Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tradition vs. Technology

Paris Roubaix is a race steeped in tradition. Every chapter in the race's history sees common threads woven throughout, and this lays the foundation for Paris Roubaix's timeless appeal. Almost every other race in the PRO calendar has been touched by the hand of modern bicycle technologies. A look at the Tour de France reveals high-tech machines taking advantage of the most advanced technologies available to the manufacturing world—an engineer's showcase of the thinnest, lightest, and fastest—an envelope pushed so far that the UCI has a specific rule in place in an attempt to keep things safe.
The race's tradition extends far beyond the route, the stones, or the concrete showers, rather the tradition extends into the mindset of the riders themselves. Many understand that the race is comprised of unpredictable events and the fastest way to a win is to limit as many unknowns as possible.

A walk though the start village in Compiègne illustrates the different strategies of the teams. Some teams and riders opt for cantilever brakes, others the standard road calipers. Some go for double tape, the 23, 25, 27, 28mm tires, and suspension forks. The list of Roubaix-specific accoutrement is as long as the line at the espresso tents. However, there is one gear selection that remains almost unanimous among teams: the decision to ride "traditional wheels".

The term "traditional" is used by many of the teams to describe the traditional, 32-hole hub, three cross spoke pattern and "low profile" rim with a tubular tire glued to it. Over the years and with all the developments in wheel technology, it is fascinating that the wheel choice for Roubaix remains a "low-tech" option.

Undoubtedly, the high-tech players are in hot pursuit of a seat at the Roubaix table. Zipp, for example, has been hard at work developing a deep section carbon wheel capable of delivering all the performance characteristics against the wind, while continuing to be able to handle the stones. Most recently, the CSC team has been spotted at Flanders with a deep section, rear wheel, and a traditional front.

(BKW has spent some time speaking with the folks at Zipp; stay tuned for a future post featuring Zipp's experiences at the Classics and the future of a deep-section carbon Roubaix wheel.)

For more information on the traditional wheel approach, we placed a call to BKW friend and PRO mechanic George Noyes. As a recap, George turned wrenches for cycling's best and did his time in the trenches for 7-Eleven, Motorola, Cofidis, and Mapei. George has built enough wheels in his career to fill a stadium and included in his builds are wheels that carried the Lion himself to victory at Roubaix.

When speaking about the traditional wheel style with George, it becomes immediately evident that he remains passionate about wheel building and he respects the love and attention to detail so common among traditionally constructed wheels. Although the options for wheel building seem endless, the builds at Roubaix all seem to be alike.

A wheel for Roubaix needs to deliver overall durability, lateral stiffness, and the ability to absorb impact. George confirmed that in the years before deep section, carbon wheels, mechanics often built the wheels with lower spoke tension to give the wheel a softer ride. Today, however, George notes that riders prefer their wheels built with a higher spoke tension because most are accustomed to the ride quality of today's high tension wheels.

An interesting side note regarding the wheels for Roubaix: George recalls, the mechanics always pulled the oldest wheels first. Back in those days, the traditional wheelset was the only wheelset. The Mapei team used the oldest wheels on the truck for Roubaix and, quite simply, Roubaix would be the final ride for these wheels, prompting immediate retirement upon removal from the bike. The team's star riders would always begin Roubaix on a new set of wheels.

Here is a quick glance at the wheel builds for Johan and team:

Front Wheel
Rim: Ambrosio Nemesis 32 hole
Hub: Shimano Dura Ace 32 hole
Spokes: Sapim or DT (Aero when available*)
Tire: Vittoria
Build: 3X with lower tension in spokes

Rear Wheel
Rim: Ambrosio Nemesis 32 hole
Hub: Shimano Dura Ace 32 hole
Spokes: Sapim or DT (Aero then tied and soldered)
Tire: Vittoria
Build: 3X with lower tension in spokes

* Aero spokes were an expensive option and despite the Mapei budget, they were not always available to the mechanics.

Tire pressure remains as much art as science. According to George, the ideal tire pressure for the Roubaix course walks a very fine line, balancing enough pressure to keep the rider above the stones and low enough that the bike feels stable and provides shock absorption. Like cyclocross, tire pressure is considered too high if the rider doesn't frequently bounce off the rim.

The best riders have mastered the art of riding "lightly" enough that they can run a ridiculously low pressure without puncturing. Typical pressure for the Mapei riders hovered around 5 3/4 bars (83 PSI) for the rear and a shockingly low 5 bars (72 PSI) in the front. "The lower the pressure, the more stable the bike is over the stones," notes George.

During our talks, George laughed as he recalled Museeuw's tendency to bleed out air prior to the start of Roubaix. This served as an outlet for nervous energy and the best were always pushing the envelope, seeking the lowest possible pressure. "I used to threaten to glue the valves closed so Johan could not change the pressure," says George.

