Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Unless you look...

I've been using my Schwinn Sports Tourer about once a week all summer. I take it out with Ava on the trailer bike, to the grocery store for light shopping runs, over to the lake for kayaking trips, and it even went to Staples for a school supply run last week. That's not a lot of use -- less than 300 miles -- but it's regular use. The bike has felt and sounded just fine, from the saddle. Other than keeping the chain lubed and wiping the wheels down to clean off the aluminum dust after a wet ride, I haven't seen cause to do anything to it.

On Monday, though, I had my last class at Broadway Bicycle School, and brought the Schwinn into town for its turn in the work stand. The topic for Monday's class was to look at the front derailleur. Though none of my front derailleurs was giving me any problems, I do struggle with setting them up right the first time during a build. I usually get the angle a bit wrong, and have to tweak that, but sometimes I also end up with a chain that overshifts and drops off the big ring, to the outside, at the least opportune time. Easy fixes, but things I should be able to avoid by setting it up right in the first place. So I was looking forward to learning tricks from Dave, our instructor.

I wasn't disappointed. I learned that I typically set my front derailleurs too high above the outer chainring (just 2-3mm). I learned the proper angle for a front derailleur (outer plate parallel to the chain while in the outer position), and that setting this always a guessing game because you can't adjust it while it's in that position. And as an unexpected bonus, I saw a real cable housing cutter in action, making quick work of derailleur housing (which has linear wire strands under the casing, rather than a helical coil of flat wire). I tend not to use this stuff because it's so hard to cut with the tools I have, but it's not ideal to use the other stuff with indexed shifters, and I should get one of those cutters at some point.

On the work stand, I saw that my front derailleur was on the verge of overshifting the chain off the large ring, that there was a little slop in the derailleur cable, and that my derailleur was a little high, relative to the recommended position. The first was probably caused by having my cranks snugged down a bit in Siena -- I don't think I ever re-adjusted the derailleur's limit screws to match the cranks' slight shift inboard. The second was either because I didn't take all the slack out the first time, or because the housing settled a bit or cable streched. And the third was just me not knowing any better. All good to catch.

But as I poked around, a couple of other things popped up, completely unexpected. For starters, I was able to hear a lot more noise coming from the rear derailleur on the work stand than out on the road. In top gear, the derailleur was on the verge of noisily overshifting the chain off the cluster altogether, and in low gear, the jockey wheel was riding right on the sprocket, which was particularly rumbly when pedaling backwards. Both were easy to adjust away, but had been missed because I hadn't checked for problems in a while -- even though I'd made major changes to the bike (like a new wheelset after my May crash).

More seriously, though, I discovered that the rear wheel was a little out of true, and that the cause was a broken spoke. These wheels have maybe 500 miles on them, and have never been abused, so this was pretty surprising - I haven't broken a spoke in over 15 years! These are factory-made wheels, but they're not assembled from junk, by any means. The rims are Sun CR18's which are a strong touring/commuting rim. The hubs are Quanta parts with cartridge bearings -- perfectly decent hubs. And the spokes are straight-gauge DT Swiss, which are good spokes used by wheel builders everywhere. The spoke broke at the bend down at the flange, so maybe it had been weakened during forming, or maybe it had been overtensioned by the lacing machine -- who knows. I just hope I don't end up breaking spokes all over the place with these wheels.

Dave suggested we replace the spoke in class, since I was there and otherwise done with my tasks for the evening. So I took the wheel off the bike, removed the tire and tube and unscrewed the spoke from its nipple. Then I tried to remove the freewheel from the hub, but it wouldn't budge. Dave tried, too. Then we double-teamed the wheel and still couldn't unscrew it. I had the same problem with this freewheel on the previous wheelset as well, but the bike shop guys had been able to get it off for me. I'll hit it with some penetrating oil and give it another shot, but in the mean time left it in place, and just curled the spoke past the big sprocket. That proved painless enough, since the spoke was on the left side, not the drive side. Once the spoke was screwed into the nipple, I put the rim on the truing stand and straightened it out.

None of these issues were hard to address (though I'm glad I found the broken spoke in the setting I did). And none of them would really be surprising tweaks to have to make sometime after a build has been completed and things have settled in. What they really reinforced for me, though, is how important it is to give your bike a deliberate inspection every once in a while -- even just once per season -- to make sure everything is adjusted properly. I've never really believed in a regular tune up, thinking that the bike would tell me during normal use if something was wrong. Finding these problems really showed me that unless you get the bike into a stand and look, you may not notice problems that could leave you sitting by the side of the road, waiting for a lift home.

All for now,


Friday, August 20, 2010

Wheel Building Dilemma

On Monday night, class at Broadway Bicycle School focused on wheel truing.

I brought the Shogun into Cambridge for class, because it has the oldest set of wheels in my fleet -- an old but otherwise nice set of mid-'80's Shimano 600 hubs (a 6-speed freewheel hub in back) and charcoal anodized Mavic MA-40 rims. I had meetings on Monday afternoon, so my once-delayed plan to go into town on the T didn't pan out, again. I did drive in early enough to ride around a bit, but then a thunderstorm hit, so I retreated to my car.

