How Lance didn’t change bicycle technology

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Asia factory

There’s an interesting article on Velonews by their tech guru Leonard Zinn, brought to my attention by Twitter’s Velocentric. Zinn knows his stuff but this time I think he’s confusing correlation with causation. The piece boils down to this idea:

Armstrong was a major driving force behind the rapid adoption of molded carbon fiber bikes. His winning of the Tour on a stock frame in 1999 was unheard of in the postwar era.

I believe both Pantani and Ullrich had used stock frames from Bianchi and Pinarello respectively. Yes Miguel Indurain’s Pinarello was at times actually built by Dario Pegoretti, the same builder had earlier made the Carrera frames for Pantani too.

By 1999 and 2000 frame building was ceasing to be the preserve of artisan builders and welders, it was heading down the route of mass production. It wasn’t just Trek. Scott created the lightweight “Team Issue” road frame and arguably it was Giant that lead the way with mass-produced carbon fibre; there were others too. Armstrong’s performances certainly helped Trek’s sales but to say he changed anything is pushing it.

No, I think Armstrong’s wins coincided with the arrival of mass manufacturing in Asia and the mastery of composite technology. Carbon fibre became more available as the technology slowly became adopted beyond specialist military use. At the same time the rise of the “Asian Tiger” economies as manufacturing shops for the West started in the 1990s and then the growth of Chinese manufacturing took off soon after.

Simply put the business of building bikes changed enormously and Armstrong’s wins were coincidental with the changing patterns of global trade.

Steve R February 19, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I think Zinn’s gone slightly haywire there. There’s also some random cut-and-paste stuff at the bottom of the article talking about ‘The only time they plan on racing aluminum wheels is in wet, northern European races in 2006.’ Good luck with the time travel. Thank heavens Lance invented twitter too.

Alex February 20, 2011 at 12:43 am

As far as I know Telekom also had Pinarellos made by Dario Pegoretti for their top riders. Both Riis and Ullrich are said to have used them (maybe as well as stock frames) when winning the Tour. Pegoretti was buildin custom frames for Pinarello for some years, not only for sponsored teams.
Pantani’s winning bike is quite interesting, it marks the start of a new area quite well, because it was remarkable light (around 7kg if I’m not mistaken).
As you point out, Lance Armstrong just happened to be the dominant rider in the time when the bikes used by pro teams didn’t need to be custom anymore, be it due to compact geometry making standard sizes fit to many riders, be it due to decreased weight of standard material or be it just due to carbon fiber molds being too expensive to produce them for single riders.

ColoradoGoat February 20, 2011 at 3:53 am

Completely agree with this. Name one new piece of technology which Lance clearly introduced into the peloton. If anything, Lance instead brought into pro cycling the one-race specialist, focused entirely on bringing a result to a particular race, which was considered the most marketable to the potential consumers of the main sponsor. While certain teams are considered Classics and other Grand Tour teams, the difference with US Postal/Team Disco is that this was a team built entirely around 1 rider. In fact, the other two grand tours were for the most part secondary to a team which could have and should have tried harder at competing in the Giro and Vuelta. But this would not serve the marketing interests of Lance and his foundation, because save for a few in the US who actually care to watch cycling, most of the general public think the Tour is the only major race in the world.

One can argue whether this was good for the sport (I personally think it is bad). But this is what Lance brought to the sport. Nothing from a technology standpoint.

ColoradoGoat February 20, 2011 at 3:54 am

Wait – if you consider the use of highly advanced PED’s – then yes – Lance helped foster in an entirely new era technology speaking in the peloton.

Jonathan February 20, 2011 at 4:41 am

I agree it’s cavalier to give Armstrong credit for the adoption of carbon bikes. However, most of the article is about the equipment aspect of the overall process Armstrong and Bruyneel put in place to win so many tours. Their combined, detailed approach to training, route recon, race strategy, equipment choice and publicity were a first in cycling and proved effective. For seven year Lance & Co. surgically disasembeld every potential barrier to their goal. But did this inovative process have any trickle down effect in the general market? Unlikely.

Gillis February 20, 2011 at 5:47 am

Alright, I’m done. This past week of “retirement” news was exhausting (that along side all the AC news as well). That you decided to pick one little sentence that doesn’t really matter is below your normal high quality reporting.
If you read the whole article I don’t think it boils down to that one little idea.
The idea is that what Lance did is make the science of cycling important like no other before him. I think he made the bike and component manufacturers step up their game and gave them focus.
He also gave focus and massive growth to the US market. Without the “lance effect” the market wouldn’t have grown like it did which gave companies like Trek and Giant a place to expand and improve those manufacturing technologies at the rate it did.
Maybe I’m giving him too much credit, but it’s hard to argue with the momentum he created.

The Inner Ring February 20, 2011 at 10:00 am

Alex: yes, we saw the arrival of Giant’s compact frames at ONCE, riders took a S, M or L frame and adjustment happened via the steam and seatpost.

Jonathan: I’m not so sure. See Manolo Saiz and the ONCE team. Bruyneel rode for this team and Saiz also did “detailed training, route recon, race strategy, equipment choice”. An engineer by background Saiz worked closely with Look (see http://inrng.com/?p=780 for more). But yes for the publicity side.

Gillis: sorry for any annoyance but I wanted to explore the issue. I tried to reference the sales impact. But design and manufacture are beyond a single rider.

Mark Rushton February 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm

No. Lance just looked at the kit and with the aid of manufacturers re-engineered it. The SPD-SL provided a better platform, the wind-tunnel testing, the HED wheels all pushed the development fwd and provided the impetus for other riders and manufacturers to try the ideas

qicoleseO February 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm

thanks for this nice post

Joachim February 20, 2011 at 6:45 pm

ONCE was first team for the big change to carbon with GIANT frame. BRUYNEEL learned from teacher SAIZ.

Touriste-Routier February 20, 2011 at 8:30 pm

A side note, I believe compact frames really don’t serve anyone other than the supply chain. You don’t necessarily get perfect fit by adjusting stems on small, medium, or large frames. There is much more to fit than saddle height & reach. There is a reason custom builders offer infinite sizing, and why many top builders offered 1 cm stock increments in the past. What you do get is fewer molds, fewer SKUs, less inventory with wider applicability. Giant effectively changed the business model by selling features that don’t necessarily serve the consumer.

The fact that the pros use compact carbon frames might be more of a statement of they are good enough and the changed nature of sponsorship (from small builders to large corporations); you can’t have Dario Pegoretti build a custom steel or aluminum frame, paint it in the team colors with team decals and expect it to pass for a team issue compact carbon frame.

Armstrong’s wins certainly coincided with changes within the industry and within the sport.

jules February 20, 2011 at 11:28 pm

err… i thought it was obvious that the use of carbon fibre bike frames coincided with refinements to production methods that made their performance superior to aluminium and high quality mass production possible. since it’s not really feasible (or at least cost effective) to hand make carbon fibre frames, thus dawn broke on the mass produced CF frame era and the sun set on the hand made aluminium frame building industry.

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