Saturday, August 31, 2013

Restore, Renovate, or Leave it Alone?

When it comes to vintage bikes, one subject that often leads to serious debate is the issue of originality and whether to restore a vintage bike or leave it alone. On the Classic Rendezvous forum, where vintage bike fans "meet," I've seen some pretty heated debates (though still civil -- it's a great group) on the restoration question. Opinions can vary a lot, and people can get pretty passionate about the subject. Although it's probably a bit like adding sand to a beach, I'm going to share my thoughts here on whether to restore, renovate, or leave it alone.

First thing -- what kind of bike is it? Is it fairly rare and/or valuable, like a bike built by a highly respected and sought-after builder or brand? If it's an early specimen of the marque, or if it has some provenance (owned by a well-known racer, for example) it might be even more valuable than other examples. Bikes that have a lot of inherent value are almost always worth more the more original they are. It's a question of rarity. The bike is already pretty rare to begin with, but how many of them are completely original? So even if the condition is not exactly "showroom" or "mint," if you want to preserve that value, you leave it alone. Faded paint, minor chips or scratches in the paint, or some flaking decals will not lower the value anywhere near as much as throwing a new coat of paint on the frame. Get some good advice on treating the little chips and scratches to keep rust from developing, but otherwise just learn to enjoy "patina."

1973 Mercian Superlight -- original paint, correct
components for the year. As good as it gets.
Now, actual damage is another issue. If there is serious rust going on under huge patches of bubbled paint, or something is cracked, crimped, or just plain broken -- not just a minor cosmetic issue -- then I'd suggest that a restoration might be in order. Likewise, I might suggest the same if some previous owner destroyed the original finish by performing a home-job rattle-can Krylon paint job. Get some advice (the CR group is a great resource) on finding someone who can make the repairs and repaint it while still respecting the integrity of the bike. But my suggestion is that with a rare, valuable, sought-after bike, the only way to go is to do an actual restoration. That is, to restore it to its original state -- as closely as possible. As tempting as it may be to have braze-ons added that weren't originally there, or to change the color to something that better suits your current taste, I'd really suggest doing those things to a different bike. Have the painter match the color and decals as closely as possible to the original. And dear god, whatever you do, don't get it powder coated!

Replacing components may or may not be much of an issue. It depends. Replacing a worn-out Campy Nuovo Record derailleur on an old Colnago with another one just like it isn't too hard to do. There can be slight differences in model years (and some are actually inscribed with dates), so it's worth the extra effort to find a replacement that is really the same -- at which point, it shouldn't affect the value or desirability of the bike in the least. But if the components were unique or rare, it's probably better to keep them (even if they aren't perfect) than to replace them with the "wrong" parts. Some great French builders, collectively known as "Constructeurs," would craft some of their own components, or have them made to their own specs and inscribed with their own name. Rene Herse would be a great and well-known example of that. Finding proper replacements for parts like that can be difficult or nearly impossible. Replacing them with more common or "ordinary" parts would probably lower the value of the bike a lot more than keeping the original parts even though they are in less-than-ideal condition.

Okay, so what if the bike is really nice, but not particularly rare or valuable? I'm talking about something mass produced by a major company, like Schwinn Paramount, Raleigh, or Peugeot, and especially higher-end models with Reynolds 531 tubing and Campagnolo components. In cases like that, originality is still desirable but I'd worry a little less about getting a repaint if the condition is not what you're after. If you can live with the patina -- Fantastic -- but I'd still suggest that if someone wants to get a repaint, that it be done with respect to the original. I'd still spring for an actual "wet" paint job, and save the added braze-ons for another bike. Just my opinion.

