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  • Writer's pictureVictorian Cycles

A Late-1890s Racer

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

I've wanted to build a lightweight 1890s bike for a while - well, for years, actually. The stark but deceptive simplicity of these bikes has always attracted me, as has the challenge of building an extremely lightweight bike without ultralight modern materials. This bike has been six months in the making, and I'm very pleased with the end result.

In many ways, the race bikes of the late 1890s created the basic design and look of the modern road bike. Then as now, the technologies, designs, and methods employed to make race bikes lighter, faster, and more efficient trickled down to everyday models over time. My intention with this build was to produce a bike that exemplifies the state of the art at the very end of the 19th century, and pays homage to the beautiful historic bikes that contributed so much to our cycling heritage. Plus it is immensely fun to ride!

Stems that projected forward of the headtube were a new innovation, and many racers adopted the adjustable reach stem pioneered by World Champion Major Taylor. (If you haven't heard of him, definitely look him up!) This stem allows the adjustable clamp to be mounted either below or above the stem extension for a wide range of possible positions, and the bar itself can be set up as a drop bar or a riser bar. For race purposes, of course, the bars were placed low, so these photos show that position - but the bike allows for much more upright positioning as well. Leather-wrapped hardwood grips provide an excellent place for the hands.

The drivetrain on this bike is a fixed gear, with cutout chain links and slim steel cottered cranks. Toeclips were also new at the time, and popular for racers as they offered better positioning for the feet and a little extra power. Chainstay length on this bike is short, tucking the wheel in close to the seattube and providing quick acceleration.

One of the noticeable differences between this bike and modern road bikes is that the headtube angle is slack, which is intended to provide stability at high speeds on potentially rough roads. The resulting handling is different than a modern road bike, but not radically so. The rims are Italian-made, laminated ash wood, and the tires are hand-made silk 30mm tubulars with 1000+ tpi. The ride is incredibly smooth and responsive!

The saddle is a leather Brooks Swallow. You can see the gold filigree decorations at each end of the top and down tubes. You can also see how thin wall of the seattube is! Minimal weight is the priority with every component.

The entire bike weighs just 18.3 pounds. If speed, elegant simplicity, and efficiency are your goal, you can't do much better! If you are interested in commissioning your own historic dream bike, please contact me.

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