Jim’s Tech Talk
by Jim Langley
January being the month for making resolutions, I have decided for 2020 to try to 1) finally upgrade a vintage road bike I’ve been in analysis paralysis on for some time; and 2) hopefully ride it in this year’s Eroica California, which takes place April 5 in beautiful Cambria.
Here’s a video of the classic bicycle I have in mind and some words about riding it and another bike in two past Eroica California rides.
About Eroica Rides
You can learn more about Eroica California here. Also, I wrote about it in previous columns. Here’s my story about the 2016 edition: https://www.roadbikerider.com/eroica-california-2016-report-d1/. Eroica now holds events around the world in case you’re not anywhere near California. Here’s a schedule: https://eroica.cc/en/eroica-cc/events.
Plus, of note for those without a vintage road machine, Eroica now has their Nova event for riders on modern bicycles, too. That takes place the day before the classic event on April 4. More information is here: https://eroica.cc/en/nova-california.
The Eroica cycling events began in Italy and were designed as celebrations of road cycling history. Think the early Tour de Frances and Giros where racers sometimes covered 200 miles a day, treacherous dirt roads and on bikes with only a couple of gears. In Eroica events you don’t suffer like the pros did back then, but you do get a taste of what it was like for them.
As an example, in 2016 it took our group over 8 hours to cover the 60+ mile (100K) loop. On nice paved roads around home, I can complete that distance in half the time. But, Eroica includes long steeps, loose dirt much of the way and you’re riding a vintage road bike (or modern facsimile that meets the rules).
Upgrades for an Old bike and Aging Rider
2016 was the last time I did Eroica. In the four years since, I’ve lost some fitness and developed more aches and pains. That’s been the cause of my procrastination. I would like to return riding the same Lejeune I rode the last time – the bike in the video.
But, I am pretty sure I need to modernize in order to complete the ride. The limitation of vintage road bikes for riders like me is the gearing. Due to the reduced capacity of vintage derailleurs and freewheel sizing, if you keep the old bikes original, you will probably have no smaller than a 42-tooth chainring with a 28-tooth cog, providing a 40.5-inch gear.
Compare that to the typical approximately 26-inch lowest gear you enjoy on a modern gravel bike (like the Ibis Hakka MX I recently bought’s 40T x 42T lowest gear). You can see that there’s a huge difference in ease of pedaling.
My Two Eroica Bikes
I did my first Eroica on a 1974 completely original Peugeot PX-10 with a lowest gear of 44T x 21T (56 inch). It wrecked my knees. For a month afterwards I literally could barely walk upstairs.
My second Eroica I took the Lejeune with its 42T x 24T (47.25 inch), which was an improvement, but still too high. Regarding gearing back in the sixties, here’s a fun Felice Gimondi interview where he talks about his a little: https://www.bikeraceinfo.com/oralhistory/Gimondi.html.
If you’ll allow me to brag a little, one of the luckiest things to happen in my career was having a bicycle stolen while I was on a trip to Italy for journalists to visit famous bicycle manufacturers. It was put on by the Italian Trade Commission. The day after our van was broken into and bikes were stolen, our first visit was to Bianchi. And there to greet us and present us with new Bianchis was none other than Gimondi.
Back to the project, I am getting past the idea of having to keep the Lejeune as it was originally. I’m taking the attitude that I paid my dues riding a completely original bike and I’m ready to cheat a little and upgrade the Lejeune (I need to check the rules – it might not be “cheating”).
Along with lowering the gearing, I’m going to wider tires. One of the best features of vintage steel road bikes is large frame clearances. This allows tires with more flotation for comfort and control.
The gearing change may seem daunting but it’s a relatively easy fix. All it takes is switching out the rear hub for one that accepts modern cassettes. Yes, that means building a new wheel, but that’s not very expensive even if you have to pay a wheelsmith to do it.
Once the hub is upgraded, I’ll then choose my modern wide range cassette and compatible modern rear derailleur. Vintage friction shifters work just fine since they don’t rely on click detents like modern ones do. The bike in the photo is my Oxford cyclocross bike from 1984, which I tested the new hub and gearing concept on. It had a 13-26 7-speed freewheel.
I upgraded it with a Shimano GRX rear hub, 11-42 11-speed GRX cassette, GRX rear derailleur and a Shimano 11-speed chain. The gear changing is handled by the original SunTour Barcon handlebar end ratcheting friction shifter (it’s a single chainring drivetrain so there’s only one shifter). The shifter barely wraps enough cable to hit the lowest gear, the 42T cog.
A parts package along the lines of what I used (choose the low gearing that’s best for you) is really all it should take to lower the gearing on most vintage road bicycles. Once I’ve got it done on the Lejeune it’ll be ready for a lot more than Eroica, too.
Oh, in case you’re wondering about the new hub fitting in the old frame – since hubs have gotten wider over the years – it’s unlikely it will cause a problem. Most steel bicycles will only need to stretch a few millimeters on each side. And the frames and axles can handle it.
If you’re not convinced, test your bike to see by trying to fit a modern wheel. You will have to use a little force to pull it into place, but with steel, the bikes usually accept it just fine. If the wheel won’t fit no matter what you try or the dropouts are crooked to the eye, your bike might need to be widened by a mechanic with alignment tools. But, usually that’s not needed.
Today’s hub upgrade tip will bring most any old road bike into the future to enjoy it again. Let me know if you go for it and need help with your project bike.
Ride total: 9,520
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim’s full bio.