Friday, May 30, 2014

The Beard Factor

What a relief. Specialized put its wind tunnel to work on a problem that has really had cyclists like me concerned for a while -- the question of whether or not having a beard affects a rider's performance. The verdict: it makes little-to-no difference.
The Win Tunnel: To Beard or Not To Beard (the picture is a link to the video)
I'm glad I don't have to shave my hirsute self to pick up a few more seconds on my work commute.

Specialized's aerodynamic experts, Chris Yu and Mark Cote, put the facial hair issue to the wind tunnel test to settle a debate that has raged among cyclists for generations -- though leg hair was not addressed for some reason (why not, Specialized?). They put a rider into the tunnel with his beard, then back into the tunnel after a shave and measured the differences in drag coefficient.

From the 1985 film American Flyers. Perhaps the facial-hairiest peloton since the 1890s.
Don't shave it, Wiggo.
Dave Zabriskie could occasionally be seen sporting some facial hair worthy of Snidely Whiplash.
According to Yu, the beard might make about a one-second difference over the course of 40 km -- a result they determined was negligible. Still, I'll bet some Cat. 4 racer out there will be convinced they need that minimal advantage anyhow. Not only that, but the effect of the extra weight of that facial hair is still up for debate. Come on, Specialized -- weight weenies want answers!

Not a lot of heavy reading today. Happy Friday.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Rough Road" Tires?

I saw this article on BikeRumor about some new prototype supposedly fat tires for "rough roads." What the heck is going on when a 25 mm tire (that may or may not measure as much as 27 mm depending on the rim it's mounted on) gets attention as a "rough road" tire?

Other than the fact that they have tougher casings, there isn't much info in the article about the tires themselves, as they were simply photographed by a participant at this past weekend's Baller's Ride in Virginia which was billed as "equal parts Navy Seals training, Outward Bound, and a Mensa meeting for the most vain of the vain, all coupled with some brutally hard riding and dining." The event actually sounds like it might have been a good time, being a gathering of some great names among frame builders and other industry folks, and some of their invited customers and friends, and involving some pretty tough riding over a range of terrain.

Maybe 25 mm is the fatest tire that will fit
into the fork, or under the brake, but please
don't kid yourself that it's a "rough road" tire.
About 25 mm tires being considered "fat," I think the pictures speak well for themselves. Crammed under a short-reach brake and into a carbon fiber fork with minimal clearances, the tire obviously pushes the limits of what will fit -- but that just reveals a major design flaw in the bike, not an advantage of the tire.

Want a fat tire for rough roads? How about 32 mm? That's a rough road tire. If that won't fit into the frame, then someone probably paid too much money for a bike that's good for only one thing -- going fast on perfect pavement on sunny days. My "raciest" bike is currently shod with 29 mm Challenge Parigi-Roubaix tires which give a great ride on pavement, even when it's broken and patched. Judging by the visible clearances, I'm pretty certain 32s would fit. My Rivendell has 33.3 mm Jack Browns, but could easily accommodate the 38 mm Barlow Pass tires from Compass Bicycles. Despite the old thinking on tire volume, road tests have shown that high-quality large-volume road tires do not slow a bike down, and in fact, have no real down-sides, even for those craving go-fast performance.

Now, those are fat tires for rough stuff.
One "Baller's Ride" participant who had the right idea was Richard Sachs, whose bike for the event was his own cyclocross racer. The tires on that bike look like they are probably at least 35 mm. Oh -- by the way, note that Sachs's bike (almost all of his custom-built bikes, for that matter) is decidedly disc-brake-free. Sachs is no retrogrouch, but I couldn't help but smile when I saw his thoughts on why he "won't ever make a disc brake road or cyclocross bike." "Heavier. Inelegant. Unnecessary. Driven by marketing of the big brands." Couldn't've said it better myself.

Are 25 mm tires better than the 20 - 23 mm tires pumped up past 100 psi that are so common on today's narrowly-focused road bikes? Yeah. But are they fat "rough road" tires? C'mon.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

New Campagnolo: It's Officially Ugly

The spy photos of the new Campagnolo Record group taken during the Giro d'Italia have been confirmed. The new flagship line from Campy is officially ugly. The new designs are shared by the Super Record, Record, and Chorus groups

New Super Record crank. The fat-looking 4-arm spider crank borrows a lot from the trend set by Shimano's Dura-Ace, with a slightly asymmetrical bolt pattern -- though not quite as noticeably asymmetrical as the Dura-Ace (when I first saw it in the spy photos, I was thinking it was a symmetrical bolt pattern). Campy (and Shimano, for that matter) claim that it makes for a stiffer crank, though I cannot imagine how a 4-arm spider can be stiffer than one with 5 arms. Campagnolo also says that the same crank will accept "regular" (53/39 or 52/36) and "compact" (50/34) chainrings. You know what else accepts both regular and compact chainring combinations? Compact cranks. So that isn't exactly a benefit or improvement. Also, the new design makes all existing Campy chainrings obsolete. I haven't seen any word yet on whether this will be translated into aluminum for the lower priced groups such as Centaur or Veloce -- but I'd have to guess that the 4-arm spider will filter out across the entire line at some point.
The new Super Record rear derailleur. The design is shared by (non-Super) Record and Chorus. Big, bloated, and deformed-looking. The s-bend in the parallelogram is supposed to move the chain closer to the cogs for better wrap, which Campagnolo says improves power transfer and alignment, leading to better durability. I have no doubt that the change will be so dramatic that all our current derailleurs will feel imprecise and clunky by comparison. The new design also necessitates new mechanicals in the Ergo shift/brake levers -- though all the changes in levers are internal -- the levers will still look and feel like the current models. Again, no word on whether this design will be set in aluminum alloy for lower priced groups, but if that happens I doubt it will improve the look any.
Not that I'm eager to see what an electronic-shifting version of the parts would look like, but so far only the cable-operated version has been revealed.

On the plus side, prices for the leftover stocks of old parts might actually fall now that they're about to be rendered obsolete.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

To Be Filed Under "Why?"

