as is often his wont, crankpunk was sat at a local coffee shop a few weeks back, before the back got crocked, talking to a friend after a training ride. weʼd just done 150km and were discussing the differences between our bikes, the ride quality and comfort, the aesthetics, carbon lay-ups and so on and so on.
i asked my friend, an experienced ex-pro who has ridden and raced many bikes over the years, which bike, of all the bikes heʼd owned, was his favorite.
“1984 Bianchi,” was his immediate reply.
i wasnʼt surprised that this accomplished bike racer would choose a bike that was now more than 25 years old and cost a fraction of a modern bike over his Shimano Di2, slick 50mm carbon wheel-equipped, ultra-modern carbon bike that sat glistening in the sunlight just a meter or two away.
“you?’ he asked. without hesitation:
another old steel horse, the Battaglin bike was Italian, with Columbus tubing and top-end Campagnolo groupset, downtube shifters, beautiful classic Mavic tubs and Cinelli bars and stem. pearl white frame with blue accents at the top and bottom of the seat tube, red at the head tube, with an all-chrome rear triangle. it was the exact model (albeit not custom made) that Roche had ridden to the Triple Crown. this beauty was the envy of all my cycling friends.
i sold it just after I stopped cycling in 1989, and have never been able to forgive myself…
what is it about these old steel frames that so inspire this sense of admiration, of wonder, dedication even, from us cyclists? the steel tubing is naturally thin and straight, lending the older bikes those classic lines. thereʼs almost a sense of lost innocence in those tubes, the form, the small decals, the chrome that shines and glistens and somehow brings a smile to the lips, the downtube shifters that demanded that the rider learn his or her limits (as shifting when in a sprint or mid-climb was often impossible).
those old bikes connote the great Eddy Merckx, the irrepressible Bernard Hinault, the debonair Jacques Anquetil. they evoke an era when advertising was nothing like as rampant as today, technology not so mind-boggling or physics-bending, a time when things were simpler, if not necessarily easier.
they were made by hand, by men with calloused hands, in dusty workshops, some in sheds, sized specifically for each rider in many cases and welded with often beautifully-crafted lugs. they were, quite simply, beautiful.
so what of the modern bikes? why amongst so many of us older riders donʼt they elicit the same emotional response as, say, a classic Tomassini or a 1978 Colnago?
firstly there is the look of the modern bike, with over-sized tubing, curved top tubes and sometimes wiggly forks and seatstays (yes, i do mean Pinarello). in most cases the classic look has gone, mainly as a result of the change in material, from carbon to steel. carbon of course allows the builder more range in the shapes he can create. sometimes the cause is a desire to create a stiffer or faster bike, sometimes the aesthetic consideration is equally if not more central to the design philosophy.
secondly there is the method of production. whereas my Battaglin was made in Italy, welded by hand and painted in a workshop that most likely had battered Vespas parked outside by tobacco-puffing, side-parted artisans named Luigi and Gianfranco, the modern frames – almost all made on any significant scale – are (sometimes) designed in-house but actually made in this part of the world, Taiwan or China, by fellas called Wang and Huang. in a sense, an important aspect of the emotional connection between bike and rider has been eroded slightly as a result. (tellingly enough however, of the old, traditional framemakers, those that sensed the change in the wind and shifted production to Asia early on thrived – Pinarello being a case in point – whereas others, such as Colnago, have been playing catch-up, and others still, Tomassini amongst them, were almost obliterated for their lacksadaisical attitude).
finally, there is a cultural aspect to all of this. with so many things being disposable these days, thereʼs a tendency amongst most folk to feel that of the stuff made these days, nothing is permanent, that nothing will last. look at an E-type Jaguar form the 60s compared to the cars of today. a Picasso compared to a Tracey Ermin. and will collectors be drooling over the 2012 Giant TCR in thirsty years? or the Specialized Tarmac?
thereʼs something in all this of course. steel bikes of old truly are beautiful, just about everyone would agree, and the modern carbon bikes are not as classic in their looks. whereas the steel bike barely ever changed in any fundamental way, so many of us have been around to see the evolution of carbon frames, and, like all births, though there may be some essential beauty there, you’d never call the painful and blood-splattered process pretty – indeed in many ways, designers and engineers are still searching for the optimal shape for a carbon bike. also, crucially, modern carbon fibre bikes are more likely to become irreparably damaged. hit a steel bike with a door and it’s the door that will probably need fixing. do the same with a carbon bike and you could well be shipping your beloved to some genius in Arizona or Ipswich to get her fixed – if it’s mendable at all.
however, let’s change ‘favorite’ for other adjectives and see what answers we get. if you want to ask me which bike was the smoothest of all time, Iʼll tell you my 2010 Cervelo R3-SL, not my 1989 Tomassini. the most exciting bike i’ve ridden to date? Itʼs a toss up between the new Specialized Venge and the 2012 Velocite Magnus (a very accomplished ‘secret’, that machine). the bike so far that’s come closest to perfection? my team edition Cervelo R5 (though soon it might be the R7, next year’s bike, which i receive soon).
so in these categories, modern bikes win every time.
but what of the craftsmanship that went into the old bikes? well itʼs there in the new too. the engineers of the great modern bikes put just as much of their souls into creating these machines as anyone whoʼs ever made a bike in the past. one of my good friends works at Specialized where he’s a designer, and i’ll challenge anyone to find someone more passionate than him about bikes and their design, from any era. more hours go into the R&D phase than ever did with the old steel beauties. and as for the Asian connection? the fact that these modern carbon machines are made in China and Taiwan?
i feel there is a slightly discriminatory – or even racist – note to the protestations that that is a negative thing. the bike world has largely accepted that the majority of bikes made in China and Taiwan are of the highest possible quality (at least in regards to industry standards) and those who say otherwise are becoming more and more isolated. it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a single medium-to-large European or American brand that does not produce at least some of its carbon product in Asia.
finally, as for the ʻdisposablenessʼ of things these days, thereʼs one way to counter this: simply, take care of your bike. thereʼs no reason to believe that your carbon bike will ever one day turn to mush and be unrideable. more companies are offering repairs of cracked and damaged carbon frames these days too, so the chances of modern frames staying around has further increased. also, though many will argue that steel lasts longer (technically true), of the million+ steel machines made in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, how many have survived to be collectors’ items? comparatively very few indeed.
finally, there is the feel. a good steel bike will always feel better than a bad carbon bike, but, a good carbon bike, well, itʼs like riding to the stars on silk. sitting on top of the Venge or an R5 gives me a thrill i canʼt stop smiling about.
now, thatʼs a feeling that will always be classic…
ultimately, i understand the love of the old steel bikes and iʼll still say my Battaglin was my favorite, partly as it was my first ever real bike. however, I feel maybe sometimes we donʼt fully appreciate the engineering, the technology and yes, even the love that goes into the modern bikes. living in Taichung, Taiwan and knowing so many engineers and other ʻbike peopleʼ, i can vouch for the passion and love they have for their work. it just so happens that time moves on and technology changes, and with it i guess we do too.
in the end a bike is a bike, and even if all bikes arenʼt created equal, they all have two wheels and need a good pair of legs to get them moving.
so love that bike, whatever the hell it is. forza – go ride!