Best Of PEZ’17: Equipment Nostalgia-Fact Or Fiction?
Retro Equipment Feature: One of the most popular PEZ articles of 2017 was Ed Hood’s look back at his memories of riding the equipment that people now collect and call vintage and nostalgia, as a whole new section of the cycling community wants to ride l’Eroica events. Ed remembers the bad old days when the equipment maybe wasn’t as good as the modern kit. Have the years clouded the memory?
*** Plus new photo of the elusive Wenkobar. ***
How far back do you have to go?
As with many of my rants this one was inspired by my amigo, Dave – a PEZ veteran of many a Grand Tour.
On this occasion he mentioned to me that he’d been officiating at a junior race here in Scotland and had been astonished at the hardware on display, much of which wouldn’t have looked out of place at the Dauphine or Suisse Tour. This led to us discussing the equipment we had to contend with at the very dawn of the 70’s – a great decade for cars, soul music and bike riders. But much less so for haircuts, clothes – and bicycle equipment.
Still a lot of old kit for sale
Dave and I first rode on steel cranks connected to the bottom bracket axle by things called ‘cotter pins’ – these were dreamed up in the deepest most sulphureous pits of Hades. I still shake at the sight of a bike with these damnable devices.
My descriptive powers aren’t up to cotters pins – but here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
“Typical applications are in fixing a crank to its crankshaft, as in a bicycle, or a piston rod to a crosshead, as in a steam engine. Note: the angle of the wedge determines the position of the parts being held, therefore on a bicycle the pedal arms will only be at 180 degrees to each other if the angle of the cotter pin’s wedge is the same on both pins. These cotters have a short threaded section at the narrower end of the taper, which is used to hold the cotter in place with a washer and nut.”
“As in a steam engine” yes, sums the blighters up nicely, none of your computer modelling for those swine.
Barum tyres: Some good, some…
But let’s start where the bicycle meets the tarmac – with tubular tyres. At the top end of the market, Clement, Vittoria, Dordogne were all beautifully made, fitted the rim straight and true without any damage to your finger joints and rolled like the cotton and silk jewels that they were.
Dugast, in your dreams
However, if like us you rode cheapo Barums or the dreaded Wankobar (usually pronounced Wanker Bar) – the name is for real, Google if you must – things were different. Both brands came from behind the Iron Curtain, often via Milk Race team mechanics who looked like they could handle themselves in a knife fight.
Barums were Czech and were either brilliant – safe, long lasting and good handling or terrible – sitting crooked on the rim and developing huge abscesses on the side walls; with nothing in between. Fitting usually gave you a clue, if you and your buddy ended up covered in rim cement and sweating like beasts trying to get them on the rim – it wasn’t a good omen.
Great stuff from Dunlop
Rim cement was from Dunlop, a brown goo which went everywhere, inevitably including your hair – I’ve never been more happy than when I discovered double sided tapes for sticking tubular tyres on. Wenkobars were cheap, looked good with their yellow sidewalls but often you couldn’t get them straight on the rim no matter what you did. And if it rained – forget it, they were lethal.
The famous Wenkobar
Although we did find out 30 years too late that the problem was that they still had the talc from the manufacturing moulds on them, that was what made them so slippy, and all you had to do was give them a good scrub with a coarse brush and hot, soapy water and they’d be fine. Try telling that to PEZ pundit, Viktor who crashed twice before he got to the end of his street the first time he ventured out in the rain on them.
Mavic SSC were hard
Sprint rims too were either brilliant or so soft you had to be careful when truing them or you’d pull flats in them – this was remedied by hard core wheel builders with a mallet. I always stuck to Dirty Harry Callahan’s mantra; ‘a man’s gotta know his limitations,’ and had my buddies briefed that if they saw me with a spoke key in my hand then they should get it off me, pronto. But I have to say that Mavic Grey SSC’s were brilliantly robust and true if brutally expensive for the era.
Campag small flange with chrome spokes
Spokes, ah yes, spokes – I lost more than one race due to the ‘twang’ of a broken spoke followed by the slap, slap, slap of the rim on the brake clocks or on the seat stays if you were really unlucky. Generally it would be a rear wheel but I did break them in the front, too. Back then if you were British the preferred spoking choice was 32 front/40 rear – 36/36 was a ‘continental thing.’ The trouble was that many so-called ‘wheel building Maestros’ were anything but and had all the tension of the wheel hanging on one spoke. Logic dictates that if you break one spoke out of 40 it shouldn’t be disastrous – but it usually was. Chrome looked best but the chroming process weakened them at the end where they were bent at 90 degrees to go through the hub flange and they broke with depressing regularity. Stainless were more expensive and meant to be stronger but they broke just the same. Hardcore roadies used ‘rustless’ which were also ‘shineless’ and soon adopted a dull grey patina – I could never bring myself to use them.
Luis Ocaña with his large flange hubs
As for hubs; Campag large flange track hubs were things of beauty, as were the road large flange jobs – which the Continentals generally only used in time trials, think Luis Ocaña in the Grand Prix des Nations. Here’s the ‘but,’ as freewheels – the screw on predecessor to the integral cassette hub which came from the MTB world, thank God – went from four to five to six and ultimately seven sprockets the distance from the hub bearings to the fork end had to grow to accommodate more spacers and rear axle failures became all too common due the increased leverage. I never actually heard an axle break on me but the feeling that your rear end had somehow developed a mind of its own informed you that, yes, another axle has gone. Composites? Discs? Damn right.
