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Thursday
Oct262006

Chasing Charlie

I neared the top of the hill on an evening training ride on a road so familiar to me I knew exactly what lay ahead; I had ridden my bike on this country road in the rural West Midlands area of England many times before.

There would be a short steep descent, a slight right hand bend at the bottom over a narrow stone bridge, then another tough climb even longer than this one. I lifted myself out of the saddle and stomped hard on the pedals, legs aching, breathing heavy, but knowing there would be a brief rest as I coasted down the other side.

At the top I sat up to allow my lungs to gulp in more oxygen; I saw him for the first time. He was just cresting the next hill ahead; silhouetted against a pale vanilla sky as the sun set. He was too far off to make out who he was but as I knew all the other racing cyclists in the area, I was sure I would know him.

All thought about coasting down the short descent was gone as I slammed into my highest gear and increased my speed; the chase was on. This is something that all racing cyclists will do instinctively; never miss an opportunity to chase down another rider.

Of course not knowing who was ahead meant I didn’t know his speed or level of fitness. I might never catch him, but I was going to try. This was in the early 1970s and I was in pretty good shape myself and the phychological boost of having someone to chase increased my adrenalin flow.

At the bottom of the hill I coasted through the slight bend and without shifting down I got out of the saddle again and let my speed and momentum carry me halfway up the next climb. Before my cadence dropped I shifted down, and up on the pedals again to the top.

I thought I caught a brief glimpse of him again and I was gaining on him, but the sun was completely set by now and it was getting quite dark. I reached down and turned on my battery lamps.

I must have chased hard for about four or five miles when I came on him suddenly; in fact I almost ran into him. He had no lights on his bike and he suddenly loomed up in the darkness. I pulled along side; I didn’t recognize him.

“Where’s your lights?” I asked.

“I wasn’t planning on being out this late, but I got a puncture earlier. I did a stupid thing; I was out of tubular cement and I had stuck my tires on with fish glue. I took me for ever to get the tire off.”

“Fish glue?” I thought, “Who sticks tires on with fish glue?”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“They call me Charlie.”

“I’ll ride with you.” I offered. “It’s a little dangerous to be out here without lights; where do you live?”

“Ledbury.”

I pulled ahead of him and increased the pace a little; Charlie pulled in behind me. Ledbury was a small town about five miles further on. After a short while Charlie came through to take the pace at the front.

I slipped in behind him. It was then I got my first look at his bike; my battery lamp lit up his rear wheel and gear train. He was using an old four speed, eighth inch, freewheel block with an Osgear derailleur; a single jockey wheel on an arm under his chainwheel.


I was thinking, “I haven’t seen one of those since I was a kid in the 1950s.” I moved to the front again and remarked as I went by, “Interesting bike you have.

Charlie didn’t respond, and we rode on at a pretty good pace. I noticed every time I was on Charlie’s rear wheel I could not get comfortable. I could not figure out which direction the wind was coming from. I would ride slightly to his left, then right, but neither was any easier.

We were within a mile of Ledbury; I was at the front when a car suddenly appeared coming towards us. The road was narrow and the car came so close that I had to pull hard to the side and I found myself on the soft grass. There was the sound of a tremendous crash behind me; my wheels bogged down and I came to a quick stop. My feet were strapped to the pedals, there was no time to release them, and I fell over sideways.

I was uninjured but my first thought was for Charlie; both he and his bike were gone. So too was the car. “It must have kept going without stopping.” I thought. I took my battery lamp from my bike and searched back along the side of the road. I turned around and walked slowly down the other side.

I rode into Ledbury and stopped at a public phone box and called the police. “There’s been an accident.” I told them, and I explained what had happened. A police car arrived and I parked my bike in an alley-way and rode back with them to the scene of the incident.

The two policemen searched both sides of the road as I had done. “Are you sure this is the place?” One of them asked me.

“Yes, I remember this big tree on the bend in the road.” I told them.

“Maybe he wasn’t hit but kept on riding as you fell by the roadside.”

“It’s possible.” I answered. “But you would think he would have stopped to see if I was alright.”

Eventually we gave up the search and the officers drove me back to my bike, and I made my way home.

The next day I didn’t go to work but instead drove my car over to Ledbury and started asking around if anyone had heard of an accident the previous night. Someone suggested I enquire at the local newspaper office.

I did this and met the editor of the little local paper. He listened intently as I told him of my ride with Charlie the night before and of the accident. He told me, “It sounds to me like you encountered Charlie Finch, you’re not the first.”

“Who is he?” I asked.

“Let me show you something from our archives.” He walked over to a filing cabinet and pulled out a strip of microfilm. He placed it in a projector and scrolled through the images; he stopped on a front-page story. “Here it is, about this time of year, 1948.”

I read the headline, “Local cyclist killed in accident.” The story told of a Charlie Finch who was riding at night without lights and was struck by an oncoming car. The car went out of control striking a tree; the driver also died instantly.

There was a picture of a 1940s style car smashed against a large oak tree; the same tree I had pointed out to the police officers the night before. There was also a picture of Charlie’s bike.

The front wheel was completely smashed, the front fork was bent, and the frame was buckled at the top and down tubes. The bike had an Osgear derailleur with a single jockey wheel under the chainwheel.

 

Footnote: As you may have guessed this is a work of fiction; it didn’t really happen. I thought as Halloween approaches you might appreciate a bike riding ghost story.

Friday
Oct202006

Chuck's custom bike


I’m sure Chuck Schmidt will not mind if I share pictures of his pristine custom ‘dave moulton’ bike.

Built in 1983, Chuck is the original owner, and this is the original paint and chrome. A true hand built specimen, the concave seat stay caps for example, simply cut at an angle with a hacksaw, then filed with a large round file and an off cut of tubing fitted and brazed in place. Not measured but simply filed until they looked identical.




The rear brake bridge has a barrel shaped center boss that were custom made in a machine shop in England and I brought a supply of these with me when I moved to the US in 1979. The center boss was brazed to a piece of ½ inch diameter chrome-molly tubing, drilled to accept the brake bolt, then hand filed until it fit perfectly at the correct height and central between the seat stays.


Finally, the brake bridge re-enforcers were cut from a piece of steel tube. Shaped with a hand held belt sander; again not measured but shaped until they matched as a pair. Working in this fashion gave me great satisfaction, and means that this frame is unique.

Wednesday
Oct112006

The feel of steel makes it real

When I ran my framebuilding business in California during the 1980s; occasionally a member of the general public would stumble into my frameshop. They would invariably ask two questions and at the same time try to answer themselves.

The conversation would go something like this. “Oh, you make bicycles. Who do you make them for? Schwinn?” The second double edge question was, “What are they made of? Aluminum?”

In the eyes of Joe Public at that time, there was only one bicycle company in the whole world, so anyone building bicycles had to be subcontracting for Schwinn. And racing bicycles had to be lightweight so therefore they must be made of aluminum.

I would have to go though the motions of explaining that the frames were made of lightweight steel. My customers at the time were knowledgeable people who knew that a high tensile steel was the best material for a quality frame for a road bicycle.

The serious road bicycle never caught on with Joe Public. Those dropped handlebars were uncomfortable, and the tight shorts and little white socks? Now that wasn’t what you call manly. Then came the Mountain Bike revolution. The Mountain Bike was the SUV of the bicycle world. Big, chunky, and very manly.

The truth is to enjoy a road bicycle to its fullest extent requires a certain amount of dedication. It is like the difference between jogging, giving the appearance running but taking tiny steps and moving at the speed of a brisk walk, and serious running, taking long and high strides, moving at a fast pace. If you hop on a road bike only once a month it will always feel uncomfortable.

Unfortunately it is the masses, Joe Public, that keep manufacturers and retailers in business. Manufacturers of MTBs found that aluminum was cheap and easy to weld together. Forget the ride quality; the people buying these bikes were only going to ride them once in a while anyway. Aluminum was an easy sale; in the eyes of Joe Public buying a bike for the first time, aluminum was lightweight so it must be good.

