What are the differences between modern and retro road bicycles?
For the past 20 years I have ridden a mix of modern road bicycles with frames built from either aluminium or carbon fibre and finished with Shimano components of different price points. As my interest in the sport grew, so did the cost of the bikes.
This is my current road bike, a 2014 Cervelo R5 equipped with a mechanical Dura-ace 9000 series groupset, rim brakes and a nice set of Campagnolo Bora One 50 carbon clincher wheels. When I bought this bike, it was considered a professional level race bike at the time. Five years later, it still is a fantastic bike and I love riding it.
So why would I consider buying a retro racing bike from the 1980’s?
Well, up until a few years ago I had NO interest in steel bikes or anything vintage for that matter. However, I apparently reached an age where I felt that I needed a ‘restoration project’ to work on. You know.. some guys buy that vintage car that NEVER gets restored. I don’t have the knowledge, space or tools to restore a vintage car, so I decided to stick with what I know and build up a vintage bike instead. After spending months learning the various component standards of ‘the past’ and even more time scouring Ebay to order every single part, I was able to build this professional level race bike from the mid 1980’s.
What I ended up with was this beautiful 1984 Colnago Master in original Saronni red paint complete with lots of new old stock 1980’s Campagnolo Super Record components and Mavic Open Pro rims. I avoided the tubular rims as I wanted to be able to ride this bike without the need for a Molteni team car (even though that would be nice!).
What is the Colnago Master like to ride?
Special, nostalgic and surprising. Being an all Italian bike (excluding a few parts), when I ride it, it feels like I have taken a classic old Ferrari out for a spin. Sometimes I imagine myself as Eddy Merckx in an old video clip of the Tour de France. Even though this bike is 35 years old, the Colnago travels much quicker on the flats than I expected. During the first few rides, I was looking at the speed on the computer and decided to double-check the wheel setting I had entered was correct. Surely I couldn’t ride this fast on an old bike? The setting I had entered was correct, but still not convinced, I tested the readout on this computer against my Garmin GPS but the speed was accurate. On the flats, the Colnago is NOT much slower than my Cervelo (which features all the aero kit). Perhaps the air diffusing brake cables protruding above the handle bars on the Colnago were an aero masterstroke of the era? Probably not, but having a lower cockpit on the Colnago would save a few extra watts.
When you ride a race bike from the 80’s, you quickly notice the many differences to a modern race bike. In addition, having built-up the bike from scratch, it makes you realise just how much bicycle components have changed over the past 35 years.
So what has changed over time?
Modern bike: front gears are 52t-36t (2 chainrings), rear cassette is 11t-25t (11 cogs). Retro bike: front gears are 52t-42t (2 chainrings), rear freewheel is 12t-19t (6 cogs) or 14t-24t (6 cogs). I have 2 different freewheels.
The standard gearing of retro racing bikes is considerably different to gearing fitted on modern bikes. As you can see a standard vintage gear configuration of 52t-42t chainrings means that the small chainring is still big for climbing. Having only 6 cogs on the rear means you either have a reduced range of gears or incur larger steps between gears. I first fitted the Colnago with a 14t-24t freewheel, but it didn’t have any high gears for speed on the flats, so I changed the freewheel to a 12t-19t. On the front, the 42t chainring is perfect for headwinds or an emergeny gear down if the traffic lights suddenly change.
The Cervelo features a fantastic spread of gear ratios, as well as a relatively close increments between the gears. You can sprint flat out or ride up a big climb without needing to change a part. WIN for Modern bikes.
Modern bike: mechanical STI levers using cables. Retro bike: mechanical friction shift levers using cables.
One of the biggest differences to riding a retro bike is changing gears using friction levers ie. no indexed shifting! It is like going from a Formula 1 paddle shift to a worn-out manual gear box. The shifting experience is world’s apart. Modern bikes are a massive improvement. However, like anything, with a bit of practice you will be really surprise at how accurately and quickly you can change gears using friction levers. The important thing is to plan well ahead and change early before the pressure is on. Also it pays to be a bit more crafty and use your leg cadence to avoid a gear change; by pedalling faster on a short decline or get out of the saddle to climb a small incline.
Cable routing has also changed considerably. On the Cervelo, the gear cables travel from the handlebars, down inside the down tube and out the bottom bracket where they move over a nice slippery plastic cable guide and onto the derailleurs. On the retro bike, the gear cables travel (externally) a shorter distance to the underside of the bottom bracket, however there is no slippery nylon cable guide here, the steel cables travel straight over the paintwork and quickly wear a groove in the paint and begin years of eating a groove into the steel frame. Not the smoothest (or quietest) shifting experience. One quick fix is run the cables through 2 small pieces of plastic tubing just under the bottom bracket as shown in the image above. WIN for Modern bikes.
Modern bike: less aggressive (higher) front-end, faster steering. Retro bike: lower more aggressive front-end, more stable.
Obviously there are many different types of modern frame geometries you can buy from a super aggressive low front-end race machine to an upright endurance bike, so these observations are a direct comparison between my Cervelo and the Colnago. When the Cervelo R5 was released, it copped a bit of criticism from some riders in regards to the 13mm taller head tube (173mm vs 160mm) when compared with a regular 56cm frame. However, this taller geometry suits me. I don’t need to use a stack of spacers to get a comfortable position. I also like to ride in the drops a lot, so I didn’t want the front end too low.
The Colnago feels to have a slightly lower front end (even with the quill stem raised to the maximum height) which gives it a bit more aggressive riding position, but as I do shorter rides on this bike, it’s not a problem. The Colnago also has a more stable handling geometry. You can ride it without hands on the bars – easily. It requires a bit more work through the corners. The Cervelo is a typical fast steering modern race bike with short chainstays. It is more unstable when riding without hands on the bars and changes direction with hardly any effort. I like them both, but you just have to be mindful when jumping back onto the Colnago when hitting the bends again.
Interestingly the Colnago only features 1 set of bottle cage bosses on the down tube, so you can only take 1 bottle on the ride whereas modern bikes have capacity to carry 2 drink bottles. I’m not sure who came up with the idea of a second drink bottle cage, but it was a good idea in my opinion. One drink bottle is good for about an hour of riding in most conditions, beyond that you will need either a team car or more likely to pull over and fill it up. This proves a good opportunity to have a break and strike up a conversation with any curious bystanders. NO WINNER – Depends on your own individual needs!
Modern bike: thicker handle bars, thicker & flatter brake hoods. Retro bike: narrow bars & narrow curved brake hoods.
Without a doubt the modern Shimano Dura-ace hoods are hugely more comfortable than the vintage Campagnolo Super Record brake hoods. In fact on the Colnago, I dont ride the hoods very much. I warm-up on the tops and ride the drops. I set the brake lever position on the Colnago ‘old school’ which means the brake hoods are located closer to the the middle of the bend on the handle bar which positions the hoods further away from you and in a lower position relative to the modern Shimano levers which sit closer to you and higher up the 3T Ergonova bar. The modern Shimano hoods also have a nice long flat section on the top. That’s not to say you can’t re-position the vintage brake levers differently on the bars or rotate the bars to angle the levers higher. It would make the cockpit more comfortable, but the aesthetic would suffer. WIN for modern bikes – better comfort in any position on the bars.
Modern bike: sloping 56cm top tube frame. Retro bike: traditional horizontal 56cm top tube frame.
Modern road bikes feature a sloping top tube frame (compact) whereas the retro bike features a traditional horizontal top tube frame. Both of these frames have an effective horizontal top tube length of 56cm, but looking at the 2 photos above, you can see the extra height of the seat post of the compact frame (Cervelo). The advantage of a compact frame design is that it provides a much greater amount of stand-over clearance. I have no problems positioning my body relative to the bottom bracket for pedalling on either of these frames, but stand-over clearance is a determining factor when selecting the correct frame size of retro frame. As mentioned previously, the Colnago has a shorter head tube which provides a lower front-end. A couple of points of interest.
1. The Colnago is fitted with a standard length Campagnolo Super Record seat post (they made a shorter one also) and yet it only has 10mm of extension left, so if you wanted to go ‘pro’ and buy a frame one size down, you may run-out of seat post.
2. Due to the brake hoods being positioned further forward and lower on the handle bars, I fitted a shorter stem on the Colnago to give me a similar riding position when holding the hoods on both bikes. The consequence of this being the tops of the handle bars are closer to me on the Colnago, but using the hoods and drops of the bars feel the same on both bikes. This fit issue is not related to the frame design, just the traditional placement of the brake levers on the handle bars. WIN for the Modern bikes – compact frame geometry allows more people to fit standard frame sizes.
Modern bike: 50mm profile carbon fibre clinchers. Retro bike: 15mm profile alloy clinchers.
The Colnago features Campagnolo Record hubs with vintage Mavic Open Pro rims, but I built the wheels with modern DT Swiss double butted round spokes. The reuslt is a wheelset weighing a very respectable 1590gms, only slightly heavier than the Campagnolo Bora One wheelset. Both wheelsets are excellent with nice stiff spokes. There’s no noticable lateral play in either. Obviously the Campagnolo wheels have an aero advantage, but are also noisy on the road and affected by cross-winds. The vintage wheels are dead quiet on the road and very relaxed in cross-winds. I personally like a quiet freehub when coasting and both wheelsets are stealthy. The Regina freewheel on the vintage bike has a really subtle tick when coasting, just like a fine swiss watch.
I have fitted premium quality race tyres on both of these bikes. The Colnago is fitted with modern Veloflex Master 23mm tyres. The Cervelo is fitted with Continental GP4000S II 25mm tyres. Both these tyres feature high threads per inch and provide a smooth grippy ride. The Continentals have amazing durability and puncture protection, the Veloflex have a much thinner tread, so I expect lower durability and less puncture protection. Thankfully I haven’t had a puncture on them yet. I bought the Veloflex because they are; 1. Italian and 2. have the required tan side wall! Interestingly Veloflex do not recommend the tyres be used on carbon rims.
WIN for the Modern wheels based on weight and aero benefits. WIN for Retro wheels based on lack of road noise and lack of crosswind impact on steering.
Modern bike: dual pivot caliper brakes. Retro bike: single pivot caliper brakes.
There is a significant design difference between retro and modern brake calipers. Retro bikes use single pivot calipers whilst modern bikes use dual pivot calipers. Dual pivot calipers definitely generate more braking power, but I believe the pads need to be properly centered to the rim, otherwise the braking can feel a bit pulsey, similar to if the wheel were out of true. Single pivot calipers don’t need the pads to be as accurately centered to the rim to achieve a smooth braking feel.
The modern bike has more powerful braking in the dry (even with carbon rims). No real surprises here. Modulation or feel of the brakes isn’t massively different. You just need to allow a bit more stopping distance for the Colnago. However, this is not a completely fair comparison as the Colnago has original (and probably very old) brake pads fitted, so no doubt the brake pads are harder and less grippy than when they were when new. The Campagnolo Super Record brake calipers were new-old-stock and the springs are very firm in comparison to the Shimano brakes. Braking when riding on the hoods on the Colnago is much less effective than braking on the hoods using the Shimano brake levers. Braking in the drops gives you the best stopping power on both bikes.
From a design perspective, these old Campagnolo Super Record calipers do not support a toe-in adjustment for the pads, so originally they squealed when stopping. I didn’t want to swap the brake shoes over to modern designs that allow a toe-in adjustment, so after a bit of research, I did performed a procedure that all mechanics apparently did back in the day and that was take 2 adjustable wrenches and GENTLY (at first) physically bend the caliper arms to give the pads a small amount of toe-in. Scary I know. But those caliper arms are very sturdy. It took a bit more force than I expected to get that few degrees of bend to provide a small amount of toe-in. Thankfully this adjustment was only required on the front brake caliper, I didn’t need to touch the rear one. Similarly, when I first bought the Campagnolo Bora One rims, I set the pads up without any toe-in and they squealed even worse! This was fixed simply by adjusting the pad toe-in with the use of the included conical washer. No bending of caliper arms required. A nice feature of modern brake shoes.
I can’t compare the wet braking as I don’t ride the Colnago in bad weather. It’s a fair weather ride! WIN for the Modern bike.
