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Upgrading Older Road Bicycles

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by Sheldon "Oldies But Goodies" Brown
revised by John "Steel is Real" Allen
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The cellars and garages of America hold hundreds of thousands of fine road-style bikes from the 1970s and '80s. Many of these bikes are of very high quality, but are going unused either because of older technology in the gearing, or because their racing-style riding position no longer suits the needs of their aging owners. Many of these bikes are too good to throw away, but nobody wants to ride them as they are currently equipped. This article explores options and alternatives to get these great old bikes back on the road.

The Bike Boom

In the early 1970s, a number of trends came together:

(It is commonly believed that the bike boom resulted from the 1974 oil shortages, but in fact, bicycle sales were already on the decline then).

The "Bike Boom" led to a revolution in the U.S. bicycle business. Prior to 1973, going back to the late '40s, bicycles were primarily seen as children's toys. While many bike shops also carried a few adult models, the bulk of the business was focused on children.

When the Bike Boom hit, the industry was stood on its head. Suddenly hordes of baby boomers were standing in line demanding 10-speeds. New bike shops sprouted like mushrooms. Everybody wanted a ten-speed. The manufacturers were caught by surprise, and product was suddenly in very short supply

Some lower-end Bike Boom bikes were assembled hastily. Usually, the frames were OK, though you do need to be on the lookout for incomplete brazing. It is more often a concern that many components -- brakes, rims -- but above all, drivetrain components -- were not as good as the ones sold today. Components can be upgraded, though. And, as the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all ships. Sales of higher-end bicycles also increased during the bike boom, and many of these are gathering dust too.

What's Special About Older Bikes?

In addition to the aesthetics of beautiful older bikes, there are major differences in newer bikes, some relating to lawsuit-phobia on the part of manufacturers, others relating to faddish designs that have trickled down from the racing world.

Lawyer Issues

Forks

Older European bikes had forks that were designed to be purposely flexible, to act as a sort of "suspension" on bumpy surfaces. This was partly accomplished by different geometry (less upright head-tube angles, more fork rake) and partly by selection of the thickness of the fork blades.

The traditional fork extends in a straight line with the steerer tube, then curves forward where its diameter is smallest at the bottom. The curve of each fork blade is concentrated in the most flexible part of the fork, also making for a smoother ride. Many of today's forks have straight fork blades, or blades that curve forward gradually over their full length. Some aren't even tapered.

A low-end tapered steel front fork blade starts out as a tube of constant diameter and constant wall thickness. Then the tube's diameter is squeezed down toward the lower end of each fork blade, using rollers. As a result, the wall thickness increases at the lower end, resulting in more strength than needed, and in unnecessary stiffness. Reynolds taper-gauge fork blades, and similar fork blades from other makers, start out as tubes with tapered wall thickness, thinner at the lower end. After the tube is tapered, wall thickness at the bottom is only as great as it is at the top. The blade is as strong as it needs to be, and more flexible.

Lawsuit-shy contemporary manufacturers tend toward a "belt and suspenders" approach with a part like a fork which is likely to cause injury if it breaks. While everybody wants a reliable fork, many newer bikes have over-reacted to this concern, resulting in bikes with a harsh, jolting ride. Better older English and French road bikes often provide considerably more ride comfort at the front end, without making the forks unduly weak.

Bottom-Bracket Height

Traditional bikes for road use normally had bottom brackets about 10 5/8" from the road. Everybody knew that they shouldn't pedal while leaning sharply into a high-speed corner.

When mountain bikes became the default style of bike for most buyers, people got used to 11 1/2", 12 1/2" or even higher bottom brackets. This is a good thing for serious off-road riding, giving better clearance for logs, rocks, ruts and other obstacles.

Once the marketplace had become accustomed to high bottom brackets, manufacturers became afraid to sell bikes with low ones any more. The nightmare was that some clueless rider with a good lawyer would pedal through a high-speed corner, catch a pedal, spin out and crash. In court, the shyster could point to all the other bikes on the market with high bottom brackets, and accuse the manufacturer of making an abnormal, unsafe bike.

