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