Sunday, July 27, 2008

Equipment - Time Trial Bike History

I've always been fascinated by the technology in bicycles. It started out with gearing and the idea of different ratios allowing someone to ride up and down hills without struggling too much. Before the 1984 Olympics my focus went to aerodynamics, and with the disc wheel first used that year, it seemed that there were all sorts of things to be done in this field.

Road Bike Action did a piece on The Most Significant Time Trial Bikes In History. A caveat - it didn't look at track or fixed gear bikes, so some extremely significant bikes got left out. "Road Bike Action" implies no track bikes so I'll go along with that. But they still left out some very, very significant bikes.

Since time trials indicate either an individual or team effort against the clock, aerodynamics plays the most important role. Prior to understanding this basic concept, racers went for light weight. And prior to that they strived to have gearing, brakes that worked, and other basic necessities. For the purpose of this post I'll skip the basics (i.e. derailleurs, recumbent vs "standard" position, etc) and the lightweight (titanium, carbon, and aluminum usage). Instead I'll focus on aero ideas and implementations.

In general it is relatively straight forward to pick out the really big influential bikes. There's Lemond's 1989 bike, the first to use aero bars. Of course the Lotus ridden by Chris Boardman, the first truly properly designed time trial bike ever, with aerodynamicists actually radically changing the original design (which had a basic flaw that even a junior aerodynamicist would have caught).

However, in what I perceive as a nod to their sponsors, RBA spend the rest of the article busily listing relatively current bikes that are built by, coincidentally, a bunch of their advertisers, Pinarello, Specialized, Litespeed, BMC, and Cervelo. RBA did have a handicap in that they published the article before all the new time trial technology came out for the 2008 Tour, so they missed things like Giant's TT bike (which I consider the most significant of the TT bikes unveiled there).

But as far as past time trial bikes, there are a bunch of machines that should have been included in the article, even if based only on aero type advancements. When an article uses the word "history" in its title, it takes on great responsibility. It would have been better to say "in the last 20 years" or something like that, but RBA didn't say that.

I do admit that in the post-"standard bike" UCI ruling, the BMC and Cervelo are perhaps the most significant ones out there.

For example, Cervelo has gotten a lot of press as the frameset that set the standard for time trialing, and a lot of their design gets copied by others. In a related topic Cervelo was the first company to really push aero frames for mass start races - witness CSC's favorite tactic of hammering at the front and using their strong time trialers and more aerodynamic bikes to literally ride most of the field off their wheel.

In 2009 we will see many more racers on aero frames for mass start races, and not just CSC racers. By 2010 I expect to see most racers on bikes that give some aero nod somewhere, whether it's a faired rear wheel, a narrower downtube, perhaps a odd curvy seat tube, or a waisted head tube. Aero frames will be like tall profile rims - all the pros will be using them, and with the UCI weight limit set at a relatively high 6.8 kilograms, there's a few grams of carbon available to make these framesets.

BMC's TT bike is pretty interesting, although, as RBA points out, the racers on it seem to have attracted way more attention than the bike (Tyler Hamilton and Alexander Vinokourov, the two top positives for blood transfusions so far). BMC assembled a bike that had its fork fairing the headtube, an innovative way of hiding the stem (since it really doesn't "hide" the head tube because it's simply replaced by an external steerer tube) and perhaps a cable or two.

Of course when I saw that bike I immediately thought of another bike, one that is perhaps 20 years old, the Look KG196. This is the predecesor to the aero "mass start" race bikes of today.

A modernized KG196.
From this site, I stole the picture in case the "for sale" listing goes away.

And again, but this time the frame set only, showing some of the details of the "years before its time" frameset.
From this listing, picture stolen in case it goes away.

It had a faired in head tube like the BMC time trial bike, a faired in rear wheel "a la Cervelo", a bottom bracket rear wheel "fin" (Cannondale's Super Six has one, among others), a built in Ergo-stem, and aero shaped tubes. Due to the primitive use of carbon fiber back in the day (90s) it was heavy, I think over eight (?) pounds for the frame, fork, and stem. You'll notice the gaping hole between the front tire and the downtube, now acknowledged to be an area important to fill.

In addition, since at that time they didn't differentiate between vertical and lateral compliance, the frame had a very rough ride. I know because I desperately wanted to own one but I simply couldn't afford it. I did ride one for a week or two as a sort of "demo", but even after riding it around for a while I simply couldn't justify spending money I didn't have. The kicker was the non-replaceable derailleur hanger - I replaced my hanger about annually (or more frequently) and the KG196 frameset I rode didn't allow for that. This meant it'd be necessary to replace the whole frame, and I couldn't do that annually, or, as the case was one year, weekly for four weeks.

