Vintage Ride: There May Be No Machine Ever Invented More Sublime Than the Bicycle


Vintage Ride: There May Be No Machine Ever Invented More Sublime Than the Bicycle

Like most towns, ours is full of sprint segments. 

They’re those little spots on the road that only a place’s cadre of cyclists know about, invisible to the untrained eye; from this driveway to that mailbox, this street sign to that intersection, this rise to that tar snake. 

The best group ride leaders will try to organize her or his group before they reach those starting spots, asking anyone who’s not planning to sprint that day to give way in the paceline to those who are. They remind their riders to stay right of the yellow lines, that straying into the oncoming lane, even when there’s no traffic is not worth winning a sprint that is essentially meaningless. 

Then, the group reaches that driveway or that street sign or that rise and all hell breaks loose. The paceline crumbles into a loose amalgam of sprinters, each trying to position themselves to pass the poor soul who almost always goes out too early. Eventually, the group gathers somewhere down the road, when the nonsprinters catch up to the sprinters, who are inevitably recounting that day’s sprint.

One of our area’s most well-known sprint segments begins at the top of a gentle hill. Over the next few hundred meters, it slopes gently down, before rolling back up to a nasty little pitch in the last few dozen meters before a thin white spraypainted line in the road marks its finish. It’s near the end of most routes, meaning it’s usually reserved for whoever has anything left in their legs after fifty, sixty, seventy miles. But, when there is enough left in your legs, that gentle downslope combined with a small gear make it easy to surpass forty, sometimes forty-five miles-per-hour. 

It’s a sprint I’ve won more than a few times. As my oversized thighs are full of quick twitch fibers, my legs able to create an exorbitant amount of watts for a very brief period of time. Of course, those same thighs tend to wear out over the course of longer rides, which means I’m usually the one making my way to the back of the paceline at the end of those fifty-, sixty-, and seventy-mile rides. But when those rides sit in that big-guy’s sweet spot of twenty-five, thirty, forty miles, I push my way to the front of the paceline and knuckle it out with the other sprinters. 

Like most sprints, this segment requires little more than guts and an ability to endure maximum anerobic power longer than everyone else. 

But that final pitch, the one just before the finish line, begs a rider for a bit of finesse, as it’s there where the correct gear choice can outmatch the strongest thighs. It’s easy with contemporary shifters, of course, slapping your way into an easier gear every few feet, that you might maintain your speed and the ideal cadence even as the road rises beneath you. 

Of course, that all changes when a bike’s shifters sit upright on the downtube, when positioning yourself in the sprint is equally as important as positioning your bike in the perfect gear, because taking your hands off the bars at thirty-five miles-per-hour to shift is no one’s idea of a good time. 

And just because one of our local monthly rides sets out to honor and appreciate the beauty and joy of vintage bikes doesn’t mean the sprint segments suddenly disappear.

There may be no machine ever invented more sublime than the bicycle.

Two conjoined triangles sitting atop two circles, the bicycle’s form is simple perfection. So perfect, in fact, it has in the few short years since its invention remained almost unaltered. Its concept—pedal, move—is simple and true. Its silhouette is clean and appealing. Its engineering, ideal. 

What has been altered over the last century-and-some, however, is everything that goes on a bike. Its components, wheels, accessories, and groupsets have undergone a near-constant evolution making bicycles more aerodynamic, more comfortable, lighter, cheaper, faster, perhaps stronger. Bikes now need to be plugged in. Disc brakes are de facto. Even Shimano’s mid-level gruppo, the 105, was recently unveiled as an e-shifter. Everything is carbon carbon carbon! 

It’s becoming nigh-impossible to find a new bike with rim brakes, lacking carbon, and now, with a mechanical derailleur. If the paradigm shift was slow at first, now it’s hyperdriven.  

All of this makes the idea of a classic steel-tubed bike even more appealing. 

There’s such beauty in contemporary bikes, so much of which exists in form. Lines are sleeker than ever. Cables are routed to invisibility. Bikes look faster than they ever have before. 

The beauty of a classic bicycle, however, lies in craftsmanship; in the way its tubes are joined, with flared joints that are, unto themselves, works of art; in the way they look like machines made by man rather than simply imagined by them; in the uniqueness and intricacy of those classic headbadges, sigils that represented a brand’s history and heritage. 

And in a way, that history informs our own ideas of beauty. Because envisioning Fausto Coppi or Eddy Merckx stretched out across their top tubes, their exposed cables framing the fronts of their helmetless heads evokes an emotion, a joy inside so many of us. 

Of course, that no doubt has to do with age, with our own histories, and how we’ve existed in a world in which those bikes were once the vanguard of technology and engineering. 

Because someday, some kid, somewhere will covet one of those old classic carbon frames, just like the one Van Der Pol rode when he charged to victory at Strade Bianchi. When they think of Tadej Pogačar, they’ll remember the tuft of hair perpetually poking out of his helmet. They’ll think of the bands of a world champion stretching across Alaphillipe’s chest. And they think of those old-fashioned carbon bikes with integrated stems and internally routed cables (or even cables!). Because that’s how we remember. 

A few months ago, I was scrolling on Craigslist, hopeful for a possible deal on a new set of wheels for my race bike. Clicking through the seemingly endless pages, most of which were filled with junk, one big, green, dusty machine caught my eye. 

It had been hardly ridden in the last few decades, the listing read, though well maintained. It had its original tires, saddle, and even reflectors, though, the chain had been replaced at least once. It just needed a deep cleaning. 

The bike was a brand I’d never heard of and a model whose named reeked of Japanese Americana; a Zebrakenko Golden Sport.

