Monday, February 9, 2015

Could These Be The "Good Ol' Days"?

I had a reader comment recently that I'm too negative.

When you label yourself not just "a retrogrouch," but "The Retrogrouch," I suppose that negativity is something like an occupational hazard.

Not that I think the comment about my negativity was necessarily true, but I decided today I would look at what's good in the bike world today. Yes, even though carbon fiber and bloated, ugly components are all the rage today, and the industry would like us to believe that electronic shifting, disc brakes, and smartphone connectivity have made our old bikes obsolete, there are actually some developments that can be seen as good for all of us, retrogrouches included.

Good News Item #1: Tires

When I first got into bikes seriously, most road bikes either came with 27-in. wheels (ISO 630), or racing tubulars. The 27-in. tires were typically 1-in., 1 1/8-in., or 1 1/4-in. wide. The tubulars were typically available anywhere from about 21 mm to 28 mm wide, and while they were highly regarded for their "ride" quality, they could be pretty fragile, and a headache when they flatted. The good ones were (and still are) pretty expensive. I could never afford the really good ones. Some time in the later 1980s the 27-in. size was replaced by 700c (ISO 622), and good clincher tires started to really chip away at the performance of tubulars -- but for a lot of years, the trend was very much "narrower is better." Not only that, but to bolster weight claims as a marketing advantage, it was also very common throughout the 80s and 90s for companies to make their tires even narrower than their labeled size. So you'd see ads proclaiming that Brand X's 700c x 25-mm clincher was the lightest among the competition -- but in reality, the tire was lighter because it only measured about 20-mm wide.
The 700c x 38 mm Barlow Pass from Compass.

Today, road tires are available in a huge variety of sizes, casings, and treads. Not only that, but a sense of "reality" seems to have returned to size labeling. Road tires can be found as large as 50 mm, and widths well into the 30s are not uncommon. When I ride my Rivendell Long-Low with its Jack Brown 33.3 mm tires, I just shake my head wondering how anyone ever thought a 20-mm tire was a good thing. Rivendell also offers their 28 mm Roll-y Pol-y tires, which will fit a fair number of bikes out there, though maybe not many carbon bikes, most of which have too-tight clearance. Compass Bicycles has tires from Grand Bois and their own Compass line in a great variety of widths, and their supple casings mean that one can get great performance and ride quality that rivals (or beats) many tubulars. And another great thing is that a lot of these tires are once again available with classic-looking natural tan sidewalls.

For people on vintage bikes that still have 27-in. wheels, the choices are diminishing, but Panaracer Paselas are still available in that size, and they're a pretty decent tire for most road riding, have a classic look, and can usually be found for under $30.

And as a final note on tires (although it's also a point about wheels, not just tires) is that 650b (ISO 584) has made a pretty effective comeback, giving another good choice for road bikes. Some very nice, supple 650b road tires are being used in some really sweet randonneur bikes out there today.

Good News Item #2: Randonneur Bikes

The last decade or so has seen a lot of trends that I can't get behind -- like increasingly racer-oriented geometry on road bikes, and increasingly narrow "market segments," (gravel bikes, anyone?) but the appearance of more choices like randonneuring bikes, which offer speed, performance, comfort, and versatility, is a very nice development. Bikes like this owe a lot to French cyclotouring bikes of the past, and have seen something of a rebirth in recent years.

Not to take away at all from some other top-notch builders working
today, but Peter Weigle sets the bar very high for Randonneur bikes.
(photo from Peter's Flickr site)
In a conversation I had with framebuilding master Peter Weigle last year, I remember Peter saying how discovering randonneur bikes really opened up an exciting new avenue of creativity and expression for himself as a builder. Drawing inspiration from the great "constructeurs" of the golden age, he has put his own personal stamp on the genre in his bike designs and construction, with incredible attention to detail. His bikes just might be some of the best of the breed, though I certainly don't mean that to diminish other really great builders today.

A number of other custom builders have similarly drawn inspiration from the past -- and versatile bikes that can be ridden fast, with sprightly handling, while carrying more than the bare essentials are a great result. Now, those custom-built bikes represent the pinnacle of the genre, but there are even some smartly-designed and nicely made off-the-rack options that can provide a lot of the function, but without the artistry, at a price more of us can afford. Bikes like the Velo-Orange Polyvalent (under $600), or the Soma Grand Randonneur (under $500), seem to fit that profile. With their welded frames, I don't find them particularly exciting aesthetically, but then if they were lugged and brazed, they'd cost a lot more. It's also worth noting that there are probably some options available that "split the difference" with a balance of artistry, function, and price -- so it's definitely worth exploring.

