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Monday
Nov242014

The Bicycle: Evolution or Intelligent design. Part I

 

The chain driven bicycle was invented almost 130 years ago. (Picture left, The Rover "Safety" Bicycle 1885.)

To the layman, or the untrained eye, this bicycle is basically the same as today’s bike.

But its geometry was directly influenced by its predecessor, the High-Wheeler. And that would influence frame design for the next 60 years. Indirectly it had an influence on what we ride today.

I have been riding bikes, racing bikes, designing and building bikes, and writing articles about bikes for 65 years, which is half of the period chain driven bikes have existed.

Albert “Pop” Hodge, who was my mentor, and first introduced me to the art of framebuilding, was born in 1877, and therefore witnessed firsthand the invention and early development of the bicycle. Pop Hodge was close to 80 years old when I first met him around 1953. (Picture below right.)

From what he told me, and what I have observed, back then and since, in the 130 years the bicycle has gone through a slow evolution.

During each phase, what happened previously affected the design of the next generation of bicycles.

The title of this piece has religious overtones, because like religion, much is spoken and written about the bicycle because “It is so.”

The center of the knee shall be over the pedal. But why? Because it is written. Wise men have deemed it is so.

When I started racing in 1952, we rode bikes with a seat angle of 70 or 71 degrees. We were taught that the shin of the lower leg, should be vertical. The center of the knee was actually behind the pedal. Wise men taught us that in order to pedal fast, and efficiently, one had to sit back.

In practice I soon found this was not so. When making a maximum effort, and pedaling at maximum revs, I found myself sliding forward on the saddle, which was uncomfortable, distracting, and had the effect of the saddle being much too low.

The term “Riding the Rivet,” is still used today to describe a cyclist making a maximum effort. The term was around when I began racing in the early 1950s when saddles were leather and actually had rivets to hold the leather to the saddle frame.

To understand why seat angles were so shallow back then, one has to go all the way back to the predecessor of the chain driven bicycle, to the “Ordinary” or Penny-Farthing bicycle. (Left,)

This was the first “Enthusiasts” bike. One had to be an enthusiast, as well a young, fit and agile athlete just to mount and ride one of these.

Today’s cyclist might think it a problem to make an emergency stop with their feet clipped in. Imagine making an emergency stop on a High-wheeler, and you are sitting over five feet above the ground. One had to dismount in a hurry, or fall over.

When the chain driven bike was invented in 1885 it was not immediately accepted by the enthusiast. These enthusiasts were the hard core “Roadies” of their day. The high-wheeler or Ordinary was still much faster. It wasn’t until pneumatic tires came into being in 1888 that the chain driven bike became faster and was accepted by the enthusiast.

These enthusiasts were the experts of the day, and what they learned riding the Ordinary influenced them and carried over to the chain driven bike. The Ordinary was limited by its simplicity, as to where the rider could sit, for example.

Imagine if your handlebars were directly above your bottom bracket. There would be no other choice but to sit some considerable distance back behind the pedals. When the first “Safety” or chain driven bike came into being, it was designed so the handle bars and the saddle were positioned in relation to the pedals exactly the same as its predecessor the High-wheeler. Making a seat angle of around 69 degrees. (See picture above.)

(Above.) Two different bicycles, but the exact same rider position. Note the rider's shin is vertical, a positioning "Guide" that would last another 60 years into the 1950s.

Below is a typical racing bike of the 1950s. Louison Bobet's 1954 Tour de France bike. Its shallow seat angle can be traced back to the High Wheeler of the 1800s.

A generation of “Experts” who had learned to pedal on the High-wheeler, then taught the next generation who became the following generation’s experts, and so on for the next 60 years and into the 1950s when I came along.

There was another factor that maintained this notion that seat angles shall be shallow, and an important one. This I would learn from framebuilder Pop Hodge. Frame lugs were heavy steel castings, and they were limited in the angles that were available.

It suited lug manufacturers to make their product in a limited number of angles. In later years thinner pressed steel lugs became available and it was then possible to alter an angle slightly. But not so prior to the 1950s.

