She’s so heavy – A ‘neo-retro’ bike build.

What to do when you’ve accumulated a collection of spare components over the years – sell or build something fun? I posed this question to friends recently and it didn’t take much convincing for me to embark on a new build. Besides, I needed something I could chain up at the supermarket without worrying about a potential insurance claim! In contrast to my previous build, this one would not defy UCI weight regulations!

The lure of history

Before the realisation that I was carting about boxes of 10-speed components in need of a bike, I had started to grow interested in vintage bicycles. This was something of a turn-around. For years I’d seen the images coming out of L’Eroica – the celebration of vintage cycling on the white roads around Sienna – without feeling any attraction. In fact I felt a bit cynical about the spectacle; another commodified fashion-coded sub-culture within cycling. Moreover, my main interest in riding is in climbing, so why on earth would I want a bike to be heavier than necessary?

But then last year something changed. I saw the images from L’Eroica, especially those of Luciano Berruti, who passed away later in the year, and was captivated.

L’Eroica Photo: cycling weekly

French attraction

The sight of Berruti on his 1907 Peugeot stirred something in me. Perhaps it was my increasing connection to France, or my natural interest in cycling history catching up with my practice; I drew increasingly close to buying or building a vintage ‘Pug.’ In late 2017 I even snuck out one afternoon to test ride a PX10, a bike like the one Eddy Merckx rode in 1966:

I don’t really know what stopped me parting with my cash that afternoon but the bike was on the large side for me and I was a bit surprised at just how heavy these old race bikes could be. So the idea went on the back-burner.

Claire had seen me browsing images of vintage Pugs and with some concern that the house was about to become unnavigabley cluttered, gave me a joke birthday present … ‘you can have this instead of a bike’ she said:

In December we moved to our new home near the start of Mt Pleasant Rd and I faced two realisations. Firstly, we were no longer a comfortable walking distance to the supermarket, but we were close enough that driving there for a carton of soy milk felt ridiculous. Secondly, I really had a lot of unused components that needed a home. Most of these had accumulated from switching my old Roubaix Comp over to 11-speed in 2016. I posted this image on Instagram:

An Australian detour

With Cyril’s nudge barely needed, I was off. But my first move was a mis-step. I’d cooled on the idea of putting this equipment on a Peugeot frame. Principally because the French bottom bracket threading would result in more trouble than it was worth – a dedicated French BB which then wouldn’t fit my GXP cranks etc. As much as possible I wanted to use the equipment I had on hand. That was the whole point of the build (and if it ended up being more than a runabout it would be handy if the bike could take my GXP Quarq powermeter).

With a little looking around I realised there are a lot of Australian steel frames from the 1980s sold online. My 12th birthday present was a bottom-of-the-line red Repco Traveller which I loved like it was going to be needed for the Tour de France. So I felt a certain sentimental attraction to the Repco frame I ended up buying from a Brisbane seller for $50. The 1984 Superlite had an English threaded shell that would take a GXP BB and the rest of my equipment.

Repco Superlite circa 1984

But as fate would have it the frame was too small and that wasn’t the only problem. Another aim for the project was to build a bike either Claire or I could roll down to the shops on. We can fit the same frame but I now realised we were between Repco frame sizes. In fact, a lot of old Australian frames jumped from a 21 inch frame to a 23 inch (BB centre to seat-tube top). For us this was a jump from too small to too big. So a lot of cheap options were off the table.

I learned a lot from wrenching around the Repco frame though – from treating rust with oxalic acid, to cold-setting hub spacing, to restoring the finish of stainless steel. I even took apart and restored the old headset and cup-and-cone BB which came with frame – just to get a feel for working with the old parts.

I put the project on hold but kept researching in my spare time – and then I made a discovery. From the early 1980s Peugeot actually switched over to English threaded bottom brackets. One website suggested this transition was effected across the entire Peugeot road range by 1986. Further, as far as I could tell, the sizing of old Pug frames from this period might have suited our needs perfectly. I began to search again in earnest and this time I had a clearer idea of what I was looking for. It looked like I might end up on French steel after all!

