Thursday, January 29, 2015

If Spiderman Had a Bicycle . . . The Razik Vortex

I think Spiderman is designing bicycles now, but he should probably stick to fighting crime. What else can one think when seeing something like the Razik Vortex? Weird.

I suppose there are a lot of people out there who would think a bike like the Razik is pretty cool. It's unique, I'll give them that, but it kind of makes me shudder. For sure, nobody will ever mistake it for any other bike on the road, and it doesn't even need its name brandished in billboard-sized letters on the downtube -- not that you can put a name on the downtube. They do have the name splashed pretty boldly on the fork, however.

The tubing design is actually not unique to Razik, but is something known as IsoTruss and was originally developed for NASA. The design of the tubing, which is constructed of carbon fiber and kevlar, forms a latticework of little triangles and pyramid-like shapes, which are supposed to make an incredibly light-but-strong truss structure. I've read that the carbon "lugs" that form the head tube, bottom bracket, and seatstay/seatpost junctions are capped inside to keep water from getting inside (but there may be some strong reasons against taking this out in the rain -- read on.)

Look closely and see that the brake and shift
cables are routed inside the latticework tubes.
There's no liner or anything to guide them, though,
so just try to imagine how much fun you'd have
changing cables! 
Is it light? Sure, but apparently not any lighter than some other high-end carbon fiber frames. That seems odd, but what do I care about weight, really? My lightest bike probably weighs in the neighborhood of 20 pounds! The other claims are of tremendous stiffness and improved vibration damping. I can't speak to the validity of vibration damping, though it's something carbon fans like to talk about. On the other hand, stiffness is like some kind of holy grail that bike designers and manufacturers have been chasing for years now. Though it seems to fit a certain sense of intuition that a stiffer frame is "faster" or more efficient, oddly enough there is no actual proof that a stiffer frame has any measurable benefit. As for "faster," that actually defies physics -- a bike is a stationary object until a rider makes it go, and it's only as fast as the rider. More efficient? It's pretty debatable, and I've seen lots of evidence to the contrary. Just read this article from Jan Heine at Compass Bicycles.

Reviewers of the Razik are giving it some mixed reviews, though my favorite was from Fat Cyclist, where he points out that the unusual tubing can actually be used to grate cheese. Handy!

Several testers have noted that the weird texture and shape of the tubes can be pretty painful if one should catch their knees or thighs on it through the pedal stroke, particularly if one rides with a tight, knees-in position. BikeRadar also pointed out that when riding in wet conditions, water and muck coming off the front tire flings up right through the open tubes and into the rider's face and neck. Got it -- this is a dry-weather-only bike.

The Razik Vortex is made in Utah (the IsoTruss structure was originally developed at Brigham Young University) and costs about $3999 for the frame. Expect an Ultegra-equipped bike to cost close to $6000, and somewhere near to $15 grand for Dura Ace with Di2, or Campy Super Record EPS. NASA technology doesn't come cheap. But if someone is obsessed with Spiderman, the Razik Vortex just might be a must-have item.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Selfie Drones

This was the drone that crashed on the White House grounds,
the DJI Phantom, which is apparently one of the more popular
brands and models -- even parodied on South Park. 
A small consumer recreational "drone" helicopter crashed on the White House grounds early Monday morning, setting off a new storm of security concerns in Washington. The Secret Service has determined the drone did not pose a serious threat, but the White House was locked down for a time, and the details of the incident are still being investigated.

Oh, how I wish it would turn out to be some cyclist making selfie videos while out for a ride, but considering that the incident happened around 3:00 am, that's probably unlikely. (Though it does beg the question, what the hell was somebody doing with a drone outside the White House at 3:00 am?)

Nevertheless, it seemed like a good way to break into the topic of recreational drones, which are becoming increasingly popular with our self-obsessed culture -- taking selfie videos to a new level. That's something these drones are great at, that is, until they're not. No, it isn't just cyclists who are using them, but if you watch some of the promotional videos from the companies that make them, it's pretty clear that cyclists are one of the prime consumer targets. And if you go do a quick search on the internet for "drone crash" you'll get an idea of what a danger these things pose. Last year, one of these things crashed into a woman running in a triathlon, sending her to the hospital to have a piece of rotor removed from her scalp and to get stitches. Others have crashed into crowds of people at outdoor concerts, sports, and other events.

