Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Return of Full Slab


This is the tale of how my late-nineties Guerciotti, which still holds the title for the most expensive frame I’ve ever purchased, became my commuting bike. It’s sort of a sprawling family saga charting my commuter fleet, its deaths and diseases, and the Guerciotti’s downfall, which, in a strange way, has also become its apotheosis. My Guerciotti is named Full Slab, and here it is with me on a high mountain road in Colorado back in 2005:

Here’s a quick quiz to decide if this post is for you.

Q-factor is:
a) A subjective judgment of how cute a bike is
b) A measure of the distance between a bike’s pedals
c) A measure of how quiet a bike’s drivetrain is

An Italian bottom-bracket shell is :
a) More stylish than American-market bottom-bracket shells
b) Larger in diameter than an English one
c) Enough to get this post an R rating

Sturmey-Archer is:
a) A grain and oilseed conglomerate
b) A once-proud English maker of internally geared bicycle hubs
c) A dashing rogue from a romance novel

The right answer in each case is (b). If you got at least two right answers, or are disappointed at scoring a zero or one on this quiz, read on. If your eyes glazed over immediately, go read something else or enjoy some television. If you’re somewhere in between, scroll down and look at the photos. There are lots of them.

A proper fleet

Everybody really needs about half a dozen bikes. First, your pride and joy, which is your racing bike. Then, you need to have your “rain bike,” which is a lesser racing bike that you ride in the rain or on your stationary trainer. Also, you should have a mountain bike for satisfying your dirt centers (and optionally a cyclocross bike if you’re into that sort of thing). Finally, you need two commuting bikes. One is a basic three-speed with a big basket and fenders and a chain guard. This bike is for commuting when you’re in a suit and/or in the rain and/or when you’re grocery shopping. The final bike you need is your fast commuter, which has a full 12- or 14-speed drivetrain, light wheels, etc. for going all the way across town.

Until recently, I was living the dream: I had all the bikes listed above, and our household bike total was nine (with only one car). But then, catastrophe struck.

Death comes to the fast commuter

One day this past February, I was sprinting all-out on my fast commuter, not a care in the world (other than being late), minding my own business, not bothering anybody, when all of a sudden, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, with no provocation whatsoever (all of these phrases, by the way, are part of the stock tale that a bike shop customer tells when asking for a warranty), there was a really loud sound like a snapping turtle breaking a broomstick in two, and my bike went from riding just fine to flexing like crazy, a weird springboard boinga-boinga-boinga action, probably a bit like an early ‘80s aluminum Vitus. Remarkably, I was able to get the bike off the road without crashing it. Check out how it broke:

It’s not unusual to break a frame on a fast commuting bike. All frames have a lifespan, and commuters get ridden hard and put away wet (to use an equine analogy). The first frame I built up as a fast commuter was a Serotta, which I got free in 1985 from a fellow mechanic at the bike shop. It had broken before I got it, and to teach himself the art of brazing this mechanic replaced a tube or a lug or something. That frame lasted three rides. I replaced it with a Maserati, a cheap Italian frame a pal gave me because he’d outgrown it. The Maserati lasted about five years, and then it broke as I dropped off a curb going from Sproul Plaza to Bancroft Way on a rainy night in ’91. I replaced it right away with a Bridgestone RB-7 or some such thing that I traded a headset for. That bike gave me nineteen years of trouble-free use. (The components have gone from frame to frame to frame; the rims are Wolber 58s that could withstand the Apocalypse.)

The Arseless

With my fast commuter broken, I’ve spent the last nine months commuting on the Arseless (named after an assassin's bike in a Roddy Doyle book), which is my old black Triumph 3-speed, from England (by way of Connecticut and craigslist). The good news with these old 3-speeds is that you never need to service them. The bad news is that you never need to service them. Bikes like these could really use a good overhaul, but you don’t dare. It’s common knowledge that if you go near one of these bikes with a wrench, they can go to pieces, parts sproinging out like some crazy Pandora’s jack-in-the-box. Every bolt you touch strips instantly. Each component is slowly rusting to death, held together only by habit or inertia—the pattern of is molecules is just barely stable. For years I refused even to take the rear wheel off this bike, fixing each inevitable flat by pulling out the punctured part of the tube and patching it. Keep in mind that I worked in shops for more than a decade: if I’m reluctant to work on a 3-speed bike, you can bet its previous owners were even more reluctant. Which means this bike has likely never been serviced in its life, and it’s older than I am.

