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,



Nicholas said...

I read this entire post and just kept thinking "what he really wants is a Rivendell" and lo and behold you dropped their name. Beautiful bikes, but I'd be too afraid of theft or accident to take one out for a ride. My first car cost less than a Rivendell.

John Ellsworth said...

Thanks, Nicholas... too funny!

They're really nice bikes, yes. I haven't ever had a bike stolen, but that's a definite advantage to riding a clunker.