Here are my thoughts on a terrific weekend of racing:
1. After their Belgian victories this past weekend, it’s clear to me that Garmin-Barracuda and Team Sky are two of the best squads in the world—because they understand how to ride as a team.
Heading into the race’s critical phase during Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Garmin sent it’s team to the front, upping the pace and positioning themselves to follow whatever attacks might come. Eventual-winner Sep Vanmarcke was therefore perfectly placed to follow Tom Boonen’s acceleration on the Taaienberg (and to avoid Lars Boom’s somersault).
Sunday, Team Sky kept their fatigued and vomiting world champion out of harm’s way throughout the day, ensuring that he was at or near the front on every climb and safely guiding him through the last 50-kilometers. In the finale, Chris Sutton—the race’s defending champion—and former Ghent-Wevelgem champion Bernhard Eisel escorted Cavendish to the line.
In an era dominated by super-teams, Garmin and Sky appear to have a successful formula—especially Garmin, a team that has achieved much success with surprisingly few superstars on its roster. It was an impressive display and most likely served noticed to the rest of the peloton.
2. On the other hand, Team BMC appears to be lacking chemistry at a critical point it’s season. Thor Hushovd was situated right where he needed to be when Boonen attacked Saturday, only to find himself isolated once the move was established—a situation that went from bad to worse once the Norwegian was dropped on the Paddestraat. For a team with so many superstars, management must have been shaking their heads after such a lackluster showing.
3. As for Thor, it is easy to criticize the former world champion for getting dropped, but one must remember: it’s still early in the season (as Thor himself admitted before the race) and at least he made it there in the first place.
4. And Rabobank’s Matti Breschel? It was great see him back at the front of a major cobbled classic—even if he didn’t stay there for long. Give him a few weeks and he’ll be fine.
5. Speaking of poor positioning, BMC’s Philippe Gilbert attributed his mundane showing (31st) to a lack of fitness and poor peloton placement heading into the Taaienberg. But while Gilbert’s result was a disappointment to his fans, it should help him later in the season. I wonder if Gilbert watched how heavily marked Cancellara was during last year’s classics and is making his best effort to avoid the same thing happening to him this spring—at least in Flanders. (Everyone was marking Gilbert in the Ardennes—clearly it made no difference.) Gilbert’s known for the timing of his efforts. Perhaps he saw no need to show his hand too soon?
6. Back to the winner: Saturday’s victory confirms the promise Vanmarcke showed back in 2010 when the youngster—then riding for Topsport-Vlaanderen—finished second in Ghent-Wevelgem. While I questioned Vanmarcke’s aggressive riding during the race Saturday—especially with Boonen and Flecha both having teammates—I now see the wisdom of his tactics. His acceleration on the Paddestraat disposed of Hushovd and Breschel; a second surge would later drop both Hayman and Devenyns. Not many riders would choose to isolate themselves against Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha, but Vanmarcke was smart to realize that a 1:3 chance is better than a 1:7 chance.
I said before the race that the Omloop tends to announce the arrival of new classics champions. Consider Vanmarcke the best candidate to become Belgium’s next Ronde-Roubaix champion.
7. Vanmarcke’s performance also underscored Tom Boonen’s tactical ineptitude (sorry Tommeke, I want more than ever to see you return to form, but you really blew it Saturday). Yes, Boonen was given the unwelcome title of “pre-race favorite” by many pundits (myself included), but it was certainly not a new position to be in for the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider. And while his sharp attack on the Taaienberg was devastatingly effective (and predictable), his actions in the remaining 59 kilometers were confusing and at some points, head-scratchingly immature.
To me it’s apparent that Boonen suffers in races without radios, as the lack of accurate time splits and information regarding what’s happening behind him probably led him to do more than was necessary to see to it that the break stayed clear. Boonen became a professional at a time when radio use was already more or less widespread among the sport’s best teams. After more than 10 years of riding with them, I’m beginning to wonder if riding without them leaves Boonen feeling insecure and under-informed, hence his bull in a china shop tactics. The last “major” race Boonen won was last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem, a race run with radios.
8. As for Sunday, Cavendish took his third of the season despite battling sickness. The question now turns to whether the Manxman can forge himself into a contender for Belgium’s biggest sprint prize: Ghent-Wevelgem. A new, longer, and hillier course will attempt to thwart him, but given the depth of Team Sky, it’s hard to discount Cav’s chances. What do you think?
