We take a look at 10 bikes that changed the sport of cycling and the way we think about bike design

Throughout the ages, riders equipment has always to evolved so, we take a look at the most iconic and game-changing road bikes throughout the ages. This list is by no means exhaustive, but contains some very famous and innovative machines.

1. Legnano Team Bike (1948)

Gino Bartali changes gear in the 1948 Tour de France. Photo: Cycling-passion.com

Gino Bartali changes gear in the 1948 Tour de France. Photo: Cycling-passion.com

Ridden by: Gino Bartali

In 1940 Campagnolo invented the Cambio Corsa derailleur. Before this, riders had to remove their rear wheel and flip it around to change gear. Giving them a choice of two! The now famous picture below shows Gino Bartali shifting gear with the Cambio Corsa on a steep mountain pass during his winning ride in the 1948 Tour de France.

The gear is changed by operating by two levers on the right side of the bike’s right seatstay. The top lever releases the rear wheel, and the lever below it operates a simple guide that moves the chain from one sprocket to the next. The video below shows it in action.

The chain shifter is on the top portion of the chain, above the chainstay, meaning it is necessary to back pedal if you want to change gear. Once the gear change is made, the riders weight moves the wheel back and re-tensions the chain. Despite its simplicity, for its time, the Cambio Corsa was a masterpiece of engineering.

2. TI-Raleigh Pro Team bike (1980)


Joop Zoetemelk in 1980. Credit: CW archive

Ridden by: Joop Zoetemelk

Raleigh set up a pro road team in 1972 with the express intention of winning the Tour de France. Under the brutally professional leadership of Peter Post, Ti-Raleigh became the most effective team in bike racing, winning nearly everything, with Joop Zoetemelk delivering a yellow jersey to the iconic Nottingham brand in 1980. To this day Raleigh is still the only British bike ever to have won the Tour.

The bikes were built in Raleigh’s Special Bike Development Unit (SBDU) where a team of experts under the direction Gerald O’Donovan were dedicated to making the best race bikes in the world. Using Reynolds 531 tubing, Post wanted the best, so the bikes were fitted with Campagnolo Record. Wheels were hand-built in house and the frames were sprayed and assembled in Ilkeston.

Raleigh have an impressive palmarès: One Tour de France, 62 Tour stages, 26 Classics wins and six world titles.

3. Look KG86 Tour de France (1986)


Steve Bauer testing the strength of carbon. Credit: Graham Watson

Ridden by: La Vie Claire

Carbon fibre is the bike material of choice in the 21st century, at least so far. Some manufacturers experimented with carbon frames in the early 1970s, but although its strength to weight ratio was ideal for bike frames, it proved difficult to use in practical situations.

Look were the first company to produce a useable frame with carbon tubes designed for cycle racing. The tubes were made by a French company TVT, who combined Kevlar with layers of woven carbon fibre. The tubes were bonded into aluminium lugs in a way reminiscent of the first use of aluminium tubes in cycling.

Look’s KG86 was the first production frame, and it received an immediate boost when Greg LeMond won the Tour on it. TVT also made frames under its own name. Peugeot and Vitus made similar frames.

4. Vitus 979 (1987)


Sean Kelly leads the 1987 Vuelta. Credit: Graham Watson

Ridden by: Sean Kelly

Aluminium bikes grew in popularity in the pro peloton during the early 1970s, although Jaques Anquetil first tried an aluminium frame in the 1960s. Aluminium is lighter than steel and very strong, but in the early days it made for a very flexible bike frame.

The French company Vitus persisted with aluminium, and by the mid-1980s it was producing frames using 979 Dural tubes. Duraluminium, to give it its full name, was an aluminium alloy that was light and a lot stiffer than the old frames.

The tubes were still bonded, but they were butted into lugs, and design tweaks like a one-piece head tube and lug unit increased frame stiffness. They were also anodised, not painted, which made a shiny scratch resistant finish on the frames. They were good enough for Sean Kelly who won a ton of races on the Vitus 979.

