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,


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