Under the heavy spell of Jan Heine and his magazine Bicycle Quarterly, I decided to build myself a randonneuring bicycle with help from Dave Bohm in Arizona. The previous several posts described the framebuilding process with Dave. But I’ve yet to include any glamor shots of the bike built up, and more importantly because the World Wide Web is surely dying to know, I’ve yet to post my initial impressions of how the new bike rides. With about 400 miles on the bike so far, it’s time for a review, broken into the major categories that define this type of bike. But first off, a glamor shot:
One of the most important design considerations for this frame was to include adequate tire clearance for 650bx42mm tires. The idea that pumping up your 700x23mm tires to ludicrous pressures to decrease rolling resistance has been in large part debunked. On my last road bike I was enjoying the comfort and performace of 700x32mm tires, running them in the 50PSI range. But the lure of larger rubber was strong. So I decided to go whole hog and make room for the Compass Babyshoe Pass Extralight 650bx42mm tires.
I built some wheels with Pacenti’s PL23 rims and mounted the Babyshoes tubeless. The Babyshoes popped right into the rim hooks to create an airtight seal without sealant. Air only leaked out at the Stan’s tubeless valve. Mounting the tires “dry” let me know how hard the sealant would have to work. Because it was a nice, tight seal right off the bat, I was confident that the Babyshoes would work fine set up tubeless.
So is Jan Heine right? Do supple, wide tires offer the one-two punch of great comfort and performance? My response is, “Absolutely!” These wheels float over gravel and the roughest roads, which I expected. But what I didn’t think about was the amount of traction these puppies have when cornering. The large tires grip so well that I’m taking corners at much higher speeds with ease. Descending has always been a reward after a long climb. With these new tires, I’m worried that descending is getting too fun. I’m worried I’ll start asking to join in on my friends’ shuttle runs when they go mountain biking.
Another byproduct of Bicycle Quarterly’s influence is the resurgence of low-trail geometry for long distance riding. While about 99 percent of the bicycle industry uses trail figures of at least 57mm, Jan Heine has been promoting lower trail figures for years. The supposed benefit of higher trail is that bike handling becomes more stable as the bike goes faster; the bike has a tendancy to want to keep going straight. At slow speeds, a higher trail bike requires very little rider input to drift from a straight line. There is nothing wrong with these traits. But what if there are advantages to turning these traits on their heads?
A bicycle designed with lower trail feels more stable at slow speeds, say when climbing a steep hill. I definitely feel this effect. On some of the steeper climbs I’ve ridden, I don’t feel like I’m fighting my bike to go straight. I can just focus on churning the pedals. Consequently, at higher speeds, a low-trail bicycle becomes less stable. This sounds scary. Nobody wants their bicycle to feel less stable at high speed, right? Well, let’s think about it a different way. As you pick up speed on a descent, your low-trail bicycle is going to require less rider input to change course. It thus takes less effort to go from upright to leaned in. It also means you can more easily make minute changes mid-turn, for instance, to dodge that pothole you’re quickly approaching.
Combined with the wide tires, the ability to corner quicker and with more accuracy has dramatically boosted my descending confidence. My bicycle has a trail figure of around 40mm. I’ve read a few accounts from other low-trail afficianados that this trail figure seems to be the sweet spot for general purpose road riding. A lower number, say around 30mm, may be good for carrying larger loads up front, but may be a bit extreme for most. I can’t really say. But I do know that I love the way my bike handles.
The other aspect of low-trail that I should mention is the more pronounced fork blade offset. A typical road bike will have a 42mm-49mm offset. My fork blades go to about 63mm. The blades also get smaller than most near the dropouts. This combination is supposed to add a bit of shock absorption. But since I have no means of comparison, I don’t know how much extra cush the fork blades provide. It’d be interesting to make an identical fork with larger diameter blades as a test, but I don’t have that kind of motivation.
Standard Diameter Tubing
Steel tubing has advanced quite a bit in the last 40 years. To keep up with the demand for stiffness über alles, tube diameters have increased and compacty geometry has taken over. But some cyclists still cling to that certain feeling that comes from a bike made from standard diameter tubes. With help from some American framebuilders, Jan Heine, yes I’m mentioning him again, has test ridden many bikes with thin-walled standard diameter tubes. Heine claims that these bicycles flex for him in a certain way that the frame actually gets in sync with his pedal stroke. He’s termed this planing. This is a rather controversial topic among the bike nerds, with some believing in the theory and others dismissing it as pure fantasy.
