Sunday, April 5, 2020

Escape With The Kids

We've just wrapped up our third week of sheltering at home and all of us have been feeling bottled up, but especially the retrokids. Not only that, but they've been doing their schoolwork online and in some ways if feels like they're getting more work to do at home than they had when they were in school, so that's been overwhelming. But Saturday we had beautiful sunshine and warm temperatures that lured us outside.

We loaded our bikes up and headed to the national park to ride the canal towpath. It was our first ride together this season. We had no real destination - anyplace we would normally stop to visit is closed - but it felt good for all of us just being outdoors. Apparently a lot of other people were thinking the same thing, as the path seemed almost as busy as it would be on any good weekend - with riders, walkers, and joggers everywhere. In fact, if a person was hoping to get some exercise while still keeping some social distance, it was pretty tough to do. For us, that meant that some of the places where we would normally stop to explore, instead we pedaled on by when we'd see people congregating. Better to just keep moving.

There was one spot where we stopped that was quiet and we could be undisturbed. Riding alongside the old canal, we noticed an area where there were clusters of turtles sunning themselves. It's nice to see that my kids still get a thrill out of spotting animals on our rides together.

This was just one of several logs in about a hundred-yard stretch that was crowded with turtles looking for some warmth.
It occurred to me that it was almost exactly a year ago that I finished building these bikes for the retrokids, and in the past year they've gotten a lot of enjoyment from them.

It was great to escape the house to get some fresh air and exercise. The current circumstances make a person appreciate that all the more.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Schwinn Super Sport Bike Project (not mine)

One thing I'm hearing from a lot of people during the COVID-19 shutdown is that there are a lot of bike projects getting done. I was just nearing completion of my Sequoia project when the shutdown happened and won't be starting another bike anytime soon. But I did recently get an email from Steve A. from Papillion, Nebraska about a project he was just finishing: a 1970s vintage Schwinn Super Sport.

I've written about bikes like the Super Sport here in the blog before (HERE). It was one of the lovely and under-appreciated hand-built bikes from Schwinn. Unlike the bulk of Schwinn's bikes of the time, which were welded together with heavy seamed steel tubing (made in-house at the Chicago Schwinn factory), the Super Sport and its stablemates, the Superior and Sports Tourer, were fillet brazed by hand from straight-gauge chrome-moly tubing in the same corner of the factory that produced the top-of-the-line Paramounts. The Super Sport was placed above the welded Continental model in the Schwinn model lineup, but below the slightly more upscale Superior or Sports Tourer (depending on the year). With its Ashtabula one-piece crank and Huret Allvit derailleurs, many customers probably didn't know what set the Super Sport apart from the cheaper Varsity and Continental models, and many dealers probably didn't do a good enough job explaining what made them worth the extra money. In any case, people who know how to spot them in the wild can sometimes get a good bargain on them and end up with a very attractive and sweet-riding bike.

That's where this example comes in. Steve found it on the Omaha Craigslist for about $20 and then did a complete down-to-the-frame restoration. Here are some before and after pictures.

The bike was complete and original - but obviously in need of a lot of TLC. At first glance I see a lot of rust, and a very dried out Brooks saddle. Otherwise, it looks to be all there.

Steve had the frame sandblasted, then repainted it himself using actual vintage Schwinn opaque blue paint. It's amazing the 45-yr-old can of paint was still good - but mixed up with the right solvents and loaded into his air sprayer, it worked great. He also hand-rubbed the finished paint to get the proper sheen. A few parts were rechromed, others cleaned up, and some replaced. It looks here like it just rolled out of the Schwinn dealer showroom.
Some close ups:

A very rusty crank and chain.

Gleaming. He had the crank re-chromed, and I see he added some period-correct-looking toestraps and clips - a nice upgrade. The pedals were able to be cleaned up and re-used.

Lots more rust, and lots of chips and scratches in the paint.

