Malboro Gains

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With the marginal gains philosophy entrenched across the majority of the top teams these days, I find it surprising that most use a bulky radio system in time trials to communicate to their team car. It looks like they’ve stuffed a packet of fags up their skin-suits, surely there’s a better way than this?

Radio Technology

When all of us carry a mobile phone, pro cycling teams are using a much larger & bulkier unit than an i-phone to relay information to & from their riders. I’m was very confused about this, it blatantly gets in the way of the airflow over the rider, a device like a mobile phone would have a much smaller profile & save a few more watts.

After my ranting on twitter about this, I think I’ve overlooked a few things, these radios are not designed for bike racing, and mobile phones only work if they’re in range of a transmitter. When we see bike races, we admire the amazing scenery, but as anybody who’s been to the mountains of Europe (or the general rule in Scotland, if you’ve got a nice view, you’ve got no phone signal), they probably don’t work for the majority of European race routes, traversing 200km of wilderness.

So lets imagine somebody who’s in charge of in-race communication at Team Sky, we’ve discounted the light & compact mobile phone option as unusable during any normal race, so we go back to radios. As anybody who’s experimented with anything other than ‘CBs’ in domestic race organising, as soon as you use the light & low power radios, once the event gets split up, or there’s a hill bigger than a railway bridge, you can probably forget communication. So we generally revert to ‘CBs’, but even these get out of range pretty easily & voices become crackled. Now what units are available? Not many that meet our requirements unfortunately, it has to be slim, aero, without a giant antenna. It may be the case that Sky & others are using the least worst option here, finding communication more important than the lost watts they incur by having a ‘packet of fags’ under their jersey. There are other very short distance radios that are much smaller, so I’m assuming that riders are not just communication with the following car, but also getting info in time trials from other sources who also have radios.

Aero Profiles

The placement of the radio on the back may seem like the worst place to put it, but perhaps this is simply to get the best signal at all times. We saw Fabio Aru with a pocket sewn into the outside of his skinsuit to carry his, which must be an even worse option than the under-the-suit position. The radios we see also have very sharp corners and as anybody who’s done even basic studying of aerodynamics, this is far from ideal, smoothing out corners to even slightly rounded can have a significant effect (I can’t find an actual photo of the Sky radio unit anywhere, can anybody help?).

There are likely some other places to put these units, but maybe these have been tried & discounted. Such as under the tail of the helmet (may raise tail & disrupt flow), inside the helmet (probably against UCI rules), fitted aero on the bike (again UCI rules) or behind the saddle as the track team do with their SRM units. The latter idea may be blown out of the water by the final item on this blog, carrying a six pack of beer, where there’s less drag with the beer in a rucksack on your back, than on the rack behind the rider. Beer used in aero performance tactics, you heard it here first!

But looking into the aero effects a bit more, I found some surprising sensible information from the Specialized wind tunnel, which showed that carrying a bottle in the back pocket was more aero than carrying it on the bike, although not a radio, it should give some idea of what’s going on. But bear in mind this was with a cross rider, so not in an aero position, we can assume an exposed item on somebody’s back would have a greater impact. Here’s the video.

Conclusion

It looks like wind tunnel tests may have shown the teams that the position on the back, under the skinsuit, although slower than no radio, is the best option currently available. It may also be that they’re looking for a product that doesn’t yet exist on the market. This may be one of the next innovations that we see in the peloton over the next couple of years, a communication company teaming up with a professional cycling team to develop a lightweight, waterproof, low-profile radio with excellent range that can be used in other sports. Maybe sports car racing where drivers can wear the radio, so cuts down time on having to plug in to the car radio, marathon runners if it’s featherweight, there are likely many sports applications and even more leisure ones. The problem is with a product like this, it’s currently only allowed to be used in the top level races in cycling, under the rules would have to be commercially available, so they can’t sell very many until other markets are identified, it would probably be incredibly expensive. Looking back, I was probably wrong to give the teams a good slagging, it seems they may have some valid reasons, but it’s not pretty & there are improvements to be made in the near future. I’ve no doubt that teams such as Sky have already identified this & are working on it, who knows, they may be saving up their innovations for the Tour.

Further viewing for the everyday cyclist

If you’re still interested in the more practical uses, and judging by the interactions I have with readers on this blog on twitter, the following data on the most aero way to carry a six pack of beer may be an everyday benefit to most riders, over saving a few seconds in a time trial.

More Than Marginal

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Nobody can deny that Team Sky has had a substantial effect on the pro peloton since it appeared in 2010. After a shaky start, it had a major influence in making the attention to tiny details acceptable in the culture of pro cycling, which may not produce a flamboyant spectacle, but has proved very successful in getting results. Although not many of their innovations are particularly groundbreaking in themselves, the culture of the ‘Accumulation of Marginal Gains’, (multiple small gains leading to one large gain) has now been widely accepted in a sport which did many things along the line of established tradition.