Finding the Iseran

A random search on Gumtree one afternoon yielded an interesting hit. Someone was selling a late 80s or early 90s Peugeot Iseran. Straight away I knew I was in the ball-park.

The convention of naming bikes after mountains started in the 1980s for Peugeot, and the finish of this particular bike shouted ‘late 80s’ to me. The seller had listed the bike as a 1970s Peugeot and it was clear from a subsequent exchange of messages it was being sold by a non-cyclist. This worried me a bit – Gumtree doesn’t have the best reputation. But I went out to the seller and was reassured all was legit. A young guy was selling it for his dad who had moved on from cycling.

I sat there with a tape measure and confirmed everything I’d hoped for. The bike was between the typical Australian frame sizes of the period and looked like a good candidate to suit both me and Claire.

It turned out this Iseran was made in 1990. Old but not officially ‘vintage’, at least not by L’eroica standards which require bikes to be built pre-1987. But given this was going to be a 10-speed ‘neo-retro’ build that hardly mattered.

The bike was in a funny state. It was equipped with a Shimano 300 Exage groupset, with biopace chainrings and a 7-speed freewheel. The most ungainly sight of all was the addition of an odd bull-horn bar with fluro bar tape – perhaps this bike had been used by an aspiring triathlete in the early 1990s? Never mind, I was here to rescue it and had eyes only for the frame (and the brakes).

Haute Limite Elastique

One interesting feature of the Iseran frame is it has neither lugs nor weld marks. This is because the frame is internally brazed, using Haute Limite Elastique tubing. HLE was a micro alloy with an improved strength to weight ration over conventional tubing. In manufacturing the frame brazing material would be place inside the tubes and heated externally to form the joint.

Peugeot literature from the period states the technique results in ‘an incredibly low weight.’ Well, I guess that’s relative:

Weight of Frame + Fork + Headset

HLE was better quality than ‘conventional’ tubing but it was still heavier than the Reynolds tubing used on Peugeot’s higher level race bikes. I guess it was a good sales gimmick for the entry-level market.

Restoration

After dismantling the bike I set about cleaning up the stainless steel parts. The Shimano Exage Motion brakes could stay; my SRAM ones wouldn’t fit the old frame and their shoe alignment bolts wouldn’t fit in the Shimano slots. I could have drilled the frame to take the SRAM brakes but with the Shimano brakes on hand I preferred the non-destructive option.

I didn’t want to use the old brake pads and found a lovely set of Ashima pads and shoes that fit the Shimano calipers and looked the part. With a couple of new dome bolts for the cable anchors they cleaned up nicely:

Exage Motion calipers with Ashima ultralight shoes and pads.

I added a 40cm ATAX handlebar, purchased from France on Ebay. I also had to add an 80mm stem to balance the lengthening effect of the shifter’s position on the old style bars (4cm further forward than on modern shallow drop). The brakes and bars got the same restoration process: clean thoroughly, sand with wet-and-dry paper of increasing fineness from 180 to 1200, rub a polishing compound in with super-fine steel wool, then finally buff with a microfibre towel. Before and after shots of the ATAX bars show how well this method works:

At top left the bars have been given an initial sand with 180 grit. At top right the bars are untreated, Bottom is after complete process.

Aside from paint chips, and light rust around the front derailleur clamp and bottom bracket shell, the frame needed little work. Some degreasing, some elbow grease, a little Ranex on the rusty spots and the job was done. I contemplated doing some touch-ups but reminded myself it was meant to be a beat-up runabout. Peugeot boasted about the finish on HLE frames and maybe all those layers had helped to preserve this one:

Modernisation

So I had a 28 year old frame and parts, and a collection of 10-speed components of about 5 years vintage. Now I had to marry them.

The first step was cold-setting the rear triangle from 126mm to 130mm to take a 10-speed wheel. You can spend a small fortune on tools for this sort of thing – or you can buy a rod and a couple of bolts from Bunnings:

You need only spend a couple of dollars on the tools to coldset a rear triangle.

