An alert reader sent me an article from “road.cc” magazine that isn’t very recent but is timeless: “Retro: Shimano and Campagnolo’s greatest design blunders.” I found the story interesting and entertaining, but I take issue with a few of its points. (As a blogger, this is kind of my job.) If you’re a bike geek, read on. If not, bail out now and go back to your Sudoku, your yoga, or your Arduino, so you can feel all superior.
Campagnolo Delta brakes
Delta brakes were the “road.cc” article’s headliner. “Looked great, worked indifferently, weighed lots,” we’re told. To be honest, I’m not in love with the looks:
I never got to try these myself; even though most of my friends and I had pretty sweet bikes by 1986, we couldn’t afford top-of-the-line C-Record. Actually, at that time I had a full Dura-Ace equipped Team Miyata and a Campy Super Record equipped Mercian, so I could have swung the Delta brakes had I really wanted them. But I was growing disenchanted with Campagnolo’s sudden spasm of innovation, which brought us lots of low-end components, bizarre designs, and eventually the Syncro indexed shifter, which was about as well-made and well-received as the movie “Gigli.”
Though I’d heard Delta brakes didn’t work that well, I sure don’t remember seeing any footage of riders totally stacking because of them. Back then, cyclists (at least, my friends and I) cared mostly about brand, weight, durability, and serviceability—we could forgive less-than-perfect function. For example, it was widely acknowledged even in the early ‘80s that Dura-Ace derailleurs actually shifted better than Campy, but most people didn’t really care—they loved how durable, serviceable, and no-nonsense Campy was. Meanwhile, it was well known that Suntour Superbe Pro brakes, with their weird orange-brown pads, only worked well in dry conditions, but nobody seemed to begrudge them this.
Where I can’t agree with “road.cc” is their calling Delta brakes a design blunder. Sure, these brakes were a nightmare for mechanics, but couldn’t we say the same thing about Sturmey-Archer 3-speed internal-geared hubs, which were phenomenally popular for decades? Okay, I’ll grant that Delta brakes were possibly the first factory recall Campagnolo ever had. But to knock them for their overcomplicated design is to wrongly assume that their main job was to provide optimum braking performance to pro racers. That’s kind of backwards: it was the pro teams’ job to use and promote whatever their sponsors gave them. And while these brakes were heavy didn’t work that well, they had one thing totally going for them: they were distinctive.
I challenge anybody to deny that the Delta brakeset was the most recognizable bike component anyone ever made. You could spot them a mile away. And since pro road teams didn’t generally mix and match components, the Delta brakes signified that the whole bike was Campy-equipped. This was important for Campagnolo because after years of dominance (as of 1986, 16 of the previous 20 Tours de France had been won on Campagnolo equipment), they were suddenly being seriously challenged by totally reengineered Dura-Ace and Mavic components. Lots of budget-conscious riders had been riding Suntour components for years, but now Campagnolo was battling to maintain leadership at the high end. (Over time they have certainly lost their prominence; amazingly, only 2 of the last 20 Tours de France were won on Campy-equipped bikes.)
In the mid-’80s, for Campagnolo to show the casual observer they were still on top demanded that their gear totally stand out, and at this job the Delta brake did brilliantly. Check out this famous cycling photo:
It’s plainly obvious what components Stephen Roche was riding when he won the 1987 World Championship road race. Adding the logo on this Campagnolo ad was almost beside the point:
Who cares if highly skilled pro racers had a harder time braking? Using Delta brakes enhanced their ability to showcase their sponsor’s product line, which was their job, after all. To the extent this improved sales for Campagnolo, the revenue growth was probably in the rapidly growing lower-end groups like Victory, Triomphe, and Athena, which had traditional brakes that worked fine. In other words, the crummy design of Delta brakes probably helped the company without hurting anyone.
When Campagnolo finally retired the Delta brakes and needed something else to differentiate their C-Record brakeset from lower models, they gave it a fake blue gemstone in the center nut and called them Cobalto.
These were a big step backward aesthetically, particularly because the gemstone wasn’t a real stone—it was a cheesy-looking fake, affixed to the (flat-topped) center nut with adhesive. In other words, it was basically a sticker, and these stickers tended to fall off. I remember ribbing a friend about all the Cracker Jack he was going to have to buy to find another set of Cobalto “stones.”
Actual braking be damned … the Delta brakes at least did one thing well.
Shimano Dyna-Drive pedals
I also cannot agree with “road.cc” that Dyna-Drive pedals were a blunder. I loved these pedals and used them until 1992 (i.e., 8 years after they were discontinued). Alexi Grewal loved them too, and in fact used them on the otherwise Suntour-equipped bike he rode to victory in the 1984 Olympic road race. (Since they weren’t standard issue for his team bike, he probably paid for his Dyna-Drive setup—pedals, crankset, and bottom bracket—out of his own pocket.)
Why did I like Dyna-Drive pedals? Is it because, as “road.cc” attests, they cornered better? Naw, that was never the point. The benefit was that they enabled you to lower your saddle by two centimeters, for better aerodynamics. For a tall guy, it was great—you could get a better draft. I finally didn’t feel as much like a big gawky dork sticking out above the peloton. (I know I’ve left myself wide open here … please add your insult in the Comments section below.)
