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Fashion Faux Pas

In 1981 when working for Masi in Southern California, I went to a bicycle trade show in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Falerio Masi, founder of the company, flew over from Italy and met us there on the opening day. When I arrived at the Masi show display from my hotel that morning, Falerio was already there and very upset.

He was speaking in Italian through an interpreter and flicking angrily with his finger tips at the brake cables on one of the bikes on display. I did not need to know what he was saying; I knew exactly what the problem was and why he was angry.

The bike was set up (Similar to the bike pictured above.) with the brake cables running under and in front of the handlebars. This was a huge fashion Faux Pas in Europe, it drove me crazy too.

Brake cables were supposed to flow in a pleasing curve from the brake lever, to the front brake, and to the top tube en route to the rear brake. The brazed on cable guides were precisely placed along the center of the top tube to facilitate this.

I heard Falerio Masi told,

 “It is no big deal, and Americans don’t care about such things.”

That statement was probably true at the time. Many bikes being sold and ridden in the US were bought by people who today would buy a Mountain Bike, or a Hybrid. They were often set up like this Fuso (Above.) that came up for sale on Craig’s List last week.

Frames were usually too big for the rider. (By European standards.) The result was, the saddle was too low, and usually the bars were set too high. The brake levers are set too high on the curve of the handlebars, and the levers start to stick out front like a pair of six-guns.

This all indicates to me that the rider never should have been on a dropped handlebar bike in the first place, and I would rather have seen this bike set up with flat handlebars than set up looking like this.

On an “Old Skool” bike, the external brake cables were an important part of the aesthetics of the overall look. On my own bike for example (Above, and close up below.) notice how the cables leave the brake hoods, following the same curve of the lever.

Notice how the rear brake cable flows from the brake lever to the first cable guide on the top tube. It doesn’t matter if the front brake is on the right or the left, that is a personal preference.

The top of the curve of the cables just happen to be level with the top of the saddle, which has nothing to do with anything. However, this being my correct size frame, the handlebar to saddle height ratio is also correct, this is most likely the reason why it turned out that way.

Because when form and beauty meet function, there is harmony and balance. A  machine set up to perform correctly from a functional stand point, will also look right from an aesthetic view point



Reader Comments (16)

Fortunately, we are not bound to the fashions of the past, and can now ride on bars with style dictated on rider position and comfort. I guess those fashions also explain why so many Schwinns on Craigslist seem to be built for the LA Lakers.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChamps

Even on a modern road bike, where cables don't come into play, there is a look of overall balance, and if you have a stem for example shooting upwards at a weird angle, and bars up level with the saddle, maybe that person shouldn't be on a dropped bar race bike. Just saying.
Of course a person has a perfect right to set up his bike anyway he pleases, but it still offends my eye in the same way Falerio Masi was offended by those brake cables on a bike that after all had his name on it.

April 19, 2010 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

There are many aesthetic touches that are over looked on modern day road bikes that I see on a regular basis and bug me. I chalk this up to many bike assemblers growing with and learning wrenching on mountain bikes, and many of the more experienced wrenches not spending time building bikes.

I hate seeing:
-The little gray foam piece on the brakes that protect the brake during shipping when there is no cable hooked up.
-The orange derailleur height sticker.
-Top caps on threadless headsets that are not lined up.
-Cables that have been trimmed way longer than necessary.
-Headset cups that are pressed in so the logo doesn't line up (usually the manufacturer's fault, not the bike shop assembler).
-Sloppy finishing on bar tape

While none of these things are a big deal to performance, I find it distracts from the overall harmony of the bikes. To me it shows a lack of attention to detail and makes me question the competence of the mechanics in that particular shop (even though it more representative of the particular assembler).

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoelGuelph

I am sure you would hate my set-up too, I have a Gitane from the 70's with what I have been told are "bird of prey" bars that I found last winter. I have been able to ride her with the advent of spring and am completely in love. Her seat is low so there isn't much drop to the bars, so my riding position isn't as "aggressive" as it is supposed to be classically, but I find her amazingly comfortable to ride. I am a 5'2" female and this is the only road bike I have enjoyed riding, also the only bike I have ridden since last year when I took up biking again in which I don't slide forward onto the nose of the saddle when working hard. I also love her upturned bars when standing which I find very helpful for climbing, and as I live in NH that is really important. I bought her precisely because I always found drop bars to be uncomfortable, and I find her very beautiful.

