The Brown bike

I noted in a previous post that my old touring bike had some shortcomings. The following post goes into excruciating detail about the history of that bike, a history which might be interesting to a few bike-history obsessives, but likely not anyone else.

The Brown Bike was built in 1978 under the tutelage of Gary Hale, who was a fellow employee at Stu’s Bike Shop in Eugene. This bike was intended to be a gravel-road camping bike.

There is, of course, nothing new about riding a bike on surfaces other than asphalt. There were no good roads in the early days of cycling and a lot of roads remained unpaved into the middle of the last century. Stages of the TDF were run on gravel into the 1960’s and maybe later. But by the late 70’s, unpaved roads were retreating into remote rural areas and bike tires were getting skinnier and skinnier. It was common knowledge that wide tires were slow and heavy. An all-road bike in 1978 seemed downright radical.


Figure 1. Anquetil and Bahamontes, TDF 1963.

I think the seeds of the idea of an all-road bike were planted on a backpacking trip when I was about 8 years old. My memories are fuzzy, but I remember bicycle tracks on the back country trail in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area. One of the grownups teased me that we might meet up with the the ice cream dealer making the tracks at any time. As I got older and continued to enjoy hiking and backpacking, the idea of riding into the wild and remote places grew in appeal.

The seeds were watered by Cyclists’ Touring Club accounts of British rough-stuff riding (CTC Link) and the few references that I could find to French touring bikes with 650b demi-ballon tires. I also saw an “expedition” bike around Eugene that was made in Missoula (I don’t remember the builder) that was in the same spirit. The 650b tire size was not available in the US then, American balloon tires seemed too wide, and the British three-speed 26 x 1 3/8 seemed like the best available compromise.
Alloy rims for this size, triple cranks, and cantilevers were all pretty exotic in Oregon in 1978, and it took some looking to find the pieces I needed, but I was happy with the results. The bike rode well on pavement and on gravel, and the gears were low enough for long steep climbs.

I used this bike to explore the back roads, USFS and BLM roads in the vicinity of Eugene, Oregon. And I rode it on the longest bike tour of my life so far, from Nevada City, California to Eugene, up the crest of the Sierra and the Cascades. This trip was all on pavement except for a short segment of railroad shoulder (would have been shorter if I had not missed my turn the first time) to avoid getting on the freeway at Weed.

And there was one particularly epic camping trip on jeep trails on the edge of the Waldo Lake and Three Sisters Wilderness areas.

A few months after the Brown Bike hit the road, Charles Kelly’s article about the nascent phenomenon of mountain biking hit Bicycling Magazine (Clunkers) . This article marked a turning point in bike culture and merchandising and made my attempt at an expedition bike seem a lot less radical. (And of course the more-recent development of fat bikes and the gravel-grinder fad makes this bike almost conventional.)

Later that year (1978), a young footloose man came through town. He tried my bike and loved it, and offered to buy it. I declined the sale, so he knocked out a copy in a few weeks in Gary’s shop. He then disappeared into the sunset only to appear again a year or so later on the cover of Bicycling. That’s him just right of center (under the second “i”) on the orange bike with relatively skinny tires. The scene is Pearl Pass and all the culture heroes of mountain biking are in the picture. I wish I could remember his name. He was obviously an interesting and dynamic person, and I would like to know where he ended up. (The Bicycling cover shot is from Charles Kelley’s site )


After a few years, and after a couple of seasons of road racing, I got the cyclocross bug. The only knobby ‘cross tires available in the early 80’s were sew-ups, which of course are the same rim diameter as 700c. I moved the cantilever studs (including heating the tubing to remove them and heating it again to add new studs) to accommodate the larger rim diameter, and it became a reasonably capable cyclocross bike.

During one cyclocross training session, I hit a big root (or something) buried under the leaves on a trail. The obstacle was big enough to stop the bike and launch me over the handlebars. The result was bent top tube, down tube and fork blades, but not so severely bent that I could not straighten it out again.

Some years later, long after my cyclocross days were over, the bike was again a utility and touring bike. The 700c wheel size limited the width of tire that could be mounted, and I mostly rode 28 mm tires; anything bigger was a problem with fenders. In addition, the extremely high bottom bracket with the larger tires was less than optimum under most conditions. By this time (2005 or so), 650b tires had become somewhat available, promoted mostly by Grant Peterson. In order to restore the bike to its original function, I again moved the cantilever studs and converted to the bike to 650b. This was quite successful, improving the ride and opening the tire options.

I originally designed the bike thinking about some fairly technical riding, and the BB is high to allow pedaling through rough sections. Frame angles are 71° parallel head and seat tube. I figured this would make the bike stable and cushy on rough surfaces.  The chain stays are as long as I could get them with untrimmed Reynolds 531 stays and long Campi horizontal dropouts, and they come out to about 445 mm (17.5”). Of course the main reason for long stays is to get good weight distribution (and heel clearance) for a rear load, but the length of the stays also allows a reasonably wide tire between the plain round-oval-round stays. The original 1 3/8” (about 35 mm) tires fit fine. I can fit a 38mm wide 650b tire, but there is not a lot of room left for mud. The width of the fork crown also limits this bike to a tire not much wider than 35mm.

The high bottom bracket is good for rocky trails, but it makes the bike feel less stable and grounded than would a lower BB. The head angle is okay, but the seat tube is too slack for a good riding position over the BB without sliding the seat all the way forward.
The fork offset produces a conventional amount of trail (60 mm or so), and I would prefer a little less trail. The offset is also small enough that, combined with the short top tube, I kick the front fender at low speed, which is not a critical flaw but it is mildly annoying, and one would think it could be avoided on a 60 cm frame.

The best I can reconstruct from my memory and the Proteus catalog (Proteus catalog link ) , it appears the frame was constructed with a .8/.5/.8 top tube, a 1/.7/1 down tube and probably .8/.6 chain stays, and it has a .9/.6 seat tube.

After 36 years of use and abuse, two cantilever conversions, one major realignment, and a moderate amount of rust (it never got anything better than a rattle-can paint job), the bike still rides great and serves on an occasional tour, but I felt like the bike might not reliable for the long trips I dream of, and it was relegated to occasional use and replaced with the new bike.


Brown Bike, ready to go

  1. Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: