Wednesday, April 6, 2016

New Old Bike Project: Wheels

When I found my Specialized Expedition, it was still equipped with what I assume were its original wheels. The wheels were built with Specialized's own sealed bearing hubs and Mavic Module 4 rims, with 40 spokes rear, 36 front -- a heavy duty set of wheels to be sure.

I say I assume they were original, but I don't know for certain. I've seen different spec sheets for the bike, either from the company's catalogs, or from old Bicycling magazine buyers' guides, and the specs seem to vary. Some list Wolber Super Champion rims, others list Mavic Module 3, and it could have just depended on the year. Mine are Module 4. The one thing that's consistent is the Specialized hubs and the spoke count. So either the specs changed at some point (it wasn't unusual for things like that to change, sometimes in the middle of a model year and usually without notice) or somebody laced up a new set of wheels using the same hubs, or at least the same type. A lot can happen in 30 years.

An ad for the hubs, circa 1984.
In any case, I was already well familiar with Specialized's sealed bearing hubs from the '80s. They were really well designed, well-made, and easily serviced. I built some wheels with those hubs about 30 years ago, used them for a number of trouble-free years, and I still regret having eventually sold them. I've never tried to change the sealed cartridge bearings, but I'm told it's a pretty simple operation - if not for the home mechanic, at least for any decent bike shop. The hubs were made for Specialized by Sansin/Sunshine, who also made hubs for SunTour.

The Mavic Module 4 rims are somewhat like the venerable MA2, with a similar shape and cross section, but considerably wider. The MA2 rims were about 20mm wide, whereas the Module 3 was 22mm, and the Module 4 was a whopping 26mm wide rim! The rims also feature stainless steel double eyelets at all the spoke holes for more strength. The Mod. 4 were designed for heavy duty loaded touring and tandem use. They aren't light -- I've found weight listed at around 540 grams, which is at least 80 grams more than the MA2. Should be bomb-proof though, right?

When I took the wheels off the Expedition, I was pleased to see the sealed hubs, but on the whole I was underwhelmed by the condition of the wheels, at least visually. The hub locknuts and cones were brown with rust. The quick release skewers were mismatched -- the front lever was correct, but the rear one was a modern replacement (an open cam design! Oh, come on!). The wheels overall were pretty grimy, the rims looked dull, and the rim eyelets were all rusty. Rusty?! They're supposed to be stainless steel! So, guess what? Stainless steel can actually rust. Who knew? There are different grades of stainless steel, which contain different percentages of chromium (anywhere from 12 - 30% thank you, internet) which is primarily what makes it "stainless." But it can, and does, rust.

I had another set of wheels waiting in the wings that I was perfectly content to use on this bike, but I took the time to examine these Specialized/Mod. 4 wheels a little more closely. Turning the axles in the hubs, I found that the bearings were still butter smooth. And even if they weren't, as I mentioned already, they'd be easily serviced. Just for grins, I put the wheels into my truing stand. The front one was absolutely perfectly true. The rear wheel had just the slightest bit of lateral runout. The spokes and nipples, once wiped with a bit of oil, turned smoothly and I got the rear wheel running true in a matter of minutes. I don't know how many miles these wheels had seen, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised at their trueness, considering the heft of the rims and the fact that they were 36/40 spokes.

OK, any other problems? Well, turning the rear axle and watching it closely, I suspected that it might have been ever-so-slightly bent on the drive side. I couldn't even be certain until I pulled the axle out and held it up next to a good straight-edge. Turning it slowly against the straight-edge, I could see just a tiny gap appear at one end. Maybe 1/32 of an inch at the most. Probably acceptable for use as-is, but I swapped it for a new one. I didn't want a slightly bent axle to lead to any premature wear. I know -- premature wear -- sounds funny when you're talking about a set of wheels that are already 30+ years old.