A high bottom bracket has no real virtue for most on-road use, and actually represents a fairly serious drawback for the typical rider. A higher bottom bracket should require a higher saddle. The higher saddle precludes putting a toe down when stopping for a red light, stop sign, etc. This is a cumulatively major inconvenience for cyclists who ride in built-up areas. It generally makes starting and stopping noticeably more awkward. (See: Starting and Stopping.)

Many cyclists, unaware of this change in geometry, adjust their saddle height as they always did, with respect to their reach to the ground. This results in their saddles' being too low for efficient pedaling, which is harmful to the knees and encourages excessive standing pedaling.

Toe Clip Overlap

If you set the cranks horizontal and turn the handlebars very sharply, sometimes the back of the front tire or fender will bump into your shoe, or a toe-clip if you use them. This is not a serious problem in practice, because you never turn the wheel that sharply except at very low speeds, typically slower than a walk. While it is possible to cause a 1 mile-per-hour fall this way, a little bit of practice develops habits that prevent this from being a real-world problem...but don't tell that to a lawyer!

Fear of toe-overlap lawsuits has caused many manufacturers to lengthen their frames or change the frame angles to minimize overlap. These changes generally work against a comfortable ride, and can cause really freakish handling on smaller frames.

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Racer Wannabe Issues

We don't drive to the shopping mall in open-wheel, Formula One-style single-seat roadsters, but if you want a light, fast, sporty bike you're likely to be sold a racing machine, even though it may not fit your riding style, your terrain or your body.

Older road bikes, even serious racing machines, were more versatile and more comfortable. Many newer road bikes are much more specialized and limited in utility. This doesn't make them a bit faster, but gives more of a "racer" image. This image comes at a considerable cost in versatility, practicality and comfort.

Steep Angles, Short Wheelbase

Traditional European road racing was mainly on long courses, typically from one city to another. The long events (and rougher road surfaces of the day) created a need for bikes that were comfortable for long hours in the saddle, even on cobblestones.

Most racing in the U.S., however, is in the form of shorter "criteriums." A criterium is a race that consists of lots and lots of laps around a short course, typically just a couple of city blocks, or a loop around an urban park.

Since there are no big hills in a criterium, the racers tend to stay in a tight pack. Since they're going 'round and 'round a short course, there are lots of corners. The bikes need a higher bottom bracket to permit pedaling through the corners.

The tight packs of a criterium put a particular premium on maneuverability. This has led to bicycles with more nearly vertical head and seat tube angles, and shorter wheelbases.

It is important to realize that this "criterium geometry" doesn't make a bike any faster, just more maneuverable. Another way to say "more maneuverable" is "twitchy." This sort of bike is somewhat unstable, and requires more attention to steering. If you're tired at the end of a long ride, this can lead to problems.

The other undesirable side effect of "criterium geometry" is a harsh ride. The more upright angles reduce the "suspension" effect of the fork, and the shorter chainstays put the rear wheel closer under the saddle, increasing the jolting to your rear end.

Long Top Tubes

Newer bikes, particularly the larger sizes, tend to have considerably longer top tubes than older ones. This is good for racers, bad for most everybody else. A racer likes a very stretched-out upper body position, with the back nearly horizontal. This is, in fact faster. If your legs are strong enough to keep pedaling hard all the time, the reaction to the pedaling force will allow you to maintain this position without undue strain to your upper body...but: If you're heavier than a typical racer, and don't pedal as hard all the time, an aggressive upper body position will lead to resting too much weight on your hands. This can lead to serious problems with your wrists, shoulders, neck.

Tight Tire Clearance

Most newer road bikes have frames and forks that just barely clear the skinny original-equipment tires. This is to make them seem more "racy." It doesn't make the bikes a bit faster, but it greatly limits their versatility. These bikes, unlike older bikes, commonly won't permit the installation of medium-width tires for improved comfort and durability. They also don't permit the installation of fenders, making the bikes only suitable for fair-weather rides.

