To the untrained eye, bikes today aren't much different from their counterparts of thirty years ago. Closer examination, however, shows significant differences from the vehicles ridden during BikeCentennial when thousands pedaled across the continent to celebrate the nation's 200th anniversary.
Frame materials, for example, have changed dramatically. In 1976, everyone rode a bike with a steel frame. Steel is still an excellent choice for a touring bike, but now some riders mount bikes made of lightweight aluminum, and a few are constructed of super-expensive carbon fiber or titanium.
Drive trains have changed, too. In 1976, most bikes had ten speeds. The cassette in back had five cogs while the cranks mounted two chainrings. Now most upscale bikes have nine cogs on the cassette on the rear wheel and two or three chainrings in front, giving up to 27 speeds to choose from. With nine cogs in the same space that used to have five, the chain has to be made much narrower in order to fit.
Shoes and pedals are entirely different. Thirty years ago, riders fastened their shoes to the pedals with leather straps. Now bike shoes have special cleats on the soles that mate to fancy pedals. When a rider starts off, he or she snaps the shoes to the pedals, locking them together. To release, a rider simply twitches a heel out.
Back then, helmets were not an issue. No one wore them. Now they are required on most major organized rides. When one of our riders was hit by a car, his helmet was split in the accident. He escaped serious injury. Without a helmet, he probably would have suffered a major head injury.
In 1976, no one had a speedometer on a bike. A few may have had an odometer that advanced as a pin on the bike wheel hit the odometer unit every revolution. Now everyone has an electronic computer that keeps track of distance by noting every time a magnet on the wheel passes a sensor. A good computer will show speed, distance, average speed, elapsed time, and, in some cases, the revolutions per minute of the crank.
More advanced GPS units are available, too. They track at least three satellites in space in order to calculate the bike's position on the earth, usually within about 15 feet. A simple GPS unit can also calculate altitude, speed, and project time, bearing, and distance to a point down the road. More expensive models show your progress across a map of the area. My simple GPS unit weighs two ounces and cost less than $140.
Larry Black, owner of Mt. Airy Bicycles in Maryland, an expert in bike history, says that in years past when a rider wanted to know how hard he or she was working, they'd figure out heart rate by placing a finger on an artery on the neck and count pulses over a certain period of time. Now some riders wear a chest strap that radios heartbeats to a monitor on the handlebars. The heart rate monitor can be a useful safety device. During the very hot days riding in South Dakota, my heart rate shot up more than 20 beats a minute over my usual pace, a sure sign that I was becoming dehydrated.
Most long-distance riders still carry water bottles, but now they can also drink from hydration bladders such as a Camelback. My bladder is in a bag attached the the back of my seat. A hose from the bladder clips to my jersey. When I want to drink, I bite the mouthpiece and suck. The device is extremely convenient.
Of course, there were no recumbent bikes in 1976, either. Some things, however, don't change. You still have to pedal hard to make it all the way across the nation.