Thursday, February 27, 2014

Classic Cycling Shoes

Some time back, I had a post about traditional toe-clip and strap pedals, and recently I was asked by a reader about what shoes I use with those pedals. Unfortunately, none of the shoes I ride in are available anymore through regular channels, making it really difficult for recommendations. But through the magic of eBay, one might be able to find similar if they're watchful and willing to wait.

The shoes I like most have that classic, traditional look to them -- typically black leather (or at least a close approximation). Though I do have shoes with cleats, my favorites are the ones that were actually designed for touring, and just have a ribbed sole that still gives a good grip on the pedals but still allow some walking.

Sidi Touring Shoes: These were available for a while from Rivendell, but that's probably been 10 years ago now. Classic look, and they work well on traditional pedals. The uppers are an imitation leather, but it's held up well. I got these back when Rivendell offered them, and you can see they still look pretty good after all these years and I don't even know how many miles. My one wish is that I'd gotten one EU size larger, as they are just a bit snug unless I wear really thin socks. Occasionally one sees these on eBay, but not that often. Nice shoes if you can find them, though. It might be time that Sidi brings these back.
Detto Pietro Art. 74: These were probably one of the most common racing shoes one would see in the 70s and early 80s, before clipless pedals took over. Nice leather uppers with a hard nylon sole and slotted cleats. I use these on my vintage racing bikes. One can often find these, or some of the similar models from Duegi or Diadora, on eBay -- sometimes new-old-stock, or very lightly used. The problem is waiting for the right size to come along. Really small sizes (like 40 or smaller) seem to come up all the time on eBay, while the larger sizes tend to be harder to find (the larger, the rarer, it seems).

Carnac Carlit Touring Shoes: Last year I got lucky and found these on eBay -- new-old-stock. Another nice touring shoe, like the Sidi shoes shown above, and discontinued. They are apparently an imitation leather, but it's hard to tell, though they are a good bit shinier than the Sidis. These have become my go-to shoes for commuting. Again, it's too bad they aren't available anymore.

So what's a person to do now if they want traditional-looking shoes that work well with traditional pedals but don't want to search eBay for older models? It's a tough market out there. Sometimes one can find things by searching foreign bike shops -- such as in the UK. But most of the big shoe companies have discontinued these kinds of shoes completely, so they aren't available anywhere. Here are a couple of options, though.

Exustar SRT707: These look fairly traditional and have a fairly smooth sole which is also SPD compatible. One could leave the SPD part covered and use them with toe-clip pedals. They are getting hard to find, though. Nashbar has them, but supplies are dwindling (when I checked, they had nothing larger than size 40) and I don't know if they plan to get more. Velo-Orange had them for a while, but apparently not anymore. Some UK-based bike shops might have them, though.
Dromarti Storica: These are gorgeous and beautifully made. Available in black or brown. Unfortunately, they are also incredibly expensive at about $250. (Dromarti)
Quoc Pham "Fixed": Like the Dromartis, these are a really nicely made leather touring shoe, and almost as expensive (about $200). In this case, the sole is smooth and ribless. They also have some other styles. Available from Quoc Pham directly.

Vittoria 1976 SPD: These have that classic look, and have an SPD-compatible sole that should make them a decent touring shoe. Leave the cleats off, and they would probably work OK with traditional toe-clip pedals. A little cheaper than the Dromartis or Quoc Phams at around $170.

That seems to be it. If anyone out there has tried some of the modern shoes, it might be nice to hear how they feel and work.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Innovative" New Bike Saddles: Wedgies, or Holes?

If you're like me, when it comes to bicycle saddles and comfort, you've probably found yourself thinking, "the only thing that could make me more comfortable would be if I had a great big wedge sticking up my backside."

Well, your wait is over. The Essax Shark saddle is here. Designed by Spanish fit specialist Jon Iriberri, the Spanish saddle company claims that the fin helps keep the "sit bones" properly located on the saddle, preventing side-to-side rocking, and keeping the knees better aligned. Supposedly, the fin is not perceptible if one is located properly on the saddle, and if one can feel it, they are sitting on it wrong. 

This saddle is getting a lot of attention on other bike blogs. Here's a quote from a BikeBiz article: Iriberri claims, "It's a biomechanical design that aids the alignment of the pelvis in the saddle, greatly reducing the rocking motion that can cause so many problems while pedaling." Just to show how misinformed I must be about bicycling, I always thought that rocking motion on the saddle was caused by having the saddle too high.

According to Essax, even though traditional saddles might feel comfortable (you thought you were comfortable? You fool!), those saddles encourage uneven weight distribution that actually decrease performance. Not only that, but the company claims that the wedge actually makes you faster because it keeps you positioned better on the saddle for optimum efficiency. They are apparently in the process of trying to get UCI approval for the unusual design, so hopefully the pros and the people who emulate them will soon be able to give themselves speed wedgies. I, on the other hand, can wait.

Taking a completely opposite tack, Vince Marcel, a professional chiropractor, has decided that supporting the sit bones is exactly the wrong approach. What we need is a big hole. The result: The Infinity Seat.

Marcel claims that the rider's weight needs to be distributed to the muscle mass of the buttocks, leaving the "sit bones" suspended by the body's natural shock absorbers.

If I had to guess, I'd say the inspiration was a toilet seat.

The Kickstarter campaign for the Infinity Seat was fully funded, far surpassing their goal. Among the claims for the Infinity Seat are: One size fits all; No break-in period; Lighter than most saddles (at 205 grams); and Innovative design. Personally, I'm skeptical of all but the weight claims (although on that note, it's about the same weight as the speed wedgie design shown above).

BikeRadar's initial tests of the saddle found some issues with the design. "There is indeed a noticeable absence of pressure under the sit bones -- and no pressure on the soft tissue in between -- but we found the pressure transferred to the wide edges of the saddle, which didn't feel comfortable pedaling. Also, when rolling the hips forward into an aero position, most of our weight was shifted almost fully onto the soft tissues on the nose of the saddle." Without testing the saddle personally, I can say that BikeRadar's assessment matches up with what I would expect given just a close look at the design. Anyhow, the designer's response was curious. "Marcel says this design is not aimed at the high-mileage enthusiast, but instead at the average person who would like to hop on a bike every now and then and not feel pain."

Designing saddles for "the average person" who only hops on a bike "every now and then" is a pretty dubious goal. People who ride bicycles that infrequently are almost invariably drawn to the worst possible saddles because their perceptions of comfort are badly skewed by their lack of experience. To imply that these occasional riders have different needs than high-mileage cyclists is ridiculous.

Interesting thing, the fact that the product is called the Infinity "Seat" instead of "Saddle" is very revealing. Serious cyclists use the term "saddle." Sheldon Brown explained the difference really well in this article. According to Brown, the distinction is that a seat, like a chair, is something you sit on, and is designed to support the person's entire weight. A saddle, on the other hand carries only some of the person's weight, while some is also carried by the legs, arms, and hands. Inexperienced cyclists expect a bicycle saddle to feel the same way as a comfortable chair, which is neither possible, nor desirable (except on a recumbent).

Both of the saddles above are being touted as "innovative." Without a doubt, they are, but that is hardly an endorsement of their actual effectiveness. Flipping through old cycling magazines, one can find ads for previous "innovative" saddle solutions. I'm reminded of products such as the "Easy Seat," which was heralded as the innovative solution to uncomfortable bicycle saddles dating back at least to the early 80s, if not earlier. The Easy Seat is still available today (along with a few imitators, probably), and I'm sure there are people who swear by them, but my guess is that few people put any more miles on bikes equipped with such saddles than they would on a traditional one.

The thing is, I really believe that more saddle comfort problems are caused by poor saddle position than by the saddle itself. Saddles too high or low, too far forward or back, or tilted too much one way or another, are prime culprits. Cheap saddles with too much padding (or too soft of padding) can also be a factor. Some people might swear by saddles with "pressure-relieving" cutouts in the middle -- which became all the rage after those overblown impotence stories started circulating some years back (those stories were a marketing person's dream, I tell you). But my reasonable guess is that those cutouts are unnecessary for most people, and do no harm for most of the rest. I also believe that for at least some people (a small minority, perhaps), they may in fact even be worse.

A nicely-broken-in Brooks B-17. My favorite saddle.
Of course, every rider's particular anatomical needs are unique, and there is no one saddle that's right for everyone. That said, for me, there is no better saddle than a Brooks B-17. The width and shape is probably about right for most people right out of the box, and they pretty quickly form themselves to the rider's anatomy, making them get even more comfortable in time. Stories of prolonged break-in time are more myth than reality, at least for the B-17 and many other Brooks models. Some might find they prefer a model slightly narrower, and some riders (and some styles of riding) may demand something a little wider. But again, the all-leather saddle has great benefits for comfort, and a B-17 is a pretty good place to start. If it's positioned properly, set at the right angle, etc., I find it supremely comfortable whether I'm out for a quick spin, or a century ride.

The Shark speed-wedgie saddle, or the Infinity Seat, like most other bike saddle "innovations" over the years probably have little more going for them than the fact that they are new. I really believe that whether one is a high-mileage cyclist, or someone who only rides occasionally, it's really hard to improve on a classic, time-tested leather saddle. These so-called innovations are mostly nonsense.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sex Sells II: The Sequel

After putting up some posters and ads that used women and sex appeal to sell bicycles, I found that there were so many examples through the decades, it was difficult to narrow down the selections. But in looking through all the examples, I found a name that kept coming up again and again: Clément. The French (later French/Italian) company made bicycles and tires beginning in the 1870s, then later expanded into motorcycles as well. I'm not sure exactly when they quit making motorcycles and bicycles, but the tire business continues on today, although the ownership has changed, and the production is now in Taiwan.

