From the Safety Bike to aluminum and then Carbon, a brief history of bicycle innovation is discussed.
Throughout the last century of road bike manufacturing, there have been several milestones of innovation as well as shifts in consumer usage and perception that have had a major impact on the design of road bikes. Some influences have been subtle; some have had a drastic impact.
At the beginning of the 20th century, road bikes had already assumed the basic shape that we recognize today, the “safety bicycle.” The rider sits behind the steering axis, pedals/cranks driving the rear wheel through a drivetrain, usually employing gearwheels and a chain. The basic diamond frame was constructed of welded or brazed tubular metal, and pneumatic tires were soon to be the standard. Many of the manufacturing and construction techniques would later be used in the automobile and aircraft industry. The bicycle industry was nearly the cutting edge of technology, in its own way rivaling other manmade wonders of the time like the Brooklyn Bridge, the HMS Dreadnought, and the zipper. Of course, the sporting machine of the time had little of the refined details that we’ve come to expect on road bikes since the 1950s like derailleurs, or brakes that worked worth a damn. Most of them had a fixed gear too, but that doesn’t exactly make those bikes unique to that era. You need only go to your local independent coffeehouse to find those features on hipster’s fixie. What I am talking about is the geometry of the frame and fork.
Bicycles of that time had longer wheelbases, particularly at the rear triangle, prodigious fork rake, generous tire clearances, and fairly upright handlebar positions. This was partially a reflection of the rider usage, as it was far from the smooth paved world of today. With the speed of horse-drawn carriages as a design parameter, municipalities in America and Europe had yet to conceive of needing something better than packed gravel or cobbles, and voluminous tires comparable to today’s cyclocross tires were most appropriate. Those laid-back frame angles allowed more comfort and control on rough roads. In the interwar years as roads improved due to the needs of automobiles and freewheels became common, higher descending speeds became possible. Frame design started to shift to more upright positions; narrower and lighter tires became practical.
The period straddling WWII saw the widespread adoption of cable-actuated derailleurs from companies such as France’s Simplex and later Campagnolo. Postwar improvements in the roads of Europe and America meant that smooth surfaces were the norm for sports riding. One might say that racing machines became less practical during this time. Whereas before a typical racer rode his bike to his factory job during the week and then raced it on the weekend, within a few years the sporting bicycle would be exclusively focused on sport. The influence of French randonneurs and British Audax riders notwithstanding, the sporting road bike became optimized for the Italian preference of 700C x 23mm tubular tires and low rake forks (i.e. longer trail dimension). Short reach brakes and tighter tire clearances obviated the inclusion of fender eyelets. On the plus side, component dimensions became somewhat more standardized, such that part replacements and upgrades became possible. For instance, a rear derailleur hanger integral with the rear dropout was popularized by Campagnolo, and ever since component makers have designed their derailleurs to fit.
Through the 1970s, it would be easy to say that major innovations were rather sparse, although the racing bicycle saw a number of evolutionary improvements, mainly in the quality of components such as freewheels, cold-forged aluminum components, and rims. The French, while they were first to bring many innovations to the market, were gradually losing sway to the industry leader of high-quality drivetrain components, Campagnolo. Indeed several companies carved out a slice of the pie just by copying Campagnolo, such as Spain’s Zeus and soon to be very important Japanese companies Suntour and Shimano. Suntour’s slant parallelogram derailleur design, which allowed the top pulley to better track across the cogs, was an important refinement that would later become the industry standard (once the patent expired). These things improved the reliability of machines but scarcely changed the way people rode them.
Whether it can be said that innovations abounded or simply that global consumers, in general, had become accustomed to shorter product cycles, the 1980s saw a flurry of introductions that had a significant impact on the industry and the sporting road bike. Chief among them would be indexed shifting, introduced by Shimano. Not only did index shifting make riding bicycles more user-friendly from the perspective of both the racer and the enthusiast, but it marked a paradigm shift in design and market control. From that point onward, drivetrains would become more integrated, and the sophisticated engineering and design required to produce these drivetrain systems would swing in the favor of larger manufacturers. Doubtlessly some of the advantages that Suntour and Shimano held was due to the global shift to Asia-based manufacturing, but Suntour, in fact, would eventually fall when it failed to keep pace with Shimano’s relentless pursuit of system integration.
