Two weeks to go: a training ride and a St Mungo’s appeal

It was a rather grey morning in San Francisco today but having ridden only a couple of hours a week for the last three months, I decided that a little training ride for the upcoming South Wraxall to Majorca ride was well overdue. My youngest son, Harry, turned 14 at the end of January and the magical year when we ride bicycles together at about the same speed has arrived. By next year, I’m certain that the 50 year age gap will begin to tell and I’ll be looking at electric bikes to give me a fighting chance to keep up.

We drove north over the Golden Gate Bridge to San Rafael then rented a couple of mountain bikes from Acme Bikes – a great bike shop at one end of the town where we first hired some three weeks ago. The ride along the roads then up into the China Camp State Park proved challenging in the hills because the heavy rains in January have made some of the single track trails all but impassable. Nevertheless, the exercise was good and we survived the challenges without injury – I’m more than a little nervous when it comes to downhill mountain biking!

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This morning’s training ride in China Camp, Marin Country, CA. Since his 14th birthday in January, Harry has become taller than me. The other good news is that he’s now outgrown his size 10 shoes and I’m being treated to some rather nice hand-me-downs.

Richard Stanton, my companion for the upcoming 1000-mile continental adventure, is commendably taking the opportunity to raise money for one of his favourite charities, St Mungo’s, which provides support for the homeless and helps them rebuild their lives. It’s a cause he’s passionate about and he’d greatly appreciate any contributions. Please consider supporting him through his JustGiving page. We’ll keep you posted on progress here too.

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A vintage reason to get on my bike again

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to write on this blog but as my 65th birthday approaches on April 1st  I thought it time to attempt another reasonably challenging ride and to create a record of the experience. On my 60th, I set out from Barcelona on a 1950 Thanet Silverlight and rode it back to where it was made in Bristol, the city where I was born. Apart from a slight problem with a worn axle, the bike didn’t miss a beat and I didn’t even pick up a puncture over the entire 928 mile journey. The story of that little adventure is recorded elsewhere in this blog, starting here.

To mark my 65th, I’m going to go in the opposite direction. Around 7:30am on April 1st I’ll set out from home in South Wraxall, Wiltshire, which is about 7 miles east of Bath, and head towards Barcelona, largely retracing my steps from five years earlier. This time, I’ll have company. My good friend Richard Stanton, who lives in the village, is joining me, which will mean I don’t have to talk to myself for two weeks!

Our goal is to ride 1000 miles in 10 days. Barcelona is only 900 or so miles from home so the idea is to take the overnight ferry from Barcelona at the end of day nine and complete the last 100 miles riding around Alcudia on Majorca.

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Our approximate route for the trip: if you exclude the ferry crossings, it’s only about the same distance as Lands End to John O’Groats

I’m coming back to the UK from California, where I’ve just spent three months on business, on March 28th, so there won’t be much preparation time. What’s more, I’ve still not settled on which bike to take – I have four that are around my vintage, including a Paris Galibier and a Hobbs of Barbican Blue Riband. The former is set up with a single chainring and is heavier, so would be a little more challenging. I think I’ll probably go for the Hobbs – it’s a 1950-52 frame, a late one, with a mix of 1980s Suntour and TA parts as the chain set. Five years on, I think I need a little more flexibility than that offered by the 1949 4-speed Sturmey Archer hub that powered my 2012 jaunt.

BlueRiband

This 1952 Hobbs of Barbican Blue Riband frame was restored by Argos in Bristol. The chain set is 1980s but I feel the need for wider gearing than that available when the bike was made

Richard is of a more sensible disposition so will ride his Genesis steed. In practice, I don’t think there will a great deal of difference in performance, and we certainly won’t be racing, even though I’m assured that riding north to south means it’s mainly downhill!

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My companion for the ride, Richard, is opting for a more modern set up from Genesis, a great British steel bike nevertheless

More to follow…

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Too Precious to Ride?

