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Tour de France

The Tour in tech through three stages: a soapy start

A win on clinchers and a soap-slicked course have dictated the early storylines when it comes to Tour de France gear.

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Clinchers. Rim brakes. Soap?

What a strange start to a Tour de France taking place in a strange year. Stage one showed us the clear limits of rubber compounds, as riders battled slick roads left behind by rain storms and possibly even the Tour caravan — a vehicle in which sprayed soap bubbles all over the road during the festivities, according to some riders like Wout van Aert who reported ‘soapy’ road conditions. That led to crashes galore on a dangerous reintroduction of Grand Tour racing post-Covid.

And that was just the beginning. Here’s what you need to know about gear and tech through three stages of racing at the Tour de France.

The limits of rubber

Tire manufacturers focus efforts on creating tires that are not only fast, but also grippy enough to handle the intense cornering and variable weather conditions Tour riders face. All of that R&D was for naught during the opening stage of the 2020 Tour de France because of…soap?

If you’ve only watched the Tour on television, you may not know that before the stage goes off everyday, a long line of cars known as the publicity caravan drives the course, often with personnel throwing trinkets into the crowd, blasting loud music, and otherwise drumming up excitement for the riding to come.

WolfPack Race Cotton Tire

This year’s publicity caravan included a vehicle that supposedly sprayed soapy bubbles into the crowd — and onto the road. Mix that with the rain storms that moved in later that day — the first significant rains in some time — and the riders were treated to a luge course that resulted in crash after crash. It’s not clear if the caravan truly was responsible for the slick conditions, though some riders did report ‘soapy’ and slick conditions. In particular, sections of road with paint on them — crosswalks, for example — became figurative sheets of ice.

That’s a perfect storm that tire manufacturers probably never fathomed, so we, as fans, witnessed the farthest limits of what rubber compounds can do. With only about an inch per wheel of real estate to create grip between the rider and the road, a lot depends on a tire’s ability to bite in and grip, particularly while cornering. But soap? That’s well outside the normal parameters of a tire manufacturer’s design considerations.

Rim brakes hold tight

We saw early on in this truncated 2020 season that Jumbo-Visma riders seemed well committed to rim brakes. Other riders like Davide Formolo (UAE-Team Emirates) also run rim brakes. It wasn’t long ago that rim brakes were the norm and it was notable to call out a rider on disc brakes. That has reversed completely this year; it now seems notable if a rider is still sticking to tradition in the name of weight savings.

Van Aert and Sepp Kuss will have vital roles in the Jumbo-Visma engine room. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Does it matter? Well, that depends on who you ask. In one sense, every rider has brakes, period, which should be good enough for the casual fan to simply move on from the debate. But as I recently discussed with Phil Gaimon and Peter Stetina, the mix of disc brakes and rim brakes in the peloton can certainly animate the race and change the dynamic.

As Stetina notes, disc brakes “actually made the descending more aggressive and more of a position battle because some riders would use last-minute braking to pass on descents. Overall, disc brakes have benefitted descending although there can still be issues in the peloton because half the teams aren’t on them, thus you have a peloton with two stopping speeds. This is highlighted even more in the rain.”

And lo and behold, stage one treated us to rain galore. What followed was a cavalcade of slide-outs, near misses, spectacular crashes, and ultimately, a group decision to slow everything down on the descents. On top of the sketchy road conditions, riders also had to consider the brakes they were riding; in such conditions, rim brakes take a lot longer to slow a bike down, which can be a frightening proposition in wet conditions. But that may have actually been a benefit during stage one; riders on disc brakes have the opportunity to brake late in corners, and with far more stopping power.

With soapy, wet roads to greet that stopping power, it’s possible that a rider’s wheels could lock up more easily, leading to a slide-out. Of course, that’s conjecture; it seemed that equipment choice mattered not much at all when riders were met with a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime soapy road condition.

Clinching on clinchers

Julian Alaphilippe won Stage 2 in thrilling fashion, and with clinchers. That latter point seems far less exciting than the former but it’s no less important.

Clinchers are indeed generally faster than tubular tires, but riders have largely avoided clinchers because tubulars can be ridden flat. Tubulars also offer a pretty phenomenal ride feel. So why clinchers, and why now?

Alaphilippe takes his fifth Tou win. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Alaphilippe takes his fifth Tou win. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

For starters, Alaphilippe is sponsored by Specialized, which runs Roval wheels. This year Roval launched its new Rapide CLX wheels, which are designed to work specifically with clinchers only. Specialized said in a press release that it recognizes the advantages of tubeless tires, but “to render these wheels tubeless would have required extra materials, and that extra mass would have outweighed the benefits of tubeless tires.”

This can’t be all about weight savings though, can it? At 1,400 grams, the Roval Rapide CLX wheels are feathery, especially for deep-section rims. As my colleague Ben Delaney pointed out in his review of the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL7, the lighter wheels mean a faster spin-up, which probably mattered quite a lot in Alaphilippe’s sprint against Team Sunweb’s Marc Hirschi.

Combine that with the aerodynamic design considerations that likely allowed Alaphilippe to carry his speed and you’ve got a wheel and tire combo made for marginal advantages. We’re talking milliseconds here, but that’s apparently exactly what Alaphilippe needed to win the day.

Finally, here’s a question for the upcoming mountain stages: Will Alaphilippe stick with clinchers? I think he will. As I mentioned, at 1,400 grams, the Rapide CLX wheels are pretty darn light. As my colleague Lennard Zinn pointed out here, most riders benefit from wheel weight savings only in certain situations — situations Alaphilippe is likely to encounter. A rider would normally default to a climbing wheelset to gain said weight savings.

That said, aerodynamics seem to trump weight savings in just about all other situations, even for purebred climbers, an aero wheelset would be more advantageous, even in the mountains.

With the combination of a deep rim and light weight (thanks to the clincher design), Alaphilippe now has the best of both worlds. The only question is whether he trusts clinchers on the fast descents. As I mentioned earlier, tubulars allow a rider to continue riding should the tire go flat. That’s a sketchier proposition with clinchers and tubeless tires. Stage 4 awaits, so keep your eyes peeled for Alaphilippe’s (and other Deceuninck-Quick-Step riders’) tire choice.

Bonus: In the black

Jumbo-Visma riders started riding Bianchi bicycles that strayed from the company’s iconic celeste green paint job; it wasn’t just an aesthetic consideration either. By switching to black paint schemes, Bianchi was able to shave up to 80 grams off the overall frame weight. Don’t worry, the Bianchi word mark still bears the characteristic celeste color.