The Seduction of Symbols

The Seduction of Symbols

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There was a time when bicycles were lovingly handmade by artisans who themselves loved the sport more than those for whom they built the machines. Lugs were filed to become Luggs; chain and seat stays were beautifully chromed for durability despite the grams it added to the frame’s final weight; spokes were chosen for their purpose and laced to hubs and rims in a pattern that suited the specific purpose the wheel was intended to serve. Throughout the process – from building the frame to manufacturing of the components – extra care was taken to make every element of the bicycle beautiful; these bicycles, when you are in their presence, radiate La Vie Velominatus.

As was customary at the time, components would be pantographed and frames repainted and rebranded, leaving behind little evidence of their origin. But hidden in the components and frames were symbols that the manufacturers stamped into their wares to preserve their identity; Colnago their Fiore, Cinelli their C, and Campa their Shield. These symbols have come to hold great meaning within the sport and we of a certain ilk scour the photos of our heroes’ bikes for evidence of their existence.

For a variety of reasons including cost, proprietary tube-shapes, and repeatability of production, these practices have largely died away in mainstream bicycle manufacturing; in fact, nearly every element in the art of bicycle building that requires attention and skill is slowing being eliminated from the craft. Ahead-set stems have replaced the need for a carefully adjusted headset and stem, sealed-bearing bottom brackets and hubs have eliminated the subtle touch required to hold a race in place with one hand while tightening the assembly with the other. By and large, the machines and riders are stronger than the terrain they race over, leaving little practical need for the attention to detail and customization that once came as a matter of course.

There is, however, one magical week of racing where the terrain is still stronger than the riders: the cobbled classics of de Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. This is the one week during which the Pros still require highly customized machines and we, as fans, can scour the photos of our heroes’ kit, looking for the symbols tucked away in the components to discern their origins. One such symbol is the brass badge affixed to the valve-hole on Ambrosio rims.

These rims are chosen by the Specialists for their strength on the stones regardless of what wheel sponsorship obligations might exist within the team. Their mystique is further deepened for those of us living in the States because they aren’t available here. It follows, then, that the Golden Ticket, as I call it, is something I’ve coveted for as long as I can remember (which, admittedly, isn’t very long and, upsettingly, keeps getting less long) but have never had a good enough reason to justify procuring from Europe. But Keepers Tour, Cobbled Classics 2012 provided the perfect justification to go about finding a set and I wasted no time in doing so. Upon arrival, the rims spent the better part of two weeks sitting in my living room or next to my bed, patiently waiting for me to pick them up and rub my thumb over the badge, just to reassure myself they were still there.

Not long after the rims arrived, I excitedly loaded a picture of Boonen in the 2010 Ronde and turned the laptop to show my VMH.

Frank: Hey, what do you see.

VMH: Boonen. Goddamn, he’s a stud. Don’t let me too close to him; I can’t be responsible for my actions.

Frank: What about his wheels.

VMH: What?

Frank: Don’t you see? He’s got my rims.

VMH: You can’t possibly know that.

Frank: Openly shows his exasperation by groaning audibly and rolling his eyes. Yes, I do. Check it. You can see the Golden Ticket on his back wheel. Its obvious as shit. What’s wrong with you?

VMH: Sighs, pours another glass of wine. Exits stage left. Hopefully not for good.

*Coincidentally, on the same day that this article was being written, Inrng published a similar (better) article on a related subject of hand-built wheels. Well worth the read: The Dying Art of Wheelbuilding

// Accessories and Gear // Etiquette // Keepers Tour // Look Pro // Nostalgia // The Hardmen

  1. First road ride on the Nemesis/Dura-Ace/Pave combo this morning. 40km session with my Sensei, taking turns pulling on an out an back course with a strong head wind on the way back. Felt so much more connected with the road, great cornering, braking (the braking surface is brutal compared to the rims that cam with my bike) and general rolling along, feels effortless – well in comparison, I still felt like I was going to vomit and black out.

    Can’t wait to race on them tomorrow!




  2. That didn’t come out quite as planned! @frank how do you post portrait photos the right way up?

  3. @Chris
    Depends on your camera. Usually it figures it out, but seems your camera is using a funny rotation setting. Best option is to edit those in a photo editor when they’re like that.

