Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Drillium Style

There was a time when, in the quest to shave every last gram from a bike, riders took a drill bit to any component they could -- turning solid shiny metal into shavings and air. The practice took on the name "drillium" as a bit of word play, as in aluminum, titanium, unobtanium, and drillium. Many people think of the 1970s as the "drillium decade," but the practice actually started long before, and continued long after -- even through today.
A heavily drilled pair of handlebars
from one of Alf Engers' bikes.
(from Classic Lighweights UK)

According to Classic Lightweights UK, one can find examples of drilled components dating back before WWI, but many UK cyclists associate the practice with Alf Engers, a well-known time-triallist from the 1950s through the '80s. Engers inspired a number of British cyclists to adopt the practice as well, as reducing a bicycle's weight was believed to be the best advantage for time trials -- at least in the days before the introduction of aerodynamic tricks.

Eddy Merckx in yellow. Note the drillium front brake.

For many other cyclists around the world, particularly in the US, the inspiration cited for drillium would probably be Eddy Merckx, who was known to drill out many of the components on his bikes. One notable example of Merckx's obsession with lightening components would be his famous Hour Record bike. The Campagnolo cranks on that bike were reportedly re-profiled subtly, while the arms of the spider were milled out, and the chainring lightened with additional milling. The reinforcing ring or webbing was also removed from the Nuovo Record chainring. Some of the alterations to the chainring probably provided the inspiration for what would later be released as the Super Record chainrings and a common modification known as the "Mexico" crank. The handlebars on the bike were also drilled out pretty seriously, as well as the seat post (much of that drilling was hidden inside the seat tube).

The crank from Eddy Merckx's Hour Record bike. Note
the milling around the chainring (including the E-d-d-y)
and the spider arms that have been milled out completely.
Something else that probably sparked a lot of interest in drillium was the publication of some popular magazine articles in the early 70s. One was The Drilling Craze, in the Dec. 1973 issue of Bike World, written by Bill Robertson. Bike World did a follow-up in May of '74 with Drilling Do's, Don't's and How-To's, by Gladys Hopkins. Robertson was a young racer at the time (according to a May 1990 article from Bicycle Guide, he was only 16 when he wrote the Bike World article) who got inspired to start drilling his components because of Eddy Merckx. "I would study photographs of him in all the magazines. He started showing up with drilled out levers and customized chainrings in about 1969, when I was first getting into cycling," Robertson reflected in the BG article.

Bill Robertson's drilled Nuovo Record rear
derailleur, as pictured in his '73 Bike World
article. Notice that the back plate of the parallelogram
is reduced to just two narrow strips.
In The Drilling Craze, Robertson described over 100 hours of work drilling, milling, filing, sanding, and polishing the components on his Masi, the result being a truly one-of-a-kind customized bike. His work reduced the weight of his bike by about half-a-pound, according to the article -- probably not enough to truly make a performance difference. "Drilling out your bike won't automatically make you faster," Robertson wrote. "Any weight saved is a plus-factor. It means less foot-pounds of work are needed to move from point A to point B. But it may slow you down if something malfunctions; and if done improperly it will be a safety hazard."

If one searches the web for "drillium," a couple of other names are likely to come up quite frequently: Peter Johnson and Frank Spivey. Johnson was a racing buddy of Bill Robertson's who took his affinity for modifying components and translated it into building frames. Today he is a highly-respected machinist and frame builder. Frank Spivey  was a machinist who turned his attention to modifying bicycle components back in the 60s. Spivey made a huge assortment of jigs and fixtures to aid the process of drilling out components, some of which can be seen on the Velo-Retro site.

1975 Peter Johnson bike with Frank Spivey components -- reportedly the 12th frame Johnson had built. See more details at Velo-Retro.
Just one of the many fixtures Spivey made for drilling and modifying bicycle components. This one is for drilling brake levers. See more at Velo-Retro.
Some of Frank Spivey's exquisite work, as photographed for a May 1990 Bicycle Guide article.
More of Spivey's work from the BG article. On the left is a custom-made hub beside a pair of beautifully modified Mafac brake levers.
This beautifully drilled Stronglight crank was shown big as life on the title page of the 1974 Bike World article.
More Examples: Some years back (2007, I believe), at the Classic Rendezvous Cirque du Cyclisme, drillium was the theme of the show. Here were a couple examples I spotted.

