Something’s Brewing in Belgium
In the fall, we got the call. Ridley Bicycles wanted us to come to Belgium to go into the wind tunnel with a number of Predictor-Lotto team riders (Predictor-Lotto is the 2007 version of the supremely successful 2006 Davitamon-Lotto squad). It wasn’t going to be the whole team, just new signees Leif Hoste, Jurgen Van Den Broeck (ex-Discovery), newly-crowned U23 World Time Trial Champion Dominique Cornu, and Tour de France contender Cadel Evans. All four are race winners and serious horses. We were excited to see what they had been doing and if we could save them any time.
The trip was going to be a whirlwind. Arrive in Brussels Sunday morning, fly out Tuesday morning. One day in the wind tunnel. The time frame reflected Cadel Evans’ needs; the team leader was finishing up his season and wanted to fly home to Australia to start resting and preparing for his 2007 campaign.
But business and pleasure seem to be mixed in Belgium. And we found, they mixed pretty well. Upon our arrival in Brussels, we were picked up at the airport by Jochim Aerts, an owner of Ridley, and David Alvarez, an American working in the Ridley sales department. They whisked us off to a bicycle trade show in Brussels.
As this would be our fourth trade show of the year and our third in six weeks, we can’t say we were looking forward to it. That we were jet lagged made us even less plussed, and we feared being the wet towel, smothering our hosts’ enthusiasm. A bad guest we didn’t want to be.
It turned out our fears were unjustified. To begin with, it was a lovely fall day, something bike racing videos of Belgium never seem to shoot. The show was held right by the Atomium, a giant representation of an atom in a park atop a hill in Brussels. A touch of the future looking over this medieval city, possibly a sign that the European Commission is located here. Las Vegas has sights, but they’re not in a park.
The show itself was an exposition for both the Belgian industry and consumers. This is something we don’t really have in the U.S., where Interbike is industry only, and there are small consumer-oriented shows growing and dying from year to year. Belgium is a small country, roughly eight million people, but each one must have a bike and enjoy bike racing. The show was smaller than Interbike, but certainly humming, with most of the big international brands as well as plenty of smaller, regional firms showing their wares.
After a short time of looking around the show and visiting with a few old acquaintances -- the bike world may be international, but not so big that you don’t recognize some of the same people everywhere -- we found ourselves sitting at the Ridley Bar. That’s right, a bar. Primus beer on tap and flowing early in the morning. We spent a little time discussing the Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) marketplace with David. According to him, about 30% of the Belgian market rides Ridley, which must mean they sell a hell of a lot of bikes. Indeed, the booth was brimming with interested consumers, many no doubt fueled by Ridley’s sponsorship of two ProTour teams, one being Predictor-Lotto, the other being the Belgian-centered Unibet. Oh, and then there’s cyclocross, where Ridley sponsor the world’s best team in Fidea. This wintertime activity for Americans is just the second racing season in Belgium. We were told if we wanted to watch cross on Sunday just find a TV. Not unlike football in the US bike racing is on TV constantly. Cycling is a thread in the fabric of daily life. Probably more.
Perhaps we didn’t have the necessary level of respect for Belgian cycling when we arrived. Perhaps we were too focused on the Grand Tours. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the Northern Classics, semi-classics, and mini-stage races. These are hard races for hard men like Boonen, Van Petegem, Planckaert, Merckx, Museeuw, Bartoli, Hincapie, and more. Belgians not only win at Flanders, but at Roubaix just south of the border. And Belgium routinely clogs the podium at both the cyclocross World Cup and World Championships. USA Cycling has a house in Belgium because it’s a hard, hard pool to swim in.