The truing exercise was surprisingly easy, particularly since we were able to use nice Park wheel truing stands. The wheels were both out of true -- a couple of millimeters warped across a half or third of their circumference, rather than having a particular trouble spot. Once they were straight, I could feel that the spokes were pretty unevenly tensioned, so the rims themselves may no longer be straight. And their sidewalls are pretty worn, so they could stand replacement at some point.

To that end, the wheel truing class was really the reason I took this course -- so that I could sign up for the wheelbuilding course, which I did yesterday! In just a few weeks, I'll start the process of building a set of wheels. The question, now, is what to build?

When I last posted about this, my plan was to build up a new set of wheels for my Columbia straight-bar cruiser, put a front brake on it, maybe get some cantilever brake posts brazed to the rear triangle, and make that into an errand/around town sort of bike. I even picked up a set of SR hubs, a single speed freewheel and a set of 26" rims. From a cash outlay perspective, I'd need only go buy spokes to lace up a set of single speed, fat-rimmed MTB wheels in class.

A lot has changed since then, though, and that project doesn't make sense to me anymore. The Columbia is going on eBay shortly (no calls from Craig's List), so I'm not really interested in building up wheels for it. I also think I'm going to offload those wheel components I'd picked up, because I don't see a project that'll require a set of 26" single speed nutted-axle wheels in my future anymore. So no -- not those wheels.

Other candidates? Well, I recently bought a set of inexpensive but decent 650B wheels to use on Juliana's Schwinn, and confirmed that 650B rims will work well with that frame, both in terms of bottom bracket height and brake reach. There is one significant problem with that wheelset, though -- rear hub spacing. The rear hub is a mountain bike hub, spaced at 135mm, and this is an older road frame spaced for 120 or 126mm hubs. I've tugged at and spread the rear triangle enough to get the wheel into place, but the dropouts are noticeably no longer parallel in that position. That may compromise how well the quick release bites the rear dropouts, which may be a safety issue. I also suspect the rear derailleur alignment will be problematic with that setup.

So a second wheel-building option is to build up a set of 6/7 speed 126mm wheels for her, using a set of freewheel hubs I have. These are nice 36-hole Specialized cartridge bearing hubs that came with the Motobecane -- the core of the wheelset I destroyed in my Schwinn's crash in May. That would be a nice wheelset for Juli, and it would work much better with her frame. If I take this path, I'd have to shell out for a new set of rims, and then I'd have that other 650B wheelset kicking around. Waiting for a build for Ava, I suppose.

Still another path might be to build up an alternate 27" wheelset for the Schwinn, or another 700c wheelset for the Motobecane. I could build lighter wheels for the Schwinn, or sturdier wheels for the Motobecane, for example -- the opposite of what's on each bike today. But the wheelsets on both of those bikes is well-matched to the way I ride them, and both have low miles on them, so an alternate wheelset really isn't necessary. I'd be answering a question I'm not asking myself, there.

I guess I could also rebuild the Shogun's wheels, since the rims probably ought to be replaced. But I'm probably going to sell that bike as a single-speed in the spring, after taking the derailleurs off for Ava's Fuji build, swapping the chainrings and chain, and screwing on a single-speed freewheel and some shifter boss caps. I may try my hand at re-dishing the rear wheel to make it stronger, but putting new rims on that bike would be little different than throwing money away on the Columbia. Worse, it'd cost more than that option, because I have no 700c rims lying around.

Given the choices, I think building up a set of 650B wheels for Juli's bike makes the most sense. It's not the cheapest path, and it will leave me with an idle 650B wheelset for a while. But it's the safest path for Juli, and of all the choices, it's the one that will provide the most utility. So I will need to find a set of 650B rims. Maybe a set of high-polish V-O Diagonale rims? Velocity Synergy symmetrics? Whatever I settle on, it seems I'll be doing my part to help the 650B movement along.

I'll try again for the bike exploration in Cambridge next Monday, with the Schwinn, this time. It has lights and a lock, and I'd be comfortable locking it up outside on a rack while I check stuff out. The last class is a front derailleur class, and it's as good a bike as any for that. None of my front derailleurs really needs adjusting, but I always have to fuss with them after a build, so I'm hoping I'll learn some alignment tricks. Picking up little tricks from experienced hands has really made the class worth my while, and I'd recommend it even to folks who've spent time wrenching their own bikes. Particularly, if like me, that's been a process of learning through doing, rather than learning through instruction.

All for now,


Sunday, August 15, 2010


I like this photo. I took several from different angles, and this view of the business-end of our bikes seemed to best capture them. This was taken early yesterday morning, before we headed out to Lexington for the MassBike summer family ride. That's Juli's Fuji, Ava's Trek trailer bike and my Schwinn Sports Tourer, left to right. There's room for one more up there, I think, with the right combination of mounts, spacing and orientation of the bikes.

The ride was good, but I don't have much to share from it. The 22-mile loop took us from Lexington High School into the Concord Battlefield/Hanscom area, over to the Old North Bridge, then into Bedford before cutting back down to the starting point. I have a couple of photos of the girls at the Old North Bridge, and a couple more of them eating ice cream at Bedford Farms.

