But for randonneuring, it also has to be reliable, safe, comfortable, and all to its purpose. Jan Heine has spent some time unraveling the mysteries of equipment. He's also put forth some theories that mystify some. He certainly is relentless about equipment.
Anyone up for a twenty-first century version of the technical trials?
Here's Jan, editor of the Bicycle Quarterly, on equipment. If you're searching for Jan Heine Interview, Part 1: Personal & Social History, look here. For Part 3: Future of Randonneuring and Bicycling & Advice for Newbie Randonneurs go here.
Keep it simple yet elegant,
CurioRando: Your interest in design. Obviously you’ve got a background and some expertise in design and materials and the science of design, as well as the aesthetics of design and utility.
Jan Heine: Well, it’s simpler than that. When I started racing, the classic racing bicycle was very clearly defined. In the late 1980s, I went to a pro shop in Germany. The guy said well, here’s the Columbus SL frame Bianchi, here’s the Campy group on close-out and you’ll be happy with that. I asked about click shifting and he said, you don’t need that. And so I was riding this classic racing bike, which was replaced after an accident by yet another classic Columbus SL frame. This material has been used by generations of racers, and it worked very well for me. I never thought much about the bike – as a racer, you worry about your body more than your bike. It was only in the last decade, when I started testing bikes, that I found some worked better than others for me. My interest in the French bikes started with the design aspect – they just look lovely – but riding them made me realize that they work as well as they look. And I so got interested in figuring out the differences between bikes, between different geometries and different tubesets.
CR: You write about the technical trials and as I read that, it occurs to me that part of what made them successful was there were a lot of bike shops in a relatively small geographic area and a relatively large group of folks doing riding…
JH: Actually it was the other way around. Technical trials came first, and the small bike shops and builders came as a result. In 1920s France (and elsewhere in the world), bicycles were very much mass-produced. There were some very nice bicycles by the standards of the day, but nice usually meant lots of features, not better performance. On some bikes, you could adjust the length of the cranks or the width of the pedals, and all kinds of stuff. But the bikes were pretty heavy and more related to what you might call the English three-speed than a modern high-performance bicycle. Even the Tour de France bicycles were pretty heavy, crude machines, and they still broke with alarming frequency. When you look at how many Tour de Frances were decided because somebody broke their frame or fork, you realized that the bikes weren’t that sturdy and not that advanced. In front of that background, a group of riders banded together and said: "This needs to change." So they organized these technical trials to showcase what could be done. They had rules which gave bonus points for light weight and for features like certain geometries with shorter rear triangles, better brakes, racks. Then the bikes were ridden over very, very punishing courses and this allowed the small builders, of which there were a few emerging, to showcase their talents against the big makers. You know, the small builders couldn’t take out advertising in the popular magazines, they couldn’t sponsor a Tour de France team, but here all they needed was a really good bicycle, a decent rider and they could show what they could do. And that’s how the famous names like Alex Singer, Rene Herse, all of those guys, got their start: in the technical trials.
CR: That’s a better segue than I had in mind to my actual question which is do you have a “secret plan” to re-initiate the technical trials in the US?
JH: We were thinking about it, but it’s a very, very difficult thing to do, because the ideal technical trial would be the one where the best bike wins. However, taking the rider out of the equation is almost impossible. So in the end, a mediocre bike with the best rider would have a very good opportunity to win. In the 1930s, they basically drew up a blueprint for the bike they wanted. They had specifications that tires need to be 35 mm or wider, chainstays can’t be longer than 470 mm, etc. Basically, whoever conformed most closely to the blueprint would win, provided their bike held up to the demanding course and didn't break or develop problems. Back then, nobody argued too much about the blueprint or if they did, they stayed home, and we don’t know what they were thinking. However, I would not be comfortable prescribing the design. I am amazed by the vision of these original organizers of these technical trials. With all we have found out since, the rules of 1934 with the addition of a front rack would still make a great randonneur bike today. You don’t have to add or subtract a lot. Nowadays there are many more differing views accepted than in 1930s France, so it would be very difficult to get people on the same page, and have them accept a similar blueprint.
One thing we are doing today is testing bicycles for Bicycle Quarterly. We are riding them on the same courses with the same riders, and compare them always to the same reference bike. It’s not the same as the technical trials, but at least the bikes are compared on equal terms. And since it’s always the same rider, the only thing people have to do is trust us that we can get the best out of every bike. When you see the bikes we have liked, including carbon bicycles and so on, it’s obvious that we’re not very biased. That may be the best we can do at this point.
CR: Your readers love your reviews. What if you organized an event where a bunch of riders were riding a bunch of bikes and they evaluated…?
JH: That’s a very interesting idea... but of course organizing events takes an enormous amount of time. If someone wants to do it, I would gladly support it.
CR: Planing. I’ve seen some online mocking, people attacking the notion of planing.
JH: For ages people have thought that stiffer frames were better. But when you look at what racers were riding, especially while steel was still reigning supreme – because with steel it was very difficult to be stiff and light so you had a choice... Most racers chose light bikes over stiff bikes even for flat stages. People have talked about "dead" bikes, which were usually the cheap bikes from heavier tubing, but these really were the stiffest of them all.
Our hypothesis is that we perform best on bikes when we get in sync with the bikes. This allows us to put more power into the downstroke because the bike isn’t pushing back. Instead, the bike is flexing. And then as we get to the dead spots of the pedal stroke, the energy is released and helps drive the bike forward. So basically we don’t push against an unyielding wall during the downstroke. It’s sort of like jumping on a sprung gym floor. It’s like bouncing a basketball up and down. If you are hitting the ball correctly, it takes very little energy to keep it bouncing. Tuning of the bike to the rider is difficult, and maybe that’s why in the past the rider was tuned to the bike. When you look at the average European racer who raced on the average European racing bike, the Columbus SL frame on which I raced, they usually pedaled at a 110 RPM, they usually had their handlebars two inches below the saddle. There was little variety in the peloton. It’s not like one guy was pedaling at 60 RPM and the next at 140 RPM. Eddy Merckx was a little more physical, Jacques Anquetil was a little more elegant, but overall there was a very very narrow range. And I suspect that was because that was how you could get the best of the existing bikes.
I find that with some bikes that I test, I need to change my pedaling stroke. It sometimes takes me a 100 or more miles until I really can make some bikes perform. And some bikes that are really so far apart from what I’m used to and what works best for me that I just can’t make them go very well at all. It’s mostly noticeable in acceleration when I sprint. It’s also noticeable during a brevet where you’re riding into a headwind for hours. You always have to pedal, it’s not like you get a free lunch, but on some bikes, it’s easier to maintain the cadence, to make the bike go, and there are other bikes where you have to remind yourself, pedal, pedal, speed up, spin, and those are the ones that I find hard to ride for long distances.
CR: Tread, or Q-Factor, is another thing that seems to be under appreciated.
JH: There are some people who need wider cranks. These riders do well on mountain bike cranks, but lots of performance riders seem to prefer a narrower stance on the bike. Overall the cranks have gotten wider in the past few decades, and some riders aren't happy about this. I definitely prefer narrower tread. It’s interesting that the Italians, Campagnolo, keep their cranks narrower whereas Shimano keeps them wider. I wonder whether there are some differences in style and culture. Perhaps one company has more feedback from traditional racers than the other?
CR: 650B tires: enough traction, if you will, for continuing success? Are they here to stay?
JH: Oh yes. Looking at how many bikes there were with 650B tires in the US five years ago, maybe a couple dozen, old French machines and a few others—Schwinn made a mountain bike way back when—but all of this was very obscure, you couldn’t find 650B tires anywhere. But now there are new tires coming out and bikes being made. They’re certainly here to stay and it’s probably only a matter of time before some big makers realize that the logical way for a racing bike to go is to put on some bigger tires so that you can take it on all kinds of roads. More and more, the best riding is on the least maintained kinds of roads because those are the ones that don’t have any traffic. And for those roads, the wider 650B tires are ideal.