Tour de France 2020

Bike selection was tricky for Tour favorites in stage 18

What's faster for an uphill time trial? A true TT machine or a modified road bike? Here's what we learned from the Tour's stage 18 TT.

Which bike was faster on Thursday, a road or TT frame? The two above-average rides of the day, Fabio Aru’s and Romain Bardet’s, were on road bikes. Yet the winner, Chris Froome, was on a TT bike. There’s no clear choice.

We’re used to the streaky lines and jutting extensions of TT bikes when these stages roll around. Aero helmets and skinsuits too. But stage 18 of the Tour de France threw a curveball at riders with some seriously steep climbing sections — up to a 14 percent grade in spots. For some riders, that meant leaving the TT bike back at the bus and hopping on an all-rounder with a few modifications. But did those modifications really matter?

in the days before the Tour started, Marcel Kittle was testing out this set-up: an S-Works Venge ViAS with drop bars and extensions. It was, in fact, the order of the day for many Stage 18 riders. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com
in the days before the Tour started, Marcel Kittel was testing out this set-up: an S-Works Venge ViAS with drop bars and extensions. It was, in fact, the order of the day for many stage 18 riders. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

Truly a tech conundrum, each team tackled the hilly TT course by combining the elements of TT bikes and all-rounders they thought would matter most. But not everyone bought into the all-rounder concept, opting instead for lightly-modified TT bikes. Orica – BikeExchange’s Adam Yates stuck with a TT bike, for example, and finished a respectable 16th. “Everyone has their own choice and their own preference,” he said. “I have mine. It worked okay. I’m not the best at TT.”

Chris Froome had a more measured take on his gear choice, which was, like Yates, a modified TT bike. “There’s been a lot of work in the background that went into getting ready for today’s stage. Road bike versus time trial bike, then wheel choice, and gear choice.”

That investment paid off for Froome, who was originally leaning toward running an all-rounder. “When I previewed the parcours I thought I should use a road bike, but the team’s analysis showed I should use a full TT setup. With Pinarello, the new bike, they’ve managed to save a lot of weight there. So I could use the TT bike and not worry about having a nine-kilogram bike.”

Froome also rode a tri-spoke front wheel and a disc wheel in the rear, which he says made a difference.

Here’s what the contenders rode, and where they finished:
Chris Froome: TT bike, slightly modified, mid-depth tri-spoke front wheel, rear disc (1st)
Tom Dumoulin: TT bike, mid-depth wheels (2nd)
Richie Porte: Road bike, drop bars, TT extensions, 50mm rear wheel and shallow front wheel (4th)
Romain Bardet: Road bike, TT base bar and extensions, mid-depth wheels (5th)
Nairo Quintana: TT bike, mid-depth wheels (Bora 50) (10th)
Alejandro Valverde: TT bike, rear disc, 50mm front (12th)
Adam Yates: TT bike, 50mm rear wheel and 35mm front wheel (16th)
Bauke Mollema: Road bike, drop bars, aero extensions, 50mm rear wheel, 35mm front wheel (17th)
Dan Martin: Road bike, drop bars, time trial extensions, shallow front and rear wheels (18th)

The takeaway: TT bikes still reign supreme, even in uphill time trials, given the top two finishers were on TT rigs. But, perhaps more strikingly, those who performed best did so on the bikes that they were most comfortable on. Sometimes speed isn’t quantified in aerodynamics; sometimes comfort and confidence matter more.

“We’ve invested quite heavily in getting ready for today’s stage and I’m really thankful for the support of the team,” said Froome. “I really think it made a difference today.”

Caley Fretz contributed to this story.