Employee Appreciation!

theo

Compass Bicycles Ltd. is a small company. What we may lack in size, we make up with passion. And we love our employees – they truly are outstanding!

Theo, shown above crossing a stream, is our new hire as Compass Bicycle’s general manager. Theo gets to field customer questions and comments. He makes sure the hundreds of products we sell actually are in stock, maintains our ordering system, etc. He also assembles the Compass brakes and builds René Herse cranks with the individual chainring sizes for our customers. Theo has been a randonneur for most of his adult life, and he is as familiar with our products as anybody. We’ve known him for years, and we are excited that he is working with us now!

clark

Clark has been the man who gets your orders filled, answers your subscription questions, and gets Bicycle Quarterly mailed out to all four corners of the earth. Every box of Compass components you receive, every envelope of back issues, every book, all have been carefully packed by him. Clark enjoys the goings-on at Compass Bicycles, but his passion is his boat. Perhaps even more than we look forward to a big ride, he looks forward to the fishing season out here on the Puget Sound.

There are many others who contribute to our success, whether it’s Stefan, our German engineer in Taiwan; Hahn, whose machine shop serves as our prototyping facility (and who builds Rossman bicycles); as well many subcontractors. On the Bicycle Quarterly team, there are proof readers, copy editors, color specialists and many more. They all take great pride in their work, and they are instrumental in everything we do.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Compass Tires: Standard vs. Extralight

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Compass tires are available in two versions: standard and extralight. What is the difference between the two?

The difference is in the casing. The standard casing is already quite light and supple, but for the Extralight, we worked with Panaracer to push the envelope further. These tires use a casing material that is also used on high-end tubular tires, and not usually available for clinchers. Here are the differences between the tires:

  • Comfort: The standard casing offers exceptional comfort, but the extra-supple Extralight is yet another step closer to “Tire Nirvana”.
  • Speed: While we haven’t tested these tires under controlled conditions, the Extralight appears even faster than the already-fast standard version.
  • Puncture resistance: Both versions use the same tread rubber and thickness, so the puncture resistance is comparable.
  • Sidewall cut resistance: If the Extralight casing has one drawback, it’s that the sidewalls may be easier to cut on sharp rocks. Even so, I rode the Oregon Outback 360-mile gravel ride on Extralights without a flat or any damage to the sidewalls.
  • Weight: The Extralight casing is significantly lighter. Depending on the tire model, the weight difference is 25-35 g (10-15%).
  • Cost: The Extralight costs more.
  • Color: Both models are available with tan sidewalls. Only the Extralight is available with black sidewalls.

So the Extralight is more comfortable, faster, lighter and available in more colors. The standard model is less expensive and less likely to suffer from sidewall cuts. Both offer the same puncture resistance.

I ride the Extralight on all my bikes, because I love their feel and comfort. If you are on a budget or ride on rocky trails a lot, the standard version may be a better choice.

Note that the narrow 700C versions (26 and 28 mm) are only available with Extralight casings. For the standard casing, we recommend the very similar Grand Bois Cerf in the same widths.

Click here for more information about Compass tires.

What about the photo? Hahn took it at the 2014 Washington State Championships, where a rider on Compass 28 mm tires took 3rd place in the (very competitive) 50+ age category. The good placing was due to his legs, but it’s nice to know that his tires didn’t hold him back.

Posted in Tires | 42 Comments

Spring 2015 Bicycle Quarterly

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The Spring 2015 Bicycle Quarterly picks up where the 50th issue left off: After reviewing the progress of “real-world” bicycle over the last decade, we are looking into the future. How can we improve our riding experience further?

