Saturday, November 30, 2013

Torchbearer Daydreaming

I know I've mentioned this in other posts, but I am a teacher in a public school. There was a time in my life when I could barely imagine doing anything else. After twenty years, I still like teaching -- that is, I like the actual act of teaching and being in the classroom with the kids. That is by far the best part of the job, and I like to think that I'm good at what I do. Lately though, I keep finding myself thinking about other things -- other possibilities -- like building bicycles.

As much as I love working with the kids, being an educator today -- especially in public schools -- is getting to be really difficult because of things that have nothing to do with the job of actually teaching. Enemies of public education, politicians and corporate/business interests, have their hands in every part of education now -- with rallying cries of "school choice" and "breaking the public school monopoly" and demanding "accountability" while expecting teachers to "do more with less"-- more standardized testing, more mandates, more bureaucracy -- with less funding, lower pay, fewer benefits.

People across the country blame public school teachers for all the supposed problems of public education -- calling us "glorified babysitters" and repeating the age-old (and offensive, if you ask me) joke "those who can't do, teach." The real problems in education are actually much more complex, but it's much easier to blame the teachers than to deal with the real problems and find (and fund) real solutions.

Still -- it all makes for a pretty unpleasant work environment with much more stress than I'd like. My fear is that it won't start taking a turn for the better before I get to retirement age. Nowadays, when I'm sitting in meetings about the latest new standards (which seem to be updated and revised monthly) and newest mandates -- I find myself more and more thinking about doing other things. Building bicycles is the main thing that keeps coming to mind. That, and maybe running my own bike shop. Possibly both.

Could wielding a brazing torch be in my future?
Even before I started college I thought I'd like to build bikes. But I was pretty well focused on my plans to teach, so it always seemed to be little more than a whim. What can I say? Today, it seems more like a dream that I should consider making a reality.

I would really like to take some framebuilding courses. It would be a pretty big investment in time and money, but I'd like to learn how to build with lugs, and possibly even to weld (I prefer frames with lugs, but I'd like to be able to do both). I've been reading about different framebuilding classes in different parts of the country. Prices seem to vary a bit but most seem to be several weeks long and several thousand dollars -- not counting things like lodging and other expenses. Then there would be the investment in equipment in order to set up my own shop. Things like jigs and alignment tables, torches and cutters and other metalworking tools can't be cheap. Coming up with the money would be pretty tough. That's why it's all just a daydream so far.

I think about being able to build bike frames, and perform repairs and modifications, and I think that even if I continued to teach, it would be a great side-line. For years, I've taken summer jobs to supplement my income (it was necessary, believe me), so this would just allow me to be self-employed. From what I know about the custom frame business, it can take time for a builder to gain the kind of following and build up the business to the point where they can make a decent living out of it. Doing it just as a sideline would be a great way to slowly gain that experience and respect without feeling like I have to live in poverty for a labor of love.

I'd love to be able to custom-build bikes for people, or even just repair damaged frames. I think it would also be fun to take tired old bike-boom era 10-speeds and breathe some new life into them and sell them on the side. Maybe over time, if my name got out there and if enough orders started coming in that I could turn it into a full-time job, then I could re-evaluate the priorities.

Oh well -- it's all just a daydream, for now. Something to get me through those depressing meetings. But who knows. . .

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

More Vintage Cycle Art

Getting ready for Thanksgiving, so there's not a lot to say today -- just wanted to share another cool old vintage bike poster that hangs in my home. Wonder Cycles, by Paul Mohr, 1923. The print I have is huge -- about 5 feet tall. What an awesome image -- with the cyclist balanced on the electrical wires, and the electricity shooting out of his head like shocking hair.

Cycles Wonder, by Paul Mohr, 1923

The colors on this one are so bold, it is really eye-catching. It's one of my favorites. Enjoy!

Monday, November 25, 2013

For the Love of Lugs

I'm a sucker for a lugged frame. I know that there is a lot of skill involved and a certain industrial/utilitarian aesthetic in a really nicely welded frame, but I never really learned to appreciate it.

A really nice hand-cut seat lug. Note the extension on the
back half of it for the seat stays. 
No doubt, my preference for lugs has to do with the fact that when I first got interested in bikes, the best bikes were nearly always lugged. Until the mid 1980s, welded construction was generally a sign of a cheap bike -- usually heavy, made from mild steel, and probably sold in a department store. This was because the thin-walled, lightweight, high-strength steel tubing used in better bicycles would be destroyed by the heat of welding. Brazing with lugs uses a much lower temperature than welding, leaving the integrity of the tubing unharmed. But with the spread of TIG welding, along with new formulations of steel that could withstand the concentrated heat of welding, more and more quality bikes started showing up without lugs.

Another factor that led to the decline in lugs was the rise of mountain bikes. A lot of riders who came into bicycles through the MTB side of things didn't really care about lugs. Many mountain bikes were welded, and their riders didn't have the expectation of a quality bike being built any other way. By the end of the 80s, mountain bikes had virtually pushed road bikes off the showroom floors. Eventually, when road bikes made a comeback, they looked a lot more like MTBs. Aluminum frames were much more popular too -- and almost always welded. Practically a generation of younger riders came to bicycles without ever seeing a lugged frame.

To me, bicycles should not only be functional, but beautiful. Lugs make for a strong, reinforced joint while also adding a point of visual interest. A skilled and imaginative frame builder can sculpt the lugs to make a frame truly unique and special. Lugs also make a bicycle that is much more easily repaired. A crash-bent or dented tube can be replaced without impacting the long-term integrity of the frame.

