Thursday, November 14, 2019

Cycling Shorts: Modern Vs. Retro

I was recently enjoying a short video on YouTube from Cycling Weekly - Modern vs. Retro, in which a young rider gets his first experience with a vintage bike and does a full back-to-back comparison between that and a bike that represents the current "state of the art." A few years ago I wrote about a similar video from Global Cycling Network. Have you ever seen one of those videos where parents give their kids a bit of old technology, like a Sony Walkman cassette player (something every kid in the '80s wanted or coveted) and then watch in amusement while their post-millenial kids try to figure the thing out? I find these things pretty entertaining in the same way, and any retrogrouch will find a lot of "These kids today" moments in this one. I can't help but alternatingly grin and grimace as young riders raised on clipless pedals and STI shifters find themselves flummoxed by toe straps and downtube shifters.

In this 17-minute video, Cycling Weekly contributor Oliver Bridgewood, whom I'm guessing is still a few years shy of his 30th birthday, rides a couple of circuits in Britain's lovely Peak District - first on a thoroughly modern Cervélo R5 with wireless electronic shifting and hydraulic disc brakes, then rides the same route with a mid-'80s steel-framed beauty from George Longstaff with a suitable mix of L'Eroica-ready components. Bridgewood readily admits that he's never ridden a vintage bike like the Longstaff before, and his inexperience shows throughout the video - so it seems unfair to be overly critical when he misstates various aspects of the vintage bike. And besides, it's all just in good fun.

The Cervélo typifies today's current trends - sloping top-tube, high saddle/low bars, deep-section rims, and monochromatic matte black-on-black color scheme. The Longstaff on the other hand sports a lovely and gleaming flam-red frame (probably Reynolds 531, though it's never mentioned) highlighted by a full array of bright and shiny aluminum and chrome. Bikes like the Longstaff would have been a pretty common sight in the '80s - but on any group ride today (apart from L'Eroica) it would be a real standout. At one point, the young reviewer admires the construction of the Longstaff and comments on the beauty of the "welding." He means well.

The Cervélo has the latest SRAM derailleurs - which to my eye look bloated and tumorous compared to the Longstaff's first-generation SunTour Cyclone unit. Funny thing: the SRAM's basic geometry and slant-parallelogram design owes a lot to the SunTour, even if it's powered by electric servos instead of a simple cable.

SRAM Red (that's the model - not the color!) brake and shift levers have hydraulic brake lines that run under the bar tape (the shifting is wireless). The Longstaff has mid/late '80s Campagnolo brake levers with cables running out the top. (Fun fact, those particular brake levers can also be configured to have the cables run "aero"- as in, hidden under the bar tape as well - but they are probably set up this way because this bike has been ridden in L'Eroica Brittania where the rules ban "aero" cables). In the video, Bridgewood has a chuckle at the brake cables as he says, "These old cables sticking out the top - you can hang your washing off of 'em."

The shifters on the vintage bike are mis-identified as Campagnolo and "frictionless" (I know, I know - cut him some slack!). Bridgewood adds, "There's no 'click,' you just have to sort of adjust it and work out where the gear is." They are actually the wonderful Simplex Retrofriction levers, and they are a sign that whoever assembled the bike had good taste. They definitely don't "click" or "index" but they are not exactly "frictionless." 
"I did it! I did it!" Out on the road he reacts with ecstatic glee as he successfully executes his first shift with downtube-mounted levers.
Another misidentification - the crank is said to have a "53/39" ratio. Actually, it's an old Campagnolo Gran Sport crank with a 144 bolt circle diameter, so the small ring can't be smaller than 41 teeth (and those are very rare) but much more likely it's a 52/42, which was the most common for that era. On back, he describes the 6-speed freewheel as 12 - 25. Without being able to count the teeth, I'd say it's more likely that the smallest cog is 13 (12 teeth on a vintage freewheel would be incredibly hard if not impossible to find) and it looks to me like the largest might be a bit bigger than 25. Maybe 28. Not that it really matters.

