A custom titanium frame built for mechanical disk brakes
First Ride Report
I love riding a 650B bicycle. It beckons to be ridden on all surfaces—from smooth pavement to gravel and fire roads—and it replaces the urge to make every day another race to the finish. There’s great versatility too within 650B because tires run from the relatively slim 32c, like the Gran Bois Cypres or Rivendell Maxy Fasty which is not much wider than Michelin Pro Race 25, to fat boys, like the Panaracer Col de Vie or now extinct Mitsuboshi Trimlines, that lavish you with low pressure comfort. I’ve always wanted a bike that invited me to turn off the pavement but without the technical razz-matazz of mountain biking; a great bike should keep you dry in the rain, light the road ahead at night, and contribute to the experience of cycling as a lifetime gift. I hope to continue to ride my race bike well into my dotage but I can also imagine riding a 650B right now and until I can’t ever ride again. A properly designed and outfitted 650B always looks like a cyclist’s bike. If I only rode my 650B I’d eventually have to remind myself of the fun I am missing with a fender-free racer. These bikes are just so good at everything.
Most of the credit for 650B making its way into our cycling experience ultimately belongs to the original French classics—bikes from Rene Herse, Alex Singer, Jo Routens, and others. While the Confrerie des 650 or Brotherhood of the 650, provide the true stalwart French support for this tradition of cyclo-touring, their long-standing efforts remain largely unknown in the U.S. We owe to the classic French bikes their aesthetic standards more than any particular influence on cyclo-tourism. It’s the look that grabbed us first, not the need for a cycling vacation tourer (as was more the case at their inception in post-war France). In fact, I don’t recall either Bike Centennial or Adventure Cycling ever running an article on 650B bikes. Far more influential have been the passionate efforts of Jan Heine who’s Golden Age of Handmade Bicycles belongs on every bicycle geek’s coffee table. From the aesthetic has emerged more interest in the bikes themselves and a notion to build them affordably with new options from folks like Matthew Grimm of Kogswell Cycles and Chris Kulczycki of Velo-Orange. But Japanese collectors and builders have long honored this work and set typically high standards for beauty and performance. Japanese builders like Toei, Hirose, Watanabe, and Berkeley’s own Hiroshi Iimura (owner of Jitensha Studio/jitensha.com) have contributed nearly as much to current sensibilities regarding 650B as have the original French classics. In many ways, I think, the Japanese bikes have surpassed the French originals, albeit with a keen eye on old French parts from TA, Maxi-car, MAFAC, Lefol, JOS, et.al. Beware those who seek to compete with the Japanese Confrerie on eBay when something special turns up! Deep pockets match their passionate commitments. North American builders like Curt Goodrich, J.P. Weigle, Sacha White of Vanilla, and Cycles Tournesol now contribute custom 650B bikes and the future seems assuredly bright.
We would be remiss, however, if we didn’t take special note of Grant Petersen and the good folks at Rivendell Bicycle Works who really set the 650B revolution into motion. Grant was inspired by rough stuff bikes long before he designed the Bridgestone X0-1 with moustache handlebars around 26” wheels. But when he took up the Saluki project the future of 650B changed. Without Grant and Rivendell’s commitment we in north America would still be scrounging for what we could get in small batches—rims and tires— and the bikes would have remained obscure even if we had the randonneur style bars, decaleurs and bags, centerpull brakes, and leather saddles that form the complementary aesthetic. Rivendell’s Saluki, the first modern American designed production 650B (built in Japan by Toyo), is more of a resourceful all-rounder than a resolved constructeur-style bike. Saluki epitomizes the versatility of 650B at no cost to an owner who might want it to look like an original French build. Rivendell has followed up with the more economical Bleriot as well as with mixte frames that go by the names Wilbury and Glorius, which fit more clearly into the tradition of porteurs and city bikes. The argument that as much could have been accomplished using 559mm (better known as 26”) mountain bike rims is undoubtedly true. Mike Barry has long made this case persuasively and a few examples of his Mariposa bicycles (mariposabicycles.com) built with mountain bike wheels present all the values of 650B but with real advantages, including a wider selection of tires. Few builders match Mr. Barry’s skills and experience in building every kind of bicycle, but fewer still have matched their 26” wheeled machines to the road-oriented geometries and, more notably, French-style aesthetics that distinguish 650B. Mike will build a 650B but he may first suggest a 26” wheel in the comparable style. Gilles Berthoud, better known in North America for his canvas and leather bags, stainless and carbon fenders, also advocates 26” wheels for a cyclo-camper or “country” bike. Mr Berthoud prefers to build custom bikes for clients who meet him personally—so someday a trip to France must include a stop at his shop for a fitting.
