Bicycles were introduced in the 19th century in Europe and now number more than a billion worldwide, twice as many as automobiles. They are the principal means of transportation in many regions. They also provide a popular form of recreation and have been adapted for use as children’s toys, general fitness, military and police applications, courier services, and bicycle racing.
Here are the top ten cycling innovations in history that made cycling that popular, funny, and safe.
Table of Contents
1. Safety Bicycles
In the 1880s, a type of bicycle with a large front wheel and a much smaller rear wheel that was very popular. Penny-farthing, high wheel, high wheeler, and ordinary are all terms used to describe that kind of bicycles. In fact, they were the first machines to be called “bicycles”.
There was a big down-side of the penny-farthing: they were prone to accidents. To stop, the rider presses back on the pedals while applying a spoon-shaped brake pressing the tire. The center of mass being high and not far behind the front wheel meant any sudden stop or collision with a pothole or other obstruction could send the rider over the handlebars (“taking a header” or “coming a cropper”).
On long downhills, some riders hooked their feet over the handlebars. This made for quick descents but left no chance of stopping. A new type of handlebar was introduced, called Whatton bars, that looped behind the legs so that riders could still keep their feet on the pedals and also be able to leap feet-first forward off the machine.
Then “safety bicycles” came in: two wheels have the same (or very similar) size, the pedals powered the rear wheel, the rider’s feet were within reach of the ground, making it easier to stop. This style were known as safety bicycles because they were noted for, and marketed as, being safer than the high wheelers they were replacing. Even though modern bicycles use a similar design, the term is rarely used today, and may be considered obsolete.
The safety bicycle was a big improvement on the previous penny-farthing design which it replaced. The chain drive, coupling a large front sprocket (the chainring) to a small rear sprocket (the sprocket) to multiply the revolutions of the pedals, allowed for much smaller wheels, and replaced the need for the large, directly pedaled front wheel of the penny-farthing.
The smaller wheel gave a harder ride; once pneumatic tires were developed and replaced the previously used solid ones, this disadvantage was no longer an issue.
With the center of gravity low and between the wheels, rather than high and over the front hub, the safety bicycle greatly diminished the danger of “taking a header” or long fall over the handlebars. This made braking more effective and cycling, previously the reserve of spry, daring young men, safer, and therefore much more popular, especially for women.
Its popularity soon grew to be more than the penny farthings and tricycles combined, and caused the bike boom of the 1890s.
2. Pneumatic Tires
The first bicycle “tires” were iron bands on the wooden wheels of velocipedes. These were followed by solid rubber tires on penny-farthings. In an attempt to soften the ride, rubber tires with a hollow core were also tried.
The first practical pneumatic tire was first applied to the bicycle by an Irish veterinarian in 1887 who was trying to give his young son a more comfortable ride on his tricycle, in an effort to prevent the headaches his son had while riding on rough roads. This inventive young doctor’s name was John Boyd Dunlop. Sound familiar? (Dunlop’s patent was later declared invalid because of prior art by fellow Scot Robert William Thomson.)
Dunlop is credited with “realizing rubber could withstand the wear and tear of being a tire while retaining its resilience”. This led to the founding of Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co. Ltd in 1889. By 1890, it began adding a tough canvas layer to the rubber to reduce punctures. Racers quickly adopted the pneumatic tire for the increase in speed it enabled.
Finally, the detachable tire was introduced in 1891 by Édouard Michelin. It was held on the rim with clamps, instead of glue, and could be removed to replace or patch the separate inner tube.
Since then, billions of people enjoyed the smooth ride that pneumatic tires provide – one of the most important cycling innovations in history.
3. Quick Release Mechanism
The quick release mechanism was invented in 1927 by Italian bicycle racer and founder of the famous Campagnolo brand, Tullio Campagnolo. He was frustrated when he attempted to change gears during a race. At the time there was but one cog on each side of the rear hub, so gear changes necessitated stopping, removing the rear wheel, rotating it horizontally so that the opposite cog is engaged by the chain, and finally reinstalling the wheel.
The weather had turned cold, and his hands were numb, so he could not operate the wingnuts which retained the wheel. He had been well-placed prior to the gear change, but lost valuable time. This prompted him to develop the quick release.
4. Derailleur gears
Derailleur is a French word, correctly spelled dérailleur, derived from the derailment of a train from its tracks. Its first recorded use was 1930.
Various derailleur systems were designed and built in the late 1800s. The French bicycle tourist, writer and cycling promoter Paul de Vivie (1853–1930), who wrote under the name Velocio, invented a two speed rear derailleur in 1905 which he used on forays into the Alps.
