Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

04 March 2015

What If Sanko Ruled The World?

Most of us who came of age around the time of the '70's Bike Boom believed that in the beginning, good bikes and components came from England, France, Italy and a few other European countries.  Reliable but heavy and clunky bikes were made in the US; Japanese manufacturers copied what Europeans and, sometimes, Americans did.  And, until the time of the Bike Boom, the Japanese stuff was of lesser quality.  Some of us still believed that narrative long after reality proved otherwise.

Thus, we thought that if you were a racer, super-high mileage rider or simply wanted to ride without being weighed down by your wallet, you equipped your bike with Campagnolo components, especially the Nuovo Record rear derailleur.  In our heart of hearts, we knew that SunTour derailleurs shifted better.  But if a Campy costs four times as much, it must be better, right.

So, while racers and other active riders--or rich blowhards--opted for Campagnolo, in-the-know cyclotourists, recreational riders and other types of cyclists soon learned that, whatever their gearing needs, a SunTour VGT (or, later, Cyclone) was their best bet.  Eventually, racers and those with pretentions toward being racers would realize that SunTour derailleurs--and, by extension, other top-flight Japanese components--had "caught up" with or, in some cases surpassed, their European counterparts.

The funny thing is that none of us knew that more than a decade earlier, a Japanese manufacturer made a derailleur that far surpassed anything else that was made at the time.  Legend has it that so much was spent to reseach, develop and make this derailleur that it bankrupted the company.

Just a year after Nabuo Ozaki designed the single most influential derailleur in the history of cycling--the Sun Tour Gran-Prix--a smaller Japanese company came up with "best of" derailleur that incorporated the best design features--except for SunTour's slant parallelogram--of other derailleurs.  To be fair, whoever designed the derailleur I'm about to mention may not have known about SunTour's design, as it may not have gone into production and in those pre-Internet days, such information would not have traveled as freely or quickly.  Also, I think that even had this derailleur's designer known about SunTour, he wouldn't have incorporated its design as it was so new and radical.  He probably would have thought it best to copy, as closely as possible, European designs, as most Japanese bike and component manufacturers did at the time.

The derailleur in question was, apparently, produced for only one or two years and was never exported, at least not in any significant quantities.  Thus, to this day it remains all but unknown to cyclists outside of Japan. Even within Japan, not many were sold, as it was more expensive than the Campagnolo Record or any other derailleur.  Because of its rarity and quality, it is one of the most sought-after components by Japanese collectors, who tend to favor vintage French (and sometimes British) stuff.


The derailleur I have been talking about is the Sankyo Procyon PV-III.  I have never seen one in person, but what I've seen in photos of it leads me to think that it was indeed of the extraordinary quality attributed to it.  The knuckles and parallelogram plates were made of nicely-finished aluminum.  Recall that at that time (1965-66), Campagnolo's top-of-the-line derailleur, the Record, was still made of chrome-plated bronze.  

The Procycon had two sprung pivots, as Simplex derailleurs had. (Only the lower pivot on the Campagnolo Record was sprung.)  This allowed, in the absence of a slant parallelogram, for the chain to ride closer to the cogs than it would with a Record.  Also aiding the shift was a clever mechanism that kept the cable stop and cable clamp in alignment, and a pulley cage with an offset pivot.

And the build quality, from what I've read and heard, has never been surpassed, not even by Campagnolo's or Mavic's derailleurs.  While SunTour derailleurs had an overall better design, they didn't have the otherworldliness, or perception thereof, that the Procyon had.  

Now here's something to consider:  What if the Procyon, rather than the Campagnolo Nuovo Record, had become the derailleur of choice in worldwide pelotons?  Would SunTour have become as influential as it did?  If SunTour derailleurs had less influence, would Shimano have copied their most salient design feature and created a successful indexed shifting system?  And what would, or wouldn't, other derailleur makers like Huret and Simplex have done?

03 March 2015

When Does Width Matter?

The importance of tire width is one of the cycling world's long-running debates.

Because I came of age in the aftermath of the '70's Bike Boom, I was inculcated with the notion that, in the immortal words of Robert Browning, "less is more".  That meant, among other things, that a lighter bike is always a better bike.  Not surprisingly, the minimalist aesthetic ruled:  What other decade could have brought us the Huret Jubilee or SunTour Cyclone (first version) rear derailleurs--or drillium?

(The Jubilee is so minimalist that the version with drilled-out cages almost seems extreme.  Talk about "less is more"!)

So, it makes sense that I would also grow up with the idea that narrower tires would make your bike faster.  All other things being equal, they do, because less rubber on the road means less resistance.  But I've since come to learn that riding too narrow a tire for your purpose can actually slow you down if it's making you ride more cautiously--or simply wearing you out with the extra shock and vibrations it transmits.

