Friday, December 26, 2008

Planting Seeds

In some of my earliest posts, I wrote a bit about cycling and what it means for me. Physically, it keeps me relatively fit. Mentally, it gives me a hobby and blocks of time to process the junk that builds up in my brain during the rest of my waking hours. Creatively, it gives me the ability to fabricate things, solve problems, and it gives me material to write about. It mobilizes me, and lets me get out and explore the region in a way that a car or motorcycle just can't replicate (they're both too fast, and cars are too insular). And it lets me just play with these simple, elegant and efficient machines.

My introduction to cycling was deliberate but casual. Both of my parents rode a lot when they were kids, but neither has ridden much as an adult, from what I can tell. Still, they provided me with no less than four bikes during my childhood. And because I was so into riding, the fourth was something of an upgrade compared to the bikes anyone else in my family rode.

My first bike was a little red bike that was leftover from probably the 1960's. I think it was a Ross, and I recall it having a faux tank and/or fenders. I've described the metalflake green banana-seat Ross that followed it already, up here. Later that bike would serve as sort of a pseudo-BMX bike for jumping over boulders and the like, in homage to the Evel Kneivel set.

My first multi-speed bike was a Sears Free Spirit juvenile (24" wheels) 10-speed in red, white and blue. I was probably 11 when I got it, and it was on that bike that I first took long rides with my family. We had a loop that Google Maps tells me tonight was four miles exactly. Just as an aside, it's interesting to note that at the time (1978 or so), I'd have had to hop into a car with my dad and drive the loop to figure the distance out, where today, I don't have to leave my desk or even stop what I'm doing to figure it out (and in less time than it'd have taken to find the keys back then)!

The Free Spirit wasn't a great bike, to say the least. It looked good, but it was an absolute tank with no more than the barest scrap of non-ferrous metal on it. It was a classic junior 10-speed department store bike, and I'm sure not anywhere near as nice as the bikes you can find at department stores these days. I don't remember much about riding it, other than a few snapshot memories of those longer rides. Actually, I mostly remember washing and waxing it for sale just after the Raleigh showed up.

The Raleigh was your typical entry level bike shop bike from the tail end of the bike boom. It also wasn't a great bike (I'd never choose one like it today), but it was a good bike for a kid who'd be beating it senseless for the next 5 years. And again, it was a noticeable upgrade from the Free Spirit, and I recognized and appreciated it as such at the time. That said, my friend's Rampar was yet another step up in the component department (until his mother closed the garage door on it and bent the top tube, that is), as was another friend's Peugeot (though that one was sized for a rider of a height neither of us ever approached). In any case, the Raleigh represented a higher level of encouragement/facilitation, but it didn't come with an active role from my parents -- cycling just became how I got around.

But given my own enthusiasm, I've taken a much more active approach. As my own girls move up the ladder of their own bikes, I don't want to simply facilitate their riding, I'd like to foster it -- even participate, if they'll let me. And apart from continuing to ask them to ride with me, I figure the best way to do this is to make sure the bikes they're riding stay interesting, along the way. And I know how to do that; keep the bikes technically interesting and functioning well, and involve them in the process of making the bikes what they are and keeping them that way. That means no department store bikes, and just enough hands-on time that they can't become detached, but also can't get bored or tired of working on them.

Juliana has a junior mountain bike that will almost certainly pass to Ava. It's not a life-changing ride, but it's a healthy step up from my green Ross. And she and I spent time last spring and summer working on a racing bike for her -- the Fuji I mentioned here. Juli's role in the refit was multi-faceted, ranging from color selector to bearing repacker to tool fetcher. She got her hands dirty with old and fresh grease, dropped a bunch of ball bearings into and outside of bearing races, wrenched a few things, threaded cable, and helped select components like the saddle and cable housings.

The specifics of the bike I'll talk more about in my next post. Actually, Juli and I have drafted the post's outline. And I'm going to invite her to participate in the editorial process, and to post a reply. But much more important than the details of the bike is the meaning the project itself took on for both of us. You see, over the course of the summer, Goodale's Bicycles up in Nashua had on sale a Specialized Allez Junior racing bike. It was just adorable, I have to say -- a little red marischino cherry of a bike. I took a picture of the bike with my iPhone, and that night offered it to Juliana in place of her Fuji. And she refused it, saying that she wanted the bike she and I built up together. Which is about as much as a father can ask for.

Because of that experience, Ava won't be getting the Fuji as a hand-me-down like she has with her other bikes (and that includes the tricycle she's with in this picture from 2005, as well as the puppydog Hotrock Juli is cleaning up). Her first road bike will be her own, and we'll spend as much time together as she is willing to give me on a rebuild. It will be her bike, not her sister's.

