Archive for May, 2010

Boston Globe in Praise of Vintage 3-Speeds

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

There is a nice article in the Boston Globe today about the local popularity of vintage 3-speeds. It mentions the Boston Retro Wheelmen, as well as other vintage bicycle resources in the area – including the Boston 3-Speed Club, Boston Tweed, Old Roads, Chic Cyclist, and Lovely Bicycle. Though I did not exactly say the quotes attributed to me in the manner they are phrased (I am not a part of “the slow movement” and I did not get a bike in order to “look good in the saddle”), I am pleased with the focus on vintage 3-speeds and with the recognition of their cultural significance in the Boston area.

En route to any of my daily destinations in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, I easily see dozens of vintage 3-speeds along the way. It never occurred to me that this was a special feature of our city, until I began to receive incredulous comments from readers in other parts of the country whenever I would post pictures of locally spotted 3-speeds. Why are there so many of them in Boston? Where are they coming from? These are questions I receive regularly from readers of Lovely Bicycle. I think the answer is in the history of Boston as both importer and manufacturer of bicycles for part of the 20th century, and I am hoping to post a well-researched article on this soon.

As for why so many people are buying and restoring vintage 3-speeds today? From my point of view, it is because they are simpler and more enjoyable to ride than most other bikes out there. This is a great secret that only a vintage 3-speed owner can know!

Conversion of a French road bike into a porteur: a preview

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

I’ve posted before (here and here) about various sub-projects related to my conversion of an old French road bike into a practical porteur.  Well, it’s nearly done and I thought I’d give a preview.  Here’s the bike, a 1972 Jeunet 630 road bike, in “before” condition:

What attracted me to the bike originally (beside the fact that it is my hard-to-find size) was its lightweight lugged steel frame and fork made from Reynolds 531 tubing, with somewhat relaxed angles and room for fenders, its lightweight aluminum and mostly French components, and its overall classic, French character.  I didn’t need another road bike, but I was intrigued by the versatility and style of the classic French porteur bikes, so I decided I’d attempt to convert it into one:  a bike that’s light, and therefore easy to carry up steps, one with adequate gearing to conquer the hills of Somerville, one with an upright riding position, one that can carry a bag of groceries or haul a box to the post office, and lastly–and most importantly–one that is comfortable, fun and stylish enough to be my daily rider.  I feel that the French porteur bikes, like the ones pictured below, integrate these features better than most bikes, and so it was that the porteur bike served as the template for my conversion:
1950’s Motobecane porteur.  Photo courtesy JP Weigle via Flickr.

Modern iteration of the porteur:  handmade in the US by Curt Goodrich.
Photo courtesy spoke sniffer via Flickr.
Here’s my Jeunet “after”, newly powder coated in a matte, minty green (RAL6021). I’ve assembled it well enough to ride, but by no means is it completed. It’s still missing lights (the subject of a prior post), and little things still need tweaking, like the brakes and the fender alignment.
Velo Orange, one of my favorite suppliers of classically styled bike parts and accessories, sell a beautifully crafted front porteur rack made from tubular stainless steel, taking all the design cues from the classic French constructeurs:

It’s large and versatile, with pannier loops, mounts for lights, an optional side rail, and a neat mount for securing an elongated front fender (typical of old French bikes), to avoid rattling.  I haven’t decided how I’m going to realize the utility of the rack– I can add a basket, a crate, or a side rail… or simply use a bungee net to secure stuff. For now I have a single pannier attached to it, a repurposed old leather school bag that just happens to snugly hold a 13″ MacBook. Perfect! And I have an old wine crate that I may affix to the rack… we’ll see.

Also from Velo Orange are the handlebars, shaped just like the classic French porteur bars:  similar to English 3-speed handlebars (commonly known as “North Road” bars), but slightly narrower and with less rise.  Actually, the French porteurs used to use the bars flipped the other way around, to achieve more drop, but I have them in the non-typical orientation, flipped up to provide a more upright riding position.

I’ll also use this photo to illustrate the French style “inverse” brake levers.  These are modern reproductions of old French brake levers.  The inverse design is ingenious, it makes you wonder why this design hasn’t become the de facto standard among city-style brake levers.  With the pivot point placed at the end of the bar, it allows your hand to rest anywhere along the bar from the bend on back, and still reach the brake lever!
Originally the Jeunet was geared like a typical road bike of that era:  10-speed, with a double chainring in front and a 5-speed freewheel in back.  The outer chainring was usually large, typically having over 50 teeth, allowing the bike to go fast.
The porteurs had simpler gearing, usually a single, smaller chainring in front, coupled to a 5-speed freewheel.  This provided plenty of gearing for getting around town, but didn’t allow the bike to quite reach road bike speeds.  Not having a derailleur also means being able to have a chainguard or chaincase– another common and practical accessory of old city bikes the globe over.  Since I wanted a simplified gearing setup and the potential to add a chainguard, I decided to convert the double chainring to a single, making the Jeunet a 5-speed in the spirit of the classic porteurs.
So next on the agenda is to complete the lighting.  These are the headlight casings that I intend to retrofit with modern battery-operated LEDs:
They’ll mount underneath the front rack, attached by bracket, similar to the ones in the Curt Goodrich example above.  I’ll make a step-by-step write-up of the LED conversion the topic of a future post.  Until then, if you’d like to learn more about porteur bikes with tons of photo examples, check out this link.  Here are some more pictures of the Jeunet porteur:

May 23 Historic Bike Tour: Lost Theatres of Somerville!

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

The Somerville Bicycle Committee and the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission are sponsoring an 8-mile ride through Somerville this Sunday to visit the sites of former movie theatres, some long gone, some converted for other use.  If you’re an architectural history buff, or simply want to enjoy a ride through the ‘ville with some other local riders, this sounds like fun!  I hope to see you there!

From the official announcement:

9th Annual Somerville History Bike Tour: Lost Theatres of Somerville

Sunday May 23, 2010, meeting at 1pm (leaving promptly at 1:15pm) in front of the Somerville City Hall (93 Highland Ave), and riding for about 8 miles.

This  year’s theme is “Lost Theatres of Somerville”. We’ll visit the locations of Somerville’s former movie theatres, many of which are still standing and converted to other uses. Our tour will be based on David Guss’s recent Somerville Museum exhibit and website of the same name. 

In the event of steady rain, we’ll postpone the ride to Sunday, June 13. 

Information about the lost theaters of Somerville can be found on David Guss’s website, the Somerville Museum’s website and at

A link to a map showing where all the theaters were located is here

Sponsored by the Somerville Bicycle Committee and the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission
A donation is requested to support the Historic Preservation Commission’s activities. 

Retrofitting a vintage bicycle taillight with a modern LED

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Among my favorite aspects of vintage bikes are the little accessories: the small period details designed into the peripheral parts such as chain guards, racks, fenders, and lighting fixtures. Like clothing accessories or room decor, these peripheral pieces combine to “tie together” the overall aesthetic (to paraphrase Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski). So when I embarked on my latest project, the conversion of an old French road bike into a porteur (the subject of a future post–it’s being built up as I write this), I began studying the finer details of the classic French bikes. What struck me was the simple, streamlined beauty of their lighting systems, particularly the headlights and taillights. Here’s a nice example of a 1950’s René Herse porteur, displaying so many of the wonderful little touches that made these bikes so beautiful:

Photo courtesy of Flickr user spoke sniffer

Let’s zoom in on the taillight:

There is no bulbuous plastic housing or any part of this light that looks bulky or intrusive.  Unlike modern taillights, this one is trim, compact, and mirrors the smooth curvature of the fender.  Unfortunately for me, all these wonderful, old gems of lighting accessories were designed to hold regular incandescent bulbs, powered by a dynamo. Since I have no intention of incorporating dynamo lighting in my porteur conversion, I wondered whether I could retrofit a modern battery-powered LED into once of these nice old housings.  Fortunately there is precedent for this type of undertaking, which I discovered from perusing this Flickr set of Vélocia, a fellow vintage bike enthusiast and DIYer. Vélocia took the housing and lens of an old Soubitez Catalux 6 taillight and retrofitted the LED mechanism from a Planet Bike Superflash.  What a great idea, and in one important way, an improvement on the original: the LED is undoubtedly brighter than the original 0.6W bulb!

Fortunately, vintage French bike parts are rather abundant on online auction sites, and I was lucky enough to find a NOS Soubitez taillight shell and lens on eBay, identical to the one on the René Herse example above.  Inspired by Vélocia‘s conversion, I set out to retrofit the shell with a modern LED. Here’s how I did it:

First, I needed to find an LED taillight small enough to re-package inside this petite housing.  Fortunately, Sigma makes a nice small single LED taillight called the Micro, shown here next to the Soubitez fixture:

Next, I needed to remove the LED circuit board and see how it would fit inside the Soubitez housing.  Would it fit?  No!

I needed to do some surgery on the circuit board to make it fit.  And that was not the only challenge.  I also needed to remove the built-in tact switch (the part of the circuit that you press, and which gives that tactfully delightful popping sound when you press it, hence the name, “tact” switch).  It’s that round disc in the center of the circuit board.  In its place, I soldered two short leads, the other ends of which I soldered onto a remote tact switch mounted on the housing.  Radio Shack sells these, .99 for a four-pack!  Good thing, because they’re so small I lost two of them already!
Here’s the circuit board with the tact switch removed.  Conveniently, the Soubitez housing has a small notch cut out of its side, presumably for a switch or perhaps a dynamo wire.  Whatever the intended purpose of that notch, it’s a suitable location for a remote tact switch:

After surgical trimming of the circuit board with a rotary tool grinding wheel and soldering the leads from the circuit board to the remote tact switch, the switch was glued into place. The circuit board holds a button-type battery on the other side and couldn’t be glued in place, else the battery would not be accessible for replacement.  Fortunately, the circuit board fits snugly enough without glue, and can be tilted out of the housing to access the battery.  When the fixture is mounted to the fender, the fender will hold the circuit board in place.  The whole circuit board and soldered leads were covered with a thick layer of clear rubber adhesive, so there’s no chance of shorting out if contacted by the fender.

The finished product (note the tact switch unobtrusively peeking through):

All that’s left is to figure out how to mount this baby on the fender– the subject of a future post!