Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Direct Mount Brakes?

Even as the bicycle industry is trying hard to convince us all that rim brakes are dark-ages technology, and that if you're not riding with disc brakes then god help you because you are a danger to yourself and all others around you, several component makers are hedging their bets with yet another new brake design that has no "backwards compatibility" and therefore would require the purchase of a whole new bicycle. Enter the "direct mount" dual-pivot rim brakes.

Now, of course, in a manner of speaking, many of the rim brakes in use today are essentially "direct mount," (I would include cantilever brakes, u-brakes, v-brakes, centerpulls mounted to brazed-on studs, and single-pivot sidepulls) but what makes the new crop of dual-pivot direct-mount brakes different is that instead of having a center-mounted bolt, and having one of the pivots mounted to some type of yoke, both pivots bolt directly to the frame or fork. Some of the advantages are supposed to be better brake feel and less flex, more balanced brake movement, better aerodynamics (since the brakes can fit closer to the fork or frame), and some claim more tire clearance, though the examples I've seen so far don't seem to bear that out. Shimano offers direct-mount versions of Dura-Ace and Ultegra brakes, which are being utilized on some models by Trek, and several other manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon.

The two pivots bolt directly into threaded holes or bosses
on the fork or frame. The pivots are more symmetrically
placed as compared to regular dual-pivots.
To my mind, there is both good and bad here, so this isn't just a full-out Retrogrouch Rant. The good is that these make some (at least modest) improvements to rim brakes, even as the industry is trying to convince us that rim brakes are no good. Go figure. Remember old-school centerpull brakes? Particularly the ones that mounted with a center bolt, then had a yoke with pivots at either end? Those brakes could get awfully "flexy" -- especially as the reach increased. But when mounted to brazed-on posts (as on some really nice touring or randonneuring bikes), those same centerpull brakes, even the long reach ones, can provide strong stopping power, good modulation, and lots of tire and fender clearance. Although mounting the pivots of a dual-pivot sidepull directly to the fork or frame should give a similar benefit, I'm betting that the difference in stiffness between these and a typical short-reach dual-pivot brake is harder to notice than the hypesters would have us believe. Now, if the long-reach sidepulls were done this way, a person might really notice a difference -- but I don't see any long-reach versions on the horizon.

Spotted at Interbike, these new aero-design direct mount brakes from FSA
bear a faint (but far less pretty) resemblance to the old Campagnolo Deltas.
They work on an entirely different (albeit equally questionable) mechanism,
however. By the way -- notice the super tight clearance over that 23 mm tire.
So what am I grouching about? Compatibility -- or rather, lack thereof. Once again, we see a new change in technology that isn't compatible with anything else out there. They can only be installed on a frame designed specifically for them -- and I would guess that a frame designed for these direct-mount brakes would be incompatible with other types of brakes as well. One question I have is whether there is any standardization to the location of these pivots, or is it yet another proprietary spec? Being that one of the early offerings was from Shimano, it's always possible that their pivot boss spacing could become a de facto standard, but this is the bicycle industry we're talking about, so don't be too surprised to see different companies coming up with their own unique specs.

Another thing is the added complexity. From what I'm reading in reviews, some of the offerings so far are quite a bit harder to install than a typical single bolt mounted brake. I suppose that isn't a serious problem, but I haven't tried installing any yet.

With the arms fitting so much closer to the frame or fork, I've read that brake pad compatibility is also a potential issue. Unless the pads are specifically designed for these close-coupled direct-mount brakes, there can be some interference between the pads/shoes and the frame. It's always something.

Yep -- under their face plates, these new FSA brakes are rollercams.
My memory of rollercam brakes is that they weren't worth reviving.
I also have my doubts about the claims that these improve tire clearance. The latest direct mount brake from FSA, shown at Interbike, just about skims the top of a 23 mm tire. I've read some reviews praising the Shimano versions because they can easily fit a 28 mm tire -- maybe even as large as 30 mm, but I don't find the claim quite as impressive as some seem to think it. It only seems like a lot of clearance when compared with other short-reach dual-pivot brakes. I've seen lots of single-pivot sidepulls -- even short reach ones -- that could accommodate tires that large, or larger.

The new design from FSA bears a faint resemblance to the old Delta brakes from Campagnolo -- though far less pretty. Underneath their covers, however, they work on an entirely different mechanism. Whereas the Campys had a kind of deformable parallelogram linkage, the FSAs are basically a revival of the old rollercam brakes that were briefly all the rage on mountain bikes in the 1980s. Remember those? Usually mounted under the chainstays, they would get so choked up with mud that they'd quit working, and were finicky enough to quit working even when kept clean. The rollercams also required unique mounting bosses that rendered the frame incompatible with any other kind of brakes, and therefore completely obsolete when the rollercam fad faded away. I'd be concerned about the same thing happening all over again.

Like a lot of new technology, the latest direct-mount dual-pivot brakes might offer some small, incremental improvements, but with the usual trade-offs -- the most annoying of which would have to be the all-too-common problem of compatibility (and the potential for premature obsolescence). Don't expect to hear about the trade-offs in the hype, though. Nope -- all you need to know is that the bike you bought last year is from the stone-age. Time for another upgrade.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Simpleton's Guide to Simplex: SLJ 5000

The following contribution, from special guest blogger Robert "Simplex Simpleton" Broderick, of Velo-Pages.com, is a fresh installment from his "Simpleton's Guide to Simplex" -- not available in bookstores or online merchants, but first promulgated to the Classic Rendezvous group and available "free-to-anyone-inclined-to-read-this-drivel" (. . . this, in his own words). It is the first-ever "guest blogger" article posted to the Retrogrouch Blog.

