Not A Museum Piece


When bikes are as stunningly beautiful as the machines from René Herse, Alex Singer and other French constructeurs, it is easy to dismiss them as “beauty queens” or “show bikes.” This would be a mistake: The performance of these bikes is as outstanding as their appearance. They confirm the old saying: “What looks right usually is right.”

When I first became interested in the bikes of René Herse and Alex Singer, collectors told me: “Yes, they are beautiful to look at, but they probably aren’t so great to ride.” As a rider, that dampened my interest in these machines. 


So imagine my surprise when I read Bernard Déon’s classic book Paris-Brest et Retour about the history of the famous 1200 km PBP randonneur event, and saw that these bikes had not only been ridden for that long distance, but ridden at incredible speeds. For example, Roger Baumann (above) completed the 1956 PBP, one of the windiest and rainiest ever, in 52:19 hours, riding completely unsupported.

Whatever the merits of the rider, his René Herse must have performed well to enable such a performance. I decided to find out more.


So I started experimenting, with the generous help of friends. For two seasons, I had two wonderful constructeur bikes in my garage: a 1952 René Herse 650B bike (above) and a 1954 Alex Singer 700C bike (photo at the top of the post). I started using these machines together with my brand-new custom bike.

One of the fastest riders at the Seattle International Randonneurs at that time was Kenneth Philbrick. He was training for the Furnace Creek 508 race. On his Campagnolo-equipped Litespeed, he could set a ferocious pace on the flats. We engaged in a little bit of friendly competition. Sometimes, we finished together, at others one of us would take the lead and finish alone.


Toward the end of the second season, Ken asked me during a ride: “How much does your new bike weight? It must be a lot heavier than the old ones, since you seem so much faster on the old bikes.” This surprised me, since the three bikes all weighed the same – about 26 pounds fully equipped.

Thinking about this, I realized that Ken was wrong about the weight, but right about the performance: Whenever I had ridden the new bike (above), he had dropped me. I sometimes had managed to catch him again when he got confused about navigation (his Litespeed did not allow him to keep the route sheet in sight), but there was no question that he was the stronger rider. However, when riding the Singer or the Herse, I had dropped him every time, and finished alone. It appeared that those bikes worked better for me.


Eight brevets are not enough to obtain statistically significant results, but a 100% correlation is interesting nonetheless. Combined with the better handling of the old bikes and the better shock absorption of their slim forks, I decided to get my own classic constructeur bike, and I bought the 1974 Alex Singer that I rode for many years. The trend continued to hold – my times during brevets improved on the classic machine.

Clearly, the old constructeurs knew what they were doing. It’s only been through our recent research into superlight tubing that we have been able to design bikes that, for us, surpass the performance of the old machines. But even now, the old machines offer a performance that few modern bikes can match. And we finally have tires again that perform as well as the hand-made clinchers the old randonneurs raved about.


Classic bikes are interesting, because the engine – the human body – has not changed over the last half-century. Modern materials may reduce the weight by a few percent (when you look at the entire system of bike-and-rider), but the things that really matter haven’t changed much over the years. The bikes that worked so well back then still work well now, and the “hottest” trend of the moment – wide, supple tires – is only a re-discovery of what these riders already knew more than half a century ago.

Posted in Testing and Tech | 46 Comments

Reviews of Compass Tires


When you design a product, develop it, test it and finally bring it to market, you wonder how it will be received. Of course, you are confident that others will like it as much as you do – you wouldn’t have released it if it didn’t meet your high expectations. Still, it nice to hear from customers that they enjoy the product. Perhaps even more gratifying are independent reviews. These people have nothing invested in the product, and they usually have significant experience with similar components.

Recently, there have been two reviews of our Compass tires.


