Saturday, December 28, 2013

Reynolds 531: Classic Tubes

Look at great bikes from the classic era, and one thing you'll find on many of them is a little sticker announcing the manufacturer of the tubing used in the frame. And for a long time, more often than not, chances are that little sticker said "Guaranteed Built With Reynolds 531."

The history of Reynolds Tubing goes back almost to the beginning of the "safety bicycle." Alfred M. Reynolds invented the process for butted tubing in 1887 and went on to found the Patented Butted Tube Company -- later renamed Reynolds Tube Co. Ltd. Over the decades, the Reynolds name became virtually synonymous with quality bicycles.

The technical process of butting tubing is more than I want to get into in this article and can be found elsewhere pretty easily for those who are interested, but it essentially boils down to making tubing with a varied wall thickness -- where the tubing is thicker at the ends where more strength is needed, but thinner in the middle section to reduce weight. Many riders believe that butting also improves ride quality, resulting in a more "lively" ride, though that's a little harder to quantify.

Earlier versions of Reynolds tubing were called HM, for "High Manganese," but in 1935 the company introduced "531" which, after butting, was regarded as a major breakthrough in strong, lightweight bicycle tubing. Butted 531 was considered revolutionary and quickly became the tubing of choice for most builders. The 531 name is a reference to the metallurgical components of the tubing - five parts manganese, three parts carbon, one part molybdenum. In general terms, it can be referred to as "manganese-molybdenum" or "manganese-moly" but should not be referred to as "chrome-moly." Some of the legends associated with Reynolds 531 are that it was used in the chassis on Jaguar XKEs, as well as chalking up 27 Tour de France victories.

Interesting note: According to Reynolds, the "proper" way to refer to the tubing is to call it "Five-Three-One" -- not "Five Thirty One" or "Five Hundred Thirty One." (The Custom Bicycle, Kolin and de la Rosa, 1979) Now you know.

According to Classic Rendezvous,
Schwinn felt the wording on
the 531 label was misleading
 (only the main tubes are
 "butted," the stays and fork
blades are "tapered") so this
version of the 531 label
was used on Paramounts
Proponents of 531 claim that its real benefit is that it maintains more of its strength after heating, thereby building a stronger frame. Some people describe it as "forgiving," and so in the huge factories that were cranking out large numbers of bikes -- like Raleigh, Peugeot, and others -- the frames were still strong even if the attention to detail and care against overheating the tubing were lacking. In the hands of a skilled builder, there should be no question about frame integrity.

There were many variations in tube sets available in 531 -- such as DB, SL, Competition, Professional, ST, and more (and some of the names/designations changed over the years, so forgive me for not getting more specific!) -- all with different specifications or wall thicknesses to cater to particular applications -- whether general racing, time-trialling, touring, or even for tandems.

Reynolds was such a presence in France that
special French-language decals were made.
Without a doubt, Reynolds dominated the British frame building market. It would be difficult to find a British builder who used anything else (For those still building today, that is still true). In fact, for a long time, one could expand that Reynolds dominance out to most of the English-speaking world. Chicago-built Schwinn Paramounts, for example, used Reynolds exclusively. Reynolds also had a huge presence in France, despite the fact that there were several French producers of high quality bicycle tubing. Many French bicycle companies like Peugeot, Gitane, Motobecane, and others used Reynolds in their top models, and many of the great French constructeurs used it as well. While Italian builders generally preferred Columbus tubing, there were some -- Masi, Pogliaghi, Legnano, Frejus, and even some earlier Cinellis -- that used 531.

Another big development in Reynolds history was the introduction of 753 in 1975. This was a special heat-treated version of 531, which yielded much higher strength and allowed remarkably thinner-walled tubing -- only .3 mm in the center section! The claims by Reynolds were that it could save as much as 1 to 1-1/2 pounds over 531 (depending on the version). But to preserve the tubing's strength during frame building, it had to be constructed only with low-temperature silver brazing, and the necessary tolerances were so close that a builder had to be specially certified by Reynolds in order to use it. Not only that, but the tubing was so stiff that it could not be cold set after brazing -- which meant that the frame's alignment had to be perfect from the start. The certification process involved building a sample frame and sending it to Reynolds for destructive testing. Apparently, about one-half of those applicants seeking certification were denied (VeloNews 1983).

The dominance of Reynolds tubing started to fade some time in the 1970s. While most British builders continued to use Reynolds, Columbus tubing from Italy made huge market gains by the end of the decade, especially on racing bikes, and especially in the U.S. There is no one definitive answer for how or why that happened, but there are a few possibilities -- some of which were provided to me by members of the Classic Rendezvous group. Funny thing, I was told by more than one CR list member that asking about Columbus vs. Reynolds was opening a can of worms. That certainly was not my intent. Of course, there will be people who take sides and try to argue one is better than the other -- but I'm not interested in those kinds of comparisons. I simply wanted to figure out what led to the shift, and it seems there's no simple answer.

A big part of it was probably due to perceptions and fashions. Italy really dominated trends in racing bikes, and most of the Italian bikes coming into the U.S. were built with Columbus. Buyers in the US, seeing all those gorgeous Colnagos, De Rosas, Pinarellos, Guerciottis and more -- all with that little white Columbus dove decal on the seat tube -- couldn't help but associate the brand with great racing bikes. Racing legends like Eddy Merckx were riding on Columbus-tubed bikes, and that certainly helped the image too. The Columbo family eventually purchased Cinelli (no more Reynolds-framed Cinellis! -- although Cinellis were being being built with Columbus by that time anyhow) which meant that they also had the whole Cinelli lug business and a close relationship with Campagnolo -- and those factors may have played a role, too.

