Pro Cycling As The Shop Window

From the earliest days in the sport there’s been a close link between cycle manufacturers and teams. Marketing and sponsorship played a big part in the sport’s development as companies sought to prove their wares could withstand long distance races to convince consumers that they could ride to the factory or field without problem.

In recent years there’s been a revival with the Cervélo test team and now Argos-Shimano and Cannondale will be joined by Trek in 2014. But are pro cyclists being left on the outside when it comes to having the best gear?

It’s only one advert but the image above it’s telling as Shimano try to suggest ordinary consumers can get superior braking to the pros. In other words pro team components are no longer the gold standard and labels like “team issue”, “service course” and “race-winning” no longer mean the top of a company’s product range.

Of course “the pros” ride whatever they’re given. The economics of sponsorship mean typically only a large frame builder and component manufacturer can sponsor a top team. By extension the big races see the major brands on display and the causality matters as it’s the big companies with their mass-production and money who can afford to sponsor the pros rather than teams choosing the best material.

It’s long been possible to build a better bike than a pro gets, for example you can make a bike lighter than the UCI’s 6.8kg weight limit and still enjoy great safety and performance. Cannondale scored a publicity coup in 2004 when they glued weights onto to a frame to make a point. But more often the hunt for such a bike required specialist parts in a glass cabinet in your local bike shop or browsing German websites for parts made by a small engineering firm or even a devoted hobbyist.

What’s different now is that an industry giant like Shimano is saying “our best gear won’t be found in the pro peloton.” It’s a change but part of a trend. See Specialized with its Shiv time trial frame.

“Our all-new Shiv. This stealthy speed machine is absolutely not UCI-legal, because it’s specifically designed for the needs of triathletes: it’s more aero than the UCI allows”

Specialized is marketing its frame to triathletes and making a point of saying it’s too fast for road cycling. Pro cycling is not being abandoned. And as I’ve written before, if Paris-Roubaix didn’t exist then perhaps it would have to be invented because of the irony of a one-day race that’s used to signal product durability.

But there is a risk that road cycling becomes too traditional for manufacturers who take their prototypes and crucially sponsorship dollars elsewhere. The UCI’s allowed disc brakes for cyclo-cross but they’re not yet legal on the road and there are good reasons for that. But see the UCI’s minimum weight of 6.8kg, it was introduced in 2000 and remains unchanged despite all the advances in manufacturing, materials and design.

To pre-empt the comments that nobody needs this technology, that’s not quite the point. After all nobody needs a racing bike. In Europe most bikes retails for less than €300 so the difference between bikes in the >€3,000 price bracket is for… those who read cycling blogs. It’s the same with people who buy a jacket used for an ascent of Annapurna to keep warm waiting at the bus stop, it’s not necessary but it can fulfil a consumer need. Bike manufacturers produce gear for sale and always want to find ways to make you open your wallet or click that “add to basket” button only this time the pros aren’t being used to help push the gear.

On a similar point, there are arguments for and against disc brakes. Cost, weight, heat build-up, injury and more mean there are real questions about their use in bunch racing. Of course the ad is staged and and just as some pros get no choice in what they ride, so the wistful look on their faces is an obligation for the photo shoot.

The small print

Money dictates that only the big players in the industry can sponsor a pro team so innovative items from smaller manufacturers has long been found outside the pro peloton and its major brands. But now even the big players are making a virtue of having material that’s too good for the UCI World Tour, Shimano’s ad comes after marketing from Specialized and several others make a virtue of having bikes that are too light for the Tour de France and other visible races.

Of course every pro bike is perfectly adequate for the job, whether it’s the Tour de France or a Sunday spin and this is all marketing. But so is pro team sponsorship and it’s worth millions to the sport. If the UCI rules stay as they are then we’ll see more and more manufacturers look elsewhere for a shop window, breaking the century-old model where team issue bikes have often represented the pinnacle of a company’s product range.

But things have some way to go. Shimano today announced a product recall for many of its road disc brakes. Maybe Simon Gerrans is smiling after all as he rides around Spain on rim brakes?

