Forget Mechanical Doping: The Tech Story of the 2016 Cyclocross Worlds Is Hiding in Plain Sight

Yes, the motorized bike found in the pits at the 2016 Cyclocross World Championships in Zolder, Belgium is a big deal.  However, it was caught during the race and it didn’t, so far as anyone has opined, affect the outcome.
 
But a much bigger tech story was seen everywhere.  And totally ignored.
Bike racing exists, at least in part, to sell bicycles.  Bike companies got involved with racing to make the public aware of the finest technology that was for sale.  Their technology.  Bike companies sponsored racers so that their bikes can be seen in races, and best of all, winning those races.  The publicity that comes with, the word of mouth benefit, the public’s desire to ride the stuff the pro’s ride is what all bike sponsors are still looking for.
Cyclocross is an equipment-heavy discipline.  Pro riders have several identical bikes, or nearly identical bikes, and a garage full of wheels.  Racers agonize over tread choice, tire pressure, spike choice and so on.  They worry about what gears are necessary for certain courses, whether or not their derailleurs will shift under load and covered in mud.
For years, checking out a pro bike means an insight into a world where savvy racers and mechanics have tweaked this component and that, in ways that the racer believes confers a real-world benefit.  It can be small like adding grip tape to a lever or pedal, sealing cable runs, or big stuff like taking a component from another discipline and using it in ‘cross.    
So it’s funny that the big tech story has gone unmentioned.  Both the men and women’s elite champion raced and won at Zolder on bikes that their respective bike sponsors discontinued.  And not as recently as 2015.  Wout Van Aert was on Colnago’s Prestige frameset, which hasn’t had cantilevers since the 2012 model year. On the plus side, it did win the 2013 CX worlds under Sven Nys.  Thalita de Jong was on Giant’s TCX AdvancedSL, which last appeared in the Giant lineup in 2013. 
At least Van Aert was on a bike finished like the current disc-brake model.  De Jong’s was still labeled Giant, when her team has been riding Liv-branded Giants since 2014.
Old-tech won the worlds.  Think about the last time you could make that statement about a bike that won a Classic or a Grand Tour, that a long-discontinued model was raced to victory.  Think about what kinds of discussion it would provoke.
Thing is, that probably won’t happen anytime soon.  For all the talk about pro roadies going off-script, and all the pro bike photo shoots, there are very few cases where it happens without team, and sponsor, approval.  The days of a road racer having his favorite builder build a frame and then having it painted up like the sponsor’s frame is long gone.    
De Jong and Van Aert must have gotten the approval from the sponsors.  Both Giant and Colnago are running images of the riders on the “wrong” bikes on their website without mentioning they don’t sell the winning bikes anymore.
What’s more surprising is that the cycling press is largely avoiding mention of it.  Van Aert’s bike has been featured on a number of sites in the past, though no comment about it not being in Colnago’s lineup appears.  De Jong’s hasn’t received the same treatment, possibly because she’s not the same kind of dominating rider that Van Aert is.  Still, almost a week hence and no photo gallery profiling her bike has appeared.
It’s disappointing not to know why these riders chose their rides. Van Aert has been on the same bike for at least the past two seasons, with about the only variation switching from the single-ring SRAM setup last year to a double-ring SRAM setup this year.  De Jong, based on the photo evidence, appears to have ridden the same bike for the past three seasons.
The big question is why aren’t they interested in riding disc-brake bikes?  Both are under 23 years of age, so it’s hard to imagine they’re anti-tech fogies. All the same, it appears that they’re hardly alone in their preference.  Two-thirds of the medalists at the 2016 worlds were using cantilevers.  A perusal of race images seems to turn up about half the bikes cantilever- (and carbon-rim) equipped.  And this is after conventional wisdom, and the bike industry, has judged discs to be the better choice.  Even Sven Nys, possibly the greatest ‘crosser of all time, raced his cantilever-equipped Trek rather than his disc-brake Trek. 
There could be any number of reasons, though equipment and sponsor limitation it almost certainly isn’t—just about everyone on a cantilever-equipped bike was riding a brand that also offers discs.   
Some folks will claim that racers aren’t the smartest knives in the block.  That may be, however the criticism cuts both ways.
Some folks point to weight as the culprit, and that a lighter bike on a climbing-heavy course with lots of speed changes is advantageous.  Could be.
But the course was also wet and slippery.  And for all the uphill running and steep rises, there were also several slippery steep descents with sharp turns at the bottom, the kind of places where speed control is important.  Observing the riders flying down these drops didn’t reveal the disc-brake bikes to be any better.  
If the lighter weight is an advantage that is valued higher than the alleged improvement in the slowing of the bike for the fastest pro’s in the world for their most important single race in the year, does that tell us something?
Why the silence on the tech story of the worlds?