Gleaming and beautiful. Steve was able to find a pair of new or nearly-new Schwinn-branded Huret derailleurs, and a new Schwinn-approved freewheel to replace the old rusted items. He kept the original wheels, but spent a lot of elbow grease buffing and polishing to bring them back to life.

Another look at the bottom bracket area and that very rusty crank (and integrated kickstand - also very rusty).

Very nice. See that little round decal near the bottom of the seat tube? That's where Schwinn identified the tubing as Chrome Molybdenum. It looks like that might have been missing in the "before" picture. Proper water-slide type decals came from a seller on eBay.
Brakes were replaced with correct vintage parts (with new pads added), and he was able to find a nice-looking vintage replacement for the head badge on eBay to replace the beat-up original.
All in all, this is one nice-looking bike. Steve should be proud of his work. I told him that all he needs now is a vintage Schwinn dealer price tag and people would think it was brand new. I'd like to thank him for sharing the bike and its story, and letting me share it with all the Retrogrouch readers.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Bustin' Out

Being cooped up during a statewide shutdown can make a person go a little stir crazy. Luckily, we are still allowed to get out and exercise - particularly if we can do it while still maintaining some distance. A solo bike ride is a perfect way to do that, isn't it?

I've recently heard that in some other countries battling terrible COVID-19 outbreaks, officials have even banned cycling. This surprises me a little, since a person can go for a pretty solid bike ride without interacting with anyone else, especially if they get outside of a city, so it seems to me the risk of spreading the virus is awfully low (and I do take that risk seriously). Interestingly enough, here in Ohio, not only is bike riding permitted, but bicycle shops are still open even as many other businesses have been ordered closed. Apparently bike shops have been deemed "essential businesses."

We're experiencing some awfully nice weather today. Yesterday started out rainy but eventually warmed up and the sun came out by the end of the day. Today continued that trend and we had brilliant sunny skies and the temperature got up to about 60. A perfect spring day - and a perfect day for a bike ride.

Stopped for a picture by a hidden stone wall in the park.
I got out for a nice ride into the national park on the recently finished Sequoia. I have to say I am really pleased with the way that bike turned out. Everything on it seems totally "dialed in" to make for a fast but comfortable ride. After my initial "shake out" ride, but before wrapping the bars, I ended up swapping the stem. I had started with a 9cm stem, but by the time I'd gotten home from that initial ride, I had decided that just a bit more reach was called for. It just so happened that I had a perfect 10cm stem in my stash of parts and so I swapped them. Having been out on a couple rides since then, I can say it was the right choice and a proper improvement in fit.

In the valley, I did see a number of other people out, walking dogs, or jogging, and a few others riding, but on the whole things were pretty quiet. Not Dawn of the Dead quiet, but subdued. Car traffic, particularly, was light. I rode along one of the two main valley roads that parallels the Cuyahoga River, looped around some backroads and one abandoned road that isn't much more than gravel these days. There is a bridge out on the main valley road, and so to bypass the closure, I also had a short hop on the canal towpath which luckily wasn't a soupy mess today. The bike handled it all nicely, though not as "cushily" as the 650B project (there's a big difference in tire volume going from 32 to 37mm!). But it is a very capable multi-surface bike, and everything I was hoping it would be.

I was really glad to be able to get off the couch for a while (which has a very distinct butt-shaped impression in it these days) and enjoy a perfect spring day.

Wherever you are, I hope you're staying healthy and staying sane.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Cycling Cinema: Toto' al Giro d'Italia

Being more or less stuck indoors "sheltering in place," there's lots of time to watch movies. As I was searching YouTube for some classic bicycling-themed movies, I happened on one that really sparked my interest: Toto' al Giro d'Italia, an Italian film from 1948.

