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Monday
Apr292019

Progress

I first got into bike racing at the age of 16, in 1952. To the present day as I write, that is 67 years of racing bikes, studying and writing about bikes, and designing and building bikes. Looking back over this period, there were very few technological changes in the first thirty years from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Frames were brass brazed, lugged steel, built by craftsmen. With standard size steel tubes as they had been for fifty years prior to that. All had level top tubes, it was the framebuilder’s point of reference. An individual could establish his frame size, and after that could buy any make of frame in that size, and it would fit.

There were subtle changes in racing frame geometry, but not so much that all but the most avid bike enthusiast would even know about, and apart from that we went from 5 speed to 6 speed and that was it.

However, in the next thirty or more years that followed, from the 1980s to the present day, the bicycle has changed at an alarming rate, as has technology in general. The mountain bike, indexed gear shifting, which lead to 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 speed, clipless pedals and Carbon fiber frames.

For more than thirty years all professional cyclists and almost all amateur cyclists used Christophe steel toe clips and Binda toe straps. It was a common standard of excellence. Then in the late 1980s clipless or clip in pedals appeared and in a few short years toe clips and straps were obsolete.

That is progress, and yes I will agree it is an improvement, but imagine how the owners of Christophe and Binda must have felt seeing their lucrative business as the major suppliers of toe clips and straps for the entire world, disappear in a very short period of time.

What has changed is not only the bicycle itself, but the whole structure of the bicycle industry. Individual craftsmen are now obsolete. Racing bicycles are produced by a few large corporations worldwide. Individual craftsmen were content to make a good living wage, which probably accounts for the lack of progress in the first thirty years I speak of.

This can be viewed as a good or bad thing, but bicycle racing is a simple sport and requires a simple machine to participate. Individual builders like myself in the UK and the rest of Europe catered almost exclusively to amateur racing cyclists. Everyone wanted to emulate the professional cyclists, and use whatever they were riding.

Everything changed in the 1970s with the “Bike Boom” in America. A few die hard enthusiasts wanted what the pros rode. But to the general American public, the race bike was over geared and very uncomfortable to ride. This is why the Mountain Bike became a huge hit in the 1990s, more comfortable, and easier to ride.

It used to be, “What the Pros rode” that drove the market. Today it is the American leisure market that drives the Industry, and the pros ride what the corporations who sponsor them, tell them to ride. A wider range of gears, is probably the single most technological improvement that has benefited professional cycling.

Disc brakes being forced on the pros is a prime example of unwanted and unnecessary technology that complicates a fast wheel change that is vital in pro cycling. However, for the corporations it creates built in obsolescence so necessary to create continued sales.

Professional Cycling is harder and more demanding than many other sports, and in many cases less rewarding financially. What makes the sport unique is the fact that one rider can draft behind another, making the cycle racing highly tactical as well as physical. It is what makes the sport unpredictable, and exciting to watch. No amount of technology will ever change this.

 

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Reader Comments (1)

1980’s: the advent of CNC machining and CAD/CAM software. In the 90’s, PC’s (or Apple if you were an artist), the Internet and the WWW were let out of Pandora’s Box. Bikes had many identities, disciplines, and categories. From Triathlon and Time Trial, Track, Road, BMX, Mountain, which included Cross Country, Downhill, Freeride, Slopestyle, Enduro, All-Mountain. Oh, to road let’s add Beach Cruiser, Fixed, Gravel, All-Road, and don’t forget Electric Assist.

Seems the pressure is on to change things quickly, to catch trends while they’re hot (a perfect planned-obsolescence marketing term). What is behind all this? And how does it affect cycling?

After you got out of making frames, Dave, it became easier and cheaper to design and make bike components through CNC mills and lathes. And frames became cheaper when Schwinn helped Taiwan in the 70’s establish manufacturing. Then China took off.
I guess this allowed the U.S. to go from a producing to a consuming nation.

To me, having more choices doesn’t mean being happier.
And the craftsmen that had a good middle-class living? They remember what it was like to make things.

April 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

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