Simon Powner

Simon Powner

A History of the Beam Bike

When it all started the concepts were dreamt up by visionaries with a zest for racing. Scoffed at and quickly dismissed as ‘fads’; ‘funny bikes’ and ‘dork bars’ went on to change the face of cycling and triathlon forever.

We wanted to take a look back at where the conceptual approach to cycling and aerodynamics began. To frame our heritage for our audience in a way that serves as a reminder of how our passion has been distilled over the last three decades.

The Early Years

Credit: Photosport International UK

It started in the mid-eighties when cycling began to splinter into two schools of riders. This divide was separated by a stark allegiance to the traditional heritage of the sport and the intrigue for aerodynamics: the appetite for speed over effort.

The purists saw the advancements which swung into focus during this period as a mutation; something to be sneered at and pushed back against to protect all that was pure and holy in the sport. That was until a certain American decided to embrace the winds of change on the grandest stage of them all. With a meagre eight second victory, Greg LeMond’s time trial on the final stage of the Tour de France lit the touch paper for what would become a barrage of conceptual designs constructed to maximise velocity with minimal aerodynamic drag.

The Arms Race

The arms race began before that when commercial recognition of these tinker-men came in 1987 when an American Ski coach filed the patent for the first aero bar extensions under the licence of DH Scott. Boone Lennon, whilst working with the American Ski team in the early eighties, saw the benefit of a smaller frame piercing the elements to achieve speeds of close to 80mph.

Whilst others, including endurance riders and track cyclists, had toyed with the idea of an adapted cockpit to better position the frontal area of the cyclist, it was Lennon who first took the concept to the mass market and following a convincing set of wins from early adopters including the American duathlete, Brad Kearns, the idea of an aerodynamic position suddenly became an integral weapon in multi-sport racing.

The 1987 Ironman World Championships bore a stark contrast to the previous year. The 1986 race saw the field dominated by standardised road bike geometry, with Dave Scott and Mark Allen finishing first and second, respectively, on standard road bikes. Against that of the 1987 race, following the mass marketing of Lennon’s aero bars, the evidence of the spread was clear to see. The bike course was awash with aero lids and racers stooped over their bars charging up and down the Queen K Highway.

Both Scott and Allen, again first and second, had ridden with adapted cockpits; Scott’s winning time, almost 6 minutes quicker than the previous year.

Triathlon’s early adopters saw the benefits in a smarter way to race the two wheeled element of their sport but the bike racers, with arguably less immediate need to conserve energy, did not have the same insight or appetite to save their legs. The purists pushed back.

There would be multiple accounts of races breaking out on long training rides. Long stretches of road would see roadies stomping the pedals in an effort to shed the triathletes from the bunch, only for the ‘runners on bikes’ to drop down onto their ‘dork bars’ to close the gap and in some cases sail past their counterparts.

1988 followed suit and the Hawaii World Championships saw a plethora of aerodynamic adaptions including tri-spoke wheels and more aerodynamic geometry. The following year, however, proved a tipping point.

Video footage documenting the final drama of 1989 Tour De France opens with the future winner at the breakfast table seemingly unable to sit still; riddled with excitement as he translates to a team member the way in which he will steal the yellow jersey off the back off his French counterpart, mimicking the aero tuck and talking with excitement.

Race referees gave LeMond’s triathlon adapted aero system the all clear moments before he set off on what would be the fastest time trial ever recorded on the Tour De France to that point.

LeMond’s 35mph average was enough to beat Laurent Fignon by a full minute on the Champs Elysee. Meaning the French ‘time trial specialist’ would relinquish his hold on the yellow jersey whilst handing the American the race win by the smallest margin ever recorded.

The difference: aerodynamics. The watershed moment.

Science or athleticism?

Footage of that time trial served as Exhibit A to the cycling community. Fignon, a specialist in the race against the clock, made his way to the finish line bobbing up and down, spread wide over his bullhorn cockpit, like a sail to the wind. Versus the American crouched over his bars; aero helmet subtly bobbing over his outstretch frame. LeMond visibly faster; visibly more comfortable; more aerodynamic.

Pandora’s box was flung open and out of it came the weird and the wonderful but everything that came formed the frame of which
our heritage was painted within. The years that followed saw hour records smashed within weeks of each other as new frontiers were explored at light speed. Graham Obree and Chris Boardman, both with differing approaches, revolutionised the aero position, each pushing the boundaries of what was considered practical on a bike.

Obree’s ‘tuck’, with his chest mounted over the flat bars and nose over the front wheel and Boardman adopting, what has become known as, the Superman position. That rivalry came to epitomise everything that cycling had come to embody during that period; each rider becoming part engineer, part athlete to maximise their race against the clock. We will never know if Obree’s athletic ability alone would not have carried him over those extra 445 metres, but Old Faithful and the engineering mind of it’s pilot certainly played a massive part.

As record’s fell, and advancements, that in some instances were pieced together in home garages come workshops, became more extreme the UCI stepped in with bans and regulations which would see the track world homogenised to create a level playing field for all participants.


Not only would manufacturers look to position their pilots as low as possible, a few pioneering spirits decided to take a fresh look at how the traditional double diamond frame was constructed. In the 1990s the rulebook had all but been torn up and a number of bike brands, unrestricted by medalling governing bodies’ geometrical protocol, set about rethinking everything which went into constructing a conventional bike frame.

When Softride first removed the seat tube from its triathlon frame, the ride quality, bounce and handling made the early models an unreliable choice. At this point the adaptation was more for comfort over speed. But it didn’t take long before a few tweaks, and Zipp joining the party, before the triathlon community saw what free speed could be gained from the revolutionary frame.

1991 saw Greg Welch ride Zipp’s 2001 model at the World Championships (our own Zipp 2001 pictured at the top of the page). Finishing second that year to the dominant Mark Allen. Welch persisted with the beam bike, eventually claiming the top step at Kona in 1994 aboard a Softride, with a 4 minute gap back to Dave Scott in second place. This would be the first time a non-double-diamond (NDD) frame would carry anyone to the win at Ironman’s centre piece race.

The NDD frame design was a financial burden for a lot of brand’s fighting to maintain parity with the frontrunners in the world of cycling. The prospect of an additional investment towards a bike built specifically for triathletes resulted in the concept falling from favour. The UCI’s ruling in 1999 which banned the use of the NDD on any UCI governed race served as the final nail in the non-standardised advancements’ coffin. The niche brands stagnated and ultimately spluttered to a halt.

The beam bike concept lay dormant for almost twenty years until a few bike brands picked up the baton with a fresh look and build lay-up which resulted in a frame which handled and supported the rider with the same feel of a traditional frame.

We are proud to be part of the rich tapestry of aerodynamic benchmarks and engineering innovation. Every part of what has gone before has informed the design process of the REAP Vulcan.

The modern-day beam bike rides and handles just like standardised frames, and in our case in a superior manner, with increased aerodynamics and less drag.

This leaves us thinking, with all that has gone before, why a beam bike is not always the only choice in non-UCI races. The science however is clear that the absence of a seat post creates not only a more aerodynamic bike frame to race, but the dissipating capacities of the beam, a more comfortable one too… and we enjoy proving this every time we get out on course.

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