A Journey of Discovery: The Lure of Racing Bikes

When we wrote the “A Journey of Discovery” series for this blog, we started with the racing bikes we rode a little over a decade ago. However, my “journey” has been much longer…

I grew up in Germany, where all bikes had fenders, lights and racks. When I was ten years old, I got a bike that was the envy of my friends: a Peugeot “Semi-Racer” with derailleurs, 10 speeds and drop handlebars. It was just like the one shown in the catalog above, except mine was silver. Of course, my bike had a rack and fenders, as well as a sidewall generator that made a huge racket at night. The whole package must have weighed about 35-40 pounds, because most of the parts were made from steel.

My next bike was another Peugeot (above). It was a step up: It had rims and cranks made from aluminum. Of course, it still was equipped with fenders, lights and a rack, and it still was heavy.

Then I went to college, and a neighbor asked me to fix up his brother’s Bianchi racing bike. After overhauling the Bianchi’s bearings and brakes, I took it for a test ride. I was amazed at how different this bike felt compared to my Peugeot. The acceleration was incredible, and it held the road so much better, too. Hills that had been a chore on the Peugeot became an exhilarating experience on a bike that just wanted to go. I decided then and there that I needed a racing bike!

So I saved my money, bought a Campagnolo Victory group on closeout, and soon was the proud owner of a Bianchi “Reparto Corse” frameset, made from Columbus SL tubing. It was a true dream bike. The Campagnolo components gleamed, and their precision was a revelation after the cheap French components of the Peugeot. The performance was in another league, and I promised myself I’d never ride another bike with fenders again!

Even though I had planned to keep the Peugeot for touring, I preferred to strap a rack to the Bianchi for my cross-country trips in Germany. The Bianchi with its short chainstays was not ideal for carrying panniers, but it was much better than the sluggish performance of the Peugeot. I even commuted on the Bianchi, unless the weather was extremely bad. I remember watching my bike during a winter night as I sat in class: The lovely Bianchi was getting covered in snow as huge flakes fell. Fortunately, the snowy roads meant that traffic was light on the way home, because I didn’t have lights on the bike…

When I moved to Texas, I brought the Bianchi, but left the Peugeot in Germany. I ordered a custom Mercian touring bike (below on left), which had racks, but true to my promise, no fenders. Those fenders would have come in handy on my very first tour to Colorado. Every afternoon, we had to find shelter in advance of the daily rainshowers.

When I moved to Seattle, I resisted fenders for two rainy winters, because I didn’t want to go back to the sluggish performance of my childhood Peugeots. When my teammates finally made me put fenders on my bike, I couldn’t bring myself to “compromise” my racing bike. Instead, I equipped my touring bike with fenders, and even on that bike, I took the fenders off every spring.

In retrospect, it’s clear why the Bianchi was such an epiphany. Its Columbus SL frame was much lighter and more flexible than the “drainpipe” I was used to. For the first time in my life, I experienced “planing.” Of course, I still thought that stiffer frames were better, and I tried to explain the superior performance with the more obvious differences: the lack of fenders, lights and racks, plus the skinny tires. The Peugeot was fully equipped and slow, the racing bikes were lighter and thus faster (or so I thought).

It took a whole “Journey of Discovery” to figure out that my dislike of fenders was misguided. I learned slowly and over many years that I could have fenders, lights and racks without giving up the performance of the racing bikes which I loved so much.

To some, it may appear like I have come full circle, and that my current French-inspired bikes are similar to the Peugeots of my childhood. Nothing could be further from the truth. The randonneur machines I ride today (above) really are closely related to the racing bikes that transformed cycling for me. Their lightweight, flexible frames are responsible for their speed, and the fenders, lights and rack simply increase these bikes’ versatility without detracting from their performance.

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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15 Responses to A Journey of Discovery: The Lure of Racing Bikes

  1. Alcyon says:

    Jan,
    Many thanks for all the work you put into your learning and for sharing the results with us. You’ve certainly helped me avoid a few wrong turns as I go about my own journey!
    Isn’t it funny: my first quality components were also the Campagnolo Victory group mounted on an old Viner. I was stunned by how easy it was to adjust the bottom bracket, of all things.
    Fenders I never had a problem with. Early in restarting my cycling experience I came across a picture of Coppi on a training ride: his bike was sporting a pair of fenders! Good enough for me.

  2. Lee Legrand says:

    How long did it take you to discover other things like wider tires, front loading for handling and low trail? I would count wisdom as part of the things you discovering as well.

  3. Fascinating, I did not suspect that you owned a Bianchi racing bike and a Mercian touring bike!

  4. Matthew J says:

    Jan:

    Do you still have the Bianchi? I have a MAP Rando project bike built up close to the MAP you reviewed last year and a Spectrum 30th Anniversary made with Columbus SL and probably dimensions close to your Bianchi (although I believe Tom Kellogg’s design incorporates a somewhat longer wheel base than the Italian.

    The MAP clearly behaves well under load. However, I keep finding myself thinking maybe the Spectrum with Cypres tires, Esge fenders (would have to use a lot of P -Clamps), my Supernova battery lights, and Carradice Camper Longflap would be a fun bike on a short hostel tour.

    Of course on the MAP I would never have to worry about a p-clamp working loose or forgetting my light charger at a hostel. What I do not know is whether the Spectrum would be as fun to ride fendered and loaded for a couple of days as it is on sunny Sunday afternoon rides. With the MAP in hand, not sure it makes sense to even try.

