What do the pros ride?

Monday, 21 February 2011

Team BMC SL01

A question on Twitter last Thursday got me thinking: “name the last rider to win a Classic using an Aluminium frameset”. I was thinking of strange win from way back… until I remembered Philippe Gilbert. The Belgian won the Amstel Gold and the Tour of Lombardy on an aluminium frame.

This was then a subject that came up over the weekend, where I suggested Armstrong’s wins on a stock Trek had more to do with global manufacturing patterns than any clever plan by the Texan. Whereas I differed in the role played by Armstrong, it’s a fact that most team bikes in the pro peloton are available to buy at your local bike shop or online.

Consumer choice…
These days it’s possible to have a better bike than the pros. It’ll cost you but an amateur is free to chose what ever they want, from an artisan frame right down to marginal gains like titanium bolts and ceramic bearings. The UCI rules impose a minimum weight of 6.8kg, something that can be beaten quite easily these days, especially with smaller sized frames. It’s got to the point where some bike companies make a virtue of having to add back weight as a way of broadcasting just how light their bikes are.

…professional obligations
By contrast teams have a set of sponsors and it’s a case of a good frame, a good groupset and some solid parts. Without the choice many riders simply don’t give the bike much thought, besides even before turning pro they probably rode for a squad with team issue bikes. Chat to a pro about his bike and often the response is a blunt “it works“, although many do know their stuff.

Sometimes there can be difficulties when contact points like saddles and pedals are involved, a rider might find they’re suited to something but the team changes sponsors over the winter and the parts change, resulting in discomfort. But a pro is paid to ride whatever he is given so that’s usually the end of it. But you can still find a few saddles in disguise, for example Tom Boonen likes a San Marco despite his team being backed by Prologo.

Cervelo-R5ca

California dreaming

It’s not to say featherweight new gear isn’t tested by the pros but by the time something appears as new, it’s probably been tested extensively away from the cameras. Take the Cervélo R5ca, once known as “Project California” the prototype frame was first raced in last year’s Tour of California. That might have been your first glimpse but you can be sure it underwent a lot of testing before it got to the start line. When the frame appears in a race for the first time it’s a marketing opportunity. Press releases go out, cameras are invited and it becomes a big deal. Had it failed during the race the publicity would be disastrous.

The mid-season marks an important but late stage in the industry’s product cycle. With trade shows in the autumn, races like the Tour de France allow new models to be showcased. But this is the final step for the product, it will normally have been fully-developed and ready to go, July is no time to evaluate a product, most manufacturers will have “pushed go” on the next year’s model well before.

Gilbert Amstel

World class rider, mid range frame

For every bike that’s an undercover new model you can find another that’s actually an old model in disguise. For example Philippe Gilbert spent much of last year racing on a Canyon F8 Ultimate AL frame, an aluminium frame from the German company that is a long way from their top-of-the-range offering. He took both the Amstel Gold race with this. Look closely and you can spot the cable stops on the head tube, whereas the Canyon Ultimate CF has then on the downtube. This year that’s changed with Gilbert riding on a carbon frame, the new Canyon Aeroad CF.

A job to do
Solid is the word. It’s a tool of the trade, not a fancy ride. This isn’t a machine to impress your mates. It’s there to get the job done. These bikes have to withstand a lot of abuse, from travel to frequent crashes. Plus your average pro is more powerful than you or me. When manufacturers get feedback from the pros, there is usually one demand: make it stiffer.

Trek geometry

Low is pro

This is quite different from the amateur who probably takes more pleasure in a lighter bike, in custom parts and often a more comfortable ride. Several team suppliers now offer a replica bike but with a choice of geometry. For example Trek offer what they call H1, H2 and H3 geometry so you can ride like a Leopard but without back ache; even Pinarello are in the game with their Kobh and its more relaxed angles. Only a proportion of top-end bikes are purchased to be raced, most are there to be enjoyed and the industry today is now catering for this.

Hugh Jampton February 21, 2011 at 12:00 pm

What would be the properties of the alu frame which would cause Philippe Gilbert to prefer it over the carbon would you say?

Thomas Kontou February 21, 2011 at 12:12 pm

great post!

The Inner Ring February 21, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Hugh Jampton: stiffness, or the alu frame is custom-made to suit his measurements.

Thomas Kontou: thanks.

beev February 21, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Couldn’t have said it nearly aswell myself. I’ve been bleating on to my bike buddies for last couple of years about the convergence being witnessed with respect to the quality achieved across carbon frames – to the extent that i’m now buying out of the non branded end of the factory in China when i want a carbon frame. People forget (or in some cases need to learn) how amazing aluminium is to ride….

cthulhu February 21, 2011 at 2:07 pm

well, one can say a lot about the canyon frames, and a lot is said whether justified or not, but lack of stiffness certainly doesn’t belong to that, so I’d guess the customisation might be the reason. But just my 5pc of an opinion.

But it is true, a good alu frame is as light or heavy as a mid-range carbon frame, still my experience from racing lower mid-level equipment is that carbon frames are usually stiffer if they are not too much trimmed on light weight, especially after some usage and aging than alu ones. But then again I don’t get every year several new frames.

Paul February 21, 2011 at 2:53 pm

I think it was you that spotted Gilbert’s ’11 bike was equiped with Record. I noticed Boonen is also riding Record this year. Why would these pro’s not be riding Campag’s flagship Super Record groupset?

The Inner Ring February 21, 2011 at 3:22 pm

beev: there’s a lot of mid-range carbon that comes with varying price tags.

cthulhu: I’ve heard it’s custom fitting but can’t find confirmation. Carbon can be stiffer but in places, perhaps Gilbert wanted a stiffer head tube etc. I’ll try and ask.

Paul: yes, that’s curious. Maybe it’s weight or even budget?

Matt Rose February 21, 2011 at 4:55 pm

>> Chat to a pro about his bike and often the response is a blunt “it works“

Unless you’re talking to Thor Hushovd. Then the response is: “It’s light as milk”

Oliver February 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Fascinating post. I wonder if there are any other pro’s riding aluminum frames currently? I heard once that Boonen rode an aluminum specialized back when that brand was sponsoring quickstep.
I wonder what pros would ride if they had a choice….

haitch February 21, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Was Gilbert not on the Aeroad for Lombardy? He was definitely using it at the Vuelta and (a nice sky blue one) at the Worlds.

Oliver: there was a post on Belgium Knee Warmers ages ago about Boonen and his alu Specialized frame – Spesh made it as a prototype to get him the custom geometry that he wanted, then once he was happy they made a new mould and gave him a carbon version. (“A handmade CF frame won’t meet our quality standards”, or some such.)

The Inner Ring February 21, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Matt: actually I’ve talked to Thor and he’s in the “make it stiffer” camp. Look produced their Ultra frame for guys like him when at Crédit Agricole.

Haitch: yes in the Vuelta but not Lombardia.

As for the why no Campagnolo Super Record, word is that Quick Step gets a set amount of groupsets from Campagnolo and by taking Record, they can have more from the Italian company. The surplus groupsets, about 50, are then sold for cash. Heard this from two sources today who read the comments above and got in touch.

Cam Austin February 21, 2011 at 7:03 pm

2006 Tour De France Winner: Oscar Perrero
Bike: Pinarello Dogma FP magnesium

Not sure what the relevant Campagnolo Record Groupset will have weighed but I doubt that the total build would be over the UCI 6.8kg limit.
Please feel free to ponder.

Colnago Con Brio February 21, 2011 at 7:13 pm

A very interesting read!

halcyonCorsair February 21, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Thats a BMC SLR01 frame in the top picture, NOT a BMC Impec.

The Inner Ring February 21, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Cam: great point. I suppose I’d forgotten about Pereiro there, so thanks for the reminder.

Colnago Con Brio: thanks. Do Colnago do any “relaxed” versions?

halcyonCorsair: fixed, thanks! I should have known since the big lug was missing.

Touriste-Routier February 21, 2011 at 9:20 pm

The Colnago ACE http://www.colnago.com/bikes/2011/ace is their comfort/endurance model, but is aimed at the masses, not the elite

Bill February 21, 2011 at 9:44 pm

”That might have been your first glimpse but you can be sure it underwent a lot of testing before it go to the start line.” You may want to revise this…error.

mattio February 22, 2011 at 4:42 am

Oliver – actually, if I recall correctly (never a sure thing), Boonen raced the ’06 TdF on a steel Pegoretti (and won the green jersey, too) with Specialized stickers… though he had ridden Specialized aluminum earlier in that year.

Paul Mark February 22, 2011 at 5:26 am

Didn’t Lance ride Mavic’s marked as Bontrager?

The Inner Ring February 22, 2011 at 9:53 am

Touriste-Routier: yes, it doesn’t seem like the C59 has a relaxed geometry version.

Bill: fixed, thanks.

Mattio: I think it was 2007, but yes he had a Pegoretti.

Paul: not seen that. He did once use Carbonsports Lightweights but I don’t remember any Bontrager markings. Let me know if you can find some images.

The Inner Ring February 22, 2011 at 10:48 pm

A correction: Gilbert won the Giro di Lombardia on the Canyon carbon frame. A helpful and well-connected reader has been in touch with the evidence and I’ve fixed the text above. Thanks T.

PT February 24, 2011 at 4:44 am

Agree that the mindset of most pros is far simpler than the observer might think. I used to work with pro snow boarders and their attitude and equipement were often very simple. The really fancy stuff was mostly for the showrooms.

As for the rebranding: Like many sports – there are a lot more brands than there are factories. Ditto for contracts.

Jerms February 24, 2011 at 11:26 am

At the 2007 Tour de France, Tom Boonen rode a Pegoretti Marcello custom steel bike badged under Specialized to win two stages and the coveted green jersey. http://cyclingart.blogspot.com/2009/11/dario-pegoretti-fatto-mano.html

Rich February 28, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Gilbert was riding a Carbon Aero Bike for Lombardia, you can see it here as the rear stays are much lower than those on the Alloy bikes.

http://sprintingforsigns.posterous.com/giro-di-lombardia-2010-final-kilometers

The Inner Ring February 28, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Rich: yes, see my correction as of 22 February, noted in the comments and edited in the text above.

Mark Rushton February 28, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Lance had Lightweights but he had HED rebadged as Bontrager. Contador recently had Lightweight disc rebadged as Zipp. This rebranding goes on all the time whether with tyres,wheels or bikes. Don’t worry about it, you won’t notice any difference

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