Best Cycling Innovations

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Velonews did a thing a long time ago and asked a bunch of us what we thought the best cycling innovation has been throughout our careers.  I can’t remember all the answers, but there were some pretty interesting one.

I said that I thought that clipless pedals were the best upgrade.  It would have been hard, at the time, to convince me that something better had come along.

That was until I read the article and Thurlow Rogers said that lycra shorts with synthetic chamois was his answer.  I was like, duh.  Of course he was right.

I would much rather be riding around with toe clips, with shorts with synthetic chamois, than clipless pedals and having to ride shorts with leather chamois.

When I think back upon it, I’m not sure how I got along with leather chamois.  They could be horrible.  Better shorts had better chamois, but the “maintenance” of the chamois was horrendous.

Washing the things was a hassle.  They would get all slick and slimy.  Then they would take forever to dry if the weather was humid.

I don’t know how many pairs of shorts I had that had blown out chamois.  There is nothing like riding with a hole in a leather chamois.  I used to buy replacement chamois and try to sew them in.  I’m not good enough with a sewing machine to accomplish that task with any type of success.  It was always a disaster.

I didn’t realize that Kucharik still replaced chamois.  Kucharik was the first pair of lycra bib shorts I ever rode in.  They will replace a leather chamois for $45. That seems like a crazy good deal.  I’m thinking about sending in a pair of chamois-less shorts to them and have them put in a leather one.  Then I can go back to memory lane and see if it is as bad as I remember.

So, clipless pedals would be #2.  If I had to pick more then Di2 shifting would probably be #3. For sure STI shifting on the brake levers.  Then Di2 shifting.  Shifting on the downtube wasn’t efficient and it could cost you a race.  It is strange thinking about how shifting in a race was part of the tactics.  Watching when your competitor was shifting was integral in one up sprints.   I don’t know how many races I won by jumping when the guy I was racing with was shifting.

Clincher tires have improved a bunch.  Sealing tires up tubelesss off-road is obviously a big innovation, but I’m sort of pre-dating that with the road comparisons.  There really weren’t MTB around when the chamois were leather.

I’m not sure about the frames.   Titanium has improved a ton, being lighter and stiffer. There wasn’t carbon around, so obviously that is a game charger, weight-wise.   Frames  have differently gotten way stiffer for the weight, but I probably could get along riding a 1978 Colnago Super frame with modern equipment.

Wheel technology is a big deal though.  The wheels we ride now are way faster than a 32 spoke wheel of yesteryear.  The lower spoke count and rim depth takes away a ton of wind resistance.  I used to race on 28 hole wheels, I ever had a 24 spoke front wheel when I was really young. They were light.  The rims would weight around 260 grams, but they were not reliable.  It was so easy denting a rim back then.

Anyway, that is my list off the top of my head this morning.  If I missed something, which I’m sure I did, just leave a comment.

This chamois doesn't look thick enough to last very long.

This chamois doesn’t look thick enough to last very long.

I rode these pedals for a couple seasons. They are selling a bunch on eBay. You can't use them unless you have the cranks though. I saw a new bag of pedal adaptors in my basement just a while ago.

I rode these pedals for a couple seasons. They are selling a bunch on eBay. You can’t use them unless you have the cranks though. I saw a new bag of pedal adaptors in my basement just a while ago.

Tucker is a messy drinker after running.

Tucker is a messy drinker after running.



34 thoughts on “Best Cycling Innovations

  1. scott

    you are absolutely spot on – and don’t forget that the shorts were wool and (mainly) required suspenders to keep them up. god they were awful, and had virtually no padding under the chamois. i’d also include the advent of the “modern” cycling shoe, too. my ranking would be 1) clothing, 2) shifting mechanisms & 3) clipless pedals – and 2 & 3 could be interchanged.

  2. Alex Chilton

    The clip-less pedal has not helped when it comes to crashes. “Ghost rider” bikes careening through the peloton have taken many a innocent rider down. Back in the toe clip era you would rarely see a rider detached from their mount, now it’s commonplace.

