Ask Not What Pro Cycling Can Do For You... (part 1)

Since I'm sometimes seriously freaking long-winded, this is going to be part 1 of a 2 part deal.  Most of this had been sitting in my head, causing me headaches, until I got it down and could start to look at it and bat it around. 

We (Mike and I) have an uneasy relationship with pro cycling.  On the one hand, personally, we're both fans.  We do pools with our team mates before the big races, and we certainly spend enough time on the trainer watching races we've recorded.  I might have a bit of a man crush on Gilbert, but we don't get too tied up in it at all.  On the other hand, professionally, it's a more difficult story.  There's a "tail wagging the dog" thing that goes on there, as well as the obvious elephant in the room.  Was it the refined carbon layup in the frame or the needles in the ass that proved the difference in the last big race?   As Mike's pointed out pretty convincingly on several occasions, despite all the "15% more aero" this, and the "20% stiffer" that, and the "8% more vertically compliant" that, the evidence points to absolute parity in equipment.  Cavendish has dominated on a Giant, and he's dominated on a Scott.  The big story will be if he doesn't dominate on a Specialized this year.  Same thing with Cancellara - does anyone like their shot against him riding on any bike?  Every time the merry-go-round stops and everyone winds up on different bikes than they rode last year, the pecking order stays about the same. 

It doesn't take much digging to find that we think pro sponsorship is something that winds up costing consumers too much dough, but the other day we were faced with an entirely new perspective on the subject.  It came in the comments following an online review of a product that's very (very) similar to one of ours, only several times more expensive.  One commenter called out the product as being too expensive, which was in turn met with a response about the costs of doing business, including sponsorship costs (the company offering the product in question sponsors a pro - lower case "p" - team).  The commenter made the point that without sponsorship, there'd be no pro cycling, and no print media covering pro cycling.  Marketing money passed onto consumers as sort of a cable bill, or entertainment tax.  We were both fascinated with this concept. 

Pro cycling obviously doesn't have many chances to sell tickets.  There are some, but not many.  TV revenues and sponsorship dollars are the sport's only income streams.  German TV is pulling the plug, and we've seen how bountiful the sponsorship market is for the top teams, so neither stream is particularly secure at the moment.  Without gate receipts, pro cycling is at a significant revenue disadvantage to other pro sports.  I don't think that many sports are managed in a way that could be considered textbook or ethical, but cycling's leaderships seems particularly at sea.  Selective justice, cronyism, and whatever else we're going to find out in the coming weeks and months, this crew can't seem to get or keep their act together.  Granted, their task is a challenging one.  They need heroes, and heroes need to win, and be charismatic, and be good looking, and be from large market countries, and not get caught with strange things in their blood.  Yes, the races are a critical component of the spectacle, but the racers are certainly as important.  However you feel about him, the Lance Armstrong story is why we currently have so much cycling on TV - but if he was dominating the Three Days of de Panne for seven straight years, he would be a minor curiosity.  Racers and races, both important. 

Anyhow, that was more to set up the point than to make it.  The point is, do we need professional cycling, and if so, why?  Would your enthusiasm for riding your bike be diminished in the absence of the pro game?  Mine might dip a percentage point or three.  Would I quit?  Don't joke.  Would I do one less race a year?  No.  But something might be lost.  We're spectators of one of the few sports where the spectators are more likely than not to actually participate in the sport themselves.  In the US, that likelihood is staggering - do you think that even 10% of the Tour's annual US audience is something other than regular cyclists?  In Europe, the demographic is far more widespread (witness the roadside crowd at any race) but there is still a far greater audience of participants there than, say, the NFL has in the US.  Clearly, if the NFL ceased to be, football in all of its forms would suffer as its cultural relevance would wither.  In US cycling's case, there basically is no cultural relevance for the pro sport outside of participants who are otherwise engaged with the sport anyway. 

The great snake's tail that wraps me back to my original dumfoundedness at the review comment is this: the commenter willingly and even enthusiastically gives cycling participants the obligation of perpetuating professional cycling - an institution which is readily proving unable to support itself.  It's a bizarre concept for me to even consider, but do the participants in a participatory sport owe anything to the pro component of their sport?  It actually seems like Pat McQuaid's greatest fantasy come true - a self perpetuating income stream based on a choose-able, controllable (he's the gatekeeper, right?) cast of suppliers, who pay him a share the revenue stream that they get, from the consumers, in return for marketing themselves to those same consumers.  I think my head just exploded even considering this one...

So in the next part there's some stuff on tap about what pro cycling does for the sport, and the people who play it, on all levels.  You might be surprised to find that it's not all grim and gloom.  Neither will you be surprised to find some of that. 


Wheels don't win races; People win races

I got an email from Profile Design this morning with the subject line:

Profile Design wheels take 1st place at Ironman 70.3

Aw, hell, here's the full email so you can see what I mean:

Click to see full-size.

