Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

20 March 2016

It's So '70's That It's From The '90's

If you came of age as a cyclist, as I did, during the 1970s, the first derailleur you rode might have been a Huret Allvit, Luxe or Svelto, a Campagnolo Valentino or any of the plastic Simplex mechanisms.  If you rode those mechanisms enough, they broke or, in the case of the Hurets, developed stiffness or looseness in the pivots that made shifts sloppy and inaccurate--or impossible altogether.  And if you rode an Allvit, you broke a cable or two.

Then you took your bike to the shop.  The owner or a mechanic (who might have been the same person) recommended a new derailleur recently arrived from Japan.  It looked strange:  The body of your old derailleur dangled downward, but the body of this new derailleur lay parallel to your chainstay.  Its name had a "T" that flared out like a racing stripe, in contrast to the old-world cursive lettering on your old derailleur.  

But it was cheap, so you gave it a try.  On your first ride, you realize that you don't have to win a tug-of-war with your derailleur to get it to shift from one cog to the next one up, let alone across all of your gears.  You also realize that you could shift entirely by feel:  your chain didn't have to grind, clatter and clank as you coaxed it from one gear to the next.

Of course, later on you would need to replace that chain and, along with it, your freewheel.  Your owner/mechanic recommended a freewheel from the same company that made your new derailleur.  When you ride it out of the shop, you are again amazed:  You see that your new derailleur, which shifted light-years better than your old one, was shifting even better.

SunTour V-GT Luxe derailleur, circa 1973

Chances are that your new derailleur and freewheel were made by SunTour, the first Japanese company to pose a real challenge to the old European component makers.  It was no wonder that by the end of the decade, more than half of new bikes--including many from old-line European manufacturers like Raleigh and Motobecane as well as upstart American companies like Trek--were equipped with SunTour derailleurs and freewheels.  

Today, just about any derailleur made today that has even a pretense of quality owes at least part of its design to that of those SunTour derailleurs.  As Michael Sweatman points out in his wonderful Disraeligears, today's Shimano XT-M772 has the same basic geometry as the 1972 SunTour V-GT. 

Another component that would be introduced during that decade would have a similar influence.  Someone working for an old French rim manufacturer got the bright idea of taking a tubular rim--the kind used for "sew-up" tires--and adding "hooks" to the sidewalls to hold the "beads" of a clincher tire.  The tubular rim profile is inherently stronger, per weight, than the box-channel or drop-section clincher rims made at the time; the resulting new rim was about 25 percent lighter than any other clincher rim available at the time.  So were the tires designed for it.  This development offered performance apporoaching that of tubular tires with the convenience of clinchers.  Also, the rim's width--20mm--matched that of most tubulars made at the time.  This made it possible for a cyclist to use clincher and tubular wheels on the same bike without having to readjust brakes or other parts.

Main Photo
The original high-performance clincher rim:  Mavic Module E, 1975

The rim in question was the Mavic Module E, introduced in 1975.  At the same time, Michelin brought out its "Elan" tire, made to work with the rim.  The rim was strong; the tire, not so much. The following year, Wolber came out with another, much stronger (though no heavier) tire for the Module E; other companies--including Panasonic (under the names Panaracer and National) followed.  

Every high-performance clincher rim--including the ones on fancy boutique wheelsets--made today uses Mavic's design innovation.  (Yes, even those neon-colored V-shaped rims have the double cross-section and bead hooks found on the Module E, and every rim Mavic has made since.)  And all of today's high-quality clincher tires use the same bead design Michelin introduced with its "Elan" tire.

Other innovative components saw the light of day during the decade, but I'll mention just one more.  If you were riding in the '70's or '80's, there's a good chance you rode it; there's an equally good chance that you're riding something based on its design.

It's a component most of us don't think about very much once it's installed.  And, if it's adjusted properly, there's no reason why we should.  In its time, it was nearly as ubiquitous as SunTour derailleurs.  However, as we will see, as good as it was, it wasn't quite the innovation most of us assumed it to be.

Once we've settled (!) on a saddle that's right for us, and have it set to the height and angle that feels right, we rarely, if ever, pay any mind again to our seat posts.  But if we have to replace our saddles--or if we're setting up a new bike--choosing the right seat post make it not only possible, but easy, to place and tilt our seats to the optimal position.

The old Campagnolo seat posts were renowned for their durability and "infinite" adjustability. But, with the two adjustment bolts enscnonced between the saddle rails and body, setup and adjustment were not easy, even with the wrench Campagnolo made for the purpose.  Other seatposts, such as those from Simplex, were easier to use but, frankly, never won any beauty contests (though I think its headbadge was pretty cool).

