What are the differences between modern and retro road bicycles?
There are a vast amount of differences between a modern road bike and a retro road bike. These differences are found in materials, aesthetics, comfort, engineering, weight and performance. The bicycle industry has significantly evolved over the past 30 years, but is it all for the better? I wrote this article to present my thoughts on the many differences between them.
Which bikes will be featured in this comparison?
The retro bike is a beautiful 1984 Colnago Master in Saronni red. An iconic Italian frame complete with lots of new old stock 1980’s Campagnolo Super Record components and Mavic Open Pro rims. I avoided the tubular rims as I wanted to be able to ride this bike without the need for a Molteni team car (even though that would be nice!) The bike is finished off with 3TTT bars, stem and a San Marco Rolls saddle.
The modern bike is a 2014 Cervelo R5 equipped with a mechanical Dura-ace 9000 series groupset, rim brakes and a nice set of Campagnolo Bora One 50 carbon clincher wheels. When I bought this bike, it was considered a professional level race bike at the time. Five years later, it still is a fantastic bike and I love riding it. Whilst this bike doesn’t have disc brakes and electronic shifting, it is definitely modern enough to highlight most of the major advances to road bikes over the past 30 years.
Why would you consider buying a retro racing bike from the 1980’s?
Up until a few years ago I had NO interest in steel bikes or anything vintage for that matter. However, I apparently reached an age where I felt that I needed a ‘restoration project’ to work on. You know.. some guys buy that vintage car that NEVER gets restored. I don’t have the knowledge, space or tools to restore a vintage car, so I decided to stick with what I know and build up a vintage bike instead. After spending months learning the various component standards of ‘the past’ and even more time hunting through Ebay to order every single part, I was able to build this professional level race bike from the mid 1980’s.
What is the Colnago Master like to ride?
Special, nostalgic and surprising. Being an all Italian bike (excluding a few parts), when I ride it, it feels like I have taken a classic old Ferrari out for a spin. Sometimes I imagine myself as Eddy Merckx in an old video clip of the Tour de France. Even though this bike is 35 years old, the Colnago is still fast on flat terrain. Much quicker than I expected. In fact the Colnago is NOT much slower than riding my Cervelo (which features a lot more aero design).
So what has changed over time?
When you ride a race bike from the 80’s, you quickly notice the many differences to a modern race bike. In addition, having worked on every mechanical aspect of both bikes, it makes you realise just how much bicycle components have changed over the past 35 years.
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Modern bike: front gears are 52t-36t (2 chainrings), rear cassette is 11t-25t (11 cogs). Retro bike: front gears are 52t-42t (2 chainrings), rear freewheel is 12t-19t (6 cogs) or 14t-24t (6 cogs). I have 2 different freewheels.
The standard gearing of retro racing bikes is considerably different to gearing fitted on modern bikes. As you can see a standard vintage gear configuration of 52t-42t chainrings means that the small chainring is still big for climbing. Having only 6 cogs on the rear means you either have a reduced range of gears or incur larger steps between gears. I first fitted the Colnago with a 14t-24t freewheel, but it didn’t have any high gears for speed on flat terrain, so I changed the freewheel to a 12t-19t. On the front, the 42t chainring is perfect for headwinds or an emergeny gear down if the traffic lights suddenly change.
The Cervelo features a fantastic spread of gear ratios, as well as a relatively close increments between the gears. You can sprint flat out or ride up a big climb without needing to change a part. Top of Page.
Modern bike: mechanical STI levers using cables. Retro bike: mechanical friction shift levers using cables.
One of the biggest differences to riding a retro bike is changing gears using friction levers ie. no indexed shifting! It is like going from a Formula 1 paddle shift to a worn-out manual gear box. The shifting experience is world’s apart. Modern bikes are a massive improvement. However, like anything, with a bit of practice you will be really surprised at how accurately and quickly you can change gears using friction levers. The important thing is to plan well ahead and change early before the pressure is on. Also it pays to be a bit more crafty and use your leg cadence to avoid a gear change; by pedalling faster on a short decline or get out of the saddle to climb a small incline.
Cable routing has also changed considerably. On the Cervelo, the gear cables travel from the handlebars, down inside the down tube and out the bottom bracket where they move over a nice slippery plastic cable guide and onto the derailleurs. On the retro bike, the gear cables travel (externally) a shorter distance to the underside of the bottom bracket, however there is no slippery nylon cable guide here, the steel cables travel straight over the paintwork and quickly wear a groove in the paint and begin years of eating a groove into the steel frame. Not the smoothest (or quietest) shifting experience. One quick fix is run the cables through 2 small pieces of plastic tubing just under the bottom bracket.
Electronic shifting has been around for some time now and perfected on modern bikes. Whilst I don’t own a bike with electronic shifting, I have ridden a few bikes with electronic shifting, including one amazing day in the French alps, riding up the Col de la Madeleine, lacets de Montvernier and onto the summit of Col du Chaussy. However, in my experience a well tuned mechanical shifting bike (like my Cervelo equipped with Dura Ace 9000) is still pretty awesome and I’m in no hurry to change over yet. Top of Page.
Modern bike: less aggressive (higher) front-end, faster steering. Retro bike: lower more aggressive front-end, more stable.
Obviously there are many different types of modern frame geometries you can buy from a super aggressive low front-end race machine to an upright endurance bike, so these observations are a direct comparison between my Cervelo and the Colnago. When the Cervelo R5 was released, it copped a bit of criticism from some riders in regards to the 13mm taller head tube (173mm vs 160mm) when compared with a regular 56cm frame. However, this taller geometry suits me. I don’t need to use a stack of spacers to get a comfortable position. I also like to ride in the drops a lot, so I didn’t want the front end too low.
The size 57 Colnago Master feels to have a slightly lower front end (even with the quill stem raised to the maximum height) which gives it a bit more aggressive riding position, but as I do shorter rides on this bike, it’s not a problem. The Colnago also has a more stable handling geometry. You can ride it without hands on the bars – easily. It requires a bit more work through the corners. The Cervelo is a typical fast steering modern race bike with short chainstays. It is more unstable when riding without hands on the bars and changes direction with hardly any effort. I like them both, but you just have to be mindful when jumping back onto the Colnago when hitting the bends again.
