Sunday Ride

My old friend, Katie, is fond of opining that the downfall of our society occurred when stores began to stay open on Sundays.  From there, she says, it’s been a downhill slide.  She might be right.

My childhood Sundays were a mixed bag:  enforced church attendance (faking an illness having been exhausted as an excuse years earlier), my mother’s dutiful Sunday dinner executed with earnestness if lacking in passion and culinary talent, and then the blessed release of the children out into the wild. My Dad would daze himself on TV football, and my Mom retreated for her quiet time.  There was no business to conduct, and there were no tasks to complete other than the usual chores required to run a household and small farm, and these were kept to a minimum on Sundays. God’s day of rest.

With God and parents at rest, my older brother and younger sister were my playmates on Sunday afternoons.  But, as we approached our teenage years, more and more often we chose our own separate pursuits on Sundays.  And that’s when I began what has become a lifelong tradition: a Sunday bike ride.

I don’t quite remember the bike I rode in the mid-1960’s (this was before getting my green sparkle Spyder with banana seat), but I do remember that it had an internal hub. I suspect that it was something like the 1968 Sears Econo model depicted above, but was probably the smaller child’s version.  It was a diamond frame, with upright bars, and definitely sported a battery powered headlamp.  It was challenging to ride, because it had no low gears, and while I understood the basics of derailleur shifting back then, I was confounded by what could possibly be going on inside the internal hub.  My father would attempt to explain that there were gears inside, and something called a planet.  I would stare endlessly at the tiny chain emerging from inside the hub and imagined that it housed a miniature derailleur on the inside.  I could not figure it out.

But that did not stop me from riding that bike.  The countryside around our home was hilly, but along the base of the hills was the Applegate River Valley of Southern Oregon.  The road running through the valley was in no way designed to accommodate a 10 year old on a bicycle.  There are blind curves, no shoulders, and narrow lanes.  That’s another thing that’s changed since then:  today’s parents would never allow their unaccompanied 10 year old to ride these roads.  It was a different time, where the pace was slower and neighbors watched over each other’s kids, at least to some degree.

To prepare for my ride, I would pack up snacks, water, and tools (like a good Girl Scout) into my bike’s front wire basket.  My adventures took me off road, sometimes walking my bike up the steep dirt logging roads in the area.  I cycled past streams, irrigation canals, and small creeks.  Upon return, my basket almost always carried something I hadn’t started with:  a wounded bird, a small turtle, a beautiful stone.

When I lived in Newport, Oregon in the late 1970’s, my Sunday ride was the trip up Yaquina Bay.  That ride was mostly flat, along the Yaquina River estuary, an important waterway and resource for the Siletz tribe who lived in the area, before they were forced out by white invaders in the mid 1800’s. When I visit Newport, I usually plan a ride up Yaquina Bay Road.  Every time I ride this road I am greeted with Nature’s enduring beauty, and I try to imagine this bay as it was hundreds of years ago.

Today’s Sunday ride took me out to Oak’s Bottom where I was treated to a Bald Eagle flying overhead.  On the way through the wetlands I saw Great Blue Herons, Northern Flickers, and a rarely observed Green Heron, among the other wintering birds.  While I didn’t add anything to my “basket”, I brought home instead the images and memories of today’s ride with its bright, low end-of-the-year sunlight, and bone-chilling wind.  A perfect way to end this year and begin anew.

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.

Single Chain Ring Considerations

A Canadian Peugeot with single chain ring and spider mounted chain guard.

Most of my bikes have multiple chainrings – double or triple.  I’ve gotten so used to the shifting patterns on my bikes, that I don’t think much about the double rear shifts that might be required to maintain cadence when shifting the front ring, nor do I worry that I might have to trim out the front derailleur from time to time (I use friction shifting for the most part).  But, that is not normal.  I am a geek, and the vast majority of cyclists are not (no offense to the wonderfully geeky readers of this blog).  Non-geeky cyclists are probably drawn to the seeming simplicity of a single chain ring up front.  Less shifting equals better riding, right?

