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Ask Nick: Floor pump for a junior, steel in the pro peloton, and practicing wheel changes

Questions on wheel-change technique, pumps for lightweight riders, and steel in the pro peloton

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steel de rosa
De Rosa has a long history of pro victories, but lately its steel bikes are for enthusiasts.

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.

Many of the older pros grew up in the days when steel bikes ruled the peloton, or at least rode them as junior riders. With it now possible to make a modern steel bike meet the UCI weigh limit do you think that any of them would ride steel if their sponsors made the option available? Do you ever hear pros fondly reminiscing about the ride qualities that steel offered?
— Andy Payne

It is true that many steel frames can be built 6.8 kilograms or lighter. And while I’m a fan of ferrous frames, I doubt we’ll ever see another steel bike in the ProTeam ranks. There are a couple reasons.

Steel makes for a lovely bike to ride. And while steel is real, carbon is really fast. The ability to make aero shapes and super stiff bottom brackets puts carbon ahead of other frame materials for race machines. Carbon is fairly easy to manipulate for specific, desired attributes. When carbon was first used for bicycle frames, it wasn’t much to brag about. Sure they were lighter, but the bonding was often suspect and they weren’t particularly stiff. Over the years, carbon frames have improved drastically. Initially I feel that many manufacturers were trying to replicate the ride of a steel frame with their carbon attempts. That is actually selling carbon a bit short as a material. It can be used in ways that other materials can only dream of.

Look at Formula One, rowing and other sports that have a technical aspect. Carbon is becoming ubiquitous. Performances are being improved thanks to carbon fiber. People are made safer in highly dangerous sports by it. If you asked a Formula 1 driver to race around a track at modern F1 speeds in a steel tube chassis he’d likely laugh and walk away.

Personally I’m not sure this increasing abundance of carbon fiber is a good thing. I’ve already mentioned my worry about the negative environmental aspects of the material. Many are working on ways to recycle it. And yes the cycling industry’s carbon production is a drop in the bucket compared to the aerospace industry. But polluting is polluting.

Apologies. I’m getting off track here. Another reason we’re unlikely to see steel frames in the professional ranks again is because the big bicycle manufacturers have too much invested in carbon fiber. They’re not likely to revisit steel on any grand scale. It would undermine the advertising and development dollars they have already invested.

Steel is likely to remain in the hands of artisans. And that’s a good thing. Let the racers scream around on wonderbikes. If you’re looking for a bike with soul, a bike with a story, look to your local builder. By asking this question, I assume you’re a fan of steel and I applaud your retro grouch tendencies. I think what is really important to remember is that what the pros ride is not necessarily what you and I should be riding. If you like steel, ride it.

I am a 13-year-old racer and as I weigh 100 pounds. I have difficulty pumping my tires. Dad has a Joe Blow Pro and I can pump that to 100psi but for riding I normally have 110psi. Do you know of any pumps that are easy to pump up and that I could get 110psi into? Normally with Dad’s I can lift my feet of the ground and still it doesn’t have enough force to inflate the tire.
-James Moffat

First of all, congratulations on finding the world’s best sport at such a young age! Thanks for your question. As I’ve written before in this column, I think that many riders ride with too much air pressure in their tires. At 100 pounds, you weigh 50 pounds less than I do and you’re riding with 30 psi more than I do. Try riding at a lower pressure. I think you’ll like it. Fast cornering is more enjoyable and your bike will feel much more comfortable.

As for pumps that making inflating easier, I have a Specialized Airtool Comp that I like a lot. It is easier to pump than the Silcas that I’ve used for years. But in the end, inflating to a given pressure is simply a function of producing enough force to cram air into your tire. So, try some push-ups and then ask for your dad’s help if you can’t manage. If you absolutely must ride at 110 psi, ask your dad to buy a compressor!

Try a lower pressure first though, James, and be safe out there on the roads, young man.

Do team mechanics actually practice their technique of jumping out of cars to change a wheel or swap a bike, perhaps to improve their timing on race day?
— Peter Schow

I’ll tell ya, I know some mechanics that could use the practice! Strangely, practicing wheel changes was never something I did. It came naturally to me. But I started playing with bikes at a pretty young age.

Simply working on the bikes day in and day out you get a sense for the fastest way to put in a wheel on a given team bike. Just washing eight bikes a day means that I’m taking off and later putting on a minimum of eight front and eight rear wheels each day. It adds up.

Typically a team starts the year with a training camp. Mechanics will alternate riding in the team car that follows the bunch on training. If there is a neophyte in the mechanic crew, it’s usually a good idea to get him seat time. It gives him the opportunity to change a few wheels without the pressure of a race situation.

More than anything a fast wheel change is a matter of preparation. It’s up to each mechanic to check that his wheels are pumped and gapped. Gapping a wheel is simply pre-setting the quick release to the width of the dropouts and fork tips. We do this either on a bike or with dropouts cut from broken frames and carried in our toolboxes. That way you aren’t standing in the road adjusting something you could have done earlier.

It also helps to have a good, one-piece quick release from a manufacturer like Shimano or Campagnolo. The two-piece cam mechanisms are fine for race wheels, but jam up when going for a fast change.

A fast change is also a function of a seasoned rider. In most of the world, riders are supposed to stop on the right hand side of the road (UK and Australia are a couple exceptions). This keeps the mechanic from having to cross traffic and allows the team car to shelter the mechanic and rider during the wheel change.

It’s also best for the rider to dismount the bike entirely. I’ve seen some ridiculous riders try to keep a foot in the pedal while receiving a wheel. In the days of toe clips and straps this may have been marginally faster. But with clipless pedals there is no reason to stay clipped in (As a mechanic I’ve smacked the foot of a rider to make him unclip. It doesn’t take much force on the heel to get him out of the pedal).

As a rider your job in a wheel change is to shift in the smallest cog if you’ve punctured the rear, to dismount the bike on the right hand side of the road, and then to simply keep the bike from falling over. The mechanic needs to be able to control the movement of the bike. If you’re clipped in, this is impossible.

Once the wheel is in, the mechanic needs to pick up the punctured wheel and give a big push to the remounting rider. Voila! Simple. Or it is until all hell breaks loose in the middle of a race.

Practicing is probably a good idea, but I never had much free time or energy for it when I worked with teams.