[From Nathan Dahlberg, former professional road racer with 7-11, Motorola, and Spago, among others, and veteran of two Tours de France. Nathan still races bicycles and is a keen adventure cyclist. Posted with permission and ©Nathan Dahlberg.]
Part I of II
My first race bike (1981) was a second hand Ti Raleigh with a mixture of original Shimano Dura Ace and Zeus equipment probably about 5 years old at the time weighing roughly 23 pounds. Since then I’ve ridden a variety and they have subjectively at least given all sorts of rides good and bad. By and large I haven’t liked the new generation of bikes. That has nothing to do with looks or what they are made of but due to the proliferation of straight forks. For me straight forks whether on a steel, aluminum or carbon bike make it extremely twitchy and gives you the feeling you’re on the rivet the whole time, relaxing and taking corners with confidence is not part of the game.
Since I started riding there’s been a whole range of improvements to the basic bicycle and also clothing–most of these enhance a riding experience quality and comfort wise—an experience that already exists. Clip-less pedals are like that for me, there’s no way I would want to go back to toe-straps, on the other hand there is no riding experience (or speed) with clip-less pedals I can think of I couldn’t achieve with toe- straps. (They have improved shoe design as well which is great). Ahead sets are a great boon (although nothing beats the look of an old Cinelli stem) as is STI. STI is a semi-dimensional improvement. For training it barely matters — in fact I prefer the old down tube ones, way less hassle and maintenance free, but for racing STI are an undoubted advantage in almost every respect (although bar end which I still run on my ‘cross bike are remarkably good as well; they were a victim of Fashion).
Then there’s good clincher tires, for me this has always been the number one improvement. It’s made cycling way more enjoyable , hassle free , more reliable, cheaper and for a poor guy like myself – possible. Sure Tubular’s may ride slightly nicer but there drawbacks are so great compared to clinchers I don’t miss them for a second.The huge dimension shift with the gear thing only really came up recently for me – as I was watching old videos on YouTube and saw guys struggling up mountains in 60s/70/s 80/s and remembering my first TI Raleigh had 45 by 18 as its lowest gear, later I changed this to 42 by 20 – the lowest gear I ever had as an amateur was 42 by 21, and later as a Pro 39 by 23 for the Giro and Tour. Now my road bike has a standard 39 by 27 — but the Crankset is compact — in theory I can get 36 by 29 with the derralleurs that are on the bike. …There were triple crank sets and big sprockets even when I started (none made for racing) but this just confirms that this is not an issue about inventions – but about mindsets and the change in mindsets, ie, the adaptation to the idea of a huge variety of gears aided by technology (and maybe being a bit less egotistical about mashing a gear) has changed the whole of cycling by allowing us to go where we couldn’t before (and also allowing guys to go riding in the mountains at a grand old age). To change the nature of sprinting even.
About 6 years ago I acquired by way of sponsorship a set of training wheels from a very prominent manufacturer – in addition to being free they were great wheels , strong, durable ready for training and racing and responsive – the only downfall was the cheap sealed bearings which seems to be the fault of most current products. 2 years later and after reading very good reviews of one of their racing sets of wheels (light, aero, strong) I actually forked out some money and bought a set. Disappointing to say the least: they felt no better than the training set, constantly went out of true even broke a spoke which was nightmare to replace and costly and all the great advantages of the training set were gone, no just jumping onto a dirt road when I felt like it etc. The only good thing was that I managed to resell them and get my money back.
As I sat back and considered the misfortune of these “good” wheels I realized the misconception was mine, if in 1981 I had bought a pair of equally lightweight wheels with aero spokes then I would’ve kept them merely for special occasions, time trials, national road races etc. In fact, I had a 1980’s riders mindset, durability-wise, but I was expecting something that doesn’t exist even in the 21st century– speed or should I say light weight and strength combined.