Ed’s Rant: Bike Tech – How Far is Too Far?

Ed’s Rant: With the British Cycling team unveiling their new Lotus/Hope steed for the Tokyo Olympic Games next year, Ed Hood has had a look at this piece of art and at some of the other ‘weird’ bikes of the past. Aerodynamic and functional, but also damn nice to look at, what else do you want? Ah yes, UCI approval.

Too far?

How far is too far?
I’ve always loved ‘trick’ bicycles; back in the day when I raced, I loved the cool kit, I was one of the first in Scotland to have a low pro bike – a Condor with 753 tubing; Modolo Kronos brakes which looked great but were pretty much ornamental; Huret Jubilee super-light rear mech; ‘aero’ seat pillar; 16 spoke front wheel; flat spokes; alloy freewheel. . . I loved all of that.

Alf Engers was the British TT hero of many… and his bikes

But not everyone loves bicycles, let alone ‘trick’ ones which are super-light and/or aero. Avery Brundage the despotic American President of the International Olympic Committee for 20 years wasn’t a fan; ‘sport is about men, not machines,’ he used to say. And that leads us back to ‘how far is too far?’

GB’s Ed Clancy has been testing the new Lotus/Hope

The new British Cycling Lotus/Hope collaboration has huge ‘wow’ factor, taking the ‘let the air flow smoothly around the wheel’ rather than the ‘get the fork blades and seat stays as tight to the wheel as possible’ (and thereby creating turbulence) ideology to new extremes. It certainly looks like BC have stolen a march again – it’ll be hard for other federations to match it before Tokyo.

Not much to see from behind

But all over the world bike manufacturers will be rubbing their hands – every time tester from youth to World Tour, not to mention national federations will want, nae NEED, ‘a bike like that!’

Jacques Anquetil at full speed in a TT

If one studies images of racing bicycles from the immediate post-war era up until the 80’s, little changed. Sure, brakes got better and there were more sprockets but the basic shape stayed the same – whilst for track bikes the changes were even less radical. Six day bikes from 1985 looked very much like six day bikes from 1965.

The Russian team pursuit

An East German FES

Then come the mid/late 70’s the East Germans unleashed the first ‘funny bikes’ for track and TTT with ‘cow horn’ bars coming off the fork crown, aerofoil tubing, flat spokes and forks snugged in against the spokes – now we know they got that bit wrong. The pros, always looking for an ‘edge’ soon latched on and it wasn’t long before Cyrille Guimard had his boys on low pro Gitane ‘Profils’ complete with aerofoil bars and elliptical tubes.

Thierry Marie and his aero Gitane

Too far Francesco

But it was Francesco Moser who blew the doors off in 1984 when he obliterated Eddy Merckx’s ‘untouchable’ Hour record on his low pro with double disc wheels. The UCi let it ‘pass’ despite the ‘fairing’ aspect of the discs, leaving Merckx fans like me muttering.

Visentini and the Battaglin Piranha

But not all the innovators got away with it though; Roberto Visentini rolled up at the 1985 Giro prologue on his Battaglin ‘Piranha’ complete with bulbous front wheel – the principle being that the front wheel took the airflow away from the turbulence caused by the rotating pedals and cranks. It was allegedly three seconds per kilometre faster than the Italian’s normal time trial bike – but the UCi weren’t having it and the bike never turned a pedal in anger.

Boardman and his TT Lotus

Chris Boardman’s monocoque Lotus did though, taking him to Olympic gold in Barcelona 1992. Miguel Indurain also rode a monocoque to TT and Hour glory.

Indurain and his Pinarello going for the hour record in Colombia

Graham Obree too, got away with it, firstly with his ‘downhill tuck’ position – until it was banned – and then with his ‘Superman’ position – until they banned that too.

Obree – Banned x 2

In recent years perhaps the biggest innovators in terms of track machines at least have been the ‘Secret Squirrels’ at British Cycling. Looking at every component, refining it, re-shaping it, lightening it. The base platform for the UK Institute of Sport machines was the carbon monocoque designed by Greek former international sprinter and composites engineer Dimitris Katsanis.

The UK Institute of Sport carbon monocoque

This machine was the machine of choice for the GB team for a decade and more until the squad adopted Cervelos for the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, despite the huge R & D effort behind them both machines had what could be termed ‘a recognisably conventional design format.’ Front fork crowns may have expanded for London but that apart, to the casual observer they looked just like a track bike from perhaps 20 years ago.

The GB team Cervelos

The new Lotus/Hope changes everything though. The front forks balloon out widely from the handlebar extension, stiffened by a cross member from the lower headset race before curving back in to meet the front hub attachments.

Not too much, is it?

The rear end is even more ‘rad’ with the now ubiquitous ‘dropped’ seat stays which meet the seat tube at a level with the top of the rear wheel eschewed in favour of wide aerofoils – courtesy new UCI rules relaxing the frontal area to width rules – which swoop extravagantly out from what is the seat clamp position on a ‘normal’ bike to curve down and meet the chainstays.

Bike or piece of art?

The look is straight from one of those ‘concept’ bikes we’d see at shows in the 80’s. When I posted pictures of it on my FaceBook page, the immediate reaction was, “will you be able to buy one and how much will it cost?” “Mega amounts”, I responded but was reminded that it must comply with the UCI rules regarding ‘commercial availability’ and ‘pricing.’

Gitane TT concept bike of the 80s

I dug the rules out of the UCI website and they state:

    1. “Any equipment in development phase and not yet available for sale (prototype) must be subject of an authorisation request to the UCI Equipment Unit before its use. Authorisation will be granted only for equipment which is in the final stage of development and for which commercialisation will take place no later than 12 months after the first use in competition.”

Looks fast

The GB bikes fall into that category but if they do get full approval:

    1. “Upon expiry of the authorised period of use of a prototype (equipment not yet available for sale), any item of equipment must be commercially available in order to be used in cycling events. The requirement of commercial availability shall be understood as equipment having to be available through a publicly available order system (whether with manufacturer, distributor or retailer).Upon an order being placed, the order shall be confirmed within 30 days and the relevant equipment shall be made available for delivery within a further 90-day deadline. In addition, the retail price of the equipment shall be publicly advertised, shall not render the equipment de facto unavailable to the general public and shall not unreasonably exceed the market value for equipment of a similar standard.”

GB should bring home gold with the Lotus/Hope

So you’ll be able to buy one for the local Wednesday night time trial next year if it gets approved. Despite the UCI trying to ‘keep it real’ on the price, with some road bikes costing upwards of 12 grand, what’s ‘unreasonable?’

A state of the art TT Condor… Back in the day

Getting back to my point about, ‘how far is too far?’ I can’t help but remember those words of Avery Brundage about the man being more important than the machine. The Team Time Trial disappeared off the Worlds and Olympic programmes because it was dominated by a small number of nations – who were employing ever more sophisticated tech. The UCI and Olympic committees are currently looking at a revamp of the track programme, with a concentration on bunched rather than timed events because the latter are turning into a ‘tech arms race’. Short term it looks like GB are ahead in the ‘arms race’ but long term it may just be a ‘bike too far’.

Also a thing of beauty

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,800 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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