How have bikes changed over the past 25 years

Original author: John Timmer
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They can look about the same, but looks can be deceiving

A bicycle is about the same age as the author.

We usually see technology as something that moves electrons. However, let me dive a bit into technology that allows us to travel with you (yes, and our electrons, too, gentlemen). A modest bicycle has existed for about a couple of centuries, and the general scheme of what we use today existed already by the 1900s, so it will be excusable to assume that little has changed since then. Personally, I certainly did not think about it.

I had to change my point of view when I, trying to do more sports, decided to change my bike, bought in the early 1990s. Already in the selection process, it became obvious that a lot had changed - I had to face the need to make decisions about the existence of which I did not suspect. Most of the underlying bicycle technologies have changed, and these changes often solved important problems. My old one, the Trek 1200, was bought by a student with affordable money as a high-speed mode of transportation; if we take into account inflation, then the following model of a bicycle differed in price from it by no more than $ 200. However, I had the feeling that I was buying something completely different.

Join me on a quarter-century journey of cycling technology, with an emphasis on equipment that is within the reach of most people.


The overall essence of the wheels - a set of spokes that hold the rim on the hub - not much changed, unless you consider exotic materials and aerodynamics at such a price that for the cost of one wheel you can buy a good bike. Innovations in the wheels for the main market happened to be quite small, but real. One of them is how the wheel mates with the axle.

My 1200 used in the design overrunning clutch built into the rear cassette[freewheel]. In this case, there is a significant asymmetry. On the side opposite the stars, the spokes are connected to the axis in the same place where the axis is connected to the frame, which means that all loads from the road are transmitted straight to the frame. On the other hand, the spokes are connected to the axis a little not in the center, but the stars (and the overrunning clutch, which allows them to rotate freely in only one direction) takes place between them and the frame.

As a result, the road loads from the asterisks were transmitted directly to the axle, which tended to break. If you do not notice the scrapping of the axis, then the frame will experience a constant load. Then the frame will break - with such cases I have met twice, although not with this bike. However, by the time I bought the 1200th, the high-end wheels were equipped with an overrunning clutch built into the [free hub] hub. In this case, the spokes were connected to the hub, which was connected to the axle only in a place adjacent to the frame, on one side and the other. Broken axles are a thing of the past (I upgraded my wheels to this design when their prices fell).

On the left, a system with an overrunning clutch in a cassette that created a load on an axis that is offset from the axis of rotation. This problem was solved by the overrunning clutch in the hub, which transferred the load to the place where the axis is connected to the frame.

On my bike from the 90s, the axis was inserted into a groove embedded in the frame. It was held on a stud protruding from the center of the axis, which could be tightened with a nut on one side and secured with a lever on the other. This design gave a surprisingly large freedom of position of the wheel relative to the frame; I rarely managed to remove the wheel, put it back, and immediately guess at its orientation, without having to correct it later several times. That time is gone. On modern bridges, a hole in the frame on one side allows you to pass an axis through it and screw it on the other side into the corresponding hole. As a result, the axis stands in only one position, which guarantees the correct alignment of the wheel.

It is possible that the tires are undergoing changes, although so far personally I am not convinced of this. On the old bike, I had a standard system: a durable rubber tire that needed to be replaced only in case of a significant cut [or wear / approx. perev.] and a thin internal chamber that holds the air, which can be removed and patched or replaced with a puncture. In new bikes there are tubeless tires, which (as in cars) on the rim keeps air pressure. No camera required.

At least in theory. For good insulation inside the tire you need to add a mixture of latex and solvent. The appearance of a small hole leads to the fact that the solvent evaporates, and latex clogs this hole. When I heard a whistle when I returned home from a trip, I simply turned the other side of the wheel, from where it came, down, and left it that way. Latex patched up a hole, and the next day the bike was ready for the ride. However, the next time when I fully inflated the tires, this leakage and another friend of her began to miss the latex. Then I removed the tire and added a camera to the wheel - and until the technology improves, I will leave it there.


Twenty-five years ago, bicycle manufacturers bought tubes from different materials - steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, titanium - and then they figured out how to connect them to make a bicycle. The frame geometry was limited to a set of triangles, and the carbon fiber was too expensive. Now carbon fiber is of different types, one of which even fits into my budget. In this embodiment, it is not insanely light, but rather light, durable, and it is quite easy for it to give different forms. In the meantime, manufacturers have figured out how to make aluminum castings, and therefore such frames can be of different shapes (usually similar to those of carbon fiber frames).

