A Meral for Town and Country

Bicycles with 650B wheels are nicely suited to a relaxed riding style.  The wider rims and greater clearances on the bike’s frame allow for plump, comfortable tires.  Often, vintage 650B bicycles are set up as city style bikes, with minimal gears and an upright position for the cyclist.

My recently acquired early 1980’s Meral randonneuse cried out for a 650B conversion.  It was built with Vitus 788 tubing around a set of narrow, 700c rims.  The bike as originally configured had a high bottom bracket and minimal tire clearances. These elements would normally indicate an ideal bicycle for a 650B conversion. Still, I wasn’t sure if I would be successful converting the bike, because the brake clearances were odd – with the front brake having more (not less!) reach than the rear brake. In times past, competitive oriented bicycles were sometimes built with more brake reach in the rear than the front, and that was so that a shorter reach and therefore stronger brake could be used at the front end.

Not so with this bicycle.  The rear brake reach is shorter than the front by more than several millimeters.  When it came time to install the Mafac Raid long reach brakes, this fact made me concerned.  In order to have the rear Mafac Raid brake pads contact the new 650B rim, I needed to angle them down slightly, which is not ideal.  There are other options for dealing with brake reach problems, including installing brackets (a la Sheldon), and filing some material off of the caliper arms, to allow the brake pads to sit a bit lower.  None of those options appealed to me.

Vintage Mafac Raid brake calipers with V-O squeal free pads.

I decided to ignore the problem for now, as the front brake reach was perfect for the conversion to 650B, with plenty of room to position the brake pads correctly.  I am using Velo-Orange’s smooth post “squeal free” pads for this set up – and they are working perfectly and as advertised.  Since the front brake provides 70% of a bike’s stopping power, I haven’t noticed any issues involving the angled rear brake pads.  Meanwhile, here are some photos of the rest of the build:

Brooks leather grips, Tektro vintage style levers, V-O thumbies, Campagnolo shifter

Velocity A23 650B rims

Shimano Tiagra hubs

Meral custom steel fenders, wine cork spacers

Meral custom steel rack, with mounts for front flashlight.

This project was loads of fun, thanks to the beauty and quality of this vintage Meral bicycle.  The custom fenders and rack were a perfect match to its new Town and Country personality.  V-O’s thumbies worked well for this build – they can be used with just about any type of shifter so are more adaptable than their Paul’s competitor.

I used a lower end 650B wheelset that I will not purchase again, and I consider the wheels as a placeholder for now.  Probably I will build the ideal wheelset for this bike when the time comes, and will sort out the lighting options at that time.  Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy these photos of this amazing vintage bicycle which now has a new lease on life.  I have included the specs and full build list at the bottom of this post.

A view from the back – with a tiny vintage reflector installed on the custom fenders.

Original Brooks Pro saddle.  Through the frame brake cable routing for the rear brake.

Campagnolo shifter on the seat tube braze on – intended for a BB mounted dynamo. Nicely executed seat cluster.

This gorgeous custom Meral steel rack can also be installed at the rear of the bike.

The drive train is a single 42 tooth drilled ring up front, with a 7 speed cassette at the back, controlled with a vintage friction Campy shifter.

The specs and build list are as follows:

Frame and fork:  Early 1980’s Meral with Vitus 788 steel tubing, 54 cm ST, 56 cm TT, through the frame brake and dynamo wiring, 2 rack mounts on the seat stays, 2 rack mounts on the fork, bottle cage mount, shifter braze-ons, ST dynamo braze-on, 127 rear spacing.

Drive Train:  Vintage Sugino crankarms and Sugino drilled 42T ring; new 7 speed cassette, vintage Lyotard pedals, Shimano SLX rear derailleur, original T.A. bottom bracket, replacement T.A. spindle of shorter length, V-O thumbie with vintage Campagnolo friction shifter.

Braking: Vintage Mafac Raid long reach centerpull brakes, new V-O smooth post pads, new Tektro vintage style levers, new blue color matched housing.

Wheelset & Tires:  New 650b wheelset: Shimano Tiagra hubs on Velocity A23 rims (purchased from Harris), tires and wheelset are placeholders for now.

Saddle and Seatpost:  Original Brooks Professional saddle, original JP Routens slanted seatpost clamp.

Bars, stem and headset:  new Soma Oxford handlebars and Nitto Technomic stem (sanded to French 22.0 steerer size), original French Stronglight headset.

Accessories:  Original Meral custom steel fenders, original Meral custom steel front rack, new V-O bottle cage.

Ready for a leisurely ride wherever you want to go.

Setting up Centerpull Brakes

Center pull brakes are often standard equipment on vintage bicycles. Their design can allow more clearance for fenders and wide tires, and based on where the pivots reside, they may have more mechanical advantage than standard sidepull brake calipers.

But, centerpull brakes are sometimes viewed as more challenging to set up than side pull brake calipers.  How long should the straddle cable be?  How close should you set the brake pads to the rim? What is the ideal angle for the straddle cables?  How much torque should go on the mounting bolt?  What about lubrication of the pivot points and cables?  Should the straddle cable be thick or thin?  And, most important, how can you eliminate brake squeal on these often very noisy calipers.

Brazed on centerpulls – a 1978 Centurion Pro Tour

For over twenty years I cycled on a bike that had the best centerpulls you could find – brazed on centerpulls were standard equipment on my 1976 Centurion Pro Tour.  While this advantage went unnoticed by me in my youth (I had nothing to compare this to), I have definitely noted the extra care and adjustments needed to the bikes I currently ride which feature center pull brakes, but which are not brazed on to the frame.  The above photo shows brazed on Dia Compe centerpulls on a 1978 example of a Centurion Pro Tour.