Some less obvious improvements were a cassette-style hub (or freehub) and high-performance clincher tires. As the freewheel had evolved into a 7sp format, the span of the rear axle unsupported by main bearings, inversely proportional to the width of the freewheel, had become excessive and weak. By incorporating the coasting mechanism and bearings supporting the cogset into the hub, the rear axle was much less prone to bending or fracturing. Later in the decade, the move to 8sp cassettes signaled the change to 130mm rear spacing, after almost three decades of 126mm spacing. The cogs themselves would become the focus of much development, being shaped to aid shifting; chainrings saw an analogous evolution.
Collectively these developments set the stage for the single most important component innovation of the last 30 years, the integrated brake/shift lever. It is somewhat fashionable to downplay how Shimano’s STI and Campagnolo’s Ergopower designs changed how we ride bicycles, and perhaps it can be argued that integrated levers merely mean you don’t need to reach down to shift rather than make you go faster. However, the fact that one’s hands never need to leave the brake lever means that an enthusiast can ride safer due to quicker brake responses, while a racer’s hands never leaving the shift lever means he can react quicker to animated race situations. And even if the self-styled old school hard men want to dismiss those facts as mere crutches for lacking technique and skill, what is perfectly unassailable is the reality that any company that cannot produce a competitive integrated shift/brake system must give up on shifting components (Mavic) or go out of business (Suntour). That SRAM Corporation could successfully enter the road component market in 2006 was largely due to their size of their development and manufacturing prowess hard won in the OEM mountain bike market.
Deserving of at least some recognition, high-performance clincher tires became widely available in the 1980s. Tubulars would still be the choice of high-level racers, but lightweight clinchers with folding Kevlar beads narrowed the performance gap significantly. The gluing of tubular had always been something of a hazing ritual to those entering the sport, thus clinchers were particularly attractive to the novice competitor and enthusiast alike, being less expensive and troublesome to maintain.
Even if the components had evolved, the basic frame dimensions and materials were virtually unchanged for thirty years. A bike frame consisted of steel tubes between 1” and 1-1/4” in diameter, steerer tubes were 1” threaded, and rims were aluminum. It could be said that lugged construction had lost some ground to the more easily mass-produced TIG-welding technique, but in the decades to come rapid component design changes would be prompted by aluminum frame design, and later carbon fiber.
In today’s current era of sleek carbon fiber frames straight out of the wet dreams of every newly graduated design school student, it easy to forget how exotic aluminum seemed in the late 80s and 90s. Easily the two most influential manufacturers, in the beginning, were Cannondale and the now-defunct Klein. Though several European manufacturers such as Vitus had found moderate success with bonded aluminum construction, the American companies pioneered the use of welded, large diameter tubing. While aluminum as a material is low in density, it has significantly less stiffness and strength than steel. By using a large tube diameter, the structure as a whole can be amazingly stiff yet still quite light; improved welding techniques allowed those big yet thin-walled tubes to be joined without the weight and design limitations of lugs. However, a hundred years of steel bicycle tradition isn’t that easily laid to rest. These buxom bicycles had little of the flourishes that distinguished high-quality steel bikes of the time and early aluminum bikes could be characterized by a rather unrefined, harsh riding quality. These alloy frames may also be described as a reflection of the American traditions of criterium racing, where their stiffness and responsive geometry were duly appreciated. It could be said that aluminum construction sprang from road bike design but became firmly entrenched in manufacturing practices via the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s. The mountain bike market, with its grab bag of CNC’ed and anodized gimmicks, cared little about European-centered traditions and thoroughly embraced aluminum’s industrial aesthetic. Not until Pinarello aluminum frames found success at the highest level of the sport by the mid-90s (soon to be followed by Giant, Bianchi, and Cannondale) did steel cease to be the apple of every roadie’s eye.
In truth, titanium and carbon fiber frames had been stealing some of the limelight from steel, particularly when LOOK frames found success at the Tour de France. But titanium was and always will be an expensive material to fashion into a bicycle, while carbon fiber construction would not achieve peak influence until the mid-00s. In the manufacturing realm, aluminum was well suited to mass-production, and the proliferation of aluminum construction at all price points coincided with Taiwan becoming the center of quality frame production. It was on aluminum frames that oversized, integrated headsets and bottom brackets would first become commonplace, Klein, in particular, being a leader in this area (though Cannondale BB30 standard would be more widely accepted than Klein’s designs). With bottom bracket shells and head tubes more closely matched to the big tube diameters of the front triangle, strength to weight characteristics could be better optimized. Later on, carbon fiber designs would push these trends much further.
In 1999, the era of the molded carbon fiber road frame began. That was the year that a Texan won the Tour de France on an American bike. Let’s ignore all the drama in the media and governance of sport that has played out since; Trek hit the jackpot on that sponsorship. The marketing significance of the decade that followed has functioned at a number of levels. Obviously, an American branded bike taking cycling’s crown jewel was quite a coup, but the fact that the bike had off-the-shelf geometry certainly had an influence as well. Up till this point, the elite in the sport could always command a custom-fitted bicycle, and hence the custom bicycle was seen as an ideal at the high-end of the market. While not strictly speaking a monocoque-moulded design, the initial Trek OCLV construction technique used molded lugs that precluded custom geometry. That Armstrong won the Tour on a stock frameset that any plebe could buy for a fraction of the money that a custom Colnago commanded put a serious dent into the mystique of the European boutique builders. With mold techniques matured, carbon frames could be turned out as if by a cookie cutter, and the consumers ate them up as if those cookies were made of crack. Within a few short years, aluminum toppled from the high-end of the market and has been steadily losing prominence to molded carbon fiber in the mid-range as well. Correlated to this is the fact that the vast majority of bicycle manufacturing now comes out of Asia, including the high-end.
And that’s the end of the story for steel as a meaningful standard for the road bike market. No matter how many admission tickets you buy for NAHBS, those devoted to ferrous metals and lugs can at most be tastemakers but never again the center of the industry. Tapered steerer forks, the plethora of bottom bracket shell standards, and oversized seat posts are just a few of the trends that are driven by carbon fiber frame construction, and though I say trends, it’s hard to imagine them going away.
One influence that I have yet to discuss is the governing body of cycle sport, the UCI. As organized sport has always been one of the key factors in popularizing product and its usage, the UCI has indirectly dictated the configuration of consumer bicycles since the early days of derailleurs, which not coincidentally found acceptance amongst touring cyclists first because regulations excluded their use in many road events. Designs that sports officials deemed unacceptable for the competition were de facto relegated out of the mainstream public. On one hand, recumbent bicycles were demonstrably faster than a safety bicycle on flat ground, but after the UCI ruled against them, the general public has since ignored them with the same distaste that families apply to creepy, estranged uncles. More recently, the UCI cemented the legacy of the diamond frame configuration by specifying the number, position, and dimensional limits of frame tubes. The newest system of UCI-approval decals for frame designs extends the UCI influence even further. To be fair, most of the UCI rules merely ensure practical designs and safety concerns, but those rules have failed to control costs despite expressed intentions.
In this discussion, perhaps I have given more weight to more recent developments, like how lists of greatest rock songs of all time always seem to be 90 percent released in the past decade. Undeniably we see best what is closest, and maybe the impact of some items will not be as enduring as we think. I realize that I left clipless pedals out, though as a product they have become utterly ubiquitous. But if they have indelibly changed cycling shoe design, they haven’t changed frame design nor even crank design. Nor do clipless pedals change the way we ride a road bike. Discussing handlebar shape is one of my pet activities, but handlebar evolution is much more a reflection of other more significant trends in components and riding style. Still, I plan on visiting that particular topic someday.
Carbon fiber rims have been a distinct trend in the last 15 years, but their ultimate influence is still unclear. Carbon clincher rims are just too recent and limited to the very high-end at the moment. Electronic shifting, while heavily marketed by manufacturers, has only had subtle effects on frame design so far (mainly that carbon frames are frequently built with maddeningly incompetent provision for regular shift cables). Without a doubt, hydraulic disc brakes could upend many conventions and standards in road bike design if (or more likely when) they reach widespread acceptance.
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Also published on Medium.