A New Bike: Raphael All-Rounder

A few months ago I found a great deal on a new, hand made bike frame on the iBob mailing list.  And finally, I’ve assembled it into a great bike.

Raphael Cycles custom frame set

This is a Raphael Cycles custom steel frame and fork.  It was built to order… someone else’s order, not mine.  But it was beautiful, the specs seemed to fit my needs, and it was far cheaper and faster than ordering my own custom frame, so I jumped on the opportunity to buy it used (but never built up).

I built it with a mix of new parts and donations from an older bike, my blue 1983 Trek 520.  Here’s a brief summary of the build, off the top of my head:

  • Sun CR18 rims with Shimano hubs: generator on the front, 8 speeds on the rear
  • 32mm Panaracer Pasela tires with plenty of clearance under the rims
  • New Velo-Orange Grand Cru crankset and fenders
  • Old Shimano Deore XT rear derailer
  • Older Suntour AR front derailer
  • Shimano Deore bar end shifters
  • Nitto stem and front rack
  • Sakae Randnner [sic] bars
  • Dia-Compe brake levers
  • Tektro CR720 brakes
The build went fairly smoothly, and after setting it up in the basement I’m happy to say I haven’t had to fine tune anything after my shakedown ride.  I haven’t ridden it far yet, but I plan to put a lot of miles in commuting, and hope to be inspired to take more non-commuting long rides as well.
The frame set itself is beautiful.  However, I do have a few minor nit picks with it.  To be clear, this is a better bike that is much better suited for the purposes I intend to use it for, than the bike I’m replacing.  None of these concerns are very important to me at this point, and I haven’t talked to the builder about any of them.  I don’t have any right to complain, because I didn’t order the bike nor was I involved with its specifications.
To paraphrase, I’ll quota a song by the Eagles: “I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do.”
The pump peg behind the seat tube is in a very convenient location.  Luckily I never use frame pumps, however, because I don’t think a pump could fit between the fender and seat tube.  I haven’t made the rear fender line perfectly parallel to the wheel, so I could probably squeak out a few more millimeters of room there, but I don’t think it would be enough to fit a pump.
There is noticeable fender-toe overlap.  I have not previously noticed this on other bikes I’ve ridden, even with the same size tires and fenders, on the Trek 520 that wasn’t built for this kind of setup (but has a similar geometry).
There was no rear brake cable hanger.  I used a Surly hanger, but unfortunately the seat clamp slot was quite narrow.  It required me to file down the brake cable hanger, in order to be able to tighten the seat clamp enough to keep the seat tight.  I could’ve filed down the seat clamp slot instead, but I didn’t want to break my new paint.
I’m not a fan of the overall shape of the bike when it’s set up with my preferred cockpit dimensions; though, it looks fine without any parts on it.  It was apparently specified as a 59mm frame, but the head tube makes it look smaller than my 57mm frames.  Part of this is because the fork is longer than on my other bikes, and part of it is because the head tube has an extended top, so it looks far shorter.  The stem is very high, so I could fit my front decaleur to the bag without cutting it down and refitting it from its previous use (aka “I’m lazy”).
On the other hand, there are a lot of minor details that I absolutely love on this bike.  All of the fender mounting points have threaded inserts facing the correct direction, so I don’t have a bunch of brackets and clamps all over the place to hold the fenders on.  I like the contrasting paint on the head tube (though the color is a lot closer to teal than the royal blue it looks like here).
This is my first time using the Velo-Orange 50.4 BCD cranks, and I must say: if these are easier to set up than the TA Cyclotouriste cranks they’re modeled after, then I’m not interested playing with the TA cranks.  You need a very narrow front derailer in order to be able to upshift successfully without pegging the derailer cage with your crank.  This old Suntour derailer is the only one I had on hand that would do the job at all, but I may look for a better alternative.
I’m very happy with the way this bike turned out!  I’m still not ready to get rid of the Trek that it replaced, but I have an even older Fuji frame and fork, if anyone’s interested…

Here are links to Raphael Cycles blog posts documenting the construction of this frame and fork.  It’s very interesting to see the process that went into building this bike.

Update: A few observations after riding this for a week or so:

  • This is the most comfortable bike I’ve ever ridden. 
  • The toe clip overlap is not a problem in practice; it only shows up at very slow speed.  
  • The builder states that this is an early frame and not representative of his current work.

Rant: apparently Shimano 105 hub bearings suck

This year has been horrible for flat tires.  While repairing my latest rear flat today, an explosive pinch flat on a massive pothole (“spring” in Pittsburgh is measured by the potholes and not the weather), I noticed my rear hub bearings were loose, so I investigated.

I examined the drive side cone and it had a pit in the surface. Maybe that’s why it was so noisy.  I found a spare cone and started replacing it… but then I looked at the other cone and it was way worse: it had pitting all the way around.  The hub was still packed with grease (no dirt), and had only 7-10k miles on it.  (I didn’t pull out the balls and examine them.)

Maybe the damage was caused by the fact that the hub bearings were loose, but I’d expect them to be loose after so much pitting and wear on the bearing surfaces. In any case, I’ve never heard of bearings loosening while installed on the bike.

