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From the pages of Velo: In the Eye of the Tornado

Turgot’s Millimeter

It’s not often that you can directly credit an equipment choice with giving a rider a higher placing in a race. A bicycle is, after all, a human-powered vehicle and it’s the effort of the rider that propels them both across the finish line. But sometimes, just sometimes, equipment choices do make the difference between winning and losing — or in this case, between second and third.

On Easter Sunday, Sébastien Turgot went to the finish line of Paris-Roubaix with a group of five, including Alessandro Ballan. Using his experience on the track and what he had left in the tank, Turgot followed the right wheels to move up, and then led hard out of the last corner. In the head-to-head sprint with Ballan, the Frenchman took second place, one millimeter ahead of the Italian.

In many sports, it’s the athlete’s body that counts when crossing the line. Nordic ski racing, for example, counts the first boot to breach the finish line, not the tip of the ski. But in cycling, it’s all about the front wheel, and more specifically, the front edge of the tire. And here is where equipment choice may have made the difference.

Ballan and his BMC Racing team were aboard the new GF01 gran fondo bike. They rode Easton carbon wheels with Continental Competition 28mm tubulars. The Europcar team opted for Colnago Prestige cyclocross machines, Campagnolo Bora wheels and 29.2mm Dugast-produced Hutchinson tubulars. It turns out there are small, but significant, differences there.

The front center (the distance between the bottom bracket and the front dropout) of a cyclocross bike is typically longer than a road bike. What that means is that for a given rider’s position, with the set up being the same on a road bike and a cyclocross bike, the front wheel on the cyclocross bike will be farther in front of the rider.

Now imagine that you spend your entire season, save for one day of racing, on a road bike. You learn to time your bike throw based on where your front wheel is on your road bike. After all, it’s all about getting your front wheel across the line first. But on that one special day of racing, you’re aboard a bike with a front wheel a few millimeters farther forward. Voilà! There’s the millimeter difference that may have put Turgot one step above Ballan on the Roubaix podium. (Ballan’s BMC also had a longer front center than his normal SLR01, but the difference is smaller than in Turgot’s case.)

There was another millimeter in Turgot’s favor, however: his tires. Europcar used huge Dugast 29.2mm tires on its Colnago ’cross bikes. Ballan’s BMC team used Continental Competition 28.0mm tires. That’s a width measurement, but as a tire gets wider it also becomes radially taller. Voilà encore! There’s another millimeter for Turgot.

Judging a sprint, and especially a bike throw, is about situational awareness. But in a race as hard as Paris-Roubaix, sometimes it’s simply about throwing everything you have at it. Europcar’s choice to use cyclocross bikes and large 29mm tires was fortuitous in a race of millimeters, and that choice moved Turgot onto the second step of the Paris Roubaix podium, ahead of Ballan. — NICK LEGAN

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