I picked up the January issue of Bicycling Magazine the other day. When I say, “picked up” I mean purchased it electronically. As I scrolled through one article caught my attention – Badges of Distinction by Leon Dixon.
It’s a good article about the history of badges that are placed on the head tubes of bikes. As I looked at the images of the plates I saw the Viking logo. My dad rode, and I think raced, for Viking bikes back in the late 50s or early 60s. I have raced bikes since I was a teenager, employed in the bike industry most of my adult life, and I can’t recall ever seeing a Viking bike in person. So it was a nice surprise to see a badge from the British company and it got me thinking.
Today’s high-end bikes (and even low-end) are constructed from carbon fiber with a priority given to performance enhancing capabilities – lighter, stiffer, oversized for handling improvements, etc. Ascetics are, of course a consideration, as no one wants to buy an ugly bike. However, with a few exceptions, the artistic qualities of bicycle manufacturing has disappeared. Head badges from major companies, are a thing of the past. Now a logo adorns the head tube, as well as 18 other spots on the frame, to ensure that a photo taken at any angle will include the company’s name.
My first really serious road frame was a Raleigh Reynolds 531 frame. I was working at a local Schwinn bike shop and ordered it from England. I remember the frame’s color – yellow and red with the Raleigh heron logo head badge. Then, because it was lighter, I upgraded to the Raleigh Reynolds 753. The front triangle was red and the seat stays and fork was black. However, the pièce de résistance was the number holder brazed to the underside of the top tube. I think I attached a number to it just once for the Mammoth Mountain stage race. Even though the number holder was a useless appendage for me, it was a kick ass feature that made me feel pro.
Of course other bike manufactures back in the day included those elements, as well as lug work of artistic quality. Colonago comes to mind. Back in the day I took a tour of the Colnago factory in Italy and shot a bunch of photos of their bikes from down the years. Those bikes were works of art.
Unfortunately I uploaded those images to the magazine’s computer server which was the equivalent to the final scene in Indiana Jones when the Ark of the Covenant is crated up and placed in a huge warehouse, forever filed away never to be seen again.
My current bikes, while ascetically pleasing and able to out-perform anything from my past, lack the soul of my earlier rigs. In addition to the Raleighs I had a neon yellow Paramount (it was the 80s and neon was the rage) when they were still being produced in the U.S. I loved that bike but I moved on from the hand brazed construction to something that was mass produced with a good sized marketing budget behind it saying this was the next best thing. Head badges, exquisite detailing of the lugs, hand painting, all tell tale signs of a bike with soul were starting to disappear.
Again, I’m not about to trade in my current carbon fiber bike and go retro, but I do miss the days when me and my buddies just rode – no power meters, heart rate monitors or computers to download information. It was a loop around Orange County with a final stop at the 7-Eleven for Big Gulps, sitting on the curb and bullshitting.