650c Wheels – A Little Bit of History
A few weeks ago, a friend dumped a pile of old cycling magazines on my doorstep. Two articles I read about 650 wheels were quite fascinating and I think provide some insight into our perception of 650 today.
When they debuted in 1989, 650c wheels were “the toast of triathlon” according to Dan Empfield. Even today, the tire is true to its heritage, predominantly available in narrow widths in more upscale brands as befits its role as a competitive tire.
Around the same time, Schwinn started playing around with a 26 inch wheel version of the Paramount, its hand-built top of the line road bike. Oddly, the Paramount designers used the 650B tubular tire. (The 650B clincher is a wide tire, associated with randonneur bikes, the polar opposite of the Paramount.) It’s not clear why Schwinn didn’t spec the 650c tire. Perhaps they felt the slightly larger (13 mm) diameter 650B had less of a visual shock…
What piqued Schwinn’s interest? The lower mass of the 650 wheel which makes it easier to accelerate than a heavier wheel. While today we usually associate 650 as a wheel used on a smaller bike to achieve a good fit for the rider, Schwinn’s designers didn’t seem at all driven in that direction. Indeed, when Bicycle Guide reviewed the Paramount OS-26, Schwinn provided the test bike in a whopping 61 cm size! The smallest available size was a 51 cm. Two of the bike’s reviewers mentioned that perhaps the 650 wheel would be best put to use on a smaller frame where it would be more proportionate to the bike size.
By 1993, the wind had started to go out of the 650c wheel with respect to tri bikes. Changes in rules and technology meant 700c could do the job just as well. But it would be remiss to say that because 650c is not the player it once was in tri bikes that the same is true for road bikes. We use 650c in road bikes to create a frame geometry that offers an elegant solution for smaller riders. In the tri world, 650c wasn’t about bike sizes — it was about weight distribution and a low tuck position on the bike.
In January, 1994, Road Bike Action reviewed a Radman D/650 road bike. Radman was known as a builder of tri bikes and began moving into the road bike market to compensate for declining tri bike sales. As with the Paramount OS-26, the lure of 650c was the light weight wheel which accelerated easily. The size of the test bike? 58 cm! The review concentrated on the “rush” of the bike’s acceleration. But a caption under a photo of the bike mentioned that 650c would allow an optimal geometry for frames under 50 cm.
Fortunately, someone was reading the small print and 650 soon became popular on many small bikes. I find the 650 size to be an excellent “bridge” between my 24″/700c and 700c/700c bikes. While rules and components may have allowed the 650c wheel to become “redundant” for most tri bikes, these changes have not affected the road bike world. 650c is still a key player in the world of bike design.
Refurbishing an Older Terry Road Bicycle
I’m often contacted by the owner of an older Terry bicycle who’s interested in purchasing a new bicycle. Terry bicycle customers are incredibly loyal — they want to continue riding the brand because of its fit and feel, but may be ready for new components and a lighter frame. While I’m always happy to sell a new bike, sometimes it makes sense to refurbish the old one.
A good bike shop will know exactly what can be done for your bike, but it’s often tough to get them to spend the time explaining this. While covering every model in detail would take pages, in this article I can at least give you some basic ideas to consider.
Frame and Fork
This is the heart of the bicycle. If it’s structurally damaged (minor dings, nicks and scratches not included), then a new bike is probably the best option. While steel lends itself to repair, the cost often outweighs the value of production frames like Despatch, Prism, Trilogy, Symmetry, Classic and Madeleine, to name a few. This may not be the case for a hand-built frame like Isis Sport, Precision, Isis Pro or Valkyrie.
Oh so easy to replace and a wonderful place to get an instant return on your investment. A lighter set of wheels is easier to accelerate than heavier wheels. Every size wheel we use, from 700c to 24″ is available from Velocity USA in Michigan. Their prices are very reasonable and the quality of the wheels they build is excellent. Your dealer can purchase wheels from Velocity or you can order directly from them on their website.
