A little over a century ago, the US Patent Office estimated that about two-thirds of all new patents were bicycle-related. While the figure is no longer quite that high, bikes continue to inspire inventors in a way that few other devices do. With that in mind, we thought it was fitting to present another installment of our annual Top 10 Bicycle Innovations list. Come take a look at what 2015 brought us.
As has been the case with our previous lists, we're not necessarily looking at the biggest product news from the past year – you probably know about it already, anyways. Instead, we're more interested in highlighting the clever things that companies both big and small have come up with. Some of them may eventually become standard equipment on all bikes, while it's entirely possible that you'll never hear of some of them again.
Given the diversity of their intended uses, the items aren't listed in any particular order.
Uvex Variotronic electrochromic sunglasses – quick-change artists
While a good pair of shades help dim the sun's harsh rays when you're riding out in the open, they can make things too dark if you suddenly enter a tunnel or forest. Self-lightening photochromic glasses are one way to go, although they lighten quite slowly. That's where the Variotronic glasses come in. Their liquid crystal lens changes tint in less than a second, as prompted by a built-in light sensor. We would have liked it if they could go completely clear (for night riding), but we'll still take 'em as they are.
Price: US$350 (also sold as Ctrl Eyewear's Ctrl One glasses)
Limits power meter – small (and cheap) is beautiful
Ordinarily, power meters are attached to one crank arm (or are built into it) and cost around $1,000 to $2,000. Not so with the Limits power meter, on both counts. The compact device goes between one pedal and the crank, and is priced under $400. It measures cadence (via an inclinometer) and torque (via strain gauges), and is subsequently able to calculate power output in real time.
For another unconventional power meter, check out the handlebar-mounted PowerPod.
SRAM Red eTap wireless shifting system – more options are better
This year, SRAM went up against Shimano and Campagnolo with its own entry into the wireless gear-shifting marketplace – and when it comes to such a high-priced product category, more choices are always welcome. Red eTap is comparable to its rivals in the weight department, and offers features such as Blip satellite shifters, which allow riders to shift gears from locations other than the primary shift levers.
ShockWiz suspension-setting system – for that custom-tuned ride
If you don't know how to determine the optimal settings for the preload, rebound or compression of your mountain bike's suspension, you're not alone. That's where ShockWiz comes in. Attached to an air-sprung fork or rear shock, the device assesses the performance of the bike's suspension while you ride, then uses an app to advise you on how the fork/shock should be adjusted to best meet your needs.
If you only have a suspension fork to assess (i.e: no rear shock), you might also be interested in the similar SussMyBike.
Lumos helmet – let there be light
Like the existing Torch T1, the Lumos helmet incorporates a highly-visible headlight and tail light. In its case, however, users can also wirelessly activate its rear LED turn indicators via a bar-mounted remote. It also has an onboard accelerometer, which activates a brake light when the rider suddenly slows down.
Magura Vyron eLECT wireless dropper seatpost – less clutter is a good thing
Mountain bikes already have quite enough cables running from their bars to various components, so if one can be eliminated, so much the better. The air-sprung Vyron eLECT does just that, by replacing the usual dropper post cable with a radio signal transmitted from a handlebar remote. One charge of the seatpost's battery should reportedly be good for about 400 actuations.
Price: about $455
SpeedForce stem/computer/headlight – there's strength in unity
Many cyclists ride with both a computer and a headlight taking up space on their bars, and that's why the SpeedForce was invented. It frees up space and generally makes things more streamlined, by combining a computer and a 150-lumen headlight within a sleek handlebar stem. While it does work with your iOS or Android smartphone, it's also capable of independently performing tasks such as providing navigational cues.
Redshift ShockStop suspension stem – this may be the time someone got it right
Suspension stems have been around for a few decades now, but they've never caught on. This is no doubt largely due to the fact that they've looked like "contraptions," branding their users as being perhaps just a bit geeky. The ShockStop suspension stem, however, looks completely normal from the outside. Inside, elastomer inserts soak up road vibrations, helping to keep riders' hands from getting numb.
Garmin Varia headlight – focuses down when you need it
The faster you're going, the farther ahead you should be looking. With that in mind, Garmin designed its 600-lumen Varia headlight to automatically focus its beam farther up the road when you're at speed, while broadening it to give wider but less intense illumination as you slow down. There's also an optional tail light that brightens into a brake light as you're stopping.
Price: $200 (headlight only)
COBI – gives your bike some brains
Lately we've been seeing an increasing number of "smart bikes" – non-motorized bikes with built-in electronic systems. However, what if you've already got a "dumb" bike that you wish to smarten up? Well, COBI is designed to do it. It mainly consists of a bar-mounted device that incorporates a smartphone dock, multiple sensors, an electronic horn and a headlight. Working with included peripherals, it can add "over 100 intelligent features to any bike" including a theft alarm, turn-by-turn navigation, and an ambient light-sensing system that automatically turns on the bike's lights when it gets dark outside.
That about wraps up our list for 2015. So what's your pick for the best cycling innovation to surface this year? Let us know in the comments section below.