Short People Got Nobody

1980s’s ALAN with 24 inch wheels

Randy Newman’s silly tune “Short People” was unfortunately taken literally rather than as its intended satire by the listening public when it was released back in 1977.  So, I heard this song all too often in the wrong context in those days – with people I knew laughingly singing the lyrics while mocking their friends of shorter stature, seemingly with full license from Randy himself.

But, the song was intended instead to mock those who held such discriminatory, narrow views of other humans who were ever so slightly different from themselves – a problem of human nature which seems to know no end or bounds (current events confirm this resoundingly).

The cycling industry is a casualty of such views, not only with regard to human stature, but also with regard to gender and race.

One of my quests has been to educate cyclists about the world they encounter when trying to find the appropriate bicycle for their needs.  In an ideal world, there would be no bias toward any particular size or type of bicycle.  Instead, bicycles would be manufactured according to the variation of human sizes, and according to their intended purposes (and that is to say that only a tiny fraction of bicycles would be “racing bicycles”).

1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist with 26″ wheels

The opposite was true for many recent decades.  Bicycles manufactured to fit only a certain taller human were offered, and all such bicycles were conceived as racing machines, since that is what appealed to the western, white male mass culture of the times.

The needs of daily riders, smaller cyclists, older cyclists, non-male, and non-white cyclists, and differently-abled cyclists were never considered.  Economic justice issues as they relate to transportation were not even in the vocabulary.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about what has changed and is changing in the industry, and how those changes address these basic inequalities:

1980’s Viner – converted to 650c

Wheel size:  the move toward smaller wheels for smaller frames is finally underway…again.  There was no bias in the early days of cycling toward any particular sized wheel.  Velocio” championed small wheeled bicycles from the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s as more efficient, even though he was of taller stature than most humans.  Georgena Terry is a modern day pioneer of small wheeled bicycles.  She continues to design frames around the anatomy of cyclists who are of smaller stature. Rodriguez Cycles, builder of custom frames in Seattle, also figured this out long ago, offering many frames designed for  650b, 650c and 26″ wheel sizes. Brompton, Bike Friday and other builders of small wheeled and foldable bicycles (which can be ridden by humans of any size) are also part of the solution.  Grant Petersen of Rivendell began offering smaller frames designed for 26″ and 650b wheels decades ago, well ahead of any current wheel size trends.

1990’s fillet brazed Terry Symmetry

Frame size, construction and materials:  While I love and prefer lugged steel frames, fillet brazed steel frames offer much in the way of customization for tube angles.  Georgena Terry’s smaller frames feature fillet brazing, with a sloping top tube.  Purchasers of her custom built frames can specify the degree of slope they prefer.  But one thing to remember is that for any cyclist who is actually riding a bicycle with appropriate sized wheels, they also need to carefully consider top tube length, which for me is the most important measurement on a bike’s frame.  The Terry that I include in my constellation of daily riders is a fillet brazed off the shelf Tange steel model from the 90’s.  The short 51 cm top tube means that I experience a comfortable ride, even on long hauls.  The 559 wheels allow for a large head tube – and that means an overall very comfortable ride, with more steel underneath the rider to absorb road shock.  Shorter cyclists should rule out most modern aluminum frames, as they will be much too stiff and uncomfortable due to their smaller overall size.  One exception is vintage ALAN frames (or any other bonded aluminum frame) from the 70’s to the 90’s.  These aluminum frames can actually be more flexible and comfortable than their steel counterparts.

Photo credit J. Maus

The crazy obsession with stand over height:  When was the last time you had an unfortunate encounter with your bike’s top tube?  Probably, if you are an adult, the answer is NEVER.  There really is no reason to fret over whether you have just the right amount of stand-over height for your bicycle (whatever that is) unless you are planning to use your bike for stunts.  It’s very easy to dismount a slightly taller bike than one you would normally ride and lean it over at stops.  If you have ever been to Portland, you’ll enjoy seeing the occasional tall bike making its way through traffic.  The rider has no chance of putting a foot down at stops, and instead learns to balance and maneuver their odd contraption, sans traditional bike fitting advice.

1980’s Panasonic Mountain Bike converted to City Commuter

1980 Meral custom frame converted to 650b

And, summing up:  if you are a shorter cyclist looking to get back in to cycling, or to find a bicycle better suited for your build, DON’T go to your Local Bike Shop (at least not initially).  Look at the bike you currently have:  can it be converted to a smaller wheel size?  If not, I advise purchasing an appropriate frame (or having it custom built), and then building it up to your spec’s from there.  Better yet, learn how to do this yourself by enrolling in the many bike maintenance classes that are available in your city.  Smaller lugged steel mountain bike frames make wonderful and inexpensive commuter bikes – but pay attention to the top tube length.  And, there are many lugged steel vintage 700c frames that are good candidates for conversion to 650b.

