When technology comes to the aid of riders: an arms race to hunt for seconds

“You will have to fight for every second.” Balanced by Wout van Aert as a prelude to a time trial at the end of which he will try to endorse, for the first time in his career, the yellow jersey of the Tour de France this Friday, the little sentence is not that one of the clichés of the sport of cycling, but also reflects a basic trend in the peloton: that of marginal gains. An arms race initiated in the early 2010s by the Sky formation for a hunt for watts and hundredths that sometimes make the difference between first and second place, between losing or winning.

Record holder of the hour and passionate about a subject he constantly explores, Victor Campenaerts (bronze medalist of the last Belgian time trial championship) has agreed to decipher some of the most impactful elements.

“Over 13 kilometers, the gaps between the specialists risk being so small that the now famous marginal gains could well prove to be really decisive”, judges the runner from Lotto-Soudal. “When I first became fully interested in the subject a little over five years ago, it was possible to pick up precious little things left and right which, put together, could make a real difference. But it is becoming more and more difficult today because all the teams are investigating all of these subjects.”

A suit at 3,000 euros

To try to authorize Mathieu van der Poel to still be able to dream of the yellow jersey on the evening of an inaugural time trial on which he will seek to give up as little time as possible to the real specialists, the equipment manufacturer Kalas (partner of the Alpecin-Deceuninck team) collaborated with the firm Vorteq to develop a brand new wetsuit at almost… 3,000 euros each!

“This company is a benchmark in aerodynamics and is based in Silverstone, right next to a wind tunnel where they test a lot of new materials, explains the Flandrian. In terms of marginal gains, the combination is definitely the most important point. I would even go so far as to say that a good combination will make more of a difference than a good bike. The investment is therefore, in my view, totally justified.”

Filippo Ganna will also wear a brand new outfit this Friday in the streets of Copenhagen. Made to measure, it has repositioned seams for better aerodynamics and an even better optimized yoke.

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Distortions of technical partnerships

The hunt for watts and seconds also sometimes leads certain teams to allow themselves certain infidelities to their technical partners.

“During the last Tour de France, Mathieu van der Poel came to see me before the Changé-Laval time trial to find out how he could improve his time trial bike to try to keep his yellow jersey, reveals Victor Campenaerts. I put him in contact with Aerocoach, a British company specializing in chrono equipment. Within just a few hours, he was able to have extremely capable wheels. I think that currently around 50% of the teams, including all the most powerful in the peloton, use Aerocoach front wheels. The main advantage is that these are narrower in the central part, which improves aerodynamics. They are, therefore, less rigid, but this is not a real problem on a timed exercise during which the speed remains quite high and linear.

To afford this little penknife in the contract, the different parties must all agree. Some teams pay for their equipment from the manufacturers and therefore have more leeway to choose the best components since they then act as an ordinary customer. The key, however, is to have the necessary budget to allow these purchases… (laughs) On the Tour, I believe that several riders will, for example, use a crankset with a single chainring, as I have for example made on the recent Belgian championship. This offers a gain of approximately 2 watts. It will however, I think, not be possible for the guys at Jumbo-Visma and Ineos for example because Shimano is one of the major partners of the team. And it doesn’t really make the Japanese firm smile to see other equipment mounted on the bikes of the teams it sponsors…”

Bikes on the roof of the car for better airflow

Since the closing time trial of the Giro 2021, Filippo Ganna’s Ineos team has got into the habit of carrying as many bikes as possible on the gallery installed above the roof of the following car. A choice that is not intended to deal with a very improbable mechanical bad luck (you can install up to ten bikes), but which is rather guided by the results of a scientific study on aerodynamics.

“They proved that the higher and wider the vehicle following the rider, the greater the advantage, comments Campenaerts. The effects are not as tangible as when a car is moving right in front of you and you are then ensconced in its suction, but the contribution is still significant. The airflow will indeed accelerate after having houryou’ this obstacle and therefore push the cyclist. This theory is also valid for television motorcycles which, for example, film breakaways. The UCI regulations absolutely do not prohibit a practice that I myself used during my two titles of European time trial champion (2017 and 2018). I think Tony Martin is the first rider to have systematized this practice several years ago.

When technology comes to the aid of riders: an arms race to hunt for seconds

Attention to detail down to… the socks

Point of the UCI regulations most regularly mocked by the riders for the intransigence of the marshals on a seemingly harmless detail, the length of the socks (maximum half the distance between the middle of the malleolus and the middle of the head of the fibula) has a real impact on performance in the time trial.

“All the vertical elements have a greater aerodynamic impact than the horizontal elements because the air resistance is more frontal there, enlightens the runner from Lotto-Soudal. We therefore choose our socks with the greatest care, very different from those we put on for a classic inline stage. They are produced in a very specific and extremely smooth textile and also generally have a sheathing effect, always in this logic of reducing the frontal surface. Between a good and a bad pair, there can be a gain of 5 to 10 watts. Which, at the highest level of our discipline, is absolutely enormous!”

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