Friday, September 24, 2010

Making an Ordinary Vintage Roadbike Extraordinary (a Review of Sorts)

The Co-Habitant's roadbike, Myles, is a 1976 Motobecane Super Mirage, which he acquired in Spring 2009 and has been gradually updating with modern components and personal touches. It is his only roadbike, and he has cycled somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 miles on it through its various iterations. I wanted to write a review of it (from my perspective), because I think it poignantly illustrates some aspects of owning and customising a vintage roadbike.

It is always interesting to observe people's reaction to Myles, for he is a real head turner - even more so than my Rivendell. The silver frame, the hammered fenders, the wealth of brown tones in the leather and twine, the frame pump looking almost like a double top tube, and the classic Carradice bag, somehow combine to create a whole that is more magnificent and eye-catching than the sum of its parts.

On closer inspection, those who know bicycles typically exhibit one of two reactions. Some are delighted to see a good, ordinary vintage bicycle salvaged and turned into a thing of beauty. Others are bewildered that we bothered to so elaborately refurbish something so commonplace, rather than searching for a frame with a more impressive pedigree. While the Motobecane Super Mirage was a good, solid bicycle in its time, it was decidedly middle-tier and for that reason unremarkable. The frame is hi-ten steel, the lugs are fairly basic, and the original components (Suntour, Weinmann) are pretty good, but not excellent.

We do not disagree with the point of view that a better frame would have been more deserving of all the DIY lavished on Myles. But sometimes a bicycle just evolves organically, and such was the case here.

When the Co-Habitant found the bike, used and somewhat abused, the plan was simply to ride it after a few minor changes. He first replaced the tires, after the original ones blew up on his very first ride.  He has ridden these Continental Gatorskins (27" x 32mm) the entire time without incident.

He then replaced the original vinyl saddle with a Brooks Flyer. Early on, he was caught in the rain and the Flyer got wet - which hastened its breaking-in process nicely.

The brakes on the bicycle worked fine after some adjustment, but he did replace the pads with the salmon Kool-Stops.

As he began riding the bicycle more and more, he added fenders and a saddle bag. Although I am normally not a fan of hammered Honjos, I think they do look good on silver bikes - providing textural variation where the colour is similar.  Hammered fenders are also a good investment in terms of hiding dents or scratches.

The Carradice Barley bag has been sufficient for carrying anything he needed on this bike, up to our current trip. For the future, he will consider getting a larger bag that can fit laptops, and a rack to support it. Having a saddlebag is also handy for installing a battery-operated tail light, such as his CatEye.

His headlight is mounted on the fork, using a Minoura light mount. While he prefers generator lighting, as far as battery-operated lights go, he likes this system very much.

Some months later, he decided to replace the handlebar set-up, as the original one caused discomfort and difficulty operating the brake levers.  He replaced them with 42cm Nitto Noodle bars, which he loves, and the stem with a Nitto Technomic. 

The original non-aero brake levers were replaced with modern Shimano aero brake levers. Personally, I am not a fan of these brake levers, as the hoods have a rather harsh surface and there is a plastic insert that is very easy to damage. The Co-Habitant has dropped and crashed this bike several times, and you can see that the levers look battered.

Almost a year later, a few more changes were made. After complaining that his feet always slipped on the touring pedals at high speeds and that toe clips were a bother, he installed these SPD clipless pedals - much to my shock at the time.  He loves them and now says that he would not go back to non-clipless on a roadbike, vintage or not.

Around the same time, he also installed a CatEye computer to keep track of his speed and mileage,

a Topeak frame pump,

and two bottle cages, bolted onto the frame - into which he places his twined and shellacked Klean Kanteen bottles.

And the final update - completed just a couple of weeks ago in our yard  - was the replacement of the original stem shifters with these Shimano bar-ends. Since the bike is a 10-speed, it isn't possible to get indexed shifting, but these work just as well in friction mode. After having used a shifting method that sounded like a tractor for over a year, the Co-Habitant is absolutely delighted with these - they are fast and quiet, and he is convinced that they are superior even to my Silver shifters (although I disagree).

And so that is the story of Myles's slow but steady transformation from a plain '70s French 10-speed to a glorious and shamelessly eccentric dandy. Was it worth it? It certainly helped the Co-Habitant learn about classic roadbikes - both riding them and working on them. It is difficult to get a straight answer from him about how comfortable the bike is, especially as he is more tolerant of discomfort and pain than I am and to some degree even thinks these are "normal" to experience on a roadbike. But from what I can surmise, the bike is more or less comfortable in its current state, except that it places a bit too much weight on the hands and is over-responsive to the point of being "squirrely". Also, the frame size would ideally be larger, and he could do with better gearing.

