Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Schwinn Sports Tourer Build: Drivetrain

When I moved from my battered old Raleigh to the shiny new Shogun, and then from the Shogun to the Kestrel, each step represented a leap forward in the quality of shifting. The Shogun was my first taste of reliable indexed shifting. And with the improvements in the derailleurs, shifters and rear cassette design that came with the Kestrel, shifting became rapid, skip-less and effortless.

In building up my Schwinn, I really had no interest in moving back to the dark ages of shifting. I wanted the drivetrain to perform like a bike from 1992, not 1972. Even in 2008, that's a pretty good thing (and actually it makes me think that I should go ride a current road bike to see what the state of shifting is like today). So what did I do? Well, I bought a bunch of 1990's Shimano drivetrain bits and put them together on the Schwinn. And I learned a lot in the process.

I've listed most of the bits before -- 105SC hubs, crankset and front derailleur, 700CX rear derailleur (long cage), 7-speed shimano cassette, SRAM chain, and I actually started out with Ultegra 8-speed bar-end shifters. During the initial drivetrain installation, the only thing that stymied me was that the seat tube was a little too large for the clamp-on Ultegra front derailleur I'd bought for the bike. I could almost get it around the tube, but tightening the bolt was going to either remove some paint paint, or more likely crimp the tube or snap the derailleur's clamp, none of which was on my list of goals.

So instead, I bought a slightly oversized clamp-on derailleur mount to adapt a braze-on front derailleur to the bike. I had the Kestrel's original front derailleur in my parts box, so that made making that shift easy. And three strips of aluminum flashing shimmed the clamp so it gripped the seat tube tightly enough. In truth I first shimmed it with two strips of thicker copper flashing. But the clamp is aluminum, and I eventually remembered that you're not supposed to have aluminum and copper touching, or they'll corrode. Not a big deal to swap out, though.

The maiden ride on the bike was with all those pieces in place, and the picture from a few posts back (of the bike in front of the rhododendron) was in that state of build. The only problem is that this configuration didn't work very well, and not only in the drivetrain department.

I'll get to some of the other issues later, but there were two main drivetrain problems. First, I couldn't get the 8-speed indexing to work right with the 7-speed rear cluster. I'd read (I think on Sheldon's site) that the two were pretty close, and that you could usually just set the adjustments up so that the last click was wasted and everything would work OK. Not so, in my case. I was never able to eliminate all the chatter that signals a misadjusted derailleur cable, and I'm very sensitive to annoying misadjusted derailleur cable clicking. For a while I turned off indexing on the shifters, and that of course let me trim the derailleur properly. And since I was living un-indexed, I eventually swapped them out to try out retrofriction units. What I've found since, is that I actually like non-indexed shifting just fine -- it's the smoothness of the gear change that's most important to me. And one of these days I'll try the retrofriction bar end shifters available from either Rivendell or Velo-Orange -- the Suntours are a little stiff.

The second problem was more vexing, and it's not often you get to use the word "vexing", is it? Anyway, the second problem was that the derailleur wasn't maintaining correct spacing, relative to the cogs. Remember that the function of a rear derailleur is to engage the chain with a specific sprocket of the rider's choosing. And the guide pulley has to sit in the right place, relative to the engaged sprocket, for the derailleur to do its job well. So this is pretty important stuff. On the Schwinn, the guide pulley was basically riding right on the cog, especially the largest one. It shifted OK, but it was noisy and struck me as a recipe for premature pulley wear.

I'd never had to use one, but I knew that derailleurs have an adjustment screw to properly position the guide pulley, relative to the sprockets. So the first thing I tried was to adjust the derailleur positioning screw. It didn't seem to help much, so I went out and bought a longer screw. Still no help. So I flipped the bike over and watched what happened with the screw when I adjusted it, and I found that the screw was angled such that it just overshot the little flat spot on the dropout it was supposed to engage with. The screw was doing absolutely no good at all. I tried a couple of things, including taking the screw out and threading it into its hole from the front, hoping the head would hit the right spot on the dropout, but that didn't work either.

I went online and eventually discovered that the Huret dropouts on the Schwinn were not consistent with the modern standard for locating the derailleur adjustment flat. I may have interpreted things incorrectly, but I think it basically said Campagnolo's standard for dropout shape ultimately prevailed, and everyone uses that spec today, including Shimano. On the Huret, that flat is maybe 30 degrees further forward, relative to the derailleur pivot bolt, which was far enough to render the adjustment screw useless.

