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Light climbing bikes and braking problems (and crashes!)

CSC-Tiscali's Laurent Jalabert said after the stage finish in Ax les Thermes yesterday that he was going to get the polka-dot climber's jersey today on St. Lary Soulan. That seemed not to be such a slam dunk as he intimated, as he would start the day with 106 points to the 127 points of Laurent Roux (Jean Delatour). When Roux picked up 20 more points on the Col du Portet d'Aspet to Jalabert's goose egg, even devoted Jalabert fans might have begun to doubt. But then JaJa went on an impressive solo breakaway and got the first-place KOM points on the Col de Menté, Col du Portillon, Col de

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By Lennard Zinn

CSC-Tiscali’s Laurent Jalabert said after the stage finish in Ax les Thermes yesterday that he was going to get the polka-dot climber’s jersey today on St. Lary Soulan. That seemed not to be such a slam dunk as he intimated, as he would start the day with 106 points to the 127 points of Laurent Roux (Jean Delatour). When Roux picked up 20 more points on the Col du Portet d’Aspet to Jalabert’s goose egg, even devoted Jalabert fans might have begun to doubt.

But then JaJa went on an impressive solo breakaway and got the first-place KOM points on the Col de Menté, Col du Portillon, Col de Peyresourde, Col de Val-Louron-Azet (30 points each) and got another 16 points for his seventh-place finish at St. Lary Soulan (Pla d’Adet).

And every time he got to the top of a mountain first, he was on his new climbing bike, but when he got caught on the last climb, he was on his normal bike. His climbing bike has some interesting technology, but one also has to wonder a bit about the misuse of technology when analyzing the crash that led to his bike switch as well as Jan Ullrich’s crash today.

Jalabert used a new carbon sloping-top-tube Look frame called the “Escalade” (not available to the public) that is equipped with 650C (26″) wheels. Jalabert used Lightweight all-carbon wheels (that’s the brand name, now simply a description), after his team manager Bjarne Riis was not able to get Cees Beers to make him an even lighter set of ADA wheels in time for the Tour. Lightweights, made in Munich with carbon rims and hub shells and carbon/Kevlar flat spokes bonded into each, weigh 1,050 grams per pair in 700C size, so his 26″ ones must have weighed considerably under a kilogram for the pair.

Jalabert’s 48cm Escalade is considerably smaller at both the seat tube and the head tube than his normal 55cm frame, since the top tube only has 5cm of slope, meaning that the head tube is still 2cm lower than his normal Look. He makes up these differences with a long seatpost and an up-sloping stem. Jalabert’s complete Escalade is claimed to weigh 16.5 pounds, 0.8 pounds under his normal road bike and about a pound over the UCI lower weight limit of 15.4 pounds (7kg) (this claimed weight is without the superlight Lightweight wheels). The frame and fork together are claimed to weigh three pounds. The lower rotating weight of the small wheels should have made around twice as much difference as weight reduced from the frame and other components. The downside of climbing bikes with small wheels is that they can be hard to handle on high-speed descents, but the reborn French speedster survived unscathed until the final climb today. Perhaps it helped that he was alone on the descents. ADA’s Cees Beers has said that Riis has already called him asking for full-sized wheels because of the problems they have been having on the descents. Beers says, “for me it was to late now to fly to the Pyrenees (from Holland) to swap the wheels.”

However, crashes of Jalabert and Ullrich played an important role today, and one suspect in both might be their carbon rims. Anyone who has used all-carbon rims with carbon braking surfaces — particularly on high-speed technical descents — is aware that braking is not as sure as with aluminum rims. Sure, there are special pads that one can get for them — Shimano has some, as do Corima and ADA, but pad melting and grip can still be a problem. If carbon made a good braking surface, you can be sure disc-brake makers would employ carbon brake rotors to lighten their products for cross-country bikes.

Jalabert crashed on a roundabout in St. Lary Soudan at the base of the final climb to the finish at the ski area. He said he was tired and just couldn’t work his brakes right, but maybe the brakes were partially at fault.

Ullrich crashed on the descent of the Peyresourde, and he said, “my brakes didn’t work properly.” He ran into teammate Kevin Livingston’s back wheel and chose to go straight off the road into a river to minimize the danger of injury. Ullrich’s wheels appear to be full-carbon Ambrosio XCarbo rims laced to black Campagnolo hubs for straight-pull spokes so they look like Campagnolo Bora wheels.

Boras have aluminum braking surfaces, though, and these do not. Livingston remarked before the start in Strassbourg that the wheels (the whole Telekom team is using them) do not stop as fast as normal aluminum rims.

Cees Beers, a former partner with the builders of Lightweight wheels, has another theory as well. He thinks that Ullrich’s problem on the corner was not only poor braking surfaces but also that his wheels were unbalanced. You can see an unbalanced wheel with your bike in a repair stand — turn the cranks in a big gear until the rear wheel is spinning very fast. Let go, and almost any bike will bounce up and down like mad until the wheel slows down.

This is caused in most cases by the wheel being heavier at the rim seam than at the valve stem. Start a front wheel turning and let it wind down on its own. If the hub is good, the wheel will generally stop with the valve stem on top and the rim seam at the bottom, indicating that this is the heaviest point on the wheel, and it is hence out of balance.

With cars, when you get a new set of tires, the shop will balance your wheels so that your car won’t vibrate at high speed. Beers, who now makes ADA wheels with similar materials to Lightweights, claims that one change he’s made is building in a little weight inside the rim to balance each wheel. Beers points out that deep-section rims exacerbate the out-of-balance problem by increasing the gyroscopic effect.

Beers thinks that Ullrich should have known better, since he claims the German had a similar problem in 1997, the year he won the Tour. The day after Ullrich had punched Richard Virenque’s ticket on L’Alpe d’Huez, the entire Festina team went on the attack over the top of the Col du Glandon and left Ullrich isolated. The upper part of the Glandon descent is extremely difficult, and Ullrich was clearly afraid and in trouble as seven Festinas rode away. Beers, who at the time was supplying wheels to Ullrich’s teammate Bjarne Riis, claims that Ullrich was having problems controlling his bike due to out-of-balance wheels. Ultimately, Riis had to close a gap of over two minutes for Ullrich, and Virenque went on to win the stage over Ullrich in Courcheval (this is the victory which Virenque’s old team boss now claims in Tour of Vices that the French climber purchased from Ullrich). Beers claims that, “The next day he (Ullrich) rode my balanced wheels and he never had a problem any more, so it’s very frustrating to see that they did not learn from that day. Try 100km yourself in your car with unbalanced wheels.”

Armstrong has been using aluminum rims on the mountain stages (new Mavic Ksyrium SSC SLs), even though he used Lightweight wheels on the big mountain stage in the Tour of Switzerland that included two ascents of the St. Gotthard pass. He did use the Lightweight wheels in the uphill time trial to Chamrousse three days ago to get a weight and aerodynamic edge, but one would think that he would also want those advantages on mountain stages like today. Might it have been that he only uses the carbon wheels in an uphill time trial because he did not like their braking performance and handling in the mountain stage in Switzerland?