Racing a 40-year-old bike

I’ve been racing my Alan cyclocross bike since I bought it second-hand, many years ago, when I was still in college. Back then, it was simply a used ‘cross bike. Now it may seem like a relic from another era.

And yet the Alan continues to hold its own in the Pacific Northwest’s cross races. I like the way it accelerates out of corners. Alan’s aren’t as flexible as legend has it – Bicycle Quarterly’s frame flex test found it to be about as stiff as a Columbus SL frame – but mine planes very well for me.

You’d think that modern carbon bikes perform better on the uphills, but that hasn’t been my experience.

Even the Alan’s weight – 10.0 kg (22 lb) – isn’t uncompetitive. Cyclocross is the one place where the weight of your bike actually matters, as you lift it up several times per lap.

The Alan has one other advantage over modern bikes: Its horizontal top tube makes it easier to portage. A sloping top tube makes the main triangle so small that many racers now push their bikes. Dragging your wheels through the mud and leaning over to reach the handlebars is not the most efficient way to move when it’s too steep to ride.

How about the lack of disc brakes? You’d expect discs to offer a huge advantage in ‘cross, but the reality is that you can only brake so hard when your tires have limited grip, and good cantilevers are more than sufficient.

I find that rim brakes offer more feel when the lockup point is approaching. I suspect this is because the brake lever is directly connected to the rim, whereas with discs, the feedback from the tires has to be transmitted through the spokes. Does it matter? On the Alan, I often get to the point where one wheel locks up for a split second. Feeling that point approaching, I can start to release the brake slightly before the wheel skids, rather than react to the skidding itself.

Last year, I installed our Rene Herse brakes on several bikes as part of our pre-release testing. I didn’t expect a huge improvement over the Mafacs installed before, but I was surprised. Not only are the forged arms stiffer and more powerful, but the terrible fork judder the bike displayed before at low speeds has disappeared.

I also like that the roller on the cable hanger self-centers the brake arms if they get bumped during a clumsy dismount or – heaven forbid! – a fall. By the way, falls in ‘cross are rare, but they also don’t usually hurt. Mud is soft!

I like that the Alan is a true ‘cross bike – designed for cyclocross racing and nothing else. There are no bottle cage mounts. The top tube is flattened so it doesn’t dig into my shoulder when I portage the bike. The low-trail geometry makes the bike beautifully adjustable at high speeds on slippery surfaces.

There is no way to mount a front derailleur on the bike. Back when I bought it, that was considered a drawback, as riders were switching to STI. These days, ‘One-By’ gearing is becoming popular again. The old style, with two large chainguards, keeps the chain on even in the rough-and-tumble of ‘cross racing. And if it ever does come off, you don’t have to worry about lining up thick and thin teeth with their corresponding chain links – just drop the chain into the slot and go.

The Alan originally came to me with toeclips, but I’m not interested in retro for retro’s sake. I don’t like fishing for toeclips, so I installed clipless pedals from the get-go. I still like my old Look Moabs. Their platforms are huge, allowing me to pedal even when my foot doesn’t clip in easily because my cleats are clogged with mud.

The six-speed freewheel has plenty of gears for me – I rarely use the smallest and largest cogs. And with more space between the cogs, they don’t clog up with mud as easily. The popularity of singlespeeds in ‘cross racing shows that I am not the only one who feels that way.

The one place where cyclocross bikes have changed a lot are the tires. Back when I started racing, hand-made ‘cross tires existed, but they were almost unknown. Now I race on hand-made FMB Super Mud tubulars that roll amazingly well across bumpy terrain. The width of the tires has changed as well. Back when the Alan was built, 28 mm was considered wide. On dry days, many racers were on 24 mm tires that looked like road tires. I now run 33s, but they are a tight fit. Anything wider won’t have enough mud clearance.

I’d love to use our Steilacoom 700C x 38 mm clinchers. They provide the same ride quality as my tubulars with less hassle – the extra 10% in width makes up for the tire being surrounded by the rim, rather than sitting on top of it. And with the Steilacooms performing as well on pavement as in the mud, to be able to ride to the races – even when they are as far away as Steilacoom. The FMBs are great on mud, but the small knobs squirm terribly on pavement.

It’s been fun racing the Alan. If I ever replace it, it’ll be a with similar bike. A new ‘cross bike would probably be made from steel rather than aluminum, but with similar flex characteristics and similar components. I’ve ridden modern gravel and ‘cross bikes, and they are very nice, too. But for me, the Alan just works remarkably well.

