Saturday, May 28, 2016

Gilbert's Re-Reincarnation: A (bit over) One-Year, 1,000-mile Review

This was going to be a "Farewell and Safe Travels, Good Gilbert" post but I am thankful to say we will not be parting ways for a long time.

Over the past year or so, I had the privilege of building, experimenting, and learning what my preferences for the ideal city bike was. With my initial (and continuing) obsession over old English 3-speeds, I thought a hub-geared Raleigh frame would provide a solid, smooth-riding foundation for further improvements, namely in the braking department. So, I found a 1979 Raleigh Superbe in my size, stripped it down, and built a new wheel set with Sturmey-Archer drum brakes, Dynohub, and 5-speed internal gear drivetrain.

The drum brakes, I thought correctly, would improve the braking performance no matter what. I heard, and now agree, that the secret to drum brakes was not that they were particularly powerful, but that they stayed dry and provided consistent performance no matter the weather. The Sturmey-Archer 70 mm drum brakes are wonderful. They do not provide enough power to lock up the wheels nor would you really want to with an old fork like this, but application was so smooth, easy to control, and adjustment was easy. Leaps and bounds ahead of the Shimano roller brakes that I deal with at work. I wanted to say that if I was to build another bike with drum brakes, these would be my choice; however, I have already moved the front wheel onto another classic Raleigh.

As for the Dynohub side of the new front wheel, performance was initially great. However, later last year, some sort of short or bad connection developed somewhere between the frame and part of the circuit and the light would occasionally cut out. I never really bothered to troubleshoot it. Going back to the old Dynohub, things were back to normal with both connectors going straight from the hub to the headlight. No issues there.

And now, 5-speed vs. 3-speed. The Sturmey-Archer X-RD5, RF5, RK5 - the old family of chain-shifted wide ratio hubs has since been discontinued for a closer-ratio rotary-shifted design. With the old hubs, gears 2, 3, and 4 were the same as the old AW 3-speed, so the 5-speed effectively gave my old bike an extra granny gear and overdrive gear. That in itself wasn't really a problem since I found the 3 gears to be ideal in almost all situations anyway - but that led to me barely ever using gears 1 and 5. Even after almost 1,000 miles, I could still feel roughness of those gears not having been broken in. Reportedly, Sturmey-Archer also never quite hit the spot with the single-cable chain-shifted 5 speed hubs ever since they discontinued the twin-cable S5. I experienced a few problems with mine in the cold weather, which likely resulted from close tolerances and the grease misbehaving. Usually it was 3rd gear not engaging all the way, requiring me to shift into 4th and pull it back into 3rd. The problems disappeared when the weather got above freezing and I was back to banging gears per usual. The newer rotary-shifted series has slightly closer ratios, similar to those of the classic S5 hub. As for the 3-speed hub, I don't think there is anything in particular to say. I used this wheel on my '58 Sports for a while so it didn't sit dormant like the old Dynohub did. The magic is still there. The hub rides and shifts smoothly as anything.

Now, here's where it gets weird. When I had the bike set up with upside down handlebars and new hubs, it felt slower and less zippy than my old Sports with upright bars. Initially, I thought it was the larger frame causing the bike to feel more cumbersome, as some people have pointed out. Last year, I wanted to flip the handlebars back over but never got around to it. However, after I put the original handlebars back on and took it for a ride, the difference was like night and day. The bike was so fast. It was so easy to handle. The steel wheels without drum brakes weighed the same as the alloy wheels with drum brakes that I had before, so weight wouldn't have been the issue. The only thing that changed with the interface between me and the bike was the handlebars. With the bars a little higher, it was easier to put down power, just like how it's easier to go up hill on a road bike when you're not on the drops. And I believe, despite having less weight over the front wheel, handling improved simply because the geometry of this bike was designed to have most of the rider's weight over the rear. Something else I noticed was that this bike is even more nimble than the rest of my Raleighs because the later '70s SR alloy stem with a longer run, as well as bars with a shallower bend, place the hands next to the stem instead of slightly behind it. At this point, it was almost like riding with a straight bar that placed the wrists at a more comfortable angle.

Even with the same gear ratio, same tires, and equal weight, the Superbe rides like a totally different bike. Initially, I wanted to un-build it back into its factory setup and sell it because it wasn't "superior" enough over my old Sports despite having drum brakes, but something about it now is so nice that I think I will be selling off two other bikes to justify keeping this one around. The personality change that this bike underwent also no longer makes me want to put it through the torture that it went through the last year - being left outside, riding through the salt and snow, and whatnot. Simply putting its original, "inferior" parts back on turned it into a sunny-day, take-it-easy bike. Like, I have to take care of this one now. How weird is that?

So, now that the review is over, I'll just go over what exactly I did to the bike to "un-build" it. As I previously mentioned, I put the old handlebar and stem back on, I overhauled the Dynohub and cleaned up the 3-speed hub and also put them back on.

I used Quick-Glo to polish the rims which were in decent shape underneath all the grime. I tore down the bottom bracket, which I will outline in another post, and finally cleaned and re-packed it. I should have done it last year.

The old cotter pin was predictably destroyed when I removed the cranks so I luckily had a fresh stock of new 9.5 mm pins to tap into. To fit the old hubs back on the bike, I had to bend the fork and stays back in by 10 mm each and re-align the dropouts. Sounds like a lot but old Hi-Ten steel is quite forgiving.

The old brakes are back on, which are actually surprisingly grabby with the cheap Dia Compe Gray Matter pads. I think they have a bit less flex than the old-style calipers. Plus, the top tube braze-ons, which essentially give you a length of housing that is non-compressible, probably also help the rear brake do its job. I have yet to try this in the rain but these brakes were a nice surprise on the initial dry-run.

I gave the bike a period-correct-looking vinyl saddle bag that isn't of the best quality but it works alright. The original (or so I think), noisy, very mediocre saddle is back too but I have a clapped-out 1969 Brooks B72 that I might put on this bike instead. On a separate note, the rat trap on the Pletscher rack started making noise the moment I rebuilt the bike. I'm not sure why, but now, every vibration will make it rattle. The only reason I can think of is the bending-back of the frame causing a shift in alignment of some things in the back.

If you recall, the bike was originally missing its tail light and the front light had a broken switch. Again, I intended to re-sell this bike as a completely functional Superbe, so I bought a pair of '73 lights with wiring intact. They appear to have come off a 21" frame because the wire going up from the Dynohub was a tad short. I had to splice on an extra length but I may just replace all of the wiring later. Anyway, I moved the voltage regulator from my old Sports onto this bike because I have an LED bulb on that bike, plus I'm in the process of working out some sort of filter switch or stand light for it anyway. These lights work beautifully for now, although I suppose I should stock up on replacement bulbs since I intend to keep this bike.

I feel as if it's almost a relief that I won't have to worry about selling this bike. I even made a "for sale" sign to go in the frame, but who cares? As with anything you grow attached to, it's hard to imagine it in someone else's hands. I mean, yeah I put this bike through hell last year, but I wouldn't want anyone else doing the same. Know what I mean? In its current (and original) configuration, rather than feeling like a serious, bulletproof, city commuter, although that's what it was originally built to be, it now feels like a bike that I should treat more lightly and take on evening cruises with friends. I'm sure I'll keep riding regularly, but I think good Gilbert has retired to a more leisurely lifestyle.

EDIT 6-13-17: The brake pads function extremely well on these rims in wet weather. I don't know why, but they're better than Kool Stop Continetals. Also, the sheer acceleration ability of this bike has encouraged me to ride it even faster, while still keeping it out of the winter weather. Gilbert hasn't exactly retired, yet.