I used to go to bicycle trade shows all the time, starting with Britain’s Cycle Show at Earls Court, London, back in the 1960s. One year, I even competed in a criterium around the perimeter of the exhibition hall—which proves that expo-connected races like Cross Vegas are nothing new! My first show as a journalist was in Paris, in 1969, when I stopped off on my way to cover Italy’s Tour of Lombardy for International Cycle Sport.
The first U.S. bike show I attended was in 1975, in New York, which I covered for Bob Anderson’s Bike World magazine. To illustrate the article, I sketched some of the newest components à la Daniel Rebour (though not quite up to that French master’s immaculate standards!). And from the 1980s onward, first for Cyclist Monthly and Winning magazine, then VeloNews, I followed the various major trade shows around the world from London to Long Beach, Milan to Madrid, and Anaheim to Vegas.
It’s been a few years since I last went to a show in Las Vegas, but I don’t miss walking the aisles, sidestepping the hawkers on The Strip or dining on the faux Grand Canal at The Venetian. This week, as the latest electric bikes and electronic shifters are being unveiled at Interbike, I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the oldest machine in my bike shed.
It’s an aluminum-framed Vitus, circa 1986, festooned with Mavic decals, which I acquired from then Mavic USA president Art Wester (who’s now retired and living in Florida when he’s not touring the country in his Airstream). It was one of the bikes that used to sit atop Mavic neutral service cars following all the major U.S. bike races. As a spare machine, my Vitus was comparable with bikes ridden by American pros on the 7-Eleven, Levi’s-Look and Schwinn-Icy Hot teams. In other words, it was state of the art 25 years ago.
I’m not going to attempt making a Rebour-type sketch of my battle-scarred Vitus’; I’ll just make do with a shot with my un-smart mobile phone. As I hope you can see, the frame is made from Vitus 979 Dural tubing. It’s equipped with a full Mavic S.S.C gruppo, including chainset, six-speed cassette, derailleurs, stem, bars, seatpost and caliper brakes — although the front brake was replaced at some point with a Campagnolo side-pull model.
The bike has a Mavic MA40 wheelset, along with Specialized Tri-Cross tires that were fitted later, ALE toe clips with Bierreci leather toe straps, a Vetta leather-covered plastic saddle and a Paramount bottle cage. This is what we raced on before carbon fibers took over the industry, before clipless pedals became standard, and before cassettes had double the number of sprockets.
When I first took my resurrected bike for a ride earlier this month, I couldn’t believe that this was almost the identical machine on which Sean Kelly won some 200 pro career victories including a dozen classics, seven editions of Paris-Nice, four green jerseys at the Tour de France, the Vuelta a España, et cetera, et cetera. Because it was a service-course bike set up for racing, we can assume that the 52-42 chainrings and 12-22 cassette were pretty standard back then. Today’s pros would probably have a heart attack having to “make do” with such widely spaced gear ratios on a bike that is some 30-percent heavier than they’re used to riding.
Not only that, but after using a modern feather-light carbon frameset, fitted with smoothly operating, integrated brake/gear shifters, an 11-speed cassette and 53-39 chainrings, the 1980s-equipped Vitus is prehistoric in comparison. The rides I’ve been taking on it have been on almost flat terrain. The gearing works fine (once you’ve mastered the friction-shift, down-tube levers, which need moving slightly after shifting to prevent the chain rubbing on the front derailleur. But when I hit an unexpectedly steep (and thankfully short!) 10-percent grade, I had to zigzag across the road to make it to the top on the 42x22 combo, while the rear derailleur threatened to eat up a few spokes!
In some respects, the Vitus isn’t much different from the steel bikes I raced in the early 1960s—showing that technical improvements from then till the late ’80s was minimal, while the 25 years since then have brought bikes into the space age (both technically and price-wise!). But whether you’re riding a steel, aluminum or carbon-fiber bike, you always get the thrill of pedaling along country roads, feeling the breeze on your face, and seeing the world from the saddle as you flash by fields, forests and farms.
Just remember those feelings when you’re stuck walking the aisles in a cavernous, air-conditioned expo hall at yet another trade show.
I’m going for a ride right now.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson