Bikes; Wider tires

Table of Contents

All Kinds

The modern safety bicycle was first manufactured and sold at the end of the 19th century. Most sources recognize John Kemp Starley, the manufacturer of the Rover bicyles in the late 1880s, as the inventor. The Engineering Sport website provides a concise overview of the evolution of the bicycle. Earlier in the late 1800s some French developers tried to assert a priority to the intellectual property in the concept of the two wheeled human powered vehicle. According to David Herlihy’s the Bicycle – the History (2004) for a time in the 19th century some developers paid some royalties to avoid lawsuits for a few years.

The household/commuting/utiliity single speed bike was familiar in Europe and North America for several decades in the 20th century. The handlebars facilitated for an upright riding position. Most had horizontal top tubes; some were step-through. Most had coaster brakes. Many were manufactured with integral fenders. Some had cargo baskets or racks. Many people owned these bikes and had the knowledge and skill to inflate tires, repair a flat tire, and lubricate the drive train. The Chinese Flying Pigeon was/is a safety bicycle.

The bicycle has become more a concept or idea than a new, useful and non-obvious article of trade. The elements of the safety bicycle:

  • Two (nearly) equal sized wheels, in a frame;
  • Pedals, crank arms and a roller chain drive;
  • One wheel, usually the rear, is turned by the power of the rider pressing on pedals;
  • The front wheel can be turned on a pivot with handlebars;
  • Pneumatic tires

Bicycle manufacturing depended on industrially produced materials and components. In the the early 20th century frames were build by cutting, bending and brazing industrial steel tubing. The early safety bikes experimented with heavier ferrous metal materials, but steel tubing was lighter, easily worked and even repairable. Bike builders began to have frames and other components fabricated. Bicycles for racing on tracks or roads were custom built. Manufacturers began to offer road racing bikes, a higher value product. Then mountain bikes. Innovations multiplied. In modern times, components may be protected from imitation by patents,

Buying, riding and maintaining bicycles became more complicated. Some categories:

  • City or utility bicyles;
  • Road bikes emulate the design elements of racing bicycles used in road races. Racing was the inspiration and source of design innovations that were adopted and adapted for mass production consumer use. Design innovation has been restricted by rules of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI)the main competive sporting body. A few people buy ultra light or otherwise non-compliant road bikes. Characteristics of road bikes:
    • drop handlebars;
    • a light and aerodynamic frame. At one time, horizontal top tubes were favoured. Top tubes slope from the head tube to the seat tube;
    • narrow wheels and tires;
    • a drivetrain that produces high RPM for strong riders;
    • drop handlebars;
    • almost no capability to carrying anything but the rider;
  • Touring bikes and cargo bikes are designed to carry a load;
  • Cyclo-cross bikes are designed for cyclocross (CX) racing (as opposed to cross-country racing, a competion for mountain bikes). They have drop bars and resemble road bikes, but have slightly wider tires and other design variations;
  • Mountain bikes are designed for use on trails. The frames are different from other standard designs. These bike has to be stable and under control at lower speeds and during faster descents to manouver around rocks, roots and obstacles. Flat or straight handlebars are the rule. Front wheel and whole frame suspensionss are the rule. The tires are wider and run at lower pressure. Wide tires call for wheels with wider rims. Mountain bikes can be used on paved and gravel roads, but not comfortably or efficiently. They may be used to carry cargo – but do not normally have attachment points for racks. Instead, many mountain bikes have drilled and tapped fittings to hold bikepacking bags;
  • Hybrid bicycles: multi-purpose bikes designed to used on paved roads and on some unpaved surfaces. Most hybrids are upright handlebar bikes, with tires in the cyclocross range and without suspension systems. They have some capability to be fitted with racks to carry some cargo, and to be fitted with fenders;
  • BMX bikes are specialized racing bikes for special courses;
  • Children’s bikes;
  • All-road and Gravel bikes are hybrids or customized bikes blending design elements and components.

Many web pages and services discuss design, maintenance and tech in the cycling world. For instance Bike Insights discusses “geometry” (frame dimensions/sizing/ fit) – one of the ways to deduce if a bike might work for a given purpose. (Russ Roca of Path Less Pedalled inteviews the site founders in a PLP video).

Many handlebars are for the upright position. These bars are flat or straight. There is diversity in the variations of upright bars. Upright bars:

  • encourage an upright riding position,
  • support balance and control at lower speeds,
  • support a front basket or bag,
  • provide a surface area where users can bolt on bells, electronics and other accessories, and
  • provide several locations to mount a rear view mirror.

