No matter how many times I do Interbike, every year something unusual, something fresh, something exciting occurs to keep my interest fixed on a location that were circumstances any different, I can assure you I would never consider as the focal point of a long awaited vacation. I am here strictly for work. And while Las Vegas gets weirder with each passing year, that ever-increasing weirdness is a functional corollary to the bike industry itself, not that it’s getting weirder, but that change is ever afoot that each of us arrives with the hope that we’ll see new products destined to make our cycling experiences not so much better, but as thrilling as that first taste of independence how ever many decades ago it occurred.
This year my show started on an unusual note. Rather than host an afternoon ride to experience their products, SRAM invited some members of the media to meet them at the Ventian hotel, next to the Sands Convention Center, and ride out to the Outdoor Demo at Boulder Canyon. What I didn’t recall about the invitation was that we were going to ride the 2012 SRAM Red crank with Quarq power meter and—oh joy—we would ride a predefined section of the bike path to record a roughly five minute effort and then analyze the data recorded. What I found out was something I already knew: I was tired, and the Quarq power meter seems to provide the same level of data as the SRM in a simpler package. The bikes we rode were Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4s with 2012 Red, Zipp 202s and the aforementioned Quarq power meter.
Once at the Outdoor Demo, the very first bike I went to ride was the new Pinarello Dogma, or if not new, then the latest iteration of the Dogma. It’s been a while since I last rode a carbon fiber Pinarello and there’s been a good reason for that. The last carbon Pinarello I rode was not an impressive bike, no matter what Pinarello fans would have you believe. It used excessive amounts of intermediate modulus carbon fiber and as a result, though it was fairly stiff, it was dead as roadkill.
The new Dogma is nothing like that. I’d heard a few good reports on the bike, but remained suspicious; I wanted to find out for myself, doubting Thomas that I am. The very first thing I noticed was that in picking up the 9000 Dura-Ace-equipped bike it was a noticeably light bicycle, in the 14 to 14.5-lb. range. Upon rolling out I discovered a bike that offered excellent road feedback and precise handling. Telling you the bike was stiff doesn’t say much; what I’ll tell you is that this bike has gained a tremendous amount of stiffness. It’s stiffer than any of the open-mold bikes I’ve ridden as well as most everything else I’ve ridden coming out of Europe.
Regarding the new Shimano Dura-Ace 9000, I can say that I’m really blown away. While I definitely need more time with the brakes, I can say that the issues I had with both front and rear shifting have been solved. That said, Shimano has gone back to a trimmed front derailleur, with both big and little ring trim. Shift force for both front and rear is ridiculously light. The brakes seem to offer better modulation than the previous version, which was my big complaint—great power, but not enough modulation.
A couple of weeks ago I rode with Specialized’s road product manager, a guy named Brent Graves, who is a real industry veteran. Graves summed up the new group by saying, “It’ll give mechanical groups another five years of live.” I have to agree, though nothing will make me like the look of that crank. Even so, I can’t wait until I have the opportunity to get on a group longer-term.
Next on my list was the new Kestrel. The first name in monocoque carbon fiber bikes has struggled as a brand for some years. Good product has never really been the issue, getting the message out has. When I heard that the new Legend had a frame weight of 780 grams and was using some sophisticated construction techniques, including inner molds to improve compaction.
I went out for a ride with Steve Fairchild who led the design of this bike, RKP contributor J.P. Partland and mountain bike legend Joe Breeze. ASI, the parent company for Fuji and Kestrel is also the parent for Breeze’s Breezer bikes, hence the connection there. Fairchild revealed that he wasn’t concerned with making the stiffest bike on the planet. He’s long had a reputation from his work with Fuji, Jamis and now Kestrel for designing bikes that felt good to ride (read: not overly stiff) and handled with enough certainty to inspire confidence in the rider.
The Legend is the first sub-800g frame I’ve ridden that wasn’t designed with crazy amounts of stiffness. It’s a gentler bike and if Kestrel can get dealers to carry them and generate enough press and a big enough marketing effort, this bike could be fantastically popular. My take is that it’s a great alternative to “comfort” road bikes like the Specialized Roubaix. As opposed to making a crazy stiff bike and trying to quash vibration, the Legend lets the vibration move through the bike to inform your sense of the road surface, but in offering some flex, increases a rider’s comfort for the big hits like bumps, manhole covers, driveway ramps and such.