Interestingly the Colnago only features 1 set of bottle cage bosses on the down tube, so you can only take 1 bottle on the ride whereas modern bikes have capacity to carry 2 drink bottles. I’m not sure who came up with the idea of a second drink bottle cage, but it was a good idea in my opinion. One drink bottle is good for about an hour of riding in most conditions, beyond that you will need either a team car or more likely to pull over and fill it up. This proves a good opportunity to have a break and strike up a conversation with any curious bystanders. Top of Page.
Modern bike: thicker handle bars, thicker & flatter brake hoods. Retro bike: narrow bars & narrow curved brake hoods.
Without a doubt the modern Shimano Dura-ace hoods are hugely more comfortable than the vintage Campagnolo Super Record brake hoods. In fact on the Colnago, I dont ride the hoods very much. I warm-up on the tops and ride the drops. I set the brake lever position on the Colnago ‘old school’ which means the brake hoods are located closer to the the middle of the bend on the handle bar which positions the hoods further away from you and in a lower position relative to the modern Shimano levers which sit closer to you and higher up the 3T Ergonova bar. The modern Shimano hoods also have a nice long flat section on the top. That’s not to say you can’t re-position the vintage brake levers differently on the bars or rotate the bars to angle the levers higher. It would make the cockpit more comfortable, but the aesthetic would suffer. Top of Page.
Modern bike: sloping 56cm top tube frame. Retro bike: traditional horizontal 56cm top tube frame.
Modern road bikes feature a sloping top tube frame (compact) whereas the retro bike features a traditional horizontal top tube frame. Both of these frames have an effective horizontal top tube length of 56cm, but looking at the 2 photos above, you can see the extra height of the seat post of the compact frame (Cervelo). The advantage of a compact frame design is that it provides a much greater amount of stand-over clearance. I have no problems positioning my body relative to the bottom bracket for pedalling on either of these frames, but stand-over clearance is a determining factor when selecting the correct frame size of retro frame. As mentioned previously, the Colnago has a shorter head tube which provides a lower front-end. A couple of points of interest.
1. The Colnago is fitted with a standard length Campagnolo Super Record seat post (they made a shorter one also) and yet it only has 10mm of extension left, so if you wanted to go ‘pro’ and buy a frame one size down, you may run-out of seat post.
2. Due to the brake hoods being positioned further forward and lower on the handle bars, I fitted a shorter stem on the Colnago to give me a similar riding position when holding the hoods on both bikes. The consequence of this being the tops of the handle bars are closer to me on the Colnago, but using the hoods and drops of the bars feel the same on both bikes. This fit issue is not related to the frame design, just the traditional placement of the brake levers on the handle bars. Modern bikes feature compact frame design which allows more people to fit standard frame sizes. Top of Page.
Modern bike: 50mm profile carbon fibre clinchers. Retro bike: 15mm profile alloy clinchers.
The Colnago features Campagnolo Record hubs with vintage Mavic Open Pro rims, but I built the wheels with modern DT Swiss double butted round spokes. The result is a wheelset weighing a very respectable 1590gms, only slightly heavier than the Campagnolo Bora One wheelset. Both wheelsets are excellent with nice stiff spokes. There’s no noticable lateral play in either. Obviously the Campagnolo wheels have an aero advantage, but are also noisy on the road and affected by cross-winds. The vintage wheels are dead quiet on the road and very relaxed in cross-winds. I personally like a quiet freehub when coasting and both wheelsets are stealthy. The Regina freewheel on the vintage bike has a really subtle tick when coasting, just like a fine swiss watch.
I have fitted premium quality race tyres on both of these bikes. The Colnago is fitted with modern Veloflex Master 23mm tyres. The Cervelo is fitted with Continental GP4000S II 25mm tyres. Both these tyres feature high threads per inch and provide a smooth grippy ride. The Continentals have amazing durability and puncture protection, the Veloflex have a much thinner tread, so I expect lower durability and less puncture protection. Thankfully I haven’t had a puncture on them yet. I bought the Veloflex because they are; 1. Italian and 2. have the required tan side wall! Interestingly Veloflex do not recommend the tyres be used on carbon rims.
Modern wheels are great based on weight and aero benefits. Retro wheels are super quiet on the tarmac and not affected by crosswinds. Top of Page.
Modern bike: dual pivot caliper brakes. Retro bike: single pivot caliper brakes.
There is a significant design difference between retro and modern brake calipers. Retro bikes use single pivot calipers whilst modern bikes use dual pivot calipers. Dual pivot calipers definitely generate more braking power, but I believe the pads need to be properly centered to the rim, otherwise the braking can feel a bit pulsey, similar to if the wheel were out of true. Single pivot calipers don’t need the pads to be as accurately centered to the rim to achieve a smooth braking feel.
The modern bike has more powerful braking in the dry (even with carbon rims). No real surprises here. Modulation or feel of the brakes isn’t massively different. You just need to allow a bit more stopping distance for the Colnago. However, this is not a completely fair comparison as the Colnago has original (and probably very old) brake pads fitted, so no doubt the brake pads are harder and less grippy than when they were when new. The Campagnolo Super Record brake calipers were new-old-stock and the springs are very firm in comparison to the Shimano brakes. Braking when riding on the hoods on the Colnago is much less effective than braking on the hoods using the Shimano brake levers. Braking in the drops gives you the best stopping power on both bikes.
From a design perspective, these old Campagnolo Super Record calipers do not support a toe-in adjustment for the pads, so originally they squealed when stopping. I didn’t want to swap the brake shoes over to modern designs that allow a toe-in adjustment, so after a bit of research, I performed a procedure that all mechanics apparently did back in the day and that was take 2 adjustable wrenches and GENTLY (at first) physically bend the caliper arms to give the pads a small amount of toe-in. Scary I know. But those caliper arms are very sturdy. It took a bit more force than I expected to get that few degrees of bend to provide a small amount of toe-in. Thankfully this adjustment was only required on the front brake caliper, I didn’t need to touch the rear one. Similarly, when I first bought the Campagnolo Bora One rims, I set the pads up without any toe-in and they squealed even worse! This was fixed simply by adjusting the pad toe-in with the use of the included conical washer. No bending of caliper arms required. A nice feature of modern brake shoes.
I can’t compare the wet braking as I don’t ride the Colnago in bad weather. It’s a fair weather ride!
Disc brakes have since become standard on modern road bikes with advantages and disadvantages when compared with rim brakes, but that discussion is for another article. Top of Page.