“These Tires Expand Your Riding Universe” declared Fred Matheny at after riding the 700C x 38 mm Barlow Pass Extralight tires. From somebody as experienced as him – he has been testing bikes for decades – it was particularly satisfying to read:

“The puffy tires rolled at my usual speed on pavement and handled the unpaved surfaces with plenty of traction in loose corners and surprising comfort even on washboard.”

You can read the full review here.


Mark Chandler at the Gravelbike blog tested both the Stampede Pass and Barlow Pass tires. He wrote:

“As good as the standard Stampede Pass versions are, the extralights are in a completely different league. Plush doesn’t even begin to describe how the extralights ride. The extralight Compass tires practically floated over chipseal roads and broken pavement.”

The full review is here.

Developing new tires takes a large amount of time, effort and money. It’s satisfying that riders and reviewers enjoy them as much as we do. Because that is why we made them in the first place: So we and others could enjoy riding our bikes even more!


Posted in Tires | 38 Comments

Fun with Compass Brake Parts: Twin-Blade Skates


My daughter’s science project this year was an interesting one. She had seen a photo of a scooter with two front wheels.


She wondered whether she could make an ice skate with two blades. Would it offer better grip in corners than a single-blade skate? There was only one way to find out…


There already are twin-blade ice skates, but they have limitations (kind of like training wheels on a bike): the blades don’t pivot, so the skater cannot lean into turns. My daughter wanted to make a twin-blade skate that can lean into turns. “Can we do it?” she asked. That is not such a far-fetched question in a household where metalworking and prototyping are a part of everyday life…


In her project proposal, she listed under resources “fully equipped machine shop” and “welding equipment”, as well as “9 centerpull brake pivots” and “metal bars”. Not to forget an extra ice skate and an extra pair of ice skate blades.

We talked about how to keep the blades parallel, and decided that on the rear, only a single link was needed to keep the blades spaced correctly, since the two links on the front already kept them parallel.


And then we headed to Hahn’s machine shop. She got to work with files, and watched how angle grinders and milling machines work. She donned a dark mask as Hahn welded the pivots onto the blades.

As so often with these projects, they take longer than planned, and the work is too hard or too dangerous for children, so parents tend to do a lot of it. But in the end, she was glad to have a working twin-blade leaning ice skate.


She developed the protocol of testing it all by herself, with no adult input at all. She found that the twin-blade skate does feel more stable when skating one-legged (probably due to the friction in the pivots), but it’s harder to come out of turns and get the skate upright again (probably for the same reason). The main issue is weight – the extra blades make the skate very heavy. It was an interesting exercise for all involved, but like many prototypes, it’s probably going to remain a one-off.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to Hahn Rossman for the use of his machine shop for making the skate.

Posted in Testing and Tech | 17 Comments

Climbing Passes near Kyoto, Japan


I am back in Japan to discuss our new tires with Panaracer, talk to other suppliers, ride bikes, visit friends, enjoy great food… It is delightful to return to places that are starting to become familiar.


My Rinko bike that we call the “Mule” is back in Japan – now actually finished and painted, unlike last time, when I had completed building it just hours before the plane left, with no time to have it painted.


I had a great view of Mt. Fuji from the train. The Shinkansen bullet train is fast! In the time it took the camera shutter to move from top to bottom of the photo, the railings in the foreground already had moved backward!


I had planned to work on the Summer 2015 Bicycle Quarterly on the train, but by the time I was done with breakfast, we were almost in Kyoto.


It was nice to see my good friends at I’s Bicycles (who also were going to take my suitcase to Miyama, where I am staying for a few days.) I un-Rinko’ed my bike, and headed into the mountains for the 80 km (50-mile) ride to Miyama. The road starts climbing right in front of I’s Bicycles shop. I have more than 1600 m (5500 ft) to climb before I get to Miyama. Click here for the route.

