Sunday, July 25, 2010

Stretching the Fuji

Juli is getting taller. I swear she's stretching out noticeably every day, and I just raised her saddle again this weekend, a centimeter or so. And she's getting stronger, too. She's actively using her big ring, now, where she's never touched it before. Though her little Fuji is not quite too small yet, the bars that have been on there have been crowding her. She's claimed not to mind, but she also notices the extra space when she switches bikes to the Gary Fisher at her mother's place. Time to do something about it!

After an hour or so worth of work this weekend, the bike is now in its third incarnation of handlebars and controls. As you can see, it looks a little dorky -- there's a lot going on up front, and it's going on pretty high up (the quill on that stem will only go down so far in that little steerer tube). But the thing is -- it fits. Juli has space to manouver and room to grow, and she actually seems to have enjoyed her first meaningfully long solo ride using a drop bar.

So... what'd I do? This was mostly a matter of swapping components between the girls' bikes, as well as dipping into my parts box.

About a week ago, I stripped the bar and controls from the trailer bike. I set aside the adjustable stem, the bar end shifter, and the Tektro compact brake levers for the Fuji, and tossed the bar into the metal recycling pile at the dump (long story, but I'd intentionally cut one of the ends lengthwise at one point, and I didn't trust them in any other application than the trailer bike). In the place of all these parts, I bolted on the Nitto stem that had been on the Motobecane, the narrow (but proportionally deep) drop bar the Fuji had come with, the DiaCompe compact brake levers that came on Allyson's Bertoni, and a stem-mounted Suntour Power ratcheting shifter that I'd picked up I think for a city bike build that hasn't happened yet. I put only one shifter on, initially, but Ava liked zinging it up and down so much that I bolted the second on just for her to play with. I also ditched the bell, relocated the bottle cage mount behind the bar (rather than in front) to make it more accessible from the saddle, and swapped the bar tape and some of the cable housing so it is now uniformly red at the bars and blue at the housings, rather than a mix of red and blue at each (both at Ava's insistence). And she herself helped me wrap the bars and run the cables!

With the trailer bike done, I now had a pile of parts for the Fuji, but not everything I needed. Had I not cut them, the bars that had been on the trailer bike would have been perfect, but alas... So I bought a set of lightly used Nitto drop bars.

With Juli's help yesterday, I undid all of the cables at the components they controlled (both derailleurs and both brake calipers), yanked off the little crimp-on cable ends, loosened the stem quill, and voila! One complete bar/control setup popped off the bike, ready for reinstallation when Ava is ready for the Fuji! It'll take me about 15 minutes to put it back on and adjust the cables when the time comes. It wasn't the cheap way to go, and Ava has already said she wants them wrapped differently (not twined and shellacked), but it'll still be a time-saver.

From there, the new setup was pretty easy to manage, though Juli had disappeared by then, having lost interest. The adjustable stem went on first -- initially in a fairly upright position, trying to keep the reach in check. Then came the bar, with the main brake levers installed, followed by the shifters, and finally Ava and I cabled everything up (she's hell at cables). Everything worked, but if you think the bike looks dorky now, you should have seen it with the bar raised higher!

Juli took the bike for a ride at that point, and had a couple of complaints. First she said the bar hurt her hands, which I get -- they were bare, and so were her hands. And she didn't like the reach down to the brakes, or the height of the bars. The first and last were easy fixes. The second I anticipated, but in large part is going to be a matter of her getting used to a drop bar. But I could help that with a set of interruptor/cyclocross auxilliary brake levers. A quick trip to my LBS, a quicker adjustment to the stem and bar, plus a half hour or so of splicing the levers into the brake cables, got the bike ready for her inaugural ride.

Looking at it, the control area is undeniably cluttered. Between the four brake levers, four cables, the two bar-end shifters, that bulky adjustable stem and the Minoura water bottle cage holder and cage, things look a little out of hand. And she wants to add a bell somewhere in there! But what really matters is whether the bike works, and it definitely does. The clamp for the interruptor levers is too small for these bars, so they're mounted excessively outboard, but that would have been necessary with that water bottle there, too. That aside, watching her ride, everything seems to fit pretty well, and should continue to work for the rest of the season -- likely into next.

And for the record, yes, I've rerouted the right shifter cable inside the front brake cable -- sloppy assembly, there! And I'm going to take an inch or so out of the front brake cable at some point to make it sit more symmetrically with the rear cable.

We put 10 miles on the bikes today, riding to and from the state park, where Juli solo'd in a kayak for the first time. Ava likes her red tape and cables, and as I said, seems to relish zinging the shifter up and down, regardless of what that's doing to her pedal stroke. And again, Juli seemed to enjoy her first trip on a drop bar. She tends to use the tops of the bar, and swears by the cross levers. But she used the drops on descents for better aero, and seems to understand how to use different positions for different situations, and to keep her arms and hands fresh. As we rode, I showed her how to slow herself from the brake hoods, that there is another hand position on the outside of the first bend on the bar tops, and stuff like that. It's fun to share these tidbits with her, and I'll look forward to the same with Ava.

So... a pair of successful refits. Aesthetics of the Fuji aside, I'm glad the new setups work for them. I didn't have any doubts with Ava and the trailer bike, but was a little worried about Juli's confidence with a drop bar. But she seems to be on her way, there, which is good. And we'll keep that rolling as we look ahead to her next ride. More on that another time.

All for now,


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Not Everything Works

As much as I pride myself on being handy around bikes, not everything I try or pick up works out so well. At least not as intended.