I learned how to do this from Youtube videos by RJ the Bike Guy, though my DIY approach is even simpler than his. It still worked!

Then the old check-the-frame-alignment-with-a-string-instead-of-another-expensive-tool trick:

How aligned is a piece of string?

To my consternation the frame was out by about 4mm. I managed to realign with a plank of wood, again following RJ the Bike Guy’s guide. The sheer physicality of steel, the indelicacy, feels like an old technology. But it’s the malleability of steel which makes it so adaptable. When inevitably rear hub spacing standards widen again you won’t be bending out your carbon frame to fit.

More makeshift tools were used to ensure the drop-outs were aligned, then I was ready to add my existing components.

On went the GXP bottom bracket – on went the SRAM OEM cranks that came with my Roubaix in 2012.

Then a special touch – in keeping with the retro side of this neo-retro build I managed to pick up some honey-brown lever hoods for my Sram Rival shifters.

‘Bordeaux Gold’ SRAM Rival 10-speed hoods from Hudz

Quickly this was becoming too nice a bike to chain up outside the supermarket. I can’t help wanting to make things nice!

I had to order an extra long 24mm seatpost from Germany to safely reach my saddle height – the postage cost on this stung but it’s hard to find posts in that unusual diameter.

On top of that went the original 143mm Specialized Toupe saddle my Roubaix came with. This is a compromise – wider than my usual saddle and narrower than Claire’s. We can both enjoy equal discomfort!

For some reason, around the time I abandoned 10-speed, I’d ordered a SRAM Force rear derailleur. It was never used and had sat as NOS in a cupboard for two years. Now it had a home, on this increasingly fancy runabout. I guess we were going to need a good lock.

While building the bike Campy announced the first 12-speed road groupsets, so NOS or not, these 10-speed parts are arguably looking a bit retro in their own right!

One last hurdle was faced with the fitting of a front derailleur clamp. French seat tubes use an unusual diameter of 28mm. The smallest diameter clamp I could find was 28.6mm. Nothing a bit of filing can’t fix! I figured 0.3 mm off either side of the clamp would be easily and safely achieved. It was impossible to measure, but once the clamp went on tight I was satisfied.

Final Touches

I finished the build with black cables for contrast and a white Tacx bidon holder. I used Lizard Skins 1.8mm bartape which is what I like on all my bikes. I considered removing the stickers from my old Fulcrum 6 wheels, but in the end the red and white seemed a reasonable compliment. The wheels wore a set of old 24mm S-works cotton tyres and Vittoria butyl tubes. A SRAM Red 10-speed chain finished the drivetrain. Lastly, for full runabout mode, I put a pair of MKS steel pedals on the cranks (although our 11-speed Quarqs with SPD-SL pedals will work with the 10-speed chain if either of us want to do a longer Pug-ride).

I should mention the entire build was done in secret, in the garage, when Claire wasn’t around. I even hid the bike in its various states of completion behind boxes in a storage cupboard so I could surprise Claire with a finished build.

Et voilà:

Further potential – the neo-retro gravel bike

One last step was to consider the option of running wider tyres on the build and opening up a bit of gravel riding. The 15c rim of the Fulcrum 6 wheels can go up safely to 32mm. But the clearance on these old frames is so good If I wanted to get really adventurous I could put in my 17c commuter wheels and use a tyre of up to 50mm. Maybe that would be pushing it, but I could go way over 32mm. In any case I bought a pair of Panaracer Gravel King 32mm tyres which came in well below stated weight at 279g – nice when that happens! So here’s a hint of a Peugeot / SRAM gravel monstrosity / wonder!

Heaps of room with 32mm at max inflation (95psi).

Closing thoughts

Really, I just did this for the joy of building. Once I’d got some momentum I couldn’t stop.

With hindsight, would I have done anything differently?

