If you haven’t read the Autumn 2017 issue of Bicycle Quarterly, well shame on you – you’ve no idea what you’re missing. Go out right now and find a copy, or get online and order one.

I enjoy BQ because the content focuses on so many of the aspects of bicycling that interest me. The current issue reports on the 2017 Concours de Machines, a revival of the annual event in France that introduced many cycling innovations we tend to take for granted today.

I’ll occasionally watch bicycle racing on television, or if I’m in the right place at the right time I’ll do so in person. But most cyclists – most especially, me – are not racers. We ride. Period. And for me that means my interests are in those things making the experience of the ride more enjoyable. Thus, the bikes I consider to be my primary riders reflect those attributes: wide, supple tires; a more upright riding position; responsive frame; low trail, etc. I enjoy the stories BQ shares about epic rides, and I don’t mind living just a little bit vicariously through the eyes of Jan Heine and his crew. BQ conducts fairly exhaustive real-world in-the-saddle reviews of bikes and equipment, and those articles allow me to geek out on the mechanical side of my cycling obsession. Arriving in my mail box quarterly, it allows me the opportunity to step outside my normally quite conservative approach to the hobby and dream a little, perhaps even obsess a little more than usual over things I already tend to overly obsess about.

Their fascinating report on the Concours de Machines included photographs of the various entries, and a story about the joint entry of BQ’s Jan Heine and legendary constructuer Peter Weigle. One thing I seldom obsess over is weight, but Peter’s story shared the weight of his award winning bike – a remarkable 20 pounds, not including the bag. For a bike outfitted with fenders and rack and such that simply astonishes me. I read that the entries were penalized if the overall weight – as ridden! – wasn’t at or below a particular weight, and it got me wondering how my bike measured up. Never having actually put my Boulder onto a scale until now, I was heartened to discover I would (barely) squeak by with an even 24 pounds. For the sake of comparison that is actually a few ounces lighter than my ’66 Paramount – which does not have the wide tires, racks, or fenders I use on my Boulder. Does this information mean anything substantial? Well, only that any real ride deficiency I might notice probably isn’t attributable to the bike.

I’m mulling over such thoughts as I ride down deserted country roads this morning. Ride time is “reflective time” for me. As I pedal, I solve – or at least puzzle over – the various issues of the past and coming weeks. If I’ve a writing assignment, my thoughts are often a sort of word stew, and if a particularly interesting arrangement of thoughts and words appeals to me I’ll pull out my iPhone and dictate them into the Notes section. Some of my favorite turns of phrase have initially occurred to me as I’ve ridden up a hill or over a long stretch of gravel. Time in the saddle often gives me the opportunity to focus my thoughts on upcoming lesson ideas; with no other intrusions in sight I can usually come up with a plan, test out the “what if’s” in my head, and return home with a well formulated learning experience planned for my students.

Regardless of how my bike compares to any others, if – as it does this morning – it disappears under me as I ride; if I can myself disappear into my world of thought experimentation, then I’m more than content. I’m happy. And as I draft a few new ideas into my iPhone this morning, I realize I’m smiling.


Illuminated Ride

Predawn hours. It’s black as night.

Oh. Maybe that’s because it is still night.

Country lanes are devoid of illumination, save for the thin sliver of a crescent moon and the distant twinkle of yard lights. The headlight on my bicycle has an adequate charge and the lane before me reveals bumps and sticks and stones in a narrowly channeled beam.

There are no other headlights. None from cars – mercifully, none from trucks either, not even as I roll through town on my way into the rural hills of Clay County.

The absolute quiet of night is a fallacy. A complete fabrication. In fact, on this early and wondrous September morning, the air is filled with sound: billions of crickets and other insects are playing a tune, singing their song. A light breeze buffets my helmet.

To the east a faint, rosy glow emerges along the horizon; night wanes and the dawn approaches.

Misty Light

Let’s be clear about something right off the bat: Given the thick and cloudy moisture in the air, my iPhone camera picked up one heck of a lot more visibility than was apparent to me on this morning’s ride. Perhaps it has a particularly sensitive method of capture, but more likely it’s because I was almost constantly wiping the watery mist from the lenses of my glasses.

Considering that this was one of the final days in June, a time we normally experience as hot weather on the cusp of transforming into really hot weather, this morning was unusually foggy, damp, clammy, and chilly. In fact, at 49 degrees and the air at nearly 100% moisture, my fingers were actually cold. The loose, long sleeve jersey I was wearing had a hard line of water droplets on the front of my arms where I had sliced through the atmosphere as I descended the first hill.

