Sunday, July 26, 2009

Schwinn Le Tour II Restoration, Phase 3 - Single Speed




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.
What remains, potentially:
  • 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.


Scott Redd said...

Some additional notes:

I rode the bike in to work this morning. In summary, the ride was quick, fun, and comfortable. The weather was perfect, the traffic fairly light, so all I had to concentrate on was the ride.

I rode my five miles in exactly 20 minutes, making for a total average of 15 MPH. This includes stopping time at traffic signals. Anyone who's ridden with me before knows I'm not especially fast, so averaging 15 on in-town streets is not bad for me. My normal commute time on my geared bikes has been anywhere between 18 and 45 minutes depending on weather, with 20-25 minutes being a typical morning ride.

I noticed some interesting differences between the single speed and geared commutes. My hill climbs were faster on the single speed. I'm not much of a masher, so I tried to stay spinning on the climbs. I usually spin on the geared bike, too, but in a lower gear. It seems the single speed keeps me honest by not letting me get too lazy on the hills.

In contrast, I maxed out my speed once I got over the hump toward downtown. From Park Avenue to Leavenworth Street, and then Leavenworth into downtown, it's about 2 miles of gradual downhill. On my geared bikes, I use a taller gear and cruise at almost traffic speed. On the single speed, I quickly reached my maximum cadence and had to resign to coasting. I was "along for the ride."

This downhill isn't at a great grade, so gravity alone isn't enough to keep up with the traffic. At this time, I had the idea that my single speed is a "rose" bike. Riding it, sometimes I will be forced to smell the roses, rather than always be thinking about shifting to a higher and higher gear.

I measured the Schwinn at about 24 pounds. It's heavier than my Tricross, but so far it seems like the ride is more comfortable. Maybe all of that steel really does make a difference. I think I need to bring the seat post up a little, and move the saddle back a tad.

Both my home-to-work ride and work-to-home rides are about the same distance climbing and descending. Work-to-home is a little steeper, though. So far, I think the 40x18 gear ratio is spot-on for my commute. Sometimes I ride up Leavenworth, through Elmwood Park, and then loop back on the Keystone for a 10-18 mile ride home on some long climbs. We'll see how the hills treat me on the way home. Who knows, after a few weeks of this single speed riding, I might decide to put on a slight smaller cog for a little more speed on the flats and slightly tougher climbs.

I welcome your comments, suggestions, and observations in the comments below.

brady said...

I'm green with envy. You've made some nice upgrades to that bike, Scott. Enjoy!

RD said...

Just so you know you are more limited on freewheel sizes than you would be on cogs i thin the smallest one they make is 16 i think white industries make 15t i'm not sure... make sure you lube your free wheel

Scott Redd said...

Thanks Brady and RD.

Regarding improvements, I'm enjoying the brakes the most. It's nice to know I can stop this bike pretty quickly... much more quickly than the stock Schwinn brakes. I still miss the top levers. A future upgrade might see some interrupter levers.

RD: thanks for the headsup on the freewheel gear size. I went to Olympia cycle today and asked. The general consensus was that 16 teeth is about the lowest they know of. Larry, the fellow there said my 40x16 should be just fine. After climbing Burt Street from 30th to 40th from downtown to the bike shop, and then Hamilton from NW Radial Highway to Happy Hollow, on my way to the Keystone, I'm inclined to agree. On the steepest parts of these hills I found myself out of the saddle.

Oops.. I just realized I told him I had a 16, but I have an 18. So I've got room to grow. Whew.

While at the bike shop, I ordered an all brass and steel bell. It should be at the shop in a couple of weeks.

That's a good thing, because I encountered lots of folks on the Happy Hollow and Elmwood Park Connector trails who needed to be warned of my approach.

Scott Redd said...

Another question for you all. I've noticed the bike wants to turn to the right. I don't recall the bike doing this in the ten-speed configuration. Any ideas what this might be? I'll check the dropout alignment for good measure.

Colin said...

Because you have rerouted your brakes, it might look a little bit more clean to remove the unused brake guide near the stem. Otherwise, your project looks great!

Scott Redd said...


Thanks for the note.

Removing the front brake cable guide from the stem was in the plan, but we couldn't get the headset to come off. It's stuck fast. Dan pounded on the stem bolt with a mallet, but it just wouldn't give. I'll try soaking the inside of the tube with WD40 and see if that frees it. I'd like to know I can remove the fork for painting or powder coating.

