I have been thinking for a while now about replacing the brakes on Judi, my 1983 Fuji Del Rey. The Dia-Compe calipers that came on the bike seemed fine when I first got it, but all I had to compare it to was an old Wal-Mart bike my little brother (also from 1983) had given me. Eventually I tried some other bikes with V-brakes and cantis, and those had more stopping power, but I assumed that was because they were of a different design. When I finally got to ride a number of different vintage bikes I began to realize that my brakes just weren’t that great. And changing to different brake pads didn’t change anything. They’re not as bad as the whole set up on my 1950’s 3-speed with steel rims, but they’re nowhere near as good as the early 80’s Suntour Superbes on the mystery bike I keep at my folk’s house in Oklahoma. So I was delighted when I saw a pair of seemingly unused Superbe calipers for sale in the display case of the Portland Gear Hub recently. These were definitely newer and nicer than the ones on my OK bike, but they were only the brake calipers and not the levers. After asking around and doing a little research it seemed like replacing the calipers would give me a lot of benefit whether or not I switched out the levers, so in the end I grabbed some cash from my almost totally depleted reserve of bike money and made my way out to grab those brakes and some pads. I was so excited that it wasn’t until I got home and started perversely manhandling them in the privacy of my own home that I realized these came with recessed bolts. The old Dia-Compes were the older nutted style. Hmmm.
I went to the internet and it told me that I could either buy two front brakes (too late and too expensive) or I was going to have to do some light drilling on the old bike to get the frame to accept these brakes. Now, there was a time not long ago when I would have returned the brakes sheepishly, saying that I hadn’t known. And I didn’t want to do any sort of drilling on my beautiful, sweet bicycle. Too risky! I could damage the paint…further. But I am more utilitarian than that now regarding this bike. It’s my bike that I love the most and that I ride the most. All others are nothing more than curiosity getting the best of me; brief dalliances that ultimately come to naught. And if this is THE bike, then I should get started really perfecting her.
The paint is much more chipped and well-worn than she was when first we met on that evening so long ago in a Libbytown basement. I’ve made some changes, but mostly things that are primarily aesthetic and easily reversible if I change my mind. Leather sew-ups for the handlebars, a new Brooks saddle (or two), vintage toe clips, etc. But today I sat down and drilled the rear-facing brake holes bigger and replaced the brakes. I used the method suggested by Sheldon Brown and demonstrated by RJ the bike guy on YouTube. It worked very well, requiring very little filing to get things to fit properly. I also had to drill out the holes on one of the curved washers for each brake, but that also proved quite easy. I was surprised at how smoothly everything went.
I did the front brake, then went for a test ride before doing the rear brake. Then another test ride. The brakes are short reach and probably from the era of 700c wheels on everything, but they do fit, just barely. The pads don’t touch the tires, even with my weight on the bike squishing the tires out a bit.
And they work so much better then the old brakes! My final test ride was mostly just repeatedly getting up to speed and then seeing how quickly I could stop. I usually ride with my hands on the hoods and I like brakes that allow me to stop easily from this position of limited leverage rather than having to reach down in the drops for an emergency stop. The old ones really never got there no matter what I did or how clean I kept them. Luckily they also didn’t suffer any worse from being dirty, which is how they remained once I figured out how little difference it made.
There’s not much else I’d change about Judi, I don’t think. Better brakes was always the thing that would come to mind, but the list always stopped there, too. I’m sure I’ll try some different bar wraps some day, but I like these in their current, ragged form. I wish they were squishier by a bit. Perhaps I’ll rewrap them with a layer of cloth tape underneath next time. But that’s a long ways off.