A Meral for Town and Country

Bicycles with 650B wheels are nicely suited to a relaxed riding style.  The wider rims and greater clearances on the bike’s frame allow for plump, comfortable tires.  Often, vintage 650B bicycles are set up as city style bikes, with minimal gears and an upright position for the cyclist.

My recently acquired early 1980’s Meral randonneuse cried out for a 650B conversion.  It was built with Vitus 788 tubing around a set of narrow, 700c rims.  The bike as originally configured had a high bottom bracket and minimal tire clearances. These elements would normally indicate an ideal bicycle for a 650B conversion. Still, I wasn’t sure if I would be successful converting the bike, because the brake clearances were odd – with the front brake having less reach than the rear brake. In times past, competitive oriented bicycles were sometimes built with more brake reach in the rear than the front, and that was so that a shorter reach and therefore stronger brake could be used at the front end.

The rear brake reach on this bike is greater than the front by more than several millimeters.  When it came time to install the Mafac Raid long reach brakes, this fact made me concerned.  In order to have the rear Mafac Raid brake pads contact the new 650B rim, I needed to angle them down slightly, which is not ideal.  There are other options for dealing with brake reach problems, including installing brackets (a la Sheldon), and filing some material off of the caliper arms, to allow the brake pads to sit a bit lower.  None of those options appealed to me.

Vintage Mafac Raid brake calipers with V-O squeal free pads.

I decided to ignore the problem for now, as the front brake reach was perfect for the conversion to 650B, with plenty of room to position the brake pads correctly.  I am using Velo-Orange’s smooth post “squeal free” pads for this set up – and they are working perfectly and as advertised.  Since the front brake provides 70% of a bike’s stopping power, I haven’t noticed any issues involving the angled rear brake pads.  Meanwhile, here are some photos of the rest of the build:

Brooks leather grips, Tektro vintage style levers, V-O thumbies, Campagnolo shifter

Velocity A23 650B rims

Shimano Tiagra hubs

Meral custom steel fenders, wine cork spacers

Meral custom steel rack, with mounts for front flashlight.

This project was loads of fun, thanks to the beauty and quality of this vintage Meral bicycle.  The custom fenders and rack were a perfect match to its new Town and Country personality.  V-O’s thumbies worked well for this build – they can be used with just about any type of shifter so are more adaptable than their Paul’s competitor.

I used a lower end 650B wheelset that I will not purchase again, and I consider the wheels as a placeholder for now.  Probably I will build the ideal wheelset for this bike when the time comes, and will sort out the lighting options at that time.  Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy these photos of this amazing vintage bicycle which now has a new lease on life.  I have included the specs and full build list at the bottom of this post.

A view from the back – with a tiny vintage reflector installed on the custom fenders.

Original Brooks Pro saddle.  Through the frame brake cable routing for the rear brake.

Campagnolo shifter on the seat tube braze on – intended for a BB mounted dynamo. Nicely executed seat cluster.

This gorgeous custom Meral steel rack can also be installed at the rear of the bike.

The drive train is a single 42 tooth drilled ring up front, with a 7 speed cassette at the back, controlled with a vintage friction Campy shifter.

The specs and build list are as follows:

Frame and fork:  Early 1980’s Meral with Vitus 788 steel tubing, 54 cm ST, 56 cm TT, through the frame brake and dynamo wiring, 2 rack mounts on the seat stays, 2 rack mounts on the fork, bottle cage mount, shifter braze-ons, ST dynamo braze-on, 127 rear spacing.

Drive Train:  Vintage Sugino crankarms and Sugino drilled 42T ring; new 7 speed cassette, vintage Lyotard pedals, Shimano SLX rear derailleur, original T.A. bottom bracket, replacement T.A. spindle of shorter length, V-O thumbie with vintage Campagnolo friction shifter.

Braking: Vintage Mafac Raid long reach centerpull brakes, new V-O smooth post pads, new Tektro vintage style levers, new blue color matched housing.

Wheelset & Tires:  New 650b wheelset: Shimano Tiagra hubs on Velocity A23 rims (purchased from Harris), tires and wheelset are placeholders for now.

Saddle and Seatpost:  Original Brooks Professional saddle, original JP Routens slanted seatpost clamp.

Bars, stem and headset:  new Soma Oxford handlebars and Nitto Technomic stem (sanded to French 22.0 steerer size), original French Stronglight headset.

