If the Tour de France were raced on ergometers then Brad Wiggins would already have done enough to be declared the winner. His stage victory on Monday in the Besançon time trial over his own Sky teammate Chris Froome, with defending champion Cadel Evans 1:43 adrift, was so dominant that a power expert would tell you it’s mathematically impossible for Wiggins to lose this Tour. If he repeats the pace he rode on Monday at the second long time trial awaiting them on the final weekend, he could gain another two minutes on Evans, which means the BMC racing leader has to gain some four minutes on the remaining mountain stages, not just two minutes as has been written. And given the fact that Evans gained no time on Wiggins in the two climbing stage so far, his current handicap is impossible to overcome. On paper, at least.
Thankfully, much of the Tour is raced on French back roads over terrain that can throw out unexpected obstacles, and in weather that can suddenly change from benign to belligerent. When Spanish rider Luis Ocaña jumped to a GC lead of 9:46 in the Alps over the great Eddy Merckx midway through the 1971 Tour, nearly everyone said the race was over. But Merckx fought like crazy, took back almost two minutes on a marathon 250-kilometer-long breakaway with his teammates on a flat stage to Marseille, and then beat Ocaña by 11 seconds in a subsequent time trial at Albi.
Merckx went into the Pyrénées still 7:23 behind his Spanish rival and knew he had to attack on every mountain stage if he were to catch Ocaña. On the first of those stages, the Cannibal descended the steep and winding Col de Menté like a hand-guided missile in a dramatic thunderstorm on road awash with gravel. Ocaña slid out on a switchback and as he stood up, another rider banged into him and sent him flying. Ocaña was airlifted to the hospital, and Merckx cruised the remaining week to his third consecutive yellow-jersey victory.
With a week to go in the 1987 Tour, strong French time trialist Jean-François Bernard won the uphill TT to the summit of Mont Ventoux and took a 2:34 overall lead over runner-up Stephen Roche (that gap compares with the 1:53 that Wiggins holds over Evans today). People, particularly the French, said the Tour was over and Bernard would win. But the next day, teams with leaders immediately behind Bernard on GC used brilliant tactics to make a joint attack on a semi-mountain stage. Bernard and his teammates chased for a couple of hours, holding a one-minute gap before cracking under the pressure. Bernard lost 4:18 that day and never wore yellow again.
I’m not saying Wiggins and his Team Sky henchman will crack or crash and that Evans will win this Tour, because things may well go another way. We all remember 1992. Even Wiggins. The Brit was then age 12, already bike crazy, and watching the Tour on TV. Talking after Monday’s time-trial win, the first Tour stage victory of his career, Wiggins said, “I remember seeing Induráin do this in Luxembourg in 1992. And I just did something like that.”
Yes, on stage 9 of the 1992 Tour (Wiggins’s win on Monday was also on stage 9), in a 65-kilometer circuit time trial at Luxembourg, Miguel Induráin beat his nearest rivals by more than three minutes. And though he was challenged in a monster break through the Alps by Claudio Chiappucci, the Spaniard cruised in the Pyrénées to finish in Paris 4:35 ahead of Chiappucci. Maybe Wiggins will do something similar. But it’s far from guaranteed.
In a response to a question about defending the yellow jersey through to Paris, Wiggins said Monday, “I’m only human, not a monster, and I might have a bad day … and Cadel is not going to give up.” Merckx didn’t give up in 1971. Roche didn’t give up in ’87. And Evans won’t give up in ’12.
For more of John’s work covering the Tour, drop by pelotonmagazine.com.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Of all the technological endeavors within cycling, the research and development being poured into new wheel designs has been run on more CFD software, used more wind tunnel time has attracted more talent than any other. So why are wheels such a hot area of interest? Well the simple answer is that no other component on the bike has realized aerodynamic gains as readily as wheels. Of all the component on a bike, no other has the capacity for gains that wheels do. Carbon fiber gives engineers a palette limited only by imagination and Asian manufacturing is plentiful enough that one can find a ready and willing partner for manufacturing.
But making a great set of wheels is more than just carbon fiber and aerodynamics. There are hubs to consider, spokes, lacing and even tension. Get any one of these wrong and your wheels will need attention after each and every ride. It’s not enough to be serviceable; a good wheel must be able to be ridden day after day without need for attention. Reliability, then, can be said to be of equal importance to all other considerations.
I’ve ridden close to a dozen different wheel sets in the last year. The single most recurring issue I’ve experienced are wheels that don’t stay true. If I can go through the first three rides on a set of wheels without needing to touch them up, I’m amazed. Now, that might seem like a high bar to pass, but I learned 20 years ago that a wheel brought into true under very low tension and then gradually brought up to tension is much more likely to stay true because of even tension on the spokes. Unequal tension on spokes is the killer, and all you need to do to test for tension on spokes is to tap each of the spokes with a screwdriver—a fancy tensiometer is not required. If you hear the same ting, ting, ting, ting as you tap each spoke, the tension is consistent. Wheels that were brought up to tension before they were perfectly true (both laterally and vertically) will ting, tang, tong—you get the picture. Pitch has a direct relationship to tension. Now, back to that need to touch up a set of wheels: If a set of wheels is brought into true at low tension, and then gradually brought up to tension, the wheels won’t go through that equalization period that often sees wheels move a bit once they are ridden. They’ll be as true following ten rides as they are following one.
Fundamentally, this is an argument for hand-built wheels.
Which is what brings us to Wheelbuilder. Based here in Southern California, Wheelbuilder gives you all the selection you might ever hope for with your local bike shop, the in-stock levels only available with the Internet and the skill of a crew of guys who do nothing but build wheels all day. Of course, they are an Internet retailer which carries a certain pejorative, but the knock against online merchants was always that they undercut the prices of local bike shops. Wheelbuilder’s business model is pretty different. You pick the rim, the spokes and the hubs, plus any other accessories you might need and then they build the wheels to your specs and ship them to you; start-to-finish, the process can takes days depending on the shipping option you choose. If choosing what kind of spokes and nipples is a bit more Commander Data than you want to go, it’s easy enough to call them for some guidance.
The wheels I rode were Enve 3.4 tubular rims laced to a PowerTap rear hub and a Chris King front hub. They glued up a set of Vittoria CX tubulars, so out of the box, all I had to do was install a cassette and skewers and I was ready to go. According to Wheelbuilder’s wheel-weight calculator, these things were a remarkable 1565 grams. That’s a pretty stunning weight considering there is a PowerTap hub, and it isn’t even CycleOps lightest model. As I like to say, neat trick.
Enve’s SES rims were designed in conjunction with Simon Smart, an aerodynamicist known for his work in Formula 1, and having designed Giant’s Trinity and Scott’s Foil. To the degree that any aerodynamicist might be a household name to a bunch of skinny guys with odd tan lines, Smart’s is it. Enve is emphatic that while their SES (Smart Enve System) rims were introduced shortly after Zipp’s Firecrest design was unveiled, they are not a copycat design. Like Firecrest, they are wide and feature a rounded design that comes from treating the spoke bed as a second leading edge, rather than as a trailing edge. As proof, in our meeting at PressCamp Enve’s Jason Schiers pointed out that rim development takes longer than the scant months that passed between the debuts of Firecrest and SES. Unlike Firecrest, SES rims are front- and rear-specific. In the case of the 3.4s the front rim is 35mm deep while the rear is 45mm deep (hence the 3.4 name). The front rim has an outer width of 26mm, while the rear was 24mm wide.
Schiers stressed that there was another important difference between SES and Firecrest. It’s their opinion that Firecrest can be a bit unpredictable in handling in crosswinds. Their desire was to have a wheel that responded to crosswinds in a very predictable and progressive fashion. So while a front 3.4 rim experiences more steering input in a crosswind than a box rim, it’s still not as much as a traditional deep-section wheel.
There’s another aspect of tension that has a bearing on wheel longevity. High tension is important because it prevents rider/bike weight from cycling spoke tension down to zero when the spoke passes the 6 o’clock position. That’s where a spoke’s tension is lowest and if a spoke is de-tensioned sufficiently (it doesn’t have to be all the way to zero), the nipple will begin to loosen. This bad. A wheel built with high tension prevents this from happening. But high tension is no panacea. It comes with its own set of problems. The wheel builder in question must be skilled and a wheel built with high tension has an even greater need for uniformity of tension because problems with high tension cause more noticeable problems. Overdo tension and you can break rims and nipples, or just shorten their lifespan to less than a season.