The feature-laden, $1150 Hexo+ drone -
GoPro Camera not included.
As these drones become cheaper and easier to use, we're likely to see more and more of them -- zipping along over our heads, following after cyclists, skaters, and others -- and crashing into bystanders when they lose their GPS signals, or lose contact with their controllers.

I figure as these things become more popular, we're bound to see more irresponsible usage of them. It's inevitable. Let's face it. If there's one thing that many people suck at, it's understanding the concept of "other people" -- as in, the fact that they exist. I think people's obsession with their smart phones is strong evidence of that.

Just a couple of days before the White House incident, I was reading an article on BikeRadar about all the great new advances in drones, designed to appeal to cyclists and other athletes. "If one of your goals for 2015 is to shoot better riding videos, you're in luck," the article proclaims. Then it goes on to show all the latest feature-laden drones and other products introduced at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. This stuff is really hot right now. Not to mention annoying. And potentially dangerous in the hands of idiots.

The crash of the drone in Washington is bound to get some lawmakers' attention, so I wouldn't be surprised if one of the results is that we'll eventually see some regulations on these things. More restrictions and regulations from Washington are not something I get thrilled about, but it'll probably happen. The idiots make it inevitable.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Bike Safety 101: Bicycle Safety Camp

In my Bike Safety 101 series, I've scrutinized a lot of dumb vintage safety films, but Bicycle Safety Camp from 1989 just might be one of the dumbest. Whereas a lot of the 50s and 60s vintage educational films have a kind of goofy charm that reflects the simplicity (and maybe a bit of naiveté) of their era, Bicycle Safety Camp tries hard (desperately hard) to be cool, but the film is almost more effective as an unintentional parody of the late 80s. Most of the film is done as a musical, with a cheesy synthesizer track and the most white-bread rap imaginable.

As this ridiculous film opens, we are introduced one by one to the kids who will be participating in the Bicycle Safety Camp -- apparently against their will, as if it were some kind of court-ordered (or in this case, parent-ordered) driving school for people with multiple moving violations.

One by one, meet the campers:

First comes Boomer, strutting off the bus with a backwards ball cap and an oversized boom-box on his shoulder. "Check out Boomer, he's a rockin' jock. Scores on the field -- speeds down the block."
Then there's Julie, the rich girl, being helped out of a limo by her chauffeur. "Julie ran a stop sign on her way to the mall. Her dad took her charge cards, and that's not all."
Rita arrives, skipping to the park with a pair of skates slung over her shoulder. "Now Rita can do every trick on skates, but bike tricks are more than her family can take."
The littlest one at the camp is Arthur, the stereotypical glasses-wearing, book-loving dweeb. "Arthur loves his books and he's smart in school too, but when it comes to bikes he's really got no clue."
Last comes Rebop, the supposed "bad boy" with a mullet who wears a neon-splashed sleeveless shirt, shredded jeans, and fingerless gloves. "Rebop's tough - a really funky dude, but on a bike he needs a change in aaattituuude!"
And then there's this guy - Sam Sprocket, the camp counselor. Sam apparently likes to Rap, but really shouldn't. "So you silly silly campers, you think bike safety's a bore, Well you're gonna love it, love it, you're gonna beg for more. You're gonna say Sam Sprocket, I just can't get enough. When this camp is done you're gonna love this safety stuff. 'Cuz when you ride like a dope, you end up in the dirt. You sink, squirm, or crawl, all embarrassed and hurt. But when you practice bike safety, you can cruise, you can fly. You can get where you are goin' just like a jet up in the sky. You can ride down the road, with the greatest of ease. And you won't risk your life and you won't skin your knees. Although you think you're above it, you're gonna ride safe and love it. Ha ha."
One of the first lessons is, of course, to wear a helmet. And Rebop the bad boy refuses to wear one. "Bike helmets are for babies," he says. So, to prepare the kids for a future of shaming anyone who dares go without a helmet, Sam and the rest of the campers dance around him in a circle and berate him with an insipid rap about how all kinds of professional athletes wear helmets, and how "a smack on the head can ruin all your days." "Wear a helmet every single time you ride. Strap it on, Rebop. Wear your helmet with pride."