My final bike of the day was yet another Pinarello Dogma, but this time equipped with Campagnolo Super Record EPS. Having just come off the Legend which was equipped with Di2, this was my first chance to ride Record EPS on the road and to experience it back to back with Di2. The first, biggest difference between the two systems is that with EPS you definitely have a stronger sense of having just pushed a button. Di2 really lacks a strong tactile component that reassures you you’ve just hit a button. Also, the ability to just hold a button down and either dump gear or downshift straight to the bail gear is perhaps not a matter of jaw-dropping engineering, but it’s a surprising thing to experience. I’d like some more time to ride both groups, but based on this experience, I have to say that I think Di2 may downshift a bit quicker than EPS, but upshifts seem to be just as quick. More significant for me is the tentative approach that I’ve adopted with my own Super Record group has been assuaged by the foolproof front shifting of EPS. Shifts are faster and infinitely more precise.
Tomorrow begins with the Lake Meade ride followed by a frantic attempt to get on a great many bikes I didn’t ride today.
So far we’ve covered Men of the Hour and Up-and-Comers as part of our 2012 Season Preview; now it’s time for a list of the riders and teams who find themselves “on the hot seat” heading into the 2012 season.
Andy Schleck—It’s rarely a good thing when you’re being compared to Joop Zoetemelk. But that’s just the awkward place in which Radio Shack-Nissan’s Andy Schleck finds himself heading into the 2012 season. Schleck has now finished as runner-up at the Tour de France four times*. The good news: Contador’s not racing and Schleck will find himself leading a stronger squad with nine-time Tour de France winning DS Johan Bruyneel driving the team car. The bad news: he’s running out of excuses. And with a 2012 Tour route that emphasizes time trialing over climbing, Schleck could soon find himself one race away from equaling Zoetemelk’s record of six second-place finishes. Then again, even Joop won the race once.
(*Andy’s not counting 2010 as a victory, and neither am I.)
Janez Brajkovic—Two seasons ago Slovenia’s Janez Brajkovic won the Criterium du Dauphiné for Team RadioShack with an impressive mix of climbing and time trialing; at the time he looked to be Johan Bruyneel’s next grand tour champion. But cycling’s a cruel sport and a year later Brajkovic found himself lying on the side of the road during Stage 5 of the 2011 Tour de France; his injuries sent him home less than a week into the Tour. The 28-year-old now rides for Astana, a squad that will welcome another GC contender to ride alongside Roman Kreuziger. Assuming Kreuziger targets the 2012 Giro d’Italia (a race in which he finished sixth last year), Brajkovic might find little stands between him and another chance at Tour leadership.
BMC—Earlier I included BMC on my list of Men of the Hour—and they deserve the distinction. But they also find themselves on the Hot Seat—here’s why:
- Philippe Gilbert, Cadel Evans, and Thor Hushovd will draw intense scrutiny after their 2011 exploits. The only feat more impressive than Gilbert’s 2011 season would be repeating the feat in 2012. As for Evans, he’ll soon find that winning a Tour is one thing, while defending the title is an entirely different proposition (just ask Carlos Sastre and history’s other 1-time winners). And Thor? Well, he did a quite bit of talking in 2011 about how unhappy he was at Garmin-Cervelo. Now he gets to show us what he can do while riding for a team where he feels his “leadership” is safe and secure.
- America’s great young hopes—Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen—need to show some progression in 2012. Phinney needs to turn his lessons from 2011 into results in 2012 while Van Garderen needs to win a week-long stage race—Paris-Nice would be a fantastic start.
- Aging and former stars such as George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan will fight to stay relevant just within their own squad. I’m still holding out hope that Thor’s arrival will give Hincapie the leash he needs to win Roubaix. As for Ballan, his continued presence on the roster surprises me considering his lack of results and the continued investigation of his role in the Mantova doping case.
- Last, but not least: chemistry. It takes a lot to manage the egos and aspirations of a professional cycling team, let alone a squad with so many high-profile stars. Evans, Gilbert, and Hushovd have all had moments where they appeared unable to play well with others—or at least unable to do so while keeping their mouths shut about it. Jim Ochowicz and the rest of BMC’s management will need to anticipate flare-ups before they happen and work quickly to extinguish problems before they spread.
Mark Cavendish—British rider, British team, World Champion, London Olympics—assuming he makes it through the Tour unscathed, Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish will likely face more Olympic pressure than any rider has ever known. With two stage wins in Qatar, at least he’s off to a good start.
