Tech trends of 2020: Rome’s Rants and Raves

The past few months have seemed busier than usual as far as new product goes. Sure, the Tour de France is always busy, but the burst-dam of newly released bikes across road, gravel and cross-country has been hard for anyone to keep up with.

In a bigger-picture sense, it’s clear that the industry takes steps together. Word travels fast in the industry, and if one company has a good idea, it’s likely the others are onto it, too. As a result, there are some clear trends appearing for 2020. Some are truly positive progress that anyone buying a new bike will benefit from, while others leave me (and my colleagues) just a little jaded.

Here’s a brief list of rants and raves related to trends for 2020. There’s certainly more to rave and rant about, but for now, I’ll get this off my chest.

Raves

Here’s what’s got me excited for 2020.

Aero for everyday use

In 2018 we saw a number of similar-looking disc-equipped integrated aero machines fill the market, and now, it’s the all-rounder road bikes learning those aero tricks.

Whether you want to buy into it or not, wind drag is the largest force working against you in most of your cycling, and a few watts here and there certainly add up. And you don’t have to be a racer – or even particularly fast – to benefit from reduced drag.

The thing is, up until only recently, aero products came with obvious compromises – it meant a heavier, stiffer, or more flexible bike. It meant looking like you were off to the races, and it made maintenance and bike adjustments harder. And of course, it meant paying, well, more.

We’re now seeing the tipping point where many of those compromises are minimised, and you can get elements of aerodynamic design without having to give up the other good things. We clearly have a way to go, but it’s a trend I’m very much liking the look of.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the move to frame tube shapes that offer reduced drag and often with improved riding comfort. And these benefits are not just being realised in carbon, but aluminium, too.

The frontal profile is admittedly very clean on the new SuperSix Evo.

Another example is integrated cockpit setups with entirely hidden cables – something that many in the know claim save 8-10W at 45 km/h. While I don’t love the number of proprietary systems being used (I’ll come back to this), I do love that brands are finally realising that such systems should be easy to service. Split headset spacers, simple-to-use wiring covers and clever two-piece handlebars that seamlessly integrate with each other – this is all the stuff we’ll be seeing more of.

And what I love even more is the brands that don’t force you to use the integrated components, and instead, allow alternative cable routing if you just want a regular-old 31.8mm round handlebar and stem. More of this, please.

Versatile tyre clearance and increased comfort

So many brands are realising that users don’t want a road bike that’s limited to smooth tarmac, and the trend toward offering ever-increasing tyre clearance is a good one. No doubt this has been stirred by the advent of disc brakes, and it’s cool to see bikes that were once limited to tarmac now being comfortable tackling well-kept gravel roads.

It seems the all-rounder road bike is more versatile than ever. And while most brands still offer aero, lightweight and endurance road bikes, there’s now more overlap between them than ever before.

The new Trek Domane can fit up to 38mm rubber, a huge number for what’s still a road bike.

Wider tyres add a tonne of comfort and stability to the ride, but brands aren’t simply relying on that for a smoother ride. We’re now seeing even the most traditional racing brands mention compliance, and going to specific efforts to achieve it without sacrificing other performance elements. Smoother is faster, but it’s also often more enjoyable to ride.

I believe we’ll eventually forget the terms “All-road” or “Endurance road”. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we’ll eventually have race bikes and road bikes – the latter offering most of what a race bike does, but with more comfort, room for wider tyres and even wider-range gearing. The new Specialized Roubaix and 2020 Trek Domane are two examples of this, and you can bet others will follow suit.

And where road bikes continually push into the territory that gravel bikes occupied just a few years ago, we’ll see those knobby-tyred dropbar rides trend even more into off-road, adventure focussed machines.

Disc specific system improvement

Disc brakes on road bikes are hardly new, but in my opinion, we’re only recently seeing the industry prove that they offer real benefits and without major compromises. In other words, we’re finally starting to see the system benefits of equipping disc brakes in place of rim brakes.

Wheel and rim makers have been somewhat slow with this shift. We’ve long known that removing the brake track from the rim can blow open the doors of previous design limitations. No longer do the rims need to be built to handle direct braking forces, wear, or the biggest challenge, heat. And while some companies have produced disc-specific designs for a number of years, I believe 2020 is the first time we’re seeing the envelope pushed.

Key examples of this include Hunt’s new Limitless 48 Aero Disc wheels, which use a high-density foam fill to bring the external rim width to a crazy-wide 34mm while keeping weight reasonable. Or Partington’s Disc wheels, just 1,150g, and also designed to be disc-specific from the ground-up. Other brands will certainly follow.

