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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.