Friday, March 28, 2014

Bring Back the XO-1?

I recently heard from a reader asking if there are any builders out there who make (or would make) a bike based on the sought-after Bridgestone XO-1. The question got me thinking.

The Bridgestone XO-1 was the creation of Grant Petersen, the founder of Rivendell Bicycles, and was a bike that defied categorization in its brief time. It was a bike with road geometry, but equipped with 26-in. (559 mm) wheels, making it capable of going easily from pavement to trail -- like a hybrid of sorts, even though that particular label was avoided. Perhaps because people didn't know how to pigeon-hole it, it was only made for two years -- 1992-1993. I wrote a retrospective of the bike last year.

Since the discontinuation of the model and the pull-out of Bridgestone from the American market, the XO-1 has attained something like a cult status.

So back to the question. Does anyone make a bike based on the XO-1? Or would they? Maybe I should ask, should they?

The most obvious answer to the first part is Rivendell, whose Atlantis model is somewhat similar in its intent to the XO-1. Frame sizes from 47 through 56 cm are designed around 26-in/559 mm wheels. Larger frames are designed for 700c/622 mm, with room for large volume tires. Equip an Atlantis with mustache bars and get a bike that is a spiritual descendant of the cult classic. The fact that the Atlantis (as well as some other Rivendell models) approaches wheel size as a function of frame size actually represents an improvement in my mind over the XO-1. The original was only available in frame sizes up to 59 cm. At that size and beyond, the proportion of the frame with the wheels starts getting awkward and the frame starts to lose triangulation. I've written articles about how wheel size should ideally be a function of frame size and proper fit, rather than a "fashion" or marketing decision.

As to the second part, there's no doubt that any custom frame builder today could build a modern version of the XO-1. The question is would they? Giving the question more consideration, I figure some builders might be willing -- but I have a feeling that many builders today might look at the bike as something they can improve upon, not copy. They might perhaps look at the intended "mission" of the bike to be built, and go after their own idea of how to get there. And chances are, many would recommend 650b wheels.

Here's something to consider. The XO-1 was designed around 26-in/559 mm wheels to make it rough-stuff capable, and in 1992, that's what was available to fit the bill. Since that time, several things have happened: One, 650b/584 mm rims and tires (virtually obsolete 20 years ago) have seen a resurgence, and there are many excellent choices now for tire widths and tread types. Two, more choices in large volume tires in a variety of tread patterns (including gravel tires and MTB knobbies) have become available for 622 mm rims (700c/29er). Given the range of choices, would it still make sense to build a modern XO-1 around 26-in. wheels? For smaller frames, yes, but I have a feeling that if 650b wheels and tires had been as available in 1992 as they are today, the XO-1 would have used them. (Remember that Grant Petersen himself was one of those who helped renew interest in that wheel size back around 2005, offering a 650b Rivendell model called the Saluki.)

Another thing that has happened since the early 90s is the rediscovery of French-inspired randonneur-style bikes -- many of which are built around those 650b wheels. In many ways, these bikes can fulfill a similar mission to the XO-1 -- perhaps even better. I put the question to framebuilding master Peter Weigle, and here is what he said. "A good rando-style bike built today will do everything the legendary XO-1 would do, and it would be comfortable while doing it, as well as being more versatile -- being able to carry some gear, and have fenders to fend off the rain." I think he's right about that. Jan Heine has an article in the Spring 2014 issue of Bicycle Quarterly about touring "secret passes" with a 650b MAP S&P rando bike (a collaboration between Brent Steelman and Mitch Pryor), and he found that the bike was able to handle washed-out roads and some incredibly rough trails without trouble.

There are a couple of budget-conscious production bikes available today that I think would capture the "go anywhere, do anything" spirit of the XO-1 without exactly being copies or re-makes of the original. One of those would be the Polyvalent from Velo-Orange. It's a low-trail geometry, French-inspired bike that uses 650b wheels. Depending on how one equipped the frame (mustache bars, anyone?) it could easily be considered a modern take on the old Bridgestone classic. Frames sell for $550. Another possibility might be the Soma Grand Randonneur -- co-designed with Michael Kone of Rene Herse/Boulder Bicycles. Frames are about $490. Either of these, with 650b wheels and their low-trail geometry should handle nimbly, and go from road to trail with ease. Isn't that what the XO-1 was all about?

As for the last part of my earlier question -- should the XO-1 be re-made? I really like the original -- it was built well with a sensible, versatile design. It was a great bike for its time -- but it seems to me that it also reflects some of the limitations of its time. I may be a Retrogrouch (proudly) but it's hard for me to see the resurgence of classic tire choices (like 650b) and randonneur bikes as anything but positive developments. In a way, they're even more "retro" than the XO-1, so it's not even inconsistent, in fact. In my exchange with Peter Weigle, he said, "It's hard to overcome the nostalgic, legendary notions of the past." I agree. Perhaps if someone is really intent on an XO-1, and vintage examples are still available, there's no need to copy it. But if we're building a new bike, and we can do it better while staying true to the spirit of the original, then we might be well to be open to the possibilities.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

More Vintage Advertisement Fun

Paging through another old bicycle magazine, this one from 1980, I found these two ads:

There's something kind of freaky about this one -- I suppose the multiple exposure effect is intended to make it look like the girl is in motion, but I find it slightly disconcerting. Remember when short jogging shorts with tall striped socks were the fashion? Even for guys? If so, then you might be a Retrogrouch, too. Panasonic Bicycles were made by Matsushita/National Mfg. in Japan -- which also made some bikes for Schwinn. Bridgestone was another of those Schwinn contract builders. Notice the so-called "safety" brake extension levers that were all the rage at the time -- the ones that actually reduced safety.
Again with the little short shorts. When I was in high school I had a crush on a girl who looked like the one in this ad. Now it just makes me feel old. In the 1970s, Fuji was one of the first bikes imported to the U.S. that started to change people's attitudes about Japanese bikes. By the time this ad ran, Japanese bikes and components pretty much dominated the market.
Oh well -- just a short post today. Still waiting for Spring to arrive.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bike Friday

In a post about my trip to Alaska last year, I mentioned how I kept finding myself wanting to ride my bike -- but my own bike was all the way back in Ohio. I was able to rent a couple of bikes -- but one never knows what they're going to get when they rent a bike, assuming rental bikes are even available. It was on that trip that I decided I really wanted to get a bike that I could travel with. After looking into a few different options, I chose a Bike Friday. Let me tell what options I looked at, and why I chose the Bike Friday.