Next, some good advice for little Arthur, who grabs one of the biggest bikes on the rack. "My mom says I should have a bike I can grow into," he says. "Well, Sam Sprocket says you should have a bike that fits you now." Good advice for Arthur's parents, too. Sam then gives a quick lesson on bike fit . . .
. . . Then breaks into an awful (and obviously lip-synched) song about inspecting your bike before you ride.  "Check out your bicycle before you ride. Don't neglect it, inspect it, to be sure and secure as you ride. Check the foot brakes. Check the hand brakes. Check the pressure. Kids decide to check out your bicycle before you ride." 
In the next sequence, Sam Sprocket manages to be in 3 places at once (through the "magic" of video) to accompany the two oldest campers, Rita and Rebop, on the road, while Julie and Boomer are on a quiet residential street, and little Arthur is on the sidewalk -- yes, the sidewalk. And through another annoying synthesized musical number, we get a range of riding safety tips . . .
♫ "Stop. STOP. Look all about. Make sure nobody's coming, THEN move out." ♫
 "We keep to the right and ride WITH the traffic. If you ride against the traffic, cars get UPTIGHT. Ride WITH the traffic, and keep to the right." ♫
 "What's that say? Stop. STOP! So, what do we do? Stop. STOP. STOP! With your foot-brakes. STOP! With your hand-brakes. STOP! I didn't hear you. STOP!"  
Yes, please. Stop. Please.   
 "When it's time to turn, here's what you've got to learn. Look around and back this way to make SURE it's OK. Then give 'em a sign, and you'll be fine." 
"An intersection is a dangerous place. Get off and walk it. Get off and walk it."
"Concentrate. Concentrate. Use your head. Concentrate. Concentrate on what's ahead."
My favorite scene, and one that I hope resonates strongly for any kids still watching -- A lady getting out of her car throws her door open in front of the kids, who manage to stop safely anyhow (so no harm done, but still. . .) . Rebop is about to tell her off with some of his bad-boy attitude: "Yo, Lady, you shoulda' . . ." then re-thinks his approach, and tries a polite "Would you mind being more careful next time, ma'am?" The lady's reaction? Looks at the riders with a "so what" glance, then turns and WALKS AWAY while the kid is talking. No response -- not even a sheepish "Sorry" or insincere "My bad." It's probably the most realistic thing in the whole video!

After all the musical safety tips are done, the kids take a "riding test" and review all of Sam's safety lessons on a "magical" blackboard that shows video clips.

After passing their test, the whole team raps about bike safety, and how much they love it. And perhaps not surprisingly, the MOST IMPORTANT safety rule of all is to Always Wear a Helmet. Sam then tells the campers they get to keep the bikes they used at the camp (admission fees must have been pretty expensive!).

"So you all learned the rules, and camp is done. See, it wasn't boring. Bike safety is FUN! We rode down the road with the greatest of ease, without risking our lives, without skinning our knees!"
In the end, all the kids wave to Sam and ride off on their new bikes, hopefully to be good little bicycling citizens who follow the rules -- and ALWAYS wear a helmet.
Now I think I understand why Sam wears a helmet at all times.
You can watch Bicycle Safety Camp right here, but I need to warn you that it's around 20 minutes long, which is about twice as long as most vintage safety films, and easily twice as long as it needs to be. Also, The Retrogrouch is not responsible for any ill effects the music may have on viewers.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Big Corkscrew

It's probably the single most frivolous thing a bike geek can blow money on. In addition to making bicycle components worthy of cult status, as well as the complete tool set for building and maintaining bicycles, Campagnolo also produced what may arguably be called the best corkscrew available. And yes, I have one.

That's two pounds of cork pulling madness, packed in a
pretty wooden box.
I got mine years ago, before kids, when money didn't seem quite so tight, and I found someone selling them at a pretty good price. Still pretty expensive, though.

