Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Time Machine

I got out for a ride today - a beautiful sunny Saturday - on my vintage red Mercian. I haven't ridden it since last summer because it has spent most of the past year hanging on the wall in my classroom. Keeping a few bikes there for much of the year frees up some space in my basement and garage, and gives me something to look it when I'm at work. But all the bikes come home for the summer, and I try to get out on all of them from time to time. They are not wall art, after all. But they are, in a way, time machines.

Stopped at an old farmhouse (now a visitor center)
 in the national park.
Wearing a traditional-looking vintage wool jersey, black shorts, low white socks, and vintage black riding shoes, I looked as if I'd been transported from 1982 as I rode past guys clad in garish neon lycra astride their carbon fiber w√ľnderbikes. In some ways, I felt like I'd been transported in time myself. I was feeling fast and free - much younger than my 50+ years of age. In 1982, I was in high school and had only recently caught the bug that drew me to bicycles with such a passion. Back then I'd have lusted after a bike like the Mercian, though my newspaper route money didn't allow for more than a lower end Schwinn.

I'd forgotten what a pleasure the red Mercian is to ride. It's a Strada Speciale model, built from Reynolds 531 steel, with cool-looking "fastback" stays and neat little clover leaf cutouts in the lugs. The angles are pretty steep, and the wheelbase is pretty short - in typical '80s fashion. But despite geometry that could potentially be punishing, the bike seams to glide over imperfect pavement. Lately I tend to attribute a smooth ride to good large-volume tires - but the Grand Bois "Cerf" tires are only about 25mm wide. Yes, that's "fatter" than the 20mm tires that were so fashionable when this bike was new, but no doubt a lot of the ride has to be credited to a great steel frame.

The red Mercian has changed a little since the last time it appeared here on the blog. One change was brakes. I had originally equipped the bike with late '70s DiaCompe "G" side pulls. They looked decent and didn't cost a bunch. But recently I switched those out for a pair of Gran Compe calipers from the early '80s - they were like the "next generation" after the old "G" model - with a nicer finish and more deluxe hardware. The older DiaCompe brakes were likely modeled after brakes from Weinmann (if I recall correctly, DiaCompe center pulls were a licensed knockoff of a Weinmann design) - but by the early '80s it seemed they'd set their sights on Campagnolo. These old GCs are clearly a step in that direction. They have great "feel" - and respectable stopping power. On a long fast descent I found I was getting a bit of squeal from the front brake, but the pads don't have any adjustment for toe-in - so I guess I'm going to have to do some bending on the arms. Just a little ought to do it.

Another small change was in the front derailleur. I had originally built this up with a SunTour ARX, which I've mentioned elsewhere on the blog is an under-appreciated shifter and a favorite of mine. I moved that one over to the Motobecane 650B project, feeling that the ARX was a better match for the SunTour Vx rear derailleur I'd installed on that bike. I replaced it on the Mercian with a first-generation Cyclone front unit to be the perfect mate for the Cyclone I have on the back.

Nice, clean, lightly used Cyclone front derailleur. First generation, to match the Cyclone derailleur in back. The crank is a Sugino Super Mighty, drilled out at the factory. The same basic crank was also sold for a time as the SunTour Superbe.
SunTour Cyclone rear derailleur - one of the lightest you could get - then or now.

DiaCompe ENE shifters with "power ratchet" action - like the SunTour shifters of old, but better. Fitted here with black rubber hoods as was the fashion back in the day.
I love the way the paint on this bike catches the sun. That's what the British would call a "Flamboyant" finish - or what Americans might call "Candy Apple." It starts out with a metallic silver base coat (or sometimes gold) and then layers of a translucent red enamel are built up over it. Then the frame is "baked" in an oven for final curing. It has a depth that just isn't matched with single-stage paints. On this one, due to the age, you might be able to see tiny spiderweb-like cracks or "crazing" under the surface. It's like a ming vase, and it's gorgeous.
One way I didn't feel as though I'd been transported back was on the climb out of the valley going home. The red Mercian has a 42-24 low gear. That would have been considered a pretty low gear back in '82 - at least for a racing bike. I can still manage it today, but if I could fit a smaller chainring on that old Sugino crank I might manage it a little easier.