It was the longest ride Ava's ever taken. Juli's been on one ride longer than this with me in the past, but I think that was on the trailer bike, and this was her longest solo ride to date. And it was their first organized group ride, too. Several milestones in there, and high-fives all around at the finish.

All for now,


Thursday, August 12, 2010

650B Schwinn World Sport

It's not done yet -- not even close. But today I received the 650B wheelset I bought to try out with Juli's Schwinn, and it's official -- the bike will be built up as a 650B.

The wheels are basic, but perfectly serviceable. They've got inexpensive Deore hubs laced to inexpensive Weinmann ZAC19 rims. Hubs, skewers and rims are black, and spokes and braking surfaces are shiny, and it's a combination I think works pretty well. They won't knock anyone's socks off, but they should perform well for as long as Juli needs them.

The bike was built for 27" wheels, but it will support this smaller wheel size just fine. At the rear, the brake bridge is well-placed (if shabbily welded) for this conversion, allowing a Dia-Compe 750 centerpull to reach comfortably to the rims while using only about half of their adjustment range. The long and dorky fork, on the other hand, requires all of the available reach, which you can kind of see in the photo. Honestly, I was surprised by that, because it's not uncommon for the rear triangle to use up more brake reach than the fork -- my own Schwinn Sports Tourer is that way, for instance. Some older 10-speeds even used different brake sizes at either end -- a Weinmann or Dia-Compe 610 up front and a 750 in back. But that's OK -- the fork is coming off anyway, in favor of a 700C lugged fork (in chrome), and that will no doubt take an inch or so out of the fork legs -- a 650B wheel might even work with a shorter-reach 610 brake after that swap.

Swapping the fork is going to drop the bottom bracket a bit more than the wheel swap alone, and also steepen the head and seat tube angles. The angles they look pretty relaxed as it is, so I don't think the bike will be flighty or anything, but I'm a little concerned about bottom bracket height. Juli is running a 165 crank, so there probably won't be a problem, but I'll have to pay some attention to that, and will hold off on buying tires until I've had a chance to measure things out with the new fork. A little extra loft through a poofier tire might be called for, there. She's already had a pedal-grounding crash on her Fuji, so she understands the perils of pedaling through corners, but I don't want to handicap her with too little clearance, either.

It will be quite a while before the bike is ready to ride, though. I can still do a little work here and there, but most of the drivetrain is committed to the Fuji for the rest of this season, so it will likely be the end of this year before we get to the build stage. In the mean time, I'll keep gathering parts, and looking forward to what should prove to be a neat little bike.

All for now,


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fuji Feedback

On Monday, I took Juli's Fuji to my bicycle maintenance class at Broadway Bicycle School. It was headset night, and of all the bikes in my charge, it's the most needy in that department.

I'd intended to get into town way ahead of schedule on the Red Line from Alewife, and sort of beat around Cambridge, reacquainting myself with the place. But I got sleepy from my ride (24 miles out to Tufts Veterinary School and back), and then I was called for a phone screen for a job I'm really interested in, which was more important than beating around Cambridge for a couple of hours, reacquainting myself with the place. So instead, I got there just before the shop closed up at 6:00, and bought a T-Shirt for myself, another as a gift, and a couple of Crane hammer-strike bells, before then waiting on a bench outside for class to start.

Funny thing about Cambridge. I mentioned last week I got a couple of laughs and hoots and the like while riding Ava's teeny mountain bike to class. This week, people made comments like "Hey, uh... I think you need a bigger bike" as I walked Juli's Fuji from my car to class. All said kindly and all in good fun, of course. But in truth I kind of marveled that people said anything at all. I've written in the past about how bikes can often be an ice-breaker, but even so, random interaction with passers-by is a new experience for me.

And it kept coming! As I sat on the bench, I think three separate people walking or riding by said something like "Nice bike! But it's not yours, right?" And as the Broadway crew started putting away the bikes hung outside for the night, they complimented the bike as well, and asked me about it. I told them what it was, and how Juli and I had built it up a few years ago, and to no surprise (these are bike people, after all), there were nods and smiles and approvals and reminiscences of first bikes. All good stuff, and great reinforcement of the notion of bikes as bridges.

Class was good, too. I got a good look inside the Fuji's 105SC headset. It's a nice part, with seals that pop into place to keep dirt out of the bearings, and a recessed slot for the lock washer to ride in, which lowers the stack height a bit. The races have just the slightest little indentations hammered in by the stresses on the ball bearings, but it wasn't bad. With the headset overtightened, these give the fork the feel of having several distinct "positions", rather than pivoting smoothly, but it isn't really noticeable when the headsed is adjusted properly.

The big take-way from class was again that a professional workstand is a beautiful thing. My home made workstand is a big step up from working with a bike upside down on the floor, but a professional work stand is another big step up from there. Apart from the lack of wobble, I was able to rotate the bike entirely upside down and lock it there, in order to load up the lower headset cup with uncaged balls without them falling out onto the floor. How cool is that? It makes everything sooooo much easier. Maybe someday I'll have a real shop to work on my bikes...