What can I say? I love good wine almost as much as I love good bicycles, and I also love precision-made tools that are perfect for the job at hand. The Cavatappi, or Big Corkscrew, checks all those boxes.

Because it's Campagnolo, it has to come with a legendary story of its creation, and just like the legend of the Croce d'Aune Pass and the invention of the wheel quick release, one has to wonder how much truth there is to the legend.

The story as I'd heard it years ago, and re-told on Campy's own corporate blog page Campy World, was that Tullio Campagnolo was celebrating with some friends and wanted to impress them with a fine old bottle of wine from his collection. In trying to open the bottle with the type of corkscrew that was typical of the time, he found that the old cork crumbled and left bits of cork in the wine, spoiling the occasion. So with his sense of ingenuity, he designed a better corkscrew that would pull the cork smoothly and effortlessly without breaking it.

The bolts that secure the lever arms are instantly recognizable
as Campagnolo chainring bolts.
Then again, on Campagnolo's new online webstore, a slightly different version of the legend states that the inspiration came when Tullio hurt his hand when trying to open the bottle of wine, with no mention of the crumbled cork. Little differences like that make me wonder. . .

Regardless of how it came about, the Cavatappi is a pretty impressive tool for opening wine bottles -- almost overkill, really. In its "resting" position, the thing measures roughly 12 inches tall, and weighs around 2 pounds! But the extra long arms give a tremendous amount of leverage so that even the most stubborn corks are removed effortlessly.

Not the same. Not even close.
There are other details that make this a pretty impressive tool for opening bottles. For one, the "bell" which slips over the neck of the wine bottle is spring-loaded and telescoping so that it can be slipped down to rest on the "shoulders" of almost any wine bottle, regardless of its size or shape -- thereby keeping the corkscrew centered and secured. The screw itself is super sharp and precision-made to screw into a cork without breaking it apart. The handle at the top is likewise huge, and provides lots of leverage for turning.

There are lots of very cheap corkscrews available out there, maybe selling for a few bucks at the grocery store, that bear a slight resemblance to the Campagnolo design, but considerably smaller and lighter. One might assume they would work okay, but they really don't. I can't even count how many times I've been at the homes of friends or relatives, been asked to open a bottle of wine, and been handed one of these pieces of junk -- only to have the cork splinter apart, maybe break in half (with one half still in the bottle), or the corkscrew itself slip, or the lever arms snap off, and even cutting my hand (maybe there was something to that legend). Granted, one could probably buy 50 of these things for the price of the Campy Cavatappi, but that's not really the point, is it?

Recently, Campy has made the Cavatappi available directly to customers through its new webstore online. If fact, the Big Corkscrew is the first item to be featured for sale on the new site.

Overall, the Big Corkscrew is solid and superbly made. The movement of its parts feels precise and smooth. It might be huge, and heavy, and might seem like an unnecessary and expensive indulgence, but it really is a satisfying tool that should last forever.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Retro Vs. Modern

I recently watched a fun little video from Global Cycling Network on YouTube comparing modern to retro racing bikes. In it, two guys go for a ride together -- one with a new Ridley carbon fiber wünderbike that represents the top-level performance of today, while the other is riding what was probably the peak of performance in 1987. In fact, the 1987 bike is actually one of the very bikes ridden by Stephen Roche to his triple crown victories in the '87 Giro d'Italia, Tour de France, and the World Championships. The history of the bike, as well as the close-up shots of the bike itself, alone made the video worthwhile viewing.

The '87 Stephen Roche bike was a Battaglin built with Columbus SLX tubing, and equipped with Campagnolo C-Record components, including the coveted-but-questionable delta brakes. Here are some shots:
About as good as things got in 1987. Campy C-Record had a smooth, aero look, and that crank is a real thing of beauty. The delta brakes, with their modulating mechanical advantage (it increased through the lever travel, which sounds like a great idea but really isn't) were a hot item at the time. 
I can't tell from this picture if these are the regular friction C-Record shifters, or if they are the retrofriction version. Either way, they are still friction-only, non-indexing levers. The retrofriction levers, with their smooth clutch action, had a feel somewhat similar to the very nice Simplex levers, which is to say, superb. 