This is probably the most subjective part of this comparison. I often read bike reviewers proclaiming how a steel frame makes for a plush ride and that steel frames don’t have the stiffness of other frame materials like aluminium or carbon. I also often read that whilst carbon bikes are stiffer, the carbon helps soak up road buzz. So after riding the Cervelo for several years, I figured that the Colnago may feel like a plush recliner, maybe even a little spongy on the pedals or flexy in the corners. Well, quite simply.. NO it doesn’t. It feels perfectly stiff under my 82kg weight cornering and getting my power through the pedals. The extra frame weight wouldn’t help in the climbs but it does help to hold speed downhill and on flat terrain. Surprisingly, you feel the bumps pretty much the same on both bikes in my opinion. So why is that? Here are my thoughts…
- A good stiff pair of wheels will make a frame feel stiff and lively. They also reduce the likelihood of brake rub in the corners.
- Tyres massively affect ride quality of a road bike, specifically air pressure and air volume.
- Noises coming from the bike when riding like; creaking, clicking and rattling can also affect your perception of stiffness and ride quality.
The main reason I believe these bikes feel smiliar on the road is because the Cervelo is equipped with modern wide rims that fit wider (25mm) tyres which require lower air pressure (90psi and I often ridden with less). The Colnago is equipped with narrow rims that fit narrower (23mm) types which require a higher minimum inflation pressure of 100psi (according to Veloflex). Quite simply, more air pressure and less volume makes for a bumpier ride. Any comfort benefits coming from that steel frame are being eroded by the higher tyre pressure required for these narrow wheels & higher pressure tyres.
In regards to noises, both of these bikes are quiet. I work hard to eliminate any clicks, creaks or rattles. The only noise from the Cervelo is the hum of the carbon rims. The alloy rims on the Colnago however are super quiet making it seem like the Colnago is a smoother ride than the Cervelo on smooth sections of tarmac. I try to avoid bumps riding either of these bikes. Top of Page.
Drop-outs, headset & stem
- Colnago frame features inward facing horizontal dropouts. These give you the flexibility to easily convert to a fixed wheel or single speed set-up, but they are more fiddly to insert or remove the rear wheel. Also, if the quick release is not really tight, the chain can pull the rear wheel out of alignment and it will rub on the inside of the left chain stay. On the Colnago, I need to rotate the rear derailleur back and out of the way to remove or replace the wheel. If you just want to use the bike with a rear derailleur, the drop-outs on modern bikes are the better design in my opinion.
- Steel quick release levers don’t grip as well on steel frames. You need to tighten the levers much firmer than on modern bikes to ensure that (a) the back wheel is pulled out of alignment and (b) the front wheel doesnt fall out of the forks as there are no lawyer tabs on the front forks.
- Modern threadless headsets and clamp on stems are quite simply a brilliant design when compared with retro threaded headsets with a quill stems. The main advantages of the retro design is that if you need to raise or lower the stem, you do not need to re-tension the headset (and the forks don’t fall out of the frame). Having said that, it is very quick and easy to re-tension a modern headset. Both retro and modern designs require the fork steerer to be cut to a certain height determined by the number of spacers you want to fit in the headset. Both designs allow movement of the stem up and down the steerer.
The 3ttt Record 84 stem used in the Colnago is way more difficult to remove than a modern stem. This stem features a conical wedge that is pulled up into the stem as you tighten the stem bolt. This wedge effectively pushes the sides of the stem into the steerer to lock the stem in place. To force the wedge out of the stem so you can adjust or remove it, you need to loosen the stem bolt a little then gently tap on the stem bolt to push the wedge down and repeat until the wedge is forced out of the stem. The retro stems look elegant, but this stem is more fiddly to work with, however there was another design of quill stem that was supposed to be much easier to remove. Top of Page.
Bottom brackets (BB) are a very contentious topic for any cycling enthusiast. The majority of modern carbon fibre fames are designed to use some variant of a press-fit bottom bracket, whilst older bike frames are designed to use a threaded bottom bracket (with some exceptions). There will always be ongoing debate over which system is better. They each have advantages and disadvantages and everyone has their own preference based on their experiences with this component.
Undoubtedly the number one complaint about press fit bottom brackets is creaking. Whilst a press fit BB is a logical design for a carbon fibre frame (ie. not having to add a threaded shell to the BB area of the frame), the BB shell of a carbon frame must be manufactured to tight tolerances to ensure a snug fit for the BB cups and then the BB must be installed correctly. If these two criteria are not met, you will probably experience problems.
Additionally, press fit bearings are far more difficult to remove (commonly needing the use of a hammer) and then you need a press tool to fit the new BB parts. With the Cervelo, I had problems with noise from the Rotor cranks and subsequently replaced them with Shimano Dura-ace 9000 cranks to complete the groupset. I also replaced the press fit BB with a BBInfinite system and it hasn’t made a noise for years now. In summary, my experience with a regular press fit bottom bracket wasn’t great. I hate noises coming from my bikes.
In contrast, threaded BB’s are far easier to remove and replace and are a perfect option for any frame material that you can cut threads into ie. steel, alloy & titanium. The manufacturer of the frame must ensure the threads are cut accurately on both sides to ensure correct axle alignment with the bearings. This retro threaded Campagnolo Record bottom bracket shown above positions the bearings inside the BB shell of the frame. Newer generations of threaded BB’s position the cups and bearings outside the BB shell of the frame which resulted in less weight, better durability and extra stiffness at the cranks.
I’ve always had positive experiences with threaded BB’s in my bikes. This retro threaded Campagnolo Record BB fitted in the Colnago is no exception. Interestingly, old Italian steel frames like the Colnago feature an Italian BB threading so the drive side cup is tightened clockwise. This may sound logical, but the pedalling action can cause this cup to come loose, so you need to make sure this cup is either on very tight or use a thread locker. I applied some Loctite to this cup and tightened it firmly (but not ridiculously tight) and it hasn’t moved. A little trick I use is to mark the this cup and frame with a black Sharpie, then if the cup starts to come loose, these marks will no longer align. This eliminates any guesswork as to the tightness of the cup.
Retro bottom bracket is great for ease of maintenance and a quiet ride.
Modern bottom bracket is great for reduced weight and extra stiffness at the cranks.