Off The Beaten Path

rainier

Some people wonder whether special bikes can be too precious to ride. They ask me about my bikes: “Aren’t you afraid that it will get scratched?” or “What if you crash it?” or “What if it gets stolen while you lock it up on the street?”

Those things do happen. I was bringing a mailing of Bicycle Quarterly to the post office, and arrived just seconds before closing. In a rush, I leaned my Urban Bike (below) against a concrete retaining wall. As I took the mailbags off the front rack, the bike scraped against the concrete, causing a big scratch in the seatstay. Ouch! On the way home, I was upset for while, but then my attention drifted to the lovely ride in the evening light and the vibrant autumn colors. I still need to touch up the scratch with paint. I have waxed the bike with car wax…

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The winter hack Part 2: a few lessons learned about vintage parts

My previous post looked at the transformation of a cheap 1978 Falcon Westminster into a reasonably attractive bike that performed faultlessly over the Tuscan hills during L’Eroica 2013 and is proving to be a joy to ride through the winter here in Wiltshire.

I upgraded some components, using vintage parts, but kept the originals that were in good working order. Here are a few things I learned while rebuilding this bike, and a couple of similar ones before it.

Chainsets and freewheels
Today’s compact double is typically a 50/34 teeth set up. In the past I’ve duplicated this in vintage style using TA Spécialités (Pro 5 Vis) chainrings, inner versions of which can go as small as 28 teeth. (Sheldon Brown made good use of this in an unusual combination for his Hetchins.) You can still buy them new today. My original plan was to make up a compact double for the Falcon but after cleaning up the original Stronglight chainset (which I think was the Model 101) I decided to keep it. The chainrings had 48 and 36 teeth.

The Stronglight 101 chainset with a 48/36 combination is eminently usable

The Stronglight 101 chainset with a 48/36 combination is eminently usable

Using this combination with a wide range Suntour 5-speed freewheel (15-32 teeth), I found that most of the time I ride on the 48, rarely having to move beyond the middle of the freewheel to climb most hills. In the highest gear, I’m still getting traction at well over 25 mph and for my type of riding that’s fine. If you usually ride a 53/43 or something equally macho, try a 48/36 – you’ll ride with a better chainline most of the time and find yourself shifting less. Similarly, if you’re used to having 9, 10 or 11 gears on the back (which my summer bikes do), try a wheel with a nice old 5 or 6 speed freewheel. You’ll discover that it actually makes cycling easier. With a lot of rear sprockets you’ll rarely shift by one because it doesn’t make much difference, so you end up shifting at least twice for every desired gear change. When you only have 5 or 6 to choose from, once is enough. Incidentally, I find the 12-teeth difference between the chainrings on the front very useful for short, sharp hills. As soon as I start to feel heavy pedal pressure, I drop to the smaller chainring, rather than select a larger sprocket on the freewheel. The 12-tooth difference means that I don’t find myself suddenly spinning and having to shift up at the back. I can stay on the same sprocket there. Once again, it’s easier than riding a typical compact double set up with a 16-tooth difference at the front. Of course, if you want a large sprocket for low gears on the back you’ll need to be careful to select a suitable derailleur – they can’t all handle the range – but most Suntour units will cope very well.

Shifters and derailleurs
The original friction shifters on the Falcon Westminster were Shimano of some sort and in pretty scruffy condition. I’m becoming a creature of habit regarding down tube shifters and nearly always fit Suntour Powershifters. Forget Shimano and Campagnolo of the same period (1980s) – the Suntour shifters, of which there are several models including the ‘Superbe’ versions, have a simple ratchet mechanism that stops the annoying slippage in low gears that plague most friction levers.

Suntour Powershifters eliminate slippage in lower gears (when the cable is under tension). Some were marketed under the Raleigh brand.

Suntour Powershifters eliminate slippage in lower gears (when the cable is under tension). Some were marketed under the Raleigh brand.

You shift, feather the position a little if you need to, then forget it. They just don’t slip. You can pick these up for a few pounds on eBay and some, like those in the photograph, are Raleigh branded.

