Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Trek Evolution

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.
The title of this painting by Paul Gaugin is "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"

Guide to the Impatient

Any of you who have read my earlier posts, are tired to death of my "bike-shock" obsession, and just want to know what features were introduced when, can read only the section: History of Trek (and other) Bicycles.

Introduction and Resources

This is my third and final installment on the history of the road bicycle. I plan to integrate these three posts along with some additional information and make a permanent Bicycle History page on this site; I will make an announcement in a future post when that page has been completed. This third post is built around a treasure trove I recently discovered; a continuous series of catalogues of Trek bicycles for the years 1977 through 1995, and one more from 1999. To fill in the gap between 1999 and 2013, I used an online database of bicycle specifications for the years 1993 through 2013 and Bianchi's online catalogue containing archives of old catalogues back to 2006. I have gone through these resources to extract information from that source about the evolution of road bike technology.

What Is a Road Bike?

This post is about the evolution of the "Road Bike". For the purposes of this post, a road bike is derailleur-equipped bicycle with relatively skinny tires and usually with dropped handlebars designed for riding relatively quickly and/or for relatively long distances on paved roads. Some road bikes are general purpose: useful for amateur racing, for club riding, and for some level of touring. The bicycles used by the Modesto Roadmen in the 1960s were in this category. As time has gone by, road bikes available in the United States have specialized into categories such as racing bikes, sports bikes, and touring bikes. Racing bikes are bicycles used by relatively serious bicycle racers. Sports bikes are somewhat less expensive, somewhat more durable, somewhat more comfortable versions of racing bikes used on day rides, e.g. with a local bicycle club. The touring bike is significantly heavier and more rugged than any other road bike, has much lower gears and wider tires, and is designed to carry up to 100 pounds of luggage on trips lasting from weeks to years. In Europe, different kinds of road bikes specialized for these (and other) purposes have always been available. In the United States, however, there has been an evolution from the one general purpose road bike to different bikes for different purposes.

What Hath Time Wrought?

