Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Fun Sighting in a Bike Rack

I saw a fun bike at my local Whole Foods last night, and just had to take some pictures and write about it.

What you see there is a classic DL-1 "roadster" bicycle from Raleigh (with my bike in the background, of course). These were the standard "utility" bikes for a long, long time in Britain... the bikes ridden to work and around town by the working class... including the folks who made the bikes. Sturdy, simple, and reliable, these bikes were designed to get you where you needed to go, in all weather, day or night. This particular one is a "ladie's" frame, with the dropped top tube for skirt clearance. I couldn't ascertain the age of it, but I'm guessing sometime in the 70s, which I believe was the last they were imported to the US.

Unlike the similar and more familiar Sports model (technically a "light roadster" but once known in the US as "English racers"...a misnomer if there ever was one), the DL-1 and similar bikes used "rod brakes"... instead of cables, the brakes are actuated by solid rods attached to the levers, as you can see in the photo to the right. You'll also notice that the brake shoes actually rub on the inner surface of the rim, to either side of the spokes, rather than on the side walls of the rim, as most brakes do.

One thing that I noticed that sets this bike apart is that the drive train has been modified and modernized. Typically, a bike like this would have had the classic Sturmey-Archer AW three speed internally geared hub, a very reliable, durable hub. I've got a bike with one of those hubs that dates back to 1966, and it's still going strong, and two others that are from 1951, and should be perfectly fine after a disassembly, cleaning and lube. They're just that good. However, the gear range and number of options doens't really appeal to Americans these days, so this bike was updated with a seven speed SRAM Spectro S7 internally geared hub. More gears, slightly wider total range, and smoother steps between gears. I can understand why the change was made.... but the sentimental side of me wishes it still had the AW.

For a moment I wondered why the owner didn't also take the opportunity to upgrade the rims on the bike, while they were having the rear wheel rebuilt with the new hub. Then I remembered the brakes... you see, you need a rim designed for rod brakes if you're going to use rod brakes. So what's the deal with rod brakes? Well, cables stretch and can break, causing poor or no braking... the rods don't stretch, and it's hard to imagine a scenario in which they'd break. On the other hand, from what I've heard, none of the rod brakes offer stellar braking performance, so maybe it's not such a great thing. Then again, on a bike like this, you're not likely to be travelling at a high rate of speed, so perhaps it's less of an issue. I'll let you know when I finally get a chance to ride one!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Short, Fun, Retro Ride

I know, those of you who know me, or follow this blog, are thinking "isn't EVERY ride a Retro Ride for you Tim?"

And yes, it's true, the vast majority of my many bikes are what one would call retro. But tonight was a step further that way. Not a huge step... I didn't hop on a penny-farthing in wool knickers or anything like that... but a little more retro or "classic", you might say, than usual.

To start with, I rode the '73 chrome Schwinn Paramount. It's probably the bike I've tried the hardest to keep "original", since it came to me nearly completely equipped with original parts. And when it was time to accessorize it, I went with things that were period correct... the New Old Stock Schwinn Touring Saddlebag, the Bluemels Club Special fenders. And tonight, before my ride, I dug out a pair of Campagnolo Superleggera track pedals, with Christophe toe clips and ALE straps. Can you say "old school"? I've previously been riding the bike with modern "clipless" pedals, but have been wanting to go with something more traditional. The original pedals for this bike would be the more common "quill" version of the Campy SLs, and I have them, but with wide feet like mine, the track pedals work better. I used to ride with clips and straps all the time.. I only tried clipless in the late 90s, long after most "serious cyclists" had jumped on that bandwagon. I think what won me over to clipless in a big way was the advent of cycling sandals that can take the special cleat for the pedals. I have to admit, I love riding in those.

But sometimes I like something different. I've got several bikes set up so I can use cycling shoes OR regular shoes, and a couple with plain ol' flat pedals, and at any given time, I generally have at least one bike with clips and straps. So tonight I decided to set up the Paramount that way, and I'm glad I did. It just felt right to be cruising along on a lovely warm evening before sunset, feet in toe clips, hands in gloves with cotton mesh backs and leather palms, sans helmet. Yes, you read that right... I rode without a helmet! I generally wear one, and pretty much always on the road, but tonight I was on a rail-trail and in the mood for the wind in my hair I guess. And it just completed the trip down memory lane in a way... to a simpler time, when I was younger and less aware of my mortality... when my best buddy and I would cruise the streets after dark, with neither helmets nor lights, in a quiet neighborhood on the edge of Baltimore. Back when a grand total of 10 or 12 or 15 "speeds" on a bike seemed an embarrassment of riches. When we didn't need to don our lycra, and our special sunglasses and our special shoes, and our head armor for a simple ride around the quiet streets.