But as evidence of the change, note that when Schwinn moved Paramount frame production from Chicago to Waterford, Wisconsin, they also switched from Reynolds to Columbus. That was probably a big blow to Reynolds. Another builder I'll mention is Dave Moulton, who built almost exclusively with Reynolds when he was living and working in England. But when he moved his frame building operation to the U.S. at the start of the 80s, he switched to Columbus -- not because he felt it was better, but because it was what his buyers expected/demanded in a high-end bicycle frame.

So moving on, what happened? Where does the story go from there? The heat-treated 753, as great as it was, never gained huge success, being so exclusive and difficult to work with. And 531 suffered from one "flaw" that kept it from continuing its success in the current bicycle marketplace: It really is not recommended for welding -- and that is how most frames are built today.

There are several developments from Reynolds to answer the weldability issue. There are newer "air-hardening" formulations that stand up to welding -- like 631 which Reynolds claims is the direct descendent of 531, and heat-treated 853, which is supposed to have the benefits of 753, with even more strength, and without the need for special frame-builders' certification. There are also the 525 chrome-moly and its heat-treated cousin 725 -- which are claimed by Reynolds to have a lot of the characteristics of 531 and 753, but again can be welded. The newest additions to the family are 953 and 931 stainless steel tube sets that have tensile strength well in excess of 753. It blows titanium away.

One final note in the Reynolds history is that it has gone through some major ownership changes in recent decades. By the 1970s, Reynolds (by this time, called TI Reynolds) owned Raleigh and most of the British cycle industry, including Sturmey-Archer and Brooks Saddles. In 1996, the company was taken over by Boulder, Colorado-based Coyote Sports. Coyote then filed for bankruptcy in 1999, most of the companies were sold off to investors, and in the following year a group of Reynolds managers purchased the tubing company from within, returning its base to England. The company is currently called Reynolds Technology Ltd. and has interests in a number of sectors outside of the bicycle industry, including motorsports and even oil drilling. In 2008, a special limited edition of classic 531 bicycle frame tubing was released. As I understand it, it is all gone now.

Despite all the developments and changes in bicycle tubing, there are a lot of people who still cherish the classic Reynolds 531. I still have a soft spot for it myself, and have several bikes that were built with it. For Retrogrouches like me, that little "Guaranteed Built With Reynolds 531" sticker just defines an era.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Bike Rides

It was Christmas day and the temperature must have been up around a spring-like 50 degrees or so. It was unseasonable for late December in NE Ohio. There was snow on the ground from the previous few days, but it was now melting and the roads were clear. A perfect day for a bike ride.

I was riding along a scenic backroad through an old part of Ohio's Western Reserve that looks surprisingly reminiscent of New England -- like something out of a Currier & Ives print. Icicles were melting off the roofs of the old century homes, with Christmas wreaths on their front doors and bows decorating the fenceposts.

As I was taking in the scenery and enjoying the surprise opportunity to get out on my bike, I noticed the glint of something on the side of the road: a package, neatly wrapped in foil, decorated with a big bow. I stopped and picked up the package, carefully peeled back the wrapping, and discovered something that still gives me a chuckle some 28 years later: A home-made fruitcake.

I immediately had an image in my mind of these people driving home after the big family party on Christmas Eve with all the relatives -- the one where Aunt Martha (or whoever it is) spends the whole week before Christmas making her "famous" fruitcake for everyone in the family because they all love it so much, but in reality they all dread it. And so I picture these people driving home with this fruitcake that nobody wants, looking at this foil-wrapped package thinking "not another one!" so they just chuck it out the window somewhere along the roadside.

How could anyone throw that away? Ok, never mind.
I have a bit of a Christmas tradition of going for bike rides. My Christmas bike ride tradition started that day I found the fruitcake -- during one of my winter breaks when I was home visiting from college in the 1980s. The weather doesn't always permit it, but I manage it more often than people might expect, especially considering that NE Ohio has a winter climate hardly conducive to biking.

We'll frequently get snow in December. But almost as often as not, we'll get a warming trend right around Christmas. In fact, this year, we had a good covering of snow for the past two weeks. Then all of a sudden, temperatures started climbing, and yesterday it hit 60 degrees. I went for a nice spring-like ride on Dec. 22nd -- not quite Christmas, but pretty close. This morning, temperatures started falling again, with rain and snow in the forecast, so I don't know if I'll get to go for my Christmas ride this year or not -- that 60 degrees yesterday might have been it for the year. We'll see.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that winter used to be different. It may just be a fault in my childhood memories, but I could swear that it used to start snowing some time in November and didn't stop until March. I have no memories of Christmases in my childhood that weren't "white." Nowadays, it's about as likely to be 40 - 50 degrees on Christmas as it is to be snowy. (Don't worry -- this is not a post on global warming.) Memory is a funny and not always reliable thing.

Anyhow, I really enjoy my Christmas bike rides when I get to take them. It's as good of a tradition for the season as any, I suppose. By the way, I've found lots of things on the roads while riding over the years (including money!), but none that stick in my memory like that Christmas fruitcake.

Enjoy the holidays, everyone. Go for a bike ride if you can. And look out for fruitcake.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bicycles: Public Enemy?

I've been seeing this article from the Boston Globe posted and re-posted a lot in the past week:

From the Boston Globe, Dec. 15
Reading the article merely provides some context and support for something I've been noticing (or at least suspecting) for a while now. It shouldn't really come as a surprise, but the article was, for me, just an affirmation that I wasn't suffering from paranoia. It's worth reading.

So how does something as simple and innocuous as a bicycle -- or the act of riding one -- constitute a political statement or become an object of the "Red-State/Blue-State" culture wars? I'm trying to keep this from getting overly political. Obviously, there is nothing inherently "Liberal" or "Conservative" in a bicycle or bicycling. If anything, bicycles should be seen as conservative, if one considers that the root of that word is "conserve." Not only that, but their nod to self-sufficiency and individualism should appeal to conservatives. But in what I see as a modern-day corruption of true conservative ideology, anything that challenges the dominance of big oil and gas -- or anything that puts conservation over mass consumption -- is a threat to the status quo, and must therefore be marginalized. It must become a target

Enter the bicycle.

Bicycles are the most efficient form of transportation there is. Zero emissions. Zero fuel. No batteries necessary, either. They're pretty inexpensive, too. Of course, there are bikes that cost as much as cars, but really, a perfectly useable, functional, and reliable bicycle can be purchased for under $1000. Much less if it's used. In an economy that is focused almost entirely on an auto industry (most other manufacturing having long been lost to foreign markets), there is just not enough money to be made on bicycles for them to replace cars (not that anyone's trying to do that, at least not completely) and to satisfy this modern version of conservatism. 
Illustration from the Boston Globe article.
Before he became famous outside of his home
city for his crack-smoking antics, Toronto Mayor
Rob Ford made a name for himself as one of
the most anti-bicycle politicians in North America.
Consider the huge amount of subsidies given to the oil and gas industries, and to the auto industry. Many of these subsidies are indirect, but still benefit those industries. Think of all the tax dollars that go into the infrastructure and maintenance needed for our addiction to motor transport. Think of all the money generated by fuel taxes and sales taxes on new cars. Don't forget all the government contracts for that construction and maintenance. And then there's all the "free parking" on the streets and in front of shopping centers -- which isn't really free -- we all pay for it in one way or another, at least indirectly if not directly. There's a lot of money at stake in our addiction.

Then there's the sense of entitlement of motorists. Cars have been in complete dominance of all infrastructure planning in the US for decades -- all road-building projects since WWII have focused on making things easier for cars and drivers. More lanes for more cars. More parking. Suburban sprawl. All of it has given motorists the sense that the roads belong to them. Any effort that acknowledges non-motorized traffic in road or other infrastructure projects -- whether it be for bicycles or pedestrians -- is seen as a threat to that dominance and must be attacked.

In recent years, more cities are looking at their traffic-choked streets; the bumper-to-bumper cars (many of which contain only one occupant); the huge amounts of tax money needed for construction and maintenance of car-centered infrastructure. Bicycles are starting to be seen as a viable alternative -- one whose use should be encouraged. But any talk of bicycle lanes is immediately seen by drivers as an attack. Taking "OUR" lanes away from us. Bike share programs, which are spreading to more urban areas, are another "encroachment." The response of some political groups is to ridicule these programs on one hand, while simultaneously trying to block them from happening on the other.

That brings up another point -- rural and suburban vs. urban. Using bicycles as transportation (not just for pleasure) or as "tools" not just "toys" is something more likely to be gaining momentum in urban areas. But many politicians and pundits try to marginalize the urban mindset as somehow un-American. Look how many politicos refer to red-state attitudes and values as "Real America." So politicians, almost totally on the "right" side of the spectrum, have decided to capitalize on these ideas and the frustrations of motorists -- making bicycling out to be the problem, not the solution. Or something "liberal," even bordering on "socialist." They want to make bicyclists into some kind of scapegoat for our traffic-choked streets. 

Thing is, I'm not exactly certain when and how "conservation" got separated from "conservatism." I have my guesses or suspicions, though. Keep in mind -- this really isn't about Republicans vs. Democrats. It's something different. Remember that no less a Republican than Teddy Roosevelt, who never saw an animal (endangered or otherwise) that he wouldn't take it upon himself to shoot, was instrumental in creating our national parks system. In my home state of Ohio, it was a bi-partisan effort that created the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is today a bicycling Mecca. Every single U.S. president since (and including) Richard Nixon has implored us for the need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Yet in today's political climate, any actual efforts to do that get ridiculed and opposed.

At the risk of stepping on some readers' toes, I think it goes back to to Reagan, who, in one of his first acts as president, removed the solar panels from the White House roof, then ridiculed the Carter-esque suggestion to lower our thermostats as un-American. He then fought to weaken the auto-industry CAFE (fuel economy) federal regulations. He was as concerned as any Democrat about oil dependence, but apparently didn't see the irony -- the disconnect between his words and his policies. Nevertheless, Reagan enjoyed riding his bicycle.

But there's been a movement in more recent years that takes those anti conservation ideas and goes to the extreme. There's a growing faction that seems to think we're somehow going to drill and frack our way to complete energy independence, and we don't need to do anything at all to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Then again, reducing consumption saves money for the consumers -- it doesn't generate money for the producers. It's ridiculous and short sighted, not to mention illogical.

Honestly -- I don't know where I'm going with this, or how to wrap up this post. And I'm trying hard not to make it a purely political rant. It seems a shame that there are people out there so willing to ignore what we know to be true -- that bicycles, and bicycle riding for our transportation needs, are the answers to so many problems -- and that these same people will do whatever they can to protect the car-dominated status quo. In the end, probably the best way to combat this is to keep on riding our bikes.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Another Bike Shop Memory

There are some old bike shops that really live on in my memories, long after they've closed up. Shops that could trace their way back to the classic era, when the best frames were steel and lugged. Shops where the old stuff never really disappeared, it just got buried and maybe forgotten -- like treasure just waiting to be re-discovered like some relics in an archaeological dig site.