No, not cotterpins
Transmission, it soon became apparent to us that racing on cotter pins was for the birds – I have the utmost respect for guys who rode Grand Tours on bicycles equipped with those things. Most of us started on budget alloy ‘cotterless’ Stronglight cranks with which you could perm a wide selection of chainrings; albeit the derailleur gears couldn’t handle big ‘jumps’ and most rode a 44/52 combination. Stronglight cranks broke with disturbing regularity and when you got out of the saddle there was always a little voice at the back of your mind counselling caution.
The Stronglight cotterless chainset
I will grant that most of our equipment was second hand and had ‘been round the block’ a time or two. But the alloy from which the cranks were made was horribly soft and even on brand new cranks it was all too easy to ‘bottom them out’ on the bottom bracket axle end. Cue a Coca Cola tin and your mum’s biggest scissors to cut shims to go between the crank and axle. Campagnolo cranks were much more robust and ‘street credible’ – Campag inner rings were 44 until the end of the 60’s when the new spider would take a 42; most of us rode a 52 outer with a 53 for the strong guys.
A more modern chainset from Mavic
Bottom brackets were a nightmare, if you ventured out in the rain you had to strip them out immediately after it or the bearings and axle would be ruined – no sealed bearings back then.
An old style bottom bracket
When we first started racing the cheapo rear gear mechanism of choice was the Benelux – unlike modern gear set ups you pulled the gear lever back to change up. Their roller cage was attached to a ferocious spring which was activated by a toggle chain attached to the gear cable. If the toggle or gear cable broke then the roller cage hurtled straight into your rear wheel with disastrous consequences. I know this article will lead to ferocious replies from the Eroica/Nostalgia lobbies but surely no one can come to the defence of a Benelux rear mech?
The dreaded Benelux rear gear
However, Campagnolo front and rear gear mechanisms were hard to fault, but the down tube gear levers were prone to slip – one buddy of mine used to leave the lever washers in water for a day or two before he fitted them, so they’d rust and be less prone to let the rear mech slip out of bottom gear on some hideous incline.
Campagnolo Nuovo Record
Regina ‘Oro’ was the chain of the day; finished in gold to match the ‘Oro’ five speed freewheel – or ‘block’ as we used to call them. These components looked great when new but the gold finish soon wore off and the 13-17 five speed freewheel had a fatal flaw in that the outside diameter of the block body wasn’t that much less than the inside diameter of the 17 tooth sprocket so there was very little metal between you and crash when you were out of the saddle in the 17. The problem was compounded by the fact that when you fitted a new 17 sprocket, even if the block and chain were quite new, the chain wouldn’t properly mesh with it and you had to replace the lot.
Regina Oro chain and block
To finish on the transmission, Campagnolo pedals were lovely but if you were on a budget like we were then the answer was the ‘Lyotard’ pedal with its ‘pick up tab’ on the back – these gems were held together by the simple means of little tabs from the axle housing which went through slots in the top plate and were then ‘riveted’ to hold the pedal together. Inevitably these worked loose and there would be all manner of clicking and creaking before you got round to laying into them with a hammer to tighten them up again. Clipless? Yes please.
Wheels and transmission to make you go – but how about stopping? I cannot understand people getting nostalgic over Mafac brakes; in the wet they were completely ineffectual and dangerous. London ex-pro Russell Williams relates the tale of riding down a descent in a French amateur classic with a local Mafac equipped rider hanging on to either side of him – they’d spotted he was on Campag brakes and therefore could actually slow down. Campag brakes were lovely but savagely expensive and what was with the size of the levers? They were tiny – compare them to a modern brake lever and they’re about half the size.
Mafac centre pull brakes – Beware!
My first handlebar extension was by Milremo and whilst there was no disputing its strength it looked like it would be more at home on a warship somewhere – I remember just sitting staring with pleasure at the clean lines of my first Cinelli 1A stem.
The Milremo stem
Handlebar choices were cool though with Cinelli bends from the ‘63’ through to the deep, ‘square,’ “Merckx” ‘66’ bend which I liked.
Cinelli stem – Hinault branded
The original two bolt Campag seat pillar was hard to fault, albeit awkward to adjust – requiring a ‘cranked’ spanner – but never let your saddle dip, which later single bolt models were notorious for if you hit a bump.
The Campagnolo two bolt seat pin
Saddles; I was never happier than when I bought my first padded, leather covered Unica-Nitor – until then I’d followed the advice of my older club mates who swore by leather saddle, ‘takes you a year or two to break them in, mind?’ Yeah, but I could be permanently disfigured by then!
Just about broken in!
So all you ‘Vintage/Eroica/Nostalgia dudes’ out there, if it’s your thing then that’s cool – just don’t ask me to join in your enthusiasm for equipment which should belong in a landfill site.
Luis Ocaña’s bike – A thing of beauty
# Thank you to all the photographers, most we have no idea where they came from. Many are old eBay adverts which proves that there is a market for ‘Retro Equipment’ out there. You’ll notice a change from the original article, yes, a photoof the famous Wenkobar tubular was found. #
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,500 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.