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Geared Up for Success

UCI Road Worldchampionships 

Geared Up for Success

Top bike tech that can make the difference between first and second

Text: Daniel Feichtner, Picture: Franz Oss

One of the most fascinating aspects of competitive cycling is the interaction between man and machine. Markus Wildauer and Thomas Pupp from the Tirol Cycling Team explain the technology behind their equipment out on the road.

Hard training, the right mentality and iron discipline are essential for anyone wanting to be successful in the world of professional cycling. However, they are not enough make it to the top if you don’t have the right equipment. “You can have the best legs,” explains Markus Wildauer from the Tirol Cycling Team, “but if your equipment isn’t good enough then you have no chance.” The up-and-coming pro rider from this UCI Continental team based in Tirol knows what he’s talking about. This year Wildauer won not only bronze in the individual time trial at the European Championships but also took a stage of the Under 23 Giro d’Italia and wore the famous Pink Jersey as the overall race leader.

Firmly in the saddle

The saddle is the first point of contact between rider and bike. A correctly positioned saddle makes it possible for the rider to adopt an aerodynamic position and at the same time transfer the maximum power through the pedals. “At the Tirol Cycling Team we all ride on the same saddle made by Selle Italia,” says Wildauer. “It is important that a saddle has an anatomical shape, is streamlined and, most importantly, is not too soft – otherwise it soon becomes uncomfortable to sit on.” The saddle changes each year when the team receives new bikes. “At the start it takes us all a while to break in our new saddles,” explains Wildauer. Over the course of many rides the saddle slowly adapts to the shape of each individual rider.

Pedal power

The pedals are possibly the most important connection between rider and bike. They are essential to ensure a perfect transfer of power from the legs to the rest of the machine. The Tirol Cycling Team uses high-tech Look pedals. “Our pedals are made of carbon fibre and weigh less than 100g each,” says Wildauer. They also have an aerodynamic design in order to make them cut through the wind as efficiently as possible. The pedal technology used by Look and other manufacturers means that riders clip into and out of the pedals. This ensures a stable and powerful connection between foot and pedal, not only when pushing down but also when pulling up. “The riders are clipped into the pedals when they ride, but the Look system has a safety feature built in which means they can remove their feet from the pedals quickly if they need to stop or if they crash – it’s a bit like a ski boot and binding,” explains Thomas Pupp, head of the Tirol Cycling Team. The amount of pressure required to release the foot from the pedal can be adjusted individually according to the needs and wishes of each rider. “That means we have not only a perfect interface between the rider and the bike but also a high level of safety if there is a crash.”

Perfect set-up

Während Pedale und Sattel „von der Stange“ kommen, muss die Kurbel, die das Pedal mit dem vorderen Zahnradkranz verbindet, auf jeden Fahrer angepasst sein. „Entscheidend sind die Körpergröße und Trittlänge“, erklärt der Teamchef. Ideal ist die Länge der Kurbel dann, wenn der Fahrer im Sattel sitzt und bei durchgestrecktem Bein die Ferse auf dem Pedal aufliegt. „Dann kommt es zu einer optimalen Kraftübertragung. Deswegen sind die richtige Sitzposition und der perfekte Kontakt vom Sattel aufs Pedal die entscheidendsten Dinge beim Radfahren.“ Markus Wildauer fährt mit einer 172,5 Millimeter langen Kurbel und ist damit genau im Mittelfeld. „In der Regel liegt die Kurbellänge zwischen 170 und 175 Millimetern“, erzählt der Profi. Was das perfekte Maß ist, müsse aber jeder selbst herausfinden. „Da kann man unzählige Stunden investieren, um zu probieren und zu tüfteln.“

Gear ratio

Once power has been transferred from leg via crank to chain, it is the job of the chainrings at the front and the cassette at the back to make sure this energy is used as efficiently as possible. If the gear ratio is too high, riders will struggle to make it up steep climbs. If the gear ratio is too low they will find themselves spinning out on flatter sections. Traditionally pro riders have used a chainset with two chainrings (one with 53 teeth and one with 39 teeth). “That set-up means the inner chainring is still pretty big, so you have to have the power to ride climbs fast. Otherwise you will end up grinding the gears at a low cadence and using too much energy,” says Wildauer.