650B Conversion Misconceptions

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1980 Meral sport touring frame

A while back I received a hostile diatribe in my comment queue about my Meral 650b conversion.  I spammed the comment, but then thought it was potentially illustrative, albeit rude and obnoxious.   The moron’s comment appears at the end of this post, and because it is full of misconceptions and mythologies couched as “expertise”, I’d like to thank him for inspiring this post.

I purchased my 1980 Meral 700c sport touring frame after researching the ideal geometry and clearance requirements for a wheel size conversion. I consulted Sheldon Brown’s 650B conversion guide, as well as resources available from many other cyclists, mechanics, and frame builders. A particularly easy to read guide is available at Rivendell’s site. Since that time, I have done a number of other wheel size conversions, from 650c to 26 inch, and from 700c to 650c.

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Mafac Raid brakes-to supply adequate reach to the 650B rims.

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Before building up the frame I dry mounted many of the components to check for clearance and chain line.

Those of us who have undertaken 650B conversions understand the brake reach, tire clearance and other considerations that must be explored when contemplating whether to convert a bike to 650B.  My spammer, however, believes that one can alter the geometry of a frame by changing the wheel size.  Without a blow torch, that would not be possible.

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After the conversion to 650B, the bike looks beautiful and eats up the miles.

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Wine cork spacer for the rear fender.

The outer diameter of a 38 mm 650B tire is only a bit smaller than that of a 700c x 20 tire.  The effect of the 650B conversion is to give one a chance to ride on wider tires, making the bike more useful and comfortable, and to provide for fender clearance that didn’t exist with the larger wheel size.  And, as I have stated in past posts, you don’t want to convert a frame to a smaller wheel size if your frame has a lot of bottom bracket drop.  Rivendell recommends no more than 70 mm, but you may be able to get away with a bit more drop if you are using shorter cranks.  Many bicycles from the 1970’s on have way too high bottom brackets to begin with, so lowering the bottom bracket a bit will improve the bike’s handling and cause no negative side effects.

My own Meral has very little bottom bracket drop, so the conversion improved the handling, by dropping the bottom bracket height DOWN to 27.5 cm, still very high, and much higher than recommended by some frame builders.  My trail went from 43 mm to 41, and my wheel flop stayed the same at 12.  The world did not stop spinning due to my audacious acts.  What are the factors at work that cause these changes?

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Rake and Trail, drawing courtesy of Dave Moulton.

When you install smaller diameter wheels, there will be a change in the distance from the center of the axle to the ground, thus reducing the distance of the horizontal line between a straight line following the fork/headtube angle, and a vertical line from the wheel axis to the ground.  Smaller wheel diameter = less trail.  More rake also = less trail, which you can determine from the above drawing by imagining the vertical line through the axis, moving forward, reducing the trail line.  Less trail almost always equals less wheel flop, which can provide improved handling for carrying front end loads.  Wheel flop is a function of head angle and trail, so you can alter wheel flop also by changing to a longer or shorter fork, and/or to a fork with less or more rake.  But in a well thought out 650B conversion, there’s no need to worry about changing the fork.

Another misconception is that a 650B conversion causes fork shimmy.  Even though no one seems to know what does cause shimmy, I think we can say for certain that it is not caused by the “wrong combination of rake, trail and head angle.” which of course a 650B conversion does not affect anyway (rake and head angle being impossible to change without changing the fork).  Fortunately, I eliminated the shimmy on my initial build by using different tires – I switched from the ponderous Panasonic Col de la Vie tires to the comfortable, delightful and fast Loup Loup Pass tires from Compass.

Finally, here is the comment which inspired this post, in full and unedited, with misspellings and grammatical errors intact:

“As you state, the frames is well designed and its construction very well crafted; it was mostly likely built by Francis Quillon the head framebuilder at Meral..and he would be proud of it. However..he designed the bike around 700c wheels and would be astonished that you have fitted 650B, thereby upsetting all the correct design features that he had used in the frames constructions ie head angle, front end clearance, fork rake and trail…all those important features that govern how a bike handles..OH! not forgetting the height of the bracket.
Shimmy is often a result of the wrong combination of fork rake, trail and head angle..compounded, without doubt by using the wrong wheel size. So what you have managed to do is to take a delightful frame that was intended for fast road riding ie sportif use, and try to turn it into a type of randonneur…which it was never designed from the box of frame tubes , lugs etc to be.
As for the massive amount of handlebar stem quill that protrudes dangerously out of the fork column, Quillon would be alarmed at the thought ..and the sight it presents. The least you could do would be to buy one of those elegant Stronglight extra long headset lock-nuts that would both add about 30mms of extra grip to the quill while at the same time making the bike look less ridiculous than it does now…
Never mind the chrome hilights, the wonderful deep purple flamboyant paintwork..you have turned the bike into a travesty of what the designer/framebuilder intended and,
in doing so, insulted his skills.
If you really need so much seat pillar projecting from the seat cluster and such a high riding position, I suggest you get a frame that is more appropriate to your inner leg and body length.
Just a footnote…no French builder, large or small would ever let a bike with toeclip overlap leave their workshop or factory.”

