Small Front Wheels
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Those bikes with small front wheels

In late 1974, a friend called asking to stop by. He and his girl friend were in college in Montana. Alice had been having problems riding a Gitane mixte on their club rides. She was a good rider but, at 100 lbs, was at a big disadvantage pedaling a 40-pound bike up hills. They were hoping I could build Alice something lighter so she could ride at the front of the pack.

 When they arrived at the shop, I was surprised to see that Alice was barely over 5 feet tall. I knew immediately that this was going to be a major design challenge. We used my road bike and a stack of blocks to establish a maximum stand-over height of 28 inches. And, observing Alice on her bike, I quickly saw that the effective top tube length was far in excess of what she needed.

Then we worked at deriving a top tube length that was appropriate. If memory serves, we used a spare set of bars, which Alice held while sitting on my bike. As Ted held up the bike, Alice moved the bars trying to find a position that felt and looked right. Then I measured how far the loose bars were behind the fixed ones on the bike. From that we decided a 19 inch top tube with an 8 cm stem would be good.

We discussed crank length and decided to try shorter ones than the 170 mm length that she was using. We agreed that 155 mm would be a good starting point and that we could adjust the gearing downward to compensate for the loss in leverage. We believed Alice would be able to increase her cadence more than enough to maintain the speeds she was used to. However, I knew I still had many problems to solve and told them that I would call in a couple of days when I had some solutions.

The biggest problem was to get the top tube lower than 30 inches from the ground, which is the lowest that can be built while maintaining a head tube. I decided to make a scale drawing of the bike – something I had not done in years.

Ok, I know, you are asking yourselves how could I build bikes for more than two years without making drawings. The answer was simple. When I started building bikes, some hot new technology arrived from Hewlett Packard in the form of a scientific calculator. With that I could make faster calculations and get more accurate dimensions than I could by hand.

Back to the story. I laid out the bottom bracket, the seat tube, the top tube, and a line to represent the head tube. I kept looking at the drawing and finally realized there was no way I was going to get a 27 inch wheel in there. Even if I played around with the head tube angle and rake, there just was not enough room for toe clip clearance (of course now it would just be pedal clearance). Suddenly, I knew how Archimedes felt when his bathtub overflowed. I had been trying to make the bike and rider fit the components.  Clearly that was not going to work.

After taking more measurements, I found I did have sufficient room for a 24 inch wheel in the front. I cleaned up the drawing and excitedly called Alice and Ted and told them that I had a solution I thought would work.

At first Alice was disconcerted with the design, as she thought two different wheel sizes would look strange. And you know, some people still have that criticism today of Georgena Terry’s small bikes. However, I was so confident in my sizing system and the design that I offered to build another bike for free if she did not like it.

The bike was ready at the end of March 1975. I soon received a letter telling me how much Alice was enjoying her new bike and that she was always near the front of the pack on club rides, particularly on the climbs. Of course the fact that the bike came in at about 18.5 pounds didn’t hurt, but Alice will tell you that the improvement in fit had a lot to do with her improved performance as well. And of course there are hundreds of riders using Georgena Terry’s small front wheel bikes today who will tell you the same thing.

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Copyright © 2003 BILL BOSTON CYCLES
Last modified: July 09, 2014