In my opinion, if you don’t service your bike and your press fit BB doesn’t creak, that is the ultimate set-up. If the pressfit BB on your bike creaks, check out BBinfinite.com. Top of Page.
Traditionally a retro bike would be fitted with a vintage set of flat pedals, toe clips and straps. As I like to ride the Colnago regularly, I decided to fit a set of modern Shimano Ultegra clipless pedals. I guess this was the one thing I didn’t want to compromise on. I bought a nice set of Campagnolo superleggeri pedals and alloy Christophe toe clips & straps (pictured below), but I haven’t used them, I only got them to complete the bike.
People can be confused when referring to modern pedals as clipless pedals due to the fact that you clip your cleats into these pedals, but they are named ‘clipless’ because they do not have ‘toe clips’.
There are some positives and negatives for both retro and modern pedal designs. Clipless pedals are great when you are riding, but you need to be wearing special shoes and the road cleats are not so good for walking. Of course mountain bike shoes feature recessed cleats and are easy to walk in, but this comparison is based on road cycling equipment. Top of Page.
As we all know beauty is ‘in the eye of the beholder’ and quite subjective. For me, the Colnago Master is exquisite. Those beautiful Campagnolo silver parts, glossy red metallic paint and chrome etc. I just love looking at it and admiring the Italian craftsmanship. By comparison the Cervelo is a modern matt stealth machine designed to get you from A to B as efficiently and quickly as possible, but it just doesn’t have the same eye-catching looks. Top of Page.
Modern bikes are generally fitted with a computer (typically a GPS unit) to measure speed, distance, time etc. My Garmin also includes maps and turn-by-turn directions. If you don’t have a bike computer, you can use a smart phone and apps like Strava to record your rides. The use of power meters is also gaining popularity as a training tool.
Whilst these gadgets were not available back in the 1980’s, it isn’t a problem today because many of these devices can be easily retro-fitted to a retro bike! Things like power meter pedals, computers and GPS units can be added no problem. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the first cyclometer was invented way back in 1895 and was capable of measuring miles travelled. Top of Page.
Which bike is likely to stand the test of time? The Colnago Master is 35 years old at time of writing and the Cervelo is 6 years old. The 30 year age difference is not necessarily the answer to this question. Judging by the original paint of the Master, I don’t believe this Colnago was subjected to lots of hard miles. But I’m sure there are plenty of steel bikes out there that have been.
I have logged up 45,000kms on the Cervelo in rain, hail and shine. Most of that riding is on coastal roads near the sea. For me, the beauty of carbon frames is that they don’t rust. Of course there is the option of titanium as well..
Whilst you may think that the carbon fibre frame would be inferior to the durability of a steel frame, I found this interesting article which is a discussion based on the durability of carbon fibre forks, but digresses to the durability of carbon fibre in general. Both materials can last a very long time if you look after them and don’t crash.
Most probably, I will sell the Cervelo in the next few years for a fraction of what it cost and I doubt the Cervelo R5 will ever be regarded a collector’s item. However, there would definitely be some carbon frames prized by collectors 30 years into the future. The ultra expensive and limited Cervelo RCA or RC5A may be among them? Top of page.
Based on everything you have read, it may seem that a modern bike is easily the outright winner. Well, yes it is, and I will always use a modern bike for 90% of my riding, but if you have the space and can afford a retro road bike. DO IT! I love riding my retro bike on a beautiful morning with the red paint, silver and chrome parts gleaming in the sun. The satisfaction of nailing a perfect gear shift. The incredibly quiet ride. The interest is generates with fellow riders.
There is definitely something special about riding an Italian ‘superbike’ from a bygone era. Unlike most modern bikes, a collectible retro bike will also appreciate in value over the years. Think of it as an investment. Top of Page.
Please feel free to leave your own comments below. Remember this article is purely based on my own opinions as the proud owner, mechanic and rider of both these wonderful bicycles. Top of Page.
26 thoughts on “Modern vs Retro Bicycle Comparison”
My one and only bike is an ’84 Peugeot PH10LE that I bought new. Down tube friction shifting is like playing the trombone–you just know where it is. Wheels are Rigida 27×1 1/4. I use Kenda skin-wall tires @90 psi. They’re smooth riding and responsive and I haven’t had a flat in well over 2 years. It’s a quiet ride. The rear drive train is the Helicomatic it came with. 13-28 6-speed. I put a triple (26-42-50) up front on it about 25 years ago. Obviously both derailleurs had to be changed. The Winemann 500 side pull brakes were crap from the git-go and got replaced about a year ago with Ultegra dual-pivots (free from a friend). As I mentioned, it’s my one and only bike so I habe nothing modern to compare it to. All I can say is, obviously, I like the bike, it’s a comfortable and responsive ride, and I always get a compliment or two about it when I ride. It still looks and performs as well as the day it was new. Just my $.02 worth.
Forgot to mention, the pedals are the original Lyotard one-sided pedals with Christophe cages and straps. I’m still wearing the Detto shoes I bought when the bike was purchased. They even have tbe ’84 L.A. Olympics logo on the side. I’d post pics but Photobucket is still holding all my pics ransome.
Hi Jon, sounds fantastic – you’ve been riding this bike for the last 35 years? Wow, that’s amazing. You have to try the shifting of a modern bike.. Thanks for sharing.
I tried a modern bike with brifters about 6 momths ago that my lbs loaned to me one weekend. All I can say about it is that I was less than impressed over all. I really wanted it to speak to me and say “You gotta’ get me” but, sadly, that didn’t happen. I’m quite content with my old-school ride. Like the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, no need to fix it”. Besides, if I were to get a modern bike I’d have to get new “clipless” shoes to go with it and at 64 years of age I don’t need or want to learn how to ride all over again.
Ok. Glad to hear you got an opportunity to try a new-school ride. One thing I’m never keen to do is buy new cycling shoes. I find it always takes a while to wear them in.
Yep, totally agree with your points, how bikes have improved. My ’83 Ciocc and ’90 Concorde , have both been upgraded to STI or Ergo shifters, got to love them. The Ciocc is running a Shimano 10 speed drive train. The Concorde is still 7 speed , but with a Campy triple. Also, tires have gone from 21mm, 23mm, now all have 25mm tires.
All bikes have clipless peddles , too.
Last year, I purchased my first CF bike, with disc brakes. Has 28mm tires. Really a compfy bike. But, I keep going back to old steel bikes. All are fun to ride, just feel different.
