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Contraptions and Kit

If you are approaching cycling in a conventional fashion, there are generally 5 places where you touch a bicycle whilst riding it. Two feet on pedals, two hands on the handle bar and of course your derriere (which s randonneur speak for bottom) on the seat. Needless to say, these are all important places for the proper control of the bicycle, and as you’ll be getting personal with all these parts of your bicycle, it’s worth paying attention to them all with regard to your ongoing comfort and support.

Pedals, need to be sturdy enough to bare 1/2 your weight (each), rotate freely and provide a solid platform. ‘Serious’ cyclists use clipless pedals so as to eek out every watt of performance from each cycle stroke, and my experience with this style of pedal really focused my mind on posture, cadence and efficiency. So much so that the restricted feel of the pedals pretty much consumed my experience of cycling down to these elements. Perhaps I didn’t use clipless long enough to really get used to them and forget they were there. Who knows! The impression they left on me was that they certainly improve performance, but I felt they took something away from the pleasure of cycling. Some parts of touring, and most parts of racing leave the fluffy enjoyment bit at home, and concentrate on pure efficiency. In these uncompromising circumstances they have their place, but most commuting, touring and transport around town should be done with a smile and at a comfortable pace. Perhaps in these circumstances, you just don’t need them. When I began my search for pedals, I looked for something simple.

As with all bicycle components, there are literally hundreds of options for pedals. As they all serve the same basic function I wasn’t after anything too fancy or flash, but my preference was for those that looked light, durable, cheap and not too ugly. What I came up with was the Wellgo M142 sealed bearing pedals.

The specs are:

Body: Aluminium 6061 Extruded, CNC machined
Spindle: Cr-Mo CNC machined
Bearing: DU / Sealed
Size: 100* 60 * 24.5 [mm]
Weight: 236 g/pr

After a couple of rides they seem pretty good, and well worth their price. Before installing them I wondered if they would be big enough, and they are – just. My size 44 feet are comfortable enough when wearing firm soled shoes, but I need to take care with softer soles to place my feet suitably. Once my feet are in place, the extra grippy platform does not let my foot slide around. They seem well constructed, nicely designed and have been silky smooth.

Having said all the above, perhaps they could be a little wider, and they won’t suit someone who doesn’t do footwear. What they are is a light, study, smooth and handsome commuter pedal, that can be obtained for a good price.

My only caveat here would be that if you have a big hoof – these may not be wide enough for you. I’m 185cm and have a biggish foot and they are just big enough.

There are so many great frames around, it really is hard to choose. It’s hard to find out, without already being very knowledgeable about the industry, what are the real reviews and what is simply brand propaganda. It’s easy to be swept up in the carefully constructed stories around the different brands and the amount of choice is mind boggling. It’s a voyage into your own heart of darkness and fanciful whim. I considered many frames from far and wide, but the few I have listed below are the ones I have considered as seriously as a normal person might consider the pros and cons of particular bicycle frame nuances. There is much to like about them all – but making a choice requires some introspection and frank personal discussions with yourself. A decent into madness – anyway here goes.

Velo Orange Rando(nneur) was the first frame that I really looked at. This frame seemed to cover a fair bit of ground in that it could do light touring through to commuting. On the website they don’t mention the type of tubing that they are using – so I have assumed stove pipes (and am probably wrong). This looks like a great frame if you starting Randonneuring on a budget.

From the VO website

Velo Orange Polyvalent below is a very idiosyncratic and beautiful frame. Some of the builds that can be found online look practical and handsome. While I was considering this frame I read a fair bit about low trail geometry. They certainly look like a great urban bicycle capable of bearing weight above the front wheel. In the end the cost of the postage from the US was a big factor – it is all out of scale as far as I’m concerned. With the Polyvalent frame, while I was captured by the functional beauty, historic geometry and 650b reviews by Jan Heine of off the beaten path, I am not convinced I really want to carry that much weight over the front wheel. I may not buy a frame from them this year, even though I really like the polyvalent, it’s pretty certain Velo Orange will get some of my cash as their racks, mudguards, seats and accessories are all made beautifully and are very stylish.

