Six road cycling tech innovations that didn’t catch on
Cycling has had its fair share of questionable innovations. We’ve identified six of our ‘favourites’
The cycling world, especially in the crucible of the pro peloton, is full of new innovations each season. Naturally, those innovations demonstrate what can be done when research and development teams backed with large budgets get their creative juices flowing.
Before long, we often see these innovations emerge in our real-world riding, too. However, some, we don’t – and arguably with good reason. They may have been the ‘next big thing’ at the time but just didn’t quite live up to the hype.
We’ve picked a few out from the innovation scrapheap to demonstrate that not all the latest and greatest kit and fashions are all they’re cracked up to be.
Mavic Mektronic electronic groupset
Mavic, perhaps rightfully, claim this to be the first electronically-operated groupset, having launched the Mektronic gruppo in 1999.
More than that, it operated the rear derailleur wirelessly, via radio waves, meaning it has a lot in common with SRAM’s eTap system, as well as Shimano’s Di2 and Campy’s EPS wired electronic groupsets.
So, what’s it doing here, then? Clearly, this is the genesis for some of the most the sought-after groupset technology on the market today?
Well, genesis it may be, but it took a full 16 years before Shimano thought the technology ready for public consumption, now followed by their two main rivals. That’s because the Mektronic (and preceding Zap) system was littered with problems – not least that it only applied to the rear derailleur.
Issues included the fact that you could only switch one sprocket at a time, making quick changes difficult, while the number of batteries needed to operate the wireless system added additional weight. You also had to wait a while for shifts to actuate – up to two seconds – and if you happened to be passing a speed gun, you risked the entire system shorting out completely, requiring a full reset to regain functionality.
Mavic were arguably ahead of the game in developing an electronic groupset, but ultimately it was a case of too much, too soon, and the French firm returned to what they do best – building wheels.
Spinergy Rev-X wheels
If you grew up watching the Tour de France during the nineties, the distinctive Spinergy Rev-X four-spoke hoops will be etched onto your brain. In fact, they looked as fast as they rode, thanks to their serious aero profiling, so became something of a desirable item as they hit our TV screens.
However, they weren’t without their problems, not least because of the obvious downsides of having a four-spoke layout when one would fail. And, fail they would, thanks to the limitations of carbon layup-technology at the time.
There’s even a webpage dedicated to reporting the various mishaps experienced on these wheels here, highlighting the weaknesses not only in the material at the time, but also in the conception of the design – the spokes were in fact joined to each other, meaning if one failed, the other opposite one likely would too.
Additionally, the bladed design also presented a hazard in the pro peloton – if you happened to come down, it was easy to get a digit or limb trapped in the gaping holes that characterise the wheelset.
In fact, it’s said the UCI banned them after wildlife was killed while the wheels were used during a cyclo-cross race.
Cinelli Spinaci handlebar extensions
Cinelli’s Spinaci handlebar extensions were designed to bring aerodynamics to the bunch. While Greg LeMond pioneered the use of handlebar extensions in time trials in 1989, overhauling a 50-second deficit to Laurent Fignon on the final stage of the Tour de France to win the race by eight seconds, the Spinaci took this philosophy and adapted it for long days in the saddle.
As a result, the attachments were shorter and wider in profile than the bars you’ll see used in time trials today, fitting just inside the internal edge of the rider’s normal bar tape, curving round in front of the space immediately forward and 45 degrees upwards of the bar.
It was a design intended to offer an aerodynamic position, by placing almost all of the rider’s weight on their arms and reducing the frontal profile without the extreme (and potentially uncomfortable) position of full-on aero bars.
However, any aerodynamic gain (and many riders set them up too high) was negated by decreased bike handling in the peloton, especially one racing at the ever-increasing average speeds of the 1990s.