  5. Randonneur says:

    Jan, really enjoying your Journey of Discovery series. For me, it was moving from a gas pipe Schwinn 10 speed with steel rims and heavy 27×1.25 tires to a 531 Paramount with sew ups (tubs) that really transformed my cycling experience. Haven’t made the switch to 650B yet, but would really like to try out a genuine article (lightweight frame, etc.) before making the purchase commitment.

  6. Chuck Davis says:

    Fenders on and off re the Mercian?

    Do the Scott clip-ons avec risers stay on all year?

    • The Scott clip-ons didn’t stay on for more than 2 years. (They were the standard, very first model, no special risers or anything.) The Mercian went from mountain bike components to more classic ones, but in the end, it wasn’t what I needed and wanted, so I sold it.

  7. Rolly says:

    Ha ha… similar story for me: 12 years of riding in wet, salty, freezing and slushy Canadian Winters as a messneger with no fenders; I guess I figured I was too much a tough guy for fenders and thought that light weight and skinny tires were more important than pneumatic suspension and a dry butt. I carried everything I needed in a messenger bag (seems silly now… these days and, at 40 years old, I’d never carry a huge bag with tools, food and extra clothes on my back). After a few years in the trade I discovered track bikes – other messengers were riding them and they were even lighter weight, plus had fewer parts to maintain and had responsive, turn-on-a-dime geometry. (similar to short trail randonneur bikes? I’ve been wondering).

    Basically I spent 12 years lightening and stripping my bikes down more and more in the name of being fast and effient. It must’ve taken a toll on my body; I was ‘mad’ at cycling for 4-5 years after I’d quit messengering and would only cycle to commute, choozing to skateboard, run or walk for shorter distances because I was so sick of cycling and carrying my things in a shoulder bag. Recreational cycling was the last thing I’d do for fun or enjoyment.

    Now, thanks to your blog, and a few other online sources I’ve ‘rediscovered’ cycling. I’ve got fenders on two of the three bikes I own; I’ve got a Zimbale saddlebag on one; self-fabricated racks on two (Nitto m12 style on my geared road bike; porteur style on my fixed road bike; working on a rear rack for my mountain bike). I’ve got comfortable, more upright than racer positions on all three bikes and 28mm tires on the 700c ones… I’ll got to 32mm if they can fit. I brazed canti bosses on the geared road bike and put a ‘cross fork on it to take the larger tires, while the fixed is a Surly Steamroller with a real track fork that barely accepts a 28 with no front fender. My next move is to re-rake the fork on the geared road bike to try for short trail (working on a fixture/jig so I can try it myself… I mentioned this in my only other comment a month back… wish me luck. There is a local framebuilder in case I fail… and I dabble in frame repair so I may try making my own fork). A handlebar bag is in the future also as I like the way the porteur rack feels with a load better than the saddlebag. Oh, and I’ll either get a new fork for that Surly or figure out a way to fit a front fender (I tried cutting one into two pieces to attach to the front and rear of the crown but that didn’t work out. I’m on a budget so must maike do with what I have).

    Thanks to now being comfortable riding and also being inspired by your blog this past Summer I’ve started to do some distance riding and light touring. I’m no longer mad at cycling.

    I have many, many questions as I continue my own journey of discovery and one thing I’ve been wondering is how close typical track trail is to typical FRench randonneur trail. Do you happen to know?.

    Thanks for sharing your discoveries, the inspiration and info!

    – Rolly

    • Track bikes generally have more trail, because they use very narrow tires. They have steep head angles, so they are less likely to deviate from their course when bumped. Perhaps if you wanted to build a randonneur bike for narrow tires, you might try a track bike geometry…

    • Rolly says:

      Maybe I’m confused about how all the different variables dictate trail. I thought smaller tires, steeper head tube angles and more fork rake decreased trail. I figured the randonneur bikes acheived short trail by using headtube angles similar to race bikes and lots of fork rake, and that these figures were based around the tire size the bike was meant to use. I also figured the very steeper headtube angles on track bikes would lead to low trail… but I’m guessing the trail is offset by the fact that track forks don’t have much rake. I’ll do more research and maybe try playing with bikeCAD and see what I find out. Thanks for the reply.

  8. Alcyon says:

    Jan, your last comment inspires this question: what are your thoughts on appropriate geometry for a winter (i.e., snow) bike? In other words, the snow and slush is acting on the the bicycle. These last several years I’ve been using an elderly Miyata hybrid; when there are several inches of snow on the road it takes everything I have to keep it in a straight line, it feels as though I’m in a wrestling match with my handlebars! Any thoughts?

    • Good question! When the slush is frozen over into ruts, I don’t see an obvious solution, except perhaps a Pugsley with super-wide tires that just rolls above it all. Beyond that, a traditional cyclocross geometry is not very dissimilar to a traditional randonneur bike geometry. My Alan has a head angle that is a bit steeper yet (73.5 degrees) and about the same amount of trail (49 mm). The reason you want less trail is that the trail provides a lever for the ground forces on your handlebars. So when a rut pushes your front wheel one way, the more trail you have, the harder it pushes the handlebars. However, many modern cyclocross bikes have mountain bike geometries with more trail and slacker head angles, which in our experience does not work as well on rough terrain.

      • Alcyon says:

        Ah! I’ve been thinking that maybe an inexpensive, stable touring frame like the Long Haul Trucker might be the answer; thanks for steering me away from that.

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