Early 80s Nishiki mixte. A pretty basic Japanese bike.
Renovated with new paint, updated wheels, Brooks
saddle, and Velo Orange racks and fenders.
Then there are lots of bikes out there that are nice -- not rare -- not that valuable -- but that make good vintage rides. Middle-of-the-line bikes from popular brands cranked out during the 70s bike boom, and/or Japanese built bikes from the 70s and 80s with lugged chrome-moly or manganese alloy frames (whether straight gauge or butted) and SunTour or Shimano components. With bikes like that, I don't worry about originality in the least. In these cases, if the bike is worn or tired-looking, I'd likely suggest a renovation -- not quite the same as a restoration, which I've already described -- but to renovate, which basically means "new birth." Want to put modern parts on a vintage frame? This is the bike to do that with. Want new paint, maybe a new color, but don't want to spend a bunch of money? Go ahead and get it powder coated. Want to spread the rear triangle to fit modern hubs and gear clusters? Do it. Take an old "racing" bike and convert it to 650b wheels. Add long-reach brakes and fenders. Put on a cool rack. Maybe a basket. The great thing is that you're taking a nice old bike that might otherwise be sitting around a basement, barn, or garage, and putting it to good use. Bikes like these can be relatively inexpensive fun projects that attract tons of attention from people when you're out riding. People will notice that your bike doesn't look like all the others out there with their big welds and fat tubes. "Where'd you find that bike?" they'll ask. I get that all the time.

There you have it -- certainly not the last word on the subject -- but it's what I think. If someone's considering tackling a vintage bike project and they still aren't sure if they should restore, renovate, or leave it alone, my last bit of advice is to ask around a bit. Check out the CR resources and get some opinions on the specific bike in question before making big changes that can't be undone.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Retrogrouch: Origin of the Species

I've decided to call my blog "The Retrogrouch." The term has been floating around for over 20 years now. I was hesitant to use it for my blog -- not just because I didn't come up with it myself, but because it seemed almost presumptuous to declare myself not just "a" retrogrouch, but "The Retrogrouch." Who the hell am I to do that? But the term fits me.

The Urban Dictionary defines "Retrogrouch" as:
1. One who is skeptical of technological developments until their usefulness and reliability have been proven. 
2. One who insists on minimalist equipment that may be user-serviced. 
3. Sagacious but irritable expert. 
4. A person who prefers natural and/or organic materials over metals and synthetics.

All of those definitions describe me. Even the "irritable" one. In every discussion I have about bikes with other riders, I am the one who comes across as the skeptical wet blanket, always doubtful about the latest "breakthrough," the latest "improvement," or the newest upgrade that we all "just have to have." I may even be too young to be that guy, but that's the guy I've been for a long time now. So rather than fight it or deny it, I decided to embrace it. Of course, I'm not the only retrogrouch. There are lots of us. We're a breed. A tribe of sorts. So I did some searching to see if there was anyone else out there blogging for the bicycling retrogrouches of the world (the Original Retrogrouches), and I couldn't find one. So here I am.

Look up the term "retrogrouch" today, and you'll find thousands of references to (the rejection of) any kind of technology, but the term originated in the bicycling press in the context of changing bicycle technology. I assume there might be some dispute about exactly when (and by whom) the word was first coined, but I found a convincing claim by Fred Zahradnik, who believes that it was he who came up with it. Zahradnik writes, "I believe I am the first person to use the word, in an editorial titled Techies Unite! in the May 1990 edition of Bicycling Magazine." (  I remember that Bicycling article, and the claim rings true to my memory. Zahradnik goes on to say about his original article, "Those who resisted the march of technology, I contended, were 'retrogrouches' who were holding us back. The word just popped into my head as I thought about how to label the techno-skeptics."

