A very different kind of fixie…

So every weekend I seem to be up against it time-wise at the moment. We’re looking at buying our first home and every Saturday’s spent going to the town we’re looking at to see yet another property that’s not quite right for one reason or another. We’ll find the right one sooner or later, but for the moment it feels a bit like we’re living in a strobe light, with this massive disruption every weekend.

So today I had a couple of hours in Stafford so I thought I’d go for a little ride on my three-speed to take my mind off things. I hadn’t had a chance to ride it since I fixed it up last weekend. I went to do a short lap of the fields near my parent’s house, about 3 miles or so, and to begin with it felt nice and smooth, first gear was back and the wheel felt much better with tighter spokes.

Then things started to go wrong. First I lost middle gear, so I stopped to have a fiddle with the indicator chain. All fine, I went on my way. Then it happened again. Then after a while the pedals suddenly just jammed solid. The bike was still freewheeling forward, but I just couldn’t budge the pedals. It’s a very strange, counterintuitive sensation.

So I had to stop (since I couldn’t pedal anywhere) and have a think what to do. There wasn’t much I could do, since it was obvious the problem was in the hub. Obviously this happened when I was furthest from home, natch.

Well walking home didn’t improve my mood any, but at least when I opened the hub up (for about the fourth time in five weeks now…) I did not find the mangled and twisted parts I was expecting. Everything was fine, it’s just that I think some of the threads had self-tightened, slightly changing some of the clearances to the point some of the internals clashed. The rear wheel was a bit stiff as I pushed it home, which makes sense.

I fixed it up, put the wheel back on, and inevitably didn’t have time for a shakedown… Tune in next week for the next exciting instalment of “will this damn hub ever work properly”

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It’s all about the view through the valve hole

Well I was very pleased with my overhaul of Crichton’s internally geared hub a couple of weeks ago, but you may remember I said I didn’t have time for a test ride. Last weekend I did have time, and the simple fact is I cocked up! The stickiness of the pawls that was originally the problem was fixed alright, but I put them back in the wrong way round. As such, I still only had top gear, middle, and neutral. The pawls (on the left of the picture below) were simply facing the wrong way to engage with the ratchet in the hub casing, but since I had already cleaned and oiled everything, this time I only had to be careful to keep everything clean, so it only took half an hour. I did make doubly sure I’d got it the right way round this time! Again, no time for a test ride but I’m pretty sure it’s working now. I also took the opportunity to add some tension to the rear spokes, which seemed a little on the floppy side.

Anyway, last weekend was taken up with wheelbuilding, having collected all the necessaries from the bike shop:

Two Ryde Sputnik 700 x 19 rims (one 32 hole, the other 36), front spokes, rear spokes, small brass washers for the rear wheel, nipples, my two hubs and my red spoke key. I don’t intend to take you through the process of wheelbuilding, because Sheldon Brown’s guide is so much better than I could do. There are a couple of things to watch out for, however.

Firstly, you need to understand that in the end you want the spokes either side of the valve hole to be parallel, rather than crossed. This has no effect on wheel strength but will quite definitely make it easier to get access to your tyre’s valve when inflating!

Above is the finished front wheel, shown in the front fork with a nice old Sakae quick release. You’ll see every other spoke either goes into or comes out of the hub. The ones going in (with the bend of the spoke inside the flange) need to be done first. You probably could do it the other way round, but it would be unnecessarily complicated.

Apparently a really good wheelbuilder pays attention to small details, such as lining up the hub logo with the valve hole:

That doesn’t just happen, it takes a little advance thought! I was really pleased with this. I tried to get the front hub the same, failed, tried again, but again no dice. It just doesn’t seem possible with this hub, sadly.

For cross-3 wheels your outer spokes are threaded through the inner spokes for strength, each spoke goes over one, over the second, then under the third. Over, over, under. Over, over, under. Repeat until done. I find wheelbuilding becomes easier with knowledge of your 2, 3 and 4 times table, as well as either 8 (for 32 spokes) or 9 (36 spokes).

And here are my lovely new wheels:

After all the spokes are in, but before adding any tension, I give the wheels a good look over to check there are no mistakes. If there are, it’s a pretty simple process to strip it down and do it again – no damage done.