At these shows, it’s typical for cycling-related celebrities wandering the halls. In the US, you typically find people like Levi and Dave Z making rounds at Interbike. Occasionally, you spy Merckx or Hincapie. As Jochim and I were walking the hall in between beers Jochim spots a friend and chats him up. He looks familiar, and the voice has a faint resonance. Could it be? Johan Museeuw. The Lion of Flanders is in the bike business. He has his own bike line now and he was there promoting the brand to his adoring fans. It was a few months before the latest Belgian doping scandal would drag him through new depths of shame. Little did we know that this would likely be his last golden hour in the public eye…
After pressing the requisite amount of flesh, we moved on to the Ridley factory. Situated about an hour north of Brussels, it wasn’t what we were expecting. We were thinking gritty industrial setting with a drizzly rain and grey light, kind of like what you glimpse of the outskirts of Huy during a rainy Fleche Wallonne. It was nothing like I imagined. I found the area to be modern, organized, and clean.
Jochim was 16 years old when he started Ridley as a frame building and painting service. He worked out of his father Rick’s garage and Rick helped in the afternoon after he finished his postal route. Since that humble beginning, Jochim grew the business, raised substantial capital, and, with some great decision making on product and marketing Ridley has grown into one of the premier high performance brands in the world. The amount of inventory on hand is huge. While many manufacturers don’t build much less paint their own bikes, Ridley produces their bikes offshore but still paints them in house and you can even order one with custom paint. The painting is a serious undertaking, both in terms of the quantity of frames they paint and the quality of the paint jobs themselves -- but it’s a point of pride with Ridley.
If you’re a regular visitor to our site, you know we’ve had the opportunity to do wind-tunnel testing before. We’ve been to both the Allied Aerospace Wind Tunnel in San Diego and The Texas A&M tunnel, and have helped a number of top riders with their positions, including Floyd Landis at the start of 2006 in San Diego. The Von Karman Institute Tunnel in Brussels is a new tunnel and it was a new experience. It is indeed a fully-functioning wind tunnel. This was a relief to us: We were flying blind going into the Von Karman and given that Belgium isn’t known as a hotbed for aerospace engineering, we weren’t sure of the quality of the facilities. In fact it’s used to test everything from cars to buildings to bridges to planes. Bikes are fairly new to them, and because of this, there are some improvements that could be made. For testing bikes and riders, they need to improve their data gathering capabilities at speeds that are appropriate for cycling, they also could improve the bike fixture so bikes and riders can be tested at differing yaw positions more easily. But we did a bit of improvising to maximize our hours in the tunnel.
As we mentioned earlier, we were here to test out Leif Hoste, Jurgen Van Den Broecke, Dominique Cornu, and Cadel Evans. They met us at the wind tunnel late Monday morning. Actually, they were waiting. Rush hour in Brussels is about as jammed as any busy American city. Working with top athletes is exciting but can be a mixed blessing. Some are eager to try anything new, thinking new is always an improvement. Others are equally reluctant to make any change, because they’re afraid of losing what works for them. Cycling is, in many respects a tradition-bound sport, but with teams like CSC and Discovery taking advantage of all the technology they can find and dominating time trials, other teams are scrambling to start closing the gap. Lucky for us, all four guys were easy to work with and open to suggestion. They were pretty eager to learn and seemed excited that their sponsors were taking this kind of interest.
The Belgian press heard of the test session and decided to join us for a morning of reporting and interviewing all involved. They interviewed Cadel, Jochim, and us. They were interested in the testing, as it seemed as if it had never taking place in Belgium before. Being on national television wasn’t something we’d counted on when we agreed to help out the team -- a shower that morning would’ve been nice!
We began by taking each rider’s bodily dimensions and entering them into our Competitive Cyclist Aero Fit Calculator. If you’ve used it before, you know it yields a range of adjustments to work within. Next we took their existing bike dimensions, so we knew their baselines in order to determine how much needed to be changed. And, if any of the guys felt uncomfortable, we could go back to their old positions in a flash. Beforehand, we figured these guys would be in the lowest position our calculator recommends for their appropriate saddle heights, and we weren’t disappointed. Not surprisingly for the times, but perhaps surprisingly for Belgium, all of the riders use a very forward seat position.
