Recently, I found a few old cycling videos at the thrift store. Each one of them is well worth the 99 cents that I paid. The 1994 Liege-Bastogne-Liege for instance, is the race in which a young Lance Armstrong, wearing the striped world champion jersey, placed 2nd (the highest ever American finish in that classic). Of course, since it is now July and I am currently obsessed with that little race in France, the video that I chose to watch first was the 1991 Tour de France. This particular tour, the first win for Miguel Indurain, was one that I remembered well. Greg LeMond was coming back to defend his title from the previous two years but ended up finishing a disappointing 7th. Along with Indurain, the riders who really made this tour were the 2nd and 3rd place finishers, reigning world champion Gianni Bugno and “El Diablo” Claudio Chiappucci. At the time, Chiappucci, who won the KOM jersey in this tour, was one my favorite riders. I liked the way that he sometimes seemed to disregard tactics and would attack at the most inopportune times. It seemed to work for him and it certainly earned him the respect of the peloton. Another rider that I liked at the time, “the professor” Laurent Fignon was nearing the end of his career, but finished 6th in this tour with a gutsy ride. I am sure that he was happy to finish one place ahead of LeMond after the previous couple tours. The lowlight of this tour was Djamolidine Abdoujaparov’s crash during the final sprint in Paris. After his spectacular crash into the barriers, he was helped back on his bike to cross the line and claim his green points jersey. Yep, the race was a good one, but I am digressing a bit; I’d better get back to the bikes.
As corny as it sounds, watching this video was like going back in time (it really is hard to believe that 15 years has passed since the start of Indurain’s tour reign). As the nineties rolled in, bicycle technology was changing pretty quickly. I remember thinking that clipless pedals, aero brake levers, 7 speed cassette cogs, and indexed shifting were all really great advances. I am probably forgetting a few other notable innovations, but those were all features that I had been riding without just a few years earlier. In 1991, I was in college and working as a mechanic in a bike shop that carried primarily Treks, Kestrels, and Giants. The all carbon fiber Kestrels that we sold were very popular with local racers and club riders. Also popular were Trek 2500s, which featured round carbon fiber main frame tubes bonded to aluminum lugs. Carbon fiber, aluminum, titanium, and steel bikes were all pretty common at USCF races, but you would not have known that from looking at the bikes that the pros were riding at the time. As I watched this video, I was reminded that lugged steel frames dominated the European road racing scene until fairly recently. Sure the bikes of the tour were evolving quickly in 1991. It had been only two years since LeMond introduced aerobars, among other aero advances, to the Tour’s time trials. By ’91, the idea of riding a time trial in the tour on a regular road bike was already out of date. Still, it took a while for professional teams to eschew tradition completely and embrace new frame materials.
There is a world of difference between the bikes used in the tour today and the ones used 15 years ago (though that difference would be even greater if it weren’t for the UCI’s silly little restrictions). Landis’ BMC has received much attention this year for being the first bike in the tour enhanced with nanotubes. A quick glance at the Cycling News tech section illustrates how advanced all of the bikes used in the tour have become in recent years, especially the time trial machines. Compared to today’s bikes, LeMond’s revolutionary 1989 Bottecchia time trial bike (scroll down to see it) may not look all that special. At the time, this bike looked drastically different than any of the others in the tour, so it was big news when Greg rode it to victory in the final time trial. Today, technological advances are the norm and each year time trial machines look sleeker and faster than ever before. For me, the new bikes that I see each racing season are as exciting as the racing itself. Some cycling fans like to argue that technology hurts the sport because it takes away from the achievements of the athletes. I don’t think so. All of the pro teams are using pretty nice bikes these days and I think that the playing field, from a technological standpoint, is as level as it ever has been. So why shouldn’t the bikes that pros race push the boundaries of design? I would like to see the UCI drop, or at least revise, some of their current restrictions so that we will see even greater engineering advances in the future. Who knows, maybe in another 15 years I will look back at the racing bikes of today and say, “wow, I remember when I rode an old bike like that.”