First off, what was I looking for? I wanted something that would pack easily and compactly into a hard case that meets airline standards for checked luggage. I wanted a bike that would fit like my favorite road bikes. I also wanted something that uses mostly "normal" components -- as opposed to the proprietary components that are common on some folding bikes. Here's what I looked at.

Airnimal Chameleon: The Airnimal is from the U.K. and is billed as a serious road bike that can be packed for travel. The Airnimal uses 24-in. wheels, which are supposed to offer a good compromise between easy packability and familiar handling. The frame is aluminum, with an elastomer suspension built into the rear triangle. The fork is carbon fiber (I was not crazy about that feature). Frames are available in two sizes, then one can fine tune the fit with different stems or seat posts, etc. Airnimal claims the small will fit riders from 5' to 5' 11" and the large would fit a range from 5' 10" to 6' 4". The bike takes all "normal" componentry -- so getting parts for repairs, replacements, or upgrades would be no problem. It's available as a frame set, or as a complete bike with several component level choices. For traveling, the bike is supposed to pack into a surprisingly small space -- I saw articles and videos showing that it can fit into the same little case made for the Brompton folding bikes which are well known for their "pack-ability" -- which is surprising since the Brompton only uses 16-in. wheels! Styling-wise, the bike is far from traditional-looking, but that isn't really a concern for me for a traveling bike, as long as it meets my requirements listed above. Compared with a lot of bikes today, especially all the time-trial and triathlon bikes out there, it looks almost normal.

So why didn't I get the Airnimal? For one thing, they have virtually no dealer presence in the U.S. From what I could find, there are only one or two dealers in the whole country. That's not necessarily an issue by itself, as I could always buy the bike and have it shipped. Secondly, reading some of the articles, reviews, and message boards, I found lots of positive reviews of the bike, but I also found a few reports of problems with cracked frames. I doubt that is a widespread problem and it's very likely that it would never happen -- but considering the lack of dealers, imagine the hassle one would have to go through if it did.

Tern Eclipse X20: Tern is a relative newcomer in folding bikes, but they have a familial relationship to the very well-known brand Dahon. The Hon family, which founded the Dahon brand, went through a family and business breakup a few years ago, the result being the introduction of Tern Bicycles. Though some of the designs bear a certain resemblance to some of Dahon's better models, the Terns are supposed to have made some improvements in design, construction, and materials. The Eclipse X20, like the Airnimal shown above, uses 24-in. wheels, and is billed as being a pretty serious performance bike. The frame is hydroformed aluminum with a large hinge in the middle. While a lot of Dahon models, and some of the less expensive Terns, use a fair number of proprietary parts (such as unusual derailleurs, narrower front hubs, and unusual handlebar stems), the X20 uses mostly "normal" components, and some good-quality ones at that (like American Classic hubs!). However, the unusual stem is still there -- and I was concerned that it would make changing handlebars a real challenge. The bike comes equipped with a flat bar and some bar ends -- it is unclear to me if it would be possible to install drop bars if I decided I wanted them. The bike is more or less a "one size fits most" proposition. It does have a fair amount of adjustability built into it for saddle height and handlebar reach. There are no Tern dealers in my area, so it was impossible to determine if I would like the fit. The folding operation on the Tern is super fast and easy. A couple of large latches unlock the joints in the frame and the stem, and the bike folds up like a letter Z.
The Tern folds quickly and compactly. But is it compact

In the end, I decided against the Tern. The bar/stem compatibility was a potential issue for me. But more importantly, I had concerns about packing the bike for travel. Even though the Tern folds easily and fairly compactly (it was designed for commuters and urban dwellers with small apartments), it was not clear to me that it would fit into an airline regulation case. The case that Tern offers for their 24-in. wheeled models is slightly larger than the regulation size for checked luggage. Exceed that limit, and one can pay at least $100 extra each way when flying! (it depends on the airline -- some charge even more). Checking around with dealers online, I couldn't find anyone who could assure me that it would fit into a smaller case.

Brompton: People love them, but I didn't give much consideration to Bromptons. It seems to me that the real attraction is that they fold fast and super compactly -- great for commuters who use trains and other public transit. But I don't see the Brompton as a particularly serious road bike.

The most Retro-grouchy option.
Surly Travelers Check/LHT Deluxe: Of all the choices out there for a traveling bike, the Surly would probably seem to be the most appropriate for a Retrogrouch. It is basically a "normal" bike that has S&S couplers so it can be taken apart with and packed up into a special case (I believe the S&S case is around $400). So why didn't I get the Surly? At the time I was looking into the bikes, Surly had discontinued the Travelers Check (which was based on their Cross Check cyclocross bike), and I didn't realize at the time that Surly was coming out with a new version based on the Long Haul Trucker touring bike. The LHT Deluxe comes only with 26-in. wheels, which can be equipped with relatively narrow road tires -- but will probably pack slightly easier than 700c wheels. If one wants to get a bike packed into an airline regulation case (one that can fly without extra fees), the biggest issue to getting "under the limit" is the wheel size, but apparently it can be done. Available only as a frameset, the Surly could be equipped as retro-grouchy as anyone could want. I suppose if I hadn't already committed to the BF, the Surly would be a great choice, but for ease of packing, it would still be hard to beat the Bike Friday.

The Bike Friday, in racing green. Equipped with optional
fenders and rear rack. The specially modified fenders mount
and dismount with a single bolt. Minutes after I took these
pictures, we were hit with another snow storm. Jeesh.
Bike Friday: The Bike Friday is made by Green Gear in Oregon. That right there was a good selling point for me. Even though they don't have a dealer in my area, the company is known for good service over long distance, and talking with them on the phone I found them very helpful.

The Bike Friday uses 20-in wheels, with a chrome-moly steel frame that folds and disassembles to pack into a standard hardshell suitcase. That means no extra fees for airline travel. The frames are available in a range of sizes, and can even be custom built for the individual needs of the rider. One of the selling points of the Bike Friday is that it can be built to match the riding position of one's favorite road bike. Even though it looks pretty unusual, the bar/saddle/crank relationship is the same as my "normal" bikes. I did wonder about the handling with such small wheels. On the whole, it is not hard to get used to. The small wheels change direction more quickly than larger ones, so I'd describe it as "zippy," but otherwise, it's feels pretty good. Small wheels also don't roll over pavement imperfections as smoothly as larger ones, but I got mine with larger-volume touring tires to help with comfort.

Another thing about the Bike Friday is that it takes mostly "normal" components. Replacing or upgrading parts should be no problem. One exception is the rear hub, where I made the choice to get the Shimano Capreo cassette with its diminutive 9-tooth cog. That gives me a high gear comparable to a 700c-wheeled bike. I'm not sure how common these are should I need a new cassette far from home, but the inner workings of the hub are pretty similar to most Shimano cassette hubs, so basic service should be straightforward for any competent bike shop.
Last time I mentioned the Bike Friday on this blog, it had a temporary, adjustable "fit stem" installed. That has now been replaced with a custom-made one-piece stem that is both strong and light. I rode nearly 200 miles with the adjustable stem and got it "dialed in" where I wanted my position. Then I sent it back to them in the FedEx box they supplied (return shipping included) and they used it as a template for the one-piece stem. Turnaround time, including the shipping back and forth between Ohio and Oregon was just 8 days! I equipped the bike with Dura-Ace 9-speed bar-end shift levers.
Sugino crank with 53/39 rings. With the 9-tooth cog in the back, I get a high gear of 110 inches, which is probably more than I need. The front derailleur is Micro Shift -- inexpensive, yet it shifts quite well with the Dura-Ace bar-ends. 
The wheels have Bike Friday's hubs, equipped with a Shimano Capreo cassette, made especially for small-wheeled bikes like Moulton, Brompton, or Bike Friday. The inner workings are supposed to be pretty similar to other Shimano cassettes, but the special cassette body takes a tiny 9-tooth cog. The rear derailleur is Shimano Tiagra -- inexpensive, yet shifts like any good Shimano derailleur -- and it was available in a traditional-looking silver alloy finish.
While the look of the Bike Friday with its little 20-in. wheels takes some getting used to, I've already mentioned that I wasn't really concerned about traditional looks for a traveling bike. One exception was that I specified traditional silver-alloy components wherever possible. I also specified bar-end shifters because they are simple, rugged, work well, and I just like them. I do use integrated brake/shift levers on a couple of my bikes (Campagnolo Ergo -- because they're rebuild-able) but I like the simplicity of bar-ends and wanted them on this bike. And the Dura-Ace ones are fantastic, so why not?

Some great things about the Bike Friday: The bikes are custom built and equipped for the customer. The ordering process involved me giving them lots of body measurements, as well as certain key measurements taken from my favorite road bike, so they could get the fit right for me. I was able to select components from a wide selection of choices -- including lots of mixing-and-matching. Ordering direct from the company was actually quite easy. If I have a serious problem with the bike -- like something requiring the warranty -- I know I can get it handled easily, even without a local dealer.

I did a lot of research into the bikes I considered -- and I could find nothing but positive reviews of the Bike Friday. On message boards, when I posted questions about the different choices out there, I had more than a few people say "just get the Bike Friday -- you won't regret it." So far, that seems to be the case.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bikes, Beer and Cigarettes

Through a number of previous posts, I've looked at some vintage bicycle ads that I found interesting, or beautiful, or even just blatantly sexist. But bicycles have been used to sell other products as well -- like beer and cigarettes.

Okay - beer. A favorite aprés ride beverage for many bicyclists. It makes sense. Cigarettes? That one's a little harder to process, given what we now know. Anyhow, take a look at a few old beer and cigarette ads I've found that feature bicycles.

Here's a really old one, around 1899 -- Bieres Phénix. Beer and bikes go back a long way, apparently.
A fun one from the 1950s. Long before Pabst became the favorite ironic beverage of bike-riding hipsters.
Another one from the 60s. Here we see what the front basket is really for.
Is that Ed McMahon? Twice? Anyhow -- another tandem, baskets loaded with Bud. From the 1970s
From the 1980s.
Fat Tire Ale has this great vintage-look label.
And Cigarettes!

Cigarettes, like Player's brand notably, used to come with little trading cards. Bicycle images were common.

Don't you always want to relax with a smoke after winning a race? From the early 70s, if I had to guess.
This Salem ad, from the 70s, actually included a bike giveaway. "His -n- Hers" 10 speeds! Five hundred pairs of bikes were given away. I wonder how many of the bikes actually got ridden.
This one might shock some people, but Eddy Merckx, like a lot of European pros of the time, was very much a smoker. No bicycle in sight, though.
Not an advertisement -- but just a little historical context. I think a lot of us have seen this old image from the Tour de France. Interestingly, in those days, people thought smoking would actually help them -- some doctors recommended smoking for the health benefits!

Friday, March 21, 2014

NAHBS 2014

The 2014 North American Handmade Bicycle Show was last weekend in Charlotte, N.C., and photos from the event have been making their way onto the blogs throughout the past week. Here are a few galleries to check out:

Breadwinner Cycle B-Road (photo from VeloNews)
Svelte steel frame, bloated, massive front end.
There are many more, of course. Just search.

Often, the NAHBS has been a real showcase for steel bikes with lugged frames -- "keepers of the flame," if you will. I've been looking through this year's photos -- but I'm really surprised that I didn't see too much that really interested me from this year's show. It's possible that there were still lots of gorgeous lugged steel bikes that blend traditional style with modern materials and the like -- and maybe those just weren't the bikes that were being posted in the galleries. Maybe the photographers and other bloggers find those bikes too "retro-grouchy" or simply too passé to include in the galleries. Who knows.

What I do see in the photos are lots of carbon fiber bikes. While the ones I'm seeing in the galleries actually qualify for the "hand-made" moniker (they don't appear to have been popped out of molds, that is) they don't really excite me like a good steel bike. There was apparently lots of titanium at the show, too. And while there were apparently more than a few steel bikes at NAHBS, many of the steel frames I'm seeing pictured have carbon fiber forks and massive head tubes.

Cielo Road Racer (photo from BikeRadar) -- sporting
 the latest in 44-mm. (internal bore) head tube.
I've never been a fan of carbon forks -- but I think they look downright awful on steel and titanium frames. Not only that, but each new generation of carbon forks gets worse, as the proportions of the forks keep bloating out. Although the carbon makers don't advertise it, the only logical explanation for the swelling proportions is to prevent failures. These forks have grown so large now at the crown, and have tapered steerer tubes that go from 1 1/2-in. at the crown to 1 1/8-in. at the top. All of this is about "triangulating" the fork design, eliminating stress risers, and preventing failure. But none of these measures are needed on a steel frame, or with a steel fork. Even 1 1/8-in. is overkill with a steel fork on a road bike.

The latest thing, as evidenced from the NAHBS galleries, is the 44-mm. (internal bore) head tube. The outside diameter on these is something like 50 mm! Compare that to a steel bike with a traditional 1-in. headset that has a head tube of roughly 30 mm. in outside diameter. I must have blinked and missed something, because one of the articles referred to it as the "now common" 44-mm head tube. This was the first I'd seen of it. Apparently while I've been kvetching about carbon fiber, and disc brakes, and other retro-grouchy nonsense, somebody went and declared this a new headset "standard." The supposed "benefit" of this massive new "standard" is that it allows steel and titanium bikes the use of a tapered carbon fork by using an external bearing cup on the lower race with an internal "zero-stack" cup for the upper race. For steel and titanium builders, I guess it's great because they don't have to try to find tapered dimension tubing for the head tube. But holy cow -- the front end of bikes just keeps getting fatter and uglier.

Enough already. Just give me a nice steel fork with an attractive traditional crown.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Campagnolo Delta Brakes

When it comes to vintage bicycle brakes, die-hard fans tend to have their personal favorites, but in general, most good-quality brakes tend to look and work at least similarly to one another. But there is one brake that garners more "oohs and ahhs" than any other, even among people who couldn't tell a centerpull from a sidepull, or a single-pivot from a dual-pivot brake. That would be the Campagnolo Delta.

First introduced in 1984 (though not actually available to the public until almost two years later), the Campagnolo Delta was an unusual, although not entirely unique, design. Modolo made a similar brake, called the Kronos, as early as 1981, and Weinmann also sold a version in the 80s that was in all likelihood made for them by Modolo. The Deltas were and still are the most famous and recognizable of the type, however, being the most beautifully built and finished. Seriously, there are people out there who lust after these things in an unhealthy way. Search for them on eBay and find prices ranging from $400 through over $2000 for the ultra rare first editions.

Scan from a 1987 Campagnolo catalog
Originally released with the C-Record group, the Deltas were a centerpull design that utilized an articulating parallelogram to actuate the brake arms, as opposed to pulling a straddle cable as used in traditional centerpulls. They got their name because, obviously, the mechanism fit into a triangular "delta" shaped package that was smooth and aerodynamic-looking. The supposed benefit of the design was that it would offer variable mechanical advantage -- with that advantage increasing over the range of lever travel. The reality was that they were heavy, complicated, and provided only mediocre braking power -- a classic case of form over function.

There were five versions of the brakes made. The elusive first edition was quickly pulled from the market because the cable mount could fail, leaving the rider with no brakes at all. (The "Cobalto" sidepull brakes -- Super Records decorated with a blue jewel -- were offered as a substitute until the problem could be sorted out). Subsequent iterations made changes to the parallelogram mechanism to fine-tune the mechanical advantage, or made changes in the adjustment hardware, brake pads, etc. There were also two versions, or "levels" of Delta brakes -- one for the C-Record, and another version for the Croce d'Aune group. The Croce d'Aune versions can be distinguished by their external springs, while the C-Record version had springs hidden inside the housing.

Probably the most familiar image
 of Jobst Brandt, from a mid-80s
Avocet tire ad.
The fact that many people have a passion for the Deltas should not overshadow the fact that they were in actuality a deeply flawed design from an engineering standpoint. One notable critic of the design was Jobst Brandt, an engineer who is perhaps best known for his book The Bicycle Wheel -- one of the definitive texts on wheel building. According to Brandt, the Delta had "a non-linear characteristic that increased the mechanical advantage as the pads wore down . . . the required additional pressure (on the lever) advanced the brake into the lock-up region of leverage." (

Jobst Brandt engaged in numerous arguments about the Deltas (and many other bike technology issues) on the old rec.bicycles newsgroup. An archive of his postings to the newsgroup can be found HERE. The body of his work should be required reading for any Retrogrouch. In reading posts from the Delta's admirers, it seems that many of them argue in defense of the brakes from an emotional standpoint (e.g. "they're beautifully made," "so-and-so raced with them," "I know a guy who swears by them" etc.) rather than from a logical, engineering viewpoint. Given a choice, I'll put more faith in Jobst Brandt.

Here is another Brandt excerpt:

"The first to (declare the Delta brakes dangerous) were the sponsored pros who refused to use them after enough riders crashed and others had spooky experiences. I am working from a riding experience and from standard brake technology in which variable ratio brakes are known to be useless. I worked in brake design for several years at Porsche. I reviewed the Delta brake . . . it should be mechanically obvious that a regular parallelogram when at the extreme extended position (cable fully extended) has zero mechanical advantage and at the other extreme (the cable corners together) has infinite mechanical advantage. This is not a logical range in which to operate a brake."