Let's take a look at some of the classic production-made lugs that were commonly seen on bikes in the 60s and 70s. These first four examples were made with a stamped method. Stamped lugs tend to be a bit rougher and less consistent in quality, so building with stamped lugs takes much more time and skill to get a good final result than the investment cast lugs that would come later.

Cinelli stamped lugs. A classic, traditional choice in the 60s and 70s.
Prugnat 62 D. There were several variations of the Prugnat long-point lugs. This is a slightly fancier version, with a small scroll-cut detail on the rings at the top and bottom head lugs. The basic "S" lug lacked that extra detail (looking quite a bit like the Cinelli lugs above), while the "S4" had some triangular cut-out windows. These 62 D lugs were used on a lot of classic racers, including Colnagos in the 70s. 

Prugnat 62 S. A shorter point lug, with extra scroll details on the sides. Pretty.
Nervex Professional -- these made the fancier look of hand-cut lugs possible on production bikes and quickly became a favorite. These were the lugs of choice for Schwinn Paramounts, Raleigh Internationals, Peugeot PX-10s, and countless other production racing and sport-touring bikes in the 1970s. In the hands of a skilled builder who takes the time to really clean up the details, these can make an exquisite frame.
The next two lug sets, from the 1980s, were made with the investment casting process, which yields much more consistent results, and making the job of the frame builder a lot easier. A good builder will still take time to file them and thin the edges, and some will even re-shape the contours slightly to a more personalized style or preference, but some less-skilled (or less meticulous) builders might braze these up right out of the box with only minimal filing.

Cinelli investment cast lugs from the 1980s. This version has shorter points, which became more popular in that decade.
Henry James investment cast lug set. Nice proportions all around, and the fork crown is gorgeous. A lot of American custom-frame builders used (and still use) these for a clean-looking frame.
More recently, lugged frame building has undergone a bit of a resurgence, and several American designers have come up with new investment cast lugs that are available to builders all over the world.

Kirk Pacenti designed these "Artisan" lugs, which are designed to be used "as is," or to allow a great deal of expression on the part of the individual framebuilder. There is a lot of room to modify these, and many custom builders have used them as the basis for very special one-of-a-kind frames.
Pacenti Artisan lugs, modified for a 60th Anniversary Mercian. Note that the point has been shortened, and a diamond "window" has been cut out. Sixty commemorative frames were built with this design. Some builders go a lot further with the Artisan lugs, making them barely recognizable from their original form.
Modified Pacenti Artisan seat lug.
Richard Sachs designed these "Newvex" lugs to be an updated version of the classic French Nervex model (the originals being long out of production). The Newvex lug set keeps the classic visual details of the originals, but adapts them for the slightly larger proportions of today's steel bicycle tubing. Also note that the upper head-tube lug has a slightly taller profile, which allows for higher bars -- a useful touch with today's threadless stems.

Lug blanks.
Some builders are well known for completely hand-cutting and shaping their lugs, either starting with something commercially available and modifying it (like the Mercian Anniversary bike shown above), or in some cases, starting almost from scratch with lug "blanks," which don't look much different from the pipe connectors found in the plumbing section of the hardware store. With these, a builder has the full freedom and a blank canvas to make a frame that doesn't look like any other. One vintage builder that was famous for truly intricate hand-shaped lugs is the British brand Hetchins. Some of the Hetchins lug styles are incredibly ornate, as seen to the left.

One current company that still regularly hand-shapes lugs from blanks is Mercian. Their Vincitore model is still made in much the same way as it has been made since the model's inception. Because the lugs are completely shaped by hand, no two are exactly alike, though there is a pretty uniform "pattern" or "style" to the Vincitore lugs. The particular model was introduced around 1964 (according to Mercian) but a similar lug pattern was seen on some Mercians going back to the 1950s.

This is one of my newest bikes, a Mercian Vincitore. This is a pretty good shot of the head lugs 
Another look at the head lugs, from the back.
Functionally, there isn't anything wrong with a welded frame, but certainly don't ask me to pay a premium for it. It can be exceptionally strong and in some cases can even save a few grams (though I believe the difference in weight is inconsequential). And I know that the tube mitering has to be perfectly spot-on with a welded frame because the joint is out in the open -- and if a builder isn't skilled with a torch there's no hiding it, so it certainly takes good frame building skills to do it well. Still, one cannot convince me that it isn't cheaper to weld than to braze with lugs -- as evidence, just notice how almost all production-line bikes (apart from carbon fiber) are now welded -- if it wasn't significantly cheaper to weld, then welded frames wouldn't be so common.

The preparation for lugwork goes way beyond good tube mitering and skills with a torch. There's much more labor involved. Lugged construction goes much deeper than pure functionality. It elevates the function to a more artistic level, and that really appeals to me. It always has.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Retrogrouch Past: Part II: A Bike Geek's Dream

In my last post, I wrote about how I came to get really interested in bicycles at the tail end of a classic period when lugged steel frames were abundant, and beautiful and simple components ruled. But change was coming.

Shimano introduced its SIS indexed shifting in 1984, which set in motion a a trend that would lead to more and more integration and specialization in components, with less compatibility between brands. That introduction also marked the beginning of Shimano's dominance in bicycle components, while almost all the old guard European component makers except Campagnolo faded away (and even Campy was fighting for life for a while there too).

At that same time, mountain bikes were just starting to hit the mainstream, with production-made versions from Specialized and Univega first hitting the market around 1982 -- but by the end of the decade, they would almost completely push road bikes off the showroom floors. When road bikes would eventually make a comeback, they would much more resemble MTBs -- with welded frames, unicrown forks, and "compact" geometry.

