old bikes vs. new: are we under-appreciative of the modern machine?

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:

“1987 Battaglin.”

a corker!

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.

Roche won the Tour, the Giro and the World’s on this bike

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?

Columbus tubing, like Reynolds, meant impeccable quality

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?

Ermin’s 1999 ‘Bed’?…

or…

Picasso’s ‘Guernica’

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.

do not consider this bike unless in peak physical condition, as it will give you a heart attack otherwise…

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!

49 thoughts on “old bikes vs. new: are we under-appreciative of the modern machine?

  1. My first race bike (1981) was a second hand Ti Raleigh with a mixture of Original Shimano Dura ace and Zeus equipment probably about 5 years old at the time weighing roughly 23 pounds. Since than I’ve ridden a large variety of all sorts and they have subjectively at least given a wide variety of all sorts of rides good and bad. By and large I haven’t liked the new generation of bikes and that’s nothing to do with looks or what they are made of but due to the profusion of straight forks. For me straight forks whether on a steel , aluminum or carbon bike make it extremely twitchy and gives you the feeling your on the “rivet’ the whole time , relaxing and taking corners with confidence is not part of the game –but it could be all subjective!
    About 6 years ago I acquired by way of sponsorship a set of training wheels from a very prominent manufacturer – apart from being free they were great wheels , strong durable ready for training and racing and responsive – the only downfall was the cheap sealed bearing’s which seems to be the fault of most current products. 2 years later and after reading very good reviews of one of there racing sets of wheels (light, aero, strong) I actually forked out some money and bought a set (at trade price of course). Disappointing to say the least , they felt no better than the training set , constantly went out of true even broke a spoke which was nightmare to replace and costly and all the great advantages of the training set were gone, no just jumping onto a dirt road when I felt like it etc. The only good thing was that I managed to resell them and get my money back.
    As I sat back and considered the misfortune of these “good” wheels I realized the misconception was mine , if in 1981 I had bought a pair of equally lightweight wheels with aero spokes than I would’ve kept them merely for special occasions , time trials , national road races etc. In fact I had a 1980’s riders mindset durability wise but I was expecting something that doesn’t exist even in the 21st century– speed or should I say light weight and strength combined.
    What has really changed in cycling the most in 33 years – the demographics of the “racing” population. In 1981 cycling was pretty much a young mans (not women’s) sport for working class and trades people. Disposable incomes were low and bike material had to last – durability was a premium. There had been a lightweight craze in the 1970’s , lightweight steel , titanium and even carbon frames and components had been made – by the 80’s it died out , not only wasn’t the technology there – the money to support it wasn’t. Jump to now , those working men and trades people work weekends , no time for sport , cycling is a sport for professional people , usually older , often yuppies and dinkies. Disposable incomes are relatively very high – new and indeed multiple new bikes are a normality , durability is no longer important and with the high turnover of bikes, manufactures can give free replacements to bikes that just “fall” apart driving any small frame builder out of business (as he can’t afford to replace super light disposable bikes ). Even better for the consumer because of the growth of the bike industry a very good bike can be bought new for a fraction of the new bike circa 1981 real dollar price. The demographics has also changed other things , professional people are intrinsically involved with numbers , everything can be weighed, measured ,compared – numbers can describe reality so instead of traditional subjective feeling , intuition and comfort the sport can be reduced to power out puts , coefficients of drag, kilos etc and with the right figures the right results!! (I mean just jump on a home trainer with the right setup and video machine and viola you can also race the Tour de France!!)
    And what happened in 33 years – during the 80’s bikes got heaver – my 1991 Merck with Duraace 8 speed was 24 pounds (compared to just 20/21 pounds as an average race bike in 1980), aero came in, and rather surprisingly most of the fastest climbs in history were made in the mid 90’s on some of the heaviest bikes in history, showing that the weight in the veins is far more important to speed than the weight in the tubes. Recently friction has become an issue again – yes it’s something that was big way back when decent bearings etc were made – including taking one ball bearing out and replacing grease with a drop of sewing machine oil!! When one thinks about it friction and resistance exist constantly, whereas aerodynamics play a major roll much less of the time and weight only occasionally!!
    And with the current generation of bikes, yeah it all looks pretty , Carbon light weights and deep dish wheels etc but the biggest change has been gears , the huge range of sprockets. If you look at 70’s and even 80’s guys going up Mountain pass’s were just flogging themselves trying to turn massive gears than in sprint finish’s it was more like drag racing as guys ran out gears and was a long spin to the finish. The small gears are changing the whole nature of racing , every year the organizers of Vuelta and Giro find steeper and steeper mts and the riders winning them get smaller and skinny – nowadays Merck would’ve been a domestique for Fuente!. Sprinters are outta of saddle the whole sprint now on enormous gears. There’s a huge increase in specialization because the gears allow it – and the race courses have adapted themselves to the material in other ways- none so much as time trialing. When I arrived in France 1984 a TT was 60 – 80 kms long and a maze of corners and small hills. Now its a flat highway course – Time trialing has adapted it self to the TT bike in fact!! Likewise in Belgium , where there’s almost no cobbled races any more – why not , no one wants to go to cobbled races because they might damage there carbon wheels sets!
    Ultimately a sports timing in technology, sports rules, finance, marketing , demographics ,media orientation etc etc ,etc ,etc are what make it at that particular moment. The current bike we see at this moment is the bike that suits this moment the best in all those ways above – and like races and riders in the past can’t be judged with the present or future, bike rational and design can’t be either.
    I was bought up with curved forks in a time when bike handling was considered a Paramount factor – at 47 years old that factor remains paramount. A 16 year old rider starting his racing career tomorrow will probably never know what a curved fork is so it will never be even a consideration when reflecting on bikes he has owned 30 years hence!!

