Bicycle Quarterly: Always a Great Read…

Know your audience, and know the audience of the media that you consume…  Good words to live by.

Clearly, if you’re reading this right now you should be a tandem enthusiast. I say should because it’s posted to a blog targeted at tandem enthusiasts and written by a tandem enthusiast who looks at the cycling world through a bike with multiple saddles placed one-behind-the-other.  If you’re a hipster, a trackie, or devotee of fat-tire, golden-age-of-European cycling then much of what I write will probably be of little interest or, perhaps even be somewhat objectionable.  Hey, what can I say, you’re not my target audience.

So it is with Bicycle Quarterly.  Devoted readers are assumed to be bike geeks of the 1st order, and in particular the carry-over crowd from the Vintage Bicycle Quarterly that preceded Bicycle Quarterly.  Now, let’s be clear, just because Jan dropped “vintage” from the title of his magazine and website and now includes more contemporary subjects and bicycle reviews doesn’t change the fact that in his heart and soul, he’s a Vintage Bicycle Quarterly guy.  I don’t have a problem with that, by the way.  Much goodness has come from his sharing of that passion and as cycling moves into a new era where racing bikes are being outsold by comfort or otherwise more practical bikes, the potential audience of BQ continues to expand.

This brings me to the latest edition of BQ, which I’m still reading.  However, I’ve read enough of this current edition to be reminded of all these things mentioned above:

1. Bike geeks will rejoice at the Mel Pinto interview.  I know I did, and it was the first thing I read… twice!!  Mel Pinto is an icon in the American cycling community, bar none, and an immigrant success story that underscores what has always made this country great.  Chances are, if you’ve got a AARP card in your wallet like I do, you’ve probably bought something for a bicycle at some point that went through one of Mel Pinto’s warehouses.

2. Readers who aren’t 100% bought into Jan’s philosophy on cycling technology might find themselves as disappointed with the Surly Big Dummy review, as was Andy Corsan of Surly.  Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that Mr. Corsan was surprised by the flavor of the BQ review.  In fact, it makes me wonder if he’d ever read any back issues of BQ before handing off a Big Dummy as the subject of a review. I’m not into cargo bikes, so I don’t have a dog in this fight.  But, as always, it’s interesting to read the BQ reviews and refreshing to see that they do at least let the builders or folks who are involved in producing bikes respond to their reviews. That’s hugely important to me and something you rarely see in other magazine reviews… noting most of those are fluff pieces.

3. When BQ talks about its objective and double-blind testing, know that the testers are not exactly diverse in their views on cycling and bicycle technology.  Check the bios, note where they live and ride, what they ride, how they ride and then compare that to your own background as a cyclist.  The results are never surprising.  But, then again, the same is typically true of any bicycle review where the person doing the test rides will also have both known and perhaps unknown biases and preferences that shape their impressions.  Again, to be a happy BQ reader means getting your head around the background of the reviewers and editor. Once you get in that place, a lot of what gets written makes sense.  And, I would say that I can see a subtle change in some of Jan’s comments in more recent blog entries where he’s opening up his aperature a bit in keeping with his expanding, broader audience.  His “A Journey of Discovery, Part 7″ was very refreshing.

4. From the Tony Pereira review & comments on disc brakes, I was somewhat surprised to see our friend James Annan’s expose on potential design issues with “some” disc brake and fork combinations dredged-up in the disc brake sidebar.  While not attempting to diminish the fact that there have been some bad disc fork designs, readers really need to look closely at the brake configuration that failed on James & Jules enduro tandem back around December 1st, 2002.  That fork was a disaster waiting to happen, having read the first-hand accounts back in December 2002 on one of the discussion forums I host, we were privy to all of the unpolished, gory details and photos of the poorly designed & modified fork that failed.  Again, a lot of good has come from that incident and all of James subsequent research and public awareness efforts as there have clearly been other disc-brake related front wheel ejection incidents that could have been prevented by something as simple as lawyer lips. But, this is old news to long-time disc brake users who have gotten past a lot of the anxiety that I see whenever a disc-brake bike is reviewed in BQ.  Perhaps some valid concerns, but a very old point of reference.

In closing, make no mistake about it:  I’m a huge fan of Bicycle Quarterly and have the utmost respect for Jan, Mark Alex and the other folks who provide the content and work behind the scenes at BQ, so don’t mis-read that in my comments.   However, know that I go into each edition of BQ with an open mind and an appreciation for who the target audience is and the bias’ and background of the author… after all, I’ve read every issue of Vintage Bicycle Quarterly and Bicycle Quarterly and routinely read Jan’s blog, Off the Beaten Path.