This is probably the most subjective part of this comparison. I often read bike reviewers proclaiming how a steel frame makes for a plush ride and that steel frames don’t have the stiffness of other frame materials like aluminium or carbon. I also often read that whilst carbon bikes are stiffer, the carbon helps soak up road buzz. So after riding the Cervelo for several years, I figured that the Colnago may feel like a plush recliner, maybe even a little spongy on the pedals or flexy in the corners. Well, quite simply.. NO it doesn’t. It feels perfectly stiff under my 82kg weight cornering and getting my power through the pedals. The extra frame weight wouldn’t help in the climbs but it does help to hold speed downhill and on the flats. Surprisingly, you feel the bumps pretty much the same on both bikes in my opinion. So why is that? Here are my thoughts…
- A good stiff pair of wheels will make a frame feel stiff and lively. They also reduce the likelihood of brake rub in the corners.
- Tyres massively affect ride quality of a road bike, specifically air pressure and air volume.
- Noises coming from the bike when riding like; creaking, clicking and rattling can also affect your perception of stiffness and ride quality.
The main reason I believe these bikes feel smiliar on the road is because the Cervelo is equipped with modern wide rims that fit wider (25mm) tyres which require lower air pressure (90psi and I often ridden with less). The Colnago is equipped with narrow rims that fit narrower (23mm) types which require a higher minimum inflation pressure of 100psi (according to Veloflex). Quite simply, more air pressure and less volume makes for a bumpier ride. Any comfort benefits coming from that steel frame are being eroded by the higher tyre pressure required for these wheels.
In regards to noises, both of these bikes are quiet. I work hard to eliminate any clicks, creaks or rattles. The only noise from the Cervelo is the hum of the carbon rims. The alloy rims on the Colnago however are dead quite making it seem like the Colnago is a smoother ride than the Cervelo on smooth sections of tarmac. I try to avoid bumps riding both bikes.
Drop-outs, headsets & stems
- Colnago frame features inward facing horizontal dropouts. These give you the flexibility to easily convert to a fixed wheel or single speed set-up, but they are more fiddly to insert or remove the rear wheel. Also, if the quick release is not really tight, the chain can pull the rear wheel out of alignment and it will rub on the inside of the left chain stay. On the Colnago, I need to rotate the rear derailleur back and out of the way to remove or replace the wheel. If you just want to use the bike with a rear derailleur, the drop-outs on modern bikes are the better design in my opinion.
- Steel quick release levers don’t grip as well on steel frames. You need to tighten the levers much firmer than on modern bikes to ensure that (a) the back wheel is pulled out of alignment and (b) the front wheel doesnt fall out of the forks as there are no lawyer tabs on the front forks.
- Modern threadless headsets and clamp on stems are quite simply a brilliant design when compared with retro threaded headsets with a quill stems. The main advantages of the retro design is that if you need to raise or lower the stem, you do not need to re-tension the headset (and the forks don’t fall out of the frame). Having said that, it is very quick and easy to re-tension a modern headset. Both retro and modern designs require the fork steerer to be cut to a certain height determined by the number of spacers you want to fit in the headset. Both designs allow movement of the stem up and down the steerer.
The 3ttt Record 84 stem used in the Colnago is way more difficult to remove than a modern stem. This stem features a conical wedge that is pulled up into the stem as you tighten the stem bolt. This wedge effectively pushes the sides of the stem into the steerer to lock the stem in place. To force the wedge out of the stem so you can adjust or remove it, you need to loosen the stem bolt a little then gently tap on the stem bolt to push the wedge down and repeat until the wedge is forced out of the stem. The retro stems look elegant, but are more fiddly to work with (in my opinion).
Bottom brackets (BB) are a very contentious topic for any cycling enthusiast. The majority of modern carbon fibre fames are designed to use some variant of a press-fit bottom bracket, whilst older bike frames are designed to use a threaded bottom bracket (with some exceptions). There will always be ongoing debate over which system is better. They each have advantages and disadvantages and everyone has their own preference based on their experiences with this component.
Undoubtedly the number one complaint about press fit bottom brackets is creaking. Whilst a press fit BB is a logical design for a carbon fibre frame (ie. not having to add a threaded shell to the BB area of the frame), the BB shell of a carbon frame must be manufactured to tight tolerances to ensure a snug fit for the BB cups and then the BB must be installed correctly. If these two criteria are not met, you will probably experience problems.
