Monday, May 27, 2013

Training for my Second Brevet: How Did I Do?

This picture has nothing to do with this post.
It is one of four water glasses depicting bicycles, a set given to me by my close friend, L.
I am including pictures of these in this post to break up a very dry narrative.

As described in my previous post, my third attempt at a brevet was a success both on an absolute basis (e.g. I completed the ride) and relative to my first brevet a year earlier (e.g. I completed the ride more quickly.) More subjectively, my long training rides getting ready for this brevet seemed easier than before. During March, April, and the beginning of May, I increased the length of my long ride from 40 to 90 miles. Although these long training rides were often difficult, they never felt as difficult as they had been in my previous two attempts, I was never in serious danger of not completing them, and I always had a little something left even at the end of a ride that felt hard.

Over the last year, I have made a number of changes both to my equipment and to my training and in this post, I will evaluate as best I can the effect of these changes. The qualifier "as best I can" is critical. As a scientist, I would not draw any conclusions from one ride by one rider, but this is real life and I have no choice but to make decisions based on whatever information I have.

My Training Program

In previous posts, I have described my current plan for periodized training including base phase and build phase. The build phase was completed pretty much as planned. An important kind of training ride in this plan is the Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) test, which I have also previously described. 

In summary, this training plan had three major changes relative to my previous training:
1) It included a one month transition phase where I did no training.
2) It included a three month base phase where MAF test rides were the most important part of my training.
3) As before, my build phase focused is on a weekly long ride, each one 10% longer than the one before. The changes I made in my build phase were that the other rides each week often were a continuation of the MAF tests from the base phase, and that the long rides were ridden more slowly than before.

How I Think My Training Worked

  1. When I began training for my first brevet, I did not have time for a base phase and had done only a small amount of riding training during the previous months. On the up side, I was well rested. For my build phase, I followed the century training program from "Long-Distance Cycling", modifying it to work up to 124 rather than 100 miles. Following this plan, I barely reached a level of fitness needed to complete the brevet.
  2. At that time, I was unaware of the concepts of overtraining or periodization and so did not include enough recovery between completing my first brevet and beginning preparation for my second. As a result, my preparation for a second brevet failed.
  3. I do not have an opinion if taking a month off training was helpful to my third attempt.
  4. I believe the base training both contributed to my recovery from my first and second attempts, leaving me more rested, and gave me a foundation of aerobic fitness that allowed me to more comfortably complete my buildup for and riding of the brevet.
  5. I believe that riding my long rides more slowly during the build phase was a very beneficial change that gave me most if not all the benefits of the buildup without the same amount of stress, stress that would have contributed to overtraining.

Alternative Explanations

Above, I explain how I think my training affected my first three attempts at riding a 200K brevet. There are other possible explanations for the same facts besides the ones I believe, and here are a few:
  1. My second attempt at a brevet failed due to the luck of the draw. The day I attempted a 90 mile training ride happened to be a bad day for me, this coincidence decided the issue, and I should not draw any conclusions from that failure.
  2. My subjective claims that my third set of long training rides were "not as hard" as my first and second sets is a false memory. 
  3. The significant difference between my unsuccessful second and successful third attempts at a brevet was that I had been training for a longer period of time by the third try. To put it another way, my second attempt at a brevet was not a failure, but part of the training that made my third attempt successful. 
  4. The reason my second brevet was faster than my first was because I spent more time riding with a group and/or because I had a lot more training leading up to it (see above.)
I take these alternative explanations seriously and always keep an open mind while thinking about training. That said, it is my subjective opinion that these alternatives do not explain the success of my third brevet. The basis for my subjective opinion is the sum total of "how I felt" on each of my training rides. For example, I was feeling especially good when I started my last long (90 mile) training ride, and was also a little nervous about having ridden the previous long rides slowly, so I rode that last ride rather quickly. The result was that it took me a long time to recover from that ride, compromising my taper phase. Although this was not a fatal mistake, I think my taper was not as good as it should have been, reinforcing my subjective opinion that riding the long training rides slowly is a beneficial change.

Changes to Equipment

In preparation for my second brevet, I also made the following equipment changes:
  1. I raised my handlebars by 3 inches using a stem extender. As I previously posted, this made riding on the top of the handlebars more comfortable and the drops possible. To get better at using the drops, I ride all my MAF tests on the drops. On the brevet, the pain in my arms and shoulders I experienced on the first brevet was completely absent. I still had some pain in my hands and wrists. I was able to use the drops, though not as much as I think I should have. I plan to work on that in the future.
  2. I replaced stock Surly plastic saddle with a well broken in Brooks B17 saddle. The good news is that, unlike last time, I did not develop saddle sores. My rear was sore by the end of the ride to the extent that I would be willing to consider alternative saddles.
  3. I replaced the 28 mm Specialized Armadillo tires on my bike with 32mm Grand Bois Extra Léger tires. These tires are recommended by Jan Heine of Compass Cycles. (I got the tires from Harris Cyclery.) The Armadillos I inflate to 90 pounds per square inch (psi), the Grand Bois I inflate to 75 psi. The idea is that the wider cross section and lower pressure result in a more comfortable ride, but that the thinner casing results in a rolling resistance just as low or lower. I love these tires! The increased ride comfort was quite noticeable.  My impression is that they were "faster", but when I tried to demonstrate that by looking at MAF tests ridden with the two tires, the other factors influencing MAF test results made it impossible to do so (see below.)
  4. I cobbled together a holder for my queue sheet. Last year, I put the queue sheet in a zip-loc bag and carried it in my jersey pocket. As all the experts note, that makes it awkward to use. This year, I clipped the zip-loc bag to my handlebars and brake cables. I was very concerned that this would be unstable and would generate too much wind resistance. In fact, the arrangement was completely stable and there was no noticeable wind resistance on a very windy ride. This year's course was much more difficult to follow than last year's, and so the greatly improved access to the queue sheet was very appreciated. I am still looking for a better way to carry my queue sheet, but if I don't find one, I would definitely do this again rather than carry the queue sheet in my jersey.

