The Brain in Your Bike

Brain Bike

The next evolution of cycling technology is already happening, but it hasn’t yet reached competitive designs. Will the fastest bikes of the future be the smartest ones?

It goes without saying (though I’ve spoken about it loudly) that technology always has and always will influence bicycle performance. In many cases, technological innovations have yielded more speed than even their earliest explorers realized. The biggest example of this is aerodynamic design, but no one anticipated just how much of a game changer electronic shifting would be. The new wave of bicycle designs, already being unveiled at shows from Interbike to CES and Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, are showing that designers no longer think of technology as something to shape or bolt onto the bike. Instead, they’re aiming to embed tech into the DNA of bikes. New designs go beyond improving upon and seek to expand the functionality of bikes. And while much of the tech remains firmly in the commuter sector, the benefits it has to offer competitive cycling are evident. Here’s a look at what is being created and what it might bring to triathlon.

Integrated Display

Speed Force Head Unit

A lot of effort has been put into cleaning up the space around head tubes the last few years. From hiding brakes and brake levers and stuffing as much brake and Di:2 cabling as possible into the frame to crafting bizarre stack adjustment systems to preserve leading edge aerodynamics, engineers in the road and triathlon racing world have done all they can to get the wind out of the way. And then athletes go off and tie those wretched little computers to their stems. All that CAD work for nothing, thanks to those stubby little boxes of silicon data candy sprouting up like a mushroom sitting on a tree branch. It’s even sillier when you consider that companies like Trek and Giant have been smuggling speed and cadence sensors inside chain stays for years. In fact, Trek itself pioneered a concept design years back that would allow cyclists to snap a cycling computer down into a magnesium stem. It never made it into production. Canyon’s entry also seems to be stuck in development limbo, but a slick YouTube video posted by the company late last year suggests a design solution with a ton of capability. However, the group at SpeedForce/SpeedX have developed a production model that’s now available through Kickstarter. The SpeedForce device exhibits some extraordinary capability that not only reflects a means to get the computer into the bike, but also what’s possible when you start thinking of the computer itself as an integral part of the whole mechanism instead of something that’s bolted on as an afterthought. The GPS scheme that gives turn-by-turn directions with lights and indicators is ingenious. If only it had Strava compatibility, this little beauty would be tri-bike ready.

Not just a brain, a nervous system too

Nervous System

Putting the computer into the bike doesn’t really make it “smart.” It’s just an aesthetic shift. Upgrading the bike-computer-cyclist interface is what really increases the IQ. To that end, technology company Cerevo has developed the 3D printed Orbitrec road bike, with a unique array of integrated sensors. The bike comes with programmable ANT+ sensors that not only give speed and distance data, but also record significant shocks to the frame which it syncs to GPS data. That combined data is then uploaded to the cloud which allows the Orbitrec’s accompanying RIDE-1 app to track road surface conditions along your route and give you advance warning of any major potholes. The app can also tell when the bike has been in a crash, which allows it to send a message from your smartphone to your emergency contact. The bike also tracks how far it leans during the ride, which may not seem like relevant data but suggests interesting developments on the horizon. Cyclologic, FitWerx, and Alphamantis have built an entire range of services around data obtained from sensors. Sportswear company Athos has literally woven the tech right into their garments. What potential gains might there be for cyclists if these concepts and technologies were integrated into the bike itself?

It’s entirely possible that bikes of the future could record and display in real-time a cyclist’s aerodynamic data, tire pressure, metabolic state, and muscle coordination. All the businesses offering one-time physiological analyses for $500 could be put out of commission by a few savvy hackers with a business plan and the clever integration of the right ANT+ devices. Online coaching could go to levels never before imagined. Platinum Cheetah, anyone? And if a computer powerful enough could be fitted on the bike, it might actually put a race strategist right on your aerobars, telling you exactly when and how hard to push it to maximize performance.

What will they think of next?

The Prius X Parlee head unit

The Prius X Parlee head unit (John Watson)


The pathway feeding information up from the pavement to the rider is ripe with possibilities in and of itself. But that’s only half the equation. For the last 130 years of the bicycle’s existence, the only means it’s offered cyclists to deliver responses to information are through their hands and feet. It’s possible that technology is going to open up new possibilities in that department as well, though. Toyota and Parlee collaborated on a project in 2011 to demonstrate how a cyclist could shift gears simply by thinking. Perhaps that’s not the wisest incorporation of tech on a bike no matter how thoroughly it’s tested. But what if you could activate your GoPro or switch your data display pages using brainwaves? That kind of functionality would keep cyclists’ hands where they really need to be, improving riding enjoyment as well as safety.

None of this technology is particularly new. Transducers, ANT+, and even neural transmitters have been around for decades. What’s being explored is the idea of actually incorporating it into the bike instead of bolting it on as an afterthought. By incorporating sensory data into the design process, it will be possible in the future to offer athletes a more comprehensive understanding of their performance. For most amateurs, the biggest performance shortfall on any given day is knowing how to use their body and bike together. If athletes can’t train to a higher intuitive understanding of their performance due to time constraints, then maybe the answer is to enhance the bike’s own competitive cognition. With a reputation as irreverent tech hounds and data mongers, triathletes may be in a unique position to lead that technological revolution. But at the rate innovators keep tinkering, it’s assured that it’s not a matter of if we’ll ever see smart bikes in Kona or Roth, but when.


About the Author

Jim Gourley is the author of Faster: Demystifying the Secrets of Triathlon Speed and The Race Within: The Story of the Ultraman Triathlon. He is a regular contributor to Tom Ricks' blog "The Best Defense." His work has been featured in Men's Health, Stars and Stripes, and several triathlon and cycling publications.