All of these comments, however, are made only in response to my direct questioning; he never complains about the bike on his own accord. On the contrary, he is extremely fond of Myles, smiling and shaking his head quietly at any suggestion that such components ought to be placed on a new frame instead.

34 comments:

  1. In the '70s, SunTour made some of the best shifting derailleurs ever made. Frank Berto tested several touring RDs and recalls the results in The Dancing Chain. The $9 SunTour V GT and slightly more expensive V GT Luxe along with the SunTour Cyclone GT outshifted by a wide margin the far more spendy and trendy Campagnolo Rally. The V GT series could handle a 34t rear cog and had a total capacity of 38T. If SunTour had made better business decisions, it might have been Shimano that the sun set on.

    The price may have been firmly low end. The performance wasn't. (Despite what they say at J. Peterman...err, Rivendell, the SunTour bar cons are still the best ever made, although you might get an argument from the Simplex aficionados.)

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  2. Wonderful!

    Myles is a perfect example of a bike that has been lovingly brought back to life ... and ridden regularly. IMHO, this is the best kind.

    Nevermind the provenance or dollar value of the starting point, the "end" result is something worthwhile on many levels.

    Nicely done!

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  3. I have a Raleigh Super Grand Prix that's like that. Turned it into a single speed, left the wienmann brakes, but polished them and added Kool stops. New wheels with Sun M13II rims, formula ss flip flops. Put in a Shimano 600 arabesque crank with a NOS BB. Kept the scraped up aero brake levers. Italia seat. 44T Chainwheel with 16 & 18T SS sprokets (65 and 75 inch gears.) People double take all the time: It looks like a "vintage" masterpiece, but without the pedigree. To ME, it is. I have other bikes for the really long rides, but this is my go-to bike for 75% of my miles. And I like the ocean blue color.

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  4. Phil Miller said...
    "People double take all the time: It looks like a "vintage" masterpiece, but without the pedigree."


    Yes, that is exactly the reaction : )
    I love the Shimano Arabesque components; that crank must look beautiful.

    Phil 4:11 - His derailleur definitely does not function like the best ever made. But to be fair, it might just be at the end of its rope. The bike was well-used by the previous owner(s) before he got it.

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  5. "His derailleur definitely does not function like the best ever made. "

    Well, I never said all SunTours were the bee's knees, but they did make some of the best touring derailleurs of the period, along with Huret's Duopars and a few others. It does appear to be a long cage RD, but there were several of those outside the V and Cyclone line. Some, like the SunTour GT (no V, Vx or anything) were prone to reliability problems.

    I have no idea what Motobecane used then, but these things come up pretty regularly on the STSNBN (site that shall not be named) for not a lot of dosh. Might be worth looking into a replacement. Jockey wheels show up regularly, too, so replacing those might be an option. But you guys know all this and I'm sure you'll do what's he thinks is needed.

    It's a really nice resurrection, nonetheless. I'm not crazy about pumps under the top tube, but it looks like there's no other place for it. There were a lot of nice bikes in that period that get overlooked - not sexy enough or simply marketed wrong the first time around. I'm in the midst of a 650B conversion of a '74 International to a credit card tourer and it's going to turn out to be a nice, comfortable bike suited to the purpose. But Raleigh insisted on selling it as their No 2 racing bike then, which was wrongheaded in so many ways. No wonder it still gets short shrift today.

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  6. Okay, I just got off my butt and looked at his derailleur. Underneath the grime, it is labeled "SunTour VGT Luxe".

    Oh and if anybody wants the original, long SunTour stem shifters than came with it, let me know!

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  7. Oooh that's right, the V GT Luxe... my rear derailer can haz pedigree :)

    I have to say, the front and rear derailer are both better acting now that I've got these nifty bar ends. I think my jockey wheel is going because the chain sometimes ratchets on it and I need to backpedal half a turn to get it to sit. Not during shifts, mind you, just some times. But it's only an acoustic problem, the actual shifting is quite spot on now, both front and rear. I think the 5 speed cassette is the problem here, if I switched to a 6 speed (which actually is sitting on your spare Moto wheel), I could index shift... Hmm... I wonder if I should do that.

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  8. MDI, you might be able to index shift with the new bar-ends, but since that derailleur (and presumably freewheel) both were not designed for indexed shifting, the indexing might not work well, or even at all. the geometries of each derailleur and the relationship between cable pull and derailleur movement are closely matched to the indexing of their respective shifters.

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  9. MDI, maybe the jockey wheels and chain just need a good cleaning :-)

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  10. beautiful!!! i always say, people that focus on the pedigree instead of finding something that they love and will grow with them, are bound to just be disappointed. it looks like a wonderful bike. how large is the frame?

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  11. The story as I heard it is that Suntour sold their products at wholesale + markup. Other companies *cough Shimano cough* sold theirs at "what the market would bear". Market price was higher than the minimum profitable price, and consumers assumed that Suntour components were lower quality due to their lower price. Thus Shimano and other manufacturers gained cachet and the rest bit the dust. Allegedly. I do love the Suntour shifter and derailleur on my vintage Takara.

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  12. Nice looking bike. I hope the Honjos weren't damaged in the aforementioned, unscheduled get-offs. That could get pricey.



    -JS

    Http://www.flyingpigeonproject.org

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  13. Re: old derailleurs, clean in diesel fuel with brushes, dish scouring pads (green plastic) and rinse well with clean diesel, dry, then lubricate with Boeshield or LPS-1 - also a quality new 8-speed chain will do wonders for performance. I had the same style chain as your pictured one on my 1963 Legnano (on a Campy Gran Sport group, mind you) and though it "worked", a new SRAM PC-58 chain made it quiet, precise, and smoooooooooooth. Worth the $. I think the PC-58 is gone now, but there are equivalents easily procured.

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  14. The Flying Pigeon Project - The hammered Honjos hide damage pretty well, but I can't say the same for the fluted or smooth ones.

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  15. Suntour derailleurs worked fine, however not with their very own freewheels [straight tooth design]. If you replaced the freewheel with a Shimano [twist tooth] it would make the Suntour Der. work very well. You can even find older Shimano FWs that had twist tooth desing. If you went with a new Shimano or Sunrace, it would also have ramps.

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  16. Co-hab's bike is a velo par ma coeur. You would understand that if you've seen my bikes: They are, in their own ways, a combination of old and new. I've cycled long enough to know what "innovations" (Remember Ecclesiastes: "Aye, and there is nothing new under the sun.") are actually beneficial, at least for me. So I ride lugged-steel bikes with King threadless headsets and Phil Wood cassette hubs. And I'm about to go back to riding Brooks saddles after riding "donut" seats.

    Plus, Co-Hab's Motobecane is lovely. Good lugged frames--even those made of carbon steel--are timeless, and the silver finish makes it even more so. (If you ever see an old silver Cinelli bike, you'll really know what I mean.)

    As for Sun Tour, Step-Through is right: Their prices were more reasonable than others, so people assumed they were of lower quality. But "in the know" cyclists would install a Sun Tour rear derailleur on an otherwise European bike; in the mid-1970's Motobecane became the first manufacturer to so equip their bikes from the factory. When the Simplex derailleur on my Peugeot PX-10 wore out, I had a shop tap the dropout (I didn't have the tool and couldn't justify buying it.) and installed a Sun Tour Cyclone, which shifted better, was lighter (in spite of the fact that the Simplex had a plastic body) and prettier.

    Co-hab's derailleur might be ready to give up the ghost, but, as other suggested, simply giving it a good cleaning and replacing the pulleys might bring it back to life. The only reason I don't ride Sun Tours now is that I have eight speeds on the rear of two my Mercians, and those old Sun Tours weren't designed for anything more than six. You can coax seven out of them, but I wasn't able to persuade them to do eight. C'est la vie!

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  17. My hammered Honjos have seen a lot of stuff and look now pretty much as they did after one week of cycling. I don't know if they are tough, hide scratches well or simply are out of the way because other parts of the bike contact things first.

    I have noticed that my Carradice bag pretty much prevents the side of the bike from touching the ground when I lay it down. And it itself looks fine after brushing things. It's a pretty neat trick. I've also heard that loaded panniers are great for the same reason.

    Anyway, it's the fender to get, unless you actively dislike the hammered pattern or it does not match the style of your bike.

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  18. Justine Valinotti said...
    "...And I'm about to go back to riding Brooks saddles after riding "donut" seats."