Other Changes that May Have Helped My Brevet

  1. Riding with the group. Last year, I was concerned that I not start my brevet too quickly because I had learned that doing so caused me to tire very quickly. As a result, I let the group get ahead of me within the first couple of miles. This year, I felt stronger so was willing to risk riding too fast to stay with the group. I am very glad that I did. It both made the ride a lot more fun and as well as easier due to the lower the wind resistance while riding with a group.
  2. Use of caffeine, but not ibuprofen. Last year, I used ibuprofen to moderate leg pain due to exercise both during training and during my brevet. This year, I did not feel the need for ibuprofen during training presumably due to my longer and gentler preparation and chose not to use it during the brevet. In the mean time, I ran across an article in the scientific journal "The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness" reporting that although aspirin provided no relief from exercise-induced muscle pain, caffeine did. I don't think of caffeine for pain relief, although its synergistic effect on headache pain is well known. Of course, Ibuprofen and aspirin are two different drugs, but what this article did do is inspire me to experiment with caffeine during the ride, in the form of two 20 oz bottles of Coca Cola at controls 3 and 4. I can't tell for sure if I got any pain relief, any effect was definitely not dramatic, but I am inspired to continue this experiment.

Final Thoughts

Although my last brevet was a success, there is a lot of room for improvement. The main improvement I am looking for is an increase in endurance so that I can ride longer brevets. I would also like to improve my speed to make it easier to ride with a group and to make it easier to finish a longer brevet within the time limit. Finally, I would like to be able to ride a brevet more comfortably. My symptoms during the week following this brevet has shown me how much this ride took out of me, among them sleep disturbance and chronically sore legs. I still have a way to go to reach the level of fitness I need to be a good brevet rider, but I think I am making progress.

For those new to this blog, each week I am posting an update of my training results; see my previous posts for explanations of my aerobic training program, MAF tests, and this graph.

The red arrows indicate the points where I switched to and then from the Grand Bois tires. When I put the tires on, I noted the large increase in speed and wondered if some or all of that was the tires. When I put the old tires back, I saw only a 0.1 mph decrease in speed on a day when I was also feeling tired, so if the tires increase my speed, I have not been able to demonstrate it here. That said, if it is not the tires, then my fitness as measured in a MAF test continues to improve even while preparing for a brevet. The last two MAF tests were ridden after the brevet. Note that they are not much slower than the previous tests. I have many other symptoms indicating I am tired from the brevet, but so far it is not impacting my MAF tests.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Second Brevet At Last

My second 200K brevet went through some of the loveliest of the Texas countryside

I began this blog one year and one day ago in response to completing my first brevet on May 5, 2012. Since then, I have been struggling to repeat that accomplishment, and last Saturday, one year and thirteen days later, I did. Each of my two brevets was the shortest distance a brevet can be, 200 kilometers (200K). Completing one or even two of these  is not really much of an accomplishment, many people just start riding monthly 200K brevets as their training ride, and then quickly move on to the Super Randonneur series, consisting of a 200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K brevets and then on to 1200K randonnées, but not me. My first 200K was a brute force slog which left me so exhausted that it took me a full year to prepare for another, a journey I have shared on this blog. What were my hopes for this second brevet and how did it go? My dream for this second brevet contained the following elements:
  • My first brevet was completed in 12 hours, comfortably within the 13.5 hour time limit. However, a fast rider can complete a 200K brevet in 8 hours. I hoped to complete my second brevet in 10 hours.
  • My first brevet, I dropped off the back of the group within the first couple of miles, leaving me to ride 120 miles almost all by myself. This time, I wanted to ride with the group, or at least the slower part of the group, for the entire ride.
  • My first brevet was completed in agony. I wanted my second brevet to be a pain-free, joyful experience. (I did say this was a dream.)

Four of the seven riders who were at the second control. The couple in front with the matching "Texas Stampede Randonnée" jerseys rode the titanium tandem in the right side of the photograph. The next rider over, sitting, rode the recumbent. The last rider to the left, kneeling, was my companion on the 200K route.

To my eye, this year's brevet was lightly attended. Like last year, 200K and 300K brevets were being run on the same day. Six people showed up for the 300K brevet, and only two of us for the 200K brevet. The ride organizer, who was riding a 137K (permanent?), started the ride with us but turned around just before the second control. I didn't count the riders from last year, but looking back at the photo my wife took at the start, I count eleven riders and I know others started later. This is not a huge difference in attendance  but a difference nonetheless. I wondered if the running of the Texas Stampede 1200K randonnée two weeks earlier might have left some riders feeling like they had done their ride for May? Because this randonnée is only run every two years, this was not an issue last year. Sadly, we had one of the earliest possible DNFs (did not finish) as one rider realized he was missing his wallet right after signing in for the ride but before we even started, and as a result he decided to forgo the ride in favor of locating the missing wallet, so that left five for the 300K and two for the 200K.

Unlike Tour de France riders, randonneurs are allowed to use any human powered vehicle, and thus recumbent bikes are perfectly legal and enthusiastically welcomed.

In an earlier post, I commented that some of my cycling buddies have been urging me to upgrade to a carbon fiber frame. I recalled then that there didn't seem to be many carbon fiber frames at my first brevet and promised to do a count at my second. Out of nine starters, there was one carbon fiber frame, (the person who DNFed). Of the remainder, there were two tandems, one recumbent, and three single bikes. One tandem was steel, the other titanium. I didn't think to ask what metal the frame of the recumbent was constructed from, the fact that it was a recumbent seemed to trump that somehow. Of the remaining three bikes, two had steel frames, one titanium. My tentative conclusion at this point is that carbon fiber frames are unusual among randonneurs, that we use steel at the low end and titanium at the high. This fits with my memory from last year.

The route of my 200K brevet. (Click picture for a larger version.) The brown squares with the letter "i" in them mark the location of the controls. The 200K riders and 300K riders rode together to the control in the bottom left corner of the picture.

