Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Art of the Seatcuster

Here’s a neat bike:

This is a ca.1973 Mondia Super, I picked up cheap (really, I don’t make a habit of picking things up just because they’re cheap, but look at that paint!). Off came the tubulars, Off came the chintzy old breakamatic handlebars, Off came the ten-speed Nuovo Record. On went the fixed-gear rear wheel, On went the clinchers and handlebar, etc. And now I have a(nother) “saved” old bike to ride.

It seems heretical to put new components on frames like this, and anyway since it’s Swiss, or French, or some combination thereof, it probably wouldn’t be very rewarding anyway. The old Mafac brakes work fine (not good) as long as you keep adjusting them, and leave plenty of room for fenders, so now I don’t have to get my Pista all smutty when it’s wet out. You might say, “Well, how can you justify getting your nice old Mondia dirty when it rains?” If you saw the mudflaps I have on those fenders you might think that it really Doesn’t get too dirty... And besides, I don’t have any other bike that will take that little T.A. rack (it bolts right onto the brake). Come to think of it, that little rack is one of the biggest reasons I ride the bike at all; every time I look down I think, “Cool!”

Look at that wraparound cluster. Other Mondias I have seen are similar, yet this technique is more common on British frames. Defaced by the serial number; an odd utilitarianism within the framework of beauty.
Those lugs are known as Nervex (company) Professional (model) and are often found on the fanciest of older frames. They are French, I believe. Although this one is pretty fancy with that paint job and such, the finish is second-rate, with minimal filing at the lugs and a typically fragile paintjob. Pinstriping on the main tubes was done (evidently) by a master, being nice and straight and clean, but then the frame was handed off to a hamfisted apprentice, who blotched on the lining around lugs.

The bike rides great. We haven’t learned much about frame geometry for decades; I’ve measured this thing up for dimensions and angles (see the little “73” marked on the top tube?) and it’s not far away from the supposedly “modern” geometry of Le., or Tr., or Sp., or Gi., or any other Johnny-come-lately “sport bike”; they’re just copying what came before. (I didn’t include Bi. in that group because they are now 120 years old, and really are, arguably, largely responsible for influencing the Italian school of design).

1978 Bill Davidson
Burly. Italianate (esp. with the painted window). Graceful yet strong. Big fat stiff stay-ends with brazed caps, not plugs. Brazing those stays onto the sides of the cluster make for a wider space at the tire. Extremely clean, crisp edges.

197? Bruce Gordon
This lug shouts, “American!” Highly-reworked Cinelli lugs. Somewhat avant-garde, with the binder bolt hidden on the opposite side (see below). Insuperable form. There is a photo of (presumably) Mr. Gordon’s hands filing a lug in The Custom Bicycle, by Kolin and de la Rosa (Rodale, 1979), which shows what hands look like after a million hours of detail work on steel frames. The radii of these lug mouths are impeccable, near-perfect, thinned down and profiled to tiny points, dispersing the stress risers of the lug neatly into the tube. This photo doesn’t do justice to the frame.

You can get an idea of the number of miles on this frame by the wear marks in the cluster; it’s a testament to craftsmanship that it survives today. And a dramatic upward Swoop! on the backside of the lug adds a little support to the post and, again, helps disperse a stress riser where seatposts occasionally break off.

This old guy is currently serving as a fixed-gear cyclocrosser!

2000 Serotta
Optimized. Lug mouths and points not much larger than necessary. Stays that go not beyond the bolt. A lug profile which almost disappears into the line of the joint, just millimeters away.

1979 Austro-Daimler
Some makers use a plug at the end of the stay with their company name, or some other motif.

2003 Bianchi
Typical modern cluster, tig-welded of course. Strong, light, inexpensive.

1969(?) Bottecchia
Italian. Not top-of-the-line, but still the manufacturer cared enough about the product to chrome-plate the ENTIRE frame and detail the lugs in red. Note the little hiccup in the line of the descending radius-no filing done here, just brazed together and sent on to paint. The stay-ends are sliced open and the outer flap folded over and brazed down to form a closed end.

197? Peugeot
Nervex Pro lugs. Somebody hammered in the wrong size of seatpost and now no amount of twisting, torching, and penetrating oil can free it. A mechanic friend suggested soaking in Coca-cola; I’ll try that one day.

191? Iver Johnson
Early American bicycle. Compare the basic form of this to the Bruce Gordon and Serotta frames above. Usually called a “fastback” cluster.

198? Schwinn Sidewinder
Just for comparison; strong, cheap. I understand that’s actually a brazed joint, whereas the rest of the frame is welded. Ugh!

198? Univega
Modern spartanism with an attention to crispness, and artistic flair. Medium-long points with a filled cutout.

And this is kinda interesting. Nice, even dirt buildup around the break-that fissure has been working its way around for some time. The clean break around the belly of the downtube is pretty fresh, and the exciting new sensation from the pedals alerted the rider. If I got back on the bike and cranked around the building it would probably finish it off. Hmmm.

199? Cannondale 2.8
Here’s another seat cluster, this time in aluminum. The paint has been stripped and the frame sanded, wooled, and polished. Which is a lot of work and I don’t recommend it. But what a striking result! This bike reminds me of a character in a Terminator movie.

No comments: