Watching the peloton at the Tour de France streak by as you stand at the side of the road is always spectacular: riders, jerseys and as many as 189 well-tuned racing machines, sporting a rainbow of colors. This year, there will be a new color in the mix, the polished metal sheen of the Lotto-Adecco team’s Litespeed bikes. In some ways, it will be a first for the Tour de France.
This year will not be the first time anyone has ridden a titanium Litespeed at the Tour. That’s happened many times since the small Tennessee-based industrial metals firm began turning out titanium bicycles in 1986. Litespeed bikes have been out there before, it’s just that they’ve usually been under someone else’s colors.
“We’ve even been on the podium a few times,” remarked Litespeed’s Herbert Krabel. “It’s just not everyone knew that.”
And the relationship worked. Riders would order (and pay for) custom Litespeeds, painted in their team colors; Litespeed would build a strong customer base among those in the know; and the frame designers would learn a thing or two from the pros along the way.
But despite a few inquires from teams in Europe, Litespeed wasn’t ready to take on the upper echelon of pro cycling — UCI Division I — until, as Krabel says “we had some European distribution in place.”
That began a couple of years ago and interest in the American bikes has been high ever since. So when the recent bankruptcy of Lotto’s previous American bike sponsor, GT, opened the door for another supplier, Litespeed was ready to talk business.
“We had to fend off a couple of other companies, even one from Belgium,” said Krabel, “but fortunately [Lotto team manager] Christophe Sercu really wanted these bikes.”
For the riders, the switch was like a bike geek’s wildest dream. Every rider on the Lotto squad started with a 6Al/4V Vortex. Then came the custom Blades for the time-trial specialists and the super lightweight compact Ghisallos for the climbers.
“And whatever anybody else wanted,” said Krabel. “We knew going in that we could not just hand everyone the same bike and expect them to race. We needed and really wanted feedback. There’s nosingle bike that works perfectly for everyone.”
The first job was to build bikes for the early-season races. Though at first glance Peter Van Petegem’s Vortex might look the same as its retail cousin, his Paris-Roubaix bike featured longer stays to accommodate the beefier tires needed for the pavé.
“That one was to be expected,” Krabel said. “What really surprised us was that [Andreï] Tchmil decided he liked taking on the cobbles on his Ghisallo. He’s not like Rik Verbrugghe, who is known as a weight freak. Tchmil is pretty much a traditionalist.”
So the guy who would probably still be riding a lugged steel frame if he could was suddenly raving about a bike that pushes right to the edge of the UCI’s minimum weight limit.
After a successful spring campaign, Krabel is convinced that everyone on the team “is spot-on with the bikes they need.”
And this year they don’t even have to disguise them.