10 Most Important Innovations in Cycling

10 Most Important Innovations in Cycling


A while back, another magazine published a list of the “10 Most Important Innovations in Cycling”. The list included things like electronic shifting and Lycra, but left out pneumatic tires…

This got us thinking: What are the ten most important innovations in cycling? To keep things straightforward, we’ll start after the invention of the chain-driven “safety bicycle” with two equal-sized wheels – otherwise, the invention of the wheel would be number 1.


10. Indexed shifting has allowed many casual cyclists to enter the magic world of spirited riding on a multi-speed, derailleur-equipped bike. Indexed shifting goes back to the first derailleurs, which were indexed to convince skeptical cyclists that they were easy to use. But it really was Shimano with the 1985 SIS who introduced the idea to the masses. Today, all mainstream bicycles use indexed shifting. (Photo: 1939 Super Champion shift lever)


9. Quick release attaches the wheels more securely than wingnuts, yet makes it easy to remove a wheel in case of a flat tire. Even though Tullio Campagnolo usually is credited with this invention, new research has put this in doubt. No matter; today, most performance bikes are equipped with cam-operated quick releases based on Campagnolo’s design. (Photo: 1950s Campagnolo hub)


8. Aluminum components become possible when high-strength alloys were developed in the 1910s. During the early 1930s, aluminum revolutionized bicycle construction by reducing the weight of rims, cranks, handlebars and most other components. While the wonder material of the moment is carbon fiber, aluminum remains the material of choice for most bicycle components.
(Photo: 193os Stronglight and Caminargent aluminum bicycle)


7. Generator hubs have transformed night-time cycling by providing light at any time, at the flick of a switch. No longer do cyclists have to worry about battery charge, or endure the drag and noise of sidewall dynamos. (To say nothing of the hassles of carbide lamps!)

After many false starts since the 1930s, it was the German maker Schmidt Maschinenbau (SON) who introduced the first generator hub suitable for spirited night-time riding in 1995. Today, generator hubs are replacing sidewall generators on utility bikes throughout the world, and more and more performance bikes are equipped with them as well.


6. Drop handlebars have multiple, ergonomic hand positions that make it possible to ride long distances in comfort. Invented by cyclotourists around the turn of the 20th century, drop bars have persisted, despite many efforts to come up with alternative shapes. Today, all racing bikes use drop bars. (Illustration: Lucien Buysse in the 1926 Tour de France)


5. Clipless pedals for walkable shoes are a development from racers’ clipless pedals. Originally, clipless pedals were sold as safety equipment: they release in a crash. Otherwise, they worked like racing pedals with toeclips and straps. Once clipless pedals became available for shoes you could walk in, they revolutionized cycling.

Intended originally for mountain biking, they were adopted by cyclotourists, commuters, weekend riders and randonneurs as well. No longer did you have to choose between waddling like a duck with cleated shoes, or risk coming out of your toeclips on steep hills and in sprints. Shimano’s SPD system was the first, and it remains the predominant one. (Photo: 1980s Shimano M737 from Bicycle Quarterly.)


4. Derailleurs really made cycling in the mountains not just possible, but enjoyable, with all due respect to hub gears, floating chains and Retro-Directs. It is simply revelatory to be able to select just the right gear with the flick of a lever, without having a heavy hub in the rear change the feel of the bike. The derailleur appears to have been invented in Britain, but it was popularized in France starting in the 1910s. Despite some comebacks from hub gears, derailleurs equip most performance bicycles today. (Photo: 1950 Nivex derailleur)


3. Cable-operated brakes are often overlooked, but we don’t realize that the biggest problem for early mountain cyclists was slowing down. Some cyclists cut down small trees and attached them to their rear triangles, so they dragged on the ground during descents. The first French Technical Trials in 1901 were concerned only with brakes. The cable-operated rim brake showed its superiority back then, and it continues to equip most performance bikes today. (Photo: 1930s Jeay roller-cam brake.)


2. Butted, thinwall frame tubing makes the frame sing, even though the idea of “planing” may not yet be universally accepted. Few people will deny that cycling on a lightweight frame is more fun than on a frame made from “drainpipe”. When thinwall, butted frame tubing became common on racing bikes during the 1930s, Tour de France speeds increased more than at any time in history. Today, butted steel tubing still is competitive against newer materials, and even the latest carbon machines use variable wall thicknesses and diameters to mimic the feel and performance of the best steel frames. (Photo: Bikes for Bicycle Quarterly’s double-blind test of frame tubing.)


