When Is Newer Really Better?

When you’re in the bicycle business… not that there’s anything wrong with that!  Seriously, we have a lot of friends in the industry and I’m ever thankful for what they do to support cycling.  But, it is an industry that requires constant change to drive new business and especially repeat business.

I was foreshadowing this follow-up piece to my personal bicycle ownership history wherein I included an observation regarding the seemingly very high cost of new upper-end bicycles.  I rhetorically noted how I felt my older frames were likely still “good enough” given the biggest limiting factor when it comes to performance, reliability and endurance is the motor… not the bike.

I was pleased to see a couple of comments posted in response to that piece.  In the first, a reader shared his personal perspective on how newer, high-end racing bicycles compare to the older high-end racing bicycles:

I recently rode a Colnago Super from the late 70s handmade by Ernesto Colnago himself. I raced on this bike as a junior and Cat 2. At the time I thought it was really an ultimate road bike; but compared to any high end racing bike currently being made it now feels slow, sluggish, inefficient and not all that great in handling.

I can relate to that kind of a comparison, as the bikes in the 70’s in their original stock form with 5-cog freewheels, friction shifting, marginal brakes, conventional wheel sets and steel forks at the basic level, perhaps a step above with a lightweight set of tubular rims and tires, are very different machines from even what we enjoyed in the 1990’s.  And, given the changes in component standards, there’s really not a good, cost effective way to bring a 50-year old frame up to date, even if it was a steel frame where you could widen the rear stays via cold-set.

Another reader offered a well-constructed comment that began with question, followed by thoughts that align closely to my own perspectives on the current, state of the high-end bicycle market:

Are the current mass-manufactured high-end frames really worth their prices? In theory a competitive market should ensure that prices reflect cost plus a modest profit but this is only true for commodities. High-end bikes and components have become Veblen goods with pricing deeply distorted by marketing and perception. It doesn’t help that only a few large incumbents have the finances to run marketing and operations at a global scale.

I do not mean to impound the performance of these products. They are indeed very performing in a narrow sense. Other criteria exist, such as vulnerability to crashes, long-term durability, repairability or freedom from premature obsolescence due to proprietary components, where their performance is frankly inadequate and a step back from earlier technology.

The prices charged for these frames are also surprising given that they often have very poor manufacturing tolerances as well as voids and wrinkles in the carbon layup, leading to creakings, poor bearing life, etc. Current high-end frames from the major brands make a custom frame look like a very good investment.

Being a bit of a cycling history buff, this is a never-ending cycle of always trying to come up with the next best thing to sustain the bicycle industry.  You can clearly see this in the cycling catalogs produced in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s for marketing what was, at that time, the cutting edge of personal mobility technology supported by the best and brightest minds. These are the same people who went on to develop the internal combustion engine, motorcycles, cars and both glider and powered aircraft, e.g., Wilbur and Orville Wright started out in the bicycle business.

But, as noted above, I firmly believe the rider who powers the bicycle is still the greatest limiting factor when it comes to performance.  To that end, I can vividly recall a “kid” in volleyball shorts and a t-shirt on an old, beat-up Schwinn Varsity blowing by me dressed in my lycra racing kit aboard my very nice at the time 1984 Raleigh Prestige while riding a pretty brisk tempo as I headed back to Redlands from Huntington Beach California on the Santa Ana River Trail in the late 1980’s.  I’ve also been out on the road with professional level cyclists and the level of performance attained by even Cat 3 and Cat 2 riders is, well humbling.  As was one-time said to an aspiring young cyclist who, despite training as hard as he could to break into the next level of amateur bicycle racing when he asked a Cat 1 Pro’s trainer what he needed as was told: different parents with better genes to have passed along.   Yup: it’s not about the bike… and the clothes don’t make the cyclist.  And, to a certain extent, your physiology and genes will determine your abilities as well as your limitations.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there have been a lot of technologies introduced over the years that have made newer bicycles more user-friendly, easier to ride and service, such as integrated brake & gear shifting controls, widespread adoption of sealed cassette bearings, better braking systems, wider-range gearing and the splined-cassette hub.

However, there have also been far too many “new standards” for bottom brackets, headsets and fork steerers, hub widths and axle sizes to accommodate disc brakes, belt drives as well as 9, 10, 11 & 12 speed shifting systems that make finding parts for a bike designed for a short-lived “new standard” a bit of a challenge which begs the question: was it really a standard?