The traditional wheel set-up has been a part of Roubaix's history since the first race back in 1896. Although developments in wheel design have grown exponentially in the last few years (and some are Roubaix specific), Roubaix appears to be a race where the PROs themselves fear leaving anything to chance and the fear of embracing technology comes from a traditional mindset trusting a traditional wheelset.

The wheels featured in the photos above were built by the skilled hands of George and bound for Max Van Heeswijk's Willems Veranda's Continental Team.

Photo courtesy George Noyes


Bolivar said...

Oh so true, even some guys like the tied and soldered. One thing I have noticed is a few riders prefer to ride different bikes then the feather weight carbon rigs they are usually on, obviously to hold up to the beating. In 2006 PVP and most of Lotto was on a Ridley scandium frame, Ballan was on a custom steel frame from Wilier, Tafi also rode a custom steel from made be Cervelo when he was with CSC and a Ti Bianchi with Alessio.

Doug Cutting said...

Looser spokes don't actually make the wheel any softer. That's a myth.

Radio Freddy said...

Bolivar - This year will be no different, I love the post-race photos on Cyclingnews. There is always something to spot. It's like "Where's Waldo".

Doug - I have seen Sheldon's piece and I believe it to be correct. However, I think in this case, I chalk the low tension theory up to Roubiax lore. If it makes the rider's body feel that little bit better knowing there is less tension in the wheel and it is capable of the job before it, than to me, it works. It's the Harry Hogge matched tires theory.

- RF

Chris Kostman said...

I ready your blog daily. Thank you! Thanks, too, for linking over to my blog recently. Much appreciated! Sorry to use a "comment" to try to contact you, but for the life of me, I can't figure out how to reach out to you otherwise. In light of your new posts about "tradition" and "technology," I thought you might be interested in the "Classic Rendezvous" division we're now offering (featuring 1983 and older technology) at our 508-mile bicycle race through Death Valley, Furnace Creek 508. Info here:

Again, sorry to use a "comment" to pass this along. I'm not trying to ride on your coattails; just bring something to your attention which you may find interesting. Thanks! - CK

Anonymous said...

I've done the Roubaix sportif twice now and both times I saw people with broken "boutique" wheels along the route. I used record on open pro 32 spokes 3 cross with 25c tyres at 6 bar and have never had a problem on the ride although I did find the rear rim had split in 2006. You can't beat trdition.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, as always :)
But during RVV I thought about flat tires... What do you think about new road tubeless systems (and perhaps additional tire sealant). In some ways PRO world is very orthodox...but maybe it would solve the problem?

Jurgen said...

Yeah, riding a steel frame myself and classic 36 spoke wheels with Dura-Ace hubs, it's totally my kind of thing, the comfort, the confidence you get riding a rig like that, hard to find with other stuff ...and yes, Doug Cutting is right, looser tension don't make for softer wheels ...

Feel fee to check out my blog:

Anonymous said...

Are these of the same caliber of "Classics"?

hog said...

I bet Magnus Backstedt wished he was on a set of these when he left the Arnenberg forest today.....

bikesgonewild said...

...oh my, hog, i hadda chuckle when ya beat me to the thought...but it wasn't funny & i know magy wasn't laughing when his zipps left him w/ zip on the cobbles...
...dunno what george was riding, but a trashed wheel spoiled his day also... freddy, that's gonna be an interesting interview w' zipp...

db said...

Interesting, maybe even ironic, that Magnus pretty much had the final say on the S-C rigs:

For wheels, Zipp outfitted the squad with its special Classic pairing of a 303 front and 404 rear carbon rims mated with specialty butted aluminum spokes for greater comfort. Backstedt will ride this setup, while riders such as Mike Friedman, Will Frischkorn and Maartijn Maaskant may continue on the 202 models they rode at the Tour of Flanders.

I'm interested to see that ZIPP interview as well, especially if recent performance is broached.

Little_Jewford said...

Zipp interview? When? Where? And as anyone seen a pick of his deceased wheels?

Aram said...

on a side note...

the wheels you have pictured are 100% dreamy.

Art said...

I don't get the loose spokes. With comfort a non-issue, it would make more sense to jack them way up so they don't go slack and throw the rim out at the end of the day. What's even stranger is that a lot of these special wheels are built up with straight 14 ga spokes.

gnarlygnu said...

one, the article on Sheldon Brown wasn't done by Sheldon, two, it measures lateral deflection and not radial deflection, and the limit of what he deems significant is beyond a performance standard

spokejunky said...

If only we could get the Ambrosio here in the SE.

AH said...

try here:

Bolivar said...

I have become a traditionalist, I love the ride a hand-built wheel provides. Nothing better in my book.

Georges Rouan said...

Great post.
It resonated with me because of the lost art of wheelbuilding as more and more riders/racers have moved to the benifits of pre-built wheel systems.

I can not remember where I read it but I thought the likes of Taffi would bring along their own wheels(built to the standard you describe in yoru article) and forego those by the team. Inteh description I remember it being stated that often times the labels of the brand on the wheel would be covered up.
One thing is for sure, Paris Roubaix seems to breed the most superstious riders.