Every cycling site on the planet has postulated some theory about just which rider could conceivably beat Alberto Contador. Naturally, almost no one places much stock in their theories because all indications are that Contador will spend the next three weeks riding at an endurance pace and then making the odd acceleration to dust off his legs … and the competition. As foregone conclusions go, this harkens back to the time of Miguel Indurain when it felt like the other guys rolled up for the prologue hoping, at best, for second. Despite his ongoing dominance, it felt like there was more fight in the air as Lance Armstrong was winning.
Currently, Radio Shack is the only team showing up with anything like a strategy. Their stated game plan of four general classification riders is the right idea. Rather than sending them all up the road in a single shotgun blast, repeated attacks by each of their protected riders has the potential to put a strong rider on the defensive. It’s not possible for one guy to respond to each attack by a group of peers. Eventually you either crack or have to let someone go. Unless you’re Contador. The trouble I see here is that Radio Shack simply isn’t strong enough to deliver enough knockout blows to dislodge Contador from the lead group. Certainly, Contador will get smart to the sequence of attacks and his propensity to launch his own, withering, attack that has the ability to make previous attacks look like accidental surges could easily negate the whole of the Radio Shack team.
To make the us against him strategy work, a combine of teams will be necessary. That’s because even though Leopard-Trek will have two of the strongest riders in the race, the Schleck’s brotherly love will see them try to leave the field together, rather than truly alternate attacks. Their inability to take Philippe Gilbert at Liege-Bastogne-Liege showed their lack of tactical genius necessary to use their numbers to optimal advantage.
To beat Contador, Leopard will have to join with Liquigas and BMC and Euskaltel. This is a climbing Tour and Andy Schleck will have to choose whether he wants to ride for second or see Contador beaten. That’s the choice; for any of the GC favorites, the options are to work with other teams to collectively defeat Contador or resign yourself to racing for, at best, second. Even if the teams come together, the odds that a protected GC rider will win the overall don’t improve any. That’s why such a strategy is unlikely to succeed or even last the whole of the race.
It’s possible, though unlikely, that Contador has overplayed his fitness and won’t be as sharp in the third week as he needs to be. These days, very few riders can be fit enough to win the Giro and then go on to win the Tour. But Contador is at the height of his powers. Still, holding peak form for two months is like creating a balanced government budget—easier said than done. Adding yet another unusual wrinkle to all this is the embattled Spaniard’s decision to go vegetarian for the Tour. We must suppose that his chef has the ability to deliver the balanced diet necessary for Contador to ride well. Still, that does not ensure that his body will necessarily agree with said diet. It’s a big change to make so close to the race. The new diet is conceivably the greatest obstacle he faces.
As a total aside, Contador’s new diet is absolutely his best argument for his innocence I’ve heard. It should have no bearing on the case before CAS, but from the standpoint of a gut-check reaction to the individual, I’m chastened by his declaration.
What I see before us is a mouse smarter than the mouse trap. No one can attack with the paint-peeling acceleration he has and only Andy Schleck has the ability to accelerate as many times in 10k as Contador can. In my mind’s eye I see a flurry of attacks with accelerations that impress us, but followed by a counter-attack by Contador that casts his competitors as Mustangs compared to his Ferrari. “You thought that was fast? Check this out.” We’re all going to need neck braces to deal with his head-tossing speed.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The promise of winning an athletic competition is the potential to live a little piece of life perfected. A win is an objective confirmation that you were correct on enough, if not all, counts to take the day. For many riders, there’s no better place to polish life’s meaning than in a bike race. There was a time when that was the case for me, but it didn’t last long.
Much of the problem could be summed up in the simple fact that the rides I most like to do are rarely run as races. Give me a 70- to 80-mile course with 5000 or so feet of climbing and I’m a happy boy. Most of the races within three hours of me don’t fit this bill. There came a point when I realized I’d rather just be doing the group ride in Malibu on Sundays than getting up to drive to the hinterlands for some flat, four-corner, industrial-park crit. There was almost nothing about the experience that fit my definition of fun. A top-three could short-circuit that, but those didn’t come with any sort of regularity you’d call routine.
The rise of the gran fondo here in the U.S. has given me a second lease on organized events. You get a mass-start, the nervousness as the pack sorts itself out and early selection accelerations. In other words, it’s a century without the helmet mirrors.
Gran Fondo USA has staked its reputation on doing lavish productions that leave from splashy locations. The organization’s most recent event was the Gran Fondo Los Angeles. By Los Angeles, they meant Beverly Hills. If there’s a tonier place on the west coast to start a cycling event, I can’t think of what it might be. That the city fathers of Beverly Hills even deigned to allow the event to happen must have had much to do with the event’s 7 am start. Seeing bikes fill Rodeo Drive was an unqualified stunner.
Most of the event took place in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu, my wheelhouse, so to speak. I adore riding in these mountains and don’t miss many chances to spend as many weekend rides there as possible.
The 72-mile course took in two Cat. 2 climbs and five Cat. 4 climbs. The second big descent of the day, down the aptly named Stunt Road is the stuff of drugs. Hit it right and you’ll never touch your brakes. The experience bathes your brain in more dopamine than a psychiatrist can prescribe. If your nerves get the better of you, it’ll be a slow and harrowing escape. People fleeing zombies should know such fear.
