Cycling letters

[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 also a keen adventure cyclist. Posted with permission and ©Nathan Dahlberg.]

Part II of II

And for what happened in 33 years: during the 80’s bikes got heavier – my 1991 Merck with Duraace 8 speed was 24 pounds (compared to just 20/21 pounds as an average race bike in 1980), aero came in, and, rather surprisingly, most of the fastest climbs in history were made in the mid 90’s on some of the heaviest bikes in history, showing that the weight in the veins is far more important to speed than the weight in the tubes. Recently friction has become an issue again – yes it’s something that was big way back when decent bearings etc were made – including taking one ball bearing out and replacing grease with a drop of sewing machine oil! When one thinks about it, friction and resistance exist constantly, whereas aerodynamics play a major roll much less of the time and weight only occasionally!

And with the current generation of bikes, yeah it all looks pretty, carbon light weights and deep dish wheels etc. but the biggest change has been gears, the huge range of sprockets. If you look at 70’s and even 80’s guys going up Mountain pass’s were just flogging themselves trying to turn massive gears than in sprint finish’s it was more like drag racing as guys ran out gears and was a long spin to the finish. The small gears are changing the whole nature of racing, every year the organizers of Vuelta and Giro find steeper and steeper mts and the riders winning them get smaller and skinny – nowadays Merck would’ve been a domestique for Fuente!

Sprinters are outta of saddle the whole sprint now on enormous gears. There’s a huge increase in specialization because the gears allow it – and the race courses have adapted themselves to the material in other ways- none so much as time trialing. When I arrived in France in 1984, a TT was 60 – 80 kms long and a maze of corners and small hills. Now its a flat highway course. Time trialing has adapted itself to the TT bike in fact. Likewise in Belgium , where there’s almost no cobbled races any more, no one wants to go to cobbled races because they might damage there carbon wheels sets.

Ultimately, technology,  rules, finance, marketing, demographics, media orientation etc. are what make a sport at that particular moment. The current bikes we see suit this moment the best in all those ways above – and like races and riders in the past, can’t be judged with the present or future, bike rationale and design can’t be either.

What has really changed in cycling the most in 33 years: the demographics of the “racing” population. In 1981 cycling was pretty much a young mans (not women’s) sport for working class and trades people. Disposable incomes were low and bike material had to last – durability was a premium. There had been a lightweight craze in the 1970’s, lightweight steel, titanium and even carbon frames and components had been made. By the 80’s it died out. Not only wasn’t the technology there, the money to support it wasn’t.

Rhe average bike rider was 12 years old and rode a Raleigh 20 or roadster to school , the average Road racer was 19 years old male trade apprentice and rode a 5 to 10 year old second hand bike maybe 300kms a week with a 50km club race on Saturday. The average rider today is a Recreational 50 year old on a road tyred mountain bike , the average racer (or event rider) is 45 years old professional doing 3-400kms a week training up for a yearly event to beat an old time or some of his mates times in. Disposable incomes are relatively very high – new and indeed multiple new bikes are a normality, durability is no longer important and with the high turnover of bikes, manufactures can give free replacements to bikes that just “fall apart” driving any small frame builder out of business (as he can’t afford to replace super light disposable bikes).

Even better for the consumer because of the growth of the bike industry a very good bike can be bought new for a fraction of the new bike circa 1981 real dollar price. The demographics has also changed other things, professional people are intrinsically involved with numbers, everything can be weighed, measured, compared – numbers can describe reality so instead of traditional subjective feeling , intuition and comfort the sport can be reduced to power out puts, coefficients of drag, kilos etc and with the right figures the right results!

ok cheers,