The cherry trees are in full bloom in Kyoto and amazingly beautiful. I apologize for the poor cell phone photos – I left my camera in my suitcase, not planning to take any photos on this ride with its tight schedule. The scenery turned out too beautiful to resist…


I soon reached Kurama with its beautiful temple. I didn’t have much time – dinner in Miyama was in 4 hours, and even though that seems like ample time for 80 km, once I had bought food and made it through Kyoto’s rush-hour traffic, my schedule was getting tight. But I couldn’t pass the temple without at least a brief visit. Above is just one of the many temple buildings that dot the entire slope of Mount Kurama.

Past Kurama, the road starts climbing in earnest, with hairpin following upon hairpin, until it reaches Hanase Pass at 750 m (2500 ft elevation). It was raining, but after all that climbing – Kyoto is almost at sea level – I wasn’t cold.

The descent was exciting and a good place to bed in my new brake pads, since I couldn’t just let the bike roll at speed in the dense fog.


A brief interlude in a bucolic valley was followed by the ascent to Sasari Pass. This is an absolute gem with a beautiful flow to it. The sign at the bottom says “10%”, but it’s not as steep as the Hanase pass (which obviously must be steeper than 10%). When I crested, it was dark.

Unlike the first time, when we underestimated the severity of the weather in the mountains, I was prepared this time. It was still warm enough that I didn’t need my puffy vest, but I put on my jacket and wool gloves for the descent.


At the first hairpin of the downhill, I encountered snow! To think that just down in the valley, the cherry trees are in full bloom! The descent, despite the rain and fog, was great fun. I remembered the road, having ridden this descent twice almost a year ago. I only held back a bit because I was afraid of hitting deer. I did encounter a few white-tailed creatures, but they scampered up the impossibly steep slopes as I approached.

Once I reached the valley, it was a time trial, with a slight downward gradient, but also a headwind, for an hour to reach my destination. A last brief climb over the “Exciting Team Risk Pass”, and I was in Miyama – just in time for a delicious dinner. And the hot bath afterward felt especially good!




Posted in Rides | 20 Comments

Berthoud Bags: Straps for Elastic-Loop Closure Models



Berthoud handlebar bags are wonderful, and we’ve been selling them for years now. I even wrote once that they were “unimprovable”. It turns out that they can be improved after all!

The model most riders prefer is the “standard” version, which uses elastic loops to close the pocket flaps. The “luxury” version uses leather straps and buckles, which sounds nice until you try to open them one-handed while riding, or with cold hands while stopped – it’s fiddly and can be frustrating. However, the “luxury” version also has rings and a removable shoulder strap, so you can more conveniently carry your bag. In the photo above, you see me with my bag wedged under my arm, while Natsuko Hirose carries hers comfortably slung over her shoulder.

After experiencing the difference first-hand, I asked Gilles Berthoud whether he could make the “standard” elastic-loop bags with shoulder straps for us. He agreed, and we now have them in stock. Since it’s a custom model, there is a small upcharge. We continue to carry the standard version as well. The photo below shows the loops, but not the strap –  a webbing strap is included with this model.


Berthoud handlebar bags are available in three sizes, depending on how much room you have between your stem/decaleur and your front rack. Taller riders get bigger bags – which makes sense, since their spare clothes take up more space, and they tend to eat more food! (All the handlebar bags we sell must be supported by a front rack. They can’t just dangle from the handlebars, where they are high and floppy, to the detriment of your bike’s handling.)


We also asked Berthoud to combine the strap loops with our “no side pocket” special model (above). Having the side pockets removed saves weight, makes the bag more aerodynamic, and gives more room for your hands on the bars, which is especially useful if you like narrow handlebars. The first shipment included only the largest “GB28” model with loops. The other models will follow at a later date.

My handlebar bags are far from worn out – even though I bought my first one 15 years ago – but I might just get another one for those trips when I take my bag along while visiting museums, or travel by train Rinko-style.