Though not well known here in the U.S., Toto' was the stage name of a popular Italian film comedian (some would rank him among that country's most popular) who made dozens of films through the 1940s and '50s. His "proper" name was (get ready for it) Antonio Griffo Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneo Porfirogenito Gagliardi de Curtis di Bisanzio. Or more commonly, Antonio de Curtis. Since many of the films were showcases for his performing talents, they often featured his nickname "Toto'" in the titles. As the title of this film would suggest, Toto' al Giro d'Italia has di Curtis' Toto' character racing in the Giro d'Italia alongside many of the greatest racing cyclists of the era, including Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali, Louison Bobet, Ferdi Kubler, Fiorenzo Magni, and more. It's a very impressive cast!

There was only one problem. The film is only available in Italian with no English subtitles. OK- so, in YouTube, it is possible to get subtitles (in Italian) - then through the settings, one can get those Italian subtitles "auto-translated" into English. Unfortunately, these "twice-translated" subtitles are only just barely better than useless. If you want to watch this film, you have to work for it!

Some examples:

"instead print I would like to work this bicycle"
"I do not see it badly so I move forward but I go up the hair apples but you're done"
See what I mean?

Still, between the actions and inflections and the mostly ridiculous subtitles, I was able to get enough of the gist to enjoy the film, even though I probably missed a lot of the best gags. If anyone out there wants to take a stab at the film, here's a bit of a synopsis that might help give some context.

The film opens with a scene in heaven (at least, I assume it's heaven) where the emperor Nerone and Dante are watching the goings on down on earth, as well as commenting on the film's opening credits.
We soon meet Toto' - or Professor Casamandrei - who is in love with the beautiful blonde Doriana (Isa Barzizza).
As the professor tries to win over Doriana, she tells him "I will marry you when you win the Giro d'Italia" (or at least, that's the best sense I could get from the tortured subtitles). In other words - never.
The professor is then determined to race the Giro, but there's a problem (well, multiple problems really, but this first one is pretty major) -- he can't ride a bike.
He tries lessons - but it obviously isn't going well.
Discouraged at his prospects, the film takes a cue from Faust, and the professor is visited by a devil who makes him a deal: I'll help you win the Giro d'Italia if you sign your soul over to me.

There was literally a direct reference here (assuming I was deciphering the subtitles properly) to the 1946 Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life. The demon refers to a second-class angel who earns his wings by helping an unfortunate human. The demon explains that he is a second-class devil, and can only become a first-class devil by delivering a human soul to hell.
The professor is won over by the demon's promises and signs the contract. Suddenly, he's able to ride like a pro.

I could be mistaken, but I think this really is Toto' doing the stunt riding in this scene. If so, it's pretty impressive.

At the sign-in for the Giro, the professor is mocked for thinking he can race with the pros. In this shot, you can see Toto' flanked by Magni, Coppi, and Bartali.

There's lots of footage of the great racers on the road.

Effortlessly, the old bearded professor zips past them all.  Or "goes up the hair apples" if you follow the subtitles.

Flanked by beautiful girls (including Doriana) the old professor pulls on the Maglia Rosa and leads every stage.

All the great racers as well as the reporters try to figure out the secret to the professor's racing success. For instance, when they discover that the professor smokes cigars, suddenly all the racers are puffing away on cigars at the starting line.

Coppi comes in puffing like mad on a massive foot-long stogie.
Later in the race, with the professor holding a commanding lead, the demon reminds him of their contract, and tells him that he plans to collect as soon as the race is over (something about reading the "fine print"). Suddenly the professor doesn't want to win and starts looking for a way to get out of the deal. He tries getting arrested. Tries getting disqualified. But with the demon pulling all the strings, nothing works and his victory (and death) looks assured. I won't give away the end, but ultimately, Toto's salvation comes down to a plan cooked up by his devoted and doting mother.

Toto, Doriana, and all the great racers celebrate after the race with a fun lip-synched operatic chorus.

It took a lot of effort, and I know I was missing a lot, but I liked this movie enough that I'd love to find a properly translated version. There are lots of copies on DVD out there, mostly from European sellers (on eBay, for instance), but it isn't clear if any of those have English subtitles, and regardless of whether they do or not, they all seem to be Region 2 discs which don't work on U.S.-market DVD players (U.S. is Region 1). I'm going to keep looking.

