Long time no post!………. Well I’ve been on holiday and busy and..blah blah blah…. but I’m back up-and-running now and I have a ton of new content and reviews lined up so watch this space!
In the meantime, today’s post is all about bikes.
There are few better ways of enjoying the Summer than cruising around the local B-roads on two wheels. Getting yourself kitted out can be an expensive business and if, like me, you feel a little uninspired by most of the entry-level bikes that are out there, perhaps you could consider going for a classic! Here’s some insight into my experience of owning and running a vintage road bike for the last 12 months, including some tips on things to look out for when you are buying one!
As a teenager, mountain biking was the first physically active past time that I got really obsessed with. Bikes provided me with a unique sense of my early personal freedom and facilitated hundreds of muddy adventures around the local bridleways. This developed into an interest in road cycling during my early 20’s which was cut short when I sold my trusty Giant to fund a few weeks of travelling.
Following this, I still got out on the mountain bike occasionally but as time went on, other interests took over. I think this was partially due to the fact that I got a little bit weary of the impact that cycling’s mega marketing machine had on my consumerist weaknesses. It’s so easy to get sucked into the trap of thinking that you need to be constantly upgrading bikes and components to follow the latest trend and ‘revolutionary’ new technology. These issues are certainly not exclusive to the sport but I do think that they are particularly potently delivered within the cycling media.
There may be those among you who are thinking that it’s a bit rich for me to be saying this as I now review gear and have advertising on my site……which is a fair point but my reviews are targeted at helping people make informed decisions about buying the right piece of kit for them based upon honest and objective information, rather than encouraging people to buy stuff that they don’t really need. I hope this comes across.
Just over a year ago, it occurred to me that I really missed road cycling. I have no drive to be competitive in the sport but it’s just a wonderful way of exploring the local countryside and I’m lucky to live in an area that has an almost endless network of quaint and quiet roads over rolling hills which lend themselves fantastically to two-wheeled travel. Being a bit strapped for cash at the time (pre-wedding), I resolved to find a way of scratching the cycling itch and my search began to find a steed that got me excited without breaking the bank. After becoming rather underwhelmed by the prospect of an entry level modern bike, I started looking at vintage steel frames….
Whilst it isn’t an especially exotic material, to me, skinny-steel tubes are timelessly pretty in a way that modern composite frames may never equal. They may not be as light or fast but a half-decent steel frame will perform perfectly well enough for most people and the materials natural springy nature gives them a distinctive feel that can often be more comfortable and forgiving than modern materials. It’s also a highly durable and can often be repaired if damaged (within reason). Now for some tips and insights into what it’s been like to buy and own a steel bike.
You need to be prepared to do your research to make sure you have a pretty good idea of what you are looking at before making a purchase (not all old bikes are good ones!) but fortunately, there are some exceptionally useful resources out there that can help you do this. It’s something that is worthwhile geeking-out on and trawling the forums for old catalogues and photo’s of bikes, frames and components. You really need to embrace this to get the most value for your money but it can be fun!
Before making a purchase, you also need to make an honest assessment of exactly what you are going to be doing on your new bike. How often are you going to use it? What kind of performance levels will you really need and can you live with primitive / old technology? Can you climb your local hills on a 10 speed? Any plans to enter competitions, triathlons or sportives? Do you want to ride it through the winter? Older components and steel frames may degrade quickly in wet conditions and on salted roads.
The frame is the beating heart of any bike and should be prioritised over other components which can be replaced if they are worn / defective. Check for corrosion, dents, cracks around welds and misalignment. Most of the time it won’t be practical to do a proper alignment check but there’s a nice post here on a method that doesn’t require you to dismantle the bike. When buying steel frames, pay particular attention to the type of tubing that has been used (Reynolds? Columbus?) as this can be a key indicator of quality. A good place to start in researching this is here at the Retrogrouch’s site.
