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.

It’s Not Me, It’s the Bike

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These are the words I say to myself when I am riding especially fast.  Or especially slowly, as of late.

This winter I have been using my Panasonic MC 7500 winter bike as my primary commuter, which is a change from past winters, partly driven by this winter’s wet and colder conditions which heralded the onset of a typically Portland rainy season last November.  Very recent winters have been gloriously warm and dry, so my choice of commuting vehicles was vastly expanded and even included scooter rides in the dead of December.  But, not this winter.  Portland is back to typical seasonal weather which can include anything from 35 degrees and raining hard, to light sprinkles in the lower 50’s (like today), and the occasional freezing rain and snow.  The short days also come with twilight seeming to descend in apocalyptic fashion in the middle of the afternoon.

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This bike was actually quite the machine in its day – the top of the line Mountain Bike in Panasonic’s line up in 1987.  It is built with Tange Prestige Cro-Mo double butted tubes, with forged drop outs and chromed chain stays.  The geometry on the smaller frame that I am riding features a slack 70 degree head tube combined with minimal fork rake, which would normally make it less than ideal for commuting, but its long wheelbase (107 cm) makes up for the higher than ideal wheel flop.  Consequently, I can usually avoid putting my foot down as I approach red lights and four way stops.

I bought this Panasonic as a frame and fork, then built it into a city commuter.  It went through various iterations, and now is set up for maximum comfort and utility.

062 1989

I was using a Shimano grip shifter and a 6 speed cassette, but after a black ice crash in 2012, the shifter broke apart (because it is made of plastic), so I splurged on a $7 no name friction shifter, made of good old steel.  That meant that I could install a 7 speed freewheel, and increase the bike’s gear range a bit.

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I had been using these UNO city bars, pictured above, but the shape and width did not agree with my anatomy, so I swapped them out for a vintage steel Northroad bar.  This bar is a great improvement in comfort, being narrower and putting my hands and shoulders in a much more neutral position, and increases the bike’s un-coolness factor by a few thousand degrees.

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Steel Northroad bars

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Further agitating bike snobs in Pdx, the Panasonic is sporting a duct tape rear fender repair job, and a ghastly kickstand.

The kickstand is a convenient accessory, and this design is useful for any bike where mounting in back of the bottom bracket is not an option (in this case due to the U-brakes residing there).  The stand is adjustable to any wheel size, and keeps the bike secure, even when I have my bags loaded up with groceries.

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I like using these Jandd Hurricane bags, which are aptly named and can handle just about any kind of weather.  Their vibrant colors augment my winter bike’s 1980’s color scheme, and add a lot to its visibility.  If you haven’t used Jandd bags, you are missing out on the ultimate in practicality and quality.  I have a set of Jandd panniers that are 30 years old, and still look new.

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The Panasonic MC 7500 is a bike that enthusiasts have embraced, but the frame does have its downsides – one of them being that on some builds, holes drilled in the seat stays (necessary to allow heat to escape while brazing), were actually drilled very close to the seat stay attachment.  Fortunately, on my frame, the holes have been drilled near the dropouts.  Unfortunately, the seat stay holes have caused a stress riser to appear on this cyclist’s bike.

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Paul’s chain keeper for my 1×7 drive train, with vintage Peugeot branded crankset.

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Specialized Nimbus Tires. Never a flat in six years, and the exact opposite of supple side walls.

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Possible stress crack

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After sanding to remove the paint, no stress crack visible.

On my own frame, I had concerns about the paint cracks which had developed near to the U-Brake braze-ons on the chain stays.  Whenever you heat the tubes to braze, there is a danger of overheating and weakening them. Since the frame was already cosmetically challenged, I had no qualms about taking my emery cloth and sandpaper to this area to see what lay beneath the cracked paint.  Fortunately, nothing at all.  But now I can monitor this area.  I will paint it with Testor’s clear paint so that I can watch for any future changes.

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SunRims on the wheelset I built for this bike – holding up okay but the sidewalls have been scored by my too hard brake pads.

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Offending hard pad on the U Brake – showing no wear which is a bad sign. Meaning that my rims have suffered instead.

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Repair job on the broken fender attachment.

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Repaired fender bracket.

While I had the bike in the shop stand, I decided to do a full tune-up.  I washed the wheels (a new wheelset which I built last year, and which are working well), picked rim material out of the brake pads, sanded the rear ones, replaced the too hard original Tektro pads which had messed up my new rims, and cleaned and lubricated the SunTour freewheel (more on that, below).  I repaired the broken fender attachment by rummaging through the parts bin to find a reasonable facsimile with which to repair the broken bracket.  I drilled a new hole through the center of the fender, and installed the new bracket.  Hopefully, it will survive and thrive.

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New front Kool Stop pads – replacing the original Tektros which badly scored my new rims.

