Fourteen-thousand dollars is a lot of money.

Fourteen-thousand dollars for a bicycle is a hell of a lot of money.

And $14,000 for a pile of old rear derailleurs and downtube shifters? Well, that’s either sheer lunacy or an outstanding bargain-it all depends on whom you’re asking.

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The market for vintage bikes and parts is exploding, and today one man’s bin of woefully outdated parts is another man’s treasure trove – for which some are willing to pay exorbitant sums,

Let’s start with those derailleurs. In June 2013, renowned frame builder Richard Sachs put out the word that he was selling a collection of old rear derailleurs and shifters. Were these parts diamond-studded or encrusted with unicorn horn? Hardly. The thirty-three derailleurs and sixteen shift lever units were all stock Campagnolo models, dating from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. But to Campyphiles, calling these bits of drivetrain “run of the mill” would be a bit like describing a Ferrari 250 GTO as “an old red car.”

A few of Richard Sachs' pristine Campagnolo derailleurs, Courtesy of Richard Sachs

A few of Richard Sachs’ pristine Campagnolo derailleurs, Courtesy of Richard Sachs

Sachs’ offering was, in all likelihood, the most complete collection of old school Campagnolo derailleurs in existence. What’s more, these were perfect units-all of them NOS (that’s Ebay-ese for “New Old Stock”) components. Never ridden, never bolted to a bicycle, never even taken out of their original boxes.

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Richard Sachs told Bicycling magazine editor Joe Lindsey that he believed his collection also contained the only complete, date-stamped set of Nuovo Record derailleurs in existence. When Campagnolo got wind of the sale, the Italian component manufacturer was so impressed by Sachs’ horde that they posted links to his trove on their Facebook timeline.

HISTORY FOR SALE
The simple fact that one man revered old Campagnolo derailleurs so dearly that he’d obsessively amass a perfect and pristine pile of the stuff is impressive. But would anyone in their right mind actually pay upwards of five figures for a bunch of derailleurs that stopped being state of the art around the time when disco ruled the world? As a matter of fact, yes. A buyer stepped forward last month and swooped up the lot for an undisclosed sum. The odds are good, however, that Sachs found a buyer that saw eye-to-eye with his asking price.

“The thing is,” says Jeff Archer, one of the world’s foremost collectors of vintage bikes and components, “people aren’t just buying old bikes or parts-they’re buying a piece of history. Or maybe a part of their own past.”

Archer is intimate with this kind of compulsion. His shop, First Flight Bicycles, in Statesville, North Carolina, has become a veritable Disneyland for bike collectors thanks to the 450 ancient models that have taken roost there and which serve to catalog the evolution of the modern mountain bike.

“The vintage market just keeps growing,” says Wes Davidson, Archer’s sidekick at First Flight. “I mean, you’d think that the recession would have slowed things down, but it’s been rising pretty steady for years now.”

Paul Components' Power Glide rear derailleur. Courtesy of JP Van Swae/Bike Magazine

Paul Components’ Power Glide rear derailleur. Courtesy of JP Van Swae/Bike Magazine

Why? What accounts for the growing demand for retro bikes and components?

I put the question to Mike Varley, the owner of Black Mountain Cycles, in Point Reyes Station, California. Varley’s shop is a magnet for classic Marin County mountain bikes. Riders roll into Black Mountain each week aboard vintage Salsas, Ritcheys, Gary Fishers, Breezers, and Cunninghams. Varley has made a habit of posting weekly snapshots of them on his shop’s Facebook feed.

“It’s demographics, really,” says Varley. “All these people who dreamed of buying some trick bike or part when they were kids but couldn’t because they were making minimum wage…they have the jobs and the money now. At some point they looked up and realized they could finally get that thing they wanted so badly but couldn’t afford.”

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This, it turns out, is how Jeff Archer started his own collection at First Flight Bicycles. Archer turned wrenches on an army of bikes that as a young, underpaid shop rat in the `80s he could only lust after. When he started this shop, he started filling the place up the machines from his past.

