Thursday, July 3, 2014

Deore: The First Touring Gruppo

There was a time when, if you wanted a great touring bike, you pretty much had to build it yourself. If you had a healthy budget and knew where to look, you could have a good frame built for you by somebody and select all the best parts for touring. Or you'd buy a bike off the showroom floor that came as close as you could get, and change out a bunch of parts to get it the rest of the way to where you wanted it.
A Daniel Rebour illustration of the first
Deore "Touring Ensemble" (not gruppo).

When it came to the components for a good touring bike, you had to pick out the best parts from a variety of component makers, each with their own specialty. For a long time, most of them were French. For example, you'd select a triple T.A. Cyclotouriste crank, or perhaps the Stronglight 49 -- either way you'd have that 50.4 BCD, and a wide range of available chainring sizes, and a really small granny ring. For brakes, you'd get Mafac -- center pulls or maybe cantilevers. For the rear derailleur, probably a Huret -- the Duopar if you could get one. On the front, maybe a Simplex Super LJ. Hubs? Maxicar was a great choice. By 1980, less traditional touring cyclists might have substituted a Sugino crank or SunTour derailleurs.

It was a lot easier equipping a top-quality racing bike. If you wanted the best you only needed to know one name: Campagnolo. By the 1960s, Campy (or Campag for my readers in the U.K. or Australia) made pretty much everything needed for a bike, and once they introduced their own brakes in '68, the "full Campy" was born. You could get the whole Campy gruppo and the only other decisions left to make were for the stem and handlebars (most people went with Cinelli) and a saddle.

For tourists, there was no equivalent to the "gruppo." That is, until 1981. That was when Shimano introduced the "Deore Touring Ensemble."

OK, I guess I'm overstating the "complete gruppo" notion a bit (and actually, I cringe when people use the word "gruppo" with anything other than Campagnolo). At first, the Deore line consisted of the crank and bottom bracket, pedals, front and rear derailleurs, and shift levers. Apparently by Shimano's rationale at the time, the remaining parts of the group, such as hubs, brakes, and headset, could be filled in with parts from the 600EX line which were finished to a similar quality. The 600 hubs could be had in traditional threaded freewheel (600) or cassette freehub (600EX) configurations. The 600EX brakes were available in a 57-mm reach side pull, which was probably considered adequate for touring by some at the time, though the 1982 Shimano catalog shows a pair of cantilever brakes designated as 600-level (apart from the catalog, I've never actually seen a pair!). Within a year or two, Deore cantilever brakes and hubs would be added to round out the group.

The French influence could readily be seen in the original Deore crankset. Like the standard-bearer of the time, the T.A. Cyclotouriste, the Deore's large ring bolted to a small 50.4 BCD spider, and the middle and inner rings mounted on to the big ring. However, the Deore's big ring looked thicker and less "flat" compared to the French counterparts. In Bicycling magazine's original 1982 review of the group (May 1982), they said that the large Deore chainring was more resistant to flexing than the T.A. version. By the mid 80s, however, Shimano would adopt the 110/74 BCD favored by Sugino, and that would become the new standard for wide range triple cranksets for a long time to come.

The Deore pedals were an unusual innovation that never really caught on. Called Dyna Drive in the typical Shimano fashion of inventing new names for everything, the design more or less eliminated the usual pedal axle by incorporating the bearings into a large-diameter threaded stub. The cranks had a corresponding large diameter threaded hole for the pedals (if someone wanted to use "normal" pedals with the Dyna Drive crank, Shimano made threaded insert adapters for the crank). The DD was also available on the Dura-Ace and 600 groups. The benefit was supposed to be that they would allow a lower pedal platform and place the bottom of the foot lower in relation to the pedaling axis. I don't really understand how that is supposed to lead to better biomechanics in the pedal stroke, but then I never really "got" Biopace chainrings, either. What I do know is that reviewers said the pedals offered a nice, wide, supportive platform, but also had a slightly wider "Q-factor" and were more likely to strike the pavement when cornering.

The Deore rear derailleur was like a beefed up 600EX, with medium and long cage options, and with some extra tweaks to make it better suited for heavy duty and long-distance touring use. It also came marketed with its fair share of Shimano-isms: "Servo-Panta," "Centeron," "Hatch-Plate," and "Sealed Mechanism." Here's a translation: Servo-Panta is Shimano-ese for dual-sprung pivots -- that is, both the top and bottom pivots on the derailleur were spring-loaded, Simplex-style. Centeron was Shimano's little trick of having some lateral play in the jockey pulley. Combined with the special Centeron shift levers which also had a bit of extra movement designed into them, and a little extra free play in the derailleur itself, the Deore rear derailleur would more or less "center" itself on the cogs when shifting, thereby making for smoother, quieter operation. Hatch-Plate meant that there was not a full back plate on the pulley cage -- only a small tab to keep the chain from accidentally coming off the pulleys. That tab, or "hatch plate," could be moved aside, allowing the chain to be installed or removed easily from the derailleur. Note that SunTour had a similar feature on its various GT models, except that it was the front of the pulley cage that was open instead of the back. The hatch plate also meant the cage could get closer to the spokes, making it easier to fit 6 cogs into 5-speed spacing. Sealed Mechanism is an easy one. The spring-loaded pivots were set to the proper spring tension at the factory, then sealed -- no adjustments or maintenance needed, which was good because I doubt it was possible. Though it would not shift quite as well as the slant-parallelograms from SunTour, it was a solid, durable derailleur.

