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Editor’s note: As we ring out 2013, we look at 13 of our best stories of the year. Caley Fretz’s reflection on the evolution of wheels at Paris-Roubaix originally appeared on April 10, 2013.
ROUBAIX, France (VN) — The Ambrosio Nemesis, long the pavé-racing cyclist’s most faithful companion, capable of incredible feats of strength and resiliency at low cost, reached its expiration date on Sunday. It was the last of an 87-year-old family.
There are ingredients in the creation of a legend, a set of special spices that turn the merely excellent into something near mythical. Strength and resilience are the most obvious; the legend must be able to take hits, bending with them and not breaking; it must exude excellence over time, no one-hit-wonders; and it must be trusted by all reliant persons to perform without fail. The Nemesis was all those, and more.
The demise of the beautiful, shot-peened rims, featuring double eyelets for incredible durability, was pronounced following the startling dearth of aluminum wheels on the start line of Paris-Roubaix, the last professional road race where they had been able to find a home. We spotted a paltry four sets on race bikes in Compiègne, France, though less than half a decade has passed since the wheels dominated the horribly difficult event.
Compiègne was a sea of stiff upper lips on Sunday, as mechanics sought to hide palpable undercurrents of grief. “We’re all carbon now, with no issues,” BMC Racing’s head mechanic Ian Sherburne said of the Nemesis’ passing, his head held high, putting on a brave face for his riders.
The Nemesis can trace its lineage back to the origins of aluminum cycling rims, beginning with a Mavic tubular rim first produced in 1926. That rim’s strength and its superior weight allowed it to quickly replace the steel and wood options of the time. It, and its myriad offspring, held great power over the domain of pro cycling for the better part of a century, until the rapid move to composite rims began just before the new millennium. Even last year, much of the professional peloton dug out its aluminum tubulars for its annual days on the pavé, selecting the long-lived Nemesis almost exclusively.
But the Nemesis wheels owned by most teams, many of which have been pulled out just once or twice a year for nearly a decade, were neglected this year, buried deep within service courses, beneath unmarked graves.
Carbon ruled on Sunday. Sky, Argos-Shimano, Blanco, Orica-GreenEdge, BMC Racing, and others had only their normal Shimano C50 tubulars on hand; Garmin-Sharp and Katusha brought only their usual Mavic Cosmic Carbone Ultimate, a wheel so abhorrent of metal that it uses carbon spokes and a carbon hub shell; Movistar, Lotto-Belisol, and Europcar used Campagnolo’s ultra-light Hyperon and aerodynamic Bora carbon rims. There was no discernible spike in rim failures, long considered the Achilles heel of carbon on cobbles.
“We see failures, sometimes, but the frequency is no greater than with the old wheels,” Sherburne said. “It takes a big crash, one that will kill any wheel.”
As the last surviving member of the aluminum tubular family, the burly Nemesis carved a niche for itself on the rough cobbles of northern France. The specialty allowed it to out-live its lighter, asphalt-loving counterparts by nearly half a decade.
While the Nemesis rims could still be found on the roof of a few team cars on Sunday, laced in a three-cross pattern to a variety of hubs, the vast majority have been put out to pasture.
The rapid deterioration of the Nemesis was precipitated by the ever-increasing durability of aerodynamically and gravitationally superior carbon fiber rims, which saw a boost in popularity following Fabian Cancellara’s 2010 Paris-Roubaix win on a set of Zipp 303s. Tom Boonen’s switch from a set of hand-built Nemesis wheels to his own set of Zipps may have been the final death knell.
Carbon rims, which once cracked if stared at too long, have seen rapid advances in resin and fiber technology in recent years. The new technology has allowed the rims to take dramatic, bone-shaking, carbon-on-granite impacts in stride. In fact, most high-end carbon wheels now have impact strengths so high that the force required to cause a failure would do similarly catastrophic damage to an aluminum wheel. The reasons to stick with the old Nemesis, then, are sadly all but gone.
As a final turn of the dagger into the heart of the fabled Nemesis, Cancellara won Paris-Roubaix on carbon again on Sunday, this time on a pair of 50mm Bontrager Aeolus 5 D3 carbon rims, without a single puncture or other issue.
It was, as mechanics explained sadly, time to pull the plug on the Nemesis for good.
“We don’t have a single aluminum wheel on the bikes today,” Sherburne said. “None in the cars, either. We might have some back at the service course covered in the decals of past sponsors, but nothing here.”
With nothing going for it now other than mythical and unsubstantiated claims of softer ride quality, the Nemesis seems to be finished within professional racing. The year 2013 marks the final chapter of the aluminum rim’s old book, the end of nearly a century of success and failure, of joy and defeat, and millions upon millions of happy miles. May the Nemesis, the last of its kind, rest in the peace it deserves.