Monday, July 6, 2015

How Aero Can You Go?

In the never-ending quest for more incremental gains in speed, Specialized has a new weapon with which performance addicts can max out their credit cards: the Specialized S-Works Venge ViAS aero road bike. The bike-blogosphere is all a-tingle over the $12,500 aerodynamic wünderbike.

Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish will both be riding these things in this year's Tour de France.
Their teammates, however, will not.
"Explosive next-gen aero bike aces wind tunnel and McLaren data modeling tests" cries one blog. "Yes, the Venge ViAS is faster. Much faster." The big claim which keeps getting repeated by every cheerleading blog is that Specialized says that the bike will save a rider 120 seconds over 40 kilometers.

There is a pretty sketchy catch to that claim, though. Read on.

One of the secrets to the bike's aerodynamic slipperiness are these special faired-in brakes. I'm assuming they are unique to this particular bike, and they look like they'd be a nightmare to work on. 
Numerous details combine to lower the bike's drag coefficient -- from a special low-profile stem and handlebars to integrated brakes. Everything's proprietary, too, so there'll be no home-mechanic alterations or "upgrades" down the road. Deep-section aerodynamic wheels round out the package. The bike is the first to be fully developed in Specialized's wind tunnel, which they call the "Win Tunnel" (very cheeky), and the target for its efficiency was the company's own Shiv time-trial bike. The company brags that every tube profile has been scrutinized and "massaged" to make it more aerodynamically efficient.

So, what about that 120 seconds over 40 km claim?

The comparison is not between competing aero road bikes, but rather, between the Venge ViAS and the company's own Tarmac "normal" road bike. To make the claims more blurry, the tests consisted of the rider on the Venge wearing an aero skin suit and aerodynamic helmet, while the rider on the Tarmac was wearing more "standard" bike clothing and helmet. Even Specialized's own calculations say that about half of the time savings could be attributed to those differences.

Here's a telling quote from one of the cheerleading sites:

"Before the launch was held, there was heated debate inside the company about whether inviting journalists to test in this way was a good idea. What if the results weren't impressive? Perhaps this is why we tested aero setup vs standard setup instead of just the bikes themselves with identical clothing and helmet. Nonetheless, even if the bike difference was half, it is still a huge difference."

Umm. . . no, it really isn't.

More than that, though, is the fact that much of the calculating comes from computer modeling and lab testing -- but every company that pushes some new technological breakthrough loves to point to lab tests that "prove" their new product will save X seconds over Y miles. How much of that holds up to "real world" riding or racing, though? Can a bike that's being raced in the middle of a peloton deliver on that promise of time saved? Or will the effect of riding in a pack (even at the front of that pack) negate most of the claims in the heat of competition?

Lastly, unless someone is a top-level professional racer, what does it even matter?

Only a skeptical and cynical retrogrouch would bother to ask those questions, though. The performance-addicts will happily put themselves into debt over those questionable 120 seconds.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Another Opinion on Bike Weight

The Retrogrouch is still working with limited internet access. But if you checked in here for something new to read, here's a little something to tide you over.

I've written about bike weight before - and how obsessing about it is a pointless thing. To my mind, things like comfort, convenience, durability, reliability, and beauty are all more important than weight. My bikes are all steel. My components are always aluminum or steel. My wheels have 32 or 36 spokes. I like fenders because if the roads are wet, their usefulness more than offsets whatever weight they add to my bike. I like racks and nice-quality (and attractive) saddlebags and/or panniers - again, because when I need to carry things, their utility is worth every ounce of weight. I'd much rather carry loads on my bike than on my back.

Some months back, I encountered this post from Hiawatha Cyclery in the Minneapolis area. In it, there is another viewpoint on weight (HERE). The writer, Jim, pretty much agrees with things I've said myself - but it's nice to read the way someone else might put it.

Here's an excerpt:

"I don't weigh my bikes. Every part or accessory on my bike was put there for a good reason, and usually that reason is much more of a priority than the 'weight penalty' of using that part or accessory. My bike gets me to work, allows me to have some offroad fun along the way, and haul a load of groceries on the way home. I've accepted that this level of versatility involves a compromise. To torture a car analogy, I'm opting for the versatility of the SUV, rather than the fun impracticality of the 2-seater sport coupe. Even though I don't really care what my bike weighs, when I'm looking at bikes and components, I often take note of what they weigh for reasons that aren't directly about weight. This is especially true of tires and, to a lesser extent, rims. Lightweight tires tend to be more supple and have a better ride quality, which is a priority for me. A lot of the negative associations people have about heavy bikes are the result of lousy-rolling tires. And the weight of a rim can indicate whether it was designed for big hit dirt jumping or for superlight road racing - I'd rather not mix up the two. Weights of handlebars and seatposts and derailleurs and such aren't on my radar."

