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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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Why should it be a road bike? Don't you ever need to carry anything while commuting? –  gerrit Dec 8 '12 at 16:22
@gerrit What type of bike do you suggest? Maybe "road bike" has a narrower definition than I intend. –  Joe Dec 8 '12 at 21:17
I'm not sure, but to me a road bike is a bicycle that is exclusively for use on a road without carrying things, a bit like a racing bicycle. Maybe I'm mistaken, but I would call the bicycle you're after a city bicycle or a commute bicycle. –  gerrit Dec 8 '12 at 21:19
Not an answer, but... I think modern consumer products, bikes included (in every price range) suffer from Programmed Obsolescence, a "policy of planning or designing a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete, that is, unfashionable or no longer functional after a certain period of time." I would feel cheated and cheating myself buying some of the mainstream stuff available today, honestly... –  heltonbiker Dec 8 '12 at 22:33
@gerrit Road bike really just means a bike primarily meant for the road - it could be designed for racing, touring, or commuting. People tend to get a bit focused on racing bikes (everyone likes to be fast), and even start to use "road bike" to refer only to them as you do, but traditionally it's a more broad category. –  Jefromi Dec 9 '12 at 1:32

7 Answers 7

up vote 17 down vote accepted

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.

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A good way to get around having to source narrow freewheel hubs and freewheels is to swage out the rear dropouts to accept a 130mm cassette hub. You can still use friction shifting (though you may have to replace the rear derailleur...they're pretty inexpensive.) –  WTHarper Dec 8 '12 at 15:01
+1 These are all great things to think about, especially the replacement parts. –  Joe Dec 8 '12 at 21:19
What about brakes? Modern brakes seem much stiffer and more effective than the old ones from my youth. –  Mac Dec 9 '12 at 22:14
@Mac - The only important factors re (caliper) brake performance are flex in the mechanism and leverage. The cheap side-pull brakes of years gone by would flex badly, but better quality units didn't, and cantilevers even less. V-brakes are effectively cantilevers, and the only difference in performance is the relative leverage of the brake levers, which can be made stiff or soft at (manufacturer's) will. –  Daniel R Hicks Dec 9 '12 at 22:27
+1, I would also add "brifters" to that. Taking the indexed shifting levers from the downtube to the brake levers has been a major improvement. –  Angelo Dec 14 '12 at 14:15

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.

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I would say the second huge difference is price. An entry-level bike might run you $700 USD brand new, but a vintage bike (even VERY high quality) will be half that. There are some very high quality bikes from the 70's-90's that will give you more bang for your buck. (Also, considering frame materials - vintage steel frames are perfect for commuting. Much more sensible than modern Aluminum.) –  WTHarper Dec 8 '12 at 13:36
@WTHarper Price is the primary reason I'm considering an older bike. Why do you consider a steal frame more sensible? –  Joe Dec 8 '12 at 21:26
@Joe Steel is a great material because it is durable and forgiving! Aluminum tends to develop cracks and splits that fail unexpectedly, whereas one can crash and bend steel frames and just bend them back (to a point.) Steel can be repaired/modified/repainted pretty easily as well. A quality double-butted, fillet-welded chro-mo frame can be of comparable weight to an aluminum frame and last upwards of 40 years! –  WTHarper Dec 8 '12 at 22:32
@Joe Aluminum stiffer than steel, making the ride harsher, every vibration and bump gets transmitted through the frame into you. Steel gives, absorbing those small vibrations and bumps making for a smoother, more comfortable ride. Steel need not be heavier than aluminum - especially if you are looking at a top end 1980's steel vs a new entry level aluminum bike. –  mattnz Dec 9 '12 at 20:41

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.

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What is it about the Netherlands that makes you want a more robust bike? Harsh roads? Harsh weather? Both? Something else? –  jimirings Dec 8 '12 at 22:56
Harsh people. Seriously, most of the times where you put your bike in a public spot, lots of other people will also do so, just throw their bikes against yours. Sometimes it's the wind that make bikes fall in a domino if they are put in a line on their standard. –  RobAu Dec 9 '12 at 7:21
Yes, that's the downside of thin tubing, it will buckle very easily! –  Angelo Dec 14 '12 at 14:17

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.

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Asphalt only, well maintained roads and bike paths; to and from work only; the area is somewhat hilly, but nearly always nice weather (southern California). Theft risk in my area (i.e. around a college campus) is probably fairly high. –  Joe Dec 8 '12 at 21:30
Theft risk makes a 1980's bike a good idea - have a read up how to make you bike less attractive - Duck tape, mat paint, stickers, (fake?) mud... "Expensive, New and Shiny" is not what you want. –  mattnz Dec 9 '12 at 20:46

When the time comes, you may find parts harder to come by for the older bike.

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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:

  • Clipless pedal systems, including well-proven ones which you also can walk in.
  • Lighting evolved from "always something broken" to "forget about it, it will work" with dynamo hubs, coax wiring and LED lamps (if you can't wire the rear light internally through the frame, use a good battery rear light instead).
  • Indexed shifting with high precision is something I personally appreciate a lot. However, for everyday use (and -dirt) technology has not really become better since 8 cogs were the norm.

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

  • Overly stiff frames: Even Eddy on his old steel frame could not significantly increase frame temperature by pedaling. Steel is almost ideally elastic, and the energy you need to (non-permanently) flex it will not be lost.
  • Lots of cogs in the back, and long wire casings: I have never experienced more precise shifting than Dura Ace 8x down tube shifters and derailleur. Cog distance matters, and you won't really gain more useful gears by adding cogs. A commuter sees all kind of weather, and reliability counts.
  • Frames and brakes with tight (i.e. standard) clearances: Winter will come, and if you don't live in paradise sooner or later fenders will come handy (yes, they can look good and work well).
  • Non-compact road doubles: If you always race with pros, run 53x42 or 52x39. If you don't, there are options that fit you better.
  • Tires narrower than 25mm (but the recent trend is luckily away from 20...23mm): They won't make you faster, but they will make you less comfortable.
  • Carbon frames and parts: Carbon will not react gracefully to abuse it is not designed for. Furthermore it is too hard to determine what could be broken. That rules out most carbon parts for an everyday bike.

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...

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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.

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