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Sunday
Dec022007

Evel Knievel


An American Icon died on Friday. On the last day of November he took his final jump into the next realm. What makes this man an icon? He was the first to do what he did, on the scale that he did. All who follow are merely imitators.

Evel Knievel passed on at 69 years, a relatively young age by today’s standard, but maybe not so young when one considers the punishment he put his body through over the years.

I don’t know what effect this man had on the sport of motorcycling, or motorcycle design; but I believe the design of bicycles, and the way they look today can be traced back to Evel Knievel.

The moment this larger than life character began appearing on television in the 1970s performing these seemingly impossible jumps, every boy child in America went out the very next morning and built some form of crude wooden ramp and attempted to jump on his bicycle, to emulate Evel Knievel.

The heavy cruiser bikes that had been popular through the 1950s and 1960s were too heavy for jumping, and the bicycle of choice for all young boys eventually became the smaller and lighter BMX bike.

Early BMX bikes were built with a brazed lug construction the same as all other bicycles. Soon manufacturers realized that these frames could be welded far cheaper than brazed lugs, because, after all, children are not interested in the niceties of lugged construction.

Fast forward to the 1980s and another entity is developing, the Mountain Bike. Initially a sport of “downhill racing,” hence the name mountain bike. Mountain bikes were also built, using lugged construction, with level top tubes, and using the same standard size tubes as a road bike. Head angles on early MTBs were a shallow 69 degrees; like I said, designed for riding downhill.

Move forward again to the late 1980s and a genuine mountain bike-racing scene had developed, just as there had been a BMX racing scene. However, not all kids became BMX racers, and not all adults who bought a mountain bikes used them off-road.

The generation from the 1970s who as kids had emulated Evel Knievel, were now young adults and saw the mountain bike as a reincarnation of the BMX bike. These people were not interested in racing or riding down mountains, they wanted to jump over stuff, and perform stunts, just like when they were kids.

I remember a proliferation of MTB magazines in the 1980s. Each had a picture on the front cover of a rider on a mountain bike in mid-air doing some seemingly spectacular jump. A low camera angle made it appear the rider was several feet from the ground, when in reality he was probably at a much lower altitude.

The magazines showed pictures of people “Bunny Hopping” on and off picnic tables, and performing all manner of spectacular stunts. With all the abuse these bikes were recieving, it became necessary for manufactures to “beef up” the frames by using larger tubing, as well as adding suspension.

Larger tubing meant that frames had to be welded, because there were no lugs available for the oversize tubes. Welded frames were not accepted on road bikes at that time, but MTB customers were used to welded BMX frames. There is something about the look of a welded joint; it has an “Industrial” look, utilitarian, strong and very masculine.

The first idea the mountain bike borrowed from the BMX bike was the “Uni-crown” fork. In reality, this is a “No-crown” fork, with the round fork blades curved at the top and welded directly to the steering column. Cheaper and easier to produce than a brazed crown fork.

By the mid 1990s manufactures had borrowed another concept from the BMX bike; namely the sloping top tube. With the resulting longer seat post, manufactures were able to get away with building less frame sizes.

Once this look and concept was accepted, it was not long before road bikes were being made in this same style with welded joints. Throughout history, bicycle manufacturers and framebuilders have used cost-cutting ideas, and then sold it to the customer as an advantage.

A classic example of this was the notion in the 1970s that braze-ons weakened a frame. Leaving the braze-ons off a frame saved a tremendous amount of time, and was a cost cutting ploy that was sold to the customer as a benefit. When braze-ons reappeared in the 1980s there were no wholesale frame failures. Where was the argument that braze-ons caused a weakness?

People can argue that a sloping top tube frame is stiffer, but the pros in Europe are using both level top tube frames and sloping; there is no huge difference. So if anyone has cause to wonder why a road frame has a sloping top tube? The main reason is that it benefits the manufacturer who has to produce less sizes.

The practice became acceptable because of the mountain bike. Mountain bike design was influenced by the BMX design; not so much by public demand, but by manufacturers realizing welded frames, built in fewer sizes is cost effective.

