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Bikes and the march of technology

I recently saw a report that Bosch are planning to release an ABS (anti-lock braking) system for bikes – specifically for e-bikes, presumably because they need power. Yup, that’s right: ABS for bikes.

Of course, bikes have always been affected by technological progress: we have carbon fibre frames as well as a whole variety of metal alloys; we have puncture resistant tyres; in recent years we’ve seen the introduction of electronic gear shifting, and now that can even be wireless.

That’s leaving aside the technology related to tracking rides, measuring the rider’s power output, and so on.

Now, I love my tech gadgets, but here’s the thing: one of the most appealing aspect of bikes is that they are simple. Pretty much all the parts are exposed (bar a few bearings that need to be kept enclosed!), and there’s hardly a job that an intelligent person can’t do to fix them, given a few not-wildly-expensive tools. They’re not like modern cars, where you need to hook them up to a computer to find out what’s going on in the engine. And don’t get me started on the impossibility of changing a headlamp bulb…

Presently I own two bikes. One of them (ironically the one that is slightly newer) is entirely traditional in its mechanics; the other has hydraulic disc brakes, which I’ve always been nervous of touching. It’s ten years old, so the creep of not-so-user-serviceable bits is not new.

The difference now, it seems to me, is that we’re starting to see electrical or electronic systems being applied to core functions of the bike. I mean, you can ride a bike quite happily without a GPS or a power meter, but as for your brakes or gears: you don’t want to lose those, they are “core functions”.

So, should we welcome these developments or push back? For me, I welcome technology that enhances my ride in some way; whether just by logging where I went and how quickly, or by warning me of vehicles approaching from behind. But I think I’ll always resist having electronics in the core functions, simply because it frees the bike from any worries about batteries or electronic faults. I don’t want to be saying “No, I can’t go out for a ride just now; my gear shifters are flat”.

Of course, for e-bikes, you need a dirty great battery anyway, so things are different, and I think they may end up being quite different in nature from the “normal” pedal cycle – whatever that is. And one of the differences may be that we have to be more accepting of taking them in to a bike shop for regular servicing, or to deal with faults we can’t fix without specialist diagnostic equipment.

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Bikes, bikes, bikes…

It’s been a fair few years since I bought a bike. Things seemed so much simpler then: there were essentially mountain bikes and road bikes. OK, there were different sorts of each, and there were BMX bikes, but really, the choices were relatively simple. Going back even further, to when I was growing up, it was simpler still – there were “racers” (with drop handlebars), and there was the “sit-up-and-beg” sort of bike – the sort your mum might have ridden to the shops with a wicker basket on the front. Actually, this is almost certainly a view through the filter of youth and nostalgia – even then there would have been a distinction between racing and touring bikes. But still, not a lot more than that. And then there was the Chopper, of course, that one-off marmite bike.

Having recently started cycling again after a bit of a break (there shall be more joy in heaven…), I’m gobsmacked at the number of niches that have apparently opened up in the intervening years. We now have trail bikes, downhill bikes, fat bikes, plus bikes, cyclocross bikes, endurance bikes, aero bikes and apparently dozens of other categories within categories.

It’s not just me saying this: after I wrote the first draft of this piece (honest!), I saw a piece on BikeRadar in which the term “hyper-niche-ification” was applied to what had occurred. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it seems about right.

There’s an old joke about bikes (which, by the way, applies equally to cameras and guitars), that essentially says, the answer to the question – which will probably be asked by your other half on seeing you eyeing up a bike shop, or web site – “how many bikes does a person need?”, is “one more than you already have”. These days, it seems, the answer is actually several more.

Except… there’s now a reaction to this so-called “n+1” problem, with a new breed of “all road” or “gravel” bikes being touted as the “one bike to rule them all”: quick enough on the tarmac, yet capable of riding out the bumps on the trackways and bridleways, and usually fitted with lugs so you can carry a bit of luggage if you need to, or fit mudguards. Lovely idea; I really fancy one. Of course, I’d still want another bike for… oh, wait…

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