Getting a rider ready for the Tour de France, and the six- and seven-hour days in the saddle that come with it, requires a great deal of attention to detail.
One detail that gets constant attention before and during the Tour involves the proper set up of new shoes and other equipment. These are often critical issues, because if a new shoe cleat is in even a slightly different position from where the old one was or a seat is a bit higher or lower or more forward or back from what the rider is used to, or the bar is positioned differently than before, it can be a big problem.
Riding so hard day after day with something off while locked into the pedals and turning the cranks around an average of about 30,000 times on each stage can really whack out the body. This can show up as acute back pain, tendonitis in the knee, hip or ilio-tibial band, neck and shoulder cramping, and any number of other ailments.
One example is the hip problem Lance Armstrong had in 2003. The man on his way to a fifth successive Tour win had received new shoes and cranks shortly before the start of the Tour. The Q-factor of the new pre-production Dura-Ace 10-speed cranks were apparently greater than that of the Dura-Ace 9-s), placing his feet wider apart. Current production models have the same Q-factor as the old cranks. Another explanation could have simply been mis-location of the cleats on the new shoes. In any case, something was askew, and Armstrong had to make adjustments in mid-Tour to minimize the pain, but it never went completely away during the race, simply because he had no chance to recover.
Another example is Bradley McGee, a hot favorite to wear the first yellow jersey here. He finished way off of expectations in the prologue and then had to be helped to the line, over six minutes down, by teammate Matthew Wilson in stage 1, a stage of relatively low difficulty.
The reason: acute back pain. McGee’s explanation was that he had been planting trees at his house a week or so before the Tour (admittedly a move of very questionable judgment for a world-class athlete in the height of the season), and he forgot to wear his orthotics in his shoes while doing it. That was enough to throw his back off a bit, and then when he went on a long ride in the mountains the following day, it totally went out of whack and he would never recover before the Tour. He pulled out on Wednesday in hopes of salvaging his chances for the Olympic pursuit.
Given that the positioning of the rider’s body on the bike is so sensitive during the Tour, mechanics must be very attentive when they set up new equipment. For setting up the bikes, all teams have some sort of a template that they can set up against the rider’s existing bike and then transfer the positions of all of the critical components to the new bike unaltered. Some of these are more rudimentary than others, but all of them somehow rest across the ends of the hub axles to establish the horizontal baseline and then locate against the bottom bracket to establish the fore-aft baseline.
Rabobank uses one of the more rudimentary ones, but it does the trick. In the photo, the mechanics are setting up a bike for Michael Rasmussen. Their tool, which has an accurate aluminum meter stick that slides fore-aft at right angles to the bar resting across the skewer heads, is lined up with the bottom bracket spindle. Vertical and fore-aft measurements to the saddle and bar can be taken from it.
Saeco’s positioning template is considerably more sophisticated than Rabobank’s, but the idea is similar. As you can see, it also has a vertical member sliding back and forth perpendicular to the horizontal one resting on the hubs. But it has adjustable components to check the positions of the seat lug, saddle and bar, as well as a bubble level.
Possibly even more critical than bar and saddle position is cleat position. Liberty Seguros’s chief mechanic, Faustino Muñoz, sets up cleats by first checking the twist of the cleat on the old shoe by measuring from the heel to the crank bolt and from the toe to the seat tube. He measures the fore-aft and lateral positions of the old cleats on the shoe sole and sets the new ones up in the same fore-aft and lateral position.
He snugs the bolts up only part way, and then he checks the distance from the heel to the crank bolt and from the toe to the seat tube. He twists the shoe until the shoe’s rotational position is the same as with the old cleats. He can tighten the front bolt up firmly while the cleat is in the pedal. After removing the shoe, he reefs down on all of the bolts to keep them in place. And the rider jumps right into his new shoes or new cleats on old shoes, and pedals away without feeling the slightest change.