I may be the only one to admit this but winter commuting has become my favourite type of riding. Since I no longer have the time and opportunity for extended summer tours, riding to and from work has become my solace.
The last few years has seen the demise of my 1994 Deore LX equipped mountain bike which has long been my commuter and favourite bike to ride. Despite regular maintenance, the salt and snow has really taken its toll. I wanted its replacement to be a fun, snazzy, reliable, simple, economical bicycle for all year riding about town. This list of adjectives defines a bicycle known as a “path racer”. A quick Pinterest or internet search will give you the back story to this style of bicycle and all the eye candy your two-wheeled desires can handle. This is the story of my path racer.
In the beginning I was trying to decide if I wanted a really good frame as the foundation for this bicycle or something everyday, inexpensive and reclaimed. Since it will be ridden all winter I didn’t want to ruin a good steel frame and the later was consistent with the mission of FreeLander Bicycles. So I chose a department store mountain bike frame from the 80s. Although original path racers would not have cantilever bosses/brakes, I felt this was the best brake option for my style of riding and the look I was aiming for. I needed the eyelets for fenders and a rack, proper hub spacing for the rear hub, and not much else beyond that.
The frame was stripped to bare metal. A rust neutralizing compound was used to neutralize any unseen rust. Two coats of metal etch primer followed by two coats of filler primer were applied. Then several coats of Ivy Bronze Green and clear coat finished the job. It came out great! I refer to this green as “Raleigh” green since it was originally mixed to restore and repair vintage Canadian Raleighs of this colour. It is similar to “British Racing Green”. The other option was matte black, which I plan on using for my next build. Both classic colours.
I have always been partial to cantilever brakes. They are simple, rugged and provide ample braking power. Road grime, ice and snow don’t usually affect their performance much. These are low end Chang Star alloy cantis modelled after the common DiaCompe 980 brake of the 1980s. Although the quality is not there, they function well. In fact, for a year-round commuter, they may the perfect blend of simplicity, economy and performance.
The steering is a large part of what makes a bike a path racer. The “flipped” North Roads are sporty, offer a semi-aggressive riding position and are luxurious to hold; not a description typically associated with a generic steel chromed bar. It is not the brand or materials that make them great but the riding position afforded. It places my arms perfectly shoulder-with apart with a slight bend in the elbow, wrists in line with forearms and very little weight on my hands: perfect! It all adds up to comfort, control and the ability to aggressively ride out of the saddle which = FUN!
The exact height and reach is determined by the stem. This is an alloy bar clamp with a steel 1” post, nothing fancy. It has a 10 cm (4”) reach and a large positive rake. It just works. Its like finding the right belt for your trousers.
I used a vintage steel chrome headset. Largely for looks. I suspect it will show some corrosion over the winter. I didn’t want to invest in a lot of new parts, not knowing how this build would turn out. I will likely swap it out in the spring for a quality alloy one.
The steering (coupled with the gearing) is what I love most about this bike. I’ve never ridden out of the saddle more. Every corner reveals another opportunity for short sprint ending with a leaned-in turn around that corner and another sprint.
Wheels & Tires
Since I was using a new, moderately priced hub I wanted to use a decent rim and spokes. I had two factory built Alex DM18 double walled 26” (559) wheels in inventory from a previous buy-out. I used the front as is (laced to a formula alloy hub). I de-spoked the rear wheel and laced it to the hub with 254mm Sapim Leader Spokes. It was an easy build for a relatively new wheel builder. It tensioned up nice and even. Both wheels are staying true even under the many quick accelerations, short climbs and sprints it has seen in a relatively short period.
Path Racers need cream tires like James Bond needs a tux; it wouldn’t look right any other way. These are Rubena City Hoppers. They are plush and have good traction which is all I need and wanted for these tires. They have a cool reflective stripe adding an element of safety.
The two-speed Sturmey-Archer SC2 was the focus of this build from the very beginning. After a winter of poor shifting on my trusty 21 Speed Deore LX equipped mountain bike, I wanted something simpler. The idea of only two gears, one for the hills and one for the flats, was very appealing. No shifter, no derailleur, no cassette and no lateral chain movement. The crank is a Sugino Maxy double with the big ring removed and the 40T ring in the outer position. A 22T rear cog gives me 47 gear inches in low and 65 in high (an increase of x1.38). This is perfect for the short hills and descents and flats I find on my commute. A new cartridge bottom bracket was installed giving a perfect front to rear chain-line. This is one item I would strongly recommend for winter riding. Most cup and cone bottom brackets just don’t have the weather resistance of a sealed cartridge. Although the front ring is 3/32” the chain is 1/8” as is the rear cog. The TAYA brand chain runs very smooth.
Shifting is achieved by back pedalling about ten degrees and then forward peddling in the new gear. It takes a little getting used to. If you “miss” the shift by back-pedalling too little or too much, a quick second attempt usually finds the sweet spot. When freewheeling, the hub is either silent or sending out a ratcheting purr. The volume is quite loud relative to other freewheels but distinct and easy to get used too. I wasn’t sure how I would like this set-up during the build process.
The pedals are alloy bear-trap I’ve had since high-school. They are really the only pedals for winter riding. Perfect in all kinds of weather and with all kinds of footwear, including boots.
Now that I have several rides in, I am now thinking about making two- and three-speed path racers the focus of FreeLander Bicycles bicycle offerings. I like it that much.
Saddle & Accessories
The saddle is from my old bike and the seat post alloy. Eventually this perch will be swapped out for a Brooks. Leather Freelander Bicycles grips add a distinguished look and degree of comfort and connection with the bars and bike.
As the bicycle took shape I also began to see it as a “company vehicle”. One that will eventually have a frame sign installed. So I absolutely wanted it to look good too. I had a set of chrome fenders salvaged from a vintage 26 x 1 3/8” wheeled bike. They were a tight fit requiring some flaring of the fender edges, shortening of the front stays and drilling to attach to the front fender fork eyelets. The minimal clearance gives the bicycle a real sporty look.
As winter approaches I’ll need to install a set of lights. I have a couple of options in stock, but none that match the vintage look. Ideally a chrome, dynamo powered headlight would fit the bill. Also the chrome fenders with be replaced with plastic and the creme tires will be replaced with more aggressive treads around mid December.
If you have ever admired those dashing path racers on Pinterest and wondered if they ride as good as they look, the answer is yes. What I love most is how easy it is to rise and ride out of the saddle. The ride quality of this bicycle is reminiscent of barreling over hill and dale on a single speed coaster brake bike as a kid. Now that was fun!
As always, If you have thoughts, questions or suggestions please leave a comment.