Tour de France 2020

Tour de France tech: What to look for and how to spot it

The Tour de France usually brings with it a slew of new bikes and gear. Here's what to look for at the 2020 Tour, and how to spot it.

With the Tour de France finally knocking on our door, ready to treat us to July theatrics in a brand new month, it is with great relief that we tech nerds can finally scour the peloton for all the new bits we’re usually treated to. (If nothing else, it’s nice to talk about something besides the masks riders are wearing, although we’ll undoubtedly be treated to some unique mask executions — looking at you, Peter Sagan.)

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While I usually get to head over to the Tour de France to sniff out new tech, I’ll be watching from home this year, just like you. That means I’ll have my eyes trained on the computer screen in hopes of spotting the new and the cool. Here’s what I’ll be looking for, and what you can look for too as you watch this year’s battle for yellow.

Helmets

What’s new: Like the bicycles in the race, helmets are in the process of undergoing a bit of a personality crisis. It used to be that riders chose either the most aero helmet or the lightest and best-ventilated. Now, helmets are combining all of those things into one lid. Nifty internal ventilation channels allow air to flow over the rider’s head without the traditional large vents, though that doesn’t help much on slow, hot climbs, so those lightweight, airy lids still exist for good reason.

Giant Rev Pro MIPS
Photo: Hannah DeWitt

Giant recently launched its Rev MIPS helmet, so expect to see that on Team CCC riders. It’s a good example of a helmet combining good venting with aerodynamics.  Trek-Segafredo riders will still be sporting Bontrager’s Wavecel-equipped helmets. Bora-Hansgrohe and Deceuninck-Quick-Step riders can choose from Specialized’s S-Works Prevail II, or the Evade helmet.

When and where to spot it: This is purely speculation, but keep an eye on Specialized riders. The Prevail II helmet hasn’t been updated in a few years now, so it’s certainly due for a redesign. Trek-Segafredo riders may opt for non-Wavecel helmets too; while Wavecel is a promising system, it tends to be quite hot.

Giro has also been relatively quiet on the road side recently. Will we see a new lid from Giro at the 2020 Tour? The company just launched a new MTB helmet recently, and the team at Giro is a surprisingly small one, so we may not see anything this year. Still, the Aether and the Vanquish have both been on the market for some time now, so an update to either one isn’t out of the question.

Bikes

What’s new: My goodness, what isn’t new about bikes this year? Bike stables seem to be a thing of the past as aero bikes and all-around bikes become one and the same. We already know about the Specialized S-Works Tarmac and the Trek Emonda, as well as BMC’s revamped Teammachine SLR 01. Giant also has a new bike this year that we’ve seen in various races. Those are the big players who have already had their moments in the spotlight. So keep an eye on the rest of the pack.

Jumbo-Visma, for example, has recently become the powerhouse team in the peloton. Will Bianchi have something new for its riders? If nothing else, we may be treated to custom paint jobs on Bianchi bikes should one of its riders capture the yellow jersey for any extended period of time.

The 2020 Tour de France is one for the climbers, with only four real sprint-heavy days. So it should come as no surprise that bikes have trended away from pure aero into a more do-it-all design.

Tarmac SL7
Photo: Ben Delaney

When and where to spot it: It’s not uncommon for the Tour de France to start with a time trial, but that’s not the case this year. A generally flat stage 1 means we’ll see the finest aero bikes the peloton has to offer, as well as the new class of aero-all-rounders like Specialized’s S-Works Tarmac. Stage 2 heads straight to the mountains, so it’s here we’ll see wispy climbing machines. Expect teams to show off new wares early.

Time trials also offer a great opportunity to spot not only new bikes, but unique set-ups. In the past, teams have dabbled with technology on TT bikes before jumping in with both feet during regular stages (see: disc brakes). And since this year’s Tour de France features a unique time trial that could see riders make a bike swap from a dedicated TT bike to an all-around bike halfway through, those transitions could give us all a good opportunity to glance a rider’s gear choices, customizations, and setups. Of course, we won’t be treated to any TT action until stage 20, so you’ll need to be patient.

Brakes

What’s new: You would think by now that the disc brake drama would be settled, with most teams and riders now on disc brakes full time. But recently, Wout van Aert won Strade Bianche on rim brakes, and Davide Formolo finished second just behind him, also on a rim-brake-equipped bike. (Formolo would go on to win stage 3 of the 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné on that same rim brake bike).

Does it matter? Sort of, but not really. Yes, disc brakes are heavier, but that doesn’t so much matter anymore, given how light frames and wheels are. There are other factors that might sway a rider to opt for rim brakes over discs, but those reasons are fewer and less relevant these days. There are differences in ride quality between disc brake wheels and rim brake wheels, but again, those differences are so subtle they’re not likely to matter much to pros solely focused on going fast, often at the expense of comfort.

Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

If a rider is still using rim brakes, you can likely chalk it up to tradition and habit.

