Riding the First Recumbent

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Bicycle Quarterly hasn’t really covered recumbents much. It’s not that we aren’t interested, it just seems difficult to do such totally different machines justice. And yet recumbents are a perfect fit with Bicycle Quarterly‘s research into the history of cyclotouring. During the mid-1930s, recumbents were quite popular among French cyclotourists.

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Many saw them as the bikes of the future. While the racing world outlawed recumbents soon after Francis Faure set an hour record on a recumbent in 1933, cyclotourists and randonneurs couldn’t have cared less about what the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) thought: That recumbents weren’t “real” bicycles.

Recumbents appealed to “real-world” riders because they seemed to offer speed and comfort, in addition to novelty. Quite a few companies offered them: Mochet, Ravat, Vélostable… They even participated in the 1930s Technical Trials, where they were given their own category, because they couldn’t compete on weight with upright bicycles. Randonneurs in Paris-Brest-Paris were allowed to ride them, too. And for a while, recumbents received a lot of positive press.

But then they faded away. By the late 1930s, almost half of the “for sale” ads in magazines like Le Cycliste listed recumbents. I’ve often wondered: What happened?

The literature is silent on this issue – they just stopped talking about recumbents. Most riders who rode recumbents back then unfortunately no longer are with us. The best way to understand 1930s recumbents today is to ride one.

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Imagine my excitement when Christophe Courbou, the organizer of the French Technical Trials, showed me his latest find: a mid-1930s Mochet Vélo-Vélocar. Mochet was the brand that started the recumbent craze of the 1930s. His machine was ridden to that infamous hour record.

Georges Mochet first developed a four-wheeled, pedal-powered car, the Vélocar. This became quite popular – people even rode across the country in them. Then Mochet had the idea of cutting the car in half, and making a bicycle out of it. Hence the strange name: Vélo-Vélocar. (It’s the bike version of the Bike Car.)

“Can I ride it?” was my immediate question. Classic bikes fascinate me, but I am not a collector. I want to ride them: How do they work? What are their strenghts and weak points? What can we learn from them. Could this be another forgotten gem like the 650B randonneur bikes that we discovered in the dusty annals of history?

mochet_side

Fortunately, Christophe’s Mochet remains in perfect condition. It clearly hasn’t been ridden a lot. Unfortunately for me, I am too tall for the bike. The size can be adjusted, but this requires a lot of work, including lengthening the chain. After the Technical Trials, there simply wasn’t enough time for this.

So I tried to ride the Mochet as is. I had to splay my legs to clear the handlebars. And I found I couldn’t keep the bike upright.

Perhaps I was too tired from riding that day’s gravel stage of the Technical Trials. Having to keep my knees from hitting the handlebars (which immediately turned them sharply) didn’t help. I am glad nobody photographed my attempts: They were too busy catching me as I kept falling over!

mochet_turning

Christophe has more practice, and he managed to ride the Mochet impressively well. But even he wasn’t keen on heading into the surrounding hills to try the Mochet on steep ups and downs.

The problem seems to stem from the universal joint in the steering. It’s beautifully made, just like the rest of the bike, and it turns very smoothly. But the handlebars only have an indirect connection to the front wheel.

On an “upright” bicycle, you simply look where you want to go, and the bike follows. On the Mochet and similar 1930s recumbents, you have to think about where you turn the handlebars and how far. That active thought process made it so difficult for me to ride the Mochet. It apparently takes a while to become intuitive. I can’t imagine that you’ll ever get the same feedback about what your contact patches are doing as you do on a “regular” bike.

Christophe also reports that sitting on the Mochet isn’t very comfortable – recumbent seats have come a long way since 1933. When you consider how highly evolved the best French cyclotouring bikes already were in the 1930s, it’s no wonder the recumbents didn’t really catch on. They clearly needed more development before they’d become viable alternatives to “upright” bikes.

mochet_going

So we now know that it wasn’t the UCI banning recumbents that caused their fall from popularity. The machines simply didn’t work well enough. The riders who bought them, often sold them after the novelty had worn off.

And yet – I want to try one for a longer ride. The old photo of the touring countryside is just too evocative. Christophe has promised that the next time I visit, we’ll fit the Mochet to my taller body, and then I can have a go. I can’t wait!

Further reading:

Posted in A Journey of Discovery, Testing and Tech | 41 Comments

New Compass Tires: Naches and Snoqualmie Pass

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Compass Cycles is introducing two new models to its tire line. We’ve had many requests for 700C and 26″ versions of our iconic 650B Babyshoe Pass tires. Here they are!