Of course there's the "dead lift" test that everyone is compelled to do when they encounter a steel-framed bike. Yeah - the dead lift is totally misleading because it has no relationship to the way we actually ride a bike. With no scale handy, he describes the weight as maybe 12 - 13 kilos (26 - 28 lbs.). I'm pretty sure he's overstating it by a few pounds. Equipped as it is, it probably weighs no more than 23 pounds. I know - that's possibly as many as 6 or 7 pounds more than the Cervélo (I'm guessing that bike weighs around 16 pounds) - but on the road, the difference still wouldn't count for much unless you were racing. 

Out on the road, the young reviewer shows his surprise about the nice ride quality of the vintage bike. "I'm AMAZED at how comfortable this bike is! The way it can kind of eradicate the road buzz that you get is . . brilliant! I'm going to say it's better than the Cervélo." He goes on to describe the power transfer and the difference in the feel at the bars, pointing out that it encourages a rider to ride down in the drops more. I don't think he recognizes exactly why that's the case, but he's describing something that I've written about before - how the "drop" from the saddle to bars has really increased on racing bikes today - and how modern bikes encourage riding on the top of the brake/shift levers. The drop from saddle to bars on vintage racers like the Longstaff is much less (making the bars feel relatively higher) - so that getting into the drops isn't all that much lower than being on the top of the levers on a modern bike.

After concluding that he could get used to the gearing (he's gone from 12 cogs to 6! He comments, "This bike's from a different age - when men were men.") and other "quirks" of the vintage era, he says the only area that he really found lacking was the brakes. I guess that's to be expected. Honestly, it seems like everyone who reviews bikes these days has to praise disc brakes almost as though anything with rim brakes is unsafe to ride. Having ridden (or at least tried) just about every kind of brake system available on bikes today, I just do not perceive disc brakes to be the total revolution that all the cheerleaders proclaim them to be. True, he is riding the bikes in wet conditions, which is where disc brakes enjoy their biggest and most noticeable advantage - but the Mafac cantilevers on the Longstaff really should have all the stopping power anyone should need. Seriously - I've seen a lot of nice tandems that relied on the same exact brakes with no trouble. But here's the thing: they need to be set up properly. Take a look here:

Notice how long that straddle cable is on those brakes, with the yoke positioned about 5 or 6 inches above the fork crown. The thing about cantilever brakes - especially older types like these Mafacs - is that the feel and performance of them can vary a lot depending on the set up. A lot of younger mechanics may not have the experience with such brakes to know how to get the most out of them. Shortening that straddle cable (and lowering the yoke as a result) would change the angle between the yoke and the cantilever arm - and alter the mechanical advantage. Another factor is that it is important to pair the brakes with the right levers. According to Saint Sheldon, wide profile cantis like those Mafacs can have a low mechanical advantage, and should be paired with a lever that has a higher advantage. I doubt that those Campy levers are optimal for the Mafac cantis. Getting the combination right takes some experience, or at least a fair amount of research. Having said all that - I just want to mention that the choice of cantilevers on a racy road bike is an unusual one. I'm not criticizing it - it's just an unusual choice.

One thing brought up in the video that struck a chord with me was that he talks about the longevity of vintage bikes. "I think it's a testament to the design of old bikes that we still see a lot of them now, still with original components on them, and they still work and function as well as they did when they were first made." Of the modern bikes he adds, "I wonder how many modern carbon bikes we will see in the future. Maybe we'll see loads. Maybe they'll last a long time. But modern design seems to be a lot more consumerist and a lot more 'throwaway'." There's a lot of truth in that - and he goes on to compare it to other modern products and especially things like electronic goods, phones, etc., that are obsolete after only a few years. 

In the end, I like that the young reviewer is fair and not automatically dismissive of the vintage bike. He gives it a chance and shows it some respect. "It wouldn't be fair to say this is better than that, or that is better than this," he says. "They're different, and cycling is all the better for it." As he wraps up the video, he admits that if he were going into a road race or a criterium and had a choice between the two bikes, he'd absolutely take the modern bike - but then adds "Cycling shouldn't always be about racing, and performance, numbers, and Strava. Riding a bike like this makes you remember that. It makes you remember why you ride a bike in the first place."