73 degrees was established as an ideal head angle sometime in the 1920s or 1930s. This is still the norm today, and in the past when I have experimented with steeper or shallower head angles, I found no improvement.

Building frames with a head angle of 73 degrees, and a seat angle 2 or 3 degrees shallower, suited the framebuilder. With the head tube steeper and the seat tube leaning back away from that angle, as the framebuilder built a taller, or larger frame the top tube automatically became longer, which made the framebuilder’s job easier, and suited the taller rider.

This article is based on a talk I recently gave at the Philly Bike Expo, and will have to be written in two parts. In the next piece I will explain what happened after the 1950s. How the 73 degree paralell frame, still a popular design today, came about. The reason may surprise you. 

Two main factors determine frame design, throughout history and even to this day. Experts who simply re-cycle information that was written by previous generations of experts. And framebuilders and manufacturers doing what is easiest and most profitable for them.

 

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Wednesday
Nov192014

The Silver State 508.

Regular readers of this blog will have no doubt noticed the ad in the right hand column of this blog, for the Silver State 508, some of you may have even clicked on it to find out more.

This tough ultra-marathon 508 mile bike race with a cut-off time of 48 hours, has been successfully run using four different courses for the last 31 years.

The race started in 1983 when it was first run on a 102 mile loop in the Hemet area, a little town in the Southern California desert, southeast of Los Angeles. Three years later the race moved to Arizona and was run on an out-and-home course from Tucson to Flagstaff and back.

In 1989 in search of safer and quieter roads, the event became the Furnace Creek 508, and was run for the next 24 years on a route from Santa Clarita, California, through Death Valley to Twenty Nine Palms. The race would still been there to this day had not a brand new Death Valley Park Superintendent taken over.

This new DV Parks Chief would soon put a stop to this nonsense of people running and riding bikes through Death Valley, someone might die. After all, it is called “Death” Valley…. Duh.

Actually, people died in the past because they were on foot and ran out of water. Cyclists and runners know to drink water, and have helpers to make sure they have a good supply. Don’t you just love these politicians who take over and decide we need to be protected from ourselves?

In spite of the organizers having the support of the California Highway Patrol, and the Death Valley, and Lone Pine Chambers of Commerce, and Congressman Paul Cook, their pleas to continue on this course fell on blindfolded ears.

And so the race became the Silver State 508, (A nice ring.) The Silver State being Nevada. This year’s race was moved to yet another classic America Frontier Region, and was held on the quiet Northern roads of that State.

Held this year on October 5 – 7, on an out-and-home course starting and finishing in Reno. The event drew 141 riders from 16 American States, plus Canada, Italy, Mexico, Philippines, Slovenia, and Switzerland. Next year, Adventure Corps, the organizers are hoping for an even bigger entry.

The 2015 event will be held 2 weeks earlier, September 19 - 21, it is hoped that some of the chilling desert night temperatures will be a little higher. The race is in the form of a time-trial.

If you have ever thought about trying one of these Ultra-Marathon events, Adventure Corps also puts on a 308 mile event, with a 24 hour qualifying time, held at the end of May. In fact for rookies, finishing the 308 is one if the best credentials to have for acceptance to ride the 508. They also have Century, and Double-Century Rides.

If the 24 hour and 48 hour qualifying times seem generous, bear in mind that both these events take in some serious mountain climbing. Some reaching over 7.000 feet. Check out the website it is interesting reading.

  

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Friday
Nov142014

My Philly – New York City Trip

I just got back yesterday from a weeklong trip to Philadelphia and New York City.

It came about when I was invited to speak at the Philly Bike Expo, held at the Convention Center there. (Pic left, Broad Street entrance.)

My wife and I decided to travel on to New York for two and a half days after, to take a mini-vacation.

My wife had never been to New York, and I had never been back since 1980 when I worked for Paris Sport in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, and was located just 7 miles from NYC, just over the George Washington Bridge.

Philadelphia is a very nice city that I would like to visit again and spend more time there. It seems they have a great bike culture. It was a pleasure to see bikes mingling with motorized traffic in what appeared to be a somewhat orderly and cooperative fashion. Not too much honking and yelling that I witnessed.