After a bit of cursory research, I surmised that, at the very least, it came with a perfectly suitable SunTour groupset, and figured I’d offer the seller the $100 he was asking. Most importantly, it was 63cm, a size which, as any big rider can tell you, isn’t always the easiest find.

Even if it was a total teardown, it could, at the very least facilitate a new fixed gear for my quiver. It was worth it. 

As I grew up in the golden era of BMX bikes in the late-80s and early-to-mid-90s, before transitioning into track bikes when I shipped off to college around the turn of the century, I never owned a road bike as a kid, never had to learn how to use downtube shifters. Of course, I’d seen them on my big sister’s thin-tired Huffy and knew the basics of how to operate them. But the physics of precise shifting, especially at speed, and especially in a group ride, would need to be learned. 

Figuring I wasn’t the only guy in town with an old steel bike whose brake cables rose up like a pair of elephant ears, one of the first things I did after getting my new old Zebrakenko home and cleaned up was set up a vintage bikes ride on my local cycling group’s Meetup page. I intentionally left the parameters vague, the description reading, in part:

“What does “vintage” mean? I’ll leave that up to interpretation. But let’s just say downtube shifters, exposed cables, and steel frames are a great place to start. If you have a wool Molteni jersey, rock it! Or don’t. Lycra is perfectly acceptable, too. It’s summer in North Carolina, after all. But we’re not going to leave anyone behind because they brought a water bottle from the wrong era.”

My inbox flooded with messages asking if this bike or that qualified. If a late-80s frame with a late-90s gruppo was acceptable. If we would turn them away because they were running clipless. There were also plenty of messages from riders who couldn’t make the debut ride but had an old race bike they’d been hoping to dust off. They just needed a reason. And they were happy to soon have one.   

I assured everyone that anyone was welcome, even if they didn’t have a vintage bike but just wanted to spend a morning ride surrounded by the sound of clicking shifters and the bright, blocky colors of classic wool jerseys.  

The morning of the first ride, we gathered in the parking lot of the park where so many of our town’s rides launch from, a dozen or so of us straddling our old steel bikes. There were Bianchis and Schwinns, Pinarellos, Atalas, and at least one Cannondale marked up with the classic colors of the old Crest team which quickly drew everyone’s attention. As most of us knew each other from regular rides, introductions were unnecessary. Still, we went around describing each of our bikes in greater detail; our gruppos and frames and, most importantly, the stories behind how each of us came to own these bikes. 

Some were purchased as college commuters in the 1970s or 80s. Others were race machines in decades past. At least one was bought solely for this ride. Another was bone stock as the day it was made. 

A smile crept across the face of each rider as he described his ride, no doubt his mind filling with memories created in the saddle of that bike. 

Before we shoved off, I asked everyone to keep a bit more space between theirs and the wheel in front of them, at least for the first mile or two or three, that these bikes would perform far different than the disc brake, carbon bikes so many of us run on our regular rides. 

We wouldn’t be riding too hard, I promised. A sixteen or seventeen mile-per-hour pace was the goal. The idea was to be out together on vintage bikes, to talk and to laugh and to tell stories of past conquests and failures and epic rides and long-lost races. Still, it was a group ride, which, to me, meant that we would be tackling one of the biggest climbs in town. And, of course, if anyone hoped to take on the sprint segment toward the end of our loop, they were more than welcome. That last note was met with chuckles and delighted grumbles, assurances that no one was intending to sprint on these old things.

With that, we set out from the park, onto our twenty-three-mile loop. 

The first thing I noticed about my Zebrakenko, the biggest difference between it and my ultra-modern carbon bike with its deep-section wheels and uber-aggressive race profile, was how easy my modern bike rendered our area’s endless little rises in the road. Thanks in large part to a wide range of gears, those smaller hills are crested with ease. Not the case with the narrow range and relatively tiny “big gear” found on most vintage bikes. Every hill felt like a proper climb, every bump a noticeable challenge. Of course, that big climb I insisted we conquer, well, that one always kind of sucks no matter what kind of bike you’re on. 

But it was those little rises and rollers that really made me feel the difference of then and now, made me realize how comfortable we’ve strived to make everything around us, how uncomfortable we’ve become with uncomfort. 

As it almost always does, when our ride neared its end, we crested the hill that led into that beloved local sprint. And as they almost always do, all of those riders who said today was not the day to sprint, started sprinting. 

One of us shot out early, before the little climb was even finished, a common bit of gamesmanship often employed to try and catch everyone else off guard. Hands came off bars, slapping our downtube shifters into what we thought might be the best gear. For me, it was the smallest gear I had at my disposal; ten teeth of vintage steel. If nothing else, I thought I might be able to power my way past the rest. And I did. At first. 

I easily jumped out on the downhill, going who knows how fast (computers have no place on a vintage bike, methinks. But our ride won’t leave anyone behind because they brought a computer), leaning my torso as close to the top tube as I could in an effort to make my incredibly large and unaerodynamic body as smooth and wind-kind as possible. 

The downslope was no problem and, for a time, I had the sprint in hand. But, as it always is, that quick and violent little rise at the end is where the sprint is won. And that quick and violent little rise is no place for a ten-tooth gear. But I was stuck with my decision, unwilling to reach down to try and find a more suitable gear. All I had was the hope that those quick-twitch fibers in those big thighs would keep making power until I reached the thin white line spraypainted across the road. 

Alas, a few meters before the finish, I was caught but one of my buddies who is a few decades older than I, beat at the line by a guy who cut his teeth racing these old bikes when I was just a kid on a BMX, an older guy who who knew where to put his shifter to best handle the whole of the sprint, not just the beginning, who has a breadth of knowledge about these machines honed over years and years and miles and miles spent riding vintage bikes back when they were just called bikes.