Lack of Eyelets

In a further attempt to make bikes look racy, the eyelets on the forkends have been omitted from most sporty road bikes. This precludes the installation of standard fenders and luggage racks, again without making the bikes any faster.

Durability, parts compatibility, repairability and upgradability

Steel frames were made to last, and to be repaired. Minor damage can be repaired by bending tubes back to their original shape, and major damage, by brazing or welding in replacement parts. Local welders, almost anywhere, can perform ugly but functional repairs that will get you back on the road. Dropout spacing can be increased to accommodate a newer rear hub with more sprockets, or decreased to accommodate a single-speed or fixed-gear hub.

A carbon-fiber frame offers none of these advantages. Carbon-fiber frames' light weight results in part from their being strong only in the directions in which they are stressed in normal use. There are stories of a carbon fiber tube's splitting when someone only dropped a wrench onto it. An aluminum or titanium frame cannot be respaced, and welding is only possible using special equipment and techniques.

You can get all the parts you need to equip an older frame. Frames are still being made using the same dimensions as on most older frames. French and Raleigh frames are exceptions, but even for those, replacement parts and workarounds are available.

Also see my articles on French bicycles and on Raleigh bicycles.

Weight...?

Yes, a typical steel road-bike frame is going to weigh a pound or three more than the latest carbon-fiber wonder. Unless you are a racer, this need not be of much concern to you. On a long ride, the harsh ride of a modern racing-oriented road frame can slow you down more than a couple of pounds of extra bicycle weight. A broken frame that you can't get repaired can really slow you down a bicycle tour, and your companions too.

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Upgrade Paths

Restoration

Some bikes shouldn't be upgraded. If you have an exotic, hand-made custom bike from a highly-regarded builder, or perhaps a racing bike with a distinguished history, it may be better to restore it as a virtual museum piece -- or even leave it as is.

If you have a high-end factory-built bike that is in as-new condition, with all original parts, no rust, no major paint/decal damage, this may also be worth preserving as a collector's item.

Another approach with such a bike is to do upgrades that can be reversed later, saving the original parts for possible future restoration. Since the wheels are the most easily damaged parts, and vintage bikes often came with tubular tires, it is often a good idea to equip an original classic with a pair of "rider" wheels in addition to the stock "show" wheels.

This sort of bike should be reserved for "fair weather" riding only.

Restoration is a whole subject unto itself, and is outside of the purview of this article.

Beater

If you have an older bike with little resale value, you might want to use it as a "beater" for utility riding. Such a bike can be used for commuting, or errands where there is a higher risk of theft to a more fashionable/expensive bike. If you put fenders on your "beater" and use it for days when rain or snow is expected, your good bike will last longer, and you'll be dryer.

The uglier a "beater" is, the better, but it should still be in excellent working order. You should certainly consider upgrading the brakes, possibly the wheels and drive-train parts as well.

English 3-speeds are excellent candidates to be upgraded into high-performacne "beaters." Older 10-12 speed "beaters" are often prime candidates for conversion to fixed gear.

Primary Bike

You may also decide to build up an older steel frame as your primary bike, or your main bike for a particular kind of riding. As noted, a steel frame is especially well-suited for touring. If you are going to strip the frame and re-equip it, you can build it up any way you would like, with more options than available on new bicycles bought off-the-shelf.

Gearing

There have been great improvements in gear shifting mechanisms over the last couple of decades. If you live and ride in flat terrain, and rarely shift, this may well not matter to you.

On the other hand, if you're in a part of the world where there are hills, and perhaps have gained some weight with the years, it's quite possible that the gearing that was satisfactory to you when you were younger no longer cuts it.

It is not at all unusual to want to add lower gearing and more precise shifting to an older bike, a bike that in other ways may be quite satisfactory.

For details on upgrade options for derailer gears, see the companion Upgrade Gears Article.

Fixed Gear

If you're an active, vigorous cyclist, it's not unlikely that you could be seduced by the mysterious world of the fixed gear cult.