1. Pneumatic tires are by far the most important innovation in cycling. Cycling saw many false starts until it finally found enduring popularity in the 1890s. One major reason for the breakthrough were pneumatic tires. No longer did bicycles deserve the name “boneshakers.” The air-filled tires were more comfortable and much faster. Invented in Britain and Ireland (twice!), the invention spread around the world, and today, virtually all bicycles are equipped with pneumatic tires. (Photo: 1894 Humber)

What do you consider the most important innovation in cycling?

Photos from Bicycle Quarterly and The Competition Bicycle.

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Comments (92)

  • Harald

    While I agree that generator hubs were a very important innovation, the change from incandescent to LED lighting was of equal importance. Just imagine if your nice SON hubs were still powering an E6 front light instead of the wonderful Edelux or a B&M Cyo Premium.

    May 15, 2015 at 5:54 am
  • ORiordan

    Being pedantic, JB Dunlop was living and working in Ireland when he invented the pneumatic tyre so it would be more correct to say, invented in Ireland once and Britain once (that being Thomson’s original patent pre-dating Dunlop)
    However both Dunlop and Thomson were Scottish so the Scots have a good claim for all the credit!

    May 15, 2015 at 6:02 am
  • David E

    Standardization is a huge innovation that is so simple that people forget its significance. We are seeing a period of un-standardization in bottom brackets, rear hub widths, and brake caliper mounts. What good is a bicycle if you can’t purchase replacement tires to fit a non-standard bead diameter (Schwinn from the 1970’s)? What happens when your freewheel cogs are worn out and there is no replacement supply (Maillard Helicomatic)? Standardized components allow for competition between component makers to improve performance, price and quality while also allowing for parts from different manufacturers to work together.

    May 15, 2015 at 6:12 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I agree with you – standardization is a huge factor. As you may have read in Bicycle Quarterly No. 50, one of the goals of the first Paris-Brest-Paris race in 1891 was to promote standardization of bicycles. Back then, even thread pitches of bolts weren’t standardized!

      May 15, 2015 at 6:54 am
    • jimmythefly

      +1 to this. Standardization -and the mass-production methods that make interchangeable parts even possible – probably belongs on the list.

      May 15, 2015 at 1:30 pm
  • Jayme Frye

    I was with you up until SPD clipless pedals. I am not convinced there is any need for retention systems outside the ultra competitive world of pro cycling (primarily sprints). Perhaps you could use your testing methods on the claims that pedal retention systems are more efficient and allow the rider to produce more power by pulling up. That would make for a great BQ article.

    May 15, 2015 at 6:27 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We did test this. It’s in the Summer issue, which will come out soon…

      May 15, 2015 at 6:55 am
      • G

        This was studied by Coyle et al (circa 1993-1994). They evaluated competitive cyclists on an ergometer. Results with cycling shoes vs non-cycling shoes were not significant.
        Pulling up is a also a myth; cyclists with smooth pedal strokes simply succeed in not applying negative force on the up-stroke.
        Cycling shoes and SPD’s are desirable, for many, for many reasons unrelated to performance: avoidance of being bucked off unexpectedly; flexy soles are annoying; not having to think about your foot placement increases enjoyment; etc.

        May 15, 2015 at 5:41 pm
      • Steve Palincsar

        There’s more value to “retention” than pulling up to produce more power. It’s nice to be able to lift your foot (without necessarily ‘pulling up’) without worrying about losing the pedal. It’s far more serious out of the saddle, but even just riding along it’s a factor. It’s also nice to not step on the crank arm or chain stay because you’ve got your foot crooked or too far sideways, something that happens constantly to me on my shopper, my one bike equipped with “step on” pedals.

        May 18, 2015 at 9:45 am
    • Jay

      Even if you do not believe in its power benefits, you don’t need a test to know clipless makes riding safer by keeping the cyclist’s feet positioned nicely at all times. I believe any rider who may encounter unpaved roads or roads in poor condition can appreciate this.

