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Seven inventions that revolutionised cycling

Dr Alan Jones

By Dr Alan Jones


The apparent simplicity of the modern bicycle belies the years of innovation that have led to the feather-light, streamlined machines that climb through the French Alps each summer. Over the last 200 years, cycling has grown into a hugely popular sport worldwide — but it is unlikely that this would be the case if bikes had not advanced past their early ‘bone shaking’ incarnations.

So, as Chris Froome pushes for a fifth Tour de France victory, I wanted to take a look at some of the innovators and inventions that revolutionised cycling.

STI shifters

Anyone growing up with a road bike in the 80’s will remember having to reach down to the frame-mounted lever to shift gear — a precarious manoeuvre that often required you to stop pedalling in order to keep your balance. It was also impossible to change gear while cornering or when standing during a climb or sprint.

A solution to this problem was a long time coming, and was finally introduced in the early 1990’s by Shimano in the form of the Shimano Total Integration (STI) shifters. Shimano had previously revolutionised gear shifting with the Shimano Indexed System (SIS), in 1984, the last significant development in gear shifting. The STI shifters integrate the brake lever and gear shifter, allowing the gear shifter to be mounted to handlebars in a safe and accessible way. This enables riders to change gear while continuously pedalling and with their hands on the handlebars at all times.


Pneumatic tyres

Pneumatic tires are arguably the most important innovation in terms of advancing the popularity of cycling. With wooden wheels surrounded by iron bands, it’s hardly surprising the early ‘bone shakers’ struggled to gain popularity. This all changed when John Dunlop developed the first pneumatic tyre for bicycles in 1887 — although he was unaware at the time that Robert Thomson had already patented a design for a pneumatic tyre in 1846.

The Dunlop air-filled tyre provided increased comfort and speed, leading to a significant increase in the uptake of cycling.

Clipless pedals

Pedals that you clip yourself into (which became referred to as ‘clipless’ pedals) replaced earlier pedals with clips… that you also clip yourself into.


Prior to ‘clipless’ pedals, toe traps or metal ‘toe clips’ were provided on the pedals that a shoe was slipped into. For this reason, pedals without the toe clips were referred to as clipless.

Not for the first time, clipless pedals were an idea borrowed by cycling from ski technology. In the mid-1970’s, Lycra material from ski wear was used to create the first Lycra cycling shorts — and alas, the MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra) was born.

The first ‘clipless pedal’ was designed by LOOK in 1984, and included a cleat secured to the sole of the shoe that locked into spring-loaded jaws on the pedals. A twist of the foot enabled the rider to release from the pedal when required. This ability both makes you more efficient, by providing a better foot-to-pedal connection, and safer, by offering almost instant foot entry and release.

Benefits of the clipless pedal include improved safety, efficiency, power and comfort. Yet despite their advantages, adoption by the notoriously conservative peloton was slow, until Bernard Hinault used clipless pedals when he won his fifth and final Tour de France in 1985.

The roller chain

Now the mainstay of the drive train, it’s difficult to imagine a bike without a roller chain, and its role in cycling is often underestimated. Early bikes were powered by pedals connected directly to the wheels, and the only way in which the gearing of a bike could be increased was to increase the size of the wheel, leading to precarious designs such as the famous Penny Farthing. The introduction of a chain drive had been contemplated, but was held back by the fact that chains linked by pins and plates were too heavy and unreliable. In 1880, Hans Renold invented the bush roller chain, which was soon introduced into the manufacture of bicycles and laid the foundation for all modern bike chains.


Carbon fibre frames

Weight has forever been the enemy of the cyclist and, as the main structural element of the bike, the frame was always the heaviest component. A lot is asked of the frame, which must provide the necessary strength and stiffness, as well as being aerodynamic and ergonomically comfortable. Achieving these requirements traditionally meant a trade-off in terms of weight.

The biggest step change in bike frames was the introduction of carbon fibre, which provided all of the above while significantly reducing weight. Frame manufacturers experimented with carbon fibre as far back as the 1970’s before LOOK introduced the first carbon frame in 1986, using tubes that combined Kevlar with layers of woven carbon fibre. Fast forward to today and carbon fibre is without doubt the material of choice for frames.


Although single speed cycles remain popular with commuters (and hipsters), they are less frequently seen in the mountainous regions of France. The first ‘multiple gear’ bikes had the princely total of two gears, and required the rider to climb off the bike, remove the wheel, turn it around to locate the second gear and replace the wheel.

As cycling increased in popularity, the lack of gears made climbing difficult and limited riders wanting to cycle more adventurous routes. French cyclists having to cycle the long, steep roads of the Alps were particularly keen for a solution to this problem.

Various derailleur systems were designed and built in the late 19th century and early iterations involved the use of rods to move the chain to different gears, or chainstay mounted paddles. Eventually, parallelogram derailleurs were introduced, which more closely resembled the modern derailleur. However, derailleurs did not become common among road cyclists until Simplex introduced a cable-shifted derailleur in 1938. The ability to quickly and smoothly select between a range of gears made it possible not just to climb mountains that were previously all but impassable, but to do so quickly and enjoyably — changing cycling as a sport.

Quick release wheels

Punctures are unfortunately an unavoidable hazard of road cycling. However, thanks to quick release wheels, the previously cumbersome task of changing a tyre can be done quickly and easily on the road side without requiring tools. Quick release wheels include a rod or ‘skewer’ that extends through the wheel and locates in the end of the forks. A cam-operated lever is used to clamp the skewer in position or to release the skewer when required. It’s believed that the quick release wheel was originally invented by Tullio Campagnolo before becoming a common feature on all modern bikes.

The future

Has the bicycle reached its peak? Are there any further advances left to make? A quick search of patents relating to bicycles and bicycle components reveals thousands of patents are filed each year and, given the popularity of the sport, I have no doubt that there are more innovations to come, as cyclists and manufacturers push to go faster and further.

When you next glide along, selecting effortlessly from a seemingly limitless range of gears with your lightweight, carbon fibre frame and fancy pneumatic tyres — spare a thought for the early cyclist who did not have these luxuries (but who no doubt had some very shaken bones and loose fillings).

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