Portland Bikeshare 2.0 – E-bikes!

Many cities have gone to e-bikes for their bikeshare programs, and Portland is one of them.  Its first bikeshare launch several years ago was pretty much a bust, although PBOT and the Biketown folks will certainly never admit this.  Those bikes were clunky, bad handling, heavy, and exceedingly unpleasant to ride.  I used that system exactly 2 times, swearing to never ride them again, and as I love to ride all kinds of bikes, that should tell you something.

In early September, the “old” fleet was decommissioned (not without some controversy), and the new e-bikes hit the streets.  The new system is run by Lyft, which will be a familiar platform for many city dwellers who use ride share.  The launch experienced some unfortunate timing problems:  dangerous wildfire smoke enveloped the city for many days, causing a temporary shut-down of the new bikeshare program, then torrential rains and winds followed shortly thereafter, meaning that no one was biking in Pdx.  But finally, clean air and good weather returned, giving me the opportunity to test out these bikes in Portland’s ideal fall weather.

My first test ride was totally unplanned:  I came across a stable of these bikes on one of my noon walks, and decided spontaneously to hop on and go for a ride.  The process was very easy.  I downloaded the Biketown app, scanned the code on the rear fender, and bam! the bike was unlocked.  Before doing this, I checked all the bikes in this line-up for the one with the best feel on the brake levers and tires, and checked to make sure that the seatpost clamp would hold (something I learned from my prior and limited experience with Portland Bikeshare).  The bikes are tall, and weighty – somewhere between 75 and 85 lbs, according to various web sources.  They feature a front disk brake and rear drum.  The gears (using a continuously variable rear hub) are controlled by a simple grip shifter.  The drive train uses a chain instead of the unpleasant shaft drive on the previous models.  The power is always on, and theoretically delivers juice based on the cadence and force on the crank.  The front and rear lights come on once the bike is underway.  There is a minimal front rack (more on this later), which is (over) rated for 25 lbs.

On my first ride, learning how to unlock the bike wasn’t immediately intuitive.  I tried pulling the cable straight out, but it wouldn’t budge.  Finally I jiggled it a bit and it broke free.  Once out, you put the locking end into the pink “holster” shown above, while riding.  When you are ready to terminate the ride, you park the bike (properly  – more on this later!) and secure it by putting the lock back in place.

The Schwalbe tires were fine, offering some shock absorption, but the bike did bounce around and rattle a quite a bit while underway. The front-end handling of this bike is vastly improved over its predecessor, but even so it wants to fall into corners and is wobbly while getting underway, a fact made much worse by its sit up and beg riding position which doesn’t allow the cyclist to weight the bars for control.  Even so, slowing down while approaching stop lights, I was able to avoid putting a toe down (a long ways down it is!) for the most part, so slow speed handling is not bad for such a heavy machine.  While stopped with your foot down, the bike’s front end will flop over, so you have to actively keep the fork pointed straight ahead it to keep it upright.  The battery is mounted on the sloping downtube, and contains some very simplistic instructions on how to unlock and lock the bike.

The bike’s front rack is too small to hold a standard sized brief case, and the very tight bungee cord supplied will squash your bag and possibly even damage its contents.  Fortunately, I was using my “vegan” brief case which can take extreme abuse, as shown above, and still bounce back to normal.  There’s no bottle cage mount, and the rack itself is shallow.  Riding with a bag, even my lightweight one shown above, adversely affected the handling and made the front end more ponderous than in its unladen condition.  I smooshed my water bottle in, and hoped that it wouldn’t pop out while underway, which fortunately it did not.

Biketown does not provide any technical data regarding these bikes, except perhaps upon request, but I have been able to determine that the rear hub is a Nuvinci continuously variable unit as licensed to Enviolo.  I don’t know what groupset this is, but I did feel that the gear range provided was adequate for the steep hills I encounter on my usual routes.  You move the grip shift forward to lower the gearing, and back to ride in higher gears.  Shifting was seamless, as expected, but power delivery was very uneven.  On uphill stretches, it seems that the motor only responds to a higher cadence rather than to pressure on the cranks, which I found out while trying to get myself up Mt. Tabor.  Pedaling an 85 lbs bike up a steep hill with very little power assist is the stuff of muscle strains, as I found out the next day.  Finally, when I shifted to a REALLY low gear, the power kicked in and I was spinning away to the top.

