Opinion: Why progress is so slow for road bike tech
As a tech editor I get to test some seriously nice bikes and cycling products while calling it work. Equally, I get to test some seriously nice bikes and cycling products that I simply can’t afford to hold onto once my testing is done. And in what’s unquestionably a first-world problem, once that testing is done, I return to my nice-but-comparatively-not-so-state-of-the-art bikes.
And that got me thinking. Why is it that new bikes made for off-road riding leave my older, personal bikes feeling like relics of the past, while I’m perfectly happy to jump back on my old alloy rim brake road bike after riding the latest and greatest race machine?
The more I pondered that question, the more I came to the realisation that a road bike from 10 years ago is likely still a fine machine for your road riding needs – while new road bikes are better, the differences can be subtle. Those differences aren’t at all subtle when you compare new and old bikes from the mountain bike or even gravel world – they’re night and day.
So why is this? Well, I think it comes down to four key reasons …
1. Progressive terrain
Mountain biking (and even gravel riding) is never consistent. In fact, it’s progressive. The terrain changes with nature or when trail builders up the ante. Your increasing skill level and confidence open you up to progressively more difficult terrain. Or perhaps you simply hit that same terrain at greater speeds – which changes things greatly.
By contrast, progression on the road is typically related to your fitness. How fast you ride the flats and smash the climbs changes with that fitness, and the equipment only plays a tiny role in the equation. Sure, your descending skills may progress, too, but the roads you’re railing don’t in any major way.
And it’s this key difference that, in my opinion, results in a five-year-old mountain bike feeling dated to a point of unease while an even older road bike offers a comparable speed and smile to the latest of today.
That’s not to say road bikes haven’t gotten better – they certainly have. The latest crop of all-round race machines are undeniably more aero, stiffer, (generally) more comfortable, and stop in shorter distances than bikes of before. But most of the time these differences are rather nuanced, and you’d perhaps need a controlled environment to properly measure the differences offered.
2. The UCI
The UCI is partly to blame for technology shifts being slow on the road. Sure the sport is much older, rather traditional, and set in its ways to begin with, but the UCI often helps to reinforce that status quo. And the below excerpt from the UCI technical regulations is a wonderful summary of what I’m talking about.
“ARTICLE 1.3.004 “Except in mountain bike racing, no technical innovation regarding anything used, worn or carried by any rider or license holder during a competition (bicycles, equipment mounted on them, accessories, helmets, clothing, means of communication, etc.) may be used until approved by the UCI. Requests for approval shall be submitted to the UCI, accompanied by all necessary documentation.”
Clearly, things are vastly different in the mountain bike and gravel worlds where engineers can almost entirely ignore the technical regulations of a rule book and just create the best product their minds can conceive.
Perhaps the most striking example of this is the recent trend for gravel bikes to have longer front-centres, slacker head angles and shorter stems – basically, mountain bike-inspired geometry that goes in the face of the UCI’s regulations that dictate a maximum front-centre length. This all happened because gravel bikes became a big enough market that brands could stop making burly cyclocross bikes (which the UCI governs) and create something specifically for gravel riding. Perhaps this ‘innovation’ isn’t the best thing for everyone, but the experimentation will likely be of long-term benefit to anyone looking to ride dropbar bikes off-road.
Another example: the use of disc brakes on the road and in cyclocross. Disc-equipped road bikes have existed for far more than a decade, but there was no incentive for the industry to invest in the technology until the UCI removed the brakes, so to speak. No doubt the industry is quickly making up for lost time, but you could easily argue that product development is a generation behind as a result of the UCI’s former rule prohibiting the technology.
3. Resistance to change
This closely follows on from reason two, and it’s the fact our sport’s traditions are commonly enforced by a large portion of the consumer market. This market is why most brands sponsor racing and yet in a strange, topsy-turvy way, many consumers base their buying decisions on what the sponsored pros choose.
Broadly speaking, the road cyclist consumer market is full of laggards when it comes to accepting new technology. It took almost a decade for the message that 25 mm tyres were almost always superior to 23s to be a success – and there are still some that insist that feeling slower is the same as being slower. People the world over are still riding on saddles that are likely too narrow for them, or with bar heights too low. And I don’t doubt that we’ll still be arguing about rim versus disc brakes in five years’ time.
Look to the mountain bike world and things inevitably move faster. The move from 26-inch to 29er wheels met plenty of resistance from hardcore riders who first called the bigger wheels “cheater wheels”, but in well under a decade the shift was undeniable. And you can see similar trends with disc brakes, tubeless tyres, dropper posts, tyre inserts – the list goes on. Mountain bikers are simply more open to accepting new technology as it often allows a progression in riding.
4. Road bikes have been great for a long time
There’s also the fact that road bikes have been improved over a long period of time. This extended timeline means road bikes have been refined and then further refined, and perhaps there just isn’t all that much more juice to squeeze when there’s an established understanding of what numbers make a bike steer and fit the best. And perhaps this goes back to my first point: if the conditions and manual input barely change, why should the equipment?
Look at the very latest road machines and compare them to the top-of-the-range bikes of the early 2000s. We’re still at roughly the same package weight, and arguably fairly close in frame ride comfort, too. Sure, things feel more reactive than ever and modern road bikes are certainly much slicker in the wind, but arguably the biggest advancement we’ve got is related to clearance for wider tyres (with discs playing a big role here). Heck, road bikes offered just this a few decades ago.
This point, that older road bikes are still relevant, is something my colleague James Huang wrote about in an opinion piece a few years back, and he still stands behind what was covered there.
Gravel is the consumer shift the industry dreamed about
I’ve been riding plenty of impressive road bikes lately, but few have truly changed the experience of my entire ride or had any impact on how fast, far, or where I’d want to go (although they may impact how fast I actually go). I have no doubt that this opinion would change if I currently held a race license or lived in a wet climate, but for my existing recreational road cycling the differences just aren’t that vast, and my rim-brake-equipped CAAD12 (which admittedly clears modern 28 mm tyres without issue) still provides me with the same smile as impressive machines such as the BMC Teammachine SLR01 or Factor Ostro.
Consider the controlled environment of road cycling, the UCI, and stubbornness for new things, and it’s no wonder that many big brands in the industry see pure road cycling as a slowly dying dinosaur. It’s a market that’s too big to ignore but equally doesn’t seem to offer a bright spark for future prosperity.
And that’s exactly why every brand is seemingly looking to cash in on gravel’s popularity, or at least the idea of getting off the tarmac. It’s a fresh market, one removed from the limitations mentioned above and ready to profit from the proven recipe that mountain biking has long followed.
If you ever get the opportunity, try to get a spin on a bike that’s at the pinnacle of its category or in a category that’s foreign to you – whether that be e-bikes, gravel bikes or fresh trail mountain bikes. That’ll quickly tell you whether you’re missing out on something important to your riding experience or if the product makes sense for you. Don’t just follow what close-minded traditionalists say.