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 Terry Symmetry

Frame size, construction and materials:  While I love and prefer lugged steel frames, fillet brazed and TIG welded 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 TIG welded 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.

Tires I have loved, and a few I have hated.

Cypres 650b

The amazing array of wheel diameters, tire widths, tread patterns, sidewall construction, and the debate over fat vs. skinny widths, and high vs. low tire pressure inspired me to share my own experience with bicycle tires.

I am also a motorcyclist, so my knowledge of tire performance and traction is informed by my understanding of how tires function on motorcycles. A lot of the same science carries over to bicycles.

In my own personal collection of bikes I can count 9 different rim diameters:  700B, 27″, 700c, 650c, 650b, 26″ metric, 26″ English, 26″ MTB, and 24″.  From there, rim widths vary, spoke counts and lacing vary, and tire widths vary.  Wheel construction also has a very important impact on ride quality. In my opinion, more spokes on the rim are better than fewer, and wider rims are better than narrower ones, at least for all non-racing applications (that is to say, most of the entire cycling population).

The research on tire width and construction relative to speed and comfort is very limited.  So I give kudos to Jan Heine and his team for sounding the alarm about narrow high pressure tires and their negative effect on performance.  Not to mention their negative effect on comfort, and the limiting effect they have on a cyclist’s ability to safely explore her or his surroundings.  Since most cyclists don’t have hundreds to spend on tires, not to mention thousands to spend on custom built bicycles, it is important to consider real world, long-lived, and reasonably priced tire and rim options.  Cyclists who use their bikes regularly for transportation figured this out long ago.

For anyone struggling to understand the bizarre nomenclature surrounding tire sizing:  you are not alone.  There is no consistency in size labeling (although that is improving), and even among tires that are purportedly the same size, there can be perplexing variation which can make it hard to mount the right sized tire to your rim.  Sheldon Brown’s site has a sizing chart and discussion which help to explain the strangeness surrounding tire sizing nomenclature.  If you are confused, join the crowds!  When in doubt, always measure your effective rim diameter in order to determine the correct tire size for your bike.  If you are removing a tire, it’s quite easy just to look at the size indicated on the sidewall to make sure you replace the old tire with the correctly sized new tire.  If your rim doesn’t have a tire, it probably has a rim diameter stated somewhere on it, if it is a newer rim.  Many vintage rims have no diameter indicated.

700A tires from the Land of Oz

Original 1929 Dunlop Le Pneu tires

700B tires

When I was restoring a 1929 Griffon, I needed to replace the corroded Dunlop Le Pneu tires.  No diameter was indicated on the old tires, so I measured the rim diameter and ordered 700A (642 mm) tires, which had to be shipped from Australia, as they were not available anywhere else in the world that I could determine.  When they arrived and I tried mounting them, I realized that I should have ordered 700B (635 mm) tires.  I incorrectly measured the ERD on the 1929 Westwood rims.  In retrospect, since I had the original tires, I should have measured their diameter instead.  700A and 700B sizes are not listed on Sheldon Brown’s chart because they are considered obsolete.  However, I found the 700B tires on Amazon, but you may be able to find these sizes in Canada and France, in addition to Australia.

So, what are my favorite tires?  And what tires will I never willingly ride again?  Here is my list:

My top three preferred tires for comfort, speed, and reliability are:

Compass Loup Loup Pass 650b tires

Panasonic Compass Loup Loup Pass 650b 38 mm – I use these on my 1980 Meral.  They are comfortable, oh so comfortable. I haven’t had a flat yet after a few thousand miles of mostly urban riding.  I keep the pressures low at 46 psi rear and 42 psi front, which seems to provide the optimal compromise between comfort and handling.

Panaracer Pasela Tourguard – 559mm/ 32 mm

Panasonic Panaracer Pasela – in all its models and sizes – used on my Terry and on many other bikes I have ridden.  I have found these tires to be very long lasting, although I have gotten a few flats on the folding version I use with my Terry.  Whether or not they are easy to mount really depends on your rim and whether you are using the folding vs. clincher model.  I prefer the folders because they are easy to carry with me when I am touring. The 27 inch size has a different tread pattern.  These tires are affordable, reasonably comfortable, and fast enough.  They are a good choice for all-round riding which is why I generally use them for my restoration projects.

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Compass McLure Pass 26″ tires – used on my Panasonic MC 7500 errand bike.  These tires replaced the frighteningly compromised Nimbus Armadillo 26 X 1.5 tires I had been riding.  The Armadillos, while never having a flat in over 6 years of use, were heavy and not very comfortable, not to mention the fact that they were splitting apart at the seams.  The McLure Pass tires have made the MC7500 faster, and much more comfortable to ride.  Tires really do make a difference!

