Thursday, March 12, 2009

Slipping the Surly Bonds

Last year I bought a used, incomplete 52cm Surly Cross-Check. I got it because I had heard Surly owners speak so highly of it, and it seemed like a good deal. I had no particular gap to fill in my bike fleet, so I considered different ways to build it up. I've seen these built in almost any configuration. Looking at what it had, including a nice set of wheels, I chose to build it as a light touring bike, something I could ride all day under a wide range of conditions. This meant a wide gear range, fenders, rack, and touring tires. I thought I could recycle a lot of the parts I had accumulated and build this for well under the $1100 price of a new complete Cross Check. It's been a learning experience to say the least. 
Learned: Building a bike always costs more than you think it will. 
Learned: It's cheaper to buy the bike complete than to build it from parts. 
Learned: You can't get your investment back if you sell the complete bike. 
Learned: 52cm is too small a frame for me. 
Learned: A lot about building bikes. 
What I have is a lovely bike that happens to be at the small end of my fit range, and on which I spent nearly the price of a new one, and for which it seems I can get back perhaps 3/4 of my investment if I sell it as it is. The consolations are that some of the parts I used are better than what comes on a complete Cross Check from Surly, that I did learn a few things about building bikes, and that I do have some options for what to do with it. I can sell it complete and take the loss. I can put the parts on a bigger frame and sell off the smaller frame--thus not losing the value of the parts I bought. I can ride it as is. For the time being, I'm keeping it assembled--the easiest way to keep track of the parts. 
What I'd really like is another touring frame like the one I had in the 1970s (pictured in the post "Bicycles in the Living Room"). I don't really need it--I have three other bikes I can ride. Still, I'd like something reasonably light that is suitable for long rides in a wide range of conditions. And such a frame costs more than many complete bikes, including Surlys. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Heavy Duty Cycling

Today I repeated some of Sunday's ride, only on the enormous and heavy Roadster instead of the lightweight Grand Prix. I rode it because I had seen a kickstand in a shop on Sunday that I thought might fit it, and wanted to take it there to find out. 
I live uphill from my destination (indeed uphill from a lot of Arlington) so the ride there was easy. I rode along Columbia Pike, through Crystal City and picked up the Mount Vernon trail at the airport. There is a connection through a tunnel from Crystal City to the trail. This is one of many places in which a bike can take a shorter route than a car. 
Soon after I got on the trail, I heard a little bell ringing and was soon passed by a guy on a modern road bike. I responded with the Roadster's massive, loud bell, and picked up my pace to stick to the guy who had passed. I kept seeing him glance back at me, probably wondering how I was keeping up with him. The secret: once you get 41 pounds of bicycle moving, it wants to continue moving, especially if the grade is favorable. I stayed with him until I heard my phone ringing and stopped to answer the call. Then I continued on to Old Town and the bike shop. The kickstand didn't fit; I haven't found one for sale yet that would (I've seen some on other roadster bikes). Then I had to pedal back home. 
The river trail is nearly level, in either direction, as far as the airport; the work is getting from it over the Arlington ridge that bisects the county from Rosslyn to Arlandria. It's not much hill as hills go, but it's a lot for me at the start of Spring riding--my limited winter riding having maintained some basic conditioning so it's not quite like starting from scratch and way better than it was a couple of years ago. What I noticed--and what is the real point of this story--was the difference made by the greater weight and higher gearing of the Roadster. 
This is obvious--else why do we go to the trouble to make bikes light. But after riding heavy bikes a while (my commuting bike weighs about 35 pounds) it's easy to downplay the importance of bike weight, especially if the bike has some really low gears on it, as my commuter has. I routinely climbed a 2-mile hill on that bike. But having also done that ride on the Roadster and on my Surly Cross-Check, yes, there is a difference! 
The Sturmey-Archer AW hub on my Roadster (the most common SA hub, used on many different bikes) has a classic planetary reciprocal gear combination of direct in the middle (second), low 75% of second, and high 133% of second. With the typical 46-tooth chainring and 18-tooth sprocket, this makes low about the equivalent of a 46-24 combination--but in this case it's attached to an extra-large wheel which makes it effectively higher. 
What I was aware of was that it took a lot of work to propel it up the hill, and for the first time in a couple of years, I had to stop and rest a minute. I got home all right, but it was not a ride I would care to make often in my present state of tune. 
It's possible to put a bigger sprocket on the back, to lower the overall gearing, but more than that can't be done without replacing significant parts of the bike. Raleighs had, for most of their history, 40 spokes in back and 32 in front. So new hubs means new rims, and then the rod brakes probably won't fit, so those have to be replaced, until the bike is quite different from the original. I might try this if I happened to get a frame without usable components, but I want to keep this bike original. All those features are simply part of its charm. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Found Object Cycling