      May 15, 2015 at 9:22 am
      • Daniel M

        I don’t need a test to “know” that on the roughest roads and trails, platform pedals make riding safer by allowing cyclists to easily put a foot down without the delay of unclipping. I believe any rider who has encountered extremely rough downhill trails has appreciated this. Downhill mountain bike racers still use platform pedals, if I am not mistaken. One would think that the safety argument would apply to them as well.
        I also don’t need a test to “know” that cycling-specific shoes, even ones with recessed cleats, are highly undesirable when off the bike. Climbing a rocky outcrop for a photo or a view is difficult to the point of dangerous with a smooth metal plate under the ball of my foot. Taking a side-trip hike in bike shoes is miserable, and on a multi-day or multi-week bike tour, having to dedicate an additional pair of shoes to being on the bike is an unacceptable packing penalty.
        Not intended to start a war – my point is that it is a matter of opinion, not knowledge. As a respectful counterpoint, I rode clips and straps and then SPDs for well over a decade, switched back to platform pedals for a month-long tour, and never switched back. I think the benefits of retention are highly overstated and the drawbacks conveniently overlooked.

        May 15, 2015 at 11:43 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Pedals are a matter of taste, and I know number of very good riders who prefer light hiking shoes for cyclotouring, with platforms and half-clips.

          May 15, 2015 at 3:12 pm
      • jimmythefly

        @ Daniel M
        Just as an FYI, not arguing one way or another, but there are many pro downhillers on clipless pedals(usually with some surrounding larger platform vs. a CX or XC pedal)
        Check out this gallery from a year ago. At least 35 of those bikes have clipless pedals.

        May 15, 2015 at 4:54 pm
      • Matthew J

        clipless set up is no safer than platforms with half-clips

        May 18, 2015 at 5:38 am
      • Soren Cicchini

        They keep the feet positioned nicely at all times except for emergency dismounts. I know several fit young people (two from the same office) that have fractured femurs soon after switching from platform pedals to SPD quick-release clip (I refuse to refer to a pedal with spring-loaded clips as clipless) pedals for commuting. I don’t think any of them would consider it a safer system after suffering these potentially life-threatening injuries, let alone declare its inherent safety as self-evident.

        May 18, 2015 at 10:24 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Cycling requires some skills, but they are easily learned. Yes, you may fall once (or even twice) after switching to pedals with foot retention (in the days of toeclips, you had to plan ahead and open the strap before stopping), but then it’s second nature. It took my then-8-year-old son one ride to figure it out.

          May 19, 2015 at 6:34 am
          • Soren Cicchini

            I’m sure your son is fantastic, but the professional engineers that broke their legs were not exactly mentally challenged by comparison. I suspect that they also thought that they had figured it out until they were tested under pressure. If the product introduces a significant new hazard, I fail to see how it improves safety. What is the hazard that locking your feet to the pedals is supposed to address? Running inappropriately high tyre pressures and sitting on the saddle on rough terrain instead of standing on the pedals?
            Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly commented: “Cycling requires some skills, but they are easily learned. Yes, you may fall once (or even twice) after switching to pedals with foot retention (in the days of toeclips, you had to plan ahead and open the strap before stopping), but then it’s second natur”

            May 23, 2015 at 3:29 am
    • Doug

      I don’t ride clipless for more power. I ride them for more comfort and safety.

      May 15, 2015 at 11:00 am
    • Dinu

      If you don’t think clipless pedals transfer more power try sprinting without them and see how well you come off.

      May 15, 2015 at 12:51 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        When clipless pedals were first introduced, half the peloton was on clipless, the others still rode clips and straps. There didn’t seem to be a performance difference – as many races were won with toeclips and straps as with clipless.

        May 15, 2015 at 3:34 pm
    • Robert S

      It is plausible that pedal retention systems are more efficient if they allow the muscles to more fully relax on the upward phase. That would be in step with modern sports science’s current view that elite athleticism stems from the ability to fully relax before the application of power. It seems to me that is the exact opposite of ‘producing more power by pulling up’.
      I.e. it is plausible that they are more efficient because you don’t have to ‘work’ to keep your foot on the pedal during the upward phase.

      May 20, 2015 at 4:28 pm
  • kittehjesus

    I’m skeptical that butted tubing is really such an important innovation, myself. I would argue that a more important tubing-related innovation was the invention of stronger steels, particularly Reynolds 531 Mang-moly which spent surprisingly long as the premier material for bicycle frames.
    The advent of cheaper, cro-moly steel tubing would be another major innovation.
    Butting, by comparison, was pretty much just tinkering around the edges of those innovations.
    Hyperglide cassettes, providing smooth gear changes, surely must be another innovation, but perhaps less fundamental than the invention of the gear systems themselves.

