29 February 2016

The Boneshaker Big Wheel

Some of us try to turn our commutes into mini-workouts.  There are all sorts of ways to do that.  One is to simply ride at a vigorous pace.  Another is to ride in a higher gear than we'd normally ride on a given road or path.  (Or we might ride a fixed-gear bike.)  Still another way is to ride a heavier bike than we'd ride for fun.  Or we might find routes that are more challenging or simply longer than the ones we might've otherwise taken to work.

I have been choosing the latter option. Even though the cycle/pedestrian bridge from Randall's Island to the Bronx has opened, I've been taking the old walkway on the west side of the RFK Bridge spur because accessing it involves pedaling up a fairly steep ramp that zig-zags.  So, for a moment, I can pretend I'm pumping my way up the road on l'Alpe d'Huez as I'm on my way to work in the Bronx.

I admit, it's not a long incline.  But it at least provides a challenge, however brief, on an otherwise flat commute.  Maybe I'll find a route from the new bridge to my workplace that is a bit more challenging (or, again, simply longer) than the one I took the couple of times I've ridden over that bridge.

Now, if I really wanted a workout, I suppose I could ride this:

The Boneshaker Big Wheel, by artist Ron Schroer, is described as "the steampunk love child" of a boneshaker and a penny-farthing.  Riding it to work would certainly be interesting.  Parking, even more so, I think:  Would it attract a would-be thief?  Maybe.  Then again, someone who tried to take off with it probably wouldn't get very far--unless, of course, he had experience in riding boneshakers or penny-farthings!

28 February 2016

Today, After Sunset

Time was when urban parks were places where old people sat on benches and, perhaps, fed squirrels or pigeons or watched grandchildren run, jump, climb and swing.  

At least, my earliest memories of a park--specifically, Sunset Park in Brooklyn--are like that.  Yes, my grandparents were the "old" people on the benches, though I now realize that my grandmother, then, was younger than I am now.  Sometimes I was one of the grandchildren in the scene I described; other times, I was sitting between my grandmother and grandfather, or in the lap of one of them.

Sunset Park covers a hill that rises from the surrounding neighborhood that shares its name.  Standing in that park, even on the murkiest of days, we had a better-than-postcard panaromic view of the steel and cobalt water, the gray tanks and white ship hulls that--as I could not know at the time--would soon start turning to rust, and the stone loft buildings and concrete piers where some of my relatives worked. Neither they, it seemed, nor I nor anyone else could see the gray bubbles dissolving or the cracks between them, whether they were bathed in sun or swept by shadows.

It occured to me today, as I rode along the Brooklyn waterfront, that if I had followed one of those shadows, one of those rays of the sun or the wing of one of the pigeons that often alighted from the park, I would have ended up at the water, in a spot not far from this:

The park, between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, brackets a neighborhood called DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).  Nobody called it that when my grandparents and I spent afternoons in Sunset Park; in fact, nobody (at least in my milieu) ever imagined spending time there except to work.  People didn't live, or even make art, in lofts back then--even if those lofts had the best views of the harbor and the Manhattan skyline.

In fact, the waterfront itself was a place to which someone went only if he worked there.  And, yes, almost anyone who worked there--including the relatives I mentioned--was male.  A woman by the waterfront was questionable or worse according to all of those unwritten, unspoken rules we learned; no responsible adult brought a child--his or her own, or anyone else's--to the river, to the harbor, to the bay.

Back then, you looked at the waters of New York Bay and the Hudson River only from a place like Sunset Park, high on a hill.   You certainly didn't ride a bike to, or along, the waterfront.  Actually, if you were an adult--especially an older one who sat on park benches and fed pigeons and squirrels--you probably didn't ride a bike.

Today I rode along the river and the bay, under the bridges and past piers that stand, and have long since been swept away.  I would not change anything about the ride or the park or the waterfront, any more than I would change the park where I spent those afternoons with my grandparents.  The funny thing is that, even at my rather advanced age, the hill doesn't seem as steep as it did then.  And the water--like the park--seems so much closer.

27 February 2016

Hershey's, Naked

If I offered you something "naked" with a name you would normally associate with chocolate, would you:

  • grin
  • take out your camera, or
  • report me?
Well, someone once offered me just what I've described.  I was younger and in better shape than I'm in now.  Perhaps that was the reason I was offered said item for free.

