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.

Cycling Bags & Panniers

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Carradice Long Flap saddlebag

I have used quite a few cycling bags over the years.  But, bags and panniers can be tricky.  How well they work depends not only on the mounting system designed for the bag, but also on what kind of rack system you have, or whether you have racks at all.  And, for saddlebags, the question of whether they will work for you depends a great deal upon your bike’s rear triangle geometry, as well as whether or not your are using fenders. In order to use front bags and panniers you need not only to have a front rack, fork braze-ons, and handlebar or stem mounting system, but the success of carrying a front load also hinges on whether your bike has the right front end geometry to carry a load there.

I have always had a special obsession with bike bags, which started back in my touring days when I would load up my 1976 Centurion Pro Tour and head out to explore my surroundings.

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I was happy that my handlebar bag and rear panniers were purchased from REI – a consumer cooperative being somewhat radical back then (even though REI was founded decades earlier).  The handlebar bag mounted with a removable rack which rested on the handlebars and stem.  The lower part of the front bag was secured to the front dropouts via a stretchy cord, which as you can see in the above photo, got overstretched so that I had to tie a knot in the cord to keep tension on the bag while underway.

I liked the rear panniers, but didn’t like the front bag so much.  It interfered with the beam of my battery powered head light. And, probably the Pro-Tour’s geometry was not ideal for carrying a front load.  However, one nice feature was the map case on the top of the bag.  In those pre-iPhone days, having my maps at the ready proved invaluable, although I will say that often my maps were totally wrong!

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Velo Orange Handlebar Bag

Eventually I stopped using front bags altogether until I began building up my 1980 Meral as a 650b Randonneur, a few years ago.  Even so, I am not all that thrilled with front bags, finding them fidgety, noisy, and irritatingly intrusive on my hands.  Perhaps a decaleur could solve these problems.  But, for now, I only occasionally use this really nice Velo Orange front bag.  I have not used low rider front panniers, but have occasionally used small panniers mounted to the front racks of various bicycles I have ridden.  Mastering a front load requires a bit of saddle time.

Below is a list of some of the many cycling bags I have used over the years, as well as my comments on their utility.  If you have been searching for the right bag for your bike, perhaps this highly personal list will be of use:

Jandd

IMHO, Jandd is the gorilla manufacturer of cycling bags.  Their bags last forever.  They never wear out.  They are intelligently designed and reasonably priced, given their longevity.  They are not particularly pretty, but offer the best in bike bag value and utility.

Here are the Jandd bags that I have used over the last 35 years:

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Grocery panniers – large, securely mounts to most racks, holds an actual grocery bag, unlike other competitors which are much smaller and less robust.  I have a set of Jandd grocery bags that I purchased in the early 90’s and they are still in use.

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Hurricane panniers – These are the grocery panniers on steroids.  Excellent mounting, total weather protection, tons of visibility.  But, there are also very heavy weighing about 2 lbs each, unladen.  I use these on my Panasonic winter/errand bike.  A perfect utility bag.

Jandd Trunk rack bags – I used a Jandd trunk bag for many years.  It never wore out, and I finally gave it to a friend, as I don’t use trunk bags any more.

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Jandd Throw-over small panniers – I am using these “small” panniers on my 1980 Meral.  They are deceptive in nomenclature and appearance – I have managed to jam all kinds of stuff into these bags.  Lightweight, fits any rack.

Brooks

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Brooks Roll Up Panniers – who can say anything bad about a Brooks bag?  These are beautiful bags, with appropriately lovely packaging.  They are NOT waterproof, and they do not have any attachment at the base of the bag.  I am using these on my 1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist, which is perfect for what they are designed for.

Ortlieb

Terry Symmetry in Ashland

Various “roller” models – Ortlieb bags are the perfect Portland commuter bag, being totally waterproof, easy to mount on any rack, and with a lot of visibility.  Newer models have internal organizing pockets.  These are my commuting bags of choice.  I have these smaller panniers, pictured above, as well as an older set of larger panniers.  The smaller model is actually able to carry quite a bit of stuff, and I have successfully loaded these panniers with way more than I would have anticipated, so I use the smaller bags pretty much all the time.

Electra Ticino

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Electra Ticino Large Canvass Panniers – I hate these bags and have them sitting in my shop – awaiting some kind of disposition that I haven’t thought of yet.  The bags are narrow, heavy, and feature the worst mounting system I have ever seen.  After having these bags pop off the rack while riding at speed, and thankfully not crashing as a result, these bags are on my s$#t list.

Detours

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Detours seatpost mount quick release bags – I own three of these bags.  These are excellent bags for bikes which cannot take rear racks.  However, based on a recent search it looks like these bags are no longer offered by the company.  That’s too bad as I find these bags quite useful.  They are not as big I would like, but can still hold enough stuff for a day’s adventure.

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Sackville Bags from Rivendell   For awhile I used these Sackville front and rear rack bags, which I purchased from Rivendell.  The color scheme went well with my 1973 Jack Taylor Tourist.  However, these bags have no internal pockets, are not expandable, and so are of very limited utility.  They do have visibility, as you can see from the above photo.  Because of their limitations, they are sitting in my shop now awaiting some purpose in their lives which I haven’t thought of yet.