The Singular Osprey again looked like a great frame and suitable for touring and commuting. Interestingly with this frame you have the option of choosing a low-trail fork. I made a few enquiries and Sam, the owner, answered all my silly questions quickly and courteously. Postage to Australia from the UK is much cheaper and for what they are, these frames are great value, but just not exactly what I was after. At this point I felt I was perhaps being too picky and I should just get a frame, or a complete bike and start customising it to suit me.

osprey built

Still not convinced, I began broadening my horizons from the low trail, somewhat french inspired geometries and came across the beautiful Soma Stanyan. I hadn’t moved far, barely into the next metaphysical suburb, as again this lugged steel frame is built with a pretty classic European road / touring geometry. But this frame was just another step in my sentimental journey. Soma are based in the US and therefore to bear the indignity of paying US postage I suppose I had to be really convinced that this frame had everything I wanted.

A Pedal Revolution build (http://pedalrevolutionblog.wordpress.com)

While all of the bicycles above are quite different, I would be fairly satisfied with any of them as they are reasonably close to my general requirements with the exception of one thing or other that could be easily over come with an extra braze on, rack mount or other. I started to think that I was the problem and not the bicycles. As I was going through the description of the Soma Stanyan bicycle, a single word stood out. TANGE. A strange word that suggested quality tubing, lightness and strength.

I looked around again and sure enough, I could find relatively cheap 2nd hand bicycles on ebay with similar geometries and high quality tubing – but would they fit? Then on a whim I checked around for custom bicycle builders and found that in Australia they were so expensive that it was simply unrealistic for any sane person – or at least so I am told. Overseas however they were perhaps $300 – $500 more expensive than an ‘off the peg’ bicycle, but for the extra expense I could get a hand built bicycle, using high quality materials and shoot the breeze with an experienced frame builder to tweak the geometry to my special needs. So was it worth it? I am not sure, and perhaps I never will be. The Singular Osprey really is a great bicycle for the money, and the Polyvalent is so practical and good looking. Perhaps there is something overly and overtly self indulgent about having a hand made custom frame when I could easily make do with the excellent bicycles I found while I was looking around. But I think I have finally decided that this is the way that I will go, and that I won’t regret the extra expense on a bicycle that will be high quality, unique to some degree and as suitable as I can specify within my budget.

The frame builders I am likely to go with are Mercian. They have been around for 50 or so years, have produced frames for time trial champions (I have no delusions of grandeur) and have great reviews from all over the internet. They offer a variety of lug, frame and tubing styles and their process for designing seems pretty good. Check out their frame builder software on their website at your own financial risk – It is cool. They have a skype channel which is great so I can chat with them face to face about the frame from my house – which is about as convenient as it gets. It will take a few months to get the frame – but I am looking forward to the process and of course, the result.

The Maryville Riviera

The bicycle, on first glance, is obviously heavily themed in a quaint ye olde fashion, good looking for a girls bike and probably a heavyweight. Its large mud guards, colour matched everything and enclosed chain guard give it a very solid appearance. Lifting it proves the hypothesis – however it’s ever so slightly lighter than it looks.

Hub Dynamo

Nice and appropriate alloy pedals

There are plenty of bells and whistles, including the very useful hub dynamo, rear light, leather sprung saddle and white wall tyres on 650b rims that I believe are worth their weight in safety, control and comfort. The rod brakes, newspaper holder and rear wheel lock looked to be exceptions and not something I believed would add to the efficiency or practicality of the ride.

Light and newspaper holder

Rod set-up is pretty

Brake levers are incorporated into the handle bar – very swish.

My first ride was at night and my initial impression was that the bike felt light and nimble, it was well geared, the lighting was OK without turning night into day,  quick enough without being fast, and relatively comfortable for a bicycle that is too small for me. It soaked up road bumps nicely, but had a few rattles that needed ironing out. To be fair the bike had just traveled 800km in the back of a largely unloaded removal truck so had probably had the stuffing shaken out of it, but with the rattle and the light feel through the handle bars it felt strangely like riding a pressed tin toy.

rear wheel lock

Where the brake pads meet the rim.

My second ride in light morning rain to pick up an espresso provided more feedback from the bicycle. Again it felt nicely geared, but if anything the handling felt a little to light for my liking. Braking hard resulted in a lot of heavy chatter from the front brakes and not much stopping power. I’m thinking a brake pad upgrade or fine tuning the rods to remove all the slack from the system may help, however my gut feeling is that at least some of the chatter will remain due to brake arm flex. Standing up on the pedals to get the bicycle up an incline produced plenty of rubbing and flex so I sat down again. I’m probably 3 or 4 inches too big for the bicycle so I was pushing it a little to see how it would handle the extra pressure. Our local park is pretty churned up from being renovated with new kids play equipment so it provided a chance to check out the off road handling. Over mud, gravel and bumpy ground it was very good – a product of the sensible tyres, light steering and low gearing. This bicycle, devoid of rattles, would handle the cobbled streets of Europe quite nicely.

When pushed the bicycle doesn’t respond solidly, but climbing hills and hard riding isn’t the point of the bicycle. It’s a cruising bicycle that is capable and comfortable when the surface gets uneven. A three speed hub would increase the speed of the bicycle, but I wouldn’t suggest riding the bike too hard with any extra weight because of the limitations of the rod braking – so it may not handle commuting with kids on board. Its recommend retail is above $1500Aus and for that you get a hub dynamo, reasonable lighting, brooks saddle and a double powder coated, fully lugged, hand built steel frame that has a nice feel to it – not bad value – but I’d want to effect some changes on the standard set-up. First port of call would be upgrading the braking and shedding some weight, but perhaps that’s just a personal preference.

The bicycle gave me an experience of using 650b wheels and 650x35a tyres. I’m not sure I’m a convert, but as part of this set-up they certainly seemed to handle uneven ground pretty well. Food for thought.

Road, Track and most Triathalon bicycles are designed for a very specific purpose that doesn’t include comfort, picnics, staying relatively dry or carrying anything other than a water bottle filled with very light water. So essentially this rules them out for this project.

Mountain Bicycles with suspension are again great at what they do, but not great at touring as you loose a fair bit of cyclist effort into the suspension. Modern suspension systems limit the loss, but now we are getting complicated about something that I don’t necessarily need and I’d really like to keep things simple – less maintenance and less things to break. Mountain bicycle frames without suspension and cross country frames are worth considering, and so it would come down to geometry. Often these bicycles use 26 inch wheels and so are unlikely to have toe over lap issues. There is a category of MTB called Monster Cross that looks interesting – My explanation of it would be cross country touring. What I end up with could be classed at the light-weight end of this spectrum if I go with a MTB frame.

Touring Bicycles are built for comfort, efficiency and carrying weight – but not necessarily speed. They can be tweaked for cross country episodes – but aren’t a serious mountain vehicle. They have slightly more relaxed geometry and often these bicycles have 700c wheels. Touring bicycles have a nice utilitarian look about them, and they are usually pretty high quality bicycle builds with lots of thought and design invested in them – and this brings up to randonneuring.

Randonneuring is essentially touring as a sport/ passtime. Very long distance events where you have a time limit, but not necessarily a winner. Just people who have finished. Because these events are usually long, over various terrain, and riders are expected to cater for themselves, cyclists usually have water, food, clothing, lighting systems, etc on their bicycles – It’s a touring picnic thing, and you have to be home by the time the light poles come on in the street (as per mum’s request). So what is all this about? With this sort of organised picnic trip comes technology. Randonneuring bicycles are gaining in popularity and there is an interesting history of frame design that goes along with the sport.

When touring, I’ve shied away from carrying loads on the front wheel because the extra weight has a detrimental affect on the handling. It just didn’t feel right. I have always gone with rear panniers and racks, and when things got heavy, I opted for a bob trailer. Well through Randonneuring I’ve come across low trail geometry bicycles. The trail is the amount of distance there is between the point on the ground following a straight line from the head tube angle, to the point on the ground that is at the centre of the contact patch for the wheel. As the trail decreases your handling quickens, and weight transfer across the centre plane of the bike is less pronounced. Low trail geometry is something that was used with ye olde cycle couriers of the 40’s and 50’s transporting loads of newspapers or whatever. Anyway this is now finding it’s way into the randoneuring community, and by this route back into cycling generally. Joshua Putnam describes Bicycle Steering Geometry very nicely on his site. Velo Orange have a very nice frame called the polyvalent  that uses low trail geometry here.

The longer the chain stays the more they flex – so the more of your pedal power goes into them. You find track bikes have chain stays only long enough to accommodate the rear wheel. Whereas touring bikes will have longer chain stays to use the flex to absorb road vibration and bumps.

In summary – I am interested in low trail geometry, but am not sure how much load I would actually put on the front of the bike. If I was getting a custom frame I would probably be looking for something at the low end of ‘mid-trail’ or the high end of ‘low trail’ – say 45-55mm.

What about aesthetics? I like the classic straight top tube, and am leaning away from oversized tubing. In a word – classic.

Frame Materials are pretty important to the feel of the bike so I thought I’d include this in my rambling thoughts about my bicycle of the future.

There is a good synopsis of materials on wikipedia so I won’t summarise it here but will make a few comments about what the metals mean to me in terms of frame material.

Aluminum
Aluminium is light, strong and relatively corrosion resistant, but fatigues over time. When fracturing etc appears it is not an easy repair job. For me its defining quality is stiffness – If I were to go with aluminum I would consider a suspension seat post. I am trying to think long term with the bicycle frame, and give it’s propensity for fatigue fractures, I think aluminium probably isn’t what I am after.

Steel
Steel as far as I know is heavier, less corrosion resistant and relatively hard. It is strong, but has a subtle flexibility to it. High quality frames are usually alloys and widely used in many cycling applications. There is some debate about frame materials as you might expect and some believe that a lugged steel frame offers a great deal in terms of ‘feel’, durability, ease of repair, cost and aesthetics. It has a lot to offer someone looking to design a bicycle that will last many kms. Steel can and does rust and so stripping the frame and repainting may be required over the longer term.

Titanium
High strength, light, highly corrosion resistant, more flexible than steel, but difficult to weld and repair and high cost. I can’t be sure whether I am afflicted with a lust for titanium beyond the good properties of the metal, but a Ti frame would be very nice indeed. It’s defining feature for me is high corrosion resistance, feather weight and a supple ride…Hmmmm

Carbon Fibre
Super light, Stiff or supple depending on the design, corrosion free, but strong only for the forces it is designed for. Crash or crush the frame and it’s good night! Too risky considering it’s price, and my potential application. This material is for well sponsored athletes, not me.

Very quickly in summary I reckon that Steel and Titanium are the likely candidates here. The decision will be about price and how long I intend to have the bicycle. Something that lasts a long time is good value if you get enough use out of it. My only apprehension about Ti is that it may be hard to repair, but would I repair a damaged frame – or get a new one? In the case of steel a new frame would be affordable, however a new Ti frame may not, so steel is probably my first choice.

I haven’t forgotten bamboo and plastic as materials, but I’m not seriously considering them for a long term, reliable bicycle. Making a bike out of Bamboo would be fun – but it’s not at the top of my list of things to do right now. If I had the time, it might be an interesting way to get acquainted with frame geometry and strength.

I’ve had this bike for a little while now and bought it on ebay when I was thinking about getting a frame to build up to a single speed. I was also expecting a few visitors in the following months that might be staying for a while and I wanted something I could lend out that would get them from A to B in some style.

When I turned up to buy the bike it was too small for me, however I took it for a ride anyway and it worked well, and just felt like a nice ride. I couldn’t resist it’s originality even though I knew it wasn’t from a recognised frame maker. Since buying it I haven’t found out too much more about the frame builder, but imagine it is essentially a ‘kmart bike’ from an era when cheap bikes were heavy and robust.

I’d had the bike a little while and one morning I found my regular ride with a flat tyre and on a whim decided to take the oxford. I rode it as my regular commuting bike for the next couple of months and although it wasn’t nearly as efficient as my regular ride, the small size and simplicity of the bike kept me riding it even though the tyre on my regular bike was long since repaired

The only problem it developed during this period was that the jockey wheel (?) that carries the actuator cable for the sturmey archer 3 speed failed due to old age and so fouled the operation of the geared hub. Since then, I had put the bike aside until now, hoping to find more time for it. As I suspected, months later, I still have no significant time to spend on it but I thought I’d document what I have and strip it back a little. My original intention was a single speed, but I think I can get some of that flavour by simply stripping it back, but keeping the strumey archer 3 speed hub for the sake of practicality.

Front Badge

Not a great photo, but the the best one I have to introduce the bike until I find one that shows the whole thing unrestored.

upside down

This is the underside of the bike just for an idea of general condition – I’m sure I took one of the bike the right way up…

Once I started pulling it apart I found most of the bike to be in pretty good condition, It looked, in the main dirty, with some surface rust.

This looks like the original Sturmey Archer shifter/

Broken Sturmey Archer cable jockey wheel – I’m calling it that but it probably has a ‘real name’ that might be useful to know if I decide to replace it.

There’s always one rusty nut that takes far too long to remove

It’s a good idea to take photos as you dismantle to remind yourself which washers go where.

[Time Passes…]

So after finding an hour to quickly clean some of the dirt off the bike. The frame, the hubs, and rims came up well. the rear rim will need some work, but looks salvageable. Not sure about the handlebars. After the quick clean I am surprised these bicycles aren’t better known. This must be a 35+ year old bike and the frame looks to be in reasonable condition – there is a little bubbling under the paint on the forks, and the chrome looks pretty good – from how well it has stood the test of time I think it must have been made with reasonable materials. The Sturmey Archer 3 speed is also a nice addition to the functionality of the bike.

Clean ‘Velo’ front hub

Front Rim – pitted chrome

Clean Chain Wheel

Rear Rim – looks OK – Made in Japan

Shiny Sturmey Archer…

That’s all I have time for this week.

It’s hard to know where to start with the perfect bicycle The frame is the basis for many of the ride characteristics of a complete bicycle, but as I have a few frames in mind with different wheel sizes I starting this rambling discussion with wheels and tyres.

29 inch or 700c (622mm)
These wheels have the same rim diameter, however with the addition of their usually very different tyre, the effective diameter changes significantly.

Built as 29 inch mountain bike wheels, these large wheels usually have a relatively heavy duty rim and tire, and because they are heavier, they take more effort to start and stop. These wheels also take more effort to turn due to having a larger footprint and higher rotating mass. What this tyre and rim combination does well is roll over obstacles.

Built as 700c road wheels with a light rim and smaller tyre, they maintain their ability to roll over obstacles, and shed much of their weight. The compromise is a better handling wheel, that isn’t built to take the punishment you might dish out to a mountain bike wheel on a fast decent. This is a very popular size  and the availability of tyres, mud guards, spokes etc is all essentially universal.

The issue that is generally cited about this wheel size is toe overlap. It is something that I’ve noticed in the past and given that I am considering a bike that will be touring, city commuting and shopping, I’m definitely interested in making sure that toe overlap isn’t an issue with the bike I decide upon.

650b (584 mm)
This is a size that is regaining some popularity in the touring and randonneuring community. Availability of parts isn’t as good as with 700c and 26 inch, but it is getting better. This wheel is less likely to have toe overlap issues and is lighter, stronger, and a more responsive than the 700c wheel. When this wheel is coupled with a 700c purposed frame, the wheel size will slightly lower the bottom bracket, reduce toe overlap and slightly reduce the ‘trail’ of the front wheel – quickening the handling. The main draw back is availability of tyres and mudguards, but what I have found so far isn’t too expensive, and suits my purposes. If you use this size wheel on a 700c frame – you may want to get a slightly shorter crank.

26 Inch (559mm)
This is a size most commonly applied to mountain bikes. It further reduces the possibility of toe overlap, is very responsive, is strong, and allows plenty of room for mud guards. My guess is that this wheel will eventually loose out to the 29er on mountain bikes as it doesn’t roll or look as good as the 29 inch. However in other respects it is a good package for the maneuverability required in mountain biking. Availability of all related consumables is good.

Hubs
The flanges on a hub, I believe, don’t radically change the stiffness of a wheel and mostly the flanging relates more to the arrangement, number and lace pattern of the spokes. Aesthetics and fashion also play a role here. The width of the hub however does have a significant effect, and a centred rim, rather than a dished rim is much stronger. So a wheel that has been dished to include sprockets, will be weaker than a fixed, single or internally geared hub.

Tyres.
There are heaps of tyres out there in many different styles so I am going to keep this general. Probably the best tyres I’ve owned would be Continental, Town and Country. A tyre for all seasons but only available in 26 inch. I’ve done alot of touring on these tyres and they were extremely puncture resistant, durable, comfortable and efficient. I’d like to replicate this feel on the new bike if possible.

Jan Heine, Editor of Bicycle Quarterly has written a great deal about his experiences and has also done some testing relating to tyres, wheel size and pressure on his website “Off the Beaten Path” – If you want to find out about wheels and tyres (and randoneuring) the Bicycle Quarterly and Off the Beaten Path is going to toast your bread! In summary, it’s complicated. According to Jan and his testing, increases in tyre pressure don’t necessarily lead to increases in efficiency and decreases in rolling resistance and so a medium sized, supple, softer walled tyre may be more efficient than hyper hard, 23mm racing tyre – This is good news and somewhat vindicates my oft misty eyed remembrance of the performance of my town and country tyres. There are optimum pressures depending on your weight and tyre choice so there’s plenty to consider in selecting a tyre if you want to get fanatical about it. If you’d like to know more – try – Science and Bicycles 1: Tires and Pressure by Jan Heine.

Decision?
I’d be happy with any of the wheel sizes and so I suppose they aren’t a determining factor. The 650b does seem to be a rather happy medium between the various sizes – but I wouldn’t choose a bike on it’s ability to accept a 650b wheel.

Tyre choice and pressure, on the other hand, is something I’ll look at more closely when I have decided on a frame and wheel – it’s crucial.