Around the same time Mavic and Michelin re-invented the wheel (the bicycle wheel, anyway), there appeared a seatpost that--like SunTour derailleurs--cost much less than their competiton but worked a lot better.  A saddle setup or adjustment that took half an hour or more--if one had the specially-designed tool for the purpose--could be accomplished in a fraction of that time, with a common 6mm allen key and, best of all, one hand.
French Laprade seatpost

The Sakae Ringyo (SR) Laprade seatpost was even "fluted" like the Campagnolo Super Record!  Yes, it was heavier, though not by much, and the finish--at least on the early versions--was rougher.  But, in time, SR cleaned it up and offered another, lighter, version with the kind of finish found on Nitto's offerings (or old Cinelli bars and stems) and one of the most interesting model names ever given to a bike component:  Four Sir.  (Is that a translation of something from Japanese?  Or did it come up during some dada poetry session where the sake flowed freely?)  

I don't recall seeing very many Four Sirs:  Once SR made its basic Laprade post a little prettier and lighter than the original, there really wasn't much reason to buy any other.  Even top-of-the line bikes came with it as standard equipment. 

What almost nobody, at least here in the US, realized was that SR didn't call their seatpost "Laprade" just because they thought a French name would make it sound better.  Japanese patent laws being what they were at the time, companies like SR could make near-clones of other companies' designs with impunity.  The original Laprade seatpost was made in France.  Not many made it here to the US, so most of us had never seen it before the SR version came to these shores.  

SR Laprade, circa 1978

As I understand, the original Laprade was a high-end item found mainly on French bikes made from Reynolds 531 or Columbus tubing, and on the Vitus aluminum frames from that country.  It was cold-forged and highly-polished, which made it expensive.  SR melt-forged their Laprade posts, which made them heavier, and didn't finish them (except for the Four Sir version) quite as nicely.  But it did the job and didn't detract from the looks of even the best bikes, so it was a runaway favorite both in the original- and replacement-equipment markets.

SR Laprade "Four Sir" 

The majority of good seatposts made today are based on the Laprade design.  In fact, the manufacturers go as far as to call them "Laprade-style" or even "Laprade" seatposts.  The name today refers to just about any seatpost with an integrated single-bolt clamp that adjusts from the underside, in much the same way that "Scotch tape" refers to any clear cellophane adhesive strip, whether or not it's made made by 3M.

Ironically, the French Laprade post wasn't an original.  

Now tell me that design from E.C. Stearns--at the time, the world's largest bicycle manufacturer--doesn't look uncannily like the Laprade.  I wonder whether the folks who developed the Laprade seatpost in France were aware of Stearns' patent--which, I imagine, had long since expired.

Well, if you've been reading this blog, you know that there really isn't anything new under the sun, at least in the world of cycling.  No, not even carbon fiber or titanium frames!


  1. Hook bead rims created the situation we have today in which many 27" tires cannot be reliably used on older 27" rims. Many bike shops do not know which will work.

  2. I remember the days when the SR Laorade was ubiquitous, though I don't know if I've seen that four sir version before -or at least I don't remember it. I do know that I've seen a couple different versions of the clamp mechanism on the Laprade though. Some were nice cast versions (or is that forged?) like the one shown in your 1978 picture, but there were some others that were stamped cheaply out of steel, though the shaft looked the same. No doubt that was something they did for the OEM market, when bike manufacturers wanted to save a few bucks on something that most bike buyers wouldn't be likely to notice.

  3. Yes, I'm old enough to remember that the SunTour derailleurs were much superior to their European counterparts. They were an excellent replacement for the Simplex front and rear deraillers on my first 10-speed, a Motobecane Mirage. My wife's 1975 Raleigh Sprite 10-speed still has the original Huret stem shifters and front derailleur. But the rear was swapped out to a SunTour (can't remember the exact model) years before I ever met my wife. It still works perfectly. For that matter, I fitted the Huret front with a NOS cage which I found on Ebay for something like $4. I like using original parts where possible, but this bike rides so much better with 700c alloy wheels. The original Raleigh steel brake calipers had tons of room to adjust to the smaller diameter wheels. Those horrible Raleigh self-adjusting brake levers were scrapped as well.
    I also have one or two Laprade seatposts kicking around the parts bin.

  4. Steve--You're so right about that. I wanted to build a "bombproof" 27" wheel with a Weinmann concave rim I saw on eBay. I changed my mind when I found out that none of the current good-quality 27" tireswould fit it.