This poster captures some of the spirit of the Cycles Gladiator poster from the same period. One thing I'm not certain of is whether this is the same Clément company as in the other ads -- This one lists "Fernand Clément," whereas the others are simply "Clément" -- a company I know to have been founded by Adolphe Clément. The poster artist, PAL, is the same as in the next one, however.
Here we have another mythology-inspired woman with wings on her boots, flying over the city with the bicycle. Note that her headdress is a rooster -- which was a trademark symbol for the Clément brand. It appears in some form in many of the other ads (but not the one above, which makes me wonder again if that is actually a different company).
This one has similar themes as some of the others, but rendered in a very cool Art Nouveau style. 
This one, from the late 1890s, lists the bicycles as well as the motorcycles. On the far right, one can see the trademark seal with the rooster on it.
This one is unique in that it shows a man and woman riding together on a tandem. The woman is dressed in what would have been sensible women's riding attire at the time. I like that the man is confident enough in the woman to let her captain the tandem. (or maybe not -- see comments)
This poster from the 80s is a favorite of mine. With the high contrast black and white, it almost looks like something out of a Fellini film. I have no idea what the ad is supposed to mean, or what's going on, but whatever it is, it's a great poster. By the way, notice that the rooster icon has become very stylized -- for a long time, until I saw some of those earlier ads, I thought it was supposed to be an eagle.
A very gratuitous ad, I believe from the late 80s, or early 90s. The line at the top, "Senti La Strada," means "Feel the Road." Given the photo subject and setting, that doesn't actually make any senseI mentioned in the previous post that one can find pretty gratuitous examples from any era.
Again, thoughts or reactions are welcome.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sex Sells -- Then and Now

Women have been used in bicycle ads almost since the beginning ("used" is a pretty good word here). I mean, who can forget that iconic Cycles Gladiator ad from the 1890s? At that time, bicycles represented speed, beauty, and freedom, and many of the ads from the early days of bicycles characterized those ideas with almost-mythical women and celestial scenes, often hinting that on a bicycle one might actually take flight. Is it any wonder that the Wright brothers started out making bicycles?

Cycles Gladiator - 1890s - is probably the most recognizable bicycle advertisement from that era, but the themes of the etherial, goddess-like woman, flying with the bike through a starry sky, can be found in many other bicycle ads from the same time period. More can be seen in this post from last year (here). I have to admit, I really like these "golden age" posters, and have quite a collection of them.
In this ad from the 1920s, a much more earthbound woman enjoys her bike by the sea. More terrestrial, less idealistic. It's a nice poster -- captures the style of the time pretty well.
I'm guessing this was from the 40s. It definitely has some of that "pin-up" quality to it, and the artist made sure to emphasize the woman's bust as much as possible, but on the whole, it's pretty tame.
Late 60s? Early 70s? This woman's dress looks pretty "mod." I'm not sure how practical it would be if she actually wanted to ride the bike, though. Then again, I don't think that's why she's in the picture.
This one ran in the 70s -- I've seen a couple versions of it with the same girl, different poses. One version said "From Sweden, With Love." I don't know if she'd be able to ride with toe-clips in those shoes. Pretty typical of 70s bike-boom era ads.
I have to kind of admire this Fuji ad from the 80s. Carol Addy was actually a women's national team cyclist. She's actually dressed for riding (including cycling shoes), and one can assume correctly that she actually can ride. An advertising rarity. By the way, after her racing career ended, Carol Addy got a medical degree and is now an Endocrinologist at MIT Medical.
This one from Italian carbon bike maker Stradalli is so crass and so blatant in its objectification, it just makes me want to laugh. (From a Retrogrouch perspective, the bloated carbon fiber billboard-like bike is kind of crass and blatant too.) Who are they kidding? She's wearing cycling clothes (but not for long), she's facing the wrong way on the bike, and what's with those shoes? I suppose it doesn't matter what kind of shoes she's wearing, though, because there aren't any pedals anyhow. There's a whole series of these from the same company -- they're all pretty bad. Some may be worse.
I could probably get into a whole Retrogrouch thing about how the Old Days were better, and the "use" of women in ads is worse today than it was in the past, but realistically I have to admit I might have a hard time supporting the case. One can find pretty gratuitous examples from any era. Nevertheless, a lot of those vintage ads at least have a more artistic quality to them, that makes them a little easier to appreciate, though. Oh well. Thoughts or reactions are welcome.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Campagnolo C Record Hubs: Beautiful. Possibly Fragile

The most beautiful bicycle hubs ever?
In my recent post about Campagnolo Record hubs, which were made for over 25 years, and which many believe were among the best hubs ever made, I mentioned near the end of the article that they were replaced in the mid-80s by the C-Record (or Corsa Record) group. The C-Record hubs, like their predecessors, were available in road and track versions, and both of those were available with small or large flanges. The large-flange C-Record hubs were absolutely beautiful, whether for road or track -- but also, urban legend has it, possibly fragile. They have a reputation for breaking apart, but it isn't really clear to me how much stock to put into the claims. More on that in a moment.

