Saturday, October 7, 2017

Suicide Components: Death By Bicycle

Spend enough time talking with vintage bike nuts, and you'll start to think that cyclists are a morbid lot. It's not that bicycling is an especially dangerous activity (car-centric folks would disagree, but it's really no more dangerous than many other physical activities - skiing anyone?). Listening to us talk about bikes and components, you'll find a lot of parts that have been dubbed "death" this and "suicide" that.

It's kind of a fun topic, and probably worth a look at the parts and how they got their reputations.

Suicide Shifters: Sometimes parts take on these morbid nicknames because they are risky to use, maybe because they have developed a reputation for breaking at inopportune moments. That is NOT true of these, however. There's really nothing suicidal about "suicide shifters," and as I understand it, it's really only in the U.S. that they have the name. Suicide shifters are derailleurs (usually front units, though not always) that are operated by a relatively large/long lever that is often located between the rider's legs, or anywhere vaguely in that general vicinity.

Simplex "suicide shifter" on an old Falcon (found on the CABE).
Retired framebuilder Dave Moulton had an interesting article about them on his blog some years ago that is worth a read.

There are a few brands and varieties of these front derailleurs - many of them French, and many of them made or used through the '50s and '60s. Some worked by twisting the handle on the lever, or by pushing it forward/back, or in/out. There's not really anything particularly dangerous about them (certainly no more dangerous than the big saw-toothed chainring within inches of one's calves and ankles), but perhaps American men are/were more paranoid about reaching between their legs to shift than their European counterparts?

"Suicide Shifter" on an old Indian.
Actually, I'd say it's likely that the origin of the name comes from vintage motorcycles. It was not uncommon for old Harley-Davidson, Indian, and other similar American bikes to have a big shift lever next to the gas tank, with the shift knob located somewhere between the rider's knees -- though again, there was nothing inherently dangerous about that, either. I assume there were probably a few jokes about potentially being impaled, or maybe castrated by the shifter in the event of a crash, and riders dubbed them "suicide shifters" as a result (though I suppose they could just as easily have called them "castration levers"?) and bicyclists probably saw the similarity and took the name.

People of my generation probably have fond memories of this old beauty:

1968 Schwinn Orange Krate
As a kid in the early '70s, I and all my friends lusted after the Schwinn "Krate" bikes with their big Stik Shift on the top tube. That was where I first heard the expression "suicide shifter" because everyone talked or joked about the possibility of losing our future manhood on the stick. The industry safety forces must have taken it seriously, because they eventually got rid of the big shifters. When Schwinn re-issued the Krate bikes in the 1990s, one detail they conspicuously omitted was the Stik Shift. No doubt the CPSC would never approve of that component today.

Cinelli "death pedals" (photo from Velobase)
Death Pedals: Usually refers to Cinelli M-71 clipless pedals. Again, the nickname of this item is pretty misleading, as I highly doubt anybody ever died using these. Introduced in either 1970 or '71 (the model name "M-71" would seem to indicate the latter), these were one of the first clipless pedals on the market. Unlike the LOOK pedals of the mid '80s (and later Time, Shimano SPD, and many others) with their hands-free engagement and release, the Cinelli pedals had a sliding lever that had to be activated to get out of the pedals.

To get into them, the rider would line up the cleat and slide it between the channels on the sides of the pedal, then move the lever which would pop up a pin that would lock the cleat securely in place. I'm sure the perception was that once locked in, there wasn't any easy getting out of the pedals in an emergency. I guess one could say they "hung on like death"? Understand, however, that at this same time, many riders were strapping in with leather straps cinched tight over slotted cleats, and it wasn't so easy to get out of those in a hurry, either. Both systems still required that the rider reach down and either loosen the strap or slide the lever to get out.

It's also worth noting that (as far as I know) the Cinelli pedals were really intended for track use, not road, which is a very different kind of riding environment. I mean, it's not as if one should need to disengage from these pedals in a hurry to avoid being nailed by a taxi.

Lambert Death Fork: Here's an item that did actually get its nickname because of a bad reputation for breaking (though again, I'm not sure anyone ever actually died as a direct result). The Lambert bicycles from England in the early '70s were an interesting attempt to offer high-performance bikes at a reasonable price. Besides having a lot of unique brand-specific components, the bikes were notable for having a high-tech weight-saving aluminum fork.

The Lambert "death fork" (photo from ClassicRendezvous)
The problem was that the fork was poorly engineered. It had a one-piece aluminum crown and legs attached to a steel steerer, held together by a couple of hollow pins and some well-meaning prayers. After some reports of breaking, the company slightly redesigned the attachment point (with one pin instead of two?), which wasn't enough to solve the issue. Financial problems at the corporate level didn't help any, and with new backers the company became Viscount, which also ran into financial difficulties and was purchased by Yamaha (maker of musical instruments and motorcycles), which conducted a full recall of the forks. I understand they were replaced by a better-engineered aluminum fork that featured a threaded and bonded joint between the crown and the steerer.

I've read that the number of broken forks was only about 1% of about 30,000 bikes equipped with them, which doesn't sound so bad -- though if I had one, I'd still be extra cautious. I mean, Lambert/Viscount is long gone, and I assume Yamaha long ago washed their hands of the whole thing, so if you get hurt, who are you going to sue?

Death Stems: There are a few old stems that fit this description, but the most well-known are the AVA stems like the one shown here.

The AVA "death stem" (photo from VeloBase)
These stems, often found on bikes in the '60s and early '70s, had the look of being "lugged and brazed" construction, but were made from cast aluminum. A place where they often broke was on the lower part of the quill, just above the cone-type expansion wedge. If you look at the top of the expansion slot, you'll see that it is just a sharp-edged cut, with no stress relief there to prevent cracking. Not only that, but there were two such slots, one on each side of the stem - so a crack could just work its way right around the whole thing, and the stem could suddenly snap right off. I've also heard of these cracking at the bar clamp area. On the whole, these were made very light, but didn't have enough metal in key stress areas to be durable. As mentioned, I believe that these were cast aluminum, as opposed to forged - but forging would have proven to be stronger as well.

It's important to note that not all models of AVA stems were prone to failure, and that they weren't the only ones. There were some similar-looking stems made by Atax and Pivo that could also break in much the same way. By the way, I don't want to get bunches of emails asking "is my stem safe to use?" There's no way I can tell everything about every brand and model to say which ones are OK and which ones aren't. Remember, we're talking about components that are 50 years old.

I will say that some of these lugged-style aluminum stems are a little more robust than others, and if they have a regular wedge as opposed to the cone-type, they might be a little more reliable. Also, if there is only one expansion slot instead of two, that is a good sign. If I had one of the type with a single expansion slot and really wanted to use it, I'd probably drill a little hole right at the top of the slot and file it so there was a nice, smooth, stress-relieving transition. But again, there can still be risks. These old stems are really cool looking, but on my vintage bikes (which I actually ride), I don't hesitate to install a more modern, reliable, cold-forged stem.

Style only takes a person so far, and I'd really like to keep all my teeth.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

An Unexpected Moment of Humanity

I've written plenty on this blog about dealing with traffic -- on being a cyclist in a car-eats-bike world. Whether it's angry drivers who insist on blasting their horn as they pass, or impatient drivers who think nothing of putting cyclists at risk to save a few seconds, or simply arguing with idiots who've convinced themselves that it's cyclists who are the problem, "sharing the road" has been the subject of a lot of posts.

Anybody who rides on the roads as much as I do (and probably most Retrogrouch readers) can probably tell "war stories" all day long. Ken Burns should do a documentary. Whether it's due to driver inattention/distraction, ignorance, "cluelessness," impatience, or even sadistic malice, I've had plenty of close calls with drivers (and been hit once).

I never had one of these close calls when I've been the driver of a car, but if I did ever somehow put a cyclist at serious risk, I'd like to think that I'd feel pretty bad about it. I mean, wouldn't that be a natural reaction? When faced with the fact that we may have come very close to injuring someone with our car, particularly if it was through our own negligence or fault, wouldn't one expect any humane person to feel at the very least embarrassed, if not horrified? In my experience as a cyclist, that is not the reaction I usually see from drivers.

Instead, my experience usually goes something like this: A driver makes some bone-headed move that puts me in danger. For example, a driver fails to stop for a stop sign -- they approach the road I'm on from a side street or a parking lot, they take a cursory look down the road for cars but look right past me, the cyclist (despite my lights and fluorescent clothing, etc.), and they blow right through the stop sign without stopping. As the cyclist who is a split second from being turned into a hood ornament, I'll scream out "STOP" or "HEY! WATCH IT!" or something similar, and yes they'll slam on the brakes. Now, it's obvious that this was the driver's fault. I was the through-traffic, and they were blowing off a stop sign to save themselves a couple of seconds, which could easily have resulted in death or serious injury to me as the cyclist. So, do they continue on their way in silent shame? Offer a meek apology? Or even just an insincere "Sorry - My Bad"?

Hell no.

Usually, just the fact that I reacted to them by yelling out (even if it's just yelling to save my skin), a lot of the drivers I encounter go into full-out road rage mode. Some will lay on the horn and give me "the finger." Others will scream out some profanities. The real psychos will threaten to "finish the job" next time they see me. Remember the bastard I wrote about in my last post about traffic roundabouts? "YOU GODD*MNED A**HOLE. I SHOULD'VE F**ING KILLED YOU!" is something I've heard more often than anyone should.

All this makes what happened to me yesterday so much more unexpected.

I was riding home from work along a 2-lane backroad, keeping up a pretty good pace of around 20 mph. Coming up on my left was a side street where I saw a car wanting to make a left turn. Just as I got to the intersection, the guy pulled out and was heading right for me. It was pretty obvious he didn't see me, and he was essentially planning on moving right into the physical space I was occupying. Of course I was slowing and getting over to the right as far as I could go while at the same time I was screaming at the driver "HEY! WATCH WHERE YOU'RE GOING!!"

I was still intact, but mad as hell and I yelled some things at the back of his car as he drove off. Before I knew it, I saw the guy pulling over, and I immediately thought, "Oh great - here we go again." I was fully expecting the driver to start screaming threats and insults or something. Maybe he was going to try to start a fistfight (yes, that has happened).

What happened next shocked the hell out of me.

When I got up to where the driver had stopped, and he was getting out of his car, I could see that he was looking pretty sheepish as he stepped in my direction.

"Hey man - I'm really sorry about that back there. You OK?"

. . . (shock and disbelief) . . .

"Yeah - I'm fine. I'll get over it. Thanks."

Normally after I have one of these near misses, and the drivers act like complete @$$holes, I end up fuming all the rest of my ride. Not this time, though. It's amazing how somebody simply acknowledging that they screwed up and saying "Sorry" (and actually meaning it) can make such a difference. Too bad it's such a rare thing.

Anyhow - as if to prove that the balance of the car-bike universe hasn't shifted in some truly positive way, just this morning I had an oncoming car make a left turn directly in front of me. His car literally passed about three feet off my front wheel. In shock and surprise, I yelled out "HEY!" (just "HEY" - nothing more). The driver, whose window was open, yelled back "WATCH WHERE YOU'RE GOING @$$HOLE!"

All is right with the world.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

New Traffic Circle - Lovin' It

About a year-and-a-half ago, I had an article about navigating roundabouts. My observation was (and is) that on the whole, the benefits of roundabouts seem to be more geared for drivers (typical of most road projects, cyclists are kind of an afterthought, or even an "after-afterthought"), and they can sometimes cause some consternation for cyclists, but with a bit of knowledge they can often be a pretty good thing. My general advice for cyclists in the roundabouts can be summarized briefly: Be Assertive. Take the Lane. Signal Your Intent.

We just got a new roundabout in my area that I have to say as a cyclist is truly a welcome improvement. In the last mile of my morning commute, and the first mile of my afternoon commute, I end up riding on a fairly busy 2-lane state highway (the school where I teach is located on this route, and there's really no alternative). In the morning, I usually hit that last mile early enough that I can just beat the swell of traffic that comes soon after. But in the afternoon, the road is often busier and can be a challenge.

Heading home at the end of the day, I would ride this fairly busy state road for about a mile (as already mentioned), then I'd need to make a left turn onto a less-busy rural route. Cars and trucks on the main road are often traveling near 50 mph, and making a left turn there could be really stressful sometimes. I'd look back to check traffic approaching from behind, make my signal, and move out into the lane - at the same time I'd be watching forward for oncoming traffic. If there were cars coming towards me, I'd have to slow or even stop -- which then would have me really worried about cars coming from behind. Would they slow or stop for me? Would they even see me?

On more than one occasion, when the road ahead was clear, I'd look back, make my signal and move into the lane - then just before initiating the actual turn I would take one more look back only to find the car behind me crossing the centerline of the road, trying to PASS ME ON THE LEFT! It happened several times, and each time I could see that the driver was a teenager, and I strongly suspect that they have no clue what a standard "left turn" hand signal means. Do they even teach hand signals in drivers' education classes anymore? They clearly saw me but were clueless as to why I'd have my left arm out, and why I'd be in the left half of the lane. I learned quickly to never start my turn without one last look back.

Before the roundabout - it could be a hair-raiser.
The final straw for me was the day I got to the intersection and went through the usual preparations for the left turn. The oncoming lane was clear, and I had no traffic behind, so it should have been no problem. The only driver to contend with was the guy to my left on the rural route that I was preparing to turn onto. He was stopped at the stop sign and waiting to turn left onto the main road. I put my arm out to signal my turn, moved into the left side of the lane, and just as I was initiating the turn, the driver hit the gas and pulled out right in front of me, crossing my path, cutting me off, and it was only through my grabbing the brakes and making a mid-turn swerve that I didn't end up hitting (or being hit by) him. And just to make it obvious that it was no mistake -- no case of "I didn't see him" or "the biker came out of nowhere" -- this guy was giving me "the finger" as he was cutting me off. The whole thing was blatant and deliberate.

"MOTHERF***ER!" I yelled, mid-swerve.

The bastard heard me. He suddenly skidded to a stop (in the intersection!) and jumped out of his car. Standing there in the road, he was screaming at me a stream of profanity that went something like "WHO THE F**K ARE YOU CALLING A MOTHERF***ER, YOU GODD***ED A**HOLE. I SHOULD'VE F**ING KILLED YOU!"

I was fuming angry, but wholly intact and hoping to keep it that way, so I didn't engage him or his rant. I didn't respond except to continue on my way, somewhat shaken.