Back in April, I posted a story about the Weird and Wonderful (or just plain weird) "innovations" displayed at the last Eurobike trade show. One of the innovations was this bike with hubless and spokeless wheels:

There wasn't any info about it at the time, but I called it a solution looking for a problem, and wondered what the point was. Well, I got my answer, and here it is. That is the Gianluca Sada Hubless Bike, and it is a prototype folding bike from Italy. Okay, that answers what it is, but it doesn't fully answer why.

From the Sada website: "The idea of a folding bike has undertaken numerous studies that focus on reducing weight and dimensions which have led to realize too small sized bicycles. They have small frame and wheels at the expense of stability, for the sake of compactness and portability during transport." They go on to say, "The objective of this project is to have a cycle with standard dimensions (wheels 26") and have a small package during transportation." So this is a bicycle design concept trying to become a production reality, but it still isn't clear why spokeless wheels are a benefit. Take a look at the thing folded up:

Notice anything pointless? Sure, that massive frame folds up pretty compactly -- like a couple of umbrellas (really heavy umbrellas, I'd guess) -- but one still has to carry around a pair of wheels in addition to the big hunk of a frame. Also, I see the handlebar stem attached to the frame, but I don't see the handlebars. If you want it to fold as compactly as this, the bars must be removed also and carried separately.

And here's the thing about hubless/spokeless wheels. In order to make up for the loss of structure and strength that a wheel gets from its spokes, those rims have to be super heavy to keep them from collapsing under the rider's weight, or from the force of hitting a pothole.

Something else I notice -- no freakin' brakes. What is it about "futuristic" bike concepts from industrial design students that they never have brakes? Are brakes too hard to conceptualize? Or are these people under the impression that stopping will be unnecessary in the future?

More from the Sada website: "In conclusion, the project may pave the way for a new system of mobility outside the classical schemes, widely accessible and easily transportable. Personal style and extreme versatility give dynamism to the traditional bicycle, the subject increasingly required in this environmentally friendly age." That's a bit tortured in terms of language, but I think it was translated from Italian. Anyhow, it seems like industrial design schools are constantly encouraging their students to design the "bike of the future" or "reinvent" the bicycle. Obviously, the people who come up with these designs don't actually ride bikes, as the supposedly versatile and revolutionary designs typically eschew anything resembling actual versatility, and they're only revolutionary in that they ignore everything that makes a bicycle the "widely accessible and easily transportable" creation that it already is. Besides that, I don't think this thing solves any problems that haven't been handled pretty well with existing folding bicycles.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Towpath Trail and Storm Damage

Last Sunday, I wrote about enjoying a nice ride on my Rivendell Long-Low through the Cuyahoga Valley, and I mentioned some of the damage that had occurred after some torrential storms that moved through our area nearly two weeks ago. At that time, I didn't have my camera with me to document some of that damage. I got out for a ride again yesterday, this time with a camera.

Yesterday was a beautiful Spring Saturday, and I took the Retrokids for a ride on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath. Most of the path has been reopened, but there is still one section, about 1.6 miles in the southern end of the national park, that is completely closed and may remain so for a while. Other sections are open, but still show much damage.

This shows probably the worst area of damage. The railroad tracks are part of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway, which takes visitors up and down the valley from Akron to just south of Cleveland. It may not be obvious from this angle, but there is nothing underneath the tracks -- they are just hanging in the air. Follow them into the distance and see the major dip they take where, again, the entire base beneath them has been washed away. The canal towpath is there, too, just to the right of the wooden fence -- completely buried in the gravel and earth that had been the base for the tracks.
Here's the towpath, buried under debris. 
This is the part of the railroad tracks that could be seen in the top photo, where the tracks took a big "dip." Here you can see pretty clearly why. I could almost stand under the tracks here. The amount of water cascading through this area, and the force it generated, must have been tremendous.
This is the towpath trail right beside the section of tracks in the previous photo. In fact, this is the spot where I was standing when I shot the previous photo. That crater is a couple of feet deep.
Here's another part of the trail, in the town of Peninsula, about 4 - 5 miles north of the other damaged section. This part of the trail is open, but the damage is pretty obvious -- a large piece of the trail washed right down to the Cuyahoga River below.
This wasn't part of the towpath, but I took it to show another area of damage in the valley. This was a big chunk of earth that washed into the river (visible on the left). The crater it left extends just to the edge of one of the two main roadways through the valley.
Enough storm damage, already. Here's one of the Retrokids with our trail-riding bike -- or should I say, train (the other kid is off looking at wildflowers or something). We stopped here beside one of the old canal locks for a break. The bike is an '83 Stumpjumper, complete with nicely lugged frame and twin-plate fork crown. It's been repainted, and has some "updated" parts (90s instead of 80s) along with a sprung Brooks saddle and mustache bars. The kids' rig is a double Trail-A-Bike -- a hard item to find. I've often said in the pages of this blog that when it comes to the weight of a bike making a difference in riding, you have to be talking about pounds, not just grams or ounces. Well, between the two kids and the double trailer, I'm probably pulling an extra 110 - 115 lbs.
I've read some articles in the news that the damage from storms in the valley has gotten worse over the years due to all the development that has been taking place above the valley, and outside the park lands. With all that pavement, and parking lots, shopping centers and housing developments -- it generates so much runoff in major storm events that it all eventually finds its way down to the valley and causes serious problems with erosion, etc.

Well -- anyhow -- damage or no damage - the kids and I had an enjoyable ride. That's all for now.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Will the Real Hour Record Bike Please Come Forward?

After the previous post on the Hour Record, I thought a good follow-up would be to look in more detail at the bike that Eddy Merckx used in his 1972 record. Over the years there have been a number of bicycles shown or displayed claiming to be THE bike that Merckx rode, and they all have subtle differences between them, but there can be only one. To find out more, I put the question out to members of the Classic Rendezvous group because they have proven to be a fount of knowledge on vintage bikes. Oddly enough, we found that identifying the true Merckx Hour Record bike to be a bit of a puzzle.

First, let's consider what is known about the bike. The bicycle frame was built by Ernesto Colnago especially for the record attempt. A Bicycling! magazine article from July 1974 stated that Cino Cinelli also had a hand in the design of the bike, at least in an advisory role. Several sources have claimed that it was built with specially butted steel tubing from Reynolds, with wall thicknesses of 0.7 mm, and about 0.37 mm in the thinnest section! By comparison, typical Reynolds 531 tubing would have been 0.9/0.6 for the down tube (0.8/0.5 for the top and seat tubes). It is generally known that the Campagnolo crank was milled out and the chainring cut away for lightness. Gearing has been widely reported to be 52x14. 

Here are a couple of photos and a video taken during the actual ride:

Eddy Merckx on the velodrome in Mexico City. The hubs on the bike shown above are Campagnolo, but sources say that hollow axles were used, and the dustcaps left off to further shave weight -- same goes for the pedals, though that isn't so clear in the photos. Note that the stem used on the bike above was custom-made from titanium by Pino Morroni of Detroit, MI. Morroni reportedly also made a special titanium seatpost, but it is unclear to me whether Merckx used it during the actual ride, or if he used a heavily drilled Campagnolo Record seatpost, and I believe photos from the event are inconclusive on that point. The tires used were extra lightweight Clement Seta track tires with a super-thin latex rubber tread that would have appeared to be almost white in color (at least before being used -- they were sometimes referred to as "onion skins"). Note the lettering style of the decal on the downtube, and the "Windsor" stickers (a Mexican-based bicycle company) on the head tube and seat tube which were stuck on at the last minute, much to the consternation of Mr. Colnago.
From the front, one can see again the Windsor stickers on the head tube and seat tube. Note the handlebars. Much as been made of the fact that Merckx used bars that were heavily drilled out to save weight -- but from this photo and the one above, it would appear that that may not have been the case for the actual ride. It's possible that these bars were drilled and it just can't be seen in the photos, but other photos taken either before or after the record ride show bars with visibly large holes drilled over nearly their entire length. I'm inclined to believe that Merckx indeed had several sets of bars and stems ready for the attempt -- and perhaps decided at the last minute to go with the less risky option. An interesting point worth mentioning is that Cino Cinelli apparently advised using a special narrower hub for the front wheel to reduce air resistance, but that suggestion was not followed (Bicycling! July 1974).
Here is a shot of Merckx's bike, apparently just prior to the record ride. Note the extra set of bars off to the left. Below is a short video of the Hour Record ride.

Though not totally conclusive, this still-shot from the video above leads me to believe that the seatpost is in fact a Campagnolo Record. Images I've seen of the custom-built seatpost look like a much darker-colored metal.
As already stated, after Merckx's record ride, a number of bikes have been represented as THE Hour Record bike. Various and reliable sources have reported that there were at least two bikes built by Colnago for the record attempt -- a primary bike and a backup bike. I also have no doubt that at least several sets of wheels, bars, stems, and other components were brought to Mexico City in preparation for the event, and since components can be swapped so easily, it would be difficult to say exactly which parts were used and which were the spares. It is also indisputable that replicas have been made. The aforementioned Bicycling! article stated that replicas of the bike were making the rounds at bicycle industry shows as early as 1973.

The following are several bikes that may or may not be the real Merckx Hour Record machine:

Dale Brown, of Cycles de Oro and the Classic Rendezvous, snapped this photo some time in the late 1970s at the New York bicycle show. For authenticity I believe this one has a lot going for it. Some things to note: the downtube decal looks "right" compared to the bike in the velodrome photos above. One can also clearly see the Windsor sticker on the seat tube, though it appears that the one on the head tube was removed. Campagnolo seatpost. Pino Morroni stem with drilled bars (no tape left on the bars). The crank has been heavily milled, and the chainring cut away with the name "Eddy" engraved on it. Campagnolo hubs and pedals, both with duscaps removed and bearings visible. If there are any tires left on those rims, they are completely shot. 
This bike was photographed for a 1991 Bicycle Guide magazine article. The bike had been on display at Il Vecchio bicycle shop in Seattle, WA, on loan through arrangements with Gita Sporting Goods which was the U.S. importer for Eddy Merckx bicycles. Ultimately, though, the bike was reported to have come from Eddy Merckx himself. Many of the componentry details appear authentic. Campagnolo seatpost. Pino Morroni titanium stem. The milled crank and chainring, the hubs and pedals minus duscaps, and other details also seem "right." Note that unlike the bike in the photo from the NY bike show, the bars on this bike are wrapped, and the tires have black tread and are intact (still hold air, too, apparently). The biggest question mark to my mind comes in the frame itself. The "Eddy Merckx" downtube decal on this bike is of a different style than the one in the velodrome photos. It also lacks any sign of the Windsor stickers. Jan Heine, of Bicycle Quarterly magazine, had the opportunity to examine this bike closely (and ran an article in BQ, Vol. 3, No. 2), and it was his opinion that the decals had been changed, but that this was the authentic bike.
This photo was taken by Tom Maloney for Cycling News, and can be seen on the Classic Rendezvous site. It also appears to be the very same bike that was on display at the Giro d'Italia Hall of Fame induction for Eddy Merckx in 2012. This bike has a titanium stem, though to my eye looks very subtly different from the ones seen on some of the other bikes (it's slightly "thicker" at the junction of the quill and the forward extension). Drilled handlebars have no tape on them, like the NY show bike. The hubs are black, and not Campagnolo. The tires are totally shredded, as one would expect for the age -- so I'd suggest that the wheels and tires might be the right age, but are not the same ones used on the actual Hour Record bike. The Campagnolo crank has been milled out, though the chainring appears different from the other bikes shown, and there are no pedals either. Note the seatpost -- almost black, and probably custom-made (by Pino Morroni?). Regarding the frame itself, there appears to be the remnants of a Windsor decal on the seat tube, but it also has a picture of Eddy Merckx in the center of it. However, the downtube decal is totally different from the one in the 1972 velodrome photos. One other small detail to note: the fork crown appears to have some engraving on the shoulders -- probably a little Colnago "club" icon. The NY show bike seems to have that detail as well, but the Bicycle Guide/Il Vecchio bike does not. Hmmm. . .
A Classic Rendezvous friend called attention to this video on YouTube: an interview between Paul Sherwen and Eddy Merckx from 2002. In it, Eddy shows off the Hour Record bike -- without a doubt, the real deal.

Here are a couple of still-shots from the interview video above. Though not the highest resolution or the best lighting, it would seem that the bike looks a lot like it did on the velodrome in '72 -- apart from the Windsor stickers having been removed, and new tires put on. You can see the Pino Morroni stem, and in this case, clearly drilled bars with some pretty vintage-looking tape on them. One other small detail: no engraving on the fork crown. In the video, Sherwen asks Merckx, "How much do you reckon this bike might be worth . . . $100,000?" Eddy says, "I don't sell it, I never sell it . . . they're going to put it in a museum in Brussels." 

The photos above are from The Vicious Cycle Blog. This bike has been displayed in the Eddy Merckx Metro Station in Brussels, Belgium, since about 2003. Is this the museum Eddy was referring to in the Sherwen interview? The crank and chainring as well as many other components on this bike appear identical to those on the Bicycle Guide/Il Vecchio bike and the NY show bike. Some differences include handlebars that appear to be undrilled, and a seatpost that is dark -- almost black. Like the Il Vecchio bike, it has black-tread tires that are intact. The downtube decal looks like the same style as both the NY show bike and the bike in the 1972 velodrome photos. Also, looking at the seat tube, you can see two bands -- one yellow for Eddy's Tour de France victories, and one pink for his Giro d'Italia victories. Those do not appear on any of the other bikes shown above, but they do appear on Eddy Merckx-branded bikes painted in reproduction Molteni colors. Also, there is no engraving visible on the fork crown. I would suggest that if this bike is the same one shown in the interview with Paul Sherwen, then it has been repainted.
Okay - any verdicts? Well, although one could potentially say these photos represent as many as four or even five different bikes, it is also plausible that what we have here is really just two different bikes that have gone through a few parts swaps and several changes in paint and/or decals.

I think it's safe to say that the bike shown in the Paul Sherwen interview is the "real" bike. That's an easy one. What about the others?

The bike from the NY bike show photo has a lot going for it for authenticity -- most of the components match up with what is known of the real bike, though that can also be said of the Bicycle Guide/Il Vecchio bike (are they the same parts?). The NY bike also still has one of the Windsor stickers on the frame. Then again, it also seems to have that engraving on the fork crown that is missing on the bike from the Sherwen interview.

Several reputable sources, including Jan Heine, believe in the authenticity of the bike from the Bicycle Guide story. If that is the bike, then it had to have had its decals changed at the very least, but otherwise matches up well with what is known of the 1972 record bike from contemporary sources.

The bike in the Eddy Merckx Metro Station in Brussels looks like it has many of the identical components to the Bicycle Guide bike and the bike from the NY show. And of course we see Eddy himself saying that his bike is going to a museum in Brussels. The paint and decals appear to be new, so if it is the same bike, then he had it repainted before donating it.

The one that seems to be the most different is the bike displayed at the GdI Hall of Fame. The frame still has what appears to be the remnants of a Windsor sticker on the seat tube, but the downtube decal is different. Some of the components don't match up to the other bikes shown or to what we know of the actual record machine. Was that possibly the backup bike, built up with a mishmash of parts from the period?

If we are to accept that the bike from the NY show, the Bicycle Guide article, the Sherwen interview, and the Brussels metro station are all the same bike, then we have to assume the following: The bike had a different fork when it was shown in NY in the 70s; It had new decals and possibly new paint applied before being photographed for BG in 1990 - 91; It had new paint and/or decals applied again in the early 2000s before Eddy showed it to Paul Sherwen; And the bike had a complete repaint done before going to the metro station museum. There also would have to have been a few minor parts swaps (such as handlebars, etc.) along the way. On one hand, it seems like a lot of new paint and/or decals -- then again, it was also over a roughly 30 year span. It is plausible. Not only that, but any of us who are total bike nuts know that we all have at least one old bike that we never stop fiddling with -- always making little changes, swapping parts, etc. If we assume that Eddy Merckx is a total bike nut like some of us are, perhaps he looked at his Hour Record bike as just another bike in his collection, constantly evolving -- not as some kind of museum piece to be preserved exactly as a historical artifact (well, that's what it is now, I suppose).

Sorry -- no definitive answers, but an interesting puzzle.

My thanks go out to my Classic Rendezvous friends for all their input and insight.

Thoughts and comments are welcome.

UPDATE 5/27/2014: I recently received the following message from Nelson Frazier of Gita Sporting Goods, which had arranged the loan of the bike that was in the Bicycle Guide article from 1991: "The hour record bike that we loaned to George Gibbs at Il Vecchio in Seattle is the same bike that is now on display in Brussels. I think there were only two bikes, but of course can't confirm that." Thank you, Mr. Frazier -- that is very helpful!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Hour Record

The Hour Record has been in the news a lot this spring, starting with stories that Fabian Cancellara, that dominator of the Spring Classics, was considering making an attempt. Chalk me up as one person who would like to see that happen. Then last week, the UCI announced that it was changing the rules for the Hour Record, eliminating many of the equipment restrictions that have been in place since 2000 -- rules that had been intended to keep the record as a competition of men, not technology. Under the new rules, practically anything goes. Interestingly, now that the UCI has relaxed the equipment rules, Cancellara has put his plans to challenge the record on hold.

How about a little history? The Hour Record has long been seen as the most "pure" racing event -- even more-so than a time trial, which is often called "the race of truth." The premise is simple: to ride flat-out as fast and far as a person can for a full hour. Simple premise, but to actually conquer it is the stuff of legend. Some of the great names to hold the record over the generations have included Henri Desgrange (first organizer of the Tour de France), Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, and of course, Eddy Merckx.