The large-flange C-Record hubs can command some pretty insane prices on eBay nowadays. Part of the reason might be their relative scarcity (at least as compared to the previous generation). The large-flange road hubs were the first to disappear, making them probably the most rare. Then the road hubs were completely redesigned for cassettes and no longer shared much of anything with the track version. The large-flange track hubs were the next to go away, but the small-flange version is still made today, looking not much different from the way it looked in 1986 (they are not exactly the same, however).

Their beauty was another reason they are so desirable. The finish on these was mirror-like. And the design of the hubs in general, and the large-flange version especially, was incredible -- the dust caps were extended and sculpted to blend into the flanges with a graceful, nearly unbroken curve. The large lightening holes give the impression of a 5-pointed star, somewhat reminiscent of a sheriff's star, hence the nickname often given to them. So much aluminum was cut away as to make the hubs look almost delicate.

This photo was widely circulated around the web circa
2000 - 2001. (from Sheldon Brown's site)
The hubs may have been a little too delicate, however. By the late 90s, stories of broken hubs started circulating the internet. One story, in particular, spread through the bicycle discussion groups and gained some traction, probably due in large part to a less-than-confidence-inspiring response from Campagnolo. It was given some real credence when it was reported on the late Sheldon Brown's website (see HERE).

Although it is unclear exactly why the particular hub in question broke apart so dramatically -- the owner claimed he was "just riding along," while some insist it must have been involved in an accident -- there is really no way to know for certain. Campagnolo reportedly replaced the hub, but admonished the owner for using a "track" hub on the road. Afterwards, they started including a warning with the hubs stating clearly that using track hubs on the road constituted "abuse" and would void the warranty. That response, probably more than anything, cemented the idea that the hubs were too fragile to be trusted. But it was also pretty ridiculous -- considering that the shells of the hubs were basically identical to the road version that had once been available (only the axle and the threading on the rear hub were different). So what was it that made the hubs unsuitable for the road, unless the road version was also unsuitable? Is that why it was discontinued so quickly? If Campy had handled the situation better, we probably wouldn't even be asking these questions.

So, are the hubs a ticking time bomb? Who knows. The incident above was widely publicized, and one can find (if they search long enough) other stories of broken hubs. Then again, any hub can break -- even the venerable Record hubs of the earlier generation. Anyone who has these hubs and is too afraid to use them, feel free to send them to The Retrogrouch for proper "disposal."

Siblings and Imitators:
Victory large-flange hub (from 
Around the time that the C-Record "sheriff star" hubs were available, there were also a couple of other offerings from Campagnolo that shared a family resemblance -- some of which may actually have been even rarer. The mid-to-lower-level Victory group of the mid 80s had a large-flange hub that looked similar, but with a 7-pointed star, a less-luscious finish, and without the sculpted dustcaps. I've seen unscrupulous (or perhaps just ignorant) sellers on eBay try to sell these as something they are not -- like "special prototype" C-Record hubs. They are nice hubs, but they are generally not as desirable of an item, so buyers beware. The same basic hubs, but with different levels of finish quality, were also sold as part of Campagnolo's short-lived mountain bike groups, Euclid and Centaur (Centaur was originally a mountain bike group, before the name was reapplied for the road). The Euclid ones were the top-of-the-line as far as the mountain bike parts go, and had probably the most attention to detail and best finish of these sibling hubs.

Centaur mountain bike hubs, from a late-80s catalog.
Electra Ticino Hubs -- a pretty decent re-creation of a classic.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and a few years ago, some imitation sheriff star hubs hit the market. Electra bikes, probably best known for their beach-cruisers, started offering a series of European-styled bikes called the Ticino line. To go along with those bikes, they had a full range of accessories, like hammered-finish fenders, and some nice randonneur-style racks. They also made some hubs that borrowed a lot from the classic C-Record design. They were a pretty nice imitation, with a smooth, softly polished finish, capturing a lot of the details of the Campy originals, minus the sculpted dust caps, and with sealed cartridge bearings instead of cups and cones. There was a road/cassette version, and a single-speed version that had flip-flop fixed/free threading for a fixed cog on one side, and a single-speed freewheel on the other. They also seemed to have just a bit more metal at the flanges, which might make them a little more durable, or at least more confidence-inspiring than the originals -- assuming the C-Record reputation for fragility is true. Electra offered the hubs for a few years, but I looked at their most recent catalog and it appears they have been dropped. Too bad.