5. ONCE Giant-TCR (1999)


Laurent Jalabert on his Giant TCR. Credit: Graham Watson

Ridden by: Laurent Jalabert

The Giant TCR, as ridden by the ONCE team during the late 1990s, was the first mass produced frame with a sloping top tube and compact geometry. The design, by British innovator Mike Burrows, involved a smaller, more compact frame than had gone before. Not only was it stiffer, lighter and used less material, but it could also be made to fit more people in fewer factory sizes.

Another British frame maker, David Lloyd, had introduced a frame with a sloping top tube even earlier, the ‘Concept 90’, which he produced from 1990 onwards. However this was made of steel, to the TCR’s aluminium.


Jalabert leads the Giro. Credit: Graham Watson

Laurent Jalabert was one of a number of top pros to ride the TCR and also use the frame in conjunction with smaller 650c wheels over the standard 700c diameter. This was popular on stages that finished with a climb, with some pros convinced that bikes with slightly smaller wheels were faster. The idea didn’t catch on, but in certain circumstances it may have had advantages.

6. Trek OCLV (1999-2005)

Lance Armstrong rides the Trek OCLV in 2004 (Credit: Graham Watson)

Ridden by: Lance Armstrong

Trek owes Lance Armstrong a lot (even now), at least in terms of the brand exposure. It always made good, well thought-out bikes, the work of enthusiasts who understand how bikes work, but when Armstrong “won” his first Tour de France in 1999, this relatively new American company received world wide publicity.

When Armstrong returned to racing with the US Postal team in 1998, Trek was using the team to push its OCLV carbon bikes. OCLV stands for Optimum Compaction Low Void, which is to do with the way the carbon fibre layers are laminated in their frames. The process was carried out in house in Waterloo, Wisconisn and matched the aircraft industry standards for carbon fibre.

Armstrong won the 1999 Tour on a Trek OCLV 5200 and it quickly became one of the fastest selling bikes in the USA. It was also the first ever tour victory for Shimano, despite the fact it made its debut in 1973 with the Belgian Flandria team.

7. Cervélo Soloist (2001)

GWs Archive 2003

Julien Dean riding a Cervélo Soloist for CSC. Credit Graham Watson

Ridden by: CSC team

In 2003 the CSC Team began using Cervélo as their bike sponsor and adopted the Canadian brand’s Soloist as their bike of choice. Team CSC were crowned the world’s number pro cycling team while riding Cervélo for three years. The partnership lasted for six years, until the end of 2008.

The Soloist was iconic, firstly by being one of very few aluminium frames that achieved success against carbon fibre road bicycles, but also for its ground breaking aerodynamics. Cervélo claim that it was first aero-road bike, setting a trend that continues to this day in future bike design. At the time of release, the aero-foil shaped down tube and seat post were revolutionary.

8. Suspension LeMond (1993)


The suspension being put through its paces at Paris-Roubaix (Credit: Watson)

Ridden by: Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle

The Pinarello K8-S used by Team Sky in 2015 was far form the first road bike to feature shock absorbers. The first mountain bikes didn’t have suspension, but once suspension forks had been developed some road teams thought that they might be useful for the cobbled Classics. RockShox made a limited run of road forks to give the idea a go. Maybe it would catch on?

They didn’t hurt on the cobbles. In fact, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle won Paris-Roubaix in 1992 and 1993 riding on a pair of RockShox, and for a while a number of pavé specialists used them.

The forks were lighter than the mountain bike forks and had a lockout switch on the handle bars. Bianchi and Cannondale experimented with other designs, but they didn’t catch on. Soon the pros abandoned bikes with suspension and returned to the old standard of cushioning; double wrapped bar tape.

9. Cannondale CAAD3 (1997)


Cipollini and his custom painted stars and stripes CAAD. Something he was fined for. Credit: Graham Watson

Ridden by: Mario Cipollini

Mario Cipollini didn’t contribute much to cycling technology, but he did a lot for cycling style. His flagrant disregard for the rules led to the colourful team kit you see today, and particularly the way the yellow, green and polka dot jersey wearers can coordinate their kit.

