Near the time trial start line, riders mill around nervously waiting to be called. Some chat while others fiddle with their helmet straps, or numbers, or spend a few quiet seconds taking deep breaths to focus before the violent effort. One rider says to his team director: “We have no chance to win with our equipment. It’s not even fast enough to be competitive.” Their team was out of the game before it began.
The outcome of a bike race, and particularly a time trial, is influenced by the rider’s equipment. Ill-fitting clothing is slower and less comfortable. Poorly made tires grip less and puncture more. The wrong angles on a frame make it hard to handle. With data analysis, power meters, wind tunnel testing and over a century of human experience we now have a clearer understanding of how a cyclist’s speed is affected by the equipment they ride. Every aspect is accounted for to improve the cyclist’s efficiency.
From the first races, it was understood that the bicycle could affect the result. To make the Tour de France equitable between all participants, Henri Desgrange, its founder, eventually mandated that all ride the same bicycles, which they also had to maintain and repair without help. Progressively, over decades, the rules evolved, and bikes began to determine the outcome of races, especially in time trials, where aerodynamics are tantamount, as the cyclist is alone in the wind without the slipstream of a peloton to tuck into.
In 1989, Greg LeMond’s narrow victory in the Tour de France was largely attributed to his use of time trial aero bars which put his arms and torso in the position of a tucked skier. Although the bicycle was harder to maneuver, he sliced through the wind with less energy. Within a year, the entire peloton accepted that they needed to adopt the technology to stay competitive.
The innovation of the bicycle accelerated through the ‘80s and ’90s and records tumbled. Radical positions, in which the bicycle became increasingly hard to handle, became the norm. To maintain technological equity in the peloton, cycling’s governing body has fought to limit innovation with tight rules on bike design and rider position while teams, riders and engineers worked within the imposed limits to make cyclists as fast as possible.
Time trials are often called the race of truth yet human performance is now heavily clouded by technology. No longer is it simply a test of human strength but a competition between engineers and manufacturers. To improve rider safety and make the races more equitable, the events could be ridden on the same bikes the riders use in road events. Limitations would not only eliminate a massive cost for teams but, more significantly, they would also make racing at the amateur levels open to people of all demographics, not just those with money. Due to political and economic pressures a return to road bikes for time trials, unfortunately, seems improbable.
On the start line of a local junior cycling event, some kids will be riding bikes similar to those used by the top World Tour riders while others will be on hand-me-down bikes that are several years old. The cost differential between the bikes is often over $5,000. On every level of the sport, cycling has become an arms race of equipment where aerodynamics influence outcomes and the more a rider can spend on their bike the faster they will go. Even at the professional level, riders show up to the start line, knowing they don’t have a shot at winning because their team’s equipment isn’t on par with the competition’s.
At the junior level, riders are selected for National teams based on their performances. The winner of the National Championship will often go to the Worlds. Yet, their equipment may have won them the race, not their physical and mental attributes. Juniors should not be forced to buy speed to make selection. National teams, and beyond, may miss out on the top talent because the rider doesn’t have the money to be competitive.
Cycling has become so costly for parents that some are refinancing their homes to fund their children’s racing. Expense narrows the development funnel drastically. Fewer riders now opt to compete in time trials and many simply give up the sport, or don’t race at all due to cost.
Bicycles have become much faster, but some innovation hasn’t always made them safer. High speeds make crashes more common while also increasing the severity of the injuries.
Team Sky, now Ineos, had two of their highest paid and most talented riders crash and fail to return to their previous level of performance. While pre-riding a time trial racecourse, four-time Tour de France winner, Chris Froome lost control of his time trial bike in high winds and hit a wall at speed. Despite many horrendous injuries, he survived and returned to racing, but has never been close to replicating past performances. Another Tour de France winner, Egan Bernal, also crashed heavily into the back of a bus while training on his time trial bike. His body was heavily injured in the crash, and he too has struggled to return to his previous level of performance.
During a season, riders are constantly sidelined due to injuries in crashes, yet teams make little or no effort to regulate equipment and the racing environment for safety. This attitude is pervasive throughout the sport, from the governing bodies, to the race organizers to the manufacturers. In road races, riders now use narrow handlebars with their brake levers turned inwards to decrease their aerodynamic drag. On a technical descent, a bicycle is hard to ride at speed through corners with narrow bars, and braking is difficult when the levers are not in an ergonomically correct position. This can easily be regulated. Team management shouldn’t want their riders directly behind competitors who are on bikes that can’t be properly controlled, and should be pushing the governing bodies to regulate the bikes and position. SaFer, a new wing of the UCI, has recently been formed to address safety issues and ensure a safer racing environment.
Not only is it tragic that performance trumps health, but it is also a bad financial investment. The teams and sport should be working to protect their assets, not put them at risk. If that means slowing the peloton down, by introducing measures to make the bikes easier to handle in adverse conditions those changes should be embraced. This year two riders have died in races. The sport has risks but there should be a constant push towards improving safety instead of accepting risk in the pursuit of speed. Formula One was in a similar position, in 1994 when Ayrton Senna, one of the sport’s icons, died in a crash. After his death, restrictions were put on the cars and track design to improve race safety.
Too often new technology is introduced into the professional peloton without being rigorously tested. During my racing career, new products we were testing in races sometimes failed. A team should not allow a rider to use technology that hasn’t been tested for every condition before it is put on a race bike. Not only do equipment failures put the rider at risk but those riding alongside them in the peloton.
For example, tubeless tires are now almost universal in the peloton as they are faster and puncture less frequently. But when they do puncture the tire can blow off the rim, often causing the rider to crash. This can easily be avoided by mandating the use of tire inserts which keep the tire on the rim after a blowout. At the moment, many teams opt not to use them as they are slightly slower. To protect their own riders, and to protect others, teams should be required to use them. A blowout on a descent at high speed is potentially catastrophic.
Over the last decade, the speed of the peloton has increased and due to a multitude of factors crashes have risen. Too many have been lethal. Further, cycling is no longer a working class sport, attracting youth from all demographics. Limiting costs while also improving safety would impact both outcomes positively protecting riders while also being more equitable and inclusive.
By Michael Barry
Photography by Michel Guillemette