Friday, April 26, 2013

Vintage bikes: Still Relevant?

Can Vintage Bikes Compete in Today's Peloton?

Yes, they can. They can also be easy to find and can cost1% of the actual cost of one of today's high performance professional bikes. 

How is that even possible? One of today's bikes being as fast as one from about 25 or more years ago? At first glance, it seems like an ambitious, even foolhardy statement to make. But I have the facts to back it up. Being a bike nerd, I have developed an attraction, to the point of infatuation, for all things vintage when it comes to bikes. I have collected novels with accounts from the Golden era of cycling when riders rode on Reynolds 531 steel, used down tube shifters, and used over the brake hood cable routing. Bicycles that were anything over 14 speeds seemed like a myth, or an unnecessary amount of gears.  And I can tell the races back then were just as fast as the races are now.

Let's compare, for example, the average speed of the peloton from the 1982 Tour De France and from 2012. The 1982 Tour was only 11 kilometers longer than the 2012 tour. The average speed for the peloton in 1982 was 38.05kph, or 23.64 miles an hour. In 2012, the average speed was 39.9kph, or 24.79 miles an hour. That is about one mile an hour faster than in 1982. The difference? Smoother roads, electronic shifting, built in wattage and cadence meters, indexed shifting, carbon fiber and lots and lots more money being poured into the sport than in 1982. The modern race bike is around 15 pounds, six pounds lighter than the bicycles back then. The benefit of all of this, again to emphasize is one mile an hour.

One mile an hour. If I don't eat before I ride I will sometimes go one mile an hour faster than with a sandwich in my stomach. One mile an hour on one's average speed is a big deal when building up the speed necessary to compete professionally, but it certainly ceases to be impressive in a lapse of thirty years. One would assume that with all of today's technology that it could be faster than this. But it isn't, and let me tell you why. 

What are now vintage bicycles were and are great machines, works of art in their craftsmanship and attention to detail. By the 80's, the racing bike had been perfected in every way shape and form for the purpose that it served, to go fast and be reliable. They not only were fast and reliable but looked great doing so. So what happened? What had to change?

Absolutely nothing. The saying goes if it's not broken don't fix it. Bikes from back then should have been left untouched for at least another 30 years. In hindsight, to gain one mile an hour difference, there simply was no point. The Tour De France is not the only race where this applies. Since 1986, no one has been able to break the speed record set for the race across America, or RAAM. This record was set using 1980's technology and still stands until this day.

In 1982 the tour was won by Bernard Hinault. known as Le Blaireu (the badger) for his aggressive nature and the way he took charge of the peloton during races. He was a true leader, a man's man. The guy never backed down from a fight, and he wasn't the kind of guy you would want to mess with. Fast forward to 2012. Bradley Wiggins wins the tour. So what, big deal. Not to be disrespectful, but Wiggins does and will never hold the air of authority over the peloton that Bernard Hinault once did. Next year someone else will take the yellow jersey, or if no one else is ambitious enough then Wiggins might have it again. In all honesty, Wiggins fails to impress me beyond those ginormous mutton chops he possesses.  Slaying The Badger, the current book I'm on, gives insight into the kind of rider Hinault was. I recommend anyone looking for cycling inspiration to read it too.

For those of you who are considering getting into the local bike racing scene on a vintage bike, it can be done. There is no reason why it would be impossible. I want to read of stories in the future of guys wailing at criteriums on their friction shifter equipped Peugeots and then saying "booyah!" to the competition. I recently discovered that I don't like going slow if I don't have to. Whether my bike is vintage or modern, I tend to ride faster than most people that I know. I have to stop looking at that as a negative and see what I can do with it. It's one thing to be faster than my family and friends but I know I'm still far from being able to win a race. But looking at these numbers from 1982 I at least know that its possible, and that gives me hope and makes me want to start training harder to ride faster. 

I hope that if you are like me and own a vintage bike you too will start mashing the pedals harder on your next ride. As long as the bike is mechanically sound, enter it in a race and let me know how it goes. Knowing that there are competitive retro-grouches out there lets me know I'm not alone in this. Keep training hard, riding harder, keep the rubber side down and the cycling cap on with the brim tilted upwards. Stay tuned for more insightful articles from my blog, and subscribe if you haven't already.


  1. Just a thought, you may be on to something. The rider and the things the rider does to his/her body may have more to do with the outcome of a race than the equipment. I'm sure there are probably percentages that are equipment related, mental and physical. It's a question of $ as to what we are aware of, and who's making it.=)

  2. Very true. In the "Lance Years" the speed of the peloton was the fastest it has ever been. In 2012, the Tour was actually slower than in the last few years, probably because it was raced clean. My question is, if there are two equally matched riders, one on a vintage bike, one on one of today's bikes, who will win? The sport of cycling has tried to make performance something that can be bought with a credit card. But my theory is that bicycles never got better, they only changed in appearance to re-market them to a different audience.