Paris-Roubaix – Ride to Survive

I’m no Formula 1 fan, but I watched the Netflix doc Formula 1 – Drive to Survive and found it interesting. Motorsports are apex climate change denialism, to me, a global tour of carbon-burning nihilism. The show was pretty interesting though. Any story where you get the inner machinations of the race teams and a pek at the heavy emphasis on vehicle technology is going to be compelling. What I learned from watching is that, basically, if you have the fastest car, you’re gonna win most of the races. Drivers matter, definitely, but the car is more important.

TCI is sponsored by Shimano, who make wheels you might like, or might even need.

In most bicycle racing, technology is important too, although, I’d argue, more neutral. There will be subtle differences between race bikes, but nothing so radically unique as to give one team a distinct advantage over the others. The UCI has worked hard, throughout its history, at banning technologies that might take the emphasis off the riders and put it squarely on the bikes. There is a whole separate post to be written about the negative knock-on effect their control has had on bicycle innovation, but let’s set that aside for now.

Over the weekend I watched the Paris-Roubaix races (hommes and femmes) and discovered that a couple of the teams were using wireless tire pressure control technology, giving riders the ability to add or subtract air from their tires from a button on the handlebar. In a race like Roubaix, this is potentially game-changing. It’s a first step toward making the bike possibly more critical than the rider, or at least toward giving certain riders a clear technological advantage.

Roubaix is a race of attrition, with crashes and mechanicals almost always playing a big role in who wins. When the peloton moved to tubeless tires, the incidence of flats in the race decreased, but the cobblestones of Northern France are brutal enough that you could still flat a tire or even destroy a wheel entirely. Adding hydro monitoring and control to the picture is next level, because you could harden the tires (a la Formula One) for certain road conditions and soften them for others.

We’ll see what the UCI does with this. I am surprised they allowed it in such a high-profile race before all teams got access to it, but I’m probably behind the story. There was likely a lot of drama about this in the Euro press that I missed. Nonetheless, in the race itself, the new tire pressure technology didn’t help Team Jumbo Visma (one of two teams running it). Their lead rider, Wout van Aert, still managed to flat out of contention.

Is this technological doping? It’s not a motor, but it does take some of the tasks of rider support out of the team car (or neutral service) and put it on the bike. This may all be prelude to future races that ARE decided by which riders have to stop to change a wheel and those who can just reinflate and ride on. How quickly the big wheel makers acquire and adapt the technology will be very interesting. It may also presage a time when schlubs like you and I are riding wheels that can fix their own flats, and we find ourselves rooting not for our favorite riders, but for our favorite bikes, as they become the real starts of show.

Join the conversation
  1. Jeff vdD says

    I’m new to F1 (through Drive to Survive), so certainly can’t claim expertise. That won’t stop me from making claims, though. Yes, the differences in F1 cars are significant, more so than the differences in World Tour bikes. But on RedBull, with two allegedly equal cars, Max Verstappen routinely outdrives his teammate Checo Perez. Before that, on Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton did the same relative to his various teammates.

    Regarding the Gravaa KAPS (Jumbo-Visma) and Scope Atmoz (DSM) tire inflation control systems, do we know that those were the only teams that had access? Or were they the only teams who chose to use the technology?

    We saw yesterday at Paris-Roubaix that these systems don’t protect against punctures. But how’d they do at the job they were intended to do? I hope that we’ll be able to hear impressions from the riders that rode them.

    Both systems have limitations. KAPS can only inflate at 1 psi per minute. Atmoz only allows 8 inflation/deflation cycles. No doubt, improvements will come to both. But even in their future incarnations, will they rise to the level of game-changing? I don’t think so, for two reasons. One, everyone will gain access, so no F1-like advantage for some teams over others. And two, the benefit above the status quo isn’t all that great … probably akin to the difference between rim and disc brakes.

    Technology doping? No more than so many other technological advances. From singlespeed to derailleurs, from friction to index, from round tubes to aero, from the aforementioned rim to disc.

    The riders make the race, and will for decades to come.

  2. dr sweets says

    Two points: First regarding the UCI’s strict management of technology to maintain a level playing field, I believe that in concept this is a good thing. However many of their pronouncements over the years seem suspect perhaps catering to the whiff of tradition versus systems that may be beneficial/detrimental to the racers. IMHO, outside of having a motor I’d let racers/teams run whatever they want. As your example of the tire pressure mgmt system showed, the latest tech does not guarantee a win. Second, as a long time mountain biker it took me years to get used to the idea that road racers had support available. This was and still is mostly verbotten in mtb racing, but even that edict seems to be relaxing. Nowadays I look at it no differently than pit stops in automotive racing.

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