Hi Ken, many thanks for your comments. My next bike will most likely have disc brakes and maybe even electronic shifting so I can learn something new. Great to hear you have a couple of retro bikes in the fleet. Sounds like you are living in the best of both worlds with that collection.
Yeh, electronic shifting, but that’s waaaay out of my budget. But, no doubt, it is one of the coolest developments in cycling.
Oh, forgot to add, all bikes now have an array of sensors (like a modern car), power, speed, cadence , HR and Garmin head unit.
Hi Ken, Ok, I added a short section on Electronics.
Thanks, you nailed it.
You did way better than most who attempt these projects. Congrats.
The Colnago has too much brake cable housing. Mostly an aesthetic thing. No one would have trimmed them so long in 1984.
The TTT stem will probably go higher. Caution advised as they were not all the same. Measure the quill. If you have 6cm inside the steerer you’re good. If conservative you might want 7cm. There are definitely period TTT and Cinelli stems that will get you higher. Early maximum markings were all over the place. Expander cones do get stuck occasionally, should be a trivial issue.
Clipless pedals very similar to modern were introduced by Look in 1984. Not going to discuss earlier attempts. The first Look pedals were a bit clunky but they worked. Very few would find slightly later Look pattern pedals inappropriate to a 1984 Colnago.
The Continental tires usually mount quite a bit wider than nominal, which is much of their comfort. Varies with rim, exact model of tire, and even production run. Lots of tires with tan sidewalls similar to Veloflex. Lots of wider Italian tires available. If they fit in your frame use the wide ones. Narrow tires were the norm in ’84, before ’73 only track tires were as narrow as what would be normal later.
Modern tubulars don’t flat the way they did in 1984. They still look like 1984. Having had multiple runs of bad luck with bad QC on name brand inner tubes I switched back to tubulars and have had one flat past five years. Riding in city of Chicago.
Campy QRs do not require excessive force. Can’t diagnose at a distance, if they do not close firmly with moderate force something is wrong. If they aren’t working right using force won’t accomplish anything.
Bending brake arms was sure done back in the day. Never a good idea. By ’84 pads with orbital adjustment were widely available, and widely used. Even if you want to be tutti Campy, when did Campy brakes squeal? Mine never did. And still don’t.
12 tooth cogs existed in ’84, very new stuff then and very few used them. We all used to train for high spin. The old bikes respond extremely well to spin, and hardly any still know how the human body responds to high spin. And we had to be able to grunt climbs as well because low gears were simply not done. Period Campy will allow a low of 41×28, no one ever did that.
Most ‘problems’ with vintage bikes are quickly resolved by doing things as they were done. Sounds like you have done a lot of that already. Vintage does require the rider to be flexible, adaptable. Mentally and physically. Vintage race bikes assumed that only a few would want them, and that those few would be trained, initiated. ’84 was at the beginning of a totally different market based approach. For the mass market the modern bikes are better. Vintage bikes still have a lot of rewards for those willing to work with them.
Wow! Thanks for your in depth assessment of my article. Great to hear the thoughts of someone who was riding/racing these bikes ‘back in the 1980s’.
Re: Brake outer
Really interested to read your view of the brake cable housing length (being too long on my Colnago). As I was not familiar with the bike setup of the early 1980’s, I based my brake cable length on images of various bikes I saw online. I just Googled ‘Saronni bike’ to see a picture of his brake cable length and I think it looks fairly similar to my setup. I definitely found examples of bikes with much longer looping brake cables than mine. For me the cables are a bit weird aesthetically, but they don’t seem to get in the way when riding.
I just checked the max line location on 2 other TTT stems I own and they are 65mm and 60mm so I presume the one fitted to the Colnago is similar. Not knowing how strictly you need to adhere to the recommended MAX line, I set it there to be safe. If I need to go a bit higher, I will probably track down a different stem based on your remarks. Currently I only do 1 bottle rides on this bike, so the setup is OK for that distance in the drops.
Re: Look pedals
I have owned a few modern incarnations of Look pedals, prior to swapping over to Shimano pedals in recent times. I found the Look pedals had a more noticeable float (which was good), but the small rubbers under the cleats wear out too quickly walking around. The Shimano cleat rubbers are much more durable. I setup the Colnago with modern pedals as no one sees them when you are riding. I also have vintage flat pedals and cages if I ever wanted to turn it into a show bike or sell it.
Those tubulars you have must be very good. One flat in 5 years? I reckon the pro’s are using the wrong tyres. I see them on TV with flat tyres all the time.. BTW, I had my first flat tyre in a while recently 🙁
Re: Campy QR’s
Obviously it is hard to quantify how tight a QR is, but when I first built the Colnago, I set them to the same tension I use on the Cervelo and after a few rides, the chain pulled the rear wheel out of alignment..so it obviously wasn’t tight enough. As I don’t want that happening again, I give them a bit more tension (probably more than necessary) and it hasn’t happened since.
I wanted to stick with the original Campy brake shoes because I like the black flaps that protrude from them, which meant no toe-in adjustability. Maybe it is just the pads were old and hard, but they were squealing. Tried sanding the pads, cleaning the pads and rims but nothing worked So I risked a small adjustment to the angle of the front callipers and got a noise free result. It only required a very minimal 1-2mm of toe-in to fix.
My riding style is the complete opposite of the 80’s. I like to spin the climbs with low gears and push big gears on the flats. Not for any particular reason, it just feels right for me.
I really enjoy the differences of riding a vintage bike. Both physically and mentally. Plus it is super satisfying every time you get a perfect gear change. Also, chasing down or dropping guys on modern bikes is fun too!
You want safe QRs. Open up the body of lever. It’s just the one 8mm nut. Don’t lose the little split washer. It’s very simple in there. It’s chromed and hardened and will operate bone dry. Works much better if lubed. A little grease direct on the cam and cam follower, a little grease where the fat end of skewer slides in and out of the body. A Campy QR will last almost forever (I am using 1930s versions) but if pushed really hard while dry and just used a lot the cam wears and gets rough. Then it’s a hard push.
Yes I wear through my tubulars w/o flats. Simply never occurred in the old days. Tubular construction is very different than what it was. Except for the stitching they aren’t much different from current light clinchers. Far less glass on roads currently. We also use less pressure in the tires now. The oldest old racers I knew would occasionally try to get us to drop pressure, that was a hard sell.