Look and ONCE teamed up to become the most successful time trial squad, in particular the team time trial. The standard picture of a TTT from that era was the ONCE team in full cry:

ONCE Team in full cry, albeit on Giant frames. It's hard to find the team in its pink outfit (when the Tour forbade too much yellow in a standard team kit).

This was the standard TTT picture for the era. When Lance was around it was the Discovery/USPS team, or nowadays it's the CSC team. ONCE, for all their problems once they became Liberty-Seguros, had the respect and admiration because of their team "professionalism", and it didn't get better than the TTT. For many years Manolo Sainz (Mister Operation Puerto) forbade his riders from contesting their respective National Championships so that the ONCE TTT squad would look uniform, such was the importance ONCE put on the TTT.

Appropriately Look pushed the limits with time trial bike technology. They never went bonkers - their designs seemed to make sense with reasons for various tube shapes.

The most extreme TT frame from Look - I don't even know the name of it - banned immediately after Alex Zulle (pictured) won the prologue at the Tour.

The most radical Look frame pictured above was one of the first to try and fair the front and rear wheels. The downtube was very wide, bridging the gap to the front tire. Based on today's Wiliers, Specialized, and Felt designs, this is an important thing. The big downtube fin extended under the bottom bracket, fairing in the rear wheel below the bottom bracket. Note also the "integrated" seat post.

Based on my experience with the KG196, I can only imagine how heavy this frame was, but for the fast Tour prologue, it was fine. So fine that Zulle slayed all and won the prologue, and too fine for legality. They were probably Look's shortest and most expensive run of framesets.

Another bike that would have to be included in the list of significant historical TT bikes is the first one with disc wheels. Talk about a (racing) world changing innovation!

Moser using his disc wheeled bike in the 1984 Giro.
(From here)

Moser had shattered Eddy Merckx's Hour Record early in 1984. He used a dual disc wheel track bike (hence I'm not including that particular bike as a road time trial bike), then took the technology onto the road. His bike was pretty radical too, with a 650c front tire, 700c rear, an upward sloping top tube that necessitated the shortest of seat posts (another "integrated seat post" type of frame). The wheels were discs so the builder shaped the tubing to draft each other, the seat tube curving back dramatically to merge smoothly with the top tube. Although aerodynamically unsound (it would have been better to have a vertical tube that was aerodynamically shaped) it still represented a huge step in shaping a bike frame.

He took the pink on the final time trial of the 1984 Giro from Laurent Fignon while aboard an adaptation of his Hour Record bike. Fignon had been riding that Renault-Elf "aero" time trial bike (described below), but compared to the space machine under Moser, he was severely handicapped. It's debatable whether the wheels or a TV helicopter helped more. The whole Giro was biased to Moser's favor, with other Italian racers complaining about the "elevator of hands" helping Moser up each climb, the (Italian promoter's) cancellation of the Queen mountain stage due to non-existant snow (Moser was expected to lose time, elevator of hands notwithstanding). The final favor was a very low TV helicopter that hovered just behind Moser as he time trialed, providing a mega-strong tailwind (have you ever been near a helicopter that is landing or taking off?). Whatever the cause, Moser ultimately won the Giro and his return to cycling complete, with the Hour Record and the Giro to his name.

Fignon's Gitane time trial bike deserves a special mention. It is the first time that a team organized aerodynamic testing. They sacrificed light weight to get more "aero".

The "aero" time trial bike used by Renault-Elf
(From here)

Although its aerodynamic benefits would be questioned today, back then it was a huge deal. The biggest thing was getting rid of the stem by putting the "stem" right through a hole in the head tube. It limited the bike's turning radius but I never heard of one of their racers crashing because he couldn't steer enough. Other points included aero profile tubes, aero brake cables (sort of controvesial at the time, considered to be less safe than non-aero cables), aero pedals, a very cool looking aero dynamic wing handlebar (the center portion resembled a huge wing about four inches front to back) and, probably most significantly as far as actual function, an aero waterbottle.

As an idea of weight, Sean Kelly's aluminum Vitus bike would have weighed about 17 or 18 pounds with the lightest stuff (i.e. in time trial trim), maybe an extra pound in normal trim. The Gitane weighed about 22 lbs.

Aero weighed a lot back in the 80s. Moser's disc wheels weighed about 5 pounds each, and Mavic even came out with a weighted disc (you'd put puck like weights in special holes located around the disc) so you could adjust the flywheel effect of the wheel.

Nowadays though aero is not heavy. The bikes are light, they push the limits of the UCI minimum weight, and yet they are loads more aero than some of the primitive bikes listed above. Racers use tall profile rims all the time, even in mass start races, and I expect to see more aero helmets, frames, and accessories as the pros look for any advantage to help them get that next win.