There's Roche, quite possibly on this very bike, on his way to winning the '87 Giro.
One thing they never mention is where or how they got one of Stephen Roche's actual bikes. That was something I'd be interested to know.

The video occasionally shows some then/now comparisons, like these shots as the guys prepare to set out for their ride:

Notice the modern KAS helmet vs. the 80s vintage Cinelli leather hairnet that was still popular among racers at the time, even though more effective helmets were definitely available by then. Funny thing, as they're putting on the helmets, Matt (the guy with the vintage bike) has trouble getting his helmet secured. I'd forgotten how fussy the little buckles on those old hairnets could be.
Classic Campagnolo C-Rec pedals with clips and straps, vs. Look-type clipless pedals. The guys make a point of mentioning how long it takes to get your feet into the classic pedals (I disagree there completely) but that once the straps are cinched down, there's no loss on the power transfer. I'm really liking those classic black Sidi shoes with full leather soles.  
Notice that the rider on the vintage bike even put on 80s style gloves. I remember those colors and patterns. What were we thinking? Note the SRAM Red integrated brake/shift levers, and the Garmin computer on the new bike. The vintage machine has downtube shift levers, and a less-cluttered, cleaner-looking cockpit, if you ask me.
"Straight away, just picking the bike up, it's remarkably heavy. Compared to the Ridley, you're probably looking at 2, 2-1/2, maybe 3 kilos heavier." Well, that's probably true -- but that weight is more noticeable when "picking the bike up" (but who actually rides a bike like that?) than when you're actually out on the road. After acknowledging the craftsmanship of the lugged frame ("It really is a thing of beauty") the guy also points out how "fragile" the bike looks with its "skinny" tubes in comparison with the fat profiles of today's carbon fiber bikes, then remarks how surprisingly "rugged" it actually is when putting power to the pedals. This is a guy who is old enough to have started out on steel frames, so I'm not sure why that's so surprising.
"Retro vs. modern, retro wins!" I'm not exactly sure what happened here, but I'm thinking the rider on the modern bike must have dropped his chain after a bad shift. Even modern bikes aren't immune. About shifting, the riders describe integrated brake/shift levers as the "biggest revolution in shifting aside from the invention of the derailleur." About the down tube shift levers on the vintage bike, the rider describes them as "self-trimming" because "you have to trim them yourself." Clever. Nevertheless, he remarks that the shifting, at least on the chainrings, is pretty fast and effortless. I'd go further and say that front shifting with friction systems is at least as fast as any modern shift system, if not faster.
Here, the vintage bike rider discovers his limits on a seriously steep climb (they estimate it might be in the neighborhood of 30%). Probably the biggest practical drawback of the vintage race bike turns out to be the gearing. The Roche bike has a "small" chainring of 42 teeth, while the largest rear cog is only about 19 or 20 teeth. Of course, one could always get lower gearing, but in the days of 6 or 7-speed freewheels, one pretty much had a choice of high gearing with closely spaced ratios, or lower gearing with big jumps between gears. The advantage goes to the modern racer with a compact double crank, and a 10 or 11-speed cluster which can give a wide range and still have closely spaced ratios for racing.
After remarking on the riding position of the vintage bike, which has less drop from the saddle to the bars, the rider claims he feels like he could "tour all day without compromising any comfort." Now there's something a lot of us retrogrouches can get behind. "It feels remarkably comfortable. . . it's actually a pleasure to ride." 
Ultimately, the rider proclaims that with the comfort and feel of the vintage bike, despite all the technical advancements that have been made in the past couple of decades, he'd consider riding a classic-styled bike just for the enjoyment of the sport -- as long as he isn't looking for all-out performance. I suppose that's fair enough.

Anyhow, agree or disagree - it was a fun 8-min. video.

You can go to the Global Cycling Network channel on YouTube, or watch it right here:


Friday, January 16, 2015

"Smart" Pedals For Dumb Bikes

The "connected" or "smart" bike thing is chugging along nicely as we start the year 2015.

I just saw a press release from a French start-up calling itself Connected Cycle that starts with this pronouncement:

Turn Your Bike Into a Smart Bike!