Next week is wheel truing night, and this time (for real!) I'll plan to bring the Shogun in early on the T (which is OK, according to the MBTA website, but not at rush hours), and use it to explore Cambridge a bit before class. I can even ride it around, which I mostly couldn't do with the Fuji. After class, I'm going to stop at a falafel place I saw just outside of Central Square for dinner, I think, before heading back to the red line. It's been a long time since I had falafel, and I hope it's good!

I really like that city.

All for now,


Tuesday, August 10, 2010


With every new bike project, there's a stage of planning what I'll need, which overlaps with the process of gathering enough stuff to build the critical mass of parts that comprise the fundamentals of a bicycle. For Juli's Schwinn, that process has been surprisingly quick, and I have most everything I need, already, along with some stuff I don't strictly need, but wanted to include in the build.

On Sunday, I took the girls to the Museum of Transportation for Bicycle Day. There's a concours plus a swap meet (which we also went to last year), and the museum itself is open, with a neat collection of old, very old, and extremely old cars. It's a fun way to spend a couple of hours on a hot August morning.

Last year, I was looking for a clunker, and walked away with the Columbia straight-bar cruiser I've written about up here. I just put that bike on Craig's List, btw, along with the rusty parts bike, as part of the process of paring back on my bicycle hoarding. This year, I was looking for a couple of missing pieces to Juli's Schwinn build. We ended up walking away with a narrow drop bar, along with a complete Dia-Compe 750 centerpull brake caliper to add to the pile of parts.

Actually the Dia-Compe isn't going to go on her Schwinn, but I did install it on the trailer bike, in place of the newer 750 centerpull that was on there. So now I have a matched set of 750's and a matched set of 610's for Juli's Schwinn -- that should give me all of the combinations of brake reach I will need to get the bike rolling. More on that in a bit.

Along with the brakes and handlebar, I've got a Nitto stem with a 50mm reach, a 26.4 seatpost, a new JIS-spec headset, and a front brake cable hanger all waiting. The brake levers, derailleurs, saddle, saddle bag, cranks, pedals, bottom bracket and shifters on the Fuji today will all be moved over to the Schwinn for her to keep using. It's all good stuff, and it will swap over neatly. Juli loves her Pletscher, but that one was modified expressly to fit the Fuji, and will stay with the bike, along with the headset. I've picked up another Pletscher to install on this bike, and will modify the rear struts as needed, to make the rack sit level -- it's a small frame, and I'm pretty sure it won't sit level out-of-the-box.

What's left? Well, I need a seatpost binder bolt, a chain, a pulley-style brake cable hanger for the rear brake, some cables, a kick stand, some handlebar tape, a gear cluster, and of course a pair of wheels. The wheels will be fun to sort out. 27" or 700C wheels will fit fine with the 610 Dia-Compe brakes I have, so the default path is to pirate the 700C wheels from the Shogun. These were Allyson's wheels originally, and they're getting up there in years. The rear is a little out of round, so I'm going to see if I can touch them up next week in my maintenance class, and if not I'll build a new set of wheels around those hubs in my wheelbuilding class, whenever I take it.

But the current question is whether or not I can use a set of 650B rims on that frame. I'm guessing that the brake mounts are too far away from the dropouts to do so (the bike was designed for 27" wheels), but I want to be sure. So I bought a set of 650B wheels (Deore Hubs, Weinmann rims) on the cheap on eBay the other day. Ridiculously cheap for new wheels, actually. Less than half what I paid for that new set of 27" wheels post-crash for my own Schwinn. More like a third -- including shipping. We'll see if the 750 Dia-Compes reach to the 650B's. If they don't, they'll still be good to have for a future project -- maybe Ava's bike post-Fuji. It'll be fun to figure this all out!

Back to the swap meet, I had a couple of firsts, and a few temptations. The firsts, first: There was an Alex Singer bicycle there, and a fully chromed Paramount with red decals and lug lining and red cables. I have a soft spot for fully chromed Schwinns -- both the Voyageurs and the Paramounts. But in truth, I've never seen a chrome Paramount in person. It was just gorgeous, and I'd personally love to see more chromed frames out there. I know chrome plating is a toxic process, and I understand the frames are actually subject to more/worse corrosion problems than painted frames. But even so -- they're beautiful. The girls agreed, so it's not just me!

The Singer was a feast for the eyes, too, with all kinds of interesting details -- like the custom decaleur up on the handlebars, the little reinforcing braces on the front of the Mafac brakes, and much more. I should have brought a camera, but totally forgot. I've never seen a Singer, and it was a real treat. It was even a good size for me, but the seller was asking more than I've ever paid for a bike, and more than I'd consider paying for one. I'm not sure whether I'd enjoy the riding experience as much as the ogling experience.