In any case, the Delta brakes have their fans. My guess is that a lot of those fans are putting more value on style than on actual brake performance. Certainly, the brakes attract a lot of attention visually. In my case, however, I never caught the bug. Given the choice between a pair of Delta brakes or any top-quality single-pivot sidepull brake, I'll take the sidepulls any time. I suppose it's another case where I just believe simpler is better, even despite the fact that the Deltas are now considered "vintage" or "classic." They may be beautifully made and finished, but to me they are not much more than an interesting curiosity.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Campagnolo Derailleurs: Evolutionary Dead Ends

In evolutionary biology, small mutations -- genetic "accidents" if you will -- occur naturally and occasionally. Sometimes these mutations turn out to be beneficial and live on, perhaps to even become a new species eventually. Consider the first fish that had the ability to breathe air on land, eventually leading to amphibians. Sometimes these offshoots of an evolutionary line go extinct, only to become an interesting curiosity in the fossil record. One might think of our distant forebearers, the Neanderthals (Homo Neanderthalensis) -- not a direct ancestor exactly, but more like an evolutionary cousin, whom some anthropologists believe may have even co-existed with early Homo Sapiens, but eventually died off, becoming an evolutionary dead-end.

In looking at bicycle derailleurs over the past couple of articles (HERE, and HERE), I couldn't help but see a similar phenomenon -- evolutionary dead ends in the line of bicycle components.

In the mid-to-late-80s, Campagnolo was fighting for its life. In 1985, Shimano introduced a new click-shifting version of Dura-Ace and kicked off the indexing revolution. Suddenly, everyone wanted click-shift derailleurs. SunTour responded quickly (though some would argue not quickly enough), while Campagnolo apparently hoped indexed shifting was a fad that would go away, and their first attempts at competing with it just could not hold their own against the competition. Not only that, but mountain bikes were sweeping the market, dominated by Japanese component groups. Between 1985 and 1990, Campagnolo introduced C-Record, Chorus, Croce d'Aune, and Athena -- each with a different derailleur design. In addition, there were two versions released of their Syncro indexing shift levers, plus Centaur and Euclid mountain-bike groups. By 1991, virtually all of them were either completely redesigned, or phased out.
Version one of the Syncro levers.
Note the extra lever on the right,
which switched from indexing
to friction shifting modes.

Campagnolo took a very different approach than the Japanese to indexing with their Syncro design in 1987. Whereas Shimano and SunTour designed full systems of interrelated parts -- shift levers, derailleurs, freewheels/cassettes, chains, and even cables (necessitating a complete drivetrain component upgrade, or better yet, just a whole new bike) -- Campagnolo, on the other hand, tried to make Syncro work with their existing derailleurs. It didn't work. The standard parallelogram with a single spring-loaded pivot (which essentially dated back to about 1950) did not track the cogs as closely as the dropped/slanted parallelogram architecture, had a wide "chain gap" on the smaller cogs, and required a fair amount of the overshift/back-off technique to make the shift. None of this translated to good success with indexing. Not only that, but the design and spacing of the cogs, plus the chain design, and the fine-tuning of cable tension, all contributed to making indexed shifting reliable. Campy just didn't have it.

The C-Record derailleur had a sleek, modern, aerodynamic design, but functionally shared the same traditional architecture of the Super Record. The only real addition was to include a spring-loaded top pivot (like Simplex) which was an improvement, but not enough to make it index like Dura-Ace, or even the much cheaper Shimano 600 (soon renamed Ultegra) or SunTour's Accushift models. Although an improvement, the C-Record's basic parallelogram structure was on the verge of extinction.

Diagram from a 1988 Chorus advertisement.
In 1987-88, Campagnolo released Chorus -- the first of their derailleurs to make a complete break with the traditional Campy design. It included a dropped, slanted parallelogram -- with a twist -- literally. Not content to just copy the Japanese design, Campagnolo designed the Chorus with a special 2-position parallelogram that could be tilted a little or a lot, depending on the range of the freewheel being used. A review of the group in Cyclist magazine, Feb. 1988, said, "We found Chorus worked better than any other Campy derailleur -- including the top-of-the-line C-Record. The Chorus derailleur shifted more precisely and was a lot quieter than past Campy derailleurs." They went on to say, "If you want indexed shifting on your all-Campy bike, Chorus plus Synchro is the best combination." As glowing as that review was, I don't believe that opinion was shared by all. The 2-position parallelogram was a really interesting idea -- but it never caught on. It would prove to be an evolutionary dead end.

With its tie-rod actuation, the Croce d'Aune worked like no
other derailleur before or since.
In early 1988, Campagnolo released Croce d'Aune, named after the famous mountain pass where the young Tullio Campagnolo, his fingers frozen numb in the cold, was inspired to create the first quick release hub. The Croce d'Aune derailleur was a true oddity. Like the C-Record and almost all other Campy derailleurs dating back to the original Gran Sport, it utilized the traditional hanging parallelogram structure. Unlike any other, it used a combination of cable actuation and an unusual articulating tie-rod to keep it tracking the cogs closely with a narrower chain gap. Campy called it a "twin axle" system. According to Chuck Schmidt, of Velo-Retro, the top of the tie-rod was held by the derailleur fixing bolt with a ball joint, and the bottom of the rod moved with the derailleur body. Pulling the lever to shift, the cable pulled the body back, while the tie rod pushed the derailleur body inwards, driving it from one cog to the next. Again, the claim was that it would work better with indexed shifting -- but the market must have believed otherwise. The complicated and unusual structure never caught on and it was redesigned a few short years later. Another evolutionary dead-end.

The original Athena looked like a traditional Campy-style
derailleur, but the parallelogram was actually canted for
better tracking down the profile of the cogs.
In 1988-89, the Athena group was introduced, with yet another derailleur design. At first glance, the Athena appeared to share the traditional Campagnolo parallelogram structure. Not quite, though. If one looks a little closer, it becomes apparent that the parallelogram is actually canted at an angle. It looks like a traditional hanging parallelogram, but its angled movement would carry it downward as it moved inward towards the larger cogs, or upwards toward the smaller ones -- mimicking somewhat the movement of a slant parallelogram design. Another detail was that it had a small toothed "stop" at the upper pivot to set the angle of the derailleur as it hung from the dropout. It could be adjusted for different cog sizes. I've used the Athena, not with Campy's Synchro indexing shift levers, but rather with their excellent "retrofriction" levers (another nice bit of componentry that didn't survive the indexing era). With those smooth-acting levers, I've found that the Athena is a really nice shifting little derailleur. If it had been designed with a spring-loaded top pivot, instead of the little toothed stop, it might have been even better. The little adjustable toothed ring can break pretty easily, leaving the derailleur to pull forward without a stop until the pulley cage crashes into the cogs. It's happened to me, and I've seen others that have suffered the same fate (and good luck finding a replacement for the little ring!). Unfortunate, really. Again, it became another evolutionary dead-end.

