Browse bike ads on eBay and Facebook Marketplace and you’ll see a lot of ‘vintage’ bikes and half-finished ‘projects’ featuring archaic bike parts that have all but vanished from mainstream cycling use — for good reasons. Here are eight dubious and archaic features that you should swerve if you’re shopping for a second hand bike...
A cottered crank is held on to the axle by a shaped bolt called a cotter pin. The axle is mostly round with a section at the end where the crank sits. The cotter pin has a matching flat side, cut at an angle. The pin goes through the crank and when you tighten its nut that clamps the crank against the axle.
Problem number one with the design is that the cotter pin has to be extremely tight — it’s better to hammer or press it into place rather than just relying on the nut — which makes it difficult to remove to maintain the bottom bracket. Problem number two is that for the whole assembly to fit together really well, the cotter pin should be filed to fit snugly against the axle, which is a whole other pile of hassle.
Cotter pins were made obsolete by aluminium cranks with square taper axles, which were lighter and easier to fit, though a couple of companies actually made aluminium cottered cranks.
Cheap road bikes often used to come fitted with these ‘safety’ brake extension levers that made it possible to brake from the tops. But they often reduced the possible lever travel because they slotted into the regular brake levers and being a long bit of flappy aluminium they were really flexible. The practical upshot was that they’d bottom out on the handlebar if your brakes weren’t perfectly adjusted — and how many cheap bikes ever had perfectly adjusted brakes?
Amazingly, you can still buy them, but this link is provided only for amusement; please don’t. Instead, if you want to be able to brake from the tops, get cyclo-cross style ‘interrupter’ levers (shown above) that clamp to the handlebar.
Not even the most ardent member of the Ferrous Tendency (motto: “Steel is real”) wants to see the return of chromed steel wheel rims. Not only were they heavy and prone to rust if the chrome got scratched, but they were hopeless if you needed to slow down in the rain.
Wet chromed steel is very slippery and rubber brake blocks just don’t get any purchase on it. Braking on a bike with steel rims is therefore a matter of waiting till the brakes have rubbed all the water off the rim, and hoping that happens before you hit something. Leather-faced brake blocks help, but just swapping the wheels out for aluminium ones is a far better idea.
The only current bikes I can find with steel rims are deliberately retro-styled roadsters with rod brakes. EU and UK standards dictate how well brakes have to work, including when wet, and you have to wonder how such bikes meet the standards — or even if they do.
There was a time when your rear wheel sprockets sat on a ratcheting mechanism that was separate from the rear hub and screwed into place. There were several problems with this design, ranging from irritating to actually dangerous.
The worst was that a threaded hub had a significant length of unsupported axle between the bearings and the frame, which often led to bent or even broken axles. That became more and more of a problem as gearing grew to six and seven sprockets. By moving the drive-side bearing much closer to the dropout, Shimano’s freehub design solved the problem and eventually led to the 11, 12 and even 13-sprocket hubs we have now.
If the threads of a screw-on freewheel aren’t greased on assembly they can seize on the hub; they’re usually steel, the hub’s aluminium and bimetallic corrosion is your sworn enemy. Yes, this is preventable, but if it happened removing a screw-on freewheel was often made more difficult by the removal tool. These often had a pair of dogs that engaged with notches in the freewheel body. Both dogs and notches were fragile and often broke.
Screw-on freewheels have never quite gone away though; you still find them on some budget bikes. Thankfully, every multiple-sprocket screw-on freewheel I’ve seen recently used Shimano’s splined remover, the same pattern as their cassette lockrings.
Annoyingly, screw-on freewheels have started creeping back on bikes with four-figure price tags, because they’re used on e-bikes with hub motors. These hubs often have huge axles that only just fit through the freewheel body, so you need a special, ultra-thin tool to remove them.
I think Shimano’s introduction of combined brake and shift levers in 1990 paved the way for the MAMIL cycling boom of the 2000s and beyond. One of the things that often made new riders nervous about road bikes was having to take a hand off the bars to reach down and change gear. Putting shifting control into the brake levers fixed that problem.
Someone will comment that down tube levers are fine when you get used to them, because you develop muscle memory for where they’re positioned. That’s true — but irrelevant, because we’re talking about first impressions here, and for many riders that first impression was ‘this is difficult’.
One answer was to put shift levers up on the handlebar stem, where they lurked ready to stab you in the vitals if you crashed. That’s a bad idea that still hasn’t been completely hounded out of existence.
