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?
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.
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...
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:
- The Carbon belt drive
- Internally geared hubs with 14 gears
- High-performance hub dynamos
- Very bright headlights, not only bright enough to be seen, but also to have excellent visibility on a dark forest path
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.
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.
If I think about my modern road bike versus the road bikes that I rode in the '80s, there are several significant differences:
- Indexed shifting - gear shifts just work, and with modern systems they are very quick and can be done under load.
- STI levers - if you're talking about drop bar road bikes, one of the biggest improvements was integrated gear and shift levers, which means that you no longer have to take your hands off the bars when changing gear. This is a huge advantage, particularly when riding in traffic.
- Brakes that actually work. In all conditions. Even a decent set of modern rim brakes are very good, that's without considering discs, hydraulics etc.
As others have mentioned there are plenty of other considerations - availability of spare parts, whether the bike has suitable gearing (or can be modified appropriately), and tire clearance to name a few.
But whilst I have a certain nostalgic affection for the older road bikes, I am under no illusions about how awful they were to ride - I would personally never go back. If you're budget is tight, you can get very good value for money even with a much more recent (<5 yrs old) second-hand bike.
Just to add another answer.
This year I rode the 210km Eroica Italia. That requires using a bike that is pre 1987. Mine was from 1980. A reasonably high level steel framed race bike with 12 sp gears. Campag wheels, Shimano 600 gears (similar to Ultegra today). cost me 100 bucks.
As others have mentioned, some spare parts are hard to source. Shimano still makes rear sprockets but they are not the same quality as was available in the past. Some campag cones (a consumer item) are very hard to find. BB and headset are French thread on my bike, again hard to find although specialists like Velo Orange can help for a price.
As far as performance, there is not a huge difference. Steel is comfortable. The 80s started to see some nice saddles. Geometry is nice. Performance hit on some of the alpine climbs I do is around 5%.
Clipless pedals really are nice. Either ride clipless or in sneakers. Old style leather shoes with cleats are a poor solution.
Gearing: hard to get the same range of gears without going for a triple. I changed the front rings for 38x50 and put a 14x28 on the back but it is hard work on steeper climbs. The Eroica has sections of 15% off road.
Brakes: are rubbish, along with pedals another biggie. I changed the brake shoes for modern compounds which helped but the system is poor compared to modern calipers.
Downtube shifters: honestly I thought this would be the worst thing about riding a retro bike but it really didn't bother me. You maybe change gear less and anticipate more - but you've only got 12 gears to play with anyway.
Overall everything is just a bit more fiddly to adjust and get setup right and goes out of adjustment quicker: pedals, pre-cartridge bottom brackets, headsets. Steel is a nice frame material though, better than today's mid range aluminium bikes.
I've got another retro race bike which I fitted with fattish tires. It came from a dumpster and I use it to ride our bike thief infested streets.
Brakes are substantially better today than they were in the 1980s. I've used Shimano and Campagnolo components in both eras, and in my experience newer brakes have more stopping power and better modulation. I have limited experience with road discs (we have a giant rear disc on our tandem, and I've tried some new bikes with discs), but if anything find they are even more powerful.
Index shifting was indeed a game-changer, but shifting in general is also smoother. Shimano, Campagnolo, SRAM, and now others like FSA and Rotor engineer all drivetrain components to work together as a system, with ramps and chain designs to make shifting smoother and quieter. The old joke is that the quietest gruppo is Campy after 10,000 miles, but newer systems shift more smoothly in my experience.
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.