What is Planing?


Can a 650B randonneur bike climb as well as the best titanium racing bikes? It did climb as well in a Bicycle Quarterly test, and that raised a few eyebrows. After all, the randonneur bike weighed 10 pounds more…

Theoretically, assuming equal power output on each bike, the lighter bike will be faster up the hill. So how could the heavier randonneur bike keep up?

The assumption of “equal power output” lies at the root of many misunderstandings about bicycle performance. A rider’s power output varies with many factors, like fatigue and comfort. One factor often has been overlooked: How well the bike’s frame gets in sync with the rider’s pedal strokes also affects how much power the rider can put out.

On different bikes, the same rider will have different power outputs. Optimize the bike’s flex characteristics, and your rider will be able to put out more power.


First, let’s look at how much that weight difference really amounts to. For a rider who weighs 165 pounds and a bike that weighs 15 pounds, adding 10 pounds increases the weight of rider-and-bike by 5%. To keep up with the titanium racing bike, the rider on the randonneur bike has to put out about 4% more power. Is that feasible?


The answer is yes.

A few years ago, we did a double-blind test. Jeff Lyon built four frames for us. Three used different tubing, the fourth was identical to the third. (Having two identical frames in the test was important to make sure our results were reproducible.)

Apart from the down and top tubes, the frames were identical – same tubes, same geometry, same paint. (The lighter frames had weights inside to equalize the weight.) Even the differences between the bikes were small – all were relatively flexible by modern standards. We wanted to see whether small differences in frame tubing are discernible to the riders, and whether they make a measurable difference in performance.

The test was a true double-blind test. Neither test riders nor test administrator knew which frame was made from which tubing. To hide the tubing diameter (one frame used oversized tubing), the bikes were wrapped in foam insulation. In every way, the test met the most rigorous scientific standards.

We rode the bikes in a variety of tests. One of them was an uphill sprint for 340 m (1100 ft), with two testers racing each other. Both bikes were equipped with calibrated power meters. We repeated the sprints five times, with the riders switching bikes after each run. After the fifth run, the riders were exhausted, so we stopped the experiment. It’s one of half a dozen experiments that all showed the same: Small differences in frame tubing can lead to a significantly different feel and performance.


The results for one rider were especially clear (above). Despite starting the experiment on Bike 1, the rider consistently put out less power on Bike 1 than on Bike 2. The rider was also consistently slower on Bike 1. The inferior performance wasn’t for a lack of trying – nobody likes to get dropped – and the rider’s “effort” and “perceived exertion” were greater on Bike 1 than they were on Bike 2. (The low power output for Run 5 simply shows that the rider is exhausted…)

The difference in power output was about 15%. That is huge, and it shows that the frame’s tubing, and how it interacts with the rider’s pedal strokes, affects how fast a bike climbs – more than almost anything else (except the rider’s fitness).

To give this phenomenon a name, we called it “planing” – like a boat that rises out of the water and requires less energy to go at higher speed than it did fully submerged at lower speeds.


Back to the comparison between the randonneur bike and the titanium racing bike: Yes, it does weigh 10 pounds more, but we now know that a difference in power output of about 4% isn’t all that large.

Does that make the titanium bike a suboptimal bike? Not at all! It was great fun to ride, and it “planed” very well for our testers. There aren’t many bikes that ride and perform as well – it’s just that our randonneur bikes, honed to the nth degree for our pedal strokes and power outputs, perform even (slightly) better – enough to make up their (small) weight handicap.

For me, the lesson from this test is that cyclists tend to overestimate the effect of their bike’s weight, but underestimate the difference that the frame flex characteristics can make on their power output.

Further reading:

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues, Testing and Tech | 110 Comments

Cyclocross Mud Contest: the Answer


Last week, I asked readers to guess how much mud my cyclocross bike carried at the end of a recent race. The answers varied greatly. Clearly, the mud around the bottom bracket and chainstays looked impressive, and some thought it added 30% to the weight of the bike. (Many readers also overestimated the weight of my bike.)


Others figured that there wasn’t that much mud elsewhere on the bike, and thought it amounted to just a few hundred grams (< 1 lb).