Add in proprietary shifting geometry by component manufacturers like Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano and gone is the ability to swap-out components or make upgrades without doing a cost-prohibitive grouppo change-out.  Moreover,  these more complex components designed with as-light-as-possible parts have proven to be more problematic than the simple systems they replaced and many are no longer repairable; it’s simply remove and replace. I’ve not yet been sold on the electronic shifting so I can’t comment other than to note that having used it on both road and off-road bicycles, it didn’t strike me as a solution to a problem or a innovation on the level of the integrated brake and gear shifting controls.

As for the frames, again… with all of the “new standards” for key frame features like bottom bracket and head tube designs to accommodate the latest and greatest innovation, keeping one of the old “new bikes” fresh can become an even bigger challenge than finding parts for a bike from the 1990’s… back when the standard for bottom brackets and head tube dimensions have been fixed for decades, as had most of the drop-out dimensions on the very different types of bikes, e.g., road @ 130mm, off-road at 135mm, tandems at 145mm, etc., using similar axles and hub designs.

I suspect that’s one of the reasons I lost interest in trying to keep up with the latest and greatest in the 2000’s and just started buying up “old frames” from the late 90’s.  Given all of them are relatively common with regard to bottom brackets, headsets, forks, seat posts and wheels such that I can freely swap components from bike to bike or find older, cast off parts other folks are parting with to “upgrade” one of the bikes with a new/old set of wheels or a new/old but better than what I have carbon fork or some such.  The same is true of my late 90’s mountain bikes, both of which have had at least one major component upgrade over the years.

Interestingly enough, our tandems are the newest bikes in the garage these days. However, even those are getting long in the tooth at 18 years for the Ventana, 13 years for the Calfee and about the same for the Precision triplet.

So, yeah… I’m a bit of a troglodyte when it comes to bicycles and technology these days. I look at the size of these bikes and the price tags as well as the complexity of the parts and remain thankful that I still have all the tools I need to service everything in my garage.

And, as I said earlier, I know that I’m still the weakest link when it comes to how reliable and well those bikes perform.  If it want one to go faster, I need to stop logging enjoyable ‘junk miles’ and get serious about setting some riding goals.  If I want to ride more technical terrain on the trails, I just need to have my head examined.  I mean, who wants to beat up an already brittle, well worn body where the risks are clearly not worth the reward!

Next up:  Recent single bike updates!  After giving our Calfee Tandem a make-over this past winter, I got to thinking that the Calfee single bikes probably needed a little attention and then one thing led to another.

  • The “fleet” gets a new/old second Campy Eurus wheelset
  • The Dean gets a new fork
  • The Calfee’s get the “re-nude” treatment and new decals
  • The Bianchi MegaPro-L gets built-up after 13 years in storage

About TG

I've been around a bit and done a few things, have a couple kids and a few grandkids. I tend to be curmudgeonly, matter-of-fact and not predisposed to self-serving chit-chat. Thankfully, my wife's as nice as can be otherwise we'd have no friends. My interests are somewhat eclectic, but whose aren't?
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3 Responses to When Is Newer Really Better?

  1. tandemracer says:

    The biggest real improvement in bikes in the past 20 years has been the move to higher volume tires. Fat tires with supple casings make a huge difference in the comfort and handling of a road bike while also likely improving efficiency. My older bikes would get a lot more use if they had clearance for 30mm or larger tires.

  2. TG says:

    Interesting. We’re still on 25mm for singles and 28mm for the tandem / triple running lower pressures than we have in the past. Thankfully, our roads are in very good condition, so getting a pinch flat/snake bite isn’t something we worry much about. I’ve often pondered getting a rando bike just to experience the large volume tire difference; perhaps Jan H. is starting to get to me! 🙂

  3. sixtiescycles says:

    You mentioning the constantly-shifting “standards” for things like bottom brackets (in particular) rings true to me. It’s pretty maddening as a bike mechanic all the different types out there, many requiring investing in yet more special tools. Don’t get me wrong; I love good tools, but can we please just all agree that our tool boxes don’t need to be filled up with 30 different bottom bracket wrenches?

    Mark, I think you know that I spent my engineering career at NIST in Boulder, CO. NIST=National Institute of Standards and Technology; formerly the National Bureau of Standards, or NBS. NIST is the repository for “weights and measures”–standards of all types, including exotic stuff like atomic clocks. When the name changed from NBS to NIST in the mid-1980’s, we used to say, “Same old place with the BS removed.” But, my favorite saying is something we can all relate to as cyclists:

    “The great thing about standards is that there’s so many to choose from.”

    Ride on!

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