‘Good setup’ beats ‘high end’ every time

I’ve never been one for high end kit. I’ve never owned a really posh bike in my life. I’ve owned a few decent ones and a lot of entry level bikes. I’ve also ridden a lot of very expensive bikes over the years.

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, my current bicycle of choice is an old ten speed racer, upon which I’ve been having, these past few weeks, a cycling epiphany. Riding my entry level 1987 Peugeot racer has shown me that good bike setup, good maintenance and inherently ‘right’ design is at least as important as ‘high-end’ in terms of that slippery value of ‘performance’.

The great Grant Petersen is right to point out that performance comes essentially from the rider. The notion of a ‘performance bicycle’ is somewhat misleading. No matter what bike you ride, the motive power comes from you, the rider.

Now I’m not saying (and neither is GP) that the bike is not implicated in the whole performance issue. What I am saying is that a strong rider on a humble yet well set-up, well adjusted and lubed bike can be at least as quick or quicker than someone on a high-end bike that’s poorly maintained. ill-fitting or both.

There’s nothing like the feeling of getting on a bike and it just fitting perfectly. And that’s what happened when I climbed aboard the Peugeot for the first time. Top tube reach and handlebar height was perfect (the big 60cm frame would no doubt be regarded as HUGE for a 6ft rider in the eyes of modern bike fitting experts). The old fashioned Solida double cranks had a narrow Q factor, keeping my feet close together and allowing me to maximise the efficiency of my pedalling.  The 73 degree seat and head tube made the bike respond snappily to pedalling and steering input. Put simply, good design costs nothing and pays back massively.

I’ve had a lighter road bike before, made from aluminium and carbon but it didn’t have that elusive ‘rightness’ that this bike has, low end steel and all. The bars weren’t in the right place – I was constantly swapping stems, rotating bars and moving the seat up, down, fore and aft – to no avail. It just wasn’t right.

The other big factor here is the efficiency that comes from a well lubed and adjusted bike. Wheel bearings set just-so, pedals and bottom bracket slick. Chain lightly oiled and silent. Headset smooth, brakes sharp, tyres at the right pressure. Add all of these small percentage gains together and even an old cheap bike can be fast, efficient and fun.

10 Speed Dreams – Part 3 “Ten to the Dozen”

Since swapping out the steel rimmed wheels for a pair of period 1987 Weinmann rims on Maillard hubs my ten speed has inadvertantly lost ‘essence’. Problem is, my ten-speed is now a 12 speed.

The original 5 speed block - plenty of room betwixt bottom cog and dropout.

Ten-speed has become a generic term (especially in the USA) for a low end road bike of the 70s and 80s, rather than a category of bicycle defined by its number of available cogs. However, the ten-speed purist might baulk at the thought of this upgrade – or indeed the idea of any kind of upgrade. Indeed, my purist streak was troubled by the swap from 5 to 6 rear cogs, but my tight-arsed streak won the day – I was buggered if I was going to buy a freewheel remover to take the lovely old Maillard-Huret 5 speed freewheel off the old wheels and put it on the new wheel.

The wheel swap also threw up a few minor technical challenges, which caused a few delays but in doing so, deepened my knowledge of old bicycle lore. My Peugeot is of 1987 vintage, at which point most low to mid road bikes had moved to 6 speed and the corresponding 126mm rear hub over-locknut dimension. Genuine 5 speeds of the 60s and 70s ran on 120mm spacing (like modern track bikes). However my Peugeot, being the entry level road bike of its day, was downgraded to 5 speed to save money, but ran on a 126mm axle setup, meaning that there was a healthy gap between the smallest rear sprocket and the rear dropout – enough room for a fender nut and bolt.

However, moving to 6 speed meant a wider freewheel block had to fit into the same space, meaning that the chain fouled the fender bolt when on the smallest 14t sprocket. After a little cussing and head-scratching, I found a solution – replace the wide nylock nut with a narrower one and pop a spacer washer behind the allen head bolt of the fender nut, buying me the few mm I needed to allow use of the 6th sprocket.

With new wheel and 6 speed block installed - tighter clearance between 14t sprocket and dropout but just enough with narrower fender bolt.

It’s funny how tiny little issues like this can render a bike unrideable!

Another delay to getting the new wheels on was finding a rear quick release of the right length. Buy a standard QR skewer for a rear wheel these days and it will be the right length for a 130 or 135mm hub and won’t have enough thread to wind down to the right width for an older 126mm hub. However, after a bit of online searching, I found an aesthetically appropriate QR with enough thread on the skewer to do the job, and after trimming the excess skewer off with a hacksaw, the upgraded twelve speed was ready to ride.

The result? The bike is now a full pound lighter, I’ve got quick release wheels, slightly tighter gear ratios, no more annoying buckaroo antics from the back wheel and vastly superior braking. Despite my purist reservations, I’m happy with the outcome.

As a footnote here are a few links which helped me with this task. Sheldon Brown was, as always, the go-to resource for archival knowledge on ‘obsolete’ technology, and the excellent Old Ten Speed Gallery has given me the feeling of not being alone in my ananchronistic ‘other life’. You’ll lose a few hours in both sites. Enjoy.