November 8, 2007

A worthy project

Another challenging couple of weeks, as I try to get my mojo back - but meanwhile I have stumbled into a project for this coming winter. A new frame has entered the stable, courtesy the Warbird. A recent visit back to the states, and a garage cleanout session yields a classic bicycle that doesn't fit him quite right, but happens to fit me rather well. So, I begin the long process -- finally prepared to NOT be in a hurry to get a bike rolling. This one is worth the time. Not only does it have a storied riding career under the Warbird, but it's a vintage Trek made from good steel tubing, and lugged. DEFINTELY worth the effort. While it's seen a lot of miles and the components need a refresh, it's quickly becoming a labor of love.
Heck, I remember when he bought this bike - one warm summer day he brought it over to my parent house, and let me ride down the street on it. It was the first time I'd been exposed to any bicycle that WASN'T a Schwinn. I was impressed. It was light, fast, and had components from companies I'd never heard of, like Shimano and Ofmega. But, at that time, I was cleaning out the inside of my car - mired in THAT new experience, and the cycling bug hadn't bitten yet. But, I still remember it.

Ever since I let go of my old 1982 Trek 720 in 2004 that I'd bought used, which was ultimately too small for me, I have wanted another vintage Trek back in the shack. I did a couple Corporate Challenge time-trials on it, commuted on it, rode it geared and fixed, rode it on Ride the Rockies. It was only on brevet where the size issue really started becoming a problem, and it was sad to come to that realization because randonnuering was REALLY what that bicycle was meant to do. The 720 was a perfect bike in most every way - the only thing I can say to really drive that home is the success of Surly's Long-Haul Trucker frameset they currently have available. While the construction and tubing are different, the geometry and usefulness of the frame largely echo the way good frames used to be designed and made. Longer headtubes up top, longer chainstays, more relaxed angles -- still responsive if you wanted to stomp on it, but comfortable all day long, and able to take a load and remain stable. The 720 was excellent; Reynold 5-3-1 tubing and fork - light, quick, strong, and cozy. It was a frameset that retailed for over $800 back in 1982, and you'd pay handsomely to get something comparable from a current custom builder. This latest acquisition is a 1985 Trek 450, which is everything the 720 was -- but leaning towards racing, rather than touring. The angles are a little steeper, but not ridiculously so. The wheelbase is shorter - but interestingly only a cm shorter than my Kogswell. The SUPER-tight racing frames of today would almost serve to make the 450 look like a modern tourer, in that respect. This frame, while tight, will actually take 28c tires, and probably fenders and a rack, too - which drives home it's original purpose. Trek knew that anyone buying such a frame wanted a useful bicycle, too. If you REALLY wanted a custom racer, you went to a custom builder - or to something Italian. It reminds me of the Bianchi Reparto-Corse EL-OS frameset I had a couple years back, but better: it solves all the problems I had with the Bianchi, tight clearances and subtle twitchiness -- This Trek has braze-ons for a rear rack and fenders, and while it will take a load if you ask it, nothing is sacrificed in the handling department to make that possible. It's WICKED fast in a corner, but not twitchy. When you stand up on the pedals, it FLIES -- but you won't find yourself in the ditch if you point it wrong. It's well designed, but not so compromised as to get "all-rounder" label. It's a racer. It's just not a pure-bred, race-only weekender that will only fit 20c tires and makes your back hurt after 30 miles.

The execution of that design is terrific - the best American tubing in the hands of the best American frame builders, with Trek-made lugs designed for a specific purpose. The result is a pleasure to examine; the lugs are minimalist - but attractive and strong. The joints are perect - inside and out. Even the INSIDE of the bottom bracket shell looks as if it was intended for presentation. No burrs, no runs, no ragged edges. Each lug is cast with the "Trek" name on it, when pride meant something special. The dropouts are simple, and strong - elegant, but not showy; they're purposeful. The seat-cluster with its socketed seat-stays is unique and signature to Treks of the time. A tasteful "U.S.A." decal is displayed on the seat tube, and a simple "TREK" in matching font on the downtube.

Simple and clean; not the loud and gawdy sticker-sets of today with swooping graphics that seem to try and hide the frame details and lines. This frame is one color, bold scarlet red - and the simple graphics let the frame speak for itself. Elegant, smooth, CORRECT. This marks the near-end of an era of American bicycle craftsmanship, because shortly after this frame was produced - infact, within the next year, 1986 - Trek would slowly start transitioning to aluminum and early carbon fiber designs, leaving eventually only one model of steel frame, the last 520s made of TIG welded Cro-Mo. About that same time, Bianchi, Schwinn and others would abandon lugged steel forever. In my opinion, 1985-86 were the last two years Trek would produce it's best stuff. Trek, don't get me wrong, still builds a good bicycle --- but something got lost when the torch-wielders were handed their walking papers. To me, that period represents the pinnacle of American frame-building, tied with the Waterford-built Schwinn Paramount frames of the time.

I tell ya -- I don't want to turn this into a rant about what-ever-happened-to American manufacturing and superior craftsmanship and pride, but it's hard not to looking at this frame and comparing it to what we call "good" today. I think of things like Collins Radio, in the amateur radio scene. I think of back when the 1970 Buick GSX was the quickest car on the planet, and was comfortable and well-built, too, and Asian and Italian offerings were laughed at - although there is strong evidence that American car-making IS coming back. While there are things like this that partly make me weep for what we've lost touch with, I can still smile that there are small builders that are trying to bring that vibe back, as well -- some that never left, like Richard Sachs. There is still a lot to be proud of, but it's frustrating that there is so much push for faster, lighter, cheaper that we sometimes forget that, occasionally, we had it right the first time.

I digress... I'm happy to have been given the opportunity to give this frameset some new life. I have already spent hours in typical Dude fashion polishing the paint, rubbing compound, buff, repeat, getting out the faded spots and grease deposits that had seeped into the top layers of gloss. I have degreased parts, taken the toothbrush and Q-tips to the nooks and crannies, and made my shopping list. It's good to have a project again, and the result is going to be one fantastic bicycle. One of these days, I'll return the favor to the Warbird -- I'm not sure if he knows how much this meant. Well, he probably does NOW. (bow)

It's been a good diversion, honestly -- the 1st anniversary of my father's passing is coming up next week, and it's hard. Uncharted territory again, emotionally. Things like riding a bicycle or polishing a chainring become essential to survival.
Time and distance, it WILL get easier - but things have not been, and never will be, the same. Keep moving forward. Along with a tribute and homage to America craftsmanship, and keeping an example of it relevant and operational, this project is a tribute to the practice of things I was taught. Patience, doing it right, carefully, with pride and proper attention. It's a chance to put these teachings to use, and that makes the project even more worthy. That's why getting that spot out of the paint becomes important. Never saying "good enough", but making an effort to get it right, make it good, make it shine. It takes extra time, but it makes me appreciate that I HAVE the time, even when life becomes busy enough to make me think that I don't. Life is short... polish that chainstay, because someday, someone will care. Like MY son. Sure, there are things that can be rushed, the folds in the bath-towels don't HAVE to be perfect; but, there is a time for the finer things to be appreciated. Whether it be pocket watches, classic cars, coins, an old waffle iron, I dunno -- the extra effort becomes very worthwhile. So, here's to a cold beer and an old rag, some polishing compound, and something old and timeless to polish.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

She also used to have a decal that said "450 series" on the top tube near the headset, but my knees rubbed that off long ago.

Can't think of anyone else I'd rather have given that bike to.