Cycling Bikes Evolution – How much faster are they now?

Bicycles were introduced in the 19th century. Historically, materials used in bicycles have followed a similar pattern as in aircraft, the goal being high strength and low weight. Since the late 1930s alloy steels have been used for frame and fork tubes in higher quality machines. In the 1980s aluminum alloy frames and other components became popular due to their light weight, and most mid-range bikes are now principally aluminum alloy of some kind. More expensive bikes use carbon fibre due to its significantly lighter weight and profiling ability, allowing designers to make a bike both stiff and compliant by manipulating the lay-up.

The first Tour de France was held in 1903 and bikes’ technology was very scarce at that time. In 1926, yet with very old-fashioned bikes, the longest ever Tour of France  was held with riders having to cover 5,745 km over 17 stages. The average speed of that year’s Tour was 24.273 Km/h and only one-third of the contestants finished the global 240 hours that the race last. This Tour was won by the Belgian Lucien Buysse (leading a stage on the photo while a cow stares at him).

With time, bikes’ technology evolved significantly. Its weight diminished significantly, aerodynamics became state of the art due to constant research, different gears and ranges of gears were introduced, which are appropriate for different athletes and styles of cycling. Multi-speed bicycles also allow gear selection to suit the circumstances. Saddles were also improved. For racing bikes where the rider is bent over, weight is more evenly distributed between the handlebars and saddle, the hips are flexed, and a narrower and harder saddle is more efficient. Pedals also suffered major changes and cyclists started to run with special shoes attached to it enhancing balance, human power transmission efficiency and pedaling cadence.

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) rules currently specify that a racing bicycle have the following characteristics:

  • Minimum mass 6.8 Kg;
  • The frame of a racing bicycle must, according to the UCI regulations, be constructed using a “main triangle” with three straight tubular shapes—the top tube, down tube and seat tube. These three tubes, and other parts of the frame, need not be cylindrical, however, and many racing bicycles feature frames that use alternative shapes. Traditionally, the top tube of a racing bicycle is close to parallel with the ground when the bicycle is in its normal upright position. Some racing bicycles, however, have a top tube that slopes down towards the rear of the bicycle;
  • Frame manufacturers are free to use any material they choose in the frame. For most of the history of road racing, bicycle frames were constructed from steel tubing, and aluminum and titanium  alloys were also used successfully in racing bicycles. Racing bicycles in these three materials are still commercially available and are still used by some amateur racing cyclists or in vintage racing classes. However, virtually all professional road racing cyclists now use frames constructed from various carbon fiber composite materials, and a typical modern carbon fiber frame weighs less than 1 kg.

With no surprise, the Tour de France average speed increased significantly over time reaching its top in the 2004 edition with an average of 40.553 Km/h for the winner Lance Armstrong. Modern Tour versions are roughly about 3,600 kilometres spread out over three weeks. The 2012 Edition was won by Braddley Wiggins, a former track cyclist that marked his presence at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, with an average of 39.129 Km/h

Of course that, citing a famous Lance Armstrong’s book, the increase in speed “It’s not all about the bike”. Human physiology evolved a lot due to increased nourishment and health conditions, as well as roads and training conditions are now incomparable better to those existing in 1926. But also very controversial allegations, and often proved situations of riders being doped could contribute to abnormal cycling capacities. We will develop the issue of doping and anti-doping rules in forthcoming posts, starting with the UCI’s Biological Passport.

But don’t think that cheaters are a thing of the present. The second tour, in 1904, was one of the most scandalous. Riders were punished for dangerous racing including taking shortcuts and using cars and trains. Others, such as race favourite Maurice Garin, were beaten up by their rivals’ supporters. The following year saw nails being strewn on the course, a practice that continued for several more Tours.

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