The answer lay in the middle: There was some heavy mud, but pine needles and wood were mixed in with the soil, and they are relatively light in weight. The bike carried 1040 g (2.3 lb) of mud. The bike’s overall weight, mud-free, is 10.0 kg (22.0 lb), so the mud added 10.4% to the bike’s weight. That’s quite a bit of mud weighing the bike down, and makes me wonder about using superlight parts on a ‘cross bike!

To my surprise, not just one, but two readers guessed remarkably close to the actual figures: Jesse Prichard from Spokane and “Paul in Dallas” both came up with 1 kg and 10%. Since Jesse was the first to enter, he is the winner. Congratulations! You won a 1-year subscription to Bicycle Quarterly, starting with the special 50th issue.

Posted in Rides | 22 Comments

Why I love Cyclocross


For me, cyclocross is the most fun you can on a bike in less than an hour! I don’t care much for racing any longer, but ‘cross is a different matter.


Cyclocross is a very technical sport, where leg power counts only for so much. Coordination is equally important. You choreograph your dismounts and run-ups to lose only a minimum of speed. It’s fun when you get it just right: Step off the bike, jump a barrier, and remount, all in one smooth motion.


Coordination also is important when cornering on mud. Traction is limited, yet the more speed you can carry through the corners, the less you need to accelerate on the straights. This saves valuable energy, and over the 40 minutes of a typical race, it adds up to a substantial advantage.

Last weekend’s MFG race in Seattle’s Woodland Park was the best cyclocross course I’ve ridden. (Thank you to the organizers for putting together such a superb event!) The course had a beautiful flow to it. You arrived at corners at high speed, and after a few weeks of rain, the ground was fairly slippery. This meant that in almost every corner, the bike started to slide a little.

When you look carefully at the photo above, you can see how my bike is leaning further than I am. That shows that the bike is sliding – just a little bit. The key is not to overdo it – a big slide will cost speed and may even have you fall – but still go as fast as possible.

The right choice of tires (and pressure) is key. I absolutely love my FMB Super Mud tubulars – they were perfect for this weekend’s race. Having a bike with a front-end geometry that allows precise handling control helps, too. If you can feel that the bike is about to lose traction, you can neutralize the slide as it happens, rather than react to it when it’s almost too late…


Last weekend, things came together, and I really enjoyed my race. There was mud on my face at the finish (above), and I was completely out of breath, but I think you can see the smile in my eyes.


My old Alan worked really well, too. I really love how the bike seems to spring out of corners like a cheetah – it really “planes” well for me. It may be old-fashioned these days, but it still works as well as it did when I first raced it almost 20 years ago. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: These bikes have won more ‘cross world championships than any other.


My bike picked up a lot of mud during the race. The faster you go, the more mud gets kicked up by the tires! It’s a good test for the SKF bottom bracket that I installed last year – I no longer have time to overhaul bearings after just a few races.


About half-way through the 40-minute race, so much mud had accumulated on the freewheel that the chain started skipping in the cogs that I used only a few times per lap. I just kept it in the one cog that worked well and rode it as a single-speed. (The largest cog also worked, but I was afraid that, if I used it, I wouldn’t be able to get back into my “favorite” cog.) I was glad I have a six-speed freewheel, which doesn’t clog up as easily as more modern drivetrains with closer-spaced cogs. And I was glad that the narrow tread (Q-factor) of my cranks facilitated my spin at high rpm on the slight downhills.

After the race, BQ contributor Hahn Rossman joked that I should join him in the single-speed race… It’s almost tempting, because the lack of multiple gears didn’t slow me down all that much.


Cyclocross also can be a family activity. My son had a lot of fun in his race, too. And the bike-handling skills he is learning make him a better cyclist on the road and in traffic, too.


I am glad he can enjoy cyclocross with his friends. (I wish cyclocross races for children had existed when I was growing up!)

Cleaning the bikes was the least enjoyable part of the day, but it was well worth it for the fun we had earlier. Before I cleaned the bike, I weighed it to see how much mud had accumulated on the bike. (I had weighed the clean bike for the feature in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 12, No. 2.) That gave me the idea for a contest: Can you guess how much mud my bike carried at the end of the race? Both in absolute weight, as well as a percentage of the weight of the bike? (For example, if the mud weighed 5 kg and my bike 15 kg, then the correct answer would be “5 kg/33%”.)

