Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Old Is Good: Is It Really Just Nostalgia?

There hasn't been much here on the Retrogrouch this summer - sorry about that folks. Who'dathought there'd be less time to write, rant, and grouch during a summer break than when I'm at work full-time? Actually, being a full-time dad is even more time consuming. People who don't know that must not have kids. Most moms already know that, but they probably don't have time to read bike blogs.

Anyhow, earlier this summer I saw an article on PezCycling News that got me thinking a bit: Equipment Nostalgia - Fact of Fiction? I finally have a quiet morning to respond.

Using the popularity of vintage-themed cycling events such as L'Eroica as a launching pad, the article goes on to rail against old componentry and to decry the love for all that old equipment as a bunch of misplaced nostalgia. Granted, the author doesn't give his age or the specific time period when he began riding/racing - but there are some hints that he's a fair bit older than I am. Even I don't have much experience with some of the stuff he ridicules. Still, on the whole, the rant seems awfully over-generalized. A lot of his rant seems to focus on stuff that was probably long in the tooth by 1970, or was bottom-of-the-ladder equipment even when it was new.

Take tires, for instance. The guy goes on to complain about how crappy tubular tires were back in his day (clinchers weren't really a "thing" on racing bikes until the '80s). But what tires does he rant against? Bottom-dwelling garbage from "behind the Iron Curtain." Barum and Wankerbar. I've heard of Barum tires - maybe even seen a few in my day (picture a cluttered old bike shop, and the grizzled old owner coming out of the basement with a pair of ancient-looking tires in his hands, saying, "If money's really tight for ya', I can let ya' have these for next-to-nuthin' but I ain't makin' no promises about 'em.") But Wankerbar? They must not have even bothered exporting them to the U.S. I even googled the brand, but came up with barely a mention.

Anyhow - this is my point - because you rode the crappiest stuff available "back in the day," all the stuff from that era is crap? Nonsense. Then, as now, there was cheap equipment, and there was expensive equipment, and everything in-between. Not everyone could afford the Clement Criterium Setas (wonderful old silk-casing tires) -- I sure as hell couldn't -- but even on my painfully limited budget (I was 18 years old when I got my first tubular wheels and tires) I was able to get some damned nice tires, and if I could still get the same tires today (and if they weren't rotted to dust) they'd rival a lot of high-end tires costing $100 or more (each!). The article mentions Dugast tires, which are the cream of the crop today - made by hand and painfully expensive - but the materials and methods used in those wonderful (and way out of my budget) tires are the same as those used in most decent tubulars of the past -- including a lot of the lower-budget ones.

The article also goes on about wheels and wheelgoods: rims, spokes, and hubs. On rims, the guy writes: "Sprint rims too were either brilliant or so soft you had to be careful when truing them or you’d pull flats in them – this was remedied by hard core wheel builders with a mallet. . . and had my buddies briefed that if they saw me with a spoke key in my hand then they should get it off me, pronto."

Ok, so were the rims bad, or did this guy simply have no skills as a wheel builder?

Again, there were some lousy rims back in the day (spokes and hubs, too) but better ones were available and didn't necessarily cost much more. The writer mentions the Mavic S.S.C. Paris-Roubaix rims as some of the good ones, and I remember those as well - so our respective timeframes must overlap a bit. The S.S.C. rims (that stood for "Special Service du Courses") were among the best rims available in the '80s and were made specially for professional racing, hence the name. They were hard anodized and stout at around 400 grams. They were also terribly expensive (if you can find them on eBay, they still are!). Thing was, however, that Mavic at the same time also offered a rim called the GP4 which was almost identical and sold for significantly less money because they didn't have that "pro peloton" marketing hype to go with them. If one were a bit more savvy and less driven by fashions, they could have saved even more money by selecting a rim called the Monthlery Pro which was basically the same rim minus the hard anodizing treatment. Yes, in the advertising they liked to tout how the hard anodizing increased the strength of the rims by however much percent - but in reality, I'm skeptical about how much actual difference it made in a completed (and properly built) wheel. Also, after only a couple of rides the hard anodizing started wearing off the sidewalls, never evenly, and ended up looking like crap. Non-anodized aluminum could always be brought back to "like new" with some fine steel wool or a bit of aluminum polish. For a few more grams and a lot fewer bucks, one could have gotten a model called the Monthlery Route, which was tough, reliable, and priced for mere mortals.