Identification can be especially tricky if a frame has been re-sprayed or reconditioned and sometimes there are only minor external details which can be used to distinguish high-end frames from mediocre ones. In addition to graphics and badges, design features like pantographing, dropouts, butting, welds, seat-stay design and cable routing (internal / external) can all provide clues.
As tempting as it might be to buy an ill-fitting frame at a bargain price, it really isn’t worth it as a good fit is vital to ensure performance, comfort and even to avoid injury. You can customise this to a limited extent with stem lengths and seat heights but there are practical limitations to this and you really need to follow a fitting guide or seek professional advice. It’s important to note that sizing of vintage bikes is different to modern ‘compact’ frames so make sure your method takes this into consideration. This guide on the wiggle website could be a good starting point.
Just like buying a car, always view, inspect thoroughly and test ride before committing to buy to ensure that you avoid disappointment. If the seller can’t accommodate this, walk away….
Some people feel very strongly that classic bikes should be kept in condition that is as close to original as possible. This means that worn components should only be replaced with exact matches. Whilst I can understand this viewpoint, it can be an expensive, time consuming business and you can easily spend as much money as you would on modern equipment. NOS (new-old-stock) components can be fantastic for the vintage bike owner but they are highly sought after and the prices often reflect this.
Just like old houses and classic cars, your vintage road bike will most likely need to be maintained more often than a modern bike and parts will need to be replaced periodically. This is something that you really need to embrace and I think it’s well worth learning how to do it yourself. Bike maintenance can actually be quite rewarding and fun. You’ll make mistakes but you will inevitably save time and money in the long-run. Again, a quick google search will pull-up dozens of how-to guides and videos for almost any task.
New components are often incompatible with older versions and figuring out what-works-with-what can be tricky at times. If you are not replacing worn parts with identical components, you will also most likely want to get something that ‘looks right’ and is in keeping with the period (or at least doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb). Fear not because help is at hand in the form of Sheldon Brown’s site. This page was set up by a renowned bike mechanic and cycling expert who sadly died in 2008 but it is still maintained and updated by a small group of enthusiasts. Don’t be put off by it’s basic look, the information is excellent, reliable and free.
Some components are more susceptible to wear than others, especially moving parts. When buying used components, try and get a clear picture from the seller of their condition and how much use they have had.
A highly useful and popular gizmo for solving gear compatibility issues is the Jtek Shiftmate as pictured below. These little lifesavers are pricey but mine has completely solved my shimano / campag shifting problems. There are several different models and you need to check the website to ensure you order the correct one.
After several weeks of research and procrastination, I found myself a late 80’s / early 90’s Olmo with a reconditioned Columbus tubed frame. I was initially running on a drivetrain comprised of various brands of components which resulted in slightly clunky operation. I have since gradually replaced a few bits so that it’s now operating on 90% campagnolo parts which are performing flawlessly. I went for mid-90’s components as I felt that they offered relatively reliable and modern performance whilst still ‘looking right’ (or thereabouts) with the rest of the bike. The overall setup bears no reflection to the original spec so it’s not one for the purists but I love it all the same.
I can honestly say that I have no regrets whatsoever in my decision to opt for a classic bike. Yes, it’s not that stiff or fast. It has funny little quirks, the riding position could be better etc…. but I still get excited every time I ride it and I’m almost positive that this wouldn’t be the case had I purchased a modern, generic, aluminium-framed alternative. I can still keep up with my friends on their bikes that cost 2-3 times as much so why would I want anything else?
It should be noted that my current interest in cycling is aligned perfectly with all of the things that a bike of this type can do well, i.e non-competitive and fair weather riding for pure enjoyment and fitness. However, I think it’s perfectly possible to use an older bike for winter use and even racing if you buy carefully and are happy to be proactive with maintenance. You just need to understand what you are taking on.
I can only speak from my own personal experience but I won’t be swapping my bike for a modern one any time soon!