After a ton of tinkering, the Bianchi Randonneur is Seattle road-ready. It went from a piece of junk to prized possession in just 8 weeks. Here’s what I did to customize it.
Spreading the Rear Triangle
When we initially measured the rear dropouts, it looked like 126mm, the standard spacing for road bikes from the 70s and 80s. Because I wanted to use a cassette with more than 6 cogs, I’d need to spread the rear triangle by 4mm. I had heard about this technique before, but had horrific visions of a bike breaking in half, so I never had considered trying it before. But after reading this on Sheldon Brown’s site, I grasped the idea that anyone with a long 2×4 and some guts could spread the metal apart. Even you! So at the Bikeworks BYOB, that’s what I did, with help from Donald and his keen eye for symmetry. This was a rare case of using a really blunt technique to achieve something quite precise. I told myself that if I did irreparable damage, at least I hadn’t grown very attached or spent much money on it yet. After I pressed down very carefully a few times on the board against the frame (see configuration below), Donald measured the frame alignment with his tool to make sure I hadn’t gone overboard. It was just the spacing I needed.
The bike’s original wheels were 27″, which is just a marketing term, not actually a valid measurement. I wanted 700c because of the greater variety of tires, and the slightly more forgiving standover height that it would afford me. In truth, the difference between those wheel sizes is only 8mm, but it’s details like this that now matter to me. I planned to build some wheels for this bike in the coming months, but at this moment, I just needed to throw some 700c wheels on there so I could test out the bike and get it into a rideable state. This is where I ran into the “old parts spiral,” which by this time I know like an old, cloying friend. First I scrounge in a dusty bin somewhere to find exactly what I need, only to find that another, more serious problem is introduced with said part. Enter the wheel I like to call “NBT.”
“Nothing But Trouble” was just hanging there in the Bikeworks yard, waiting to be taken home. It “only” needed a new spoke, which I installed without a hitch. I put a nice used Shimano 8 speed cassette on it and it spun well without needing an overhaul. After installing a new tube and temporary tire on it, the wheel looked pretty decent for a $10 temporary wheel. Only later that week did I find out that the wheel was…haunted? I experienced 5 flat tires all in the same place, by the valve stem, on the inner surface of the tube, with only 60lbs of pressure and a brand new rim strip. This confounded at least 3 bike shop employees, who just gave up and told me to get a new wheel.
How frustrating! At this point, I began to shop for new rims, hubs, and spokes, because there was no way I was going to waste more time with a temporary wheel.
At the BYOB, I scored a nice Nitto Technomic tall stem, and decided to replace the existing drop bars with a design that had less dramatic drop. None of the bars at Bikeworks would fit through the small stem clamp, which brought me to another frustrating wall. That’s when I decided to spring for some Soma Highway 1 bars online. They couldn’t arrive soon enough, as I was in a very eager state. One week later, bars in hand, I tried threading them onto my stem, and arg! No amount of twisting and turning could get the stem past the shallow curve of the drops. (Cue the sad violins) At the end of my rope, I gave up and went back to Bikeworks, where I sheepishly showed Homer & Steve how I had defiled my brand new bars due to my impatience and lack of lunch. I appreciated how non-judgmental they were with me. They let me use the vise and a special stem spreader tool. Everything I read online about trying to fit too-big bars onto a too-small stem clamp said some variation of “What are you, crazy?” In 10 minutes, the deed was done, internet fora be damned.
I should mention here that the bike’s cantilever brakes are the old-school kind with the exposed spring that turns on a little lightbulb in your mind about how brakes actually work. They’re designed to be tinkered with. After some new salmon brake pads, and new cables/housing, I was in business. The 4mm difference between the old 27″ wheels and these new 700c wheels was negligible.
Since this would be my winter commute bike, I’d need to plan for copious rain and nasty potholed roads. (East Marginal Way, anyone?) I still haven’t become fully confident with using downtube shifters while riding in dicey situations, so my first thought was to find some used 8-speed Shimano STI levers that would keep my hands on the hoods at all times during shifting. Easier said than done. The Bikeworks bins were a non-starter. You can forget about finding a matching set, let alone a functional half in there. Recycled Cycles had what I needed, but the idea of spending $85 on some old parts just didn’t feel right. I bid on some Ebay auctions, but those were still getting to be too expensive. After consulting Tom of Pie Cycles, I got another idea: Retroshift, a company said to be run by goats that hacks Tektro drop bar brake levers to provide a handy mount for any downtube shifters you want. They’re aimed at Cyclocross riders. Yes, they were more expensive than I had hoped for, but I bought them anyway, because of their durability. And the goats. There’s a reason you don’t find very many used STI shifter sets. (They’re not designed to last.) The missing piece of the drivetrain puzzle fell quickly into place when Donald realized he had just salvaged some perfect 8 speed Shimano downtube shifters that would work perfectly with my setup. See below.
I thought about these wheels for a while, envisioning them carrying me thousands of miles. One blustery afternoon at Bikeworks in October, I scrounged some matching Shimano 105’s that had no business being at the bottom of the parts bin. On first inspection, these things spun forever, and needed no overhauling. Ok, who slipped me the Felix Felicis?
I decided the bike’s color theme would be black and blue. (Completely unrelated to bruising) What better way to set this off than by building wheels with black rims, black spokes, and blue anodized nipples? Yes, that is the technical term. During this process, I learned one important thing: Only order your spokes when you have your rims IN HAND. Because I didn’t do that, I had a pile of spokes measured to fit rims that are out of production and very hard to find. Yea, verily, at least 3 internet retailers informed me AFTER the purchase that sorry, we don’t have them! I couldn’t just order a different rim, because the spokes wouldn’t be the right length. So I wasted about 3 weeks tracking down the Alex R450 rim to the point where I finally received two of them. But they didn’t match, because they were from different years! One even had (the horror!) a tacky cursive font. I fumed about that for about 3 minutes.
Then I convinced myself that perfection is standing in the way of GTD. (Getting Things Done) And I’m all about the GTD. As for the arcane details of how I built my 4th and 5th wheels, wait, where are you going? Right. The process went very smoothly with no snags to report. Just don’t try ordering Alex R450 rims because they’re practically extinct.
At yesterday’s BYOB, I put the finishing touches on the Bianchi. This was my first time installing fenders, and it was oddly easier than I expected. The bike has plenty of clearance for racks and fenders, so they practically installed themselves.
This morning the rain fell as promised. Rarely have I been as excited to try out a bike in such conditions. The 5 mile ride into downtown was thrilling, cruising through major puddles and potholes without getting wet or jolted. I really enjoyed the traction and cushioned road feel of the Schwalbe Marathon tires. I’ll probably be upgrading all my other tires as well now that I have tried these. The Soma Highway One bars also feel great riding in the drops because they’re so shallow. This made riding the steep downhills much more comfortable than with my other road bikes.
Riding home, the sun had come out and my pannier was full of extra clothing. Quite a bit heavier than usual, but the trusty grandpa gear got me through it all.