Kinetics Brompton 8-speed conversion kit

I’ve not done many miles on my 6-speed Brompton, despite owning it for several years. It’s not that I don’t like it; I simply don’t do many of the sort of miles for which it’s designed – short commutes around the city. Nevertheless, I had two niggles with the bike from new – the cheap and grotty handlebar grips and the rather ugly and fiddly gear shifters. If you don’t know the Brompton, the 6-speed version has a Sachs 3 speed hub to which a pair of sprockets is attached. The left hand shifter selects the sprocket and the right hand one the  internal gear. To go up and down the gears one by one, you use the shifters alternately.

The 8-speed Brompton chainset and tensioner installed. Note the much smaller front chainring
The 8-speed Brompton chainset and tensioner installed. Note the much smaller front chainring

While on holiday over Christmas, I found out about the possibility of converting the Brompton to an 8-speed bike with just one twist grip shifter. A kit is offered by Edinburgh-based Kinetics and, in a slightly cheaper form, by Tiller Cylces. Both firms offer other hub options, but I decided on the Sturmey Archer X-RF8(W) 8-speed kit. I ordered it from Kinetics over the Christmas period, paid my £300 plus postage, and waited for the 2-week delivery stated on the web site. By the middle of the 3rd week of January I’d had no acknowledgement of my order and nothing had arrived. I called Ben, the owner of Kinetics, and he explained that he was just building up a batch of wheels with the hubs and my kit would be despatched later in the week. It wasn’t. I emailed and got a quick reply and apology, saying that it would be sent the following week. During the last week of January it arrived.

The Sturmey Archer 8-speed hub at the centre of the new wheel
The Sturmey Archer 8-speed hub at the centre of the new wheel

The web site stated that the conversion takes about 30 minutes. The Kinetic instructions were reasonably clear so I set about the conversion. I’m not quick, but not that slow either…you might do your 100th conversion in 30 minutes, but I challenge anyone to do their first one in that time. It took me several hours, but I was not too familiar with the peculiarities of the Brompton, having never worked on it before. You take off the existing wheel and tensioner, plus all cables and other parts associated with the drivetrain. Then you remove the chainset and replace it with the new, smaller one.

I followed the Kinetics directions to the letter but the tensioner jockey wheels were about 5mm out of line with the sprocket on the hub, so the chain wouldn’t stay on. I emailed Ben at 10pm on a Saturday evening and got a reply within minutes. One of the changes during the conversion is to replace the tabbed washers on the wheel axles with thicker ones from the kit. Ben suggested I revert to one of the original thinner ones in order to move the tensioner closer to the frame. It was bad advice because it caused the tensioner to press against the edge of the hub, preventing the gears from changing. I went back to the original washers and packed out the jockey wheel fixing bolts with some washers to move them the required 5mm. All was well and the gears change smoothly.

The new gripshift if much neater than the original Brompton shifters - just need to find some new grips to go with it now.
The new gripshift if much neater than the original Brompton shifters – just need to find some new grips to go with it now.

SUMMARY: This is a nice conversion and, if you don’t mind the extra weight (perhaps a kg or so?) it makes for a more rideable bike with a slightly wider range of gears. The bike looks neater, has cleaner lines and is not quite so quirky, although quirkiness is something that few Brompton riders will worry about. I was disappointed in the service, the hassle of having to modify parts to get the conversion to work, and the rather cheap and nasty looking drive side crank and chainring supplied with the kit. In my view the latter is nowhere near as nice as the one shown on the converted bike on the Kinetics web site. At £300 plus postage, enough to buy a reasonable bike, the kit is expensive, but I’m hoping to raise £100 by selling the original parts, so that eases the pain a little.

What to do with a ‘perfect’ vintage bike?

Last year I bought a 1982 Merican custom racing bike from its original owner. The man was a perfectionist, having even sent the metal bottle cage over to Mercian to get it sprayed to match the frame. The original (bum cleaving) saddle, which is not the one in the photograph, even came boxed with the bike. The appearance of the bike, which boasts a first generation Dura-Ace EX drive chain, is as near to perfection as you’re likely the find in a 30 year-old, unrestored machine. Why so? Well, the owner rode it two or three times, covering “less than 100 miles” and then decided it was too nice a bicycle to get chipped or worn out, so he kept it indoors for 30 years. I was the lucky beneficiary of his caution.

Mercian custom road bike
This 30-year old Mercian is almost like new. Now I don’t know whether to ride it or keep it that way.

I can’t decide whether to ride it regularly or keep it in its present superb condition – it would be a real challenge to do both, even if I restrict its use to summer riding. Of course, it would make a great bike for L’Eroica in October. (I registered for this year’s ride earlier today.) But should I risk such a lovely bike to baggage handlers at Bristol and Pisa airports?

My instinct is to ride it, and maybe use it for the classic ride in Italy. I don’t want to damage it – and if anything will make parts fall off, the strada bianche of L’Eroica will do the job nicely – but I can’t help thinking about the craftsman that made the frame, and perhaps assembled the bike too. Would he have wanted it to languish in a garage or shed, or would he have wanted the results of his labours to be tested, exploited and enjoyed? I think the latter, don’t you?

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.

Great idea for a bike hanger

Having Googled ‘best cycling blogs’ I came across this one. Couldn’t help stealing the photos of this great idea for bike storage, but I did post a comment on the site to let them know. img-20121128-wa0002

If you don’t hear from me again, you can assume that the breach of copyright led to a custodial sentence.

Fabulous idea and a really fun blog.img-20121128-wa0003

The joy of hubs…my next project

Last year I bought a restored A.S. Gillott frame from a dealer in South London. It has one or two very minor marks from where it was packed for delivery, but it’s pretty near perfect. A 1948 model, it may well have been built by Ron Cooper, who worked for Gillott, and I know that Ron was involved in its restoration, replacing one of the drop-outs.

A.S. Gillott frame
The beautifully restored 1948 A.S. Gillott frame

What I didn’t realise until the frame arrived was that the dropouts were designed for an Oscar Egg “Osgear” set up. It’s not possible to fit a conventional derailleur freewheel or cassette. I decided to make it a single-speed bike and found a nice pair of Charge track wheels, the rear one of which had a flip-flop hub, so I was able to build up the bike to be ridden either as a fixie or with a single-speed freewheel.

Oscar Egg dropouts
Oscar Egg dropouts are only suitable for Osgear, single-speed or hub gear set up

I decided that this was going to be my prettiest bike, so matched the brake and gear cables to the red of the decals and even bought a red and black saddle to complete the work of art. Looks lovely….rides like a shed on wheels!

I think the problem is partly the razor sharp saddle (back to a Brooks B17 any day now) but also the geometry of the bike. I haven’t measured it but the top tube seems particularly long. I feel like I’m stretching over the bike, even to ride on the tops of the Cinelli drop bars. And my feet feel as though they’re too far forward, wherever I position the saddle. It’s time to try a new set up – one that will make the bike as good to ride as it is to look at.

A.S.Gillott bike
The Gillott frame with as a single-speed set up with flip flop hub. Very pretty, note the glossy bar tape, but strange to ride!

Having appreciated the joys of Sturmey Archer hub gears last year, when I road my Thanet Silverlight with a 1949 4-speed hub from Barcelona to Bristol without a hitch, and inspired by the sight of the restored Bob Jackson bike mentioned a couple of days ago, I’ve decided to rebuild the Gillott frame.  Even though you have to stop pedalling for a second to change ratios with internal hub gears, each change is precise, silent and perfect – not like the rather crude process of dragging a chain across a bunch of sprockets to end up with yet another imperfect chainline. So the frame will be fitted with a Sturmey Archer S-RF5(W) 5-speed hub in the rear wheel (with a downtube shifter as a nod towards vintage styling), a B17 saddle and either a Mary bar or Mungo bar from On-One.  The bars are on offer at the moment and are so cheap I decided to buy both and try them out. The Sturmey Archer was chosen because Shimano hubs and others aren’t suitable for the relatively narrow dropout spacing of vintage bikes (125mm OLD). This combination should give me a lot more flexibility in setting up the bike for greater comfort, and make it practical for commuting. I’ve bought a couple of 27 x 1 1/4 wheels, which is the size the frame was originally designed to accomodate, and I’ll rebuild the back one with the new hub – that was a cheaper option that buying a pair of rims, a front hub and all new spokes.

The bike in 5-speed form will appear here soon….if all goes well.

The problem with fixies – they’re much too complicated

Advocates of fixies and other single-speed bicycles point to their glorious simplicity. No shifters, no derailleurs, no mysterious inner workings in hub gears. Sometimes, they don’t even fit brakes. But even the most stripped down fixie can’t match the sleek lines and minimal number of components of this wonderful machine, which was recently auctioned on eBay.

Velocipede
This Scottish-made velocipede would make an excellent winter trainer – there’s very little to go wrong

I can’t remember the name of the Scottish manufacturer but I believe the velocipede, draisine, or bone-shaker (a multiplicity of terms were used to describe these early bicycles) dates from around 1860. That’s well before the emergence of the car, and before speed limits of 4 miles per hour were imposed to protect pedestrians from the dangers of motorised transportation. Admire the sheer simplicity: 16 spokes per wheel, but no spoke nipples, hub bearings, inner tubes (with valves), tyres, or any of the other unnecessary extras found on the modern bicycle. By comparison, even the simplest fixie is a monumental piece of engineering complexity. Incidentally, the velocipede fetched £5400, a lot of money for a winter trainer, you might think. I wonder where you’d put the DI2 electronic shifters?

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.

A brilliantly clear and concise guide to building wheels, and making the tools you need for the job

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had reservations about buying a book written by an author who describes himself as “one of the most respected professional wheelbuilders.” I went ahead anyway, downloading the £9 PDF version of “The Professional Guide to Wheelbuilding” by Roger Musson. And despite the confident-verging-on-arrogant tone in some places, this is a superb book for the novice wheelbuilder (i.e. me) and probably a very useful one for those more experienced in the craft.

Professional Guide to Wheelbuilding
A superb book for the novice wheel builder

Roger Musson doesn’t just describe how to build wheels but also gives detailed instruction for making most of the tools that you need for the task. I’m not sure I would have built his wheel truing stand. The potential for swearing due to my limited DIY skills probably made purchasing a ready-made one the right decision. But I would have made the dishing tool (saving £40) – that looks very simple, and I did make a rather simpler version of the nipple driver described in the book.

This really is a detailed guide that takes you through the process from start to finish. If you have  computer or iPad, I’d recommend the PDF version over the printed page. The PDF is quite high resolution, which means that you can zoom into the diagrams without losing details – something that very useful in some places. If you prefer paper, you can always print the pages that are most useful. The book is not only supremely practical, it also does into the theory of calculating spoke lengths and the author has a very good, simple tool for this on his web site. Amongst the very useful tips is to measure everything and not take the manufacturer’s data, or any other published information, as being accurate when you start to build a wheel. As I built my first wheel this weekend, that advice was invaluable. Highly recommended.

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.