April 1, 2020: This is the time of year when we take a break from the daily news and look at areas where real progress is possible in bicycle design. Forget marginal gains – today we’re looking for revolutionary ideas!
The industry likes to crow about disc brakes and carbon frames, but when you really think about it, bikes have not evolved much at all since the 1890s. The very first Paris-Brest-Paris was won on a bike similar to the Humber above, and yet most of the Humber’s features have been carried over almost unchanged to the latest ‘high-tech wonders’!
Looking at a current top-of-the-line bike, you’d be forgiven to think that it dates from the 1890s. Has time really stood still for more than a century? Just consider:
The wheels are still round! How boring. In the past, with rim brakes, you needed round rims to keep the brake pads on the rims, but those days are long behind us. Octagonal wheels may be a bit bumpy, but why not elliptical ones that smooth out your pedal strokes?
The tires are still filled with air! For more than a century, flat tires have been the bane of cyclists’ existence. And still no relief? More than 100 years ago, Germans already invented an airless wheel. Why not update this with carbon fiber?
The diamond frame still reigns supreme! The 1890s Humber has the same frame configuration as the modern carbon bike: Top tube, down tube, seat tube in a triangle, and the rear stays in a second triangle.
Why so little imagination? Already during the 1990s, Trek’s Y-Foil showed the way forward: more aero (maybe), much cooler (maybe) and just a bit heavier – what is not to like? The UCI outlawed the Y-Foil, but it’s not like we adhere to the UCI tire limit of 33 mm on our gravel bikes…
Spokes are still made from steel! Come on – when will we finally give up the little pieces of wire that tie together our wheels? Spinergy showed the way during the early ’90s, and even ultra-retrogrouch Grant Petersen predicted back then that spoked wheels were going to be passé in just a decade. What happened?
Retro rules again: In recent years, bike makers have dusted off ancient technology, rather than move forward with true innovation. Here are some examples:
Sloping top tubes: They fell out of fashion 100 years ago, but some builders just can’t get with the program. And lately, they’ve been making a resurgence. Incredible!
Bikepacking: Strapping bags to the frame was just a first attempt of carrying a load, before racks were invented. Now we’re back to the roots, I guess.
One-by drivetrains: The old Humber had a single front chainring, because that’s all they could imagine back then. By the 1930s, we had doubles and triples, later came quads and even the occasional quintuple crankset (above), but now we’re back to single rings. Less complicated maybe, but what about progress?
Chains: In fact, the whole idea of derailleurs that bend the chain to get to a different gear ratio is positively archaic. More than a century ago, inventors already had developed bikes with shaft drive and separate gearboxes. A decade later, even cars adopted that technology. At the same time, bikes reverted to the old chain drive. When will we finally catch up again?
Seriously, bike industry folks, is this the best you can do? You’d think that with modern innovations like 3D printing and crowd sourcing, we could finally come up with some truly new ideas!
Or is the bicycle simply almost unimprovable?