The other main category is drop handlebars. Drop bars with long hoods (brake lever assemblies) provide a comfortable fairly upright riding position with good steering control and access to brakes and shifters. As the “tops” and ramps of the bars are taped, they provide upright riding positions. Drop bars provide less space for carriers and accessories, and less locations to mount a mirror. There are alternative handlebars. Russ Roca of Path Less Paddled, the all-road, touring, gravel and bikepacking site has a video about the Velo Orange Granola Bar; and a review on the new Alternative Cycling Network of the new model flat bar Specialized Diverge. Alt-bars revive old styles like the North Road Bend.

Tires and Wheels

The dominant way of containing air is an inner tube, within a bead clincher tire. The wheel has rim or a bead channel, and tire has a bead. The tubeless tire emerged late in the 20th century. Some modern bikes are tubeless ready : tubeless wheels and tires, installed with an inner tube. Wheel manufacturers have refined the bead hook at the outer edge of the rim into a channel – to make the bead fit tightly, to let a user install tubeless tires. Bike mechanics know how to break the bead from a wheel with tubeless tire bead channel without using tools that might mar the bead or the rim. Fixing a flat at the roadside by dismounting a tubeless ready tire and replacing an inner tube may be a challenge.

Pressure affects performance on different surfaces. The conventional advice for road bikes has been, for the last few decades, to inflate tires with inner tubes to the pressure as stamped on the tire. The marked pressure is a maximum and a safety warning – it is half the pressure at which a tire will fail predictably, such as by the bead of the tire not holding to the rim of the wheel. It is not a recommended pressure to reduce the risk of pinch flats or other damage to tires, inner tubes or wheels. It is not a recommended optimal pressure. Optimal pressure depends on road, rider, and load. Sheldon Brown’s approach to tire pressure was nuanced. (The link to a Bicycling Quarterly article on the Sheldon Brown site page has gone stale – the useful equivalent is “Tire Pressure Take Home” (2016)). Russ Roca of Path Less Pedalled published an interview with Jan Heine of Bicycling Quarterly about wide tires and lower pressure, and an interview of Josh Poertner “Your Tires are Lying to You“. Wider softer tires have been becoming more popular

Tire pressure affects the accuracy of (older) cycling computers that count wheel revolutions – e.g. Cateye Mity 8 – which need to be programmed with the circumference of the wheel, usually in 1 cm increments from 170-225 cm. The circumference of a tire mounted on a wheel is affected by the actual pressure by up to 1-2 centimeters. The tire will flex under load; the distance travelled is a little less than the circumference of the inflated tire measured at the label pressure, unloaded. The difference between running wider (e.g. 700 x 38c tires) at 45, 60 or the maximum 75 psi affects how these devices record distance. Where the distance travelled on the ground is about 50 km, the effect is several hundred meters. This inaccuracy is only about .5-1%, which should not affect navigation or trip planning.

Randonneuse and All-Road

Some endurance events required that the bike should carry some cargo, and be capable of riding on rougher roads including cobbles and gravel. Sheldon Brown’s 2008 Bicycle Glossary. (His blog is maintained, and the site is updated, with many modern contributions from John Allen and other friends of cycling) has entries for randonée, randoneur and the French designer René Herse. The René Herse name is now associated with the Seattle manufacturer/shop René Herse Cycles (formerly Compass Cycles).

The randonneuse was usually a custom built bike, although some manufacturers mass produced a randonnuese model- e.g. Peugot. A randonneusse was a hybrid with road and touring features for riders in long-distance rides over mixed roads – pavement, cobbles, grave and even dirt. It was also kind of gravel bike for bike camping – bikepacking is a modern version of bike camping. A feature found on many bikes was the demi-porteur front rack which supported by a stay from the fork crown and cantilever stays above the midpoints of the blades. The load stabilized the front wheel and permitted other design variations. Another feature was that the frames had enough clearance between the fork blades and chain stays to mount wider tires and rim brakes for the rims that support those tires.

Jan Heine of René Herse and Cycling Quarterly, a student of design, writes about long rides in the Pacific Northwest, the randonneuse, and supple tires (wide and inflated moderately). Jan Heine identifies wide tire drop bar bikes – mainly the randonneuses – as the all-road bicycle. There has been a revival of interest. Several custom builders will repair or restore/rebuild such bikes. A few build new bikes to such designs.

Jan Heine regards all-road as a collective term describing randonneusses, and the monster-cross variety of gravel bike used in endurance events on routes that have gravel roads and tracks. Others use the term as including wide tired endurance road bikes.


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