My biggest difficulty is the fact that the only bike people I know at this point are at my local bike shop and they all look down their noses at my bike, constantly advising me to stop building her up so I can spend my money on a "new" bike. I have ridden several traditional road bikes since getting her and I still don't like them, and I think the new bikes are pretty ugly! I have to admit I haven't ridden one yet, but I doubt I would like it, especially as the ride is supposed to be harsher than the old steel bikes, which I have a thing for.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPLS

You've just made me remember about my first racer in the 80s and it had the brake cables like that :)

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoby

Dave 100% correct as usual, with only one brake that I always had on the left side the cable would have to be routed behind the bars. However when using two brakes with gears I did find that in oder the ride with the hands to gether at the centre of the bars , it was better to have the cables routed in the front of the bars, usually inside the double bottle cage mountaining clips. also depending on the country of orig of the brake caliphers,the front brake lever on the right side, seemed to flow better. My Mercian which I had built for Campag Brakes has the guides for the cables on the left, front brake lever on left. I did hear once that all Brit bikes have to have the front brake operated from the right side? Some saftey rule? John Crump

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

Yes it was fashionable to run the cables in front of the bars in the 1950s but we generaly ran shorter stems back then. By the 1970s and 1980s top tubes got shorter and handlebars stems got longer, and cables went behind the bars.

April 19, 2010 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

"The brake levers are set too high on the curve of the handlebars, and the levers start to stick out front like a pair of six-guns.

This all indicates to me that the rider never should have been on a dropped handlebar bike in the first place..."

The hooks don't have to be parallel to the ground, and the hoods don't have to be as low as you show them. It is a personal choice based on comfort and efficiency.

Even some professional riders have the hoods angled up higher than you do. People should try different positions. If the angle of their bars doesn't match yours, it doesn't mean they are wrong or that they don't belong on a drop bar bike.

In fact, your hoods look particularly low, which would fit either with someone who rides on the hooks most of the time, or someone who positions their bar because of how they think it looks to other people.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

When you say some profesionals have their hoods higher, are you talking of today's profesionals? If so I agree that modern brake hoods are designed to be set higher, the angle of the lever is different.
Yes my levers are set low and not everyone of my day had them that low, but there were, and still are limits to high and low based on the design of the lever. Generally when you go outside those limits things start to look funky.
PS. "Funky" is an old skool word too, just like the bikes I was speaking of ;-)

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave Moulton

Yes, I am talking about today’s bars…here are some pictures of a guy who is no slouch, with his brakes sticking up “like six guns:”



His hands are high on the bar, and his wrists are straight, not ulnar deviated like you need to do if the hoods are set low. It looks like a comfortable position.

This is what his bar looks like:


Why would an amateur need a more aggressive position than this?

And I don’t mean to imply that professional riders are the model for how to set up a bike. The height and angle of the bars depends on the terrain you are riding on, how fast you are going and how long you intend to ride.

It’s just that you have mentioned your distaste for the “six gun” look twice already, and I like that position and don’t see anything wrong with it, even aesthetically. If anything, when I see bars angled down too much, I always suspect the bike belongs to someone who doesn’t ride very far. I guess funky is in the eye of the beholder.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

Good examples of a modern bike. I made the links live so others could view them.
However, we are arguing at cross purposes here. Handlebars and brake levers of the 1980s were not designed to have the levers set high as the modern examples you give. If you set the old levers that high it became difficult to reach the levers from the drops, 'cos they would stick forward, like a guns. That is what I ment.

April 19, 2010 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

This is one subject on which I agree with Dave totally. Even as an older rider, I much prefer going faster and farther for the same amount of effort than I would if I tried to set up my classic racing bike as some kind of beach cruiser or a 3-speed "racer". If you have to do that, you may as well choose some other kind of bike to ride. This is a holdover from the North American 10-speed bike boom of the late 60's and 70's. I was part of that generation myself, but I eventually learned how to ride properly.

If you have your saddle too low, your thighs have to work much harder than they need to, and you probably also have your saddle too far back as a result. Nothing makes it harder to ride drop bars than having your saddle too low and too far back. This is one reason why people have to have their bars higher, just to restore some kind of reasonable, achievable hip angle... but then, they end up with too much weight on the saddle, and all the saddle comfort problems that come with that.