Other Bags I Have Used:

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While too numerous to list here I have tried out many different kinds of cycling bags.  Trunk bags, which I used for a time, put the weight up high and also make it difficult to throw a leg over (depending on how tall your rack is).  I no longer use trunk bags at all.  Saddlebags often interfere with your thighs while pedaling, and can also swing from side to side while you are climbing.  Mostly, I only use saddlebags on bikes that I will not ride vigorously, and where I can position the bag to sit far enough away from my legs – mostly this would be on larger bicycle frames.

For most riders, carrying weight on the rear of the bike will feel the most stable and natural, but it is is a good idea to think about your bike’s geometry and purpose before embarking on a new bag/rack experience.  You can measure your bike’s angles by using an angle finder, and you can take a rudimentary trail measurement of the front fork rake by following instructions which are readily available on the internet.

1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist – 45 lbs of Riding Pleasure

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I recently cycled home from work on my 1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist.  The bike had been sitting at my office for a while.  One of the reasons I haven’t ridden it with greater frequency is that the full chain guard (“gearcase” for those who speak British) and the drive side crank arm contact each other with an annoying noise with each pedal stroke.  Previously, I had tried to solve this problem by mashing various parts of the gearcase with my hands to see if I could force it into a different position that would provide clearance for the crank arm.

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As I was noisily making my way up Clinton Street, I came upon a rider on a Mercian.  We chatted for a while and I learned he was riding an early 80’s model that a friend had given him as a frame (nice gift!), which he then built up.  That’s only the 2nd Mercian I have spotted in Pdx, aside from my own.  Interestingly, because my Raleigh is geared so high, I ended up surging past him in my big (but lowest) 52 gear inch as we began to climb the steeper hills, and so we parted company.

When I arrived home, sans heart attack, I put the bike into the shop stand, determined to solve the gearcase/crank arm clearance problem.  The first thing I did was to mark the position of the axle in the dropout and the adjuster on the shifter cable.  This way, I could restore the wheel and cable back to their current position – something which took a while to perfect so that the hub shifts correctly.

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One thing I’ve gotten questions about before is how to get the gearcase off the bike.  There are two pieces at the back of the gearcase which can be removed by unscrewing the bolts which attach them to the main part of the gearcase.  After that, there is a bracket which attaches the gearcase to the chainstay, plus a bolt which holds the front part of the gearcase, and attaches near the bottom bracket.  Once those are removed, then it’s a matter of re-positioning the gearcase and sliding the opening at the back through the narrowest part of the drop out.  The photos above show how this is done.

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Once I had the gearcase off, I took my mallet to it and tried straightening it out a bit.  Then, I tried various methods of altering the position of the gearcase once I re-mounted it to the frame, but nothing worked.

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Finally, I took my files and filed away a small section of the metal on the inside of the crank arm, to provide more clearance.  I didn’t want to take a lot of material off.  But with these solid steel crank arms, I probably have nothing to worry about.  Ultimately, I was successful in adjusting the gearcase cover to eliminate any contact with the crank arm.

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Since I had the pedals off, I thought it might be time to overhaul them. Their last overhaul was 8 years ago.  Sure enough, the grease was pretty dirty.  Fortunately, the brilliant design of the cone and lock washer made the process incredibly quick and easy.  The tabs on the back of the cone make it simple to adjust the cone to perfection.  Once adjusted, the cone’s tabs lock into position with the grooves on the lock washer.  If your adjustment needs a tweak or two, just loosen the nut and move the cone one notch at a time.  If only all pedals were designed this way!

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I headed out on the bike today and thoroughly enjoyed not only the new, silent drive train, but the amazing ride quality of this bike.  The steel frame and steel wheels absorb road shock very well, so that even the upright riding position does not transmit pain waves to your spine.  With the inertia of the heavy steel wheels, the bike really rolls once it gets going.  In my high gear, I have even passed a carbon fiber bicycle or two, much to their riders’ surprise.  The components, the paint, and the attention to detail in every aspect of how this bike was manufactured puts modern quality control to shame.

The bike responds to pedal strokes and never feels mushy or bogged down.  The geometry is perfect for the type of bike it is, and it does not wobble at slow speeds and provides for fun descents and excellent cornering at high speeds.  In fact, the ride quality of this bike is a sharp contrast to another 45 lb. machine I recently rode – the SoBi bicycles which are part of Pdx’s new Biketown bike share program.  Those bikes are made with large diameter aluminum tubing, and also feature an upright riding position, although much more extreme than that of the Raleigh.  The stiff aluminum frames, bad geometry and questionable component quality provide for a really unpleasant riding experience.

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It would be fun to see a bike share program which used quality vintage bicycles and de-emphasized modern technology (which serves as a barrier to those who cannot afford the latest internet device) as a way to introduce new riders to urban commuting. There are so many quality vintage bicycles out there. Find one and ride it!