The unusual weather also created an oddly ethereal light. It was as if I was viewing the world through the translucent surface of a plastic milk container. Everything was mysterious and extremely quiet, the normal sounds even of passing cars on the nearby highway dampened almost into nonexistence.

I love June.

I love this first week of June. I love pausing at the edge of town before heading out into the hills. I love pedaling up those hills in a gear perfectly matched to my cadence. The mulberries are ripe and plump and sweet, not to mention plentiful. I love stopping under a tree to pluck handfuls of the berries that I stuff into my mouth, and I love how my fingers are so sticky and Burgundy-stained that I am compelled to lick them as clean as is possible.

Dirty Kanza took place a couple days ago and I periodically ask myself if I feel up to that sort of challenge. Do I feel a real pull toward gravel? The answer is: Occasionally. But more to the point, I feel drawn to old roads, those country lanes that are often crumbling and bandaged together (or not much at all), those paths that meander past farmland and boxy farmhouses and barns, through woods and over hills. I love stopping to sketch when the muse visits or when I simply feel like taking a break for water, a snack, or another handful of mulberries.

I realized yesterday that I’ve neglected my 1946 Hobbs of Barbican Superbe these past few months. I love this bike for completely different reasons than the reason I love my Boulder. I love heading out into the flats, the fixed gear compelling me to pedal without stop, unless, in fact, I’m actually stopped. I love the feeling of being pulled along, and I realized I missed experiencing that feeling from time to time. So this was my bike choice yesterday morning, running ten-mile “time trial” loops, and loving the tug on my leg muscles that comes from these rides. I also realized that the installation of Lauterwasser bars aligned with the time that I stopped riding the Hobbs regularly. I wonder if that has anything to do with it? I love the look of these bars, but I’m not sure they are the most comfortable ride choice for me and my hands. Perhaps I will return to traditional drop or rando bars, which meet my riding and position needs better. I’m sure I’ll love the change, because, after all, it’s June and what’s not to love?

What’s up?

So what’s new? Well, nothing actually. I’m still surrounded by old stuff in my studio – old bikes, old furniture, old baseball cards, etc. But it’s the old bikes that concern The Early Morning Cyclist. And my newest old bike is a Bernard Carré that as is par for the course, I continue to experiment with.

I am extremely pleased with the overall fit. It feels great to ride, and for those reasons alone it’s worth it to me to continue playing around. I pulled the 27 inch wheels off that I’d been riding on and replaced them with lighter, sportier 700c wheels. Something about the beefy 27 x 1 1/4 tires appealed to me, but the wheels never seemed to want to spin up as quickly as I wanted. I installed a pair of 700 x 28 Gatorskins; combined with the slightly smaller wheels the bike was noticeably faster off the starting blocks. Meanwhile, I wound up horse trading for a pair of 700 x 32 Compass tires – this bike just feels better on wider tires – and I’m happier still.

With the narrow bottom bracket axel, I’m still running a 52/42 racing crank, but that will soon be remedied. I finally located the longer Stronglight spindle I knew I had in my parts storage. I’ll pair that with a 48/34 crankset, which will replicate the same gear range as my Boulder Brevet (albeit with fewer cogs and larger jumps between them… that’s the trade off you get in comparing five speeds to nine.)

I noticed an odd jump on the chain yesterday as I was fine tuning the shifting. Only closer examination it turns out that one of the teeth is missing on the rear derailleur jockey wheel. No big deal – I’ve got others, so replacement is relative easy.

I’d planned to ride the Carré in yesterday’s Tour de Bier but I’m not content with the gearing yet, and my bad knee might have objected simply out of spite once I hit the first climb. So I’m waiting on the replacement crank to arrive before heading out on any long hilly rides. I’ve got some traveling to do this summer and it would be tough to carry my Boulder along with me. But the Carré should break down to fit into my bike bag, and is light enough that it can be my rider while I’m gone. Plus it’s pink and “old,” so there’s a better chance thieves will ignore it.

So yesterday’s ride was astride my Boulder Brevet. Even though I was intentionally trying to maintain a leisurely pace so that my wife could keep up, I found myself constantly out in front by a long measure. Fortunately, I brought my sketching pen and book along to make really quick scribbles in the West Bottoms and Stock Yards . This allowed adequate time for her to catch up, pass me, continue on, and then for me to leap frog forward. Repeat.

