Riding to the Concours d’Elegance


When my friend David Cooper from Chicago mentioned that he was a judge at the Pacific Northwest Concours d’Elégance in Tacoma, I decided to go and join him there. I don’t get to see him often, and attending the Concours as his guest was sure to be fun. The ride to Tacoma promised a change in scenery from other routes I take.

“For the evening dinner reception, cocktail attire is required,” David mentioned as we finalized our plans. That added a layer of complication, since a jacket and pants don’t easily fit into a handlebar bag.


So I decided to take the Urban Bike instead of my randonneur bike. My clothes were packed neatly into a messenger bag that went onto the front rack. The photo above is at the ferry dock: instead of riding through the congested industrial corridor that extends from Seattle to Tacoma, I decided to take the ferry to Vashon Island. I would ride across the rural island from north to south, where another ferry would take me straight into Tacoma.


I made it to the ferry terminal in West Seattle with time to spare, but I knew that on the Vashon side, my schedule was tight. The road across Vashon Island measures 22.3 km (13.9 mile) from north to south. The time between the Seattle ferry’s scheduled docking and the Tacoma ferry’s scheduled leaving is 50 minutes.

Riding an average speed of 26.8 km/h (16.7 mph) for a little under an hour doesn’t sound too hard, but Vashon Island is relentlessly hilly. According to RideWithGPS, there are 303 m (1000 ft) of elevation gain in that short distance. My outlook: it would be good training!

I don’t have any photos from the ride, because I didn’t have time to stop or even sit up to snap a shot. When the ferry docked – fortunately on schedule – I was the first one off the boat. I sprinted up the ramp, and then attacked the long climb from the ferry. That was perhaps the hardest part of the ride. Without a proper warm-up, my legs hurt, and this hill always is steeper than it seems at first. The rolling roads toward the town center brought a welcome respite, but my favorite part is where the road drops back down to the water and runs alongside the bay that separates Vashon and Maury Islands.

From there, the remaining 5 km are a roller-coaster of hills. I glanced at my watch, and I realized I had to keep my speed up if I wanted to make the ferry. Many years ago, on a similar ride to Tacoma for an important meeting, I missed the boat by less than a minute: The ferry was just a few meters from shore when I came racing down the hill to the dock. I wanted to avoid a repeat of this today. Fortunately, my legs were properly warmed-through now, and the last hills were fun. I arrived at the ferry dock after 48 minutes of all-out riding. The ferry was still there – I made it!


With the bike securely parked, I got to rest and enjoy the ferry ride on this gorgeous late summer day.


The views from the ferry were magnificent. Mount Rainier is so much closer to Tacoma than to Seattle – it looked only a few miles away.


A short ride through Tacoma brought me to our hotel. I love the old city with its great architecture, its distinctive drawbridge, and its laid-back feel.


After a shower and a quick ironing of my shirt, we were ready for the dinner reception in the LeMay car museum. It was fun to explore the museum after hours, and to catch up with David. The food and company at dinner were great, too. Many car people love bicycles, and when I told them that I had ridden to the event, the older gentleman next to me said he was envious, especially since traffic on the Interstate had not been much fun. (On the other hand, his beautiful 1930s Alvis would have been hard to tow behind my bike!)


The main event started the next morning. As a guest of a concours judge, I was able to get in before the public, and watch as all the cars arrived and were parked on the lawn in front of the museum. The cars were gleaming in the morning sun, and hearing their engines purr (as on this Rolls Royce) or roar (as on a racing Mustang) added a layer to the experience that the static displays cannot convey.


Participants used the time for a last bit of polish, but most were happy to be distracted and talk about their cars.


The cars were lovely, with many fascinating details. The lap counter under the dashboard of this 1914 Grand Prix Mercedes was really neat.


There was a wonderful variety of cars at the concours, and I could have spent many more hours looking at the details.


The horn on this more-than-a-century-old Peugeot still worked!


I loved the interior of this 1930s BMW 327…


… and the outrageous wings and flares (and paint!) of this 1970s BMW racer.


