Friday Group Ride #287

Friday Group Ride #287

Writers like H.G. Wells  and Jules Verne lived through the first blasts of the industrial revolution and imagined the future based on what they perceived as a quickening of technological progress. Wells and Verne communicated through the written word, pen on paper, just as I did when I was kid. The IBM Selectric is what passed for technology then. In the space of three decades, fax became e-mail, wires became WiFi. I can post the printed word to a world wide network that didn’t exist then, from a device I couldn’t have conceived of, typed on a bare piece of glass, with my thumbs.

Ray Kurzweil wrote “Over time, the “order” of the information embedded in the evolutionary process (i.e., the measure of how well the information fits a purpose, which in evolution is survival) increases.”

This is a melodramatic way of inching up to the issue of cycling technology. By comparison to computer science, there is almost no one working on the bicycle, and yet season-on-season we march forward. Cassettes widen. Gears shift more smoothly, more accurately. Brakes get more powerful and modulate better. Everything gets lighter.

On the face of it, progress is good. None of this means we enjoy riding our bikes any more than riders of the last century did. The root level joy of riding a bike doesn’t correlate to unsolved engineering problems. Independence, speed and escape never get more or less valuable.

It’s not the fact of progress that is good or bad, but rather the manner of it. Half-baked solutions get recalled. Proprietary systems, special brakes, new dropouts, hubs, bottom brackets, might all solve some basic challenge or attempt to improve on the current standard, but when they aren’t backwards compatible they make spare parts back-stocks obsolete or trap a rider in a proprietary system.

My sense is that too often companies want to release products before they’re ready. Lazy engineering closes off evolutionary branches with closed standards, owned by their originators. Is this what comes of too much market share consolidated in the hands of too few? My own ethos is one of collective progress. How do new solutions carry forward past achievements? If we took a little more time to market, could we render everything that’s old, new again? Probably not, but the current trend of instant obsolescence (e.g. chainstay Di2 batteries) doesn’t take the bike in any direction I like.

What do you think? This week’s Group Ride asks, is cycling technology headed in the right direction? How do you feel about proprietary standards? Are bikes legitimately getting better, or just getting different?

Image: 1866 Boneshaker

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7 comments

  1. Paul Tober

    Rarely a day passes when I don’t ride one of the two bikes I own, a 1989 Merckx Corsa and a 2014 S works Tarmac, both Campagnolo-equipped. The Tarmac is equal or better in almost every way save, perhaps, aesthetics. It is 3+ pounds lighter, much stiffer but no harsher riding, quicker handling, more stable, easier to work on, as durable and reliable, and to my utter amazement has markedly better descending performance. That answers technology direction and are bikes better questions.

    The proliferation of proprietary standards are a nuisance and there is really nothing to be done about it. To a somewhat lesser extent lack of standardization has always been a plague. I’ve been a professional bike mechanic for 35 years and I can attest to the fact that mechanics have been shaking their heads and complaining about the lack of standardization all those years.

  2. AG

    The question of whether technology is headed in the right direction is, I think a bit subjective, as it asks us to decide what “right” is. I think technology always moves forward and those that are creative enough to incorporate it into any kind of mechanism typically operate in a “trial by fire” mode. Some ideas work and stick and some fizzle out for whatever reason. Certainly bikes are better now, they are more comfortable, more reliable, lighter, fit better, than at any time in the past. There is some lack of standardization, especially when some new kind of technology comes around (SRAM eTap) but the bike business finds a way to come around to a new standard if it actually has legs (29 mtb wheels). Think of all the moving parts and assemblies in a bike and you have to marvel at how most of it is standardized and it all works so well across so many platforms. I think it is a great time for bikes and we should keep trying new stuff, while always respecting the past successes that brought us to this point in the first place.

  3. Rod

    Technology is a bit evolutionary – you are not sure (even after reasonable testing) if things are going to stick and if your incremental improvement is not going to get its lunch eaten by a revolutionary improvement. I’m sure the guys doing the best platform pedals and solid tires are still trying to improve them. Heck, tubeless might get there.

    But it’s hard to know a priori, and definitely some stuff is half baked. So now no one wonders whether SIS is preferable to downtube levers. I like that so many guys will try to push the envelope but I’m rarely the first-adopter (I do get excited and join the second wave, so I have a hydraulic/mechanic brake converter, for example). So if you want to see what sticks you might want to look at Eurobike-Interbike; but the 3 year ago edition.

  4. Quentin

    It is like evolution in that mutations appear regularly and over time survival of the fittest determines which ones were a good idea. Unfortunately sometimes that means buying into a bad one (like the Biopace cranks I had in the 1980s). The proliferation of standards can be annoying, but in the long run technology has got better.

  5. winky

    The odd mis-step nothwithsanding, bikes have always been improving, and are better than they have ever been in every way that matters. One can argue the aesthetics, I guess, but that is purely subjective.

  6. Tom in Albany

    I’m typically a late adopter. I typically let friends and acquaintances do my research for me. Also, when you’re a late adopter, you can save money on more reliable, de-bugged gear.

  7. Plain Jim

    It’s the evolution problem. Evolution works by mutation and natural selection. It;’s my hypothesis that bike technology changes the same way: manufacturers try a lot of different things, but riders ultimately determine what sticks (at least up to a point; I still wish I had bought 10 of the Specialized BG2 saddles when they were available; as it is I have the last two on two if my bikes). The late adopter is rewarded; those with lotsa $$$, and/or those who have to have the latest-and-greatest (and they are not the same set, although their Venn diagram shows intersection) provide a laboratory for the rest of us.

    The bike I built last spring has downtube shifters, and new-ish technology vee brakes, because they are technologies that work. I wouldn’t have known that if it were not for those who have tried out other, newer, more expensive (but probably less lasting) technologies.

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