An Interview With Steve Hampsten, Part II


In Part II of my interview with Steve Hampsten I get Steve to talk about several of his big loves in equipment: 650B wheels, the constructeur movement and Columbus MAX tubing. His perspective isn’t what I’d call mainstream, but his rationale is so clear that the alternative he offers is truly compelling.

PB—You’ve been at ground zero for the constructeur movement and 650B wheels. What is it about those that interests you and what practical value do you think they offer the average cyclist?

SH—Constructeur bikes—which I’ll define as a made-to-order frame and fork designed to work with dedicated lights, fenders, and (usually) a front bag and rack—have become pretty popular of late. I think they’re an attempt at creating a bicycle that will work well in the real world in terms of being usable in varying types of weather and lighting conditions, and when carrying more than just a spare tube and a gel. As a designer with a hands-on approach, I find integrating the racks, lights, tires, and fenders of these bikes to be both challenging and rewarding—each one is just a little different.

650B wheels are interesting and becoming more so each year. A 650B x 38mm tire offers roughly the same outside diameter as a 700c x 23mm tire—so it’s essentially the same wheel size that most of us are used to but with a much larger volume of air. They’re nice when riding on really rough roads, when carrying a heavy load, when you want that certain Frenchy je ne sais quois—or when you want all three. Currently I have three 650B flat-bar bikes in the works: all three designed as shopping bikes but each is taking a different approach in one form or another.

We should see at least two new 650B x 38mm tires this year—the size many feel is ideal for this wheel—and I think they’ll be better quality than anything we’ve seen previously. It’s maybe not the ideal go-fast tire size but it is comfortable, grippy, and elegantly classic-looking.

PB—How would you compare/contrast the use of 650B wheels to the newish road bike category of endurance bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, Trek Pilot and Felt Z-series which share a longer wheelbase, slacker head tube angle, more fork rake and longer head tube resulting in a higher bar position?

SH—I wouldn’t really compare them at all. The three you mention are closer to our own Strada Bianca and to the Moots Mootour/IF Club Racer/ Co-Mo Nor’wester than they are to a 650B bike like the Rivendell Saluki or Tournesol Pavé. I think most 700C bikes are good for moving a rider and (maybe) a small load over a variety of road surfaces but as the load increases—or the surface becomes less smooth—then smaller wheels with bigger tires start to make more sense. But I like that bigger companies are offering bikes that aren’t simply dumbed-down Pro Tour race bikes, that they’re entertaining the idea there might be more riding experiences to be had than simply hammering along a road in mad pursuit of … what?

PB—Let’s talk a practical consideration: For better or worse, most riders on most group rides are running a 23mm tire at 8 bar (and some guys are running pressure much higher than that). Rolling resistance is much lower than running a 28mm tire at 7 bar or less. That’s some noticeable extra wattage you have to put out to maintain pace with the ride. Do you maintain that these bikes are appropriate for most roadies?

SH—Well Patrick, I’ll have to disagree here with you here: I don’t think that skinny tires pumped hard roll much faster than fatter tires run slightly softer. I agree they FEEL faster because you’re getting more feedback from the road surface and you’re bouncing over all the little bumps and most folks think that feels like speed. I like my skinny tires for some riding and I like the fatties for other rides. I do notice the larger tires seem a little more sluggish to accelerate, which they should as it’s more weight to get moving. But on gravel or on a bumpy road, I’ll take the bigger tire as they feel smoother when rolling and more planted in corners. Horses for courses, as they say.

IMG_1598PB—If you could only ride one bike, a bike that needed to be versatile enough to do your favorite group rides and more, what would that bike be? What size wheels would it have? What would the geo be? What frame material? And heck, what parts would you put on it?

SH—It’d be a welded steel frame from light tubing, probably with a steel fork and for 57mm-reach calipers, same as our Classic model. 700c x 25 or 28mm tires for the day-to-day stuff, maybe 24mm Vittoria Pavé with fenders for the six damp months a year up here, 33.3mm tires for the epic rides. 73 X 72.8, 46mm rake, 70mm BB drop, chainstays at 420mm. I like handbuilt wheels, anything from the Chris King catalog, and SRAM Force is my current favorite kit. Thomson, Fi’zi:k, Deda Zero100 bars, King Cages … bliss.

PB—How many people actually work for Hampsten? Tell us a bit more, if you would, about Max and Martin.

SH—Hampsten is me as the only full-time employee. I have a part-time mechanic, Chris Boedecker, who helps with assembly, repairs, and wheelbuilding as needed. Max does the in-house welded frames and has been building our custom racks, Martin does all of our lugged frames/forks and makes our extra brazed forks as needed.

Max Kullaway started at Rhygin, then moved over to Merlin where he learned to weld – this was back in their days in MA – then worked at Seven until moving out here a couple of years ago. He’s working at a local metal fabrication outfit and also welding titanium frames for Davidson. He and fellow ex-Sevenite, Bernard Georges, have started their own framebuilding gig called 333fab—say “triple-three-fab”—building steel and ti frames for both road and cyclocross. In his spare time Max welds some frames for me, here at my shop – he’s a busy lad!

Martin Tweedy took the framebuilding class at UBI back in 1996 or so then became the first employee at Match Bicycle Company where he brazed several hundred lugged frames for Schwinn Paramount, Beckman, and Rivendell. When Match closed up he worked for Dave Levy at Ti Cycles doing Dave’s brazed frames as well as helping with the Hampsten frames then coming out of Dave’s shop. He had his own line of “Palmares”-badged lugged frames and he has built almost all of the lugged Hampsten frames since 2001. Martin is credited with creating the Hampsten Gran Paradiso/Race geometry back when we worked together at Match; Dave Levy gets most of the credit for the Strada Bianca geometry.