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Could we fine-tune the tubing configuration of our 650B bikes to supercharge their performance and perhaps reduce their tendency to shimmy? We built a prototype and put it through its paces…

jones_bikepack

Can a titanium mountain bike equal the performance of a good Allroad bike? Jeff Jones thinks so, and he sent us a test bike to prove it. To find out, we headed out into the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula for a mid-winter bikepacking trip. We saw wolf tracks… and realized that we had to rethink some of our assumptions about how bicycles work.

enduro_allroad_web1

How wide can you make supple tires and still end up with a high-performance bike? Asking that question, we came up with the idea of the Enduro Allroad Bike: a road bike with 26″ x 54 mm tires. How do tires this wide perform on gravel? And perhaps even more importantly, how do they perform on the road? During our testing, we were charting new territory, and inevitably, there were a few surprises.

rinko_mule

We’ve been fascinated with Rinko, the Japanese system of packing bikes for train travel. We like that a Rinko bike has no significant modifications like couplers or wire splitters that affect its performance or cost. Yet a complete randonneur bike – with fenders, rack and lights – disassembles in less than 15 minutes and fits into a relatively small bag, making it easy to carry. To find out more, we built our own Rinko bikes and headed to Japan to put them to the test.

nihon_alps_shirabisu

Of course, we didn’t just go to Japan to carry our bikes on its excellent trains. We went on a bicycle tour of Hokkaido, exploring Japan far from the hustle of the big cities. We followed this by an attempt at the Nihon Alps Super Randonnée 600 km ride. Never before have I descended passes like these, with over 150 turns on Shirabisu Pass (above). That ride was even more memorable because it happened during a full-moon night.

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Bicycle Quarterly‘s adventures can be leisurely, too. Tim Bird takes you on a wonderful midsummer ramble across the Yorkshire Dales, exploring the landscape and its history from the saddle of his bike.

wolverine_web

We also tested the Soma Wolverine for our “First Rides” (above), as well as Soma’s Cazadero multi-surface tires, and the revolutionary Velogical rim dynamo from Germany. We celebrate Jack Taylor’s life, show you how to do a track stand, and much, much more.

Click here for a full table of contents.

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

 

 

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 41 Comments

Why not “Made in U.S.A.”?

Forge

At Compass Bicycles, we think a lot about manufacturing. We know what we want to make, but how should we make it, and where? We are not looking for the lowest cost, but for the highest quality. The conditions under which our products are made are an important consideration as well.

There are a number of small companies who make bicycle components in the U.S., but they are often limited by the technology that is available to them. For example, CNC machines are relatively affordable and small. That is the reason why you see so many CNC-machined cranks and brakes, even though forging would make them lighter and stronger. (CNC machining is a good way to make other parts, like hubs and headsets.) CNC machining also is quite wasteful, as a lot of aluminum is turned into shavings.

In contrast, a forging hammer (photo above) is an investment that only one bicycle company has amortized on their own: Shimano is said to forge their own components. All others, including industry leaders like Campagnolo and SRAM, do not run their own forge.

schwinn_factory

The U.S. bicycle industry never specialized in making high-end components. Schwinn’s famous operation in Chicago was a self-contained factory. Rolls and bars of steel went in on one side, complete bicycles came out on the other side. Yet when Schwinn needed derailleurs or other high-end parts, they imported them from Europe. There simply were no makers of derailleurs and aluminum cranks in the U.S., and even mighty Schwinn wasn’t big enough to make their own. Very few, if any, square-taper crank have ever been forged in the U.S.A. Basically, the technology does not exist here.

Where does the technology exist? Today, the answer usually is Taiwan, which has developed a diverse bicycle industry capable of high quality, along with acceptable work and environmental conditions. Our engineer in Taiwan lives within easy motorcycling distance of the companies involved in our crank project:

  • Forge: They forge the crank blanks.
  • Machine Shop 1: They machine the chainrings tabs, square tapers and pedal threads of the cranks.
  • Machine Shop 2: They make the chainrings.
  • Screw Maker: They make our custom crank and chainring bolts.
  • Laser Cutting Specialist: They make the pedal washers.

