Being a pragmatic person at heart, I generally eschew mystical explanations of purely mechanical matters. However, there’s no doubt that a special relationship between bike and rider exists when the bike in question has carried the rider over many miles and through rough terrain, dangerous intersections, and bad weather. Much like a shepherd and beloved dog will form a bond through shared hardship, a rider and bike seem to connect in an almost spiritual way.
I experienced this myself with my old 1976 Centurion Pro Tour that I rode for 20 years. The bike got me through some tough situations, and always carried me to my final destination. Even with flat tires, broken shifters, and a headset long overdue for a replacement, the bike soldiered on and I always arrived safely at my destination.
After I crashed my Pro Tour in 1999 I was at loose ends. I searched for a replacement and ended up buying a Cannondale T 2000. What a shocking disappointment that was. The brifters broke when the bike took a spill while parked, the Avid Shorty brakes were frighteningly unreliable, and the stiff aluminum frame was punishing on long rides. Not to mention its piggy 28 lb weight unequipped. I no longer enjoyed exploring new dirt paths, back road short cuts, and long meandering rides. I wanted to get off this bike as soon as possible.
The search for the ride quality that my old Centurion provided was a long one. Meanwhile, I modified the Cannondale substantially, replacing the brifters with bar end shifters, upgrading the brakes to IRD cold forged cantilevers, installing an SR Randonneur bar, and adding a custom Burley rear rack originally designed for a recumbent.
After these modifications, I was able to ride the Cannondale in a little more comfort. Replacing the harsh riding Continental touring tires with Panaracer Paselas helped. I also tried out some Michelin cyclocross tires, which were also quite a bit more comfortable than the Continentals, and enabled me to ride with confidence on gravel shoulders and hard packed dirt and gravel. Eventually, I ended up replacing every single original component on the bike except for the reliable Shimano 105 front derailleur. After that, this bike became my trusted commuter, especially in the winter.
But, I wanted a bike that I could comfortably spend more hours on and was more responsive. I missed my Centurion tremendously so when I found this Centurion Dave Scott Iron Man in my size, for a reasonable price, I purchased it without hesitation.
This was a road bike, not a touring bike, at all. Riding it was eye-opening. I could ride for miles and miles, never tire out, and the responsive handling made it fun to experiment without fast descents, track stands, quick transitions, and spirited climbing. After a while, though, I realized that without clearance for fenders, rack mounts and a taller stem, I would not be able to take this bike out on the touring adventures that I love. I realized that I needed the comfort and responsiveness of riding on steel framed bikes, and that I wanted to learn more about the physical and mechanical details of bicycles and their geometry.
That’s when I enrolled in my first bike mechanic class at the UBI facility in Ashland. Even though I had always done my own bike maintenance, back then I had not really spent any time understanding much beyond annual maintenance needs, which included rebuilding hubs and bottom brackets, truing wheels, and tuning shifters and derailleurs.
I had a great time in the class and met a lot of interesting people. The class opened my eyes to the world of mechanical possibilities and experimentation – I highly recommend UBI for mechanic’s training. Prior to attending the class I had already acquired a 1973 Jack Taylor touring bike and I brought it with me to work on while I was there.
While this bike is a wonderful example of the Taylor brother’s work, after riding it for a bit I came to realize that it wasn’t quite right for me. I did not like the unstable feel of the single sloping downtube mixte frame – I could feel the front end flexing away from the back end of the bike while accelerating. I also did not like the ergonomics of the low head tube and short reach mustache bars.
I have realized that ergonomics are as important as frame material and components. And, I know from personal experience that steel is flexible and responsive on climbs and does not punish your body on long rides, as does aluminum. This is especially important for smaller riders whose frames are much more stiff than those for taller riders, due to their geometry.
It is clear that newer components are designed deliberately to last briefly and to be discarded when they no longer function. This has led me to go back to cycling’s past to understand and rejuvenate the contribution made by earlier builders and artisans.