Friday, January 15, 2010

"25 Years of Cool"

Since I like bike racing, I subscribe to VeloNews. And since I subscribe to VeloNews, I receive their Buyer's Guide. I got my 2010 edition yesterday.

This year it has an interesting feature called "25 Years of Cool," in which they compare products and bikes that have survived for that length of time. Look pedals from 1985 and Look pedals from today; Stumpjumpers from then and now; HED disc wheels of yesterday and today.

In some cases, the advances are obvious. In others, it is excruciatingly painful to see beautiful, sensible things placed beside hideous, extravagant ones—and called inferior to them. The Trek bicycles at right are not even the best example. That white aluminum Trek 2000 isn't even all that nice. But compared to the monster beside it, with its Satanic crankset and billboard rims, it is a veritable beauty.

Far more serious is the comparison of the 1985 Dura-Ace group and the new Di2. The 1985 Dura-Ace introduced all sorts of genuine innovations. That is the very first slant-parallelogram derailleur with a spring-loaded pivot. It's also the first SIS system of reliable indexed shifting. Dura-Ace was still using non-aero routing, which I consider sensible for certain applications, but not most—but at least these are high-tech non-aero levers, with SLR spring-return. It's hard to improve on the light, simple, infinitely reliable 7spd downtube shifters. On top of all this practical stuff, this group is absolutely beautiful. Look at that shiny derailleur, with its cool black logo! The beautiful brake levers with their understated white line beneath the hoods! The engraved shifters!

Now look at that disgusting Di2 group! Battery packs and thick wires abound; everything is black and plasticky; the front derailleur appears to have sprouted a tumor. "Di2 allows you to shift when standing on the pedals under full power, on the front and well as the rear, with just the tap of a button" the editors tell us. "It also automatically trims the front derailleur to avoid chain rub in cross gears." With a bit of riding technique, the first point is moot. With a rod-operated front derailleur, so is the second. With a 1985 Dura-Ace group and a 1940s derailleur, you'd have a component group just as functional, way lighter, and a billion times better looking. Not suitable for racing, but superior for everything else.

With Super Record the case for progress is stronger. The 1985 Super Record group is extremely nice-looking, of course; especially that glorious crankset and those levers. But she shifting really is awful, and to my eyes the derailleurs don't even look very nice. While not my thing, the new Campagnolo parts look better than anything else of our era. It's a shame that the genuinely attractive 10-speed alloy-bladed levers are a thing of the past; these curvy freaks are decidedly unnatural-looking. But those cranks and derailleurs are, by today's standard anyway, attractive. Unlike the Dura-Ace stuff, I'm sure the new Super Record is a lot more pleasant to use than the old.

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