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Time machines: modern-vintage bikes ride test

James Spender
12 Jan 2018

Cyclist visits the rolling hills and chalk roads of Tuscany on three new bikes that hark back to a golden era of steel framebuilding

The link between cycling and socio-economics is unmatched by any other sport. In the mid-1800s bicycles were essentially playthings of the rich, but by the turn of century they had become essential tools for the poor.

Cycling was working class, and those early two-wheeled pioneers we now look back on as great champions were once farm boys, chimney sweeps and caretakers.

Riders took to the Tour de France not to win accolades but to earn money – every day spent riding a stage came with its own food allowance several times the average weekly wage. The bikes were pig iron, the roads no more than cart tracks.

It’s all a far cry from today, with our smooth tarmac and hi-tech carbon fibre bikes. Yet look through the catalogue of a major bike brand – especially an Italian marque – and near the back you might find they’re still making bikes more akin to those of yesteryear.

So while at Cyclist we’re typically in favour of aerodynamic speed machines that weigh less than a small dog, we decided it was time to honour the origins of our sport by testing three of these modern-vintage bikes over some old-fashioned roads.

New for old

We’ve had conversations about what ‘modern-vintage’ means, and here’s what we’ve come up with. The ‘modern’ bit means each bike on test is being mass produced today – there’s no new-old-stock, retro-fit or custom.

‘Vintage’ means they’re made from round tubed, skinny steel with horizontal top tubes and steel forks, just as bikes were made for many decades.

The components are modern out of necessity – they just don’t make rod-actuated rear derailleurs like they used to – but elsewise modern-vintage bikes are as close as you’ll find to the type pedalled by Coppi, Bobet, Anquetil and Merckx.

One thing that didn’t need debating was where to test these bikes’ abilities. It just had to be on the sprawling roads of Tuscany, home to L’Eroica sportive and the Strade Bianche race, and on whose rolling hills and chalky tracks a golden age of cycling still resonates.

Guiding us on this adventure is Chris from cycle tour company La Corsa. His broad Scottish accent is not what you might expect to find in this Italian back country, but having married a Florentine and turned a career as a squash player into that of a bike guide, he knows this area like no other English-speaking local and is perfectly placed to advise us against social faux pas such as ordering espressos at the same time as our sandwiches.

‘There is only one thing you could have done worse, and that’s order a cappuccino.’

Passing off

My ride partners today are Simon and Nick, and with all three of us riding the same size of bike, deciding who’s on which bike has the potential to be something of a bun fight.

Yet when we unzip the bike bags at Borgo Sicelle, a picture-postcard villa serving as home and service course for our stay, we each gravitate towards a different bike without so much as an arched eyebrow.

Within a few minutes Simon is weaving in and out of the pool’s sun loungers on the De Rosa Nuovo Classico and Nick is busy checking his jersey colour matches the metallic-lime paintjob of the Condor Classico Stainless.

I must confess I had designs on the De Rosa, but having soaked in the views on the hour’s drive from Pisa to Castellina in Chianti, I feel it’s only right to go as far back in time as possible, which is exactly what the Bianchi L’Eroica is trying to do.

If you haven’t heard of it, L’Eroica is now a worldwide sportive franchise that started life in this area of central Italy – Gaiole near Siena – as a renaissance festival for old-school cycling. Central to its philosophy is the rule that only bikes built before 1987 can be ridden.

However, there is one exception, and it’s my Celeste-coloured Bianchi L’Eroica, which the Italian firm has managed to get the organisers to ratify despite it being newly minted.

It even comes with its own certificate to prove it, although Chris suggests you may need a fair bit of luck getting a L’Eroica commissaire here to accept it. Apparently they’re pretty dyed in the wool.

To this end, my Bianchi has non-indexed down tube shifters, which to begin with makes finding a gear about as accurate as a carnival ring toss in a force-nine gale.