Then there is titanium. The cold war came to an end in the late 1980s and with it came an end to making armaments and a subsequent world glut it titanium. Russia dumped tons of the stuff on the market; I remember people calling me nearly every day trying to sell me cheap titanium tubing. Today titanium is something like $30,000 a ton, making for some very expensive bicycles.

How about Carbon Fiber? Wow, that’s the stuff they build Stealth Fighter Airplanes out of; you can’t get any more high tech than that. And it’s super lightweight. But again the manufactures of the carbon fiber materials look after their biggest customers first; in other words the aircraft industry. Bicycle manufactures are small fry in their eyes and so get charged a premium for the material; making the finished product very expensive.  

“Steel is real,” is a catchy slogan being banded about by people in the know. Why? It is all about ride quality; a steel frame is like a very strong steel spring. It absorbs a certain amount of road shock and when the rider makes a sudden effort it has just the right amount of give, but at the same time quickly transfers the rider’s energy directly to the back wheel. It is called responsiveness.

Many people who ride road bikes do not race but simply ride for exercise and the pure pleasure of riding. Let’s face it you can burn just as many calories on any old bike, but if you make the experience pleasurable it is no longer a chore that exercise can become. If you ride a bike for pleasure, then why not ride a bike that is a pleasure to ride?

Even so steel is a hard sell. To those looking at the latest carbon fiber; steel seems like ‘old tech’ and therefore inferior. There is a whole generation of road riders who have previously ridden mountain bikes made of aluminum and carbon fiber, and have never experienced the feeling of a quality steel frame.

Steel has other advantages like longevity and reliability. Case in point; the frames I built in the 1970s and 1980s are still being ridden and enjoyed. A steel fame will not fail suddenly and dramatically; it will not disintegrate in a cloud of dust as some CF frames have been known to do.

You can crash on a steel frame and you can straighten it out or repair it and safely ride it again. Crash on a CF frame and you have no idea what damage you have done to fibers inside the frame that you cannot see.

Will steel make a come back? I believe so, but slowly. And it may not be steel’s ride qualities that bring it back, but rather law suits and warranty problems brought on by failures of other materials. If and when that happens manufactures will not state that as a reason, but will sell the ride quality of steel.

I am just an old fart who used to make bicycle frames so why should I care? No reason really; except for the satisfaction of being able to say, “I told you so.”



Tuesday
Oct032006

Brazing vs. Welding


I occasionally visit bike forums to see what kind of questions bike riders are asking and occasionally I will post a reply if I think I have an answer. I try to stay away from anything controversial as people can become pretty hostile on the Internet; especially when they are posting under a pseudonym.

Just like the idiot who screams abuse at the cyclist as they drive by at speed; they do it because they can do so with anonymity. So does the occasional poster on a forum; he screams abuse on the Information Highway.

Recently someone asked, “Why are frames brazed instead of welded?” He had taken a welding course at his local community college and the teacher had told him that welding was much stronger than brazing. This was my response:

“Traditionally frames have always been brazed not because a weld would fail but because the tube would fail right next to the weld due to the tube being very thin. Many bicycle tubes are heat treated to strengthen them. The trick in brazing properly is to apply enough heat to make the lugged joint but not to get the tubes too hot over a large area; thereby retaining as much of the tube's inbuilt strength as possible.

A properly brazed lugged joint is tremendously strong and a lug spreads the stresses over a larger area, not pinpointed in one place as with a weld. This is also the reason lugs are cut into curved or other fancy shapes, and not just cut square like a pipe fitting. A square edge would create a stress point and the tube would likely fail at that point.

To sum up; yes a welded joint may be stronger, but in any structure there is no point in making a joint far stronger than the material you are joining. And if the structure is stressed enough the material will fail before the joint.”

Notice I started my post with the word “Traditionally.” And actually the question was wrong because frames are welded these days. And I should have known better than to post something like this, because every propeller head engineer who knows welding theory up the wazoo would jump on it like a kid on a merry-go-round. The next thing I know the subject is being debated.

The truth is that frames were brazed for about a hundred years from the bicycle’s invention up until the late 1980s, early 1990s. About the time I got out of the business. Not just lightweight bikes but all bikes. Actually during the 1980s welding technology had reached a point were I could have welded frames that I built. But I did not because at that time it would not have been accepted by my customers; anymore than a sloping top tube would have been acceptable.

