The 9 Greatest Innovations That Formed Road Cycling

By Adam Marsal

Some might suggest other inventions but these nine belong on the no-brainer list. Do you agree?

1. Tyres

Before John Dunlop designed pneumatic tyres filled with air in 1887, cyclists depended on wooden wheels with iron bands. You can probably imagine the comfort of the ride. In 1891, Édouard Michelin invented tyres allowing for the removal and repair of a punctured tube. This way the clincher tyre was created, preferred by the bulk of current cyclists. The development hasn’t stopped, though, and further improvements are still coming. Engineers have increased puncture resistance or invented a hook bead to allow the tyre to run at higher pressures but conceptually, it’s been a continuous evolution rather than a leapfrog change. Nowadays, even in road cycling, we’re seeing the trend of tubeless tyres slowly making their way to some professional teams. Will tubeless become the next standard? We will see soon.

2. Gears and shifting

The relevance of changing gears is clear to any cyclist because they’re shifting as subconsciously as brushing their teeth. The principles are plain. The cogs of different sizes allow for riding at different speeds as per the cyclist’s effort. Only because of engaging an appropriate gear, we can cycle almost every road, no matter how much it inclines. Hints of what we now call derailleur gearing appeared in the 19th century when cyclists invented systems that allowed them to change between two gears on the rear wheel by moving the chain using a metal rod.

In the meantime, there had been several attempts at improvements but the real change was not until the advent of cable-shifted parallelogram derailleurs in the early 20th century. Incidentally, the French word derailleur, derived from a train derailment, was first used in 1930. Seven years later, the shifting device made its premiere in the Tour de France. For the first time, riders could use derailleurs to change gears without the need to change the entire rear wheel. Other milestones were the introduction of indexed gears by Shimano in the 1980s, which allowed faster and more accurate shifting, and the introduction of electronic groupsets in 2000.

3. Clipless pedals

Clipless pedals
Going clipless brough a relief to many cyclists. © Profimedia

While most regular cyclists are happy with platform pedals, riders looking for better performance have for years used quill pedals fitted with the toe clip and toe strap to allow for greater pedalling efficiency. The turning point came in 1984 when French company Look began selling its first commercial clipless pedals. In their development, the designers used the principles from ski bindings and overcame the futile and sometimes dangerous attempts of the competition. Public doubts about the safety and usability of the system dissolved completely after Bernard Hinault won the 1985 Tour de France with Look PP65 pedals.

4. Hydraulic disc brakes

While mountain bikers adopted disc brakes when the design was reduced and lightened to a reasonable size and weight, it took road cyclists substantially longer to consider their pros and cons. Despite tests indisputably proving rim brakes poor and ineffective, road cyclists stuck to them, emphasising their elegance. Professional peloton experienced a similar story where prejudice of disc brakes’ risks prevailed, calling them too dangerous to become a standard. Opponents objected that using different kinds of brakes might cause mayhem in pelotons.

Competitors were quite rightly concerned that different braking distances would lead to collisions, and therefore disc brakes were not allowed at races for a long time. Racers were also afraid of getting burned by hot discs in a crash. The breakthrough came after the UCI allowed disc brakes in cyclocross races. In 2012, Colnago, in collaboration with Formula, developed the first road disc brakes with the C59 disc designation. What 11 years ago was a source of amazement and even disgust, has become the standard. Some companies have even abandoned rim brakes whatsoever. Despite the demur of purists and nostalgic riders, rim brakes are becoming as obsolete as flint and steel.

5. STI levers

Until 1990 when Shimano introduced its revolutionary STI (Shimano Total Integration) system, we kept scrabbling for levers placed on the downtube to change gears. The innovation consisted in uniting the brake and shift levers into one piece. Not only was it suddenly no longer necessary to take our hands off the handlebars to shift but the new lever hooding refined the comfort of hands holding the handlebars on long rides.

6. GPS computers

In the 1990s, all cyclists longed for bicycle computers showing distance and speed by large digital numbers on displays. The amount of data collected has expanded during the development process but the real change was the introduction of computers with GPS. GPS devices can track a wealth of riding information without the need for a magnet on the bike and a sensor on the fork. The possibility of sharing the data on the internet turned even a casual ride into a virtual race with other cyclists. Is there anyone here going out without a route securely planned in GPS navigation?

7. Carbon fibre

Festka creates custom carbon bicycles for riders of all sizes and types.
Festka creates custom carbon bicycles for riders of all sizes and types.

Cyclists have always been prone to shaving down weight since carrying too much weight hurts. Bike weight was reduced significantly after manufacturers discovered the benefits of aluminium frames and rims. But it wasn’t until the advent of technology that allowed carbon fibre frames to be made, which meant a significant step in slimming down.

Carbon fibre frames are lightweight, and the technology allows for the production of aerodynamic shapes, which are becoming more and more popular in both time trial specials and increasingly in regular road frames. The same technology also enables the production of ultra-light and aerodynamic handlebars, seat posts, rims and other components. As a result, bikes weighing less than seven kilogrammes are no longer a piece of mad fantasy.

8. Quick-release skewers

During a race in the Dolomites in November 1927, Italian cyclist Tullio Campagnolo experienced a big disappointment. Because of the freezing weather and snow, his hands were too cramped to loosen the butterfly screws to change the rear wheel. Frustration and helplessness encouraged him to invent a quick-release mechanism. Its original 1930 design was similar to the mechanism we use today, allowing quick wheel changes for professionals and amateurs alike.

9. Lycra

Lycra cycling kit is lighter, more breathable and more snug than its natural wool predecessor. Although we witness a comeback of wool jerseys today, Lycra, developed in 1958 by DuPont, still has many advantages and fans, and if wool is making a name for itself in cycling jerseys, Lycra is still the clear winner when it comes to cycling shorts. Lycra shorts are great and aerodynamic while reducing air drag and increasing comfort. Does anyone give up wearing Lycra? We don’t think so.