One of the first people to be widely labeled as a retrogrouch was Grant Petersen, who was the head of marketing for the American operations of Bridgestone Bicycles. Petersen became famous (well, in the bicycling world, anyhow) for resisting the popular trends that were spreading through the industry at the time -- like integrated brake/shift levers (brifters) on road bikes, under-bar trigger shifters on mountain bikes, suspension forks, and more. Bridgestone's top-of-the-line road bike, the RB-1, was conspicuous among its competition for sporting downtube shift levers, and at one point bar-end shifters, when everyone else was using Shimano's STI brifters. That particular instance may have been a losing battle, considering that it's darn near impossible to find an off-the-rack road bike these days that isn't equipped with brifters. Then again, Shimano, Campagnolo, SRAM, and even the new kids Microshift, all still make bar-end shift levers. Okay, so they claim they make the levers for time trial bikes (to mount at the ends of aero bars), but I think we all know that they sell a lot of them to us retrogrouches. And I think that Petersen played at least some role in keeping that market alive, as well as many other retrogrouch favorites like all-leather saddles and waxed-cotton saddlebags.

Bridgestone X0-1 from the '93 catalog.
Was it a road bike? A mountain bike? A cult classic!
Unfortunately, Bridgestone Bicycles shut down their American operations and stopped exporting bikes to the USA in 1994, but many of their bicycles -- especially those that most fully embodied Grant Petersen's philosophy and ideas -- have achieved almost "cult" status. Find a Bridgestone X0-1 (the one with the once-reviled, now loved, mustache bars) on eBay, and expect to pay a lot more than you'd expect for a used 20-year-old Japanese-built bike. But the good news is that Petersen went on to start Rivendell Bicycles where he had/has the freedom to design and sell bikes that probably never would have flown with a huge multinational corporation holding (at least some of) the strings. So is Grant Petersen the "original" retrogrouch? One could easily argue that, but I'm not sure Petersen would be thrilled to take the title. I've read interviews and articles by him where he mentions the retrogrouch label and my impression is that he's a bit indifferent to it. Not offended. Not thrilled. Just indifferent.

Regardless, Grant Petersen greatly influenced my attitudes about bicycles -- and I gladly embrace the retrogrouch name. I remember first becoming aware of Petersen when reading ads that he wrote for Bridgestone in the mid '80s. I didn't know back then who the person was behind the ads, but I remember being struck by the unusual nature of those ads. They were worth reading. They were informative. The catalogs he did for Bridgestone from 1992 - 1994 were full of info not only about the bikes, but also with interesting articles about everything from bicycle riding to the virtues of wool. Those catalogs provide some great reading, and copies of them actually come up for sale on eBay with a surprising level of demand. His Bridgestone Owners Bunch (BOB) newsletters, and then later the Rivendell Readers, continued to extol the benefits of simple bicycles, beautiful craftsmanship, leather saddles, lugged steel frames, wool clothing, beeswax, natural shellac, and much more. His philosophy on bicycle fit was also a big departure for me. I recommend reading his recently published book Just Ride (Workman Publishing, 2012). I'm not saying it's the gospel or anything, and even I don't agree with everything he says -- but it is definitely an all-you-can-eat buffet of food-for-thought for today's cyclists.

Bicycles are -- or should be -- fundamentally simple machines. That simplicity makes them beautiful. There are real benefits to time-tested technologies, and efforts to "improve" on them don't always live up to the marketing hype. I think that's the creed of the Retrogrouch. In Fred Zahradnik's 2008 assessment of his 1990 Techies Unite! article, he says, "Turned out that retrogrouches were proud of their insistence on time-tested quality, and components they could actually work on." I'd say that sums it up fairly well.

Yep -- Retrogrouch -- that's me.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Electronic Shifting?

I recently had a conversation with a bicycling friend that went something like this (I say "something like" because I don't record my conversations to have them transcribed verbatim). . .
     Friend: "So, my friend that I do most of my riding with just got a new bike with electronic shifters. He really loves it. It's practically the same bike as mine except for the shifters so I can't wait to go for a ride with him and I can compare and see if he's really any faster than I am."
     Me: "He won't be any faster."
     Friend: "But I want to compare and then I'll know for sure."
     Me: "He won't be any faster."
     Friend: "But the guy at the shop says that the electronic shifting really is an improvement -- he says this is one upgrade that really makes a difference.
     Me: "It CAN'T make you any faster."

