Cleaning, Polishing and Restoring Vintage Aluminum Fenders

Having spent hours cleaning and polishing vintage aluminum bicycle fenders, I have wondered if there is a way to improve the efficiency of this process without harming a vintage fender’s finish?   Maybe not, but there are some products that work a bit better than others and are less likely to scratch or damage the fender’s finish.

Custom Meral steel fenders, with original wine cork spacer and attachment reinforcement

Aluminum fenders – hammered, patterned or smooth – are often found on vintage bicycles with 650b wheels.  Steel fenders, painted or chromed, were also used – although not as commonly as their aluminum counterparts. Lightweight chromed steel fenders can be found on some French, British, and Italian randonneuring bikes dating from the 1950’s on.  But, aluminum alloy fenders were generally the material of choice in those days.

Vintage 1950’s fenders with red highlights and a smooth surface

1950’s hammered fenders with dark brown paint highlights.

Vintage aluminum alloy fenders can have painted portions to add color highlights.  Cleaning and polishing these fenders involves a number of steps.  You don’t want to use any product that will dull the color highlights.  So, it’s best to focus on the unpainted portion of the fender for polishing.

As a first step, I remove the fender from the bicycle frame and remove all the mounting hardware.  Then I gently wash it with a mild surfactant, such as Finish Line’s pink bike wash. After that, I continue the cleaning process with a clean rag and some alcohol.

Because the fender is flexible and subject to damage  I place it over an inflated tire of similar width, mounted to a wheel and position this into my truing stand. I prevent the hub from turning by securing the spokes to the stand. This prevents the fender from getting twisted or misshaped while its being polished.

Once the fender is clean it is time to think about the best product to use for polishing.  For aluminum fenders, a wadding polish such as Nevr-Dull seems to work best.  I have tried many other polishes, but have found this product to work most efficiently and with the best results.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t need to reapply this product many times over a heavily tarnished fender.

I have also used MAAS metal polish with excellent results on any steel component.  So it is a good choice for chrome steel fenders (and any other steel component).

My 1973 Jack Taylor’s fenders were seriously tarnished and dull when I acquired the bike.  After polishing the fenders (over many hours), the luster of the metal was restored, as you can see from the photo above.  I used Nevr-Dull to polish the fenders.

The Lefol aluminum fender shown above is from an early 1950’s bicycle.  Cleaning and polishing this fender took some time (as in many hours), but the end result was well worth the effort.  Using a wadding polish for vintage aluminum fenders will yield the best results, as these products will not harm the underlying metal.

Rivendell Appaloosa Build

I first became aware of Rivendell back in 1999.  At that time, I was looking to replace my crashed 1976 Centurion Pro Tour, a bike which was my only bike for 20 plus years, and upon which I had ridden over 40,000 miles. I didn’t know how difficult my quest would be, and maybe that’s a good thing.  That quest led me to question all that the cycling industry offered during those dark times: racing bikes marketed to everyday riders with no clearance for decent width tires and fenders, mass produced aluminum frames, carbon forks of questionable reliability, and throw away parts.  Then, along came Grant Peterson, guru of “normal cycling”.  Back then, there wasn’t a web to browse, so mail order catalogs were how you learned about the latest stuff.  I wish I had saved those old Rivendell Readers, but at the time, who knew?  I now only have one or two in my collection of print material.

I wasn’t sure whether I should spring for one of their bikes given their higher cost, and so chose a Cannondale T2000 instead.  That experience is actually what led me here, 19 years later.  The Cannondale forced me to consider why the Centurion Pro Tour was so good, whereas the Cannondale was so bad.  I had done lots of touring in those days, but getting on the T2000 for anything but a short jaunt would exhaust me.  I ended up replacing every single component on that bike, and then finally realized it was the stiff aluminum frame (made stiffer by its smaller size) that was the culprit.  Since then I have ridden and enjoyed many interesting bicycles from many different eras, and have returned, for the most part, to riding exclusively on lugged steel frames. (uh oh – have I buried the lead?)

While I have many great bikes that I enjoy riding, as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that I prefer being in a more upright position.  Much of my cycling is commuting, and being more upright is not only safer, but a bit more comfortable.  While any bike can be converted to a more upright position, many Rivendell frames are dialed in that way.  The Appaloosa features a 112 cm wheelbase (exclamation point!), clearance for 55 mm tires (another exclamation point!), and is made with lugged, butted cro-mo steel.

