Bicycles with 650B wheels are nicely suited to a relaxed riding style. The wider rims and greater clearances on the bike’s frame allow for plump, comfortable tires. Often, vintage 650B bicycles are set up as city style bikes, with minimal gears and an upright position for the cyclist.
My recently acquired early 1980’s Meral randonneuse cried out for a 650B conversion. It was built with Vitus 788 tubing around a set of narrow, 700c rims. The bike as originally configured had a high bottom bracket and minimal tire clearances. These elements would normally indicate an ideal bicycle for a 650B conversion. Still, I wasn’t sure if I would be successful converting the bike, because the brake clearances were odd – with the front brake having less reach than the rear brake. In times past, competitive oriented bicycles were sometimes built with more brake reach in the rear than the front, and that was so that a shorter reach and therefore stronger brake could be used at the front end.
The rear brake reach on this bike is greater than the front by more than several millimeters. When it came time to install the Mafac Raid long reach brakes, this fact made me concerned. In order to have the rear Mafac Raid brake pads contact the new 650B rim, I needed to angle them down slightly, which is not ideal. There are other options for dealing with brake reach problems, including installing brackets (a la Sheldon), and filing some material off of the caliper arms, to allow the brake pads to sit a bit lower. None of those options appealed to me.
I decided to ignore the problem for now, as the front brake reach was perfect for the conversion to 650B, with plenty of room to position the brake pads correctly. I am using Velo-Orange’s smooth post “squeal free” pads for this set up – and they are working perfectly and as advertised. Since the front brake provides 70% of a bike’s stopping power, I haven’t noticed any issues involving the angled rear brake pads. Meanwhile, here are some photos of the rest of the build:
This project was loads of fun, thanks to the beauty and quality of this vintage Meral bicycle. The custom fenders and rack were a perfect match to its new Town and Country personality. V-O’s thumbies worked well for this build – they can be used with just about any type of shifter so are more adaptable than their Paul’s competitor.
I used a lower end 650B wheelset that I will not purchase again, and I consider the wheels as a placeholder for now. Probably I will build the ideal wheelset for this bike when the time comes, and will sort out the lighting options at that time. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy these photos of this amazing vintage bicycle which now has a new lease on life. I have included the specs and full build list at the bottom of this post.
The specs and build list are as follows:
Frame and fork: Early 1980’s Meral with Vitus 788 steel tubing, 54 cm ST, 56 cm TT, through the frame brake and dynamo wiring, 2 rack mounts on the seat stays, 2 rack mounts on the fork, bottle cage mount, shifter braze-ons, ST dynamo braze-on, 127 rear spacing.
Drive Train: Vintage Sugino crankarms and Sugino drilled 42T ring; new 7 speed cassette, vintage Lyotard pedals, Shimano SLX rear derailleur, original T.A. bottom bracket, replacement T.A. spindle of shorter length, V-O thumbie with vintage Campagnolo friction shifter.
Braking: Vintage Mafac Raid long reach centerpull brakes, new V-O smooth post pads, new Tektro vintage style levers, new blue color matched housing.
Wheelset & Tires: New 650b wheelset: Shimano Tiagra hubs on Velocity A23 rims (purchased from Harris), tires and wheelset are placeholders for now.
Saddle and Seatpost: Original Brooks Professional saddle, original JP Routens slanted seatpost clamp.
Bars, stem and headset: new Soma Oxford handlebars and Nitto Technomic stem (sanded to French 22.0 steerer size), original French Stronglight headset.
Accessories: Original Meral custom steel fenders, original Meral custom steel front rack, new V-O bottle cage.
Looking spectacular, Nola!
I’m curious to get your review on the Tektro vintage style levers as I have that exact setup (including the Paul thumbies and Brooks grips) on my Raleigh Portage. Personally, I feel like the levers look a better part than they perform. They aren’t bad but haven’t wow’d me yet either. It could also be my caliper configuration so here’s to hoping you have better results.
The Tektro levers do look the part. I will say that the similarly designed vintage levers whose appearance they evoke are not necessarily on par with other city style bar levers. Thanks for the heads up.
Looks like a lovely conversion of a randonneuse to a townie. Great job. For the rear brake drop, you might want to check the Mafac brake bridge. The Competitions, Racers and 2000s sometimes had deeper bridges and you might be able to just bolt up an alternate bridge and get the extra reach.
That’s a great recommendation which I will pursue. Thanks!
What a gorgeous job you have done! I’m interested to see the follow up work on this.
Are the tires Michelin World Tours? They are a dirt-cheap 650b tire, what’s your impression so far? Have you also tried Col de la Vie for comparison? The only “placeholder” tires I’ve tried are the Soma B Lines. I have found them to be smaller than advertised, but very adequate for commuting and light gravel – essentially the 650b version of Panaracer Paselas. For more “serious” duty, I much prefer Compass or Pacenti tires – they feel heavenly!
Thanks, David. The tires are low end Kendas. The opposite of supple! It took a long time to seat them on the A23 rims, which I don’t believe are well suited to a 650b application. The tires are not as bad as I would have expected however. They offer a decent ride at a rock bottom price and should last forever. I agree that Compass has a number of nice offerings for 650b. I’ve tried the Col de la Vie tires a few times. They are very reliable and strong tires, but I did find them a bit noisy and slow.
Weinmann 800 and 900 had enough reach for your rear, and had about the same width between pivots as the Raid. Not common but not at all expensive when you locate one. Here –
The other possibility is to have a framebuilder lower the brake bridge. This is not nearly so drastic as it sounds. Won’t be free and paint touchup is a bit daunting. I’ve had really excellent color matching in similar circumstances but hard to guarantee.
The reason for shorter brakes at front was simple and practical. When frames automatically had a level top tube and that level tube was enforced by standard lug dimensions small frames had clearance problems. Builders also liked to have at least some head tube between the lugs to resist bending force from the fork. There was not enough room to accommodate a standard reach brake on little frames. The only other way to get head tube length was to raise the bottom bracket and get a shallower slope from BB to lower head lug. This of course raised the top tube. Resulting in model runs where the three smallest frame sizes would all have the same standover. People used to be shorter and many more small frames were produced. All the possibilities were explored.
Once a manufacturer had ordered a stock of split dimensioned brake calipers simple enough to use them throughout the line. On tourist bikes this made fitting fenders a problem, on racing bikes no problem at all.
The ancients, of which I am one, were not so concerned/fixated with the minutia of brake geometry as the moderns seem to be. Fifty-two years now of enthusiast riding, never heard a discussion of brake caliper geometry until perhaps ten years ago. The brakes stop you or they don’t. Nearly all brakes do stop fine.
Thanks, John. These are other options to consider for the rear brake, and I find your discussion of the shorter reach brake up front interesting. I built a 650b frame for myself a while back and had to make the same decision regarding making the top tube taller so that the head tube was long enough for both sets of lugs to fit. I also had to make the top tube longer than I originally wanted to reduce toe overlap. Your comment regarding 3 of the smaller frames in a production run all having the same standover height is another indication that s/o height was not an obsession like it is now, and for me it is not a problem to ride a “too tall” frame.
Dear Nola. I wanted to ask about a custom bicycle restoration. Do you offer such services. These are beautiful bicycles and it would be a shame to buy a new one rather than reuse an existing machine.
Isabella, I don’t currently take on new resto projects due to my backlog. I hope you find the right person for your project.