In my previous post on the history of Schwinn road bikes, I described how a temporary pause in road bike evolution from about 1963, when I first entered the road bike market through 1977, well after I had left that market, gave me an illusion of road bikes with relatively fixed properties. Although we did not have separate racing, sport, and road bikes back then, there was the "cheap 10 speed" and the "expensive 10 speed". In retrospect, the "cheap 10 speed" was not only less expensive but was also a more of an all-around bicycle than the "expensive 10 speed", being more suitable for touring, for example. Expensive 10 speeds were specialized for racing and in fact were very similar to what the professional racers of the Tour de France were riding at the time. The properties of these bikes were as follows:
  • Both cheap and expensive 10 speeds had frames made from steel tubing joined by lugs. On cheap 10 speeds, the tubing was unbranded, high tensile steel. On expensive 10 speeds, the tubing was chrome-molybdenum steel alloy, had a brand name, and was not uniform in thickness like the tubes used on cheap 10 speeds but thicker on the ends and thinner in the middle, a characteristic termed "double butted." The most common brands were Reynolds 531 and Columbus. Expensive frames usually had a decal documenting that all parts of the frame were made from this high quality tubing, e.g. "Made from Reynolds 531 double butted tubes, forks, and stays."
  • Both cheap and expensive 10 speeds had two or three sprockets in front and five in the rear.
  • On both cheap and expensive 10 speeds, the shifting mechanism was "friction". The front and rear derailleur could be set to any position within its range. Some intermediate positions were non-functional, the gears would make a rattling sound and skip. It was the responsibility of the rider to adjust the derailleur until the gears worked properly.
  • Both cheap and expensive 10 speeds had threaded forks. A bearing cup screwed onto these threads, providing an adjustment for the bearings used for steering the bike. This is known as a threaded headset.
  • The stem, the part of the bicycle that connects the handlebars to the fork, used a so-called "quill", a compression fitting that allowed one to raise and lower the handlebars to any height over a fairly broad range.
  • Most of the components that were attached to the frame were manufactured in Europe. The manufacturers of components could be divided into "Campagnolo" and "Everyone else". Although some non-Campagnolo components were accepted as high quality, in general, "All Campy" was considered the best. Expensive 10 speeds were often "All Campy" and definitely used parts manufactured from aluminum alloy rather than steel. Examples of such components that were steel on "cheap 10 speeds" and aluminum on "expensive 10 speeds" include the handlebars, the stem that attached the handlebar to the fork, the rims, and as is discussed below, the cranks that connected the pedals to the front sprocket, a.k.a. chain rings.
  • One of the most important places where aluminum replaced steel on expensive 10 speeds was the cranks, the part that connects to the pedals to the front sprockets (chainrings) and most characteristic, the front cranks and chainrings (a.k.a. sprockets or gears.) Besides the difference between aluminum and steel, the two kinds of cranks used different mechanisms to connect to the bearings in the bottom bracket of the frame. The cheap, steel cranks used a cotter pin to secure the crank to the bottom bracket. The expensive, aluminum cranks had a square hole that fit over a square axle in the bottom bracket. These two kinds of cranks were thus named "cottered cranks" and "cotterless cranks", respectively.
  • Cheap 10 speeds lacked toe clips to strap one's feet to the pedals. The pedals were designed with toe clips in mind, but it was not assumed that riders of these bikes wanted toe clips. If one did, one had to purchase them separately. Expensive 10 speeds had higher quality pedals and the toe clips came with the bike and were pre-installed because it was assumed that riders of such an expensive bike would want toe clips.
  • Cheap 10 speeds had 27 x 1¼ inch tires that had wire beads that held them onto the rims (known as "clinchers") and the rims were typically steel. Expensive 10 speeds had tires that had no bead, were sewn together at the bottom (known as "sew-ups"), and which were glued to aluminum rims. The 27 inch wheels were slightly larger than the sew-up wheels so that one could not put clincher wheels onto your expensive 10 speed to get more repairable, more rugged tires.
In this post, I will be tracking how bicycles changed between 1977 and 2013 with emphasis on how the above characteristics changed. Such changes tend not to be introduced all at once across a product line, but first on one or a few models. Sometimes that situation persists, with the new feature becoming an option available on select models. The case in which I am more interested, however, is where a new feature becomes dominant. When I walked into my Local Bike Shop in 2008, I saw few road bikes with steel frames (though steel is making a bit of a comeback), none with lugs, no road bikes with 5 sprockets in the back, none that used friction shifting, none with threaded headsets, and none with a quill stem. None of these bikes used 27 inch tires, but rather used a size called "700C". Mostly, the bikes I saw had no pedals at all; pedals were purchased separately. When I asked why, I was told that people preferred different (incompatible) styles of clipless pedals, and this allowed people to get the pedals they wanted. "What on earth are clipless pedals?" I asked myself. As it turns out, there have been many other changes as well, such as the use of sealed bearings and the replacement of the freewheel by the free hub, but I will not be talking about these here. Based on my bike-shock of 2008, here are the questions I am addressing in this post:
  • When were bikes with 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 back sprockets introduced? How quickly did each of these increases become standard, e.g. move down to inexpensive bikes?
  • When were aluminum frames introduced? When did they become the default for inexpensive bikes? When were carbon fiber frames introduced? When did carbon fiber become the standard for high end racing bikes?
  • Despite the dominance of Aluminum frames on less expensive road bikes and carbon fiber on expensive ones, steel frames persist into the present. However, whereas the tubing in such frames used to be joined using lugs, most modern steel frames are joined using a process named TIG welding. TIG is an acronym for Tungsten Inert Gas, was developed for hard-to-weld metals like aluminum, but turns out to be a better way to weld steel as well. Thus, I will ask the question "when did TIG welding replace lugs on steel frames?"