It may be folly to think that I can steer my daughters' interests, but I'd like dearly for them to pass into adulthood with a healthy respect and enthusiasm for bicycles and bicycling. The seed has been planted, I've done what I know how to do to try to nourish it, and will continue doing so. Ultimately, whether that seed thrives in one or both of my daughters will be their choice. But I'm hoping.

All for now,


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Paramount Series 20 Mountain Bike

Just a quick post tonight, with an update about and pictures of my Paramount PDG mountain bike, which I spent some time writing about not long ago.

Three weeks ago, the washing machine here in the apartment blew up. Two weeks ago, I needed to make some space for the dryer (which normally resides on top of the now-dead washer) elsewhere in the apartment, so I had to get the Paramount out of the kitchen. It had been sitting idle since I moved in, in part the victim of a bent fork tip from a bike rack tip-over incident.

I'd picked up a new-old-stock Tange fork (I believe it's a B.O.S.S. model, whatever that is) on eBay, but hadn't gotten around to installing it. I briefly considered a shock fork, but didn't want to alter the geometry of the bike, and make the steering lazier. At any rate, having to find a new spot to park the bike inspired me to just get the fork installation done -- just in time for a blizzard.

As you can see, the new fork is black, possibly powder coated, and you can take my word for it that this one is somewhat beefier than the fork it replaced. The OEM fork had heat treated chromoly (Tange's Prestige tubeset) fork blades and forged tips and it was pretty nice. This one is also made of chromoly tubes, but they are fatter, and it has investment cast tips brazed into the ends of the blades. I don't know what the tubeset on the new fork is, but I'm guessing it's also Prestige. Whatever the tubing, it's stout and light. Sorry for the blurry picture -- the digital focus on the camera I use doesn't know how to handle bicycles for close-ups, it seems.

Installation was simple. I started by taking off the front rack that was on the bike (an inexpensive front cantilever rack). It wasn't adding any value, since I am using a self-supporting and smallish handlebar bag. Then I took off the brakes and took apart the headset to remove the fork. I'd just installed the XTR headset on the old fork last summer, and getting the crown race off proved pretty simple -- it was much harder to get it onto the new fork, but I've gotten pretty good at it, using a technique involving PVC pipes to avoid doing any damage. The last part of the front end replacement was installation of the front brakes. The only complication, there, was that I had to chase the threads in the cantilever studs with a 6mm x 1 tap before they'd take a mounting bolt.

You can also see that I installed a bunch of spacers under the headset nut. I ordered the fork with a longer-than-necessary steerer tube so I could do this. One thing about this bike when I got it is that the reach to the bars was very long. I'm now using some riser bars and a shorter, taller stem, and with the slight bump in steerer tube length, I can get the bars still higher if need be. An upright position may not be ideal for climbing steep trails, but it's far better on your back and wrists for most terrain.

In the spirit of making the bike a mountain bike again, I also took off the rear rack I've had on it since I first did the build for commuter duty. I'll keep it around, just in case, but if I do put a rack back on this bike, I may look for something nicer. At a minimum, I'll go with stainless hardware to replace the now-rusty chrome bits. I left the trailer bike hitch on there just in case I need it. And I also left the tires alone for now, but may switch to knobbies if I find myself back in the woods a lot.

Finally, I saddle soaped the old Brooks Professional again. This is a very old brown saddle that was not heavily used, but not well cared for, either. I used it on the Kestrel for training roller duty last winter, and on the Paramount last season, where it saw probably no more than 200 miles of use. It's possibly the least comfortable saddle I've ever used, so I've been softening it up with saddle soap and neatsfoot oil the past few months. If this approach doesn't work, I'll put it on the TV as a piece of sculpture and buy a different saddle.

So, just a little light work on the bike for now. Mostly I just wanted to share what the bike looks like, since I've started adding pictures more . It's really just an old mountain bike in its current state, but it introduced me to a whole new genre of riding, and never left me stranded in the woods.

I'd like to get the bike repainted. It's a mismatch today, of course, and the paintwork was never perfect (not that perfect paint much matters on a mountain bike -- it's bound to get trashed anyway). But more importantly, it's a pretty dated-looking pearlescent pearl white. Very 1993. Richard Schwinn responded to me in an email this fall that it'd cost me maybe $400 for a repaint with correct decals, and I'm thinking about it. The old Schwinn baby blue with white decals would be nice. Maybe someday.

All for now,


Friday, December 19, 2008

Trek Trailer Bike Upgrades

It's pretty hard for me to leave well enough alone when it comes to bicycles. Well... lots of things, I suppose. But bikes in particular.

