I shut down my mobile bike-repair service about six years ago, which meant my bicycle-technology obsessions quickly lost most of their intensity. But there was a lot of innovation going on in the bike industry when I got my start in the early 2010s, and by the time I closed CHS Uptown Bikes in 2015, those innovations were spinning off entirely new categories of bikes.
So when I read this Cyclingnews report on the bike used by the winner of the first Women’s race along the route of a century-old cobblestone race in northern France, I wasn’t surprised that I was unfamiliar with some of the technology. I was surprised at how utterly alien that 2021 technology would have looked to the bike industry I encountered as a rookie mechanic in 2010. Understanding WTF the journalist was talking about required repeated Googling.
Because other than stuff like handlebars and pedals (probably bearings, too, but I’m not sure about that), the components on this bike would have flummoxed all but the sharpest of cutting-edge mechanics 10 years ago. While the bikes of 2010 would have looked pretty similar to the bikes of, say, 1990.
Frame? Sure, it’s carbon and built to fairly standard road-bike geometry. But that Trek Domane concept — launched around 2015 — was the first to de-couple the seat-post section of the frame from the other two sections of the triangle. This costs the frame some efficiency but spares a rough-road racer some fatigue. It was literally designed for the Paris-Roubaix race, but has since created a new category of road bike: The “endurance bike.” As in: You’re a middle-aged person with plenty of money and you want to feel your buttocks at the end of a 30-mile group ride, so you buy a Domane.
Shifters? Until the early 2010s, all road-bike shifters were cable-activated, just like mountain-bike shifters and hybrid bike shifters. Shimano rolled out an “electronic shifting” version of its top-end Dura-Ace road-bike groupo around 2010, but it was so exotic that not only do I not recall us stocking them, I don’t remember ever even seeing one. This latest version of the SRAM Red groupo (originally launched about six years ago) uses wireless technology to control little electric motors on the front and rear derailleurs.
Expensive? You bet. Worth it? Not for mere mortals.
Derailleurs, chain and gears? They’ve changed too. The rear derailleur on this bike has a closed-system, fluid-operated damping valve designed to smooth out performance on rough terrain. But this add-on is becoming a top-end standard for SRAM Red for luxury road bikes that never leave smooth asphalt, too. And there is no front-derailleur in this set-up: Just a single 50-tooth chainring with a built-in power-meter and a chain catcher. Unheard of in my day.
Why ditch the front derailleur? Because when you’re racing on rough terrain like the Roubaix cobbles, you don’t want to risk throwing chain during a shift.
That rear derailleur isn’t just wireless and electric and fluid-dampened. It’s also set up to match an 11-gear cassette instead of a standard 10-gear cassette. Why 11 instead of 10? Well, European cycling legend Campagnolo sold a coveted racing groupo (bike jargon alert: A “groupo” is a complete set of bike components designed and sold to work together) based on an 11-gear cassette. Its claim to fame was that it allowed smoother shifting because each “step” involved fewer teeth.
But here’s another reason for an 11-gear groupo: It’s a walled garden for the manufacturer. Once you buy into a non-standard groupo, you’re basically locked into buying matching components from the same manufacturer until the rest of the industry starts offering options. So yes, an 11-gear cassette may offer a slight competitive edge to elite cyclists. But these companies make their money off non-elite cyclists who enjoy showing up to group rides with elite gear. So of course you want to trap those suckers in your private garden for the next five years.
Not only that, but it turns out that SRAM’s new 11-gear groupo is based on an entirely different chain technology — which makes it incompatible with Campagnolo chains.
Surely the wheels are the same, right? Wrong. Standard road-bike wheels are built for 23mm to 28mm tires with high-pressure innertubes. The tires in this set-up are 30mm, and that’s a solid choice for a rough-road race. The difference is that these tires are tubeless — and while it’s possible to put tubeless tires on a standard road rim, it’s much better to attach them to wheels that were built to be “tubeless ready,” like these carbon Bontragers.
In my day, the only tubeless tires we saw were on mountain bikes. Never even heard of a Domane road bike with tubeless tires before today.
And let’s talk about brakes.
Traditional road-bike brakes are side-pull calipers that apply hard-rubber brake pads to flat-sided wheel rims. There are much more efficient caliper brake designs (namely the “V-brake” system found on most hybrid bikes and all early mountain bikes), so why not apply those to road bikes? Answer: Because when you’re riding in a group of cyclists, braking inefficiency is a feature, not a bug.
As in: Road-racers and club riders tend to spend most of their rides packed together for aerodynamic advantage. Which means that if the person in front of you brakes suddenly, you have almost no time to react. Hence: Road cyclists WANT a semi-inefficient brake they can “feather.” Because you certainly DON’T want a brake that causes a massive pileup behind you.
Eventually the market for V-brake mountain bikes was overtaken by designs featuring disc brakes. Why? Because the stopping power of disc brakes is far superior. That’s why you don’t see motorcycles with V-brakes. Or cars, for that matter.
Does it make sense to run lightweight disc brakes on a Paris-Roubaix racer? Maybe. It’s sort of a weird hybrid of road-racing and off-road cyclocross, and cyclocross racers started transitioning to disc brakes in the mid-2010s.
But when I searched these components, I was shocked to see them showing up on road bikes up and down the beginner-to-elite spectrum. Why? You tell me. I don’t see the point. I see more expense and more maintenance.
Now, on the one hand, this is just progress, and the relationship between racing and riding is pretty much the same in cycling development as it was in auto-racing and car manufacturing in the 1960s. So what if status-conscious weekend roadies drive the consumer road-cycling market? Who cares?
Well, I do. To a point.
Because I love riding my road bike. I don’t get to do it as often now, but even when I rode multiple times a week, it was never with the intent of racing or “crushing the club ride.” I don’t like being in a peloton. I just like being out on my bike in the countryside, and I want other people to experience that sense of freedom and pleasure.
And yes, you can still buy road bikes with non-elite components. Of course you can.
But here’s the sticking point: Though I am a fan of steel frames, all lightweight modern road bikes are based on carbon-fiber frames. And don’t let anybody tell you that all carbon is created equal. There’s high-end fiber and there’s the other stuff. And when the year’s global allotment of high-end fiber runs out (the lion’s share is set aside for the defense industry), you get the other stuff.
So unless there’s been a huge increase in the manufacturing capacity for high-end fiber over the past six years, most of that quality fiber will likely be set aside for top-of-the-line bikes tricked out in the latest SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo groupos. Because that’s where the money is, apparently.
My road bike is a 2007 Trek Madone. A step down from the Madones you might have seen on the 2007 Tour de France, yes, but when it came to the frame? Same fiber. And the problem is that a complete SRAM Red groupo (no frame, no wheels, etc.) can cost as much as an entire new bike configured more or less like mine.
Which means a new road bike configured like mine is unlikely to come with a frame built from that same great longbow carbon fiber. Which means — forget the components for a moment — that it’s just not going to be as fun to ride.
You can’t sell people on the difference between great carbon and bad carbon (there didn’t used to be much of a middle ground) until they’ve ridden both, so a new rider is unlikely to notice or care about the difference. Which means that an “entry-level” or “mid-range” road bike is less likely to feel as life-changing as a similar bike built 10 years ago.
Which means that road cycling is likely to continue its long progression toward becoming the solitary province of White, wealthy, hyper-competitive, status-conscious-Type-A buzzkills.
Which is just… kinda sad.
But anyway: Cool bike, huh?