Accessories:  Original Meral custom steel fenders, original Meral custom steel front rack, new V-O bottle cage.

Ready for a leisurely ride wherever you want to go.

Braking News

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Recently I overhauled a few of the Mafac Racer brakes I had in my bin. Why? Perhaps to keep the demons at bay.  Anyone involved in the vintage bicycle “industry” (an apt word involving boatloads of industrious activity) knows that Mafac centerpulls are the best.  However, Mafac Racer brake calipers are ubiquitous, and therefore of very little re-sale value.  In a few thousand years, archaeologists will find these brakes in their dig sites and ponder their significance.

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One of the nice things about Mafac Racer centerpull brakes is that they can accept these little T.A. front racks, which bolt directly on to the arms.  On the above brake I have added a vintage looking battery powered headlamp, which clamps conveniently on to the supplied T.A. bracket.  The little rack is really only good for strapping on a rain jacket, loaf of bread, or tiny tool kit, but it does come in handy as a light mount, and looks very elegant.

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Mafac Dural Centerpulls

Overhauling brakes is really a very easy process, and simply involves disassembly, cleaning, polishing, lubrication, and reassembly.  I won’t detail the steps here, as there are many other resources on the web and in print (Dr. Coles to the rescue), to help you through the process.  If you want to spend far more money than your brakes will ever be worth overhauling your Mafac centerpulls, you can purchase a restoration kit from Compass Cycles for about $125.00 or so.   As I was overhauling these Mafac brakes, I found that I didn’t need to replace any parts – they just needed to be cleaned and lubricated. Mainly, the steel bolts and nuts can rust, and sometimes the red washers can disintegrate – although that is pretty rare.  These brakes were meant to last, and they do.  I didn’t need to replace any parts on the brakes I overhauled – including the washers, which really held up well over many decades.

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Mafac Raid Centerpull Brakes

One exception to the devaluation of Mafac brakes is the consumer demand for and rarity of Mafac Raid brakes.  These are extra long reach brakes that can be used to accomplish a 650b conversion.  It is difficult to find these brakes, and I have horded the few sets that I have on hand.

One of the things that fascinates me about Mafac brakes is how un-glitzy they are.  The stamped logos are odd and unprofessional-looking, and it seems strange to me that their model names include quotation marks.  Yet, engineering-wise, these are far superior to many of the competitors out there.  A rare example of substance over form.

650B Conversion Misconceptions

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1980 Meral sport touring frame

A while back I received a hostile diatribe in my comment queue about my Meral 650b conversion.  I spammed the comment, but then thought it was potentially illustrative, albeit rude and obnoxious.   The moron’s comment appears at the end of this post, and because it is full of misconceptions and mythologies couched as “expertise”, I’d like to thank him for inspiring this post.

I purchased my 1980 Meral 700c sport touring frame after researching the ideal geometry and clearance requirements for a wheel size conversion. I consulted Sheldon Brown’s 650B conversion guide, as well as resources available from many other cyclists, mechanics, and frame builders. A particularly easy to read guide is available at Rivendell’s site. Since that time, I have done a number of other wheel size conversions, from 650c to 26 inch, and from 700c to 650c.

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Mafac Raid brakes-to supply adequate reach to the 650B rims.

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Before building up the frame I dry mounted many of the components to check for clearance and chain line.

Those of us who have undertaken 650B conversions understand the brake reach, tire clearance and other considerations that must be explored when contemplating whether to convert a bike to 650B.  My spammer, however, believes that one can alter the geometry of a frame by changing the wheel size.  Without a blow torch, that would not be possible.

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After the conversion to 650B, the bike looks beautiful and eats up the miles.

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Wine cork spacer for the rear fender.

The outer diameter of a 38 mm 650B tire is only a bit smaller than that of a 700c x 20 tire.  The effect of the 650B conversion is to give one a chance to ride on wider tires, making the bike more useful and comfortable, and to provide for fender clearance that didn’t exist with the larger wheel size.  And, as I have stated in past posts, you don’t want to convert a frame to a smaller wheel size if your frame has a lot of bottom bracket drop.  Rivendell recommends no more than 70 mm, but you may be able to get away with a bit more drop if you are using shorter cranks.  Many bicycles from the 1970’s on have way too high bottom brackets to begin with, so lowering the bottom bracket a bit will improve the bike’s handling and cause no negative side effects.

My own Meral has very little bottom bracket drop, so the conversion improved the handling, by dropping the bottom bracket height DOWN to 27.5 cm, still very high, and much higher than recommended by some frame builders.  My trail went from 43 mm to 41, and my wheel flop stayed the same at 12.  The world did not stop spinning due to my audacious acts.  What are the factors at work that cause these changes?

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Rake and Trail, drawing courtesy of Dave Moulton.

When you install smaller diameter wheels, there will be a change in the distance from the center of the axle to the ground, thus reducing the distance of the horizontal line between a straight line following the fork/headtube angle, and a vertical line from the wheel axis to the ground.  Smaller wheel diameter = less trail.  More rake also = less trail, which you can determine from the above drawing by imagining the vertical line through the axis, moving forward, reducing the trail line.  Less trail almost always equals less wheel flop, which can provide improved handling for carrying front end loads.  Wheel flop is a function of head angle and trail, so you can alter wheel flop also by changing to a longer or shorter fork, and/or to a fork with less or more rake.  But in a well thought out 650B conversion, there’s no need to worry about changing the fork.

Another misconception is that a 650B conversion causes fork shimmy.  Even though no one seems to know what does cause shimmy, I think we can say for certain that it is not caused by the “wrong combination of rake, trail and head angle.” which of course a 650B conversion does not affect anyway (rake and head angle being impossible to change without changing the fork).  Fortunately, I eliminated the shimmy on my initial build by using different tires – I switched from the ponderous Panasonic Col de la Vie tires to the comfortable, delightful and fast Loup Loup Pass tires from Compass.

Finally, here is the comment which inspired this post, in full and unedited, with misspellings and grammatical errors intact:

“As you state, the frames is well designed and its construction very well crafted; it was mostly likely built by Francis Quillon the head framebuilder at Meral..and he would be proud of it. However..he designed the bike around 700c wheels and would be astonished that you have fitted 650B, thereby upsetting all the correct design features that he had used in the frames constructions ie head angle, front end clearance, fork rake and trail…all those important features that govern how a bike handles..OH! not forgetting the height of the bracket.
Shimmy is often a result of the wrong combination of fork rake, trail and head angle..compounded, without doubt by using the wrong wheel size. So what you have managed to do is to take a delightful frame that was intended for fast road riding ie sportif use, and try to turn it into a type of randonneur…which it was never designed from the box of frame tubes , lugs etc to be.
As for the massive amount of handlebar stem quill that protrudes dangerously out of the fork column, Quillon would be alarmed at the thought ..and the sight it presents. The least you could do would be to buy one of those elegant Stronglight extra long headset lock-nuts that would both add about 30mms of extra grip to the quill while at the same time making the bike look less ridiculous than it does now…
Never mind the chrome hilights, the wonderful deep purple flamboyant paintwork..you have turned the bike into a travesty of what the designer/framebuilder intended and,
in doing so, insulted his skills.
If you really need so much seat pillar projecting from the seat cluster and such a high riding position, I suggest you get a frame that is more appropriate to your inner leg and body length.
Just a footnote…no French builder, large or small would ever let a bike with toeclip overlap leave their workshop or factory.”

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Shockingly tall seatpost?

This diatribe points out how narrow minded some cyclists are –  adhering to the idea that if they do not personally experience something, then it must not exist.  One of the reasons the seat post and stem are tall is because I am using 160mm cranks, which help to eliminate toe overlap.  Shorter cranks means a taller seat post, which in turn means a taller stem.  And yes, this frame had toe overlap with the larger 700c wheels, and it was indeed designed that way – something that happens when small and even medium sized frames are built around 700c wheels.  Whether the builder considered this a necessary compromise to please a particular customer, we will never know.  Most disturbing about this rant is the ridiculous concept that style trumps comfort when setting up a bike for a particular rider.  Many riders know that taller stems mean more hours of comfortable riding.

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NItto Technomic stem, sanded to French size, a la Sheldon Brown, Shimano 600 French headset.

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A travesty?

Apparently, the original Shimano 600 French headset is an absolute eyesore, when paired to the tall Nitto stem.

So hideous is the bike that it is now a “travesty”.  Well, me and my travesty will see you out on the road.  Happy riding!