But during all that time, as far as I was concerned, the old stuff was the good stuff. I never learned to appreciate a welded frame in the same way as a lugged one. A unicrown fork never kept my attention like a fork with nicely-cast crown. And nothing would capture my interest more than classic Campagnolo components.

I bought my first Campagnolo components -- a pair of Record hubs -- from the most fantastic garage sale a bike geek could imagine in a pre eBay world.

There had been, during the bike boom of the 70s, a great little bike shop in my home town, called J&N Cycles, where they specialized in nice high-end European bikes and components, many of which are now considered classics. I don't know exactly when it happened, but not too long before I started to discover "real" bikes, J&N had gone out of business. The owners, Jim and Nancy, got divorced and that meant the end of the bike shop. But that wasn't quite the end of the story. Jim, it turned out, lost the shop but held on to the stock. He filled his house and garage with the entire contents of the store. Bikes, parts, clothing, frames, wheels -- you name it, he had it. The inside of his house was kind of like an episode of A&E's Hoarders.

One summer weekend, almost a decade after closing the shop, Jim opened up his house and garage and had a sale. There were brand new bikes, mostly British, some still in boxes, from the mid 70s -- most of them with Reynolds 531 tubing and Campagnolo parts. There was at least one Teledyne Titan (one of the first titanium bikes) -- brand new, fully Campagnolo Nuovo Record-equipped. There were boxes and bins of all kinds of components, large and small. It was like walking back in time. For a young guy who was really into classic bikes and parts, it was awesome -- and my only wish was that I had enough money to really take in a bigger haul. Unfortunately, I was just in my late teens, so money was tight.

Still, the prices were low and I remember that weekend I bought some tools (a set of Campagnolo cone wrenches) the beautiful still-in-the-box Campy Record hubs, and a pair of impossibly light (260 grams) Super Champion Medaille d'Or rims. With those parts I built my first set of wheels. I don't know if it was because of the extreme lightness of the rims or because of my amateur skill (or lack thereof) in building wheels, but the wheels were always going out of true. After a few years of riding them and constantly re-truing them, I eventually disassembled them and re-built a new set of wheels with the same hubs (my wheelbuilding skills having improved greatly) -- more than 25 years later those wheels are still going strong. I took those hubs apart once for service a few years ago and the bearing races still looked great -- the date on the cones was 1974. Crazy.

I got to know Jim a bit and got his phone number to keep in touch, but he was a pretty reclusive guy on the whole. Now and again when I was home from college I'd pay him a visit and he'd let me look around through the boxes that still filled his house and garage. A couple of times, some of my college riding buddies and I made a road trip -- a pilgrimage of sorts -- to Jim's house to scavenge even more. Between all of us, we must have purchased a couple complete bikes, and enough parts to build a couple more.

At some point I lost his number and lost track of Jim, and I hardly recognize the old neighborhood anymore. I heard from someone that he died some time back, which kind of bummed me out. In the end I don't know if he was still living alone in that house surrounded by all his boxes, bins, and old bikes, or if he'd moved on, but sometimes I wonder what happened to all that stuff. Did relatives have any idea of its worth? Did a lot of it get pitched, given away, or auctioned off?

Any time I overhaul a set of hubs, I can't help but think back on it all and wonder.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Retrogrouch Past: Influences

Every now and then, a little self-reflection is a good thing. When I look at myself in the mirror, sometimes I ask myself probing questions. Am I where I wanted to be in life? Am I happy in my job? When will I get that mole looked at? Why am I such a Retrogrouch?

I can talk here about that last one. I have a long Retrogrouch past. It's practically in my bike DNA. I also had a lot of retro-grouchy influences during my bicycling education.

I have always liked bikes. Always. And I got really interested in bikes at the tail end of a great time -- a classic period, if you will. Lightweight road bikes were king. Good bikes were steel, and they were lugged. The Japanese were cranking out really nicely made bikes and components that didn't break the bank. And probably as much as anything else, Breaking Away was released in theaters when I was maybe 13, and I wanted to be that kid Dave Stoller. It was formative.

Unlike a lot of kids, I didn't quit riding as soon as I turned 16 and got a drivers license. I did buy a car at 17 but quickly discovered that there is no bigger waste of money than buying gas, so I started riding my bike to  my summer job. That was also the year I bought my first "real" bike. It was nothing like the bikes I would go on to own and ride, but it started me down the path that brought me here.

Maybe my memory is faulty, but replace the shark jaws
with a bicycle wheel, and this is kind of how I remember Al.
I remember going into a bike shop in Cleveland's east side, Al's Bike Shop, where I had heard I could find something nice. The place had been there forever. Whoever had suggested I try Al's didn't warn me that Al, as it turned out, was a major grouch. I asked about some of the bikes, and what was good, or better, and he grumbled "They're all the same -- only the stickers are different" (try to imagine Cap. Quint from the movie Jaws saying it). I don't know if he was always that grouchy, or if he got that way over time -- but it seemed like he really thought bikes (or the bike business, perhaps?) weren't what they used to be. Man, if he were still in business, what would he think of bikes today where many of them really are pretty much the same, made in the same factory in China, regardless of brand, all equipped with the same Shimano components -- different by little more than the name on the downtube?

Anyhow, I didn't buy my bike from Al's. I ended up at the same Schwinn dealer where I'd bought the old upright 3-speed delivery bike I'd been riding for the previous 5 years. I really wanted a Schwinn Paramount, though I would have "settled" for a Super Sport. Couldn't afford either, though, so I got the closest thing that I could, which was a Super LeTour. Still, it was a decent bike to get started with. Lugged frame. SunTour components. I rode it everywhere, and I learned a lot about bikes and riding with it.

