The rest of the story.

“I was admiring your Hobbs frame and look forward to seeing any pictures of it fully restored for the road. In particular the reference to my club, Middlesex RC which will soon be celebrating 80 years of continued existance. Did you have any response to your approach regarding the former Middlesex RC owner of your Hobbs? If not please advise and I will check further for you. The bike of choice for many in the club was a Mal Rees, he being a founder member back in 1937. Kind regards, Shaun.”

And thus began a very interesting correspondence this past week. I’m going to share a story today, one that is all the more remarkable because it came about so unexpectedly. But to better follow the narrative, it’s important to understand the backstory first.

I initially wrote about acquiring my 1946 Hobbs of Barbican Superbe in November of 2014. It came to me as a frame, fork, partial headset, and BSA bottom bracket by way of a fellow in St. Louis. He, in turn, had purchased a warehouse full of old lightweight frames and complete bikes from someone else – in Tennessee, I seem to recall. His purchase included quite a few vintage British bikes of interest to me, and on my “short list” – a Flying Scott, Bates, Hobbs, etc. As happens so often, none of them were large enough to fit me…except for the Hobbs. We agreed to a price, and the bike was soon further west, in my studio near Kansas City, Missouri.

I was curious how a venerable British frame had made its way from its homeland, across the ocean, to the States, and eventually into my hands. A lot happens in seven decades, but to my knowledge Hobbs was small and were never an export item, like Raleigh was. Curious, I began to research.

The internet immediately yielded results. The serial number was one of the early, most important clues. First off, the number informed me that my frame was from 1946. Secondly – and very curiously – the serial number is the exact same one referenced on a Hobbs enthusiast website. I reached out to the webmaster who described the bike in loving detail as being complete and in excellent condition. The site had not been updated in several years, and my hopes of finding more information about the complete bike and where he’d seen it turned to dust when my repeated queries went unanswered. Sometime over the past two years, the site has been taken down.

But there was more to investigate. The original owner’s name and club affiliation was painted along the top tube: “A BURNET MIDDX R.C.” I correctly interpreted the latter to mean “Middlesex Road Club,” which led my internet research in a new direction. The club website, in turn, listed an “A Burnet” on the MRC Club Records page for the 24 hour men’s solo in 1947. I reached out to the club in hopes of discovering a bit more information. Few other internet references turned up, except for a chance discovery that “A Burnet” actually referred to Andy Burnet.

After that the well ran dry in my search: One uninspired email response, and then nothing else. Crickets.

Until a week ago.

Piece by piece, I’ve been building up the Hobbs. Not having anything else to go by other than examples on the Classic Lightweights website, I began to collect parts that I speculated might have been an appropriate build choice. What I didn’t have at the time was substituted for with later components. I planned for them to be place holders until a better option presented itself, and meanwhile I would have the bike rideable.

I’m not a hard and fast stickler for absolute authenticity. I figure that most cyclists would have upgraded components as better stuff came available, and so it’s not out of character to find a pair of ca. 1960’s bar and brake levers on a mid-40’s bike. My Hobbs has worn various parts these past two years, the most recent changes including a modern repop of Lauterwasser bars and a period-correct GB stem. I’m already rethinking the Lauterwasser bars in favor of GB bars when I find a pair that fits my vision. Meanwhile, I continue to ride the Hobbs in the current build.

British sport bikes of the forties, fifties, and early sixties look right to me. I love the simplicity. I love the colored bands and “flamboyant” tube colors. And I love the often complex lugs and classic “crest-like” graphics and head badges that often accompany otherwise rather austere frame work. I love these bikes as much as – but for different reasons than – the elegant designs of French constructeur bikes.


I’d pretty much given up on finding out anything further relating to “A BURNET” and the “MDDX R.C.” Yet here we were at year’s end, an unexpectedly new and enigmatic clue dangling from the Comments section of The Early Morning Cyclist blog. Just who was Shaun? And what information did he have to share?

Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. (To be continued.)

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Tiny footsteps

Riding fixed wheel is such a pleasure. Generally speaking, one’s bike is very light and the mechanism is absurdly simple. And aside from occasionally finding a need to stop, the only thing one needs to focus upon is spinning the crank.

On Sunday mornings I like to take the Hobbs out to the downtown airport to ride the relatively flat 6 kilometer circuit. The airport is right next to the Missouri River. Large sections of the road are adjacent to the water. The “Big Muddy” is very wide and riders have little in the way of a wind break from any direction. On hot summer days, the wind sock hangs limp from the pole and cyclists ride circles around the airport, gasping in the sweat drenching humidity as they try to best personal or course speed records. On mornings like this morning, one simply tries to stave off the wall of wind encountered upon heading south on the long straightaway pointing toward downtown.

As usual, I woke early. The world was completely still outside as I whipped up a quick breakfast. As the sun crested the horizon though, the wind began to pick up, and by the time I’d completed my bicycle ride pre-check it had gotten pretty stiff.