So we go through this discussion round and round with me continually repeating that electronic shifting will not -- cannot -- make someone faster. If the rider is faster on a bike with cable operated shifters, then they will be faster with electronic shifters. If the rider is slow with cable shifters, they'll still be slow with electronics. How the bike is shifted has nothing to do with it. It doesn't even factor anywhere into the equation. The whole concept just seems typical to me given the hype that manufacturers, their marketers, and the typical bicycle publications lavish on the latest innovations.

Speed, of course, is primarily determined by pedaling cadence and gearing. Basic math. For a given gear ratio, the bike will move forward a specific distance for each pedal revolution. Multiply that distance times the pedaling RPMs, and you get a speed in feet per minute. Cadence is mostly impacted by the rider's fitness level. Gearing, in turn, is determined by the chainring/cog combination, wheel size, and crank length. Other factors that will affect a rider's speed would be: wind resistance; rolling resistance (affected by things like tire pressure, tire casing/construction, and tread); weight (I'd emphasize rotational weight first -- i.e. wheels -- then static weight -- i.e. frame, other components, and of course the RIDER); and drivetrain friction (affected by things like hub and bottom bracket bearings, chain+cogs+pulleys, etc.). Without doing a lot of research, I'd say it's a pretty decent estimation that those "other factors" are probably even listed in order of importance. Regarding weight, notice that I emphasize the rider. The rider himself (or herself) is far and away the single heaviest part of the whole equation, and is often the one thing the gets ignored in most discussions about bicycles and weight. Anyhow, reducing the various resistance, friction, and weight factors lets you either pedal in a higher gear or perhaps at a faster cadence than you might otherwise be able to, thereby letting you ride faster. Notice that there is not a single element in this whole equation that could be affected by the connection between the shift levers and the derailleurs.

One review that I saw of Shimano's Di2 shifters called them "The single most jaw dropping experience" that the reviewer had ever had. Phew! But the biggest benefit that I could see is that the front derailleur automatically "trims" itself (moves slightly to keep the chain from rubbing on the cage) when you shift the rear derailleur. Nice. If one primarily uses Shimano's cable-operated STI brake/shift levers, I can see that being a really nice feature -- mostly because STI doesn't really give a rider much control over front derailleur trimming. Campagnolo's Ergo levers are much better in that regard. Then again, NO integrated brake/shift levers give a rider as much control over that aspect as downtube friction levers, or even Shimano's excellent bar-end shift levers. With Shimano's bar-end levers, the rear shifter has solid, positive clicks between each shift. And the front lever has a super-fine ratcheting mechanism that allows virtually infinite fine-tuning of the front derailleur position. Not only that, but I find that, with a little practice, I can shift the rear derailleur with my right hand while simultaneously trimming the front derailleur with my left. No problem. With downtube levers, I can do the same thing with one hand -- and that's not bragging -- I'm assuming that most riders who cut their teeth with downtube friction shift levers can probably do the same.

Another review of the Di2 system said that the shifting was so slick and reliable that it would let the rider "take his mind off the shifting and focus on the ride." OK. Here's the thing. If someone is so preoccupied with their shifting that it takes away from their ride, then I'd argue that they have bigger skill issues than what can be solved by switching to electronic shifting. Are botched shifts really that much of a problem?

(WARNING: I'm entering full-on Retrogrouch mode here)

I have a few bikes with friction downtube levers, one with Dura Ace bar-end shift levers, one with Shimano STI controls, and two more with Campagnolo Ergo integrated levers. The controls that probably give me the fewest problems in shifting are the bar-ends. They just work. Every time. Even if the system gets a little out of adjustment, they still work because their tolerance for maladjustment is just that high. With the integrated brake/shift lever systems (STI and Ergo), the biggest problem that I've ever encountered would not be solved by switching to electronic controls. It's a total newbie mistake that doesn't happen often, but I always feel like a complete dork when it does. Here it is: I push the lever or button to downshift when I actually want to upshift. Or vice-versa. In my own defense, I'm most likely to do it after I've logged a bunch of miles on a bike with down-tube or bar-end levers, then switch to one with integrated levers. And also it's worth noting that the levers or buttons that control upshifts and downshifts on the left side (front derailleur) do the exact opposite on the right side (rear derailleur). Switching to electronic shifting would not prevent that dumb mistake -- but I suppose it's really nice to know that the electronic system would still flawlessly and reliably make the shift happen anyhow.

