Pure talent isn’t enough to win the Tour de France. To compete against the world’s best, you need a good team, some good luck, and a very, very good bike. For bike nerds, the Tour is the best place to see the latest and greatest bike tech in action.
The basics of a road race bike haven’t changed — two wheels, a frame, and pedals. The bicycle has evolved a lot in 120 years, but over the last 30, there have been huge leaps forward in bike design and construction. These technological shifts have shaped modern Tour de France bikes into the pedal-powered rockets ships they are today.
As we watch the Tour and ogle the flashy new bikes, let’s look back at the history behind three of the biggest technological shifts in the Tour: aerodynamics, carbon fiber, and electronic drivetrains. We’ll also take a quick peek at three pieces of new tech we’ll see on Tour de France winning bikes in the future.
The age of aero
Since the late 1800s, cyclists have understood that air resistance is the greatest force to overcome. Drop handlebars were perhaps the original aero component, allowing riders to get in lower positions. The first aerodynamic disc wheel dates all the way back to 1895. And in the early 1900s, riders were trying to set the hour record using bikes equipped with aerodynamic fairings before the UCI outlawed them.
Largely due to the UCI’s restrictive regulations, aero bike design stagnated for decades. But in the early 1970s, bike builders began experimenting with aerodynamic frame tubing and designs that could fit within the regulations.
Greg LeMond with his race-winning aero bars. Photo by: BeWePa | Flickr Creative Commons
Aerodynamics finally reached the tipping point in the 1989 Tour de France. American Greg LeMond trailed French rider Laurent Fignon by 50 seconds. Commentators thought this deficit was too large for LeMond to close. With nothing to lose, LeMond made the bold decision to put a pair of aero bars on his bike and to wear an aero helmet for the final time trial.
LeMond’s critics called these new devices ugly and unsafe, questioning if they would make any difference. But he won the stage and, more importantly, he beat Fignon in the general classification by eight seconds — the smallest winning margin in history. With an average speed of 54.545kp/h (34.52mph), it was also the fastest time trial ever ridden in the Tour.
This was the beginning of the aero revolution. Aero bars and aero helmets soon became standard equipment in time trials.
Steel has been the de facto frame material for over 100 years, but aero steel tubing never really caught on due to the cost, weight, and fabrication challenges. But manufacturers began experimenting with aluminum and carbon fiber frames that were easier to form, allowing designers to create competitively light frames with wider airfoil-shaped tubes.
Bobby Julich racing on his Cervelo Soloist. Photo by: Frank Steele | Flickr Creative Commons
In 2001, the Canadian brand Cervélo introduced the Soloist, which claimed to be the first, true aero road bike. Up until then, aero frame designs had mostly been limited to track, time trial, and triathlon bikes. In 2003. Cervélo sponsored Team CSC, and several CSC riders used the Soloist on flat stages of the Tour.
The Soloist may seem tame now, but at the time, many were shocked by the enormous three-inch-wide down tube, and the prominent airfoil tube shapes.
Not only did it have groundbreaking aerodynamics, but the early model was one of the few aluminum frames that achieved success against its carbon fiber rivals. American Bobby Julich used the aluminum Soloist to win Criterium International and Paris-Nice in 2005.
Aero design also received a boost when the UCI introduced the 6.8 kg (14.99 lb) minimum weight limit for racing bikes in 2000. Bike manufacturers were already able to build bikes below the weight limit – the lightest frames weighed around 700g – but with the new restriction, riders couldn’t take full advantage of them in competition. Thus, advantages needed to be found elsewhere. Chasing aerodynamic gains was the obvious answer.
Aero testing in the Specialized wind tunnel. Photo courtesy of Specialized.
Today, new road bikes aren’t released without some mention of their enhanced aerodynamic properties. Aero bikes like the Specialized Venge took off in popularity, especially after Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan won Tour stages. Manufacturers keep spending large amounts of time and money on computational fluid dynamics and wind tunnel testing to develop new, more slippery bikes.
Does aero make sense for every rider? Mio Suzuki, Senior R&D Engineer leading aerodynamics at Specialized, has data that makes a strong argument in favor of it.
“Other than fitness, aerodynamics is the most important single factor that influences your speed on a road bike,” she says. “As low as 13mph you’ll begin to see speed benefits. Pros riding 20-30mph see an even bigger benefit. There's no question, [an aero bike] will definitely make you faster.”
Even “climbing” models like the Specialized Tarmac and the Pinarello Dogma (which has won the last five Tours), use extensive wind tunnel testing and aero shaping to gain a subtle advantage. To stay competitive in the modern Tour de France peloton, a bike has to use some form of aero shaping.
Lighter, stronger, faster
The last non-carbon tour winning bike. Photo by: Ciclismo Italia | Flickr Creative Commons
You may be surprised to learn that the last non-carbon bike to win the Tour de France was Marco Pantani’s aluminum Bianchi Mega Pro XL Reparto Corse in 1998. For the last 20 years, carbon fiber has dominated professional cycling. Now, every bike in the Tour de France peloton is carbon, and this is unlikely to change.