The first holder of the record was Frank Dodds, who rode a penny farthing around the grounds of Cambridge University -- 25.508 km in 1876 (ESPN). But the first "official" record was Desgrange in 1893 -- 35.325 km. The record distance grew incrementally over the next decades, typically being held by no one individual for more than a few years at a stretch, with a couple of notable exceptions: Oscar Egg, 44.247 km, from 1914 - 1933; and Fausto Coppi, 45.798 km, from 1942 to 1956, when the record was beaten (and held briefly) by Anquetil.

Merckx in Mexico City, 1972
In the minds of many, the ultimate Hour Record ride was by Eddy Merckx, considered almost indisputably to be the greatest bicycle racer ever. On October 25, 1972, Merckx broke the record on the Olympic Velodrome at Mexico City -- riding 49.431 km. His record stood until 1984, when Francesco Moser exceeded it by more than a kilometer using special full-disc wheels and other aerodynamic modifications. Not to take anything away from Moser's achievement, but it did raise certain questions about the effect of technology on what was primarily seen as a contest of physical achievement. In Owen Mulholland's story "Eddy and the Hour" (originally published in Bicycle Guide magazine, March 1991), Mulholland wrote, "Merckx felt that for the first time the Hour Record had been devalued. For the first time personal fitness had not been the sole criterion for a new record. In defeat Merckx had always been a fair man. But this time he remained unconvinced. After all, he had beaten Moser in every time trial in which they had met. His disgust with the purity of the Hour Record was obvious, when, commenting on Moser, he said, 'For the first time in the history of the Hour Record a weaker man has beaten a stronger man.'"

With a frame built by Ernesto Colnago, Merckx's Hour Record bike had some modifications to make it as light as possible. The stem was made of titanium by Pino Morroni. The handlebars had large holes drilled through them to reduce weight. The Campagnolo crank was milled out, and the chainrings cut away and lightened. The complete bike reportedly weighed 12 pounds. There must have been several bicycles made for Merckx's Hour Record effort, as well as a few replicas made after-the-fact. I have read from reputable sources that there were two bikes made, but I've seen at least three different bikes claiming to be THE bike -- all three with subtle differences between them -- and none looks to me like it exactly matches the one Eddy can be seen riding in photos taken during the historic ride. The one shown above was displayed at the Giro d'Italia Hall of Fame.
Francesco Moser, breaking Merckx's record in 1984. In a later record attempt, he would use a bike with an enormous (almost comically large) disc rear wheel.
Other notable records were set by Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman between 1993 and 1996 with increasing reliance on aerodynamics and unconventional rider positioning. Note Obree's "tucked in" squat and Boardman's "Superman" position. Obree and Boardman passed the record back and forth several times during those years, as well as briefly sharing it with the likes of Miguel Indurain and Tony Rominger.

Graeme Obree, the Flying Scotsman, on a bike he built with some unconventional parts (reportedly, some of the parts came from a washing machine). The most controversial aspect, however, was the "tucked in" riding position, known as "the egg," inspired by watching downhill skiers.
Chris Boardman, breaking the record again in 1996 with an unconventional carbon fiber monocoque frame and the controversial "Superman" position.
In the face of an "arms race" of windcheating technology and unusual riding positions, the UCI first banned the positions used by Obree and Boardman, then changed the rules and definitions for the record. Under the new rules, there would be the "UCI Hour Record" and another category called "Best Human Effort." The rules for the Hour Record would essentially restrict riders to the kind of equipment used by Merckx in 1972 -- traditional diamond frame, no aero bars or disc wheels, and no aerodynamic helmets. The Best Human Effort, on the other hand, would allow the technological and aerodynamic advancements that had become part of the effort since Moser's ride in 1984. That meant that the records set by Moser, Obree, and Boardman were all re-classified as "Best Human Effort," and Merckx's 1972 record of 49.431 km would stand on the books until Chris Boardman rode 49.441 in 2000 with traditional equipment. The current record-holder is Ondřej Sosenka of the Czech Republic who went 49.7 km in 2005. It should be noted that Sosenka failed doping tests twice, which led to his suspension and the end of his career, so make what you will of his results.

So, as already mentioned, the UCI, in the interest of opening up the sport of cycling to more innovation,  last week relaxed the rules, re-opening the door to all kinds of technological trickery to coax more distance out of the hour. UCI President, Brian Cookson said of the rule change, "This new rule is part of the modernization of the UCI Equipment Regulation. Today there is a consensus that equipment used in competition must be allowed to benefit from technological evolution where pertinent. This kind of evolution is positive for cycling generally and for the hour record in particular. This record will regain its attraction for both the athletes and cycling fans." (BikeRadar)

Clearly, this represents a complete "about face" from the UCI's thinking back in 2000 -- meaning that the Hour Record is again a race of machines, not just men. Sure, bicycle technology keeps evolving -- and critics of the equipment restrictions bemoan the idea of "turning back the clock" on innovation. But I look back on what Merckx said in 1984 regarding the "purity" of the Hour Record. From Desgrange in 1893 through Merckx in 1972, one could measure results and compare the achievements of the men. Breaking the record before was about better training and better fitness. Now, it's about who has better engineers and wind tunnels. Am I off base? Look at the numbers: Chris Boardman in 1996 with his monocoque frame and "Superman" position rode 56.375 km -- nearly 7 km more than Merckx in '72 -- a tremendous achievement! But was it the rider, or the bike? Was Boardman really a better, faster rider than Merckx? A much better comparison is to look at Boardman's ride in 2000: 49.441 km. Still faster, but more in the realms of a normal man, not a superman.

Cookson said that relaxing the equipment restrictions would lead to more "attraction for both the athletes and the cycling fans," but I think it depends on whom one talks to and what their priorities are. Ironically, the latest rule change actually led Fabian Cancellara to shelve his record attempt. (Road.CC) "The whole appeal of the Hour Record for me is that you are competing against riders from the past. I would have loved to race Eddy (Merckx) in the Classics, or in a time trial, but it's not possible," Cancellara said. "The Hour Record has this charming side to it that I like a lot. Now it's going to be different." Cancellara is no Retrogrouch, one can be sure. "I'm not against technological innovation," he said. "Everyone knows that." But if his reason for reconsidering the record attempt really is about the purity of this unique competition, I say it's something that should resonate for more than just us Retrogrouches.

Monday, May 19, 2014

New Old Project Mercian

Regular readers of this blog know I have quite a collection of bikes from the Mercian company of England. I wrote up a pretty thorough overview of the company back in February. From a Retrogrouch perspective, it's hard not to like a company that's been making bikes the same way since 1946.

With seven Mercians already (as well as several other bikes), the last thing I need is another one in the collection -- but I recently found one in my size, and in good condition, and the price was right, and I just couldn't say no. It was not a complete bike, but almost so -- it came with a pair of wheels, bar and stem, crank, bottom bracket, headset, seat post, and saddle. Basically, it just needs derailleurs, brakes, levers, chain, and cables.

The frame is a 1980 Strada Speciale, which is one of the more deluxe models in the lineup, and is still made today. According to old catalogs the model would have been introduced in the early 70s. The flamboyant red paint is in pretty good shape overall -- it does have some scuffs and a few chips and scratches as one would expect from a 34 year old bike. I've found a touch-up paint that is a pretty close match for the chips, and I'll use a bit of buffing compound to take care of the scuffs and dull spots. When I'm done cleaning it up, it will look awfully sharp. The wheelbase and angles are fairly tight and steep for 1980, (I have an old Mercian catalog from the era that lists the typical geometry as 74 degrees parallel!) so I'm guessing it'll have pretty zippy handling. No way to know 'till it's done, though. The seatpost is an SR Laprade -- which was ubiquitous in the 80s. And the 80s vintage Selle Italia Turbo saddle is in pretty nice shape for its age. 
The frame came with a Tange Falcon headset -- all steel, and with styling that looks a lot like a Campy Nuovo Record. The fork crown is a pretty basic semi-sloping design -- probably from Cinelli, or else a good copy. I have occasionally seen Strada Speciales with some engraving on the shoulders of the fork crown to match the cutouts in the lugs -- but this one is kept simple.
The fast-back seat stay attachment is one of the hallmarks of the Strada Speciale. Mercian catalogs from the 60s claim that they were one of the pioneers in that style (going back to the late 1950s Superlight), though it was used on a number of British bikes in the 60s and 70s, such as the Raleigh/Carlton Professional. Note how the seat lug has that little extension to support the stays. Note also the reinforced binder area, which was typically a weak point on the stamped lugs -- not on this one, though.
Another feature of the model is the "clover" cutout in the lugs -- one on the long point, and one on each side. The lugs are Prugnat "S" lugs, which were one of the more basic, but very popular long-point lugs of the time. The cutouts are nicely done by hand and I think look really sharp.
A look at the top head lug and the clover leaf cutouts. If you look closely, you can also see the slight "spiderweb" in the paint -- that seems typical considering the age of the paint job, and the kind of paint used. The way I see it, it's just another sign that the bike has its original paint. Mercian used (still uses) oven-baked enamels. A "flamboyant" finish like this one (also called "candy apple") would start with a silver base coat. Then a translucent color goes over top, building in intensity as it is built up in multiple coats. It can look like it has some "sparkle" but that is in fact the silver base coat that gives that effect. Overall, it has a lot of "depth," especially in the sunlight.
Another view of the seat lug -- this time from the front/top. The attachment of the seat stays is nice and clean. The cutout in the lug looks good, with the points thinned slightly. The lugs themselves have also been thinned, but just slightly. I notice that they are outlined in black -- I would have expected gold (the "Mercian" decals are black with gold outlines), but the black looks good against the red.
The frame still has a sticker on the seat tube from the bike shop that originally sold it: The Spoke, in Boulder, CO. I'm not sure they are still in business (if some reader out there knows otherwise, leave a comment!) but I know they once were a pretty well-known Mercian dealer and even sponsored a team with Mercian.

I'll be touching up the chips and buffing up the finish to bring back the shine, and then I'll get it put the bike back together and try it out on the road. Although vintage Campy (or Campag for my British and Australian friends) would of course be a perfect choice, I'm building it up with period-correct Japanese parts to give it a bit of a different flavor. The crank that was included is an old Sugino with drilled rings, and I have a late 70s/early 80s pair of SunTour derailleurs that I can install. For brakes, I've got a nice pair of Dia Compes from the same era that should work well. I'll post more when it's all finished.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sunday Bike Ride

After a week of rain, thunderstorms, and even tornadoes, we finally had a great day for riding today. The number of people out on road through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park was astonishing, as every bicyclist in the area decided to take advantage of the gorgeous weather. Sunny, light breeze, and 60ish degrees.

The storms of the past week left a lot of damage in the valley. The amount of water that came down in the storms was record-setting, but it is always worse in the valley, as all the water and runoff from all the surrounding areas cascades into the valley, wreaking havoc on the hillsides, pulling debris down to the river and to the roads that skirt both sides of it. It was pretty clear that some parts of the roads were well under water at one point. Not only that, but long sections of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath were damaged and are still closed. All of this was in addition to the road damage that happened during our extra-harsh winter. I kind of wish I'd brought my camera to capture some of the damage.

Nevertheless, despite the damaged roads and storm debris that still littered the roads, it didn't dampen anybody's enthusiasm for a good ride.

I rode the Rivendell Long-Low, and it just felt like the right bike for the day. Not super light or stripped down, but comfortable, with light handling. Even though it was clear and sunny, I was glad I had fenders over some stretches of road that still had standing water, and the 33.3mm Jack Brown tires from Rivendell did a lot to smooth out the stretches of broken pavement.

I really love the layout of this bike. The bars are high -- less than an inch below the level of the saddle. Rather than make for a "less-sporting" attitude, as one might expect, the bar position actually makes for a more well-rounded ride. When climbing the hills, with my hands on the bar tops, and the shallow seat angle, I'm fairly upright with a lot of my weight back behind the pedals for good power. On the flats, I can comfortably get down low into the drops -- and I can ride in that position for much longer than I can on other bikes with the bars set lower in relation to the saddle. I guess what I'm saying is that I might not be getting quite as low as I might on a bike with lower bars, but I can spend a lot longer there -- so the overall effect is a sportier, faster ride when I want to go fast, but more relaxed and comfortable when I want to slow down. It's a great combination.