One site I found showed some adapters that used to be available so that Campagnolo derailleurs could be used with Huret dropouts. Ah-ha! I shut the laptop and let my brain chew on the notion of an adapter for a bit. I ruled out trying to braze a wedge of metal to the flat to pull it rearward where it was needed, if only because I don't have any brazing equipment and don't know how to braze. I also ruled out trying to find an appropriate Huret derailleur, because I wanted the modern shifting quality of current Shimano bits. The adapter idea seemed to be the best option. I sketched out a couple of things involving fender washers, but was concerned about being able to cut and bend one with any accuracy -- they tend to be kind of thick, and mild steel also tends to rust.

Then a picture of the pile of screws and washers I have out in the barn popped into my mind, focused on a funny-looking plumbing washer I had. It was kind of like a fender washer, except in very thin, chromed brass and with two flat sides. Kind of shaped like a capital "O" in an old monospaced typeface or something. I walked out to the barn, grabbed the washer right off the pile where I'd pictured it, grabbed my tin snips and a small pair of pliers and started cutting and bending. No more than 5 minutes later I was looking at the thing in the picture, less the ragged center hole, which I hadn't yet drilled out.

Adapter in hand, I went back out to the barn, took off the rear derailleur and tried to fit it over the derailleur mounting bolt. The hole was a little too small to go over the bolt, so it was enlarged on my drill press (it got out of my vise in the process, which is why it looks so terrible in the picture). Ragged or not, this time it fit on the derailleur, and when I bolted the derailleur down, everything pretty much lined up. I had to tweak the folded tabs a bit to be more radial to the hole, but it fit perfectly otherwise. While I had it off, I took the picture, then cleaned up the snipped edges with a file, and it went back on the bike where it sits today, undisturbed and working invisibly to properly position the derailleur.

Now the cool thing for me is that I did all of this freehand. No measuring, no planning beyond a sketch, all freehand cutting and bending, and only the slightest bit of fitting during installation. I didn't even take the derailleur off the dropout to eyeball everything before I made the part -- I just grabbed the washer and started cutting and bending. Not bad, eh?

The only other thing I've really fooled with on the bike are pedals. I did the original build with Look road pedals. But as soon as I remembered how wiggly my daughter was on the trailer bike (especially this big, dramatic one -- you'll notice the look of suffering on her face in such an idyllic location), it occurred to me that trying to hold us up at a stoplight with only a hard plastic triangular contact patch on the pavement probably wouldn't have been the smartest thing to do. So I swapped those for some Look mountain bike pedals I have, which use SPD-compatible shoes with normal rubber soles. Those worked pretty well, and gave me plenty of grip. But the shoes always make my toes fall asleep in short order, and that didn't seem like a lot of fun for longer rides that were part of my mission for this bike.

Then at some point I read Grant Peterson's post about cycling shoes, and just loved the utter contrariness of it all. I just couldn't resist changing things up a bit to see what Grant was talking about. I bought a pair of Rivendell's Grip King pedals, and gave them a try with a stiff-ish pair of Teva's I had kicking around. The jury is still out for me on the whole unclipped pedaling experience. It has advantages in some situations, but I find my feet slipping forward off the pedals at the top of the stroke. I may not be pedaling in 360 degrees, to Grant's point, but my stroke has adapted to being clipped in, just the same. For now, I'm keeping them on the Schwinn, but on my other bikes I'm sticking with my Look's.

So quite a bit of discovery in here, about the bike, about component compatibility, about my own ability to fabricate stuff, and about different approaches to riding. As to the challenges -- in all there was nothing truly difficult, it felt good to solve these problems. Still does, in fact.

All for now,


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Schwinn Sports Tourer Build: Head parts

I didn't start to pull the Schwinn apart or attempt to rebuild it until I understood a bit about how it was going to go back together. And when working with an older bike, this is a process often full of potential surprises, because though there is some consensus around specifications and standards for bicycles, there's also a fair amount of divergence from those standards. These days, that divergence is usually in the name of innovation or performance, but in the old days it appears to have been more based on national or regional industry preferences than anything else. If you spend any time on Sheldon Brown's site, you can't help but bump into this reality, as it weaves its way through many of the articles up there. All things considered, the Schwinn wasn't hard to rebuild, but doing some research ahead of time certainly helped.

An area I did a lot of research about was in the area of the steering head. The Allegro had French threading on the fork's steerer tube and a French-spec inside diameter to the steerer tube, which had caused me some consternation in finding a replacement top nut for the Campagnolo headset, as well as a fair amount of difficulty locating a decent handlebar stem. Truth is I gave up on the frame at least in part because I wasn't finding what I wanted for steering parts.

I wasn't thrilled to learn that the Schwinn didn't use a modern headset spec, but by the time I figured that out I already had the frame. And as I looked around eBay, it didn't appear that there was much of a shortage of old-style US-spec headsets, as it was commonly used not just for Schwinns and the like, but also for BMX bikes. The bigger issue I had was finding a quality headset of this spec, not finding one at all. You can read all about the US/BMX headset spec on Sheldon Brown's website, as usual.

If you follow that link, you'll notice two things, there. First that the headset cup sizes are pretty far removed from other specs, and second that the inner diameter of the steerer tube is pretty different from that of other sizes, which meant I'd have to find an appropriate handlebar stem. I briefly considered replacing the fork and going with a threadless headset to get something a little more contemporary and avoid the challenge of finding an appropriate stem. But ultimately I decided to try to stick with a more original configuration in this case.

The first headset I bought was an Odyssey Dynatron. I found it on eBay, so I didn't have a chance to inspect it at all, and the description was pretty brief. When I got it, I was surprised to find that the grease cups were some sort of rubber or silicone or neoprene or something. The only thing I can figure is that this was an effort to make the headset serviceable in-place -- flip the cups up and out of the way, flush the bearings with degreaser, let them dry, grease them up, and off you go. It's a theory I haven't tested or tried to validate in any way.

I installed the Dynatron, as it seemed to be reasonably well made. The races were clean, the balls looked to be pretty decent and it had a nice level of finish to it. But once I got everything together, the floppy nature of the cups started to concern me. This was a road bike, after all, not a BMX racer. Why would I want soft cups that would allow grease to escape and grime to enter? I didn't want to be constantly checking the grease levels or servicing the headset, honestly, and when I popped the lower cup out of place when installing a front brake one day, I decided to swap it out.

I bought a replacement headset at a LBS. I don't really remember the brand, but it was the only one they had, and when I got it home and looked at it, I quickly wrapped it back up and put it back in its box. This was one of those cheap Chinese units that had rough bearing cages, coarsely machined interior cup surfaces, and appeared to have been made with all the care and finish of a popsicle stick. Back to eBay for another solution.

There I found a new old stock Tange BMX headset. Now, I am certain that Tange made as many cheap headsets in their day as they made nice ones, but the ones I've had have given me no reason to complain. So I snagged it and was reasonably pleased with it when it arrived. The only thing that gave me any concern was the headset's unsealed cups. The gap around the lower cup was fairly wide, and I judged pretty much guaranteed to let crud into the bearings. And unlike the Dynatron, servicing that steel headset would require some effort.

Years ago, though, I recalled seeing a little neoprene scarf from Lizard Skins designed to be strapped around lower headset cups on mountain bikes to effectively create an outer barrier to crud. A little digging online turned one of these up, and that pretty much put to rest any concerns I had about the lower headset seal. The Tange headset and Lizard Skins seal are now providing great service on the Schwinn, and the lower bearing is now further protected by a front fender.

Finding a 21.15mm-steerer handlebar stem was actually pretty simple. Steel units from old Schwinn kids and cruiser models abound, though they're often a little scruffy. I wanted something lighter, but traditional "10-speed" style Schwinn stems seemed pretty rare. So when I found a fairly nice aluminum gooseneck unit that mimicked the lines of the old chromed steel ones, I snapped it up and it slipped right into the steerer like it was made for it. Which it was, of course.

Unfortunately, it wasn't made for road bars. Something I didn't consider (for even a moment) when purchasing the stem was that road bars have a lot more curve to them than city, mountain or traditional cruiser bars found on the types of Schwinns those stems came on. The Nitto 115 bars I had on hand wouldn't thread through the gooseneck stem, unfortunately. The stem's clamp area was too wide and it wouldn't handle the radius on the bars. Back to eBay!

After a few weeks, a suitable OEM Schwinn stem was listed, and I managed to "win" the auction without dropping a lot of money in the process. Once again, it slipped effortlessly into the steerer tube, and this time the bars wound their way through the clamp, too. But older Schwinn stems were apparently not made for sleeved Nitto bars -- the clamp diameter was just a hair too narrow. So I used a pair of wedge-shaped pliers as a wedge (imagine), spreading the clamp just a smidge, then slipped the bars in. As I said previously, they creak anyway, so I'm going to pull them out and use a set of Belleri randonneuring bars. These have a ballooned clamp area, so shouldn't creak, and they have, as an added bonus, a smaller clamp diameter than the Nitto bars.