The trouble with using thin-walled, standard diameter tubes is that combined with a low-trail geometry the bicycles have a history of becoming shimmy monsters. I experienced the dreaded shimmy when I owned a Rawland rSogn. At cruising speeds without touring loads on the front, if I took just one hand off the bars the bike would start convulsing. It was jarring enough that I sold the bike and swore off of low-trail bikes for several years.
But I decided to take a stab at it again with my new frame, hoping that by using a needle bearing headset, the silver bullet that kills the shimmy monster, I would have a stable ride. And so far I can report that I’ve yet to experience any shimmy at any speed.
But have my bicycle and I planed? Well, I’m not so sure. There have been times during some climbs where I felt a surge of strength and my bike felt lighter than normal. But I can’t quite say if that was because of some temporary physiological change or if I was truly one with my bike. Regardless, I do love the classic lines of a skinny, level top tube and a fist full of seatpost.
Instead of continuing to use my Shimano 9-speed downtube shifters and ragtag mix of drivetrain parts, I decided my new bike needed some fancy parts. I chose to go with the Campagnolo Athena 11-speed group, minus the brake calipers and crankset. Because the cassette spacing is so narrow, it’s taken longer than normal to really dial in the rear shifting. But I do appreciate the ability to shift conveniently from the hoods. I find I definitely shift more than when I was riding with downtube shifters. Whether that makes me faster or even safer is up for debate. If I didn’t work at a bike shop with my access to discounted bicycle parts, I probably would have stuck to the downtube shifter setup. But the Campy does add a bit of class.
Old School Braking
To accommodate the large tires on my new bike, I could have gone the modern route and set the frame and fork up for disc brakes. But I’ve never felt the need for additional stopping power on the road, and the disc braze-ons would’ve added too much complexity in the limited time I had to build the frame with Dave. Instead I took it old school and French and prepped the frame for some Mafac Raids. The Raids, according to Jan Heine, have excellent stopping power and modulation along with their ability to accommodate large volume tires. Heine’s company Compass Bicycles sells a modern clone of the Raids, but they were out of stock when I needed them, so I did some hunting on eBay and picked up some Raids instead. To complete the package, I also bought some compatible replacement brake pads from Kool Stop.
Cutting to the chase, this has been the most disappointing decision I’ve made so far. No matter how I set up the brakes, and no matter how hard I squeezed the levers, the pads produced a horrible squawk akin to the sound of a thousand yelping puppies. I couldn’t stand it. I was actually embarrased to ride the bike for fear of frightening children. Instead I decided to install some cheaper and probably far less grippier pads. The best I’ve managed is to reduce brake squeal to only hard braking at speed. This squeal is still a bummer when I’m trying to enjoy a ripping descent. I also don’t feel like these brakes offer more power or modulation than my cheap Tektro wide profile cantilevers on my old bike. Because there’s no way to quickly adjust the angle of the pads where they contact the rim, I’m hoping that with more use they’ll kind of settle in and shut up. At this point I wish I would have used the Paul Racers instead. They use modern hardware and have pads that I can easily adjust for toe in.
The only nice feature about these brakes is that there’s a front rack designed to work with them. The Compass front rack made by Nitto is tiny, lightweight, and shiny, a perfect perch for my Acorn handlebar bag.
So how does this new bicycle work as a whole? Does it live up to the mystical qualities championed by the BQ faithful?
In short, this bicycle has exceeded my expectations for how a bike should feel and handle. Cornering and descending are on a different level compared to any other road bike I’ve ridden. The bike is stable, comfortable, practical, and ready for a good time no matter the surface under its shoes. As someone who will probably never ride a randonneuring event, I now believe that the qualities that make this bike great for long distance riding also make it great for shorter day rides, for commuting, for a quick trip to get some groceries, for a lightweight tour, and for anything else you’d ever ask a road bike to do.
Heine has done an excellent job at redefining how a road bike should ride. I consider myself fully converted to the faith. Now the only thing left to do is choose a paint color.