The reader with the best guesses will get a 1-year subscription to Bicycle Quarterly (or an extension of their subscription if they already subscribe). And if there is a tie, the first reply wins. Simply put your guess in the comments until Tuesday, Nov. 18… Let the fun continue!



Posted in Rides | 91 Comments

50th Issue of Bicycle Quarterly!


I love my work. A few years ago, I was concerned that editing Bicycle Quarterly might eventually become a “job” rather than a passion. As it turns out, I am still excited about every issue of Bicycle Quarterly, especially this 50th one! To celebrate the occasion, we added 50% more pages, so we could cover several topics in-depth without having to worry about page counts. So there are no promotional tie-ins or water bottle give-aways to celebrate – we just give you more of what really mattters at BQ.

The 50th issue presents an opportunity to take stock and look back over 12.5 years. Perhaps Bicycle Quarterly’s greatest contribution has been to redefine what a performance bike can be. No longer do we have to choose between comfort and speed, between spirited performance and the ability to go on adventures off the beaten path.


To examine the state of the art in “real-world bicycles”, we tested one of Peter Weigle’s nearly mythical 650B bikes. We took it to the Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting, where it had to carry a light camping load, traverse a mountain pass on gravel roads, and chase a personal best on a long, paved road climb. I don’t think I give away too much when I say that it performed admirably at all those tasks, and we had great fun with it, too.


To put the Weigle into perspective, we selected 11 milestones among the 60+ bikes we have tested. Each of these bikes was special when we tested it. Together, they chronicle how our understanding of performance bicycles has evolved over the last decade.


Three years ago, I got my own “ultimate custom bicycle”. Now with 18,000 km under its wheels, I take stock: How is it to ride a bike with 1930s derailleurs, 1950s brakes and 21st century lights every day? What would I do differently next time around, and which features have proven their worth?


I’ve long been a fan of Bernard Déon’s classic book Paris-Brest et Retour. In this issue, we bring you the story of the very first Paris-Brest-Paris from his book. Conceived in 1891 as a “utilitarian race”, the first PBP was an extreme adventure and a gripping race. We combine Déon’s classic text (translated into English) with unique images from the Jacques Seray collection to take you right into the action.


World traveler Damian Antonio takes you on an amazing adventure in the Himalayas. What is it like to cycle above 5000 m (16,400 ft) elevation?


We also went to the Big Island of Hawaii, and bring you the experience of climbing the volcanoes there. At the same time, we evaluate the compromises inherent in a bike designed to fit into a suitcase. It made us realize that some features of our favorite bikes are not essential, but others we would not want to live without.


We take you on a factory tour of Nitto, the famous makers of handlebars, stems, racks and other metal components. Among other things, you will learn how the bulge in the center of high-end handlebars is formed.

Of course, that is far from all. We show you how to replace a rim without completely rebuilding the wheel. We feature book reviews, product tests, news, as well as our popular “Skill” and “Icon” columns. We hope you enjoy this issue and join our celebration.

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




Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 21 Comments

ISIS Bottom Brackets


When we took over the distribution of SKF bottom brackets, we didn’t have high expectations for the ISIS bottom brackets. We were surprised when they became one of our more popular products. We sell them to customers who haven’t heard of Bicycle Quarterly, supple tires or any of the other things that we usually are associated with.

ISIS was an “open source” standard developed by a few of small makers – including Race Face and Truvativ – to counter Shimano’s proprietary Octalink interface. Shimano discontinued Octalink when the company began to attach the spindle to the right crankarm. Other companies followed suit, leaving ISIS as an orphaned standard.

ISIS made sense in theory, with a splined and tapered interface, but in practice, the large-diameter spindle left too little space for the bearings inside the standard BB shell. Most ISIS bottom brackets last only a few months in hard use.


SKF got around this problem by running the bearings directly on the spindle and shell, which allows the use of much larger bearings. The drive-side bearings are roller bearings, which have very high load ratings. In fact, the bearings of SKF’s ISIS bottom brackets are exactly the same as those of their indestructible square taper bottom brackets.

