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Guide to Upgrading your Bicycle--Economics: Costs and Investment



As I stated in the Introduction, the primary focus of this guide is on dropped- handlebar, derailleur bicycles that are equipped with 10 to 21 speeds—the type of bikes commonly referred to as “10-speeds.” But, since not all 10-speed bikes are created equal, before we can seriously begin talking about “upgrading,” we have to define what is worth upgrading and what isn’t.

Broadly speaking, 10-speed bikes can be divided into four quality-price categories:

  • • Gaspipe quality, less than $250.
  • • Standard quality, $250 to $550.
  • • Good quality, $550 to 9800.
  • • Top quality, $900 and up.

The price ranges are approximate and are based on 2011 dollar-to-yen conversion rates. The bicycle market has sailed through many crosscurrents in the last decade. At the low end, prices have stayed low because of competition, automation, and the shift of production to lower-wage countries like Taiwan. At the upper end, the decline in the value of the dollar since 1985 has pushed up the price of good-quality imported bicycles. The price of top-quality models has increased even more because they take so much hand labor to produce.

During the course of the last decade, the overall quality of bicycle frames and components has improved significantly, especially at the standard- and good-quality levels. Today’s $200 standard-quality bicycle has better wheels, better components, and a stronger, lighter frame than a good-quality bicycle that cost $200 ten years ago.

Part of army training is an exercise called “naming the parts.” You learn to name all of the different parts of your rifle, for example, and you shout them out on command. Fig 1 names all of the parts of the bicycle. If I use an unfamiliar term in my description of bicycle components, most likely you’ll find it there.

Gaspipe-Quality Bicycles

Gaspipe is a derogatory term and it’s meant to be. These are the lowest- priced and the lowest-quality 10-speeds available. The name is derived from the frame construction. Gaspipe frames are welded together from thick, seamed, low-carbon steel tubes—the same material used for water and gas pipes. Gaspipe bicycles are sold through department stores, discount houses, and automobile supply stores. Better-quality bicycles are sold through bicycle stores. Until the early 1980s, almost all gaspipe bicycles sold in the USA were made by four companies: Murray, Huffy, Roadmaster, and Ross.

In 1985, Taiwan’s excess bicycle production capacity led to severe price cutting. Taiwanese 10-speeds were leaving the factories for less than $20 apiece. Some of these inexpensive Taiwanese bicycles have lugged and brazed frames, but they’re still gaspipe quality.

The American factories that churn out gaspipe bicycles by the millions (literally) are models of automation and efficiency, but they’re finding it difficult to withstand the intense competition from Taiwan. Ross no longer makes gaspipe bicycles. Huffy, Murray, and Roadmaster are currently lobbying for a tariff on all imported bicycles and components.

Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t buy either an American or a Taiwanese gaspipe bicycle:

• The frames are heavy and they have an unresponsive inert feel.

• The bottom-of-the-line components are heavy, short-lived, and hard to adjust. They often use unique gaspipe-standard threads.

• The steel rims are heavy and stop poorly in the rain.

• Gaspipe bicycles are sold by stores that don’t understand bicycles.

They don’t know how to fit you properly and they don’t provide service.

• Gaspipe bicycles are a headache to maintain and many good bicycle shops won’t work on them. If the shop charges fairly for labor, even a simple overhaul costs more than the bicycle is worth.

It’s poor economics to try to upgrade a gaspipe bicycle. It’s like fixing squeaks on an old car. Each time you upgrade something, another problem shows up. When you’re all finished, you’ve done extra work, spent extra money, but you still have a heavy, poor-handling bicycle. It makes more sense to sell your gaspipe bicycle (though not to a friend) and use the money to buy a ten- year-old, inexpensive Japanese bicycle from a thrift shop. They’re easy to work on because they use standard English-threaded parts. When you finish upgrading one of these bikes, you’ll have something worth keeping.

The exception to the rule on upgrading gaspipe bicycles is replacing parts U they wear out. If you need to buy a new tire, new brake pads, or a new chain, you can afford to spend a few extra dollars to buy good-performing components of this type.

Above: Fig. 1 Naming the parts.

Standard-Quality Bicycles

Standard-quality bikes are the least expensive models sold by bicycle shops. Their frames are made from seamed, low-carbon steel tubing brazed together with lugs. More standard-quality bicycles are sold than all of the higher-priced models combined. Until about five years ago, bicycles in this quality range were made in America by Schwinn, Ross, and Trek or imported from Japan, France, England, or Taiwan. Now, Taiwan dominates the market and virtually every brand name has its Taiwanese low-end models.

Standard-quality bikes are often worth upgrading. However, you should limit what you spend because you won’t get your money back on the resale. For example, it usually doesn’t pay to install new wheels with aluminum (alloy) rims. Many current standard-quality bicycles come with alloy rims; such bikes are better candidates for an upgrade than those equipped with steel rims.

Time-out for terminology. Bicycle components come in many quality levels. The lowest-quality components are stamped out of steel. Higher-quality components are made of aluminum or aluminum alloy. Aluminum components are called “alloy” components in the bicycle literature. This use of the word is different from the metallurgist’s definition. To a metallurgist, alloy means a high-quality steel alloyed with strengthening elements like chromium and molybdenum. Chrome-moly is an alloy steel used in bicycle frames.

Ten years ago, standard-quality bicycles sold for about $300. Generally, they had low-quality components and their gearing was often poorly selected. I used to dread doing the Bicycling road tests on such bikes. We call the current standard-quality bicycles “UJBs” (universal Japanese bicycles), even though they’re mostly made in Taiwan. They have few design goofs and the Shimano, SunTour, Sugino, Sakae, and Dia-Compe low-end components with which they are equipped perform very well. Low-end components wear out more rapidly than higher-priced components because they have lower-quality bearings, but most of them perform quite adequately.

The mail-order catalogs used to show page after page of components to replace the duds that came with standard-quality bicycles. Today’s bicycles are so much better equipped th4lhe aftermarket for components is much smaller and the catalogs are full of clothing and accessories.

Old French standard-quality bicycles from Peugeot, Motobecane, or Gitane are worth upgrading because their frames are made of lightweight straight-gauge tubing. Upgraded, these bicycles will be light, nice handling, and slightly delicate.

There are millions of Schwinn Varsitys and Continentals around. Like the French bikes they’re worth upgrading but for a different reason. Varsitys look like and weigh like gaspipe bicycles but they aren’t. They’re heavy, reliable bicycles for kids or for people who want a sturdy bicycle for short rides. You can afford to spend $60 to replace the original Huret Allvit derailleurs or to install more appropriate freewheel sprockets.

Good-Quality Bicycles

Good-quality bicycles are the hardest to define. They’re better than the standard-quality low-end models and worse than the top-quality models. The $250 to $700 price range is very broad. Defining good-quality bicycles used to be easier. Good-quality bicycles had alloy rims and standard-quality bicycles had steel rims. Now, I walk through the bicycle shows looking at standard- and good-quality bikes, wondering how so much bicycle can sell for so little.

The Japanese makers still dominate this quality level, but the decrease in the value of the dollar has made American-made Cannondale, Raleigh, Schwinn, and Trek bicycles real competitors. Frames are greatly improved because machines can now automatically braze double-butted alloy steel tubing. This quality of tubing used to require hand brazing. The frame on today’s $300 bicycle weighs a pound or two less than it did five years ago. The decals on a lot of good-quality bike frames say Reynolds 501, Mangaloy, VALite, or Cr-Mo, while many of the large Japanese bicycle manufacturers now have facilities to make their own butted tubing. Cannondale, Raleigh, and Trek offer aluminum- framed bicycles in this price range.


above: A 1979 Schwinn World Sport. Can be a good deal in the used marketplace (Check: Craig's List or ebay)

More terminology. Butting is a process for making tubing walls thicker at the ends where they’re joined than in the mid-sections where they are less subject to stress. Butted tubes are stronger and lighter than straight-gauge tubes. Double-butted tubes are butted at both ends. Triple- and quad-butted tubes have their thickness expanded in stages I suspect that anything more than double butting is just advertising pizzazz.

Good-quality bicycles use good-quality, all-alloy components, which often work a bit better and always last longer than low-end components. The component makers provide numerous lines of components to the bicycle makers. Each line is designed to fit into a particular marketing niche. For example, Shimano sells eight racing rear derailleurs: Skylark, Z501, 105/SIS, 600 EX, L522, 600 EX/SIS, Santé/SIS, and Dura-Ace/SIS. With the exception of the indexed shifting (SIS) models, they all shift very much the same. Moving up the price scale, you find less steel and more alloy as well as better bearings in the cage pivots and pulleys. The top-quality models will retain their good shifting ability for years.

