Saturday, December 18, 2010

Second Chances for Custom Bikes?

As a (somewhat) reasonable person, I recognise that sometimes a deal is just not for me, no matter how good it is. But I can still feel disappointed, can't I?  Peter Mooney is a famed local framebuilder who has been making custom bicycles since the 1970s, including his own lugwork. I love his frames and very much hope to have one of my own some day. And for a brief, dazzling moment, it seemed that such a day might come much, much sooner than I expected.

As usual, these things have a way of finding me when I am not looking, and in this case the "thing" was a second hand Peter Mooney bicycle. As soon as I learned of the bike's existence and availability, I was ready to bargain and prepared to sell or trade my other vintage roadbikes in order to get it. Going by the description, it seemed that the frame was my size - so it was only a matter of seeing it in person and test riding it.

But the stars were not aligned in my favour. Although the bicycle does not look all that small in the pictures (compare it to my Moser), it felt very small once I tried to ride it. The size is 50cm (center of the bottom bracket to toptube), which is only 2cm smaller than the size I normally ride - so maybe there was something additional in the proportions that didn't feel right to me. Not sure what it could be, because the top tube actually seems long-ish, and the stem is long as well. Does anything unusual jump out at you, looking at this frame? 

And I guess that is just the thing with a custom-built frame: It was custom-built for someone else, which is bound to make second-hand purchases tricky. And the fact that it was built for someone else (judging by the components, most likely in the mid-1980s?) also makes me wonder what is the story of this bicycle - why did the previous owner give it up? 

The bicycle certainly has nice components - Campagnolo everything. And though it was clearly ridden, it looks to have been well maintained.

The elegant seat cluster with the white outlining is my favourite part of the lugwork. I hope the original owner appreciated it as well. 

Who knows, maybe some years from now I will have a Peter Mooney bicycle of my own - in my size, in my favourite colour, and maybe even with custom lugwork (let's just say that I already have sketches for the lugwork!). But with this particular bike, I am glad that I was able to resist. It's a bad idea to get a bicycle that doesn't fit you, no matter how good of a deal it is. 

If you are between 5'3" and 5'6" and are interested in this bicycle - it is in the custody of Vin at Old Roads, whose contact information you can find here. For the right person, it is a rare chance to own a bicycle by one of the great framebuilders. But what are your thoughts on getting a custom bike second-hand? I imagine that the more unique the original owner's anatomy, the more difficult it would be to find a new home. I wonder how many custom bikes get second chances, and what are the circumstances under which they switch owners.

28 comments:

  1. That Peter Mooney is a beautiful bike. But you were wise not to buy it. I've made the mistake of buying bikes that didn't, or couldn't be made to, fit. Ouch!

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  2. Ron Cooper is considered by many to be the greatest living frame builder... he has been building bicycles since the 1940's.

    I happened upon one of his frames a few years ago and you would think the bicycle had been built for me... it fit that well.

    Light, stiff, fast and built to a standard that only a handful of builders can hope to attain.

    It has spoiled me for any other vintage road bike and further inspired me to build my own.

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  3. As I have acquired age I have found myself more resistant to a "deal" if it's not perfect or close to it, as well.
    That being said, I was having a conversation last night about frame size, dimensions and geometry.
    I am 5'8" fairly proportionate and my bf is 6'1" and a tad short legged (not uncommon in men vs. women).
    We ride the same size frame road bike and our mechanic friend was trying to convince bf he should try a larger frame and see what he thinks.
    If your going on long rides top tube clearance should not be the large determinig factor as much as length so you are stretched out fully and more comfortable.
    Based on those photos the head tube looks fairly small, though the legwork is absolutely beautiful!
    I think finding the right second owner could be both time consuming and incredibly rewarding for the right person. Also considering, breathing new life into a frame if lends itself to simple alterations like bars and tires for another purpose.
    I bought a vintage frame a while back and quickly decided it was a tad small, after sitting on it for a few months I've now seen it's higher purpose. Ditch the drop bars and 5 spd freewheel, convert the hub, change the brake levers, voilĂ  the perfect around town fixed gear, and I will not have spent a fortune.
    I'm dying to know, Bianchi or no???

