Ask Nick: Those special yellow bikes, team component choices and the best bike cleaner

Those special yellow bikes, the best bike cleaner, and how teams chose components.

Stage , 2010 Tour de France
Alberto Contador's bike for the final stage of the 2010 Tour de France.

Editor’s Note: VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan is a former ProTour mechanic who most recently wrenched for Team RadioShack at the 2010 Tour de France and elsewhere. His column appears here every Friday. You can submit questions to Nick at, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.Q.Nick,
As of late, I’ve noticed that whenever a rider gets into a tour jersey, be it yellow, green or polka-dot, he usually shows up to the line the next day with a matching bike, shorts, helmet, and other accessories to celebrate the occasion.

I was wondering where these products come from. Do teams with CG riders bring a “just in case” yellow bike and helmet. If so, does that put a lot of pressure on riders knowing that it’s in the truck? What happens to unused yellow bike for a rider who never takes the jersey? The practice seems a little presumptuous.
— Tim Shanahan

Mario Cipollini can be credited with introducing bikes and helmets to match a grand tour jersey. It wasn’t uncommon for his team to bring yellow and green bikes and accessories to the Tour. He also changed into tailored suits for the podium, arrived in a horse-drawn chariot to a stage wearing a toga, and won more stages of the Giro d’Italia than anyone thought possible.

Amazingly, in Cipo’s time the UCI assessed a fine for each clothing “violation.” Cipollini had enough forethought to include a clause in his contract that required his team to pay all his UCI fines. It was money well spent, though. He was larger than life and his sponsors loved it.

That’s also why teams and their sponsors continue to build special bikes for jersey wearers. Before a grand tour, the team and its sponsor organize the special goods. Just as you say, the team predicts who will wear a jersey and orders up the corresponding frame and helmet sizes.

At the Tour this year, we (RadioShack) were parked next to Saxo Bank in the Tour’s opening week. The night after the prologue, mechanics were busy building up Cancellara’s yellow bike for the following day. In the truck the mechanics also had Andy Schleck’s Luxembourg national champion bike, a Specialized promo bike covered in contestants’ names that Andy rode, as well as a yellow frame for Andy. We happened to share hotels the night after Andy took the yellow jersey. Sure enough, another late night for his mechanics.

1998 Tour de France, Mario Cipollini and Johan Museeuw
King Mario resplendent in the 1998 Tour de France. World champ Johan Museeuw is to his right.

I’m not sure how these items affect a rider’s psychological state. On some teams, the bikes are a surprise; they simply appear on the appropriate day for the rider. Many teams are superstitious about items like this. I was. It’s bad luck to build the bike before the jersey is won (it’s also a waste of work if your team never manages to grab a jersey…).

Often, the bike will go to the rider. Sometimes it will go on display at the bicycle manufacturer’s office. I’ve heard of them being auctioned for charity as well. If the frame goes unused, it’s up to the manufacturer or team to decide where it goes.

Is it presumptuous? Yes, a bit. Is it more work for the sponsors and mechanics? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Of course. There is nothing more resplendent than the leader of cycling’s greatest race aboard a custom yellow bicycle.

Nick, what are your experiences with riders switching equipment as they move across teams? Are some riders loyal to one groupset or seat or tire? Or is it just business? I was always curious how riders such as Ullrich or Pantani reacted when their teams switched from Campagnolo to Shimano.
— Adam Rodkey

I’ve never heard big grumblings from riders about groupset changes. This is part of the job of a professional cyclist. It is, as you say, “just business.” I’m sure some of them have a favorite but it’s not a pro’s job to comment. He or she is paid to like something.

In truth, they are all good. Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM all produce great components. There are differences in use and setup, but in reality even these differences are small. The cycling industry loves to debate, to draw lines in the sand. And riders love to proudly proclaim their undying devotion to a brand. To each his own, I say. But, I’ve had just as much fun riding Shimano 105 as I have pedaling around on a Super Record-equipped bicycle.

