Saturday, March 11, 2006

Confessions of a Retro-Grouch

(Here's a column I did for the Red Dirt Pedalers newsletter. RDP is a club in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The editor is Susan Walker, a real darling because she has a light touch with the editing pen!..........Ed)

What's a 'retro-grouch', and how do you know if you're becoming one?

I freely admit to being a technological Luddite. (Luddites were people who smashed automated looms back at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, claiming that the infernal machines would ruin the hand loom business and put them out of work. As it turned out, they were right.) My computers are ancient, my bikes even more so. In fact, the bike I ride through the winter is a fixed gear - a throwback to the safety bicycles of a century ago.

But does that make me a retro-grouch? If being a retro-grouch implies that one admire and prefer older, classic bicycles over new ones, I suppose I qualify. There's something about an old Schwinn Paramount, a Raleigh Professional, or a classic Masi that is simply appealing, maybe because these bikes were out of my reach when I was younger. For that matter, pristine examples still are! I'd dearly love to get a classic frame with those curlicued Nervex lugs. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed would not be overly enthusiastic about another bike in the garage.

Don't misunderstand me - old bikes and components are not necessarily better than more modern ones. Some in the retro-grouch community would argue differently, but I worked in a shop that sold mostly French bikes. I know too well the difficulties of finding parts that fit properly. In that sense, you young pups don't know how good you have it!

Once upon a time, bikes reflected the countries where they were manufactured. Italian bikes came with Italian components. French bikes came with French components. English and American bikes came with a mixture of components. French pedals, handlebars, stems, seat posts, and bottom brackets were not interchangeable with other nation's parts. Some Italian parts were interchangeable with English, Japanese, and Swiss, but not all. A copy of Sutherland's Manual was absolutely essential because it had tables that showed what parts were interchangeable. Thread gauges and a good vernier caliper were essential too. They still are.

One benefit of the friction-type derailleur systems was part interchangeability. Just about any derailleur would work with any control lever. In fact, it was A Very Good Idea to replace cheap, plastic Simplex derailleurs with Suntour or Shimano units. I learned this the hard way, of course, sprinting in the rain when a Simplex derailleur snapped! The rear wheel locked up when the remains of the derailleur wedged between the cluster and the frame. Things got very exciting for a few seconds, but I didn't crash.

In the early eighties, things started to change. Shimano components began to appear on European bicycles. Over a couple of years, bicycles became (mostly) standardized, but it seemed that planned obsolescence increased. Five-speed freewheels were replaced by six and seven speeds. Chains became narrower to accommodate the freewheels. When index shifting arrived,component interchangeability became a problem once again. A Shimano cluster wouldn't work properly with a Campagnolo derailleur, for instance. STI and Ergo compounded the problems.

My 1996 Bianchi San Remo, for instance, came with Campy Mirage 8-speed components. Replacements are becoming hard to find. Some retro-grouches enjoy the challenge. Others, like me, find it annoying. This isn't a collectible bike. It's daily transportation. I didn't buy the bike planning to discard it in a few years. I bought it to use for a long time, so when the manufacturers make parts availability difficult, I'm seriously tempted to resort to the retro-grouch bicycle of choice, a single speed or fixed gear that eliminates the problem.

Even the manufacturers have begun to notice this. The latest trend over the last couple of years is to offer a single speed or a fixed gear as an alternative to their road bikes. I'm not referring to track bikes with steep frame angles and short wheelbases. I'm thinking of bikes based closer to road geometry, that provide a more comfortable ride, but have fixed gears, single speeds, or even flip-flop hubs. Nearly all manufacturers have one in the catalog. They clearly don't have the panache of a classic Masi,but they're simple, serviceable bicycles that will last a very long time.

And that's something that appeals to a retro-grouch!


Blogger pedalmaniac said...

Nice piece.
I too remember the days of friction shifting and how it was replaced by index. i have the first year of index shifting (shimano)on one of my bikes, maybe I'll have to make that into a fixie some time. The bike itself is wonderful (a 1980 something Roberts), It could be time to bring it back.


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