When adding tension you need to gradually tense up all parts of the wheel gradually, so you give it the best chance of coming out reasonably true. A nice neat trick is to tighten every third spoke. If the number of spokes doesn’t divide exactly by three (40, 32, 28, etc) you can add tension to every third spoke and by the time you’ve gone round the wheel three times you will have hit every spoke. For 36 (or 24) spoke wheels you need to remember to skip an extra spoke each time round, or you’ll tighten just the same 12 spokes, while the other 24 stay slack.

So I’ve tightened the wheels up a bit and done some rudimentary trueing so they’re not completely awful. I’ve submitted them for marking, I.e. I’ve taken them to the shop to be trued and tensioned properly. It certainly feels like getting my homework marked, and I seem to have managed another A+ if the look on the resident wheelbuilder’s face was anything to go by…

Why are you reading this when you could be reading the Rivendell Reader?

My trawls of Sheldon Brown’s website have revealed to me the most incredible bicycle catalogues I’ve ever come across. I’ve seen a few catalogues in my time, such as early 1980s Sakae Ringyo and Tange Champion, and more recent Sturmey Archer catalogues, and they’re all vaguely similar. “Look at this stuff, it’s the latest, the best, it’ll make you faster, here’s a page full of specs.” They’re all like this. I’ve never seen anything like the Bridgestone USA catalogues of 1992, 1993 and 1994. Of course, they have bikes in, and pages of detailed technical specifications. But they have SO MUCH MORE BESIDES.

Have you ever, for example, seen a catalogue showing you the areas where your frame is most likely to fail? Or a detailed description of the hum-drum processes by which individual components are manufactured, and an examination of the ecological impact of material production? Or two whole pages dedicated purely to the art of a well-designed fork crown lug (and that at a time where lugged forks were becoming about as fashionable as smallpox)? Or a description of alternative methods of lubricating your chain, using wax?

Or a catalogue that comes along right in the middle of the paradigm shift to indexed gears and says words to the effect of; yeah, but friction works better once you’ve learned how to use it, and you feel more involved in the bike – it’s better if you learn friction. “You get the blame when you blow it and the satisfaction when you don’t.” For that matter, what bicycle catalogue would take two pages, empty because a frame-only option they were hoping to offer wasn’t ready in time, and fill it instead with an article about hand-made baseball gloves? “Sure, they catch the ball as they should, but at their best, they can remind you why old-fashioned craftsmanship still matters.” It’s supposed to be a bicycle catalogue…

They understandably got something of a cult following, and formed the Bridgestone Owners Bunch, or BOB. I’ve looked through all the issues of the BOB Gazette I can find, and again, the same philosophy comes through. On page 2 young Bob will have an article on why some new-fangled tech like dual-pivot callipers are great, then on page 3 old Bob will refute this, pointing out that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with single pivots, never has been, in some respects they’re still better, so why change? All through the tone is as if they’re not even trying to sell you a bicycle, more that they’re interested in bicycles, and so are you, they know a lot about them, and maybe you don’t, so here’s what they think on the matter and if you agree, good, and if you would maybe consider buying one of their bicycles, then great.

There’s an advert, an April fool I think it must be, where they boast of having “a semi-retired frame builder from the Basque region of Spain, who apprenticed in England, then Italy, before becoming one of France’s most prestigious builders… Our builder has never guaranteed any of his bikes, believing that only those who doubted both his skill and his personal integrity required one.” Now this ad is obviously a joke, but I really wish someone had the balls to say “nope, no guarantee. I’ll build the best frame I know how, and if I say so myself, I know how to make a good frame. And if anything should go awry, if you can’t trust in my integrity to make good then I find that highly disrespectful, and you can sod off.” And I get the feeling the guys at Bridgestone would have said so if they had a free choice.