CHAPTER XIII - THE SIMPLEX SLJ 5000 SERIES REAR DERAILLEUR (i.e., Real Derailleurs Are Made From Aluminum)

The first of the highly esteemed Simplex SLJ (. . . or Super Lucien Juy) series rear derailleurs, originally but briefly known as the Prestige Super L.J. debuted in 1972 as the SLJ AR 615, which was subsequently superseded by the almost-the-same-but-not-quite SLJ 5000 coincident to model year 1975.  The change in nomenclature was begot of Derailleur le Simplex having decided to undertake a wholesale overhaul of their derailleur model designations principally because they had begun to proliferate said model lineup to a point where their previous part numbering scheme could no longer properly provide a descriptive context (. . . as if it ever did in the first place).  The resulting reformulation of model numbers was intended to result in assignments that clearly articulated (. . . pun intended) the specifics of a given derailleur component . . . ASSUMING that one had the corresponding cipher key.  As previously discussed in CHAPTER IX - POST 1974 SIMPLEX DERAILLEUR CODES (. . . i.e., Taking a Swim in the Alphabet Soup) the Rosetta Stone explanation of Simplex model numbers dating from said era would be as follows:

Front Derailleurs:

Example: SLJ A 5 2 2
                   1  2  3 4 5


1 - Refers to the type of derailleur (simple back-and-forth movement vs. parallelogram) and defines place of model in the product line.

2 - "A" designation indicates that unit is a front derailleur (. . . the "A" being a reference to the French word avant, which not surprisingly translates to front in the English language).

3 - Composition of the derailleur, whereas:
     "0" - (. . . or digit missing altogether) Indicates a clamp-on mount having a Delrin body, metal (. . . either zamak or steel) front plate, and chromed steel chain guide.
     "1" - Indicates a clamp-on mount having an alloy body and front plate, steel parallelogram links, and chromed steel chain guide.
     "2" - Indicates a braze-on mount having an alloy body, steel parallelogram links, and chromed steel chain guide.
     "3" - Indicates a clamp-on mount having a Delrin body, steel front plate, steel parallelogram links, and chromed steel chain guide.
     "4" - Indicates a braze-on mount having a light alloy body, alloy parallelogram links, and chrome plated hardened steel chain guide.
     "5" - Indicates a clamp-on mount having a light alloy body and front plate, alloy parallelogram links, and chrome plated hardened steel chain guide.

4 - Type of actuating cable for SX and SLJ equipment only, whereas:
    "0" - Indicates cable with outer casing.
    "2" - Indicates bare inner wire only.

5 - Type of chain guide, whereas:
    "2" - Indicates standard guide for double chain wheel.
    "3" - Indicates larger guide for triple chain wheel.

Rear Derailleurs:

Example: SLJ 5000 CP / SP
                  1      2    3     4


1 - Refers to the type of articulation and defines place of model in the product line.

2 - Type of parallelogram.

3 - Type of cage, whereas:
     "CP" - Indicates cage axle centered between pulleys (. . . for racing gear ratios).
     "T" - Indicates cage axle off-center between pulleys (. . . for touring gear ratios).
     "GT" - Indicates cage axle off-center with long cage arms (. . . for grand touring).

4. Mounting specifications, whereas:
     "P" - Employs a mounting bracket.
     "SP" - Mounts directly onto fork end without use of a separate bracket.

Having established this wonderful convention, Derailleur le Simplex promptly went about wantonly violating same over the subsequent years with various product offerings (. . . albeit, primarily lower-end models -- but the inaugural SLJ A 500 pre-CPSC front derailleur also does not quite conform to this paradigm).  Therefore, the aforementioned guide should be considered a general rule of thumb and NOT a rigid and inflexible document (. . . unless you want to drive yourself stark raving mad).

As a direct consequence of the aforementioned part numbering re-alignment, it logically followed that contemporary Simplex catalogs identify discrete individual piece part numbers for those bits comprising the original SLJ AR 615 versus the first edition SLJ 5000 rear derailleurs and that said numbers are to some extent unique. However, those very same respective parts remained essentially unaltered from one model to the next, and in fact are almost completely interchangeable with one another -- at least until the second edition SLJ 5000 or if you prefer SLJ 5001 of model year 1978 (. . . in other words, Simplex may have changed the part numbers in name, but not the physical parts themselves). Exploded diagrams for these earliest SLJ offerings can be found as follows (. . . all diagrams reposted herein with acknowledgement to their host source at Velo-Pages.com):

Simplex SLJ AR 615:
Simplex SLJ 5000 CP (first edition):

Simplex SLJ 5000 T (first edition):

Simplex SLJ 5000 GT (first edition):

Over the course of its product life-cycle (. . . yep, another of those cursed puns), from inception in 1972 as the SLJ AR 615 through 1979, after which it was superseded for model year 1980 by the yet again remarkably similar but slightly improved SLJ 5500, the SLJ 5000/5001 rear derailleur underwent a few minor production modifications along the way.  

With regard to the new book Derailleurs of The World –Simplexwhile I wholeheartedly commend the author for undertaking such a daunting task and roundly congratulate him on a job “well done,” as with most things in life including many of my own endeavors, there is room left for improvement in my humble opinion. Sticking strictly to the topic of the SLJ 5000/5001 series rear derailleur and its precursor, the SLJ AR 615, there are but two variations which are documented therein – an original SLJ AR 615 and a  third edition SLJ 5000 CP or second edition SLJ 5001 CP (. . . depending upon your perspective – are you thoroughly confused yet?). I could quibble with the production dates cited, but I am of the opinion that any such discrepancy from my own understanding of “The Truth” is likely begot of the author’s omission, be it intentional or otherwise, of both the first edition SLJ 5000 as well as the second edition SLJ 5000 or first edition SLJ 5001.  My final oh-so-narrow critique of this fine book (. . . no sarcasm intended here – if you have any interest in refining your own knowledge regarding the oft perceived byzantine labyrinth of Simplex product offerings, this is the best, most concise place to start by far) would be that for whatever reason (. . . and there are many about which I could speculate and probably sympathize myself were I in his position of actually publishing a physical “book” as opposed to merely positing my punditry in dribs and drabs over the years) the author chose to omit pictorial evidence of anything other than the CP or “racing” version of these derailleurs (. . . an oversight which leads to circumstances such as persons inquiring as to why their third edition SLJ 5000 or second edition SLJ 5001 rear derailleur has such an apparently odd pulley cage assembly when compared to others they might have seen like the one in the book, and that would likely be because it is an SLJ 5000/5001 T as opposed to the close-ratio-oriented SLJ 5000/5001 CP – same derailleur body, same internal springs, same pulley wheels, same size or length pulley cage assembly as opposed to the ginormously long cage GT version, but said assembly has slightly different cage plates which are offset to one side and positioned at a different angle so as to facilitate greater chain wrap).  To be fair, at least the author has included a titular reference to the CP versus T versus GT models, but absolutely no pictures nor even a brief description as to just what differentiates each variation from one another.