My three second tier tires – good value and a decent ride:

Continental 700c Gatorskins

Kenda Raleigh 26″ tires

Panasonic Col de la Vie 650b tires

While I could mention many, many tires in this category, my top three mid-range choices reflect my own interests as well as the particular bikes I ride.  So, don’t take them to heart, too much.  The Continental Gatorskins are great tires for 700c road bikes.  I rode Gatorskins over many, many miles on my 1986 Centurion Ironman Expert.  They were comfortable for a narrow 700c tire, and I never had a flat in all those years.  The low-end Kenda tires on my 1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist were a surprise.  I had expected these tires to be really horrible, and had purchased them as a placeholder until I could find “better” tires for this vintage Raleigh.  In fact, the Kenda’s proved comfortable as well as bullet proof.  I’ve had no flats in the eight years I have been using these tires, which show no signs of wear, and no sidewall cracks.  I have mixed feelings about the Panasonic Col de la Vie tires pictured above.  I tried these tires out on my 1980 Meral, and they were quite noisy, slow and ponderous.  However, these tires have worked well on the older 650b bicycles I have restored, so I list them here as a decent option for a 650b rim.  In this category I should mention a few other tires I have ridden:  Ritchey Tom Slick 26″ tires, Panaracer Ribmo, and Vee Rubber Micro knobbies.  All equally reliable and of good quality relative to price.

Tires I Won’t Buy Again:

In this category I include the Specialized Armadillo tires, noted above, which literally split apart at the seams.  I also include WTB tires – namely any of their 700c touring tires, which are noisy, heavy and very uncomfortable. I also will not ride any Continental Touring tires.  Continental’s offering is not really a touring tire, but instead a heavy and inflexible tire which is not even okay as a commuter tire, as there are many other nicer options out there (see Panaracer, above).  However, Continental does offer other tires which I do like.  I won’t buy any Schwalbe tires, no matter what the model, as I have found them to be unbelievably uncomfortable and heavy.

I do like micro knobbies as an interesting option for multi-modal cycling.  I used these Thailand manufactured Vee Rubber tires on my ALAN with very positive results – they were fast on the road as well as sure-footed on gravel.  While tire choice is not only highly personal, it should also be based on the type of riding you do, as well as the type of bike you are riding. If you are not happy with your current tires, it doesn’t hurt to think about other options.  I have found that ride quality is significantly affected by tire choice.

Meca Dural Duralumin Bicycle Frame Construction

Meca Dural bottom bracket shell

From the 1930’s through the 1950’s, the French were enamored with aluminum bicycle frames, even though steel was the material of choice for most builders.  A number of examples still exist today, and after disassembling and cleaning this 1940’s/50’s Mercier Meca Dural frame, I can see why.  The bottom bracket shell is a work of art, looking as if it had been machined yesterday, rather than more than 6 decades ago.

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I became curious about the method of joining the aluminum tubes with aluminum lugs, using what I had read were internal steel expanders.  Apparently, at the time there was no method to “glue and screw” the aluminum tubes, a method that was pioneered by ALAN beginning in the early 1970’s.  The only joining methods which were available then were gas welding the tubes – a process used by Nicola Barra; connecting octagonal aluminum tubes into aluminum lugs with connector bolts – a process used by Pierre Caminade; joining the tubes with aluminum lugs and wedged internal expanders – the method used by Meca Dural, and other other hybrid methods involving pinning the lugs, and using a steel rear triangle.

When I passed my magnet over the frame, I picked up no attraction, except for a very faint pull near the lugs.  You will note that the chain stays and seat stays are connected with a combination of bolts and aluminum sleeves, and that the bottom bracket shell is held in place with two large bolts connecting the lug to the chain stays.  The aluminum sleeves do double duty as the brake bridge and chain stay bridge.

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The seat tube/seat stay lug is pinned, as you can see above.  But what about the main tubes – how do the internal expanders work?

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As it turns out, it was fortunate that the Meca Dural headbadge was missing, which allowed me to peer into the head tube lug to examine the expander inside.  My magnet told me that the expander is steel, and the method to accomplish the expansion process seemed to involve a steel tab which was probably manipulated with a special tool.  When you think about it, the same idea is used for quill stems inserted into threaded steerer tubes.  That seems to have worked pretty well, so why should these lugs be any different?

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At first I wasn’t sure of the purpose for the large holes underneath each of the two headbadges.  Upon closer examination, you can see that the head tube and head lugs are actually machined as one piece.  The holes are necessary so that the expanders can be inserted to join the top tube and down tube, necessitating a hole for each tube.  And that is why there are always two headbadges on every Meca Dural frame -to cover these holes.  That’s one mystery solved.

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One thing that seems true of older aluminum frames is their flexibility, relative to steel frames.  My ALAN is a very flexible frame, but not too flexible.  I guess you would say it is flexible in the right kind of way.  To satisfy my curiosity about this frame’s flex characteristics, I squeezed the rear dropouts to test the amount of flex.  Then, in my unscientific experiment I compared the amount of flex on this frame, to all the other bare frames hanging in my shop, all of which are steel, and some of which are Reynolds 531.  I was able to flex the dropouts on the Meca Dural about 7 or 8 mm, using my weaker left hand at full force.  On several mixte frames, I could barely move the drop outs 3 mm, and on a diamond vintage Reynolds 531 frame, I could flex the drop outs about 6 mm at full force.  That’s a significant difference in flex, and it will be interesting to see how this frame rides once I have it restored.

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With just some minor polishing with a wadding cleaner (I use NEVRDULL), the frame shines beautifully.  I need to source some 650b wheels from the period, because at some point someone tried to install 700c wheels on this bike, and that is how the bike was configured when I acquired it.  The spacing at the rear dropouts is 115 mm, so it would be hard to find the vintage hubs to build a wheel set, even though I have a nice vintage set of rims.  Instead, I am on the hunt for a donor vintage bike from the 40’s or 50’s which can give me a decent 650b wheelset, and maybe a few other parts to add to my collection.