Nearly everything about this ride was superb. It ran on time, had a great announcer, a few select VIPs (no one expected Andy Garcia—yes, that Andy Garcia—to be that tall), well-equipped sag stops, lovely food at the finish, not to mention a fun expo area. And, as I mentioned, the Santa Monica Mountains. What could be better?
Well, that’s the rub. If you’ve ever been to Beverly Hills, then you know it’s nowhere near Malibu. Or the ocean. Our ride, upon leaving the BH headed down Wilshire Boulevard, which is tantamount to taking a group down Park Avenue in Manhattan. Neat concept. In practice, notsomuch.
The Sheriff’s Department, which controlled the intersections for us, held the front of the group to 20 miles per hour. That was fine as we went up a few rolling hills in Century City and Westwood. However, it was no bueno on the downside. I commented to a friend how I was glad I wasn’t running tubulars. Riders further back in staging rushed the front of the group and soon we were 10 abreast across three lanes.
Late in the ride, as we headed for the finish we infected traffic in a residential area of Sunset Boulevard; this a road that serpentines over undulating terrain, and as this is a ritzy zip code, infinitely successful people do 60 over these roads in their AMG Mercedes; it’s just not a place for bikes. With some riders jumping red lights I was uneasy that someone would get hit. We needed some amount of marshaling. Even if the intersections weren’t controlled, we needed someone to alert traffic and pedestrians to the fact that an actual event was taking place. Upon making our way to Wilshire for the last few miles we had to fight traffic for a lane and dodge potholes. For what?
From the right turn onto Topanga Canyon Boulevard and until the route returns down Topanga and reaches Pacific Coast Highway, this ride is one of the great jewels of California riding. I’ll take Malibu over anyplace else in the United States. Full freakin’ stop. Riding on Wilshire and Sunset? I don’t need that kind of hostility from drivers, not without some sort of posse to protect me.
If the guys from Bike Monkey had organized this, they’d have convinced the Brentwood homeowners themselves to stop traffic as we passed. And they’d have cheered us. How do you explain that 55 miles of this course was heaven itself, but the rest was hell? Well, I guess that’s how you do it.
I promise you, the first time you begin to drop down the south side of Piuma Road and see the Pacific spread below you, you’ll wonder what you’ve been doing with your life.
There are a number of truly talented photographers who devote their considerable abilities to cycling. Some full-time, some less-so. Mike Powell cut his teeth as a shooter for what is now Getty Images. When he got started, the agency, founded by one of his brothers, was known as Allsport and it was the premiere sports photography agency. They employed only the best of the best. To see a raw take from one of their shooters was to see 36 images, 34 of which would be tack sharp, the industry’s term for images so perfectly in focus you could blow them up into posters.
Mike is best known for his work in track and field. You’ve seen his work in Sports Illustrated, in Kodak ads and anywhere an evocative image of an American track and field athlete was required. But he’s got a serious soft spot for cycling in general and the Tour de France in specific. He is the author of “A Game to Love” (PQ Blackwell), a celebration of the sport of tennis.
“The Greatest Race” is Mike’s take on the Tour de France. With text written by friend and collaborator Lewis Blackwell (no relation to the publisher), Mike describes the gift book as “an indulgence.”
“We both love bike racing. I wanted to go back to the Tour, but with a different (mission). (It was) the opportunity to get to the Tour and work on it less as a sports event and more as an art book and look at what the Tour means to us all, and less who won and lost.”
“When you have pressures on you to produce a daily accounting of what happened on the road, you tend to fall back on what you’re best at. It’s also dictated by what happened and who your business is.
“I’ve been put in a position … working with Sports Illustrated and this book. They don’t need me to do what the agencies do. Technically I could put my mom on the side of the road and she could get a usable shot (with the cameras that are out there). I’m more interested in, ‘How does this picture tell the story of the Tour de France?’”
Mike says he’s been given the freedom to explore and let go.
“The more I let go of my expectations, the more I surprise myself and take picture that please me. I’m not trying to tell the story of that day, I’m telling the story of the Tour de France.
“The question I keep asking myself is, ‘Is this bigger than that day?’”
What I find remarkable in this brief sampling of his work is the way he reinvents the cycling photograph with each new shot. It’s no small feat. But Mike is a man hungry still to do his best work.
“It’s the pinnacle of their career, why shouldn’t it be the pinnacle of my photography?”
Expect to see “The Greatest Race” from PQ Blackwell in bookstores near you late this winter or early next spring. You might suggest gift cards to your favorite bookstore at Christmas. In the meantime, you can check out the Facebook page featuring Mike’s updates.
Author’s note: Padraig asked me if I thought there was a previous Tour edition that might have similarities to the 2011 Tour and if a look at the older race might give some insight as to what this year’s race might bring.
The 2011 Tour is a victim of Tour boss Prudhomme’s war on time trialing. With four summit finishes, yet only 42.6 km of individual time trialing and no white-road or pavé stage to lend balance to the race, it is effectively a climbing championship.
