Has pedal power ever been more popular in the UK? With British Teams conquering the velodromes and the roads in recent years, Boris Bikes taking over London and over fifteen thousand miles of cycle paths within our shores there is no doubt that cycling is in the hearts of millions.

Partly fuelling this passion, partly fuelled by it, is relentless R & D. Whether to give competitive advantage to elite cyclists or enhance the enjoyment and experience of cycling for the rest of us, the innovations come thick and fast. Let’s take a look at how bikes are becoming lighter, more aerodynamic, safer, more comfortable and more secure.

Material impact

As with less eco-friendly modes of transport such as cars, materials used in composition are a hotbed of research. The challenge is to marry structural strength with lightweight characteristics. Carbon fibre is very much a buzz word in cycling, as the material has filtered down from elite bikes to the mainstream. It has been criticised for driving up the cost of cycling though, in some cases to eye-watering prices. Titanium is also a material that has favourable qualities for bicycle frames, being both strong and lightweight. Then there is good old fashioned steel and aluminium which both still certainly have a role to play. Startups like Guapa Cycles are even developing bikes manufactured from bamboo and flax as the core materials.

If you say ‘material’ and ‘cycling’ to many people, one word will spring to mind: ‘Lycra’! This was actually invented by American chemical company DuPont in 1959. But it wasn’t used in the world of cycling until the Moscow Olympics when Lothar Thoms of East Germany swapped the traditional silk shirt and wool shorts for the polyurethane-polyurea copolymer fibre. Until that point the silk/wool combo had been considered slick! It didn’t take long for the competition to catch up: by 1981 everyone was wearing it. And as we all know, they still are.

Advancement through aerodynamics

Many Brits of a certain age will be familiar with Chris Boardman and his iconic Lotus superbike aka The Windcheater. He and the bike sped to fame in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The story behind the bike is fascinating and offers a peek behind the curtain of some pioneering days of cycling R&D, that nowadays, may be taken for granted.

The bike itself was the brainchild of an amateur engineer from Norfolk: Mike Burrows. He had been experimenting for years on how to go faster on his own bike. He decided to focus on aerodynamics and realised that as much as 90% of a cyclist’s energy was spent fighting air resistance. He poured his effort into reducing drag – replacing tubing with a single piece shell that would optimise the rider and positioning.

He took his prototype to his local garage for assistance with testing. Handily his ‘local garage’ fortunately happened to be Lotus Engineering, who helped refine the bike with their expertise and equipment including a wind tunnel.

The rest is history. The bike was a revelation and helped propel Chris Boardman to Olympic Gold in the Individual Pursuit, raise the profile of British cycling for years to come, and it ushered in a new era for R&D in cycling which we still enjoy today.

Safety matters

One of the biggest dangers to cyclists on the roads is visibility at night time. Hi vis gear, head and tail lights are the staples for combating this but are not particularly innovative.

LED lighting has offered tremendous opportunity for innovation in many sectors and cycling is no exception. Take Revolights for example. This employs 360 degree LED lamps that clip to the wheels. As well as acting as head and tail lights they also produce vivid arcs of light on the profiles of the wheels to better alert drivers who may otherwise collide side-on with a cyclist (the most common type of night-time collision). As well as potentially being a life-saver this innovation looks stunning. Check it out here.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Bike seats have got considerably more specialist over the years. Depending on whether a rider requires a thin, hard racing seat; a soft gel seat or a luxurious leather option, decades of evolution and research will ensure that the perfect seat is out there. But what other aspects have made it a more comfortable pastime?

Things can get pretty uncomfortable when they go wrong? A puncture for instance could stop you in your tracks and leave you stranded. Patchnride is a new bit of kit that allows anyone to repair a punctured tyre in less than a minute. It uses a patent-pending cartridge to insert a plug between the inner tube and tyre. Thus protecting the tyre from further damage and letting the rider get back on their journey in no time at all. Some interesting R & D must have gone on here into the processes of mending a tyre, among other things.

This next innovation could easily sit in the safety section of this article. It is an invisible airbag from Swedish company Hovding that is designed as an alternative to the helmet. However we have included it in the comfort section as it offers similar protection to a helmet – an already established piece of safety equipment – without the discomfort of wearing one.

The Hovding is an airbag system concealed within a collar. Like some of the other innovations explored here it has to be seen to be believed. As you would imagine, extensive R&D has gone into the design of this product over years including thousands of cycling accident re-enactments, and the development of algorithms and sensors then used to detect and respond to them.

Maximum security

Sadly, bike theft is a common crime so what are the innovators doing to solve it? There is a mobile app for everything nowadays and bike locks are no exception. Two such locking systems are Lock8 and Skylock.

Lock8, developed by two university students is a smart lock that can sense if it is cut and emit a 120db alarm whilst sending a push notification to the owner’s phone. It can also use GPS tracking to locate the bike. It’s still in pre-production but this innovative solution seems to bring the simple bike lock into the 21st century.

Skylock is similarly modern. It boasts remote unlocking at the touch of a button on your smartphone app and automatic unlocking when you are in proximity. It is powered by a solar panel and can even automatically alert close contacts if you are involved in a crash.

A different approach to solving the security problem may mean you don’t have to leave your bike in public at all. ThinBike from Shindelhauser is rather ingenious in its simplicity. Its handlebars and pedals have mechanisms that mean they can fold flat without turning the wheels. So it can be stored indoors without protruding excessively. This has proved to be an award winning design showing that solutions don’t have to be complicated to be successful.

Do you have an innovative bicycle product?

This quick Tour de Cycling has demonstrated the humble bicycle is an inspiration for a whole host of dazzling innovations, and will continue to be so. The UK government offers generous R&D tax credits to innovative companies who invest in producing new and improved products. So if you are developing some innovative cycling kit speak to one of our friendly, expert team today to see how we can help you secure valuable R&D tax credits to help your business.

Our own MD, Simon Brown is competing in the Bristol to Paris Cycle Challenge in May for the charity Above and Beyond, during the course of his training thus far he’s already discovered that carbon fibre isn’t quite as resilient as he would have liked it to be, and if you come off with enough gusto will quite happily snap in two. You can follow his progress and sponsor him here.

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