Mountain Bikes changed all that. You had a whole generation that had grown up with welded BMX bikes. BMX bikes had small frames with sloping top tubes so little Johnny would not ruin his chances of reproduction in later life. So the MTB frame began to look more and more like an adult size BMX bike with gears.

Early mountain bikes were built with lugs and had level top tubes. So the BMX bike had more influence on today’s bicycle design than the first mountain bikes. Other influences on the acceptance of welding were frames built in other materials that cannot be brazed like aluminum and titanium.

Once a new style has been accepted you cannot go back. I could not go back to running a viable business building lugged frames even if I had the desire, which I don’t. And the truth is whether a frame is brazed with lugs or welded; either is far stronger than it need be.

Friday
Sep292006

I was never in a movie, but at one time, my arm was in a cast.

My good friend Steve from California recently suggested that reminiscing about when we were in the best shape of our lives was for when we are done riding. When the time comes for me, I already know when that was, 1970 and 1971. It started literarily by accident.

I was living in England, it was early in the 1970 season. I was out training alone after dark and was rounding a bend on a relatively quiet country road when a motorcycle traveling in the opposite direction, taking the same bend on the wrong side of the road, met me head on.

The motor cycle, ridden by a sixteen year old with no driver’s license or insurance, with a youth of similar age riding on the back. These kids were on a big ol’ British Norton and were racing some others who were following also on motorcycles. Because they did not see, a light from an approaching car figured it was safe to take this particular corner on the inside.

All I remember of the impact was a huge headlight coming straight for me; the next moment I was lying on my back in the road. What actually happened was that the motorcycle passed slightly to my right; the handlebars of the motorcycle passed over my bike but hit my right forearm. Remember this was England so I was riding on the left side of the road.

The impact threw me up in the air, doing a complete summersault, I landed on my back in the road. Rather like a wrestler, doing a move called “The Irish Whip.” It happed so fast I do not remember that part, but know that is what happened because the back of my head was slightly grazed, (We didn’t wear helmets back then.) and the back was ripped out of my sweatshirt.

The motorcycle also went down and the two youths picked up some road rash as they slid across the road and ended up against a wooden barn on the opposite side. Apart from this they were uninjured. I was not so lucky; my right forearm was shattered, broken in three places. My bike on the other hand was completely untouched, not even a scratch in the paint.

I experienced the worst pain in my life that night lying in a hospital with my arm a temporary sling hung by my bed. The next morning they operated, and had to put a stainless steel plate in my arm to hold it all together. The plate is still there today, and I wouldn’t know it except for a six inch operation scar to remind me.

They put my arm in a cast from my hand to my armpit, with my elbow held at 90 degrees. This cast was on for five months; I could drive a car and do a few other things but couldn’t work. I decided to keep riding my bike and rigged it up with a single fixed gear and a brake lever in the center of the handlebars so I could ride with one hand.

I rode every day as much as 60 to 80 miles. Weekends I would ride with the other guys in my cycling club. They cut me no slack and would drop me on the first hill we came to. I was riding with my left hand only so had to sit down on the hills, and could not get out of the saddle to climb. I would chase the group for miles; sometimes catching up, other times I never saw them again.

Weekdays I would sometimes ride with an older retired guy. He was probably about the age I am now and he kicked my butt; he told me months later that I had the same affect on him. He kept telling himself that he couldn’t let a cripple with one arm beat him, and at the same time I was thinking ‘I can’t let this old man beat me.’

When the cast came off after five months, the doctors were amazed; my right arm had muscle in it. My left arm got a hell of a work out and I have heard that if you work one arm or leg it will affect the other. So riding my bike was probably the best thing I could have done for my recovery.

The end of that year and the one that followed was my best season ever. The five months that my arm was in a cast I had been doing over 400 miles a week, and doing it all on a single 69 inch fixed gear. I could spin and was as strong as a horse on the hills; there is no doubt in my mind when I was in the best shape of my life.