    May 15, 2015 at 7:06 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I agree that high-strength steel is just as important as butted tubes. Butting and high-strength steels go hand-in-hand. You wouldn’t want to braze or weld a frame from 0.5 mm straight-gauge tubing, so without butting, the high-strength steel doesn’t yield any significant benefits.

      May 15, 2015 at 7:20 am
      • kittehjesus

        For the the more modern, strongest steels, then I agree: butting is a must. For my 853 MTB for example, or a 953 road bike frame, I’d only trust a skilled professional (not a robot!) to be doing the welding.
        But for the older, thicker steels tubes I’m not sure butting was all that important. The old fashioned method of using lugs and brazing apparently didn’t require extra tube thickness at the ends, because the lower temperatures involved in brazing don’t reduce the material strength quite like welding does. What is true, however, is that Reynolds went with butted tubes (and abandoned their alternate design of 8 internal lateral flats) at the request of custom frame builders, who found that the word ‘butted’ was fashionable and helped them sell frames.

        May 15, 2015 at 7:45 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          The older frames didn’t use very thick walls. A typical French randonneur bike from the 1940s has 0.5 mm walls in the center. Some used 0.4 or even 0.35 mm. You don’t find steel tubing with thinner walls than that today. So a 1950s René Herse would have been impossible to build without butted tubing, and with thicker-wall tubing, the feel and performance would have been radically different.

          May 15, 2015 at 7:52 am
          • kittehjesus

            Thanks for correcting my misconception – very interesting.

            May 15, 2015 at 7:57 am
  • somervillebikes

    How is it that you mention the SON hub from 1995 after “many false starts”? I wouldn’t consider the Sturmey Archer dynohub a false start– certainly it’s not as efficient as a modern Schmidt, Shimano or SP hub, but they had essentially perfected the concept with the available technology at the time. Their first dyno hub was introduced in 1936! I just don’t see how Schmidt can be mentioned while leaving Sturmey Archer lumped in with the “false starts” preceding it. I own a 1951 Sturmey Dynohub and it still works today as it did when new.

    May 15, 2015 at 7:36 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      For spirited riding, the SON was the first that actually produced enough power. It’s also the first that found widespread used among riders interested in performance.

      May 15, 2015 at 7:50 am
      • PatrickZ

        From what I have read, Sid Ferris was a spirited rider and used the Dynohub for a record breaking run in 1938 or so, but I am not sure how widespread its use was by British club riders of the period. My 1971 Dynohub with modern LED lights is more than adequate for my admittedly non-spirited purposes.

        May 15, 2015 at 10:01 am
  • jprichard10

    Leather slung saddles! I’d choose a good saddle over indexed shifting any day. But this is less of an innovation… It seems that saddle companies have tried to match the performance of a leather saddle for the last 70 years.

    May 15, 2015 at 8:00 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think leather saddles pre-date the safety bicycle, so they are prior to our timeframe. Very important, though. Sitting on an upholstered piece of wood cannot have been too comfortable.

      May 15, 2015 at 8:37 am
  • 16incheswestofpeoria

    Here’s a measured vote for the Internet, which gives scattered bicyclists around the world access to knowledge, community and encouragement.

    May 15, 2015 at 8:22 am
  • carlo

    I think tensioned spokes which spread the impact over the whole wheel should be there.

    May 15, 2015 at 8:27 am
  • Mike J

    I think ball bearings deserve a place on this list. Largely hidden, they are frequently forgotten until they fail.

    May 15, 2015 at 8:29 am
  • Tom Howard

    I can’t argue with any of the selections on this excellent list. If I were to compile an April Fool’s Day list of cycling innovations, I’d rank drillium No.1., followed by flat-proof, foam inner tubes right behind it.