That's all for now. If you have a vintage classic in your collection, I hope you'll get it out for a ride. Enjoy it like you would have when you were younger. Let it take you back. It's a time machine after all.

Monday, June 17, 2019

RIP Bruce Gordon

In a short space of time since the loss of framebuilder Roland Della Santa, the cycling world has lost another of the great ones. Framebuilding legend Bruce Gordon died in his home on Friday, June 7th. This was just barely more than a year after he officially retired from the bike business.

Gordon got started building frames in the 1970s, learning at the side of no less a legend than Albert Eisentraut. He became a part of a well-known and vibrant Northern California/San Francisco Bay area bike scene, though he also spent a few years in Oregon. He was an artist, a craftsman and an innovator. He built bikes of all types, but may have been best known for touring bikes, for which he also made unique and beautiful custom components and racks that were fully integrated into his bikes. He also designed and marketed items such as racks and tires for general sale. His "Rock 'n Road" tires probably helped kick off a trend towards "29er" mountain bikes.

From Gordon's website - one of his beautiful touring bikes - notice the racks that are lovely works of art in their own right.
Gordon had developed a reputation for being somewhat gruff - a "curmudgeon" - not exactly a "people person." Too innovative, perhaps, to be properly called a "retrogrouch" (though he mainly worked in lugs and steel), I'm pretty sure some may have referred to him as a grouch, at the very least. I never met him - though I wish I had. I have a feeling we'd have gotten along fine. And he knew the reputation. He even poked fun at it - at one point handing out buttons at trade shows that said "Bruce Gordon Was Rude To Me."

(from the Belgian Knee Warmers site, which went quiet about 10 years ago)
Given his wry sense of humor, he also liked to mess around with people's expectations. In subsequent years, he had new buttons made:

He was also known as a co-founder of the Society of People Who Actually Make Their Own S#!t, or SOPWAMTOS, which was sort of a tongue-in-cheek reaction against soulless automation, mass production, and marketing. They would hold parades and give awards at shows like Interbike, or the North American Handmade Bike Show. The "awards" tended to poke fun at the bike industry, and were probably not the kinds of awards that were prized by their recipients. The "trophies" were gold-painted toilet seats, and prizes were given for things like "Excellence in Litigation" or "Rip-Off and Duplicate" (both apparently "won" by Specialized). Some of that gets covered in a really interesting interview that appeared in BikeRumor the day after Gordon's death.

Sad to say, I am afraid Gordon may not have been particularly happy in his brief retirement. Looking at the posts on his blog from the past year (which he did continue updating up through May of this year), among posts about a SOPWAMTOS party at this year's NAHBS, and a trip to France, there was also this one from February:

"It has been over a Year since I quit the shop in February 1st 2018. I miss my machines and making stuff. It has been almost 3 years since I rode a Bicycle (my sense of balance is gone). I really miss riding my Rock 'n Road . . . I guess I will live the rest of my life through the pictures of other people riding through the glorious countryside and my memories."

Bruce Gordon was a complex man. Many would say he was hard to get to know, and some would say he pissed people off - but he was remembered by others as a warm and humorous man. His work as a bicycle builder showed him to be someone who strove for perfection. His bicycles will speak for him long after he's gone.

For those who are in the Bay Area, there will be a memorial gathering, or life and work celebration, for Bruce on June 30th in Petaluma.

Friday, June 14, 2019

650B Ride Report

After a Thursday with nothing but rain and cooler temps, Friday turned out to be a beautiful day for riding. We had brilliant skies, low humidity, and temps in the upper 60s. Perfect. I decided to take the 650B Motobecane out for a real test ride. I headed down into the valley and followed some of the "roads less traveled." In fact, if you're in a car, some of the roads have been rendered inaccessible altogether.

There's an old covered bridge in the valley that's 
been closed to cars for at least a couple of decades now. 
If you've been following the whole conversion story, you know that I started the project with a 25" frame (about 63cm), even though I usually ride 24" (or about 60 - 61cm). With the smaller wheel size, the standover still works for me, and I can get the bars at about the same level as the saddle quite easily. There's a small "fistful" of seat post showing - obviously a little less than on most of my other bikes. My one concern was if the reach to the bars would still work - but the top-tube length isn't really much longer than on most of my other bikes. I used a 9cm stem instead of my usual 10cm, and the reach felt pretty good.

One of the first things I noticed when riding the bike is that the tires (38mm) really do a great job of smoothing out the roads. Our roads are in about the worst shape I can remember - our winters have been terrible on the roads these last few years because the temperatures fluctuate so much throughout the season, resulting in endless cycles of freeze/thaw, freeze/thaw - and that is hellish on asphalt. But these wheels/tires really seem to subdue the chatter. I mean, that's always been the big selling point of 650B, isn't it? Well, I have to say that the hype is true on that score. On gravelly sections, I felt like "Gravel? What gravel."

Road Closed - not to bikes however. Our county roads department recently voted to permanently close this road leading to the covered bridge from the north and end all maintenance for it - in other words, let it go back to the wild. Cyclists petitioned to have it maintained for bike and hike uses, but that was denied. There are larger barricades than these, but they can't really keep the bicyclists out. Still, the pavement is really starting to deteriorate. I've ridden through here on other bikes with narrower tires, but the 650B wheels and tires really make a difference. Really smooth.
Another thing I noticed was the handling. I don't know if the handling is altered significantly from what it would have been with the 27" wheels it was originally designed for (or even 700C), but the bike feels "zippy." That's the best word for it. It changes direction quickly, with very light input - yet it tracks straight and rides easily no hands. I guess that shouldn't be a surprise - that head angle must be 74 degrees! I still cannot believe that this bike was described "back in the day" as a touring bike. I did worry a little about toe-clip overlap - but it isn't an issue. There is one tiny spot in the crank rotation where the leading tip of a toe-clip can just barely "kiss" the back edge of the fender, but the likelihood of it happening is so slight, and even if it happened, it would be inconsequential. If it were fenders over 700c or 27" wheels, it might be a problem.

A friend had told me that I might find the bike a bit slow going uphill. Other things being equal, I cannot think why that would be the case. Why would a bike with 650B wheels climb any more slowly than 700C? Maybe if one were using heavy rims/tires it could make the bike feel slow, but it seems to me that I made some smart choices in that department. Anyhow, my ride today had several hills in it - some pretty steep - and ALL my rides end with a long difficult climb out of the valley. I just did that out-of-the-valley climb last week on my "racy" green Mercian, and did not find the 650B Motobecane to be noticeably slower. I mean, I didn't time either climb, but it certainly didn't feel any slower. However - it's worth noting that switching to smaller wheels will absolutely lower a bike's overall gearing. Between 700C with 28mm tires and 650B with 38mm tires, there is a gearing difference - albeit a small one - in terms of "gear inches" it would probably reduce the gear by an inch or less. Would someone be able to feel that difference? I don't know. I did find that I rode in the large chainring a little more than I might have done otherwise.

I did alter my gearing slightly since I posted my report on the finished bike and listed all the specs. I had originally installed a 5-speed freewheel with a range from 14 to 28 teeth. It's difficult to find a 5-speed freewheel with cogs smaller than 14 teeth. Looking through my freewheel collection, I found that I had a SunTour Winner "ultra 6" (a narrow-spaced freewheel meant to fit into the space of a 5 speed) that was 13 to 26. That gave me a slightly higher high gear, and the low gear (with a 34 tooth chainring) is plenty low enough for me. And I picked up an extra gear in the middle. The shifting on the narrow freewheel is smooth, quick, and quiet. And the old SunTour ratcheting bar-end shifters work great.
I stopped at the produce market - of course. It was a lot busier than it looks here.
Well, it happened. I've just become one of those goofs who takes pictures of their food and posts them to social media. The farm market sells big "deli dogs" that are pretty awesome. Topped here with vidalia onions and brown mustard. They also have grilled corn on the cob, but I skipped that today.
Was there a downside? Well - brakes. Looonnngggg reach brakes like the DiaCompe 750s seem to work just fine riding around town. But on a long fast descent, I did find them to be a little slow in stopping. They have a nice, light feel at the lever - but I'm guessing that there's enough flex in the long arms and the yoke, etc., that the brakes really lose some efficiency, or as some would describe it, "power." I have a feeling that they'd be improved mightily by having the posts brazed directly to the frame/fork. If I ever send the frame out for paint and modifications, I'll definitely have posts brazed on.
Despite the chips, scratches, and touch-ups,  the old Motobecane really gleams in the sun. All that shiny aluminum really catches the sun too. I'll never get the current fashion for black bike components.
Wrapping up, everything on the bike worked as I'd hoped. The fit felt good all around. We had some pretty strong winds, and I spent a lot of time comfortably down in the drops. I think the best mission for this bike will have to be in looking for more "off the beaten path" routes - more gravel roads and unpaved paths. That's where those 650B wheels will really shine.

Thursday, June 13, 2019


Is that a word? Befendered? If it isn't, it should be. And it works better than "bemudguarded."

I'm not about to say that all bikes need them (in fact, it would be difficult or impossible to mount them on a lot of bikes out there), but I will say that some bikes just don't seem complete until they've got fenders. There's just something missing.

I remember a time when I was young and didn't appreciate befendered bikes. To my racer wannabe friends and I they marked a rider as old-fashioned, a slowpoke, or even a "dork." Nowadays, I not only appreciate the convenience of fenders, but I enjoy the look. Close to half the bikes in my fleet have them. Some are plastic, and others are aluminum - but to my "matured" aesthetic, all of them add an element of class.

The Motobecane 650B conversion is pretty much done. The Velo-Orange Zeppelin fenders arrived and last week I got them installed.

(It's not just fenders - but bars are wrapped, and I've installed toe-clips and straps - so it's pretty much done)
The width of the Zeppelin fenders was just a bit too wide for the clearance between the chain stays and the fork blades, but I was able to squeeze them down a little to fit, and it's hard to tell from looking. I was able to get (what I think to be) some great-looking fender lines - that is, the gap between the fenders and the tires is even all the way around.

The Zeppelins have neat little ridges and creases that run their length - they add such a great visual interest point.
With the bike's fairly steep head angle and short-ish fork rake I thought that toe-clip overlap might be an issue. It doesn't seem to be, though. 

I've taken the bike out on some short rides. The 38mm tires do a great job of smoothing out the road and cancelling vibration from the Akron pavé. If I can convince myself to run tires closer to the clearance limits, I could probably fit 42mm in there.

I'll get it out for more (and longer) rides and get a sense of how well I like it. If I decide it's worth the investment, I may (some day) send the frame out for new paint and get some modest modifications done - cable stops, brake pivots, and rack mounts. But for now I'll just enjoy it as-is.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Summer Begins With A Bike Ride

School is out and I've officially been done with work for a week now. But Summer begins with a bike ride - or at least it doesn't feel like Summer until I get out on a weekday for a ride with the Retrokids.

We were able to get out on Friday for a ride on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park - it was a gorgeous day with clear skies, and warm without being too hot. We've had a lot of rain this Spring, so everything is lush and green.
Exploring one of the old canal locks.

The Retrokids rode their new bikes - they've been enjoying them for about a month now, mostly for rides around town, such as little errands to the grocery store or the library. This was their first time using them for a longer ride. They love 'em.

There are the bikes - all '80s vintage, renovated with new paint and updated parts. The celeste bike there has some canvas panniers that hadn't arrived yet when I posted pictures of the finished project last month. The brand is "Tourbon" and they come from an eBay seller in China. They look expensive, but are only about $75 a pair. 

They still love to climb around on the old canal locks, and look for frogs or turtles.

Friday was also the opening day for Szalay's - the awesome little farm market in the middle of the CVNP. It's a great rest stop or destination for a ride in the valley. There are always good snacks - whether fresh fruit, or cookies, and on the weekends (Friday - Sunday) you can get grilled hotdogs and burgers, and ice cream. We made the market our half-way point destination and had some ice cream before heading back.

The Retrokids are growing up fast, but riding our bikes is still something that brings us together, even as they start discovering other interests - and eventually (shudder) boys. Thankfully we're not quite there yet, but it's only a matter of time. I really have to make the most of days like these while I still have them.