Hiawatha Cyclery, by the way, was the kind of bike shop that catered more to commuters, tourists and "bicycle lifestyle" types of riders - as opposed to the racer wannabes that seem to dominate some shops.  Unfortunately, I just read that the shop is in the process of closing up even as I write this now. I'm sorry to hear that.

I expect to be back to more regular posts next week.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Saddlewax Vintage Saddle Archive

The Retrogrouch has limited internet access for the next few days - so blog updates will be likewise limited. But if you checked in for something new today, I don't want to leave you totally frustrated. So I have here a link to a website I recently found that turned out to be a pretty good resource for vintage bicycle enthusiasts. The Saddlewax Bicycle Saddle Archive has a lot of cool information on saddles from around the world - including pictures of different models, catalog scans, and other info. I found it useful when trying to find some information on older Brooks leather saddles, and also on older Cinelli Unicanitor saddles.

I'm not sure how long the site has been there, but it is still listed as "under construction." The page master is Amir, a bicycle collector whom I have encountered from time to time with the Classic Rendezvous group, and I believe we've bought or sold vintage bike components to/from each other once or twice in the past.

Amir is also interested in expanding the information on the site, so if you have anything to contribute -- from interesting older saddles, photos, catalogs, advertisements or more -- there is contact info on the site. Check it out if you get a chance.

Friday, June 26, 2015

All-Road: Another Must-Have Bike Category?

Now that you've been convinced to get yourself a "Gravel" bike to replace your "Cyclocross" bike (which was totally unsuited for riding on gravel, you know) there's another new bike you have to add to your stable. Are you ready for "All-Road" bikes?

Can you put fenders on that?
I'm not sure I know exactly how an All-Road bike differs from the Gravel bikes of last year, or how those Gravel bikes were so different from Cyclocross bikes before them. But if the new Cannondale Slate is an indication, I suppose the difference is that it should have a suspension fork (?). Yep. Riding on unpaved roads now requires suspension forks. Or at least, I think that's the implication here. And once people become convinced that a road bike needs suspension forks, it's only a matter of time before full-suspension becomes the "next big thing" for the road.

I always considered this something
of an "All-Road" bike. "Too bad it
doesn't have suspension" though.

Call me skeptical. I mean, I'm not even convinced suspension is needed on most mountain bikes for cryin' out loud. That doesn't stop people from looking at my early '80s vintage Stumpjumper and saying "Cool bike! Too bad it doesn't have suspension!" But built up with mustache bars and semi-slick tires, it seems to have the ability to handle just about any kind of road surface, paved or otherwise, and a lot of off-road trails, too.

The Cannondale Slate is generating a lot of buzz with its 650B wheels and its "Lefty" single-sided suspension fork with 30mm of travel. The company released a video of the new bike featuring cyclocross racer Tim Johnson. They declare the bike to be a "whole new type of bike" that's not about racing. The video then goes on to show the bike being ridden . . . well. . . like a race bike. It's also "much more capable" the project director declares. Well - yeah - it can go places a narrowly focused race bike can't go. But there are lots of bikes already available that can do the same thing. If you're reading this blog, you probably already have one. They're not exactly new.

Don't get me wrong - I love the fact that people are getting excited about bikes that can fit fatter tires and handle the rough stuff. But there's more to being "much more capable" than having fatter tires and being able to ride on unpaved roads. Can the bike accommodate fenders? I don't think the Slate can. Unpaved roads get pretty nasty when it rains, though. Can it handle racks? I don't think the Slate can do that, either. But there are lots of bikes that can handle nimbly on the road, and still let a person explore the unpaved wonders -- and even keep the rider reasonably dry, comfortable, and unburdened.

That's a "capable" bike.
When I first got into bikes, touring bikes were all the rage. They were meant mostly for paved adventures, but were capable of much more. A lot of lightly-used vintage examples are still out there, available for next to nothing. Updated with newer wheels and tires (in some cases, they can be converted easily to 650B) and they can become even more versatile. The ability to accommodate large-volume tires isn't new, either -- it's just that people kind of forgot about it as road bikes became more and more focused on racing (despite the fact that few people actually race). Funny thing, I have a 1973 Mercian Superlight that is currently shod with 32 mm tires, and it still has tons of clearance -- and that was a high-end racing bike in its day! Bikes with decent tire clearance have long been out there, but until recently, they weren't the bikes getting all the attention.

All-Road bikes. The latest "must have" market segment, in a market that keeps getting sliced narrower and narrower. Enjoy them while you can -- before the industry moves on to the next big thing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bianchi L'Eroica Bike

I'm guessing that any fan of vintage and classic bicycles is familiar with the L'Eroica ride events. Having begun in Italy, participating riders mount vintage bicycles (pre-1987, according to the rules) and ride over the white roads of Italian wine country. L'Eroica is a celebration of classic bikes, good wine and food, and all things Italian.