The area is a good one for urban cyclo-touring, and the road surface, although crumbling in places, was no match for my wider tires. Yet another good reason to sport fatter, supple tires!

An event like the Tour de Bier is a good one for cyclists who enjoy bikes and beer. The route meandered past many of the former brewery locations in Kansas City, and stopped for sampling of golden fare from the various microbreweries thriving in our urban core and northern corridor. The wind was a bit fierce, and grew stronger as the morning evolved into midday. Coming back across the Missouri River, going uphill into the stout and unyielding breeze, I heard a lot of bitching and moaning. I chalked that up to cyclists who’d sampled too much golden fare. Me, I’d sampled and enjoyed too, but by this point the end of the ride was nigh and within two or three miles there was a tall, cold brew waiting for me, along with a locally sourced meal. My stomach grumbled, then roared, and I ignored the wind.

Boulder vs. Carre

Every bike in the studio gets compared to my Boulder Brevet simply because it fits me so perfectly. It’s interesting comparing the Boulder with the Carre.

To make a fair evaluation of the geometry and size, the camera is set up on a tripod to ensure that the shooting angle and position is exactly the same between both bikes. The floor is also marked for positioning of the bikes. Because they are resting in a bike stand, some correction for “squareness” is necessary. The photos were slightly rotated in post processing so that the wheels are parallel to the picture frame. Furthermore, the Carre has been nudged so that the bottom brackets are aligned to the Boulder by superimposing the two photographs.

Here is the “control” shot of the Boulder for comparison of tube positioning, geometry, and length.

The green lines indicate a rough tracing of the Boulder tubes, which I’ve drawn on an overlay.

The overlay drawing of the Boulder tubing has been superimposed over the Carre frame. Although the wheel base is a little longer on the Boulder, and more importantly a greater difference between the lower trail Boulder fork and that of the Carre,  I was still a bit surprised to see that there’s not as much difference in bottom bracket height or drop as I’d anticipated.

With 700 x 25 tires, the standover is nearly the same as the Boulder. I anticipate running 700 x 28 so there will be some difference in the final build. It’s also worth noting that the top tube is one centimeter shorter on the Carre: 58cm as compared to 59cm on the Boulder.

This is not to say that I expect the rides to be similar. The two bikes are clearly designed for different purposes, but I’m a researcher and find it useful to compare against known factors, quantities, and considerations. My initial thinking has not changed, despite some similarities to the Boulder geometry: The Carre frame is more of a road bike design, and the available space for wider tires convinces me that it’s probably a CX model. Despite the eBay listing, I don’t see anything that screams “randonneur” to me at all.

Next up: the build.

Wild Hair.

I had a wild hair the other day. (I wonder if anyone else uses this phrase to mean that one is pursuing a sudden, compulsive, and possibly irrational idea…or is it  something my Dad made up, along with a thousand and one other odd and personal colloquialisms?)

Anyway, wild hairs….I had one recently. The afternoon’s task was to organize the bikes and parts and other cycling related detritus hanging about the place. One of those things literally hanging about is the 80’s era Katakura Silk road bike, pictured above as a sort of Sportif model. This is the second one I’ve owned, the first having left my garage a couple decades back. Not long after acquiring this one I realized I had become a member of a small and rather exclusive club of enthusiastic chrome Silk owners. I discovered this when a couple of them reached out to me to share information about their bike. One of those enthusiasts bemoaned the fact that there was only room enough to fit a 700 x 25 tire, and despite my proclivity to never take such statements of fact as gospel I never attempted to fit anything wider than a 25. And thus, after a time I found myself riding the Silk less and less. I even went so far as to put it up for sale a few months ago.

So: The wild hair. As I stood staring at a row of bikes lining my ceiling, my gaze fell upon two that were side by side – the Silk and the elegant looking 650b Cycles Toussaint Velo-Routier. I have enjoyed the VR but unlike my Boulder, it never seems to “want” to go faster and I’ve been considering tearing it down, selling the frame, and using the kit to build up a 650b with a little more spirited ride. Out of curiosity, I pulled the wheel set from the two bikes and swapped in the 650b wheels on the Silk. I don’t really know what I was thinking would happen, but I certainly wasn’t imagining that they’d just pop right in place with plenty of spin room…but after removing the short reach Superbe brake calipers they did precisely that.

