Sunday, April 24, 2011

Coyote Brings Me A New Bicycle...Project

     Beware Coyotes Bearing Gifts

The weather here in Florida changed a few days ago as though someone had flipped a switch. An overnight North wind brought down some much-needed cool air and just like that, it was beautiful outside. Perfect bike riding weather and last week Coyote came by with a pretty dilapidated 1981 Schwinn Super Le Tour twelve speed. Some kid who had just moved into the trailer court was looking to sell it for twenty five dollars. The gumwall tires were in such rotten condition that a test ride on the thing was highly questionable. But as I looked her over I noticed how clean the drive train was. The cassette showed very little wear (actually no wear at all) and the chain had zero rust. The white frame had some kind of black over-spray on it, as though someone had leaned a different bike against it and sprayed away. It was covered overall with that aged and sticky grime that indicates long unattended storage. But most importantly it was a large frame, very large in fact and looked to be about my size. I offered Coyote twenty bucks which he immediately accepted (causing me to wonder about the provenance of this relic) and then tipped him a finder's fee of a freshly purchased half pint of Morgan's rum (after first taking a ceremonial slug.) Coyote then rapidly departed for the on-going birthday party on the other side of the trailer court, the one I had been invited not to attend. I heard there was free beer there. I took my new old bike inside to look her over more carefully. I looked up the Le Tour on the web and measured her specs. All in all it would seem I had made one of the better deals of late.

Time For Rehab (The Bike)

She sits here now a week later looking pretty good, if I do say so myself. I wiped down her dingy chrome with some solvent and sanded off the aged and peeling decals with some 220 grit sandpaper. I went ahead and sanded down all the minor rust areas and then applied three coats of primer and then several coats of satin white paint, followed by a couple coats of clear. This bike had the look of the proverbial “barn car”, as though after minimal use when new, she had spent the last thirty years sitting in a basement or shed, being moved only when she was in the way of storing the lawnmower or such. I really enjoyed the cleaning and stripping process, spending two six hour days sanding and painting and polishing. At the end of the second day I mounted two 27x1/14 Bell Streetster tires purchased at K-Mart and rode her home. Fast! Right away I noticed how much faster the narrow, larger tires were and what a difference the gearing made, compared to my single speed '95 Mongoose Alta. I also noticed that the rear tire had a very noticeable wobble, so much so that after the short ride home from the shop to the trailer, I parked her for the evening.

But Then...

The next morning I rode her the mile and a half back to the shop. I put her back on the makeshift work stand I had rigged up and set about truing the rear wheel. I had never tried this before, thinking that I needed an expensive wheel truing stand or at least I would have to make one myself before trying anything as advanced as wheel tuning. But Ken Kifer wrote on his website about truing wheels at roadside and my buddy Bryan King had mentioned doing the same,,,so I decided to give it a try. As I began I realized that this wheel was seriously crooked. It was impossible to center it between the dropouts and then, as I was over-tightening a drive-side spoke, I heard a loud hiss. I had punctured the tube. This did nothing to increase my confidence in my wheel truing ability. I stripped off the tire and remounted the bare wheel. The more I tweaked and swore and failed, becoming more and more frustrated, I started to think maybe I had bought a ruined bike, that it was obvious that the frame was bent and I had thrown away a perfectly good twenty dollar bill and fifteen dollars worth of solvent and paint, and thirty dollars worth of new cheap tires and two days of labor...and a perfectly good half pint of rum. It was getting hot there in the shed and the radio kept playing songs I didn't like. Sitting there staring at the frame, squinting first my good right eye then my not-so-good left eye, lining up frame angles like I was sighting down a pool cue, I searched for the slightest indication of warp or weave or twist or whatever the hell was wrong with this so-called bicycle that made that damn wheel so crooked. After the third beer I decided to get a 2 x 4 and try to straighten out this sorry piece of Japanese Chicago crap using some good old American know-how and brute force.

Just then my stomach gave a growl and I realized I was hungry. Had I eaten today? No, said my stomach. Then I remembered something I had read on the bike forums about “stepping away from the bicycle.” OK, I said. I'll go home for a late lunch then come back and see what's what. I think the little Schwinn shuddered with relief. I mounted up on my old single speed Mongoose Alta mountain bike and peddled home.

Enter The Voice

That lunch was a fine idea. After two big chili dogs and some iced tea and a bag of Cheetos (remember, I am in training for a long bike tour), I rode back to the shop. Opening the big overhead door I was immediately struck by how nice the old bike looked with her new paint, and how graceful the lugged steel frame was, and how the chrome accent on the forks made her look strikingly similar to a Rivendell original. After all, these old Schwinns have a history directly linked to Waterford, do they not? So I sat down in my wheel truing chair and thought things through. From somewhere in the ether a voice said “put the wheel in backwards, with the cassette on the left side.” Huh? I asked. “Just do it”, The Voice said. “Maybe you will get a new perspective.” Indeed.

A Wheelsmith Is Born

After removing the rim strip off the bare wheel, exposing the top of the spoke nipples, I noticed that I could tighten the spokes with a screwdriver instead of the vice grips I had been using on the spokes. With the wheel in backwards, for whatever reason, I actually did get a new perspective. Hmmm...if I turn this spoke one half turn this way it pulls the rim just that much more in line. But won't that make the opposite spoke too tight? Well, not if I loosen that spoke one half turn. AHA! I immediately proceeded around the rim, setting each nipple so that the screw slot was aligned parallel to the rim. Incredibly, things were looking better already. Excited about the possibility of success and even more elated about not having to take the wheel to the LBS for the usual round of subtle ridicule (Vice grips? Really?) (not to mention the expense), I pulled the wheel out of the dropouts and reversed it, re-mounting it with the cassette on the right side. It looked worse, but I didn't care. I was a master wheel builder now. After applying one drop of 3-in-1 oil on each nipple (on the wheel, of course), I started working my way around the rim, turning each spoke one half turn only, pulling on each one as I turned it to compare the tension to the adjacent spokes, making a careful half turn on each, always keeping the screw slot on the spoke nipple aligned parallel to the rim. I noticed that the drive-side spokes were tighter than the left side. This worried me at first but as I proceeded it became apparent that this was appropriate. (Later perusal of Peter White's excellent (albeit somewhat curmudgeonly) web site proved this to be correct.)
My breathing had become steady and a gentle breeze wafted through the shop. The radio was playing Stairway To Heaven as I paused for a beer and sat there spinning the wheel. It was still wobbling a little, but it was centered and not hitting the brake pads at all. Wow! This was wheel-tuning Zen! (Not to be confused with Budweiser Zen, which came later.) That wheel was still wobbling, but I didn't care. I could do this all day!
But I didn't have to do it all day. In fact about an hour later I had that wheel centered and spinning as straight as it ever would. I put on a new tube, remounted the tire and rolled off for a test ride. YES!

Whispering Pines Trailer Court
Late Fall 2010


  1. Criticism welcomed, praise appreciated. Anyone?

  2. Nice work! You're on to how they work. Remember they are a system, if you do something in one place it has an effect in other places. (Brandt, The Bicycle Wheel) Working on wheels gives instant gratification. That's one of the reasons I like them.

    Carry on,