Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Modern Bicycle – The Progress of Innovation

By: Jamie Singer

The bicycle has a near perfect design. 

Interestingly this hasn’t always been the case though.  Although progress has been slow, the bikes we recognise today found their origin in the early 15th Century - the designs we know today are far from what the original pioneers were riding.  Fortunately, construction has been streamlined and the weight reduced in order to meet the functional demands of modern athletes.

 The first revolution was to ditch the ridiculously large front wheel and equally ridiculous small back wheel.  Since then the technological evolution of the bicycle has been more notable for its sluggishness rather than a stellar trajectory of advancement.

Indeed, the loudest voices debating technological advancements were often Cycling Luddites saying ‘No’.  No to new frame materials, no to new braking systems, no to new ways to change gears.  The drive train has stubbornly remained cogs and chains, gears persist with mechanical cables.

But there have been pioneers. 

In 1989 Greg LeMonds bolt on aero-bars revolutionised time trialling, designed by former US national ski team coach - Boone Lennon, they allowed LeMond to adopt a wind cheating aerodynamic position that famously snatched the Tour de France from Laurent Fignon by an 8 second hairs breadth.

Chris Boardman’s Mike Burrows designed, Formula 1 inspired, Lotus engineered, wind tunnel perfected, carbon fibre monocoque frame that carried Boardman to Olympic Gold in 1992 (before British Cycling systematically hoovered up Olympic track gold for fun) was banned by the UCI.  In 1993 Hour Record legend Graeme Obree’s “Old Faithful” with its “Superman” riding position was so revolutionary that the UCI promptly banned it too. 

We remember them because they are relatively isolated innovations, often initially laughed at then outlawed before (becoming the future that we all must have).  All of them have one thing in common, they are innovations imagined by outsiders to cycling.  None more so than the early Mountain Bike pioneers of Marin County, California in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Whilst road bike technology and innovation has been held back by UCI regulations and the purists, the same can’t be said of mountain biking which being true to its revolutionary origins never stands still.  Suspension, disc brakes, wheel size, even handlebar width are experimented and innovated. 

Ironically from the young upstart much of the current innovation in road cycling is mountain bike inspired.  What is driving this growing tidal wave of change?  What's changed?  In the UK, Wiggins, Pendleton, Hoy have made Lycra acceptable and inspired a nationwide leisure pursuit that whilst cheaper than a mid-life crisis sports car, has created a lucrative market that is fuelling technological advancement.

Since 1996, the UCI’s post Lugano Charter has heavily influenced and arguably restricted bike frame design, the open double triangle rule that sounded the death knell for the monocoque frame; but more profitable cycling manufacturers means a subtle shift in the balance of power.  It’s no  coincidence that the UCI has decided (or been pressurized into) dropping its infamous 3:1 rule. 

We’re on the cusp of exciting times, as engineers ‘forget the UCI’ and push the boundaries of materials, geometries and CAD we can expect to see more bikes like the scintillating Cervélo P5X or the crazy Diamondback Andean, with its superbike style fairings and aerofoils, just more radical. 
That’s just on the outside.  Whilst bikes have been slow to evolve, the bolt-ons like bike computers, power meters and apps have raced ahead.  The next generation of bikes will incorporate these technologies within their wind cheating graphene frames.  Stop Press: Bikes like the SpeedX Unicorn and the Argon 18 Smart Bike already are.

About the Author: He loves to ride his Cube Stereo Hybrid 120 and in his spare time blogs at where he reviews the latest cycling gear.  You can reach him at Facebook or Twitter. 

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