Commuting on a Vintage Bicycle

French 1939 Sironval Recumbent. A 24 inch wheel at the rear and a 22 inch wheel in front.

One of the biggest obstacles to attracting new cyclists is the fear of maintenance.  Bicycles are time consuming, messy, and non-intuitive. That’s a (fun, IMHO!) fact.  It’s so much easier to drive your car, order Lyft or take public transportation, and avoid the challenges involved in becoming a commuter cyclist – right?

Meanwhile, certain members of the retail cycling industry seem to lack the will or interest in helping to educate new cyclists on the many, and rewarding maintenance tasks which routine cycling requires.  Instead, the marketing focus is on overcoming these obstacles with technology – such as belt drives, e-bikes, index shifting, bike share, and the like.  And for new and returning cyclists it can feel like the retail industry’s focus is on intimidating and humiliating newbies, catering only to elite competitive cyclists and wannabes.

While I believe new technologies are critical to the future success of the cycling industry, I don’t necessarily believe that they are critical to the success of the cyclists themselves.

Lightweight box style rims, components drilled to save weight, and custom racks and fenders are not necessarily something the regular cycling commuter wants to think about. For a commuting cyclist, safety, efficiency and reliability are the most important elements in determining whether to ride, and what bicycle to ride.

While new bicycles and e-bikes can address some of the needs of new cycling commuters, vintage bicycles, modified as needed, can actually provide much greater utility for a new or returning commuting cyclist.

Over the last 25 year I have cycled regularly from my current home to downtown Portland where I work.  That ride offers steep hills, sharp turns, and plenty of discouraging encounters with car drivers.  Often in the mornings when I ride over Mt. Tabor, I have spotted the same cyclist – someone about my age, riding a fairly upright bike.  We have nodded and waved to each other over the decades.  Recently, I noticed this cyclist was ascending the hill I was descending with quite a bit of speed.  When I passed her, I realized she was now riding an e-bike, and that made me smile.  Yes, keep riding, and find the right bike to do it with.

But what is that bike?  I think the first thing to look at is the drive train – which involves choosing among internal hub gears, single speed, or derailleur options.  Chain driven derailleur-geared bikes offer the greatest range of gears as well as the greatest efficiency.  Derailleur equipped bikes are also the most time consuming and messy when it comes to routine maintenance.  These are also the most commonly found vintage bicycles. They are generally very reliable, and are the easiest to learn to work on yourself.  Their components have not been designed for built in obsolescence.

A cyclist in a relatively flat environment can instead choose a single speed or internally geared option, and that will mean very little routine maintenance for the rider, but potentially expensive service costs should the internal hub fail.  Vintage Sturmey Archer hubs are extremely reliable, and with only routine lubrication can last many decades without the need for an overhaul.  So, a good choice for commuter cycling in a relatively flat environment would be a pre-1970 bicycle with a Sturmey Archer internally geared hub.

I would like to make the case for the derailleur geared bicycle as the most desirable choice for new commuting cyclists.

You can achieve, by far, the greatest gearing range and the most efficiency by using a front and rear derailleur with at least two rings up front and 6 or more cogs in the back.

But, I have often seen neglected triple crank bikes, with teeth wear only on the middle chain ring.  Their riders decided not to figure out how to shift or trim out the front derailleur, and instead used only the middle ring.  That is something to take note of.

The other reason vintage bicycles are so much more suited to new and returning cyclists is their steel frames, usually lugged, and often quite beautiful.  It is a matter of pride to venture out on one’s well-designed, comfortable, and eye-catching lugged steel frame and ride among the masses of heavy, stiff, uncomfortable aluminum frames, or those of questionable reliability such as carbon fiber.

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.

Shake, Rattle and Roll

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My 1990’s Terry Symmetry is a great commuting bicycle.  It handles well and can keep up with the faster bikes on my regular commute.  But recently I had been hearing an annoying rattle on the front end of the bike.

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Diagnosing bicycle noises while riding brings to mind Dante’s Inferno.  As one’s thoughts spiral through endless ideas and related solutions, the bicycle itself seems drawn further toward complete annihilation, into the concentric circles of hell.  After decades of riding, I have hopefully learned to pay more attention to the occasional odd and unexpected sounds coming from the bike I am riding.  It’s almost always a good idea NOT to ignore them.  Like most cyclists, I love and expect a certain silence from my bike.  Encountering dry, squeaky chains, rattling fenders, and loose fitting luggage on other cyclists’ bikes weighs on my conscience:  should I point out that their rear wheel is out of true or that a little bit of chain lube is in order?  But that’s a question for another day.

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Front end rattles can be as difficult to nail down as noises coming from the center or back of the bike.  In my case, because I had used an unusual mounting system for my fenders, my first thought was that the cantilevered portion of the front fender was bouncing around more than usual.  After holding my hand over the front portion of the fender and hearing no change to the rattling noise, I realized that this wasn’t the problem.  So, I continued my diagnosis while riding by holding my hand over different parts of the front end, to no avail.  Nothing stopped the strange rattling noise.

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As it turned out, the culprit was a broken fender nut on the Bluemels “over the top” fenders that I had mounted on this bike.  I had used all the original hardware on the stays, and paid no attention to how rusted the eyebolts looked.  Finally, one of those rusted eyebolt nuts cracked, and that caused all the rattling.  I didn’t really figure this out until I had:  checked the fork for lack of play (there was none), checked the brake mount for a loose bolt (none), and checked the torque settings on the stem’s handlebar bolt and on the stem itself.  All were in order.  A process of elimination led me to the fenders.  I removed them and discovered the problem right away when one of the nuts fell apart in my hand.  I replaced all the hardware, and then decided to re-mount the fenders using these Velo Orange fender brackets, which are designed for bikes which lack fender eyelets (a sad truth of my 1990’s Terry).  I had been using P-clamps to mount the fenders to the fork.

The Velo Orange brackets, shown above, really clean up the front of the bike, but make front wheel removal more time consuming and finicky.  Fortunately, the rear drop outs of this bike have fender eyelets, so no brackets are needed on the back end of the bike.  I’m glad I took the time to resolve this issue.  A loose fender could have caused a crash.