- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The average bicycle plucked off the floor of a cycling store looks roughly the same as a bike from a century ago. Two wheels. Small black seat. Diamond-shaped frame.

Don’t be fooled.

Bicycle manufacturers have been working diligently to make bicycles lighter, stronger and faster than their predecessors. Thanks to newer materials and smarter design, they’ve done just that with models within the reach of the average consumer.

In terms of basic mechanisms such as shifting and braking, however, today’s bicycles are relatively unchanged compared to bikes from the 1970s, says Phil Koopman, co-owner of City Bikes in the District.

Look closer.



“Everything’s become a lot more refined,” Mr. Koopman says.

It takes less pressure to activate the average braking system in a modern bike, and the wheel’s basic construction plays a role in that.

Older bikes featured steel rims, which required more pressure to stop once they started rolling. Today’s bike often has aluminum rims, which create greater friction between the brake pad and the metal’s surface to slow it more easily. Some models feature efficient disk braking systems similar in nature to those used on cars.

The rubber around those rims also has felt the pull of technology.

Tire manufacturers are weaving different materials, such as Kevlar, into the basic rubber tire mix to strengthen them, decrease blow-out rates and increase road traction, Mr. Koopman says.

Todd Galati, contributing editor for California Bicycling Magazine and team manager for the Trek San Diego/Cliff Bar Mountain Bike Team, says bicycles in the early 20th century didn’t even have gears.

Change happened slowly for much of that century, but Mr. Galati says improvements hastened measurably in the 1980s.

“In the ‘80s you really started to see the use of lighter-weight aluminum and carbon fiber components all being used in frames,” says Mr. Galati, a research scientist with the American Council on Exercise. “The standard of the time was steel, and was for years.”

The lighter the bike frame, the less force needed to move the bike forward.

“Force equals mass times acceleration,” he says.

The professional cycling circuit helped make lighter frames possible, he says, because riders need the speediest bikes available, forcing bike manufacturers to continually improve their products. The improvements, in turn, eventually trickle down to the consumer.

Other frame materials introduced at the time included titanium, which is lighter than steel and provides a comfortable ride, but its lack of stiffness means less steering control, Mr. Galati says.

Over the years, manufacturers began mixing their materials, blending metals to find the right combination of strength and light weight.

“There’s always the playoff between light weight and durability. Some products have gone through trial and error. You’d see things break,” he says.

Early aluminum frames didn’t absorb shocks well, forcing makers to tweak the shapes and diameter of the frame’s tubing to improve its shock resistance.

While bicycle technology keeps evolving, the basic construction type of the average model stays relatively constant. That’s partly because of the sport’s governing body, the International Cycling Union, which oversees bicycle racing events such as the Tour de France.

The organization regulates bicycle shapes, which for decades has meant the diamond-shape frames that dominate the industry, Mr. Galati says.

Andy Clarke, executive director of the District-based League of American Bicyclists, says the modern “index shifting” on many bicycles “takes the guesswork out of whether you’re in gear or not.”

Older bikes featuring 10 speeds had the rider trying to maneuver the lever into the right place so the chain didn’t rub on the gear-shifting mechanism, says Mr. Clarke, whose group helps promote bicycle riding for fun, fitness and transportation. Index-shifting bicycles “click the chain into gear on the cog front and back,” he says. “It’s not like automatic shifting … but you have greater confidence.”

One noncompetitive bicycle style that bucks the conventional trappings is the recumbent bike. This low-slung style of bicycle can feature the seat above or below the handlebars and can be made of titanium, carbon fiber or high-tensile steel, says Royal Meservy, Webmaster for the S&B; Recumbents Web site (https:// home.pacbell.net/recumbent/).

Mr. Meservy says recumbent bikes, often preferred by cyclists whose bodies cannot handle the stress of leaning over the handlebars of traditional bikes, come in models designed both for leisure riding and for speed.

For the serious cyclist, the modern bike with its state-of-the-art frame is where it’s at.

Stephen Metz, vice president of product management with Cannondale Bicycle Corp., based in Bethel, Conn., says the biggest bicycling innovation over the past 20 years is the combination of lightweight but sturdy bicycle frames.

“There’s a very fit individual on top of this bike cranking it. They’ve got to be stiff,” says Mr. Metz, who credits the industry for learning from aerospace engineering in turning to heartier yet lightweight material.

Mr. Metz says that until recently, bicycles have been assembled from parts made by various parties. Look at nearly any bicycle today, and one can see, for example, a Cannondale bicycle with a Shimano brake system.

That forces manufacturers to leave space for outside parts rather than create bicycles organically from within the company, Mr. Metz says.

“Integrating technical systems into the bikes to make it even more efficient, that’s where the future is,” he says.

Mr. Clarke says that with all the advances in bicycle technology, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the basic model remains the same.

“The longevity, the enduring quality of the basic machine that is the bicycle is worth paying homage to,” Mr. Clarke says.

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