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About TG

I've been around a bit and done a few things, have a couple kids and a few grandkids. I tend to be curmudgeonly, matter-of-fact and not predisposed to self-serving chit-chat. Thankfully, my wife's as nice as can be otherwise we'd have no friends. My interests are somewhat eclectic, but whose aren't?
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4 Responses to Bicycle Quarterly: Always a Great Read…

  1. Wayne says:

    You make a good point that one should always keep in mind the source of the information one is consuming. Bicycle Quarterly does have biases, they are after all human. I do believe they publish honest conclusions given in good faith based on real data.

    I do not know of any other publication that attempts to make objective observations about bicycles. The bicycle publishing industry seems to be an extension of the manufacturer’s publicity departments. I gladly pay the price for my subscription to BQ and wish another more race oriented publisher would dare to put modern equipment to objective testing and not be afraid to state conclusions that might offend manufacturers.

    • TG says:

      Without a doubt, BQ is the most informative and thought provoking technical journal of any type that I read, related to bicycles or otherwise. I can’t wait to get my hands on each new issue and savor every word. Moreover, the back-issues are actually part of an essential library that I frequently dive into, assisted by all of BQ’s detailed footnotes and bibliography. I suspect that’s why I’m more inclined to comment on what I read in BQ, because it inspires critical thinking… often times while out for a ride and thinking back on something I just read earlier in the week. On those few occasions when I’ve found myself trying to find something of interest in a Bicycling Magazine, I can honestly say that there is very little that inspires critical thought, or any thought whatsoever… since most of it is fluff & filler that, as you note, is written in such a way that it doesn’t upset the clients who put ads in the magazine.

  2. Selecting reviewers is not an easy task: You need somebody who has significant experience with a good number of bikes, so they have a frame of reference, plus they need to be able to discern and communicate differences between bicycles. We once went on a ride with four cyclists, all on different bikes: One titanium, one aluminum, one OS steel and my Alex Singer. We switched bikes several times during the ride. Two of the other cyclists could comment only on minor differences: One didn’t like the cloth handlebar tape on my Singer, the other thought the exposed brake cables funny. When asked about more fundamental differences between the bikes, they couldn’t come up with anything. The third rider was Mark Vande Kamp. He articulated a lot of differences in how these bikes felt. He became our second tester for a long time.

    Recently, his preferences began to match mine so closely that I looked for another tester. Hahn Rossman is a racer with little exposure to wide tires, low-trail geometries, etc. However, his preferences are beginning to change, and we’ll soon need to find another tester. Or maybe we’ll just accept that certain geometries handle better, and leave it at that. In the car world, nobody tries to find a tester who believes that a 1965 Chevy Impala with a separate chassis and live rear axle handles better than a BMW 2002 with unibody construction and independent suspension. It is an accepted fact that certain design features make a better car. Even Chevrolets now feature unibody construction and independent suspension.

    The results are never surprising.

    I am surprised by this comment. As you can see in the “Journey of Discovery”
    series on our blog, our preferences have changed greatly since Bicycle Quarterly got started. If you had told me in 1999 that in 10 year’s time, I would be dreaming of a bike with 42 mm tires, a flexible frame and a handlebar bag, I would have laughed. Even 8 years ago, I drafted an order for a custom Alex Singer with 25 mm tires and Reynolds “Super Tourist” tubing. Fortunately, that bike was never built…

    • TG says:

      Selecting reviewers is not an easy task: Agreed, and the reviews are always interesting and well written.

      The results are never surprising. This pertains to the more recent reviews of more contemporary production bikes, more so than anything else.

      I was actually “surpised” to see the Big Dummy being reviewed, not so much with the review itself, much of which wasn’t a surprise… noting I agreed with most of your observations. The aspect of the Big Dummy that wasn’t covered was its appeal to average consumers (i.e., the “cool factor” + just enough utility) to make it a popular cargo bike alternative to X-tra cycle conversions. Perhaps bikes like the Big Dummy will work as a segue to some of the other front-load designs that while unconventional in appearance, tend to be “better” for their design purpose.

      And, yes… I have enjoyed the 7-part Journey series and would agree that where you are today is a somewhat different place than where you were. But, where you are today is a place you’ve been for a while now. So, as you note, perhaps you’ve found that sweet spot. Trust me, I still have an overwhelming desire to find or build a tandem that embodies many of the things that you’ve described and that I see in the classic tandem designs of the 40′s. At some point I will do that to have my own short journey, if you will.

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