Photo credits: Westside Bicycle (Photo 3), Natsuko Hirose (all other photos).

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
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13 Responses to Racing a 40-year-old bike

  1. Bill Gobie says:

    Rather than the spokes stretching, I think it is more likely the frictive properties and feedback of disk and rim brakes differ at lockup.

    • Probably both. The spoke windup is very noticeable when you lock the front disc brake and rock the bike. The bike moves back and forth quite a bit. At first, I thought the headset was loose. It wasn’t, so I suspected the caliper mounting screws had loosened. They were tight, and I could see that the front hub wasn’t moving, but the rim (and the bike). So all that movement happened between the hub and the rim…

  2. Conrad says:

    My Boulder is only 5 years old but I have been the only person in my category on a steel frame/fork for some time now. If I thought it would make me faster I would ride a carbon bike like everybody else… but I doubt it would. I have noticed a few things: a lot of top local riders are still using cantilevers. Even ex pros that own bike shops. Its probably because for them, as for me, they offer sufficient power and are far more reliable than discs. My last two races this year were on Steilacooms as opposed to my usual team edition Challenge tubulars ( I do splurge on tires). Probably had my best results so far, even against a field in which a lot of people are planning on going to nationals in a month. There are many variables at play, of course, but I am convinced the Steilacooms perform just as well as those high end tubulars. Which is really pretty awesome because the cost of the Steilacooms is a small fraction of the cost of the tubulars given their fragility and all the gluing hassle.

  3. Rod Bailey says:

    Great article! I have an old Ross Mt. Hood, I also purchased when I was struggling to get through collage. Never thought this Ol Gal would hold up, as well as has, for over 35 years with it’s stamped steel dropouts. Nothing rides quite like old steel.

  4. Jacob Musha says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one that appreciates these bonded aluminum frames. Everyone else seems to think they’re a relic or just a joke. I have a later design, the SR Litage, made around 1989. As a road racing bike it’s fantastic. Beautiful too. Unfortunately, it will barely fit a 27mm tubular. But I recently found the MTB version new-old-stock online. I plan to build it up with drop bars and try it in single-speed cyclocross.

    I also have no desire for disc brakes even in the muddiest cyclocross races. Or in any situation, for that matter. My bike is setup as a 1×7 for the reasons you mention, but I do like being able to shift from either the hoods or the drops with the Campy Ergo shifter.

  5. alderbanks says:

    It is a beautiful bike and the Compass brakes look perfect. Do I see Dura Ace embossed on the rear hub? And I have been stumped by the crankset which I cannot say I have ever seen one quite like it. Just one more question: Is that a Campy Record rear derailleur I see? Thanks,

    • You’ve got good eyes. Yes, Dura-Ace freewheel hubs from the late 1980s. The derailleur is a Nuovo Record. It works perfectly as with a One-By. As SRAM discovered recently, the slant parallelogram is needed only if you have multiple chainrings. With a single ring, you simply select the chain length so the derailleur cage rotates as you shift to larger/smaller cogs to keep the chain gap constant. The crank is a Rene Herse with custom-made chain guards.

  6. Ian says:

    It’s all about the engine, and you’re the only rider in the field with bare legs AND arms!

    Suntour shifter? Have you ever tried the Shimano L600 bar end ‘fingertip control’ from the ’70’s? Same basic idea as Simplex retrofritcion, and they shift great. I prefer to the Suntour ratchets.

  7. Dave Walker says:

    Very nice bike, Jan. I still have the Alan Super Record (road model) I raced on as a junior in the late 1970’s, and it’s still one of my favorite bikes ever. Even back then, I never understood why (some) people thought that stiffer=better, world without end, Amen. I also had an early Klein with oversize Al tubes; sold it before long as the stiffness added exactly nothing to the riding experience. The only other bike I would put in the same category as the Alan—and which I also still have—is a 1979 TI-Raleigh Team 753, which is comparably light yet “planes” beautifully, just like you describe. I imagine I’ll be buried with one or the other; debate is still raging at this point.

    All the best,

    Dave Walker
    Limoux, France

    • When I started racing, I was surprised how many of the old Reynolds 753 Raleighs were still being raced, even though their rider’s sponsorship had long expired. Clearly, they performed in a way that many really strong riders liked. Now that I am riding bikes with similar flex characteristics (the Kaisei ‘Superlight’ tubeset has similar dimensions), I understand why.

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