Yeah - I like that. And if you have about 17 minutes for a fun little diversion, check out the Modern vs. Retro video. You can watch it on YouTube, or right here:



  1. ROTFL! "Cycling Shorts", indeed. I honestly thought it was going to be about those that gird one's loins.

  2. George Longstaff was a highly regarded builder but not so popular in racing circles. I have one of his in the same colour, with the same lug lining and apparently the same lugs and fork crown as this one. It too betrays the builders thinking in that it has the same Mafac cantilevers (rubbish, by the way, the Dia Compe cantis of that era were far superior). Mine also has Simplex retrofriction levers and a Suntour rear mech. George was a tourist at heart and mine was so built. Racing frames by him are rare indeed, and I had to do a double-take when I saw this. Great post, so thanks!

  3. "I did it! I did it!" I had a similar reaction when I successfully shifted gears the first time with brifters on a rental bike.

  4. About the longevity of modern day carbon fiber bikes -vs- vintage steel bikes: I currently ride a 70 year old steel frame bike. Today's carbon fiber bikes are basically carbon fiber held together with thermoset plastic. I doubt I would put much faith in the strength of 70 year old plastic of any formulation.

  5. When you find a classic bicycle today that is still in great shape, its condition is usually not due to the bike's quality or type of construction as it is how much it was ridden, how gentle was its storage, and how it was treated during its service life when it was not being ridden. I'm continually impressed by the number of sales listings in which the long-time or even original owner describes the bike's fantastic ride, when the original chainrings show no more than a few hundred miles of wear, if that.

    I started forming observations on the different types of bicycle buyers / riders many decades ago, when I started working in the bicycle biz. I don't know if the numbers exist, but I would love to see a data study that breaks down the number of seasons bicycle purchasers actually ride their bikes before moving on to something else. It was my observation that the more gung-ho a new bike purchaser was about riding, and the more competition-focused that buyer was, the more likely that he or she would have moved on to another sport in 2-3 years.

    When the bicycle model was something really special, it often didn't get re-sold, as the used bike market rarely offers the value that the owner believes the machine to be worth. The dealer markup is only relevant to the bicycle when new and must be immediately deducted before resale, along with all the other intangibles that go along with losing the flexibility of selection when buying something new. The owner sees the used bike looking just like it did when new and not believing that it has almost immediately lost at least half its retail value. Not willing to "be taken advantage of", the owner hangs the bike on a hook in the garage, where it sits largely forgotten. Depending on the local climate, and how much salt was let on it after its last ride, this either becomes a time capsule for the bike, or a slow death for its finishes.

    I suspect that modern bikes are not much different. There are plenty of bikes with carbon fiber in them that are 30 years old or more (I have a Look KG86 that rides like brand new), and it's the bonding that's more likely to be an issue than the actual tubing. That bonding has largely disappeared from bicycle frame construction. I think the bigger issue with carbon fiber is the many ways that it can be almost invisibly damaged and how this damage can lead to catastrophic failures. Still, I check my aluminum cranks before every ride and often wonder when I'm out of the saddle if I'm about to repeat Fignon's Campy ti BB spindle disaster. I've been with a rider when he sheared off a Campy crankarm and it was not a pretty sight.

    I've gradually come to the realization that it's too much of a disadvantage to show up at a fast group ride with anything less than my highest performance bike. This is as much due to the effect of age on my own performance, as I no longer have a margin I can afford to give up to the bike. Bottom line is that my highest performing bike is also the newest, even if that bike is still 15 years old. On the other hand, there is negligible difference in performance between that aluminum & carbon machine with its 10-speed Campy group and a brand new bike, so I don't have any compulsion to "upgrade", though I did recently drop a grand on a 1966 Frejus with, you guessed it, 100 miles on the chainrings.