No More Margins?

There were obviously plenty of riders & teams implementing small improvements long before Sky, but having the freedom to develop those innovations was likely met with the “we’ve always done it this way ” mentality. It now seems that any further technical improvements are extremely marginal with current technology & budgets, alongside the fact that everybody else is doing it now, suddenly Sky don’t look so special anymore. So where do the teams go from here to gain a further legal advantage over their rivals? (a Team Sky motorbike is not acceptable)

With four years of marginal gains in the peloton, it looks like we’ve eventually come to a point where those gains are so small, that vast sums could be spent on virtually unmeasurable improvements. This isn’t a smart use of a team budget, when they’ve successfully ‘fixed’ most of the big things & have left themselves with the worthless scraps to attempt to improve upon. The philosophy appears to have been quite simple, produce more watts in the critical situations, or reduce the wattage required in that critical situation in order to win races. Which is why Sky’s 2012 & 2013 Tour victories have appeared more clinical & effective, than overflowing with panache.

It may appear like I’m having a go here, I’m certainly not, Sky’s management noticed a gap in the market, they saw an opportunity to exploit that gap until it closed. The gap in 2014 looks to be on shaky ground, in 2015 they’ll almost certainly not win a grand tour with this philosophy alone. The other teams & riders have taken their opportunities & replicated Sky’s ‘Marginal Gains’ philosophy, it looks like we’re back to pretty close to a level playing field & it’s now up to Sky to decide how to get back on top.

Tactics

Ensuring that your team leader produces more watts/kg than the next guy on mountains  & more watts/drag in the time trials works when you have a significant advantage on the competition. When things are more level, it either takes a bigger margin in watts, weight, or drag to maintain your advantage. I’ve covered the weight issue in Skinnyfixation & Weight a Minute, we know that the bike weight cannot go below 6.8kg (the UCI know about the ice-cube trick, fill the seat tube with ice cubes for weigh-in & let the melted water drain out the bottom bracket hole before the hills).

It looks like it’s perhaps time for a team like Sky to attempt to deal with more with the uncontrollable, up to this point their tactics have been relatively simple, making their riders & equipment better than the others at the critical points in a race. The groundwork had been planned & implemented in the years & months prior to that point in time, but as a result, with riders & staff moving to other teams, those advances are now common knowledge amongst the peloton. Intricate tactics were not really required when your rider could out-climb & out-timetrial the opposition in a stage race. If you could control the race until your main focus, where you knew your team leader had an advantage, then you would win. As we’ve seen a few times recently, when things go slightly wrong, they go dramatically wrong, on two occasions Sky have lost their leader in the Tour de France due to a crash, in 2011 & 2014. It’s still to be seen if their backup rider Richie Porte can fill that gap with Chris Froome missing from the 2014 Tour. As I’ve said before, he may struggle to ride consecutive days with the best, drop Nibali on a climb, or take any deficit back in a time trial, we see that Sky’s effective but simple plan no longer functions if you don’t have the best rider.

I don’t doubt Sky knew their advantage was going to diminish sooner or later , it was inevitably going to happen at some point. The success of Sky meant that the other teams had to adopt Sky’s practices & match or excel them, so things will be very interesting if Sky now deviate to a goal of tactical superiority. I’m hoping that we’re going to see Sky trying a few things, regardless of the consequences, in order to test new tactics while gathering their much valuable data. A combination of continued marginal gain philosophy & advanced tactics are the only way it’s possible for Sky to consider winning the Tour in the future. They’ve never hired what would be considered the best stage racers in the world, but they have created them producing an incredible amount of success. The margins are now smaller, controlling the uncontrollable is now where things have to go.

The Gist Of It

The next couple of years will either be very interesting & experimental, failing that we’ll simply see all the teams catching up. For a team like Sky, allowing this to happen is unlikely, they seem to always be pushing, but it’s possible that the current direction of that push is severely limited. The marginal gains philosophy will continue, but possibly coupled with more tactical ways of beating superior riders from other teams.

Perhaps this is more of a wish than reality, I’d love to see Sky’s support riders go out & race, rather than support their team leaders on most occasions. Riders like Geraint Thomas, who have reputedly signed another deal need to given some scope to leave their leaders side & go for the win. This blog was written at the first rest day of the 2014 Tour, where the next few days are crunch time for Porte in the GC race, so we may still see Thomas, Kiryienka, Nieve, Porte & the others going for stages. Wouldn’t that be nice, to see some panache, maybe make some mistakes, but seeing riders of this quality actually racing rather than supporting is what I look forward to. Lets race.