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  4. The parts alone are to die for, those are some very rare campy jems. To bad it was to small for you. I thing a lot of road frames feel tight and compact.

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  5. "Fit" encompasses a lot: not only should a bike fit the body, but also the purpose. I'm sure the original owner had a purpose in mind (racing, club riding, touring, whatever) before he was sized up, chose the color and picked the components. The buyer of this bike will have to have the same coincidence of fit and purpose.

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  6. In my experience, most "custom" bikes are simply hand made bikes. There are very few standard deviants that really need custom geometry. So when you do find a hand made bike in your size, three's a real good chance it will fit you the same as any bike in that size.

    The Rivendell I bought used on The Bay is a good example. It has the exact same dimensions as the one I worked with Grant to design. Different features and capabilities, but the dimensions and fit are the same, and actually mimic the dimensions of most production Rivendells as well.

    So keep looking for that Mooney. It's out there!

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  7. Bummer. It was just not meant to be. Your destiny is to have one custom built for you in all your favorite colors. :)

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  8. Sixty-Fiver - That is a great story, very lucky indeed!

    ann ladson - Yes : ) It needed work on the bottom bracket that we couldn't do ourselves, but now it's back from the mechanic and I am hoping to have it ridable within a week!

    cyclotourist - On the one hand I agree, but on the other hand I know several people who have bought custom bikes second hand and were not happy with them. It could be the proportions, or it could be the intended purpose of the bike - but something was off.

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  9. You have to be careful buying a second hand anything, particularly a bicycle. They can be weird experiments that never really work out or they can just be pitiful orphans looking for a warm basement to live in and a friend to go ride with.

    My mountainbike is a secondhand steel hardtail built by a builder named"Stickle" who worked out of a shop here in Harrisonburg for a couple of years. It's really well built and finished in a dark metallic green. A really handsome frame. It hung in my local bike pushers shop for 2-3 years at a suspiciously low price till I traded some plumbing work for it.

    The tale of that bike is that it was made for a guy who didn't like the look of a bunch of headset spacers stacked up under the stem so he had the headtube made a little taller than normal. It does looks a little unusual, but not strange or ugly, it also doesn't effect the clearance in a significant way. Word also got around that it had a really steep head-angle that made it twitchy and prone to bite. It is really only a little on the steep side of average and isn't a problem to ride at all, but the effect of the gossip made it so that nobody wanted it at all and I got a slightly used $2400 frame in exchange for a long day of plumbing. At that price I could afford to take a chance.

    I would NEVER pay anywhere near full price for a second hand frame from a builder who was still doing business and I would be pretty careful to give anything a good sniff before writing a check regardless of the price. But for those of us who have to do this on the cheap, a used Marinoni, Bruce Gordon or Peter Mooney is the only kind were ever going to have.

    God bless those guys who have a new frame built every year or so and trade last years frame in exchange for building up this years. I just wish they had a little better taste sometimes...The used Serotta roadbike hanging in the shop right now is PERFECT in just about every way except for the unfortunate shade of dusty rose... It's just about down to my price level now too, but that color...Bleh.

    Spindizzy

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  10. Once upon a time I had to pass on a lovely black and chrome, all Campy NR Schwinn Paramount; four hundred bucks.

    Broke my heart, still does if it comes to that, but it was the wrong size and I don't collect, I ride.

    That's the way it goes sometimes; the gem is nice but it's for somebody else.

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  11. Nice ride, classic mid-80's, looks light, responsive, meant to be ridden fast!

    One thing about getting a vintage bike - custom or not - is that the ride experience is very different. My primary bike is a 1983 Trek 760, it used to have similar components to the Peter Mooney bike, but I upgraded to a modern Shimano 9-speed component group. The extra gears and indexed shifting make a huge difference, along with the 39-tooth small chainring (vs. 42). Another thing is that modern brakes are far superior to the Campy NR/SR (Cobalto in this case), although I didn't have aero levers, and can't compare them. In general, the modern components make riding more enjoyable for me, and sometimes I just feel safer being able to shift with my hands on my handlebars.

    Bottom line is that I don't know if I would buy a vintage bike as a primary bike if my purpose was fast club rides and I had no alternative. I would, however, consider it if I wanted to enjoy the retro feel of the experience.

    I later bought a second-hand 2000 Fuji Team which is a little small for me, but the price was too good to pass up, and it's fine for anything less than 50 miles. If I had this bike before deciding to upgrade my Trek, I might have reconsidered.

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  12. Spindizzy wrote...
    "God bless those guys who have a new frame built every year or so and trade last years frame in exchange for building up this years."


    really, people do that?..

    Dusty rose actually sounds nice to me, but not the Serotta part!

    Roger - can't use non-aero levers, and I seem to dislike all drop bars other than Nitto Noodles, so those are the two components I'd definitely change (oh and the pedals!). But the Campagnolo drive train and brakes I quite like.

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  13. "really, people do that?.."

    Yes. There are also those who don't go quite that far and only have the frame repainted every year and all the parts changed.

    When I ordered my Quickbeam and the issue of repainting came up it was suggested that I could just wait for my first repaint to get the color I wanted. The idea seemed to be that I was just going to do that anyway in a year or two, so I could save some money. My thought was "Why would I want to wait 20 years with a color I don't want?"

    There was an impedance mismatch in "world view."

    "not the Serotta part!"

    Ben used to make some really nice classical frames back in the day. He also went bankrupt. He was saved by an actual, honest to god, sympathetic local banker. The doctors and lawyers that now pay his bills keep him from becoming another Dorel brand. I no longer have any interest in his bikes, but I understand why he does it that way.

    "But the Campagnolo . . . brakes I quite like."

    Contrariwise to a comment in the vintage thread these brakes are still my favorites (not the gauche Cobaltos though). They are not less powerful than the new brakes; that is exactly the problem with the new brakes.

    Which makes me wonder, have you actually used these and know you can? There are reasons people think the new brakes are more powerful even though they aren't which are relevant to your situation.

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  14. I recently rode a bike that should have fit me. And it is one I have lusted after, not custom but no longer made either. I felt as though I was perched on top of it and that every vibration was instantly transmitted to my body, and the handling was way too quick. Had to do with the geometry and the narrow width of the tires I think. Guess I've been spoiled by my Rivendell.

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  15. kfg - I can and have used these brakes and similar, on other bikes. But I haven't been able to comfortably use any of the non-aero levers I've tried, including the Campagnolo ones here. Don't have the hand strength. The only roadbike levers I've been able to properly use thus far (without pain or electric currents running though my hands) are the Tektro 100A (also rebranded as Origin8 and Cane Creek).

    Jim - Which bike?

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  16. I own (and ride daily) two peter mooney bikes. One is a dedicated commute bike, and one is a fast weekend fun bike. The bikes were expensive compared to many bikes, but one of the greatest bargains that I could have found - I don't own a car, and the sum of the cost of both bikes is still less than a crappy car would cost. My fun bike cost less than many 'off the rack' carbon racing bikes that other people in my bike club ride, and is 10x the bike. Save your pennies, and go through the whole process with Peter- the result is well worth it. FWIW, my fun bike is the red and black frame on gallery page 5 on his web site:
    http://www.peter-mooney.com/gall5.htm.

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  17. The bike I rode was a Ritchey Road Logic. Great bike, but it didn't feel right to me.

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  18. @kfg: All I can say is I switched from vintage SR non-aero to Dura-Ace dual pivot (7401) and I noticed an immediate improvement in stopping power, especially descending down a steep hill. I can't say if aero levers on the SR calipers would be better or worse...

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  19. "I haven't been able to comfortably use any of the non-aero levers I've tried, including the Campagnolo ones"

    Exactly. It's the levers that have changed, not the brakes (the changes made to brakes are just to compensate for the problems introduced by the new levers; they don't increase power). There is a mismatch between the new and old that brings problems.

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  20. kfg - Not disagreeing with any of what you're saying and have always found vintage brakes fine; I especially like vintage centerpulls.

