What's Cool In Road Cycling

Tour de Pez: Rotterdam Revelations

Roadside: The Tour de France is the world’s biggest annual sporting event and with millions of potential consumers focused on not only the riders, but also on the products they’re racing, Le Tour is often the place to see the latest tech innovations actually in use. To kick off our Tour de Pez 2010, we met up with SRAM, Zipp and Trek Bikes to see what they had in store for 2010 and beyond.

The trucks are parked and unloaded, the road bikes and the time trial bikes are all set up and being worked on, just about every car the team can lay its hands on is washed and ready to go, and there are more famous ex-cyclists milling around than there are current ones racing. It’s July (well, it was June 30!) It’s hot and finally, it’s the Tour de France. As the riders rode the jet travel stiffness out of the legs then settled into their hotels and the two day run of team presentations and press conferences got underway.

Team PEZ landed in Belgium and made the drive north to spend our first day at Le Tour with the suppliers to some of cycling’s biggest teams. We programmed the GPS and set sail for the hotel of the Radio Shack and SaxoBank teams to check out the latest offerings from Trek, SRAM and ZIPP.

More used to seeing Orange associated with the Netherlands, Rotterdam had rolled out the yellow carpet to welcome the Tour.

Andy Paskins, Zipp’s marketing manager from Speedway Indiana, met us at the Saxo Bank and Radio Shack hotel to show us two new sets of wheels that have just been released onto the world market. We’ll get a much closer look at the 404 Carbon Clincher and the aluminum Zipp 101 in the weeks ahead, but Andy was kind enough to let us get our hands on their latest innovations and give us the low down on what’s new for 2010/11.

The Zipp 101, which the world had their first look at back in September of last year, looks a little out of place up against the full carbon range of wheelsets offered by the company, but Andy told us that people should be careful not to be fooled by the looks, as, “This really is a racing wheel.”

Two new releases you can roll away on (at speed!)

The 101 is now the most affordable way for cyclists and triathletes to take advantage of Zipp’s aerodynamic technologies developed during two decades of research and results with carbon fibre wheels. It has undergone extensive wind tunnel testing and is rated for use with tyres as narrow as 21mm right through to 35mm tyres.

The 101’s 30mm-deep rim features a proprietary profile curve extending across the braking surfaces. This fully toroidal design creates less drag than either a standard V-shape or a hybrid-toroidal profile with flat, parallel braking surfaces.

The second of the two wheelsets we saw was the 404 Carbon Clincher, which, as the name suggests, is an all carbon wheel without the normal aluminum section for braking and seating a clincher tyre. The 404 Carbon Clincher, as well as being a superior aerodynamic product, offers a weight saving over the aluminum clincher wheel of 150g, with the wheelset tipping the scales at 1557grams.

As well as rolling resistance (which tyre manufacturers have addressed in recent years) tubular tyres have traditionally offered superior aerodynamic advantages over clincher tyres when mounted on a wheel. The Zipp engineers developed the fully toroidal Firecrest profile with a complex set of high-radius curves that adjust the width of the rim from 25.5mm at the braking track to 27.5mm at its
widest point.

This wider, less tapered version of the proven hybrid-toroidal profile used in Zipp’s previous clincher wheels particularly improves the aerodynamics of the rear wheel as it rotates within the frame and (Zipp tells us) this makes the 404 Carbon Clincher the most aerodynamic clincher wheelset in its class. The new rim shape also directs airflow so precisely that handling is noticeably improved.

Without the ‘CC’ (carbon clincher) sticker, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the this and the tubular version of the wheel.

Because clincher tyres are more susceptible than tubulars to the effects of heat buildup from heavy braking on carbon surfaces, the 404 Carbon Clincher is manufactured with a heat-resistant resin based on the materials used in motorsports brake system.

Team Saxo Bank’s Nicki Sorensen has been riding the 404 Carbon Clinchers for around 6 weeks and Andy told us that he had been raving about the performance of the wheelset. And while the professionals seem to love the wheel, the target market for the new 404 is the triathlon age group contenders and domestic level road racers. With the new Zipp Carbon Clincher, there is no longer any need for people who want the security of being able to change a tyre in an important triathlon event to have to compromise on aerodynamics of weight.