I was pleased that the route this year was different from last year. Like most people, I appreciate variety. The first and last controls, the start and the finish, were at the La Quinta Inn in Brookshire, same as last year. Unlike last year when we rode almost due north to Washington on Brazos, this year the 300K riders rode almost due west, and those of us on the 200K parted ways after the second control at 45 miles in Columbus and headed 18 miles north to Fayetteville. The first 45 miles was a twisty little maze of passages, all different. No complaints about that, by structuring the route this way, we got to ride on some beautiful little Texas roads with very little traffic. However, that did provide extra motivation to stay with the group to the first control so that I didn't get lost, a task I was able to comfortably accomplish. Although the group rode a little bit faster than I might have on my own, it was delightful to have company. Chatting along the way really makes the miles pass quickly. This bunch didn't seem to be much into drafting1, but I was not so proud; there is nothing better than drafting behind a tandem. The couple on the yellow tandem had noticed my "Raulston Strokers" jersey2, and we were well into a delightful conversation about what that meant and the Modesto Roadmen when we got to the second control. There was much sadness all around when we realized that here we parted ways, and we promised to find an opportunity to ride together again real soon.

The couple riding this yellow tandem and I were having a wonderful conversation on the road

The ride to the first control made it very obvious that my partner on the 200K was a much stronger rider than I was. As we were getting ready to depart the second control, I made it clear to him that he did not need to stay with me, that he should ride at his own pace and I would stay on his wheel as long as I could and then finish on my own. However, he chose to ride together, side by side, to the third control at the half way point. We raced along over the rolling hills due to a truly bracing tail wind which delighted my partner but terrified me as I thought about the ride back. By the time we got to the charming general store in the charming town of Fayetteville, my pace was starting to lag, and because he had to be home by mid-afternoon, we said our good-byes, he took off and I completed the second half of the brevet on my own. (I did see him again at the fourth control in Columbus. He was just leaving after having taken a food break as I rode up.) One advantage of riding on my own is that I was able to stop and take a couple of pictures of the delightful wildflowers. Texas can be a truly beautiful state.

Jerry's General Store, the control at the half way point, is a typical storefront in the attractive town of Fayetteville.
My companion on the 200K can been seen at the bottom left of the photo.

By the time I got to the penultimate control in Columbus, I was thoroughly exhausted from the rolling hills, the 90 degree temperature, and most significantly, the truly brutal headwinds. The Columbus controls (out and back) were at a Shell station with a mini-mart, so I took an approximately 20 minute break, refilled my water bottles with gatorade, and ate a bag of potato chips (mostly for the salt) and drank a coke (for the sugar and caffeine.) It is well known that cycling and food digestion do not go well together, and so to allow all that junk food to digest and to regain some strength, I rode the next hour at a deliberately slow pace. The middle hour and half, I picked the pace back up to my normal, comfortable riding speed, and for the last hour, the smell of the finish in my nose, I actually pushed the pace.

Besides the predominant yellow, daisy-like wildflowers shown in the picture at the top of the post, there were many other colors of wildflowers as well. Shown here are some purplish-red variants on the yellow flowers. There were also a lot of large, white flowers, a fair number of intense purple ones, and many others scattered here and there.

So how did I do?
  • Last year, I rode 200K in 12 hours. My ambitious goal for this year was to complete it in 10 hours. I ended up completing it in 11 hours.
  • Last year, I rode almost all 200K by myself. My goal for this year was to find a group to ride with the whole way, a goal that was a bit at odds with the light attendance at this ride. I ended up riding the first half of my 200K with a "group" (albeit a group of two for the last of that) but rode the second half by myself.
  • Last year, the last 26 miles of my brevet were pure agony. It took all of my willpower (and the absence of any alternative) to complete it. My unrealistic goal for this year was to ride the entire 200K in complete comfort. There were high points and low points for this year's ride, but none of the low points were as low as last year's, and I managed to finish with enough reserves to push my pace at the end. I definitely want to do better than this in the future, this is still more pain than I enjoy, but things are definitely moving in the right direction.
So, all and all, I declare this year's brevet a success. I confess to significant misgivings before the start. Would this be my last brevet, I wondered? By the end, I was certain that I would very much like to continue brevet riding.

A clock tower in Fayetteville

In future posts, I will discuss specifically how I feel like my training choices and equipment modifications impacted this ride.

No MAF test results this week. I will discuss the future posting of MAF tests when I discuss the impact of my training on this year's brevet.


1) Under most circumstances, the major factor limiting how fast one can ride on a bicycle is wind resistance. Even on a completely still day, one is overcoming a "headwind" equal to the speed one is riding. If two riders are riding together, one behind another, the second rider experiences significantly less wind resistance. I have read that this energy savings can be as high as 40%. Deliberately riding behind another rider to gain this advantage is known as "drafting". Normally, a group of riders will take turns riding in front in order to share the work and achieve a much higher overall speed than would be otherwise possible.

2) The bike club I belonged to in High School was named the Modesto Roadmen. The city of Modesto was created by a land developer by the name of Raulston. The first town fathers wanted to name the city after him, but he declined for reasons of modesty. As a result, the town fathers, whose native language was Spanish, named the town with the Spanish word for modest, "Modesto". Some of the older members of the Modesto Roadmen, as we reached the snarky nadir of our adolescence, starting calling ourselves the Raulston Stokers, Raulston in reference to the town creater, Strokers as a double entendre meaning either the stroking of one's legs as one pedals the bicycle or the other meaning being the one would expect from teenage boys. (Please forgive us, we were teenagers.) In my later years, this became a family story. In 2010, when we did a cycling vacation with our two sons in Maine, our older son showed up with custom jerseys for my wife and I, hers relating to her profession, mine being the incarnation of a fictional "Raulston Strokers" jersey.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Trek Evolution

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.
The title of this painting by Paul Gaugin is "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"

Guide to the Impatient

Any of you who have read my earlier posts, are tired to death of my "bike-shock" obsession, and just want to know what features were introduced when, can read only the section: History of Trek (and other) Bicycles.