In many respects, Cornu was the big question. Big being the operative word. He’s way tall and despite this handicap won the U23 Time Trial Worlds on a hilly course in Salzburg. A tall and lean rider like Cornu could be a force to be reckoned with, but since many of his competitors have had their positions refined and years of experience, he’s facing a big challenge if his position isn’t ideal for cutting through the wind.
When we put him in the tunnel, the numbers told an even more remarkable story. The position he won the worlds in yielded pretty high drag -- high for a rider of his caliber. That meant he must have been putting out scads more power than many of the riders he competed against. By making a number of changes, primarily with his arm position, we reduced his drag by about 220 grams. It’s been our experience that in time trials, it is often the guy with the lowest frontal area who wins. David Zabriskie is a great example; just look at the pivot point of his hip and shoulder and how high the shoulder is compared to the hip. For Cornu, the changes mean he can put another 28 watts into propelling himself instead of fighting the wind. With numbers like these, the guy should be a competitive ProTour time trialist from the moment he gets in the start house.
Hoste and Van Den Broecke had a number of similarities. Both have thicker builds than Cornu and Evans. Both are specialists at the Northern Classics. They need time trial skills to be competitive at short stage races and to help out their team at team time trials. Hoste won the Three Days of De Panne in 2006 thanks to a strong final TT. Both had been in the wind tunnel with Discovery. Both had, by our measure, conservative time trial positions—they were definitely strong in the positions, but not necessarily as aero as they could be.
After testing Hoste, we felt like there was nothing we could do for him. The Discovery-influenced position was good and he felt comfortable riding like that. With Van Den Broecke, we experimented with his upper-body height by adjusting his hand and arm positions.
Evans was probably the most critical rider in the test. We knew that if he had room for improvement, then he could be looking at reaching the podium at a Grand Tour. He clearly has the stage-racing chops needed, as he wore the pink jersey at the Giro in 2002, his first full year racing on the road, and has a victory in the Tour of Romandie and fifth place at the Tour in 2006. We analyzed his position before going to Belgium, and we felt he could indeed improve. This session was not only to work on his position but to try out different pieces of equipment and component combinations to see if they could make Cadel even faster. Many of the parts were prototypes -- if the tests are good, they’ll be made into working components that could be in Competitive Cyclist in 2008.
The shocking thing about Evans is there’s not just some, but rather a lot of room for improvement. His baseline drag with his 2006 position and gear was pretty high. We swapped out parts and wheels and adjusted his position on different bar and stem combos. We eventually reduced his drag fairly significantly. The change is so significant that if we were to take Cadel’s 2006 form at the start of the Tour and put him on the new bike in the new position in the Prologue, we think he could’ve won the stage. It gets better. By our calculations, if he had the fresh position for all three Tour time trials, he most certainly would’ve podiumed and very well might’ve won. It’s great news for Evans, Ridley, Predictor-Lotto, and us, but it’s still in the realm of a fantasy game. It’s up to Cadel to acclimate to his new position and the uncertainty that comes at the outset of any positional change.
When it was over, we went back to the Ridley HQ and the riders got back to their lives. From there, we went out to dinner with a crew from Ridley and a component sponsor. Since the restaurant was only a few hundred meters from Ridley and we were staying at a B&B only a few hundred meters from the factory, we had no problem eating a Belgian feast, with the appropriate beverages and stumbling back to our place for some shut eye.
We’re looking forward to the 2007 season. We were invited back to the wind tunnel with these riders if the prototypes are ready and the riders’ schedules allow. Whether this will be in Europe or the US, we don’t know. We’re also waiting to see how the riders perform -- the fantasy gaming is fun, but not as rewarding as seeing the wind tunnel testing yielding better results. And if the new frames and bars we’ve been working with turn into working models that make the riders go faster, it’s all the better. These days, anything the pros have should eventually go into production for public consumption. Of course, you’re going to have to wait until guys like Cadel debut them at major races before they’ll hit our warehouse. Keep your eyes peeled on Competitive Cyclist and always take a good, close look at pro gear when you get the chance.