Poor Frederick Van Lierede, Belgian triathlete. The guy puts in 20-30 hours of hard training every week for years, pays meticulous attention to every gram of protein, carb and fat that goes into his body, remains even more vigilant to ensure that nothing on the banned substances list accidentally makes it in, makes a lifetime of sacrifices every single season to pursue a sport that is his passion, then goes out and puts himself through 4 hours, 6 minutes and 30 seconds of pure unadulterated suffering. Then his wheel sponsor swoops in and takes all the credit. That kind of marginalization is a pretty high price to pay for a free set of wheels, particularly for a guy who has done quite well for himself before 2011 on other companies' wheels

It's a pretty common scenario in pro athlete sponsorship. The model is normally a little more subtle - Alberto, er, Andy wins the TdF on this bike or those wheels, and the sponsor earns the right to imply, "See what our stuff can do for you?" (Though in the case above, the execution is a little less subtle than "imply".)

I understand the model, and appreciate it as a proof-of-concept. I agree that if equipment can allow someone to win at an elite level, it should be perfectly adequate for amateurs. But too often sponsors take an extra step, and suggest that the equipment does not allow the athlete to win, but is actually responsible for it. 

(Conversely, I don't believe that elite athletes need to win on certain equipment in order to prove that the same products are suitable for amateur racing. Pro usage of equipment can show that the stuff is raceworthy, but being under a pro rider is not a pre-requisite to offering excellent wheels and bikes.)

Let me be very clear on this point: our equipment is not going to make you win races. The best we can hope to achieve is that our stuff puts nothing in between you and the podium, or a top 10, or not getting dropped, or whatever is your personal objective du jour. We hope you use our bikes and wheels and you do win, of course. And when you do, we'll be tooting your horn, not our own.



Swiss Army Wheels

Carbon clinchers have made huge strides in the past few years.  We've seen them go from being pretty boat anchor heavy aluminum/carbon hybrids to being relatively heavy full carbon rims to impressively light and useful rims which have fully staked their claim in the grand scheme of things.  We'd had a bunch of attractive carbon clincher rims come across our desks, and the 38mm struck us as an amazingly versatile basis for our first foray into the world of carbon clinchers. We got a couple of sets of rims, built them up, and have been doing our standard "go everywhere and aim for the potholes on the way" testing routine on them.  The end result?  Our new RFSC.

So, why carbon clinchers?  First, they're aero.  Not aero like a 50mm, or 58mm rim, but a very discernible bump in slippery factor from a 24-, 27-, or 30mm rim.  Second, they're light.  Our RFSC rims come in at about 400 grams.  That's really light for an alloy box section rim, and just a few grams less than our 50mm tubular rims.  Light.  Third, they're stiff.  These things JUMP when you push the pedal down.  Fourth, well, they're clinchers.  Changing flats is easy, you don't have to worry about sending your tires out to get sewn up, if you want to switch tires it's simple as, and you don't have to learn the whole deal with glue and all that jazz. 

They're kind of like the ultimate incarnation of the go everywhere, do everything, light, fast, sexy alloy wheelset.  They just needed to be made out of carbon to be fully realized. 

One thing that people get sketched about with carbon wheels is braking.  Using the included carbon-specific pads, the braking in dry conditions is indistinguishable from alloy rims.  In wet, there's a little bit of brake lag - just like there is with alloy rims.  Brake feel is actually just ducky - it's sure and positive and the brake tracks have an extremely straight and true finish on them so there's no pulsing at all.  At all.  Heat buildup has proven to be no more of an issue than it is with alloy rims.  If you're going down some monster screaming descent, alternate front and back and don't ride the brakes - just like you'd do with alloy rims. 

The brake tracks are pretty wide at just a shade over 22mm, and they pair awesomely with 25c tires (and for the record I will never buy a 23c clincher tire again - it's all 25s for me, they're the biz).

At $885, it's easy to find a set of alloy clinchers that cost hundreds more, weigh more, don't give you any aero benefit, and don't feel half as snappy.  For a few bucks more (actually, quite a few - but we can't do anything about it), we'll be happy to have a Powertap built into them.  Go ahead and train on them.

There's going to be a comment on this post pointing out the contradiction of me advocating training on carbon wheels.  This is what's called a paradigm shift.  When $885 buys you a set of wheels that will do everything wheels do demonstrably better than a set of alloy wheels that are a couple of hundred bucks more - yeah, I'm fully good with that. These are your desert island wheels. 

Delivery is slated for late February, so you'll have them in plenty of time for Jeff Cup. 



2011 Equipment Trends based on TdU Observations

Noting which riders are going well in January races usually has no bearing on how they'll perform when the season heats up in the spring and summer, but glimpses into equipment choices do reveal some of the trends we're likely to see year-round. I spent some time catching up on TdU on the DVR yesterday, in part to see if Robbie McEwen could pull out a win (spoiler alert - he didn't), but mostly to see what the guys who have very little say on their equipment were using this year. Here's what I found:

Black is the new white, which is the old black: Black is figuring in a lot more places this year than last, often replacing white. I first noticed it in bar tape, which was predominantly white in the pro peloton last year. This year, Garmin-Cervelo, Radio Shack, Rabobank and BMC were wrapped in black. Many teams still donned flashy white, including Sky, Leopard-Trek, HTC-Highroad and the Italian teams. But clearly white's stranglehold on bars has been broken. A year or two ago, showing up at an amateur race with black tape was greeted with the same derisive snicker as leaving a seat wedge on, or pinning your number upside-down. No longer - with enough pro teams using black now, go ahead and roll your own with it in confidence.