The BMX bike had a sloping top tube for no other reason than style. Just as the old cruiser bikes of the 1950s and 1960s sometimes had fake gas tanks. The sloping top tube of the BMX bike represented the upward slope of a motorcycle gas tank. Because after all as its name suggests, the BMX (Bicycle Motor Cross.) is a bicycle pretending to be a motorcycle.

The popularity of the BMX bike is closely linked to the popularity of Evel Knievel, which is why I say that he indirectly influenced the design of all bicycles today.

Just this one man’s opinion, and one that no one is obliged to agree with. It is an opinion that I have held for many years, at least since the late 1980s. I felt that I couldn’t let the passing of Evel Knievel go by without sharing my views.

Friday
Nov302007

Down in the Bicycle Forest, something stirred


It can’t be the last day of November; did someone break into my house and steal some days from my calendar?

It used to be there were not enough hours in the day, now this has escalated to not enough days month, or worse not enough months in the year.

Meanwhile there are others in this world who seem to have too much time on their hands; like the people over at The Bicycle Forest. Otherwise, how would they come up with such brilliant concepts like the Treadmill Bike? (Left.)

Now they have this really cool (Or is kewel.) Bike Cad program so you can design your own bike.

And it’s free. Personally, I do not need free stuff to steal more of my time; what I need is more free time, period.

Therefore, I pass it on and let you play with it, as you obviously have more time than I do, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog when you should be working. (If you are not at work, there must be something useful you could be doing.)

Moreover, my design program in my head still works, and mine works at any time so I can multi-task while riding my bike, driving, listening to my wife, etc.

One of the things you can do with Bike Cad is explore “toe overlap.” Judging by the number of times the subject gets Googled, and people arrive here, some are convinced that it is: (a) a design flaw, (b) something bike manufacturers do to save money, or (c) something bike manufacturers do just so people can fall down, then sue their ass.

Some also think this is something new; however, it has been around since the 1970s. Ever since, we stopped building bikes with those horrendous 2 ½ or 3 inches of fork rake. The cure is to go back to those long curved forks, and bikes that handle like a fucking wheelbarrow.

Now, thanks to Bike Cad, no one has to take my word for it. They can find out for themselves that toe overlap is unavoidable on smaller size frames. If you happen to find a cure for this non-problem, don’t send it to me, send it to Richard Sachs as I’m sure he would appreciate it.

Seriously, Bike Cad does seem to be something useful that will bring hours of fun. As for me, I have too much fun already, and not enough hours.

Wednesday
Nov282007

Mass Advertising

I get in my car, put the seat belt on, and just as I turn the key to start the engine I look up and see an advertising flyer under my wiper blade.

This really pisses me off. I open the car door and try to reach the offending piece of paper. Usually I have to undo my seat belt to retrieve it; this time it is so far out of reach I have to get completely out of the car.

I don't even look at the flier, but crumple it into a paper ball and have to resist a strong urge to throw it into the parking lot, because I am not about to cause litter. What I really want to do is stuff it down the throat of whoever put it there.

I throw it on the floor inside my car; now I will have to pick it up when I get home and carry it indoors to my trashcan. How many trees die each year, only to end up under windshield wipers?

This has to be one of the worst forms of advertising; even worse than junk email. At least you don't have to unfasten your seat belt to delete a piece of junk email, and no trees die. Why is it a bad idea? Because the perpetrators are trying to sell me something and instead piss me off.

You will never sell me anything if you piss me off.

All this started me to thinking about the Critical Mass movement and what they are doing. Their cause is indeed noble and one I would support; to bring awareness to bicycles and the cyclist's right to be on the road. It is the method of delivering the message that I question.

Like the windshield flier, it is a poor way to get a message across. The flier under my windshield wiper might also be for a noble cause, a charity event for example, but I will never know because it made me mad and I never even looked at the message.

A demonstration, a civil protest is a form of advertising; selling an ideology rather than a product. Promoting a cause and trying to get people to come around to a different way of thinking. Blocking traffic in the middle of rush hour will get attention in the same way as the flier under a wiper blade; it does so because it makes people mad.