Photo credit: Hitoshi Omae (cover photo)

Posted in Racks/Bags | 26 Comments

The Enduro Allroad Bike


Last year’s Oregon Outback was a great test for the ultimate gravel bike. The course consisted of 1/3 rough and soft gravel, 1/3 smooth gravel and 1/3 pavement. The situation is similar to our favorite local rides: We leave from our backdoor on pavement and ride up to the mountains, where we explore gravel passes far off the beaten path.

What is the ideal bike for this type of riding? We approached the subject by evaluating the real-world performance of different bikes, without regard to tradition and established practice. As we reported in more detail in the Spring 2015 Bicycle Quarterly, we found:

  • Road bikes are faster than other categories (mountain bikes, fat bikes, etc.).
  • The widest tires that can fit between the chainstays of a road bike measure about 52-54 mm. Any wider, and you have to use mountain bike cranks with wider tread/Q factor.
  • Using 26″ rims keeps the outer diameter of the wheel similar to a 42 mm-wide 650B wheel. This makes it possible to use short chainstays, and it also maintains the nimble handling we enjoy in our bikes.
  • Our testing has shown that the small differences in wheel size between 26″, 650B and 29″/700C don’t affect how well a tire rolls over moderately bumpy terrain.

With one question remaining:

  • We’ve already seen that supple casings are faster and more comfortable, but what happens if we make a supple tire that is 50+ mm wide? Nobody had ridden supple tires that wide on the road, simply because no such tires have been available.


There was only one way to find out: Make some prototype tires! Thanks to our cooperative effort with Panaracer (who made a few sets of knobbies with the Compass Extralight casing) and Peter Weigle (who then shaved off the knobs), we were able to get prototype tires with the extra-supple casings, but in a 26″ x 2.3″ size (above). Then we went out to test them, using Alex Wetmore’s “Travel Gifford”, a road bike that is designed for wide 26″ tires (below).


What did we find out? Off-pavement, the wider tires are absolutely amazing. Perhaps that is not surprising, since the tires hold 70% more air than a 650B x 42 mm tire! On these 51 mm-wide prototype tires, the bike simply floats over rough gravel, yet the sensations are those of riding a road bike on pavement. With the low tire pressure and supple casing, traction is amazing. Sprinting up hills out of the saddle is easy, where bikes with narrower tires simply spin their rear wheel. Now I understand why many professional mountain bike racers ride on FMB or Dugast tubulars.


The biggest question for us was how the new tires would perform on the road. After all, tires are big air springs, and the more supple the casing, the less damping you get. Would the bike bounce down the road like a basketball?

We are glad to report that this isn’t the case. If the tire pressure is too high, the bike gets a little unsettled on undulating pavement. The window between “too high” and “too low” pressure is smaller than on narrower tires. In that sweet spot, the bike rides and corners like a road bike, except with much, much more grip on dry roads. The contact patch is huge, and more rubber on the road results in more traction. The lower tire pressure means the wheel doesn’t skip over surface irregularities, so it never loses traction. It’s amazing how far you can lean over on these tires without even getting close to the limits of tire adhesion. (That is why racecars have extremely wide tires.)

What about rolling resistance? We have not done any carefully controlled tests yet, but our on-the-road experience indicates that it’s no higher than narrower tires. Whoever rode the Enduro Allroad Bike during our testing easily kept up with the rest of the group.

So what are the drawbacks? Well, there are a few:

  • You can use these tires on most mountain bike frames, but if you want to use “road” cranks with narrow tread (Q factor), your frame needs to be carefully designed and built to fit the ultra-wide tires.
  • Fenders will not be able to wrap around the tire as they do on bikes with narrower tires, since you cannot make the fenders much wider than 60 mm while keeping a “road” chainline. (The chain would hit the fender in the smaller gears.) The solution probably is to use a 60 mm-wide fender with a shallow profile and mount it a little higher above the tire.
  • As noted earlier, the tire pressure needs to be maintained more carefully.
  • Since the tires are so soft, the bike tends to get deflected by longitudinal depressions in the pavement a little more than bikes with narrower tires.
  • It appears that the bike is more likely to shimmy with tires that wide.

