Jim’s Tech Talk
by Jim Langley
January being the month for making resolutions, I have decided for 2020 to try to 1) finally upgrade a vintage road bike I’ve been in analysis paralysis on for some time; and 2) hopefully ride it in this year’s Eroica California, which takes place April 5 in beautiful Cambria.
Here’s a video of the classic bicycle I have in mind and some words about riding it and another bike in two past Eroica California rides.
About Eroica Rides
You can learn more about Eroica California here. Also, I wrote about it in previous columns. Here’s my story about the 2016 edition: https://www.roadbikerider.com/eroica-california-2016-report-d1/. Eroica now holds events around the world in case you’re not anywhere near California. Here’s a schedule: https://eroica.cc/en/eroica-cc/events.
Plus, of note for those without a vintage road machine, Eroica now has their Nova event for riders on modern bicycles, too. That takes place the day before the classic event on April 4. More information is here: https://eroica.cc/en/nova-california.
The Eroica cycling events began in Italy and were designed as celebrations of road cycling history. Think the early Tour de Frances and Giros where racers sometimes covered 200 miles a day, treacherous dirt roads and on bikes with only a couple of gears. In Eroica events you don’t suffer like the pros did back then, but you do get a taste of what it was like for them.
As an example, in 2016 it took our group over 8 hours to cover the 60+ mile (100K) loop. On nice paved roads around home, I can complete that distance in half the time. But, Eroica includes long steeps, loose dirt much of the way and you’re riding a vintage road bike (or modern facsimile that meets the rules).
Upgrades for an Old bike and Aging Rider
2016 was the last time I did Eroica. In the four years since, I’ve lost some fitness and developed more aches and pains. That’s been the cause of my procrastination. I would like to return riding the same Lejeune I rode the last time – the bike in the video.
But, I am pretty sure I need to modernize in order to complete the ride. The limitation of vintage road bikes for riders like me is the gearing. Due to the reduced capacity of vintage derailleurs and freewheel sizing, if you keep the old bikes original, you will probably have no smaller than a 42-tooth chainring with a 28-tooth cog, providing a 40.5-inch gear.
Compare that to the typical approximately 26-inch lowest gear you enjoy on a modern gravel bike (like the Ibis Hakka MX I recently bought’s 40T x 42T lowest gear). You can see that there’s a huge difference in ease of pedaling.
My Two Eroica Bikes
I did my first Eroica on a 1974 completely original Peugeot PX-10 with a lowest gear of 44T x 21T (56 inch). It wrecked my knees. For a month afterwards I literally could barely walk upstairs.
My second Eroica I took the Lejeune with its 42T x 24T (47.25 inch), which was an improvement, but still too high. Regarding gearing back in the sixties, here’s a fun Felice Gimondi interview where he talks about his a little: https://www.bikeraceinfo.com/oralhistory/Gimondi.html.
If you’ll allow me to brag a little, one of the luckiest things to happen in my career was having a bicycle stolen while I was on a trip to Italy for journalists to visit famous bicycle manufacturers. It was put on by the Italian Trade Commission. The day after our van was broken into and bikes were stolen, our first visit was to Bianchi. And there to greet us and present us with new Bianchis was none other than Gimondi.
Back to the project, I am getting past the idea of having to keep the Lejeune as it was originally. I’m taking the attitude that I paid my dues riding a completely original bike and I’m ready to cheat a little and upgrade the Lejeune (I need to check the rules – it might not be “cheating”).
Along with lowering the gearing, I’m going to wider tires. One of the best features of vintage steel road bikes is large frame clearances. This allows tires with more flotation for comfort and control.
The gearing change may seem daunting but it’s a relatively easy fix. All it takes is switching out the rear hub for one that accepts modern cassettes. Yes, that means building a new wheel, but that’s not very expensive even if you have to pay a wheelsmith to do it.
Once the hub is upgraded, I’ll then choose my modern wide range cassette and compatible modern rear derailleur. Vintage friction shifters work just fine since they don’t rely on click detents like modern ones do. The bike in the photo is my Oxford cyclocross bike from 1984, which I tested the new hub and gearing concept on. It had a 13-26 7-speed freewheel.