The outfit he chose for the Tour stage on July 4, 1997 – a Saeco team jersey, stars and striped shorts and a stars and striped bike from his American sponsor Cannondale saw him fined, for something which is common practice today. Note the four-spoke Spinergy wheels which were eventually banned by the UCI, after the spokes were deemed too dangerous.

The other iconic feature of Cipollini’s bike was the stem. Regardless of the bike he rode or team he raced for, irrespective of geometry, Cipollini always raced on a 13cm stem set as low as it could go. In fact his handlebars were so low on some bikes he could hardly ride in drops, which is why you will occasionally see pictures of him sprinting on the hoods. If Cipollini couldn’t do something in style he didn’t do it at all.

10. Specialized McLaren S-Works Venge (2011-2016)

Mark Cavendish Specialized Venge CVNDSH edition

Mark Cavendish Specialized Venge CVNDSH edition

Ridden by: Mark Cavendish

Specialized showed real marketing flair when it launched the Venge with Mark Cavendish as its front man. At the time, he was the undisputed fastest sprinter in the world. Specialized worked with F1 team McLaren to develop the Venge, with 30 years of experience in composites and a lifetime of thinking about aerodynamics, this was a good choice.

The designers had to come up with an aerodynamic frame without adding weight or compromising handling. The project achieved this with special design tweaks, like a one piece bottom bracket and chain stay unit, and by adding material only where it was needed. The bike also features a very substantial Zipp stem designed to cope with huge stress Cavendish creates.

The image of Cavendish sprinting to victory down the Champs-Élysées is certainly iconic and will live long in people’s memory. What bikes do you think should be in this list? Let us know in the comments.

  • Andy M

    Except for the shaped carbon tubes, and bespoke carbon lugs per above.

  • Andy M

    I am fortunate enough to own one, and have never enjoyed a frame more. Magical ride quality.

  • Jamie MacDonald

    Cannondale should be mentioned, not for rule breaking paint jobs, but for the use of dramatically oversized tubes (yes I know Gary Klein did it first), as shocking to pro cycling at the time as the TCR was in it’s time. That paved the way for much (all?) of the experimentation with, and acceptance of, different tube diameters and shapes that followed.

  • Dolan Halbrook

    Really, no mention of LeMond’s 1991 Calfee?

  • SteveG

    Anyone else notice that the image of Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle on the Lemond Suspension is flipped? Derailleur is on the wrong side and the RockShox logo is backwards.
    And where’s my Pinarello!?

  • Mj

    Those wheels under Mario Cippoliini, are the invention of my BFF and New Rochelle High School class of 79 alum, RAFE SCHLANGER… innovative and ground breaking are words that come to mind. He reinvented the wheel a second time with the Topolino Technology wheels, where the kevlar spokes travel through the hub from rim wall to rim wall. Clever guy, that Rafe.

  • David Bassett

    Harry Quinn making his own vertical dropouts back in the 60’s now the norm. Brazing a seat clamp to use an alan bolt (remember those seat bolts). Lots of innovation came out of that room above that Liverpool shop, and I am sure others like Harry.

  • Ted Rogers

    Modern Pinarellos are overrated. Those ridiculous wavy forks and seatstays were useless, other than as a styling theme. Even Pinarello themselves toned it down with the latest versions.

  • Ted Rogers

    Great bikes all, but game changers, no.

  • Ted Rogers

    True, the Kestrel 4000 is deserving of a mention. But I believe the article only picked bikes that were used at the very top professional road racing level. Kestrels had more impact on the triathlon scene.

  • Paul Jakma

    “Boo, sucjks!” to the photographers who like to tinker with the photos in such daft ways. Sigh. 🙁

  • 50gary

    I notice the Rock Shock was hard to read but on second look the Negitive (pre-digital photo tech) has been flipped so everything is reversed making the bike appear as left-side drive. Funny mistake.

  • 50gary

    To all, the C-40 line of chassis were and are great bikes, but only because of their refinement of existing design not of ground breaking innovation or invention.

