Welcome, jerks.

Yeah, I got the fever. Three or four years ago, a rabid, red-eyed zombie sank its rotten teeth into my arm and thus I was infected with a peculiar strain of irrational obsession. Since then I have breathed, eaten, and slept bikes and almost nothing else. Maybe a vaccine will be invented, or maybe it'll simply pass, but until then I'm a slave to my compulsion to buy, transport, take apart, degrease, scour, lube, polish, assemble, tune, tighten, align, wax, buff, and yes, ride, ride, ride these magical two-wheeled machines.

So, the idea is, on this page I'm going to post pictures and perhaps stories of bikes that I've refurbished and ridden or ones that are in the process or recently completed. Maybe it'll expand from there. We'll see, I guess.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Austro-Daimler SLE Rebuild

It's funny what can result from a Craigslist encounter--no not that kind, silly--we all know what can come from that kind of encounter, and it isn't pretty. I'm talking about bike-related meet-ups here. I recently gave a fun talk at a Pecha Kucha event that came about through an acquaintance I made almost two years ago on Craigslist. One day I'm responding to an email request for purchase advice, three months later I'm refurbishing dude's new-old bike, and then fast-forward to me showing a room full of strangers my bike photos and trying to explain why I'm so obsessed with restoration. I hope to post a version of that presentation on this blog at some point, but for now I want to present the (ongoing) result of a different CL meet-up.

Recently, I bought some parts from a gentleman through CL and we got to talking. Now I'm overseeing the rebuild of his c.1980 Austro-Daimler SLE. While I've done this sort of thing before, I've never had the pleasure of working with an original owner. I imagine there's all sorts of sentimental baggage that goes along with such a project. To make things even better, the rebuilt bike, when completed, will go to the owner's son, from one generation to the next. How cool is that? But we're not letting this bike's history get in the way of this its reincarnation. The new iteration will take on a character all its own, I hope.

By the early 80's most bike manufacturers were in the process of switching from clamp-on-style frame accoutrements to braze-on ones, at least for their mid-level and high-level models. Austro-Daimler was particularly traditional when it came to aesthetics, though, so I wasn't surprised to find that this model had very few braze-ons: only the top tube cable guides and single eyelets on the front and rear dropouts (not even a single water bottle mount!).

The remnants of "Made in Austria" and Reynolds 531 stickers:

The owner wants to update the bike and expand its usefulness in a few ways: brazed-on mounts for a water bottle holder, rear rack, downtube-mounted barrel adjusters (to be used with bar-end shifters), and a cable stop on chainstay. The fork and seat-stay bridge will be drilled for recessed brake nuts. Much of this will also contribute to a cleaner overall look. In addition, the rear triangle will be re-spaced to accept a modern rear hub for the extra gears it will allow.

For most of these alterations, we've chosen to go to local framebuilder, Bernie Mikkelsen, who's been working out of Oakland since at least the mid '70s. (If I recall correctly, he apprenticed with master-builder Albert Eisentraut.) Mikkelsen, sadly, suffered a stroke several years ago that left him speech- and motion-impaired, but he continues to oversee repairs at his relocated workshop in Alameda.

Visiting Mikkelsen's workshop was a strange experience. I'd heard about his disability beforehand, but I wasn't sure to what extent he was impaired, so I would have to feel things out as I went along, trying not to offend anyone. After Google Maps led me to Mikkelsen's old location (a forlorn building on an old Naval base), I called the shop and received sort-of directions to the new location. I couldn't make out everything that was told to me on the phone, but I was able to make my way to the right place anyway. Cool.

As I walk up to the shop door, I see three people bickering, from what I can tell, about me and I conversation I just had on the phone. When they see me, they hush up awkwardly. I feel a little uncomfortable but introduce myself anyway. Without greeting me, Mikkelsen walks over and takes the fork from my hand and begins inspecting it silently in the brusque manner of one used to communicating with metal more than with people. As it turns out, Mikkelsen's wife, Melody does all the talking. She is--how to put it?--not the smoothest talker.