Some early designs used rods to move the chain onto various gears. 1928 saw the introduction of the “Super Champion Gear” (or “Osgear”) from the company founded by champion cyclist Oscar Egg, as well as the Vittoria Margherita; both employed chainstay-mounted ‘paddles’ and single lever chain tensioners mounted near or on the downtube. However, these systems, along with the rod-operated Campagnolo Cambio Corsa were eventually superseded by parallelogram derailleurs.
In 1937, the derailleur system was introduced to the Tour de France, allowing riders to change gears without having to remove wheels. Previously, riders would have to dismount in order to change their wheel from downhill to uphill mode. Derailleurs did not become common road racing equipment until 1938 when Simplex introduced a cable-shifted derailleur.
In 1949 Campagnolo introduced the Gran Sport, a more refined version of the then already existing, yet less commercially successful, cable-operated parallelogram rear derailleurs.
In 1964, Suntour invented the slant-parallelogram rear derailleur, which let the jockey pulley maintain a more constant distance from the different sized sprockets, resulting in easier shifting. Once the patents expired, other manufacturers adopted this design, at least for their better models, and the “slant parallelogram” remains the current rear derailleur pattern.
Before the 1990s many manufacturers made derailleurs, including Simplex, Huret, Galli, Mavic, Gipiemme, Zeus, Suntour, and Shimano. However, the successful introduction and promotion of indexed shifting by Shimano in 1985 required a compatible system of shift levers, derailleur, cogset, chainrings, chain, shift cable, and shift housing. This need for compatibility increased the use of groupsets made by one company and was one of the factors that drove the other manufacturers out of the market.
Today Campagnolo, Shimano, and SRAM are the three main manufacturers of derailleurs, with Italian manufacturer Campagnolo only making road cycling derailleurs and Shimano making both road and offroad. American manufacturer SRAM has been an important third, specializing in derailleurs for mountain bikes, and in 2006 they introduced a drivetrain system for road bicycles.
5. Clipless Pedals
“Clipless” refers to the toe clip (cage) having been replaced by a locking mechanism and not to platform pedals which would normally not have toe clips. The clipless pedal was invented by Charles Hanson in 1895. It allowed the rider to twist the shoe to lock and unlock and had rotational float (the freedom to rotate the shoe slightly to prevent joint strain).
The M71 was a clipless pedal designed by Cino Cinelli and produced by his company in 1971. It used a plastic shoe cleat which slid into grooves in the pedal and locked in place with a small lever located on the backside of the pedal body. To release the shoe a rider had to reach down and operate the lever, similar to the way a racing cyclist had to reach down and loosen the toe strap.
The lever was placed on the outside edge of the pedal so that in the event of a fall the lever hitting the ground would release the foot.
The pedal was designed for racing, in particular track racing, and because of the need to reach them to unclip they have been referred to as “death cleats”.
In 1984, the French company LOOK applied downhill snow skiing binding or cleat technology to pedals producing the first widely used clipless pedals. Bernard Hinault‘s victory in Tour de France in 1985 then helped secure the acceptance of quick-release clipless pedal systems by cyclists. Those pedals, and compatible models by other manufacturers, remain in widespread use today.
The cleat is engaged by simply pushing down and forward on the pedal, or, with some designs, by twisting the cleat in sideways. Then, instead of loosening a toe strap or pulling a lever, the cyclist releases a foot from the pedal by twisting the heel outward.
Advantages of Clipless Pedals
Better Power Transfer
One of the best things about going clipless is that you have an extremely solid connection to your bike’s power train. With normal pedals, there is only one thing keeping your foot on the pedal when you’re on your upstroke: pressure. You have to maintain constant contact with the pedal throughout every rotation, and to do that, you have to apply a little bit of downward pressure. You aren’t just stomping down to move you forward, but you’re adding to the force needed so you can lift your back leg. In other words, your legs are working against each other.
With clipless pedals, there’s none of that. Because your foot can’t go flying off, you can fully unweight on every recovery stroke so all of your energy is dedicated to propelling you and your bike forward. Plus, there’s no energy wasted in trying to compensate for lateral squirrelliness, which can be especially prominent as your legs get tired. In other words, you can focus on the task at hand.
Vastly Increased Efficiency
When you’re using traditional platform pedals, there’s only one section of the rotation where you can apply pressure to them: the down stroke. While that is generally the most powerful part of your stroke, clipless pedals make it way better. Not only can you stomp down, but because your feet are solidly anchored to the pedals, you can sweep back and pull up.
The sweep is an important extension of your downward stroke because it lets you engage your hamstrings, which have a lot of power. While you’re pulling back you’re also pushing your other foot forward, over the top of the rotation to get it ready for the next downstroke.
Similarly, while you’re stomping down with one foot, you can pull up with your other foot, engaging your core and hip flexors. While these aren’t your most powerful muscle groups, using them a little bit means you can go just as fast while taking some of the pressure off of the muscles you use in your downstroke. So, not only do you get more power, but you don’t wear out nearly as quickly.
