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1998 Litespeed Vortex Titanium 650Bx35 conversion

Titanium Frame + 650Bx35mm + Selle Anatomica = Flying Carpet?

One of the things I very much enjoy is to rethink a vintage bike and turn it into something new and exciting that the original manufacturer did not intend…

Titanium bikes have a special place in my heart. It is such a wonderful and noble material and one that can last a life time of riding.

When well designed and manufactured, it offers:

  • All day riding comfort that can rival that of a steel bike with a significantly lighter metal

  • Lack of corrosion (compared to steel or the battery effect of carbon/aluminum interfaces)

  • Bare metal unpainted look almost like jewelry (and freedom from the fear of scratches that come with that great looking paint job…)

  • Almost no fatigue life (as compared to aluminum)

  • Significant forgiveness to impact and crashes (as compared to carbon)

  • Repair ability (good titanium welders are tough to find but they do exist)

  • Availability of “made to measure” services at some boutique builders

Of course, titanium bikes were at the pinnacle of bike manufacturing (surpassing steel and competing with aluminum) as a material of choice only for about a decade towards the end of the 90’s and early 2000’s and eventually could not compete with the emergence and subsequent dominance of carbon frames as it cannot rival it in terms of its combination of lightweight and stiffness in the design of modern high performance bikes.

In addition, it was always a bit limited for mass production by the high manufacturing costs and the need for highly skilled (artisan/artist) welders.

For mass market manufacturers carbon has one additional significant, and much less talked about, advantage. In large quantities, with only a few “tee shirt” mold sizes (XS, S, M, L, XL) carbon frames are actually quite cheap to manufacture as long as it is done in low labor cost areas which is the overwhelming majority of the frames and brands and with the right combination of high performance “space age material/NASA/Fighter aircraft/Formula 1” image and “pro-team sponsorship - big name branding” the industry is able to sell frames that cost a few $100’s to produce for a few $1000’s therefore enjoying beautiful margins that can pay for all the sponsorship required to fuel the exclusive image…

As a result, Titanium became rather a niche material with some boutique artisan making and signing project bikes for well healed riders. It is enjoying some limited revival with the crash and scratch prone gravel/cyclocross/touring users looking for something special but will never be mass market.

This leaves us with an installed base of about 30 years’ worth of titanium bike production that will never rust, and will never die unless someone crashes them badly or drives over them after forgetting it is gathering dust in the garage. So while it is still more expensive than your average steel vintage bike (at least the many that do not come with an elite pedigree), it is quite easy to find good used titanium frames in the $500 to $1000 range and complete bikes in the $1000 to $2000 range and unlike any other frame materials if it is not visibly and obviously cracked, dinged or bent it is pretty much as good as new once you remove the dust, dirt, grease, paint and stickers if you so wish…

So in 2012, I finally decided I needed to have a Titanium bike, after dreaming about it as a kid (Ocana, 1973, Speedwell) when it was truly an exotic space age material. EBay brought me a fine sample of a 1998 Litespeed Vortex made of the higher end and more exotic cold worked Ti 6Al-4V alloy rather than the more common Ti 3Al-2.5V. The bike was apparently owned by an older gentleman and had not seen too much riding for nearly a decade but it came with the original Campagnolo Record Titanium 9 speed group and an upgrade with some early (ca. 2001) Zipp 303 Carbon tubular wheels.

2012 Ebay Find: 1998 Vortex with Campy Record Titanium 9 speed and early Zipp 303 tubular

Ebay 2012 Find: 1998 Litespeed Vortex, Campagnolo Record Titanium 9 speed, Zipp 303 tubulars

A fine ride indeed, which I very much enjoyed in its original state for a couple of years, but there were some limitation like the 39x26 minimum gear which would have been perfectly fine a few decades ago, but not really optimal for my aging knees, decreased power and living location in the hilly Jerusalem area… More than anything, inevitably, came the need to start tinkering and adapting it to my views and special “needs”.

For a while, I took the weight weenie route to see to what weight I could take a bike based on this moderately light (1280 grams) titanium frame. With a pair of 990 grams low profile carbon tubular wheels, a bunch of minimalistic light weight parts and a 1x10 set-up (44x11-36), the diet ended in the 6.7Kg area with pedals which was quite pleasant and responsive although it is clear it was not going to win a weight competition compared to a modern all carbon weight weenie bike…

Early this year, I embarked on a different project. One that I think can be relevant to revive many vintage race bikes from the last 20 to 30 years that cannot be competitive as high performance bikes but can turn them into absolutely enjoyable bikes, and could even make them your favorite ride. A 650B conversion…

Based on the excellent mix of performance and comfort delivered by the 6/4 titanium frame, I set out to turn this bike into what I now call “The Flying Carpet”!