As to the temptations, one of the constant shell games I play in my head with my bikes is the notion of getting rid of my Schwinn Sports Tourer and replacing it with a bike I can set up as both a utility bike and a touring bike, swapping back and forth with relative ease. I've come very close to doing that with the Schwinn and calling it a day, actually. But the Schwinn is one size too small, and has enough oddities in its specs that it's sometimes difficult to find the right parts for it. The handlebar or stem is making a creak right now, for example, and it's making me nervous. Tightening the quill bolt and bar clamp don't help, and I can't go buy a new Nitto stem for it, because it accepts a 21.15 quill, not a 22.2. I have other 21.15 stems, but their bar clamps won't allow a drop bar to thread through -- they're too wide and not cut out, because they were made for upright bars with wider-radius curves. So it's just a bit of a pain sorting stuff like that out, though the plan itself is still valid.

Anyway, a slightly larger and purpose-built touring frame would be a nice swap at some point, and there were candidates at the swap meet for me -- a nice Lotus touring bike set up with a mountain bike bar, and two Motobecanes similar to my own, but slightly larger and with eyelets on the dropouts. Ultimately, the Lotus was the most interesting, with the nicest components and the greatest utility. But it was also the most expensive, by a factor of two, and I didn't think it was that nice. I figured the bargain Motobecanes would be too much trouble to refit, given their French specs -- and the point is that I want something less fiddly, not more so. I passed on all three, but am going to keep my eyes open for a good bike to bring to France next spring. The Schwinn would do the trick just fine, so I always have it as a fall-back.

So, some progress over the past few days. Not necessarily for my own fleet, yet, but progress just the same.

All for now,


Monday, August 9, 2010


When I was a kid, there were very few hawks around, thanks to DDT. I recall my dad pointing them out to me, excitedly, when we were out driving on the Pike or whatever, but I don't have any specific memories of seeing them until I was maybe 19. I was home from college in my last summer at my parents' house. I remember washing one of my dad's cars out in the back yard, and was crouched down, scrubbing a rocker panel or lower door or something. When I stood up for whatever reason, I was just in time to see a hawk swooping down low, just on the other side of the car, and no higher than my head, checking out the remaining members of the flock of chickens I'd kept as a kid. It immediately climbed up and away over the back field, either because it realized they were too big to carry off, or because of my presence there. It's a great memory.

These days, it seems like I have to elbow hawks out of the way to get out my front door. I see them sitting in trees alongside the highway, while commuting. I see them wheeling overhead, hunting, when I'm out in the yard. I've seen a pair of them, chasing through the trees in my yard, squabbling over a kill (a headless chipmunk, which was dropped in the fracas and recovered by neither party). I've even watched with Juliana as a hawk invaded a bird's nest in a tree alongside the driveway, and made off with a couple of chicks, as the parents protested noisily nearby. Sharp-shinned hawks are common to the area, and apparently do that sort of thing. It was sad to watch (particularly for Juliana), but at the same time, it's probably something neither of us will witness again, and we should count ourselves fortunate to have been there at that moment.

Anyway, hawks appear to have recovered from the decimation (or worse), though I've never researched the subject to see if that's true from a population statistics perspective. Wild turkeys, too, which are also everywhere these days. I saw a peacock out in Lexington next to the on-ramp to Rt 2 a couple of years ago, tail and all, but that was probably more an escapee than anything.

Anyway, even with their comeback, one thing I'd never heard in person before last week is the piercing cry that hawks are credited with in the movies. All of the hawks sounds I've heard around the yard have been sort of pathetic squawky seagull/chicken noises, rather than that noble cry that spikes early and tapers off. I'd sort of assumed that the hawks we have around here were species with lesser voices.

But the other day, I was walking Jake at the local conservation land, and as we were heading up the first hill, I heard that signature hunting cry from overhead. It was a little hoarse, and a little less majestic than the movie version, but close enough. I looked up and saw a hawk wheeling in close, looking for a meal in the pasture. A very cool first, and it made me smile.

All for now,


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Small Mixte

I said a few posts back that I'd picked up a smallish ladies' Schwinn frame for Juliana, with the intention of building it up with her this winter. Actually, looking back at the post, I even shared a picture of the frame. For a couple of weeks, it seemed like that wasn't going to work out so well, because of Juli's vehement opposition to the color pink, and indignation that her sister will get a repaint of the Fuji before it passes into her hands.

(Quick sidebar on the Fuji: The plan is to take it to a frame builder, have him braze on a real derailleur hanger, add a couple of rack barrels at the back in an unusual location to accept the Pletscher, and put a set of bottle cage braze-ons and cable stops for the bar end shifters on the down tube, before sending it out to be powder coated. For colors, Ava and I agreed on a Bugatti-esque bright blue with light silver fork blades, head tube and seat tube. The brazing work probably won't cost $100 and it'll save the paint job from bottle cage straps, cable clamps and the like. Time will tell if it actually all unfolds this way...)

While Juli smoldered away not-so-quietly, I started looking into alternatives, though I had no real intention of doing anything other than building that pink bike with her. By the way, that Schwinn frame was brazed in China, not Taiwan (as I'd hypothesized), according to the serial number.

I looked at a bunch of bikes on eBay, and found a few mountain bike frames that could be bastardized into road use for a young person. The problem, there, is that I've lived with such a bike in the past (my Paramount MTB set up with drop bars and bar-end shifters for commuter use), and the fit really wasn't right, because I was sitting so far back. That's with a stem with a very short reach, and remember I'm an adult male, and I've got a proportionally longer torso and arms than your average girl does. I kept digging.

