Short People Got Nobody

1980s’s ALAN with 24 inch wheels

Randy Newman’s silly tune “Short People” was unfortunately taken literally rather than as its intended satire by the listening public when it was released back in 1977.  So, I heard this song all too often in the wrong context in those days – with people I knew laughingly singing the lyrics while mocking their friends of shorter stature, seemingly with full license from Randy himself.

But, the song was intended instead to mock those who held such discriminatory, narrow views of other humans who were ever so slightly different from themselves – a problem of human nature which seems to know no end or bounds (current events confirm this resoundingly).

The cycling industry is a casualty of such views, not only with regard to human stature, but also with regard to gender and race.

One of my quests has been to educate cyclists about the world they encounter when trying to find the appropriate bicycle for their needs.  In an ideal world, there would be no bias toward any particular size or type of bicycle.  Instead, bicycles would be manufactured according to the variation of human sizes, and according to their intended purposes (and that is to say that only a tiny fraction of bicycles would be “racing bicycles”).

1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist with 26″ wheels

The opposite was true for many recent decades.  Bicycles manufactured to fit only a certain taller human were offered, and all such bicycles were conceived as racing machines, since that is what appealed to the western, white male mass culture of the times.

The needs of daily riders, smaller cyclists, older cyclists, non-male, and non-white cyclists, and differently-abled cyclists were never considered.  Economic justice issues as they relate to transportation were not even in the vocabulary.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about what has changed and is changing in the industry, and how those changes address these basic inequalities:

1980’s Viner – converted to 650c

Wheel size:  the move toward smaller wheels for smaller frames is finally underway…again.  There was no bias in the early days of cycling toward any particular sized wheel.  Velocio” championed small wheeled bicycles from the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s as more efficient, even though he was of taller stature than most humans.  Georgena Terry is a modern day pioneer of small wheeled bicycles.  She continues to design frames around the anatomy of cyclists who are of smaller stature. Rodriguez Cycles, builder of custom frames in Seattle, also figured this out long ago, offering many frames designed for  650b, 650c and 26″ wheel sizes. Brompton, Bike Friday and other builders of small wheeled and foldable bicycles (which can be ridden by humans of any size) are also part of the solution.  Grant Petersen of Rivendell began offering smaller frames designed for 26″ and 650b wheels decades ago, well ahead of any current wheel size trends.

1990’s fillet brazed Terry Symmetry

Frame size, construction and materials:  While I love and prefer lugged steel frames, fillet brazed steel frames offer much in the way of customization for tube angles.  Georgena Terry’s smaller frames feature fillet brazing, with a sloping top tube.  Purchasers of her custom built frames can specify the degree of slope they prefer.  But one thing to remember is that for any cyclist who is actually riding a bicycle with appropriate sized wheels, they also need to carefully consider top tube length, which for me is the most important measurement on a bike’s frame.  The Terry that I include in my constellation of daily riders is a fillet brazed off the shelf Tange steel model from the 90’s.  The short 51 cm top tube means that I experience a comfortable ride, even on long hauls.  The 559 wheels allow for a large head tube – and that means an overall very comfortable ride, with more steel underneath the rider to absorb road shock.  Shorter cyclists should rule out most modern aluminum frames, as they will be much too stiff and uncomfortable due to their smaller overall size.  One exception is vintage ALAN frames (or any other bonded aluminum frame) from the 70’s to the 90’s.  These aluminum frames can actually be more flexible and comfortable than their steel counterparts.

Photo credit J. Maus

The crazy obsession with stand over height:  When was the last time you had an unfortunate encounter with your bike’s top tube?  Probably, if you are an adult, the answer is NEVER.  There really is no reason to fret over whether you have just the right amount of stand-over height for your bicycle (whatever that is) unless you are planning to use your bike for stunts.  It’s very easy to dismount a slightly taller bike than one you would normally ride and lean it over at stops.  If you have ever been to Portland, you’ll enjoy seeing the occasional tall bike making its way through traffic.  The rider has no chance of putting a foot down at stops, and instead learns to balance and maneuver their odd contraption, sans traditional bike fitting advice.

1980’s Panasonic Mountain Bike converted to City Commuter

1980 Meral custom frame converted to 650b

And, summing up:  if you are a shorter cyclist looking to get back in to cycling, or to find a bicycle better suited for your build, DON’T go to your Local Bike Shop (at least not initially).  Look at the bike you currently have:  can it be converted to a smaller wheel size?  If not, I advise purchasing an appropriate frame (or having it custom built), and then building it up to your spec’s from there.  Better yet, learn how to do this yourself by enrolling in the many bike maintenance classes that are available in your city.  Smaller lugged steel mountain bike frames make wonderful and inexpensive commuter bikes – but pay attention to the top tube length.  And, there are many lugged steel vintage 700c frames that are good candidates for conversion to 650b.

4 thoughts on “Short People Got Nobody

  1. A bit off topic but I’m curious if how you feel about the rear u-brake on your Panasonic… I have a similar bike that needs restoration but am on the fence due to the u-brake.

    People seems to poo poo u-brakes but are they that much worse than cantilevers? What is your experience with the Panasonic?

    • I have no issues with U brakes. Since they are on the rear wheel, they don’t need to have the same performance characteristics as the front brake, where 70 percent of your braking power is. I have Dia Compe U brakes on the Panasonic. They work fine but are challenging to set up due to the small clearances for the straddle cable.

  2. Yes, I’d also like to see some better tire options for 650b, 650c, 26″. In my experience as a small rider, tires feel different for us than most people. The bicycle I ride the most has 23x 700c tires due to limited clearance and I do not find them too narrow at all. My husband found even 650bx38mm to wide and sluggish! The most narrow 650b tires are 32mm, which is kind of wide for a small light person. 650c does not have the ‘supple’ options that 650b, 26″ or 700c now has. So I’d like to see some more supple but more narrow 650b and wider 650c tire options. It is getting challenging to find grand bois cypres 650b x 32 tires.

  3. I am on the other side of the equation. At 6’4″ I am at the upper limit of what is commonly available. A poorly designed frame (high bottom bracket, short wheel base) leaves me levitating somewhere above the bike, most uncomfortable, I feel like a circus bear. I did not realize the difference until riding an old Schwinn Super Sport, the bottom bracket was so low that I actually had the peddle touch down in a turn! When was the last time THAT happened… oh, wait… restoring vintage bicycles .com, hmm… I guess you would know. But the differences! It just feels like I am in the bike, part of it.
    So I keep an eye out for accommodations on both sides of the scale. I am curious what you think of the Surly Long Haul Trucker with 26″ wheels or the new Pack Rat? The Straggler 650B comes in the smaller size, but it seems it would be crowded with 650Bs, at least compared to 26″s.
    At the other end of the scale I found the Genesis 32″ Super Cruiser. Yep, 32″ wheels! I is not actually meant for taller riders (the seat post it comes with is way to short for that) but to make normal sized people feel like a little kid riding an adult bike. It is also the epitome of a cheep disposable bike, which is not surprising considering the price. But it is so much fun! The peddles have already died, and oh how the bottom bracket worries me, it has the old 5/8″ shallow flats! I am going to have to be proactive if I am going to make it last. Any ideas or recommendations, things that you as a restorer wish the previous or original owner would have done?
    And thanks for the blog, it really is a wonderful read!

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