Friday, February 27, 2009

Finding a Purpose

That's pretty heady title, eh?

Don't worry, though -- this is less about finding my raison d'etre, and more about finding a role for a bike.

I have three perfectly rideable bikes -- the Kestrel, the Schwinn and the Paramount. And I've spun out others that I just didn't ride very much. The Trek 950 sitting in my parents' den is in my Dad's hands because he claimed to want to ride, but also because I wasn't using it. The Shogun Katana at my sister's house is there because I never rode it -- it was too similar in purpose to the Kestrel, but far less enjoyable to ride.

My three bikes are pretty specialized. There's some overlap, sure -- they're all bikes, and they are all suitable for road use or just kicking around. Beyond that, though, they're very different. The Paramount is a classic old-school rigid MTB, and it's happiest being threaded around trails or bombing down mountainsides, even without suspension. It's a rush in that mode, but not at all a rush around town. At the other end of the spectrum, the Kestrel is happiest logging fast miles. It's twitchy and notably unhappy on unpaved surfaces, but when you pour on the power, it feels like it just wants to go. It practically begs you to put more into it, and it's an exhilarating bike when you're going hard at it. Somewhere in the middle in terms of its versatility, but along a different axis in application is the Schwinn. It steers with confidence, rides pretty well, and is a great bike to load up, hop on and grind away for hours. It's not perfect, by any means (I've noticed some impact harshness in the front end that I'm hoping larger tires will help with), but it's a bike I'm really enjoying.

Just wanted to set all that as some context, because it's with the bikes in my stable in mind (particularly the Schwinn) that I've been thinking about what to do with the Motobecane Grand Touring I now have.

From a mechanical perspective, I've given the bike a pretty close inspection, figured out what it needs to be rebuilt as-is, and started its overhaul. I've removed the rusty chain, cleaned up the wheels and lubed the spoke nipples and rim eyelets (the latter were rusty, so I felt that was needed). I still have to get the freewheel off (can't find my two-prong remover, so will have to buy a new one) so I can soak it in solvent and get it lubed up again from there. I've taken off the crankset and cleaned that up, torn down and rebuilt the pretty MKS pedals, and need to pull apart the bottom bracket, which feels lousy. My hope is the cups and spindle are OK, but I have a set of French threaded cups in my parts box, just in case. I've pulled open the hubs (sort of) and found that they're cartridge bearing hubs -- still spinning just fine -- and just put them back together, unserviced. I've cracked open the headset and found that the fork was cut roughly and too short (perhaps when it shifted from centerpull to sidepull brakes, and lost the cable hanger in the process). In any case, the locknut doesn't have enough intact threads to engage securely, so the fork will ultimately need replacement (and a whole can of worms comes with that).

My initial rebuild will be with its original components, as I said, so I can get a feel for the bike as it is. I don't want to put a lot of money into that first step, because once I ride it, I'll learn a lot more about it than I know now. Most of this will focus on replacement of your typical wear items -- ball bearings, cables and housings, pads, saddle, chain, etc... Going deeper than that as the next step is going to require me to have first made some use-case conclusions.

For example: The fork needs replacement, as I mentioned above, and that comes with a can of worms. The can of worms is that when I replace the fork, I'll need a new headset, handlebar stem, and bars, because I'm going to toss the French-spec stuff and go to an English-spec setup -- that only makes sense in terms of long-term availability of components. Those are simple swaps, but require some decisions as to how I want the bike to behave and look, and how I want to build it. Should the fork be black or chrome? Should I target 27" or 700c wheels? Do I want to build the bike with a matching set of sidepull brakes or switch the front to cantilevers? Should I stick with a threaded headset or go threadless, since I have to replace the stem anyway? Should I shoot for flat bars, drop bars, or city bars? Each of these will impact the ultimate feel and potential uses of the bike, so before I bite on any of these, I need a firmer sense of what I want out of the bike.

Which gets me back to the main point of this post; what will be the Motobecane's role in my stable? Having an extra bike hanging around that you never use is sort of pointless. I've been there before -- the Shogun sat for years, unused. Why? Because the Kestrel did everything it could do, but better. So when I look at the Motobecane and think about how to rebuild it, I'm keeping in mind not just what I could do with it, but also what I likely would do with it.

I mentioned last time I was thinking about the Motobecane as a city bike. That's still true, but unfortunately the bike has some characteristics that will compromise its utility for that role. It can support a front rack today, and it's easy enough to make sure the replacement fork will allow it to continue to do so. And of course it can handle a saddlebag support like the Viva bag support or Rivendell Hupe like most any other bike. But the lack of eyelets on the rear dropouts means I'd have to settle for P-clamps on the seat stays to support a rack, and I'm not sure how I feel about that mounting system for a bike that would be intended to carry a load of groceries around.

As a variant on the city bike theme, I've also been wondering how it'd do as a commuter bike. I could get a biggish saddlebag like the new Sackville bags from Rivendell. These bags are not inexpensive -- they cost waaaay more than a nylon bag would cost. But they're in-line with other premium bag prices (like this smaller Ostrich bag from Velo-Orange), and appear to be stylish, nicely made and roomy. A bag like that, supported by a saddlebag support and paired with a handlebar bag to hold my toiletries, wallet, keys and the like, would be great for riding to work from time to time. My ride would be a little long right now (Google maps tells me my ride to Lowell would be under 35 miles) -- that's too far for me for daily commuting, but within reach for a once-a-week workout commute.

For that kind of distance, a city bike setup (city bars, upright riding position, wider saddle) wouldn't work. And in using a drop bar configuration, I'd end up with a bike very similar in form factor to my Schwinn, but a little smaller and with different rear luggage. Is there enough of a distinction, there, that both bikes would get used? The truth is, I could easily use the Schwinn for commuting, though I'd have to find a set of panniers with suspension inside for a laptop. In any case, it's not abundantly clear that having two bikes in very similar configurations makes a lot of sense.

At the same time, the arrival of the Motobecane has gotten me thinking about the Schwinn, what it needs, and whether some cross-pollination with the Motobecane wouldn't be a bad thing. More specifically, I've mentioned before that I could use a smidge more reach in the rear calipers (it was a 27" bike and it's set up with 700c wheels that tax the reach of the Mafac Racer on the back of the bike today), and I've been watching for some Mafac RAID brakes on eBay. A RAID on the back would coordinate nicely with the Racer front brake (which has plenty of reach for the fork, even running a 700C wheelset), and that would leave me with another set of RAID/Racer brakes for a similar build-out downstream. But I'm finding that RAID brakesets are relatively rare and sell for over $100 per pair on eBay, when you can find them.

One thought was that sliding the 27" wheelset that came with the Motobecane over to the Schwinn might be a good thing to do. I'd need to see how the 27" wheelset is, first, of course, and how well the 700c wheelset would work with the existing rear brakes on the Motobecane. If it all fits, there's the potential to eliminate the need for a new rear brake for the Schwinn. But that decision will cast ripples, both anticipated and unforeseen (I'll get into those some other time), and I'll need to be deliberate about decisions like that.

The nice thing about all of this is that the possibilities are nearly endless, and it'll be a lot of fun getting to the ultimate build state of the Motobecane. Once I get it rolling again and see how it feels, I'll be able to develop a better sense for what's next.

All for now,


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