At the airport this was particularly so. Flags whipped straight out from the poles, and little dervishes of dust danced across the tarmac. The starting point is blessedly free from wind however, as I initially duck under the highway and along a tunnel roofed by road and walled by buildings. I don’t ride fixed wheel every day, so it always takes me a few minutes to ease back into the rhythm. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I don’t have a freewheel and that I cannot coast, but mostly I find myself on that first lap speaking out loud to no one in particular, “Loosen up, loosen up.” The key is to simply spin and even though the course is mostly flat, there are a couple of small hills. The descent is just steep enough to get the pedals turning quite fast. If I fight that rotation, or try to control it too much I wind up losing my footing. When I manage to loosen up I find that I can spin very fast. Sometimes that’s tricky for me to maintain: Coming out of the descent and into the flat I realize how sloppy my pedaling has been over the previous week of riding bikes with freewheel hubs. There’s still quite a lot of momentum moving into the flat and I’m always surprised by the sense of urgency my rear wheel has, the sense of the crank goading my legs to spin much longer than seems reasonable. With a freewheel, I realize I must take a bit of a break, either coasting or pedaling lightly. On the Hobbs I have no choice but to continue to pedal.

I like it when other cyclists comment on whichever bike I’m riding at the time. As I’ve mentioned before, they’re often taken aback to discover I’m holding my own on a bike of a particular vintage. (“Old,” is the thought that goes through their head I am sure.) This morning a fellow rider took a couple of laps with me. I’m not sure what he rode – it was a pretty recent model and certainly much newer than my 1946 Hobbs. Nary a word was spoken about the age of the bike, but he was impressed that we were cruising along at pretty good clip and “only one bike had gears.” With the wind at our backs we rode side-by-side and picked up quite a head of steam. The tailwind made this stress free and it was easy to chat as we rode. Coming around the bend and into the head wind, it was another story. I ducked low into the drops and pushed forward, my new friend gratefully held onto my rear wheel. I managed to maintain a respectable cadence but the wall of wind took a greater and greater toll on me each lap.

Coming out of the wind and under the bridges it felt like I was being slingshotted forward. My legs still rubbery from fighting the wind, it took a moment or two to realize I didn’t have to struggle. I’m not a racer, but I imagine the sense of euphoria, emerging from the blast and into the helping hand of the southwestern airflow – well, I imagine that must make one feel as though they’ve conquered … well, conquered something.

An hour of this and I am tapped out. I think about the name on my top tube: “A. Burnet.” A few months after this bike was built, a cyclist by that name set the club record for 24 hours. Andy Burnet, atop this very bike, went 410 miles in 24 hours. By my reckoning, that means he had to maintain an average of over 17 mph for that entire time. My footsteps are very tiny indeed as I step into his!

It was fun.

Well, so much for two days of riding. All week long the forecast called for a pretty spectacular January weekend, but Sunday has arrived cold and miserably windy. I will likely bundle up, get outside, and put in a few miles on the Boulder, and pretend that I’m enjoying myself. It looks and feels like January out there.

Yesterday, by contrast, was more like late March or April. The sun moved in and out, one minute gloomy and the next cheerful. Despite the cool, blustery conditions, it was pleasant enough and I took the 1946 Hobbs of Barbican Superbe out to the downtown airport for an initial test ride.

The downtown airport was at one time the Kansas City International airport. KCI moved twenty miles north decades ago, but this place still operates for small jets and aircraft. Located right next to the river, there’s little in the way of windbreak – but it’s also relatively flat, with only two rises along the 6 kilometer route that laps the grounds. Traffic, other than bikes, is almost nonexistent and accordingly it’s a popular spot for area cyclists to ride, especially those who live and work downtown.

“Flat” was what I wanted for testing out my fixed wheel build and so this location was as good as any for the maiden voyage.

I’m always excited to try out a new bike build. Because this is the first fixed wheel I’ve built up, I was a little apprehensive, hoping I hadn’t forgotten to tighten up one of the components. (I sincerely hoped I had been diligent – the only tool I had on me was a 15mm box wrench…!)

Gingerly pedaling out of the parking lot, I was immediately aware of everything: pedals in motion, getting seated, hand position. I was listening for any suspicious noises from the chain, the crank, the pedals. And unlike bikes with a freewheel, the fixed gear isn’t particularly forgiving when it comes to one who forgets what bike one is riding and attempts to coast!

For about the first 5km I found myself learning to ride all over again. My pedal strokes were deliberate and my cadence kept going up and down. After the first lap, I found myself settling in and  the crank began to revolve smoothly. After forgetting myself and attempting to coast on one of the two short descents, the bike reminded me that I needed to keep pedaling at all times. I relaxed and pedaled with the bike from that point onward.

Weaving in and out of the carbon fiber crowd felt good, and checking my iPhone app I was even a little surprised at the pace I was making. Two of the six laps clocked in at just over 30kph. Considering that I am not particularly fast, wasn’t particularly trying to go fast, and riding a 70 year old racing bike… well I felt pretty good about it.

My immediate take away was how much fun it is to ride this bike. Yes, I was riding in circles. Yes, the route was almost entirely flat. Yes, I got passed by every single racer wannabe out there. But it was fun.

And that’s what it’s all about.

