I'm looking to buy a road bike for commuting. There is a guy near me who finds older road bikes (e.g. from the 80's) and fixes them up. Are there downsides to getting an older bike (assuming it's had a proper tune up) compared to getting a bike released in the last year?
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The last major technological improvement in standard bicycles was indexed shifting. The indexing part of this isn't that big a deal, but the feature also gives you the ability to shift under load (which is a big deal). I'm thinking this change occurred in the late 80s, but my memory for chronology is poor.
Yes, since then we've gotten V-brakes, carbon frames, "compact" cranksets and a few other things, but they're not fundamental changes, just minor refinements (if that).
Re "non-standard" bikes, the biggest change has likely been the improvements in geared hubs. These have gone from 3-speed, don't-dare-shift-under-load-or-you'll-wreck-it models to multi-speed or continuous models that encourage you to shift under load.
There has also been progress in recumbent technology, but I don't think there've been any game-changers (though I'm not up on this).
The main problem with a bike more than 15-20 years old is that replacement parts get harder to find. In particular, if you buy an older bike you might want to buy a spare rear cluster right off, to have on hand. And I wouldn't recommend buying a road bike with 27" tires, since replacement tires (of the narrow "racing" variety) will be hard to find.
They are better if you're willing to invest a good deal of money. It depends on your situation. Is your commute asphalt-only or does it include dirt or snow? Will you only use it to get to and from work, or also for groceries and the occasional one-day or multi-day tour? Are you in a flat area, or are there steep slopes around?
I'm using a high-end touring bicycle for my daily commute, 9 km one-way with 120 m elevation difference, in a sub-Arctic climate; here we have 7 months of snowcover, temperatures dropping below -20°C and occasionally down to -40°C, and deep deep darkness. In those circumstances I ride along a 2-lane road frequented by some heavy trucks. Those circumstances, combined with the fact that I go on the occasional multi-day trip, led me to invest in a decent bicycle, because lights, gears, winter performance and durability are key issues. Theft risk in my area is very low.
Some relevant new technologies may include:
Now, whether you really need that is a different question. A 20-year old indestructable steel frame may be exactly what you need. In principle the aforementioned items can be installed on an old frame (except for the belt drive), but IMO that would be silly, because if you're willing to invest a lot of money you can just as well get a proper new frame as well. It all depends on your wishes and priorities.
To answer your question will most likely also be a matter of personal taste. I am also one of the "not much new of interest in the last decades". The notable exceptions are:
Just about everything else you could get as well many decades ago as today, or even better. Some recent technology I would try to avoid includes
The spare parts aspect for classic bikes is not a real problem if you choose the bike wisely. Most ca. 20...25 years old road bikes will be very serviceable with parts you can easily get. Modern bikes are not always better: Just have a look at "modern" bottom brackets and ask yourself what has a life span of more than five years...
This is a bit of a subjective question, and at the end of the day you are best off trying a couple to compare, as you need to feel comfortable on it.
The main difference is in technology - at the top end, dramatic improvements have been made in materials, bonding, flexibility, weight etc., and these do trickle down to consumer bikes. Spares for older bikes may also not be as available.
If you are a normal, every day commuter, a well maintained bike from the 80's may be absolutely fine, but a more modern bike might be a bit lighter, a bit more able to soak up bumps, have better gearing system and this may make the difference if you are using it every day.
Getting an older well-made and well-maintained bike is preferable in a city in the Netherlands. Modern bikes are made lighter and with less material; they tend to be less robust.
I currently have a second hand bike from the 80's with 3 gears, and drum brakes that use levers and iron bars instead of cables. The only thing that I have to replace form time to time are the tubes.
The older 80´s road bikes (especially the low end ones that were called "training bikes") often have massive tire clearance. This means that you can run bigger and more comfortable tires, in the +30mm range or run narrower tires with full length fenders.
I don't completely agree with some things that have been said here.
If you like old bikes, if you want it for the looks, go for it. It is a perfectly good reason, lots of people buy and maintain old bikes because they are classier and prettier. There is nothing wrong with it, your passion is perfectly respectable. I personally think something like this is absolutely gorgeous.
Just be careful when picking one, because age and rust attack the frame and components, so you should be careful that the frame is not too rusty if you want to recover it, and inspect the bike for cracks every week or so.
On the other hand, while it is (arguably) true there hasn't been a huge advance in bike mechanics in the last years, it is also true new advancements in materials, manufacturing techniques and mechanical principles make new components much better and durable.
I guarantee you a new, 2015 derailleur will last much longer than a new one made 25 years ago. It will because even though the mechanical principle is the same, a new derailleur has better bearings, better isolated, and the whole construction is more solid meaning there are less tolerances when it is shifting which will end up making it perform better and last longer.
This is true for all other components, but mainly for ones that have movement: hubs, headsets, cranks for example.
The better quality in modern products will also be more noticeable when you are using the bike, as it will feel more solid and flex less under hard pedaling, brakes will work better, wheel will flex much less, etc.
Of course if you compare an old Dura Ace derailleur (some of the best) with a super cheap one sent to you from China for $10 the old one might be better, but if you compare a 25 (from the 90's) year old Dura Ace with a modern Tiagra (some of the cheapest Shimano makes), I guarantee you the new one will perform much, much better. I have used them side by side and 25 years of evolution make a big, big difference.
Just look at them, old and new. See how different are the brakes for example? More material, less flex, better bearings, a mechanical principle revised for decades, all means they will last longer and perform much, much better.
As true for most things, using an older vehicle (car, motorcycle, boat, bicycle) means you will have necessarily less performance and more maintenance costs. I am not saying an older bike will make you go bankrupt, and it will last if you treat her well, but trust me, there will be a difference.
If nevertheless you want to go for the older one, I can't do anything else but pay you a nice, cold beer when I see you with it.