I upgraded it with a Shimano GRX rear hub, 11-42 11-speed GRX cassette, GRX rear derailleur and a Shimano 11-speed chain. The gear changing is handled by the original SunTour Barcon handlebar end ratcheting friction shifter (it’s a single chainring drivetrain so there’s only one shifter). The shifter barely wraps enough cable to hit the lowest gear, the 42T cog.
A parts package along the lines of what I used (choose the low gearing that’s best for you) is really all it should take to lower the gearing on most vintage road bicycles. Once I’ve got it done on the Lejeune it’ll be ready for a lot more than Eroica, too.
Oh, in case you’re wondering about the new hub fitting in the old frame – since hubs have gotten wider over the years – it’s unlikely it will cause a problem. Most steel bicycles will only need to stretch a few millimeters on each side. And the frames and axles can handle it.
If you’re not convinced, test your bike to see by trying to fit a modern wheel. You will have to use a little force to pull it into place, but with steel, the bikes usually accept it just fine. If the wheel won’t fit no matter what you try or the dropouts are crooked to the eye, your bike might need to be widened by a mechanic with alignment tools. But, usually that’s not needed.
Today’s hub upgrade tip will bring most any old road bike into the future to enjoy it again. Let me know if you go for it and need help with your project bike.
Ride total: 9,520
Steve Kurt says
Getting low gears on a vintage racing bike does require some compromises, for sure! When I got some lower gears for my Hetchins, I tried to avoid impacting the vintage aesthetics by installing a SunTour Cyclone GT rear derailleur and a modern clone of the classic TA Cyclotouriste crank (50-34 chainrings). This lets me get up the local 14% grade on the river bluffs and still maintain the bike’s good looks.
Of course, any method that keeps these great old bikes on the road is a good one!
Jim Langley says
I wish I had a picture to share with you, Steve. I used to own and race a sweet 1939 Hetchins. Lovely bikes. Congratulations on yours and keeping it nicely set up! Well done!
Jim Snodgrass says
My son changed his Lejune to singlespeed and the front hub was a problem. Even though it did stretch to fit, it caused the bike to feel like it was listing to one side. We ended up putting a narrower wheel on the front, but the bottom bracket started to give us problems. We ended up getting a new bike rather than trying to get into that. I think it will become a wall hanging art piece when he gets out of college!
Jim Langley says
Nice to hear from another Lejeune family, Jim! Yes, you don’t want to push the fork out of proper alignment for the reasons you described. I’m sure your son is lot happier on that new bike.
Yes, he has plans for the old bike in the future, on HIS dime!
Aloha I live on the side of Mauna Kea mountain, I have an automatic Ebay search for Granny Triple. The old cure for more range was a three speed crank, with a super small low gear. The other two gears are close. The downside is you have to plan ahead.
Jim Langley says
Aloha, David – congrats on living in paradise! Thanks for sharing your tips. Upgrading to a triple crank can mean needing new derailleur(s) and chain along with that crank. That’s why it can be easier/cheaper to just upgrade the rear hub with a giant cassette and derailleur that can handle it. But, a triple is a nice way to lower the gearing, too. Thanks!
Leslie T says
A typically myopic article. I had a Miyata touring bike from 1981, so it fits Eroica criteria. It came with a triple crank set, a wide-range rear cassette (probably 14-28 or 14-30), and a long-cage rear derailleur. As I got older, I switched out the chain rings (as they wore out) from 30something-42-52 to lower30something-38-50. All with classic gears.
Also, it’s very difficult (and annoying) to try to get a wider hub into a frame that originally supported a 120-mm hub. I swapped my 1970s Raleigh from a 10-speed to a 12-speed when the old wheel died (or maybe I got tired of having lousy braking on that old rim or maybe I wanted to go from 27″ wheels to 700c, or maybe a combination of the above) and I couldn’t find a good quality 120-mm wheel at a price I was willing to pay. Had the bike shop spread the rear triangle, so I didn’t need to struggle to get the wheel out and (more difficult) in. Bike still would have fit Eroica criteria. I don’t know if it would now — I swapped the drop bars to city bars and de-installed the downtube shifters, replacing them with handlebar shifters. I think the shift levers are from the early 90s, because they have both indexed and non-indexed options.
Jim Hannah says
I’ve done the longest course of this Eroica twice on a vintage bike (1985 Paramount), . Can do all but one of the climbs with a 52/39 and swapped out for 7 speed 12-28 cassette. Braking on long steep gravel downhills, however, has been very challenging and exhausting, even with new pads. The old rims don’t seem to have much grip. Any suggestions?
