Little Cat “B” (aka son Lewis) has recently shown interest in learning the family trade. We thus decided to pick a bike to work on together, a wonderful Norman Rockwell father-son moment, if you will. Among the choices; a Motobecane Gran Jubile’, a Univega Gran Turismo, and any of the different Raleigh or Schwinn 3-speeds that had been littering the place as of late. There were also a couple ‘high-enders”, a beautiful C-Record equipped Scapin and the blog aforementioned Gios, but honestly, who’d let a newbie 16-year old boy with a crescent wrench near one of those?
Lewis was fine with any choice, as long as it wasn’t the “President”, a real heaper of a bike. It had been donated and even then I’d nearly turned it away as it was representative of a low point in bicycle manufacturing. Its redeeming qualities were, in order, uhhh…
Ok, so it didn’t have any. It weighed a ton, was poorly equipped and even more poorly constructed. For instance, rather than being spot on parallel with the top tube, the slot at the top of the seat tube was a full 20% off center. That’s a lot. Whoever had welded in the tube had either been blind as a bat or drunk as a skunk. And speaking of frame tubes, the President’s were hollow, but just barely, more akin to gas pipe.
What the bike lacked in desirability or performance it did make up for in expendability. If the President ended up becoming an actual running bike, well then great. If, however, it ended up falling prey to teenage overconfidence or any under-developed skills, no biggie. It was the perfect bike to bounce wrenches off. Though Lewis was less than thrilled by the choice he gamely agreed to give it a go. Good on him because he well knew it was the least palatable choice.
Right off the bat I started second-guessing my decision. The President was going to need more work and more parts than I’d initially figured (big shock). Worse, I found myself making excuses for the semi-functionality of all the subpar components (“Yep, that’s about as true as those rims can be”, or, “You really can’t make these brakes work any better.”) Was there anything to be learned from working on a bike that really wouldn’t improve much, even under the tutorship of a supposed old hand? Would this whole deal be rewarding to Lewis, or was it going to be an exercise in futility? …On his first bike, no less? Maybe he’d end up deciding bicycles were a gigantic pain in the ass and settle on a dull life like in, say, accounting. You know, like his mother.
Through all the many subsequent hours of toil the President sat there, much like the real President during these Covid times; it wasn’t helping out and it didn’t much care, either. Together, Lewis and I took parts off, cleaned and shined them up and then re-installed them in the hope that they’d work, a least a little.
We agreed to work a hour a day but I found myself putting in many more hours in the shop on my own, trying to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear of my own choosing. Lewis started taking Rocket (his beloved cat) for backyard walks during our daily work time and I’d never seen him take such an interest in the less apparent going’s on of nature in general. He’d stare at the little songbirds at the thistle feeder, watch the winter clouds as they wandered over us, and the bathroom breaks were getting longer and longer. I couldn’t blame him as the bike really was a “Shop-Vac” in that it both sucked and blowed.
New saddle, new tires, new tubes. We threw out the lame 5-speed drivetrain in favor of a period-correct 3-speed setup. New grips, new chain, new handlebars. We scrubbed surface rust from chrome as much as we could, trying to make the bike appealing, at least aesthetically. We put on new fenders because the old ones were deemed unworthy of more effort. We replaced bearings, cables, housing, brake pads and did our level best to make the “bike” an actual bike.
On Day-2 we exceeded the original retail price of the President, on Day-5 we surpassed what any sane person would actually ever pay for it. By Day-8 the total invested was upside down by a factor of 3, possibly 4. The goal was never to recoup every cent, but it was getting ridiculous. It was no longer a bike project, more in line with one of Roosevelt’s New Deal projects.
..And still the bike just looked and functioned ok. OK was not going to cut it, but that’s the best we could hope for. Hoover Dam may have cost a bunch but it really did work quite well. Not so the President.
Coincidentally, we finished the President this morning, the same day our new president was sworn into office. I’d usually attempt some clever comparisons or heady remarks, but I’m tired and just want to put it behind me. The end result of the “Bike New Deal”? It surprisingly looks ok, kinda nice, even. Especially at dusk, though closer to actual nighttime. Lewis test rode it this morning and his take was, “It actually rides ok, Dad. It’s not too bad at all.” High praise indeed.
Normally I’d build this recent arrival up with Campagnolo Nuovo or Super Record. That being said:
A: I don’t have a complete NR or SR group hanging around,
B: This particular Woodrup is a light touring model with eyelets, rack mounts, etc. so a standard racing group wouldn’t really be appropriate anyway.