When it was time for me to try introducing riding to my older daughter Juliana, I bought her a Specialized Hotrock kids' bicycle. It's a little single-speed bike in the BMX vein, except that it's got 16" rims, and is painted purple with puppydogs, rather than chrome with skulls or whatever. But the whole training wheel thing was pretty frustrating. Our driveway looks like something out of Eastern Europe, circa 1983, and Juli kept tipping over and scraping herself up. And a driveway isn't much of a ride anyway, and it's not like I'd let her out on the road on that little thing. It wasn't going to be enough to satisfy my urge to really introduce her to riding.

So I also picked up a 20" Trek Mountain Train trailer bike at the same shop the Hotrock came from (and the Kestrel, for that matter). The Trek started out as a pretty basic bike, but didn't stay that way very long (you may be noticing a theme, here). When it arrived, it had all the stuff a kids' bike normally has: A single-piece (Ashtabula) crank, a gritty rear hub, a bottom-of-the-barrel Shimano rear derailleur, a cheap chain, a low-end Grip Shift 6-speed shifter, a no-name mountain bike rear tire, plastic pedals -- you know the stuff I'm talking about; the stuff of department store bikes. Also, most everything on the bike was made of steel, which is stronger than alumimum, but of course heavier.

For the first season, I pretty much just left the bike as it came. Juli and I started doing some 7-mile rides, and eventually got up to some longer distances around the surrounding towns, using the Paramount to tow her around. She was wiggly, which could be scary at times, but I could feel her working back there. Overall she seemed to enjoy riding and to genuinely appreciate the dedicated time with me out on the bike. So naturally for her second season on the trailer bike, I decided to make a few changes, to further the quality of the experience, and allow us to tackle longer distances more efficiently.

The goals were simple: Make the bike better, make it more like a road bike, and try to make it a little lighter. On each of these fronts there was a lot room for improvement.

The list of targeted upgrades pretty much mirrors the list a few paragraphs back. A lighter crank, decent pedals, a lighter seatpost, a lighter stem, drop handlebars, a brake and brake levers, a better derailleur, a better chain, a new saddle, a repacked hub and a roadworthy tire all made the initial list. And as the project progressed, a few other bits were added.

The seatpost is 25.4mm, and I was able to find an aluminum replacement in short order. At first, I just left the tiny, original plastic-covered seat on the bike, but later I replaced it with a Brooks B-17S womens' saddle. I was worried the Brooks might be too wide for Juli's bum, but in the second season she had started complaining about the original saddle, so I figured it was worth a shot. No complaints since the Brooks went on, so it was apparently a good decision. Note that the original saddle and seatpost are back on the bike now that my younger daughter is using it.

The BMX-style handlebars came off, along with the needlessly complex and heavy multi-adjustable stem that came with the bike. A lighter, simpler adjustable stem went on in its place, along with a set of used ITM drop bars I picked out of a used bars box at Belmont Wheel Works. I also picked up a set of Tektro compact brake levers. These are virtually identical to the Cane Creek units on my wife's Bianchi (compact, contoured, quick release and wide bodies), but the hoods are a little different and they were about a third cheaper.

I tried to keep the original shifter, but discovered there was no good way to mount one to a road bar (I tried several things). So I mounted it to a sawed-off mountain bike bar-end, bolted to the handlebar stem. But it was pretty stiff, so for the next season, I replaced it with a bar-end shifter that I cobbled together from a set of Ultegra bar end shifters and Ultegra down-tube shifters.

The shifter is an experiment that didn't work the way I hoped, but is at least functional. It turns out, though, that Shimano bar end shifter mounts don't work all that well supporting Shimano downtube shifters. At some point I'll pick up a set of better shifters for the Schwinn, move one of the Suntour bar-end shifters from that bike over onto the girls' Trek, put the Ultegra bar-end units back together and unload them on eBay.

There really isn't any place a water bottle cage would fit on this bike's frame, so I put a handlebar mount on, and bolted on an old black cage I had in my parts box. I think it had originally been on the Paramount early on. Plus, every kid needs a bell -- in this case, a purple rotating model bolted to the handlebar stem. The black plug in the left bar end is actually a flashing LED light. They came in pairs, but since the Trek has a bar end shifter, its mate is in the same spot on my wife's Bianchi. The left bar end is the part of the bike closest to the centerline of the road, so both lights are easily seen by drivers approaching from the rear.