In an odd twist of fate, we ended up with the only reliable ISIS bottom bracket on the planet. Instead of replacing bottom brackets after just a few months of service, riders now can rest assured that our 10-year warranty on SKF bottom brackets includes the bearings. If you have a cherished ISIS crank, these bottom brackets allow you to extend its lifespan for at least another decade. Most likely, this will be the last ISIS bottom bracket you’ll ever have to buy.

I am almost tempted to offer the René Herse cranks with an ISIS splined interface, now that there are reliable ISIS bottom brackets…

Click here for more information on SKF bottom brackets.

Posted in Bottom brackets | 22 Comments

Japan in Autumn


I just returned from Japan. It was an amazing trip of talking to Compass Bicycles’ suppliers and of collecting material for future Bicycle Quarterly stories. Most of all, it was great fun!


We got to see old friends and acquaintances, and meet new ones. We rode bikes with some, went to Onsen baths with others, enjoyed great meals, and appreciated wonderful company.


We rode on the wonderful roads that criss-cross the Japanese mountains. They often are just a single lane wide, and the climbs (and descents) seem to go on forever. We love hairpin turns… and we got to do them continuously for over an hour during the descent of Shirabiso Pass – under a full moon! Japan was a great place to do the last pre-sale testing of our new Compass centerpull brakes.


We practiced our skills at Rinko. It is very satisfying to ride up to the train station, and 15 minutes later, our bikes are packed in relatively small bags that we can carry on our shoulders, even on crowded Tokyo subway trains. At the other end, it takes ten minutes to reassemble the bikes into full randonneur bikes with fenders, racks and lights. I had known about Rinko for years, but it took first-hand experience to understand the beauty of it.


Now that we know people, we aren’t treated as visitors as much, so we can actually see people at work. For an upcoming feature of TOEI, we were able to watch these legendary builders at work.


At the Poly Japon bike meeting, we admired some of the most beautiful bikes in Japan. (Not to mention the awesome ride into the mountains straight from the hotel. It was so good that I got up early the next morning to have another run at it.)


We savored the food and truly had a wonderful time. Thank you to all our Japanese friends who made this trip such a success!

Posted in Rides, Uncategorized | 23 Comments

The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles – en Français!


Our first and best-selling book The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles is now available in a French edition. Published by Editions Vigot and printed by a quality printer in France, the new book turned out beautiful.

I am excited that the story of the constructeurs and their amazing bicycles is now available in its home country. As France re-discovers cycling, I hope the book has a similar influence as it has had in North America, where a new generation of young builders is crafting wonderful machines which are inspired by mid-century French craftsmen like René Herse, Alex Singer, Jo Routens, Camille Daudon, Paul Charrel and the many others featured in this book.


The book starts with some of the earliest cyclotouring bikes and their amazing gear changing mechanisms. Above is a Retro-Directe. There are two freewheels mounted side-by-side on the rear hub. The outer one works normally, when you pedal forward. The inner one is activated by pedaling backwards. See how pedaling backwards pulls on the lower chain run that goes over the larger freewheel?

This top-of-the-line Hirondelle has a front derailleur, too, so you get four speeds. I was able to ride this bike during our photo shoot – it rides very nicely, but my legs aren’t used to putting out power while pedaling backwards!


The bikes that we love today were developed during the classic age: 650B wheels with wide, supple tires; low-trail geometries; lightweight frames to offer a spirited ride… These bikes were perfected on the road, and that is one reason why they are so much fun to ride.


Even the porteur bikes of the newspaper couriers were designed for performance. Not only were the couriers paid for each run – the more newspapers they delivered to the newsstands, the more they earned – but they also had an annual race, where they fought for the title of the “Roi des Roule-Toujours” (King of the Always-Riding).


The constructeurs built many types of bikes. I am especially fascinated by their “camping” bikes: touring bikes designed to be ridden with a full camping load. There is so much to them – this 1985 Alex Singer has no fewer than five racks – and yet it’s all designed as a coherent whole to offer a wonderful ride.

The French edition is available through bookstores in France. We also have a few copies available in the Bicycle Quarterly bookstore. (Select the English version, and during checkout, you get a choice of language.)

After nine years and over 16,000 copies sold, the English edition of The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles is currently out of print. It will become available again next year. In the mean time, we have a few copies left – if you want it as a holiday gift, order your copy soon.

Posted in books | 5 Comments