I didn't give up on Al's though. There was something about the place, and something about Al that kept me wondering. Was he that grouchy with everyone? All the time? Had things once been different? I'd stop in there now and then to look around. There were bins of old parts and accessories with a layer of dust that said they had been there a long time. There were old Brooks saddles, and tins of Proofide. There were new-old-stock parts from French makers -- Huret, Simplex, and more -- with or without boxes, that looked to be ten years old or more. This was a pretty cool place.

And there was Al. Grouchy and irascible as ever. I remember once asking him about clinchers vs. sewups and I thought he was going to explode. But I kept going back.

One day, I was looking in one of the old glass cases, and a few things caught my eye. There, still in boxes, were a bunch of old Campagnolo parts -- at least ten years old at that point. Nuovo Record derailleurs. Hubs. Pedals. A crankset. There was a chromed steel Cinelli stem, with the old logo coat-of-arms badge on it -- all new-old-stock. I asked Al about the old parts and suddenly his tone changed. It was like a switch had been flipped.

"You like that old stuff?" he asked.
"It's good stuff, yeah," I replied. "The best."

"C'mere," he said, waving me to the back of the shop. I followed. He led me over to a big old steel cabinet. There was a padlock on it. He unlocked it and opened the double doors wide. There inside, from top to bottom, every shelf filled deep, were boxes and bins full of Campagnolo parts. Components of every type. Spares. Small replacement parts. Chainrings. Some tools. Tins of Campy's "special grease." Everything. Some nice old Cinelli stuff, too.

I crossed myself like I was in church.

Al took out parts to show me and we talked about them -- Campagnolo, Cinelli. We admired the little decorative details in a Nuovo Record rear derailleur that had no functional purpose whatsoever other than making the piece look special. We talked about classic bikes. Vintage Raleighs and Peugeots. Colnagos and DeRosas. The bike boom. Italian vs. Japanese components. Whatever it was, I had just earned Al's respect. After that, any time I'd walk into the shop, Al would greet me happily by name. Sometimes when I'd visit, he'd show me some cool old vintage component or tool or something he'd unearthed in the basement of the shop.

Some years later, I was restoring an old 1970 Raleigh Professional, and I made lots of visits to Al's to get replacement vintage Campy parts. When I brought the completed bike over to show him, looking for all the world like a brand-new bike, the guy got misty. Seriously.

Some time in the 90s, after all those years in business, Al decided to retire and close up the shop. There was going to be an auction for pretty much everything left in the store. Before that happened, though, Al gave me a stack of old bike advertising posters he'd kept for years, and he let me poke around and buy pretty much anything I could before the auction. I bought his shop repair stand, wheel truing stand, a bunch of old Campagnolo tools, some spare parts, and even the sign that hung above the door to the shop. Sentimentality, and all. I couldn't go to the auction, but I heard that somebody from out of state was there and bought the entire cabinet of Campy parts. If I had to guess, I'd say that the contents have been sold bit by bit over the years on eBay.

When I first encountered Al, bikes and the bike business were just starting to change, though nothing like the change that was coming. Still, I guess Al apparently didn't like the way it was going. He obviously liked what was old better than what was new -- and I'll bet not too many customers were coming in who shared that appreciation. I think the fact that I had that appreciation for those vintage goodies was the thing that made him warm up to me. The name hadn't yet been coined, but I suppose Al may have been a prototype Retrogrouch.

Friday, November 15, 2013


Today I'm retro-grouching about a different kind of new technology. Let me describe a scenario:

Guy walks into a bike shop, looking for shoes. The sales associates help him with several models and different sizes. They may even let the guy try the shoes out on a demo bike out in the parking lot. The guy then thanks the staff for their help, and leaves without buying the shoes. Why? He's going to buy them online.

Retailers call it "showrooming," and it's a pretty common (and crummy) practice. It affects lots of brick and mortar businesses, it's been around (in one form or another) for decades, but with today's smartphones it's easier now than ever before -- one can now purchase something from before they've even left the store they're in.

How common the practice of showrooming is, and its effect on businesses is a little hard to figure out for certain. I found a study on Internet that said about 43% of shoppers engage in the practice of showrooming -- it's more common with younger buyers, less so with older ones (whod've guessed?). Electronics retailers are apparently the most likely to be affected, according to surveys. But it is something that affects many brick and mortar shops.

For bike shops, I'd say the practice started to become common in the 70s and 80s when people would shop items at their local shop, then buy them from one of the mail-order catalog businesses that started getting big at that time, like Bikecology, Bike Nashbar, and Performance. Of course, the main attraction was lower prices, but the local bike shops still offered convenience that the mail order businesses didn't necessarily have. I remember talking with bike shop owners back in the 80s about the catalog businesses, and they would say they definitely felt an impact, but they also felt like they could hold their own against that competition.

With the rise of popularity and the ease of ordering on the internet, these kinds of shops have really taken off -- Nashbar and Performance made the move to internet sales, and countless other companies have added a lot of "virtual shopping" competition. Overnight deliveries from FedEx have even reduced some of the "gotta have it now" advantage that local shops had over their internet competition.

Showrooming has gone to a new level recently with apps for smart phones. Internet retailing giant Amazon introduced one of the first such apps. To use it, all one has to do is scan the UPC code on the item, and then the person can instantly purchase the same item from Amazon, probably for less money, and likely with no sales tax. Now there are lots of similar apps, some of which don't even require scanning a code -- some allow a shopper to simply take a photo of the item, and the app will find it for them.

