Classic Cycle Thursdays: Vintage Titanium Road Bike Shootout!

Classic Cycle Thursdays: Vintage Titanium Road Bike Shootout!

It is my great pleasure and privilege to continue offering you this blog in 2022, long after the very idea of blogging went out of fashion and most practitioners of the craft either moved on to creating other forms of content or simply got real jobs. So as we ceremonially unwrap the brand-new pair of bib shorts that is the new year, I humbly submit that you consider my words the chamois cream that helps ameliorate the irritation of your day. There comes a point in all our lives when we must look back upon our deeds and asses their value, and if my own endeavors have served to distract and amuse you for even a moment or two over the years then I will consider mine worthwhile and my purpose upon this earth to have been fulfilled.

Though of course I realize I’m basically this guy, and I’m totally fine with it:

Anyway, as a semi-professional bike blogger, I don’t have the sort of access to the newest and latest crabon wonder sleds that allows me to regale you with tales of their lateral stiffness and vertical compliance. I do, however, have the ability to dip freely into the bikes of yesteryear thanks to Classic Cycle, and after putting in some decent miles on the Colnago Bititan I finally feel ready to present you with a…

Vintage Titanium Shootout!

*[Editorial note: for those of you who are troubled that I’m not concerned enough about climate change, which I know is a thing because every so often somebody announces they won’t be reading anymore because of it, please note that all these photos have been recycled from other posts.]

Part I: The Bikes

2001 Litespeed Tuscany

Back in 2019 I became the owner of this 2001 Litespeed Tuscany. Even though it’s over 20 years old, it doesn’t seem like a vintage bike to me, since it feels like only yesterday I was an enthusiastic 20-something Fred coveting bikes just like it. Since receiving it from Classic Cycle and realizing my decades-old dream of becoming a self-important titanium bike owner (though arguably when you’re talking about titanium bike owners the “self-important” is implied), the only real change I’ve made to it is the wheels, though the Mavic Scaryums it originally came with are still in service–currently on the Milwaukee, which I’ve basically given to my son:

1995 Colnago Bititan

In early November, after a reader purchased the Davidson Impulse I’d been riding, Classic Cycle sent this Colnago Bititan in its place. While separated by several years, the Litespeed and the Colnago are nonetheless similar bicycles, in that they’re both pure road bikes with titanium frames and traditional wheels. So how do they compare? Let’s toss them in a ring like a couple of gamecocks and let them fight it out in some key categories.

Craftsmanship

I’m quite neglectful when it comes to cleaning and don’t really mind looking down between my legs and seeing something grimy. (If you’re wondering whether that last sentence was about bikes or personal hygiene, the answer is “yes.”) However, I’m also paradoxically intolerant of imperfections; for example, the myriad discolorations and blemishes on my Ritte Rust Bucket secretly drove me crazy, no matter how much I tried to convince myself it was just patina. I’d also argue that road bikes should be held to a higher standard, since rolling along on pavement mile after mile affords you ample opportunity to notice (and obsess over) imperfections.

The Litespeed offers me no opportunity whatsoever to fuss over such matters. The frame is fastidiously assembled and almost antiseptic in its perfection. The tubing is also gracefully shaped and swoopy, and while I have no idea to what degree this contributes to the bike’s ride quality, it’s certainly nice to look at and enhances your sense you’re riding something special.

I don’t know anything about metalworking so can’t say whether or not the welds on the Colnago are “better” or “worse” than those on the LItespeed. Also, they’re under paint. However, I will say the Colnago foregoes the swoopy tubing and the pump peg for the trademark “Master”-profile top tube and of course the split downtube, both of which purportedly stiffen the bike:

If you believe what people say on the Internet, Bititans were prone to breakage, though apparently later examples such as this one were more reliable. Either way, the angular nature of the Colnago’s construction makes it seem more weaponlike than the Litespeed, and while the split downtube mayor may or may not make the frame stiffer, it does mean that you’ll find a gritty skunk stripe on your water bottle when the road is wet.

Winner: Litespeed

Compatibility

Titanium, we tell ourselves, is the ideal material for a “forever bike.” Sure, you’ll fall for the next gimmick long before you wear out your tires, let alone your frame, but let’s just pretend for a moment that your titanium bike is in fact the last one you’ll ever buy. Is it on the road to obsolescence? While the Litespeed sports rim brakes and “tight” clearances by modern standards, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest you’ll be able to easily source replacement pads and 25mm tires for at least the next 30 years. The same thing goes for inch-and-an-eighth threadless forks, stems, and headsets. Even quick-relase hubs with 130mm spacing are not in imminent danger of going extinct, thru-axles notwithstanding. And of course the traditional threaded bottom bracket shell has proven so boringly functional that companies like Specialized are returning to it, even for their most “advanced” crabon bikes.

Meanwhile, all of the above is also true for the Colnago, though should you need to replace the one-inch threaded fork or convert it to threadless you might have fewer aftermarket options. Then again, barring a major incident such as a collision, you’ll probably never need to replace the steel fork on the Colnago. Plus, the threaded setup arguably makes the bike more future-compliant, since it’s that much easier to raise the bars as you age.

Winner: Draw

Aesthetics

I’d characterize the looks of the Litespeed as clean and graceful, if maybe a little dated due to the decals and fade job on the fork.

The Colnago is flashy bordering on garish. At the same time, I get a compliment pretty much every time I head out on the Colnago, whereas I virtually never get one on the Litespeed. And while I’ve always been a little ambivalent about Colnago’s paint jobs, I admit this changed once I actually started riding one. I particularly like the mix of metallic blue and bare titanium, and the straight-blade steel fork appeals to me much more than the plastic one on the Litespeed.

Winner: Colnago

Heritage

[Photo: Graham Watson]

Being a newer American company, Litespeeds were mostly the domain of monied masters racers and uber-competitive Freds in general–though they did briefly provide bikes for team Lotto before beginning their aluminum bike death spiral:

Remember when every aluminum bike had to have crabon stays even though it did nothing except make the bike heavier? That was hilarious.

[Photo: From here]

Colnago on the other hand has heritage oozing out of its bib shorts. Where do you even begin? Here’s Abraham Olano winning the 1995 World Championship road race on a Bititan…though even they were not immune to the aluminum-with-crabon-stays craze:

Winner: Colnago

Founder’s Charisma

David Lynskey assembles bikes himself and looks like he drives a Chevy Suburban to Home Depot.

Ernesto Colnago is a cardinal, claims to have invented everything in cycling (including the titanium bicycle), and looks likes he drives around in a Ferrari with a 22 year-old mistress.

Winner: Colnago*

*[Disclaimer: these are superficial observations based on wardrobe and regional stereotypes, I know nothing of the lifestyles of either one of these men. For all I know David Lysnkey is ripping around Chatanooga in a Ferrari chasing tail while Ernesto Colnago does the crossword in his bathrobe all day. Actually, looking closer at them both, they may be the same person.]

“Fred Factor”

“With the attention to detail on the rear triangle, the frame is incredibly stiff when you’re laying down the power, but pleasingly (for us in London at least) it is also vertically compliant.” — RoadcyclingUK

“…the BiTitan is a great all-around bike. It’s light and nimble, perfect for jockeying in position for the field sprint.” — Bicycle Guide

Winner: Draw

Conclusion:

Like a stupid puppy or a nightclubber on Ecstacy, I tend to fall in love with whatever bike I happen to be riding at the time. The Bititan has been no exception, and as I stomped up a climb or splayed myself out over the cockpit in those Spinacis, some passing Fred’s “Nice bike!” comment still ringing in my ears (I get passed a lot, which makes it easy for people to gaze upon my bikes), I’d catch myself thinking, “Maybe I should sell the comparatively staid Litespeed and become a vintage Colnago guy.” But becoming a Colnago guy is kind of like becoming an orgy guy, and when it comes down to it I’m not ready for the Assos and unguents and white shoes it would take for me to fully embrace the lifestyle.

More importantly, as I found when I flirted with the idea of pivoting to the Davidson, every time I get back on the Litespeed I immediately realize, “Nope, this is the road bike for me.” Furthermore, so consistently pleased am I with it that since divesting myself of my crabon Fred sled I haven’t looked back for a moment. “Forever bike?” Who knows. But I suspect my aging body will reject clipless pedals and drop bars long before I’m compelled to replace it. (That’s not a particularly bold prediction, either, since it’s already starting to happen.)

If you’ll pardon the banal and phallocentric simile, I’ve always felt that a road bike is like a suit, in that you should always have at least one, even if you only use it occasionally. Furthermore, it would stand to reason that this suit should be both classic and comfortable, and as suited to a festive function as it is to a funeral. For me, the Litespeed is that timeless suit, whereas the Colnago is maybe a little dated–the lapels a little too wide and shiny, the crotch a bit too tight–though I should point out this difference speaks not just to the Colnago’s attributes, but also to my decreasing ability to pull it off.

So while the overall winner may be the Litespeed, the real winner is time. You can’t keep reaching into those drops forever; sooner or later the bars need to come up to you instead.

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