I bought the cool old rack you see up top for use on the Motobecane (this is the pic from the eBay posting, and kudos and credit to the guy who shot it -- it's far better than any photo I could muster). Sadly, it appears that it will only work with centerpull brakes. So much for that plan! I could use it on the Schwinn, where it would be too weak to carry anything meaningful (like a big Wald basket), or on Juli's new Schwinn, where it'd likely be destroyed. I could put a centerpull on the front of the Motobecane, as long as I used a thin steel hanger (Rivendell has some). But I really don't want to -- I like the Superbe brakes on there now. I can flip the rack back on eBay, I suppose. It's so pretty though -- and hand-made. Too bad, really.

I bought a short riser stem the other day for Juli's Fuji, with every intention of using a set of drop bars in it. The clamp won't let a set of drop bars slip through, though -- it's not shaped properly, and the bends on these bars are too tight to work with anything but an open-face stem anyway, it appears. I've had this problem a couple of times before, too, but it was a low-dollar bet. It's not a total loss -- the stem works fine on the Columbia, and even matches the fork well. Its installation even got that bike one step closer to a send-off.

On a related note, I bought an older SR alloy stem last spring intended for the Columbia. Turns out that it has a 21.1mm quill, not a 22.2mm quill needed to match the new fork on that bike. Again, I was fortunate to have that recent offsetting failure to finish off the Columbia. But now I think I have three extra 21.1 quill stems -- two of which count as failed experiments. At least any of them could be used on the Schwinn with something other than drop bars, and may, at some point.

I bought a Wald seatpost not long ago for the Columbia. It was ridiculously cheap, for the record. It didn't fit, though, and I had to shim it. Then I felt badly about the lame shim job, so I pulled it out and put the original post back on. It has to be installed upside down to work with the current saddle's clamp -- thus the attempted replacement. I still don't feel good about that, but it's how the bike came to me, so I probably shouldn't sweat it too much.

I bought another Wald seatpost online for the puppydog Specialized. Turns out it's identical to the one that didn't fit the Columbia, and they didn't fit that bike either. Now I have two. And I had to buy another post before sending the Specialized off with its new owner.

The Rivendell Saddlesack XS I had on the Motobecane became all misshapen after a while. It was designed to hang neatly from Brooks bag loops, but my old Brooks Professional has none, and it was getting squnched, sliding down the rails. It's now on Juli's Fuji, under her Brooks B-17S, which does have loops, and its shape is now fine. FWIW, this situation was the impetus for the cute little front rack at top -- I even bought a little camera bag to strap to it to carry my iPhone, camera, wallet, keys, etc... when I ride. That bag now has no place to sit, and is of little value to me, and I'm back to the drawing board again for carrying stuff on my bike. There's a bit of a domino effect at work in some of these examples, as you can see.

I bought a 26.0mm seatpost with a bit more length for the Motobecane, to help me raise the saddle a bit beyond the limit of the original SR post. But really, the bike should always have had a 26.2mm post, and I now have two 26.0 posts (the replacement and original SR) to unload, while a 26.2 is providing outstanding service on Le Mongre. This one wasn't my fault -- I was just relying on what was on there from the factory.

On the Schwinn, DiaCompe centerpulls didn't work well for me, but screechy-skronky Mafacs do. Shimano bar-end shifters didn't feel right to me, but Suntour bar ends do. New Brooks Team Professionals don't fit right, but older, flatter Professionals do. And so on, and so on...

Not everything I do works. It's frustrating, but I'm pretty persistent, and I don't generally give up -- especially when it comes to labors of love. I may need to try a different approach or see if something different fits -- but I usually find my way to a good outcome.

All for now,


Sunday, July 18, 2010


Though it's not always welcome, I'm often not shy about offering advice -- at least on certain subjects. I probably ought to stop, actually, but sometimes I can't help myself. Bicycles are one of those subjects.

Today, I went kayaking at the reservoir with my sister Alison and her two kids. It was a lot of fun having two boats, and I'd love to partner up with someone this summer to take my girls out the same way. It was windy, and I figured out today that kayaks are easier to control in the wind than a canoe, which was pretty handy. There was a Hobie-like catamaran out there with us (actually the lake was pretty busy), and though all of the sailboats were cranking along pretty well, he was blasting back and forth so quickly, he must have been longing for a bigger lake. In any case, the kayaking was good, and I can feel the workout in my abs as I sit here writing this.

After kayaking, I went over to Belmont Wheelworks and picked up a new seatpost for Ava's old puppydog Specialized. I'd shortened the old one (foolishly below the min insertion line) to allow it to be used for pedal-free coasting with a low saddle height, and I was not about to let the bike go with that one installed. A buyer walked off with it tonight, leaving me with a small stack of bills, and marking a cycling milestone at my house -- no more 16" bikes. And within two years, the 20"-ers will be gone, too. Time flies. And as excited as I am to see them progress, it's hard to watch their early years slip away.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. Alison met me here at the house with her kids, and as we were chatting before heading out, bikes came up (probably my fault). She mentioned she was thinking about picking up a cheap department store bike to ride around the neighborhood with the kids. This is the part where I started offering advice.