This involved three main changes from the original race type Vortex:

  1. Adequate gearing for comfortable riding. Instead of the original 53x39 – 11-26 will was certainly fine for the initial racing target use of such a bike in 1998, I modified it to 10x1 using a vintage ultralight 1990’s Topline aluminum square taper crankset with 44 teeth single ring, added light SRAM red 10 speed shifters (with the left shifter gutted of its front shifting pallet turning it into a homemade officially non existing “SRAM Red 1”) and taking advantage of the road shifter/MTB derailleur compatibility of SRAM, I married it to a light SRAM XX rear derailleur of the same era and a 150g 11-36 CNC Recon cassette. This gave me a very light drive train, with 44x11 to 44x36 gearing and the comfort of 1x single rear shifting. Much lighter than the official Force 1 or Rival 1 set-ups used in gravel bikes.

Bootleg superlight drive train – SRAM Red (10x1) shifters (260g), SRAM XX Derailleur with light pulleys (175g), 11-36T Recon alloy CNC Cassette (150g), TA Axix BB (155g), Topline cranks (370g) with single 44T TA chainring.

2. The second and major change is the wheelset

I very much enjoyed riding the bike either with the original Zipp 303 carbon tubular or with the subsequent superlight 24mm deep carbon tubular wheelsets.That complete wheel set weighted 1740 grams together with 27mm tubulars and the super light cassette!With the short wheel base and aggressive geometry of the Vortex the bike was really moving, it was so much fun to stand on the pedals on a steep climb and feel that the bike wants to fly… but now I was after something else… “The Flying Carpet” and that meant putting more air volume between the road and me!Many racing frames until the last few years could barely handle tires above 25mm section since 23mm (and less even earlier) was really the standard.Whether the frame or the brakes were the limit that was all you could fit.Vittoria made the famous Pave tubulars used in Paris-Roubaix in the weird 700x27mm size because 28mm would just not fit on racing bikes!My past touring experience taught me that 650B (now rebranded as 27.5” in the MTB world) could make for very responsive wheels because of their smaller diameters, but more importantly by going down from the 622mm diameter of the 700C to the 584mm diameter you can gain a dramatic 19mm of radius to fit bigger tires.For a smooth ride, I still wanted fast slick road tires and not knobby cyclocross or MTB tires that would be much too wide anyways.So I got my hands on some rare 24 hole 650B rims that still have a brake track (not easy to find these days since this size is now almost exclusively dedicated to MTB and disk brakes), and fitted them with slick Schwalbe Kojak (650Bx35mm) on sale at about $20 a piece at an online shop. I guess nobody wants this weird tire size.The Schwalbe Kojak came at a reasonable 410 grams but had the significant penalty of needing heavy inner tubes in that hefty size.

With their 39 to 50mm reach and small size, my Campagnolo Record skeleton brakes were pretty maxed out with the Vittoria Pave 27mm tubulars and were definitely not going to accept 35mm tires nor reach the 584mm diameter of the 650B rims.So, I needed to secure some long range brakes to reach the smaller diameter rims.Tektro makes some nice and cheap long reach brakes: the Tektro 559 which come with a massive reach of between 55 and 73mm that provides for some serious tire clearance as well as the reach needed for the smaller wheel.Those brakes are great for giving a new life to bikes using the obsolete “27 inch” (used on some British or US bikes in the 70’s and for which it is almost impossible to find any decent new tires wheels) with their large 630mm diameter to use them with modern 700C wheels, or for 700C to 650B conversions. Having experience with cheap long range brakes on vintage bikes that barely slow down, I was concerned that these long reach brakes could be very flexy, give poor braking in addition to being ugly but I was very pleasantly surprised.Of course they are not quite as sharp as the short range Campagnolo Record Skeleton they replaced, but with their modern dual pivot design they are actually very powerful and brake very well on the aluminum rims.In addition to plenty of power, the slight flex gives great modulation.I would rate the braking as better than most carbon rims (at least after the fancy initial ceramic coating wears out…).In addition, the proportion turned out quite nice and the 35mm filled nicely big space inside the caliper.

