Tour de France 2020

Ghost wheels abound in the Tour de France peloton

Unbranded wheels abound in this year's Tour, from Princeton Carbonworks on Richard Carapaz's bike, to mystery hoops from Shimano on several riders' bikes.

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“Shimano is constantly developing and testing new products and technologies. We aren’t ready to share details at the moment.” That’s the official word from Shimano about the unbranded wheels Marc Hirschi (Team Sunweb) rode during stage 9 of the Tour de France.

When I contacted Jumbo-Visma regarding the unbranded wheels some of its riders have been using at the Tour — which, by appearances, look like Corima rims — team representative Ard Bierens said, “It’s a fact that we have a range of equipment to choose from. Shimano surely is a valued partner and together we look at opportunities to perform the best in all circumstances.”

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So, not a lot to go on here, but clearly Shimano is working on new wheels that consumers may see before too long.

So what are they, exactly? And what other brands have ghost wheels in the peloton?

Marc Hirschi
Marc Hirschi of Switzerland and Team Sunweb broke away from the pack during stage 9 of the 2020 Tour de France on unbranded wheels. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Notable formats

While other teams and the brands that sponsor them have been experimenting with tubeless wheels and tires — and Roval has taken a completely different tack with clinchers at the Tour de France — it appears Shimano has a new set of tubular rims.

Tubulars? Those ol’ relics? Remember, while other tire formats are certainly making a play for regular use in the peloton, tubulars still rule the roost. It looks from the photos that Shimano has gone a bit wider in the rims, however, so it’s not as though these wheels are a case of the same ol’, same ol’. Wider rims have also ruled said roost for the last several seasons, so it seems like a foregone conclusion that these new hoops should run in line with that trend. (The current Shimano Dura-Ace C40 clincher rims, for example, have a 17mm inner rim width, which is narrow compared to its competition, most of which fall somewhere in the 19-21mm range.)

The rims appear to be in the 40-50mm depth range. That seems to be the sweet spot for all-around rims these days, since they offer aerodynamic benefits for most riders in most conditions, without adding a ton of weight to the equation.

But aside from that, there’s not a whole lot that we can decipher about these wheels. The matte-black finish doesn’t reveal any finer details (though it’s certainly conspicuous in a peloton full of loud branding).

It would stand to reason, however, that Shimano would want to make a wheel that’s competitively light by today’s standards; it’s been a few years since the Dura-Ace wheel lineup got a full refresh, so it’s likely that they weren’t as light as other options.

On top of that, you can bet Shimano did plenty of aerodynamic testing to ensure its rims are competitive with others at this level.

Testing grounds

As former road pro Peter Stetina told VeloNews, pros don’t like to be guinea pigs when it comes to gear. Then again, once word spreads through the peloton that a rider has something the other riders don’t, you can bet everyone will want to get their hands on it, particularly if a rider wins on said coveted gear. Perhaps that’s why there are so many ghost wheels in this year’s Tour de France.

For example, Richard Carapaz (Ineos-Grenadiers) took a spin on his TT bike during the first rest day, and once again, wheels seem to be worth talking about here. The rear wheel appears to have Shimano/Pro’s checkered pattern, but the front wheel is a different story entirely.

Richard Carapaz
Richard Carapaz trains on his TT bike with a Shimano rear wheel, and a mystery front wheel that features a sinusoidal rim shape. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

At first glance you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s a Zipp wheel, featuring its biomimicry shape. But for starters, it’s not the Zipp shape at all; it’s more akin to Princeton Carbonworks’ sinusoidal rim shape. It also appears to have graphics similar to Princeton’s honeycomb pattern. But there are subtle differences between this wheel and a Princeton wheel too, most notably the spoke pattern; Carapaz’s front wheel seems to be “missing” spokes, leaving some of the sinusoidal rises devoid of a spoke connection. There’s no wheel on the Princeton website that features such a design.

I reached out to Princeton Carbonworks, and the company confirmed this is one of its wheels. “It’s a Wake6560 16-hole front wheel, straight-pull rim brake,” said Harrison Macris, Princeton’s CEO. “We do two nodes and skip one to keep weight down and spokes to 16.”

That would make sense on a time trial bike; the sinusoidal pattern is designed to help keep the wheel stable when it encounters wind at various yaw angles, which certainly played out when I tested a set of Princeton’s Grit 4540 wheels. (Review coming soon!) And keeping the spoke count low obviously saves weight, as Macris said.

In short, this year’s Tour de France has proven that riders are willing and able to do everything they can to shave seconds and watts, even if that means reaching out for non-sponsored equipment. It’s also clear that equipment sponsors realize the potential in new wheel designs and are taking aerodynamics into account more and more, even on lightweight climbing wheels. Between tires and wheels, a rider’s connection to the road has changed significantly in 2020.