The Future Of Bikes

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A modest, simple title then, eh?

Cervelo's new P5 is a pretty impressive bike. Yes, it's aero, and yes it's innovative, and yes this and yes that from a product perspective, but the more I look at it, the more I see it as an inflection point for the future of bikes. Not in and of itself, mind you; no doubt it's a good bike, but I don't think that it will be the latest equivalent to the Model T or whatever your paradigm setter du jour might be. Rather, I think that it provides a good foil to show a number of directions that bikes are likely to head.

Keep in mind as you read this that it's my personal opinion. Mike doesn't agree with me on all of this and isn't as convinced as I am on some stuff on which we do generally agree. I'd categorize myself as at least off the chain if not off the reservation on a lot of this stuff.
The first, and I'll go with this first simply because it's sort of the most "blue sky" overarching thing, is that UCI compliance as a primary trait of bikes will wain. Between the Specialized Shiv and the new P5, you've got two headline bike manufacturers with flagship bikes that have UCI non-compliant sub-models. If you manufacture tt/tri equipment, you absolutely need to dance to the tune of the triathlon market, and the tune there is aerodynamics, UCI be damned. The market for these bikes among tri users massively overshadows the market to which UCI rules matter, so it's almost like the UCI-compliant sub-models of these bikes are accommodations rather than focal points. USA Triathlon has about 140,000 members, while USA Cycling has about 65,000. Each USAT member's "A" bike is, at least in concept, a tt/tri bike. The USAC member might have a road, cross, or mountain bike as his or her ideal "A" bike - probably not that many USAC people are primarily focused on tt's (although, to be sure, some are). In any case, it's diluted - not focused like the tri crowd.  It's not any kind of a stretch to posit that the US market for tri bikes is ten times bigger than that for UCI legal tt bikes. UCI seems pretty irrelevant there, huh?

Another huge market is the performance recreational road cycling market. There are a bunch of different ways to define these people, but loosely they are people who ride proper (and very frequently very high end) road bikes, but who don't race. They might do centuries or gran fondos or group rides (in fact they probably do) and are into riding on good equipment. For these people, UCI compliance is really only relevant in that the flagship road equipment available on the market is UCI compliant, and therefore that's the de facto standard. Racing is the crucible in which the equipment is developed, and the stage on which it is presumably proven, and the milieu through which the story of differentiation is told. Were there another standard by which the best were judged, or if there was more focus on developing top level bikes regardless of UCI rules, or were there some compelling benefit for them that fell afoul of the UCI book, it's reasonable to assume that they'd be perfectly willing to ride non UCI-compliant bikes. The Specialized Roubaix (which was inspired by a titanium Seven owned by a Specialized employee who wanted a more comfortable but still "performant" -as French windsurfing advertisements are addicted to saying - road bike) is a huge success based on being a very highly developed and advanced bike that's more comfortable for those who don't enjoy chewing on their handlebars quite so much. It doesn't hurt that it's seen it's share of success in the Classics - performance rec riders are, as a group, profoundly aware of the pro race scene.

That compelling technological differentiator may just have been let out of the bag - disc brakes. Volagi went from being an obscure startup to front page news over the last month thanks to being sued by Specialized. The nature of the case is unimportant. The salient point is that THE remarkable think about the Volagi is that it has disc brakes. There are a million reasons why you might not want a Volagi - your local shop doesn't sell them, you don't like the looks, you have other brand preferences, whatever - but they've certainly shined a bright light on road disc brakes. As I commented (and got 43 "likes" - take THAT you kids and get offa my lawn) on a Velonews.com post about discs and the road, I believe that there are many sticking points yet to overcome before mass proliferation of discs on the road - rear dropout spacing, bottom bracket width and chainstay length issues, general re-engineering for new load maps, and others. Having used mechanical discs all fall in cyclocross, I know that the performance of mechanical discs, while good, is hardly anything to dream about. But I also know that hydraulic discs are WILDLY better at stopping a bike than any rim brake you could ever imagine, and that eliminating the potential for melting a rim with a brake is a huge benefit for the gran fondo set. They are absolutely a compelling option.

