Thursday, July 12, 2018

Tour de France Coverage, Retrogrouch Style: 1978

Once again, the Tour de France is happening, and I'm not really giving any more than casual interest in it. The last-minute clearing of Chris Froome from doping charges, while maybe good news (?), doesn't exactly inspire faith in a sport that has become barely more credible than pro wrestling. So in true Retrogrouch tradition, let's go back 40 years and revel a while in a great champion from the past: 1978 - Bernard Hinault.

The End of the Era of Merckx - The Beginning of the Era of Hinault

The greatest racer of his generation (or likely, any generation) Eddy Merckx raced his last Tour de France in 1977, in which he finished in 6th place. Though he had plans to race the Tour in 1978, disappointing results in the early season led Merckx to retire from racing in May. The Era of Merckx was over.

With the retirement of other great riders from the Merckx era, like Raymond Poulidor and Luis Ocaña (both at the end of 1977) the 1978 edition of the TdF seemed wide open. Enter Bernard Hinault, a young professional in his fourth year of racing, entering the Tour for the first time. Other early favorites for the '78 Tour included two Dutch riders, Joop Zoetemelk, riding for Miko-Mercier, and Hennie Kuiper, riding for the powerful TI Raleigh team. Peugeot had Bernard Thévenet to defend his '77 Tour win, though he was not in peak form.

1977 Dauphiné Libéré: A star is born.
Though only 23, Hinault was quickly making a name for himself as a rising star. In 1977, he burst onto the national consciousness in the Dauphiné Libéré where, attacking on a tricky descent, he overshot a curve and plunged off the edge of a precipice. The next thing anyone knew, Hinault was seen scrambling back up to the road, mounting a new bike, and taking off for victory.

In 1978, Hinault won his first attempt at a grand tour, the Vuelta a España, as well as the National Championship of France. He lined up for the start of the '78 TdF wearing the National Champion's Tricolore.

Kuiper, Hinault, and Zoetmelk.
The 1978 Prologue took place in Leiden, Holland, but the weather for the stage was so terrible that most teams and the Tour directors agreed to having the stage not count toward the General Classification - which was a blow to the Raleigh team. Their powerful Classics-loving squad shrugged off the weather and did well on their home turf, and Jan Raas had won the stage. That meant Raas started Stage 1 in the leader's position, but without the Yellow Jersey. It was a small matter, since the Raleigh squad rode with something to prove to put their man officially in Yellow by the end of the first stage.

The team time trial of Stage 4 was another big win for the Raleigh team, and their Klaus-Peter Thaler pulled on the Yellow Jersey. Stage 4 was not a good one for defending champion Thévenet - he crashed, and his Peugeot team lost 13 minutes to the winning Raleigh team.

Stage 6 was one for the sprinters, and it was won by a young Irish rider who, like Hinault, was competing in his first Tour - Sean Kelly. Needless to say, he would go on to win more stages and four Green Jerseys in his career.

The next stage where the GC contenders could really shine was the individual time trial from Saint-Émilion to Sainte-Foy-la-Grande. It was just over 59 km and Hinault charged on to win it decisively and moved himself up to 4th place overall. Defender Thévenet continued to suffer. It's a shame to have to say it, but drugs were a factor in Thévenet's decline - he had basically destroyed his liver taking cortisone and it ruined his career. He'd never again match the performance he had in '77.

Stage 12, on July 12th, was scheduled to be a 2-part, split stage: a 158 km stage from Tarbes to Valence d'Agen, followed by a 96 km stage from Valence d'Agen to Toulouse. These 2-part stages had become a point of contention between the riders and the Tour organizers. Add to that the fact that this was after a couple of long, difficult stages and a long transfer from the end point of Stage 11 to the start of Stage 12 in Tarbes. The riders protested - and were surprisingly led by the young newcomer in the French Tricolore, Bernard Hinault. For stage 12a, the racers rode together at a leisurely pace, then in the final kilometer, dismounted and walked to the finish. Fans were upset, town officials in Valence d'Agen were outraged, and the stage results were nullified. The pictures of a defiant young Hinault are priceless.

Looking a little like Napoleon, Hinault stands front and center in the riders' protest. King of the Mountains Michael Pollentier is on Hinault's immediate right, with Hennie Kuiper next to him. Points leader Freddie Maertens is on the far right side of the frame.
Hinault gets some encouragement along the road -
and a hindrance.
Stage 14 was another decisive one - an individual time trial up Puy de Dôme. The stage winner would be hard to predict. Hinault was proving himself a great time-triallist - but Zoetemelk was the better climber. As it turned out, Zoetemelk rode brilliantly, took a fast bike change for a lighter climbing bike for the main part of the climb, and won the stage. He moved up to 2nd overall in the GC. King of the Mountains, Michael Pollentier, took 2nd in the stage. Like Zoetemelk, Hinault also tried to change bikes for the final climb, but overzealous fans crowding the road caused him to crash, damaging his bike. He finished 1'40" after the stage winner.

