Setting up Centerpull Brakes

Center pull brakes are often standard equipment on vintage bicycles. Their design can allow more clearance for fenders and wide tires, and based on where the pivots reside, they may have more mechanical advantage than standard sidepull brake calipers.

But, centerpull brakes are sometimes viewed as more challenging to set up than side pull brake calipers.  How long should the straddle cable be?  How close should you set the brake pads to the rim? What is the ideal angle for the straddle cables?  How much torque should go on the mounting bolt?  What about lubrication of the pivot points and cables?  Should the straddle cable be thick or thin?  And, most important, how can you eliminate brake squeal on these often very noisy calipers.

Brazed on centerpulls – a 1978 Centurion Pro Tour

For over twenty years I cycled on a bike that had the best centerpulls you could find – brazed on centerpulls were standard equipment on my 1976 Centurion Pro Tour.  While this advantage went unnoticed by me in my youth (I had nothing to compare this to), I have definitely noted the extra care and adjustments needed to the bikes I currently ride which feature center pull brakes, but which are not brazed on to the frame.  The above photo shows brazed on Dia Compe centerpulls on a 1978 example of a Centurion Pro Tour.

1953 Follis branded Jeay brakes

1947 Peugeot with Jeay centerpull brakes

Brazed on centerpulls have been around for a long time.  The above examples show Jeay centerpulls on a 1947 Peugeot, and a more custom example from Follis on a 1953 frame.

If you are ordering a custom bicycle, you can most definitely specify for this braze-on feature.  Using the brazed on version of centerpull brakes keeps the brakes centered, and undoubtedly improves the overall performance of the brake.

What is the best way to set up centerpull brakes?  Sheldon Brown offers some guidance, as well as Park Tools.  But the instructions on these sites do not address some puzzling issues such as the proper length and angle for the straddle cable and the proper distance of the pads to the rim. Nor is the cable width and pivoting characteristics of the straddle cable discussed (a la Mafac).

For the question regarding the ideal pad distance to the rims, I can turn to both my own personal experience, as well as to one of my favorite resources – Glenn’s New Complete Bicycle Manual. The distance to set the pads to the rim is recommended at 1/8 inch, according to “Dr. Coles” (aka “Dr. Glenn” – the author whose white coat visage inspired my affectionate homage). That’s about 3 mm.  Seems about right to me, based on my many decades of cycling with centerpull brakes.

Rebour drawing of Mafac centerpulls with extra long straddle cable

The length and width of the straddle cable is another important element to consider when setting up these brakes.  For Dia Compe and other non-Mafac centerpulls, it may appear that you have no choice in selecting the straddle cable, but these cables actually come in all different lengths, not just the one included with whatever caliper you are working with.  The angle and width of the cables can impact the performance of the brakes.  More flexible and moveable cables (a la Mafac and Compass) will provide better performance. One of the nice features of Mafac brakes is that the straddle cable is actually a shifter cable cut short, so it is easy to replace and adjust these straddle cables for Mafac brakes, at will.

The above Daniel Rebour drawing shows a custom frame with unusual braze-ons for the rear centerpull calipers, resulting in a very long straddle cable.  In my experience, the length of the straddle cable is not so important as its angle – a wider angle at the yoke being more advantageous.  The angle will decrease as the brake lever is applied.  Also, pads should be set parallel to the rims, and with no upward or downward angle for best results (unlike some cantis which may need a slightly upward angle).

For Mafac enthusiasts, one issue is the flex characteristics of the fork and seatpost hangers.  These hangers are not very stiff, so that when braking pressure is applied, the hanger can flex significantly, reducing the performance of the brake and providing for a “mushy” feel.  Because of this, I have sometimes replaced the Mafac hangers with more robust hangers on my bikes with centerpull brakes, and with good results.  The above photos show the Mafac hangers.

V-O brake pad holders with toe in adjustment.

V-O smooth post pads – non squeal variety.

Brake pads are important to any brake set-up. While Kool Stop does make Mafac replacement pads – both in orange and black compounds, I have found that I prefer using Velo-Orange pads for my centerpull brakes.  They are quieter and yet perform equally well.  I usually lubricate all the pivot points on any centerpull brake I am setting up, as well as lubricating the straddle cable and yoke.  It’s critical to check your cables and the bolts securing them for wear and proper torque on a routine basis, and if any cables show degradation, replace them immediately.  You never want to apply the front brake, only to have it fail. That’s 70% of your stopping power.

Riding the Old Peugeot 650b Mixte

Peugeot 650b Mixte

I have put off making some final adjustments to this vintage Peugeot 650b mixte, knowing that I needed to dial in the Jeay brakes and work out the other little bugs that always come up during a frame up build.  But with today’s unnaturally warm weather, I decided to take the bike out into the wiles of Portland.  Even though this Peugeot is positively a city bike, Portland’s traffic scene and “bike culture” are in no way conducive to safe and leisurely riding on this type of machine.  So, a weekend trip along Springwater corridor and through the Eastbank Esplanade is the most enjoyable way to learn the handling characteristics of a new ride such as this.

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I am not sure why it is so tempting to think of a 70 year old bike as clunky and incompetent, but riding this machine today reminded me again how well the cycling industry had developed by the time the Germans occupied France in 1941.