If you know anything about me and what I'm riding or encouraging others to ride these days, it has little to do with new, and largely doesn't fall to department-store grade. I've got two good steel bikes over 30 years old. My friend Allyson rides a 25 year-old steel Bertoni that she and I rebuilt. Well, actually she rides a Batavus today, but that sort of proves the point even more, and the Bertoni awaits her in a storage container in Burlington. My kids ride older steel bikes, and will continue doing so until they stop growing (they already demonstrate respect for their gear, which makes me proud and them worthy of something new). My friend Ken rides an early 1980's Bianchi he bought from my friend Liz that came to her via me after one of my little sister's college roommates abandoned it. That was, I think, the first bike refit I ever undertook. My friend Brian has a Nishiki undergoing a rebuild at extended intervals at his place, now. Pearls, all -- good bikes that sat unused, waiting for someone to appreciate them.

Though there's surely a lot of junk out there, my own experience tells me there are many fantastic old bikes hanging in America's garages that deserve far better than to sit idle or be scrapped. With eBay and Craig's List, finding a pearl is no longer hard (though they're not always bargains, given the wider market), and I think it's almost incumbent upon someone with a modest cycling budget to try to find something better and older before turning to something recently welded up and painted a bright color over in China.

So you know where this is heading, of course -- I've started shelling my sister's inbox with worthy bikes currently posted to eBay. Any one of the half dozen candidates I found today would be fantastic. Look at the Bianchi above: It's not new, so it doesn't have the latest in shifting in braking from Shimano. It's got three manufacturers in its drivetrain alone -- Shimano cranks, Suzue hubs and Suntour derailleurs and (I think) shifters. But it's all good stuff. It has friction shifters with levers bolted to the down tube, not brifters or twist shifters up on the grips. And it has only six cogs out back, though I imagine most department store bikes don't better that by much. The tubes are slender and the geometry classic. It's a pearl that my sister could ride for thirty years if she kept it in a dry place.

Now, in fairness, bikes of this sort will certainly need some time with a mechanic (I have my hand up), plus a bunch of new parts (tires, tubes, cables, brake pads, bar tape, saddle, grease, ball bearings, maybe more). But in some cases the seller has already done this as sort of a home business. However it gets cleaned up, the result can be a classic worth savoring and showing off, not just another cheap bike -- another fat-tubed example of our trade imbalance with China.

My advice to my sister is to pick up something like this, and swap out the bars and brake levers if a traditional drop bars doesn't match her imagined riding posture. And I can even suggest parts from Rivendell or Velo-Orange to do just that. My advice to this Bianchi's current owner is to replace it with a bike that fits -- maybe a 58 (this is a 53) -- just look at that hyperextended seatpost! And my advice to the bidders who ran it up from $150 to over $400 as I was writing this (and with over 7 days left on the auction) would be to chill out a bit. It's probably worth that much (it's a nice frame, with really nice and interesting components fitted), but all this early bidding just drives the price up.

My advice to you? Look for pearls.

All for now,


Saturday, July 17, 2010


I mentioned not too long ago that Juli is getting a little big for her Fuji's current setup. So I've been gathering parts in the hopes of getting her onto a drop bar on the Fuji within the next couple of weeks. She's been objecting to the idea, largely because she found the too-big Fuji terrifying to ride, so equipped, when she was seven. She's now nine, and much taller. The seat clamp sits three or four inches off the binder lug, where the post was once all the way down. And her knees, which once cleared the shortened V-O Belleville bar with ease, now threaten to collide with the bar ends on turns. I hope her increased height and some careful fitting will offset her fear, but I have one more trick up my sleeve if she's still uncomfortable -- cyclocross levers. We'll get there.

I've already gotten Juli the new Nitto drop bar, and am working on a stem that'll work. I've also been swapping parts around on the trailer bike, which will give Ava a more compact drop bar than she had, a new shifter setup (still bar-end, but without breaking up a set of Shimano bar end shifters to achieve it), and a more coordinated set of cable and bar tape colors (always important!). Juli will end up with a relatively high and compact bar fitted with bar-end shifters. I'll share pictures and more details once the updates are done and outcomes determined, but it's all pretty minor stuff, really.

And given that she'll get at most one more year out of her little Fuji, I've started work on Juli's next ride. This week, I bought (on eBay) the mid-1980's Schwinn World Sport ladies' frameset you see at top. I hesitate to use the word mixte, because it doesn't have the twin top tubes, middle rear brake position or extra set of stays in back that a true mixte has.

This little frame is a fairly hot sort of raspberryish/pinkish color, and given Juli's consistent opposition to the color pink, I honestly don't she'll like my selection. But that's OK -- it was cheap ($50, shipped!), and we can do interesting stuff with color accents to make it work for her, I think. There was an equally cheap and small Motobecane Grand Touring mixte frameset on eBay, in the same champagne and brown livery as mine. Loving my own as I do, I almost went for that one instead of the Schwinn. But there are build complexity issues with an old French frameset (seatposts, bottom brackets, headsets, front derailleur clamps, and handlebar stem quills) that I'd rather not deal with this time -- there's just a lot more stuff I'd have to go buy to get her rolling, and not all of it is cheap (I'm thinking of Phil Wood bottom brackets and Swiss-threaded rings, here).

The frame definitely has potential. It's made of steel, as you can tell. Japanese or Taiwanese in manufacture -- probably the latter -- definitely not a Chicago Schwinn. The main tubes are cromoly, and the fork and stays are surely milder, heavier stuff. The bottom bracket and headset specs are normal(!), and the rear dropouts have both a derailleur hanger and a dirt-simple approach to wheel alignment that I'll talk about another time. The lugs are for the most part pretty plain, but it is a fully lugged frame, and the spear-pointed seat tube lug and curvy 4-point bottle braze-ons are surprisingly pretty exceptions to the plainness of the other lugs. It even has a kickstand plate, so there's a chance it won't regularly find itself dropped callously to the ground! In fairness, I should say that Juli is very kind to her Fuji in this regard.

