Friday, August 22, 2014

The Ultimate "Inflation Tool"

I suppose when a pump sells for $445, you really can't call it a "pump" anymore. Hence, the Ultimate "Inflation Tool" from the new Silca.
It's not a "pump." It's the "Ultimate
Inflation Tool."

I had written last week about classic old Silca pumps, with a bit of history on the company. In that article, I explained that the company which had been owned by the Sacchi family in Italy since 1917 was sold last year and moved to Indianapolis. Though the new incarnation of the company is apparently still supplying some of the replacement parts for the old classics, there are apparently no plans to reissue or resurrect the old pump designs. Instead, the goal of the new Silca is to maintain the original company's reputation for innovation, while respecting tradition, durability, and serviceability. As of the writing of the article last week, the company had introduced a new pump head, similar in design to the classic brass version, but crafted in stainless steel, with an elastomer gasket for a better seal and longer life. At that time, I mentioned that the company had plans to introduce a whole new pump that new owner Josh Poertner hoped would be "unlike any other pump ever sold." Well, introduced just this past week, here it is -- dubbed the Super Pista Ultimate, which is described as the ultimate Inflation Tool.

Did I mention that it costs $445?

Like the finest kitchen knives - or a top-quality
guitar -- the handles are made from rosewood.
Built in the U.S. with top-quality materials, the new Silca is "meant to define a new category of Inflation Tools." The press release goes on to say that the "SP Ultimate will keep the Silca Passion alive for the next generation." The new Inflation Tool has classic features like the solid metal presta chuck and the replaceable/regrease-able leather plunger washer. "Meant to be heavy, ergonomic, rebuildable, and built to last a lifetime."

The handle on Ultimate Inflation Tool is supposed to have been inspired by top-quality tools, such as culinary knives. The grips are made from hand-turned rosewood, mated to investment cast stainless steel center and end pieces for beauty and durability.


The base is described as being heavy and stable -- at 800 grams, the base alone is heavier than most complete pumps. An unusual feature is something called the "Surfboard Control" which is a "high precision piece of CNC machined aluminum which contains the air passage between the check valve body and the gauge/hose." This surfboard feature essentially "floats" above the base, keeping the important and delicate pieces of the pump off the ground, and holding a magnetic dock for the chuck. The surfboard also serves to transfer the air to the hose, and functions as a protective bezel for the high-precision pressure gauge.

Did I say something about a magnetic chuck dock? Yes. The chuck is made from 17-4 stainless steel -- which is one of the few types of stainless that is attracted by a magnet. The MagnetDock contains a neodymium rare earth magnet which secures the chuck when not in use. If the chuck is anywhere near the dock, it will seat itself, and this would be a useful feature, because the hose (rated for 12,000 psi, and made with over-braided stainless steel -- used in the pits at Indianapolis Speedway) is a generous 51 inches long. Borrowing more technology from the motorsports industry around Indianapolis, the barrel and piston rod are precision-made and teflon hard-anodized for smoothness and durability. Oh yeah, and it sells for $445.

When I first saw a classic Silca Pista pump, back in my teens, I knew I wanted one, but the price at the time was a bit more than my then-meager budget would allow. I eventually found one about 1/2 off on clearance -- possibly because it was painted pink, and apparently nobody wanted a pink pump. I've had that thing for around 30 years. My wages today are considerably higher than they were in high school, but as nice as it is, at $445 the new SP Ultimate is still priced way out of my budget. Lucky for me, my old pink classic should last a long time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I Used to Like Cars

Not so much anymore, but I used to like cars a lot. When I was in my teens, apart from wanting a Masi just like the one the kid in Breaking Away rode, I also wanted a little two-seat roadster -- like an MG, or a Triumph. Horribly impractical little things, with temperamental mechanicals, and diabolical electrical systems. I was not afraid. There was something about the cars that inspired passion. I don't like to say that they had "soul," because let's face it, they're just objects. But I don't know how else to describe it. Was it history? Who knows?

My father-in-law, who has always loved the "top-down" car experience, has a Mazda Miata. He's driven it for years and loves it. He even belongs to a Miata club. The little Mazda is supposed to offer the same kind of driving experience as the little roadsters of the past -- wind-in-the-hair, sprightly acceleration, zippy handling --  but with all the bulletproof reliability that Japanese cars are known for. No more late nights in the garage chasing electrical demons, replacing ignition points, or re-jetting carburetors. The new cars just don't have things that go wrong that often -- but when they do, it's also a fair bet that the average home mechanic won't be able to solve them himself.

I've driven his little Miata. It's nice, but I don't want one. No passion. No "soul." It could be that I just don't get excited about cars anymore, but if I had the choice and actually still wanted a little roadster, I'd still probably go for the old MG -- reliability be damned. Though, truth be told, if I had the money for that kind of purchase, I can't say I wouldn't spend it on a really nice bike (or two).