PB—How important is frame material to you? Do you have a preferred frame material?

SH—I like materials that can be welded or brazed. Currently I’m loving my steel frames for their springy resilience but I’m also looking forward to putting some miles in on my aluminum winter bike—I think having a light, stiff bike makes me go a little harder on the hills and maybe slows the fitness degeneration as the days get colder and darker. Titanium feels good too but I just haven’t been grabbing my ti bike as much this year. But overall I’ll take frame fit and design over material choice—I think a good frame can be built from any of the materials out there. (As a footnote: I sure liked all my carbon bikes from Parlee and I can’t imagine that anyone could do carbon better. But Parlee’s pricing moved to a point where I didn’t feel comfortable offering their frames and we parted ways amicably.)

PB—You’ve been getting into building with Columbus MAX. If there’s a stiffer ferrous tubeset on the market, I haven’t ridden it. It’s stiffer than almost every aluminum frame I’ve ridden. Is MAX strictly the domain of the big man, or does it have other applications?

SH—It’s not the tubeset that’s overly stiff, it’s what you do with it that determines how the frame will ride. We’re talking about a top tube that is 31.8mm, bi-axially ovalized, butts are .7/.4/.7mm, and the down tube is 35mm with .8/.5/.8, also ovalized on opposing axes. The seat tube is pretty standard, we don’t use the MAX seatstays, and the chainstays are tall but not crazy heavy. Overall I’d say the wall thicknesses are what we would typically use on many of our steel frames but the MAX diameters are increased by almost 10% which should give an increase in stiffness of about 20%. We don’t use the MAX forks and we save some weight by welding rather than using the MAX lugs and BB shell.

So I could take that tubing and build you a really stiff, short wheel-based race bike and we could pair it with some tall rims and skinny tires pumped hard and we could make it ride like crap—stiff enough to rattle your fillings.

Or we could lengthen the wheelbase, slacken the angles, and orient the top tube so that the oval section was flexing at the head tube, and combine with a carbon or light steel fork. I’d use some lighter seat stays, possibly replace the chainstays with something smaller, put you on some hand-built 3-cross wheels with 28mm tires pumped to 85-90psi and make sure there was enough dirt, cobbles, and/or gravel on the ride to get your attention – then you would see the beauty of the MAX tubeset.

I think it helps to be at or above 180 pounds and to not be too hung up on the weight of the bike but I think MAX is a good example of older technology that still works great today. More on MAX here.


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    1. Author

      I haven’t seen any solid data on the difference in rolling resistance between 650B tires and 700C tires (especially when wider rubber is used) but everything I have seen from tire manufacturers has shown the following:

      The bigger the footprint, the higher the rolling resistance
      Smaller wheels/tires have higher rolling resistance
      The point at which rolling resistance starts going back up based on tire pressure varies according to the stiffness of the casing. The softer the casing the higher the pressure that occurs at. Generally speaking, the break point is north of 8 bar.

      Bear in mind some of what Steve was talking about was using those wheels/tires in off-road circumstances, at which point I agree with him wholeheartedly, but on pavement, there’s nothing I’ve seen to back up his assertion. I’m dismayed to disagree with him; I agree with so much of his perspective.

      What isn’t widely known about rolling resistance is that below about 100-105 psi rolling resistance increases almost exponentially for 700C tires. It’s important to stay above that break point for most situations. All bets are off at Paris-Roubaix.

  2. dodger

    Patrick –

    Jan Heine at Bicycle Quarterly has done rollout tests on various tires to measure the relationship between inflation pressure and resistance. His findings suggest that larger tires, up to a point, may actually be faster in real life conditions (on a smooth track it will be tough to beat a 19mm tubular, but that isn’t what we’re discussing).

    Additionally, Frank Berto has done studies correlating tire drop with rolling resistance. The quick summary of this work is that a 15% tire drop is the ‘sweet spot’.

    What Steve didn’t say, but the studies show, is that at higher pressures internal losses due to flexing of the tire casing decrease, but
    suspension losses due to vibrating and bouncing of the bike increase.

    I know it will be hard to convince die-hard skinny tire advocates to consider a different point of view. And I will admit that I still ride 23mm tubs as often as possible. But I also have two bikes with wider tires, although I am not a 650b convert, and I know firsthand the benefits of rolling some other rubber. Perhaps Steve said it best: horses for courses.

    Great piece by the way. Reading your stuff is always a pleasure. (And I still miss Asphalt!)

    1. Author

      Dodger: It’s amazing to me that we’re still learning about tire performance and rolling resistance in the 21st century, but it’s the truth. I saw a graph concerning rolling resistance based on tire inflation, but unfortunately I’m not at liberty to reprint it. What it showed was that the decrease in rolling resistance wasn’t a linear function. Initially, it drops dramatically with each pound of pressure increase. Depending on the size and construction of tire, there comes a break point in the curve somewhere around 100 psi. From that point on the increase switches from an essentially exponential function to a linear one. Finally, rolling resistance tests performed on pavement (at least one of the manufacturers has an asphalt covered drum to perform such tests) show that RR starts to increase again somewhere around 140 psi.

      Steve really hit the nail on the head when he said “horses for courses.” There’s a good reason why racing bikes have gravitated to the 23mm tire in the last 40 years. And there’s an equally good reason for why Coppi and his brethren raced a much fatter tire, a tire similar to what’s raced in ‘cross today.

      Thanks for the kind words about Asphalt. Its demise came as a surprise to me and was entirely against my will. I was sad to see it end.

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