Cycling and recycling. Tonight on the way home from getting a new listing signed, I happened to notice, in the moonlit darkness, that it was heavy trash pickup night in Fairfax County. Among the assorted debris, a bike wheel caught the headlights as I drove by. Lying on its side under some discarded house doors was a Gary Fisher mountain bike. Some parts were missing, most of it was there and the price was right. It had decent-looking quick-release wheels that came off readily so I could fit it across the back seat. Arriving home, I examined my prize. The front wheel appears straight and the back wheel only slightly crooked. It's missing brakes and one brake lever. It feels very light. No doubt someone can do something with it. By my reckoning, this is the seventh bike I have found like this. One I sold, the rest I gave away. At least one is now a prize in someone's bike collection. My home for wayward bikes continues to save them from landfills. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Don's Other Bike

Sunday was perfect cycling weather, and I planned to have a day on a bike. The bike I selected was my c.1986 Raleigh USA Grand Prix This Taiwan-made bike, unlike the more familiar Nottingham Grand Prix, is a lightweight club racer made with 531 butted tubing. I bought it used in 1997, had it overhauled, and rode it pretty much as it was. Last year I decided it was time for some upgrades--wider bars for a start, and perhaps set higher as well. It got a Brooks B17 saddle, Nitto Technomic stem, Nitto Noodle (177) bars, and a set of Suntour Barcons salvaged from a wrecked bike I bought. For a while I intended to make it into more of a tourer, with fenders, but I have now dropped that idea. The only touring amenity I have added is one of the original Jim Blackburn rear racks that I found last fall, which weighs very little, and gives me the option of carrying bags. 
I had not ridden this bike since last summer when completed these upgrades, and I had some concern about whether it was ready to ride. However, I had a great time on it and I remember now why I liked it enough to upgrade it. 
I made the longest ride that I have in some time, downriver through Alexandria as far as Belle View Boulevard. Actually with all the detours and back and forth, I rode perhaps three times that far. I stopped in three bike shops along the way, the final one being the current occupant of the one my brother worked in back around 1980. They had two Surly Long Haul Truckers in stock, a bike I have been considering, but these were 58cm (borderline too large) and 60cm (undoubtedly too large). However, in my consideration of bike fit, especially after riding the enormous Roadster, 58cm seemed worth a try. Indeed, I could stand over it, and even lift it up a little--perhaps my 32-inch PBH measurement was inaccurate, as the standover height of this bike is 32.7 inches. It would certainly be about as big as I would want, and quite possibly a 56cm will fit better. However, length is a more important dimension than height. The only real importance of height is whether you can stand over it, simply for starting and stopping. 
The other consideration is whether I need another bike at all. I probably don't. 
I had been looking all along for a place I could stop and get refreshments while keeping the bike or its load safe from predators. Most places I could lock it up, I would have to be away from it for too long. But in Belle View I could lock it in the doorway of Dunkin' Donuts and get myself a bagel and a small coffee, which I ate outside with the bike leaning against a spare chair. At the next table, a small girl and boy, perhaps two years old--walking and talking--were having a lesson in the laws of physics, namely that if you invert an ice cream cone, gravity takes over. The lesson after that was in psychology: if you make too much fuss over it, Mommy will not replace it but will instead take you home. 
I started back for home at 5:39 by my phone's clock. Sunset was going to be at 7, and I knew I had some hills to climb to get over the Arlington ridge between the river and my neighborhood. My legs were starting to cramp and I debated riding to a Metro station, taking the Metro to Clarendon, and riding downhill all the way home. But in the end I decided I could handle the grades if I went through Pentagon City and up to Columbia Pike--although by the time I got there, I was tired enough that they felt like twice what they were. All this indicative of my state of training at this time, not of the mileage or grades in themselves. And this bike has no really low gears. I got back to the garage about dark and into my home at 7:45. I no doubt will feel the effects tomorrow, but indeed this is the price of conditioning. 

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Velo-Literary Question

Did Vladimir Nabokov own a Humber? 

Roadster Love

Today I went by bicycle to the Arlington Court House flea market. What a joy to need only shorts and T shirt after the freezing weather of a few days ago. The bicycle I went by was the Roadster. I took it because it has a basket in which to put anything I wished to bring home. Two guys were selling used bicycles at the flea market. They had a large number of mid-grade bikes, which were selling briskly. But the big hit was the Roadster. Everyone who saw it wanted it. Then I rode down Clarendon Boulevard and stopped in another bike shop. I asked if I could lean my bike against the counter. The manager immediately asked me where I got the Roadster and talked with me for some time admiring it and asking questions. I noticed a new bike in the shop in a similar style (but about as much like it as a new Mustang resembles an original 1965 one). It seems that once again I am so far behind the times as to be ahead. 

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sinister Bars Prove Dexterous

Tom Martin of Velo Orange once told me that building your own bicycles often turns into a game of musical bike parts. How true. Recently I decided to sell my 52cm Surly Cross Check because I need a larger frame--either the whole bike, or sell just the frame and put the parts on a bigger one. I had someone interested in the whole bike, and I wanted to keep the Nitto 115 bars. I happened to have gotten a set of Modolo anatomic bars for nothing. Complete Cross Checks come with anatomic bars, so I decided to swap these for the Nittos. As someone who has resisted nearly every cycling innovation of the past 25 years, my take on anatomic bars has been that they exemplify the times we live in, all straight lines and gawky angles, instead of the graceful curves of a Maes bar. I figured they were just a fashionable look. To me, interesting bikes have toe clips and straps, friction shifters, and steel lugged frames with horizontal top tubes. Imagine my surprise at finding I actually liked these handlebars. They seem to suit the bike better, and they are more comfortable than the 115s. My hand positions seem to be better, especially reaching the brake levers from within the bar. I can have the ramp horizontal and still have a comfortable angle on the drops. These are also narrower than is currently recommended, but this also seems to work fine. I might have to use a set on the replacement for this bike. 
Egad. It'll be clipless pedals next. 

Bicycles in the Living Room

Over the weekend, the weather went from almost springlike to deep freeze with five inches of snow. On Monday night, I brought my Surly Cross-Check upstairs so it would become warm enough for me to tape the handlebars. Seeing it in my home reminded me of the days of my youth, when bicycles were normal indoor furniture for me and my cycling friends. 

Back in college (1975), I brought my touring bike, which I had built myself, into my third-floor dorm room, which would have been compact for one person, let alone two and a bicycle. I hung it by the front wheel from the clothes hook at the end of my built-in bed. That it could easily have fallen on me in my sleep did not occur to me. My roommate, an earnest fellow from a small North Carolina town who was there on a baseball scholarship, returned home late at night, did not turn the light on and walked right into it. Amazingly, it stayed on the hook. He suggested plaintively that bikes properly belonged on the bike racks in the basement. I pointed out that the bike was worth more than his car. I had already seen the bike rack, littered with abandoned plumber's specials and positioned for the convenience of thieves. I was not parking my baby there. Within a few weeks, he had moved out of that room and in with one of his teammates. No one else moved in, and I had the room to myself for the rest of the semester. I have always appreciated the privacy available from bicycling. 

Returning to 2009, I let the Surly warm up overnight, and taped the bars the next morning. I haven't taken it back down to the unheated garage yet. I'm having too much fun looking at it. The weather forecast is for springlike weather again by Saturday. I'll take it down then and ride. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Joy of the Roadster

Lately the bike I have been riding most is the Raleigh Roadster shown in the photo at the top of my blog. I have several bikes, all of which weigh less than this one and would appear to be more sophisticated and desirable, so why am I riding this one? Occasionally I make an excuse: "it was the one closest to the door." However, that's not the only reason. It is surprisingly pleasant to ride, as two Roadster owners I know, who also own bike shops and have plenty of riding options, have attested. 
The first thing you notice is that it is very long. If toe overlap is a problem for you, get one of these--Bozo the Clown wouldn't have toe overlap on this thing. Roadsters typically have very low angles and long wheelbases. 
Then you get on, and if you are my height, you notice it is tall. Men's Roadster frames only come in two sizes, 22-inch and 24-inch, and sitting on 28 inch wheels, even that 22-inch frame has a top tube so high that--well, let me just say I don't want to come off that seat in a hurry. I can barely stand over it. However, this has given me new insight into the point of view expressed by Grant Peterson of Rivendell regarding frame sizing--that most people ride bikes too small for them. Back in the 70s, I was taught the opposite--that most people tended to buy bikes that were too big and would be better off to ride something at the small end of their range. After riding this barge for a while, all my other bikes seem too little. 
Then I push off, and the first thing I noticed was how easily it balances. By the way, this is so whether you do a rolling start and swing a leg over, or get on first and start pedaling. It barely needs to be rolling to balance. This is practical, given its intended use as a utility bike for people who were not "serious" cyclists and likely to be riding in "normal" clothes. 
Once rolling, I notice a variety of noises. Stuff rattles, fender stays rub tires (no matter how many times I adjust them), the Sturmey Archer hub makes its distinctive ticks. If I go over a bump or release the brakes, the bell rings (I put a large, appropriate-looking bell on it). The brakes squeal a bit, and if the wheels are not perfectly round (and what wheels are?) the brake blocks thump when you stop. 
And how about those brakes? I am rather partial to the rod-operated brakes on these bikes--perhaps because they remind me of the three Model A Fords I've owned (including eight years as my primary car, 1971-78). You can read in many places that steel rims are inferior to alloy for braking, especially when wet. I can vouch for this--one wet day I nearly took a header off a 5 foot drop because I waited too long to brake. But that's the secret--don't wait too long--and if the rims are wet, applying the brakes early dries them off. It is, indeed, a lot like driving a vintage car. As for the friction of steel versus alloy--first of all, the steel rims are chromed (until it wears off), which is slipperier than aluminum, and aluminum itself seems to have a "stickiness" to it that steel doesn't have. Then the brake blocks are simply black rubber--no fancy red stuff here--and may well be dried out if the bike has been sitting unused--I detected some improvement after a few rides, perhaps because I wore through the dry top layer. And it might simply need new blocks. My experience riding it regularly is that the brakes work well enough, and indeed can lock up a wheel. They need to be in good condition and properly adjusted--don't blame the design when the problem is maintenance. Again, having done much of my learning in the 70s, I do not expect the kind of stopping power that you get with present-day brakes. Nor is it necessarily desirable, in paved-surface riding, to lock up wheels, which will certainly cause you to skid and probably fall. Admittedly, to slam into something because you couldn't stop is embarrassing or worse. But should you be going too fast to stop on two wheels, any more than on four? 
These bikes are geared what would be considered very high today. Yet they retained the same gearing throughout their long production run (which, if you count the copies of them still being produced in Asia, is approaching 100 years). So there must be something to it. Just as I did with antique cars, I assume the people who built it knew something about it, so I try it their way first. What I find is that the bike is optimized for a slow, steady pedaling speed--just the opposite of the high cadences (70-90 rpm) I was taught were optimum. Of course, a lot of riders I see on derailleur bikes have gotten stuck in top gear and clearly don't know how to downshift, and some of them seem to think standing on the pedals is the normal way to ride, so roadster gearing should hardly bother them. I compare the Roadster to the cars of its era, most of which were similarly built to run at low engine RPMs with relatively high gearing, and do most of their driving in top gear. This was the dominant design concept for most cars from the 1880s until well into the 1950s. What I find, riding the Roadster, is that I'd like a lower gear for hills, but I can get up the hills, and everywhere else the gearing is fine. If you have very low gears, it's easy to get stuck in one, pedaling furiously and going nowhere, basely keeping the bike balanced. Unless I am crossing the Rockies, do I really need granny gears? 
This is the only bike I ride regularly that has no means of holding my foot on the pedals. I normally ride my other bikes with toe clips and straps, but no cleats. My foot is secure, but I can get my foot in and out quickly. When I tried riding my commuter bike (a 1984 Schwinn Sierra converted to look like a roadster) without foot attachment (thinking this might make more sense in urban riding), I found it tiring and insecure. I seemed to expend a lot of energy just keeping my feet on the pedals. When after a few weeks I changed to pedals with clips and straps, I noticed I made the commute in less time and with less fatigue. But I notice no such insecurity with the Roadster. It's not likely to be the rubber pedals that make the difference. I think it's the way the whole thing works. It was intended to be rideable in whatever you're wearing, and it is. 
My particular Roadster has a rear hub dated 1971, and has a simple "hockey stick" chain guard instead of a full chain case, also known as a gear case. I have a chain case for it, and one day I'll probably install it. It has a Pletchscher rack that appears to have been original equipment, although most of these came with steel racks. I found an old folding basket (slightly different from the ones made today) and put it on the right side. It has no kick stand. I added Reelights and a dynamo lighting set. Spare parts are readily available if you know where to look. Copies of the Raleigh originals are still being made in India, China and other places. The Eastman Roadster, made in India and sold in the USA by Yellow Jersey in Madison, Wisconsin, is so exact a copy that it effectively serves as a spare parts source--everything is interchangeable with the Raleighs. Several companies make tires in 28" x 1-1/2" (ISO 635mm, French 700B). 
It's utterly fearless, and hence ideal for running errands or riding in inclement weather. Last week I had so much stuff on the back rack that I could not get my leg across. So I laid the bike on the ground, put one foot in the main triangle and the other to the left of the top tube, and picked the bike up, moving my right foot outside as I did so. It occurred to me that I might not have been willing to try this with one of my more expensive bikes. But then, I wouldn't have been carrying so much on them, either. 
The nearest equivalent in the automotive world is my 1988 Volvo 240 wagon--another dreadnought of a vehicle, which, if it were human, is now old enough to drink. Like the Roadster, it makes a stately progress through the world, passed by all the faster, sleeker, more stylish young things, but it does it for years and years. The others can win the race to the junkyard. Volvo 240s and Raleigh Roadsters will gladly lose that particular competition.