Every year the Tour de France tackles a new route, but this year riders and fans were in for something special on stage 5 that tackled many cobblestone sections made famous by Paris-Roubaix. Although two sections of cobbles were removed at the last minute due to poor weather and conditions, the course was still filled with treachery, causing scores of crashes and forcing the abandonment of reigning champion Chris Froome.
For riders, fans and mechanics, stage 5 lived up to its billing as a Hell of the North in July.
"For us, this stage is not the Tour de France, it's Paris-Roubaix," said Garmin-Sharp head mechanic Geoff Brown. "We are approaching the mechanical aspects exactly as we would for Roubaix."
BikeRadar spoke with teams ahead of the stage to learn about their various set-ups. Moving from thinner tubulars to 26, 27, 28 and even 30mm options was the primary difference, of course, but by no means the only change in gear for the pivotal day.
Choice in bikes
Many teams had multiple bikes to choose from
Only three teams at this year's Tour have a single model of bike. The other 19 squads have at least two models, with many bike sponsors offering endurance road bikes built for stability and a little more comfort on rough roads.
One wrinkle in this plan for some teams is that so-called endurance bikes often have taller head tubes than pros would prefer, so mechanics look to steeply angled stems to get the position dialled. For instance, Team Cannondale is racing the SuperSix EVO for every road stage of the Tour save stage 5, where the Synapse was brought out. While Peter Sagan is a big enough star to warrant his own mold for a carbon bike that's low and very long, the rest of his teammates have no choice but to use stems to drop their front end.
Other teams also broke out endurance bikes for this stage only: Trek Factory Racing had the Domane (which Paris-Roubaix star Fabian Cancellara races year-round, although the team Domane Classics geometry is a world apart from standard endurance geometries), Belkin had the Bianchi Infinito CV, Giant-Shimano had the Defy Advanced SL, and on and on.
Sticking with their standard race bikes were three French teams: AG2R La Mondiale, Bretagne-Séché Environnement and Cofidis. Cofidis mechanic Mickael Houtteville said the team is racing the Look 695 for the entire race, just bumping up to fatter 25mm tubulars and dropping the pressure down to 6bar (85psi) from the standard 7-7.5 (100-110psi). The other two French squads had a similar strategy.
Garmin-Sharp put its entire squad on an older model bike, the Cervélo R3 Mud, which has external cable routing and room for fatter tubulars. The entire team switched from Shimano's electronic Di2 to mechanical Dura-Ace for this stage.
Digital versus mechanical, and other modifications
Some of Cancellara's Trek Factory Racing teammates used Di2 with the 'climbing switch' satellite shifter.
An initial knock against electronic shifting systems like Shimano Di2 and Campagnolo EPS was that, in some riders' minds, the gears could be shifted accidentally too easily as bikes were raced across the lumpy cobbles. While reservations remain — most notably for Cancellara and the entire Garmin-Sharp squad — more and more riders and mechanics are becoming comfortable with electronic groups on rough roads.
In fact, Shimano's Di2 system has a distinct advantage in one way; satellite shifters like the so-called climber switch let riders shift with their hands on the hoods, which is where many prefer to grip when riding the stones.
In any event, we saw more than a few bikes with Dura-Ace Di2 and Campagnolo EPS groups.
The mini-fender/mudflap, made by SencilloBikes, usually a product for commuters or foul-weather amateur riders, made an appearance on some Katusha bikes — team-branded, of course.
Overall race hopeful Alberto Contador choose to use Specialized's CG-R seatpost. Originally dubbed the Cobble Gobbler, the zigzag-shaped post has twice the deflection of a standard carbon post.
In addition to digital shifting, Belkin's Staf Clements even opted for cyclocross-style top-mounted brake levers on his rig.
Stage 5 saw tubulars with wider widths and lower pressures compared to those for normal road racing
The most important mechanical element for Paris-Roubaix — or 'Paris-Roubaix day' at the Tour de France — is the type, width and size of tubulars, and the air pressure therein.
FMB stands for François Marie Boyaux. Boyaux being the French word for tubular and François Marie being the founder of the four-man operation to which pro mechanics flock. FMB makes ultra-supple cotton casings to which any type of rubber tread can be glued. At the Tour de France, FMB tubulars were branded Schwalbe, Specialized and more.
Related:Inside the FMB workshop
The 320tpi cotton casing means the tubular quickly absorbs bumps in the road — or, at least, some of the impact — improving grip and speed for the rider.
Specialized had FMB casings for its sponsored riders in 26, 28 and 30mm options, with some riders running 28 front and 30mm rear. Those tires encase a latex tube inside the 320tpi cotton casing, and are shod with Specialized's Gripton tread.
As important as the width is air pressure. The exact pressure depends on rider weight and preference along with tubular width, teams generally run about 1.5bar / 20psi less on cobbles than on pavement.
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