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.

Look Ma, No Clearance

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Yes, I sliced up a set of funky vintage Bluemels in order to safely get full coverage fenders on my regular commuter – a 1990’s Terry Symmetry.  At first I had mounted them intact underneath the brake bridge and fork crown – leaving me about 4 mm of clearance, and that was after I switched to narrower 28 mm tires.  I knew I was tempting the clearance gods, and sure enough, a small piece of debris got wedged in there while I was traveling very slowly (thank those gods), and that was enough to convince me that it was time to try a different solution.

Fortunately, many have heard the call of frustrated road bike riders who want full coverage fenders but who purchased their machines during the dark, racing-fad era that finally ended just a few years ago. Such bikes are typically built with inadequate clearance for fenders, and no clearance at all if you want to run wider tires.  Now, you can find conversion brackets at a number of outlets that will allow you to essentially use modified rack mounting brackets to mount fenders over the top of the rear brake bridge and on either side of the fork crown.  River City offers a set for a mere $15.

Since I already had a bunch of these brackets lying around, I decided to make use of what I had available.  I also needed to create some more of Sheldon’s “fender nuts” which involves tapping the recessed brake mounting nut (not too far down), and using a short bolt.

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After measuring, I cut a small section out of the rear fender.  I didn’t like the look of two giant brackets, so for the seat post side of the rear fender I used a small bracket from a hardware store and modified it, which gives a cleaner look.  That took about 10 minutes.

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For the front fender, I did not remove any material, but cut it directly in front of the fork crown mounting bracket.  That way I could get more coverage around the front wheel.  The front section is cantilevered over the tire, and it does rattle every now and then, but not excessively so.  The mount behind the fork crown was more problematic.  I needed to get the fender up higher than the original bracket provided for, so I mangled up another hardware store bracket to come up with this unattractive solution.  I’ll replace this with a simpler and prettier solution (someday, maybe, when I get around to it, probably, eventually).

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Meanwhile, the fenders are doing their job.  My homemade mudflap is picking up the debris that would normally hit my bottom bracket, which now looks pristine, even after a rainy, muddy ride.  And the fenders themselves feel very securely mounted – I’ve had no trouble with them at all.  Even better, I was able to remount my 32 mm tires, which I much prefer to use, especially during the winter.  And, it’s nice to be able to ride around with some vintage Bluemel’s, which look great on the Terry, and add to its fun mix of new and vintage components.

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