Additionally, press fit bearings are far more difficult to remove (commonly needing the use of a hammer) and then you need a press tool to fit the new BB parts. With the Cervelo, I had problems with noise from the Rotor cranks and subsequently replaced them with Shimano Dura-ace 9000 cranks to complete the groupset. I also replaced the press fit BB with a BBInfinite system and it hasn’t made a noise for years now. In summary, my experience with a regular press fit bottom bracket wasn’t great. I hate noises coming from my bikes.
In contrast, threaded BB’s are far easier to remove and replace and are a perfect option for any frame material that you can cut threads into ie. steel, alloy & titanium. The manufacturer of the frame must ensure the threads are cut accurately on both sides to ensure correct axle alignment with the bearings. This retro threaded Campagnolo Record bottom bracket shown above positions the bearings inside the BB shell of the frame. Newer generations of threaded BB’s position the cups and bearings outside the BB shell of the frame which resulted in less weight, better durability and extra stiffness at the cranks.
I’ve always had positive experiences with threaded BB’s in my bikes. This retro threaded Campagnolo Record BB fitted in the Colnago is no exception. Interestingly, old Italian steel frames like the Colnago feature an Italian BB threading so the drive side cup is tightened clockwise. This may sound logical, but the pedalling action can cause this cup to come loose, so you need to make sure this cup is either on very tight or use a thread locker. I applied some Loctite to this cup and tightened it firmly (but not ridiculously tight) and it hasn’t moved. A little trick I use is to mark the this cup and frame with a black Sharpie, then if the cup starts to come loose, these marks will no longer align. This eliminates any guesswork as to the tightness of the cup.
WIN Retro bottom bracket for ease of maintenance and a quiet ride.
WIN Modern bottom bracket for reduced weight and extra stiffness at the cranks. In my opinion, if you don’t service your bike and your press fit BB doesn’t creak, that is the ultimate set-up. If the pressfit BB on your bike creaks, check out BBinfinite.com.
Traditionally the retro bike would be fitted with a nice set of flat pedals with toe clips with buckles. As I like to ride the Colnago regularly, I decided to fit a set of modern Shimano Ultegra clipless pedals. Whilst I do own a set of retro pedals and toe clips, I haven’t used them, I only bought them to complete the bike. There are some positives and negatives for both retro and modern pedal designs. Clipless pedals are a Win for Modern Bike when riding it, not so much when walking with cleats on your shoes.
As we all know beauty is in the eye of the beholder thereby subject to opinion. For me, the Colnago Master is a show-stopper. Those beautiful Campagnolo silver parts, glossy red metallic paint with chrome plated tubes etc. I just love looking at it, the amazing Italian craftsmanship. By comparison the Cervelo is a futuristic stealth machine designed to get you from A to B as efficiently and quickly as possible, but it just doesn’t have the same WOW factor. Win for Retro Bike.
Modern bikes are generally fitted with a computer (typically a GPS unit) to measure speed, distance, time etc. My Garmin also includes maps and turn-by-turn directions. If you don’t have a bike computer, you can use a smart phone and apps like Strava to record your rides. The use of power meters is also gaining popularity as a training tool.
Whilst these gadgets were not available back in the 1980’s, it isn’t a problem today because many of these devices can be easily retro-fitted to a retro bike! Things like power meter pedals, computers and GPS units can be added no problem. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the first cyclometer was invented way back in 1895 and was capable of measuring miles travelled.
Based on everything you have read, it may seem that a modern bike is easily the outright winner. Well, yes it is, but if you can afford the luxury of owning a retro race bike. DO IT! I love riding this bike. It’s got loads of personality and is so different to ride compared with a modern bike, plus it makes me a better rider. It is so beautiful to admire the craftsmanship of the frame and parts from a bygone era in cycling history. It is certainly a talking point out on the road and you will meet many a fellow rider expressing their admiration for such an object of beauty. Unlike modern bikes, a collectible retro bike will also appreciate in value over the years. Think of it as an investment.
Please feel free to leave your own comments below. Remember this article is purely based on my own opinions as the proud owner, mechanic and rider of both these wonderful bicycles.