Not actually Marvin's shop -- but there is a resemblance.
Marvin's shop was like that. The shop wasn't called "Marvin's" but that's how I always knew it. He actually ran a couple different shops in different locations and with different names over the years (although they were all roughly within walking distance of Marvin's home), but they were essentially all the same little shop. It just moved around and changed names a few times, that's all. It was once called "PeeWee's Bikes" and it was once known (almost ironically) as "Hi-Tech Bikes," and there was another name in-between those two that I simply can't remember, but it was easier to just call it "Marvin's shop." He was the one constant -- albeit a quirky, eccentric constant.

At Marvin's, the term "Business Hours" didn't mean much.
One thing I remember about Marvin's shop was that it was hard to find it open. Marvin kept odd hours. He had regular "business hours" posted on the door -- on one of those little signs with a clock face on it -- but the little sign didn't actually mean anything. The posted hours weren't even "approximations." He'd go into the shop for a couple of hours. Putter around a bit with some old bikes. Walk home and have lunch. Maybe a few hours later he'd go back in and open up for another hour or two. Maybe not. Finding the shop open was definitely a hit-or-miss proposition.

If you were lucky enough to find Marvin's shop open, you really did feel like you were on an archaeological expedition. Almost everything in the shop was from an earlier time -- left-over, old stock -- mostly from the 70s and the bike-boom. Even though a lot of stuff was actually new, it was often shopworn; original packaging lost; tossed into boxes without much organization. New parts and used ones were sometimes jumbled together in the same old cardboard boxes. Bikes and boxes of parts were everywhere. You really had to dig to find things. Bikes were sometimes so closely entwined that it was hard to extricate one from another. Needless to say, things in Marvin's shop were rarely pristine, but many of them were treasures nonetheless.

There were a lot of classic old bikes in Marvin's shop. Lots of them with Reynolds tubing, or sometimes Columbus. Some with Campagnolo parts, others with cool old French bits. I remember a gorgeous early-80s Colnago hanging from the ceiling. It had been built with Campagnolo's 50th anniversary group. There were some cool old French bikes, some Italian, some small-shop British frames, too. In the boxes of parts, you could find some pretty nice old things -- if you didn't mind digging. But that was part of the appeal; the sense that maybe you could unearth something really rare and beautiful.

Another thing I remember about the shop was that it was very hard to actually buy anything. Nothing had a price. If Marvin had a price in mind, he wouldn't simply tell you. I don't know if he just hated to part with anything, or if he was concerned that some of the stuff had somehow increased so much in value (despite the shopworn condition) that he didn't wan't to let it go too cheaply. I'm inclined to think it was the former. He'd grown too attached to things and couldn't let them go -- probably not a good habit if you're supposedly making a living in sales. But if you wanted something, you'd ask Marvin, "How much for . . ." and the response would be, "Hmm, ahh, how much do you think it's worth?" It could get maddening.

You could tell the guy really knew his stuff, though, and he really loved bikes and components. Often when I was there in the shop, Marvin would quiz me -- test me on one thing or another, as if trying to figure out if I would provide his cherished items with a properly good home. I remember once I was looking for an old 2-bolt Campagnolo seat post for a '71 Raleigh International -- either Nuovo Record or Gran Sport (I didn't care which -- they were pretty hard to tell apart). Marvin questioned me about who built the frame and where it was built. I answered that the International was not actually built by Raleigh, but by Carlton (which had been purchased by Raleigh around 1960) in Worksop, England. Correct answer -- I had "passed" the test. Marvin sold me a seatpost.

It must have been about 10 years ago, at least, Marvin's health was not too good, and at one point I had heard that both he and his wife were battling illnesses. The little shop was open less and less often. Eventually he sold the shop to someone else who changed the name and completely re-did the place like new inside. I don't think Marvin sold them the old stock of bikes and parts, though -- at least not much of it. I'm not sure what happened to the contents of the place. For as much as I had seen in the shop, I've heard that the basement was overwhelming and intimidating, even for the most hardy explorers. Still, I wish I could have gotten down there to see it. Somebody must have gotten the old stuff, though, as I've occasionally seen bikes come up for sale on eBay that I'm almost certain must have come from Marvin's. Makes me wonder.

I really miss old shops like Marvin's. I don't know if shops like that have a place in today's carbon-fiber-electronic-shifting-hydraulic-disk-brake world, but they'll always be a place for Retrogrouches like me.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jamie Swan's Custom Built Fork Crown

While I was collecting submissions of favorite fork crowns, I got this really incredible one from Jamie Swan, a very talented builder located in Long Island, NY.

Jamie Swan has been in the bicycle industry in one way or another since the 1970s -- racing, building wheels, building frames, running a bike shop. He does some beautiful frame building work, as evidenced by this and some other examples one can find on his website. ( Not only is there a gallery with pictures of some other frames on the site, but there is also a pretty extensive history on Jamie and his experience.

When I first saw the fork crown pictured on the left, my first thought was that it was maybe a commercially available fork crown -- perhaps a vintage Davis track crown -- that had been heavily (and artfully) modified. But no. What sets it apart from most of the other crowns I've posted is that instead of being a commercially-made cast or forged fork crown, it was completely fabricated from scratch. Jamie was kind enough to send some "work-in-progress" photos to show how it was built. The pictures are great to see, as it helps give some idea as to the kind of hand-work that goes into something like this.

