The Many Faces of ALAN

My mid-80’s ALAN bicycle is one of my favorite rides.  For awhile it left my stable to seek accommodation with a small-of-stature family member, as it is a tiny bike with 24 inch wheels.  The bike didn’t work for that rider, so I regretfully (NOT!) accepted the bike back last winter.

For the past months I have happily ridden this bike all over the place.  It’s so little that I can easily transport it inside my Highlander with an internal bike rack.  Weighing in at 19 lbs means it can be lifted and carried just about anywhere, so it’s also a perfect bike for exploring unusual terrain involving a portage or two.  But, as you can see from the above photos, I had set this bike up for my family member with a simple 1×7 indexed drivetrain and a very upright riding position.  I had also used a 152mm crankset to accommodate the bike’s lower 25cm BB height, and that meant a lot of spinning. As I contemplated changes to make the bike more sporty and with better ergonomics for my own enjoyment, I realized that I hadn’t given the bike a complete overhaul since acquiring it 5 years ago.

The bike went through a number of iterations during that time, including several setups with drop bars and city style bars, but even after all that fun experimentation, the hubs, bottom bracket and headset hadn’t been touched since 2013.

ALAN frames are built with aluminum tubes screwed and glued into steel lugs.  When I stripped the bike down for an overhaul, I wanted to also examine all the lugs to make sure the frame was holding together after over 3 decades of use.  The bottom bracket shell provided my first look at how ALAN bikes are constructed. The main tubes appear to have flutes, which I can only imagine were installed after the straight portion of the tubes were screwed and glued into the BB shell.  You can see from the 2nd photo above that the BB shell was also threaded to accept the chainstays, but those tubes do not have flutes, but are simply the straight tubes threading into the shell.

As part of the overhaul I used my torque wrench to check the bolts joining the stays and brake bridges to the frame and lugs.  I haven’t been able to locate the torque setting recommendations for these bolts, so I intended to adjust any bolt with a lower torque to its corresponding bolt with a higher torque.  However, all the bolts were adjusted evenly so no changes were necessary.  As I examined the frame I noted the SN on the bottom bracket:  D26173, and wondered if this was a date code.  Based on my research, the BB number is not a date code, and it appears that some ALAN frames had a date code on the seat tube or on the seat tube lug.  This bike had a frame dimension code on the seat tube lug:  46 x 48, but no other SN.  And, its ALAN “headbadge” is on the seat tube. Fortunately, it is also possible to date a bike by its components.  The Shimano Dura Ace brake calipers were marked with a “KK” code, which means the brakes were manufactured in November of 1986.  So, I would surmise that this ALAN is a 1986 or 1987 model.

Once I overhauled the BB, headset, hubs, and pedals, it was time to think about the changes I wanted to make.  I swapped out the tall dirt drop stem for a less tall Nitto Technomic stem paired to a Nitto flat bar that I cut down (5 cm off each end) to make the bar more suited to this little bike.  But the real Tour de Force was installing Simplex Retrofriction shifters on Velo-Orange thumbies.  I hadn’t used these much praised shifters before, and was kind of skeptical about how they would perform.  How could they really be better than SunTour’s ratcheting shifters?  Simplex Retrofriction shifters are not a ratcheting mechanism, but instead have an internal spring acting as a directional clutch.  Using them was eye opening.  These shifters are far more subtle and precise that any others I have used.  The only downside is the ridiculous amount of travel when used with an 8 speed drive train, as you can see from the 2nd photo above.  That’s a small price to pay for the silence and precision of this amazing component.

I wanted to use a crankset with longer arms to provide for a more comfortable cadence, but not too long given the bike’s low BB height.  I sourced these NOS TA 160mm cranks from eBay, with 48/38 rings.  I was worried that the T.A. cranks would sit too far inboard on the Dura Ace 115 mm spindle.  They worked out well in this case, but with only a tiny bit of clearance from the drive side chainstay.  The bike’s very short chain stays means that one must not cross-chain this drive-train, but that is also sometimes true of bikes with longer chainstays.  In practice, this crankset was just right for this bike, although I had to get used to having the extra larger chainring for shifting to bigger gears!