A "fixed gear" bike is the simplest, purest form of cycling. Fixed gear bikes have no gears to shift, only one speed. In addition, they have a fixed drivetrain, with no freewheeling mechanism. This makes coasting impossible. On a fixed-gear bike, whenever the bike moves the pedals will move too, willy-nilly.

This sounds like a bad idea to most people, but there's something about it that makes it a lot of fun! It's impossible to explain, though fixed-gear fanatics always try to. To understand it, you actually need to ride a fixed-gear bike on a regular basis for a couple of weeks. The first few times you try it, it will feel very strange, and the bike will need to remind you not to try to coast. It is only once you get used to it and relax to the experience than you can know the joy of fixed-gear riding.

This site has a large number of Articles on Fixed Gear Bikes, some philosophical, some practical.

Internal Gear

You might install an internal-gear hub, or improve the gearing on an English 3-speed which already has one.

There are three ways to customize the gearing on a bicycle with an internal gear hub:

For more information, see my article on internal-gear hubs

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Brakes

Most bike-boom bicycles had caliper brakes: centerpull brakes, were common in the early 1970s. Single-pivot sidepulls were more common in the 1980s. Some of these brakes worked fine, in which case, you might just keep them. Others, especially on lower-end bicycles, could be rather wimpy. Upgrading to modern brakes may be desirable. Dual-pivot sidepull brakes are especially suitable when brake reach is long.

Some older frames, especially touring frames, were equipped with cantilever brakes, which attach to pivots on the fork blades and seatstays. These brakes are generally powerful if properly adjusted, but you may have to replace the brake arms if changing the wheel sizes. Direct-pull brakes fit the same pivots as traditional cantilever brakes, but require different brake levers.

Also see the articles on rim brakes.

Disk brakes are powerful, work in the wet, and are popular for off-road use. They are beginning to be seen on road bikes, but they require special mounting tabs on a special, strengthened front fork and on the left chainstay. If you are installing a suspension fork, you might consider a disk brake. A suspension fork is a bit out of character with a light road bike but could make sense if you are upgrading an old three-speed for urban riding.

Front and rear drum brakes also are manufactured, and are included in some hubs. The Shimano Rollerbrake is a variety of drum brake. These brakes do not require fork or frame modifications. A drum brake works in the wet, and can be suitable at the rear wheel, but it is less good at heat dissipation than a disk brake. A front drum brake places unusual stresses on the front fork, and also is likely not to be as powerful as a rim brake or disk brake.

Rear Spacing

Frame Spacing

One of the major issues that need to be dealt with in upgrading gearing on older bikes is the spacing of the rear of the frame where the rear wheel fits in. Newer rear hubs designed for more sprockets are wider, and require a wider space between the rear fork ends. Steel frames can generally be respaced to fit a wider hub with no problem, just by bending the stays outward. This should include checking and correcting the alignment, so that the rear triangle doesn't become asymmetrical. Also, the forkends should be aligned at the same time to ensure that they are parallel. This operation is commonly referred to by the euphemism "cold setting" because it sounds more professional than "bending."

Frames made of aluminum, titanium or carbon fiber should not be re-spaced this way, because these materials are not as malleable as steel, and there's a risk of cracking.

Hub Spacing

A 120 mm hub can usually be spaced out to 126 to work with a 6- or 7-speed freewheel. This is done by adding spacer washers between the right cone and locknut. You may also need to replace the axle with a longer one, but more often this is not necessary if you move the axle over a bit so that there's still a bit of axle protruding past the locknuts on both sides.

Since you have to add most of the spacers to the right side, this moves the rim off center. This needs to be corrected by re-dishing the wheel. The re-dishing is accomplished by tightening the right-side spokes and sometimes loosening the left-side spokes. The resulting unbalanced tensions will weaken the rear wheel, so this is a marginal solution for heavier riders or for touring applications.

In addition, the longer length of unsupported axle on the right side which is necessary for clearance with the wider freewheel can lead to broken/bent axles.

