CHOICE OF BIKE FOR THE ETAPE DU TOUR

So what type of bike do you need ?

Brave souls have attempted the Etape on touring bikes, and even on mountain bikes!

Personally I wouldn’t advise it though! I must admit I did race a mountain bike with slick tyres round the lake to the finish of the 1996 event …. But that’s a different story!

The obvious choice is to copy the bikes of the Tour de France champions. This will certainly get you most of the way there. If you are used to a heavy touring machine weighing, say 28lb, you will be amazed at the agility and speed of a real racing bike. They really seem to fly! If the champions need a good bike – so do you!

If you are setting out to buy a real racer as distinct from a heavy drop handlebar tourer, the choice will depend on such factors as cost, availability, and above all – the bike that captures your imagination! I always wanted a Pinarello, a favorite with the champions. I was not able to obtain one in the UK at the time though. If you need information on which bike to choose, Cycling Plus and Cycling Weekly regularly carry reviews on leading models. I have backnumbers of both magazines, and may be able to help if anyone needs any information.

A few good bike shops such as Beeline Bikes in Oxford carry a range of good thouroughbred racing machines. Beeline have stocks have stocks of Cinelli, Pinarrelo, Trek and Specialized bikes at the time of writing.

Cycling Weekly carry a range of adverts by stockists of quality racing bikes. If there is not one near you, do not dispair, as most of them do mail order. (If any shop owner out there would like a mention - let me know!)

Lets look at the components that make up a bike suitable for a stage of the Tour de France.

GEARS

I’ve enjoyed watching fit people trying to winch themselves up mountains in gears that were too high, as I’ve cruised past in a gear that would normally embarrass a granny, let alone a Tour de France rider. Take a look at the article in the February Cycling Plus on the Etape du Tour and you will get the idea!

I would definitely recommend a triple changer. A competent bike shop will be able to add this to a racer. Go for a racing triple – both Shimano and Campag produce good quality racing triples. Mine is a Shimano Ultegra, though the choice is yours. If your front triple has 52/42/30 teeth, the top biggest cogs will have the same ratios as normal racer. You will then have the small ring in reserve in case the gradient is too steep, the climbs are too long, or in case get tired after the first 80 miles! It beats getting off to push (it does happen!). I would not suggest using a mountain bike triple though because although this would be fine going up hill, you would run out of gears when descending fast.

As for the number of ratios, 9 rear cogs will give you that wonderful combination of wide range and close ratios. Eight or ten would of course be fine.

If you are already winning races on a weekly basis, forget my advice!

CHANGERS

One of the great advances in bike technology is the type of gear changer that doubles as a brake lever. They are indexed, so you know which gear you are in, and you do not need to reach down to change gear. Great when hill climbing or overtaking! Shimano and Campag have their own systems, the Shimano one being known as STI and the Campag one being known as Ergopower. Personally I prefer the Shimano system, but both have their adherents. The Shimano one is easier to operate and more slick, but the Campag one is more positive – it requires more pressure to operate it. Both are good, and reliable despite the extra complexity. Both manufacturers produce a range of about 5 types at different prices and levels of sophistication. Even the cheapest ones are good, though I tend to go for the intermediate models.

TYRES

Surprisingly, the tyres are one of the most important components, as they have a direct effect on rolling resistance. When you consider that a poor tyre might absorb a quarter of your energy, while a good one might only absorb only an eighth, you will see what I mean!

High pressure tyres are the order of the day, inflated to around 100psi. I would not recommend complete slicks, as you need a bit of grip on those mountain roads, particularly if it rains!

The favorite with most Tour de France teams are Vittoria Open All Weather. These offer a comfortable ride, good grip, low rolling resistance and good cornering. They are not cheap, costing about £25 each, even by mail order from the advertisers in Cycling Weekly. They are, however quite durable for a racing tyre. A typical size would be 700x22mm.

FRAME

The choice of frame is important. First of all there is the choice of carbon fibre or metal.

Carbon Fibre: The elite amongst frames. I have not tried one, but they are noted to be light, fast and expensive!

Metal:

Steel: The old favorite, especially Reynolds 531. Steel is durable and has enough spring to make the ride more comfortable. More recent alloys such as 853 offer appreciable improvements in weight and stiffness, and are ideal. For a budget frame, Cro-Mo is good. Other high tech products are on offer, some offering better lightness, though it is rumored that some of them dent very easily.

Oversize (large diameter) tubes offer better rigidity.

Aluminium Alloys: These are becoming more and more common, being rigid and lighter than steel. Some people complain that aluminium is not springy enough for comfort on a long ride. It certainly has good directional stability though.

Whereas steel will not break if it is repeatedly flexed, aluminium is subject to fatigue failure. I used to think that a good combination was an aluminium frame with carbon fibre forks. Carbon fibre has the added advantage of soaking up high frequency road vibrations. Having seen carbon forks that have failed, I am not so sure now, though I am told that they don't usually fail in a dangerous manner.

Titanium: This considered to be the noblest amongst bike frame materials. It is twice as strong as steel for the same weight, and is therefore a good material for producing an extremely light weight frame. As it is expensive to extract (involving electrolysis in liquid sodium!) and difficult to fabricate (in needs to be welded in a dry nitrogen atmosphere) so it is expensive. It is very corrosion resistant.

In practical terms, it has one problem. As well as being half the weight of steel for a given strength, it is twice as springy! This makes for a rather too exciting ride on down hill sections, though it has a lovely responsive feel when climbing. The solution is to use oversize tubing to improve stiffness.

Made to Measure or Off the Peg. It is obviously important to get a bike that fits you. Most people of standard proportions find an off the peg bike to be as good as a made to measure one, provided it is the right size and is adjusted properly. However if you are, for example, blessed with unusually long legs for your height, a made to measure bike may be a revelation.

WHEELS

Most riders use spoked wheels, though a few prefer the more exotic bladed variety. Unless you are particularly light a standard 36 spoke wheel will offer the strength you will need. A manufacturer such as Mavic will offer a good range of lightweight wheels that are strong and durable. A little caution is needed in using the very lightest of wheels, as the course is often quite punishing. If you are able to stretch to ceramic coated rims, this will give you very confident braking, and also extend wheel life (though at the expense of brake blocks!)

BRAKES

Dual pivot brakes are extremely effective, and don’t tend to rub on the rim like the old side pull type. (Do you really need the extra friction!?). Cantilevers, center pulls and even hydraulic brakes have been used by riders in past Etapes. Good brakes are well worth while, as you can descend faster if you are sure you will be able to stop confidently!

SADDLE

Your choice! Whatever suits your anatomy! Flight titanium saddles are not bad though. You may prefer a gel saddle, or one of the more recent saddles designed to protect your vital assets.

COST

If you want to buy a suitable bike on a budget, prices for acceptable new machines start at about £400. A good mid range machine would cost around £700. If you want the best, you may want to spend between £1500 and £2000. At this price level, your bike will be more or less on level with professional machines. Only something very exotic will cost more. A bike costing £2000 will certainly not be twice as good as one costing £1000 though!

Most people think that a bike costing more than £150 is expensive. But remember we are talking about the Ferraris and Porches amongst bikes!

If you want to save money, you could try buying second hand. A good source of adverts for new and used machines is Cycling Weekly. Your local bike shop may not be able to help you with a machine of sufficient quality – but its worth asking! I would not recommend buying a budget racer for £150 though.