My previous memories of Philadelphia was from 1980 when I rode my last bike race there. I had come from England the year before, where bike races where a safe and friendly social event that combined fun and exercise for riders of all levels.

I found in the US, at Category 4 level anyway, people had no clue what racing was about and thought that bike racing was a contact sport like football. People were actually trying to knock me off my bike. In my mid-forties I realized I was not going to make it back up to Cat 1 or 2 again, and US style Criterium racing was not for me. I hung up my racing wheels and concentrated on building bikes from then on.

I gave a talk at Noon on Saturday (Pic above.) with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek title of, “The Bicycle: Evolution or Intelligent Design.” I had what I thought was a pretty good size and attentive audience. I will have to write about the content of my talk in a later article, as this one is about the actual trip.

I got to meet Bike Snob NYC, who gave a talk on Sunday. We had corresponded by email before but never met. I envy this young man for his ability to poke fun at the cycling culture with impunity. When I try to do it I get blasted as a retro-grouch or a curmudgeon.

Rant alert: For me cycling is fun. For that matter life is fun, and I find too many people take both way too serious. The bicycle is one of the simplest and yet most efficient machines that mankind has ever built. You push one pedal down, and the other side comes up. The further you stray beyond that concept, the more you stray into the realms of bull-shit. Just ride the damn bike, lighten the fuck up, and don’t over think it or get too technical. (End of rant.)

On Monday we traveled to New York, and that evening took the subway over to Brooklyn to meet with Patrick Gilmour. Patrick is an Irishman, and a few weeks ago was walking by Teddy’s, a quaint old bar that dates back to the late 1800s. Parked outside was a ‘dave moulton’ track bike. Patrick, being a regular reader of this blog, and owner of a Fuso, thought, “There’s something you don’t see every day.”

He snapped a few pictures and emailed them to me, and I posted them here. Later he found out the bike belonged to “Fast Eddie” Williams  something of a legend among New York bike messengers. Eddie started as a messenger back in 1983. Incidentally the year I built his track frame.

On Monday I got to meet Fast Eddie. (Picture above.) At least 6’ 6” tall this 61 centimeter frame fitted him as if I had built it for him. He had bought the frame at a swap meet back in 1998. He knew nothing of its history or about me for that matter, but knew enough to see this was a quality frame. He also knew enough that it was worth the $700 he paid for it, and built it up with Campagnolo Super Record components.

Eddie had questions like, ”Why is this bike so fast?” I explained that it was designed and built to be raced on the track. Its slightly steeper angles and tighter fork rake made it handle quicker. A track rider has no brakes and relies on fast reactions to get out of trouble and to change direction quickly in a sudden attack.

Built in Columbus PS (Pista Sprint.) Tubing, much thicker and heavier that other Columbus tube sets. Not a particularly light frame it would be extremely responsive when its rider makes a sudden effort.

Whilst I would not recommend that people ride brakeless on the streets of New York, I can see where this particular bike is a perfect match for Fast Eddie operating as a bike messenger. With the physical ability to ride at the speed of motorized traffic, he relied on fast reflexes, acceleration and maneuverability to stay out of trouble rather than stopping power, much like a track rider.

On Tuesday evening I met with Alpheus Clendening who took me to his home in Queens, NY. Alpheus has a pretty unique collection of five frames and bikes I built. He has a 1983, 57cm custom ‘dave mouton’ bike that was originally built as a showpiece for “Buds Bike Store” in Claremont, CA. It has a very special paint job, which involved a lot of painstaking masking, and striping with auto striping tape that was subsequently “Buried” under 10 clear coats, then sanded and re-cleared again to ensure a smooth finish. (Pictured above.) This paint finish later inspired the Fuso decal design.

Alpheus owns a 1990 Fuso, Columbus Max frame. This was another showpiece that was built for the Interbike Show. It was featured on a poster, a copy of which I have hanging over my desk. (Above.) My copy is signed by Antonio Columbo, (Son of the Columbus founder.) And Valentino Campagnolo. (Son of Tulio Campagnolo.) Right after the 1990 Interbike Show the bike was sold and I never saw it again until last Tuesday evening. The frame is currently stripped down for a rebuild, pictured below with me holding it.