There isn't a lot to say about the front derailleur other than that I don't think it would look totally out of place with a modern component group (No, I take that back -- it looks much better than a lot of the black-painted, garish-logo'd derailleurs of today). Front derailleurs haven't changed much in 30+ years, either in form or function. Reviewers found the Deore front shifter to work well for triple cranks -- at least as well if not better than the top competition of the day. Of course, it did still have its own Shimano-isms, in this case, the "Trap-Ease Mechanism" which meant that the derailleur angled up and out as it shifted up to the larger ring. It was supposed to improve those upshifts.

I don't know why the deer head icon seems more
"mountain-bikey" than "touring-bikey" -- but it does.
Ultimately, the "Deore Touring Ensemble" did not actually do for touring bicycles what Campagnolo did for racers -- not even close. Even though it was introduced at just the time when lots of Japanese bicycle manufacturers had figured out how to make really nice loaded-touring bikes, many of those were leaving the factories with a mix of SunTour (gears and derailleurs), Sugino, SR, or Takagi (cranks) and Dia Compe (brakes). In fact, I checked with friends on the Classic Rendezvous group, and we could only come up with two or three bikes that came with the full Deore group from the factory. Otherwise there were a few makers, such as Schwinn or Raleigh, who used the Deore derailleurs, but not the other components from the set. I'm sure the crank and Dyna Drive pedal combination were off-putting -- yet another example of Shimano gimmickry and not playing well with others.

No, the real impact of Deore turned out to be with the mountain bike market which would really take off soon after the group's release. Though SunTour got a slight jump on the MTB market, engineering problems with the first SunTour MounTech derailleurs gave Shimano a chance to catch up. The first re-styling of the Deore group included the "deer head" icon that seemed to hint at the shift in focus (to be honest, I can't say exactly why a deer head seems more mountain-bikey than touring -- but for some reason it does). Well, that, and the fact that they also came out with flat-bar brake levers and thumb shifters -- the writing was on the wall. Touring bikes were out. Mountain bikes were in.

Today, really good road touring bikes are a rarity -- and those that are available from the big mainstream manufacturers often have overly huge, tacky-looking mountain bike components: wide Q-factor MTB cranks, ungainly derailleurs, V-brakes. If someone wants a more classic, traditional touring bike today, they have to go the same route that that touring cyclists did "back in the day" -- get a frame set and select all the parts themselves from a variety of component manufacturers (and maybe hunt eBay for some classic pieces from the past). We've come so far, only to end up back in the same place.

4 comments:

  1. Shimano's LX line is (or, I should say, was) an OK "touring" line, but it seems like it's only available to the European market last time I was looking at it. And it's gone down the same garish road the other lines have traveled.
    The Deore higher-end derailleurs seem a little spindly looking, especially for the price they want for 'em.

    I am building up a touring-ish bike right now, and you're right: it's been a scavenger hunt for good parts for it. I just won a nice set of Takagi cranks off of the 'Bay that will polish up pretty good.
    I just can't talk myself into ugly "mountain bike" cranks that are out there now, and the road cranks aren't right, either.

    Seems a shame that nobody makes a classy looking line of components that aren't as expensive as VO or (holy crap look at those prices) Herse for cranks, or... who even makes nice looking modern derailleurs now, for any price (as you've previously discussed)? The best you can hope for is "unobtrusive". To be honest, I don't mind some modern stuff as much as I let on, I just don't want it to look crappy.
    Ahaha, it occurs to me that this is an oft-discussed topic. Hot-button issue for grouches!

    Wolf

    ReplyDelete
  2. My 1988 Panasonic tourer came with, as you said, Deore deraillers only. The rest was a mish-mash of other ungrouped Shimano parts. I've swapped out every other part except for the crankset the front shifter, and the rear brake lever because they were kinda crappy to be honest (especially the canti brakes, yikes). I'm not sure whether the 1988 Deore set was supposed to be mountain bike specific, but it works very well with an 8 speed cluster on a tourer. My later model also doesn't have the hatch-plate. The 600 arabesque on my go fast has one though. Any idea why they stopped doing that? It's a great idea.
    alfred

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. By '88, the focus of Deore had shifted more to mountain bikes, though, as you pointed out, the derailleurs were sometimes seen on road bikes. Road touring bikes were getting downright rare by '88. I've heard stories that some shops were still selling leftover '85s by then! That hatch plate thing was on a lot of Shimano's derailleurs in the late 70s and early 80s -- then it just quietly disappeared. No idea why. Thanks for writing!

      Delete
  3. Maybe I am the only living fan of the Deore Dyna Drive platform pedal.

    Look at my bike and you see the mismatched mish mash of parts from various manufacturers that you describe above and you will probably also make some insightful observations about my quirky personality in the process.

    10 years ago I bought a mint condition 1982 Woodrup. It is the bike I wish I would have had in 1982.

    What first caught my eye on the bike were the Campy high flange hubs and the titanium Huret Duopar derailleur. I was unfamiliar with the Deore AX crankset (with 600AX pedals) but I figured that I would quickly trade it out for a French triple. While I was searching for a new crank I read up on Deore history and bought a set of Deore AX pedals (which are still easy to find).

    The Deore AX pedal may now be my favorite thing about my Woodrup. I am an advocate of packing light no matter what my mode of travel and step 1 in packing light is to minimize the number of shoes you take with you. Preferably the only pair you need is the pair you have on.

    I have never been a fan of bicycle shoes, especially for touring. The Deore AX pedal provides a large flat rigid platform for your foot and has studs in the center of the platform that bite into the sole of whatever shoe you are wearing. It get's you close to the benefits of a rigid bike shoe with a cleat but when you step off your bike you can be wearing a light, comfortable and attractive walking shoe with a thin sole.

    I probably would have never toured with an AX pedal because it is too exotic and a pedal failure would have introduced extreme complications on a trip. But now that I am a fair weather weekend rider and occasional commuter I enjoy the vintage and exotic components.

    ReplyDelete