And this is all from Bridgestone, a very large, pretty straight-laced company, which seems for all the world to have experienced a St Trinians-style coup in its US bicycle division. It’s weird, but it’s wonderful. Of course, it couldn’t last. Bridgestone USA was closed down at the end of 1994, because exchange rates between Yen and Dollar meant they just weren’t making money. What they were making, though, were some incredibly thoughtful bicycles. Thankfully, all is not lost. Grant Petersen, the main driver behind Bridgestone USA, started up Rivendell Cycles as soon as he knew the Bridgestone game was up, and they still build bikes that they think are the best, most well-thought-out bikes they can make. Beautiful, mainly lugged-steel creations with room for fenders and wider tyres. They don’t recommend any tyre under 28mm for the road, and think 32 is probably better still. They want their bikes to be comfortable. I think they’re right.

I’ve found a few issues of the Rivendell Reader, successor to the BOB Gazzette, and it’s a hoot. They seem to have cast off some of the shackles, and really say what they think. “Upgrade your fork from Carbon to Steel!” reads the title of one article. They really like ramming this point home – that carbon forks are doomed to break someday through fatigue, whereas steel ones, if well-made, should last a lifetime. They talk a lot about fatigue. It’s just generally interesting, including an article on a guy who has racked up over a million miles in the saddle, raising over a million dollars for charity as he did so. They’re not slaves to the products they’re trying to sell, anything that’s interesting has a place.

I’ve found some invaluable tips that show me little things I’ve been doing wrong all these years (such as not sanding far enough into the inner tube when applying patches), and just a million tiny little things that make me smile. “Beausage” is a word you come across a few times, and it means something along the lines of “beauty as a result of long-term use”, i.e. the charm of something that’s a bit worn or tatty or shiny because it’s been well-used for a long time. It’s a good word, I’ll use it more often. My bikes have plenty of beausage on show. Also, you know how the distance between pedals on a setup is called the Q-factor, yeah? I found out this is because a big Q-factor makes you more duck-like, and Q stands for quack…

So anyway, why are you reading this when you could be reading the Rivendell Reader?!

On reflection

I’m obviously contemplating my bike build, and having decided on the basics of wheel size and transmission I’m getting into the more peripheral elements of the bike. Since the choice of front hub depends whether I want to have a dynohub there or not (I think I probably do) the next part of the equation that’s been on my mind is lighting. I had a look into the regulations regarding lights, and found some wider information about what a bicycle is legally supposed to have in this country.

Well I won’t go into the fascinating story of which statutory instrument amended which Act of Parliament. In summary, the regulations regarding the construction of a cycle offered for sale in Great Britain are as follows:

  • Must have a front brake, operated by the right hand.
  • Must have a rear brake, operated by the left hand, or pedals (i.e. fixie/coaster)
  • Must be fitted with a bell
  • Must have a white, front-facing wide angle reflector, or front light
  • Must have a red, rear-facing wide angle reflector
  • Must have wide angle reflectors in the front wheel, or otherwise be reflective (e.g. reflex tyres)
  • Must have wide angle reflectors in the rear wheel, or fixed to the frame for the same purpose, or some other reflective element as above.
  • Amber reflectors must be fitted to the front and rear of both pedals
  • Bicycles sold as kits must include all of the above equipment, as well as a list of common tools to be used for assembly – any unusual tools should be supplied with the bike.
  • Bikes sold for competition use are exempt.

The regulations of the sort of bicycle one is actually allowed to use on the road are much less stringent, calling for:

  • An efficient front brake that does not operate directly on the tyre itself.
  • An efficient rear brake that does not operate directly on the tyre itself.
  • Er, that’s it.

Yes, you can quite legally whip off that silly excuse for a bell and all that great panoply of reflectors, as long as you’re only intending to ride the bike in daylight hours. Riding after sunrise and before sunset (which is not the same as the lighting up time that applies to cars) adds a few additional requirements and get a little complicated.

lights

  • Front white light, fixed to the bike positioned centrally or to the right, up to 1.5m from the ground, if steady conforming to British or equivalent European standards, or if flashing, frequency of 1-4hz and brightness of about 50 lumens or more (in total if more than one light is used)
  • Rear red light, fixed to the bike centrally or to the right, between 0.35 and 1.5m from the ground, if steady conforming to British or equivalent European standards, or if flashing, frequency of 1-4hz and brightness of about 50 lumens or more.
  • Rear red reflector fixed to the bike centrally or to the right, conforming to British or equivalent European standards, 0.25 to 0.9m from the ground. (note that this is in addition to, and is not replaced by, the rear light)
  • Amber reflectors on the front and rear of both pedals, unless the bike was manufactured before 1985. Note that modern clip-in pedals are NOT exempt from this!
  • The lights do not need to operate when the bicycle is stopped or being pushed, so dynamo lights without a stoplight function are legal.