If you're up to the challenge (or maybe you actually speak Italian!) I'd recommend giving Toto' al Giro d'Italia a try. You can see the full movie on YouTube, or right here:


Friday, March 20, 2020

Corona Virus Blues

"Corona," "COVID19," and "Social Distancing" seem to be the buzzwords of the day.

Here in Ohio, where our governor seems to be more pro-active than many, all of our K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities, have been shut down for just over a week now. That decision came while the state had just 5 known cases. Ours was the first state to take such a step, though many others have followed suit since then. I'm actually giving our governor a lot of credit for trying to get out ahead of things, and doing so at a time when many other politicians in his own party were trying to downplay the crisis as some kind of hoax (including the ones who were selling off $millions$ in stocks while saying publicly that there's nothing to worry about). Of course, everyone seems to be taking it seriously now (and trying to claim they've done so from the beginning!). But enough politics.

The "home office"
For me, as a teacher (and as a parent with two kids) it's meant spending a lot more time at home - most of it shut inside. My wife works at Kent State University, so she's also been working from home. Understand - the school shutdown is not a break or vacation. We're expected to keep "providing instruction" while we're home, and the kids are supposed to be getting and completing lessons online. This has been a challenge because I'm having to take everything I do in my classroom - face-to-face and in-person - and try to convert it into lessons that can be sent out over the internet. And our administration is checking in on everyone to ensure that we're actually posting lessons and assignments, and not treating this like an extended Spring Break.

Funny thing is that my own children and I never have Spring Break at the same time. I teach in a school district where I can't even hope to afford to live. The school where my children attend always schedules their Spring Break a couple of weeks after the school where I teach. This is the first time we're all home together - and we can't go anywhere! In addition to the schools, our libraries, museums, restaurants, and most other "attractions" are closed. Ironic.

One of my daughters suggested "well, dad, we can probably go for some bike rides together." Just add that to the many things I love about that kid. So far, however, the weather hasn't exactly made a family bike ride very desirable. For most of the past week it's been pretty chilly.

Today was an exception - sort of. The temperature got up into the 60s, but it was raining quite a bit in the morning. We had a reprieve from the rain right around lunchtime, so I decided I needed to get outside. Though I really wanted to take the newly finished Sequoia, the streets were still very wet, and there was still the threat of more rain to come, so I opted for something with fenders. I got my lessons for the day posted online, then took the Rivendell out for a ride into the valley. I was glad for the fenders because otherwise the bike and I would have been covered in road grime, and I'd have had that horribly uncomfortable wet stripe up my backside. I was out for about an hour, battling strong winds which seemed to come from every direction, then made the long climb home. The rain started again just minutes after I walked in the door. That's good timing. Tomorrow the temperatures are supposed to be back down in the 30s again - not too cold for me alone, but cold enough to dampen the idea of a ride with the kids. Well, we have at least several more weeks at home ahead of us. Let's see what happens.

I've been hearing from people who've been using their "self isolation" time to work on bicycle projects. That's a pretty great way to spend the time. Obviously I just finished a project and don't really have the means at the moment to start another one. But my basement work area is kind of a disaster, so I suppose I should use some of this time to clean and organize it.

Wherever you are - I hope you're staying safe and healthy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


Well, it's pretty much done. The vintage Sequoia is built, adjusted, fine-tuned, and fully rideable.

I love starting a new-old bike project. But I always feel a little bummed when it's finished. Oh, there's the feeling of completion, the satisfaction of riding it, and admiring it of course - but I love the whole project of putting a new bike together. Choosing colors (if it's getting new paint), picking out the components, assembling it, and fiddling with every little detail until it's "just right." For me, the preparation, the choices, the shopping, and the building, are as much a part of the fun as the riding and the ogling. Is it just me, or do others feel the same way about that?

Sometimes I think I should turn it into a business - building or renovating old bikes for other people. In fact, I often wish I could do exactly that - essentially open a bike shop. However, I have this feeling that I'd hate parting with the bikes once I was finished with them. Anyhow, it's just a dream - not likely to become a reality.

