Top 5 Cycling Innovations

A recent article in Velonews, titled “Velo List: Top 10 Technical Innovations of all time”, was published online. Articles like this, as with any “top 10” or “best of” lists, tend to elicit more ire and disagreement than head-nods and high fives. This is true particularly in the realm of cycling, which is an activity (no, a tradition!) that elicits more impassioned opinions than just about any sport, hobby, or pastime that I can think of. My reading of this Velonews article was admittedly no different: I couldn’t believe some of their choices for inclusion in the list.

A quick glance through their list shows a preponderance of technological innovations that exist either entirely within the sphere of bicycle racing, or were developed for racing and later trickled down to other areas of cycling. Admittedly, the article’s subtitle refers to the top 10 innovations in the “sport” of cycling, and I can only infer that the author (Caley Fretz) had road racing on his mind as he wrote the article. This comes as no surprise really, since Velonews exists to write about news in the world of bicycle racing, first and foremost. But to limit their list of “all time” greatest technical cycling innovations to what I would consider relatively recent developments, especially when viewed against the backdrop of the larger cycling world and its history, is something that I think is worth writing about.

I should note that, in general, I read lots of Velonews articles, and I am fond of the publication. The publishers hire talented young journalists who are passionate about cycling, they report on interesting and topical subject matter, and they offer a wide range of articles with a generally high editorial quality.

That being said, I feel a need to publish my own “top 5” technical cycling innovations. Why only 5? Well, for me, these 5 innovations are so huge that they transcend cycling. Indeed, some of these 5 made possible much of the second industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After all, the bicycle as we know it today has existed for about 130 years. The bicycle predates automobiles, and I would argue that without innovation driven by the bicycle boom of the 1890s many technologies that made possible the invention of the automobile would not have been developed. No bikes = no cars, from one historical viewpoint. I digress; what follows is my version of the top technological cycling developments of all time:


5- The parallelogram derailleur (This is number one on the Velonews list! At least we agree that this is an important one.)

The multi-speed drivetrain is revolutionary in itself, opening up vast stretches of terrain not previously accessible to the common cyclist. But not until a parallelogram derailleur was perfected did the multi-speed drivetrain become truly user-friendly and functional. Prior, multiple gears on a bicycle existed but shifting was very difficult (sometimes requiring the rider to stop, remove and re-install the rear wheel!).


4- Chain drive

Bike chains, as we know them today, are really just refined versions of drive chains that were developed in the late 1800s. The chain drive concept, when it was initially developed, was a giant step towards making bicycles not only safer, but also more practical by allowing for varying gear ratios. The chain drive system is also extremely efficient, and for these reasons has become the standard for bicycles. Chain drivetrains spread beyond the bicycle industry as well- early automobiles relied on them, and chain drives are still used in machinery of all kinds.  


3- Wire-spoked wheel

Prior to the wire-spoked wheel, bicycle wheels were generally made of wood and iron. The modern, tangentially-spoked bicycle wheel is a marvel of engineering. With spokes in tension, a rigid and lightweight rim and a central hub, no other wheel construction method approaches the wire-spoked wheel in strength-to-weight in the sizes that are commonly used on bicycles. Not only that, but wire-spoked wheels are repairable and can be trued easily.


2- Steel ball bearing

The steel ball bearing was perfected for bicycle use. Once high quality steel balls and bearing races were developed, rolling friction was greatly reduced for critical bicycle components such as hubs, bottom brackets, and pedals. Needless to say, ball bearings are ubiquitous today in all types of machines. Look around... chances are there are ball bearings in use all around you.


1- Pneumatic tire

Thanks to John Boyd Dunlop, we can ride in comfort. Back in the late 1800s, roads were generally terrible. Pavement of any kind was rare. Bicycle wheels at that point were usually shod with metal, leather, or solid rubber tires. By developing a pneumatic tire, Dunlop instantly smoothed the ride of the bicycle forever. Not only was a rubber tire with an air-filled bladder more comfortable, but it offered greater traction and enhanced safety. I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say that pneumatic tires made the automobile and, to a greater degree, the industrial revolution possible.


My top 5 are all what you might call old news- that is true. But this goes to show that bicycles, with 150+ years of development so far, haven’t changed all that much in a long time. Sure, with composite frame materials, wind-tunnel aerodynamic testing and electronic shifting, today’s racing bicycles are getting better and faster. Refinements at this point in the history of the bicycle may only be incremental, but a performance gain of a fraction of a percent is worthwhile if the margin between winning and losing a major professional bike race is similarly small. But zoom out, if you will, and witness the 1 billion or so other bicycles on this planet that do not have a carbon fiber frame nor electronic shifting. All 1 billion of these bikes share at least my top 4 (many one-speed bikes have no use for a derailleur), and wouldn't exist without them. With so much energy and manpower applied over the years to refine the basic design of the bicycle, it is no wonder that the current state of refinement is in the smallest details.

Ultimately, this is another reason why I love making custom bicycles. It is the smallest of details that differentiates a custom bicycle from something stock and off-the-shelf.