Stage 16 featured the famous climb up Alpe d'Huez. The main contenders on the final climb were Hinault, Pollentier, Zoetemelk, and Kuiper. Pollentier attacked early and started building a lead, with Hinault and Kuiper chasing to close the gap. Zoetemelk couldn't quite hold their pace and lost a little time. Pollentier won the stage, followed by Kuiper, then Hinault, and then Zoetemelk. In the GC, Pollentier had moved up to 1st overall, with Zoetemelk in 2nd, Hinault in 3rd, and Kuiper 4th.

Belgian climber Michael Pollentier in polka dots - before being ejected.
Then came an unpleasant surprise. After the stage, Pollentier was supposed to report for a urine test. He was quite late getting there. During the test, he apparently had some difficulty producing the required specimen and was acting a little odd. He was then checked over by the suspicious officials who discovered his secret - a little home-made apparatus that was supposed to provide an untainted sample (as I understand it, it consisted of a urine-filled condom and some rubber tubing - literally hidden up his sleeve). It would almost be funny if it weren't so pathetic. He was ejected and given a 2-month suspension. It goes to show (again) that doping is nothing new - but it has definitely gotten more sophisticated.
The changing of the guard. Hinault, now in Yellow, meets Merckx.

With Pollentier out, Zoetemelk became the new race leader with Hinault close behind. Kuiper was briefly in third overall, but a crash in Stage 17 put him out with a broken clavicle.

Hinault and Zoetemelk matched one another closely until Stage 20 - the last individual time trial. It was 72 km, from Metz to Nancy, and Hinault was only trailing Zoetemelk by 14 seconds at the start of it. Hinault put his stamp of authority on the race, doing what he did best. He ended up beating Zoetemelk by an astounding 4 minutes, 10 sec., and pulled on the Yellow Jersey for the first time. With just two stages left, he held a commanding lead of 3' 56". Hinault won the Tour with an overall time of 107h 18' 00".

At the end of the Tour, Zoetemelk was 2nd overall - something he accomplished five times in his career (his only TdF win would come in 1980 - the year Hinault would have to abandon the race with tendonitis). Freddie Maertens with the Flandria team won the Points Leader's Green Jersey, while Mariano Martínez of Jobo-Spidel was the King of the Mountains.

Like previous generation-defining racers, Merckx and Anquetil, Hinault had won the Tour de France in his first attempt - and won it convincingly. It goes without saying that he would also join Merckx and Anquetil in the exclusive club of 5-time TdF champions, and as one of the few racers to win all three Grand Tours.

The Era of Hinault - the Badger - had begun. And it happened 40 years ago.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Getting Shafted

Chains are such a drag. I mean, what else can you call a transmission system that's only 98% efficient? And yes, they're, simple, straightforward, "proven" technology, and relatively inexpensive - but they also get greasy. So, Yuck.

And that's why innovators keep trying to come up with new and better alternatives.

The latest is a shaft drive transmission from Ceramicspeed - the same people who have been pushing the envelope with pricey lubricants, bearings and derailleur pulleys to eliminate drivetrain friction - in a quest to get drivetrain efficiency up to 99%. Their new shaft system uses carbon fiber, tiny ceramic bearings, and raspy-looking cogs with rows of outward-pointing teeth.

Though the pictures show a multispeed (I count 13) cog set, it's apparently only a mock-up as they haven't actually figured out exactly how to get the system to shift across all those teeth.
Instead of bevel gears, as most shaft drive systems employ, the Ceramicspeed design uses a pinion with tiny rollers to engage the outward-pointing teeth on the cogs. It's supposed to virtually eliminate friction.
. . . And it apparently works - as long as you don't want to shift gears. . . yet.
According to the system's developers, their shaft drive system has "49% less friction than a stock Shimano Dura Ace drivetrain averaged across all gears." That sounds impressive. On the other hand, as already mentioned, the traditional chain-drive transmission is already very efficient. Depending on certain variables, including the specific gear combination being used, as well as lubrication, the efficiency can be anywhere from 93 to 98 percent. For example - the highest friction/lowest efficiency gear combination would be one where you have an extreme "cross-chain" effect, such as the small chainring/small cog combination. So when you're talking about an improvement like 49% less friction, you're really talking about a fraction of what is already a very small fraction. In other words, while the difference might be measurable with a power meter, I'd be skeptical about whether many riders could actually feel the difference. I mean, can you feel the difference in drivetrain friction between your small chainring/small cog as compared to a more sensible gear combo? I doubt it.

Some caveats. First - the system is still very early in its development and there are a lot of issues that remain to be solved. One major issue (mentioned already) is that so far it cannot shift gears. There are some ideas involving a small electric motor to move the roller-bearing pinion forward or backward along the face of those cogs - but how to get it to move across those teeth in a synchronized way at speed and under load is something of a puzzle. Imagine shifting gears in a manual transmission car without use of the clutch, and without (or with worn out) gear synchrosCaarrunch!

Second - there is no compatibility, and likely no way to make it compatible with any existing bikes or frames. That shouldn't be a surprise, since it's a totally new thing, but bikes would definitely need to be built specifically for it. And I cannot even imagine what it would do to wheel changes.

Another thing to consider is the complexity and cost. I simply cannot foresee any way that a system like this could even approach the cost of chains and "normal" cogs. That raspy-looking cog set bears an unlikely combination of looking simultaneously fragile and dangerous, in addition to probably being a real bear to make.

A couple things to remember - shaft drive is nothing new. Columbia Bicycles (Pope Bicycle Mfg.) had a shaft drive bike as early as the 1890s. I don't believe they were the only ones, either. This was before the roller chain we've known for about a century took its current form and established itself as the preferred transmission. In a manner of speaking, one could argue that the chain was the improvement over the shaft. The shaft was overly complex, less efficient, and too expensive to manufacture as compared to chains. But that hasn't stopped numerous companies and "innovators" from trying to re-invent them.

Turn of the century (the 20th century, that is) Columbia shaft drive bike. It would appear that the bike had rear suspension, too.
Modern shaft drive from Dynamic in the UK.
On a related note, there are a number of shaft drive motorcycles out there - mostly touring models. The added cost and complexity, as well as the extra weight, are much more easily absorbed in a motorcycle than on a bicycle. But except for companies like BMW (better known as a car company, by the way) which uses shaft drive on most (maybe all) of its models, the majority of motorcycles still run with chains. I would argue it's for good reason.

So, is there a shaft-drive bicycle in your future? Meh. Probably not.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Another Nice eBay Find

Once again, eBay comes through. Right on the heels of finding a 17-year-old virtually unused Brooks saddle, and a new-old-stock derailleur of the same age, I managed to find a pair of these: classic Sidi touring shoes - which could also be somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 years old. They haven't been made in years, which is a real shame.


I bought a pair of these about that long ago, back when Rivendell was selling them. They quickly became my favorites. The ribbed sole gives a nice grip on traditional pedals without feeling as "locked in" as an actual cleat, and makes them fairly "walk-able." I wore them for years.


Problem? My feet grew. I'm told that can happen. It got to where I could only wear them with the thinnest socks, and later, even that was too much. Eventually I had to let them go.


Recently, even though I wasn't actually searching for them, I happened to find a pair - in my (new, larger) size, barely used, and still with the original box. The buy-it-now price was good, too. I didn't wait for someone else to beat me to them. When they arrived, I was pleased to see they were in really excellent condition - maybe even a little better than described. The soles showed very little wear, and the uppers looked almost new.

Certainly there can be problems with eBay. Sellers complain about fees and policies that favor buyers. Buyers complain about getting sniped in the closing seconds of an auction, or about shady practices like shill bidding, etc. And there are always risks involving scammers. But on the whole, nothing has been a better asset to fans and collectors of vintage bikes than eBay.

Anybody out there remember what it was like trying to restore a vintage bike, or just keep one going, in the pre-eBay days? Say you were looking for some obscure old component, or a unique spare part that hadn't been made in decades. You'd have to watch and wait for a swap meet to happen, maybe travel a good distance to get to it, and hope somebody there might have what you were looking for (and prepare to be disappointed). Maybe you'd go to countless flea markets and garage sales, hoping to get really lucky (which was unlikely). Nowadays, eBay is like a huge worldwide swap meet that runs 24/7, and if you have a little patience, it seems to me that there isn't anything that won't show up there eventually. Any time I've really needed/wanted something, I can't recall ever having to search for more than a few weeks before some example would turn up.

Anyhow, even though I wasn't actively looking for the Sidi touring shoes, they popped up one day on my feed and I coudn't resist them. Anybody else out there have any good eBay finds (or horror stories?) Leave a comment.

Monday, July 2, 2018

New Old Brooks and a (Slight) Makeover

I just replaced the Brooks saddle on my Rivendell. It had 17 years of use on it and was getting almost a little too soft and saggy for my taste. Now, I've seen people ride them until they looked like swaybacked nags - mine wasn't at that point yet and with proper care it could probably last a good bit longer, but it seemed to me that 17 years is a pretty good run for any saddle.

I applied a bit of Brooks Proofide and took it for a ride.
You know, eBay is a really wonderful thing sometimes. Rather than buy a brand-new Brooks B17, I decided to search the 'bay for one that was barely used so I could save a few bucks. That's the thing about Brooks saddles: lots of people buy them, use them one time, and decide they're never going to get comfortable on it (shocking to me, since I find them comfortable right out of the box), so they sell the Brooks and buy some thick, massive, gel-padded monstrosity. It didn't take long to find exactly what I was looking for - a "barely used" B17 with a "buy-it-now" price of $72. I snapped it up.



When the saddle arrived, it was hard to tell it wasn't brand new. But the funny thing was when I flipped it over to look at the underside. Brooks saddles have a date code stamped into them, and as it turns out, this "new" old saddle had the same date code as my old one - both were made in 2001, also the same year my Rivendell was built. That's right - they were, in a sense, "brothers." In fact, the "new" old Brooks is actually a little nicer than the old one. The old one was a B17 "Standard" while the replacement one is a "Champion Special" - which has the larger hand-hammered rivets, a skivved lower skirt edge, and copper-plated rails. Some say the leather is a little thicker, too. It's hard to imagine finding a more perfect replacement.

Oh - so what did I do with the old one? I put it on eBay where it (shockingly) sold for nearly what I'd paid for the replacement - making the replacement practically free. Better and better.

The Makeover

I have a lot of bikes. I lose count (yes - I really do), but I'm sure it's more than a dozen, and they're all really nice bikes. But if through some strange set of tragic circumstances I had to get rid of all of them but one -- to somehow make do with just one bike for the rest of my life -- I think the one I would have to keep would be my Rivendell. The bike is comfortable and handles well. It's no racer, but I'm fast enough on it to keep up with anyone I care to. It can take racks and some bags for a light tour. It accommodates tires at least up to 35mm with fenders. Overall, it's just a really versatile bike.


Built by Curt Goodrich back in 2001, it's the bike I've probably owned the longest. Back when I got it, I built it up with a great mix of parts that I'd selected for reliability, durability, and service-ability. Shimano Ultegra derailleurs and hubs. TA crank and pedals. Phil Wood bottom bracket. Stronglight needle-bearing headset. Nitto bars, stem, and seat post. Over the years, I've put a lot of trouble-free miles on it.

Recently I've been doing some cleaning and maintenance on the Riv to get it ready for a vacation I'll be taking with it, and I've made a few small changes - replacing parts on it for the first time since I first built it up (apart from things like tires and brake pads, that is).

First thing was the saddle, as already described. The next thing cropped up as I was taking parts off to give everything a good cleaning and lube. I went to remove the front derailleur (Shimano Ultegra 6500) and couldn't get it off. After 17 years, there was some noticeable oxidation on it - but apparently there was some corrosion hidden inside the hinge on the clamp, so the clamp was frozen and wouldn't budge. I shot a bunch of penetrating oil into it and let it soak for a while. Tried that again. Eventually in trying to pry it open, I got the thing off, but found I'd gotten it open only because the clamp bent - the hinge remained frozen. Oh, crap. Back to eBay. Whod'a thought you could find a NOS 17-year-old Ultegra front derailleur? A brand-new (old) component, exactly like the one being replaced - for less $$ than the current edition, too. Perfect. I replaced derailleur cables while I was at it.

After a good cleaning, degreasing, inspecting, and tuning, the last change was fenders. I had ridden this bike for the first few years I had it without any fenders at all, but for the past nine years or so, I've had it equipped with Velo Orange hammered-look fenders. Other than the fact that they were starting to rattle quite a bit (which I'm sure I could have solved) there was nothing wrong with them. But recently I was reading Jan Heine's book on René Herse's bicycles, and in those pages, bike after beautiful bike was equipped with fenders bearing a ridged or "faceted" finish - looking almost like the surface of a zeppelin. It was a great look and I took a bit of inspiration from it. Velo Orange sells fenders with that pattern on them, so I picked up a set and installed them. I'll set the hammered ones aside and re-use them when I build up a new bike for one of my daughters.

OK, maybe "makeover" isn't the right word here since the bike's barely changed. It's kind of funny to think that on a 17-year-old bike, even the new replacement parts are as old as the rest of the bike.

Incidentally, on my Sunday morning ride with the newly-freshened Riv, I stopped off at the little produce market in the valley - it's a popular stop for all the cyclists riding through the national park. When I came back to the Rivendell after buying some sweet corn and other fresh treats, I found a small crowd standing around admiring my bike. Many weren't even familiar with the name or brand, or even classic steel-framed bikes. They just knew they liked it. "Wow - that is a beautiful bike," I heard several people say.

Got to say, I was feeling a little lighter on the ride home.