Take a look at the pictures below and try to imagine the the time involved in creating a truly one-of-a-kind fork crown .
Here, Jamie is boring out a pair of sockets into a steel plate to accept the round fork blades. He's using a jig to keep everything aligned properly.
Here are the two milled plates that will form the basis of the fork crown. Notice that one of the plates is milled all the way through (to become the lower plate in the finished crown) while the other is milled only about half-way through (to become the upper plate). On the left would appear to be the jig Jamie used to keep the pieces aligned for the boring operation.
At this stage, the two plates have been brazed onto the end of a steerer tube. It looks like a recess has also been milled into the side of the plates for a brake mounting bolt. The fleur de lis tangs have been hand-cut out of steel tubing, but haven't yet been brazed into place. Looking through pictures of other frames by Jamie, it would seem that the fleur de lis is a favorite motif of his -- he's used variations of it on a few other frames. It looks fantastic on this piece. 
Now the fleur de lis tangs have been brazed onto the lower plate and filed so that they smoothly and gradually disappear under the crown.
In this photo, you can see that Jamie has re-shaped the formerly rectangular plates to match the curve of the fork blades. The joint between the tangs and the crown has completely disappeared, and all the curves and contours just look "right."
The round-section fork blades have been brazed into place. You can see in this picture just how clean the brazing work is. It also looks like a bit of reinforcement has been brazed into the recess for the brake mounting bolt. All done and ready for paint. Truly exquisite work!
A final look at the finished fork. One thing Jamie mentioned when he sent me the pictures was how proud he was of this -- and rightfully so. This bike won an award for "Best Lugs" at the 2008 Cirque du Cyclisme -- a gathering for vintage bike enthusiasts and "keepers of the flame."
Thank you so much to Jamie Swan for sending these photos. It's a pleasure to be able to feature your work here on The Retrogrouch Blog!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Disc and Hydraulic Brake Recalls

It's no secret to anyone reading this blog on a regular basis that I have issues with the latest disc and hydraulic brake systems. This is the Retrogrouch Blog, after all. I'm not ready to accept all the claims and hype about superiority, most of which come from the manufacturer's marketing people and the cheerleaders from the big cycling magazines.

Yes, I believe that in some circumstances disc brakes may offer somewhat better performance than rim brakes (in extremely wet or muddy conditions, for instance) -- but I do not believe that those benefits necessarily come without drawbacks. And there ARE drawbacks. New is not always better. Performance gains are sometimes offset by negatives. I wouldn't be a Retrogrouch if I didn't stand by that.

SRAM hydraulic brakes: recalled
In yet another blow to the credibility of the hypesters (I don't think that word actually exists -- my Mac keeps wanting to change it to "hipsters") for disc and hydraulic brakes, just take a look at some of the current recall notices for these systems:

TRP Disc Brake Recall

Shimano Disc Brake Recall

Magura Hydraulic Brake Recall

SRAM Hydraulic Brake Recall

In the cases with the hydraulic systems, the recalls are due to the fact that the brakes can fail in extreme cold conditions. According to SRAM, "In these conditions the master cylinder seals failed to hold pressure resulting in abrupt loss of brake power, and an inability to stop the bike."

TRP disc brakes: recalled
I'm sure that traditional cable-operated rim brakes get recalled from time to time, but it's hard to find it. There's not much to go wrong with them. They're proven technology, and their simplicity makes them pretty foolproof. When was the last time you heard about somebody's traditional cable operated rim brakes failing because it was too cold out?

If you're reading a blog called The Retrogrouch, you probably aren't affected by any of the above-listed recalls. But if you have some riding buddies who have these systems, tell them to contact their dealers and see what they need to do. And if they're really good friends, maybe let them borrow a Retro-grouchy bike so they can keep riding until it all gets sorted out.

I hope this post doesn't come across as gloating -- that's really not my intent at all. Loss of braking is a serious issue. But it does help underline my point that bicycles are really at their best when they are simple machines, and there are real benefits in proven technology. Adding complexity to a bicycle doesn't really improve it, and only takes away from the machine's real virtues.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

75th Anniversary Paramount

Since the 1930s, the Schwinn Paramount represented the top of the heap in American lightweight racing bicycles. In the 60s and 70s, they were considered one of the few American bikes that could compete head-to-head with the great racing bikes being imported from Europe at the time. For many people, the bikes from those decades, with their Reynolds 531 tubing and (usually chromed) Nervex lugs pretty much define the image of a "classic" bike.

While the Paramount line was for many years built in the big Chicago Schwinn factory -- in a special corner of the factory known as "the cage" -- in the 1980s, the Paramount production was moved to Waterford, Wisconsin under the leadership of Marc Muller. After Schwinn went bankrupt in '92, Muller and Richard Schwinn bought the Paramount factory and continued operating under the Waterford name in 1993.

The re-organized Schwinn company went bankrupt again in 2001, and the name is now owned by Pacific Cycles. In general, it is only a shadow of its former self, mostly selling cheap mass-market bikes -- many of which are now sold through department stores. Too bad. And for the most part, the Pacific Cycles version of Schwinn has little or nothing to do with Paramount. 

Stainless steel lugs recall the look of the
chromed Nervex lugs of the great bikes from the
60s and 70s. Note the port under the downtube
for electronic shifting wires (sigh). 
However, this year Pacific/Schwinn has joined up with Waterford to produce a 75th Anniversary Paramount that borrows a lot from the past, but also gives a nod to the present. There is a limited edition run of only 25 of these bikes -- all built to order.