I've got some pictures of the completed Sequoia to share:

(my back yard hasn't really started to green up yet). A nice overall drive-side view. I really like the proportions of the Sequoia. There's something really "balanced" about it. I was able to get my bars up nearly to the level of the saddle - without having a gangly amount of stem showing - and I have the classic "fist full of post" showing on the seat post.

I'm pretty happy with the colors of the saddle and bar tape. The brown saddle has just a bit more "red" to it than what I seem to be able to get into the bars, but the saddle may darken a bit as it gets used.
I think the choice of "aero" brake levers was a good one here. I still have the cables from the BarCon shifters hanging out there, but it looks "cleaner" than it would if I also had cables running out the tops of the levers. I thought about running the shifter cables all the way up to the tops of the bars, but decided that was too many bends and would impact the shifting.

I've been debating whether to do another coat of shellac on the bars. One more will give them a little more of a leather-like shine - but might also make them a little darker than I want them to be. Decisions, decisions.
'80s vintage Specialized cranks are such a nice-looking example of the style of that time. This pair appears to have never been used. SunTour Superbe pedals have sealed bearings and replaceable cages (and I have a spare set of cages). Bottle cage is from Velo-Orange.

I really wanted to use an '80s vintage Specialized sealed mechanism headset on this (I have one, new-in-the-box), but the stack height was just a bit too much for the fork steerer. Dangit, why did people back then cut fork steerers down for only the shortest possible headsets?

The SunTour Cyclone M-II derailleurs are a great complement to the frame. This long cage version handles my chosen gearing very well.

When it comes to restoring bikes like the Sequoia, I figure a person has a lot of leeway in choosing components. I mean - yeah - one can always build a bike up however they want, making it as modern or retro (or mix it up) as they wish. But at the same time, I like to fit a bike with components that seem the most suitable to the era it was built in, as well as how they'll fit with the way I'm going to use the bike. And some bikes just scream for certain kinds of components. For example, a '70s vintage Italian racer just wouldn't seem right without the full Campagnolo Nuovo Record gruppo - am I right? But these early Sequoias (and their stable-mate, Allez) were available a couple of different ways. They were sold early on as framesets, to be completed by their owners, or by individual bike shops. For that reason, it isn't unusual to find them equipped with whatever their owners or the shops saw fit. Shimano 600 was a popular choice for components back then -- I've seen a few that were equipped that way. They were also sold by Specialized as complete bikes - often with a mix of different parts (though predominantly SunTour). Many of the complete early bikes were sold with Superbe derailleurs (with a now-rare long cage version in the rear). For mine, I went with early '80s Cyclone for the derailleurs and hubs, and Superbe for brakes and pedals. If I could have found a long-cage Superbe derailleur in condition as nice as that Cyclone, I might have used it - but the Cyclone is no slouch. Most of my components are consistent with an early '80s bike. The main exceptions are the aero levers (DiaCompe did make aero levers when this bike was made, but mine are the second-generation version from a few years later) and the crank (the "S" logo marks it as mid-late '80s, though otherwise it looks almost exactly like the earlier version). And my Brooks saddle is modern production - but then, have they changed in 100 years?

Here's the complete parts breakdown:

Frame: 1982 Specialized Sequoia, 62 cm. Repainted by Franklin Frames.
Wheels: SunTour Cyclone sealed bearing hubs with Araya rims, 32 mm Panaracer Gravel King tires.
Crankset: Specialized ST-4, 50/36 chainrings.
Bottom Bracket: Phil Wood, 108 mm.
Rear Derailleur: SunTour Cyclone M-II, long cage.
Front Derailleur: SunTour Cyclone M-II.
Shift Levers: SunTour BarCon.
Freewheel: Shimano 600, 13-28.
Brakes: SunTour Superbe with DiaCompe AGC 251 aero levers
Pedals: SunTour Superbe, with Specialized toe clips and Soma Fab. straps.
Bars: Nitto mod. 176, 44 cm
Stem: Nitto Technomic Deluxe, 100 mm
Seatpost: Sakae-SR Laprade, 26.8 mm
Saddle: Brooks B-17, antique brown
Headset: Tange Levin
Chain: SRAM PC-8

Monday, March 16, 2020

When They Come Out "Right"

As a follow up to the post about picking colors and "attention to detail" in the finishing of a bike, I just wanted to share a few bike builds that I think came out "right" and would be hard to improve upon.