A steel frame joined by fancy lugs.
Photgraph courtesy of Wikipedia
A titanium frame joined by TIG welding.
Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.
  • Threadless headsets use a different mechanism for securing the bearings used to steer the bike than my canonical threaded headsets. More importantly, such headsets by necessity use a different design of stem to connect to the handlebars. These new stems clamp onto the outside of the fork rather than insert inside of it. On threadless headsets, one can adjust the handlebars up and down a bit by moving spacers above and below the stem, but the range of adjustment is less than with quill stems and in general results in lower handlebars. When did threadless headsets replace threaded headsets and quill stems?
  • Instead of using friction shifting where the rider is responsible for adjusting the position of the derailleur correctly, modern bikes use indexed shifters. These shifters click from one position to another. If properly adjusted, this guarantees the derailleur is in a correct position and that the gears work correctly. When did indexed shifting replace friction shifting?
  • When did the general purpose 10 speed evolve into dedicated racing, sport, and touring bikes?
  • None of the bikes I could afford in 2008 used European components, e.g. derailleurs. Some of the most expensive racing bikes still used Campagnolo (Italian) components, but even at the high end, components made by Japanese companies such as Shimano go toe to toe with Campagnolo. At the lower price points where I was shopping, Shimano owns the market. When did Japanese manufacturers take over bicycle component manufacture from the Europeans?
  • When did 700C tires replace 27 inch tires? 27 inch was a tire size used by British manufacturers on their road bikes, while 700C was one size in a sophisticated French system. (See articles by Sheldon Brown and Wikipedia for an explanation of how this system worked.) One significant advantage to 700C tires are that their wheels are the same size as sew-up wheels, so for example a racing bike can have two sets of wheels, one with sew-ups for race day, another with more durable and repairable 700C clinchers for training. I recently purchased a second set of wheels, 700C clinchers, for my old Bianchi Specialissima, making it much more practical to ride.
  • Clipless pedals perform the same function as toe clips, they hold the rider's shoes to the pedal permitting more efficient pedaling. However, they do so differently. The many differences between toe clips (and the cleats that were used with them by racers) and clipless pedals is a topic much too large for this post, so I will simply ask, when did clipless pedals replace toe clips?
Toe Clips. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.

Clipless pedal and shoe with cleat used with it.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