Introduction and Resources

This is my third and final installment on the history of the road bicycle. I plan to integrate these three posts along with some additional information and make a permanent Bicycle History page on this site; I will make an announcement in a future post when that page has been completed. This third post is built around a treasure trove I recently discovered; a continuous series of catalogues of Trek bicycles for the years 1977 through 1995, and one more from 1999. To fill in the gap between 1999 and 2013, I used an online database of bicycle specifications for the years 1993 through 2013 and Bianchi's online catalogue containing archives of old catalogues back to 2006. I have gone through these resources to extract information from that source about the evolution of road bike technology.

What Is a Road Bike?

This post is about the evolution of the "Road Bike". For the purposes of this post, a road bike is derailleur-equipped bicycle with relatively skinny tires and usually with dropped handlebars designed for riding relatively quickly and/or for relatively long distances on paved roads. Some road bikes are general purpose: useful for amateur racing, for club riding, and for some level of touring. The bicycles used by the Modesto Roadmen in the 1960s were in this category. As time has gone by, road bikes available in the United States have specialized into categories such as racing bikes, sports bikes, and touring bikes. Racing bikes are bicycles used by relatively serious bicycle racers. Sports bikes are somewhat less expensive, somewhat more durable, somewhat more comfortable versions of racing bikes used on day rides, e.g. with a local bicycle club. The touring bike is significantly heavier and more rugged than any other road bike, has much lower gears and wider tires, and is designed to carry up to 100 pounds of luggage on trips lasting from weeks to years. In Europe, different kinds of road bikes specialized for these (and other) purposes have always been available. In the United States, however, there has been an evolution from the one general purpose road bike to different bikes for different purposes.

What Hath Time Wrought?

In my previous post on the history of Schwinn road bikes, I described how a temporary pause in road bike evolution from about 1963, when I first entered the road bike market through 1977, well after I had left that market, gave me an illusion of road bikes with relatively fixed properties. Although we did not have separate racing, sport, and road bikes back then, there was the "cheap 10 speed" and the "expensive 10 speed". In retrospect, the "cheap 10 speed" was not only less expensive but was also a more of an all-around bicycle than the "expensive 10 speed", being more suitable for touring, for example. Expensive 10 speeds were specialized for racing and in fact were very similar to what the professional racers of the Tour de France were riding at the time. The properties of these bikes were as follows:
  • Both cheap and expensive 10 speeds had frames made from steel tubing joined by lugs. On cheap 10 speeds, the tubing was unbranded, high tensile steel. On expensive 10 speeds, the tubing was chrome-molybdenum steel alloy, had a brand name, and was not uniform in thickness like the tubes used on cheap 10 speeds but thicker on the ends and thinner in the middle, a characteristic termed "double butted." The most common brands were Reynolds 531 and Columbus. Expensive frames usually had a decal documenting that all parts of the frame were made from this high quality tubing, e.g. "Made from Reynolds 531 double butted tubes, forks, and stays."
  • Both cheap and expensive 10 speeds had two or three sprockets in front and five in the rear.
  • On both cheap and expensive 10 speeds, the shifting mechanism was "friction". The front and rear derailleur could be set to any position within its range. Some intermediate positions were non-functional, the gears would make a rattling sound and skip. It was the responsibility of the rider to adjust the derailleur until the gears worked properly.
  • Both cheap and expensive 10 speeds had threaded forks. A bearing cup screwed onto these threads, providing an adjustment for the bearings used for steering the bike. This is known as a threaded headset.
  • The stem, the part of the bicycle that connects the handlebars to the fork, used a so-called "quill", a compression fitting that allowed one to raise and lower the handlebars to any height over a fairly broad range.
  • Most of the components that were attached to the frame were manufactured in Europe. The manufacturers of components could be divided into "Campagnolo" and "Everyone else". Although some non-Campagnolo components were accepted as high quality, in general, "All Campy" was considered the best. Expensive 10 speeds were often "All Campy" and definitely used parts manufactured from aluminum alloy rather than steel. Examples of such components that were steel on "cheap 10 speeds" and aluminum on "expensive 10 speeds" include the handlebars, the stem that attached the handlebar to the fork, the rims, and as is discussed below, the cranks that connected the pedals to the front sprocket, a.k.a. chain rings.
  • One of the most important places where aluminum replaced steel on expensive 10 speeds was the cranks, the part that connects to the pedals to the front sprockets (chainrings) and most characteristic, the front cranks and chainrings (a.k.a. sprockets or gears.) Besides the difference between aluminum and steel, the two kinds of cranks used different mechanisms to connect to the bearings in the bottom bracket of the frame. The cheap, steel cranks used a cotter pin to secure the crank to the bottom bracket. The expensive, aluminum cranks had a square hole that fit over a square axle in the bottom bracket. These two kinds of cranks were thus named "cottered cranks" and "cotterless cranks", respectively.
  • Cheap 10 speeds lacked toe clips to strap one's feet to the pedals. The pedals were designed with toe clips in mind, but it was not assumed that riders of these bikes wanted toe clips. If one did, one had to purchase them separately. Expensive 10 speeds had higher quality pedals and the toe clips came with the bike and were pre-installed because it was assumed that riders of such an expensive bike would want toe clips.
  • Cheap 10 speeds had 27 x 1¼ inch tires that had wire beads that held them onto the rims (known as "clinchers") and the rims were typically steel. Expensive 10 speeds had tires that had no bead, were sewn together at the bottom (known as "sew-ups"), and which were glued to aluminum rims. The 27 inch wheels were slightly larger than the sew-up wheels so that one could not put clincher wheels onto your expensive 10 speed to get more repairable, more rugged tires.
In this post, I will be tracking how bicycles changed between 1977 and 2013 with emphasis on how the above characteristics changed. Such changes tend not to be introduced all at once across a product line, but first on one or a few models. Sometimes that situation persists, with the new feature becoming an option available on select models. The case in which I am more interested, however, is where a new feature becomes dominant. When I walked into my Local Bike Shop in 2008, I saw few road bikes with steel frames (though steel is making a bit of a comeback), none with lugs, no road bikes with 5 sprockets in the back, none that used friction shifting, none with threaded headsets, and none with a quill stem. None of these bikes used 27 inch tires, but rather used a size called "700C". Mostly, the bikes I saw had no pedals at all; pedals were purchased separately. When I asked why, I was told that people preferred different (incompatible) styles of clipless pedals, and this allowed people to get the pedals they wanted. "What on earth are clipless pedals?" I asked myself. As it turns out, there have been many other changes as well, such as the use of sealed bearings and the replacement of the freewheel by the free hub, but I will not be talking about these here. Based on my bike-shock of 2008, here are the questions I am addressing in this post:
  • When were bikes with 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 back sprockets introduced? How quickly did each of these increases become standard, e.g. move down to inexpensive bikes?
  • When were aluminum frames introduced? When did they become the default for inexpensive bikes? When were carbon fiber frames introduced? When did carbon fiber become the standard for high end racing bikes?
  • Despite the dominance of Aluminum frames on less expensive road bikes and carbon fiber on expensive ones, steel frames persist into the present. However, whereas the tubing in such frames used to be joined using lugs, most modern steel frames are joined using a process named TIG welding. TIG is an acronym for Tungsten Inert Gas, was developed for hard-to-weld metals like aluminum, but turns out to be a better way to weld steel as well. Thus, I will ask the question "when did TIG welding replace lugs on steel frames?"