Now, one of the first things I teach young people is that if something is free, you should take it and figure out what to do with it later.  And, back when I was made an offer I couldn't refuse (well, I could've, but it would've taken more self-discipline than I had), I took it.  So if you are one of the young people to whom I've offered said advice, at least you know now that I'm not a hypocrite!

Anyway...nakedness and chocolate.  Believe it or not, those two qualities are associated with a bicycle component--which is what I was offered, and took! 

(Was this your idea of "bike porn"?)

That bike part was made by Hershey. If you are like me, when you hear that name, you probably think of the maker of Kisses and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (and, in the US, of Kit-Kats).  Or, perhaps, an actress who, for a time, was known as Barbara Seagull might come to mind.  Unless you were cycling during the '90's (when else?), however, you might not associate the name with componentry.

The decade was actually wonderful in all sorts of ways.  In the world of bike--especially mountain bike--parts, though, it was absolutely whacky.  As I've mentioned in other posts, it seemed that as if every 20-year-old in California whose father had a lathe was making bike parts and anodizing them in never-before-seen colors with names that made the ones given to shades of Opi nail polish seem like RGB codes.  I mean, Kooka and Topline cranks broke at inopportune moments (Does anything ever break at an opportune moment?) but you had to love the fact that you could ask for either with a 3D Ultra-Violet finish.

Now, I don't know whether Hershey Naked hubs were as fragile as those cranks.  Although I accepted the one I got for free, I never built or used it:  I traded it, I think--whether for something bike-related or not, I forget.  For one thing, I didn't need another wheel (especially a front) at the time.  For another, I was riding a set of wheels with similarly-constructed hubs from another maker and had a problem with them.

All of Hershey's hubs, including the Naked, were constructed with flanges bonded or pressed to a shaft.  In contrast, hubs from Campagnolo, Mavic, Shimano and other more traditional manufacturers are made with forged one-piece shells.  The Hershey Naked hub's shaft was made from some sort of clear plastic material that wasn't called plastic.  I guess it was supposed to save weight.  It did, of course, allow you to see the inner workings of the hub, just as the clear face of a "skeleton" watch reveals the gears and wheels behind the "hands" and numerals.

At the time I was gifted with the Hershey Naked hub, I was riding wheels with Nuke Proof hubs that, like the Hershey, consisted of aluminum flanges attached to  shafts.   The shafts on my Nuke Proofs were carbon fiber; they--like the Hersheys--were also available with titanium or alloy shafts. (To my knowledge, NP never offered a clear shaft.)

As I related in another post, the flanges of my Nuke Proofs actually detached from their shafts and collapsed toward the center of the hub.  Other cyclists I knew had similar experiences with those hubs, and others that were similarly constructed.  Now, for all I know, a Hershey hub--even a Nude version--might have fared better.  But I didn't want to take a chance.

I haven't thought about that Hershey hub in a long time.  Now I wonder whether the person who got it from me ever built it.  Since it was the '90's, I can imagine him--or someone--building it with "rainbow" spokes, and Velocity rims and alloy spoke nipples in colors (anti-freeze green, anyone?) that clashed with the 3D Ultra Violet finish of the hub flanges! 

26 February 2016

Curls, Splits And A Flying Gate

In the 1880s, J.K. Starley developed his "Rover" Safety Bicycle.  Nearly everything I've read about the history of cycling pins the Rover's importance to the fact that it had two equal-sized wheels and a chain-powered drivetrain.  This innovation was indeed an improvement, in many ways, over the "penny farthing" or "high-wheeler" bikes that had large front wheels (as much as 72 inches) with cranks and pedals attached to the axle, and a much smaller rear wheel.  The Rover was indeed safer to ride and its drivetrain allowed for variations in gearing, something that was not possible on the fixed drivetrain of the "penny farthing."

A later version of the "Rover" featured another innovation that isn't mentioned as frequently but might have been just as important.  Its frame had a configuration which we would now recognize as the "diamond".  Nearly all racing bikes, and most everyday bikes that weren't specifically designed for women (and even some that were) have incorporated this design feature.   Even bikes made with the most exotic materials owe their most important design feature to a bike that was made 130 years ago.