We’ve added 2 mm to the width, because we found that 44 mm-wide tires will fit most bikes designed for wide 700C and 26″ tires. As with all our tires, we named them after the places that inspired them.

snoqualmie_pass

Most cyclists cross Snoqualmie Pass on the “Iron Horse Trail” that uses an old railroad right-of-way. Back in the day, the Milwaukee Railroad’s Olympian Hiawatha raced across the Cascades here. Today, it’s a trail that is covered with loose gravel in places. High-volume tires are key to an enjoyable ride here. Traversing the 2.3-mile tunnel right on the pass is an exciting part of the adventure.

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The original Hiawatha trains were the fastest in the world – their streamlined locomotives were easily capable of 124 mph (200 km/h).* As befits a train named after an Indian legend “so fleet of foot” that he could outrun an arrow shot from his own bow. It’s nice to think of our tires in these terms: They are among the fastest in the world.

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Our tires are not just “fleet of foot”, but also intended for some pretty rough “roads”. Naches Pass is one of the “secret passes” that cross the Cascades. The new Compass Naches Pass tires measure 26″ x 1.8″ (44 – 559 mm), making them perfect for many touring bikes with 26″ tires. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to chart an alternative cross-country route using only little-known byways, starting with Naches Pass. I am tempted…

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The Naches Pass also is a great tire for small bikes, where 650B wheels make it difficult to avoid toe overlap and other design compromises. The nice thing is that you all the parts designed for 650B bikes fit 26″ tires as well: Compass centerpull brakes and rack, fork crown, etc. It’s a great way to go on a smaller frame.

The new tires are tubeless-compatabile. As with most of our tires, they come in several versions:

  • Standard casing: a supple casing that offers excellent durability and cut resistance. Available with tan sidewalls.
  • Extralight casing: an extra-supple casing usually reserved for hand-made tubulars. Compass Extralight tires offer the ultimate in performance and shock absorption. Available with tan or black sidewalls.

Click here for more information about Compass tires.

* Note: The Olympian Hiawatha apparently did not use the streamlined locomotives, and it certainly never reached 200 km/h. Those speeds were achieved on flatter routes in the Midwest.

Posted in Tires | 53 Comments

Transcontinental Race on Compass Tires

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Congratulations to Andreas Behrens of LaFraise Cycles for completing the amazing Transcontinental Race. Riding unsupported for almost 2,400 miles (3900 km) over a course that traversed all of Europe, Andreas completed the non-stop race in 15 days and 12 hours.

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The course traversed the highest mountain ranges of Europe – above the view from the Grimsel Pass to the Furka Pass in Switzerland. All in all, Andreas climbed more than 40,000 m (130,000 ft).

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Andreas builds bikes himself. The one he rode in the Transcontinental Race was equipped with Compass Loup Loup Pass Extralight 650B x 38 mm tires. After the finish, he sent us photos of his tires:

front_tire

Even after 4000 km, the front tire still has plenty of life left.

rear_tire

The rear tire is a bit more worn. The wear is almost entirely in the center of the tread – an indication that Andreas is running slightly higher tire pressures than we’d recommend. He might be more comfortable and even faster if he let out a tiny bit of air.

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When he dipped his wheels into the Dardanelles at the finish in Turkey, he hadn’t suffered a single flat tire!

Andreas isn’t a sponsored rider – he bought the tires with his own money. I asked him why he chose Compass tires. His response:

“I have a few bikes with wider tires, between 32 and 42 mm. From experience, I knew that on these bikes, I wasn’t any slower than other riders on their racing bikes. In the past, the tires from Panaracer and Grand Bois always felt a bit stiff. When I visited JP  at 2-11 Cycles [Compass’ French importer], I had the opportunity to test the Compass tires. I liked the ride very much and decided to use the 38 mm version on my bike for the Transcontinental Race.

“Of course, it also was a test to see whether the Compass tires would survive the race. I only recommend products to my customers that I use myself. My experience confirms your testing: the tires reduce vibrations and fatigue. Of course, it wasn’t only the tires: The steel frame, custom geometry, comfortable saddle and ergonomic handlebars helped me finish the race without soreness or injury. No saddle problems, no numb hands, even though I mostly rode without gloves. I credit the comfort of the bike.”

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Riding from Belgium to Turkey, all the way across Europe, without any major aches and pains – that is truly inspirational. Congratulations!