We’re also starting to see brands really address the issue of the asymmetric forces associated with disc brakes. BMC’s new Roadmachine is such an example, with a fork that’s stiffer on one side while dropping weight on the other.

Scott Addict RC Ultimate 2020

Typically, flat mount front brake calipers are mounted to an adapter plate, which is then bolted to the back of the fork. Scott takes a different path. Once setup, a magnetic cover offers a clean look with the fork blade.

Other brands are moving away from the need for flat-mount adapters, creating ways to directly mount the caliper to the frame and fork. Scott’s Addict RC is a case in point – with bolts running from the front of the fork through to the caliper. Cleaner, lighter and arguably easier to adjust – what’s not to like?

Some brands are realising disc frames can be made lighter and even more compliant due to the reinforcement the thru-axle provides and a lack of having to reinforce for a rim brake caliper. Again, the new Scott Addict provides a great example with its hollow-moulded dropouts, produced as one piece with the chain and seat stays.

And for all those shaking their head in disgust, there’s still some good news with a number of brands going to the effort of offering rim brake options on newly released bikes. The trend to discs is pretty clear, and sales figures will be the true deciding factor, but at least for the foreseeable future, you’ll be able to buy some very nice, and very modern rim brake bikes.

Dropped tubes

While there will always be a place for the classic styling of traditional seat stays and horizontal top tubes, it’s nice to see more and more bikes break the mould in the name of measurable improvement. Even if they are just following the ideas of others (namely BMC).

Dropped seat stays are not all that new. For example, here’s BMC’s previous Roadmachine, introduced 2016. Still, 2020 seems to be the year that most of the big brands agree to it being the way foward.

There are a few reasons why so many brands have moved to dropped stays. It’s lighter, it’s often more aero, it can produce a stiffer rear, and by lowering the rear support, brands can increase compliance at the seatube, too. These are many of the same benefits that sloping toptubes afford, and so it’s no wonder we’re seeing such a clear trend in bike design.

Helmet safety

It’s truly awesome to see safety become a critical decision point for a product that has a sole purpose of safety. That sounds ridiculous, but prior to independent safety tests such as those from Virginia Tech, we would just have to have blind faith that the safety certifications created safe helmets, and all brands met them to an equal level.

As we’re seeing, that’s not the case, and the spotlight on this critical area will only lead to safer products for everyone. Kudos to MIPS, Giro, Bontrager, Specialized and all the others pushing safety as a key design element. And to Virginia Tech for allowing us to make educated decisions.

Subdued branding

It really wasn’t that long ago (and it’s still common) that brands felt the need to label themselves on every single tube. If you bought a new bike, it came with a free billboard for the brand, too. And while this trend has been creeping along for decades, I feel 2020 is a year where a number of brands have been more willing to let their name miss out in favour of stylish aesthetics. It’s a move that others will follow for sure.

For example, the new BMC URS gravel bike has just a tiny label on the toptube, and leaves the rest of the bike clean. If someone wants to know what brand of bike you ride, they’ll ask. Chapeau to the brands brave enough not to scream for attention – I like it.

Rants

Alright, enough of the rainbows and unicorn kisses, time to hand back the keys to Big Disc Brake for that Merc parked in my driveway. Pass me the lighter.

Proprietary everywhere

Dynamic obsolescence. According to Oxford’s Dictionary of Marketing, it’s “the deliberate redesign of goods or services intended to render established goods and services outdated and eventually obsolete.” And it’s been happening in the cycling industry since the turn of the 20th century. Heck, history suggests that the automotive industry learnt it from bicycles.

While deliberate or not, it certainly seems that many bike brands have upped the ante in the past few years and it has never been more noticeable than with the number of integrated and brand-specific cockpits filling the market. Wilier, Cannondale, Scott, Trek, Cervelo, Specialized — you name it, they have their own specific handlebar and stem setup. Finding replacement parts for these bikes (the ones I just praised) in 10 years time is going to be interesting, to say the least.

The whole point of FSA’s ACR system is to work with existing fork and headset standards, although frame manufacturers will likely need to adapt for the different routing. However, it’s far from a perfect solution.

And with so many different proprietary designs, it’s quickly becoming far too segmented for aftermarket brands, such as FSA, Ritchey or 3T, to even bother trying to make compatible options for these setups. Rather, those components brands are just creating their own (such as FSA’s ACR system) and offering it to smaller bike brands for adoption – which is only furthering the issue.

