Saturday, May 2, 2009

Can't Leave Well Enough Alone

I am one of those that has what I call the "More Power" disease. This is a nod to the old sitcom Home Improvement, where Tim Allen's character can't seem to leave anything as it is, and has to modify everything to suit his eccentric tastes, in his case adding ridiculous amounts of power to any appliance with a motor in it. I have my own eccentric ideas about the way things should be, and though there are people out there who build things the way I want them, it always seems that those things cost much more than I can justify spending. Like when I wanted to buy a new car, I wanted a microcar. The only microcar on the market is the Smart Fortwo, and for reasons unknown the local dealership was asking about $15,000 for a Smart sans A/C. Needless to say, I don't drive a fortwo.

Or the bikes I like, old handbuilt steel frames designed with attention and care, that have flowing graceful lines, beautiful paint and chrome accents, and a smooth days-on-end ride quality. Sure there are folks out there that make such bikes, and do a great job at it. But I can't afford the $3,000+ a bike from Rivendell, Sweet Pea, or the like are asking.

So I do the best I can with what is available, and find cheap ways to make the things I can afford suit my taste. I built up a club racing Fuji with the idea of running 650B wheels, but when it was finished it was obvious the only wheelset and tires that would fit were thin 700 x 23c, think "skinny" with a capital S. It's fast, pretty, and fun to ride around, but it's also buzzy, somewhat flat-prone, and no way can it fit fenders. Simply, it could never be more than a sunny day ride.

I recently found a pretty Trek 560 frame and fork sitting on the local bike shop's shelf, with nice paint and racing geometry, and my mind instantly sprang back to the 650B wheelset I had sitting in the garage. A week later, Holly's new commuter took to the streets. It has lots of room, cushy but fast-rolling Grand Bois tires that are a good 10mm wider than what would be possible with the original sized wheels. Even though the width has increased, and the diameter of the wheels decreased, the bike still acts sprightly, and accelerates quickly to cruising speed.

Not that there are no problems with switching to a smaller sized wheel on the frame. The first and most obvious problem comes when you try to mount a brake. The original brakes were placed to hit the rim quite a few millimeters higher than the 650B rim, so you have to hunt down some longer-reach brakes. I was lucky enough to have some Dia-Compe centerpulls in the garage that worked perfectly, but the popularity of wheel conversions has prompted brake makers such as Tektro to start building some very nice brakes for just this kind of build.

The other problem is less apparent, but impossible to fix. Since the new 650B wheels are smaller than the original wheels, the bike sits a bit lower than it was designed to. This actually places the top-tube in a lower position which can have stand-over benefits to some riders. But it also moves the bottom bracket, and therefore the crankset and pedals, closer to the ground. This isn't a terrible problem so long as you are aware of it, and don't pedal through a deep turn. I've already had a pedal or two strike pavement as I rounded a turn, and have cautioned Holly about it. It would be much more worrisome on a fixed gear bike, where you can't help but continue to pedal through a turn.

I finished off the build with some old Campagnolo Victory shifters and derailers, and busted out the old Mothers Aluminum Polish to give it all a nice shine and sparkle. Holly reports satisfaction so far. So there you have it. A pretty lugged steel frame made in the US, a lightweight and fast ride, but also made more supple and comfortable due to the additional benefits of the wider 650B tires. Not that it couldn't have a bit more power...

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