Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Titan-iad: saga of an immortal bike

The protagonist: a 1990 Titan 1/2 Trac in the stand for a long overdue checkup.
This post requires a bit of an advisory statement to you, the possibly unwary reader, to be forewarned that the following is an epic tale steeped in arcane bike lore and terminology, some of which is quite possibly incomprehensible to those traveling closer to the mainstream of society.

And so warned, the brave journey forth.

Some in the Denver bicycle community may know of the monolithic bike in the photo above as my frequently present co-conspirator and test platform for tinkering projects. My 1990 Titan 1/2 Trac is a prime example of a bike from the days when mountain bikes were built to favor durability over lightness. Certainly the bike's appearance is unusual, with looped and elevated chainstays and industrial tool-grade, textured powdercoat paint, like the type of surface you might see on a drill press or lathe. Aside from the bike's assemblage from disparate components or its license plate fenders (on which there will be a forthcoming dedicated post), to me this bike is legendary. It has proven to be too tough to die.

The story begins with my brother Chris, who originally bought the 20.5 inch sized, True Temper tubed Titan new as a frameset from Denver Mountain Bike Specialists in early 1990 and rode it extensively. By extensively, I mean he rode it nearly every day, year-round for most of 16 years, from high school through a doctorate degree.

During the first summer he had the bike, he took it on a two week journey along the entire length of the Colorado Trail from Waterton Canyon to Durango, with only a sleeping bag, a tarp and a few tools strapped to a rear rack, and powered by a knapsack full of ramen and peanut butter. The bike summited Mt. Evans numerous times. It went with him from Denver to Santa Cruz to Hawaii and back again. He commuted on the Titan daily across the Golden Gate Bridge for a few years, then a few more through the academic wilds of Madison.

It was in 2006 that Chris finally retired the Titan and gave it to me, the bicycle curator of the family. The bike was a basket case at that point, so I promptly put it back together with an assortment of whatever parts I had on hand. Since I already owned plenty of bikes, my goal for the project was minimum expenditure for maximum utility. Parts from more than a dozen bikes went into the mix. It received Suntour XC Comp top-mount thumb shifters, an old Shimano 600 rear derailleur with a red Bullseye lower pulley, gold anodized platform pedals appropriated from a dumpster bike, and a bolt and nut from a discarded toilet seat conscripted to serve as a seat binder bolt. Laugh if you will, but the bolt and nut fit just right and are, after all, stainless steel.

The Titan's unique details continue with a vintage RockRing as a chainguard and a larger than modern standard 1 1/4 inch threaded headset (Fisher Evolution size, for you old timers) pieced together from two different headsets. Apart from the frameset, to my knowledge the only parts that have remained from the original build from 21 years ago are a black anodized 26.6 mm Deore XT heat treated steel seatpost, faded a bit but sturdy as the day it was made, and a steel Fisher Evolution stem. Nowadays it's hard to find a good quality steel seatpost or stem of any type, yet these have lasted impressively well.

Without any serious investment in cleaning or expenditures other than for my favorite Nitto albatross bar, I simply put the bike to work as a dependable workhorse that I wouldn't need to worry about too much. In a short time, the Titan emerged from being just another bike in the herd to being my go-to bike, ridden more frequently than any other. Before I got the Big Dummy it was my kid hauler, towing a Burley trailer. The Titan has risen in my esteem to becoming a favored bike, and building with it growing history of my own. From day one, the bike and I connected well; the fit was perfect. Regardless of how it might look, it rides fast, at least considering the limitations of its engine. It was the bike I chose to ride in a triathlon last summer. Figuring I wouldn't be competitive, I might as well be comfortable.

I've now had the bike for close to five years, and it has been afforded very little in the way of maintenance. A couple of years ago I broke down and replaced the worn out tires with some Conti Town and Countrys and installed some Oury grips. I've traded saddles and a few other odds and ends from time to time, pulling items from my parts bin, and lubing the chain as needed. That's it. However, a few weeks ago I started to hear and feel a creak in the crank / bottom bracket, so I knew it was time for a checkup.
Note the stub of a broken bolt visible on the bottom of the right clamp.
The bottom bracket shell on the Titan is another of its unique design quirks. Originally, it was a sleeved system with a proprietary sealed bearing and shaft unitized assembly. The bottom bracket shell had two bolts to clamp the bearings in place. With an allen wrench, the chainline could be adjusted easily by sliding the spindle left or right. This feature was likely derived from the bike's evolutionary lineage extending from BMX antecedents. The whole bottom bracket design was a great idea in theory, but in practice the it was prone to loosening and subsequent undesirable self-adjustment.