One thing I wanted to make sure the girls appreciated about road riding is the need to maintain control over one's speed. For that you need brakes, so I added a brake to the Trek. I had in my parts box a pair of short reach Dia-Compe centerpulls, and wanted to use one of them on this project. Unfortunately, I found that the Trek's frame had a seatstay bridge way too far from the rim to locate a brake properly. So I thought about it and settled on making a bolt-on brake mount. I bought some wide aluminum bar stock at Home Depot, cut a matching pair of trapezoidal shapes, drilled them in two spots, and sandwiched them around the seatstays, bolting them through the brake bridge to hold them in place. Then I bolted the rear brake through the adapter, with a bunch of washers filling the space between the plates to offer some additional support. The brake cable didn't have a frame-mounted stop, so I hung one from the seatpost clamp bolt, and I also added one of the inline cable adjusters I've mentioned before, since there were no provisions for adjustment on this bike, either.

It all worked like a charm, but even with the adapter, the pad reach was a stretch. So this year when I took the long-reach Dia-Compes off the Schwinn, I put one of them onto the trailer bike to give me a bit more leeway for adjusting the pads. You can see all this in the photo below. Important safety note: If this was more than a training/auxiliary brake, there's no way I'd use this configuration!

The drivetrain represented most of the work of the upgrades. The rear derailleur was simple, though. With no front derailleur and only six speeds, a short-cage rear derailleur would be fine, and I had a spare Ultegra derailleur kicking around -- a very nice upgrade indeed! Since the rear dropout didn't have a derailleur hanger on it (the original derailleur had a claw-type hanger), I bought a claw-type adapter and bolted it onto the dropout. The rear wheel is a bolt-on unit, so it holds the derailleur securely with this asymmetrical setup (something I've had trouble with where a quick-release wheel is used).

"But wait!" you say. "There's a front derailleur right there on the seat tube!" Fair enough. But there's only one chainring and the front derailleur isn't connected to a shifter. You see, the chain kept falling off the chainring on early rides, and I had to do something about it. I tried putting on the rock ring you see on the crankset, but that didn't help at all (it does serve to keep socks and pants cleaner, though). So ultimately I just bolted on a front derailleur and it just sits there, keeping the chain where it belongs. It's a Campagnolo unit, bought originally for my Allegro project. But it was pretty cheaply made and I didn't end up using it. I thought about trying a track chainring (which is wider and not designed to shed a chain), but I had the derailleur, and didn't have a track chainring. IMO, it's not really worth putting the derailleur to work by adding another front chainring and a shifter, but that's always a possibility.

The rear wheel was taken off the bike, the freewheel removed and cleaned, and the hub disassembled. There was virtually no grease in the hub, and what was there was mostly dried out and living in the dust caps, not the races. The bearing races were oxidized from the lack of grease, and felt a little rough to the touch, so I used some Simichrome to polish them up a bit. When they were more or less shiny, I repacked the bearings with plenty of Pedro's synthetic grease and some grade 25 balls. The OEM freewheel was a basic Shimano 6-speed unit and honestly it seemed more than adequate for the task. It even has hyperglide-ramped cogs and shifts quite well. The chain is a nice SRAM unit, and the rear tire is a balloon Michelin road tire, installed after I found a Continental recumbent tire didn't fit properly (the rim is probably too wide).

The crank represented the biggest opportunity for weight savings, and took the most investigation. I went over to Landry's Cycling and Fitness in Natick and asked about options for replacing a single-piece crank with something lighter. As it turns out, forged 1-piece cranks are made for strength and abuse, and though there are trick models available, there aren't any one-piece replacements that would be any lighter. But they did point me at an MRP adapter kit that would let me fit a 3-piece crankset to the bike.

I ordered one, and it's a pretty cool idea. These are simple things -- essentially a pair of billet aluminum plates that fit into either side of the Ashtabula shell, and are clamped together with three bolts that hold them in place. Any sort of English-threaded bottom bracket screws right in. I'm using an inexpensive BulletProof 150mm crankset and Shimano cartridge bottom bracket. The adapter seems to be holding up well, and staying tight -- at least under the torque output of a 7 year old.

For pedals, I am currently using a set of MKS Sneaker pedals from Rivendell, though I had been using a set of MKS track pedals. I made the change because the track pedals are single-sided and Ava seemed to struggle with the concept 0f using a single side of the pedal just yet. By the way, if you ever buy MKS pedals, it appears they don't come packed with much in the way of grease. I've found it's worth taking the dust caps off, squirting in a bunch of grease and buttoning them back up before using them.

