Upgrade and Afterlife

Upgrade and Afterlife

I have three friends who have complete Mavic gruppos from yesteryear, who are actively looking for just the right bike to put them on. Each of them has been holding the prized parts for longer than my kids have been breaking hearts and making messes. This is how we are sometimes, bike nerds, obsessive and patient, nostalgic and ingenious.

If I were to go to eBay and search for a bike frame from 2004, the chances are good that I would be able to take the componentry off my current bike, move it all over to the ten year old frame and it would all work. This is part of the great fun of this hobby of ours, upgrade and afterlife, making an old bike new or taking a current bike up a level in the quiet of the basement or garage, like my father’s generation bent under the hoods of their cars, slung headlong beneath engines with heavy wrenches and oil stains on their faces. No one I know works on their own car anymore, not a modern car anyway. The computerization and modularization of newer engines resists tinkering.

If you scan the covers of your favorite cycling magazines, you might think the road bike is going the same way.

A little over ten years ago road frames started having 1 1/8″ head tubes instead of the 1″ tube they’d had for decades, and that created problems for tinkerers. A lot of riders employed ugly adapters to slip through the eye of that needle, but by and large a frame’s head tube marks it as either retro or contemporary. Still, that break was fairly clean, and it was a single paradigm shift.

A similar leap had taken us from down tube shifters to brifters (brakes/shifters) in the ’90s, but simple adapters to convert the down tube bosses to cable stops made this a fairly painless one. Cable stops and guides remained the same, preserving the path future utility.

Then things went haywire.

Bottom bracket standards proliferated. Electronic shifting came on line. Disc brakes arrived on the road, and each of these changes hint at future compatibility problems beyond the reach of simple adaptation.

Two or three years into the life cycle of products like Shimano’s DI2 and Campy’s EPS, we see all the batteries formerly bolted to chainstays and under downtubes disappearing into seatposts or into the frame beneath. That leaves us with several season’s worth of bikes filled with holes they don’t need and parts bins harboring batteries we’ll never use again.

Say you want to build a mechanical bike five years from now. You will find that some large percentage of what’s available on the second hand frame market is routed for Di2. No cable stops. Say you want to build a bike with rim caliper brakes, but some large percentage of what’s available has disc tabs, and no brake bridge. Say you want to build a bike with a straight 1 1/8″ fork steerer, but some large percentage of what’s available has a 44mm head tube. You’ll be able to get adapters, but you’ll end up with the classic ‘hot dog down a hallway’ look. It’ll be ugly.

It could be argued that for decades the road bike was evolving along a single path, bikes of the past being upgradeable to the components of the moment. But over the last few seasons, that evolution has branched hard in myriad directions, many of which have led to dead ends, seriously degrading the sustainability of the existent bike population.

We’re going to end up with a lot of garbage, and we’re going to have fewer and fewer frames to work with in our basements, in our garages. It could be that the performance advantages afforded by many of these new technologies will be adequate recompense for the loss of the ability to tinker, to while away hours in studied silence, or to knock out a new bike with some music playing, over beers. It bears thinking about.

Sociologists use the term cultural lag to describe the moral and social delay we experience in assimilating new technologies. The Internet provides the most immediate example. Web technologies that spawn efficiency, convenience and cost savings also enable all manner of transgression, all of it governed by outdated laws and on-the-fly social contracts. For all its transformative brilliance, there is a dark side we struggle to contain.

The modern day road bike is not, probably, such a treacherous medium, but its effect on this cycling culture of ours, what has been a mechanically inclined culture organized around a people’s technology, is rapidly becoming modular and proprietary. In the moment it may be more aero, or more accurate, but its obsolescence will cost us more than the price of replacing our favorite ride.

I’m old fashioned. You know that by now. I like things that last, both because I am New England thrifty and because I tend to become quite fond of my stuff. I have never in my life put a bike frame in the garbage. I have also come to see my bikes as living things on some level. They grow and change, and when I get a new one I am normally thinking about how I want it to be in the moment, and how I will maybe alter it later. And I think cyclists in general have always had these values. Quite why we are engineering ourselves into corners now, I can’t say, but I’m concerned and a little sad.

Image: The Salvatore Collection

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  1. Ransom

    I *do* know people who work on modern cars, and I actually find a lot of what has happened in terms of modularization to be quite useful (depending on a lot of specifics). A practical upshot is that I can now tune the fuel injection of my 1970 BMW with a laptop, with only a small amount of custom fabrication.

    It’s not a deterrent necessarily, but it is a change. You can’t do everything with the same old tools, but some of the new tools make life better even for the DIYer. My phone can now tell me why my van’s check engine light is on, for the cost of a $15 adapter.

    Whether and in what ways cycling adapts to similar changes, I don’t know. My stint as a bike mechanic was short, predated a lot of the current mayhem, and I still wandered away muttering something about “Interactive Glide?”… Apparently the enthusiasm of the participant for a given change is a big part of what changes are worth adapting to. From my experience with cars, I think it’s worth going through a period of turmoil and rejected “standards” if the new normal is substantially improved.

  2. armybikerider

    I’m a self-professed luddite. I carry a flip phone….commute on a 1993 Specialized M2 with period correct Shimano XT thumbshifers….I’m not on Facebook….and ride a metal framed road bike. Oh and I have no desire to change. I bemoan the planned obsolescence of the current bike industry and what I see as upgrades in technology just to sell a few more bikes. I’m not opposed to all change – I don’t miss my friction down tube shift levers, but on the whole miss the days when I could easily wrench whatever was needed on my bikes.

  3. Michael

    I feel very similarly about the changes, Robot, but am less despairing, simply because there is a parallel (to the BB86/Di2/etc) movement going on now of commuters and tourers and other riders who want bikes that are reliable and easy to fix. They won’t be the über-bikes the pros ride, but few of us really need those. My steel coupler bike I take with me traveling everywhere has a custom frame and can handle tires up to 32 mm, but has a great quick ride. Yep, it is heavy, but about the same as what I raced in 1980, and I thought I was fast then. The bikes are out there, but they mostly won’t be the carbon frames with the fancy components. I’ll have fun on my speedy bike too, but may not always wrench it. But its going obsolete after a couple of years DOES bother me, just as it does you.

  4. Frank

    Your story resonates with me. I am quite particular (ok, obsessive) about my frame and component choices and hence tend to become emotionally attached to my equipment. It helps that I have a long upper body that doesn’t fit well on stock frames and an eye for the artistry of mechanicals. I like modern equipment, but not at the expense of reliability. I’ve built up all my rides and do my own wrenching. I ride campy record 10 speed on my 12 year old steel Serotta and campy record 11 speed on my 8 year old Ti Spectrum. I just recently sold my 15 year old Merlin mtn frame to upgrade to a Lynskey 29er that is setup as a SS and fitted with a 20 year old DA road crank (square taper) from my parts bin. Yes, I buy expensive stuff and keep it for a long, long time. I can’t imagine wanting another frame ever. Bearing races do wear, so maybe I’ll have to stock up on BB’s and cups, but if necessary, I know a excellent machinist.

  5. Jay Fromkin

    I bought my last bike in 1997. Bill Davidson built me a titanium road bike with 8-speed Campy brake/shifters. I upgraded to 9-speed when the rear derailleur exploded out on the road.

    Last July, a dog hit me out on the road. Concussion, two broken ribs, and a mangled right thumb. Everything’s healed but the thumb, which can no longer operate the rear derailleur downshift lever. I could have bought a new bike, but I sent the frame back to Bill to adapt for Shimano Di2. I believe in upgrades out of necessity. Same old frame (with modification), new group.

    My thumb’s never getting better, and if nothing else breaks on my bike or body, at 63 this will be my last upgrade.

  6. Walt S

    I guess I could be considered a retro-grouch of sorts, to some extent. I have an early 70s Gios with down tube shifters, 5 speed rear end, complete Campy Nouvo Record gruppo. It is my only such bike. The next “modern” bike that I have ridden for thousands of miles is a 90s Ibis Sonoma ti, 1 inch steerer, steel fork, and Campy Record 10 speed. It was state of the art when I first put it together. My latest bike which has just been completed, is a steel Columbus Spirit Niobium tubing wonder machine custom crafted by a local frame builder in Albuquerque. I thought electronic shifting would be fun to try on the new bike, so the frame was built with much care and research so that Campy’s latest EPS would be able to be installed perfectly. The frame was completed, but of course I got wind of the newer and latest version known as V2 with the internal battery, so I waited months for the new group to come into the country. It finally did arrive and I was eager to get the new bike built up.

    Except there were a few minor problem. The new Campy EPS was engineered for carbon or non-ferrous frames. The system cannot be shut down with a magnet on my bike because of the steel frame. And, the newer version uses only one port in the down tube to run the necessary wiring, so there is an unused hole in the frame plugged by a ugly rubber grommet. So now I have a brand new frame that is on the way to being obsolete because it is steel with components that are immensely more complicated than a mechanical system to maintain. Yes, I will be riding the latest and greatest, but soon there will be the next iteration that will be even more advanced and hard to work on. I guess you could call it progress, but I am not so sure.

    Honestly, I wish I had just gone with the mechanical group and been happy with that!

  7. Hautacam

    Love this post. My bikes have been through several cycles (sorry) of component upgrade and revision. One of my bikes — a 20-year old steel frame — has 10 speed Campy brifters shifting 8-speed shimano ultegra. Flawlessly. But I’m not sure any of them will make the next Great Leap Forward.

    That said, and to follow on Ransom’s opening comment, one upside of technological innovation (Di2, disk brakes, carbon frames, etc.) is that it can open up new niches that didn’t exist before — Bridgestone USA may have been broken on the Catherine wheel of Rockshox and Rapidfire and component integration and the rising Yen, but Rivendell arose from the aftermath, and sparked a new fire under the cyclotourists and randonneurs and gravel grinders and retrogrouches and others of similiar ilk. A smaller but more targeted operation. Boutique, if you will. Now we also have Soma, Velo Orange, IRD (OK, so they were around before) and numerous others making old-school stuff, only newer and better this time around. Like hipsters with 19th century logger beards. They look quaint and truly authentic and all, but boy am I glad they observe 21st century hygiene!

    And then there is the resurrection of the custom steel frame industry, which (I am given to understand) is now gravitationally centered in the U.S., rather than Italy/Belgium/England. I am preaching to the choir here when I say that a handmade steel frame is everything that mass-produced carbon is not — for better or for worse. But without the mass-produced carbon revolution, the steel renaissance might not have happened. Yes, there was SOPWAMTOS back in the 90’s, but the Velocipede Salon it was not. The custom steel frame you get today will likely be tremendously improved over the one you could have gotten 20 years ago. Ditto Ti or aluminum. Custom carbon is a class of its own.

    ATMO, if I may be so bold as to quote from the Book of e-Richie.

  8. Rod

    I will offer an opinion that’s not popular – I love the innovation in cycling.

    I don’t feel the need to buy the latest. I don’t think I like electronic shifting that much, and will be a while before I move to 11 speeds. On the other hand, I am very interested in disc brakes for my CX and road bikes. The diverse specs are a pain, that’s for sure. But I like that people are trying to make improvements on such a simple machine as a bike.

    I still use a three piece crankset in two of my bikes. And until recently, a quill stem (that frame died, but the Nitto bar is still in use although with a threadless headset). The cool thing is that I can still get 7, 8, and 9 speed parts.

    1. Author

      @Rod – I don’t think that’s an unpopular opinion. I think the innovation is great, too. The tension for me is between innovation that integrates into the larger stream of the evolution of the bike, and innovation that is not adaptable. I think, too often, the business people are rushing innovations to market when the simple functionality is complete, before the engineers have had time to think through the whole life cycle of the product.

  9. Patrick O'Brien

    At this time I am only able to do minor repairs and maintenance. It is enough given the reliability of current components. But, I have a great local bike shop with three technicians who really know their trade and aren’t afraid to experiment. So, our last four “new” bikes were SOMA and Salsa frames built up with hand me down parts from three old bikes or new parts in the case of my new SOMA ES road bike. And, it has a 11/34 mountain cassette that is reliably and smoothly shifted by a 105 long cage rear derailleur thanks to the ingenuity and skill of Mike at M&M Cycling. The old frames were either sold or gifted so nothing hit the landfill. So, part interchangeability is important to me. Someday I hope to buy an old bike, preferably a quality steel road bike, and completely restore it to learn more about bike maintenance.

  10. Patrick O'Brien

    PS: I forgot that one frame was a Niner. Also, due to diameter differences of seat tubes, I had to buy one new seat post clamp and a front derailleur.

  11. August Cole

    Cycling moves at its own speed, and it has caught up to 21st Century modernity for all its benefits and costs. Technology is changing, but our ‘mindset’ (which should be fundamental equipment essential to a frame as a groupo … as in I’ll take a steel cross frame with an RKP mindset) is evolving slower than the leading-edge group sets. It need not. An evolved line of thinking does not mean chasing after the next-gen shifter or a particular type of road disc brake. Those steps are wonderful changes, but they are not essential evolutions. If anything, they take many of us further from what we really enjoy most about cycling. Going fast. Time with friends. Getting dirty. Exploring new ground. The new mindset should be to cherish all of what you have, and welcome the new on your terms, not anybody else’s.

  12. Rod

    @Robot – You do have a point there. Some things are just shiny as opposed to useful. Or simply ill-thought or produced.

    I love SRAM on my road bike, but the failure of their hydraulic road system is painful to watch. I’d hazard from rushing these things a bit?

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  14. jorgensen

    One of the pleasures of tinkering with bicycles was that besides nationalistic threading conventions bike parts were quite interchangeable over decades. There was incremental change but things evolved so slowly that there were wide swaths of development that any one frame could be assembled with. Compatibility in the future will be definitely more era specific. The problem I see with electronic drivetrains is the upcoming changes will be more akin to a computer that is still functional but the operating system is no longer supported. There will be “hacks” to keep some going and special parts created. I can see someone creating carbon filament 3D printed parts to make twenty-teens electronic capable frames useable with mechanical drivetrains, but the sophistication of the tinkering mechanic will have to increase. There will be some neat innovations coming I think before too long probably in rapid succession some of this supported by the UCI technical spec review of bicycles. The question will be what rung of the development ladder do you grab and ride for a while while the next development has already been caught by a spy photographer?

  15. Les Borean

    Back at some point in history someone invented a vehicle with wheels powered by pedals that the rider pumped. Others at the time griped about this innovation.

    100+ years and numerous innovations later, we have a bike technology concurrent with today’s technology.

    The griping continued along the way at each and every innovation. “Rubber tires? Bah!”

    I love my carbon bike with electronic shifters. I’d love to have disc breaks with the safety advantage and feel they have.

    My old Trek 1100 is for errands and is not nearly so much fun.

    The disclaimer here is that I’m not saying I’m not given to griping. I like to gripe. But not about innovation in bikes.

  16. royalewithcheese

    As an engineering student (ie. huge nerd) I love innovation, and I’ll voraciously read everything I find about whatever new bike part is circulating through the interwebs. Most of the things I’ll follow are things I’ll never own, for example I followed the development of the DVO Emerald fork, really closely even though I have no real desire to ever ride a downhill bike. I also appreciate old school bikes, a beautiful lugged steel frame with high polished Nitto bits and downtube shifters is always an object of desire. As a mechanic and broke college student I ride a tig welded steel road bike with Force and a Brooks on it which disappears underneath me, and asks for little more than chain lube and air because after working on bikes all day I’d rather just ride my own.

  17. Michael Levine

    Sometime in the mid to late ’70’s when that Rally Campy derailleur came out, I longed for one desperately. I had a Raleigh International ( Misty Green) and I was aching to have it for my solo cross country tour. I didn’t feel that I could justify and afford to ditch my trusty Suntour long cage mech as it was reliable with no end in sight. I did finally save up some cash a couple of years later and get one. Oh, how easy it was to install those parts those days. Even I could do it with the bike hanging from 2 lengths of bicycle chain fixed to the ceiling with hooks. Actually, I used to dissemble, clean, grease, and reassemble the full Record bike every 6 months as a quasi zen/religious ritual. Calming and restorative. For a guy who felt shy and rather inexpert much of the time, being able to ride thousands of miles a year in inclement weather, AND being able to fix his own bike was a healing and spiritual reward quite welcomed to me and allowed me to feel much more a part of, and belonging in the world.
    What happened to that Rally derailleur is another story all together of accomplishment and redemption. I’m inspired to write more of this down. I thank our host and all the other contributors of this blog/forum for their input and platform to tell our tales.

  18. Gary

    Michael Levine: I needed lower gearing for my Mikkelsen custom steel frame from 1988, and found a Campy triple crankset and Campy Rally rear derailleur to replace the original Record setup. They work great (with Rivendell bar end shifters replacing the original down tube shifters). The only problem is that I can’t find a freewheel with larger cogs of the same quality as the original. Having acquired a cheaper substitute with the needed large cog, the gap between gears is large. Of course the rear dropout spacing won’t allow for a modern cassette without spreading the stays. I guess I can’t complain because I’m still using the original bulletproof Campy hubs, and the frame is a couple of generations old. Still a fine ride.

  19. slappy

    it IS fun dropping fully suspended people on the downhills riding a hardtail and dropping those carbon roadies uphill on vintage steel. . and yes the bike industry just wants you to buy more shit, bfd

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