“At some point in the `90s,” says Archer, “I realized that everyone who had a great collection of antique stuff had built it up at a time when the things they were collecting were just considered junk; the kind of stuff you’d pick up at a yard sale for five bucks because it wasn’t considered classic, it was just old.”

Archer acted on his insight and began amassing his own collection. It’s good that he started when he did, because there’s no way he could afford to do so at today’s prices.

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If you scour Ebay long enough, you’ll find people bidding upwards of a thousand dollars on Paul Components’ Power Glide rear derailleur. A grand for a single rear derailleur. Ponder that. Prices for classic road bikes and components are, on the whole, even higher.

“It makes sense,” says Davidson, “road bikes have been around longer, so they just have more history and a greater following to draw from. And vintage BMX parts? That stuff is even crazier!”

Varley agrees. “People are paying a thousand bucks or more, for instance, for a single pair of Hutch BMX pedals these days. I think the BMX stuff is so valuable because most of it was ridden so hard and little of it actually survived.”

First Flight Bicycles, home of 450 vintage bikes. Courtesy of Anthony Smith/Bike Magazine

First Flight Bicycles, home of 450 vintage bikes. Courtesy of Anthony Smith/Bike Magazine

THE CORVETTE IN THE BARN
By now, you might be thinking to yourself, I have some old stuff in my garage-how do I know whether I’m sitting on a gold mine or just a pile of old junk?

“Yeah, we hear that question all the time,” says First Flight’s Davidson with a weary sigh. “It’s the old ‘Corvette in the barn’ thing. But parts aren’t valuable just because they are old. Say, for example, that you had one of the first Shimano Deore derailleurs. Well, those are cool, but how many of those things did Shimano make? A ton. It just isn’t going to be worth much. The thing has to be scarce. And it needs to have been state of the art. Something that was truly innovative.”

An example? From 1979 to 1992, Marin County pioneer and mountain bike hall of famer Charlie Cunningham built a crop of bikes that command some of the highest price tags you’ll find in the vintage mountain bike market today. Even in their heyday, they were a rarity-fewer than 200 rolled out of his Marin County shop during that period. As for innovative, they were years ahead of their time. Cunningham’s hand-built Indian and Racer models were the first aluminum-framed mountain bikes in the world, the first mountain bikes with sloping top tubes, the first mountain bikes with tubular style fork crowns. And even back then, Cunningham’s bikes weren’t cheap. In 1983, you could pay upwards of $3,600 for one of Charlie’s creations-two to three times as much as custom steel bike of the day. Today, a pristine Cunningham from that period can sell for more than $10,000.

Mike Varley knows this firsthand-he sees his fair share of Cunninghams and owns an old Indian model (serial #45) himself.

“If you find a Cunningham that’s in good shape,” says Varley, “one with all the period bells and whistles-the Dirt Drop bars, barcon shifters, mud guard, everything…yeah, it can sell for a whole lot of money.”

Early Cunningham mountain bike. Courtesy of Charlie Cunningham

Early Cunningham mountain bike. Courtesy of Charlie Cunningham

But does any of this actually make sense in a world where you anyone can walk down to the local bike shop and buy lighter, stronger, state-of-art bikes and components for less than these relics of the past?

“It’s a subjective thing,” says Varley. “I see a purple anodized seatpost or crankset and I think, ‘I didn’t even like that stuff when it was popular.’ Someone else sees that component hit the Ebay auction block and they see the finishing touch on their perfect, period-correct bike. They’re thinking to themselves, ‘Finally! This is it! I’ve been waiting years for this thing.’ That guy is all in. If he was going to spend a hundred bucks on it, what’s another four hundred bucks?”

I mention the sale of Richard Sachs’ $14,000 Campagnolo derailleur collection to Varley. “Sure, I can see someone paying that much for it,” he says. “All of those perfect derailleurs, one from each year, I doubt Campagnolo itself could even put together a collection like that. It was one of a kind. People will pay for that.”

“Some people,” says Varley “just have to have it.”


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