As the latest installment of the Tour de France wraps up, I thought I would take a moment to ponder the attention given to the equipment.
Every new product year we are inundated with bicycle marketing that seems to fixate on technological modifications that will result in dramatic leaps in performance. It seems bicycle brands are fixated on marketing their high end bikes around the trifecta of Material, Aero, and Stiffness. We are told that if we buy a new bike that improves upon any of these three qualities, we will see the results in performance.
Selling bikes is the game and if companies can make you feel inadequate on your current bike, they can sell you a new one.
My favorite advertised quality is "stiffness". This is a fantastic word for marketing. Each year bikes are getting "stiffer" and yet, more vertically compliant. Each model is stiffer than the last, and stiffness in the language of bicyclese, means a "faster bike".
So where has all that must have technology gotten us over the past 20 years?
Check the average speeds of 20 years of TdF winners:
2011 Cadel EVANS, 34, avg: 39.8 kph (24.9 mph)
2010 Alberto CONTADOR, 27, avg: 39.6 kph (24.7 mph)
2009 Alberto CONTADOR, 26, avg: 40.3 kph (25.2 mph)
2008 Carlos SASTRE, 33, avg: 40.5 kph (25.3 mph)
2007 Alberto CONTADOR, 24, avg: 39.2 kph (24.5 mph)
2006 Oscar PEREIRO, 30, avg: 40.8 kph (25.5 mph)
2005 Lance ARMSTRONG, 34, avg: 41.7 kph (26 mph)
2004 Lance ARMSTRONG, 33, avg: 40.6 kph (25.3 mph)
2003 Lance ARMSTRONG, 32, avg: 40.9 kph (25.6 mph)
2002 Lance ARMSTRONG, 31, avg: 39.9 kph (25 mph)
2001 Lance ARMSTRONG, 30, avg: 40.1 kph (25 mph)
2000 Lance ARMSTRONG, 29, avg: 39.6 kph (24.7 mph)
1999 Lance ARMSTRONG, 28, avg: 40.3 kph (25.2 mph)
1998 Marco PANTANI, 28, avg: 40 kph (25 mph)
1997 Jan ULLRICH, 24, avg: 39.2 kph (24.5 mph)
1996 Bjarne RIIS, 32, avg: 39.2 kph (24.5 mph)
1995 Miguel INDURAIN, 31, avg: 39.2 kph (24.5 mph)
1994 Miguel INDURAIN, 30, avg: 38.4 kph (24 mph)
1993 Miguel INDURAIN, 29, avg: 38.7 kph (24.2 mph)
1992 Miguel INDURAIN, 28, avg: 39.5 kph (24.7 mph)
There is a big of a jump beginning in 1998, about the time newer and better doping methods became available, but for the most part there has been little change in the averages despite the rapid adoption of ever stiffer, more aero, composite bikes. I see more a correlation between average speeds and doping controls than I do between speed and technology.
It's probably not the bike.
Moreover, to complete my thought on the matter, what it shows is that competitive bike racing is still about good teams and teamwork, smart tactics, careful preparation and training, and a little bit of chance. The technology is a bit of a red herring.