Dr Hutch: Why you really shouldn’t get too excited about radical new bike designs

With the scrapping of the 3:1 bike design rule, the future has finally arrived, until it very quickly becomes the past...

Rumour has it that the UCI is dropping the 3:1 ratio rule for bike frame tubes. Assuming that the rumour is right, from next year the tubes that make up a frame can be a slightly more aerodynamic wing shape, because they can be deeper and thinner. The same applies to forks, and to aero handlebar shapes.

This astonishing piece of news provides a useful way to divide the world of cyclists into two important categories. Just ask someone where they were when they heard about it.

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If they say, “I was in the workshop hacking a Di2 rear mech so it would work with an old eight-speed cassette, just for fun, and I was so excited I dropped my soldering iron,” you are dealing with a proper cycling geek.

If they say, “Eh? 3,2,1? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” you are dealing with someone who has an actual life.

The first group is generally thrilled about liberalising design, even if it’s by a pretty minimal degree. The response on certain web forums (forums that I only visit for purposes of research, please understand) was along the lines of, “I just can’t wait to see the new bikes next year. My only worry is that the limited lead times mean they might not be able to develop anything really radical.”

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On the other hand the normal riders, once the change has been explained to them and they’ve been woken up again afterwards, said, “Oh great. A whole pile of ugly new bikes. That’s just what the world needs.”

Holding back the gears
Most bike riders are ambivalent at best about technological advances. Partly it’s natural conservatism. When the safety bike (what we think of as a bike, with a rear-wheel chain drive and equal sized wheels) was invented in the 1880s, the cyclists of the era were scornful. It would, they said, never replace the penny-farthing.

It was “dwarfish”, and the penny-farthing would always be the true bicycle of the aficionado. This has been the pattern ever since. When did you last hear anyone genuinely celebrate an additional sprocket being squeezed onto a back hub?

diamondback andean

No one except the chronically overexcited wants new models of bike. It’s new models of bike that make current models of bike into old models of bike. We should be grown-up enough not to care, but we aren’t. It’s the same as the launch of the iPhone 7 — an iPhone 6 shrivels up just a little bit and an iPhone 5 becomes an anti-consumerist statement.

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The ‘ugly’ new bikes very quickly become the normal bikes, and the one you bought so proudly a couple of years ago and which you clean lovingly and never take out in the rain suddenly looks a bit dated.

There is something sad about looking at a favourite bike and realising that thanks to the march of the marginal redesign it’s now ‘old’, and you’re going to have to wait another 15 years before it transitions to ‘retro’ and you can start being proud of it again.

Remember, incidentally, the second rule of retro. That is, it’s only retro if you stopped using it at some point and started again. If you just keep on using it, it will never be anything more pretentious than old.

You could, of course, sell it. But old bikes are worth a lot less than ones that are either new or retro. This is why many garages are like mine — they contain only old bikes, because I’m waiting for them to mature into retro bikes.

Oh, and the first rule of retro? You don’t talk about retro. Please. Because if there’s one thing less interesting than someone banging on about a new bike it’s someone banging on about an old one.