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Vintage Road Bicycles – a Mechanic’s Guide

By Larry Theobald

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Eddy Merckx

Larry Theobald of CycleItalia Cycling Tours explains how to care for that vintage bike, like this Merckx bike Eddy used to win the Giro d'Italia and almost everything else.

Chairman Bill's note: Larry Theobald of CycleItalia cycling tours is simply in love with bikes, cycling, bike mechanics, anything to do with two wheels. Because of this life-long love affair with bikes and a career working at all levels in the trade, he has acquired an impressive knowledge of all things two wheels. Ever wanted to go see Italy on a bike? Get in touch with Larry, he knows the subject like no other.

He shares some of that expertise here:

The unprecedented success and world-wide interest in Italy’s L’Eroica event, born in 1997 has created a cottage industry in finding and restoring pre ’87 bicycles. For years these beautiful (mostly) steel bicycles languished in garages or were brutally mutilated into hipster-fixters while a others ended up in collections - mounted on the wall of those who admired, but no longer rode them.

Now bici d’epoca events are held almost every summer weekend in Italy and Eroica-branded events have spread world-wide. We first visited Tuscany’s L’Eroica back in 2011 and then participated in La Campionissima in Piedmont in 2013 followed by L’Eroica for real in October 2014 and most recently Eroica Primavera in May, 2015. These events are great fun in a similar way to old car rallies, but with much less of the tut-tutting, beard-stroking and concerns about this or that aspect of the machine being 100% period-correct.

Two vintage bikes

Our bikes at rest post Eroica 2014. The Bianchi sports a cheapo paint job and vinyl stickers while the Tomi’s paint is original. The Tomi is not a pre-87 production, but with the ample chrome and polished components fits the spirit of the rules and always garners compliments. Saddles are far from period-correct but so far we’ve not faced issues about using them, perhaps because on these bikes we’re not often standing on the pedals?

While many of these events also include a “concours” type exhibition the real emphasis is on riding the machines, often over the same unpaved roads used by champions to create much of the mythology of cycling’s golden age. Wearing similar period clothing is important as well in recreating the timeless atmosphere of ciclismo come una volta (cycling as it once was).

Once you’ve decided to join in and pulled that old bike out of a dusty attic or scored one at a garage sale, how it’s prepared goes a long way in determining just how much fun you’ll have participating in these events. Here are some simple and relatively inexpensive suggestions on how to best prepare your vintage bike to actually be enjoyably ridden, rather than simply admired.

What era you choose is up to you of course. We love to see old single-speeds or those with rear wheels that turn around to offer a choice of rear cogs and especially bikes with complicated-to-operate systems like Campagnolo’s Cambia Corsa. But when it comes to RIDING, we’ll take as much modernity as we can get so bikes from the '70s or '80s meet the spirit of the rules and provide the most riding fun.

First, make a careful inspection of the frame and fork. If you have any doubts, take it to a competent bike shop or local frame builder. Unlike a “concours” display bike, this one is going to be ridden, HARD. You might not be going real fast but you’ll be straining up the unpaved climbs and perhaps going faster than you really want to on the descents with brakes that are far less efficient than modern versions.  You don’t want failures, especially as you’re likely to not be wearing a helmet!

If the frame and fork appear to be sound, resist the temptation to spend big money on an exact reproduction of the original paint unless your budget is unlimited. And even if that budget is unlimited, think about bouncing over unpaved roads with rocks being thrown up against your expensive paint job. Don’t make your bike too pretty to enjoy riding. If it REALLY needs new paint, consider a low-priced single color job and have a local “Signs by Tomorrow” operation make you some vinyl stickers that look similar to the originals. This way you can skip expensive clear-coats and water-transfer decals.

Spend real money instead on the wheels. Take the old wheels down to your local wheel wizard. Have him polish and rebuild the hubs, then lace them into new aluminum CLINCHER rims with stainless spokes and brass nipples. This assumes your old bike didn’t come with wooden rims, which is another story entirely. You don’t need fancy or expensive aero rims or even double eyelet models. The cheaper the better (the fat tires you’ll mount will make their lives easier) as long as they have a decent brake track. Once you scrape off any gaudy, brightly colored brand/model stickers you’ll have a more vintage look that fits right in with the spirit of the event.

