New(er) Brakes for an Old(er) Bike

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.

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I decided to make my own leather brake hoods. I did a bunch of research online, which mostly consisted of me reading and rereading the two helpful tutorials I found on the subject. I found a fellow named Tim who owns INSERT NAME HERE. He was willing to sell me a little bit of leather, so I took a brake lever and drove out to his place to see what he had. He was very patient and helpful as I explained my project and showed him a couple of examples. He helped me figure out how much leather I would need and he went over some techniques for sewing and burnishing. He also threw in a special needle and some waxed thread for free! I made sure to send him pics of the finished project.
I cut the leather into two equal pieces and did some marking and trimming. I soaked the leather in warm water for a bit before wrapping it around the brake lever (which I had placed back on the handlebars for ease of application). I clamped the excess leather as tightly as I could and allowed it to dry and shrink on the lever overnight.
The next day I removed the leather, trimmed off all of the excess that was left, then I reapplied the hoods and sewed them in place. The top bits were somewhat tricky with the little cable nipples sticking out through the holes, but I got them looking decent after a lot of fiddling around. The second one was much easier to finish than the first, so I have to assume that if I had made several pairs I would have eventually got to something approaching a professional look. As it stands they are imperfect, but they also still get a lot of compliments.

I ended up needing help removing Judi’s bottom bracket. I took her to the Portland Gear Hub where Ainsley was very helpful. My son and I took the two wheels to the Community Bicycle Center in Biddeford. He had learned how to overhaul hubs there before while fixing up an old Raleigh hybrid for his mom, and he wanted to help so we did the work there. Also I needed a freewheel remover and a bench vice for the rear wheel.
Once everything had been cleaned, overhauled, greased & lubed it was simply a matter of reassembling an entire bike. I took my time and referred to the many pictures I had taken along the way. I ended up having to find a couple replacement nuts and bolts that had been missing here and there, but overall the components cleaned up nicely and were in good working order after some scrubbing, WD-40 and some lube.
I still needed a few things, which I acquired over the next few weeks. I got new bar tape, new cables and housing, new tubes, tires, and rim strips. I ended up going for the Kenda gumwall tires as I felt that they would be the least expensive and the most aesthetically pleasing. I was totally right about that, by the way. Once I had the bike mostly back together I had to figure out some sort of solution for the brake hoods…

This is “Dame Judi Dench, the bike, the first”. She is the first bike I ever fixed up, and I spent a whole winter working on her, mostly scrubbing in my living room while binge-watching various shows on Netflix. These are some before pictures. There were some pretty heavy patches of rust, the brake hoods had melted from exposure, there were a few small bits missing. I test rode her before buying, but probably shouldn’t have done so in her condition. Survive and become educated, I guess.
She got the name Judi for a couple reasons. Since the bike came from Japan I asked a friend what is the Japanese word for bicycle, “jitensha”. It sounded a bit like Judi Dench. Plus Judith made sense to me since, when I saw her in that dark Portland basement I kind of lost my head. I paid way too much for her considering the shape she was in and all the work required. But then, I’ve gotten so much joy out of riding her around, and the feel of the handling, the speed that seems to come so easily, I suppose that’s worth the price and then some. After taking a bunch of pics I began the process of disassembling the bike, except for the headset, which I didn’t know came off at the time. Not that I bother with those now for the most part.

More to come…