The lugs, and almost every other feature of this frame, are well executed. I can’t think of any other non-custom frame that is as lovely.  It is almost too beautiful.

For the drive train, I wanted to use my favorite vintage Japanese component maker:  SunTour.  If you haven’t used their friction ratcheting bar end shifters, you are missing out.  For this build I chose a SunTour Superbe front derailleur, a SunTour Sprint cankset and bottom bracket, and a SunTour Cyclone rear derailleur.  You might wonder how these vintage components worked on this new frame.  Perfectly!  I was worried that the Cyclone wouldn’t be able to handle the 8 speed cassette, but with the adjuster screws dialed all the way out, it was able to swing across the full width of the cogs.  I’ve got an 11-30 cassette installed, but have ordered a NOS 12-32 which will be a better match for the 48/39 rings up front.

The SunTour Sprint crankset originally had a 40T small ring, but the frame clearance was questionable with the SunTour Sprint NOS BB I had installed.  So, I swapped in a Sugino 39T ring. You can see that the clearance on the small ring is tight, but acceptable.  The chainline is perfect, and shifting both front and rear is crisp and reliable.

The saddle and seatpost choices were more involved.  I knew I would want a no-set-back seat post, given the Appy’s long top tube.  So, I selected a Thomson, a brand which I had used before.  It’s very easy to micro-adjust the horizontal angle on these seatposts.  What’s a Rivendell without a Brooks leather saddle? But before I opted for a leather saddle,  I decided to try out the Brooks Cambium Saddle, a non-leather option whose color scheme looked perfect for this bike’s paint scheme.  Wow!  While it’s probably not right to use the words comfort and saddle in the same sentence, this Cambium C19 saddle was far more comfortable on its first ride than any other saddle I have tried.

For the braking system, I used SunTour’s XC Pro Cantilevers, with the “champagne” finish.  While the brakes look beautiful, I doubt I would choose them again.  Setting them up, with their internal springs, involves dialing in the spring tension on each brake arm using a 13 mm wrench.  SunTour supplies this tool, but its shape is not optimal for this process.  As a result, me and my 13 mm cone wrench have spent so much time together that I think we are in a relationship.  Sheldon Brown has some excellent advice regarding setting up this type of cantilever, but what I found is that fine tuning the spring tension requires a great deal of trial and error.  For the brake cables, I decided to try Jagwire’s compressionless brake housing (try not to panic!) in an Ice Grey color which integrated well with the color scheme for this bike. The rear hanger was a problem. No hangers were supplied with the frame, as it is assumed that the build will include V-brakes (gasp!).  I used a Surly hanger, but it doesn’t work well with the Rivendell’s seatpost bolt, so I hastily added a wine cork wedge to help align the rear cable. I also routed the front cables “french-style” over the top of the handlebars.  I like it.

The 650b wheelset consists of Velocity Atlas rims laced to Deore XT hubs. This is the wheelset recommended by Rivendell.  I wanted to use 38mm 650b tires in order to make this tall bike a little lower to the ground, and because I had some 48 mm hammered aluminum fenders which would work well with this application.  I hadn’t tried Pancenti’s Pari Moto tires before, so thought I would give them a shot for this build.  They are very light, but difficult to mount.  I haven’t ever had to use my truing stand to mount tires, but for the Pari-Motos this was necessary, as they would not seat evenly into my rims.  That process took hours.  But, out on the road, the tires provided a plush and comfortable ride.

Speaking of being out on the road, I took the bike out today for its maiden voyage.  I knew I would have some issues to deal with regarding the Suntour cantilevers, but I wanted to also make a list of other tweaks, plus get a feel for this unusual bike with its slack angles and long wheel base.  I did a short circuit from my home, which is in a hilly neighborhood.  On the way back, there’s the “easier hill” and then there’s the harder hill which I don’t normally choose unless I’m feeling really robust.  But today, on the Appaloosa, I returned home up the more difficult route.  Even without really low gears, the bike responded well to steep inclines.  Riding the bike felt like driving my Dad’s old Northstar Cadillac – truly a stylish land yacht, but comfortable and offering plenty of performance.

The V-O porteur bars offer several hand positions, which I took advantage of while climbing.

