Even the cheapest racer you buy from a big-box store is better than the most advanced bicycle used in the first Tour de France. The awesome technology we take for granted was hard earned and well appreciated by amateurs and pros alike. So, which bikes made the most difference – and why?
1937 – Royal Fabric
This French invention was the first bicycle with a derailleur allowed to compete in Le Tour de France. Before 1937, you were allowed as many gears as you wanted – but if you wanted 22 gears you’d have to carry 22 wheels on your back and change your wheel every time you wanted to change gear. Most cyclists opted for one or two gears per stage.
This derailleur certainly looks alien to what we enjoy today – but changing gears without leaving the saddle must have felt like the future come early for the athletes. And given the modern cyclist’s obsession with weight, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what this must have meant on the climb.
1948 – The Legnano team bike
Gino Bartali will be remembered for many glorious reasons but he’ll also be remembered for riding the first Cambio Corsa derailleur in competitive cycling. The Cambio was Campagnolo’s slightly less elegant solution – changing gear involved groping around the seat stay for the gear lever.
But Campagnolo judiciously sacrificed ease-of-use in favour of reliability, allowing Bartali to change gears with impunity during the punishing mountain stages of 1948. Bartali exploited the reliability of the Legnano, claiming victory in the Parc des Princes velodrome during Le Tour’s first live broadcast.
1986 – Look KG86 Tour de France
My dad once challenged my brother and I to snap a 2 by 4 made of carbon fibre using a hammer in our garage. It was the late 80s and we marvelled at the strength of material so weightless. As we settled down to watch Le Tour highlights on British TV, my dad’s enthusiasm started to make sense…
In 1986, bike manufacturers couldn’t fully exploit carbon fibre’s potential, relying on 3rd party manufacturers to provide carbon fibre tubes that were bonded to aluminium lugs. But even this cobbled-together approach was enough to help propel Greg LeMond to victory in Le Tour 86.