It's not a great frame, in the Nervex-lugged, silver-brazed, 531-tubed, pedigreed sense. Not at all. It's even got one of the least cool frame layouts extant. But for all that, it appears to be a very good frame for the intended purpose -- stout, properly fitted with braze-ons, and offering tire clearances generous enough for really any application. And if it's shy on greatness, the frame is pretty comparable to my Motobecane's -- and that's a bike I just love to ride. Hopefully this one will bring each of them as much joy, in turn.

The frame was designed for 27" wheels, and when I measured the reach from the brake bolts to the braking surfaces on a 700C wheelset, it looked like a medium-reach (47-57) caliper would do the trick at both ends. And as I said, in that configuration it would easily accept whatever tire we wanted to put on it. So in the worst case, I have a simple path to getting it rolling.

But to help out as much as possible with Juli's confidence on the bike, I'd really like to keep the standover height low. So I'm going to try a set of smaller-diameter 650B rims with long reach-brakes, to see how those work out. I think Ava is going to turn out to be fairly petite, and the smaller wheels would also be a boon for her, when this bike eventually is handed-down. It may even be worth swapping the fork out for one with slightly shorter legs, if the reach up front is just too long. The angles look pretty shallow, so I don't think steepening them a bit by shortening the fork would hurt anything. smaller wheels and shorter fork would lower the bottom bracket, though, so I need to play with some measurements before I end up making the bike unsuitable for pedaling around corners.

If 650B wheels seem to fit, I'll build a set up for the bike. I've signed up for the Advanced class at Broadway Bicycle school in Cambridge starting in a couple of weeks, because it's a prerequisite for the wheelbuilding class. I'm no good at trueing wheels so they asked me to take it, even though I know how to do everything else on the syllabus. After that ends, my plan is to take their next wheelbuilding class. I'll use the hubs that came with the Motobecane, and since I'm lacing up new wheels, I should be able to space the rear for a 7-speed freewheel. If 650B rims won't work, I'll just use the wheels currently on the Shogun. There's really no bad outcome, either way, here.

As for the rest of the build, my plan is to use components I have on hand, cannibalizing the Fuji or Shogun. And I'll collaborate with Juliana on the build process, making it a father-daugher winter project. It'd be simplest just to use the Shogun's bits once it comes back from my friend, since that's a bike none of us rides anyway, and that would also give Juli some overlap with the Fuji to get comfortable with her new ride. On the other hand, cannibalizing the Fuji would mean having to completely rebuild it. While it's apart, I could get it stripped and resprayed in the color of Ava's choosing, and she and I could build it back up using the Shogun's parts. I suspect that process would make the bike more "hers" than just one more hand-me-down from her sister. And there's a lot to be said for sharing that experience with her, even if it's not the easiest or cheapest path.

Whichever approach we take, I'll have to get a few new parts for the Schwinn, but not many. Most of the build should be painless, given the frame's origin and age (again no funny specs or threading to deal with). Only the rear brake threatens to be at all tricky, since the frame was designed for a rear brake whose cable comes from below, not above. I can't find any nice road calipers in that layout, and I don't want to put a crappy old caliper on it. So I'll experiment with running a cable up the seat tube to the seatpost area, and hope that I can come up with a routing that won't add too much friction to the brake lever, or get in the rider's way. I may have to go with a center-pull rear brake, and route a bare cable up behind the seat tube to a Mafac pulley-style cable hanger (shown below in a photo cribbed from eBay) clamped into the seatpost binder bolt. This shouldn't be too hard to figure out, in any case...

The girls will be back from vacation with their mother tonight, and I'll see them both tomorrow evening. I can't wait to show Juli her new frame, and talk through some of the possibilities of the builds this arrival will spawn! With any luck, she'll see past the pink paint, and they'll both see an up-side to spending time with Dad, making the two bikes their own.

All for now,


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Riding Wet

In my early teens, my Raleigh was the way I got around. I even once rode it across town to a friend's house in a snowstorm bad enough to keep the schools closed. But once I had my driver's license, an income and a car, cycling became a recreational activity. A bike isn't getting me to work, or hauling my goods to market, so to speak. And when it rains, I have the luxury of just staying off the bike.

But as we all probably have, I've been caught out in the rain on regular workout rides, when I misjudged the weather. And I've participated in one or two benefit rides that involved a wet day on the bike. Plus there was that first day in Italy I wrote about in May. It happens.

There's a lot that sucks about riding in the rain. Your socks get trashed with road crud, you end up with unidentifiable nastiness pasted to your legs, you get a stripe up the back of your t-shirt, and if you ride in a group, the spray from the folks ahead gets all over your face. Yuck. And if you get caught out in a cold rain, as I did in Italy, there's hypothermia and spastic shivering to consider.

Then there's your gear. Water bottle tops get sprayed with God-knows-what, and need to be rinsed before you drink from them. Brakes get gritty with sand rinsed off the road, which in turn grinds away at your rims under braking, even as your brake effectiveness drops. The resulting aluminum dust stains your sidewalls, and is hard to completely wash off. Drivetrains and other exposed steel rusts. Chromed hardware, too, though water isn't generally a problem for stainless and aluminum hardware or stainless/lined cables/housings. Computers stop working reliably as water infiltrates the sensors and computers themselves (my cadence sensor is particularly vulnerable down by the chainstay bridge). Bags leak, which means whatever's inside gets wet. Leather saddles, if you have one, soak through. Bar tape gets slick underhand, and can degrade, depending on what it was made from.

And yet, there are things to relish in a wet ride. After an initial period where I resist getting wet, dread the filth, stress about the potential damage to the gear, I ultimately give myself over to the uniqueness of the experience: The rainwater washing down my head through my helmet vents. The variations in the spray hitting my shins as water depth varies on the road, and as it's redirected by the tire as I thread my way along. And on a bike without fenders, there's the small fan of water coming forward off the front tire, reaching ahead of me in its own little patterns.

There's a different head game going on upstairs, too. Feeling and compensating for reduced grip and braking capacity. Looking around and through rivulets and droplets on my glasses. Having a heightened awareness of cars -- can they see me? Are they going to douse me with that puddle? It isn't ideal, but it's far from all-bad.

I mention all of this because yesterday, the girls and I got caught out in the rain for some distance. Which itself isn't remarkable, except that it was their first experience riding wet -- a milestone they encountered far younger than I did. I knew rain was coming, but we all needed to unwind after a stressful mid-day of doing chores, and I hoped we'd be able to beat it. Nope!

When we got about two miles into what was to be a 14-mile ride, the skies pretty much opened up, so we backtracked a bit and shortened the loop. Mid-way, we stopped at a building in town that houses a Starbuck's, a Quiznos, a Cold Stone and the like, and huddled under its awnings for fifteen or twenty minutes. I left my emergency $20 and my wallet back at the house (oops), so we didn't go leave puddles inside any of the shops -- we just hung outside until the rain started easing up a bit, then made our way home.

When we got back, we were all pretty wet, but poor Ava got the worst of it. My Schwinn's fenders did a decent job of keeping the road spray off of me, but the water coming off the lower part of my rear tire was mostly directed at her, and she was wet and grungy, head-to-toe. Juli was wet the way you get wet on an unfendered bike -- a good mix of rainwater and road spray.

What was great about it, though, is that the girls pretty quickly let go of the initial stress of the situation --the unknown of riding wet, the fear of the distant thunder -- and embraced the ridiculousness of it all. Ava was in great humor about being soaked, and she and Juli chatted excitedly under the awnings, swapping experiences and observations.

As I tend to do, I went into problem-solving mode along the way, as I watched my girls, their condition and their bikes. I made a mental note to look into fenders for the Fuji, and to install the Zefal Croozer II mud guard I'd bought for the Paramount years ago on the trailer bike, which has braze-ons under the down tube/goosenesck that fit it perfectly (done). I added mud flaps for my own fenders to my list, and remembered that Rivendell has some that will coordinate well with the Schwinn's saddle, bar tape and other lugage. I imagined fitting a Nitto rack to the trailer bike, with something slung underneath the platform to block the spray, or possibly just a seatpost-mounted spray guard. And though I forgot to bring my own (I was really ill-prepared yesterday), I resolved to pick up two more Aardvark saddle covers, and two larger saddle bags for the girls, to hold them. But in truth, we don't ride in the rain much, so most of these investments don't make a lot of sense. Maybe just the bags and saddle covers.

The shortened loop was just north of 7 miles, if my (wet) computer is to be believed, though that seems a little long. Whatever the distance, when we got home, all of our wet clothes went immediately into the washer, along with a bunch of Simple Green, detergent, and Oxy Clean stuff, trying to keep the road stains from being permanent. Seems to have done the trick! My sneakers were chain-marked already and now thoroughly in need of a wash, but theirs (badly beaten up from school and camp duty) I just tossed into the trash. I hit the saddles with Obenauf's leather conditioner last night as I was heating the grill up for some burgers, and noted they were all still a bit discolored. We'll see how they do as they dry out, but if they stay that way, I suppose they'll just have that much more character.

Today, I'm going to show the girls how to go around the bike, re-lubing and rust-proofing after a wet ride. After all, if I'm successful in getting cycling to stick, this won't be the last time they have to care for their bike after getting caught out in the rain.

All for now,


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Coaster Brakes are a Laugh Riot

I took the Columbia out for a ride yesterday, to the local state park's boat dock, where I rented a kayak for maybe forty-five minutes. It was like 95 degrees out yesterday, which is pretty ridiculous as far as heat goes, and it was fairly muggy, too. It definitely felt good to be out on the water, even sweating as I was in a layer of insulating foam disguised as a life jacket. I like kayaking, though I won't claim to be great at it. A kayak seems to glide through the water more effortlessly than a canoe, and it's easier to keep on a desired course. Of course, there are fewer passenger options, there, and half the time I have two passenger candidates kicking around. Jake has thus far been relegated to shore duty.

Out on the water, I ate a nice lunch of some imported brie on multi-grain crackers. The brie had been warmed by the air temps on the ride over, so it was a soft and gooey complement to the light and flaky Breton crackers. The grapes I had went bad, so I didn't bring any of those, which would have been perfect. As it was it was merely fantastic. Given the temps (and the biking and kayaking, for that matter) I skipped the wine -- tap water had to suffice, and plenty of it! I brought two liter-sized Sigg bottles with me. One came with me into the boat, and the other stayed behind, wrapped in ice that had completely melted away by the time I got back onto the bike. The water was still cool, so that worked out great.

Overall it was a nice venture out. Not very long, though. Both because it was hot and I didn't loiter, and because even on the single-speed Columbia clunker, eight miles roll by pretty quickly.

The Columbia is largely as it will be when it is sold off, with only a couple of post-ride adjustments and swaps to make to it before I throw it up on Craig's List. It isn't all that different than it was when I got it. It has a new and much better fork, a new headset, a different stem, new pedals and a new seatpost. The basket and probably the rack, too, will be coming off before I sell it.

