Tour de France Tech: How gear choices drive a rider’s decisions
The pros have instincts, training, and planning on their side. But the right choice of gear can affect a rider's decision-making during a race, too.
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The pros ride differently than the rest of us. I’ve ridden with enough of them (or, well behind them) to know that the way they handle their bikes, the power they put out, even the way they hold themselves on the bicycle, is just different somehow, as though they were made to do exactly that: pedal a bike. So it’s easy to assume that a rider’s gear choices have little relevance on what they do in a race.
That assumption is likely wrong.
While the pros certainly ride differently than you and I do, they are still affected by new bikes and gear; and they are perhaps most adept at adjusting their riding to take advantage of such advances in technology.
“Gear matters to pros,” says author and former pro cyclist Phil Gaimon. “They don’t necessarily have a choice of what they ride, but it won’t stop them from grumbling about it if it’s bad, and it’s something they would consider when choosing teams. The best equipment won’t take you from mid pack to the podium, but you’re not winning the Tour if you have a second-tier TT bike or ill-fitting skinsuit, for example.”
Case study: disc brakes
I’m sure we’re all a little tired of hearing about disc brakes by now, especially since they’ve been so widely adopted among the pros. It’s important to note that most pros weren’t asking for disc brakes and, in fact, most of them argued against disc brakes in the peloton for a long time. Those days seem to be over, and while some riders do still use rim brakes, it’s almost a novelty when we spot them.
So what exactly do riders get out of disc brakes? Have discs changed the way riders attack a racecourse? For sure, says Gaimon. “With rim brakes it takes a little longer to slow down,” he says. “You have to start scrubbing speed before the turn. With disc brakes, you can go full-speed a little longer, grab your brakes a little later, and modulate as needed to get to a safe speed for the turn. The improved modulation with discs also lets you brake in the turn if you get the speed wrong, which is riskier on the rim brakes.”
Peter Stetina would know. He has raced in the Tour de France twice, the Giro d’Italia four times, and the Vuelta a España twice. He says a rider’s ability to brake later in corners, “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.”
So instead of fast corners putting riders into survival mode, disc brakes allowed those riders to jockey for position in an entirely new way. That adds a dimension to descents — both exciting and dangerous.
Shimano’s Di2 systems shift smooth as butter. SRAM’s eTap AXS system offers twelve gears in the rear, with 1-tooth jumps between several of them to reduce the amount of front shifting a rider has to do, and to smooth out cadence changes. Campagnolo is on its way to 13 speeds. Do all of these advancements actually change the way the pros approach racecourses? Or do they just hit the button when they need it, like the rest of us?
That depends on the rider, of course. Pros get a lot of support, so for some riders, it’s simply enough to know the mechanic has made sure everything works properly. From there, intuition takes over.
“As a pro,” says Stetina, “your mechanic charges batteries nightly and we don’t even think about the gear selection as much because it is so ingrained; it’s as normal as walking and we subconsciously find the right gear for our effort/cadence output.”
Gaimon has a different take on gearing, one that involves less of the subconscious and more of the notion that pros spot advantages when new tech comes along.
“Absolutely the added gear range matters to pros,” says Gaimon. “When SRAM came out with the 26-tooth cassette, I remember racing a crit with a steep hill in it. That cog let me attack in the big ring when everyone else had to shift, and hold my gap on the descent while they clicked back to the big ring. Shifting is fast but can still be a critical fraction of a second.”
In a sport measured in fractions of a second, individual can and often do influence the order of the podium, or whether a rider misses that podium altogether. And pro riders are often most adept at spotting those advantages. Of course, that pendulum can swing the other way, which is one reason pro riders are often slowest to adopt new technology, even when all the testing and studies point to a clear advantage. Few, if any, riders want to be a guinea pig when so much rides on bikes and gear working flawlessly.
“WorldTour riders are wary of being a testing ground for new tech,” says Stetina. “If a piece of equipment fails and costs a rider a win, it puts a black stain for said product on the collective consciousness of the peloton.”