That brings to mind the 1976 Tour with it’s back-to-back eight stages of climbing plus a Puy de Dôme hilltop finish. Yes, there were 89 km of individual time trialing in 1976, but that year the mountains overwhelmed everything. Also, it featured a war between the era’s two best climbers, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien van Impe. Perhaps there is a parallel to 1976’s brutal war in the mountains in the coming match between 2011’s most prominent contenders Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.
Zoetemelk, the better climber that year, lost the race because of a profound tactical failure in the face of Cyrille Guimard’s brilliant management of van Impe. The only major errors that I can remember Contador committing (I’m sure RKP’s readers will remind me of others) involved his dallying in the back of the peloton and missing important moves. I doubt his new director, Bjarne Riis, will let the Spaniard sleep at the wheel in this Tour.
It may come down to a series of drag races up France’s steepest slopes, but I’m betting that given the likely even match between the two, it will be like 1976 and again come down to the rider with the greater strategic savvy. I believe that plays to Contador’s advantage.
Like Tour father Henri Desgrange wrote, it’s head and legs.
Eddy Merckx started 1976 by winning Milan–San Remo for a seventh time. He also won the Catalonian week. But that was it for Merckx in the win column for spring in 1976. He managed a second place in the Tirreno–Adriatico stage race, but only sixth place in Paris–Roubaix and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. In the Giro, he came in eighth. Not able to find his usual form and needing surgery for saddle-sores, he did not enter the 1976 Tour. There would be no rematch between Bernard Thévenet and Eddy Merckx that year.
There were plenty of other fine young cannibals, however. Bernard Thévenet went to the Tour fresh off a win in the Dauphiné Libéré. Luis Ocaña, looking for another shot at glory, had come in second in the Vuelta and fourth in Paris–Nice.
Joop Zoetemelk was the odds-on favorite. He won Flèche Wallonne and had high placings in the Dauphiné Libéré, Amstel Gold and the Tour of the Mediterranean. He had been second in the Tour in 1970 and 1971 and had never finished worse than fifth.
Every Tour is different. Each year the cast of players changes slightly as older racers retire and new young men with fresh ambitions arrive. The route changes each year as well and with differing emphasis on flat roads, time trials or mountains, different racers can find some years suit their talents more than others. The 1976 Tour was clockwise, starting on France’s west coast, circling north up to Belgium before heading south for the Alps. There the 1976 Tour departed from tradition. Normally after one of the 2 major mountain ranges is ridden there are several transition stages before the hard climbing resumes. This year there were 5 days of climbing in the east, starting in the Vosges in stage 7 and ending in stage 11. Then there was a rest day before 3 very hard days in the Pyrenees. That was 8 days in a row of mountains. If that weren’t enough, stage 20 finished at the top of the Puy de Dôme. Importantly, 5 of the mountain stages ended with hilltop finishes. This is a huge advantage to smaller riders who don’t have the power to maintain a time advantage gained on a climb through a long descent and flat roll-in to a distant finish line. No wonder Lucien van Impe announced that he would be riding this Tour for the overall win, not his usual King of the Mountains title. Van Impe’s changed circumstances involved more than just having a race itinerary that matched his talents. His previous manager was Jean Stablinski who is often credited with having one of the finer tactical minds in cycling. Stablinski was replaced with Cyrille Guimard who had mounted a real threat to Merckx in the 1972 Tour. Guimard was so recently retired that he was still the 1976 French Cyclocross Champion. In taking over the Gitane-Campagnolo team he remade the squad so that van Impe would have better support. As we’ll see in unfolding years, Guimard not only knew how to ride and win his own race, he knew how to get others to ride and win for him.
There was a new comet in the heavens. Belgian racer Freddy Maertens turned professional in 1972. His fantastic sprinting, time trialing and overall strength let him win all but the steepest races. In 1976, the first year he rode the Tour, he won 54 races including the World Pro Road Championships and the Belgian Road Championships. His erratic career was at its peak in 1976 and 1977 before it fell off to almost nothing. Then, in an astonishing act of will, he rebuilt his career and won the 1981 World Championship.
Maertens did not disappoint Belgian fans who were unhappy with the absence of Merckx. From the gun he was on fire. He won the Prologue time trial thumping a monstrous 55 x 12 gear, and then the first stage. Then he won the stage 3 time trial, beating such accomplished chrono men as Ferdi Bracke by 2 minutes, 23 seconds, Raymond Poulidor by almost 3 minutes and Bernard Thévenet by 3 minutes, 32 seconds. When the Tour entered the Vosges mountains he won stage 7. In stage 8, he managed only second to Peugeot’s ace sprinter Jacques Esclassan.
With the riders poised to begin their days in the Alps in stage 9, the General Classification stood thus:
1. Freddy Maertens
2. Michel Pollentier @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
3. Hennie Kuiper @ 3 minutes 16 seconds
4. Jean-Pierre Danguillaume @ 3 minutes 23 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 3 minutes 31 seconds
Van Impe, Zoetemelk and Thévenet were sitting at about 4 minutes behind Maertens.
