Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Best of Times

I have an interest in music and guitars that, like my bicycle fetish, dates to when I was young.  Here is a pic of my fiddle buddy Dawn & I out busking on a sunny weekend a few years ago:

Dawn, incidentally, is a right smokin' swing fiddler when she puts her mind to it.  A couple of years ago, I was playing with the mercifully short-lived 17th Street Canal Dixieland Band and asked Dawn to join us for a gig at the New Deal Cafe.  At one point, things were dragging a bit, so I asked the rest of the band to sit out for a number and let Dawn and me have a little fun playing "Pig Ankle Rag".   Eldon, our tuba player, liked what he was hearing, so he caught the latter part of this on his cellphone, resulting in this rare bootleg recording:

So what does any of this have to do with bicycles? Could it simply be that anyone hep enough to be into retro cycling and a reader of this blog is of course interested in feral street musicianship?   I'd certainly like to think so, but just in case not, let's take a trip back to The Golden Era of Crummy American Workmanship, (aka, "The 1970's").

Away we go.....!

Back in those good old days, the cars, the houses, the clothes, the appliances - pretty much everything - sucked, with the exception of, so the story goes, the sex and the drugs.
Exhibit A:

The Vega was actually winning all sorts of awards back then like Motor Trend 1971 Car Of The Year.  That is beyond satire....

Did I mention that the guitars sucked back then too?  Gibson, for instance, had been bought by a Ecuadorean beer and cement company. This explains why Gibson guitars from this era sound like sound like they had been made by a Ecuadorean beer and cement company.

But nobody much noticed how bad Gibsons sounded then because all the guitars being made then, even the holy Martins, were pretty bad.  The guitar makers had gotten the same memo as all manufacturers worldwide, save the Japanese ones, had received.

Actually, a few people did notice and this created a market for "the ones like they used to make".  Some prescient folks actually started noticing in the 1960's and, foreseeing a market niche, went running around Appalachia chiseling widows and orphans out of that ratty old prewar Martin D28 herringbone that had been gathering dust under the bed since Daddy's liver gave out.  I'm not going to name names, but you guys know who you are.

By the time I lost the trumpet and picked up guitar in the 70's, the old guitar stuff was already getting a bit spendy for most civilians, much less a teenager.  Somewhere along the way between that price level and the current Sultan-level price of a prewar Martin, it started making economic sense for others to start making new guitars the way they used to.

Or at least try - the first attempts, while better than the offerings from the degraded established brands, were not as good as the old ones.  But by the late 80's, early 90's, the industry had sorted out most of the issues.  Since then, various luthiers have pushed the envelope much further to the point that, in my opinion, the best guitars, especially acoustic ones, ever made are being made right now.  That doesn't mean there aren't notable exceptions from the past, but the general levels of quality construction, playability, volume, tone, etc, are as high as they have ever been, again, in my opinion.

One important thing to note is that this high level of quality does not just apply to the high end guitars, but all the way down to food chain to entry level beaters.  If anything, the differences are greater at the bottom end; i.e, the difference between a 70's crummy guitar and a current crummy guitar is more pronounced than the difference between a 70's luxo guitar and a current luxo guitar.  For the past 15 years, I've been in a state of continual astonishment at how nice a guitar one can get for 200-300 dollars, or sometimes even 100 dollars.

But the old ones remain expensive, because now they have mojo and whatnot.  I don't subscribe to the whole old guitar thing, but even still I have one vintage guitar which is very high on the holy grail level:

Yes, a 1965 Gibson L5C with a Dearmond Rhythm Chief 1100 floating pickup.  This thing is to die for, both in tone and value.  Funny thing is, I almost never play it, the most playing time it has gotten in the years I've owned it is when I lent it to my buddy Kev to make a recording.  Most times I just reach for one of these:

On the left is a 2006 Gretsch Country Club, on the right a 1994 Gibson J200.  Both of these are relatively recent examples of classic models from the "way they used to make them" days and in many ways are arguably better than the originals and, while rather dear, are distinctly less expensive than their forebears.

