Wednesday, March 3, 2010

1940's Bates B.A.R.

Finding interesting old bikes used to be an easy thing. When I first began obsessing about classic racing bikes there was no E-bay or craigslist, in fact, there was barely even the internet. I would find nice bikes at junk stores, Goodwill, and yard sales. Working for years as a mechanic at various shops around Toronto I would always grab the interesting trade-ins that would come through the doors. Finding parts was usually difficult but, for the most part, local shops stocked some weird, left-over, out-dated and defunct parts (now commonly labeled NOS) that they didn't really want around and would eagerly sell for a reasonable price. Mountain bikes were still king, road bikes in the city were rare and very ,very few cyclists road anything with a fixed gear. Old road bikes really didn't have much value to most people. As an enthusiast, I would even have a hard time figuring out what something was worth or even what it was for that matter. But, things are different now, as the internet and the online marketplaces of Ebay and Craigslist have changed everything. It is far easier these days to find any part you need and to research vintage bikes but, it is also harder to afford anything, as Ebay prices are basically in Yen and most local sellers now seem to think anything old is a "collectable" worth a fortune.
The biggest change though, and the one that I see as the inevitable result of this new massive marketplace, is the dismantling of original bicycles so they can be sold for more money as parts. This "parting out" is not new, but now that there is an easy outlet to sell the parts and you can double your money by selling this way it has become rampant. I try hard not to support dealers who practice this as it seems particularly greedy to me and it is basically destroying a huge number of nice bikes, but on a few occasions I have been forced to buy from one of these tacky people by an item that was just too interesting to ignore.
I found this early 1940's Bates "Best all Rounder" as a frame and fork on british Ebay and was surprised, as was the notorious seller, that my very low bid won. I had always wanted to see a Bates in person as it has a few features that make it unique and highly innovative for its time.
Unlike today, bicycle tubing in the thirties was available in a limited number of sizes and most builders used the established norms of a 1" top tube and a 1 1/8" down and seat tube. Bates decided that this created a frame that was too flexible or "whippy" and what was needed was tubes of a larger diameter which, by definition would be stiffer. It wasn't just as simple as using bigger tubes though, as the common joining method of the tubes were lugs, which were all made to fit only the traditional sizes. To overcome this, Bates had Reynolds Tubing make special "Cantiflex" tube-sets that had oversized middle sections and standard ends. It is barely noticeable in photographs but in person it is quite dramatic.
The second innovation is the unique double bend "Diadrant" fork blades. These were designed to attempt to achieve a more responsive steering but were probably more of a branding exercise. Apparently, in the thirties and forties most British cycling clubs forbid any type of sponsorship for racers and so the distinctive forkblades would be a clever way of getting around this by letting everyone know who was winning on Bates machines.
As I received the frame and fork with only a headset and bottom bracket attached I decided to build it up as a non-historically correct bike which reflected more of how I wanted to use it then how it would have been in the forties. I used a fifties Sturmey Archer alloy three-speed hub which is vaguely correct but for the most part, it is just classic parts that work well together.
When I first rode it, I was amazed at how stiff the almost 70-year-old frame rode. Paired with the long top-tube geometry that Bates used, this stiffness actually makes it an uncomfortable bike to ride casually but a responsive, and fast sprinter.
Nowadays, for the same reason Bates did, most road bike manufacturers use oversized tubes and Pinarello even uses a variation on the Diadrant fork bend. The Bates B.A.R. was way ahead of its time and, in fact, even though it is one of my oldest bikes, its super-stiff ride is perhaps a little too modern for me.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Detroit Industry

BSA inch-pitch chainring and La Ccuronne crankset.

Made in Detroit Omelenchuk rims.

Pinch-bolts on unique bottom bracket lug.

Woods Bike Shop dealer decal.

Integrated headset cups and bar/stem combination.

The original image sent to me.

