The Invention of Nothing


If you like to ride road bikes and you’ve been paying attention to them for a few decades, you’ve noticed quite a bit of change, especially on the high end.

In the 1980s, indexed shifting replaced the need to manually center the rear derailleur under the cog. (Step out of the freewheel/cassette paradigm for a moment and indexed shifting has been around longer. Consider the evolution of the Sturmey Archer trigger shifter since 1938.)

Steel frames turned into aluminum and then carbon fiber frames. This is a bit confusing because excellent bicycle frames continue to be made out of all three materials. And don’t forget titanium.

Disc brakes are everywhere–and the majority of them are hydraulic. Where I work, I haven’t seen a new rim brake-equipped mountain bike on the floor in three years. As of 2019, linear-pull rim brakes are found mostly on children’s bikes and entry-level comfort bikes–and sidepull brakes are found on fewer and fewer road bikes. (In 2018, Jan Heine defended rim brakes in their center pull and cantilever forms, calling disc brake superiority a myth.)

Tires are wider, recognition that suspension losses force riders on ultra-narrow tires to work harder, regardless of how fast those skinny tires feel. Heine plays offense on this topic, writing that testing methodology, by eliminating suspension losses and the rider, clouded the issue for nearly a century.

And bicycle lights are so effective people use them during daylight hours.

Today it seems like the virtuous cycle of progress was inevitable. That once minor improvements were made, major improvements were only a matter of time.

Maybe it was. And maybe innovation will continue into the future. But maybe we’ll recognize some changes are nothing more than marketers spinning their collective wheels.

Who speaks for the spoke?

Take all the alternatives to the time-tested J-bend spoke.

A handful of J-bend spokes, properly tensioned between hub and rim, can support hundreds of pounds at full speed without adding any significant weight to the bicycle.

The J-bend part of the design? It keeps the spoke from turning as the wheel is built. All you really need is a spoke wrench to bring the wheel up to full tension.

Strong, simple, efficient and boring.

What’s the alternative? Straight spokes. All you need is a special hub that accepts the head of a straight spoke. And a rim that’s drilled so the spoke head is fully seated in the hub when under tension. And a pair of spoke pliers to keep the spoke from turning as you tension the wheel.

By eliminating the J-bend at the hub, straight spokes promise to eliminate spoke failures at the interface of spoke and hub.

Other experiments in recent years include:

• Softer (though lighter) aluminum nipples, which move spoke failures from the hub to the rim
• Carbon fiber spokes, which eliminate interchangeability among manufacturers
• Moving nipples from the rim to the hub, eliminating the space needed to turn a spoke wrench
• Changing the size of the nipples, setting off searches for spoke wrenches that fit
• Wheels with low numbers of spokes under ultra-high tension, making field adjustments difficult to impossible

It’s easy to look at the crooked end of a J-bend spoke and say that it’s a weak, flawed and horribly outdated design. But look at that list of alternative designs above–several of them are now obsolete, abandoned, and therefore unsupported by the marketers who promised to revolutionize the wheel. (Don’t worry, there’s plenty of busy work for them in the bottom bracket business.)

There’s no need to invent anything new (read that, proprietary) in spoke technology. But there’s plenty of need for higher-quality wheel building, because the best way to eliminate broken J-bend spokes is to evenly tension the wheel in the first place.

Want to see 70 years into the future of bicycle design? Take a look at the spokes on any entry- level to-mid-level road bike (and most high-end bikes, too).

The future will look like that.

Time travel works in reverse, too. Have a 1950s Peugeot PX50 with a broken spoke? No problem–your local bike shop probably has the right length spoke (and design) in stock.

If it’s not broke, why fix it?

About 16incheswestofpeoria

Former bicycle mechanic, current peruser of books, feeder of birds.
This entry was posted in Becoming a bicycle, Equipment and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Invention of Nothing

  1. Glenn says:

    Haha, so true. And then there are thru axles …

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