Click here for information on Andreas’ bikes: LaFraise Cycles.

Photo credits: Andreas Behrens (LaFraise Cycles).

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 24 Comments

I Bought a Titanium Bike!

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The Firefly we tested for the Summer Bicycle Quarterly is one of a new breed – an Enduro Allroad Bike with tires much wider than we usually ride. Our usual routes in the Cascades didn’t seem enough of a challenge for this machine and its 54 mm tires, so we took it on a challenging ride across the Paso de Cortés in Mexico, reaching elevations of 4000 m (13,120 ft) –  almost as high as the summit of our own Mount Rainier.

Taking a test bike on a big trip like that always carries some risk. With our own bikes, we know how they perform. We know that they will totally reliable. With test bikes, there can be surprises…

The Firefly did not disappoint. Its titanium frame climbed well on the rough gravel road to the pass. The big tires floated over the very loose surfaces of our side trip up Iztacchihuatl volcano (photo above), where we would have been walking on our usual bikes.

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During the sinuous descent into the “Valley of Mexico”, the bike surprised with its incredible cornering grip (above). And during our night-time dash into Mexico City, I enjoyed the scintillating performance offered by truly great bikes, whether they are made from steel, carbon, titanium or aluminum.

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After that memorable adventure, I rode the Firefly in many different settings. I used it for interval training on the big avenidas of Mexico City.

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I took it to the limit on the loose gravel descents of the Cascade Range. We even tested its performance against the clock to see how much it gives up on pavement due to its ultra-wide tires. (The report is in the new issue of Bicycle Quarterly.)

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It came with me to Japan, where it went on a cyclotouring trip that included a visit to the Panaracer factory.

firefly_studio

In Tokyo, the bike drew an admiring comment from a pedestrian. Considering how reserved the Japanese usually are, that was high praise. I agreed with the stranger – I really like the way it looks. The proportions seem “just right”; the logos are tasteful; the craftsmanship is superb; the custom titanium stem and seatpost add a “constructeur” touch. It’s a beautiful bike.

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When the time came to send our test bike back to Firefly, I realized how much I would miss it. I don’t have my own Enduro Allroad bike with 50+mm-wide tires yet. More than that, I really like riding this bike. It’s not the first test bike I’ve been reluctant to return, but this one that fills a need in my “stable” that currently isn’t met.

Kevin from Firefly proposed a price, taking into consideration that the bike now is “used”, and that is how I now own my first titanium bike. It’s also my first bike with Campagnolo Ergopower and with disc brakes. I am quite excited about it.

ergopower

Most of my bikes use classic components that require almost zero maintenance. How will a modern 11-speed drivetrain fare on the challenging rides we enjoy? How will the disc brakes work out in the long run? And does titanium offer something that my steel bikes can’t match? We’ll find out soon!

I’ve already started to modify the bike. The White Industries bottom bracket was running roughly after just a few hundred miles, so it has been replaced with an SKF bottom bracket. I installed Compass René Herse cranks to save more than 100 grams and get the 48-32 chainrings that I want to use on the Firefly. I’ve set up the Compass Rat Trap Pass tires tubeless. But most of all, I’ve ridden the bike a lot. And now that it’s mine to keep, you’ll see more of it here and in the pages of Bicycle Quarterly.

Further reading:

Posted in Testing and Tech | 45 Comments

Steilacoom: Our First Cyclocross Tire

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It’s no secret that we love cyclocross. It was only a matter of time until Compass Cycles would introduce a ‘cross tire. Like all our products, the new Steilacoom fills a need that currently isn’t being met: a supple, wide ‘cross clincher that is tubeless-ready and that approaches the ride and performance of my beloved FMB “Super Mud” tubulars.

The Steilacoom is named after an iconic ‘cross course near Seattle. It’s where I won my first cyclocross race on a course that (back then) featured a daunting descent and a brutal run-up. What makes the new Compass tire special is its width: 38 mm is wider than most ‘cross tires.

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Some will argue that the UCI limits ‘cross tires to 33 mm. True, but most of us don’t race in UCI-sanctioned categories. In the U.S., this rule appears to apply only to the national championships. If you are competing at that level, you probably already have a bunch of FMB or Dugast tubulars and expensive wheels to glue them onto. For the rest of us, the UCI rule is irrelevant, yet most ‘cross tires are limited to a maximum width of 33 mm. If you ride clinchers, this is less than optimal.