A steel frame joined by fancy lugs.
Photgraph courtesy of Wikipedia
A titanium frame joined by TIG welding.
Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.
  • Threadless headsets use a different mechanism for securing the bearings used to steer the bike than my canonical threaded headsets. More importantly, such headsets by necessity use a different design of stem to connect to the handlebars. These new stems clamp onto the outside of the fork rather than insert inside of it. On threadless headsets, one can adjust the handlebars up and down a bit by moving spacers above and below the stem, but the range of adjustment is less than with quill stems and in general results in lower handlebars. When did threadless headsets replace threaded headsets and quill stems?
  • Instead of using friction shifting where the rider is responsible for adjusting the position of the derailleur correctly, modern bikes use indexed shifters. These shifters click from one position to another. If properly adjusted, this guarantees the derailleur is in a correct position and that the gears work correctly. When did indexed shifting replace friction shifting?
  • When did the general purpose 10 speed evolve into dedicated racing, sport, and touring bikes?
  • None of the bikes I could afford in 2008 used European components, e.g. derailleurs. Some of the most expensive racing bikes still used Campagnolo (Italian) components, but even at the high end, components made by Japanese companies such as Shimano go toe to toe with Campagnolo. At the lower price points where I was shopping, Shimano owns the market. When did Japanese manufacturers take over bicycle component manufacture from the Europeans?
  • When did 700C tires replace 27 inch tires? 27 inch was a tire size used by British manufacturers on their road bikes, while 700C was one size in a sophisticated French system. (See articles by Sheldon Brown and Wikipedia for an explanation of how this system worked.) One significant advantage to 700C tires are that their wheels are the same size as sew-up wheels, so for example a racing bike can have two sets of wheels, one with sew-ups for race day, another with more durable and repairable 700C clinchers for training. I recently purchased a second set of wheels, 700C clinchers, for my old Bianchi Specialissima, making it much more practical to ride.
  • Clipless pedals perform the same function as toe clips, they hold the rider's shoes to the pedal permitting more efficient pedaling. However, they do so differently. The many differences between toe clips (and the cleats that were used with them by racers) and clipless pedals is a topic much too large for this post, so I will simply ask, when did clipless pedals replace toe clips?
Toe Clips. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.

Clipless pedal and shoe with cleat used with it.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