Stage 9 was 258 kilometers that had the pack ascend the Luitel before finishing at the top of l’Alpe d’Huez, the first hilltop finish there since 1952. Even sprinter Freddy Maertens made it over the Luitel with the good climbers. But when Peugeot rider Raymond Delisle opened the hostilities on the Alpe, Maertens was tossed. From then on Zoetemelk and van Impe attacked and counter-attacked each other all the way to the top with Zoetemelk getting the win by 3 seconds. Poulidor, Thévenet, Baronchelli, Kuiper and the others were what a modern military man would call “collateral damage”. They were incidental victims of a relentless shooting war between the 2 best climbers of the time. The result of the day’s brawl was that van Impe was in Yellow with Zoetemelk trailing by only 8 seconds. Maertens was third, down about a minute.
The next day was another mano-a-mano climbing fight between the 2 leaders. After ascending the Lautaret, the Izoard, and the Montgenèvre, Zoetemelk was again only able to beat van Impe and Thévenet by 1 second. Zoetemelk now trailed van Impe by only 7 seconds in the Overall. The pace was so hard 7 riders were eliminated for failing to finish within the time limit.
The third mountain stage was one of those races in which the peloton just doesn’t feel like racing. They let José-Luis Viejo ride away without being chased. His final margin of victory, 22 minutes, 50 seconds, was the Tour’s largest postwar solo winning margin. The peloton was content to rest their tired legs. Indicative of the slower pace, sprinters Gerben Karstens and Freddy Maertens took second and third places.
With the Alpine stages completed, here was the General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 7 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor @ 1 minute 36 seconds
4. Bernard Thévenet @ 1 minute 48 seconds
The first stage in the Pyrenees, the fourth mountain stage, was another odd day. Van Impe and Zoetemelk were only worried about each other. They kept an eye on each other and let Raymond Delisle, an excellent but slightly aging racer, get away. Delisle was eighth in General Classification when the stage started. When it was over, Delisle was in Yellow and van Impe and Zoetemelk were almost 3 minutes behind.
The next stage didn’t affect the standings. The big guns held their fire. The only notable event was that stage winner Regis Ovion failed his drug test and his name was stricken from the record of that stage. Willy Teirlinck was awarded the stage.
It was stage 14, the fifth of these mountain stages, that made history.
In previous Tours, van Impe had won 3 of his eventual 6 Polka-Dot Climber’s Jerseys, in the same fashion as modern riders Laurent Jalabert or Richard Virenque have done it. They would go out early on a mountain stage and scoop up the points in all the early mountains, not always worrying about getting caught and dropped on the final climb by the men seeking overall victory. The Polka-Dot Jersey was generally van Impe’s entire ambition. In later years he has said that he regrets those years in which he turned to trying for the overall victory. He thinks he might have had 10 Climbers’ Jerseys instead of his 6.
There were 4 major climbs that day. On the second, the Portillon, Luis Ocaña attacked. Ocaña was no longer the dominating rider he had been in the early 1970s, but he was not to be ignored. Cyrille Guimard, van Impe’s director, told van Impe to go after him. Van Impe was reluctant: Guimard and van Impe did not completely agree on tactics and goals that year. Guimard told van Impe that if he didn’t go after Ocaña, he would run him off the road with his car.
Van Impe took off and caught Ocaña on the Peyresourde, the day’s penultimate climb.
Zoetemelk didn’t chase him. He may have thought van Impe was chasing some Climbers’ points and not really going after the overall lead. And surely by now Ocaña was nothing more than a shell of his former self. Instead Zoetemelk sat on the wheel of the man whose Yellow Jersey was threatened by the attack, Raymond Delisle. Normally this would be an astute strategy, forcing the leader to defend his position. It would have been astute except that Delisle could not close the gap. In fact, Delisle was exhausted and eventually lost over 12 minutes that day. Up the road, van Impe and Ocaña were flying.
Ocaña did the hard work on the flat road leading to the final climb, towing van Impe. Ocaña remembered that Zoetemelk had never helped him in his struggles with Merckx. This was a tough bit of pay-back.
On the final climb, the Pla d’Adet up to St.-Lary-Soulan, van Impe jumped away from Ocaña and won the stage and the Yellow Jersey. Zoetemelk came flying up the hill, going faster than van Impe, but it wasn’t good enough. He was 3 minutes, 12 seconds too late.
The Ocaña/van Impe/Zoetemelk attacks shattered the peloton. 45 of the remaining 93 riders finished outside the time limit. Peter Post, the manager of the Raleigh team asked on behalf of the riders that the Tour management waive the elimination rule for the stage. They did.
The new General Classification with van Impe back in Yellow:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 3 minutes 18 seconds
3. Raymond Delisle @ 9 minutes 27 seconds
4. Walter Riccomi @ 10 minutes 22 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 11 minutes 42 seconds
The final day in the Pyrenees, even with the Aspin, Tourmalet and the Aubisque, didn’t change the top of the standings. The lions had to digest their kill.
The stage 17 time trial showed that van Impe was a more rounded rider than one might expect. Ferdi Bracke won it but van Impe was able to beat Zoetemelk by more than a minute. That put Zoetemelk 4½ minutes behind the Belgian climber with only one more chance to take the Tour leadership, the stage 20 climb to the top of Puy de Dôme. Zoetemelk won the stage, beating van Impe by an unimportant 12 seconds. Impressive, but to no real effect. That moment of careful, conservative calculation on the road to St.-Lary-Soulan cost him the Tour. Zoetemelk was the better climber that year, but van Impe had the tactical genius of Guimard to give him the needed push.
