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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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!
I’ve now fitted an FSA Vero crankset to the Brompton, removing the outer ring and adding a 3.2mm of washer spacing (2mm + 1.2mm from SJS Cycles) between the spider and the inner 34-tooth chainring to move the latter a little closer in. I used the original chainring bolts and now have a front chainline of about 43mm.
At first, I tried the FSA crankset, that has a JIS square taper, on the original Brompton bottom bracket, which uses an ISO square taper axle. The chainline was out at 50mm or so. I decided that for the modest cost involved it would be better to change the 119mm Brompton bottom bracket (not sure who makes it) for a 118mm Shimano one with JIS taper. It was easy to change and the Shimano BB allows a much greater choice of cranksets, including those designed for single speed set-ups.
The FSA chainring clears the rear triangle by about 2 – 3mm when folding the bike, so I could probably move it in another mm or two to improve the chainline marginally. The original 100-link chain for the 6-speed Brompton, which I retained intact to use with the 33-tooth Sturmey crankset supplied by Kinetics, works fine with the new 34-tooth FSA one too.
Despite around 4mm difference between the front and back chainlines, there is no noticeable chain noise and everything feels very smooth. The crankset looks much smarter, the chainring is replaceable, the chainline is adjustable by adding or removing washers under the chainring bolts (either side), and I have a great choice of chainrings if I want to adjust the gearing in future. You can buy chainrings with anything from 33 to 50 teeth that will work with this 110mm BCD crankset. In fact, I think I discovered a chainring with just 30 teeth while researching what to fit to my Brompton, but I haven’t been able to find it again, so maybe I was imagining it! Onto the handlebars…my next target for customisation.
I mentioned in my last post about the Kinetics 8-speed conversion kit for the Brompton that the new crankset looks rather cheap and nasty. It is. I’ve discovered that it’s a Sturmey Archer FCS30 model with 33 teeth (why it’s not called the FCS33 is a mystery), which retails for about £16. So we now have a bike that’s cost the best part of £1000, with a somewhat poorly matched crank that’s ugly.
Worse still, I found that the chainring fouled intermittently on the rear triangle, preventing the bike folding properly. I started looking around for alternatives. The first thing to note is that the Brompton bottom bracket has a 119mm ISO square taper axle. By far the majority of today’s cranksets are JIS taper, so the choice is more limited. The differences are explained most clearly here by Sheldon Brown. According to Sheldon, “if you install a J.I.S. crank on an ISO spindle, it will wind up about 4.5 mm farther in than it would on a J.I.S spindle of the same length.” More about chainline in a moment.
It seems relatively uncommon to find a single-speed chainring with less than 39 teeth, and the most commonly available versions start at 42 teeth or bigger. I need to stay close to 33 teeth to achieve the gear range of the original, which seems ideal for the rather hilly countryside around here. The hub has a 20 tooth sprocket on the back, so according to the online gear calculator, it produces a range from 27.3 to 88.7 gear inches.
Chainline is the next consideration. According to the Sturmey Archer spec, the 8-speed hub with flat 20-tooth sprocket has a chainline of 39.7mm. I measured it and came up with about 38mm, so that checks out. At the FSC30 chainring, I found the chainline to be around 40mm – not perfect but not too bad either. If I’m going to cure the folding problem, the front chainline will need to be bigger at the front, about 41mm. Again, it won’t be perfect, but 3mm difference between front and back doesn’t seem to likely to be much of a problem.
There is no easy way to correct the chainline at the back. You can buy 25-tooth dished sprocket to fit the 8-speed hub. Reversing it would add about 1.5mm. However, the chain tensioner is so close to the sprocket that it’s not possible to use one with more than 20 teeth.
The solution at the front may well be to fit a JIS taper compact double crankset and remove the outer chainring – changing the fixing bolts and using washers to adjust the exact position of the inner ring to get the desired 41mm chainline. This will give me a chainring of 34 teeth, rather than 33, so I’ll need one more link in the chain to take it to 101 links. Fitting a new chain at this point seems like a good idea anyway. The gearing will move up very slightly to a range of 28.1 to 91.4 gear inches.
It may even make sense to change the bottom bracket for a JIS taper version at some point – Shimano sells them in 118mm and 122.5mm axle widths, so it’s likely I can achieve a fit one way or the other. The FSA Vero compact crankset looks infinitely better than the Sturmey one, so it’s on order and I’ll know if it’s going to work later this week.
Incidentally, the 6-speed parts taken from my Brompton fetched over £100 on eBay, after deducting the costs and PayPal commission, so the final cost of the upgrade will be £200 plus whatever I end up spending on the crankset and/or bottom bracket.