Today was cold and gray. I was walking along a gravel path with my head tucked down, making little effort to raise my boots. Every third step or so, a handful of stones got kicked forward. As some were suddenly shot my way, I looked up. An old man, bundled tight, was walking towards me with the same careless step. Was he mimicking me? Nah. As we passed each other, smirky smiles, two nods and a few more rocks were exchanged. I felt about 30 years younger, he must have felt at least 60.
Which reminded me that a young guy on the staff (ok, it was Gruber) recently wrote that he just didn’t “get the old bike thing.” Fair enough, though the reason is quite simple: he’s too young to get it. Until you’re about 35 there’s no need. There’s also no need to kick rocks at old men on gravel paths either! In fact, such behavior would be considered petulant or worse in a young man. In grown men, it’s fun and funny. It’s a fundamental part of Mr. Bean’s humor. And it goes a long way in explaining the importance of old bikes.
Within the next 10 years, Gruber’s generation will hunger for Team Saeco Cannondales or C40 Colnagos or some other bike with mythological and sentimental attachment. Something that embodies a simpler time in their life. Something they were unable to afford. Riding these memory machines has a transformative effect. The quickest way to turn geezers into kids is by putting them on their old bikes and letting them loose on the gravel roads of Tuscany. Anyone that’s been to the Eroica will readily agree.
I suspect these are gonna be real popular in about 10 years.
One more thing: we’re so easily programmed to believe that newer must be better, but riding an old bike that was well made, that slices through curves, that has a zippy, elastic-y charge serves to remind us that some things are universal and lasting. I’d even recommend that beginners start with a reasonably priced used bike and then (if they like cycling) invest in something newer and more expensive. Without further ado, here are our CheapOh tips for buying a vintage bike to take you back to when kicking rocks at others was fun.
Tip: Buy Locally
Garage/yard sales, ads in local papers, Goodwill/Salvation Army type stores and Craigslist are all better options for finding old bikes than that huge online auction site. Also, don’t forget the substantial savings in fees and shipping costs and potential shipping mishaps. Sometimes listings are less than accurately described, whereas buying locally let’s you see exactly what’s for sale. Although it’s possible to find a deal from that online site – it is often better for selling than buying – there are simply too many savvy and foolish people wanting stuff and that creates a too rational or too exuberant market. However, using the Advanced Search and checking the box for Completed Listings is an effective way to find out where prices are for your desired bike. Likewise, saving the Search and keeping track of the values is an excellent research tool.
You never know what gems you’ll find in your neighborhood, like this 70’s Masi Gran Criterium hidden under city bike duds.
Tip: Or Go Globally
Now then, there are times when using that online auction site makes some sense, especially for searching (fishing?) in different country specific sites and especially-er for off the beaten path type stuff. For example, those interested in pink Merciers (like me) will have greater options and chances for success at the French (.fr) site. Likewise, there are some fine and underappreciated bikes from Gazelle and Batavus to be found checking out the Dutch site. Also lots of interesting things can be found on the “.de” site probably because Germans bought many high-end foreign bikes, seeing as their own production was limited. Just remember to add in shipping fees which can be quite high.
Tip: Gruppos As Pointers
The 70’s bike boom created tons of lugged steel road bikes from tons of brands. There were hundreds, if not thousands of small shops especially in Italy (like Sigismondi or Marchetti here in Bolzano) that sold branded bikes made by subcontractors. Since most everyone wants famous brands, odd balls get easily overlooked. However, it’s difficult to decipher whether these are quality bikes or not. As a rule: good bikes were assembled with good gruppos. If the bike has a Campagnolo Nuovo or Super Record gruppo, it was most likely a quality bike, made from better tubing and given greater attention in its manufacturing. Although there are plenty of exceptions, it is a fine starting place in determining whether the bike is worth buying. Which leads us to the next tip, identifying good gruppos…
A rebranded bike wearing a Campagnolo Super Record gruppo is a good sign.