9. For the second year in a row in Kuurne, Saur-Sojasun’s Jimmy Engoulvent tried at a late-race move. Next year, he might want to try a different tactic.
10. Last but not least, where was GreenEdge this weekend? After more than a year of hype surrounding the formation of the squad, the men in green and black were conspicuously absent from the first important weekend of the season. The team’s best result was 12th in Kuurne. It all goes to show that it takes more than money to build a successful World Tour squad. Like many team’s before them, GreenEdge might find that their first season is filled with more growing pains than victories.
In other news:
11. Like Garmin and Sky, Liquigas-Cannondale deserves mention in any conversation about the best teams in the sport. The team won its ninth race of the season Sunday, as Eros Capecchi defeated Damiano Cunego and Enrico Battaglin to win the GP Lugano.
12. And speaking of Lugano, Battaglin is a rider I missed when compiling my list of Up-and-Comers a few weeks ago. Keep an eye on him—and look for him to be joining a World Tour squad soon. Maybe he can join Moreno Moser at Liquigas?
13. One final question: Michael Matthews won Rabobank’s first race of the year at the Clasica de Almeria in Spain, but why wasn’t he racing in Belgium? Matthews, Taylor Phinney, and John Degenkolb traded blows as U23’s in 2010—why isn’t the Aussie on the same career trajectory as the other two? He certainly possesses similar talent.
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Image courtesy Slipstream Sports
The years went by, I kept riding my bike, but I still have no hoverboard. Corporations: If the hoverboard is real, please don’t release it. I have kids now, I understand.
Over the years, I’ve followed a number of the technological advances that were supposed to be just around the corner for bikes that excited me almost as much. One of the biggies was electronic shifting. Electronic shifting, from Mavic, really never felt like it was going to take off. Finicky, prone to malfunctions, expensive—when it worked, it was great. When it didn’t, it was a mess. I figured electronic shifting would never hit the mainstream.
Then Shimano Di2 came out. Campagnolo EPS, 10 plus years in the making, was available. With the release of Ultegra Di2, its safe to say electronic shifting has left the realm of just around the corner, and hit mainstream. Sometimes, the advances we think will never come really do become reality.
The other big item I’ve been waiting for is disc brakes on road bikes. You’d think, being a well understood technology, we’d have them by now. With them now legal for cyclocross, it may just be a matter of time—mechanical discs are already making inroads, and while solutions for using hydraulics are a little hokey now, we’ll probably see something available sooner or later. If I keep saying any day now, sooner or later I’ll be right.
One thing I never saw coming was hydraulic rim brakes. I’m trying to decide if they are a technological advance, or just a Mektronic on the path to disc brake Di2. Or EPS—no allegiances here.
Magura’s announcement as a sponsor for Garmin-Barracuda started the rumors flying. Magura confirmed their re-entry in to the road hydraulic market with a hydraulic rim brake, the RT8, initially available as a time-trial only version (RT8TT) mated to the Cervélo P5 time trial frame. In a few months, we’re told, it’ll be available without the Cervélo for both road and TT use. How that’ll work in a world where most people use integrated brake/shift levers remains to be seen. Details are just around the corner, I’m sure.
Before we discuss the merits of Magura’s offering, it’s worth understanding a little about hydraulic brakes. For the dirt-phobic, this may be the closest you’ve come to them, and while it’s unlikely you’ll be seeing Magura’s offering on your group ride any time soon, you’ll probably hear discussion about it.
Hydraulics are pretty simple. A typical hydraulics system of any form is composed of a master cylinder, one or more slave cylinders, incompressible fluid like mineral oil or DOT, and hydraulic cable to connect them. Each cylinder contains a piston. Press the piston in the master cylinder in, the incompressible fluid moves out of the master and in to the slave, and the slave piston extends. Simple. Attach a brake lever to the master cylinder piston, and use the slave cylinder to actuate a brake pad, and you have the makings of a hydraulic brake.