Like her father, my wife is also really big on the convertible experience, but from a slightly more practical standpoint. She wants something that still has room for kids and cargo. Some years back, she had me come with her to test-drive a Toyota Solara convertible -- a mid-size two-door. We drove it, and all I can say is that putting the top down did nothing to disguise the fact that we were still basically driving a Camry -- a dependable car with a little more reliability than a Maytag dishwasher, and about as much fun to drive. A driving appliance, if you will. We didn't buy it.

So, what does this have to do with bikes?

The way I feel (or felt) about those cars is pretty consistent with how I feel about bikes. Comparing the old British roadsters with the modern Japanese version, it's hard to argue with the fact that the newer car is superior in so many ways. More reliable. Better brakes. More efficient. Probably lower emissions. Safer. The list of "betters" could go on and on. But given the choice, I'd still choose the old classic for what are totally emotional reasons. History. Nostalgia. "Soul."

There is no doubt that my '73 Mercian weighs more than a new Specialized Tarmac. The vintage Campagnolo Nuovo Record derailleurs don't shift as smoothly and reliably as the latest Dura-Ace Di2. The old Record brakes take a lot more hand effort to stop than the latest dual-pivots or disc brakes. My square-taper bottom bracket might "flex" more than a new BB30 or whatever new oversized press-fit wonder the technophiles rhapsodize about today. My 36-spoke wheels with their box-section aluminum rims generate more wind drag than 20-spoke wheels and deep-profile carbon-fibre aero rims. But given the choice, again and again, I'll take the old classic. Every time.

The makers of many carbon frames like to call their product "hand-made" -- and I suppose that might be true of some of them. But most of them are popped out of molds. Sure, someone laid pieces of resin-impregnated carbon fiber into that mold by hand -- but it's still popped out of a mold for cryin'outloud. And if one of those frames differs in any measurable way from every other frame in the run, it's a defect.

There's something beautiful about a set of frame lugs that were filed and shaped by a craftsman, and recognizing that it is not a defect if the lugs aren't exactly identical down to a fraction of a millimeter as all the other lugs shaped by the same artisan.

I like my traditional cup-and-cone ball bearing hubs, and non-cartridge square-taper bottom brackets. They need to be serviced from time to time, but that's just the thing. . . I can service them. I even enjoy doing the work because it's therapeutic in a way. There's something satisfying about a bike that can be serviced, and being able to do the work yourself. If a Shimano Di2 goes bad, can it be fixed? And who would fix it?

I like treating a Brooks leather saddle with Proofide, and love the way the stuff smells. I like that my hand-built wheels don't look like billboards. The list goes on and on. Bikes are best when they are simple and beautiful. The classics might not truly have "soul," but that's the only word that seems to capture the idea.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Caps, Not Hats

"One thing I love about cycling is the odd traditions that still exist no matter how hi-tech it gets. The cycling cap is one of these so it seems a shame that on the podium, the showcase for the race, you always see baseball hats."

That quote, from cycling writer Bill Strickland, pretty nicely sums up a recent movement called Caps Not Hats. The movement got started as a reaction against the proliferation of baseball hats in the cycling ranks and on the victory podiums, which has pushed the traditional cycling cap out to the fringes.

Look at photos of racers of the past, in the days before helmets, and see how many don the little cap with the short brim as their only head gear while riding. Sometimes you'll see one tucked under a leather hairnet. And on the victory podiums, the caps were a regular sight. Nowadays, it's all baseball hats.

When did the change start? I could be wrong, but searching through old photos, I believe it started in 1989 -- Greg LeMond on the final podium at the Tour de France with his neon-pink Coors Light ball cap. LeMond regularly is credited as a pioneer in the use of carbon fiber frames, aero-bars, clipless pedals -- all things that make a Retrogrouch cringe (though I try not to hold it against him) -- but now I'm adding baseball hats to the list. No, he wasn't the first cyclist to wear a baseball hat on the winners podium. One could sometimes see them at American races, like the old Coors Classic of the 70s and 80s. Even Bernard Hinault wore one with his Coors Classic victory in '86 (and no Frenchman has won the Tour de France since Hinault -- a coincidence? Hmmm. . .). Since LeMond in '89, the baseball hat has almost completely supplanted the traditional cycling cap, even among the Europeans.

Let's look back a bit. . .

