Monday, September 29, 2014

Carbon Fiber Forever!

After more than a year of Retro-grouchy ranting against new technology like carbon fiber sweeping over the bicycle industry, I've finally seen the light. Consider me converted. Carbon fiber is AWESOME!!
If you want the best ride experience money can buy,
you can't let a little thing like a busted steerer
dissuade you. Carbon fiber RULES!
(from CyclingWeekly)

With its tremendous strength to weight ratio, carbon fiber blows away steel in virtually every kind of lab test that the industry can throw at it. And with virtually limitless possibilities in design -- from tube shape, to carbon layup and fiber orientation -- the material can be customized to enhance comfort and compliance in one direction, while remaining incredibly stiff in another, hence the familiar "laterally stiff - vertically compliant" claim heard from so many road testers. As far as customization of ride quality goes, steel has nothing on carbon fiber.

Look at some of these testimonials from the carbon fork manufacturers:

From True Temper, regarding their test of carbon fork strength: True Temper's . . . test is a ramped load, meaning the load is increased periodically until failure occurs. Starting at 180 lbs, the load is increased 45 lbs. every 5000 cycles. Every fork will eventually break. Strong forks will last more than 10,000 cycles with a load of 270 lb. But our minimum standard begins at over 15,000 at 315 lbs. for road forks and 18,000 for cross forks and tandem. But our production forks are stronger than that, often going into the 20-25K range and beyond at loads of 360-405 lbs.

See? Nothing to worry about. With test results like that, a person should have all the proof they need that a carbon fork, or frame, or other component should last darn near forever. Can't say that about steel. Don't believe me? Just ask the folks at Deda, another carbon fork maker. "Carbon lasts longer than metal. Only love is stronger than carbon." Sweet.

Over at Look, they say there should be no worries about the lifespan of a carbon fork. "There is no limitation because carbon has a natural flexibility. It can be used a hundred years while maintaining the same stiffness." A hundred years! I'm totally sold.

So when I saw this article about the Three Peaks Cyclo Cross race on Cycling Weekly site, I figure it's just a complete anomaly. Maybe even some kind of sabotage perpetrated by some steel-loving Retrogrouch -- the kind of person who would have us all riding bikes from the stone-age. When cyclocross racer Joe Moses's carbon steerer snapped off during the race, he still managed to stop without injury, and even managed 3rd place! (after a bike change, of course).

If you want the best cycling experience money can buy, you can't let a busted steerer dissuade you. Besides, riding a bike with handlebars firmly attached to the fork is vastly over-rated.

Carbon Fiber Forever!

Friday, September 26, 2014

What Do You Do When . . . ?

You come to stop at an intersection and there's a line of cars already stopped for the light? Do you take your place in line and wait, or filter your way up on the curb side to get to front of the line?

The question brings up one of the many points of tension between drivers and cyclists -- and the response even divides the cyclists. At the risk of getting a firestorm of comments, I'm wading into the debate.

A lot of riders think nothing of moving to the front. After all, cars don't hesitate to pass us when they have the opportunity, or even when they really shouldn't, so what's wrong with passing them back when we're able? Not only that, but I know many cyclists will argue that they're safer at the front of the line when the light changes. Cars see them, and they're less likely to get "hooked" by cars turning in the intersection.

As for the safety aspect, it seems to me that it's a debatable point. I know there is much evidence that says intersections are some of the most dangerous places for cyclists, so I don't dispute that. On the other hand, I don't know of much (if any) evidence that shows a cyclist is any safer at the front of the line as compared to one who takes his place in the lineup and observes good lane placement. In addition, there are other problems (in terms of both safety and the law) with filtering up the curb side to the front of the line.

If reader's can't tell yet, let me just make it clear now that I don't advocate filtering to the front in normal traffic. When I get to an intersection, if the light is red I take my place in line, and I take the lane. There are a few reasons I do it this way.

In general, it seems to me that most of the time we as cyclists are safest when we observe the laws that are in place for cars and other traffic. What does the law say about passing slower or stopped traffic on the curb side? Well, it depends on the state, and the wording of the laws can sometimes be a little vague or confusing, but in many of them, passing on the curb side isn't permitted under most circumstances. So if the rider does end up in an accident and gets injured, he/she could be found to be at least partially at fault.

