WORDS GAVIN GREEN
Cycling has never been so popular, which has seen bike and kit companies upping their game in every way imaginable
Of the many transport innovations Britain has given the world – the locomotive, the double decker bus, the commercial jet airliner – the most commonly used, and certainly the one with the fewest downsides, is the ‘modern’ diamond-frame bicycle.
In the same year that Karl Benz ‘invented’ the car – 1885 – Rover (later a car maker itself) gave the world its most brilliant creation. The modern bicycle was stronger, lighter, faster and simpler than anything before. Although it has evolved mightily, it is still recognisably the same machine first designed by Rover founder John Kemp Starley and built in his workshops in Coventry.
No country has seen a greater boom in cycling than Britain in recent years. Overall, UK cycle use has increased about 12 per cent over the past decade. In London, however, it has more than doubled over the same period, and the goal is even more ambitious: a 400 per cent increase by 2026 compared with 2001.
Online retailers offer tempting kit and an array of cycles – hybrids, mountain bikes, single-speed urban bikes, tasty Tour de France style racers – some costing up to £10,000. Bike retail chains such as Evans and Action Bikes are growing, while upmarket bike shops such as Condor Cycles – whose handmade road bikes typically cost more than £2,000 – report booming business. Sales at Condor grew from 2,500 bikes in 2010 to 3,500 last year. This year, Condor expects to sell more than 4,000 bikes.
And Mayor Boris Johnson’s Barclays-sponsored bike hire scheme has been a huge success. So far London has seen more than 11 million cycle hires (the most popular docking site is Waterloo Station).
But it’s not just bikes. It’s bike apparel. Rapha, launched in 2004, makes premium cycling gear aimed at urban and road cyclists. Its kit includes merino base layers, jerseys and, new-for-2012, hand-cut Yak-leather cycling shoes.
British cycling booms because it is often the fastest, cheapest and most enjoyable – not to mention healthiest – way to commute. It also blossoms because, to a fitness-conscious middle class, cycling is a good way to keep fit as well as own a tasty piece of machinery. Plus, unlike running, it doesn’t pound ageing knees, ankles and hips.
Inspired by the likes of Mark Cavendish, Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton – and by the popularity of events such as the Tour de France – men and women are donning their Lycra and pedalling skinny-framed racing bicycles with newfound zeal.
I admit to being an addict. Two Étape du Tour races – in which amateurs compete on one (always mountainous) stage of the Tour de France – one Raid Pyrénéen (a 720km challenge across the Pyrenees), numerous UK cyclosportives in the UK, and three racing bicycles in the garage, are testament to my obsession. There is, quite simply, no form of transport so sublimely simple or beautiful as a racing bicycle. The technology is part of its multifarious appeal.
The modern racing bicycle has come a long way since beefy swains first undertook the Tour de France on heavy steel-framed single-speed bikes (with different-sized sprockets on either side of the rear wheel, so a rider could stop and turn the wheel, depending on whether he was climbing a hill or descending). These days most bikes have light aluminium frames, 10-speed rear cassettes and usually two (sometimes three) different-sized front chainrings. Gear-shifting is effected in an instant thanks to the modern dérailleur, previewed in the late Twenties, widespread from the Sixties.
Now electronic gears – in which electronic shifters are used, rather than conventional control levers attached to cables – are winning favour. The Japanese manufacturer Shimano was first to hit the market. Italian rival Campagnolo recently launched its pricier but classier rival.
Advantages include faster shifting and less maintenance. The key disadvantage is cost – a Shimano Di2 groupset costs from £1,500 while Campagnolo’s new Super Record EPS costs around £4,000. That’s before you fit it to a bicycle. You also wouldn’t want to run out of battery power half way through a ride.
Nonetheless, this is a technology that’s catching on fast, and will no doubt soon filter down to top-end commuting bikes and simultaneously come down in price. Next on the market will be a totally wireless system – Shimano and Campagnolo boffins are working on it as you read this.
The other great revolution has been frame and wheel construction, thanks mostly to the lightweight high-strength wonders of modern carbon fibre. Nowadays, carbon fibre front forks are common – even in inexpensive commuting bicycles – and most racing bicycles costing more than £1,500 will have full carbon frames. Carbon is also increasingly used to make bars, stems, seat posts and even wheels.
Cannondale’s new Evo racing bike supposedly has the lightest mass-made frame ever built, just 695g for a 56cm size. Fit a decent set of wheels, gears, handlebars and tyres, and you’re looking at a total bike weight of just 6.5kg. (That compares with an early Tour de France racer weighing in at about 16kg.) As a complete bike it costs from under £4,000 – astonishing value.
For around six times the price – £23,400 – you can buy what is probably the most hi-tech bike ever made. The Factor 001 is the brainchild of Formula One supplier bf1systems, and showcases its electronic and materials technology in particular. The frame is a twin-vane design, made from carbon, which offers unusual strength and stiffness. The wheels are full carbon, too. Hydraulic disc brakes are also unusual for a road bike.
But it is the electronics that most distinguish the Factor 001 from conventional cycles. This bike measures things that no ordinary cycle can measure, such as useful pedal force versus wasted effort (where there is tension but no torque). It can measure cornering force, lean angles, gradients, cadence, and many other things, all of which can be easily downloaded to your laptop.
The Factor 001 is not meant to be a Tour de France winner. Rather, it’s meant to be the ultimate training tool, to help Messrs Wiggins, Hoy and Cavendish win the big races. A new version of it, marketed as the Aston Martin One-77 Cycle, is aimed at those who may fancy the ultimate road bike as a partner to their high-speed sports car. It costs £25,000.
The bf1systems techies looked at every single component of the typical road bicycle and redesigned the front forks, the frame, the brakes – most bits. One component they didn’t touch was the chain, which is still not so very different from John Kemp Starley’s day. It remains the best way to transmit power from leg to rear wheel. Sometimes, the old-fashioned way is still best.