Hiking the Old Road to Houshi Onsen

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A few weeks ago, we went back to Houshi Onsen, my favorite hot springs in Japan. Our friends had taken Hahn and me to this wonderful place on a ride that coincided with a typhoon hitting Japan. Despite the torrential rain and lashing wind, we took the old road that travelers used centuries ago, when they crossed the mountains to arrive at the ancient inn that was built around the hot springs.

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We wrote about that adventure in the latest Bicycle Quarterly. Riding on narrow trails and  portaging our bikes over stairs made from wooden logs was memorable and fun.

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This time, we hadn’t brought our bikes, but went hiking in the snow instead. Instead of torrential rain, we enjoyed a sunny day, as we climbed up the same wooden steps.

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I was a bit afraid that the trail, which had seemed so adventurous in the typhoon, would appear benign on a sunny day. Instead, the trail was much steeper and narrower than we remembered. “Did we really carry our bikes down this in a typhoon?” we kept asking with incredulity.

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The trail was a reminder how geologically active Japan is. The steep slopes keep sliding downhill. Trees tilt as the soil moves, but they always grow upward, so over time, their trunks develop pronounced curves.

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We saw some spectacular needle ice, which occurs when the air is below freezing, but the water in the soil remains liquid. It was straight out of a geomorphology textbook: When the ice needles thaw, they’ll fall over and transport the soil that is on top downslope – very effective soil erosion.

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We were the only ones out on the trail, except a fox who’d left footprints, and a horde of monkeys who scattered excitedly as we approached. Their handprints were easy to make out in the fresh snow (above).

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After climbing 300 m (1000 feet) in just 2.4 km (1.5 miles), we turned around to a gorgeous view of the mountains, with Houshi Onsen cradled deep in the valley. During the typhoon, it was raining so hard that there was no view at all. Back then, we hiked into the unknown…

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That time, we rode through the tunnel that pierces the mountain, and I regretted a little that we didn’t go over the old pass. Now was our chance to redress the balance!

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As we gained more elevation, the snow got deeper and deeper. It was fun to run up the trail, but after a while, we had to turn around, since the days are still short, and we wanted to get back before darkness.

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We returned to the ancient inn, where I visited the oldest, smallest bath for the first time. (The baths alternate between men and women, so everybody can enjoy each bath.) After hiking in the cold, it was wonderful to soak in the hot water…

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… before enjoying a fabulous dinner.

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The next morning, it snowed even more, and the entire valley was covered in white. It was a view like a postcard, capping a great visit to one of my favorite places in Japan.

Click here for more information about the Winter Bicycle Quarterly.

Posted in Rides | 8 Comments

The Competition Bicycle – French Edition

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We recently received the French edition of our book The Competition Bicycle. It’s exciting to see our work translated into languages beyond English – after the German edition, there now is a French one.

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Our French publisher, Éditions Vigot, did a great job with this book. It was printed by their favorite printer in France, and the quality of the photo reproduction is one of the best I have seen anywhere.

The bikes – like this one from the Paris newspaper courier races – really come to life. If you expected only racing bikes, you’ll be surprised, since we tried to cover the many different areas of competition on bicycles, including Paris-Brest-Paris, mountain biking and the Race Across America, in addition to better-known events like the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, world championships and hour records.

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The bikes were selected not only for their competition history, but also for the technical innovations they brought to bicycles. For example, the 1930s Delangle track bike (above) also was one of the first machines made from Reynolds 531 tubing. Lightweight, thinwall frame tubing revolutionized how bikes ride and perform.

Editions Vigot spent a lot of time on the translation, and we double-checked it. That way, the history of how bicycles evolved from highwheelers with solid tires to modern machines with carbon-fiber disc wheels was rendered correctly and vividly.

In France, the books is available from all bookstores. At Compass Bicycles, we also have a small quantity in stock. Click here for more information or to order the French edition.

Click here for information about the English edition.

