Some might say that the mountain bike revitalised the bike industry when it arrived in the late eighties. And if you look at the sales figures, it’s probably true. The MTB was a huge shot in the arm for an ailing bike industry. However, at the same time as stimulating bike sales, it put the final nail in the coffin of a bike style that dominated for over a decade – in the US, it was termed the Ten Speed – in the UK is was just called a Racer.
The genus of bike we’re talking about here is the lugged steel, drop handlebar bike, with clearance for reasonable tyres (28-32mm) and provision for mudguards and a rack. It wasn’t made of exotic materials (usually hi-ten steel) and basic models came with steel wheels and low end components – however, the bikes themselves were robust, cheap, and unlike the entry level MTB and hybrid of today – efficient, fast and fun to ride. Tour de France winners they weren’t, but as everyday bikes, they excelled. So much so that many survive to this day – hand-me-down machines serving out life sentences in the hands of students looking for a cheap and funky way of getting around.
Since the death of the ten speed, a process of velo-diversification as occurred – the MTB arrived in the bicycle-gene pool and eventually mutated into various different sub-species – cross country, downhill, freeride to name but three. The hybrid bike was a further mutation of the MTB and a nod back to the big-wheeled efficiency of the ten speed – but the ‘beige slacks and sensible shoes’ image of the hybrid has been hard to shake. Road racing bikes have undergone a renaissance since the MTB era but the template of the rugged 10 speed racer has been lost and forgotten.
However, a few manufacturers remembered the 10 speed/Racer with fondness and have recreated neo-ten speeds, or at least something close. Minneapolis based Surly Bikes have created a range of rugged steel road bikes, the Pacer, Cross-Check and Long-Haul-Trucker, ranging from lightweight road bike thru to expedition tourer. But these bikes aren’t cheap. Sure they’re great value, quality cromo-framed machines, but they’re not the cheap-as-chips, lock-and-leave everyday bikes that the old ten speeds were. Similarly, Rivendell Cycles’ range of practical road bikes, the Sam Hillbourne, A Homer Hilsen, Ramboiullet and the Bleriot have all rekindled the spirit of the ten speed, but in a boutique, high-end format. What we need is a rugged, no-nonesense ten speed for a new generation.
Modern day fixed wheel bikes are perhaps the closest modern day approximation of the 10 speed ideal – tough, low key steel frames, yet light and nimble enough to be a fun ride in the city. I wish that just one of the multitude of fixed gear producers would just slap a derailleur hanger and some gears on one of their low end steel fixie frames and reinvent the ten speed – I’m convinced they’d sell in container loads, to a huge swathe of riders, from baby boomers to jaded fixie riders whose knees are crying out for some lower gears for the hills.
Ideal Spec: Neo-Ten Speed
So what’s the blueprint for a modern day ten speed? Here’s my stab at an ideal spec:
Frame – lugged steel (and I mean plain old hi-tensile steel) – skinny, round tubes, horizontal top tube, clearance for 32 mm tyres, braze ons for rack, guards and brake bridges positioned for deep drop brakes calliper brakes.
Fork – lugged crown steel with a classic curve
Wheels – tough 36 hole rims (wide enough for 32mm tyres) on sealed freehubs – nothing fancy.
Brakes: Tektro deep drop callipers with separate (i.e. no STIs) brake levers
Gears: Bar end/down tube shifters (with friction option)
Bars: Traditional round bend (i.e. not anatomic)
Stem: traditional quill
Tyres: 32mm Panacer Pasela or similar
Saddle: Brooks B17
The whole bike would weigh in at around 30 lbs and combine ruggedness and speed in a way that modern bikes just can’t match.
Examples of the breed:
Raleigh Winner: early 1980s
Object of desire for 70s kids like me – available everywhere from bike shops to mail order catalogues – remember putting an ambitious felt-tip ‘x’ by it in the leadup to Christmas. Steel frame, steel wheels, Weinmann brakes, Simplex gears – drop bars, suicide levers and a bottle and cage thrown in. A winner in every sense
Falcon ‘Team Banana’
Lugged steel bike in the classic ‘team replica mode’. Fast, fun and hugely robust for a bike with skinny tyres. Got me to and from my first job twice as fast as an MTB – cruelly stolen from me one summer day…
Falcon Eddy Merckx – 1970s
Lugged steel, Rigida Supercromix rims, Simplex gears, Weinmann Brakes – orange and blue team replica colours – tough as nails, my first ‘racer’ – ignited a lifelong love affair with the bike.
But enough from me – let us know your ten-speed memories. Would you like to bring back the ten speed? Share your dream ten speed spec (remember, nothing expensive or exotic).