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Ask Nick: Brakes, flats and Superman

Brakes, flats and Superman

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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 Thursday. You can submit questions to Nick at, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.

Q. Nick,
I have a question regarding the way I see a lot of pro riders running their brakes. A lot of photos and race footage I see shows the little adjustment lever on the brake caliper that allows for easy removal of the wheel in the open position. Are the brakes just set up in this way? Do the team mechanics adjust the brakes to the riders required feel with the level open? I am guessing that this is done to allow for quicker wheel changes, but surely if the brakes are adjusted with the lever open it ends up being the same as adjusting the brakes with the lever closed.
Bruce Barr

A. Bruce,
Many mechanics and riders prefer to set up brakes with the brake quick-release lever either open or partially so. The reason has to do with pad wear on carbon rims, especially in the rain. In a wet mountainous race, when riding carbon wheels and cork brake pads, it’s not uncommon to significantly wear brake pads. So the easiest solution is to start the race with the brakes adjusted with the quick release open. As race kilometers tick by and pads wear, the rider will simply reach down and “tighten” his brake adjustment using the quick release lever, by closing it partially or entirely.

For the record, most road brake manufacturers don’t recommend riding with the quick release in anything other than the fully open or fully closed position. But many pros will ride with it half open and I’ve never heard of any problems doing this. The worry is that the quick release could fully open under braking and lead to a fall. So there you have it Bruce. Brake pad wear. Not something you and I normally have to worry about over the course of a day’s ride!

Q. Nick,
Having experienced yesterday, a particularly horrible flat-infested ride brought about by a hard Northeast winter (a ton of salt, cinders and assorted crap all over the roads), I am interested to know your best tire recommendations to help me survive until spring. I ride clinchers.
Ted Stanton

A. Ted,
There are lots of great puncture-resistant tires out there. I’ve had good luck with Continental Gator Hardshells, Specialized Armadillos, Maxxis Refuses and Vittoria Zaffiros Pros. They might not offer super supple ride quality, but they also don’t put your fingers at risk of frostbite when you’re changing a flat in freezing temperatures. I’ve said it over and over in this column, but I like big tires. And there is nothing wrong with a 25 or 28-millimeter tires for winter riding. The bigger tire will also help lessen the poorer ride quality of super puncture-resistant training tires.

If you have a pile of tires lying around, you have another option. We were just discussing it at the office today in fact. In the past I’ve cut the bead off of worn out tires and used them as tire liners. Caley Fretz calls it “the system.” I’d never heard it called that before (he was living in Fort Collins for some time…), but it certainly helps prevent flats. Just be sure to check the tires you’re using as liners for debris or glass before you put them inside your training tires.

I know you only asked about tire suggestions, but I have to mention that going tubeless is another great option. With a good “system” using a tubeless rim, a tire like Hutchinson’s Intensive 25mm and some sealant you’ll have a hard time puncturing.

Good luck Ted, stay strong out there in the Northeast!

Q. Nick,
I keep hearing about the “superman position” and the hour record but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen pictures of it so that I can understand what all the hoo ha is about. Can you dig up some photos and show that (and maybe some of the other things that have been tried/used and then outlawed?
Merten Pearson

A. Merten,

Obree on his way to a new record and a new round of annoying the UCI.
Obree on his way to a new record and a new round of annoying the UCI.
I’ll do my best. The Superman position was, to the best of my knowledge, created by the great Graeme Obree (patron saint of garage tinkerers) after his chest-on-hands tuck was outlawed. He and many others, including his rival Chris Boardman, used the Superman position to win national, world, and Olympic titles. Like Obree’s first position, the Superman was also outlawed.

Italians Andrea Collinelli and Antonella Belluti both used the position at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games to win the men and women’s pursuit.

At the 1996 World Track Championships, the Italian team pursuit set a new world record, all four of their riders flying around the track in Superman position. The same year, Boardman set the four-kilometer individual pursuit world record of 4.11.114 that was only broken earlier this month by Australian Jack Bobridge.

Chris Boardman and Jeannie Longo then both used the position to set world hour records. In October 1996, the UCI effectively banned the position with a new rule that said handlebars could not extend more than 15 centimeters beyond the front hub.

Q. Nick,
I have a 2007 Giant TCR Advanced 1. I know the popular consensus is to have at least a 5mm spacer on top of the stem if using a carbon steerer tube to ensure a strong connection (prevent possible steer tube breakage). However, I was watching the ’05 TDF and saw plenty of riders with no spacer on top of the stem (and surely their steerers are carbon). I could use that 5mm for additional stem height if it’s not necessary.
John Troy

A. John,
It’s true that many mechanics like to leave a small spacer on top of the stem. Most of my bikes are set up this way. A steerer tube that extends above the stem is less likely to crimp when the stem is clamped. Leaving a spacer on top of a race bike’s stem also leaves the mechanics that little bit of wiggle room, in case the rider needs to raise his bar a tad.

Later in the season, once positions are finalized, mechanics often cut the steerer and eliminate the extra spacer. Sometimes it’s for purely aesthetic reasons, sometimes it’s to lose that tiny bit of weight.

If you need the five millimeters of extra bar height, go ahead and raise your stem. The general rule of thumb is that as long as the top of the steerer isn’t below the top of the two clamping bolts, you’re safe. Please check with your local bike shop and possibly your fork manufacturer if you want to be absolutely sure.

If you need more than five millimeters look for a different stem, one with more rise, or flip your stem.

All right readers! Bring on those questions! This column is only as good as the questions that reach my inbox: Here’s a hint on how to get yours answered: use spell check, capitalization and punctuation and try to keep the subject matter pro cycling related. Thanks for reading!

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