Which must mean that all my bikes (and probably yours, too) are "Dumb" Bikes. But don't worry -- all you need to "smarten up" your old dumb bike is a new smart pedal. Like this one:
According to the the company, their pedal is "the first connected pedal." Granted, bicycle pedals have always been connected to the cranks -- but these connect to your phone, and the Cloud . . .

Sorry -- Wrong Cloud.

Oops -- Wrong again.

That's the one.

Connected Cycle says their pedal "provides a simple solution to bike theft for regular bike users." Simpler than a good lock? Hmmm. Apparently, the pedals notify the owner any time the bike is moved and the smartphone app can help them to locate their bike at any time. "This location capability not only prohibits theft, but also allows the owner to locate where they last parked their bike."

It must be a really rough night of drinking if you can't remember where you parked your bike.

The makers claim that the pedal uses GPS data to record speed, route, and incline. It also estimates calories burned. It then sends that info to the Cloud, where it makes its way back to the user's phone through their special app. It also is supposed to use the pedal's movement to generate its own power, so there is no need to charge the batteries. Users don't even need to have their phone with them, as all the ride data can be downloaded from the Cloud at a later time.

WHAT?!? Go for a ride WITHOUT A PHONE? What century is this? Next thing you know, they'll be trying to get us back on penny farthings.

Just to emphasize that all this "smart" technology is designed for people who are apparently not so smart, the company says that "installation takes less than 2 minutes and doesn't require mechanical skills." Then again, if all anyone knows about threaded components is "lefty loosie, righty tighty," then I suppose left-hand-threaded pedals would present a pretty complicated challenge. Interestingly, the pedals themselves have their own anti-theft measure built into them, which is that they can only be removed with a special key -- probably along the lines of those "locking" lug-nuts for cars, or locking wheel skewers for bikes. Seems surprisingly old-school, but effective.

The pedals are described as having a "robust" aluminum construction, and are available in fashionable colors:

No way to secure your footing on them, though. No clicks, clips, or straps -- so they're definitely for high-fashion, low-speed city riding. Even for that, though, I see an issue in that I find it unlikely that these one-sided pedals are likely to stay tread-side-up -- so have fun getting going while wearing such cycling-appropriate footwear as this:

I'm so glad the pedals are smart. 'Cause somebody out there definitely is not.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Charges Filed in the Tom Palermo Case

Just a brief update on the story about Tom Palermo, the Baltimore area cyclist and framebuilder who was killed last month. The latest news is likely to make some feel that the justice system is working, while others may feel like not enough is being done.

Tom was out for a bike ride on a clear afternoon on Dec. 27 when he was struck from behind by a driver who then fled the scene. That driver, Heather Cook, was a prominent bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Baltimore. Cook was chased down by other cyclists, who were able to partially identify the car before losing track of it in a gated housing community. She returned to the scene about a half-hour later, where she cooperated with police, was taken to the Baltimore Central District station, and given a breathalyzer test.

In the latest news, it has been revealed that Cook was drunk at the time of the accident, having registered 0.22% BAC (about 3 times the legal limit), and it has also been alleged by police that she was texting at the time as well. This past Friday, Cook surrendered to police and charges were filed, including manslaughter and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. The courts set her bail at $2.5 million.

Some have complained that Cook received special treatment, perhaps because of her position. For example, she was not given the breathalyzer test at the scene of the crime (when someone flees the scene, I'm not calling it an "accident"), and was not arrested promptly. However, according to police, prosecutors and defense attorneys, it is not unusual for charges to be delayed while the incident is investigated. Some former prosecutors have argued that charges in this case were actually brought relatively quickly.

When I first wrote about Tom's death, I wrote, "Unfortunately, a terrible truth for all of us cyclists is that there is far too often an 'accidents will happen' mindset in our justice system, so the drivers who maim and kill cyclists  rarely see any kind of criminal charges, or those charges are so watered down as to be rendered meaningless . . . In this case, with the driver being a notable bishop, it seems unlikely to me that serious charges would be raised against her, regardless of the other circumstances of the case that may come to light." I then expressed the hope that I'd be proven wrong.

