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.

Building a Bike Frame

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Last year, I enrolled in the frame building class offered by United Bicycle Institute (UBI).   I registered for the lugged/fillet brazing class (of course) but they also offer other courses in TIG welding and titanium frame building.

As it turned out I was the oldest member of the class and the only woman in the class (including the two instructors).  That wasn’t so daunting as was the quick pace of the class – and it caught all of us off guard!

UBI shop facilities in Portland, Oregon

I wanted to build a frame to my own specifications and size because I haven’t ever ridden a frame that is exactly to my liking.  Many shorter riders probably have never experienced the joy of riding a properly designed frame.  I have seen smaller riders with their arms straight out, riding frames with too long top tubes, inappropriate 700c wheels, and very bad front end geometry.

Having ridden hundreds of bikes over the last 10 years, I had a strong feeling about how to design a bike frame to fit my 5’4″ height and riding style. I wanted a frame built for 650b wheels, with steeper angles, plenty of fork rake to reduce wheel flop and trail to an acceptable level, long enough chain stays for good sized rear bags, and enough front/center distance to eliminate toe overlap – all in a frame small enough so that I could stand over it reasonably well.

I have often ridden bikes that were slightly tall for me, so I have never worried a great deal about standover height. The most important frame measurement is actually the top tube length.  And, I have come to learn that I like steep angles so that I can get more of my body weight on top of the cranks and closer to the front end of the bike.

Much is mysterious when it comes to bike frame geometry, and much is disputed, even among the experts.  My own personal experience tells me that, for the type of riding I do mostly (commuting in Portland, Oregon and longer weekend rides), I needed a frame with very stable slow speed handling, but decent cornering at high speeds.  This translates into a bike with low wheel flop and fairly mid range trail.  My frame geometry, noted at the bottom of this post, yields a wheel flop factor of 11 mm and trail of 39 mm.  Just about perfect.

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After spending the first day learning flame control and doing practice brazes with silver, we  began by brazing the head tube to the top tube.  Silver is used for the lugs because it can be brazed at a lower temperature so there is less risk of overheating the main tubes and weakening them.  In the midst of that we needed to begin our full sized drawings so that we could properly select, cut and miter our tubes.

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Doing the full sized drawing came very naturally to me, but was difficult for some of our fellow students.  Harder for me was the flame control and brazing process.  It took awhile to believe that not only was the shop not going to explode when I ignited my flame each morning, but that my fellow students were NOT going to burn the place down, either.  I was a bad and slow brazer initially, and it took quite a while to get the hang of it without destroying my hands with flux and lug filing (still, my hands were a mess at the end of the class).

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My favorite day was “fork bending” day – a process which proves that frame building is as much art as it is science (with a little luck thrown in).  Forks are bent on a mandrel, and mandrels can come in different shapes and sizes.  There was only one mandrel at our class, so our fork blades would only vary by the amount of rake we selected.  There is no gauge or  measurement to insure that you get the right fork rake when you bend it (or “wang” it, as I am fond of saying).  Fortunately, I managed to “wang” my fork blade to the exact amount of rake I was looking for – 60 mm – on the first try.  Whew!

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My fork dropouts are a mess – this was our first brass braze and the process on the dropouts is slightly different and with higher heat.  Fortunately, my skills improved on the chainstay dropouts, although I did get the tubes a bit hot.

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I’ve got the my chain stays in and I decided to use these “plugs” for my seat stays rather than hand making a seat stay attachment, as some of my fellow students did.  I was behind schedule, so had to proceed full steam ahead.

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Here are the plugs, which I have brazed to the seat lug and bent inward to wrap slightly around the tube.  Then, the brake bridges need to be measured for the proper wheel size, mitered and then brazed.

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Here is the completed frame.  It has several mistakes that need to be corrected – I brazed the downtube shifter bosses askew and the seat stays are not perfectly aligned.  The former can be corrected by re-heating the bosses and re brazing them, the latter is a small enough variance that I can fix it by doing some creative filing.  Then, all the joints and brazes need to be filed and cleaned up before the frame can be painted.

My frame varied only slightly from my original drawing:  my seat tube angle ended up slightly slacker than 74 degrees. Not a bad result for a first time effort!    Here are the specs (all measurements center to center):

ST 50 cm, TT 53 cm, BB drop 71 mm, ST degrees 73.5, HT degrees 73, Fork rake 60 mm, Fork length, 367 mm,  chainstays 441 mm, wheel size 650b.  Standard diameter tubes – Kaisei 4160 Cro-Mo double butted.

If you are interested in taking this class, and if you haven’t brazed before or used shop equipment, you might want to find a way to get some background first before enrolling.  While we all managed to complete our frames, we didn’t get to complete the final process of learning how to file, sand and prep our frames for painting because the class, as a whole, was too far behind.  The class proceeds at a very fast pace, so it’s best to be rested and have nothing else going on in your life while attending – you’ll be exhausted each day – but energized by the new knowledge and skills you are gaining.