Even "mixte" and some "women's" bikes can be said to be variants, in one way or another, of the "diamond" frame.  In fact, one might even argue that "step through" frames are variants of the "diamond" because they are usually made like diamond frames without  a top bar (and, in some cases, with wider-diameter down- and seat-tubes to compensate).

Over the decades, there have been attempts to render the diamond frame lighter, stiffer, more efficient or, perhaps, just sexier.  Some seem to recur every generation or so. 

One of the more interesting variations was the Hetchins "curly stays" frame:

The late, great Sheldon Brown rode the Hetchins in the photo.  There was, believe it or not, a reason for those stays.  In the 1930s, races were often run over rough roads or even cobblestones.  Curved forks absorbed some of the shock in the front.  Straight rear stays, on the other hand, transmitted the road shocks, which caused the bike and even the rider to rattle and shake.  That, in turn, resulted in wasted motion. (Think about that the next time you hear "stiffer is better"!) 

So, the idea of curling the rear stays was so that they would replicate, on the rear, what curved forks did in front.  I guess there is something to that idea:  After all, mountain bikes with rear suspension can go faster because they're more stable on rough terrain. 

Whether or not curly stays offer an advantage to a loaded touring cyclist is debatable; there doesn't seem to be any advantage to them on the track.  Still, there were track bikes with curly stays and other unconventional designs because builders weren't allowed to "advertise" on their bikes.  Hence, decals, transfers and other markers bearing the builder's or manufacturer's name were not permitted.  So some builders--like Hetchins--called attention to their bikes with unusual designs.

Another variation on the diamond frame is the split seat tube that was a feature of bikes like the Rigi of the late 1970s and early 1980s:

As you can see, this design, by allowing the tire to run between the twin lateral seat tubes, shortens the bike's wheelbase, which makes for faster acceleration and greater rigidity.  I had the opportunity to try a Rigi and it did indeed feel stiffer in the rear and had more of a "jack rabbit" feel than other bikes I'd ridden.  The Rigi I tried was a road model; I can only imagine how a track model would have felt!



I found myself thinking about those bikes when I came across this: 

Baines Brothers of England made the "Flying Gate" frame from the early 1930's until the early 1950s.  Baines Brothers didn't actually call their frames "Flying Gate"; rather, it's a nickname the bike acquired because of its shape.

As with the Rigi, one justification for the design is that it shortened the wheelbase to 100cm (39.5 inches), which was all but unheard-of on a road bike at that time. 

Ironically, even though the frame was intended for road use, it seems to have track ends on it.  Maybe they had the same idea I had in mind when I built Tosca, my Mercian fixie:  a responsive fixed-gear bike that could be ridden on the road.  Perhaps whoever rode the bike set it up with a "flip flop" or double-sided hub, as was common on British "club bikes" of the time.


From what Hilary Stone says about these bikes, the model in the photos is probably a later one, as the earlier ones--like most bikes from the '30's--used relatively plain lugs. 

Trevor Jarvis acquired the rights to the design and produced a number of frames at his TJ Cycles shop in Burton-on-Trent during the late 1970s.  Though most were made for time trialing, his shop produced, interestingly, a touring model.  In a way, it makes sense, for one complaint many cyclists have about traditional touring bikes is that their long rear triangles and wheelbases cause them to handle like lumber wagons.  Of course, one problem with riding a short-wheelbase bike for loaded touring is that your heels get caught in the panniers and the vibration transferred through the stiffer rear triangle makes the bike less stable and tires the rider on rough surfaces.

According to Stone, riders generally appreciated the responsive ride offered by the "Flying Gate."  I would be curious to try one myself!

