Tag Archives: components
When I was drafting up the specifications for my dream tourer I had pretty set ideas for just about everything I wanted on it – a threaded quill stem, a square-taper bottom bracket, quill pedals, a decaleur to help support a boxy French randonneuring handlebar bag, in short all the usual accoutrements one would expect to find on what might be called a retro-classic bicycle.
When it came to mounting the shift levers, however, I had a momentary quaver. Part of me was tempted – sorely tempted – to keep with the overall retro-classic theme and go with the old down-tube shifters, just like they had ‘em back in the day. I like down tube shifters, or the idea of them anyway, and I like the look of them on classic bicycles but in the end, I decided not to have them on my dream bike for the simple reason that they never formed part of my dream, and indeed played little role in my past as a cyclist.
I wanted to build a bicycle that was truly mine, not somebody else’s stylised ideal of what a classic tourer should look like, and the honest truth is that for nearly all of my cycling life I have used bar end shifters. And so when it came to the crunch, bar-end shifters are what I bought – Shimano Dura Ace nine-speed ones. I love them. They are beautifully made and function beautifully.
I have liked bar ends ever since I first started using them, back in the 1970s. Simple, reliable, nice looking on a bicycle, they are less of a stretch to reach than down-tube shifters (especially when you are climbing up a mountain pass) and virtually never require servicing – in short the ideal set-up for a drop-bar touring bike, in my eyes at any rate.
Modern bar end shifters, like the Dura Ace nine-speeds I have on my classic tourer, are indexed for the rear – a pleasing touch of modernity – while relying on good old-fashioned friction shifting for the front derailleur, where there are no real benefits to indexed shifting, only endless hassles in trying to fine tune it. With my bar-end shifters I love being able to trim the front derailleur as I ride, should it not shift perfectly. You can’t do that on Ergo or STI levers.
Those who want a choice can turn a catch in the rear shifter and disengage index shifting in back as well. I like to have that option. But then of course friction shifting was how I originally learned to ride.
I realise that I am bucking modernity in my fondness for old-fashioned bar-end shifters; that the vast majority of road bikes these days use the integrated shift and brake levers. In fact, I have a set on my Pegoretti (a 2008 Centaur groupset) While I like them on that nice swift Italian machine, and have yet to have a problem with them, I would still be reluctant to put such complicated and difficult to repair shifters on a tourer.
One of the most important aspects of a touring bike – and one of its chief beauties in my eyes – is its utter reliability and with these achingly simple levers there is just nothing to go wrong. So basic are they – and their down-tube cousins – that were you to snap one off you could practically whittle yourself a new one out of a chunk of drift wood. In the thirty-odd years I have been using them, over many tens of thousands of miles in all sorts of distant places and harsh conditions, I’ve never had one fail.
I see in the news where Italian components maker Tiso has come up with prototypes of a 12-speed drivetrain with wireless electronic shifting. I would almost have thought the news release was some kind of gag, but there was no April First dateline and although the accompanying video was rather crude, as was the prototype itself, there nothing else about the press release to suggest that it was anything other than a solemn proclamation of a new form of cycling drivetrain. Okay. But a twelve speed cassette? Honestly? Who out there is demanding this sort of thing? And why? Presumably Tiso see a market for it otherwise they wouldn’t be going to the trouble of designing such a thing, but other than a novelty factor I cannot imagine what perceived gap in shifting would lead someone to want to buy it.
Surely saturation point on cogs for the rear cassette has been reached by now, if not in theory at least in practice. How thin (read: fragile) must the cogs be on a twelve speed? And the chain. It must be like a piece of string. An 11-speed chain is just 5.5mm – too skinny for my liking. I have a ten speed on my Pegoretti road bike, but only because I wanted to put an Italian drive train on it and 10 speed was the simplest and most readily available option at the time. My tourers are both 9-speeds, and frankly if you could still buy high quality 8-speed kit I would have stayed with that.
The fact that a Rohloff, makers of the finest bicycle chains on the market, refused to make 10-speed chains because their engineers didn’t feel the skinnier chain could be built to the company’s standards speaks volumes to me. Let alone 11-speed. And now 12? What would be the lifespan on this sort of thing? I can see the advantage to the component makers – they sell more chainrings, cassettes and chains – but this has to look good to consumers too, and outside of bling and being a conversation starter what advantage is a 12-speed cassette going to give anyone? What gap does this fill?
