Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Randonneuring- The revival of cyclo-touring part 3: The finished product.

Part 3 of my Randonneuring article and the results of my 10 speed conversion.

Let me start out by showing some "before" pictures of my 10 speed Schwinn before the conversion.

Now the converted Schwinn to Randonneuring bicycle,
The finished product.
25.4mm diameter suspension seatpost with Brooks-style saddle.
Swapped the 5 speed freewheel for a 7 speed mega chainring freewheel. Fitted a Shimano Tourney long cage derailleur to take the largest cog.
Going against conventional wisdom, I installed a set of Shimano Tourney thumb shifters on the top of the drop bars. You will need a longer bolt to fit these shifters than the ones supplied. I took some bolts of a department store bike brake levers to make it work.

Its amazing the weight savings I have had just by replacing the old freewheel, shifters and derailleur from the bike. Having a more accurate shift, taller stem and wider handlebars has improved the maneuverability of the bike. The better gear ratio also allows me to pedal alot faster and smoother. I took it for a test ride today and man was it fun. It's great for adventuring through the backroads, park trails or just riding with the family.

Question remains, will this bike hold up to singletrack? Probably not. It will at least be able to take on some fire roads and gravel or flat dirt roads. The top tube is too long to get proper lift and the bottom bracket too low to the ground for hopping logs and other obstacles. That doesn't mean I am discouraging anyone to try it out for themselves. As for me I have invested too much in the bike already (I am a cheapskate about upgrading bikes than most other enthusiasts) to try riding cross country on this bike.  What I will say is I have rigged up a bike that is quite capable of doing what I designed it for; Randonneuring.

Too many kids today (I mean twenty somethings like myself or younger) have a beef with gears. Many consider gears on a bike to be an accessory only desirable to old people.  The kids who grew up riding single speed BMX bikes transitioned to single speed road bikes or "fixies". While there is nothing wrong with that, having grown up riding mountain bikes my views differ. Its all about the gears. The more gear range on my bike, the better. More gears mean more utility. If I wanted to ride my bike over 'em mountains, I sure can, as long as there is a road going up there somewhere. Not something I would advise on a single speed/fixed gear bike. It is not feasable or practical to ride a bike loaded with about 80 pounds of equipment, say, in a place like the Rockies in Colorado, single speed. Maybe with an internal gear hub in the back but not with a single speed cog or freewheel. That's why I recommend gearing out your old ride instead of stripping it to the frame and the wheels. You'll have alot more fun riding it and you'll be able to ride a wide variety of terrain without having to get off the saddle and walking. I hope this article served it's purpose to inform the reader the potential of their garage sale 10 speeds. Give it a try, let me know how it goes. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Randonneuring- The revival of cyclo-touring. Part 2-Progress and observations

Part 2 of my Randonneuring bicycle build.

I didn't want to leave any of my diehard followers in suspense about the progress I have made with my ten speed to rando-touring machine build. Here are a few observations that I have made in the process.

I had purchased a 9 speed freewheel to replace the original 5 speed paperweight on the bicycle. I ended up having to go with a 7 speed freewheel with a granny gear mega chainring for the hills. The rear triangle and the axle length of my hub would not take the extra two gears needed for the 9 speed conversion. So for anyone considering buying the Sunrace 9 speed freewheel, this will not work on an old bike like this, even with a larger axle and the rear triangle cold set. Even at the 7 speed level, I had to add a 2mm spacer to the axle to prevent the chain from hitting the frame on the smallest cog. Nine speed freewheels are designed for modern mountain bike frames that accommodate a rear axle of at least 135mm. The same also goes for the riser stem that I originally purchased to replace the short racing stem on the bike. Schwinns from the 70's will not accept a standard 1" quill stem for a threaded headset. The actual size of the stem is .833, or 21.15mm in tube diameter, as opposed to the standard diameter of 22.2mm. Fortunately for me, a local bike shop happened to carry both the stem and the freewheel that I needed for this conversion. 

I had to replace the chrome Shimano 400 rear derailleur with a more modern long-cage derailleur to accomodate the mega range gearing on the bike. I opted with the Shimano Tourney derailleur since it is what is most commonly used on mega range, freewheel setups. To my surprise the derailleur looks quite durable. There are not as many plastic parts as advertised on the reviews, and I believe it can take a beating through the gravel as long as the bicycle does not fall on top of it.  It already came with the claw-style dropout hanger, so there was no need to get a hanger converter for it. It was a quick swap, and the bolt that holds it to the frame was coated in Locktite which gives me confidence about it's sturdiness. 

