Vintage Tour de France YouTubing

Steel frame and raised bars

I’ve been in a bit of a retro mood lately. Regardless, If you’re new to bike racing (or you forgot about the pre-carbon days) go back into the archives of cycling broadcasting via YouTube and watch the Tour de France circa the late 80s. These were the days of split stages and 50 mile time trials. Riders didn’t seclude themselves in the team bus. Instead they hung out next to the team station wagons or vans getting their legs massaged as they waited for the stage to start.

The American broadcast of the Tour had a soundtrack by announcer and musician John Tesh. Heavily edited to show only the exciting moments and punctuated by Tesh’s up-tempo soundtrack, this was my introduction to watching professional European cycling. Thankfully my dad, who had raced in Europe, filled me in on the sport’s nuances that CBS Sports left out.

The technology is wildly different in these races. In this clip of the 1987 time trial there were few concessions to aerodynamics. It looks that only the team leaders rode with disc wheels. Sean Kelly blazes past his two-minute man who is atop a time trial bike with standard spoked wheels – no high-profile rims here.

Other than a skinsuit most riders wore either a team cap backwards or in the case of Sean Kelly a blue and yellow KAS lycra cap. There were no hard-shell protective helmets. This was pre aero-bars. Instead riders grabbed “bull horn” style bars that kept their front profile wide instead of the modern practice of trying to get as narrow a profile as possible.

One other positioning characteristic of the time that I noticed was the stem height. The stems on these late 80s bikes are actually raised with several inches of the quill exposed. This is in direct contrast to today’s “pro” style of slamming the stem as low as possible. The excellent blog by Gerard Vroomen also commented on the trend of lower bar heights and in particular pointed out Fabian Cancellara’s sprint with his hands on the hoods. As I’ve watched modern races, the riders are on the hoods – not the drops – as they solo away. Is it because they can’t comfortably reach the drops? The teachable moment here is that road bike handlebars are designed with a drop for a reason – to have another position for your hands. Don’t forget it.

So in between looking at kitten videos, spend some time browsing YouTube for vintage cycling footage and enjoy those simpler times. You never know what you might learn.


  1. Nice. I love this and your last post.

    I recall back in the day buying bike parts (tires, wheels, stems, etc.) because they were STRONGER and more DURABLE. Today that would make people think you were insane. The first wheels I raced on where clinchers, had 36 spokes and I put wire bead 700×28 Specialized Touring II tires on them so I would not get a flat. I think that first race bike weighed about 21 lb.? Anything under 20 was ‘sick’ and in the beginning we even hesitated to use aluminum spoke nipples.

    Hahahaha… My how the times (and my attitude!) have changed.

    These days I see people training on carbon wheels. With tubular tires! Bikes can weight 14 lb. and I am still lusting after a carbon frame as I have never owned one. And my training wheels? Still clinchers but now they are sporting 700×23 Kevlar bead tires. And I use nothing but aluminum nipples.

    All this nostalgia takes me back to the heyday of American mountain bike component manufacturers when everything was CNC machined within an inch of its life. And frequently these artsy bits would snap in half at the least opportune time.

    You gotta love history.

  2. Steve says:

    I love that vintage video clip. What is all this touching of the downtube? Shouldn’t they keep both hands on the bars? You can’t control the bull unless you have a hold of its horns with both hands…haha. Why are they continually playing with their downtubes? Seems so odd. If they aren’t careful, all that rubbing might take the paint right off those little tiny tubes! Oh, that’s right…some of our old bikes were actually chromed under that paint…ha ha. Good stuff.

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