Just as perplexing to me is the idea of wireless shifting (powered in this case by AAA batteries!) While the notion of being liberated from the drawbacks of dirty, kinked or malfunctioning cables has an appealing allure, my inner skeptic sees all sorts of humorous possibilities for screw ups and pranks. Sure as X some bright spark is bound to figure out how to hack into a system and then won’t we see some fun on the roads and at the Tour de France. Contador will attack on the Alpe d’Huez only to find himself suddenly and inextricably in 53×11; Cavendish will surge to the front in a mass sprint for the finish line and out of nowhere start pedaling at a cartoonish cadence of about 450 in a comically low gear. The possibilities for fun and games and viewer hilarity are endless. The Tour de France reduced to Wacky Races.
On the bright side perhaps wireless shifting could be the saving of the sport. I mean, who would bother with drugs if some nerdish Gary Larsen character standing by his garage door, or a Dick Dastardly in a opposition team car, could baffle your deepest laid plans by punching in a code on his iPhone? Maybe race organizers could run the Tour like Strictly Come Dancing – having on-going phone-in polls throughout each stage and every hour let the viewers decide the gear ratios of their favorites, or not so favorites. It would sure boost ratings, bring cycling and Le Tour into the garlic-and-onions mainstream.
As for me, I will be sticking to my good old sealed cables and my very pedestrian 9- or 10-speed drivetrains, and longing for the olden days of the more sturdily built 8-speeds, and hoping that one of these days one of the big manufacturers will make fashionable the idea that less is more.
For starters, several manufacturers offer leather bar tape. I can speak to two. I have Brooks’ honey-coloured variety on my Thorn eXp expedition tourer/winter bike and Gilles Berthoud’s pale calfskin bar tape on my Enigma randonneur. Both are expensive – €59.50 (without end plugs, and plus postage) for the French-made Gilles Berthoud tape, and around £35 for the Brooks’ tape which is made in China. Pricey though they are, both of these are quite a bit cheaper than the Cinelli variety, which sells for roughly £70. I’ve never tried the Cinelli, although I have read nice things – and for that money one would expect to hear nice things.
As to colour, the Cinelli comes in natural or black, while Brooks offers theirs in a variety of colours (brown, black, honey, turquoise, mustard, violet, green, white, raspberry, apple green, royal blue, mandarin, ochre, maroon, olive green, and red) Gilles Berthoud comes in natural calfskin.
I was an accidental convert to leather bar tape. Although I admired the classic stylishness of leather bar tape, the idea of it at any rate, the high up-front cost and the uncertainty of how well it would last, especially in the rain, made me shrink from wanting to shell out and see. A couple of years ago though, a mechanic at a bike shop up in London comprehensively screwed up my Thorn while attempting to do a service on it. Among other things he wrecked, he ruined the bar tape, some lovely Stella Azzurra Elegenza that I had put on there not long earlier. Since they were unable to supply a fresh roll of it (it seems to be hard to find, or was in 2009) the shop owner offered me whatever he had on hand to replace what was screwed up. I saw they had the Brooks honey coloured bar tape in stock and went for a roll of that, with some Fizik gel padding beneath it.
It was lovely. The leather tape felt rich, tactile and positive, but what surprised me more, as I rode through the first winter with it, was its resilience. It handled well in the wet. Although it soaked up the rain, it was still very positive to grip and hold and it dried out quickly afterwards. True, it can start looking a bit scruffy after a while, the finish on the leather wearing off with repeated hard use, but a touch of Proofhide (or similar) leather treatment can bring it back pretty well, surprisingly so, actually.
Better still, during the dry summer months, the constant gripping of the bars burnishes the leather nicely, rendering it a rich dark well-used colour which adds to the classic appeal. As to durability, let me say that the same roll of Brooks leather bar tape that was wrapped on the bars of my Thorn in September 2009 is still there now and what’s more it looks set to last for quite some time yet.