    May 15, 2015 at 8:38 am
  • Luis Bernhardt

    When I rode the Cino Heroica last year, one of the things I had to do to make my bike “heroic” was to install the old pedals with toe clips and straps. I even found a Japanese company that made slotted cleats that would line up with the Look 3-hole shoe pattern. After riding the event (on my usual fixed-gear bike), I swore i would never use those archaic clips and straps again! They were just awful. I couldn’t believe I tolerated using those things racing in the 70’s and early 80’s. Clipless pedals allow you to pull up on the pedal with no fear of the shoe pulling out (and yes, pulling up allows for more efficient pedaling and the improvement can be quantified in a standing start on the track, which can be generalized to climbing technique). You can wear a shoe that’s big enough to be comfortable without having to worry about spacing out the toe cliip to accommodate it. And they don’t drag and make a scraping noise as when your foot is not in the toe clip. You can also make them double-sided, which is a real godsend when riding in snow, or doing a standing start up a steep incline. As far as safety, one thing I have noticed, though, back when clipless pedals were first being used, and this is anecdotal, was that it seemed to me that in a pileup type of crash, a bike with clipless pedals will be thrown higher than a bike with clips and straps…

    May 15, 2015 at 8:41 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I have ridden mountainous 300 and 400 km brevet on classic randonneur bikes with toeclips, and I thought it was fine. The toestraps do cut the circulation in your feet a bit, so much longer might not be comfortable. The extreme pulling up that risks sliding out of the toeclip happens only during hard, out-of-the-saddle accelerations… But yes, I also use clipless pedals on my bikes.

      May 15, 2015 at 8:54 am
      • B. Carfree

        Those of you with small feet, as opposed to my size 51, may be able to use toe clips with comfort. For the rest of us, I was happier than a kid at Solstice when I got my Cinelli clipless back in the early ’80s.
        I actually still have them stored away. My wife won’t let me use them because many of them had axle failures back in the day. In the Sacramento area, they were nicknamed Death Pedals, not because the rider had to reach down and push a button to release (not much different than toe clips with straps), but because of this tendency to break at inopportune moments.

        May 19, 2015 at 8:48 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      By the way, Compass does sell the lovely MKS Keirin pedals… If I were better at marketing, I’d write how clipless pedals are just a fad and don’t offer any advantages…

      May 15, 2015 at 8:56 am
      • Luis Bernhardt

        LOL. Now you’re starting to sound like Grant Peterson. When I first started racing, I was told to train with the toe straps loose so that I would learn to practice an effective spin where my foot would stay on the pedals through the entire rotation. I even climbed out of the saddle with loose straps! The problem was that even with the straps tight, my foot would still pull out of the pedals if I pulled up too hard. As a result, I never developed the pulling-up technique until I started using clipless pedals. The other problem with the clips and straps was that I had to re-learn how to disengage. I was so used to just rotating my foot to get out that I had to consciously think about pulling back. Clipless just makes so much sense, it truly belongs on your list. And there were systems in place before Look. Cinelli and Adidas both made “suicide pedal systems” which would not release automatically! You had to reach down and move a lever or a stop to disengage. Australian trackie John Nicholson actually bolted his shoes to the pedals! When he got on his bike at the start line, he had to tie on his shoes. There had to be clipless systems back in the 30’s or before, wouldn’t ya think?

        May 15, 2015 at 9:16 am
    • Mike

      I see the big advantage as “feet won’t slip off the pedals in the rain”. You can get the same effect with spiked pedals, but then the clipless pedal advantage is “won’t impale your shin”.

      May 15, 2015 at 10:05 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        The issue of your feet sliding off the pedals is real, and especially with coaster brakes, it can be a problem. (My daughter once crashed into a wall when her feet came off the pedals on a bumpy trail.) However, you don’t need clipless pedals for that: Toeclips keep your feet from sliding off the pedals, too.

        May 15, 2015 at 10:22 am
      • Mike

        I find toe clips to be much harder on my knees, I guess because of reduced float/angle configurability? There may be some that adjust to odd feet, but the ones I’ve used left me in pain. At any rate the basic point was that there are reasons to like a retention system apart from a desire to look like a racer (in response to that particular criticism upthread) and I’m sure toe clips are a good option for some.

        May 15, 2015 at 11:08 am
  • William Watts

    I think the freewheel belongs on this list.

    May 15, 2015 at 8:51 am
  • david morgan

    I am sure you will get replies re the indexed shifting one! For rough roads and of course non-paved roads, it makes a whole world of difference! 

    May 15, 2015 at 8:59 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I ride non-indexed shifters on all kinds of roads, with no problems… but I think it really has lowered the barrier of entry for novice cyclists. My mother has a 21-speed bike and shifts it with confidence – with friction, I don’t think that would have happened.