Beyond the legal ramifications, there are some safety concerns from passing on the right. For one thing, drivers don't expect to see cyclists passing them on the right, and the visibility is poor, so there's a good chance that the cyclist will be unseen. Then, if there are other intersections -- not just other side streets, but also parking lots and driveways -- there is a real danger of being hit by cars entering or exiting the main roadway. Not only that, but if there is on-street parking, riding up the right side of the traffic can put a rider into the "door zone." All of the above can lead to a dangerous situation.

Then, there's just the irritation factor. The way I see it, most drivers only grudgingly share the road with bicyclists as it is. Encountering us on the road is, for some motorists, a major pain in the ass, and for some it's a stress they'd rather not deal with. They don't like having to slow down to wait until it's safe to pass, which is why so many will try to squeeze by us even when it really isn't safe to do so. Their impatience and sense of entitlement to the road take over, and they think nothing of putting us at risk to avoid even a few seconds of delay. So, when I get to a red light and there are a bunch of cars stopped there, it's an awfully good chance that most of them already passed me once within the last mile or two. The last thing they want is to see me slip on by them to get to the front of the line, making it so they'll have to pass me again right after we get through the intersection. To my mind, that doesn't really help me, either. I'm just going to get passed again by the same cars that passed me a short time earlier, and this time they may be even less patient than they were the first time.

I figure that if the cars are ahead of me at the light, I'm just as well off to leave them there and take my place behind them. At the same time, I expect cars that arrive at the light after me to wait their turn behind me in the same way. I take the lane to discourage people from attempting to pass me as we approach the intersection -- thereby minimizing the possibility for a right hook. And I place myself in the lane for the maximum visibility to oncoming traffic to prevent the possibility of a left hook. It also helps to develop a good sense of anticipation for what other cars around me are doing, or what they might be intending to do. I don't know if cars have "body language" or if it's some kind of sixth sense, but an observant cyclist can often anticipate potential danger.

When I'm approaching an intersection, whether there's a stop sign or a traffic light, few things raise my ire more than cars trying to pass me just so they can come to a stop directly in front of me instead of behind me. In fact, I don't want people passing me through intersections at all. That is impatient, aggressive behavior that puts me at risk, and also puts at risk any oncoming traffic that may be coming through the intersection. Often, I will take the lane on the approach to the intersection to discourage that from happening. Some cars will try to pass anyhow, at which point I usually give them a piece of my mind. Now, it becomes difficult to convince a driver that they pose a danger to the cyclist by passing at the intersection when that driver sees cyclists passing to get to the front of the line. Of course there is a difference in risk -- the self-imposed risk of passing a line of stationary cars vs. the moving car trying to squeeze past the cyclist -- but try to explain that to a driver.

With a bike lane such as this one, adjacent to the roadway
and moving in the direction of the traffic, a rider may be
permitted to pass on the right -- but caution is still advised.
Is there any time a cyclist can pass on the right? Again it depends on the state and local laws, but in many places, the cyclist can pass slower moving (or stopped) cars on the right if there is a designated bike lane (some bike lanes -- like those of the green-painted variety -- even include a "bike box" at the intersections where riders can move ahead of cars). Still, much caution is still advised. Visibility is still an issue, and a bicyclist can be hidden from view by the cars. One still needs to be well-aware of the other traffic, and keep an eye out for cars that may suddenly pull into the bike lane -- to make a quick right turn, or oncoming cars making a left turn across the lane. Then there are always those impatient drivers, stuck behind a long line of cars (such as, when someone ahead is waiting to make a left turn), who decide they don't want to wait anymore and suddenly pull out into a bike lane, or even out onto the shoulder, to get past the slowdown. Sure, that driver would likely be at fault if they hit a cyclist -- but that's little consolation to the cyclist who would be much better off not being hit at all.

Though I frequently see people ride up alongside cars to get that momentary advantage at an intersection, it just doesn't seem like a good plan to me. Legally questionable, possibly risky, and yet another argument to be thrown against us by drivers who feel the special sense of entitlement that comes with piloting a 3000+ pound machine. I'm all for being an assertive rider amongst the car traffic, but there are times I'm happy to just wait my turn.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Retro Direct - Retro Cool

Back before derailleurs became the popular method for having variable gears on a bicycle, a number of different systems were tried with varying degrees of success. Of these various multi-speed systems, one of the more interesting would be the "Retro-Direct" system in which a rider has one gear when pedaling forward, but a different gear (usually the lower gear) when pedaling backwards.