Melody is one of those folks who thinks aloud, and the thoughts mill about like excited ants around a piece of dropped candy. It's not a conversation that we have so much as an absurdist dialogue, straight out of "Waiting for Godot." I can't help wonder whether she's even listening to me when I talk, but she manages to get the essential information down. For each item that I request, she scribbles something unintelligible down, then a number, then scratches out that number, thinks a bit, then another number. At one point a bearded young fellow whom I take to be an apprentice questions one of the prices, thinking it too high, but Melody shoots him down. At the end, I ask whether a deposit is required and she says yes. I ask how much, and after a little beating around the bush she says that full payment is preferable. Unprepared for this, I ask whether credit card is okay. Nope, cash only, and actually now it's no longer preferable but mandatory that I pay in full up front. Okay... I get the impression that she's making this up as she goes along. Still, I tell myself that this is the workshop of a highly respected builder with tons of experience, a local legend really. I'm going to make this work.

After I return from the ATM with cash in hand, Melody informs me that she had added incorrectly ($20 too low) but that Mikkelsen said to let it slide. Somehow, I manage to feel gratitude and disappointment at the same time. (How have these folks gotten by running their business for so long like this?) When it's time to go I ask for a receipt so that I can be reimbursed, and Melody hands me the scrap of paper that she used to add up the costs in pencil, scratch marks and all, UPS invoice on the reverse side. I don't what to do but laugh to myself.

Needless to say, that whole experience left me with a funny taste in my mouth. For a while, I felt as if I had been taken advantage of. What if the work wasn't up to par? Was that why they had required full payment up front? And what was with the sudden change from full payment preferred to full payment required? Had they spotted a sucker and used my politeness to push me around?

 Then it came time to pick up the frame and my perspective changed. Because of scheduling conflicts I wasn't able to pick up the frame when the Mikkelsen's suggested, and since the Mikkelsen's were about to leave town for a week or more it looked like the whole project was going to get pushed back. The frame still had to go to the powder-coater before I could even begin to build it up, so I was getting a bit anxious. Fortunately, and here's where things started to change my opinion, Melody offered to bring the completed frame home with her, from where I could pick it up after hours. Even if I felt awkward as hell rolling up to the home of a strange married couple at night, in a strange neighborhood, and knocking on the door--Have I even got the address right?--I still felt that this was awfully nice of them.

In a cluttered living room, inside the Mikkelsen's modest home, Bernie handed me the frame and struggled to explain the details of what he (or his apprentice?) had done. It felt even harder than before to understand him, so much so that I became very uncomfortable, unsure of whether to finish his words for him or to let him go on struggling. Fortunately, after a moment, Melody joined us (in her house robe) and hastily took over for Bernie. I thought I detected a note of embarrassment (or shame?) in her tone but as she turned her attention to the frame that I held, embarrassment quickly gave way to pride and satisfaction.  Moreover, she was infinitely warmer than she had been at our last meeting, no longer the pushy salesperson. I thanked her for going out of her way to get the frame to me before their trip and I wished them a pleasant vacation. They told me, almost by accident, that it wasn't a vacation, that they were leaving town that weekend to attend to an aging, sick parent. I felt as if I'd been too nosy and pushed them to divulge personal information. With that thought, I made a quick exit.

After a little reflection I realized what had happened back at the workshop. It was so simple I felt foolish for not having seen it before: they really needed the money. In the end, the work was perfect as far as I could tell.

After that, the frame went to Maas Brothers in Livermore, CA for powder-coating. The owner's son likes fire engine red and Maas has a pretty good selection of red metallics:

In the end, they weren't able to do exactly what the owner wanted (a candy red coat over white) but I think the results are no less beautiful for it.

In order to preserve some of the classic charm of the original finish, the owner specified gold outlining around all the lugs. I handled that part myself, after the powder coating. It was laborious detail work but completely enjoyable as it brought me back to the days when I'd spend hours and hours painting one of my WWII-era model planes as a child. Of course, the results aren't perfect but I think that actually gives the bike a bit of awkward charm.