Thévenet had been losing time and at stage 19 he finally abandoned, weakened by hepatitis.
Lucien van Impe won the Tour, beating Zoetemelk by 4 minutes, 14 seconds. It was his only Tour victory and he remains the last Belgian to win the Tour. To this day, he is troubled by Guimard’s remarks that van Impe would not have won the Tour without his encouragement and threats. Van Impe says that Guimard talked to him as if he were a child, and after the 1976 season, van Impe changed teams.
Freddy Maertens won 8 stages in the 1976 tour, equaling the record set by Charles Pélissier in 1930 and Merckx in 1970 and 1974.
And Raymond Poulidor? He finished third, 12 minutes, 8 seconds behind winner van Impe. This was the fourteenth and final Tour de France for the 40-year old Poulidor. He abandoned only twice and finished with 3 second and 5 third places. In all those years of riding the Tour from 1961 to 1976 he never spent a single day in Yellow, not one. Poulidor’s 8 times on the podium is a record. Zoetemelk, Hinault, Ullrich and Armstrong each accumulated 7, and Anquetil, Merckx and Garrigou 6.
Celestino Vercelli, riding with G.B. Baronchelli, Walter Riccomi and Wladimiro Panizza on the SCIC-Fiat team, talked to us about the 1976 Tour: “This was the year the Cannibal Eddy Merckx stayed home. This Tour was won by van Impe. Every stage of this Tour was very, very hard. Just to get an idea of the difficulties we faced, in Bordeaux, in incredibly hot weather, we raced 3 stages the same day. In the evening in the hotel (hotel is a big word for the place we stayed), we slept in big rooms together. I was running a high temperature, I was very tired and hot. I don’t have words for that day on the bike.
“When we were riding the Pyrenean stages, the asphalt melted. You can imagine the huge difficulties we faced riding in the mountains in the soft asphalt. In the descent the situation was better with the tires holding the soft road very well. The big problem was the difficulty in removing the asphalt from our legs in the evening.”
Final 1976 Tour de France General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe (Gitane-Campagnolo): 116 hours 22 minutes 23 seconds
2. Joop Zoetemelk (Gan-Mercier) @ 4 minutes 14 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor (Gan-Mercier) @ 12 minutes 8 seconds
4. Raymond Delisle (Peugeot) @ 12 minutes 17 seconds
5. Walter Riccomi (SCIC) @ 12 minutes 39 seconds
1. Giancarlo Bellini: 170 points
2. Lucien van Impe: 169 points
3. Joop Zoetemelk: 119 points
1. Freddy Maertens: 293 points
2. Pierino Gavazzi: 140 points
3. Jacques Esclassan: 128 points
Excerpted from Bill and Carol McGann’s The Story of the Tour de France, Volume II. You can find both volumes here.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
You had to figure that the Canadian manufacturer that was single-handedly responsible for the creation of the aero road bike segment would apply their ultra-high-end manufacturing technology found in their R5 to their aero design. The answer to that un-asked question is both yes and no.
Behold the S5.
The first, most apparent aspect of the bike’s appearance is that it appears to be the sloping top-tube love child of the S3 and P4. And that’s not far off the mark. Though it looks familiar, the S5 required all new molds to be cut. The folks at Cervelo say it’s their most aerodynamic road bike design so far. It’ll save 36.8 seconds over 40k, almost a second per kilometer, 92 grams of drag and 9.2 watts. They are just different ways of saying the bike is purported to give you free speed.
You want something more impressive? It weighs in at 990 grams. The “it” is the frame, fork, paint and derailleur hangers. That’s sub-kilo for frame and fork. But they say it’s not a noodle; they claim testing show it is 12 percent stiffer than the S3. They didn’t happen to mention if that was in torsion or in the vertical plane.
So what’s it handle like? The bike features the same geometry and sizing found in the R3. That’s six sizes with handling proven to work in the world’s most challenging races. Special steps were taken in the design to accommodate items like water bottles and brakes into the aerodynamics, eliminating the need for proprietary brakes or water bottles.
Naturally, this bike won’t be cheap, or widely available, but it won’t be quite as expensive as the R5. The S5 with Dura-Ace Di2 will go for $9000; with SRAM Red it’ll be $7500; with Ultegra Di2 it’ll be $6000 and with regular Ultegra it’ll be $4800. I’m looking forward to a chance to actually ride one. I’m hearing it’s not supposed to be harsh the way the SLC-SL was; I’m curious to see if they succeeded. It’ll be quite a victory if they did.
For all the talk of Eurobike vs. Interbike for the place to introduce cool products, let’s face it—many of the coolest new products that enter the world during a given year do so at the world’s greatest annual sporting event: le Tour.
I just got a heads-up on a new bike coming down the pike. I’m sure it’ll be in bike shops by the time there’s too much snow on the ground for most of you to ride. Sorry ’bout that, but it’s not our call.
The subject of the photo above is from the outside of the drive-side chainstay of what I’m told will be Alberto Contador’s primary bike at this year’s Tour de France. Before you come to the conclusion that Contador will be riding a McLaren Venge at the Tour, I think we’re being told something different.
