Saturday, 7 September 2013

1994 TREK 5500 OLCV: It's all down hill from here.

My passion for cycling had been rekindled by a jellybean single speed my wife bought me online. I tinkered with the drive train to make a two speed dingle bike. Having got the bug, I rebuilt a 1970's ten speed racer, like the one I used to ride to school.

I'd convinced a couple of friends to go riding with me, but it turned out they were fitter and stronger and lighter and better riders than me. Rather than resort to training or diet, obviously I needed a better bike, or at least a lighter one.

For $9,900 I could be on a new pinarello dogma, or I could get a second hand alloy framed malvern star on for $399 that would do the job quite well, with a carbon fork!

But my heart said TREK 5500 OCLV (1994)...

In 1994 I was living on a Mongoose IBOC rigid mountain bike, and discovering professional cycling and the Tour de France in nightly 30min highlight packages on SBS.

Coincidentally, the years of my mid twenties coincided with the peak era of human culture and technology. Did that happen to you too? From there it has been a long slow decline into chaos and this bike is part of the story of that decline. This was Lance Armstrong's bike.

You can read the history of the OLCV frameset here, and a lot more TREK history here but basically the company started building carbon frames using the "Optimum Compaction, Low Void" technique in 1992, they built my bike in 1994, they signed up Lance Armstrong in 1997, he had the fastest time in the 1999 Tour de France and from that year, there is a 7 year gap in the official records with the competition being judged so corrupt, that no winner could be declared. For almost all of that time, apart from some changes to the forks and steerer, and tweaking the carbon recipe, Lance was riding a bike essentially identical to this one.

Lance Armstrong had a lot of fans once, but I was never one of them. It wasn't the drugs and the blood transfusions I objected to, it was the bullying and the bad sportsmanship, the corruption and the ruthless pursuit of winning without any consideration of grace or style. I miss Marco Pantani. He was the last rider to win the Tour de France before it sucummbed to Armstrong's relentless grind. His 1998 win may or may not have been done "without assistance", but it was done with style. Having prevailed in the Giro D'Italaia that year, Pantani started the Tour 4 minutes behind after the opening time trial, by the end of the Tour he had turned that into a 4 minute lead by his audacious and agressive riding in the mountains. Sadly, having been caught up in the doping scandles that followed, he died with a cocaine overdose in 2004.

In my memory the 1990s was an ideological battle ground, a fine-de-siecle struggle between different visions of how an individual might exercise personal freedom and power in the new millenium. The conflict between de-regulation and anarchy?


 If Lance Armstong was the Gordon Gekko "greed is good" face of the 90's in cycling, then Marco "Il_Pirata" Pantani was a fire starter... a twisted fire starter.

In this video from the 2000 Tour de France, Pantani now in the late part of his career, has caught Armstong's leading group at the bottom of Mt. Ventoux and attacked several times, starting to break away when Armstrong responds. They set a blistering pace, up the climb as they swap leads and a few words (racing without helmets). Did Armstrong pull up at the end and give Pantani the stage victory? Whatever he meant by it, Pantani found him offensive! He withdrew later in that Tour and never rode it again.

You can see a longer version of Armstrong and Pantani on Mt. Ventoux, with commentary in Italian at

In 1994 this TREK 5500 cost $4,500 and the old man I bought it from had been a younger man, pretty serious about his triathlons. The bike was well looked after while it was ridden and was in good condition except for the tyres and a few spots of rust on some bolt heads. It had a full Shimano 600 "tricolor" group of components, including head set and hubs built onto italian Ambrosio rims.

The 5500 OCLV was one of the first bikes with a monocoque carbon fibre frame. Carbon fibre compounds are nearly ideal materials to make bicycle frames. Their high tensile strength, low density and  stiffness (low Young's modulus) makes performance bikes significantly lighter than any other material. It's the ideal material for a bike that you are actually riding, but because of it's brittleness and vulnerability to direct impact it probably isn't the ideal material for a bike that you are trying to take apart and pack into the back of a small car, or the ideal material for a bike that you are locking up and leaving out in the street overnight, or banging around in a crowded home workshop. (Put the spanner down before you pick up the frame.) When it does break the failure tends to be sudden and catastrophic, so it's certainly not the ideal material for a bike that you are crashing, or trying to fix afterwards and get back on the road, but for riding fast and hanging on a hook in the garage it was the right choice. I believe some people would get a second hand carbon frame xray'd to look for hidden cracks. I looked the old man in the eye and believed that he'd never crashed it.

