Sunday, December 18, 2011

Japanese Tire Irons

My son got a flat on his bike the other day, a first for us here in Japan. So yesterday, on our way back from the Katayama Municipal Pool, we stopped at a bike shop to get the fixins for flat fixing.

The first joint had a patch kit, which we purchased, but no levers. We then stopped at another shop, they also didn't have any levers. At this point, I'm detecting a trend & I ask my wife to query the shop proprietor about "WTF is w/the no tire irons in Japanese bike shops?" as this sort of interchange is still a little beyond my Japanese abilities.

The proprietor said he just uses screw drivers, like apparently most bike shops in Japan do and I did on my first bike when I was in second or third grade.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Berthoud Aravis Saddle

Finally got an official ride in on the 1985 Trek 620. I've been on about some 30/40 miles, but they were just pottering around. Today I rode about 50 miles, only stopping for a couple of water breaks.

Overall, the bike performs well. The 35mm tires do slow one down, no doubt about that.

On my previous rides, I had observed that the Berthoud Aravis saddle is absolutely rock hard. In addition to this, it is very flat longitudinally along the top, not having any sag.

By about mile 35, this was starting to severely bother me. In addition to general discomfort, the flat along the top was making it impossibly painful to ride the drops.

You do the geometry.

I pedalled along thinking about this, in the way that saddle discomfort demands attention and thinking about all the Brooks B17 saddles that were comfortable right out of the box. I was also thinking pessimistically about how long it would take to break in a saddle with leather as thick as that of the Berthouds.

Finally, I remembered observing that the saddle had come w/some built in tension, not fully loosened the way Brooks customarily are when new. So I stopped, pulled out the 5mm allen wrench and backed off the tension a full turn.

This had a pretty dramatic effect. I'm not going to say everything was immediately sunshine and lollipops but it was a lot better. After another 5 miles, I gave it another half turn of loosening which further improved things.

On this ride, it was a little hard to tell if this will yield an acceptable comfort level, as I was pretty beat up and sore by the time I got around to detensioning the saddle a bit. But I am a lot more optimistic about it than I was midway through the ride.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Grizzly Roars To Life

Regular readers of this blog may be wondering what ever happened to my 1988 Bianchi Grizzly that was nearly completed back in July.

The short answer is nothing at all happened, the bike has just been sitting in a corner.

Until today when I resolved to do the 30 minutes of work necessary (cable fitting mostly) to get this thing on the road. And my resolve was undaunted as I was then able to take this out for a short hop on some errands:

The biggest unknown for me was how would the drop bars work.  Periodically, I get tempted into making some sort of rugged duty, urban commuter/utility whatever out of a mountain bike.  This is all well and good until it comes time to actually ride it and I rapidly lose interest because of the flat bars.  I seem to be able to abide flat bars only in a true MTB situation.

So this time I decided to put on some drop bars and while it was only a short ride, I would give the geometry and feel a go at this point.

The stem shifters I installed are fun and quite convenient, but you have to be secure in your manhood (or just plain be in your senescence) to enjoy them:

This bike has bio-pace chain rings.  I couldn't really tell any difference in the feel between these and normal chainrings.  They still look utterly dorky, though.

Overall, I think the drop bars on this are a winner.  I haven't done much else to the bike so far because I wanted to ensure that I was ok with the drop bars before doing much other work.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Phoenix Project - MKS Custom Pro Pedals

Background on The Phoenix Project is available here and here.

I love the looks of a classic road pedal.  But the nib most of them have on the outboard edge of the cage interferes with using street shoes when necessary.

Fortunately for us, MKS (Mikishima = "Three Islands") has a fairly new, very high quality release with a subdued, almost vestigial nib, called the MKS Custom Pro:

These pedals share the same body with the MKS Custom Nuevo:

Here are the hints of a nib:

The cages are bolted on, just like in the good old days:

Incidentally, the MKS site ( helpfully explains that in MKS-ese, sealed bearing indicates sealed cartridge bearing whereas sealed mechanism means good old fashioned loose cup and cone bearings with some sort of seal in the equation.

