On Speed Machines and Time Concepts

A few months ago, Cervélo landed a magnificent marketing coup when Craig 'Crowie' Alexander, until then sponsored by Spanish bike manufacturer Orbea, showed up to race the Half-Ironman Championships with an unbranded P4. He went on to win the race, and the interwebs were ablaze with rumours surrounding his equipment change. Orbeas, which I'll group together with most Italian manufacturers, do look the part, but are typically not believed to be particularly fast designs - a reputation that better befits technically-oriented brands, to which Cervélo is almost a synonym, but which also includes names such as Trek, Scott, BMC, Felt or Specialized - so it was not surprising he'd pick a supposedly much faster frame for one of the most important races of the year. But he didn't race on a Speed Concept or on a Plasma. He didn't pick a Time Machine, nor a Felt DA. Not even a Shiv from the Big S, which turned out to become his sponsor, announced only a few weeks after his 70.3 win. No, he was on a P4, the distinctive downtube features clearly giving away a product from a certain Ontario-based design office...

Now, without a doubt, all recent designs from any of those in the latter list are fast, as in wind-tunnel fast. Their relative ordering is disputable and depends on a number of not-so-well-agreed-upon criteria (just a few days ago, I was reading yet another interesting discussion on this topic on Slowtwitch), but it's undeniable that the proper engine is capable of winning aboard any of those überbikes. Nevertheless, it's still interesting to note that, whenever someone fast is paying for their own bike (or rebadging their sponsors'), they somehow tend to end up with, yes, a Cervélo.

That all said, and while still a fan of their products, I am genuinely considering other options for my next time-trial machine. I currently ride a P2C, which is no slouch by itself, but the bike has had its years - and if I am to put down so much on the line for that one ride in the summer, I want to have access to all the help I can afford. Now, I'm sure that a P4 - or even a well-set P3, for that matter - wouldn't be, just as I argued above, a sub-par performer, but it's got some features missing that I'd really like addressed before committing myself to a new ride. It's precisely the process of electing a new successor that motivates the writing of this post, but I'll get to that in a moment.

First, as most of you already know, I'm switching teams for the next season, joining the fine folks of Magnesium Pur in idyllic Upper Bavaria. Regardless of the other sporting reasons that motivated my move, one major selling point was the team's fascination with all technical aspects of cycling, and in particular, aerodynamics. Wind tunnels tests, airflow simulations, detailed studies on skinsuit design, you name it - a typical team gathering will have bike geeks fervourously discussing airfoil shapes and wheel test results published in the latest issue of Tour. Befitting this level of attention, the team is heading towards a stance of independency with regards to its equipment suppliers. While at first glance one could expect that our performances would warrant sponsorship from different cycling-related brands, this approach is not entirely unreasonable: if we accept that different races have different material needs, and that the best equipment is not always provided by the same company, then remaining "independent" can actually be an asset, enabling team members to cherry-pick components according to their own criteria.

And so I come to my dilemma. While touted as "the world's first fully integrated...", the P4 still requires an external front brake, thus denying itself of a clean, cable-shaven front-end, and its integrated aero bottle design has been ruled illegal by our adorable friends in the UCI. I would also add to the list some compatibility issues with the wider Stinger wheels, but I'm not completely sure what the current status in the latest 2012 frames is. Maybe the new P5 will adress these issues, but as with every new design, I'm sure that will come with a significant premium.

One of the main contenders is Trek's Speed Concept. Not only did the Wisconsin company bring out a wealth of technical data in its praised white paper, Trek happens to be carried by the local shop which will support our team in 2012, and they were quick to offer us good deals on next year's models. I must admit that, at first, I hadn't given it much attention, perhaps snubbing them due to my association of that brand with certain teams and athletes. After dissecting it more thoroughly, though, I can say that their engineering folks did a commendable job. Were it not for, again, a few minor features, it would be an easy choice - the Kammtail foil shape and the smooth headtube lines yield a surprisingly attractive package. But, while perhaps its biggest selling point, some of its integration choices backfire - for me at least. Its proprietary BB90 bottom bracket standard is incompatible with my current power meter; its integrated stem give me no choice but to go with a Bontrager aerobar, and - come on, no horizontal dropouts?

And then, there's the Time Machine. OK, let's be open here: since the day when I first caught a glimpse of her - and that was back in 2004 - my heart was sold. Already then, the early model of the BMC Time Machine had innovative features which only came to be adapted by other manufacturers many years later: notice the smooth, fast-looking bayonet fork, or the integrated stem, for instance. The latest iteration - the TM01, launched just a few months ago - received raving reviews, highlighting its clean looks and integrated features. It adopts an 'open' bottom bracket standard, and its modular stem allows me to pick my choice of aerobars. And, moving away from its former custom-made sizing paradigm - bare frames were then quoted at over ten thousand dollars, trip to Switzerland for fitting not included - and now based on more traditional mold sizes, the price dropped significantly, with framesets hitting the stores for under three thousand euros. Still a truckload of money, but now one no longer has to consider selling the car...

However, and depending on how you read this, it could be a deal-breaker, BMC hasn't released a single ounce of data to support the otherwise exciting features their marketing department is so keen to highlight. Now, Cadel and Raelert are definitively not riding a machine which is putting them in a disadvantage, and I can also understand Styrell's idea that BMC operates like a F1 constructor, refraining from sharing their products' data with the competition, but still, it would be nice to know that at least one wind tunnel agrees with your investment...
- - -
We may be on the brink of a new cold war, at least if you follow the more pessimistic analysis of what has been happening in Iran. The Euro has been hinging on the verge of collapse. Extremist right-wing groups are on the news spotlight every other day. Back in South America, a nation-wide debate is taking place over the construction of a major hydroelectric plant and the ensuing environmental consequences. With different degrees of interest, I've been following the developments in these and other equally relevant stories. But, in spite of it all, I'd rather invest my brain cycles writing about carbon fiber frames costing more than my entire savings - or the combined annual income of a small family in sub-Saharan Africa, for what it's worth.

The idea of making a bid for an Olympic spot next year has been growing on me, perhaps precisely due to its almost intangibility. As I have already noted, I have this inextricable urge to sail uncharted waters, to dare facing the risks. To go for broke. There are innumerous roadblocks and question marks which will have to be addressed, the selection of a new timed-race machine being but a small cog in a much larger wheel, even if a cog that I want to have particularly well oiled. Finding out more about the performances of my adversaries, the likely obscure selection criteria, and my own capability for pulling the ride of my life, all while somehow managing to put together a Ph.D. thesis and finding an economically-viable occupation afterwards, will surely keep my side of things very interesting for the next few months.

It may well be the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine. Yay!


qBot said...

I'm sorry to ask about such down to earth trifles, but what do you think of Shimano Di2?

Whiskas said...

It's a fantastic solution to a problem that wasn't quite there. Just like 10, or now 11-speed groups - though one can argue that nowadays no one would want to go back and ride 8 or 9 speed, even if it would have virtually zero effect on the net performance in a race.

Like every new technology, I think there are still some rough edges to be polished. Just like water bottle bosses evolved to adopt a more-or-less common standard, maybe with time we'll see more frames with integrated battery compartments, better cable routing, etc.

I think there's great potential, but I wouldn't recommend rushing in; right now I think the money is better spent in good wheels, a powermeter, etc. Still, I think soon we'll come to the point where it will be as ubiquitous as quick-release skewers or wireless bike computers...