Posted in books | 3 Comments

Cherry Blossoms Below, Snow Above: Cycling Tsuchiyu Touge

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My recovery from the accident is proceeding smoothly. My bones have healed, and I hope to ride my bike again in a few weeks. Where shall I go on that first ride? I am back in Japan, finishing the things that were left hanging when I had to return abruptly to Seattle after being hit by a car in Taiwan.

I recall a great ride up Tsuchiyu Touge (touge = pass) almost two years ago. This ride was organized for Hahn and me by friends from Tokyo. It was a day of much climbing, even more laughter, and the beginnings of wonderful friendships.

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We were in Fukushima to visit the Nitto factory, and the following day, we set out from the lovely Onsen hotel where we spent the night. As bikes are readied, Hitoshi discovers that his tire is flat. This minor mishap does little to discourage us on this glorious morning.

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The climbing starts right away, and we settle into a comfortable pace. Here, Hitoshi (Vélo Après; left) and Ikuo (Cycles Grand Bois; right) lead, with Hahn and Natsuko following. Harumi (also Cycles Grand Bois) is already ahead.

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Even though the cherry trees are in full bloom down in Fukushima, we soon encounter the first snow: We are gaining altitude quickly.

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Along the road, we observe how the snow has melted around the trees. Different hypotheses are proposed for the cause. Is it meltwater that runs down the trunks? Or does the sun heat the dark trunks more than the white snow?

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We learn that the road has only recently been opened for traffic. In several places, we see giant snowplows parked by the road. Some have fresh snow on their blades! It rained last night in Fukushima, but here in the mountains, the rain has fallen as snow – even though it’s the middle of April, and we aren’t even half-way up the pass yet!

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The road climbs along the ridges, then breaks into tight hairpins where the hillside is too steep for a direct ascent.

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Even on this weekday, there is some traffic, including this “bad boy” motorcyclist. His beautifully turned-out machine includes a pristine leather bag underneath the frame. Perhaps not the most practical spot on a fenderless bike…

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After a picnic lunch, we stop at a viewpoint. Several times we reach spots that seem like the top, but then we just keep climbing further.

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Our group stays together loosely as the snowbanks on the side of the road grow taller and taller. Above 1000 m (3300 ft), the elevation is written on the road in 100 m increments. When we cross the 1500 m (4921 ft) mark, I climb atop the snowbank to take a photo (top of the post), figuring this will be the highest we’ll reach. Of course, the road continues to climb, and we soon see 1600 m written on the pavement.

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When we finally do reach the pass, we have climbed close to 1500 m (5000 ft) since starting in the morning! The snowbanks are about 3 m (10 ft) tall, but fortunately, the road is wide enough to offer great views of the mountains.

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Not far away, steam rises from a peak, indicating volcanic activity that also is responsible for the many Onsen hot springs we have passed.

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After a second lunch at a cafeteria near the pass, we descend into a desolate landscape. Little vegetation grows here because the winds are so severe.

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It’s so windy that a van with a highway maintenance crew stops to warn us. The worker has to hold onto his hard hat, so it doesn’t get blown away.

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With good bikes and some skill, everybody makes it across the windy parts without trouble, and then we launch into an amazing descent. Tight hairpins are joined by long straights, so we get to feel the rush of speed, before braking hard for the next turn. This continues for a while…

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…until we reach the turn-off to an Onsen hot spring. It’s a surprise for us, but our companions have planned to stop here. To everybody’s disappointment, we have just missed the closing time.

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Undeterred, Natsuko cycles across the suspension bridge that links the Onsen with the road. We’ll never know how she persuades the staff to let us in after hours, but when she returns, it is clear that she has been successful.

After soaking in the hot water at the Onsen, we descend the final kilometers back to Fukushima. We Rinko our bikes and lock them at the station. After a nice dinner, we take the Shinkansen train back to Tokyo.

