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New Bicycle Technology, Is It Good or Bad?

by John Neugent

Tech articles | Commentary articles |

John Neugent probably knows more about bicycle wheels than anyone else alive. Maybe more about bikes as well. He's spent his life in the bike business, at every level. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price. If you are in the market for a set of wheels, please, check out John's site. He really knows his stuff. —Chairman Bill

John Neugent

Author John Neugent

Ever since starting in the bike industry, I have always been excited about products. A real spoke sniffer. Later I became a product manager and worked in product development. Later still, the office I ran for Sachs in the US had a lot of influence on their product development. I even have a few patents to my name.

I recently took my circa 1974 Colnago for a ride. It had the original Campy Record components, tubular wheels, downtube shifters, a real 10-speed gearing system (14-24 5-speed freewheel and 44/48 front chainrings). I didn’t weigh it, but it’s as much fun riding it was my newest bike.

The bike is about 45-years old and, within a few years, spans my years as a cycling enthusiast. It rides just like it did back then. It’s quick, responsive, and somewhat comfortable. The frame is not too stiff, but it’s quick and responsive in the corners.

Eddy Merckx

Eddy Merckx riding an all-Campagnolo steel bike in the 1975 Tour de France.

So what has happened on road bikes in the last 45 years? The bikes are lighter, the gearing is mercifully wider, they are easier to shift, and the frames are more comfortable, but at what cost? The old chains and freewheels would last much longer. The whole gear train was much more durable. The wheels were heavier, mostly due to more spokes, heavier rims, and hubs. But the wheels were stronger and lasted longer.

During those 45 years bike riding has been largely the same experience. Actually, I like using the old downtube shifters and non-index shifting. Very much like a stick shift in a car, I feel closer to the shifting experience.

As most of you probably know, I make my living selling wheels, and it’s normal for customers ask if my new wheels will work on the old, perfectly good, equipment and all too often the answer is no. Many 10-speed hubs can’t be converted to 11, and earlier disc wheels can’t be converted to thru axle. And most of these changes have resulted in very incremental improvements in real-world performance.

What then are the reasons for these changes? In my opinion, they are not due to the sole goal of making better products (although I believe most companies are sincerely committed to that). The two real reasons are that if you have product development people it’s their job to make new products, and the marketing people want something to sell, so we are really caught up in this new product trap by well-meaning people and companies doing their jobs. This was not something I was aware of when I was in product development and marketing, it’s something I see in “the rear view mirror” of experience.

A good portion of my business is the result of new technologies that make the olf obsolete, so I should be happy about this. But it really bothers me that people need to buy new parts for new bikes when the old parts worked perfectly well.

Julan Alaphilippe

Modern bikes are lighter and have more gears. But are they better? Sirotti photo

The older I get (I prefer to think of it as more experienced), the more those old farts complaining about everything make sense and the old geezers on their old 50-year old steel bikes are the ones I want to emulate.  In reality, it’s being on the bike that matters, no matter what the age or discipline. I am not going to change the need for change (or more accurately the desire for change).

In the U.S., it’s always been the racing elite that dictate the market for performance bikes through their influencing of the “influencers.” In fact, many of the top pros are forced or heavily influenced by their product sponsors who want to showcase their latest developments. Their first tests of carbon wheels ended in disaster because the riders could, and did, break everything they were given. It was only decades later that they began using them in earnest. Many are only grudgingly using disc brakes.

There is a story in the New York Times about IRS audits being the highest in a low income area with the highest rate of audits being something like 25% higher than the lowest. Twenty five percent seems significant until you realize the lowest rate is .008, or .8% and the highest is .1% so 2 more people per thousand (8 vs 10) are audited. I don’t know about you, but to me 8 vs 10 in 1000 is as close as the same as you can get. This is exactly the type of thing “improvements” almost always are: extremely minor changes that are marketed as significant. I understand that’s marketing, but when it changes a standard it’s a problem.

I don’t propose a solution. I just want to make people aware of what they are buying and why.

John Neugent was was one of the first to establish quality hand building in Taiwan around the turn of the century. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price.