While the French originals seem to have emphasized porteur city bikes, front loading campers, or heavier-loaded handlebar bag distance riders, the geometry and design of 650B need not be limited to any one style or purpose. It was more the inspiration of the French aesthetic and the notion of bringing 650B into new realms that inspired our titanium Tournesol Sportif. This bike was an experiment in thinking how certain innovations in materials, design, and specific parts would meld together to form a constructeur-style build: a bike conceived as a whole but not one that had ever been built before. It’s been more than two months since I started to put the new Tournesol through its paces, blessed by some exceptional late fall weather.
Our house in the Finger Lakes of western New York is about forty miles south of the city of Rochester. We’ve lived here four winters now (if you lived here you’d count your time in winters too) and for a cyclist who loves empty country roads, endless rollers, and long views, the Finger Lakes are hard to beat. This is perfect 650B country, unless you happen to live anywhere else. Our gravel-strewn driveway is about a quarter of a mile long and the road stays unpaved in both directions for a good jaunt. Most friends who visit with skinny tire road bikes can’t wait to find the smooth, wide shouldered roads that characterize the countryside. On my 650B I feel like the treat begins right from the start.
The titanium Tournesol was built as a custom for me, designed by the collective efforts of Cycles Tournesol. It’s a day rider, a sportif style bike meant to excel on the rollers, unpaved lanes, and perfect asphalt that surround us in the Finger Lakes. I wanted a bike that would glide over the stone roads and handle the especially fast descents that quickly come and go and reappear before you have fully recovered. I wanted to experiment with braking options, tubing, and still maintain a nearly traditional appearance. This may be the first 650B frame built in titanium using modern tubing and mechanical disk brakes. The redoubtable Kent Eriksen, the founder of Moots Cycles, built the frame while Tournesol’s own Martin Tweedy, who also builds our custom steel bikes, made the steel fork. We were stretched on a number of design fronts, looking for solutions to fender mounting and brake placement that would provide the stability and the proper lines we sought; we might also have used a carbon fork had we a viable option but none has so far met our expectations. We saw no compromise in using a steel fork and its superb function brought riding goals in line with aesthetic aims. We also wanted classic road geometry, neutral handling that would garner the best results at speed, unconcerned with the influence of a weighted front bag, which I have no plans to use on this bike. Unlike a distance randonneur bike, which is usually meant to handle well both front-loaded and at slow speeds, this design had a different intention: the bike should encourage a more stable ride, especially at speed. Among the several elements contributing to that effect is “more” trail (in this case, about 55mm) than we see on some traditional French porteurs and cyclo-campers. I have long admired the ride of my Mariposas and Rivendells and wanted this Tournesol to reflect those influences. I am utterly delighted with the outcome.
When the bike arrived here it was in need of some refitting and tuning, a natural result of its being tested at some length in Seattle by the folks at Bicycle Quarterly before it shipped east. The Bicycle Quarterly reviewers seemed particularly uninspired by the mechanical disk brakes, which can be finicky to set up and sometimes require a bit of adjustment after use. I admit to my own inexperience with the brakes—not having much of a background in parts usually found on mountain bikes—but my good friend Craig Smith, owner of The Mendon Cyclesmith, once again proved his mechanical prowess. There is now so much stopping power in these brakes, with so little effort, that one must remind oneself to go easy, especially when drawing both to simulate (or make!) a sudden stop. But road skills suffice to make braking a cinch and while I see no advantage to the mechanical disks, I don’t think their weight or operation poses any disadvantages. A greater concern was mounting the mudguards, stabilizing and fixing them securely and making sure that they would stay clear of the mechanical brakes. Originally set up with 50mm Honjos for the BQ test I opted for the narrower 40mm stainless steel Berthoud—albeit a bit heavier but I looked for that as a small advantage, along with a custom stay made at my request by Mike Barry. The longer custom stay allowed me to mount the fender in the traditional “low” spot, which was not possible with the Honjos and their original hardware. Even without leather washers the fenders are now both stable and reasonably quiet; the lines permit either 32c Cypres Gran Bois or the wider 37c Mitsuboshi Trimlines.