Coppi and Bartali in '49. It's hard to top that look.
It's actually not easy to find pictures of Jacques Anquetil with anything on his head -- probably didn't want to mess up that awesome hair.
There we go.
Can't leave out Merckx. 
LeMond with Hinault in 1985 -- the last time a Frenchman won the TdF.
LeMond and Hinault on the podium in '86. The tradition is still safe . . . for now.
Stephen Roche in '87.
Delgado bucks the trend with his headband in '88. Rooks and Parra stick to tradition.
1989. The tide turns . . .
By '92, there's Chiapucci, Indurain, and Bugno -- all with baseball hats.
Bjarne Riis, in '96, dons the traditional cap. Probably the last TdF winner to do so. Notice that Virenque is holding a baseball hat.
Jan Ullrich and Eric Zabel in '97. Mountains winner Virenque goes hat (and cap) less. 
Of course we know what this guy wore for all his wins. But there's Basso and Ullrich, wearing baseball hats, too, in '05.
Contador takes aim on tradition. . . and blows it away!
Froome, Wiggins, and Nibali in 2012. Two British, and one Italian rider -- not a cycling cap in sight. Froome would wear a baseball hat on the podium in 2013, and Nibali, too, in 2014.

All those photos are from the Tour de France, but look for pictures of podiums from any bicycle race in the last 20 years, and they all look pretty much the same. Baseball hats have taken over.

No Frenchman has won the TdF since Hinault in '85. I do have a completely crackpot theory that it has something to do with the fact that the definitively American baseball hat supplanted the traditional cycling cap among most racers. Nuts, I know, but think about it.

In my teens, this was the only head-wear I ever wore. It told
people "I'm a cyclist." No baseball hats for me. Period. 
The Caps Not Hats movement may be having a small, but hopefully growing impact on cycling, and I think it's a movement that can be embraced by Retrogrouches and technophiles alike. Mark Cavendish has been seen sporting the traditional cap more recently, as has the young American Taylor Phinney. Walz Cycling Caps has some CNH-logo'd caps available for people who want to promote the cause.

What else can I say? The traditional cap is one of those little items that tells people "I'm a cyclist" -- even when you're off the bike. Embrace it!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Classic Equipment: Silca Pumps

It was the pump that the shaggy, unshaven mechanic at my local bike shop swore by. It was a battered-looking old beast that had once been a deep, burnt orange color -- now chipped and battle-scarred, peppered with rust. The foil sticker that once bore the brand was partially torn off: "ilca" it now read. But I could still make out the little Columbus tubing sticker near the base of it.

"Columbus tubing? On a pump?" I asked.

"It's the best" he replied with a shrug.

The thing was solid and substantial. He let me try it out, and I was amazed at the smoothness of it. Pumping a narrow racing tire up to 100 psi was nothing. The gauge went up to well over 200 -- not that you'd ever need to do that. But just knowing you could . . .

I don't remember how much a Silca Pista pump sold for back then, though I remember it was a bit more than my unemployed student budget at the time could afford. But I knew I'd have to get one some day.

When I was a student at Kent State, we were about 40 miles from Youngstown, which was the home of Bike Nashbar. Nashbar had a warehouse outlet where you could go and get great deals on over-stocks, closeouts, returned goods, and more. A bunch of my bike-mad friends and I would occasionally pick a Saturday to pile into somebody's car and take a trip to the warehouse to do some bargain hunting. During one of our visits, I found the Silca Pista pump -- in a very 80s shade of pink -- marked down 1/2 off. Nothing wrong with it. Apparently nobody wanted pink. My friends teased me about the color, but what did I care? I wanted a Silca pump, and now I could get one.

That was about 30 years ago, and I still have my "Miami Vice" pink Silca Pista pump. The pink paint is now battered and peppered with rust, not unlike the first one I ever saw, but the little Columbus tubing sticker is still there. The pump still works great.

A few years ago my basement flooded, and the Silca was under water. It didn't work right after that, but the pump is totally rebuildable, and replacement parts are still available. A friend at my local bike shop had overhauled a couple of these in his time, so he took care of mine. He cleaned it all out, replaced the leather plunger, greased it up, and it was back to working like it should.

I still use it, though I've found (as many other cyclists have) that it is less than ideal for large-volume tires, like those on mountain bikes. It takes a lot (lots and lots) of pumping to fill a fat tire like that. No big deal. The larger "Super Pista" model apparently addresses that issue. It also is less than ideal when you need to switch over to schraeder-type valves, so I have a second pump out in the garage for the kids' bikes and the mountain bike. But the Silca is still my favorite, and is still there in my workshop, still pumping up tires on my classic road bikes. Something about it just feels right.

Silca Impero frame pumps were another classic bit of equipment. They were lightweight and easily fit along the seat tube or under the top tube. Like the Pista floor model, it was rebuildable. When it came to frame pumps, you either used the Zefal or the Silca. A lot of people swore by the Zefal. It was a little heavier (more metal, less plastic), and maybe even a little easier to use. The Silca took a little more "technique" to use, since the head didn't lock onto the valve stem like the Zefal's would. I figured it worked well enough to get you back on the road. What more did you need from a frame pump?

People would say the Zefal would last longer. But the Silca would last long enough if you didn't abuse it. And it was the classic choice. It came in a lot of colors, and many frame builders would paint them to match a custom frame. They didn't seem to do that with the Zefals so much. And Campagnolo made a chromed steel pump head for the Silca -- which was a cool bonus. The stock plastic head on the Silca was alright, but the Campy head looked better and would last indefinitely -- probably longer than the pump. I broke a Silca frame pump once -- cracked it over the head of a pursuing dog. I took the Campy head off and installed it on a new pump, which I still have. Someone told me once that the Zefal wouldn't have broken. Maybe not -- but it probably would have dented. How well would it work after that? Maybe OK, who knows?

The Impero frame pumps were discontinued some years back, but finding new-old-stock ones doesn't seem to be too difficult. I know there are some online bike shops that still list them for sale, and I've even been in a few older bike shops that had a big box of them tucked away in the back, and in a variety of lengths. The chromed Campagnolo heads still come up now and then on the vintage market. So it's still possible for lovers of the classics to keep using this blast from the past, and to keep them working like new.

A Little History:

The Silca company was founded in 1917 by Felice Sacchi in Italy. The Sacchi family, from son Giancarlo, through grandson Claudio, continued to own the company right into the first part of this millennium, making it the oldest company in the bicycling industry to be run continuously by a single family. The company claims to be the first to incorporate a pressure gauge into the base of the pump, and the first to make a frame pump that didn't need add-on clips to attach to a bicycle frame.

Last year, Claudio Sacchi died of cancer, but shortly before he died, he sold the Silca company to Josh Poertner, a former engineer with Zipp carbon wheels. Poertner moved the age-old Italian company to Indianapolis, where he is gearing up to revive the company. Silca had been in decline in recent years, finding it difficult to compete in the modern market with so much Asian competition, and some of its standby products were dropped. According to an article in Bike Retailer and Industry News (BRAIN), Poertner plans to mix old and new, tradition and innovation, to bring the company back to the forefront. While the company continues to source parts for the vintage pumps, it seems they may not have plans to re-release new versions of the old classics. Oh well.

Poertner says the original Silca was about innovating, and he plans to respect that. One of the first things Poertner did was to introduce a new stainless steel version of the classic brass pump head with an elastomer gasket in place of the old rubber one -- it's supposed to provide a better seal while lasting longer. In the BRAIN article, he says the company is working on a new pump that he hopes will be "unlike any pump ever sold." I didn't know that tire inflation was something that needed cutting edge technology, but I'm glad I should still be able to get parts for my old favorites.

If you search Google for Silca pumps, you'll find there are a lot of people who adore the old things as much as I do. They take pictures of them and post them on Flickr, Tumblr, and other photo sharing sites. One can even find t-shirts and musette bags with the Silca logo on them. It may be a bit surprising, but just like great old vintage bikes, we still find ourselves drawn to them in spite of the fact that newer "improved" options might be available. Is it simply nostalgia? Or is it because in a throwaway and disposable world, we place a certain value on things that are simple, durable, and rebuildable?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bicycles Aren't Fast

It's true. Bicycles aren't fast. Until someone gets on and starts pedaling, they are basically stationary objects. And as far as speed goes, it has much more to do with the engine (that's you or me) than the bike.

No surprise to me, and maybe not to regular readers of The Retrogrouch -- but the surprise was finding that essential idea written in an article on VeloNews: Bike Weight and the Myth of "Fast" Bikes. The article is basically an excerpt from the book FASTER: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed, by Jim Gourley. I don't care much about triathlons (I bike and I run, but as far as I'm concerned, swimming is something you do to keep from drowning), but I may have to add this one to my reading list.

"Let's clear something up," says Gourley. "There is no such thing as a 'fast bike.' Bikes are neither fast nor slow. Bikes are shiny or expensive. Bikes have a lot of mass or a little. . . Of all the equipment on your bike, your legs are the most critical component. There are plenty of nice bikes on the road that are being ridden slowly." He then adds, "But more insidious than inaccurate vocabulary is a simple overestimation of how much bike weight matters for most riding."

Agreed. Consider the drive towards less and less weight - at the expense of durability: Carbon fiber frames that may or may not be "temporary" investments, carbon fiber wheels, cranks, seat posts, handlebars and stems -- stupid-light components, all of which drive up the cost of high-end bikes, and compromise the reliability and durability in the name of more "speed." Gourley looks at the cost of these and compares it to the perceived benefits, which turn out to be far less significant than people are led to believe.