I knew that Velo-Orange had come out with a mixte frame, and poking around a bit, I found it was available as small as a 51 (the pink Schwinn is a 48, but I'd need to measure more than that to compare the two frames, really). A mixte frame is sort of like what's traditionally called a ladies' frame, in that the bike does not have a high top tube. But it's better than a traditional ladies' frame like Juli's Schwinn, because in place of the downward-sloping top tube that stops at the seat tube, a Mixte usually has a pair of narrower-diameter tubes that run all the way from the head tube down to the general vicinity of the rear dropouts (there are plenty of variations on this theme, but this is generally the style). These longer twin tubes add more strength to the frame, and generally class things up a bit. They also create a more elegant solution for a rear brake location, because the third pair of rear stays (the mid-stays) is typically fitted with a brake bridge, and the brake is installed there, not on the seat stays. The brake cable can thus run down between the twin top tubes, straight to a brake, rather than having to be routed upwards to a brake on a seatstay bridge.

In any case, the V-O mixte is a nice-looking lugged frame, in a nice blue, and it is reasonably priced. But the fork and rear triangle are roomy -- it is set up for 700c rims with lots of tire clearance and long reach brakes, and could probably accept 27" wheels like Juli's Schwinn. That's fine, but I'm guessing that as a result, even the smallest size would build up into a bike too big for Juli to graduate to. And anyway, by now I wasn't thinking so much about her anymore, but her little sister -- again, Juli's next frame has been bought.

I just recently stumbled upon a potentially great solution for Ava, when her time comes: SOMA Fabrications also has a mixte, called the Buena Vista. It's a welded frame, for the most part (though the twin top tube/seat tube junction has a lug, and there are rings brazed at the top of the seat tube and both ends of the head tube), with a decent Tange Chromoly tubeset, lots of braze-ons for whatever you might want to bolt to it, a lugged Tange fork and sporty geometry. But what's really interesting is that they have it in a 42cm frame size, which was designed for 26" wheels and long-reach brakes (57-73 mm). A classic junior (not kids) mixte frame, in other words, which is really interesting to a guy with a little girl who is likely to be on the petite side, as it seems Ava will be.

Without knowing much more than the intended wheel and brake specs, I'm guessing that the bike could be built up with either 26" wheels with the spec'ed long-reach brakes, or 650B wheels with a medium-reach brake, though to be sure would require some digging (or expensive trial and error). Their difference in radius is only a half inch, so it's not like we're talking about a tremendously different size. But 650B wheels, if they fit, would probably offer a better ride than 26" wheels, and more interesting road tire choices would be at hand (skinny 26" tires tend to be cheaper and beefier utility tires, rather than more refined road tires). It may even be that a build with 26" wheels might make sense early on, with a swap to 650B later. Hard to say.

I think Juliana is going to be tall, given her build and the way she's growing. I'm not really worried about finding a bike that fits her well, and I think the Schwinn will work out just fine in a year or so -- that she'll shoot right past the need for an intermediate size. She's already riding her mother's mountain bike, after all, and I wouldn't be surprised if she ends up fitting a frame in the low 50's as an adult, rather than the high 40's.

But I'm guessing Ava will end up more her mother's size, though, and my ex rides a 46cm Bianchi made more approachable by fitting 650B wheels with skinny-ish Grand Bois Cypres tires. Assuming Ava keeps at cycling, I think she'll be on the Fuji until a later age than Juli, that she'll need a smaller adult bike, and that she would benefit from something slotting between the Fuji and a full-sized frame. All speculation, here, but if it works out that way, I'd rather that bridge not be a small mountain bike bastardized for road use.

This is nothing I need to worry about now, for sure -- she's only six, after all, and just got onto a pair of 20" mountain bikes (she looks tiny on them, and is still a little wobbly, but she's great at starting and stopping without falling over). But I like this little Soma, and I think it's great that there's even a higher-end option to consider. Something to keep an eye on!

All for now,


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Nice bike?

I have, for some time, taken a little perverse pride in the fact that both of my active-duty bikes are on the clunker end of the spectrum. Both my Schwinn Sports Tourer and my Motobecane Grand Touring date back to the 1970's, and though they're both made of chromoly tubing, and they both have integral derailleur hangers, neither is what you'd call special.

Oh sure -- the Schwinn has a bit of a cult following, probably stoked by Sheldon Brown's positive comments about Schwinn's fillet-brazed efforts. And yeah, the Motobecane has a name-brand tubeset. Of course, both are wearing an eclectic collection of antique, modern and middle-aged parts -- none crap. A fancy Brooks saddle props me up on both bikes, too. And I enjoy riding both of them, though for different reasons.

But here's the thing -- neither one of them is particularly nice, in the hardware geek sense. The lugs on the Motobecane get the job done, insofar as none of the tubes have yet broken or come adrift of a lug. But they have apparently random numbers stamped on them, and visible file marks under the paint where a rough bit of brass or lug was filed down after brazing was complete. And that crumpled seat tube lug crumpled because it's a stamped bit, not an investment-cast part. Similarly, the Schwinn's fillet brazing is mass-production grade, rather than the work of a craftsman. And it doesn't even have a seat tube lug to collapse under an overtightened binder bolt -- even better than that, it came with the roughest scrap of steel you've possibly ever seen, formed into the approximate shape of a seatpost clamp. The bike wears a modern aluminum binder in its place, which is a step in the right direction.

Last Sunday, I went for a ride with my friend Steven, who'd ridden his/my Motobecane in his youth. He left that bike behind years ago, in favor of a series of Team Miyata bikes. He still rides the second of these, a mid-1980's bike equipped with the New Dura Ace (7400) groupset that emerged after the Dura Ace AX experiments failed disastrously (even though they were beautiful parts). It's in nearly perfect condition -- you'd swear the bike was 5 years old, if you saw it.

I think before we took off, though possibly after the ride, I was standing astride the Motobecane, and gave his bike a once-over from maybe 10 feet away. It has internally-splined and custom-drawn Miyata tubing that makes no difference to the appearance of the bike, but probably shaves a few ounces from the frame. It's assembled with simple, but obviously expensive, investment-cast, pointed lugs, including a lovely fork crown that's different enough from a Tange crown that you know it's not a mass-produced part. It has chromework on the right chainstay and dropouts that looks as fresh as the day it was applied. Those dropouts are visibly thicker than those on my bikes, too. The finishing work is fabulous -- there's not a trace of a file mark on a lug anywhere to be seen, and the paintwork was obviously applied by someone good at what they do, and who cared about the results of their work. I'll try to get some pictures of it at some point and add them to this post, but here's one that looks like the same year, just for reference. It's a really nice bike -- a pro-level steel racing frame at the end of the line for pro-level steel racing frames (carbon swept in shortly thereafter, and reigns today).

Steven's Miyata is the product of craftsmen, not workers, whereas my two bikes are definitely not. My Kestrel is a beautiful bike, to be sure, and nicely made. But it has some odd details, too -- the riveted-on cable guides just above the bottom bracket. The shifter bosses that were oddly aligned so that the left and right shifters didn't sit in quite the same place at the top of their travel. The Paramount isn't something I ride anymore either, and though it has nice tubes and decent welds, the paintwork (notably the clearcoat) is a little sloppy. In truth, I suspect the Shogun is quite possibly the best-made of all of my frames, and it's not often in my hands anymore!

So for the past few days, I've been thinking about how my little fleet isn't so nice. They don't hold me back, no. And there's a certain satisfaction in blasting along on an old bike, wearing sneakers and pushing on platform pedals with no toe clips, and being as fast as anyone else out there. But they're not pushing every button, either, and I appreciate a piece of mechanical art as much as the next guy.

I honestly thought I'd left hardware envy behind me, and had even contemplated not replacing the Kestrel -- just keeping the Motobecane in service indefinitely. But right now, Steven's Team Miyata is dancing in my head, and I'm thinking that in the spring, I'm going get myself the nice steel frame I want -- that Roadeo or something like it -- and build it up with the Kestrel's components. Build it into a truly nice bike for myself.

Next spring. It's a deal.

All for now,


Monday, August 2, 2010

A Cambridge Education

Tonight was the first night of my advanced bicycle maintenance class at Broadway Bicycle School. This is a 4-week class that covers stuff I'm mostly reasonably accomplished at -- repacking hubs and headsets, adjusting a front derailleur, and truing a wheel. It's that last one that I'm there for -- I can't true a wheel to save my life (possibly an exaggeration), and I want to learn how to build wheels, and the two sort of go hand-in-hand. I was able to talk my way out of taking the beginner class, because I've built bikes up, and stuff. But I couldn't answer the wheel truing question in the affirmative, so I have to take this one as a pre-req' for the wheel building class.

Though I know how to do most of the things on the syllabus, the class also offers an opportunity to do a few non-routine sorts of things: First, to get into Cambridge every once in a while. Second, to learn some tricks from an actual bike mechanic. And third, to work on problem spots on a few of the bikes under my oversight. That last one might actually be pretty routine, for me. Still...

You're supposed to bring your bike to class every week so you can give it an overhaul in class. Which is great, but no one of my bikes really needs an overhaul -- I spend too much time poking around at them, and they all work pretty well. So my plan was to bring my sister Amanda's old but nearly unused Trek 930 mountain bike to class. I even picked it up on Saturday afternoon for that purpose. The thing is, though, it's really never been used, and it's a decent bike (largely Shimano STX-RC components, though with a few cheapo exceptions) and to be honest, I'm not sure it really needs much more than having the squirrel poo hosed off (which I did before it went onto my roof rack). Some fresh chain lube maybe, and some actual air in the tires. Oh, and the little locknut that screws down onto the Presta stem to keep it from pushing in when putting air into the front tire. Otherwise? Pretty much ready to ride.