I also replaced the 25.4mm diameter, crotch killing steel seat post with the same diameter suspension seat post. When working with seat post diameters this small (may I remind the reader that 25.4mm is now the norm for most BMX seat posts) suspension seat posts tend to have their mechanical flaws. One such flaw is lateral looseness on the saddle, or commonly referred to as "the wobble". Some suspension posts wobble and some don't. It is a defect that is so common that I have decided to keep my somewhat wobbly seat post. In a non racing, off roading kind of situation, a slightly wobbly seat will not matter as you ride along a bumpy and unpaved trail. If it does give me any problems in the long run I can just replace it with a non suspended post with an integrated seat clamp and spring loaded saddle. But for the moment I will stick with my current setup.

I have also swapped out my Serfas Secca tires for a pair of good looking Panaracer Paselas. I have yet to test their durability, and I do not know if this is a downgrade from the kevlar lined, puncture resistant Seccas. What I do know is that these tires look fatter and slightly more knobbier than the street slicks I had on previously. The Serfas tires now hang in the corner of my garage as a backup set or for if or when I decide to go fast on this bike again. If punctures become a problem in the future I'll throw some tire liner to give a little added protection to my tubes. Since there are no goat heads or similar thorns in the area of Texas where I live, I don't see punctures as being an issue. I keep a high PSI on my tires and hardly get pinch flats or flats from riding over glass. I ride through country roads often, and I can't remember the last time I had a flat. 

I replaced the Schwinn Sakae Road Champion handlebars for a set of slightly wider Nitto Olympiade handlebars that I had lying around. With the added height of the stem and added width of the handlebars, the bike is taking on a more comfortable and stable geometry. 

I am still waiting on my Shimano Tourney thumb shifters to complete my touring ride and these should be arriving in the mail shortly. I'm sorry I have yet to post pictures of my build progress, but I think I'm going to have to post pictures of the finished product since I am so close to finishing. Stay tuned for article 3 of my Randonneuring ride- the finished product. I will also try to post youtube video of riding footage and how to's for anyone interested. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Randonneuring- The revival of cyclo-touring

Not Just for the Old guys anymore.

Randonneuring... this word may convey different images in a readers mind. To some it may bring to mind a group of 70 somethings with their gray whitish beards, riding on their steel framed, pannier loaded machines. Many in the younger audience are unfamiliar with this term and it's significance. Many yet don't realize that they don't need a cyclocross bike to be able to ride off the pavement. For those of you who are outside the loop, let me fill you in on what randonneuring is. 

Bicycles have been ridden on the dirt long before the invention of the mountain bike. In fact, since the early part of the 20th century, bicycles were raced mostly on dirt roads throughout Europe, as cars had not yet become as popular as they are today. Many people still rode on horseback and there was not alot of demand for paved roads during this time. The bicycles they rode back then were well designed and held up to a variety of road conditions and abuse. These were the steel road bikes of old, the same bikes many randonneuring bicycles are modeled after today. As racing became popular in countries like Italy and France, touring the countryside became a pastime of people living in the British Isles. Distances became longer and randonneuring was born.

The re-introduction of randonneuring bikes has come with a pretty hefty price tag; Many of these bikes are selling for  a thousand dollars and up just for the frame. Surly, PashleyVelo Orange and yip san bikes have become popular for introducing some models into the market. Randonneuring events such as gravel grinders are starting to become more popular. These distance events are unsupported, meaning no one to change your tire if you have a flat out on the road. These point A to point B races that go through back country dirt and loose gravel roads. The events are day long races held regardless of the weather or amount of daylight. 

I have been looking for a cyclocross bike for quite some time to get into this re-emerging form of cycling. Not being able to justify owning another bike in my garage. I have decided to convert my 1979 Schwinn Le Tour into a randonneuring machine. I have already ordered some of the key parts to making this change possible- a 9 speed freewheel, Panaracer touring tires, riser stem, fenders and suspension seat post for my Brooks-style saddle. I will convert my existing 10 speed to a randonneuring bike for around a hundred bucks, and I will show the reader step by step how they too can build a randonneuring machine while not sacrificing a whole paycheck to do so. Stay tuned for my documentary on my 10 speed to Rando-touring bike conversion.

