Road Bikes Through The Ages

    I’ve been riding the road bicycles a lot lately, mostly because it’s what works best with my current schedule–which is not to say I don’t like riding road bicycles, because I most certainly do, but it is to say brisk rides on smooth surfaces can be a little easier to work into your day than leisurely mixed-terrain rambling, so I’ve been doing more of the former than of the latter.

    One noteworthy aspect of road cycling is that, at least in a city like New York where it remains quite popular, you see lots and lots of other riders. Sure, you might encounter a group ride at the local mountain bike spot, and of course the city is full of bike commuters and delivery people, and I see more and more gravelistas heading to the trails on my side of the river, but it’s only out on the open road where on any given weekend you’ll see hundreds upon hundreds of other riders doing basically the same thing you’re doing:

    As the most visible as well as the most traditional form of cycling, road riding lends itself well to observation and categorization, and I’ve concluded that it’s possible to divide the history of post-parallelogram derailleur drivetrain road bike into three distinct eras. While I may have my own preferences with regard to these eras, I will nevertheless endeavor to present them as objectively as possible. So here they are as I see them:


    Yes, people have been doing what we’d call “road riding” since the 19th century, and it’s been possible to change gears while riding since at least the days of the Cambio Corsa, but for our purposes we’re starting from when it became possible to simply reach down and move a lever slightly in order to shift. Campagnolo introduced the Gran Sport in 1951, and for a good four decades the road bike had the familiar silhouette you see both above and below:

    As I’ve noted before (though I’m too lazy to figure out where), while these bikes are separated by a span of about 30 years, there’s little about the 1982 Cervino that would shock a Drsydale rider of the early 1950s. Of course the Cervino is more refined with features like recessed bolts, but fundamentally they’re the same: lugged steel frames, drop bars, downtube shifters, and quick-release wheels. You could argue this era should be called “modern” instead of traditional, since the bikes are considerably more advanced than the ones that preceded them:

    But we’re going to call them “traditional” anyway, because I feel like it.


    [From here.]

    The transition between the “traditional” and the “modern” era wasn’t immediate, like turning on a light switch, though you could say it happened with the flick of an integrated shifting lever:

    If the parallelogram derailleur brought in the “traditional” era then it was probably the integrated shifting lever that marked the start of the modern era. Of course the advent of cassette hubs and indexed gears and intricately-shaped chainrings and cogs were what made integrated shifting possible, but it was putting all that stuff together and allowing the rider to control it all without moving their hands that really changed the way road bikes were sold:

    Again, it wasn’t like flicking a light switch, but I’d say road bikes were fully in the modern era by the late 1990s, when integrated shifters became the default, steel tubing began its retreat, factory-built wheel “systems” started taking over, and forks started going from threaded to threadless:

    The other big change in the modern era was the sloping top tube:

    Most of you are probably old, but if you’re not it’s hard to appreciate how controversial sloping top tubes on road bikes were at the time. Even the types of roadies who ate up integrated shifting and “advanced” frame materials and Mavic Helium pre-fab wheelsets objected to sloping top tubes, which were seen as ugly and disgusting and a sordid incursion from the world of mountain bikes. In any case, the modern era reached sort of a fever pitch in the early-to-mid aughts, when a high-end road bike was liable to feature pretty much all of these features:

    Though by the end of the modern period (mid-to-late 2010s) it sort of settled in to a functional if boring state of affairs as embodied by a bike like the plastic Specialized I used during my brief return to sucking badly at bike racing:

    Late modern bikes were generally carbon with integrated headsets, and while they might be built with electronic shifting they were essentially compatible with most modern-era equipment.

    Anal Probe Space Bikes

    As I said, I am endeavoring to present these eras as objectively as possible, hence the neutral “Anal Probe Space Bikes” as opposed to, say, “Mutant Hydro-Electric Wank Chariots.” If it was the integrated shifter that brought us into the modern era, then it was the disc brake coupled with the electric drivetrain that is responsible for the APSB, because electrical wires (or wireless systems) coupled with flexible hoses meant that designers could now realize any computer-generated shape they wanted.

    This in turn resulted in an acceleration of the component integration we started to see in the modern era, and for perhaps the first time since the 1950s road bikes were almost completely incompatible with older components or items that were once considered “standard” and allowed riders to customize their fit, like seatposts and stems. Bike setup also began to change, most notably in the form of a preference for small, stubby saddles and narrow bars with turned-in levers:

    Indeed, with their sunken cheeks and twisted, contorted, turned-in claw-hands, roadies began to look more like Nosferatu than ever:

    And yes, you absolutely should copy the pros and turn your levers in. You should also copy enduro-freak Lachlan Morton’s seat angle:


    As he explains, he has back problems, and presumably the crazy saddle position allows him to cope with the crazy stem:

    I realize there’s probably nothing more pathetic and Internet-y than “Just Buy A Rivendell Already”-ing Lachlan Morton, but what the hell, I’m gonna go ahead and say the guy should just get himself a nice Platypus. I mean at this point it seems like the plastic Cannondale may be hurting him more than it’s helping.

    At the very least it would make a fantastic video.

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