The fork is the same model that I put on the Paramount after I trashed its fork, too. It's a really nice Tange part, outclassing everything else on the bike, with very beefy Tange Prestige chromoly tubing forming the blades and investment-cast tips nicer than any fork tips I've seen elsewhere. The headset holding in the fork isn't working out so well, because the cups don't seat firmly into the head tube, I think because the tube has been milled out a bit inside at each end -- Columbia may have had its own spec for headsets, vs. what Schwinn and everyone else used. That or the headset is way out of spec relative to the BMX standard. It's shimmed with aluminum tape for now, but I don't want to let the bike out of my hands that way. I'll sort it out, but it's been more of a nuisance than I expected.

I left the steerer tube the length it came, and fitted it with a brake cable stop and a bunch of headset shims. The cable stop will allow the next owner to run a front brake, and the long steerer tube will let them get the bars a little higher if they need to. A front brake would require a wheel with braking surfaces (these rims were not designed for rim brakes, and have none), but those are plentiful and cheap. I'd planned to build up a set of wheels for the bike for just that purpose. I may still build them to learn how, but putting them on this bike would be throwing away money -- I won't recover it in a sale.

The stem in the photo is the one that had been on the Kestrel, and it clamps the bars and grips that the bike came with. I couldn't use the original stem because of the fork change (different inner diameter to the steerer tube, which was fully expected). There's really too much reach with that long stem, and it looks awful on this bike anyway. So I'm going to pull it off and put something else on. But it got me through the test-ride.

I swapped the seatpost, as I mentioned, with a new Wald post based on what turns out was hasty measuring, and it's just a bit undersized. I used a seltzer can to shim it -- again, it looks like Columbia's spec is a little different than Schwinn's. It may be easiest to simply revert to the old one, since I'm not going to be riding the bike anyway. If I were to keep it for myself, I'd need a post probably three inches longer (possibly more) and I'd be sitting waaaay to the rear with that setup. I don't think it's likely I could make the bike fit me well.

The rest of the changes were mostly just little things to make it work better. New tubes. Greasing the bearings up. Drying the over-oiled chain out. Stuff like that.

The shakedown ride revealed a couple of necessary adjustments to my work: I need to loosen the bottom bracket cones just a hair, snug down the bearings on the right pedal spindle a lot, and repack the rear hub with grease (which I'd skipped). The pedals were new, as I said, but Look pedals (and one pair of Look clones) are literally the only ones I've ever gotten from the factory which have had sufficient grease and proper bearing adjustment out of the box. Every other set of pedals I've bought has been gritty -- undergreased and overtightened. Even MKS pedals, which aren't half bad. So I generally tear them down and repack them before installing them on a bike, but it seems I was sloppy on the adjustments in this case. I'd left the rear hub alone because I didn't want to mess with it, but on the work stand, I could feel the bearings rumbling as it coasted, through the crankset. The rear brake was also a little grabby, which made me think it was on the dry side. Not good, but easily fixed.

I also confirmed on the ride that riding on a too-low saddle is absolute hell on your knees. At least on mine. The discomfort was far worse than on the 20 mile ride Allyson and I took last July 4th, with a slightly-too-short seatpost on the Motobecane. I won't ride a bike set up so low again! My left knee is still a little achy, and I gave it a rest today.

It was also interesting riding with a loaded basket. Two liters of water is pretty heavy, plus I had a hat, a beach towel, ice, sunscreen, lunch, cable lock and a handful of other things in there. I could definitely feel the extra mass up front, but the bike (this bike, at least) was still plenty stable. This is good data, because I'm toying with the idea of moving to Cambridge at some point, or somewhere else a little more urban and bike-friendly. If I do, having a bike that can handle a basket at both ends would be good for shopping and commuting and the like. The Schwinn might fit that bill, but it may not -- it gets a bit of a shimmy on downhills with a handlebar bag right now. A lower load and more upright bars may keep that at bay, though. I suppose I'll find out. The front loading was a good experience to have, in any case.

The ride reminded me that a coaster-brake hub is massively less efficient than a regular hub, but for short and non-competitive trips like this it hardly matters. The single gear ratio also wasn't a problem -- I just stood up and grunted it out on the hills. That was actually a great thing to experience, because I'm also toying with the idea of a one-speed or fixed-gear bike, but have thought it wouldn't be much fun out in my area, with the hills I have to deal with. Wasn't so bad, though -- I'd just need to have a strong handlebar that could take being muscled upward when climbing. I also think a single-speed or fixed-gear could be a great setup to ride with folks who aren't as fast as I am (my kids, for instance), to drop my speed and get a different kind of workout (more anaerobic on hills, for one).

I think the biggest take-away, though, was how much fun a coaster brake can be! It was awesome, snapping the pedals backwards, locking up the back tire and skidding the back-end, then looking back at the stripes on the pavement. Each time I did it (occasionally at an unhealthy speed, I'll admit), I remembered with a grin doing the same as a kid, and it's just as much fun, now. Probably not all that good for the spokes, but if I took a wheel-building class, banging a wheel up wouldn't be an intimidating or expensive prospect. You can lock up a rim-brake wheel with a strong set of calipers, too, of course, but the nice thing about a coaster brake is that the cranks effectively lock up towards the rear, rather than freewheeling backwards. That gives you different opportunities to use your legs and their leverage to control the bike underneath you -- almost like you have motorcycle pegs or something. Good stuff!

