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.

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.

Back Out on the Road

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It’s been exactly three months since I’ve thrown a leg over and navigated a beloved steel framed bicycle.  That’s how long it’s taken for me to recover from my unfortunate mishap involving a ladder and my fibula. But once I got my doctor’s go-ahead to begin cycling again, I was anxious to get back out on the road, although also strangely apprehensive.

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At Benham Falls

The last time I was on my bike was in Central Oregon’s fall glory, enjoying the dry climate and the very nice bike paths leading to Benham Falls.  I was riding my Terry, feeling slightly under the weather due to a dodgy restaurant experience earlier in the day.  But, once my riding buddy and I arrived at the Falls, all was well with the world.  The bike paths were strewn with slippery pine needles which kept getting caught in my “over the top” fenders, but this was less worrisome than the gravel portion of the journey over lava rock and loose gravel.  Fortunately, the Terry handled well, with its 32mm Pasela’s and great frame geometry.

1987 Panasonic MC 7500

1987 Panasonic MC 7500 converted to city errand bike

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McClure Pass Tires

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Velo Orange 126mm freewheel hub

So, for my first adventure back in the saddle I decided to ride my 1987 Panasonic MC 7500 commuter bike.  It is a very forgiving bicycle, although a bit tall due to its high bottom bracket. Before my leg injury I had installed some new tires on this bike to replace the heavy Specialized Armadillo tires, which had literally split at the seams, with something a little nicer – Compass McClure Pass 26 x 1.5 ” tires.

I had been riding these tires for a few months before my mishap and was looking forward to reporting on their ride quality, which I can now do. These tires have allowed me to ride in one higher gear overall, as compared to the Armadillo tires I previously used.  They feature a bit of a tread pattern which can help on non-paved surfaces, and are very responsive and comfortable.  I’m sold!  I also wanted to provide an update on the Velo Orange freewheel hub which I used to replace the failed Quando sealed bearing rear hub – a hub which failed after only about a thousand miles of use.  My new VO is working perfectly, and shaved some weight off the bike due to its drilled flanges.

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Cardiff leather saddle.

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Gardening with the Panasonic.

I use the Panasonic a lot for around town errands.  To make this bike a little more comfortable I added a Cardiff leather saddle, replacing the the old vintage Avocet touring saddle I was using.  I like the Cardiff saddle as a Brooks alternative – the saddle rails are a bit longer allowing for greater adjustment nuances, and there is something about its shape and geometry that seems to work well for me.  My first ride today went very well.  I didn’t experience any mysterious lapses in “bike memory”, nor did I have trouble climbing or descending.  Although it is winter, I’m looking forward to some enjoyable riding on the warmer and drier days which can sometimes appear unexpectedly. See you out there!