For us traditionalists, you can see from the pictures that the frame is lugged steel and has a traditional level top tube. While the lugs have some of the elegance of the classic Nervex lugs of the 60s and 70s, they are a completely new and unique design with a somewhat simpler or cleaner look than the vintage lugs. Also, instead of being chromed, in this new version, they are rendered in polished stainless steel.

Buyers ordering one of these frames have a few options for the build. One option is tubing. It can be built with air-hardening steel tubing throughout ($3800 -- frame only), or air-hardening main triangle with stainless rear triangle ($4750 shown below), or with stainless tubing throughout ($5350) -- which would probably mimic the look of the old all-chrome Paramounts of the past. Unfortunately, they are all a bit too rich for my blood. Waterford-built steel forks range from $375 - $575, or there are carbon fork options as well.

According to the Paramount Anniversary website, this is
frame #1 of 25, and it is built to accommodate the latest in
electronic shifting (blah). Note the brazed-on attachment
points for the battery pack near the bottom bracket, and the
ports for electronic wires on the downtube and chainstay.
In another nod to the Paramount history, the styling and graphics created for the anniversary bike recall the great bikes of the 60s. The bikes can be ordered in any color from the Waterford palette, but they also have three vintage "themes" available for the bikes -- Candy Red, Pearl White (shown), or Coppertone. The new headbadge, while it looks very much like the vintage version, is made from stainless steel.

In making this new Paramount a "modern" bike, besides the stainless steel and air-hardening tubing, the design uses updated tubing dimensions (slightly larger than the classic era) and calls for a 1-1/8 in. steerer. As already mentioned, there are carbon fiber fork options although the thought of a carbon fork on a beautiful, traditional-looking steel frame just appalls me. I'm afraid there will be more than a few equipped that way, though (see below).

Electronic shifting and a carbon fork. Blasphemy.
Not only that, but the new Paramount also has provisions for electronic shifting systems -- at least as an option. This consists of bosses for the battery pack, and internal-routing ports for the wires. OK, that part just kind of made me shudder. All of these electronic wiring provisions are finished off with little diamond-shaped reinforcements.

Overall, this looks to me like a nice bike, but for me, exactly how nice would depend a lot on how it was built and equipped. No carbon forks and electronic ports for me, thank you. Totally out of my league, price-wise anyhow -- but for a lucky 25 people, this could be a pretty special bike that artfully blends the past and the present: a modern version of a classic bicycling icon.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

David and Goliath - Cafe Roubaix Lives!

There have been some interesting developments in the story of Café Roubaix and their troubles with bicycle corporate giant Specialized. As I stated a few days ago, the little bike shop in Alberta has been threatened with legal action from Specialized over the shop's use of the name "Roubaix" which Specialized apparently owns as intellectual property. The story has gone viral on the internet and social media, and shop owner Dan Richter has seen an outpouring of support from people across the continent while Specialized has seen a mighty backlash in bad publicity. The story has even been picked up on national broadcast news -- I heard Richter being interviewed on NPR on Tuesday.

Since the story originally broke in the Calgary Herald on Dec. 7, several things have happened.

On Dec. 9, according to, Advanced Sports International (ASI) which owns the brand Fuji, claimed that it owns the worldwide rights to the name Roubaix, and that Specialized overstepped its bounds in trying to enforce a trademark on the name. According to ASI, they have been licensing the Roubaix name to Specialized since 2003. Apparently, Specialized did not have the right, under that agreement, to register the Roubaix name as a trademark in Canada. “We are in the process of notifying Specialized that they did not have the authority, as part of our license agreement, to stop Daniel Richter …  from using the Roubaix name.” 

Further, ASI stated, “While ASI does have the authority to object to Mr. Richter’s use of the name and while we at ASI understand the importance of protecting our bicycle model names, we believe that Mr. Richter did not intend for consumers to confuse his brick-and-mortar establishment or his wheel line with our Roubaix road bike. And we believe consumers are capable of distinguishing his bike shop and wheel line from our established bikes.”

Well, there's a position that seems to make some sense.

Then, on Dec. 10, the Calgary Herald reported that Richter received a call, not from Specialized's lawyers, but from Specialized president Mike Sinyard himself. "I had a great conversation with Mike Sinyard today, and I am happy to let everyone know that things will be working out fine," Richter wrote. "We thank you for your continued support. You have all been so very awesome to us!" After all the negative publicity, Specialized released a statement saying, "We are working hard with Mr. Richter to find a resolution we are both happy with to make this situation right. While we and Mr. Richter can’t yet share specifics, we both look forward to sharing an update soon.”

So it looks like the little shop will likely get to keep its name after all. Good news!

Nevertheless, it still troubles me that a big corporation like Specialized, or even ASI, or Trek for that matter, can copyright something like the name of a city or other geographic place, and expect to be able to enforce it. In other situations, they have trademarked common words, like "Epic" and again used their legal might to enforce their "rights." Where does it stop?

Specialized has a bit of a history with this sort of thing, it seems. Back in 2006, they sued a small Portland bicycle company, Mountain Cycle, for their use of the name "Stumptown" on their cyclocross bike. Too similar to Stumpjumper, they said. Never mind that there are a number of locations around the country known as Stumptown, including Portland (going back to the mid-1800s), where the name is used for a wide array of businesses. Mountain Cycle ended up going out of business. At least the name "Stumpjumper" is something relatively original that Specialized can claim to have created. But what was the likelihood that anyone would have confused the two names?

Then there was the case in 2011 where Specialized sued a small wheel-building business (also in Portland) called Epic Wheel Works. Being too small to fight, they changed their name -- but seriously -- how does anyone even get to trademark the word "Epic"? Look out Odysseus and all you other "Epic Heroes." And no more "epic" adventures for anyone who wants to push their limits, either. Ridiculous.