Before we finished looking at the SRAM components and the new wheels, the guys took us over to show how the package looks built up on a frame. While the Zipp wheels on the all black Trek are actually the 404 tubular model, with the special black stickers (that show up white in flash photos) and the SRAM LTE Red group, both company’s products certainly looked the goods.

Built up on an all black bike, things take on a decidedly ‘Stealth’ look.

To say that component manufacturer SRAM are “happy” with their short time in the cycling groupset game, would probably be slightly more than an understatement – it’s been just 5 years since SRAM launched it’s first Force road gruppo. At last year’s Tour de France, all three riders on the Tour podium rode SRAM groupsets and to celebrate the fact, at this year’s race they are turning Red into yellow with a special limited edition release.

In a scene reminiscent of a cloak and dagger espionage novel, SRAM’s Micheal Zellman met us in the car park of the team’s hotel, popped the back of his car and showed us the contents of a special box, known as the SRAM Spy Case.

Inside the padded box, in which the original SRAM Red groupset travelled the world a surprisingly few years back, was a new offering of the company’s top road groupset. This SRAM Red group, however, is mostly in black but carries a particular shade of yellow that anyone familiar with the Tour de France is sure to recognize.

The original and well travelled SRAM Spy Case.

The Limited Tour Edition (or LTE) SRAM Red is not the first time that SRAM have customized one of their groupsets. They have produced gold versions for Fabian Cancellara and yellow for Alberto Contador, but this year, they will be doing a production run of the LTE Red group, meaning anyone will be able to own the groupset that can be seen on four bikes at this year’s Tour.

Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong and Carlos Sastre will all be racing the LTE SRAM Red and Oscar Pereiro will be in Rotterdam for the presentations as well, meaning that the four men, who between them have won the last 11 Tours de France, will all have the company’s yellow on black, Red group this week.

Limited Tour Edition or LTE.

The LTE groupset will be available to the public in late Fall to be purchased right through until just before next year’s Tour de France. The production run will be based upon demand from consumers, with only the time frame to buy, being restricted.

With the groupset’s all black finish, there are some regular SRAM features that consumers have come to expect, that have also been changed with the new finish, including the inside face of the rear cassette.

It’s black around the back, too.

If you kept a keen eye out during the teams presentations, you would have already seen the groupset in action, but it’s when the race hits the road on Monday that the new LTE will have its full public unveiling.

As we were over in the Radio Shack area to grab hold of the 2011 black Trek Madone, it was the perfect opportunity to talk with Trek’s pro team liason officer, Ben Coates, who was actually busy lending a hand working on Andreas Kloden’s time trial bike.

While some companies have several representatives working with the professional squads to gather feedback from products, Ben is the team when it comes to Trek’s face to face contact with Radio Shack. While he does have support, he is the man who spends around 240 days a year away from home, on the road, in the tough testing ground that is professional cycling.

“It’s answering questions, making sure things are working properly, looking toward the future with product development, talking to you guys in the press and a lot of other things,” is part of the list Ben gave us to explain what it is that he does.

One of the key areas of his job, Ben told us, is relationship building.

“We’ve been with similar people with different titles almost throughout our whole time in professional cycling, US Postal, Discovery, Radio Shack and then also with Johan at Astana. Those relationships are priceless in terms of getting into a rhythm, knowing what to expect, gaining trust, being able to ask for help with product development and specific year to year, incremental gains. Working with the same people from year to year really helps, as after nearly 11 years, you know what to expect and so do they.”

“These long term goals also help you to build up a true partnership. We are not just supplying bikes. We know from other team experiences that not everyone has the same relationship that we do, so we appreciate that and we work very hard to maintain that. I’m motivated by what’s good for Trek and our business. And what makes us successful is the riders being successful.”

Ben tweaks a bike while Matt tweaks his recording device.

This year, Trek have made changes to what was already a highly successful version of their Madone frameset and the riders have had the benefits of the new 2011 model for a few months now.

“The guys started racing the all new 2011 Madone at the Dauphine. We were very very happy with our 2010 model. It was basically everything we were looking for in a bike. Light integrated, functional, and lots of really neat innovation. We wanted to maintain all of that, and make it lighter,” Ben explained.