I guess the only other thing to add re: the head parts is that there's a brake cable hanger for the centerpull brakes setting under the top nut on the headset. It's a chromed steel Mafac part that unfortunately flexes quite a bit under braking. But given that the steerer tube was long ago cut to length for something similar in thickness, I don't think I have enough room to put something thicker and stiffer in there. As I said in my last post, I'm satisfied with the brakes now that I've changed them to Mafac's anyway, but that's another topic.

All for now,


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sports Tourer Build

I mentioned that my Schwinn Sports Tourer frameset came to me with four installed components -- the headset, the bottom bracket, the seatpost clamp and the kickstand. Of the four, only one was used during the build -- the kickstand. Everything else had to be sourced, either from my existing parts cache or from somewhere else.

Why did I toss the headset, BB and seatpost clamp? Well, the headset didn't feel bad, but it didn't feel great, either. It had just a hint of indexing to it, where you can feel indentations as the bearing turns, corresponding to places where balls have pitted or dented the races. The bottom bracket likewise just didn't feel good. Plus it was a cup-and-cone bottom bracket, and history has shown that I have no talent for adjusting these properly -- they always loosen up on me. And it was a Nervar, which wasn't going to work with the crankset I had in mind. And finally, the seatpost clamp was both incomplete (but otherwise in good condition) and perhaps the most poorly finished bicycle part I've ever seen in my life. It was purportedly a Schwinn original, which I think is true, and let me tell you, it was hideous. All three of these were removed and either discarded or flung into a box. After all, I was starting from scratch -- why start with stuff I wasn't happy with? And with that, the Schwinn became something of a blank canvas.

I've already said I wanted a relatively modern build-up, and as I gathered parts first for the Allegro and ultimately for the Schwinn, I kept that in mind. And fortunately, I had a bunch of stuff kicking around to draw from.

A decade or more ago, I rebuilt my wife's lowish-end Bianchi with a better set of components. Off came a bunch of heavy 300EX parts, and on went a more or less complete Shimano 105SC groupset, less the brake levers and bottom bracket. It received 8-speed wheels, with 105SC hubs and Velocity rims, a 105SC triple crank, Ultegra 8-speed shifters, 105SC front and rear derailleurs, and 105SC brake calipers. My wife is petite, always a little intimidated by her bike, and she pretty much stopped riding once we had kids. So 18 months ago, I started trying to make the Bianchi a little more user-friendly. I bought a set of vintage Campagnolo hubs and a new set of Rigida 650B rims, had a set of wheels built out of those. I got a 7-speed Shimano freewheel, a pair of Tektro long reach brake calipers and short reach Cane Creek levers, a Brooks saddle and bar tape and set to work making her old Bianchi into what is now a lovely light touring bike with comfy cushy tires. The fork was swapped a couple of times in the process, too. Actually, the Bianchi's various states of being are really a story for another post, but the point is I freed up a bunch of parts in the process, some of which were immediately bolted onto other bikes, and others of which went into a parts box for future use.

A pair of wheels is what provides the dominant shape (and name, for that matter) of a bicycle. The Schwinn began to take shape when I clamped on an idle but well-loved wheelset. The wheels had been on my Kestrel until my wife's 8-speed wheelset was freed up, and were comprised of that bike's original 105SC hubs with a set of Mavic rims, slightly mismatched, that had over time replaced the OEM Araya rims.

To turn the wheels, you need a drivetrain. I had also at some point set aside the 105SC crankset that originally came with the Kestrel. It had been scratched since the day I bought it (scratched in the showroom by a metal stand designed to slide over the left crank arm -- bad design), and I'd replaced it after several years of use with an essentially identical (but prettier) crankset. That went onto the Schwinn as soon as I picked up a cartridge bottom bracket in the right size. Looking for wide gearing, I scavenged a set of 39/52 chainrings from the Shogun and put the original Biopace chainrings back on that bike before sending it off to my brother in law. Screwed into the crank arms at the moment are a set of pedals from Rivendell (I love this article, btw). They have a monstrous platform, and look kinda funny. They work just fine, but I'm not necessarily sold on free pedaling, vs. using clipless pedals.

I didn't want to buy a triple crank, but did want to use this bike for light touring. So I bought the widest spread in a rear cassette I could find -- 14-34, I think it is. So my lowest gear is a 39/34 combo, which is short enough for most situations. To swap gears, I bought a Shimano 700CX rear derailleur. This is a groupset I've never seen before, but it looks just as nice as LX or 105 stuff. It's apparently a decent cross bike groupset. In any case, it's attractive, aluminum, and it works. For the front derailleur, my hope was to use an Ultegra clamp-on derailleur that I'd bought, but that didn't work out so well. I ended up buying a clamp for a braze-on derailleur and using the 105SC front derailleur that originally came on the Kestrel (which had since been upgraded to Ultegra).

But as someone said (Pirelli?) -- power is nothing without control. And the primary controls on a bike center around the handlebars. I went through a handful of headsets before settling on a classic Tange unit, and found an original Schwinn stem. For handlebars and brake levers, I used the ones I had on the Paramount when it was built up as a commuter bike. That would be a set of 105SC brake levers clamped to a Nitto 115 bar. Which creaks maddeningly and is slated to be swapped for a Belleri I bought from Velo Orange last summer. The shifters are bar-ends, and at the moment they're old Suntour retrofriciton models.

The rider needs somewhere to sit, of course. The seatpost was easy -- it's one that came on my wife's Bianchi that I swapped out in favor of a beautiful old Campagnolo post at some point. And that's one of the few easy things on the bike! Clamped to the top of it is a green Brooks B-17 Champion Special, with the big copper rivets. Securing the seatpost is a modern aluminum seatpost clamp that I really wish was polished instead of black. Hanging from this clamp is a cable hanger that lets me use centerpull brakes.

Brakes! Yes, once everything is set up for going, you will eventually need to think about stopping. Because I built a bike laid out for 27" rims up with 700C rims, the brake reach is pretty long, particularly in the rear. And getting to brakes that didn't suck royally took some doing. I'm currently running a set of Mafac calipers front and rear, and they work way better than I expected them to. There's a lot of flex (which makes their effectiveness hard to fathom) and a little noise, but it's hard to complain about their functionality. The rear Mafac is essentially at its very limit in terms of pad adjustment and I really need to find a set of Mafac RAID's to address that.

Bikes are much more useful if you can carry stuff around, and even more so if you don't have to worry about getting sprayed with road crud on damp days. Bolted to the front Mafac is a little square rack that doesn't have the pretty and delicate lines of the old Mafac racklet, but it's got a bigger platform to support a handlebar bag, and I'm using a biggish bag up there. At the rear there is a Velo Orange rack (in truth it was a "seconds" purchase) that I need to figure out what to do with. The problem being that my panniers won't hang on it. I need a new rack or new panniers. Fitting between the racks and wheels at both ends are a cheap set of zefal plastic fenders that are functional, if not elegant. The rear needs a spacer at the front mounting point -- it bends way forward and looks terrible, I know.

And finally, there are a few other accessories lashed to the frame that keep me rolling. I have a Quicker pump, a pair of King stainless bottle cages that feel like they'd survive a thermonuclear blast, bolted to odd but effective mounts from Minoura I think. I have a Blackburn computer with cadence giving me data. And there's that wonderful kickstand! Of course it holds everything up, without having to lean the bike on anything. What's nice about that is that the only scuffs on my Brooks are from my 4 year old daughter knocking the bike over. In both directions. On the same day. So at least there's love there. A brass bell is clamped to the stem, sitting just in reach of my thumb. I don't use it much, but it chatters incessantly on New England roads, keeping me company, I suppose. And... I think that's it. The current final result is shown here. But as with all my bikes, it's a work in progress, and bound to change.

I bet there are 10 posts buried in the paragraphs above, each with a lesson about what worked and didn't, and the sometimes circuitous route I took in getting to the build above. Should be fun!

All for now,


Sunday, November 16, 2008

1972 Schwinn Sports Tourer

About 18 months ago I bought (I'm hard pressed to use the term "won" for an eBay auction) an Allegro frameset and started gathering parts for it. It was a pretty frame, with fancy Nervex lugs and 531 tubing, but it had a few more issues than I was ultimately willing to correct -- namely some rusty cable stops that needed to be ground off, and a thick layer of awful blue paint. So I ended up selling it and looking for something else. The something else was also found on eBay -- a 1972 Schwinn Sports Tourer frameset located in Somerville -- nice and local. Not that not having to ship it helped me much -- there was a bidding run at the end of the auction, and it wasn't at all cheap. I could actually have spent just a bit more and bought a complete vintage Sports Tourer!