An odd detail (to me) is that in Gourley's hypothetical comparison between two riders going uphill, the "heavy" bike is 15 pounds, and the "lighter" bike is under 12. I know there are now bikes weighing even less than that, but I'm a bit aghast to think that 15 pounds is now considered "heavy." Nevertheless, the point he makes is more about the 3.2 pounds difference between the two bikes, and how the difference in power necessary to keep both bikes going the same speed is so insignificant that it barely registers on the chart.

Gourley makes the point that one cannot just look at the weight of the bikes, but that one has to consider the weight of the rider as well. Grant Petersen makes that same point in his book Just Ride, and I've argued the same in other posts. I've also argued about it with cyclist friends who obsess about bike weight. But it's a point that many weight weenies seem to ignore.

The article states, "3.21 pounds is just over 2 percent of the total weight of our 150-pound cyclist and 15 pound bike. Ten watts is 2 percent of the 500-watt power requirement to maintain speed up a 10 percent grade. . . The implication is a bitter pill, though. If you want to reduce the power requirement by 1 percent, you have to reduce the total mass that's moving up the hill by 1 percent. And because you're moving both your body and the bike up the hill, a measly 1 percent equates to a whole lot of grams before you see returns on your carbon investment."

That "investment" gets awfully expensive, too. Gourley estimates that saving 500 grams on a bike can add about $500 to the price -- something that wouldn't surprise me, but I'd like to investigate it.

The article does draw a distinction between professional racers and the rest of us. The pros are at the peak of their physical fitness and performance level -- and closely matched with one another. At that level, the differences in weight, and watts, and even just a couple of seconds, just might mean the difference between winning and losing. It's also worth noting that those guys don't have to buy their own bikes. But for most people, and for most riding, it just doesn't matter. A fast rider will still be fast, even on that "heavy" 15 pound bike -- or a 20 pound bike, for that matter.

There we go -- another book for my reading list.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bike Boom Bargains

As described in my article on the American Bike Boom of the 70s, millions of bicycles were sold during the Boom, but just because people bought the bikes doesn't mean they actually rode them. Barns, basements, and garages all over America have been hiding innumerable examples of bikes from the Boom and the decade that followed, many of them having barely ever been ridden. Some of those 70s era machines, while dated, could still make decent riders -- city bikes, commuting workhorses, etc. -- without breaking the bank.

Raleigh Record -- selling for about $50 on eBay. The Record
was a lower-priced model from Raleigh -- nowhere near
as nice as their Reynolds 531-built models, but lots of
update/upgrading possibilities here. Somebody already
 replaced the saddle on this one.
The biggest sellers during the era were in the lower-to-mid end of the market -- the lowest-of-the-low being those made for the discount department stores. Those bikes are truly horrible and should be avoided. But many bikes in the lower price range had decent (though a bit heavy) frames. Some examples would be the Peugeot UO-8 and the Raleigh Record or Grand Prix models. Components on these bikes were typically lacking. Expect to find steel-rimmed wheels, steel cottered cranks, and lots of other steel parts. Typical derailleurs would be Huret Allvit or the plastic Simplex units. Some of the Japanese models, like the Fuji "Special Racer" and "Special Tourer" were often a bit better than their European counterparts, as their Shimano or SunTour derailleurs worked better than the others. That, and the Japanese frames at that price level were often built better -- uneven brazing being an occasional problem on some low-end European bikes where workers were building as fast as possible to keep up with the demand. Well-built but super heavy, the Schwinn Varsity would be another example from the low-end category -- one of the best sellers of the time.

This orange Fuji Special Tourer and the purple one below
were being sold as a pair. Well made, but the cottered crank
and steel rims mark it as a lower priced bike from the time.
Still, with a few selective updates, it would make a great
rider with classic style.
While components on the low-end bikes were definitely lacking, those parts can be changed pretty easily. However -- factor the cost of upgrading components into the purchase price of the bike. Upgrading these lower-end bikes is kind of debatable as some will say it isn't worthwhile. They aren't really collectible, and will never be worth a lot in resale. I say it depends on how much you like the bike and how much of a bargain you get on it. Expect to pay a lot more for a vintage bike on eBay (prices for individual components can be a different story). Typically, if someone is selling the bike on eBay, they already have an idea that it's worth something (even if it's not!) and will expect a higher price. With bikes like this, the real bargains are at yard and garage sales, where you can often get them for $50 or less -- but of course, that means a lot more time and effort searching.

