I complete my winter bike….just in time for spring

Despite owning a small collection of bikes, I didn’t really have anything ideal as winter trainer/commuter. I wanted something reasonably robust, not so valuable as to worry about adding a few chips and dings, yet good looking, responsive and fun to ride. With only about one month of winter left (I hope), I’ve now built the bike based on a resprayed Freddie Grubb 23-inch frame bought for about £120 on eBay. The forks are, I think, Reynolds 531 but the frame is not, although it doesn’t feel unduly heavy.

The Freddie Grubb winter trainer...born today!
The Freddie Grubb ‘winter bike’…born today! Vintage Brooks Champion saddle, Cinelli 1A stem, Cinelli 42cm bars, Tektro brake callipers, Dia-Compe levers, Suntour power shifters, 50-34 TA chainset, Sachs Huret 6000 Sport front derailleur Suntour 14-30 freewheel and Suntour VGT-X rear derailleur

It’s actually a Holdsworth bike; Holdsworth bought Freddie Grubb’s business in 1951, two years after his death, and used the brand until 1978. The frame was advertised as a 1960s one, although after a little research I suspect it is actually early 1970s. It had been resprayed and I made a few accidental marks in the rather soft blue paint during the build, but these will be easy to touch up. To build the bike, I mainly used up spare parts that were already in the junk box, including a 50-34 ‘compact double’ TA chainset (French manufacturer, Spécialités TA, pioneered aluminium chainrings as far back as 1947, and still makes them today), Suntour 14-30 freewheel, and Suntour V-GTX rear derailleur. I previously used this set up on my Hetchins for the L’Eroica ride in 2012.  The shifters are Suntour power shifters (99p on eBay).  Suntour were, I believe, the first to introduce ratchets into friction shifters. This prevents them slipping so you don’t have to keep tightening the little ring on the side after changing gear a few times.

With a wide-range freewheel like this Suntour 14-30, you need to select a derailleur that can handle the largest cog. The Suntour VGT-X does this admirably.
With a wide-range freewheel like this Suntour 14-30, you need to select a derailleur that can handle the largest cog. The Suntour VGT-X does this admirably.

The rear wheel of the new bike is the one I built last week – the first wheel I’ve ever built. It consists of a Campagnolo Record hub, Weinmann XR18 rim and plain spokes that came with the original wheel from which the rim was taken. The front wheel is a Quando hub with XR18 rim. I have a spare Campag Record front hub and I know the little inconsistency between the hubs will irritate me until I strip the front wheel and replace the cheap Quando hub with the Campag that matches one in the rear wheel.

The chainset/freewheel combination produces a wide gear range. With the 700C x 23 tyres and 172.5mm cranks I can select ratios from 29.8 gear inches to 93.9 gear inches.

Spécialités TA custom compact double chainset with 50 and 34-tooth chainrings
Spécialités TA custom compact double chainset with 50 and 34-tooth chainrings

A typical modern set up with a 52-39-30 up front and 12-25 cassette at the back would produce a range from 31.5 to 113.9 gear inches, so I actually have a lower “granny” gear and only miss out a little at the high end, which doesn’t worry me at all. (Sheldon Brown used a similar front-end set up on his Hetchins with a 50-28 chainset but 9-speed cassette on the back.)

One of the problems I encountered during the build up was that a 27.2mm seat post wouldn’t fit, but it was only slightly too large. In searching for something very slightly smaller, I came across this seller on eBay. He sells a choice of seat posts in fractional mm diameters from 25mm to 31.4mm. A 26.2mm post was a very good tight fit into the Grubb seat tube. (I have no commercial connection with they guy except I bought two seat posts from him – they appear to be good quality and were delivered fast.)

I’ve taken the bike for a very short test ride and it’s great – fits me well, the gears shift smoothly and the brakes work. Now I just need to add mudguards and a means of carrying a modest amount of luggage.

As is often the case when you build a bike from individual components, my Freddie Grubb is almost certainly not worth the money I paid for parts. But I’ve learned a lot while building it, it’s absolutely fit for purpose, I understand how every single part goes together, and it’s totally unique. All of which makes it priceless.

My first wheel build…slow but not painful

For a long time I’ve seen wheelbuilding as a bit of black art, and it’s a view shared by quite a few other cyclists I know. I’ve always wanted to acquire the skill, not least because it will enable me to build custom wheels for some of my projects. For example, having recently spotted a great looking Bob Jackson restoration on the Spindles and Sprockets community project website, I decided that a 5-speed Sturmey Archer hub on a 27-inch wheel would be ideal for my restored 1948 A.S. Gillott frame.

The "Sprockets and Spindles" community bike project in Corsham, Wiltshire, made a great job of restoring this Bob Jackson frame, which was rescued from a skip.
The “Sprockets and Spindles” community bike project in Corsham, Wiltshire, made a great job of restoring this Bob Jackson frame, which was rescued from a skip. It uses a Sturmey Archer 5-speed hub and has beautifully clean lines.

But you can’t buy one off-the-shelf so I concluded that I would prefer to build the wheel, rather than keep running back and forth to my local bike shop and paying £40 labour, plus parts, to have one made up.