I also used V-O’s Grand Cru levers, which seemed to integrate well with this build.  The levers are really light weight, but do not have a return spring.  Nonetheless, they were easy to set up, and offer a good feel while riding.  I also tried out these inexpensive MKS commuter pedals, which I pumped today with my summer sandals.  They actually worked better than expected.  As with most MKS pedals, you will want to add grease and adjust the bearings.  In my experience, MKS pedals are shipped dry and adjusted too tight.

I was more cautious than usual about taking the bike out on its first test ride.  I think partly because of its lovely frame which seems too beautiful to ride, and partly because of anxiety regarding the SunTour cantilevers.  While the brakes are not in their ideal adjustment, they actually performed very well.  The ergonomics turned out to be almost perfect, with just a few minor tweaks needed. As I got used to this bike, I found its natural cadence.  Every bike has one. The Appaloosa’s is unhurried and strong.

Rivendell Appaloosa

Photo courtesy of Rivendell Bicycles Works https://www.rivbike.com/

I recently ordered this lovely 2018 Rivendell Appaloosa frame.  It is designed for 650b wheels (a 51 cm frame) and has 135 mm rear spacing.

Why?  I have many wonderful bikes that I thoroughly enjoy riding.  But one thing I have never had since 1999 is a bicycle soul mate – that’s the year I crashed my 1976 Centurion Pro Tour.  Since then, while I have ridden many excellent bikes, I have never found that one bike that speaks to me, a bike that will take me into the next decades of riding, with comfort, competence, and a spiritual connection that is hard to explain.

In 2012 I built a 650b frameset while attending UBI’s frame building class here in Portland.  That experience helped me realize two things:  experienced frame builders have much knowledge and lore that newbies should respect and value. And, many cycling “experts” don’t know a thing about frame geometry, especially as it applies to riders under 5’6″.  One of the (few?) nice things about being an accountant by trade is that math comes naturally to me.  So, understanding the complexity of frame geometry has always been a high priority.

The 650b frame I built back in 2012 is currently being repaired with additional brazing on one of the lug joints that I didn’t do so well at filling with silver the first time out.  When that frame has been sand blasted and painted, I’ll build it up.

Rivendell Appy in shipping garb

Meanwhile, I received shipment of the Rivendell Appaloosa and 650b Velocity wheelset I had ordered earlier this winter.  When the frame arrived I was amazed to see that Rivendell had protected and packaged the frame in a way that only bike geeks can appreciate. As a buyer of bike frames, I have received countless frames shipped with no tubing or drop out protection.  Some eBay sellers simply do not have a clue as to how to properly ship a bike frame, so: Caveat Emptor.

As expected, this bike’s paint scheme is lovely, in fact, extraordinary for this price point.  The fork crown has ornate patterns, with mounting holes on top to accept stays for a front rack.  The Appaloosa head badge is fun and interesting (it’s a Rivendell!), and all the lugs have been filed and well brazed.  For a frameset that costs the consumer a mere $1,300, the value is clearly reflected in these features.  A Rivendell frame is one step away from custom, but inexpensive compared to custom options.

Is this a cargo bike?

Horseshoe seat tube/seat post drilling

Whether you want a kickstand or not – here is the bracket for it

Beefier than any other dropout – and with two threaded eyelets.

Two more eylets on the rear dropouts

3 rack mounts on the seat stays, plus the eyelets on the dropouts.

Silver tubes – butted and cro-mo

One thing to note about Rivendell frames is that they can have a longer wheelbase and longer chainstays than expected.  This Appaloosa has 51 cm chainstays. That means it is in cargo bike territory for its wheelbase.  For this frame (advertised as 51 cm size), I measured the seat tube as 50 cm and the top tube as 55.5 cm.  These measurements differ from the specs shown on Rivendell’s website.  My measurements are center to center.

There are a few condition issues with the frame.  The seat stay cluster was filed very thin, but the upper portion extends outward, and with a little paint loss, is not ideal.  Also the rear canti stud braze-ons are not well executed.  They look unprofessional, but after examination I think they will be safe to ride.  The head badge was not glued evenly to the head tube, as shown above.  Naturally, I am documenting these issues in case anything arises with the performance of the bike.

Because the frame is heavier than other frames that I ride, I expect to replace the FSA headset and the low-end Shimano bottom bracket.  I’ve got lots of interesting vintage options in my parts bin that are lighter weight and probably more likely to last through the ages, as well as provide better performance.  Smaller riders can benefit from weight savings, and I intend to focus on that as I consider options for components.