So what to do? Spread the class across my fleet selectively. For example, tonight was "repack a rear hub" night. Remembering how awful the rear hub on the trailer bike was when I first overhauled that bike, I decided to bring Ava's new-to-her Gary Fisher into class. And whoa Nelly, did that cheap steel rear hub need a repack! The grease was clean and the races and cones were without any evidence of wear. But it had been adjusted so tightly at the factory that the bearings were snatching badly at the axle as I spun the wheel. So I pulled it apart, tossed the seven old ball bearings and their retainer cages, and popped in nine quarter-inch balls per side, sans retainers, in their stead (mechanic's tip, there -- lose the retaining cages and add more balls). Plus a lot of grease. Adjusted, it still wasn't the smoothest hub I've felt (by a long shot), but it should loosen up as Ava rides it a bit more, and it's much better than it was. I finished up pretty quickly and spent few minutes adjusting the rear derailleur cable while the bike was in the stand. I think it must have slipped, because even with the adjuster barrels all the way out, it couldn't hold first gear. An easy fix.

As I was hoping I would, I learned a couple of tricks. First, there was the lose-the-cages thing I already mentioned. Second, a ballpoint pen is a good way to check the cones and races on a bearing to see how smooth they are. If they're pitted, you'll feel that right away with a pen tip rolling across their surface, and they'll need to be tossed and replaced (which probably means the whole hub or even the wheel, in the case of the races). And third, just when I had the axle just about perfectly adjusted, for smoothness, I was told to wrench the outer locknuts together a bit, to snug the cones down just an iota more. The hub feels grittier that way, but I was promised that the balls will settle in pretty quickly, and the hub will smooth out without getting slop in the adjustment. This makes sense -- I often find I have to snug the cones down a bit a few rides after a repack. I just never thought about overtightening them just a bit to start, imagining bad compression forces at work on bearing surfaces.

I also learned how much better a real bicycle mechanic's stand is than my home-made one. I really should work out a more stable base platform. Mine rocks all over the place as I work, due to flex in the plywood, even with the reinforcing plank I added. Maybe a diamond steel plate, rather than plywood! It wouldn't be very mobile, but it would certainly be stable. The clamp is a bit handier on a real stand, as well, relative to the Pony clamp on mine. And I really enjoyed snooping around the shop and having all those tools at hand, hanging neatly from a board. I need a better layout than what I have -- I end up misplacing tools all the time, because everything is scattered around my barn floor and a few nearby work surfaces.

Anyway, having repacked Ava's rear hub, I'll tackle the front hub on my own, and also see to the bottom bracket and headset. I won't bring it back to class again, because it doesn't have any problems in any of the areas remaining to be covered in class. Plus, I earned several laughs and jeers as I rode it (standing up) a block from the car over to Broadway Bicycles. I'm sure I was quite the sight, actually.

Next week will be headset overhaul night, and I'm going to bring Juli's Fuji in for that. I lubed the headset in April or so, but didn't replace the balls. And when I had the bars and stem off a few weeks ago, I noticed the headset was a little stiff and uneven in its rotation -- definitely not up to snuff. I loosened it a bit, but then when I watched Juli coast down our hill last Friday (in a one-on-one day for us) I saw that the bike was obviously shimmying badly. So I'm going to snug it back down again for now, but bring it to class next week. It may need more than an overhaul -- the old 105SC part may need to be replaced. But there's really no better way to figure that out than to bring it to class, get it apart and have the instructor give me his thoughts.

The week after that will be wheel truing. The Shogun wears the oldest wheelset in my fleet -- Shimano 600/Mavic wheels originally from Allyson's Bertoni. They're nice wheels, and very comfortable. But both of them could use a little truing up, and the rear is slightly out of round. I'm not sure if I'll be able to address both of those problems, but it's worth a shot. So I'll grab the bike back from Erik that Sunday night, take it to class on Monday, and drop it back that night after with straight wheels -- he shouldn't even miss it.

The final week will be front derailleur adjustment, and I've no idea which bike to bring. Maybe the Fuji again, or maybe the Motobecane. I don't really have any front derailleur issues right now, so I'll have to wing that one.

In addition to the bike stuff, I've already learned a couple of things about Cambridge, too. First, the Mass Pike exit to Cambridge doesn't just back up at morning rush hour, it also backs up at evening rush hour. It took me a full hour to get to Broadway Bicycles and park. That's the second thing -- parking sucks. Cambridge is not a city for a car owner, it's a good place to have a Zipcar membership, a bicycle and a T-pass. Plus feet. Third, it's a neat old city -- low and reasonably green, with people bustling about everywhere, bikes all over the place, and little holes-in-the-wall serving any kind of food you could wish for. Next week I'll give myself time to snag dinner before or after class, in either Central or Harvard square, both of which are pretty close to the shop. The fourth lesson really isn't unique to Cambridge or this class, because I noticed the same thing when I did that cooking class months ago -- it's more fun to do stuff like this with a friend, and I need to find someone to sign up with me! Finally, the fifth lesson is also not likely unique to Cambridge -- that as tolerant as it might be, folks will still laugh at a grown man on a kiddie mountain bike.

In any case, it's "so far, so good" with the class. It was a fun and productive evening, and I'm looking forward to the three remaining nights -- and ultimately tackling that wheel-building class!

All for now,