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Vintage adventure: 87 miles on an '80s road bike

The story of my vintage ‘80s steel road bike is one of redemption. I decided to take my retro Centurion Dave Scott Ironman on an ambitious route — 87 miles with 8700 feet of climbing. Completing this ride on a classic steel bike was doable, but not easy.

Written by: Spencer Powlison

Published on:

Posted in:Vintage

The story of my vintage ‘80s road bike is one of redemption. For years, I did not appreciate its subtle elegance, its refined road manners, or its reliability. But after years of rainy commutes, ill-fitting fenders, and paint-marring bike racks, I had an epiphany. This old Centurion Dave Scott Ironman is actually really fun to ride. I should treat it a little better.

So, after coming around to its graces on regular weekly spins, I decided to take it on an ambitious route. In the spirit of staying close to home, I took the Centurion out on some well-worn local climbs near Boulder, Colorado.

This 87-mile journey helped me reinvent familiar roads, and it renewed my passion for the essence of riding, despite the challenges that 34-year-old bike technology — hard gearing, down-tube shifters, bad brakes, and more — can present.

The concept was simple and very numerically driven to begin with. I had a bike from 1987 (or so I thought … more on that later). Eighty-seven miles felt like an achievable but difficult enough distance, and around Boulder, it’s doable to match feet climbed to mileage — 8,700 feet in this case. Mind you, the word is “doable,” not “easy.”

I started by riding up Lefthand Canyon to Ward. Frankly, I rarely do this interminably long climb anymore. These days, I’m attracted to more off-beat dirt roads or Jeep tracks through the national forest. The cycling superhighway that is Lefthand is the polar opposite. But on a quiet early morning, aboard a lugged steel frame made from Tange 1 tubes — perhaps the finest that Japanese bike engineering had to offer in the ‘80s — it was blissful.

The gentle gradient swooped along the canyon, following the creek. The Centurion sang on smooth pavement. My legs were fresh. The bike felt void of any friction. That is until I reached the crux of the climb, a 1.75-mile kicker averaging eight percent gradient. All along, the climb had given me the rope-a-dope. I was unknowingly softening up my own legs as I enjoyed the lower sections a bit too much. I struggled to push the 42x24T gear up the last pitches to the Peak to Peak Highway.

Here at the ride’s highest elevation, more than 9,000 feet above sea level, the clouds moved in and the wind began to whip across the road. Between the cold temperatures and the threatening weather, I couldn’t spend much time enjoying the views, and I certainly had to hold on for dear life on the fast, twisting descent down South Saint Vrain Canyon.

As you’d expect, brake technology has made vast improvements over the last 40-odd years. The single-pivot Shimano 600 calipers, mated to some Dia-Compe brake levers, took some serious hand strength, sort of like one of those spring-loaded grip toys you find on a CEO’s desk. Although the brakes were troublesome, the bike was willing to follow the bends in the road, thanks to the little extra frame compliance that comes with an old steel frame.

The wind followed me out onto the plains as I made my way south back to Boulder. It was arduous, but as I heeled into a stiff crosswind, I made a realization. Right here, on a flat windy road, here’s where all the bike technology in the world won’t help you much. Yes, aero bikes and rims are marginally better. But an old bike won’t hold you back. No, only pure grit and toughness can overcome headwinds and crosswinds. In fact, the shallow, aluminum Wolber Super Champion Alpine rims are quite docile on a windy day.

Finally, 70 miles into my day, I reached the route’s two biggest challenges: Olde Stage Road and Flagstaff. The first is short, the second long. Both are very steep climbs.

As I mentioned, this old bike’s gearing is tall. It’s also equipped with one of the most memorable component oddities of the ‘80s, oval Shimano Bio-Pace chainrings. Thanks to a bit of reading on the legendary Sheldon Brown’s website, I came to learn that these rings have the oval shape positioned so that the gearing is easier on the crank’s power-stroke. I suppose that meant my gearing was slightly easier than 42x24T but it didn’t feel that way on the day’s final climbs.

Thankfully, my knees didn’t explode from the extremely low cadence and I topped out at 7,700 feet, tired but happy to have made it through a big day on an old bike with no mishaps.

In the end, the numbers didn’t work out as cleanly as I’d hoped. The route was actually 89 miles. I only (only!) climbed 8,500 feet. Plus, after reading more on Sheldon Brown, I was able to ID my bike’s year of origin as 1986, thanks to a handy serial number guide.

None of that really matters to me though. What does matter is that I’m still rolling out on this Centurion on a weekly basis, riding it as it had always meant to be ridden.