Good-quality bicycles sometimes come with stems and cranks matched in size to the frame. The bicycle maker can only go so far in offering size variations and you can often upgrade the fit of your bicycle by fine-tuning the size of the stem, handlebars, and cranks.

Bicycle value peaks around $800. Spend less money and you get less bicycle. Spend more money and you get more prestige, but not a lot more performance. If you plan to buy a new, good-quality bicycle, take your time. Knowledgeable buyers can find a model to closely match their needs, but it isn’t always easy. A popular adage: “ You get what you pay for if you know what you’re doing—otherwise, you get what you deserve.” There are many different bicycle makers struggling for survival and each maker has two or three good-quality models. Bicycling magazine’s annual Buyer’s Guide issue, and (especially) Internet forums like BikeForums.net, are loaded with information to help you make your selection.

Good-quality bicycles are definitely worth upgrading. The best possible Value is often a “pre-owned”, good-quality bicycle with upgraded components to exactly match your needs. When you get a good-quality bicycle that fits you properly, with appropriate gearing and wheels, you might as well propose and get married to it.

Top-Quality Bicycles

Top-quality bicycles are just what the name implies—the best that money can buy. Although there’s only a slight difference in weight and performance between a good- and a top-quality bicycle, there can be an enormous amount of personal satisfaction. The top-quality market falls into three categories:

• Top-of-the-line bicycles, like the Schwinn Paramount and the Trek 2500, from the major bicycle makers.

• Stock racing bicycles from the major European frame builders like Colnago, Cooper, DeRosa, or Merckx. You can buy them as fully equipped bicycles or you can buy a frameset and have it equipped with components of your choice. Italian builders currently dominate this market.

• Custom-built frames made to your dimensions and needs and equipped with braze-ons and components of your choice. American frame builders dominate this market.

There are two general price levels for top-quality bikes. In the $900 to $1,300 range, the makers compromise a bit on components and braze-ons.

SunTour Superbe Pro is a favorite component group for bikes at this price level. So is SRAM.

Above $1,000, you’re paying for prestige, and traditionally that’s been spelled C-A-M-P-A-G-N-O-L-O. Currently, Shimano’s Dura-Ace is challenging Campagnolo’s position at the top of the heap.

When purchasing a super bicycle, it’s hard to decide between stock and custom-made models. It’s a bit like buying a top-quality suit versus having a suit made to measure. It depends on your body’s dimensions. If you fit an off-the-shelf racing bicycle, a fully equipped top-of-the-line model will be your best buy. The big makers get mass production benefits and a better price on components. The stock frameset will be next in value and the custom-built frame will be the most expensive.

Prestige is an ephemeral quality. Some people like one decal and others another. A custom-made bicycle is very satisfying because everything is made exactly to your specifications, including all the braze-ons. Custom-made bicycle frames are splendid bargains because there’s so much competition among the frame builders. You pay a much higher premium to buy a custom-made rifle, for instance. However, I’d worry about buying a frame from a start-up builder; I’d rather he learn his trade on someone else’s frame.

Starting in 1985, many major makers switched to aluminum and carbon-fiber frames for their top-of-the-line models. This fouls up the old value equations. Bicycles like my aluminum Trek 2000 offer a combination of weight, comfort, and stiffness that steel frames can’t provide, regardless of price. I suspect that This means that the custom frame builders are going to be selling more custom-built frames and fewer stock frames.

It's fun to take an old racing frame and deck it out with modern wheels, components, and gearing to suit your needs. However, racing frames that use nonstandard threads pose special problems, which I will tell you about a bit later on.

Tubing Quality

The tubing decal on a frame probably tells you more about quality than any other single item. Top-quality bicycles will be made with double-butted tubing from one of the five prestige tubing makers: Reynolds, Vitus (Ateliers de Ia Rive), Columbus, Tange, and Ishiwata. Reynolds 531 tubing is a manganese- molybdenum alloy steel. The others are all AISI (American Iron and Steel Institute) 4130 chromium-molybdenum alloy steel.

