Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bicycle Quarterly: The Art and Science of Velo-Fetishism

[Edited to add: Bicycle Quarterly became a sponsor of this website in December 2011. This post was written 1 year prior to that time.]

As a holiday gift, I received a subscription to Bicycle Quarterly and a set of back-issues containing articles I had been wanting to read for some time. The Winter 2010 issue and the older set arrived a little while ago, and I have been in a BQ-induced trance ever since. To describe this publication is challenging, as it defies easy classification. Part quasi-scholarly journal, part illustrated adventure book, something like this could only have been created by somebody with the mind of the relentlessly tenacious scientist and the spirit of the boy explorer. The result is wild, spectacular, engaging and maddening all at once - which is probably more emotion than any periodical has gotten out of me, ever. For that alone, the Bicycle Quarterly is worth every penny of its $30/year subscription fee.

Bicycle Quarterly focuses on randonneuring and cyclo-touring, and on the classic and vintage bicycles designed for these forms of cycling. Its content includes elaborate bicycle reviews, detailed historical articles, technical articles on frame building and ride quality, travel stories, book and product reviews, and much more in the same vein. But to leave the description at that would be to understate the unique nature of this magazine. First, there are the hand-drawn black and white illustrations. And then, there is the inimitable narrative voice of Jan Heine - both the publisher of Bicycle Quarterly and the author of most of the articles. Dr. Heine writes like a research scientist who, without the pressure of having to publish in peer-reviewed academic journals, has given free reign to his poetic side. With scientific phraseology interwoven with florid descriptions and subjective assertions, it is like some fantastic tapestry that draws me in with the eccentricity of its patterns.

To be sure, the Bicycle Quarterly contains a wealth of carefully researched information, which I find invaluable to my own learning experience. The author is detail-oriented and analytical, conducting in-depth research and getting to the very heart of the matter in every topic he explores. In particular, I have found the rare historical information, and the many articles examining the geometries of classic bicycles extremely useful. The information provided is not something that can easily, if at all, be found online, and so it is a priceless resource. I will be storing these back issues carefully and using them as reference material in the future.

At the same time, Dr. Heine has a very distinct perspective, which must be kept in mind when reading his assertions, reviews and critiques. He favours a specific kind of (1950s French randonneuring) bicycle design and is convinced of the superiority of this design to a degree that, in my view, makes him deeply biased. He also has a number of theories - such as that on "planing," on the virtues of low-trail geometry, and on the superiority of flexible frames - which he tends to treat as fact, or at least as self-fulfilling prophecies. As a trained researcher myself (psychology and neuroscience), I cannot agree that the tests and reviews printed in Bicycle Quarterly are "scientific" - Yet they are presented that way to readers, and that is my biggest criticism of the magazine. Bicycle Quarterly has much to offer - as long as the author's assertions are not taken as gospel by the eager novice.  It is the art and (pseudo-)science of velo-fetishism at its best, and I am addicted.

36 comments:

  1. I love this, er,...publication!

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  2. I've always liked his writings (when it happens) in the ACA "organ" Adventure Cycling magazine. One of these days I'll splurge on a subscription to Bicycle Quarterly. (Or maybe I can hope for it as a gift!)

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  3. Have you also seen "Bicycle Times?" That's another that seems more interesting than the latest lycra shots

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  4. What a coincidence! I just got BQ as a gift (to myself) as well! Just finished the winter issue cover to cover. Great timing, as I'm going to be faced with a very challenging fender installation job on my winter project.

    Good overall review of the publication. I don't know where Dr. Heine (what's his background,?) gets the time to do all the reviews he does, as well as publish books, maintain a cycling parts web storefront, and get all his riding in. Pretty envious lifestyle!

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  5. By the way, how many years of back issues did you get? I'm trying to figure out far back I can afford to go!