Made by Dia-Compe, an entry-level Japanese manufacturer that’s been busily making everything that no one else will make since 1930, the shifters do have an endearing ratchet mechanism that acts as a kind of brake to stop the cable untwizzling under tension.

Anyone who remembers down tube shifters of old will know how often you had to wind up the little pre-load wingnut to stop this from happening, so in certain respects my primitive shifters are highly advanced.

Simon and Nick both have integrated gear/brake levers, the De Rosa’s courtesy of Campagnolo Super Record and the Condor’s from Shimano Ultegra.

They also have modern dual-pivot calliper brakes, while mine are old-fashioned centre-pull. They’re finicky to set up, requiring two spanners (remember spanners?) and a tissue to mop up the blood from my finger after an altercation with a frayed cable. 

Style over substance

It’s clear from our opening descent through the Chianti hills that my brakes aren’t very good.

I do eventually slow, but the way in which Simon drops me suggests his Super Record brakes are far superior, allowing him to duck late into apexes with confidence, and fly out the other side.

Nick is at it too, and my shortcomings are only compounded by my 48x13 top gear.

When we regroup, Simon declares the De Rosa a fantastic descender. While polished lugs and pantographed fork look the vintage part, the De Rosa’s stout 153mm head tube and short 408mm chainstays are every inch the modern racer’s geometry and seemingly perfect for the twisting descents. That’s not the only inch that matters, however.

The big draw in Tuscany is the sterrati, the dusty chalk tracks that have set L’Eroica and the Strade Bianche one-day race apart from every event outside the Flandrian cobbles.

Despite generally benefitting from untold hours of blistering sunshine, it rained heavily across Tuscany yesterday and the graveliness of the sterrato we’re now on is all the better for it.

Two of our three bikes, however, are not, and it’s all down to what’s going on inside the head tube.

Today head tubes have more in common with those massive Italian pepper pots, but once upon a time they were one-inch diameter affairs, where the fork and headset were secured by two locknuts threaded onto the steerer.

Happily for Nick, Condor built his Classico Stainless around a 1 ⅛in head tube with modern threadless assembly.

Unhappily for Simon and me, De Rosa and Bianchi have been more historically accurate and furnished our bikes with one-inch head tubes and threaded headsets.

Thus by the third stretch of rutted track the front of our bikes sound like jars of marbles, the locknuts having disregarded their functional designation and shaken loose.

It’s been such a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of a threaded headset that I’ve forgotten to pack the requisite spanners, so from here on in Simon and I resort to what Nick calls ‘God’s own spanners’.

That is, our hands. It kind of works… a bit. If there’s a plus side, though, it’s that our bicycles are definitely the prettier for their mechanical limitations.

Threaded headsets mean quill stems, and while the Condor is pretty, we all agree its modern front end is incongruous with the rest of the bike’s aesthetic.

Someone once told me your stem should never be fatter than your top tube, and I think they’re right. 

Local favour

So far the vote is with the modern gear on the Condor and De Rosa. My old-school brakes have admittedly now bedded in, and I’m coming to terms with having to select a gear long before the start of a climb, and having to sit down during shifts on said climbs.

However, beyond that, all the touch points of the Bianchi feel lacking.

The cloth bar tape is period-correct but scratchy, as well as offering zero cushioning, the skinny nature of the brake levers and traditional bend of the bar mean holding the hoods is like pointing two pistols at the floor, and there’s a noise like a creaking tree coming from the Lycra of my bibs sliding on the polished leather of the Brooks saddle.

Despite all this, I’m falling for the Bianchi. Stopping in the beautiful town of Castelnuovo Berardenga for espressos, we’re faced with an army of cyclotourists on carbon fibre Bianchi Intensos.

By rights these are more accomplished bicycles, yet all eyes are drawn to my L’Eroica. Chris translates some chatter from two grizzled cafe patrons, who are praising the bike as some kind of well-kept classic.

In many respects that’s enough of a validation  that nothing else matters. But that’s not all. On the scales it weighs a healthy 9.39kg, a figure I usually baulk at, but on these roads it makes for a supremely smooth ride.