All these companies have experience with bicycle components. Supply paths are short, and oversight is easy. Our engineer can visit the factories while production is under way, which makes it easy to solve small problems that inevitably occur when things are being made. If we made one part in Chicago, another in Texas and a third in Connecticut, this would be very difficult. (The last part of our cranks, the custom boxes, are made in the U.S.)

The Taiwanese are also willing to work with small production runs. When we asked a German screw maker about crank bolts, they told us that the minimum order was 50,000. We would have a lifetime supply of crank bolts!

Forge

The photo shows a freshly forged René Herse crank. Taiwanese workers earn good wages and work under decent conditions, comparable to North American workers. Taiwan’s environmental regulations are not as good as they could be, but they appear to be better than most countries outside Europe, Japan, and the U.S.

Many of us would like to see products made closer to home. We would like to support the economies of the places where we live. However, you need an infrastructure to make things.

Paul Krugman explained this in the New York Times: “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. This is familiar territory to students of economic geography: the advantages of industrial clusters — in which producers, specialized suppliers, and workers huddle together to their mutual benefit — have been a running theme since the 19th century.”

Unfortunately, we have been allowing these clusters to disappear all over the U.S. and Europe. In France, there was the cluster of bicycle component makers in Saint-Etienne: Manufrance, Automoto, Stronglight, Maxi-Car and dozens of other companies. Not a single one of them exists any longer!

Another cluster was Levallois-Perret in Paris with its hundreds of machine shops, chrome-platers, casters and other shops. They mostly served the automobile industry (Citroën, Delage, Hispano-Suiza, etc.), but also enabled the small constructeurs of bicycles (and the component maker TA) to do things that would have been difficult elsewhere.

These clusters no longer exist. Ernest Cuska of Cycles Alex Singer once told me how they used to have two chrome-platers within a block of the shop. Now they take their frames, racks and stems to a plater who is almost 100 miles away. TA obtains its forgings from Taiwan. So does Campagnolo. And so do we at Compass.

RHCrank2

When you consider that our cranks and brakes are assembled right here in Seattle, perhaps we should label them “Made in the U.S.” (Legally, they are made here from imported parts.) But we aren’t trying to obfuscate, so we say that they are made in Taiwan, since most of the essential parts come from there.

And where possible, we do make products in the U.S. Our taillights, our rack tabs, the leather washers for fender mounting, our alignment tools, and our tire wipers are made by local companies and craftspeople in the U.S. And of course, Bicycle Quarterly is printed right here in Seattle.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that to the best of our knowledge, no square taper crank had ever been forged in the U.S. There may have been some cranks made from U.S. forgings in the 1990s (see comments).

Posted in Rene Herse cranks, Testing and Tech | 86 Comments

Spring BQ Press Check

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“Stop the Presses!” is a term you really only understand once you have seen these gigantic machines churn out sheet after sheet in rapid succession. They do seem almost unstoppable. Yet here they fell silent again, after just a few sheets had been printed. It was time for the press check. We were at our printer, meeting with the press manager to make sure the printed sheets match the vibrancy of our proofs. This is where our vision for Bicycle Quarterly becomes reality.

IMG_3290

The press manager pulls a few sheets off the press. We compare those sheets to the proofs and tell the manager what we envision. The scanner (shown above) determines the amount of pigment actually put down by the press. The press manager adjusts the color balances and intensities to obtain the most vibrant, life-like image quality. Then the gigantic press starts up again and spits out a few pages with the new settings.

As I see the photos come off the press, I think back to when we were out riding and scouting for photo locations. Back then, I was trying to envision how the shot would look on the printed page. And now that printed page is coming off the press! It’s been a long process to get to this final, vital step in making it all come together.

This time, it seemed to us that the printed sheets looked even better than before. When asked, the press manager told us they started using a new ink with a higher pigment load, which allowed them to push their press settings a little further. He was visibly proud of this change. Once you’ll hold the Spring issue in your hands, I think you’ll agree with him – the new issue looks even better than the previous ones.

