part like this?” And then we make prototypes, test them, modify them, and finally OK a new component for production.

4. Did you come from a publishing background and then acquire the business acumen later or was it the other way around?

Actually, I came from a science background. For my Ph.D., I studied climate change on a fellowship from NASA. And I have always loved riding bikes. So it was natural to do real scientific studies of how to make better bikes for the type of riding I love. I really don’t know much about business. Compass just makes the parts that we need for our own adventures, and we hope that others want them as well. We make them to the highest quality possible, rather than to a pre-determined price. That is our entire business plan, and so far, it’s worked out OK.

I also know very little about publishing, so I started a magazine that is financed by subscribers rather than advertisers. Everybody says that is the wrong way around, but it is liberating not to worry about advertisers when writing articles or doing research. We did our first tire tests during the Lance Armstrong years. I doubt a mainstream magazine could have asked the question whether wider tires roll as fast as narrow ones, when the bike industry was pushing narrow-tire racing bikes.

5. Where did your love of vintage bikes come from and was it a tough move to move into more contemporary bikes?

I love riding bikes. That is really what has inspired all my work. I love the stories and photos of riders on lonesome gravel roads high in the mountains more than vintage bikes that you also see in these photos. Even our best-selling book about the French constructeurs – The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles – is really about the stories that these bikes tell, and not so much about the bikes and their components.

These stories have inspired us to seek out old gravel roads in the Cascades, and we’ve found that sometimes, classic components work better for this type of riding than new ones. That is how I came to discuss centerpull brakes with Paul, which led to the development of the Paul Racer… Or we discovered that certain classic handlebar shapes work much better for long rides, so Compass offers them again.

Now that modern bikes once again are suitable for the type of riding I love, it’s natural that you see them in Bicycle Quarterly more. It’s not about modern or classic – what I want is a bike that beckons me to seek out little mountain roads that lead into adventure.

6. You’re a lover of vintage sports cars – have you worked in that field at all? Do you currently restore old cars or have other project on the burner in that area?

My love for cars is almost entirely platonic. I admire the beauty and creative engineering solutions of many great old cars. A friend is restoring an amazing 1940s Cisitalia that is made from bicycle tubes – the first car with a spaceframe, which revolutionized race car construction. I have a similar appreciation for steam locomotives, but owning one of those would be even less practical than owning a classic car. For photoshoots and book projects, I do get to work on classic bikes. I love the machines made by the great French constructeurs: René Herse, Alex Singer, Jo Routens, Daudon. They have taught me a lot about bicycles, and especially that the current way of doing things may not always be the best!

7. On a scale of 1-10, how afraid of the dark are you?

Zero. I love the dark. I love riding my bike across the mountains during full moon nights. Sometimes, I turn off my headlight and ride by the moonlight alone. I am a great fan of the night-time photography of Ansel Adams, Winston Link and Jim Shaughnessy (the latter two photographed steam railroads).

Further reading:

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