Monday, April 1, 2019



Most folks seem to automatically assume "new and improved" is always true. But is it?

A case in point: attaching the wheels to your bicycle.

Originally, wheels were simply bolted on via threaded solid axles. Secure? Certainly, but you're out of luck if you need to remove one and you don't have the correct sized wrench in your pocket.

Someone not satisfied with this idea (or lacking the correct sized wrench?) improved upon this idea with the wing nut. Perhaps not quite as secure as a nut cranked down tight (track racing bikes still pretty much use this system even today) but you'd never be left without the proper wrench!

But what about being in a race on a climb and needing to remove your rear wheel when your hands are too frozen to undo the wingnuts? In this case it might have been to flip that wheel over to use the cog on the other side, or a simple flat tire. The legend is unclear, but the patent for this ingenious improvement was awarded to Tullio Campagnolo and is still in use today.

Note: This was way back in 1935 and this invention soon took over the world of high-performance bicycles. Wheels could be swapped in seconds. Another benefit was they could be attached to racks on vehicles simply and easily or the wheels easily removed to put them inside a vehicle. There were no little parts to lose, the "skewers" stayed inside the hubs and were easily closed to securely hold the wheels. Zio Lorenzo can remember the days of pro team mechanics pre-adjusting them so they would clamp onto the bike rack or bike fork instantly without having to screw/unscrew the nut on the other side even a half turn!

Of course this ingenious design was soon adopted by everyone. Then came one of the "bike booms" in the USA. Soon folks with no clue as to how this simple thing worked owned and rode bikes equipped with Tullio's brilliant invention. Some of them were too stupid or lazy to bother learning how they worked. A device almost universally loved in the world of cycling somehow had now become a liability despite decades of use.

Zio Lorenzo saw first-hand the results of careless (or clueless?) use of the quick-release skewer back on one of the first Giro d'Italia tours we worked on back-in-the-day. The client's bicycles were attached to the van's roofrack using a skewer on the rack. This still-common system required the front wheel be removed and the bike clamped to the rack in the same way the front wheel was attached.

A bike secured in this way would ride on top of the van undisturbed by wind, braking forces or pretty much anything else. This assumes the bike was properly secured with a quality skewer, something perhaps not always the case?

In this case the client was handed his bike and front wheel, but for some unknown reason just put the wheel in the fork and rode off, never bothering to secure it via the cam action provided by the tiny lever. A comparison to a careless airplane pilot flying off without checking the plane's fuel gauge comes to mind, but who knows?

A few kilometers down the road, the fellow's wheel drops out of the fork as he tries to hop his bike over a drain grate. How he failed to notice the loose wheel in the fork up to this time is a mystery. But for a split second he's got the "OH, S--T" idea crossing his mind as his wheel continued on alone, just before his fork tips met the pavement.

He spent the night in a local hospital but was not badly injured. Other careless cyclists allowed this to happen as well, but instead of putting the blame where it belonged, they decided to sue - anyone and everyone who could have been in any way involved. The bike maker, the component maker, the bike shop, etc. all were named in these lawsuits. 

The result? Derisively called "lawyer lips" by smart-mouthed mechanics, a modification soon began to appear on the front forks of bicycles sold in the USA. These were small metal tabs (in most cases, though there were other designs) on the lower edge of the bike fork's "dropouts" (dropout was the name since before this the wheel simply dropped out of the fork when you released the skewer's tension, making for almost instant wheel changes) designed to retain the wheel (loosely) in the fork even if the quick-release skewer was not properly secured.

All good, right? Fewer wheels came off and fewer lawsuits were filed. But the inherent genius of Tullio Campagnolo's invention was destroyed, at least for the front wheel. The wheel would no longer simply drop out - now you had to unscrew the nut far enough to clear the "lawyer lips" and then screw it back to the original position to properly secure the wheel! The time it took to change a wheel easily doubled.

The idea of quick release was now more like "slow release" whether it was putting the bike's wheels on or attaching it to a vehicle's roof rack. The only people happy with this were the bike companies' legal departments, anyone else interested in regaining the quick release feature simply filed the annoying tabs off. In fact, our first rental bicycles (made in Italy of course!) didn't have these tabs when we received them in 2005. Why? Italy has the second highest number of lawyers per capita to the USA, but perhaps Italians just cared to learn how a quick-release works?