1953 Follis branded Jeay brakes

1947 Peugeot with Jeay centerpull brakes

Brazed on centerpulls have been around for a long time.  The above examples show Jeay centerpulls on a 1947 Peugeot, and a more custom example from Follis on a 1953 frame.

If you are ordering a custom bicycle, you can most definitely specify for this braze-on feature.  Using the brazed on version of centerpull brakes keeps the brakes centered, and undoubtedly improves the overall performance of the brake.

What is the best way to set up centerpull brakes?  Sheldon Brown offers some guidance, as well as Park Tools.  But the instructions on these sites do not address some puzzling issues such as the proper length and angle for the straddle cable and the proper distance of the pads to the rim. Nor is the cable width and pivoting characteristics of the straddle cable discussed (a la Mafac).

For the question regarding the ideal pad distance to the rims, I can turn to both my own personal experience, as well as to one of my favorite resources – Glenn’s New Complete Bicycle Manual. The distance to set the pads to the rim is recommended at 1/8 inch, according to “Dr. Coles” (aka “Dr. Glenn” – the author whose white coat visage inspired my affectionate homage). That’s about 3 mm.  Seems about right to me, based on my many decades of cycling with centerpull brakes.

Rebour drawing of Mafac centerpulls with extra long straddle cable

The length and width of the straddle cable is another important element to consider when setting up these brakes.  For Dia Compe and other non-Mafac centerpulls, it may appear that you have no choice in selecting the straddle cable, but these cables actually come in all different lengths, not just the one included with whatever caliper you are working with.  The angle and width of the cables can impact the performance of the brakes.  More flexible and moveable cables (a la Mafac and Compass) will provide better performance. One of the nice features of Mafac brakes is that the straddle cable is actually a shifter cable cut short, so it is easy to replace and adjust these straddle cables for Mafac brakes, at will.

The above Daniel Rebour drawing shows a custom frame with unusual braze-ons for the rear centerpull calipers, resulting in a very long straddle cable.  In my experience, the length of the straddle cable is not so important as its angle – a wider angle at the yoke being more advantageous.  The angle will decrease as the brake lever is applied.  Also, pads should be set parallel to the rims, and with no upward or downward angle for best results (unlike some cantis which may need a slightly upward angle).

For Mafac enthusiasts, one issue is the flex characteristics of the fork and seatpost hangers.  These hangers are not very stiff, so that when braking pressure is applied, the hanger can flex significantly, reducing the performance of the brake and providing for a “mushy” feel.  Because of this, I have sometimes replaced the Mafac hangers with more robust hangers on my bikes with centerpull brakes, and with good results.  The above photos show the Mafac hangers.

V-O brake pad holders with toe in adjustment.

V-O smooth post pads – non squeal variety.

Brake pads are important to any brake set-up. While Kool Stop does make Mafac replacement pads – both in orange and black compounds, I have found that I prefer using Velo-Orange pads for my centerpull brakes.  They are quieter and yet perform equally well.  I usually lubricate all the pivot points on any centerpull brake I am setting up, as well as lubricating the straddle cable and yoke.  It’s critical to check your cables and the bolts securing them for wear and proper torque on a routine basis, and if any cables show degradation, replace them immediately.  You never want to apply the front brake, only to have it fail. That’s 70% of your stopping power.

The Case of the Mysterious Mark

1941 Goeland fork

There is usually some sleuthing involved when it comes to restoring vintage bicycles.  While that is definitely one of the satisfying elements of the restoration process, there also can be dead ends leading to unsolvable mysteries.  The 1941 Goeland fork depicted above has an interesting hand drawn signature on the steerer tube.  I haven’t been able to really isolate the letters, except for the “e” and the “g” at the end of the scribe.  This kind of mark is unusual.  I have seen stamped marks on frames, forks and components, such as the builder’s marks on a 1929 Griffon that I restored a while back, shown below.

Builder’s mark on 1929 Griffon.

The little bug-like mark is, I believe, the builder’s mark, and the “9” is a mark that was on each of the components of this 1929 Griffon, which I took to be a date code.

1941 French freewheel with engraving.

The 1941 Goeland’s freewheel also has a mark that I can’t quite make out.  The freewheel has no other manufacturer’s marks or codes, just this elegant engraving on the cover plate, unlike the 1947 freewheel (from my 1947 Camille Daudon) show below, which has marks, plus a strange engraved signature on the back side of the freewheel, but no indication of the manufacturer.

Engraving at the bottom.

Or, should it go this way?

Deciphering these marks can be challenging.  Even standard marks can be hard to make out.  While I was working the wheelset of the 1941 Goeland, I needed to remove a broken nipple and rusted spoke.  Even though there is a clear manufacturer’s mark on the nipple, I still can’t make it out.

And that’s after enlisting my little magnifying glass – a relic from my parent’s gem collecting days.

The 1941 Goeland seems to be bursting with mysterious signatures.  The above photo is the bike’s hand-made spoke protector.  It has a beautifully engraved mark, shown above.  With time, and a little more patience, and perhaps some help from technology and readers of this blog, I hope to solve these mysteries.

UPDATE 4/26/17:

Reader Bruno (see comments below) has supplied the following information:  The spoke protector is a “Le Pratique”, made by Lefol, and the Daudon freewheel is a J Moyne with an unusual hand drawn engraving.  Here’s a vintage Moyne advert for reference: