Opinion: The cutting edge cuts both ways

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Words: Anna Schwinn
Illustration: Andrew Westhoff
Originally published in Issue #41

About a year ago I was standing in a bike shop staring at a bike on the ceiling. It was a tiny, mid-’90s titanium time trial knife bike frame constructed around a Softride beam and a 650c carbon wheelset. It had a custom-welded titanium aerobar cockpit. In a room full of stand-out bikes, this is the one that I couldn’t stop staring at. I was mesmerized. My friend, however, made a snarky comment about some part of it and I passionately leapt to the bike’s defense.

That bike represented a very specific moment in time, and for that moment it was on the cutting edge. Bicycle frame shapes that supported Softride beams, which were popular among time trial and casual road riders alike, were banned by the UCI a few years after it was built. In the same legislation, the UCI banned different sized wheels on racing bikes, which basically froze the 650c wheel size in terms of development and adoption. The knife profile downtube was also made illegal by the 3:1 aspect ratio rule. Carbon began its rise to prominence as the pinnacle of high-performance materials, surpassing titanium.

It wasn’t this bike’s fault its time in the sun was cut short.

There was a very specific set of conditions that had to coalesce for that bike to manifest in that form. It was a bike of its moment. And because of the way the world works, we’ll never truly understand that bike because that set of conditions cannot exist again. But what we can say is that it challenged the performance and technological limits of its era. For all of this, I explained to my friend, the tiny time trial bike deserved respect.

Well, “explained” is a polite term for it. It was late and over beers.

I won’t lie, as someone who has designed bicycle parts, I get defensive about product in scenarios like this because, well, my heart hurts a little when I imagine something cutting edge I’ve designed hanging from a dusty ceiling in 20 years being laughed at by people who don’t understand it.

They won’t understand why it was my best work at the time, maybe the best work in its category at the time. They won’t understand why it was a huge advance from a previous product or the kind of barriers in manufacturing or materials technology that it was up against. And if for some reason an external force like the governing body of cycling came along and killed that whole line of product evolution through legislation, they won’t see what greatness that line of innovation could have grown into. The world will never know the influence it could have had.

Because when you design right on the cutting edge, there is always that chance you’ll get slashed. Sometimes it’s just too fast or light or perceived as being too far ahead of its time, and regulations are handed down. Or some new material or technology comes along that’s just so advanced it makes everything obsolete. And sometimes a new training philosophy or approach to aerodynamics trends and fashions change overnight.

You wake up one morning, and through no fault of your own, your baby through years of development is dead—and the only chance it has to be remembered is through vintage parts databases and throwback blogs or on bike shop ceilings ridiculed by people for decades to come.

 

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