Saturday, March 22, 2014

In Praise of Old Bikes

An amazing amount of bicycle-related innovation has occurred over the 150-year history of the bicycle. Years ago, I purchased a copy of Archibald Sharp's book Bicycles and Tricycles: An Elementary Treatise on Their Design and Construction, originally published in 1896 with the intended purpose of pulling the rug out from under some of the hare-brained innovations of the day. The book is a fascinating read, as it's full of detailed illustrations. If you think that new ideas are flooding the bicycle and component industry today, Sharp's book is an eye-opener. You'll find that many cutting-edge designs were in production over 100 years ago!

What is really interesting is that the basic form of the bicycle has not changed significantly since the craziness of the late 1800s coalesced on the basic design of Starley's Rover of 1885, with two wheels of the same diameter, a low, center-mounted crankset, and chain drive. Materials have improved dramatically, gearing has helped flatten the hills, frame geometry has evolved to be suitable for modern roads, brakes can now actually stop the bike, and tires have improved dramatically, but the basic design hasn't really changed (ignoring recumbents, of course).

As the automobile replaced the horse, bicycle and train in the period between WWI and WWII in the US, the bicycle gradually became primarily a child's toy and there was little development on this side of the Atlantic. In Europe, however, continual development resulted in some very interesting bicycles, primarily focused on long-distance cycling. Randonneuring became popular, especially in France, with some amazingly lightweight bicycles being produced by French “constructeurs.” Complete bicycles with fenders, racks and generator lighting systems with weights under 20 lbs were available in the 1930s—just try to purchase a bike like that today! Racing was still big, as well. We all know that the Tour de France ran, with breaks only in wartime, continually since 1903. Once Europe rebuilt after WWII, and the automobile became affordable even in Europe, the bicycle took a hit there, as well. There were still many more fine bicycle manufacturers and builders in Europe than in North America, and the racing bicycles of the 1950s and 1960s are not a lot different from those of the 1970s, but they are hard to find today, and probably best left to the collectors.

Very little development of the modern bicycle can be traced to the world beyond North America and Europe. The most popular single bicycle model of all time was the Chinese-made Flying Pigeon, with over 550 million produced. This bicycle remained largely unchanged over its production life, having been essentially copied from the 1930s British rod-brake, 28” wheel design. The only real difference in the Chinese version was the use of almost unbelievably inferior quality steels. It's amazing that the third world has moved on that platform for so long, and it's a lesson to the value of ingenuity and standardized parts.

Most of you are aware of the Bicycle Boom of the late 1960s through the first half of the 1970s. Some of you lived through it! This was the era when derailleur-equipped bicycles became popular in the US and it became almost acceptable for adults to ride bicycles for exercise and transportation. I say “almost” because I lived through that time and I must say that if you think that too many drivers are hostile to cyclists today, you haven't seen anything compared to what we experienced in the 1970s. The Bike Boom caught manufacturers unprepared and the components on basic models represented designs that had been established over 20 years earlier. Generally speaking, only the top-level bikes of that era are worth riding today. The heavy Schwinns, and the Raleighs and Peugeots with steel cottered cranks and carbon-steel frames were junk then and they haven't gotten better with age.

It was the Japanese who really improved the performance and durability of bicycle components in the later 1970s and 1980s, leaving European manufacturers to play catch-up. Once you get to the 1980s, you find a large variety of very nice, affordable bicycles, with proportional sizing, modern 700C wheels, and quality frames and components. It's these bicycles that may deserve your attention today. These bicycles get little respect, but are often available cheaply and the reality is, they can be fine riding bikes. I won't say that they will offer the same level of performance as a brand new model, but you may find that, at least for some purposes, they can actually be superior in many respects.

The longer you are a cyclist, the more you become aware of the gigantic disconnect between marketing and articles in the mainstream cycling press and real differences in bicycle performance. I won't say that there is no benefit to carbon fiber frames and electronic shifting, but these improvements are incremental, not revolutionary for most of us. Certainly, if you are racing or time trialing, these differences are very important, and some things, like electronic shifting, are just plain luxurious in the same way as a high-end automobile, and there's nothing wrong with that. The bottom line, though, is that a fast bike will not make you go fast; it's the engine that's important. If you're not trying to eke out every bit of performance from your bike, you'll find that you can have just as much fun on a $200, 20 year-old bike as you can from a $3,000 modern model, and feel a lot better about leaving it locked up downtown or riding it on a dirt road.

A Bianchi, Trek, Cannondale, Fuji, or even Schwinn from the 1980s or 90s can be an excellent bike for commuting or dirt road riding. Many of these bikes have eyelets for fenders and racks and sufficient clearances for 28mm tires, which are fine for most Vermont dirt roads. You can pick up these bikes quite cheaply at garage sales and bike swaps and you can often find examples that have accumulated very few miles over their lifespans. You can have a bike that not only rides very well, but one which you will not care if a stone gets thrown up and dings the paint.