The other place black is taking back some ground is in bib shorts. Shorts are traditionally black because racers used to have to do their own repairs during races, and they could wipe their greasy hands on black shorts without fear of staining them. Enter full sublimation, and suddenly black shorts were as progressive as downtube shifters, and left to the retro grouches. But there was plenty of black down under at Down Under - so much so that the red of Katusha, lime green of Liquigas-Cannondale and royal blue of Rabobank are starting to come off as a little dated. 

Asymmetrical depth wheels: There were some pretty strong crosswinds in Australia this week, which made running the super deep wheels many racers prefer on flattish circuits a little hazardous. In previous years, that would normally mean switching the carbon 85s or 58s out to 38s, 20s or even (gasp!) alloy wheels. But this year, depth was preserved at all costs, with an uncanny number of riders only going shallower on the front and keeping the rear wheel as deep as the terrain allowed. It makes sense, in that crosswinds catching a front wheel can knock a rider off his line much more quickly than those swooping into the rear. And pros already have the inventory in the service course - swapping one wheel instead of two requires only a shift in preference, which seems to have happened for 2011. I expect we'll see similar setups in more amateur races this year. With the number of carbon wheelsets now available at $1K and below, outfitting with 38s and 58s, or 58s and 85s, or even 38s and 58s and 85s of your own is increasingly feasible (and will soon be an option right here). Some racers will still spend close to $3K for a single set of carbon hoops, but I think we'll see plenty who will devote a comparable budget towards a whole stable of high performance carbon wheels for varying conditions. 

Integrated Seat Masts get chopped: I always thought they were pretty stupid from the outset, and the pro peloton in 2011 seems to be reflecting the same sentiment. I only saw Rabobank's Giants and Vaconsoleil's Ridleys with integrated seat masts at the TdU. Lampre-ISD riders may have been on Williers with integrated seat masts, but nobody with a camera ever pointed at them so I can't be sure. The trend may be a function of the companies who sponsor the pro teams: neither Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, Pinarello, Cervelo, Kuota nor Orbea offer an ISM bike. Merckx does, but the QuickStep riders I saw were on a version with a standard seatpost. The bloom is off that rose, to be sure.

Sameness settles in: There seemed to be less to differentiate the different teams this year than in years past. Many squads are capped with mostly-white helmets, and there are similar color palettes in lots of kits. Sky, Leopard-Trek and Garmin-Cervelo were especially hard to distinguish. There were some exceptions of course - notably Movistar, who brings a new design, and Astana, whose kit defies mimicry by virtue of its proprietary Kazakhstan flag colors (and hideousness). Euskaltel-Euskadi retained their trademark simple orange and black, but swapped out their distinctive Catlike lids for a new model by bike sponsor Orbea. Some differentiating features weren't readily apparent until seeing the whole bunch on TV. Radio Shack, for example, redesigned the kit with a bold red and white stripe down the back - invisible on almost all photos of the squad online, but highly distinctive from overhead helicopter shots on TV.

Still, the compound affect of all this is that there was a move towards the center in design and color, almost as though nobody wants to call too much attention to themselves. Given the hot potato that is now affiliation with professional cycling, laying low for teams and sponsors is perfectly reasonable.


No TdU Sprint Wins for Cav, Farrar, Greipel or McEwen. Is it the bikes?

In addition to reporting on who wins each stage of the Tour Down Under, VeloNews also ran a piece pointing out that none of the marquis sprinters at this year's event have yet to win a stage. Mark Cavendish (HTC-HighRoad), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo) and Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma Lotto) are largely considered some of the fastest fast men in the world, and Robbie McEwen (RadioShack) worked up some early season form for this race in his own backyard. 

So these guys are all lightning fast, and they haven't won yet. But there's another point of commonality between them - they're all on new bikes this year.

 - Cavendish's team switched from Scott to Specialized for 2011
 - Farrar moved off his Felt to a Cervelo with the team merger
 - Greipel also gave up his Scott and is now on a Canyon
 - McEwen traded in his Ridley for a Trek

Is it possible to conclude that Specialized, Cervelo, Canyon and Trek are simply not as fast as the bikes from Scott, Felt and Ridley?

Of course not. Saying that a world class sprinter lost a race because he was on a certain kind of bike is about as silly as, well, saying that he won because of the bike he was on. Which is exactly our point over here. Bikes at this level are far more similar than they are different. If you can win on a Scott, you can win on a Specialized. And if you're pack fodder on a Trek, a Canyon isn't going to suddenly put you on the podium.

And you can substitute the November Wheelhouse for any of those bikes listed above as well. We're not going to claim our bikes make a difference in your results. But we guarantee they'll make a difference in your wallet.