This little toothed ring on the mounting bolt
allowed one to adjust for different sprockets.
The Syncro levers themselves also were redesigned in that 5-year timespan. The original levers, shown above, had an extra, smaller lever on the right side, that switched the unit from friction to indexing mode. In order to make it work with different derailleurs and cog sets, there were interchangeable inserts to control the number and spacing of the "clicks." There are people who love the system, and admittedly, it was admirable that Campy at least attempted to make it compatible with existing components, rather than necessitating a complete upgrade. But many found it pretty "finicky" to get set up properly. In 1989, there was a Syncro II, with even more insert rings for more compatibility with different drivetrain options, including 8-speed. The second version is identifiable for its large, knurled ring on the right side, in place of the mini lever, to switch between friction and indexing. By '92, the switchable Syncro levers with interchangeable rings were replaced with a simpler index-only lever for 8-speeds, along with Ergo integrated brake/shift levers.

By 1991, Campagnolo decided that when it came to the Japanese competition, they were better off just copying them rather than trying to beat them at their own game. The line of derailleurs, with all its unique variations, was completely redesigned -- all across the board with dropped, slanted parallelograms, borrowing heavily from the designs being used by Shimano. In addition, they came up with specially shaped cog teeth, not unlike Shimano's Hyperglide, all to finally get indexed shifting systems that worked the way the consumers seemed to be demanding.

Looking at the parts shown above, it's pretty clear Campagnolo in those years was doing anything they could to remain not only competitive, but innovative. Not content to just copy the Shimano and SunTour designs, they tried to remain true to their heritage and make their traditional designs work in the new era. The Chorus, Croce d'Aune, and Athena, all had very different approaches to improve shifting performance, but ultimately none of the innovations would last. Sadly (to my Retrogrouch sensibility, anyhow) the way Campagnolo regained its reputation as an innovator was to start squeezing extra cogs onto the cassette -- jumping ahead of Shimano first with 10, then 11 cogs. Now that Shimano is making their own 11 speed cassettes, what else is there to do for "innovation" but to try for 12?

Something to think about: The original Gran Sport was made with few changes for about 13 years or so. The Nuovo Record was made for even longer. The basic architecture of those derailleurs was used for roughly 40 years! Today, new components are introduced almost every year, with incremental changes billed as major design revolutions. The way the bicycle industry seems intent on making our bikes "obsolete" almost as soon as we ride them, it appears that their current slogan might be "mutate or die"!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Classic Derailleurs Part II: Competition Copies and Clones

The very influential Campagnolo Gran Sport spawned many
competitors and clones. (photo courtesy of Carlos Ovalle)
In my previous post, I looked at the evolution of Campagnolo's post-war classic-era derailleurs, from the Gran Sport through the C-Record. That basic parallelogram design was the mainstay of Campagnolo's derailleur line for about 40 years! Not only that, but it inspired many copies -- some that borrowed only a little, and others that were practically clones of varying quality.

Nivex derailleur, with a lot of patina.
(from Forum Tonton Velo)
Campagnolo's Gran Sport, originally introduced in 1949, is sometimes credited by people as the first parallelogram-type rear derailleur, but that's not exactly true. According to Frank Berto's excellent bicycle history, The Dancing Chain (Cycle Publishing/Van der Plas Publications), that distinction actually belongs to the French Nivex touring derailleur of 1938. I've never seen one up close, much less tried one, but according to Berto as well as Bicycle Quarterly's Jan Heine, it was a really nice-shifting piece of equipment. But it was very different from the Campagnolo Gran Sport -- mounted on the chainstay, well ahead of the rear axle and with the parallelogram oriented horizontally. Wheel changes could be a bit complicated, but were simplified somewhat by using a rear hub with an innovative split axle. Nevertheless, one could reasonably say that the Campagnolo Gran Sport was the first parallelogram derailleur to gain widespread acceptance by racers, as well as becoming a much more influential design overall.

Simplex JUY Export 61 -- probably "inspired" by the Gran
Sport -- but also improved. A very desirable derailleur.
(from Classic Bicycles)
Notable competition came from Simplex, who in 1961 released a design which at first glance bore a basic resemblance to the Campagnolo -- but it was not exactly a copy, as much as it was an "inspired" and "improved" competitor. The JUY Export 61 was the first Simplex to use the parallelogram structure -- but improved on it with the addition of a spring in the top body pivot to help it more closely track the freewheel cogs. That spring-loaded pivot had long been a part of Simplex derailleur designs going back to their pull-chain plunger-action models. The Export 61 was well made, nicely finished, and the extra spring reportedly helped it to shift better than the Gran Sport or Record models from Campagnolo.

Simplex Prestige - "Delrin" plastic may
have damaged Simplex's reputation.
(photo courtesy of Carlos Ovalle)
Unfortunately, the Export 61 was only made for a year or two when Simplex decided to recreate the design in "Delrin" industrial plastic -- released as the "Prestige." Somebody apparently thought that it would be great if a derailleur could be bent and twisted without breaking -- but flexibility is generally not a hallmark of a good shifter. I know if I disparage the Prestige too much, somebody is going to say that it was their all-time favorite derailleur. I admit I have limited experience with them -- but every one of them I've encountered was mounted on a low-cost bike-boom era 10-speed, beaten and worn to the point of disfunction, and suitable for nothing but the trash. Someone will probably say they shifted great when new, right out of the box, but I unfortunately never had the pleasure (?) to try one in that condition. I should point out that I've also encountered lots of old Nuovo Record derailleurs that had obviously weathered similar abuse and neglect, and while cosmetically trashed, still functioned just fine. The most I ever had to do to one was replace a bent pulley cage, and it's worth noting that not only could I easily find a replacement cage, but the operation was pretty simple.