    History of Trek (and other) Bicycles

    Just as Schwinn was founded to take advantage of the bicycle boom of the 1890s, Trek was founded in 1976 to take advantage of the bicycle boom of the 1970s. Grant Peterson, the wizard of Bridgestone, creator of Rivendell bicycles, and bicycle expert extraordinaire, argues that the 1970s bike boom resulted from the combination of the baby boomers coming of age and bicycling activities associated with the first Earth Day in 1970 and the US bicentential in 1976, and I think he is correct. Although Bike Snob mocks Trek by referring to them as "The Great Trek Bicycle Making Company", Trek started out very small, at first selling only frames. In 1977, they first sold a small number of complete bicycles. However, even in 1977, Trek had a range of products spanning the cheap and expensive price points.These bikes differed from my canonical ideas of cheap and expensive 10 speeds in the following ways:
    • The less expensive Trek road bikes used Japanese components rather than European components. At the high end, Trek matched my canon by using Campagnolo parts.
    • Even at the cheap price point, all of the bikes had all aluminum components, especially noteworthy being aluminum cotterless cranks.
    • Rather than providing the canonical dichotomy of a "cheap 10 speed" and an "expensive 10 speed", Trek offered 10 models representing a more or less continuous range of prices and qualities from the low end at $195 to the high end at $785.
     From this starting point, Trek bikes evolved as follows:
    • 1978: As per the canon, at the low end Treks still had 27 inch tires and high end Trek's had sew-up tires. However, intermediate Trek models began using 700C tires in 1978.
    • 1980: Trek introduced the first bike with 6 sprockets on the rear wheel rather than the canonical 5. Interestingly, this was offered on their less expensive bikes, presumably as an experiment.
    • 1982: Trek started dividing their road bikes into "Racing", "Sport", or "Touring" models. The Sport and Touring bikes used 27 inch tires, the racing bikes used 700C tires or sew-ups.
    • 1983: The entire Trek line of road bikes had 6 sprockets in back except for one top of the line model which had 7.
    • 1985: In something of a retrenchment, Bikes with 7 sprockets in back vanished from the Trek lineup, and a few low end bikes with 5 sprockets reappeared.
    • 1985: 700C tires spread beyond just the racing bikes and began to appear on some of the sports bikes.
    • 1987: Frames made from aluminum were first offered on Trek bikes. Initially, these were more expensive models.
    • 1987: Frames made from carbon fiber were first offered on Trek bikes. These were the most expensive models.
    • 1987: Some high end Treks have 7 sprockets in the back.
    • 1987: Some high end Treks have indexed shifting.
    • 1987: Campagnolo components vanished from the Trek lineup, even their high end bikes used components made in Japan.
    • 1988: Clipless pedals appear on the most expensive Trek road bike.
    • 1988: Most expensive Trek racing bike now comes with clinchers, not sew-ups (though sew-ups continue to be available as an option through the present.)
    • 1989: Clipless pedals are now offered on several of the more expensive Trek road bikes
    • 1989: The most expensive Trek road bike has 8 sprockets in the back.
    • 1990: Trek no longer offered a bicycle with 27 inch tires, 700C tires have become universal.
    • 1990: Aluminum frames have been working their way down the price list for a few years and will continue to do so. There is a segment of the market (yours truly included) who prefer steel frames so they have not gone away entirely, but this is as good a point as any in this progression to declare that at this point, aluminum has become the less expensive alternative to carbon fiber for road bikes, steel is now just an option for a specific market segment. In 1990, only three Trek road bikes have steel frames. In 2013, only one Trek road bike, their iconic 520 touring bike, has a steel frame. In contrast, the number of steel framed road bikes offered by Bianchi has been increasing in recent years (see below). 
    • 1994: The Trek 520 went from having a steel frame joined using lugs and having a steel frame joined by TIG welding. Interestingly, Bianchi retained lugs on their iconic steel framed bike, the Volpe, until 1998.
    • 1997: The top of the line Trek road bike went from 8 to 9 cogs in the back. This number of cogs persisted on high end Treks for 7 years.
    • 1998: The Trek 520 went from 7 to 8 cogs in the back.
    • 1999: A threadless headset first appeared on a top of the line Trek 5500 racing road bike.
    • 2002: The Trek 520 went from 8 to 9 cogs in the back. This number of cogs on the back has persisted for 12 years, until today. In contrast, the similar Bianchi Volpe went from 8 to 9 cogs two years earlier, in 2000 and in 2012 went from 9 to 10 sprockets in the back. In part this may be due to the lower gears on the 520. Shimano component sets with lower gears may well be slower about increasing the number of rear sprockets.
    • 2002: A threadless headset first appeared on the Trek 520.
    • 2003: A threadless headset first appeared on the Bianchi Volpe.
    • 2004: The most expensive Trek (5500) went from 9 to 10 sprockets in the back.
    • 2009: The most expensive Bianchi went from 10 to 11 sprockets in the back. This is 4 years sooner than the most expensive Trek. This difference in timing is almost certainly a result of the fact that Bianchi has always offered the best Campagnolo components on their top bikes while Trek stopped using Campagnolo components in 1987, and that Campagnolo went from 10 to 11 sprockets much earlier than Shimano. 
    • 2012: The most expensive Bianchi begins using electronic shifting. This system replaces the mechanical derailleur cables with motorized derailleurs. This has a number of advantages including the ability to use computer technology to improve gear shifting. That said, retrogrouches (including yours truly) are not interested.
    • 2013: The top of the line Trek Madone gets 11 sprockets in back and electronic shifting. Trek catches up with Bianchi, Shimano catches up with Campagnolo (assuming you define progress in this way.)

    Final Thoughts

    In no way is this history of road bikes between 1977 and 2013 complete. It represents a very small part of what has been going on and ignores major movements and subcultures such as bicycle messengers, fixies, modern influences of the constructeur movement, the metamorphosis of the Paramount group of Schwinn into one of the most important facilitating movements of our era, Waterford Cycles, the role of the Tiawanese and Chinese bicycle manufacturers, visionaries such as Rivendell bicycles, randonneuse bicycles, etc., etc., etc.   In 2013, Bianchi, a main stream manufacturer, offers 5 complete road bikes and three frames in steel, including some with lugged steel, bikes that makes no sense as part of my narrative. Further, there is no reason for limiting a recent history of bicycling to my very arbitrarily-defined road bikes. Riders of recumbent bicycles will appropriately feel like their major contributions have been ignored. A lot of what has happened in road bikes has been the result of rapid technical evolution in mountain bikes which lead to new features that often migrate to road bikes years later. My history of road bikes is poorer for not having explored this connection. That said, this post is already overdue. I do not know which of these themes will develop into future posts or which will end up as part of my page on bicycle history, but I do know it is time to end this post right now.

    For those new to this blog, each week I am posting an update of my training results; see my previous posts for explanations of my aerobic training program, MAF tests, and this graph.

    Compared to last week, there are a couple of new, high values. I am going to delay commenting on those for a few weeks when I think I will have something more meaningful to say about them.

    Sunday, May 5, 2013

    Schwinn History

    Scanned catalogue page for a 1939 Schwinn Paramount, courtesy of This bike had a single speed and was designed for 6 day bicycle races.

    In my blog post "Bicycling History Seen from the Tour", I discussed the winning bicycles of the Tour de France from 1910 to the present to shed light on the history of bicycle technology. At the end of that post, I promised to look at the history of some consumer grade bicycles to get a different view on that history. Since then, I came across an excellent collection of Trek catalogues that will facilitate that look. However, Trek first started manufacturing in 1978, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some history before that. The only comprehensive set of catalogues I found for the 1950s and 1960s were for Schwinn bicycles, interesting in their own right but perhaps a somewhat skewed view on road bikes. That said, Schwinn history, supplemented with other historical tidbits, is the topic of this post.