Of course "progress" soon mandated that every bike and fork sold worldwide include these tabs. Eventually the bike racing authorities even banned their removal, even by professional racing teams! That's right, the people most qualified to benefit from quick-release use were now prohibited from removing the tabs, so race-day wheel changes now involved time-wasted unscrewing and rescrewing of the quick release skewer nuts to replace a wheel.

But even more "progress" was to come. Mountain bikes had been using disc brakes (as shown above) for a few years though the early performance was not all that great. Once they improved, even the cheapest MTB had some sort of disc brake rather than caliper arms squeezing rubber pads against the side of the wheel rim. Perhaps best of all for the bike biz, disc brakes could not be simply bolted onto your existing bike. They required a new frame with specific mounts, so getting on the disc brake bandwagon meant shopping for a new bike.

All good, right? The success in the MTB category meant the bike biz next started looking at road bikes, whose sales had dwindled (especially in the USA) since the Big-Tex scandal. What better way to sell a lot of new bicycles? Soon enough, road bikes "needed" disc brakes. The relatively poor braking performance of rim brakes squeezing the sides of carbon fiber (rather than aluminum) wheel rims helped as well.

Meanwhile, people had begun to notice braking forces around the axle on disc braked bicycles were different. In the front they tended to pull the wheel down and out of the fork dropouts. Those "lawyer tabs" kept the wheel from coming out completely in most cases, but the combination of this plus many instances of clueless riders (again) failing to properly secure the quick release meant the tiny lever could get caught up in the spinning brake disc. The results could be similar to our client's fate noted earlier. Bike biz lawyers took notice.

"Improvements" like disc brakes were making Campagnolo's invention less effective. Of course in the 1930's there were no such "improvements" (or as many litigation-happy lawyers) but the industry decided something must be done to save them from new lawsuits created by these very "improvements".

The answer is the thru-axle. No danger of the operator forgetting to properly attach and secure this! They can even make 'em look like the old quick release, but quick is in name only.

In some ways this thing is the worst of all when it comes to being quick - think of an actual quick-release with the modern "lawyer tabs" but with a thru-axle not only do you need to unscrew the nut far enough to clear the tabs, you need to remove it entirely! Then you must pull the skewer all the way out of the wheel, put in your new wheel, re-insert the skewer, screw it in and then finish with the lever. Anything but quick.

 Some designs try to speed things up with variations on a 1/4 or 1/2 turn rather than a bunch of threads, but good luck if your replacement wheel isn't compatible!

This is why you rarely see pro teams bothering with wheel changes these days. Most often they keep bikes on the roof of the vehicle with both wheels attached and simply hand the rider a complete replacement bicycle in the event of a flat tire. The neutral support folks job can't be more complicated now, with various thru-axle designs + brake disc rotor sizes + 11 or 12 speeds, not to mention keeping conventional rim brake wheels in a couple of variations for the rear. How much time is lost just figuring out which wheel to pull off the car?

There's no question a wheel secured by a thru-axle is secure, perhaps a bit more secure than a quick-release? But at what cost?

One of the great things about bicycles (for Zio Lorenzo at least) was that so many parts like wheels were interchangeable. A rim-braked wheel with an aluminum rim secured by a conventional quick-release could be mounted on any bicycle made in the last 6+ decades. The only variation was how many cogs were on the rear wheel.

Now most pro team mechanics are equipped with power drivers to speed up the tedious screwing in and out of thru-axles. They're using a gizmo that weighs as much as the bike just to swap wheels! Can F1 style single-sided forks and rear stays be next?

Soon wheels may be almost proprietary parts so when you need a replacement the bike maker could be the only source. The bike maker determines the diameter of the thru-axle, how it attaches to the frame or fork and what size the brake rotors must be. The bike owner can not change any of these requirements.

It's already the case that many components won't work with all of the road bike frame designs available, especially in regards to bottom brackets and cranksets. Will wheels and brakes be next?

Is this progress?

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