The End of the Affair

In 2009, I spent three halcyon months in Vancouver, BC, flying a desk by day and ~curating~ a single-speed Peugeot UO-12 by night. I look now on my works and despair: was there ever a more hopelessly earnest paean to the fixie craze?

Peugeot UO-12 converted to single speed
Hipster approved.

Of course, it wasn’t actually a fixie; that might have made it alright. But no, the fixed side of that flip-flop hub never saw a cog in its life. On the freewheel side was a 16-tooth Shimano number matched up to the original 40-tooth inner ring. Also on those cranks were de rigeur MKS pedals and chromed toe clips, the latter of which were irredeemably scuffed because going from going from 27″ to 700c wheels on 23mm tyres had turned the thing into a lowrider. (And, I now realise, made for a Rivendell-esque gulf between the seatpost and the rear tyre.)

In my naïve zeal to capture the zeitgeist, I chopped and flipped the original drop bars to make them into bullhorns. So far, so cool, but the time-trial brake levers I had picked up from the coolest bike shop in town would not fit. My fallback was a pair of lanky Soma bullhorns bought from the other coolest bike shop in town with the TT levers installed on the ends.

It was a terrible set-up. The Peugeot had always been a hair too large, and now, with these goddamn antlers on the front, it made a mockery of any kind of reasonable fit. I rode on the tops and, whenever I had to brake, momentarily let go of the bars to grab the horns like a cowboy riding a bull. I eventually replaced the TT levers with inline levers on the tops, relegating the bullhorns to catching on door frames and snagging the clothes of passers-by.

I loved it all the same. It carried me through three months of sunshine, sunsets, and just riding around wherever I damn well pleased. But as it came time to leave, I looked at prices for shipping a bike home on the plane: almost as much as the bike itself. Too much, I thought, and left the Peugeot with a pair of workmates with room to spare in their garage. I put the bike out of my mind.

Except I did nothing of the sort. In 2016, I found myself on a flight to Vancouver to visit the same company I had worked for seven years earlier. As soon as my work there was done, I looked up Pete and Monica, my bike-sitting workmates, and proceeded to aggressively reminisce about the Peugeot. They caught my drift.

“I mean, do you want to go for a ride on it? It’s still in the garage.”

Do I ever.

We pottered round the corner for ice cream in the same golden-hour light I remembered. The bike was as ludicrous as ever, only now with mismatched, dried-out tyres threatening to prolapse at any moment and a WTB saddle with all of the stuffing knocked out of it. The chrome was scuffed and the paint was chipped.

“Can I have it back?” I asked, unhindered by objective thought. They agreed, readily.

I walked the length of West Broadway until I found a bike shop willing to let me have a surplus bike box, then bought a roll of sellotape and a roll of bubble wrap and proceeded to package up the bike. We strapped it to the roof of Monica’s Subaru and she drove, at walking pace, to the SkyTrain station at Broadway and Cambie Street. We said a warm goodbye and I proceeded to lug the box and my luggage out to the airport. It was not a pleasant journey; public transport systems are rarely configured for moving objects the size and shape of a 50-inch television.1

At the airport I stumped up the extra luggage charge for the bike. I don’t remember how much it cost, but honestly, it wouldn’t have mattered: I wasn’t going to let the Peugeot slip through my fingers a second time.

Back in London, I took stock. Apart from the dry-rotted tyres and the punishing saddle, everything was as I had left it. I squeezed a pair of 25mm Michelin Dynamic Classics onto the cheap Weinmann deep-Vs to make it rideable, at a princely £8 each. And then I rode it.

Peugeot UO-12 with Michelin Dynamic Classic tyres
Blowouts averted.

It was as bad as ever. Worse, even. The old single-pivot brakes were worse than I remembered and the ride was absolutely unforgiving. Every speed bump was a literal kick in the pants. The frame, I now realised, had mediocrity baked into its bones: the Reynolds 501 tubing was weighty and waggly at the same time.

