Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jill's Paramount Renaissance

The following details my scheming about, plotting for, and finally (with the generous support of my father-in-law) execution of a dream to build myself the perfect commuter bike for my daily rides around Oakland, primarily to work and back, and occasional errands. Here she is, the JPR:

This is a rather detailed account, but that is intentional, because it contains the type of things I was looking for when I set out to get/make a new bike: a lot of helpful links, products, examples, opinions, and places to go for more information, so I thought I'd consolidate it all on this page. I hope it's informative.

I started bike commuting regularly after college and was riding the original mtn. bike my folks had bought me (@ $300, much to my Dad's disbelief at the time) a specialized hard rock, ca. 1993 I would guess. Here's a view of my winter get up from the Chicago days:

Chicago Winter Commute, Specialized Hard Rock, ca 1993 with slicks, fenders and rear rack.
After a couple years, I upgraded to an outstanding ca. 1992 specialized stumpjumper - a special bike since the early 90s was around the time when I began to get into bikes in the first place and a stumpjumper was pretty much the holy grail in mountain biking - for my small group of friends anyway. The stumpjumper was a big step up, with original Shimano DX components and a jumbo milk crate mounted on a rear rack. I rode this as a commuter in grad school and for three years in San Francisco, and while the bike was extremely rugged and durable, it always just felt kind of sluggish on the road. I rode it with slicks, knobby tires, one of each, at medium and high pressures, but no matter what I did, I just couldn't get past the 26" wheel diameter - they just didn't roll the way I wanted a commuter to role (there's some debate about this, see the link when it comes up below).

A bigger problem with the stumpjumper was the riding position. This bike has the longest top tube distance for it's relatively small frame size, of any bike I've ridden - and it had a particularly long stem to boot. With the JPR now in my arsenal, I finally returned the stumpjumper to it's original purpose, as a hard tail mountain bike, and have taken it out to the East Bay hills for rides with the dog where it performs beautifully on the fire roads. I didn't even bother to swap the rear slick, but it does fine even on rough climbs if I sit back far enough.

1992(?) Specialized Stumpjumper - still need to take the reflective stickers off, or maybe not...
When I began thinking about a new commuter, I was looking for a couple improvements over the Stumpjumper, namely 700c wheels for less rolling resistance and a more upright riding position, without loosing carrying capacity or the ability to lock up the bike outside a store for an hour at a time (i.e. nothing too fancy).

I was actually contemplating putting 700c wheels on my stumpjumper - I had seen it done on this bike and was impressed with the look. Obviously I had no idea how it rode, but it looks fast, right? Pretty awesome modifications in my opinion:

Campy brakes - nice!  My frame had a hole in this cross bar, but it was going the other direction, parallel to the seat stays, so it wouldn't have worked anyway.
However, the cost associate with building new wheels (even with the existing hubs, I'd need new spokes and rims) and buying new caliper brakes and levers (not to mention drilling a hole in my frame to mount the rear caliper), and trying to work with my fork or have to get a 700c fork with a threaded steerer tube, it all seemed like a big investment and it still wouldn't fix the elongated riding position.

So I tried out a number of off the shelf stock bikes, including some single speeds, which seemed like they would be fine around the Oakland flats. I rode the Trek Earl (good write ups here and here), which was basically a pretty nice steel frame with crap components for $400. It was going to require a bunch of upgrades, esp brakes and perhaps stem/bars/seat post, and it would still be a single speed, but it rode very smoothly and seemed like a pretty good option - there was the potential of adding an internal hub, so gearing would have been an option, but again, at a price. I also tried out the Trek District, which I had hopped would be the one, but the aluminum frame was far to stiff for Oakland streets and the ride was really lacking the smoothness and comfort I was hoping to find - hard to put into words, but the geometry was not for me. However, clearly plenty of people love this bike, there's a whole fan site devoted to it. I was really intrigued by the possibility of a belt drive and internal hub, which is shown on the fan site, allowed because the frame's rear triangle is built with a bolted connection on the drive side. The whole thing - internal hub and belt drive - seemed like a really elegant and clean solution to having gears and but being able to get the bike up and down the stairs and on/off BART without greasing yourself or anyone else. But this was also going to mean buying a new bike and doing several hundred dollars of upgrades. I did look at a few bikes at Stone's Cyclery in Alameda where very helpful mechanic walked me though some options when he heard what I was looking for. Thinking back, it seems like this probably planted the seed of my idea to modify an old steel racing bike - they carry waterfords and gunners and others, lots of new old stock, and the guy there showed me one gunner frame they were putting an internal 3 speed on "for fun" but it wasn't fully built yet and was going to be $1400. I tested a number of other bikes, including some Giants and Raleighs at Bay Area Bikes (best commuter shop in Oakland, more on that later) but neither the Rush hour nor the one way had just what I was looking for - they were steel, but again, strange geometry that didn't suit me - they also had a Rush hour-like aluminum Giant single speed with a flip-flop hub and flat bar, and it was really fun, but still wasn't quite right. It kept coming back to wanting that smooth, and therefore likely steel framed ride, and gears for the occasional hill, headwind, or loaded shopping trip.

