If you want to trace the origins of the current ‘Allroad’ movement, the bike industry’s (occasionally) successful attempts to blend the best of road and trail bikes into one do-it-all ride, you need look no further than Jan Heine of Compass Cycles.
Having first coined the phrase back in 2007 to describe the bikes he and his Bicycle Quarterly Team were building for themselves, this softly spoken German has become the bike community’s de-facto doyen of gravel cycling, exposing false traditions and reasserting lost truths in an effort to bring the bicycle back to the complete, self-sustaining machine the mid-century French long-distance cyclists first envisioned.
“I become fascinated by these French randonneurs,” says Jan, chatting with The Pedaler over coffee and hot chocolate one misty morning in Seattle. “They had beautiful bikes and did these incredible rides, like the Raid Pyreneen, where they rode from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean, over the Pyrenees; across 18 mountain passes, non-stop.
“And the tales they told! I remember talking with one of the first guys to do the ride in 1952, he said, ‘I was a kid from Paris. Imagine; I’m on top of the Tourmalet. You think it’d be quiet up in the mountains; it’s not. There are animals. There are rocks falling. I was scared! I wasn’t used to this!’ Can you imagine? He crossed the Tourmalet alone at midnight. I thought, ‘I want to do that!’ Years later, I did that ride, and it was incredible.”
Riding in the 2016 Concours de Machines in France. Randonneur bikes are designed to offer the speed of racing bikes, over long distances, day and night, in any weather. (Photo: Nicolas Joly)
At 710 kilometres, the Raid Pyreneen takes close to 40 hours to complete, and that’s if you’re in shape. “I had good fitness back then,” recalls Jan, laughing fondly at the memory. “I remember that I’d been pedalling steadily through the night under the soft glow of a full moon. I reached a cliff, and suddenly I saw the Mediterranean Sea. The road goes along a cliff for the last 30 miles, and the sea waits below. I remember thinking, ‘Wow. I’ve gone from one ocean to the other, riding non-stop to cross the Pyrenees.’ The feeling, the elation, was absolutely amazing.”
Turning to his emergency blanket and a quiet spot in an olive grove to pass the night, he nevertheless missed out on a prime sleeping spot conveniently located close to the train station. “When I told this story to the guy who did the first Raid Pyreneen in 1952, he told me, ‘You should have asked me! I could have given you the address of …,’ and I thought he would say a friend or perhaps a hotel. But he said, ‘Of a bench in front of the train station where I slept’. What a sense of humour! Although apparently, he wasn’t joking.“
Mechanicals, of course, are not an option during long rides, where a poorly chosen brake, tyre or groupset can spell disaster, not just a delay. “If it’s two in the morning and you’re tired and you just want to keep going and then suddenly … You really don’t want to think about the bike. I think that’s why we obsess so much about the bikes when we are not in the saddle so that we don’t have to think about them when we’re riding,” he explains.
While preparing for another French long-distance cycling event, the 1200km Paris–Brest–Paris (PBP), Jan discovered the surprising pace of the first randonneur bikes. “Learning that as early as the 1950s, riders had completed Paris-Brest-Paris at roughly the same speeds as today’s winners showed that these bikes didn’t lack in performance. Most of all, they looked all of one piece - everything you need for a long-distance ride was an integral part of the bike, whether fenders, lights or the front rack, not added-on afterthoughts like on our bikes back then,“ he enthuses. “So we started researching all kinds of stuff with our magazine Bicycle Quarterly about geometries, about tyres. And we figured out that wide tyres can be as a fast as narrow ones. There should have been a bicycle revolution, because wide tyres are more comfortable and if they’re just as fast, you can go anywhere.”
Meeting the great constructeurs. Here with J. P. Weigle at Cycles Alex Singer in France, working with Olivier Csuka on the bike for the 2017 Concours de Machines Technical Trials. (Photo: Natsuko Hirose)
But the misinformation about narrow rubber continued. “We’d proven that wider tyres were better, so we naively assumed that the industry would change course. But nothing happened,” he says, shrugging his shoulders in exasperation. “We knew then that if we wanted the components we needed for the riding we enjoyed, we’d have to make them ourselves.”