Good News Item #3: Traditional Pedals

You'd think that clipless or "click-in" pedals would have totally taken over by now -- but it turns out that versatile traditional are still alive and well. MKS makes some really fine pedals in a variety of styles - whether traditional quill pedals for use with toe clips and straps, or flat pedals for city riding. They also make a nice touring pedal inspired by the classic Lyotard "Marcel Berthet" model. Rivendell, Velo-Orange, and Soma Fabrications are all good sources for other traditional non-click pedals for some more variety.

The great thing about traditional pedals is that one doesn't need special footwear to ride. Whatever shoes you happen to be wearing become "riding" shoes. I found that once I got over the need to "suit up" for bike rides, I started riding my bike a lot more often - recapturing some of the joy I had as a kid when I rode my bike everywhere because it offered me so much freedom at a time before I could drive. With traditional pedals, a bike can be so much more than an expensive piece of "exercise equipment" or "training tool" -- but a useful and versatile part of our daily lives.

Good News Item #4: eBay

EBay? Really?

Hey, love it or hate it, there is nothing I can think of that has had a bigger impact on the vintage bike market than eBay. For anyone who likes classic bikes and equipment -- the great stuff of the past -- and wants to keep their classics on the road, it's hard to think of a better source for bikes and parts that are out of production. It's like the world's biggest swap meet, and there is virtually no bike component or accessory that won't show up on eBay eventually if one has the patience to search and wait. Yes, there are always those losers who are way too "generous" in their descriptions of their auction goods, or trying to get $1000 for their worn out Varsity. And prices for some NOS components can get a little crazy sometimes. Then again, surprising bargains can regularly be found for clean, barely used bikes or parts. Need a French-threaded headset for an old Peugeot? Want a wide-range 5-speed freewheel for an old touring bike? Need new pulleys for your old Nuovo Record derailleur? It's hard to think of a better place to look. What did we do before eBay?

The biggest "down" on eBay? Jerks like this guy (some really bad language - so consider it NSFW):

Luckily, there aren't that many jack@$$es like that. Jeez what a waste of a nice bike.

There you have it -- some things that, for the most part, even a retrogrouch can feel good about.  Now if the D@#n weather would just clear up.


  1. As far as 27 inch tires go, there are probably a number of better options available than way back when, including the Pasela and the Continental Ultra Sport. I like both of 'em a lot.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I do think that tires today really are better in a lot of ways than the tires from when I was young. I don't mind saying that. More choices (well, fewer choices now for 27", but the ones available are pretty good) and better casings -- tubular performance with the ease of clinchers -- and a better selection of widths and sizes.

  2. Brooks, I think the developments you've described are part of a larger trend-in-the-making. Twenty years ago, when you walked into a bike shop, the question was always whether you wanted a road or a mountain bike. The prevailing mentality in both genres seemed to be that the good stuff was always made for racing and that if you wanted a more versatile or practical bike, shop employees would usually try to talk you into adapting yourself to a racing-oriented bike, whether for the road or the trails.

    Part of the reason for that, I think, is that most shop employees--and more than a few owners--were racers or wannabes. Now I am seeing more shop employees who are practical or simply pleasure-oriented cyclists. They don't see bikes and cycling in the road/mountain binary or the racing=good paradigm. People like that are more likely to be pushing traditional pedals to spin wider tires on bikes made for touring, randonneuring, commuting or hauling loads rather than for racing.

  3. I'm inclined to agree with the "good ol' days" observation. I agree that bicycles are annoying if one pays mind to the money-making machine that is the bicycle industry (and the cycling media that slavishly tracks it), but if one ignores it like I do and only follows what he wants - this fine blog, for instance - then I'd argue that we're living in a bit of a golden age. Has it ever been easier or cheaper to acquire classic bikes or bike parts, or to connect with fellow classic cycling enthusiasts across the country, nay, around the world?

  4. I'l add a vote for the Rawland Stag under item #2 as a "budget" 650b option (although the first run is pretty much depleted). Rumors of a Stag 2.0 or some other similarly spec'd bike abound, so keep an eye out.

    I can credit a combination of Bicycle Quarterly, Rivendell, Flickr, and a 650b conversion I found on Craigslist early on in my budding bike obsession for my current interest in 650b/randonneuring. The "trend" does seem to be in a nice spot between too obscure to get good components and too mainstream so as to be totally consumerized.

  5. BTW that video is now marked as "private" and does not work.

    1. No - I guess it doesn't. Sorry about that. Well, the post was put up about 9 months ago.