It was right about this time that trouble started to rear its ugly head in paradise. Reassembling the original headset, I noted that the adjustable race, the top slice of bread in the bearing sandwich of the headset, had been tapped slightly off-axis so that it came to rest not quite parallel to the bearings. Okay, weird, but somehow it all worked before, so I just slathered plenty of mayo (grease) onto the bread and carefully adjusted the tightness. Presto, somehow it worked just fine. On went the spacer and locknut (decorative toothpicks? okay, I'll stop) over the adjustable race. No prob. 

It was only later, when giving the locknut a final tightening that things got ugly. As the wrench turned, degree by degree, the nut tightened, getting predictably harder to turn...until, wait, am I imagining things, or did the nut suddenly get easier to turn? My heart sunk. I knew that feeling. Something was stripped. Trying to stay calm, I pulled the locknut off to inspect the damage. Well, it could have been worse. The steerer tube itself (the fork) was okay. It was the nut that had been partly stripped. No prob, just find a replacement nut. Five minutes later, after a little rummaging, I'm threading on a replacement. Only it won't thread. Hmm. French threading? Weird, but fortunately Velo Orange sells affordable replacements. Bummer, as it's not something stocked by any of my local bike shops, but it can be ordered. 

I contacted the owner to fill him in. He replied, after doing some research that the frame seemed to be designed for an Austrian headset format. I had to read that part twice. Austrian headset? I've been wrenching steadily on old bikes for several years now--not a huge amount of time, granted, but I go out of my way to learn the technical details of part formats and compatibility--and I'd never heard of this. Turns out, some, not even all, Austrian bikes from the 50's to the 70's utilized an unusual headset protocol. The threading is French (25.4 TPI) but the diameters of the steerer tube and the headtube are unique. This problem had gone from an enjoyable challenge to huge pain-in-the-ass.

Normally, when I need a very specific vintage part, I go to ebay. The world of used parts on eBay is vast but in this case it turned up nothing. Not a single Austrian headset sold in the past three months (as far as an eBay search will go back), not even on the German-language version of eBay. No one makes them anymore, of course (Why would they?), so in desperation I made a plea to the Classic & Vintage gurus (addicts?) on Bike Forums. I got the expected suggestions: replace the fork and shim a more common headset into place (expensive, janky, and very non-original), buy a similar bike on eBay and use it as a donor (expensive and wasteful), have a frame-builder replace the steerer tube and shim a more common headset into place (expensive and janky). But on top of those, I also got some surprising leads, including a similar moped headset as well as a new-old-stock East German headset (bike-specific) that would probably be a suitable replacement. I've really got to hand it to the C&V community of Bike Forums. It's certainly not the first time they've come through in a pinch for me.

Even better, in the meantime I was able to find a work-around. For the moment we're running the original headset minus the spacer, with the top of the adjustable race filed down for a better fit against the locknut. With this setup, a few good threads at the top of the locknut are engaged, probably enough for it to hold. We're not sure whether the assembly is tight enough to prevent the headset from readjusting itself in use, but if not we've got a couple of backup plans, which is enough to give us peace-of-mind. All part of the joys and pains of wrenching on old bikes :)

The rest of the build came together quite well, and gathering parts was remarkably easy. I owe that to the bike's owner, who was involved in the whole process to an extent that I've never seen before. A lot of folks would simply drop off the bike and say, "Make it pretty... and red." This guy was there every step of the way, however, from start to finish. That might sound like control-freakery, but actually it was a very cooperative, synergistic process, with each of us contributing to both the decision-making and the logistics. A few of the parts are original (headset, stem, bars, seatpost) but mostly this bike finds its new form via a number of modern components chosen for their reliability, comfort, and performance.

Ergonomic, aero-style brake levers and dual-pivot brakes contribute stopping power and modulation not possible with the original parts. 

One of the perks of being able to keep the original fork is that even with 32mm tires (labelled size), there's still room for a fender.

