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Retrogrouch Rules: Proper Bike Setup

Want to start an argument with fellow bike worshipers? Try to establish some „rules“ for proper bike setup. Of course, bike set up can be a very personal thing, and ultimately, the only „rule“ that really matters is if something works for a person and lets them ride their bike comfortably. But some bike setups just seem to look „right“ and probably work pretty well for the majority of people – and if something deviates too muchfrom the „ideal,“ it can look pretty odd, and it’s often a sign that the bike doesn’t fit properly, or perhaps the bike’s owner doesn’t know any better. I mean, if someone’s bike has a saddle tilted at some extreme angle, it’s possible the owner has arrived at the unusual position after many miles of trial-and-error and has found that it’s the only position that lets them ride happily for miles upon miles. But more likely, the person is a noob who has no idea why his various body parts are going numb after a ride of only a couple of miles.

The subject of the „right“ setup will probably never garner universal agreement, but it can generate some interesting discussion. One well-known polemic on the subject can be found on the Velominati site (see The Rules) and the subject was recently discussed at length on the Classic Rendezvous Google group. It can be fun to hear different people’s opinions on the „proper“ setup — and so here are my Retrogrouch Rules on Proper Bike Setup.

Collector Kevin Kruger has a lovely old 1960s Galmozzi that I featured here on the blog last year. Looking at photos of the rest of Kevin’s collection on Flickr, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that most of his bikes (and he has quite a collection) are superb examples of how a classic road bike should be set up. Take this Colnago for instance:

For a classic steel race bike, it would be hard to find fault with this.

Saddle:

There ought to be a law against
this.

Should be level – or at least close to it. Some people may need a small amount of tilt forward, or back, but more than a couple of degrees of tilt either way is often a sign of inexperience, or poor bike fit. For most riders, nose too high leads to numbness in the genitalia. Nose too low leads to sore hands, neck, and shoulders. I see a lot of street „fixies“ that have saddles tilted drastically nose down. I don’t know if that’s got something to do with a riding style that relies on performing mad skids, or unusual brakeless dismounts, but either way, it’s apparent that the bikes aren’t actually ridden in any practical sense.

For saddle height, the old rule in the classic era was a „fistful of post“ (maybe 4 – 5″) though on road racing bikes from at least about the ’70s and later, because of evolutionary changes in geometry, expect to see a little more than a fistful. Larger frames will often have (and/or need) a little more seat post showing than on smaller frames. But on a classic steel road bike, having a whole lot of seatpost showing (like 7″ or more) is a sign that the frame is probably too small for the rider.

Bars:

There are a number of variations on the classic drop bar – some with deeper or shallower drops, some with ramps that are roughly parallel to the drops, and some that have ramps that dive steeply to the brake levers. It seems to me that most of them look best when the drops point down slightly from level, with the bar ends pointing in the vicinity of the rear brake. This has a practical reason, because when riding down in the drops, having a bit of a downward angle makes for a more natural hand/wrist position for most riders.

On a classic road racing bike, like the Colnago shown above, the tops of the bars might be somewhere between 1 – 3 inches below the top of the saddle. On a more touring-oriented bike, the difference in height would likely be less. More than 3 inches in difference is another indication that the frame might be too small for the rider. Yes, some people like to „slam“ the stem all the way down to the headset, but on a classic steel bike, I think that looks affected.

Brake Levers and Cables:

Line up the lower tips of the brake levers with the bottom of the handlebar drops. The way I do that is with a straight edge (a piece of aluminum flat bar stock works well) and a rubber band. I affix the straight edge to the handlebar end using the rubber band. It then projects forward at the same angle as the drops, and I can then adjust brake lever position so they just touch the straight edge.

Not „too much“ cable! If the cables exit from the top of the brake levers, as opposed to aero routing under the bar tape, then there should not be huge loops of cable springing up over the bars. Enough for a smooth arch, and enough that the cables don’t bind when the bars are turned or the brakes are applied. Also, it just looks „right“ if the arches of cable on the left and right are balanced. It can help to start with the front cable — get a smooth arch from the lever to the brake caliper, passing up and over the bar. Then get the rear cable to match the size/height of the arch up front – cross the cables behind the bars – then work on the arch at the rear of the bike too. Again, smooth, not too much cable. It should exit the rear cable guide gently in a continuous arc. Too long, and there will be double curves. Too short, and it will pull or bind when the rear brake is applied.

If it worked for Eddy. . . 

A lot of riders from the baby boom era or earlier like to say „if it worked for Eddy . . .“ So here are Eddy’s brake cables:

Smooth, even arches. No huge loops of excess cable.

Wheels, Quick Releases, and Tires:

On a classic steel road bike, black sidewalls are practically a crime against nature. It’s possibly acceptable on a bloated carpet fiber frame with carpet fiber rims – but looks bad on a classic vintage road machine. When using clincher tires, the tire labels should be lined up with the valve stem. That’s not just an aesthetic affectation — it can help when it comes time to locate and fix a punctured tire. On sew-ups, the label placement is up to the mercy of the manufacturer, but to the best of my knowledge, many of them line up that way (though not all of them). Labels should be visible/readable from the drive side of the bike.

On a bike with horizontal dropouts in back, I’ve seen different recommendations for wheel placement. Some reputable and well-respected enthusiasts insist that on a racing bike, the wheel should be as far forward in the slot as possible, giving the shortest possible wheelbase. I’m more of the opinion that it should be centered in the dropout, so that the line of the seatstay intersects the center of the wheel axle. To my eye that just looks best.

Quick release location is practically a religious issue, but I have my preferences. Functionally, I think it best when the lever is closed so that it is roughly parallel to the fork blade in front, or the seatstay in the rear. It is easier to close the lever when you can wrap a hand around the lever and the frame member, and easier to open it again if it doesn’t cross over the frame member. Visually, it looks good when both of the levers point to the rear of the bike, so I find that acceptable.

Again, refer to Eddy. . .

Eddy’s front QR lever points back to the rear wheel. His rear QR points up at his saddle, roughly parallel to the seatstay. However, he wasn’t always consistent with that. I’ve seen photos of Eddy racing where both levers pointed to the rear of the bike, and a couple where the front lever pointed upward, roughly parallel to the fork blade.

What is unacceptable to my eye is a front quick release lever pointing forward. It just seems unnatural. Oh – and quick release levers should be on the left side of the bike unless you’re running Campagnolo Cambio Corsa gear changers.

Disclaimers:

Taking a close look at my ’73 Mercian, I’m thinking I might need
to trim a little off those brake cables. Otherwise, looking pretty good.

OK – as I’ve already mentioned, the only rule that is truly inviolable is the one that says that the setup should work for the rider. Also, these rules mainly apply to classic steel bikes up to the late ’80s – or at least designed to emulate the classic look and proportions. Obviously, modern bikes with their bloated frames and sloping top tubes will have nearly a foot of post showing, and their shallow drop „anatomic“ handlebars with integrated brake/shift levers won’t adhere to the rules, either. Touring bikes and dedicated commuting rigs have a different mission in life, too, so many of the Retrogrouch Rules simply don’t apply.

Do all my bikes strictly adhere? Well, looking closely at them, it might be possible to find a discrepancy or two here and there, but it’s pretty clear that these aesthetic considerations are something I strive for when I build a bike.

Anybody got anything to add to the list?

via Retrogrouch

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