The Hirondelle retro-direct shown here is probably the
definitive version of the system.
First patented in 1869 by Barberon & Meunier, the retro-direct system was further developed and refined by other companies at the turn of the 20th century, including Magnat & Debon, and Hirondelle. Some retro-direct systems used two chains, with chainwheels and sprockets on both sides of the bicycle, but one of the simplest and most reliable versions, introduced by Hirondelle, used a single chain that wrapped around a pair of freewheel cogs and an idler pulley in an almost "figure-8" arrangement. A double-chainwheel version, with an early design front derailleur, was also available and gave riders four speeds -- one such bike was pictured in Jan Heine's Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles. Hirondelle would continue to make 2- and 4-speed retro-direct bicycles well into the 1930s, even as derailleurs and internal-geared hubs were becoming almost ubiquitous. The simple reliability of the system kept it alive among some riders.

As seen in this little animated file, when pedaling
forward, the smaller cog is engaged, while the larger
one "free-wheels"backwards. When backpedaling,
the smaller cog "free-wheels" while the
larger one is engaged for a lower gear.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the Touring Club de France organized a series of technical trials to encourage improvements and developments in touring bicycles. In the 1902 trials, riders rode a course through the Pyrenees that included two climbs up the Tourmalet mountain pass. The retro-direct Hirondelles performed very well, though the gold medal in that year's event was awarded to a double-chain 4-speed bicycle built by Terrot. In the 1905 trials, which included passes through the Alps, an improved and simplified single-chain Hirondelle won the gold medal.

The simplicity and reliability of the retro-direct system comes from the fact that without derailleurs and shift levers, the only "shifting" a person needs to do is to reverse pedaling. Some have even believed the system to be beneficial because it would develop more and different muscles than forward-pedaling alone. That would seem to make sense, though I don't know of any studies to prove it. In contrast, from what I've read, it can be very difficult to generate the same kind of efficiency when pedaling backwards. Bicycle Quarterly's Jan Heine has tested a few retro-direct bicycles and found it difficult to back-pedal at any more than 45 rpm. I've read other impressions around the internet from people who have built their own retro-direct systems, and they seem to confirm that pedaling backwards is generally an awkward endeavor, and even more so when trying to do it out of the saddle. By the way, I have also read that a possible unexpected problem can present itself with an R-D drivetrain -- that pedaling backwards for an extended period can unscrew pedals from the cranks! A healthy application of loctite may be in order.

A 1920s Hirondelle, with double chainrings and
a unique front derailleur. (from
Nevertheless, a quick Google search for "retro-direct" will turn up numerous examples (many with how-to instructions) of home-built R-D bicycles. It's clear that such a system still has quite a following, if for no other reason than curiosity, or the "do-it-yourself" interest in building something "different." Though a typical retro-direct system engages the lower gear when backpedaling, a few of these modern home-built creations experiment with the opposite arrangement -- having the higher gear engaged when backpedaling. This may make sense if one considers that it's difficult to spin at a faster rpm (as one would do in a lower gear) when pedaling backwards. Some of these DIY bikes also incorporate a double-chainring crank and a front derailleur to get four speeds -- though it's worth noting that front derailleurs can only shift when pedaling forwards (it's also interesting to note that the front derailleur used on the 4-speed Hirondelle could be shifted in either direction!).

The only dedicated R-D hub on the market today.
Made by Curtis Odom.
While many examples of home-built retro-direct bicycles can be found out there, most (or more likely, all) of them use hubs that have been cobbled-together or adapted to accept two single-speed freewheels -- which is one of the fundamental necessities that makes such a system work. This can be done with a British/ISO-threaded bottom bracket cup threaded between the two freewheels. Unfortunately, that arrangement doesn't bode well for long-term reliability, as the freewheels are not well-supported.