Larry Theobald in vitage clothing

The author at “work”. Wool clothing, either retro or vintage adds to the atmosphere and retro items as Larry is wearing are surprisingly comfortable and versatile.

CLINCHERS, you gasp? “But vintage bikes always had tubulars!” you scream. OK, they did - but you don’t want them. Here’s why: I can’t count the number of folks we pass (some we stop to help) with flat tires, most often tubular. Do you want to wait for glue to dry? Or mess with tubular tape, etc? Forget it! Mount up some fat clincher tires instead, many can be had with a vintage-look brown or tan sidewall. Take advantage of the vintage bike’s ample clearance for fat rubber, you’ll enjoy the unpaved portions of the route a LOT more! You can even wrap a clincher or tube around your shoulders like the riders back-in-the-day if you like. It might come in handy.

While that rear wheel is being rebuilt, consider a new freewheel. Even a new, cheap, Chinese-made freewheel is likely to be better than an ancient, worn-out, period-correct Italian Regina Oro. Have your bike guy figure out the max cog size your vintage rear derailleur will handle and get a freewheel with the biggest cog it’ll take. Your vintage crank will probably have a 42 or 44 inner chainring, so help yourself by going as big as possible in back. You’ll be glad you have the lower gears when you hit that first unpaved climb!

Now that you have a nice new freewheel, you can put on a nice, new chain to match. Again, a cheap one is just fine. The mechanical issue we see second most often to flat tires is problems with old, worn-out chains and freewheels on the steep climbs. The old freewheel pawls either give-up-the-ghost under pressure or the old, worn-out chain skips over the worn-out teeth, making you get off and walk at best. Nobody will much care that your chain and freewheel are not period-correct, Instead they’ll be envious as you ride past, as long as your legs and gearing will allow it.

Triple crankset

Campagnolo 8 speed triples weren’t introduced until after 1987 but when they’re operated by downtube, friction shift levers nobody seems to mind.

Once you’re over the crest of the climb it’s time to go down. You’ll be dodging holes and rocks and hitting a few now and then, which is why you made sure your frame and fork were sound at the beginning and you installed those sturdy new, but old-looking wheels and fat tires. Since you have those new rims with a brand-new braking track, give those old, flexy vintage brake calipers their best chance to stop you by fitting new brake pads made with modern compounds into those old holders. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve come past someone with brakes that seemed “on fire” with squealing and awful smells to match! Often they have to get off and walk down after walking UP the climb! While you’re installing the brakes, don’t hesitate to use high-quality, low-friction cables, but remember they must be entirely exposed – no under-the-tape routing is allowed.

Be very careful about used handlebars and stems. Like the frame and fork, these are things you don’t want to take ANY chances with as failure could be disastrous. NOS (new, old stock) or replica vintage parts are a good idea here.

Resist using ANY part that seems in less than good condition. Something period-correct that would look just great on a “concours” entry might leave you stranded out on the course or forced to walk a long ways. Old downtube shift levers have nasty habits of slipping under stress no matter how tight you screw down the wingnuts. Consider replacing those old, friction-style units with retrofriction models. Used, NOS and even modern versions of these look similar to the old ones and are easy to find, making it possible for your bike to stay in that low gear as you strain up the steep climb towards the ristoro stocked with vino Italiano and sliced salami!

Eroica bikes

Bikes meeting the letter or spirit of the rules can be purchased or rented the day prior to the event though as a mechanic Larry would want to inspect them thoroughly well-in-advance.

Arriving at the start of your event with a sound bike equipped with wheels and tires that will take a beating and gears that work, plus brakes that stop (or at least slow you down reliably) will let you concentrate on the fun aspects of these rides. The peaceful dirt roads are usually amazingly scenic and your old machine will glide almost silently over them while you enjoy conversations with the other participants and admire their beautiful machines. Once the event is over you might wash and display your bici d’epoca on the wall, but I’ll bet you find more excuses to ride it than you think, especially as these events become more popular. You’ll discover why more and more people enjoy ciclismo come una volta (cycling as it once was).

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