Labour of love: The pros and cons of restoring a classic road bike
Cycling has a rich history and one of the most powerful ways to connect with it is to resurrect a classic race bike. This can be done in a variety of ways, depending on the individual’s desires and resources, but what’s involved and what can be expected from the outcome?
Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom takes a look at what’s involved in resurrecting a classic road bike before putting one to the test to see how it performs by today’s standards.
There are many reasons why a fan would want to resurrect a classic road bike. “Some are attracted to the history, the brands, or the names that rode them,” says Andy White of Fyxo, who is well known for a wide range of retro projects. “Otherwise, they are a call to a time past that is still remembered fondly, or it’s a bike they wished they could own but could never afford.”
There are a few different ways to approach a retro project. For some, it is enough to locate a “survivor” that can be resurrected for light riding with a minor amount of effort. These bikes are true artefacts that honour the heritage of the sport.
For others, nothing less than a pristine restoration with period-correct parts will satisfy. Such projects become increasingly challenging with the age of the bike and often extend to re-finishing the frame and components. These bikes can be counted as true resurrections but the amount of time and money involved can be considerable.
Falling somewhere in between are those projects where a classic frameset is re-purposed for contemporary use. There is no emphasis on using period-correct parts, and indeed, modern components are often fitted to a classic chassis, essentially breathing new life into an old bike. These bikes tend to get used on a regular basis, giving owners an authentic taste of a time gone by.
Finally, there are replicas and re-issues, freshly constructed bikes that honour a classic period in the life of a brand. Such replications may include the components for an authentic feel, however it’s not unusual for these bikes to make use of contemporary components. These replicas and re-issues are therefore very much modern bikes that honour a classic aesthetic.
Deciding on one approach over another really depends on the needs of the individual; however, there are no rules and there is plenty of scope for any combination of these approaches.
Used bikes and bike parts are normally cheap, until they become classics
There has always been a healthy interest in collecting and resurrecting classic road bikes but I think it’s fair to say that it has become more accessible thanks to the rise of the internet and global trading sites such as eBay. And while this has provided more opportunity for restorers to obtain the classic framesets and components they desire, it has fuelled enthusiasm for the pastime, which in turn, has driven up market prices.
There’s a fine line between an outdated road bike and one that has become a classic. The distinction is largely a matter of personal opinion, though heritage, pedigree and prestige all have a role to play. Recognised classics will always attract a premium and there will be extra competition to win any given auction.
At the same time, the asking price for a classic frameset or components will largely reflect the amount of wear and tear. At one end of the spectrum, the cheapest and most readily available parts will be heavily used and/or weatherworn, while at the other end, there is new old stock (NOS), unsold inventory that has been gathering dust in a storeroom that is both rare and expensive.
So it’s worth taking some time to do some market research to get a feel for the price and availability of the various parts for a dream build. As mentioned above, there are no rules but Andy White has some practical advice:
“Want to ride it regularly? Use contemporary parts because they’re easier to source and replace as they wear. For those that want to dive into cycling’s past to research and discover the nuances of every part of the bike (and painfully wait until NOS versions crop up), go period. One thing I’m constantly reminded of is how good old groupsets were, and in the same breath, how amazing modern shifting is in comparison.”
Old bikes mean outdated standards
Resurrecting a classic bike is really no different from a custom build, so restorers must pay close attention to the specifications for every part to avoid any incompatibilities that will sabotage the final build. The age of a classic bike adds an extra layer of complexity to this process because it is likely to feature some superseded and/or unfamiliar specifications.
These specifications are rarely declared on a frameset and its parts, and there is no handy catalogue that provides all of this information, so expect some trial and error during the course of the project. Some sellers have a good understanding of the specifications for a given part, while others may have trouble measuring them accurately. It’s also likely that you’re bound to overlook one thing or another in the heat of a closing auction.
For those that are re-purposing a classic frame, it’s important to note that some superseded specifications aren’t compatible with modern groupsets. For example, a modern rear hub (130mm wide) will not fit a frame originally built in the ‘70s for a 5-speed transmission because the rear dropouts are only 120mm wide. Similarly, 6/7-speed frames (126mm) are also too narrow.
Framesets pre-dating the late-‘90s will need a quill stem, threaded 1inch headset, and a threaded bottom bracket (BSA or ITA, where the latter was a common choice for Italian-made frames). Fortunately, it’s possible to find modern stock that will suit at least some of these specifications, so there isn’t a strict need to track down used parts so long as buyers have a clear understanding about compatibility.
For those that are intent on a period-correct build, the risk of an incompatible fit is likely to be lower but there is the extra challenge of identifying suitable parts. The amount of era-specific information for any given part is patchy at best and subject to minor nuances, such as the positioning of logos, so there is a lot to learn.
Classic bikes are also worn bikes
Any cyclist will intuitively understand that there is a risk associated with a used part, be it the frame, fork, or any other part of the bike. That’s because the materials involved have a finite lifespan that gradually erodes as fatigue develops.
This risk of fatigue is amplified manyfold for classic bikes and components that may have endured many years of regular use. Unfortunately, there is no way to assess the remaining service life for a used frameset or component. The biggest concern relates to the fork, stem and handlebars since a sudden failure is likely to be catastrophic for the rider.
There are a few ways to mitigate this risk but it can’t be eliminated altogether. At the very least, each component should be carefully inspected before installation and diligently monitored as the bike is put to use.
A Classic Case Study: resurrecting a Concorde Squadra frameset
Every bike-build presents with its own set of unique requirements, so it is well beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of the intricacies associated with a classic re-build. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth illustrating some of the considerations discussed above with a case-study of some sort, so I’ll discuss the bike that I recently put together for a long-term review of Campagnolo’s Potenza groupset.
From the outset, I wanted a frameset that was immediately identifiable as a classic, but there was only so far I could go back in time. The 11-speed transmission demanded 130mm spacing for the rear hub, which meant anything pre-dating the late-‘80s wasn’t going to be suitable.
Some will argue that older frames with 126mm spacing can be used, with or without cold-setting, to fit a 130mm hub, but that doesn’t mean the chainline will be well suited to an 11-speed transmission. There is also the risk that spreading the dropouts will hasten any fatigue that has developed in the rear end of the frame.
My other pre-requisite related to frame size, which had to be around 54cm. Getting good information on frame size and geometry is normally difficult for classic framesets, and while some sellers appreciate the importance of this information, many don’t. Thus, I had to make some guesses on the fly as I surveyed the options for sale on eBay and elsewhere.
Then there was the matter of cost. As mentioned above, the price of a classic frameset generally reflects its state of repair, so I set myself a budget of AUD$500 (~US$375) and went in search of a decent survivor.
It took me a few weeks to find the frameset, which has to be counted as pretty quick for a project like this. Without a strong preference for brand or model, I scanned through all of the steel framesets that eBay had to offer, starting first with local (Australian) sellers then expanding my search to other countries.
There were a couple of framesets that tempted me to blow my budget but I managed to keep my cool. In the end, I was in the right place at the right time when a Concorde Squadra came up and I was quick to make an offer. Postage from France was expensive, but I managed to stick to my budget.
Buying a classic frameset online can be a daunting prospect for the uninitiated. Aside from the difficulties of trying to judge the quality of the frameset on the basis of a few photos, there is the risk that the seller will take your money and run. Shopping on eBay and using PayPal mitigates these risks to some extent but the shopping experience is often the equivalent of a lucky dip.
Any information that can be gathered about the brand and/or model of frame will go a long way when assessing a frameset, as will familiarity with the tubesets and fittings of the era. It’s wise to view any frameset with a healthy amount of scepticism, since it’s a simple matter to obtain reproduction decals to dress up an otherwise mediocre (or counterfeit) frameset.
In this instance, the frame carried a sticker for Columbus TSX tubing, a high-end tubeset that appeared in the late-‘80s that was designed for all-day riding. There are no outward signs to identify this tubeset, but I was pleased to see a Cinelli Spoiler bottom bracket, an expensive fitting that was reserved for high-end race frames and a common choice for the Squadra.
Other encouraging signs were the embossed Concorde logos on the lower head tube lug and the fork crown along with a tab for a race number on the underside of the top tube. There was also a little embossed Italian flag on the top tube, a sure sign that the frame had been made by Ciocc in Italy. When combined with the black and white PDM colour scheme (c.1988), I felt quite certain I was getting a true classic at a very good price.
Getting the bike together
Once it was delivered, the frameset turned out to be better than what I was hoping for. Yes, there were chips and scratches in the paintwork, and the clearcoat over the white paint had yellowed, however the chrome-work was completely unblemished. The decals were in good shape too, though the one on the top tube had been rubbed clear in places, so I replaced it with a reproduction from Cyclomondo.
Assembling the bike with the modern 11-speed Potenza groupset was a simple matter. I didn’t have any trouble with fitting the parts to the frame and the bike came together quite easily. With that said, I did have the benefit of experience that comes with building bikes for over two decades and a small stockpile of parts collected over the same period to contend with the outdated features of a 25-year-old steel frameset.
For example, I needed a pair of cable bosses for the down tube: in the past, these were supplied with every set of integrated brake/gear levers, but that time has passed. Fortunately, I had a couple of sets in my collection. Similarly, the final cable stop for the rear derailleur cable required a step-down ferrule, another common part that has become a rarity (or at least a part that is no longer supplied with modern groupsets).
I felt the bike deserved a classic 32-spoke wheelset, and ideally, a pair of Campag’s classic polished hubs. I managed to track down a set of 9-speed Chorus hubs and while the spline pattern for the freehub body is compatible with Campag’s 11-speed cassettes, the threaded portion of the current lockring is too large (27.0mm diameter). Fortunately, I had a lockring from an original Campag 9-speed cassette (26.0mm diameter) to use in its place, so I was able to finish the build without any delays.
The final build weighed 9.49kg without pedals or cages. The frame itself weighed 2,049g, the fork 622g, and the wheels 2,094g (front, 931g; rear, 1,163g) without skewers.
Road testing a classic re-build
Having started road cycling in the late-‘80s, I had a good idea of what to expect from the Concorde Squadra. I don’t want to unnecessarily crush any romantic notions, but there’s a good reason why the design and construction of road bikes has evolved over the last few decades.
The first thing to stand out was the weight of the Squadra. Compared to a modern bike, it was slow. Slow to get going, difficult to lift the pace, and cumbersome on climbs. Indeed, trying to get the bike to respond in the same manner as a modern bike was a waste of energy.
I was instantly reminded of Bombtrack’s Tempest, a modern steel bike with a similar weight to the Squadra. Riding this bike really demanded a different mindset, since it was better to stay in the saddle for longer and concentrate on technique and finesse to keep the bike going once it was up to speed.
That’s exactly how I ended up riding the Squadra and it really helped me enjoy what the bike had to offer. The silky ride quality quickly became my favourite aspect of the bike, and it was something that could be truly savoured while dosing my efforts. That doesn’t mean the Squadra was especially compliant — in fact, it was quick to telegraph potholes, ruts and corrugations — yet there was something akin to politeness in the way that the bike behaved when shaken by the terrain.
I suspect that this sense was helped by how quiet the bike was. It was like entering a library: all noise was hushed. It didn’t matter if I was pinging along an unpaved path, the bike always held its tongue. This effect was consistently calming and quite unique since the majority of modern bikes have real trouble achieving this kind of poise.
The steering of the bike was neutral and well suited to the quiet, slow-going nature of the bike. The extra weight was obvious when setting up for a corner because the bike was slow to lean over and it was difficult to change direction. Modern bikes are typically much friskier in this regard, and as a result, they can create a sense of urgency. The Squadra was happy to lay off and meander, and as such, was better suited to contemplative solo rides rather than fevered bunch efforts.
Aside from the extra weight, the other obvious shortcoming was how rubbery the front end of the bike felt. The frame was quite susceptible to lateral torsion, especially about the head tube and there was a lot of obvious flex in the stem and handlebars. It wasn’t something that ever unnerved me — in fact, the bike proved stable, even at high speeds — but I much prefer the extra sturdiness that modern bikes have to offer.
That lateral flex extended to the bottom bracket. I never found much satisfaction when sprinting out of the saddle, and while that was due mostly to the heft of the bike, there was a sense that the bike was soaking up some of my effort. Ultimately, this wasn’t much of a shortcoming in the context of the rest of the bike, since it was constantly urging me to sit down, relax, and enjoy the ride.
One of the things that a modern groupset has to offer is a wider range of gear ratios than a classic transmission. With the extra weight of the Squadra, low gear ratios became indispensable for long climbs to the point where I found myself using bigger cogs than I’d ever use on a modern bike. For those pondering a classic bike project, I’d recommend compact chainrings and a wide-range cassette unless the bike is going to be reserved for easy rides on flat terrain.
I spent a few months riding the Squadra, and while there were some very obvious shortcomings when compared to a modern bike, it consistently provided a refreshing contrast. Ultimately, this is perhaps the strongest argument for resurrecting a classic road bike. If nothing else, it provides a valuable perspective from which to judge how far modern road bikes have come.
Summary and final thoughts
Resurrecting a classic road bike can be a compelling and engrossing experience, however it is likely to be time-consuming, frustrating and a little bit expensive too. It’s not the kind of project that can be approached half-heartedly, and while it can be completed on a part-time basis, it really demands patience, devotion, and perhaps an amount of obsession, too.
In speaking to Andy White about the rewards of a classic bike project, he had this to say: “Experience tells me many people enjoy the process more than the result.” While some may take this to mean that the final product isn’t especially fulfilling to ride, it really puts the joy of the process into perspective.
After all, relatively few people will ever have to time, opportunity and resources to learn how to actually construct a steel frame, but taking on the challenge of resurrecting a classic road bike takes them into that realm. It’s an act of creation born out of passion for the history and artistry of road bikes that can only deepen one’s appreciation for the sport.