03 April 2014

Is The Old New? Or Is The New Old?

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us "there is nothing new under the sun".

That is no doubt true of the bicycle world, especially when it comes to "innovations".

I many not be very old. (At least, that's what I tell myself.) But when younger cyclists during the '80's treated newfangled aluminum frames with awe, as their counterparts would for titanium and carbon fiber frames a decade later, I could say "Been there, done that!"

When I was first becoming an active cyclist--and learning about different kinds of bikes--during the 1970's, frames were being made from all of those materials. Now, they weren't mass market:  In constant dollars, they were far more expensive, and even more exotic, than the ones made today.  !"

But aluminum frames were of the "screwed and glued" variety made by ALAN in Italy and, later, by Vitus in France.  Carbon fiber frames were similarly constructed:  the tubes were bolted and bonded into aluminum lugs.  And titanium frames, like those from Speedwell in England, were constructed in much the same manner as fillet-brazed steel frames.

Speedwell's construction, similar to those employed by rival titanium bike-maker Teledyne, were meticulous and sound.  However, the metal used was almost pure titanuium, which resulted in a bike that was neither stiff nor strudy.  No one realized that titanium had to be alloyed.

As for aluminum, everyone involved in building bikes knew enough not to use the metal in its pure form, mainly becuse aluminum alloy components had been in use for decades.  What they didn't realize, until the Klein bicycle was designed, was that they had to increase the diameter of the tubes to get anything like the stiffness of a good steel bike.

And there was even more to learn about using carbon fiber, and the molding technologies used now were two decades away.

Although I had witnessed earlier incarnations of those kinds of bikes during my youth, I didn't realize then that aluminum and titanium frames were built during the 1890's.  They weren't as widely-used as those of iron or steel--or even wood.  But it's still instructive to note that the technologies, in their rudimentary forms, existed then.

It was also interesting to find out--as I did, just recently--that two other "innovations" associated with the last quarter-century or so actually have as long a history as that of frames made from "exotic" materials.

Believe it or not, there were patents for suspension systems and aerodynamic bars in the 1880's and 1890's.  Any attempt to cushion the ride was bound to get a reception from somebody, as the high-wheelers and "boneshakers" of the time gave even harsher rides than modern time-trial bikes with the most extreme geometries.  Also, most roads of the time were unpaved.

But it seems that less effort was put into developing suspension systems once Dr. Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire.  It not only made bikes faster than they were before, it also gave a "floating on air" sensation, as at least one rider reported.  

As for aero bars:  Well, this pair was developed more for comfort:  It gave riders an extra hand position as well as a place to rest their arms.  A few riders have told me they rode aero bars for that reason alone, and it was one of the benefits of the "cowhorn" bars I rode on my old (Italian) Bianchi track bike.

There was another reason why aerodynamic bars were developed.  To be precise, there's a reason why two men in particular--brothers--came up with their version of them.

You might have guessed that the fraternal pair were Orville and Wilbur Wright.  Yes, they used their bars in attempts to measure air drag and wind resistance, two very important considerations in their development of their gossamer-winged wonder.

All of the above illustrations came from Roads Were Not Built for Cars.


  1. Thanks for the history lesson. Some of those early bikes were quite amazing. My sister in-law has one of the early glued carbon Treks from the early 90s. I've ridden it some, and it has a pretty comfortable ride, but I believe it's perhaps a little heavier than my newer Trek carbo-aluminum 2300.

  2. Pure titanium has identical stiffness to the various titanium alloys.

  3. MT--When I was volunteering at Recycle A Bicycle, I saw one of those early glued carbon Trek bikes. It didn't look like it had been ridden much, so it might have had some life left in it.

    Steve--Thanks for the clarificartion. So what do they mean when they say the metallurgy has improved on titanium frames?