It takes some getting used to, as you’re asking your legs to do more things at once than they have been. Once you adjust to the timing, though, you’ll find yourself going a lot faster and with much less effort.
With clipless, because you’re locked into your bike, you have better control. You can really push and pull your frame laterally if you need to in order to avoid a hazard, like, say, a rapidly opening car door. Also, because you can pull up on the pedals, that means you can bunny-hop over a small obstacle should you need to.
Another common problem is when you hit an unexpected bump with your rear tire (a pothole, or a rock). That can launch you upward and off of your seat. If you’re on platform pedals, the chances are good that your feet are going to come flying off as well, and when you land you’re going to be in a world of hurt (frame, meet crotch). Clipless pedals will keep your feet firmly attached to the bike, even if your ass comes off the seat, giving you a much-improved chance of landing safely.
Read more: Why You Should Switch to Clipless Pedals
6. STI Levers
In 1990, Shimano introduced their STI shifting levers for road bicycles, which completely integrated the brake lever and shifter. It also redesigned the brake “hoods” where riders commonly rest their hands. This new design worked like a normal brake lever in the longtitudinal plane, but also allowed the rider to shift to a larger cog by pushing the lever so that it pivots laterally. Behind the brake lever, there is a smaller lever that shifts to a smaller cog when pushed towards the inside.
This system helped Shimano take the lead in groupset manufacturing.
Related: Dura-Ace History
Around the same time, the other major global producer in bicycle components, Campagnolo, collaborated with the Sachs company to produce their ErgoPower system, differing substantially in its design and operation.
STI and ErgoPower have largely displaced downtube shifting, even though some cyclists still use downtube shifters for various reasons, including less expense, less weight, more flexibility, and better reliability. A compromise is to use bar-end shifters or Barcons. This type places the shifters closer to the hand positions, but still offer a simple reliable system, especially for touring cyclist. Drawbacks to STI and ErgoPower systems include the higher weight and the higher price. There are many more parts in an STI or ErgoPower lever than in a downtube system.
Since the creation of the STI shifting system the main improvements have included reducing weight and increasing cog count. Weight savings have come from using new materials such as Duralumin in Shimano’s component groups and carbon fiber in Campagnolo’s parts.
Some cyclists, including Lance Armstrong, installed a standard STI shifter on climbing-specific bikes for the cassette and a downtube shifter for the chainrings in order to reduce weight. This is done because chain is shifted across the cassette much more often than the chainrings. This setup might save up to 200 grams (7 ounces) off the total bike weight.
Compared to the minimum legal racing weight permitted by the Union Cycliste Internationale, 6.8 kilograms (15 pounds), 200 grams is about 3% of the total weight.
7. Time Trial Bars (Aero Bars)
Used by triathletes as early as 1987, the most notable first use of the aerobars occurred with Greg LeMond in the 1989 Tour de France. He used Scott Aerobars which placed the elbow pads at near shoulder width, forearms elevated about 15 to 20 degrees, and hands in a fist position. Pioneered by aerodynamicist Boone Lennon, this was the birth of the modern aero position.
In 1989 Tour de France, Laurent Fignon held a 50-second advantage over LeMond going into the 21st and final stage, a rare 24.5 km individual time trial from Versailles to the Champs-Élysées in Paris (see the article titled “Eight seconds”).
Fignon had won the Tour twice before, in 1983 and 1984, and was a very capable time trialist. It seemed improbable that LeMond could take 50 seconds off Fignon over the short 24.5 kilometer course. This would require LeMond to gain two seconds per kilometer against one of the fastest chrono-specialists in the world. LeMond had done wind tunnel testing in the off season and perfected his riding position.
Related: Eight seconds
He rode the time trial with a rear disc wheel, a cut-down Giro aero helmet, and the same Scott clip-on aero bars which had helped him to the Stage 5 time trial win. Holding his time trialing position LeMond was able to generate less aerodynamic drag than Fignon, who used a pair of disc wheels but chose to go helmetless and did not use the aero bars that are now commonplace in time trials.
Instructing his support car not to give him his split times, LeMond rode flat-out and finished at a record pace to beat Fignon by 58 seconds and claim his second Tour de France victory. As LeMond embraced his wife and rejoiced on the Champs-Élysées, Fignon collapsed onto the tarmac, then sat in shock and wept.
The final margin of victory of eight seconds was the closest in the Tour’s history. LeMond’s 54.545 km/h average speed for the stage 21 time trial was the fastest ever ridden in Tour history. Since then only the 1994 prologue and David Zabriskie‘s 2005 time trial performance have been faster. The press immediately labeled LeMond’s come-from-behind triumph as, “the most astonishing victory in Tour de France history”.
Since LeMond’s victory, time trial bars became common, and now racers using special time trial bikes in almost all time trial stages (except steep uphill time trials).
8. Carbon Fiber
Carbon fiber composite is an increasingly popular non-metallic material commonly used for bicycle frames. Although expensive, it is light-weight, corrosion-resistant, and strong, and can be formed into almost any shape desired. The result is a frame that can be fine-tuned for specific strength where it is needed (to withstand pedaling forces), while allowing flexibility in other frame sections (for comfort).
Custom carbon fiber bicycle frames may even be designed with individual tubes that are strong in one direction (such as laterally), while compliant in another direction (such as vertically). The ability to design an individual composite tube with properties that vary by orientation cannot be accomplished with any metal frame construction commonly in production.
Some carbon fiber frames use cylindrical tubes that are joined with adhesives and lugs, in a method somewhat analogous to a lugged steel frame. Another type of carbon fiber frames are manufactured in a single piece, called monocoque construction.
While these composite materials can be lightweight and strong, they have much lower impact resistance than traditional materials and consequently are prone to damage or failure if crashed or mishandled. Cracking and failure can result from a collision, but also from over-tightening or improperly installed components. These materials are also vulnerable to fatigue failure, a process that occurs with use over a long period of time. It is possible for broken carbon frames to be repaired, but because of safety concerns, it should be done only by professional firms to the highest possible standards.
Many racing bicycles built for individual time trial races and triathlons employ composite construction because the frame can be shaped with an aerodynamic profile not possible with cylindrical tubes, or would be excessively heavy in other materials. While this type of frame may in fact be heavier than others, its aerodynamic efficiency may help the cyclist to attain a higher overall speed.
An American bicycle manufacturer, Kestrel pioneered carbon fiber frame design with the world’s very first all-carbon bicycle frame in 1986, based again on the first-ever Finite Element Analysis (FEA) of bicycle frame structure conducted in 1986. Kestrel set new standards again in 1989, with the launch of the first carbon fork and the debut of the KM40 Airfoil, the first true aero triathlon frame. Carbon framesets by better-known, mainstream manufacturers such as Giant and, most notably, Trek (with its OCLV frames), have been directly influenced by Kestrel design principles.
9. GPS Devices
A GPS navigation device is a device that receives Global Positioning System (GPS) signals to determine the device’s location on Earth. Now GPS Navigation devices are widely in use in cycling.
Garmin was the first to bring GPS to the cycling computer market — the first to let cyclists put their ride on the map and record detailed metrics with the accuracy only GPS can deliver.
10. Power Meters
A cycling power meter is a device on a bicycle that measures the power output of the rider. Most cycling power meters use strain gauges to measure torque applied, and, combined with angular velocity, calculate power. The technology was adapted to cycling in the late 1980s and was tested in professional bicycle racing i.e.: the prototype Power Pacer (Team Strawberry) and by Greg LeMond with the SRM device. This type of power meter has been commercially available since 1989.
Training using a power meter is increasingly popular. Power meters generally come with a handlebar mounted computer that displays information about the power output generated by the rider such as instantaneous, max, and average power. Most of these computers also serve as all-around cycling computers and can measure and display heart rate as well as riding speed, distance and time.
Power meters provide an objective measurement of real output that allows training progress to be tracked very simply-something which is more difficult when using, for example, a heart rate monitor alone. Cyclists will often train at different intensities depending on the adaptations they are seeking. A common practice is to use different intensity zones. When training with power, these zones are usually calculated from the power output corresponding to the so-called lactate threshold or MAP (maximal aerobic power).
Power meters provide instant feedback to the rider about their performance and measure their actual output; heart rate monitors measure the physiological effect of effort and therefore ramp up more slowly. Thus, an athlete performing “interval” training while using a power meter can instantly see that they are producing 300 watts, for example, instead of waiting for their heart rate to climb to a certain point. In addition, power meters measure the force that moves the bike forward multiplied by the velocity, which is the desired goal. This has two significant advantages over heart rate monitors:
- An athlete’s heart rate may remain constant over the training period, yet their power output is declining, which they cannot detect with a heart rate monitor;
- While an athlete who is not rested or not feeling entirely well may train at their normal heart rate, they are unlikely to be producing their normal power-a heart rate monitor will not reveal this, but a power meter will. Further, power meters enable riders to experiment with cadence and evaluate its effect relative to speed and heart rate.
Power meters further encourage cyclists to contemplate all aspects of the sport in terms of power because power output is an essential, quantitative link between physiological fitness and speed achievable under certain conditions. A cyclist’s VO2 max (a proxy for fitness) can be closely related to power output using principles of biochemistry, while power output can serve as a parameter to power-speed models founded in Newton’s laws of motion, thus accurately estimating speed.
The joint application of power meters and power models has led to increasingly more scientific analyses of riding environments and physical properties of the cyclist, in particular aerodynamic drag.
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