There are few professional sports as closely bound to technology as cycling. A bike isn't just equipment, as skiis or a tennis racket might be—it's a partner in a symbiotic relationship between the machine and athlete. And it's remarkable how drastically that machine has changed in the last century.
The Tour de France entered its 100th year this month (Go Froome, Cavendish, etc), and now is a great time to take a look back at the evolution of the road bike. We ran across a great collection of bikes used on the Tour this week, courtesy of Emile Arbes at Le Blog de Velos Vintage, and added extras from around the internet, below. The collection begins at the very beginning, when road-ready meant extra mustache wax, and extends to the modern day, when bikes are so light riders often have to weight them to stay legal.
Keep in mind, we haven't spent much time focusing on contemporary technology—that's another post for another time.
Sixty cyclists set out to compete in the first Tour, and only 21 finished. Maurice Garin, aka the Little Chimney-Sweep, won the day on this steel La Française. His heavy frame featured new-fangled toe clips—invented only a few years prior.
A more modern geometry was emerging a decade later—check out the more recognisable drop handlebars on this Thomann-Joly ridden by Belgian star Léon Scieur, who won the tour in 1914 riding what was likely a very similar bike. Also check out the pump on the seat tube—back then, riders still did their own maintenance. In fact, it was against the Tour rules to receive help.
The Tour's first Italian winner, Ottavio Bottecchia, rode a flashy AuTomoTo-Hutchinson to victory in 1924. Three years later, he was found dead of a skull fracture on the side of the road with his bike untouched. His death still remains a mystery, but some attribute it to Mussolini thugs, wary of Bottecchia's anti-fascist leanings.
André Leducq, who won the Tour in '30 and '32, rode a sea foam-coloured Alcyon-Dunlop. Still no gears to be seen—it's hard to imagine riding a single speed bike over the forbidding Alpine climbs today. The derailleur was introduced to the Tour seven years later, in 1937, but before that, riders would have to get off their bikes and change wheels to switch between terrains.
Antonin Magne—aka "the Monk"—won the Tour in '31 and '34, when he secretly tested the first Mavic "Duralumin" rim during the race. He even went so far as to paint wood grain on the rims to avoid detection—such tech was against the rules at the time.
1947 Tour winner Jean Robic, who was known as "the hobgoblin of the Brittany moor" (great nickname!) rode this 1952 Colomb-Clément. Check out the sweet steel lugs—and we're now well into the era of derailleurs! Robic was also one of the first riders to wear a helmet after fracturing his skull, in 1944.
Jacques Anquetil (seen on the right, with Eddy Merckx) won the Tour five times riding a Saint-Raphaël-Helyett 1962. Check out the sweet Evian water bottle.
Felice Gimondi—who won the Tour in '65—rode a Celeste-green 1967 Bianchi for several years. Contemporary Bianchi fans will recognize his initials—they're used for the company's FG Light frames.
Eddy Merckx is probably the best-known ride of the 20th century—he won the Tour five times, and went on to become what some claim is the most accomplished cyclist of all time. There's plenty to say about Merckx, but it's far more exciting to watch him in this excerpt from A Sunday In Hell, a documentary that covers the famously brutal Paris-Roubaix.
The bespectacled Laurent Fignon rode a steel Gitane to his Tour victory in 1983 and 1984. [Image via Flickr]
Greg LeMond was the first non-European cyclist to win the Tour, in 1986, and won it a second and third time in in '86 and '90. Here, you can see LeMond's distinctive sunburst paint job—as well as his clipless pedals, which became common in the late 80s. [Image by C.Cal.Shoot]
The very last time a steel frame bike was ridden to Tour de France victory was in 1994, when Miguel Indurain clinched his fourth of five wins. His 19.8lb Pinarello, according to some sources, was only branded as Pinarello—in reality, it was custom-built by Dario Pegoretti, the iconic Italian frame builder.
Now we're getting into the contemporary era, with companies experimenting with non-steel and, eventually, carbon fibre. Marco Pantani's Bianchi Mega Pro XL Reparto Corse, a custom-built aluminum frame, was the last bike to be ridden to Tour victory that wasn't made of carbon fiber. It was the end of an era.
Sure, Lance Armstrong has since been stripped of his titles, but his steel 1994 Motorola-Eddy Merckx (above) is fascinating to compare to his later rides. Armstrong went on to become an early adopter of contemporary cycling tech, mostly in partnership with Trek. In 1999, he became the first Tour winner to ride a carbon fibre bike from start to finish. And in 2003, he rode the lightest bike ever used in the Tour (a 14.5 lb Trek 5900 SL) before organisers instituted a minimum weight of 15 lbs.
Alberto Contador, aka El Pistelero, won the Tour in '07 and '09—this year, he's still two minutes behind frontrunner Chris Froome according to today's report. Contador is known as a climber, and his bikes are tailored to play to that strength—check out the wide cassette on this Specialized Tarmac SL4, which lets him to stay on the "big ring" of his crank set during long climbs.
There are plenty that we missed—so drop your contributions below.
All images from 1903-1976 courtesy of Emile Arbes at Le Blog de Velos Vintage.