    • My Page on Bicycle Anatomy: This post is one where knowledge of bicycle anatomy is important. I am working on a page for this blog to serve as a reference on bicycle anatomy. This page is not yet complete, but I have published it in its incomplete form to help readers with this post.
    • Tom Findley has assembled the amazing collection of Schwinn catalogues which were the inspiration for this post.
    • The Schwinn Bike Forum offers the "Schwinn Lightweight Data Book" containing more detailed specifications than the above for the years 1960 through 1979, the years in which I happen to be most interested.
    • The article "Chicago Schwinns" by Sheldon Brown and the links therein to articles on the Schwinn Varsity, and fillet-brazed Schwinns present a wonderful overview and perspective on the place of Schwinn in road bike evolution.
    • Mark and Laurie Bulgier on their deceptively modest looking home page link to an astonishing collection of bicycling information, including old bike catalogues which supplemented the Schwinn data but much more importantly has a wealth of information on older European bikes.
    • "Disraeli Gears" is a site devoted to derailleurs. This site proved remarkably helpful in illuminating otherwise dark corners of bicycle history.


    The safety bicycle a.k.a. upright bicycle, a bicycle with two equally-sized wheels, a chain drive to the rear wheel, and pneumatic tires, was introduced at the very end of the 19th Century. The dramatic increase in usability this design engendered launched a bicycle boom. Schwinn Bicycles was founded in 1895 to take advantage of this boom. In the United States, this boom ended almost before it started and was over by 1910. By then, cars had largely replaced bicycles which were relegated to childrens' toys. In contrast, bicycles remained much more popular in Europe, being used by adults for commuting, touring, and racing. Schwinn rolled with this punch and developed a hugely successful business supplying the bicycles that every kid wanted due to their extreme durability, stylishness (they looked like motorcycles), and intensive advertising campaign. However, Schwinn wanted to reinvigorate the adult market for lightweight bicycles and starting in 1938, reintroduced adult bicycles, including their top of the line Schwinn Paramount constructed very much like a European racing bicycle. Although this was a money loosing proposition for Schwinn at first, they successfully developed an adult market in the US which paid off for them in the 1960s and the 1970s.

    Scanned Page from the 1961 Schwinn Catalogue courtesy of Tom Findley

    From when they first reintroduced adult bicycles in 1938, Schwinn offered three quality levels of frame on their lightweight bicycles. The least expensive line used low grade, seamed steel tubing fabricated and welded in the Schwinn factory. This is the same technology Schwinn used in their heavyweight childrens' bicycles. The most expensive line was the Paramount which used very high end, bicycle specific tubing like Reynolds 531 and lugs to construct a traditional high end European-style frame. Perhaps the most interesting were the bicycles in the middle. They used unbranded chrome-molybdenum seamless tubing and the frame was brazed rather than welded, not using lugs, but a process called fillet brazing. Although interesting and perhaps prescient, foreshadowing the TIG welded steel frames of today, this mid-level frame technology went largely unnoticed and did not have much of an impact on bicycle technology. These filet-brazed Schwinn's are highly prized by collectors today, however.

    Beginning early in the 20th century, bicycles with multiple gears began to appear in Europe, both gears internal to the rear hub (e.g. "three speed hubs") as well as derailleur gears. In the beginning, derailleur gears were largely limited to three gears relatively similar one to another in size, so that derailleur gears did not have a significant advantage over internal hub gears for long distance riding or for racing. A catalogue from the "late 1930s" from the British firm Evans, lists derailleur bicycles with two and three speeds. In 1952, the French firm Pelissier offered a randonneuring bicycle with 8 speeds, 4 sprockets in the back and two in the front, including an astonishingly low alpine gear, and Peugot's top of the line racing bike, the PH10, also offered 8 speeds. The dominant British bicycle manufacturer, Raleigh, offered no derailleur bicycles in their 1951 catalogue; even their top of the line racing bike used a three speed hub, but by 1957 are offering a derailleur-equipped bicycle with 10 speeds. The first year Schwinn sold bicycles with derailleurs was 1960.

    Schwinn Derailleur Bike History: 1960 - 1977

    1960 Schwinn Varsity. The lever with the white handle that extends from the front sprockets towards the seat is the front shifter. This photograph courtesy of the Schwinn Bike Forum.

    In 1960, Schwinn introduced two or three derailleur bicycles including an 8 speed Schwinn Varsity for $69.95 and a 10 speed Schwinn Continental for $86.95. I was unable to determine if the 1960 Schwinn Paramount used a derailleur. Some of the most important features of this initial release were as follows:
    • Rather than using the Huret Allvit derailleur set that later became standard on the low-end Schwinn road bikes, these bikes used the Simplex Tour de France derailleur set. The most striking difference between this derailleur set and what I became to think of as the "standard 10 speed" of my youth is that the shift lever for the front derailleur was not in the standard position on the down tube of the frame, but was way down on the derailleur itself. Because of the risk of reaching down that low while riding this position was referred to as a suicide shifter.
    • 10 speeds was not yet quite standard. Presumably to differentiate the less expensive Varsity from the more expensive Continental, the Varsity only had 8 speeds (2 in the front and 4 in the back) whereas the Continental had 10 (the "standard" 2 in the front and 5 in the back.) Other features that differentiated these two bikes were that the Varsity had a heavy, flat, forged fork like the rest of the Schwinn line whereas the Continental used a more European or traditional tubular fork, the Continental had quick release hubs whereas the Varsity had wing nuts, and the Continental had center pull brakes whereas the Varsity had side pull brakes.
    • Although the Continental had the "standard" 27 x 1¼ inch tires, the Varsity had the same sized tires as the Schwinn 3 speeds, 26 x 1⅜ inch.
    The Varsity and the Continental had a number features in common that differentiated them from European bicycles at a similar price point. The first, already mentioned, was frames made from inexpensive, heavy gauge seamed steel. The visibly obvious reflection of this was the absence of lugs on the frame where the frame tubes joined. The second was use of one-piece, heavy forged steel cranks similar to what Schwinn used on their rugged, childrens' bikes, rather than the three-piece cranks of the European bikes. At the high end, European cranks were made of aluminum alloy and were quite light (and beautiful.) At the low end (the Varsity/Continental price points), they were steel, but still much lighter than the Schwinn cranks. Finally, the Schwinns had heavy steel kickstands permanently welded to the frame. European bikes often had no kickstand at all, but if they did it was made from aluminum alloy and bolted to the frame so that it could be removed. This should have been a hint to me back then that the "10-speed standard" that was forming in my head was open to exception. 