As I said, it was around then that I began to wonder more seriously about modifying an older steel bike. At some point or another, I realized that a perfect contender was the 1992 Schwinn Paramount OS Series 3 my father-in-law had in his garage. It had been my mother-in-laws' -- she had won it at the Great Western Bike Rally around that year (along with a stage full of other shwag and prizes - the story goes that most people had left by the time the auction happened so after the first 3 or 4 tickets yielded no prize winners, the MC got fed up and said the next ticket would take the whole stage, and that was Jill's ticket!).

The bike had sat idle for a while, but it was in great shape. For my birthday, my father-in-law generously suggested a 29er mtbike I might want to add to my collection, and I brought up the idea of modifying the Paramount instead. He loved the idea, and took it upon himself to pay for the transformation, a most generous and emotionally significant gesture. It was christened "Jill's Paramount Renaissance" or JPR. Here she is in a "before" shot at Bay Area Bikes, where we had the work done:

1992 Schwinn Paramount Series 3 OS PDG
We got the bike up to Oakland and I started to think more about how to take this amazing ride and convert it into the perfect commuter for my needs. I recalled the bike I had as a commuter when I lived in Copenhagen, a nondescript, lugged steel 3-speed:

Copenhagen 3 Speed - with a Selle Italia Flight Transalp Ti Saddle!

This bike was super smooth, and very fast - actually, part of the reason was that the shifting was spotty and it could get stuck in the high gear and I would just have to pedal harder and end up going faster. This actually caused me to run a red bicycle traffic light. I was making a right on red from a small street into a bike lane - pretty safe thing to do, but illegal in Denmark, and I didn't want to stop and have to crank it up from the high gear so I just went for it. Of course, a cop was waiting around the corner. I got slapped with a 500 dkk ticket ($80) and I never paid it, so they eventually took the money out of my Danish pension since I'd worked there for 14 months and had apparently been making automatic contributions with each paycheck... Which is how I learned that I HAVE A DANISH PENSION (that I can't touch until I'm 62). Probably the best ticket I've ever gotten...?

So, with the above Copenhagen cycle in mind, I started looking around for parts and on a recommendation from Clay from Bay Area Bikes, I found Rivendell Bikes where I was able to get some really welcome editorializing on the parts I was searching among - very welcome when you can't actually hold the thing in your hands at a local shop, and something no other online shop offers (but I am trying to replicate here - albeit very long-winded-ly). I ordered the Nitto Technomic Deluxe stem and Albatross Cro Mo bars from Riv to get the bars higher and allow a more comfortable up-right riding position on the Paramount.

Actually I should back to up to mention that when I explained to Clay what I wanted to do with the Paramount, he walked up stairs in the shop and brought down his commuter bike saying "you just described my bike - want to take it out for a spin?" so I knew there was a model for what I was interested in, and the guy building up the bike knew it pretty intimately too. Clay had just upgraded his rear wheel to the new Alfine 11 speed, and I was back to loving the idea of an internal hub. He ended up building a new rear wheel with a salsa delgado cross rim and the nexus redline 8 speed or "red band" hub which he recommended as a very comprable and cost-conscious alternative to the Alfine models. So far I've been very happy with it (though the internal hub's respectively higher/lower gear thumb/forefinger Alfine shifter is reversed from the XT rapidfire shifters on my other mountain bike - so that took a little getting used to, but no biggie).