But that wouldn't have fit the plan, honestly. The plan was not to have a period-correct bike, but rather to find a classic and user-friendly frameset, build it up with a modern component group and end up with an all-rounder to tow my kids with. I remembered without fondness the sloppy shifting and sketchy braking of my old 10-speeds, and wasn't having any of that. And I wanted more than 10 speeds, too -- 14 was the plan, mostly because I already had a 7-speed wheelset.

When I saw the frameset on eBay, I did a little research about the fillet-brazed Schwinns on Sheldon Brown's treasure trove of a website at Just as his site had helped me while I gathered parts for the Allegro, it came through for me again in researching the Schwinn. Actually, before researching the Allegro, I didn't know who Sheldon was, but I recognized him from his pictures as someone I'd seen around. I started looking at the Schwinn just after he passed away, and his site helped me throughout the build -- thank you, Sheldon!

What I liked about the Schwinn is that it is unique. It has uncommon construction and a mix of features that make it sort of a bridge between two eras of cycling in the US. It has many of the characteristics of "modern" higher-end bicycles, but also carries over attributes from traditional American bikes. For example, sitting just behind the contemporary English-threaded bottom bracket shell (as opposed to an Ashtabula-style bottom bracket shell), is a brazed-on Schwinn kickstand mount and chromed steel kickstand. What I didn't realize then is how far that blending of eras carries with this bike. While the frame's classic lines call out "lightweight 10-speed", virtually nothing on the bike adheres to the standards of lightweight European or Japanese 10-speed, but instead follows Schwinn's usual practice. This made the build interesting, to say the least, since modern component manufacturers pay little attention to Schwinn's old specifications. More about these nuances later.

The frameset is orange, and the paint seems exceptionally tough, which is great. It came with a headset, bottom bracket, partial seatpost clamp and that massive and wonderfully practical kickstand. Everything else was left for me to source. I thought I had some pictures of the frameset from just after I bought it, but I must have deleted them. But here's a shot taken just after I finished the first iteration of the build. The bike has changed quite a bit since, having evolved from this relatively sporty build in more of a light touring direction.

I've already written about how much I enjoy the Schwinn, now that it's built up. It rides comfortably, steers with confidence, and though it's a little heavy, it's as solid as a rock. And in one of my first rides pulling the trailer bike with it, I rediscovered the ability for a road bike to tackle diverse terrain. During a hike with the family last Spring, I doubled back to the parking lot to check on the bike and trailer bike, which weren't secured to anything. On a lark, I decided to try riding back to the family, taking the rig onto the footpaths in our local convservation land, and much to my surprise there was absolutely no drama in doing so. There's a photo up here in an earlier post from that day, in fact. My daughter and I even rode out together, once I met back up with them. The Schwinn has turned out to be even more than I hoped it would -- it's a great companion for rides where I'm not quite sure where I'm going to end up.

I'm going to keep this short, and follow this introduction up with a handful of short and detailed posts about the build. I want to share some of the challenges the build posed, mainly owing to the differences in standards I mentioned above, and also what I learned in experimenting with different components. My hope is that someone out there in the world building up an old Sports Tourer will benefit from those experiences and opinions.

There's one other goal, there, as well. One of my objectives for this blog was to learn a bit about social media tools through experimentation. I've been using Blogger and Blogspot for 10 weeks or so, now, and for the past few weeks have had Google Analytics installed as well. I'll be interested in seeing how changing up the content, organization and titles of my posts affects traffic and visitor activity. That's not all that interesting to readers, of course, but it's good stuff, sitting in this chair.

All for now,


Friday, November 7, 2008


When I was a kid, I rode my bikes pretty much everywhere. And I don't just mean that I spent a lot of time on bikes. That's true, yes, but what I really mean is that I rode whatever bike I had at that time just about anywhere they'd roll, and most of them could roll just about anywhere.

The first bike I had that was really specialized in a specific direction was the Shogun. It was nearly unrideable on anything but paved roads. I think it originally came with 25mm wide tires -- hard to say, really. But as they wore or were damaged, they were replaced by tires even narrower. At one point I was running 700x20 Continental Grand Prix tires that non-cyclists would even take note of as being impressively narrow. But they were also fragile, harsh and made the off-road limitations of the Shogun even more pronounced. Good sense eventually got the better of me, and the last tires I installed were 28mm wide.

