The opening stage of the 2020 Tour de France was largely neutralized by the riders after a spate of crashes on the tiny, twisting, rain-slicked roads the route took around Nice.
Looking at all the crashes, it’s easy to see why the riders would call their own truce. But once the race was over, the theorizing began.
Some suggested it was the increase in road furniture. I’ve had trouble with this theory for a long time. I wrote about it on Red Kite Prayer in 2011. I suggested that better fitness, higher speeds, less time spent racing, perhaps stiffer bikes, perhaps race radios, all were contributing factors. Being in the biggest race of the year probably means the riders feel increased pressure to perform and are more afraid of losing a few places in the peloton than they are in other races.
Some suggested the roads were soapy. Could be. Or maybe the alleged increase of braking power on rotor discs meant wheels were too easily breaking the grip on the road. Or the decrease in braking power of rim brakes on carbon rim discs. Or maybe the tires had too much air in them, as the result of riding clinchers rather than tubulars. Or maybe there hadn’t been a rain in a long time and the rain didn’t come down hard enough to wash out the accumulated dust and oil soaked into the cracks of the road, but just enough to lift up the dust and oil and that reduced grip.
Happy Freedman has another theory. Poor position on the bike. The longtime bike fitter, who shared some of his fit thinking with us here and here, has been studying bike position for much of his life.
“Every time a rider goes head over the bars, it’s because their weight is too far in front. Head tubes have gotten too low, stem position has gotten too far out in front. When I started, most rode, 9, 10, 11 stems. Now you see 12’s through 18’s.
“It comes from the quest for a more aerodynamic position.
“They aren’t necessarily getting a more aerodynamic position. They think if they have a smaller, tighter, frame, the aerodynamics will be better.”
It is true that aero handlebars found on time trial bikes caused a rethinking of bike position for those bikes. Experience and wind-tunnel testing found that by moving the saddle forward relative to the bottom bracket, it was easier to lower one’s shoulders relative to the front wheel. And that helps reduce frontal area, thus reducing drag. It should result in an increase in speed, provided one can ride comfortably in that position. Because of this reality, many time trial bikes were designed to account for the forward position. All the same, there are limits to going low. Specialized worked with Fabian Cancellara in 2009 and raised the bars on his time trial (TT) bike. Initially, it worked. But then, his TT results started getting worse. Turns out he lowered the handlebars on his TT bike by 4cm and it was too much for his hamstrings. He raised them back up 4cm and all was good again.
Because of the general success of time trial positions in terms of reducing drag, as well as data showing that the down stroke matters the most, there has been a trend toward more forward positions on road bikes among pro riders these days. While it is hard to know whether or not every rider has been wind-tunnel tested on both his road and time trial bikes, it’s a safe guess that most have not, so homespun theories probably abound in terms of why this is better. Saddles are sometimes pushed forward relative to other eras, sometimes pushed as far forward as UCI rules allow, which is the nose of the saddle is no less than 5cm behind a vertical line drawn from the bottom bracket. And, Freedman points out, “Saddles are tilted down as a consequence of trying to not be in pain.”
They may be faster in a wind tunnel in this position, but climbing, descending, cornering might be another story.
Freedman believes, “Too far forward, you’re unable to shift your weight around. There isn’t the latitude on most pro bikes (positions) to do that. You need to be hyper mobile, most people can’t get back (on their saddles).” He believes that being able to shift your weight around, sometimes in micro movements, sometimes macro, is key to keeping balance on the bike and the tires firmly planted on the ground. He sees descending in a forward position, with a long stem, and body weight well in front of the bottom bracket means there’s too much weight on the front wheel, not only reducing the rider’s mobility, but also meaning the rear wheel is less well planted on the ground and will come off it more easily under hard braking. He cites motorcycle racers who move all over their machines as they corner to show what can be done. Of course, when pedaling, the cyclist can’t shift so much, but on machines as light as a bicycle, where body weight is in relation to the wheels and the center of the bike has potentially more impact.
Physiologically, he’s not a fan of moving a road position forward either, feeling it makes other compromises as well. A forward position relies more on the quadriceps, and puts more pressure on knees. It also has a tendency to limit the motion of the ankle and thus reduces the work the calves do in terms of pumping blood back up to the heart, which reduces physiological efficiency, particularly during hard efforts.
To him, peak power at the lowest possible drag in a wind tunnel shouldn’t be the goal. It’s increasing the body’s efficiency and improving control. Efficiency for him comes from opening up breathing to get more air per breath, utilizing more leg muscles, particularly the calves, and being able to move around on the bike enough to maintain better control in all situations.
Freedman is not alone in questioning whether pro racers, or their teams, know exactly what they’re doing when they put riders in these positions. Gerard Vroomen, co-founder of Cervélo, now co-head of both 3T and Open Cycles has several blog entries where he doubts what he sees as what he sees as the conventional pro rider wisdom of low handlebars.
“Handling. With the arms more vertical and the elbow more stretched, handling is less precise. The more your elbows are in an angle, the more you push and pull on the bars which is good. Stretching your elbows means you’re “flailing” your arms more which gives less precision, rather than pushing on one side and pulling on the other. In descents, etc, this doesn’t really come into play as people will lower their back for the corners and pedaling action is not at peak performance then anyway, so this issue plays mostly when riding on the rivet in groups, especially in high effort, high stress situations like the classics on narrow roads.”
It also causes me to wonder if there are other second-order effects from the changed position. And if the position has benefited or been hampered from other changes in technology or has necessitated changes in equipment. For example, 25mm tires are now common, and it’s starting to look like even wider tires are at least occasionally deployed. I would have hoped the wider rubber would have increased traction. It was widely-reported that Julian Alaphilippe won stage two on clincher tires. Considering the equipment teams now have at their disposal, Alaphilippe’s team can swap in 28mm tires for wet days, and other teams can have their Paris-Roubaix wheels in the team truck for wet days.
Sadly, there’s no ‘control’ group we can put on different positions and run simulations.And, with Nice several days in the past, and the sun out, it’s easy to forget the carnage of the first day.
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. Experience this singular masterclass either as an eBook from Kobo , iTunes, Lulu, or Nook. Or Audiobook. Read the introduction here. Read the table of contents here. There’s nothing like the Tour de France. There’s no book like Tour Fever.