The only bike in my constellation of daily riders with a single chain ring up front is my 1987 Panasonic MC 7500 – a bike I acquired as a frame and fork and then built into a city commuter.  Even though it’s the heaviest bike I ride, it’s the one that gets the most daily use.  One of the reasons for its appeal as a commuter bike is the simplicity of its equipment.  It has a rear freewheel with 6 speeds and plenty of range, plus a single chainring up front.  I installed a $7 ratcheting no name friction shifter on the handlebar to move the rear derailleur, and the shifter works intuitively with the lower end but perfectly decent Shimano Acera long cage rear derailleur.  At first, I didn’t use a chainkeeper, but experienced the chain jumping off on a few occasions, so decided to install Paul’s chainkeeper.  Chainkeepers are designed to keep the chain from falling off either side of the front ring of a single chainring bicycle when shifting vigorously or oddly, as can happen when unexpected events occur while cycling, and especially while commuting.

After a few mishaps with Paul’s chainkeeper, the most recent of which caused me to re-locate this device, as shown above (it is now a “fender keeper”), I have been thinking about the way returning cyclists, as well as those not mechanically inclined might have dealt with my recent near disaster.

I was cycling home after a day at work, heading downhill when suddenly my cranks would not turn.  Since I was still freewheeling I knew that the problem was at the front of the drive train and I immediately suspected that the chainkeeper had become dislodged and contacted the chain.  I pulled over immediately, and after confirming this was true, disengaged the chainkeeper, as shown above.  I rode home with no further issues, but shifted very gently, hoping my chain would not jump off the front ring, and all went well.  It is unlikely that the average cyclist would have been able to diagnose this problem, much less solve it.  Nor should they really need to.  Instead, the marketplace needs some much better solutions to the single chain ring challenge.

1947 Camille Daudon with single chainring

Vintage bicycles with single chain rings don’t need chain keepers.  Why?  The rear freewheel will have only 3 to 5 speeds for the chain to navigate, causing the chain movement to be very manageable as compared to modern drive trains with 8 – 11 speeds at the rear.  For commuters, it’s not necessary to have tons of gears, but instead to have enough gear range to accommodate the hills you encounter on your commute.  So, 3 to 5 speeds might be all you need, if the gear range is appropriate.

Paul’s Chain Keeper

The problem with many chainkeepers, such as Paul’s, is that they work TOO well. Since they are designed to prevent chain movement, there isn’t enough clearance to provide for even the slightest change in chain angle, and they require extremely precise adjustment that can go out of whack with even a small mishap.

One solution is to put a spider mounted chain guard on the crank, and then use a seat tube mounted chain watcher on the other side.  Or, you can put two spider mounted chain guards on the crank – on either side of the chain ring.  Sheldon Brown published an article for Adventure Touring Magazine in 1999 which deals with chainring issues for touring bicycles, but he also includes some good advice on anti-derailment devices that can help prevent the chain from dropping off a single chain ring.

If you are going to convert your bike to a single ring up front, here are some points to consider:

Shorten the Chain – you will want to remove links from your chain in order to accommodate the switch to a single ring up front.  This will help to prevent chain slap and chain jump.

Decide about a chainkeeper vs. chainwatcher vs. chainguard(s):  Depending on the width of your rear cassette or freewheel, you’ll need to think about the demands you are placing on the front ring.  If you are trying to go with an 11 or 10 speed system at the rear, then you’ll need something to help deal with the extreme angles that the chain will experience at the front ring.

Make sure the rear derailleur can handle the range: when switching to a single ring up front, you often need to increase the range of your rear cassette or freewheel.  If you do so, make sure that your rear derailleur can handle the the bigger cogs.  You may need to adjust your b-screw, or invert it (a la Sheldon Brown) to get the clearance you’ll need for the larger cogs.

Or – shift carefully and don’t worry about any of this.  Occasionally your chain may fall off, and then, you’ll put it back on again.