25 February 2016

A Proteus Bicycle: They--Or You--Could Build It

The other day, in writing about the Tokheim "Gear Maker", I mentioned that a number of American manufacturers tried to cash in on their country's "Bike Boom" during the 1970s, even though those companies had no experience in making anything bike-related.  Most, like Tokheim, were either out of the bike business or defunct within a decade. 
Then there were companies like Cannondale and Bellwether that entered the market during the decade, which also included a "boom" in hiking, skiing, camping and other outdoor activities.  Bellwether made bike bags and clothing; they are still in the bike clothing business.  (I still use some winter items of theirs I bought years ago.)  And, of course, Cannondale is one of the best-known names in cycling.  They still offer small seat and frame pouches, but not the panniers or handlebar bags many of us used in tours past.  "C" also has a line of bike clothing in addition to their bikes.  Ironically, when Cannondale first appeared on the scene in 1970, they did not make bicycles or bicycle clothing (those items would not be part of the company's offerings for another dozen years); the hiking, camping and skiing  gear they made in those days hasn't been made since the mid-1980's.
During the 1970s in the US, there was also something of a mini-boom in hand- and custom-frame building.  During the days of the six-day races, there were many such builders, especially in the New York, Detroit and Chicago areas, as well as in California.  Some hung on during the "dark ages" of cycling after World War II and catered to the small but enthusiastic community of cyclists still found in the 'States.  But most of those builders had either died, left the business or retired by the 1960s.  So, the American builders of the 1970s were mostly a new breed.
One of the most respected was Albert Eisentraut, who worked in the San Francisco Bay area.  One way in which he and the other new American builders differed from those of the previous generation is that they were home-grown and, in many cases, self-taught, in contrast to earlier builders who came from the other side of the Atlantic or had spent considerable time there.  Also, the new builders didn't even have the remanants of a racing or general cycling culture the earlier builders could draw upon.
That lack of precedent was both a hindrance and a help.  Of course, it was a hindrance because it steepened the learning curve for the newcomers; also, there were some (whom we don't hear about today) who didn't stay in the "game" because they overheated frame tubes or made other mistakes that resulted in their frames failing or simply not riding satisfactorily.  On the other hand, the lack of antecedents also gave the newcomers the freedom to approach their work in ways traditional builders never would have dreamed of.


A Proteus touring bike, circa 1977

 One of those new builders was really a collective known as Proteus Cycles.  Founded by Barry Konig, Larry Dean and Steve Schuman in 1971, they weren't French-style constructeurs who built the whole bike from the ground up with custom-made components.  They even, in some ways, parted company with British builders like Ron Cooper, from whom they learned many of their skills.  Builders like Cooper, Bob Jackson and Mercian usually sell frames, whether custom or stock, and customers or their local shop build them up with components the customer chooses (although those builders sometimes sell complete bikes).  But the frames you get from such builders are entirely their own work; while the customer might have a say in designing it, he or she leaves the actual building to the builder.

The customer could order such a frame, or a complete bike, from Proteus.  Or, he or she could let them build it, and finish it him or herself. Or he or she could build the frame and Proteus would finish it.

Dan Rovelli's 1979 Proteus.  From Classic Rendezvous

That last option was particularly intriguing.  You see, at its peak, Proteus held frame-building classes and even published a book about frame building, penned by a fictitious "Dr. Paul Proteus."  Konig, Dean and Schulman were, of course, the probable authors, and they recommended that anyone who wanted to build a frame should read it first--even before taking their classes or ordering one of the frame-building kits (which included tubing, lugs and other fitments) Proteus sold.  It was even possible to buy individual frame fitments, such as fork tangs, from the builders.

Ben Dillingham's Proteus, with modern touches

I like to think that Proteus was more like a studio or a gallery combined with an art-supply shop than a traditional bike-building enterprise:  the artists/artisans not only worked on their creations; they also conducted classes and the organization sold the materials needed as well as related publications.  To my knowledge, no European or Japanese (or, for that matter, any other American) builder offered such a wide range of products and services.

I have tried to find out when, exactly, Proteus stopped being, well, Proteus.  Apparently, that happened some time in the late 1980s or thereabouts.  At that time, technology started to displace craftsmanship in the bicycle world, and I think that people simply didn't have as much time (or money) to spend on classes or to build their own bikes. I know that when I have a limited amount of time, I'd rather ride my bikes than work on them!

Today there is a bike shop called Proteus that is a descendent of the legendary bike-building collective.  Apparently, the Proteus partners continued to operate a bicycle retail business after they stopped building frames and, in time, sold the business to others.  According to the shop's website, it holds social events and holds classes as well as rides.  I guess, in some way, they are keeping up the spirit of "Dr. Paul Proteus."