After that incident, I decided I had to find a different way to get home. As I mentioned, I really have no choice but to take this busy state route at least for a certain distance - but I had to find a way to avoid making that left turn. My alternative was to leave work going the opposite direction and head to a different rural route where I could make a right turn instead of left, then follow some of those backroads around to my intended route home. It added to the distance of my afternoon commute, but it was slightly less fraught with peril. I say "slightly less fraught" because I now had to make a left turn out of the parking lot at work onto the same busy road, but that generally wasn't quite as nerve-wracking. That's where things have been for the past couple of years.

I've never been more pleased with a road project.
Throughout the past summer, that intersection was closed and traffic re-routed while crews constructed the new traffic roundabout. The new intersection opened about a month ago - and what a difference it makes.

I now feel much more confident and much less vulnerable since the regular left turn has been eliminated. On the approach to the circle, there are long "splitter islands" to separate the traffic entering and exiting the roundabout, but also the road has been widened quite a bit from its previous dimensions. As it was before, the lanes were fairly narrow (for a major state route, anyhow) with no paved shoulder whatsoever. Now there is a reasonably wide paved shoulder on the stretch that leads up to the splitter islands. When riding, as I start getting closer to the roundabout, I can look back and check for traffic coming up behind. If need be, or just as a courtesy, I can move to the shoulder to give drivers one last chance to pass safely before we get to the divider islands (Hey - I'm a firm believer in "taking the lane" - but when traffic is closing in behind you going 45 mph, sometimes it's easier just to move over and let them pass) -- but once I get into that divided stretch (which I call "the chute"), it's really a no-passing zone, and I treat it as such. I'll take one more look back as I get into that final stretch, make sure I have an opening, then move in to take the lane around the circle.

There are still dangers from cars when circling any roundabout - mainly one has to watch cars entering the circle and make sure they will yield as they're supposed to (I suggest being alert to "escape routes" and ready for "evasive maneuvers" if need be). But the main thing is that it forces traffic to slow in the intersection - and the speed difference between cyclists and cars is reduced significantly. On this particular roundabout, that alone makes a huge difference.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Token Attractive Woman

Well, once again it seems that the reputation of the cycling world has taken another hit. On one hand, it seems like there's a concerted effort to get more women interested in riding - which, let's face it, would be a good thing for the industry (more people buying bikes) and the sport (more fans, more sponsors). But for every voice out there saying "let's get more women into cycling," there's some dumbass who makes some stupid move like this:

Yep - Cycling Weekly magazine last week published an article about the Hinckley Cycle Racing Club in Leicestershire as part of their "We Ride With . . ." feature. And there among the photos from the ride, they included this picture with the caption "Token attractive woman."
"Seriously?"
CW blamed the mistake on a "subeditor" who added the caption, which was not caught by other staffers before the magazine went to print. Was it "not caught," or was it simply overlooked by others who failed to recognize what lousy judgement it was?

Yes, the staff at Cycling Weekly issued an apology . . .

At least they called it "idiotic."
. . . which may be heartfelt and sincere and all, but wouldn't it just be great if the industry, and the sport, and the culture in general could get through a season without having to apologize to women everywhere because of this kind of idiocy?

About two years ago, it was this stupid tweet from the folks at Colnago:

"Ready for the weekend ride?" the tweet asks.
Actually, no, she's not -- bike's too big, and she's not even wearing shoes. 
And there is always the divisive issue with the "podium girls" (euphemistically called "hostesses") -- Like this recent story about AG2R rider Jan Bakelants:


In a pre-Tour de France interview, Bakelants joked about the difficulty in going three weeks without sex during the Tour, and when asked what he would pack in his luggage, replied "Definitely a packet of condoms. You never know where those podium hostesses are hanging out." Jerk.

Sheesh.

Of course, we can't forget this gem from 2015:

Which seemed to be right on the heels of this one:


Getting back to the latest gaffe, the cyclist in the CW photo, a woman identified as Hannah Noel, posted on Facebook: "I made it into Cycling Weekly, it seems not for my ability as a female cyclist but as a 'token attractive woman' -- I'm absolutely gutted and disappointed in the magazine."

I read in some other commentary on the incident (I don't recall where) that Noel is a very tough and dedicated cyclist. I'm sure that the stupid comment from CW won't deter her, or at least I hope it doesn't - but sexist stupidity like that, and the other examples here, certainly don't encourage women to get involved with cycling - and probably does a lot to keep them away.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Revisiting Halo Bikes

It's been a while since I've looked into the ridiculous upper stratosphere of bikes for the ultra rich -- the top 1% of the über elites who both move and shake simultaneously.

Who can forget such lofty wünderbikes as the Lamborghini Aventador BMC Impec: a bike whose name alone works out to about $8000 per word.

That's about $32,000 folks.
Or the Aston Martin One-77 (made by Factor bicycles). I think they charge a person just to ask the price, but I hear it starts around $39,000.

That's a year's salary for a lot of Americans.
Both of those were "collabos" between bicycle companies and automotive marques. And the same is true of this outrageously priced machine:

The Bugatti by PG Bikes is said to list for $39,000. They call it "The Unrivaled Urban Bike."
The PG Bugatti is claimed to be 95% carbon fiber, and features an unusual asymmetrical seat-stay chain-stay design. That is, it has one seat-stay (on the left) and one chain-stay (on the right). It also utilizes belt drive, and has a single front brake that is somehow hidden or "faired-in" behind the front fork, and activated by an impossibly delicate-looking brake lever.

The company makes a point of trying to connect this outrageously impractical "urban bike" with the equally outrageous Bugatti Chiron hypermobile.
For reasons I can't quite figure out, the website for the bike lists fuel economy and CO2 emissions figures for the car, but nothing comparable for the bicycle:

My math is terrible - and my understanding of European "efficiency class" standards is minimal. But I think that the fuel consumption on the Chiron works out to something like 10 miles per gallon in "combined" driving (or around 6 mpg city). And efficiency class G is about the worst rating given. Basically, the car is like a big, conspicuous raised middle finger to the world. I guess if someone spends $2.7 million to buy the car, they might feel compelled to spend another $39,000 on a bicycle that lets them kid themselves that they're "doing something for the environment." More likely, though, it would just be another obnoxious trophy to crass consumerism.
As if I needed to add anything else to make my point that the $39,000 Unrivaled Urban Bike is a complete crock, I spotted this little detail on the website:

"The special bike is a piece of sports equipment which is not intended to be used on public roads."
What else do you need to know?
I'm thinking "UnRIDEable Urban Bike" might be a more appropriate name.

Not a car-company collaboration - but perhaps no less ridiculous because of that, there is the Ventum One Signature Edition.
$32,500
The Ventum One is a triathlon-specific design, which includes a specially designed integral water bottle, and a swoopy seat-stay-less frame not terribly unlike such aero-design time trial and/or pursuit bikes as the '96 U.S. Olympic "Superbike" or mid-'90s Pinarello Espada. The signature edition is said to be custom fitted for the buyer, and includes unique custom paint and a matching helmet "that reflects your personal style."

The regular Ventum One (the non-signature one) starts at $6875 -- I could be wrong but the website leads me to believe that it has the same basic frame, minus the custom paint scheme (and matching helmet), less expensive wheels, and Shimano Ultegra components. So what makes the Signature Edition worth another $25 grand?

It's the buying "experience."
The buying "experience" includes a professional photo shoot.

From their website: "Fly first-class from your home to Scottsdale, Arizona where you will join us at the Faster Wind tunnel — the same facility where we developed the Ventum One. You’ll spend two days and nights in Scottsdale at a five-star resort, including a full day with engineers and fit specialists from Ventum and Faster. We will optimize every aspect of your new bike and riding position in the wind tunnel. You will then get out on the road to make sure you’re completely dialed in. Your Ventum Signature Experience concludes with a professional photo shoot on your new bike with the stunning Arizona scenery as the backdrop."

