Back in the early 1980s, the aspirational bicycles for teenage boys were those wonderful ten speed racers that lived in the back of mail order catalogues. Every new season, you’d enthusiastically thumb through those flimsy pages until you found the bike section, where the latest Raleigh, Peugeot or Falcon would gleam back at you. These ‘sports bikes’ would all feature suicide levers, short mudguards, freewheel discs and, that killer feature, the Kickstand…
I’m a big kickstand fan. Few bicycle accessories have such a splendid balance of function and style. The ability to prop one’s bicycle up wherever one chooses is not to be underestimated and the sight of a machine propped thusly is the very zenith of cycling cool.
If you’re a veteran of bike reviews in the cycling press, you will have noted that there’s an awful lot of hogwash spouted therein; “the inherent springiness of steel”; “one can feel the shock absorbing qualities of those titanium saddle rails”; “the space age nano-technology in that silica tyre compound makes for a plush ride, even at 120psi”.
I’d like to say that, given more than a minute to think, no-one would buy this crap. A whole psuedo-science has sprung up around frame materials, tyre compounds and the like, which detracts from the glaring if unglamorous fact that what affects the perceived ride quality of any bicycle are its contact points; and by this I mean the bits that are in contact with the ground and the rider.
Despite the received wisdom of the bike press, the plushness you feel when riding a quality steel frame probably isn’t coming from any inherent properties of the frame itself. More likely it’s the thick bar tape, the cush in those 32mm tyres or the shape of that well worn-in B17 that’s isolating your lower back and wrists from the ‘thousand natural shocks’ of an average ride.
As much as tyre manufacturers would like to convince you that the highly evolved rubber compounds and mithril-like tyre casings of their expensive, top-end tyre is giving you that magic-carpet, perpetual motion feeling, it’s more likely that it’s the cheap-as-chips air inside the tyre that’s providing that feeling of cush.
I’m an natural-born bike tinkerer and this has led me to try many different combinations of handlebar, tape, grips, stems, saddles, pedals and tyres on my bikes. This experience has taught me that you can completely change the comfort and dynamics of a bike by changing its contact points.
A recent case in point: I’ve just swapped out the original quill pedals on my junk-shop find ten speed Peugeot, replacing them with a pair of my favourite pedals – DX style concave platform pedals. This is the last in a series of changes I’ve made to the bike – a low-end ‘racer’ bike from the late eighties, made from plain old steel and with bottom of the pile but honest to goodness components. All of the changes I’ve made to the bike (bar a wheel swap due to a dodgy rear wheel) have been to the contact points:
Gel padded bar tape for shock absorbency
Leather saddle for tailored comfort and breathability
Wide as the frame will allow 35mm tyres – enabling me to run them at around 60psi, as opposed to 100psi for 25mm hoops
Wide, grippy and supportive pedals which approximate the size of human feet.
These upgrades are all ergonomic – they’re all to do with interface between the bicycle and I, and the bicycle and the earth. I feel sure that these modest upgrades to this modest bike have more effect on comfort (and therefore ‘performance’) than a host of high-tech, weight-weenie indulgences.
To my mind, the main feature that makes the venerable ten speed bicycle a far more practical real world road bike than its modern descendent is tyre clearance. An average modern road bike will take accommodate a maximum tyre of around 25mm wide – some, more by luck that good jugdment, might squeeze in a 28mm, but only just.
Ever since acquiring my late eighties Peugeot ten speed, I’ve been keen to exploit its big tyre potential – I’m a firm believer in the dictum that states if you’re not racing, you should fit the plushest tyres that your frame will allow. Doing so will dramatically improve comfort, protect the bike and rider from road shock and open up new routes on more varied surfaces. With big tyres on your road bike, that enticing gravel road shortcut is suddenly a real option.
I was always aware that the clearances on the ten speed would allow plusher tyres than the 23mm gumwalls that it was specified with back in 1987. Indeed I’d been running 25mm Specialized All Conditions with 35mm fenders, with no issues at all. However, lately I began to think of bigger tyres, initially pondering a set of 28mm hoops – assuming that this would possibly be the biggest tyre that would fit comfortably.
It was then that I had the brainwave of seeing if my 35mm Schwalbe Delta Cruisers (in cream) would fit between the Peugeot’s slender stays. If nothing else, the experiment would set some outer limits on tyre size.
And so it came to pass – I was dubious yet hopeful as I uninstalled the fenders and removed the skinny 25mm tyres, before slipping the gorgeous cream Delta Cruisers onto the Weinmann rims. At this point, I was hoping against hope that they would work, purely on aesthetic grounds – the wide cream tyres looked amazing on the vintage polished aluminium rims and slender Maillard QR hubs – I would be gutted if they didn’t work.
With some trepidation, I slipped the rear wheel back between the dropouts, aligned it and snugged up the QR. So far so good, plenty of clearance at the brake bridge, between the stays and under the chainstay bridge too. However, the real test would come when the tyres were inflated to a working pressure. I attached the track pump and began to inflate – 30, 40, 45, 50 psi – and lo! still plenty of room (around 8mm each side and over 1cm beneath the bridge)! Praise the Lord! Fat tyre compatibility had been verified.
It was a similar story at the front end, with around 1cm clearance beneath the Weinmann 500 caliper (regarded as a ‘short reach’ brake in its day but now firmly in the ‘medium’ camp). OK, there’s no chance of fitting a fender now, but the benefits in terms of ride, practicality and looks are well worth the sacrifice.
My first proper ride on the newly shod bike was a revelation, made all the more pleasant by the UK’s currently sublime spring weather. My test ride location was Croxteth Country Park, my favourite destination for a local spin on the paths, gravel tracks and hardpack trails. Today the park was alive with families enjoying the Easter weekend. However I could still find that counterpoint of solitude in the park’s farthest reaches – at one point I seemed to be riding through a dreamscape – a secluded bluebell wood with blossom descending like snow from the branches above, the birds in full spring tune and the smell of wild garlic heavy in the air. Rolling along on the ultra plush 35mm tyred Peugeot in such a scene was a little slice of cycling heaven – the bike is still responsive, yet has an unstoppable, steamroller feel.
I think I may have unwittingly created a retro country bike – a quick, lively, sporty bike that will eat gravel roads all day long.
Anyone else out there created a budget country bike from a ten speed?