The route up Tsuchiyu Pass probably isn’t ideal to ride with newly-healed shoulders and arms, and in any case, it’ll be snowbound for a while. But just like our friends planned this beautiful trip for us, I anticipate they will find a perfect route for my first ride, and I look forward to it!

Posted in Rides | 14 Comments

Why slick tires don’t stick well

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During the R&D of the Compass tires, I was surprised how much difference tire treads can make. I rode three sets of tires with the same casing, same tread rubber and same width, but different tread patterns:

  • standard Grand Bois Hetres with large longitudinal ribs throughout the tire tread
  • “shaved” Hetres where all tread had been removed to make “slicks”
  • prototype Compass Babyshoe Pass tires with our optimized tread pattern

I crashed on the shaved Grand Bois Hetres when the roads got wet. I made the mistake of leaning over as far as I would have on the standard tires, and found that they offered much less traction in the wet.

During my first ride on the Compass Babyshoe Pass tires with their small angled ribs, I almost hit the inside curb. The extra grip of the new tread pattern made the tires corner on a much tighter radius, for the same rider input.

It became clear that slick tires provide relatively poor grip, especially on slippery road surfaces. And large ribs squirm and thus make the bike “run wide”. Why?

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How do slick tires work on racing cars and motorbikes? Slick tires for racing cars are so soft that they form a perfect imprint of the road. They interlock with the irregularities of the road surface. This means that they don’t rely only on the coefficient of friction for grip, but also form a mechanical lock on the road surface.

The downside of the soft tires is that they wear out in just a few hundred kilometers. Often, race cars need to change tires several times during a race. And once the road gets wet, slick tires go from phenomenal to almost zero grip. Water forms a very effective lubrication layer between tire and road (“hydroplaning”).

All this isn’t optimal, but car designers have no choice: Their tires use the same surface for cornering and acceleration. Any tread pattern fine enough to interlock with the road would be ripped off the first time the driver steps on the gas. The same applies to racing motorcycles, which put down a lot of power while still leaning over as they exit corners.

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In fact, the more powerful racing motorbikes can be “drifted” to safely approach (and exceed) the cornering limits. This would shred any fine tread patterns.

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Bicycles are very different. They coast around tight corners. As a result, they use different parts of the tire for cornering and for accelerating. Here is how that translates into an optimized tire tread for road bikes:

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Center
When the bike is going in a straight line, the tread doesn’t matter much. Cyclists don’t have enough power to spin their wheels, and bike tires are too narrow to hydroplane. There is no need to evacuate water from the road/tire interface, and deep groves like those of a car tire serve no purpose.

The center portion of a tire can be slick, but we make ours with fine longitudinal ribs as a wear indicator. Once that tread is worn smooth, you have used up about 30-40% of the tire’s lifespan.

Dots or ribs that are angled or perpendicular to the tire’s rotation might increase the rolling resistance: They have to flex as the tire rotates. Perhaps it doesn’t matter much: The center portion of the tire will eventually wear smooth and become “slick”.

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Shoulders
This is where it gets interesting. The tread on the shoulders provides traction when cornering, so it’s of great importance. You spend relatively little time leaning into a turn, so this part of the tire does not wear. The shoulder tread can be designed for optimum traction without compromise. How do we get the same “interlock” as the race car slick tires?

The best solution is to provide little ridges that “catch” on the road surface irregularities and thus interlock with the road surface. One advantage compared to the slick race car tires is that the ridges cut through the water when the road is wet, thus providing the interlock even in the rain. On wet roads, the coefficient of friction between road and tire is reduced by more than 50%, so the interlock between tire tread and road surface becomes much more important.

This idea of interlock between tire tread and road irregularities is nothing new. Michelin’s engineers pointed this out in a paper in the 1980s Bicycle Science Newsletter, and even then, it wasn’t presented as something new or revolutionary.