Bikes like the Bugatti, the Ventum, and the others almost (I repeat, almost) make these other machines seem like bargains. Don't kid yourself. They're not.
Cervélo's RCA is $10,000 just for the frame.
The folks at Cervélo must love the fact that bikes like the Ventum exist if for no other reason than that they can make a claim like "all the performance at half the price" or some such thing.

The Cervélo P5X eTAP triathlon bike is a cool $15,000. Less than half the price of the Ventum One Signature - but don't get smug about it.
Still outrageous, but compared to the other car-company collaborations, the Specialized McLaren Roubaix comes in at an almost reasonable $11,500. Their previous collabo, the McLaren S-Works Tarmac, was about $20,000.

Dammit! See what I just did there? They've even got me doing it now. It's like a contagious disease!
Specialized McLaren S-Works Roubaix Dura Ace Di2 - at "only" $11,500
When things get to the point where $11 grand starts sounding reasonable, I need to get back to huffing tins of Brooks Proofide like an asthma inhaler, and get out for a ride on a classic steel bike.

Steel frame, friction shifting, 2x5 "10 speed" drivetrain. Kinda' helps get the priorities straight.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Rims Vs. Discs

Since I started this blog, I've written about the disc brake vs. rim brake arguments a bunch of times, but it's been awhile, and think of how much has changed on the subject just in the last couple of years. In 2013, disc brakes were rapidly taking over on mountain bikes, but on road bikes, discs were still in their infancy. Today, it's beginning to look more and more like the days for rim brakes are numbered, including for road bikes. Even Campagnolo recently launched their own disc brake system. The professional teams are still debating whether or not to make the switch, but they're still doing "trials," enduring some protests, and going through a few growing pains. But on road bikes for the non-professionals, we're starting to see discs gain the upper hand, and I figure it's only a matter of time before discs supplant rim brakes on road and racing bikes entirely. I'm still not convinced that's a good thing, but I believe it's inevitable.

I saw a post on the Velo-Orange Blog a couple of months ago about The Great Brake Debate. I'm a fan of V-O as being a good source for practical and proven components and gear for non-racers - and I'll bet a lot of Retrogouch readers are probably in the same camp. Well, V-O now offers a couple of their very practical frames with accommodations for disc brakes. The "Debate" post was a brief look at some advantages of the two systems and didn't really pick sides - but there are a few dozen comments on the post where people weigh in on the systems. Opinions seemed pretty divided.

Okay - now here's a shocker. I've recently been trying out a decidedly non-retrogrouchy bike equipped with disc brakes -- kind of a long-term trial (long story - don't ask for details, 'cause it really doesn't matter). I'm trying to decide if it's going to become a permanent part of the fleet. I had rented bikes with disc brakes a couple of times in the past and been underwhelmed, but now I've had a chance to get some more meaningful experience with them. For the record, I currently have bikes in my stable with vintage (70s - 80s era) single-pivot sidepulls, modern dual-pivot sidepulls, vintage centerpulls, traditional wide-profile cantilevers, low-profile cantilevers, U-brakes (basically a type of brazed-on centerpull -- as mounted on my tandem) and V-brakes (aka direct-pull cantilevers). That means I get to use and compare pretty much every type of brake that's been used on bikes over the past 50 years or more right out of my own garage. I should note that any vintage brakes I use have been updated with modern brake pads, which is something I highly recommend.

I still don't have a final verdict on discs - but so far I haven't found anything to really change my mind. Here are some observations:

Wide profile cantis.
Wet weather: Without a doubt, the main advantage of discs comes with wet road conditions. That's not really a surprise. With rim brakes in the rain, there can sometimes be a brief sense of panic when you pull the brake lever and there's a moment where it seems like nothing is happening. I'm sure we've all been there. It lasts roughly the distance it takes for the wheels to make a full revolution - or about the circumference of the wheel, but it can feel like forever. The brake pads essentially have to "squeegee" the rim before they can really get a grip. The phenomenon is much improved with good aluminum rims compared to old chrome-plated steel rims of the past - but it can still be a little scary sometimes. Discs obviously aren't affected by rain as much since the disc brake surface isn't sloshing through the puddles, and the pads can clear water off the disc much more quickly than with rim brakes. Score one for discs.

Dry weather: I honestly don't really sense a big difference in braking when it's dry. It's really hard for a lone person to measure things like stopping distances precisely and do side-by-side comparisons, but it really feels to me like any difference in stopping distance is small enough to make no appreciable difference at all. If you never ride in the rain (or at least, never intentionally) then it still seems to me that disc brakes don't really have an advantage here.

Stopping power: That's something that gets thrown around A LOT by disc brake cheerleaders -- that disc brakes have "so much more" stopping power. "Superior stopping power." "Incredible power." "It's an indisputable fact," they say. People make the claim and repeat the claim so much that it seems to be accepted without any proof (or perhaps even despite proof). It's a "begging the question" fallacy. The fact is, today's rim brakes - whether we're talking about side-pulls, center-pulls, cantilevers, or V-brakes - all have the power to lock up a wheel easily. The braking is probably affected more by the type of rim and the brake pad than by the particular brake design. That is, chrome-steel rims are pretty lousy brake surfaces (but then again, they're also really rare nowadays) and every report I've seen on carbon fiber rims says that they're not a whole lot better. But with aluminum rims and decent brake pads, even inexpensive brakes can lock up a wheel. It's a basic fact that once a brake locks up, it has met and exceeded the maximum braking power possible. You can't exceed "locked up."

So what the hell are all these disc cheerleaders talking about? I think what a lot of people describe as "superior braking power" is a misinterpretation of the sensation between the input or force they apply to the brake lever, and the perceived stopping action they get from the brakes. Disc brakes seem to be able to apply a lot of stopping power with little effort or force on the brake lever. It's not really that there's more stopping power (there can't be), but rather, that one can get that power with less effort. I suppose this would be a good advantage for someone who has smaller hands, or whose hands aren't as strong.

These old Campy brakes will lock up
the wheel, but it takes some effort to do it.
The thing is, however, that this isn't just a "rim vs. discs" phenomenon. One can experience the same kind of difference between different types of rim brakes. For example, the old single-pivot sidepulls I have on some of my vintage bikes can still stop the bike perfectly well and in a hurry if necessary. But most of them tend to require more force on the levers than the modern dual-pivots. The modern dual-pivot sidepull brakes can stop the bike with a lot less effort - even with hands on the tops of the levers. V-brakes have so much mechanical advantage that most of them require special brake levers (they have to match the amount of cable pull, or else the lever can bottom out against the bar before the brake pads hit the rim!). If I had to rank the brakes in my stable from "hardest" to "easiest" in terms of effort, I'd say that the old Campagnolo side pulls take the most effort, while the V-brakes and the disc brakes are the easiest. I've seen where Rivendell's Grant Petersen even puts V-brakes ahead of discs in that regard, but to me (at least with the examples I've tried) it's kind of a toss-up. The modern dual-pivot side pulls are close behind those, and the various cantilevers are somewhere in the middle.