I could totally see building a bike up with a coaster brake hub just for giggles. It'd probably be best on a mountain bike frame, because the geometry and riding position would more readily allow body-English to control a skid. And imagine the fun in the dirt! The bike wouldn't be suited to distance riding, given the inefficiency of the hub. But for short trips around town, that could be so much fun! I know... it's dangerous and irresponsible, particularly with trail damage in the case of off-road use. But it's important to giggle like a little kid, sometimes, too!

So -- the Columbia is a cool old beater with odd specs, that's a clumsy kind of fun and all the wrong shape for my knees. I did manage to get one fun ride out of the money I've thrown at it, at least, and hopefully I'll be able to recover a bunch of that in the sale. I was playing with the idea of getting in one more before sending it out into the world, but no -- I'm going to need those knees.

All for now,


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Guest Post: Immersion

Today I have a guest post! I've mentioned Allyson in several posts, and she's been a partner in the experiences behind several others, dating back surprisingly far, at that. She's one of those impactful figures in my life that I hope will be permanent, whatever roles we end up playing for one another.

Allyson, like me, loves to write, though she's as much a poet as anything, while I'm zero-parts poet. She moved to Amsterdam last year; now immersed in a cycle-bound culture, rather than our car-bound one. I asked her the other day if she would write a guest post, to share her perspective on cycling now that she's in Amsterdam, and I was pleased that she accepted. I like what she's had to say, here, and hope she'll share more!

Bikes have always been a part of my life, but I’ve never been a “bike person”. Some of my bike experiences have been good: playing cops and robbers on bikes in the cul-de-sac by my best friend Heather’s house, or riding past windmills in Holland on a warm spring day. Others haven’t been as good: my brother getting a bike on my birthday when I was in second grade, crashing into a mailbox and injuring my tailbone, or crashing into a rack of bikes to avoid a pedestrian.

But not until moving to Amsterdam did I really understand the personal pleasure of bike riding. I’d always perceived biking as an obsessive pastime – about speed and time and distance – things that I couldn’t keep up with, and frankly, don’t get off on. But living and working in Amsterdam, it’s almost a necessity to have a bike. Cars are impossible with medieval roads and serious congestion. Walking is fine, but only for short journeys. Trams are mostly reliable – mostly.

By the end of my first week living in Amsterdam, I’d bought a bike. It’s a second-hand Batavus – no idea what year – bought from a bike dealer who’s shop is adjacent to the metro station. This guy must have had over a thousand bikes, all used, all in various states of repair or disrepair. My challenge was finding one small enough for me. The Dutch generally are very tall – the tallest people in the world, in fact – and their bikes are sized proportionally. I managed to find one that, when the seat was allllll the way down, was passable. I spiffed it up with two red vinyl saddle bags, and of course, a matching red chain.

Riding home that night was an adventure. I followed the tram route I knew, which thankfully had proper bike paths almost the entire way. Over the next few days, I tried out a series of different routes to work – specifically meant to avoid congested intersections, left turns, and other obstacles. I found one that worked well and tucked in. For several weeks, though, I only ever rode my bike to and from work. Part of that was due to not wanting to get lost, and another part was due to the chaos of parking. Seriously. It’s chaos.

But back to finding pleasure in biking…

My “commute” is about 30 minutes, which includes about 18 minutes of bike time and twelve minutes of getting to and unlocking/locking up my bike. During that 18 minutes, I get to experience Amsterdam with all my senses – I feel the bike’s response to the brick and cobblestone paths, I smell fresh baked bread from the half dozen or so bakeries I pass (which are hard to resist!), I taste the always cool (sometimes cold) air, I hear the bells of the trams blocks over, I see canals and Amsterdammers making their way to work or school or home from a late night at the pub or the Red Light district… I’m at once alone and connected to this city, all at the same time. There’s a certain peacefulness in that.

And I’ve proven it’s not a race. I’m not the fastest one out there. I do follow the rules of the road and stop at red lights. But I get where I’m going, and enjoy it along the way.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Strong and Simple

I've been in maintenance mode the past few days, working on a couple of little things and two bigger projects aimed at offloading bikes.

Juliana is riding her mother's Gary Fisher mountain bike, over at her place, now that she's outgrown her little MTB. The Gary Fisher is still a little big, but Juli is doing really well on it. Unfortunately, it's been too tall at the handlebars to fit in the storage cubby at my ex's apartment, which makes the bike hard to get out of the way, over there. So yesterday, I spent a few minutes swapping the steel riser stem the bike came with for a TIG-welded aluminum stem just like the one on my Shogun -- same roll marks and everything, but no ZOOM on the side. It has a shorter quill and more acute extension angle than the original stem, so I was able to lower the bars quite a bit, which should help the bike fit both the cubby space and Juli herself.

I also needed to spend a few minutes on the Motobecane, when I discovered on a ride Sunday that the chain made a hell of a racket in top gear (big ring, small cog -- a combination I almost never use). I assumed the chain was rubbing the front derailleur cage, but I couldn't trim the noise away on the road. A little investigation on the work stand revealed that the chain was rubbing on the right seatstay tip, down where it meets the lug. I've never seen that before, but the bike was designed for a 5-speed wheelset, and I'm running seven sprockets, now. Also, the current wheelset was originally a 6-speed Uniglide that I retrofitted as a 7-speed Hyperglide, so who knows how the cog-to-frame spacing compares to the designer's expected norm. Anyway, simply shifting the axle forward in the dropouts eliminated the noise, so NBD. The seatstay tip is a little chewed up, but not too badly. It's steel, so I'm not worried about it.

