One speed fits all

mybike1.jpgReading 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.

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8 Responses to “One speed fits all”

  1. Megan Says:

    Your post cracked me up, ’cause you’ve clearly put lots of thought into how your bike should work for you and I have not. Sage is building me a fixed gear. I’ve thought about my new bike lots and lots, and not a single aspect of that thought was, you know, technical or useful. She hasn’t been assembled yet, because we still need to paint the frame. We’re gonna paint her in a sparkly copper color, with glitter in it. All the accents, chain, rims, cables, handlebar tape are in bright blue. We’re going to go to the model store, get a small container of matching blue paint, and paint any frame fittings or accents in blue as well. My new bike’s name is Princess.

    My current bike is Clara. She’s a Trek mountain bike with commuter slicks on her. The chain is too long right now, so I’ve pretty well chewed up the gears. I’m thinking I’ll switch out the gears for a single speed. Sacramento is flat and I never change gears. I may regret all this if I move to Oakland, but that’s later and my bikes are now.

  2. Megan Says:

    I want Princess to be all decked out, so that people understand that I am not trying to be a hipster. But I’m afraid that if she is as beautiful as I picture her, she’ll get stolen. Dilemma.

  3. idontpay Says:

    Of course in my case, ugly is both useful, and gives me the look I want. If you’ve got a chain tool—sometimes called a rivet extractor— you can undo the chain, pull it out, line up a chainwheel/cog combination you like, having tried a few with single speed in mind, and just put the chain around them. If you like it you can then take off the shifters and everything else. Who cares if people think you’re trying to be a hipster? If you’re not, “bike readers” will be able to tell.

  4. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    This was great! I started riding when we moved to Chicago, but I had an old three speed Schwinn collegiate. The kind with the internal hub. Big, heavy, bike. Even put a basket on the back to carry my books since I was too out of shape when I first started riding to deal with the extra weight on my chest. It was nice, but at some point when I started getting more hardcore about using my bike to get me everywhere I had to get a new one. The hub kept stripping on one day while doing a track stand at a light it gave out and I feel on my manhood. My manhood hurt for a few days. I bought a new Bianchi to make my manhood feel better. I almost got a fixed gear, but went for the pseudo-touring bike so I could ride around England. Very glad I got more than one gear now that I live here, lots and lots of hills. It does great in the rain, unlike my Schwinn. I remember the first time I did minor repairs to my bike and felt, for the first time in my life, some kind of pride in the ability to deal with mechanics. I’d like to learn more, but the community here in Nottingham isn’t as large and organized as the one in Chicago.

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