Titanium, Carbon-Fiber and even Bamboo are used in "high-end" models. Carbon fiber technology, especially, is increasingly used for its inherent high-performance and durability.

The manufacturers make bicycle tubing in a range of qualities. The very best tubing is found only on the best bicycles. The names of the various prestige tubes are listed in table 1-1. Table 1-2 shows the descriptive terms found on tubing decals used by a representative group of bicycle makers.

On good-quality bicycles, it's more difficult to determine frame quality from the tubing decal. The tubing used at this price level is often a manganese alloy steel designed to withstand the higher temperatures involved in auto mated frame brazing. The bicycle maker may use double-butted name-brand tubing for only the three main tubes (top tube, down tube, and seat tube) and something less expensive for the forks and stays. Many of the Japanese makers now make their own butted tubing. Some makers use bulk chrome-moly tubing for the three main tubes. New companies like True-Temper are getting into the butted chrome-moly bicycle tubing business.

Table 1.

Tubing Makers’ Quality Levels

— Tubing Maker | Standard Quality | Good Quality | Top Quality

Table 2.

Tubing Decal Descriptive Terms

— Bicycle Maker | Standard Quality | Good Quality | Top Quality

[Bridgestone

Fuji

Miyata

Motobecane

Nishiki

Panasonic

Peugeot

Schwinn

Trek]

[High Tensile

High Tension

Mangalite

2040

High Tensile

High Tensile

Carbolite

High Tensile

—]

[Cr-Mo

VALite

Cr-Mo

Motolite

Cr-Mo

Tange CrMo.

Reynolds 501

Columbus Tenax

Reynolds 501]

[Cr-Mo

9658 Chrome-Moly

Cr-Mo

Columbus

Tange

Columbus

Super Vitus, Columbus SLX

Columbus SL

Reynolds 531]

 

 

 

 

 

Even standard-quality bicycles have tubing decals. After all, decals help sell bicycles. The frames on these bicycles are made from low-carbon steel. (The numbers 1010 and 1020 are AISI designations for low-carbon steel.) This tubing has a seam because it’s formed from strip stock that is rolled and welded. Nearly all of the better-quality tubes are seamless. They’re formed from steel billets that are rolled and pierced.

____ Standardization and Non-standardization ____

Before you start to upgrade your bicycle, check the bottom bracket, If the cups are 1.37 inches in diameter and have 24 tpi (threads per inch) and the bottom bracket is 68mm (2.68 inches) wide, you’re in luck. Your bike uses English threads, the de facto industry standard.

If you have an English-threaded bike, your headset will be 27mm in diameter, while the steerer tube will be 1 inch in diameter and will have 24 tpi. The cranks will accept 20 tpi pedal threads that are /16 inch in diameter. You will be able to get standard parts from almost any supply source.

If your frame has a 70mm (2.76 inches) bottom bracket width, then it probably has French, Italian, or Swiss threads and I advise you to sell it to someone who hasn’t read this book. Start anew with an English-threaded frame. Don’t spend your time back-ordering bastard parts, waiting for them, and then finding that they don’t fit. Buy standard parts. Then, two years from now, if you decide to transfer your fancy new parts to your next frame, they’ll fit.

Italian-threaded frames deserve more respect than those with French or Swiss threads, because virtually all Italian racing frames imported into the USA have Italian threads. If you buy a new or used, top-quality; Italian racing bicycle, you’ll get Italian threads. The importers and the pro bike shops that sell these frames also carry the Italian-threaded parts. They are available, though not nearly as available as English-threaded parts.

I admit I’m on a crusade here, but it’s you, dear cyclist, trying to upgrade your bicycle, who is being hurt by non-standardization. The lack of standardization in the bicycle industry is a horror story. It just proves that we’re still basically a cottage industry. Each country has its own national standard. In addition to the fairly common French, Italian, and Swiss standards, there are German, Spanish, and Austrian standards. There are also some truly weird British threads produced by Raleigh and Chater Lea that plague the restorers of antique bikes.

In the early 1970s, the Japanese makers picked English threads for their exports to the USA, which is why English threads became today’s de facto standard. When English threads accounted for 90 percent of the business, knowledgeable buyers insisted on English threads, and we had de facto standardization. The next step, true standardization, will be more difficult to achieve, because it requires industry or government standards that include dimensions and tolerances. The ISO (International Standards Organization), is slowly developing an international standard around English threads. Fred DeLong, Bicycling’s emeritus technical editor, has labored manfully on ISO standardization for many years.