Luckily for those interested in this alternative drivetrain, someone else who has caught the retro-direct bug is component maker Curtis Odom, whose vintage-inspired hubs are well-engineered things of beauty. Curtis was first commissioned to build a retro-direct hub for Hojmark Cycles in Germany, though he has since made several others. In fact, Curtis Odom is almost certainly the only person out there today who makes a dedicated retro-direct hub. Unlike the DIY versions out there, Odom's hub has a much longer threaded section which fully supports the two independent freewheels. Not only that, but just as with modern cassette hubs, the right side of the axle is well-supported by outboard bearings. Odom's R-D hub kit is available with an arm to hold the return pulley in position, which is a smart touch that makes it reliable when retro-fitted to bicycles that don't have a brazed-on attachment point for the pulley (as in any bike not custom-built for a retro-direct setup). See Curtis Odom's website HERE.

A modern, and beautiful, retro-direct bicycle -- built by Hojmark Cycles, with hubs by Curtis Odom. Note that the return pulley is attached to an elegant little brazed-on mount on the chain stay.

Retro-direct is an interesting curiosity of an alternative drivetrain. I don't think it's a system that is exactly poised for a comeback, but clearly there are plenty of people interested in it, and plenty of do-it-yourselfers who are keeping the idea alive. It's not something I see myself building, but certainly, any bike at a club ride with an R-D drivetrain would be the topic of much conversation and would be a blast to try out.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A New Hour Record: Jens Voigt

The world has a new Hour Record holder. Yesterday in Switzerland Jens Voigt rode 51.115 km in one hour, beating the previous record of 49.700 km set by Ondrej Sosenka in 2005. Voigt is the first to pass the 50 km mark in the Hour Record since the UCI changed the rules earlier this year. I had written about the Hour Record back in May after the rule change which would allow more aerodynamic equipment to be used in record attempts. Since 2000, equipment was limited to what was available when Eddy Merckx broke the record in 1972, and any records set with disc wheels and other aerodynamic tricks were re-classified as "Best Human Effort."

While I really liked the idea of keeping the record more "pure" by limiting the technology (to keep it a competition of men, not machines!), I also recognize the desire to simplify things by having just one "Hour Record" instead of having different categories with different rules. In any case, the rules now state that any bike approved for use in Individual Pursuit events can be used for the Hour Record. Still, I can't help but find myself wondering how would Eddy have done on a bike with special bars and disc wheels?

The bike Voigt used in his record ride was a Trek Speed Concept 9 Time Trial bike, modified for use on the track. Mainly, the modifications meant eliminating brakes and derailleurs, and building the frame with rear-facing track fork ends at the back. Surprisingly, the chainline and such was still the same as the road-going TT bike. The bike also had disc wheels front and rear (with a cool "stopwatch face" design on them).

Some might recall that earlier in the year it had been Voigt's Trek teammate Fabian Cancellara who was contemplating an Hour Record attempt, but apparently reconsidered after the rules were changed. "The whole appeal of the Hour Record for me is that you are competing against riders from the past. I would have loved to race Eddy (Merckx) in the Classics, or in a time trial, but that's not possible," Cancellara had said. "The Hour Record has this charming side to it that I like a lot. Now it's going to be different." Though the rule change might have been the reason for changing his mind, some bloggers at the time suggested that it might have been Trek that wanted him to reconsider. But clearly Trek was able to get a suitable bike ready for the record attempt, so it now seems that that was an incorrect assessment. Now it really makes me wonder why Cancellara didn't make the attempt. Maybe he still will?

Jens Voigt's Hour Record is a great achievement, and it caps the end of an impressive career in bicycle racing. Said Voigt, "I saw Chris Boardman beating the record in 2000 and I said to myself, 'what a great way that would be to finish my career.' Thirty three years of cycling behind me. This was my last attempt. I'm in so much pain . . . but what a way to retire!" One thing to add about Jens Voigt is that he will be missed in professional bike racing. In interviews with the press, he always seemed genuine and likable. Even when hammering on the road leading a mad-dash breakaway, he often managed a smile for the cameras and the fans. While nobody should doubt for a moment that bicycle racing is hard work, Voigt always managed to make it look fun.

A fitting farewell.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Rare Find: Suwe Cortina Derailleur

Searching through vintage bicycle components on eBay today, I spotted a very rare and interesting item: An Austrian-made Suwe Cortina rear derailleur from about 1954. It was listed at just under $400. It's the kind of thing one doesn't often see outside of a book.

