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Series of Tubes: Show Rando Bike with Belt Drive & S&S couplers

Posted Jan 04 2011 3:37pm

“Bike building is a lot like the Internet. They both involve a series of tubes.” Elliott McFadden, Violet Crown Cycles

If you are a regular reader of this site or attended the Texas Custom Bicycle Show in October, you know I built a new bike for the show, a travel version of my La Salle randonneur bike model . I’ve traveled a lot with bikes and used my experience to incorporate lots of details in this design to make traveling easier. Here’s a little background on each design aspect of the bike. While I’ve yet to travel with this bike, it has become my around town bike lately, and I’ve had a couple hundred miles to try out the belt drive/internal hub combo.

S&S Couplers

With the airline industry charging an arm and a leg (up to $150 each way!) for a standard bike box, any way to pack a bike in a regular size suitcase will pay for itself in just a few trips. In the past, I have used a small wheeled folding bike and full size bike with the Ritchey Break-Away coupler system. 20″ or 16″ wheel folders like Dahons, Bromptons and Bike Fridays have the advantage of fitting in relatively small pieces of luggage (queen size or possibly smaller) and are built to unfold and be ready to ride within a few minutes. Their ride quality however is in general not as good as a full size bike and often need some speciality parts that might be hard to come by when you are traveling. Coupler systems break the frame in two separate parts and allow you to put a full size bike in a suitcase that will fall within the airline regs for standard luggage. They do however usually take 20-30 minutes to fully rebuild once you are at your destination.

While the Ritchey design is a little more elegant, does not require special tools, is lighter weight, and is not particularly noticeable once the frame is coupled, the S&S system is a widely accepted and very well functioning system that has the advantage of also be available to retrofit many standard steel and titanium frames. In my case, the couplers were installed in the frame building process. S&S was my choice because they provide more support in installation for frame builders. The stainless steel lugged couplers also provide a bit of bling for a show bike. Note if you are going this route, you will need to be sure to take the special coupler wrench when you travel . The couplers include machined teeth that mesh together and a cover that threads the two parts. The wrench ensures this cover is tightened enough for the teeth to be securely engaged.

Internal Hub

I opted for an 8 speed Shimano Alfine hub on this bike to forgo possible damage to an external derailleur and for faster setup out of the suitcase. While I have never had a derailleur get damaged in transit, it inevitably is positioned on the outside wall of the bag in packing and is vulnerable to the odd hit or improper repacking if TSA searches your bag. Luckily, with the Shimano Alfine and Nexus 8 speed systems you get approximately the same gear range as a compact crank so you have plenty of gears for both climbing and cruising the flats (an 11 speed version of the Alfine is now available for greater range but not compatible with the current Versa shifter.) Since this was going on a randonneuring bike with drop bars, I also paired the Versa integrated brake shifter with the hub ( which I previously reviewed ). I’ve used Nexus hubs extensively on my other builds, but I wanted to try the Alfine out. It definitely shifts smoother and quieter than the Nexus, but unless you want the option to run disc brakes or the option of a lower 32 spoke count (versus 36), I’m not sure the $100 price difference is worth it. Note if you opt for the Alfine over the Nexus, the Alfine hub is built with mountain bike hub spacing (135 mm) while the Nexus is built with road spacing (130 mm). You can use spacers to put a Nexus hub on a frame with mountain bike spacing but you’re road frame will be out for the Alfine.

Belt Drive

Carbon belt drives are a trendy upgrade these days, and while I’m not sure they are worth the price difference from traditional chains in a standard setup, I think they really have the opportunity to shine in a travel bike setting. One of the biggest issues I have when I travel with bikes is bike grease. It gets all over pretty much anything you pack in with the bike. You can use a dry lube, but inevitably it rains where I’m traveling and you end up with a dry chain. You can pack a bottle of the lube, but it will find a way to leak if it can. Belt drives avoid all of this, plus since they are considerably lighter weight than a chain they help offset the extra couple pounds of the internal hub. I pack shirts, shoes and other miscellaneous stuff in the nooks and crannies of the bag so I want to minimize weight so I don’t get charged for an overweight bag. Of course, you don’t have to use an internal hub, but belt drives are not compatible with derailleur systems so you either have to go single speed or internal.

I get a lot of questions about the performance benefits of belt drives. Aside from the weight savings, they are supposed to be more efficient than a chain drive. That may be the case, but I have not noticed a measurable difference in my own riding. One other perceived advantage of the belt drive is that you don’t have to worry about rolling up you pants or putting on a chain guard when you ride. It is true that you don’t have to worry about grease, but pants can get caught and ripped in the gearing system (as I experienced). Standard cut jeans are probably nothing to worry about, but slacks and flared pants can get caught on a windy day. This is why I still put a chain guard on belt drive bikes for city bike applications .

One other note to those considering the belt drive. Unless you have a very unconventionally designed frame with no seat stays, you will need to have a frame specifically built for a belt drive. Since the belts do not break like a chain, you must have a break in the frame. In recent belt drive frames I’ve built, I’ve chosen to make the break at the rear dropout and use a custom stainless steel reinforced to hold the dropouts together. There are other options as well such as dropouts that are designed to come apart and couplers on seat stays. Also, you need a bike that’s chain stay length will fit with the limited selection of belt, cog, and crank ring sizes. Essentially, dropping a belt drive on an off the shelf frame not built for the system will not work.

Other odds and ends

There were some other consideration I had in designing this bike for travel. For example, wheel size was a long debate. I usually build touring bikes with 32-35 mm x 700c size wheels, but this limits me to very large suitcases that are on the edge (and in the case of the Ritchey Breakaway case slightly over the edge) of the airline limits for standard bag fees (or no fee in the case of Southwest.) Plus the girth of these bags make them a pain to haul around. There has been a resurgence in the 650B size for touring bikes, but I skew away from anything that is not pretty widely accepted on a travel bike. It would truly suck to go all that way with your bike to have it be stuck in its bag because you can’t find a replacement tube or tire. 20″ could be used as well, but I really don’t care for their handling properties (squirrelly and rough) for potentially all day riding. I opted instead for 26″ size wheels in slicks for minimal packing size but included enough clearance on the bike to slap on knobbies if I want to go off road or if that’s all I can find for replacement tires.

Continuing the grease avoidance, I used cable casing throughout the bike since the internal cabling on the regular La Salle won’t work in the coupler application. To save weight, the fenders (not pictured) are plastic. The lighting is dynamo driven so I don’t have to worry about batteries. I build in frame pumps on most of the bikes I build, and this one was no exception as it’s a good idea to let some air out of the tires in packing to make more room and avoid a pop from over inflation when cabin pressure changes in transit. Finally, I avoided seat tube lugs with the decorative point going up the seat post. While I love the look of these, the point would surely break off in transit at some point.

I believe this design has addressed many of the challenges of traveling with a bike while producing a bike that’s versatile, good looking, and fun to ride. Once I’ve had a chance to take her on vacation, I’ll check back in and let you know how the S&S coupler system compares to other travel bike options.

More image of this bike on Flickr .

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