I also love the bar-end shifters (Dura-Ace) -- being that I spend so much more time down on the drops, they are in the perfect place for easy reach. I do use integrated brake/shift levers, but I honestly don't think they're significantly better than bar-ends. In fact, when riding down on the drops, bar ends are actually easier to reach and use than Ergo or STI. And there is something remarkable about their simplicity and their stone-cold reliability.

Not much else to report today -- just feeling good after a great ride and had to share. I hope others got to enjoy a good ride this weekend, too.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Getting "Connected" With Your Bike

Following right on the heels of Tuesday's post about Total Electronic Integration comes this Wall Street Journal article on "The Connected Cyclist." Yes, the WSJ got one of their tech geeks to load up his bike with every electronic geegaw he could fit on his head and his handlebars. That's right -- head and handlebars. Two of the tested items were the 4iiii Cliiiimb Head-Worn Display goggles, and the LifeBeam Smart Helmet. In addition, he also set up a car-worthy dashboard with nearly a half-a-dozen computers and a smart phone, as well as a crank-mounted power meter and a heart rate monitor. All of it just pushes into the realms of ridiculousness.

Of these items, the ones that were totally new-to-me were the head-mounted ones.

From the WSJ description: The 4iiii Cliiiimb is a "heads-up display that mounts on sunglasses. The Cliiiimb has an LED display in front of your face that tells you if you're in your target heart rate zone. When you're riding, the Cliiiimb shouts in your ear like a coach, telling you how far you've fallen behind your virtual opponent." Seriiiiously? When iiii want to have someone shout at me, iiii'll just riiiide my biiiike with traffiiiic, as iiiin my normal commute. Okay, I'm still trying to figure out the name -- it seems like a stutter to me. The reviewer says it didn't connect well to his phone, so it didn't really work as claimed. I think he should consider himself lucky.

Then there is the LifeBeam Smart Helmet. From the WSJ description: "The $249 LifeBeam helmet records your pulse using an optical sensor on the forehead that can monitor blood flow." The helmet's data displays on the Wahoo Fitness RFLKT+ computer, which was also tested. Apparently, using the LifeBeam necessitates regular recharging of one's helmet. Notice that with the way things seem to be going, it will not be long before people won't be able to ride a bike at all without constantly recharging their phone, computer, helmet, goggles, power meter, and of course, their shifters. 

Even for those people who see the bike as a training device, I question how much all this connectivity improves their training or their performance. I have a hard time believing that any of this electronic equipment and all the sensors and software will turn any middle-of-the-pack Cat. 4 racer into a winner. And the act of riding a bike just becomes so much data chasing.

What I find ridiculous about all of this is that when I ride my bike, I don't want to be connected to technology. And all that technology just serves to disconnect us from what's important. When I ride, I want to be connected with the road, or with the scenery, or a friend, or maybe even just myself. The way I see it, all of this electronic gadgetry takes bicycles and the act of riding them further and further away from the very things that make them special, and I don't believe it really adds anything to enjoying them. The simplicity of a bicycle should not be undervalued. I wouldn't be a Retrogrouch if I didn't feel that way.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Fakes and Forgeries: Buyer Beware

I recently saw this post on the Mercian Cycles webpage. In it, they alert readers to the problem of "fakes" -- bikes with Mercian decals that were brought to them for renovation or repairs, but which were not Mercians. The bikes in question were all purchased from online auctions such as eBay, and misrepresented by the sellers. Interestingly, because I almost always look closely at eBay auctions for vintage Mercians (as well as other interesting old brands), I think I may have seen some of the bikes in question. I remember seeing a few in the not-too-distant past that struck me as questionable.

The problem of fakes is nothing new, but it can be a real thorn in the saddle (that's not quite the expression, but it works, doesn't it?) for anyone looking at vintage bikes. Somebody has a nondescript, low-value old bike, gets it painted, and applies decals from a nicer, more valuable brand. Instant classic! Reproduction decals nowadays are really easy to find, for all kinds of makes -- and I'm actually kind of glad they are. For honest people who want to refurbish a nice old bike and give it a new life, having such decals available is a real benefit. But of course, it also opens the door for dishonest, disreputable people to try to take advantage of others.

Watching the vintage bike marketplace over the years, I've seen lots of "problematic" or "questionable" bikes. Certain brands seem to be faked more often than others, because they are so much more attractive to potential buyers. Colnago and Cinelli are pretty common targets from Italy, for example. In some cases, the fakes are so crudely done that only the most ignorant buyer would be taken in. High-quality, high-value bikes like that often have certain details in the build -- like lug shapes or cutouts, or seatstay attachment, etc. -- that make identification possible regardless of what the paint and decals look like. But sometimes it can be pretty difficult to tell. Windsor bicycles, made in Mexico, had some models that look a lot like classic Cinellis. New paint and some Cinelli decals, and it would be easy to fool someone who isn't a Cinelli expert (one tip-off is that classic Cinellis used a 26.2 seatpost, while Windsors used a 27.2 -- but how many people know that?).

In some cases I've seen, it isn't so much that the bike is exactly a fake, but that the vintage is misrepresented. Like many collectible items, the vintage of a bike can be important, and usually older is better. I've seen more than a few Colnagos (real ones) on eBay that might be of a less-valuable later vintage, but repainted and decalled as earlier examples. With things like that, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference if one isn't an expert (I'm not) -- but I've seen lots of discussion on the Classic Rendezvous group about these misrepresented bikes when they come up for sale.

Hetchins bikes have spawned so many fakes that it's practically a cottage industry. has a whole page dedicated to fakes, and some tips on how to identify them. Hetchins bikes are famous for their elaborate lugwork and very desirable models with "curly" or "vibrant" rear stays. According to the site, the curve of the stays, or the details in the lugs are often the tell-tale signs of fakes, but there is much more to know. Even if one doesn't plan to ever buy a Hetchins, that site is pretty interesting to read. One thing that I learned is that occasionally these forgeries are built from salvaged pieces from two or more wrecked or damaged frames, which can make them harder to identify. Other times, builders are able to get some of the real lugs or other framebuilding items, or they try to reproduce them with varying levels of success.