[UPDATE] I just received confirmation from Specialized that the above shot is, in fact, a Tarmac SL4 built for Specialized by McLaren.
Contador has elected to ride the lightest equipment he can generally choose within the confines of sponsorship. He chose to ride Zipp 202s at the Giro even though they had other wheels that were not significantly heavier yet were stunningly more aerodynamic. He’s not going to ride a Venge most days.
Specialized updates one of its road bikes every year. Last year they introduced the Roubaix SL3, meaning this is a year for an update to the Tarmac. We’ll see a Tarmac SL4 at the trade shows. I believe this shot is of what will be a very limited production of McLaren-produced Tarmac SL4s. If you’re wondering just how different a standard Tarmac SL4 could be from a McLaren one, consider this: A standard Venge frame requires about 6 hours to produce. Its layup schedule, that is, the manual with all the instructions on which pieces of carbon go where, is 60 pages, a whopper by most standards. The McLaren Venge, by comparison, takes 20 hours to produce and requires a 140-page manual.
That’s why the McLaren bike runs $20k.
As layup schedules get more complicated a bike can do more things. Because material placement and orientation is everything in carbon fiber, these ultra-complicated layup schedules result in bikes that can be both more stiff in torsion and—yes, I promise—more compliant vertically. It requires the techs to vary the orientation of layers by 45 degrees when maybe the layers might all be oriented the same direction, that sort of thing. It’s unlikely the McLaren bike differs much in weight from what we’ll soon call the standard Tarmac SL4, but I anticipate it could feel more responsive and more comfortable. It may also be stronger in crashes.
I’m riding a Tarmac SL3 right now, and it’s hard for me to imagine this bike being improved upon by a significant degree. That’s probably why I’m not a product manager; I’d have called it a day after this thing.
We’ll learn more about the new Tarmac SL4 soon. So far, what I’ve been told is that the bike has received an upgrade to the layup, what is being called FACT 11R. The head tube has been changed some as well; we’re told to improve torsional stiffness while increasing vertical compliance. They claim it is lighter as well. They’ve actually reduced the diameter of the head tube; the lower bearing is only 1 3/8″ now. The bottom bracket has been integrated with the chainstays for a stronger, lighter one-piece construction. Other features include hollow carbon dropouts, internal cable routing and more widely spaced seatstays for improved lateral stiffness.
I think I swallowed an entire phylum of insects rushing through the dusky, summer woods. Without a light (or a water bottle) I had no reason to be there really, so I accepted the protein-rich snack and the pinging of a million little, flying nothings off my arms and face, and rushed onwards down the path.
It might have been a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fire flies lit the way. Joggers and slower cyclists flitted in and out of the deepening darkness like a cadre of Shakespeare’s fairies. I cast myself as Puck.
The thing is, I hadn’t planned to ride. It was a long, busy day. We’d only just wrestled the kids into bed and cleaned the kitchen. And then that feeling took root somewhere in my guts, that restless sort of feeling that finds you pulling on a pair of bib shorts and cinching the velcro on your road shoes.
My wife looked at me askance as I headed for the garage. “It’s getting dark,” her eyes said. But this happens sometimes, and she’s used to it.
Earlier in the day it had struck me that I haven’t been thinking about bicycles so much lately. I detoured briefly into trail running to tune up for a race I had no real business running, and that took me out of the saddle. Once out of the saddle, once the pedals stop turning over, my mind stops turning over, or turns to other things anyway. Thus the restlessness.
It is fortunate for me, that any ride departing from my house begins with a blast down the steepest hill in town. It clears all superfluous thought from the docket, gets you focused, gets you ready to go fast. So that’s what I did, I shot down the hill, zigged, then zagged and put myself on the longest bike path in the metro area, headed out of town.
Because I’ve been out of the saddle so much, I have rested legs, which are sometimes good. Right away, I maxed out my big ring and sprinted into the thickening air. A layer of moisture materialized on my forearms, part sweat, part humidity. Sprinting felt good, so I sprinted some more, up out of the saddle, head down, bike rocking beneath me. Then I was down again, turning over my biggest gear until the cadence started to drop, then up and out, accelerating. Over and over.
Because real darkness was coming and this path has an end, I found myself racing against the clock, down in the drops, my back flat, knees churning. The brief passages where the path left the woods to cross a road told me that there might just be enough light left to make the end and turn around before my decision to leave the light at home turned to cavalier stupidity.
Sometimes my whole life seems like a race against stupidity.
I went back to sprinting. Some would call what I was doing intervals, but intervals sound like something you do intentionally, with a stop watch and a good reason for doing them. So that’s not what I was doing.
Near the turn around I passed a couple of cyclists with good, bright lights going the other way. I resolved to tag the end of the path and then fly back to ride their wheels (and lights) home.
They were too slow. I caught them too quickly. They were just trying to get somewhere, slowly, together, eventually.
So I dove back into the darkness and worked my way through the cassette, and soon I was at top speed again. More fire flies. Occasionally a bat.
The light was ebbing quickly, so I turned out and off the path to join the flow of cars heading back toward the city. Coming from that pure and peaceful place in the woods, the transition was a little nauseating at first. Like stepping out of an alpine tent onto the floor of a Vegas casino.