For bikes that see mostly pavement use, with only occasional forays onto gravel, 650B x 42 mm tires will remain my preferred option. But I know I’ll add an Enduro Allroad Bike to my stable for those rides where we spend significant time on gravel.


What about the name “Enduro Allroad Bike”? We wanted to emphasize that it’s a road bike, not a mountain bike. Yet it’s not limited by its narrow tires like a typical road bike. We already use “Allroad” for our 650B bikes. To emphasize the “go-anywhere” capabilities, we added “Enduro”. A road bike that can go on any road and beyond…

For those of us who would prefer to float over gravel rather than “grind” through it, the Enduro Allroad Bike is an exciting new development. Compass Bicycles will offer the Rat Trap Pass, a 26″ x 2.3″ (54 mm) tire specifically designed for this type of bike. Rawland is working on their Ravn, the first production Enduro Allroad Bike that is designed around this tire. MAP also is considering making a small production run of Enduro Allroad Bikes. Of course, custom builders can make them, too. And other companies will probably offer them as well, since they make so much sense and are so much fun to ride.

If you want to try supple, ultra-wide tires but still prefer to stick with 650B wheels that you may already have, Compass will offer the Switchback Hill, a 650B x 48 mm tire. There are many 650B bikes that can fit a tire that wide, and you’ll get 30% more air volume than a 42 mm tire offers. Both new tires will be available this summer.

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 74 Comments

Compass Introduces Solid Rubber Tires


Flats are a major nuisance for cyclists. Nobody likes them, and various companies have tried to address the issue by adding puncture-proof layers to their tires. However, all these tires don’t address the issue at its core: They still contain air.

We’ve been studying bicycle history in search of ideas that may have enough merit to be resurrected. In our research, we came upon a solution for the problem of flat tires: Eliminate the air, and you have eliminated the punctures. Solid rubber tires used to be common before pneumatic tires were invented. It turns out that the air-filled tires are a blind alley of history. We’ve been misled to believe that they are faster, more comfortable and more fun to ride, when in fact all they do is prevent us from riding while we fix flats. It’s time to cut our losses and resurrect a classic, fail-proof technology.

Compass proudly announces a new line of 100% puncture-proof tires. The first one is the Compass Lark Pass 650B x 42 mm. Why start with a wide tire? Simple: You get much more wear out of it. This is probably the last set of tires you’ll ever buy! Since there is no air inside, you can wear them down to the rim!


Like all Compass tires, the new Lark Pass has a very round profile for optimized cornering. As it wears, its profile will square off, so we’ve worked with Peter Weigle to commercialize his tire shaving machine. Shaving the shoulders of the tire restores its round profile. After riding your solid 42 mm tires for 10,000 miles, you go to a shop to have them shaved down to a 40 mm. Another 10,000 miles, and you go to 38 mm. And so on.


This is especially useful since the trend toward wider tires probably has run its course. Over the next few decades, experts predict that tires will become narrower again. Rather than having to buy new tires every time cycling fashion changes, the new Compass Lark Pass tires will get narrower as you ride them. If you ride 6000 miles a year, your Lark Pass will be just 19 mm wide in 2050. As they wear, they get lighter, too, which is an added benefit as we all age and our performance decreases. At the same time, your bike handling skills get better with experience, so you’ll appreciate the quicker handling of the smaller, lighter tires.

We are so confident in our new tires that we back them with a lifetime warranty – a first in the tire industry. We feel that by taking inspiration from cycling’s long and rich history, we’ve finally cracked the problem that has bedeviled cyclists for more than a century: Flats and tire wear.

The new tires will be available on April 1.

Photo credits: Peter Weigle (tire shaving), Mark Vande Kamp (cornering)


Posted in Uncategorized | 56 Comments