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Book Review: “It’s All About the Bike” by Robert Penn

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of receiving a review copy of It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels by Robert Penn (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010). The book is the retelling of the author’s quest in obtaining a custom, handmade bicycle, and I hate to gush so early on in a review, but I LOVED the tale.

all_about_bike

Many of us, myself included, have long dreamed of a bicycle handmade to our exact specifications…with just the perfect geometry and handling, the hand-chosen parts, and the overall aesthetic hammered out over months and years of fantasizing. Even for a longtime bicycle collector like myself, the following passage resonated with me…Penn has just described his current fleet but:

With this small troop of hard-working bicycles, my bases are covered. Yet something fundamental is missing. Like tens of thousands of everyday cyclists with utilitarian machines, I recognize there is a glaring hole in my bike shed, a cavernous space for something else, something special. I’m in the middle of a lifelong affair with the bicycle: none of my bikes even hints at this…I need a talismanic machine that somehow reflects my cycling history and carries my cycling aspirations. I want craftsmanship, not technology; I want the bike to be man-made; I want a bike that has character, a bike that will never be last year’s model. I want a bike that shows my appreciation of the tradition, lore and beauty of bicycles. The French nickname for the bicycle is La Petite Reine — I want my own ‘little queen’.”

And with that, Penn sets off on a whirlwind journey to get his “little queen” made: alighting on the doorstep of renowned bespoke builder Brian Rourke Cycles, traveling halfway around the world to procure a set of wheels from Steve “Gravy” Gravenites (and getting to ride down Repack with Gravy and MTB legends Charlie Kelly and Joe Breeze!), getting rare factory tours at Chris King Precision Components in Portland, Continental in Germany and both Cinelli and Campagnolo in Italy, among other stops. At each stop, Penn delves into the history of bicycles and the development of various components and technologies that we now take for granted. Penn’s coverage of the history and lore of the bicycle never bogs down the story; in fact, these tidbits enhance the tale and show that Penn truly respects everything having to do with these two-wheeled wonders.

It’s All About the Bike is a quick read…”engrossing” is a word that comes to mind. Perhaps the idea of a custom bike can be seen as an extravagance, and I can understand that. Penn’s tale is more authentic than that, however. Never once did I feel that Penn was simply a wealthy man looking for something expensive to incite jealousy among his peers; rather, here is a man who put in the miles on many other bikes and earned the privilege of being able to fulfill his dreams of a handmade, perfectly-fitting machine that he would then ride with abandon all over the globe. Penn’s storytelling skill is refreshing and honest and his love for the bike carries throughout the book. I’ve recommended a lot of books over the years; in fact, sometimes it is hard for me to remember a book I really disliked. Nevertheless, It’s All About the Bike stands out as a passionate, fact-rich and thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone who loves the artistry, history and craftsmanship of a good bicycle. Pick up a copy for your favorite cyclist for Christmas…they’ll thank you for it!

Just Ask Jack — Modern Shifting on a Classic Bike?

Bernard sent in the following question:

“I have a steel touring bike from 1984. I love the bike because of the all-day comfort these old frames offer, but the 6-speed freewheel/Suntour XC “elliptical” chainrings and prototype index/friction downtube shifters combination don’t work that well, as it tends to want to slip out of gear. Is it a practical alternative to swap in a modern indexed shifting system?”

The bike in question — on tour in France:

Bernard's tourer in France

Good news, Bernard…this is an entirely feasible process. Luckily, just about anything is possible in converting an old bike into something more modern — there are quite a few companies out there who make specialized adapters and such to resurrect an old friend and to teach him new tricks!

To set up modern indexing shift systems on an older bike, there are a couple things to consider: dropout spacing and how many speeds you want in the finished bike (deciding now can really simplify the conversion process, as we will see).

After speaking with Bernard, I learned that he is willing to do the full upgrade — shifters, new rear wheel, derailleurs and new chainrings. The chainring part is easy. Merely swap the old Suntour OvalTech chainrings for modern 8- or 9-speed specific rings…no crank replacement required!

Dropout spacing is really the only tricky consideration. On one- through 5-speed bikes, the rear dropout spacing was typically 120mm. With six speed systems and early “ultra 7” systems, the dropout spacing jumped up to 126mm. Modern 9- and 10-speed drivetrains have 130mm spacing. Since Bernard indicated that he currently has a 6-speed freewheel, the frame’s spacing need to be pushed out an additional 4mm. I’ve covered doing this in another article, but if you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, any competent bike shop should be able to help. Again, luck is on Bernard’s side, as the frame in question is steel. Don’t try this on an aluminum or carbon frame!

The only specialized equipment needed to modernize the shifting system on this bike (aside from the new components themselves) are downtube-mounted cable stops such as these:

downtube cable stops

These cable stops simply bolt to the downtube shifter bosses and provide the anchor (and adjustment) for the shifter cables. If you don’t have brazed-on shifter bosses, there are band-on models available as well.

I won’t go step-by-step into the conversion itself, but after the rear dropouts are spaced correctly, simply bolt on the new components, slip the new wheel in, string your shifter cables and adjust everything so it shifts cleanly.

Here’s a handy trick if you’re strapped for cash or don’t want to do the full-tilt conversion…and the reason I suggested deciding on the number of gears needed before you run headlong into this conversion project: if you have a seven-speed freewheel (Shimano still makes Hyperglide-compatible 6 and 7 speed freewheels in limited quantities!), you can make it work as a modern indexed system with 8-speed indexed shifters (readily available on the secondhand market, such as Ebay). No new rear wheel or rear derailleur required! You’ll just have an extra “ghost click” on the shifter. The only kink is that sometimes there’s not quite enough clearance between chainstay and smallest cog, but that is easily rectified by slipping a couple spacers under the drive-side hub locknut (2 or 3mm is all it takes). Sometimes simple is best…

Finally, the last consideration is not to mix brands. There are adapters to make Shimano components play nice with Campagnolo or SRAM, but it’s better to “keep things in the family” for precision’s sake.

It is really fun and rewarding to breathe new life into an old friend — you CAN teach an old dog new tricks with a little tinkering. Bernard, be sure to tell us how it all works out, and happy riding!

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.