All-City Cycles recently released another imitation, called the "New Sheriff," though apart from the 5-pointed star shape of the flanges, they are not nearly as faithful of a recreation as the Ticinos were. The cutouts are not as graceful, the center shaft is huge, and they use oversized 15 mm axles. I believe their target market is the "urban fixie" crowd.

To wrap it up, the Campagnolo C-Record hubs -- especially the large-flange versions -- are pretty impressive pieces. Like their predecessors, they have those legendary smooth, precise bearings, but in a more sculptural, aerodynamic package. Although they were first introduced about 28 years ago, they still look great today.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Death of Quick Release

Any fools still using quick release hubs are hopeless Retrogrouches. That's right. Quick release hubs, which have been standard issue on quality bicycles since the 1930s (thank you, Tullio Campagnolo), are dead.

On Tuesday, AngryAsian declared it's time to throw away our quick releases in favor of thru-axles (Bring On The Thru-Axles). Why? He says in the opening paragraph because they've been around over 80 years, and there are lots of "crappy ones" out there.

It should be noted that a lot of those "crappy" quick release skewers tend to come on really expensive wheels. And the reason so many "crappy" QR skewers exist is because weight weenies are obsessed with shaving off every possible gram of weight. But now these weight-obsessed gram shaving junkies are going to switch to heavier thru-axles? Well, yes. Because they're new.

I wonder, after the weight obsessed junkies get done performing their magic on thru-axles, won't they be rendered pretty "crappy," too?

There must be another reason why it's time to ditch quick release levers. Well, on downhill mountain bikes, especially those with disc brakes, thru-axles may provide a better, more secure wheel attachment. OK, score one for thru-axles. But what about for the rest of us? What about road riders with rim brakes? For MOST riding applications, traditional quick release skewers provide all the strength and security anyone needs. In fact, they provide more security than most people need.

What is the argument against thru-axles? AngryAsian says tradition is a big issue. "Without question, tradition is a big deterrent. We've all been using quick release skewers for so long that it's hard to imagine a road bike being built without them." I think that's a slight misinterpretation of the history and tradition. People don't use quick release hubs because they're tradition. They're tradition because they work. They're simple, and incredibly effective. They've been rendered slightly less effective by weight weenies (those open-cam designs might be lighter, but they really are junk), and by lawyers ("safety-tabs" or "lawyer-lips," anyone?) but the quick release lever is truly a great bicycle-related invention -- one that is really difficult to improve upon.

Even in the arguments FOR thru-axles, the column has to cite the negatives:
Thru-axles are slower to operate -- but new designs are almost as fast as quick releases with "lawyer tabs."
Thru-axles are heavier -- but not by much, anymore.

From a "big box" store.
AngryAsian also cites safety. He states, thru-axles are "simply harder to install incorrectly," and "less likely to catastrophically fall out even when they are." It's true that people sometimes do not know how to correctly operate a quick release lever. Then again, I've also seen lots of bikes out there with axle nuts where the nuts were loose, too. And forks installed backwards. Brake cables unconnected. It goes on and on. Should we completely "dummy-proof" everything about bicycles? Is that even possible?

But let's just say that the industry is listening. Thru-axles are "in" and traditional quick releases are "out." That's a pretty sobering thought for me, but I can't help but think it would be typical given the current state of the industry. Consider that changing standards would mean total incompatibility with our current bikes. New wheels. New frames (or at least new forks). We'd have to completely "upgrade" our bikes, so you can almost hear the marketing execs salivating. But don't expect that the industry would settle for just one new standard. Competing companies would all release their own new "standards," none of which will be interchangeable with any others. They're doing it with bottom brackets, and headsets, why not hubs? If this happened, would companies continue to make parts compatible with "old" technology? Probably -- but one should fully expect that the industry would relegate it to "entry-level" bikes and components (so much for the safety arguments -- it's at that level where we see the most installation issues). Am I being too harsh? Pessimistic? Cynical? Industry people at Eurobike last year were talking about relegating 26-in. wheels to the entry-level market (see Still More Wheel Madness), so what chance does the "lowly" quick release skewer have?

The only thing wrong with quick release hub technology is that it's old. It's light, simple, inexpensive, and it works. There is tremendous compatibility over decades worth of bicycles and components. There may be some (completely solvable) issues with disc brakes, but then I'm not really sold on those, either. For most riders, most bikes, and especially road bikes, I see no reason to abandon them. Tullio Campagnolo, wherever you are, thank you.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Vintage Advertisements: Reynolds Tubing

While I've been more or less snowbound -- at least as far as riding my bicycle is concerned -- I've been perusing old vintage bicycle magazines. One of the things I enjoy about them is seeing how things have changed, refreshing my memory of old bikes and components (back when they were new!) or looking over old advertisements. This one sort of caught my eye, being that I'd seen it somewhere fairly recently:

In my recent post about Mercian Cycles, I had a photo of the frame building workshop. If one looks closely on the back wall of the shop, they can see a large poster-sized version of this advertisement. Even though the frame that the little toddler is holding up doesn't have a name on it, it was apparently built by Mercian for the photo shoot. Fun trivia. If I had to guess, I'd say it was a King of Mercia model, but without being able to see any more of the lug details, I can't say for sure.