Part of the drive for me to collect racing bicycles is the need to preserve their history. It's a strange motivation considering I rarely get any first-hand information on the bikes I find. Buying a 40-year-old bicycle from its original owner is rare, so I mostly have to rely on clues gathered form both the seller and the bike itself. Sellers are generally not that helpful to me, as most of the bikes I've found were purchased from people outside the bicycle trade who don't often have much interest in what they have. The bikes themselves usually have serial numbers that can often be used to date them or even date codes stamped on key components. Sometimes a bike will have the original dealer sticker on it or a dated bicycle licence but, in general, it takes quite a bit of research and accumulated knowledge to build any history on them. This bike is a perfect example of this piecing together of a history.
I found this bike through my friend Neil who spotted it in an antique store while visiting Detroit. He sent me an image and from that I could see it was an interesting track racing bike probably dating from the thirties. I'm obviously a junkie so I convinced Neil and my girlfriend, Amy to go on a roadtrip to Detroit to see if the bike was still there. The "shop" Neil found it in was literally a few dingy rooms on the ground floor of a huge abandoned auto-parts plant. It really seemed like the dealer was squatting there but in the context of the weird, wonderful urban fabric of post-industrial Detroit it made sense. He was a nice guy and told me a few things he knew about the bike. He first said it had been used in the olympics, which is a highly unlikely claim that has been made to me by a surprisingly large number of antique dealers when they are showing me an old racing bike. He bought the bike from the original owner, a 95-year old guy who was moving to Florida, who had sold him not just the bike but over 100 pairs of speedskates and "a bunch of guns". The only other information the dealer knew was that the guy had the bike custom built for him at a shop on Gratiot Street (only two blocks away from where we were) and that for years there had been an outdoor velodrome in downtown Detroit. As we were packing the bike in our car a man walking by added some more information when he said to us in passing, "that looks like a Wolverine bike". The Wolverines turned out to be Detroit's oldest cycling club and a key clue in researching the likely history of the bike.

Looking at the bike, it seems probable that it is from the thirties, which is in line with the original owners age. The geometry and components are similar to other thirties track bikes I've seen but, in reality, they are not definitive of the time period. There are no decals on it or headbadge to point to any specific maker and the paint, while very old, may not be original. There are a number of unique details that could help identify who built it : the headset cups are integrated into the headtube, the bottom bracket uses pinchbolts instead of a lockring to secure it, the stem and handlebars are a fixed unit, and the odd mix of frame lugs. But, until I see another bike with any of these features, they don't tell me much more then the builder was perhaps doing innovative work for the time.

The components offer a little help. The Inch-pitch chain, BSA chainring and Phillips pedals are correct for the time but the crank is from a mystery maker. On one arm it is stamped "PV" and on the other "LA CCURONNE". It is rare to find absolutely no reference to a bicycle brand but I couldn't find any mention anywhere of these cranks, so again, until I see them on another bike they remain a potential clue.

The bikes wheels add a little bit of historical context to its story. While they are not original to the bike they are very much original to Detroit. They were made by George Omelenchuk, a local legend who fabricated custom racing parts during the fifties and sixties. The owner most likely changed the wheels in the fifties as the hubs are French Pelliseir's from that period. The original rims were definitely made of wood and the hubs probably of steel so these aluminum replacements were a state-of-the-art upgrade, something that tells me that this bike had a long career on the track. The unique thing about these Omelenchuk rims is he drilled a huge, half inch hole between each spoke to lighten the rim.
The final element on the bike that could help to reveal the history of it is the dealer sticker on the seat-tube. Unfortunately, its a later sticker so it doesn't reveal much, and my searches haven't been able to find anything on Woods Bike Shop or who "Buff" Lindon is.
So there it is. Everything I presently know about a bike that has seventy-five years of history behind it. Its hard to say if I will ever be able to add anything more definite to its past but, as track bicycles of this era were built solely for sport, I can be sure it has been a witness to both the rise and fall of velodrome racing in American culture and, sadly, the rise and fall of industrial Detroit.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

1970's Mariposa

Early Headbadge decal.

Custom bracket for remote operated Sanyo generator

This custom Mariposa rack is not original but was made for this bike a few years ago.

Drilled Stronglight chainrings.

Bicyclesport Decal; always a sign of a quality bike.

Growing up in downtown Toronto in the eighties and being obsessed with bikes meant that a lot of my idle time was spent riding around and loitering in as many bike shops as I could. We had a bunch of great shops then, all seemingly catering to a different clientele. My local shop was Spinning wheels on Parliament street and it was almost entirely a mountain bike shop. I spent many hours on my way home from school staring at the window displays of handbuilt Ritcheys, Mountain Goats and Rocky Mountains they always had. At the time, mountain bikes were just beginning to catch on and you could really only find serious ones to obsess over at Spinning Wheels and an uptown shop on Mount Pleasant called Cycle Logic. Most of the few times I ventured north of Bloor street as a kid was to see what was going on there. For Bmx bikes there was only one shop, Ream's Cycle on Victoria Park; way out of my zone back then but an amazing place full of straight-from-California culture. In the Toronto of the early eighties Redlines, Hutches, Vans and Diamond Backs existed only in magazines and Ream's Cycle. It blew my mind.
For road bikes there were far more options. On Bloor street there was the huge Bloor Cycle and the weird High Park Cycle. Bloor Cycle was an old shop that had an annual catalogue and an expansive showroom floor. They imported all the high-end italian marques as well as every conceivable bike for the whole family. It was a good place to wander around as a kid and not be asked to leave but it didn't really have much character. High Park Cycle was across the street and had far more character but never wanted any kids to come in. I was kicked out of there many times for just browsing at the strange European imported BMX's and track bikes. Ironically, of all the shops I remember from youth its the only one that's still around. It's moved since ( It's now actually in High Park) and is still run by the same surly owner, who still occasionally kicks me out for lack of purchasing. Another option for unbothered loitering was the original Peddler on the east side of Avenue Rd. It was a roadie store that catered to the Rosedale rich and because of that it carried some really nice bikes. The real draw though was the glass cases of high-end parts from Campagnolo, Mavic, Suntour and Shimano. But the shop that seemed to be the most serious and certainly was the most intimidating to me was BicycleSport. When I first discovered them, they were on King Street just east of Jarvis but were soon to move to the perhaps more appropriately "speakeasyish" location in an alley south of Front Street. The shop had only a small showroom but what they had was always different from everyone else. They had English fully-suspended Moultons, French touring bikes, classic used road bikes and, best of them all, custom-built Mariposas which were made right there in the back of the shop. It was amazing to me that someone right here in downtown Toronto made bicycles. I had always pined after bikes made in Europe or California but these were cooler then them, far more refined and detailed. I had no chance at the time of riding one, they were way too expensive for my non-existent budget but I always thought that one day I would have one built for me. Mariposa's are no longer made so unfortunately I will never have a custom one but this bike here is perhaps the next best thing.
This is a mid to late 1970's Mariposa sport-touring model. Its in near perfect original condition and fits me perfectly. I really love riding this bike, it always feels good to be riding something made here, in my neighbourhood, in my youth.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Early sixties Legnano Roma Olimpiade

Painted on downtube logo and "falck" tubing decal.

Legnano seatstay lug and original cable and pump clips.

FB hubs with Simplex skewers.

Chromed steel Cinelli stem and bars with Brass badge.

