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Giro d'Italia

Giro d’Italia Stage 1: Understanding TT gear

The high socks, grip tape, and 3D-printed components you can expect to see (and not see) when watching the opening stage in Bologna.

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The 102nd Giro d’Italia starts with an individual time trial, which means we will get an early look at some of the fastest bikes in the world. It’s all about aerodynamics; comfort goes out the window, as do weight concerns. And while you’ll be able to spot some of it from your couch at home, some of it is hidden “under the hood.” Here’s what you need to know about gear during stage 1.

What you’ll see on TV:

Bike choices will be interesting in this short stage that ends with a steep, 2km climb. It’s possible riders could opt for an aero bike or climber’s bike rather than a TT bike. But for pure speed in the first flat 6km, a TT bike would certainly be fastest.

The most notable piece of gear you’ll be able to see on your screen, should riders be on dedicated TT bikes,  is the solid disc rear wheel. Since this stage is all about aerodynamics, the solid disc wheel makes a lot of sense. But if the wind starts blowing, it acts as a sail and makes the bike difficult to handle. It’s also very heavy.

Of course, the front wheel matters more for control. That’s why riders opt for deep-section wheels, sometimes with tri-spokes. 80mm deep rims are common. This combination allows crosswinds to pass through the wheel, which helps the rider stay in control, while still offering aerodynamic advantages. Still, if the winds are blowing, these wheels can be challenging to control.

Speaking of control, it’s possible some riders will run disc brakes. Rim brakes still reign supreme in the pro ranks, but they’re becoming more widely accepted, and used more frequently among sprinters and time trialists. Disc brakes offer more consistent and stronger braking power than rim brakes. And while they do tend to be heavier than rim brakes, bikes themselves have gotten so feathery that this is less of a concern than it used to be. In fact, many pro bikes already weigh less than the UCI’s weight limits, so adding weight is often necessary anyway. Manufacturers have also changed frame and fork designs to help mitigate any aerodynamic disadvantages disc brakes may pose.

It will be all but impossible to see a rider’s specific drivetrain gearing from your television, but there are a few notable things you may be able to spot. For starters, any team running SRAM’s eTap AXS components have the option to run 1X drivetrains. In such a setup, SRAM offers a special aero crankset as well. It features a solid chainring and an integrated power meter. Riders can choose from a 48-tooth chainring or a 50-tooth chainring. If those sound small to you, that’s because they’re meant to work in conjunction with SRAM’s 12-speed cassette, which offers a wide range of 10-26.

Keep an eye on rider attire, too. You’ll notice socks creep higher toward the calves. Believe it or not, high socks can actually help reduce drag, especially if those socks are specially designed to do so. Riders wear compressive booties as well to reduce drag as air passes over their shoes.

Keen observers will note that TT helmets have changed dramatically over the years. While some riders still sport helmets with long tails, others have converted to shorter helmets with different aerodynamic features. The idea is to create less turbulence as air passes over the rider’s head, and doing so successfully often depends on a specific rider’s body position.

Designers have also developed new ways to reduce drag on helmets in recent years. Many helmets feature some sort of aerodynamic “trip,” or raised bump, that’s intended to keep air flow adhered closer to the surface of the helmet, and for a longer period of time. Lazer’s Wasp is a good example. Such features help control the flow of air over the helmet, and help minimize the size and intensity of eddies of air that form as the air detaches from the back of the helmet.

What you won’t see on TV:

Tires? Of course you’ll you’ll see them, but did you know that some riders choose clinchers over tubulars for time trial stages? That’s because clinchers are actually faster than tubulars in lab testing (especially when combined with latex tubes), and since time trial stages tend to be fairly short, there’s less of a concern for continuing to ride with a flat tire while a rider waits for a wheel change.

The weather calls for a chance of showers. If indeed conditions are wet, riders will modify handlebars, pedals, and even saddles to get extra grip. (Some riders do so regardless of conditions.) This generally takes the form of grip tape placed on the handlebar extensions, on pedals, and even on saddles. Tony Martin (Jumbo-Visma) has notably placed Rock Tape on his pedals and other textured tape on his saddle in the past.

It’s a good time to experiment during a time trial. Team Ineos in particular has been creative with its componentry in the past. Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome have been spotted at previous Grand Tours with 3D-printed TT handlebars and even chain catchers. 3D-printing makes sense with time trial bike setups since adjustability isn’t always easy; custom 3D-printing bars means the rider gets his position accommodated completely, usually without the hassle of spacers or shims. It also allows engineers to tailor the shape of the bars for increased aerodynamics and reduced weight.

On the riders themselves, expect to see new skinsuits aimed at reducing aerodynamic drag within the new design constraints dictated by the UCI. In response to some of the designs teams wore in previous seasons, UCI clarified its rules to ensure fabrics do not rise more than 1mm off the body, essentially changing the shape of the rider’s body. Drag-reducing features must be woven into the fabric itself, and there can be no rigid or self-supporting components. This rule essentially bans skinsuits that Team Sky (now Ineos) and Team Movistar wore during last season from Castelli and Endura respectively.

Since the last two kilometers take riders up a steep climb, it’s possible we may see a bike switch or two. But the stage is short, so such a change would have to be quick. Some riders may use a climber’s bike for the full stage. It will be interesting to see what individual riders choose to navigate this tricky, short stage.

Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know — teams may have surprises in store. We’ll be at the start of the opening time trial to see if we can spot new and cool tech. Be sure to follow VeloNews (@velonews) and Dan Cavallari (@browntiedan) on Twitter and Instagram so you’ll be the first to know.