Hailing from the 80’s, this bike’s wheelset is Shimano 600 tricolor hubs laced to 24 inch Mavic Open 4 rims.  The seatpost is the ALAN spec’d 25.0 American Classic that most early ALAN bicycles were equipped with.  I’m using MK3 Vee Rubber micro knobby tires, which have performed perfectly and with never a flat in the last five years.  My no longer available Detours seatpost bag serves as a de facto rear fender, blocking mud and debris from my backside.

Here is the ALAN as reconfigured, with a double TA 160mm crank, lower and flatter Nitto bars, and Simplex Retrofriction shifters mounted to Velo Orange thumbies.  I’m happy with this configuration, and hope to keep riding this one of a kind bike for years to come.

Overhauling a Shimano Octalink Bottom Bracket

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I was definitely skipping class when Shimano introduced its splined Octalink cranksets and bottom brackets back in 1996.  Since I have always been a fan of square taper bottom brackets, I saw no need to trouble my mind with this “new” system, a system which Shimano has long since replaced with outboard bearings and a right side crank arm with an integrated spindle.

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The Octalink design was meant to supply a better attachment to the crank arms.  But, with this shallow V1 model, it is unlikely that Shimano achieved its objective.  The V2 model has much longer splines, and its ISIS competitor, even longer.

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Dura Ace Octalink crankset with self-extracting dust caps

So, I was planning on selling this BB along with its mate – a very nice Dura Ace crankset that I took off an abandoned titanium triathlon bike, a bike which had seen some use, and then neglect.  I wanted to take a look at the BB to make sure it was in good shape.  I was assuming that, due to its sealed cartridge mechanism, an overhaul, if needed, would be impossible.  I was wrong!

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When I removed the rings from the spindle I saw that they housed two sets of bearings on each side – a set of needle bearings to contact the spindle and a set of ball bearings to contact the spindle’s race.  Both rings are supplied with two outer seals.  The outmost seal is easy to remove – it just falls off the spindle, but the inner seal can be left in place while doing an overhaul, since your work will be done from the inside of the rings.

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View of ring from the outside, with first seal removed and 2nd seal in place.

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View of ring from the inside. You can see both sets of bearings.

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Lock ring removed from inside of ring.

Peering down into the inside of the rings, you can see a lockring which needs to be removed to access the bearings.  This is easily done with the tip of a small screwdriver.  Then, you have access to the bearings and can remove them.  Before doing so you should note that Shimano’s own technical specs for this BB do not provide instructions on how to do so, but just a schematic of the parts.

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When you remove the bearings, do not do what I just did!  I was unprepared for the bearings to simply fall out of their clips (causing a PTSD experience reminiscent of recent freewheel overhaul mishaps).  The needle bearings and ball bearings went for a little journey around my work bench.  I was most concerned about the needle bearings, as I didn’t have replacements for those, and was planning to replace the 1/8″ ball bearings anyway.  Fortunately, I recovered the bearings with my magnet, but while doing so I pondered why Shimano would think it would be acceptable to use such tiny bearings in a bottom bracket.  1/8″?  Really?  Apparently, the needle bearings take the load off, literally, from the tiny 1/8″  ball bearings, so things are not as bad as they may seem.  I don’t know about the general reliability of Shimano Octalink bottom brackets, but Shimano’s cartridge bearing square tape BB’s use much larger bearings, although the non drive side bearings are typically smaller that those on the drive side.

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Once I had the bearings back into their flimsy clips I added grease to the cup.  It was a bit of trial and error getting the bearings back in.  I found it best to grease the clips heavily, then install the bearings. The needle bearings go in easily. For the small 1/8″ bearings which come last, it was necessary to turn the cup over and gently place the ring over the bearing clip.  Otherwise, the bearings just wanted to fall out of the clip (as they are inserted from the outside of the clip).  Once in place, I re-installed the lock ring and tried the rings out on the spindle to test their smoothness.  All was good – they were once again smooth as glass.

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Park Tool’s service guidance for these bottom brackets states that “it is recommended to leave the needle bearing and ball bearings in the cup” and that the ring should simply be flushed with solvent and re-greased.  That might be okay if there isn’t a lot of debris inside the rings.  I’m glad I removed the bearings, as it gave me a chance to evaluate the rings, and to take a close look at how the mechanism is meant to work.  And, if you have been looking for a Dura Ace Octalink BB and Crankset, those items will be for sale on eBay soon.