  • The riders in the ad? Josh Edmonson (Team Sky), Simon Gerrans (Orica-Greenedge), Tom Dumoulin (Argos-Shimano) and Martin Kohler (BMC Racing)
  • Hat-tip to Carlton Reid for prompting this piece with a tweet this morning


46 thoughts on “Pro Cycling As The Shop Window”

  1. Seems they are not the hydralic type though, but rather “cable-actuated road disc brakes”. Still feels like a good invention to me. It certanly has taken mountain biking to another level.

  2. Another interesting article – thanks. I will bite though and ask what are the good reasons for not allowing discs on road bikes? (Also, you have a typo – “they’re good reasons for that” -> there are good reasons)

    • Not on every road bike, but in the peloton; I think it’s generally agreed that discs, while heavier, have more stopping power, Especially in the wet.

      Imagine 100 riders in the bunch, pouring cold rain, half riding with disc brakes and half with side pull caliper rim brakes, all riding 50kph within a hands width of each other; then, even just for a corner, everyone puts on their brakes… every caliper mounted bike runs into the back end of the disc brake bike ahead and 75 riders are on the ground.

      • This happens now, riders on different : tyres, carbon rims, aluminium rims, carbon with bonded alu, carbon with special braking tracks and without, different brake levers and different pad compounds. But, most of all, different skill levels. Some riders will brake harder and safer on rim brakes than others on disks.

        You’d get the same with disks: steel disks, carbon disks, titanium disks, steel and alu bonded disks, sintered pads, organic pads and carbon pads.

        What disks will do is help with wet weather braking.

        Using different braking systems is not the issue, currently not everyone is using shimano dura ace calipers and pads on identical rims with identical tyres and the riders are not identical weight.

  3. Agree the UCI weight limit should be reviewed. As “one weight for all” also clearly affects smaller riders than larger riders.
    On the same note, does the same weight limit apply to women’s races? Clearly the riders are lighter and the bikes are smaller.

  4. The cynical response to the UCI straight jacket on equipment and position would be ‘what do you expect from this dysfunctional organization’. It certainly does the industry manufactures no favours.
    Time for PMcQ and his colleague’s to take a long term holiday.

  5. Yes, the rules are a bit limiting sometimes. Bolting weights to frames to comply with a weight limit is just silly. But I guess any recumbent manufacturer could have made an ad like this years and years ago (if they’d had the money).
    What is nice about the rules is that they force manufacturers to think of other things they can do to make a bike better (e.g. aerodynamics, comfort, reliability).

  6. In reference to ‘the pros ride whatever they are given’… are the days of pros riding rebadged frames gone? Certainly in seem less prevelant that the 70’s and 80’s but I seem to recall an article that said the Italian brand legend made alot of the World Tour frames and just rebadged them to suit the team/bike brand.

    • They’re mainly gone but there are a few saddles and more. This secret still allowed a manufacturer to pretend it was part of the race, different to today where some are saying they’re best items are beyond World Tour.

    • Is there not a difference between the geometry of a pro’s bike and the bike
      available to the consumer, such as longer top tube on the pro’s bike, as well
      as a twitched and tweaked carbon lay-up creating a stiffer frame?

      Then you have consumers shelling out big bucks for a ‘pro’ bike that is actually
      not pro!

      Willier have released a frame (Cento) over the last year or so which they say differs
      from their normal offering to the consumer in that the geometry is an
      ‘aggressive’ shaping allowing the consumer to enjoy the same frame properties
      and real performance benefits enjoyed by the pro’s!

      • As Gilbert was riding for Lotto and Canyon sponsored them, he rode on an alu frame with a different geometry than their carbon frames. The following season they introduced their aero frame which I guess included some input from the riders. At least Gilbert rode on those.

  7. I had not realised the ad men were having laugh at the expense of the UCI and their antiquated rules. A subsidiary point of professional sport is surely to allow the suppliers to develop and test under real conditions innovative technologies that the spectators; many of which are product consumers, can then enjoy themselves. F1 Motorsport possibly being one of the clearest examples of such a relationship where kit developed on the racing cars eventually finds itself on production cars.

