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Simply Clever: Mechanics in le Tour de France

The peloton heads uphill for Stage 17. (Photo: Team Sky)
Expert
7th July, 2015
6
1495 Reads

Elite riders pushing themselves to their absolute limits make huge demands on their equipment, and over the three weeks of the Tour de France the teams will make huge demands on the mechanics who keep the machinery running at optimum efficiency.

Making sure nine riders have everything working flawlessly on their road bikes, spare bikes and time trial bikes is a big job, and a vital one – equipment failure can cost the race.

Think back to stage 15 of the 2010 Tour, when Andy Schleck attacked on the decisive climb of the day, wearing the yellow jersey. Moments later, his chain slipped off the chainring, he was forced to stop, and his rival Alberto Contador sped past him, later claiming the race lead, which he held all the way to Paris. It remains a controversial moment, but the fact remains that if Schleck’s front derailleur hadn’t malfunctioned, the Tour might have had a different outcome.

Of course, history shows that Schleck eventually regained the victory when Contador was stripped of the title due to his positive test for clenbuterol, but nobody knew that at the time, and ‘chaingate’ still polarises fans.

Bikes may look superficially similar now to what they did 30 years ago, but these are not your dad’s old 10 speeds. Technology has moved a long way, from frame materials and aerodynamics to electronics and sensors.

For roughly the last decade, every bike in the pro peloton has been made of carbon fibre, and manufacturers carefully choose fibre types, resins, lay-up patterns and manufacturing techniques to make the lightest, stiffest (for efficiency) frames possible while preserving some comfort for long hard days in the saddle. It’s easy to make a stiff bike, a comfortable bike, or a light bike. It’s a lot more difficult to make one bike that’s stiff, light and comfortable.

Professional teams have access to the newest and best equipment, but the bikes ridden by the pros are not really any better than what is available in the shops.

UCI rules state that equipment must be commercially available within a short time after the race, so teams are allowed to use manufacturers’ prototypes, but only if they’re genuinely intended for sale. Anything you can see ridden in the Tour de France, your dentist will be able to buy next year, if he can’t already.

In fact, the UCI’s arbitrary minimum weight for bikes of 6.8kg means that anyone with a fat wad of ready cash can walk into a shop and buy a bike that is significantly lighter than anything ridden in the Tour de France. Just as an example, the lightest off-the-peg model of Trek’s Émonda race bike weighs just 4.6kg – 33% less than the Émondas ridden by the Trek Factory Racing pro team. A ‘mid-range’ bike in most manufacturers’ ranges will be pretty close to the UCI limit once you swap the stock wheels for some lighter ones.

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Because of the relatively high minimum weight limit, and the fact that their frames, wheels and groupsets are very light, riders often need to make up the weight using heavier components elsewhere. In extreme cases, mechanics have to add metal weights to the bike, simply to bring it up to the 6.8kg mark. Sounds crazy, because it is, and the UCI is likely to change or remove the weight limit soon.

In the meantime saddles, handlebars and cranks are often chosen based on comfort and strength rather than weight. If you’re trying to add weight, you might as well do it by choosing parts that make long hard days in the saddle just a tiny bit more bearable.

Many riders are now using road bikes that borrow aerodynamic technology from time trial machines. Aero is a big deal: between a frame, wheels, jersey and helmet a rider can save a significant amount of power. That’s energy saved or free speed, depending on how you see things.

Aero road bikes have tubes shaped to reduce drag, hidden cables and brake calipers, and specially shaped forks and stays to direct airflow as efficiently as possible. You might also see riders wearing ridiculous-looking aero helmets, because they are said to reduce drag by around 5% despite looking like the Stackhats kids wore in the 1980s.

A major area of innovation over the last few years is wheels. Carbon wheels have been around for about 20 years, because the light weight and strength of carbon fibre means wheels can be made with a deeper, more aerodynamic profile.

A recent trend is for wider rims, with a rounder ‘toroidal’ cross section, which reduces drag even further, especially with wider 25mm tyres which offer lower rolling resistance and more comfort and grip than the 23mm tyres that were more popular until a couple of years ago.