This ad appeared in a 1980 issue of Bicycling! Magazine. I don't remember when they lost the exclamation point. But it dates back to about the time I was first getting interested in bicycles -- and long before Bicycling (with or without the exclamation point) turned the words "laterally stiff and vertically compliant" into a cliché.

I may post some other old ads if they catch my eye. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Snow Day

I've lost count of how many snow days we've had this year. The school where I work, and all the schools in NE Ohio have been closed so many days for weather this year, it's ridiculous. I can't remember missing so many days -- and we still have a lot of winter left. The jury's still out (well, the state legislature, anyhow) about if, when, and/or how we're going to make up for all the lost days.

The weather being what it's been -- frigid single-digit temperatures (often negative!), and more snow than I've seen in years -- also means I haven't been on my bike for over a month. My bike-to-work average is suffering. Supposedly, it's going to warm up very soon. What a mess all this snow will make when that happens. But I'm making sure my bike is ready to go when the time comes.

The photo is from my back yard. The bike is an old Western Flyer, which was a brand sold through Western Auto Parts stores. Somebody brought it to my house years ago after buying it for a couple of dollars at a yard sale. I parked it next to the picket fence, and it hasn't been moved in perhaps nine years. I photograph it from time to time, capturing it in different seasons, and documenting its gradual decline. I call it the "entropy project," and I guess one could call it art.

Just a short post today -- the kids and I are going sledding. What else is there to do?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Classic Components: Decorative Derailleurs

There was a time when the way something looked was nearly as important as its function. I know I'm going to get some push-back from people who tell me that there is just as much emphasis on design today as there ever was (which is true) -- but what I'm talking about is just a bit different. And I don't think it's simply a question of preferring older styling to modern styling. What I'm getting at is that things once had a certain touch that existed for no other reason than to make them more interesting to look at -- whether one is talking about bike parts, or tools, or nearly anything really.

No function whatsoever, other than making it more
interesting to look at.
My grandfather, who liked working with wood, had a lot of hand-tools in his garage. One of the things I remember about some of the older tools on his workbench was that some of them had really interesting details that served no function whatsoever. The wooden grip on a handsaw would have a design engraved on it, for example. It was there only to make the tool more interesting -- a sign that somebody spent a little more time to make it special for the person who chose it, used it, and maybe even passed it on to someone else. Even though some of the tools were probably mass-produced, they still might have been blessed with these little touches.

Bike components were like that once, too. When I was young, first starting to admire high-end bicycles, I was often struck by the attention to detail in some of those components. Look closely at a Campagnolo Nuovo Record derailleur. Notice the raised lettering on that textured background, and the little scroll-like details. Those details didn't make the derailleur work any better, but they made it much more beautiful to look at. The first generation Super Record unit shared that style, but later versions went for a simpler, smoother face plate and a screened-on Campagnolo script logo. They were still beautiful in a functional, minimalist way, but there's something more tactile about the NR that I admire a little more.

That scrolled and textured theme carried through to the shift levers and even the quick release levers, as well. I always knew my wheels were installed properly when I could see that raised Campagnolo name momentarily visible in the palm of my hand. The careful milling in the Campagnolo crank, likewise added some visual interest, while lightening the crank just a bit.
Interesting to look at, and one of the lightest, best-shifting
derailleurs of its time.
Other companies of that same era also spent some time with little decorative details. Look at an early generation SunTour Cyclone derailleur -- which was a touch lighter than Campagnolo, and shifted better than anything of its day. It wasn't quite as interesting as the Campy NR, but notice the raised logo and lettering, on a neat fine-textured background. The finish on these is nearly as nice as the Campagnolo derailleurs, yet they were a fraction of the price. They also made a long-cage touring version for a wider gear range. They were really nice parts for the money, and I still like using them today. Most vintage bike nuts are probably well aware that the SunTour derailleur design became the basis for most modern derailleurs -- with its slanted parallelogram that better followed the angle of the freewheel, thereby keeping a more constant gap between the top pulley and the cogs.

Shimano 600 "Arabesque." The decorative details had
only one purpose: Looking cool.
Another competitor of the classic era that marked the epitome of decorative details for decorative sake was the Shimano 600 set -- sometimes called "Arabesque." These had the little scroll-like details and engraving all over the face plate, and even on the edge of the pulley cage!  Likewise, the shift levers, and to a lesser extent the front derailleur and crank, all shared the scrolled details. The parts looked special, and worked pretty well, too. Today's components may, in some fashion or another, actually work a bit better than these parts from the past -- but to my mind they lack those little details that make them more enjoyable on a level beyond the purely functional.