Eventually, Simplex ditched the plastic and released a derailleur designed and built to restore their reputation: the Super LJ, circa 1972-3. It was all-alloy, attractive, strong, and shifted about as well as a traditional parallelogram derailleur can shift. The Super LJ, paired with the great Simplex Retrofriction shift levers, could make for a nice-shifting set. Unfortunately, the plastic derailleurs damaged the company's reputation enough that the Super LJ wasn't enough to bring it back in the minds of many riders.

Still, the Simplex design was very influential in its own right. Even though it appeared to copy Campagnolo, the spring-loaded top pivot helped the derailleur track the cogs better, keeping a better chain gap all across the freewheel. That little detail was picked up by Shimano for many of their derailleurs (such as the Lark series), and was eventually combined with the slant-parallelogram structure (invented by SunTour, circa 1964) to kick off the index-shifting era.

Campagnolo Clones

There were a number of companies that made derailleurs that borrowed so heavily from the Campy designs, that it's hard to think of them as anything more than clones. Some were pretty well made and are even sought after by collectors. Others were notable only for how awful they were.

There isn't a lot to distinguish the Zeus Criterium from
the Campy Gran Sport or Record. They do have their
fans, though.
One of the better imitators was Zeus of Spain. Although even in calling them an imitator, I'm probably going to get some push back from some serious Zeus fans out there.  Zeus made a full range of components, and even frames, and some of their component designs were, in fact, unique or perhaps even innovative. But looking at the Zeus Criterium rear derailleur of the 1960s, it's hard to make an argument that they were doing anything more than copying an existing design. Even some of the visual, stylistic details, such as the logo design on the face plate, are clearly drawn from the old Gran Sport or Record. Still, it was reasonably well executed, and the company still has a loyal following among collectors.

Zeus Racer.
Some later derailleur designs from Zeus, such as the Racer and the 2000, clearly got their inspiration from the Super Record, though they are not quite exact copies right down to every small detail. But the black and silver combination was definitely intended to call to mind the look of the Super Record, and the general design was still pretty much the same. The 2000 model even included some titanium bits and a drilled pulley cage to reduce weight.

A rough-looking Triplex Nuovo Record clone.
A company that was less successful in copying the Campy derailleurs was Triplex -- also from Spain. Triplex had several Campagnolo clones, but they were typically crude, with poor finishes and numerous cost-cutting touches. One can occasionally find their Nuovo Record clones on eBay, but the only reason I could see for buying one would be to have it as a somewhat ironic paperweight. I've never used one, but looking closely at them in pictures, one can see uneven gaps at the pivots, and I've read reviews that mention weak springs and other flaws that would probably make them work as poorly as they look.
Triplex C-Record imitation. Spotted
on eBay.

My "favorite" Triplex clone would be their C-Record copy from the mid-80s. Somehow, the smooth, aerodynamic look of the C-Record doesn't translate well when done with cheap materials and haphazard finishing.

Early 80s Galli -- probably one of the best Campy copies.
In the 1970s and 80s, Galli, of Torino, Italy, made a pretty respectable alternative to the Campy Nuovo Record/Super Record. The Galli Criterium borrowed a lot from the Campy design, but toned down some of the visual details, although the styling changed through a few variations during the production period. The later ones actually bear more resemblance to Campy than the earlier versions. These were also available in anodized colors -- I've seen them in gold, red, green, and blue. The Galli got good reviews at the time it was produced, as testers felt it shifted about as well as the Nuovo/Super Record, and was finished comparably. Complete Galli gruppos were available through joint efforts between Galli, Stronglight, and Maillard.

Maglia Rosa -- after the Giro d'Italia
leader's jersey.
Ofmega, of Italy, made an interesting -- albeit quirky -- derailleur that used the basic parallelogram architecture, but rendered it in colored plastic with a look that can only be described as unique. They were very much "of their time" -- made in the 1980s. The Mistral was rounded and smooth, and available in black, gray, blue, pink, and yellow. According to, the blue was called "Squadra Azzura," the pink was "Maglia Rosa," and the yellow was "Maillot Jaune." (The yellow version always reminded me of a banana). The plastic would fade and lose its color over time, and I really don't know why anyone still thought plastic was a good material for bicycle parts, but fans of the Mistral (and they are out there!) insist that it is not the same as the "Delrin" plastic used on the old Simplexes. Then again, carbon fiber components are at least partially plastic, too.

There were plenty of other copies, clones, and imitators out there -- from Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan -- pretty much anywhere that manufactured bicycle parts. The ones I've shown are just a sampling. In the end, as innovative as it might have been in the 1950s, the standard parallelogram design just didn't hold up in the era when most people were demanding indexed shifting. Something I find interesting is to look at the modern derailleur and see how it evolved from the innovations of the past. Take the parallelogram design, created by Nivex; hang it from the dropout as Campagnolo did (and popularize the hell out of it!); drop it down into a more horizontal position, like Shimano; slant the parallelogram to follow the profile of the cogs, like SunTour; and incorporate double spring-loaded pivots, like Simplex -- And you have today's flawless-shifting derailleur.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Classic Derailleurs: Campagnolo Evolution

No derailleurs capture the spirit of the classic era more than the Campagnolo's derailleurs from the 1950s through the 80s. Beginning with the Gran Sport in 1949, through the original Record, then Nuovo Record and Super Record, and even the C-Record of the 1980s, Campy's derailleurs evolved in small ways over the years, but never strayed far from their original design. They stood the test of time, and were widely copied.

