The evolution of the super bike: Everyone is riding an aero bike these days, but it wasn’t always so. Ed Hood looks back to the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 and the bikes that ushered in the dawn of the super bike.
Not a USA Olympic TTT bike, but maybe based on them
What have famous French pro team manager, Cyrille Guimard and the East German track team of the late 70’s and early 80’s got in common? They were both pioneers of the, ‘funny bike,’ the ‘velo plongeant’ as the French would have it – we’d call them ‘low profile’ bikes these days. Guimard was a pioneer of what we now call ‘bike fit’ and wind tunnel testing riders and their Gitane machines – ‘marginal gains’ way before Team Sky came along. ‘Napoleon’ as he was known wanted his boys, to be ahead of the curve wherever it was possible.
Tour de France 1984 – Laurent Fignon
For the East Germans it was finding every advantage they could over their Communist Bloc neighbours but sworn enemies, the Russians. Training harder, dedicating resources to designing aero clothing and bikes, conferring financial and status benefits upon successful athletes; and removing the pituitary glands from cadavers – but that’s another story.
The Russian team on Rossin bikes
Nice Rossin stem system
I was at the World Track Championships in Leicester in 1982 and the East and West Germans individual and team pursuiters and kilometre riders all rode on low pros, the Easterners on grey – what else – machines with the handlebars on extensions affixed to the fork crowns whilst the men in the white of West Germany rode immaculate white machines with sloping top tubes and ‘sprinter’ style sloping quill stems carrying inverted or ‘cow horn’ bars.
Whilst the East Germans won the individual pursuit competitions with the late Detlef Macha beating West German, Rolf Golz in the final and West Germany’s playboy kilo star, the late Freddy Schmidtke was victorious both on low pros, the team pursuit went to the Russians and the professional pursuit to Frenchman, Alain Bondue all on ‘conventional’ machines, albeit Bondue’s Motobecane machine had a ‘split’ seat tube to enable the rear wheel to tuck tight to the bottom bracket.
Alain Bondue – Not on his split seat tube Motobecane, but on the track version of Fignon’s TT bike
But by the time the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics rolled round the ‘arms race’ had begun in earnest with the US team backed by the Raleigh Cycle Company of America, a division of the Huffy Corporation determined to provide their team with the fastest machines on earth. At the United States Cycling Team Technical Development Centre in Dayton Ohio under conditions of secrecy, Mike Melton and Dennis Bushnell aided and abetted by aero guru, Chester Kyle created the grand parents of today’s Specialized Shivs and BMC Time Machines. If research and development costs are included the bikes came in at $40,000 each – a vast sum for a bicycle, even by today’s standards, never mind 1984.
Olympic team pursuit
The individual pursuit fell to Californian ex-downhill skier, Steve Hegg riding a sloping top tubed, Raleigh-badged machine with a rear 27” disc and ‘solid’ chain ring a la Moser’s Hour record machine he rode to an Olympic record 4:35 in qualifying and defeated Germany’s Rolf Golz in the final. Golz’s bike was the same machine as the one I’d seen in Leicester, two years earlier.
Steve Hegg – US hero
Hegg’s machine had a one piece handlebar/extension in aluminium with flush fitting Allen key fixings for the 14 bladed spoked 24” front wheel with the tubulars by Continental inflated to 200 psi with helium. The frame tubes were made by True Temper as aluminium aerofoils with cast, heat-treated aluminium lugs. These materials couldn’t be brazed or welded but were bonded [Mike Melton was touchy about folks saying ‘glued’] together using the same adhesive as the heat shield tiles were bonded to the space shuttle with. All up weight was around 12 lbs and that was with a heavy early generation rear disc.
Leonard Harvey Nitz
Nitz on a newer version
Hegg’s team mate, Leonard ‘Harvey’ Nitz rode a Murray-badged steel machine, built by famous US frame builder, Ben Serotta, with level top tube, wheels of equal 27” diameter and ‘bars coming off the fork crown, to bronze in the same competition but his machine wasn’t as sophisticated as Hegg’s.
USA team pursuit
For the team pursuit Messrs. Hegg, Nitz, Brent Emery and Pat McDonough were hot favourites given Hegg’s superiority in the individual event and Nitz’s bronze. Not only that, they were on radical machines built on similar lines to Hegg’s but with 24” wheels front and back reducing the distance between the riders and allowing for much more effective ‘drafting.’ However, in qualifying McDonough pulled his wheel, the team mechanic having forgotten to tighten the track nuts. . .
1984 Olympics Cycling 4000m Team Pursuit (semi final)
They were allowed a re-start but with just three men – McDonough excluded – but they then proceeded to crash. They went again and were ‘third time lucky’ qualifying with three men. They made it through to the final BUT Dave Grylls pulled his foot and it was another three man effort against a well drilled and experienced Aussie quartet on nothing fancier than low pros with spoked wheels of equal 27” diameter with the men from the Antipodes running out winners.
The kilometre went to big German, Schmidtke – there were no East Germans or any Eastern Bloc countries present, they had boycotted the US Olympics as a tit-for-tat reprisal for the US boycotting the Moscow Olympics as a protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – with a 1:06 ride on the same design of machine as Golz.
The O’Reilly bike
But the machine which got the most column inches was that of US kilometre specialist, Rory O’Reilly the reigning Pan Am kilo champion who had cult Santa Barbara frame builder, Mike Celmins construct him a truly ‘rad’ iron. The bike had 22.5” wheels front and back, disc rear, bladed spokes front; a tiny head tube and a horizontal top tube which made the main triangle akin to that of child’s bike given the small wheels. The long-legged O’Reilly perched on a saddle at the top of a massive, drilled-out, ‘fly through’ seat post with additional bracing struts running from the rear track ends up to below the saddle. To further brace the saddle, two ‘guy wires’ ran from the front of the top tube to just under the front of the saddle – and no, I’m not making this up. . .
O’Reilly’s Olympic ride
The handle bars sprouted extravagantly from the fork crown and given the small wheels and the fact that O’Reilly rode a 103” gear the solid ‘disc’ chain ring was huge. With a recent 1:03 US record ride to his name he was hot favourite and whilst his first lap was good he visibly struggled to control his bizarre machine in the second half of his ride and flopped to a 1:07 and eighth place.
The USA TTT team
It wasn’t just the track team who were conferred the benefits of the Melton/Kyle partnership, the 100 kilometre TTT team all rode bikes along the lines of Heggs but with 24” front/27” rear wheels, big single rings, aero bottles and cages, front brakes behind the fork crowns and rear brakes beneath the bottom bracket – but crucially, no rear discs. Team captain Davis Phinney was shy of the ‘new tech’ wheels and insisted the squad run conventional spoked rear wheels, even though discs were available for the team. The quartet of Phinney, Ron Kiefel, Roy Knickman and Andy Weaver took bronze, ceding silver to the Swiss team by eight seconds and it’s hard not to think that rear discs would have made the difference.
The Italian TTT team
Italy on 24”/27” double discs some four minutes clear of the Swiss. These new machines weren’t perfect, they had their flaws like any new designs and as Melton said; “we’re running at the ragged edge of present technology. . .”
But after LA bikes for riding against the watch on road and track would never be the same again.
Not everything has caught on