Ironically, tyres still overwhelmingly rely on technology almost as old as the pneumatic tyre itself: tubular race tyres are a rubber inner tube sewn inside a cloth casing with rubber attached, held onto the rim with glue, and they haven’t changed all that much since they were first glued to wooden rims around the time of the first Tour de France. Tubulars are lighter and give better performance than the clincher tyres favoured by most amateurs, but then pros don’t have to change their own flats by the side of the road.

Instead, they have mechanics in team cars loaded with spare wheels or, failing that, a neutral service car handing out spares to any rider who needs them.

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Those spare wheels were vital when the Tour returned to the cobbles used in Paris-Roubaix in stage four last night. The cobbles are hard on the bikes, and some strategies used to combat it are modifications such as fatter tyres run at lower pressure, and perhaps even ‘endurance’ frames with vibration-absorbing technology to reduce the risk of teeth-chattering injuries to key riders, especially the team leaders who would normally never ride the cobbled Spring classics.

Team Sky’s bike supplier Pinarello even has a model with a small rear suspension unit, which we are likely to see under Chris Froome and Richie Porte.

It’s just another spanner thrown in the works for the teams, more to think about and contingencies to plan for.

One of the important jobs of a team mechanic is to make any running repairs on the road. It’s not uncommon to see a rider hanging onto the side of a moving team car, with a mechanic hanging out the window precariously adjusting brakes, derailleurs or saddle height on the go.

These days, most riders prefer to use electronic derailleurs that provide a perfect gear shift every time, so there’s less mucking around adjusting them with a tiny screwdriver during stages, and less chance of Schlecking your chain at a crucial moment.

Electronic shifting also means that riders can choose where to place their gear shift buttons, even having more than one set in different handlebar positions. Sprinters often place a small set of shifters near their thumbs when they’re ‘in the drops’ on the bottom of the bars, so they can change gear without changing their grip, even at full speed in the middle of a sprint. Try doing that on a bike from 20 years ago.

This year, we’re even likely to see the introduction of wireless derailleurs, so there’s one less set of cables to route from shifters to gear mechanisms, but an extra set of batteries to charge.

Speaking of electricity, most riders will race with a power meter to measure how many watts they’re producing. Riders and coaches know how much power they can produce for a given duration, and use their power meters to make sure they’re not going into the red until they need to. This is especially important on long climbs, and it’s why there are blogs devoted to Chris Froome looking at his stem: he’s constantly making sure he’s riding at a pace that he can sustain, but most of his rivals cannot.

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Critics argue that power meters are a great tool for training, but suck some of the romance and spontaneity out of racing. I have to say I’m sympathetic to that point of view, and there are plenty of fans willing to vocally denounce Team Sky’s effective but robotic style of watt-watching racing. A handful of riders refuse to bow down before the altar of sports science, and worship the old-time religion of ‘good sensations’ in the legs and a need to entertain the crowds, and these retro-racers are feted by the fans.

Of course there’s one bike technology we won’t see this year: disc brakes. Disc brakes have been used in mountain bike racing since the 1990s but are only just making their way onto road bikes. You can buy a disc brake road bike in the shops, but they’re not legal in UCI racing yet – they will be trialled in August and September, just a bit too late for le Tour.

Given the huge push from manufacturers, it’s likely this is the last Tour de France where disc brakes are not used by at least some teams. This is one change that could have significant knock-on effects on other aspects of bicycle design.

Maintaining all of this technology means mechanics are no longer able to make do with a wrench, a set of Allen keys and a tube of grease. Bikes are now high-tech machines with inbuilt sensors, numerous electronic components, advanced composite engineering and aerodynamics, and performance that was unimaginable in the days of Lemond, Indurain or even Armstrong.

Getting a team through the Tour with perfectly functioning equipment isn’t just about hard work, although that is a key part. It’s also a rolling logistical and engineering problem that challenges teams to be clever about everything they do.