Finally, we now get to the crux of a common query regarding a particular affectation of the Simplex SLJ 5000 rear derailleur, specifically with respect to the treatment of its cable stop. It is in fact, this very question that calls attention to the principal variation which defines not only the difference between the original SLJ AR 615 and its remarkably similar SLJ 5000/5001 successor, but also all three of the production versions of the SLJ 5000/5001 itself which occurred from 1975 through 1979. I have taken the liberty of attaching to this already lengthy missive a series of four photographs which can be used by those playing along at home to (. . . again, hopefully) differentiate each successive model:

1972 to 1975 – The original SLJ AR 615.  Note how the cable stop is cast directly into the upper body of the rear derailleur itself along its left side as you are facing same.  The bare cable end would proceed directly downward from here before passing through the lower pivoting anchor stop and being secured in place by a traditional hex headed bolt.
1975 to 1977 – The first edition SLJ 5000.  Again, the cable stop itself is cast directly into the upper body of the rear derailleur along its left hand side.  However, the outer upper parallelogram steel pivot pin (part number 3564 for the SLJ AR 615) has now been replaced by the 3932L similarly steel thread-ended pivot pin having a slotted head underneath which is fitted a circular plastic button. In this instance, the bare end of the derailleur cable would proceed downward from the integral cast cable stop and in front of the extended round plastic guide before passing through the lower pivoting anchor stop and being secured in place by a hex headed bolt. The purpose for this ever-so-slight modification which itself differentiates the previous SLJ AR 615 from the first edition SLJ 5000 is to better ensure that the taught cable will not foul with the parallelogram arms of the rear derailleur when fully extended outward (. . . whether or not this was an issue is largely a function of how much chain one was trying to wrap relative to the smallest cog on their freewheel) as well as to reduce the potential sheer effect of the bare cable which can otherwise enter the lower pivoting anchor stop at an oblique angle.
1977 to 1978 – The second edition SLJ 5000 or first edition SLJ 5001.  No longer is the cable stop actually cast into the upper body of the rear derailleur.  Rather, the 3932L steel pivot pin and circular plastic button head found on the previous edition SLJ 5000 rear derailleur has been replaced with a threaded steel pivot pin having an articulated or pivoting head which serves itself as the cable stop, and through which thereafter passes the bare derailleur cable downward before entering the lower pivoting anchor stop and being secured in place by a ridiculously saucer shaped CPSC-compliant Allen-headed bolt.
1978 to 1979 – The third edition SLJ 5000 or second edition SLJ 5001. In yet a further and final refinement of the twin pivoting cable attachment principle, there is now a black “extended tube” style cable stop/cable guide integrated into the pivoting head of the upper threaded steel pivot pin, through which the bare derailleur cable passes downward before entering the lower pivoting anchor stop and being secured in place by a hex bolt (. . . whether or not it has the saucer shaped CPSC-compliant head or a “normal” hex head depends entirely upon one's particular luck of the draw). This very same manner of “extended tube” style articulated cable stop would be carried forward on the SLJ 5500 series of Simplex rear derailleurs which debuted in late 1979 for model year 1980.
© Copyright 2014  R. S. Broderick – All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Give 'Em a Good Shellacking

Some years back, I was at the Classic Rendezvous Cirque du Cyclisme -- a classic and vintage bicycle show and gathering. Part of the annual event includes a bike ride which turns out to be a great opportunity to see some classic bikes out on the road with like-minded enthusiasts.

The bars on the green Mercian are wrapped with yellow tape
and coated with amber shellac. It comes pretty close to the
honey-colored Brooks saddle.
As I was waiting at the gathering area for the ride to begin, looking around at some really nice vintage bikes, somebody approached me from behind.

"Really nice job on that bar wrap," the person said.

I turned around to find none other than framebuilding master Richard Sachs standing beside me.

". . . . Thanks," I replied, slightly dumbstruck.

Not to overstate my feelings about his vote of approval, but to my mind, it was something akin to being some random guy playing guitar on a street corner for tips, and Eric Clapton walks up and says, "Hey man, nice chops!" While I'm sure Richard has no memory of our meeting or that brief exchange, it pretty much made my day.

The ends of the tape are tightly wrapped with hemp twine
for a natural look. Shellac over the twine keeps it together.
I've been using the cloth tape and shellac method for finishing bars for about 13 years now -- the first bike I finished this way was my Curt Goodrich-built Rivendell, from about 2001. Since then, I've finished the bars on a bunch of bikes (for myself, and for others) with cotton tape and shellac. I love the way it looks, and feels, and it lasts a long time. Like a lot of people doing their bars this way, I got started because of articles by Grant Petersen with Rivendell Bicycles -- articles that would have appeared in the Rivendell Reader and catalogs. It's an old method that goes back to cyclotourists of the golden age, later forgotten by many but a few old-timers, but it's seen a resurgence in popularity in recent decades.

There are plenty of articles online and even some videos on YouTube that show step-by-step how to wrap and shellac bars, so I won't go into that kind of instructive detail here (and besides, I don't think it's all that complicated). But I will give some tips and recommendations.

My first shellac job -- on the Rivendell. 13 years
and still going strong.
For tape, the traditional choice has long been the Velox Tressostar cloth tape. It has an adhesive backing, a good weave that resists fraying, and comes in a variety of basic, classic colors. A more recent choice is Newbaum's, made in the U.S.A. and it is very good. It is slightly thicker than Tressostar, and each roll is a bit longer which means you can wrap even really wide bars with confidence that you won't run out before the bars are finished. Newbaum's also comes in some more interesting colors -- though personally, I rarely use any colors besides black, yellow, or brown. Velo-Orange recently came out with another choice they call "Comfy Cotton Tape." It is wider and much thicker than the other choices, but available only in black, white, and primary colors (red, blue, and yellow). I recently tried it, and it is nice, though I did find that the particular weave is more prone to fraying than the Tressostar or Newbaum's. That isn't much of a problem once the tape is installed and shellacked, but it is something to be aware of when wrapping. There is also Viva brand tape from Japan -- high quality and some interesting colors, but a little harder to find.

Finishing the ends. I swear, this almost takes on the importance of a religious discussion. Start at the ends and work your way up to the middle? Start at the top and work your way down? Start at the end AND the middle and work towards the brake levers? It's not life or death, and people have their preferences. As for me, I almost always start at the ends of the bars and wrap up to the top -- that way, the tape overlaps in such a way that it's almost like roof shingles, and hand pressure won't roll the edges back (of course, sealing the tape in shellac prevents that anyhow). At the top of the bars, I wrap the ends of the tape tightly with some hemp twine (usually) which is a little "coarse" and has a natural look to it that I like. The twine will also get sealed with shellac so it won't unwind. I have, on occasion, used embroidery floss which comes in a vast array of colors and shades -- if I wanted to do something a bit different with color (but I rarely do). The method of starting at the end and the center of the bars and working towards the brake levers does work well. Proponents like to point out that the ends of the tape get tucked neatly under the brake lever hoods, so no twine or other method is needed to secure the ends, and wrapping around the levers is somewhat simpler. I've done it this way -- but I'm happy enough with my usual method.

For bar ends, I like the old-style Velox rubber ends, but I have on occasion used wine corks to good effect. Because the corks don't usually cover the end of the bar tubing completely (they fit into the bar, but don't quite "cap" it) I'll wrap a bit of twine around the corks to finish them off.

When it comes to shellac, a person can buy pre-mixed prepared shellac in a can from just about any hardware or paint store -- typically in "clear" and "amber" choices. That works fine, but I've found that, unless you wrap bars all the time, there is much more shellac in even the smaller cans than a person can typically use before it goes bad, which means waste. Over time, the shellac will absorb moisture from the air -- even in a closed can (a half-empty can will be half-full of air!). The remaining shellac, if used, will not dry well -- it remains tacky, at which point one would have been better off just leaving the tape plain and unshellacked.

Another way to go is to get shellac flakes and mix your own. The flakes come in more varieties of color, from "blonde" to "amber" to "garnet," and can be dissolved in denatured alcohol. These can be a little harder to find, as a lot of hardware and paint stores may not carry the flakes normally, but there are lots of online sources. If the flakes are in big chunks or pieces, it can be really helpful to grind them up to dissolve more easily. Some people use an old coffee grinder, though I've used a mortar and pestle to good effect. The benefit of mixing your own is that you can make a smaller amount -- just what you need -- and have less waste. Also, when I mix my own, I tend to mix it a little "thinner" than the canned variety, my thought being more coats with thinner shellac for more "control" of the shade and color.

Brown tape and several coats of clear shellac give a rich
leather-like color.
Speaking of color, applying any shade or color of shellac over bar tape will affect the tape's color somewhat. Even "clear" shellac over white tape will still cause the tape to yellow -- and the more coats, the more coloring. Knowing exactly how tape color will change can involve some guesswork, and it's not likely that many people want to buy a bunch of tape to experiment. However, there are sources online that have pictures posted of different colors of bar tape with and without shellac that might serve as a guide. Here are a couple combinations that I know well: Yellow or white tape with amber shellac will take on the color of a honey-colored Brooks saddle (I think the yellow works slightly better in that regard). Brown tape with a few coats of clear shellac will nicely match an antique brown Brooks saddle. Red tape with garnet shellac will take on an oxblood kind of color. With black tape, I only use clear shellac, and usually no more than two coats (or three if they're thin) to preserve the black shade.

The brown tape with shellac is a good match for the antique
brown Brooks saddle.
How many coats? The first coat of shellac over cotton tape will usually soak right into the tape (especially if you mix it fairly thin) and it can be hard to tell the bars have been shellacked at all. A second coat will give the tape a good "seal" but will usually leave a fairly rough or "grippy" texture that some people really like. Three or four coats will leave the tape pretty smooth and with a shine. After a few rides, it will have a nice, matte or satin look that almost resembles leather. Some people don't like it when it gets the smooth "shiny" look, believing it to be slippery. I haven't found that to be a problem myself but your mileage may vary.

For applying shellac, my preference is towards cheap natural-bristle brushes -- usually about 1-in. to 1-1/2-inches wide. I've seen some bloggers suggest using foam brushes, but personally I hate those. When coating the bars, I recommend rolling the brake lever hoods back so they don't get coated (or stuck!) in the shellac. I also recommend wrapping an old towel around the top tube, head tube, and front fork in case of drips. Yes, drips can be cleaned up easily enough with a bit of denatured alcohol on a rag -- but I figure it's better not to have to clean them up at all.

One of my few jobs with a different color. The tape is really
old Velox (I don't think that color is available anymore -- but
Newbaum's might have it) with purple embroidery floss for
the finish, and wine cork bar ends. Two coats of clear shellac
finish it off and leave a good grippy texture.
Although I've only done basic one-color wraps on my own bikes, I've seen where people have mixed colors in a weave, which usually creates an interesting kind of multi-colored diamond pattern. Search the topic on Google and find all kinds of examples -- even detailed step-by-step instructions. Weaves usually require more tape than a more traditional wrap, and it takes a bit of practice to get it just right. The weave patterns are pretty cool, but maybe just a bit too much for my taste (that's not a criticism of those who like it!) so I've never tried it on my own bikes. For a seriously frou-frou look, I've even seen where people would weave 2 or 3 colors with a diamond pattern, then criss-cross twine over the diamonds, resulting in something that looks like argyle! Obviously, when it comes to bar wrap, one is only limited by their imagination and taste level.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Limited Edition 40th Anniversary Specialized Allez

Specialized Bicycle Imports, now known as Specialized Bicycle Components, or simply as Specialized, got started 40 years ago -- in 1974. To mark their 40th anniversary, the company has created a limited edition series of 74 bicycles made not from the latest carbon fiber that the company's top bicycles are currently known for, but instead they have gone back to frame building master Mark DiNucci to create an all-new forward-looking bicycle made from that most classic of materials, steel.

DiNucci was one of the original frame designers for Specialized, and for these special new bikes, he has created a frame that is not simply "retro," but rather, combines classic lugged steel bike elements with some modern choices-- an interesting blend of past and present, old and new. According to Specialized, "Every tube, lug, and braze-on has been completely reexamined through fresh eyes and carries the experience of our last 40 years of innovation."