Try spinning. Some never quite get it. When you do, it’s great. Do long warmups on flat ground in a gear that gives much higher rpm than you are accustomed to, until you are doing steady 100-110rpm. Smaller riders spin higher but you’re on a big frame. After warmup don’t think about it, just ride. What should happen is your calves are used less and less. Quads do all the work and lower leg gets smaller. Pedals float, pedal pressure seems to go away. I can’t replicate for you the thousands of hours of discussion of pedal technique absorbed from the old masters. We never talked power, we talked pedal. For some, just doing the basic spinning tells your body everything.
Thanks, I will take the QR lever apart and give it a bit of grease. They might be a bit dry as they were sitting in storage a long time as I bought them ‘new old stock’.
There is no doubt that high cadence has proven benefits and I was of the understanding that this was a more ‘modern’ concept in cycling, particularly amongst the pro peleton whom now ride with wider range cassettes (11-28t) and sometimes mid-compact or compact chainrings (on big days in the mountains). I find it surprising to read your comment that the old masters were big on spinning and pedal technique and yet pro rider’s of the era are well known for grinding up the climbs in big gears with low cadences?
Firstly great read.
I have owned a 1985 Colnago super wth mostly Campy components for 35 years – not used for the past 15 yrs due to a back problem which is resolved. About to commence a restoration. Dont now if i will keep the patina or repaint – undecided. – but pretty tatty after 35 yrs. I used a cat-eye cyclometer and it told me I used 100-110 cadence most times and still have it from the day. I also use singles and they were reinforced to stop punctures so were a tad heavier than pure silks- only had about 2 in 20 yrs of solid ridding however.
Didn’t invest in look pedals – still have my Detto shoes …
Again great comparison
Good or you Hillary. Glad to hear that back problem has finally been resolved after 15 years..That’s a long time.
You rode with quite a high cadence considering the gearing on these old bikes was much larger than modern day gearing.
It is definitely fun and rewarding to restore a vintage classic.
Before you commence, do your research to find a good painter & chrome specialist that works with bikes as the frame tubes are very thin so they need to be mindful when preparing them for plating!
If you’re not mechanically minded a good bike shop should be able to sort out the rest for you.
There are heaps of parts on e-bay should you need to replace or upgrade components.
You can order the same frame decals online as well. The finished product can end up looking like a brand new bike again.
Hi, great article and i really can relate to the comparison.
I own a Colnago tecnos and a modern Merida ride carbon with electronic groupset. Only difference is that i fitted my Colnago with a modern Campagnolo super record 11sp and 35mm reynolds carbon clincher. I use my Merida ride for most of my weekend rides (and my default choice for hill climbing) and the Colnago Tecnos for my daily commuting. I was pleasantly surprised that i managed to build the Colnago to a good 9.4kgs. While this is no weight weenies, it is much more enjoyable compared to my first built steel bike of 11kgs. I can understand the aesthetic and nostalgic values in the older groupset, and probably would like to try fitting one in my future project. It was very difficult to find an old Colnago frame without a price tag that can cost an arm and a leg, so when i found a reasonably priced 54cm frame (i normally ride 52cm), i just had to take it. With a few tweaks, i can fit it to my normal geometry. The only regret when i bought the Colnago, the paint job (which is the hallmark of the Colnago masters models) was no longer in good condition. There are also signs that it needs rechroming. I’ve been mulling over to rechrome and repaint, but i am reluctant because i think it will diminish the value, since they will no longer be original (not to mention that it will knock me back a couple of grand at least). Maybe if money is not an object, i will resend it to Colnago for a repaint..
Hi Ken, thanks for your comments. Interesting to hear you thoughts. I’d never thought about sending a frame back to Colnago for a repaint. Do they offer that service?
Original frames are more valuable, but they would also need to be in good condition. If there’s rust, dents or lots of damage to the paint work, I would expect it’s not going to be as important. Exceptions to this would of course be if the bike was owned or raced by a former Pro, or if the frame was very rare.
A beautifully restored bike is valuable to a different type of buyer, but most importantly, it should be the bike you are happy with. I would talk with some local bike shops to find a specialist bike painter. See what can be done, I would expect the price to be much cheaper than Colnago. I went down this path and achieved a very good result for a very reasonable price.
I got back into cycling a few years ago because I was given a few years of citibike membership. Even though I save nothing in commuting cost when using the bike, I rode it for 2-2.5 hours before and after work literally every workday to and from my other mass transit points. Come the pandemic and having to work from home, I jerry rigged a 20″ 7spd bike w/35cm seatpost and parts from my old cyclocross bike into something that resemble the fit from my race days. This year, while chainging to to a 23lb folding and entry level road bike, I always thought of reviving my old Colnago Supers that I had in my parent’s garage. My memory didn’t seem to serve me too well. The one with the custom paint job had a bent frame (must have been from a crash into an oil can trash can left in the middle of the road), and out of the 10 or so wheels I had around, my go to Ambrosio front wheel is not amongst them. Cranks, handlebars, seat, seatposts were missing. I must have gone through stripping the frames off their parts before misplacing them. The thought of patching tubulars on a weekly basis also gave me the chills. I even grabbed the bag full of punctured tubulars and wanted see if I can do anything with them. One of them that didn’t seem to have a leak exploded when I pumped the tire up. It seems to be due to dry rot, which makes most of the other tires suspect. All my road wheels were tubular, so I would have to shell out money for that just to get the bike moving and see if it is worth the effort. Examining the frames, I notice rust seem to develop on the areas of the chrome fork. I would have expected chromed parts are immune from rusting. If I do revive them and ride on my Campy platform pedals, I will also have to pull out my Sidi Titanium and Marresi cycling shoes (I had the Dettos too, but they weren’t stiff enough so I never kept them for long).