A heavily drilled Campagnolo brake lever -- the logo is just barely visible. This nice red Schwinn Paramount is owned by Classic Rendezvous member, John Barron.
And here are the brakes those levers attach to. Notice the milled caliper arms.
Some people would completely remove the center section of the Campagnolo shift levers, leaving just a thin "loop" of aluminum. I've sometimes seen levers modified this much either bend or break off. Got to be careful!
Also spotted at the Cirque du Cyclisme, this Masi's crank had been milled out through the spider, Mexico-style, and through the arms. The chainrings have also been heavily modified. Though it isn't so clear, if you look closely, you can see that the frame itself has also been opened up with slots running all the way through the chain stays. (I'm sorry -- I don't recall who owned this bike -- if it's yours, let me know, and I'll give you credits.)
From the same Masi as above. Here you can see the slots opened up in the forks. All I can say is "Wow."
You Might Want to Avert Your Eyes: When drillium is done well, by a skilled hand, and with a sense of symmetry, or with regard to the contours and proportions of the specific piece, it can really add a unique or individual style to a bike. But I've also seen lots of amateur "home-hack-jobs" that look pretty terrible, and probably would break with any use at all.
Bike "anti-porn" spotted on the London Fixed Gear and Single-speed Forum. The less said about this the better.
Variations: In the later 70s and through the 80s, a variation on drillium, known as pantographing, became really popular, especially on Italian bikes. Pantographing involved engraving or cutting words, logos, or other images into a component, then usually filling in the engraving with paint. In some examples, it could be over-the-top flashy. Stems, cranks, levers, brakes -- they were all put under the bit.
A Colnago-pantographed Cinelli stem -- spotted on Classic Lightweights UK. Items like this became a big element on Italian bikes in the later 70s and 80s.

Spotted on eBay, this Huret Jubilee derailleur is one of the
later versions that included a drilled-out pulley cage. This
particular example was further modified with drilled-out
sealed bearing pulleys. Ironically, the non-drilled version
is actually lighter.
Factory Drillium: In the 70s, a number of component makers took the hint and started producing their own "factory drillium" parts. But as if to underscore the idea that drillium was more about style than actual performance gains, many of the factory drillium parts saved no weight as compared to their non-drilled counterparts. Almost ironically, some of them weighed even more. Case in point, the drilled version of the Huret Jubilee (already the lightest derailleur available) was beefed up a bit as compared to the regular version prior to drilling the cage. Various sources claim it weighed at least 5 - 10 grams more than the non-drilled version.

Another case would be the Campagnolo Super Record brake levers. Like the Huret Jubilee, Campagnolo must have added some beef prior to drilling the levers out, thereby ensuring that they wouldn't break due to the drilling. Again, most sources show the weight to be more than the otherwise similar, non-drilled Nuovo Record levers. But they looked cool.

The classic Super Record brake levers, from the mid 70's through mid 80s, actually weighed more than the non-drilled Nuovo Record levers.
A Sugino Super Mighty factory drillium crank, as shown recently on my 1980 Mercian. The spider is completely opened up, and the rings are drilled all the way around. I don't know how the weight compared to the non-drilled version, though I do notice that the chainrings have a slightly "deeper" profile than at least some of the regular chainrings. Sakae Ringyo, or SR, made a similar version.
Sakae Ringyo made these bars with drilled-out sections in the center sleeve. They also made a couple versions of their stems with milled sections.

A beautifully detailed Nuovo Record derailleur
done by Drillium Revival.
Drillium Today: Drillium has seen a little bit of a resurgence in recent years -- not so much as a way to cut weight and/or improve performance, but as a way to add a unique style to a bike. Some would argue that that's always been more the point, anyhow. Jon Williams, at Drillium Revival, has been turning out some remarkable work, inspired by the likes of Frank Spivey, Peter Johnson, and Art Stump. See more of Jon's work at his site, or on his Flickr pages.

And back in the vein of "factory drillium" Velo-Orange is offering a drillium version of one of their cranks, which in turn has a style reminiscent of the old Campagnolo Nuovo Record cranks of the past -- but with a more user-friendly 110 bolt circle and compact chainrings. VO recently announced that they are also offering the drilled rings for sale separately, which would be nice for people with vintage Sugino and SR cranks -- as long as they have the 110 BCD versions.

New factory-drillium cranks from Velo Orange.
So, whether it was about pushing the limits on weight, trying to shed every last unnecessary gram, or if it was more about achieving an individual style, drillium components have become an integral part of the classic bike scene. When tastefully done, drillium can really add a cool touch to a vintage racing bike -- a touch that looks delicate, yet screams high performance at the same time. Drillium harkens back to a simpler era -- before aero, and before carbon fiber.

Hope you enjoyed the look back!


  1. Awesome article Kyle. Excellent reference and such a great in-depth look at this art meets function area of bicycling.

  2. Dude. That looks awesome. Beautiful