The solution? There are two, in fact, explains Thomas Pupp: “You can either use a triple chainring at the front, but that makes the bike heavier and doesn’t look good. Or you can ride what is known as a compact crankset.” Compact cranksets also have two chainrings, one with 50 teeth and one with 34. The riders at the Tirol Cycling Team still use the classic set-up as standard. “We normally ride 53:39. The only time we might use a compact chainset is on really hard mountain climbs like the Kitzbüheler Horn.” The course profile of a race also has a major influence on the choice of cassette on the back wheel. If the terrain is steep riders will use 11:28, while on flatter stages a 11:25 cassette is standard. “Smaller gears make it easier to maintain a high cadence,” explains Thomas Pupp. “Keeping your legs turning as quickly as possible while riding is a trend which was developed by Lance Armstrong and has been adopted by many riders. Today you will see lots of top riders climbing mountains with a compact chainset on their bikes and a cadence of 85 revolutions per minute. In the past riders had heavier gears and would pedal more slowly and use more muscle power.”

Pro bikes

The tires are the part of the bike which is subject to the most wear and tear. Riders don’t have time to repair punctures during a race, so the mechanics at the Tirol Cycling Team always have a number of wheels ready to change at a moment’s notice. “Per rider we have at least one set of spare wheels just to be sure in case there is a puncture or other mechanical problem. Sometimes if the conditions change riders will also ask to change their wheels for ones with deeper or shallower rims,” says Pupp. Seemingly small things such as these can often make the difference between first and second place. In the mountains riders often ride shallow-rimmed wheels in order to save weight. Wheels with a deep-profile rim are, however, more aerodynamic and can help save energy when riding on the flat. “It’s also a question of personal preference,” explains Wildauer. To keep their bikes as light as possible teams use carbon fibre wheels – albeit only in race situations. Training bikes are generally equipped with slightly heavier but significantly cheaper and more robust aluminium wheels.

Getting a grip

There are three main kinds of tyre systems used in road cycling. The first, known as clinchers, have a separate tyre and inner tube and are the easiest of the three to repair. The second are known as tubulars and have a single tyre and inner tube sewn together and stuck onto the rim. The third and final category are the relatively new tubeless tyres, which are also available in much wider profiles. “We have been using Schwalbe tyres for years. Like most pro teams we always used tubular tyres, but recently we switched to running tubeless,” explains Pupp. “It was a mini revolution. Tubeless means there is no inner tube. Instead, the tyre is sealed to the rim and pumped up. It looks a little bit strange for people who are used to the tubular or clincher system, but tubeless tyres roll really well.”

Another advantage of the tubeless system is that inside the tyre there is a latex sealant which repairs small holes on the go, creating a kind of “self-healing” effect preventing punctures. Moreover, tubeless tyres can be ridden at lower pressures than other systems. “That means even if there is a puncture the air does not rush out as quickly and you don’t have to stop at the side of the road straight away,” says Wildauer. “In fact, these we almost never have to stop because of a puncture. The tyres we ride are extremely robust. This season, for example, we have had only one puncture – and that was because of a big crash involving lots of riders. Riding tubeless tyres means we don’t really ever have to worry about getting punctures.”

Ultra-light and extra strong

In order to make the most of these components out on the road, riders use a high-tech frame made of carbon fibre. The KTM frames used by the Tirol Cycling Team are not only extremely light but also very stiff. “Sprinting for the line or riding hard up a mountain puts a huge amount of stress on the bike,” explains Wildauer. “In those situations you need to be able to put all the power down on the road.” In standard bike races aerodynamics play less of a role than in specific disciplines such as time trialling, yet pro riders are nevertheless still keen to reduce wind drag to a minimum wherever possible. One way KTM has managed to reduce drag on its bikes it by moving all the cabling inside the frame and placing the rear brake further down on the frame. Those things give our riders an extra little advantage out on the road,” says Pupp.

Digital data

The final and most modern feature is the on-board computer. This digital display mounted on the handlebars provides information on speed, gradient and heart rate as well as measuring the power being put out by the riders. Measured in watts, this power is an objective parameter which is not influenced by external factors. “Heart rate varies according to how hot it is, how you are feeling on that particular day and how nervous you are,” explains Pupp. “Power, on the other hand, is simply a neutral measure of what you are able to produce. It is a useful tool for measuring and improving your performance over time in training. In a race situation it can be a useful psychological support to see numbers in front of you showing how hard you are working and how long you can maintain that effort for.”

Markus Wildauer is a professional bike racer who joined the Tirol Cycling Team in 2017. As well as winning a stage of the Under Giro d’Italia and wearing the Pink Jersey two days the 20-year-old rider from Tirol also won gold in the Under 23 individual time trial this year’s Austrian National Championships and bronze in the same discipline at the Under 23 European Championships. 

Thomas Pupp is, together with Georg Totschnig, one of the founders of the Tirol Cycling Team. Since 2007 he has been in charge of looking after the team’s riders in both training and races.

Markus Wildauer

Thomas Pupp

© 2017 Tirol Werbung