New chainrings in a sensible 46/36/24 configuration will make it so much easier to climb hills without sacrificing a good high-gear. Oddly enough, I found that a smooth-faced double front derailleur (Suntour Cyclone II) actually shifted better than a modern triple derailleur designed for ramped and pinned rings.

The owner did an excellent job of finding red-stitched bar-wrap to match the saddle.

Working on this bike and thinking about its future owner, I found myself reflecting on fathers and sons. I suppose I always secretly wanted the kind of close father-son relationship that's always figured in our cultural mythology as being forged over a shared pastime. I wondered what sort of relationship the owner had with his son (something I didn't feel comfortable asking about). Was it the warm, fuzzy Norman Rockwell kind? Does that even exist in reality? At any rate, I confess to feeling more than a little jealous of the kid that would get this bike for Christmas. It's a good looking bike (if I do say so) but, more important, it represents a whole lot of experiences and memories that are, in effect, getting passed from one generation to the next. And the owner has put no small amount of thought and effort into its restoration. Is it such a stretch, then, to think that it might help bring the owner and his son closer together?

It did occur to me, of course, that it's possible the owner's son won't be as psyched about all this as we are. Maybe he doesn't even like cycling. I almost asked about this, but then I realized something: it doesn't matter. Three or four years is about as long as I've ever owned a bike, but even so I know that after awhile, if we're riding regularly, we start to feel an odd sense of gratitude toward the machines we ride. (Why should we feel grateful toward an object that does what it was designed to do? I don't know, but we do.) Like an old friend who's always there when you need him, a bike like that deserves a little love in return. This particular bike has given a lot, as I understand it, and the owner has done right by it in giving it a little something in return.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Tires: Go big or go home?

For years I've been reading about the benefits of wide, low-pressure tires on the road (mostly on Jan Heine's blog, Off the Beaten Path, but elsewhere too). Even without much first-hand experience, I have to say I'm all but convinced. If nothing else, common sense seems to go against skinny high-pressure tires in almost every way.

Last winter I re-built a vintage Specialized Sequoia with my own handmade 650b wheels mostly to allow me to run wider tires. Unfortunately, the 42mm Grand Bois Hetre tires that I had acquired for that purpose didn't quite fit--I had to pull the rear wheel all the way back in the dropouts and even then there was too little clearance at the chainstays. That was strike one. More importantly, though, I soon found myself hard up for cash. No need for strike three; that was reason enough to sell the bike after only a handful of rides on it. So I did, and for a while, the dream of voluminous lightweight tires receded.

Recently, however, the Civia aluminum fenders on my Miyata 615 died:

The fenders had been in service for two years, and I'd gotten a killer deal on them (just $40), so no big deal that they kicked the bucket. But with the fenders off, I got to thinking: I now had more clearance for big tires. But how big? Before, I had been running 32-34mm tires (actual width) under the fenders. Any bigger and I'd start to encounter fender-on-tire rub, or else the front tire would rub the nut securing the fender to the fork crown. With those considerations gone for now, I was eager to find out what the limiting factor on tire size would be: the distance between chain stays? between fork blades? the gap between tire and fork crown?

I took measurements as best I could, but it's not always easy to know where the widest part of the tire will end up, or how tall the tire will sit on my rim, or how little clearance is too little. To a certain extent, it was a guessing game, but I figured max tire width on my frame was somewhere between 39 and 43mm.

I should mention that apart from Jan Heine's crusade to popularize wide 650b tires, this blog has also been a big influence on me. It's written by a fellow who seems to spend most of his time bikepacking all over the globe. I have to take it in small doses, or I run the risk of becoming overwhelmed with envy and a sense of my own crushing banality. Anyway, the idea of backroads touring has always interested me and this blog is really inspiring me to pursue it as a long-term goal.

Psyched about the idea of riding on dirt and gravel--99.9% of my riding has always been on pavement--I've begun taking short excursions on trails. A recent bone-jarring ride on washboard trails and a spill in deep gravel, however, have convinced me that, 1) I need to work on my handling skills, and 2) I should probably have more suitable tires.