    In mid-1961, the Varsity got 10 speeds, eliminating this deviation from the "standard" of my mind. However, both the Varsity and Continental continued to use the "non-standard" suicide front shifter. That is also the first year for which I could find specifications for a derailleur-equipped Paramount. This bike used the Campagnolo Grand Sport derailleur and thus had the shift levers for both derailleurs in the "standard" down tube position.

    In 1962, the first 15 speed bicycles were introduced by Schwinn (3 gears in the front, 5 in the rear), the Super Continental and the Superior. The Superior was also Schwinn's first derailleur bike with the Crome-Molybdenum, filet-brazed frame. I confess that, at the time, I never appreciated or even noticed the significance of these higher end frames. One reason for this is the absence of lugs; these frames looked like the much heavier and less responsive Varsity and Continental frames. Had I appreciated the higher quality of these frames, I might have not been so surprised by the TIG welded steel frames I encountered when I re-entered the market in 2008.

    1963 was a paradigmatic year for me and Schwinn for the following reasons:
    • The Varsity got 27 x 1¼ inch tires, eliminating this deviation from the "standard".
    • The Varsity and Continental got Huret Allvit derailleurs, putting both shift levers on the down tube, eliminating the suicide front shifter, another deviation from the "standard".
    • Comparing the specifications from various years, I think this must be the model year of my Continental, my first 10-speed.

    A 1963 Schwinn Continental. Photo courtesy of the CycleThru Blog. Notice the two shift levers on the down tube.

    Thus, by 1963, when I first entered the market, the entire Schwinn derailleur bike line fit my myth of the "standard 10 speed". As it happened, so did virtually every other derailleur bicycle being sold in the US. The evolution of bicycle technology ebbs and flows over time and across different parts of the bicycle. Although the number of rear sprockets on bicycles was changing all the way through 1961, purely by chance few changes occurred between 1961, just before I entered the bicycle market, and the late 1970s, shortly after I had left the market for 35 years. A similar pause in other aspects of derailleur technology occurred at the same time. In my lack of experience, I interpreted this pause, which encompassed the entire time I was in the bike market, as a permanent state, so was surprised in 2008 to find that the pause had ended and that bicycles had changed.

    To explain the most significant event of 1964, I need to provide some historical context. Today, Schwinn is simply a brand name licensed and used by a variety of manufacturers, there is really no such thing as a Schwinn bicycle, and certainly Schwinn bicycles are not particularly prized. The final bankruptcy that lead to this state of affairs happened in 2001, but the downward spiral had begun by the late 1970s. In contrast, Schwinn completely dominated the US bicycle industry in 1964 and was one of the most important bicycle manufacturers in the world. The big event of 1964 is that Schwinn rebranded the Huret Allvit derailleur to the Schwinn Sprint derailleur; it still was exactly the same derailleur, still manufactured by Huret in France, but now had the honor of having the Schwinn name on its side. According to Disraeli Gears, this "was the definitive sign to the world that derailleurs were ready for the mass market."

    The next event, a relatively minor one, didn't happen until 1967 when the shift levers were moved from the down tube on the frame to the stem. This was done to make them easier to reach and thus safer to use. To those of us who were serious riders, this was a downgrade, a "dumbing-down" of the bikes. Importantly, this change was made on all models EXCEPT for the Paramount.

    In 1968 the SS Tourer was introduced, a 15 speed with the mid-level chrome-molybdenum filet braised frame. Rather than using the heavy steel one piece crank that previous models in this range used, it featured a 3 piece, alloy crank, making it much more competitive with European bikes.

    In 1969, another "dumbing down" occurred. An additional brake lever was added to the hand brakes that could be reached when one had one's hands on the top of the handlebars. Again, this convenience feature was not introduced on the Paramount.

    The next event on which I wish to comment occurred in 1973 - introduction of the Schwinn Le Tour and World Voyager. These were the first Schwinn bikes not manufactured in the US. They were Schwinn branded but manufactured under contract by Panasonic in Japan. As the 70's progressed, more and more of Schwinn's bicycles were manufactured in Japan, and more and more began to use Schwinn-branded derailleurs made in Japan by Shimano or Sun Tour rather than in France by Huret. Although both Shimano and Sun Tour started manufacturing derailleurs in the 1950s, it was not until the 1970s that they were widely appreciated outside of Japan. Thus, I would add one more feature to my imaginary "10-speed standard"; most of the important components, at least on the better bicycles, were made in Europe.

    Nothing much happened to Schwinn lightweight bicycles between 1973 and 1977, the last year for which I have found catalogues. In 1978 Trek Bicycles was founded, the topic of my next Bicycle History post. As we shall see, Trek starts out with bicycles that pretty closely match my "10-speed standard" with the exception of using Japanese rather than European components but ends up today with fully modern bicycles. By tracking the history of Trek, we will be able to witness the end of the pause in road bike evolution, an evolution that once restarted, lead to the bicycles that so startled me when I re-entered the market in 2008.

    For those new to this blog, each week I am posting an update of my training results; see my previous posts for explanations of my aerobic training program, MAF tests, and this graph.

    In this latest iteration, there may be a hint that my performance is leveling off. This is far from certain yet, but if true, would not be surprising. Since the beginning of March, I have been completing increasingly long weekly rides to prepare for my 200K (124 mile) brevet on May 18. Last week, I completed the longest ride in this series, 90 miles. The stress of these rides would be expected to interfere with the aerobic training the MAF test measures. In short, I am starting to draw upon the reserves I built up during December, January, and February.