Aero started somewhere though, and it started in time trials. Its significant bikes started with the Gitane, continued with Moser, and then culminated with the Looks. I'm not counting the crazy stuff that got illegalized, and much of it, including the Superman position, were used almost exclusively on the track. RBA did hit the last of the weird TT bikes, the Pinarello "Huffy Toss" being one that comes to mind.

But RBA skipped all the aero development in time trial bikes and that's to their discredit. With articles like that one they will reduce their credibility. Someone called Bicycling Magazine "Buy-cycling" for all their wishy washy bike reviews that favor their advertisers. It would be a shame if RBA went down this road.


Anonymous said...

you know, I had to reload your blog page three times...
A time trial entry on Aki's blog???
Yes, it was true.
Thanks for that interesting look at the TT history. Reading the linked RBA story I have to agree. "Be nice to the hand that feeds you"...
To list Specialized Transition in this article is just the icing of the cake. Gerolsteiner's TT guys still used their Walsers instead.

The "S. Transition" also brings up another point that would be worth a whole discussion by itself.
Every TT frame these days seems to come with the label:
"wind tunnel tested"
remember some years ago when every computer came with "Intel inside" stickers??? in the end, it got diluted to nothing special.
Manufacturers advertise with the amount of hours spent in the wind tunnel turning it into a suggestive force of a buying argument.
It's easier in the world of car engineering. If you claim your car has exceptional aerodynamics, you provide a CW value and all world can compare it with your competitor.
But we don't see this with bikes. O.k., we got riders with individual proportions creating a final aerodynamic unit with the frame that is hard to be quantified.
But when looking at the extreme shape variations like the new stealth fighter like Orbea Ordu, the smooth P3C or the new Transition - all claimed to be results of endless wind tunnel testing - it just leaves that aftertaste of "so what????".
I also think there may be basic aerodynamic principles that make sense to us that don't have an advanced physics degree. Airfoil shaped tubes? Sure! Rear wheel cut out? makes sense! But am I now made to believe a downward sloping compact shape of the Transition top tube is the way to go as they claim??? I doubt it. But by putting the sticker on: "wind tunnel inside", you get your way.

The TT world is very big on the "science" side. But it seems like each manufacturer still finds their way to twist science to fit into their signature. I just wish it'd be a bit more transparent.

On a second - and shorter note.
I wonder if we would have this discussion here - and RBA their article - if it wasn't for the mass phenomenon that triathlons have turned into. Think about how many road racers you know that actually have their own TT bike for these two or three occasions per year that you would need one. Though there are clear differences between a road TT and a Tri bike leg, it's probably thanks to the mass demand of triathletes for tri/TT bikes that we now have such a large variety of these highly specialized bikes and companies investing much in R/D. The cutting edge development is still going to serve the Pro peloton first, but thanks to a mass market behind it, we all are able to ride what the Tour guys ride against the clock.

now, if we just had the same engines...


Aki said...

guido - You have some good points.

First, the Transition vs Walsers, I noticed for the first time that the smaller Walsers appear to have the same "through-head-tube" stem as the original "aero" TT bike, the Gitane. And on a day that should have been Specialized's triumph, their bikes were nowhere to be seen. This is probably why you see QuickStep in Specialized ads, not Gerolsteiner.

Second, you're right on wind tunnel testing. It's like "all natural" food - apparently there is no definition for "all natural" in the FDA's dictionary. So your chemically enhanced food can be "all natural". With wind tunnel testing there are so many variables that there isn't even a consensus on what constitutes a proper wind tunnel for cyclists. I guess a % reduction works when dealing with one wind tunnel, but across multiple ones there are no standards. Plus, since the rider makes up most of the resistance, and it highly variable (different posture etc), it's hard to control such variables. A static statue of a rider (like Cervelo has for Dave Z) would work to make rider drag consistent but then the bike would be optimized for only him. It's very difficult, this standardization of wind tunnel data.

Finally, I totally agree that triathlons pushed the drive to develop aero/TT bikes. Since triathlons depended *only* on TT bikes (and such bikes saved significant and measurable time over 112 miles, much longer than any "normal" time trial), and there were much more lax rules about allowable bikes, the triathlon market caused the TT bike world to explode. Aerobars were used by triathletes long before the pros, and the most unusual frames came out of triathlon-aimed companies.

S Andranian said...

"Fignon had been riding that Renault-Elf "aero" time trial bike (described below), but compared to the space machine under Moser, he was severely handicapped."

I believe that Fignon rode a standard road bike in the final time trial during the 1984 Giro, not the Gitane "Delta" time trial bike. I wonder why he did this...I have never heard an explanation for it. It would not be the last time that Fignon would make an equipment mistake prior to riding a final TT in a grand tour!

Aki said...

You know, you're right. I remember the two page spread in Winning magazine, and Fignon's bike had the non-aero brake cables. Therefore he couldn't have been on the Delta bike. I'll have to dig up the magazine (I just started paging through them a couple nights ago).