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 by: Bill Oetinger  4/1/2021

Time Trial Bikes

We’re now well launched into the 2021 racing season. Paris-Nice and Tirenno-Adriatico have been run, along with a few other stage races and spring classics. The season is still somewhat abbreviated by COVID constraints but a fair bit of good racing is going on. What a pleasure it is to watch serious racing again.

Off the bikes, the folks who make the rules are making news as well. The UCI has banned the so-called “super tuck” as unsafe, as well as the practice of riding with the forearms resting on the tops, as riders often do when off the front on a solo breakaway. A super tuck is when a rider—typically on a fast but not too technical descent—plops his crotch down on the top tube, ahead of the saddle, and lays his chest down right on his bars. It looks dorky but it works, providing some aerodynamic advantage. I can’t off-hand recall seeing anyone crash while in a super tuck but it certainly looks like the riders would have less control, with their weight so far forward over the front wheel. 

As for riding with the forearms on the tops and the hands dangling out in space, I suspect many of us have at least tried it, in emulation of what we see the pros doing. I know I have, although at this point in my creaky old cycling career, I have no interest in whatever advantage it might provide. It should be obvious it’s less safe.

So, in the interest of safety, those rather sketchy practices have been taken out back and shot. You might have seen the occasional super tuck in the spring campaign but that was its swan song. As of April 15—can we call it “tucks day”?—it will be prohibited.

But here’s the point of this column: if the UCI really has the safety of the riders at heart, there is one step they could take that would go a long way toward that priority: ban time trial bikes in stage races. Don’t ban time trials; just the radical bikes used in TT these days.

Okay then…having thrown down that proposal, allow me to insert this disclaimer…

This idea is not original to me. I have been thinking about it for years but am not enough of an expert—in fact no sort of expert at all—to have articulated my concerns. However, an article by Nikolai Razouvaev at the PezCycling website last October helped me understand just what it was that had been niggling away at my back brain for years. Razouvaev has the credentials to be considered an expert on this topic and pretty much everything I say about it here I am borrowing from him. If you want a better read on this, check out his piece. Think of my column as a “like” of his column or a retweeting of his premise.

I’m not a racer and never have been. I think I’ve only ever done three time trials in my life, two individual and one team. The only part of my bike life that might serve to inform my opinion here is having run aero-bars on a standard bike for several years when I was doing double centuries. I had the kind with the spring-loaded, flip-up arm rests so I could still put my hands on the tops if I wasn’t on the aero-bars. From a classic bike-aesthetics point of view, they were ugly as hell…but they certainly did work. I was fairly strong at the time—strong at least by the standards of middle-aged, mid-pack weekend warriors—and when I got on the bars and put the hammer down, I could see an immense improvement in my speed for very little extra effort. For a lot of the long and often lonely miles of doubles, they were just the ticket. But they were of course unsafe for any riding aside from more-or-less straight ahead and approximately level. Any serious climbing, descending, or cornering, and any pack riding or pacelines…forget it.

That pretty well exhausts my own expertise in the matter. But I watch the racing on TV and every so often in person and have done so since the early ‘80s…and in this context since Greg Lemond strapped on his aero-bars in 1989 to snatch the Tour de France away from Laurent Fignon in the final-stage time trial. Since then the bikes used in time trials have evolved considerably and a great deal of time and skill and testing—fueled by a great deal of money—has been plowed into making them more effective at what they do best: go fast in a straight line. No one would attempt a conventional time trial these days without the best TT bike money could buy.

But when Lemond introduced the world to the advantages of his TT set-up, Fignon did not make use of the same aero-toys. So he was immediately at a disadvantage. (I remember a story I heard the next day from Dave Walters, a former Masters World Champion and a friend of Lemond. He told me he’d been on the phone with Lemond’s mechanic the day of the time trial and the mechanic related that Lemond had come to him in the morning and said, “I’m feeling really strong today. Put on a 59.” The TT course that day, from Versailles to Paris, has a slightly downhill profile. I can well imagine Lemond turning over that big pie-tin of a gear while hunched over his clip-on bars.)

Now however, as Razouvaev points out, with everyone using the hottest aero-bikes available, everyone has Lemond’s advantage and then some. Whatever edge one guy might have had while he had the technological gadgets and the other guys didn’t, that’s all gone. Now everyone has an equal technological “advantage.” The stronger rider will still win but not because of his bike.

Meanwhile, all the disadvantages of aero-bikes remain, and they are still playing an outsize role in racing, and not in a positive way. The far-forward weight shift of the bikes makes them inherently unstable. Disk wheels are nasty in crosswinds. The brakes they put on those bikes are semi-useless. All in all, they simply don’t handle very well. Plus they suck on climbs, so we see those keystone cops routines—like at last year’s Tour de France—of swapping over to a standard bike for a climb. But because of their obvious advantages during the more conventional sort of time trial miles, everyone has to use them. It’s like being addicted to a drug: you have to keep doing it even though it doesn’t get you high anymore (that is, even though it gives you no edge over the other guy)…and even though it’s risky and may ruin your career.

The PezCycling article includes links to several videos of grisly time trial accidents. I thought about copying some of the links here but just go and check them out there. I want you to read his take on this. But I’ll mention a couple out of many. 

