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Tour Tech Talk: Racing against the clock

Tuesday’s stage was a showdown between the powerhouse time-trial teams, as well as a battle between old and new philosophies about racing against the clock. At the beginning of Lance Armstrong’s Tour victory run, the time-trial powerhouses were Telekom (now T-Mobile), ONCE (now Liberty Seguros) and U.S. Postal (now Discovery). But Liberty Seguros has become only a shadow of its former time-trialing self, and T-Mobile has also slipped a number of notches. The new guard still contains Discovery, but CSC, Phonak and Gerolsteiner are the new young bucks trying to kick the door in. All these

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By Lennard Zinn

Basso's custom crank

Basso’s custom crank

Photo:

Tuesday’s stage was a showdown between the powerhouse time-trial teams, as well as a battle between old and new philosophies about racing against the clock.

At the beginning of Lance Armstrong’s Tour victory run, the time-trial powerhouses were Telekom (now T-Mobile), ONCE (now Liberty Seguros) and U.S. Postal (now Discovery). But Liberty Seguros has become only a shadow of its former time-trialing self, and T-Mobile has also slipped a number of notches.

The new guard still contains Discovery, but CSC, Phonak and Gerolsteiner are the new young bucks trying to kick the door in. All these teams approach the event with a very calculated precision, from their training methods and detailed course reviews, to sweating all of the little details about their bikes, rider positions and even clothing.

As a sign of how things have changed, consider that all but two Discovery riders caught their T-Mobile minute men. (In the prologue the teams of the podium riders of the past year go in reverse order of finish at the very end, and the team order repeats nine times. Since T-Mobile’s Andreas Klöden finished second overall last year, T-Mobile got to start a rider second to last, with a Discovery rider in last behind him, namely Armstrong. The repetition order of teams means that every Discovery rider was starting behind a T-Mobile rider.)

T-Mobile chose to start Jan Ullrich in second-to-last position rather than Klöden, and the world saw Armstrong passing him. It did not get to see all of the other catches of T-Mobile riders by Discovery riders, however. The only T-Mobiles with enough mobility not to get caught by their Discovery chasers were Alexandre Vinokourov, who rode to a brilliant fourth place in the time trial, and Klöden. However, Benjamin Noval, who, in contrast to Klöden, is not considered to be a time trialist by any stretch of the imagination, was breathing down the German champion’s neck by the finish. That massacre in the time trial must have been a big psychological boost to Discovery and a real downer for T-Mobile.

There is good reason for riders from all teams to go as hard as they can in the prologue, whether they have a prayer of making the top 10 or not. That is because, in this Tour, with such a long prologue followed by two completely flat stages, the results of the opening time trial effectively determine the start order of the teams in the team time trial, which goes as reverse order of team general classification (total time).

Starting last in the team time trial gives a squad an edge – knowing how all of the other teams have fared at every checkpoint by the time your team gets to them. While Discovery did extremely well in the opening time trial, placing all nine riders in the top 75 (T-Mobile only had three riders in the top 75), CSC did even better, coming out with a combined total time for all of its riders four seconds less than Discovery’s. Phonak, Gerolsteiner and T-Mobile all were between 1:33 and 1:51 back of CSC.

Knowing how much Discovery director Johan Bruyneel likes to start last in the TTT, I would not have been overly surprised if one of his riders had gone for an intermediate sprint or two to try to get back those four seconds on the first two stages, but none did. Last year in the Tour’s rain-soaked team time trial, U.S. Postal just stayed even with or a little behind the other top teams until the final third of the stage, when it opened the throttle and let it rip. Starting five minutes ahead of CSC this time, Bruyneel will probably still have enough information to gauge the effort as well, though.

Other notes
This was the first Tour team time trial where a number of the teams have a third brake lever on the aero’ extensions. It will be interesting to see how it worked out.

FSA is showing its strength on many a bike in the time trials, not only with its Vision handlebars and little aero’ brake levers (and third levers), but also in its new time trial crank, which sports a carbon layer over the large chainring to stiffen it and smooth airflow. FSA has customized these for a number of teams, putting team names and logos or rider names on them.

There is still a split in the philosophy of teams and riders between a flat base bar, often in carbon, like a Hed, Oval, or Bontrager, and a down-swept bar, like a Vision, the new Oval on Roberto Heras’s bike, or many of the traditional European handlebar brands. Most riders seem to be going for straight extensions or a little S-bend, tipping their wrists down, rather than the old straight-wrist gripping. There is adjustability built into the commercially available ones, but Discovery’s Bontrager bars and Heras’s new bar have the extensions bonded in for good.

Armstrong's bars

Armstrong’s bars

Photo: Lennard Zinn

Elbow positions, both in height and in width, are also an area where philosophies clash. Note the high, wide risers on Gerolsteiner rider Michael Rich’s Hed bar.

Many bikes are featuring the downward flare of the top tube at the head tube, like the Trek TTX (of Armstrong, Savoldelli and Popovych), the BMC Time Machine, the Time and the Ridley time trial machines.

The little bump on the front of the head tube we used to see on the FES bikes of former German Eastern-bloc riders has now appeared on the Cervelo P3 carbon of CSC and on the Pinarello and Opera time trial frames of Fassa Bortolo and Illes Baleares.

Some teams had to do last-minute work on their TT bikes before the prologue. While Discovery had everything sorted out long before race day, Liberty Seguros riders discovered the day before the opening stage that their new BH time trial bikes – just received and built up in the prior couple of days – did not shift well due to compression of the molded-in internal cable guides.

Chief mechanic Faustino Muñoz spent the evening before the race start drilling out cable holes in the frame and fishing cable housing through, which is a real pain, as anyone who has tried running cables through a bike without internal routing will tell you.

Muñoz also had to file the rear dropouts for chain clearance and grind away the mounts meant to hold the rear brakes under the chainstay, since the tires did not clear them. He then had to install the brakes on the seatstays, providing new mounting holes and cable routing.

Fishing cable without internal routing isn't lots of laughs

Fishing cable without internal routing isn’t lots of laughs

Photo: Lennard Zinn

His experience was not unique. The Walser time trial bikes seen so often in the Tour, being used this time by the entire Gerolsteiner squad, are notorious for this kind of work.

Saddle attachment on aero’ seatposts or seat masts on time trial bikes has been a source of frustration for mechanics for years. The elegant head of the Cervelo P3 post is a breath of fresh air in this regard, though.

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