Sitting out in my garage alongside a selection of highly-focused pedal-cycles is a real all-rounder. It’s a bike I have been riding for more than a decade and one that, even now, still covers the hard miles without complaint. It’s a Roberts audax bike and it was built for me for the 1999 edition of Paris-Brest-Paris.
So, how does a steel-framed and -forked road bike hold up to 11 years of everyday usage? Best, perhaps, to start with the original specification and see what has changed and when. The tubeset is a custom combination of Columbus Nivacrom low-alloy steel chosen to provide a combination of comfort and stiffness.
Aren’t they all in an ideal world? In this case, there’s no question the nice, fat tapered downtube makes for a beefy interface with the lugged bottom bracket shell even as the “compact” frame geometry softens the frame’s stiffness in the vertical plane. Add in a long, flexible seat post and you have a recipe for the sort of long-distance ride comfort that pays off over the 1200km of Paris-Brest.
The remainder of the frame’s joins are lugless with Ritchey forged dropouts at the end of the rear triangle and various braze-on bosses for lamp and dynamo brackets and a rear rack scattered about. Geometry is unusual in that the steering angle of 74degrees is matched to a long wheelbase of 1250mm achieved through a long (for the frame size) tope tube. The outcome is exceptional stability allied to nicely neutral steering and topped off with an untroubled ride over poor surfaces.
Threadless steerer upgrade
In its original incarnation the PBP Special had a steel fork with Reynold 531 blades and threaded steerer. Quill stems were still just about cutting edge technology on the road but, within a couple of years, were largely obsolete. Moving with the times, I persuaded Chas to build me a replacement fork identical but for a threadless steerer.
The fork has been combined with a Ritchey WCS net-forged stem ever since, 3T Prima 199 handlebars weighing a claimed 199g completing the cockpit. How long do super-light aluminium ‘bars such as these last? They are removed annually and the insertion point into the stem inspected for cracks. None yet.
As first conceived, the PBP was supposed to be, as befits a proper audax bike, fast and light with some luggage capacity rather than some sort of light tourer. Exactly what any or these categories means is, of course open to debate but in this case it meant tyre clearance for mudguards but using short-reach brake calipers.
Limited tyre choice
When fitted with SKS mudguards, this in turn effectively means that the bike will only accept 23c tyres. I have often thought since then that I should have specified clearance for longer-reach brake calipers with capacity for fatter tyres, but take the ‘guards off and 25c rubber fits nicely.
The initial build used a mix of Shimano Ultegra 6500 9-speed components, the exceptions being a TA compact chainset with 50/36 ‘rings and the use of down-tube shifters for the Paris-Brest ride itself. These were quickly swapped for a pair of 9-speed 7700 Dura-Ace STI levers, which have performed faultlessly ever since. Who says Shimano wears out? Well, the 9-speed rear mech went the way of all flesh after about eight years to be replaced by a 6600 10-speed unit which shifts perfectly on nine. Shimano parts interchangeability can be a real bonus.
After wearing out a TA Axix bottom bracket assembly in one 600km audax ride ( the 1999 Brimstone 600, notorious for torrential rain and some 8,000m of climbing), I matched the TA cranks with a suitable Shimano cartridge BB. This combo ran nicely, if flexibly, until I upgraded to Hollowtech II bearings and an FC-R700 chainset a couple of years ago.
Some parts simply come and go according to whim and the needs of product testing. Saddles, wheels, handlebar tape… those three, actually. Right now, in place of the San Marco Regal pictured, I’m running a Gilles Berthoud leather saddle having modified it to resolve a minor issue. It sits on an old Shimano XTR seat post with what may be the most secure and is surely the most easily adjusted cradle design around.
Bar tape is by Brooks and has survived a couple of “offs” without needing replacement while the wheels shown – Mavic Open Pro on Dura-Ace 7700 – get a regular outing whenever I fancy a retro look and ride. Last of all, the current headset arrangement has a PRO threadless upper set. Its lower partner packed in quickly and in its place is the lower part of an Ultegra one inch headset. Not only does the Shimano headset last well, but the upper and lower cartridge bearings are the same. Once this one has died, its partner can take its place. The easy existence led by the PRO upper means it should last a while yet.
What sort of life has the PBP endured? One that has been hard but largely fair. Regular cleaning and maintenance have kept it running well but, inevitably, the years have taken their toll. It has been crashed, but never hard enough to bend anything; had a motocycle exhaust can dropped on the top tube, leaving a barely noticeable dent; ridden in all conditions and through the worst that the British winter can throw; done two editions of the Tour of Flanders cyclosportive (full length); taken on tour; done over 1,000 miles within seven days over the week of the ’99 Paris-Brest; and even been ridden in a few short time trials. It is still my machine of choice for winter reliability runs and most winter commuting.
The paint has lost its shine in places and is flaking away from the dropouts and around the headset and bottom bracket bearings. This is pretty much inevitable with steel since galvanic corrosion will, given the chance, attack any point where the aluminium of the bearing cups is in contact with a steel surface exposed by cutting tools during preparation and a decade is plenty long enough for said corrosion to get under the paint and begin to flake it off.
Can’t say I am bothered. I could go for a respray but there’s something about the look of a well-used steel road bike that says it has been places and done stuff. I think I’ll stick with it.