Is a Schwinn Le Tour the best bicycle for this conversion? Before I hear from the critics I will be the first to say this isn't the easiest bike for this type of conversion. The reader will find it much more practical to go with a bicycle made from the mid 1980's and up. Much of the manufacturing specs and parts had become universal to every road bicycle by then. Schwinn's have quirky headtube, seatpost and brake hole diameters, but are not impossible to find parts for. Also, in many cases the rear triangle of the frame will require bending in order to fit a standard rear wheel with the larger freewheel (Velo Orange carries 126mm freehub wheelsets for around $280, bending is the more affordable workaround). I am choosing my Schwinn because it is initially cheaper in price, I have already invested in the initial restoration process, and because there were a surplus of these bikes made in the 70's bike boom, many hidden in the corners of people's garages.  My goal is to dispel myths that are associated with conversions like these, as well as myths pertaining to riding a road bike off road. This will be an interesting series of articles. I encourage the reader to subscribe and stay tuned for new developments. According to all the bike forums and information out there no one has done or recommends this type of conversion to date. It's a little disappointing, since there is a whole second hand market of mid 70's Schwinns out there. Most of these old bikes can bike picked up at a garage sale or craigslist for 50 dollars. So instead of buying another new bike, I will show the reader how to build a comparable touring bike at a fraction of the cost.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Robert Penn "Its all about the bike" Documentary Review

Its all about the bike, or is it really?
Review by yours truly, a.k.a Johnny

I recently saw Robert Penn's documentary "Its all about the bike" named after his book of the same title he released. While I admire this man's cause and find his documentary both educational and well thought out, there are some in discrepancies I could not help overlooking. I agree with the overall purpose of the documentary which is to promote a healthier and happier society by getting more people to ride their bicycles versus driving. His quest to build his dream bike was a educational journey that spanned three countries and gives the viewer a history lesson of the cultural impact the bicycle has had in the United States as well as Europe over different time periods. Mr. Penn even gives the notion of a modern day renaissance to obtain a bicycle of high craftsmanship with durable and reliable components. While I am not in disagreement with any of these things, there are a few critique points I would give Mr. Penn if I ever so had the chance to meet him.

First of all, I would like to talk about the author's message to the viewer and reader of his book. Building his dream bike to him signifies a representation of his life's journey as a cyclist, a sort of trophy that he congratulates himself with. Being a world distance cyclist several times over since his late twenties, he states that this dream bike will mark the end of his cycling journey because it will last as long as he does. What the author fails to mention is how his journey and his purchase of a custom tailored bike relate to the goals and ambitions of the average person. People need to realize that cycling is something achievable within their own means. I mean, not too many people can quit their day job one day and decide they want to ride their bicycle around the world. It takes someone with independent wealth or very generous friends and family to support that type of venture. I am not saying these would be the circumstances of the author, but it would be nice to know how he was able to accomplish this. Instead he describes a glorified version of his cycling life, a chivalrous description of cycling, how he uses a bicycle for just about everything, and even implies how the audience too might even follow along his footsteps. It a general sense, his message has the opposite effect of what he intended it to have. Rather than serving as a motivation to get others into cycling, his message may inspire a few well funded individuals but alienate out the rest. In an economy that has down trended because of the recession it's important to look for smart ways to spend money. Therefore those who are hurting from the economy and want to lighten their financial load by commuting by bicycle shouldn't be pushed to spend the money they don't have to spend on modifications they don't need, especially if all they need is a bicycle.

While I do agree that there is nor shouldn't be a flat price range on every bicycle, I have to disagree with the recommendations of components and parts that the author is thus suggesting as he builds his ride. It is understood that a person may need to spend extra to get a bicycle to do what that person wants it to do, especially if world travel, distances, and rugged terrains are involved. But this is a documentary that encourages everyday bicycle commuting; not racing, or off road adventuring. So while the author's recommendations are good because they are quality products, they fall short in the sense that most people will not pay $100 for a Brooks saddle, or $1300 for a Campagnolo groupset. Most people who decide to take cycling more seriously will opt for buying a bicycle their size and making modifications when something breaks or fails to perform under duress. They even speak of hiding manufacturing secrets on some of their components due to the "large Japanese company that makes all ranges of componentry" (hmm, I wonder who that is...cough-Shimano). This Japanese company has made groupset technology that has surpassed the technologies that Campagnolo has come of with, even though Campy components are considered the pioneer of derailleurs and shifters all around the world. They are by no means sub-par against the traditional giants. 

Don't get me wrong, as a dedicated cyclist I almost covet Brooks, Campagnolo, Chris King and Cinelli components. There is a reason, however, that you will not find  any of these parts on my bicycle. I still need to work for a living and keep my head up in this downtrodden economy and I have more than just myself to look after. I still ride, and the bikes that I ride on are reliable for what I use them for. My favorite bike I own is a $400 road bike with absolutely no modifications. So, Mr. Penn, I think with that I just saved about $3,600 against your bike, no to include the round the world trips you made. Will I ever get my dream bike? You never know what the future holds. I will be sure to appreciate the bicycles I have at the moment because they fit me well and do what I need them to do, this even includes riding over 70 miles at a time. But in the event that I do become the proud owner of a Cannondale Super Six Hi-mod Team Liquidgas edition, I will not hold it against anyone who doesn't have a bicycle like mine. In the meantime, I will carry on riding my "entry level" and craigslist vintage finds.

The author's coverage of bicycle friendly cities in the United States were limited to those cities which are already renowned for cycling and have an established bicycle infrastructure. Everybody in the cycling world knows that Portland Oregon and Marin County California are some of the USA's cycling Meccas. It would have been more inspirational to mention up and coming cycling cities such as Austin, New York City, Phoenix and even Dallas. This is where progress is currently being made to get more people into cycling. The Northwest states are a bad example because the cost of living is off the roof for people living in other parts of the country. Of course Portland can afford a 100 million dollar bicycle initiative! The cheapest house in Portland goes for $700,000!

I will conclude with the words of seven time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong by saying "It's not about the bike". There is alot to say for the rider in that equation. Robert Penn is a great rider regardless of whether he rode around the world on a Trek or on a Huffy. In my personal opinion there is too much credit given to the bicycle he rides rather than to his own willpower. In addition, his point of view comes from someone who is privileged with a slight undertone of entitlement thrown in. He seems like the kind of guy I would call up on the weekend for a  Sunday ride around the countryside. Nice guy, but I would probably leave him alone if I wanted to ride into downtown. Real commuters on their Wal-Mart bikes with grocery baskets might scare the poor fellow.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Cheap" Versus Expensive Bicycles-An ongoing debate for Truth

Common Misconceptions about "Cheap"  and Expensive Bicycles

I wanted to introduce this thought provoking article as a way to get others to think about the way they view buying a bicycle. A bicycle is no longer just a simple two wheeled machine moved along by a chain and some perpetual motion. Now you have features such as electronic shifting, hydraulic disc brakes, dual chamber air suspension, remote lockout and the list goes on and on. Doing repairs on some of these bicycles almost requires a mechanic's degree. But what should people be looking for when buying a bicycle? Is it their first bicycle and will it be used as a primary/secondary means of transport? What is a "Cheap" and what is an "expensive" bicycle? This article will help to answer the following questions to the best of my knowledge.

Question : What should people look for when buying a bicycle?

Answer: The #1 priority is to find a bicycle that fits the person comfortably. People come in all shapes and sizes. Not everyone is cut out for riding a road bike style bicycle. Many women have difficulty on these types of bikes and many end up with back and wrist pains as a result. The second thing to consider is the type of riding that you will be doing. All bicycles can be ridden on the road, but not all can be ridden off road. Mountain bikes should have a thread less stem, riser bar and a higher sealed bottom bracket for clearing logs and other obstacles. Everything else is aesthetics and personal taste. Durability is up to how the individual rides the bike. Even the most expensive bikes can break down on an off road trail.

What if you want to use  a mountain bike for on the road riding? Don't let the roadies scare you. You still have the right to ride a bike on the road even if you are not doing the speeds and distances that a avid cyclist on a road bike would do. Nowadays you can find high pressure street style tires for mountain bikes. Although road bikes are pavement specific and the best choice for riding on the street, there are other alternatives to owning a road bike with the bike you may already own.

Note to reader: I am not endorsing riding on any street when I say this. The reader must use common sense and avoid high speed and high traffic areas. Always follow the rules of the road and use all safety precautions when riding a bike on the street. Read the warning labels that come with your bicycle about proper usage. If possible, use the bikeways and residential streets in your area.

Myth: "All department store bikes are inadequate for riding."

Fact: That is what some bike shops want you to believe. Most people prefer buying their first bike from a department store. There is nothing wrong with that. I bought my wife's first bike from a local bike shop and she was never comfortable on it. The next bike I bought for her came from a department store. For fifty dollars less, I was able to get a bicycle with a front fork, suspension seat and seat post, ergo grips, a hydroformed frame with interior cable routing and quick release wheels on both tires. In addition, the bike fits my wife well and now she enjoys riding more. In the last year or two department stores have stepped up and provide the public with more quality build in their bicycles. I used to ride the "Buy LBS only" bandwagon until I saw department store bikes like the Mongoose Deception 29er and the Truster fixie bike. Local bike shops, as much as they have surfaced in my area, have lost their argument that they are the sole quality bicycle providers. Again, as I mentioned earlier and in my last article, it is important that the bike fits the rider. Dicks Sporting Goods and Sports Authority are now offering several size options on their models. Wal-Mart would corner the market again if it did the same and hired bicycle repair technicians in their stores. 

Question: What is a "cheap" or "expensive" bicycle?

That question can be relative at best and get really philosophical in the most extreme of cases. But I will summarize it like this: Cheap is not a price point, it's the quality. There are bicycles that are priced to sell for the average consumer and bikes that can cost well beyond someones means and/or budget line. Department store bikes can no longer be considered cheap by any means. They are affordable to the average person  and priced to sell. There are cheap bicycles within their fleet of products but these are not all of their bicycles. Local bike shops may also have cheap bikes under more notable brand names. Brand integrity is a major marketing tool that allows local bike shops to sell the same or inferior specced items as department stores at a higher cost to the consumer. Case in point, the comfort bike I purchased from an LBS and the one I purchased from a department store. 

Expensive is a relative term according to how deep a person's pockets may be. But a good point of comparison would be to compare buying a bicycle to buying a used car. If the bike would cost more than buying a used car, then you would be spending well over your means to buy a bike. The point of owning a bicycle as an alternative form of transportation is that it would save the money you would use in buying a car, as well as encourage exercise.

Myth: "Carbon is better than aluminum."

Fact: Carbon is more fracture prone and less forgiving than aluminum or chrome molly. Once carbon cracks or is scratched you no longer have a safe bike to ride on. In addition, some aluminum models have the same weight as their carbon counterparts, differing only by a few grams in some cases.

Myth: "Bikes under $300 dollars are low end, poor quality bikes."

Fact: This again, is what some bike shops want you to believe. That is because their inventory consists of bicycles that may be $300 at the most affordable end of the spectrum. In the second hand market, $300 dollars can get you great quality even name brand status bicycles. But if you don't have $300 to spend, start looking at bikes on online classified ad sites (the most popular of which I am not allowed to mention at the moment) in the $100 to $150 dollar range. You'll be amazed what you come up with. If you still would like a new bike there are a lot of alternatives to buying from a bike shop. Online retailers have a wide assortment of choices in this price range. Bikes Direct, Vilano bicycles, Republic bike, Nashbar and eBay are some options. In addition Wal-Mart and Sears online have choices you won't find in stores.

Note that I am not trying to put down local bike shops. I think that small businesses like these are essential for an economy to grow. They are great to have around if your bike breaks down and you are not mechanically inclined. There needs to be more transparency in the way customers are treated, especially in specialty bike shops, which are the "top of the line" way expensive ones. The lack of knowledge and the preconceived myths about more affordable bikes are what keeps unscrupulous bike shops in business.

I have a background as a bike mechanic, having worked at several bike shops. I have witnessed an unspoken bias when it comes to certain types of bicycles that come in and out of the shop for repairs. Once I even saw a bike mechanic tell someone that their bicycle was not worth fixing and that they should get a new bike. The customer had a Schwinn mountain bike with a flat tire. The mechanic convinced the customer to donate their bicycle and buy a new one from their shop. Later he set their bicycle by the dumpster. I was shocked and appalled at the treatment that both the customer and their bicycle experienced. It has always stuck with me and is one of the reasons I would like to clarify these misconceptions which can easily be perceived as "bike-snobbery" by people who just want to ride a bike without emptying their savings account. The goal of bicycle stores and commuters should be to encourage people to ride a bike, and not discourage people by saying their only option is to opt for an expensive and uncomfortable bike. I hope this article dispelled some common misconceptions about what constitutes a cheap and an expensive bicycle.