Pretty much all the other benefits -- like being able to shift the front derailleur while standing on the pedals -- seemed pretty minor to me, especially considering the huge price difference between the cable-operated vs. electronically controlled components. It varies from retailer to retailer, but it's roughly $2000 difference between "traditional" and "electronic" for Dura Ace. Ultegra Di2 can probably be had for about $1000 less than the Dura Ace version, but still many hundreds of dollars more than the "traditional" set. Will it get cheaper over time? Probably. In fact, it was hard for me to figure out just how much the Di2 stuff actually costs because prices between different online retailers seem to vary so wildly. Some retailers offer some pretty drastic discounts (which should really tell you something).

List price $139
List price $469
List price $759

List price $279

One can find similar price differences between the Campy versions, too. But overall, given how well many of today's traditional components work, I just don't see where the benefits really justify the cost. Add to that the bloated-looking electronic components (compared to their "traditional" counterparts -- as described in previous posts), and the tumor-like battery packs and control units, and the need to keep them charged (and what I presume would be the inability to shift should you forget to do that) and the fact that there is probably nothing in these electronic component groups that is going to be user-serviceable, then I just don't see the point in making the switch.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Old Parts - New Parts - Part Two

In my previous post, I compared the look of the truly excellent and beautiful Dura Ace components from the mid 1980s to the 2013 Di2 version of today. The newer components contrast heavily with the older counterparts -- looking much heavier, bloated, with huge appendages to house their servos -- not to mention the battery packs and control units that have to be attached to the frame. Today, I'd like to do a "then and now" comparison of Campagnolo's Super Record components, particularly the electronic-shifting EPS versions.

First of all, take a look at an early-to-mid 80s Super Record rear derailleur. The contrast of the black and silver is, I think, really gorgeous. The derailleur is svelte and spartan. A real classic.  

Super Record, circa 1984. Somewhat angular, slightly industrial. Simple. But pretty.
Then take a look at the current edition Super Record EPS electronic derailleur. I do think Campy does a somewhat better job of incorporating the electronic workings into the design than Shimano does on the Dura Ace Di2. But it's still a bit strange-looking. Although I'm a huge fan of the classic silver/black/titanium look of the old SR, I do admit that there is something kind of cool about the all-black carbon fiber weave throughout the new SR rear derailleurs. . .

2013 Super Record EPS.
 But I think the traditional cable-operated version looks even better.

2013 Super Record (sans electronics) -- Look ma, no tumors!

Unfortunately, the Super Record EPS front derailleur is a stylistic nightmare. . .
Super Record EPS front derailleur -- with a conjoined twin growing out of it.
Other parts of the group still look huge and bloated next to their 80s counterparts. The crank is a pretty nice design -- fairly reminiscent of the late 80s C-Record (Corsa Record) crank, rendered in carbon fiber instead of aluminum. I know the brake levers have a good feel to the hands which is of course desirable -- but they look visually heavy and misshapen compared to the classic drilled silver brake levers of the past.

And the old Super Record crank is a slender, pretty, almost delicate-looking design. Unfortunately, however, the old crank apparently proved to be fairly delicate in use, as well, as stories of cracked ones are abundant. Oh well. Consistency is not a human trait.

One question I have to wonder is whether the new components truly save that much weight compared to the old. They are rendered in carbon instead of aluminum, but they're also in many cases much thicker or physically larger. And then there are the battery packs etc. to add into the mix. I'll have to look up the answers to that one -- but I'm not really that concerned about a few grams here and there, so I'm not in a big hurry.