First of all, this is no clunker.  It weighs 28 lbs as pictured (without bag), and that includes the fork mounted dynamo, fenders, and heavy Gauthier leather saddle.  Not bad!  The frame is made with Vitus Rubis tubing, which was used on higher end models in the 30’s and 40’s. The front end had no unpleasant “wobbly” feeling as can exist on some mixte frames, and handling was easy at all speeds.  Maybe the long wheelbase and super slack seat tube angle provide for the comfortable ride – but it is really fun to corner on this bike.  Kind of like riding on a roller coaster.  Whee!

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The Simplex Tour de France rear derailleur works perfectly out on the road, with accuracy, and no trimming.  Of course, there are only 3 gears here.  And what big gears they are, ranging from 54 to 75 gear inches.  I have to wonder about these giant gears on older machines that I encounter.  Were people stronger then?  Did they simply walk up the hills?  Is France totally flat?  Ha.  I can lower the gearing a bit by going up to 24 teeth, which is the maximum that this derailleur can handle.  Or maybe I’ll just tough it out for now.

Simplex Tour de France

It is very difficult to find builder information for bikes manufactured in France during the occupation years.  Based on some reading, I have learned that the cycling industry in France actually experienced a “bike boom” because petrol was unavailable to the populace, so driving was no longer really an option for most people.  And, there is a lot of shame surrounding those businesses who benefited financially during those terrible times, even though they may have been among the resistance on a moral and intellectual level.  The disruptions to normal business practices during the Nazi occupation, as well as this shame and possibly the need for secrecy has meant that it is nearly impossible to determine what exactly was going on in some of the cycling shops in France during the time.  I have found it interesting that there were sudden innovations (Simplex derailleurs) and new companies emerging (Mafac) right after France was liberated.  I suspect that research and innovation was in fact occurring during the occupation years, but went on, undocumented.  (Jan Heine has an interesting blog post about this topic here.)

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Correctly dating this Peugeot has been challenging.  Peugeot catalogs during the late 30’s and 1940’s cannot be found.  There is very little information about what was happening at the Peugeot factory during the occupation, with the implication that they actually shut down.  Some websites claim that the factory did shut down during the occupation, but I think they may be referencing only the automobile factory, as by this time the bicycle factory had been separated out as a distinct division, located in Beaulieu (Mandeure), France.  So, my best guess based on its original components and on the frame characteristics is that this bike dates to sometime in the late 30’s through the 1940’s.

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I was worried that the wood grips, which are very comfortable, would fly off the handlebars during vigorous climbing, as they are connected to the bar only with a conical cork insert located inside the grips, which I tapped into the bars with a mallet.  They held fine.  The Gauthier ladies leather saddle was shockingly comfortable – no changes were needed there.  I was also concerned that while the brake levers are quite lovely, the shape would inhibit emergency braking, with their slight arc in the middle restricting the movement.  As it turned out, braking was quite noisy!  This alerted others to my presence.  I had installed Kool Stop orange pads on the front, but had left the old funky Mafac pads as is on the rear.  Big mistake!  This bike needs Kool Stops front and rear, plus a complete cleaning and sanding of the rims to eliminate braking squeal, which I have now done.

Vintage Peugeot

Peugeot 650b resting at home

Thank you to Shawn at Adventurepdx, for this nice old Carradice bag which goes perfectly on this Peugeot.  I don’t use saddlebags much, and was shocked just how much you can jam into this thing.  It is the perfect addition to the bike and adds all the utility needed to make this a useful commuter and weekend rider.

Peugeot 650b Mixte Restoration

1930's Peugeot Mixte

Spanning several years, my work on this restoration project is now complete.  This 1930’s (or possibly 1940’s) Peugeot came to me like this:

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The frame was pretty dirty, but seemed otherwise intact, with all the brazing in good shape and no serious dings or dents.  It is made with Vitus “Rubis” tubing, a type used on higher end bicycles in the 30’s and 40’s.  As many enthusiasts know, Peugeot serial numbers appeared to follow no rhyme or reason and cannot be used to successfully date older models.  So, the main clues to its provenance are the “H” in front of the serial number, the tubing type, the decals, and the components.  The drive side chain stay has a braze-on for a derailleur spring, but when I purchased the bike, it came with a Simplex Tour de France derailleur, a model which doesn’t use such a spring.  I think this was a later upgrade to the bike, as these derailleurs were first introduced in the late 40’s.

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Peugeot Serial Number

Vitus Rubis tubing

Vitus Rubis tubing

In two previous posts I documented the process used to create a rideable machine out of the original bike plus as many period-specific parts as I could source.  I added 650b wheels, hammered fenders, a Henri Gauthier leather saddle,  a polished aluminum stem, custom levers, and aluminum handlebar with wood grips.  My final quest was to set up the lighting.  I needed a full lighting system, and after going through a number of possible dynamos I finally found a Ducel fork mounted system that was NOS from the 50’s, that looked just about perfect.

 

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Ducel fork mount dynamo

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Ducel headlamp

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Ducel rear lamp

Riding this bike is really fun – it is very comfortable with its super long wheel base and the 650b tires.  It is quite the attention getter and conversation starter and was really rewarding to work on.  Here is the bike now, and it will be up for sale in my new on-line store – coming soon.

Aluvac pedals

Aluvac aluminum pedals

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Very light cottered crankset

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Simplex Tour de France rear Derailleur – working perfectly

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Through the frame cable routing to the Jeay brakes

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Henri Gauthier leather ladies saddle

 

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3 speed Cyclo freewheel

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Pivo stem – highly polished and very pretty

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Buy now!