The tires weren't the only problem, of course. The geometry of that Shogun's frame (and that of the Kestrel that followed, for that matter) was laid out for responsive handling, not for stability. I won't claim expertse about bike geometry, but the angles of the head and seat tubes, along with the shapes of the fork blades (where they locate the wheel, relative to the head tube, essentially), has a lot to do with how a bike feels from the saddle and behaves underneath you. Look at a bike from the side, squatting down low. Notice how the seat tube angles back towards the rear? And likewise the head tube? In general, bikes with steeper angles tend to be twitchier, and bikes with shallower angles tend to be more stable. Or something. In any case the Shogun is a nimble bike, not a stable bike, and it's not particularly happy on gravel or grass, or anything sandy. The Kestrel is worse -- it just wants to crash on any of the above. A slight exaggeration, but even so, after riding these two for a few years, I pretty much forgot that it was even possible to ride road bikes across any of those types of terrain.

So where was I going with all that... right -- mountain bikes! Being a roadie, for a while I looked at mountain bikes with scorn. They were heavy, slow and clumsy, from what I could tell, and with such big tires! I'd see (and hear) them riding on the road, and I just knew the rider was working hard. And when I saw them at the MS rides I'd participate in, I just couldn't believe anyone would do that to themselves, riding one of those any distance on the road. I still can't, actually, but a lot of my other opinions have since been reshaped by experience.

Sometime in '94 or '95, I bought my Paramount. It was new, but was at least one season old; perhaps a few. I picked it up for between $400 and $450, if I recall, in a bike shop down in the Branford, CT area where a nearly lifelong friend lived at the time. They had a range of Paramount mountain bikes, and the cheapest of them was the one I picked -- a series 20. The PDG bikes were designed and spec'ed by the Paramount group, as I understand it, but built in Japan. The higher-end bikes were really nice, but even my lower-end model compares well with contemporaries. The frame and fork is made of Tange Prestige (heat treated butted chromoly) tubing, which gives a nice ring when you tap on it. The dropouts are forged, both on the fork and the rear triangle. The construction is tig-welded, which isn't as nice as lugged construction, but less labor intensive. It's a rigid bike dating before even suspension forks were common or affordable, and its geometry wouldn't readily accomodate a longer fork (suspension forks are longer). And finally, the details on the frame are pretty nice -- it has cable stops and cable-guiding noodles, a pulley to re-route the front derailleur cable from a top pull to a bottom pull, a chain peg, two bottle cages, and even rack eyelets on the dropouts and seat stays. It's a pretty fancy frame for a low-end model. The paint job is a pearlescent white, kind of like an old Lexus.

I honestly don't remember why I bought it, other than that whole toy acquisition thing. I really don't remember test riding it -- certainly not the same way I remember the first ride on the Shogun, or the first few strokes of the crank on the Kestrel. I think I may have taken it out into the parking lot and ridden it around there. Maybe dropped the front tire slowly over the curb and off the sidewalk, down into the parking lot. I probably swerved it around and got a sense for just how much I could move around on it, getting it around this thing or that. And I probably cruised over bark mulch and grass and other stuff around the perimiter of the lot, all without crashing. I don't remember first experiencing any of these things, but of course I know all of them well, today. Where my road bikes lock me into a handful of poses, facilitating a fast, smooth, efficient spin, my Paramount encourages me to get up out of the saddle and throw the bike around underneath me. It's a very different style of riding, and it's satisfying in very different ways.

For several seasons, the Paramount served me very well in its intended role. I rode it around the woods in Lincoln and Belmont, MA on a regular basis, and occasionally in some of the green spaces in Boston. But the place I worked it hardest was up in New Hampshire, where it would occasionally carry me through multi-hour Odysseys in the mountains. The friend I mentioned (Dan Collins -- now married and up in Calgary with a young family) had ended up with the same model Paramount, in black, perhaps a year after I bought mine, and we both still own them. Up outside of Laconia, Dan and I would ride through mud, alongside beaver ponds, over dirt singletrack, across mountain-top grass fields, and ocasionally over bare rock. Ascents were always a bear, and descents always a rush. We got lost, ran out of food and water, but had a great time in the process. And we managed not to get shot or even shot at by the deer hunters sharing those woods (no it wasn't smart, I agree).