I also thought about grinding away the cable stop from the chainstay, and maybe the little bump there the bolt on cable stops sit on the down tube for a sleeker look. However, who knows, this bike may get gears on it again some time in the future.

munsoned said...

First off, BEAUTimous bike there, man. I have single speed envy.

With regard to the bike favoring the right, it might be that your body is leaning that way, causing your bike to react. With those skinnier tires, any input from you is going to be more noticeable. At least that's what I've noticed going from a bike with 32C or larger tires, to a 23/25C tired bike. On bigger tires, I can no-hand ride with ease, but skinnier tires cause me to really focus on keeping my hips aligned. Also, try a saddle that you're more familiar with to see if you're sitting funny on your new one. That has gotten me in the past also.

I could be way off on all of this so definitely get the frame checked.

Scott Redd said...

Welcome back from the honeymoon, Munson. Thanks for the comment.

I discovered the source of the rightward leaning. I visited Mike in the Re-Cycle shop today to show him the finished bike and thank him again for his help.

I told him about the right pull, and he put the bike up on the workstand. He used some tools designed to bolt into the fork dropouts and measure alignment.

One fork tine was turned outward a little bit. Using the tool, he was able to line them back up. I took the bike for a spin and noticed that the stem was now pointing off to the right. The headset is stuck, and I can't get it loose enough to get a proper alignment. I think someone had tried to turn the stem by hand and bent the forks to get a better alignment.

After I got home, I tried again to free the stem by pounding on the stem bolt. It just won't give. Finally, I did what a previous owner probably did. I held the wheel between my knees and twisted the handlebars, bending the forks back a bit so that the stem and wheel are in better alignment.

At this point, I am not sure what do to with the fork tube. I want to be able to remove the fork so that the frame can be powder coated. But if it won't come out, Mike says we might have to saw off the old fork and install a new one. That seems a little too much work/expense for the old bike.

If the fork won't come off, I could always do a substandard paint job at home trying to paint with fork in place. Or, just leave the old Schwinn paint and decals, scratches and all, to show their '76 glory.

Scott Redd said...

I forgot to mention that the wheel has a flip flop hub. Should I be so inclined, I could put on, say, a 16 or 17 tooth fixed gear cog and get stoopid on the Keystone.

I wouldn't dare try fixie on the streets.

I'd also leave both front and rear brakes on.

erik said...

flip the bicycle over without the wheel in and apply penetrating lube to the steertube hole--let it soak in for some time and see if that helps.

When aluminum anything isn't greased properly and meets steel, electrochemical gradients will result in bonding -- hopefully a bit of lube will help things along otherwise you're SOL.

Don't need to cut the fork though, just the stem and find a replacement at the bicycle co-op. Honestly though, were it me I'd look at just finding a replacement frameset as something like a new fork starts to look a bit silly when you're riding a frame that was so inexpensive to begin with. You can do some looking now too, and find a frame made of lightweight steel (the schwinn le tour is a fine bicycle indeed, but many lighter bikes are floating around). Find a bike made of reynolds 853, sold by someone who doesn't know what they have, and you will be in heaven for the same price of a new fork -- swap components over, no big deal and problem solved.

My other recommendation in general is to ditch those 25c tires, I wouldn't want to ride anything less than 32 on omaha streets. You'll be just as fast. Steve here rides a 33mm tire on his fixed (rivendell Jack Brown) and Eric B ran a ruffy tuffy last I checked (similar, but a 28mm). I'd recommend either in the flat-resistant version, and you'll be in cycling commuter nirvana. It's that good, really it gets so much better from this point. I bet this first step was wonderful though.

Let the steel single speed reality take hold!

Awesome work with this bicycle.

Scott Redd said...

Thanks, Erik. The guys at the shop said exactly the same thing about the reaction between steel and aluminum, especially after so many years. They also suggested the penetrating oil. I'll give that a try.

I had the same thoughts about the trouble and expense of cutting the stem and replacing the fork. It rides well enough as it is, and going to that trouble for a paint job isn't worth it. From a distance, the original paint and decals aren't in that bad of shape.

My cross bike has 32m tires, so in the spirit of avoiding too much functionality overlap among my three bikes, I am happy with the 25m tires. Multiple flats might change my mind, but so far, so good.

Any ideas on what to do with brake vibrations and groaning? I've tried toeing in the shoes at different angles. Would a different size or quality shoe help? Is there a breaking in period for the new rims?