Such a great and valuable website! I started amateur bike racing in 1980 on a Colnago Super with Campy Super Record and sew-ups, a few years later I bought a new Colnago Nuevo Mexico with same grouppo and wheels as the Super. In 1990 I lost interest and sold everything. This past summer when I hit 60 I decided to take up road cycling again after messing around with mountain bikes on and off the past couple decades. With the Covid bike shortage I couldn’t find anything I liked in local shops so I ended up spending 7 times what I paid for my last Colnago on a 2019 Specialized Venge TDF green jersey bike with DI2 disc grouppo and Dura-Ace C60 tubular wheels. I just didn’t feel right riding that lightweight twitchy thing, and one day when I was at the local Specialized concept store there was a 1986 Red Allez with a Dura-Ace 7400 grouppo on it in close to mint condition, and I asked if it was for sale and sure enough one of the employees was selling it .. so I immediately bought it, took it home and changed the bars, tape, brake cables, and seat, and now I feel like I’m home riding it, it’s much more enjoyable to me than my 14k ‘super bike’. Now I just bought a 1985 Colnago Master that’s been restored and it’s on its way to me. It’s been 30 years since I worked on my Campy stuff and this site has been a tremendous help in bringing back to memory stuff I’d forgotten. Thanks for posting all these articles!
Thanks for your kind words Chris, I’m glad to hear the articles on this website have been helpful. Good to hear you have re-discovered your passion for vintage bikes. You certainly owned some premium Colnago bikes back in the 1980’s. The Colnago Master is generally considered the pinnacle of Colnago’s steel frame designs, so it will be interesting to see what you think of it having previously owned a Super and Nuovo Mexico. Enjoy!
Hi Rouler, yeah the Master was in Marcel Calborn’s shop Celo Europa in So.Cal. when he built me the Mexico back in the day .. but it was out of my price range .. plus I was a big Gissepie Saronni fan back then and I was getting his exact bike down to the fully chromed rear triangle which most Mexico’s didn’t have .. so I was happy 😃 I’ll let you know what I think .. it’ll be here this Saturday and I’m pretty excited, but I’ll be taking my time assembling it and will probably gawk at it a few days in my bike build room in the house before getting it outside and rolling. I read all of your Mexico entries with great joy .. and am working on the rest of your articles. So I ordered some 3mm ID tubing from eBay for running the shift cables through under the bottom bracket as per your idea .. and am wondering what kind of oil did you use to coat the inside of the tubing? Would some Park CL-1 be ok you think? I could of sworn back in the day I used some dark gray cable liner down there .. but figure with your experience trying modern cable liner and having it move I’d give your 3mm tubing method a shot, thanks for showing us that in your article. Ok off to go wax the old Allez.
Hi Chris, glad to hear you found the Nuovo Mexico build interesting and sounds like exciting times for you as well. I just used a bit of TriFlow, but any lube would probably do. Depending on how slippery the plastic liner is, you may not need much. The liner I currently use is not very slippery, so I had to add lube. FYI I can still hear a bit of noise when making large shifts. I’m not 100% satisfied with the housing I have used, but it was the best I could do based on the 4 or 5 options I have tried so far.
Definitely take your time and enjoy the build. With a bit of luck, it will be quiet and super smooth on it’s first ride. Make sure you don’t fit a dodgy crank dust cap like I did as that noise took a lot of work to find. There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction that comes from building your own bike and solving any issues along the way. Here are some tips you have probably already read in the articles;
If you are installing friction shift levers, I think the largest challenge is setting the correct amount of tension at the levers. Adding a bit of Rosin can help if the nylon washers are a bit slippery and then it comes down to tightening the lever screws just right. If they are screwed up too tight, it is tricky to smoothly shift between gears, but if they are too loose, you will find the chain jumps across gears when you put the power down. On my bike, if the levers feel buttery smooth shifting gears, they are too loose – the chain jumps under power. You need to feel some resistance in the movement of the levers, then the chain stays on the gear no matter how hard you pedal. Might be different on your bike, but that is what works on mine.
Make sure the rear quick release is nice and firm, definitely tighter than on a modern bike or you may pull the rear wheel out of alignment under power.
If your brakes squeal and there is no ability to toe-in the pads, you can bend the caliper arms to add toe-in. I had to do this with both my Colnago bikes. It is a problem that can be solved, don’t put up with brake squeal.
Let us know how you go..
I am late to this party, but I compliment you on your approach. You bring a good perspective in being someone who values your classic, without the bias of someone who rode bikes like that when they were the only game in town. When someone writes that they have been riding only one bike for 35 years, it’s obvious that they have not been piling on the miles that you have on your Cervelo, and if they were riding a bike with a Helicomatic freewheel and they would certainly have three complaints if they were packing on a lot of miles: replacement freewheels are hard to find, the hubs don’t last very long, and they shift poorly. The move to shaped tooth profiles has made a tremendous improvement in shifting. With that said, the bike I have the most miles on is my primary commuter, a 1984 Bianchi, but it has had so many parts replaced that I think the only thing that is original is the seatpost.
The person who wrote about the brake cable length was correct. Race mechanics would run the shortest cable runs possible, while the general rule of thumb was that you should be able to fit four fingers between the top of the bars and the brake cables. Starting position for brake levers was to have the end of the lever in line with the bottom of the bars, which should themselves be somewhere between level and 15 degrees.
You can get a fine, top-shelf, classic racing bike for under two grand any day of the week–no one is going to look twice if you show up on a new bike that costs that little. But there are a few other considerations that might not be obvious. Most classic race bikes have close clearances and a 25 mm tire is about the largest that will fit, and even that might be tight. A 23 mm sewup rides much like a 25 mm clincher, and a 25 mm tubular is dreamy, but then you have the hassle of gluing and the fact that you never have any concern that you are going to roll a clincher on a hard curve. I still ride sewups, but my motto is “It is the second flat that will ruin your day.” I have seen some interesting conversions of race bikes to 650B with long-reach brakes, though I have not built one myself.
Indexing has greatly simplified shifting. Our first tandem had friction shifting and our slogan became “Every shift an adventure.” I always found toe clips uncomfortable, though I never was without them. I would bend the top of the clip into a curve, but still had problems with them rubbing. Clipless pedals not only solved the comfort issues, but they also are easier to get in and out of.
Parts availability may be an issue, though things were much more interchangeable in the past, especially when you get all the way back to friction shifting. Most bike shops went through their stock of vintage parts decades ago, but you can still find wider range freewheels in six and seven speeds, chains, cables, tires, and other consumables at cheap prices. If something breaks, it might take you a week or more to get your hands on a replacement part, though when you compare the prices of many vintage parts with that of current product, the old ones can seem cheap. You can get a heck of a freewheel for $60, which is about the price of a 105-class cassette. BTW, a seven-speed freewheel will help you close those jumps a bit in the back and will fit in the same space as that standard-width six-speed cluster. Just be careful when buying used parts online, as many sellers are either clueless or less-than-honest with their descriptions and pics.