First off, Alejandro Valverde in 2017. This is what I had to say about his season in my springtime overview: “He has had by far the best spring campaign of his long and illustrious career…a spring that rivals the best of any rider in any era. He was first overall at the five-stage Vuelta a Andalucia (2/15-19), including winning Stage 1. He won overall at the Volta a Catalunya (3/20-26), winning Stages 3, 5, and 7. He was first overall at the Tour of the Basque Country. Three stage race overalls. What about the classics? He won the Vuelta a Murcia (2/11)—for the fifth time—by going on a 70-K solo break to win by over two minutes. He won Fleche Wallone (4/19)—for the fifth time—by launching his patented sprint over the last 200 meters on the brutal Mur de Huy. He won Liege-Bastogne-Liege (4/23)—for the fourth time—with a similar attack from about 200 meters on the long, uphill grind to the finish. This guy is so hot right now, you’d need barbecue mitts to shake his hand.” 

That’s a long read on Valverde but I want to make the point: he was absolutely at the top of his game at that point. Almost anything seemed possible. And then what happened? In the first ten minutes of the first stage of the Tour de France—a time trial—he slid out on a wet corner, slammed into the barriers, and fractured his kneecap. No more season. No Tour, no Vuelta, no World Championship. All lost because of a little glitch on a twitchy time trial bike. He has returned to very good form in the years since but that begs the question: what might he have done with the latter half of 2017 had it not been wiped out by that TT wreck?

Second case in point, Chris Froome in 2019. Froome is well known to all fans of cycling. He has won four Tours de France, two Vueltas a España and one Giro d’Italia. In 2017 he did the almost impossible Tour-Vuelta double, the first rider to win both, back-to-back, in 40 years. He backed that up with the most dramatic, improbable victory in the 2018 Giro, becoming only the third rider, along with Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, to hold the crowns of all three of the Grand Tours at the same time. He did not win the 2018 Tour. He was third. He had some bad luck, including a crash that cost some time. And he wasn’t quite at his best. But he was still pretty nearly at the top of the cycling totem pole; still operating at a very high level with more big things expected in the years ahead.

But then, in his last tune-up race before the 2019 Tour—the Dauphiné—he crashed while doing a recon ride around the time trial course. Traveling at high speed, he took one hand off the bars of the time trial bike—to blow out a snot rocket—and in those couple of seconds, the bike went out of control and slammed head-on into the wall of a brick house. Observers said it was the nastiest crash they’d ever seen. His injuries were extensive. Razouvaev goes into this incident in detail. But the bottom line is that Froome has not been the same since. The balance of the 2019 season was gone. He had a rather limited slate of races in 2020—everyone did—but he didn’t accomplish anything of note. His Ineos team did not select him for the Tour de France and instead entered him in the season-ending Vuelta. Most fans assumed he would be the team leader but he ended up working as a domestique for Richard Carapaz. He was never in contention and finished 98th. He has since left the top-tier Ineos team and signed with the smaller Israel Start-Up Nation team. His only significant race so far in 2021 was Volta Ciclista Catalunya where he was dropped early and often, stage after stage, and ended up 81st overall, 54 minutes behind winner Adam Yates, who replaced him on the Ineos team this year.

So…pretty much at the peak of his career, then that time trial crash and nothing since. I’m a big Froome fan and would love to see him rise from the ashes, but right now…well, we’ll see.

Mind you, Froome and Valverde are two of the most experienced and skillful bike handlers on the planet. And yet, at those crucial moments and thanks to those twitchy TT bikes, they looked like kids just learning to ride.

These are just two of the many, many cases of riders who crashed out on time trial bikes; who sustained injuries that took chunks out of their racing lives. Riders only get a finite number of years when they’re at or near their peaks. To have any of that time taken away from them…to have that gaping hole in their careers…or even possibly to have a wreck that ends a career. That’s a high price to pay for the time gained in a race against the clock, especially if the bike really isn’t offering any advantages but only potential risk.

Razouvaev makes other telling points against the trick bikes, not least the expense in terms of time and money allocated for supporting a stable of such bikes as part of the equipment a pro team needs. They’re all good points but I’ll let him lay them out. The only place I disagree with him—although deferring to his greater expertise—is his final statement that the UCI will never ban TT bikes because the manufacturers like selling all those extra bikes. I have even less expertise when it comes to the subjects of manufacturing and marketing bikes but I still wonder if this is really true.

Some form of TT bike is going to be around forever. They are used in many track disciplines. The bike companies are going to keep making them but does it matter all that much to them whether the pros or top-level amateurs are buying them as part of the road-racing discipline? The manufacturers have to invest heavily in the research and development of these special bikes. Do they really make much profit on them (compared, for instance, to the money they’re minting these day on e-bikes)? The UCI already regulates just how weird and unstable a time trial bike can be for events like the hour record. They say they do this partly because the bikes are so manifestly unsafe but also because they want the record to be about the strength of the rider and not about some new technology. The same logic could apply to the bikes used in time trials in stage races, and with even more compelling justification.

It’s one thing to ride a radical TT bike around a smooth velodrome track to set an hour record or compete in pursuit or other track events. It’s quite another to use the same bike on the open road, with turns and ups and downs, maybe sketchy pavement, roundabouts, wet spots, and road furniture. If you watch enough racing you’ve seen the crashes or at least the places where the TT bikes are out of their element: making a pig’s breakfast out of an otherwise normal, twisting downhill, for one painful example.

You may think this a rather arcane topic for one of these columns, especially as I bring only a modest amount of knowledge to the subject. Take it for what it’s worth. But read the linked column if you’re interested in drilling deeper into it. It may seem like the technology is so embedded in the sport at this point that there’s no way to shake loose of it, but given the will, there can be a way. A five-year or three-year window until they’re phased out, perhaps. Give both the teams and the manufacturers fair notice so they can plan accordingly. I think the sport would be better off in the long run and I like the idea of fewer riders crashing on their tricky TT bikes and jeopardizing their immediate health and their long-term careers, all for no particular purpose. That may sound a bit luddite, like Henri Desgranges railing against derailleurs, but it makes sense to me.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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