“So, with a new carbon and a new process, we can use the strongest carbon fibre known. With carbon it is easy to build a light stiff bike, but the challenge comes in making it durable for day to day use. The bangs and bumps and crashes that a normal race bike goes through, cannot be a problem for your product. You have to add in a lot of low modulus carbon or a lot of extra carbon just to get it to be durable, so the new process is helping us to eliminate some of that redundency.”

These gains, he explained, have brought about a decrease in weight of 100g for the 2011 model across the whole size range.

The Unity TT bike, ready for Saturday.

How Light Is Too Light?
On the topic of lighter bikes, we asked Ben for his thoughts and the Trek position on the UCI’s minimum bike weight of 6.8kg. As frame and component technology develops, mechanics often have to add weight to bikes (although it must now be in the form of functional parts and not just spanners bolted to the down tube!) so that they are heavy enough to pass inspection.

Ben told us there are two ways of looking at the situation. Initially, with frame sets that allowed the bikes to be under the minimum, it gave riders a lot of choice in what other equipment they could use. There was no longer and problem with using an SRM power unit which is 200g extra on a climbing day or deep section wheels on a rolling day, or a less comfortable saddle to save a few grams. Alloy bars too are a lot better for racing from a durability point of view than carbon, so teams no longer have to compromise there to save 50g with a carbon set. The problem now, though, is that technology has reached the point where all the components are as light as possible without compromising on functionality or comfort, and still, bikes need to have weight added.

“From Trek’s point of view it is frustrating, but we will not endorse any move to reduce the weight limit, strictly to a new arbitrary weight limit. Our goal with the UCI and in every communication we have with the UCI is, if this is a safety consideration, why isn’t there a safety test? They perform one for non standard wheels, so why not do one with the frames?”

“Even if they rely on someone else, even if it is a CE certification, if it passes that, and the bike is on the list, then you ride the bike. The UCI see weight as a determining factor for their desire to create a “man vs man” rather than “machine vs machine” argument.”

A rather heavy lead dust cap.

“It’s also a shame that they push that across the size range. It really gives an advantage to a guy who is tall and light.”

We spoke to the Radio Shack mechanics and they explained that with Levi Leipheimer’s bikes they had to add the lead dustcaps to the cranks, use a very heavy bar end plug on the handlebars, use a heavy seat and even use all steel bolts rather than titanium on all of his components to make his small frame the correct minimum weight.

Part of the reason why Trek are not concerned that their production bike is actually “illegal” is the fact that they are driven by the consumer market. The bike that will be ridden at the Tour de France is the exact same bike that is being launched this week and that you will soon be able to buy at your Trek dealer. That in itself is a huge marketing point for Trek and when someone can buy the bike that Lance rode in the Tour and have it lighter than the one that was raced, it is a very attractive proposition to have in the market place.

“When someone buys a Trek bike, they should know that the frameset they purchased could have been the one before or the one after a frameset that we had to pull off the production line to send to the team.”

Trek have close to 50 framesets at the Tour de France (including 2 road bikes for most and three for some and two time trial bikes for every rider) but while most riders have a training bike at home and meet their race bike at the Tour (and most other races), Lance rides on the same bike all of the time. Ben explained that Lance trains and races on the same bike all year.

“Even before Lance travelled on private jets, he still always just had one bike. It can make things a really big deal when he switches bikes. Last year when he switched often it was interesting, but this year when he switched from his Radio Shack bike to the Unity bike, it was a big deal.”

Lance’s race bike was off with him at the team presentation, so we weren’t able to shoot any pics of it mounted up with its SRAM TLE groupsets, but we will be keeping an eye out for it in the coming days where it will no doubt be up towards the front of the peloton.

A big thanks to Michael, Andy and Ben for their time and stay tuned to PEZ for more Tour tech.

With a big day meeting the teams and looking around Rotterdam to come tomorrow, all we had to do was find our accommodation and settle in for an evening of rest. With Rotterdam far and away the biggest port in Europe, we figured what better place to base the PEZ Roadside crew than right down on the water.

Until tomorrow!

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