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Ask Nick: Tire pressure, the mechanic as caddy, light bikes and amateur equipment

  • By Nick Legan
  • Published Nov. 15, 2010
  • Updated Feb. 8, 2011 at 7:21 AM EST
Silca Pista pump

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth of a new feature on VeloNews.com: “Ask Nick.” VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan is a former ProTour mechanic who most recently wrenched for Team RadioShack at the 2010 Tour de France and elsewhere. You can submit questions to Nick at asknick@competitorgroup.com, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.

Hi Nick,
I just read your comment about how too much tire pressure can actually increase rolling resistance. With clinchers, it’s pretty academic: put in too much pressure and your wheel may be compromised. With tubulars, however, there seems to be a big range. For example, I’m fond of Tufo tires that have a range of 120-220psi. I generally use them only for racing. On smooth roads, I’ll go with 160psi, if the roads are chewed up, I’ll drop it down to 130psi or so. Is there any benefit for going all the way to 220psi?
—David Regen

David,
Almost every racer I’ve ever met over-inflates his tires, whether on a road, mountain or cyclocross bike. Most seem to be stuck in a “more is better” attitude with tire pressure. Tufo in particular plays to this mentality by putting a label on their sidewall that reads 120-220 psi.

Rolling resistance, as I stated before, increases after a certain optimal window is surpassed. Look it up. The late cycling tech legend Sheldon Brown wrote a fantastic primer on all things tire and pressure. This window is defined by the tire, the road conditions and rider weight.

Imagine hitting a seam in the road. Would you say that hitting that seam slowed you down? Absolutely. Well, when your tire is over-inflated, every tiny bump on the road becomes a road seam. With lower pressure the casing of your tire can absorb that seam instead of bouncing (backwards) off of it.

Danny Pate understood this really well. While mountain biking he realized that too much pressure was a detriment to his overall speed. On the road he would regularly race with 90-100 psi in his race tubulars, even less in the rain. He was more comfortable over the course of a race and he was much more confident in the corners. Anything you can do to help your cornering, especially late in the race when your brain has switched off, can pay off big time.

At RadioShack, we inflated to 8 bar each dry race day (that’s 116 psi at sea level). And we would only go down from there for lighter riders or if it rained.

My advice is to NEVER go to 220 psi David. Instead, go for a ride at 110 psi and notice how much better your body feels and how you’re cornering like never before. If rolling resistance is really your primary concern, ride clinchers. They have lower resistance than tubulars.

Nick,

What is the relationship of rider to mechanic in terms of equipment choices? Does it in any way resemble that of a caddy to a golfer (which club to use for a given situation, etc)? Do riders ever consult with you on gearing or wheel selection for a particular stage? Also, do riders ever opt for a different bike, mid-stage, as the terrain or other conditions change?
— Greg White

Greg,
The relationships between riders and mechanics vary a lot. Some have worked together for years. Other times you get a season or less with a rider.

A seasoned mechanic is a huge asset for a rider. In most cases, the mechanic has been to the race on several occasions and knows the course better than many riders. A smart rider will consult a seasoned mechanic on tire pressure, wheel selection and gear choice. Many riders have a favorite bike setup. When I worked with him, Christian Meier liked to ride Zipp 202s on his climbing bike no matter what the conditions were.

On many teams the director makes that call. On CSC, Riis called the shots. The day before he would tell the mechanics what to put on. If we were using Zipp 404s, all the spare bikes would get 303s. That way if the wind picked up we could change them all at the race.

Modern ProTour teams have so many options that it’s ridiculous. Riders drive themselves crazy obsessing over what the best combination could be. Consider that on Garmin we had two bikes, aero and climbing, and five different sets of wheels (and a myriad of wheel combinations) to choose from. On top of that, each rear wheel could have a PowerTap if desired. It became physically impossible to fit all the derivations in the truck!

So as mechanics we sometimes had to sell a combo that we thought was best, because that was all we could fit in the truck.

More than helping with gear choices, our job as a mechanic is to instill confidence in our riders, just like a caddy.

Nick,
I am not a true weight weenie, but a component or frame’s weight is fairly high on my decision tree. Since the pro teams are obviously riding the highest end components that are not only comfortable but light, how do they meet the ProTour requirement that bikes weigh no less than 6.8kg?
—Cameron Birky

Cameron,
The quick answer is they don’t. A typical carbon frame with top-end spec and carbon wheels will almost always come in under the 6.8 kg minimum. So we add weight back. Ideally it’s functional weight, something that makes the bike better. Felt made stiffer (and heavier) sprint lay-up frames for Garmin. We used aluminum bars and stems to keep the weight up and to avoid carbon bar issues. Adding a power meter and a K-Edge (anti-chain drop device) were good ways to get weight up. We could also use a more aerodynamic set of wheels, even an aero road frame.

The last resort is bolting on lead weights or dropping pieces of chain down seat tubes. If it came to that though, we tried to keep the weight as low as possible on the bike.

Nick,
I created and direct a nationally based amateur cycling team, Team TOMS Shoes. I utilize my connections and try to get my guys and gals great deals on products we need, from frames to tires, bars, stems, wheels, helmets and nutritional supplements (the legal kind). When trying to get sponsors, what products do you think are most important to focus on for the everyday rider and racer?
— Mark Abramowicz

Mark,
This is a fantastic question! I’ve long maintained that a Cannondale CAAD 9 with Ultegra or Force and a pair of race wheels is the ultimate amateur race bike. It’s relatively inexpensive and more importantly, it gets the job done.

If I were putting together a team I’d focus on mid-level components like Ultegra or Force. They offer great bang for the buck and you can always upgrade later. Look for a decent clincher tire sponsorship (Maxxis, Continental or the like). Few people need tubulars for racing. Stick with a quality wheel and clincher tires. For wheels I’d look at Mavic Cosmic Carbone clinchers with aluminum braking surfaces. Even if they aren’t the lightest, they’ll last several seasons.

Repeat to yourself: “You can’t win if you don’t finish.” That’s how you should approach component selection. First it has to be reliable, robust even. Then consider things like weight and aerodynamics.

Lastly I’d try to get helmets and glasses for everyone on the team. Assuming everyone has the same cycling kit, helmets and glasses go a long way to looking professional and getting further sponsorships. For amateur teams, let all contact points be personal preference. Shoes, pedal and saddle choice should be up to each rider.


Editor’s note: After graduating from Indiana University with honors and a degree in French and journalism, Legan jumped straight into wrenching at Pro Peloton bike shop in Boulder for a few years. Then, he began a seven-year stint in the professional ranks, most recently serving for RadioShack at the Tour de France and the Amgen Tour of California. He also worked for Garmin-Slipstream, CSC, Toyota-United, Health Net and Ofoto.

FILED UNDER: Ask Nick / Bikes and Tech / Technical FAQ TAGS: /

Nick Legan

Nick Legan

After graduating from Indiana University with honors and a degree in French and journalism, Nick Legan jumped straight into wrenching at Pro Peloton bike shop in Boulder for a few years. Then, he began a seven-year stint in the professional ranks, most recently serving for RadioShack at the Tour de France and the Amgen Tour of California. He also worked for Garmin-Slipstream, CSC, Toyota-United, Health Net and Ofoto. Legan served as the VeloNews tech editor 2010-2012 before sliding across the line into public relations.

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