Five things I learned from riding an old road bike for a month
How does yesterday's tech stack up?
How does yesterday's tech stack up?
Bike technology advances in increments, not leaps – an extra gear here, a few grams there. From one year’s bike to the next, it’s often hard to spot the difference, but those little changes add up. By the time the scale of those changes gets to a couple of decades, the contrast is dramatic.
Getting to experience that contrast in person is, it turns out, pretty instructive. In my in-law’s garage on the other side of the world is a tired Cannondale CAAD5, bought cheaply many years ago from an old guy called Pål on a classifieds website so I’ve got something to ride when visiting. So, for a few weeks every few years, I’m lucky enough to experience the best in mid-level road bike technology from 2006 – a perfect un-upgraded, under-maintained tech snapshot dating back to the year Floyd Landis most especially didn’t win the Tour de France.
I’ve just hung that bike up in the garage and returned home. Having spent four weeks riding on a 17-year-old bike, here are the five differences that have stuck with me between then and now – some for the better, some for the worse.
Bikes in 2022 are complicated machines. With trends toward hidden cabling and integrated everything, simplicity has gone out the window. That helps keep the lights on for bike shop mechanics, but is a bit of a headache for the home tinkerer.
Cannondale in 2006 was not thinking clever thoughts about internal cabling. Their idea of ‘System Integration’ was an internal headset and a fork that matched the lines of the head tube. All the cabling runs externally, the seatpost is 27.2 mm in diameter and fastened with an external clamp, there are tubes in the tyres, and this model even has a threaded bottom bracket instead of BB30.
You can see where all of the cables go from and to, for the duration of their journey, and if you don’t put stickers down, your cable outers will rub through the paint. If something is broken, you know about it.
It is primitive as hell, and I like it very much.
You occasionally come across people saying that road bikes today are made for pro cyclists and force their civilian owners into a wildly inappropriate position. To them, I say, look at the racey road bikes from this era – before the rise of the ‘endurance road bike’, and – most importantly for this point – before the rise of the compact crankset.
Consider this bike here – a lower mid-range road bike sold to an older gent in the lumpy terrain of western Norway. It has a 53/39-tooth crankset. At the back, its biggest cog is 27 teeth. I hate everything about these gear ratios. Even when I was fit, which I am not now, I would have hated it. For most people, these gears make no sense, and it is, I feel, a sign of progress that the gear ratios of most road bikes today are lower. It is a minor change that has a disproportionate impact in making road bikes more accessible for most people.
I do not have any desire to spend all my time in the small ring or grinding up climbs – which is exactly what these gear ratios will mean for most people riding them. (If that’s not you, congrats on your big strong legs, and yes, you are a better bicycle cyclist than I am).
For decades, road bikes were designed around narrower tyres at higher pressures than is common today, and they were worse because of it. There were a few tipping points that led to the point we are now at, where 28 or 32 mm tyres are de rigeur – disc brakes, tubeless tyres, wider rims – and this 2006 bike is a nice time capsule of all the opposite of those things. The bike was originally sold with 700 x 23 mm tyres but I fitted an old pair of 700 x 25 mm tyres – about as big as I’d be comfortable squeezing into the available space.
Sure, these brakes suck and the wheels aren’t good, but it’s the skinny tyres and the high pressure that they require that had the biggest impact on the feel of the bike. Which was … not silky.
Aerodynamics, integrated everything, disc brakes – from a performance perspective, they’ve all got something going for them. But on the scales, it all comes at a cost. A quick survey of modern road bike reviews suggests that most high-end bikes weigh over 7 kilograms; even if you’re spending thousands of dollars for something mid-range, you’re likely looking at 8 or 9 kilograms of premium carbon fibre.
This aluminium frame with nine-speed Tiagra and absolutely nothing high-end on it weighs in at a comparatively feathery 8.1 kg, inclusive of pedals and cages. Weight isn’t everything, but it is nice to have less of it.
Bikes today are more mechanically complex, with their prices pushed higher by increases in material costs and manufacturing delays as a result of war and pestilence. The days of cheap road bikes are dwindling. The likes of this bike – a nice frame with a basic but OK groupset, for not much money – barely exist anymore, in Cannondale’s range or elsewhere.
At the time of release, this bike – sporting a US-made frameset that had been raced in the Tour de France half a decade earlier – retailed at £749 GBP (about $850 USD / $1,250 AUD). The absolute highest-end bikes from most big brands retailed for around US$6,000 (£5,000 / $8,500 AUD), or less. Even allowing for inflation, the market has changed.
Yes, the bikes of today are tangibly better. But that doesn’t mean that we haven’t lost something in being able to buy something pretty good for much less money.
It’s easy to tie yourself up in knots about grams and watts saved over an hour at 45 km/h, and that’s fine. It all makes a difference, and it’s important enough to enough of you to justify the existence of our tech department.
But the reason we’re all here – you, me, my colleagues, the cycling industry – is because of one single, incontrovertible, underlying belief: bikes are great. Any bike, ridden anywhere you want to ride it, for as long or as short as you want, for whatever reason. Whether it’s a $20,000 superbike from the modern era, an ageing second-hand one from a classifieds website, or anything in between.
All of those bikes can transport you – not just physically, but mentally – to a different or better place. With any bike, you can exercise, and you can exorcise. It is the perfect machine, even if – as is the case here – it is a bit harsh-riding, has stupidly high gearing, has uncomfortable handlebars, and is showing its age. Broadly speaking, none of that really matters, because it all serves a higher purpose.
So, to my 2006 Cannondale CAAD5, hanging back up in a garage in Stavanger: thank you. Until next time.