After a rough start (I literally rode the rig out from under her, and she plopped onto her bum in the driveway) Juli and I got into the habit of taking 21 mile rides on this combination. It'll probably be yet another season before Ava is ready for the same, but my hope is that she'll get into riding as much as Juli has. Ava has been a little less comfortable on the puppydog Hotrock than her sister was at the same age, but seems to revel in fast descents on the trailer bike. It will be interesting to see how her appetite for cycling develops, and how her confidence improves.

As for Juli, she and I spent time rebuilding a 24" Fuji racing bike last summer, and my guess is she'll be big enough for it in the spring. In the mean time, she's joined Ava and me on her 12 speed mountain bike this past year, for 7 and 8 mile rides. And with luck, the Fuji will allow her to join us for much longer rides next summer. That bike will be the subject of a future post -- perhaps my next. By the way, all of these photos were shot this morning in the driveway of my house -- yes, in the middle of a snowstorm. Pretty, if a little gray.

One other outcome of my trailer bike experience is that it's seeded a desire to pick up a tandem at some point. I don't have space for one at my apartment, so it'll probably be some time before a tandem makes sense. In due time.

All for now,


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bianchi 650B Conversion

Generally speaking, one of three things happens to your hobbies and passions when you enter a long-term relationship with someone: first, you move away from them because of time or a lack of tolerance for them from your partner. Or second, you continue to enjoy them while your partner tolerates them (or not). Or finally, you share them with your partner and they become to one extent or another, a joint activity. For me, cycling fortunately fell into the last of these categories.

When the woman who'd eventually become my wife and I started dating, I already had the Kestrel and the Paramount, and was well into a rekindled relationship with cycling. The Shogun had been sent off to my parents' house, both as a practical matter, and also because my father had wanted to start riding, which he never really did. In any case, during our second Spring of dating (1995), she decided she wanted to start riding, probably at my encouragement.

As with many beginners entering a sport, my then-girlfriend wanted decent equipment, but didn't want to spend a ton of money. We eventually found a Bianchi Europa at the International Bicycle Center in Boston. The Bianchi was new, but a leftover from the prior season. It had a 47cm frame, a stem with a bit of rise and a short reach, a lugged steel frame from Taiwan, and a mix of Shimano components from the Exage and 400EX groupsets -- not a department store bike, but not much to write home about. And of course, it was celeste green.

Within 18 months of her buying it, I'd upgraded most of the components, and the cheapo Bianchi became a 24-speed mid-range bike with 105SC components in most cases, and an expensive Selle San Marco Rolls saddle. So configured, the bike campaigned in one Great Mass Getaway MS-150 benefit ride, and logged a bunch of miles of recreational riding. But it was eventually parked for a number of years, the result of a potent and self-sustaining combination of a lack of time, interest and comfort plus a bit of anxiety.

The anxiety was the most obvious thing, though. Every time my wife got onto the bike, there were several minutes of acclimation to her Speedplay clipless pedals, sometimes accompanied by some tipping over, which wasn't fun for her or fun to watch. It was really this obvious lack of confidence with the bike that got me thinking about what I could do to make it more approachable for her.

The obvious thing would have been to swap the pedals out, I suppose. That alone would have made riding much less intimidating for my wife. But at the time I hadn't regained an appreciation for pedaling free of restraints, and in my view toe clips are more dangerous/difficult than clipless pedals.

I also had a desire to try a 650B conversion. This was about the same time the cycling community was all abuzz with 650B conversions of 700C road bikes (which is still going on, but which is now consuming MTBs, as well). I had stumbled across number of articles on the BikeMan site that talked about the merits of 650B wheels and tires -- more air in wider tires means a more plush ride, a slightly smaller radius to the wheel and tire puts the rider (and bottom bracket) slightly closer to the road, and the reduced radius also offsets the added weight at the tires, retaining a spritely feel. And in my mind I'd connected my wife's needs and challenges with these attributes and benefits, and effectively settled on this as a solution to help make riding more fun for her. And of course as a potentially fun project for myself.

I guess the other interesting thing about all of the work I've done on the Bianchi over the years is that I wasn't modifying a bike I also rode myself, and I had to figure out what to do to it through observation and interrogation, rather than experience and feel. It's something I'll have to do with my daughters' bikes as well, and have started, I suppose, with my older daughter's Fuji and the trailer bike now used by my younger daughter. But even in that context, this was a unique project because I had specific objectives -- identify and solve problems keeping my wife off the bike.

So I plunged into the 650B part of the project and started gathering parts. Velo-Orange had a set of Rigida 650B rims and Grand Bois Cypres tires. eBay produced a set of Campagnolo Record hubs threaded for a freewheel and spaced at 126mm. And Belmont Wheel Works laced the wheels and supplied the Tektro long-reach brake calipers, 650B tubes and a Shimano 7-speed freewheel with Hyperglide cogs. A great start, but I'd ultimately need a lot more.

