How the racing bike has evolved

With the rise in road cycle racing and the establishing of the Tour de France in 1903, the unforgiving terrain that bicycles encountered led to a century of constant modification and refinement of the racing cycle. The early twentieth century bicycles were made of lightweight metal tubing with wooden frames for wheel rims. Although these were durable they were replaced with aluminium rims by 1937. The common chain and sprocket mechanism known as the derailleur was created in France in the early years of the 1900s, although these bikes were only allowed in the Tour de France from 1937.

Instead, up to 3-gear cogs could be allowed on the rear wheel. However, a gear could only be changed by the rider dismounting, unbolting the wheel, changing it around to release tension, reattaching the chain onto a new cog, repositioning the wheel and tightening the bolts. With the introduction of derailleurs, the time taken to complete races dropped significantly.

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In the late 1930s Tullio Campagnolo patented the quick release lever and later changes to the rear derailleur called the Cambio Corsa, which changed the future of cycle racing. Developed around the same time was Lucien Juy's Simplex derailleur, which used pulleys, cables, springs and chains to change gear. The main problem with the Simplex was that its mechanisms could be jammed with mud and debris. Rivalry between the two manufacturers continued throughout the 1940s with one of the major Italian cyclists of the time, Fausto Coppi, being paid to support the Simplex, with which he won the 1947 Tour de France, although he later went back to the Campagnolo.

Throughout the 1950s, the lever-operated derailleurs were considered clumsy and too slow to acclimatise to race conditions. Italian manufacturer Campagnolo next secured the rights for a parallelogram derailleur, which he developed as the Gran Sport rear derailleur a major breakthrough, using shifting mechanisms. By 1958, Campagnolo cycles were equipped with a crank-set and one-piece alloy hubs. During the 1960s most professional cyclists participating in Grand Tours were riding a Campagnolo.

However, by the mid-1970s French manufacturers Peugeot became the key competitors in manufacturing racing cycles, with Bernard Thevenet securing victory in both the 1975 and 1977 Tours de France on the Peugeot PX-10. These bikes were affordable and hugely popular amongst young professionals.

From the 1980s on, racing cycle manufacturers began to experiment with more lightweight materials. These experimentations were taking place across the globe with titanium frames being used by the American company Litespeed, and carbon-fibre forks introduced by the French manufacturers Look. These carbon-fibre frames have proved so successful that they are now the norm in current cycle racing.

The production of racing cycles also changed with fewer being manufactured in Europe and America, and more produced in eastern countries with mouldable frames made from synthetic materials. Throughout the latter end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, racing cycles have been the subject of constant refinement, becoming ever more lightweight and aerodynamic, though their durability remains intact.

Copyright 2009