Since the pavement aggregate is random, you want to provide as many interlocking surfaces, oriented in as many directions, as possible. By making the tread as fine as possible, you have a good chance that a rib lines up with the edge of a piece of aggregate in the pavement. That is why small ribs work best. The ribs need to be strong enough that they don’t squirm during cornering (like knobby tires do). Otherwise, you’d reduce your cornering grip again, and also increase the tire’s rolling resistance. Fortunately, the ribs don’t have to be tall, which reduces how much they can flex.

That is how you arrive at a criss-crossing pattern of fine ribs to provide a maximum of interlocking surfaces. This type of tread pattern was standard on high-performance bicycle tires for so many years, and it appears that there was good reason for this. In the old days, rubber compounds were much less evolved and provided less friction especially in wet conditions. Without the interlocking ribs, the tires would have been very dangerous in the wet. Modern rubber compounds have improved the coefficient of friction, but interlocking still is important for grip, especially in the wet.

Edges
The outermost part of the tire tread never touches the ground. You only need it to protect the tire casing from cuts. This tread can be thin and doesn’t need any pattern.

That is the logic behind the Compass tire tread. It’s not complicated, but it seems to be the only way to optimize a bike’s tire tread. We aren’t the only ones to use this type of thread. It used to be common on most high-end performance tires, and today, a number of companies still use it.

Let’s look at the alternatives:

  • Slick and coarse tire treads give up many opportunities for interlocking, and thus will offer relatively poor grip, especially in the wet.
  • “Negative” treads, that just cut grooves into the tire, apparently are inspired by car tires, where they help prevent hydroplaning. But even very wide bicycle tires are too narrow for hydroplaning (and our speeds are too low, too). Perhaps a fatbike with slick tires at 50 mph could hydroplane…
  • Knobs will squirm in corners and thus make cornering unpredictable and dangerous. (Knobs are useful for traction in mud and snow, though.)

Shirabisu_Pass

Back to the title: Slick tires are based on a simplified, incomplete understanding of tire grip. They offer less traction in dry and, especially, wet conditions.

Better tire treads exist. It’s important, because the tread pattern makes a very significant difference in how well a tire grips and performs. Being able to lean into a corner with confidence makes cycling both safer and more fun.

Click here for more information about Compass tires.

Posted in Tires | 53 Comments

Happy New Year!

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Best wishes to you for 2016! May the new year bring you wonderful rides and great memories.

Photo credit: Natsuko Hirose

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

10 Favorite Photos from Bicycle Quarterly

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We want to celebrate a great year with our 10 favorite photos from Bicycle Quarterly.

Tom Moran’s article about fatbiking to the “Magic Bus” in Alaska was not only a great story, but it also was accompanied by great photos (above).

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Paris-Brest-Paris is full of captivating images, with riders from all over the world riding through villages of old stone buildings.

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Long before “gravel riding” became a buzzword, we already explored the Cascade Mountains off the beaten path. Above are Hahn and Theo on the road to the ghost town of Monte Cristo.

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The fun of the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting is captured in this photo, even if it shows only a small part of the group.

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Framebuilders’ shops have a different character than bikes and landscapes, here C. S. Hirose in Tokyo.

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Sometimes, the most exciting parts of a ride aren’t on the bike: portaging across the North Fork of the Sauk River.

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“Underbiking” means riding terrain that pushes the limits of what your bike can do: Natsuko Hirose on the old road to Jikkoku Pass.

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Bike tests often take us to spectacular scenery, like the aptly named “Best Road” with Mount Baker in the background…

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… or to lonesome mountain passes in the Japanese Alps.

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Riding doesn’t need to stop when the sun goes down: Shirabiso Pass at midnight during the Nihon Alps Super Randonnée.

What were your favorite photos or stories from this year’s Bicycle Quarterly?

Click here for more information about Bicycle Quarterly or here to subscribe.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 2 Comments

Happy Holidays!

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I wish all our readers Happy Holidays! I’ve enjoyed all the interactions with readers. The technical discussions are stimulating, but most of all, it’s nice to read about so many people enjoying their bikes on great rides! Thank you all!

Photo credit: Fred Blasdel

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments