About Nola Wilken

Cycling enthusiast and owner of Restoring Vintage Bicycles; CPA/Founder of Wilken & Company, P.C., CPAs

The Lowly Seatpost

1920’s CCS clamp

Seatposts are an often ignored and misunderstood component. If you’ve ever replaced a saddle or a seatpost, or adjusted your saddle to fit your riding style, you’ll know what I mean.  A well designed seatpost is critical to riding comfort, yet rarely do cyclists give much thought to the component, simply tolerating whatever seatpost they are currently using.

The world of seatposts is surprisingly varied and complex, with many features to be considered, including seatpost diameter, clamp style, saddle rail style, angle adjustment, and fore/aft positioning.  The seatpost conundrum is part of the saddle mystery, and when working together properly they can solve part of the puzzle of rider discomfort.

Late 1800’s seatpost

Late 1800’s seatpost for bamboo frame

Historically, seatposts were first designed to allow fore and aft adjustment via a sliding clamp on a horizontal tube.  Saddle height was usually adjusted via a binder bolt on the frame’s seat tube. The bamboo bike shown above, however doesn’t have a height adjustable seatpost because it is incorporated into the ornate lugs binding the frame together. (Photo credit:  The American Bicycle (c) 1995 Jay Pridmore & Jim Hurd).

Lever actuated design

Later, mid-Century component makers focused on fore/aft adjustment, with some designs allowing for adjustment while pedaling!  As shown above, the Grimpex and the Alpina allowed the rider to reach under the saddle and loosen the clamp in order to move the saddle back and forth while riding.  There was even a lever actuated model, although I can’t quite figure out how this worked. Cycling lore of the time held that it was critical to sit in a different position relative to the handlebars while ascending and descending steep hills.  Fortunately, this “innovation” died out as most cyclists would have no need to make such onboard adjustments.  These seatposts would also have been heavy in comparison to standard designs.  And most importantly: yikes!  (Text credit:  Rebour (c) 2013 Rob Van Der Plas).

The ubiquitous steel clamp

For the masses, cyclists were offered those funky steel clamps that fit over a straight seatpost (also often steel). Straight seatposts are found on vintage British bikes, French bikes, and some early mountain bikes.  A narrower section at the top allows you to mount the clamp, to which the saddle is affixed. These clamps typically came with different numbers of serrations ranging from 24 to 54.  The more serrations on your clamp, the better chance you have of getting the most suitable angle on the saddle.  However, according to Fred Delong, even the high serration count produced an angle difference of about 7 degrees which is still a big jump in the saddle angle.  That’s why seatposts with true micro-adjusting clamps are better.

These clamps also require a LOT of tightening so that you don’t find yourself in a new position after hitting bump, but I’ve also stripped the threads on these clamps trying to get them to hold.  You can find higher quality clamps made for straight seatposts which also offer true micro adjustment, such as the clamp on my Brompton.

Campagnolo’s double bolt design, a true micro adjusting seatpost, was also introduced mid-Century and was definitely an innovation.  The downside was doing the actual adjustment which required patience as well as a special 10mm wrench.  This is an elegant seatpost, but maddening to use in practice due to the adjustment and tightening difficulty.

Photo Credit: Delong’s Guide to Bicycles & Bicycling (c) 1974 Fred Delong

Credit: Bicycle Design by Tony Hadland & Hans-Erhard Lessing (c) 2014

As time progressed, a lot of different ideas emerged, especially in regard to micro-adjustment.  The above scans show designs by Nitor, Ideale, and Simplex.  There’s also a lightened seatpost from France-Loire and a ratcheting model by Vincar.

A special problem for vintage bicycle restorers is the flat rail saddle carriage (often made from “Dural” or “Duralumin”) featured on the higher end saddles of the time. The above scans show offerings from Dumont, Mansfield and Ideale. These saddles require a special clamp.

