Compared to the earliest bikes, today’s road bikes represent a quantum leap in both design and engineering. As road cyclists we’ve certainly got a lot to be grateful for, but how much room is there for improvement? CTech editor Matt Wikstrom investigates.
In the beginning
The modern bicycle was born more than 120 years ago with the invention of the “safety bicycle”. The new design was distinguished by a chain drive for the rear wheel, allowing the steering to be divorced from the transmission, and smaller wheels could be used.
Two other inventions enhanced the design: first the introduction of pneumatic tyres in 1888, followed by variable gear systems around the turn of the 20th century. The latter eventually gave rise to cable-operated derailleurs from the late 1930s.
The safety bike was both safer and faster than its predecessors (such as the penny-farthing) but a competing design emerged around 1930. Stemming from work on pedal-driven cars, the recumbent bike offered a new position for the rider that promised improved aerodynamics and greater speed.
Indeed, a recumbent was used to set a new hour record in 1933 however the design was outlawed by the UCI when it introduced strict guidelines for bicycle design in 1934.
A need for speed
Racing has played a crucial role in the evolution of bike design as riders and their sponsors have searched for any advantage over their rivals. The quick-release skewer was invented by Tulio Campagnolo in 1927 after he was frustrated by a slow wheel change during a race, while cable-operated derailleurs moved forward once the Tour de France permitted their use in 1937.
Greg Lemond ushered in a new era of appreciation for aerodynamics when he won the 1989 edition of Le Tour with clip-on bars and Graeme Obree challenged the UCI with new riding positions as he pursued the hour record on the track.
After a century of refinement, the safety bike is now lighter, faster and more reliable. At the same time, a variety of specialised designs have emerged to serve a multitude of disciplines. There is a lot to appreciate about the evolution of the bike design but is there any room left for improvement?
Improving upon perfection?
The success of a bike’s design can be measured in many ways. Ultimately, it must meet the needs of the rider, but it can also be judged on the basis of its aesthetics and reliability. The design must also satisfy a minimum set of criteria to be considered a bicycle, as set out by the UCI.
Every sport needs a clear set of rules. The UCI’s regulations have been criticised as being outdated and arbitrary, even restrictive, but they provide a clear definition for the industry, sponsors and competitors. At the same time, they also protect the tradition of bicycle design and the heritage of the sport.
The UCI’s regulations may dictate wheel size, handlebar positioning and placement of the bottom bracket, however there is still plenty of scope to experiment with the appearance of the bike. The diameter of tubing has grown larger over the years and morphed into new shapes.
Purists will argue that perfection was attained decades ago, but that is just a matter of taste. The art of bike design fuels the beauty and romance of cycling as much it serves the tastes of the individual. There is no need for improvement in this realm, but ongoing experimentation is crucial because our passion for the sport depends upon beautiful bikes.
Function trumps all
Bicycle design is very much grounded in its utility though. Function trumps form every time and there is an insatiable demand for better performing equipment by riders at all levels of the sport. More than 100 hundred years may have passed but the industry remains devoted to improving the performance of the bicycle.
Indeed, some engineers are now working towards an algorithm to define the perfect ride. This is a lofty ideal but it highlights the new sophistication that is being brought to bike design. Lighter, stronger, and more efficient; the coming breakthroughs promise to make us faster, but we will continue to work just as hard on the bike, because that is one of the sport’s greatest appeals.
The wheels of progress turn slowly
In some regards, the future is already here — the industry is awash with plenty of technologies that have yet to be adopted and/or exploited to their full potential. Electronic gear systems, tubeless tyres, and hydraulic disk brakes all feature in predictions for the future of road cycling yet the technology is already familiar, even proven in some instances.
Let’s take a close look at this road bike of the future: is there anything that can be improved upon? Hydraulic disk brakes and tubeless tyres have proven track records. All there is to complain about is the weight of each, which I’m sure will be addressed if they are adopted by the pros for competition use.
Similarly, electronic gear systems have also proven to be more reliable than their mechanical predecessors, so the future is looking bright.
Is the chain drive outdated?
The chain and cassette will still deteriorate relatively quickly, undermining the performance of the transmission. In addition, the chain suffers from a very short service interval and continues to be highly susceptible to wet weather. Then there is the disposable rear derailleur hanger, which has become indispensable in the carbon bike era.
It may break away to save the rest of the frame during a crash but it hobbles the performance of rear derailleur because it is too flexible and prone to bending. And once it bends, the only solution is to force it back into place with the help of a specialised tool or replace it altogether.
Switching from a derailleur to an internally geared hub (technology that actually preceded the derailleur) would improve the reliability of the transmission immediately. Add in electronic shifting with a belt drive or a chainless system, and the transmission would be smoother and quieter with a much longer service interval, hence their appeal and early adoption by commuters.
For road cyclists, the switch would entail a significant weight penalty along with a reduction in the number of gear ratios, though both could be refined. A far greater obstacle is the damage the new transmission would do to the aesthetics and tradition of road bike design.
If derailleurs are to persist, then road bikes could return to using a one-piece dropout and hanger manufactured from more robust materials (such as titanium) to address the shortcomings of disposable hangers. Alternatively, a new linkage such as Shimano’s direct mount system may improve the performance of the disposable rear hanger.
Stop the creaking!
Another shortcoming that deserves to be addressed is the inevitable creak/click of the bottom bracket. At present, the industry is awash with new bottom bracket standards, but a robust design that can accommodate variety in crank design without suffering from clicking or creaking has yet to emerge.
Part of the problem is an obvious mismatch of materials coupled with inadequate weatherproofing. Alloy crank axles are mated with steel cartridge bearings that will start to creak once wet, thanks to the potential for oxidation at the interface.
The same problem afflicts the headset and hubs too, making for a cacophony of maddening noises. Any improvement in weatherproofing also needs to extend to the seatpost, stem and handlebars too.
At present, there is limited interchangeability among many groups of components (for example, there are far too many bottom bracket standards), yet there seems to be some consensus on fork steerer and handlebar diameters.
Further simplification of the various competing standards would improve the serviceability of the bike, though this is probably unlikely given the industry’s inclination towards competition and experimentation.
It’s perhaps inevitable that computer control systems will be utilised to further improve gear shifting and braking. For shifting, the system could respond to cadence and pedal pressure, modulating the speed and force of shifting to suit the cadence and load on the pedals.
There is also the possibility of introducing automatic shifting to suit “city riding” to cope with frequent stopping. For braking, a computer system can intervene to prevent wheel skid in the same manner as ABS by regulating the force of braking between the front and rear brakes.
I’d like to see road bikes with adjustable geometry that could be operated while riding the bike. Such a system would allow the owner to personalise the geometry and/or alter it to suit different situations. Heading out to a criterium, the steering could be quickened to suit a technical course then relaxed for the ride home or a bit of gravel riding the following weekend.
Finally, at the risk of venturing into the realm of concept bikes, I’d like to see a tyre system that allowed the air pressure to be adjusted while riding the bike. Such a system would also serve recovery from a puncture but the biggest benefit would be in allowing the rider to respond to changing conditions, such as wet roads after a sudden shower.
Road cyclists currently enjoy an enormous range of highly engineered bikes that are light, strong, and fast. Future refinements will continue to improve on performance and reliability, but will this come at the expense of the bike’s serviceability?
Not so long ago, bikes were simple to repair and novice mechanics could attend to basic jobs. Now a suite of specialised tools and a measure of training and experience are required for the same work. There may come a point where sophisticated designs threaten the essence of the bicycle by blurring its distinction from other vehicles on the road.
Having said that, the fact that the modern road bike still resembles the original safety bike despite more than 100 years of refinement argues that such a threat is a weak one at best.
For the future then, will a new building material rise to challenge carbon fibre? How much automation will be introduced (or tolerated)? Will the transmission be overhauled completely? And will hubs and spokes be eliminated to yield the fastest wheels ever? I’m looking forward to watching the future unfold.
What changes would you like to see in road bike design in the years to come?