This isn’t my first problem with this wheel set (it even matches!), either.  Within a year after buying these wheels, I had a horrible noise in the front wheel, and investigation revealed that the balls themselves were severely pitted.  That wheel hasn’t had any problems since I repacked it with new balls.

These are Shimano 105 road hubs bought new only 3 or so years ago.  I thought these were supposed to be better than off-brand hubs.  Maybe 7-10k miles is “better,” in these days when department store bikes are ridden an average of 20 miles total, and “real” bikes have their components upgraded every year to keep up with changing fashion.

Bike Shelf

After seeing the hand made bike shelves available at Knife and Saw, Marla and I were inspired to find a better bike storage solution than a hook in the ceiling.  Unfortunately I ride enough that the convenience of storing the bike right inside the front door outweighs the ugly factor.

So, Dad and I designed and built this shelf.  Thanks for your help! It’s more pragmatic than pretty.  I like the shape and proportions better than the Knife and Saw shelf, but we used practical high quality plywood instead of pretty hardwood.  I’ll put a better finish on it once the weather is warm enough to do this outdoors.

Ride report: The 3-speed Sloth

Halfway through my trip to work on Monday, the first longer ride on my new 3-speed with studded tires, I knew what I’d write about it: I can’t tell whether the tires worked really well, or whether the roads weren’t icy.

Then I arrived at the snow and ice covered Eliza Furnace trail, and my opinion changed. The knobby, studded tires definitely make a huge difference compared to my normal almost-slicks. I don’t know how much of it is because of the rubber knobs and how much is the carbide studs, but the tires definitely inspire confidence on poor weather roads.

As for the bike itself, it’s not my new favorite ride, but it definitely serves a good purpose at this time of year. I thought the gearing was too high, until I readjusted my shifter cable and discovered I didn’t have 1st gear previously!

This bike makes a good winter rider for poor quality roads, providing a low enough gear to get up the hills without a dangerously fast gear for the potentially slippy downhills. The fenders kept my feet dry through the slush all week, and the toe clips let me wear my boots instead of cycling shoes.

I only wish I had another generator light on the front! Batteries are a bad deal.

Studded Tires

Thanks for the studded tires, Mom and Dad!

I built this bike to use the Nokian A10 tires. It’s a low geared 3 speed, so I’m not tempted to go too fast when I shouldn’t. It has good fender clearance, using Velo Orange aluminum fenders. Unfortunately I have to use my battery light on it, that’ll be disappointing.

Installing the tires on their rims was the most difficult part of this whole job. The tires are very stiff, and tight on the rims. Also, they have carbide spikes for additional hand comfort as you wrestle them onto the rims.

On my first attempt, when my hands got sore I broke down and did what I knew I shouldn’t: I used a tire lever to install the tire. Even though I was being careful, the inevitable occurred, and I popped the tube. After getting some additional tubes, I tried again; the second time, I succeeded. Then I tried the rear tire, and put another hole in the tube.

For the next two days, my palms were sore. It hurt to run water over them. The next day, I remembered I had another tube available, and tried that one; but this time I got smart and used gloves. That tube got pinched and popped, without even using the tire level to install it. After using my last 2 patches to repair two of the three tube failures, one final attempt got the tire on the rim without any holes in the tube. (I have more patches coming in the mail)

There are a few upsides here. There’s no way these things are going to get holes in them or pinch-flat, since they are so stiff and heavy. I’m just going to leave my repair kit at home since I’d never be able to replace a tube on the road anyway.

I took the bike out for a spin last night, on our unplowed road. On my limited ride, the tires worked really well: they didn’t slide at all, even though it was easy for me to slip on my feet when I was standing.

I have a cold, and we’re getting 4-8″ of snow in the next few days, so I haven’t ridden it to work yet. Maybe I will next week.


Beautiful Fall Commutes

Fall is a wonderful time for commuting by bicycle. This fall has been particularly mild and enjoyable.

After the clocks fall back, it’s dark by the time I leave work. If I don’t have to get home quickly, I ride through Schenley and Frick parks. Almost the whole trip home is on trails, and avoids cars. Since it’s dark and a bit chilly, there are almost no dogs and walkers.

Once I’m on the Junction Hollow trail, it’s basically silent until I get to Squirrel Hill. My generator headlight is bright enough to keep the ride safe. Riding home alone, a silent bubble of light floating in a sea of darkness, gives me time to think and provides a good transition between “communicating with computers” at work and “communicating with people” at home.

It helps a lot that I commute often, and the route is familiar to me. I don’t spend any thought on operating my bicycle and I’m completely comfortable with the way it handles. Being familiar with the route allows me to anticipate the tricky parts, but cruise smoothly between them.

Most people who drive often occasionally experience the “autopilot” effect: “How did I get here?” Part of you drives the car to your destination without the rest of you even being aware of it or needing to pay full attention to it. I have the same experience on my bicycle, especially on the way home as my mind is processing the day’s effort at work. “I’m at the top of the hill already?” is a particularly nice revelation to have.