What I’ve been leading up to is that these wheels I received from Wheelbuilder were possibly the best-built set of wheels I’ve encountered in the last several years. I don’t have six months of riding on them (less than two months, in fact), so I don’t have the ability to report on long(er)-term durability, but I can say that the day I packed them up to go back, I spun each wheel on my truing stand and they were every bit as true as when I received them. I wish that was the case for more wheels I ride.
If ever I had doubted Zipp’s claims about Firecrest, the 3.4 rims would have put those doubts down like a lame horse. They were remarkably stable in crosswinds, and like the 303s felt more like a box rim in windy conditions than deep section wheels. I most liked these wheels on hilly rides, when having a light rim is helpful for accelerating the wheel following steep ramps on a climb. We’ve got a lot of climbs near me that don’t do Colorado-style consistent 5 percent grades. No, around here you’ll have a good 8 percent section followed by 100 feet of 13 percent and then a few hundred meters of 6 percent. Being able to accelerate once the pitch goes down is as important as eating while you’re on the bike.
Most of all, these wheels are fast. It was on descents that the extra speed was most apparent. Because an aerodynamic wheelset’s advantage increases as your speed increases, I noticed that on descents I was often entering turns with higher-than-anticipated speed. I braked on a few turns that I don’t normal tap the stoppers on. They were also really helpful on group rides any time I needed to stick my nose in the wind.
I took these wheels down some of Malibu’s home-wrecker descents (there can be hell to pay when someone goes down here) and melted neither rim nor glue. Whew. I’ll add that I was so impressed with the braking performance of the 3.4 rims that I’d really love to ride the carbon clincher version. These rims rival Zipps’ rims for braking consistency and power, so similar are they to traditional aluminum rims.
Now for the shoe to drop. These wheels are, to use a Southernism, “dear.” At $3080, they are more expensive than many good bikes. That’s about all I’ve got to say on the price. If it seems to you like that’s crazy money, well then it probably is. If it just seems like you need to take your sweet one out for the weekend before mentioning you’d like to pick a set of these up, well then bully for you. And if you’re asking the question just who is good enough to deserve these wheels, well then you’re missing the point.
Marketing materials indicate what a company values in telling it’s story. Wheelbuilder spends more time discussing the building of wheels and what goes into a good wheel than anyone else out there, but marketing materials are no substitute for good work. Again, my experience with Wheelbuilder’s build quality is limited, but during the time I had, I was impressed.
After another crazy week that has eliminated several pre-race favorites, the 2012 Tour de France appears to have become the two-rider battle between Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and BMC’s Cadel Evans that many expected it to be.
Or has it?
With men like Vincenzo Nibali, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Andreas Kloden, and Samuel Sanchez positioned near the top of the GC as the race hits the mountains, there are still several men capable of upsetting the apple cart. And with talented teams like Garmin-Sharp, Rabobank, and Europcar gunning for stage wins now, these mountain stages could be faster, more aggressive, and harder for teams like Sky and BMC to control.
In other words, let’s not hand the race to Wiggins and Evans—at least not yet. There’s still room for an upset.
Take Katusha’s Denis Menchov for example. The Russian is actually the most successful grand tour winner in the bunch, having won the Tour of Spain twice and the Tour of Italy once so far in his career. He’s also finished inside the Tour’s top-3 on two occasions. Physically, Menchov should have no problems with the mountains of this year’s Tour de France and he can certainly hold his own in the race’s two long time trials. And with Wiggins and Evans marking one another heavily, Menchov is perfectly poised to add the one grand tour still missing from his palmares.
He’s the perfect dark horse in a race that still contains several of them.
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
For most of us, there comes a point in the season when our riding is more by rote than purpose. The days are long, the sunshine as plentiful as debt, and the rides have the uniformity of a white wall. That cycling can be routine within our lives is both a blessing and a curse for it is within routine that boredom attacks, that even the best elements of our lives can become dreary.
This is the first step toward overtraining.
The only answer is to break the routine, to do something unusual, maybe even something wacky. Longer rides, easier rides, shorter rides, any of those can help, but whimsy, it is within whimsy we can be refreshed and find joy.
Here’s to rides we don’t do, places we don’t go, kits we don’t wear and terrain, whether of geography or mind, terrain to make the world new.
When I launched RKP on July 2, 2009, I was apprehensive. I knew it was the right thing for me to do, but I wasn’t certain that many readers would follow me from Belgium Knee Warmers. I’d been working behind the scenes to develop a logo, design the site, court a few advertisers and start amassing content.
