Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Bicycle Evolution Seen From the Tour

Maurice Garin, first winner of the Tour de France, in 1903, standing on the right
(From Wikipedia:

In my quest to understand the little bit of bicycle history that impacted me, from what bikes I was riding and dreaming about in High School in the 1960's to the bikes I am looking at today, one of the things I researched was the bicycles ridden by the winner of each year's the Tour de France. As Grant Pederson would tell us with great passion (1), this does not necessarily tell us what bikes we should be riding, but that aside, it is one perspective on bicycle evolution, and like all perspectives from an extreme angle, one that is revealing.

Note: I refer to a lot of bicycle technology in this post. If this is unfamiliar to you, I promise to provide an introduction to bicycle anatomy in a future post. For the purposes of this post, I am hoping you can not worry about the details of what each of these technologies are, but just see them as names and concentrate on when they gained acceptance.


Besides Wikipedia, this article is derived from four sources I found on the web:

Winning Bikes Of The Tour De France by "CyclingFitness" (Liam Hallam) on
Tour de France Bicycles & Historical Bike Weights by Felix Wong on
Bicycles that have won the Tour de France by Stephan Andranian on
Tour de France winning bikes by James Huang on

Poor Man's Timeline

I am interested in the 50 years between 1960 and 2010. However, I thought it would be interesting to go back 50 years to 1910 for comparison. This is especially attractive because it takes us almost to the start of the Tour de France (TdF) in 1903. At the end of this post, I have a "poor man's timeline" of the bicycle technology used in the TdF from 1910 through 2010 created by incorporating the information from the four sources above into a table with one row per year, and will be referring to that table for the rest of this post.

Commentary on the Timeline

By the time the Tour de France started in 1903, many of the main features of the modern bicycle had been invented; the "safety bike" features of two reasonably sized wheels (compared to a Penny Farthing) with the front wheel used for steering and the back wheel driven by gears and a chain to provide the higher effective gear ratio without a huge wheel along with pneumatic tires resulted in a bicycle most of us could ride comfortably. From 1903 through 1936, I have not been able to find much change in the bicycle technology used in the TdF. I considered deleting the years before World War II (WWII) from my timeline for that reason, but decided to leave them in to illustrate this point. Interestingly, part of the reason that technology did not change is that the organizers of the Tour resisted such change. Both metal rims and derailleurs were banned from the Tour until 1937 despite the fact that both derailleurs and internal hub gears (e.g. "three speed hubs") had been invented by early in the 20th century. In fact, in this case, the of variable gears from bicycle racing slowed their adoption in the consumer market. A similar negative effect of bicycle racing policy on bicycle technology advancement is seen in "Recumbent's Darkest Day", April 1 1934, when recumbent bikes were banned from bicycle racing. This effectively ended recumbent technology until the 1980s when it was rediscovered. The most recent regulation impacting bicycle technology is the rule instituted in 2005 TdF that bicycles cannot weigh less than 15 pounds. Before that, bicycle weight was on a rapid downward trend. Who knows how light TdF bicycles would be today if it were not for this rule?

When I started compiling this timeline, I expected that the fact that "cost was no object" for bicycles in the Tour would make TdF bicycles a leading indicator of new bicycle technology. Although that occurs to some extent, conservative forces in the bicycle racing world are so great as to make TdF bikes more of a trailing indicator. The two main conservative forces are the regulations limiting bicycle innovation, discussed above, and the conservative, almost superstitious behavior of the racing teams. As an example of that, I note the almost universal use of Campagnolo components from 1976 through 1998, even though most experts believed that the Japanese components (e.g. Shimano) were technologically their equal if not superior. It was not until Lance Armstrong "won" using Shimano components in 1999 that this changed. ("Won" is in quotes because Lance Armstrong was retroactively stripped of his victories in 2012 for drug use.)


What inspired me to study bicycle history, this timeline of the Tour being a part, was my shock at the change in bicycle technology between 1973, when I bought a "road bike" for my future wife, and 2008, when I again began shopping for new "road bikes". The changes I noted were:

  1. Frames, which had all been made of steel and mostly constructed using lugs to join the steel tubes, were now available in aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, with steel being only one choice road bikes, and a relatively uncommon one at that. Lugs had almost vanished from the marketplace, being replaced by "TIG welding", a process that did not even exist in 1973.
  2. The standard wheel size had gone from 27 inch to 700C, and was available with a wide variety of unusual spoke patterns, rim profiles, and rim materials (e.g. carbon fiber), and widths. Also, sew-up tires had vanished from retail outlets.
  3. Freewheels had been replaced by free hubs, and the 5 gears on the back wheel which had been universal in 1962 (when I purchased my first road bike) and 1973 (when I purchased my last road bike for 37 years) had been replaced with 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 gears.
  4. The number of different kinds of bikes (e.g. mountain, hybrid, cyclocross, touring, racing, club). I had trouble figuring out which of these corresponded to the road bike I was looking for.
  5. The brands of bikes and bicycle components (e.g. derailleurs) available had changed. French derailleurs, the economy choice of my youth, had vanished. Campagnolo, the quality choice of my youth, still existed but was hard to find in a local bike shop. A new vendor, Shimano, seemed to have taken over.
  6. Frame geometry had almost universally changed. In my youth, the top tube of the frame was always parallel to the ground. Now, on most bikes, it sloped down from the handlebars to the seat.
  7. The way the handlebars were attached to the fork had changed. In my youth, we did not even know the term "quill stem", as that was the only way to attach handlebars to the fork. This had now been replaced by the threadless headset and associated stem.
  8. In my youth, racers used toe clips to hold their feet tightly to the pedals. These still exist, but "clipless pedals" are now de rigor on better road bikes.
  9. Alloy cotterless cranks, the mark of a quality bike of my youth, had become universal. Also, something called a "compact crank set" had been introduced.
Looking at my timeline of Bikes of the Tour could not explain when all of these changes happened, but it could speak to some of them.
  1. Lugged steel frames were apparently used in the TdF through 1992. By 1999, carbon fiber had replaced steel in the Tour.
  2. Interestingly, sew-up tires have been universal in the tour from 1903 to the present. What has changed is their availability to the consumer. In the 1960's, when you purchased a top of the line racing bike, you got the same sew-up tires that were used in the Tour. Today, even at the very top end, these have most likely been replaced with clincher tires. (In retrospect, I think this is a good thing.) Since this switch did not take place in the Tour, this post can shed no light on when it occurred.
  3. None of my sources provided much information on the number of rear gears used in the Tour. Based on the component groups, I can infer that 5 gears in the rear was probably used through about 1985 and that the number of gears increased to 6 then 9 and then 11. I do not know if the increase from 6 to 9 was direct, or if 7 and 8 gears were ever used.
  4. Since this is a post about the Tour de France, only racing bicycles are discussed. It was the case in the 1960s and is still the case that the same bike ridden in the Tour might be ridden on club rides or charity rides or even on brevets, and to some extent this remains true today, but today there are more choices and so many riders will choose a different bike than what racers in the TdF use.
  5. As noted above, when it comes to the rise of, e.g. Shimano, as a supplier of bicycle components, TdF riders have trailed behind the market. What does show up in the timeline is the disappearance of the French bicycle component manufacturers starting in about 1980.
  6. Sloping top tube frame geometry appears to be more common in the consumer market than in the Tour, but starting in about 1994 Tour riders experimented with sloping top tubes. The main reason sloping tubes are used in the commercial market is to simplify fitting frame sizes so the manufacturer can save money by producing fewer sizes. Sloping top tubes are used in bicycle racing to increase stiffness.
  7. Threadless headsets and their associated stems are an innovation which developed in the mountain bike community and spread to road bikes. Although some (2) decry this change, others (3) see threadless headsets as a technical improvement. Tour riders switched from quill stems to threadless headsets in 2000.
  8. Although I am certain that Tour riders switched from toe clips to clipless pedals some time between the 1960's and the present, my research was unable to uncover when this switch occurred.
  9. I have not been able to determine what kind of cranks the first Tour riders used. I believe that cottered steel cranks were used in the Tour immediately after WWII, but I am not certain of that. Alloy cotterless cranks had become standard by the 1960s and continue relatively unchanged through today. Compact crank sets are a feature of consumer bikes and, as best I can tell, not common in the Tour. Similarly the replacement of steel cottered cranks at the low end of of the market by alloy cotterless cranks is a marketing move pushed by Japanese component vendors that has little to do with the Tour.
In summary, the bicycles used in the Tour changed very little between the 1960's when I started bicycle racing until the 1980's, and that change in technology I found so unfamiliar had essentially finished by 2000. Although there has been evolution since then, e.g. the increase in the number of gears on the back wheel from 9 to 10 to 11, these changes are neither revolutionary nor shocking. However, in the last couple of years (past the end of my timeline), Tour riders have been switching to the new electronic derailleurs, a change I find both revolutionary and unwelcome. I am sad to say that we retrogrouches (4) should continue to expect an increasingly hostile future.

In a future post, I am going to trace the history of the technology used on some more mid-range commercial bicycles, such as the Bianchi Volpe and the Trek 520. Hopefully, this will fill in some of the gaps left by this post.

Bradley Wiggins, winner of the 2012 Tour de France
(From Wikipedia,

Timeline of Bicycle Technology Used in the Tour de France, 1910 - 2010

Year Bicycle Component Group Set Weight Notable
1910 Alcyon One speed, wooden rims.
1911 Alcyon
1912 Alcyon
1913 Peugeot
1914 Peugeot
1915 No TdF: WWI
1916 No TdF: WWI
1917 No TdF: WWI
1918 No TdF: WWI
1919 Consortium (1)
1920 Consortium (1)
1921 Consortium (1)
1922 Peugeot
1923 Automoto
1924 Automoto
1925 Automoto
1926 Automoto
1927 Alcyon
1928 Alcyon
1929 Alcyon
1930 Generic (2)
1931 Generic (2)
1932 Generic (2)
1933 Generic (2)
1934 Generic (2)
1935 Generic (2)
1936 Generic (2)
1937 Generic (2) Metal rims, multiple gears
1938 Generic (2)
1939 Generic (2)
1940 No TdF: WWII
1941 No TdF: WWII
1942 No TdF: WWII
1943 No TdF: WWII
1944 No TdF: WWII
1945 No TdF: WWII
1946 No TdF: WWII
1947 Genial-Lucifer Simplex Tour de France
1948 Legnano Campagnolo Cambio Corsa
1949 Bianchi Simplex Tour de France
1950 Frejus Simplex Tour de France
1951 La Perle Campagnolo Gran Sport
1952 Bianchi Campagnolo Gran Sport
1953 Stella Huret Competition
1954 Stella Huret Competition
1955 Mercier Huret Competition
1956 Mercier Campagnolo Gran Sport
1957 Helyett Simplex L. Juy 543
1958 Learco Guerra Campagnolo Gran Sport
1959 Coppi Campagnolo Gran Sport
1960 Colagno
-Midpoint of the Timeline-
1961 Helyett Simplex Juy Export 61
1962 Helyett Simplex 22.4 lbs
1963 Gitane Campagnolo Record
1964 Gitane Campagnolo Record
1965 Bianchi Campagnolo Record 24.2 lbs
1966 Geminiani Campagnolo Record
1967 Peugeot Simplex Prestige 22.9 lbs
1968 Lejeune Campagnolo Nuovo Record 19.1 lbs
1969 Masi Campagnolo Nuovo Record
1970 Masi Campagnolo Nuovo Record
1971 Kessels Campagnolo Nuovo Record
1972 Kessels Campagnolo Nuovo Record 21.1 lbs
1973 Motobecane Campagnolo Nuovo Record 18.7 lbs
1974 Kessles Campagnolo Nuovo Record
1975 Peugeot Simplex SLJ 5000
1976 Gitane Campagnolo Super Record 18.3 lbs
1977 Peugeot Simplex 22.0 lbs
1978 Gitane Campagnolo Super Record
1979 Gitane Campagnolo Super Record
1980 Raleigh Campagnolo Super Record 22.4 lbs
1980 Gitane Campagnolo Super Record
1982 Gitane Campagnolo Super Record
1983 Gitane Simplex
1984 Gitane Campagnolo Super Record
1985 Look Campagnolo C-Record 21.1 lbs
1986 Look Campagnolo C-Record
1987 Battaglin Campagnolo C-Record 21.1 lbs
1988 Pinarello Campagnolo C-Record 21.6 lbs
1989 Bottecchia Mavic
1990 TVT Campagnolo C-Record 20.0 lbs
1991 TVT Campagnolo C-Record
1992 Pinarello Campagnolo C-Record Last year lugged frame
1993 Pinarello Campagnolo C-Record 22.7 lbs
1994 Pinarello Campagnolo C-Record 19.8 lbs Last year steel frame
1995 Pinarello Campagnolo C-Record 17.9 lbs
1996 Pinarello Campagnolo Record 19.8 lbs
1997 Pinarello Campagnolo Record 19.8 lbs
1998 Bianchi Campagnolo Record 17.8 lbs Last year non-carbon frame
1999 Trek Shimano Dura Ace Still Quill Stem
2000 Trek Shimano Dura Ace Now Threadless Stem
2001 Trek Shimano Dura Ace
2002 Trek Shimano Dura Ace 18.0 lbs
2003 Trek Shimano Dura Ace 15.8 lbs
2004 Trek Shimano Dura Ace 14.5 lbs
2005 Trek Shimano Dura Ace 15.0 lbs Minimum bike weight 15 lbs
2006 Pinarello Campagnolo Record 15.0 lbs
2007 Trek Shimano Dura Ace 15.0 lbs
2008 Specialized Shimano Dura Ace 15.0 lbs
2009 BMC Sram Red 15.0 lbs
2010 Pinarello Sram Red 15.0 lbs

(1) After World War I (WWI), bicycle manufacturers were struggling to recover from the damage of the war so banded together into a consortium to provide bikes for the Tour.
(2) From 1930 through 1939, in an effort to eliminate commercialism from the Tour, riders were issued generic, unbranded yellow bicycles. The effort to eliminate commercialism has obviously been abandoned.


1) "Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike" by Grant Petersen (ISBN 978-0761155584)
2) "Fit, Sizing, Position (our thoughts)" by Grant Petersen
3) "Threadless Headsets" by Jobst Brandt
4) "Bike Snob Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling" by Bike Snob NYC, ISBN 978-0-8118-6998-0, page 76

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