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I had an interesting conversation with a new kid to the group who rides an early-90’s steel Specialized Allez 14sp with down tube shifters the other night… We both rode the same route with the same group and finished with almost the exact same time – 28.2 miles in 1:13:42 or 23-mph (my buddy, Chuck, got 23.1 on his Garmin). Those who read this blog regularly, know what I rode. For those who don’t, I ride this:
The new guy to the group is 25 years younger than I am and about 15 pounds lighter. He spent most of the ride at the back because as soon as he got up to third bike, he would struggle to hang on so he’d tap out and head to the back for shelter, creating a hole that needed to be filled by the cyclist behind him. After the third time I asked him, politely, to stay at the back (I was about to explain myself after the ride, but he jumped in and said he fully understood). I spent my usual amount of time up front, pushing the pace, though I did shorten my turns which worked a lot better for me this week.
So, what’s the difference between a modern high-end carbon fiber super-machine and an old-school, down tube shiftin’ steel steed with the least aerodynamic wheels known to man?
In all seriousness, you can’t really measure the bikes without power meters and loads of data that I don’t have (nor do I care to bother with it). I can tell you this; one look at me and that kid and you know who’s the fitter of the two (it isn’t me). I’m taking my lumps up front, he can’t hold the pace three bikes back.
That’s the difference between a modern 15.75 pound aero super-steed and a 23 pound lugged steel steed. With the old-school road bike, you can go very fast with the right amount of youth and want to. Same with the modern super-steed… It’s just faster and less effort with the modern rig.
To be fair, you put a decent racer on that Allez and me on my Venge, I’ll likely get creamed. You put a rider of similar talent and fitness on that Allez and me on my bike, it’ll be an ass kicking in my favor. In short, there’s a wide gap between an old-school 23 pounder and a modern, light aerobike.
How about something a little more modern? My gravel bike is a 2016 Specialized Diverge A1 Sport. Retail was a little more than $1,100 if I remember correctly. It weighs 23 pounds, just like that Allez I mentioned to earlier, but it has all of the modern goodies. Integrated shift/brake levers, disc brakes, carbon fiber fork… You put me on that bike and I’ll struggle to keep up with my normal group. I would likely have to hide a lot, but I could do it with a lot of extra want to. Still, I wouldn’t be having fun like I do on my Venge. That seven pounds and change is noticeable, but being able to shift at will, without having to move the hands is a huge plus next to the down tube shifters.
How about modern components on an old frame?
Now we’re talking. Modern 10sp. drivetrain on a 1999 carbon fiber race frame. 18-1/2 pounds, decent wheels, nimble, but still lacking when you really step on the gas.
On the Trek I can not only hang with the group, I can take my lumps up front, and have a relatively good time. There is a small difference between the Venge and the Trek, mainly in wheels and aerodynamics. Both of those matter, but not enough that it can’t be made up for with a little extra want to.
The only problem with the Trek is sprinting on it. According to Strava, I can lay down some watts when I’m sprinting. Some of that is wasted on the Trek because the frame is a little squishy in the bottom bracket area. When I step on the gas with the Venge, it jets. As for the minor weight difference, it’s noticeable, but it’s not big enough to keep from choosing the bike for major tours – I actually prefer it.
What it all means
I’ve got a full range of bikes, from old school to entry-level to expert. The differences between the newer bikes are pretty minor excepting the weight of the Diverge – it’s prohibitively heavy. The shortcomings of the two bikes (the Trek and Diverge) can be made up for. The old school bike, not so much. When each little thing is a little more work, the shifters, the weight, the wheels, the frame… Too many of those little items and it just becomes too much to overcome with “want to” – it’s too much to hang with my normal group.
On one hand, the human engine is a funny thing. It can make up for a lot of technological shortcomings. On the other, looking at the bikes above, if you think there are only marginal gains between the Cannondale and the Specialized Venge, you’re wrong and you’ve bought something that’s unsaleable. Either that or you’ve never ridden a super-bike (which is quite okay, by the way – those things are freaking expensive), so you don’t know any better anyway.
The initial question that must be answered when considering whether or not to modernize a classic road bike is, “Do I want to alter the bike from what was originally intended?” With my Trek, I struggled with that question mightily… for about five minutes. For others, especially when it comes to older bikes, that Q & A might not be so easy.
I bought the 5200 used in January of 2012 because that was about all I could afford and the first road bike I bought was entirely wrong. Too small, down tube shifters, and old-timer heavy wheels. Over time I took the Trek from a nine speed triple (27 gears) to a ten speed compact double (20 gears) that I’m absolutely pleased with. I like the bike a lot more now than I did when it was a triple, and the reason for this is a little geeky.
So, the 5200 has been my “rain” bike since late in the 2013 season when I bought my brand spankin’ new Specialized Venge. The Specialized became my “A” bike the day I brought it home. Over the years, though, I came to appreciate the simplicity of the Trek and how it’s built. External cables, exceptional components… As parts wore out, it became increasingly clear that I wanted to use the Trek on multi-day tours rather than the Venge. The Specialized was great, but if anything went wrong with the Trek, I knew I could fix it blindfolded. The Venge is a little more labor intensive that way. Going back to geeky, I knew, from the voluminous articles I’ve read about road bikes over the years, that triples have a lot of overlap gears – doubles, therefore, are more efficient. Let’s look at the new gearing versus the old:
The top speed is a little misleading – I can get 40-mph out of the 50/34 (I’ve done it). The 52 tooth big ring is closer to 43-mph. That said, the granny gear is what’s important to me – I travel to a lot of places with hills, so I want to be able to climb anything that comes at me. You can see, the new gearing and the old are almost identical at the low-end.
Getting back to the overlap, look at the triple chart. 52/15 is almost identical to 42/12. 52/19 & 42/15. 52/21 and 42/17 match up exactly… and you can do the same thing for the baby ring and the middle ring. You’ve got another five overlap gears between those two. You’ve got 27 gears with the triple, but you only need 19 or fewer because of all of the overlapping gears. In other words, the triple is inefficient. Using the compact double, there is some overlap (50/24 & 34/17 for instance), but I use a double different than a triple on the road. The overlap isn’t quite as wasteful. The transformation was slow, though. It took some time.
As purchased in 2012 (with the addition of a modern saddle – the original was too wide):
The first thing to give out on the Trek was the wheelset. The Rolf wheels were bombproof as wheels go, but one too many rides in the rain and the brake track thinned and blew out – the aluminum brake surface wore too thin. The wheels were simple enough to rectify because, even being a ’99, the rear dropout width was the modern 130mm. I had a spare set of wheels that went on the bike. The headset was next to give out. The original headset was a mess after decades of abuse, so when I got the bike painted the stock headset was upgraded to a new Chris King. Shortly after the paintjob, the right shifter broke – again, after almost two decades of hard use, they were simply beat. Rather than change the drivetrain, I decided to go with MicroSHIFT 9sp. shifters to save money. They were only $75 shipped to my doorstep and I installed them myself. They worked flawlessly.
Painted, new headset, saddle, carbon fiber seat post, stem, handlebar and 9sp MicroSHIFT shifters 2016:
Eventually, a friend was selling an Ultegra 10sp. component group that I put on the Venge and I took the 105 drivetrain off that and put it on the Trek. A used Shimano crank for ($20), some new chainrings ($60), a new Ultegra bottom bracket ($40 installed) and I was ready to roll.
Today – 2018: New compact crank, new Ultegra bottom bracket and bearings, 17° stem (flipped), 10sp Shimano 105 drivetrain:
Whether good or lucky, my ’99 Trek was easy to upgrade – at least the parts I installed myself were easy (everything except the bottom bracket and headset). The headset was a little tricky because, if memory serves, there was only one available on the market that would fit the bike. The bottom bracket was a happier story; ultra-easy. I did agonize over the stem for a bit, though. I was stuck between going with a 17° and a full-on-crazy drop with a 25° stem. I’m glad I went with the 17 in the end. The 25 would have been too much drop for me to reach comfortably.
Other than that little bit of consternation, everything fit and worked perfectly.
I think, eventually I’m going to change the brake calipers to something a little more black but that’s way, way on the back burner.
So, from a 21-pound 52/42/30, 9sp. triple to a 18-1/2-pound 50/34, 10sp. double… Having to do it all over again, would I alter the original again (obviously, the worn-out parts had to go anyway)?
In a heartbeat. I was never much for nostalgia anyway. The bike is faster, lighter by 2-1/2 pounds, and more enjoyable to ride… not to mention, it looks a lot better. In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. 1999 was the only year the triple got it’s own designation as the 5200T. In reality, what I did was upgrade a rare bike – doing what I did in the automotive world would be a pure travesty. Thankfully, as bike geeks go, it’s less about altering a classic and more about making an old bike into something that’s more fun to ride. I’ve taken that bike on every tour I’ve done for the last two years, and I couldn’t be happier.
I took a fine classic and perfected it.
Would the whirling dervish purists get their undies in a bunch over what I’ve done? Without question – but they’re not riding the bike, so let them whirl.
The guys (and gal) over at GCN, on the tech show, have a new segment – a spinoff of the old Eddy Merckx quote, “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.”
While I think throwing the greatest cyclist of all time under the bus is a little uncalled for, I do love the premise! Of course, I prefer both.
Tarmac bend alloy handlebar, Specialized adjustable stem, Axis 4.0 wheels (1990 grams!), FSA Gossamer crank (172.5mm), Shimano 105 10sp. drivetrain.
S-Works Aerofly handlebar, FSA 110mm carbon-wrapped alloy stem (-90 grams), S-Works crankset and carbon spider (-340 grams), Ican 38mm carbon fiber wheels (-570 grams). Shimano Ultegra 10sp. drivetrain (-200 grams), Blackburn carbon bottle cages (-46 grams), SRAM PG-1070 cassette (-50 grams-ish), SRAM 1091r chain (–30 grams-ish). 25mm Michelin Pro 4 tires (+30 grams)
After: 15.75 pounds.
Then there’s my Trek 5200T 1999
The only parts on that bike still original are the brakes and chainring bolts. It went from a 20 pound Ultegra 9sp. Triple to a svelte 18.5 pound Shimano 105 compact double (50/34) 10sp. drivetrain. The drivetrain for the Trek came over from the Venge – the plan was hatched to upgrade the Venge to Ultegra and put the 105 components on the Trek after the original shifters went bad and were irreplaceable so I went to the Chinese MicroSHIFT equivalent (which worked spectacularly by the way). Then a friend announced on a ride that he was interested in selling his Ultegra 10sp drivetrain that he’d just upgraded to 11sp. I jumped on it.
It feels like the weather’s finally broke and we can get on with spring. When I woke yesterday morning I expected a big group for the ride. I was shocked when only two others beside my wife and I showed. It did make some sense, several of our friends headed over to the west side of the State for Barry-Roubaix, the largest gravel road ride in the USA, but I still expected six or eight.
I’d pulled out the big gun for this ride. I’ve been riding the Trek since last fall and have it dialed in excellently, but I was missing the easy speed of the Venge. Apples to apples, and both bikes at the very top of their operating ability, the old Trek can’t hold a candle to the Venge. Literally and figuratively. The 5200 is an excellent and comfortable bike but 14 years of technological advancement in carbon fiber is simply too great…
Final tally notwithstanding, we rolled at 9am, Mike, Chuck, my wife and I. The conditions, for the end of April, were stellar. Sunshine, 41° (5 C) and virtually no wind. We kept a lively but easy pace for the first six miles or so before turning dead into what little breeze there was. Holding 19 wasn’t all that hard but my wife was suffering a late night, little sleep and tired legs, so we kept the pace low for her. She left the group at about the ten mile mark to head back… our daughter had to prep for her first high school prom (! DUDE!) so my wife wanted to get back to her.
I’d dressed a little under for the temp because I knew it would warm up soon enough but I struggled against the chill on the upper body for about 45 minutes, and then… boom, I the warmth of the sun on my red long-sleeve thermal finally cut through the cold. Apparently my friends felt it too because it went from quiet to lively talk about how great a day it was for cycling all within ten minutes.
We all took turns, over the course of the next 35 miles or so, expressing how much fun it was to be out in good, warm weather. I wish I could put it into writing, how enjoyable it was, the relief, to be out with two of my good friends like that, after one of the longest, coldest winters in Michigan history (the longest since 1874). I felt like our planned 50 just wasn’t enough – a stark contrast against looking forward to being done after 25 or 30 miles in the cold.
We stopped into the bike shop to say hi to everyone on our way home and they were hopping inside… People milled about all over the shop. Everyone in our group, everyone, has a high-end bike. Be it a Specialized, Trek, Giant or even a Merckx, we’re all sporting top-of-the-line stuff so we like to line our bikes up along the outside window as free advertising for the shop owner and eye candy for the shoppers (who are usually inside looking for a leisure bike of some sort). Several stopped to ogle after completing their purchases.
After our greetings we headed out and threw a leg over the top tube for our final five miles to home, but horror of horrors, I discovered I would be shy of miles! On the first perfect cycling day of the year, a day that was finally warm enough that you didn’t have to worry about sweat killing you because it sucks heat out of your body 25 times faster than air, I simply couldn’t come up short of our planned 50!
I chose to stick with Mike and Chuck to Chuck’s house (Chuck lives just over two miles from my house) and rode Mike home down another mile toward his house (Mike lives two miles from me as well), then took it back to my place. I pulled into the driveway with 50.12 miles. Perfect.
I had a couple of delectable pulled pork sammiches for lunch, with slaw and Devil’s Spit barbecue sauce from Famous Dave’s (it’s hot, but not as hot as the name suggests, it’s a spectacular spicy BBQ sauce), watched some of the Tiger’s baseball game and took a 30 minute nap.
I’ll tell you, it’s nice to be back on my “more mileage” schedule. This week, after this morning’s 50, I’ll top 200 miles for the first time since last fall. Everything seems easier when I’m on that schedule. My body works better, food tastes better (and certainly does less damage, heh), and my attitude and outlook on life are better. Folks, life is better.