Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tour de France Bikes 1989

Many people look at the 1989 Tour de France as being significant not only for the high drama of the battle between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon, but also for ushering in an era of new technologies for the bicycles used in the Tour. Nevertheless, I think people sometimes overstate the importance of the technology, and I don't completely accept that the technology used by LeMond in the '89 Tour was necessarily new, though one could say that it was improved. For instance, aero helmets and the use of aerodynamic designs for time trial bikes had been around for several years by '89.

Most, if not all, of the time trial bikes in the '89 Tour were designed with aerodynamics in mind -- with disc wheels, and smaller diameter front wheels, and handlebars that put the riders into a deep drop. It's just that the aerodynamic position gained by the Scott "triathlon" bars used by LeMond was better. Not only that, but the Scott bars, and similar versions, had been used in other races before the '89 Tour. For example, the 7-Eleven team had used them in that year's Tour de Trump. Likewise, LeMond was hardly the first to wear an aerodynamic helmet. Many racers, including Laurent Fignon, had used them for years. If he believed it could make a difference, why Fignon chose to forgo a helmet in the final time trial of the '89 Tour is a mystery.

Anyhow, having said that . . . let's look at some bikes.

Both LeMond and Fignon (and most competitors in the TdF for that matter) used multiple bikes throughout the race, depending on the terrain and type of racing. Here are some of the bikes they used:

Here's a pretty good drive-side picture of one of the most important bikes used in the '89 TdF, LeMond's Bottechia time trial machine. From the tubing diameters and profiles (and the Columbus tubing stickers), it is almost certainly built from Columbus aero-profile steel tubing, with some aero-profile gussets at the main triangle joints. Mavic Comete disc rear wheel, and a smaller-diameter 650C spoked front wheel (spoked front wheels are easier to handle than discs). The components are mainly Mavic SSC. The Mavic rear derailleur is a traditional parallelogram design, modeled extensively on the Campagnolo Nuovo Record, but with more industrial, erector-set aesthetics. The crank is the aero-design Mavic 631, which came to be known by some as the "starfish" crank for its large smooth spider and hidden chainring bolts. The brakes are Mavic SSC, made by Modolo. The shift levers look to be Simplex retrofriction, mounted on top of the down tube. One of the notable features is the addition of the Scott aero bar bolted onto the bullhorn handlebars. The real benefit of the Scott bar was that it placed the rider's forearms out in front of the body, with the elbows tucked in, which has been proven to be more aerodynamic than having the arms out wide at the ends of the bullhorns. For gearing, he had a high-gear combination of 55 x 12.
For many stages, especially in the mountains, LeMond rode this carbon fiber tubed bike built by TVT, re-branded as Bottechia for the sponsor. The TVT was similar in construction to the aluminum and carbon fiber bikes built at the time by Alan and Vitus in that it used "normal" diameter tubing (that is, comparable to traditional steel frames of the time) bonded into aluminum lugs. Like the time trial machine shown above, the road bike used Mavic SSC components. The crank, in this case, is the standard SSC, not the heavier, aero-design 631. Rims and hubs are also Mavic. The bars and stem are Mavic-branded as well. The brakes are dark-gray anodized Mavic units, made by Modolo. Shift levers are down-tube mounted Simplex retrofriction shifters (a Retrogrouch favorite). As a side note, TVT also built TdF bikes for Pedro Delgado.
LeMond also used this lugged steel Bottechia in some stages. Like the other bikes he rode in the Tour, it was equipped with Mavic SSC components throughout. This bike used the same 631 "starfish" crank and SSC brakes as were used on the time trial machine. Also, like his other bikes, it had down tube retrofriction shifters. All of LeMond's '89 Tour bikes were also equipped with clipless pedals from Time.
The red and white Bottechia road bike shown above is on display at the Three Oaks Bicycle Museum in Three Oaks, Michigan. See more pictures HERE.
Here is Laurent Fignon's time trial machine, built by Cyfac in France, but labeled Raleigh. The frame is Reynolds steel, with aerodynamic gussets at the joints. It has a smaller-diameter 650C front wheel, and disc wheels front and rear. The bike is fully equipped with Campagnolo's C-Record group, including the aerodynamic Delta brakes. Aerodynamically, the bike itself isn't that much different from LeMond's time trial machine, and the disc front wheel probably cut drag more than LeMond's spoked wheel, but might have been harder to handle in crosswinds. The biggest aero difference was the more "tucked-in" rider position that LeMond got with the Scott clip-on bars -- that, and the fact that any helmet, aero or otherwise, would probably have been an improvement over the ponytail-flapping-in-the-wind sported by Fignon.
See, he did know what an aero helmet was.
For road stages, Fignon used this lugged-steel Raleigh-labled bike, again built by Cyfac. The frame was built with Reynolds 753 (there is a tubing sticker on the down tube just above the shift levers, and I think I see a purplish "3" there), and like the time trial bike, it was fully equipped with Campagnolo C-Record throughout. Note the cyclometer mounted down low on the fork instead of on the handlebars -- I would think a bar mount would be easier to see and use. Looking through photos from the '89 Tour, it would appear that Fignon sometimes used another bike apart from this one in road stages. The bars on this bike are wrapped white and red (the pearly look of the wrap would suggest Benotto cello tape -- very popular in the 80s), while one can see another bike with bars wrapped only in white. Otherwise the bikes appear to be the same, though there may have been differences in geometry, tubing gauge, or something else not discernible from photos.
I'm pretty sure these are the frame tubing stickers I'm seeing on Fignon's bike above.
Though carbon fiber was starting to show up in pro racing, and aluminum would gain in popularity, lugged steel still had a few more years in the TdF before it would disappear completely from the professional ranks.