Well, not really. It is what it is. I needed something to hang my old 10-speed parts on and it was nice to find a French frame to use, even if it was a heavy entry-level example.

Finding a much lighter Frame, like one with 753 tubing might make a nicer neo-retro build. I recently saw Phillipa York’s team PRO10 (which she raced as Robert Millar in the 1980s) on Ebay. So these things come up, but then it wouldn’t be a pub bike and that was the niche I had to fill to justify another bike in the house. Actually, I may have figured out how to adapt French threaded bottom bracket shells after all, which opens the possibility of more audacious neo-retroism. Fancy a PX10 with eTap? Joking, of course I wouldn’t do that … .

I’d caution patience, and the benefit of thorough research for a project like this. But at the same time when you’re doing something for the first time there will necessarily be a bit of trial and error and you just have to wear the associated costs. I got burned in a few places, buying some wrong parts and tools. C’est la vie.

Would I do a proper vintage build or restoration? It’s very appealing, and I think some of those old bikes are very beautiful. I even think I’d have a blast riding L’eroica. But I’m not sure how much such a bike would ever be ridden. Perhaps it’s a project for my later cycling years.

Lastly, while I was building the bike I read that Shimano are releasing 11-speed cassettes that will fit a 10-speed hub. If that had been an option 2 years ago I might never have had a spare wheelset at all! But here it is, my overly attended runabout.

Component weight and price list:

Purchased Part Cost (AUD) Weight (kg) Details
Frame/Fork/Headset/Brakes $140.00 3.520 1990 Peugeot Iseran
ATAX Bar $31.82 0.395 40cm c-c
Alloy Seat post $34.79 0.311 24mmx350mm
Quill Stem $29.95 0.300 80mm Kalloy
Bottle Cage $16.97 0.041 Tacx Tao Light Polymide
Front Derailleur adapter $5.00 0.030 28.6mm filed to 28.0mm
Brakes blocks $39.98 0.313 Ashima Ultralight (weight incl. Exage calipers)
Bar Tape $35.49 0.050 Lizard Skins Race DSP 1.8mm
Hoods $29.00 0.338 Hudz Bordeax Gold (weight incl. shifters)
Pedals $22.29 0.425 MKS AR2 Road (weight incl. clips)
Toe Clips $17.99 0.000 MKS Steel (weight incl. Above)
Downtube Barrel Stops $16.44 0.024 Shimano SM-CS50
Brake Cable Kit $11.99 0.050 Shimano Road
Gear Cables $6.00 0.050 Lifeline Road
Pedal Straps $8.80 0.000 Brand X x2 (weight incl. with pedals)
TOTAL $446.51 5.847 See below for total build weight
* not including postage costs which were sometimes free and sometimes exorbitant      
Existing Spare Parts Used      
Part Est Value (AUD) Weight (kg) Details
Shifters $50.00 0.000 SRAM Rival 10 Speed
Rear Derailleur $80.00 0.174 SRAM Force NOS unopened
Front Derailleur $30.00 0.100 SRAM Rival 10 Speed
Wheelset $100.00 2.610 Fulcrum 6 OEM (weight incl. Tyres / tubes)
Tyres $50.00 0.000 S-Works Cotton Turbo 24mm (weight above)
Tubes $10.00 0.000 Vittoria (weight incl. above)
Crankset $40.00 0.777 SRAM GXP OEM
Chain Rings $30.00 0.000 50/34 SRAM 10 Speed (weight incl. above)
Cassette $40.00 0.182 11-28 Shimano Duraace 10 Speed
Chain $10.00 0.269 SRAM Red 10 Speed
Saddle $100.00 0.200 Specialized Toupe 143mm
BB $40.00 0.116 SRAM GXP 68mm
Gear Cable Outers $5.00 0.050 SRAM left over from Tarmac build
TOTAL (est**) $585.00 4.478 ***
**Just guessing what I might get on Ebay or buy/sell if I was lucky
***Total weight came to 10.32kg so I guess that’s the margin of error on the scales.

 

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