  2. It may simply be that modern CF bikes are oversold. Each model year the bike companies need to argue the case for a new bike purchase and thus extoll the benefits of a bike that is 12% stiffer (Pinarello) or more laterally stiff and vertically compliant. The functional differences between a 1984 Bianchi and a 2013 Cervelo are not as great as marketing execs would like everyone to believe. The bicycle is one of the greatest tools of our species. It may be that it is underrated in its significance because it doesn’t kill in the mass numbers of a fighter plane or H-Bomb, but the advancements in design since the advent of the safety bicycle have been incremental. It is still a couple of triangles, two wheels, a crank and chain drive, with bars for steering.

    You can build a bike with the same attributes as the Cervelo R3-SL from steel or titanium or magnesium or alloy. It all depends on how the builder chooses to use the materials and the trade-offs made if it isn’t custom and…. if weight isn’t an issue. With UCI imposed weight limits it isn’t that much of an issue anyways.

    In your line of work, empirical research shows and as demonstrated in the last TdF, it is not the equipment that makes the winners, but an excellent team with solid tactics.

    So, I think there are some modern classics coming out of the CF revolution. The Colnago C-40, the Look 585, Parlee Z1, Calfee Dragonfly, Pinarello Dogma 60:1, and even the Cervelo R3-SL (which in my opinion is a better ride than the R5).

    What gives the bikes listed above enough of a following to make them still sought after, is balance and ride quality, rather than simply equating lightness and stiffness with a subjective “better”.

  3. you wait all week for a decent comment then two come along all at once. very interesting replies fellas! Nathan some great points there, especially about the forks and the demographics. i remember back in 87 when i started riding, there was a gapo between the equipment the pros used and what most if not all the riders i knew could afford. the true pro bikes were just out of our reach. nowadays, you’ll often see ‘pro’ bikes on sunday club runs. nothing wrong with that – i make a living as a result of it – but there is definitely a different attitude to it all.

    Andrew good point re the volume of sales these days. back in ‘the day’ cycling was hardly a glamorous sport and in countries such as NZ, Oz, the US and England it had nowhere near the popularity it has now. with the increase in the profile more people come into the sport (a good thing), and more buy bikes (also good, if you’re connected to the industry). but for sure there is this sense that things are more disposable as a result. but as i mentioned, and as Nathan states too, it may also be as a result of us expecting modern equipment to ‘do more’. when i was a kid everyone had race wheels and a summer bike and a winter bike – these days it seems more people expect a bike to do it all, and then are annoyed when it breaks!

    to be absolutely honest i haven;t paid for a bike in 4 years – if it was my money, i’d buy aluminum! just so much easier to keep.

  4. I think a lot of he “developments” are hyped. Not all, but a lot.

    I went with custom ti to get the most out of a material that will last. The results are a bike that has a lot of the features of carbon wonder bikes, in a balanced, confident bike that is stiff in the right places.

  5. sitting in my garage i have a hand built Harry hall Columbus slx tubing… Chrome forks… Campag chorus.. 1988… Raced on it for 5 years….88-92…loved it then…still love it now… Now 40 back into racing but with a cannondale supersix…different gravy…!

  6. hi Paul, thanks for the comment… i used to travel to Harry Hall’s in Manchester about twice a month to drool over his stock. i bought a pair of mavics there when i was 16 and didn’t even realise til i got home and tried to put a clincher on that i’d bought tubulars – in fact i didn’t even know what a tubular wheel was…! awesome to hear that you’re back in the saddle, she’s a forgiving mistress, Old Dame Cycling! good luck man, whatever you ride

  7. Well thought out posts all! I think Ernie Colnago would argue with Nathan about the forks though. I had a Landshark with a straight fork and frankly could tell no difference between it and other similar bikes with curved forks – except aesthetically of course! State-of-the-art vs bikes from back-in-the-day (even if they were made recently) is a never ending argument – would you rather have the newest-latest Ferrari or a rare GT250 from 1961?

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