So now, not only do I want to go as wide as possible on tires, I also want something that will feel sure-footed on trails. After a lot of shopping around and a little hemming and hawing, I ordered some Schwalbe Mondials in a "28x1.75" size, which translates to 700x44.5. I figured that since Schwalbes are known to run a little small, and since my rims aren't all that wide (22.5mm or so), these tires would really come out to 40-42 mm for me. For the record, at $90 each (retail) these tires are far more extravagant than I any that I've bought before, but I found a great deal on them and with the recent sale of the Raleigh Portage II, I felt like had a little spending money to spare.

A week and a half later, my new tires arrived (direct from Germany, no less). An anxious tire fitting session ensued. Since I knew things would be tight, I made sure that my wheels were nice and true and that the tires sat evenly on the rim all the way around. 

And the verdict? Damn, these tires are big. A little too big for my frame, sadly :(

The pictures above show the clearance with the rear wheel pulled all the way back into the dropouts. As you can see, there's only about 1.5-2mm of space between the rear tire and chain stays, maybe even less between the front tire and fork crown. There are at least a few reasons I can think of for not actually riding this setup: 1) If the rear wheel goes out of true there's going to be a whole lotta rubbin' goin' on, 2) If a small rock lodges in the tread of the front tire, there's a good possibility that the wheel will lock up, and 3) It's a pain in the ass to remove or install either wheel since the tire has to be deflated and everything has to be just so.

Okay, so I feel a bit foolish for thinking this might work. On the other hand, I know something about my frame that I didn't know before. And I'm probably also better at gauging tire capacity than before. At least I hope so. On the con side, this experience has me jonesing even more than before for a cool old Stumpjumper or something else that can fit bigger tires. I'm even allowing myself to dream of something like Velo Orange's new off-road-touring model, the Camargue.

P.S. Hit me up if you'd like to buy a set of 43mm Schwalbe Mondials (Evolution Line).

Friday, September 20, 2013

Raleigh Portage II

Here's a model you don't see often: the Raleigh Portage. What an odd bird it is: a purpose-built 650b touring bike from an era long before that wheel size had spread outside of France. I don't know how many of these were made--apparently the model was in production for only three years--but it couldn't have been many since I rarely see them come up for sale, and let me emphasize that I spend way too much time on Craigslist and eBay. Even compared to the Specialized Expedition, another made-for-three-years model, the Portage seems to be a hen's tooth in a haystack.

Two years ago I had the opportunity to pick up a Portage in Petaluma, CA. That one had the extra long chainstays that I had heard about and associated with the model. This month I found another in Vallejo, CA. This time, again, I emailed the seller within a couple of hours of posting and, again, the seller made no secret of the fact that, to his bewilderment, there were already many potential buyers. Well, I lucked out again and somehow made it there first. Yay!

This Portage doesn't have the super-long chainstays and wheelbase, which I kind of like. While I had been really psyched to work on the earlier Portage, the ride quality in the finished bike disappointed me somewhat. Maybe it was the Col de la Vie tires, but I think not. The bike had a sort of leaden feeling, nothing sprightly about it. I lay that down to the fact that, with very stout tubing and long wheelbase, the bike could only ride well when loaded down. Unfortunately, my experience was too short to tell for sure, but at any rate, Portage II has renewed my enthusiasm for the model. This one still has all the braze-ons of the full tourer but combines those features with the geometry of an all-rounder kind of bike. As a bonus, Portage II even came with its original racks!

Of course, this particular bike was no garage queen. It came with its fair share of issues: surface rust, terribly scratched crank arms, rotting tires, and an abused rear derailleur were the worst of it. Nothing that a little elbow grease can't remedy!


Here's how she turned out:

I'm happy to report that my optimistic speculation about ride-quality was spot-on: nothing sluggish about this puppy at all. With front and rear racks, she's no lightweight and isn't likely to be confused with a racing model, but she handles and accelerates admirably while retaining the ability to carry a well-distributed load. All in all, a very versatile bike.