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Sunday, July 5, 2009

The history behind my Bianchi

When I went shopping for a cheap used bike five years ago, I was just looking for a bike I could ride occasionally on paved trails and city streets. I didn't want to spend $1,000 only to ride my bike for two months out of the year. (This is Seattle.)

Something about the bike I saw at the Recycled Cycles shop in the University District was special: It even said "Special" on the top tube. The bicycle was solid but lightweight thanks to a steel frame. The hot red frame said "sporty," and it seemed to fit my 5'6" frame just fine.

This vintage bike belongs to the last breed of racing bikes before the modern road bike came on the scene equipped with index-shifters, carbon fiber components and high-tech braking systems.

The "Bianchi" name refers to the Italian bicycle maker, founded in 1885.

F.I.V. Edoardo Bianchi S.p.A. is the world's oldest bicycle-making company still in existence, according to Wikipedia. The company's crowned-eagle logo appears on my bike, but so do Japanese names. I didn't understand why a bicycle maker would assemble most of its product with Japanese parts and brand it with an Italian name. Bianchi's corporate web site is apparently silent on that piece of its history.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Japanese bicycle industry was kicking the pants off European bicycle makers in the American market. During the 1970s, Americans clamored for bikes, thanks to an oil crisis that made driving expensive. Manufacturers in Europe and Japan churned out affordable 10-speed sport bikes patterned after racing bikes.

The Japanese were known for quality workmanship and innovation in technology-intensive parts used in racing bicycles, including SunTour's slant-parallelogram rear derailleur (1964) and Shimano's index system for shifting gears (1984). The Japanese manufacturers also had cheaper labor costs than their peers in Europe.

And so apparently Bianchi did what is taken as a given today: It outsourced some of its manufacturing to Japan, at a time when the Yen's value was falling sharply against Western currencies. Bianchi provided the design specs and the Japanese assembled the bikes from their well-established parts manufactuers.

The names of Japanese bicycle parts makers appear everywhere I look at my Bianchi bike. (For the uninitiated, it's worth becoming familiar with the basic anatomy of a bicycle.)

Handlebars: The polished aluminum handlebars are engraved with two phrases -- "Road Champion" and "Sakae Custom Japan."

Crankset: Also from Sakae Ringyo, which bought SunTour and became SR-SunTour in 1987.

Braking system: Shimano makes the hoods, brake levers and the single-pivot side-pull calliper brakes. Modern racing bikes have dual-pivot calliper brakes.

Friction shifters: The SunTour down tube shifters mark my bike as belonging to an extinct species. The rider has to take a hand off the steering and reach down! And the rider must become adept at knowing just how far to move the lever to switch from one gear to the next. Sloppy shifting results in the sprocket and chain not lining up properly. Think of it as the difference between driving stick and automatic. Modern bikes have handlebar index shifters that click-stop as you change gears.

Sprockets: It appears to be the Shimano 600EX series introduced from 1978 to 1988 for road racing bikes. There are six cogs in the freewheel.

The six cogs help explain why I have a tougher time climbing hills than my fellow cyclists who ride modern racing bikes, which come with lower gears. They keep pedaling at a steady cadence, whereas my rpm falls sharply as I struggle in my granny gear.

Of course in training for STP I could have abandoned my Bianchi for a modern road bike, as some riders suggested. Believe me, I thought about it many times on hills.

It would be foolish to change bikes days before the event. After STP, a modern road bike will definitely be on my wish list.

But I'm holding onto my vintage Bianchi. I love the eighties!


  1. What model of Bianchi do you have?

  2. I believe I have a very similar model of this bike.

    It looks nearly identical, but there are a few differences. Where yours says "Special", mine says "Classica".

    Also, on my front forks, the last 3 inches or so are chrome.

    Do you have much information on your model, because I've had a tough time finding anything about mine.

    Either way, it's a fantastic ride!

    1. Hi, I'm Glenn from Indonesia.
      I found this similar Bianchi with full japanese parts and accessories in the used bike shop and I really really want that bike.
      I wonder how much you bought this bike?

      It cost around $140 and need much repair especially for their physics.

      I need some reference. Thank you

  3. indeed ... I would never part with my bianchi made with ishiwata 022 steel. the workmanship is much better than aonther bianchi I have made in italy from columbus steel. worlds apart, and if you're lucky enough to ever find one of these 'holy grail' bike, grab it and pay whatever the seller wants ..

    1. Yes. someone else who has a Bianchi made of Ishiwata steel. Mine if from 1981, assembled in Toronto. It has a cable that reads "Magny Ishiwata Double butted tubes, forks, and stays". Do you know anything about this material?

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