Dyna-Drive pedals also offered an adjustable toe clip, which no other pedal did at that time, and they were light. And yeah, they also did have better cornering clearance (especially the Dura-Ace AX version). Meanwhile, by having no axle, these pedals put your foot right at the axis of rotation, instead of above it. This just felt better. Why? Hard to describe, but think of a unicycle … pretty ungainly, right? Now think of one of those “giraffe” unicycles, where the rider is way up in the air, with his bottom bracket at least a couple feet above the wheel axle. Waaaay more unstable. That’s kind of how my foot felt on a traditional pedal, compared to the Dyna-Drive.
Another benefit of this no-axle arrangement is that it was really easy to get your foot into the toe clip. Maybe this wasn’t a huge deal, but if you ever rode with toe clips you know how tricky that could be, giving the toe clip just the right downward tap to spin the pedal around so you could jam your foot in at the right point in the spin. Screwing this up at the start of a criterium was a perennial danger, and I never screwed it up with the Dyna-Drives.
Yeah, the bearings were hard to adjust, and needed servicing more often than, say, a Campy pedal, but compared to overhauling a Dura-Ace Octalink bottom bracket, or seating a new tubeless mountain bike tire, or truing a modern wheel with its paucity of spokes, this was really no big deal. I was such a vocal fan of this system, my nickname on the UC Santa Barbara cycling team was “Dana-Drive.”
(I do wholeheartedly agree with the comment “road.cc” made about how pedals, with their ubiquitous 9/16” thread diameter, are “the last true standard in bike parts.” Check out these three pedals, from the 1960s-era monstrosity to one of the last high-end non-clipless pedals to a fairly current Dura-Ace … any of them could be installed just fine on my old three-speed’s cottered crank.)
Shimano Biopace chainrings
Don’t get me wrong, I always thought Biopace was a completely lame innovation. But when “road.cc” describes it as “ill-fated” I have to protest. This is one of those products that is so universally reviled in retrospect, nobody wants to admit having ever embraced it. It’s kind of the bike industry equivalent of the expression “YOLO.” Everybody groans at how utterly stupid that expression was, and yet it was insanely popular—for a time. As the “Huffington Post” reported, “the expression ... quickly went from a simple motivational phrase to a social death wish.” In contrast, Biopace, though similarly denounced by bike veterans now, was hugely popular for almost a decade, from 1983 to 1993. I worked at bike shops for much of this period, and I can tell you, Biopace chainrings (and their down-market cousin, SR OvalTech) were everywhere. They were a real pestilence.
Why did I hate them? Well, for one thing, they made adjusting a front derailleur really hard. Derailleurs of that era were barely up to the task to begin with, and setting them high enough to clear the tallest tooth created a big gap for other parts of the chainring. Given other common problems certain bike models had, like bad chain lines, getting the front derailleur to shift well with Biopace rings became a real chore.
The other problem with these stupid oval rings was that they put me in a tough moral position. When customers came to the shop looking to buy a set (or, as happened surprisingly often, using Biopace as an excuse to buy a whole new bike), I had to pretend to support the idea. “My doctor says these will reduce knee strain!” a customer would say, and I had to offer some noncommittal response like, “Well, you should always listen to your doctor!” rather than express my true opinion, which was that Biopace was complete malarkey.
I never actually owned a set of these chainrings. I’d just jump on my friend’s bike and ride around a bit, noting how awful the pedaling felt, and particularly how exaggerated the effect was in the little chainring vs. the middle and outer ones. Why should this have been the case? If the effect of this shape is good, wouldn’t you dial in the same improved pedaling characteristic for all three rings? It never made any sense to me. (I think there were limitations in what could be economically produced.) My intuition told me to avoid these silly chainrings, and even when a new bike came with them, I’d incur extra expense to put round rings on there.
So yeah, I completely agree that Biopace was lame—but “ill-fated”? As with the Campagnolo Delta brakes, we have to concede that bike component companies are for-profit corporations. Their job is to persuade people to replace their perfectly good equipment with new (also perfectly good) equipment. In an ideal world, everything new the industry came up with would be demonstrably better, but innovation just doesn’t happen that fast. If companies don’t keep that hype- and gimmick-driven money coming in, they can’t afford the R&D that produces significant improvements. When I ride my modern mountain bike, with its carbon frame, hydraulic brakes, and super-crisp shifting, I’m pretty blown away … and if this technology was funded on the backs of suckers who wasted money on the drivetrain equivalent of snake oil, I can’t bring myself to care. Given its long period of cash production, to write Biopace off as “ill-fated” is a bit of a stretch.
Will oval chainrings ever make a comeback? Of course, so long as there’s money to be made. Certain Team Sky riders have used them, such as Chris Froome. I think oval chainrings’ main benefit to him is the ability they confer to poo-poo accusations that his power stats are “not normal.” He (and others) claim that oval chainrings will cause the power readings to read anywhere from 4% to 6% high. This is pure bullshit of course, just like the myth that Froome is clean. All this being said, I have no issue with oval rings enjoying a resurgence … after all, the industry can use the money, and I don’t work at bike shops anymore.
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