If a very narrow tire can defeat the a cyclist's purpose in riding it, then I think it's fair to ask whether too wide a tire can do the same.  Or, more precisely, is there a point at which any additional tire width doesn't add traction, resiliency or durability?

Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that on loose, powdery snow, a tire's tread or compound makes more difference than its width.  On the other hand, on deep, heavier-packed snow, knobby mountain bike tires are a better idea.  

But what about ice?  My guess, based on limited experience, is that a wider rear tire might help with initially gaining traction, but once the bike is moving, whether you slip or fall isn't going to have much to do whether you're riding 700X23 or 26"x2.5 tires.  If anything, I think having studs or spikes on your tires will do more than anything else to help you across a glacial expanse.  

From Jonny Cycles

Hmm...It looks like someone might have actually tested my hypotheis.  I wonder what his conclusion might be.

02 March 2015

My Princeton Education From A Guy Named Fritz

Four decades ago, when I first became a dedicated cyclist, we didn't have the Internet.  So we learned about cycling from the few books and magazines that were available in the US at the time.  Often, they contained misinformation:  I recall an article that dubbed the Campagnolo Gran Turismo as the perfect derailleur for bicycle touring.  I couldn't help but to think that the author of that article had never actually ridden Campy's white elephant.   After all, much better wide-range derailleurs from SunTour were widely available in the US, and they quickly became the most common upgrade for folks whose Simplexes snapped in two, Hurets (or, more specifically, Allvits) that snapped cables or Campagnolo Valentinos and Veloxes--and Gran Turismos--that shared only the Campagnolo name with the then-vaunted Nuovo Record.

We also learned about cycling from each other:  In those days, the few longtime cyclists I met always seemed willing to share what they knew as well as some entertaining stories.  I'd also talk with other cyclists when I went on the few (at least, compared to today) organized rides held on weekends or at meetings of the clubs to which I belonged and for which I would later organize and lead rides. 

And, of course, there were shops.  Some were Johnny-come-latelies, while others were "family" shops where parents bought kids bikes for Christmas, birthdays and such.  There was nothing wrong, really, with those the second category:  They at least had some working knowledge of what worked with what.  Most of them sold some lightweight bikes; some, like the first shop in which I worked, might keep one high-end bike on display but if you needed a different size or wanted a different color--or different model--it had to be ordered.  The first shop in which I worked--Michael's Bicycles on Route 35 in Hazlet, NJ--kept a Schwinn Paramount on hand but, among the bikes they regularly stocked, the most expensive was a Raleigh Super Course.

Then there were the few shops that dealt in high-end racing and touring bikes, even during the Dark Ages of cycling.  The nearest one, in those days, was Kopp's Cycle in Princeton.  The proprietor, Fred "Fritz" Kuhn was one of those gruff but friendly people you might expect to find in a coffee shop in a working-class neighborhood in, say, pre-hipster Brooklyn.  But the man was a veritable encyclopedia of cycling knowledge:  He was a six-day racer in the heyday of that sport and became a coach for Olympic cyclists as well as the Princeton Cycling team, one of the few such collegiate squads at the time.

Fred (Fritz) Kuhn Owner Kopp's Cycle
Fred "Fritz" Kuhn

In fact, it was he (or someone in his shop) who built my first set of custom wheels, which I mentioned a couple of days ago.  Even though Japanese bikes and components were rapidly gaining popularity in the US, he did not stock them.  He thought Japanese designs and manufacture hadn't stood the test of time. "Best to stick with the tried and true," he'd growl.  By that, he meant Campagnolo and other European makes.

I would later learn that the real reason he wouldn't stock Japanese goods was that his son was killed by a soldier from that country.  Ironically, the fact that he never shared that made him a natural fit with the Princeton gentry.  But as I came to know him a bit better, I realized that it was a manifestation of something people often said about him:  "He's a gentleman."  And, as I recall, he didn't bad-mouth anyone, not even those who were his competitors in cycling or in business.  He even said the company that produced the Excel Dynamic--believed to be the first US-made derailleur and a copy of the by-then-obsolete Huret Allvit--was a "good company" but that they "should have stuck to what they do well. 

Kopp's Cycles, more or less as I remember it.

I am thinking about Fritz, his shop and the cycling scene of those days because I recently came across a few articles mentioning Kopp's Cycles.  It's still in business, as it has been since 1891.  Fritz bought it from the Kopp family, for whom it is named, in 1948.  I recall his daughter, Marie, and son, Charlie, working there while in high school and college.  Charlie is in charge of the shop.  While he has updated the shop's offerings, it still has the "old world" atmosphere I recall from so many years ago.  I'm sure that whoever goes there will come away educated.  And, oh yeah, there's a university in the town, too!