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Shockingly tall seatpost?

This diatribe points out how narrow minded some cyclists are –  adhering to the idea that if they do not personally experience something, then it must not exist.  One of the reasons the seat post and stem are tall is because I am using 160mm cranks, which help to eliminate toe overlap.  Shorter cranks means a taller seat post, which in turn means a taller stem.  And yes, this frame had toe overlap with the larger 700c wheels, and it was indeed designed that way – something that happens when small and even medium sized frames are built around 700c wheels.  Whether the builder considered this a necessary compromise to please a particular customer, we will never know.  Most disturbing about this rant is the ridiculous concept that style trumps comfort when setting up a bike for a particular rider.  Many riders know that taller stems mean more hours of comfortable riding.

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NItto Technomic stem, sanded to French size, a la Sheldon Brown, Shimano 600 French headset.

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A travesty?

Apparently, the original Shimano 600 French headset is an absolute eyesore, when paired to the tall Nitto stem.

So hideous is the bike that it is now a “travesty”.  Well, me and my travesty will see you out on the road.  Happy riding!

Cranky

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Vintage TA crankset with triple rings – 48/40/28.

The lovely & vintage TA crankset which I selected for my 1980 Meral 650b conversion has been an unusually frustrating interaction between the characteristics of vintage components and modern cycling requirements.  I chose this component for two reasons:  the crank arms were 160 mm, helping me to eliminate toe overlap on my 1980 sportif frame; and, since the Meral came with a TA bottom bracket,  I thought it would be nice to match it to a TA crankset of the same era.

But this crankset was problematic.  The big ring had a massive wobble that I had straightened a few times in my vise.  And, even though I use a similarly geared crankset on my Terry – a Shimano 600 with 48/40/30 rings – there was something about the TA rings that never really came together.  I never landed on my “cruising gear” even though I went through two different cassettes and two different front and rear derailleurs.  And, the drive train was always noisy, even after trying a few different chains.

Some frame-up builds come together perfectly, and some require more tweaking.  The Meral ended up being in the latter camp.

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Version 2 with TA 44/28 rings.

I decided that I might prefer a compact setup for this bike.  Since most of my current riding is commuting, it is important if only for safety reasons not to have to worry about gear selection while riding.  My other bikes provide easy and intuitive gear selection, so that my eyes can stay on the road.

A large tooth difference between the chain rings was de rigueur back in the heyday of French cyclo touring.  So, maybe it would work for me too.  I sourced NOS TA 44 and 28 teeth rings on eBay.  The rings are very pretty, and gave the Meral a real “French” look.

Unfortunately, for my kind of riding, the 28 tooth ring did not work at all.  Essentially, I was now riding a bike with a single chain ring plus a bail out gear, rather than a regular double crank which allows for even steps between the gears.  And, shifting between the two front rings often required a triple shift to maintain cadence. To make matters worse, the small chain ring was noisy in certain gears due to the extreme angle of the chain, front to rear and side to side.

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Version 3 with 44/32 rings.

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Beautiful new TA Pro Vis 32 tooth ring.

Not one to give up, I decided that a larger toothed small chain ring would be the answer.  I ordered a brand new 32 tooth TA ring from Boulder Bicycle.  The new ring is beautifully etched, and looks quite fine with the older crankset.  Even better, after installing yet another cassette (a SRAM 7 speed 12-32) to accommodate this new gearing, and adding a few links to the chain, the bike’s gearing is perfect for what I need.  My new gear inch range is 26 to 95, with even steps between the gears.  My shifting pattern is normal, and I have a cruising gear on my big ring that matches a comfortable cadence on a flat surface.  While I was at it, I adjusted the Simplex Super LJ front derailleur lower to make my front shifts crisper.  This front derailleur uses a parallelogram with an extreme angle, so in order to make it work well, it needs be about 1 mm above the teeth of the larger chain ring, rather than the usual 2 or 3 mm, to achieve ideal shifting.

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1980 Meral 650b as currently configured.

This bike was meant to take the place of my old beloved 1976 Centurion Pro Tour, which I crashed irreparably in 1999.  It has been a “long and twisted road” finding the right bike which can carry me not only to work and back, but to the undiscovered as well as the familiar. But this is what I have been yearning for.  A soul mate.