This VeloNews slideshow of Tim Johnson's Lefty suspension-equipped Cannondale Cyclocross bike has been making the rounds on Twitter this afternoon, though I first saw the photo yesterday (September 28, 2014). Standard Double isn't really a tech-focused blog, but goodness knows it updates rarely enough that I'm happy to seize any good opportunity to publish, I do have a few thoughts on this prototype, and I think technology in 'cross in particular touches on issues that the philosophically-inclined bike racer is probably thinking about. So it's worth a little discussion.
I have previously argued that there should be more experimentation with suspension systems in cyclocross. I won't rehash the entire case here, but the executive summary is that cyclocross bikes have very marginal traction thanks to their use skinny, low-volume tires in off-road conditions, and even a little bit of suspension travel could make a big difference in performance. If your tires stay stuck to the ground more often, you can go faster, period. Cyclocross bikes are a special challenge because of tight constraints on weight, geometry and different course design from other off-road disciplines, but that just means the technological tipping point where suspension becomes feasible is further down the line than it was for mountain bikes.
After I wrote that post, Trek came out with the Boone, which has a low-travel rear-suspension system (they call it a "decoupler," but that's the same thing). Other than that, though, there's been very little visible work on the suspension front. I'm not sure why there's been so little visible interest from the manufacturers, but cyclocross and road do a share a technologically conservative culture, especially overseas. The adoption of disc brakes by top professionals in Europe is a case in point - it has been much slower there than in the United States. So in that light, Cannondale getting a top American professional a 'cross bike with a suspension fork is exciting because it's the first indication in a little while that anything might be happening in that direction. Unfortunately, it's not clear if Johnson has actually raced this thing (I'm guessing no), and we don't know how it performs. I really can't wait to hear more.
So that's the tech part. What about the philosophy? Warning: if you just wanted some quick thoughts about the fork, you might want to stop here.
As bicycle technology develops, it inevitably has an effect on the competition and on the racers. Some embrace new developments, and others reject them. Individuals have good reasons to fall into either camp. The case for embracing technology is simple: if it makes you faster, or otherwise makes the experience of riding the bicycle subjectively better, it's good and worth adopting. Arguments against the use of new technologies in racing can be a little murkier, not because they are wrong but because they are about deeper issues than performance: philosophical purity of the sport, and economic accessibility. Can the essence of the sport be preserved under the onslaught of new technologies? Can a new rider with zero or scant financial support hope to be competitive with more basic equipment?
My style is often to be breezily dismissive of skepticism about technology, but I don't think that these questions really deserve that sort of answer. The rules of sport are arbitrary, but not purposeless. The rules are what make one kind of competition distinct from another. Cyclocross is not mountain biking. The fear is that adapting mountain bike technologies for cyclocross will introduce changes in equipment and courses that ultimately blur the lines between them and destroy the distinctiveness of cyclocross. I think that fear is worth taking seriously. As for accessibility, we do want bike racing to remain a competition between athletes, not sponsors, equipment and budgets. And it is in our best interest to ensure that young athletes can still enter the sport without being penalized for being unable to afford the very latest and fastest equipment.
The answer isn't to simply draw a line in the sand. Cycling is a technological sport down to its core. The bicycle is the product of many centuries of technological progress. The athlete's performance can't be separated from the machine - this sport is what it is because of what the machine makes possible! And the clever use of new technologies is part of some of the best stories ever told in cycling. Graeme Obree's Hour Record, Greg Lemond's 1989 Tour de France, all those crazy-looking time trial bikes in the mid to late 1990's. Technology is a crucial element of the story.
So, excitement and worry about technological advancement is a long-standing tension in bike racing. In recent years it has been coming to the fore in a way that we haven't seen since the UCI locked down the rules on bicycle design and rider position in 2000, because of some technological advancements with major implications for the future: electronic shifting. Road disc brakes. Perhaps suspension in cyclocross or on the road will be the next battlefield. So what to do? On balance, I think we should embrace the technological nature of the bicycle a bit more. But we should also keep the distinctiveness of cycling disciplines and access to the sport in the front of our minds.