If you have been bored enough to follow my posts, you'll know that early in the spring I bought a 1976 Schwinn Le Tour II for cheap. After a couple of weeks, I restored it enough using the stock parts so that I could ride it for a while, putting a few hundred miles on it. I then tried to do a 650B conversion on it, but ran into trouble with brake reach. The stock brake already had a long reach, so the newer "long reach brakes" weren't any longer than the stock brake.
I had already put the Le Tour's chromed steel 27 inch wheels on my daughter's 80s model Schwinn Varsity, so the Le Tour was sitting wheelless, lonely, and unused, especially since I was satisfying my road-style biking needs with the Specialized Tricross.
The Single Speed Conversion
Yesterday, on a whim, I grabbed the frame and Tektro 556 brakes and headed down to Re-Cycle bike shop to see about getting some wheels for the Le Tour. Mike, the owner of the shop, had me go ahead and put the bike up on the work stand so we could start fitting wheels. Over the course of the next five or ten minutes, we worked out a plan to single speed the bike with parts he had in inventory. You'll recall that the Le Tour II has semi-horizontal dropouts, and is a common candidate for single speed conversions.
Mike turned me over to his mechanic, Dan, and within an hour, most of the work had been done. It all happened so fast, I almost wasn't able to keep up with what we were doing.
Here's a list of what we (mostly Dan) did:
- Selected single speed 700c wheels with freewheel. I didn't know that wheels could be built for single speed. I think the difference is the dishing of the wheel to better accommodate the single cog, Also, these are bolt on wheels. Mike said it's common to use bolt on for single speed, especially on the rear when to need to ensure a snug fit. 700C give me more options for tires than I would have if I stuck with the 27 inch. Also, it opens up a tad more room for fenders should I go that route.
- Selected an optimum rear cog. Mike suggested an 18 tooth cog. He's familiar with some of the hills I ride, so he was able to make a suggestion. Of course, I can change it out to make it easier or harder after I ride it some.
- Put on a new drive side crank and chainring. By chance, they had a busted crank set brought in by someone who tried a jump and bent up the left side of the crank. The right side was in perfect shape, and included a single 40 tooth chainring. The crank arm length was 170mm, and matched the Schwinn crank arm perfectly. I got a really good deal on this part, and was pleased the way it turned out. My original plan was to keep the existing dual chainring, but this looks much, much better.
- Selected tires. Mike set me up on skinny 25c, almost smooth tires. I've never ridden a skinny tire before.
- Used a step drill bit to enlarge the rear brake hole on the fork to accommodate the recessed mounting nut. The stock brake had a bolt that went all the way through and a hex nut on the outside. We saved the curved washers to get a better mount between the brake and frame.
- Used a Dremel tool to open up the rear brake mounting hole on rear of the frame. There was no room to get the drill in there.
- Mounted new Tektro 556 brakes.
- Removed all unnecessary shifting components: shifting levers, cables, cable guides, derailleurs.
- Cut chain to fit the single gear and bolted the wheel into the dropouts.
- Selected a new saddle to replace the broken stock saddle. I got a budget racing style Velo saddle. It looks pretty good, I think, but may get replaced with something else in the future (Can you say "Brooks," boy and girls?)
- Selected new brake levers and cabling. I took home Tektro RL520 levers, black bar tape, and new cabling and cable housing. I installed the levers, cables, and bar tape myself at home. I'm impressed with the look and function of the new levers and how the cables disappear beneath the tape. It makes for such a simpler look on the bars. It's almost like there aren't any cables, as the visible parts of the cable are minimal. It took me a few wraps, and then unwraps, to get it right. My taping still isn't perfect, but I think I'm getting better.
- A nice powder coat job, to make that 33 year old steel frame look new again.
- Fenders? Rack? It'd be a shame not to ride this fun bike just because the streets are wet. On the other hand, I already have a bike with fenders and a rack.
- Brooks saddle and earthy colored, varnished bar tape?
That's Interesting, But How Does It Ride?
Oh my goodness! Oh my! I never knew it would feel so different. I think all of the changes done to the Le Tour, with the new skinny tires, light weight 700C wheels, well performing brakes with sturdy hoods to hang on to, plus the direct drive to the wheel, it's like a totally new bike.
I'd tried to simulate the single speed experience a few times by setting my geared bike at an equivalent gear. However, there just appears to be something magic about that nearly direct connection to the street through the single gear. It's probably not as direct as with a fixed gear, where's there's no freewheel/freehub, but much more so than with a geared bike, and all of the extra chain snaking through the derailleur jockey wheels. It feels more efficient, as if I get more power using the same gear ratio on the single speed as I would using a geared bike. The clicking of the freewheel is loud, but when I am turning the pedals, it's totally silent.
Of course, when using a geared bike set on a particular ratio, there's always that knowledge in the back of my mind that I can change the gears if I want to. When riding my new single speed today, it was kind of liberating knowing that I had what I had, legs, feet, pedals, chain, to wheel, and that was it. I had to make do with the gearing, such that it was.
I took the Schwinn out for a test ride this afternoon to run some errands over about 12 miles of in-town riding. First I rode some of the bigger hills on my normal daily commute. I found that I could stand out of the saddle to do the toughest hills, but for the most part, I didn't need to. I think it's that efficiency thing again. I did notice that on some downhills and some slight downhill flats, I quickly topped out my cadence, and had to resign to coasting, as I couldn't make my legs go any faster. On my geared bikes, these are spots where I could almost keep up with traffic using really big gears, but on the single speed, I'll just have to relax and take what I can get from gravity. On my first few stops, I felt the urge to downshift on the phantom levers.
The steel frame seems more comfortable than the aluminum Tricross frame, as I think it really absorbs the bumps in the road, despite the more narrow tire. Nothing I've ridden is as comfortable as my Trek 7300 hybrid, with its 35mm tires and seatpost and head shock suspension, plus gel saddle. But the performance of the Schwinn was a lot of fun. I've got the brakes tuned so that I can do most of my braking with a feather touch from my index finger around the hoods. I did have to toe in the shoes a bit, since I was getting some vibration and squeal on my rear brake, which came right up into my saddle for an odd sensation. With my clipless pedals, the acceleration is quite snappy.
I will probably try to commute with this bike this week. Between the 12 miles of errands I ran this afternoon, plus the eight mile round trip to dinner out, I've really enjoyed riding this "new" bike. I think the single speed conversion was the right thing to do at this point in time with the Schwinn, since I already had the hybrid for hauling and wet weather, and the cross bike for fast road and gravel riding. The single speed will be my "city" bike, for fair weather commuting, and tooling around to the coffee shop and restaurants, and casual, easy rides when I don't need to carry any cargo.
Here are some photos of the completed bike.