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Maximizing Comfort for a Classic Bike Rebuild

September 2020
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I can remember the first time I rode my 5200 – a test ride to see how I liked it before I pulled the trigger. Compared to my old Cannondale SR-400 aluminum steed with a steel fork, the 5200 rode like a dream.  At first, anyway…

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I started changing the bike within my first few months of owning it.  The first change was the saddle.  The old saddle was 155 mm wide and I need, max, a 143 (I’m partial to 138 mm in width).  With a saddle that was too wide, I ended up with a pain that started in my inner thigh and worked down the back of my leg into my hamstring.  At first I thought it was a running injury but lucked out tracing it back to my saddle.  With the new, vastly sleeker saddle, the bike went from pretty good to spectacular.  

The 5200 pretty much remained as it is above for several years.  I bought a Specialized Venge just the second year they were in stores and that became the bike that I obsessed over until I had it perfect.  Then, I switched my attention back to the Trek, where it’s stayed for quite a while – once I got the Specialized right, the Trek project increased in… um… necessity.  I’ve got a few tricks that made the transformation easier and vastly more comfortable.

1999 Trek 5200_May_2020

First, the 5200 has an old quill stem, threaded headset.  Switching that to a modern threadless setup is possible but problematic for a number of reasons I won’t bother getting into.  Besides, I wanted my bike to basically, remain original (frame and fork).  I bought a quill stem adapter so I could put any stem I wanted on the bike.  I settled on a 17° flipped stem (90-mm) for an aggressive cockpit.  I broomed the old seat post years ago for a carbon fiber Easton model because the original stem had notches to set the nose angle and it just so happened that one notch high was uncomfortable and one notch low had me sliding off the nose of the saddle.  I wanted perfect and the Easton was infinitely adjustable.

The drivetrain (and paint job) was next – I switched from a 9 speed triple to a 10 speed 105 double and had a new headset installed in the process (the old one was smoked).  That change made a big difference in weight and got rid of several redundant gear choices.  

Next was an unnecessary but awesome handlebar upgrade.  Now, the original bar (shown in blue bar tape in the two first photos) had been broomed a couple of years prior.  The original was a 44-cm handlebar and I ride a 42 on my Specialized.  I’d upgraded the original bar on the Venge to carbon fiber and I loved the feel of the reach and drop on the Specialized bar so I installed that handlebar on my Trek (… I know).  Then, a year or so ago, I found a cool alloy aero bar made by Bontrager and I got a fantastic deal on it (I paid $40, it retails at $99.99 – in fact, it’s on sale again).  The newer aero bar is very nice, and in the proper 42 mm width.  The handlebar was followed by the real capper; the wheels

Until this summer, the Trek has, with the exception of last year’s DALMAC (a four-day tour from the capital city of Michigan to the upper tip of the mitten), always had alloy wheels.  I got a decent bonus at work so I picked up a set of 50’s for the Specialized and put the 38’s on the Trek.  That change made way for the biggest increase in comfort since switching from my aluminum Cannondale to the carbon fiber Trek.  There are a few reasons for this leap in comfort that are worth getting into the details.

First, with the old alloy wheels, they were 19.5 mm wide – outside to outside.  This meant a 23 or 24-mm tire was the widest possible because 25’s would “lightbulb” and rub the insides of the chainstays whenever I got out of the saddle.  The Ican 38’s are 23-mm wide, though.  The wider rim means no lightbulb effect on a 25-mm tire, so no rubbing out of the saddle.  This means I can run a lower pressure on the wider tire which translates into a vastly superior and smoother ride.  Now, Specialized has switched from 23 and 25-mm tires to 24 and 26 – I don’t think I can get away with a 26-mm tire on the 23-mm wide rims – there simply isn’t enough room to work with.  For now, I’m running Michelin 25-mm Pro 4’s, but eventually, I’ll drop to Specialized Turbo Pro 24’s and run 100 psi in lieu of 95-ish on the 25’s.

What I just described is one of the problems inherent in working with a classic frame.  Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the widest tire on a road bike was 23-mm.  There was a misunderstanding centered on how tires worked regarding rolling resistance that fed the misguided notion that “thinner” was better.  To a point, thicker tires (25 to 28-mm) are actually better because they can be run at lower pressure which improves ride quality – so while rolling resistance drops minimally, ride quality improves vastly which means the rider isn’t pummeled over bumps and that translates to greater power to the pedals because we’re not trying to overcome the vibration created by road imperfections.  

So, this presents a problem with the frame width where the chainstays meet the bottom bracket shell.  This inadequacy often can be rectified by a wider rim.  In my case, rather than having to run a 23-mm tire, I can fit a 25.  What I can’t get away with is a 25-mm wide rim with a 26-mm tire.  It just so happens that the 50’s I bought for the Venge are 25 wide.  I can fit them on the Trek but clearance is enough of an issue that I know better than to even ride it.

On a final note relating to wheels, I’ve written a couple of posts about upgrading to Halo hex-key skewers.  These were responsible for another leap in ride quality that make the need to carry the hex-key to release the wheels worth it.  I can’t say enough good about those skewers.  It’s about the same improvement as going from quick release skewers to through-axles.  They’re that good.

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