Talking change – a room full of cycling greats
You can’t be blamed for thinking that the bike industry has become somewhat of a technology conveyor belt. There’s the biannual bombardment of the industry’s latest and greatest: 1x drivetrains, disc brakes, synchronised shifting are some of the recent entrants. Marketing departments proclaim that their wares will unleash incomparable performance gains.
Often there’s a nugget of truth in the hyperbole, but when pro riders have to adopt extreme positions and acquaint themselves with new technology at the start of each season, it could be argued that the focus lies more with ROIs than race wins. With this in mind, we were intrigued by the opportunity to sit in on a roundtable discussion with some of the most influential riders of the past 4 decades, hosted by ASSOS of Switzerland, to discuss the history of technology with cycling. These, after all, are greats of the sport whose equipment choices and success shaped the behaviour of consumers.
Bernard Hinault agrees – to an extent: “Before technology was really present, it was in the interests of the manufacturers that the champions wore the products they were making. And if it was a good product then everyone wanted it.”
When Hinault was at his peak, everything was progressing. From wheels to frames, brakes to shifting, the focus of the bike industry had become firmly set on aerodynamics, marginal gains and new technologies. Cycling apparel was no different. Wool had long been the material of choice, but with the advent of technology borrowed from other sports, teams started to seek out the slickest, most sophisticated kit that would scythe through the air.
We’re sat in a suite in a boutique hotel a stone’s throw from the Champs-Elysees, where this icon of our sport won the Tour de France no less than 5 times. To the right of ‘The Badger’ sits Joop Zoetemelk. The thin, calm presence of this Dutchman does not reflect his palmares: 6 times second and 1 time victor of the Tour.
Zoetemelk knows Hinault well, having been the man to often push him to his limits during the Tours of the late 70s and early 80s, but he exudes a passive dominance within the room. “Those early apparel changes made a real difference to me. I used to suffer with saddle sores a lot because I never carried a lot of weight. Bernard, you were always at the cutting edge, but before you came along we had to really seek out the technology in my time.” Zoetemelk gestures.
Opposite these two competitors sits track racer and one-time teammate of Zoetemelk, Urs Freuler, a rider whose history sits in the all-out power of sprinting rather than the overall classification. When questioned, he notes that all mountains should have a tunnel for the sprinters, but he’s quick to clarify that he finished every Giro he started (having won the Points Classification). “I remember in the 1980 Olympics we rode plasticized skinsuits, but only for the shorter events – we must have lost a few kilos with each kilometre. I guess that’s why they’re not used today.” Freuler adds with a broad grin, a real life test pilot of new technologies during those early years of development.
Miguel Indurain is also present. His slow mannerisms and intent focus on the conversation hints to an innocence that shows he’s still growing into his status a cycling great. Known for speed against the clock he was on the front line of progress during the early 90s, a time when the arms race was raging unchecked, backed by all the major stakeholders. “I worked a lot in wind tunnels and the changes that I saw were huge. From downtube shifters to fully profiled bikes, things really did progress during my time racing. It was before the UCI controlled everything. Perhaps it’s fair to say that the focus was sometimes on performance over safety, so it’s understandable why the UCI stepped in with their rules.”
From the modern era of cycling there’s Nicolas Roche and Greg van Avermaet. Both current day riders for BMC Racing Team, they are pivotal in today’s technological show of force, but some could argue they do battle at the whim of the industry rather than hunting out these discoveries themselves. Roche seems unfazed by the group around him, an almost second-nature ease that comes from growing up around these greats. Teammate Van Avermaet is clearly still coming to terms within his status as a Monument Winner.
“The fashions seem to come and go,” begins Roche. “A few years ago everyone was focused on ice baths and cryotherapy to help recovery, but we realised that these extra recovery steps were just more stressful for the riders and staff, so we’ve gone back to massages. Then there’s always the comment about radios affecting racing. I think they have altered racing, but for the better. We can ride much more precisely to catch the riders as close to the line as possible, stopping all the chaos when everything is back together,” explains the 33-year-old.
Head of the group is Toni Maier, ASSOS founder, 4th generation in the cycling industry, and the reason for this prestigious gathering. Maier could be seen as the Gavirlo Princip of this technological arms race, thanks to a Franz Ferdinand-moment in 1976 that saw him changing cycling significantly. An aspiring racer as a junior, he studied frame building and turned his ever-inquisitive mind to solving the problem of how to make a bike more aerodynamic. At that time, discoveries from the aviation industry were being adopted by motorsports and trickling into skiing. People had realised that free speed could be found through reducing drag.
These developments – and the 1969 first man on the moon – inspired Maier to create the first ever aerodynamic profiled track bike from carbon fibre, a material painstakingly sourced from NASA that was perfect to sculpt into the right shape tubes. “The bike was significantly better than standard bikes back then,” recalls Maier, “but as soon as Gisiger got on the bike dressed in traditional woollen clothing, those advantages were gone.” He shakes his head. By now, Lycra had become commonplace in winter sports and Maier adopted this drag-defying fabric for his shorts.
