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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.