Ask Nick: The best bike innovations, what the pros REALLY ride, and stretching cables

Nick answers questions about what pros REALLY ride, the best (and worst) innovations of the last 20 years, and gives some tips on stretching cables after installation.

1986 Tour de France, Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault on l'Alpe d'Huez
1986 Tour de France, Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault on l'Alpe d'Huez

Editor’s Note: This is the latest edition of a new feature on “Ask Nick.” 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. You can submit questions to Nick at, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.

Q. Nick,
I met Greg LeMond at a public gathering last year and someone asked his advice on buying a new bike. He suggested that “pretty much any bike you buy today is better than what I rode in the Tour de France.” I’m wondering, what do you feel are some of the most significant improvements in bicycle development over the past twenty years? Do you think that a top rider of today could be equally successful riding on a bike from a previous generation? Are there any improvements that you think are overdue? — Mark Felt

A. Mark,
I completely agree with LeMond. Today’s bikes are lighter, more efficient and function better than what LeMond raced on. It’s hard to think of an area that hasn’t been improved. From frame geometries that actually fit the majority of the riding population to tire technology and shifting, bikes are much better than they were 20 years ago.

What are the biggest improvements? I’d say integrated brake/shifter levers and indexed shifting are big ones. Dual-pivot brakes were a leap forward, so too were machined braking surfaces on aluminum rims. Clipless pedals are better and better. Modern helmets are a world better than what we wore in the 90s.

I also have really enjoyed compact cranks and lately the Apex group from SRAM on big mountain rides. They have truly bettered my riding experience.

On the other hand, I’m not the biggest fan of sealed cartridge bearings. I still feel that a high quality loose-ball bearing setup is smoother and easier to seal. Cartridge bearings are prevalent because it is less expensive to make hubs, bottom brackets and headsets that use them. They may be a leap forward in cost-effectiveness, but maybe not in overall performance.

I do feel that a big issue facing our industry is carbon fiber’s nature as non-recyclable. We are all getting healthier by riding and that is the point. At the same time, though, we’re creating a lot of pretty nasty trash. Lots of companies are working on ways to recycle carbon fiber, but until then we’re filling landfills.

Bikes have come a long way. I personally romanticize bikes from former eras. I love the aesthetic of steel frames and traditionally spoked alloy wheels. But I have found that when I compare older bikes with the latest greatest, I prefer the newer offerings.
— Nick

Q. Nick,
Are the bikes ridden by the pros essentially the same as those available to Joe and Joanne Public? I understand that the pros probably get pre-production prototypes but I have heard rumors over the years that the only similarity is the paint job.

And, when a wheel manufacturer specifies a maximum rider weight does this take into account the entire package including tools, shoes, water bottles bike weight etc…?
— Richard, Australia

A. Richard,
In most cases, pros are riding exactly what you can buy at your local bike shop. There are a lot of stories from bygone days of re-badged bikes. A few things have changed that.

The first is the widespread use of carbon fiber. Molds are extremely expensive and therefore custom geometry is nearly impossible.

The other reason is that most manufacturers spend a lot of time making their frames look distinctive with various tube shapes and styling cues. This tactic helps with product differentiation. It also makes it nearly impossible to put Specialized stickers on a Trek (for example) and get away with it.

The money involved in sponsoring a large cycling team can be quite large. Bike manufacturers do everything they can to maximize their return on that investment, not just from exposure but also from development. Their product doesn’t improve if the team isn’t actually riding it.

So, sorry to take some of the mystery out of the rumors you’ve heard. A Felt-sponsored rider is on a Felt, a Cervelo rider is on a Cervelo.

To your second question, weight limits apply to rider weight. If you’re close to a manufacturer’s limit, I’d look into the more robust version. It will serve your needs better and remove possible worry from your riding.
— Nick

Q. Nick,
I’ve done some research, and have found many different views on what to do with a new chain’s factory grease. Some say leave it on as long as possible, some say degrease and use the lube you prefer to keep it cleaner as factory grease seems to attract more dirt and grim. What do you suggest?
— Jonathan Austin

A. Jonathan,
I like riding my bike more than I like working on it. I’ve always left the anti-corrosive grease on, but not for as long as possible. Team bikes are washed each day, so it’s a non-issue.

On my personal bikes I wipe down the chain before installing it, but I don’t degrease it. After a few days of riding I’ll have had the chance to get my bike dirty, so a wash is quickly in order.

If you are regularly degreasing your drivetrain and washing your bike, I’d stop worrying too much. The fact that you ask this question means that you’re probably paying close attention to the working order of your bike. So just keep on keepin’ on.
— Nick

Q. Nick,
I’ve read that cables get replaced numerous times during the course of a grand tour. How do you keep the bikes shifting well as these cables break in? At the shop where I work, we always recommend that customers come back after a week of riding to double-check the cable stretch. How do you avoid this issue on tour?
— Aaron Ritz

A. Aaron,
Voodoo. We usually sacrifice a chicken at the beginning of any stage race as an offering to the gods of cable replacement.

OK, joking aside it’s not too difficult. There are plenty of tricks for pre-stretching cables. (As an aside, it isn’t really that cables stretch, it’s that the housings settle in.) So when we install new cables and housings we’ll do everything we can to settle things in.

Bikes with internal routing can be difficult. The trick with bikes like the latest Trek Madones is to shift the rear derailleur against your hand. Put your bike in the small chainring and shift to the 14-tooth cog, or thereabouts. Grab the rear derailleur with your left hand, putting your thumb where you’d put a 5mm Allen key to mount the derailleur to the frame and wrap your fingers underneath to hold the jockey wheel cage. With your right hand shift your bike a couple gears, but keep the derailleur from moving with your left hand. Do this a couple times and you’ll develop cable slack.

On bikes with externally routed cables, you can simply pull on the derailleur cable along the down tube to shift the bike. I recommend holding the derailleur as I explained above. Usually you create slack in the system after a couple cycles of shifting this way.

I’ve seen some mechanics screw in limit screws on rear derailleurs and shift against them. But manufacturers have always discouraged me from adopting this technique.

The last trick is to leave the bike in the big chainring and the second largest cog overnight. The spring tension on the derailleur can help settle the cables just a little bit more overnight. Check the shifting again in the morning and you’re ready to rock.
— Nick

NLeganEditor’s note: After graduating from Indiana University with honors and a degree in French and journalism, Legan jumped straight into wrenching at Pro Peloton bike shop in Boulder for a few years. Then, he began a seven-year stint in the professional ranks, most recently serving for RadioShack at the Tour de France and the Amgen Tour of California. He also worked for Garmin-Slipstream, CSC, Toyota-United, Health Net and Ofoto.