The components our bikes came with were Suntour XC Ltd. These were perfectly serviceable, and are actually very nice bits, with lots of aluminum and a nice level of finish. The drivetrain didn't work as well as the later Shimano LX/XT components that adorn the bike these days, but they give away nothing in appearance and finish. And many of the components are still on the bike, working perfectly well -- the crankset, the front derailleur, the front hub and skewer and the cantilever brakes. On mine, the shifters, brake levers, rear derailleur and rear hub have all been swapped for Shimano stuff. I'm not really sure what Dan has on his these days, but I'm pretty sure it's a similar mix of original and replacement bits.

For my bike, the changes were really prompted by an impulse purchase of a Trek 950 mountain bike in 1996, along with a desire to ride to work from time to time. The Trek is a slightly more compact bke, and it's a bit more comfortable to ride in the woods, because you're not so far stretched out (the Paramount was a little extreme that way). And though the Trek is not a fancy or high-end bike, it's by no means junk. In any case, in adding the Trek to the stable, I was able to repurpose the Paramount as a commuting bike, by adding a different stem, road handlebars, road brake levers, slick tires, bar end shifters and a rack. I had to cobble up some inline cable adjusters in the process, so that I could adjust brake cable tension as the cables stretched and pads wore. A couple of years after this, these became readily available commercial items, but at the time they seemed to be nowhere to be found.

I rode the twelve miles to work from Waltham to Cambridge maybe twenty times during the year after I repurposed the Paramount. I know that's a feeble stat for many folks, but hey, it's a start. I also took that bike on a couple of light touring rides, where it and I served as the cargo mule. Unfortunately, we ultimately moved out to the suburbs, out of practical range of a bike commute, and my wife and I carpooled into town instead. I've worked in two other companies since, each progressively further away from the house, and the practicality of commuting by bike just hasn't been there.

In truth, the Paramount was just OK for this role anyway. The rear triangle is too short for bags to fit comfortably, and my heels rubbed the panniers. And with the saddle high enough for road riding, the riding position is too far back on the bike. This unloads the front tire and makes for dodgy climbing stability. But the bike looked good and steered well, and I really I liked the idea of having it in that configuration. It seemed like an ideal bike to give to my Dad when he expressed an interest in riding, since it was geared so widely. But unfortunately it sat out in his woodshed unused.

Three seasons ago, I started riding again and bought the Trek trailer bike you've seen before to take my older daughter Juliana along with me. The Shogun and Kestrel were completely unsuited to tow duty. Kids move around a lot, and the trailer bike mounting system translates those wiggles and weight shifts into a lot of wobble on the bike. Wobble doesn't translate well on a twitchy bike that wants to crash on unpaved surfaces, and riding that way was really pretty unpleasant. And though I tried my Trek a few times, it wasn't really right either -- too inefficient and not enough positions for long road rides.

Since I wasn't doing any mountain biking at all, I dropped the Trek off at my folks' house for my Dad, and collected the Paramount, still in commuter guise. And it was a great bike for that purpose, except that the brakes didn't feel quite secure enough (because of those cobbled together adjusters, which always flexed a bit). Since it was a mountain bike, Juli could wiggle without introducing too much wobble, and even if I was deflected off course, the bike would just roll over whatever was in its new path, rather than crash. Good stuff!

Then this year, I built up my 1972 Schwinn Sports Tourer and tried it out with the trailer bike. It worked really well, actually. More efficient than the Paramount, nearly as stable (and more stable on climbs), and suddenly my remaining need for a repurposed mountain bike vanished. And the Schwinn even reminded me that not only mountain bikes can be ridden off road, but that's another posting for another day.

I didn't have a mountain bike on hand anymore, so the Paramount began its transformation back into a mountain bike. It's got mountain bars, brake levers and shifters on it again, but I need to take the racks off and swap the road tires to true knobbies to complete the transformation.

I brought the Paramount with me to the apartment, with every intention of using it to go to the supermarket up the road, but that didn't work out. The fork popped out of the rack when I pulled into the driveway of the apartment on my first trip over here, and bent one of the forged tips. I found a replacement fork on eBay (and it's a nice one -- a Tange fork with investment cast dropouts), but haven't had the time to install the fork, yet -- two months on. This month, I'm telling myself again, now that it's November.

I suppose the inactivity isn't surprising. With the arrival of fall has come a need to tinker with tractors, and I've somehow had less time to play living in the apartment than I had living at the house. Besides, in a sense, the apartment itself is an escape, and I've needed to escape into tinkering to a lesser degree. The trial period of our separation is winding down, though, and it's time for me to figure out what to do about all this escaping.

All for now,