The lug designs on the limited-edition bike were designed by DiNucci with contours that look completely new, yet familiar at the same time. The frame geometry looks fairly traditional, though the top-tube slopes gently with a nod toward many of today's frames. Even elements such as the chainstay bridge have been re-imagined -- in this case, an unusual "x"-shaped brace. As a nod to Specialized's past, the bike is being manufactured by Toyo in Japan, which is the same factory that built the original Stumpjumpers. Toyo also built some models for Rivendell, which plenty of Retrogrouch readers can probably relate to.

Though pictured as a complete bike with some non-retrogrouch-y component choices (like those low-spoke-count deep-profile aero wheels), the bike is only being sold as a frame and fork. One could build it up as modern or retro as they desire -- within limits. The fork is designed for a threadless 1-1/8 in. headset, and the rear triangle is spaced for 130 mm hubs. I was glad to see in the photos that it takes a standard threaded bottom bracket. A good thing!

As already mentioned, the series of bikes is limited to just 74 frames/forks. They are being sold through eBay with profits being donated to World Bicycle Relief -- a non-profit organization that provides bicycles to entrepreneurs, healthcare workers, and students in Africa. According to Specialized, the special frames sell for $4000, with $1000 of that being donated directly to WBR. The sale on eBay began September 8th and will run through October 8th (see HERE). As of this writing, one day into the sale, at least 12 packages had already been sold. In addition to the frame and fork, buyers will also receive a Merino wool warm-up sweater with the Specialized logo, matching caps, an S-Works saddle, custom saddle bag, and leather bar wrap.

More Photos:

Notice the tall-profile oval chainstays and the very interesting "X-wing" chainstay bridge. 
Reynolds 853 tubing -- but note that the stickers recall the look of Specialized products of the past.
Pretty seat lug. The seat-stay cap treatment is really interesting -- it's hard to tell in that light, but that cap has a just slightly convex curve, as opposed to concave or flat.
Another really pretty lug shape. Modern, yet familiar.

I think its great that Specialized, in celebrating their anniversary, has chosen to do so with a really top-quality steel frame. Yes, it's a premium price and out of my budget, but it is also a really premium product with profits going to a great cause.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Getting Reacquainted With An Old Friend

I got out for a ride yesterday with an old friend I hadn't ridden with in quite a while. There wasn't much reason for the long time that had passed since we last rode together -- but it's probably been at least a year or two. Time just has a way of getting away from us. We'd think about getting in touch, then the timing just wouldn't work out. Schedules conflict, people get busy, things just come up. Sometimes newer, fresher faces walk into our lives and end up getting all our attention.

A wonderful riding companion.
The last time I had ridden the green Mercian with its barber-pole paint job, I found that it needed a new back tire, and the rim was in need of a little truing touch-up. Neither thing was any major issue, but I didn't want to take it out on the road as it was, so I hung the bike up on its hook to wait until I'd get a chance to take care of it. Then every time I'd think about doing the little bit of work the bike required, I'd get distracted by another job. When I'd want to go for a ride, I had plenty of other bikes to choose from that were ready to go, so the minor repairs just dropped down the list of priorities.

And then there were other bikes that also needed attention -- bikes that were a little more "important" and more demanding -- like the commuter that gets me and all my essentials to work most mornings. That bike would need a new tire, and it didn't feel like something I could put off, so I'd get that bike on the stand to replace a worn tire without delay, while the green Mercian hung lonely on the hook. Sorry, old friend. Next time, OK? Of course, "next time" came and went. I'd think about taking the green bike for a ride, but remembering that I still needed to change the tire and touch-up the back wheel, I'd end up grabbing a different bike -- one that that didn't need anything before hitting the road. I suppose as far as that goes, having roughly a dozen bikes to choose from is both a blessing and a curse.

The green Mercian was built in 2003, but has a full set
of Campagnolo Super Record components from the early '80s.
Another thing is the appearance of new faces. Back in the spring, without really planning to, I found myself purchasing another bike -- the 1980 Mercian Strada Speciale that I wrote about a few months back. I wasn't really looking for another bike, but it looked like a good one that needed a new home and a bit of TLC. It was my size and the price was right. A new project. So that bike got a lot of my attention for much of this last riding season -- polishing and buffing, locating age-appropriate parts, wrapping bars, etc. And of course, when I've been looking for a light and racy bike for faster un-laden sunny-day rides, I've been going to the new face, while the green Mercian continued to hang on its hook. The green bike had always been perfect for rides like that. In terms of riding style, the "new" bike has a lot in common with "old" one, which makes it seem almost like betrayal.

Rare as hens teeth (what exactly are hens teeth?) Super Record
retrofriction shift levers. These feel a lot like the well-known
Simplex levers -- the touch is light and makes for positive shifts.
Recently I was getting some things prepared for an article about shellacked handlebars, and pulled out the green Mercian so I could shoot a couple of photos of the bars. I took it out into the sunlight and noticed how the light sparkles in the leaf green pearl paint. I admired the barber pole paint scheme and remembered how Mercian Cycles used the bike for a catalog photo shoot after they'd finished building it. I started to think how stupid it is to have such a nice bike just hanging on a hook unridden. I found I couldn't even remember just how long it had been since we'd ridden together. It had to be at least two years.

Newly determined, I decided it was time to finally get the bike put right. I ordered some new tires from Compass Bicycles -- the Grand Bois Cerf green label tires in 28mm width. The old tires were 25mm (a "true" 25mm -- not the kind that were labeled 25 but actually measured 22) which seemed plenty comfy enough back when I'd first installed them, but my preferences run a little wider nowadays. The Grand Bois tires have such a perfect look for a bike like this -- and though it wasn't intentional, I couldn't help but smile when I saw that the tires' green labels so nicely matched the green frame. While I had the wheels off the frame, I put the back wheel into my truing stand and touched up the little spot that was out of true. I checked the hubs while I was at it and put in some fresh grease. Then I cleaned the chain and gave it some fresh lube, and lubed the derailleur and brake pivots as well.

I splurged when I bought that bottle cage -- a Nitto race cage.
I have no regrets about that.
Taking the bike out, I couldn't understand why it had been so long. It has such a classic "steel" ride -- made even better, I'm sure, by the new slightly larger-volume tires. It holds the road so well, but has that springiness that a good steel bike is known for. The geometry, which is classic road-race, seems nicely sorted out. It can be ridden no hands easily and tracks true, but changes direction quickly with a light touch.