Another consideration that we do not have as much anymore is rust. If you find a classic that doesn’t have rust issues, it likely wasn’t ridden very much. There are areas that trap sweat and moisture like the top tube brake cable clips or guides, and Italian chrome was notoriously thin and prone to pitting. Pinarello and some high-end Bianchis had chrome under the paint to help reduce this problem. It is not a huge problem, but there are steel frames that look fine on the outside, but have hidden, incurable rust issues inside.
I bought my first Campagnolo-equipped bike in 1972 and have been a life-long cyclist, so I’ve ridden through a lot of changes over the years. My newest bike is not all that current, being one of the last of the Kleins before Trek pulled the plug on the brand, but it is equipped with Campy Record 10-speed, so I think you will agree that there is very little performance difference between it and a current bike. I will pick that bike when I am going to be with strong riders and feel that I need every equipment advantage, but if I am going out by myself I will usually select some classic from the 1980s, because I will probably enjoy the experience more, and I won’t feel the bike is slowing me down. It likely won’t be my 1985 Master, though, as it is so pristine and there is always that risk of rust…
Some things I am pretty sure I will never buy are electronic shifters, disk brakes on a bike for paved roads, carbon rims, a cassette with more than 10 cogs, or another set of carbon handlebars. I get the attraction of electric-assist, but it is my dream that I will never feel the need to go that route.
Hi Stephen, thanks for your comments, you have certainly covered a lot of different points of interest. I was amused and agree with your friction shifting slogan ‘Every Shift an Adventure’. Sometimes you think you nailed the shift and then you put more power down and suddenly the chain jumps off. Other times you can get a bunch of perfect gear shifts in a row. I also think it is more difficult friction shifting on a very close ratio freewheel like my 6 speed 12-19t freewheel as all the cogs are only 1 to 2 teeth apart and that makes it hard to feel the engagement of the new gear through the cranks. But, I haven’t tried a narrow 7 speed freewheel as I was concerned it would be even more difficult to accurately shift between gears with them being spaced closer together?
For many years I rode with 23mm Continental GP 4000 clincher tyres on my modern road bikes, however on the C35 Shimano wheels, they measured 25mm wide. Then I got the Campagnolo Bora One carbon wheels and fitted them with wider 25mm Continental GP4000 / 5000 clincher tyres and they still only measured 25mm wide. I have hired road bikes on some overseas trips fitter with 28mm tyres, but never felt the need to upgrade my own bike. Very happy with grip and comfort of 25mm tyres on the Cervelo R5 on dry roads. But road bikes have been getting stiffer, particularly the front end with the addition of thru axles and disc brakes, so I think that’s part of the reason people have been changing to 28mm, to get back some comfort. Interestingly, Cervelo made a point of advertising that they reduced the stiffness of their new 2022 R5 frame to bring back some comfort. I like my bike to be laterally stiff in the corners and when pedalling, but I don’t want to be bouncing over every bump on the road.
In terms of rust and steel frames, yes it is a problem and even frames in excellent condition will typically have light surface rust inside the frame. I was advised by the guy that painted my Nuovo Mexico frame to spray the inside of the frame with WD-40 or RP-7 to leave a light oily coating to inhibit this type of rust.
I have ridden a few bikes with Shimano Di2. I wanted to love it, but at the time I felt the up shifting was not as fast as my Dura-Ace 9000 mechanical. I also found it a little harder to feel the button press, but the new 2021 Shimano group is better so I will be interested to try it. My concern with electronic shifting is the longevity issues of the buttons, parts and how electronic parts are so quickly superseded. No doubt I will get it on a future bike, but a well tuned mechanical group still provides impressive performance. However this of course requires a frame with well designed cable routing. My Cervelo R5 was the first model with integrated cables and they got it right with a nice clean routing path. Quite different to my previous Cervelo S2 which had a really shocking cable routing. That bike would have greatly benefited from having an electronic group to get consistent clean shifts.
I also wanted to love hydraulic disc brakes. I bought a new bike with Shimano 105 7000 series mechanical disc group to see how they perform, as well as dealing with noises and maintenance. In the wet, unquestionably disc brakes are fantastic, the braking feel and performance in the wet feels the same as the dry. But having said that, contrary to popular opinion, I’m not impressed with the feel and engagement of the brakes through the lever. Whilst the lever action is light, it really feels dull and lifeless to me. In contrast I find my Shimano Dura-Ace rim brakes with the Campagnolo Bora One carbon clincher wheels have a much better lever feel in dry conditions. I can brake really hard without locking-up the front. But in the really wet conditions, I find ALL rim brakes to be unpredictable, so you need to start stopping much earlier on rim brakes. Now I always ride my disc bike in wet conditions, which is only a small portion of my rides. I also find that disc brakes require more work to keep noise free. They are prone to pinging when one of the pistons doesn’t fully retract (maintenance time). They can be noisy when wet and you have to be more careful cleaning the bike to avoid any contamination on the rotors or pads etc. I find they always squeal after washing the bike, even when using a proper bicycle disc brake cleaning product. Typically after the wash, I have to fiddle around with the brake cleaner to get rid of brake squeal before the first ride. Whilst the future of road bikes looks to be discs, I’m not racing out for another bike yet.
Finally you mention the topic of gearing. Personally I want as many gears as I can use. When Shimano went from 10 to 11 speed, I was concerned the shifting wouldn’t be as good, but it was and I find their 11 speed product is fantastic. They still offered 11-25t in an 11spd cassette, just added another sprocket in the middle. Now Shimano have released 12 speed to keep up with everyone else and I thought I would love to have that, but when I read about the new cassettes on offer (11-30t being the smallest, they have dropped the 25t and added a 27t & 30t. The 30t sprocket is of little use to me for most of my riding. So I would be buying 12 speed and still only using 11 sprockets. Whilst I could swap to larger chain rings (53/39) to get use of the 27t and 30t sprocket, other changes would occur in the gear ratios and I’m not sure they would be all to my liking. Ultimately I believe more gears is better, more gear range is better, smaller increments between sprockets is better, BUT only if you are going to be using all the sprockets. No point carrying around a bunch of sprockets you never use.