To provide the same traction and comfort, a clincher needs to be about 10-15% wider than an equivalent tubular. Scaling up a 33 mm tubular gets you a 38 mm clincher. This tire still fits into most current cyclocross frames – no need to go “moster-cross” to fit the new Steilacoom tires.

The Steilacoom ‘cross tires are available with our Extralight casing that usually is used for handmade tubulars. It’s one of the best, fastest-rolling casings anywhere. For those on a budget or with a propensity to cut their tire sidewalls, we also offer them with the “standard” casing that still offers superb performance. The Steilacoom tires are tubeless-compatible – that is, they are designed to be used with tubeless rims and sealant. Of course, you also can set them up with tubes.

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What about the tread pattern? It’s based on more than 20 years of experience racing cyclocross. The 1996 newspaper article above shows me at the very first collegiate cyclocross nationals ever held in the U.S., with my Alan – the bike I still race today.

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Back then, cyclocross tires were quite simple: The best ones used a tread pattern that consisted of round knobs. Key was to have them spaced widely enough so that they didn’t clog up with mud. Traction was great – I just wish they had been wider than the 25 mm or so that they measured. (It’s incredible that back then, we raced ‘cross on tires as wide as those that the pros use today on the smooth roads of the Tour de France!)

When I discussed tread patterns with the engineers from Panaracer, their opinion was succinct: “With knob shapes, it’s mostly about fashion.” I thought about that and realized that the old round knobs made a lot of sense: You don’t want the tread to clog up with mud, so the fewer edges you have, the harder it is for the mud to stick to the tire. A round knob has the smallest surface area for mud to stick.

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Panaracer’s engineers cautioned that round knobs might slide through the mud too easily. A straight edge provides more traction. That is why our knobs are square, with rounded corners. That way, the knobs present straight edges for the forces of pedaling and braking (front/back), as well as cornering (right/left). It’s logical.

What matters more than the knob shape is their size and especially their pattern on the tire. We placed the knobs so that there are a few more in the center. The square knobs are harder to deform than thinner, irregular shaped ones. This reduces the squirm on hard surfaces. The knobs are placed so that the transition from the center tread to the shoulders is smooth and gradual. The slightly larger shoulder knobs resist squirm during hard cornering. That way, the tire rolls smoother and corners better on hard-packed dirt and pavement. The first rides by cyclocross racers have confirmed this: On pavement, the Steilacoom exhibits none of the sudden breakaway that you get with most other knobbies. Some riders will want to use these tires for mixed-surface rides where they expect significant mud – or for a ‘cross race on a dry course.

Even thought the Steilacoom rolls OK and corners fine on pavement, it is not intended as a road tire. Efforts to make a knobby that rolls really well on the road are futile. To achieve that, you need to space the knobs so closely that they are useless in mud – they just pack up. And yet the knobs still squirm when you ride on pavement. You end up with a tire that doesn’t ride all that well on the road, while offering poor traction in mud – the worst of both worlds.

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We’ve been testing the new tires, and so far, they have met our expectations. The ride is as great as you’d expect from our supple casings, and the knob pattern delivers on its promises. I can’t wait to race on them. I have a (slightly) more modern Alan with clearance for tires this wide. Now I just have to build it up with a set of tubeless rims!

Click here for more information about the new Steilacoom tires.

Photo credits: Heidi Franz (top); Wade Schultz (second from bottom), Leander Vandefen (bottom).

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 37 Comments

Minimum Tire Pressure

Hahn_Paso

Over the last few years, the idea that higher pressures don’t make your bike faster finally has become accepted. Many cyclists now run lower pressures to improve comfort and traction, without giving up anything in speed.

On gravel, lower pressures actually make you faster, since the bike bounces less. On soft gravel, like we encountered during our ride across the Paso de Cortés in Mexico (above), lower pressures (and wider tires) allow you to float on top of the surface, rather than sink in. Again, that makes you faster and more secure.

So lower pressure is better in many cases, but how low can you go?

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Here is a detail from the photo of Hahn on the Paso de Cortés. You can see how long that contact patch is – there is a lot of tire on the ground, which spreads the rider’s weight over a larger surface area.

Yet the pressure is not too low. The tire still holds its shape: Seen from the side, the tire sidewalls form a nice circle. That is the reason why it still rolls as fast as it did at higher pressures: The flex in the tire is limited to a relatively small area.

Only when viewed from above, can you see the contact patch bulge outward – but even that should not be excessive.

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What happens if your tire pressure is too low?