Pros often have stronger feelings regarding saddles. Miguel Indurain was religious about his Selle Italia Turbo saddle. He carried it on his person wherever he travelled. When Selle Italia asked him to try their newest model, he opened a briefcase he’d taken to the meeting. Inside was his well-worn Turbo saddle. He firmly denied their request. Of course, as a multiple Tour de France champion, he could.

For the most part though, a professional must learn to adapt to changes. Sponsors are almost always happy to accommodate whenever they can, sending new saddles to try, for instance, if an athlete is having issues.

Pros put in a lot of miles. So in terms of timeframe, it takes them a shorter period of time to adapt to changes on their bikes. They also have access to their sponsors’ product lines. In most cases, a pro can make himself comfortable using sponsor-correct equipment.

I was wondering how it works on a team if an individual athlete has a different sponsor than the rest of the team? For example when Contador finished last year’s Tour, I believe that Specialized made a deal to make sure that HE would remain a Specialized-sponsored rider. What would have happened if Saxo Bank then changed their sponsorship to Trek before Riis was able to sign him?

I know that in the past (90’s and earlier) that riders could get away with using someone’s frame or part and just slap a different sticker on said frame or part. But with bikes and parts getting more recognizable these days this is pretty difficult if not impossible to do. Thank you for your time.
— Nick Hand

I, of course, haven’t seen Contador’s contract with Specialized. But I feel fairly certain that it was written so that whatever team Contador raced for would ride Specialized. Essentially, Specialized made a contract to provide cash and material to the team of Contador’s choice and then pay him a hefty fee.

None of these sponsorship deals occur in a vacuum. You have to step back and look at the broader picture. As a successful grand tour winner, Contador has huge influence within his team. When a team is looking to sign Contador, or a rider of similar stature, they must also bring his favored lieutenants, his soigneur, his mechanic and so on. His deal with Specialized is probably what made his move to Saxo Bank possible. Specialized likely offered to pay most of his salary. Saxo Bank then gets its new general classification rider and his entourage and guarantees itself a good bike manufacturer.

Specialized and Trek are probably the only two manufacturers with pockets deep enough to make large contributions to a professional team’s overall budget. This is big business.

Not many fans realize that the bicycle manufacturers have so much influence on professional teams. In fact, it’s usually they who decide which component groupset a given team rides. They will strike a deal for OEM parts with Campagnolo, Shimano or SRAM on their consumer bikes and that’s how team parts are chosen, as part of that deal.

There are, as always, exceptions. Team CSC in 2006 bought Shimano Dura-Ace parts from money it received from its other sponsors, FSA, Speeplay, Zipp, etc. Garmin has an exceptionally lucrative deal with Mavic and that supersedes the rest of its component selection concerns.

What is the best soap you’ve found to clean bikes with? I’ve just recently started using Simple Green because I’ve seen others use it, and it seems to work well at getting a lot of the dirt and grime off the bike. The fact that it is also biodegradable also just makes me feel better when I’m outside washing my bike and the runoff is going into the street. Your thoughts?
— Scott Orton

I’ve always found that Dawn dish soap did the best job cleaning bikes. It cuts grease and helps rinse off any residual degreaser when washing. As a mechanic on the road, it’s also easy to find throughout the U.S. But, as you mention, it’s probably not the best product for the environment.

I worked with a bike shop mechanic who loved using car wash soap on bikes. It didn’t work quite as well on grease, but it also didn’t leave residue streaks on the paint. That saved some polishing time.

Simple Green does work well for washing bikes, but I do not like it as a degreaser. If you like the results you’re getting from it, stick with it. It’s cheap and readily available.

I was personally sponsored by Finish Line for several years and I still have a strong affinity for their bright pink liquid Super Bike Wash. Finish Line would send it in gallon jugs and I would mix it with water in my wash bucket. It worked well, smelled like bubble gum (maybe it was just the color of the stuff) and is non-toxic. Finish Line’s web site says that 60 percent of its base oils biodegrade in 28 days.

Give it a shot after you finish your Simple Green and let me know which you prefer.
— Nick