This Fuji Special Tourer, and the orange one above
 were on eBay recently from the same seller --
asking $300 for the pair. Both bikes looked to be
virtually new. 
Mid-level bikes from the Bike Boom could be pretty nice. Look for lugged frames and frame tubing stickers that identify a better-quality tubing. Some mid-level bikes might have Reynolds tubing (either the straight-gauge version -- or perhaps the 3 main tubes only), or Vitus or something else. Japanese bikes might be labeled with Tange or Ishiwata -- maybe a manganese alloy, occasionally chrome-moly, or something like Fuji's Valite tubing. Aluminum rimmed wheels are a nice feature on some of the mid-range bikes, which means one less thing that needs to be updated, assuming they are in good shape. Though some mid-level bikes from the period still had cottered cranks, the better ones would have some kind of cotterless model. In the early 70s, even some high end bikes still came with center pull brakes, so don't let that throw you off. Schwinn's mid-level bikes, like the Sport Touring and Superior models look at first glance very similar to their low-end Varsity, but look more closely to see a sticker identifying them as having chrome-moly tubing. Those bike are lugless -- fillet-brazed -- and some of them sell for more money than one might expect (a lot of people have a soft spot for old Schwinns -- myself included). Making component upgrades/updates on these bikes is subject to less debate, but one should still consider the cost of those upgrades -- set a reasonable budget and try not to exceed it. Try to remember that bikes like these are not financial investments, but they can be very nice to ride, which is a completely different kind of value.

This Schwinn LeTour looks like it was never ridden. Spotted
on eBay for $175 (a little more than what it probably sold
for when new). Made in Japan, these came decently equipped
with Shimano derailleurs and a cotterless aluminum crank. 
As far as component upgrades go, steel-rimmed wheels are really heavy, and braking with steel rims (especially in the wet) is terrible. Aluminum-rimmed replacement wheels make a big difference, but are also probably the most expensive item to upgrade. Searching online, one can sometimes find pretty basic, no-frills replacements for around $100 - 150 a pair. Used wheels in good condition, especially in the 27" size (630 ISO), can be found for less. Aluminum cotterless cranks are another good upgrade -- lighter, and a lot easier to install/remove for maintenance -- and clean, lightly used vintage models from Sugino and Sakae/SR can often be found on eBay pretty cheap. Most of these bikes came with center pull brakes, which could be okay or not -- it depends on the brand and model. If one decides to keep the brakes, I would recommend at the very least replacing the cables and pads with more modern versions, which will improve the feel and stopping power a lot. Derailleurs are some of the cheapest and easiest components to upgrade -- good, lightly used derailleurs can be found for only a few bucks, and models from as far back as the 80s will often work as well as modern ones. Even lower-end modern derailleurs can be found pretty cheap, and work nearly as well as their more expensive brethren (something that was not true in the early 70s). Some more extra weight can be dropped from these bikes by replacing steel seat posts, handlebars, and the like -- but those are less important upgrades. Let the budget be the guide. The resulting bikes can offer a nice ride with a lot of that classic style that's missing from most bikes today.

An image from an early-70s Raleigh catalog. The International
and Professional were good examples of the higher-end Bike
Boom cycles. Reynolds 531 throughout, and Campy components.
Higher-end bikes from the Bike Boom and the rest of the 70s can be real classics. Raleigh's Professional and International models, Peugeot's PX-10, Gitane's Tour de France, the Schwinn Paramount, and many more, were built with high-quality tubing (usually Reynolds 531, but Columbus or Super Vitus could also be found on some models) and most were equipped with good componentry throughout. Look for cotterless aluminum cranks, like Campagnolo, Stronglight, or TA. Campagnolo parts are a good sign of quality and value in general, though some good bikes from the period will have Campy Nuovo Record components all around, except for the brakes which might be center pulls. Some of the French bikes in this category might still have those awful plastic Simplex derailleurs (replace that with a vintage Simplex Super LJ, and you've really got something there). A lot of the higher-end bikes were equipped with tubular/sew-up tires.

These higher-end bikes are definitely worth keeping and riding, and very few changes would be needed for a lot of them. Because these bikes are usually worth more, and some of them might even have collector value, it might be worthwhile to keep them "period correct." If one wants to update components to make the bike more friendly to their current riding style (such as wanting clinchers instead of tubulars, or a change in gearing, for example), I might suggest keeping the original parts set aside so the bike could be returned to its original state should one decide to resell it someday. With the lower- and mid-range bikes, I wouldn't hesitate to re-paint or even powder coat a frame with battered paint -- but with these higher-end models, or any bike with some collector value, I might be reluctant to do anything that would lower the value, or which couldn't be undone later. Having said that, I should also make clear that the bikes I'm describing here were still mass-produced in huge numbers in big factories, so don't feel too paranoid about making changes to them if it makes the riding experience more enjoyable. They were meant to be ridden, after all.