What the hell, I thought. This isn’t supposed to happen. And certainly it shouldn’t be that easy. I decided to see if there’d be adequate room for fenders, thinking that no doubt would be the end of things. But a rough placement made it very clear that I had ample room for the 650b x 38 tires and mud guards.

Which is how I found myself tearing down two otherwise perfectly functioning bikes, hanging one naked fork and frame, and transferring nearly the entire kit from one over to the other. Measuring spacing and lengths along the way I was surprised to find that a roughly fit build indicated I could achieve nearly the same fit and positioning as on my Boulder. The Boulder is set up for me for maximum comfort and fits me perfectly. Although there are certainly differences between the two, the major points of contact relative to the rider and to bike frame geometry are essentially the same. (See illustration below for comparison. The Boulder geometry is indicated by the red line overlaying the photo of the Silk.) Toe overlap at the front fender is minimal, and similar to the clearance on the Boulder.

As with all of my bikes, I’ve made some effort to research the background of the makers. There’s not a lot of information available about Katakura Silk which I find peculiar because they were a major player, sometimes likened to a Japanese version of Raleigh. What information I could find was a little sketchy, but a couple of catalogs had been posted online and seemed to indicate that some models were built with sportif or randonneuring characteristics in mind.

As I indulged my wild hair, I thought it would be interesting to conduct a new online search for Katakura Silk. I hadn’t done so in a couple of years and I figured – correctly, as it turned out – that new information might have been shared with the world. Two gold mines were discovered in fairly short order, the first being links to Katakura Silk catalogs I’d not had access to a few years ago.

Of particular interest to me is this catalog page from 1986 that features both sportif (Grand Sport) and Randonneuse models of Katakura Silk. The Randonneuse model is fitted with 650 x 38 tires! Although this version is designed for cantilever brakes and has posts to accommodate them – which my PX model does not – it didn’t take a huge leap of faith for me to speculate that if Katakura was designing one model to fit 650b, perhaps other models could also accommodate that size as well. After all, why retool the whole line?

Cycles Peugeot states that the French randonneur aesthetic was introduced to Japan in the 1960’s, and certainly there has been a very enthusiastic following in the years since that time. As readers of Bicycle Quarterly know, the Japanese have taken this model, tailored it into a distinctly Japanese-taste randonneur, and brought about notable improvements such as the Rinko system of packing a bike for travel.

The second gold mine was found at the Cycles Grand Bois website where I discovered a couple of Katakura Silk bike restorations featured in their online gallery. The bike below was transformed from this:

Into this:

If I interpret the details correctly, this bike was restored for a Mr. Sekishima from Hiroshima in 2009. It’s a very beautiful and tastefully elegant re-interpretation. Importantly, I feel I have permission to take my Katakura Silk and lean in this direction.

Which leaves me, for the moment, considering next moves. Roughly fitted out and positioned, here is where I am with my re-imagined Katakura Silk:

I cannot accurately fit the fenders and constructeur-style rear rack until I’ve installed brake calipers. Because the frame was drilled for 700c wheels, I must rely upon long-reach brakes. This leaves me with a couple of options. I could have gone with Dia-Compe 750 center-pulls. These have the look of a randonneur bike. I also prefer center-pulls over other brake caliper designs. They would have allowed me, I think, to use a small French front rack I have in my parts bin. And to be honest, I’m not really certain why I didn’t go this route…perhaps there will be a follow up to this article a few months down the line, detailing how I changed to center-pull brake levers…

For the time being though, I decided to use dual pivot long reach Tektro R559 side pull calipers. Others have used these very successfully for 650b conversions, and if I decide to change to center-pulls I should have no problem finding someone to take the Tektro brakes off my hands.

I’ve run out of red cable housing, which I will need in order to complete the build. The calipers should arrive at the same time as the housing. All in all, this has been a relatively simple conversion. If the ride quality is typical of high volume/low pressure 650b, and if the frame responds on those tires as it did with the narrower 700c tires – i.e., if I can achieve a cushy, spirited ride – then I’ll be very happy indeed. Aesthetically, I think I can build a bike respectful of the Japanese spirit of randonneuring. This greatly appeals to me. Functionally, I’m hoping for a bike that meets my needs for comfort, spirit, and the occasional crappy road. Let’s face it: If I could only have one bike ever, the Boulder is my bicycle. I’m good with that. But I love to experiment with my other rides, and I’m feeling like this could make the Katakura Silk a more ridable member of my bike stable, without any loss of the class it already has.