It’s the same story for the move to integrated seatpost binders and D-shaped or aero posts. Much like derailleur hangers have become over the past two decades, it seems every brand has its own interpretation, with little effort put into backward compatibility.

I’m all for innovation and improvement where it makes sense, but it’d be nice if the brands could assess whether existing options (even if from a competitor) or fitments could work before creating their own. Heck, we may even land on a design that many can agree to work with and around. That way there’d be enough market demand for aftermarket options to be a viable business, and as a result, there’d be some future-proofing.

Apples to Watermelons comparisons

How many more years will we have to put up with brands making aero comparisons to non-aero products, or at totally unrealistic speeds for everyday riders? Saving a minute over 60 minutes at an average of 45 kph? I’m sitting on someone’s wheel if I’m averaging that speed; I’m certainly not tackling the wind myself.

Sure, the quoted aero benefits will sound somewhat lame at real-life speeds, but at least it’ll be relatable to everyday riders. Providing figures that people don’t immediately dismiss as bullshit or irrelevant to them will go a long way to bringing wide-spread legitimacy to aero-designed products.

Similarly, far too many brands are still fudging weight figures. In the early 2000s some mountain bike suspension makers used to quote fork weights with unusably short steerer tubes and no oil. And two decades later, we’re still being fed the same lies for road frames.

An unpainted 800g frame is not 800g by the time the customer buys it. And a frame that’s 20g lighter but requires a 450g handlebar and stem to be ridden is misleading, too. We should all be talking about rideable frameset weights, including the proprietary bottom bracket and supplied headset, too.

Props to the brands trying to be honest, typically the big American companies. But we still have a long way to go before everyday consumers can make educated aero – or even weight – comparisons based on the information provided.

High prices getting higher

While the entry-level and even mid-range markets seem to be as good value as ever, it’s the forever increasing high-end that concerns me. How did we get to a point where US$12,000 for a stock bike seems like a fair price?

Truth is, these halo products are pretty effective selling tools for making the second-tier bikes look like bargains, but the higher the halo products creep, so too do the models below.

SRAM’s new Force eTap AXS wireless electronic groupset offers nearly identical functionality as the top-end Red version, but at a dramatically reduced price. However, that price is equal to where SRAM’s previous generation Red eTap sat.

Right now I’m going to point the finger at SRAM and its new Red AXS groupset. This high-priced groupset has (almost) single-handedly raised flagship bike prices, making some Dura-Ace Di2 equipped bikes look low-cost in the process. My issue isn’t SRAM pushing the limits of what we expect from a drivetrain, but rather that SRAM has shifted the price expectation of the market – neither Shimano or Campagnolo will want to be priced as a cheaper, and therefore seen-as-inferior, option.

Tubeless debate

The acceptance of tubeless road has followed a wave-like trend line. Amongst that instability is no firm decision on what a standard and consistent sizing fitment looks like.

The jury is out on when the ETRTO ruling will become final, and while many agree Mavic’s system is the go, it’s not unanimous. Unfortunately, while the industry drags its heels on accepting specific fitments and sizing (aka a standard), the technology is going to be rightly met with scepticism. And this saddens me because the latest tubeless tyres and wheels are extremely good.

Rushed Di2 installs

Brands: a little heat shrink at the factory prior to threading that hydraulic line will go a long way to making your bikes look higher-end.

It irks me when I see a brand new bike with a Di2 wire flapping in the wind. This has been improving in recent times, but there are still too many bikes being built fast, as opposed to properly.

Just like the pro mechanics do to team riders’ bikes, so should the assembly factories do to everyone’s rides.

Sure, a bike shop can fix this prior to handing a new bike over to the customer, but it shouldn’t be up to the shop to spend 30 minutes of its time (or more) to fix something that could be done at the factory.

Obviously, bikes equipped with wireless SRAM eTap or those using integrated aero bars and hidden Di2 junction boxes are not guilty of this, but in my opinion, there are still far too many Ultegra Di2 bikes hitting the shelves that deserve better attention to detail.

Buggy electronics

How is it that bike computers have seemingly become less reliable as technology progresses?

We’re now at a time where a modern mobile phone can do almost everything, and arguably to a higher level, than what a dedicated bike computer can. And so it amazes me how expensive, and problematic, some of the newer bike computers on the market are. And you don’t have to look too hard to see examples of this from the market-leader. For example, our global tech editor, James Huang, recently opened Pandora’s box on the topic.


So what are you loving, or hating, about emerging new products and trends? Is there anything you’re keen to see more of?

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