Back in April, Bianchi announced that they would be releasing a new vintage-inspired bicycle  model in honor of their global sponsorship of the L'Eroica events. The L'Eroica rides have expanded to include rides in the US, Japan, Spain, and the UK, in addition to the original Italian event.

According to the Bianchi press release, the new L'Eroica model would be made in Italy, have a custom build kit including Campagnolo components and a Brooks leather saddle, and would be certified by the L'Eroica commission for use in any of their events. I know there was a lot of speculation, and even some skepticism about what the new model would be like among vintage bike enthusiasts.

The Tipo Corsa frame set. Not the
basis of the new Bianchi L'Eroica bike.
In the Classicrendezvous group for instance, some wondered if it was just going to be a complete bike built around the company's Tipo Corsa steel frame set. At first glance, that might seem like a decent plan -- though sharp-eyed critics would note that, while the Tipo Corsa frame is lugged steel and has a vintage-inspired paint scheme, it has a rather unfortunate-looking "dog-leg" of a fork rake, and is likely made somewhere in Asia -- not Italy. It gets close to the mark for some. Falls short for others.

Well, at long last, this past weekend at the L'Eroica Brittania, participants in that event got what may have been (at least to my knowledge) the first public glimpses of the new model. Wesley Hatakeyama, of the California L'Eroica event, was there at the UK ride and snapped a few pictures at the Bianchi tent (thanks for sharing, Wes!). Some will be thrilled at what they see. Others may be slightly let down. But let's take a look at the new bike.

At first look, it does appear to be a different frame than the Tipo Corsa. Note the chromed lugs, lower fork legs, and partial rear triangle. It does appear to have a more graceful fork rake too. Wes reiterated that the frame is built in Italy, not Asia.
The bike has Dia Compe centerpull brakes and looks like it offers a ton of tire clearance. Large-volume tires are recommended on the L'Eroica rides, as many of the roads are unpaved. Downtube shift levers (a must, according to the L'Eroica rulebook) look like Dia Compe ratcheting levers. Interesting detail: brake cable clips on the top tube instead of brazed-on guides.

Campagnolo derailleurs and a 10-speed cassette -- surprisingly legal for L'Eroica. I'm not positive about the crank, but it looks like a Dia Compe ENE with a 3-arm spider. The large-flange hubs are probably also made by Dia Compe.

Dia Compe ENE crank. 
It appears that when the folks at Bianchi announced that the bike would be built with Campagnolo components, they only meant the derailleurs. Then again, I wondered how they were going to get modern Campy to fit the L'Eroica rules. Most of the other components seem to be made by Dia Compe -- which to somebody like me is fine. The parts are well made and look good. But if somebody was hoping for a full-Campagnolo bike to accommodate the rules of a vintage bike ride, they were maybe being a bit unrealistic.

So, what are the rules?

Here are some relevant points: "Historical Bikes (also called Bici Eroiche, in Italian) are all road racing bikes built in 1987 or earlier . . . These bicycles most likely have a steel frame . . . must have shift levers on the down tube of the frame; exceptions include pre-1980 non indexed bar-end gear shifters and rod/hand manual operated front derailleurs . . . pedals should be with toe clips and straps . . . the brake cables must pass outside and over the handlebars . . . wheels must have at least 32 spokes laced to a low profile rim (20 mm depth or less, except for the wood rims); the rims must be of either steel, aluminum or wood . . . both tubular tyres and clinchers with inner tubes are allowed . . . we invite participants to fit saddles from the same period of the bicycles, so a model of 1987 or earlier, or a vintage model of modern production such as Brooks leather saddles, Cinelli replicas, San Marco, etc."

And this section deals particularly with the acceptance of newer bikes made with a vintage style:

"Vintage-Looking Bikes with steel frame from new or recent construction with vintage look and characteristics may be used only if they are road racing bikes assembled using vintage components or replicated parts similar to the original as described above. In particular if the bikes are inspired by the design of road racing bicycles of the 1970’s and 1980’s, they must comply with rules a), b), and c) above, regarding shift levers, toe clips and straps, and brake cables."

Notice that it doesn't mention anything about the number of gears on the rear wheel.

I haven't seen anything about a price for the new bike. Even Bianchi's website doesn't have pictures of the bike or any further information about it. (I don't know if anybody out there has as much information as what you're getting right here right now!). The quality of the frame is probably very good, and while some may be disappointed at the component choices, it seems to me that they are of high quality, and should help keep the price reasonable. Now we just have to get the official word from Bianchi.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Old Mercian Catalog - 1969

Going through a box of old magazines and catalogs, I came across this Mercian Cycles catalog from 1969. Regular Retrogrouch readers know I've been a big Mercian fan for a lot of years and have eight of them -- from a 1973 Superlight to a 2012 Vincitore. The only models I don't have are a tandem, and a "Miss Mercian" ladies model. As far as that goes, somebody had a really nice '70s-era ladies model in a mixte configuration with a lot of cool French components on eBay recently, and I thought about getting it for my wife, but I took a little too long to think about it and somebody snatched it up with a "buy it now" option. Oh well.

The front of the catalog lists W. Betton and his family as company directors -- Bill Betton, one of Mercian's frame builders, had purchased the company in 1965 from Ethel Crowther, who was the ex-wife of one of Mercian's founders, Tom Crowther. The catalog also lists the shop location as 191 London Road, Derby. They would move out of that location a couple years later, in 1971. The current shop is on Shardlow Road in Alvaston, which is very near Derby.

I scanned the catalog and thought I'd share the images here.

The first pages include the company guarantee, and a description of the Professional model, which they say was first introduced in 1967 for the Mercian-Bantel pro racing team. The Professional is easily identified by the extra-long spearpoint tangs on the bottom bracket shell.
The next pages have pictures of some of the head lugs used - for the Vincitore, the King of Mercia, and the Superlight models, as well as the wrapover seat stay treatment. There is also a description of the Superlight model, which has lugs which are decorative, yet cut down to the minimum.
The next pages describe the Vincitore with its elaborate hand-cut lugs, the King of Mercia model, the Super Vigorelli track/time trial model, and the Olympique "all-rounder."
The Campionissimo was a pretty standard all-round road machine - and the only complete bicycle listed in the Mercian lineup. Everything else was sold as a frame set, to be built up with the owner's choice of parts.

These two insert pages listed the full range of frame options and renovation/repair costs. I know it was 1969, but the prices still seem unbelievably low.

And here is the price list for the frames.  £25 for a new Vincitore? Oh, to have a time machine.
I hope you enjoyed this little blast from the past. I have a couple other old catalogs as well - I'll probably put them up in upcoming posts.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Cannibal Turns 70

Few people can be said to have dominated their respective sports the way that Eddy Merckx dominated bicycle racing from the late 60s through most of the 70s.

A much younger Eddy Merckx, wearing yellow in the '69
Tour de France.
Born in Belgium on June 17, 1945, Merckx began racing in 1961 and eventually racked up some 80 wins as an amateur before turning pro in 1965. He spent that first year with the Solo/Superia team, then moved over to the Peugeot-BP-Michelin team through 1967. With Peugeot, Merckx competed in his first Giro d'Italia, and won two editions of Milan San-Remo.

From 1968 - 1970, Merckx rode with the Faema team - and during those years he won 4 Grand Tours and 8 Classics. He won his first Tour de France in 1969 with a performance so completely dominating that he got not only the Yellow Jersey for the General Classification, but he also won the Green Jersey for Points Leader, the Mountains Classification (which would later become the Polka Dot Jersey), the Combined Classification, and the Combativity Award. Had the "Best Young Rider" category existed in 1969, he'd have won that too. In addition the Faema team won the Team Classification. In that TdF appearance, Merckx earned the nickname "the Cannibal" for the way he devoured the competition.

An older Eddy - Still has that fierce stare, though.
From 1971 to 1976, he raced with the Molteni team and won 6 more grand tours, including a Triple Crown (Giro d'Italia, Tour de France, and World Championship in the same season) a bunch more classics, and set a new Hour Record. He had won the Tour de France 4 times in a row before being asked by TdF organizers not to compete in 1973. He came back and won it again in '74, tying the record with Jacques Anquetil. His 1972 Hour Record would stand unbeaten for 12 years (or longer if one considers various UCI rule changes that have happened in the intervening years). His performance started to decline after 1976 and he retired after the 1978 season. With some help from Ugo DeRosa, who built some of Merckx's racing bikes, Merckx opened his own bicycle company in 1980.

Merckx won 445 races out of 1585 that he entered in his professional career, plus the 80 he won as an amateur. His major wins include one Vuelta a España, 5 Giro d'Italia, 5 Tour de France, and 3 World Championships as well as numerous other stage races. Among the Classics, he won the Tour of Flanders 2 times, Paris-Roubaix 3 times, Gent-Wevelgem 3 times, Liege-Bastogne-Liege 5 times, and the Milan-San Remo a record 7 times. In fact, the only race among the Classics he didn't win was Paris-Tours.

His records include: Most career victories (525); Most victories in one season (54); Most stage wins in the Tour de France (34); Most days in the yellow jersey (96); Most victories in the Classics (28); and Most victories in Grand Tours (11).

Think about great athletes in almost any professional sport and ask the fans "Who is the greatest?" and it is almost always a topic for discussion and debate. Ask any cyclist or racing fan the question, "Who is the greatest racer of all time" and it would be hard to find anybody who would give a different response than Eddy Merckx.

Happy Birthday, Eddy.