The History of Tour DE France Bikes

The Tour de France is the biggest cycling competition in the world in terms of spectators and media coverage. This means that cycling sponsors and brands are involved in the Tour and show their new products there. The race was also created to promote the newspaper L’Auto, with success both for the publication and for bicycle brands and spare parts. Ask Campagnolo, Pinarello, Trek, or any small manufacturer who, we’ll see, we’re lucky enough to have their inventions approved by Tour organizers. We’ll look at these inventions, changes, and innovations as we examine the evolution of bikes from the first Tour to the present day.

Here are The History of Tour DE France Bikes

At Full Speed And Without Brakes

You could describe the first Tour-winning bike in 1903 as a half fixie, half gravel. A fixed-gear steel bike with wooden rims, 32-38mm wide tires, a leather saddle, and handlebars that look like some recent gravel bikes. The thing to know when riding a fixie is that you can’t coast; you have to pedal constantly unless you take your feet off the pedals. And the only way to brake is to pedal backward. 

The Freewheel In Freedom

With the arrival of the mountain, stages landed using the freewheel. Even though Henri Desgrange, the organizer of the Tour, several journalists and cyclists believed that riding without pedaling would reduce the race’s difficulty, smooth out the differences between the riders, and require more complex bikes.

It was the dangerous nature of the descents that encouraged the use of freewheeling. The development of brakes has also been an important factor. The transition from rod brakes acting on the wheels or rims to caliper brakes operated with a cable and acting on the rim is very similar to current brakes.

It’s Time To Switch Gears

Remarkable detail: if the derailleurs are older than the Tour de France, it was not until 1937 that the Tour authorized their use for all cyclists involved. Their use was previously limited to cyclists in the Isolated category. It was in 1912 that the first derailleur of the Tour appeared on the cyclist’s bicycle (perhaps we should say cyclist ) of the Isolated Joanny Panel category. The derailleur carried the charming name of Chemineau rather than the less romantic names found on current bikes, such as Dura-Ace 9150.

In 1937 all cyclists were finally allowed to use a derailleur, as long as they used the same model: the Super Champion of the Swiss manufacturer (and cyclist) Oscar Egg. Who knows if it’s because of an agreement, a contract, or a commission between the organizers and the manufacturer. What is certain is that the winner of the 1937 edition (Roger Lapébie) and that of 1939 (Sylvere Maes) used this derailleur, and sales of the Super Champion exploded.

It must be said that this derailleur was a revolution. Not only because it had 3 or 4 gears but also because it allowed you to change gears without stopping to remove and re-attach the wheel and adjust the chain tension.

The Evolution Of Speeds

Since the first derailleur in 1937, gears have evolved to the point that modern electronic systems are so precise, fast, and reliable and have such a range of gears that Desgrange would be hard pressed to find a challenge commensurate with the Luchon – Bayonne stage of 1910. But the Super Champion does not look like what we have today. And the evolution has been long, with small but important technological innovations to increase the number of gears from 3 to 24, and the shifter from the seat stays to what we have now. Here are the most important changes:

The First Parallelogram Derailleur

Tullio Campagnolo refined (copied and improved) existing derailleurs and, in 1949, launched the first prototype of his Gran Sport model. This derailleur has shapes and performances that can be considered modern. He won his first Tour in 1951. At that time, the gear levers were already placed on the down tube of the frame to be able to use both the front and rear derailleur by pulling cables.

Indexed Derailleurs

When we shift gears these days with a mechanical derailleur, we hear a click. This was not the case until the mid-1980s; it was all about tension and friction. The cyclist adjusted his gear lever until he reached the desired speed without hearing a click. By introducing its SIS (Shimano Index System), Shimano has increased the speed, precision, and reliability of shifting. Other manufacturers (Campagnolo, Mavic, and SunTour) copied the idea and indexed their derailleurs.

INTEGRATED GEAR LEVERS

In 1990, Shimano launched its Dura-Ace 7400 with STI (Shimano Total Integration) and revolutionized the appearance of bicycles by eliminating the gear levers on the down tube to integrate them with the brakes on the handlebar hoods, allowing the passage of shift gears even faster. The following year Campagnolo took the aerodynamic design even further by routing the cables towards the handlebars to hide them under the handlebar tape.

Electric Derailleurs

The electric derailleur first appeared in 1993 with Tony Rominger and in 1994 with Chris Boardman. Both used the Zap electronic groupset from the manufacturer Mavic. But despite the undeniable success of the derailleur (the Englishman won the Prologue and Yellow Jersey by covering the 7.2 km at more than 55 km/h), the innovation did not impose itself in the peloton.

When Shimano introduced the Dura-Ace 7970 with Di2 (Digital Integrated Intelligence) in 2009, some found the innovation redundant. The mechanics, however, largely approved. And the reliability of the derailleur, its speed, its comfort, and Cadel Evans’ victory in the 2011 Tour allowed him to win.

Since then, only Vincenzo Nibali has won a Tour de France (the 2014 edition) with a mechanical derailleur. And that’s probably more a matter of coincidence because at that time, Campagnolo, the brand that Nibali’s team used, was already using electronic derailleurs on their bikes. This is probably the last time a cable derailleur will win the Tour.

This is where the biggest changes in materials and design of bicycles took place. In the program? Farewell to steel, the advent of aerodynamics, and new bike geometries. In the saddle!

