Thursday, April 14, 2005

Technology marches on

Last year, I started actively riding a bicycle again. When I was much younger and skinnier, I rode regularly right up until I was about 20-ish, and I even held a USCF racing license. I rode with the old Fairfield County Velo Club (we had pink and green jerseys), and competed in occasional time trials and other events (there were a bunch of guys I would go rock-climbing, racing, and mountain biking with - we were into "extreme sports" before they were called that). I sold off my last road bike (a late-'80s Cannondale) in 1992, though, and have owned a mountain bike since then. But when I rode, I was reasonably good at it.

Well, years later, my friend Robert suggested that I train with him to ride the Harbor to the Bay ride that benefits several AIDS treatment groups here in the Boston area. I agreed, and inherited a Schwinn road bike that was rather poorly maintained and had a pretzeled wheel. After I looked into fixing it up at the time, I wound up putting some effort into making my old mountain bike better-suited for road use. A new chainwheel, seat, and pair of semi-slick tires later, and I was in business. So I rode that all last year, and though the ride day was canceled due to Hurricane Ivan, I got into decent shape and was riding around 50 miles on weekends.

This year, though, I wasn't going to struggle with the mountain bike on the road. It was just too much extra effort to keep on doing it (a mountain bike is far heavier than a road bike, with lower-pressure tires, a frame geometry not well-suited to long rides, and gearing that's not optimal for road use). So I started looking around, figuring I had two choices: either restore the Schwinn or replace it. I hadn't put any money into the Schwinn so far so I wasn't really biased either way - I set a budget for repair, and if I couldn't get it done for the price I'd look into buying new.

Well, my main discovery is that cycling equipment has changed. My first road bike was a Trek, purchased in 1982. It had cro-moly steel in the main frame and fork, cheaper steel in the rear triangle, mid-grade components, and was designed for touring and distance riding. It cost my parents about $400, and I soon went on a long hostel tour of Vermont with it. I also converted my old Schwinn 5-speed into a mountain bike as well.

After wrecking the Trek in 1986 (it was pretty spectacular), I bought a Peugeot mountain bike that summer which I held onto for a few years. Decent steel frame, rugged, and it was fun to ride at the old quarries in Milford with the girl I was dating at the time (she lived out there, and she still has an old blanket of mine - rassafrassa!). A couple of years later I bought the Cannondale, and it was darned near a rocket science bike. High-end Shimano components, oversized aluminum frame, stiff as anything and fast. I paid a little over $650 for it, and it seemed like a fortune. Heck, since I had no money at the time, it was a fortune!

So that was my reference point - a 13-year old memory of a racing bike I bought 16 years ago. And since then, virtually all my riding has been in motorized vehicles. Well, things have changed. A lot.

First off, prices have exploded upwards. When I was riding, a steel-framed bike would typically cost around $300-$600, aluminum would run from $500-$1000, and the exotics would top out around $2000. Now, the running order has changed. Entry-level bikes are aluminum, steel is hardly ever used, and when it is it tends to be in the midrange, and both titanium and carbon fiber are super-common - but priced in the $2500-$4000 range. And the base price for a new bike is around $500.

Then, there's a paradigm shift in shifting. There were a couple of choices when I was riding - shifters could be on the downtube (like 90% of bikes did), or for touring bikes they were sometimes on the ends of the handlebars. Shifters generally worked by friction - you'd "feel" the gear into place. With practice it was natural. When I left the sport, the new "index" shifters were just turning up in the marketplace.

When I looked at bikes over the last week I didn't see one road bike that had even a place for shifters on the downtube. Virtually all bikes nowadays have integrated shifting into the main brake lever - flipping a switch on the lever side to upshift and flipping the lever itself inwards to downshift.

Brakes on mainstream road bikes are still side-pull in design - but they've become more intricate. Touring bikes now use cantilever brakes - which when I was riding were only on mountain bikes. The cam-lock brake was popular on mountain bikes when I was riding in the '80s - but now that's completely gone and disc brakes are actually back in use again.

Other areas of technology improvements include the frames themselves (even a low-end bike has carbon fiber components - usually the fork), the toeclip-strap pedal combo has all but vanished in favor of cleated systems (the one trend I embraced early on - I've been using a Look pedal and cleat since about 1988 or so), and virtually every road bike offers a minimum of 21 speeds - when I rode only a double front chainwheel was common and the rear sprocket was usually a 6-speed (for a total of 12). Now it's routine to have even 24 or 27 speeds available.

Also, Shimano seems to absolutely dominate the component business now. When I rode, they were the distant third, behind Suntour and Campagnolo. Well, Campy is apparently a niche player and Suntour has completely vanished (according to Google, they basically folded in the mid-'90s). The product family names are gone (Shimano had Dura-Ace and Deore, Campy had Record and Super Record), so I've pretty much been a newbie all over again.

Anyhow, if you've read this far you are probably wondering "so what, if anything, did I do?" Well, I decided that the bike I was given will be donated back to the bike ride's organizing committee, and if a shop is willing to refurbish it for them it can either be sold to raise money or used as a spare in case anybody breaks down on this years' ride. To replace all the things on it that needed replacing would have cost me nearly $400 in parts, plus either I would have had to take a lot of time to do the work or pay a shop $100 or so to do the work for me. So I was able to find an acceptable price for a '04 model (bikes have model years now, that's another change) at a store down in Newton and I bought a Lemond road bike with an aluminum frame. It may be bottom-of-the-line, but it was the cheapest one they had, and it's light-years from what I used to ride. So now I will be able to actually accelerate when my friends do. That'll be nice.

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