One needn't be a rocket scientist, or even a bicycle mechanic, to see where this is all going - imagine a sector where new products suck, thereby creating interest in old products, which creates scarcity and drives up prices until it becomes economically feasible to start making new stuff in the style of the old stuff.  Eventually, the big mo of the new stuff gets so large that the new stuff starts exceeding the old stuff in most regards other than mystic mojo, thereby creating a new golden age that exceeds the previous golden age that was originally simply being aped.

Years ago, I noted that this rebirth of the cool and the retro was likely going to happen in the bike market.  Well, today's post is to announce that while this new golden era is still not quite upon us, it is getting pretty darn close and is officially a sure thing.

A couple of items splattered all over my radar screen recently.  First, there are now at least three high flange freewheel accepting rear hubs available.  One is the Phil Wood hub made for Rivendell that has been out there for a while: 

This has recently been joined by Velo Orange's French-accented MaxiCar-redolent offering in both 126mm and 130mm OLD versions.  In addition to the obviously sexy circular cutouts, there are a lot of nice details like the QR nut:

Wow, way to go on this one VO, and such a deal too at seventy five clams.

Not to be left out, Paul Components has released the Jono hub alluded to earlier on this blog.  The Jono pegs the gizmo meter as it comes with enough spare bits to configure it any where from 121mm to 135mm with further variations in dish and chainline:

As an aside, it seems that there is no collective noun for high flange hubs, so perhaps the Fuji Otaku blog community should take the initiative for creating one.  I'll start off by proposing "bling", as in "a bling of high flange hubs", but if readers wish to propose other ones, we can then have a runoff, selection by acclaim, and then formal entry of the term in to the permanent record.

This bling of new, freewheel compatible high flange hubs alone is enough for widespread rejoicing, but there is more, much much more. 

One eternal question of every retro-cyclist has been, "Is a high quality, low profile, fairly wide (>22mm), silver, high polish, 700c box rim with double eyelets at an affordable price really too much for which to ask?"  Apparently it has been, because while many have been called, such as Velo Orange with PBP and Raid rims, Bicycle Quarterly with Grand Bois, all squarely finishing in the "nice try" category, none have been chosen.  That is, until now, as from out of nowhere, H+Son storms the field with their TB-14 rim:

I am in such slack-jawed awe of this rim that I can only say, "check out the counterweight treatment on the valve hole as shown on this gray anodized specimen":

Moving right along, there are now two modern version of my favorite old school triple crank, the Sugino Mighty Tour.

This one is from Velo Orange:

This one is from IRD:

I suspect that these are both produced in the same factory somewhere in Taiwan as they are remarkably similar in price and appearance (I prefer the single flute on the IRD version) and completely identical in the areas in which they claim to improve upon the originals:
  • Cold forged and CNC'ed for greater strength
  • 74mm BCD for stump-pulling small ring, originals shared the 110mm BCD for all three rings.
Again, being a big fan of the original Sugino Mighty Tour, there are several other ways I feel they differ and potentially improve upon the original.  The new ones use symmetrical bottom bracket - the originals use an asymmetric BB with approximately +7mm on the drive side.  This is virtually impossible to find these days.

The originals had cutouts on the spider arms whereas the new ones have flutes.  The flutes will be appreciated by people who like things like this on Sugino Mighty:

    But with the Mighty Tour could only do this:

    So all this is very cool and furthermore, there is even yet more on the new component announcement front but I'm running out of time here and need to move on to the climactic finish of this blog post.

    Many of us have suffered great disappointments in the pursuit of a mixte, as the reality often doesn't meet the dream.  Most vintage mixtes are mid-grade or below bikes - the vast majority have at least one and often all of the following negatives - hi-ten steel tubing, derailleur "claw", stamped dropouts.  Only a small fraction are nice cromoly bikes.  But of those, most are rather small, 50/49cm being the most common size.  Finally, a large portion of the nice ones will be French with French dimensions and all the headaches and limitations that poses.

    My S-12-S mixte was very close, but ultimately too small.  Here it is shortly before I sold it:

    I kind of gave up my mixte longings after this one until recently.  My urban village here in Osaka is prime city bike territory:

    So I thought, ok, next time back in the U.S., I'll build up a mixte as a city bike and ship it over here.  This led to me getting on Ebay and getting my hopes up about a nice Fuji Royale mixte frame in 55cm, cromoly tubing, forged dropouts, derailleur hanger - wonderful.  So I set up to spend as much as $150 - I considered this ridiculous overkill but I just wanted to make sure I would win and end all the suffering.

    In an epic miscalculation on my part, the frame ended up going to another sniper for $152 dollars before shipping.  I can only wonder what his max bid was.  Remember the part about stuff from the "way they used to make them" days becoming unaffordable?  Five years ago, $150 would buy a pickup truck load of complete, minty, Fuji mixtes.

    This left me in a funk that resulted in me buying a 1986 (I believe) Bianchi Grizzly to ride on some WV outings like the Greenbrier River Trail this summer.  The Bianchi is a classic old school higher end MTB and is being shipped to a friend's house.  Fortunately, old school MTBs are still relatively cheap and plentiful compared to their road brethren, although their prices have been climbing as well.

    Here is a representative example of the type from 1987, note the rear U-brake, biopace chainrings and double rear eyelets.  The only difference between this one and the one I purchased is that mine has a perfectly level top tube, indicating an earlier year.  The handlebars on both years are celeste green, though not visible in this shot:

    This did a lot to alleviate my mixte funk, but I still felt compelled to survey the current mixte market.  Rivendell has their exquisite but ungodly expensive Betty Foy and an even more expensive Yves Gomez.  In a less stratospheric but still daunting price level, Soma offers the excellent Buena Vista while Velo Orange has sold all their current production of their wonderful example.  It is unclear if there will be any more of these from VO.

    So not much new on the mid to high range.  There are some new entrants on the mid-lowish end from Linus and similar.  These are typically complete bikes and, being dedicated gear hub city bikes, lack derailleur hangers.

    None of this excited me too much until I found this:

    This, sir, is the recently released Origin 8 "Mixer".  The first thing to note about this frame is that it can be had for about $180 which, interestingly enough, is nearly exactly what the Fuji Royale that got away would have costed when accounting for shipping.

    Hmmm.... plot thickening ....

    Remember the part about new "old" stuff getting more affordable than the old "old" stuff?

    Now for the features on this thing.  The tubing is triple butted cromoly, the fork is square crown cromoly.  Dropouts have double eyelets both fore and aft, the rear are long horizontals with integrated derailleur hanger.  There are plenty of rack and water bottle cage brazeons.  The frame is designed for true long reach (55mm-73mm) brakes so that tires as large as 700c x 52 (yes, 52) will fit.  Sizes are available up to 58cm.

    Clearly, in at least some regards, the Origin 8 exceeds the Fuji Royale - tire clearance, frame material, rack/water bottle cage brazeons, .  The Royale wins hands down on chrome fork lowers, lugged vs. welded frame, and old school mojo.  The 1" threaded fork vs. the Origin 8 1-1/8 threadless will shock and offend some, but I'm agnostic on the subject, both designs have their charms.

    On sheer functionality, the Origin 8 gets the nod, but as most desirable overall, the Fuji Royale, with lugs and chrome old school mojo, wins the decision, but not by a whole lot.

    That is why we are still not in the new golden age of bicycles, the old ones are still arguably "better" or more desirable at the same price point.  However, the gap is rapidly closing.  I have little doubt that, say, 1 year from now, the Fuji Royale will be more expensive while the Origin 8 or equivalent from another company will be cheaper and/or maybe even lugged or otherwise more feature laden to win over guys like me.

    The last shoe to drop will be for chrome to make a comeback.

    The best of times, indeed....

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