I have such a saddle on my 1947 Camille Daudon.  It features a custom seatpost handmade by Daudon.  But, one of the clamp brackets had failed.  Daudon used an alloy clamp, which was unusual for 1947. Not being able to find a replacement, I modified a double rail steel clamp and got it to work by straightening the brackets in my vice to match the shape of the original brackets.  Not the best solution, but a decent hack for now.

J.P. Routens seatpost with angled clamp

Vintage Titan seatpost

Simplex single rail

Seatpost diameter indicator

25.0 American Classic for ALAN bicycles

While modern seatposts are mostly utilitarian (with the exception of Nitto), vintage seatposts were often elegant as well as innovative.  And, higher end vintage seatposts offer the same micro adjustment that’s available on current models.  If you are working with a straight seatpost and clamp, you may be able to upgrade the clamp to a model with more micro adjustment, but still preserve the original seatpost.  Or, you can simply decide to replace your vintage seatpost with a higher end vintage offering such as a Simplex, Nitor, or Campagnolo model.  For seatpost and saddle adjustment tips, I recommend visiting the Sheldon Brown site, for this article authored by bike guru John Allen. If you are experiencing discomfort while riding, it may take a while to figure out what’s wrong.  One thing I’ve learned when making adjustments:  resist the urge to make more than one adjustment at a time.  Don’t adjust saddle height and the fore/aft position simultaneously.  Don’t change saddle angle and bar height.  Do each of these separately and take long enough test rides to feel the effects of each change.  It can take time to get to the perfect solution for cycling comfort, and if your seatpost is part of the problem, consider replacing it.  There are many fine vintage seatposts available to solve the seatpost conundrum.

1976 Bicycling! Magazine

On this bitter cold snowy day in Portland, Oregon I took a nostalgia trip back to the 1970’s.  Long ago, I had a copy of this 1976 Bicycling! magazine edition but it had somehow gone missing.  I’ve been searching for another one since, and finally found a copy in good shape on eBay.  So, since cycling today (or tomorrow or the next day) is likely out of the question due to record snowfall and below freezing temperatures, it was fun to spend time perusing this mag’s fascinating pages.

The ads in vintage cycling magazines are actually as interesting (or more so) than the articles themselves.  Here’s Campagnolo making its case for the Super Record rear derailleur.  Catching my eye immediately was the “removable stop for easy disassembly” so that the derailleur can be properly serviced.  That’s a big contrast to today’s black box, unserviceable and throw away technology and one of the many reasons why I prefer vintage components.

Pricing is also interesting.  This Masi could be had for $699 from beloved Bikecology (whose mail order catalogs were legendary).  Likewise, framesets from well regarded builders were also on offer.  In today’s prices, the Masi would go for $3,675.

Here’s some book reviews up top, plus an ad for Barelli Supreme pedals.  I’ve got some of these pedals in my shop.  They are amazingly smooth, but I’m not likely to use them since I no longer ride with toe clips.

Here are some new products featured at the 1976 Cologne Bicycle Show.  Note the Shimano attempt at early indexing, as well as a strange saddle design from Sella Royal.

But the real reason I wanted this edition of Bicycling! magazine was the review of the 1976 Centurion Pro Tour – my touring bike for over 20 years.  The review sings its well deserved praise, with only a few nit picks.  I put over 40,000 miles on my model and the bike was a true friend.

Here’s my Pro Tour from an early 1980’s ride up in the San Juan Islands.

The magazine has an ad for the same front bag I used over those years, made by Eclipse.  It worked well, and I liked the simple frame which looped under the stem and supported the bag without the need for a front rack.  The map case, side pockets and easy front access were great features in the days before smart phones.  I normally stored my camera plus snacks and extra gloves up front.

Here’s a few more pages featuring ads from Mathauser (maker of oddball “finned” brake pads), Zeus, and even Chuck Harris’ mirror company (I featured Chuck in the previous blog post).