Jim Langley says
Great job riding that tough course twice, Jim, bravo! Your gearing swap is a nice choice – a 39 x 28 is a relatively common low gear for today’s road bikes and quite a bit easier on the climbs than what most roadies were climbing on back in 1985.
Regarding your brakes – assuming you have quality stoppers (which I would expect to see on a beautiful Schwinn Paramount), you should be able to get them working better. Because back in the day what you have was considered cutting-edge and worked fine back then.
So, I would inspect the whole system looking for issues reducing performance. For example, are the calipers working flawlessly, not binding in any way? Is there fore/aft play between the individual caliper arms (there shouldn’t be any)? Are the cables and housings friction free – no corrosion or rust – no kinks, routed optimally? Are the brake levers friction free, too. Are the brake pads contacting the rim properly – all four? Are the rims clean of any rubber deposits, grease/oil/grime residue? Sometimes rims need light sanding to break a glaze that can make them slippery. Sometimes brake pads become too hard to grip or get oily.
How far you pull the levers before the pads hit the rim can be an issue. Most mechanics understand how to optimize this, but it’s not uncommon to see brakes set “too tight,” so that the levers barely move and the pads hit the rims.. If the pads hit too early like this, it’s possible to lose sufficient leverage from the levers to stop well. Because it prevents you from using the strongest part of your hand, which occurs when your hand closes more.
Lever placement on the handlebars can affect this too.
If you know everything’s fine with your brakes yet they still don’t perform adequately, then I would keep trying different new brake pads to see if you can find one that improves braking. I’ve had good luck with Kool Stop brake pads.
Ken Blair says
Yep, we old guys, got to keep those vintage bikes going. Two years ago, I upgraded my ’84 Ciocc, I bought , while stationed in Europe. Came with early Shimano 105, 13-26 cassette and 42/52 crankset. . The rear triangle OCD is 126mm. So, I pulled a 10 speed wheel from another , and with my 70 yr. old fingers, spread the stays apart and the wheel pooped right in, like magic .
So I went shopping for a 10 speed wheel set, and got a 11 x 34. cassette.. Put on a 105 RD, FD, and a 34/50 Hollowtech II crankset. Also, got a deal on some 10 speed Tiagra STI shifters. Wow ! now I can climb local hills.
No Eroica planned here in the northeast, So the upgrade was a good choice.
jim langley says
Nice work, Ken! Those Ciocc bicycles ride like a dream. Enjoy it!
Ken Blair says
Thanks Jim, That bike will be buried with me .
Saxon Sigerson says
Thirty years ago Ed Pavelka of Bicycling Magazine wrote an article about his Ciocc. A year later I saw a lonely used red Mockba ’80 hanging in my LBS. I rode it with its original Campy setup for a while, then converted to a fixed gear and ultimately stopped riding it due to the lack of modern components. At my local coffee stop, I admired a red Fagin and when the owner heard that my Ciocc had been hanging up in the lonely garage for years, he said “That bike needs to be ridden”. Bike shame is a powerful force. I had the rear triangle spread, installed a Sugino triple with 24 tooth granny, STI shifters and built my own wheels for the first time. I took it on a seven-day supported ride from Sacramento to Kings Canyon and it was heaven including the last day with 7,000 vertical (granny gear spinning) feet. Yes a bit of bike blasphemy to hang the touring components on it but now the carbon Kestrel is lonely. Stirs my soul every time I roll out. The details on it are so sweet.
Peter Hunt says
I just found this site – I thought I was the only old guy nuts about old bikes! I bought a Raleigh Competition MkIII new in 1972 when I was 14 and have been riding it ever since! Lots and lots of miles on that bike! In fact, it is the only bike I have had since then! Its on its third set of wheels and the leather saddle is long gone but everything else is original (although the crank and bottom bracket are not doing so well now…) Every now and then I think I should upgrade the components (if new stuff would even fit). I’ve been toying with changing the DT shifters to STI (getting a little afraid of taking my hands off the bars as I am getting older) but after reading some comments on the internet many people are saying that STI shifters are not necessarily better and (more importantly) don’t mess up a great classic bike. Any comments?