Break Point

Break Point

Years ago I wrote a piece about the unlikelihood of cyclists being able to walk in a bike shop and purchase exactly the same bike that the pros race. I wrote that piece again a few years back. I could write it again today. You can’t do that in F1. You can’t do it in NASCAR. You can’t do it with World SBK (Superbike). You can’t buy the engines, the suspensions—hell, you can’t even buy their tires. You’ll never enjoy the experience that Lewis Hamilton does when he goes to work. And I use the term “enjoy” in a very loose and colloquial sense. I suspect I’d find such an episode as terrifying.

But we play bikes. And we can buy anything out there. Sure, a few companies have made special frames for pros to handle their pedaling forces, but when it comes to a bike that handles the same and is constructed from the same materials, that bike is out there. Often in stock. And special layup aside, the components: the control levers, brakes, wheels, chains—all that stuff is exactly the same. Only in cyclocross can it become difficult to find some of the same tubulars the pros use. The simple fact that they go through so many tires in a grand tour forces the sponsors/manufacturers to stick with traditional production methods just so they can turn out enough tires to supply a diet that recalls the food vacuum cleaner that is an adolescent boy.

Here’s the bizarre part: The point at which what the pros use diverges from what the weekend warrior uses is an issue usually forced by the rigors of competition. You and I can’t handle a car with that much horsepower, that little suspension movement and handling that quick. Put me on a country road in Ayrton Senna’s McLaren Honda and I’d wind up in a farmer’s pasture before I could wind out third. But with bikes, we have two different pursuits driving what is finally a fork in the road for consumer bikes vs. what the pros need/use.

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If you’ve ever gotten a fitting from a first-rate fit pro, then you’ve had the experience of finding out how low you can position yourself and still generate your maximum wattage. Those great Belgian domestiques can adopt yoga poses and still churn 400 watts for hours. Me? Hahaha.

A great many road bikes out there have stack numbers (or head tube length if you prefer) that reflect the fit preferences of fewer than 1 percent of the cycling populace. And remember, actual pro fits don’t just slam that stem, they very often go down one size and then add a 14cm stem.

As a result of those ultra-short head tubes, it’s not uncommon to see riders riding a bike with an upturned stem, sometimes a +6, sometimes a +12. And that’s even after adding several centimeters of spacers.

The good news is that more and more bikes are hitting the market that feature stack figures that are several centimeters longer than previously available, thereby accommodating a broader range of fit for mortals.

The UCI’s dithering on disc brakes—there was supposed to be a second trial of disc brakes in 2016, but that was postponed until some time in 2017—can be summed up thusly: pros aren’t riding the best equipment available. We can argue about whether or not we want disc brakes on our bikes. We can whine about all the wheels we would need to replace. We can debate the best way to address rider safety upon introducing discs to the pro peloton. But what we really can’t do is dispute the superior power and control that disc brakes offer on a road bike.

The strange thing here is that with every other technological development engineers have visited on bikes, pros have put those advantages to competitive use, and we can point to occasions where more gears, better shifting and lighter bikes helped riders win races. Just not with disc brakes. It’s a crazy state of affairs.

So on the eve of another Interbike trade show, I want to take a moment to observe that in cycling we’ve reached a unique point of divergence with pro equipment in that what you can buy at your local dealer is actually superior to what many pros are using, and that’s true even if we don’t mention all the teams that are riding Ultegra and Force.

In every mythology on the planet, the gods had all the fun. But in cycling, it’s better to be a mortal than a god.


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  1. George

    I thought there was a moment there, maybe the 2013 model year, where it seemed the bike industry had effectively co-opted the endurance fit into the majority of their top of line race bikes, leading to all of those down angle stems you saw at the TdF. And it made sense from a marketing standpoint, as the people who are typically buying $5000+ bikes aren’t young and flexible racers, but older people with back issues, I suppose.

    It seemed to shift back after, but I do remember trying to buy a high-end frame in 2013 and being shocked that for a 52, finding a headtube shorter than 145mm was a challenge in anything other than a Tarmac.

    1. winky

      The practical difference between race-fit and comfort-fit seems dramatic to me. Race frames with short head-tubes seem to mostly have slammed (or near slammed) flat stems, while endurance/comfort bikes with tall head tubes often have loads of spacers and priapic, upside-down stems, and yet their riders still never seem to use the drops. There seems little middle ground. I’m likely just imagining this; but it would be interesting to see a surveyed comparison of spacer/stem configurations between (say) Tarmac and Roubaix frames.

      For me, 120mm stems on race-ish geometries seems to be perfect. Stem the right way up, no spacers and moderate stem length fits well.

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