Another thing I notice is that centerpulls and cantis can offer good power and modulation - but there are some factors in setup that can affect it. Centerpulls, especially long-reach ones that mount with a center bolt above the wheel, can flex quite a bit. U-brakes, or brazed-on centerpulls, will flex less, wasting less energy. But with both of those, as well as with cantilevers, flex can still crop up either through the extra cable used (the yoke and straddle cables, for instance) or even at the cable stop (some cable stops are pretty wimpy, whereas a thick forged one can firm up braking a lot). That flex can make the brakes feel a little bit spongy under hard braking -- but again, they still offer all the stopping power necessary.

Adjustability and Maintenance: This is one area that doesn't get talked about as much - but from a retro-grouchy perspective, I think it's huge. Disc brakes are much more "finicky" about adjustment and maintenance than most rim brakes. In getting rim brakes set up, one needs to get the pads installed so that they line up on the rim properly - which is quite easy to do, and once set, shouldn't really change much through the life of the pads. Second, one needs to set the brake arms so that the pads are the proper distance from the rim. Too close and they'll rub, too far apart and they might not be able to reach the rim before the brake lever runs out of travel. In-between those two extremes of "too close" and "too far" is a "just right" sweet spot, and yet there is a pretty wide tolerable range that will still work fine. As the pads wear down, the distance to the rim increases, and it is necessary to re-adjust them which takes only seconds and usually requires no tools. Just turn the little barrel adjuster a bit every couple of months. But even if a person is terribly lax in that little bit of maintenance, it can still take quite a while before it gets to be a serious problem. In that way, rim brakes can be very forgiving of indifferent maintenance.

Disc brakes are harder to adjust, and less tolerant of neglect. Disc brake pads are by design set much closer to the brake disc, and there's a very small margin for variance. It's not unusual for the brake pads to drag slightly on the disc, even when the brakes are released. I've encountered plenty of people who say that the little bit of drag is just something you get used to with disc brakes. Try to adjust them so they don't drag, and they can be too far apart for secure stopping - and if a person can find the "sweet spot" it doesn't last long because the pads (which are typically a lot thinner than rim brake pads) wear down quickly and need to be re-adjusted or replaced more often. If neglected, it doesn't take long before the brakes can become totally ineffective. This is one point where hydraulic brakes may be better than mechanical ones (the hydraulic system is supposed to self-adjust as the pads wear) - but the pads still wear more quickly than rim brakes and they don't tolerate neglect.

It ain't all that pretty, but it's still very functional -
and easy to keep it that way
For people who keep on top of maintenance, these may not seem like problems - but consider how many people these days are either inept or simply indifferent about maintenance. I don't just mean people who ride rusted second-hand clunkers because they can't afford anything else. There are a lot of people out there riding $10,000 bikes who can't even change a flat tire! Now just try to imagine today's state-of-the-art bike as tomorrow's second-hand clunker. That old rusty mountain bike locked to the parking meter might not be pretty, but its cantilever brakes will work a long time without maintenance. Will the same be true of disc brake equipped bikes in 10 or 20 years? Will the correct parts even still be available?

And that gets me to the next thing. Rim brakes are well established, mature technology. Compatibility for parts is wide ranging. If a bike is equipped for cantilever brakes, then pretty much any brand of cantis and V-brakes will work as well as any other. If a bike is built for caliper brakes, pretty much any brand of sidepull or centerpull will work. Brakes from different brands are overall pretty similar to one another in design and function. In other words, most sidepull brakes all work pretty similarly regardless of brand. Most brands' V-brakes are functionally similar to the other brands. There aren't a lot of proprietary designs and unique standards. There are only a couple of different "standards" for brake pads, so as long as someone knows if they need "threaded" or "smooth" posts, compatibility shouldn't be much of an issue.
There are 25 unique styles of pads in this one picture alone.
Good luck figuring out which one you need. And don't get mad
if the local shop only stocks a few of them.

Like so much of the latest technology for bikes, disc brakes make the idea of "standards" something of a joke. There are several different mounting styles, and numerous adaptors that may or may not make one compatible with the other. There is a plethora of different styles, sizes, and shapes of pads - some being proprietary to a particular brand or even to a particular model of brake. It's not even enough to say "I need pads for Shimano disc brakes" because different models in the Shimano lineup might use completely different pads. Same goes for most of the other brands, too. How many unique types of disc brake pads is a local bike shop likely to keep in stock?

Wrapping this up, it goes without saying that disc brakes are obviously taking over. The time will come when only the cheapest bikes -- maybe some childrens' bikes perhaps - will come with traditional rim brakes. Keep in mind that disc brakes are even being featured on bikes at Walmart selling for barely more than $100. Whatever kind of disc brakes are on bikes like that cannot possibly be an improvement, or worth the hassles they will likely lead to over time.

I have no doubt that the technology will continue to improve. Maybe they will get to where there's some semblance of common standards. For example, maybe they'll get the number of different pad designs down to an even ten. Of course, such changes would automatically make a huge percentage of the disc brakes and some of the complete bikes on the road today obsolete, but until these things happen and the technology matures, I'm still hesitant to give them a big endorsement.

I'm still trying the bike with discs. They may be a benefit this winter when the roads turn wet and slushy. But apart from that, I'm just not that convinced.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

My Own Little KOM

I saw a post recently on BikeSnobNYC about how he recently set up a Strava account (actually, it was a guest post on Outside Online). I'm sure most readers know what Strava is, but just in case someone out there doesn't, let me briefly explain that it is a social-media type of service where riders and runners can track their performance using their smart phone and/or GPS. It also lets users compare their performance with other Strava users.

It might come as a shock, but I actually set up a Strava account over a year ago. Not exactly a Retro-grouchy thing to do, but let me explain a little about it.

For a long while I had doggedly resisted getting a smart phone for various reasons, and was more than content to keep using my old flip phone as long as possible. My old phone made calls, and took calls, and that was all I needed or wanted it for. I suppose it also could take really low-quality photos, but I had no idea how to get them off the phone, so I never bothered with it. Well, it finally got to where technology and phone services had moved on so much my old phone was no longer supported and couldn't even be updated to work properly anymore. So I grudgingly got a new phone, and joined the current era by getting a smart phone. I did download some apps for it, and I do like the fact that I can take decent pictures with it in the event that I don't happen to have my better camera with me, but mostly I still just use it as a phone.

Not long after I got the phone, I downloaded the Strava app. Not because I was interested in tracking performance, or comparing my results to anyone else, but because I thought it might be a good way to verify the distance of some of my rides. I always knew roughly how long my commute to/from work was, but not exactly. So I set up Strava and tracked my commute (both ways, since I take different routes in the morning and afternoon). It turned out that my daily commuting mileage was about a half-mile longer overall than I'd realized, so that was useful info. But while checking on my mileage, I also spotted something that surprised me. There are a number of hills on my commuting ride, and many of them are ranked segments on Strava where you can compare your speed to anyone else using the service. The top ranked rider on the segment is the KOM or "King of the Mountain." Okay, that much I already knew about - but what surprised me was that on one of these hills I was ranked 2nd, only a couple of seconds slower than the KOM. The hill in question is a short but steep one that I have to climb on my way home every day. It hadn't even occurred to me that it might be a ranked Strava segment.

Being so close to the KOM on this little hill (without even really trying) got me thinking I should pick up my pace a little next time and try to take the top spot. The next day I did it. When I approached the foot of the hill, I shifted up instead of down, got up out of the saddle, and sprinted to the top. Checking the results when I got home, I was the new KOM! I mentioned the accomplishment to a couple of my cycling coworkers, more out of surprise than anything else.