(P.S.:  Jill Di Mauro bought the shop in 2002.  In 2007, Di Mauro married her Canadian partner in Canada.  Though Maryland would legalize same-sex marriage four years later, federal laws--including immigration statutes--didn't recognize their union.  So, when Di Mauro's wife's visa expired, she had to return to Canada.  In 2012, Di Mauro sold the shop and moved to upstate New York to be closer to her wife while she applied to return to the US.)

24 February 2016

Braving The City, Saving The World

Now here's someone I admire:



even though, after seeing him, I'd still be reluctant to ride a recumbent bike in traffic.

The photo appeared on This Big City, where I also found this infographic:


23 February 2016

The Gear Maker

During the 1970's Bike Boom, millions of Americans bought ten-speed bikes.  Many people rode them only a few times, or once.  Some didn't like the dropped handlebars or small "hard" seats; others couldn't quite get the hang of shifting derailleurs.  Given the fragile nature of most derailleurs of the time, the results weren't pretty, especially when the derailleurs were out of adjustment or the rider tried to shift while standing still or under pressure.

Then there were the engineering types and tinkerers who look at any mechanical device and think "There must be a better way."  And, finally, there were lots of newly-minted lawyers with too much time on their hands who saw all sorts of potential lawsuits lurking. (Some of them helped to found the CPSC.)

One of the best-remembered attempts to correct the "deficiencies" of derailleur gearing was Shimano's Front Freewheeling system.  Basically, it incorporated a freewheel-like mechanism between the chainrings and crank so that the chainrings spun as long as the wheels were spinning. This allowed riders to shift without pedaling. 

Some people who were accustomed to internally-geared hubs (like Sturmey-Archer three-speeds) liked this new innovation, which is probably the reason why it developed something of a following in Germany, where many people still cycled for transportation but few were accustomed to derailleurs.  However, the FF system was heavy and complicated, and was equipped only on entry-level bikes.

Another attempt to bypass the idiosyncrasies of derailleurs and multiple rear sprockets is all but forgotten today.  But it was interesting in its own way.

Before its foray into the bicycle business, Tokheim had about seven decades' worth of experience in manufacturing fuel dispensers and pumps, and equipment for payment terminals and retail automation systems.  So, if you've ever owned or managed a gas station, you've seen or used Tokheim equipment.

Like a few other American companies, Tokheim thought the Bike Boom was an opening for a new profitable market.  And, like those other companies (including, of all companies, Beatrice Foods!), they thought they could make bike parts and accessories even though they had absolutely no experience with them--or, it could seem, cycling. 

Then again, Tokheim's experience with pumps and other kinds of machinery had, it would seem, at least some applicability to designing and manufacturing a bicycle gearing system.  It was at least somewhat in evidence in their "Gear Maker" system.

The Tokheim Gear Maker

When drivetrains with derailleurs are shifted to their extreme positions (small chainring with the smallest rear cog or largest chainring with largest rear cog), severe chainline angles can result.  This usually results in noisier running; in worse cases, it leads to premature chain and cog wear.  In the worst cases (especially with an inexperienced and unskilled rider), the chain can be thrown off the cogs and into the wheels or get stuck between the chainrings and chainstay.

Most cyclists learned, in time, not to shift into the extreme gear positions--or to do so carefully.  However, some could never get past that first experience of a missed shift.  Or, if they had no previous experience with multi-cog systems, they were intimidated.

That is the "need" the Tokheim system was intended to meet.  Imagine an old-fashioned Ferris wheel:  the kind with a "spider" that rotates around an axle at its center and "cars" or "gondolas" at the end of each arm.  Those cars and arms are in fixed positions and will always reach the same height at the peak of their rotation. 

Now imagine that between those arms, there are other arms, except that these arms are expandable and retractable.  Thus, the Ferris wheel operator could expand the diameter (and height) of the wheel for more adventurous customers.  But the cars of those expanded and contracted cars would rotate in the same plane as the cars on arms with fixed lengths.