    • Nonsense. There’s all sorts of ‘innovations’ that are allowed on street cars but not on F1 cars. I haven’t followed F1 for years so maybe things changed but I remember when they banned turbos. Cylinder volume is limited too, no traction control, etc etc. If the manufacturers want a testing ground for real world situations an F1 race is a pretty poor simulator. Which is also why hardly anybody in the world owns a car that looks anything like an F1 machine. It’s all marketing. In cycling however, the bikes we can buy even on a modest budget are nearly the same as what the pros use. If the UCI would throw out all the rules pretty soon the bikes would be very different and you’d no longer buy a ‘pro like’ bike for a sunday sportive.

      • Your assessment of F1 is way off base. The design of an F1 chassis has absolutely nothing to do with marketing and everything to do with the best engineering solution for a given set of rules. The technical regulations change as a result of politics, and being that chassis are all designed by independent constructors with no marketing goals for road cars… they could care less.

        Fuel Injection was invented for Group C and Traction Control was invented for F1 back in the 80s. It was perfected in the 90’s along with Active Suspension, but outlawed in 1994 to prevent Williams from running away with another title, and to keep costs “under control”. The only reason traction control is as advanced as it is, and onboard computers for that matter, is a direct result of F1. There are many small specialist companies behind the scenes (ex. Zytek) providing technology to both F1, sportscar racing and the production vehicle world. Regenerative technology is most certainly included in this as well. While there are manufacturers sponsoring and funding the F1 teams, the structures (engineering, management, etc) of the companies beneath the big names have not changed in decades.

        Imagine if each team in the pro peleton were designing and building their own bikes, with perhaps some branding and money from Specialized or Trek. The design that the team creates may have Specialized written on the side, but it would have little to nothing in common with a ‘production’ frame. That scenario would make it more akin to F1, but this is not the case.

        • I didn’t mean that F1 cars are designed with marketing instead of performance in mind. I mean that the reason manufacturers sponsor F1 is for marketing, not because they need a testing ground for consumer cars. And surely some of the technology in current consumer cars have been developed first for racing. But this is not because the rules for F1 are so much less restrictive than the rules for pro bike racing. I don’t see how the UCI’s ban on disk brakes or 6.8 kg weight is more ‘antiquated’ than F1’s ban on turbos or 2.4 liter engine limit.
          The scenario you describe with teams building their own bikes etc pretty well describes the situation in Human Powered Vehicle racing, I think.

  8. The TDF initially banned free wheels. Problem was, when mixed with older equipment in the peleton, the riders with free wheels could lift the inside pedal and turn sharper than those whose pedals had to continue spinning. Is there a similar problem with the characteristics of disc brakes? That is, do the respond more quickly, stop faster?

    • I find the hydraulic disc brakes on my MTB considerably more powerful
      than the very excellent ultegra rim brakes I have on the road bike. So I think a disc on a road bike would give a braking advantage, I believe main issue is or was the extra weight, so you would lose on the climbs.

    • In the dry, there’s probably very little in it between discs and rims. Especially when you bring in something silly like hyrdo rim brakes, which are UCI Road legal (Cavendish used them in the TdF this year for example). Discs possibly have an advantage over rim brakes on carbon rims (solves those issues by removing them completely).

      Commuting though where I really notice the difference with disk brakes is in the wet. My normal wet weather/load hauling commuter is a “commuter cross” type- drop handlebars, cross geometry, discs, full length mudguards, pannier rack. It was out of action with mechanical issues for a few days in the summer, so I used the road bike- carbon frame, alloy rims. One day it the rain came down when I was nearly home. It came down HARD.

      I had a few close calls at junctions, as I tried to brake where I normally would in the rain. THe brakes just wouldn’t grip the rim. They’re superb in the dry. Nothing in the rain. The discs would have had me fine.

      So, most of the time in a mixed peloton it’ll be OK. But on the wet days? Who knows what will happen. It switches from the braking effectiveness of the brakes themselves to the grip of the tyre.

  9. Someone mentioned it on another thread.

    How fast does it take to change a rim brake wheel vs. a disc brake wheel? Unless it’s comparable, pros won’t be adopting these any time soon…

    • You have to be a take a bit more time to line the disc up with the brake caliper, but it’s only a second or two.
      The major delay is that lawyer lips are required on front disc brakes, as most bike manufacturers fit them, because the braking torque can lever the wheel out of the dropouts. That adds the time taken to undo the QR adjuster by 5 or 6 turns, do it up after fitting the replacement wheel, and set the QR adjustment correctly.