All in all, for major gearing upgrades, it is usually better to replace the rear wheel with one that has a modern cassette-type Freehub ®. If you want to go to an 8- or 9-speed cluster, a cassette hub is the only practical option.

If your bike already has a 6- or 7-speed cassette Freehub ®, it is not unreasonable to replace the Freehub body and upgrade the hub into an 8-/9-speed. See my article on Shimano cassettes and hubs.

For further information, see the articles on frame spacing and forkend alignment.

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Front Spacing/Axle Size

Higher quality bikes have used 100 mm spacing for the front fork for a long time, and there's no reason to change this, but lower-end bikes of the '70s and earlier sometimes used 96 mm spacing. You can generally fit a 100 mm hub into a 96 mm fork, with a bit of force (but don't do this with a cartridge-bearing hub) A traditional steel fork also can be respaced.

For further information, see the articles on frame spacing and forkend alignment.

Older bikes that didn't come with quick-release wheels may have axle slots that are too narrow to fit a quick release axle. If so, it isn't too hard to file the slots out to fit.

Wheels

Most road bicycles sold in North America and the U.K. until around 1980, other than all-out racing bicycles, had 630 mm ("27-inch") wheels. The 622 mm ("700C") size now used has the advantage of being used all around the world, and of compatibility with wheels that use tubular tires, without having to adjust rim brakes.

If your older bicycle has 630 mm aluminum-alloy rims in good condition, you might just keep the old wheels until they need replacement. Many older rims, though, had angled sidewalls which require an extremely accurate job of wheel truing if the brakes are to work smoothly. It is often less trouble just to rebuild or replace the wheels.

Steel rims generally should just be replaced. It is rare to find any that offer smooth braking, and none of them stop well when wet.

Changing from the 630 mm size to the 622 mm size requires a 4 mm adjustment in brake reach. Most caliper brakes will allow this much adjustment. Some cantilever brakes accommodate only one size of tire, but newer-model brake arms usually do allow adjustment. With caliper brakes, the braking with a 622 mm rim will be slightly weaker with the smaller-diameter tires, and with cantilever brakes, stronger.

Decals, Identification, and Painting

Most steel frames carry a decal identifying the tubing. Often, it will identify the grade of steel used.

Low-end bicycles will have a decal which makes the tubing seem fancier than it is, unless you know grades of steel. 1020 steel is the cheapest in common use, requiring the greatest wall thickness, and making for the heaviest frame.

Lower-end Raleigh frames including three-speeds generally used 2030 high-tensile steel, which is better. Peugeot tubes "Spéciales Allégés" (special, lightened), are more or less in the same quality range.

Then we get into the categories of Reynolds 531 tubing. 531 is a high-quality alloy steel, but there were several grades of tubes. If a the label says only "Reynolds 531 frame tubes", the frame uses the cheapest Reynolds straight-gauge tubing. Butted tubing -- thinner in the middle and thicker at the ends -- made for lighter frames without sacrificing strength. Mid-grade frames would have the 3 main frame tubes butted, and cheaper steel for the rest of the frame. High-quality frames would be labeled "guaranteed built with 531 butted tubes, forks and stays", and the front fork would carry a label identifying the taper-gauge fork blades.

Reynolds tubing was also common on French bikes, with labels that said the same thing in French: "garanti construit avec Reynolds 531 tubes renforcés, fourreaux de fourchet et arrières."

Columbus tubing was common with Italian frames, and of similar quality; Vitus is a less-common brand of French tubing. (Vitus also made frames of glued-together aluminum tubing, and that is another story).

When Japan captured the market for high-end bicycles, Tange tubing became common; Fuji's Valite label and Univega's Magnalight label identified some of the better frames of these brands, short of top-quality racing frames. Cr-Mo (chrome-molybdenum) is a high-strength steel used by several manufacturers; in the 1980s, it became common simply to identify a high-quality frame as of Cr-Mo, butted tubing.

