Five things I learned from riding an old road bike for a month

Bike technology advances in increments, not leaps—an extra gear here, a few grams there. From one bike year to the next, it’s often hard to tell the difference, but these little changes add up. By the time the scale of these changes reaches a few decades, the contrast is dramatic.

Experiencing this contrast in person is, it turns out, quite instructive. In my in-laws garage halfway around the world is a tired Cannondale CAAD5, bought cheap many years ago from an old man called Pål on a classifieds site, so I have something thing to drive when visiting. So for a few weeks every few years, I get to experience the best in mid-level road bike tech from 2006 onwards—a perfect un-upgraded, under-maintained tech snapshot from the year that Floyd Landis mostly did not win the Tour de France.

I just snagged this bike in the garage and rode home. After spending four weeks riding a 17-year-old bike, here are the five differences that stood out to me between then and now—some for better, some for worse.

Simplicity

Cables, from A to B.

Bikes in 2022 are complicated machines. With the trends towards concealed wiring and all-in-one, the simplicity is gone. It helps keep the lights on for the mechanics at the bike shop, but it’s a bit of a headache for the home DIYer.

Cannondale in 2006 wasn’t thinking smart about internal wiring. Their idea for “system integration” was an internal headset and fork that matched the lines of the head tube. All wiring runs externally, the seatpost is 27.2mm in diameter and is secured with an external clamp, there are inner tubes in the tires and this model even has a threaded bottom bracket shell. instead of BB30.

You can see where all the cables come and go, for the duration of their journey, and if you don’t put any stickers on, your exterior cables will scrub through the paint. If something is broken, you know it.

It’s primitive as hell, and I like it a lot.

Gear size

No apologies for the dirty condition of this transmission.

You sometimes come across people who say that today’s road bikes are made for professional riders and force their civilian owners into a totally inappropriate stance. To them, I say, look at the racing bikes of that era—before the rise of the “endurance road bike” and—most important for this point—before the rise of the compact crankset.

Consider this bike here—a lower-midrange road bike sold to an older man in the bumpy terrain of western Norway. It has a 53/39 tooth crankset. At the rear, its largest cog is 27 teeth. I hate everything about those gear ratios. Even when I was in good shape, which I’m not now, I would have hated it. For most people, these gears don’t make sense, and it’s, I think, a sign of progress that the gear ratios of most road bikes today are lower. This is a minor change that has a disproportionate impact in making road bikes more accessible to most people.

I have no desire to spend all of my time in the small ring or scrambling up the climbs—that’s exactly what those gear ratios will mean for most people who ride them. (If that’s not you, congratulations on your big, strong legs, and yes, you’re a better cyclist than me).

Tire size and clearance

Just enough clearance to accumulate grass and dirt.

For decades, road bikes were designed around narrower tires at higher pressures than common today, and they were worse because of it. There were a few tipping points that led to the point where we are now where 28mm or 32mm tires are strictly – disc brakes, tubeless tires, wider rims – and this 2006 bike is a nice time capsule of the very opposite of those things. The bike was originally sold with 700x23mm tires, but I rode an old pair of 700x25mm tires – about as big as I’d be comfortable squeezing through the bike. ‘available space.

Sure, those brakes suck and the wheels aren’t good, but it’s the skinny tires and the high pressure they need that had the biggest impact on the feel of the bike. Which wasn’t…silky.

lester

Yes, a bike with shifters that look like this weighs less than some of today’s high-end bikes.

Aerodynamics, all-in-one, disc brakes – performance-wise they all have something going for them. But on balance, all this has a cost. A quick study of modern road bike reviews suggests that most high-end bikes weigh over 7 kilograms; even if you’re spending thousands of dollars on something midrange, you’re probably looking at 8 or 9 kilograms of premium carbon fiber.

That aluminum frame with nine-speed Tiagra and absolutely nothing high-end weighs a relatively feathery 8.1kg, including pedals and cages. Weight isn’t everything, but it’s good to have less.

Cost

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Asian manufacturing, but there’s no way you can find a complete bike with an American-made frame for less than a grand today.

Today’s bicycles are more mechanically complex, their prices being pushed up by rising material costs and manufacturing delays due to war and plague. The days of cheap road bikes are dwindling. The likes of this bike—a nice frame with a basic but decent groupset, for not a lot of money—almost don’t exist anymore, in the Cannondale lineup or anywhere else.

At the time of release, this bike – featuring an American-made frame that had competed in the Tour de France half a decade earlier – retailed for £749 GBP (about $850 USD / $1,250 AUD) . Absolute top-end bikes from most major brands sold for around US$6,000 (£5,000 / AUD$8,500), or less. Even taking inflation into account, the market has changed.

Yes, today’s bikes are significantly better. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t lost something by being able to buy something good enough for a lot less money.

The most important discovery of all

It’s easy to stick together about the grams and watts saved over an hour at 45 km/h, and that’s fine. It all makes a difference, and it’s important enough to enough of you to justify the existence of our technical department.

But the reason we’re all here – you, me, my colleagues, the bike industry – is because of one unquestionable underlying belief: bikes are awesome. Any bike, ridden wherever you want, as long or as short as you want, for whatever reason. Whether it’s a modern-era $20,000 superbike, an old used one from a classifieds website, or anything in between.

All of these bikes can transport you – not just physically, but mentally – to somewhere different or better. With any bike you can exercise and you can exorcise. It’s the perfect machine, even if – as it is here – it rides a little rough, has stupidly high gears, uncomfortable handlebars and is showing its age. Basically none of that really matters, because it all serves a greater purpose.

So, to my 2006 Cannondale CAAD5, hanging in a garage in Stavanger: thank you. Until next time.

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