All too soon, it was time to go home, and I returned to Seattle by train at the end of an enjoyable weekend. Riding my bike to the concours doubled the fun, and put me in the mood for the event. Now David has invited me to a similar event in Chicago. I would love to see his wonderful workshop again, but that would be a very long bike ride!



Posted in Rides | 26 Comments

2015 Calendar of Classic Bicycles


Bicycle Quarterly‘s Calendar of Classic Bicycles is now available, and we are  thrilled to think of how many of you will use the calendar to plan great outings in the coming year. Let yourself be inspired by the great selection of bikes featured in the coming year: The focus is on road, track and randonneur bikes, but we also included a cyclocross bike and a touring tandem.


Highlights include a superlight René Herse built for the famous Technical Trials, an early 1900s Dursley Pedersen, and a twin-chain bicycle built by Vélocio, the founder of the cyclotouring movement. Fans of racing will delight in Gino Bartali’s bike from the 1948 Tour de France, Tony Rominger’s hour record bike, and the beautiful 1930s Delangle track bike on the cover.


Each bike is presented in beautiful studio photographs, with captions that provide a brief history of each bicycle. In some years, the calendar has sold out within days. Get your copy while they last, and put it to good use to make 2015 an outstanding year!

Click here for more information or to order.



Posted in books | 3 Comments

Compass Centerpull Brakes


When we started Compass Bicycles, we dreamed of a new centerpull brake. We started developing and testing right away, but it has taken a few years for that work is coming to fruition. We just received the first production samples! The new Compass brakes will be in stock in early November.

For a bike with wide tires, centerpull brakes with brazed-on pivots are the best brake option. With pivots on the fork blades, there is little flex compared to a sidepull (or dual pivot) brake that reaches all the way around the tire. And since the pivots are close to the fork crown, they don’t twist like those of cantilever brakes. As a result, centerpull brakes offer more brake power and better modulation than other rim brakes. (The fact that Shimano’s latest rim brakes also use pivots high up on the fork blades shows that we aren’t the only ones who have figured this out.)

Of all the centerpull brakes, the Mafac Raids stand out. Mafac designed them in the 1970s, when they had decades of experience with this type of brake. The relationship between the upper and lower arms is perfect, which means you get lots of brake power, yet the pads don’t have to be set very close to the rims to prevent the brake levers from bottoming out. The brakes work well both with modern aero levers and with traditional levers. (Their cable pull is right in the middle between sidepull and cantilevers.) We tried many other centerpull brakes, but none came close in performance and feel.

During the development of our brakes, we did finite element analyses of various centerpull brake arms. We found that they varied greatly in their stiffness. Once again, the Mafac Raid came out on top. So when it came to decide on the shape and general design of our brakes, we couldn’t improve on the Raids.


We wanted a lightweight brake, so of course we forged the brake arms. Like the Mafac originals, our new brakes use custom hardware throughout – a huge project when you look at how many special bolts, nuts and washers there are on these brakes. (When you design a brake for standard screws that you can buy at hardware stores, you inevitably have to compromise weight and performance.) The hardware is made from chrome-plated steel, which is stronger than stainless steel.

We did improve a few things compared to the original Mafacs:

  • We made the arms slightly thicker, to make sure the brakes work with the higher brake forces generated by modern pad compounds. The weight gains are minimal.
  • The bushings of the original were cheap plastic and often developed play. Ours are special IGUS bearings that should last a long time.
  • The original pad holders were made from stamped aluminum, and the posts could come loose. Ours are cast as a single piece, with integrated posts.
  • The mounting bolts of the Mafacs, with their thin heads, also are known to fail when you aren’t careful during tightening. Ours are stronger, with integrated washers based on a René Herse design.
  • We improved the finish of the arms and the plating of the screws.
  • Our braze-on pivots don’t have the ugly aluminum plates to hold the spring. Instead, there is a ring with the spring hole that the builder brazes onto the post. (The photos still show the Mafac/Dia Compe braze-ons, since ours weren’t ready when the frame was built.)


To go with the brake, we’ll also offer a small rack to support a handlebar bag. The rack is made in Japan from CrMo tubing, so it is very light, yet strong. It’s patterned after the racks René Herse made for his randonneur bikes. The rack requires braze-ons on the fork, so it’s not a retrofit. If you plan to get a new bike, these brakes and rack are a big step forward.

We’ve been testing prototypes for quite a while, and we are excited that the new brakes will be available soon. We’ll also offer the hardware separately, so you can make your old Mafacs as good as new with new bushings, new hardware and new pads.

Posted in Brakes | 125 Comments

Optimizing Tire Tread


Most tire manufacturers agree that supple sidewalls and a thin tread make a tire fast, but the role of the tread pattern remains poorly understood. Most modern tires have either a completely smooth tread (slicks) or a coarse tread pattern similar to car tires. Many high-performance tires are smooth with just a few large sipes. None of these tread patterns are optimized.

Car tires have tread mostly to prevent hydroplaning. With their wide, square profile, a layer of water can form between tire and road surface. The tread pattern forms channels so the water can be pushed out of the tire/road interface.

Bicycle tires do not hydroplane. Their contact patch is too small and too round for that. This means that car-inspired tread patterns are not necessary on bicycle tires. Does this mean that no tread pattern at all – a slick tire – is best? Any tread pattern reduces the amount of rubber on the road surface… In the lab, it does work that way: Slick tires grip best on smooth steel drums.

Real roads are not as smooth as steel drums. An optimized tire tread interlocks with the irregularities of the road surface to provide more grip than the pure friction between asphalt and rubber. This is especially noticeable in wet conditions, when the coefficient of friction is reduced by half, yet you can corner with about 70-80% of the speed you use on dry roads. (Unless the road surface is greasy…)

The ideal tire tread has as many interlocking points with the road surface as possible. The “file tread” found on many classic racing tires does this. The ribs are angled so they don’t deflect under the loads of cornering or braking.

Why do race cars use slick tires, and not a file tread? The reason is simple: It would be abraded the first time the car accelerates. However, bicycle tires don’t wear significantly on their shoulders – the part that touches the ground when you corner hard – so we can use a tread pattern that is optimized for grip without worrying about wear.

Each Compass tires has three distinct tread patterns, each designed for a specific purpose.

  • Center: Fine ribs serve as wear indicators. When the lines disappear, the tire is about half-worn. (The tread of our narrower tires is not wide enough for ribs, so small dots are used instead.)
  • Shoulders: When the bike leans over as you corner, the tire rolls on it shoulders. A chevron or “fine file” tread pattern optimized grip.
  • Edges: This part never touches the road (unless you crash). They serve only to protect the casing from punctures, so they don’t need any tread.


Supple casings make tires faster, but a supple casing is of little use when it’s covered by thick tread rubber. The fastest tire would have just a minimal layer of tread rubber, and many “event” tires are made that way. Unfortunately, that means that they don’t have much rubber to wear down until they are too thin to use. At Compass Bicycles, we call these tires “pre-worn”.

Compass tires have a slightly thicker tread in the center. A little more material there doubles or even triples the life of your tire, while adding minimal weight and resistance. (On our widest 650B x 42 mm tire, the added tread weighs less than 50 grams.) Once you have ridden the tires for a few thousand miles, they’ll be as light as the “event tires”.

On the shoulders and edges, the tread does not wear. So we made it much thinner to keep the tire supple and reduce its weight. The tread extends far enough down the sidewall that the casing is protect when seen from above. Extending the tread further adds little protection, but makes the tire less supple and thus less comfortable and slower.


Another important factor is the tread rubber. This is an area where incredible progress has been made in recent decades. In the past, you could either have good grip or good durability. I used to ride Michelin’s Hi-Lite tires, which gripped well, but rarely lasted even 1000 miles (1600 km).

Compass tires use Panaracer’s best tread rubber, which is amazing. Our tires are among the grippiest you can find, yet I just got an e-mail from a 230-pound rider who got 3786 miles (6093 km) out of a set of our 26 mm-wide Cayuse Pass tires. The wider tires spread the wear over more rubber, so they last significantly longer. (Don’t try to set wear records, but replace your tires once they get thin. The risk of flats, or worse, blowouts, is not worth getting an extra few hundred miles out of a worn tire.)