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  6. I was given a subscription to Bicycle Quarterly as a Christmas present from another bicycling friend. To say I am a novice is being kind. I am learning but I don't know if I will ever be fluent in the foreign language found in "bicycle land". But, I have my hopes up as I do find the bicycles, as well as the people I have become acquainted with who share this hobby, fascinating. Bicycle Quarterly on the surface looks very interesting and is, of course, informative. I look forward to future issues. Perhaps I should consider back issues. :^)

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  7. I wholeheartedly agree. Bike geekdom at it's best!
    For the mainstream (or closer to) I've started enjoying Bicycle Times. It reminds me of Dirt Rag from the late 90's (a great time to be into mountain biking).

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  8. I'm a huge fan too, and I love the fact that ordering back issues is pretty easy (i have back to 06 i think). his recap of the Oregon Manifest last year is one of my faves, as are some of the historical pieces of 1930s cycling.

    You're definitely right that he reviews his bikes from a specific perspective, but if you can keep that in mind as you read, you're okay. It's the same way that your bike reviews are very personal, and don't align exactly with how everyone uses their bikes. I love that he follows up a review with the builder's response to that review!

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  9. Thanks for bringing BQ to my attention. After your review and a look at their website, I've decided to subscribe.

    Oh--about distinct perspectives and biases: I know I have mine formed by by experience commuting and touring. Anyone who is a serious about cycling has a soapbox. For example, many commentators on your blog hold up the Rivendall (sp?) as the gold standard. Their insistence makes me want to test ride one.

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  10. I've been a subscriber to BQ for several years. In my opinion your review is right on target.

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  11. somervillain - From what I understand, he is a geologist by education or something similar, who quit academia shortly after attaining his PhD. He does the bicycle stuff full time now, so it is a job and I suppose he makes time for it like any other full time job. I think that something has to feel fun in order for the person to put that much energy into it. And the readers benefit.

    I ordered only 4 back issues, from different volumes. The ordering process allows you to pay for a volume, but pick out any 4 issues from different volumes instead. There is also a bulk price for all the issues, which I think makes more sense if you're planning to get them all eventually anyway.

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  12. "many commentators on your blog hold up the Rivendall (sp?) as the gold standard."

    Nah! I only hold up Rivendell as the gold standard for non-step through bikes that are good for everything except racing, but don't expect an IGH because they be derailers and shit except for the odd FG/SS model.

    So if you're looking for a swan's neck Alfine 11 I suggest you look elsewhere.

    But what do I know, I've never even seen a copy of BQ.

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  13. Re Rivendell vs BQ as gospel... The thing is, that (in my biased opinion) there is no one kind of bicycle, or bicycle construction that is "the best". It depends on what one wants the bicycle to do, and what one's skill level is. Rivendell has my respect, because they seem to have figured out the magic formula for creating a specific kind of bicycle: a comfortable, stable and versatile long-distance tourer. But I would never suggest that, say, a racing bike is "worse" than a Rivendell, because it is not a comfortable multi-day tourer. It is not supposed to be! I would also never suggest that a loop-frame Gazelle is "worse" than a Rivendell, because the loop construction is more vulnerable to frame failure. While technically true, the loop would never ever be used under the same circumstances - it is a different kind of bike.

    However, according to the BQ's views, the specific 1950s randonneuring construction they admire is the golden standard for everything. Whether they test touring bikes, transportation bikes, or racing bikes, they write things like "Well, this frame does not have the same low trail as the classic 1954 Singer randonneur, and so naturally the bike performs worse. Ideally, trail would be reduced by 7mm." Really? Ideally all bikes would have this same geometry, be they racing, transport, or touring?... That part of BQ philosophy I am not on board with.

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  14. BQ , to me, seems to be the rantings of an person with a fixed viewpoint that has no room for other viewpoints. What makes this view point so damning is that the author is over educated for the task of authoring any opinion on bicycles. This much education tends to make one a snob at times.