Although many people (including myself, sometimes) are often critical of old Campagnolo derailleurs for not shifting as well as modern units, I found myself re-evaluating that criticism. The Super Record rear derailleur (in this case, upgraded with C-Record ball-bearing pulleys, as opposed to the more typical brass sleeve bushing ones) shifts smoothly and silently, finding the right gear quickly and without much fiddling. The retrofriction shift levers probably help with that as well, with their light, smooth touch. The levers have such nice feedback that one can almost feel the derailleur and chain find the right cog. The only place the shifting proves to be finicky is when making the shift to the last cog on the outside of the freewheel. It's a function of the traditional parallelogram that the chain gap widens as the derailleur moves outward, making those last high-gear shifts a bit balky. For me, it's that last one, to the 13-t cog, that sometimes just doesn't want to happen. Occasionally, when it just refuses to make that last shift, I'll make a quick front gear change, down to the smaller chainring (yes, that's the No-No small-ring-to-small-cog combination -- but I don't actually ride it like this) which alters the chain tension just enough that usually the chain will drop right down to the smallest cog, and then I immediately shift back up to the big ring. With the light-touch downtube levers, it can all be done easily with one hand. Riders raised on SIS and STI, or Ergo, or whatever, would probably screw up their faces wondering why anybody would put up with this and still manage to find it acceptable (or charming, even). Perhaps, but then, I don't race, and I don't really find myself riding in 53 x 13 gear very often anyhow.

That little oval decal signifies the full-Campy build. The bottom
bracket on this bike, the Professional model, has long tangs on the
down tube, seat tube, and chain stays. It seems to stiffen up the BB
without negatively affecting the ride.
There are some ways that the vintage drivetrain actually has advantages over newer setups. Front shifting, for instance, is actually better in my opinion than either Shimano's STI, or modern Campy's Ergo. The Super Record (and mostly identical Nuovo Record) front derailleurs are plenty strong and stiff, with a fairly narrow no-nonsense cage design. Front shifts are immediate and positive, whether up or down -- and I believe the shifts are slightly faster than modern Campy, and definitely faster than anything currently from Shimano (supposedly the new electronic shifting is plenty fast and easy, but at what cost?). With full friction levers, one has virtually infinite adjustability for trim, so one never has to suffer the annoyance of a chain rubbing on the derailleur cage because their STI won't trim properly.

Speaking of silence, I had completely forgotten just how quiet this bike is. The shifts are smooth and silent, both front and rear. Even when coasting, the bike is barely audible. A lot of that silence should probably be credited to the SunTour freewheel -- an ultra 7 (narrow-spaced) New Winner. I know that Regina is probably the "traditional" choice with vintage Campy, but SunTour freewheels are hard to beat. I don't feel awkward about mixing nationalities -- there is no language barrier here.

Overall, my ride on the green Mercian was a revelation and a pleasure. Getting on it after such a long hiatus, I was immediately struck by the way everything just seemed to fit into place, and the way the bike responded to my input. It was great to get reacquainted -- to rediscover the bike's many virtues. Hello again, old friend.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Handbuilt Schwinns

In the 60s and 70s, the Schwinn bicycle company was a giant in the industry, and their unique mass-production methods were remarkable. Nobody else built bikes the way Schwinn did. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that huge coils of steel strip were rolled into one end of the factory, and complete bicycles rolled out the other end. Inside the factory, those coils of steel strip were rolled and welded into tubing, while smaller pieces were stamped, rolled, and welded into frame fittings like head-tubes, bottom brackets, and dropouts. The seamed tubes and various frame components were flash-welded together in a process Schwinn called "electro-forging," which was used to build everything from kids' Sting-rays, to 26"-wheeled middleweights, to the 10-speed Varsity and Continental models -- and everything in-between. The "electro-forged" frames were sturdy -- built to withstand all kinds of abuse -- but they were also heavy. A Schwinn Varsity, one of the most popular "10-speeds" in America in that era, weighed close to 40 pounds.

I spotted this very nice early 70s Super Sport on eBay. The unique
fillet-brazed construction makes them stand out from the competition. 
At the top end of the scale, Schwinn's Paramount bicycles were hand-built with lugs (usually the lovely Nervex Professionals) and Reynolds 531 tubing, and equipped with lots of Campagnolo components. The Paramounts were offered in racing and touring models, track bikes, tandems, and even women's versions, and were the equal of anything coming from Europe at the time.

Less well-known, but still hand-built and noteworthy, were the mid-priced fillet-brazed models: the Superior, the Sports Tourer, and the Super Sport. These bikes were built alongside the Paramounts in a special section of the Schwinn factory, known as the "Handbuild Shop," which I have also heard was sometimes referred to as "The Cage." These models, first introduced in the late 1930s, featured frames built with straight-gauge, seamless, chrome-moly tubing, fillet-brazed and finished by hand. Their lugless, smoothly radiused joints almost gave the impression of having been carved from one piece. The look was like nothing else in their class.

That little sticker is the sign of a higher quality hand-built frame
-- built with straight gauge, seamless chrome-moly tubing.
Of the three "10-speed" models available in the 60s and 70s, the least expensive and probably the most common would be the Super Sport. It had the hand-built chrome-moly frame, but came equipped with a one-piece, forged steel, "Ashtabula" crank, Huret Allvit derailleurs, and other components that were mostly the same as those on the cheaper electro-forged Continental and Varsity models. However, it did have alloy rims and quick release hubs. The Sports Tourer, later re-named the Superior (a name which would come and go over the history of the fillet-brazed models), had a very similar frame to the Super Sport, but came equipped with upgraded componentry, such as a cotterless alloy crank and better derailleurs.

The round head badge with the 4-point star
signifies the higher-quality,
hand-built fillet-brazed models.
At first glance or to an uneducated eye, the hand-built models might not appear much different from the lower-cost, mass-produced models -- especially the Super Sport which shared more of the same components as its cheaper siblings. Keep in mind that the electro-forged frames were specifically designed to mimic the look of fillet-brazed construction, and for less-savvy buyers there probably wasn't much reason to pay more for the hand-built bikes. But look more closely at the frames and find all kinds of distinctive differences to set these bikes apart from lesser models. In fact, the distinguishing details go much deeper than paint and decals, and should be readily identifiable even if a frame has been completely obscured with the worst rattle-can paint job a person can imagine.

The white oval Schwinn head badge
marks most of the company's welded models.
For one thing, the hand-built bikes had a different head badge than the cheaper mass-produced models. A round badge with a 4-pointed star, and the words "Schwinn - Chicago" marks the nicer bikes, while the large oval badge with the vertical "Schwinn" name marks the flash welded bikes. But even if some unscrupulous seller re-badged a Varsity and stuck "Superior" decals on the frame (not that it happens, but you never know), it would still be easy to tell the difference. Notably, the chrome-moly bikes use larger diameter tubing than the electro-forged ones -- 1-1/8" diameter. Bikes like the Varsity and Continental have 1-in. diameter tubes that look almost spindly by comparison.

The fillet-brazed models can be identified by the larger
diameter tubes, the nicely radiused joint between
the top tube and the seat tube, and the distinctly
 bullet-pointed seat stays. 
The best place to look for identifying details is at the seat cluster -- the joint between the top tube, the seat tube, and the tops of the seat stays. Besides the fact that the tube diameters are larger on the hand-built bikes, the top tube/seat tube junction is smoothly finished with a nicely radiused joint, and the seat stays are topped with distinct bullet-pointed tips. Contrast that with the flash-welded bikes which have a very clear line where the top tube meets the seat tube, and the seat stay tops have blunt, more rounded tips. As another readily identifiable detail, the skinny seat post on the cheaper bikes is only about 13/16-in. (just over 21 mm) in diameter, whereas the hand-built bikes use a comparatively much beefier-looking 26.8 mm seat post -- a little more typical for a better-quality steel bike.

By contrast, the "electro-forged" frames have smaller diameter
tubes and a distinct line where the top tube meets the seat
tube. The seat stays on these frames have blunt, rounded
ends that attach a little more forward, slightly overlapping
the top tube, as compared to the fillet-brazed models. 
Although the seat cluster should provide all the evidence anyone needs that fillet-brazed bikes were a much higher-quality product, more can be seen at the bottom bracket area. Though Schwinn's builders spent less time filing and smoothing the joints at the bottom bracket than they did at the more noticeable head tube junctions, the joinery there is still much cleaner than on the flash welded bikes. On the cheaper electro-forged frames, the bottom bracket started out as a piece of flat steel stock. It was stamped with extensions for attaching the down tube, seat tube, and chain stays, then rolled and welded. When the chain stays were butt-welded onto the BB shell, a very obvious slag ring would be formed around the joint and no attempt was made to clean it up. Ditto for the huge welded seam that runs across the bottom of the shell. The Super Sport, Sports Tourer, and Superior, on the other hand, have a seamless bottom bracket shell, and the brazed joints look absolutely clean in contrast.

The Super Sport shared the one-piece forged steel "Ashtabula"
crank with the lower priced 10-speeds, like the Varsity and
Continental. The "step up" Sports Tourer or Superior had a
threaded bottom bracket shell and a 3-piece cotterless crank. Note
 that the joints on the fillet brazed frames are reasonably
smoothed, even around the bottom bracket and chain stays.
Look through old Schwinn catalogs from the era, and it becomes apparent that model names and specifications changed a bit from year to year. The first of the hand-built 10-speeds was called the Superior. Then it was replaced by the Super Sport in the early 60s. The Sports Tourer was added around 1971 as a step up from the Super Sport, then that model was later changed to the Superior (again). During the mid-70s, the Super Sport was dropped in favor of the lugged-frame Japanese-built LeTour, while the Superior continued as the sole fillet-brazed bike in the lineup until being phased out after 1978. I've read that there were still some fillet-brazed bikes available in '79, but they were apparently built up from frames left over from pre-'78, and didn't appear in the catalogs.

The Superior name was briefly applied to another hand-built bike -- made of Reynolds 531 with Nervex lugs, and barely distinguishable from the Paramount except that it was equipped with lower-cost Campagnolo Gran Sport components. Otherwise the Chicago hand-built bikes were replaced by lugged Japanese models like the Super LeTour, the Voyager, and the (short-lived) Volare. It was about that time that Paramount production moved out of Chicago and relocated to Waterford, Wisconsin. The "Handbuild Shop" was no more.

The "electro forged" frames have a big visible seam across
the bottom bracket shell, and very noticeable butt welds
at the chain stay/bottom bracket joints.
The fillet-brazed Schwinns were truly unique among their competition. Their smooth, lugless joints have an elegant look that sets them apart (and this coming from a guy who loves lugs). The building method was very labor-intensive, so it's really a bit of a surprise to think that one could get such admirable hand-built work at the price. Still, I'm sure that many bicycle buyers at the time didn't really recognize or appreciate the differences between a Super Sport/Sports Tourer/Superior and the mass produced Varsity and Continental -- many probably didn't see any reason to pay more. Too bad, really. But now, on the vintage market, the bikes come up for sale pretty regularly, and when the condition is really good, or the seller knows what they've got, the prices sometimes get pretty high -- I regularly see nice examples (like the ones shown above) sell on eBay for anywhere from $300 - $500. Clean, lightly used bargains are probably out there at garage and estate sales for someone willing to do the searching.

More information on the old Schwinns: 

The article Whole 'Lotta Brazing Going On, by Mike Rother, is on the late Sheldon Brown's website and has even more detail (including original pricing and specs) on the hand-built fillet-brazed Schwinns. It's a very informative article.

From the '73 Schwinn Catalog. There's so much I love about
this shot, I don't even know where to begin.
I'd also recommend reading Inside the Varsity, by Marc Muller, which originally appeared in The Rivendell Reader. It has the complete story of the "electro-forging" process and is absolutely fascinating. Muller headed Paramount production at Waterford, and helped start Waterford Precision Cycles with Richard Schwinn after the first collapse of the Schwinn company.

For a complete database of old Schwinn catalogs, check out Tom Findley's site, or the Waterford Bicycles site. Prices and specifications can be found within.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

BMC Concept Bicycle-Shaped Object

At Eurobike last week, BMC unveiled a new "concept" bike. It's big news of course. Now, just like a concept car that might include futuristic styling and all kinds of "what if" ideas that may never see actual production, the BMC Impec is meant to showcase what their designers can dream up, and draw lots of attention to the brand as a leader in cutting-edge technology -- but cannot actually be ridden. It's the world's most expensive bicycle-shaped object (or BSO). Read the comments on the hype blogs, and find lots of people drooling over the thing, and hoping that some of its more futuristic features make it into production someday. On Road.cc one commenter was apparently even willing to trade his baby for the bike (I wonder how his wife would feel about that?).