Tip: Do Your Homework
There is a great wealth of information on the internet about pretty much every vintage bike and component ever made. Though Campagnolo gets most of our attention, quality and mediocrity can also be found from Simplex, Huret, Zeus and others. When buying old bikes, it is essential to know your stuff – just because the decal says “Colnago”, does not guarantee that the bike is a real Colnago. Also, knowing more than the seller, puts you in a stronger position to negotiate. Have a maximum price in mind and be prepared to walk away if the seller insists on more. Don’t worry, there will always be another bike.
Derailleurs like this Huret Jubilee are worth quite a bit, to those that know.
Here are a few essential sites:
-> Sheldon Brown is a must, for information also for repairs and compatibility issues. This man was a saint and his memory and passion for cycling continue to live on through this wonderful site.
-> VeloBase is a searchable database containing lots of information and photos about old bike stuff.
-> My Ten Speeds is an atrociously designed site, and this is actually the re-designed version 2.0, but this guy is a great CheapOh and has plenty of ideas and a diversity of bikes worth studying.
-> Classic Rendezvous is a site, but more importantly it’s an email list that has lots of diamonds amongst of a bunch of noise. Searching the archives can be just as valuable. Asking for the group’s advice will usually get lots of responses.
-> Chuck Schmidt has some useful info on his site like the Campagnolo Timeline, but more importantly is a big page of juicy links worth delving into.
Tip: Identifying Quality
When buying vintage bikes, quality counts. Quality can be had in many brands and sometimes even in the lower range models. And here is where deals can be found. Especially true with the Italians, where many bikes were subcontracted. Some companies like Milani did great work no matter what tubing or price range. Colnago Sports can be wonderful gems or downright dogs. The same can be said for Atala, Bottecchia, Benotto and many others. Careful examination can determine the quality of a frame. Are the lugs thinned with even shore lines and no gaps in the braze? Are there sloppy file marks everywhere? The dropouts, seat stay / seat tube junction and fork curve are all critical areas that highlight (or lowlight) the skill of the craftsman.
This desired Colnago Sport is certainly lacking in craftsmanship…
… whereas this Scapin is an underappreciated gem.
Quality can also be recognized in the frames’ materials. Campagnolo drop outs and fork tips are a good sign. Lugs or bottom brackets from Cinelli or custom cast lugs, seat stay caps and fork crowns with the brands’ logo usually indicate quality.
Custom made fork crowns, like on this Basso, are a good sign.
Tip: Condition & Originality
A bike bought from its original owner that has been kept in its original and excellent condition is more valuable than a refinished frame – same rules as in the world of vintage cars or anything else collectable. Often, consumables like freewheels or chains have been replaced or upgraded over time with non period correct parts. Tracking down the right components can be costly. Then again, you could leave it “as is”, the replacements are probably better than the originals and it’s an honest way to maintain your ride.
Although many collectors are horrified by the thought of refinishing a frame, finding one in a healthy, yet scruffy condition that merits a refinsh is a way to own something otherwise unaffordable. Painting bikes and cars are different things, so bring your frame to a specialist not a body shop.
Tip: Recognizing Tubesets
While we could write a separate article just about bicycle tubing, the vintage market is pretty much dominated by Columbus and Reynolds with their high quality, seamless, butted tubes. Italy’s Columbus SL tubeset is widely considered the most desirable, hence, most expensive. The little dove sticker that graces seat tubes changed over time and can be used to date frames, see photo below. If it takes a 27.2 mm seat post (though some 60’s frames used 27mm), it’s likely an SL frame. However, some deals can be had with Columbus’ mid-range lines like Zeta, Aelle and TreTubi – where the 3 main tubes are SL. The reality is that any decent tubes brazed by a competent builder will get you a fine ride – likewise, a great tubeset cannot overcome a builder’s incompetence.
The Columbus label on the left is from the 60’s, the middle is 70’s and the right is from the 80’s, pretty much…
Things get more interesting and cheaper when considering offerings from other countries. Some good and some mediocre frames from the 80’s were made with Germany’s Oria and Japan’s Ishiwata tubesets. The Ishiwata sticker indicates the total weight, for example, the 022 tubeset means 2.2kg frame weight (others included 019, 015 or 024). Quality frames can be found using Tange’s Prestige or even True Temper’s tubes. Another alternative that most collectors overlook is Vitus. This French company made fine tubing, especially aluminum, and should be on any good CheapOh’s list.