The rough condition of this Legnano differs from the barely used Legnano in the previous post but it is far more interesting to me. I have always been drawn to old things that have lived the life they were made to live. When I see a classic bicycle or car that has been restored to the condition it was in when it left the showroom floor I find that most of the history that usually makes them so interesting has been essentially erased. This Roma Olimpiade has escaped that fate and is everything I look for in a vintage bike. It has lived a hard life in the past 50 years yet it has somehow retained nearly all of it's components. Other then the front brake cable, handlebar tape and incredible 1950's swiss cheese FB hubs the bike is virtually original. In a bunch of places the green clear-coat has been rubbed and chipped away to reveal the silver undercoat and the chrome is hazy in places yet all the pinstripes, decals and badges are intact. It still has red tape under all the clamped on components, which was probably done by the first owner to protect the paint, and red rubber covers over the shift levers to soften the many thousands of shifts they have made.
The Roma Olimpiade was the top of the line racing model for Legnano and this first Campagnolo Record parts group was to become the standard for all serious racing cyclists, remaining almost unchanged for the next 20 years. In this way I see this bike as an example of a machine that was made at the height of technological achievement and consensus, perhaps one of the first to closely resemble the next generation of modern racing bicycles. Luckily, it is a bike that exists almost exactly as it did in the sixties and it is therefore far more informative and precious then a restored bike that lives exactly as its present owner thinks it should.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mid-Sixties Legnano Gran Premio

Brass headbadge of a warrior in high relief

The unique Legnano seatpost bolt arrangement

Legnano stamped TTT bar and stem

Campagnolo Record chrome-plated brass rear derailleur

Finding a bike that has spent 40 years without losing any of its original components is very rare. Parts wear out or break, people change things for better fit or for new technologies. Here in Toronto all it really takes is one winter in a back-yard to do some serious damage. These next two posts are of a pair of Legnanos that have managed to survive relatively unscathed. This one is intact because it was probably sitting unridden for forty years in a basement somewhere. When I first saw this bike in a store on Queen street I thought it was some kind of restored classic. It turned out to be original and quite surprisingly only $100.

Legnano was an Itlalian company that paid serious attention to the aesthetics of their bikes. From the pressed brass headbadge, colour matched brake cables and Legnano stamped components they really made sure the bikes looked serious. This beautiful metallic green with red pin-striping and box-lining is their classic racing scheme and was seen on the whole product range; from the top of the line lightweight racer to some junky bikes made of what could only be called drain pipe. This Gran Premio is second to top of their line. It was the first bike I had seen that had kept its original fenders, painted to match the frame. Apparently most quality Italian bikes from the era came stock with matching fenders but North American bike shops would usually take them off before they hit the showroom floor. A friend told me once about visiting a California bike shop in the sixties and finding an attic full of brand new cast-off fenders. I have only ever seen a few bikes that have kept their fenders and it really is a shame - they really complete both the function and the look of a classic Italian racing bike.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

1973 Ellis-Briggs

I suppose all collectors have a moment when they begin their obsessive need to acquire, "save", research, invest or whatever they want to call the drive to accumulate more then is necessary. My bicycle collecting began 15 or so years ago when I found a bike in the basement of a bike store on Bloor street in Toronto. I didn't know at the time it was going to become the beginning of something. It was just a bike. I had always been into bikes and cycling, first BMXs then mountain bikes, and I was just finishing my fourth and last summer assembling Supercycles at the Yonge street Canadian Tire. I built 1200 a summer on average, a huge number considering they were almost all defective straight out of the box and needed TLC to be rideable. This bike in the basement was different. It oozed quality. Every component was beautifully made by Campagnolo of Italy of machined or cast aluminum. The British frame had extremely slender steel tubes and a translucent green clear coat which exposed the minute details of the craftsmanship. I bought it for $350; probably a fair market price in the pre-ebay days. It was too small for me but I didn't care. I changed the drop bars to mustache bars and rode this bike for years. I even used it for a season as a courier, although the tubular tires were a real pain to repair in the middle of a work day. Over the years a lot of the clear coat has worn off and I blew-up the original freewheel and rear rim but it still rides like a perfect piece of machinery.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


A few shots of some the bikes I've accumulated over the last 15 years. Unfortunately I've never been able to turn down an old racing bicycle in need of a home.