The bike of the future

ipod bike
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Visit a motorshow and you’ll soon see the concept cars, with their futuristic designs and science fiction comic book looks. Designers have done the same with bikes but I think we’re at a point were imagination and extrapolation aren’t necessary, in that the technology of tomorrow’s road bike is appearing now.

Gears: electronic shifting is a reality but it could be the norm in five years time and not just for top end race bikes but for use in town too. Now I hear many saying wire shifting is fine and it’s true. But when Shimano first brought out STI and gear shifting moved from the downtube to the handlebars the gains were in ergonomics. Similarly with electronic shifting, having multiple switches on the bars will enable a rider to shift gears without moving their hands. And if we’re not there yet, what about going wireless?

Shimano are also moving to an eleven-speed cassette. In years past a team’s mechanics truck would feature racks of sprockets so that mechanics could compose the gearing needed for the next day’s race. But with 11 speed, an 11T-25T cassette is suitable for almost all year. Although it’s worth nothing that more gears are not designed to save pro mechanics time, they are for the wider public.

Wheels: I see two changes. First, the arrival of disc brakes. The norm on mountain bikes and now authorised for cyclo-cross, many think they are too powerful for road bikes but it’s about modulation and control. By shrinking the size of the rotor – the disk – and the pad you can reduce the total stopping power, and this will help a road bike retain its delicate aesthetics. The other gain is that the rim surface is no longer a brake track, it can be lighter since it does not have to wear; and it can be curved since there is no need for a flat track for the brake pads.

Mafac brakes
Almost unchanged today

Second, the battle between clinchers and tubular tyres could end… in a draw and a third party can claim victory: the tubeless tyre. For years tubs – a once piece tyre containing an inner tube that you glue to the wheel – have had an advantage but today’s clinchers seem to offer lower rolling resistance. But tubular tyres can offer even lower rolling resistance and there are weight gains from eliminating the inner tube.

Frames: With new disks and eleven speed, I think we could see the front and rear dropouts widened. I’ve covered the frustration of numerous bottom bracket standards, of the bike industry’s tendency to propose multiple solutions that get so confusing they probably deter customers rather than persuade them to upgrade. But this time it  might not be so bad, as a road bike could simply copy from a mountain bike. For example, the rear drop out goes from a width of 130mm to 135mm. The extra room allows more room for the disc rotor and maybe more for the eleventh sprocket.

Without getting too futuristic, it’s easy to imagine an eleven speed bike with electronic shifting, tubeless tyres and disc brakes. In fact you could build one today.

We’ll see if this becomes the norm but if the emergence of new technology for road bikes is pretty slow, gear cables and calliper brakes might be a thing of the past in five year’s time. But one thing is for sure, your legs will still hurt.

36 thoughts on “The bike of the future”

  1. What about the aerodynamics of disc brakes vs. rim calipers – particularly when hidden behind the fork?

    MTB disc brakes aren’t exactly the last word in aerodynamic efficiency.

  2. Good points…I think they are all possible. For me a big advantage with disk brakes is that the rim isn’t being heated…that should help stop tubs rolling and blowouts on long descents.. how many races were lost/injuries caused by those over the years?

  3. Calipers aren’t any more aerodynamically efficient than discs which is why on time trial bikes you see all kinds of tricks employed to conceal them and why Ridley integrate them on the new FAST frame.

    Discs would actually offer an easier component to conceal than calipers, as they sit at the widest part of the fork, not where it’s tapering to met the crown. Given that a disc caliper would sit in some of the ‘dirtier’ airflow, it could, potentially even offer an overall aerodynamic advantage with a correctly designed fairing being used to tidy up airflow where it wasn’t possible to before.

  4. s: as William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”. Canyon’s Project 6.8 already showed a disc braked road bike can be lighter than the UCI’s weight limit – 5 years ago. I don’t think its true that discs are too heavy, since weight weenies can shave off more than enough to compensate elswhere. It’s just that the prototypes and the patent licensing haven’t filtered down to the mass-market yet.

  5. Robert Merkel: it can be incorporated into the design, no. A rotor is not necessarily unaero; if anything the hard part is redesigning the forks to cope with the extra stress.

    Alex: true, the whole front end could be redesigned.

    Laurence: that’s innovative. We could also go to a bike that ensures constant RPM and changes the gears for you.

    s: heavy for now but with some more design we’ll see. Remember road bikes are already on the heavy side in pro racing to meet the 6.8kg rule.

    REG: almost unchanged is what I wrote. The difference is that they work today and of course levers can even be made from carbon. But cantilevers and cables.

    Baz: thanks for that, I remember it now.

  6. I suspect the Di2 Ultegra really could be the pivotal straw, insofar as it will make electronic shifting affordable to a much broader base of non-pro cyclists. A local LBS foresees building up a ~$5000 (Can) bike and being able to prompt customers in the $3500 range to upgrade that way (a far cry from the $8000-10000 that they’re looking at now with Di2 Dura Ace). Could that bring about the end of a non-electronic Dura Ace gruppo? Quite possibly. At the same time, I would imagine that a significant number of “traditionalists”—maybe more in Europe than North America—could really resist a number of these changes (playing around with the new electronic shifters, I was appalled by the sound of the shifting, smooth as it was; it didn’t sound quite right). As such, the future raises some really fascinating possibilities, but my instinct is that the transition to that future could be equally intriguing.

  7. I lament the loss of simplicity. Cables are easy to find, and easy to replace whether they work the brakes or the gears. Faulty hydraulic braking systems and electronic shifting systems will make the bike useless until it’s taken to a repair facility with the proper parts and expertise to fix it. And how many of those situations will be “replace the unit, toss the old one in the trash” whether it’s a master cylinder, brake caliper or front or rear changer? Those may never be widely distributed and the parts will never be universal enough to make it simple, cheap or easy to do these repairs. Bikes take (for me) a large and dangerous turn towards needless complexity if/when these “improvements” become commonplace.

  8. Will the bike of the future still have a heavy, dirt-collecting chain? Lightweight composite belts (like the fan belt in your car) already are showing up on commuter bikes.

  9. Velonista: many will hang on to normal bikes for sure. A good bike today is just that, good. The gears shift flawlessly and there’s no argument with stopping power.

    Larry T: true and the simplicity serves very well. It’s like a sports car, for real performance you don’t need electric windows and heated seats, they’re for comfort and transport.

    Ken: ah, now that’s at another point. I was more looking at what we’ve got today and seeing where we’ll be in five years time. The chain is pain, keeping it clean and lubed is probably 90% of the maintenance work, no?

  10. Don’t forget that the spokes will take a considerable force under hard braking. Spokes must be cross-laced and hubs must stronger to cope with the torsional forces. This will most likely add more weight than you could save from optimizing the rim profile

  11. Don’t forget that the spokes will take a considerable force under hard braking. Spokes must be cross-laced and hubs must stronger to cope with the torsional forces. This will most likely add more weight than you could save from optimizing the rim profile,

  12. I’ve read that NOTHING is as efficient at transferring power than a well-cared for chain. Since (unless you have one of those secret motors in your seat tube) YOU are the motor, are you willing to give up efficiency for the small task of keeping the chain in good condition? Alternatives, like belts and shafts require more power-losing setups to provide different gear ratios as well.
    I personally maintain our small fleet of rental bikes in Italy as well as our personal machines. They all get washed and serviced once a week with pretty much the same ritual the pro teams do every day on a grand tour, but without power washing, just dish soap and various brushes, finished with a light rinse at low pressure, The entire drive train gets brushed with a bit of diesel before soaping and rinsing. A few drops of lube once or twice between the washings keeps the chain happy. I change the chains out every 2000 kms just to keep the cogsets and chainrings happy. LONG LIVE THE ROLLER CHAIN!