The gear in the "gear maker" was like that Ferris wheel.  It was operated with a twist-grip shifter.  When the shifter was in its "high" position (slackened cable), the chain ran on the smallest gear, which was fixed to the axle.  Shifting down made an interposer arm push a series of bars out successively.  At the end of each bar were teeth like those of a typical rear sprocket.  The chain ran on a larger sprocket something like the "skip tooth" cogs found on some 1970s freewheels.  A tensioner--basically a derailleur cage and pulleys--took up chain slack.

For a time, the Tokheim system came as standard equipment on a few Huffy and Murray bikes.  I never saw a bicycle sold in a bike shop that was equipped with the Tokheim system, and I don't know whether anyone ever retrofitted it to a bike.  For that matter, I didn't know anyone who rode it, and only got to work on a couple of them, so I don't know how they performed in the "real world".  However, as the gears were made of plastic, I suspect they wore fairly quickly.  And, as Tokheim stopped making it around 1980 and, to my knowledge, never offered replacement parts (and because most of the bikes that came with them have long since ended up in landfills), I don't suspect that very many Tokheim Gear Makers are in use today.  But, I think, they are interesting nonetheless.

22 February 2016

Fishers Of Bicycles

If you grew up in Brooklyn during the 1960s and early 1970s, as I did, you heard stories about the Gowanus Canal.  One such tale held that it was the Mafia's necropolis:  Under the cover of night, hitmen hauled bodies from car trunks and tossed them into the turbid water.  The sheer number of such corpses, according to the legend, accounted for the foul smell that wafted from water as lifeless as the bodies submerged in it. 

A variation on this urban myth said that one reason why the "mob" chose the canal as its graveyard is that the chemicals in the water dissolved those bodies, effectively making their benighted owners disappear from the face of the earth.

While I must admit that I don't find such stories wholly implausible, I must also add this bit of historical fact:  Mesopotamians built the earliest known canals about 6000 years ago, while modern sewer systems have a history of not much more than a century.  Thus, almost any body of water could turn into a dump for everything from agricultural offal to industrial waste.  Really, just about anything that any person or company wanted to dispose could end up in a river, lake, ocean or canal.  

Yes, anything--including a bicycle.  A onetime riding buddy confessed that a bike he no longer wanted and couldn't sell "ended up" at the bottom of Jamaica Bay.  I have no doubt that thieves similarly disposed of bicycles they couldn't fence or simply didn't know what else to do with.  And I'm sure that more than a few people have tossed bikes into the nearest stream along with household trash.

via">http://giphy.com/gifs/bike-bicycle-amsterdam-3o85xAnA3oeurjxQRi">via GIPHY

Apparently, the latter fate seems to befall two-wheelers in Amsterdam.  So many bikes piled up in Amsterdam's canals that, by the 1960's, they were scraping the bottoms of boats, according to Diane Kleinhout.  She is a spokesperson for Waternet, an agency in charge of keeping the canals clean.  In the agency's attempt to clear out bikes--as well as scooters, wheelchairs, shopping carts and other wheeled items--Waternet employs bike fishermen.

Yes, you read that right.   The job of Richard Matser and Jan de Jonge is to use a huge hydraulic claw to trawl the canal's waters and base for the old bikes and other debris.  Their job has been compared to sticking your hand into a sink full of sudsy water and groping around blindly, with your fingers, until find a spoon or whatever you were looking for.  When the "fishermen" find a bike, they pull it out of the water and load it into a barge behind the claw.  Eventually, the bikes and whatever else the "fishermen" pull up will go to a recycler.

De Jonge says they "catch" about 15,000 bicycles a year.  Given that there are about two million bicycles in Amsterdam, that is a small percentage. Still, no one knows why that many bikes end up in the city's waterways. Some are attributed to thieves.  Ironically, in a city where, it seems, everybody rides bikes, two-wheelers don't get the same reverential treatment that American bike enthusiasts lavish on them.    Utility bikes can be bought for very little money; repairing them can cost more, so--according to one theory--people simply chuck them.

21 February 2016

Saturday Night And Sunday Morning

Look carefully at this photo:

What do you see in the bottom right corner?