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  21. Roger - As those of us with at least one foot in the serial retro-grouch camp are wont to say; "You can lock up the brakes, how much more power do you think you need?"

    And the answer is: None more power. Lockup is the limit.

    As Archimedes was wont to say; "Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the world."

    But he wouldn't move it very far. It's how far you move something the determines the power. Your new brakes don't have more power, they just don't move as far.

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  22. I've used all sorts of Campy brakes for 30 years, including the goofy delta shaped aero thingies(were they were called "chronos" or something?). I have Daytona dual pivots on my best roadbike and old S.R. single pivots on another. They will both lock the wheel with one finger. I daresay that anyone wanting to recontour their forehead by locking the front brake would find it just as easy to accomplish with the old single pivots as the new duals. You would find that it took a little less pressure on the lever with the new ones but you might also find the modulation of pressure to be easier to overdo as well.

    Those of us that still like single pivot brakes sometimes do so because you can be more aggressive on the lever without locking up the wheel. If you don't mind the additional force required(and really, it's not that much more)and it suits your style they can be more effective than brakes that lock the wheel with less lever pressure.

    I agree with you about the current Serrottas but the bike I'm talking about is circa 1991, all lugged, steel fork, a perfectly preserved finish and maybe 5000 miles. But the color appears to be that of team Strawberry Shortcake, and I don't know where I would EVER find shoes to match.

    Spindizzy

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  23. Back to the fit. With the longer stem and top tube, it was probably made for somebody like me with short legs and long torso. It might be too small for you if the seat tube angle is great enough to shorten the actual height.

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  24. kfg, spindizzy - Looking at the issue objectively, I agree with you both. Upon reflection, I realize that I've probably changed more than the brakes. 30 years ago and 40 pounds lighter, I had no problem stopping hard enough to put myself over the handlebars. Adding in the RA I've developed, I have lost that ability to lock-up, and it just seems that I get a little more leverage with my current equipment.

    Velouria - I hope I'm not abusing the thread, I know I'm off topic... If it's not too hokey, I've got an entry in the Vintage Trek gallery here:
    http://www.vintage-trek.com/Trek_galleryRS.htm

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  25. If I actually found a really special custom frame that was close to fitting me and I really liked it, I would have no problem pulling out the cutting torch and modifying it. Purests would probably go into conniptions.

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  26. Roger - "it just seems that I get a little more leverage with my current equipment."

    Ah, that you do. That's the change made to the levers. Since they couldn't change the power of the brakes, they made the lever more levery. That means you get the same power, but with more lever motion, which means you need to apply less hand pressure as the force is spread over a greater distance.

    Psychologically you interpret the lighter pressure as more power, since pressure on a control is the primary feedback mechanism; which is why people who start going on about "modulation" prefer the harder pull of the single pivots.

    You don't get nuttin' fer free though. If the lever moves more, the caliper arms have to move less, so they have to be moved in closer to the rim when not engaged. The one flaw of the single pivots is that they don't center well and if moved to close to the rim can cause rubbing problems.

    The only thing the dual pivot design does is provide positive mechanical action to center the brakes. If anything they'd be a little less powerful, because the two arms move on two different arcs the pinch is not symmetrical. You should notice uneven pad wear when you compare sides.

    All of this added up is why brake pads are so frickin' thin these days. I hate that, although I suppose the weight weenies think it's a "feature."

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  27. Forrest - I have no essential problem with chop jobs on bikes; except when the secondary value of the bike is that it is a unique work of single craftsman.

    There I think the fiddle maxim for handling such objects applies - Do as you like, so long as what you do is reversible.

    If, on the other hand, you can arrange to have the original builder chop it for you . . .

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  28. Is this frame perhaps for criterium riding? I tried a friend's Serotta criterium bike. It, too, was small for me, but I think it was the steep head angle that scared me. I felt that if I turned my head, I would accidentally turn the bike drastically and then fall. It was so quick that I never really had to turn the handlebars. I just leaned, and it make a very quick turn. I imagine that this could make a bike too small, because you might associate that quality with small bikes.

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