Some bicycle dimensions, like seatpost diameters, simply can’t be standardized. The seatpost has to fit inside the seat tube, and seat tube inside diameters vary according to the weight and kind of tubing. But in many cases, delays in standardization are caused by economics or national pride. Stick with the ISO-English thread standard and you’ll be able to get replacement parts for your bike ten years from now.

The drive toward standardization involves more than thread sizes. Tire sizes, crankset bolt circle diameters, spindle lengths, dropout widths, and handlebar diameters are also slowly becoming standardized. Always buy the de facto standard component if you have a choice, It encourages a healthy trend for the user. More important, if your favorite company goes broke, you’ll be able to buy replacement parts. (I’ll talk more about this in the component sections.)

Investing in Bicycles

Let’s put the initial cost of a top-quality bicycle into perspective. Suppose you visit five Lexus dealers and haggle to get the best possible deal. When you drive your $30,000 Lexus out of the dealer’s showroom, you’re immediately $10,000 poorer. That’s the typical depreciation for a “new” used Lexus. Yet your neighbors admire your financial acumen and good taste.

Buy a $4,500 custom-built bicycle or two and you’re considered a bicycle freak and a wastrel. Yet custom-made bicycles last for at least 20 years and they depreciate very slowly. A custom-made bicycle is truly unique, in the same league as a Ferrari or a Maserati; whereas, you’ll see sister ships to your Riviera every day. Cars, boats, cameras, high-fidelity equipment, home computers, skis—they all depreciate while you look at them. By contrast, good bicycles retain their value indefinitely and pay rich dividends in physical and mental health.

Buy a top-quality bicycle because you want one, not because you need one. Use this guide to specify a custom-made bicycle that exactly fits your needs. Spend some of your children’s inheritance on a good bike and maybe they won’t have to support you in a retirement home.

The Economics of Upgrading

Overall, bicycling is an inexpensive hobby, even for component freaks. So spend as much as you like on a favorite bicycle. That said, there are a few guidelines worth following when upgrading a bike.

Bear in mind that the OEM (original equipment maker) bicycle manufacturer pays about one-third as much for components as you do. This doesn’t mean that you’re getting ripped off. There are at least two extra people (importer and wholesaler) between you, the bicycle store, and the component factory. Each one has to run a business: which means paying rent, utilities, employees, liability insurance, and taxes; carrying inventory; and, hopefully, making a small profit. What it does mean is that your favorite gruppo may be cheaper with a new bicycle attached than when purchased separately. ( You show your expertise by calling a complete line of components a “gruppo,” which is the Italian word for “group.”)

Therefore, keep this principle in mind: Don’t spend so much on upgrading that you could sell your upgraded bicycle and buy a higher-quality bicycle with the same components attached. The exception to this rule arises when you decide to acquire your dream components in installments. Later, after your old frame is completely upgraded, you move the dream components onto a new dream frame and sell the old frame with the original components (which you thoughtfully saved).

Here are a couple of additional guidelines to observe. Don’t spend more on upgrading than about half of the original cost of the bicycle. And don’t invest a lot of money in a frame that doesn’t fit you or doesn’t suit your riding style.

As a rough rule of thumb, the following upgrades make economic sense.

Gaspipe bicycles will never be pleasant to pedal. You’re buying cheap transportation. So minimize your investment. Install better tires, a better chain, better brake pads, and better, low-priced derailleurs as the originals wear out. Some gaspipe saddles are so uncomfortable that you may have to buy a new saddle to allow longer trips. Keep the saddle when you throw the gaspipe bicycle off the bridge.

Standard-quality bicycles are pleasant recreation and transportation vehicles. But you don’t want to spend more than, say, $95 on the upgrade because it still makes more sense to sell and buy a new or secondhand good-quality bicycle. Bicycles with aluminum (alloy) rims are more desirable than those with steel rims. Therefore, you can spend more on them. As the originals wear out, buy better tires and a better chain. Buy a more comfortable saddle and better pedals with toe clips and straps. Optimize the gearing inexpensively by changing the inner chainwheel and the freewheel sprockets.

