Why I Love Cycling

1974 Touring Bicycle with fillet brazed joints – Photo credit – DeLong’s Guide to Bicycles & Bicycling.

In 1974 I was a high school senior, soon to graduate. I often rode to classes on my 5 speed derailleur bicycle, and that involved a number of steep hills, some of which I dismounted to ascend.  The bike I rode seemed incredibly incompetent, heavy, and badly geared.  At that time, I knew nothing about lightweight steel tubing, expertly brazed and filed lugs, and quality components.  I was riding the bike my parents purchased for me, after much goading on my part.  I can’t even remember if my 5 speed was a Sears or a Schwinn, but I think it was the former.  All I knew then was that I loved to ride bicycles, and wanted to be on my bike whenever possible.  My parents did their best to accommodate this odd request coming from their middle child – a daughter no less.

Baby blue Volkscycle

Upon graduation, my parents presented me with a beautiful blue Volkscycle. I was in heaven, as this was the nicest bike I had ever ridden.  After riding this bike in my college days in the late 70’s, I took a hiatus from school, and moved to the Oregon coast.  That was when my cycling energy surged. Every Sunday I mounted my blue Volkscycle and rode inland up Yaquina Bay, to Toledo, and back.  I rode this bicycle whenever I could, leaving my funky Datsun 510 truck in the carport most of the time.

After a while, I began to realize that the Volkscycle might not be the best bicycle out there for me. There was no internet at this time, so my knowledge came word of mouth talking to other cyclists, some of whom were part of the 1976 BikeCentennial.

Later, I acquired my 1976 Centurion Pro-Tour – a bike which really defined my cycling experience.  The frame was “too big” for me, and yet I toured all over the Pacific Northwest on this amazing bicycle.  I crashed it back in 1999, and that is what prompted a life long search for an equal partner.

But that never happened.  Instead, I ride on several bicycles regularly.  I have never found my one true love – the bicycle of my youth which comported me over miles of challenging terrain.  I don’t know what to think about why that is – but the upside is that I now enjoy riding a number of wonderful and interesting machines.

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.

The Bond Between Bike and Rider

1976 Centurion Pro Tour

Being a pragmatic person at heart, I generally eschew mystical explanations of purely mechanical matters. However, there’s no doubt that a special relationship between bike and rider exists when the bike in question has carried the rider over many miles and through rough terrain, dangerous intersections, and bad weather.  Much like a shepherd and beloved dog will form a bond through shared hardship, a rider and bike seem to connect in an almost spiritual way.

I experienced this myself with my old 1976 Centurion Pro Tour that I rode for 20 years. The bike got me through some tough situations, and always carried me to my final destination. Even with flat tires, broken shifters, and a headset long overdue for a replacement, the bike soldiered on and I always arrived safely at my destination.

After I crashed my Pro Tour in 1999 I was at loose ends. I searched for a replacement and ended up buying a Cannondale T 2000. What a shocking disappointment that was.  The brifters broke when the bike took a spill while parked, the Avid Shorty brakes were frighteningly unreliable, and the stiff aluminum frame was punishing on long rides.   Not to mention its piggy 28 lb weight unequipped.  I no longer enjoyed exploring new dirt paths, back road short cuts, and long meandering rides.  I wanted to get off this bike as soon as possible.

The search for the ride quality that my old Centurion provided was a long one.  Meanwhile, I modified the Cannondale substantially, replacing the brifters with bar end shifters, upgrading the brakes to IRD cold forged cantilevers, installing an SR Randonneur bar, and adding a custom Burley rear rack originally designed for a recumbent.

2001 Cannodale T2000

After these modifications, I was able to ride the Cannondale in a little more comfort.  Replacing the harsh riding Continental touring tires with Panaracer Paselas helped.  I also tried out some Michelin cyclocross tires, which were also quite a bit more comfortable than the Continentals, and enabled me to ride with confidence on gravel shoulders and hard packed dirt and gravel.  Eventually, I ended up replacing every single original component on the bike except for the reliable Shimano 105 front derailleur.  After that, this bike became my trusted commuter, especially in the winter.

But, I wanted a bike that I could comfortably spend more hours on and was more responsive.  I missed my Centurion tremendously so when I found this Centurion Dave Scott Iron Man in my size, for a reasonable price, I purchased it without hesitation.

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This was a road bike, not a touring bike, at all.  Riding it was eye-opening.  I could ride for miles and miles, never tire out, and the responsive handling made it fun to experiment without fast descents, track stands, quick transitions, and spirited climbing. After a while, though, I realized that without clearance for fenders, rack mounts and a taller stem, I would not be able to take this bike out on the touring adventures that I love.  I realized that I needed the comfort and responsiveness of riding on steel framed bikes, and that I wanted to learn more about the physical and mechanical details of bicycles and their geometry.

That’s when I enrolled in my first bike mechanic class at the UBI facility in Ashland.  Even though I had always done my own bike maintenance, back then I had not really spent any time understanding much beyond annual maintenance needs, which included rebuilding hubs and bottom brackets,  truing wheels, and tuning shifters and derailleurs.

I had a great time in the class and met a lot of interesting people.  The class opened my eyes to the world of mechanical possibilities and experimentation – I highly recommend UBI for mechanic’s training.  Prior to attending the class I had already acquired a 1973 Jack Taylor touring bike and I brought it with me to work on while I was there.

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1973 Jack Taylor Touring – before restoration

While this bike is a wonderful example of the Taylor brother’s work, after riding it for a bit I came to realize that it wasn’t quite right for me.  I did not like the unstable feel of the single sloping downtube mixte frame – I could feel the front end flexing away from the back end of the bike while accelerating. I also did not like the ergonomics of the low head tube and short reach mustache bars.

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I have realized that ergonomics are as important as frame material and components.  And, I  know from personal experience that steel is flexible and responsive on climbs and does not punish your body on long rides, as does aluminum. This is especially important for smaller riders whose frames are much more stiff than those for taller riders, due to their geometry.

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It is clear that newer components are designed deliberately to last briefly and to be discarded when they no longer function.  This has led me to go back to cycling’s past to understand and rejuvenate the contribution made by earlier builders and artisans.