However, this does sort of beg the question, if you need lights rather than reflectors at night, and you don’t need any reflectors during the day, when do you actually need all those reflectors (and let’s not forget that bell) that the law states that bicycles must be sold with? As it goes I think the rules are quite sensible, but they aren’t straightforward and aren’t presented as a single, well-thought-out ‘package’.

For my build I’m thinking of fitting Busch & Muller lighting – Germany has the tightest cycle light standards in Europe (so probably the world) and thus they will easily meet existing British legal requirements (British actual requirements are that you obviously have reasonable lights front and rear, as no copper is really going to know chapter and verse of the above. Woe betide the policeman who pulls me over for not having reflectors on the front of my 1982 bike’s pedals…).

I do think a dynamo is probably the way to go with this build, chiefly for reliability and less faff but also for reasons of it being the proper old-school way of doing things, with all the advantages of modern equipment. And that’s in a nutshell what this bike is all about. I’ll probably also want a back-up, battery powered rear light, because if your rear light goes out mid-ride you won’t know, and I think it makes sense to have independent systems.

As to the choice of which dynamo, there’s a few options but I’ve basically decided. There’s bottle dynamos but I think they’re a bit ugly and they don’t work as well in the wet, which does tend to happen in this country. There are some fabulously expensive hub dynamos, and two that I consider reasonably affordable. The Sturmey Archer dynamo has several drawbacks – it’s only available with 36 holes, it only generates 2.4 amps, and above all it’s heavy. 825g compared with 390g for a 3 amp hub made by Shutter Precision. This is available in shiny silver to go with the fork, and the only drawback is it isn’t available as a nutted hub.

The reassembler

We popped back to Stafford today, and I spent an enjoyable afternoon taking apart, cleaning, oiling and reassembling the rear hub of my three-speed.

Those who have ridden a well-maintained three-speed will know it ticks as one pedals along. Some people don’t like this but I do, when you’re blasting a long it gives a sense of speed. Of late, mine stopped ticking and then last week I was unable to engage bottom (easiest) gear. I knew what the problem was as soon as I encountered it, but didn’t have time to fix it.

The ticking comes from a series of pawls – little spring-loaded hinged ramps that engage in a series of fixed ramps inside the hub. When the pawls are driven the other way they press in, slide over, then spring back out and go “click”. Since my ticking had stopped, I knew the pawls must not be clicking back fast enough.

I took the hub apart (and these days I don’t need an instruction manual) and sure enough, the pawls we’re stuck in a load of goo. They did spring pack, but very, very slowly. After taking all the bits out (including the tiny, all-important hairpin springs) a bit of WD40 got everything nice and clean, and the pawls were springing back nice and fast again. One thing I learned recently that I put into action was to really go to town with the grease around the cones at either end, as this keeps the water out and the oil in.

Being mechanical is a nice skill to have. It totally engages your mind in a very restful way. Once you’ve understood how something works, it all just flows. I didn’t take any notes or photos as I was taking it apart, and didn’t look up how to put it back together. It was just obvious how it had to go together. This doesn’t hold for every design, as some can be a bit treacherous, but for most things I do ok. The one bit of specialist knowledge I needed was how to get the cones to their proper adjustment (Google Sheldon Brown if you need to find out, he knows all). Sadly I didn’t get a chance for e test ride, mainly because I didn’t have time and also because I didn’t have my torque wrench to get the nuts to the necessary 27Nm.

It’s amazing really, I know for a fact this hub is a little over 31 years old, and I’ve done 1,500 miles on it, but it hardly shows any signs of wear internally. This hub will quite probably outlive me and everyone reading this…

Wheels within wheels

This week in the Sunday Times my horoscope* went as follows:

This is week two of high drama, and you’re getting impatient. The problem? You’re lacking seemingly minor but crucial details. Only once you’ve discovered them will things make sense to you or others.