Good-quality bicycles have good-quality frames and wheels. You can reasonably spend $500 upgrading a bicycle that fits you properly. The important thing Is to start with the right frame. Don’t convert a racing frame to touring or the reverse. Each frame is too well adapted to one style of riding to serve well in the other style.

Optimize the gearing to exactly match your needs. This might involve a new freewheel, new chainwheels, and new derailleurs. If the bike is worth more than, say, $400, you can justify a new triple crankset to convert a 10-speed to a 15-speed. The wheels and the tires should match your needs. This might involve a second set of wheels. A new stem and handlebars and a new saddle can help the bike fit you perfectly.

Top-quality bicycles allow you to spend as much as you can afford. At this price level, you are building a dream machine to meet your exact specifications. You may be building a new bicycle from scratch or you may just be fine-tuning your present bicycle. Install top-quality components to match your style and improve your riding pleasure.

Who Does the Upgrading?

I like to work on my own bicycle. I carry a minimal tool kit and I’m prepared to make minor repairs on the road. Bicycles use “soft” technology. They aren’t very complicated and it’s easy and satisfying to work on them. In most cases, when you make an adjustment notice what happens. Cycling is more pleasant when you know what the squeaks and rattles are telling you. Lawyers, doctors, ministers, and stockbrokers can all learn to fix their own bicycles. You can get a good set of basic maintenance tools for $45 and you can do a complete upgrade and overhaul with $200 worth of tools.

This is a what-to-do guide, not a how-to-do guide. Bicycling Magazine’s Complete Guide to Bicycle Maintenance and Repair is a great companion volume to tell you how to install and fine-tune the new components. If the Complete Guide is a bit too complete for your pocketbook, Richard’s Bicycle Book, by Richard Ballantine, is the best of the low-priced books.

I suggest that you do your own upgrading. Perhaps you’ll need some help with the hardest parts, like the bottom bracket. This is where you need a good “pro” bike shop. A pi bike shop is operated by knowledgeable professionals. They hire professional bicycle mechanics and they cater to the serious cyclists in their area. They have the tools and the skills to do the more complicated modifications and repairs. They carry top-quality bicycles and, usually, a de cent selection of tools and components. Talk to half a dozen serious local cyclists and you’ll soon come up with a short list of pro bike shops.

One of the best ways to size up a bicycle shop is to ask for advice on upgrading your bicycle. If the store says it can’t be done and tries to sell you a new bicycle, they’re really saying that they aren’t a pro bike shop. If your bicycle is truly an upgrade candidate, take your trade elsewhere.

If you’re mechanically inadequate or if you just don’t have the time, your pro bike shop can do your upgrading for you. Don’t ask for half an hour of free advice and then buy your parts by mail order. Be prepared to pay a fair price for pro service. Thirty-five dollars an hour isn’t too much. The shop has to pay the mechanics a decent wage and still make a reasonable profit or they won’t be able to give you the kind of service that you want. Most shops have had to raise their rates to cover liability insurance. That’s the ransom we pay to the trial lawyers.

If you live in Lodgepole, Montana, and the nearest decent bicycle shop is 300 miles away, you’ll have to do your own work and buy your components from a Internet/mail-order source.

Component Makers

All things being equal (and they never are), your bicycle should use components from the same maker. This is more important in the drive train than elsewhere. If you buy your crankset, freewheel, derailleurs, and shift levers from the same maker, you’ll avoid compatibility problems. Chains are an exception, and you can read all about them in section 9.

SRAM, Campagnolo, Shimano, and SunTour are the three major makers of gruppos. A bicycle consists of a frame and a gruppo, plus tires, rims, spokes, and a saddle. A typical gruppo consists of pedals, brakes, derailleurs, shift levers, crankset, hubset, headset, and seatpost. It can also include the stem, freewheel, and chain. According to the ancient folklore, Campagnolo gruppos didn’t include these components because Thllio Campagnolo didn’t want to compete with his friends at Cinelli and Regina. All things change and Campagnolo now makes freewheels.

Most of the French and Italian component makers are smaller companies that don’t make complete gruppos. Galli, Mavic, Nervar, Ofmega, and Zeus all sell nearly complete gruppos but their U.S. distribution is very limited. I won’t use a lot of space describing these smaller companies. Rather, I’ll concentrate on the components with the widest distribution.