In some cases, a reputable builder might build a "replica" or "homage" to a classic bike with no intent to defraud anybody -- and personally I have no problem with that. I would think that as a framebuilder, it might be a personal challenge to try to replicate something from that past that one admires. But that can be a seriously touchy issue with some collectors because, as they would argue, what happens years later if someone else takes possession of the bike, applies bogus decals, and tries to pass it off as something it is not? That is a legitimate question. I've seen and heard many debates on the issue -- some people get pretty passionate about it. But a funny thing about some replicas is that, depending on the builder, sometimes the replicas are built even nicer than the vintage originals! Also, a good, reputable builder will usually do something on their bike to prevent problems in the future -- a stamp or engraving somewhere -- something deeper and more permanent than paint and decals. In cases like that, I would not consider the bike a "fraud" or "fake."

Getting back to the Mercians -- that is one of the vintage brands I feel like I know enough about to reliably be able to tell the difference between fake and real, although even with those, if it's a particularly early example, it can still be difficult to know for sure -- especially given the pictures and descriptions (or lack thereof) included in most online auction sales. There can be lots of variations in frame details, and it's hard to be familiar with every single one. It happens that I just saw a frame recently on the British eBay site that got me wondering about authenticity. It had clearly been repainted at some point, and pretty crudely at that. Obviously the frame had been badly rusted, and while the rust itself may have been removed, no effort had been made to repair the pitting in the metal before applying new paint. Right there was a sign that it was not done by a reputable painter, which should raise questions about authenticity -- It seems to me that a painter who does such a haphazard job would be more inclined than a reputable refinisher to slap any old decals on a bike. The seatstay treatment also didn't look quite right to me, and the serial number didn't seem to conform properly to Mercian's usual system. While I couldn't say for certain without more info and better photos, I know that I wouldn't have recommended paying a lot for that bike.

It isn't just vintage bikes that are subject to fraud. With the sky-high prices of so many of today's carbon fiber wünderbikes, it should be no surprise that forgeries are becoming common. In a classic case of "if it sounds too good to be true. . ." these frames often sell for thousands of dollars below the usual retail prices, but may not be built to the same production standards or the same quality controls as the "real" frames. And unlike the vintage frauds, which are primarily a financial burden but not necessarily a safety issue, falling for one of these carbon fiber fakes could be downright dangerous.

Can you tell which of these Specialized Venge frames is real and which
 is fake? The Counterfeit Report says the one on the left is real. Apart from
some subtle differences in graphics, I'm not sure how someone would know.
Specialized has been particularly vigilant about tracking down counterfeit products, which partly explained their overaggressive reaction to Café Roubaix, a little bike shop in Alberta, Canada. Specialized went after the shop for copyright infringement last year, sparking a major backlash in public opinion. Specialized's founder, Mike Sinyard explained his company's position in an open letter to the industry in December. In the letter, he explained the scope of the problem with fake merchandise. "To give you an idea of how much this issue has blown up, 10 Specialized employees hunt fake products across 30 major e-commerce platforms. We've identified over 5,000 listings, worth $11,000,000 in counterfeit goods since January 1st of this year alone. This is about double what it was last year."

Mike Sinyard, of Specialized Bicycles, included these photos
in an "open letter" to the industry back in December. They
show some of the dangers in buying a carbon fiber fake.
The photos Sinyard included were pretty frightening. The thing is, I have concerns about carbon fiber frames and forks anyhow, as serious flaws can be buried deep inside the carbon layup and invisible to the eye. And that's with the "real" frames. Who knows what kind of quality control measures the fakes are held up to, if any? I've read in some of the bike forums about counterfeit carbon fiber frames that were not really carbon at all -- just molded thermoplastic with a thin, cosmetic layer of carbon on the surface. On a bogus vintage steel bike, a victim might be out some money, but at least the bike is unlikely to fall apart in the blink of an eye.

In a BikeRadar article on forgeries last May, Andrew Love of Specialized's Brand Security, Global Investigations, and Legal Enforcement Department, said that his company had put some of the fake frames through their quality control tests, and they failed -- badly. "It's a matter of time before someone gets killed on one of these things," he said.

From the same BikeRadar article: "Love, who shuts down operations all over the world, said the primary threat came from counterfeiters in China, who were ripping off the brand's Taiwanese-made frames. 'I think we face about four factories that have gone to the dark side, one major one for frames and one for apparel,' he said."

Part of me has a hard time feeling much sympathy for the manufacturers, though. In some ways, they've done a lot to help create the problem. Whether it's makers of carbon fiber bikes, smart phones, video game consoles, golf clubs, high-end basketball shoes, or expensive designer handbags -- so many companies have moved all their manufacturing to Asia to cut manufacturing costs to the bone, while selling the goods in the U.S. and around the world at premium prices. Knowing how much the goods can sell for, and how cheaply they can be produced, it shouldn't come as a surprise that some of the factories go to the "dark side." Not only that, but the retail prices on some of the "real" goods are so inflated in comparison with the production costs, that it isn't unusual to find deep discounts on "last year's" models -- discounts deep enough that it might not be so easy to tell the difference between "real" and "fake" based on the price.

Fakes and forgeries are a problem that goes back a long way. For bicycle fans, whether they're interested in old classics or modern marvels, it helps to be cautious and skeptical. When buying vintage, get as much information as you can about the bike in question. If it's got new paint, consider who did the work and what it might be covering. Get good photos and serial numbers and consult with other collectors (the Classic Rendezvous is a great place to start). And if you can't be certain, look elsewhere. When buying new, it's best to buy in-person from authorized dealers. If buying online, know that some retailers are more reputable than others, and if a $5000 carbon fiber frame is being offered for $900, it probably isn't worth it. The seller might say it comes from the same factory as the "real" version, and it's "just as good," but a healthy dose of skepticism can be a good thing. Fakes are a big business, so buyer beware.