    Interesting. So in the long run, those Terry saddles did not work to alleviate "that" either? In my longterm struggle with the issue, I have finally settled on seamless underwear+ gussetted pants combo, and it works. But I am curious to try the new brown Imperial version of the B17 that has just come out, as well as a Selle Anatomica.

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  19. The rumours of my rear derailer's death are largely exaggerated. :)

    It's well-used and has a bit of play that no amount of cleaning is going to fix, it theoretically needs new jockey wheels, but it's otherwise working fine.

    Perhaps my comments earlier were misunderstood. It shifts better than Riv's "favourite" Shimano LX derailer, which I think is total crap compared to even Shimano's own "shadow" DX (which is the derailer to get for 34 tooth cogs, in my opinion).

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  20. MDI, my wife has an 18 year old shimano LX rear mech, and it works wonderfully. it's indexing has never missed a beat. maybe the difference is that it's been cleaned once or twice :-).

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  21. wow, you really put some work into this. I like the result!

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  22. MDI,
    What is a shadow DX rear derailer? I'm familiar with the XT and XTR shadow derailers, but the DX line is usually for bmx bikes...?

    I have the shimano lx rd-m580 SGS rapidrise rear derailer on 2 of my bikes. I'm a huge fan of rapidrise rear derailers, and the lx was soooo cheap a few years back, i just couldn't pass it up. Initial set-up and tuning after changing cables can be a bit finicky, but the shifting is wonderful once it's dialed in, and it stays dialed in. Was this the riv-favorite? They're only offering XT rapidrise now...

    -rob
    PS-rapidrise + barcons= bliss

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  23. I believe this is a good place to say the Motobecane Mirage get's a bit of an unfair reputation at Classic Rendezvous with their writeup stating it may have been an answer to the Raleigh Grand Prix. Maybe they are right but I think it would take some research to prove it and some of their other claims. Over at the old ten speed gallery, there was the fellow in Michigan that had his Mirage stolen and the photo of it displayed on a lightly snowed street and the owners' words actually was a bit moving.

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  24. I think I meant XT when I wrote DX. DX is Nikon's small-frame digital sensor. Not sure why I confused that with XT, which is IBM's computer from 1983. Maybe too much PBR? :)

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  25. A tip, older deraileurs do not have any float (a little lateral movement), replacing the top jockey wheel with one from a later model which has float will make shifting smoother and easier when using friction shifters. The result is that you don't have to be so accurate with the position of the gear levers, the chain settles on the nearest cog and false shifting is eliminated.

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  26. I know I'm commenting on an old post ...

    I did a very similar "renaissance-ing" to a '74 Moto Grand Jubile. I went a bit further and bent the frame (cold set) to accept a 135mm rear / 700c wheels. Same Shimmano bar ends and an 8-speed cassette. The indexing is great, especially on a 37-yo bike! This bike rides smooth as silk, and is most definitely not "squirrely.". If you want squirrely, try a modern 16 lb. "crabon fibre" bike.

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  27. what makes a great bike isnt necessarily the pedigree. its the love put into them and the experiences of the owner and the mileage of the bike. sure a 5,000 carbon fiber is well engineered o rather a masi vintage lugged with best campy components is definitely a great bike but this bike is great to its owner. and done tastefully. so long as anything isnt too modded that it looks ostentatious id have to give it a thumbs up.

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  28. Don't just assume indexing won't work because you were told it wouldn't. I have a 10 speed Panasonic Sport 500( bottom of the rung Panasonic) from before indexing commonly existed to which I added the cheapest Shimano rear derailleur and 5 speed mtb style thumb shifters. ( from Amazon, less than $15 for both ). It shifts up and down beautifully!

    I also have a Motobecane Nomade with a 6 speed Helicomatic freehub I swapped from a Peugeot ( very french! very non japanese standard, very non indexed design). I added a Shimano 6 speed MTB thumb shifter and a used Shimano derailleur and now it index shifts...almost. The upshifts are fine and most of the down shifts but sometimes the downshifts need a little extra "thumb" to complete, not bad really and perfectly useable.
    The key seems to be matching the shifter and derailleur. And forget about indexing the front, it's not really necessary anyway.

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  29. I had the same french made super mirage in the best candy apple red. vgt lux. I loved that bike. Stolen. would love to get another.

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  30. Hello, I loved to read the article, thanks for sharing.