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues | 19 Comments

Cross-Country Skiing

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I went cross-country skiing with my family last week. I hadn’t skied in more than a decade, and I never had skate-skied before. It looked like fun, so I rented skis and took a one-hour introductory lesson. Then I headed out on the trails.

mountains

I was looking forward to gliding through the snow like I knew from classic Nordic skiing, yet I was very surprised how much fun skate-skiing is. The gently rolling trail followed a creek along the edge of the hills. Even though the water was flowing toward me, I felt like I was going downhill! When I turned around, I really was going downhill, which was even more fun.

Skate-skiing really was exhilarating – it felt like being on a bike that planes perfectly, with none of the push-back you sometimes get when you try to pedal harder. On skate skis, you don’t push off, but just step forward with your feet at an outward angle, and then your legs just go. Every second step, you use your poles to balance and get a little extra propulsion. As I skated through the sparse forest, speed built quickly. I was breathing hard and enjoying the “taste of the effort”, but it seemed effortless. And I covered a lot of ground quickly. I wasn’t the only one enjoying it: A woman and daughter came flying toward me, their arms waving from side to side beautifully in sync with their strides. Their smiles were as big as mine.

It was fun to be out in the mountains, too. I’ve cycled through these places in summer, but it was very different now. The quality of light, reflected by the snow from all sides, was so much more luminous. We have very little snow pack in the Cascades this winter, sadly, as you can see on the hills; definitely too light for February. However, there was still enough snow on the trails to ski.

ski_1

The next three days were pure bliss. Every morning, I rose before sunrise, and headed out on the trails. I explored new trails every day, including one on the last day that had a wonderful flow of ups and downs. On the downhills, I learned to step around corners, rather than snowplow and lose speed. Approaching the limits of my skills and capabilities was exhilarating, and it was good to know that if things got out of hand, I could just sit down and stop on my behind (which I did do once.)

The snowplowing for tighter turns was fun, too, since you adjust your arc by weighing the outer or inner skis. The skis are aligned in a triangle. Weighing the outer ski pulls you into the turn, weighing the inner ski widens your arc. It reminded me a lot of riding on gravel or mud, where you play with the traction of your bike’s tires. But here, it’s easier because you don’t face a sudden loss of traction – you are always sliding and working with it.

ski_4

I expected to be sore from so much skiing, like I used to be after classic cross-country skiing. However, it seems that skating uses similar muscles as cycling, and only my hands got a little tired from gripping the poles.

If you live in a place where snow prevents you from cycling, now I envy you! I now dream of having a groomed trail behind my house, so I could ski for an hour or two every morning…

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 29 Comments

Research & Development

Shirabisu_Pass

Over the last decade-and-a-half, I’ve thought a lot about product development. Long before Bicycle Quarterly and Compass Bicycles, I was involved with several companies as a technical writer and translator. Part of my job was writing instructions, so I got to see product development up close.

From my experience, product development ideally has three components:

  1. Skilled users who are sensitive enough to report what they experience.
  2. Scientists who design tests to confirm those observations and isolate the factors involved.
  3. Engineers who translate those findings into better products.

With Bicycle Quarterly, it didn’t take long until we got involved in No. 1. We rode many bikes over challenging courses, and we noticed differences in how they performed, how they handled, and how they felt.

From those observations, it was a small step to No. 2. After all, our editorial team is made up of scientists, so the question “Why do some bikes ride/perform/handle better than others?” came up quickly. We began testing tires, we tested our hypotheses about frame stiffness, and we rode different front-end geometries.

No. 3 was a logical next step – what good are scientific findings if they don’t lead to bicycles people can ride? So we started Compass Bicycles to translate the results of our research into better bicycle components.

reifen_1005-2

Sometimes, steps 1 and 2 are reversed. That is how our tires came about. I hadn’t thought much about tires, until I saw a tire test in the German magazine TOUR. (By the way, the title in the photo above translates to “Roll Well”.)