Given that unfortunate reality, it seems to me that the justice system is actually taking the case seriously. I, and many others, feared that Cook's position might mean that she would be treated with too much leniency. Perhaps ironically, I now think that the opposite might be true -- because of Cook's position as a bishop, the case has actually become national news and is receiving a lot more scrutiny than is usually seen in the vehicular death of a cyclist.

There is still the distinct possibility that Cook could avoid serious punishment. Plea bargains are not uncommon, and even if the case does go to trial, it's hard to say what verdict a jury might hand down. But at least for now, it looks like the wheels of justice are turning. Time will tell if the cycling world will be satisfied with the results.

In the meantime, those who would like to help Tom's family are again encouraged to visit, where a fund has been set up to raise money for his two young children.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Retrogrouch's Top 10 All-Time Bicycling Innovations

After that ridiculous Velo News list of "Top 10 Technical Innovations of All Time" -- which could more accurately have been named "Top 10 Gimmicks of Recent Memory," or perhaps "Top 10 List Created By A 20-yr-old Intern" I present the Retrogrouch's Top 10 Bicycling Innovations of All Time. In coming up with the list, I considered suggestions by friends on the Classic Rendezvous group, and readers of The Retrogrouch. I also considered the long-term impact of these creations, not only for the bicycling world, but also for other non-bicycling applications. Several of the top items on my list may have been originally developed for bicycles, but have had a huge impact well beyond their original intent. Like any attempt to put together a Top 10 list, mine will probably generate some disagreements, but here it is.

10. Effective Bicycle Helmets: Remember leather hairnets? They were light, and reasonably comfortable, but given the intended purpose of a helmet -- keeping your noggin from getting cracked up -- they were kind of pointless. In the mid-70s, Bell introduced the Biker, made with expanded polystyrene foam and a hard plastic shell. Yes, it was a bit heavy (a little over a pound), and ventilation was only so-so, but it was an effective bicycling-specific helmet and opened the gates to numerous imitators and gradual improvements. About 10 years after the Biker, Giro introduced the original Prolight, which dispensed with the hard shell and dropped the weight further, to the point where helmets today typically weigh around 300 grams or so. The benefits of a helmet may be debatable -- certainly, they don't deserve the nearly religious zealotry that some people give to them -- but at the very least, a good helmet might just keep a minor spill from ruining your life.

9. Quick Release Hubs: We are all familiar with the legend of Tullio Campagnolo and the Croce d'Aune Pass, and how he invented the quick release lever. It's a great story, though some suggest that it might well be just that -- a story. Heck, I've even read slightly different versions of the story put out by the Campagnolo company itself. Nevertheless, there's no denying that the simple quick release lever is a great invention that makes tire and wheel changes considerably easier. Some have tried to "improve" the design by making open-mechanism versions, but the classic closed-cam quick release that we've come to know since the 1930s is tough to improve upon.

8. Ball Bearings: The basic concept of bearings goes back to ancient times. And even DaVinci sketched a ball bearing mechanism that would look pretty familiar to us today, though it was never made (see right). The first recorded patent on ball bearings was given to Philip Vaughan, a Welsh iron master, in 1794. But modern radial-type ball bearings, made of steel, are generally attributed to Jules Suriray, a French bicycle mechanic. Suriray installed his bearings into the bicycle that won the first Paris-Rouen bicycle race in 1869. And from that time, ball bearings as we know them were indelibly linked with the growing bicycle industry. Ball bearing mechanisms in our hubs, pedals, bottom brackets, and headsets, all combine to help make a bicycle the most efficient mode of transport available.

7. Bowden Cables: Brake cables, as we know them today, with their inner cable sliding through a compression housing, are called Bowden Cables, and they have had all kinds of applications in cars, aircraft, and industry for over a century. There is some dispute as to whether the Bowden they are named after was the Englishman Frank Bowden, founder of Raleigh Bicycles, or the Irishman Earnest Bowden (more likely the latter) -- but either way, there is no dispute that the cable was originally created for bicycle brakes right around the turn of the 20th century. Without the cables, we'd all be stopping our bikes with rod brakes.

6. Ratcheting Freewheels: Despite the recent (but fading) trend toward fixed gear riding, the fact is, it's nice to be able to coast sometimes. The ratcheting mechanism that makes that possible has been part of bicycles off and on going back to the mid 1860s. Whether it is the older style threaded-on freewheel, or the more modern cassette, the basic ratcheting mechanism is a great invention.

5. High-Strength Alloy Steel Tubing: The introduction of Reynolds 531 manganese-molybdenum tubing in 1935 was a major breakthrough for performance-minded bicyclists. Lightweight, thin-walled tubing was possible, which lowered the weight of bicycles without compromising strength. Competing brands, like Columbus, Vitus, Tange, and others have given framebuilders and consumers more choices, and other alloys were introduced, like chrome-moly, and more recently, air-hardening alloys. Today, carbon fiber, aluminum, and titanium have all made steel almost a rare sight in the bike shop showrooms -- but to my mind, there is still nothing that beats steel for strength, durability, reliability, safety, and cost. When it's lugged and brazed by a good builder, there's nothing more beautiful, either.

4. Parallelogram Derailleur (With Extra Credit to SunTour for the slant parallelogram): The ability to shift gears tremendously increased the range and efficiency of the bicycle. And while there have been numerous systems and mechanisms devised over the years to make multiple gears possible, none can match the parallelogram design for its simplicity, durability, and efficiency. The chainstay-mounted Nivex of 1938 was likely the first, or at least the first to be considered successful. The dropout-mounted Campagnolo Gran Sport was the real game-changer, though, as it became the design that virtually all others would copy and/or attempt to improve upon. In 1964, SunTour introduced the slant parallelogram, which canted the mechanism at an angle that allowed it to better follow the profile of the freewheel cogs, improving its shifting performance across the range. After their patent expired 20 years later, the slant parallelogram became the standard for all derailleur designs, and is still the best system for changing gears.

3. Roller Chain: It took a while to come up with a good means for transmitting power from a bicycle's pedals to its wheels, apart from having the pedals attached directly to the wheel, as in the penny-farthing. But the creation of the roller chain in the late 1800s gave us what is still probably the most efficient power transmission system available -- some studies say it is well over 98% efficient. Not only that, but the bicycle chain turned out to have all kinds of applications apart from bicycles, including use in motorcycles, cars, and industrial machinery.

Marcel Duchamp made the
bicycle wheel a work of art.
2. Wire-spoked Wheels: The tensioned wire-spoked wheel is a remarkable invention from an engineering standpoint, with incredible strength for its weight. Just try to imagine riding on wooden wheels! The invention of tangental spokes, which increased strength and durability, is generally credited to James Starley, whom some consider to be the father of the bicycle industry in Britain. His nephew, John Kemp Starley, is credited as the inventor of the safety bicycle.

J.B. Dunlop, enjoying the bicycle that he
made more comfortable, more efficient,
and more enjoyable for all of us.
1. Pneumatic Tires: The wire-spoked wheel was a good invention, but it didn't become truly great until the solid rubber tires were replaced by John Boyd Dunlop's pneumatic tires in 1887. Dunlop was originally a veterinarian, but developed the pneumatic tire to improve the comfort of his son's tricycle. With that invention, the bicycle as we know it today was basically complete. The diamond frame safety bicycle, invented just a couple of years earlier, equipped with wire-spoked wheels, roller chain,  ball bearings, and pneumatic tires, was an incredibly efficient machine, and was not appreciably different than the bicycles we ride today -- any differences between then and now are more "evolutionary" than "revolutionary."

Not only that, but I put pneumatic tires at the number one spot on my list because of the way they revolutionized all kinds of products and machinery far beyond bicycles. Wheelchairs, motorcycles, cars, trucks, aircraft, even the space shuttle -- all were greatly improved (perhaps made possible in part) by Dunlop's tires. Many attempts have been made to improve upon them, but none could be considered successful.

So there you have it -- a Retrogrouch Top 10 list. Notice that most of the things on the list pre-date the 20th century, while a couple date back to the 1930s. The only one created in my own lifetime was the EPS bicycle helmet. What does that have to say about the importance of carbon fiber or power meters? Not much, I guess, and I'm OK with that.