In 1880 a bicycle was ‘a wheel’ – cranks mounted directly on the front hub like a baby’s trike – the taller the wheel the bigger the gear. The development of roller-chain, running on sprockets of different sizes, made it possible to set a cycle’s gear regardless of the size of the driving wheel. To differentiate these newfangled machines they were called ‘safety bikes’. Safeties were unpopular with some who’d mastered ordinary, high bikes. Smaller wheels didn’t cope well with bumpy roads and, more importantly… they just looked wrong.
In the Nineteenth Century people’s idea of a road was a strip of broken stones, a tyre an iron hoop around a wooden cartwheel. A suggestion to put bags of compressed-air around wheels was – to ordinary folk – laughable. Cycle racing was an infant sport, dominated by forward thinking. Early-adopters proved that safety bikes, with pneumatic tyres, were faster. A significant pioneer was Charles Terront, who won the inaugural, 1891, Paris-Brest for Michelin, covering 1200 kilometres in 71 hours 22 minutes. People stopped laughing. The modern era had begun.
At the 1992, Barcelona Olympics Chris Boardman won the 4 kilometre pursuit, his gold medal bike had a carbon-reinforced-plastic, monocoque frame. A classic bike made from tubular struts compares to a World War One biplane, Boardman’s looked like a Spitfire. You can find pictures of Miguel Indurain riding time-trials on a monocoque bike, but nowadays even super-champions are back on turbulence-generating stick frames. Why? Did bikes shaped like aero wings prove unreliable, slow, hard to control? You won’t see them because the Union Cycliste Internationale(UCI) banned them. They just looked wrong.
The UCI is cycle-sport’s governing body. As the designer of the Barcelona bike – Mike Burrows – explains:- “Sports administrators are ex-competitors, international administrators are older ex-competitors. They don’t know anything about engineering. It’s not a problem for cycle-sport. Cycle-sport is fine, but restricting what can be used in races lets ordinary people think bikes are old-fashioned. Most people don’t expect to solve modern problems with Nineteenth Century machines.” Burrows believes the conservatism of the UCI is holding back public acceptance of bikes.
The Boardman bike took advantage of new materials to make a shape that sliced through the air. The atmospheric-resistance produced by a bike is much less significant than the drag on a human body. Graeme Obree – Boardman’s great rival – changed his riding position. First folding his arms under his shoulders, then pushing them straight ahead in what become known as ‘the Superman position’. At a Science Museum reception, to celebrate the Barcelona bike’s induction as an exhibit, Boardman complained that he was going to have to do tests in the Superman position, with no possible, positive result. If it wasn’t faster that meant Obree was stronger. If it was, he’d have to learn to ride in the new posture. It turned out that Obree’s position was faster. In sport destroying the morale of your opponents is an objective.
The UCI rescued Obree’s rivals. They banned ‘Superman’. Their excuse was safety, although how dangerous riding unpaced on a velodrome can be is an interesting question. You don’t win races by crashing so on a velodrome safety solves itself. The UCI has strict rules on the acceptable position for a bike rider. Faster designs, that take the rider through the air in a horizontal shape, are banned. Ironically low, faster, feet-first bikes are also more crashworthy, than classic, head-first ‘safety’ bikes.
Cinelli’s ‘spinachi’ handlebar extensions were banned using a safety justification. The UCI even planned to ban Giant’s compact frame – it just looked wrong – until it was pointed out that it would enable dealers to accommodate almost all customers with three stock frame sizes. “I don’t really blame the UCI” – continues Mike Burrows – “but why do the manufacturers let them get away with it?”
The classic bike is a brilliant device. It doesn’t need to be defended with conservative rules that – whatever the blazer’s excuses – are essentially aesthetic. Bike racing is more than a compelling athletic contest, it can also be a race between bikes, where the choice of mount is another sophistication. This can only widen its appeal and make bicycles more interesting to the velo-deficient majority.
Bike racing is an industrial activity, rooted in modernism. It also has noble traditions, but that doesn’t mean it need be dominated by a retro idea of what a bicycle should look like. Bikes that win races look good. Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merkx are honourable role-models. And so is Charles Terront.