Tullio Campagnolo, with a bike equipped
with one of his 1940s Corsa derailleurs.
Cambio Corsa derailleur.
Campagnolo's previous derailleur system, originally developed in the mid-1930s, was the rod activated Cambio Corsa model -- which had a pretty narrow gear range and was cumbersome to use. These early derailleurs used no pulleys, because racers of the time were convinced (mistakenly) that pulleys would add too much drag. To shift gears, the rider reached down low and behind himself to work the levers mounted on the seat-stay. The rider moved one lever to open the rear wheel quick release, then backpedaled while turning the second lever which operated a "fork" that moved the chain from one cog to another. The wheel moved forward or backward in the dropouts to adjust chain tension. Then the first lever was used again to close the quick release and to lock the wheel in place. A later variation, called the Paris-Roubaix, performed the same basic functions but with only one lever instead of two. To see one of the Cambio Corsa derailleur systems in operation, see here: (YouTube --this guy actually makes it look easy!).
The Simplex derailleur was state of
art in the late 40s.

In 1949, Italian racing legend Fausto Coppi famously won the Tour de France using Simplex derailleurs (Simplex had paid him to switch), which was probably something of a slap in the face to Tullio Campagnolo. The Simplex was a cable operated plunger-type derailleur that was considerably easier to use than Campagnolo's rod-operated designs. Many other top racers also were using Simplex, but ultimately the "defections" told Campagnolo that he had to do something big to reestablish his company at the top among racers of the day. The result was the Gran Sport.

The prototype Gran Sport, with dual-cable
operation. Production versions would utilize
a return spring with a single cable.
The Gran Sport, first introduced at a Milan trade show in 1949, used an articulating parallelogram design, as opposed to the push-rod or plunger action, to move the pulley cage in and out. That first prototype shown used dual cables to move the unit back and forth, but production versions used a single cable plus a return spring. The design was refined further over the first couple of years until a "definitive" version was finalized by 1953. With only minor changes, that Gran Sport design was the basis for almost all of Campagnolo's better derailleurs, as well as much of their competition, until the "index shifting" era.

The definitive Gran Sport, early 1950s.
The original 1963 Record.
A short-lived model.
The Gran Sport was made right up into the 1960s, but a slightly improved model was introduced in 1963 called the Record. Made of chrome-plated bronze and steel, the Record didn't look much different from the Gran Sport at first glance. The biggest difference was that the pulley cage pivot was moved slightly forward and upward in relation to the jockey pulley. This change improved the capacity and overall performance as compared to the Gran Sport. This Record derailleur was the top of the line for the next few years, but its time in production was very short overall, especially considering the longevity of other models.

An early 80s Nuovo Record from my collection.
The next refinement came in 1967 with the introduction of the Nuovo Record, made from cold-forged aluminum. The new derailleur was lighter, and it was a much more refined product cosmetically, too. The old Gran Sport and chrome-plated bronze Record looked almost crude by comparison. The Nuovo Record is the true classic among Campy's derailleurs: tough, reliable, and beautiful. That model derailleur would continue to be made, virtually without changes, until the early-to-mid 1980s. Such longevity in any bicycle component is really hard to imagine in today's market, where every year new "upgrades" make last year's components "obsolete" and any design more than a couple of years old is described as "tired" or "long-in-the-tooth."

Second-generation Super Record.
(wikimedia commons)
The original Super Record
was basically the same as
a Nuovo Record with some
titanium bolts and a black
anodized body.
In 1975, Campagnolo introduced the Super Record group. The original Super Record rear derailleur was almost identical to the Nuovo Record except for the use of titanium for the pivot bolts, and some black anodizing on the body. It was revised further by the end of the decade to include a smooth, non-textured face plate with a screened-on logo, and a slightly different pulley cage that I believe actually increased the capacity slightly over the Nuovo Record. Both derailleurs were manufactured and sold side-by-side until around 1984 or so.

In the mid 1980s, Campagnolo made a significant design revision with the introduction of the C-Record model. The basic parallelogram architecture was still based on the old Gran Sport of the 1950s, but the shifting performance was improved somewhat by adding a spring to the upper body pivot -- something that Simplex had done for decades. The styling was smoothed dramatically, giving it a modern aerodynamic look. Visually, it was attractive, but ultimately in performance it could no longer hold its own against the competition coming from Japan.

Mid 80s C-Record. Modern yet
old fashioned at the same time.
As influential as it was, there were definite shortcomings in the basic parallelogram design of the Campagnolo derailleurs from the 50s through 80s. For one thing, they tended to need a bit of finesse to get from one cog to the next -- the usual technique was to overshift a bit, then back off to get the chain onto the desired cog. The necessity for this "overshift/back-off" technique was exacerbated as one moved outward on the freewheel to smaller cogs because the chain gap between the cogs and the jockey pulley would increase -- the movement of the parallelogram simply did not allow for a consistently close chain gap needed for quick shifting across the whole freewheel cluster. In my own experience, making the shift to the outermost cog can be particularly troublesome and can require some serious finagling. Being able to shift under any kind of pedal load was also unlikely. These shortcomings were easy to overlook in the era of friction-only shifting. The technique needed for shifting was just a skill one acquired until it became automatic. Sure, Japanese derailleurs from SunTour in the 70s and 80s shifted better, but Campy had "mystique," "tradition," and legendary long-term durability. One often heard clichés like "Campy wears in, the competition wears out." Then again, one also heard, "Campy derailleurs shift badly, forever."

1988 Chorus -- scanned from a Campy catalog.
Slant parallelogram, with a "twist."
By the end of the 1980s, just like forty years earlier, it was pretty clear that something big had to be done with Campagnolo's derailleur design. The old basic parallelogram architecture that was introduced on the prototype Gran Sport in 1949 just would not work as well as the slant parallelogram design first created by SunTour in the 1960s, and adapted by Shimano in the early 80s as part of the first truly successful indexing system. Campagnolo tried to make their traditional derailleurs work with indexed shifting, but the weaknesses of the old design just wouldn't allow it to work reliably in that mode. In 1987 - '88, the Chorus was Campy's first attempt at a slant parallelogram (with an interesting "twist" -- literally -- that allowed the angle of the parallelogram to change). In 1991, Campagnolo finally introduced the first major overhaul in their derailleur design, fully copying the "Japanese" designs with slant parallelograms and double spring-loaded pivots. That is now the basis for all derailleur systems today, regardless of brand or country of origin.

Coming up in the next post: Copies and Competition. Stay Tuned!