Farewell To Steel: The Arrival Of Aluminum, Then The Advent Of Carbon

Miguel Indurain’s fourth Tour on a Pinarello in 1994 will be the last edition won by a steel bike. Two new materials had already emerged at the end of the 80s, with the victories of Greg LeMond and Pedro Delgado: aluminum and carbon. But it wasn’t until Indurain’s fifth and final Tour, in 1995, that the steel began to disappear. That year, his Pinarello was made of aluminum, like all the bikes that would win the Tour until Lance Armstrong’s first triumph. Among them was Marco Pantani’s superb Bianchi Mega Pro XL Reparto Corse, which ended Pinarello’s unchallenged domination in those years.

It was in 1999 that the American won the first of his seven Tours, in the circumstances that we know now. For two reasons, his bike, the Trek 5200, represents an important turning point. First, it is the first 100% carbon bike to win the Tour. And it is also the first victory for Shimano. This Japanese manufacturer has lost only 6 times (4 against Campagnolo and 2 against Sram). It is nowadays the brand most used by World Tour teams. In addition, the construction of the Trek was also new: it was the first bike designed not with traditional methods (tubes assembled with welds or fittings), but straight out of a mold, like the vast majority of modern carbon bikes.

Aerodynamics Takes Flight

The current generation sees Pogačar’s impressive comeback to overtake Roglič in the time trial on the penultimate day of the 2020 Tour as a huge surprise. But what about the performance of the American Greg LeMond in the time trial marking the last stage of the Tour 89 on the Champs-Élysées? As France awaited Laurent Fignon’s victory, Greg made history by winning the Tour by the narrowest of margins and providing the most impressive proof of the importance of aerodynamics.

This edition of the Tour has caused much ink to flow. The fact is that Fignon was 50 seconds ahead of LeMond before the 24.5 km time trial, and he finished the Tour 8 seconds behind the American. LeMond beat him by 58 seconds: 2.3 per kilometer and 2 km/h faster on average. The American was superior to Fignon in the time trial exercise, but why didn’t the Frenchman use the same (or similar) handlebars as his rival? Why didn’t he didn’t wear a different helmet and goggles rather than riding with his hair tied in a ponytail and goggles with lots of air resistance? He can’t say he was taken by surprise and didn’t have time to try alternatives. LeMond had used his triathlon handlebars and aero helmet in previous time trials. Fignon simply didn’t try. And once he converted, two months later in the Grand Prix des Nations, he proved unbeatable.

Aerodynamics applied to cycling was here to stay. The 90s saw many radical and innovative (wacky) designs for time trial bikes and gear. It took until 2000 for UCI imposed strict rules on bicycles and equipment. 

You must go back to 2003 and the CSC team’s Cervélo Soloist model to find the first aero-designed normal bike to compete in the Tour. The name of the bike says it all. It is designed in aluminum with flat tubes and not round. It is designed to be as aerodynamic as possible and to provide advantages for the solo rider. What was at the time a very specific design for particular circumstances has now established itself as the standard for all bikes entered in the Tour.

New Geometry

Finally, let’s talk about an apparently minor but truly essential development: the change in the geometry of the bikes. The design of both wishbones and the fork means that some angles and measurements affect the bike’s performance and response, just as much if not more than the material used in its design. The materials, technologies, and components existing at the time also determine the shape and final design of the bike.

If we compare the 1903 bike with the 2021 one, we’ll see that Maurice Garin’s ride had a wheelbase of around 1.2m, a tighter head tube angle, and a more forward fork. The design was thought to absorb shocks for stability and ease of piloting. The Colnago, on the other hand, has a wheelbase of around 1m, a head tube angle of 73°, and the smallest possible fork. The bike is designed to be nimble and to transmit every watt of power developed by Pogačar’s legs.

The first change appeared in the bicycles of the late 1930s: the bicycle above is Bartali’s Legnano, which won the 1938 Tour. At this time, the two triangles were smaller, and the wheelbase was reduced. Roads, materials, components, and manufacturing technologies had improved from the early days of the Tour. The changes in angles and sizes are even more remarkable after the war. Below you can see the Bianchi on which Coppi won the 1949 Tour.

Geometry changes between Coppi’s Bianchi and Pantani’s in 1998 are minimal. But a year later, the Giant TCR (Total Compact Road) made its tour debut for the ONCE team.

This is a bicycle designed by one of the most important engineers in the history of cycling: Mike Burrows. He found his inspiration in mountain biking to develop a completely revolutionary road bike. It’s much more compact, with a distinctive top tube rake that reduces the size of the main triangle. The rear triangle is also smaller, with a very short chainstay and seat stay attached to the seat tube under the top tube. These geometric innovations reduce the bike’s weight, increase its stiffness, offer better control and offer a more balanced frame for smaller riders.

This 1997 design is so revolutionary that Giant still sells the TCR model today. It has been updated both aesthetically and technologically to incorporate the latest innovations. And one thing is clear: many of the bikes we admire on the Tour today are inspired by Burrows’ design.

What will be the next big innovation? We may be experiencing it now, with the introduction of disc brakes. But the strict rules of the UCI do not really leave room for major innovations. One could even say that the world governance of cycling has taken on the role of Henri Desgrange at the start of the Tour de France.

Marcelline
Marcelline

Marcelline is a writer and covers several categories thanks to her multidisciplinary expertise.

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