Of late, I have opted for a familiar three hour plus spin that takes me from our home in Bristol first towards Dennison’s Corners, a crossroads that doesn’t even qualify as a hamlet— not to be confused, of course, with the town north of Cooperstown also bearing this name. The roads wind north and west, about 30% of which are unpaved and through the forests that separate farm fields. There are no real flats in this part of the Finger Lakes and this route follows the ridges that lie above Honeoye Lake and to the east of Canadice Lake. It’s rollers and then steady climbs, including a few short steep efforts that tip 6% for a mile or more. At the top of Huff Road you cross again Route 20A and begin the last climb to the ridge above Honeoye Lake where you can see all the way down into the Naples Valley. This road offers some of the most beautiful and pristine of the lake views in western New York and also some of the most remote. A stop at a small graveyard with only a few headstones tells the story of Revolutionary soldiers and settlers whose names now appear on the road signs. Over the last few miles of ascent you are likely to see only a few, infrequent cars, houses separated by cornfields, and a good bit of untouched forest that shades the road in summer. One treat is a large open field used by local model radio-airplaners who fly their rigs with death defying skills, looking more like red-tail hawks and peregrine falcons but sounding like WWI aces. I’ve been up this hill during the day dozens of times and there’s almost always a radio-airplaner enjoying himself in this field. By this time I’m also gasping for breath: the climb has been going on for miles, a feat you appreciate only when you look back to see how far you’ve come south and up the glacial ridge. I love the way the Tournesol 650B climbs. It moves with sort of effortlessness that one usually associates with the best road bikes. I’ve felt no discernable difference in the way the bike climbs using the 32c Gran Bois or the 37c Trimlines and Panaracers. With “skinny” or fat tires, the bike takes input well, jumps when you put power to the pedals, and keeps its line, especially when you stand, rest on the hoods, and rock the bars gently side to side.
The reward of this long steady hour’s climb is two legendary descents, which provide some of the fastest, steepest downs in the Lakes. They come in near succession and there are very few days you would to want to try them in the other, upward direction. I’ve often wondered why these roads are not part of the local tours and events that bring fame to the Finger Lakes, but these are more remote roads and a portion of Jersey Hill Road remains unpaved and is not well suited for skinny tire road bikes. Once back on the west Honeoye Lake road heading south, it’s another loping roll down to the east side turn up (or continue down into Naples), which is the easier, shady side. The town of Richmond-Honeoye is at the north tip of the lake and provides a good place to have lunch (the Mill Creek Café gets my nod) and continue south again to the turn up at Wesley Road. Wesley is an unpaved two mile climb that gives few chances to catch your breath. (Descending from the top at Gullick Road challenges even the resilient ride of 650B and the tremendous stopping power of disk brakes.) When the road is wet you’ll likely have to walk the steepest bits, no matter your gearing. The Tournesol wears 48-34 double TA Zephyr with a 12-27 rear cassette and this manages to get me most of the way up Wesley to Gullick and then the well-known Egypt Hill Road which has a few sections over 11%. The good news, however, is that the top of Egypt Hill is just a few minutes from home. Fast or slow days, it doesn’t seem to matter much, I finish this ride and its variations within the same fifteen-minute margin of three plus hours.
What makes this ride so great is that it’s perfect for a 650B: a good selection of empty pavement, gravel lanes, and rough stuff descents. In every respect I have been delighted with the Tournesol. The bike is incredibly reliable and stable, no surprises in handling and as fast as any bike I have in descents. I love the bike ambling and hammering; it’s a champ on climbs in either direction, and has always left me comfortable after a long ride. Some bikes demand a great deal or take something out of you for their performance, but this bike keeps me fresh and lets me sit in when I want the bike to take me home. Of course, we’d expect as much from a custom bike built for its owner (and perhaps less if it ridden by others for whom it was not built) but I’m happy to say that the titanium Tournesol 650B exceeds my hopes and expectations. I don’t think the tubing makes much difference in comparison to steel or even aluminum or carbon: instead it’s the overall design values coming together to create a contemporary classic with unmistakable good manners.
Bristol, New York
November 26, 2006