The Tour de France is the most important equipment rollout of the year. The importance is due to the stiffness of the competition, the importance of the stakes, and the worldwide attention focused on the event. Even mechanics are getting in the news with a sponsor creating higher tech uniforms.
The gear racers are using is new and improved. Or so press officers and journalists like to tell us. And the proof is in the racing. Or so they’d like us to believe.
After years of the chorus implying that rotor-disc brakes are better, rim-disc road bikes have been the successful bikes of the early road season, both in one-day and stage races.
While a number of people, this writer included, has enjoyed tweaking those who told us rim brakes were passé, few in the narrow commentariat have been able to post anything about it. Rim brakes are old, and apparently, not newsworthy.
But the truth is, figuring out whether a single piece of equipment is the source of success or failure in a bike race, is mostly a fools errand. Even when it’s something simple like a flat tire, it’s impossible to know if the same racer in the same race on another tire would have been in the same position when that flat occurred; a tire with a thicker tread might not have gone flat, but it also likely would have had higher rolling resistance, which means the same racer would have had to work harder to be in the same place at the very moment he flatted.
There are so many layers of complexity on this seemingly simple issue. It’s hard to know for sure if the equipment used helped or hindered the racer. We can’t tell who chose the equipment and why. It’s nearly impossible to isolate a single component. Thinking of the flat tire, maybe the tread was worn, maybe the tube failed, maybe there were a few psi less in the tire than there should have been.
This goes for just about every equipment choice. An aero road helmet might confer an advantage in terms of drag reduction in the lab over a ventilated road helmet. But, out on the road, the aero helmet is often warmer to the wearer and the warmth could degrade physical performance while conferring lower drag; knowing which one to pay more attention to is near impossible.
Even the easy improvements might not be straightforward. Road skinsuits seem like a no-brainer for racing in terms of reducing drag, but they are nowhere near universal at the World Tour. Is this about pocket size, comfort, bathroom breaks, ability to adapt to different weather conditions while racing, peer pressure, vanity? Or maybe the gains beyond an aero road jersey are too small to be measured.
The racer, while the person propelling the bicycle, is often not given a choice as to what he rides. Sponsors have come on board and are paying the racers to ride particular products down to their socks. Specialized, Trek, and Cannondale (three of the biggest players in the road bike market), for example, has made their rotor-disc road bikes mandatory for their teams. Others, like Giant (among the biggest players as well), Cervélo, and Bianchi, have not.
Sometimes, it turns out, the money is just too good to turn down. In the early 1990s, Tioga created the “tension disc” rear wheel for mountain bikes, which was used most famously by Ned Overend and John Tomac, two of the best American mountain bikers of the early MTB era. Overend, sometimes called “the lung,” was known for his climbing ability and the disc elements were definitely heavier than traditional steel spokes. It always seemed like a weird fit, as it might have been blunting his competitive edge. Turns out, the money was too good, $50,000 in 1992, to turn down, and the suspension it created, though maybe not the lateral flex, did help in some situations. That was real bank for a mountain bike pro then, but it’s hard not to wonder what it cost in terms of results and if those results would have added up to even more.
Brakes and weight and money are also something that is inscrutable when it comes to Team Ineos-Grenadier, the latest incarnation of the Tour-dominating Sky team, which has won seven Tours de France since 2012.
The team, considered the wealthiest in bike racing, with a reputed $47 million annual budget, has ridden Pinarello bikes since the start. While the bikes are light, they appear not to be as gram-shaving as bikes several of their competitors. Speculation is that the Pinarello sponsorship is too good for them to turn down and that they make up for Pinarello’s deficiency by going for rotor-rim brake bikes and swapping in Lightweight’s Meilenstein Obermayer wheels on the most climb-heavy days.
It’s possible, certainly. The Obermayers are crazy light at 935g for the set, and have a mid-depth profile of 47.5mm. That is much lighter than team-sponsor Shimano’s C40, which is 1382g and a rim depth of 40mm. 447g of weight savings doesn’t seem insignificant, but then it does seem that the wheels would actually bring team bikes under the UCI 6.8kg bicycle weight minimum, UCI rule 1.3.019, a regulation which was enacted 20 years ago.
At the same time, a complicating wrinkle is that the Ineos squad actually has a technology partner whom they work with to determine which equipment is right for which race days (at least some other teams are likely to have a similar arrangement with other companies). The company is Swiss Side and it has a history of working with Formula One racing teams and is now making aero wheels, consulting with bike manufacturers, and consulting with Ineos. Ineos, has, in its previous iterations, worked with other aero consultants and has allegedly given input to how Pinarello’s F10 and Bolide frames were designed.
Swiss Side has made clear in a number of articles that reducing aero drag should trump reducing bike weight in most racing situations. And the faster one goes, the more aero matters. Among their public pronouncements; a properly fitted aero jersey with longer short sleeves can save 10 watts at 35kph over a looser fitting jersey with shorter short sleeves; netting two minutes and 45 seconds of savings over 100km. Interestingly, they’ve noted there’s a slight aero penalty for rotor-disc brake bikes; it’s about 2 watts, and comes mostly from the larger diameter front hub employed and the increase in 6-8 spokes that are necessary to fight the forces on the hub. Swiss Side told Global Cycling Network that wheel weight, an alleged advantage that rim-disc wheels have, makes almost no difference. And they even measured a 400g difference between wheelsets. And thanks to the UCI rule 1.3.019, there probably is no weight difference between Ineos’ Pinarello F10 with Shimano C40 wheels and the same F10 with Lightweight Meilenstein Obermayer wheels.
And the Meilensteins have a well-noted aero penalty. So the benefit of the Lightweights is probably minimal at best on all but the steepest of climbs, while the drawbacks to riding them everywhere else, are great. Whether hiding in the peloton on a flat road, or descending solo, the Meilenstein should be costing Ineos riders, and unless a race is completely uphill. Much more time and effort is spent on the flats and descents than on the climbs. It’s also worth wondering if Lightweights relatively narrow rims also present a penalty in terms of tire pressure, rolling resistance, and reduced aerodynamics. Or maybe that’s where the advantage lies.
So this is the mystery, and the conundrum. Ineos has probably spent tens of thousands of dollars on buying special ultra-light climbing wheels that they do indeed use in mountain races, when their technology consultant, which they are allegedly working with to analyze every single race course they encounter, seems to be telling the world that the choice is misguided, even slowing them down.
Maybe there’s something we’re missing. Maybe there’s some crucial piece of the puzzle having to do with the specifics of certain climbs and the speed at which riders are ascending them. Ineos, after all, brought the jargon of “marginal gains” into the mainstream (even though racers have been pursuing it for as long as racing has existed).
Or maybe we’re not missing anything. Maybe there are no marginal gains to be found, or Ineos is ignoring the quantitative judgments here. Perhaps Ineos is looking at the intangibles. Perhaps the riders have expressed a preference, that they love the way the Lightweights feel and brake, and the team is backing them up. Perhaps this is what Pinarello wants. Perhaps they’re also getting paid by Lightweight. Unless the lips loosen up within the riders, management, and sponsors of Ineos, we’ll never know.
It’s fun to play, can be useful to wonder and examine, but it’s probably not wise to take seriously. Somewhere between several grains and a shaker of salt.
JP is the author of Tour Fever: The Armchair Cyclist’s Guide to the Tour de France, which is available both as an eBook and audiobook.