Note that the Cortina clamps around the right chainstay.
Considering that a round, tapered stay might pose problems
to a secure mounting, there are two small grub screws on the
clamp to help secure it.
The Cortina is obviously not a well-known derailleur, but its design and construction had a lot going for it, especially given the time period in which it was made. The basic design borrowed quite a bit from the groundbreaking Nivex, introduced in 1938, which should be considered the grandfather of parallelogram derailleurs. Looking at the pictures, it is clear that, like the Nivex and other touring derailleurs, the Cortina mounted to the right chain stay, ahead of the rear axle. The backwards-facing, horizontal orientation of its parallelogram would move the jockey pulley away from the freewheel cogs as it moved inward -- thereby keeping a consistent chain gap across the gear range, which is critical for positive shifting performance. Having never ridden a bike with one, I still think it a pretty good assumption to say that it probably shifted quite well for 1954 (probably not bad for 1984, either).

The Nivex was almost certainly an
inspiration for the Cortina.
Although it was almost certainly inspired by the Nivex, the Suwe Cortina made some notable changes to that design. For one thing, while the Nivex was all stamped construction, the Cortina was mostly aluminum and appears to have used a combination of stamped and cast pieces. It has a more "substantial" look than the Nivex, and appears to be nicely finished. Another change is that unlike the Nivex, which used a 2-cable "desmodromic" actuation (that is, movement in both directions is controlled by cable pull), the Cortina has a return spring.

According to the Disraeli Gears site, the Cortina weighed a pretty respectable 266 grams, which was quite a bit less than the Campagnolo Gran Sport of the same time period (that was made of bronze, remember). No doubt, it shifted better, too.

There doesn't seem to be a lot of information out there about the Suwe Cortina. There is a picture of one in Frank Berto's book, The Dancing Chain, but barely any mention of it in any detail. Disraeli Gears has the most info that I could find, stating that the Suwe company was based in Vienna, Austria, and that their main line of business (at least, based on the many patents that they held) was apparently in ski bindings and other ski-related products. There is no evidence of the company's existence after about 1969.

I don't have $400 to plunk down on a rare but interesting derailleur, but I'll probably be keeping my eye on the auction in any case, just out of curiosity.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Forget 11. Now There's 13!

You knew it was coming, didn't you?

Eleven speed cassettes wouldn't satisfy gear junkies forever. At Interbike last week, Phil Wood (NOT even Campagnolo or Shimano!) revealed a major trump card and introduced to the bicycling world the 13-speed cassette hub.

Though it was displayed more as a "concept" than an actual production item, sources say that PW wanted to gauge consumer interest and then explore the possibilities for retail sales. I have no doubt that folks at Shimano and maybe SRAM will be taking a look at the possibilities, too.

Not for road bikes (not yet, anyhow).

The 13-speed cassette hub was displayed on a Sycip-built "Fat Bike" with a 1x13 drivetrain and a massive 222 mm wide rear hub spacing. Keep in mind that most current road bikes are spaced at 130 mm, while most current mountain bikes are 135, so that's a lot of real estate between the rear dropouts. According to the folks at Phil Wood, they have given consideration to making a version as "narrow" as 150 mm (but no less), which might make it possible for use on "normal" (as in "not fat") mountain bikes. Interestingly, the spacing on the left side of the hub displayed at Interbike (which is set up for a brake disc) is equal to the spacing on the right side, yielding a symmetrical no-dish wheel. I guess you can do that when you've got 222 mm to play with.

The  13-speed cassette itself was actually put together from two different Shimano 11-speed cassettes. Critics have already bemoaned the "less-than-optimal" gear jumps (sheeesh!). Likewise, the shifter and derailleur were modified from existing 1x11 SRAM units. Reportedly, it indexes for 11 gears, but the last two have to be shifted by friction (Seriously? That could be a deal-breaker!). All that would change, of course, if Shimano or SRAM decided to get on board with the lucky 13 concept.

So, does the world really need a 13-speed gear cluster? Haven't we passed the point of diminishing returns? And if not, would we then see one of the major component companies pair that up with a double, or even triple crank for 26 or 39 speeds? If 13 becomes a reality, then I think we should really expect it.

With that, I just have one more question. What happened to 12?

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, 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

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.