We also splurged (again, with my father-in-law's generous support) on a brooks aged flyer saddle, which breaks in faster than the non-aged leathers. The Stumpjumper had a performance bike saddle I picked up for something like 30 bucks, which had a nice cut out and fit my sit bones really well - I'm very happy with it on the stumpjumper, now as a hard tail mt bike (and it was designed with a slightly curved plastic panel under the nose which is perfect for hoisting the bike onto your shoulder (the saddle nose sits over your right shoulder with your arm extending down to the drive side and holding onto the down tube just above the cranks - great for hoofing up stairs without wedging your shoulder into the frame at the seat/top tubes). Unfortunately, I was literally ripping two matching holes in every pair of pants I owned, especially my jeans, while commuting with this saddle, because of some combination of the angle I was leaning and the seat and friction, etc., so it's nice to have the flyer with it's contoured slopes. It will preserve my pants much better. 

While I'm on the subject, here's some pictures of my struggle to apply the obenauf's leather preservative goop to the saddle. I was reading the extensive notes that come with the brooks, and it said that their aged saddles should only be treated on the underside (they mention that the non-aged ones, if treated on top, may end up staining your pants (here's awesome proof from a friend who was touring in mexico), but this was above and beyond that warning - something about the way the leather is aged I guess), so I did two coats on the underside, which involved some pretty bizarre wedging of my hands in between the rails:


One mistake we made was gambling with some michelin 28 mm tires. They provided a very cushioned ride, and had grooves to shed water for better traction in wet weather, but they had literally less than a millimeter of clearance on the rear brake caliper and the top of the fork. As they wore in, they started to rub enough that they sometimes would actually stop when spun freely. I took them back to the shop and Clay swapped them out for some 25mm Continental gatorskins, which have been doing great - the michelins are destined for my wife's touring bike so they won't go to waste. I noticed the ride on the 25mm contis is a touch stiffer, but it's worth it for tires that actually fit the bike - and this is a frame designed for racing, not commuting or touring, so I'm happy to take it all in stride.

I added a Pletscher rack with it's classic spring-loaded "mouse trap" on the front, using the handy clasps sold by Rivendell, so I can carry a bag of groceries or my gym bag, etc, when I need to transport more than fits in a backpack. I was looking at the Wald baskets, but they seemed a little too wobbly on the front of the bike and I wasn't convinced I needed a basket, so I also checked out the new line of Cetma racks, but they are pricey and do pretty much the same thing as the Pletscher, though they are wider and perhaps stronger, since there's fewer joints. There are some amazing examples of people loading up these racks, so if you need more support, seems like Cetma provides a variety of great options. I'm happy with the Pletscher though and I could always install a basket or use it with panniers, and at $33, it's not a huge investment if I want to switch to a different model in the future.

So, a lot of stuff on this bike. All in all, and with a u-lock, it weighs 31.5 lbs. I was pretty shocked that it came in that high, because it doesn't "feel heavy" when you pick it up, and certainly not when you ride it. But when I pick up my road bike by comparison, yeah, then you get how heavy it is. Luckily, I don't find myself picking up both bikes too often, and like I said, it doesn't matter how heavy it is when you're riding. There was actually an interesting article about this posted on a blog forwarded to me by a friend (a buddy who had also worked in Copenhagen with me) where a doctor in England flipped a coin every day to determine which bike of his to ride (a lightweight racing bike, or his steel commuter) and there ended up being basically no difference in the time it took to make the trip on either bike. Some funny comments and a guy who measured the rolling resistance of fat vs. skinnier tires and also found basically no difference - so maybe my need to switch from 26 in to 700c tires was unfounded, but it certainly feels like a different, smoother, faster ride to me!

One last note, specifically regarding the only time it matters what your commuter bike weighs: I received a link from the same Copenhagen friend about bike carrying levers, and read in the comments some questions about whether aftermarket devices were available to help carry bikes up/down stairs or really any time you couldn't just wheel it where you were walking. I have to carry the JPR up/down a flight of stairs every day, and with the internally geared rear hub and the brooks flyer, it makes the rear end of the bike pretty heavy in particular. I don't mind that while I'm riding of course, it just adds to the momentum I can build up maybe, but taking it up and down a flight of stairs every day, I wanted to have a hook or handle of some kind right above the crank, so I could easily carry it with one extended arm, at a point low and central on the bike, without hoisting it over my shoulder. (there isn't enough clearance to get the nose of the saddle over my shoulder (and grab the down tube) nor to grasp the seat tube above the crank - the wheel is too close to the tube - again, it's really a racing frame). The article about the built-in handle made me wonder if there are after market handles like that available that could be installed on the seat tube water bottle eyelets, or perhaps something custom that could be fashioned to attach to both sets of eyelets (seat and down tubes) for this purpose?

I emailed the above link to Grant at Rivendell, thinking if anyone had come across a workable approach to building some kind of aftermarket solution, he would know about it. He sent me this awesomely cryptic response:

"The bike grip thing looks fine, but it's -- well, my initial reaction is---it's quite the hunk of metal considering the various grip-and-lift methods out there already. But it does make me think that something could be added to the bike after the fact that would do the same. it would be soft and light, maybe ---- aha! I've got it. Not as artsy, but not as overkill, either. Something."

That was it! A friend read the email and said it sounded like Grant had found a solution and it would be available in next fall's catalog. But it was actually a very helpful email, because of the clues "soft and light" -- I got home and immediately went searching for an old leather belt. After a few measurements, I snipped the belt and drilled some holes, bolting it onto the frame with some washers. It stretched a little initially, but has been working for a few months, being used twice a day, without any trouble. A great solution. (I think you could still have water bottle cages on the frame, but I haven't needed them, so I haven't tried it). I've since added a u-lock mounted on the seat tube, which is really ugly, but damn it if it isn't super practical (no banging around on the frame or handlebars, and out of the way of feet and knees) and I tidied up the cable around the brooks with a zip tie. I will also be adding some frame and fork mounted fenders, come the rainy season.

So the bike was built up with these various parts and I could not be happier - it is a dream to ride, supremely smooth and fast - I love having the lower gears for when it's windy or I'm just pooped and want to cruise home, or if I'm feeling good and want to make a green light, I can shift up and mash. And I hope to have this bike for a long, long time, and it's quite likely living in the Bay Area that I will have some hills to climb along the way.

As a result of these various upgrades to the bike I had a bunch of spare parts - the rear wheel, derailleurs, big chain ring, etc., which I donated to a bike building nonprofit run by a gentleman named Barry called Changing Gears. Pretty cool operation, if you know anyone who has parts to donate or needs a new bike.
Here's Barry with the stuff I dropped off
Ok, that's more than enough talk, I hope it's provided some insight into all the many options out there to modify your own bike and if you have any tips or questions, please let me know! Without further adieu, here are photos of the finished product (before I swapped the tires or added the u-lock):

The leather carrying strap - fashioned from an old belt

the Nexus Red Band internal 8 sp hub
Very tight clearances with the 28mm michelins

The JPR in the field


  1. Great story, Jonah. That belt handle might be marketable. Don't let Rivendell steal it from you! ; )

  2. Loved reading the whole saga - who says an ADD kid can't stay focused! You should talk to your Opa about getting a copyright/trademark going on that carry handle!! Seriously. Your first self-bought bike was the one you bought at 13 years of age for a whopping $1000 cash - money made from the several years of paper delivery on foot and rollerblade. That was our first indication that you were really hooked on biking.

  3. Consider doing essay/image pieces for the Racing etc. bike magazines.
    Wonderful job son!

  4. Read the whole thing! Thanks for the background, I think I enjoyed it that much better for it. Bike looks great, I'd love to try it out.

  5. Beautiful job - I was wondering if you ever got the fenders mounted; I'm considering purchasing one of these, but wasn't sure how great a commuter it would make if you couldn't fit fenders. Any thoughts?

    1. Thanks! Check out this post: http://mceuro.blogspot.com/2012/03/jpr-update-fenders.html