Having devoted much of his life to going faster against the clock, Michael Hutchinson wasn’t going to cover the Tour de France for Cycling Weekly and Eurosport without bringing home some notes for himself.
Monday’s time trial in Besancon presented an ideal opportunity for him to see what the professional teams were up to against the watch. Here he summarises some of his observations.
*There is often some tension between the science and the reality of bike riding. Aerodynamically, Lycra is faster than bare skin. So over the past few seasons, even short-sleeves on skinsuits have got longer – they now go to just above the elbow. Overshoes have grown taller and taller.
In Monday’s time trial it was clear that quite a few teams didn’t even have a short-sleeve option, because when this long, hot time trial with quite a bit of climbing (when there is less cooling effect) came round, out came the scissors. Tommy Voeckler and Levi Leipheimer were just two among many wearing cut-off suits – the American had tried to tape his remaining sleeves down and pinned them to stop them flapping. Or maybe he was just trying to distract attention from the fact his upward-sloping arm position is flirting with the fringes of the rule that require the forearms to be parallel to the ground.
*It was probably clear from the end of the previous stage, when both Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins went for every second against each other, that the dreaded ‘officially supplied’ skinsuit was not going to be forced on the leader, the one that is reckoned to be significantly slower than one of the top teams’ own carefully-developed suits. Wiggins’s suit was in TdF yellow, and had an official Coq Sportif logo, but was clearly a Team Sky suit. Interestingly, it wasn’t quite the same design as the one Chris Froome was wearing. An early appearance for the Team GB Olympic suit? Probably not, but it might be a close relation.
*Wiggins, along with a lot of other Shimano-sponsored riders, was using old-style mechanical gear-levers rather than electronic. Why? The rules about the maximum length of tribar-extensions measure to the centre of a mechanical lever’s axis, but to the very end of an electronic unit. It means a tall rider can get a few more millimeters of effective length. The rule is changing at the end of the year, so expect to see wall to wall electronics after that.
*AG2R La Mondiale rode deep-section rear wheels rather than the discs that every other team chose. Give the parcours would give a rider a bare five seconds for each kilo saved, it seems unlikely to have been all about the couple of hundred grams of weight – presumably the team felt that theirs was the faster choice. This isn’t new, as such – every year or two a wheel manufacturer announces their new deep-section is faster than a disc, but they don’t often succeed in persuading a pro team to use them. Lance Armstrong used a rear trispoke in a Tour TT in 2005, but that was on a very windy day, so was more likely to have been a handling-related decision.
*Wiggins rode the race to a negative split – that’s to say he rode the second half harder – though it takes a little picking through the numbers to see just how significant the difference was because of various sections of the course suiting different riders’ characteristics. Negative splitting is big at Sky this year. While the hillier sections of the course were early on, meaning that from a very strict physics point of view, the harder efforts would gain more at the beginning, that’s a very risky way to race a time trial. A rider who gets it even a little wrong at the start, or even in the middle, will be on his knees by the finish.
So the negative split, by being physiologically much safer, is almost always faster. The downside is that it’s very difficult to pick up the pace progressively as the race progresses. But it seems to work.