Sunday, March 15, 2009

Riding Impressions: Motobecane Grand Touring

A quick update with riding impressions of the Motobecane, after all the nonsense with exploding tubes, yesterday.

Late yesterday, the girls and I tried to hit Landry's in Natick, but they closed at 5:00, and we were nearly a half hour too late. But Sports Authority down the road was open, and they had a pair of 700x35-43 tubes on hand -- larger than the ones I'd tried thus far, and a few bucks per tube less than what I'd paid at a bike shop for the others, to boot.

Afterwards, we took in a little pizza followed by a little live music at a coffeehouse. Harmony 421 is comprised of three singing sisters backed by two guys with a bass and a guitar. At least last night they focused on ballads, mostly from the 1970's, but also delved into some wartime Andrews Sisters stuff. They were really good, each with a different vocal quality that made for an interesting mix. Imagine having Linda Ronstadt, Dusty Springfield and Natalie Merchant together, singing separately, in pairs and as a trio and you'll get a feel for it. And these three sang as well live as anyone else I've seen. We left partway into their second set because both girls started falling asleep. When we got home, the front tube still hadn't exploded, so after putting the girls down, I installed one of the new tubes at the rear.

When you blow a bicycle tire up, the tire and rim do all of the structural work of holding the air pressure, where the tube just prevents the air from escaping. If the tube can't reach the tire before its point of failure, it's too small. My thought now is that since the tubes are really designed for 700c wheels, to run them on 27" rims, you need to oversize them vs. their specs. Though my tire width and tube width were aligned, I'm guessing that the manufacturers aren't adjusting their tubes' 27" ratings properly. 27" rims have a 630mm diameter rather than the 622mm measurement of a 700c wheel. Stretching them out a bit around a larger diameter wheel, it makes sense you'd need a fatter tube to reach all the way to the tire without failure.

At sunrise this morning, I took the bike outside for a little spin. It got pretty cold last night, so I wasn't out there long -- just long enough to get a feel for the bike and snap a few pictures.

My overwhelming impression is that the bike feels pretty close-coupled. By which I mean that it feels like it has a relatively short wheelbase and relatively steep angles, splitting the difference between the Schwinn and the Kestrel that way -- on the nimble end of the spectrum, rather than the sluggish end. The Schwinn has a larger frame and a long wheelbase, and the Kestrel a smaller and very tight frame, so that's not surprising. The Schwinn feels great, but it feels more stable and less responsive than the Motobecane. The Kestrel is downright flighty, and the Motobecane isn't, but the steering still feels pretty responsive. The frame felt reasonably stiff, but it's hard to gauge how stiff just yet. When I change the fork out, I'm likely to see some changes to steering and handling, so it's too early to draw any firm conclusions, here.

The second big thing I noticed is that the gearing is way too steep, which actually detracts from the nimbleness. On my Kestrel I have a 39 tooth small chainring and an 8-speed cassette with a 26 tooth big sprocket. On my Schwinn I have a 39 tooth chainring and something like a 34-tooth big sprocket on the cassette. On this bike, the biggest cog is a 21, and the small ring is a 42, so for every rotation of the crank, I get two rotations of the rear wheel. Couple that with a larger-diameter rolling circumference (larger rims, plumper tires) than any of my other bikes, and you've got a bike that goes significantly farther per pedal stroke than I'm used to. I don't race, and the area I live in has its share of hills, so I'll need to do something about this.

That said, I like the small steps in the 13-21 freewheel, and I'm wary of taking something with only five cogs to a wide range (with big steps from gear to gear). So I may look for a compact crankset instead of going wide on a replacement freewheel. Something with a small ring in the low 30-tooth range and a big ring in the high 40's should give me plenty of choices, from hill-climbing to flats. One thing I did notice is how loud the freewheel is when coasting. Shimano freehubs have gotten very quiet (and one of mine is even click-free). Even the freewheel on the trailer bike is pretty subdued, but this New Winner freewheel clacks like they did in the good old days.

The old MKS pedals are pretty, but I didn't like the way they felt underfoot. I was wearing shower shoes, so it's not really fair to judge them yet, but if they don't feel good with real shoes, I'll swap them for another pedal style. Actually, I have two pairs of black Look pedals not currently threaded onto a bike, so I should put them to use.

The shifting action itself felt pretty good, with smooth shifters and quick and positive gear changes. I was just tooling around the lot at my apartment, so it's not much of a test-case. Even so, the derailleur didn't seem to need a lot of trimming, and the chain seemed to readily engage the cogs as I shifted. So a favorable first impression of the drivetrain, but not a lot of real data yet.

The jury is still out on that old Brooks Team Professional saddle. It's definitely softened up, and it wasn't like sitting on a fence post anymore. But if it's ever going to break itself into the shape of my perch bones, it's going to need some miles. I'll give the Motobecane (and this saddle) a dedicated month of rides this Spring, and see how it does. The plump tires I put on the bike should help soften the road impacts, at least.

The brakes felt fine, though one of the rear pads is squealing. Plenty of bite and power, so I don't see any need to swap the calipers once I have the new springs installed. The brake levers feel pretty good, too. Not as light as a modern set of Shimano levers, but still pretty smooth. The bars are a little loose in the stem, they're not wrapped with tape, and the brake levers have no hoods at present. So not an entirely accurate picture of how those will feel, but at least the lever action was smooth.

I need more time with the bike, but my initial impressions are positive. I have to say it's a pretty bike, too, with a nice balance of bright metal and subdued colors. I'm going to liven it up when I add red bar tape, of course. But I'm going to try to keep a nice balance as I work towards replacing the fork, stem, headset and bars. No black painted stuff, here. I'm no photographer (as you may have noticed), but the colors looked especially soft this morning, as the sun came up.

All for now,


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