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Why the latest Cancellara mechanical doping story is even more stupid than the first

  • By Caley Fretz
  • Published Mar. 17, 2011
  • Updated Mar. 18, 2011 at 9:12 AM EDT

Cancellara at the 2010 Paris-Roubaix. We don't think his bottom bracket bearings, no matter how good, made a lick of difference.

Once again, Fabian Cancellara is allegedly using extraordinary technology to outpace his competition. No motors this time. Rather, he is said to have used an advanced bearing technology developed by Italian mechanic Giovanni Cecchini called Gold-Race during his tenure at Saxo-Bank.

Brian Nygaard, manager of Leopard-Trek, has denied that Cancellara is using the system on his new team, though he acknowledged that he might have used it prior to this year.

Belgian daily La Dernière Heure submitted that the Gold-Race bearings offer a substantial reduction in friction — saving as much as 2.5 seconds per kilometer. The report claims that Cancellara used the special bearing system in his hub, bottom bracket, and derailleur pulley bearings.

A video on dh.be shows a crank spinning effortlessly with only a quick push. Even more impressive is a quick shot of the outer shell of an outboard bottom bracket spinning freely, and quickly — a feat most mass-produced BB sets could never replicate.

Cecchini’s own website explains that the bottom bracket uses steel and ceramic hybrid bearings, improved race geometry and advanced seals that produce almost zero friction. La Dernière Heure also notes that the lubrication for Cancellara’s bearings has to be optimized for climatic conditions, meaning it is likely extremely light and obviously requires regular maintenance.

So, the bearings system is obviously quite good, at least without any load applied. That much can be seen in the video. And we already know that simply moving to a high-quality ceramic bearing set can save about 10 percent in drivetrain efficiency.

But—

Bearing efficiency, both within the drivetrain and hubs, represents a very small portion of overall drag.

Claims of gaining 2.5 seconds per kilometer, or indeed that these bearings could be Cancellara’s secret weapon, are wildly overstated. Perhaps our own Lennard Zinn put it most succinctly in an email Thursday morning: “I think it’s a crock. Bearing friction, even if it were to be completely eliminated, could not grant 2.5 seconds/kilo.”

Consider Cancellara’s Tirreno-Adriatico time trial winning speed of a bit over 53kph. At that speed, he’s covering each kilometer in about 1 minute, 8 seconds. 2.5 seconds per kilometer is therefore equal to about a 3.7% gain.

High speeds (and I think it’s safe to say 53kph qualifies under that category) make bearing friction even less significant compared to aerodynamic drag, usually representing less than 2 percent of total drag (figures vary slightly depending on drivetrain and who’s doing the counting).

In fact, most of the frictional loss within the bicycle itself (not wind or rolling resistance) comes from the chain, which still accounts for a tiny percentage of total drag at race speeds.

All this isn’t to say drivetrain efficiency and bearing drag don’t matter. Every little bit counts, and a collection of small percentages can add up to a measurably more efficient machine. But to claim that a faster set of bearings is Cancellara’s secret weapon is about as plausible as claiming he’s powered by an electric motor. That is, it’s downright rubbish.

Maybe, just maybe, the guy is simply faster.

FILED UNDER: Bikes and Tech TAGS: /

Caley Fretz

Caley Fretz

Tech Editor Caley Fretz can usually be found chasing races along the backroads of Europe or testing bikes and gear in the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado. If you can't find him there, check the coffee shop across from VN World Headquarters.

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