Another day or two later I got a message from Strava. Someone had beaten my time by several seconds. Not only that, but a second rider had exactly matched my best time (and I mean matched the time and speed exactly! unbelievable!). As it turned out, the person who had matched my time was one of my female coworkers, who took the title Queen of the Mountain as a result. She was one of the people whom I had told about my little accomplishment, and I guess she took it as a challenge. The man who'd beaten me was her boyfriend, a guy who is pretty competitive with one of the local racing clubs. Both of them ride the latest in carbon fiber wünderbikes.

Suddenly I had gotten a taste of that Strava-induced competitive urge I'd heard about and possibly even mocked. I decided I'd have to get my KOM back. The next day, I took my most modern "raciest" bike ("raciest" being a relative term in my case - it's still a lugged steel frame, but has modern shifting, clipless pedals, and has no racks, fenders, or bags). I got to "my" hill and hammered my way up. Checking later, I found that it wasn't enough. In fact, I hadn't even beaten my previous best. Sheesh.

The next day I decided I was going to let it go and try not to care. I wasn't even going to turn on Strava to track the ride home, because what was the point (remember that I'd only done it in the first place to check the distance). So what if some guy I don't even know was a little faster than me going up the hill. There are plenty of other hills along my route where I'm not even close to being the fastest, so why should this one be any different? The fact that I had been the fastest, even just briefly, was what made it different I suppose.

On the way home from work that day, I was feeling pretty good. As a last minute decision, I turned on Strava again. One more try wouldn't hurt, right? On the approach to my hill, a bit before the actual climbing began, I wound up some good speed in a high gear and tried like hell to keep it going all the way to the top. When I crested the hill, I knew I'd had a great run. Checking it later on the site, I saw I had done it. I was the KOM again.

What bike had I been riding? This one:

The Rivendell weighs just shy of 28 pounds as shown.
Pretty much the opposite of a racer, but I got my one and only KOM on Strava with it. That's my favorite part of this story.

More than a year later, the accomplishment still stands (shockingly). I still have the Strava account, but I haven't actually used or logged into it since. I don't know what I'll do if/when I get that inevitable message that someone has beaten me. I'd like to think that I'll ignore it for the same reasons that I threw out my old ride computer. That stuff just isn't all that important to me. But I do have a sense of the way it can become almost an obsession with some people.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Latest in Doping - P. EWW

The latest thing in doping for racing cyclists is not a drug that boosts red blood cells, or increases oxygen levels. It's not a drug that builds muscle mass or speeds up muscle recovery. It's not even a tiny motor hidden somewhere in the bike. Nope - it is not any of those things. In fact, when I first heard about it, I was certain it was a joke. But it's real. The latest thing in doping for athletes may be something called a "fecal transplant" which is exactly what you think it is, but in case it isn't clear, I'll break it down more simply. Basically it's a "poop transplant," but it will absolutely come to be known as "poop doping."

What is driving people to borrow someone else's feces (hmmm. . . "borrow" probably isn't the right word, since they aren't likely to give it back when they're done) and place it inside their own colon? According to a recent article in Bicycling magazine, elite athletes - for reasons that aren't exactly made clear - are more likely than non-athletes to have a microorganism called Prevotella in their intestines, along with another microorganism called Methanobrevibacter Smithii, or M. Smithii. Lauren Petersen, a scientist at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Connecticut, has been studying the effects of these gut bacteria and believes that they are connected to better/faster recovery after exertion, and better use of calories from the digestion of foods. Both are good benefits for competitive athletes.
You know, as I understand it, this is actually supposed to
represent soft-serve chocolate ice cream, but . . .

How did Petersen get involved in this study? As she says in the article, she apparently battled for years with the effects of Lyme disease which she had contracted as a child. Fecal transplanting, which is a fairly rare treatment for extreme cases of an uncommon disease (Clostridium Difficile -- I had to look it up. It causes chronic diarrhea) seemed like it might be worth a try, but no doctor would perform one for her. So . . . she decided to do it herself. Apparently she found a person who was a competitive cyclist who was willing to donate his own feces. Bing, bang, boom (boom boom) and she's put his feces into her own colon (With what, I wonder. An enema? A turkey baster?). Now, did she seek him out because he was a competitive cyclist, or was he simply a willing donor who happened to be a cyclist, I don't really know.

Forgive me, but I do have to digress for a moment. How exactly does one even broach this subject with someone? Does someone place an ad somewhere? (Casual encounters. Must be disease-free. Athletic. Willing to donate poop.) How well do you have to know somebody before you feel comfortable enough to ask if you can borrow their scat? I've been married 25 years and I don't think I could ask my wife such a question.

Anyhow - so she gets this guy's poop into her colon and Guess What? Miracle cure. Suddenly she's got energy she didn't know she had, she's riding more, training more. Entering races and winning them. So of course she starts wondering what it is about this guy's caca that has boosted her endurance so much? Through her research, she finds out about those microorganisms mentioned above, and how ordinary schlubs generally don't have them, but high-level athletes do. So today, researchers like Petersen are studying the effects and benefits of gut bacteria. They expect that at some point they will find a way to make these microbes ingestible so that all one needs to do to get the benefits of an elite racer's gut is take a pill. But in the meantime, rectal doodie transplants are the reliable/preferred method.

Okay - nowhere in the Bicycling article does it say that there are known instances of athletes swapping poo. They aren't passing brown bags to each other under the stall dividers -- yet. But given what we've seen over the past decades, and what we know racers are willing to do, and the depths to which they're willing to stoop (squat?) to get any kind of advantage, it's really only a matter of time before poop doping takes off. As if the sport isn't smelly enough already.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Old Is Good: Is It Really Just Nostalgia?

There hasn't been much here on the Retrogrouch this summer - sorry about that folks. Who'dathought there'd be less time to write, rant, and grouch during a summer break than when I'm at work full-time? Actually, being a full-time dad is even more time consuming. People who don't know that must not have kids. Most moms already know that, but they probably don't have time to read bike blogs.

Anyhow, earlier this summer I saw an article on PezCycling News that got me thinking a bit: Equipment Nostalgia - Fact of Fiction? I finally have a quiet morning to respond.

Using the popularity of vintage-themed cycling events such as L'Eroica as a launching pad, the article goes on to rail against old componentry and to decry the love for all that old equipment as a bunch of misplaced nostalgia. Granted, the author doesn't give his age or the specific time period when he began riding/racing - but there are some hints that he's a fair bit older than I am. Even I don't have much experience with some of the stuff he ridicules. Still, on the whole, the rant seems awfully over-generalized. A lot of his rant seems to focus on stuff that was probably long in the tooth by 1970, or was bottom-of-the-ladder equipment even when it was new.

Take tires, for instance. The guy goes on to complain about how crappy tubular tires were back in his day (clinchers weren't really a "thing" on racing bikes until the '80s). But what tires does he rant against? Bottom-dwelling garbage from "behind the Iron Curtain." Barum and Wankerbar. I've heard of Barum tires - maybe even seen a few in my day (picture a cluttered old bike shop, and the grizzled old owner coming out of the basement with a pair of ancient-looking tires in his hands, saying, "If money's really tight for ya', I can let ya' have these for next-to-nuthin' but I ain't makin' no promises about 'em.") But Wankerbar? They must not have even bothered exporting them to the U.S. I even googled the brand, but came up with barely a mention.