If you go shopping for one of these dusty jewels, you do need to use some care. The biggest issue is fit, and if it's not your size, it's impossible for it to be a good deal. Resolve not to buy a bike that is not a perfect fit, even though it will cause frustration if you require a very small or large size. Be patient and wait for the right bike to come along. Decide what features you need, such as eyelets or clearance for wide tires. Spin the wheels slowly and look carefully at the trueness of the rims. Gradual wobbles between the rim and brake pads can probably be adjusted out, but flat spots and blips in the rim will require replacement, and the bike may not be worth it (though you can get decent wheels brand new for about $100 a pair). While you are spinning the wheels, put your hand by the hub and feel for rumbling caused by bearing wear. You will need to pull the greasy chain away from the cassette so that you can feel the hub bearings, not the ratchet. If you feel roughness that is caused by pitted bearings, it's not something that will be corrected by repacking and you might find the damaged parts difficult or impossible to replace. Check for excessive wear on the teeth of the chainrings. Teeth that are hooked on the front indicate a bike with a lot of miles and most of the rest of the bike is probably worn out as well. Finally, steel frames need to be checked for front-end damage. Sight down the fork to see if it is bent back at all and check for any distortion in the top and down tubes immediately behind the head tube. If you spot anything unusual, pass the bike by—it's junk.

If you find your perfect closet queen, don't ride it until it has been rebuilt. Grease can thicken and dry out over years of storage and your bike will die a speedy death if you just pump up the tires and ride it. It also may not be safe without new tires, cables and brake pads. The big disadvantage to an old bike for an inexperienced cyclist is that it should be completely overhauled before use and the owner usually lacks the necessary knowledge, skills and tools. This becomes especially problematic when you've bought your new-old bike in May, when the bike shops are swamped with work and simply cannot fit your complete overhaul into their schedule. Your choices then become hanging onto the bike until the off-season, when your favorite bike mechanic will be happy to take on the job, or learn to do the work yourself. If you choose the latter, you will find that it's not rocket science and you'll have the added benefit of learning the skills and acquiring the simple tools needed to keep your bike working well far into the future. Just be patient with the process and you probably will end up saving money in the long run.

An alternative is to spend a bit more and buy your old bike from a shop that specializes in used bikes. The Old Spokes Home is the leader in this regard, though some other shops will have used bikes available from time to time. One of the best things about northern Vermont is that we have a higher per-capita concentration of bike shops than almost anywhere else in the country. I have visited all the shops in the Burlington and Montpelier areas many times and I have a great deal of respect for the people working in them. We are very lucky to have such universally solid professional support for cycling in northern Vermont, and these folks deserve your support. It may sound crude, but this is offset a bit by some of the idiots who sell used bikes regularly on Craigslist. You are wise to stay far away from those guys.

So don't look down your nose at that dirty, steel-framed bike lurking in the back of your neighbor's garage. I put more miles on my 1984 Bianchi Nuovo Racing while commuting last year than any other bike I own (2300 miles out of 10,000 total) and never wished I was on a different bike. I bounced across freshly-graded roads, slogged through the rain, and left it unlocked outside grocery stores lots of times (you can get away with that in Vermont). I wouldn't want to lose the bike to accident or theft, but neither would it be a huge deal if I did. I never worry about it, I just maintain it and ride it. It may be the perfect bike.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Overhaul Suntour XC Pro Rear Hub

7-speed Cassette Body
I've managed to pick up a variety of Suntour cassette hubs and cassettes over the past year.  Anything Suntour from Japan is at least 20 years old at this point (though all these parts were brand new), but the products that Suntour was making at the end of their road were among the best available at the time.  The XC Pro hubs used cartridge bearings and had a feature called GreaseGuard, that allowed you to inject grease into two ports that directed the grease into the inside of the cartridge bearings, flushing out any contaminants.  The concept, created by Charlie Cunningham and licensed to Suntour by WTB, was pure genius, though some of the advertising makes highly suspect claims (do headsets really blow out grease when the altitude changes, and would this even matter?  I think not).  The best thing about these hubs, made by Sanshin, was that the cartridge bearings are a standard size that is very inexpensive to purchase and easy to replace.  The bearings are also well-supported, strengthening the standard diameter axles.

The big downside of the Suntour hubs is that they used their own spline arrangement for the cassette versions, which is not interchangeable with anything else on the market.  Suntour was always known for making outstanding freewheels, so their cassettes were among the best of the best at the time and they used their PowerFlo tooth profile, which improved shifting.  Many people didn't like the locking design, which used a threaded sixth or seventh cog, requiring two chainwhips to remove.  If you find one of these that hasn't been serviced in many years, you may have a bear of a time getting it off, though a well-maintained one will present no problems.  There were also a few different variations of the cassettes and bodies that could make it difficult to find matching replacements and many of the 7-speed versions that you find today were designed for Suntour's MicroDrive system, which used smaller chainrings (for the time) and only offered an 11-24 seven-speed cassette.  Finally, almost all the 8-speed cassettes you can still find are 11-28 MD, though that happens to be a size that works very well for my commute with its steep climbs and I settled on 28 as the bottom cog on my mountain bikes decades ago.