  • Roger

    Quite. Also, I’ve yet to hear of another frame that has received such glowing praise from those who have ridden on it. And some of the paint jobs were pretty special, if you like that kind of thing.

  • Gordon Morris

    Disagree. The C-40 used carbon lugs rather than alloy, which facilitated manufacturing complexity rather than monocoque frames. The other thing was their use of shaped carbon tubes, which I believe was a first.

  • BobB59

    And it certainly was an aero road bike.

  • Geoff Waters

    Why no machine equipped with the Osgear used to introduce multigears into the Tour in tthe 1930s? This was the original gear of choice for the old BLRC ‘coureurs’ who revolutionised British cycling and sent the NCU, RTTC, alpaca jackets and TTs at dawn into the ‘dustbin of history’.

  • Roland

    1986 Kestrel 4000 should be on the list. It was the first molded carbon frame and still looks modern today. No one rode it on Tdf and Giro, but it is the first modern carbon bike,,,

  • Roland

    Hetchins has been using a wavy rear-stay to absorb shock since the 1930s. Bates’s wavy fork design also came from the 1930s.

  • Phynomtalk

    Look 795 Aerolight

  • Sheik Urbooti

    Game-changers? Then how about the LOOK KG196 (ONCE squad, 1993)??? Still being imitated today.

  • blemcooper

    Scott may have been there first with a ligther frame, but Saeco with Cannondale made a big show of it with the adding of weights to their “illegal” bikes.

  • blemcooper

    The C40 was the opposite of a game changer, continuing to use lugs, but with carbon rather than steel. And it was something Look had already been doing for a few years.

    Perhaps it depended on the Armstrong connection brought up in the article, but for good or ill the OCLV stuff helped usher the mainstream of the market away from what the C40 tried to keep closer to from bikes from history.

    The Cervelo is a reasonable candidate too, seeing how deep section aero road frames are a big thing now and seemingly here to stay.

    Other commentators here may be right that the Six13 may be more worthy than the CAAD13 if only for the former’s marketing campaign (as well as their defiant use of “illegal” bikes, except for gluing on weights, in high level competition) and pointing out the unreasonable-ness of the UCI’s 6.8 kg bike regulation. Now everybody at the top racing (and wannabe) levels has an “illegal” (or nearly so) bike with lead weights attached to bring it up to spec, or with heavier but more aero wheels. The superlight, but reliable enough for pro racing bikes opened the door for a lot of other innovations used in road racing within UCI rules today (heavier but more aero stuff, heavier but useful power metered variants of cranks/pedals/hubs/BBs/etc).

  • Roger

    Dogma et al are hardly less deserving than the American/Canadian bikes on the list. I would also say that Colnago’s C40/50//59/60 deserve a place.

  • Joseph

    Was not the Scott CR1 the bike that was one of the lightest of its’ time?

  • Joseph

    Klein Quantum Pro, Scott CR1?

  • James Cooper

    Don’t forget Raleigh helped develop/pioneer the lighter-weight Reynolds 753 tubing.

    Also, isn’t there something wrong with the picture of Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle’s bike in the 1992 Paris Roubaix? If not, it was a sure-fire way to ensure that you wouldn’t get unapproved help from another team in the event of a punctured rear tyre.

  • blemcooper

    I’m not saying I agree with the article’s list, but what Pinarello has been a game changer out on the road? The “Onda” wavy shaped stuff is interesting looking for sure, but hardly game changing, especially seeing how they stopped doing that (or at least toned it down significantly). The road rear suspension is very interesting, but it’s a bit new to see whether it is a game changer yet, Stannard’s cobbled win notwithstanding.

  • Ben Crossley

    Cannondale six 13 should be on here, I think the uci made the team add weights as they deemed it to be too light, and the entire team rode with a kit saying “legalize my cannondale, I was one of the first people in Britain to order one it cost £5,500 and was stolen within 3 weeks

  • What! No Dogma! or Pinarello of any description. Find that a bit of shocker.