I asked a friend, Kevin Madzia at one of my local bike shops, Century Cycles in Peninsula, OH, about the practice. Kevin is a sales and bike fit specialist at the shop, and also does the shop's website and blog. He said, "Showrooming definitely takes place and has an effect on us, but it would be impossible to quantify exactly how much." One of the things that makes it difficult to know the effect is that unless someone is brazen enough to whip out their smartphone and scan the item right in front of the salesperson, you can't know for sure if they're even doing it. Surveys seem to be the only way to know how much people engage in the practice, and who knows how accurate of a picture those give?

According to Kevin, some kinds of products are probably more prone to showrooming than others. "One that stands out in my mind is shoes and pedals. Even among entry- to mid-level customers, that seems to be something that people spend a lot of time thinking about before they buy, for good reason, and so some of them tend to become a little better informed about what's available and prices. Another factor may be that shoes tend to be more sensitive to variations in size (not as straightforward compared to shorts and jerseys), so people tend to practice showrooming with them more often."

There are a lot of stories published on the topic of showrooming -- just Google the word, and start reading -- but when I read comments that follow some of the articles, I'm frankly shocked and want to shake some people. One comment I found said essentially, "yeah, it's not fair to the store, but it's a tough economy, and you have to save money where you can." That article/comment wasn't particularly about bike shops (none of the articles I found was -- they mostly talked about big stores, like Best Buy and Target) but it was a pretty common response. And when it comes to bike shops, all I can say is -- great, you saved some money on your shoes, but is Amazon going to fix your bike when your bike shop closes?

Oftentimes, brick and mortar shops just can't match the prices of some of the online stores, so the best thing they can do to combat showrooming is to offer the best service possible. Again, CC's Kevin Madzia: "Even those first-time clipless pedal/shoe buyers, because of their trepidation, often end up buying from us because of our advice and ability to explain the different types of pedals and how to select the right ones, get used to them, etc. We explain to them that we'll install the pedals for them, set up the cleats on their shoes, and set their bike up on a stationary trainer to let them get used to using them. A person who buys pedals and shoes elsewhere won't get this same level of attention, at least not for free."

As the holiday shopping season approaches, I would definitely want to urge people to support their local shops. Seriously, speaking just for myself, there is nothing I'd rather get for Christmas than a gift card from my local bike shop (are my in-laws reading?). When it comes to internet sales, it's one thing if the online retailer offers something unique that the local shop doesn't carry. But physically going into a shop, looking over the merchandise, comparing, asking questions and getting advice from the staff -- and then buying the same item somewhere else to save a few bucks just really crosses a line for me.

Addendum: A few days after posting this article, I read this opinion piece on that seems to fit in with what I was saying here. Why Brick and Mortar is Still Relevant

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Art of Bicycles

I don't just like bicycles. I like almost anything to do with bicycles. In my home, as much as I'd like to be able to have classic vintage bicycles hanging on my walls, above the sofa, over the fireplace mantelpiece, etc, my wife won't really allow that (some women can be so unreasonable) so as sort of a compromise I have a collection of vintage bicycle advertising posters.

In the early days of bicycles, it was pretty clear from the advertising that people thought of bicycles as something pretty special. Frequently the images emphasize beauty, speed -- sometimes even flight -- and have highly romanticized, nearly mythological themes. Here are some of my favorites:

The Cycles Gladiator poster is probably one of the best known, most recognizable posters that I have. The print that I have is absolutely huge, about 5 or 6 feet across, and hangs above my sofa. The image has been used and copied a lot over the years, and is even on the label of a wine from California (the wine isn't bad either).
 The next three, Fernand Clement, Cycles Sirius, and Falcon, all have kind of a similar theme to the Cycles Gladiator poster above, with ethereal goddess-like women, and a hint of flight -- or at least the possibility of flight. As I mentioned, flight is a common connection in a lot of these posters. Should it be any wonder that the Wright brothers got their start building and fixing bicycles?

This poster, from Cycles Peugeot also features a mythology-inspired woman, gleaming in gold, standing on top of the world.
The poster for American Crescent Cycles is another classic and a favorite of mine. It was created by the artist Frederick Ramsdell in 1899, and it's a great example of Art Nouveau style, with the field of flowers, and the idealized goddess-like woman. I love the way the wind blows through her dress and her impossibly full hair. Victor Bicycles, below, also has a similar Art Nouveau style to it.

Some of the posters, like these ones shown below, highlight the industrial aspect of the bicycle, giving the impression that the great machine is forged from great fires.

You can almost feel the heat from the blacksmith's forge in this poster from Cycles Liberator.
In this poster from Cycles Titania, we have not only a devil emerging from some kind of hell-forge with a bike, but there is a winged dragon flying in the background. Pretty cool.
Being from Northeast Ohio, I can't help but enjoy this poster from Cleveland cycles, even though it has nothing to do with Cleveland, Ohio. It isn't even American, despite the stars and stripes in the name.

All of the posters shown above hang either in my home, or in my classroom at the school where I teach. I kind of wish that bicycle advertising today was as beautiful as it was in the past -- I mean, how many bicycle advertisements of today would anyone want to hang on their wall as art? Sacha White's Vanilla Cycles has some pretty cool posters, and Rivendell Bicycles came out with one recently, but I can't think of too many others.
Available from Vanilla Bicycles -- Almost looks like it's from another time.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Vintage Mercian - Retrogrouch Classic

I'm in a rare mood when I don't feel like complaining about something, but today, instead of retro-grouching about new bike technology, I thought I'd share something from the past that I think is pretty awesome. A 1973 Mercian Superlight. It is one of my prized vintage bikes.

1973 Mercian Superlight with period-correct components.
I picked this up a couple of years ago as 37-year-old new-old-stock (NOS) frame. That's right. It was 37 years old and had never been built up. It is now a 40-year-old bike that is virtually new. I rounded up parts that were either new, or very close to new, and built the bike up like it might have been done in 1973.

