Full Circle

From the Wright Brothers to the Tour de France, the bicycle has fascinated humans for more than a century.

July 11, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The bicycles ridden by the racers in the Tour de France bear as much resemblance to your childhood Schwinn as a Piper Cub does to an F-16: Only the basics are the same.

But the high-tech, multithousand-dollar bikes zipping through the French countryside are based on a 125-year-old design that remains stubbornly resilient - a simple, profound piece of engineering that continues to have a hold on the human spirit.

"It is one of those inventions that stirs passions," says Roger White, a specialist in transportation history at the Smithsonian Institution.

The basic blueprint belies such devotion - two triangles of tubing and two wheels, a front one that steers and a back one driven by a chain connected to the pedals.

It was called the safety bike when in first appeared in the 1880s, replacing the high-wheelers - with huge front wheels and tiny back wheels - that had made the bicycle the province of athletic young men. The new version brought the freedom of personal transportation to masses, including women. That design remains the most efficient method ever invented to convert human energy into motion. Those seeking to make it even more efficient now work on the edges of technological innovation.

The Schwinn of 40 years ago was made of thick steel tubing. It tipped the scales at close to 30 pounds. If it had any gears, it probably had three. If it was very fancy, it was a 10-speed - two gears in the front and five gears on the back wheel.

Though plenty of bikes are still made of steel, none of those in the Tour de France is. Composites of carbon fiber along with aluminum and titanium dominate. Bicycle manufacturers are out there with Formula One race teams, pushing the technological envelope of these materials.

"It is well-known that automotive manufacturers come to us to fabricate composite parts for them," says Steve Westover, promotions manager of bicycle manufacturer Giant, which builds carbon fiber from scratch for the bikes of the T Mobile team of Jan Ullrich, one of the top rivals of American Lance Armstrong. Giant and Trek - which makes the bikes for Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team - were pioneers of carbon fiber bikes.

Most of the current crop of bikes in the Tour de France weigh just more than 15 pounds. Constant tinkering with the design and composition of the frames is aimed at giving the bike the proper balance between resilience - for comfort - and stiffness - so it will efficiently translate the power of muscles into forward motion.

The chains of these bikes still go around two gears in the front, but there are now 10 on the rear wheel, giving the riders 20 gears to choose from.

And the price is a lot more than you paid for that Schwinn. When Giant puts the bike that T Mobile is riding on the market this fall, it will cost around $5,000. Amateur racers regularly pay $3,000 and up.

The past decade has seen an explosion of technological innovation in bicycle manufacturing. Before that, it was a rather tradition-bound world dominated by small European companies that often viewed improvements with suspicion.

Now, though the sport of bicycle racing remains primarily a European preoccupation, many of the top riders are on non-European bicycles. Teams in the tour ride bikes from U.S.-based Specialized, Cannondale and Trek, Canada's Cervelo and Taiwan-based Giant. This would have been unthinkable a decade ago - Westover says getting non-European bikes in the Tour de France was like breaking up the Mafia - but companies like these led the way in pushing the envelope of the bicycles' possibilities.

The technological cutting edge is where bicycles started. "In the 1880s and '90s, bicycles were to that generation what the PC and notebook computers are to this generation," says bicycle historian Peter Joffre Nye. "They attracted the best and brightest."

"The bicycle put technology into the hands of individuals," White says. Many of them tried to improve the breed. The result was an outpouring of creativity.

Nye notes that in the last quarter of the 19th century, fully one-third of the patents granted in the United States were related to the bicycle.

"The Patent Office created two branches, one for bicycle-related stuff and one for nonbicycle stuff," he says.

In that era, virtually every town in America had at least one bicycle racing track - a banked velodrome. "Bike racing was a cutting-edge sport," says Nye, author of Hearts of Lions, a history of bicycle racing in the United States.

Those attracted to it were looking for speed. It did not take long to figure out that vehicles propelled by the new small internal combustion engines would go faster than human-powered machines. The first motorcycles were basically bicycles with one of those engines attached.

Nye is at work on a biography of Albert Champion who came from France in 1899 to race bicycles for a Massachusetts company. It was the same year another French bike racer, Louis Chevrolet, crossed the Atlantic.

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