My racing "career" spanned the years 1989 through 1999. My Marinoni (Columbus SL), with mostly Campy SR, was pretty standard when I started and hopelessly outdated when I stopped. The 1990s saw the widespread introduction to racing of 8- and 9-speed, of ramped freewheels (cassettes) that allowed shifting under load, of STI and Ergo, of Dual Pivot brakes. Non-steel frames became popular.
My specialty were hills - I moved from Cat. 5 to 4 to 3 in short time, then stayed a 3 for years until they upgraded me to 2 because I was never out of the top 5 - even if I never won a race as a Cat. 3. My last Cat. 2 race was the Tour of Willamette, a very hilly 5-day stage race in Oregon. That year (1999) numerous pro teams, including Mercury, participated to get ready for their European season. I couldn't climb with the best climbers, and I had a hard time descending with the heavier pros with whom I stayed on the climbs. But it was not the bike that held me back. I finished 88th out of 89 finishers, but about 70 riders didn't make the time cut or abandoned.
I did notice a few changes during my time as a racer: Downhills got faster with the widespread use of 12 and 11 cogs. I used a 12 myself toward the end, but the Campy SR derailleur had a hard time shifting onto that (chain gap too large). Brakes got more powerful, but even the whimpy Campy Victory brakes I used were adequate. Today, I'd use Mafacs instead. Of course, roads in the western U.S. rarely have super-tight hairpins, but the forest roads of the Tour of Willamette did give the brakes a workout. I felt that good handling was more important here than good brakes.
The 22 lb. weight never was a problem, even though I only stood a chance at winning if the race was long and hilly. When I started, most pros' bikes were heavier than mine - the age of Columbus Max and similar daft ideas. For a while, I tried to lighten my bike with a Syncros Ti BB, aluminum chainring bolts and a Swift saddle, but all of those broke or gave other troubles, so in the end, my bike was as heavy as it was at the start. I did use lightweight SIDI shoes, and nice sew-up wheels.
Having to take a hand off the bars to shift wasn't a problem, ever, not even in a tightly packed peloton on rough roads. Simplex retrofriction levers helped, and a shift only takes a split-second anyhow. The competition's newfound ability to shift under load didn't make a difference, either - not once did somebody draw ahead on an uphill because I had to ease up for a split-second to shift. Broken chains, however, became a common occurrence as people started shifting under load.
I did use aerobars, and did quite well in time trials, because my position was carefully studied, and I trained with the bars, something few other racers did. This seems to have more than made up for the lack of aero wheels. This despite my tall height and feeble power output. (Light weight doesn't really help in a flat TT.)
Comments from new or visiting racers were interesting sometimes. Especially the Brooks saddle elicited some astonishment. But usually, the regulars put them in their place with remarks like "You'll see him at the finish if he still is around when you come in." Toward the end, the comments more often were "cool classic" than "man, you need to upgrade."
I also raced cyclocross, on an Alan with very old-style components: Single chainring with guards and bar-end shifter. Here, the bar-end shifter makes sense: A downtube shifter is likely to be knocked out of position when you shoulder the bike, and the courses are awfully rough, so even a split-second shift could mean trouble. Once again, newer equipment - at my level - did not seem to provide an advantage. But I never made it beyond the state championship level, where I was in 5th or 6th when my derailleur broke off with a few laps to go.
Today, I do semi-competitive randonneuring and other long-distance rides. My bikes all are old-fashioned, with friction shifting, Mafac brakes, etc. On the long rides, that isn't an issue anyhow. We did Paris-Brest-Paris (765 miles) last year on a 1948 Rene Herse tandem. There was some good competition there, including all-carbon and titanium tandems. We had 10 well-chosen gears compared to 27 to 30 for the others. The front derailleur is operated by a lever behind the seat tube. For the first 150 km, a large group was together. Not once were we handicapped by the bike on a rolling course. Then the others dropped behind, and we finished first mixed tandem, second tandem overall. In the end, the comfort of the old machine helped a lot. (The VBQ web site has info on that ride.)
Recently, in our cross-state races, a guy on a Ti-carbon 16 lb. wonder has been giving me a hard time on the mountain passes. He is supported with a car following him, I am not, so his bike plus luggage (I carry food for the day, clothing, etc.) probably has a 15 lb. advantage over mine. He draws ahead imperceptibly at first, but over a 10-mile climb, the gap opens up. It is hard to accept that he is stronger than me, so why not blame the weight of the bike (and luggage)? So I recently went to my favorite hill, 1.2 miles, 760 feet, average of 10% with many steeper sections up to 18%. It is a hard hill - the hardest we have around here - and we have many good hills in Seattle! I used to ride that hill in between 13 and 13.5 minutes on a good day. Today, I cannot get under 15. I wondered whether my heavier bike was behind the slower performance. I took off my handlebar bag, containing food for a day, tubes, spare tire, money, rain jacket, etc., and my two water bottles, lightening the bike by at least 10 lbs. The climb did feel faster, but at the top, as my vision blurred due to the rush of oxygen back into my brain, the disappointing news was 15:07 minutes. Not bad, but within the normal range. Maybe I would have taken a few seconds longer with the load, but it is the lack of racing that has made me slower for short distances, not the heavier bike! Maybe age has something to do with it, too?
Fortunately, that guy is the only one who has dropped me in the last few years... even on our shorter rides where racers do come out on their latest machines.
I know that many claim you wouldn't stand a chance today if you raced
a steel frame, with older components. And of course, if I had used a
modern machine in my racing days, I might have won the Tour instead
of the other Jan... Somehow, I doubt it. But the debate will rage on.
Equipment progressed around me, but so did I. I certainly got
stronger, faster, and more adept at strategy over the years, which
may have made up for my equipment falling behind.
Jan Heine, Seattle
Vintage Bicycle Quarterly
>Leaving the pros and elite amateurs out of the equation is probably
>useful, so I offer this question:
>Has anyone rolled up to the start line of a cat 3 or lower race on
>an on-topic bike? How did you do? Did you feel handicapped by your
>bike? And most importantly, what did the other racers say?
>San Diego, CA