It seems to cut into the looser gravel to find traction in corners, and the steel fork bends like a leaf spring over bumps.

The De Rosa is the lightest here at 8.61kg, the Condor 9kg on the nose, and it seems these generally higher weights together with the natural flex of skinny tubes are presenting comfortable rides and stable platforms on which to descend. Climbing, though, is another matter. 

Where in the world

I’ve been lucky enough to ride bikes all over Europe, and while France and Belgium boast excellent cycle paths, and Spain has stunning weather, I’ve found nowhere that compares to this corner of Italy.

So great is the love of bikes that the road signs here encompass specially added – and permanent – turn-by-turn directions for the L’Eroica route. As Chris puts it, ‘L’Eroica put this area on the map,’ and its inhabitants seem thankful for it.

Motorists are few and courteous, and as we ascend a chalk track towards the Castello di Brolio I’m reminded of another pearl from Chris: if you know where you’re going you can spend weeks here and never do the same climb twice.

The crest of the hill on which the castle is perched peers over a huge expanse of vineyards and arable land, bisected by rows of cypress trees flanking ancient roads.

It’s enough to make a visitor weak at the knees, and as I watch Nick disappear further up the climb with his stainless steel frame glinting in the sunshine, my knees do very nearly give way.

Nick is a climber by nature, and Simon isn’t far off, and while I’d tentatively throw my hat in the rouleur ring the constant slipping of my tyres and sudden feeling of my legs dropping through thin air isn’t just down to my lack of climbing prowess.

I have a special place in my heart for Vittoria, and its new Corsa G tyres are some of the best around, but these Zaffiros just aren’t cutting it up the climb – as demonstrated by the way Simon and Nick are putting the power down through their Continental rubber.

Simon is definitely the better off of the two on 25mm Grandsports, but on 23mm GP4000 IIs, Nick is still finding good traction.

At the top a quick eyeball suggests that even though Nick and I have the same Ambrosio Excellence rims, my tyres have come up substantially skinnier, and a few fingernail scrapes and thumb squeezes of either tyre indicates that his tread and carcass is a damn sight tackier and more supple than mine.

Beyond the vintage style components, this is my first real complaint of the day. The Bianchi costs £2,700, is designed explicitly for L’Eroica and yet comes with 60tpi, 23mm entry-level tyres.

These are fine if you’re commuting or training, but I can’t see they have proper application here, which is the area that gives the bike its name in the first place, after all.

Soul endeavour

Cycling in Tuscany is possibly one of the greatest experiences you can have on two wheels. Take it slow and steady and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable ramble, but hit it hard and there’s plenty of terrain to test guile and mettle.

However, the day-to-day reality for these bikes will more likely be one of relatively smooth tarmac and a bit of rain back in the UK.

We’re unable to critique them in the wet, but as the sun grows a heavier orange and the last of the chalk roads surrender to asphalt, we’re provided terrain to test the more general abilities of our steeds.

Simon disappears down a descent, which would suggest his De Rosa really is something of a marvel as a road bike, followed by Nick, whose comfortable-looking progress speaks to his Condor’s well-rounded persona. I, on the other hand, need a boost to get back on to their breakaway tails, and as if to remind me why we chose Tuscany, the countryside smiles on me.

While mopeds are de rigeur in Italian cities, in the countryside one vehicle reigns supreme: the Piaggio Ape, a curious three-wheeled truck whose engine sounds like a hairdryer full of bees.

A beckoning hand out of his window tells me he realises I need a free ride, and he helps me to urge the Bianchi home. We won’t be setting any records out here, but then getting motor-paced by a farmer in a miniature truck isn’t something you can quantify on Strava.

It’s a timely reminder that while experiences like these may come from a bygone age, there’s nothing stopping us revisiting them. The tools, the people and the places still exist – it’s just a matter of getting out there and finding them.

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