If I really wanted to put Campy on it I’d thus have to hunt down a triple setup and that’s never an easy or inexpensive option. My current plan, which will likely change 19 times between now and when I actually start, is to outfit the bike with a nice period Suntour touring kit: Mountech derailleurs, Suntour barcon shifters, and maybe a beefier set of side pulls. The Sugino AT crank won’t need to be changed because they’re already period-correct and of great quality, but most everything else will have to go.
The bike is back up and running. Even with the narrow bars and short stem the International isn’t a bad fit for me. I am also surprised by how stable yet peppy it is. Maybe it’s because I’ve been test riding a bunch of Raleigh and Schwinn 3-speeds of late, but the International is, dare I say, sporty.
Highlights of the bike in my mind are the rebuilt wheels with those shiny stainless spokes, the high polish on the brake calipers (I don’t often go to that extent) and the NOS gold bicycle chain. I wouldn’t dare put a gold chain on a new bike but it’s perfectly at home next to the gold on the Suntour freewheel.
e been spending time in the cellar, sanding out minor blemishes on the non-anodized Campy parts, followed by some serious work with the buffing wheel and rouge.
Though it’s dark, hopefully you can see that some of the parts are really beginning to shine.
I also spent an hour on the rear Campy brake caliper digging grease out of crevices. It’s very meditative with hints of dental care mixed in.
Since there are no windows downstairs I’m left with my Hamm’s rotating sign. It has a 5 minute rotation; mountains, waterfall, canoe. Mountains, waterfall, canoe.
Ahh, my first bike, a second-hand 20″ single-speed with a rattle-can red paint job and dented fenders. It was nothing to look at, but I loved it nevertheless. I rode it everywhere, or at least everywhere a 5-year old could. Pretending it was a top-fuel dragster, I’d purposely high-center the rear wheel between its training wheels and pedal with all my might, executing the dirt equivalent of a burnout. I’d use more or less the same method but creep slowly forward, digging long trenches in our driveway, much more efficient than using my Tonka backhoe.
I understand why folks have a strong connection to their first bikes. Like the beat-up little Schwinn-built B.F. Goodrich girl’s bike that showed up here one day 7 months ago. It wasn’t rare, it wasn’t collectible per se… Heck, it wasn’t even a full-size bike, but rather a diminutive 24″ wheel model. The fact that the customer had kept it for 69 years was no accident, though. …And any attempts to talk her out of a full restoration fell on deaf ears: Sometimes a bike is restored not because it’s rare or valuable, it’s love, pure and simple.
The B.F. Goodrich went into the shop queue and soon enough was underway. I discovered there’s something liberating about restoration without worrying about the cost vs. subsequent value. It’s a good thing because the Goodrich threw the scales off almost immediately and never looked back.
So here it is, all shiny and running like a champ. No garage queen, the owner says the bike still fits her so she’s gonna ride it. Maybe I’ll teach her how to do a burnout when she picks it up.
Some 20 years ago I helped restore this 1949 Phantom for Gary Klefman, the owner of the Schwinn shop here in town. It was one of the first restorations I’d done for someone else. To that point all the bikes I worked on were either for myself or my partner in paint, Sean O’Brien. I admit I wasn’t yet used to putting all the sweat and tears in for someone else’s benefit. Both Sean and I were young and though neither were rich, we were nominally funded enough to restore and keep anything we worked on. It took over a year, but in the end the Phantom was finished. It was thus was a bittersweet moment when it rolled out the front door.
After that, I’d occasionally go into Gary’s shop. I’d see the Phantom hanging on the wall and I’d start to pine for it, partly because I’d put all the time into it and partly because, well, a collector is always collecting. I knew Gary prized the bike and that it would have been futile to make an offer, however ridiculous. I had to be content visiting it on the rare occasion I needed something from the Schwinn shop. I think I might have even made up an excuse to go see it once or twice, purchasing a couple extra Bendix two-speed springs just so I could look it over.
Gary’s son Randy took over the business in the 2000’s, the shop moved and eventually they even dropped the Schwinn line. …And still the bike hung on the wall. Imagine my surprise when Randy called recently, asking me if I might be interested in purchasing the bike. He seemed shocked that I was interested, and I must have sounded shocked that he thought I might not have been. I guess a possession can mean different things to different people. To Randy the bike might have been merely a dust collector. To me, well, you probably know what it means to me by now.
So now there’s another full circle ownership story to tell. It took a little over two decades to complete, but nevertheless, it feels like the bike is home.