In 1991, Jean-Louis Talo, a mechanical engineer from Menton, southern France, produced his first prototype Osymetric ring. He has spent 22 years trying to convince the cycling world that it works.
He’s an astonishing character, a cyclist (“I had no talent whatsoever”) and a man who asks “why?” at every juncture. “I’ve got three projects I’m working on just now, but I’d rather not say what they were!” he says. He’s no mad professor or boffin, but he’s a long way from a slick businessman.
“I have no interest in the business side,” says Talo, deadpan. “I’m an engineer, I like researching things; as for business I really don’t care. If I recover my costs or when I see a rider winning or when Wiggins won the Tour, then it’s great, but business is of no interest to me.
“If someone wants to buy the patent and licence the rings, then great. Otherwise I’m not interested. You know, I’ve been at this for 21 years and I met a Ferrari engineer – Materazzi – and I showed him the crankset, I put it on the table in front of him and he got it right away; it didn’t take him two minutes to grasp what was going on. He said, ‘Ah, nice, very smart.’
But in bike companies and in the cycling world, designers are like, ‘Oh…I dunno… Yes, but…’ There’s always some problem – and the French are the worst. “The mentality of the different nationalities in cycling is funny. The British are much more pragmatic, the Anglo-Saxon attitude is, either it works or it doesn’t. For the Latin countries, it’s more about how it looks – it’s nothing like the same.
Anglo-Saxons say, ‘OK, explain it to us and then we’ll try it.’ In the Latin countries, particularly where there is a strong history of cycling, they are really traditional, they are still making reference to Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Fausto Coppi! Seriously. I try to tell them, ‘Hey, guys, the world has moved on.’
“I met Eddy Merckx to discuss the rings, and he told me, ‘There is a guy who wants to have a go at breaking the Hour record.’”
Really? “Yes, so he said, but he’s found a trick that will help him.” What’s that? “‘He’s going to use cranks 225mm long.’ I told him to relax, that he had nothing to worry about, but Merckx was worried. It was incredible that he thought they were viable. But that’s the world of cycling innovation for you. Seriously. 225mm cranks? Utter nonsense.”
As an engineer, Talo recognised that using round rings was not the ideal way for a rider’s legs to produce power. The cam-shaped rings were designed mindful of the fact that, “You can alter the design so that you give the leg muscles work to do where they are at their strongest and less work to do where they are weak.
A round chainring gives you work to do where you are weak and takes power away from you where your legs are strongest. The thing you have to realise is that a bicycle chainring is round because that’s all factories knew how to produce at that period.
“The bike industry and its suppliers were only capable of making a non-circular chainring from around 1978. You needed software and computer programs that were far more powerful and capable to design these things – that software and computing power wasn’t available back then.”
Talo reckons it took 12 days to work out the design; he and a friend made a prototype and fitted it to a bike. “It worked.
We put it on a bike and climbed some hills and you could feel the difference,” insists Talo. When the project moved up a level and he decided lab tests were required, Prince Albert of Monaco stepped in and offered his help. “He was still the first and only person to offer us help, and for six months we worked in Monaco sports science labs, back in 1994. He still calls if a rider wins.”
Subsequently Talo tried other designs. “Our tests showed that the current design was perfect, though we tried other angles and shapes but they were never as good – it was almost as though the design and shape either worked or it didn’t. Which is why there are a lot of imitation designs out there, but they are doing a lot of marketing and not a lot of science!”
And there’s the rub. “Of course, marketing is very important. Actually, in this area, marketing is more efficient at selling a product than science, and I don’t have millions to put into marketing. In fact, I have nothing at all to put into a marketing budget.”
So it took the adventurous and experimental Julich to introduce the rings to the pro peloton, which was the only way Talo’s Osymetric rings were going to come close to convincing pros. “Bobby won straight away, which got people interested, but they said, ‘Oh, it’s Bobby the American, he’s eccentric.’
“You cannot imagine the fight I had to convince people that the rings were important, it’s incredible. And now they say the same thing, like, ‘Oh yeah, but it’s Wiggins, he’s special,’ and I say, ‘Woah, wait a minute, who was Wiggins four years ago, eh?’ It’s the same guy who came from the track and was finishing nowhere – who was he then?
He was a good guy but nobody raised an eyebrow. “I spoke to some teams at Paris-Nice [BMC was one - Ed] and they said, ‘Well, the reason the chainrings work is because it was Wiggins.’ And then I say, ‘What about Froome?’ They just don’t want to believe there’s anything in the design of the rings. Sometimes I struggle to stay polite.
One minute they are asking for studies to show the benefits and I can show them. Then the next minute they’ll say, ‘Yeah, but those are only lab studies.’ I’ll point out the results that Julich and Wiggins and Froome have had – and David Millar who won the Tour stage in that sprint last year – and they’ll say, ‘Ah, but those guys are special!’
“I mean, come on! What do they want? There’s always an excuse. There are times when I say to myself, OK, enough, I’m going to stop.”
This article was first published in the April 04 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!