Early carbon fibre bikes were made from pre-formed carbon fibre tubes glued into alloy lugs. This Alan frame is a particularly beautiful example. It's got an alloy right chain stay, where impact from the drive train can cause damage, and alloy forks. (As opposed to the later trend for alloy frames with carbon forks.)

The OCLV frames were built in one piece in a mould and compressed from the inside with an air filled bladder. That saves more weight and allows more variations in the geometry and the thickness and composition of the materials in different parts of the frame. You can make shapes like this...

Just about everything on the bike: gears, brakes, cranks, rims and headset, is marked SHIMANO 600, mostly with a three coloured rectangle. 

Shimano make about half of all bicycle components sold and their marketing strategies are as well developed as their engineering. They cover the whole market from children's bikes to the top of professional racing, with multiple product lines and yearly model upgrades. This version is sometimes nick named the "600 tricolor group". tells me that the 600 group was later designated "Ultegra" and was the second level of road bike components below "Dura Ace".

I'm not sure if that necessarily means the high level group is better. It may be lighter and more race worthy, but not always as robust and long wearing, or easily adjustable and servicable.

There are bicycle enthusiasts who know much, much more about these things than I do, and they have on line forums. One of the boffins here says:

"This is one of my favourite groups of all time as it is well made, shifts extremely well, and is rather tough to boot."

In the early 90's combined brake lever / shifters (brifters), like this STI system were a signifiacnt innovation in bicycle controls. In these early models, the gear cable comes out sideways. Modern ones have it hidden under the bar tape along with the brake cables for improved aerodynamics, but otherwise they function much the same. They are more complex than the simple levers that came before them, and unlike most bicycle innovations, they are heavier. Armstrong is said to have had a climbing bike set up with a brifter for the rear derailleur for quick shifting and a simple down tube shifter for the front, to save weight. Repair and servicing are a problem. There is probably more chance of repairing early models than later ones. The manufacturers would be happy for you to purchase a new set when the old ones stop functioning.

Mine were not shifting smoothly when I got them. I did a bit of reading on line, and as advised, put a can of spray oil in all the openings I could find and repeatedly worked the mechanism back and forth. Now they are perfect every time. 

It took a bit of fiddling to get the gear cables the right length for the index shifting to work. My old mountain bike had Deore XT thumb shifters with index shifting. They were fitted with a little mechanical switch that would disengage it. When the cable stretched and the gears went out of alignment, I just turned the index shifting off.

The TREK has this Trim Tab on the down tube. You can adjust the rear derailleur cable while you're riding!


A sealed cartridge bottom bracket with a square taper crank fitting means I already have the tools I need for servicing, it's compatible with just about everything, and it can be easily replaced if I have any trouble with it. I assume this one is about 20 years old, and it still works alright. Modern bikes can have a variety of mutually incompatible bottom bracket / crank systems with, arguably, very little performance improvement except for some ultra lightweight, or extra strong off road applications. With the old square taper fittings, you have to tighten the crank bolts from time to time or they'll squeak, or you can wait till they squeak and then tighten them.

Eight rear sprockets is enough really... isn't it? It's a question of range versus gradation.

Look at these pedals! 

Clipless pedals, confusingly, are the ones you clip in and out of. They replaced cage-like toe clips and straps (which are still commonly used by track riders to bind their shoes to the pedals). These LOOK pedals quickly became the standard, and essentially still are, although the design is out of patent. The latest models are a bit lighter.

The coolest thing about these ones is that they are labelled D for right and G for left. They are French.

The other common type of clipless pedal is the SPD system (on the right).

These are more commonly used on mountain bikes, and by tourers and commuters, because the smaller cleat can be recessed into the sole of the shoe to make walking easier.

I found some LOOK compatible cleats that fit my old MTB shoes. It looks a bit weird but it does work.  It feels like the larger contact area helps transfer power to the pedals and I never accidentally pull my foot out, like I sometimes do with the smaller cleats, but I can't walk properly in them.

The old man I bought the bike from was a giant. He had the seat way up and the handle bars low and extended out the front on a long stem. I was a bit worried that the bike might be too big for me. It was advertised as 62cm, that's the length of the seat tube up from the bottom bracket. That is the right size for me, using the old Cinelli formula of 32 to 34 cm less than the height of the rider's femoral head. But bicycle sizing and fitting is a complex and controversial art. Sheldon Brown knows everything and says that the top tube length is the most important dimension in getting a good fit.