The build started out very easily. I pulled the 8-speed wheelset and shifters off the Bianchi and installed them on the Kestrel one day. Then I put the Kestrel's 7-speed shifters and the 65oB wheelset onto the Bianchi, followed by the Tektro brake calipers. I took the opportunity to swap all of the cables and housings in the process, since it was all very old stuff by then, and wrapped the bars in new tape. Clearance on the rear tire was fine, but the front tire clearance up at the crown of the Kestrel fork appeared very tight -- no rub at first glance, but very tight. Eager to try it out, I straddled the bike and had a seat and gave the right pedal a downward shove.

Rub... rub... rub. I heard the sound of complication as I headed down the driveway. It wasn't much, but it was there. Knowing full well what I'd find, I stopped the bike, lifted the front tire off the ground, and gave it a spin. Rub... rub... rub. I watched the front wheel and tire closely, both for proximity to the brakes and proximity to the fork. The wheel was true enough, but the handmade tire was not quite symmetrical, and the very tight clearance at the fork crown was too tight at one spot on the tire. I tried fooling with the tire, but there really wasn't any getting past the fact that the fork was designed for perhaps 25mm racing tires, not 32mm touring tires. There was also no getting past the fact that a rubbing tire is a very unhealthy thing for a carbon fiber fork!

But the complication didn't stop there. I learned a couple of other things in my brief ride down the driveway. First, the saddle was very uncomfortable. I'm not sure what kind of bum it was made for, but it was simply awful underneath mine. And second, I noticed that the brake levers were both stiff and had a long reach. They felt a little longer in reach than the 105 levers on my Kestrel, and struck me as not at all well-suited to small hands.

So now I had three things to fix: A miserable saddle, the wrong fork and lousy brake levers that were too large.

The fork was easy, but took a couple of steps to lock down. First, I put the original Bianchi unicrown fork back on (along with the steel headset), and started to look for a chrome fork with a traditional crown. After a few weeks, I found one with Columbus blades and a nice square crown to it. It came off a large-framed bike, so it had the added bonus of having lots of excess steerer tube. I cut it an inch or so longer than it needed to be, had it threaded and installed it with some spacers to raise the handlebar position up and back a bit. My wife's back hasn't been the same since she had the girls, so this was to help her with that, a bit. I also took advantage of the opportunity to pick up a brass bell from Velo-Orange, along with one of their neat headset spacer mounts.

For the saddle, I found a lightly used Brooks Professional S in honey tan, and mounted it to a NOS Campagnolo two-bolt seatpost, both sourced from eBay. The auction for the saddle closed on the cheap side, and as if that wasn't cool enough, it also came with a Brooks care kit. Also, the posting claimed the saddle had been a prop in an indy film. It's cool if it's true, but it looks good either way. My wife claims the saddle is significantly more comfortable and supportive than the Rolls, which is good. If I were to do it again, though, I'd probably get her a B-17S, as it has a little more flex and give than the Professional S.

The seatpost is gorgeous. It came from an eBay seller in Italy, and I'm keeping my eyes open for another for my Schwinn. Might be a little short for the Schwinn, though.

The saddle actually went on before the chrome fork, and what's interesting is that I had to adjust it after changing the fork out. It's noticeably shorter than the Bianchi fork, and the change in height steepened both the seat and head tubes and also made the saddle angle downward a bit. The good news is that none of these changes appears to have screwed up the bike's handling.

For the brake levers, I found some Cane Creek levers on one website or another. They're compact, look great, have contoured finger surfaces and even have built-in quick releases to augment those already on the brakes. They also have a lot less friction to them than the old Shimano units did. The only thing I don't like is that they seem to have very wide pivot bodies. They feel fine, but they look very bulky. I also picked up some honey tan Brooks leather handlebar tape while I was at it, and wrapped it over a strip of padded tape to give them a bit more cush. My wife purports to love the look of the Brooks tape, the feel of the padding underneath, and the reach and shape of the levers. So far, so good.

In trying to put my wife's seat wedge bag back on the bike, I snapped one of the hooks off. So rather than use it, I bought the tan bag pictured. It's also from Velo-Orange. With her short little stem, I didn't like how it hung from the handlebars, and I didn't think my wife would appreciate additional twine loops around the brake lever bodies and running to the side D-rings for added support (they'd tangle her thumbs, and remember, this build was all about increasing her comfort level with the bike). So I hung it off the saddle loops instead, and used a Viva bag support to hold it off the rear tire and take the strain off the fabric at the dowel ends. It can easily accommodate her phone, keys, a snack and a windbreaker. Finally, I added a new computer that also provides cadence.