Featuring as much carbon as a coal mine, the BMC concept BSO has an aerodynamic frame with a massive single-sided fork (like Cannondale's Lefty, except that it appears to be a "Righty") and an equally massive single rear chain stay. An integrated bar/stem combo with built-in computer, a modular gearbox, and disc brakes (of course) on 10-spoke (count 'em - ten!) carbon wheels round out the package. I think it also evades radar, so there may be some potential military applications if the folks at BMC can actually make their stealth-fighter BSO work.

Go to the BMC Impec R&D Lab website, and find out more about the features, and some of the ideas behind the concept. Here's a quote:

The integrated bar/stem has a "twin strut" design and a
built-in computer. The seat post is also a twin strut design.
"As a cyclist, you want a bike that represents you; your personality, your ride style, and your needs while out on the road. Is position on the bike your main priority? Maybe longer rides force you to become a combined mobile service station and food truck, with an extra tire, tube, pump, and enough food to feed an army? Or perhaps several hundred thousand kilometers ridden on a standard chain-driven machine has created a burning desire within for an entirely new ride experience? . . . We've come up with a structure that is highly modular yet enables the integration of external add-ons such as solutions for hydration, tools, etc. We've found other functions for existing structures such as turning the down tube and seat tube fairings into batteries. We looked at aerodynamics and functionality and broke the rules just how we like it -- exactly on our terms, with our people, at our R&D lab." 

Modular concept frame is supposed to mean lots of options and
lots of little hiding places. Lots of loose parts and rattling, too.
While it might be really "futuristic," I don't see too much in the concept BSO that would be as practical as the design team at BMC seems to think it would be. Take the modular add-ons. The frame has removable sections that can serve as hiding places (for tools, or a pump, for example) or be swapped out for completely different elements, such as a battery, or a water bottle. Or (more likely) they can just get loose and rattle any time the pavement takes a turn for the worse -- but that probably isn't a feature they want to highlight.

Not only that, but there is no way that little built-in cubbies and such will take the place of typical add-on saddlebags, etc., should one actually need to "become a combined mobile service station and food truck, with an extra tire, tube, pump, and enough food to feed an army." And good luck attaching them to this thing. Ditto, should you decide that your "ride style, and your needs while out on the road" also include fenders.

Another thing that bothers me about this "modular concept" frame is how do all these removable pieces affect the strength of the frame structure? I'm no engineer, but it seems to me that having huge chunks of the frame be removable would affect the structural integrity of the rest of the frame.

Well, what about the super-trick single-sided fork and rear stay? Those are drool-worthy, aren't they? Wouldn't it be great to see those work their way onto production bikes? The ultimate advantage of those elements is improved aerodynamics, and little else. But don't think they are without drawbacks. Consider how much larger in cross-section that single-sided fork has to be in order to be strong enough and stiff enough to resist all the various forces placed on it -- forces from steering, from braking (especially with a disc brake on one side), and the impact forces from the road. Making it out of carbon fiber probably keeps the resulting weight at least reasonable, but imagine what the ride would be like? A good fork should have a certain amount of compliance to improve ride and handling, but a single-sided fork like this won't have it. Same goes for the huge mono-stay at the rear. Wheel removal would be easy, but if that thing has any compliance at all, it's likely to result in some very unsettling handling.

Somebody out there is bound to point out that there are a number of motorcycles available today that have these features and they work fine. Single-sided swing arms have become really popular on high-performance and racing motorcycles -- one of the main advantages being simpler wheel changes in racing (the fact that it's now on lots of cycles that will never see a racetrack is because of the "cool" factor). But the swing arms have to be many times larger, and in many cases heavier, than their dual-sided counterparts. Then again, when you've got 100 horsepower or more at your disposal, a few extra pounds don't make any difference at all. In order to make something like that on a bicycle light enough to satisfy the weight weenies, what compromises have to be made?

Then there's the "modular gear box" that at least for now is empty. The idea is to be able to put in an internal gearbox "which means less drag and a lot less maintenance" except there is no such product currently available, so it's a big "what-if." And while its likely that a hypothetical internal gearbox would require less maintenance (apart from adding oil, there probably would be little that one would be able to do), how do they know it would mean "less drag"? It's an undisputed fact that internal gear hubs have more drag than derailleur gears, so why would such an arrangement have less drag when mounted in a crank case? I guess if you're "what-iffing" and coming up with imaginary super-efficient gearboxes of the future, why stop there? Why not have it make ice-cream, too? The other hypothetical possibility is that one would be able to swap out their miracle hypothetical low-drag internal-gear crank case for an electric motor. Oh, the future is looking so bright. Now if I can only figure out why it is that bicycle designers are so intent to turn bicycles into motorcycles or cars. Is it because so many of the designers come from the automotive industry? (BMC's design director, Torgny Fjeldskaar, previously worked at BMW and Mazda) Or do they just not like bicycles that much?

The most shocking thing I found in the description of the concept BSO was this section about the bike's disc brakes: "Disc brakes are a very real feature on the latest road bikes and nearly every major brand and component manufacturer are pursuing them. It's here, it's real, and it's improving every day. But, until now disc brakes for road use have been problematic; inconsistency in breaking (sic) performance and over-heating during prolonged use being the primary challenges. . . We have been focusing on frame solutions that address both aerodynamics and overheating." 

What was that?! Disc brakes are problematic? They are not the perfect "no-downsides whatsoever" solution for braking (breaking??) that we are constantly expected to believe by the hype machine? What industry do these guys work for, anyhow? I'm absolutely shocked to see an admission that disc brakes can overheat. Then again, I don't think covering them with what amounts to a massive carbon fiber fairing with an air passage for cooling is likely to help as much as promised. Good thing I'm no engineer.

Okay -- I know I'm probably being overly critical of an unride-able concept machine that isn't even meant to represent real-world production bikes. But if the concept BSO is supposed to represent where people envision bicycle design to be heading, with ideas that might work their way into actual production, I can only say that I don't see it as the improvement some would have us believe. Once again, creating real improvements to the bicycle is a lot harder than people think.