If someone wants more info on some of the classic bikes and models from the 70s, I'd suggest looking into the Classic Rendezvous site. For more useful info on updating Bike Boom era bikes, the late Sheldon Brown's website has a lot of tips.

Overall, the bikes from the Bike Boom era have a lot of classic style, and it's a shame so many of them sit languishing. If someone finds one of these bikes and gets a decent deal on the price -- again, garage sales are where the bargains are -- there are some worthwhile upgrades that can make them sweet-riding bikes. Vintage bikes like these are satisfying to get back on the road, and will very likely turn heads wherever you ride.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The American Bike Boom - 1970s

I've been reading that bicycles have outsold cars for the last few years in the U.S. and in many other countries long dominated by cars. Even during recent downturns when bicycles sales have fallen, apparently the sales of cars in those years have fallen more, keeping the bicycle ahead. Many people would probably be surprised by that news, but it gets me thinking about another time when bicycle sales outstripped cars in this country -- the American Bike Boom of the early 1970s.

The early 70s Bike Boom saw a huge bubble in which bicycle sales more than doubled practically overnight, only to see those gains almost completely erased when the boom went bust a few years later. Nevertheless, the Bike Boom marked a major shift in the American bicycle market, and sowed the seeds for huge changes in the manufacture and sales of bicycles and components around the world.

Sales chart from a 1978 AAA report.
Though bike sales, like any commodity, saw their ups and downs, in general there was overall a long-term growth trend, with small, incremental increases from year to year. For example, U.S. bicycle sales totaled about 2 million in 1950, around 4 million in 1960, about 6 million in '65, and about 7 million in 1970. Suddenly, in 1971, sales shot to 9 million bicycles. In '72, the numbers went to nearly 14 million. 1973 was the peak, with more than 15 million bicycles sold. The number fell back slightly to 14 million in '74. The bubble burst in 1975, with sales dropping back to their pre-boom level of 7 million. (AAA Report)

A lot of people mistakenly believe the Boom was caused by the oil embargo and the resulting shortages at the fuel pumps -- but the OPEC oil embargo didn't hit until the end of '73, and as the numbers above show, the Boom was well under way before that happened. So then, why did Americans suddenly start buying bicycles in ever greater numbers?

Could this have helped kick off the Bike Boom?
One of the better accounts I've read about the American Bike Boom was an article by Frank Berto that appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of The Rivendell Reader, #19 (most of the info can also be found in his book, The Dancing Chain). Citing a study conducted by Schwinn in the later 70s, Berto concluded that one of the major factors leading to the Boom was the "High-Rise," "Muscle-Bike," "Wheelie Bike," or "Sting-Ray" (call them what you will) bike fad of the 1960s. That fad got a lot of kids riding bikes, and in many cases, kept them riding past the age when they would have normally traded in their bikes for a set of car keys. Now, I'm summarizing a bit and leaving out a lot of detail, but essentially the assertion is made that the same kids who were riding those Sting-Rays and other muscle-bikes went on to "graduate," if you will, to the "10-speeds" that practically came to define the notion of the Bike Boom bicycles. By the way, I think it's worth noting that a lot of those muscle-bikes (at least the higher-end and more desirable ones) were often multi-speed derailleur-equipped bikes -- so it would seem like a natural progression that the kids would want to move up to the fast and exotic-seeming (at the time) 10-speeds that were starting to hit the market in greater numbers.

Another thing that contributed to the Bicycle Boom was the economic condition at the time for that other Boom -- the Baby Boom generation. Simply through their massive numbers the Baby Boomers had the ability to make big waves with any fad or trend they jumped onto. As Boomers came of age, reaching their teens and young adulthood, they also happened to be financially more independent than previous generations at the same age, having more disposable income to spend on discretionary purchases. Bicycles turned out to be one of those things they wanted to spend that money on.

Many people also believe there was a bit of a "counterculture" element to the Bike Boom. The previous generations -- the "establishment," if you will, were very much about cars -- the ultimate American status symbol. The new, younger generation was ready to question the priorities. There was definitely a different consciousness, and more interest in the environment, and bicycles probably fit into that idealism. Don't forget that the first "Earth Day" happened in April of 1970. In all I've read about the Bike Boom, nobody ever seems to mention that specifically, but I don't think it's an unrelated coincidence that Baby Boomers were finding bicycles to be an exciting alternative in the next couple of years.