Carbon fiber originated in the aerospace industry. It is made of loose fibers composed of carbon atoms that are then suspended in resin to create a solid material. As mentioned earlier, carbon is a perfect material for constructing lightweight aero frames because it’s easy to form into complex aerodynamic shapes.
But there’s more to the story than that. I spoke with some carbon experts to get their take on why carbon has become the standard for high-performance bicycles.
Laying carbon fiber in a frame mold. Photo courtesy of Allied Cycle Works.
"The unique thing about carbon fiber is that it's very lightweight, but it’s also durable,” says Brady Kappius the founder of Broken Carbon, a premier carbon fiber bicycle repair shop. “You can make a very, very strong bike out of carbon fiber. A huge benefit is that the material can be engineered to act differently in different directions. You can design a carbon frame to be rigid in a specific direction, or rigid torsionally, while still having compliance in a different direction.”
"There is absolutely no doubt that, as a structural material, carbon is the best one for bicycles,” agrees Sam Pickman, director of product at Allied Cycle Works. “If you want to change how a metal bike feels, you have very little variables to play with. You have the thickness of the material and tube size.”
“With carbon, you unlock a whole different world,” Pickman says. “You can have incredible properties in one direction and they’ll change as you pull in different directions. What it allows you to do is change and tweak the characteristics that affect how a bike feels along the tube to hone it to do pretty much whatever you want it to do. It just gives you an unbelievable amount of control."
What this means is carbon bikes can be designed to have desirable properties like aero shaping, light weight, and stiffness, without compromising strength or comfort. Comfort may not seem like the most important trait for pro riders, but it can help riders arrive at the finish with less fatigue from road vibration and impacts. That adds up over 21 days of racing.
Bike manufacturers like Peugeot in France and Kestrel in the U.S. began experimenting with carbon frames in the early 1970s. There was a steep learning curve and it would be several years before modern monocoque frames came to market.
The Look KG 86. Photo courtesy of Look Cycles.
French manufacturer, Look, made its first carbon frame, the KG 86, with a lugged construction. The carbon tubes were made by a French company, TVT, which combined Kevlar with layers of woven carbon fiber for additional strength. The tubes were then bonded with epoxy into aluminum lugs. The KG 86 achieved legendary status when Greg LeMond (yes, LeMond again!) rode it to victory in the 1986 Tour de France. It was the first carbon bike to win the Tour.
Steel and aluminum Pinarellos would dominate for the next decade, but after Marco Pantani’s 1998 Tour win, carbon came into fashion with the advent of Lance Armstrong. Though later stripped of his victories, Armstrong collected seven yellow jerseys aboard Trek’s OCLV carbon fiber frames. OCLV stands for “Optimum Compaction Low Void” and refers to Trek’s process of placing carbon fiber sheets into a frame mold.
A commemorative Trek 5500.
Armstrong won the 1999 Tour on a Trek 5500. Interesting tidbit: thanks to Armstrong, 1999 was also the first-ever Tour victory for a Shimano equipped bike. Armstrong continued using Trek's 5000 series OCLV carbon frames until the carbon Trek Madone was released in 2003 (though he didn’t race it in the Tour until 2004).
In the last 30 years, Carbon has proliferated far beyond the Tour and the bike frame into every major component of the bike in all disciplines of cycling. For example, aerodynamic carbon wheels are standard equipment for professional racers. You will see plenty of pro bikes with carbon stems, handlebars, and seatposts. Now, it’s unlikely that we will ever see a non-carbon bike win the Tour again. There is a chance though, we’ll see some new carbon composites win in the future, but more on that later.
Derailleurs have been around nearly as long as the bike itself. Derailleur systems were already being designed and built in the late 1800s, but Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange didn’t allow riders to use derailleurs in the Tour until 1937. He was afraid the technology would make the race too easy. Before derailleurs, riders had two cogs on their rear wheel and they had to stop and flip it around to change gear.
2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas on Shimano Dura-Ace Di2. Photo courtesy of Shimano.
Until very recently, all derailleurs were actuated using cables. Then, in 2009, Shimano unveiled its Dura-Ace Di2 electronic drivetrain. SunTour, Mavic, and Campagnolo had all experimented with electronic drivetrains in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. But Dura-Ace Di2 was the first commercially viable electronic drivetrain.
It ignited an electronic drivetrain revolution. Other manufacturers soon followed suit with Campagnolo releasing Super Record EPS and Record EPS in 2011, and SRAM releasing Red eTap in 2015.
For racing at the Tour de France, electronic shifting is a clear advantage. I asked product managers from both Shimano And SRAM to explain.
“The biggest advantage is just how easy it is to shift,” says JP McCarthy, Road Product Manager for SRAM. “It may sound like a small thing, but cycling is a sport obsessed with marginal gains. Bikes are so good now that performance gains have to be squeezed out of the tiniest details. By making the act of shifting just a bit less physically or mentally demanding, an electronic drivetrain can allow riders to dedicate more focus and energy to other tasks like handling and producing power.”
A Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 front derailleur. The electric motor has made front chainring shifts more seamless and reliable. Photo courtesy of Shimano.
Not only are electronic shifters easier to actuate, but electronic groups also produce more consistent shifts.
“The [electric] motors on the derailleurs actuate at the same rate every time,” says Nick Legan, Road Brand Manager for Shimano North America. “It’s a more consistent shift. You will hit the gear you want every time, perfectly. It does give you a competitive edge.”
“If you're someone who finds themselves in dirty, dusty, or muddy conditions, an electronic setup is actually exceptionally weatherproof,” says Legan. “You don’t have to worry about water, grit, and mud. As long as there's power in the battery, the shifting doesn't degrade.”
Cadel Evans rides into Paris on Shimano Dura-Ace Di2. Photo by: DancingOnThePedals.net | Flickr Creative Commons
Despite these claims, many pros were initially hesitant to go electronic, fearing reliability issues. Then in 2011, Cadel Evans broke through. Not only did he become the first Australian to win the Tour, but the first rider to win it with an electronic drivetrain. His BMC Teammachine SLR01 was equipped with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2, and he suffered no Di2-related mechanicals on his path to victory.
In 2012, Bradley Wiggins backed up this success by winning the Tour with a Dura-Ace Di2 equipped Pinarello Dogma 65.1. Amazingly, eight of the last nine Tours have been won using an electronic drivetrain (Vincenzo Nibali won in 2014 with a mechanical Campagnolo Super Record drivetrain).
With all the current GC favorites on electronic drivetrains, it's clear that it’s the new standard for Tour de France racing.
“If you're looking for every little last performance advantage, electronic is the only way to go,” says Legan. “it is just a little bit faster, and a little consistent than a mechanical setup. At that level, it really matters.”
“The pros don't ride mechanical anymore,” says McCarthy. “At some point, you won’t see mechanical bikes winning any major races anymore.”
What to look for in future of Tour de France bikes
One could argue that disc brakes are already here. After wavering back and forth, The UCI finally approved the use of disc brakes for good in 2018. But despite many riders embracing the new technology, there are still big teams and riders who have stuck to traditional rim brakes.
Most notably, Team INEOS (INEOS Grenadiers) and Team Jumbo-Visma, who both have GC favorites, have stuck to rim brake models for the 2020 Tour.
You may see some teams switch to rim brakes on the toughest climbing stages as riders seek every advantage, even if it is only in their head. After all, new disc-brake frames regularly come in under 800 grams, so it's not hard to get down to the 6.8kg weight limit with disc brakes.
The big concern for many is mixing riders on different brakes may lead to dangerous accidents due to different stopping distances. Knowing the UCI, I wouldn’t be surprised if they change the rules in the future, making disc brakes the only option. When that happens, you can expect to see new, lighter, more aerodynamic disc brake designs begin to appear.
Stan's NoTubes, the biggest name in tubeless sealant. Photo courtesy of stan's NoTubes.
On stage 2 of this year’s Tour de France, Julian Alaphillipe won on clinchers. The year before, his Deceuninck–Quick-Step teammate Fabio Jakobsen won a stage at the Tour of California on tubeless tires and claimed they felt faster.
These were both historic wins since tubular tires have been the standard in professional racing over 100 years. Deceuninck–Quick-Step and its sponsor, Specialized, are leading the charge away from tubulars.
Though Alaphilippe’s current Roval wheels (a Specialized brand) are clincher-only, I suspect tubeless is still the better choice for the future Tour de France bikes.
Tubeless technology has already become the standard for mountain and gravel bikes, and the benefits for rolling resistance, puncture protection, and serviceability are hard to ignore. I expect the first tubeless Tour stage win to come soon as tubeless road set-ups become more refined and standardized over the next few years.
Graphene structure. Photo by: UCL Mathematical & Physical Sciences | Flickr Creative Commons
This is the big one. Graphene is a new, super-strong material that could change carbon frame construction as we know it. It’s an allotrope, or a different form, of carbon (carbon can take the form of diamond, graphite, and charcoal). Expressed very simply, it is a single atomic layer of graphite arranged in a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice.
Its primary use in cycling would be as a carbon fiber additive. It improves strength because it chemically bonds to both the resin and the carbon fiber, increasing the “interfacial shear strength.” Instead of the resin and carbon fibers being separate, you get what is essentially a single material that is stronger and more uniform.
Frames made using graphene will not only be stronger but can also weigh up to 50% less. The potential here is for aero bikes with extreme shapes (like deep, sculpted tubes) that are still outrageously light.
Also, graphene is an incredibly conductive substance. There is potential to build graphene circuitry into graphene bike frames so riders can have built-in electronic drivetrain wires, integrated sensors, or other electronics to enhance the cycling experience.
Dassi is a small British bike company (possibly defunct) experimenting with graphene composites. Photo by: DuraSport Jewel | Flickr Creative Commons
Some manufacturers are already experimenting with putting graphene in frames and other cycling components. But it will likely be several years before we see these products hit prime time in the Tour de France. The UCI will likely need to change its restrictive weight limit for riders and manufacturers to take full advantage of graphene.
What did I miss? What's your opinion on disc brakes and tubeless tires in the Tour? What new tech are you excited to see? Let us know in the comments!