The frame was on eBay for a long time, and for some reason did not seem to be attracting a buyer. It was priced a bit on the high side, at around $900. I watched it for weeks debating back and forth whether it was worth the price. Eventually, it was gone -- I thought it had sold, and then was kicking myself for not getting it. A couple of weeks later, it was back again, still the same price, but I decided not to let it go again. The more I thought about it, $900 didn't seem to be that bad of a price. Yes, it was 37 years old, but it was also essentially a new frame. New Mercian frames start at around $1200, and this was one of the top-of-the-line models with hand-cut lugs, and it was a model that had been discontinued for years. Considering the price of a new frame, and given the rarity, I figured I could do a lot worse.

As the frame appeared on eBay. Only a headset had been
For the build, I decided to go with the full Campagnolo Nuovo Record group because that would have been the most desirable kit for a high end racer of the day. I already had many of the necessary parts, and they were even the right age. It should be noted that lot of Campagnolo parts have date markings on them. Those parts without specific dates can often be dated by other markings and small construction details. The few things left that I needed were not too difficult to find. All the parts I collected are either dated or identifiable as having been made between 1968 and 1972. I don't think it would be uncommon to find that some of the parts on a bike would be dated a couple of years before the frame was built, as someone might use parts they had available.

A bit of evidence that the frame had never been built up:
the dropouts had no marks whatsoever from a wheel. It
was almost a shame to install the wheels, knowing the
dropouts would never look like this again
The Superlight was, as I mentioned, one of the top models from Mercian. The main feature of the frame was its hand-cut lugwork that was both minimalist and fancy at the same time. The lugs are extensively cut and filed away to almost the bare minimum necessary to support the joints, and yet they have cool hooks and points that make them look really special. Another cool detail is the way the super thin seat-stays are attached at the back of the seat lug. Mercian was one of the pioneers in this style, which they call "shot-in stays" and which came to be known in the bicycle industry generally as "fastback" stays.

In addition to the Campagnolo Nuovo Record components, I also found bars and a stem made by 3ttt of Italy. I considered using Cinelli parts, which are the classic choice, but the 3ttt parts are equally nice, as well as a bit more interesting-looking, and they were also a popular choice in the early 70s. The bars were NOS, and the stem was lightly used. A friend at the local bike shop was able to bring back the original lustre of the aluminum stem, and I was able to find reproduction stickers to restore it to that like-new look. For the saddle, I found an eBay seller in the UK with a Brooks Professional in virtually unused condition that just happened to have a 1972 date code. Perfect.

Virtually new Campagnolo Nuovo Record crank. No date
code, meaning it was made no later than 1973.
Brooks Professional saddle, like-new, with a date code of
1972. Mounted onto a NOS Campagnolo NR seat-post.
A nice look at the lower head lug and the fork crown.
The lugs are minimalist and fancy at the same time. Markings
on the brake calipers indicate they were probably made
between 1969 and 1973.
The 3ttt bars and stem are a nice choice for the period.
The reproduction decals make the stem look like new.
Regina Oro freewheel and chain.
The Nuovo Record rear derailleur is marked 72.
For the wheels, I used a nice set of large-flange Campagnolo NR hubs. The bearing cones inside indicated they were made in 1968, making them the oldest parts on the bike. I used NOS Super Champion Arc-en-ciel tubular rims which were a good, lightweight choice for the time. Tires are Clement Criterium tubulars. The tire labels indicate they might be a bit newer than 1973, though.

Brake lever hoods have the correct "sunburst" logo for the time,
but the levers shown are not quite right. They have since been
replaced with the period correct early version.
In obsessing about creating a "period-correct" bike, I discovered that the Nuovo Record brake levers I had first installed on the bike (the ones that are pictured above) were not quite right. When I put these on, I was unaware there was any difference in the brake levers. I later realized that the first versions, from about 1968 until around '73 or so, the levers had a slightly longer reach, slightly more pronounced curves, and the cable-feeding hole on the underside of the lever was round while later ones were U-shaped. I was trying to decide if it was worth searching for a pair of the earlier levers, and then by chance, I was digging around in my spare parts box, and found that I already had a pair of the "correct" levers! I hadn't used them because they had some scuffs on them, whereas the ones I had first selected were like new. With a little effort, though, I was able to buff the older-style levers to look just as good.

"Correct" early version of the NR levers.  Called "long-reach"
by some. Note the more pronounced curves, slightly
thinner profile, and the round hole underneath for the cables.

Earlier Mercian crest. (Photo from
Lovely Bicycle, with permission)
I discovered something else, a very small detail, unique about this particular frame when I was looking closely at the Mercian globe crest on the head-tube. The banner beneath the globe states "London Rd. Derby." Earlier Mercians had a different crest altogether, and most of the globe crest decals one sees read "Derby England," not "London Rd." According to the Mercian company history, they moved out of the London Rd. shop in 1971. I can only guess they had a short run of these particular decals, were still using some of them in '73, then changed to the "Derby England" version that has been used ever since. Searching through the Mercian photo group on Flickr, I could only find one other bike (from the late 60s) with the exact same head-tube logo. I've found a few bikes that were from the same era as this one, or even older, but were apparently re-painted, and the current "Derby England" decals were used. It's just a minor little detail, but it's still something I found noteworthy.