Campagnolo tools also followed the philosophy of looking good for the sake of looking good. Perhaps the most notable would be the cone wrenches -- which are perfectly designed for their purpose, fit the hand nicely, but also have the great visual detail of the Campagnolo name against a pebble-textured background. The crank bolt wrench, also known as the "peanut butter wrench" is another one -- a tool that I love to feel in my hands -- but which is also somehow more "satisfying" to use than similar tools that lack the interesting visual detail.
Bloated, and blah.

As I said at the start -- I'll probably hear some arguments from people who say there's no comparison in performance between these 30+ year old parts and the components of today. Some might even say they don't mind the styling of modern components, either. Granted, on the bland and bloated popped-out-of-a-mold carbon fiber bikes of today, these decorative, almost delicate-looking derailleurs would look incredibly out-of-place. On the other hand, that's just another thing I love about traditional lugged steel frames. They are enjoyable on a different level -- not just for their wonderful ride, handling, and "feel" -- but for those little visual touches that make them special. Some people call it "soul." I hesitate to use that term, but I'm not sure what word fits the intent any better. The bikes, or the parts, or even the tools might be hand-made, or just look like they are -- but somehow, the fact that they have that artistic essence imparts something special, making them much more desirable for me.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Classic Components: Campagnolo Record Hubs

The first Campagnolo components I ever bought were a pair of Record hubs. At the time I bought them, they were probably about 10 years old, but they were brand new, perfect in their faded yellow box with the Campagnolo script logo on the top and World Champion rainbow stripes. They were for sale at the most amazing garage sale a teen-aged (or even middle-aged) bike geek could imagine. Besides the hubs, I had purchased a pair of impossibly light Super Champion tubular rims and built my first pair of wheels.

A post-'78 pair of small flange Record hubs.
Whether it was because of the extreme lightness of the rims or because of my amateur wheel-building skills (probably both), the wheels seemed to need constant truing. I eventually un-laced and re-built them with the same hubs and a more robust pair of rims (my wheel-building skills having improved greatly), and I still use them today, almost 30 years later. The hubs still spin like new.

The Campagnolo Record hubs are iconic kit -- without a doubt, the best hubs one could buy in their day, and one could argue, among the best of any time. Period.

First introduced in 1958, the Record hubs were made with only minor changes up until about 1985 or '86. The Record hubs replaced the Gran Sport hubs, which were actually manufactured for Campy by a sub-contractor, Fratelli Brivio (or FB). The Gran Sports were comprised of a steel barrel with aluminum flanges pressed on. The Record hub bodies were a one-piece design, made from a forged aluminum shell, with replaceable steel bearing races pressed into it. There were also oil holes in the center of the shaft, as well as in the dust caps that covered the bearings.

A late 60s large-flange Record hub. Note the straight-lever
quick release. 
By 1958, other companies were making quick release hubs (Campagnolo first introduced them in the early 1930s), but none had the quality of the Records. The design would be copied by many -- some even to the extent that their parts were completely interchangeable with the Campy version -- but the quality of the bearings and the hardness of the bearing race surfaces put the Campagnolo hubs well ahead of anything else available at the time -- and in my opinion, even modern sealed-bearing hubs don't really improve on them. With a little maintenance (and they are completely user-serviceable) they will last for decades. Not only that, but the quality of the forged aluminum shell was better than most of the competition, as well. The flanges were sturdy, and the finish was mirror-like. Even after years of use, they can be brought back to that like-new lustre with a soft cloth and a dab of aluminum polish.

There were several versions of the hubs. Primarily, there was the small-flange version (flange piccole) and the large-flange version (flange grandi). There were road (strada) and track (pista) versions -- differentiated by hollow axles and quick release levers for the road, and solid, nutted axles for the track. The track hubs also lacked the central oil holes, and the rear track hub had special threading for a single cog plus a lock ring. In the early 80s, there was also a BMX version, available in anodized colors.

The very-cool Hi-Lo Record hub.
Superfluous, but impressive nonetheless.
In the 1970s and early 80s, Campy also made a fairly rare version called the "Hi-Lo." This was unique in that the rear hub had a large-flange on the drive side, with a regular small flange on the left. The theory was that it would help equalize spoke tension, resulting in a stronger wheel. Jobst Brandt's book, The Bicycle Wheel, says that the claims of greater wheel strength are overblown -- but regardless, they are a cool-looking curiosity.

