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Bikes of the Tour de France (15 years ago)

Miscellaneous 5 120

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.”


  1. Fritz July 21, 2006 at 12:20 am -  Reply

    So these are, like, videotape? How do you view them?

  2. James July 21, 2006 at 6:26 am -  Reply

    Yeah Fritz, back in the old days they had machines that played tapes like these. Luckily I still had one right next to my turntable and 8-track player. By the way, if the UCI had anything to do with it, videotape would be the required medium for watching all bicycle races.

  3. tr July 21, 2006 at 1:53 pm -  Reply

    i really wish the UCI would alter their regulations; and i’m sure they will have to eventually. having absolutes on distances between components and points does not always work, depending on the body geometry of the rider.

    i really disagree with the UCI stance that these regulations are in place to allow cycling to stay on level ground with the ‘common man’; that people watching professional cycling should be able to easily get into the sport without needing an exotic machine. i really got into cycing around ’92, when i started college. even before then, i loved looking at the bikes professionals used, and always lusted after one. the mid 90’s were great for bicycle design…i remember seeing Chris Boardman on his Lotus Sport, and Miguel Indurain on that carbon fiber Pinarello TT bike…do you remember that one? it looked like a freakin’ space ship, with him wearing that helmet with the built in eye lenses adding to the effect. i wanted a bike like that! i wanted something that pushed technology to the brink. and after saving lots and lots of money, i ended up buying the bike i still ride today: Look KG196. it was the perfect bike for me. and i bought it not only because it was a great looking bike, but also because i admired the team that rode them, ONCE. it made me ecstatic that i had such an advanced piece of machinery…that i could power myself! just like the pros! it got me wanting to ride more and more.

    adhering to design constraints, i feel, is really hurting the technology and designs that bicycles could have.

  4. Fritz July 22, 2006 at 10:09 pm -  Reply

    Maybe at UCI meetings the members spontaneously break out in song with this.

  5. RennyBA July 23, 2006 at 4:51 pm -  Reply

    Did you saw the Norwegian biker today then?

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