I will say this in defense of the new. Particularly with the Campagnolo parts (perhaps not with the Shimano, which worked great by any standard) -- the newer Campy parts, even the traditional cable-operated ones, functionally work so much better than the old. I like the old stuff, and ride it regularly. But shifting performance of the old drop-parallelogram derailleurs is nowhere near as good as on the modern counterparts. The new brakes have a good, light feel to them and stop the bike with far less effort than the old ones. I'm not a total curmudgeon here, after all.

Next post -- do we really need electronic shifting? Is it really the improvement that it's supposed to be?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Old Parts - New Parts - Part One

I started getting serious about bicycles back in the mid-1980s. At that time, Campagnolo Nuovo Record and Super Record were THE components to get. If you couldn't afford that, you got SunTour or Shimano (French choices from Simplex and Huret were already getting scarce, or at least that's how it seemed to me at the time). The SunTour derailleurs were among the most affordable, though they were also probably the best shifting ones of all at that time. Around 1985 or so, Shimano released their new and improved Dura Ace 7400 series derailleurs and shifters. Borrowing the basic geometry that had been patented by SunTour in 1964 (the patent had just expired), Shimano added a spring to the upper pivot, and with their special clicking shift levers, created their first SIS (Shimano Index Shifting) system that could reliably "click to shift" from one gear to the next. That derailleur was a real beauty -- and so was the whole group, for that matter. But with that Dura Ace system, the indexing era was born. Indexing begat the STI (Shimano Total Integration) of integrated brake/shift levers, and Ergo (Campagnolo's version of integrated brake/shift levers). Now, it's Electronic Shifting -- Di2, and EPS (Shimano and Campagnolo, respectively). Let's take a look at the mid 80s Dura Ace and the 2013 versions. . .
Dura Ace 7400 -- circa 1985.
Looked good then, and now.
Dura Ace Di2 -- 2013.  Clunky.

And compare the cranks. . .
Mid 80s Dura Ace Crank
2013 -- It might be lighter (?) but it sure doesn't look it.
Also, when you need to replace rings, what other rings can you get for it?
Then again, by the time you need new rings, you'll have to
 "upgrade" the whole group to whatever the latest and greatest is.
 The Di2 front derailleur is just downright scary-looking.

The components have just become so bloated-looking, and this goes for the whole group. The earlier versions have a compact, tidy look, with a great balance of crisp angles and curves. The new ones are huge, misshapen, and the electronic versions especially have these massive growths to house their servos. Then there are the battery packs and control boxes that have to be appended onto the frame like tumors.
As far as aesthetics goes, I don't think there's any comparison between the old and new. I'll talk about other aspects (like, is electronic shifting really such an improvement?) in a later post. Keep tuned. . .

A Work in Progress

Welcome to The Retrogrouch Blog. I'm just now getting this set up and trying to figure out the system, so right now things look pretty generic. But here is where I'll be expressing my opinions on bicycles. I love bikes. I'm incredibly opinionated on the subject. I verbally beat my friends into submission on the topic. And for the most part, I don't like where the bicycle industry is taking bikes. Bikes should be simple, and reliable, and beautiful. Sometimes that beauty comes from simplicity and reliability. I believe people should be able to work on their own bikes, because repairing and maintaining your own bike is not just a right of passage, but it also makes one a better cyclist.
I believe the importance of weight in bicycles is overestimated. People obsess about grams. Manufacturers feed off that and shave grams at the expense of safety and durability. I believe that when it comes to bicycle weight, there is "light" and there is "stupid light." Too many bikes and components today are Stupid Light.
I like Steel.
I like Lugs.
I like new stuff, but only when it makes sense and really makes things better. New for the sake of new doesn't make sense. And New is not always Improved.
Check back from time to time. I'll be adding more.