If you said, "bottom bracket spindles", you:  a.) have a great eye, b.) have the right app handy, c.) spend too much time looking at bike blogs or d.) have seen Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

That seminal British New Wave film basically put Albert Finney on the map.  In SNaSM, his second film, he plays Arthur Seaton, whom we meet at work in the film's very first scene.  Where, exactly, does he work?  We know it's a bicycle factory, and we learn it's in Nottingham.  Let's see...If it were an American film and it said he worked in a bicycle factory in Chicago, we would probably assume--rightly--it was the Schwinn plant.  Likewise, our hunch that he works in the old Raleigh factory proves to be correct.

Now, as much as many of us would like to work in the bicycle industry, working in a bicycle factory is really just as boring and repetitive as working in any other kind of factory.  And so it is for Arthur, in spite of the good wage and esteem of his colleagues he earns.  

The tedium of working the lathe and his humdrum life lead him to spend his free time in pubs, where he meets Brenda, the wife of a co-worker.  He gets falling-down drunk, she takes him home and they have breakfast before her husband returns from a weekend at the races.

If I were to spend my time giving advice about everyday living instead of teaching academic skills, one of the first things I'd tell young people is that they should never, ever get into bed with anyone they meet while drinking.  It never ends well.  It doesn't for Arthur, either.  You can guess what happened. And later he confesses everything to Doreen, a young unmarried girl he meets during another night at the pub.  

Oh, if you're not interested in looking at the inner workings of the Raleigh factory or a working-class pub, you can enjoy the adorable Shirley Anne Field, who plays Doreen.

20 February 2016

Riding To Ride, Again

A month has passed since I came home from visiting my parents in Florida.  Today I did something I hadn't done since returning: I took a bike ride that wasn't a commute or errand, or wasn't in some other way utilitarian.

I got on the bike with no specific plan other than to pedal toward Rockaway Beach and do whatever came next.  Rockaway is about fifteen miles (25 km) from my apartment.  So, I reasoned, even if I pedaled there and back, it was a reasonable ride--especially if I rode it in a fixed gear.

So out Tosca, my Mercian fixie, came.  I had another reason for riding her today:  I had just cleaned up Arielle, my Mercian Audax, and Vera, my green Mercian mixte.   Part of the clean-up included installing new chains and cassettes. I hadn't yet done the same for Tosca, though I plan to do so.  (I probably won't change the chain, though:  1/8" chains don't wear nearly as quickly as 3/32" chains  used with derailleurs.)  I figured that there was still some slop on the streets, so if I got some in Tosca's drivetrain, it will give me incentive to clean her up.  

Oh, I had one other reason to ride Tosca:  the course would be flat.

Riding her felt great.  So great, in fact, that I didn't turn around at Rockaway Beach.  Instead, I decided to ride along the ocean from Rockaway to Riis Park and across the bridge to Brooklyn, where I'd continue pedaling along the ocean to Coney Island.  

It was a lovely ride in the late-afternoon sun (I woke up late today!) even though for most of it, I was pedaling into 25-35 KPH wind, which blew out of the west.  Of course, there was something else in the west:

I would ride alongside that sunset from Coney Island all the way up to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  When I reached the end of the promenade, the sky was darkening and I reached into my seat bag for my lights.  I figured I would ride to Greenwood Cemetery (about 3 km) or Barclays Center (another 3 km) and decide whether to dodge the drunk trust fund kids who, I figured, would be tumbling out of bars and onto the streets and bike lanes of Williamsburg.

At Barclays, I decided to continue, as I was feeling good and traffic had been lighter than I expected.  Best of all, I didn't see any of the drunk trust fund kids tumbling ouot of bars.  Maybe it was too early for that (though, I must say, I've seen them not long after noon on weekends!).  There weren't even many cyclists on the Kent Avenue bike lane, especially given how mild the weather was for this time of year.

So...I did 85 kilometers today.  Yes, they were flat.  But I did them on a fixed.  And I rode into the wind for about 25 of those kilometers.  Oh, why am I counting anything?  I had a really nice ride. I'm happy.

19 February 2016

An American Constructeur And The Champion He Married

When I first became aware of custom frame builders, I thought constructeur was just a French term for "builder", just as gruppo is Italian for "group."

In time, I would learn just what a fine art translation is.  "Gruppo" might indeed look like "group", but its real meaning, I believe, is more like like "ensemble".  Likewise, although we may talk about the "construction" of a frame made by a "builder", and we may talk about the "build" of something made by a constructeur, builders and constructeurs are not always the same folks.  Or, to be more exact, a constructeur is a builder but a builder may or may not be a constructeur. 