Because the rider’s weight was shifted so far forwards, over the front of the bike, it left no time to react to obstacles or quick deviations in direction, and in the worst cases, no time to avoid spills happening further up the road. You simply rode into them with your eyes shut, hoping for the best. Add to that limited access to the brake levers and, well…
After a short-but-sweet shelf life from 1993 to 1997, when the UCI banned them on safety grounds, the Cinelli Spinaci handlebar extensions have developed something of a folkloric reputation, albeit one limited to the second-hand eBay market.
What was it about the nineties? Along with Cinelli Spinaci handlebar extensions and Spinergy Rev-X wheels, the nineties also saw the arrival of suspension stems.
Admittedly, suspension stems were primarily designed for rigid mountain bikes, with the Girvin Flex Stem, which used an elastomer to provide the suspension damping, the most popular model to hit the market.
By and large, suspension stems were cheaper than a suspension fork, a newly-emerging technology at the time, and even found their way onto some road bikes – not least at Paris-Roubaix, where the increased comfort was seen to offset the negatives of extra weight and potentially poor handling.
In fact, the arrival of suspension stems came as a response to the use of suspension forks to tackle the harsh cobbles of the Hell of the North, with three successive victories for the RockShox Paris-Roubaix suspension fork in 1991, 1992 and 1993. It was in the 1993 edition that Franco Ballerini rode a Bianchi with an Allsop Softride suspension stem to second behind Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and his suspension fork. Ballerini would go on to win the 1995 and 1998 races on a ‘regular’ road bike.
Indeed, suspension stems (and suspension forks) were ultimately short-lived on road bikes, with the advancement of carbon fibre technology taking hold in the late nineties and beyond.
In many ways, however, we’ve come full circle, with bike manufacturers developing ever-innovative ways to improve comfort on endurance (and cobbled Classics bikes). Just look to Specialized’s Futureshock front suspension, unveiled on the new Roubaix in September, for the most recent example.
How will we look back on the current crop of comfort-boosting technology in 20 years time?
PMP cranks were an innovation that stemmed from the idea that non-straight crank arms might have a benefit in terms of reducing the dead zone at the bottom of the pedal stroke, thus making the upstroke easier and downstroke more efficient.
The problem with this ‘solution’ arose when you consider that the actual pedal, in relation to the crank spindle, was in the same position that it would have been if the cranks was straight. As a result, the force exuded on the crankset from pedal to spindle was the same – you were still pedaling in the same way, it was just your force was travelling the extra length of the L-shaped crank to get to the business end. It’s Physics 101.
As a result, the PMP cranks were inevitably heavier, leading one observer in a 1985 issue of Cycling Weekly to claim a 50-70g deficit in weight per crank compared to a standard straight crank, while also questioning reliability at the L-bend. That’s before you start on any alleged improvement in efficiency.
These days, riders attempting to improve the efficiency of the pedal stroke may look to change crank lengths, use products like asymmetric chainrings or adopt outdated pedalling methods like pulling on the upstroke. Ultimately, however, the consensus remains with using a round chainring and straight crank arm, at the length most comfortable for the rider in question.
Disc brakes in the pro peloton (so far)
While we don’t want to step on a political landmine, disc brakes are certainly that in the pro peloton right now.
Ironically, their difficult gestation has resulted in an upside-down approach to R&D, with disc brakes now widely available on road bikes for you and I, but banned from racing.
That’s thanks to the UCI being initially slow on the uptake to allow field testing in races, then subsequently banning them after allegedly causing some nasty looking injuries during Paris-Roubaix.
We can tell you first-hand that disc brakes offer better performance in the wet, as well as greater modulation of power through the lever – and as such have begun to infiltrate the winter and endurance bike market, where those benefits are most keenly felt. However, adoption rate on race bikes has been slower.
But even if the UCI has given the green light, pro teams and riders have, so far, been reluctant to use disc brakes. Indeed, whether disc brakes will truly replace rim brakes in the pro peloton remains to be seen. That looks some way off – but watch this space.
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