Others in the collection are a 1987 30th. Anniversary model Fuso Lux frame in mint condition. Red and Yellow fade paint. (Picture below.) Another is a first year production Fuso bike with a two-tone blue finish, one of the original four different color schemes offered.

The final bike is an extremely rare Fuso Mixte, ladies model. One of a kind originally built for a friend in trade for decals and brochures printed by their company. (Picture below.)

In addition to the Alpheus Clendening collection, his brother Daniel has a 1st, Generation Fuso bike that is also a 3 digit early first year production model. I would have liked to hook up with the other owners of my frames in the New York area, but there was not time in this brief visit. Maybe next time. As it was, for me, two very memorable evenings spent with some pretty special people.

Finally in writing this piece I am once more amazed by things that occur in life by coincidence. In February 1983 I built a total of nine custom frames that month. The first was the showpiece one that Alpheus has in his collection. The second is a frame owned by original owner Chuck Schmidt, of Pasadina, CA. A picture of this bike adorns the cover of my new book. I knew these two frames were twins, built on the same jig setting. 

What I didn’t realize until I wrote this article, was that the number 3 frame that I built in February 1983 was the track frame that Fast Eddie now owns. That just blows me away. Am I in the Twilight Zone?

 

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Wednesday
Nov052014

Working Bike: Fast Eddie

At the end of September I wrote a piece here about a track bike I built, now being used by a New York City bike messenger. I have since learned more, the bikes owner is Eddie Williams, AKA Fast Eddie.

Fast Eddie has been in the bike messenger business since 1983. Coincidentally the year this frame was built. He and other Bike Messenger cohorts were riding fixed wheel track bikes on the street long before it was fashionable, in fact they were mostly responsible for starting the whole trend.

Eddie has confirmed that he bought the frame from the original owner Jim Zimmerman. Jim had raced it on the track and the colored ribbon hanging from the bike’s saddle is a prize ribbon he had won, and Fast Eddie asked if he could keep it when he bought the frame. It has adorned the bike’s saddle ever since.

These pictures snapped outside Teddy’s in Brooklyn where Eddie now delivers food, presumably fast. Not fast food, but good food delivered fast. The rear fender is a nice practical touch on a rainy evening.

 

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Monday
Oct272014

An open letter to all shorts manufacturers: Please take care of the Butt Crack issue

Back in 2007 I wrote a tongue in cheek piece called “Batman and Robin never had this problem.”

It addressed the problem of cycling shorts being so shear, that the outline of male genitalia could be seen in such detail that you could almost tell a person’s religious leanings, or ethnic background.

At the time I called for more padding in the shorts, and since then padding in cycling shorts has become larger and thicker, to the extent that we now see some serious male “Camel Toes” on the podium. This previous problem was not an issue when guys were actually riding their bike, but rather in parading around in coffee shops after riding. One does not want to see the “Brim of the Hat,” especially when eating.

So it seems cycling short manufacturers have taken care of the “Frontal” issue but are still ignoring the “Butt Crack” issue. The last thing I want to see when riding with a group, is to be staring at some guy’s butt crack as I am following his wheel.

Even if it is a female rider, there is nothing pleasing, or erotic about it, in fact it is downright embarrassing. I mean, what do you do? Ride along side and say, “Excuse me miss but did you know your butt crack is showing?” No you try to ignore it, and ride on wondering if anyone else notices.

In most cases if the shorts are worn properly with the rear seam centered correctly, it is amazing that a tiny row of stitching barely a quarter of an inch wide, is enough to hide the offending crack. But get the seam off to one side, as in the picture above, and the fabric stretched across the valley, becomes shear and see through. Especially when the sun shines on it. The old adage of “Put it where the sun don’t shine” does not apply in this case.

It is not just cheap shorts that have this problem, some expensive ones too. It seems to me that this would be an easy fix. An extra strip of the same material sewn on the inside would take care of it. This strip would only need to be no more than 2 inches wide. They could be advertised as “Hidden Valley” cycling shorts.

 

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