So what is the difference?  Usually, frame builders (such as the classic British builders like Bob Jackson, Jack Taylor, Mercian and Ephgraves) built just the frame and perhaps one or two components, such as an integrated headset.  As often as not, people buy just the frame from the builder and build (or have a local shop build) the bike from it.  Some builders don't offer complete bikes; those that do will use high-quality components from manufacturers like Campagnolo, Mavic and Shimano to complete the bike.

On the other hand, a constructeur usually offers only complete bikes made to the customer's order.  While the constructeur might use, for example, Mavic rims and DT spokes, he might lace them to a hub he makes (or at least designs) himself.  And if he doesn't make or design those components, he may modify or treat them (as Herse famously did with Brooks saddles) to his specifications.

The term is French for a reason:  The idea of a frame-builder building the whole (or most of) the bicycle has had the most currency in France.  So, not surprisingly, most constructeurs are/were indeed French, or at least worked in France. 

Most, but not all.  A few British builders emulated the practices of French constructeurs.  Jack Taylor might be the most notable example:  He was often called "the most French" of English builders, in part because of his style of building frames, but also because he usually built the complete bike for the customer.  Part of the reason why he may have worked as he did was that many of his bikes (and, perhaps, the ones for which he was most noted) were touring and racing tandems, for which most commercially-available parts were not well-suited.

Believe it or not, at least one American bike-builder might be regarded as a constructeur in the manner of Herse or Singer.  Actually, the Yank in question could have put his French counterparts to shame in at least one way:  He actually made the tubing he used to build his bikes.  Herse, Singer and  other constructeurs usually worked with Reynolds or other high-quality tubing available from manufacturers.

So who is this master designer/craftsman/artisan?  Unless you are of a certain age and, unlike your peers, were a cyclist or bike enthusiast in your youth, you probably don't know about him.  I'll admit that I didn't, until recently.

George Omelenchuk (1920-1994) was a skilled machinist, tool and die maker and watch maker.  He was also a photographer who, while on active duty during World War II, developed his pictures in a small tent, using his helmet for a developer and stop bath.  (Would you try that at home?)  It was during the War that he started to build bicycles--for the US Army cycling team. 

Upon returning to civilian life, he continued to build bikes.  Some would say he was not a very prolific builder, having made only about 50 bikes during his lifetime.  But when you realize that in his shop, he used a proprietary extrusion process to  make his own frame tubing, spokes and rims--and that he cast and forged stems, fork crowns, dropouts, pedals hubs and bearing races, and even did his own chrome-plating--it almost seems a miracle that he made as many bikes as he did, while never abandoning his machining or tool-and-die- and watch-making work.

He made some of his bikes--like the 1960 track machine in the photos--for his wife Jeanne (nee Robinson, 1931-2008), the first woman to win national championships in two major sports:  cycling and speed skating.  She won her first cycling championship as a 20-year-old in 1952 and her final one twenty-eight years later, with three other national championships during that span.  In the meantime, she also skated on the first women's Olympic speed-skating team in 1960 and returned in 1968 and 1972, making her, to this day, the only woman to participate in three Olympiads as a speed skater. 

Jeanne (Robinson) Omelenchuk, (on left), 1951

She raced and skated at a time when female athletes, especially in the sports in which she competed, had far fewer opportunities and received much less recognition than their male counterparts.  Her husband was, in essence, a constructeur during a time and in a place when few adults rode bicycles and even fewer rode, let alone built, bikes like his.  In this sense, they might be seen as a pioneering couple in American cycling.

George and Jeanne, circa 1964.

Oh, and they lived and worked in Detroit.  Although it's still thought of as "Motor City", the "D" has long been one of America's cycling centers, with a disproportionate share of the nation's cycle industry as well as cyclists.  In fact, local racers such the Simeses  and Gene Porteusi did much to keep the cycling torch flickering, if not burning, during the Dark Ages of the 1950s.

I would love to see an Omelenchuk bike in person  .Better yet, I'd love to ride one!

(N.B.:  The bike photos were taken by Ken Denny, who now owns the bike, and are found on Fixed Gear Gallery.)