Reading something of Megan’s, coupled with the fact that heavy rain keeps me from riding today, makes me feel like writing about my bike.
It’s a Schwinn Continental, made here in Chicago in 1975, which the serial number tells me. A Continental may be distinguished from the otherwise similar Varsity by the tube fork, the Varsity has the heavier solid blade fork. I bought it for nearly nothing at a garage sale about ten years ago. It’s been painted black all over, including components, perhaps because it was stolen. As you can tell from the picture, it’s huge, probably my best protection against theft. Even so, I’ve had to make some changes to have it fit me.
I replaced the wheels, originally steel, with alloy. I’ve stayed in 27″ X 11/4″, rather than go to 700cc, because I like to make the smallest effective change, I’ve acquired them for nothing, and the tires are much cheaper, at old-time hardware stores or Walmart in a pinch. Rotating mass is much more significant than dead weight, which is not insignificant either. You feel it immediately.
Although the frame is huge, at about 26″, so that I (75″) can just straddle it, it would have been sold with standard components way too small for the rest of me. When I got it, the drops, the handlebars, were both too narrow, causing my arms to constrict my chest, and too tightly curved for my hands. The discomfort many millions of people have felt with road bikes, particularly during the “bike boom” of the seventies when this one was made, is mostly due to this kind of misfit, but you have to know what’s wrong before you can correct it. Alloy drops in the biggest size I could scavenge; this is a “no money” project. I leave the bar untaped, also the brake levers, with the egregious original “safety levers” removed and the projecting pivot pin extension sawn flush. The stem, by which the handlebar is attached to the frame, is from a mass-market department store mountain bike, fortunately in the 13/16″ size Schwinn used. It lifts the bar and extends it forward of where it was originally, for my size, again. The saddle is the original shell, with the padding removed. An excellent, simple mod.
The crank, still a one-piece, American “Ashtabula,” is 185cc on each arm, the only component I bought specially, about $17, made for BMX. The bike came with a 165, way too short for anyone big enough to ride this, another recipe for discomfort and failure as sold. As it was not made for Schwinn, I’ve had to scrounge different bearings and cups, and shape them to fit. Worth it though; before a correct saddle height for me, 39.75″ inches including crankarm, had me much higher and more delicately balanced. The longer arms permit a lower center of gravity as well as a much better pedaling circle. Because the Ashtabula uses a 1/2″ pedal spindle, I’ve married that to the larger pedal, plastic, sold bubble-rapped in dept. stores. Aside from the threads, I’ve discovered that the spindles are identical. Also plastic toe clips.
I ride single speed. I rode a fixed for about ten years, on a folder I kept in the trunk of my car and assembled for an hour’s ride at lunchtime—yes, that much of a nerd—and still own a fixed-gear bike. This one freewheels, which is useful in traffic, although I spin almost continually anyway, and on a slight incline can easily do a track stand with a slight ratcheting motion. I’ve used a BMX freewheel before, but this wheel is still dished, because I’ve found I break fewer spokes than I did when I had wheels I had re-centered, so I’ve made the freewheel by taking all but one of the cogs off a standard multi-cog freewheel. I don’t have a chain whip, but wrapped an old chain around a cog and stood on the end of it, and tapped the locking cog off with a hammer. This is not only a lighter rotating mass, but allows for the exact chain alignment which is one of the secrets of single speed efficiency.
Single speed permits vast weight savings: outer chainring and bolts, shifting components, cables and levers, and more than a foot of chain. On a mass market bike, those are the relatively heaviest, worst-adjusted, poorest-quality, most obsolete parts anyway. Gone at a stroke. This bike—remember, it’s huge; I’m about two inches taller than the largest rider in the Tour de France Peliton, Axel Merxx— only weighs 27lbs despite having rusty steel fenders, a steel Ashtabula crank and an electro-welded frame. Good enough.
Obviously, there is an ideology at work here. I want to apply high end thinking to mass market components. “Jawbone of an ass” as my wife says for some reason. It’s the hot rod ethos. When sports car racing began in the US after WWII, many people acquired European sports cars and affected social airs to go with them. Legendary American hot rodders like Micky Thompson, Frank Kurtis and Duffy Linvingston took them on, using the old ford roadsters they knew, with solid front axles and flathead V8s, and a hodgepodge of American passenger car parts. What they had was knowledge, skill and passion, and they often beat the obviously conceptually more advanced and much more expensive, cars of those they defensively derided as the “Teabaggers.” I don’t disdain advanced, expensive bikes: they’re a tremendous value, even for a poor student, and are much more reliable for a neophyte, who can’t repair as s/he goes. But I always want to see what I can do with what I’ve got, and learn something in the process.