Browsing the Compass Cycles site is an adventure in itself. A hand-drawn illustration of a bicycle starts the journey - click on the front light, and you are transported you to a page of beautifully-crafted dynamo-powered illumination. Another click, hand-adjusted Japanese-made pedals. For the curious ‘Allroad’ cyclist, a bounty of precise, well-engineered products that bigger brands either miss, or will never make, as Jan explains. “There are things that they don’t do; either can’t do, don’t want to do, or perhaps don’t even know to do yet. We can do those. Sometimes it’s a little bit harder to tell people why, for example, our brakes don’t have adjustments for the spring tension. It’s because our springs are made to ultra-high specifications. We don’t have uneven spring tension from one side to the other, so you don’t need to adjust them." And just like the Compass line of bike tyres made with Panaracer - universally acknowledged as the best gravel bike tyres on the market - they provide a perfect example of a product speaking for itself: “If you have a good story to tell, then it just becomes a task of telling it well,” he says.
Perhaps though, telling it a little too well has become the mantra for bigger brands stuck in an endless loop of ‘better this year’ product releases. “All the great companies had a love of making stuff. But now because of venture capital firms, profit-chasing investors or the need to keep up and make a quick return, I think they’re losing a lot of the passion,” he mulls. “When you look at car companies like Mercedes-Benz or Porsche in the old days, there was a love of making those products that went beyond the quarterly profit report. I remember when the airline Pan Am went under, people said, ‘Why did they keep flying planes when they had a profitable real estate business?’ But flying planes is what they loved doing.”
Jan enjoys passhunting and developed the new Compass dual-purpose knobbies to perform equally well pavement as it does on mud and dirt (Photo: Natsuko Hirose).
Classic elegance today: Riding a 1946 Rene Herse tandem with BQ editor Natsuko Hirose (Photo: Nicolas Joly).
Holding to an unwavering truth then, rather than satisfying shareholders? “Well, take the wide tyres we like, for example. You get about 6000 miles on them, and that means you can buy superior tyres because they’re still cheaper than the narrow ones by a measure of longevity. Of course, it’s not good for Compass that our stuff lasts forever,” he laughs. “But it’s the way we do things, and I think it’s the way things should be done.”
“Anyway,” he quips, as he takes another sip of now cooled cocoa, “we don’t have shareholders.”
For this former technical writer and NASA fellowship recipient, creating a product is an instinctual journey; a lyrical refrain where the process is as much a reward as the goal itself. It’s an approach that echoes the diligence and care typically found in Japanese product design. “It’s fun working with Japanese companies because they are so proud of everything they do,” he enthuses. “When they make things, you can tell; there’s a unique timbre. Like the MKS pedals for travel bikes, they come in a handsome little bag so you can store them off the bike and so on.” And they’re uniquely experienced too. “You ask them a question, and they might say, ‘Oh, we tried that 20 years ago, and it didn’t work so well.’ It’s really fun going there and talking to them because you often talk to people who have been with the company for decades. That long view is priceless. But they’re still curious about the new ideas we bring them.”
Product parallels can be drawn with the effortless, mindful approach of the riders in an episode that Jan recounts from his first Paris-Brest-Paris: “I found myself riding with three older cyclists from Asturia in Spain. Their speed was just right: swift, but not frantic. Their pace was as regular as a metronome. They never swerved or wobbled. Drafting them was easy. They gave holes and other road imperfections a wide-enough berth rather than calling them out. Their conversation flowed uninterrupted. Riding with them was completely stress-free.”
Many years have passed since he first began to explore the limits of the bicycle, riding to and fro across Germany as a young student to visit friends and family before moving to the US as an exchange student, but Jan’s enthusiasm for the bike and randonneuring remains undimmed. “It was Vélocio, they called him the ‘Apostle of cyclotouring’ in France, who said that because of the endorphins, you notice the landscapes much more vividly than you do otherwise. So if you go by car or bus and you cross the Col d’Izoard Pass, yeah, it’s gorgeous and scenic; it looks like those tourism brochures. But when you take it on the bike, it’s a much more intense experience.”