Pedal Power

Environmentally-friendly transportation is all the rage these days – industry is making huge advantaged in lithium-ion and fuel-cell technology to power electric vehicles, and the technology of hybrid vehicles is advancing by leaps and bounds. Carpooling is becoming more common than it used to be, and public-transit ridership is at historic levels. And, of course, you can’t overlook telework and telecommuting, which aren’t really eco-friendly except by accidental afterthought.

But everywhere I go, I see and hear and read about people turning to bicycles and promoting bicycles as the perfect form of transportation. I’ve got a bicycle, in fact, which a friendly bike-mechanic friend of mine overhauled this summer. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against bicycles as a form of transportation – but there’s something that bugs the hell out of me about them…

Bicycle technology has not really improved in the last forty years.

Oh, sure, there’s aluminum and carbon fibre and kevlar tires and new developments in this that and the other thing… but basic bicycle design and technology has not really advanced in any meaningful way since the 1960s.

Your car needs gas on a regular basis, and a fluid change once or twice a year (oil every, what, 3-5000 miles?); beyond that, a smoothly-running newer car doesn’t need a lot of maintenance.

A bicycle, on the other hand, needs a complete overhaul and rebuild about once a year or every 1000 miles, if you use it as your primary form of transportation. And to make it that far it needs a fair amount of care, preventative maintenance, and TLC.

Why? Because the basic design of the bicycle is over a hundred years old, and really hasn’t been improved on much since then. The chain-and-cog system is positively antique, but nobody has bothered to design a better one. Oh, there are newer chain designs that may be better than the old ones, but your chain and sprockets are still going to wear out alarmingly fast, by any reasonable standard, as are your tires, even if they do have a layer of kevlar in them for puncture-resistance.

I’m not really surprised that bicycle technology is a niche thing that isn’t advancing at much more than a snail’s pace. What surprises me is that none of the bicycle-activist groups who are so busy touting bicycling as the perfect environmentally-responsible form of transportation seem at all interested in lobbying for technological improvement.

I mean, it’s apples and oranges, but look at all the money the federal government is spending on wind energy – something the energy industry is fairly solidly opposed to. (Or at least considers wildly overrated.) You can’t tell me a couple million dollars – peanuts, in the grand scheme of things – couldn’t help develop a modern bicycle system that needs less care and attention than a horse: one where the tires don’t always leak, one where the entire drivetrain doesn’t need to be replaced every year, and one that doesn’t need a weekly application of lubricants to keep running smoothly.

I love old technology, don’t get me wrong – I have a rotary phone and a vacuum-tube radio, and shave with a 75 year-old razor, and take photographs with film. I write with a fountain pen. I carry a pocket watch.

But if somebody could drag bicycle technology kicking and screaming into the 21st century, I think that would be well and truly awesome. Bikes are, basically, steampunk technology. And, cool as that is, it’s the freaking space age, baby. We can do better…

Published in: Geekiness, General | on November 20th, 2009| 4 Comments »

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  1. On 11/20/2009 at 5:29 pm cbp Said:

    I think you’re off base on this one.

    For a start, a complete overhaul of a bicycle every year seems to be a big exaggeration. I overhaul my bike every 4 or 5 years, which is about the same as a car will require serious maintenance. I run an old car and I could buy a new bike every year for the same cost as the maintenance on the car.

    Secondly, given the simplicity of the bicycle when compared to a car, of course there has been massive amounts of innovation since the 60s.

    Look no further than the mountain bike, which only really came along as we know it in the 70s and 80s.

    Suspension, braking and tire technology has improved dramatically and the materials used to make the frame have evolved such that modern bikes are a completely different to those 40 years ago.

    Also bear in mind that there is very little room for improvement in a bicycle’s efficiency (in some case we are talking 99% efficiency). In many ways the bicycle is already close to a perfect machine. The same cannot be said for cars.

  2. On 11/20/2009 at 6:19 pm Nemo Said:

    Oh, there’s been innovation, undoubtedly – I won’t argue that point at all. I think you missed my point, though – the fundamental technology, when all is said and done, really hasn’t changed. Cars have gotten fuel injection, stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, power steering… I could go on… – to say nothing of electric, hybrid electric, and flex-fuel vehicles, all of which would seem pretty far-fetched and gee-whiz science fiction to somebody of forty years ago.

    Consumer bicycles have gotten what new technology since then? Suspensions, disc brakes… mildly puncture-resistant tires and tubes. Ergonomically-questionable handlebar designs and even more dubious plastic saddles. Everything else has been refined a bit in the last couple decades, but it’s still technology that’s come before. We can put people on the moon, we can orbit spaceships around Mars, we can create minute quantities of freaking antimatter, but nobody seems to have tried to throw technology at the bicycle saddle, or significantly improve the fundamental design of the chain-and-sprocket drive system. It’s not a matter of efficiency – it’s a matter of progress.

    I mean, to put this in perspective, I think the only forms of human transportation that has seen less technological development than the bicycle in the last forty or fifty years are the skateboard and surfboard, and possibly ice skates… and two of those don’t have any moving parts.

  3. On 11/21/2009 at 8:51 am Viktor Said:

    I want to point out that recumbent bikes are a significant improvement over regular bikes. Sure, they are more expensive, but their performance is pretty outstanding.

  4. On 11/24/2009 at 4:58 am Simon Choppin Said:

    Hi There,
    The bicycle as a concept is a couple of hundred years older than the car, major significant improvements happened prior to the 20th century. In terms of driving methods, treadle designs have been attempted, direct fixed drive, toothed belt, axle drive…
    While I don’t agree that the bicycle hasn’t seen significant development, surely such a thing would be a sign that the design is near optimal?
    In fact, look at the history of the UCI rules, they effectively put a stop to bicycle design development (in a specific event) because it was clouding the achievements of the rider! We’ve come an incredible way in the understanding of the materials, mechanics and aerodynamics of the simple bicycle. I would argue that all of our progress has been utilised in the design of the bicycle. As a previous poster rightly points out, a recumbent design has been over 80 mph! This is from designers which don’t have large amounts of financial backing or academic research to help develop their designs.

    Vive le velo!