 

1946 Hobbs of Barbican Superbe

I’ve made considerable progress with the 1946 Hobbs of Barbican Superbe model that I’ve been working on this winter. As I’ve previously noted, I will not be repainting the frame. To do so would, I think, dishonor the history of those scratches. Although not as clearly evident as was once the case, the box lining is still very much a part of the bike’s surface; their faded glory is at one with the patina of years and wear.

I did recreate the Hobbs “crest” in water slide media to cover the stupidly hand-painted job someone had done with model paint at some point in time, and I feel no guilt for having done so.

The headset required cobbling together various parts, but in true MacGyver fashion I’ve managed to put together a working combination. I confess that it really does bother me ever time I see that modern Cinelli stem on this bike and will be actively searching for a “proper” replacement. Funny thing though: the modern handlebar doesn’t upset me nearly as much, and I like the way they fit. Still, I’d really like to come into a period correct set of bars and stem.

You’ll notice this fixed gear bike is fitted with brakes. I’m no hipster. And I have no interest whatsoever in the “fixie craze.” I want the bike to stop and not have to fumble around trying to figure out how to get it to do that. Path racers of the era would also have been fitted with brakes, and this one is drilled to accept them – so there you have it: my bike has brakes.

I’m happy to have gotten the toe-in on the brakes nailed on the very first try. The front center pull grabs very nicely, yet when I back off on the pressure of the levers I am left with a very comfortable  degree of modulation. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about center pulls, quite frankly.

When I unboxed the crankset, I was a little on the fence about it. Was it too modern looking? Was the drillium too garish? Too over the top for a vintage British path racer? Regardless, once I installed it, I found I liked it. Perhaps when that Chater Lea crankset finally falls in my lap I’ll reconsider, but for now there’s no rush to replace it.

I am having to get used to switching between the freewheels on my other bikes and then the fixed gear of this one. Muscle memory is a funny thing and my body still expects to be able to coast when I come to a stop or make a very tight turn at the end of a road. I’m taking the old girl out for a decent shakedown ride later this morning, so perhaps I can use that ride time to get used to the constant cycling of the pedals.

I have had this ancient Brooks B-17 Narrow on various bikes over the years. None of them seemed to feel right to me: The saddle always looked a bit out of place for some reason, and I never managed to get the fit dialed in. So how ironic that the Brooks seems to be right at home on this bike! And wonder of wonders – purely by happenstance, the saddle angle and height has needed almost no tweaking to feel like it’s hitting my sit bones where it should. It makes me wonder if this has something to do with the slack angles of the frame.

I’m heading to the co-op this afternoon to see if I can dredge up a set of fender stays. Barring that, I’ll simply order a set of SKS stays to fit this NOS pair of Bluemels Popular mudguards. I think they’ve found the right home on this bike.

“Dammit…”

“…I could have sworn I had a brand-new 1/8 inch chain. I guess I’m going to have to wait until tomorrow to give this one a test ride.” Yes, I was muttering to myself as usual. And I was a little peeved at myself for not having actually looked to see if I had what I needed. I mean, here I was yesterday afternoon, sitting on a box of kitty litter, sifting through my box of chain and discovering I had none to fit a single speed drive train. So yeah – dammit. I’m impatient, and I hate waiting.

The situation was remedied this morning. I made a few quick photographs before the drive train gets contaminated with road gunk, then took the 1946 Hobbs of Barbican Superbe on about a hundred foot test ride to check brakes and drive. Even though this frame is slightly smaller than my other riders and the cranks are 165s, I was a little surprised to discover I would actually need to lower the seat pin slightly. I’d set up the saddle height measuring from the center of the crank to the top of the seat platform as I normally do, and usually I’m right on target.

So, a quick adjustment and I was ready to roll, spinning the pedals up and down the street, and enjoying the ride of a quality vintage British frame. I’ve a little more play in the headset than I like, which is due in part to a few parts having been cobbled together. I have headsets I could be using but it turns out the steerer threads are a slightly different width and pitch. So the adjustable race is loose and because the locknut won’t tighten down I’ve used the original Lytaloy locknut. It’s the only part of the original headset that I have, otherwise I’d be using the original.

I’ll be watching the internet and swap meets for vintage Lauterwasser bars and appropriate stem, or British drop bars and stem to replace the Cinelli stem and bars I’ve installed so that I can ride the bike. I’ll also be watching out for a straight seat pin…the fluted pin doesn’t feel right on this build. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to keep the crankset I have on there right now and forego the seemingly elusive Chater Lea for the time being.

The wheel build is very good, and all the parts seem to be playing well together. Once the headset issue is resolved, I want to take the bike out for about a ten-mile jog in the river bottoms.

All bettah now.

I’ve recreated and printed the Hobbs graphics on waterslide media. (I had extra space on the sheet so I also printed down tube graphics but don’t intend to use those – I guess I’ll just have them around for no other reason than to – you know – have them around.)

Regardless, my OCD brain can stop fixating on that stupidly botched, thickly painted Tester’s abortion that had been on there. I will give this a full week of drying time to avoid unsightly wrinkling before adding a clear protective coating over the graphic.

I created ten of these, so if anyone else needs one please drop me a line.