What's next? Can they trademark a person's name? Not that anyone's likely to trademark or copyright my name -- but what about something like "Retrogrouch"? I wouldn't deign to try to trademark it myself, considering that the term has been around for over 20 years and wasn't coined by me. But apparently, that is no legal impediment. Part of me thinks I should do it before someone else does (and then tries to sue me) but there's no way I could afford the legal expense to try to defend it. And apparently, THAT is the real standard -- it's not only who can file the trademark, but who has the legal budget to then defend it against court challenges. That seems to be the strategy Specialized is following.

I'm lucky that Brooks Saddles doesn't take this approach. I'd be in trouble using my own name, or using a little thumbnail picture of a Brooks saddle as my little Google/Blogspot icon.

Trademarking something original -- something you've actually created -- and something that isn't part of the common lexicon or common experience -- that makes sense. There's only one "Coke" or "Coca-Cola" and anyone trying to cash in using that name or something confusingly similar is obviously in violation of trademark law (unless Coca-Cola wants to start going after drug dealers for trademark infringement). That's what the legal profession calls a "strong" trademark. But the name of a city famous for its bicycle race? Or a common word like "Epic"? Heck, even the word "specialized" for that matter.

I'm glad this looks like it will work out for Café Roubaix -- and I'm not feeling too bad for Specialized for the public relations mess this created for them.

Lovely Fork Crowns

In my post For the Love of Lugs I wrote about how, for me, a lugged frame just holds so much more appeal than one that is welded (or molded, as in the case of a lot of carbon bikes). I feel the same way about fork crowns. When mountain bikes swept the bicycle industry in the 1980s, the welded unicrown fork, with its blades curved inward at the top and welded directly to the steerer tube, became pretty much standard issue. By the end of the decade, they had made their way onto a lot of road bikes as well. Most of today's carbon fiber forks are molded in a style that seems to mimic the unicrown look.
. . . Blah. . .
. . . Double Blah. . .

But a substantial, broad-shouldered, forged or cast fork crown is not only strong, but beautiful to look at, offering a point of visual interest, as well as being another area on a bike frame where a skilled builder can impart a unique and creative look. Not only that, but many traditional fork crowns offer much more tire and fender clearance than their modern counterparts -- especially when compared to most of the carbon forks available today.

Look at bikes from the classic era, from the mid-80s and earlier, and you'll see all kinds of interesting and beautiful fork crowns -- even on mass-produced models where the factories did little if anything to "pretty" them up. Cheap mass-market bikes in that time were usually built with inexpensive "stamped" steel fork crowns, and yet even many of those looked more interesting to my eye than the unicrown and carbon forks that are used on most bikes today.

Take a look at some of the fork crowns from the classic era -- most of them forged or made from castings. These first few are of the flat-top style which I find particularly attractive.
Flat-topped fork crown on my Mercian Superlight. I could be wrong, but I think this may be one of the crowns by Vagner. It doesn't exactly match any of the ones in the picture below, but the overall look and proportions are about right. It's a great look for a lugged steel frame.
A sampling of some of the forged crowns by Vagner. These were very popular on bikes throughout the 60s and 70s.
A sampling of crowns from Nervex. Also very popular in the classic era.
A Cinelli twin-plate crown - spotted on eBay for big bucks. These are gorgeous, but I've read that true twin-plate crowns like this are notoriously difficult to braze with.  When finished, though, it is a cool look.
A flat-topped "faux" twin-plate style crown. This was sand cast, given the grainy look of the surface in the crevices. It would take a lot of filing and sanding work on the part of the builder to make this into a really nice finished fork, but the results would be worth it. This one is made for round-section track fork blades.
The next few crowns are sloping or semi-sloping designs. Cinelli really popularized this style and made a number of versions that were available to builders all around the world. Most of their designs have been copied by (or were at least major inspirations for) other manufacturers.

These Cinelli-made semi-sloping designs were used on lots of Italian racing bikes in the 70s and 80s. I'm pretty certain they were the crown of choice on many 70s era Colnagos, for example. The MC and MR seem to look pretty much the same but for the dimensions of the fork blades they were designed for. 
Here's one of the above semi-sloping Cinelli crowns on an '81 Masi (California built). Earlier Masi's used Fischer flat-topped crowns, and some of the most highly-sought-after ones used true twin-plate crowns.
These fully-sloping designs were a Cinelli mainstay. The perceived benefit is shorter fork blades and a stiffer fork, so harder-edged racing bikes often used these. Note that each of these has tangs or sockets designed to be inserted into the fork blades, rather than the other way around. The result was to give a seamless-looking connection between the blades and crown. It also gives an aerodynamic look. The way I understand it, the one on the top (the original version) was forged and took more handwork and preparation for the builder, while the later models below it are investment cast which is a little easier to work with.
That looks like one of old Cinelli integral fully-sloping crowns on a 1970 Raleigh Professional. It was pretty common to see them done this way, with the chromed crown and painted fork blades. (a sharp-eyed reader informs me that the crown on the Raleigh Pro was actually made by Davis, not Cinelli.) 
These fully-sloping Cinelli crowns became all the rage as the classic era drew to a close. Unlike the integral crowns above, these have typical sockets for the fork blades to fit into, resulting in a more substantial crown with a slightly more traditional look. There are tons of variations on this style made by other manufacturers.

It's worth noting that even though the welded unicrown fork got its start on mountain bikes, it wasn't always so. Take a look at these two interesting examples:
Proof that mountain bike forks weren't always ugly. Early versions of the Specialized Stumpjumper came with this nice looking twin-plate style "bi-plane" crown. Note also the lugged frame -- I wouldn't get a mountain bike any other way.
This Tom Ritchey-designed fork crown was used on Brigestone MB-1 mountain bikes in the early 90s. According to the Bridgestone catalog that this illustration came from, getting this crown produced was such a hassle for Ritchey that he just bagged it and pioneered unicrowns instead. Shame.
The Classic Fork Crown is Not Dead.

That Ritchey/Bridgestone fork above provides a nice segue into the next section. Grant Petersen of Bridgestone and now Rivendell probably deserves as much credit as anybody for reviving interest in attractive fork crowns. There are a number of beautiful investment cast fork crowns available today -- many of which are inspired by designs from the past, yet in many ways are even more attractive. Not only that, but with the precision of investment casting, they are much easier for the builders to work with than vintage crowns from the classic era.

Bridgestone RB-1 fork crown -- illustration from the '93 Bridgestone catalog. Like the MB-1 crown above, this crown was designed by Tom Ritchey (there's definitely a family resemblance between the two!). A modern interpretation of a vintage look.
Here's a Rivendell Roadeo with a creative-looking flat-topped fork crown. Very pretty.
Kirk Pacenti produces several classic-inspired fork crowns, including this nice investment cast twin-plate style crown (above) and their "Artisan" crown (below).

Richard Sachs also produces several traditional fork crowns, including the "Newvex" model, which is styled after the vintage Nervex crown. This crown complements Sachs's Newvex lug set. 
Even a number of welded bikes are now available with traditional-styled fork crowns. The Pass Hunter frame from Velo Orange comes with this gorgeous twin-plate styled crown to add a touch of vintage class to its welded frame. The reinforcing rings on the head-tube improve the look, too. Soma Fabrications and Surly also produce welded frames with traditional crowned forks.
One of the things I love about traditional fork crowns is that they go way beyond pure functionality. Certainly, a welded unicrown fork works fine. It's reasonably strong and fairly light for what it is, too. But as I've pointed out again and again, my belief, my mantra, is that bicycles should be both functional and beautiful. Having the aesthetic element of a traditional fork crown -- even if fitted to an inexpensive welded frame -- is a sign that somebody took that extra effort to appeal to the visual senses -- that someone has an appreciation that a bicycle is more than a basic "tool." I'm really glad to see that interest in traditional crowns has revived and that there are so many great-looking choices available today.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Bicycling David and Goliath

I've been seeing a lot of posts around the internet about this within the last few days or so: Specialized is suing a little bike shop in Alberta, Canada because of trademark infringement. The shop, which opened last year, calls itself "Café Roubaix" and specializes (not "Specialized") in road bikes and road racing equipment. Lawyers representing Specialized have demanded that the little shop stop using the Roubaix name. Talk about your "David and Goliath" situations.

Here is the story, as originally reported in the Calgary Herald

Apparently, Specialized has trademarked the name "Roubaix" in Canada as intellectual property, specifically for its bike frames and components. Of course, the shop's owner, Dan Richter, named his shop after the classic bicycle race in France -- not after the Specialized "Roubaix" bike model (I mean, who would name a whole shop after one model of bike?).

The lawyers for Specialized say they are required to protect their trademark or risk losing it. That may be so, but the thing is, how on earth did they even get a trademark granted for the name of a region in France? A region famous for its 117-year-old bicycle race? A region that has seen its name used on numerous bicycle-related products and items over the decades? Challenge-brand tires (previously Clement) and other brands have offered "Paris-Roubaix" tires for decades. There are bicycle clothing items that bear the name. Fuji bicycles even has a bike called "Roubaix," which is potentially more confusing (well, confusing for someone with no sense) than seeing the name on the front of a shop. If anybody has grounds to be upset, it's the people of France.
Cafe Roubaix, a little shop located above an
ice-cream parlor in Cochrane, Alberta, Canada.
(photo from the shop's website).

The thing is, protecting intellectual property is one thing. But it's not as if Specialized created the name, or was even the first to apply it to bikes and/or components. In fact, when anybody involved in cycling hears the name "Roubaix," I doubt that the first thing anyone thinks of is the popped-out-of-a-mold plastic bike with the gimmicky "zertz" gummy shock absorbers. Not only that, but typically in these kinds of trademark-infringement cases, one standard of proof that the plaintiffs have to meet is whether a reasonable person would likely be confused by the names. I don't think Specialized would be able to meet that burden.

Between the long history of the Paris-Roubaix bicycle race which is legendary in the bicycling world, and the list of other products (including bicycles) that bear the same name, it's possible that if he could afford to fight it, the "little guy" could win against the giant corporation. But unfortunately, according to Richter, just the legal cost of fighting it is way out of his league.

Then again, as I was writing this article, I saw a positive update to the story -- published just today -- in the Calgary Herald. According to the follow-up story, since the news spread via the internet and social media, Richter has seen a huge outpouring of support from around the continent. "There were lawyers offering to take up his case pro bono, cycling fans raising money on his behalf, Twitter users organizing boycotts against Specialized, and hundreds of others who placed orders for his products. He quickly sold out of Café Roubaix t-shirts, and is hurrying to print more." Richter went on to say "This is encouraging and exciting, and I'm finding it very humbling as well. I'm really amazed by the level of support. It's overwhelming."

I'm glad to see a little shop like Café Roubaix getting that kind of support -- I'm sure that if he chooses to fight it he'll have a tough challenge ahead of him, but I hope this all works out for the best.