 

Dauphine 2014 Observations#1

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The Dauphiné has always seemed quite a special race to me, I’m not entirely sure why, perhaps it’s Robert Millar’s fault. It encompasses many of the parts I enjoy most about the Tour de France, notably some familiar mountains, but also it allows the drama to ignite between the Tour contenders. It’s a huge race to win regardless of what happens at the Tour, some riders honing form, some taking psychological blows on rivals, others fighting for team places, the shadow of the Tour de France is all over this race. The Critérium du Dauphiné is where things really start kicking off between the major stars in cycling, but also between the domestiques, this & the Tour de Suisse are battle grounds between GC contenders & the final places on Tour de France rosters, the stakes are high.

The Story So Far

We’re up to stage six & looking forward to the finale of the weekend mountain stages, with Saturday likely to be the most brutal. What have we learned about the form of the Tour contenders present at this race?

The opening 10km prologue was won by Froome, which isn’t really a surprise. Interestingly we saw Contador finish in 2nd place, his time trialling hasn’t really been up to its former incredible level for a while now, but it looks like he’s back to near his best, but hopefully not up to the Cancellara beating performances of 2009*. Contador’s interviews have shown that he’s been doing much more aerobic training than ever before during the winter, so using different methods for base training looks to be paying off for him, showing he was always a talented rider. Bert is a joy to watch on the bike, while Froome is as ungainly as ever, his upper body always seeming unable to deal with the power passing through his legs, but it seems to work for him. The contrasting styles make their battles even more compelling, the third week in July is going to see many casualties if these two remain or improve on the form they currently have.

The accelerations we saw on the Col du Béal from Froome were impressive. Seated accelerations under high load to reach a high cadence are not unfamiliar to anybody from a track background. Although some marvel at them, it looks to me like an attack on a fixed gear in a velodrome, something of which the coaches from the BC system who now work with Sky will have had many years of experience in developing. When people ask what exactly can we transfer from track to mountains, I’d suggest that the seated acceleration Froome is displaying is potentially one of the un-noticed ones. I can’t really remember anybody else making this so effective in the past, even in the ‘bad old’ years. It’s an incredibly efficient way to attack if you can do it, he stays aero & crouched, especially important for him as he has the upper body mass of Gollum, if he got out of the saddle too much he’d snap.

As for the performance being extraordinary, there were no huge time gaps over other contenders, such as Nibali, who although being touted as being out of form, still managed to finish within 30 seconds. Froome’s accelerations were mightily impressive, but his ability to sustain that effort didn’t seem possible, had it been he may have been able to break Bert, but that never happened & they slowed to allow the others to re-group. I found Talansky & Kelderman to be showing signs they can also be challenging for high positions in July. The Garmin rider is looking much more like a top 5 Tour rider now, the teams 2014 protected rider it seems, Kelderman for the white jersey? Van Den Broeck was also riding well, all these riders took their chances & had a go at attacking, we’ll see what happens on Saturday.

Otherwise so far the only significant point for the GC was when Contador attacked on a descent, which I’ll cover later.

* (Before anybody else tells me Lac d’Annecy was a very hilly TT, it wasn’t, there was one wee bump, I’ve ridden the course, he rode 40.5km in 48 & a half minutes, not exactly a mountain TT speed). 

Porte in a Storm

When Sky decided to make a point on stage 2, the Col du Béal being the battle ground. Thomas did a huge turn, but we saw Richie Porte ‘attack out the back’ of the group, when we expect him to one of the last riders at head of the Sky train. Nieve is looking like the last guy who’s going to lead Froome in the latter stages of the Tour mountains, unless Porte can pull something together & sort out his consistency.

I suspect Richie doesn’t recover as well as Froome, but if given a rest for a day or two can be right up there with the best again. Perhaps not indicating he’s a Grand Tour winner (yet), but certainly a super-domestique & week-long stage race winner when the big boys are not in town. This was evident yesterday, Contador attacked on a descent (which I hope he keeps doing) & the gap went out to over a minute, Porte was working on the front, with only himself & Nieve left to help Froome. As the gap went out I thought Porte was unable to close it, but he quickly increased the pace & took 40 seconds from Contador, on a climb over a short distance. This shows he’s still got the ability after all his problems this year, but he needs to be used wisely, insisting on him going for a high overall placing isn’t going to help anybody, he needs used, rested, then used on another stage, he can’t double up. A vanity attempt to get a good result on GC is going to end in tears I suspect, plus a rider falling apart & seeming to fail isn’t going to help Sky’s PR after leaving the bearded one behind.

The Gist Of It

You can’t bluff on Saturday, 161 km through two 2nd cat climbs, a 1st cat & two beyond category, anybody suffering will be found out. I’ve ridden the Forclaz, but not familiar with the Finhaut Emosson, which rides to nearly 2000m for a mountain top finish. I’ll be finding some excuse to be sitting in front of the telly to see what happens there tomorrow, hopefully Froome’s crash today won’t blur anything & we’ll see a true Froome/Contador battle on the final mountain.