The results are pictured here. I think it's a very pretty bike, now, and for each of the past two summers the bike has seen more use than it had the previous 8 combined (which is really what the rebuild has been about). I think this winter I'm going to put a set of nice road pedals and half toe-clips on it, to see if that helps increase her comfort level even further. I suspect it will, though she insists the Speedplays aren't a problem for her any more.

And I think with that, I'll be done. The Bianchi has been many things. It has been an entry-level bike introducing my wife to cycling, an upgraded road bike with two states of build with slicker, higher-end components, and now it's a 650B all-rounder. And though I'm not the owner of this one (just the caretaker), it's been as lovingly cared for as any of my own bikes, and I hope that'll continue, even as our relationship continues to change.

The 650B conversion is probably the Bianchi's final state of being, and it appears to be serving my wife very well. In her case, I think the wheel swap probably did help make the bike more comfortable and approachable. But if you haven't converted a bike to 650B before, I'd suggest starting out by thinking about the goals of the project and making sure your bases are covered. In my case, the goal was comfort and usability. The wheelset helped, sure. But so did the saddle, handlebar position and the compact brake levers, and I think a pedal swap will seal the deal. In this case at least, it was the full experience that made the difference.

All for now,


Friday, December 5, 2008

Schwinn Sports Tourer Build: Brakes

When I bought the Allegro, one of the first things I did was to also secure a set of brakes. I wanted something classic and inline with the bike's heritage. So for a Swiss bike, I went with a set of Swiss Weinmann brakes, you're thinking, right? Well, no. Actually, I went with a set of French Mafacs.

I hadn't ever had or used a set of these classic brakes, but as I researched the build last year, I stumbled onto a bunch of posts (here's one) on the Velo Orange blog and other places that spoke favorably of Mafac centerpulls equipped with modern pads. So when I saw an inexpensive set of the later Spidel Mafacs (which were nicely finished), less straddle wires, I bought them -- without realizing how difficult it would be to find those missing, critical bits. I actually never found any evidence that any of these straddle wires still exist, and I looked until well after the Allegro was gone and the Schwinn was being built up. These days I might have tried to cobble my own straddle wires together using brass tubing, solder and some brake cables, but not a year ago. And now that I've written that down, I'm not sure how much I'd trust that approach, anyway, especially with one of my girls in tow!

With no wires to actuate them, the time came when I needed to cut bait on the Spidels, and find an alternative set of brake calipers, and as I looked, I discovered that Dia-Compe was making long-reach brakes again. They're essentially the same as the Dia-Compes and Weinmanns I'd had on the Raleigh at various times as a teenager -- classic aluminum centerpulls, but with a much nicer level of fit and finish than those ever had, and stainless allen-head pivot bolts instead of chromed hex bolts. They're basic, but pretty, and struck a nice compromise between modernity and a style appropriate to the bike.

I have to say I had my doubts about these brakes, though. I didn't recall this design to be all that effective when I was a teenager, and remembered them being a royal pain to adjust, as well. If you grew up with these brakes as I did, you may have many of the same memories I do. But the doubts tugging at me were mainly related to performance. I've said up here before how much better the brakes on the Shogun were by comparison to the Raleigh. But I'd also read a couple of posts online about how to set up these brakes, about how strong they were, and how the evolution in cable technology over the last 25 years and modern brake levers all made them perfectly viable and effective brakes these days. So I happily bolted my new set on and looked forward to trying them out.

The Dia-Compes came with a set of basic-looking gray brake pads that didn't have the construction or look of a high end pad. So when I discovered on my first ride that the brakes flat sucked, I first blamed the pads. Off those came within a week or two, and on went a nice set of V-brake cartridge-type pads from Yokuzuna. These appeared to have much more promise than the Dia-Compe pads, if for no other reason than the aluminum pad carriers and the huge surface area of the pads. But in truth, the braking performance was still unimpressive, lacking both power and feel. They weren't dangerous, but there was also little risk of locking even the rear wheel under full braking, and eventually that lack of power just wore on me. Perhaps I didn't adjust the cables properly, or use the right kind of levers, or set up the pads properly or any number of things -- don't know. Regardless, they weren't satisfying and had to come off.

