When Aluminum Was Like Gold

Further to my last post, I’ve been testing these shoes:

On this bike:

[1989 Trek 1200, The World’s Most Adequate Road Bike]

Since that post, I’ve ridden in the shoes several more times, and they’re only getting more comfortable. In fact, I no longer even notice them, so the only question at this point is how long they last. So if you’re in the market for an inexpensive and completely non-exotic exotic pair of road bike shoes, rest assured I’ll keep you apprised.

Also, on that same ride I was getting a pinging sound I eventually tracked down to the spokes, some of which were undertensioned and consequently rubbing. So I went at the wheels with a spoke tension meter and everything, and I’m pleased to report the bike is now running silently. You’ll also see I’ve reverted to 23mm tires and a period-correct Avocet saddle, both of which are a bit more true to the bike’s spirit than the 28mm Paselas and Brooks saddle I was using for awhile. When you already have two exquisite Rivendells, there’s no reason to turn your other bikes into half-assed Rivendells; just let them be what they want to be.

While an utterly ordinary and arguably dull bicycle, the Trek holds special significance for me because it’s the only bike I’ve ever owned twice–once back in the heady ’90s, then again when one turned up in the Classic Cycle bargain bin, same model and color and everything. Then as now, I enjoy its competent ride quality and utilitarian aesthetic–it looks less like a bike you’d seek out and more like one you’d be issued after you’ve enlisted in some sort of uniformed service. Also then as now, the bike is positively ubiquitous, making it an easy bike to own twice, as opposed to the fancy Italian race bike you once owned and foolishly sold and are now trying to recreate in your golden years at considerable expense.

The best thing about old bikes is riding them, but another fun thing is reading the contemporary reviews and seeing how much things have changed–or, in some cases, haven’t. I did that with the Kestrel, and recently I dug up some old reviews of bonded Treks, which still live on Internet forums:

[From here.]

My Trek is the more affordable descendant of the Trek 2000, which was a big deal when it came out back in 1985:

Back then, aluminum was still kind of exotic. It was also in a transitional period as far as its reputation, which was shifting from it being considered floppy and bendy to it being considered overly stiff. This was because bikes from older Euro companies like Vitus and Alan were floppy and bendy, while bikes from newer companies like Cannondale and Klein were stiff:

The idea behind the Trek was that it would ride more like a steel bike while weighing less, have more classical tube proportions than welded aluminum frames, and be stronger than them to boot:

Naturally, Bicycle Guide declared that they had succeeded:

Interestingly they attribute much of the bike’s ride quality to the aluminum fork. Today people assume aluminum forks are harsh and that if you don’t use one made of crabon you’ll die of shaken roadie syndrome, but it’s clear from the review that back then the notion was they were smoother than steel ones. Funny how things change. Regardless, while the fork may or may not have helped, the full-page Trek ad couldn’t have hurt much either:

Though I’m quite fond of my own bonded Trek, and the fact that there are still tons of them out there today would seem to speak to their durability, so I’m reluctant to impugn Bicycle Guide’s integrity.

Here’s another review, this one featuring a Trek 1200 and some other bikes, and written by the same person who reviewed the Kestrel:

[From here.]

Cannondale had already acquired a reputation for harsh-riding bikes, and by way of countering that someone clearly decided, “Let’s make it pink.” Also, today everyone’s pushing plush and relaxed, but for this model year Cannondale jacked up the head tube angle to 74.25 degrees:

Another common thread in these reviews is how the [insert insanely high tire pressure] clinchers aren’t compliant enough. Oddly it was perfectly fine to ride a pink bike–and to wear Adidas aftershave–yet it would be at least 20 more years before riding 25mm tires was no longer considered a complete and total surrender of your masculinity:

Pink notwithstanding, the Cannondale scored low in the “comfort” category on Bicycling’s highly scientific chart:

Next up was the Trek:

I can attest that the Trek 1200 absolutely, as the review notes, “goes where you point it.” (This is of course a meaningless phrase, and is usually followed by something similarly meaningless like “the fork tracks accurately.”) Note also the commentary on the gearing:

In 1987 a 40×24 low gear was considered almost a “granny;” now you won’t even find a race bike geared that high.

Today Cannondale and Trek retain their positions at the top of the American bike company food chain, even if Cannondale is owned by a big bike conglomerate. Meanwhile, these days you’ll find Nishikis at Dick’s Sporting Goods–but back then they were at the forefront of the aluminum arms race:

To my limited knowledge this is the most subtle aluminum bike road ever made, inasmuch as it has the proportions of a steel bike. The review notes “the magic of aluminum,” claiming “it damps instead of resonates,” though it also notes the “harsh-riding 120-psi” (!) tires:

You’ll also note that in all the gear spread charts the big ring/big cog and small ring/small cog combos are “X”ed out, since the idea of riding crossed-over was so deeply offensive back then it could not even be acknowledged as a possibility in polite society.

Over the past 40 years, the prevailing performance road bike material went from steel, to aluminum, to crabon. (And please don’t mention titanium; I said prevailing–titanium has never been common, it remains the rarefied domain of people want to feel special and who delude themselves into thinking it’s the last bike they’ll ever buy.) However, along the way, certain non-committal bike companies have attempted to cash in on both without fully committing to either. (I’m not counting early crabon bikes with aluminum lugs, since that’s just how they did crabon in those days.) For example, remember when they used to stick crabon rear ends on aluminum bikes?

It added weight and they charged more for it, but people believed it somehow smoothed out the ride.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the finger-in-every-pie bike was this half-crabon, half-aluminum monstrosity:

I’m ashamed to say I actually owned one as it was our “team bike” at the time, and it started coming apart at the headtube in relatively short order, due to what I assume was “galvanic corrosion.” (Also, some bikes look ugly now but were cool then; this bike was never cool, it was always ugly.)

In any case, the Mangusta prefigured all these bikes by being an aluminum bike with a steel rear triangle, presumably to lower the price:

Yes, aluminum was so exotic in those days it was an unthinkable luxury to have a bike made entirely of it. And yes, a 26-tooth cog puts this squarely in “non-competitor” territory by contemporary standards:

The Mangusta was $470 in 1987, and you can own one for just $15 more than that today:

Still has the pie plate and everything.

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