Of course there's the simple matter that road brifters haven't yet learned how to be hydraulic brake compatible. We like our shifting and our brakes to be together. It's great. Sure, there are those kludge boxes that convert cables to hydraulics, but that's precisely the kind of thing that the market hates - unsightly, heavy, and complex. The P5 has hydraulic (rim) brakes, but tt bikes have always had the brakes and the shifters as separate units. A standalone hydraulic brake lever is easy peasy lemon squeazy - it's a small step to go from mtb level to tt lever. If only there were some way to get hydraulic brakes to play nice with road shifters...

Enter electronic shifting. The P5's got it (at least as an option), as do many road bikes these days. Heck, at one point I was (half) joking around that I was going to go Ultegra Di2 this year - purely on a fact-finding basis, you understand. Seen those neato satellite shift pods that Di2 has? Voila - decoupled yet VERY proximate braking and shifting. Remove the whole shifting function from a road lever and it's pretty easy to stuff the hydraulic bits in there. Then just place the shifter buttons where you like - maybe on the front of the bar underneath the lever, maybe on the inside of the bar at the lever. Who knows? Some retro grouch might locate them where he fondly remembers his down tube shifters being (now THAT would be funny as heck). The point is, electronic shifting is sort of the killer app that allows you to decouple shifting and braking in order to make room for hydraulics in the brake pod. With that accomplished, wildly superior road braking without any risk of mutilating a set of carbon rims is an easy step.

Of course there are those who say that disc brakes have no place in mass start road races, that a pair of white hot circular saw blades attached to every bike is a recipe for disaster. It may be. Whether it's this fear or just inertia that prevents the UCI from hop-to'ing on legalizing road discs, the simple fact is that with this mechanical impediment removed, and addressing the rear end geometry and frame/fork engineering necessitated by discs, the path is wide open for the general public to have their way with disc brakes on the road, UCI be damned. If you're a gran fondo guy with several grand to spend on your bike (and certainly all the anecdotal evidence that I have shows that it's these guys who spend serious wampum on their bikes, not the racing junkies), and there were 13 pound (oh yeah - hydraulic discs are fully capable of being lighter, too), really polished bikes out there that gave you everything you wanted from a road bike plus what the UCI doesn't want you to have? You'd almost definitely do that.

The third thing that reading about the P5 has made me think of is integration and standardization of interfaces. Phil White, who's the remainder founder at Cervelo, calls for a return to greater standardization of interfaces in order to give the customer more choice and ultimately higher quality. It's an ironic statement coming from the guy whose company famously made bikes that only fit certain wheels, and has a proprietary BB "standard," and has a year's exclusive rights to the Magura hydraulic brakes they're using, but at least in sentiment it's very worthy. As a bike user, it really sucks when every part and every piece is specific to your bike and your bike alone. Yes, integration and proprietary parts allow engineering solutions that are otherwise untenable, but you can carry it too far. I like me some standard parts, yessir.
Take the UCI for what it is, and I'm pretty firmly in the Chloe Hoskins camp with regard to top management there, but they do have a mandate to limit the influence of technology in the outcome of the game. If it's a total arms race, where the Tim Ruggs and Tim Browns (sorry LA, apparently he's your problem now - have fun with that one) of the world can't show up as Cat 5s on whatever janctified hoopties they raced on their first year and still make their talents blatantly obvious, the game fails. When the parents of the rich kids can erect barriers, real or perceived, to ensure that their kids always climb higher on the podium, the game fails. It's this slippery slope continuum, where gear that is reliable and "performant" maxes out its utility in service to the game at some point, after which it becomes a detriment to the game being played as well as it could be by the greatest number of people.

When you talk about racing cyclists, we are, like it or not, the 1%. Not because we're so awesome, but because literally 1% of committed cyclists race. We're a blip on the radar at best. We should be an afterthought, yet our pursuit of the game (and really it's the .01% of the 1% even at that) drives the landscape of the equipment. If development of top end performance oriented gear were to decouple from racing, that would be a very interesting development indeed. But since you've been good and read this far (and a far way it is, indeed), I'll give you a break here and leave you hanging on a cliff to discover my vision for a world in which racing goes from being the dog to being the tail.


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