It’s funny how often people disapprovingly comment or take lighthearted jabs at me for riding vintage road bikes and wearing retro and vintage gear.
“Dude, you really need to get into the 21st century,” they say.
Or, “Michael doesn’t own any bikes made after 1975. He hates new technology,” they’ll chirp to those around them.
My sister once checked in with me to see if I was “okay” after I posted the first of my vintage road bike portraits and a series of pics of my bikes and vintage shoes on FaceBook.
“I know you love retro stuff. You always have. I just think you should start making your own designs real and use them. It appears that you give credit to the past. It’s confusing,” she wrote in a concerned text message.
I don’t take it personally. Nor do I take offense. I see where they’re coming from.
But none of these comments, nor many of the others, are correct. For one, I do own several road and BMX bikes made in the 1980 and 1990s.
Joking aside, I own and have owned and have been the designer/product manager on a a lot of modern carbon fiber road, mountain and cyclocross bikes. I also designed and produced dozens of innovative and modern BMX components between 2012 and 2015, none of which referenced the past.
And, in fact, I agree 100-percent with my cycling friends—performance-wise, comfort-wise, almost-every-way-wise, the new stuff is far superior to the old.
But that’s not the point.
To start with, much of what makes modern stuff so good only matters in the context of racing and being competitive as a racer. (Just talking high-end road racing machines. I’m not going to touch e-bikes, comfort bikes, etc.) I’m no longer a racer and harbor relatively little interest in ever being one again. (I do, for fun, race mountain bikes a dozen or times a year on a very modern bike, and cyclocross on a pretty modern bike.) But road racing is in my soul and I don’t want to, nor can I, let it go.
No doubt, comfort and convenience are great no matter the type of riding. But I find a certain pleasure (perhaps a perverse pleasure) in riding outside my comfort zone. One of the things I’ve always liked about cycling is the suffering. And overcoming the suffering. Yes, you can suffer on a sick carbon road bike. But there is a difference between suffering on an old bike and new one.
Riding With Old Legs and Lungs
Now that I no longer have the desire (nor legs and lungs) to climb at 90+ percent of my VO2 max, it’s too easy to sit down and spin up a climb on a 15-pound bike in a modern 36-28 gear. But on any of my 21-pound Campagnolo Nuovo or Super Record-equipped bikes, I’m stuck with climbing in a 41-tooth chainring (I put either vintage Campy or modern T.A. 41-tooth chainrings on all my 144 BCD bikes.) with either a 24, 26 or 28-tooth cog in the back (depending on the bike).
I don’t climb fast, but I do suffer while I climb. And, in my head, I look just like Eddy Merckx or Roger de Vlaeminck while doing it—body rocking, pushing down with all my mite on the pedals, occasionally standing to get a little extra oommff out of my legs.
And the more I do it, as with anything, the better I am at it. The climbing with a big gear, that is. The suffering, too, I guess. As Greg LeMond has been quoted, “It never gets easier. You just go faster.”
Since most of my riding is done solo, I don’t have much experience sprinting on vintage bikes, so I can’t really talk about that. Although, they do feel quite a bit whippier than modern carbon rigs. To this day, I have no idea how Sean Kelly was able to win so many sprints on those Vitus bikes he rode all those years.
But I digress.
For me, riding bikes now is more about getting outside, exercising, enjoying the feel of the road beneath me, the wind in my hair (Yep, sometimes I leave my helmet at home. I know, I know.) and, maybe most important, rekindling the romance I used to associate with cycling so many years ago—and still do associate with cycling before clipless pedals, aluminum frames, STI shifters, mandatory helmet rules (A very good idea, by the way.), Lycra clothing, radios, EPO and “marginal gains”.
Clinging to the Past
Watching Jøergen Leth films like A Sunday In Hell (L’Enfer Du Nord) or Stars and Water Carriers, I have such huge admiration for the men of the peloton in the 1970s and before. They were strong, hard men. They knew how to suffer and how to make others suffer. The bikes were heavier, harder to ride, far less ergonomic, yet they rode with so much soul. The clothing was less comfortable, although wool is a fantastic jersey fabric. And the training and dietary methods were arcane and not nearly up to the task. I’m still amazed that they raced and rode as hard as they did.
When I ride now, as I did 20 years ago, I think about these guys—Eddy, Roger, Franceso Moser, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly, Claude Criquielion and Greg. I still want to be like them.
I watch and follow modern racing, of course. I never miss a race when it’s on TV. I still love it. I have lots of races from the past few years stored on our DVR.
But I no longer relate to what road racers do on their bikes. They are machines, robots, relying on technology (mechanical, nutritional and chemical) to produce inhuman results. They never seem to tire. And so few of them ride with panache. Peter Sagan and Julian Alaphilippe are the obvious exceptions.
I Won’t Apologize for My Nostalgia
I recently hopped on one of my modern bikes—a 2012 carbon fiber Redline cyclocross bike. It was the first time in months that I rode a modern bike. (I currently own only three modern bikes. But not by choice or design. After losing my job at Airborne, I lost all my Airborne protoypes, among them two carbon road bikes, one with disc brakes and a carbon full-suspension 29er.)
At first, the bike felt odd. The oversize brake hoods were in an unfamiliar place. My feet danced around insecurely on the clipless pedals. And the carbon fiber of the frame, bars and rims absorbed nearly all the road vibration.
Soon, however, I felt at home on the bike. Shifting was easier. The tiny gaps between the 11 cogs were welcome when looking for the right gear as I went from headwind to tail and up the short steeps on my route. The pillow-like brake hoods were a joy. And the instant acceleration you get out of a combination of a carbon fiber frame, bars and wheels, modern hollow-forged cranks and stiff carbon-soled shoes blew away any of my vintage steel road bikes.
I felt faster, smoother, more powerful. I’m pretty sure I had a big grin on my face as I raced back home.
Modern bikes are fantastic. And amazing. And awesome. And soooo much better than anything that came out of Italy in 1975. I can’t argue that.
But I still like, no, love, riding my old bikes. And I’m unapologetically nostalgic about it.
I love riding old bikes because they challenge me without making me feel like an inferior (old) cyclist. They test me in ways I haven’t been tested in years. They bring back fond memories and associations I have with the past and my youth. I also find great pleasure in the bikes’ simplicity in design and form.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I need to put on my costume of wool jersey, wool shorts with real chamois, vintage Rodania watch, crocheted gloves, cycling cap and dainty leather shoes; fill up a single water bottle and hop on one of my old steel bike and head out for a ride, spare tubular tucked under the saddle and a couple of fig jam and ham sandwiches in my back pocket—right next to my cell phone, which will be powering Strava.