When you upgrade your bicycle, you will probably be deciding between the “big four” component makers: SRAM, Campagnolo, Shimano, and SunTour. You’ll also be looking at Specialized and Avocet for tires, saddles, and other components. To help inform your decisions, let me tell you something about these five companies.

The big four gruppo companies are similar in many ways. All three are small, family-run companies that were started by dynamic patriarchs in the 1920s. Campagnolo has 700 employees, Shimano 1200, and SunTour 400. SunTour has the smallest sales. Campagnolo sells twice as much and Shimano four times as much as SunTour. Each company has a different attitude toward design and innovation.

SRAM

SRAM is an 1987-founded American company that, in 1997, incporated Germany's Sachs Bicycle Company. See SRAM's on Wikipedia page for more info.

Campagnolo

Founder Tullio Campagnolo was a bicycle racer who invented the quick- release hub in 1927. Since then, the company that bears his name has produced a series of race-proven components that are works of art in addition to being splendid examples of engineering. As a company, Campagnolo is slow to innovate. New ideas are tested by the Italian racing teams for a few years before they are marketed. They stick with a successful design for years. Campagnolo Nuovo Record cranksets, brakes, hubsets, headsets, pedals, and derailleurs are essentially unchanged from the 1970 models. In the 1960s, the key Campagnolo bolt circles and dimensions became de facto industry standards for racing components.

Dealers can afford to stock Campagnolo parts because they don’t become obsolete every few years. Campagnolo also has a unique reputation for quality. The tolerances and the finish of Campagnolo’s top-of-the-line components are second to none. Inside and outside the bicycle industry, “tout Campagnolo” describes perfection. They are expensive, but Campagnolo components hold their value well.

Campagnolo generally prices their top components at the top of the connoisseur market. In the mid-1980s, there was considerable price cutting. With the latest dollar to lire rates, most of the price cutting has ceased. If you find yourself priced out of the Record-Super Record market, take a look at Chorus, Nuovo Victory, and Nuovo Triomphe. They offer the same performance at a much lower price.

Campagnolo’s parts naming and numbering system is Byzantine. I maintain that when Niccolo Machiavelli finished his book, The Prince, he was hired by Campagnolo to name new components. No one else could create such confusion.

There are seven Campagnolo gruppos. The newest gruppos are C-Record, Nuovo Triomphe, Nuovo Victory, and Chorus. The old Campagnolo gruppos are Super Record, Nuovo Record/Record, and Nuovo Gran Sport/Gran Sport. When Campagnolo introduced their new top-of-the-line gruppo in 1985, they had run out of superlatives (Super-Duper Record?). They decided to call the new line “Record” and they renamed all of the old components that still used the name Record. This caused so much confusion that everyone called the new line “C-Record.” But Campagnolo is determined to call it Record, no matter what. They’re also replacing their old, familiar, four-digit model numbers with new computer-generated model numbers.

Campagnolo’s touring components have never shared the reputation of their top-of-the-line racing components. Today, Campagnolo is being hurt by their slow response to the superior performance of the latest Shimano Dura Ace components.

Shimano

Shozaburo Shimano produced the company’s first freewheel in 1921. To day, the Shimano company is run by his three sons. Shimano is the innovative leader of the component industry. Innovation has been the key to their acquiring the large market share they currently enjoy, especially for the low-priced lines. Shimano probably has more engineers working on component development than the rest of the industry combined.

Shimano is noted for short-lived technical “breakthroughs” that fade away after two or three years. Even Shimano’s successful models are usually re placed after two or three years. Not surprisingly, many bike stores shy away from stocking Shimano components or spare parts. Who wants a store full of passé aerodynamic components? Shimano has responded to complaints about parts availability by setting up a complete inventory In Los Angeles with a hot line for dealers.

The new Dura-Ace gruppo, introduced in 1985, represents Shimano’s best shot at displacing Campagnolo as the professional racers’ favorite. With the development of this gruppo, Shimano demonstrated it has finally recognized the racers’ inherent conservatism. Where they didn’t have a major performance gain, they simply fine-tuned the basic Campagnolo designs. The Shimano Index System (SIS) for the rear derailleurs is a major improvement. SIS has now trickled down to Shimano’s lower-priced lines and the component market will never be the same.

