JRA with the Angry Asian: The slow crawl of road bike progress
Time and tide wait for no one, as the saying goes, and as we head into the meat of the 2018 product launch cycle, I can’t help but marvel at how far bikes have come. Road frames are lighter, more efficient, more aerodynamic, and more comfortable than ever. Bikes are more versatile and capable than they’ve ever been. The continuing infusion of advanced electronics into mechanical systems has produced better drivetrains than Tullio Campagnolo could ever possibly have imagined. Disc brakes are finally starting to overtake rim brakes, and one of the first questions people ask when investigating a new bike is, “how big a tire can I fit in there?”
The sea is changing, indeed.
But yet as incredible as all this new stuff is, the bigger question remains: Are the improvements significant enough to justify replacing your old bike?
Much of the marketing hype out there certainly would suggest as much. Your current bike has round tubes and a frame that weighs over 800g? There are braided cables connecting the shifters and derailleurs? And blocks of rubber clamping down on — gasp — metal rims??? The horror.
While it’s my job to keep up to date on the latest and greatest, I’m personally not so sure how much of the new technology on the road front carries sufficient benefits to justify replacing old with new.
A ride down memory lane
Thirteen years ago, I had a red-and-black LeMond Maillot Jaune that I absolutely adored. The Reynolds 853 lower “spine,” as LeMond called it, was meant to give the bike the springy ride quality of steel, while the frame’s molded carbon fiber upper section reduced the overall weight relative to an all-chromoly frame, and also added torsional rigidity.
It was a lovely bike to ride, and I kept it for several years. It even made the move with me from flat Michigan to mountainous Colorado. I eventually sold it after finally admitting to myself that it was one size too big, but I always regretted doing so.
A few months ago, I found a used Maillot Jaune frameset on eBay. It clearly had had a rough life. The paint was in bad shape, someone had cut the steerer tube far too short to be safe with any stem, and the base of the seat tube slot had a small crack in it. But it was the right size and vintage, and nostalgia is one of those things that defies common sense.
I bought it immediately.
I began to question, though, if my pleasant memories of that bike were a matter of absence making the heart grow fonder. Was the bike really that nice to ride, or did I just make it out that way in my mind? There was only one way to find out.
I gathered up a modern Campagnolo Chorus mechanical groupset, some older Campagnolo Shamal Mille aluminum clinchers, a cool old Rotor S1 machined aluminum stem, and a Selle Italia SLR Monolink saddle and carbon fiber seatpost that the company had printed with my name on it years ago as some sort of marketing promotion. I wrapped the wheels with a pair of 26mm-wide Specialized Turbo Cotton tires (some of the best available, in my opinion), wrapped a Bontrager RXL IsoZone handlebar with some Arundel Gecko Grip tape (in gleaming white to match the saddle), and fitted some new Time road pedals.
I have a rule about never riding used carbon fiber forks of unknown history, so even if the steerer had been sufficiently long, there was never a question as to whether I would one the fork that came with the frame. Finding a suitable replacement proved challenging, but Bicycling Magazine test director Matt Phillips miraculously came through with a period-correct Reynolds Ouzo Pro — with the correct rake.
All told, the bike came out to a reasonable 7.78kg (17.15lb), including pedals and accessories — not far behind modern stuff, despite the comparatively weighty frame. Needless to say, I was dying to ride it.
The burden of unrealistic expectations
That day finally came not long ago, on a gorgeously sunny spring day with calm winds, clean roads, and minimal traffic. After so many years of searching, would my memory serve correct, or would my hopes be dashed?
Before I get your hopes up, I will say right away that this is not a case of a 13-year-old bike being just as good as a brand-new one. While the supple tires make for a smooth ride on good tarmac, engineers have learned a lot about frame compliance during that period. The old LeMond chatters and crashes on anything bigger than road texture or pavement seams. Similarly, the tired steel-and-carbon frame cannot match the near-instantaneous snap under power of an ultra-stiff modern carbon chassis.
But you know what? This old frameset is rigid enough, it rides well enough, it still handles fantastically — road geometry has changed little in decades, after all — and with a contemporary build kit, it all functions just as well as a new bike. It isn’t substantially heavier, and as much as I adore disc brakes on the road most of the time, standard rim-brake pads bite plenty hard on the plasma electrolytic oxidation-treated sidewalls of the Campagnolo Shamal Mille wheels.
The jury is still out on whether stiffer frames are faster than more flexible ones, anyway, and despite the fact that this LeMond feels slower than other modern bikes I’ve ridden, I set a PR on a local climb while riding it. Take that, technology.
I’ve long held this belief that the strict limitations put in place by the UCI’s Lugano Charter in 1996 have stifled innovation on the road front. While bikes have continued to get progressively lighter, more aerodynamic, and better overall since then, we’re still talking about incremental changes over the course of more than two decades.
In comparison, mountain bikes have transformed several times over in that period, to the point where a top-end machine from just a few years ago is a very different animal to something available today, with radical changes in frame geometry, wheel sizes, and gearing just to name a few. I wouldn’t dare ride the trails I do now on the DeKerf Team SL steel hardtail that I absolutely cherished back in the day for fear of serious bodily harm, but this LeMond can still tackle the same paved roads and bring the same smile to my face.
It might take a bit longer to do so, mind you, but ultimately, the experience it provides isn’t all that different.
The point of diminishing returns
I’m not surprised that road bike sales have fallen flat in recent years. Perceptions about road safety likely have something to do with that, but there’s only so long that you can beat the same drum before you get tired of hearing the same song, over and over. Is this old LeMond remotely aero? Nope. In fact, its perfectly round tubing puts a big middle finger up to the wind — honey badger don’t care. Are there frames out there that weigh almost half as much? Yup. And is modern stuff more comfortable, more versatile, and stiffer, too? Yes, yes, and yes.
But that’s besides the point. Because the gains made in road bike technology have been so comparatively minute, and because road bikes are so incredibly refined already, bikes that are even a decade old or more are still pretty damned good. Do I love new bikes? You betcha. Are they better? Unquestionably so. But a 10-year-old frame that was cutting-edge back then is still plenty nice now, and it’s hard to argue when someone says their old stuff is good enough — because in many cases, it probably is.
I’m not going to pretend that new bikes aren’t better than old ones, and if I were racing, by all means, I’d want every possible mechanical advantage I could find. And keep in mind that I’m mainly talking about frames; old parts definitely aren’t as good as the new stuff. But for riders who are mostly just out for fun, a new high-end road bike can be a tough sell, especially when it costs much less to just upgrade here and there.
I’ve been pretty amazed by the response I’ve gotten both on the road and in social media to my old Maillot Jaune. It seems I’m not the only one who remembers these things fondly. It might seem odd that someone with a rotating fleet of brand-new dream bikes at his disposal might go out of his way to find something old and tired, but it’s refreshing for me to remind myself just how good things have been, and important to maintain a sense of perspective.
I know there are other bikes that are “better” than this one. But bikes aren’t solely about going faster, and I’m not going to make the same mistake twice. This one’s a keeper.