There are two different kinds of hydraulic systems employed in bikes. Most hydraulic discs use the “open” system, where there’s a reservoir attached to the master cylinder to manage fluid fill levels in the system itself. Lots of braking can heat the fluid, causing it to expand and overfill the system. The same excess braking also contributes to pad wear, requiring more fluid in the system. The reservoir takes care of managing these levels.
In a closed system, there’s no reservoir. Just the master cylinder and slave cylinders, and a fixed volume of fluid.
Left by itself, pressing the master cylinder piston in moves the slave piston out, where it will happily stay. The “normal” solution involves using specially shaped gaskets, designed to “twist” along with the piston. When there’s nothing pushing on the master cylinder piston, both pistons will want to retract to their normal positions, giving the behavior you expect from brakes. Springs occasionally augment this sort of system.
The upsides to hydraulic brakes are numerous: low friction, one-finger braking. Great modulation and control. Consistent performance, devoid of changes due to cable stretch or wear. Most of all, they’re powerful—by tweaking the ratios of width and height between the cylinders, a mechanical advantage is achieved—1 pound of pressure at the master cylinder can exert many multiples with a proper design.
The new RT8 brakes are a somewhat unorthodox brake design, if we confine ourselves to the notion of how disc hydraulic brakes work.
Magura has had a rim brake product line for years, targeted at the tandem market. These offerings, and it appears the new RT8 as well, utilize a “closed” hydraulics system. The master cylinder has no reservoir. This isn’t necessarily a problem, assuming environmental conditions stay pretty constant; heat generated by braking shouldn’t feed back in to the slave cylinder the way it might in a disc system, which directly actuates the pad. Pad wear is still something of an unanswered question in the RT8—this could very well be handled at the brake lever by adjusting the travel of the lever blade, or limiting the retraction of the piston.
So is it better?
Magura’s brake should offer stronger, quicker actuation with less effort than a typical brake. Depending on the terrain you ride, this may be a major advantage, or make no difference at all. For the cyclist who finds them selves climbing—and therefore descending—major heights, hand fatigue may be a serious problem. We haven’t seen a road brake lever yet from Magura, however. At the moment, unless you find yourself regularly descending on your time trial bike, this likely isn’t a major problem.
Power isn’t a major issue with modern road brakes. Enhanced modulation may allow a lighter touch ducking in to corners, and that could possibly lead to some speed advantages for the racers among us. Possibly. With situations where the brake selection itself is causing braking problems, then the RT8 might be a major advantage—with some time trial bikes utilizing low-travel lever blades connected to center pull and single pivot designs to smooth cable routing and reduce frontal profile, the uncompromising power of the RT8TT will be a welcome change.
Aerodynamics have been heavily touted for the RT8′s, with Cervélo playing a role in their design. It’s not an advantage afforded to it by being hydraulic, but may shave precious microseconds off times. We’ll have to wait for some testing to confirm this.
The Magura design may have one neat side effect. It hasn’t been discussed, but the closed hydraulic design of the RT8 may allow for multiple master cylinders. In an open system, where the master cylinders have reservoir, having a one master cylinder compress will cause the other’s reservoir to, over time, soak up the excess fluid in the system. In a closed system, so long as there’s no air in the system, there’s no place for the fluid to escape. Bleeding the system would bring new levels of pain to an at times trying process, but in theory, once its set up, it would work fine. I’m certainly curious to see if anyone is going to try mounting brakes on both their base and extension bars in a time trial. The ability to brake from the extensions and maintain an aero position could be an genuine advantage.
It’s less clear if the Magura brake will help with are the major issues big descenders have: rim sidewall damage, wearing out pads, and blowing out tires. Discs, by relocating the braking surface away from the tire, are the best hope we have for solving that issue once and for all. That and better technique.
Under certain conditions I can see some potential upsides to Magura’s RT8 brake. Quicker actuation, more power and better modulation with less fatigue sounds like a win, if these are problems that plague you. Improved aerodynamics don’t do much for the recreational cyclist, but may be a win for those at the point where fractions of seconds matter. The multiple lever concept sounds cool, but whether anyone cares remains to be seen. We’re still left using the rim for a braking surface, though the enhanced modulation the Magura should offer might compensate a little for those with marginal descending technique.
It’s an interesting product, and one I’m curious to hear more about as details emerge. It’s unlikely, however, to satiate my desire for discs—or hoverboards.
Photos courtesy of Magura