Street Cred

MKS has been making pedals for decades along the full spectrum from dirt cheap models up to very high end.  All have a stellar reputation for toughness, serviceability, and reliability.  I've never heard a complaint about them other than the cheap ones can be stingy on the grease when delivered from the factory.

Gizmo Lust

Other than the excellent finish, which includes much beloved chromed spindles, how excited can one get over pedals?

Well, when I unwrapped these and spun those precious chrome spindles, I was floored.  They spin as smoothly and evenly as some precision machine tool, sort of the platonic ideal of a rotating axle.  No resistance and no play detectable whatsoever, it is almost eerie.

They are also nicely, but not insanely, light at 293 grams.


With these pedals, it is official.  The 1985 Trek 620 has no traditional, repackable, cup and cone bearings in any component.

Tweed Factor

Tweedies love MKS, but are traditionally much more likely to go in for cheapo MKS Sylvan variants.

In recent years, MKS has been an enabler of the increasing weirdness in this quarter with things like these "Grip Kings":

If the stock situation isn't enough for you, there are little aftermarket screws to put in all those holes to make them into a real bed of nails.  This is just the thing for cruising around in the aftermath of an oil spill, I suppose.

Phony Accent

Racing pedals?  Cycling vanity, thy name is slow middle aged guy.

Lily Gilding

There is no excuse at all for the price I paid for these.

Honorable Mention

I really like Specialized Touring Pedals produced by MKS back in the late 80's or so:

These have a traditional road pedal look but with the support of a platform pedal.  Further, the rear cage and platform is slightly curved.  This conforms to one's foot and is supremely comfortable.

However, they had sealed mechanisms instead of sealed bearings.  Furthermore, they were a gross violation of the "no vintage parts" and I couldn't think of a reason to grant them a waiver.

I sure wish MKS would bring back a modern rendition of these.  The guy I sold my last set to is actually contacting MKS ( to inquire about this.  Maybe if enough readers out there in Fuji Otaku-land join him in this, we may see it happen.  It would be a great part to get back into production.

Another pedal I considered was the White Industries Platform Pedal:

I've been intriqued by these for a while.  But the urban/commuter vibe didn't quite fit this project.  Plus, I have some reservations about the durability of the extremely cantilevered flip tab when rendered in alloy.  That is in a pretty exposed position and one good whack seems like it would break it off.

Running Tally

$3981 USD

We bring forward $3839 USD.  The MKS Custom Pro pedals were a whopping $142 USD inclusive of shipping from

The Sausage Factory

Always grease those pedal threads, always.  Future generations of bike collectors will thank you.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Phoenix Project - Final Concept Buzzwords

Background on The Phoenix Project is available here and here.

Throughout the seemingly endless duration of The Phoenix Project, I have struggled with coining a term for what type of bike is the end product.

seems distinctly vague and is sounds like somebody trying to tart up a cheap bike. Sensible cycle reminds me of platform pedals and oddballs with oddball gizmos while extreme cost of this project is anything but sensible.

Although the frame and gearing support touring, this is not a touring bike, as the rack space is limited and it is not fully ruggedized. The same goes for camping bike, not to mention I sort of hate camping.

The 35mm tires rule out randonneur bike, at least in the modern sense of the term.

The list goes on, but none of the pre-existing categories exactly seemed to express the combination of elements in what we've done with the 1985 Trek 620 in The Phoenix Project.

But this morning, the category, a new one of my creation, finally came to me in a flash. So after a meeting in Bethesda, I took the long way home to snap a few pictures to see if I could capture the essence of this category. Here is the best of the lot:

So here it is folks, an estate bike™. First and foremost, an estate bike™ is tasteful and refined, extremely high quality but not flashy.  Stylistically, it carries on traditions and elements of its predecessors but is not a slavish or cartoonishly self-conscious reproduction.

As the pastoral name implies, it is comfortable and accomodating in all weather both on and off pavement but makes no pretenses about club racing or anything more daunting than gravel and moderate mud.

The parts on an estate bike™ are the products of established vendors at the pinnacle of their domain and are exquisite renditions of proven designs rather than the latest cycling marketing trends.