    With a view point this fixed the distance to insanity must be a short one.

    It goes without saying that I'll pass any further exposure of BQ rants..

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  15. Walt - I agree, except about the effect of education. Interestingly, the bicycle world seems to be full of overeducated people: I know at least several former professors working as mechanics at bike shops for close to minimum wage. The "bicycle blog" world too seems to be full of scientists, lawyers, doctors and design consultants. Some people are humble and straightforward, no matter what their educational background. Others are not. I see it as a personality issue more than anything. And I don't get the impression that Jan Heine is a "snob" or "overeducated for the task". But inflexible, yes.

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  16. Spot on Velouria ! I cherry-picked some back issues of Bicycle Quarterly and enjoyed them so much I became a regular subscriber. I look forward to every issue, and find them a a fascinating mix of history, reviews, empirical testing, advocacy, and opinion. To Jan's credit, he is willing to question and challenge prevailing wisdom, and does what he can with a limited budget to organize performance based tests of geometry, frame materials, rolling resistance, etc. His background as a scientist is evident in his desire for quantitative measures, repeatability, blind testing where possible, disclosure of conflicts of interests, and opportunity for rebuttal and review by manufacturers. Those admirable traits live alongside a relentless advocacy for "all things old and french randonneuring" that I think cloud his objectivity and lead to obvious bias. I greatly enjoy the overall product. BQ is a unique and fascinating magazine that has often made me think and learn, even when I disagree with the point of view of the main author/editor.

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  17. I've been following BQ (VBQ) since its inception. For a while I was under the impression that I was reading the work of a reasonable, relatively unbiased individual and his peers (even if the "scientific" approach seemed somewhat contrived), but gradually, more and more evidence accumulated to prove otherwise, especially when the subject of "planing" came up.
    I agree, your review is spot on.
    For me, despite its weaknesses, BQ is a joy to receive and invaluable as a resource.
    Thanks for highlighting it!
    Also, I just received 'The Competition Bicycle' as a gift: gorgeous and highly recommended!

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  18. Velouria said...
    "Walt - I agree, except about the effect of education. Interestingly, the bicycle world seems to be full of overeducated people"

    Not to belabor the point. I will agree that some will pay the price of a higher education only to find their life's labor love somewhere other than their degree would indicate. IMO this is a failing of the current educational system where many who enter college aren't quite ready to decide their future just yet.

    The bicycle , to me, is a magical machine that can be elegant and gritty depending on the desires of the rider. This will attract a wide spectrum of followers depending on their view of life. To me the bicycle is the most elegant machine ever invented.
    I will also agree that the author of many BQ articles is , at best, inflexible.

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  19. You might find it interesting to read this. I don't know whether I blame the education system. I think it's more a discrepancy between an idealised perception of how "academia" (or "medicine" or "the legal system") works versus the harsh reality of the real world. I received an excellent education. But when I got my first academic job after completing my doctorate, it was like a bucket of ice water was dumped onto my naive little face. Discovering that it was all about the competition and the prestige, and almost not at all about the actual research field we were supposed to be so passionate about, was a devastating turning point for me. I've tried to get over it, but ultimately I am unwilling to work on those terms. Perhaps it was the same for the professors-turned-mechanics, as well as for JH.

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  20. Velouria said...
    " Perhaps it was the same for the professors-turned-mechanics, as well as for JH."

    Yes, undoubtedly it certainly was and may yet be for you in the end.

    I'll share a silly mantra that has served me well for my 40+ years in the engineering field that helped me find work I loved and was very good at. The mantra goes like this......".Always go where everybody else....isn't" This will help you find those open niches and jobs that are overlooked by the working mob. My last assignment before I retired came my way simply because I was willing to resolve some rather sticky issues of design no one else would take time with.

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  21. This is an interesting thread. Isn't life all about disappointments?

