Lessons from Le Tour on Purpose-Built Bikes

What riders endure at Le Tour de France is legions apart from what an amateur racer faces. Some of us build our entire season around a 3-day stage race or a 100 mile gran fondo. These guys knock 7 of our stage races in a row, each comprised of 3 stages the length of a gran fondo but ticked off at 5-10 mph faster than we'd do them. 

But in some ways, the demands on the bikes can be pretty similar. The crashes at this year's Tour make it look like turn 3 in the Cat 4 Crit Championships. Bikes are taking a beating out there, and while mechanical issues are transparent to the riders and fans due to the deep inventory of replacement bikes and the tireless work of team mechanics, bikes are breaking nonetheless. CyclingNews.com quotes Rabobank's mechanic on the behind-the-scenes carnage at le grand boucle:

"The bikes of Gesink, Barredo, Garate and Ten Dam are a total loss," Hendriks told Het Nieuwsblad with each bike costing around 8000 Euros. "It is my eighth Tour, and I’ve never experienced this kind of workload. We have three mechanics, and every day were are working late at night on the bikes to get ready for the next day."

Lighter and cutting edge is absolutely better when it's on the road, and absolutely not when it's crumpled in a corner of the service course. 

Pro racers don't get a lot of choice in their bikes anymore, and most are contractually obligated to ride a brand's flagship offering. Flagship increasingly equates with "lightest and most expensive," which is why it's not uncommon for pro bikes to be production models on the outside, but beefed up for greater stiffness and durability on the inside. But mechanics have started taking matters into their own hands and bolting on added durability wherever they can. Quick Step, Leopard Trek and Omega Pharma Lotto are a few of the teams whose mechanics have begun installing stainless steel derailleur hangers to better withstand the argy bargy of the pro peloton. These hardened and machined steel bits are less likely to bend from a routine bump, help preserve crisp shifting, and make a satisfying crunchy on-the-go snack for Jens Voigt.

Sylvain Chavanel also has it right. If you want to shave weight, start by stripping away the grams that don't make the bike stiffer or faster. Like a couple hundred grams of paint

I think nobody in the pro peloton does purposeful like Cervelo, though. The company's new S5 is a good example of decisions that suit the bike's purpose, though in the case of the S5, the bike doesn't exactly suit the purposes of the TdF rider. For example, the bike opts for aerodynamics over increased stiffness with a straight 1.125" steerer tube instead of the tapering that is now de rigeur. (Zabriskie and Hushovd are both on the S5, and would likely agree and disagree with this particular design decision respectively.) The frame also has a 2-position seatpost and a third bottle cage mount lower on the downtube, both of which features are designed to appeal to the weekend warrior triathlete more than a world champion cobbled classic specialist. (The seatpost is actually the UCI-legal version of the post for the P4 Time Trial bike, pictured here on Zabriskie's P4 with shims. The stock P4 post isn't UCI legal.) The S5 is fitted with Cervelo's proprietary BBright bottom bracket, which isn't a surprise since the S5 takes more cues from the P4 than the S3. The S5 is a remarkable and purposefully built bike, but it is not an ideal tool for this particular race. Rather, Cervelo has reversed the bike / race relationship, making the world's largest bicycle stage the tool to help launch the S5. 

Most of Garmin-Cervelo are riding the S3 this year, which is far more a road racing thoroughbred than the tri-leaning S5. But the S3 also bucks pro peloton convention by using a standard English threaded bottom bracket while most other pro bikes use BB30 or some derivation. A sacrifice in stiffness? Not when your crank supplier is Rotor. The company's BSA30 bottom bracket allows the for a 30mm crank spindle in the standard BB shell. (We're a Rotor dealer and can do the same for your Wheelhouse if'n you're interested.) I don't know why the S3 doesn't have BBright or even BB30. But I do know that if Cervelo strongly believed that it needed it, it would be there. They make it very easy to trust their engineering decisions. I like that.

It would be easy to look at the Tour de France as the ultimate proving ground for a bike. If a given make and model can survive the tour, surely it can endure the relatively tame requests we amateur hacks make of it. Only a lot of bikes don't survive the Tour, and many that do have been customized and modified for the pro peloton so extensively as to render them entirely distinct from what's on the shop floor.

You have to be a bona fide expert on the bicycle business to be an informed customer nowadays. Who wants to give up training time for that?

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Great point, Joe. I race with guys who keep a water bottle 3 years. The idea of a dispensable frame for amateurs is a long way off.

Mike May

I had read that the installation of the stainless steel derailleur hangers it to provide added stiffness to aid in crisper shifting, as well as to "better withstand the argy bargy of the pro peloton." It should be noted that the whole point of an REPLACEABLE aluminum derailleur hanger is to provide a sacrificial connection of the derailleur to the frame. That way, in the event of a crash the derailleur hanger is bent (or broken) without destroying the rear drop-put and hence trashing the frame. By being replaceable, the hanger saves the frame owner the cost and anguish of having to replace his frame. Changing the hanger to stainless steel negates this purpose. Since the ProTour teams have a literal truckload of spare parts (including frames) the intention of having a sacrificial hanger is somewhat lost lost on them. That is why these teams can afford to replace their hanger with stiffer stainless steel ones. The consequences of destroying a frame is "just" another sleepless night for the team mechanics. Apparently, the perception of crisper shifting and the added toughness to withstand rigors both on the roads and in the pits of the Tour has a much higher value than the labor and cost of replacing a frame.

Joe Ajello

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