Anyhow - this is my point - because you rode the crappiest stuff available "back in the day," all the stuff from that era is crap? Nonsense. Then, as now, there was cheap equipment, and there was expensive equipment, and everything in-between. Not everyone could afford the Clement Criterium Setas (wonderful old silk-casing tires) -- I sure as hell couldn't -- but even on my painfully limited budget (I was 18 years old when I got my first tubular wheels and tires) I was able to get some damned nice tires, and if I could still get the same tires today (and if they weren't rotted to dust) they'd rival a lot of high-end tires costing $100 or more (each!). The article mentions Dugast tires, which are the cream of the crop today - made by hand and painfully expensive - but the materials and methods used in those wonderful (and way out of my budget) tires are the same as those used in most decent tubulars of the past -- including a lot of the lower-budget ones.

The article also goes on about wheels and wheelgoods: rims, spokes, and hubs. On rims, the guy writes: "Sprint rims too were either brilliant or so soft you had to be careful when truing them or you’d pull flats in them – this was remedied by hard core wheel builders with a mallet. . . and had my buddies briefed that if they saw me with a spoke key in my hand then they should get it off me, pronto."

Ok, so were the rims bad, or did this guy simply have no skills as a wheel builder?

Again, there were some lousy rims back in the day (spokes and hubs, too) but better ones were available and didn't necessarily cost much more. The writer mentions the Mavic S.S.C. Paris-Roubaix rims as some of the good ones, and I remember those as well - so our respective timeframes must overlap a bit. The S.S.C. rims (that stood for "Special Service du Courses") were among the best rims available in the '80s and were made specially for professional racing, hence the name. They were hard anodized and stout at around 400 grams. They were also terribly expensive (if you can find them on eBay, they still are!). Thing was, however, that Mavic at the same time also offered a rim called the GP4 which was almost identical and sold for significantly less money because they didn't have that "pro peloton" marketing hype to go with them. If one were a bit more savvy and less driven by fashions, they could have saved even more money by selecting a rim called the Monthlery Pro which was basically the same rim minus the hard anodizing treatment. Yes, in the advertising they liked to tout how the hard anodizing increased the strength of the rims by however much percent - but in reality, I'm skeptical about how much actual difference it made in a completed (and properly built) wheel. Also, after only a couple of rides the hard anodizing started wearing off the sidewalls, never evenly, and ended up looking like crap. Non-anodized aluminum could always be brought back to "like new" with some fine steel wool or a bit of aluminum polish. For a few more grams and a lot fewer bucks, one could have gotten a model called the Monthlery Route, which was tough, reliable, and priced for mere mortals.

I will concede that spokes today are indeed better. Up until the '80s, one often found spokes that were chrome-plated, or galvanized (at least, I think they were galvanized - they were kind of a dull gray color), or stainless steel. Chrome ones looked nice when new, but were prone to breakage. The dull gray ones weren't pretty but may have lasted a little longer. And the stainless ones back then were a bit soft and weren't as strong as they are now. I guess the metallurgy has improved, or maybe it's the manufacturing method. But again, then or now, a properly built wheel would be a lot less likely to suffer from broken spokes.

Regarding cranks, the writer goes on to ridicule old cottered steel cranks. Again, when was he riding?  I have only limited experience with cottered cranks, and I can believe reports they could be a bit of a pain to work on (when the standard removal method involves a hammer, you do have to cringe a little) but I also have it from what I consider to be pretty reliable sources that the attachment method was at least sound and secure. In any case, there were plenty of cotterless options out there at least by the '70s, and it wasn't necessary to pay Campagnolo prices to get them.

On bottom brackets: "Bottom brackets were a nightmare, if you ventured out in the rain you had to strip them out immediately after it or the bearings and axle would be ruined – no sealed bearings back then." I'll simply say that I disagree with this as a disingenuous exaggeration.

Okay - I won't quite stop there. I do see the appeal of sealed cartridge bottom brackets (easy installation and no maintenance), but when it comes to smoothness and longevity, I'll still choose a traditional bottom bracket. Every time.

For derailleurs, the guy picks on old pull-chain, plunger-action units like this Benelux:


Now I know this writer has to be a lot older than I am because things like that have been obsolete since the '50s (even if some were still being made a decade later). As far back as the '60s, inexpensive derailleurs from Japan might not have had the drool factor of Campagnolo, or even the less expensive European brands like Huret or Simplex, but they worked quite well for their day.

The article continues to bash freewheels, leather saddles, center pull brakes, traditional toe-clip pedals, and more. I'm not going to address all of it except to say that I disagree, and that most of the complaints focus on the worst of what was available "back then" and apply it to everything from the era.

To sum it all up, it seems to me that a lot of this rant is based on overgeneralizations about low-budget components, second-hand junk, and an inability (or at least a dis-inclination) to perform proper maintenance.

In a half-hearted defense of the anti-nostalgia position, I'd point out that if there is something about the modern era that is better than the days-gone-by, it's that most low-budget equipment today works comparatively better than a lot of the low-budget equipment "back then." What I mean (and using ubiquitous Shimano as an example) is that most road bike shoppers today may not be able to afford Dura-Ace or even Ultegra-level components, but they can rest assured that the Tiagra or Sora-level stuff will still work pretty nicely even if it doesn't boast the same finish quality or top-tier materials. That's a good thing. "Cheap" doesn't necessarily mean "junk." That's always been true, but a buyer today need not be as savvy to distinguish the good from the bad.

On the other hand, the big downside to the modern state of bicycle components is that the constant quest to "innovate" and "improve" means that if someone is interested in keeping their bike for more than a few years (and given the cost of a bicycle today that's not a minor thing) it can be almost impossible because of the built-in obsolescence factor. With all the new "standards" and rapidly changing technology constantly being introduced, it can often be cheaper and easier to just buy a new bike than try to replace a worn out component. And of course, that's what the industry today wants you to do anyhow.

The article in PezCycling finishes by saying: "So all you ‘Vintage/Eroica/Nostalgia dudes’ out there, if it’s your thing then that’s cool – just don’t ask me to join in your enthusiasm for equipment which should belong in a landfill site."  To that I just say "fine by me." But while we "Vintage/Eroica/Nostalgia dudes" are still able to ride bikes that 30, 40, or even 50 years old - I wonder if the "Nostalgia dudes" of 2047 will still be able to ride bikes being made today.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Tour de France Coverage, Retrogrouch Style: 1987

I have a hard time taking professional bike racing seriously these days. I find it only slightly more credible than pro wrestling. So even though the Tour de France is going on as we speak (or read, or write), I'm only half paying attention. Here's what I know: Peter Sagan is out - disqualified for supposedly pushing Mark Cavendish into the barriers in a messy final sprint on Stage 4. I also know that there was a renewed round of criticism and debate about whether the rest of the peloton should have to stop racing when the racer in Yellow has a mechanical problem - a debate that seems to repeat every year nowadays. There were penalties for slapping (yes, slapping). And Chris Froome is in good position to win his fourth tour, though he's in no position to get overly confident about it. Oh - and today is a rest day.

Anyhow, rather than get too engrossed in this year's big bicycle race in France, let's do the Retro-groucy thing and go back 30 years to re-live a great one from the past.

