Here's a quick guide to the trends, products, and practices that are worth keeping an eye out for during this year's Tour de France.
A tech bomb seems to have gone off in the last few days. The intersection of the Tour de France and Eurobike 2018 means every bike company under the stars seems to have something new and cool to check out. Here’s a quick guide to the trends, products, and practices that are worth keeping an eye out for.
Is aero the future? The Tour de France will tell. In the weeks leading up to the Grand Depart, at least five different bike companies launched new aero bikes. The question is, will the pros ride them? And which pros?
Aero bikes aren’t new, nor are they new to the pro peloton. But the evolution of the aero bike has brought this category into the mainstream, competing neck and neck with all-around bikes for a share of everyday duties. No longer do aero bikes solely focus on aerodynamic gains; early returns on aero development indicated that while comfort was never going to be a primary concern, it couldn’t be ignored entirely. So engineers have responded with compliance features that isolate comfort in various ways to avoid impacting the bike’s lateral stiffness.
The category has also long been noted for its languid steering and wooden, almost-dead ride feel. Those days are largely gone too. While the steering won’t ever likely be as ultra-responsive as a climbing bike — nor should it be, since these bikes suit the rouleurs, puncheurs, and pure sprinters primarily — Trek, Specialized, and Cannondale have pushed the boundaries of what an aero bike can do both for comfort, handling, and responsiveness.
So look for aero everything: the Trek Madone, Specialized Venge, and Cannondale SuperSix are the marquee offerings, but BMC also released its Timemachine Road. The latter may or may not see action in the 2018 Tour de France, since it requires some modifications to make it UCI legal (the integrated water bottle cage system, for example, would need to be removed, as would the fairing covering the front brake). And while 3T has also released a “new” aero road bike — an update to its Strada, which was, up til this point, 1x only; the Due model now allows for a 2x drivetrain — Aqua Blue Sport is the only team riding that bike. The team is not at the 2018 Tour.
We haven’t seen much yet, but there’s new gear out there. Giro released its Aether helmet, placing it as an updated, faster, and safer version of its venerable Synthe helmet. The integrated MIPS system is truly something different, so this could end up being a technology that sticks around for a while. Expect to see it on the heads of BMC team riders at the Tour.
Mark Cavendish is also sporting some custom kicks that are branded Nike. While it seems much of the hoopla around the shoes is aesthetic, his Superfly 360 kicks also seem tailor-made for the demands of sprinting. The question is, will you be able to get your hands on your own pair? UCI rules state that gear the pros ride needs to be available to consumers, but that doesn’t always mean you’ll see such products on store shelves. Often such items are offered as extremely limited edition products, or they’re priced so exorbitantly that average consumers couldn’t afford them anyway.
The other big sprinter in the bunch, Peter Sagan has plenty of new gear to show off. For starters, his brand spanking new Specialized S-Works Venge ViAS is decked out in custom colors, dubbed for the second year in a row as the Sagan Collection. The sparkly teal matches the Bora Hansgrohe colors, but it’s inspired by the waters of Monaco.
100% has also given Sagan the limited-edition treatment. Several of its most popular models are now available in a special chrome mirror finish. Sagan wore them to his pre-Tour press conference the day before the Grand Depart. The glasses themselves aren’t new, but the finish is, and there’s only a limited quantity available.
Hey, did you hear the news? Disc brakes are officially UCI-legal! Okay, I’ll forgive you if you’re not bowled over with excitement given that disc brakes have been kicking around the pro peloton for quite a while now. But this is actually kind of a bigger deal than it might seem.
For starters, Trek-Segafredo is riding exclusively disc-equipped bikes. This is a grand tour first, and it’s important for several reasons: First, the wheel change excuse is gone. If all the bikes run discs, then mechanics will be prepared for what comes. And Mavic neutral support also supplies disc-equipped wheels.
Second, it means riders are starting to embrace disc brakes, or at least accept them as the future. At a press conference the day before the 2018 Tour de France got underway, Peter Sagan sang the praises of disc brakes and said they were obviously beneficial. So why did he wait so long to ride them?
According to Specialized representatives, disc-equipped bike availability held him back. Sagan and some of his teammates liked the idea of disc brakes early on, but they did not want to switch back and forth between disc-equipped bikes and rim brake-equipped bikes; at the time, Specialized had not yet introduced disc-equipped bikes across the spectrum of its race line. So Sagan held off.