      May 15, 2015 at 10:20 am
  • ayjaydee

    The pneumatic tire is one of the greatest inventions of all time period! It revolutionized transportation and, as a result, society. As for some of the other examples you use, “spirited” riding is a subjective term and important only to a small percentage of the total number of bicycle riders.

    May 15, 2015 at 10:05 am
  • David Feldman

    Two comments: I agree with the other poster that LED’s are an enormous innovation although not cycling specific–as the attentiveness and competence of US drivers seems to have deteriorated, LED lighting is the sharp stick in the eye they can need sometimes in order to notice us on the road. Another cycling innovation that it is unlikely anyone reading this will want to use, but still–the “foot forward” design of bike frames which allows casual riders who could never get past the reality of not being able to have feet flat on the ground with the saddle the correct distance from the pedals. Foot forward lets them have their cake and eat it too. I don’t want one, probably nobody that subscribes to BQ wants one, but foot-forward bikes may get some people over an obstacle to getting on the road.

    May 15, 2015 at 10:05 am
    • Nic

      I’ve built one just to have a try. I’ve seen so many folks riding with too low a seat because they feel unsafe. It’s good fun, you’re riding a chair! Climbing a steep hill is next to impossible but the people intended to this type of bike likely would avoid hills. It’s a worthwhile invention and not a recent one!

      May 21, 2015 at 10:53 am
  • Mark Gardner

    Next, how about a list of developments we’d most like to see. My #1 would be a replacement for pneumatic tires! I cannot believe that after forty-five years of cycling, I am still fixing punctures, and I have many per year. (Or maybe I should not live in goat head thorn country.)

    May 15, 2015 at 11:03 am
  • kittehjesus

    Also interesting are all the so called innovations that didn’t stand the test of time, and here’s a shameless plug for my own list of such innovations: https://retrosteelrider.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/amazing-mountain-bike-innovations-that-didnt-stand-the-test-of-time/

    May 15, 2015 at 11:27 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Yes, the blind alleys of history are fascinating. Your list is interesting, since it mostly concerns suspension… I used to translate German catalogues for Rocky Mountain and a few other mountain bike companies, and the rate at which suspension developed (with each iteration being heralded as the “final, ultimate”) was dizzying.

      May 15, 2015 at 11:30 am
      • kittehjesus

        That’s interesting to know! I’ve never really accepted suspension as necessary anyway – it does allow me to be lazy and crash through rooty sections, though.

        May 15, 2015 at 11:55 am
    • Johan

      Not really here nor there, but many skilled mountain bikers still swear by the Slingshot (number 2 on the list you include), including friend of BQ Sky Boyer. I’ve never ridden one, but I always found it fascinating how many pros and other elite riders I’ve talked to who promise that it climbs faster than any bike they’ve ever owned.

      May 15, 2015 at 12:15 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        My last race was the Tour of Willamette in the Cat. 1/2/Pro. I rode the last stage with a pro mountain biker who was on a Slingshot that seemed to work very well.

        May 15, 2015 at 3:33 pm
    • jimmythefly

      Ha! I was just going to suggest modern MTB suspension as an innovation that should be on Jan’s list. As you point out, there are plenty of specific individual suspension designs that didn’t pan out -but taken as a whole it’s clear that full-suspension bikes of off-road riding are here to stay, and that the development of modern full suspension (and specifically not just fully-sprung, but fully sprung AND damped) as an innovation hugely changed cycling.

      May 15, 2015 at 1:35 pm
    • Frank

      Ahhh! I really loved my e-stay Rocky! But yes, it cracked (and was re-welded, and cracked again) after many many years of loyal service. Although I guess if it never fell apart I wouldn’t have been led to this fat tyre road bike.

      May 15, 2015 at 3:12 pm
  • TimJ

    Seeing the headline of the post I was pretty sure I’d agree with most of the top ten – and was right. In the spirit of stimulating debate however, I’ll toss another pretty significant development, at least on par with pneumatic tires, maybe even more significant: the ball bearing. Although ball bearings have been with us for nearly 2000 years, the first use in bicycles appears to have been by a Parisian mechanic in 1869. Imagine the modern bicycle with sleeve bearings! You’d have to keep stopping to relube them on a long ride…

    May 15, 2015 at 11:40 am
  • Ablejack Courtney

    Love that you chose to illustrate cable-operated brakes with the (cam-actuated) Jeay Alloy Brakes. Sneaking in a little history there. /and other places too.
    On Fri, May 15, 2015 at 8:28 AM, Off The Beaten Path wrote:
    > Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly posted: ” A while back, another > magazine published a list of the “10 Most Important Innovations in > Cycling”. The list included things like electronic shifting and Lycra, but > left out pneumatic tires… This got us thinking: What are the ten most > important in”

    May 15, 2015 at 11:56 am
  • a.ij. van den berg (@ijsbrandt)

    Miss the invention of the freewheel, even if fixies are still around these days.

    May 15, 2015 at 1:03 pm
  • Edwin

    Regarding indexed v friction for non experts: my dad, who is 75 and has biked much of his life, but never fast, or regularly or long distance, was visiting and rode my friction shifting bike. He loved it and compared it to an automatic car vs an indexed (he rode 3 speed Raleighs for a while) more like manual transmission! Most of us who drive manual and shift friction (seems to be a demographic) would have thought the opposite.
    N=1 of course.

    May 15, 2015 at 1:30 pm
  • jimmythefly

    Plastic squeezy water bottles might also go on your list. I’ve ridden with a stainless bottle and can hardly imagine not having a convenient squeeze bottle with it’s very user-friendly lid/tip and one handed operation to drink from while on the move. Not sure if this is precisely a cycling innovation or more of a general plastics revolution innovation.
    And what about hooked-bead clincher rims? Or do those pre-date the safety bicycle?
    Power meters?
    And I second the inclusion of LEDs. The development of the nearly ubiquitous small, cheap, lighweight battery-powered “be seen” flashy lights that last a week or more is kind of amazing.

    May 15, 2015 at 1:44 pm
  • Douglas Lumsden

    I don’t know if they pre-date the safety bicycle, but Fig Newtons almost certainly are one of the most innovative products to be embraced by cyclists. Soft, easy to eat, loaded with carbs and yummy too. No sKin to peel. no core to dispose of. Just a small zip-loc baggie to find in the washing machine afterward.

    May 15, 2015 at 1:50 pm
  • Jon

    I’m not trying to be the retro grouch I usually am, but I really do not see a benefit for the electronic shifting another magazine finds important. The only reasons I can think of are: 1) It’s something to charge a lot for, and 2) We have the technology, so why not? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

    May 15, 2015 at 2:19 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You noticed that electronic shifting didn’t make our list. 😉

      May 15, 2015 at 3:39 pm
    • Hamish Moffatt (@hmoffatt)

      Not essential but certainly nice to have. At the end of 1200km my wrists are tired from shifting, especially the left. That problem is completely solved with electronics. Also no issues with cable stretch and eventually breakage.
      On the other hand I agree that the upcoming wireless shifting system from SRAM is a solution looking for a problem.

      May 17, 2015 at 7:30 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        Have you ridden a 1200 km with electronic shifting? With STI, I’d have a hard time shifting at the end of a long ride. Fortunately, my downtube shift levers have a very light action…

        May 17, 2015 at 8:33 pm
      • Hamish Moffatt (@hmoffatt)

        Yes I rode a hilly 1200 on Ultegra Di2 (6700). A single battery charge was enough. I had a spare battery just in case though as they are quite light and only take a second to change. My previous three 1200s were on regular STI and I could barely shift the FD by the end of each.

        May 17, 2015 at 8:49 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Thank you for sharing your experience. Yes, I find STI very difficult to use, too. The swing motion of the wrist is not at all natural for my hands…

          May 17, 2015 at 9:45 pm
  • samsavvas

    I’d like to put in a plug for imaginative thinking around wheel size and, specifically, the design methodologies of Alex Moulton. Smaller wheels extend the concept of ‘what is a bike’ as well as extending its associated utility. That thinking has had a profound effect on the extending of bicycle design into the worlds of recumbents, folding bikes, freight bikes, velomobiles etc etc. I’d also put in a major bid for the early frame, wheel and gearing innovations made by ‘rough stuff’ designers in the UK and Europe from the ’30s through to the 1980s which – arguably – gave rise to fat-tyre (and much more versatile) bicycle use in the European world.