I started cycling in the days when down tube levers were the only type of gear lever, but these days you’ll take my combined brake/shifter levers out of my cold dead hands — and can you imagine gravel bikes with down tube levers?
Every modern derailleur owes its basic operation to the Campagnolo 1951 Gran Sport mechanism, which used an articulating parallelogram to move a jockey wheel across the sprockets. Campagnolo wasn’t the first.
A French company, Nivex, made a parallelogram derailleur in the 1930s, but it was rather swamped by the vast range of derailleur designs at the time, and racers of the 1930s mistakenly believed its two pulleys added excessive friction to the transmission.
The Gran Sport might not have been first, but it was tough, mechanically simple and worked well compared to other derailleurs of the era. It was a roaring success.
The Gran Sport spawned scores of clones from companies you might have heard of such as Shimano and Mavic, and from many that are long gone like Zeus, Simplex, and Galli. There were even Soviet derailleurs such as Tectoron and Kharvov.
But the most commercially successful of them all was the Huret Eco, which was ubiquitous on cheap road bikes from the late 1970s until some time in the late 80s or early 90s. It’s hard to determine when production of the Eco ceased because, unlike product introductions, product death doesn’t usually come with a marketing fanfare. Huret was later bought by Sachs and it’s possible the Eco limped along until SRAM bought Sachs in 1997.
Straight parallelogram derailleurs like the Eco (and even the Campagnolo versions, however nicely they were made) don’t generally shift very well because they end up with a big length of laterally flexible chain between the top jockey wheel and smaller sprockets. Even the cheapest modern derailleurs, like the Shimano Tourney, shift better thanks to subtle tweaks in their geometry.
As well as not shifting very well, the Eco had a tendency to seize up if it wasn’t maintained. Its sole advantage was that being made of pressed steel and rivets, it was very, very cheap. The domination of Shimano and the availability of better-functioning alternatives killed it off.
You coat steel in zinc to stop it rusting; your granny probably had a zinc-coated steel dustbin. Unfortunately low-grade steel that needs galvanising to stop it rusting also tends to have a short life if you repeatedly load and unload it, which is exactly what happens to spokes. Galvanised ‘rustless’ spokes therefore can fail by metal fatigue after just a few hundred miles.
Stainless steel has much better resistance to metal fatigue, which is why anyone trying to build wheels with reasonable durability uses stainless spokes.
There was also a vogue for chrome-plated spokes, which were very shiny and looked amazing on a sunny day. Unfortunately, chromium-plating steel can make it brittle, which is a property you really don’t want in a spoke, so their fatigue life was poor, and the chrome would rub off at the spoke crossings, allowing for unsightly rust.
“Something must change in the rear.”
According to legend, that’s what Tullio Campagnolo said to himself after losing a race because of wingnuts. The story goes that in the 1920s Campagnolo, at the time a talented amateur racer, was in a small lead group in the late-season Gran Premio della Vittoria. The weather was foul and Campagnolo’s hands were so cold he was unable to undo the wingnuts that held his rear wheel in place.
Depending on which version of the story you go for, Campagnolo either had a puncture or needed to change gear for the climb of the Croce d’Aune pass. At the time racers eschewed derailleurs and you changed from high to low gear by flipping the wheel to use the larger sprocket.
Faffing with frozen fingers, Campagnolo lost his spot in the lead group; and muttering “something must change in the rear” to himself, headed for his workshop in his father’s hardware store to consign wingnuts to the dustbin of history by inventing the quick-release hub.
As well as being hard to operate with cold hands, wingnuts are difficult to get properly tight if you don't have lots of hand strength. Bolt-up wheels still exist but use 15mm nuts that you tighten with a spanner usually about 15cm long. That gives a lot more leverage to get it properly tight than can be attained with wings less than 5cm long.
Incidentally, it’s possible the famed GP della Vittoria incident never happened. For a start, nobody seems to be able to agree if it happened in 1924 or 1927. Derailleur historian Frank Berto gives both years in The Dancing Chain.
Jan Heine of Bicycle Quarterly writes that his researchers — including David Herlihy, author of Bicycle: The History — have been unable to find any contemporary reference to Campagnolo taking part in the GP della Vittoria, or of Campagnolo’s claimed 1930 patent on the quick-release.
Let us know your 'favourite' cycling tech fails from yesteryear in the comments below
John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farrelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.