Indeed, I am busy dealing with minor but crucial details. Like what sore of brake levers to use, and how big a drop I need to reach the rims. Do I need a chainguard? Will mudguards advertised as fitting a 28mm tyre just about fit over a 32mm? But if it’s all the same I had enough high drama on Friday night, thank you very much.

My problems all start with the rear hub, which ultimately is the current blockage as without knowing the distance to set the rear dropouts we can’t send the frame for painting. I’ve decided on hub gears, and have a preference for Sturmey Archer 5-speeds. The current SA 5-speed has a bell crank system I don’t particularly like, combined with a choice between a grip-shift, which reminds me of some of the crapier bikes of my youth, and a thumbshifter that is just ludicrously enormous due to the extra cable travel the system requires.

5speed1

The previous model of 5-speed has the same kind of pull chain system I’m used to, and a two-button trigger shifter that I think would work nicely (as well as at least four other shifting options) but the first snag is it’s been discontinued. There’s two similar versions, one with a wider flange, but I wouldn’t be too fussed about that. I am a little suspicious of the mechanism inside that uses tiny ball bearings pushed through holes in the shaft to engage the gears, but I haven’t found much evidence of unreliability.

SRF5w

Then there’s Shimano. There’s always Shimano. They don’t have a 5-speed hub gear but they have 8-speeds (Nexus) and 11-speeds (Alfine). I hate the way Shimano has this sort of caste system in their gruppos, where a customer has to either shell out loads or knowingly buy inferior parts. They’ve even got a Di2 version just to make the everyday cyclist feel properly inferior. It’s all bollocks anyway. Tiagra stuff now is just penny-pinching versions of what was once 105 or Dura-Ace. Being a SunTour enthusiast I can’t help but think of Shimano as the implacable enemy, but my problem is Shimano won, and now my bike shop only really stocks Shimano and some SRAM, and aren’t really familiar with any other brands’ recent offerings.

Nexus

Anyway, I’ve decided to bite the bullet and order the Sturmey Archer S-RF5(w), i.e. the short-flange old school pull chain version. What can I say? It’s just what I know, and what I’m comfortable with, and the shifter really is the key differentiator. It also has the advantage of sharing a few key spares (spacers, sprockets etc) with my existing AW 3-speed. I tried to get it through the bike shop, but like I say their connections to anyone other than Shimano aren’t that great, and when they rang the distributer they didn’t get much sense out of him, other than “look it up on Sheldon Brown“. Instead I’ve had to order it by post from a website, praying that I won’t be contacted to say they haven’t got one.

Someone’s been dicking around with the thermostat in Britain this last week, and everything’s (quite sensibly) grinding to a halt in the midst of some of the weirdest snow I’ve ever seen. The invoice said the order wouldn’t be processed for a day or due because of the weather. Not a problem, I can wait. When it arrives I can get the frame’s rear dropouts set to the right distance and pick up the rim and spokes so I can move on to my favourite part: wheelbuilding!

Sports Light Roadster

Well I’ve had a hell of a weekend. My 94 year old grandmother went “off structure” and broke her wrist on Friday night, and with my parents holidaying in France, my sister living in Germany and the friend who normally helps her out having gone out for a meal and being over the driving limit, the finger of fate pointed at me. She needs someone to be there so that when the medics ask questions they get an authoritative answer, and so that someone can explain to her what’s happening in a way she can understand. I got to her house at 11pm, having been up at 6 that morning, and she had to be taken to Stoke hospital to have it seen to. By the time her friend came to relieve us in the morning, I’d been awake for about 28 hours straight. My wonderful wife was with me throughout, bless her, as we’d been round at her parents house when the call came. We drove back and I retrieved my bike from their shed to ride (carefully) back to my parents house for some kip.

Anyway, it was a bit of an ordeal. When I got to town I stopped off at Henry Burton’s again and spending half an hour talking about bike parts was the perfect way to take my mind off things. There’s an issue with the type of rear hub I want to use and the width of the rear dropouts. The rotary type hubs that Sturmey Archer now make come with only one type of gear selector, and I want more of a choice so I’m looking at some recently discontinued models that have more hardware in common with the old AW hub on my three-speed. There’s some minor difference between the S-RF(w) and the X-RF(w) and I’m not sure which I need, and I’m aware that some 5-speeds made by Sturmey Archer at one point had a design weakness I’m understandably keen to avoid in a daily driver.