    1. Krakatoa East of Java

      Shimano was smart enough in the next edition to not make the pedal dependent on their crank. I put a pair of new DA pedals on my Campy cranks in 1985 and had a definite cornering edge over most of my competition for the next couple of years. I could pedal through corners when the others couldn’t

  3. Jim

    IMO, the biggest changes/advantages have been the clothing we all wear.
    This is especially true if you have to ride in cold weather.
    When I started we wore cotton sweats or long johns in the winter.
    They were miserable, cold and wet.
    I tell people that the clothing may not make things pleasant but it does make it bearable.
    Clothing is HUGE to me.

    1. channel_zero

      Wool. The modern wool blends are much better in cold/cool. My modern wool jerseys are worth every penny I paid.

      1. channel_zero

        BTW, no contest on synthetic chamois. So much better than what came before.

        When it’s warm, lycra is better. What’s improved are the way the clothes are cut/sewn. Maybe the fabric has to? But, it seems to me the way they are sewn is so much more sophisticated.

  4. Craig

    LOL .. I have to say that the Di2 made me laugh. Given that even a significant number of pros opt out and that in races like Roubaix a lot more do makes me think that it is not that great. I think it is a cool upgrade but I would put power meters ahead of it …

    I agree with you that shorts, then clipless pedals, then STI but I would put advanced helmet design next and then power meters … my 2 cents

  5. channel_zero

    If we are talking the competitive side, wheels. Even aluminum ones are much better. I still have a couple of old 32h box-rim wheels. They suck compared to modern wheels.

    After that, the dramatic improvements in the rear mech. A modern bike with a short cage rear mech can accept up to a 32 these days and still shift perfectly. Yeah, index shifting and more cogs is rolled into that, but being able to accommodate a 32T was a game changer.

    Some of us can remember when a 13-28 and 42/52 was a wide range and didn’t shift well.

  6. Utah biker

    I like those bike motors that hide in the down tube and give me that extra burst of energy to win a race. Big improvement over having to be fit and lean in the past.

  7. Bill K

    Never had a pair of Dyno Drive pedals, but a friend did, along with the cranks…You mention modern factory built wheels, but I have to wonder how much they really help, sitting in a pack., compared to 28 hole box rims.
    Old school steel frames were pretty much boat anchors compared to modern steel frames. The lightest ones (3 pound) are close to the weight of Ti frames, but are still a pound heavier than a good carbon frame.
    Modern seat pads are the number one improvement. STI’s, or even indexed shifting, not so much. If everyone was limited to 7 speed friction shifters, the strongest, and smartest riders would still win.
    Some things that I am glad that are gone are lycra jerseys, and silk screening on your bibs.

  8. Martin Magnago

    For those of us who can’t see too well, prescription sports shades should be added to the list and, if you get on with them, soft contact lenses are great. I imagine that Kneteman, Raas and Fignon rode most of the classics season with only a sketchy idea of where they were going.

  9. Jon Nelson

    Maybe not really innovative but I really enjoyed going from the old Benotto plastic bar tape to Cineli’s cork tape.

  10. Bruce Gilbert

    Years ago when I was with Rabobank, we had bibs that had a working fly. Incredible, and they were great. One of our riders got mad at another team rider, peed on him and that was the end of the bibs.

    In the past few years, I worked with John Kucharik to produce bibs with the same kind of fly. They work perfectly. I order them whenever I produce bibs for any of our teams. If you have never tried a pair, you really owe it to yourself. Make sure you get the red pad too. In fact, John will put a fly into other brand bibs.

  11. John

    People have already said the big ones, but I’d ad modern lighting to the list. As in helmet/handlebar lights for riding at night.

    1. burnt

      Agreed. Lights won’t win a race or get you around the local dirt quicker but for commuting , errand running, and late-night trail riding the current lights are bright, have respectable run times, and are affordable.

  12. dave

    One improvement I don’t think yet exists would be the high-density ergo rubber handlebar grips for road bikes, similar to the MTB grips. I’ve tested out a home-made version for 2 years and they’re great. Better grip and vibration absorption. Is this product out there anywhere?

  13. Krakatoa East of Java

    Pre-1985, no one ever wore sunglasses (well, almost no one) before Greg showed us the Oakley Factory Pilot. Sunglasses used to get sweat all over the insides of the lenses, and they’d quickly end up completely useless.

    Of course, the factory pilot was the beginning of the end for actually recognizing the face of an individual rider (especially when combined with hard-shell helmets). I honestly don’t know how Paul and Phil do it!

  14. Fausto

    Down the list, but, a good basic computer. Not even talking GPS or power. The old days of maps and figuring out how far you went, speed by watch. A basic Cat Eye with just a few functions was fine.

  15. Aaron

    One advancement that affected me greatly was the free hub/cassette replacing the freewheel. The freehub distributed the forces on the axel better (not to mention, allowed for quick change of gears), and virtually eliminated axel breakage. In the early-mid 80’s I was a poor junior riding on crappy hubs (think Miche). I’d break so many axels.

  16. Aki

    I tried to make up for my pedaling deficiencies by using technology. The first trick was the Leonard Nitz inspired right side bar end shifter. I could out jump others because I was in a lower gear then out sprint them because I was in a higher gear. I had to use at least double toe straps and really tighten them just before a sprint (after a minute or two my feet were numb and they when circulation came back they were screaming in pain).

    Then I got Aerolites. I have to imagine that shifting while sprinting plus having stupid light pedals (and shoes) helped me in my sprints.

    Then finally I adopted aero wheels long before others used them regularly. Nowadays they’d be considered “not-really-aero” but I used Zipp 340s (“not really aero”), 440s (58mm so bare minimum nowadays), and a prototype disk wheel in the rear (with a super lightweight Alkor rim, based on the crazy narrow tire bed). I also used TriSpokes regularly way early on. Again, I have to think that using a disk wheel, for example, helped me in sprints. Or twin TriSpokes. Etc.

    Nowadays there really isn’t that kind of headroom to make massive gains on other riders. It’s not like racers are on 32H GP4s now, everyone is on a 50-60mm tubular, some pretty efficient frame, 10-11s, clipless, snug clothing, decent helmet.

  17. Bikedan

    How about the indoor riding revolution with Zwift? making indoor training more interesting for the masses when the weather turns bad, or when you have an injury, or just for interval specific training when short on time and need a safe environment for the training? Virtual reality is making things more interesting than just riding to your tunes or watching cycling videos/movies while riding the garage?

  18. euro

    EPO was hands down the best innovation ever in PRO cycling. Makes all these other “marginal gains” seem trivial. No wonder all the top guys use it religiously!

  19. Larry T

    Here’s my “old-fart” list from a long ago CycleItalia newsletter: Ten Innovations that Changed Cycling 1 Lycra shorts 2 High performance clincher tires 3 Indexed shifting 4 “Automatic” (clipless) pedals 5 Styrofoam helmets 6 Stainless-steel spokes 7 Washable gloves 8 Sport sunglasses 9 Q/R wheels 10 Plastic lined control cables. Ya gotta be an old fart to remember 6 and 10, but rusted, broken spokes or brakes stuck on were a pain-in-the-a__!

  20. Telford

    1) Sealed bearings. Underrated. I remember having to take apart my Campy BB and hubs to repack after a rain ride. 2) More gears. I started with 5 x 2 total. Often had to change out the freewheel to add a lower low or higher high. Now with 11 x 2, I rarely mess around with a cassette change and I’m always ready, regardless of the terrain. 3) Synthetic chamois. Absolutely agree on this one. I think I still have a couple of pairs of old Nike bibs with a leather crotch. 4) Durable and light clinchers. Tires have come a long way. I remember a pair of 36-spoke Rigida 13-20 rims I had, to Phil hubs, with ft spokes. Clinchers were wide and seemed to get puncture flats all the time. I trained a lot on tubular steel which was more expensive, but a better tire in general. 5) Mountain bikes. Life before mountain bikes was boring. Nuff said.

  21. Choppy Warburton

    Doping is by far the greatest innovation. EPO – yes please. CERA – who can forget Ricco’s thrilling stage wins in the 2008 TdF ? Blood boosting – we’ve all done it and have the medals to prove it. Licking babies – apparently it buffers lactic acid better than bicarb.


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