Riders with Names Ending in “-ov”—In particular, I’m thinking of Alexandre Vinokourov, Alexandr Kolobnev, and Denis Menchov. As for Vino, he’s trying to end his career with some measure of respect at Astana, while putting behind him the “allegations” that he bought the 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege from Alexandr Kolobnev (who’s been provisionally suspended for testing positive for masking agents at the 2011 Tour de France). Denis Menchov made a major career mistake when he transferred from Rabobank to Geox-TMC after a 2010 season that saw him finish third in the Tour de France. Unfortuantely, the supposed skeletons in the closets of Geox’s management meant there would be no Tour de France for the Spanish squad, so Menchov found himself sitting at home in July; he finished 8th in the Giro and 5tht in the Vuelta, but failed to make a major impact in either race. This year he finds himself riding for Katusha and should get another crack at leading a team the Tour. Believe it or not, the parcours suits him quite well, and another podium shot is certainly well within his reach.
Italy—Italians won 102 races in 2011, but few of any import. Worse still, the country’s grand tour riders came up empty after winning the Giro and the Vuelta in 2010. So it should come as no surprise that changes are in store for 2012. First, Liquigas rider Ivan Basso seems to have given-up on his Tour de France dreams; the 34-year-old has instead set his sights on winning his third Giro d’Italia. As for Vincenzo Nibali, the Tour de France was supposed to be his big goal for 2012; he finished 7tht in 2009 and has learned how to win and lose a grand tour in the two seasons since his breakthrough. That said, Nibali hasn’t ruled-out the Giro d’Italia either, an interesting proposition considering his toughest rival might also be his teammate.
In the classics, another poor season for Filippo Pozzato lost him his World Tour ride; he now leads Farnese-Vini, a team whose prospects—and race invitations—seemed to be improving until the charismatic,but frustrating, Italian “star” broke his collarbone. More weeks of training down the drain. Damiano Cunego still seems years away from his former race-winning self and Alessandro Ballan? Well, your guess is as good as mine.
But of all the Italians feeling pressure to perform in 2012, national team coach Paolo Bettini is likely to be feeling it the most. He’ll have two chances to redeem himself in 2012: the Olympics and Worlds. If he can’t do it, look for a change at the helm of the federation’s national squad.
Thomas Voeckler—Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler will be hard-pressed to re-create his Tour de France heroics from 2011. Let’s hope he doesn’t really take his Tour prospects seriously enough to sacrifice his chances in other races, as he’s one of the sport’s most exciting stars.
Monument Race Organizations—Changing the route or the date of a Monument is never a popular decision, but in 2012 we’ll see significant alterations to two of the sport’s oldest and most prestigious races. First off, the organizers of April’s Tour of Flanders have decided that the traditional Muur/Bosberg finale is too…predictable? Easy? Boring? To be honest, I’m not really sure what they were thinking, but if this year’s “new and improved” set of finishing circuits doesn’t lead to a spectacular win for either Philippe Gilbert or Tom Boonen, there will be hell to pay in Oudenaarde.
As for Italy’s “Race of the Falling Leaves”, il Lombardia (a name I’m still getting used to saying), a move to September means the leaves won’t be falling anymore. The UCI is hoping that an earlier date will see more in-form riders contest the late-season event, even if the scenery proves to be a less spectacular. The switch has a better chance of producing a more exciting race than the changes to Flanders do, but the sport’s purists are still shaking their heads.
Campagnolo—With more and more teams choosing Shimano or SRAM for their components, Campagnolo has to be feeling some pressure to remain relevant. Of the 18 teams in this year’s World Tour, only three (Lotto-Belisol, Lampre-ISD, and Movistar) will be riding the Italian groupsets in 2012 (Team Europcar, one of the sport’s better Professional Continental squads, will be racing Campy as well). The company’s new EPS electronic group was beginning to generate a bit of buzz—and then SRAM introduced its new Red grouppo and stole most of the spotlight. Campy’s still relying on decades of cachet to drive sales, but one has to wonder if they can keep up.
Team NetApp—They won one race last year—the time trial at the 2.2 Tour Gallipoli. They barely made a ripple at last year’s Amgen Tour of California—one of the biggest events on their calendar. Now they’re riding the Giro d’Italia? If the Giro had a Super PAC, Net App would have just made a significant donation.
Bjarne Riis—Even with a suspension and the loss of two grand tour titles, Alberto Contador will be just fine. As for Bjarne Riis and Team Saxo Bank-Sunguard? Well, that’s another issue entirely. It seems that Riis is almost always struggling to find new sponsors to help his team survive from one season to the next; now he faces six months without his Spanish star and the possible loss of his team’s World Team license. There were rumors circulating that Stefano Garzelli might sign with Saxo Bank after his Acqua & Sapone squad was not invited to the Giro d’Italia. Given Garzelli’s track record at the Italian grand tour, that might not be a bad option for the Danish general manager.
Who’s on your Hot Seat? Share your comments below.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International