I have a bit of a collection of Mercians, both old and new. This one is the oldest. My collecting goal is to have one of each model. I think the only models I don't have are a ladies/mixte frame, or a tandem. Why Mercians, in particular? I'm not totally sure, but I remember when I was in my teens and first getting into good bikes, one of the first people I got to know who shared that enthusiasm was a guy, a good bit older than I was, who had a really nice older Mercian that he'd bought new in the 70s. It was all Campagnolo Nuovo Record parts, and had an amazing barber-pole paint job (something Mercian is known for). I just couldn't stop looking at that bike, admiring it down to the little details. I think that bike must have really influenced my opinion as to what a really nice bike was, because today I have about seven of them.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

New Pass Hunter at Velo Orange

I posted some time back about versatile road bikes that buck the racing-bike trends that have spread so much through today's bicycles (Bucking the Trend). In that article, I mentioned a couple of nice offerings from Velo-Orange, which specializes in classic-styled but reasonably priced bikes and components for non-racers. Well, VO has just gotten in a new model that I think looks like a good one to add to the list. The new Pass Hunter. This is a bike I'd really like to get a closer look at and take for a ride.

The reinforcing rings on the head-tube give the impression
of a lugged frame. And the fork crown is gorgeous.
(photo used with permission from VO)
The bike takes its name from the sport of "Pass Hunting" which is apparently popular in France and Japan -- that is, searching for mountain passes, and riding over them -- "collecting" them, if you will.

Built from butted chrome-moly tubing, the Pass Hunter should offer a nice ride and prove very durable. I'm totally a sucker for lugged frames, so the welded construction for me is a slight let-down -- but the Pass Hunter has some nice details to add visual interest -- like the reinforcing rings at both ends of the head-tube (which almost give the impression of lugs), and a gorgeous "bi-plane" fork crown that would look good on just about any bike. The VO shield headbadge is a nice touch, too. Anyhow, other than perusing eBay for a used classic steel bike, it simply wouldn't be feasible to get lugged construction on a $520 frame today.

The bike is built for cantilever brakes, and has clearance for tires up to 32 mm with fenders, and 35 mm without. If I were the one building it up, I'd almost certainly install VO's aluminum fenders and mount a pair of Grand Bois Cypr├Ęs 32 mm tires -- they're a bit pricey, but have a classic look and offer an unbelievable ride quality. The bike has mounting bosses under the fork crown and on the seat-stay and chain-stay bridges to ease fender mounting. It also has fittings for racks to add some versatility.
A nicely equipped Pass Hunter with lots of VO-branded
parts. (photo used with permission from VO)

Steel frame purists might be put off a little by the 1-1/8" threadless steerer. The Retrogrouch in me would prefer a quill stem, but I think what VO was after here is more of a blending of classic and modern elements. Certainly, a 1" threaded steerer with a quill stem makes changing the bar height easy and gives classic visual proportions for a steel frame. However, a threadless stem does give a more solid connection between the stem and the steerer. In regards to getting the right bar height, it's worth noting that the steerer on the Pass Hunter is very long, and having a long steerer on a steel frame is not a strength concern as it would be with a carbon one. Leave it long, use lots of spacers, and worry not about being able to raise the bars.

From the VO Blog: "We decided to go with the 1-1/8" fork for several reasons. 1-1/8" is more-or-less expected on high performance bikes today and we wanted to make this bike appealing to non-retrogrouches. Most Pass Hunters will likely be bought by experienced cyclists who probably know exactly where to set their bars, so quick stem adjustability was not as high a priority. . . I also, personally, wanted to try something different, not just make what's basically the same bike over and over again."

As an open suggestion to the folks at Velo Orange, I think it would be great if someone offered fork/headset spacers that are thinned down for steel frames. Most aluminum headset spacers are roughly 1/8" thick -- making the steerer under a threadless stem look as fat (almost fatter) than the head-tube! That's fine on the bloated proportions of aluminum and carbon fiber frames -- but on steel frames, it looks odd. I've had spacers thinned down by a friend at a machine shop to about 1/16" or less, and it helps the look a bit. It would be nice to be able to buy them that way. Just sayin'.

In terms of geometry, the bike is built with a "mid-trail" front end, which the folks at VO say should strike a good balance between quick handling and stability. The fork seems to have a nice, low rake to it, giving a classic look. And again, I love that fork crown.

The bike is available as a frameset, and VO can supply most of the parts necessary to turn it into a complete bike. VO will provide a 10% discount on any parts purchased at the same time as the frame. I've used a lot of the Velo Orange branded parts, such as handlebars, stems, seatposts, pedals, racks, and fenders. I've been very pleased with all of them. Also, the service and shipping from VO have always been top-notch in my experience.

I'm not in the market for a new bike right now, but if I were, and if I were on a pretty modest budget, I think I'd want to give this one a try.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Hydraulic and Disc Brakes . . . Again.

I couldn't help but come back to this subject. I covered hydraulic rim brakes and disc brakes pretty thoroughly a while back. (Putting on the Brakes Part One, and Part Two) But I recently came across a couple of items on the subject that I wanted to talk about.

First: This article that just appeared in BikeRadar -- SRAM Stops Sale of Hydro Road Brakes. I went to the SRAM site, and here's what little they have on the subject (SRAM). But the BikeRadar article says that SRAM has asked manufacturers to stop selling bikes equipped with the hydraulic rim brakes due to an unspecified safety issue. For those already riding with the brakes, a recall is apparently in the works. I doubt too many people reading a blog called The Retrogrouch are likely to be affected, but if you know somebody with these brakes, have them contact their dealer and see what they need to do.

Next: Also from BikeRadar comes this video:

They're Coming!! Disc Brakes are Coming to Road Bikes! Can you feel the excitement?! 

Here are some highlights from the video. From Giant: "You absolutely do need them because I cannot think of another example on this planet where you can't have enough brake (that doesn't actually make sense -- Retrogrouch) . . . There's no such thing as too much brake. . . Obviously there are some hurdles -- to get it lightweight enough -- to get it effective enough for quick wheel changes -- to get it UCI legal -- these are hurdles that will be overcome in the next couple of years . . . and when all of those hurdles are overcome you're going to see that product everywhere." 

I think there are more hurdles to overcome than weight and the UCI. Like fade, and warped rotors -- more on that in a moment.

From SRAM: "The way people are riding their bikes these days - the consistency - the power - making sure they can ride in all weather conditions, I think it's going to be a great advantage for people. Once you try it, you'll adopt it." 

How exactly are people riding their bikes differently these days? And I have "tried it," and I'm not yet convinced.

From Storck: "It's definitely the future."

I can't wait.

From Focus: "There's always an overheating issue with carbon fiber rims and caliper brakes . . . it's one of the main reasons." (for going to disc brakes, that is)

Now THAT comment I can agree with wholeheartedly. I suggested in an earlier post (Get the Brakes Off the Rim and the Rim Won't Break) that one of the things driving disc brakes for road bikes is the fact that racers and weight weenies want to abandon very reliable aluminum rims in favor of shedding a few more grams with carbon rims -- but the braking on carbon rims is terrible, and possibly dangerous. Disc brakes help to avoid that problem -- but not without other problems that the marketing side would like to ignore.

Some of the spokespeople in the above video talk about the weight of disc brakes -- but the weight is not exactly the problem. People who obsess about weight want them to be lighter, but if anything, they need to be heavier. The real problem with discs is overheating, which can lead to fade and warped rotors. Lots of disc brake proponents claim discs don't fade like rim brakes -- but in fact, the opposite is true. 

The rep from Giant in the above video claims, "The advantage with disc brakes is they don't fade like a caliper brake." Even wikipedia makes this claim, "Disc brakes are less prone to fading under heavy or prolonged braking compared with rim brakes."( Of course, that statement is completely undocumented and unsupported, and there is much evidence to the contrary.

First of all, functionally, rim brakes ARE disc brakes -- with a huge braking disc 622 mm in diameter. Most disc brake systems have discs only 140 - 180 mm in diameter. All things being equal, a larger disc is much better than a smaller one because it will heat more slowly, and dissipate heat much better. That's why performance cars have huge rims with the largest brake rotors that will fit.

The problem with rim brakes is that heat generated by braking on a long descent can possibly heat the tires to the point of a blowout -- a legitimate concern for loaded touring bikes or tandems -- but one that can be mitigated considerably by good technique. Disc brakes, being much smaller in diameter, can overheat much more quickly -- rising to much higher temperatures in much less time than rims. This extreme heat on disc brakes will not lead to a tire blowout, but it can lead to complete loss of braking. The pads can glaze over, or the brake fluid (if it's a hydraulic system) can boil. The discs, in order to keep them light, are very thin (only about 2 mm!), so the heat builds up very quickly and can even cause them to warp. Making the discs thicker can help with these problems, but that adds weight which racers and weight weenies don't want.

This article from BikeRumor (Road Bike Disc Brakes are Coming, But Will They Work?) describes exactly that extreme fade scenario, with an incident resulting in five broken ribs for the writer. In the BikeRumor article, there are comments on the accident and its causes from brake manufacturers Shimano, Magura, TRP, and Hayes. Ultimately, the experts (and even the writer himself) more or less agree that the problem in his case was poor technique -- holding the brakes too long on a fast descent, to the point where he lost all braking.

From Shimano: "Riders may need to brake hard for a short distance, for instance coming into and going around the corners, then let off so they can cool. I think in your situation, you were on the brakes the whole time and they simply got too hot." (Retrogrouch note: any experienced road cyclist should recognize that this is the exact same technique that riders on long mountain descents have used for years - brake hard for a short time, then let the brakes cool. So how, exactly are the discs any better?)

And the spokesperson from Hayes: "What we found with road bikes was that you can generate incredible heat and forces. There are long descents where you're dragging the brakes for a long time. You have tiny little calipers with very little thermal mass. And they have tiny little pistons that require very little fluid volume. Then you have tiny rotors with virtually no mass that can't dissipate heat. When you whittle everything down to a super lightweight package, the only place for all that heat to go is the hydraulic fluid, and you can boil it in no time at all. When the fluid boils, it happens instantaneously and it happens right behind the brake pads. As soon as that happens, it introduces air into the system."

So here we have people actually in the industry, discussing very real problems with disc brakes, that the marketing people ignore or completely gloss over. 

As for the writer on BikeRumor who broke five ribs when his disc brakes faded to nothing -- what exactly did he do wrong? If you ask me, he listened to (and believed) the marketing hype about disc brakes. More braking power! No fade! Safer! Sure, he rode the brakes too long on the descent -- but how many people wouldn't make the exact same mistake after hearing all the claims? When the so-called experts, and the marketing people, and the hype-happy cheerleaders at the big bicycle magazines keep shouting over and over that disc brakes are so much better than rim brakes, and don't suffer from fade -- who wouldn't think that they can drag the brake on a long descent without consequences? In the end, we see (and have it confirmed by those analyzing the aftermath of a terrible accident) that skill and technique are still important -- in fact, the same basic technique that we've always been using with the supposedly inferior rim brakes.

I do have no doubt that disc brakes are indeed coming to more road bikes, but I hope they get a lot better than they are so far. And I don't think I'll be adopting them any time soon. Until they can solve the real problems with disc brakes, I haven't seen anything so far that leads me to believe they are significantly better than good rim brakes.