Here are some useful body dimensions I found online:
Suntour Cassette spline lengths
6 speed = 23.7mm
7 speed = 26.1mm
8 speed = 30.8mm
7 speed MD = 20.7mm
8 speed MD = 25.4mm
 I was cleaning up the drivetrain on a commuter bike, a mid-range Bianmchi from 1984, on which I had laced an XC Pro hub into the rear wheel.  I was using a 7-speed version of the hub with an 8-speed cassette that had the threading for the last cog removed and the O.L.D. reduced to 126mm to fit the frame spacing.  I noticed a bit of roughness in the cassette body and decided to take the time to dismantle it to see if there was any dirt inside.  I looked online for any instructions on how to overhaul the hub and couldn't find much, so I decided to post some tips for anyone else who is still riding these hubs.  Most forum posts seemed to be authored by those with little direct experience (no surprise there) and consisted primarily of warnings against dismantling the cassette body, which actually proved to be quite easy.

The cassette body is held tightly to the hub shell by a threaded sleeve that is tightened with a right-hand thread, accessed from the non-drive side of the hub with a 10mm hex key.  The IceToolz tool for removing Shimano cassette bodies worked quite well for me.

  1. Remove the left side locknut, washers and cone.
  2. Slide the axle out,. taking care to catch the nine 1/4" balls that support the right side of the axle.  (This is another weakness of the design, in that there is no cartridge bearing on the right side of the rear hub.  However, the placement of the bearing makes the assembly quite strong, like Shimano's designs.) Carefully pry the steel labyrinth seal from the cassette body, if it's a non-MicroDrive 7-spd hub, working evenly around.
  3. The cup for the outer bearing doubles as the locknut for the cassette body.  You could use a punch to loosen this, but I found that the old Shimano cassette lockring tool I have worked fine.  I held it tight against the hub with a long 5/16" bolt and nut, and loosened the reverse-thread locking race with a wrench on the Shimano tool.  Only loosen the locknut; do not remove it at this point.
  4. Remove the sleeve that holds the body to the hub by inserting a 10mm hex key into the left side of the hub.  This one is right-hand thread.
  5. Once you have the body off, put a clean cloth in a shallow box or tray and complete the disassembly of the body, taking care not to mix the 1/8" balls from one side with those of the other, if you plan on re-using them.  I found that there was no dirt inside mine.  The body could probably have used another shim, but it wasn't binding and the bearings were in great shape, so I just cleaned and reassembled it.
  1. Place some tacky grease (white lith works well) in the inner bearing race and arrange the balls.  Alternatively, you could simply install the inner body into the outer body and then insert the balls with the two parts just far enough apart to provide clearance.
  2. With the shims in place, insert the remaining 1/8" balls into the outer race.  If you are going to use grease for these balls, drip some oil onto the pawls, first.  If you like grease on the pawls (I don't), make sure it is very light stuff.
  3. Drip some 30-weight oil into the body to lube the outer bearings and pawls.
  4. Install the reverse-threaded locking race, but don't try to cinch it down yet.
  5. Reinstall the cassette body to the hub shell.
  6. Cinch down the cassette body locking race.
  7. Tap the labyrinth seal back in, using a light hammer and flat plate.
  8. Reinstall the axle.  Adjust using standard QR axle techniques. Read Sheldon's article at if you don't have any idea what I'm talking about.
That's all there is to it.  The entire process shouldn't take more than a half hour the first time you do it.  There are two tiny holes on each side of the cassette body that I believe are the path that grease is supposed to take, using the GreaseGuard system.  It looks like the grease pressure is supposed to move grease through the cassette body to the outer bearing and then out.  If you submerge your hubs completely in water, then this is probably a good feature, but that's a lot of grease to have inside the cassette body and I've had troubles in the past with greased pawls, so I prefer to only inject grease into the left side cartridge bearing, which is more exposed, and leave the drive side lubed in a more traditional manner.  Of course, you will need to disassemble the hub to service a non-GreaseGuard version.

The MicroDrive hubs had the smallest cog threaded onto the next cog, which then threaded onto the body.  The outer seal for this hub is a custom rubber piece that will probably dry out someday, rendering the hub useless.  The seal does not work as well as the labyrinth seal of the standard bodies, making GreaseGuard a more useful version on these hubs, but you need to use MD if you want an 11t cog for some reason.

More classic Suntour fun at The Bicycle Info Project and MOMBAT