Brakes
Of all the parts that have given me grief on older bikes, old single-pivot brakes are the biggest offenders. They are often difficult to set up, pull to one side easily and have very little stopping power compared with modern counterparts. Weinmann 650 centre-pull brakes offer some relief from these problems but use a special bridge cable with a flat piece on each end that slots into the brake arms. To my mind, the French Mafac Racers are a better option.

Mafac Racers - vintage brakes that are easy to set up and deliver great stopping power

Mafac Racers – vintage brakes that are easy to set up and deliver great stopping power

 On Mafacs, the bridging cable has a little spigot on one side and a cable clamping mechanism on the other. I find standard gear cables work well, so there’s no need to go searching for dedicated, specialist cables. The brakes, which were made for over 30 years from the 1950s, provide strong braking with either matching Mafac levers or other non-aero types. I picked up a couple of pairs for £5 each from local bicycle charity enterprises. I stripped and cleaned them very easily, replaced the Delrin (plastic) washers, and then treated them to a set of Koolstop brake blocks. I found someone to manufacture replacement washers because they’re no longer available anywhere else. I had to order a minimum economic quantity so I’m selling the surplus ones here.

These Koolstop brake pads for Mafac use a period-correct design (4 dot) and modern materials for better control

These Koolstop brake pads for Mafac use a period-correct design (4 dot) and modern materials for better control

The Koolstops maintain period appearance but deliver excellent stopping power. (They cost more than the brakes themselves, of course). The salmon pink ones are supposed to offer better performance in the wet. Comfortingly, they still squeal like the originals, eliminating the need for a bell on your bike.

For L’Eroica 2014, I’m now building up a Roberts frame from 1980. To conform to the rules, all the components must have been made before 1987. TA Spécialités, Suntour (who first made indexed down tube shifters in 1986) and Mafac will be featuring on this bike too. I’ll post more details later.

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L’Eroica on a £35 bike that went on to become a great winter hack – Part 1

Having enjoyed greatly the 2012 L’Eroica on my beautiful 1965 Hetchins, I decided to try a more modest approach in 2013. I needed a period bike – it had to be pre-1987 – but something that would not cause me to worry about the propensity of some baggage handlers to lose or damage my stuff. Along came a 1978 Falcon Westminster offered at £45 for which I finally parted with just £35.  The bike was described as having a 23 inch frame. However, it turned out to be nearer 24 inches – 60cm – centre-to-top of the seat tube, but I took a chance that I’d be able to ride it.

The Falcon Westminster in its original condition

The Falcon Westminster in its original condition

I did a little research. There’s not much about Falcon Westimsters online, except that they were modest machines with mid- to low-end components. However, they’re made from the rightly-revered Reynolds 531 tubing, so they’re not especially heavy. The bike looked a mess but having stripped and cleaned the headset and bottom bracket it was apparent that there was no discernible wear to either. In fact, when they were re-assembled the cranks spun freely, without the slightest wobble, and the chrome polished up well with some very fine wire wool and oil.

Now the confession. What started as £35 bike did end up costing me a bit more. I threw away the badly rusted steel wheels and replaced them with a second hand pair of wheels with Miche hubs laced to Mavic MA3 rims (£60). I replaced the saddle and seat post with parts from my junk box, and the original friction shifters with a used pair of Suntour Powershifters (£20). I then added a wide range 5-speed  freewheel (£25) – 15 to 32 teeth – to complement the original Stronglight double chainset, which has 48 and 36 chainrings. Period Bluemels mudguards (£50) were added after a very successful 75km L’Eroica ride in October to get the bike ready for winter.

The next step was to make it look a little more presentable. The bike was certainly not worth the cost of a professional restoration so I decided to see what could be done with some spray cans of car paint from Halfords – Americans call them “rattle cans” – very descriptive. Sanding, undercoating, painting and lacquering took 20 minutes a day for a week with the frame hanging from a tree in the garden so that I didn’t succumb to the paint fumes. It’s now Ford Monza Blue, and touch up paint is readily available.