If a frame carries labels and decals identifying it as a valuable, high-end frame, removing them will decrease its value. Professional frame refinishers maintain a stock of replacement labels and decals, and can certify that they are restoring a bicycle with the appropriate ones. Still, it may be better to leave a historic bicycle -- for example, one used by a famous racer --as is: wear scratches, rust and dents are part of the story it tells, and restoring it can greatly decrease its value.

Types

English 3-speeds

These bicycles are nothing fancy but they are durable and easily upgradable, making them even better in their usual role for utility transportation. With 622 mm wheels and aluminum rims, lightweight fenders and better brakes, one of these bicycles can be a real pleasure to ride. See the article on English 3-speeds for details.

Low-End Bike Boom European 10-speeds

This sort of bike from the early '70s would be identified by having cottered cranks, steel wheel rims, and a "gaspipe" frame. Common examples include the Raleigh Record, Grand Prix; Peugeot UO-8 and its many imitators; Mercier 100, Jeunet.

Bottom-of-the-line models would have wheels held on by nuts (sometimes wing nuts) instead of quick releases. They frequently came with Huret Allvit derailers.

Better low-end models would have quick release wheels and Simplex derailers (or better Huret models, or possibly low-end Campagnolo models, such as the Valentino.)

Generally, this sort of bike is not worth major upgrades unless it has great sentimental value. They may be a good choice as a theft-resistant bike to park at a rapid transit station or the like. They can also make an adequate "starter" fixed gear.

[Difference of opinion here: the Peugeot UO-8 builds up into a great touring bicycle if customized with better components. See my more extended comments in the article about French bicycles. -- John Allen]

Mid-level Bike Boom 10-speeds

This breed is exemplified by the Raleigh Super Course, Mercier 200, and other similar bikes. These bikes would typically come with aluminum rims, and frames partially made of premium tubing, such as Reynolds 531, Columbus, or Vitus. Bikes in this category would typically only have the three main tubes of premium tubing, and even those would be straight-gauge, not butted (thinner in the midsection where under less stress). Early '70s bikes in this group might still have Nervar or Stronglight cottered cranks; later versions would have swaged aluminum cotterless cranks such as the Sugino Maxy, SR, or possibly Japanese cranks marked with the bike builder's brand.

Bikes in this category can make excellent general-purpose bikes, and their general ride comfort may make them worth moderate investment, especially if you have some attachment to the particular bike. These bikes can make nice hybrids, or good fixed-gear machines.

Upper-End Bike Boom 10-speeds

These bikes would generally have all Reynolds 531 frames, (tubes, forks and stays) or, less commonly, Columbus tubing. They would have cotterless cranks with the spider and right arm made of one piece of aluminum, from Campagnolo, Stronglight, Sugino or T.A. Most bikes in this category would originally have come with tubular tires, but many of these were converted over to clinchers early in their careers.

The most widely sold model in this category was the Peugeot PX-10, and similar models from Mercier (300) Gitane (Tour de France) and other French builders. The Atala 101, Raleigh Competition, Grand Sport, International and Professional are other examples of factory-built bikes in this category.

This sort of bike is often worth considerable upgrading; the frame quality is often comparable to that of a new bike that might sell for over $1000. On the other hand these bikes are sometimes also worth keeping "period" or doing light restoration work on, if you get off on the "retro" aspect.

Many upper-end Bike Boom bicycles were designed more for fast recreational riding than for touring. They may have short chainstays, making heel interference more of a problem when using rear pannier bags. The butted frame tubing saves weight, but is more flexible, making these bicycles prone to speed wobble when carrying baggage on a rear rack. The Peugeot PX-10, in particular, has a very bad reputation for this.

Top-of-the-line Models

The bikes listed above were built in large factories, in large quantities. The very most desirable bikes, however were made in small craft-type workshops. These bikes can also be upgraded, but some of them are worth restoring, and some should really be preserved.

Also see the pricing guide on this site to get an idea whether a bicycle is something special.

Aficionados of older steel bicycles gather at the classicrendezvous.com Web site and e-mail list, good places to explore these questions further.

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