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Old or new

Road Bike 23 626

Take a look at this bike. With its lugged steel frame, downtube shifters, threaded headset and quill stem, it looks like a 15 or 20 year old road bike, right? Actually it is a brand new 2009 model bike from Fuji (see a better picture here). A couple of people forwarded this to me after seeing it on the Classic Rendezvous listserve. The person who posted on the listserve asked a good question: “Will this be a new trend?”

It seems like a lot of fairly large bike companies are offering steel road bikes that are at least inspired by classic bikes of the 70’s and 80’s. Most of them are not taking the retro design idea this far, but there do seem to be a lot of steel road bikes, many with small diameter frame tubes, which have classic graphic schemes and paint jobs. Cyclelicious posted about the 2009 Bianchi Vigorelli not long ago. Some of the new road bikes from Raleigh have a retro feel as well. Also, the new generation Masi Gran Criteriums have the same graphics as the old Gran Crits from the 1970’s. There are many other examples that I could list, but you get the idea. Along the same lines, I mentioned Renaissance Bicycles last week, a company that updates classic lugged steel frames with modern components. So what do you think? Is this a trend we are going to see a lot of? Are we going to start seeing more “mass produced” lugged steel frames from big companies?

I know from my limited eBay sales that classic items (like the 80’s Pinarello that I just sold) generate a lot of views and activity at auction. Obviously that is because the supply of classic bikes and components is limited, but I do expect to see more retro designs on the market in the future as new people become interested in shopping for a new bike. So what do you think? Will we see many more new bikes like this soon or is this Fuji going to be it? I don’t know, but I might have to dig through my parts bins soon for all those old downtube shifters that have settled to the bottom . It will be time to get those listed on eBay soon.

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  1. Champs August 29, 2008 at 8:24 am -  Reply

    I can’t call this bike a “classic” because it has aero levers and what looks to be about an 8 speed drivetrain, although it does look like they omitted the second set of cage bosses.

    If anything, it looks like my music collection: peaking at a somewhat fixed place in time many years ago, fondly looking backward, and rarely accepting anything new.

  2. Mark Jenkins August 29, 2008 at 11:10 am -  Reply

    Kona’s had a bike like this — actually almost exactly like this, with the straight blade fork but w/o downtube shifters — for two years now:

    So add that to the list. Kona also has a steel road bike — not lugged, though — spec’d with Dura Ace downtube shifters this year.

    “Classic” or not, they’re lovely and they’re useful . . . and they manage both while staying well under the new $3K-5K+ road bike orthodoxy.

  3. Gino Zahnd August 29, 2008 at 11:23 am -  Reply

    There isn’t a need to call it a classic, so get past that. 🙂 Neo-classic, perhaps, is a better term. The aero levers are a better choice; they offer better mechanical advantage, and simply are more effective than non-aero levers.

    The one stumbling block I have with all the big company steel bikes that are coming out are the straight blade forks (or even worse, carbon forks). Steel forks have been proven to work better with a low bend (as opposed to a straight blade), and aesthetically, the low bend is simply much nicer to look at. Fix that fork issue, and I’d likely build up (or possibly buy off the rack) one of these neo-classic race bikes.

    Lastly, as carbon fails more and more, and more people continue to get hurt, we’re going to see a trend back to materials that have proven themselves to be safe.

  4. C August 29, 2008 at 12:28 pm -  Reply

    “Steel forks have been proven to work better with a low bend”

    They have? By who? One tiny magazine run by someone who has a definite bias?

    As for looks that’s YOUR opinion, not a fact. Personally I like the straight blades.

    “carbon fails more and more, and more people continue to get hurt, we’re going to see a trend back to materials that have proven themselves to be safe.”

    Right, carbon is weak. That’s why a carbon F-1 car can hit a concrete barrier at 100mph and the driver walks off without a scratch whereas a steel car hits a wall at half that speed and the driver gets killed. Also explains why composites are used for body armor and helicopter blades in the military. Also take a look at what they make tennis rackets out of. Carbon is plenty strong and has a great track record in a number of application many of which see higher stresses than anything a bicycle will ever see. Don’t blame the material – blame the idiots in the bike industry who don’t know what they’re doing with it. Finally, should I mention my STEEL Bridgestone fork that got recalled? I’ve seen plenty of steel bikes fail. You see more carbon failures these days because it’s a more common material.

    The retro bike thing is half nostalgia and half driven by the low cost of steel compared to the soaring cost of composites.

    BTW, I say all of this as someone who rides 3 steel bikes.

  5. jimmythefly August 29, 2008 at 1:28 pm -  Reply

    My seat-of the pants measurement says that curved steel forks are more comfortable(same frame, tried three different forks in it).

    Seems like NAHBS and the like are driving this more than anything. Well, I suppose the current Mustang/Challenger/Camaro mindset must help or at least be related? Retro looks with modern performance (whatever that means -please understand that I agree many “retro” bikes perform very well) seems to be doing quite well at the moment.

    There must be a break price point where above a certain $ folks will just get a custom, but stay below that and give people the lugs they desire and a company can do OK. I’m most curious how these bikes get stocked and lined up in the LBS, and the language the employees use to describe them.

  6. Mark H August 29, 2008 at 1:47 pm -  Reply

    I’m torn between thinking this neo-classical bike design is just a phase or has real staying power.

    Certainly Grant Petersen has been making a business of this style for quite a while, so I guess the pros have been addressed before.

    Yeah, there are cons too, but the nice thing is that there are so many manufacturers out there right now that the market can probably support this style.

    Even is this is a short lived fad, it will boost the supply of parts available to the retro grouches and I certainly would appreciate newer, better engineered, better built parts.

  7. JM August 29, 2008 at 2:31 pm -  Reply

    >>>>as carbon fails more and more, and more people continue to get hurt


    In order to be taken seriously, you're going to have to back this claim (that the failure rate of carbon is increasing) up with solid sources and definitive evidence.

  8. Champs August 29, 2008 at 2:38 pm -  Reply

    Well if the term is “neo-classical” then why not leverage even more modern improvements?

    As far as I can tell, the only retro tech with an advantage that can’t be duplicated with modern off-the-shelf components is the cottered crank, but nobody misses those, and LOOK’s Zed chainset actually has an adjustment for (effective) crankarm length.

  9. erik k August 29, 2008 at 4:56 pm -  Reply

    These three Kona road bikes are built with steel. The Honky Tonk, the Kapu, and the haole

  10. Anonymous August 29, 2008 at 6:58 pm -  Reply

    The Fuji will cost $1,350.

  11. PBBT / Matt August 30, 2008 at 8:52 am -  Reply

    You mean I'm cool again? Sweet!

    My Bianchi is steel and rides smooth. There are times I wish it were a bit lighter but, here in flat South Florida, I'm not doing many climbs.

    I, too, had some worries about carbon frames but having seen so many bikes and so many few failures, I wouldn't have any problem riding one. (If I give my address, would a carbon bike show up on my doorstep?)

    I do think carbon requires a bit more care than steel or aluminium but when you spend that much money on a frame, you probably should take better care.


  12. toast ghost August 30, 2008 at 3:09 pm -  Reply

    “Right, carbon is weak. That’s why a carbon F-1 car can hit a concrete barrier at 100mph and the driver walks off without a scratch whereas a steel car hits a wall at half that speed and the driver gets killed.”

    not a great example. is there anything left of the formula 1 car after the accident? i don’t know anything about the yield stresses of carbon in race cars, but having heard anecdotally that f-1 cars are designed to make it across the finish line and not one inch more, it’s my hunch that the car is designed to absorb all forces before they become lethal to the driver. unless it’s pizza dough we’re talking about, that means total and complete destruction of the car, saving the driver’s life. of course your ’60s buick will kill you precisely because it’s so strong that the forces are transmitted directly to you. volvo solved this problem on 240 wagons (the “brick”) with what i understand to be an elaborate crumple zone where the front of the car essentially disintegrates and the engine slides under the passenger compartment. so in my view it’s disingenuous to bring up cars. drive axles aren’t carbon, are they? the body of a car isn’t subjected to torsional loads and very rarely repetitive stresses, because it’s protected by suspension.

    back to bicycles, which i’m sure we all prefer. for all carbon’s vibration-damping and light weight, carbon bikes aren’t showing up in landfills, getting dusted off and put back to use, largely because they don’t react to unexpected stresses (potholes and parked cars) well, despite whatever durability they may have for your headbanging sprinter. and by and large, cannondales aren’t either, for many of the same reasons (or the scrappers got to them first!). steel, on the other hand, has stood the test of time, and it will usually warn you long in advance of its failure, unless you need new glasses or a hearing aid. that said, the reason companies are putting out steel bikes, especially “retro” ones, is not because of their longevity (few companies do), although that’s the stated reason for many a steel-is-real rider. it’s because they’re cool, and they want to ride cool while it’s still cool. why is it cool? messengers using durable, abusable steel track bikes in nyc, euro-worship at this low point in american history, and the general trend of fetishizing the unrecapturable past as with vinyl records, vintage t-shirts, schwinn varsities, etc. it’s all recombinant culture-mining, and it works every time.

    then again, i like downtube shifters, so it seems decent enough. but are those swaged cranks on there?

  13. Gino Zahnd August 30, 2008 at 3:17 pm -  Reply

    Good points, toast ghost.

    I’ll summarize a few things I’ve read and written elsewhere recently.

    Back when carbon was new and exotic as a frame material, the framebuilders were concerned to keep things overbuilt because they knew the catastropic failure rate of carbon fiber. Even then, it was experimental. Since then, big companies have experimented with lighter fibers and maximizing “performance” (and by performance I simply mean lighter weight, not durability) of the materials – all of which leads to lighter frames but less margin for error. The problem there is that rather than passionate framebuilders who understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, you now have people with factory day jobs in Taiwan and China, working in assembly lines, pumping out more and more carbon frames, and doing it with less quality control.

    I recently learned of a NASA engineer (and steel bike rider because he actually understands carbon at a nano-level) who talks about defect tolerance, particularly in the context of carbon fiber bicycle frames. The idea goes like this:

    “no matter how much you care and try and pray, it is impossible to keep out all defects. And in the case of a bike, any gouge, scratch or ding on a frame is also a defect.

    So then, what happens when the defect does its thing? Steel is the most defect-tolerant material; carbon the least. Steel is the safest, carbon is the least safe.”

    So does steel break? Sure. It can break, but it doesn’t snap, and that’s the life-saving teeth-saving difference. Steel fails very slowly. If it seems to break suddenly, it’s only because you weren’t paying attention for the last several hundred, or even thousands of miles. Steel was creaking and moaning, you didn’t listen. It felt funny and was flexing, you didn’t wonder. Same goes for Titanium.

    Carbon just goes with no warning, usually with terrible results.

  14. GhostRider August 30, 2008 at 10:41 pm -  Reply

    And in the case of the F1 driver surviving a crash, it’s not the carbon-fiber bodywork but the steel cage the driver sits in that lets him or her walk away.

    I’m happy to see more steel bikes on the menu — I lust for a carbon wonderbike, but I have 3 vintage steel bikes and love the way they ride. I’m with Gino, though…gently curved (and crowned!) forks are just so much nicer to look at than the unicrown straight-legged abortions a lot of these bikes come with.

  15. Anonymous September 1, 2008 at 3:41 am -  Reply

    I miss an horizontal dropout and a pump peg!

  16. Anonymous September 1, 2008 at 5:50 pm -  Reply

    I will stay away from the carbon issue, other than to say, the problem with carbon (or any composite structure) is that a crash can cause hidden damage that is not observable, steel more often gives you some clue prior to failure.

    As to the Fuji entry into the neo classic realm of which this is of one model, I hope they sell every one. But it will have to fight that its component spec. is held back by the added expense of making a steel lugged frame.

    Mfg. cost is what pushed the industry away from steel anyway, that and marketing, a steel frame can last a darn long time, now its just newer = better = faster = you got to have the latest.

  17. James September 1, 2008 at 8:08 pm -  Reply

    Good discussion all. I do think carbon is great for racing bikes (though all the bikes I currently own are steel, aluminum, or titanium) but I also believe there is a higher risk of failure so extra care must be taken in maintenance. I have ridden some really nice carbon frames that I would be happy to own, but I do not believe that it is the right material for most bikes or most riders. Steel is certainly more forgiving and I agree with the comments about it failing predictably. All materials can fail, but one that is more likely to fail catastrophically should be used with that knowledge in mind. That doesn’t make it a bad material, but it does mean the user accepts a higher level of risk that is associated with the performance benefit. The F1 example is a good one. Those cars are built for a singular purpose- that doesn’t mean the same materials makes sense for a family car that has to serve multiple fuctions.

    One other point on the carbon/steel issue- if I am installing a stem on a steel steerer tube, I tighten the bolts quite a bit. I still tighten by feel with a carbon steerer tube, but a little too much torque can mean trouble. I bring up that example because I just saw the results an overtightened stem on a Cervelo yesterday. The steerer tube was cracked and the owner didn’t know it until he felt the bars moving up and down nearly a centimeter on a climb. I could see the spacers under the stem moving- definitely a scary situation.

  18. James September 1, 2008 at 8:10 pm -  Reply

    Oops, I meant to say the same materials *make* sense, not makes sense.

  19. bikesgonewild September 2, 2008 at 5:14 pm -  Reply

    …actually guys, part of the F1 analogy is bunk because they are not surrounded by a “steel cage” as ghostrider implies…nascar drivers are "en-caged" but the 'tubs' of F1 & other high end, single seat, open wheel cars are made from carbon fiber structured to absorb, break off outer portions & deflect other than into the actual cockpit, the high-g impacts generally involved in that type of racing…

    …so toastghost has got it partially right regarding carbon fibers "job" in race cars…

    …it's important to remember that stress risers can be created w/ abuse in any material but i'd venture to say that it's perhaps more of a consideration when dealing w/ the cloth & resin of carbon fiber, all things being equal…

    …a chip out of that surface resin, say from a stone or a slight impact is of more concern as opposed to the same force being applied to a 'metal' tube or structure, again, all things being equal…

    …carbon can be 'laid up' to give it wonderful properties but protective treatment of it's surface is definitely of great importance, especially considering the load bearing nature of a bicycle frameset…

    …& all but the thinnest of tubular metals can be reshaped, ie: internally, w/ oil pressure…

  20. billy September 4, 2008 at 10:19 am -  Reply

    These are cool bikes

  21. Anonymous September 5, 2008 at 3:08 am -  Reply

    Neoclasic? When did these bikes go out of fashion? I can’t have been paying attention in my fifty years on the road.

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