I still had the cosmetic issues to deal with, so I ended up spending a rainy Saturday with some steel wool, metal polish, and rags, and worked at them until my fingers were raw. It was painful, but satisfying work, and they cleaned up surprisingly well.

Then there was that abhorrent mismatched quick release skewer. It happens that I have a bag of old quick release levers and skewers. Various brands and types. Some complete, some in pieces. When it comes to things like that, I just don't like to throw anything away. So I look through the bag and find an old Specialized front skewer of the right style with just a bit of rust peppering the chromed surface. Totally workable. I also had a couple of '70s and '80s vintage rear wheel skewers from different brands. Nice thing about these older-style Campagnolo-copy skewers is that they're easily disassembled, and a lot of them (but not all) are similar enough to one another that the parts are interchangeable. A little trial and error, some mix-and-match, and I was able to put together an appropriate matching replacement.

In the end, the wheels looked more than acceptable.

My rear hub, and my mix-and-match "proper" quick release lever. Even the hub locknuts/cones cleaned up with some steel wool and a good oil rub.
Super-duty Mavic Module 4 rims. No more rusty eyelets.
Front hub, and a nicely cleaned quick release lever. And the levers front and rear now match. 
I mounted a like-new Shimano 600 6-speed freewheel - 13 - 30 teeth. 
One other thing about these old wheels is that they are current-standard 700c, which means plenty of choices in tire sizes and styles. The Expedition of the early '80s bucked the convention of the time in that it was equipped from the start with 700c wheels. That says to me that Tim Neenan and Specialized were pretty forward-thinking about the bike's design because most road bikes in the American market in those days were still equipped with 27" (ISO 630). Better racing bikes were starting to be seen more often with 700c wheels, but the old American standard stuck around for a number of years in the '80s, especially on touring bikes and more "recreational" road bikes -- the rationale being that 27" tires would be easier to find in any bike shop or hardware store in even the most backwater little towns. Or at least that's the rationale I remember hearing back then.

Not having to do a wheel size conversion was important to me as it eliminated a lot of potential pitfalls that can happen. If a bike has sidepull or centerpull caliper brakes, converting from 27" to 700c is pretty easy. Often it's just a matter of sliding the brake pads about 4 mm lower in the brake arms. If the original brakes don't have enough "reach" to make the change, it's easy enough to get longer-reach brakes, old or new, to fit almost any budget. With cantilever brakes, where the pivot posts are brazed directly to the frame/fork, there can be any number of problems that crop up, adding to frustration.

Pitfalls? So much of it becomes dependent on the right choice of brake model and design -- how much vertical adjustment is there for the pads? More importantly, because the brakes move toward the rim in a fairly tight radius arc of movement -- inward and downward -- the amount of pad angle adjustment becomes crucial. In some cases, one can find a brake with long vertical slots that allow a lot of up/down adjustment, but it could be impossible to get the brake pads to contact the rim at a useable angle. Some older road bikes with cantilevers have the mounting posts spaced much closer together than mountain bikes or even more modern bikes, which can further complicate things. Even rim width can affect the success of the conversion. And in all of this, it can be impossible to know if a set of brakes will be workable until you actually try them. Unless one has a huge stockpile of different cantilever brakes to experiment with, that kind of trial-and-error can get expensive.

So, yes - I was glad to have 700c wheels. These super-duty wheels could prove to be overkill for my needs, but they're a cool piece of the project.

More to come . . .


  1. I have a set of Specialized hubs that came with a Stumpjumper Sport I bought new in 1983. Unfortunately, the bike is long gone but I managed to salvage some of the components, including the hubs. 36 hole, nutted axles. They are now installed on my Raleigh Twenty of all bikes, and are as smooth as new. Amazing hubs! Several years ago a BNIB set came up on ebay for a good price so I snapped them up. Still waiting for the right build for those.

