The Cutting Edge: When Cycling Technology Can Make a Difference in Winning Performance

Depending on your goals, you may enjoy riding bikes that are heavy and inexpensive or that were modern decades ago. If you want to win races, you need a bike that is close to the cutting edge. Being an early adopter of advantageous new technology can even bring wins that you would otherwise not be able to achieve.

My former teammate Earl used to collect and rebuild vintage Colnagos. He hunted for frames in good shape that could be painted and rebuilt with original componentry. Once he determined the age of a frame, he’d scour the shops and bulletin boards for period-correct Campagnolo parts. This was the mid 1990s, and he was rebuilding bikes from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The bikes lovingly restored were decades out of date. They were heavy steel frames and some of them even had steel bars. They had friction shifters that required constant tightening to prevent slippage. The cables arched from the brake levers and down to the calipers,. Aesthetically, it was cluttered, not to mention that the single-pivot brakes were only marginally effective. The shape of the hoods made them uncomfortable. Many of Earl’s classic machines had 36-hole rims and five-speed clusters. They were awesome racing machines, but from an earlier era.

Earl enjoyed building those bikes and showing them off. I heard a rumor that he mounted one over his fireplace. Occasionally, if the weather was dry and the planned route was smooth, he proudly brought one of his beautiful relics on a club ride. We would ooh and ahh over the beautiful paint and the authenticity of the parts, but at the same time, I’m sure I was not the only one thinking, “How can he ride that thing? It must weigh 22pounds! It has no index shifting and the brakes barely work!”

In the Nineties, we serious racers had cutting edge machines, nothing over 19 pounds and some as low as 17. We used downtube, index shifters or even first generation Shimano STI shifter-brake levers. (Road STI was introduced in 1990 but, mostly due to the weight, took several years to catch on). Most of us had 32 spoke wheels, though a few dared to go as flimsy as 28 on our lightweight, box-section rims. Sewups were for racing, and clinchers for training. Latex tubes almost as flimsy as condoms brought rotating weight down. We used thin cotton tape on the handlebars, or plastic to shave a bit more. Freewheels were expanding. Some had six gears while some had seven, and both gave way to lighter freehubs, which were reputed to decrease rear axle breakage. These were cutting edge racing machines, modern in every way. We scoured catalogs for deals, but paid whatever it cost to have bikes that might carry us to victory.

Don, another teammate, was an enthusiast for super light bikes. While we were pedaling 17-19 pounders, he selected and trimmed and drilled his way down to a 12-pound bike. Again and again he found lighter parts and drilled them out, until he finally had a bike just under ten pounds. His ultimate rig had drilled-out everything and magnesium rims. Sometimes he got to the end of a ride without breaking a spoke or needing to stop for some other repair. He could lift his bikes with one finger, but they weren’t truly cutting edge racing machines since they gave up too much durability in the pursuit of weight reduction.

Viewed from our modern vantage point, the bikes we rode in the mid-90s are as quaintly obsolete as Earl’s Colnagos were to us then. Even bikes made in 2005 now border on ancient. They were amazing at the time, but only a serious sandbagger could win on one today. Since then, bikes have lost several more pounds, and clusters have added three or four more cogs. Integrated mechanical shifters are giving way to electronic, and, after brief flirtations with titanium and aluminum, the vast majority of quality road bikes now have stiff but shock-absorbing carbon fiber frames. Disc brakes are rapidly gaining popularity. As discs continue to improve and get lighter, rim brakes with their poor performance, the dirt they produce and the heavy rims they necessitate (for braking surfaces that can sustain some wear without failing) will be as anachronistic as Earl’s friction shifters.

Yesteryear’s Ultimate Ride Is Today’s Quaint Classic

The history of the bicycle has been one of continuous innovation. The earliest bike was the mostly wooden Dandy Horse developed by Baron Karl Drais in 1817. Sometimes called a Draisienne, it had two wheels in line and front wheel steering. It balanced like a modern bike, but had no pedals. Between 1817 and 1869, when the “penny-farthing” or high-wheel bicycle, was introduced, if you raced on two wheels, you did it by kicking along with your feet on the ground. Imagine the cries of “cheater!” the first time someone showed up on a bike with pedals. Imagine the impossibility of winning a race against a pedal bicycle if you did not have one yourself! Another irreversible advance occurred in the 1880s with the introduction of the modern diamond-shaped or “safety” frame (better aerodynamics and much less chance of going over the front compared to a penny-farthing). Every decade since has seen the introduction of newer and better bicycle technology, and the obsolescence of its predecessors. Each advance made winning on earlier gear impossible. Think about that as you plunk down many months’ salary on your ultimate racing machine.

Winning Requires Cutting Edge Technology

People who delay upgrading to the latest and greatest have always been and always will be at a disadvantage in racing. You can make up for small technological disadvantages with superior physical preparation, just as you can make up for small but not large problems in tactics or nutrition. You can only win on outdated bikes so long as your better-equipped competitors make bigger errors somewhere else.

In fact, being ahead of the curve on adopting truly useful new technology is a distinct edge. In the mid-90s, I got some of the first HED deep section carbon fiber wheels. I remember one rolling road race in California’s Central Valley. The rest of the field still rode box section or low-V rims with high spoke counts. I remember coasting out to the side of the field, simply rolling past people who were tucked in tight, doing their best to take advantage of the draft. The wheels made that much difference. I picked up a few prizes and upgrade points that year that I probably would not have had without those wheels. Now of course, the majority of racers have aerodynamically efficient wheels so racing without them is futile.

At every point in the development of the bicycle, people, especially newer riders, have mistakenly thought, “This is it! Sure there will be small tweaks, but basically bikes are as good as they are going to get. I can buy this bike and be set.” That helps justify paying big bucks for a cutting edge ride. Bikes got as light as they could get in the early-90s with the introduction of double-and triple-butted and rifled steel tubes. Good bikes weighed about 18 pounds. Then non-steel frames became common and weights dropped several more pounds. Three-gear clusters with derailleurs were a huge improvement over two-sided wheels that you had to reverse to change gearing. By 1937 derailleurs were allowed in the Tour de France but it took a few more decades to get all the bugs out. Shifting got about as good as it could get with indexing in the 1980s, then again with integrated brake-lever shifters and now with electronic. I’ll go out on a limb and say that current Di2 will be obsolete within a few years. If nothing else, they’ll figure out that when you have a computer shifting the gears, there’s no reason to control the front and rear changers separately when you can have just one button for upshift and one for down and the computer can determine which derailleur to activate.

Cycling is An Expensive Sport

You have to have something near the cutting edge if you hope to compete, but the cutting edge will be evolving even as you roll your ultimate weapon out of the shop. When you spend the big bucks for your ultimate racing machine, you are not purchasing technology the is impervious to future innovations. You’re buying the current cutting-edge technology, trying to get a jump on or at least keep up with the competition. Accept that it will be obsolete eventually. Depending on how serious you are about racing, you can decide to upgrade when anything new comes out, or when you start to really feel and see the disadvantage of your outdated tech. Or, you can call your rig a classic and enjoy riding it forever.