It was raining when I went to look at the bike.  I didn't even try to ride it but I measured it up and decided I could get it to fit me. I hadn't anticipated how far forward the natural hand position on the brifters is, but by fitting a short stem and a pair of modern compact handle bars (deisgned for Rapid Hand Movement) I managed to get everything back into a relaxed version of my early 90s riding position.

The problem with going for a smaller frame would be getting the handle bars up high enough to be comfortable, especially for an old man buying a second hand bike. I'm 45, I'm not as flexible as I was and I want my handlebars and my saddle pretty much at the same height.

The Japanese company Dia-Compe patented their Aheadset® threadless headset in 1990 and they gradually became the standard for almost all bikes.

This bike has an older style threaded headset. You adjust the height by unscrewing the bolt on top (NOT the big nut around the bottom of the stem!) and sliding the stem up and down.

With this style headset, if you can find a stem with a long enough vertical quill section, you can extend the handle bars up as far as you  like...

which is why you still see them on kids bikes and upright cruisers.

With a threadless headset, you can adjust handle bar position by fitting a different size or angled clamp on stem. If you want extra hight, you need to install a set of forks with the steerer left long, the stem position can then be set by adjusting the headset stack height with spacers or clamps. Extreme variations include this...

and this!!

(Read more about this Sheldon Brown special here.)

I don't know what sort of stress that puts on the steerer. It's normally a fairly short tube attached to the front forks and completely hidden within the bicycle frame, headset and stem hardware.

My carbon fibre forks are mounted on a steel steerer, which should bend or buckle before it breaks. In 2001, TREK changed to a lighter, aluminium alloy steerer and later to carbon fibre, both of which are more likely to suddenly snap. Want to see what it looks like when that happens? Here's George Hincape riding a TREK OCLV in the 2006 Paris - Roubaix classic... That's essentially the same bike as mine, except for the steerer and headset system.

He's putting his life on the line in the quest to sell you a better bicycle.

Some say the threadless headet is more crashworthy, with less sharp angles to impact on. The alternative theory is that the expansion wedge system holding the stem quill in the threaded headset, will give way with less force than the handle bars need to penetrate your abdomen!

I'm prepared to accept that the threadless headset system is lighter, eaisier to adjust with smaller tools, and fits a bigger range of modern handle bars than the old threaded headset. The latest development in headset technology is the integrated headset, where the bearing surfaces are part of the frame itself, instead of separate components pressed into the head tube. This is no improvement at all! (See what head set guru Chris King has to say about them.) There might be some appeal to a professional time trialist, who is looking for marginal gains in weight and aerodynamics and whose sponsor will give them a new bike for next season, but for most riders the advantage is to the manufacturer, with fewer components and assembly steps and a system that can't be effectively serviced or replaced. That means you need to get a whole new frame when the headset bearing starts to wear out.

Since the 90s, the trend (possibly influenced by mountain biking and bmx) has been towards smaller framed bikes with longer seat posts, sometimes angled top tubes, and stems that slope up from the top of the head tube to the handle bars. This may make the frame marginally lighter and possibly stiffer. But I like the style of the old "droopy 7" quill stem. This design dates from a time when bicycles were sized much bigger, even with top tubes too high to comfortably stand over. The drop in the stem allowed the handle bars to be mounted below the level of the top tube if desired.

It's sad to see the fall of the Droopy 7 handle bar stem. It may not be as technologically advanced as it's lightweight successor, but too me it was the most beautiful and sensuous of bicycle components. When I'm bent low down over the bars, dripping with my own moisture, panting hard, with my tounge hanging out, I don't want to be looking at a stubby, over eager, clamp-on stem with a pop top, thrusting up in the air, bursting with seams and joints and exposed bolt heads.

I'd rather see the languid lines of something smooth sleek and sexy like this, enticing me to go harder and longer.

Now I'm not seriously suggesting that the 1994 TREK 5500 was the indisputable high point in bicycle development and that every thing that has come after is either a marketing gimmick or a backwards step. If someone gave me a new model Pinarello Dogma or any other high performance road bike, I wouldn't turn it down. But I think if you're looking for David Brailsford's marginal gains, you also need to think about marginal costs and opportunity costs. For less than 10% of the cost, and a few hours in the workshop, I've got a bike that comes close enough for a casual Sunday ride. At least if I can't keep up with the group I know It's my fault not the bike's. And the money I didn't spend on that bike can be spent on another bike. There are so many expensive machines on the road these days, with people upgrading, giving up, or accidentally buying the wrong size, there must be some real bargains in the second hand market.

But in the mean time, here are some more smokey back lit photos of my new 20 year old bike...

...And more of the fearsome and beautiful pirate of the 1990s, Marco Pantani.