Tread color is another important consideration. Modern colored treads no longer are the “death traps” they used to be, but especially in wet conditions, the grip of tires with colored treads – including the Grand Bois Hetres we sell – is not quite as good as that of black treads. That is why we offer only black tread.

Click here for more information about Compass tires.

Update 9/25/14: Roadbikerider.com just published a review of the Compass tires. Click here to read it.



Posted in Tires, Uncategorized | 54 Comments

Cycling Books That Have Inspired Me


I recently thought about my favorite books. There are many, and they span a wide range of topics, from Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince to The Art of the Motorcycle. Here are six of my favorite cycling books, in no particular order. This is not a “recommended reading” list; it’s a personal list of books that have inspired me. In any case, many of these books are difficult to find or written in French or Japanese.


From Repack to Rwanda was a gift from Jacquie Phelan. It’s a catalogue for an exhibit by the SFO Museum at the San Francisco International Airport. From Repack to Rwanda chronicles the development of the mountain bike and shows great studio photos of dozens of pioneering machines. It starts with the Schwinn Klunkers, then the first Breezers and Ritcheys, Cunninghams, the 1981 Specialized Stumpjumper, as well as wonderful machines like the Ibis Bow-Tie with its pivot-less Sweet Spot suspension. It’s by far the best book on the subject, and the fact that it was given to me by a mountain bike pioneer makes it all the more special. Thank you, Jacquie!


Bernard Déon’s Paris-Brest Et Retour really turned me on to the history of French randonneurs and their wonderful machines. I met Déon at the finish of my first PBP in 1999 and ordered the book shortly thereafter. The book’s reports from the early races and later randonneur events were fascinating, but I was equally impressed by the bikes. I realized that if riders like Roger Baumann had completed PBP in 50 hours through rain and wind in 1956 on René Herses, then the bikes must have been very good, and not mere show-pieces, as many assumed at the time.

I became determined to learn more about this event and these bikes. In a big way, this book was at the start of Bicycle Quarterly, Compass Bicycles and even my own randonneuring. Unfortunately, this book was printed only in a small run, so it’s almost impossible to find. And Déon’s style requires greater-than-average proficiency in French.


The Japanese have been excited about French cyclotouring bikes much longer than I have even been alive. They have published many wonderful books on the subject. My favorite is this gorgeous tome about Toei, the famous builders from Tokyo. Unfortunately, I cannot read the Japanese text, but the photos alone make this a favorite. It shows in great detail how Toei’s style developed over the years, until it reached close to perfection in recent decades. This book still is in print, and we may be able to import it and offer it in the Bicycle Quarterly Bookstore.


Simon Burney’s Cyclo-Cross is a great how-to guide for aspiring ‘cross racers. It was strongly recommended by a friend in the 1990s, who was the Master’s Women national champion. I tried to absorb every line of it, and if I had any success in cyclocross, it was thanks to Burney’s clear advice. Mine is the first edition, with Graham Watson’s action shots that add to the appeal of this excellent little book.

My copy of Paul Fournel’s Need for the Bike doesn’t have a jacket, so there is no photo here. Originally given to me by its English translator (and Bicycle Quarterly reader) Allan Stoekl, I greatly enjoyed this little book. Fournel is a philosopher, who writes about why we ride. On every page, I smiled and nodded my head. For example, Fournel writes about a spring on a descent. He’s never seen it, but he knows it’s there because he feels the cool air as he rides past it. This sustains him for miles afterward.

I lent my copy to a friend who was very ill and never got it back. I finally managed to track down a hardcover copy from a library sale. Need for the Bike is the only book on this list that is currently available in the U.S. (paperback).


Routes, Risques, Rencontres translates to “Roads, Risks, Encounters”. Its author, Lily Serguéiew, was an artist who decided to ride from Paris to Saigon in 1938, on her aluminum Caminargent bike. She took her time, learning the language in every country she traversed, drawing, and meeting the local people. Her adventures are both breathtaking and sweet.

In the former category is her trip through the desert of Turkey, despite being denied a visa, which led to her being chased by the police for several days. The sweet moments included being invited to participate in a wedding in Greece. Her trip ended prematurely when World War II started while she was in Aleppo (Syria). She returned to France, where her book was published in 1943. If you read French – the language is less complex than in Déon’s book above – I recommend trying to find a copy.


The final book here is Hilary Stone’s Ease with Elegance. This story of Thanet Cycles, the makers of the famous Silverlight machines, lives up to its name. Different from so much “cycling history”, it’s a well-researched yet engaging read. The “guv’nor” (Les Cassell) must have been quite a character! It’s a truly charming book that had me dream of a Thanet for years. I got my book directly from the author, Hilary Stone, and I believe he has some copies left.

What are your favorite cycling books?

Posted in books | 25 Comments

A great time was had by all!


Last weekend was the first Bicycle Quarterly “Un-Meeting”. The weather was perfect, about 25-30 riders showed up, and everybody had a great time. Aside from handing out copies of route maps, I was just another participant and was able to enjoy the meeting like everybody else. It was nice to see familiar faces and meet new people.


Most riders were from Washington State, but two had come from much further. George Retseck (on the left) came all the way from Pennsylvania. Many know George as the illustrator of the old Bridgestone catalogues. He has been doing some wonderful work for Bicycle Quarterly, too. Another rider came all the way from New York City!


The riding was wonderful. Instead of splitting up into groups, almost all of us decided to do the “intermediate” ride. We re-grouped a few times, and it seems that everybody enjoyed the riding and the company.


We had lunch at the historic lodge in Mount Rainier National Park, and then most of us climbed to Paradise.


That night, we congregated around a campfire. You can barely see the stars in the photo above. In real life, they were truly amazing. Sunday morning greeted us with more beautiful weather, and we set off for home.

We hope you are inspired to take up the idea and organize your own “Un-Meeting”. All it takes is figure out a few rides, make route sheets, set a date, and show up!

Photo credit: Andrew Squirrel (campfire).

Posted in Rides | 5 Comments

SKF Bottom Brackets after 5 Years


It’s been five years since Compass Bicycles started selling SKF bottom brackets, and three years since we became the world’s exclusive distributor. At that point, we extended the warranty to 10 years, since we had great confidence in the quality of these bottom brackets. They have patented labyrinth seals, and their oversize bearings run directly on the spindle and shell. There was no reason to doubt the claim of the SKF engineers: These bottom brackets should last 100,000 km of rainy riding. Since most of us don’t ride in the rain all the time, they should last even longer in real life.


Now the first bottom brackets that we’ve installed are half-way through their minimum expected lifespan. I am happy to report that they have proven as reliable as we had hoped. Both on our own bikes and on most customers’ machines, they simply do their job. Mark and I installed ours four years ago, and then forgot about them. They still spin as smoothly as they did on the day we installed them.

Out of several thousand bottom brackets sold, we’ve had fewer than a dozen warranty returns. Some were due to grit getting trapped in the outer seals. The seals did their job, and the contamination never reached the bearings, but the grit could be felt when turning the bottom bracket spindles by hand. While this isn’t a defect, we replaced the units for new ones.


There were three fluke failures, with the most bizarre coming from the rider who overhauled his bike, reassembled it, and the next morning, he found both cranks lying on the ground next to the bike. The spindle had broken on both sides! Since this was an ISIS “Mountain” bottom bracket, we replaced it with the “Freeride” version, which has a smaller hole in the spindle, and thus much stronger spindle. Considering the huge loads a bottom bracket undergoes, this rate of warranty returns is extremely small. It confirms that the confidence we placed in these bottom brackets has not been misplaced. We look forward to the next five years of selling and riding with these bottom brackets.

SKF bottom brackets are available with JIS and ISO tapers, as well as for ISIS cranks. They come in BSC, Italian and French threading. Click here for more information.


Posted in Bottom brackets | 35 Comments