Shimano’s naming system is complex, because they introduce new models almost every year. Shimano makes six main gruppos for the replacement market. Dura-Ace, 600 Ultegra, Sante, and 105 are for racers and sport tourists. Deore XT and Deore are for tourists and mountain bikers. (The 600 Ultegra replaced 600 EX in 1988.)

SunTour

The SunTour company was founded by Shikanosuke Maeda in 1922. Their key products in the I 970s were the slant parallelogram rear derailleur and the wide-range Perfect freewheel. I’ve always been partial to Sunlour because it was their VGT derailleur that made wide-range gearing practical.

SunTour’s design philosophy is similar to that of Campagnolo. SunTour concentrates more on offering value than on constant innovation, so their components change more slowly than Shimano components. Also, they don’t manufacture their entire gruppo themselves. Sugino makes their cranksets, Sanshin makes their hubs, and Dia-Compe makes their brakes.

In 1987, SunTour replaced virtually every gearing component in their catalog to include AccuShift, their new indexed shifting system. The racing-sport touring gruppos offered by Sunlour are Superbe Pro, Sprint 9000, Sprint, Cy clone 7000, and Cyclone. The touring-mountain bike gruppos are XC-9000 and XC-Sport. There are also two new Alpha lines for the OEM market. In these lines, Dia-Compe, Sugino, and Sanshin make the Alpha components in their own names. For 1988, X-9010 has replaced XC-9000. XCD-6000 is a new mountain bike gruppo.

SunTour’s top-of-the-line Superbe Pro gruppo sells at a lower price level than Dura-Ace or Nuovo Record and it’s not quite as highly finished. Both SunTour and Shimano have used mountain bikes as test beds to develop bulletproof touring components.

Over the last decade, the intense competition between SunTour and Shimano has dramatically improved the performance of bicycle components. The traditional European component companies have found it harder and harder to compete.

Specialized

“In 1974, 24-year-old Mike Sinyard was on a bicycle tour of Italy, where he met Andrea Cinelli. After being introduced to Papa Cinelli, Sinyard convinced him that he should be the Cinelli company’s U.S. distributor. He managed to borrow small sums from several Northern California pro bike shops to start importing Italian components. This was the beginning of Specialized Bicycle Imports, now known simply as Specialized.

The company has grown steadily over the years and currently has large warehouses on both coasts as well as a major distribution network. Specialized has had two major marketing breakthroughs. The first was their decision to import and distribute a broad line of high-performance, premium-priced, skin-wall tires. The second was recognizing the potential of mountain biking and mass marketing the Stumpjumper.

Specialized is the largest U.S. manufacturer of bicycle water bottles. All of their other components are imported. They listen to the bike stores and they use their distribution network to supply hard-to-find components. Their imported components are designed to unique Specialized specifications.

Avocet

Avocet is the other major Northern California component distribution company. It was founded by Bud and Neal Hoffacker in 1976. Their first product was an anatomic saddle and they have a patent on saddles with thinned shells and bumps. After achieving success with the anatomic saddle, Avocet began importing and distributing Ofmega cranksets, hubsets, and pedals under the Avocet name.

In its early days Avocet was driven by the dream of producing “Made in the USA” bicycle components. They developed a line of super-quality hubsets, headsets, and bottom brackets. They also built a large saddle factory. Unfortunately, foreign competition made these ventures uneconomic and the saddle factory moved offshore. Only Avocet cyclometers are now made in the USA.

In 1985, Avocet developed FasGrip, a complete line of bald tires. Currently, Avocet’s major emphasis is on saddles, cyclometers, tires, and shoes.

Retail Prices

As I write this, the dollar has fallen off a cliff versus the Japanese yen, the Italian lire, and the French franc. The prices of imported bicycle components are rising dramatically. Many bike dealers sell their old stock at the old marked prices and then find that their replacement wholesale cost is more than the old retail price. This is a good way to go bankrupt.

The prices found in the tables represent a range of current retail prices derived from a comparison of every source available to me. If your bike store sells components at the lower end of this range, it’s making a minimal profit. If it sells at the higher price, it’s paying its overhead and making a modest profit. If the current price inflation continues, even the higher prices found in these tables will soon below.

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