That collective consciousness cuts both ways, too. If one rider in the peloton hears that a certain piece of gear failed or cost another rider a win, you can rest assured the entire peloton will know about it, and riders will make decisions based on those whispers and conjectures. It’s like a very consequential game of telephone, and the final message may not accurately represent what actually happened. (Remember this disc brake debacle?)
Of course, it’s hard to argue with new tech when it brings a rider to the top step of the podium.
“Pro cycling is a gossip world,” says Stetina. “Once a rider wins on new tech, everyone has to have it.”
Tubeless wheels and tires
Tubeless tires are creeping onto the scene. Deceuninck-Quick-Step paved the way for tubeless acceptance at the WorldTour level in 2019, with several riders racing and winning with tubeless setups. Mitchelton-Scott experimented with tubeless tires on training rides before the 2019 Tour de France, and now that Pirelli has a tubeless race tire ready fo the team, it’s possible we’ll see it in action this year. And UAE’s Alexander Kristoff had distinctly mixed success in 2019, winning on tubeless at Gent-Wevelgem before suffering multiple flats just weeks later at Paris-Roubaix.
Stetina says no one wants to be a guinea pig, so few teams have jumped in with both feet — or wheels, as it were.
“I haven’t yet heard of a pro team racing regularly on tubeless, as they all do tubulars still,” says Stetina. “I personally ride tubeless every day now and it’s great. Tires have gotten wider but 28s — which I use everyday — are still considered monster trucks in the WorldTour realm.”
What exactly are riders waiting for when it comes to the switch to tubeless? Reliability, largely. While tubeless tires are faster than tubulars, it’s possible to ride tubulars flat, which means a rider can keep pedaling until the team car or neutral support rolls up to offer a spare. Tubeless tires are improving in that regard, but until wheels and tires mate together reliably and can allow riders to keep rolling in such situations, adoption will be slow.
Of course, as Stetina says, once riders start winning on tubeless tires, expect the sea change to happen quickly. Tubeless tires offer lower rolling resistance, especially when riders can optimize tire pressures. Pair that with wider rims sculpted to flow with the tire’s profile, and you’ve got a setup that’s faster than tubulars.
Wheels, too, have gotten deeper recently as more and more studies come out that show most riders benefit from the aerodynamic advantage — which outweighs (forgive the pun) the weight savings advantage. That means even climbers can benefit from deeper wheels up to a certain point. That all boils down to the pitch of the climb, the duration of that pitch, and of course, the rider’s power output. So while deeper rims aren’t a catch-all solution for going faster, it’s likely we’ll see plenty of rolleurs, puncheurs, and even some wispy climbers default to 35mm t0 45mm deep wheels on certain climbs to shave away at the milliseconds between them and the finish line.
It’s easy to assume that gear takes a back seat to training and preparation. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s important to understand that gear does indeed play into a rider’s decision-making during the race. Bicycle racing is a world of habit and instinct, but increasingly, it’s also a scientific game. That means gear matters now more than ever.
“Pros absolutely care what they ride,” says Gaimon. “Riders prefer certain products for sure. I know riders who have used the exact same ‘broken in’ saddle for five seasons in a row, or will choose a team because they believe the bike/component setup is superior. In the pro’s mindset, when you are sacrificing everything else in your life to be at peak physical condition, you expect the same from your equipment and it’s hard to justify the suffering if you believe you have an equipment disadvantage.”
But as Stetina says, adaptation takes precedence above all other considerations. Pros will make anything work when they have to, and at the WorldTour level, there’s really no such thing as truly ‘bad’ gear. Like their mechanics who adapt on the fly to changing conditions and rider demands, the riders themselves are capable of pushing any gear to its limits and making it work for them.
“At the end of the day,” says Gaimon, “pros know that you have to ride the sponsor’s product, whether it’s good or bad. Riders can, and will, adapt to any frame or groupset and ride it hard.”