Campagnolo Record on 700x25c versus Tektro 559 on 650Bx35

3) The cherry on the cake: Selle Anatomica Leather saddle

I know that modern saddles can be reasonably comfortable when riding fast for a few hours, but they are not really built for the comfort of long rides of less powerful riders and definitely not for heavier riders.Competitive riders rarely ride for more than 5 hours or so, they are very light (mostly between 60 and 70Kg) and at 400 watts in an aggressive riding position there is not much weigh on the saddle anyways… In addition they are young and their “soft tissue” are … well not as soft!But if you are riding less aggressively, putting out less power, maybe a bit heavier too, and especially if you end up riding a lot longer (maybe just because it takes a lot more time to get from A to B!), then modern light saddles are not super comfy to say the least. I tried some 100 grams all-carbon no padding saddles on my weight weenie projects as well as 130g Sella Italia SLR, they are OK for a couple of hours but beyond that they quickly feel a bit stiff for my taste.

Having ridden for many years on the legendary Ideale and Brooks leather saddles, and having spent entire summers touring all over Europe and the USA, I know that there is nothing like leather saddles for comfort.I also know that if you want comfort there are two places you do not want to be saving weight: Tire size and saddle weight!I still have an Ideale saddle on my 1981 Follis and it has been a longtime friend, but for this build I knew that the modern Selle Anatomica would be perfect.It is larger and designed so that you are suspended like in a hammock rather than sitting on the saddle, it also uses the slot that disconnects the two sides of the saddle so that your buns can move independently of each other.The Selle Anatomica created a revolution in that it delivered a leather saddle that would be comfortable right out of the box without having to go through the traditional 100’s or sometimes 1000’s of Km of break-in of the traditional leather saddles (of course these would then last decades if you know how to take care of them).

So after all the theory and the built how does it ride?

Yes, the 650Bx35 make the bike a bit less responsive.Yes, the whole set up cannot compete in stiffness with by Carbon Wilier Cento Uno with the carbon Campagnolo Record crankset sitting on the super wide Evo386 bottom bracket. Yes, at 8.2Kg with pedals is not as light as a modern carbon bikes (though recent bikes with disk brakes have gained significant weight).

…but what a ride, the Titanium comfort, the plush 650x35mm at 60 psi and the comfy Selle Anatomica really deserve the “Flying carpet” ride goal I set out to achieve.

I must say that more often than not when I decide to go for a ride these days and have the choice ranging from my 1981 Classic Vitus 971 Follis to my Carbon Campagnolo Record equipped Wilier Cento Uno, I am getting addicted to that plush ride that is so smooth yet so efficient.

1998 Litespeed Vortex 650Bx35 Conversion

Still the tinkerer cannot stop thinking about potential improvements:

  1. Obviously the more modern Force 1 or Rival 1 set-ups with 10-42T cassette would give an even more comfortable 420% gear range. With 44x10 giving just about the same ratio as 53x12 (not a gear I remember as particularly short when I was a lot stronger 30 years ago ;) and almost 1:1 ratio at the bottom for climbing steep hills for an older guys whose knees have seen too many miles. The clutched derailleurs and narrow-wide chainring would be nice too, though I have not experienced any chain drops with the current set-up.

  2. The biggest potential improvement would be to use better, significantly lighter and more importantly tubeless tires, I am certain that would bring another level of comfort, road traction maybe even slightly lower pressure than the 60 psi I currently use on the 650Bx35. The two 650B inner tubes are quite heavy and you can feel that the bike is less responsive than with 700C tubulars. To get this feeling back, I should use light tubeless tires. These days Compass makes wonderfully light 650x35mm or 38mm tires. It is quite new to be able to find such large comfortable tires that are still designed as light high performance tires and not like the 650Bx38 tandem touring tires I used on my cyclo-camping bike to ride from Florida to California in the mid-80’s. That set-up requires tubeless ready rims (which are even harder to find with brake tracks in 650B size, the $99 a piece Brevet Pacenti or $150 a piece Hed Belgium 650B are pretty much the only option out there and they do require at least 28 spokes (not available in any lower spoke counts). This set-up would have increased the cost of the build by $300 to $400, something I was not ready to do until I knew the set-up works and I like it… I hope the Kojaks are not too durable!

About the author: Julien Meissonnier stared riding seriously just a bit over 40 years ago as a 13 year old in the late 70’s when 10 and 12 speed included both front and rear not just cassette... After long distance cyclotouring, pass hunting, cyclo-camping across much of Europe and the US, and some triathlon racing, gently slipped into a lower bike gear going into the 1990’s and making a reasonable comeback in the 2010’s... After a high tech and entrepreneurial career decided that I would focus on doing interesting bike stuff, anything that does not feel like work. Enjoying developing a line of carbon wheels and all sorts of custom projects with a more pronounced interest for “mature” bikes and non–standard projects.

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