11 thoughts on “Forget Mechanical Doping: The Tech Story of the 2016 Cyclocross Worlds Is Hiding in Plain Sight”

  1. One problem with discussing road and CX bikes is the ignorance of the massive tech improvements of mountain bikes, specifically enduro bikes.

    As I watched the WC's I was thinking how a dropper post could help with the muddy descents and even dismounts. Now I know for such short descents along with the luddite attitudes, there is no chance dropper posts will ever be utilized.

    That's the problem with CX racing: the courses do not require improved technology.

    Enduro racing combines elements of cross-country and downhill. When it comes to finest technology in frame design, suspension, brakes, gearing, and seatposts, I see it in Enduro bikes. Even wheel sizes have changed.

    And racers need it. Lung-busting climbs followed by rocky descents and jumps require bikes that didn't exist 10 years ago. I remember when Mark Weir used a VP-Free, a freeride bike that was heavily modded, for races like the Downieville Classic. Today we have the 150mm travel carbon Bronson.

    You made the point yourself, the best racers used older frames and brakes. They didn't need it this year to win, and my guess as long as the racing stays the same, they won't need it ever.

  2. But then it wouldn't be cyclocross racing. Cycloss is just this… An alternative to the road season, that's why it's done on essentially road bikes with minor changes. It's pretty flat so it allows you to be riding anaerobically for the duration, perfect to prepare for a solid road season.

    But a dropper seat would come in handyman many times with a short awkward downhill where you need to get weight behind the rear wheel so you don't endo. I might look into that.

  3. Some of the courses definitely have descents where a dropper would be great….especially the course on the sand dunes with the crazy sand drop that has even the best riders in the world going ass over tea kettle. But they do also seem to be weight weenies. Even World Cup XC riders rarely use a dropper.

    But the biggest performance advantage would be to drink. After an hour flat out, even in the bitter cold, you are going to be dehydrated. Most (not all) of the research would suggest that you are suffering a power loss as a result. The UCI only recently changed the rules to allow for drinking when it is below 20ºC. Note that the rule applied to racers only……spectators were encouraged to decimate the beer tents regardless of conditions. But you still can't get a bottle handup, as you do in mountain biking….you have to have the bottle in a cage on the bike, and so no pro bothers.

  4. Professsionals athletes are notoriously superstitious. And cycling maintains the 'this is how we've done it' mentality that inhibits adopting novel technologies, particularly in old Western Europe.
    Nothing throughs a competitor off like the uneasy feeling that something is different today.
    Maybe if some young up and comer thrashes everybody, and does so on disc brakes, will you see them adopted.

  5. CX was the last discipline to switch over from toe clips to clip in pedals too. Nothing new here, in ten years I would guess 0% canti brakes at the WC and only the old futs like me will have them as I have thousands of dollars of wheel with rim brake tracks.

  6. Having raced cx for 5 years on cantis and switched to disc for last season they are definitely an advantage for your typical amateur rider. The main reason some pros continue to use cantis(which don't work most of the time in a wet muddy race) is that they don't really brake that often and will try to carry as much speed as possible at every opportunity.

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