Also, if you have your hoods angled up too much, you find it harder to reach the brake levers from the hooks, and you have to angle your wrist up in an uncomfortable, unnatural manner. Forget about an easy reach to the levers that way, such as you might want when you descend hills a lot, or even if you ride fast amid city traffic.

The minute that you deviate from the classic racing position, something else has to give. Boy, if I had known in my 20's what I know now, I could have really had some fun. Instead, I wasted all those years in an inefficient position that made it so much harder than it had to be. I huffed and puffed everywhere I went instead of pedalling with grace like a well-oiled machine. I was a person riding a bike, instead of a cyclist. Well, at least I wasn't set in my ways, and I was able to change by the time I got into my late 40's.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPierre

I think this might be implicit in the post, but nice curves in brake housing translate to better braking performance--you can see the housing move when you brake and that gets more severe when the curve is bad. So it's not only aesthetic.

On the other issue here, "this all indicates to me that the rider never should have been on a dropped handlebar bike in the first place," I disagree strongly. Drop bars have useful advantages over straight bars that apply over a wide range of how high or low you want the bars: The provide the rider the opportunity to sit higher or lower as wind and other factors require, and they allow the hands to be rotated in the wrists-in neutral position for many of the bar positions. They also allow variations in hand position which is beneficial for long rides. I agree that high drop bars look funny, but sometimes you just have to live with that. The bar style should be chosen for functionality, and then the bars positioned at the necessary height. Drop bars have better functionality for many people; many people also benefit from higher bars.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

I'm mostly a sport touring rider. I don't particularly ride for speed. Despite my post above about the classic racing position, I also agree it's quite possible and acceptable to vary from it... and that will primarily be a matter of where the handlebars are. It's a matter of trade-offs. Even I trade off some sheer "performance" for more comfort. I think of the racing position (not today's riders with the tiny frames and extremely low bars) as a benchmark, from which we can vary while knowing what it is we are varying.

In the case of higher handlebars, it would normally have to go along with a pivoting rearwards of the whole riding position (saddle would usually need to go back as the bars go up). Triathlon riders will be passing you routinely, but they won't be able to ride as far.

April 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPierre

In 1986, I at 6feet, bought a 58cm Fuso based on Dave's size recommendation. With a Cinelli stem at max quill height, the top of my bars were 4 inches lower than my saddle. For the final days of my USCF racing, I adapted to this very low position, though even then I rode on the tops and hoods the vast majority of time, even in time trial mode. By 1990, I no longer wanted to compete, but wanted to ride for fitness, pleasure, and even utility. The limits of this riding position became more and more evident to me.

Today I ride a 62cm road frame with a head tube extension. The tops of my bars are within a 1/2 inch of my saddle height with a normal quill stem. I use my drop bars fully, from the flats and hoods to the hooks for big efforts and aerodynamics. I can easily acheive a flat back on the hooks very comfortably with slightly bent arms. Why would I want a bar lower than that?

I am sure Dave would say my current frame is "too big (by european standards)," that my saddle is too low (though it is still the same distance from saddle to pedal), and that I "never should have been on a dropped handlebar bike in the first place." But with time and experience, I have learned to filter what others tell me I SHOULD do, through what works for me and my riding style.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons mountain biking is so popular today. It is unencumbered, by the tradition, snobbery, and elitism of road cycling.

I personally think the Craig's List Fuso has an excellent saddle to handlebar height relationship. I think the rider could have had a more pleasant handlebar setup by rotating the bars up some (to achieve a flatter bar behind the brake hoods), and have left the hoods out on the curve of the bar. And I couldn't care less about where he routes his brake cables for crying out loud. But that is just my opinion. If I rode up to this rider, I would say (like I nearly always do) "Nice Bike!" and mean it. Some bikes are just nicer than others.

May 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Ramey

For every new hire at my shop I removed the back and showed the movement of my grandfather's (who was an engineer) railroad watch. The inside of the watch was heavily and artfully engraved only for the pleasure of every future watchmaker who would clean or service the timepiece. The lesson was your work should aways reflect attention to detail, competentcy and aesthetics above simply function. When you build or repair a bicycle the next mechanic to work on it should recognize your mastery.

June 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTerence Shaw

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