Among other things, TOUR tested the tires’ rolling resistance. They found significant differences, but downplayed them by saying that the difference would “only” amount to 138 seconds in a 40 km time trial. That got me thinking: First of all, more than 2 minutes in a time trial is a huge difference. When I raced, 10 seconds over 10 km made the difference between first and fifth place. Could the faster tires have made me a consistent winner? More importantly, speeds are lower for the long rides we now enjoy, so rolling resistance is even more important.

Talking with Mark Vande Kamp (friend, riding companion and fellow Ph.D. on Bicycle Quarterly‘s editorial board), we decided to see whether we could replicate TOUR‘s results, but at lower speeds. We bought a set each of the fastest tire in the TOUR test, as well as a slower one. We scouted a location for a rolldown test, and one Saturday morning, we installed the test tires on our bikes and headed to the hill. I rolled downhill, first on one tire, then on the other (always using the same bike, of course). Mark timed me and found that the differences were quite large: about 10% faster with one tire than the other. We repeated the experiment, and the results were the same. Wow! Tires did make a larger difference than we thought. We knew we had to test this further.

We then went on a long ride and discussed what we wanted to test. Different tire models, obviously, but also different pressures. After all, we always were torn between inflating our tires to the maximum pressure to obtain the highest speed, and reducing the pressure a little to improve comfort. How much speed did we lose if we went for comfort? We also decided to test the same tires in different widths. And worn tires against new ones, to determine how much of a difference tread thickness makes. (Worn tires have a thinner tread, but otherwise are the same as new ones.)

Test_Woodland

The testing took a lot of time and effort, but the results were worth everything we put into it. We found out that the tires I had been using were among the slowest tires in our test. Simply replacing my tires allowed me to stay with previously faster riders during brevets. And when I rode alone, I consistently set personal bests, despite my training being the same as before.

As a positive side effect, the faster tires also were more comfortable. However, comfort was relative: The fastest tires in our test were only 24 mm wide – too narrow for true comfort on backroads.

Our research showed ways to improve these tires. We found that tire pressure did not have a significant effect on speed. This opened up a whole new way forward for tire design. Instead of trying to make wider tires withstand high pressures (which requires strong, stiff casings), wider tires should be made supple casings. Despite running at lower pressures, they’d be much faster.

GrandboisCypres

At the time of our tire tests, we just had started to sell the first-generation Grand Bois tires (above). We were disappointed that they did not score well in our tests. We shared our results with Grand Bois and Panaracer, and they came up with an improved version that had a more supple casing. That was the first product that came directly out of Bicycle Quarterly‘s testing.

Over the next few years, the Grand Bois tire program expanded, and we were able to test our findings on the road. We found that even with 42 mm-wide tires, our bikes were no slower than bikes with narrower tires. And Grand Bois worked with Panaracer to further improve the casings, resulting in the Extra Léger models.

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We felt that further improvements were possible by optimizing the tire tread for performance. The tread on the shoulders of the tire only contacts the road during hard cornering, so it doesn’t wear out. We could make this thinner, so the tires would be even more supple and faster. We tested many tread patterns to obtain an optimum of cornering traction both on dry and wet roads. The result were our Compass tires. Our customers rave about their comfort, speed, cornering grip…

Our tires are just one example of the symbiotic relationship between Bicycle Quarterly and Compass Bicycles. Without Bicycle Quarterly‘s research, we wouldn’t have known that the tires we were using were slow. And without Compass Bicycles, our research would have remained of little use to riders. We would have outlined “ideal” performance tires, but without anybody making them, that knowledge would not have improved our riding experience.

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The main reason Compass components exist is so we can use them on our own bikes! And I truly believe that our riding experience has improved in many ways since we starting riding on wide, supple tires.

Click here to learn more about Compass tires.

 

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 43 Comments