      • current UCI rules require the “lawyer tabs” be left on forks, no more grinding them off for quick changes, so non issue there. For a fork to be sold globally it must have the tabs.

        There are already fast and slow wheel changes today based on a host of variables. Good “jumpers” will be nearly the same speed on both brake systems, there is a skill in doing fast changes. What will come into play is the variance in caliper/rotor placement within the frame. As anyone who owns a disc brake bike and multiple wheels knows the rotor mounting point is not the same on all hubs. So you can swap a wheel and have brake rub. No different than taking a wheel from neutral today with the axle locknut/cassette placement slightly different requiring a minor shifting adjustment. So you could require two adjustments with a neutral wheel. What this means–more aggressive driving in the caravan to handle bike changes.

        • Brake rub: – dual piston hydraulic systems, as used on mountain bikes, are self-centring so this should be gone within a few lever pulls. However, the cable actuated systems, or single piston set-ups, might be more problematic.

          There’s not much you can do about it though. There’s no adjuster to move on the fly, so far as I know. What is the mechanic to do? Can’t take the rotor off and shim it. Can’t loosen, adjust and retighten the caliper.

      • This is not quite right.

        The tabs are to prevent a wheel falling out when the skewer is completely undone. They predate the use of disc brakes.

        The issue with discs is the direction of the cut-out in the fork drop-outs. It has been shown (and provben in court actually) that disc brakes can apply a vertical downwards force at the drop-out, which evecan ever overcome the tabs. The solution for mountain bikes, where this issue was recognised, is bolt-through axles. For road bikes it might be sufficient to alter the angle of the drop-out.

        Incidentally, the tabs on my fork (Specialized Tarmac) require only a single 360 turn of the QR (Dura-Ace), not 5 or 6 turns. They hardly slow-down the fitting of a wheel to any significant dgreee, even in a race situation.

        Discs require a couple of seconds to align the rotor and disc caliper. On the other hand, there’s no need to take a second or two to make sure that the tyre slips between the brake pads of the caliper or to open and close the quick release on the caliper itself. Unless you’re Cadel Evans in the Vuelta, disc wheels will be no slower for a pro mechanic to change.

  10. “The pros want……..” The pros don’t know what they want. It wasn’t long ago that they refused to ride a tire larger than 22 mm (except at Paris-Roubaix) and now look at them. The industry wants….” They want whatever it takes to sell more stuff, whether it’s an improvement over what is current is not important, just the IDEA that it’s better is enough for the marketing mavens. The problem with both the pros and the industry is they both want one thing – a short-term advantage over their rivals, they care little about the long-term effects on the SPORT. Look back over the sport’s history at how the riders fought against dope testing and the industry has tried to control things for their own benefit – they simply care little about the actual SPORT, it’s all about short-term monetary gains.
    The UCI asserts the primacy of the athlete over the machine…that’s how it should be unless we want to risk a move to the most “evolved” form of two-wheeler – UCI could allow motorcycles, since many would say they’re just evolved bicycles, or why not allow fully-faired recumbents under the same claim?

    • I agree. The point of a sport is to have rules, and the rules should be the same for everyone. What the rules are exactly doesn’t matter so much. I wouldn’t be in favor of more restrictive rules, keirin style, everybody on the same bike, because it’s fun to look at the differences in material and talk about them. But it’s good that the UCI keeps the manufacturers in check and tries to ensure that the ‘innovations’ are at least sort of relevant for regular consumers too.

    • When I see the Pros standing on the side of the road without the slightest clue how to remove their rear wheel or put a dropped chain back on the chain ring… I would agree that the Pros are not doing much of the driving when it comes to technology or new parts.

      My poor memory is telling me that the Pros did refuse to ride some carbon parts for a good while, but whether this was fear of [parts] failure or a distrust in the product, I do not know. If that was the case, then you might imagine that as long as the widgets and bits can be trusted as reliable they will be ridden as a part of their contract.

  11. I suspect the uptake of disc brakes into pre-level road and ‘cross will be slower than expected (or has been hyped up to be). MTB wheels, frames, forks and drivetrains have undergone revolution (vs. evolution) in the past 10-years (e.g. suspension, wheel size, geometry, materials) … road and ‘cross disciplines have only witnessed mild evolution (aero frames, materials).

    As such, disc brakes quickly become the norm in MTB as gear changed out quickly … wheelsets are virtually disposable after a race season due to the beating they take. Conversely, pro teams/national teams/etc. have entire service courses full of 700c rim brake wheelsets. Belgium showed up in Louisville, KY at Worlds with an entire truckload of wheels – a collection built over many years. These wheelset collections are not going to get dumped anytime soon due to the availability of disc brakes.

    Of the 10-top elite men at Louisville (which was ideal disc brake conditions if you believed the vendors), only 1 (maybe 2 – need to double check again) rider(s) was on discs. US Nationals (the week before) was held in similar conditions and discs performed poorly. Best results in cross and road come from not braking – stronger brakes with the same size tire and contact patch (now 32mm vs. 35mm) will just lead to more skidding.

    Just because it’s possible (disc brakes for road/cross) – doesn’t mean it makes sense or works well. Remember paddle shifters for MTB?

  12. Ironically, UCI and UCI-sanctioned riders *are* very much referenced in those adverts. And if the products stray too far from the UCI standard to make UCI irrelevant as a reference… remember those frames without seatposts, where are they now?

  13. Brian Cookson gave a good, wide-ranging interview with Al Hinds of SBS Australia. One of the issues touched on was equipment rules.

    Cookson’s take – and remember, British Cycling have famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) pushed the limits of the equipment rules on the track and to some extent on the road – is that rules are necessary, because it’s important to keep the focus on the rider not the machine. However, the UCI hasn’t worked particularly well with the manufacturers on managing the process.

    As far as disc brakes go, I actually think the UCI are right to be hesitant. There are potentially safety gains by allowing them but there are questions about the safety in a bunch crash, or whether the greater wet stopping power and modulation will disrupt bunch behaviour in wet conditions.

    One thing the UCI has not handled well is the banning of equipment already in wide use, particularly for amateurs. A small example is the rules on water bottles, where I found out five minutes before a time trial that the Arundel Chrono I’d fitted was now illegal, as were 850ml bottles (luckily it was a short TT and a relatively cool day). An even bigger deal is the reported but not confirmed introduction of a 65mm limit on rim depth for road bikes. I had my eye on a set of Enve 6.7s, but that wheelset is now in limbo because the rear wheel might be illegal in the near future.

  14. “only this time the pros aren’t being used to help push the gear.”

    This is a great article inring. But I disagree with some points. My opinion certainly is that the pro’s are still being used to push gear, but instead of the tag line being “this is as good what the pro’s use” it’s “this is better than what the pro’s use”. Also, not a solid statistical fact, but from what I see, sponsorship in the peloton directly correlates to the number of punters on those bikes on local group rides. E.g. specialized & pinarello both sponsor two worldtour teams and in terms of the high-end/racing bikes I see around town they are hugely prevalent.

    Also, what about the benefits a manufacturer gets in terms of feedback from pro’s about their equipment? I realize that the disparity between the cycling level of a pro and amateur is such that the amateur is unlikely to notice much of the technology included in racing bikes, but surely having your equipment tested in the toughest arenas gives manufacturers benefit when developing products and therefore incentive to continue sponsorship?

    Love the website.

  15. Some valid points but the riders or fans don’t matter, the only thing that makes a race are the commissaires. Without some kind of rules (no matter how arbitrary illogical) and someone independent to enforce them you have a training ride.

    Personally I feel that disc brakes are a good thing from the safety point of view in the long run. In the wet, the main reason for crashes is loss of cornering traction so discs may make little difference. Introducing discs might cause more accidents but until they are introduced we can’t tell.

    There will have to be better guides for discs to be truly usable with road bikes in races, changes will be measurably slower otherwise – don’t think it will take the mechanics/manufacturers long to find a better system.

  16. Another issue I see is neutral support. It’s already enough with Campy/SRAM/Shimano but to cary disc and standard will be a nightmare. I ride a CX bike with discs and the stopping power is awesome and wheel change time is no different but one big difference is that the centering of a disc in the brake has much tighter tolerances so a hub just a 1 or 2 mm different can cause huge brake rub that isn’t easy to tweak on the fly right now. There are still some practical logistics to figure out before turning this loose in the peloton and the UCI is not known for the adeptness with practical logistics.

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