RD said...


i would just try to break those brakes in tektro brakes are not awesome by any means if you really have a issue with them i suggest some
kool stops
make sure you get the pink ones the last a season at least and they stop really good

Scott Redd said...

Hooray, I got the stem free. I squired lots of WD40 from the top yesterday, but it didn't seem to help. I think I accidentally loosened the top race, as today I had a little play in the headset.

I mistakenly thought this meant that my stem would come out, but it was still stuck. While messing around with it, I started dropping bearings. I figured out then that even with the stuck stem, I could still overhaul the steering bearing.

And, gosh, did they need it. They were really fouled. I picked out the bearings that didn't fall out and soaked them in degreaser. In the meantime, I started working on the stuck stem again. More WD40 in the tube, this time from the bottom of the fork. Still, I banged with my makeshift wooden mallet.

Finally, I tried a regular claw hammer. Tap, tap, and it was loose. I think I was being to easy on it with the wooden block.

I finally got the stem off the bike and was able to work the fork out, but it took a bit of twisting.

Finally, with all the parts out, I cleaned every surface I could clean. I packed the bearings back in the race of the bottom of head tube and put the fork back in. Then I packed the bearings in the race on the top of the head tube. I applied a thin layer of grease to the threads on the fork tube, and on the wedge/plunger, and on the outside of the stem before putting it all back together.

The headset seems nice and tight now, and I've got the alignment of the stem correct. The fork seems to turn smoothly, and I was able to remove the unneeded front brake center pull cable guide. The best part is that I know I can take it all back apart when it comes time to paint the frame.

The only problem I have that persists is that when I was done, I had one ball bearing left over that somehow I missed.

Now I need to learn how to pull the cranks off and service the bottom bracket. I think that will require special tools.

munsoned said...

Glad to hear you got the frame/fork/stem to submit. That's the thing about older rugged steel bike bits; you have to kinda man-handle them. Which is good because tight enough usually means till it can't turn anymore. With new soft aluminum and carbon bits, you really have to be careful with wrenching and should use a torque wrench to get accurate tightness.

Biker Bob said...

Guess who just inherrited a Raleigh Olympian frameset. I have to decide if I want to run it SS or geared (with my Sram Rival group). I need to find a 26.6 seat tube and maybe look into getting some of those Tektro long reach brakes. It was a 27 and I only have a 700c wheelset handy.

Anyone have an old 26.6 seatpost they could part with?

I'm leaning towards geared though. I need to put the Surly back into winter/trailer hauler mode with the original 27speed touring/mtb drivetrain. So the Rival group wont have a home till next spring otherwise.

Scott Redd said...

As a follow up on the Tektro brakes, I am still getting the vibration on the rear set. I may not be able to get it to go away.

Also, I rode the bike in the rain today and got something stuck in both the rear and the front pads. It was making a grinding noise and even shredding the rim a bit. I was able to pick at it with my U-lock key and get a rock or something out.

New pads might be in order. As well as fenders.

The headset seems to work loose a little, as evidenced with the clunking sound and feeling when I ride bumps. It's funny that the bike could go 30 years with a nice and tight headset, but once I service it, it wants to keep working loose. I guess I'll just have to spend some more time working the nuts against each other.

As for the gearing, I've found that 15MPH is a nice comfortable pace with my 40x18 gear ratio (58.6 gear inches). A little extra spinning and I can stay about 18MPH. In an all out spin on flat asphalt with a good tailwind, I can burst up to 28MPH, but not for very long.

I've gotten pretty comfortable standing for tall hills, but wider handlebars would probably help that out quite a bit. The really sturdy brake hoods are awesome at providing for a good place to grab for extra leverage.

Also, while I don't think the bike is perfectly balanced (I can't ride without hands), I do seem to be able to trackstand a little on this bike. At times, usually when I am NOT thinking about it too hard, I find that I can stay still, or rock backward and forward a bit at stop lights and not unclip. Usually as soon as I think "I'm trackstanding," the spell is broken and out comes a foot to steady myself.

In summary, after a couple of weeks, I am really enjoying the single speed experience, and find that I am choosing this bike for almost off of my in town riding. The hybrid with cargo rack is the obvious choice for grocery shopping, and the Tricross is the choice for quicker riding on streets and gravel, but the single speed makes a great urban commuter and all around fun bike.

Erik Coon said...

Scott I am wondering what your price and budget was for this? Just bought a 1980 le tour made in chi-town and am wanting to do the same thing. How much was your fix over all as far as parts and then labor?