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Wide Tires And 650B Bikes — A Q&A With Bicycle Quarterly Editor Jan Heine

Jan Heine's fascination with French bicycles from the 1950s has helped shape his views on what the proper bike should look like and how it should be equipped.

You may not know who Jan Heine is, but as a bicyclist you have probably felt his influence. Those wider road bike tires you now see or ride? Jan often gets credit for that trend.

Jan is the editor of Bicycle Quarterly, a magazine that grew out of Jan’s fascination with and research into the 1950s French bikes and the constructeurs who crafted them. That research has shaped many of his opinions on what the proper bike should look like and how it should be equipped. Sometimes, Jan’s opinions cut against the grain of cycling’s accepted standards. Besides wider tires, Jan and other like-minded enthusiasts are sparking a revival of the 650B wheel, a rim / tire size once popular on French tandem and touring bikes.

Jan’s interest in French cycling history has also led to several coffee table books, including René Herse: The Bikes, The Builder, The Riders and The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles.  Jan has also ridden extensively in France. An accomplished randonneur, he has completed Paris Brest Paris several times.

Jan was recently involved in a bike-car crash while riding in Taiwan. You can read the details on this blog post. I called him at his home in Seattle, Washington, to check on his progress – he said he would be up and around within a month of his crash. We also used the opportunity for a Q&A about his views on bikes and biking. Excerpts are below.

Bike Law: Jan, we’re glad to see that you’re in such good spirits, despite your accident. You were in another country when you had your crash, but what’s your opinion on road bike safety in the U.S.?

Jan:  Safety in the U.S. depends on where you are…. Some places are definitely safer than others. We have the same two issues everywhere. One is driver competence, and the other is driver hostility…. As more riders appear on the roads, the hostility decreases – cyclists no longer are perceived as “others”, but as what they are: Normal people who choose to ride a bike. At the same time, drivers become more used to cyclists and thus more competent in seeing cyclists. Cycling becomes safer as more people ride….

On an individual level, some accidents are difficult to avoid – like the one I suffered in Taiwan, where an oncoming car turned left into my way at the very last moment – but with experience, you can avoid many of those situations. You can read the “body language” of cars and drivers. Sometimes your experience will tell you that a car may not stop because they don’t see you. You can anticipate that mistake, and you prepare to slam on the brakes at the last moment. This can reduce your risk in common accidents at danger spots such as intersections.

Bike Law: You’re known as someone who has strong opinions about cycling. Where would you say your opinions are most likely to diverge from mainstream thought on cycling practices?

Jan: I do have strong opinions, but I’m also willing to change my opinions based on new research, including our own at Bicycle Quarterly. Five years ago, I would have said the biggest divergence was in saying that wider tires can be faster than narrow ones. Back then, it was pretty far out there. Today, that idea is accepted. Things have shifted so fast that it’s hard to say what mainstream opinion is these days. Ideas that seemed far out there a couple years ago are becoming accepted — for instance, the idea that stiffer frames might not be faster, that some frame flex is good. Even the pro teams don’t necessarily want the stiffest frames anymore. If you want an idea that isn’t mainstream, perhaps it’s my conviction that fenders should be on every serious bike, just as they are on cars, so you can ride in any weather. Nobody would buy a Ferrari without fenders, yet most “sporting” bikes aren’t equipped for riding in the rain.

Bike Law: Let’s revisit the wider tire issue. A few years ago, saying something bigger than 23mm was a better tire was seen as heresy.

Jan: Absolutely. But today some of the pros are riding on 25s and on cobbles they are riding 28s or 30s. And they ride tubulars, so to get that ride in a clincher, you need to increase the width another 20%. So things have changed. Like everyone else, I used to believe that higher pressure makes the tire faster. Looking back five years ago, it seemed like you had two choices when making a wide tire. You could either make a supple casing wich doesn’t support high pressure, and the result would be slow because of the low pressure. Or you could make a tire casing strong to support high pressure, but the sturdy casing would result in a harsh riding, and slow, tire…. No matter how you did it, the wider tire would be slow.

What we were able to show in the real world was that above a certain point, pressure didn’t matter that much. Especially on a high end tire, whether you run it at 60 psi or 200 psi makes no difference…. That was a game-changer. Now you can make a wide tire that is supple and runs at lower pressures, but since pressure doesn’t matter on real roads, that tire will roll as fast as a narrow one at higher pressure. When we first found this through testing tires on the road (rather than in the lab where vibrations didn’t occur), we shared this research with some technical advisors at Cervelo who confirmed it. From there it spread throughout the pro peloton. And now it’s pretty accepted. So it’s gratifying to see what was once seen as heresy is now widely accepted.

But I want to be clear that the focus was not just about the technical aspect. It’s also about how we can make cycling fun for more people, so they enjoy their bikes more. And the wider tires are a part of that. Wider tires are more comfortable, so they entice you to explore scenic backroads with little traffic, even gravel. I care much more about the enjoyment of cycling than about eking out the last few percent of performance.