Tonight was like that... a quiet evening, soft light of the fading sun, only a few folks on the path... my old steel bike feeling so comfortable and right beneath me... non-cycling shoes in toe clips... wind in in my hair... five sprockets on my freewheel... shifters that don't click into each gear, and mounted on the down tube... and cotton tape under my palms. Beautiful night, beautiful ride.

About the only thing missing would be to have some kind of mechanical odometer... can you say Huret Multito? (the old bike geeks just chuckled to themselves)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Stormy Night Ride

Last night, I opted to ride my bike to and from my yoga class, which I haven't done in a while. Getting there was pretty uneventful, but the ride home was amazing, as a thunderstorm had rolled in as class was winding up. The rain was just pouring down in sheets for much of my ride, making me grateful for my Burley rain jacket (sadly, Burley stopped making their excellent rain gear several years ago) and the light nylon "water shorts" I'd opted to wear. It also helped that I was wearing a pair of Teva Dozers on my feet, with thin wool socks for a little warmth. Regular shoes would have gotten waterlogged, so the sandals were a great choice.

I honestly wasn't minding the rain so much... sure, at times it stung my face, and given the choice, I'd rather have not had rain, but I've ridden in downpours plenty of times before. On the other hand, I have to admit, the brilliant flashes of lightning and rumbling thunder, while not right overhead, were close enough to be unsettling after a while. So at my last possible opportunity before getting on the rail trail, where I'd have 3 or 4 miles without readily available shelter, I opted to get on the Metro rail system, and ride the few miles by train. Seems it was a good choice, because by the time the train arrived at Vienna, the storm had pretty much cleared to the east of town, meaning I probably would have had to ride right through it on the bike.

The ride from the Metro station home was a lovely contrast... cool, a bit breezy, but no rain, and the lightning was far off to my east. And the trail was alive with critters! I startled a number of deer, while others seemed singularly unimpressed by my presence. I wonder sometimes which is more odd to a deer... this silently moving creature with a glowing, bright white eye on the front and a red one on the rear... or the fact that I tend to say hello to them! Yeah, I talk to them. Call me weird... but I figure it might help prevent them from leaping in my path in panic. Of course, I could be completely wrong. The path was also alive with fireflies! They've just started coming out here in the last week or two, and it really makes night rides a joy to see the flash and glow of those tiny creatures flitting around. A single small frog or toad hopped his way across the trail in front of me... and then, just as I was leaving the woods, a bat swooped low over my head, bobbing and weaving after bugs.

All in all, worth every ounce of water that fell on me!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Making Your Bike YOURS Pt 3 (Mixte Makeover)

It's been a while since I've visited the topic of customizing your bike to suit you, but here's a project I've been involved with for a while that I just had to write about.

Back in the fall, thanks to this blog, I was contacted by a woman looking for a "mixte" style bicycle. Historically, a mixte was intended as a sort of "unisex" frame that would work for either men or women. The traditional design uses two thin tubes angling from the top of the head tube (where the steering bearings are) all the way to the rear dropouts which hold the rear axle. As I recall, the French first popularized the design, but just about every maker of bikes in the days of the old "ten speed" made some variation on the mixte concept. I've always really admired the design, and heck, here was a person looking for a classic steel bike, so I jumped at the chance to help.

Anyway, in short order, through luck and the help of a friend of mine who apparently spends entirely too much time looking at Craig's List, a mixte was found - a very nice 1986 Bridgestone 300, in a pretty rose color. Then the fun began. The owner brought the bike in for me to look at and assess, and give her some suggestions on fitting and accessorizing. Thus began a process that over the next few months transformed the bike into just the right bike for her... or at least we're well on the way to that!

The first order of business after determining that the bike was in fine mechanical shape, was to try to set the bike up to fit comfortably. In the simplest sense, that wasn't so hard... but "dialing in" the rider's position took a fair amount of time and several different attempts with handlebars. However, that's just the sort of project I enjoy, so it worked out fine, and the owner and I have become friends over the course of this project as well.

Originally, the bike came with what used to be known as "French style" handlebars, shown in the photo to the right, and in the inset above on the catalog page. It's hard to tell without the bike as a frame of reference (I didn't think to snap a photo before taking them off, dang it!), but they are a narrow, upright style of bar, which sweep forward from the stem, then angle slightly back to the grips. The rider's comments were that they felt narrow and low and too close in. Or at least, that was my interpretation. Sometimes it feels like you're speaking different languages while trying to sort out bike fit and feel!

