Nothing is quite as enjoyable as the simple pleasure of riding a bicycle. That pleasure can disappear, however, when you have to deal with a flat tire or a malfunctioning derailleur. Jarring rides, poor brakes, and greasy chain marks on pants and legs are some of the other common inconveniences that cyclists have tolerated for more than a century.
Thankfully, manufacturers are adapting technologies from other industries and applying them to bicycles to reduce or eliminate some of these problems. If you have an old clunker gathering dust in your garage, take a look at the next generation of bicycles and how they have evolved to make cycling even more enjoyable than it has ever been. And if you’ve put off a regular tuneup for a little too long, consider some of these practical innovations.
I’ve found it so much easier to commute to work by bike now that I’ve picked up some of these five innovative updates in bicycle technology:
1. Belt Drives
While a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, imagine the strength, cleanliness, and quietness of a “chain” with no links at all. No oil and complete silence is what you can expect from a bike equipped with a Carbon Belt Drive system from Gates.
Gates provides a system used by about a dozen manufacturers in the United States. This system uses a toothed belt made out of rubber and carbon fiber – it’s not that far off from the kind of belt that drives the accessories in your car. Because the belt contains no metal, it doesn’t need oil, and it’s extremely quiet. You can now purchase chain-free bicycles from several large companies and some small, innovative producers.
- Clean operation keeps grease stains off of your legs and clothes.
- Belt drives don’t require oil.
- With no derailleurs, you’ll need far less maintenance.
- Belts last three times longer than chains.
- This system requires a specially designed frame, and the list of manufacturers offering bicycles designed for this system is small, but growing.
- Incompatibility with derailleurs means that you must use an internally geared bicycle or just go with a single-speed bike.
2. Internally Geared Hubs
The invention of the derailleur revolutionized bicycle racing, but recreational cyclists constantly need to adjust and fine-tune their derailleurs to keep them functioning properly. To resolve this need for consistent maintenance, manufacturers invented internally geared bicycle hubs.
Like the transmission in your car, an internally geared hub uses a complex set of gears to vary the drive ratio, allowing you to operate the pedals at the same speed regardless of the speed of the bicycle.
Like a car’s gears, these gears are sealed, protecting them from the elements and practically eliminating the need for adjustment. While a few city bicycles have historically been equipped with internally geared, three-speed hubs, new updates in technology have led to a wide range of gear systems suitable for more general use. Component giants Shimano and SRAM offer internally geared hubs that come in eight, nine, and eleven-speed setups.
- You’ll stop having to maintain and adjust your greasy derailleurs.
- Internally geared hubs last a lifetime.
- You can change gears even while you’re not pedaling.
- Sealed gearing is virtually weatherproof.
- Gear range is more limited than it is with derailleurs. While most bicycles equipped with derailleurs now offer 18 to 30 speeds, internally geared models are limited to 11 speeds in mainstream applications. Therefore, they might not be suitable for climbing very steep hills.
- This system is more expensive than traditional derailleurs.
- They’re not suitable for DIY maintenance. Although they usually last a lifetime, any damage or failure will mean that you’ll have to replace the hub.
3. Disc Brakes
With traditional brakes, a cable tugs on long arms that push your brake pads against the rim of the wheel, perhaps the wettest and dirtiest part of your bicycle. Thanks to all that dirt and moisture, along with the weight that the rim bears in supporting the tire and spokes, brakes usually underperform drastically. To address this trouble, manufacturers have adopted the powerful disc brake technology that you’d find in most cars and motorcycles.
Disc brakes are metal discs that attach to the hub, and they bring your bike to a smooth stop in all conditions when the brake pads squeeze against it from both sides. At first, only downhill mountain bike racers used disc brakes, but the technology has since trickled down to nearly every type of bicycle on the market. I use a road bicycle equipped with disc brakes for my daily commute to work.
- Disc brakes provide safe, powerful braking in any weather.
- They require maintenance less frequently than traditional brakes.
- Your rims will never wear down from braking force.
- This system tolerates rims that might wobble back and forth, which can result from misaligned spokes. With conventional brakes, on the other hand, your brake pads will unnecessarily rub against your rim, leading to unintentional braking and unwanted resistance.
- Few road bikes come equipped with this technology, and you can only add disc brakes if your frames and forks are specifically designed for them.
- Disc brakes are much more popular on city bikes and mountain bikes, and they can be an expensive option on new bikes.
