When is a bicycle not a bicycle? How rules can stifle technological progress

03 Dec 2018 5min read

There’s a lot to be said for the humble bicycle frame design. The diamond frame made up of two triangles has remained the same since its inception around the end of the 19th century. Steel tubes were welded together in an efficient structure that has only been iterated over the last century or so, with improved materials and processes.

The design is a good one, so should we stop trying to improve it? Or perhaps asked another way: why haven’t we improved it?

Until relatively recently, the pinnacle of bicycle design was driven by what professional racers used. In road racing, there were a few attempts to make radical changes to the design, predominantly driven by improved aero performance. – But some of these were rather misguided by a lack of understanding of aerodynamics. The elegance of the original diamond shaped design certainly flattered some of the poor engineering in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The Humber safety bicycle, c. 1890 is very similar to today’s bike

The use of carbon fibre was a pivotal moment in bike design; new shapes were now possible without conventional tubing. This was epitomised by the Lotus bike designed by Mike Burrows and ridden to gold by Chris Boardman at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

But the governing body of the sport, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), didn’t like it – they were concerned that technology would dominate the sport over physical performance. In 1996 following the Atlanta Olympics (and some even more radical bike designs), they put together the Lugano Charter to control the design of bicycles in racing.

The Lugano Charter rules have remained largely unchanged to this day; as has the design of the racing bike. Despite the attempts of manufacturers to differentiate their frames, fundamentally they all had to follow the more recent rules imposed by the UCI. Two of these rules dictate a frame of two triangles made from tubular elements and a total bike weight of no less than 6.8kg.

Coupled with a better understanding of the physics of riding and improved engineering tools, bicycle frame design has been converging; there’s simply no room for improvements within the current rules.

Fortunately for most of us who don’t race, the bike industry realised people just wanted great bikes and are producing bikes that wouldn’t be allowed at races like the Tour de France. It’s ironic that the UCI’s original ban was imposed in part because it didn’t want its prestigious races won on bikes that the public wouldn’t want to ride, and now we can buy bikes that are forbidden in UCI races.

The Lotus 108 frame and the Cervelo P5X

So, are we all going to be riding Lotus super bikes?

As much as I’d like to, the industry is still driven by economics and there probably aren’t that many people like me. But it’s interesting to see what can be done when you’re not tied to a set of arbitrary rules. We’ve seen disc brakes applied to road bikes before professional bikes. Ravel bikes that run wider tyres than permitted in cyclocross races, and crazy time-trial bikes used in triathlons (where they’re allowed) that make those bikes of the 90s look relatively ‘normal’.

Many futuristic bikes challenge the status quo of conventional design. If the industry is looking to develop bikes for people, rather than a group constrained by the UCI rules, exciting times lie ahead.

Rules and regulations certainly have their place, but it’s worth remembering that they can obstruct technology development and innovation, and sometimes they need to be challenged.

Matt has over 11 years’ experience in technical consultancy, developing products and technologies for a diverse range of applications and industries. He is particularly experienced at the early stages of concept development, generating novel ideas across a broad range of products and systems.

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