We talked about headsets, bottom brackets, front hubs (it’s going to have matching Sturmey Archer hubs and cranks), spoke types and rims, and we’re starting to nail a few things down. The character of the bike is taking shape, and that’s what this post is about. Let’s start by looking at my existing three-speed:

Now this type of bike is sometimes referred to as a “Sports Light Roadster”, which seems laughable until you understand how the name came about. To start with we need to bear in mind what a pukka Roadster looks like. It is a large, heavy bike with 28″ wheels, ballon tyres, rod brakes, three-speed hub (usually), a fully-enclosed chaincase, laid-back geometry and a very comfortable bolt-upright seating position. This sort of bike is now best known as the classic Dutch transportation bike:

These bikes are heavy, though they were probably lighter than the bikes that came before them. So the first thing to note about a Sports Light Roadster is that they are indeed significantly lighter than a pukka Roadster. They have cable brakes for a start, partial chain guards rather than full chaincases, and all together just that little bit less heft in the frame. The sports part is again that, compared to a Roadster, they feel a lot more sporty. They have more upright frame geometry, lower handlebars and a slightly hunched over position that encourages one to press on a bit. The archetypal Light Roadster is the Raleigh Sports model, which was extremely popular:

These are extremely good bikes for any reasonably flat ride of up to about 5 miles, beyond which your hands start to go a bit numb from only having one position. They’re still quite heavy, which gives them a lot of stability in a crosswind, and they don’t need too much care and attention to keep them serviceable. The tyres are of a width that’s not too slow on paved roads, while still able to cope with some medium off-road work, and that gives a comfortable ride overall. This is a type of bike that, sadly, they just don’t make much these days, at least not for sale in the West.

Instead the closest you’ll find if you pop to a large cycle shop is what is termed a hybrid. This covers a wide spectrum of bikes which I think most regular three-speed riders would regard with a degree of contempt. Often it means a slightly more practical set-up on what started out as a mountain bike. I find it crazy that some of these are sold as commuter bikes with no mudguards, but then I suppose not every country is as wet as England. Any luggage probably has to go on your back, rather than letting the bike carry it for you. They have derailleur gears, which are fine straight out of the shop but will progressively get more rubbish if your average hybrid customer either doesn’t know how to maintain them, or can’t be bothered. That’s not a criticism of them, what I’m saying is there are better gearing systems (enclosed hub gearing) for the needs of that type of customer. They sometimes have front suspension, just to reduce efficiency a little, and they all seem to have flat or flattish handlebars.

Flat handlebars: great if you’re going down a mountain, stood up on the pedals. Not so good for a daily gentle ride. The way to comfortably ride a bike is to have your elbows bent, so you don’t send shocks straight up your arm through your wrist, elbow, and into your shoulder, and the more weight you put on the handlebars the more important this becomes. If you put your hands out straight in front, palms facing up, then rotate your wrists all the way as far as they’ll go, then come back half way between, you’ll find your hands in the sort of position angled down at the ends that old Roadster handle bars cater for, with maximum room for manoeuvre either way. If you bend your elbows a bit (keeping them at your sides) you’ll find you can probably get your hands flat palm-down, but no more. You can belt your elbows outwards, but then you’re creating a higher profile to the wind, and steering puts more strain on your shoulder because the steering is less a matter of pushing your arms in and out if you’re leant over the bars. I’m sure plenty of people get on with them fine, but for me they just seem a very silly and uncomfortable compromise.

Ultimately though, my problem with most hybrids is it’s a hybrid of the wrong types of bike. You can’t start with off-road performance and then dial in the rest of the package. I’m starting with a touring frame, so a little less aggressive and pared down than a full road bike with room for mudguards and luggage:

What I’m looking to build is a touring/three-speed hybrid, with the convenience and some of the comfort of a three-speed matched with the greater focus on weight-saving and lower rolling resistance of a touring bike. It won’t be light, but if it isn’t significantly lighter and faster accelerating than my three-speed I’ll be doing something wrong.