Unfortunately, fall doesn’t always last very long. But as long as there isn’t too much snow, nighttime park rides home can be very enjoyable in the winter as well.

What drives you crazy?

NPR recently requested listeners to submit a short story (250 words or less) story about “What drives you crazy?” when driving, riding, or walking on our roads. I don’t go crazy in writing very well, but here’s what I told them drives me crazy while I’m riding my bike:

As a vehicular cyclist, I am required to follow the rules that govern all vehicular road traffic. My gripe is about drivers who treat me as a pedestrian instead of a vehicle. In Pittsburgh, drivers often relinquish their right-of-way and encourage cyclists to cross traffic when it would otherwise be unlawful or unsafe to do so. This unpredictable driving makes intersections less safe for everyone involved, and perpetuates a downward spiral of poor behavior by cyclists who fail to follow the rules of the road and drivers who encourage them to do so. Be mindful of cyclists who may ride where they shouldn’t, but for the safety of everyone involved, please don’t enourage this behavior.

Alan Ferrency
Pittsburgh, PA

It’s never too late to ride your bike

I saw this wonderful news item, about an 84 year old woman who has been riding a 150 mile charity ride for Multiple Sclerosis, every year for the last 26 years.

She rides in a dress and high heels, on a single speed bike with upright bars and a basket. She’s slow, but she finishes.

My favorite quote from the piece:

“I have the most pressure out of anyone on the tour,” Sim adds jokingly. “I know I can’t quit, because my grandmother’s behind me somewhere!”

To ride a bike, even for long distances, you don’t need the right bike, the right clothes and equipment, or ideal fitness. Mainly, you need to want to do it.

I Prefer Steel

These days it seems hip to say “Steel is Real,” but I’m not a big fan of this phrase. Carbon fiber, Aluminum, and Titanium are also real, of course, but the intended meaning is that the “feel” of riding a bike with a steel frame is better than the feel of riding frames made of other materials.

Most of the people who say “steel is real” are either riding 25 year old crappy ten speeds with gaspipe tubing, or modern steel frames made with thin walled but larger diameter tubes. Neither of these classes of bikes have the “steel is real” feel. Personally, I ride a 25 year old mid-range ten speed with high end gaspipe tubing, which is to say, not a bike with a “steel is real” feel. In fact I’m not sure I’ve ever ridden one of those bikes. Maybe it would be great, but would it be worth the money to find out?

That said, I do still prefer steel frames. I had a lot of fun browsing Busted Carbon, a blog dedicated to images of broken carbon fiber bike frames and parts. Reading that site provides one reason why I prefer steel.

It’s not because carbon fiber fails and steel doesn’t. Steel doesn’t handle running into walls any better than carbon fiber does (though apparently it lasts longer if you tip your bike over in the living room.) The difference is how steel fails. You won’t find any pictures of bent carbon fiber parts on that blog, because carbon fiber doesn’t bend. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a hairline crack before it’s too late. More likely, a part will suddenly and catastrophically fail and cause a crash.

Aluminum and titanium also break more quickly than steel once they become fatigued. I’m not against riding an aluminum bike in theory. My main problem with aluminum frames is that they’re ugly. Actually, so are carbon fiber frames, but that’s not my primary motive with those.

Another Bicycle??

Last week in New Hampshire, I borrowed my dad’s bike to go for a 14 or so mile ride to Silver Lake and back, early in the week. It was comfortable enough, but I wouldn’t have wanted to ride much farther on that saddle. The bike was a bit too small for me, but I could manage.

Then, I went to the “bike shop” around the corner. This is basically a big tent in a guy’s driveway, with 50 or so used bikes lined up under it. He does repairs and sells parts out of his ancient garage/barn.

I walked up and down the rows of bikes a few times. Half of them are kids bikes, and half of the rest of them are mountain bikes. Within the selection of road bikes, most were heavy old indestructable monsters by Columbia, Schwinn, Ross, Huffy, and so on. And then there were a few more interesting bikes. A bike boom Gitane? Nah, you can’t get any replacement parts for French bikes. The Univega looked interesting: most of them were made by Panasonic or Miyata in those days.

Then I saw the Nishiki International. It has pretty, fancy lugs, and uses double butted chrome moly tubing so it’s fairly light: probably lighter than the frames I ride here in Pittsburgh. All the parts are aluminum, and relatiely high quality for the time (though not all original). The Suntour Cyclone rear derailer was one of the best available in its heyday, from a performance perspective (but you could easily spend three times as much if you needed the Campagnolo name brand and inferior shifting). The Suntour Power Shifters are smooth and work well.

Maybe I’m just used to city Craigslist prices, but it was a good price for the bike. After doing a bit of research on the component manufacture dates on the Vintage Trek web site, and decoding the serial number in a guide I found online, I determined it’s a 1980 model.

Why do I need another bike? Actually, I don’t need one at all, I’m happy to admit, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want any more. I’ll use it when I’m in New Hampshire, and I enjoy it. At least it wasn’t something new, and it’s not that expensive all things considered: the price of filling a tank with gas a few times, these days.