    Brooks--You're right about the clamp, and I think it was mainly for the OEM market. They came on some of the bikes I fixed and assembled; I don't think it was sold as an after-market product. But I do believe the post body was the same as the regular Laprade.

    MT--The steel Huret front derailleur was actually rather good. The stem shifters were OK; they just took a different cable end from the others, and you had to remove the lever to install it. (The SunTour ratcheted stem shifter was nicer, though.) As for the SunTour derailleur: I'm not surprised that it's still working perfectly!

  5. Just had to smile when I read about the SR Laprade posts. I've got one lying on my bench right now that needs a few thousandths turned off so it will fit one of my current projects. Plus it will give me a chance to put a proper polish on it. As for the Campy Valentino you mentioned, I saw one once on a friends Schwinn Super Sport. It was the most agricultural looking Campy product I've ever seen. I later talked him into replacing it with a mid grade Sun Tour, but I've forgotten the exact model. Great article.

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  7. Fantastic series of postings as of late! Justin, you are a veritable encyclopedia of old components and send me on wild chases through the internet. I have always just took the best I could get at any point in time, and made the best of what I had, so I have ended up no expert in old components.

    But I now know that my Raleigh Sports I bought in 1964 had a Huret Alvit derailleur. I found pictures and recognized it and the DT shifting levers that I remembered so vividly, how they felt in my hands. It also had John Bull brake levers. And a bottle generator that hummed in the night. And it was golden yellow. Still miss it.


  8. Philip--"Agricultural" is a great way to describe the Valentino derailleur. I didn't know that the Super Sport came with it; I recall seeing Super Sports with a Campy Gran Turismo, which was something like a Valentino with a long cage--and shifted just about as well!

    But the SR Laprade, while not a new idea, was a great one!

    Leo--Isn't it funny how we miss our old bikes, even if the ones we have now are demonstrably better? I think most of us take the best we can at any point in time, as you say. That's an education in bikes unto itself.

    I must say, even though just about any derailleur available today, and almost any SunTour ever made, was miles better than the Allvit, it did have a certain style and charm. So did those old bottle generators. They weren't the best or the prettiest, but they have character!

    1. Justine,like a good educator you've forced this lazy student to go do his homework. A quick check on google university showed that you were right. My friends Super Sport was wearing a Gran Turismo derailleur and not a Valentino. It was pretty clunky. I remember rolling it over and over in my hands thinking that this thing looks like it was stamped out by AC Delco. The red C medallions were kind of snazzy though.

    2. Phillip--Thanks. Both the Valentino and Gran Turismo both look like they were "stamped out by AC Delco", as you say.

      The red medallions are the best thing about the Gran Turismo, in my opinion.

  9. When I first read this post a few days ago I had to burst out laughing. Spring has sprung and I chose to checkout my old 70's Holdsworth not ridden last year because the tyres looked a bit iffy and brake hood covers and handlebar covers are perished. Much needs a polish and tuneup and a brooks saddle needs to go back on. Then the memories came back! Can I find that darn spanner and how on earth is it supposed to get in there!? Brilliant infinite adjustment and "nobody" is going to be able to whip off the saddle with a hex key but I may not either!

    The Laprade was a breeze to fit but it getting nicked with the bike it was attached to gave me a chance for an upgrade. Gave up on saddle changeover so went for a couple of miles to see how the bike was running, came back two hours later. A good bike is a joy for life...

  10. Coline--"A good bike is a joy for life". Indeed!

    I had to chuckle when you said, "'nobody' is going to be able to whip off he saddle with a hex key but I may not either". If you park your bike a lot, easy installation can indeed mean easy theft!

    1. Nobody is going to nick my beloved Barelli B 10 pedals either! after forty years they do not want to budge. Thought that if they came off for transit I could slip the bike in the van as extra luggage for a holiday trip. Keep using penetrating oil but they may be to well fitting. Any Ideas, from your previous ex days as a bike pert?

    2. Coline--Try adding more oil and tapping the crank lightly with a hammer. Then add some more oil and let it seep in.

      Also: Leverage is everything. VAR and Park used to make pedal wrenches with super-long handles. But they were expensive and probably not worthwhile if you're not running a shop. So, try slipping a hollow broom or mop handle over your wrench. Or, stomping on your wrench when it's attached to the pedal.

      And...Once your pedal is off, grease it!

  11. Justine, enjoyed reading this blog, which I came across having just purchased an SR Laprade Seatpost. How interesting!! I live in Herefordshire, GB and I am currently building up an 80's Holdsworth with some period/classic parts. I'm impressed at the range of bikes you have owned - something I can't match as I'm up to about 10 if I include my first tricycle!!