1987 was a year without any clear favorite. It should have been Greg LeMond's year to defend his '86 Tour title, but that was not to be. His near-fatal hunting accident earlier that year kept him sidelined. The great Bernard Hinault had retired at the end of the previous season, so that generation-defining racer was gone. One could say it was "anybody's Tour." Two-time champion Laurent Fignon was a likely contender -- he was showing improvement after knee surgery, but was still not quite at the same level he'd been a few years earlier. Among the other likely possibilities were Stephen Roche, who had won that year's Giro d'Italia, the Spanish climber Pedro Delgado of the powerful PDM team, and Hinault's heir-apparent Jean François Bernard. Andy Hampsten, who had finished 4th in '86, was something of a wildcard, having won that year's Tour of Switzerland. Hampsten was riding with the 7-Eleven team for '87 - back for their second TdF. And Luis Herrera, the strong climber from Colombia, could not be discounted either.

The '87 Tour was exceptionally tough - a climber's tour for certain - and extra long at 26 stages. The race started that year in West Berlin (Remember that? Re-unification was still a couple of years away) with a short 6.1km Prologue time trial. All the serious contenders finished it within about 13 seconds of one another. As often happens, the first week's stages found the main GC contenders holding back and staying safe while sprinters led the standings. The Yellow Jersey changed hands a couple of times among riders who in all likelihood would not be wearing it after the race reached the mountains.

The first real standings-shaking stage was a difficult 87.5km time trial in Stage 10. Stephen Roche won the stage but Laurent Fignon's Systeme U teammate Charly Mottet came in second and took the Yellow Jersey. Roche had moved up to 6th overall, up from 26th.

Davis Phinney takes a stage win in Bordeaux.
The 7-Eleven team saw a welcome stage win with Davis Phinney on the road to Bordeaux in stage 12. A crash in that stage forced Sean Kelly to abandon due to injuries. A grand tour win would continue to remain out of his grasp.

Stage 13 was the first mountain test in the Pyrenees with four big climbs, and Jean François Bernard rode strong - finishing a close 2nd in the stage behind Panasonic's Erik Breukink, and moving up to 2nd overall. Roche was up to 3rd place, and Charly Mottet managed to hold on to Yellow. On Stage 14, a difficult race from Pau to Luz-Ardiden, 7-Eleven's Dag-Otto Lauritzen brought the American team their second stage win, and all the real contenders were starting to move to the fore. Bernard was in 2nd, Roche 3rd, Delgado 4th, Herrera 9th, and Hampsten 10th in the GC. A fun surprise was the young climber from Mexico, Raul Alcala with 7-Eleven, who had moved up to 8th place overall.

Jean François Bernard, briefly in Yellow.
The next shakeup would come in Stage 18 with an individual time trial up Mount Ventoux. Jean François Bernard rode powerfully - winning the stage by 1:39 over the Colombian Luis Herrera. Pedro Delgado was 3rd in the stage at 1:51, and Roche was 5th at 2:19 (Roche was a strong time-triallist, but only a "good" not "great" climber). In the overall standings, Bernard took the Yellow Jersey away from Mottet, while Roche moved up to 2nd.

Bernard's time in Yellow would be short-lived, as Stage 19 was another big test in the mountains. Attacks by Delgado and Roche kept Bernard on the defensive - along with some bad luck. Bernard suffered a flat at the top of the first big climb, and by the time he was able to get it changed, the other leaders were out of sight. Later, an attack by Mottet and the Systeme U team in the feed zone kept Bernard bottled up behind the slow-down of riders grabbing their lunches. Delgado and Roche were able to join in with the attackers and take more time out of Bernard - and the pair later managed to drop Mottet as well. Delgado won the stage and moved up to 3rd overall, while Roche pulled on the Yellow Jersey. Mottet was in 2nd in the GC, and Bernard dropped to 4th.

Pedro Delgado takes a turn in Yellow.
Stage 20 featured the famed climb up Alpe d'Huez and saw Delgado take the lead from Roche. By the end of the stage at the summit, riders were coming in one at a time. Spanish climber Federico Echave won the stage, but the first GC contenders to finish were Herrera in 5th, Laurent Fignon (finally finding his legs) in 6th, and Delgado right behind in 7th. Roche finished 15th that day, 1:46 after Delgado. So the overall standings had another shakeup. Delgado had the Yellow, followed by Roche at 0:25, and Bernard in 3rd at 2:02. Fignon broke into the top 10 for the first time, taking 8th overall. Raul Alcala was 7-Eleven's best-placed rider in 7th, while Hampsten dropped down to 13th.

Stephen Roche turned himself inside out on La Plagne.
Stage 21 was another crazy-intense race with three major climbs including the Galibier, the Madeleine, and the uphill finish to La Plagne -- it would be a pivotal stage for the Tour. Fignon would win the stage, and Delgado would climb strongly as expected, but it was Roche who would become the legend of the '87 Tour. Roche was trying hard to limit his losses to Delgado, believing that if he could keep the overall time gap between them to under a minute, he would be able to make it up in the final time trial. Roche attacked on the descent from the Galibier to the Madeleine to get some distance on Delgado but couldn't stay away to the end. At the foot of the final climb to La Plagne he was caught and passed by Delgado and his PDM team. Roche knew he was not as good of a climber as Delgado and feared that he was seeing his chance of winning the Tour ride off in the distance up the mountain. When Delgado opened up a gap of more than a minute or perhaps a minute-and-a-half on the road, Roche got desperate and dug as deep as possible - he shifted up to his big ring. Yep. The Big Ring. It took a helluva lot of effort to get it turning on the third Hors Categorie climb of the day, but he got it going and rode himself inside out. As he neared the finish line, he could see Delgado crossing the line just a few seconds ahead of him. Roche's efforts were so extraordinary that he had to be helped off the bike and laid out on the ground while medics gave him oxygen. He was taken away in an ambulance, but returned the next day to put in another powerful ride.

After Roche's heroic effort, Delgado still wore Yellow, but Roche was well within closing distance. The last Alpine stage saw Roche come back from his hospital visit as strong as if his collapse on the top of La Plagne never happened. He finished second in the stage and took more time out of his gap to Delgado.

At that point, it all came down to a 38km time trial on the penultimate day of the Tour. Roche trailed Delgado by 21 seconds, while Bernard was in 3rd overall, more than four minutes back. Bernard won the time trial in Dijon by 1:44 over 2nd place Roche (which makes a person wonder what the race might have looked like had Bernard not had such lousy luck back in Stage 19) - but just as Roche had predicted, he was able to beat 3rd place Delgado by a minute, putting him back into the Yellow Jersey with 40 seconds over the Spaniard.

The final stage into Paris was not a showdown for the Yellow Jersey (as is usually the case - 1989 being a rare exception), but it did have another surprise for the 7-Eleven team's excellent second Tour -- Jeff Pierce, who'd gone out on a breakaway, managed to hold off the peloton for a rare solo win on the Champs Élysées. Not only that, but Raul Alcala came into Paris in 9th place overall, getting the White Jersey for Best Young Rider.


In the end, Stephen Roche pulled on the final Yellow Jersey - the first Irishman (and 2nd English-speaker) to win the Tour de France. Pedro Delgado was 2nd at 40 seconds, and Jean François Bernard was 3rd at 2:13 back. Roche entered the history books as only the fifth rider to win the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in the same year (after Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, and Hinault). Later that year, he would become the only rider apart from Eddy Merckx to pull off the "Triple Crown" by also winning the World Championships in the same season.

1987 was good example of what happens when there is a field of strong talent but no clear favorite. The Yellow Jersey went back and forth between eight different men, at least half of whom probably could have worn it into Paris had certain key moments gone just a little differently.