Some of you may be offended by what I've done with this vintage bicycle.
For the offence, I am truly sorry. For what I have done... not so much.
Because this time I listened to what the bicycle was telling me, what the bicycle wanted. True, I curated this build according to my preferences but at the end of the day, I had a 35 year old frame that wanted to go fast but couldn't due to the limitations of its build and/or its rider.
The rider, I couldn't change any more than I can for any other bike (those grumpy knees!) but the build, I could.
This is not a restoration but a rebirth as something else entirely.
May I present the fourth incarnation of Lorelei, my 1978 Puch Princess mixte.
First of all, this bike just rolls well. She's the bike that gives me the most joy to ride and she holds some fantastic memories for me. She's speedy, smooth and silent. And I have always sensed she had the potential to be quite fast. However, a 5-speed with a 14-28 cassette and 48t chainring was pretty limiting. Adding a 42t inner chainring improved general versatility but climbing 'real hills' was still completely out of the question.
I began to wonder if there was a way of keeping the frame but gaining all the advantages of modern components. I didn't want anything too complicated but thought the gearing I'd had on my Surly Pacer was close to perfect for what the Americans call "spirited riding" on varied terrain (i.e. fast day or night rides with minimal luggage -- not touring). That set-up consisted of a 50/34 compact double paired with an MTB cassette with a dinner-plate cog of 36t.
I looked at modern mixtes with modern gearing but... I really prefer traditional lugs. I also, rightly or wrongly, attribute a lot of what I love about the way this bike rides and handles to this frame. (I have a modern mixte as a daily commuter and believe me, it is not the same!)
The other option was to try harder to find new-old-stock original components that worked well. But sourcing parts is a time-consuming business and even worn-out used specimens can be hard to find. No bike shops within a reasonable distance stock parts for older bicycles at all anymore, which left online shops as my only viable source. Sadly -- as you might expect -- my experience to date had taught me that you can't tell the condition of something from photos on the Internet. Ebay had been my main source -- especially a Hungarian dealer who now and then comes up with some real gems -- but the prevailing unreliability of one component or another was making me ever more cynical about realistically owning and riding a fully original vintage bicycle that performed as it should.
I see you shaking your head, saying I didn't try hard enough, but there are limits and there are limits. Limits to funds, time and the goodwill of my resident mechanic.
Another significant factor in how easy it is to find still-working parts of this vintage is the fact that the Princess was a relatively low-end model for Puch and it came out of the factory with correspondingly low-end parts. They just didn't hold up well. Finding surviving items worth having is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Not to mention, vintage groupsets were never made to include a sub 1:1 gear ratio!
Not to mention, vintage groupsets were never made to include a sub 1:1 gear ratio!
The only things still original? The frame and forks, the seatpost and the headset. That's it.
From our parts collection, we had:
- a good used 700c wheelset: Mavic rims, Deore hubs, 36 spokes front and rear (de-labelled)
- Continental Gatorskin 28m tyres already fitted
- 9-speed 12-36 cassette already fitted to rear wheel
- my favourite rear derailleur (Shimano Deore M591 9-speed)
- Handlebar (FSA Omega Compact, 31.8 at the clamp, 38mm wide)
- 60mm riser stem for 31.8 bars
- Front brakes (Shimano Tiagra)
- Quill to Threadless Stem Converter
- STI brake/gear levers (we found a surprisingly good set of Shimano Sora clones on ebay)
- Cross top brake levers (Tektro RL721)
- Rear brakes (Dia Compe 57-75mm drop)
- 50/34 compact double crankset with 160mm cranks (Stronglight Impact Double)
- Bottom bracket (Stronglight JP400 - 107mm JIS square taper, English thread)
- Front derailleur (Shimano 105 5700 double 10-speed)
- Accessories bracket for lights, etc.
- Rear mech hanger
- Eventually... a used Selle SMP Extra from ebay.
So - do modern components fit a vintage frame?
Subject to the considerations noted below -- which can nonetheless be managed with a little ingenuity -- the answer is, thankfully, yes. When I first started planning this re-build, I was not sure whether there might be compatibility issues between the frame and a new bottom bracket but this was a non-event.
One night I woke up suddenly, sat straight up and gasped "rear mech hanger!" I suddenly knew this was the one potential 'deal-breaker' for the whole "vintage frame/modern build" idea. And it very nearly could have been.
What obstacles had to be overcome?
- 700c tyres require deeper drop brakes than 27 inch tyres. We knew this beforehand but did not know exactly how much deeper! The Tiagra brakes we had on hand worked fine on the front but we could not find any retailers with Tiagra brakes in stock that were deep enough for the rear wheel. In the end, we went with these Dia Compe brakes with a range of 57-75mm.
- Deciding on an accessories extension bar was tricky, taking into account the lack of space for such a thing on the handlebars themselves plus the presence/position of the cross top levers. My preference would be to have a fork-mounted bracket but the only one I've had before broke after a few months, apparently weakened by road vibration and potholes. I need something robust enough for two strong lights for night rides, for example two Hope lights or two B&M Ixon lights (which each take 4 AA size batteries - heavy!) Having opted to install cross top levers, I had already given up any idea of using a handlebar bag, so in the end it made sense to use a stem-mounted bar that would protrude out underneath the cross-top levers and, if long enough, beyond the handlebars to give as much space and clearance for the lights as possible. The Thorn T-shaped model seems to fit the bill.
- Cable routing will be "messier" than on a fully-vintage or fully-modern build, where the frame has been designed with the build requirements in mind. All the braze-ons for brake and gear cables are in slightly different places on a 1970s steel frame than they are on a modern steel frame. Mixtes have an added consideration in that, ideally, the rear brakes should be mounted at the middle set of seatstays. The pivot arms of modern brakes are a different shape from those of old Weinmanns and Adam found clearance to be an issue, also the drill outs through the brake bridge. (I cannot recall what the solution was -- I'll add the details after asking Adam.)
- Finding a rear mech hanger of the right shape, with the right number of holes in the right places and with the small curved tab at the bottom could be quite a challenge! SJS Cycles carry an extensive selection of hangers but finding the best match was a matter of eyeing up the photos on their website, hampered by the inconsistencies in the way each example is described. We got lucky with the second hanger we bought, but even so Adam had to remove part of it with a saw and ideally the thickness should be filed down a bit more.
I had made a conscious decision to put functionality first and had resigned myself to losing much of the aesthetic appeal that vintage builds hold for me.
I didn't think I'd end up with something as dreadful-looking as a Frankenbike (!) but to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised that the total build, when completed, is quite elegant and understated, in my view at least. The accessories bracket is the jarring note but that's a case of "needs must". The cable routing is not as clean as you'd find on a completely modern bike, or on a completely original vintage build, but it's not the messy tangle that I subconsciously feared.
The Acid Test: The Ride!
As I said in a previous post pondering what characteristics of a bicycle determine ride quality, I have associated the ride experience with this bike to that of the Surly Pacer that I rode as my "good bike" or my "fast bike" for 18 months. Oddly enough, it was the similar experiences with those bikes that made me wonder (very idly!) whether titanium was really all that... different. Of course, I was blown away with the feel of the Enigma Etape that I test rode before I ordered my own, but nonetheless, I didn't feel it was very different from steel, as in altogether in a different category, perhaps simply the same characteristics but enhanced in some ways.
I am revisiting those ideas now but so far do not have a "theory".
Why? Because, in this build configuration, I find the Puch Princess to be significantly stiffer than the Surly Pacer ever was! I am using very similar wheels and identical tyres, yet would go so far to say that there is a harshness that neither the Pacer nor the Enigma have. Yet I do not find this unpleasant. It's not the dominant impression given by the bicycle, more of a by-product.
So what is the dominant impression? Zip! Speed! "Get up and go!" The bicycle feels instantly responsive, especially when accelerating away from a stop. She was no slouch before, mind you! But now with the centre of gravity a wee bit lower and a smidgeon further forward, she flies. And I'm climbing steeper hills, standing, in a higher gear than on other bikes. Alternatively, I can sit back and pick a comfortable gear for the long slogs such as Buckwood Road near where we live, which is 8 miles long with a fairly consistent incline of 6%.
And I am continually surprised at how light she feels, how light she is. People don't believe me when I say this so I reckon I will have to put each of my bikes on a set of scales some day very soon.
Meanwhile, my impression -- and not just a faint inkling but a real tangible sense -- is that this bike, in this build, is the fastest bike I have ever had.
Obviously this bicycle would be completely out of its league in today's racing world. I do not race, however, and having ridden carbon race bikes a few times, think that Lorelei is more than fast enough for the riding I do.
Here's a recap in photos of Lorelei's "previous lives" with me.
I bought her in May 2010 from a family in East Sussex, when she looked like this:
Her first transformation at the hands of Brixton Cycles produced this:
|We did the 2010 Dunwich Dynamo (120 miles) like this!|
And then last year, I did a two-stage experiment:
Then two main variations: 1 - extending the gear range by swapping out the single chainset for a double of the same make/model/age, and fitting an appropriate Simplex front mech, and 2 - swapping out the brake levers to modern ones for comfort's sake, taking care to keep the look as classic as possible.
You've come a long way, baby.