In another, concurrent, life my wife was pregnant with our son, who was born later that month. I look back on that time with a certain amount of amazement, like I wonder what the hell I was thinking trying to do both those things at the same time.
Seemed like a good idea at the time. And the funny thing is, because you’re reading this now, it must have been. I’ve been pretty honest about my goals in the past, but given the events of the last eight months or so, they warrant some repeating, especially as a fair number of you are new(ish) here.
My ambition, modest as it was, was to have the ability to write about cycling without the influence of a publisher or advertisers who think that good editorial can be purchased. I also thought that I could manage to get paid something for this work by selling some advertising to builders and companies who trusted me enough not to interfere with my work. I never thought RKP would be particularly sizable, traffic-wise, so in my mind, the reasonable hope was that it might provide a portion of my income, along with the work I was doing for Road Bike Action and a few others.
Fast forward three years and almost all the work I do is for RKP and peloton magazine, a publication that didn’t even exist when I launched RKP. It’s been a strange turn of events. Stranger still is that RKP is publishing work by John Wilcockson, Charles Pelkey and other talented contributors like Whit Yost. I swear to you, I didn’t see that coming. To have dreamt such a development would have been the height of hubris in my book. It’s worth mentioning that companies that realize new success often forget the people who helped them get there. It means a lot to me that Robot continues to be my most trusted confidant (aside from my wife) and one of the most important voices here at RKP.
Our growth hasn’t been without some ripped jeans. We still haven’t sold a single ad for Pelkey’s live updates; that he shakes the tip jar during his coverage is something I’m actively encouraging. I aim to do right by him (and Patrick O’Grady as well). And our reception by various bike companies is pretty varied. Specialized trusts our work enough to invite us to the rather exclusive intro of their new TT helmet; meanwhile I can’t get Trek to return a phone call (it’s not an uncommon problem, I’m told). I’m not offended, but I hate the appearance that we’re showing Specialized a certain favoritism; I actively want to do content on Trek, and many others. The fact is, you can only date the girls who will actually go to the movies with you.
We’ve gotten a few nods; some public—the Outside mention—some less so. On the way to the airport as I was leaving Press Camp, one of the event’s directors, Chris Zigmont, told me that he doesn’t really think of RKP as a blog, that he views us as a mainstream cycling media outlet. While I maintained that we will remain a blog because we value the interactivity with our readers, I was really gratified by what he said.
So it is that on our third birthday I have to acknowledge that RKP is both exactly what I wanted and something entirely other than I envisioned. I set out to publish a blog that valued quality writing about cycling. We are absolutely that to this day. I just never considered that we’d be bringing you so many stellar voices. That they trust me enough to see their work published here, and that you readers keep coming back, gratifies me every day.
Thanks for reading.
Last year I reviewed the Cervelo R3. I spent three months riding the bike over all my favored terrain and on my usual group rides. When the time came to pack the bike up, I did so with the reluctance of a child heading to his first day of school. For those who missed it, part I is here and part II here. For those who want the bottom line, I can tell you it’s a seriously amazing bike, one of the best I’ve ridden.
But here’s the strange thing about the R3: It’s not Cervelo’s top-drawer stuff. While it compares favorably to bikes like Specialized’s S-Works Tarmac SL3 and even preferable to the Focus Izalco, which I liked a lot, there’s still the R5 to consider. For a while, the R5 was only available as the R5ca, the nearly $10k wonder bike made in California that had been ridden by so few people most of us were left wondering just how good it was. Now there’s an Asian-produced R5VWD (Vroomen White Design) that goes for $4900, half what the R5ca retails for.
Okay, so let’s talk about what differentiates the R5ca from the R5VWD from the R3. They all share tube shapes and geometry. Put another way, the heart of the bikes is the same. They handle the same and offer essentially the same performance characteristics in terms of stiffness. The R5ca and the R5VWD share the same molds, but the R5ca is made by hand here in California while the R5VWD is made in Asia—also by hand. What they don’t share are materials. Well, they share some materials, but not all. The R5ca gets Cervelo’s best-of-the-best materials while the R5VWD receives a mix that’s a little less fussy. While Cervelo wouldn’t go into detail, my previous experience in talking with engineers is that there are varieties of carbon fiber that are super-light and ultra-stiff (not to mention stunningly expensive). They are also wicked-pissa-brittle. They have to be handled carefully and placed just-so in order to result in a useful contribution to a frame.
The R5s both get a one-piece front triangle, but they aren’t quite the same. The R5ca does have an interesting feature to it. The mold to make its one-piece front triangle isn’t exactly the same as the R5VWD. Once the engineers at Cervelo were convinced they’d gotten the geometry right for the R5, they fixed the saddle location and then slackened the seat angle to enable them to achieve the same saddle position while using a lighter zero-setback seatpost. That is why if you look at the geometry chart for the R5ca and the R5VWD, you’ll see they have the same reach, but the R5ca has longer top tubes at each size.
By contrast, the R3 has completely different molds and is made using some less expensive materials than the R5VWD. The R3 has a separate BB that is then bonded and over-wrapped to the seat tube, down tube and chainstays. Laying up a one-piece front triangle is considerably more difficult, especially at the bottom bracket. However, the extra time and work required result in a frame that is just as stiff as the R3 but 10 percent lighter. The R5ca realizes an even greater gain: a 56cm R5ca weighs in at 650g.
Everything else about the R3 and R5VWD is the same: same size run, same geometry. Though not the price. And honestly, the price is the great separator between these bikes. The R3, at $2200 for frame (complete bikes start at $3150) is less than half the cost of the R5VWD. The obvious question is whether the R5VWD is twice the bike. And the answer is … sorta.
The challenge presented by these super bikes (and ultra bikes in the case of the R5ca) is that the gains that are possible over a bike as good as the R3 are really incremental. The difference between a Schwinn Varsity from the 1970s and an R3 might be several orders of magnitude (Varsity < ’70s Colnago < current custom steel < 1kg carbon frame < R3 … roughly). And what I mean by order of magnitude is that you can put a non-cyclist on a 1kg carbon frame—a decent bike by any standard—and they’d be able to appreciate how much nicer the R3 rides. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the difference between the R3 and the R5VWD. To most riders, I think you’ll notice the difference, but it’s not of the mind-blowing difference between hanging out in the garage listening to some neighborhood kids play AC/DC and actually seeing AC/DC live.
So if they are just as stiff torsionally and vertically and have the same geometry, what’s the fuss? That’s easy—less mass. If you look at the R5VWD as the same bike as the R3 but lighter, you’ve missed the real point of this bike. Weight isn’t the reason to buy this bike. In reducing the amount of material in the bike, Cervelo moved an important step closer to the point I keep making in review after review: Less material results in a livelier ride. This point was driven home for me in an unexpected way when I was up in Geyserville in May and we did some rides over rather rough roads. To take the sting out of the combination of stiff bikes rolling on deep-section Easton wheels, we pumped the tires up to only 80 psi. Most bikes I’ve ridden feel pretty dead at such low pressures because the tires soak up so much of what’s happening with the road surface. I was surprised by just how great a sense of the road I continued to have even at the more forgiving pressure.
The R5ca continues to intrigue me. It has a much more minimal finish than the R5VWD, and in my experience, what often makes the biggest difference in feel between bikes in the sub-900g range is paint. If you’re going to take 100g of material off an 850g frame, I’m more interested in dropping the nonstructural paint than I am structural carbon.
I rode this thing like crazy while I had it, even putting a final ride on it the day I had to pack it up and ship it out. Today’s garden variety carbon frame is so much better, performance-wise, than the stuff most of us cut our teeth on, it can be difficult to convey just what a cut above a bike like the R5VWD is. Think back to the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s and how nearly every steel bike of quality (let’s leave out the crap, straight-gauge 4130) out there was made from Columbus, Reynolds or True Temper tubing. It was a good, but exceedingly limited, palette. Today’s builders have far more powerful tools at their disposal. So while the cheapest open-mold Chinese carbon fiber bike found on eBay performs better in a sprint than anything built with Columbus SL, the very best work being done by a company like Cervelo is difficult illustrate. The best analog, or perhaps the easiest analog, is to be found in the automotive world. Few of us have driven a car as nice as a Ferrari. Few of us can afford one as well, but those who have had the experience describe it as unlike more run-of-the-mill sports cars. And that’s where the R5VWD sits. It’s a luxury. You can get an amazing bike for half what this costs. But the bikes we ride aren’t just transportation, they are expressions of passion and when I get on a bike, I want an affair to remember. Trust me when I tell you, I’ll not soon forget this bike.