A perfunctory Googling shows that this is not a preexisting category, at least not a well-identified one - I'm glad that I thought of this term before Grant Petersen, who came up with country bike.  Admittedly, estate bike™ is a similar concept, but a little less rowdy, a bit more elegant, and perhaps with a trust fund in the background somewhere.

Proceeding with dignity toward the local village on an estate bike™, one is supremely unperturbed by skinny tire racer boys whipping by except to the extent that it brings to mind fond memories of one's mint but very dusty full C Record Colnago hanging in the garage.

Oooh, I do love this picture, but it does mean I am going to have to lose the plastic water bottles and get some stainless ones.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Phoenix Project - Dura Ace FD 7803 Front Triple Derailleur

Background on The Phoenix Project is available here and here.

With the choice of a Dura Ace 7800 GS rear derailleur, it was simple to choose the Dura Ace FD 7803 front triple derailleur.  Like the rear unit, it is a beautiful piece of work:

As is typical with Dura Ace gear, the finishing and attention to detail is exquisite:

The rear cage is highly sculpted:

This sculpting is designed specifically for the chainring jumps of a Dura Ace FC 7803 crankset with 53/39/30 rings.  This is all part and parcel of the increasing specialization and consequent compatibility issues with cycling components.

It worked fine for the one or two test rides with the Sugino OX801D compact double.  However, when I swapped that out for the final choice of a TA Carmina 48/38/28 triple, it took quite a while to find a satisfactory setup.

During the hour or so of futzing around with this, I found myself longing for the old days of more or less universally compatible front derailleurs with smooth inner and outer plates.   When it came to ride time, I did find the shifts much quicker and more quiet than with an old style cage.  However, I still have vague fears about incompatibility, as I am considering going to a 48-36-24 configuration on the front triple.

I'm going to skip the ratings, as they are identical to those of the Dura Ace RD 7800 rear derailleur.

Running Tally

$3839 USD

We bring forward $3730 USD.  This unit was $109 USD with free shipping from Chain Reaction Cycles.

The Sausage Factory

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Phoenix Project - TA Specialites Carmina Crankset and SKF Bottom Bracket

Background on The Phoenix Project is available here and here.

Other than important lifestyle items like straddle wire hangers and handlebar wrap, choosing a crankset has been the biggest dilemma of The Phoenix Project.

Going into this, I really, really wanted to embrace the trendy wide range compact double and actually purchased a Sugino OX801D crankset in a 46/30 combination.  But this posed some problems with my planned rear cluster of 12/27.

The first was that the lowest gear on the outer chain ring was about 46 gear inches.  This is a little more than I prefer for starting from a standing start especially when carrying a load or pulling a trailer.  Sure, it is doable, but it is nice to options for laziness, fatigue, and so forth.  So who wants to do a series of both front and rear derailleur shifts for every stop, particularly in urban riding.

The second was that the lowest gear was only going to be 30 gear inches.  Again, for a lot of bikes, this is ok, but I want the 1985 Trek 620 to be configured for pulling heavy loads where need be.

The first option to address this was to drop the 12/27 rear cluster and go with a Shimano HG61 12/36.  This would give me a low gear on the big chainring of 34.5 gear inches and a low gear on the small chainring of 22.5.  Problem solved, right?

Well, that would solve the low gear problem but it introduces a few of its own.  The Shimano HG61 is a beast of a cassette, weighing in at about a pound vice the half pound of the 12/27 Ultegra CS-6500.  This alone isn't too much of a problem - I'm not a hard core weight weenie and the Sugino OX801D is a real lightweight at 745 grams including bottom bracket.

However, there were two other issues.  To get that 12/36 spread, the HG61 has some pretty big tooth jumps.  And even worse, I wouldn't be able to use a Dura Ace long cage rear derailleur as these only accommodate a max cog of 27, although some claim this can be pushed a tooth or two.