Bike Law: Where, if anywhere, is today’s cycling industry letting down the average rider?

Jan: Things are getting much better. There are some really encouraging developments. I have high hopes for the “gravel” or “allroad” bikes, which are popping up everywhere. To me those bikes combine the best of all worlds. You have the spirited ride of a good racing bike without the discomfort. If I see a mistake in the bike industry, it’s that they promote this as just one more bike — “You should have your racing bike and your mountain bike, and now also your gravel bike.” They should be saying, “This is the only bike you’ll need — and please tell all your friends and neighbors so we can get more people out there on bikes.” These bikes are as fast as a good racing bike and they can go on all kinds of roads, and if they are equipped with fenders you can ride them anywhere. You can commute on them or use them for grocery shopping. If they are equipped with eyelets for front low-riders, you can do a loaded tour on them. They’re amazing to me.

Bike Law: Speaking of bikes, would you say an excellent steel bike from, say, the 1960s, is every bit as good or fast as a modern carbon bike?

Jan: That’s a hard one. Steel is not always the same and carbon is not always the same. If you had the best of each, the carbon bike would be lighter so it’s going to be slightly faster on the hills. It’s just simple physics. But the difference would be too small for most riders to notice – like riding with a half-empty water bottle instead of a full one. In the end, to me it’s an aesthetic choice, as to which you prefer. Some riders really like the look and idea of a carbon bike, others prefer the classic lines of steel. In addition, a lot of people prefer steel because it’s so versatile. You can bend steel. With carbon, for each change you need a new mold, and that gets expensive. Carbon forks with the right offset for wide-tire gravel bikes don’t exist yet, with a few exceptions. So the 650B carbon bikes we get are a compromise in the handling. But with a steel bike, it’s super easy to dial in the handling – you just rake the fork a little more. The appeal of steel is that it’s malleable and you can do so much with it.

But back on the weight issue for a moment, lighter bikes often really are faster, but it’s not always the weight. A lighter bike isn’t as stiff, it has different flex characteristics than a heavier bike. So often if feels different, even on flat roads where the weight doesn’t make a difference…. In one test, we took a carbon bike that performed wonderfully and added eight pounds in two water bottles filled with gravel. The bike still performed wonderfully. It wasn’t necessarily the weight but how the bike reacted to the pedal stroke. It’s important that the frame works in unison with your pedal stroke.

Bike Law: While we are talking steel frames, what do you make of the explosion in the number of framebuilders?

Jan: There are several factors. People really appreciate the craftsmanship and handiwork more than they used to. It used to be that every bike was handmade, even if the levels of quality were very different. Today, the difference between a handmade bike and one that comes out of a factory in Asia is not just in the quality, but it’s also an emotional difference. The other thing is that there are specialty bikes, such as the randonneur bikes, that the industry doesn’t really offer. So I see people turning to bike builders, not just framebuilders, because they can’t get what they need from the big builders. I’m optimistic that bikes that are functional and also fun to ride have the potential to significantly increase cycling participation, that is, get more people on bikes.

Bike Law: You’ve written books about cycling’s golden age, and especially the French bikes. If you could, what would you bring forward mechanically from those days into the modern age of cycling?

Jan: I’m fascinated by the true randonneur bikes. Most people, when they think of French bikes, think of something like a Motobecane 10-speed. But that’s like comparing a Volkswagen Rabbit with a Porsche 911. What the best French builders did was to take the whole bike as a unit so the fenders and the rack and the lights are integrated into the bike. Nothing rattled or fell off, everything was superlight. From the beginning, the components were considered part of the bike. It’s relatively easy to make a racing bike because there are relatively few parts. But to make a bike that is super-fast and  yet 100 percent reliable to ride at night, in the rain, and other challenging conditions, that is pretty amazing. These are bikes you can just ride with very little maintenance other than replacing the chain. These bike can take you anywhere, anytime, rather than being something we ride for three hours on a sunny day. That’s where randonneuring has really influenced the rest of the cycling world. If you want to do a 600 kilometer ride nonstop, you have to ride through the night, and you have to have a bike you can ride in the rain. Once you start that ride, you don’t want to think about the bike any longer – just ride. It’s like thinking about your shoes – I don’t want to think about them ever. If I do, something’s wrong – I have blisters.

Bike Law: if you had to pick one bike, what would it be?

Jan: That’s easy. After testing 70 bikes for Bicycle Quarterly, for me, it would be a randonneur bike with a superlight steel frame, 650B x 42mm tires, integrated fenders, a front rack, a handlebar bag, generator lights. That kind of bike just works so well, and if you add a low-rider rack, you can even take it camping. The 650B randonneur bike really is an amazing machine, and I can’t see any bike that is more versatile or more fun.

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