Tuesday, July 17, 2018

How Light Could You Go?

Back when I first caught the bike bug, I remember hearing something that even back then was a well-worn saying, but it was true then, and I think it's still true today. "Light, Strong, Cheap - Pick Two."

I've said it before, but it bears re-stating. There is light - and there is "stupid light." And it's not just in the current era that we see people pushing the limits. Weight weenies have been around a long time - modifying components to take off weight, or buying parts that sacrifice all strength and durability in exchange for shedding a few grams.

I was reminded of some vintage examples of "stupid light" components by a recent discussion on the Classic Rendezvous group. One of these was this item:

Plastic seat post - made by Shiba-Western in the mid/late '70s. Its design is based on the 2-bolt Campagnolo Nuovo Record seat post - but rendered in plastic, not aluminum. It's not even any kind of reinforced plastic - like fiberglass or whatever - so there was nothing to give it any strength or durability. It was apparently made in only one diameter, then plastic shims were slipped over the shaft to make it fit a wider range of frame sizes. These have been discussed in some of the online bike forums over the years, in addition to the CR group - and it should come as no surprise these had a reputation for breaking in very short order. One commenter on VeloBase said, "I had one. It failed on a ride after two years of use. I am told that is about two years longer than most of them lasted." 
One obvious point of weakness with the plastic seat post would be where it was clamped into the seat tube at the frame's seat lug (which would obviously be steel or aluminum). I can picture the seat tube's binder squeezing and pinching the plastic - and the owner continuing to tighten in order to keep it from slipping. The rider would get on it, start riding, and it would just snap off where it was pinched.

Another "stupid light" component - from the late '60s through early '70s - was the all-nylon headset:

Made by Nylfor in France, they were all nylon/plastic, including the bearing races. Some people claimed these didn't use bearings - but an ad I found on ClassicLightweights says it used 5/32" ball bearings. It's possible they were shipped without bearings, though - leaving the owner to supply their own. Most people who used these claimed they worked "OK" for a little while, but they had a lot of friction, and didn't last very long. I can easily picture steel bearings pressing into the plastic races to the point where the plastic would deform. Some people recommended using nylon ball bearings as well, which may or may not have helped. Another likely issue would be the destruction of the top nut from slipping wrenches. At least the headset wasn't a structural piece - that is, its failure probably wouldn't be catastrophic and cause a crash.
For those who wanted "light" but not "stupid light," a more sensible alternative to the Nylfor headset would have been the Stronglight B10 "Bernard Hinault" model, available in the 1980s.

When I first saw these, I mistakenly thought they were just black anodized aluminum, but this model actually used nylon for the top and bottom cups, while the bearing races were steel, and the top nuts were aluminum. Internally, it was basically the same as the company's A9 needle bearing headset. I wouldn't be surprised if the life on these was a bit less than the all-aluminum version (which can last a long, long time) - but probably more than acceptable.
In the quest to shed grams, it wasn't uncommon for people to take matters into their own hands and modify existing components - sometimes to the extremes. I've written plenty here about "Drillium," which I think can sometimes be very tasteful, at least when done in moderation. But when it comes to components where failure could lead to a crash - like stems, or brakes, or cranks - I tend to be pretty conservative. The way I see it, sometimes "less" is "more."
I don't think I'd be confident riding on any of these components. Just a little too much air, and not enough metal for my comfort zone. Some of them look cool (well, maybe not those brakes), but yikes!
I can see building up a vintage weight weenie special, using all the tricks and stupid-light components that were available in the era - but then I'd probably be afraid to ride it for anything more than a gingerly roll around the block - which is hardly worthy of any bicycle worth having.

It's hard to be a bicyclist and not place a certain value on lightness in bikes and components - but I'm well past going after light weight at the expense of other factors. To sacrifice reasonable strength to shed a few grams makes no sense whatsoever if someone doesn't race - and even for racing, you can't win if you can't finish. And that was as true "back in the day" as it is today.


  1. We called the extremely drilled & milled components "suicide gear." It was perhaps suitable for time trials by light and smooth riders only. When someone showed up for a mass start race with such equipment, we tended to give that rider a wide berth.

  2. I've long said, put a 15 lb bikes wheels on a 28 lb bike, and it's wheels on the formerly 15 pounder, and ride both. Guaranteed, the lighter wheel equipped bike will feel far better than the heavier wheel equipped one.

    Wheels are where actually weight matters, within limits of course. A 60 lb bike is going to suck, I don't what you do to it... =:D

    Everything else is just pissing contest fodder for curbside weight weenies with a focus on impressing friends rather than actually making their bike ride better.....

    All that said, my god I love Drillium!

    1. Oh, I agree that lighter wheels make a good difference- but even there one needs to be reasonable. Fiamme gold label rims were only about 280 grams, but had a bad reputation for breaking. Super Champion Medaille d'Or rims were advertised as only 260 grams, and I had a pair, but they constantly needed to be re-trued- and I only weighed 125 at the time!

  3. I don't understand the appeal of drillium for either aesthetics or weight savings. The tiny holes make any such component look like a cheap erector set toy, and the weight savings of a few grams gives you nothing in terms of performance; nothing except the greater potential for component fatigue and breakage.

  4. Oh, absolutely.

    My only point is people that spend hundreds or thousands of dollars, dropping a pound or three off pretty much anything else on the bike, except the wheels, are not achieving anything beyond winning the parking lot pinkie test from their riding buddies.

    But wheels? Making them (responsibly) lighter, pays huge dividends....

  5. I had one of the Hinault Stronglight headsets on my bike (a mostly Spidel equipped Gitane) when I was a junior. It worked just fine; the needle bearing headset required such little maintenance, so it held up fine. It was selected by a shop for me because it was inexpensive, and was readily available in a French threaded version.

    I always thought the plastic was a way to hit a price point as much as it was to reduce weight, similar to what Simplex did with Delrin in some of their derailleurs.

  6. If "price per gram saved" is your metric, the absolute easiest and cheapest thing you can do is use latex inner tubes. They don't hold air quite as well as butyl but we all check our pressure every time we ride, don't we?

  7. Weight on wheels isn't much worse than anyplace else. The only time it really slows you down more than weight anywhere else is when accelerating. If you coast at some point, you get that energy back anyway.
    These days, with the current advances in composites, the application of money can probably give large weight savings while maintaining strength. But it might be a lot of money if you don't want to design by trial and error. Another approach, if you live someplace where corrosion isn't a problem, might be lithium aluminum alloy, obviously also very expensive. If the time spent working to earn that kind of money was spent training instead, greater weight savings and increased performance would probably result. We can hope that these technologies will become cheaper and better understood with time.