They will take the “Cyclists Rights” message, crumple it and dump it right out of their mind without giving it a moment’s consideration. I know it is not the intention of Critical Mass to disrupt traffic, but a group of several hundred cyclists, or even less, converging on one place then riding in a disorganized manner, will do just that whether it is the intention or not.

Does it make anyone who is not already a cyclist want to ride a bike? I very much doubt it. In fact, it probably has the reverse affect and alienates the average car driver, and causes them to be even more anti-cyclist than he already is.

The problem I have with Critical Mass is that it has no central organization to get the message out; I wonder if Joe Public even knows what cyclists are trying to achieve. It is small wonder that in some places police start arresting people, with no organization contacting them to inform that there is a peaceful demonstration that will take place on such a date and time, all they see is an unorganized riot.

I am not suggesting anyone should abandon the cause; I am suggesting bicycle activists look at alternative methods of delivering the message. For example, donating and raising money to pay for print or TV ads to promote cycling, starting on a local level might be one way. Good advertising that works costs money. Get the bike industry or environmentally conscious companies to donate money.

A lot more effort of course, but it could bring more awareness without alienating the very people we want to win over. Of course, if the goal is just to piss people off, you may as well go out and put fliers under their wiper blades.

Monday
Nov262007

Twiddling


Two important passions in my life have been music and bicycles. Coming of age as I did in the early 1950s, musically, I came in at the end of the Big Band era.

I saw the American big bands like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Stan Kenton when they toured the UK. Later I witnessed the birth of Rock n' Roll in the mid 1950s and experienced first hand the emergence of the British music scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

As for cycling I came in at the end of the fixed wheel era. In the early 1950s all the top time-trialists in the UK rode fixed gear. The picture above from 1948 shows a typical British time-trail scene.

Not a car in site; it is easy to see why this era is often referred to as “The Golden Age of Cycling.” Note the rider has a fixed gear, a single front brake, and the obligatory bell on the handlebars. (Picture from Classic Lightweights UK.)

Time Trialing in the UK during that period was predominantly a working class sport, and many working class people at that time did not own cars. Their bike was not only their recreation and sport, but also their mode of transport to get to work each day. Most had a bike with track dropouts making for easy adjustment of chain tension while switching differing size fixed rear sprockets.

The bike would have a brazed on lamp bracket boss on the front fork and have eyelets and clearance for mudguards. The mudguards would be put to good use; it rains a lot in the UK, and if your bike is your only means of transport, riding in the rain is your only option. A rider would wear a rain cape (Poncho) that was long enough at the front to reach over the handlebars thus keep their legs dry.

At the weekend, the mudguards would come off in readiness for a time trial and the cyclist would ride to the start of the event often carrying his best wheels with tubular tires on wheel carriers attached to the front of the bike.

These wheel carriers were simply two aluminum strips about 5 or 6 inches long with a hole drilled each end. The front wheel nuts were removed, the metal strips were then attached on either side of the front wheel spindle so they stood above and slightly forward of the front hub. The nuts were replaced and tightened.

The spare front and rear wheel spindle then attached to the hole in the top end of the metal strip, one on either side. Finally, the spare wheels were strapped to the handlebars using a toe-strap. Track nuts were always used, not quick-release. Everyone used a Brooks leather saddle that had bag loops on the rear; a saddle bag would be attached to carry racing clothes to change into, and food.

By today's standards riders used pretty low gears; distance events would be ridden on a 79 to 81 inch gear and the shorter events on about an 86 inch gear. The thinking of the day was that speed was achieved by pedaling fast, known as "twiddling."

I was like many of the younger riders and used gears, because I emulated the top European pro riders rather than the British time-trialists. However I did switch to fixed gear to ride through the winter months, and I would often strip my bike of its gears and convert to fixed to ride a 10 or 25 mile time-trial.

A very popular early season event was the 72 inch restricted gear 25 mile event. All competitors rode a 48 x 18 fixed gear, which was checked at the start by wheeling the bike between two chalk marks on the road, to ensure the crank did one complete revolution.