    I got a 1982 Motobecane fixie from my friend's mother. I absolute love it, even if it's ugly and a lowbudgish bike with stickers on the headtube and tubular rims. The fork have a short rake so it's very addictive to ride on, it's rock steady on high speed, easy to crank away at blistening speed. I have mounted a front brake on it, the picture here is the first one I took, I changed the parts to something more modern later. 96mm hub front and 120mm rear hub, ~385gram tubular Mavic rims. Lovely!

    The rear wheel loosened up so I changed to Nexave 3 gear wheel, and it became different. It felt more comfortable and upsitting with a flat bar, but the handling became a little weird. I don't know why, but I didn't care, it was fun with 3 gears!
    I had only a 40cm long gearcablehousing so I mounted it under the seat, so each gearshifting needed some planning.
    Later got the Nexave hub a ugly grindy sound so I need to dissassemble it. I have bought new fixiehub and rims, a new deep dropbar, but I haven't had time to build it.
    I prefer fixies, it demands less maintenance. :)

    http://i9.tinypic.com/6bbyudt.jpg
    http://i12.tinypic.com/6gdlsg3.jpg

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  31. Sorry to resurrect an old article, but I discovered some of your old posts while doing an online search for info on Motobecanes. I wanted to say thanks for the great read (along with your many other articles.) I have a similar appreciation for putting some TLC into an otherwise unremarkable production bike to make it great, and more importantly make it one's own! I recently stumbled upon a Mirage Mixte for sale that I want to fix up for my lady. She has a modern road bike already but I like the idea of giving her an old lugged steelie with character for casual town rides to match my own roadie. I recently completed a similar transformation on an old Schwinn Traveler 12 speed that has become my first and only road bike (and my current favorite of 3 bikes.) My fiance had spotted it on the curb of a neighbors house on bulk trash day. The owners were getting on in years and their son was cleaning out their garage. I had been riding an old rigid MTB on our casual neighborhood rides at the time and I was on the market for a roadie, but didn't have much of a budget. I had just invested in a few new parts to urbanize the old MTB to get me by until she pointed out this blue steel beauty on the side of the road. We stopped and chatted with the owner's son as I looked it over. It was perfect. He was happy to see it go and the frame was my ideal size and structurally sound. It needed quite a bit of work, but it was free and I wasn't complaining. Plus, it was autumn so I had all fall and winter to get it ready for a re-birth in spring. I began to clean it up and take stock of all parts and specs. A quick internet search helped me accurately date the bike to an '87 model year. I soon had the bike in riding condition with a budget new rear wheel/tire, new brake pads/cables and new saddle. All other components were functional but as the new year progressed I found myself upgrading this or that to suit my taste, needs and desires. The 700c rear wheel replacement had been a mismatch to the original 27" in front and the 130mm hub was squeezed into the 126mm frame. I eventually found a suitable 700c complete wheelset with 126mm rear hub and upgraded from 6 to a new 7 speed Shimano freewheel and chain and a new set of 700x28mm tires. Later I replaced the stem, handlebars, brake levers and found a suitable rear rack to hold my makeshift trunk bag for small loads. To date I still haven't totalled up my expenses in parts (although I saved the receipts to eventually do so.) But to be honest, I may have been able to just buy a brand new modern road bike for the same cost and save me all the time but I could care less. I simply wouldn't love and appreciate the new modern road bike like I do the Schwinn... because the ol' Schwinn and I have both grown together and I really enjoyed spending my time and engergy to breathe new life into the thing and make it mine.

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  32. A year or so ago I bought my nephew a Motobecane of about the same vintage as the one featured, and did some basic resurrection, left much to him to accomplish.

    I rode a Takara of similar vintage for many years, and still have it.

    I have shellacked the cork handlebar tape on my Rivendell, and twinned and shellacked the kickstand, but not the waterbottles. I absolutely love those, gotta do it myself!!

    Love the bike.

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  33. My son just resurrected by 1973 Motobecane Grand Jubilee with some 1 1/4" tires, new stem, refurbished brakes, and red handlebar tape to go with the silver and red lugged frame. I rode that bike for 30 years before buying a new one, and now I'm riding it again. I love that bike and plan to ride it in the L'Eroica race, a re-creation of an historic 102 mile ride from Grand Junction, Colorado to Glenwood Springs along the old Midland Trail, including 12 miles of dirt road. Here's to old bikes!

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