So the first thing we tried was a set of "trekking" or "butterfly" bars. These are a design that you don't see much in the US yet, but they are apparently popular in Europe, for touring as well as commuting. They give you multiple positions for your hands, like traditional road "drop" bars, but tend to put in you a more upright and comfortable position. You can see them wrapped in natural cork tape here on the bike... which in itself led to a pursuit of the perfect color of bar tape for a while! Some mechanics might have found that silly, but having agonized myself over such things, I understood. In this case, there was much anguish over the right color to both complement the honey Brooks saddle (um, yes, another sign of my influence... and no, I don't get a kickback from Brooks!), as well as the rose color of the bike itself. The owner went through a seemingly endless array of options, including several shades of tape (tan, maroon, green...) and even a lovely brown leather sewn-on wrap. Ironically, all the agony over bar wrap ultimately proved irrelevant, as you'll soon see.

Anyway, after riding with these bars for a while, the verdict was that while they were pretty comfortable and versatile, it wasn't a perfect fit, and they just "didn't look right" on the classic steel bike. There's always a balance to be found between form and function in most things, and bikes are no exception. Another person might have decided otherwise, but the owner really wanted a bar more in keeping with the aesthetics of the bike, while offering a comfortable riding position. She's a graphic designer, so the visual makes a big difference, and from my years of working with scenic designers, I knew not to argue.

Next up, we tried Nitto "moustache" bars, a personal favorite of mine. I like the look and feel of them, and find them really nice for a general purpose, knocking around kind of bike. Not as racy as drop bars, but more hand positions than a straight bar. And they look more in keeping with an older bike, I think. The problem here was they just never really felt comfortable for the rider, despite tweaking the position several times both vertically and horizontally. Honestly, I wasn't that suprised, as I know that moustache bars just don't work for some folk, particularly women. There's just something about the position they put you in that just doesn't agree with some. I should note, by the way, that here is where an "adjustable" stem comes in handy. Unlike more traditional rigid stems, this type is articulated such that you can adjust the angle and thus the reach as well as the height. Not the prettiest stems, but very practical when working out fit issues.

Finally, or at least to date (stay posted!), what we settled on is a traditional "North Road" style of bar, similar to what millions of classic old British three speeds used. In this case, it's a very nice, simple, affordable bar from Wald, one of the few US makers of bike parts that has been around a long, long time. They've been making baskets, bars, stems and other bits and pieces in Kentucky for ages now. And one ride with their model 8095 "touring" bar convinced the owner that these were the best choice so far. Pal Beth, of the bikelovejones blog, will appreciate this, as they are a favorite bar of hers. A little tweaking here and there, and it seems we've hit upon a winner. You can see the bike here in the penultimate setup, with the adjustable stem and original brake levers.

Speaking of brake levers, in an earlier experiment, I let my friend try out my Dahon Hon Solo, which has moustache bars and "reverse" brake levers, which plug into the end of the bars and point forward. She liked those right away, so along with selecting a more attractive, rigid stem based on the setup we had settled on with the adjustable, they completed the package. Well, completed it as far as riding position goes...

You see, there's more to making a bike "yours" than simply position. Based on some of my suggestions, this mixte is taking shape in other ways as well. You have probably noticed by now that in the later photos the bike now sports several features that clearly show my influence... notably the Brooks saddle, Carradice Pendle bag, and SKS fenders. What can I say? I know what I like, what works for me, and I will steer folks that way if I think it's the best choice for them. There are plenty of people that have come to me to ask my advice that I would never dream of putting on a Brooks or suggesting a Carradice, but when someone notices what I have done with my bikes, and asks about it, I know they are open to the idea. A starting point on this whole project was the owner taking a look at my bikes and getting a feel for the style I prefer, and she seemed to really "get" it. And so far, the saddle, bag, and fenders all seem to be working for her. Although she has been eyeing some Velo Orange fenders lately...

But there's more to be done still... with a desire to use the bike for transportation... shopping, errands, commuting... the question of luggage is still being explored. The Pendle bag is a great bag for a recreational day ride, with room for a lunch, patch kit, tools, and a few extra bits of clothes... but it's not really enough to tote groceries home, or a change of clothes for work. For that we're going to be looking into a rack and some bags of some sort, perhaps "grocery panniers" a simplified design of bag that hangs on either side of a rear rack. Or maybe soemthing in a stylish basket? A set of Basil bags, in their fun colors and designs? Hmmmm.... So many choices, so many fun options!

Stay tuned for future developments, and other "makeover" projects as they come along.

There she is, in all her glory!

A few more photos can be seen at: