Catalogue Specifications and Apparent Bargains

When I started riding seriously while I was in college in Germany, it became apparent that my Peugeot 10-speed no longer was sufficient. Not only did it lack performance, but it required repairs almost daily. So I soon started shopping for a new bike.

Like most new cyclists, I was mesmerized by the latest technology. One rider in town had one of the first Cannondales (above). Its oversize aluminum frame and indexed Shimano components were incredibly alluring to me. But the price was steep, because the U.S. dollar’s exchange rate was high. So I looked for European offerings instead.

I went to the best pro shop in that region of Germany. I asked about Bianchi’s high-end production frames made from double-butted Columbus tubing. From the catalogue specifications, it appeared that they were almost identical as the more expensive “Columbus SL” frames that came out of Bianchi’s famous Reparto Corse race shop. I thought I had identified a bargain.

“Catalogue specs,” said the old racer who owned the shop, with evident disdain. “Does the catalogue show you how much heat they put on the tubes when they braze them? Did you see that the lugs on the more expensive model are much thinner? Do you realize that Bianchi’s best brazers make the Reparto Corse frames by hand, whereas the production frames are made on assembly lines?”

This was a new world to me. I had never considered any of these factors. I went home and thought about this. I began to realize that the apparent bargain frames were less expensive for a reason. Did I really want to invest all my savings into a second-best bike?

Then I got a flyer from the pro shop in the mail, and discovered that the 1989 Reparto Corse frames from Bianchi had gone down in price compared to the previous year’s model. I decided to increase my budget, and returned to the shop to buy the more expensive frame. The owner said: “Ah, the latest Reparto Corse frames were no good. Sloppy workmanship. I sent them all back. But I still have a few older frames, which I’ll sell you at the old price.” I tried to argue that last year’s model should not cost more than the current one, but the shop owner pointed out that once these were gone, there would be no more. So I bought a close-out frame at price that was higher than the current model.

Next we discussed components. I had planned on getting Shimano Ultegra, but I noticed a Campagnolo Victory group on closeout for the same price. I had read that Campagnolo’s new Syncro indexed shifting system worked even with their older components. Combining the new indexing and the closeout group seemed like another bargain to me. “Victory is good stuff, but Syncro is junk,” the bike shop owner informed me. “I don’t even carry it. You don’t need index shifting. You don’t have problems shifting your old bike, and the new components will shift much better anyhow.”

That is how my dream of a mass-produced Cannondale with Shimano components turned into a hand-made Bianchi with gleaming Campagnolo components. The price I paid was the same as the Cannondale would have cost.

Knowing what I know today, I realize that I made the right decision. That Bianchi introduced me to the joys of riding a truly excellent bicycle. It took me to my first race victories and even the occasional tour (above), before it was rear-ended by a pickup truck in Texas, and replaced by an even better hand-made frame. Most of the components were transferred to the new frame, and stayed with me for all my 10 years of racing. They worked as well during my first race, a small beginners’ criterium in Texas, as during my last, the Tour of Willamette, where I tried to hang with professionals who were using this hilly stage race to prepare their European season.

That grumpy bike shop owner really got me off the beaten path of mainstream bicycles. I discovered that an outdated, but top-quality machine offered at least as much performance and pleasure as the latest state-of-the-art bicycles. Since my new bike already was “obsolete,” I dropped out of the rat race of annual upgrades to newer and supposedly better machines before I even started. This has allowed me to evaluate each innovation on its merits, and to adopt those that truly improve my cycling experience.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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19 Responses to Catalogue Specifications and Apparent Bargains

  1. wfstekl says:

    Good reading. Thanks Jan.

  2. Ty says:

    Thanks Jan for another well-thought piece.

    What you say makes a lot of sense. Go for quality and have something that lasts, rather than save a buck now, only to spend more later.

    Ty

  3. jason says:

    Thanks for this and so many other great reads!
    I have a question about the popular use of the terms ‘handmade’ or ‘hand-built,’ etc. I understand the general meaning of the use of these terms, but are not all bikes handmade? Even assembly line bikes, I assume, are not made by machines. I suppose it designates care, and possibly that that assembly is undertaken by a single individual. (I have definitely seen sloppy lugs, seat clusters etc)

    That said, would a production bike have fared any worse in that rear-ender? How much difference would more expensive lugs and the heat of the brazing make, really? Let me be clear that I trust you, your judgement, and your experience…these questions are genuine, and not meant as criticism.
    thanks.

    • “Hand-made” usually refers to a frame made by a skilled worker, one by one with all due care. Other frames may be hand-made to varying degrees, but a lot of heat is used to speed up the assembly process and reduce the skill required.

      The hand-made bike was retired after the rear-ender. I still have the frame, and may resurrect it. (Only the stays bent.) The advantages of a hand-made frame aren’t that they survive accidents better, but that they are less likely to break under the normal stresses of riding. Beyond that, you can push the envelope with a hand-made frame more than you can with a production frame. You cannot use superlight tubing on an assembly line, because it is too sensitive to overheating.

    • Matthew J says:

      How a 20 pound bike fares in an accident with a several ton pick up is hardly a test of quality.

      Rather, the years of enjoying superior road feel, the components all where they should be, not where it makes most sense for the build line, and the beauty.

  4. Phil Miller says:

    Nice tribute to grumpy old bike store owners!

  5. Paul Richard says:

    Jan,
    You have mentioned your racing past before, and I wonder what your bike choice would be for a race today. Would you be tempted to go ultra-light and ride handmade 23-25mm tires, or perhaps stay with wider 650B tires? Fenders? Leather saddle? In a 100-Mile race (not being a racer, I don’t even know if this exists for amateurs), would you use a bag, or stuff food in your jersey? As i watch the Tour de France on TV, I wonder how adventurous professional teams ever get with their equipment. It seems that there is very little variance from one rider to the next, and the trend is toward more gears and electronic(!) shifting. When I see Mark Cavendish sprinting, I feel like his bike will break apart any second. But, amazingly, it can withstand the stress, and probably weighs 16 pounds.

    • That is a good question. I raced from 1989 until 1999. My Columbus SL/Campagnolo bike was totally normal in the amateur peloton in 1989, but hopelessly outdated a decade later. I raced locally, so I raced against the same guys time and again. One by one, my competitors upgraded to a new bike, mostly titanium or carbon. Not once did they suddenly become noticeably faster, despite having dropped a few pounds off their bike.

      Even so, if I raced today, I’d be tempted by a carbon frame like the Calfee we tested. I’d ride 30 mm hand-made tubular tires… Or, if budget is a concern, I’d get a superlight steel frame for less money, with the advantage of being able to dial in the geometry as I’d like. No bag, of course – the longest races are 90 miles, and what you need fits into your jersey pockets. I raced with a Brooks saddle, but honestly, it doesn’t matter much, because you pedal hard enough that you hardly sit on the saddle. Fenders don’t help much when you ride in a peloton… so I probably would leave them off. (They may be illegal anyhow.)

      In the end, a racing bike is a machine that is well-suited to its task. Compared to my racing days, I only wish that the current trend to wider tires had started earlier. I raced on 21.5 mm-wide tubulars. Those rode better than most 23 mm clinchers, but I now wish I had used 25 or even 27 mm tubulars instead. My bike had the clearances…

      • marmotte27 says:

        Were there already lots of carbon fibre bikes in the mid-end 90s (especially in amateur pelotons)? Judging from what one used to see in the pro-pelotons at the time, I would have thought it was still mainly aluminium then, Jan Ullrich e.g. won the Tour de France in 1997 on aluminium. I’d have placed the carbon fibre breakthrough round about 2005.

        Not that it matters very much, though.

      • Kestrels were popular, as well as Look carbon frames. Most amateurs in the upper echelons (in the Western U.S., where I raced) were switching to titanium, both Litespeeds and custom bikes from local Seattle builders Ti Cycles and Davidson.

        It always was a bit intimidating to see somebody who was a close competitor to show up on a new bike, while I still rode my 10-year-old steel bike, but after a few races, I always found that they were no faster than before, and in more than one case, actually slower.

      • Paul Richard says:

        I think Lance won all his tours on carbon.

    • Harald says:

      BikeRadar recently had a nice overview of the TDF winner’s bikes in past years. 1998 was the year when Lance’s carbon Treks took over after the Al period. 1994 saw the last winner on a steel bike. http://www.bikeradar.com/road/news/article/tour-de-france-winning-bikes-34375/

  6. Conrad says:

    Is the Lyon 650b racer in the latest BQ issue going to be used in a real race?

    • I was thinking about entering in a race on the Lyon, but since I don’t race any longer, it wouldn’t have told us much. In any case, the audience for the Lyon is not people who race, but riders who enjoy the feel and look of a racing bike, but may be tempted by the better handling and comfort of wider tires. We tested it thoroughly in that scenario – both riding alone and with others.

      If you are a competitive racer, you’ll likely be sponsored and not in the market for a race bike.

  7. Paul Glassen says:

    Ah, your reminiscence reminds me why I sitll ride and enjoy my 30 year old Italian all-rounder, complete with standard reach brakes and fender eyelets (Colnago), a 25 year old French touring bike (Gitane), a late ’80s English fixed wheel (Mercian), and a racy early ’90s Colnago. Mostly Campag components on the latter two, Stronglight and TA on the former. Still going strong and giving pleasure after all these years. Oh, and a mid-’80s Andre Bertin cyclocross model. No fads, thank-you.

  8. stein says:

    very very nice piece. grumpy bike guys unite!

  9. Steve says:

    In some alternate timeline, your younger self realized he was spending the same as he would for the Cannondale he originally wanted, and bought that bike. Then “alt-Jan” upgraded his bikes whenever the newest thing came along, and eventually got a job writing about and testing bikes for Bicycling magazine where he coined the phrase, “Laterally stiff, yet vertically compliant”.

  10. Paul Knopp says:

    This year’s Trek: Stiffer, less expensive, fatter, still unpainted, lighter, and will lose 65% of its resale value as soon as you ride it.
    This year’s Bob Jackson: Same as last years except steel tubing costs are up, labor costs are up, shipping and tarrifs up, but the bike will ride like a dream, is painted any color you want and is made to fit you, not the other way around. Retains its value.

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