But, well, I had dragged the thing back from another continent and so I would damned well make a go of it. Over the next couple of years I brought it up to a sort of Bicycle Quarterly-lite spec: Nitto B105AA drop bars; Tektro RL340 levers paired with long-drop dual pivot R369 brakes; SKS chromoplastic mudguards; and an old Brooks Cambium saddle more for looks than for comfort.

By 2020, I’d also replaced every bearing in the entire bike. I re-balled the notchy headset to cure an unnerving reluctance to turn corners; replaced the loose-ball bottom bracket with a sealed Shimano unit; and replaced the cartridge bearings in the wheels in an effort to hunt down a persistent clicking. (Ironically, it turned out to be the 1/8″ chain running noisily on the 3/32″ sprocket and chainring. Throw in a new chain then, too.)

Peugeot UO-12 with mudguards

I found a new niggle every time I used the bike. It was still too big, even with the new bars. And speaking of which, the Tektro levers did not mesh well with the gentle curve of the Nittos; I was too used to the super-flat hoods on my usual Campy shifters to ever get comfortable with the Tektros’ rounded profiles. The brakes were fine; I guess? Ditto the tyres, although 25mm was too narrow for comfort in any sense. It was not a bike for a frosty, slippery morning, for example, and it increasingly stayed in the shed whatever the weather.

What I should have done, had I stopped for five minutes to think about it, is this: had the frame cold set to 130mm at the local bike shop; got some nice wheels and 38mm Gravel Kings to take advantage of the frame’s huge tyre clearances; cobbled together a 9-speed MTB groupset from my parts bin; and fitted flat bars to reduce the reach. From too-big single-speed to debonair runabout for a not unreasonable sum.

What I actually did was sell the bike on eBay for a pitiful amount. I should have been glad to see the back of it. It wasn’t the bike that I remembered and trying to coerce it into a usable state was getting expensive. But it was, as all bikes are, more than a bike. It had carried me through three months in a new, exciting city. Years later, it took me from our London flat to St. George’s Hospital more than once as we waited for our son to arrive in the autumn of 2016. Even as it lay unused in the shed, it was a memento of those things and more.

There’s no neat resolution to the story. Mostly I’m relieved that the Peugeot isn’t around to taunt me with its interminable almost-ness – almost comfortable, almost competent, almost finished – but sometimes I wish I’d kept it, even if only as a trophy of times past. But it’s gone, and that’s okay. Time to move on.

Component Model Notes
Frame Peugeot UO-12 Sprint
Headset Peugeot Removed caged bearings and replaced with loose balls to avoid “indexing”.
Stem Peugeot 25mm clamp typical of older French bikes
Bars Nitto B105AA 25.4mm bars squeezed into a 25mm clamp. Don’t try this at home.
Brake levers Tektro RL340
Seatpost Peugeot
Saddle Brooks Cambium C15 Oddly hard. Newer models have fibreglass frames that may be more forgiving.
Brakes Tektro R369 Long-drop dual-pivots. Good for conversions from 27″ to 700c wheels.
Wheels Weinmann DP-18s on Formula hubs “18” refers to the outer rim width; these were very narrow rims. Not happy with anything above 25mm tyres.
Tyres Michelin Dynamic Classic
Crankset Peugeot Unusual 118mm BCD – watch out for this if you buy an older bike. It may make it difficult to get new chainrings.
Bottom bracket Shimano square taper Replaced the original asymmetric loose-ball bottom bracket to give a better chainline.
Pedals MKS MT-LUX Compe + MKS steel toe clips
Sprocket 16t Shimano freewheel
  1. Nor are most humans, to be fair. I was reminded me of the time when I carted a snowboard to Australia in July because New Zealand was right there, you know, and they have the best snow this time of year. I never left Queensland on that trip, and the snowboard never left its case. A lesson taught but not learned. ↩︎