Thursday, May 8, 2014

Component Style: Modern Parts - Classic Looks

After my recent retrogrouch-y rant about the garish and bloated state of many modern bike components, I got to thinking about what a person can do if they want to put new components onto a more traditional-styled bike. Obviously, a swollen-looking crank and oversized derailleurs with cartoonish graphics will NOT look right on a steel frame, whether vintage or new. So what's a person to do?

Of course, there is always the vintage market, where lightly used and sometimes new-old-stock parts come up for sale pretty regularly. Ebay can be a great source, and real bargains can be had. But sometimes a person doesn't want to take the time to search for the right vintage piece, and hope that the condition is actually as good up close as it looked in the listing photos. Sometimes a person wants new parts that won't look out of place on their classic-looking bike.

There are some options out there -- though some are just as expensive (possibly even more so) than the cartoonish modern components the flow through today's market. But take a look at some of what's available:

Cranks (shown from "reasonable budget" to "no expense spared")

Sugino still makes several models of excellent cranks that have svelte proportions and lovely alloy finishes. The Alpina crank shown comes with a "compact" 50/34 ring combination, and uses 110 bolt circle diameter chainrings. The styling of these is very similar to the smoothed "aero" cranks that became popular in the 1980s. Available from Boulder Bicycles for $179.
Velo Orange has this low Q-factor crank that looks somewhat reminiscent of the vintage Campagnolo cranks from the 60s through early 80s. But with its 110 BCD, it can take smaller chainrings, and there is a large selection of different ring sizes that will fit. Available in single, double, and triple ring versions, as well as this cool "drillium" version. Prices range from $150 - $200 depending on the options. 
Velo Orange also offers this 50.4 BCD crank that recalls the look of the classic Specialties TA "cyclotourist" cranks. Vintage TA and Stronglight 50.4 BCD rings will fit, but VO says that their new rings are thicker and stiffer than the vintage ones. That is good, because the larger rings on the old TAs could bend or flex a bit. These are exceptionally versatile because a single pair of cranks can be set up easily as a single, double or triple -- it's just a matter of using the right length bolts, and having the necessary chainrings. Available from VO for $200.
Very similar to the Velo Orange 110 BCD crank shown above is this IRD Defiant. (Heck, they might even be forged in the same factory in Taiwan). Available as a double or a triple, and typically selling for $190 - $200. Soma Fabrications is one source.
The new Rene Herse cranks from Compass Bicycles are a beautifully updated version of a vintage classic. The small 70 BCD, 3-bolt design allows the crank to be used as a single, double, or triple, with chainrings as small as 24 teeth. Many choices of chainring combinations are available, with prices ranging from $385 - $440. A tandem set is also available.
When only the "real deal" will do, the Specialties TA Cyclotourist crank (officially named the Pro 5 VIS) is still available, or perhaps available again. Priced at $439 for the arms only (!) One then has to select the rings they want to go with it. Chainrings from 26 - 52 teeth are available, ranging in price from $34 - $52 each, and the requisite bolts can add up to another $90 or so. Not for the faint of heart. From Boulder Bicycle.
Note that all of the cranks shown above take square-taper bottom brackets, which means they are far outside the current fashion. Luckily, super-high-quality square-taper BBs are still available from Phil Wood and SKF, and there are plenty of inexpensive choices as well, from Shimano, Velo Orange, and others.


One thing about derailleurs today is that many of them, even cheaper ones, often shift better than the best derailleurs of the past (even a retrogrouch can't deny that). Then again, that can be said of most derailleurs made since the mid-to-late-80s. Most 90s-era derailleurs work just as well as the current models, as long as one isn't trying to use them with the latest 10 and 11 speed systems, and many of them look nicer, with polished finishes and subtle graphics. Clean, lightly used examples are easy to find. But just as I said above, sometimes a person might want a brand new component that looks appropriate on a classic-styled, slender, steel-tubed bike. I did some looking, and found a couple of examples that might be acceptable. Both are designed for 10-sp. cassettes, but I'm told there shouldn't be much problem using them with some of the older gear systems. Pairing a modern "10-sp." derailleur with an old wide-spaced 5-speed freewheel and matching wide chain might not work well, but I don't know for sure. But if anybody is going with a setup that old, then I'd really just recommend the vintage market anyhow.

