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Tour de France

Nibali, Contador do mid-stage bike changes for cobbles; Froome uses suspension

Early pavement and late pavé in Tuesday's stage 4 at the Tour de France led some teams to swap bikes halfway through

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Using a combination of math, experience, and tactical acumen, some Tour de France teams made the decision to swap bikes halfway through Tuesday’s cobble-strewn stage 4. Using the same math, experience, and tactical acumen, others did not.

The difference in tactics was dependent, according to one mechanic involved in the decision-making, on each team’s aversion to risk.

Tuesday was really two stages in one. The first, a 170-kilometer run across rolling roads with mostly good pavement. The second, 50km of Paris-Roubaix. Bikes today are built with an increasingly narrow focus. The optimal equipment for the first part of stage 4 is different from that of the second, more important part of the stage.

Swapping bikes allowed riders to use the optimal equipment for each course type, saving energy over the first half, but also opened them up to potential issues. Other teams could attack, or a bike change could go poorly. The risks were relatively low, but not nonexistent.

Specialized, along with many major pro teams, calculates time gained on the two different types of bikes and makes recommendations to its teams. Both of its star riders, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali, went with a bike swap on Tuesday. Contador made the switch with 114km remaining.

“We want to give the riders the best option on race day and this stage shows it to a tee,” Specialized representative Chris Riekert said. “Riders are starting the day with their Tarmac or Venge and 26c tires in the lead to the cobbles and then switching to their Roubaix with 28/30c tires and low pressure when the cobbled sectors arrive. They always have the best platform for each point in the race.”

John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), the reigning Paris-Roubaix champion with eyes set on a stage in, swapped from his Giant TCR to a Defy.

Each started on a bike tuned for regular road stages, with 25mm or 26mm tubulars and standard road frames. They finished on tech pulled straight from the Paris-Roubaix playbook, including fat, 28mm tubulars run at far lower pressures.

They rolled out of the start line with tire pressures over 100psi (7bar). The bikes they picked up halfway were running less than 70psi, according to mechanics, who would not provide a precise figure.

Only the premier stars, either those looking to the overall or those looking to win the stage, swapped bikes. The logistics of a wholesale swap by the entire team would be far too complicated, one mechanic explained Tuesday morning.

Some teams, including BMC Racing and Sky, opted not to swap at all.

Sky started on its Pinarello Dogma K8-S frames, which have a small amount of elastomer-tuneable rear suspension, with 27mm FMB Paris-Roubaix tires, the same tires it uses in April.

BMC raced its usual Teammachine frames, but ran the wheels and 28mm Continental tubulars it uses in Paris-Roubaix. The wheels were brought in a sprinter van from the team’s service course north of Brussels just for the day, and will go back Wednesday.

The team opted not to use the GranFondo frames it uses at Roubaix after discovering, somewhat late in the process according to mechanic Ian Sherburne, that the Teammachine could fit 28s. As Tuesday’s stage tackled far fewer kilometers of pavé, the added comfort of the GranFondo frames was deemed unnecessary.