The 'New Look' Falcon Westminster -  a faultless L'Eroica ride and joy to ride in winter

The ‘New Look’ Falcon Westminster – a faultless L’Eroica ride and joy to ride in winter

The end result is a very rideable and good looking bike that cost less than £250, including the parts that were replaced. It’s certainly a far better mount than you could buy new for £250 and has the unique character of a vintage bike.

The New Look head badge causes some confusion

The New Look head badge causes some confusion

The finishing touch was a new head badge found on eBay with the logo ‘New Look – all steel bicycle’. I can’t find any reference to New Look bicycles, so it may be that the badges are produced for refurbishments like mine. The puzzled faces of fellow cyclists trying to figure out the brand of bike are well worth the £1.95 it cost me.

Really good bikes need not cost the earth. The few other Falcon Westminsters I’ve seen online typically fetch arond £50, yet they’re make from top class materials and, where needed, replacement components from the 70s and 80s can be found at very modest prices. Another one to look out for is the Diavolo – an Italian road bike sold in the UK in the 1980s. Not a well known brand, so they don’t attract high prices, yet the frames are made from Columbus SL and they were often equipped with good quality parts.

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New Year’s resolution – and a quick tip for retouching your bicycle’s paintwork

Having had an 8 month rest from blogging – at least about bikes – I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to write at least one cycling post per week. Like most such resolutions, it may well fail – but here goes with the first one!

It won’t be a surprise to anyone whose worked on bikes for a while that nail varnish is great for retouching small paint chips on frames and forks. It’s often better than paint because it will go straight onto bare metal (or carbon fibre) and stick, it’s cheap, comes with its own brush and, perhaps most important, is very readily available in a dazzling array of colours – many more than you’ll find in standard paint ranges. The only downside is having to carry your bike around with you until you find the colour that you want. Here’s an easier way to find a match.

A print-your-own Pantone chart provides a cheap and simple way to match touch up paint or nail varnish to your bike

A print-your-own Pantone chart provides a cheap and simple way to match touch up paint or nail varnish to your bike

The Pantone colour chart is primarily intended for use by graphic designers and printers. You can buy one at great expense, or simply download this 18-page version. When you’ve done that, sit your bike next to your computer and print out the page containing the colour that most closely matches your frame. I like to print onto glossy photo paper because the paint on my bikes tends to be shiny, but it’s not critical. In fact, if the printer doesn’t print in accurate Pantone colours it doesn’t really matter. That’s because we’re going to be using comparative rather than absolute colour references.

 

Hold your freshly-printed colour chart up to the frame, ideally in daylight so that you can see the nearest match accurately. Mark the nearest Pantone colour then take your chart to the nail varnish shop and repeat the exercise – matching the nail varnish to the colour marked on the chart. If you can’t achieve an exact match, I find it’s generally better to err on the slight darker side for the nail varnish.

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Thanet Silverlight for sale

My Thanet Silverlight is now for sale. For more information, please contact me at bob.jones@pedalitis.com. I will ship worldwide.

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Bike fitting: valuable service or fit up?

Last weekend I went along to the fabulous ‘Bespoked Bristol‘, the UK hand built bicycle show. The beauty and quality of many of the bikes on show was amazing and UK custom bike building enterprises seem to be growing well alongside the general increase in cycling. Even the BBC website now features this piece on the trend so the show’s PR team is doing a good job.

On a couple of the stands, I encountered the issue of bike fitting. One renowned custom frame builder insisted that I really did need a detailed fitting session before they could possibly consider building a bike for me. Another stand offered a 2-hour fitting session for £120 (about $180 US).

This got me thinking, not least because within my modest collection I have bikes of varying geometries with nominal frame sizes of 21 inches to 24 inches, measured from the centre of the bottom bracket to centre of the top tube. With a little experimentation with stems, seat posts and saddles, and the relative positions of each, I have yet to come across a bike that I can’t adapt to be comfortable, even for long rides.