The geometry of my new bike is mainly aimed at reducing vibration from bad roads. For example, before the pipe went from the rear axle up to the point where the seatpost is inserted into the frame, which passed all the shaking right onto the saddle. Now this tube is connected to the one where the seat pin is inserted, much lower, which allows the vibration to be transmitted to the frame. The saddle pin is lengthened, so it bends more and shakes you less. The bike maker Trek even has models in which the connection of these tubes has a certain flexibility.

Left - traditional frame, right - compact geometry

Another change occurred in the system of connecting the fork and steering. The pipe holding the plug used to end in a frame. The steering wheel was connected with a fastener that went inside the frame, and the expander was tightened with a bolt holding it in place. Now the upper part of the fork goes up beyond the frame, and the steering wheel is connected directly to it, which looks simpler and more reliable.

My old one was derived from the times when the cables that ensure the operation of the gearshift and brake switches moved from their location along the frame tubes to the passage inside the frames; he had only a brake cable inside the frame. Now almost all communications go inside, and not all of them are cables.


By the 90th, the general essence of the brake system had not changed for decades: we pressed on the lever that pulls the cable, which compresses the levers, which press the pads to the rim. Simple and mostly efficient system. Mostly. After overcoming a few holes, the wheel rim moves away from a perfectly flat position, and begins to rub on the pads during rotation. If you reinstall the wheel, you can make it even worse. The pads will wear out unevenly, and if you fix the rest of the wheel, you still have problems. In addition, the smooth and light material of the rim does not always provide good friction, especially when wet.

The obvious solution is to separate the wheel and brakes, and this problem is solved by disc brakes. A small metal ring is connected in parallel with the wheel. It rotates between a pair of pads attached to the frame or forks. Pull the brake lever and the pads will push down on it, providing a serious stopping effect. In conjunction with the end-to-end axis scheme, reinstalling the wheel returns the entire system to a perfectly flat state.

Early versions of disc brakes worked with traditional cables, but hydraulic systems work better in the matter of uniform distribution of the clamping force of the pads. So pretty quickly hydraulics replaced the cables. Now pressing the brake compresses the reservoir with oil in the brake handles, and this pressure is transmitted through the pipe to the brake pads. Disc brakes are not yet recognized by the organizations that regulate cycling, but I'm not going to chase. I overpaid a little for making the system more reliable and less annoying. And not disappointed.


The programs themselves have not changed much; except that the gear has become more. When I was small, “ten speeds” could be obtained when you grow up to a teenage bike, which had two stars in front and five behind. Now I have 10 stars only on the rear axle, and some bicycles have three stars on the pedals.

But the switching of these programs almost did not know. My old one had a pair of small vanes on both sides of the frame; their rotation tightened or weakened the cable, which changed gears. After decades of stagnation, new opportunities have emerged, which I also gained by acquiring my 1200th in the 90s: a number switch. At a certain moment of rotation, the blades clicked into place. If you set up the cables correctly, the deckr, moving the chain between the stars, ideally coincided with one of them. A little fiddling with the cables at home, you could achieve gear changes without any problems on the road.

But at that time the bikes just started to change a lot. Numbered switching worked with any system that changed the length of the cables to the desired length, so the blades were no longer needed. Manufacturers thought of how to embed gear in the steering wheel. By turning the knobs, you can shift gears one way up. Rotation of the small wheel can shift gears one down.

It all seemed like an unnecessary luxury, until an unexpected way to the mountain appeared on my way. I urgently needed to shift gears down, but I could not take my hands off the wheel. It is this problem that the speed switches should solve; so in the end I equipped them with my great. This technology has now gone all the way down to the most inexpensive road bikes.

And much more

Changed not only the bike itself. My bike helmet sits better and lets more air through. Instead of poorly working portable pumps, most cyclists carry cartridges of compressed CO 2 , which inflate tires after repairs. Awkward lights were replaced by compact LEDs with built-in rechargeable batteries. Cyclocomputers justify their name by integrating the readings of sensors that record speed, pedal rotation, and even pulse. Or you can simply turn on the GPS, track the trip and give guidance on turns. By paying a little more, you can buy smart watches that will do the same, and much more.

All this has changed, despite the fact that bicycles and their accessories look at first glance exactly the same, and all these changes were evolutionary. And all this led to the fact that the person who bought the bike was very pleased with his purchase.

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