But those tweaks aside, I've spent most of my labor the past couple of days on two bikes equipped with one-piece cranksets, which got me thinking about this old technology a bit more. The bikes are the Columbia balloon tire cruiser I bought last summer and promptly crashed, wrecking the fork, and a little 12" Schwinn Hotrod. They'll both be leaving my hands at some point soon, and I'll post something more substantive about the Columbia before it goes.

As to the other, I found the little Schwinn at the swap shop at the Southborough Transfer Station a year or more ago, and had planned to fix it up and donate it to a nonprofit or something. But my nephew Jack took a shine to it when he and his parents were over at the house for dinner a week ago, and I promised him I'd get it working. The little Schwinn will fit him today, where Ava's Gary Fisher (which they took with them when they left) is still a year or two too big. The Schwinn wasn't ready for him, though -- the training wheels weren't turning, the crank and chain felt pretty stiff, and I wanted to make sure the headset and coaster brake were OK -- both are pretty important. It's all set, now, and he'll get it this week.

The Columbia has had a pretty siginficant overhaul the past week or so. It's hard to tell, becase it looks largely as it did when I got it. But the changes are definitely there. Again, that's a post unto itself -- let me stick with one-piece cranks for a bit.

Most of the bikes I've put a wrench to have had "three-piece" cranks, the pieces being the left crank, right crank and bottom bracket, an example of which can be seen below at right. These cranks are from the Kestrel, which I've started disassembling (though this particular BB has been off the bike for a few seasons, now). The only one of these "three pieces" that's actually just one piece is the left crank -- the other two are really assemblies.

The one-piece crank shown above, at left, is from the trailer bike. It's a steel forging that's bent into a single shape comprising the left arm, axle and right arm, and pieces of the bottom bracket thread onto it to lock it all into the frame. On a three piece setup, the bottom bracket is a standalone assembly that threads into the frame first, and then the cranks mate to either end of the spindle and are secured by a bolt. If you're reading this blog, you probably already know this. Looking at the two piles of parts, it's easy to tell which is lighter and more refined!

Prior to taking the one-piece crankset off the trailer bike several years ago to install a three-piece unit, I think the last time I'd opened one up was in 6th or 7th grade, when I got my old banana-seat Ross working again so I could jump it over boulders at the bus stop. Then more recently, I regreased the cranks of both of Ava's bikes last year. Then the two bikes this weekend. Three of four of these were on kids' bikes, you'll note. And for me, these cranks have been inexorably linked to heavy and inexpensive bikes from older American brands -- Huffy, Ross, Columbia, Murray and Schwinn. So to someone used to working on lightweight three-piece cranksets fitted to lightweight bikes, these cranks can seem a little low-brow.

The bottom-feeding impression is really reinforced when you sit down to look at typical examples of these cranks. The bottom bracket bearings are generally not well sealed, and the hardware itself is often coarsely made. And the cranks are heavy, and often not carefully finished. The ones I've handled have all been pretty crude, with obvious grinding marks and the like. And in a way, working on them is not far removed from working on one of my Gravely tractors -- sturdy, old, unsophisticated stuff.

On the other hand, old and unsophisticated doesn't necessarily equate to bad. A one-piece crank allows anyone with a big adjustable wrench and a large flat-head screwdriver to adjust and overhaul one. These are inexpensive tools that any farmer and possibly most households would have on-hand. Servicing a loose-ball 3-piece crankset requires a crank-puller, a lock-ring wrench, a pin spanner, and if you want to take out the fixed cup, a fixed cup wrench (though often the lock-ring wrench has one of these on the other end). That's three or four specialized, relatively hard to acquire and relatively expensive tools that would serve no other purpose in the toolbox. An adjustable wrench and a screwdriver -- it's brilliant, really.

I should add that while none of the cranks I've handled have been nicely finished, there are nice examples to be found out there, and they're not expensive. And far more styling effort was historically spent on these chainrings than those on more expensive crank styles -- 4-leafed clovers, 5-spoked rings evoking muscle car wheels, hearts, cyclonic vortexes and other cool styling jobs were found on Schwinns alone. The fanciest chainrings I've seen on 3-piece cranks have been drilled extensively for lightness -- lovely, but driven by function, not form. And check out this suit of cards chainring on a one-piece crank on the Alternative Needs Transportation Boston Roadster.

The first time I saw a Boston Roadster online, I was surprised at the choice of a one-piece crank. It just didn't seem to align with the bike's price and custom nature. But I'm not so sure that's a fair conclusion, having had time to reflect on it, and having serviced the two one-piece cranks this weekend.

A steel bar forged into the shape of a bicycle crank is a heavy, but very strong thing that will survive countless bashes into curbs and tipovers onto concrete sidewalks with no more than cosmetic damage. Hammers tend to be forged from steel, too, after all. That's why these cranks are still used on kids bikes -- toughness! On reflection, there seems nothing wrong with having simplicity, serviceability and ruggedness underfoot on an expensive bike designed to provide a lifetime of errand and commuter service. And it's hard to argue that this polished chrome crank and machined aluminum chainring aren't beautiful.

There's not much that's beautiful about my old Columbia, of course, but I still think it's pretty cool. Its old Schwinn crank and chainring (at top) have seen better days, cosmetically, but they work and spin just fine, and no amount of bashing around is likely to hurt them. It's nearly ready to roll, now, and once it is, it'll roll on out to its next home. That'll leave me with only the Schwinn and Motobecane in service -- down from five. Progress!

All for now,