When I started to get sore knees on one trip, I did consult the oracle – YouTube – and quickly resolved the issue by shifting the saddle a little. A search this evening on YouTube turned up this video from Performance Cycling, which has had nearly 1 million views:

It’s very comprehensive but just six minutes and ten seconds long. There are plenty of similar ones and a whole stack of online advice about bike fitting in the forums.

Of course, the right fit is a very individual thing and depends on a number of factors, not least the kind of bike you want to ride and the kind of cycling you’re going to do. Head down on the drops is not ideal if you’re a commuter that needs to attempt 180 degree vision at all times! But whatever shape and size we are, some basic judgements on the frame and a little experimentation should be sufficient to ensure that cycling is a pleasure rather than a pain.

So next time someone tries to sell me a £120, 2-hour bike fitting session, I think I should politely suggest they “take a ride” – don’t you?

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The Morgan Two…a brand extension too far?

Iconic English sports car company, Morgan Motors, has jumped on the popular cycling bandwagon by announcing a limited edition bicycle of its own – the Morgan Two. The two-speed bike weighs a bulky 15kg or so, has a Brooks saddle, handlebars and saddlebag, and uses a Shimano Tiagra front caliper brake to complement the Sturmey duo-matic hub with pedal brake on the back. According to the web site, “The special edition revolves around cromoly 4130 double butted steel frame manufactured by Foffa of London, which makes it sturdy on the roads and at the same time light as steel can get.” Clearly, they don’t know about Reynolds 953, and wouldn’t it be nice if they could spell ‘chromoloy’ correctly?

Morgan Two

The Morgan Two is being produced in a limited edition of 50.

Looking the spec, this is a totally unremarkable bike which, at £1196.40 is expensive. In fact, the only remarkable thing about this bicycle is the over-inflated price.  This is just one example of a far better machine at half the price. Alright, the Morgan Two is being produced as a limited edition of 50, but you’d need a very limited knowledge of what makes a worthwhile bike to spend your hard-earned cash on this one.

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The amazing unimportance of chainline and chain lubrication

There are a lot of myths circulating in various forums about the importance of chainline. Chainline refers to how straight the chain runs between front and rear sprockets. In single speed set-ups and where an internal hub gear is used, it’s often possible to get a near perfect chainline. Sheldon Brown explains chainline in three articles, the lead one of which is here. With derailleur gears, the general guidance is to set up a straight chainline based on the position of the middle sprocket on both back and front, where there are 3 on the front, or in the middle on the back and between the 2 front chainrings in the case of a double, or aligned with a single front chainring. The problems with running the chain at an angle include lower efficiency, greater chain wear and noise. But just how big an issue is it?

Chainline

This 2001 paper shows just how little difference chainline and lubrication make to pedalling efficiency

This paper, written in 1999 by members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) throws up some interesting conclusions. The reason that a ‘poor’ chainline is cited as reducing pedalling efficiency is that there is increased friction causing energy to be wasted as heat. The paper doesn’t argue with this point but the conclusion is that these losses are negligible compared with non-thermal losses. The paper describes how an experiment was set up to measure efficiency relating to 3 characteristics of a chain drive: the ratio of sprockets and their relative alignment (chainline), variations in input power and rotation rate (cadence) and lubrication, or lack of it. The detailed results make very interesting reading. The authors concluded that chainline offset and lubrication have a negligible affect on efficiency, at least under laboratory conditions and no significant efficiency differences could be detected between a lubricated and dry chain. (I wonder if a dry chain might actually last longer because grit and grime would not adhere to it and cause greater wear?) The major factors affecting efficiency are spocket size, larger sprockets providing better power transfer, and chain tension. Most importantly, there is a reciprocal linear relationship between chain tension and efficiency, the higher the tension the higher the efficiency. The latter makes a huge difference. With a chain tension of 305N the experiment revealed a drive efficiency of 98.6%. When the tension was reduced to 76.2N, efficiency fell by nearly 18% to 80.9%. Don’t worry about getting your chainline accurate to within mm, don’t worry about lubrication, but do keep the chain well tensioned. I don’t know how the  figures above relate exactly to chain slack but 305N is pretty taught!

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