When and where to spot it: Expect to see the vast majority of riders using disc brakes, and a few holdouts using rim brakes — most likely on climbing bikes, underneath the wispiest of climbers. At this point, rim brakes are simply a weight-saving decision, and since frame and wheel weights have come down so drastically in recent years, allowing bikes to go well below the UCI’s 6.8kg minimum weight rule, even with disc brakes, it’s not really necessary to ditch the discs for weight savings anymore. Sprinters will almost exclusively ride disc brakes for the reliability, better braking power, and modulation.

Keep in mind too that many bicycle manufacturers have transitioned away from rim brakes entirely, which means many riders may not have a choice but to ride disc brakes. If you see rim brakes at all, you’ll see them on climbing stages.

Wheels and tires

What’s new: Tubeless, baby. Who’s using it? Who’s still on tubulars? What teams are using a mix of both? Last year Deceuninck-Quick-Step used tubeless setups with great success. We’ve seen riders use tubeless tires during time trials in the past too. Mitchelton-Scott experimented with tubeless tires on training rides, but it wasn’t clear if any riders actually used them in competition. Could that change this year? With Pirelli now offering a tubeless race tire, it seems almost certain.

And yes, there is gravel on the menu at the Tour de France, but not enough to really factor in to tire or wheel choice in a major way.

Wheels are getting deeper, even on climbing bikes. While climbers have traditionally trended toward lower profile rims for weight savings, recent testing and research indicates that deeper-section wheels are actually more advantageous in many climbing situations.

Photo: Ben Delaney

When and where to spot it: Climbing stages (obviously!) will offer the best opportunity to spot whether riders are choosing deep-section wheels over climbing wheels. The course profile for a given stage will matter a lot here: Riders will be more likely to choose lower profile rims when stages include a significant amount of steep sections. On more rolling stages, and on climbing stages with climbs that don’t go much past 6 percent grade with any consistency, look for riders to reach for deeper-section wheels (likely in the 35-45mm range).

Sprinters will likely use deeper rims — sometimes in the order of 60mm deep — on sprint stages, unless the wind is likely to factor in for much of the day. It’s possible even the sprinters might choose a lower-profile rim if the wind is blowing hard enough.

Customization

What’s new: Greipel the Gorilla. The Shark of Messina. The Manx Missile. Nicknames abound in the peloton, and some marquee riders get custom paint and graphics to celebrate their monikers. Other riders get their palmares represented on top tubes, and of course, GC leaders often get yellow bar tape, yellow helmets, yellow shoes, yellow… well, you get the idea.

With Jumbo-Visma already in the middle of a remarkable season, it’s possible we’ll see Bianchi abandon — albeit temporarily — its legendary celeste blue for yellow. Will Richard Carapaz have some pink to show on his bike to celebrate his Giro victory?

Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

When and where to spot it: Sagan, Sagan, Sagan. It’s certain Specialized will treat the peloton’s most popular rider to yet another custom paint job for his bikes. But keep an eye on other riders with stories to tell. Carapaz is a good bet, as is Wout van Aert, given his recent string of victories. Caleb Ewan had a notable string of wins in 2019 that could be worthy of custom graphics. And of course, with Trek’s in-house Project One facilities, it’s likely Trek-Segafredo riders will have some flashy paint to show off.

Hot, Hot Heat

What’s new: Nothing, really. It’s just cool to see how riders keep themselves, well, cool. In the team paddocks, riders often prepare for a stage in front of fans, and on the hottest days, some opt to wear cooling vests that have ice or cold water inside. Others simply shove cold water bottles down their jerseys.

Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

When and where to spot it: Out on the road, you’re likely to see riders dump water on their heads. That’s about as complex as cooling gets when the heat of racing is on. Some teams use ‘ice socks’ — stretches of pantyhose filled with ice and tied off. But these require contact with team cars, whereas water bottles can be grabbed from many sources. If the cameras happen to show shots of the riders warming up before the stage or cooling down afterward, you’ll see plenty of fans, icy water bottles, cooling vests, and the like.

…and masks

What’s new: It’s funny to think that just six months ago, the idea of social distancing and mask-wearing was strange and new. Now it’s commonplace, and while riders aren’t wearing masks during the racing, they do wear them before and after the race. Riders are even hopping up onto the podium with face coverings.

Daniel Oss. Critérium du Dauphiné. Photo: James Startt

It should come as no surprise that Peter Sagan took the opportunity to customize his mask, mirroring his “Why So Serious?” tattoo. (Daniel Oss, above, wore the same mask at Critérium du Dauphiné.) Keep an eye out for more custom masks among the more colorful riders in the peloton. The vast majority of riders will be wearing disposable masks, though some also wear masks emblazoned with team names and logos.

When and where to spot it: Basically any time a rider gets interviewed these days, masks will be present, front and center. Rider sign-in and podium ceremonies are other good opportunities to spot what new face fashions riders are sporting.