4. Tubeless Tires and Tire Sealants
I hate interrupting a great ride to sit on the side of the road and change a flat. I dislike having to constantly purchase, repair, and throw away inner tubes. The cure for all of these problems is the tubeless bicycle tire.
Car and motorcycle tires have been tubeless for decades, and that technology has finally reached bicycles. While a conventional tire relies on a rubber tube within it to hold air, a tubeless tire is airtight in and of itself. It doesn’t require puncture-prone tube, so you won’t have to waste money replacing busted tubes.
Moreover, when you add a couple of ounces of liquid sealant to the tire, your tire will be nearly flat-proof. If you get a puncture, the sealant escapes through the hole, congealing and automatically repairing the damage.
Lastly, because you don’t have a tube putting extra pressure on the tread, you’ll face less friction against the riding surface, which in turn leads to a much smoother ride.
Tubeless mountain bike tires have been around for about a decade, but tubeless road bike tires are only now becoming popular. To use tubeless tires, your wheel rims must either be designed for them, or you can convert them as I did using a tubeless bike kit from NoTubes. Kits start at around $60 (without tires), while tubeless tires themselves cost about $50 each. That’s a high initial expense, but remember that you will save significant time and money over the life of your bike. You’ll also ride more safely and smoothly on tubeless tires.
If you’re not ready to invest in a tubeless system, you can still use tire sealants in your tubes to virtually end flat tires. Slime designs sealant for tubes and sells it for under $10 a bottle (i.e. Slime Tube Sealant 8 0z for $7)
- Decreased friction means smoother rides.
- Tubeless tires virtually eliminate punctures and flats.
- You’ll avoid the hassle and expense of replacing tubes.
- Road tubeless tires are safer than conventional tires. In the rare event of an unsealable puncture, air will leak out more slowly than it would leak from an inner tube. Also, the design of a road tubeless tire makes it impossible for the tire to dislodge from the wheel during a flat, helping you keep control even during a sudden popped tire.
- Tubeless tires cost more than standard tires, but they reward you with financial savings on patch kits and replacement tubes. In the face of this potentially prohibitive cost, the simpler option of merely adding inexpensive sealant is a fair middle ground.
- They’re a little harder to install than standard tires. You’ll probably need a compressor for the initial inflation.
5. Inexpensive Carbon Fiber
Carbon fiber is an amazing material – carbon fiber frames on high-end bikes in the Tour de France don’t even weigh two pounds. It’s also a very expensive material, and until recently, a recreational bicycle with a carbon fiber frame would only be for an elite rider with a big budget.
As the cost comes down, more cyclists can enjoy the advantages of a lighter bike with reduced vibrations. The costs haven’t come down quite enough to be reasonable for beginners and even everyday riders, but you don’t need carbon fiber in your entire frame to enjoy the many benefits.
Inexpensive steel and aluminum bicycles come equipped with carbon forks, handlebars, and seat posts, which cut weight and lower the vibrations that cause fatigue. Frankly, as a rider I still prefer a little bit of weight and the feel of a metal frame. A carbon fork and other lighter components create what’s really an ideal balance, not a difficult compromise. Metal provides the springy feel that I’m used to, and carbon components are an affordable way to lose the right amount of weight on the bike. A full carbon frame, meanwhile, has a dampened character that’s missing something to me.
- Vibration dampening properties allow you to feel fresher after a long ride.
- Lighter weight improves handling and reduces wasted effort in pedaling.
- Carbon does not rust or corrode.
- The woven black fibers look great.
- Lower-cost carbon components provide many of the benefits of an expensive carbon frame.
- Although their prices have fallen, carbon fiber frames and parts are still more expensive than other materials.
- Carbon components are vulnerable to damage if you and your bike mechanic don’t properly install them.
Today’s bicycles are not the same as your parents’ bicycles, or even the ones you grew up with. New innovations can make your ride smoother and safer. With the right pieces, you can take on longer distances and get a better workout. Still, the costs and specific needs for each component are often prohibitive.
By choosing a bicycle that utilizes some or all of these advances, you can achieve a higher level of performance and comfort than you might have ever thought possible. Consider the costs carefully, and don’t forget about long-term savings and the value of a better ride. While these technologies can add to the price of your purchase, I am convinced that they provide cyclists with a more valuable bicycle and a more productive riding experience.
Which of the above bicycle technologies are most appealing to you? Have you made any upgrades that paid off?