My very first time-trial was such an event, in March of 1952, one month after my 16th birthday. I had put in many miles on a 65 inch fixed gear all through the winter months and I could definitely twiddle. I had been riding seriously for over a year, but had to wait until my 16th birthday to be able to race.

I had been preparing for my début through the winter, whereas the more seasoned riders had been taking it easy and had not reached their full level of fitness at the start of the season.

I surprised myself and my fellow club members when I won the event with a time of 1hour-10min.-10sec. (See the press clipping, left.)

This meant I was pedaling at an average rate of over 100 RPM for the 25 miles. Top riders of that era could turn in times under the hour for 25 miles on a 72 inch gear; which is close to 120 RPM average. Two revs per second, that’s some serious twiddling.

The RPM rate was calculated as follows: 25 miles = 132,000 feet. Divide by my time for distance, 70 minutes = 1885.714 feet covered in one minute. Divide by feet covered per pedal revolution (18.67 ft.) = 101 RPM.

Calculated at a nominal wheel size of 26.75 inch diameter. (7.003 feet circumference.) 48 T chainring, divide by 18 T sprocket = 2.666 turns of the rear wheel per 1 turn of the chainring. 7.003 x 2.666 = 18.67 feet traveled per pedal rev.

Monday
Nov192007

The British Club Run


The British Cycling Club Run is a tradition that probably started around the 1920s; a group ride that would usually take place every Sunday throughout the year. There would be a set time and place to meet, and participants would just simply show up.

Cycling clubs all over the British Isles would hold club runs. Don’t ask me why it was called a club “run” when everyone rode bikes; it is just one of those peculiar Briticisms.

Some would be all day events covering up to 100 miles, sometimes more. Others would be a shorter afternoon ride that would usually end at a country pub somewhere, followed by a ride home in the evening.

The shorter, more leisurely Sunday afternoon ride was popular through the summer months, because many riders had ridden a time-trial in the morning. In addition, the summer evenings in the UK are long and it doesn’t get dark until 10 pm.

The picture above from the mid 1970s shows me (Third rider from left.) on a club run with The Worcester St. Johns Cycling Club. It is mid-winter as you can see by the way we are dressed.

The Worcester club is one of the oldest in the UK, it was founded in 1888, the year John Boyd Dunlop invented his pneumatic tire. Early photos from the St. Johns club show a mix of the high wheeler “Ordinary” and the new fangled “Safety” bicycles in use at the same time.

Participants in club runs always rode, two by two, in an orderly fashion. The great thing was no one had to be instructed to do this, it was such a long-standing tradition, that newcomers would automatically see what everyone else was doing and follow suit.

Often the club run would operate like a pace line; two riders would ride on the front for a mile or so, then the inside line would drop back, the front outside rider would move to the inside, and the next rider would move up to the front.

It was a social event as much as anything; you would chat with the person next to you as you rode. With a pace line going, you got to talk with a different person every mile. In a group of twenty riders, you would only hit the front for two miles in every twenty, so some pretty fair average speeds could be maintained.

The club run was one of the reasons for the popularity of fixed gear riding in the UK continuing through the early 1950s. A fixed gear made it easier to control the bike while riding at close quarters. Most people rode around 65 or 69 inch gear. (48 T chainwheel with a 19 or 20 T sprocket.) which kept everyone at the same level.


A gear like this made it possible to maintain a steady pace, and at the same time climb some pretty steep hills. In 1933 Sturmey-Archer came out with a 2-speed fixed hub gear. (Above) The high gear was direct drive and the low gear was a 25% reduction. Later there was a 3-speed Sturmey-Archer fixed hub gear which remained popular with club riders through the 1950s. I believe it was discontinued around 1959.

By the mid 1950s, most riders used derailleur gears, but often switched to a single speed fixed gear for winter riding. Offering less maintenance and more control on wet or icy roads.

It has been almost 29 years since I left the England for the US; I am not sure if the Sunday club run tradition continues. I would be interested to hear from readers in the UK.