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,

J

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post and lovely pictures! So, how do you find the process of perfecting an experience for someone else compared with how you'd do it for something you'd use or enjoy directly?

Your previous entries have dealt with how you test, tweak, and adjust to suit your own taste and needs, but in this case, you had to rely on observation and anecdotal feedback to uncover challenges and assess the impact of the solution.

What's most rewarding for you when working on these types of projects?

Arleigh said...

Added your info over at 650b.com

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

Anon,

Thanks -- much appreciated.

Really the rewarding part of all of this stuff is in the tinkering and in the satisfaction of creating something that works well. I can test ride pretty much anything, and get at least a feel for whether something has worked. But there are some things I just can't judge -- like whether a saddle or its angle feels right. Perfection probably isn't possible in that kind of thing, but I hopefully won't make things worse.

J

John said...

Thanks Arleigh. Here's a link to that post:

http://650b.com/2008/12/18/the-wonders-woes-of-a-650b-conversion/

J

Anonymous said...

John,

Nicely done! I also have a Bianchi Europa (63cm). I've been toying with the idea of converting it too...but that's uncharted waters for me. With the research that I've done so far, it doesn't appear the frame has enough rear tire clearance and it's right on the border for bottom bracket drop too.

Any suggestions where to go to get good step by step instructions to verify the conversion will work - before I rip my bike apart?

Thanks for the great information!!

Brian

John said...

Hi Brian,

One great source for the conversion is Bikeman -- they have an article that talks about converting bikes, if you haven't found it, yet. Which I suspect you have, if you found my little blog...

My wife's Bianchi isn't where I can get at it quickly, anymore, but I can add a couple of thoughts, sure.

The rear triangle had plenty of space on her bike -- no problem at all. Her frame is small, as you can see, so that may alter the top of the triangle, up at the brake bridge, but I suspect the spacing down at the bottom bracket end is pretty close. I did't run a fat tire -- 32mm I think -- but clearance was fine.

The OEM fork was also fine with that tire. It was a unicrown fork with a JIS crown race, if that helps identify what you have, at all. In any case, plenty of space on that one for a 32, but I screwed up the crown race trying to file it down, and ended up with that chrome fork, which looks pretty good, so that's OK.

With a 63cm frame, are you also running a longer than normal crank arm? Normal being 170, I mean. If so, the drop may be a problem, yes, but it doesn't appear to bother my wife with her cranks). She's not much of a corner carver, really, though. Narrow and/or shallow pedals also helps avoid crunches -- speedplays are narrow and shallow, and that's what my wife has.

Anyway, hope that helps some. Enjoy the bike, either way!

J

John said...

Brian,

I found the article on Bikeman. Hope this helps!

J

http://www.bikeman.com/content/view/1161

Anonymous said...

John,

Thank you!

The Bikeman link that you provided is very helpful. I also found some summary conversion info on Rivbike.com. I measured everything according to both sources and it looks like I should be in business.

I think I'll give the conversion a shot.

Wish me luck!

Brian

John said...

Good luck! If you think to when you're finished, post some photos somewhere and let me know how it works out -- would be interested in learning what you find. Especially since my bikes are sized more like yours than my wife's bike.

best,

J