This is an 80’s Reynolds decal for the famed 531 tubeset
Lastly, there’s Reynolds. In 1935, they introduced the revolutionary 531 tubeset with butted tubing, where the ends are thicker to better resist the heat from brazing and it’s still around today – so it can be found in lots of bikes. The 753 and 653 tubesets are special finds that savvy collectors appreciate. Even though Reynolds-made frames are valued less than comparable Columbus ones (generally), by no means should they be considered inferior. I believe it is simply prejudice and romantic irrationality that explains this situation.
Tip: Off The Beaten Path
My inexact survey from the 2010 Eroica found that Bianchi, closely followed by Colnago, was the most popular bike in attendance. Popular bikes tend to be expensive. Remember that Bianchi and (sometimes) Colnago made lots of mass market junk too – so one needs to be diligent here. I recommend expanding one’s search to include lesser known brands like Somec or Scapin or Rauler or Rossin. It’s not that hard to argue that these frames were far superior to their more fashionable competitors. Another original choice would be an aluminum ALAN, their lightness and softness would be great for the rough Tuscan roads (just make sure the headtube lug and fork are in pristine condition).
This glued and screwed aluminum wonder would be great on those strade bianche.
Tip: Older Can Be Cheaper
Vintage bike prices seem to be the highest for 70’s and 80’s models, perhaps because these are my generation’s dream machines from our youth. Looking for bikes from the 60’s or even 50’s, one can find some more reasonable pricing from historic brands like Atala or Fiorelli (Coppi). Post war England boasted lots of quality shops like Nichols, Woodrup or Ellis Briggs that are appreciated by a small, yet savvy set. In fact, here is a great website dedicated to these special builders.
Wonderful stuff was coming out of England after the war, like this Major Nichols.
Tip: …or Go Newer
Even though the Eroica and other races define vintage bikes as pre-1987 or 85, many bike companies continued to produce similar steel lugged things well into the 90’s. As long as your bike has downtube shifters, brake cables run over the bars and pedals with clips, race organizers will allow it to participate. Great, because the 90’s represent the best CheapOh values of any bike era. Look for Columbus tubesets like SLX, EL, Brain, Genius or Thron. Better yet, look for Dedacciai tubesets – the company was founded in 1993. I particularly like the Paramounts made by Panasonic – great rides, dirt cheap. Other bikes that get little attention are Viners or Casatis (both are still around too) or the USA Raleighs.
Tip: Reigning Nationalism
Perhaps unusual from an American’s perspective, Europeans become fiercely nationalistic where sports are concerned. At the Eroica, Italians ride Italian bikes, French ride French, Dutch ride Dutch. While the English have plenty of choices, Americans can join the fray with one of the old school framebuilders like Gordon, Weigle or Sachs. But all of their bikes are highly prized (read: expensive). The early Trek road bikes were made with care and are reasonably priced, though people are starting to catch on. Medici is another tip, it’s also a good story – Google it. Unfortunately, I’m not well informed about Canadian or Australian makes, though I have heard of CCMs/Mariposas/Marinonis and Malverns.
This TREK even lets you know where it’s from… (more about this later)
Tip: Buy More Than You Need
Finding and buying vintage cables, chains, freewheels, brake pads and other little parts to maintain/service your ride start to add up. When searching flea markets and garage sales, it’s a good thing to buy a bike or two that you won’t ride, as long as they’re in good condition and they’re cheap. Use the parts that you need and sell or trade the rest. Remember, it is always cheaper to buy whole bikes than just a frame and all of the parts separately, though hunting around is part of the fun.
Tip: Befriend Your Local Bike Shop
In the Internet Age where online deals abound, this might seem like counter intuitive advice for a CheapOh. However, a good relationship with a competent (read: one that’s been around at least 15 years) shop has numerous benefits that often outweigh the added costs. Usually they’ll have some odd, hard to find spares or little bolts or whatnot. Or they’ve rebuilt that hub that’s overwhelming you. Or they’ll pass along some trade-ins – I’ve bought a couple vintage bikes through such referrals. Also, through their relationships with distributors, it’s possible to find discontinued and discounted old stock. So treat the guys at the IBD well, develop a relationship and give them some of your business every now and then – even though you could get these things a bit cheaper online.
