Friday, April 5, 2013

The Science of Speed Part 2 - Bike Design and Technology

Liam and I had never been up to Belgium to watch the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen), but the trip has always been on my bucket list.  I had heard tales of millions of spectators lining storied cobbled climbs where epic battles of human will, endurance and strength take place.  I had watched the event on television, and it looked amazing.  Whenever I talked to my Belgian friends about the race, I saw a look of excitement come to their faces and their entire postures change in anticipation of the great event. The Belgians are crazy about cycling and the Ronde is the biggest bike race of the year in Belgium -- it is their version of the Super Bowl.  I read somewhere that in a country of 11 million people they estimate that 8 million Belgians are watching the race either live or on the television.  We weren't planning on making it to Belgium for the race this year, however,  when the opportunity to go as part of our continuing Science of Speed Blog project presented itself -- Liam and I jumped at the chance.

Belgian fans lining up hours before the race
 We had been hoping to cover Trek Bikes for our technology and design segment of the project.  Over the years, we have become friends with many of the people who work for the Wisconsin-based, bicycle manufacturer; and they all share one thing in common -- they are passionate about bikes and this passion drives them to continually work towards designing and producing the ultimate machine for the ultimate athlete.   So, needless to say, we were stoked to receive an e-mail from Jordan Roessingh (@TrekJordan) offering to meet up for a ride and talk bikes in Belgium on the Friday before the famous Flanders race.   

Cobbled section of the Oude Kwaremont - Flanders, Belgium
Jordan is the Trek team liaison for Radio Shack Leopard Trek (RSLT).  He is an engineer, former competitive cyclist from the University of Wisconsin, and an individual who is really passionate about bikes and cycling in general.  In his role as an interface between the bicycle company and the professional cycling team, Jordan wears two hats -- that of the cyclist and that of the engineer.  He takes what the riders tell him that they are feeling and what they want in a bike's performance, and then translates that to the engineers back on the ground.  Trek works very closely, in this hands-on manner, with their athletes.  The results are improvements in design and technology, which come out of real life demands under the most grueling conditions in cycling.  These improvements are then passed on through to the public, as the company continually improves their line of bikes.

Jordan and Liam on the cobbles
 We met up with Jordan on Friday at the RSLT team's hotel just outside of Brugge, Belgium as the riders were preparing to go on a training ride before the Flanders race.  We got a tour of the team set-up, a chance to speak to a few of the riders, and an inside view of the technical aspects of how Trek designs and produces bikes. The Tour of Flanders is one of three classic monuments of cycling.   These race classics are grueling one-day spring events that often take place over cobble sections and other generally rough and demanding terrain. The routes are often 250 kilometers or longer, and the riders can be in the saddle for 6 to 7 hours.  In these types of races comfort is often equally, if not more, important than aerodynamics.  Up until two years ago Trek did not have a "classic" specific bike. The challenge for Trek was to design and develop a bike that achieved comfort and compliance without sacrificing the aerodynamics, efficiency, and responsiveness of a stiffer "less-compliant" bike.

In April of 2011, Liam and I were up in Northern France at the Paris-Roubaix race (another of the classic monuments). We were there to watch the pros, and to ride the cyclo-sportive which is an amateur event over many of the same cobble sections as the pro race (blog post Queen of the One-Day Classics - Paris Roubaix).  I rode the Roubaix challenge with a great group from the Trek family.  These guys weren't there just to have fun (although they did have plenty of that - along with a broken hand and a few other bumps and scrapes), they were there to asses what the demands of the classics were and, from the ground level, get an idea of what was needed to create a winning bike for the athletes that use their bikes in this type of racing and riding.  

Liam with Trek's masterpiece Domane - the winning bike of Flanders
Trek went into action quickly.  By early 2012, Trek split their road bike line into two platforms -- the hugely successful Madone and the new classics inspired Domane.  The breakthrough with the Domane was the IsoSpeed pivot at the junction where the seat tube and top tube of the bike come together.  Trek had their engineers on the job experimenting with several different prototypes, and eventually got what they were looking for.  The IsoSpeed feature provided flex and compliance ("comfort" for us non-engineering types) to the saddle and the handle bars, but didn't take away from the stiffness of the bottom bracket and the responsiveness of the bike itself.  The result being that one doesn't necessarily have to sacrifice comfort for performance.