I will concede that spokes today are indeed better. Up until the '80s, one often found spokes that were chrome-plated, or galvanized (at least, I think they were galvanized - they were kind of a dull gray color), or stainless steel. Chrome ones looked nice when new, but were prone to breakage. The dull gray ones weren't pretty but may have lasted a little longer. And the stainless ones back then were a bit soft and weren't as strong as they are now. I guess the metallurgy has improved, or maybe it's the manufacturing method. But again, then or now, a properly built wheel would be a lot less likely to suffer from broken spokes.

Regarding cranks, the writer goes on to ridicule old cottered steel cranks. Again, when was he riding?  I have only limited experience with cottered cranks, and I can believe reports they could be a bit of a pain to work on (when the standard removal method involves a hammer, you do have to cringe a little) but I also have it from what I consider to be pretty reliable sources that the attachment method was at least sound and secure. In any case, there were plenty of cotterless options out there at least by the '70s, and it wasn't necessary to pay Campagnolo prices to get them.

On bottom brackets: "Bottom brackets were a nightmare, if you ventured out in the rain you had to strip them out immediately after it or the bearings and axle would be ruined – no sealed bearings back then." I'll simply say that I disagree with this as a disingenuous exaggeration.

Okay - I won't quite stop there. I do see the appeal of sealed cartridge bottom brackets (easy installation and no maintenance), but when it comes to smoothness and longevity, I'll still choose a traditional bottom bracket. Every time.

For derailleurs, the guy picks on old pull-chain, plunger-action units like this Benelux:

Now I know this writer has to be a lot older than I am because things like that have been obsolete since the '50s (even if some were still being made a decade later). As far back as the '60s, inexpensive derailleurs from Japan might not have had the drool factor of Campagnolo, or even the less expensive European brands like Huret or Simplex, but they worked quite well for their day.

The article continues to bash freewheels, leather saddles, center pull brakes, traditional toe-clip pedals, and more. I'm not going to address all of it except to say that I disagree, and that most of the complaints focus on the worst of what was available "back then" and apply it to everything from the era.

To sum it all up, it seems to me that a lot of this rant is based on overgeneralizations about low-budget components, second-hand junk, and an inability (or at least a dis-inclination) to perform proper maintenance.

In a half-hearted defense of the anti-nostalgia position, I'd point out that if there is something about the modern era that is better than the days-gone-by, it's that most low-budget equipment today works comparatively better than a lot of the low-budget equipment "back then." What I mean (and using ubiquitous Shimano as an example) is that most road bike shoppers today may not be able to afford Dura-Ace or even Ultegra-level components, but they can rest assured that the Tiagra or Sora-level stuff will still work pretty nicely even if it doesn't boast the same finish quality or top-tier materials. That's a good thing. "Cheap" doesn't necessarily mean "junk." That's always been true, but a buyer today need not be as savvy to distinguish the good from the bad.

On the other hand, the big downside to the modern state of bicycle components is that the constant quest to "innovate" and "improve" means that if someone is interested in keeping their bike for more than a few years (and given the cost of a bicycle today that's not a minor thing) it can be almost impossible because of the built-in obsolescence factor. With all the new "standards" and rapidly changing technology constantly being introduced, it can often be cheaper and easier to just buy a new bike than try to replace a worn out component. And of course, that's what the industry today wants you to do anyhow.

The article in PezCycling finishes by saying: "So all you ‘Vintage/Eroica/Nostalgia dudes’ out there, if it’s your thing then that’s cool – just don’t ask me to join in your enthusiasm for equipment which should belong in a landfill site."  To that I just say "fine by me." But while we "Vintage/Eroica/Nostalgia dudes" are still able to ride bikes that 30, 40, or even 50 years old - I wonder if the "Nostalgia dudes" of 2047 will still be able to ride bikes being made today.


  1. Well said. Thank you for the review. I agree with the article 100%.

  2. Ooooh okay. Where to start? Tyres? i bought a case of 10 Barum tubulars back in the early 80's for what would have been the cost of one Clement del Mondo. Two of that lot still hold pressure and show little sign of deterioration. Maybe that's due to good storage but i don't think the del Mondos would've survived as well.
    The newest bike in my fleet is a steel Velo Orange, my favourite rides are a much-rebuilt early 70's PX10 and a 1970 Mercian path bike. The median age of bikes in the collection is about 30yrs. If these steel frames and aged components were junk, why are they even still rideable?
    i'm fond of saying that in 20 years (if i'm still alive,) and barring severe crashes, my steel will still be on the road long after today's aluminum frames are Pepsi cans and the current carbon fibre wonderbikes are piles of splinters.
    So, am i a retro-snob? Perhaps, but i still see the value in these old reliable machines.