Case Study 1: Ciclo Piave
This is one of the greatest bikes that you’ve probably never heard of. This early 70’s Ciclo Piave was made with great care and flare by Agusto Michelin in S. Lucia di Piave, near Treviso. These bikes, in very limited numbers, rarely left the region. But most importantly, the Piave rides like a dream. Really. It easily compares to any modern ride, the handling is that good. It feels like you are dug into the road, a feeling that many carbon bikes can’t replicate. Now let’s check the boxes to see how this bike fits into our tips.
Bought Locally: yes, an ad in a local paper
Gruppo as Pointer: check, a complete Nuovo Record gruppo with all date codes from 1973
Did my Homework: well, not really. I’d never heard of this brand before I saw the bike. But afterwards I learned that Piaves were popular with racers from a certain club in my city in the late 60’s because they were considered “modern”. Cyclists went to the officina to custom order their bikes, as is the case with mine, hence minimal decals indicating the brand.
Signs of Quality: Oh yeah. The lug work is exceptional, the chrome is perfect and the paint is original and has plenty of special hand lining.
Condition & Originality: I bought it from the original owner, only the brake hoods, rear 7 speed freewheel, rims and bartape are not correct.
Tubesets: The sticker on the seat tube indicates Columbus SL from the 70’s
Off The Beaten Path: Yep
Older Cheaper: Not really, 70’s bikes are highly valued
Or Go Newer: NA
Reigning Nationalism: NA
Buy More Than You Need: NA
Befriend Your Local Bikeshop: This bike was complete and in good working condition. However, the owner had substituted clincher rims in the mid 80’s – as many did. I’m sure that I could find the right kind of tubular rims if I asked one of the shops here nicely.
Case Study 2: TREK 670
Finding cool bikes in Italy isn’t that hard. So for this report, I wanted to find a something in the States. I had been diligently searching Craigslist for my city and also others nearby for a few months prior to my Christmas visit. Although I wanted a Trek, Raleighs were also on my list. Since I’m from Houston, I am always on the prowl for Romics (anybody got a 55cm?). Upon arrival, as luck would have it, I found a Trek 670. Regardless of your feelings about Trek’s 800 pound gorilla status, it did start out business creating nice steel bikes. Especially their 70’s road and touring bikes were made with traditional, artisan touches. By the early 80’s (mine is from 1985) Trek had developed a series of clever shortcuts in the lugs and drop outs that allowed for easier and greater production – some of it automated. Although these 80’s Treks take a page from Old World racing bikes, they are very much American. The clean, rational design is utilitarian, which in my opinion, adds to its charm.
Bought Locally: Craigslist
Gruppo as Pointer: yes, mostly Nuovo Record gruppo – however, by 1985 this gruppo was considered dated (it would be its last year). Also, some cheaper stuff like Modolo brakes and levers were included
Did my Homework: yes, thanks to this wonderful Trek specific site
Signs of Quality: These were well built machines. The 670 is completely original and in excellent condition with just a tiny ding on the top tube.
Condition & Originality: I bought it from a friend of the original owner that never rode it. Everything is period correct.
Tubesets: The sticker on the seat tube indicates Reynolds 531 butted tubing, quite nice
Off The Beaten Path: yes
Older Cheaper: not really, it’s an 80’s bike, but pretty much off most collectors’ radars
Or Go Newer: NA
Reigning Nationalism: oh yeah, but I’ve loaned it to a very grateful friend for a bit, so it won’t be racing the Eroica this year
Buy More Than You Need: NA
Befriend Your Local Bikeshop: NA, though I’m considering upgrading the other components to Campagnolo.
Now Get Moving
It’s not that hard to find a cool vintage bike if you’re willing to spend top dollar, figure $2,500. But where’s the challenge in that? Also, its inherent desirability would most likely discourage you from using it. So, where’s the fun in that? By following our CheapOh tips, you should easily find something eligible for vintage races, something interesting and most importantly, something fun for less than $500. Just be patient, keep your eyes open and something will come along. Happy hunting!