I'd since sold the Spidels, but in August I stumbled onto a set of NOS Mafac Racers on eBay and picked them up. They're not perfect, by any means. They squeal and skronk a little, they flex a lot under braking, they don't have provisions for rapid cable adjustment, the rear brake is at its very limit of pad adjustment (and could use a little more, honestly) and they're not much to look at in the finish department (much worse than the later Spidels, actually). But for all of their apparent crudeness, I have to say their performance is just terrific! I'm running them with a Kool-Stop Eagle Claw cantilever pad, in the Salmon compound, and they both modulate nicely and bite like crazy. The Dia-Compes are more nicely made and finished, and they even seem to flex less. But the Mafacs have a clear performance advantage, and that was obvious from the first short test ride.

To complete my braking package, I have a Mafac front cable hanger with a built-in quick release cable stop (in addition to the quick-release end on the straddle wires), an aluminum rear cable hanger that hangs off the seatpost binder bolt, blue Jagwire lined cable housings with stainless steel cables, and a set of Shimano 105SC brake levers I had bought new years ago to use on the Paramount for its commuter build. The cable housings don't quite fit in the cable stops on the frame, but that just means the outer jacket has deformed a bit with use -- no big deal. And because the brakes have no facility for cable adjustment, I added a pair of inline cable adjusters. You can sort of see a lot of this stuff in this blurry photo.

I first had a need for an inline cable adjuster back in the mid-1990's for building up the Paramount as a commuter rig. Like most mountain bikes, the Paramount has no cable adjustment for the rear cantilever brakes, apart from whatever the lever provides (the front has a barrel adjuster on the headset-mounted cable stop). Switching from mountain levers to road levers eliminated all of the rear adjustment, and I wanted an alternative to relocating the straddle hanger as the cable stretched. I tried to find an inline cable adjuster made for bicycles, and while my local bike shops could imagine them, they didn't have any and didn't know where to get them. This was back before the proliferation of Web sources made finding stuff easy (and who knows if they existed then), so I made one myself, with some success. I used a couple of barrel adjusters threaded into the ends of an inch-long hard nylon spacer I picked up at a hardware store.

It worked, and I could adjust the brakes with a little effort, but the nylon tube flexed and I could feel that as sponginess through the brake lever that wasn't there before I installed the adjuster. Still, adjusting the brakes was a good thing, and the brakes stopped the bike well enough, so I kept the adjuster on the bike for years. Maybe a decade after I made it, I found some mass-produced models in a Nashbar catalog, bought a pair and swapped one onto the Paramount. They're aluminum and steel, don't flex, and are of a much better design than mine was -- I can adjust the brakes one-handed while riding if need be. A second pair of the same parts now grace the Schwinn, as well.

Last thing: I bought a little front rack for the Mafacs. Actually, if truth be told, I bought two. The first is one of the cute little curvy Mafac racks from the blog post linked above. It's sitting in a parts box, waiting for the day I have another Mafac-equipped bike. It's tiny! Smaller than my hand, really. The one I'm using is similar in concept, but has a larger, squarer platform for carrying a bag. Both of these mount right to the Mafac brakes (but not the Dia-Compes -- I tried). They bolt to the mounting bolt and the two pivot bolts and make a nice little bag support. I don't know if my bigger one is any stronger than the Mafac rack, and neither looks suitable for a heavy load. But with its bigger platform, the square one is pretty good at steadying the bag I have on the Schwinn. That bag, by the way, is supported by two loops of twine around the brake levers (under the hoods), and is lashed to the loop on the rack with a little velcro strap originally intended to hold skis together (removed for this picture), and finally a strap around the head tube. The combo is plenty to hold it in place.

I'm keeping my eyes open for a set of Mafac RAID brakes, which have more rear pad reach. Today I have the rear brake pads at a slightly greater than perpendicular angle to the calipers, to compensate for needing just a bit more reach, which is apparent in the picture at the top of this post. RAIDs have longer arms and may flex more, but I'll feel better about being able to set them up properly (and I'll have another set of mixed-length Mafac brakes and a racklet with which to build up another bike).
When I fix the rear calipers, that'll be about it for brakes. It took a bit of trial and error to get everything working satisfactorily, but I have a bike that I'm comfortable stopping with either a child riding a trailer bike or with a full load. That they're funny-looking old French brakes just adds to the appeal, really. And in truth, all of the challenges the build posed have just made this project all the more fun.

I suppose that's about it for blog postings about the Schwinn for now. I have plenty of other bike stories to share, though. I've been keeping my eyes open for a Paramount, too. There are plenty out there, but they're not cheap. My thinking is that if I find a suitable Paramount, that might make a good light touring bike, and the Sports Tourer could perhaps migrate to more of a City Bike style of build. Not a short-term activity thouugh. I live in the suburbs and don't really need a City Bike. And with the economy seemingly in free-fall, I'm not eager to spend the money right now.

All for now,