Soon though, I was sprinting against my own shadow from street light to street light, him darting ahead in each pool of brightness, me pulling clear in the in-betweens. If’ I’d had wings, I’d have been airborne. If there is such a place as nirvana, I think I could see it from my saddle. Only the potholes were jarring me loose from pure happiness.
By the time I reached the foot of my hill, I was sweating hard enough that my hands were having trouble keeping hold of the hoods. Should have worn gloves, I guess.
All full of piss and vinegar like that, I big ringed the hill, standing to sprint at every intersection, gasping for air but strong in my legs still. I sat up and rode no-hands down my street, letting the air play over my sweaty face and forearms. And then the garage door opener growled to life and let me back into the house. I stripped down in the basement, by the washing machine, and let the coolness dry me off.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Much of what informs my personal sense of cycling aesthetics comes from what I see the PROs do. I’m not perfect in my adherence—I won’t ride a 53cm frame with a 14cm stem no matter how much weight it will allow me to put on the front wheel—but watching what the big boys do has changed me as a cyclist, there’s no doubt.
However, there remains an element of my idealized image of a cyclist that comes not from the PROs, but of the amateurs who guided me when I wasn’t even good enough to be a Cat. IV. The touches were small but uniform in consistency. All the guys who schooled me four days a week had a tubular strapped under their saddle with a Christophe toe strap. They all had the original Avocet cycle computer with the wire wrapped perfectly around the front brake cable before zip tying the wire down the back of the fork blade with three (not four, not two) zip ties.
Those touches were all S.O.P. But the one that really got me, the one you couldn’t just decide to emulate one Saturday afternoon (because it required planning ahead by months and months), was the frame pump. Now anyone can go out and purchase a frame pump (and certainly the Zéfal HP was the most mechanically sound frame pump ever made), but to do the frame pump correctly, you had to do two things. First, you had to order a frame that actually had a pump peg brazed to the back of the head tube. Second, you had to order a Silca frame pump and it had to be painted with your frame when you purchased it. There were some builders, such as Medici, that would do matching frame pumps for their frames and even offered frame pumps painted to match fades. My friend Jimmy, who worked at a vegetarian market/restaurant called the Squash Blossom had a green and yellow fade Medici that was to me the absolute epitome of journeyman self-sufficiency.
With its matching yellow to green fade Silca frame pump and Campy head (the Silca heads were shit; I know), Jimmy’s bike was so straightforward in execution it couldn’t be defeated by circumstances. Unless he got run over by some redneck’s pickup (and that was always a chance on the country roads outside of Memphis), he could flat and he needed only two items to get home. With his 36-hole Ambrosio rims laced to Campy Nuovo Record hubs via 14-gauge DT spokes, he was never going to suffer a broken spoke or a rim knocked so far out of true from hitting a dead ex-mammal that a wheel wouldn’t be rideable.
The irony of this journeyman cool, the style of the lifer amateur, was that in training races—which constituted anything you either rode to or didn’t include a trophy presentation on an actual podium—the guys I looked up to wouldn’t bother to pull off the frame pump or tubular. They’d add another toe strap to make sure the frame pump wouldn’t come off, but as some of these races didn’t include much in the way of neutral support, they would roll out as if it was just another group ride.
That nonchalance came from a place I learned to revere. They were casual not because they were cool, but because humility permitted nothing like pride. The student of cycling knows that speed isn’t made in a single day, but after months of repetition.
Last week we made a raft of preposterous predictions for the upcoming Grand Boucle in France. It was fun. But as the actual race approached we ought to probably settle in and start the very, extremely serious work of predicting and arguing over what will really happen.
To begin with, it seems we are on the verge of watching Alberto Contador complete the Giro/Tour double, a feat last performed by Marco Pantani, likely while riding with blood thicker than Jell-O. Contador has been so dominant this year, and over the last three years, that he, like Armstrong before him, will be the pre-ordained GC favorite.
What we need to do is figure out who really has a shot at beating him. You will recall Chaingate last year, the incident in which Andy Schleck’s mechanical opened the door to 39 seconds of breathing room for the mercurial Spaniard. Though a crappy time trialist, Schleck appears to be the only one able to climb with Contador.
Cadel Evans is another possibility. He of the ever-improving public image has raced very well over the last two seasons, and might well have been in yellow in Paris last year if it hadn’t been for a broken elbow suffered at the end of the first week. Evans can climb (if in a muscular style not at all like his bird-like competition), and he can time trial. Is it possible?
VeloNews (if you’ve read their Tour preview edition) seems to believe that the RadioShack cycling team have more than one GC contender from the group comprised of Leipheimer, Klöden, Brajkovic and Horner. I believe they have none, but who am I?
More credible, in my mind, is Ivan Basso. Like Schleck, the Italian can climb with the very best, but his time trialing is poor. What Basso has going for him is a strong TTT that might help him bank some time against Contador and the rest.
Then, of course, there’s a whole cadre of talented hopefuls: Fränk Schleck, the Leopard-Trek counterpunch who we’ve seen win big races and will certainly get his brother’s support if it comes to that; Robert Gesink, the willowy, Dutch climber; Roman Kreuziger, Astana’s new hope; Christian Vande Velde who has the talent and the team, but will his health hold?; Ryder Hesjedal, last year’s Garmin surprise; Brad Wiggins, who I was ready to write off until he won the Dauphiné; and Juergen van den Broek, the Omega Pharma – Lotto man.
Some one of that group is going to have a great race. Will it be great enough?
What do you think? Who can beat Contador? How will they do it? Why is it their time?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Here’s the part of this bike’s geometry that is surprising: The combination of a 72.5-degree head tube angle and 4cm fork rake results in an astonishing amount of trail—6.53cm. That’s more than some of the most sluggish bikes I’ve ever ridden. It may be that what kept this bike handling with the crisp precision of a Swiss timepiece was that long head tube and relatively high bar position. The retailer from whom I picked up this demo thought that at my height (5-feet 11-inches) I ought to be on a 53cm frame. Aside from the fact that I’d never be able to sit up enough to get up a hill, there was that tiny problem of the pinched nerve and the unavoidable problem of having so much weight on the front wheel that the bike would only turn under duress. Yes, I tried it in the parking lot and the suggestion that a guy my height would ride a bike that small was, well, laughable.
Speaking of sizes, the Race and Team Machine are both available in six sizes. Top tube lengths are 52, 53.5, 55, 56, 57.5 and 59cm. Every one of the bikes features a 73.5-degree seat tube angle and 40.2cm-long chainstays. The bike with the 52cm top tube has a 70.5-degree head tube angle and the 53.5cm top tube has a 72-degree head tube angle. All other frames share an identical 72.5-degree head tube angle.
That the same head tube angle, seat tube angle and chainstay length runs through most, if not all, frames tells you a couple of things. First, it tells you that BMC saved money in tooling by not cutting as many molds. But because (to the best of my knowledge) every frame uses an identical 40mm-rake fork, four of the sizes enjoy identical steering geometry. The 53.5cm top-tube bike is close. Only the 52cm-frame falls significantly outside that geometry; it’s got so much trail that unless it’s spec’d with a 50mm-rake fork it’ll need a tugboat to turn.
While these similarities help unify the handling across most of the sizes, there is a liability to this approach. In the smallest frame a 73.5-degree seat tube angle may not be steep enough for some riders and in the biggest size that seat tube angle may be way too steep for some riders. The challenge here is that with a proprietary seatpost, you don’t have the flexibility to order an aftermarket seatpost with either no or 4cm of setback. I can envision some very disappointing fitting sessions if someone didn’t do their homework ahead of time. Details like this make the new Retül Frame Finder an indispensable fitting tool.
BMC touts several technologies in the Race and Team Machine models. First is the TCC or Tuned Compliance Concept. With the TCC the fork, seatstays and seatpost feature specific layup and material selection to allow for a certain amount of vertical compliance. I really need more miles on the Team Machine to see how much they vary between the two models, but having been on bikes that excessively stiff vertically, I can say that it is possible to make a bike that is less comfortable than the Race Machine—it really could be stiffer vertically, and I’m glad it’s not.
The ISC or Integrated Skeleton Concept is the design element that leads to the little strut that runs from the top tube to the seat tube just below the seat tube junction. It’s meant to spread impact forces, but honestly, I’m not sure what impact forces the marketing copy refers to and given that no other bike company has gone this route, I’m suspicious of the benefits it confers.
Two other design details contribute to the bike’s performance-oriented stiffness. First, the bottom bracket uses a BB30 design to all but eliminate twisting forces at the BB. Second, the fork features a tapered steerer to increase stiffness at the head tube and crown. The tapered fork is one of those innovations that came from a single company (Time) that nearly everyone has adopted. That’s how you know an idea is good. When I go back and ride my old Seven Cycles Axiom I immediately register the difference in torsional stiffness; that bike uses a 1-inch fork, and while it doesn’t feel like a noodle, the increase in stiffness when I move to another bike is unmistakable. I might not be able to quantify the difference, but that doesn’t make the perception subjective. Similarly, I can recognize features of my wife’s face in my son’s face, but I’ll never mix the two up.
With its particular constellation of features—consummate stiffness, relaxed handling and low, but not excessively low, weight—this bike is a great choice for a huge number of riders. Its handling is more aggressive than grand touring bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, but isn’t as sharp as more race-specific rides such as the Giant TCR Advanced. It’s going to serve well for someone doing group rides and gran fondos and if you want to jump in a crit from time to time, it’ll corner effectively. With two bikes so similar in design, I’m inclined to recommend the Team Machine to lighter riders while encouraging guys 165 lbs. and up to go with the Race Machine.
I’d love to get some more time on the Team Machine in order to help differentiate the two bikes further. I’ve never encountered a web site that did less to identify the differences between two similar bikes than BMC has done. I went as far as watching some videos produced of the bikes, one theoretically meant to tout the bikes’ stiffness and another that fancied itself a report on the bikes’ low weight. The two videos were identical between the two models and nearly identical to each other. Making matters worse was the fact that the only sound was a bit of sound effect; there was no voice-over.
There’s no doubt the Race Machine is a terrific bike. Honestly, my greatest criticism is their marketing copy. They’ve done so little to differentiate it from the Team Machine, the only way I can recommend one over the other is by rider weight, and I doubt that’s what they had in mind.