    History of Trek (and other) Bicycles

    Just as Schwinn was founded to take advantage of the bicycle boom of the 1890s, Trek was founded in 1976 to take advantage of the bicycle boom of the 1970s. Grant Peterson, the wizard of Bridgestone, creator of Rivendell bicycles, and bicycle expert extraordinaire, argues that the 1970s bike boom resulted from the combination of the baby boomers coming of age and bicycling activities associated with the first Earth Day in 1970 and the US bicentential in 1976, and I think he is correct. Although Bike Snob mocks Trek by referring to them as "The Great Trek Bicycle Making Company", Trek started out very small, at first selling only frames. In 1977, they first sold a small number of complete bicycles. However, even in 1977, Trek had a range of products spanning the cheap and expensive price points.These bikes differed from my canonical ideas of cheap and expensive 10 speeds in the following ways:
    • The less expensive Trek road bikes used Japanese components rather than European components. At the high end, Trek matched my canon by using Campagnolo parts.
    • Even at the cheap price point, all of the bikes had all aluminum components, especially noteworthy being aluminum cotterless cranks.
    • Rather than providing the canonical dichotomy of a "cheap 10 speed" and an "expensive 10 speed", Trek offered 10 models representing a more or less continuous range of prices and qualities from the low end at $195 to the high end at $785.
     From this starting point, Trek bikes evolved as follows:
    • 1978: As per the canon, at the low end Treks still had 27 inch tires and high end Trek's had sew-up tires. However, intermediate Trek models began using 700C tires in 1978.
    • 1980: Trek introduced the first bike with 6 sprockets on the rear wheel rather than the canonical 5. Interestingly, this was offered on their less expensive bikes, presumably as an experiment.
    • 1982: Trek started dividing their road bikes into "Racing", "Sport", or "Touring" models. The Sport and Touring bikes used 27 inch tires, the racing bikes used 700C tires or sew-ups.
    • 1983: The entire Trek line of road bikes had 6 sprockets in back except for one top of the line model which had 7.
    • 1985: In something of a retrenchment, Bikes with 7 sprockets in back vanished from the Trek lineup, and a few low end bikes with 5 sprockets reappeared.
    • 1985: 700C tires spread beyond just the racing bikes and began to appear on some of the sports bikes.
    • 1987: Frames made from aluminum were first offered on Trek bikes. Initially, these were more expensive models.
    • 1987: Frames made from carbon fiber were first offered on Trek bikes. These were the most expensive models.
    • 1987: Some high end Treks have 7 sprockets in the back.
    • 1987: Some high end Treks have indexed shifting.
    • 1987: Campagnolo components vanished from the Trek lineup, even their high end bikes used components made in Japan.
    • 1988: Clipless pedals appear on the most expensive Trek road bike.
    • 1988: Most expensive Trek racing bike now comes with clinchers, not sew-ups (though sew-ups continue to be available as an option through the present.)
    • 1989: Clipless pedals are now offered on several of the more expensive Trek road bikes
    • 1989: The most expensive Trek road bike has 8 sprockets in the back.
    • 1990: Trek no longer offered a bicycle with 27 inch tires, 700C tires have become universal.
    • 1990: Aluminum frames have been working their way down the price list for a few years and will continue to do so. There is a segment of the market (yours truly included) who prefer steel frames so they have not gone away entirely, but this is as good a point as any in this progression to declare that at this point, aluminum has become the less expensive alternative to carbon fiber for road bikes, steel is now just an option for a specific market segment. In 1990, only three Trek road bikes have steel frames. In 2013, only one Trek road bike, their iconic 520 touring bike, has a steel frame. In contrast, the number of steel framed road bikes offered by Bianchi has been increasing in recent years (see below). 
    • 1994: The Trek 520 went from having a steel frame joined using lugs and having a steel frame joined by TIG welding. Interestingly, Bianchi retained lugs on their iconic steel framed bike, the Volpe, until 1998.
    • 1997: The top of the line Trek road bike went from 8 to 9 cogs in the back. This number of cogs persisted on high end Treks for 7 years.
    • 1998: The Trek 520 went from 7 to 8 cogs in the back.
    • 1999: A threadless headset first appeared on a top of the line Trek 5500 racing road bike.
    • 2002: The Trek 520 went from 8 to 9 cogs in the back. This number of cogs on the back has persisted for 12 years, until today. In contrast, the similar Bianchi Volpe went from 8 to 9 cogs two years earlier, in 2000 and in 2012 went from 9 to 10 sprockets in the back. In part this may be due to the lower gears on the 520. Shimano component sets with lower gears may well be slower about increasing the number of rear sprockets.
    • 2002: A threadless headset first appeared on the Trek 520.
    • 2003: A threadless headset first appeared on the Bianchi Volpe.
    • 2004: The most expensive Trek (5500) went from 9 to 10 sprockets in the back.
    • 2009: The most expensive Bianchi went from 10 to 11 sprockets in the back. This is 4 years sooner than the most expensive Trek. This difference in timing is almost certainly a result of the fact that Bianchi has always offered the best Campagnolo components on their top bikes while Trek stopped using Campagnolo components in 1987, and that Campagnolo went from 10 to 11 sprockets much earlier than Shimano. 
    • 2012: The most expensive Bianchi begins using electronic shifting. This system replaces the mechanical derailleur cables with motorized derailleurs. This has a number of advantages including the ability to use computer technology to improve gear shifting. That said, retrogrouches (including yours truly) are not interested.
    • 2013: The top of the line Trek Madone gets 11 sprockets in back and electronic shifting. Trek catches up with Bianchi, Shimano catches up with Campagnolo (assuming you define progress in this way.)

    Final Thoughts

    In no way is this history of road bikes between 1977 and 2013 complete. It represents a very small part of what has been going on and ignores major movements and subcultures such as bicycle messengers, fixies, modern influences of the constructeur movement, the metamorphosis of the Paramount group of Schwinn into one of the most important facilitating movements of our era, Waterford Cycles, the role of the Tiawanese and Chinese bicycle manufacturers, visionaries such as Rivendell bicycles, randonneuse bicycles, etc., etc., etc.   In 2013, Bianchi, a main stream manufacturer, offers 5 complete road bikes and three frames in steel, including some with lugged steel, bikes that makes no sense as part of my narrative. Further, there is no reason for limiting a recent history of bicycling to my very arbitrarily-defined road bikes. Riders of recumbent bicycles will appropriately feel like their major contributions have been ignored. A lot of what has happened in road bikes has been the result of rapid technical evolution in mountain bikes which lead to new features that often migrate to road bikes years later. My history of road bikes is poorer for not having explored this connection. That said, this post is already overdue. I do not know which of these themes will develop into future posts or which will end up as part of my page on bicycle history, but I do know it is time to end this post right now.

    For those new to this blog, each week I am posting an update of my training results; see my previous posts for explanations of my aerobic training program, MAF tests, and this graph.

    Compared to last week, there are a couple of new, high values. I am going to delay commenting on those for a few weeks when I think I will have something more meaningful to say about them.

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