I’ve considered going on courses; they seem to run for anything from one to three days. Surely anything that can be learnt, if not mastered, in such a short time cannot be that hard to teach yourself? So, having looked at several YouTube videos, read Sheldon Brown’s advice and then discovered “The Professional Guide to Wheelbuilding”, reviewed in yesterday’s post, I set about building my first wheel. Spoke lengths were calculated using this online tool. I made up a nipple driver from a piece of 6mm diameter aluminium rod that was lying around in the garage. (The book suggests bending and filing a screwdriver but mine is simpler and works perfectly well.)

I then started the project with an old, cleaned-up Campag Record hub and a vintage Mavic rim. This was my first mistake – ignoring the advice in the book  that it’s best to start with a new rim because then you know there are no problems with it. I built up the wheel with the correct length spokes, tightened the spokes as instructed, popped the wheel into the truing stand and it wobbled like a very, very wobbly thing. In all directions. I stripped it down again. The rim was far from flat and circular.

I didn’t have a spare rim but I did have a new Weinmann XR18 rim on a wheel with a pretty rough hub, the roughness caused by an earlier unsuccessful experiment in swapping axles. I stripped down the wheel to harvest the rim. Here’s another really valuable piece of advice from the book – don’t believe all the published measurements for wheel components, particularly the effective rim diameter (ERD) of rims, which is a critical measurement for calculating spoke length. I found an online reference to the XR18 having a 615mm ERD, then measured it as 610mm, using a simple homemade tool, described in the book.

Wheel
My first completed wheel build, complete with self-congratulatory glass of Bordeaux!

There is accurate online information on this too, but if I’d believed the first reference I found, I would have started building the wheel with spokes that were too long. Despite being a bit weary after my initial efforts on Saturday evening, I started building the wheel with the Weinmann rim. As I came to insert the last spoke into the rim, I realised there was no hole positioned to receive it. Somewhere along the way I had gone wrong, and I still don’t know where. Another lesson learned: don’t try to build a wheel when you’re tired – you’ll probably rush it and screw up.

The following morning, I took the wheel apart then, after about an hour, I had it re-laced and the spokes tightened evenly. It took another hour to get the wheel into its final shape, proving that building your first wheel is not rocket science, or a mysterious black art, but you do have to be methodical and patient – a bit like basket weaving, I guess. I’m looking forward to starting on the next one.

Get your free bicycle wheels, and other parts, here

As I’ve come to understand more about bikes over the last few years, I’ve learned a few things, usually the hard way. I found out that vintage bikes are fantastic value for money and really not that much different to ride than modern ones, especially if you get one with a good Reynolds 531 or Columbus SL steel frame. Whilst riding L’Eroica last year I cycled alongside one guy who had rescued his bike from a skip and another who’d bought his for £10 on eBay. It’s always possible to find a very respectable, sometimes vintage, 1970s, 80s or 90s bicycle online for £100 to £200, often less, and these bicycles will never depreciate. Pay that kind of money for a new bike and you have something that will not only be heavy and horrible to ride, but that will depreciate to almost nothing  within a year. As I’ve come to know more about bikes, I’ve moved from maintaining them to building them.

Bike parts
If you do by a bike just to get a pair of wheels, there’s always the temptation to start hoarding parts for future projects.

I like nothing better than to get hold of nice old frame then search out the parts to make up a new-old bike to add to my collection. But here’s an expensive lesson. If you buy individual components, even second hand ones, you end up paying a lot of money for the bike – far more than it’s worth after it’s been lovingly assembled. Fortunately, the solution is pretty simple. When you want a pair of wheels, or other parts for that matter, buy a complete bike. Strip it down for the parts you need then sell the remaining ones individually. That way, you’ll get the wheels free, and perhaps make a profit. Of course, the temptation is then to hang onto the frame and other parts of the second bike, and start going through the process all over again. It’s probably safest to buy a bike that you don’t like.

Classic bike ride in Italy, L’Eroica, changes entry rules – be sure to register in time

The timing of applications and entry rules for one of Europe’s classic and most popular cycling events, L’Eroica, have changed this year. Instead of applications opening during March on a first-come, first-served basis, the applications open on January 21st and initially close on March 3rd when a draw will be held to select participants for this year’s vintage bike extravaganza. It takes place in Tuscany, Italy, over the weekend of 5th and 6th October, the rides being on the 6th. It’s a phenomenal event and I’ll be heading over for the 75km ride this year, having staggered around the 205km one in 2012.

I arrive relieved and exhausted at the end of the L'Eroica 205km ride in 2012. Gary Smith from Yorkshire in the background checking he has all the stamps on his card. Thanks to Gary's brother for the photo - not at my best!
I arrive relieved and exhausted at the end of the L’Eroica 205km ride in 2012. Gary Smith from Yorkshire in the background checking he has all the stamps on his card. Thanks to Gary’s brother for the photo – not at my best!

It’s really not worth taking on the challenges of the long rides unless you want to prove something to yourself (or others) because the shorter rides leave you with a lot more time to soak up the atmosphere and go shopping for bikes and bits. You can download this year’s rules here. The notable exceptions to the entry draw are that anyone over 60 is guaranteed a place, as are “women of any age”. Sounds like a Silvio Berlusconi party!

Check out some of the videos on YouTube to get an idea of the charisma and charm of this event – there really is nothing else like it.