Handlebars and Stem
If your bike is older, chances are it uses a quill stem (threadless stems are the norm these days). Consider yourself lucky. This style provides you with the ability to fine tune the reach to and the height of the handlebars. Nitto makes a variety of quill stems. If you’re looking for a new handlebar, consider the Nitto “Randonneur” bar. This handlebar is fantastic if you have wrist issues. It allows your hands to rest in a natural position on the bars, stress-free. The bar has a 25.4 mm clamp diameter, which will be compatible with older stems. With a simple shim, it can fit 26.0 mm stems as well.
Really early Terry bikes had their shift levers on the down tube. An inexpensive way to move them to the handlebars is to use Shimano bar end shifters. You may need a new rear derailleur for compatibility, but it’s well worth it for the ease of use of bar end shifters.
This can get very pricey! The standard these days is 10-speed (the number of cogs on the cassette on the rear wheel) although 9-speed is still mainstream, especially for touring bicycles with their ultra-low gearing.
To move up to 10-speed, you’ll need not only the cassette, you’ll also need a rear derailleur, chain, front derailleur and integrated brake/shift levers (unless you use bar end shift levers). You’ll probably also need to change the chainrings on your crankset since front derailleurs are very particular about the number of teeth on the chainrings and the chainring has to be compatible with the rest of the drivetrain. Frankly, you should upgrade the entire crankset to ensure compatibility throughout the drivetrain.
As I said at the beginning of this article, this a large subject to cover, but I hope this has given you some food for thought. If you want to discuss the particulars of your bike, you’re welcome to contact me for more information.
The Effect of Sloping Top Tubes
You probably never think about it, but at one time, it was rare for a bike to have anything but a level, horizontal top tube. In the early 90’s, sloping top tubes gradually found their way into the market and now they’re the norm.
One good thing that’s come about as a result of sloping top tubes is that we no longer get as “hung up” about how much clearance the rider has over the top tube. With horizontal top tubes, the rule of thumb is to have 1″ to about 2″ of clearance, depending on your riding style. It’s not uncommon for a rider to have 3+” of clearance over a sloping top tube.
Here’s a drawing to help you visualize the effect of the two tope tube “styles”. Note that the two bikes interposed over each other are identical except for the sloping top tube and the shorter seat tube on the sloping model. The same cyclist could ride either bike and have the same fit on each of them. She will have more clearance over the sloping top tube and more of her seat post will be showing.
From this drawing, you can see that, in terms of being able to clear the top tube, women with a wider range of inseams could “fit” this bike than one with a horizontal top tube. Indeed, when a bike has a horizontal top tube, the ability to clear it by a certain amount is critical. But with a sloping top tube, that parameter becomes blurred.
Now the focus turns to the relative positions of the saddle and the handlebars. If a sloping top tube means more women can “fit” a certain size, does it necessarily follow that the front end of that bicycle is also a good fit?
This is where worlds collide. If a rider with a shorter inseam finds the handlebars to be comfortable when set at the same level as her saddle, the taller rider may find the bars to be too low relative to her higher saddle height. No problem, you say — simply raise the bars.
It’s not always that simple. With carbon fiber and aluminum steerer tubes in forks becoming the standard, there’s a limit to how tall the spacer “deck” below the stem can safely be. 30 – 35 mm is pretty much the limit. Contrast that to steel steerer tubes, where 50 – 60mm of spacers isn’t out of hand.
One “fix” is to make bikes with taller head tubes, which raises the handlebars. Since it is rarely the case that a rider considers her bars to be too high, this is a palatable solution. My guess is tall head tubes are in vogue because when sloping top tubes became the standard, we lost comfort at the front end and realized we had to get it back.
What’s going on with the stem and handlebars is key to your comfort and efficiency. Unfortunately, it’s also an area that can be unyielding in terms of options. Stems do come in a variety of lengths and angles, but the option of raising the stem is often the deal breaker.