  2. Very interesting and informative. Thank you. You mentioned in a previous post about the Expedition that it may have or was built by Miyata. I once had a 1000 and will attest to the very fine building of the Japan bikes of that era. The brazing and filing of the lugs was extremely clean. After reading your post about the Expedition I feel nostalgic for my 1000. Looking forward to seeing your completed Expedition.

  3. Those Specialized hubs and Mavic rims were indeed amazing.

    Once, I converted a 27" bike to 700c. The front brake had enough reach to handle the change. The rear was too short by a hair on George Costanza's head. I filed the lower part of the brake pad slot ever so slightly, and the pad lined up perfectly with the rim.

  4. i remember when the Expedition was introduced and the reviewer in Bicycling magazine opined that the 700c wheels would be problematic if one were to "marf a rim" when out in the middle of nowhere. This was indeed the time when 27" wheels were about the only size available. How times change... i don't miss 27" wheels at all.

    These days though, it's getting a bit harder to find decent 36 and 40 hole rims.

    1. That's funny. Wish I could find that review. About 36 or 40 rims, isn't that the truth! In fact just finding a good selection of high quality rims for traditional wheelbuilding is harder and harder.

    2. One of the reasons I go to Hal at Bicycle Habitat if I can't or don't want to build a wheel myself is that he's one of the few who doesn't try to dissuade me from 36 spokes.

  5. I've been holding out till I could calm down about the color change! =:)

    I lusted after the Expedition. First shop I worked in had one, fully decked out, hanging there, taunting me. That, and the smoked chrome Ciocc made it hard to stay on task......

    Glad you had an axle to swap it out with, was going to suggest a slick technique to straighten, but swapping is of course, preferred!

    I totally agree on the rim issues, Mavic seems to have forgotten that one can build their own, but gladly, Velocity still offers a wide variety of shapes, widths and drillings, in a slew of fun colors beyond silver or black, if you're feeling sporty too!!

    Nice project, looks to be my size too. But covering all that lovely understated charcoal grey? So sad, at least for my nostalgic mind.

    1. replacement axles are still a pretty common item at most bike shops, but I keep a few on hand anyhow - so the swap was an easy choice. I don't feel bad about changing the color. There's part of me that thinks it would have been good to make it look just like new (including the same color) and there's that part of me that says, Hell, it's MY bike. The burgundy is still pretty understated -- traditional and classy. Doing it up in a neon, now THAT would have been a crime.

    2. Beauty and period-correctness often, but not always, go hand-in-hand.

  6. If it works for you, that's what matters.

    Purist debates will never reach a unanimous conclusions!

    Still shoulda been grey though... =:P

  7. I used a 1990-sh set of Wheelsmith wheels at Eroica California on April 8 with the Specialized hubs. I was astounded at how well they rolled on downhills and the flats. Great hubs--now I want more of them!

  8. Mine came with Super Champion rims. They were trashed (huge flat spot in the rear) and the rear axle was bent. I'm surprised it hadn't snapped. Replacing the Super champ in the rear with a 40 hole would have cost me an arm and a leg, so I replaced both hubs (Deore) and rims (CR13) with 36 hole versions.

  9. You're correct about the date. It's a 1983 model. 1984 and up have downtube shifter bosses. The 1985 model has a Specialized logo on the top of the forks.

  10. I bought an Expedition brand new out of the box in 1986 and assembled it myself. (I worked in the bike shop.) I still have it, but I am "upgrading" it - with some difficulty - I am selling different bits - -including the quill stem and handlebars, and the rear wheel. (Putting the front wheel on a more recent Opus Adagio) Original Suntour components are long gone (Should have been Shimano from the start!) Going to be a proper 3 x 10 with Microshift downtube shifters. On a Tiagra 3 x 10. Yes, I know I said that already. I had to order the shifters directly from Microshift in Japan. They do not normally cross the Pacific. Question: Anyone know the specs ono those original cartridge bearings? I need to get a new set. They seem to last me only about 15 ... years.