Imagining the future of bicycle industry technology

Wireless shifting, electric motors and tubeless tyres. Real innovations, or just adapted technologies from other industries that are putting the bicycle industry to shame?


Transformative products and services seem to transpire with such breathtaking regularity these days that consumers demand increasing levels of imagination and off-the-scale breakthroughs in order to be awed. Notwithstanding advances in power meters, wireless technologies and cross-platform adaptation (disc brakes, thru-axles), the bicycle industry has moved at a glacial pace relative to the automative industry which, as a provider of personal transportation solutions that share the same roads, serves as a useful benchmark for how the two-wheeled sector is tracking in terms of technological and service advancement. The first wave of fuel cell passenger vehicles has hit shores globally, driverless cars are just around the corner and cars have been capable of detecting and diagnosing their own faults for years.

What could the bicycle industry be implementing now, and planning to release in future, to make sure important areas such as safety, performance and reliability are level-pegging with, or at least catching up to, the standards the average motorist now expects?

While descending at motorway speeds on your ultralight composite frame, have your thoughts ever momentarily wandered to how those <1.0mm-thick tubes are holding up? Naturally, all reputable brands need to ensure their products meet international safety standards in a lab prior to being sold. Actual use, however, has the potential to yield unpredictable outcomes. Aside from a handful of specialist providers such as Spyder Composites or Luescher Teknik, there is no industry-wide system in place to provide post-purchase integrity checks on composite frames. Wouldn’t it be nice if, after any impact or incident, you could quickly be assured that your frame is still safe to ride?

Following the example from German brand Canyon, which uses a Computed Tomography scanner to check every frame and fork it produces, bicycle retailers might reasonably be able to invest in a similar apparatus to provide assurance to its customers. At the present rate of advancement it can be imagined that, in future, cost-effective handheld devices using optical coherence tomography or similar scanning technology could become an indispensable workshop tool.

Looking further ahead, developments in material science could lead to self-diagnosis, whereby microscopic nodes embedded throughout a composite frame could “communicate” with one another – either by sending targeted point-to-point acoustic pulses to detect any damage to one or more material layers along the pathways (possibly by comparing the latest frequency to earlier recordings stored within an onboard computer), or by a network of nanotech webbing which, dependent on orientation, could detect interlaminar or shear stress damage and report the exact location via a handlebar-mounted GUI module or any smart device.

Image: Canyon Bicycle 2013 consumer catalogue

Image: Canyon Bicycle 2013 consumer catalogue

During its lifetime, chances are good that every “consumable” drivetrain part on a bicycle will need to be replaced. But when is the optimal time? Due to the inter-dependency of chain, cassette, chainrings and cogs to all mesh perfectly in order to achieve optimal performance, it’s less than ideal to replace one or some of those items when they are already past their “best by” date.

Currently, chain stretch or tooth wear are checked with a chain tool or visual inspection. The frequency of these checks are usually determined by the owner. The downside to this is that many bicycle owners will not take their bike into a shop until there is a problem. This is another area where micro-technology could again provide preventative benefits.

Between two and four micro-sensors, set equidistant along the length of a new chain, could alert the central module once their preset sensor-to-sensor range (along the axis of the chain) is exceeded – ie, chain stretch would result in a sensor moving further away in relation to another. Even better, as everything is web-enabled these days, a pop-up prompt could then be sent to the user’s on-board module or smart device, giving the option to order a replacement at the touch of a button: “Chain replacement due. Select ‘yes’ if you would like this to be ordered”. The order could be sent directly to the preferred store (or online retailer, if the owner is capable of carrying out installation) at a preferred service time; all of which could be pre-paid at a discounted rate, giving security to the store owner and a better deal to the bicycle’s owner. This is how dynamic stock control could be integrated deeper into the bicycle ecosystem.

Nanotechnology could also be used to embed wear indicators within chainring/cog teeth structures, so they either become discoloured when they are exposed (ie when the metal is worn beyond the manufacturer’s recommended limit) or, better yet, alert the on-board computer in the same way as the chain example above.

Of course, the above examples only apply if drivetrains as we know them remain in use for years ahead. With any luck, we’ll instead be riding road bikes equipped with lightweight continuous variable transmission (CVT), driven by carbon belt or hydraulic means.

Bottom brackets are another wear item that are usually only remembered once they start creaking at the halfway point of a 200km ride. Why not put a data logger/electronic odometer into BB’s to keep track of revolutions and a sensor that listens out for imperfections? A service/replacement alert would be triggered whenever the BB has exceeded a certain number of revolutions, or an irregularity is detected. As a safeguard to future owners who want to determine how many kilometres a bike has been ridden (see below), removing the old BB would also “lock” the paired headset until a new BB has been installed properly, with prior mileage and owner information authenticated and updated to the central (cloud) database.

Unlike in an automobile, where the machine’s inherent capabilities are the sole determinant of absolute performance, bicycles need to be coupled to a person. It is a person’s biomechanical relationship with the bicycle that enables speed. In the realm of performance, comfort should not be overlooked; without comfort, endurance speed becomes limited. With the prevalence of 3D printers, bicycle retailers – as part of a regular bike fit – will be able to create molds and send a 3D scan to manufacturers of contact parts (handlebars and saddles) for customised contact point fabrication. Too expensive, you ask? Perhaps for the average consumer, but the first composite bikes were also out of reach for average consumers.

Imagine all the above computer-controlled technologies were already implemented. Given you could quickly assess the integrity of a used frame and, with the correct software, also determine the wear and use of all major components, that leads to a currently untapped bicycle industry sector: brand-certified pre-owned bicycles.

There are already several online platforms for sellers and buyers of used bicycles to trade, but product assessments are entirely subjective. What if you could get factual answers to the questions – “has the frame ever been damaged?”; “how many kilometres has it done?”; “when was the last time the drivetrain components were replaced?”. If brands were to rollout certified pre-owned programs across their respective retail networks, there would be three major benefits:
1) higher resale return for seller, when compared to existing online platform
2) highest assurance for buyer
3) increased credibility/image for brand and opportunity to also transfer any residual warranty to next owner

Naturally, speculating about what could be possible is far easier than making it so. Even so, next time you pick up your smartphone or step into your car, compare the technologies on these commonplace products to those on your bicycle. Given the cost of an average road bike, should you be getting more?