Brakes

At a recent Vintage Bicycle Show I was fascinated by all the geriatric brake technology on display.

For example, I have been interested in the Flying Pigeon Bicycle from China, though I don’t know if I’d actually want to own one. They are, after all, the most popular single means of mechanical transport in history. When I read about them, I was especially interested in the rod brakes – very simple and reliable. They use a series of levers and rods to pull a pair of brake shoes into the inside of the rim. At the show, I saw a bike with rod brakes (not a Flying Pigeon).

Phillips Bicycle with rod brakes.

Phillips Bicycle with rod brakes.

It’s a Phillips. I talked to the guy that had bought it and restored it about the brakes. Another guy said, “If you think about it, a rod brake isn’t that much different, you replace the wire with a rod.”

I don’t know about that. I asked the owner how well they stopped. His reply was a classic, “Well, they stop well enough… when you consider you can’t get going very fast on this thing anyway. You have to be careful… really careful, if you find yourself going downhill.

Across the aisle was an even older and cruder technology.

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The rod brakes on this bike push a rubber block right down onto the tire. I certainly wouldn’t want to be caught going too fast on that bad boy. Cool bike, though. Love the generator.

Finally, there was a bike with a Campagnolo Delta Brakeset.

Campagnolo Delta Brake

Campagnolo Delta Brake

I’ve always loved these. They are heavy, complicated, and don’t work very well… but what a work of art.


One fun story from the show. While I was standing around a guy came in with a vintage Raleigh – about the same age as my 1974 Super Course that I bought my freshman year in college. He was restoring the bike and was about half done – it was rideable, but still looked pretty ragged. I told him the story of how I lost that beloved bike.

“I lived in a third story apartment,” I told him. “I never thought about it, but I left it out on my balcony unlocked. Somebody stole it. It must have been a tree trimmer, working in the neighborhood with a ladder, and he yanked it off my balcony.”

“That’s how I got this bike,” he said to me.

“What, did you steal it off a balcony?”

“No, I saw this guy, he was a landscaping guy, riding this bike. It was in terrible shape, the bar tape was falling off, the paint peeling, but I recognized it as a vintage Raleigh. I asked him if he’d sell it to me. He said, ‘I can’t sell you my bike, it’s the only way I have to get to work.’ So I told him, ‘Tell you what, we’ll get in my car and I’ll drive you to Wal-Mart and you can pick out any bike you want. I take your beat up old bike and I’ll buy you a brand new Wal-Mart bike.’ He said it was a deal and that’s how I bought the Raleigh.”

I loved that story.


Now that I’ve decided I can’t afford a new bicycle I am concentrating on making do with what I’ve got.

I’m lucky in that my Raleigh Technium is old enough (1986 or so) to be vintage and therefore, semi-cool, it is not old enough that I need to keep it stock. So I took it apart and rebuilt it.

You would think that the parts that I would have to upgrade would be the drivetrain – new super gears and integrated shifters and whiz bang shit like that – but that’s not what I did. Old friction shifters and ancient freewheels still work pretty darn well. Dallas is flat, I don’t have to shift very often. What I did upgrade – the place where technology has improved – is brakes.

My Raleigh had old single pivot sidepulls (my even older Raleigh Supercourse from 1974 had center-pulls) and stopping was not a reliable thing. Riding in an urban area – you need to stop. Stop or die. Plus, the cables were rusting and I never liked the awkward cables looping up from the brake levers.

So I bought some new long-reach dual pivot sidepulls from Nashbar, some nice used aero levers from Ebay, and a set of high quality, high tech brake cables. I tore the bike apart, repacked everything that had grease in it, tightened everything down tight, and put the new brake system in. The Technium routes the rear brake cable inside the tubing, and that was a pain… a lot of fishing for cables, but I finished it up and now it rides like a dream. Well, except the engine, of course.

So, now I turn to rebuilding my commuter bike – the creaky old Yokota Mountain bike I bought used at a pawn shop around 1990. The rear shifter won’t shift down any more, so I needed new shift levers – so I bought new ones, and I bought new integrated brake levers too – so I bought new brakes. I’m replacing the old-school cantilever brakes with more modern V-brakes. All this I picked up from fire sales on various places, so I didn’t pay too much money for any of it.

Now, next, I’ll strip the bike down, then paint it (I’m thinking a dark English racing green) – and put all the new stuff on.

That’s the ticket.

A Thing of Beauty

I know I should not give things – physical objects – attributes beyond what they are – simply shapes of metal, rubber, and leather. Things are not as important as people.

Bicycles…. umm, that’s another matter.

At a vintage bicycle ride/show/swap meet I attended a while back there was a Hetchins bicycle that was of such sublime beauty that I can’t really think of it as a physical object only. The Hetchins bikes are known for intricate lugwork and for being, well, transcendent works of art.

This one was painted green with the lugs set off with gold paint – and a full complement of Brooks leather saddle, bar tape, and tool bag. Vintage Campagnolo… of course.

A simple bicycle, yet such a thing of beauty.

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