  13. @INRNG About your reply to Laurence, a bike that changes gears for you, it looks like people at Fair Wheel Bikes took care of it. Have a look at this project:
    Pretty amazing stuff, no?

    @Larry T. I agree that simplicity serves well. But I’ve heard the same concerns when Mountain Biking was shifting from V-Breaks to disc. Things could get complicated and if the system fails during a trail, there wouldn’t be anything to do due to the complexity of the system. As it turns out, things are much more simpler know, and if my own amateur experience counts for something, I have never had a problem training or competing with disc brakes in my MTB in more than 5 yrs.
    So, I do believe disc breaks will have a similar path in road bikes as they did in MTB. People might hesitate at first, but in the end it will be the way to go. Or at least so I hope.


  14. @Larry T. If chains are so efficient, how come all modern motors use belts? I concede belts are not yet ready for top-tier bike racing, but the technology is getting there.

  15. @Ken,
    Belts will never make to the top tier as you can’t shift them. Internal hubs are great but too heavy for racing. The obvious exception is the use of Rohloffs in endurance MTB events for the durability though. Otherwise I don’t see the belt making it past the single speed and commuter crowd, but that’s OK as it serves those folks quite well already.

  16. JimW, I’d be surprised if you couldn’t take a fair bit of weight out of a Rohloff hub for road use.

    That said, it’d get very costly to run multiple race wheels if a $2000 ultralight hub gear was fitted to each.

  17. Robert Merkel,
    I bet you could as they are built for ultimate durability but that is also why they work so very well. I guess it would depend on how much the strength of the shell figures into the operation of the internals as that is the logical place to start removing material.
    The real nightmare would be installing the internal cable routing kit!

    I will be buying up all the last mechanical systems in the electro bicycle future when Skynet terms them “obsolete”.
    JimW will not participate in the recharging of a bicycle.

  18. >If chains are so efficient, how come all modern motors use belts?
    Not that it makes any difference to what we have on the bike, but they are not! For the timing belt, a number of manufacturers replacing their belts with chain.
    Obviously only those that can run in an oily, closed environment. The fan (alternator) belt runs in the open, it would need constant maintenance just like a bike, and it’s obvious no car owner wants to clean and relube chains every weekend.

  19. I found myself on single track w my cross bike and modified it every year.
    I have been running discs on my cross bike for the last 4 years.
    It is a bit of an unorthodox set up…road rings up front, mtn cassette and long cage derailer with a wound up carbon fork and a custom steel frame.
    I have never had a technical problem with wheels or equipment and I weigh 200lbs.

    As with belts…they are smoother and more efficient with high rpms. RPMs from a bike are low and a chain is a more efficient transfer of power.

  20. Ken – the key is MOTOR vs your two legs. Mass-produced automobiles use belts because they’re cheap. Better quality engines often use chain drives for the camshafts which are more efficient than gear drive, though not as accurate when timing is super-important. Perhaps for MTB’s disc brakes make sense but I’ve heard plenty of complaints from those who took their front wheel off and somehow managed to squeeze the brake lever with the rotor no longer separating the brake pads, causing drag and noise when the wheel’s reinstalled. With the tiny contact patch of modern road bike tires, I have to admit I’ve rarely (if ever) felt I didn’t have more than adequate braking power to scrape off enough speed to react to any situation. Wet conditions are another thing of course, but that same tiny contact patch isn’t going to to do you a lot of good in the rain even with stronger brakes! I will still lament the loss of simplicity when cables are made obsolete…with not a lot of performance improvement to justify the increased complexity and costs involved.

  21. I’ve been riding tubeless tyres on my roadie for almost a year now. I have Notubes Alpha 340 ZTRs, running Hutchinson Atoms at about 80-85 PSI. The lower pressures I can run with these give a much smoother ride, and the huge grip comes in handy on those high-speed descents in the corners and in the wet. I know the conventional wisdom says the lower rolling resistance with tubeless should provide better performance, but if true, then I find it is marginal. However they are certainly no slower than a conventional set-up and the plus points of a less tiring ride with lower pressures/less road-buzz, the extra grip, and the puncture-fixing gunk make them a winner in my book.

  22. I was talking to a family member the past week who is an ex-racer and had worked for yrs as a highly respected bike mechanic, and am constantly happy that he is my ‘personal’ bike mech, but over the past few yrs he has moved into the realm of R&D for e-bikes, currently working on a full-carbon e-bike! The dude knows almost everyone in the race bike industry! Great source of info! We were talking about the future of race bike technology! Disc brakes might become common, but will take longer than folk expect as current road brakes are almost perfect, with the benefit of electronic options for those who want! For the rest, innovation will come further from quality of carbon, lay-up techniques, nano-tech, and…aero profiles, such as introduced on the new Stealth aero bike from the Belgian brand Prorace! Such bikes will become more common and cheaper! Brands will actually stop producing top-of-the-range models! Such models will only be built to bridge the gap between R&D and affordability for the average consumer – no longer available to buy, much like with concept cars!

    Frankly I am more than happy with a mechanical group-set, and only care for better frame construction/quality! For example, I do not have an iPod…and do not miss one!!!

  23. Most of the these changes seem to be solutions in search of a problem, at least for the average cyclist. As part of the majority of road bike riders who don’t race, I fail to see any advantages here. I’m old enough to remember friction shifters, and the quality of modern indexed systems is really superb (I use the affordable and perfectly adequate SRAM Rival groupset). I ride clinchers, because if I get a flat I can quickly throw on the spare tube and be on my way. I’m not sure about the value of disc brakes, although I have never felt that I lacked braking power with standard caliper brakes, not even descending in the Alps.

  24. @Paul – I completely agree. The obvious advantage to disc brakes is a lack of heat build up on the rim, presumably decreasing the chance of a rolled tubular… While a serious concern descending in the Alps, I cant see this being a serious concern at one’s local crit.

    @Leif – I thought I was the only one!!

  25. I see one area not mentioned is the integration of electronic systems. While many of us ride the latest, lightest race bikes, how many also have one or more of the following:
    * cycle computer/GPS
    * lights F & R
    * electronic shifting
    * video camera
    * MP3 player
    * cadence sensor
    * power meter

    For my part (using my race bike for commuting most days), I have 5 of these on my bike (GPS, cadence sensor, front light, rear light, camera), 3 of which that require recharging after every ride, all requiring seperate turning on and off, and 2 requiring seperate data transfer (GPS, camera) after most rides.

    I envisage at some point in the future an integrated solution with a common power source, common/central power on/off (e.g. via shifter-mounted switch), common configuration (via smartphone or PC/bluetooth), common software/firmware updates, common data transfer, common troubleshooting & diagnostics.

    More functionality is certain to be coming to bikes, the need for a simpler human machine interface is already here.

  26. @aceman – i agree with your comments, i’m currently planning a touring trip across France and have realised that every night i need to charge my iphone/gps, bike camera, external iphone charger thing, front light, normal camera and laptop. Some of the cheap hotels in France only have 1 plug in the room so i am now having to take a multi plug adapter!

  27. I like technology. I work in IT.

    But ask yourself. “Do I really need all this stuff”. What purpose does it serve to the actual bike riding.

    There are “need” and “nice to have”.

    Just a thought.

  28. > As long as all the improvements are kept away from pro racing.

    Like electronic shifting, GPS, heart rate monitoring, power monitoring, cadence monitoring …

  29. All pretty nice . . but . . especially wrt frames and brakes: why is the cycling community so resistant to recumbent frames? They’ve been around for almost 100 years now! Safer (you can put STRONG brakes on them w/o risking headers); faster (one won Paris-Brest-Paris in 1933, causing them to be outlawed for “bicycle” racing!); much more comfortable (no penis paralysis, neck strain, etc.). I’d love to have some of the innovations on this wish list added to my Easy Racers Gold Rush Replica, on which I’ve been putting thousands of miles a year on for some time now.

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