Shimano's Tiagra (mod. 4601) is functionally as good as derailleurs costing much much more, and they aren't overly garish. They are vaguely "silver-ish" but not exactly what I'd call exquisitely finished. The previous edition (4500) was slightly nicer in that regard, and old stock ones may still be available if you're willing to search. Full retail is about $60, but they are often discounted for considerably less. Short and long-cage versions are available.
Campagnolo's Veloce is every bit as good functionally as their Record derailleur, but available in a really nicely finished aluminum alloy (very rare today). The logo is pretty subtle, too. Though much more expensive than the Tiagra above, it is the "bargain" priced Campy, and in my opinion is one of the best-looking current model derailleurs available. Prices vary a lot -- anywhere from $90 - $160, so shop around before buying. Incidentally, it is not necessary to use Campagnolo hubs, cassettes, or brake/shift levers to use the Campagnolo derailleurs. Generally speaking, derailleurs don't "care" what shift levers they're attached to, or what brand of cassettes they are shifting over. Campagnolo's Athena looks very similar, but costs more, and the main difference between the two is that Athena "goes to 11."

By the way, both of the rear derailleurs above can be paired up with "matching" front units that have a complementary style. It would be nice to say there are more current derailleur options available in a classic silver look, but "pickin's is pretty slim." Too bad. As I already pointed out, searching the vintage, used, and old-stock market is always an option, and a good way to save a bit of money.


  1. I have that Tiagra derailler. While it is now part of a full Tiagra 10-speed set-up, when I first got it I tried it out with a 6 speed freewheel/friction shifting. I didn't have a hint of trouble out of that particular set-up, very smooth operation.
    If I were to be nitpicky (which I am with my bikes), the proportions of it are not perfect for narrow steel tubing (following along with your noting of the "bloated" nature of these modern things). But, mounted on the bike, the look of the Tiagra RD is actually pretty unobtrusive. It does have kind of a dull-ish finish, so it doesn't really stand out, fortunately. It does lack the purposeful look and shine of some of the older stuff.

    As for front deraillers, the Tiagra is now my go-to anytime a new FD is needed. The price is cheap and the quality is high (IMO). Again, not flashy or whatever, but it's a solid workhorse, and it doesn't suffer from the bloat. It's plain and good.

    That's as far as I go for the modern stuff, though. When in doubt, find some Suntour ARX for your daily rider. Dime a dozen, and it works fantastic day after day.

    Cranks: The VO "Drillium" cranks really capture my attention. So cool. I can't talk myself into pulling the trigger on 'em, though.
    I've always liked Sugino cranks. I am currently wanting a low-range triple, and am on the fence between ebaying old cranks, or buying new.

    Really interesting topic, Brooks. I like discussing the merits of new vs. old components with people that understand that they don't need 11 speeds and plastic bikes and bike shorts and yada yada yada just to take a ride.


    1. thanks for the comments, Wolf -- it's good to get a bit of a report on how things work, such as 6-speed friction with a 10-sp. derailleur. I have the Tiagra 4500 version on my Bike Friday, with Shimano indexed 9-sp. shifters -- it works great, and looks pretty good too.

  2. Dia-compe's Classico crankset has some nice, retro DNA. Pair it with a Surly stainless chainring for an all steel drivetrain. Microshift's lower end stuff, while MB influenced, is utilitarian in appearance and wears discreet branding. Derailleur alternatives are fewer if you're limited to a 7-8-9 speed chain. I'm replacing a Suntour Cyclone GT Mk II with a Shimano Alivio and better shifting, I hope. Also, it won't look too out of place since the bike has one Ultegra brake. I'm not crazy about the Alivio but in a strange way it looks better than the Cyclone on my lugless frame. NOS can be crazily overpriced but the right piece can look fantastic in a value and necessity driven mix of new and old components including vintage Cateye reflectors for fun and safety!

    1. I almost mentioned the Microshift -- but all of them I could find seemed to be done in a black finish, which I don't really care for. I know they must have some silver-finished ones, but I couldn't find them. Their front derailleurs are as good as any, and they are very inexpensive. I have one on my Bike Friday. About NOS prices -- NOS Campy can go sky high. But one thing I try to keep in mind about NOS vintage parts is not how much they sold for when new (like $20 for a Cyclone rear derailleur), but how the price compares with buying something current and new -- if it seems reasonable, I might consider it.

    2. Hi, Brooks-

      Cycles Toussaint out of Calgary sells the Microshift Centos rear derailleurs in silver as well as barcons, FD and integrated levers all in silver as well..

    3. That's helpful -- I was having a hard time finding a regular source for those, though there do seem to be some on eBay.

  3. I realize this is several years old but any suggestions for quality rings for 110/74 cranks? The only quality silver rings I know are TA and they are hard to find in the states typically? Ate there any other 7000 series aluminum with some sort of pins and ramps?

    1. You can still get Sugino rings for these in silver. With ramps and pins? Maybe not so common, but not impossible - but we shifted pretty well without that stuff for a long time.