Welcome Home, Centurion

Here is lovely 1975 Centurion Semi Pro.  It has been well preserved over the decades by its original owner, and I am now the proud steward of this extraordinary machine.

As readers of this blog already know, I have been on a decades long quest to replace my crashed 1976 Centurion Pro Tour, a bike which was my only bike for over 20 years, and upon which I logged over 40,000 miles including tours of the Pacific Northwest, the San Juan Islands, and Canada, as well as serving as my daily commuter.  The Pro Tour was my original all-rounder.

So, when I saw this baby blue 1975 Centurion Semi Pro on eBay, I knew I would be honored to shepherd this bike into its next phase.

When the bike arrived, I unpacked it like a toddler with a new toy, and when I found these interesting frame transfers, they confirmed the information provided by the seller of the bike (who was not the original owner, but who sold it on their behalf).  The first human to ride this Centurion was a member of the US Cycling Federation (now known as USA Cycling), and had ordered the full Dura Ace upgrade for this bike, as well installing racing tubulars instead of the 27″ clincher rims offered as standard equipment.  The original owner was also a member of the League of American Wheelmen and had added these black and white racing flag transfers to the top tube.

While the bike clearly had a documented racing heritage, I was puzzled to find the Dura Ace crankset mounted with a chainguard.  And, you’ll note that the rings are not in racing configuration, but are a compact set-up with 52 teeth on the large ring and 39 on the small ring.  Both rings are Shimano Dura Ace.  Don’t forget to notice the lovely Dura Ace front derailleur.  The Dura Ace upgrade included:  the front derailleur, the anodized brake calipers, the drilled levers and the crankset:

These Dura Ace components are in amazing condition.  The drilled levers look new, but are given away by the gum hoods which have long ago lost their resilience.  The brake calipers are beautifully anodized.  The Dura Ace crankset with its 172.5 arms is in equally amazing condition, considering its 43 years in service.

I enjoyed seeing this unusual Huret wrap around chrome cable guide which provides shifter cable routing on both sides of the frame. This bike has zero braze-ons.  While it is built with Tange Prestige #1 tubing, during this era braze-ones were rare, and most needed accessories and cable guides were handled via clamps.

SunTour Mighty ratcheting downtube shifters

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Shimano Crane GS drilled long cage derailleur

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SunTour GS chromed dropouts with single eyelet and adjuster screws

The drivetrain consists of SunTour ratcheting Mighty shifters mated to the Dura Ace front derailleur and a Shimano Crane GS rear derailleur.  The Crane would be needed to handle the 52/39 rings up front.  The dropouts are by SunTour, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as lovely as these fully chromed SunTour GS dropouts.  Their unusual shape made me look up this component in the SunTour catalog.  You’ll note that the design pushes the dropouts inward toward the hub.  I wonder if this simplified mitering the rear stays.

The pedals also provided a surprise – they are very rare Barelli Supreme pedals, with the optional alloy cages.  According to the site Classic Lightweights, these pedals “were considered the Rolls Royce of pedals. The spindle was made from Nickel Chrome Steel and they were machined for accuracy at the bearing surfaces and they came with a life time guarantee”  That, and the other component upgrades help to explain why this bike weighs in at 22 lbs.

The upgraded wheelset consists of 27″ Super Champion Competition tubular rims laced to Sunshine Pro Am low flange hubs.  A new set of Pararacer 20mm tubulars were installed as part of the deal.  I’m not sure how well the new tubulars were glued, so I will probably install a clincher wheelset on hand for this bike’s first test ride.

The bars were upgraded to 3TTT, mated to a Cinelli stem.  The original SR seatpost looks beautiful with this Cinelli leather Unicantor saddle.  Unicantors were the first plastic base saddles of this era.  I haven’t ridden one before and look forward to trying it out.  You’ll also note the Centurion’s impressive, chrome wrap around seat stay.

This Semi Pro has the following SN:  M5J00027.  Consistent with all Centurion frames I have encountered, and as documented by others, the first letter indicates the frame builder, but no one knows who that is.  Since both my 1976 Pro Tour and this 1975 Semi Pro start with an “M” I will guess they were both built by the same manufacturer, probably Japanese.  The second numeral is a “5” and that indicates the year built – 1975 – which is consistent with the bike’s components.  Another way to date a bike without a reliable serial number is by the components.

Some readers might wonder about the photos in this post.  For the most part I used my Panasonic Lumix mirrorless camera, but I also brought out my Leica Digilux 2 for some of the photos seen here.

I look forward to venturing out on this extraordinary bike, and will keep you posted on our progress.

And, here are some related technical and historical documents:

1978 Centurion catalog (the 1975 catalog does not seem to exist online) – vintage centurion site – http://vintage-centurion.com/literature/centurion-catalogs.shtml

1975 Shimano Dura Ace – disraeligears site – http://www.disraeligears.co.uk/Site/A_Complete_Line_of_Shimano_1975.html

1976 SunTour catalog – Velobase site – http://www.velo-pages.com/main.php?g2_itemId=12472

The Bond Between Bike and Rider

1976 Centurion Pro Tour

Being a pragmatic person at heart, I generally eschew mystical explanations of purely mechanical matters. However, there’s no doubt that a special relationship between bike and rider exists when the bike in question has carried the rider over many miles and through rough terrain, dangerous intersections, and bad weather.  Much like a shepherd and beloved dog will form a bond through shared hardship, a rider and bike seem to connect in an almost spiritual way.

I experienced this myself with my old 1976 Centurion Pro Tour that I rode for 20 years. The bike got me through some tough situations, and always carried me to my final destination. Even with flat tires, broken shifters, and a headset long overdue for a replacement, the bike soldiered on and I always arrived safely at my destination.