Another common refrain has been dispelled: Disc brakes aren’t really slower, or heavier, anymore. Okay, that’s not entirely true; disc brakes are, in fact, heavier and slower, but bicycle engineers have found ways to counteract such problems with smart designs in the frame and fork. Calipers get tucked away, hidden from airflow. Frames are so light that the additional weight of calipers and hoses doesn’t really matter, especially given the UCI regulations still remain at 6.8kg.
And while some riders are still wary of the supposed dangers of disc brakes, there have been so few (if any) true instances of disc brake injuries that they seem no more dangerous than rim brakes. The chances of getting chopped by a rotor are pretty slim, in other words. Sure, it can happen, but if it does, that’s one unlucky rider.
How about other trends?
Aero. Is. Everything. It’s not just about the bikes, either. Helmets are no longer judged solely on safety, aesthetics, and venting. In the marginal gains world that is pro cycling, every millisecond counts. So even road helmets (not necessarily aero road) need to be as aerodynamically beneficial as possible while still offering adequate venting and safety features.
We’ve even gotten to the point that socks are aero. Team Sky, in particular, seems to be taking advantage of high socks with textures meant to improve aerodynamics. The idea is to get airflow to separate from the rider’s leg sooner, thereby preventing eddies of air behind the rider’s legs that can cause drag. The caveat: This only works at certain speeds, and can even end up being slower at other speeds.
Elegy for the 23c
Be honest: when was the last time you rode a tire that skinny? The pros don’t ride them anymore, and many manufacturers have abandoned making 23c tires altogether. That’s because wider tires are actually faster in most road riding situations than a skinny tire. A wider, shorter contact patch translates to less friction, and by running a lower tire pressure, the tire’s hysteresis reaction improves, thereby reducing the effects of an impact on speed.
25c tires are now the norm, though depending on race conditions, some riders have opted for 28c tires. Around classics season, there have been reports of 30c tires and even 32c tires on race bikes.
All of this comes with another important caveat: Tire width depends on rim width. Since rims have also gotten progressively wider in recent years, the way a tire mates with such rims has changed. Therefore a 25c tire could actually measure 26mm or even larger, depending on the rim’s width. So don’t be fooled if a pro is racing a 25c tire on a wide rim; that tire might actually measure something closer to 28mm.
I like big…pulleys
There’s a common theme in shifting these days: Bigger is better. While many climbing specialists are probably comfortable with an 11-28 cassette in the mountains, other less gravitationally-averse riders are opting for 11-30 cassettes. But that’s not the only thing in the drivetrain that’s gotten larger.
CeramicSpeed’s Oversize Pulley Wheels have taken over. More and more teams are opting for the nearly-comically-large pulley wheels with a longer cage because it reduces the bend in the chain as it wraps through the derailleur. This supposedly reduces overall drivetrain friction, which in turn saves the riders precious watts.
If you spot such a pulley system, there’s a very good chance it’s being used with a specially treated chain. CeramicSpeed offers its UFO chain, but it’s not the only company to treat chains this way. Muc-Off has its own version too.
All that glitters?
We’ve seen this before: Step one — Slap a new color scheme on a bike/helmet/pair of shoes/band-aid and call it new and exciting. Step two— hold a press conference. Step three — profit?
Is this year any different?
Sort of. While there’s the usual plethora of updated colors and finishes, there are new notable advances in bike technology worth talking about. But the cameras still click when the flash rolls by.
Peter Sagan has his new teal, sparkly Venge, for example. It’s part of the Peter Sagan Collection from Specialized, and you’ll be able to buy your own version if you want to rock the bling the way the world champ does.
Mark Cavendish has his own custom paint job on his Cervelo S5, which is similarly shiny to his bike from last year’s Tour de France. His Oakley Aro5 also features a green glittery finish, and let’s not forget his custom Nike kicks.
Romain Bardet rolls on a custom-painted Factor 02. Jakob Fugelsang has a custom-painted Argon18. Michal Kwiatkowski has a custom Pinarello celebrating his Polish national championship. The list goes on. It wasn’t that long ago that even yellow bikes for the GC leader were rare; now it seems every rider has something to celebrate on his top tube, down tube, helmet, top cap…
The best of these products intersect somewhere between style and substance. The rest? Well, they make for nice photos.