    One of the great things about cyling is that the bike has a fundamental truth. However it's engineered, whatever material it's made of, it's fundamental truth is that one has to pedal. $10,000 carbon or $100 alloy, it will take you anywhere with the aid of the leg

    Academia, the medical, legal or other professions...It's all about divide and conquer, competition and posturing, the machiavellian politics of greed. When we become so disillusioned by what we once thought was the grail, the bycicle, for some, bings us back to a truth which can have an almost life-affirming effect.

    I'd love to see an edition of Bycicle Quarterly. Have you ome accross 'Rouleur', the house magazine of Rapha? It's also geared towards the European randonee with features about custom bike builders of yesterday and tommorrow. If you get the chance, have a look.

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  22. Nicole said...
    "... When we become so disillusioned by what we once thought was the grail, the bycicle, for some, bings us back to a truth which can have an almost life-affirming effect."


    What an insightful observation. It makes a lot of sense in the context of my life at least.

    I've leafed through a copy of Rouleur at the "Ride Studio Cafe" in Lexington, MA and thought it was pretty nice. Didn't realise it was owned by Rapha!

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  23. Just as an alternate point of view I am very happy being a Pathologist. I am visually oriented and enjoy examining biopsy specimens under the microscope. My Dad was a truck driver/salesman and I am very lucky that I grew up in a country that allows the son of a lower middle class truck driver the opportunity to work hard and become an MD. No disillusionment here. Our educational system worked just fine for me. Being happy to get up and head out to my job each morning is a dream come true for me.

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  24. You know, I'm having a hard time putting my finger on a modern bike with the type of super low trail of a Heine approved bike like this one:
    http://www.bikequarterly.com/singer.html

    I really don't have the type of experience to say one way or the other about whether such a bicycle would be good or not. It just seems to me that most everything I look at has substantially less rake than the Singer pictured...no?

    Anyhow, all the internet talk about how stubborn Heine is about his perspective had really put me off the magazine, but perhaps I'll give it a whirl sometime, as I really enjoy learning more and more about bikes and cycling.

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  25. IMO, bq is an interesting read for ppl of a certain mindset. it is clearly and thankfully not for mainstream cyclists, as it is absolutely unreadable to anyone not living in a patinated world ruled by erudite cyclo-curmudgeons. I can read it some, as it is replete with esoteric info and awesome illustrations, and (best of all) it affords a glimpse of a very rare and particular breed of DB. But, the joke gets old in a hurry, imho, and i prefer to read the rantings of more typical vintage bike-lovers online; even if they're not as knowledgeable, they are much easier on the stomach.

    Bicycle Times is a decent rag, but totally incomparable to BQ, even if they did feature JH in an article once. Where BQ focuses on times and attitudes long-past, BT focuses on the helmet-mirror/pants-clip set. Their ads and some of their articles seem to be courting the high-heels/viking-boots/elegant&cute-on-a-bike crowd, which may be a good idea. They need to evolve a bit, or surely BT will perish.
    So long as we're discussing meek, nonspandex bicycle publications, I gotta give the folks at Momentum a shout; it's a decent read, regionalized and fairly diverse, and the ladies i met at the NAHBBS were so nice, i had to subscribe.

    -rob

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  26. Speaking of bicycle articles:

    http://www.marthastewart.com/article/the-revival-of-vintage-bicycles

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  27. "I am very happy being a Pathologist."

    Well yeah. That and Dermatology are the two medical fields to be happy in, everyone knows that.

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  28. Bicycles have been instrumental in regaining my creativity after the academic world had almost killed it, and I just received all back issues of Bicycle Quarterly. How's that.

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  29. @ Carine

    Low trail production bicycles are few and far between these days. Handsome Cycles makes two, the Devil & She Devil. They are 700c with cantilevers and good tire clearance. The She Devil is a particularly nice mixte.

    Velo Orange has their 650b Polyvalent, basically a production French city bike.

    The Raleigh One Way is a low trail design.

