Noting which riders are going well in January races usually has no bearing on how they'll perform when the season heats up in the spring and summer, but glimpses into equipment choices do reveal some of the trends we're likely to see year-round. I spent some time catching up on TdU on the DVR yesterday, in part to see if Robbie McEwen could pull out a win (spoiler alert - he didn't), but mostly to see what the guys who have very little say on their equipment were using this year. Here's what I found:
Black is the new white, which is the old black: Black is figuring in a lot more places this year than last, often replacing white. I first noticed it in bar tape, which was predominantly white in the pro peloton last year. This year, Garmin-Cervelo, Radio Shack, Rabobank and BMC were wrapped in black. Many teams still donned flashy white, including Sky, Leopard-Trek, HTC-Highroad and the Italian teams. But clearly white's stranglehold on bars has been broken. A year or two ago, showing up at an amateur race with black tape was greeted with the same derisive snicker as leaving a seat wedge on, or pinning your number upside-down. No longer - with enough pro teams using black now, go ahead and roll your own with it in confidence.
The other place black is taking back some ground is in bib shorts. Shorts are traditionally black because racers used to have to do their own repairs during races, and they could wipe their greasy hands on black shorts without fear of staining them. Enter full sublimation, and suddenly black shorts were as progressive as downtube shifters, and left to the retro grouches. But there was plenty of black down under at Down Under - so much so that the red of Katusha, lime green of Liquigas-Cannondale and royal blue of Rabobank are starting to come off as a little dated.
Asymmetrical depth wheels: There were some pretty strong crosswinds in Australia this week, which made running the super deep wheels many racers prefer on flattish circuits a little hazardous. In previous years, that would normally mean switching the carbon 85s or 58s out to 38s, 20s or even (gasp!) alloy wheels. But this year, depth was preserved at all costs, with an uncanny number of riders only going shallower on the front and keeping the rear wheel as deep as the terrain allowed. It makes sense, in that crosswinds catching a front wheel can knock a rider off his line much more quickly than those swooping into the rear. And pros already have the inventory in the service course - swapping one wheel instead of two requires only a shift in preference, which seems to have happened for 2011. I expect we'll see similar setups in more amateur races this year. With the number of carbon wheelsets now available at $1K and below, outfitting with 38s and 58s, or 58s and 85s, or even 38s and 58s and 85s of your own is increasingly feasible (and will soon be an option right here). Some racers will still spend close to $3K for a single set of carbon hoops, but I think we'll see plenty who will devote a comparable budget towards a whole stable of high performance carbon wheels for varying conditions.
Integrated Seat Masts get chopped: I always thought they were pretty stupid from the outset, and the pro peloton in 2011 seems to be reflecting the same sentiment. I only saw Rabobank's Giants and Vaconsoleil's Ridleys with integrated seat masts at the TdU. Lampre-ISD riders may have been on Williers with integrated seat masts, but nobody with a camera ever pointed at them so I can't be sure. The trend may be a function of the companies who sponsor the pro teams: neither Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, Pinarello, Cervelo, Kuota nor Orbea offer an ISM bike. Merckx does, but the QuickStep riders I saw were on a version with a standard seatpost. The bloom is off that rose, to be sure.
Sameness settles in: There seemed to be less to differentiate the different teams this year than in years past. Many squads are capped with mostly-white helmets, and there are similar color palettes in lots of kits. Sky, Leopard-Trek and Garmin-Cervelo were especially hard to distinguish. There were some exceptions of course - notably Movistar, who brings a new design, and Astana, whose kit defies mimicry by virtue of its proprietary Kazakhstan flag colors (and hideousness). Euskaltel-Euskadi retained their trademark simple orange and black, but swapped out their distinctive Catlike lids for a new model by bike sponsor Orbea. Some differentiating features weren't readily apparent until seeing the whole bunch on TV. Radio Shack, for example, redesigned the kit with a bold red and white stripe down the back - invisible on almost all photos of the squad online, but highly distinctive from overhead helicopter shots on TV.
Still, the compound affect of all this is that there was a move towards the center in design and color, almost as though nobody wants to call too much attention to themselves. Given the hot potato that is now affiliation with professional cycling, laying low for teams and sponsors is perfectly reasonable.