22 May 2018

Buying What They Were

Five of my six bikes are equipped with SRAM chains, even though I don't currently use any other SRAM components.

It's an old habit: The first replacement chain I ever bought was a Sedis. It worked well for me, and I would use continue to use Sedis chains...until they became Sachs chains.  Then I used Sachs chains...until they became SRAM.

Back in the '80's, Sachs, which was known primarily for multigear and coaster brake hubs, bought out Sedis, as well as several other French component makers, most notably Maillard and Huret.  A few years later, the SRAM consortium, which consisted of Grip Shift, Rock Shox and a few other parts makers, acquired Sachs.

To keep simple-minded folk like me from getting confused, for the first few years of Sachs ownership, the company marketed those parts--which were still made in France--under hyphenated names:  Sachs-Sedis, Sachs-Maillard and Sachs-Huret.  But SRAM tossed all of those names into the dustbin of history.  I didn't mind:  I still like the chains.

I mention this because of another interesting name-change.  Rivendell is, of course, the bike brand Grant Peterson created from the ashes of Bridgestone.  Now "Rivendell" and "Bridgestone" are often used as terms to describe a kind of retro-ish or modern-retro bike, much as "Scotch tape" has become a generic term for rolls of clear adhesive bands, even though the phrase is a registered trademark of 3M.

Today Bridgestone bikes have something of a cult following.  So does Rivendell, if it's not a status symbol in some circles.  But what's commonly forgotten is that Bridgestone had two other identities, at least in the US, before it became Bridgestone.

Back in the early '70's, when the American Eagle Kokusai (later known as the Nishiki International) and Fuji S-10S were showing that Japanese bikes could compete with, and sometimes beat (especially in shifting), their European counterparts, there was another Japanese bike brand that seemed determined to make people remember why they shunned anything with a "Made In Japan" label.  

To be fair, some bikes sold under the C.Itoh brand were pretty good riders.  The company even had a "professional" model with a chrome-moly frame, Sugino Competition cranks, Sun Tour bar end shifters, "V" rear derailleur and Compe V front; Dia Compe brakes and Sanshin-Sunshine hubs with tubular rims and tires.  It was like a lower-priced version of the Fuji Finest, Nishiki Professional or Miyata Pro, with the best pre-Cyclone, pre-Dura Ace equipment available.

C.Itoh bike, circa 1972

But there were other C.Itoh bikes that, shall we say, reenforced all of the old negative stereotypes about Japanese bikes:  They had clunky lugs and bottom bracket shells,  dropouts and other frame fittings that were, to put it politely, quirky. The paint on those frames and chroming on the rims and bars flaked and came flying off when the bike was operated at more-than-average speeds.

Bridgestone-Kabuki "Superlight", circa 1975

(Maybe the folks making those bikes were trying to emulate the French, as Japanese bike makers often did in those days, and so believed they had to make their bikes like croissants.*)

Some of those bikes also came with a seatpost that almost no novice cyclist of the time had seen:  It looked more like the quill of a stem, with an expander bolt and plug that worked like those of a stem.  So, you didn't tighten your seat post with a seat binder bolt:  The expander kept it in the frame.  In one way, that's a good idea:  At least you don't have to worry about stripping out or deforming the seat lug.  On the other hand, it meant that saddle height adjustments could be made only by removing the saddle.

Kabuki Submariner, circa 1975

When C.Itoh bikes were rebranded , they kept that strange seat post. They also kept the clunky-looking lugs and bottom bracket shell.  At least they made sense on one model.  If you haven't seen it, you've heard of it:  the Submariner.  At least, that's what it was called when C. Itoh became Kabuki.

The Submariner was ostensibly a bike designed for marine environments.  So those lugs and bottom bracket shell were thick because they were aluminum.  Why were they aluminum?  Supposedly because they were needed in order to braze together the tubes, which were stainless steel:  Using steel lugs would have all but required silver brazing rod, which is much more expensive than the brass brazing rods used on most bikes, to keep from overheating the stainless steel.

The thing is, most other Kabukis looked like Submariners with paint on them.  What's funny about that, and the Submariners, is they date themselves as '70's bikes precisely because they don't look like other bikes from that period.  And they were sold under the Kabuki name because, by the mid-70s, people were actually willing to buy Japanese bikes because they were Japanese, so it wasn't necessary to mask their identities with names that didn't sound Japanese. (American Eagle?)

A rather nice Kabuki track bike, circa 1974

A decade later, when Kabuki became Bridgestone, and Grant Petersen became their lead designer, people were buying them because they rode--and looked--like the bikes they remembered from the '70's.  And they're paying even more for that privilege when they buy Rivendell, the line of bikes Grant started after Bridgestone closed its US operations in the mid-90s.

So, while I buy SRAM chains because they were (and, really, still are) Sedis chains, you probably aren't buying a Rivendell--or didn't buy a Bridgestone--because it was Kabuki or C.Itoh.  At least, I hope not.

(*By the way, I didn't mean to disparage French bikes, or anything else French.  I love croissants, and some French bikes, but that doesn't mean bikes should be made like croissants!)


  1. We keep and cherish my wife's Nishiki Kokusai to this day. OTOH, old cheap French bikes were, simply, cheap...

  2. I enjoy your column, and admire your daily production.
    I seem to collect bikes that fall into my hands. So, I have a Bridgestone Kabuki Superlight dump find. I could barely determine its color when found, but it is a rather nice shade of blue. The unusual construction led me to Sheldon Brown's remarks, and I agree that the seat post and seat lug with cast ears is amusing. My bike is a mix of all aluminum lugs and tubes, except steel seat tube and fork blades. The head tube and adjacent "lugs" is a single cast piece. I've come to enjoy the look. Actually the lugs seem thinner than "Alan" for example, and although they're blunt, they are more finished than the Nervex on my PX10. The frame is certainly not "superlight,"and the ride is rather like an average steel bike.

    1. Anon--Interesting that you found that "Superlight" in the dump. Once you get past its klunky looks, it's actually a fairly decent ride. And the ride you describe is probably why they sold at all: If their ride was as unusual as their looks, they probably would have ended up in the dustbin--or dump--of history.

  3. Love that C.Itoh from '72! It is so much a perfect child of it's time It has: "safety brake" handles, stem shifters, a big wide pie plate, tan sidewall tires, and those little fenders, "racing shorts". I bet it weighs all of 15 kilos. But I'm not making fun of it. I did about 25 kilometers today on a bike that fits this description exactly, except it was made in '78. It rides nice and easy. I bet the bike in the picture would have (does?) too.

  4. Leo--I've heard that some C.Itoh bikes were nice riders. And, yes, the '72 version in the photo really does look like "a perfect child of its time" for all the reasons you mention!

  5. Thanks for the history lesson. Sheldon Brown couldn't have said it better. I usually buy SRAM chains, in part because the quick connector links. Last year I bought a 9-speed KMC chain for my road bike and it seems rather noisy compared to SRAM.

  6. MT--Good point. I have tried KMC and other chains from time to time, but they are all noisier or wear out more quickly than the SRAM chains.

  7. I remember my road bike as either a 1969 or 1970. I was 13 and 14. My mother worked for J.C.Penney and it was purchased on her discount. Pearl white. 10 speed. I don't remember the setup other than Shimanos. That bicycle took me everywhere. I ended up in Colorado with it which is where it stayed when I left a year later. It was so much a part of my life. It was time to move on to bigger and better adventures.