    I know all of this because of my continuing search for bikes just like these. Currently I have a 1984 Fuji Touring Series IV, and I have to say it feels very different from the more typical high trail designs. I really enjoy it. The lower trail has a stabilizing effect at slower speeds and the bike is easier to ride hands free. It's an interesting experience to turn the bike more with the handlebars and less with leaning.

    If you're looking for a used low trail bicycle, the geometry was more prevalent with 27" bicycles prior to the mid 80's, and especially in French brands like Peugeot and Gitane.

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  30. I wish the Alex Singer bicycle that is referred to with consistence had it's own twitter account to tell stories about the good Dr.

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  31. "the specific 1950s randonneuring construction they admire is the golden standard for everything."

    I don't think its the era, but how that design regime nailed the details for spirited, all-weather riding. Not for going down the street to get ice cream. I find JH's writing fair.

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  32. Protorio - Did you read the BQ review of the Pegoretti Love 3, and if yes did you think it was fair? I am not even remotely into racing, but I can understand why that review upset a lot of people.

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  33. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a bike costing a fortune must be in want of an audience before whom to praise its virtues above all other bikes. Jan Heine takes his advocacy to heights not seen in decades, single-handedly publishing a magazine that attempts to prove his biases by "scientific" method.

    However, real scientists among my cycling friends, tenured university professors who subject their work to vigorous peer review, scoff at Jan Heine's tests - especially at the sample size, and the vested interest of that very small pool in validating their own preferences. Kudos to Jan for his industry and passion, but he is no engineer and no physicist - it shows. Moreover his deficiency in cycling history outside the mid-20th Century French randonneur movement leads him to publish errors of fact, such as that Ernest Csuka and his contemporaries pioneered the lightweight bicycle (the lightweight bicycle was pioneered before M. Csuka was born).

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  34. Anonymous 12/28 11:26 AM

    Jan himself is aware of the sample size issue, and always puts a number of caveats on his conclusions. He is also, it seems to me, careful not to say that his findings apply to all riders in all circumstances.He also seems to be pretty up front regarding his methods. To have large sample sizes is very costly -- beyond his resources, but to my knowledge, no one else in the cycling publishing world is doing ANY systematic testing. Jan has also said in forums that he is willing to publish similar work by others. Instead of carping anonymously, why not raise some funds from your "real scientist" friends and, in the grandest tradition of science, re-do his testing with larger samples and see if his results are indeed valid or not?


    FWIW, both of his coffee table books provide a large amount of visual evidence to counter your assertion that he is unaware of cycling history outside of mid 20th century France, and a number of BQ articles also state in refutation of your claim.

    I also have a "scientific" education and work in academia, and the sort of "I'm a real scientist -- XXX is not because they don't publish in the right places or do as I do" attitude your friends display is all too common -- ego is a powerful thing, and not always a force for good.

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  35. Jules - For me, it's more like "I am a scientist too, I disagree that almost anything in BQ is 'scientific,' but I still find the writing and the point of view compelling." For what it's worth, even studies published in peer reviewed academic journals can instigate these types of debates, so I don't think this is a big deal or damaging to the reputation and sales of BQ.

    Oh and for those interested, Jan Heine now has his own blog. He even addressed some of the issues discussed here in a recent post.

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  36. I think it's dumb to criticise Bicycle Quarterly for not being unbiased enough or objective enough. It's written by a guy and his friends. They explain which bikes they like and why. That is commendable.

    As for it not being scientific enough, it sure is more scientific than almost anything else bicycle-related I've read. I like the stuff about wide tyres. If the test methods are so wrong, why doesn't someone do better tests, with the right methods? Science doesn't mean everybody is going to agree, it's more like a collective, ongoing learning experience.

    I'm glad there are people like Jan Heine et al who care enough to actually confront and test cherished assumptions. If people get riled up after reading BQ, that probably just means they're on to something.

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