I’m looking forward to being able to get back out on the road, but it was fun to take a trip down memory lane today.  Vintage bicycles and components have a lot to offer and I’m glad to be able to share my enthusiasm.  Happy cycling!

Discovering Chuck Harris

While recently perusing my 1976 Bikelopedia compendium, authored by Fred DeLong, I began looking more closely at the illustrations, as they seemed unusual in their free-hand style, depicting a whimsical contrast to the precision of Daniel Rebour’s artistry.  Bikelopedia is a compilation of Fred Delong’s columns in Bicycling! Magazine, which first appeared in 1970.  This edition of Bikelopedia contains Fred’s informative and sometimes grumpy responses to reader inquiries appearing in Bicycling! magazine since 1970.  It also includes a few other authors who helped prepare answers to cycling technical questions of the day.  And some of the articles in this compendium were never previously published.

Studying the intro page led me to the mysterious illustrator’s name:  Chuck Harris.  As this was a name I was not previously familiar with, I took to the internet to uncover what I could.  As it turns out, Chuck Harris was a well regarded engineer, tinkerer, manufacturer and promoter of unusual gearing options, including modified derailleurs and freewheels.  He happily welded bikes together to make homemade tandems, and championed lightweight touring bikes long before the American public figured out that their American bicycle choices were unacceptably limited. He was also known as the “Mirror Man” for constructing bicycle eyeglass mirrors made from recycled and repurposed objects.  He handmade 88,000 of them before his death in 2012, among many other accomplishments, including operating the Ultra Lightweight Touring Bike Shop in various towns in Ohio over the years.  The bicycle depicted in the above drawing is one of Chuck’s own bikes.

There’s even a self portrait of Chuck on page 78 of this booklet, wherein a reader asks about where to acquire a rear view mirror.  Chuck’s company is not mentioned in the response, which seems like a bit of a slight to the hard working illustrator.  But as it turns out, Chuck himself authored these responses and was probably not allowed to mention his own company.

There are two articles about Chuck Harris in Grant Peterson’s Rivendell Reader, which he has graciously allowed access to at http://notfine.com/rivreader/.  The second article, authored by Tom Gensemer appeared in the #21 edition (year 2000) and featured a discussion of Chuck’s interesting take on derailleurs and gearing. The above photo depicts page 2 of the article.

The other Rivendell Reader article was authored by Sheldon Brown (RIP) and appeared in the #5 edition in 1994.  This article discusses how Chuck came to invent the first American derailleur, explaining that he was inspired by seeing a drawing of a Nivex derailleur in a French cyclotouring magazine in the 1940s/1950s.  According to Sheldon, Chuck’s extra long cage derailleurs were known as the “Beach Hill” models, needed by Chuck to ascend the steep hill leading to his Southern New Hampshire neighborhood.  The derailleur mounted on the chainstay and featured a low-normal design and a floating lower pulley. He also modified freewheels to get a 40 tooth option, taking an aluminum sheet, drilling out, hacksawing and sanding it to the finished product then adding it to an existing freewheel.

Chuck also invented a pedal powered lawn mower and also used pedal power to operate his shop equipment.  He was a penultimate innovator and wanted to use existing materials wherever possible.  He was clearly ahead of his time.

Chuck was also an author and wrote this article for the August 1972 edition of Bicycling! magazine.  He describes how to convert a SunTour Honor derailleur to handle more extreme gearing options, in this case a freewheel up to 34 teeth and a chainring down to 24 teeth.  He preferred a wide gear ratio, and his own bikes were equipped with his modified derailleurs and freewheels that allowed a 15-133 gear inch range.  Wow!

Interestingly, Chuck was not well known for his cycling illustrations.  So, I’m including another page here for your enjoyment.

I’d love to have one of Chuck’s derailleurs in my collection, so if any readers know if any still exist, please let me know.

More information can be found about Chuck’s interesting life at the following links:

Looking Back at Chuck Harris, Cycling Innovator

Click to access 201104_MirrorMan_Siple.pdf