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But now, to my chagrin, my newly cleaned and lubricated 7 speed Suntour freewheel is making very odd grinding and clunking sounds.  I have always loved Suntour freewheels, and have never had one fail on me.  After doing some research, Sheldon Brown (RIP) came to the rescue.  He described a situation similar to mine, where my newly lubricated freewheel began sounding clunky under load, and noisy while freewheeling.  I believe the problem may be a loose cover plate.  Meanwhile, I have a fun old Atom 5 speed freewheel from the 1970’s with English threads which I am going to install while I troubleshoot the beloved Suntour. The higher geared old Atom freewheel should make me ride even more slowly.  But, as I said before, it’s not me, it’s the bike.

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28 lb machine ready to hit the road.

Riding the Old Peugeot 650b Mixte

Peugeot 650b Mixte

I have put off making some final adjustments to this vintage Peugeot 650b mixte, knowing that I needed to dial in the Jeay brakes and work out the other little bugs that always come up during a frame up build.  But with today’s unnaturally warm weather, I decided to take the bike out into the wiles of Portland.  Even though this Peugeot is positively a city bike, Portland’s traffic scene and “bike culture” are in no way conducive to safe and leisurely riding on this type of machine.  So, a weekend trip along Springwater corridor and through the Eastbank Esplanade is the most enjoyable way to learn the handling characteristics of a new ride such as this.

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I am not sure why it is so tempting to think of a 70 year old bike as clunky and incompetent, but riding this machine today reminded me again how well the cycling industry had developed by the time the Germans occupied France in 1941.

First of all, this is no clunker.  It weighs 28 lbs as pictured (without bag), and that includes the fork mounted dynamo, fenders, and heavy Gauthier leather saddle.  Not bad!  The frame is made with Vitus Rubis tubing, which was used on higher end models in the 30’s and 40’s. The front end had no unpleasant “wobbly” feeling as can exist on some mixte frames, and handling was easy at all speeds.  Maybe the long wheelbase and super slack seat tube angle provide for the comfortable ride – but it is really fun to corner on this bike.  Kind of like riding on a roller coaster.  Whee!

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The Simplex Tour de France rear derailleur works perfectly out on the road, with accuracy, and no trimming.  Of course, there are only 3 gears here.  And what big gears they are, ranging from 54 to 75 gear inches.  I have to wonder about these giant gears on older machines that I encounter.  Were people stronger then?  Did they simply walk up the hills?  Is France totally flat?  Ha.  I can lower the gearing a bit by going up to 24 teeth, which is the maximum that this derailleur can handle.  Or maybe I’ll just tough it out for now.

Simplex Tour de France

It is very difficult to find builder information for bikes manufactured in France during the occupation years.  Based on some reading, I have learned that the cycling industry in France actually experienced a “bike boom” because petrol was unavailable to the populace, so driving was no longer really an option for most people.  And, there is a lot of shame surrounding those businesses who benefited financially during those terrible times, even though they may have been among the resistance on a moral and intellectual level.  The disruptions to normal business practices during the Nazi occupation, as well as this shame and possibly the need for secrecy has meant that it is nearly impossible to determine what exactly was going on in some of the cycling shops in France during the time.  I have found it interesting that there were sudden innovations (Simplex derailleurs) and new companies emerging (Mafac) right after France was liberated.  I suspect that research and innovation was in fact occurring during the occupation years, but went on, undocumented.  (Jan Heine has an interesting blog post about this topic here.)

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Correctly dating this Peugeot has been challenging.  Peugeot catalogs during the late 30’s and 1940’s cannot be found.  There is very little information about what was happening at the Peugeot factory during the occupation, with the implication that they actually shut down.  Some websites claim that the factory did shut down during the occupation, but I think they may be referencing only the automobile factory, as by this time the bicycle factory had been separated out as a distinct division, located in Beaulieu (Mandeure), France.  So, my best guess based on its original components and on the frame characteristics is that this bike dates to sometime in the late 30’s through the 1940’s.

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I was worried that the wood grips, which are very comfortable, would fly off the handlebars during vigorous climbing, as they are connected to the bar only with a conical cork insert located inside the grips, which I tapped into the bars with a mallet.  They held fine.  The Gauthier ladies leather saddle was shockingly comfortable – no changes were needed there.  I was also concerned that while the brake levers are quite lovely, the shape would inhibit emergency braking, with their slight arc in the middle restricting the movement.  As it turned out, braking was quite noisy!  This alerted others to my presence.  I had installed Kool Stop orange pads on the front, but had left the old funky Mafac pads as is on the rear.  Big mistake!  This bike needs Kool Stops front and rear, plus a complete cleaning and sanding of the rims to eliminate braking squeal, which I have now done.

Vintage Peugeot

Peugeot 650b resting at home

Thank you to Shawn at Adventurepdx, for this nice old Carradice bag which goes perfectly on this Peugeot.  I don’t use saddlebags much, and was shocked just how much you can jam into this thing.  It is the perfect addition to the bike and adds all the utility needed to make this a useful commuter and weekend rider.