The alternative choice would have been a Shimano T661 rear derailleur, a fine product, but as hard as I tried, I couldn't bring myself to love this unit with the same unbridled passion I have for Dura Ace rear derailleurs.  Were it any other project than this one, which is an exercise in extravagance and self-indulgence, I would have made the accommodation but in this case I put my foot down.

So, reinventing the wheel, I finally concluded that the only way to get overall wide range but with closely spaced gears on a single chainring with a 12/27 cassette was with a traditional triple.

This then presents problems as the bicycle industry is rapidly deprecating traditional triples for road bikes and even mountain bikes.  I considered such choices as the Ultegra and Dura Ace triples, but with a large BDC of 130, the minimum middle ring can only be 39 or 38.  Again, this is doable, but generally I avoid configurations that are at the limit of a piece of hardware as it eliminates flexibility in that direction.

I then briefly considered the newly reissued TA Specialites Cyclotouriste 50.4 BCD cranks (or some of their clones from Velo Orange and Electra), but, despite claims to the contrary, these still have issues with chainring flexibility and compatibility with modern sculpted outer cages on front derailleurs.  Maybe the issues aren't as bad as they were on previous editions, but they've only been mitigated, not eliminated.

Even worse, though, is the spindly, Gothic look of the things.  I've always thought that one of these:

Would be right at home on this lady's bike:

I'm sorry, it is an inescapable mental image I have of the TA Cyclotouriste cranks.  I hope that by sharing this I haven't infected any readers.

Ultimately, and again reinventing the wheel, the obvious choice is the ever flexible 110/74mm BCD triple that reigned supreme for several decades on touring, utility, and mountain bikes.

Going into the marketplace for new 110/74mm triple cranksets, I was astonished at how few are still in production.  The Sugino XD series of cranksets seems to satisfy about 90% of the remaining market for new production items.  This is a fine, economical offering but is distinctly bland and not in the spirit of flagrant, willful violations of cycling sumptuary laws wherever possible.

Velo Orange has their own branded 110/74, which is also distinctly meh and furthemore devoid of provenance or snob appeal.  Stronglight sells a 110/74 unit sometimes in Europe, but these are just rebranded Sugino XD units.

IRD and Velo Orange both now have nifty 110/74 clones of the Sugino Mighty Tour.  Here is the IRD version:

Having been a huge fan of the original Sugino Mighty Tour, I was initially pretty excited by this.  But then I discovered that the 74mm granny is mounted on a triplizer middle chainring, which is epic fail in my estimation, particularly since no one seems to sell exactly this style of triplizer ring, much less in a variety of tooth counts.

Then I got even more excited when I found out that Sugino itself had reissued the Mighty Tour and it was available in a triple version:

But I was again crestfallen to find that the granny was attached to a triplizer ring.

I then found a couple of other obscure offerings, none of which seemed satisfactory and at this point the reader is screaming, "What about the TA Specialites Carmina"?

Ha! I actually considered this from the start and it was always in play.  However, the go-to guy for these in the U.S., Peter White, claims that he can only get these with a black spider, which I find hideous.  Plus they were French, putting me at high Phony Accent risk.  And on top of that, they just aren't the easiest things to find as well as being extremely expensive.

But after doing the above research, I thought, ok, they are a sweet item and if I can find one with a silver spider, I'll cough up the dough for one of these.

Enter Bilenky Cycles, who just happened to have these on sale and claimed to have silver 110/74 BCD spiders.  For readers that are unfamiliar with the TA Carmina, the arms and spider are separate units and for a given set of arms, there are a range of spiders, from triples to singles in various BCDs that can be attached.  Sort of the tinker-toy of cranksets.

Anyhow, this is what I ended up with in 48/38/28 rings:

Pretty luscious units, they are.  The next problem was what bottom bracket?  They take a traditional square spindle, but there is a little bit of mystery surrounding the bottom brackets for these, at least according to the Peter White site.  Therein lies a complicated tale about whether or not the spider has a rough or smooth inner surface, I had a hard time following it all.  The Internet is similarly indecisive.

Bilenky, though, was reassuringly unequivocal, said use a 113mm for a road bike on the triple Carmina and you will be fine.

