Synergy between cars and bicycles continues to grow
Lighter, faster bikes now have composite materials, disc brakes and plenty of enthusiasts in automaker circles
When you consider that many of the earliest auto companies evolved from bicycle producers, it’s interesting to see the enduring affinity between car enthusiasts and bicycle fans.
Today, a few automakers that started life building bicycles still do so; one example being Peugeot, the French company that is preparing to re-launch its cars in the U.S. market. Several sports car makers, including Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren, all offer consumers branded racing bicycles built by top cycle manufacturers.
Luxury car brands such as Lexus also have sponsored professional bicycle racing teams as a way to connect to a technically savvy and well-heeled consumer group. So it’s fitting that here in Motown, the home of the auto industry, the city and its suburbs have become a hotbed of bicycle enthusiasm, as two-wheeled transport fans leave their cars at home, head out on club rides and enjoy special facilities like the Lexus-sponsored Velodrome on Detroit’s Mack Avenue.
Ask around at the Big Three auto companies and you’ll find plenty of auto executives and engineers who are keen bicyclists. A perfect example is Tadge Juechter, chief engineer of the Chevy Corvette and Camaro at General Motors. A 30-year veteran at GM, Juechter oversaw the development of the current Corvette and is about to formally reveal the much-anticipated eighth generation, mid-engined model.
Away from the pressures of the job, Juechter likes to unwind by riding road and mountain bikes both at his Troy home and his northern Michigan retreat near Frankfort.
“I’ve always been interested in bikes, “ says Juechter. “I built a suspension bike in high school in the early ‘70s, long before suspension bikes came out.” Juechter bought a Peugeot PX10, one of the elite road bikes of the time. “It weighed 21 pounds, which was awesome compared to the 40-pound Schwinns of that era.”
Flash forward to today and Juechter owns several of today’s elite bicycles, such as a Specialized S Works Ruby. “Now my bike weighs 14 pounds and is quite a bit stiffer and faster than my old Peugeot. It almost disappears underneath you it’s so light.”
Interestingly, the focus on light weight and high tech componentry in bicycles like Juechter’s Specialized is paralleled in today’s sports cars and race cars. “The Specialized bike frames are all carbon, with ceramic wheel bearings, the same as we have on our Corvette race car. “
Juechter points out how the construction of bicycles has echoed cars’ transition from steel to aluminum to composite materials. “It’s all about making things light and stiff, which is good for race cars, good for street cars and great for bicycles, where you have something like one-third of a horsepower on a good day, so you’ve got to try and transfer all of that energy with 100 percent efficiency to the ground.”
In terms of brakes, bicycles also have started catching up with automobiles, now that disc brakes can be found on mountain bikes and lately, more and more high-end road bikes. Gear shifters on the latest bicycles are also becoming high-tech, with the introduction of electronically controlled and operated gears in place of old-school cable operated systems. In a sense, says Juechter, these are like dual clutch transmissions on cars, which are essentially electronically controlled manual shifters.
On the Corvette team, Juechter is far from being the only bicycle enthusiast. At GM’s Milford proving grounds, he says he often sees Corvettes carrying bikes that his fellow engineers ride around when they can.
Across town at Ford, Chris Preuss, executive vice-president at the Dearborn automaker’s agency, WPP, is another hardcore rider. Preuss grew up in the auto industry and has worked in communications at each of the three Detroit auto companies (including a testing spell as head of PR at GM during the bankruptcy).
“My dad was in Ford communications and motorsports public relations,” says Preuss. “At one point I thought I would become a race car driver. That didn’t pan out but I had an aptitude for mechanical things and enjoyed biking. While at Chrysler, I was moved to Washington D.C., where the traffic was so bad I started commuting 20 miles a day by bike. The more I rode the more I enjoyed it. I started training and racing, did fairly well and got the bug.”
Over the years since, Preuss has become so enamored with bikes that he has gone from buying top Italian-made models to building his own, using carbon fiber frames and components from the premier suppliers. Preuss says he loves the high tech materials and engineering precision involved in bikes. “Automotive technology has shifted to bicycles; you’ve got lots of titanium and aluminum, the transition from mechanical shifting to electronic shifting, aerodynamics, lighter weight and better performance. Just like cars, technology is pushing the state of the art.”
Aside from the bikes themselves, Preuss enjoys the community aspect of bicycling. “It’s a very social pursuit,” he says, “and like with car enthusiasts, bikers love to congregate and talk about their bikes.” In the Detroit area, Preuss notes, this has led to a vibrant riding community, with multiple clubs in the region. “Detroit is becoming a mecca for riding; there are frequent races and the city is globally known for the new velodrome.”
Another top auto executive who shares the passion for cars and bicycles is Brian Smith, COO of Hyundai Motor America in southern California. Like Preuss, Smith appreciates the technological advances in today’s top line bikes and the social nature of the sport. There's another factor, too.
"For auto companies looking to market to high end consumers, bicyclists are a very desirable audience," says Smith, whose previous role was as vice-president of marketing at Lexus. “Also, bicycling has been a growing sport, whereas golf is not, plus biking is a more participatory activity.”
While Smith can enjoy the pleasures of year round bicycling on the west coast, for enthusiasts, including this writer, living in the Midwest, the winter presents its challenges. But as with race car drivers who have to stay fit during the winter season, exercise and technology has come to the aid of bicyclists. In my case, I spent the winter riding my bike connected to a Wahoo Kickr. A sophisticated stationary trainer system, the Kickr links to the internet via virtual riding apps such as Zwift and allows bikers to ride with others on simulated courses all over the world. Kickr adjusts the resistance as you encounter hills and gives riders a highly effective and entertaining means of staying fit in the off-season.
Preuss notes that systems and apps like Kickr, Zwift and the activity tracker, Strava, are great tools for biking fans. “Online racing has become a massive thing on Zwift,” says Preuss. “Riding and competing with hundreds of thousands of people in the world, with the same level of physical exertion. And you don’t have to get cold!”
Going forward, it appears that the synergy between car and bicycle enthusiasts will only grow with time, as the interests of both pursuits accelerate.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org