Having had a positive experience with leather bar tape, and liking the classic styling of it, I decided to use it again when I had my bespoke Enigma randonneur built for me last year. This time around though I decided to go with Gilles Berthoud – in part because I had since discovered that Brooks of England had their bar tape made in China and this annoyed me, and partly because I simply liked the look of the Made-in-France Gilles Berthoud stuff. Since I was already having a GB front rack, mudguards, and bar bag on the bike, as well as other classic French fittings (a TA Zephyr crank, TA chainrings, and TA quill pedals) a roll of this fine French-made leather bar tape seemed the perfect note to finish with.
And so it has proven to be. I very much like the luxurious look and feel of this calf skin tape – much more so than the Brooks, although to be fair, I have not yet given the Gilles Berthoud tape nearly as much time and hard usage. That will come. But it has been on the bike for over a year now and still looks and feels great.As with the Brooks, I had Fizik gel pads inserted under the tape to help dampen road buzz. That said, the bars still feel comfortably firm – there is nothing ‘gushy’ about them with the leather tape and gel pads.
Obviously leather bar tape isn’t for everybody. It is expensive for one thing (although its durability may make it an unexpectedly good bargain in the long run), and it is heavier, too, if that is a consideration, and frankly it wouldn’t look right – aesthetically speaking – on a lot of racier cutting-edge carbon bikes. But if you want a classic look, especially on a tourer, you can do a lot worse.
Encouraging news for those of us who like triples and more generously geared rear sprockets on our bicycles: it seems Alberto Contador the winner of this year’s Vuelta rode much of the course with an 11-28 rear cassette on his bicycle and even used an 11-32 cassette on one of the steeper mountain stages of the tour. It’s nice to see, or rather, hear about, and a welcome counterpoint to the macho posturing overheard in bicycle shops and on internet cycling forums, where pedalling anything greater than 11-25 is sneered upon.
Apparently El Pistolero was using SRAM’s WiFLi – Wider, Faster, Longer – range of cassettes, coupled in his case with a lightweight long-cage carbon fibre rear mech (at three hundred quid a pop!) to accommodate the big 32-tooth rear sprocket. The low-range cassette allowed Contador to maintain his high cadence in the mountains and spin his way to the top of the passes.
No word on whether he was using a compact chainset or a standard one (I am guessing it was a standard) and it may well be, too, that at least some of the motivation behind his adopting 11-28 and 11-32 cassettes was to accommodate the marketing strategy of one of his team’s sponsors – certainly it makes a powerful statement to us garlic-and-onions proles that even one of the world’s top riders is happy to use a pie-plate sprocket on a steep mountain stage, and can still dominate the peloton while doing so.
Given my easy-peasy cyclo-tourist perspective on things, I’ve never needed any encouragement to go in for more generously specced cassettes – my Thorn expedition bike has 11-32 (just like Bertie!), while my Enigma randonneur has 12-27 and my Pegoretti has 13-29 coupled with a compact chainset. I seldom use either the highest or lowest sprockets of any of my cassettes, or the granny ring on my triples, but I like to know that I have the range at my disposal. It is nice to find myself in such illustrious company.
E.B. White wrote many a brilliant essay, but one of my favourites of his was called Farewell My Lovely,about the passing of the venerable Ford Model-T which had formed so much a part of his, and the 20thcentury’s, youth. The essay appeared in The New Yorker, in May 1936, but has been republished a number of times since and these days can be had as a neat little hardback called Farewell to Model T in which it is paired with another essay he wrote about driving across America in a Model-T as a newly fledged college graduate in 1922, From Sea to Shining Sea.
Both of these fine essays are written with White’s trademark wit, humour and sophistication, but what intrigues me about them as a cyclist is the way they bring alive a period when the automobile exercised a similar sway over the imaginations of jaunty young men like White (who was born in 1899) as bicycles had only a few years earlier.
“The course of my life was changed by it, and it is in a class by itself,” he wrote of the Model-T, in From Sea to Shining Sea. “It was cheap enough so I could afford to buy one; it was capable enough so it gave me courage to start. You, I have no doubt, will always recognise its own frontier and push beyond it by whatever means are at hand.”
In his descriptions of the transforming powers of the Model-T, I see a lot of my own sentiments towards the bicycle. I share, too, his wistfulness in Farewell My Lovely in which he laments the passing of the beautiful, sweet, utterly unknowable eccentricities of the Model-T, remembering a time in the (then) not-so-distant past when every young man could repair his own automobile, and indeed had to, and often; when there were more pages devoted to Ford gadgets in the springtime Sears & Roebuck mail-order catalogue than there were to men’s wear and nearly as many as there were for household furnishings. There was, as he explains, a kind of pioneering innocence to all this that went hand in hand with youth and discovery.
And so it seems with my own recollections and indeed present understanding of the bicycle – jaunty, elegant, almost glib in its 19th century simplicity, able to be tucked under you arm and carried up a flight of stairs, yet capable of carrying you anywhere you want to go and on which almost any repair is possible with a wrench, screwdriver and folding chain tool. I’ve always loved this quirky chain-driven simplicity, yet I wonder for how much longer we will be allowed to have it. The catalyst for White’s essay on the passing of the Model-T was his happening to notice that spring of 1936 that while one could still buy an axle for a Model-T in the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, there was but one page of automobile parts in the catalogue anymore and a belated sense that the great days of the flivver were over. The world had moved on.
I find myself harbouring a similar sense of dissent and unease when I learned this past spring that the technology for electronic shifting on bicycles, which had seemed such a costly novelty when it appeared in the pro peloton a couple of years ago, has filtered down to lower tiers of drive trains – and at commensurately lower prices, with reviewers for the cycling magazines confidently predicting that soon the wonders of Di2 shifting (or whatever Campagnolo’s or SRAM’s variants will be called) will soon be within the reach of the masses. And so they may be, but I can’t help feel a sense of impending loss when I read these things – for manufacturers have an uncanny way of taking yesterday’s stuff off the shelves once they find a way of convincing us to buy the new. It’ll be years of course, but I can’t help feeling like a star gazer of old who has seen a comet in the sky.
To be sure I speak, or rather write, without having tried this new-fangled wonder. Let’s just say for argument’s sake, that I am willing to concede that Di2 does in fact live up to its billing and makes for much better, swifter, more accurate shifting than anything I have ever used. We’ll make that a given. But think about it for a second: was there ever really all that much wrong with the old way?
Not that I recall. I like the simple mechanical style of shifting, the classic down tube shifters and the bar ends with their friction settings that allow you to trim your settings by feel as you rode along. I’ve never had problems with them, certainly not such problems that I would feel the need to spend as much for an electronic groupset as I would for a hand-crafted lugged steel frame. What would be the point? I understand these quirky old levers and their mechanisms perfectly. They’ve been around for decades, and have worked satisfactorily in all that time. In fact I can’t recall a single occasion where the advertised benefits of electronic shifting would have enhanced my enjoyment of a bicycle ride.
I maintain my bicycles, keep them clean and lubed and functional. My shifting has generally been clean and straightforward and when it wasn’t I could always remedy it with as simple a thing as a screwdriver – or even just a coin a pinch. If it is just the matter of a little rattling, I can simply adjust the trim as I pedalled along, be feel and the subtly change of pitch of the chain whirring over the sprockets. I guess here we’re getting to the nub of it. A soullessly efficient, self-indexing electronic shifter might do a more consistent job (as long as I kept the batteries charged) of moving the chain up and down the sprockets or between chainrings, but it would also rob me of the personal, tinkering involvement I now enjoy with the workings of my bicycle – not unlike the involvement the jaunty young men of E.B. White’s generation once enjoyed with their Model-Ts.
For me knowing I can fix anything on my bike is an integral part of the free-and-easy independence of being a cyclist and getting about on two wheels. It’s not something I care to swap for a costly solution to a problem I’ve never felt I had.
There was a time, and not all that many years ago either, when your standard bicycle wheel had thirty-six spokes laced in the time-honoured three-cross pattern – the main exception being here in Great Britain where bicycles used for touring typically had forty spokes on the rear wheel and thirty-six up front. Even amongst racers, thirty-six spokes remained fairly standard well into the 1990s. Indeed, in Lance Armstrong’s book It’s Not About The Bike, about his recovery from cancer in the mid-90s, there is a scene where he is chatting with his nurses about bicycles, cycling and the Tour de France and in which he describes bicycle wheels as generally having thirty-six spokes.
Generally, of course, but not always, for some of the more daring and racier models of road bike were getting by on a thirty-two spokes and had been since the 1980s. From there it didn’t take a huge leap in the marketing imagination to see the bottom-line possibilities of paring down the spoke count for the rank and file, by using the old less-is-more theory of desirability and by cloaking thirty-two spoke wheels in an aura of elitism; such wheels were lighter, faster, what the pros use. It worked a treat, as such ploys usually do. Thirty-two spoke wheels were soon in hot demand, at a cost savings to the manufacturer of eight spokes per bicycle – and from there spoke counts dropped to twenty-eight, twenty-four, whatever you like so long as it is skimpy, racy and exotic.
The fact that with the wider spacing of the spokes the rims themselves needed to be beefed up to maintain the integrity of the wheel, thereby negating much of the imagined weight savings, tended – and still tends – to be rather overlooked in the scramble for lighter and faster. The fewer the spokes the better, as today’s received wisdom has it, so that you now see some pretty hefty guys out there riding and even touring on lightweight rims laced for thirty-two or even twenty-eight spokes.
To be sure, spokes are much better made now than they were twenty or thirty years ago and they are less likely to break, and the build quality of the wheel plays a huge part in its integrity, but all the same I can’t understand this (to me) needless paring back of spoke counts in wheels. What was wrong with thirty-six? There is no real weight advantage to having fewer spokes, or at least what weight savings there is will not make a material difference to the overwhelming majority of cyclists out there, while on the other hand a broken spoke can be like the halo before a migraine if you’re touring since they usually break on the drive side of the rear wheel (which is where the greatest stresses are) and as such are a total hassle to repair and true along the roadside.
At least with thirty-six spokes you can probably make it to a bicycle shop and have the wheel fixed more easily there and properly trued on a stand. You can’t continue to ride so readily with a broken spoke if you had only thirty-two to begin with, still less if you had only twenty eight. And if you do try to press on and head for a shop you’re likely to break more spokes along the way. If you’re really unlucky, you might even pretzel your wheel. And for what?
No doubt I am borrowing trouble and most of the people who are out there touring the countryside on lightweight wheelsets return home happy and sun-kissed and with nary a wobble, but I like a degree of certainty in my rides, especially when it costs so little. And while I might not be setting out on interesting tours as often as I might wish, there is a part of me that likes the idea of being astride a bicycle that I know can make the journey.
Whenever I take my Pegoretti out for a spin two thoughts always go through my head: a.) how incredibly lucky I am to possess such a bicycle and b.) the notion that I am pedalling down the street on a work of Italian fine art; a kinetic sculpture in Columbus Spirit tubing, a lovely lightweight steel drawn in Milan, joined with ornate lugwork, then brazed with silver in Dario Pegoretti’s workshop in Caldonazzo.
It really is a beautiful bicycle, and beautifully finished too, but of all the exquisite detailing on it, the thing that delights me most when I am spinning along the lanes is this lugged stem. I love fancy lugwork to start with and the stem is where I can see it and admire it even as I ride, a constant pleasing visual reminder of the exquisiteness of the bicycle as a whole.
But there’s something else too that it special. It completes the bike in a way that is all too rare these days. Ever since the threadless stem became the industry standard about ten or fifteen years ago, the stem has been the one feature that (to my mind anyway) consistently lets down overall look and tone of a hand-built bicycle – especially one with such classic styling as the Luigino.
Unlike the old-fashioned quill stem, which had a certain slender elegance, these new-fangled threadless ones just seem so artless and clumsy they way they grip the steerer tube like a fist and are clamped on with four sturdy bolts. Yes, I understand that threadless are meant to be lighter and stiffer than the old quill variety and that they make swapping out handlebars a doddle, but seldom is anything done to lighten this heavy, clenched fist tone at the front of the bike.
You can get away with it with on a modern racing frame, especially a compact frame, which tends to have more muscular and aggressive lines, but on a fine-boned Italian road bike that was designed to evoke an age, it just looks out of place, an anachronism. Pegoretti didn’t overlook this detail on the Luigino, which after all he designed as a tribute to the great Italian frame-builders of the 50s and 60s. The lugged threadless stem render the bicycle complete. It is an all-too-rare fusion of art and function, combining the qualities of a modern stem with the artistry and elegance of a bygone age. I wish there was more of this kind of thing.
Henri Desgrange, the stubborn, dictatorial founder of the Tour de France, was famously scornful of variable gears on bicycles, seeing them as a sign of weakness in body and character and for many years – as long as he was in charge of the event – he forbade the use of derailleurs in the Tour.
“I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five,” he wrote in a 1902 article in his magazine L’Equipe after a test organized by the Touring Club de France showed comprehensively that the new-fangled derailleur was far superior to the old fixed gear for getting cyclists up and over high mountain passes, with the reigning cycling champion of the day, Edouard Fischer, being easily defeated over a mountainous 150-mile course by a rider on a Gauloise bicycle equipped with a three-speed derailleur. Desgrange wouldn’t have it.
“Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft. Come on fellows. Let’s say this test was a fine demonstration for our grandparents. As for me, give me a fixed gear!”
And so it went. It wouldn’t be until 1937, when kidney disease had shunted Desgrange off to the sidelines, that the enfeebling ‘artifice’ of a derailleur would finally be allowed in the Tour de France. By then champion riders were regularly suffering the indignity of being passed on the cols by derailleur-equipped cyclo-tourists who had taken to the new gadgetry in droves.
Seventy-five years down the track, in a world of electronic shifting and eleven-speed rear sprockets, where the peloton spins through the Pyrenees at a cracking pace, the idea that using low-range gears to conquer cols could ever have been seen as unmanly seems quaint and antediluvian – unless, of course, you are talking about triples here in Britain, the island where Desgrange’s musty old Spartan ideals have evidently crawled off to die, and where scorn is heaped upon those weaklings and moral degenerates who opt for a third chainring.
You see it on Internet forums all the time – somebody will be planning to tackle oh, I dunno, say, the Fred Whitton Challenge (for those who aren’t from these parts that’s a famously, brutally hilly 112-mile sportive in England’s Lakes District where gradients can exceed 30%) and start a thread tentatively floating the idea of putting a triple on their bike to help them up Wrynose Pass and wondering how badly they will be sneered at by the ‘real’ riders, hard-core roadies who, it is assumed, will all spin up the passes in 52×23 or smaller.
Or there will be somebody new to cycling, or just getting back into it after years away, who lives in a hilly area and wants something really low range that will help them up the hills so they don’t get left behind by their mates – but at the same time are afraid of being laughed at if they show up for a club run with a triple on their bike. Or somebody going off on a self-contained tour and wondering if after all they might need, or be better off with, a triple for carrying their gear up long mountain grades. All of these queries seem to be posed with a tentativeness and hesitancy that makes he think they are either hoping for some kind of support or approval, an acknowledgement that others secretly feel the same way and that it is okay to embrace the triple – but on the other hand seem equally ready to retreat and scoff at the notion themselves if the scoffing from others gets too loud.
It’s weird. As far as I know this heavy bias against triples doesn’t exist in the United States or Australia – or at least I do not remember things being that way (of course, it’s been a while) – while on the Continent nobody seems at all bothered about fitting a triple chainset to their bike. To be sure, in a lot of circumstances a modern compact chainset and a generously geared rear cassette will be more than adequate to get you up whatever hill you need to climb, while most road triples these days, with their 30-tooth granny rings, aren’t geared low enough to make much difference over a compact, but that doesn’t mean triples in principle should be so roundly scorned – especially since most of the scorn is based on aesthetic, snob and character grounds.
As for me, a garlic-and-onions expat, and at 53, old enough so that even Henri Desgrange would cut me some slack, I’ve unashamedly got triples on two of my three bikes – my Thorn eXp expedition tourer (46-36-24) and my Enigma randonneur (48-34-26), while my Pegoretti road bike has a compact chainset (50-34) coupled with a touring sprocket (13-29) on the rear. True, I don’t use my ‘granny gear’ very often (or the 29 on the Pegoretti, for that matter) but I like to know its there, and while the more crowded look of a triple may not be a popular here in Britain, I happen to like the touring aesthetic these chainsets give my bicycle – and the tacit suggestion that even if I am not at the moment heading for distant places and challenging terrain, I could go anytime if I wanted to. And anyway, which is more aesthetically pleasing – pedaling your bicycle up a hill in the granny gear of your triple chainset, or walking beside it, pushing it uphill, with your oh-so-trendy-and-just-like-the-pros double sitting idle?