    May 15, 2015 at 4:02 pm
  • bob

    Most people are listing components, but I want to add the modern foam bicycle helmet. It has saved the lives (or at least the quality of life) of a number of people I know and love, and is therefore more important than anything on this list for me. I don’t think nearly as many people would be comfortable riding as far and as often as they do without this safety development.

    May 15, 2015 at 4:19 pm
  • Tim Foon Feldman

    Helmets with significant protection and the standards to which they now comply.

    May 15, 2015 at 4:23 pm
  • Jesse

    Great list, Jan! I posted a similar list a few months ago, also in response to the article in “another magazine.” You can read my list here.
    I had a hard enough time narrowing my choices down to my top 5, so I appreciate that you limited your list to innovations made after the advent of the safety bicycle.

    May 16, 2015 at 10:12 am
  • Kyle Brooks

    Hi Jan — I also had a response to that list you referred to. (That list, by the way, named Simplex as the first parallelogram derailleur, and then put up a photo of a plunger-action Simplex as the example. Ridiculous). My list was posted to The Retrogrouch Blog back in January. I approached my list with a view towards the importance of the invention to cycling, but also, in some cases, with an eye towards it’s impact on other areas as well — for example, I also put pneumatic tires at #1 because they revolutionized not only bicycles, but also cars, motorcycles, aircraft, and many other things as well. Here’s the short version, from 10 through 1: Effective Helmets, Quick Release Hubs, Ball Bearings, Bowden Cables, Ratcheting Freewheels, High-strength Alloy Tubing, Parallelogram Derailleurs, Roller Chain, Wire-spoke Wheels, and Pneumatic Tires. For the explanations, here’s the link: http://bikeretrogrouch.blogspot.com/2015/01/retrogrouchs-top-10-all-time-bicycling.html

    May 16, 2015 at 12:57 pm
  • Joe K

    I’m sure the derrailleur did open up the bike to more riders. But, gosh, I’m surprised how many miles a year I spend on a fixie. I’ve got my bikes with gears in the garage, but the fixie is the one I grab most of the time. And it’s not as if it’s heroic. They just work very, very well.

    May 17, 2015 at 10:19 am
  • Brian

    effective brake pad materials from kool-stop and /or assenmacher

    May 17, 2015 at 7:45 pm
    • Soren Cicchini

      I know aluminium components were mentioned in the article, but it really only focussed on their reduced weight. I think it is also worth mentioning the braking benefits of aluminium rims (due to higher friction coefficients, although the reduced inertia is a bonus). A relatively casual ride on chromed steel rims in the wet can get your heart racing like the toughest of climbs.

      May 17, 2015 at 9:07 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        You are right. In middle school, I had a ten-speed with steel rims that I used to ride to school. On rainy days, I had to brake a whole block before arriving at the school – and that was on a flat road! What were my parents thinking to let me out on a bike like that?

        May 17, 2015 at 9:46 pm
  • Peter C

    Small scale prototyping and production methods such as CNC machining have allowed some innovative products to reach market from small enterprises, which have subsequently been picked up by majors. I think V brakes could fall into this category. Of course there have been some not so great products over the years as well, such as some colour-anodised bits from the early nineties. 3D printing and additive manufacturing brings further promise.

    May 18, 2015 at 9:19 pm
  • alliwant

    Jan, do you know what the hub is in the picture of the Nivex rear derailleur? Looks as though a spoke could be replaced without removing the gear cluster. I’ve heard those existed, but never actually seen one. Are any such hubs still made?

    May 19, 2015 at 8:12 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      That is a Maxi-Car tandem hub, to which Alex Singer riveted larger flanges. The Maxi-Car hubs for single-bikes had keyhole spoke holes on the driveside, which did allow replacing spokes without removing the freewheel. In the 1930s Technical Trials, that was a way to get extra points, so many component makers came up with solutions. Some involved cassette hubs where the cassette could be pulled off without tools.
      These days, spokes are much stronger than in the past. With a well-built wheel (and wide tires that cushion the worst blows), spoke failure is not an issue any longer. My René Herse has a Maxi-Car rear hub with the keyhole spoke holes, but in four years of hard riding, I have yet to make use of it.

      May 19, 2015 at 8:26 pm
  • Radlmax

    Freewheel? Back-pedaling brake?

    May 21, 2015 at 5:36 am

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