A 1972 Mercian

2972 Mercian

I recently purchased this Mercian on eBay.  The seller described it as a 1960’s model, but with its Shimano dropouts, I suspected it was actually made a bit later.

1972 Mercian

The bottom bracket shell seems to indicate this is a 1972 model.  A name appears to be etched above the serial number, but I can’t quite make it out.  Perhaps this was the owner’s name.  Having looked through the available Mercian catalogs on-line, and after taking frame measurements, I still don’t quite know what model this is.

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However, given that it has decent length chain stays (44mm), and single eyelets front and rear, it is possible that this is the Campionissimo or Olympic model, off the shelf frames designed for light touring and randonneuring, but with no customizing available except choosing the color.

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The lugs are ornate, and unusually shaped, although not a great deal of time was spent filing them.  The frame is equipped with pump pegs and a full set of cable stops.  The pump pegs are mounted slightly off center below the top tube, to prevent interference with the cable stops also mounted slightly off center on the opposite side.

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I measured the frame and took some preliminary angle readings.  It is a 49 cm x 51 cm frame (or, speaking British, a 20 inch frame – which the company measures center to top).  The angles appear fairly steep, at about 74 degrees for both the head tube and seat tube.  Of course, there is a margin of error using this method, and once the bike is built I will re-measure the angles using a level to correct for errors.  I also checked brake reach using 700c wheels (I think the frame was built for 27 inch wheels).  It looks like I will need about 65 mm of brake reach to use 700c wheels with this frame – that is definitely doable.

However, the biggest challenge will be determining whether the paint damage and oxidation to the top tube will mean having to re-paint the frame, something I am loathe to do.  If the paint damage is just at the surface level, and there’s no rust underneath, I’d like to preserve the beautiful patina of this nice Reynolds 531 hand built frame.

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Thankfully, it was a rainy, stormy day today, not suited for riding.  A perfect shop day.  I got out my various cleaning products and began to experiment on the back side of the fork legs, so that if I did something irretrievably bad, it would not be so visible.  As it turned out, the most effective product was an automotive paint cleaning compound.  Applied vigorously, and polished vigorously afterwards, this product was best at removing the years of neglect.  I was worried about taking off too much paint however, and I only gently cleaned the Mercian logos.   I definitely did not want to damage these as they were all in great condition.  The photos above show the frame after several hours of cleaning and polishing – there is a definite improvement!  That gave me the impetus to start working on the top tube.  I figured that no matter how hard I rubbed, I couldn’t make it worse than it already was.  I really wanted to see what the damage looked like underneath the oxidized paint.

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The good news is that underneath the oxidation was nice silver-colored steel, with no rust visible at all.  The bad news is that the top tube looks pretty funky, still.  I will probably clean it up a bit more and then apply some clear paint to protect the exposed areas.  After more cleaning, I will also apply many coats of wax to the entire frame, just to make sure that it remains protected in the elements.  You’ll note from the above photo that I also removed the California bike license tag.  While I usually keep these kinds of artifacts intact, this one really detracted from its appearance.  Underneath was the original frame color – a very vibrant red.  Well, now the bike is a very cool orange color!

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It’s now time to start thinking about the components.  Since the frame has such a vintage look, I think it would be best to build it up with period components.  Fortunately, the old Mercian catalogs will provide a lot of information about how these machines were typically configured.  I have these GB 88 brakes which would be from the period, and which have just the right amount of brake reach.  My crankset collection includes two Stronglight candidates.  The crankset at the left is a Spidel/Stronglight set from the 80’s – meant to be a copy of a Campy Super Record Crankset, and the one at the right is a 1970’s model with the star shaped spider that I love.  I will probably go with the more vintage look.  The frameset came shipped with a TDC headset, probably orginal, and a Sugino bottom bracket, which may or may not be original.  By this time, Shimano and other Japanese components were beginning to be considered on par with the best French, British and Italian component makers of the time.

Dura Ace high flange hub

I have been wanting to find the right home for this beautiful Dura Ace high flange front hub with its smooth as butter cups and cones.  It is laced to a 700c Araya rim.  I might decide to use an unusual rear hub, such as a 2 x 6 Sachs-Fitchel hub, or even a Sturmey Archer, in keeping with its British heritage.  That is part of the fun – envisioning the many interesting ways this frame can be configured.  I look forward to riding it and getting this great old frame back out on the road.