Within a short period of time, competitors of Maier noted that more and more successful riders were buying them, breaking sponsorship deals in search of gains on the bike. But while many soon adopted Lycra, Maier’s carbon fibre sat on the back burner for a while. The Swiss engineer had spent around 80,000CHF on each of the 4 track bikes he made; meaning some time and a lot of business acumen was needed for this material to trickle down to the masses.
Spearheading this period of turbo-charged technological advancements in the 70s and 80s, it was a state of affairs largely driven by the demands of the teams and riders to find that elusive performance edge, which the industry soon joined, realising there was money to be made on these new developments. It could be argued that people such as Maier, Zoetemelk, Hinault, Freuler and Indurain were the avant-garde of this movement, the unwitting instigators of a revolution, controlled by the industry, that is still being felt by the riders and racers today.
But Maier is certainly not waving a white flag just yet. Now aged 80, Maier promises us a new edge on the battlefield of cycling technology. We’re curious. Carbon fibre is so 1976.
Toni Maier on innovation
“It was a very interesting time to follow other industries. It started with the skiers, who were the first to go into wind tunnels. Having seen what they achieved, we too wanted to make everything more precise. It was a time where everything was moving, with so many innovations that seemed to come from the bright minds of inquisitive people. After a while bigger companies followed and then it became a part of cycling history. I did not really understand that I’d brought about a change in cycling apparel because I was always so wrapped up in the situation. For me, it was a career on the one hand, and also my hobby filled with emotions and ultimately my life. At some point I was told I’d made a revolution in apparel. It’s a super compliment but life goes on. The revolution stays where it is.”
Joop Zoetemelk on clothing
“I really rode before the biggest changes within cycling came around. I started out racing against Merckx when he was at his peak. We wore wool and rode steel bikes with toe strap pedals. It was not until the end of the 1970s that we saw any changes and it came first in the clothing that we wore. I was introduced to this new technology by a teammate and even those first generations of Lycra shorts were so much better than what we’d had. I actually rode downtube shifters and toe straps my whole career. Back then it took a long time for new developments to become common. It was not like today where there seems to be a new development each year.”
Urs Freuler on frames and shifters
“Fundamentally cycling hasn’t changed, but there have been huge technological advancements in equipment, like clothing and bikes. It is still a bike at the end of the day and the rider is still responsible for pedalling. In Switzerland I was very fortunate to meet a guy who designed me a bike in 1984 – quite a feat of frame building then. It was a 60 cm frame, if not bigger, and we moved the top tube downwards so that the triangle became smaller. It gave me masses of stability in corners and sprints. Especially when out of the saddle.
We didn’t often get new things back then – perhaps just one or two small things per year, like a bike computer or something. Today riders get complete new bikes. For us it always gave us a little boost in morale. When we first got flat spokes they really pushed us onwards. Usually these were developments straight from the manufacturers, and you had to play a small part in the process to get your hands on them. Of course, the most major progress came with shifters when they moved onto the handlebars and were no longer on the downtube.”
Bernard Hinault on pedals
“I think the changes came from a mixture of everyone – the manufacturers approached us saying they had a new product we should try. It was in their interests that the champion wore the products they made. And if it’s a good product then everyone wants it. It was such a special period because we started to get proper racing bikes. Then five or six years later we got clipless pedals. I worked in the development of these and there was a lot of trial and error, but we rode them nonetheless. I remember back then the cleats were fixed, meaning that it took some time to get them in the right position. If they weren’t, you’d have tendonitis and that would mean 8 days rest, so we always had to take care not to jump onto these technologies too quickly.”
Miquel Indurain on aerodynamics
“My generation was certainly focused on improving the performance of our equipment. I also spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel refining my position on the bike. I created a helmet with Lamborghini in 1991-2. We’d started using more aerodynamic bikes so we also needed aero helmets and this was the result. It wouldn’t really help you in a crash but it’s definitely aerodynamic. Earlier clothes and helmets moved around too much while riding so they developed this helmet, which was quite transformational at the time. It is interesting to look back because in my day it was mainly just the top riders in the team who used these new pieces, but it seems like today the whole team has access to the same equipment.”
Nicolas Roche on modern day shifters
“Even in my career I’ve seen a huge change. I just love the bikes of today. A couple years ago some of the teams started with electronic shifting and I still had regular SRAM with Saxo-Bank. I was convinced this electric stuff was useless, just a gadget. But the year after I tried Di2 and I was realised it was actually pretty good and now it would be hard to go back. In terms of team structures, it seems like everything is a lot more defined within the team and its technology. It is not just the top riders who get the most advanced technology; this is now open to everyone because ultimately we work with the brands to test and promote their products to the cycling public.”
Greg van Avermaet on modern day technology
“My father was a cyclist and so was my grandfather so I’ve always been around the sport and seen the changes. My dad got his first ASSOS shorts in the 1980s and I remember admiring the Lycra. Technology has always been a part of what we do and it always will be. Progress seems quite normal today and we have more equipment at our disposal. It’s hugely important for me as a Classics rider to have clothing that keeps me protected from the elements so I can come into the final fresh; this is where I see technology making an impact.
I think that with or without this it is always going to be a tough sport. Roubaix is going to be Roubaix whatever kind of bike or clothing you have. Our sport is really tough, everyone has similar technology so again it comes down to the rider, their shape and their desire to push harder than the others to make the real difference.”