Braking performance was adequate, but with such a heavy bike it takes longer to stop, so planning ahead is needed when approaching stops.  The rear brake was almost useless, but the front performed reasonably well on the four different journeys I took.  You’ll notice the difference in the feel of the brake levers – they are clearly operating two different kinds of brakes.  I worry about less experienced riders not understanding the extra time needed to slow down, especially in emergency situations, and given that average speeds are much higher on e-bikes.  But, there’s no danger of doing an endo on these machines.

The Biketown app is user friendly and intuitive to use.  When you want to ride, you open up the app and up pops a map of the bikes available in your area.  The app shows battery life (in miles) for any bike you click on, and also shows you the number of minutes estimated to walk to the bike of your choice, which you can reserve in advance if you want.  That, so far, would be completely unnecessary, as virtually no one is currently riding these bikes.  The above shows a recent screen shot taken from my iPhone app.  The map contains no legend, which turned out to be an important omission, potentially costing a lot of money to unsuspecting riders (see more below).

Pricing of rides has been controversial.  For the four rides I took recently, I spent a total of $15.60 and traveled a mere 7 miles.  At 20 cents per minute (without $99 membership fee which lowers the price to 10 cents per minute), I also racked up extra $1 charges whenever I didn’t park the bike at at “station”.  Even though the instructions on the bike say it can be parked at any “public” bike rack, there’s a $1 charge whenever it is not left at a “station”.  The map on my iPhone doesn’t clearly identify stations, but even if it did, parking the bike wherever one ends up is the ideal situation, and I think it’s unfortunate that the Biketown folks decided to tack on this extra charge, as it reduces the bikes’ usefulness as an alternative to other transport modes.

To determine whether you should spring for the $99 annual fee, I created this formula, where X represents the breakeven number of rides and Y = the average number of minutes per ride.  In the formula below, I’ve set Y at 15 minutes, which then yielded 40 rides per year as the breakeven for buying a membership:

(15*.2)*X+(X*1)=99+((15*.1)*x))

My last ride of the four I took on these bikes ended unpleasantly.  I wanted to ride the bike home, and park nearby.  Of course, there are no public racks in Portland’s residential neighborhoods (but clearly there should be).  So, the next best thing was to leave the bike in Mt. Tabor park, locked up to a sign post, but away from the right of way for pedestrians.  As it turns out, I was charged a $25 fee, later waived, for parking in a “no parking zone”.  How do we know it’s a no parking zone?  As I said, there’s no legend on the map, but I finally learned that anything outlined in red is a no parking zone.  So, beware, and study your map closely before locking up.

All of which is counterproductive to the whole idea behind these bikeshare programs. If the goal is to reduce driving, I can’t see that happening with this program, except for maybe the short “last mile” jaunts or quick trips near someone’s workplace.  If the goal is economic justice and greater access to transit for low income populations, these bikes fail on three counts:  stations are non existent along large swaths of north and northeast Portland, the cost is astronomical compared to public transit, and the bikes are not capable of hauling groceries and work tools.  While they do go faster than regular bikes, that efficiency is quickly lost in the time it takes to locate and walk to one of these bikes. The lack of available helmets, combined with the extra speed and ponderous handling characteristics raises safety concerns as well.

I do think that e-bikes represent a great opportunity to get people out of their cars and moving for transit, but I don’t see bikeshare as a way to optimize this.  Someday, I may own an e-bike, and be glad for it, but in the meantime I’m planning on enjoying my vintage, lightweight steel machines, with their wonderful performance and superb handling.

 

 

Reinterpreting a 1978 Peugeot PR65

I’ve had a  blue 1978 Peugeot PR65 in my shop for some time.  The bike was 100% original when I acquired it, and is in beautiful condition.  I had put it together after its arrival from France, but was unhappy with the ergonomics and with some of the components.

There were two versions of the PR65 in 1978, but only one appears to have been built with the Reynolds 531 tubing used on this bike – the “luxe” model.

The paint quality is very nice, and the bike looks nearly new.  All of the nicer components of this era are present – a Stronglight TS 3 arm crankset with 48/38 rings, Mafac Racers, Mavic rims and Bluemels fenders to name a few.

Plastic Simplex components removed.

Simplex shifters removed.

But the incredibly uncomfortable ergonomics (long top tube combined with low stem and no rise porteur bars) along with the ugly plastic-infused Simplex components made me want to make some changes, which is not something I will usually do with a 100% original bike.  But, a bike that gets ridden is always a better bike than one that is not.

A good example of the hideousness of Simplex’ obsession with plastic during this era is shown above.  A normally elegant downtube cable guide is made into a bizarre monstrosity.  Often these plastic components will break, especially the plastic clamp for the front derailleur, so I also regard these plastic Simplex components as unreliable.

Simplex dropout as modified to accept both Shimano style and Huret derailleurs.

Notch engagement on the Huret derailleur.

B screw engagement for a Shimano style derailleur.

First up was the need to do something about the Simplex dropouts, since I wanted to have other rear derailleur options.  I decided to attempt to file notches in the the plain round unthreaded dropout, and to tap it out to 10M.  I created both a “7 o’clock” notch for Shimano style derailleurs, as well as a set of notches for Huret.  The process took quite a while, but I was successful.

Wanting to be true to the bike’s French heritage, I chose to use replace the Simplex components with Huret, selecting a Svelto for the rear derailleur.  The Huret front derailleur is a bottom pull style that needs housing, so an appropriate Huret cable guide with a housing stop is also needed, as shown above.

Replacing the bars was also not a simple swap, due to the French sized steerer tube.  Since I wanted to use a modern upright handlebar, I needed to sand an appropriate stem down to French size (22.2 to 22.0), which also takes a bit of time and patience.  This is a vintage Cinelli stem mated to a set of Nitto tourist bars.  I needed some strong and reliable shifters to handle the Svelto rear derailleur, and these lovely vintage Suntour bar mounts do a great job.

The bike as now configured is amazingly comfortable – perfect for commuting and for exploring.  If I were to keep this bike, I would probably cold set the rear triangle to 126mm (from 120mm), and build a set of 650b wheels around a nice, vintage hubset.  This would allow use of wider tires than the 700c x 28mm tires shown above, which is about as wide as the bike will accept with the Bluemels fenders.  I’m planning to list this bike soon on my store page, so I’m hoping it will find a new home and have a chance to get back out on the road, as the bike certainly has many miles to go, and will get you there in true French style.

Selecting a Vintage Crankset

1940’s Stronglight 49D

All of my bikes, from “newest” to most vintage are set up with vintage cranksets. I prefer the quality of the finish and materials as well as the reliability of the chainrings and crankarms to newer models.  Of course, there have always been lower end models in any product line, but even low budget vintage cranksets are often superior to their modern day counterparts.

Even my 1990’s Terry ( a NOS frame which I built up with vintage components) features an early ’80s Shimano 600 crankset that has simply never worn out over decades of use. This model is a triple, with separate drilling on the inside of the spider which allows the 30T inner ring to be installed.  Some triple cranksets are equipped this way, rather than reducing the bolt circle diameter (“BCD”) of the spider.

Stronglight 99 with drilled rings, 86mm BCD

T.A. Cyclotouriste crankset with 50.4 BCD

Vintage cranksets are often beautifully made, using a square taper connection to the bottom bracket, and featuring a variety of crank arm lengths, generally ranging from 160mm to 175mm, and bolt circle diameters which vary from the tiny Stronglight 49 & T.A. models 50.4mm diameter used on touring bikes up to 144mm used on high end racing bikes which need larger rings.

Stronglight Model 80 with 86mm BCD

1980’s Ofmega crankset with 144mm BCD

Selecting the right vintage crankset for your bicycles involves many considerations which include:  crank arm and chainring material (steel vs. alloy);  chainring spider design (5 arm vs 3); chain-line and spindle length, crank arm length, torque settings for the attachment bolts, the attachment to the spindle ( square taper ISO vs. JIS, or cottered), number of rings (1,2 or 3); and the all important measurement –  bolt circle diameter (BCD), which determines the smallest ring you can use.  Other ancillary considerations include whether or not to use elliptical chainrings, threading characteristics of the crankbolts and bottom bracket, and what kind of pedal threading you have on the crankarms.

The smaller the BCD, the smaller the chainring you can use with the crankset.  This is very important.  Cyclists who need lower gearing want cranksets with smaller BCDs, so that they can ride steep hills and haul stuff, whether it be a change of clothes, a touring kit, or the week’s groceries.  Unfortunately, many off the shelf cranksets feature large bolt circle diameters, often 130 which can only accept a 38T ring as the smallest. While this shortcoming can be overcome by a triple crank with a smaller inner ring BCD, many cyclists including myself prefer the simplicity of a double crank.  There are many examples of older triple cranksets, but plenty of vintage double cranksets are designed for a wide gear range.  How did they do it?  A smaller bolt circle diameter is the answer.

This T.A. Cyco-touriste crankset shown above is one way to achieve a wide gear range using a two ring crankset.  You’ll see that there is a large tooth difference between the outer and inner rings.  That means it is necessary to use a front derailleur specifically designed to handle the big shift between the inner and outer rings, such as the Simplex Super LJ shown above, which has a large inner cage plus a relatively steep angle on its parallelogram, plus a long cage rear derailleur.

1947 Stronglight crankset with Rosa rings and reverse threading on the non drive side crank bolt, lockring, and BB cup.

If you are using a single chainring, you can’t go wrong with a Stronglight 49D which can accomodate virtually any chainring size that is made. Older French bicycles sometimes featured reverse threading for all the BB components, as on my 1947 Camille Daudon.  French cranksets generally have French pedal threading on the crankarms.  However, it is not difficult to tap out French threading to English if needed, as long as you have the right tools. Velo Orange has a good discussion of this process here. There are still plenty of French threaded pedals available if you find yourself in need.

PWB Prague Warsaw Berlin Favorit crankset

1940’s Rene Herse 3 arm crankset

1947 Peugeot cottered 3 arm crankset

1970’s Stronglight 3 arm crankset

Most vintage cranksets have 5 arm spiders, but some have 3 arms, such as Rene Herse and Stronglight as well as other vintage models, as shown above.  If your crank has a 3 arm spider, you’ll be limited in ring choice, since 5 arm cranks were the standard for many decades.  However, 3 arm cranks are lighter weight, and can look quite elegant without sacrificing strength and reliability.  And, believe it or not, cottered cranks are not necessarily low-end.  Many are very lightweight and strong, as in the beautiful Favorit PWB set on my 1950’s Oscar Egg mixte, shown above.

Sugino crankset with 152mm arms

While much is written, studied and debated regarding the right crank arm length for your cycling endeavors, I hold to the most logical analysis:  shorter cranks for shorter cyclists.  As Georgena Terry has quipped, if we were all 3 feet tall, we would design bikes suited for our bodies’ geometry.  Isn’t that obvious?  Apparently not, but I encourage riders to experiment with a variety of crank arm lengths, as well as to research the health risks associated with riding too long crank arms for one’s height.

Most off the shelf crank arms come in the 170 mm length.  But there are many lengths available, ranging from the shorter 152mm arms up to 185mm or more.  Shorter arms are ideal for bikes with lower bottom bracket heights (which I prefer), and for most of my bikes I use 165mm.  For me, this length offers a comfortable cadence, and minimizes pedal strikes while cornering.

Spindle length is important because it determines whether you can use a double or triple crankset.  The longer the spindle, the greater the clearance of the chainrings from the chainstays.  However, you also need to make sure that your chainline is proper given the crankset and spindle you have chosen.  Ideal chainline is when the chain follows a straight line back to about the middle of the rear cogs when it is inbetween the two rings (or on the middle ring if a triple).  While chainline can be adjusted by rearranging the spacers on a rear axle, it’s also important to make sure that you are using the correct spindle length to insure the best placement for the chain. You can also add spacers to the drive side BB to move the chain out a few millimeters, which is especially helpful if chainstay clearance is a problem.  Park Tools has a good discussion of chainline concepts here.

1941 Goeland with Cyclo cottered crankset

Crankset selection can seem daunting, but it is important to remember that most vintage cranksets, whether square taper or cottered, will be an attractive and reliable addition to your current ride.