After I crashed my Pro Tour in 1999 I was at loose ends. I searched for a replacement and ended up buying a Cannondale T 2000. What a shocking disappointment that was.  The brifters broke when the bike took a spill while parked, the Avid Shorty brakes were frighteningly unreliable, and the stiff aluminum frame was punishing on long rides.   Not to mention its piggy 28 lb weight unequipped.  I no longer enjoyed exploring new dirt paths, back road short cuts, and long meandering rides.  I wanted to get off this bike as soon as possible.

The search for the ride quality that my old Centurion provided was a long one.  Meanwhile, I modified the Cannondale substantially, replacing the brifters with bar end shifters, upgrading the brakes to IRD cold forged cantilevers, installing an SR Randonneur bar, and adding a custom Burley rear rack originally designed for a recumbent.

2001 Cannodale T2000

After these modifications, I was able to ride the Cannondale in a little more comfort.  Replacing the harsh riding Continental touring tires with Panaracer Paselas helped.  I also tried out some Michelin cyclocross tires, which were also quite a bit more comfortable than the Continentals, and enabled me to ride with confidence on gravel shoulders and hard packed dirt and gravel.  Eventually, I ended up replacing every single original component on the bike except for the reliable Shimano 105 front derailleur.  After that, this bike became my trusted commuter, especially in the winter.

But, I wanted a bike that I could comfortably spend more hours on and was more responsive.  I missed my Centurion tremendously so when I found this Centurion Dave Scott Iron Man in my size, for a reasonable price, I purchased it without hesitation.

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This was a road bike, not a touring bike, at all.  Riding it was eye-opening.  I could ride for miles and miles, never tire out, and the responsive handling made it fun to experiment without fast descents, track stands, quick transitions, and spirited climbing. After a while, though, I realized that without clearance for fenders, rack mounts and a taller stem, I would not be able to take this bike out on the touring adventures that I love.  I realized that I needed the comfort and responsiveness of riding on steel framed bikes, and that I wanted to learn more about the physical and mechanical details of bicycles and their geometry.

That’s when I enrolled in my first bike mechanic class at the UBI facility in Ashland.  Even though I had always done my own bike maintenance, back then I had not really spent any time understanding much beyond annual maintenance needs, which included rebuilding hubs and bottom brackets,  truing wheels, and tuning shifters and derailleurs.

I had a great time in the class and met a lot of interesting people.  The class opened my eyes to the world of mechanical possibilities and experimentation – I highly recommend UBI for mechanic’s training.  Prior to attending the class I had already acquired a 1973 Jack Taylor touring bike and I brought it with me to work on while I was there.

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1973 Jack Taylor Touring – before restoration

While this bike is a wonderful example of the Taylor brother’s work, after riding it for a bit I came to realize that it wasn’t quite right for me.  I did not like the unstable feel of the single sloping downtube mixte frame – I could feel the front end flexing away from the back end of the bike while accelerating. I also did not like the ergonomics of the low head tube and short reach mustache bars.

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I have realized that ergonomics are as important as frame material and components.  And, I  know from personal experience that steel is flexible and responsive on climbs and does not punish your body on long rides, as does aluminum. This is especially important for smaller riders whose frames are much more stiff than those for taller riders, due to their geometry.

2014

It is clear that newer components are designed deliberately to last briefly and to be discarded when they no longer function.  This has led me to go back to cycling’s past to understand and rejuvenate the contribution made by earlier builders and artisans.

 

Resurrecting an Old Friend: a 1976 Centurion Pro Tour

1976 Centurion Pro Tour

I rode my 1976 Centurion Pro Tour for over 20 years before I crashed it back in 1999.  In fact, that crash and the resulting quest for a suitable replacement bike is what has led me here – to an appreciation of the rarity and quality of hand made vintage bicycles and to a side career as a bike mechanic, collector and restorer.

When I hit a car that had suddenly stopped in front of me while going about 20 mph, my front wheel collided with the car’s back end and I went down hard on the trunk.  (Thank you, helmet.)

fork damage

The fork legs were pushed back and the steerer tube was bent right above the crown.

fork damage

You can see the tell-tale paint cracks which clearly indicate a sudden impact.  The fork was definitely toast.

frame damage annotatedframe damage annotated 2

The frame itself sustained some damage to the downtube (left photo) and top tube (right photo).  You can again see the tell-tale paint cracks right at the lug points, but the cracks are not very pronounced.  And, looking at the tubes and holding a straight edge up to them, I cannot see any significant bends or twists.

2013-09-27 001 003 2013-09-27 001 004 Suntour dropouts 2013-09-27 001 017 2013-09-27 001 005

The rest of the frame looks great, with plenty of “buesage” evident in the scratched paint and fading logos.  But, overall, this is one nice frame.  If I could bring this bike back to life with a new fork, and any needed repairs to the tubes, I would be overjoyed.  Interestingly, this frame is “too big” for me – at 54 cm, but I managed to ride all over the place in tremendous comfort.  I did install a stem with shorter reach, plus rando bars (which my Pro Tour did not have originally), and that gave me a comfortable position.  After all, with the really tall frame my stem didn’t need to be tall because it was already even with my saddle height.

Once I remove the paint (to reveal the fully chromed frame underneath!!!), I’ll know for sure the extent of the damage.  Since I am really fond of that baby blue color, I might still decide to paint it again after stripping it, but it will be sad to lose the Centurion logos.  An experienced painter may be able to recreate them.  If all goes well, I’ll be riding this amazing bike once again.

Touring in the San Juan Islands

Centurion Pro Tour – San Juan Islands – c. 1985