One last thought on the impact of aerodynamics and technology. People often talk about how much of LeMond's time gain in the final time trial was due to the handlebars and aero helmet, etc. Experts would point to wind tunnel data to pin down an exact number of seconds saved (even LeMond himself said it might have saved him 10 to 20 seconds). But I think it would be wrong to imply that LeMond's win was mainly due to aerodynamic or technological advancements, and thereby downplay his physical achievement. Think about this: LeMond rode one of the fastest time trials in history at 54.55 km/h. Most pro-level time trials since then have been run with equipment equal to or better than what LeMond used in the '89 Tour -- bike weight has dropped, and wind-tunnel testing has become a huge part of the sport, yet his record still stands. It's worth noting that Dave Zabriske's 54.676 km/h record set in 2005 was over a shorter distance, and in the first stage, not after more than 3,200 miles and three weeks of racing. No, I think when it comes to the impact of technology on race results, it's a little harder to quantify than some people would like to think. Just sayin'.

5 comments:

  1. Fignon's bike was made of 753 and I'm pretty sure his frame was made by Cyfac but used Raleigh decals...

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    1. Checked on that - and you're right Sascha. Corrected.

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  2. Just discovered your blog, very nice articles, thanks!

    As to why Fignon might have decided not to use the same aero advantage as Lemond, I personnaly think it's a french thing...

    In french culture, it's often better to lose in style (see Poulidor) than win by small incremental improvements ("gagne-petit")... This is often interpreted as arrogance from other cultures (and it's probably justified, as least in part)...

    This kind of attitude has always plagued France to this day... Many tatented people but lack of pragmatism and attention to detail...

    Another maybe simpler explanation is that when a pro sportsman has won a major race, he will often be really reluctant to make any change in subsequent attempts unless he really has no choice (this is often seen as superstition).. So he might have tried new gear in other less important races but when it came to the TDF, he decided the difference wasn't clear enough and went with his tried and true gear...

    Just my 2€ of course :)

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    1. Your explanation is as good as any -- it works for me.

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  3. When people ask me why I don't have just a single modern carbon fiber bike instead of 14 steel bikes I say "I like what was cool when I was cool." Same thing tends to be true in cars, motorcycles, and airplanes.

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