    1. So you remember/used the Barums? Cool. Cooler that some are still good! Even the author of the article admitted that some of them could be just fine, others not so much. I had a buddy in college who went through tires pretty quickly who was always buying these "bargain basement" tires. He might have used some of the Barums, but there were others whose brand names I simply cannot recall other than the fact that I couldn't help but look a little sideways at them. I don't even know where he'd find some of them. His standards must have been a little lower than mine because he seemed to think they were OK, but I'd try them and notice bulges in them that would make it seem like the wheel was out-of-round - or they'd be impossible to mount straight so the bike would "squirm" down the road. Whatever the things cost, I decided they weren't worth it.

    2. I raced on Barums for many years ... PBWs were excellent road tyres, P10s were a good choice for TTs on good road surfaces.

      I used them alongside of Clement Criterium, 66 and Saba (made specially by Clement for a UK importer of the time) and found them no more, no less, reliable than the Clements ...

      I was pretty sensitive to reliability in those days as a penniless student, when students really WERE penniless ...

  3. One of the salient points about older bicycle parts is maintenance. Almost everything was rebuildable, user maintainable and replaceable. If your bottom bracket really got soaked (mine did in New Zealand) they could be taken apart, regreased, inspected and repaired. Good luck with that in this day and age. Damaged your eleven speed front shifter: better hope you can replace it, never mind repair it. Barums? Sure: decent tubulars from Czechoslovakia. Inexpensive when labour was cheap and materials were expensive and they were fine for everyday riding. How about Wolber tubulars? For the money, they could not be touched.

    This old vs new conundrum: it so reminds me of vintage audio equipment. Old stuff: well built, spectacular sound, very serviceable and just wonderful to look at. New stuff: not much longevity, impossible to service and BPS. Black piece of...well fill in that blank.

    1. We can still rebuild Campag Chorus, Record and Super Record 11 & 12s shifters. Officially, the spares are not available but we buy complete lever bodies and frag them for spares ... we convert 10 to 11, 11 to 10, 10 to 12 ... whatever. It can all be done.

  4. I rode Barum tires without a problem. I even raced on them. I don't blame the fact that I didn't win the TDF on them. If I were still riding tubulars today, I would choose Barums again if they were available.

    As for your other points: I agree. A Sora derailleur shifts better than the lower- end (or even some of the better) derailleurs of years gone by. And I remember breaking plenty of spokes, something I rarely do anymore.

    Although I ride Open Pros, I would have no problem riding some of Mavic's older rims--or Super Champions, for that matter.

  5. The pace of "innovation" in bicycle standards reminds me a lot of the PC industry from the 90s and the early 2000s. Every year, PCs would get faster, cheaper, and more capable, and the PC that you bought today would be obsolete by the time that you set it up at home. The difference is, with PCs back in the day, tomorrows machine really would be (objectively and subjectively) faster than yesterdays. With bicycles, that's not the case. Carbo-plastic bikes, battery-powered shifters, etc. aren't faster than yesterday's machine, or even machines from decades ago. The marketing machine wants you to think so, but speed is ultimately determined by the fitness of the rider, rather than price (or componentry) of the machine.

  6. My Mavic G40s and Super Champ Competitions built in the mid 1980s never need truing and have never taco'd. My Nuovo Record and Suntour Vx derailleurs shift crisply and never miss a cog... I could go on and on ...

  7. If you can forgive the nit pickery, the fact that the author refers to a bottom bracket spindle as an axle, pretty much flushed any credibility they might have had.

    Seems they found some half drunk 75 year old guy that rode a bike or two back in the 50's and 60's, and told them they'd get paid to write a piece trashing said bikes....

  8. ... and on and on... my 45 year old Brooks B15 is still very serviceable and attractive despite years of commuting in Portland winter rain ( thank you Proofide). So, maybe that guy just hasn't heard of maintenance for quality parts... and on and on...

  9. Ability to service versus replacement. I will stay with my old stuff! I will agree that the newer double butted stainless spokes are an improvement. Ihave a set of wheels that I built in 1976 for training rides that are still good today. Wolber 58 rims, Sasin? hubs and stainless spokes from the era. No cartridge bearings. Still have a few cottered cranks around too. They are fine on utility bike, not a problem to service with a cotter press. One in particular has over 50,000 miles on it.

    Grouch on!


  10. SSC Greys and GP4s actually had different treatments - the Blues different again (hence their intermediate price point).

    Hard anodising changes the crystal structure of the alloy to a depth beyond the anodising and since neither the face of the rim, nor the tyre bed is impacted by brake wear, these areas maintained that difference in crystal structure and the change in the characteristics of the alloy that go with it.

    SSCs, Blues and Greys, used a higher current anodising process and a different bath to the GP4 - although the carcass of the rim was essentially the same as the Monthlery Pro.