This light blue Rivendell has long been a favorite of mine, and really helped hone my bicycle aesthetic. In my opinion, the honey colored saddle, with cotton bar tape shellacked to match it closely is a timeless look. Honestly, I can't think of any way to finish this bike that would look better. The aluminum fenders, with an even line all the way around the wheels, and right down to the tan saddlebag with leather piping, pull the whole bike together.

This emerald and ruby 752 Mercian turns a lot of heads and is the one "prize winner" in my collection. On this one, I went with a black suede '70s vintage Cinelli saddle which seemed like the perfect choice for this 1979 bike built for lightness. I used black cotton bar tape with only one or two thin coats of shellac to seal it without imparting a shiny look - to better go with the suede. Here, I used vintage translucent red cable housing which is a spot-on match for the ruby contrasts on the Mercian. The lettering on the downtube is gold, which seems like the perfect complement to the ruby and emerald paint, and gold outlining around the lugs ties it all together.

My retro-mod black and blue Mercian has a modern Fizik saddle that is black with a blue stripe down the center. That blue bar tape, also made by Fizik, is exactly the same as the stripe in the saddle - both of which are almost exactly the same shade of blue as on the head tube and seat tube bands. It was really just a stroke of luck in finding a saddle and tape that were such a close match. Lastly, I went with solid red cable housing, which picks up the red pinstriping on the frame and the red Mercian lettering on the downtube.

My early '80s red Mercian came with black lining around the lugs, and black lettering on the downtube. That made an '80s vintage Selle Italia Turbo saddle, along with black bar tape and cables, the natural choice. Black toe straps with silver end buttons finish off the package.

On this recent build that I completed for one of my daughters, I had an inexpensive '80s vintage Japanese-built mixte powder coated in something similar to a Bianchi "Celeste" color. Actually, my daughter chose the color, but I strongly agreed with her choice. I then picked out a rusty brown Brooks C-17 saddle, and matched it with handgrips that I made from cork wrap, and twine - stained and shellacked to match the saddle, and for longevity. Silver plastic fenders look good, keep the bike (and the kid) cleaner - and give the bike a refined look. The stainless steel rack usually holds a pair of canvas panniers with leather trim. All together, it's got a truly classic style.

NOT MINE - but a bike that I think is a real stunner. One of my riding friends in Michigan, Jason P., is one of those guys who really knows how to finish a bike. I've seen several of his bikes, and his attention to detail is even more refined than mine. Nothing, not even the smallest item such as an adjustment screw on a derailleur, escapes his attention. All his bikes I've seen are showpieces, yet they do get ridden - as well they should. This Smolenski has a gorgeous bone white paint job with flame red contrasts. Then Jason had a vintage SunTour Superbe Pro group highlighted with gold plating. The combination of the white and red, black and gold - it's really something. Like I said - a stunner.

ALSO NOT MINE. Another friend that I know through the Classic Rendezvous group, Kevin K, has a really nice collection of bikes pictured on Flickr (you can see his collection HERE), and he's another one whose bikes just look "right" to me. This vintage Cinelli SC is just one of many that illustrate his attention to detail. Kevin's Cinelli is a great example of matching the bar tape to something other than the saddle. Here he's got the classic Cinelli saddle in black, and his bars wrapped in red cotton tape to pick up the little red details in the frame, like the lug fills, and the Cinelli lettering on the down tube. Even the rubber hoods on the downtube shift levers complete the package. A real beauty.