Columbus, OH USA
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by Greg Knepp
Old Schwinns for an old neighborhood
The author stands ready to take a spin on his '78 Schwinn Sprint, one of seven Schwinn he has owned over the years.
A few weeks back I was pedaling downtown to get to an early appointment near the courthouse. It was the morning rush, but the southbound right lane of High Street is diamond protected, so I was afforded smooth sailing all the way. Somewhere around Nationwide Plaza, I looked in my rear-view mirror and caught glimpse of a cyclist approaching fast on my left – a lean, attractive woman appearing to be in her early twenties and obviously in consummate command of her sleek road machine. As she passed, I got a good look at her bike. I was only a little surprised at reading the white weathered lettering on the royal blue frame – LeTour. My suspicion was confirmed a second later when I spotted the bike’s rear gear cluster – five sprockets. This bike was a true ten-speed, and older than its rider by at least a decade.
When I arrived at the bicycle parking area in front of the courthouse, two other bikes were already locked up there: a Super LeTour – a younger sibling of the LeTour, this was a gorgeous cream-white machine with gold trimmed frame lugs and a six-speed rear cluster – and a Continental – a royal blue clunker of ancient vintage (perhaps as old as 1967) built around an indestructible welded carbon-steel frame and sporting a ten-speed gear system, racing handlebars and a wedge saddle guaranteed to render a man impotent in one short ride. I locked my bike and pondered that my steed, a sixteen-year-old Criss-Cross, was the newest bike on the lot. Also noteworthy was the fact that every one of these wizened road warriors (including mine) was made by a single bicycle manufacturer – Schwinn.
Old Schwinns are everywhere, especially in the Short North. Not just the popular models, like the ‘70s vintage Suburbans, easily the most economical, versatile and reliable two wheelers ever made, but some of the lesser-known products as well: World Travelers, Voyagers, Sprints, Varsities, and even the occasional one-speed Hollywood.
A little history: in the early ‘50s serious bicycles began invading the U.S. in the guise of a steed dubbed “the English racer.” These were not racing machines per se, but they were lean multi-speed bikes with large diameter wheels and relatively thin tires. Schwinn, like other American bicycle makers, met the challenge with its own models – not true ERs but thinner, speedier models than the fat-tired behemoths for which the company had become famous. Early Schwinn ERs were affordable, reliable and familiar. Entries such as the Corvette, with its two-speed in-hub transmission, and the American Cruiser sold quite well. But their true value was not to become apparent for years.
Just when Schwinn was solidifying its share of the adult market, a new entry appeared on the horizon – the infamous ten-speed. These bikes were modeled on true European racing machines, featuring chrome-steel alloy frames, thin, hard tires, no fenders, derailleur gearing, wedge saddles and drop handlebars. All served a single purpose: speed. Hippie-soon-to-be-Yuppie cyclists coming of age in the late ‘60s ate up the new ten-speeds like so much fondue. French companies, principally Gitane, Peugeot and Motobecane, manufactured the lion’s share of these imports, but it wasn’t long before cheaper offerings from Japan and Taiwan made their appearance on the market. The new ten-speeds were exotic and reeked of intelligence and technical sophistication; they also spent a good deal of time in repair shops or on road sides having tender, sew-up tires pumped to extraordinary pressures. And they were uncomfortable. Schwinn answered with the Varsity and Continental models in the early ‘60s. They were essentially ten-speed Suburbans with the fenders stripped, thinner saddles and drop handlebars. Few were fooled; The new Schwinn models sold well enough, but cycling aficionados (including a much younger me) were turned off by the cumbersome weight of the domestics – a good six or seven pounds heavier than the imports. Bike snobbery took hold early, and weight became a serious marketing consideration. Nascent issues of Bicycling Magazine supported this obsession, by comparing various bikes and cycling components gram for gram rather than by their functional capabilities.
For a time Schwinn, stuck to its guns and kept its focus on function and durability. But weight couldn’t be ignored, so, in the mid ‘60s, Schwinn introduced the Super Sport. This bicycle was outfitted like the Continental but came equipped with a lightweight frame made of special alloy tubing. In 1970 Schwinn took the SS frameset and hung it with lightweight European components to create the Sport Tourer. This was truly an odd beast, with the creature comforts of the cheaper Schwinn models: brake extension levers, stem-mounted shifters and quick-release brakes. But it also sported some of the most esoteric doodads from overseas. The gear range (23 to 106) was far too broad for a ten-speed. A strong cyclist could damn near climb a wall in low gear and exceed 30 MPH in high gear, but shifting was hopelessly clunky due to the wide gear jumps. And the ultra-thin wheel rims afforded the spiffy center-pull brakes scant traction. The ST was a thing of beauty, but it was testy and delicate like the imports it was attempting to best. The model was only marketed for a few years. As things turned out the ST was a transitional bike leading to Schwinn’s triumph - the LeTour, introduced in 1974.
LeTour was a milestone for Schwinn. Most of the bike, including the fully lugged frame, was constructed of imported parts. The bike was as light as the ST, but it was also sturdy, comfortable, economical (about $225 stock) and plenty fast. And, as with all Schwinns, great attention had been paid to the look of the machine: Schwinn has always sired a handsome stock. A number of like models succeeded the LeTour, built along the same lines but serving varying cycling needs.
The company, however, went downhill after the ‘80s. Bankruptcy, moves, buyouts and the like took their toll, and today what’s left of the grand old man of American cycling produces mediocre mounts sold mainly through department stores. But not to worry, Schwinns are everywhere: used, fully functional models can be purchased direct from owners or from second-hand shops around town. An old Schwinn is usually a good buy. The damn things are near indestructible! While the tinselly, trendy imports of old turn to rust, the gracefully aging Schwinn rolls on. Of course, as with any bicycle, basic care and maintenance are required. I often wonder about that young woman speeding down High Street on her LeTour. Does she perform her own maintenance or does she rely on a shop, or perhaps a handy boyfriend? I’ll have to ask the next time I see her…if I can catch her.
Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist
© 2007 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. all rights reserved.
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