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.Thos