Chicago Heavy Metal – Because That’s Just How I Roll

On Sunday, I was about a block from the downtown farmer’s market when my bike’s rear tire began to die. I was braking hard, coming down a steep hill, and bam!, a spoke broke like a gunshot. The wheel went crazy out of true, locking up hard against the frame, and I came skidding to a halt.

Five minutes with a spoke wrench later, I could at least wobble into downtown proper. I picked up food at the farmer’s market, found that the downtown bike shop is closed on Sundays, and just managed to make it to a bus stop on the bike before another spoke gave up the ghost.

I took the bike home on the bus, put the groceries away, and contemplated my situation.

It was a bit after noon, my only form of transportation was unusable, and I had an appointment I had to get to by bike the next morning, about five miles away. No bike shop in town that’s open on a Sunday stocks 27-inch rear wheels. So… what to do?

When the going gets tough, the tough go… to garage sales.

I figured, you know, I’d find a rusty old 1970s road bike at a garage sale, cheap, take it home, and cannibalize the rear wheel to keep my bike working until I can get a decent-quality replacement wheel. I mean, all I needed was a bike with 27″ wheels. How hard could it be?

The thrift store had a mountain bike and an elderly British three-speed. Neither had 27-inch wheels, and neither was usable without significant effort. The first garage sale didn’t have any bikes. The second had a rusty BMX bike. The third didn’t have any bikes.

The fourth garage sale had a damn near pristine Schwinn Suburban. A ladies frame, from (I guessed) the late 1970s, in a fairly large size – large enough for me to ride, anyway. Ten speeds, and – importantly – 27-inch wheels. I talked to the seller; it had been in her parents’ attic for “fifteen or twenty years”, but everything sorta seemed to work. They found a pump, the tires held air, I gave ‘em the forty bucks they were asking, and I rode it home, after adjusting the seat height.

I know (well, knew) bugger all about vintage Schwinn bikes. All I really cared about was the 27-inch wheels, which – though steel – would get me to my Monday-morning appointment.

Or so I thought.

Anyway, that’s the story of how I came to be riding, this week, on a 1980 Schwinn Suburban welded – welded, not brazed – out of 14ga steel, which weighs 39 pounds.

See, in 1980, Schwinn put Shimano’s short-lived “FFS” on the Suburban (a kind of cruiser-y ten-speed bike. It’s a ten-speed bike with derailleur, but has full fenders and wide and upright, rather than drop, handlebars.). “FFS”, in this case, meaning “Front Freewheel System”.

Yep. The freewheel is in the bottom bracket. The gears in back don’t readily freewheel.

On “my” bike, the freewheel is, of course, in the back.

Using the Schwinn rear wheel on my bike isn’t really going to work, in other words. I’d probably snap the derailleur into a dozen pieces.

So, I cleaned up the Schwinn, and have been riding that everywhere this week.

It’s been… interesting.

The Suburban is the least-loved member of the electro-forged Schwinn family, which also included the better-known Varsity and Continental. It was a kind of mid-level bike, targeted at adults, I guess. Not a bike for going fast (though it does – it’s geared surprisingly high; 14-28 tooth non-freewheel in the back, 39/52-tooth cranks up front; I can hit 20 MPH without difficulty, and I suspect a strong cyclist could break 30 MPH on one without too much trouble), but a bike for going places in relative comfort. And style, let’s not forget the style.

Mine is a 1980 model 10-speed Suburban. It’s painted a metallic “sky blue”. The fenders have off-white pinstripes. The handlebars, stem, cranks, spoke protector, fender supports, (steel) rims, and a few other bits are chrome.

Riding around today, some high-school girls shouted “Cool bike!” at me. I was moderately mortified.

Over the course of the last few days, I’ve replaced the brake pads, and lubricated and adjusted the brakes. I lubed the chain and the derailleurs and cables, which all work fine and are in good shape. I pulled apart the bottom bracket, and cleaned and re-lubed it. I did the same for the front and rear hub, which are both nice Maillard-made “Schwinn Approved” models. I oiled the bearings on the pedals. The basic stuff you’d expect to do to a thirty-year-old bike, in other words. It’s as good as new, now. Actually, given that it seems to have come from the factory with virtually zero grease in the bottom bracket, it’s arguably better than new, now.

So, how’s it ride?

Surprisingly well. It’s geared a bit higher than I’d like, and it’s extremely heavy. Let’s not overlook that, okay? Thirty-nine pounds, according to the catalog, and you kind of feel it, when you’re accelerating or rolling down a hill or trying to brake. But at the same time, that mass seems to make for a surprisingly smooth ride. The frame geometry and ride posture are comfortable, the handlebars are wide enough that steering is nice and relaxed, and if the front freewheel is strange and obscure and inexplicable, it at least works well. The “Positron” sorta-indexed shifting works well. Nice skinny 27×1-1/4 tires means it’s fairly well-suited for (sub-)urban riding on roads or bike paths (I loathe riding on concrete/asphalt on floppy knobby mountain-bike tires, and can’t understand how the many commuters I see with them can stand it). You’ll never get any serious bike-nerd cred riding one, but most of the components are quite nice – Weinmann/Dura-Ace/Shimano, several steps above the Cheng-Shin or no-name parts on low-end department-store bikes.

It’s easy to sneer at an ancient, heavyweight Schwinn, but once you’ve actually spent a while riding one – I’ve got around fifty miles on this one, in the last five days – in good working order (repacking the hubs did wonders – the old grease had the consistency of molasses) you’ll discover they’re not so bad, after all. They’re sturdy, reliable, attractive, and only the most desperate thief would ever steal one. You can do nearly all the maintenance you’d ever want or need to with pretty basic tools – I think cone wrenches are the most exotic thing you need, if you don’t want to remove the “freewheel” cluster. The only real major downsides are the weird seatpost size, the steel wheels, and the lack of mounting eyelets for a rack. (You can use an old-style rack designed to bolt onto the axle… but if you do that and replace the wheel, you can’t use one with a quick-release. There are lots of places to pick up nice 700c singlespeed wheels, cheap – and the brakes on the Suburban have enough reach to work with 700c wheels – but they all seem to have quick-release hubs. I’m pretty sure you’d have to remove the fender to use the fender eyelets to mount a rack, as the braces would get in the way, and a huge part of the Suburban’s charm is the enormous pinstriped fenders.)

All that being said, I’m probably not going to keep it, as attractive as it is. I don’t really have the room for a spare bike, however useful that might be, and if I kept it for myself I’d probably spend a lot more on it than the $15 I’ve already put into new brake pads. $50 for new tires and tubes isn’t too bad, but add lights and a rack and a saddle bag and pump and so on, or replace the wheels, and you’re starting to get into some serious money that’s hard to justify for a “spare” bike. Unfortunately, I might be stuck with it for a while – it’s going to take a bit for my bike shop to build a new wheel for my “real” bike (I decided to stop being a cheapskate and get a well-made wheel, for once) and I doubt there will be much interest in a bike come the end of September, if the weather continues as it has been. So I might wind up hanging on to it over winter – though the Gods know where I’m going to put it – and try to sell it come spring.

Published in: Geekiness, General | on September 15th, 2011| No Comments »

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