So you never tune up the 3-speed, and it just gets slower and slower as the bearings gradually destroy themselves. If you did take the wheel off, you probably couldn’t turn the axle with your fingers. Perhaps a one-speed would be manageable without ever being serviced, but a 3-speed is trickier. The English-made Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub is a feisty beast, known to turn on its rider without warning. One second the pedals are engaged with the rear wheel, and the next second the linkage is missing and the pedals spin uselessly, which can make you lurch as if dry-heaving, bash your leg on the bars, and/or crash the bike.

Every 3-speed I’ve ever owned has done this to me. Usually it’s when you’re in second gear and then, suddenly, aren’t. Here’s just one such tale of woe, which I described in a letter to my brother a few years back: “I was riding to the store on the Arseless the other day, in a hurry because dinner was waiting on whatever I had to buy, and the rear tire was almost flat so I was out of the saddle. I was in second gear, because that bike is so inefficient (and high-geared) that third would’ve been too hard. Right about the time I realized I was in second, and what that meant, it was suddenly too late—the Sturmey freewheeled on me and my knee bashed the bars with great force. I cussed up a storm, not realizing I was passing the new down-the-street neighbors’ house and their little daughter was within earshot. D’oh! My knee was really sore, and in fact that evening I could barely walk.”

The cussing theme recurred recently when, as a treat, I rode to my daughter’s school on the Arseless, riding one-handed so I could roll my daughter’s mountain bike along next to me (so we could ride home together). This two-bike arrangement meant twenty-plus pounds of extra weight, and that I couldn’t ride out of the saddle up Peralta, which is a steep hill. (It’s not actually steep. I could probably tackle it in the big ring on my Orbea. But the Arseless makes mountains out of molehills. First gear on a Sturmey is okay for the flats; second is fine for a downhill; third is only suitable for going down a ski slope. Either England is totally flat, or the Sturmey company saw an opportunity to celebrate that famous British stoicism and perseverance.) Struggling not to drop Alexa’s bike, I was weaving back and forth, barely able to continue pedaling, and let loose with a loud and serious curse, when I saw one of those nice old people who sit on their porches watching the world go by. She looked stricken. I felt great shame. It decided then and there it was time to build up another fast commuter.

Finding a frame

Having never shelled out any money for a fast commuter frameset, I set my budget at near-zero. I figured I could find a decent old frame, or even a complete bike, on craigslist for cheap. The 1980s was a golden era for good inexpensive Japanese road bikes; you see them all over the place, still going strong. Generally, a bike owner has little idea as to the value is of his bike, and this can work in your favor. But I was shocked to find people asking more money for an early ‘80s bike than the damn thing cost new! They seem to think the bikes are collector’s items or something. The worst ad was for a “"vintage Free Spirit road bike" for $125: “Bikes in rideable condition... Also would be a great frame for a collector to rebuild.” A Free Spirit is a department store bike, which is the bike equivalent of non-dairy creamer, or a cheap kid’s toy covered with lead paint, or a Costco frozen burger patty. No Free Spirit has ever cost more than $100 new, and would be a total rip-off at $5. “Great frame for a collector to rebuild” … is this guy crazy? I’d sooner buy used toilet paper.

Which brings us to Full Slab. The frame was just sitting in the garage, its parts having been looted to put on a new frame three years ago. The chrome on Full Slab was lousy to begin with, and as a result it had badly rusted during its four-year role as my rain bike. Three years ago I decided to get some Quick-Glo rust remover and restore the frame. Here is a before shot:

I did a web photo album of the restoration, and the above photo carried the caption “The Horror!” A friend posted this comment: “A more appropriate title for the photo is impossible. That makes me want to run from the room shrieking like one of my daughters.”

The rust cleaned up remarkably well, but all the same, my friend’s comment really made an impression on me. The phrase “my daughters” was particularly compelling; after all, I can’t help but descend pretty fast, even on my rain bike. So I’d decided I couldn’t conscionably keep using the frame for actual road rides, and replaced it with something basic but non-ferrous. (Note to burglars: as far as you know, I have a vicious attack dog who guards my house, and just the other day I trained him to chew the zipper out of a pair of jeans.)

Now, a commuting bike doesn’t have to be as safe as a road bike; I seldom break 20 mph around town. So, the rust wouldn’t be an issue. Yet, I hesitated to reincarnate Full Slab as a commuter because a) it seems a lowly occupation for what was once my primary road bike, and b) I actually never liked Full Slab that much to begin with.

I’d bought the frame online in August of 1998, sight unseen, for $881.94. The website provided most of the details of the frame geometry, but the head tube angle was listed as “proprietary.” Since the frame had a long top tube, I naturally assumed it would have a steep head angle, which is how to keep the wheelbase relatively short. But Full Slab arrived with a shallow head tube angle and a long wheelbase. I’ll never forget that first ride. As I left my apartment and rode up Polk Street toward Lombard, I immediately realized the ride was lousy. Like a damn mule.

(When I replaced Full Slab, I was determined not to take any chances with frame geometry, and designed my own frame. Here is a design that, in my opinion, totally rocks.)

Needless to say, I got over my misgivings about repurposing my old road bike, and set about putting the Guerciotti back into service.

The catch

The trouble was, predictably enough I couldn’t get the fixed cup out of Full Slab’s bottom bracket shell. The cup is made of (relatively) soft aluminum, and its design is the victim of dunderheaded nationalism. The British Standard for fixed cups is to have a left-hand thread, and for jolly good reason: as you pedal the bike, the turning crankset causes the bottom bracket spindle to rotate within the cups. Because of this rotation, a cup with a right-hand thread will tighten itself down endlessly until it’s too tight to remove for servicing.

But the Italians just had to be different, had to defy the British and their sensible design, had to throw their weight around and ensure incompatibilities that I imagine were originally meant to protect their GDP. The Guerciotti being Italian, it has an Italian-thread bottom bracket shell and thus was doomed to have its fixed cup tighten itself to death. The adjustable cup (threaded into the left side of the BB shell, where pedaling would tend to loosen it) came right off, but all I managed with the fixed cup was to booger the wrench slots up a bit. I brought the frame to my local bike shop, and the mechanic there took one look at it and said, in essence, “Sucks to be you.” He made a cursory attempt to remove the cup, and then threw up his hands. I can’t blame him; such an operation isn’t really a repair—it’s a fool’s errand, and cannot possibly be profitable for a shop.

Fortunately, I have some red meat in the house, and a garage with a big messy workbench, and a Dremel tool, and a vocabulary rich in expressions like “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.” So I used the Dremel to cut a new slot into the cup so I could get a really good purchase with a big screwdriver, to which I would apply, with extreme prejudice, great and violent pressure using a tool that at the bike shop we liked to call “The Persuader.” That is, a hammer. Here is the Dremel tool in action:

This scheme did not work. Actually, I didn’t really expect it to work, but I had to try. Then I sought advice from my brothers Geoff and Bryan, but subsequently decided that neither of their suggestions would work. This wasn’t necessarily a fair conclusion, but having been mocked by my older brothers during my teen years for not being “mechanically minded,” it was almost a matter of pride to pursue my own solution. I cut another slot in the cup, across from the first one, and widened the slots:

Why did I widen the slots? And why two of them? So I could fit a flat headset spanner in there, of course:

Once I had the spanner in there, it was just a matter of whaling on that bad boy with the Persuader. Like magic, the cup screwed out just fine, in one piece no less. The threads are perfect in the bottom bracket shell, and the new bottom bracket went in in a jiffy. The hard part of the assembly was over; now it was just a matter of moving the parts over from the Bridgestone.

The assembly

Fortunately, I had my daughter Alexa helping. It’s not like I couldn’t have done it without her, but involving her makes this less of a selfish bike project and more of a Quality Time With Dad scenario.

One goal for this enterprise was to purchase as little as possible in the way of new parts. All I actually purchased was an Italian-thread square-taper bottom-bracket (which I was relieved to find mail-order for $20). Other stuff I got from The Box. Every cyclist should have a box like this in his garage:

The hardest part of the assembly was the brakes. I’ve got some nice Dura-Ace calipers in The Box, but of course I wanted to use Mafac cantilevers with bolt-on Moots Mounts. Here, Alexa removes the mounts from the old frame, being careful not to lose any parts.

Why the Mafacs? Well, for one thing, every bike should have some French parts on it, as a show of humility and a hedge against dogmatism. (All my bikes have at least one French component, except the Arseless, which would reject it like a bad organ.) By the way, look at the bright orange water bottle in the ground there. It’s an important part of the bike. It has a story: I had it on my bike when I lived in San Luis Obispo, and a local racer actually asked me to stop using it. He was very proud of being Dutch, and told me that an orange water bottle was kind of his trademark in the peloton. I thought his request was absurd and reeked of narcissism. I was working at a bike shop at the time, and happened to learn that Specialized was blowing out those orange bottles for thirty cents apiece wholesale. I ordered like two dozen of them and gave them out to all my friends. At the next race, they were all over the place. If anything, the orange bottle had become the trademark of the Cuesta Community College cycling team.

Okay, back to the bike. Because the Moots Mounts flex like crazy, my brothers and I fashioned some stiffeners out of old steel chainrings to improve the braking performance. Tough to set up, but the setup looks pretty cool, doesn’t it?

Note also the Campy shifters. These are the later-model engraved ones made in Milan; I used to have the even cooler ones made in Vicenza with the “CAMPAGNOLO” in raised letters. Also note the pink gear cable. I was determined not to buy any cables, housing, brake pads, or anything. (I’m not sure why I have this impulse; perhaps it’s a backlash against an industry whose goal, as with most industries, is to get people to replace perfectly good stuff with the latest version.) Replacing the chain would have been a good idea about eighteen years ago; now, with two decades on it, it’s too late—the chain has a special relationship with the cogs, which would skip with any other chain. So I put the ancient Sedisport back on there.

What’s remarkable, given the old chain, is that the “new” chainrings don’t skip. Not exactly new: I dug out my old (1983) Dura-Ace AX Dyna-Drive crankset, wondering why I didn’t have it on the previous incarnation of this bike. Then it dawned on me that when I built up that Bridgestone commuter, I still had the Dyna-Drives on my racing bike! (In fact, they earned me the nickname “Dana-Drive” at UCSB.) These cranks used a wacky pedal—you can see a pair of them in The Box, above—that had no axle, and whose axis of rotation was actually below the end of the crank. This gave me the equivalent of a lower bottom bracket, lowering me a bit on the bike so I could get a better draft behind the others. Very cool stuff. In 1984 Alexi Grewal, though officially riding Suntour, used this same model of crank when he won the Olympic road race. Also in this photo you can see the beat-to-hell old Campy front derailleur.

Traveling exhibit

There seems to be a real fad of turning old road bikes into “fixies” by removing the derailleurs and such. Why anybody in hilly Berkeley or San Francisco would want to do this is beyond me. Not only are gears nice to have, but shifting is fun, and keeping your drivetrain intact provides the opportunity for more exhibits in your rolling museum. Look at this sweet Dura-Ace rear derailleur, circa 1980:

Locking up your bike’s wheels is a hassle, so I have these sweet bolt-on Suntour cartridge-bearing hubs. Of course it would be even cooler if Campy made bolt-on hubs for road bikes. I had to make do with using my Campy “peanut butter” wrench to install them. You can see the Arseless in the background. Note also the DT spokes the wheel is laced with. Life is good!

I’ve always hated those clunky little clamps for the Kryptonite lock, and have had the pleasure of not needing them, thanks to my Fisher twin-strut handlebars that accommodate the lock perfectly. Note also the brake lever condoms, bar-ends, and even a Dura-Ace headset—the height of decadence on a humble commuter bike!

So here is the bike, all ready to go. My main impression of it, when it was all done, is how huge it is. Lindsay noticed it too, the first time she got a ride on my top tube (a regular occurrence). She pointed out that nobody would want to steal the bike because they wouldn’t be tall enough to ride it. At first I thought the bike gawky, but you know, at the end of a long workday, it’s actually kind of nice not being bent so far over the bike. In fact, for a mere commuter bike, this thing rides like a dream. It is certainly the best commuting bike I’ve ever had, and I must say it’s nice to finally feel complete respect for Full Slab. This bike has finally come into its own. It’s like the mediocre football player who went on to be a great coach, or the so-so racehorse who found a glorious second career as a stud.

But wait, there was one final change I had to make after I’d taken this photo: the Concor Light saddle just didn’t belong. For an old-school bike like this, I really needed the Turbo. So here it is, all 450 grams of it, mounted on one of the sweetest seatposts ever made: the Campy Super Record.

Just in case you were thinking of ripping this bike off, rest assured I put it in a locker at Bart now. As for breaking into my garage at home, did I mention my killer attack dog?

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  1. the freakin' dura-ass dana drives!!! sweet memories of UCSB and i think i've seen those handlebars before...

  2. I understand that this post is 14 years old, but I simply must say—emphatically—that this is one fire whip.