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The tech that’s transforming cycling

David Kenning
28 Jul 2017

How engineers and designers are constantly pushing the rules to bring us future bikes

To understand the future, first you must know the past. It’s an idea that has occurred to many great philosophers through the ages, from Confucius to Santayana, and although they may not have been talking specifically about bicycles, we would do well to heed their wisdom.

After all, the chain- driven, diamond-framed ‘safety bicycle’ was invented in the late 1880s, and despite great advances in technology since then, the bikes we ride today don’t look all that different to those ridden by cyclists of 130 years ago.

It’s no secret that most of the cutting-edge tech we enjoy on our road bikes these days is tested on the pro racing circuit before we get the chance to buy it.

Clipless pedals

Back in 1985, Bernard Hinault did his bit to ensure the long-term popularity of clipless pedals by becoming the first rider to win the Tour de France using them.

And after several years in development, Shimano’s Di2 electronic groupset made its debut in the peloton in 2009, used by three teams at the Tour of California.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers to cycling technology reaching the wider market is the very same organisation that’s responsible for promoting its advancement: the sport’s international governing body.

The Union Cycliste International’s (UCI) extensive Technical Regulations govern every last detail of the design of bike frames, components, accessories and clothing.

Many of these restrictions are guided by the UCI’s Lugano Charter issued in October 1996, which set out the philosophy that ‘the bicycle is a historical phenomenon, and it is this history which underpins the whole culture behind the technical object’.

The aim of the charter was to prevent riders with access to the most advanced technology gaining an unfair advantage over their rivals.

Its impact was most famously felt on the track, in the battle for the Hour record, where skinsuits and aerodynamic solid disc wheels had first been pioneered in 1984 by Francesco Moser.

In 1994, Graeme Obree smashed the record on a home-built bike with a highly unconventional ‘praying mantis’ riding position.

Then Chris Boardman raised the stakes on board his space-age Lotus 110, an updated version of the Lotus 108 he used to win gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

Its revolutionary aerofoil monocoque frame with stretched-out riding position was developed by a forward-thinking British frame builder by the name of Mike Burrows, backed by British sportscar manufacturer Lotus.

Best Human Effort

In 1997, concerned that the bikes were becoming the story rather than the riders, the UCI revised its rules, reclassifying Boardman’s record as ‘Best Human Effort’, insisting that the official Hour record could only be set on a bike resembling the one used by Eddy Merckx in 1972.

In the process they set back bike development over 20 years.

At around the same time as he was working on Boardman’s Lotus, the ever-innovative Burrows was also designing the original Giant TCR racing bike.

Its compact frame with sloping top tube was revolutionary, giving the bike incredible stiffness and low weight, and many of its ideas have since been adopted by the wider industry.

But Burrows left the road bike business behind in 2000, feeling stifled by its restrictive rules.

‘The UCI was stopping me building better bikes,’ he told Cyclist in 2013. ‘The rules are in stasis until somebody blows the UCI up. All bike designers can do is fiddle around the edges.’

It wasn’t the first time the sport’s governing body had interfered with progress in this way.

Back in April 1934, another rule change effectively banned recumbent bicycles from all its competitions.

With a reclined seating position, recumbents give the rider a reduced frontal area, making them more aerodynamic.

The first recumbents were pioneered in the early years of the 20th century by French car builder Charles Mochet – his original creation was a four-wheeled, two-seater vehicle that looked something like a pedal-powered car.

It proved to be not only more comfortable but also considerably faster than conventional upright bicycles of the time.

It was also difficult to steer at speed, so Mochet developed a two-wheel version called the Velocar.

This soon proved to be unbeatable in races, with Francis Fauré smashing the Hour record in 1933 despite being a rider of distinctly average ability, and it was this that led the UCI to introduce strict rules defining the shape of bicycles the following year.

Among its pronouncements were that the bottom bracket had to be 24-30cm above the ground, the front of the saddle could be no more than 12cm behind the bottom bracket, and the distance from bottom bracket to front wheel axle had to be 58-75cm.

This effectively restricted the shape of bicycles to the standard diamond frame that we still recognise today.

No longer recognised as bicycles, recumbents were reclassified as ‘Human Powered Vehicles’ (HPVs), but while they were banned from official racing, amateur enthusiasts continued to develop HPVs, setting ever-faster records using machines with full fairings for even greater aerodynamic benefits.

Although it doesn’t enjoy the high profile of pros racing on conventional upright bikes, the HPV scene is still very active today.

Heading into Battle

Every year, enthusiasts from around the world gather at Battle Mountain in Nevada for the annual World Human Powered Speed Challenge, held on a long, straight, flat stretch of desert road outside the town.

Having given up his constant battles against the UCI and le the world of conventional bikes behind, former Hour record-holder Graeme Obree went to Battle Mountain in 2013 with his home-built creation, The Beastie, to make his own attempt on the human-powered, land-speed record.

A film documenting his attempt, Battle Mountain: The Graeme Obree Story, was released last year. Perhaps not surprisingly Burrows, who was once upon a time part of the team that took on Obree, is another great believer in the benefits of HPVs, and is founder of the British Human Power Club (bhpc.org.uk).

While the UCI’s rules prevent some of the more outlandish ideas of bike designers from becoming reality, the brains of the bike world are constantly looking for new ways to push the rules to their limits.

Even before Obree and Boardman’s rivalry, other riders were breaking new ground in aerodynamics in the even bigger arena of the Tour de France – not least American pro Greg LeMond.

On Sunday 23rd July 1989, on the final stage of that year’s Tour, second-placed LeMond caused shock and outrage by overturning a 50-second deficit to race leader Laurent Fignon, winning the yellow jersey by just eight seconds.

Key to his success were the Scott clip-on aero bars attached to the front of his bike – Scott engineer Charley French claimed they saved 90 seconds over a 40km time-trial.

Despite grumblings at the time, aero bars have since become a fixture on time-trial bikes.

Of course, not all revolutionary ideas in cycling ever make it as far as winning races. In 1986, Italian frame-builder Ernesto Colnago, in collaboration with Enzo Ferrari, created one of the world’s first carbon-fibre road bikes, called the Concept.

Frame material aside, one of its most innovative features was a seven-speed internal gearbox built into the crankset.

Heavy gear

Operated by a shift lever integrated into the down tube, it sounds intriguing until you discover that it added 5.3kg to the bike’s weight, taking it to a total of 13kg. The development and construction costs also ensured it would never be commercially viable.

The time spent on its development wasn’t wasted, however, and many of the lessons Colnago learned from Ferrari about working with carbon fibre were later put to more effective use in the legendary C40 – reputedly the all-time favourite bike of Sir Bradley Wiggins.

In 1995, ridden by Franco Ballerini of the Mapei team, the C40 became the first carbon bike to take victory on the infamous cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix one-day race, securing its iconic status for posterity.

In the 30 years since then, carbon-fibre technology has advanced massively, largely driven by the stringent requirements and multi-billion dollar budgets of the aerospace industry. And it’s fair to say that cycling has benefitted from this.

Nearly all the world’s supply of carbon comes from the same small handful of companies in the Far East, which means the world’s largest producer, Japanese firm Toray, supplies the carbon fibre used in the Boeing 787 airliner, as well as many bikes.

One manufacturer which benefits from this is French firm Time, which weaves its own carbon tubing using 12 giant custom-built looms at its factory on the outskirts of Lyon.

By using three weights of carbon fibre, and incorporating Vectran and Kevlar fibres, Time is able to fine-tune the stiffness of every area of the frame with incredible precision.

Another beneficiary is Swiss firm BMC, which uses similarly futuristic technology at its Impec Advanced R&D lab in Grenchen, Switzerland, home to its famous ‘Stargate’ carbon-braiding machine.

‘Equipped with a series of fully-automated, precision machinery tools,’ BMC says of its factory, ‘this state-of-the-art facility is a playground for mad-scientist composite engineers.’

All of which begs the question why, given the UCI’s restrictions, do BMC and others continue to develop science-fiction machines that will never go into full production?

Trickle-down tech

The simple answer is that by unleashing the creative instincts of their designers, the ideas generated will eventually trickle down into production machines.

In fact, many of the technologies we now treat as commonplace – such as electronic gear shifting – were originally seen in the concept bikes of 10 or more years ago.

So, what bikes will we be riding 20 years from now? The concept bikes of today could provide some major clues.

Maybe one day we’ll even see the likes of Froome and Quintana doing battle on Ventoux on fully faired recumbents.

Although, come to think of it, the idea of the UCI embracing such forward-thinking ideas is even more outlandish than the most fanciful concept bike.

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