It turns out I already had a new 110mm SKF square taper bottom bracket in the parts locker that I was itching to try.  These are still a bit of an unknown but are starting to make a great impression.  They have roller bearings on the left side to counteract the cross product twisting customary to that side and they are giving a 10 year warranty on the units.

While they are still a minor player in the bottom bracket market, SKF is the biggest manufacturer of bearings in the world.  Turns out that they thought that would be enough to roll into the bottom bracket market but their initial attempt was less than overwhelmingly successful.  So they backed up and gave that master of bike snob PR, Jan Heine, some sort of exclusive distributorship and he seems to be working his magic.

So I figured if Bilenky is right, and my spidey senses were affirming this, that I could slip a 1.5mm spacer on the drive side and get a good chainline.  These bottom brackets are designed to have up to 5mm of this type of adjustability, so this was all according to Hoyle.

Turns out Bilenky (and me!) were right, as the 110mm bottom bracket with 1.5mm drive side spacer gave a Sheldon-perfect 45mm chainline.


Street Cred

SKF is still largely an unknown without a lot of operating history behind their cycling products.  There was some carping on forums about their original ISIS bottom brackets but I've seen nothing but praise for their current offerings.  However, their current offerings are all pretty new, it remains to be seen how happy everyone is halfway through that 10 year warranty.

TA Specialites is a legendary cycling firm and usually of very high quality products.  Their chainrings in particular are said by many to be some of the longest wearing ones available.  Even if not, they sure are shiny:

Gizmo Lust

The SKF bottom bracket has German ball bearings.  That is pretty neat.

Here is the fixing bolt for the famous detachable spider on the TA Carmina:

Looks postively surgical.  And how about the finish on the pedal mounting insets - Bilenky thoughtfully threw in some pedal washers so I wouldn't ruin this:


The circle really turns.  Back in the day, a 110/74 triple was plain as dirt.  But now one must furtively search to the ends of the world to find a few options in this regard.

Tweed Factor

While there is no data on the SKF, the Tweed Factor is pretty high on the TA Carmina.  Generally, Tweedy guys (and gals!) avoid expensive components, the largest exceptions being expensive stuff manufactured by Nitto or distributed by Peter White Cycles.

Phony Accent


As with the Berthoud Aravis saddle, one would expect a coronary inducing Phony Accent rating for a French part.  But as with the saddle, that is only for fake copies of 1950's French parts spec'ed by American guys to Taiwanese factories.

But again, this is a real French part made by a real French company staffed by real Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen).  And it doesn't look like anything made by Rene Herse or drawn by Daniel Rebour.

Just in case you couldn't read it:

Lily Gilding

This has lily gilding all over it.  It is doubtful there is much functional difference between the TA Carmina and an infinitely cheaper Sugino XD crankset.  And for the price of the SKF bottom bracket, I could have bought 4 or so cheaper bottom brackets.

Running Tally

$3730 USD

We bring forward $3628 USD.  We subtract the $484 USD price of the Sugino OX801D crankset.  The TA Carmina was $449 USD inclusive of shipping while the SKF bottom bracket was $137 USD inclusive of shifting.

The Sausage Factory

Everyone who sells the SKF bottom bracket recommends getting the Park BBT-18 tool to install this rather than attempting to install with a 1 prong locking ring wrench.  I decided to go with the herd wisdom:

It turned out that the hex nut on this thing is huge, bigger than my biggest wrench or socket or even my gorilla crescent wrench.  But then I had a brainstorm:

That is the right size.

The 110mm SKF bottom bracket is separable as shown, the red ring being the non-drive side:

Per the instructions, I first installed the drive side unit with 1.5mm spacer, this went in pretty easily and was torqued down to "lots":

When I got to the red non-drive side ring, I understood why everyone recommended the special tool, as it took a fair amount of grunt to get this fully tightened.  I'm pretty sure I would have damaged the red ring trying to do this with a single prong bottom bracket tool:

I then installed the cranks (I'm an inveterate taper greaser....), torquing to 350 inch-lbs:

I was very pleased with the 45mm chainline on the first try.