Friday, September 11, 2015

1979 Ross Professional Gran Tour 1-Year Review: Not Really Professional, Grand, nor Touring but Still Quite Alright!

So I've had the bike for a year now and it's been almost as long since I last looked at the "before" photos. After being given a year to "develop our relationship," the Ross now looks and feels like a totally different bike to me.

I remember taking the bike for a ride shortly after getting it, learning how it felt as it was. It was my first road bike and I had only ridden a road bike once before. I used to think that the frame was super stiff and although it is a little stiffer than my bendy Raleigh frames due to the molten-salt-bath brazing method, it's not all that different. I think the feeling was in part because old saddle put pressure in all the wrong places.

The bike has seen a series of drivetrain upgrades. Originally, it had no front derailleur and a very tired one at the back. That was quickly remedied with a Suntour set from a Schwinn Criss Cross mountain bike. The long cage rear derailleur still had tension and worked pretty well; I have forgotten why I chose to change that. Anyway, I then used a Sunlite 5-speed rear derailleur that I stretched to 6 for a short time before arriving at the current Shimano TX-35 7-speed derailleur. I can reach all seven cogs in the back, but on the smallest gears front and rear, the chain deflects so much that it rubs on the large chainring.

A month or two ago, I think at the same time I installed the new derailleur, I got rid of the old stem shifters and installed some Sunrace mountain bike friction shifters. I found it hard to accelerate in town, go through the gears, and maintain my balance over the pot holes with the stem shifters so I created a "brifter" (not really) setup that would enable me to keep both hands on the bars. It made a world of difference. Shifting is still not completely precise, but it is miles better than it was before and it's adequate 90% of the time.

After the shenanigans with trimming old tires for snow before the winter, I settled for a pair of super cheap no-name 700 x 28c city tread tires. They had little rolling resistance and were fairly light - I felt there really wasn't anything significantly wrong with them (aside from difficulty in installation) until I found cracks propagating from the bead on the rear tire after only 9 months of city riding. Even the gumwall Sunlite/Kenda hybrid tires I first had on my Raleigh Sports lasted over a year and then they weren't nearly this bad before I retired them.

Anyway, I took this chance to upgrade to Continental Tour Ride 700 x 32c tires since I'd been looking at them for a while. They were not expensive, either. Immediate feelings were that the 80 psi rating was a tad low and cornering felt mushy due to the knobs bending and creating a great deal of noise. However, I soon realized that the soft tread and extra width made for significantly improved comfort on the Ann Arbor roads. On top of that, the soft corner knobs actually made the bike less likely to bounce up over cracks while turning so they in fact made cornering a little better in the city. Rolling resistance did not increase to the point that I noticed it so that was nice, too.

While I had the bike in the air, I replaced the denim front fender extension. It was tattered and disgustingly dirty after going through a winter, spring, and summer and it would frequently bounce up and get stuck on the tire as it rotated upward. I upgraded to a piece of 1-liter Coke bottle which should work well for a while, assuming I don't accidentally kick it off.

I remember finding the Planet Bike rack and fenders out for trash in late 2014 and they continue to provide good service. The rack is one of the best I have used, despite the less-than-perfect way it is connected to the brake bridge instead of the seat stays. I think those are the only modifications I did early on that have stuck. The brake setup has changed numerous times (the most frightening version being the one brake operated by a bolted-together cable) as has the saddle. The first replacement saddle I bought was a gigantic Yosemite cruiser saddle that took more trouble than it was worth to get rid of. I mean, it was a good saddle and did its job as designed, but it was not meant for a road bike, or any semi-serious cyclist for that matter. I then ran a Serfas spring saddle for a long time, through the winter and up until a week ago. It was very comfortable and fit me reasonably well but was extremely heavy. I have been using this Cloud 9 saddle for a little while now and it works well for my usual short rides around town. I only begin to realize it is not perfect after more than 20 miles, as I will get to later.

I discovered months ago that the old stem had in fact broken inside the steerer, so I bought a Schwinn Varsity stem thinking it would suit the bike well since it was tough and could take a lot of abuse.  I wasn't incorrect about that, but I started feeling that the stem was very short in both dimensions and it had me crouching lower than I'd like on the drops. I recently bought a KHS adjustable angle stem which is also vertically longer so lots of adjustments can be made. This was partly in preparation for a 140-mile round trip I was going to make to East Lansing to see some old friends and I thought having the extra flexibility in the stem would help make things more comfortable as the miles rolled by.

So, after having bought new tires, stem, saddle, panniers, gloves, and a frame bag for the trip, I ended up not being able to make the trip due to time constraints and schedules not matching up. However, I was still able to try the stuff out during a 50-mile round trip to fix my sister's 3-speed. I piled maybe 20 pounds worth of tools and spare parts into the BV 34.8-liter panniers and rode on home. While that wasn't an extreme amount of weight or distance by any stretch, I figured it was enough to develop an immediate opinion about my equipment.

First, the panniers have a very secure mounting system and never came loose. My experience was pretty much on par with the reviews online and the reflective parts were nice to have since my ride back was mostly in the dark. The Cloud 9 saddle felt alright for most of the ride home but the more-rounded-than-flat shape started getting to me later on. I had to shift around every once in a while to relieve pressure. As for the stem, I didn't actually get to turn it upwards but I started feeling the need to do that close to the end of my trip since my hands were getting numb. Again, it's nice to know I can raise the bars if needed. I think the numbness is due to the fact that I have rubber grips rather than bar tape and I still had the bars set pretty low that time.

Lastly, let's not forget about the bike itself! Immediately after hitting the road, I realized that despite having all the weight hanging off the back, the riding characteristics of the Ross Gran Tour did not change one bit. It still handled the same and I couldn't really detect a difference in acceleration. I read somewhere that the bike has really long chain stays and a long wheelbase that might help with loaded handling (I haven't had a chance to compare with other road bikes). Through the entire ride, I almost forgot that the bags were there because it just felt like a regular bike ride. I never thought this bike was particularly fast or light when commuting in town so I guess this is where the Gran Tour really shines. I have a feeling that this was the first time this bike has been used for something remotely close to touring in its 36 years and sadly, judging by the rust at the frame joints, there might not be much time left for the Ross to be enjoyed.

Yes, enjoyed. Although I first got the Ross to use as an around-town beater and still use it as such, I have grown to like it quite a bit. It may not be the lightest or finest frame of its time and none of the components are exceptional by any stretch of mind, but it and its mishmash of parts have given me a year and almost a thousand miles of dependable service. I haven't been left stranded with so much as a flat tire on all of the adventures that I brought it on. The frame looks to have taken many harsh beatings without complaint. While I'm not doing anything special to extend its life other than a few squirts of frame saver, tears may be shed after it sees its last mile. Here's to hoping we get to spend at least a few more years together.