  1. The tire can collapse when cornering. During our Mexican adventure, we pumped up our tires when we reached pavement, so we could tackle the fast and twisty descent with confidence (above). Even on gravel, a tire can collapse under the forces of cornering, if it’s not inflated high enough.
  2. You can pinch-flat, if the tire bottoms out, and the tube gets crushed between rim and road surface.

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3. The tire can get damaged. When the tire gets kneaded too much with each revolution, it’s not only slower. (Yes, lower pressures do get slower at some point.) It also puts very high stresses on individual threads of the casing, which then can break. The tire needs a certain pressure to hold its shape and distribute the stresses uniformly over all the threads in the casing.

In the photo above, you can see a cross-hatched pattern where the casing threads have broken. This tire was tested by a magazine, and they rode these 35 mm tires at extremly low presssures of just 35 psi (2.4 bar).

The tire probably is still fine to ride, but if you try to run it tubeless, air (and sealant) will seep out of the tiny holes caused by the broken threads. (The sealant colored the sidewall where it leaked.) If you see a single zigzagging line in the tire sidewall where one thread has broken, increase your air pressure slightly to prevent further damage.

What is the minimum pressure that is OK to ride?
This depends on many factors, including:

  • Rider weight. Obviously, heavier riders need to run higher pressures to prevent the tires from collapsing.
  • Surface grip: The more grip you have, the higher are the forces generated during cornering. To withstand those forces, your tire needs to be inflated harder.
  • Tire construction: A stiff tire is held up by its sidewalls as much as by the air pressure inside. A supple tire’s sidewalls do little to support the bike’s weight, so you need higher pressure. Thanks to the supple sidewalls, this tire still is more comfortable and faster, even at the higher pressure.
  • Riding style: A rider who has a round spin can run lower pressures. If your bike starts to bob up and down with each pedal stroke, your tire pressure is too low. Fast riders need to run slightly higher pressures, since they hit obstacles with more force. And riders who corner on the limit need higher pressures to prevent the tire sidewalls from collapsing.

I polled the riders on the Bicycle Quarterly team about the tire pressures they ride. I was surprised how consistent they are. Some riders are a bit heavier and use a bit more air, so we equalized the values for weight of 82 kg / 180 lb.

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Or if you prefer metric values:

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Of course, we’ll adjust these values if needed, for example, on rough gravel, we increase the pressure to prevent pinch flats… And remember that different pressure gauges can vary by up to 15%, so your 45 psi may be quite different from our 45 psi! Still, this provides a starting point for thinking about the right tire pressure.

For the majority of riders today, the advice “When in doubt, let out some air!” still holds true, but as we lower our tire pressures, we need to be aware that too little air also can cause problems.

Further reading:

Photo credit: Cyclocross magazine (damaged casing)

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 39 Comments

Panel Discussion: The Wide Tire Revolution

cyclingtips

“Buy the nicest, most supple tires you can afford; and buy them in the widest width that you can fit in your frame.”

That is Joshua Poertner’s summary of a panel discussion on Cyclingtips.com. Joshua used to be the president of Zipp, the makers of super-fast aero wheels, and he did a lot of research on how to make your bike faster.

The panel included Joshua, cycling journalist James Huang, and me, with Elden Nelson (who runs the blog “The Fat Cyclist”) moderating. The goal was to explain the science behind the current trend toward wider tires to an audience of racers and performance riders, who want to understand how to make their bikes faster.

In the podcast, we talk about why narrow tires feel faster, but aren’t. We discuss how lower pressures increase the internal resistance as the tire flexes, but decrease the suspension losses from the vibrations of the bike – the two effects cancel each other, hence your speed doesn’t change.

We also talk about the history of this research. I was amazed to find out that Zipp had been doing similar research to our own. They were trying to optimize tire pressures for the professional racers they sponsored. During their testing on rough surfaces like the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, lowering tire pressure made their racers faster – until their wheels broke. The next step was to go to wider tires, so the wheels could survive… And then they found that even on smooth roads, lower pressures and wider tires were faster. They considered these findings “trade secrets”, and yet the other teams just had to read Bicycle Quarterly to get the same information. And eventually they did…

To me, Joshua’s conclusion really is remarkable: “Buy the most supple and widest tire you can fit in your frame.” His words could just as well have been mine. To have the guy who designed wheels for Zipp say this… It shows that the wide tire revolution has reached cycling’s mainstream.

Click here to listen to the entire podcast.

cyclingtips

Posted in Testing and Tech, Tires | 29 Comments