The Bike Boom re-shaped the American bicycle market tremendously. Up until that point, bicycles were primarily seen as "toys" for kids. Few people rode bikes once they got their drivers' licenses. The American market was heavily dominated by kids' bikes -- like the 16" and 20" wheeled bicycles for younger children (say, age 4 - 9), middleweight 24" wheeled bikes for those older kids (say, 9 - 12), and middleweight or heavyweight (determined mainly by tire width) 26" wheeled bikes for the young teens. The "lightweight" category, aimed at older teens and adults, was more or less defined back then by 26 - 27" wheels with tires less than 1-3/4" wide (multi-speeds, whether internal hub or derailleur-equipped, were often a feature of the category as well). Of all those various market segments, the lightweight category typically accounted for no more than 10% of sales prior to the Bike Boom.

According to a Schwinn study, in the 60s, with the muscle-bike fad, the 20" category grew tremendously, but mostly at the expense of the 24" segment which took a huge hit (the late Sheldon Brown described that development as regrettable, and the 24" market never really recovered). During the Boom, the lightweight category exploded, growing to 37% in 1971, and peaking at 73% in 1974. Even after the bust, lightweights would continue to account for anywhere from 40% to 50% of the market for years after the Boom ended.

Another way the bicycle market was forever changed was through a shift in the manufacturing centers for the industry. With the huge increase in American demand for bicycles, the industry struggled to keep up. The big, well-known bicycle brands, like Schwinn, Raleigh, Peugeot, and others were at full capacity. The established component manufacturers, centered mainly in Europe, were also at full capacity and unable to meet the demand. For some brands, (especially in the lower price ranges) quality suffered in the attempt to increase production. Some manufacturers, distributers, and other companies, in order to fill the gaps in supply, turned to new sources -- and Japanese companies were ready.

The Schwinn Varsity was one of the best selling "10-speeds"
of the Bike Boom era.
Schwinn is a good example of what changes happened, but the story was repeated to some extent with many of the established makers. With bicycle orders far exceeding their production capacity, Schwinn started importing bicycles from Japan, badged "Schwinn Approved," and built by either Bridgestone or National Mfg/Panasonic. The Chicago-built 10-speeds that were the big sellers of the time were the Varsity and the Continental. They had heavy "electro-forged" (i.e. flash welded) frames, one-piece steel "Ashtabula" cranks, and Huret Allvit derailleurs. The Continental sold for about $15 more than the Varsity, and for that extra charge, one got tubular-steel fork blades, as opposed to the Varsity's flat-looking forged fork. The Japanese-built Schwinn World Traveler had a lugged steel frame, and Shimano derailleurs. It was priced about the same or slightly below the Varsity, weighed less, and worked better. How this would affect the American giant in the long run is practically a cautionary tale. In the face of how the Japanese-built Schwinns stacked up against the American-built models, did Schwinn take steps to make their domestic models better? Nope. They continued making bikes like the Varsity with nothing more than color and decal changes right into the early 80s (I realize there were probably a number of reasons for that, but I don't think anyone can deny that complacency was one of them).

Likewise, as some of the major component makers from Europe, like Huret, Simplex, and others, were unable to meet the demand, companies like Sugino, Shimano and SunTour stepped up to fill the gaps, and often provided better components for the money. A Shimano Lark derailleur had a similar design to the Simplex Prestige, but was all steel (as opposed to the plastic "delrin" Simplex), much more durable, and shifted more reliably. A slant-parallelogram SunTour cost less than a Huret Allvit and shifted better than anything else at the time.

Bicycle manufactures, like Fuji, Nishiki, and others, found many buyers willing to give a Japanese brand a try -- and were pleased with what they got. On the whole, the American market was opened up to the Japanese brands, and they proved to be some of the best bargains of the era in the lower-to-mid priced levels (where the bulk of Bike Boom sales were) -- offering the best performance and reliability for the money. When the Boom went bust in '75, those companies that survived were well placed to increase their share, eventually dominating the European brands.

When sales skyrocketed at the start of the decade, all kinds of people jumped into the bicycle business, but it didn't last. In a way, it was just another fad, and even the long lines at the gas pumps in '74 didn't keep the sales going into the next year. People have short memories, I guess. It also hurt that the fuel shortages led to economic downturn and inflation, so things were tough all over. After gearing up for huge production in the previous couple of years, 1975 found bike manufacturers and shops sitting on tons of unsold inventory. Many of the startups fell on hard times, and many went under.

The effects of the bust were just as dramatic as the boom, but the whole cycle completely changed the bicycle market for years to come. America became a major market for adult-style multi-speed bikes. Japanese companies gained major inroads to the market, and supplanted the established European brands both for components and complete bicycles.

After the boom ended, bicycle sales in the U.S. went back to their gradual rising trend -- some years good, some years taking a downturn, but generally trending upwards. Sales figures climbed more steeply in the early 80s as mountain bikes became the next big thing, and eventually by the 90s the numbers reached, and even exceeded -- the same levels they had attained at the peak of the boom in the 70s.