Other industries could learn a thing or two from bicycles. Efficient by necessity and elegant by design, the bikes of 2009 make studied use of materials, geometry and artistry to get every ounce of power and panache from the oldest method of human transportation.
When it comes to materials, carbon fiber is king. The Yeti ASR's integrated carbon seatmast, that the rider cuts to size before installing an adjustable saddle, increases power transfer to the pedals when riders are seated, and eliminates bolts and hardware that add grams to the bike's total weight. Every other piece of the frame—down to that little wishbone that stabilizes the rear shock—is made of carbon fiber that is layered and epoxied for strength.
On the other hand, Wilier (pronounced "Vil-yer") designed its carbon fiber Cento Uno using the aerodynamic lessons it learned building its time trial bike, the Cento Crono. It also took care in sourcing the carbon fiber used, choosing Mitsubishi's high-performance 46Ton, by some measures the world's strongest. Curved junctions between each tube of the bike increase strength while reducing weight, and the rear end is asymmetrical, to compensate for the torque coming from the drivetrain side. Like the Yeti, it sports an integrated seatmast, with a special adjustable system that can adjust the height of the seat even after the mast has been cut to size.
In bike design though, usability is just as important as efficiency. Pronghorn is a little-known Dutch company whose bikes are getting noticed for their bizarre-but-effective frame design. Though the placement of the rear shock between the rider's legs is unorthodox, the actual suspension design is still the very popular Horst Link (so named for its inventor, Horst Leitner). The system functions like a collapsible parallelogram, allowing the rear wheel to move up and down. Though Horst Link bikes are responsive, its shocks require a little bit of tuning on the trail, something made much easier by the Pronghorn's clever, easy-to-reach shock placement.
When it comes to suspension, there is a litany of ways to pit responsiveness against efficiency. Look closely at the rear swingarm of Santa Cruz's Driver 8, and you'll see four sets of pivots. A simpler system, like on a motorcycle, uses just one pivot point, so that when the axle moves, it moves in an arc (Horst Link bikes also have a semi-circular axle path). With VPP, the rear axle path is more like an S-shape. At the bottom portion of the "S," pedaling actually pulls downward on the bike's swingarm, instead of compressing it. Without tension on the pedals—say, cruising downhill and hitting a bump—the rear axle is free to move along its path, compressing fully. The benefit: the bike can tell the difference between what is pedal-induced movement, and what's bump-induced. And that's a good thing.
Then there's the beauty of the crankset on Lance Armstrong's Tour de California bike. Check out the concentric gears connected to the pedals. That extra unit in the center is an SRM-made power meter, sold separately, packed with eight sensors that measure everything from power output to RPMs, and are accurate to within 2%. Lance interfaces the SRM module with a computer after racing to measure his performance against his goals, where it is mashed up with data coming from the heart-rate monitor on his chest. The SRAM Red parts group and carbon fiber Bontrager rims are light enough that the extra weight of the SRM module is totally negated, making this sub-15-pound machine all about efficiency and long-haul comfort.
Giant's TCR Advanced SL brings Lance-level technology down to a more reasonable price point. With a huge, oversized box-shaped downtube that Giant says increases pedal response, and a monster headtube for stiff-but-supple acceleration, the TCR Advanced SL is race-ready despite being priced thousands less than its peer bikes. Giant took the safe route by spec'ing Shimano's trusty top-end parts group, Dura-Ace, for everything from drivetrain to wheels. But what the parts group lacks in excitement, it makes up for in reliability, low weight and refinement.
If you think bikes are all about engineering, take a look at Specialized's Langster. Each Langster comes with a cockpit that supposedly befits the city it's named after, and the accompanying paint job—the New York version sports flat handlebars, a thick saddle and a taxi-yellow paint job. But more relevant than your city is whether or not you like road bike-style drop bars, or the more upright riding position of flat handlebars. The fact that you're given a choice reflects a movement towards personalization in the bike industry, also evident in women's-specific designs and more tunable suspension.
The Civia Loring is an example of how high-end race technology has trickled down to make everyday bikes better. Of course, the beautiful, delicate wooden fenders and the matching leather Brooks saddle are timeless—but the single-speed drivetrain that underpins everything is solid and reliable, with parts by respected mountain bike component-maker TruVativ. The brakes, Avid mechanicals, best many expensive hydraulic systems in stopping power and modulation and were revolutionary when they hit the mountain bike market a few years ago.
Bike designers would be remiss if they didn't somehow jump on the green bandwagon, too. The bauhaus stylings of the Areaware Moof are most distinctive at the headtube, where an integrated headlight and tail-light (solar-powered, of course) peek out from under the handlebars, and the coaster-brake drivetrain also smacks of a minimalist take-only-what-you-need ethos.
What's the trend for 2009 bike design? Carbon fiber, it's the secret sauce in almost every bike on this list, whether it’s in the frame or the components. Unlike metal, frame-builders can make carbon fiber stiff in one direction, and flexible in another. This means that frames can be made to absorb vibration better than metal, improving long distance comfort while staying rocket stiff for sprinting. And if that isn't efficiency, then we don't know what is.