    Also apologize, also misread your post in my haste and thought you were asking me to edit out the duplicates.

  4. @frank
    They were all the right way up in Picasa. Better luck next time. Thanks for deleting the duplicates, that was a bit messy.

  5. My mocheene is in its near-final Keepers Tour config. My-oh-my, that’s one tightly built bike. I had to abandon the TRPs for a second time to accommodate the 25’s as the back didn’t leave sufficient clearance. I also had to ziptie the front derailleur cable out of the way so it didn’t rub the tire. It will be interesting should it be muddy.

  6. @Chris
    I fixed them for you. Can’t really debug it; sometimes they work, sometimes not. And I noticed the main pics were pointed correctly, the album ones weren’t – and it’s the same image rendering script that draws both, so no clue why one would have it right and the other not. I would like to resolve such things, but alas it falls too low on the list to ever make it into the active stream.

  7. @frank
    Nice, how are the FMBs?

    Like the new wall!

  8. @Chris
    You truly are a Velominatus Exceptionel with that set up – chapeau – looks awesome

  9. @Dr C

    You truly are a Velominatus Exceptionel with that set up – chapeau – looks awesome

    His bike setup is nothing. Taking photos almost a year in the future, now THAT’s impressive!

  10. @Dr C
    Shame about the less than awesome rider!

    Thanks for fixing the photos.

    The kids must have been playing with the date thing on the camera!

  11. @Dr C

    Locked and loaded

    Some green on my machine

    Damn that’s a fine bike for Belgium. My teef will be rattled out and you will be cruising. I’m jealous. It looks most pro.

  12. Looking to build up a set of Nemesis/White Industries. What ERD are people using for the rims to calculate spoke length? I’m seeing 616.5 most often; is that reliable enough to caculate/order spokes, or should I wait for my rims and measure directly (which I kinda suck at….). Thanks!

  13. I have finally built up the nemeses rims to the hubs I’ve bought, and they are currently sitting under the bed waiting for tubs. I found a great mechanic in Canberra, who  ran through how to lace them and bring up to tension. Need to wait for finances to improve before laying down the dosh for the tubs and glue, (probably Schwalbe training tubs and a set of racing tubs as well) and we lost the fricken camera in the move/unpacking (I’m sure it’s in the house somewhere – the surest way to find it is to buy a new one) but might get some iphone pics up tonight.

  14. @minion

    Awesome, by bringing another Nemesis wheel set into being you’ve made the world a better place.

  15. @minion

    Awesome minion.What racing tubs are you thinking of?You mean you’re getting another wheelset?

    By the way I used this new product recently and it worked very well just with a rag!

  16. @TommyTubolare


    Cheers, Tommy I would like to migrate all my wheelsets to tubs but that might be on a replacement strategy (as  I wear out my clincher wheelsets) but I will have to wait to purchase the tyres, rather than another wheelset. I have heard good things about Schwalbe’s cheaper training tyres, and might buy two pairs – one pair of Milanos for training adn eventually a pair of ultremos for racing.

  17. *Montello tyres

  18. can see ambrosios getting knocked around in slo-mo.  serious poetry in motion

  19. @gravity bob

    You cant avoid using solvents, unless you use clinchers. But man – be careful with the benzene.  Acetone is bad enough but benzene, if it really is benzene, is quite a bit nastier, and I would not allow my kids, and ABSOLUTELY NOT my pregnant wife anywhere near it, and ABSOLUTELY NOT inside.   Its a serious carcinogen.


    Clear shot of the golden ticket at 1:35, I wouldn’t even have been looking without this article, now I had to double check.

  21. @roger

    That was a great video. I couldn’t get over how not connected the bikes looked to the ground. Unreal.


  22. I give you the H Plus Son SL43, Alloy deep rim rear laced with a mix of Sapim Race and Strong spokes to a Shim 105 hub. Being a big old clyde had this made up to withstand the awful roads around Northumberland. I love the lack of symbols besides the very subtle H on the valve hole…

  23. 43mm deep?

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