The IsoSpeed Decoupler

Everything was coming together last spring for the 2012 versions of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.  Trek had worked really hard to get the Domane ready, their athlete Fabian Cancellara (Spartacus) was in peak form.  One week before Flanders, at a race called Harelbeke, Fabian got a flat tire on the Kwaremont (which is a cobbled climb also used in the Tour of Flanders).  Just after the climb, Fabian pulled over and Jordan was helping change his tire, when suddenly, another rider, Carlos Barredo, crashed into them both.  Jordan broke his nose in 5 places and had 25 stitches - it was a serious injury.  Fabian wasn't hurt as badly, but he was shaken up.  He suffered a swollen knee and a bruised back, which meant that he had a lot of rehab that needed to be done before the big event the following Sunday.  Trek and the team where still confidant that they could pull off a victory; and despite his Harelbeke crash, Fabian was one of the favorites going into the race.  At the Tour of Flanders, everything was going well.  Fabian was confident and strong.  Then, bad luck hit again.  At a feed zone 65k from the finish, riders were throwing their used water bottles all over the road.  Fabian hit a bottle and was launched into the air, and when he hit the pavement he shattered his collarbone in several places.  And, just like that, a victory for Fabian and the new Trek Domane wasn't in the cards that year.  It was tough luck, but that is part of the sport of cycling.  If anything, I think the experience just increased both Fabian's and Trek's resolve to come back and get it right this year.

Spartacus checking his ride
It was clear that RSLT had unfinished business at Flanders.  Spirits were high, but at the same time the riders and everyone working around them were very focused.  We were able to witness the meticulous preparation for the race.  Bikes where checked for proper set up and geometry, wheels and tires checked and double checked.  A well-organized professional cycling team is a fascinating machine to see in action.

Jordan spent a good part of the morning sharing his knowledge of the technology and design that go into making Trek's truly incredible bikes (I now have a Domane on my wish list, although I am still very happy with my Madone).  We got a better understanding of what riders need for races.  Oftentimes different races and terrain require different equipment.  Similar to our experience in Lucca with our segment on power and watts, we started to pick up on an almost new language.  It was the language of bike design.  Terms like bike compliance, bottom bracket stiffness, race-stable geometry, and power transfer construction all started to make perfect sense.  For example "The next time I hit the pave I want to increase my power performance by optimizing my E2-down tube-rear wheel connection, but at the same time decouple at the seat tube to increase vertical compliance and add to my over all ride comfort." Translated --"the next time I ride a really rough road I want to go fast, but I don't want my butt to hurt."  It is an easy thing to say, but another thing entirely to design and engineer a bike that lives up to the challenge.

Liam jamming the 20% grade section of the Koppenberg
After shooting some video of the bikes, we took a quick tour of the RSLT team bus, and then Jordan, Olympic triathlete and Trek Sports Marketing Director Simon Thompson, Liam, and I headed out to Oudenaarde for a pre-race recon of some of the famous cobbled climbs of Eastern Flanders.  As Simon said, "it was a balmy zero degrees with light snow."  Once we got warmed up, however, it was a lot of fun out there hitting the cobbles.  We did a loop out to the Koppenberg, Paterberg, and the Oude Kwaremont - the scene of Jordan's accident last year.  The Paterberg and Koppenberg are short and very steep, at some points over 20% grade.  They hit you hard and take a lot out of the legs.  The Oude Kwaremont is longer, but its level of steepness varies from about 11% down to 2%.  This was the first time for Jordan to ride these climbs. He felt that it was important to experience them on a bike as opposed to a car in order to get a better understanding of what the athletes he works with are actually experiencing on race day. From what we have seen, that seems to be the Trek philosophy - get out there in the field and then bring this experience back to the drawing board to continually improve their bikes. 

Jordan, Liam and Simon back at the hotel after the ride
And, by now, we all know how the story ends. On Sunday March 30th, 2013 Fabian Cancellara, riding his Trek Domane bicycle, won the 100th edition of the Tour of Flanders.  It was an important victory not only for the RSLT team, but also for a group of committed individuals that are passionate about building bikes and getting them right.
Spartacus on his way to victory
Live Strong, Train Safe, and Live Well!!

This is Bill and Liam signing out.

*Bonus video - RSLT bus tour with Jordan