Eventually my brother broke one of the pinch bolts off in the clamp. To repair it, he had a threaded sleeve brazed into the shell in order to accept standard threaded bottom bracket assemblies. The work was done in the Bay Area sometime in the late 1990s. A Shimano UN-51 cartridge bottom bracket was installed at that time, and there it remained unserviced until now. It took a little coaxing, but I removed the UN-51 without incident. I found a bit of rust in the outer threads of the non drive side, but nothing of any real concern. 
The rear end of the Titan, showing off the curvy one-piece loop tail stays and wishbone seatstay junction.
While the Titan was in the workstand, I took the time to inspect its rear cantilever mounts. At this point the story unravels even more into an embroidered re-engineering junket.

When I first got the bike, it had a u-brake located under the seatstays. This was an odd placement for a brake, even back in the old days, but it seemed to work well enough. My brother had installed a high tech (for the era) Scott-Pederson Self-Energizing u-brake, designed to maximize stopping power. By the time I got the bike, the internal springs of the self-energizing mechanism had severely corroded, and many of the aluminum parts were deteriorating. I had some old u-brakes of various types that I considered for replacement, but none were in very good shape. Besides, I wanted to put fenders on the Titan, and u-brakes are not the most fender-friendly brake. So, in keeping with my cost-minimizing goal for the project, I decided to embark on a radical departure.

The path I chose led to me grafting cantilever mounts from a donor frame onto the Titan with the aid of a hacksaw, a bench vise, a Dremel, a drill press, and some pop rivets. Years before, I had rescued the remains of a mangled 1984 Miyata Terra Runner from a dumpster, knowing that I'd have a use for it someday. That day had arrived. I harvested the Miyata's cantilever mounts, each accompanied by a chunk of seatstay tube, which I opened and formed to match the outer surface of the Titan's seatstays. I measured for proper placement of the mounts in their new location and carefully drilled and riveted them in place. I also grafted a set of cable stops under the top tube to serve the new brake location, again harvested from the old Miyata. Since I hadn't done anything quite like this before, I wasn't sure how it would work. Nearly five years and thousands of miles later, the grafted mounts have been working like a charm. No rust, no cracking, no signs of stress or other trouble.
Cantilever mount on the left seatstay, held in place by a bunch of 0.125 inch steel rivets. I painted the donated part with gloss gray Testor's model paint shortly after installation.
A view looking up from the underside of the seatstays. Notice the u-brake mounts below and my grafted cantilever mounts above. The right u-brake mount has a cool integral stop for the rear derailleur cable on its top.
As a disclaimer, if you decide to conduct similar experimental bike surgery, you're on your own. That said, with adequate creativity, fabrication skill and careful execution, a person can do a lot. Just be mindful of the limitations of your abilities, and don't go beyond them. 

On to the repair and refurbishment part of this missive. I cleaned the bottom bracket shell and sanded off the rust with a fine grain abrasive pad. In the mean time, I ended up stripping the bike down to the frame, deciding that the Titan was due for proper cleaning and maintenance. I also hit a few other spots here and there with the abrasive, where a chip or a scrape had exposed metal. Even with the hard life this bike has lived, there weren't too many spots to touch up, a testament to the quality and durability of the 21 year old powder coat.
An abrasive pad works much like steel wool, only it seems to make contact with the metal only where it is desired, and not where it's not. The black paint around the bottom bracket area is not original, and was applied in the late 1990s after the threaded sleeve was brazed into the shell.
When I first installed the cantilever mounts, I covered them with a quick coat of enamel modeling paint. Because the mounts were again available for a touch up, and I had some more appropriate paint on hand from another project, I decided to make things a little more aesthetically appealing. Rust-oleum hammered paint works really well on metal surfaces, depositing a uniform finish even when using a brush.
Rust-oleum hammered black paint meets a fancy-pants 30 year-old Windsor & Newton art brush.
I was pleased with the end result. The paint doesn't exactly match, but in the context of the bike it looks appropriate.
Nice clean threads and a little dab o'paint.
After some work the Titan should be good to go for another long while. The bike was built to last and continues to prove it daily. I decided to take a bit of extra time to rebuild the hubs, true the wheels and clean/refurbish the components before putting it back together. I'll have it ready in time to ride it to the Colorado Bicycle Summit next week. I might post an update on the build if I get a chance.

If you have made it all the way through this marathon epic, I congratulate you on your genuine interest, tenacity and/or time-wasting skills. However, I regret to inform you that there is really no end to the story. What did you expect from a tale about an immortal bike?
Bicycle way of life sticker courtesy of our friends from the North at FCBikes in Fort Collins.


  1. Great work on the 1/2 Trac! I especially appreciate your ingenuity with the canti mounts. Who needs a torch when you've got pop rivets?

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I'm sure that many a framebuilder would cringe and my modifications, but at the time I didn't have a torch and the rivets have withstood the test of time.