As mentioned, the hubs were produced over 25 years with only minor changes. The first versions (up to about the mid-60s) did not have the "Record" name engraved on them -- only the Campagnolo script. There were different axle lengths available for the rear hub to accommodate 5, then 6-speed freewheels. The most recognizable change came in 1978, when the US CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) mandated changes in the quick-release lever design. Pre-CPSC levers had a straight lever at one end, and a simple conical-shaped nut at the other end. Post-CPSC levers were curved, while the nut end was rounded nearly to a ball-shape. I have no doubt that many lives were saved because of the change.

To the best of my knowledge, the internal parts -- bearings, cones, axles, etc. -- were interchangeable throughout the production of the Record hubs. If one wants to find out the year that their Record hubs were made, there is a date code engraved on the axle locknuts. However, if the those were replaced at some point, that could be misleading.

In the late 60s, a lower-priced hub set was introduced: the Nuovo Tipo. The small-flange versions were pretty similar to the Record version, but without the little oil hole that the Record hubs were known for. The large-flange version was differentiated by having round lightening holes, as opposed to the kidney-shaped ones on the Records. Nevertheless, the internal parts were still of excellent quality, and have the potential to be just as long-lived as their more expensive counterparts.

C-Record "sheriff star" hub. Beautiful. Possibly fragile.
When production ended of the classic Record hubs in the mid 80s, they were replaced by the C-Record hubs, which had a modern, aerodynamic-looking design. The large-flange version, sometimes called the "sheriff star" hubs, were particularly gorgeous, and are incredibly valuable today on eBay. But not long after, cassette-type hubs pushed threaded freewheel hubs out of the marketplace. When freewheels and cassettes grew to 8 speeds, it necessitated widening the OLD (over-locknut-dimension) and corresponding frame width to 130 mm. At that length, cassette hubs have an advantage because the hub bearings can be placed further outboard of the flange on the drive side, meaning more support for the axle -- and less likelihood of axle bending.

Nevertheless, I have found that it is possible to use vintage Record hubs even on modern frames with 130 mm spacing, provided that one can find the proper length axle (not that difficult, really). However, the quick release skewer might pose some difficulty -- the older vintage ones might not have enough length to work, at least not without getting a bit risky with the number of threads engaged on the nut-end. I have substituted later-vintage quick release skewers in those cases. Another thing to consider if making the conversion to 130 mm spacing with these vintage hubs is that the drive side of the axle has a lot of unsupported length, and bending the axle can be more of a possibility. My recommendation is to NOT space the hub on the axle for 8-speed freewheels, which are just too wide. Instead, arrange the spacers on the hub to accommodate no more than a 7-speed freewheel, thereby keeping the hub slightly more "centered" on the axle, which also results in a wheel with slightly less "dish" -- which is stronger anyhow.

Campagnolo Record hubs are one of those great components that have proven themselves through the test of time. After their release in 1958, they quickly became the top choice of riders throughout their production for more than 25 years. Their quality is indisputable, and they are a favorite of the Retrogrouch.

Credit: more Campy info is available on the Campagnolo Timeline at Velo-Retro.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

New Cycling Necessity: Bike Cams

As a Retrogrouch, one might expect I'd be pretty negative about bike cameras. But I'm thinking they may be a bit of new technology that I can actually get behind. The harsh reality of riding on the roads today, unfortunately, may be making bike cams a new cycling necessity.

My first reaction to bike cams was that they were self-indulgent nonsense -- given that most of the use I'd seen them put to was capturing things like high-speed downhill runs or "dart, dodge and dive" urban riding by bike messenger wannabes, zipping between trucks and taxis, or jamming through red lights.

But more and more I'm seeing cyclists capturing dangerous and aggressive driving by motorists with their bike cams, and I'm starting to think it might be time to look into it more. I've recently seen a couple of references to this product -- currently on the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter: Fly 6

Created by Andrew Hagen and Kingsley Fiegert of Australia, the Fly 6 is a compact design that makes good sense -- being both a functioning taillight and a rear-facing camera. It apparently records its video on an 8 GB microSD memory card that can record in HD + audio for up to around 2 hours before looping back to the beginning. They still have almost a month to go on their fundraising campaign, and they've well exceeded their goal.

The info on their website says that people will know they're on camera because of the flashing LEDs, although I can't imagine how most drivers would expect that it isn't just a normal blinky taillight. Nevertheless, I've had enough experiences with aggressive drivers that I'd love to be able to capture them on video. The fact that this thing is so compact and doubles as a functioning taillight makes it all that much more attractive to me. The only downside that I can see is that it doesn't have the capability to capture images at night -- and most of my morning commuting is in the dark. Maybe that's something they can work on for a subsequent version?

The Fly6 website has some videos submitted by users who've tried the camera -- I hate to say that a lot of the scenes captured look very familiar to me, and would probably seem familiar to anyone who puts in serious miles on the road. This might be a bit of new technology that I need to try out. If I get that chance, you'll be able to read about it here.