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,



systemBuilder said...

ANY motorcycle shop can make straddle wires. It's a common task to cast a barrel onto the end of a motor cycle cable at a motor cycle shop.

John Ellsworth said...

Thanks, systemBuilder -- didn't know!