Le Tech: Technology of the Tour de France

Posted on July 12, 2007

Of course the Tour de France is top of mind for me right now and will be for the next 20 days or so. If you haven’t been watching it you should start. It has been very exciting so far and all the riders are totally clean and at the top of their game. Cycling really is a beautiful sport.

Anyhow, I thought it would be fun to talk a little about the tech behind the Tour today. I am sure some of you are thinking that their couldn’t be much tech since they are guys riding bikes. Well, you’d be wrong. There is a lot of interesting technology that goes into the Tour at many different stages leading up to it and during the race.

The Bikes: Design and Testing

The bikes in the Tour aren’t just regular bikes. They are technological marvels. Once of the bike companies that is the most technology driven in my mind is Cervelo. These guys are engineers and technology guys who really like bikes. You can see this through the four engineering white papers they have on their site.

Of course most of the technology is used to make the bikes lighter and more aerodynamic. That said, the two pieces of technology that are heavily used are computer aided design software (with top notch computers of course) and the wind tunnel with all the technological gadgets it holds inside.

The CAD software bike designers use is top notch stuff that also required some top notch hardware. This is why AMD was a great sponsor for the U.S. Postal team. They provided top notch machines to Postal (and Trek) so they could design and then test the bikes in the wind tunnel. The results speak for themselves.

The wind tunnel is serious business is pro cycling since every second counts. The more aerodynamic the bike the faster one can go and they easier it is for them to go that fast. Advanced wind tunnel testing is done by most, if not all, of the top Tour teams and the software they use to analyze the results is incredibly detailed.

The Bikes: Materials

I not a materials expert by any means but what I can say is that bicycles have done a lot of pioneering work with advanced materials. Most notably of these advanced materials is carbon fiber.

I am fairly certain that all the pro tour bikes are carbon fiber now and that bike companies have definitely taken carbon fiber based designs to a new level. Take the Cervelo Soloist Carbon below for example. That bike frame is essentially all carbon fiber and it looks beautiful. (Think if I talk about Cervelo enough they’ll send me a bike?) Of course I like my steel frames but if I was racing in the Tour I’d be going full out carbon no question.

On the Road: Measuring the Tour

While the guys are riding there is still a lot of technology at work. The most evident piece of technology are the mini computers that cyclists use to get their speed, distance traveled and other information.

Traditionally cycling computers have relied on a sensor to be hooked to the front fork and to the wheel. Typically these were two magnets and the computer, knowing the size of the wheel, could calculate speed and distance based on how many times the sensor on the wheel passed the sensor on the fork.

Garmin Edge 205Recently this has been improved ten fold by the introduction of GPS into cycling computers. I actually just picked up a Garmin Edge 205 cycling computer (side note: Buy.com has them for $100 off list) and I am loving it. Instead of installing wires and sensors I simply mount the 205 (shown right) to my handlebars and that’s it. The 205 doesn’t need any sensors since it bases my speed, distance, etc. on my GPS coordinates. it also comes with advanced training software so I can download all my data to my laptop and analyze away. Hey, I know I am never going to enter the Tour but I am a data geek. What can I say?

More recently cyclists have started to use power meters on the road as well as computers (most of the time the power data is integrated into the typical computer). A power meter simply measures the amount of power a cyclist is putting out in watts as they are riding. These devices had been used in trainging for a while but Floyd Landis was the first (I believe) to use a power meter in competition.

CycleOpsA cyclist can use the wattage data to understand how close to their peak they are and since they know what they can sustain and for how long they can use it to pace themselves. The cycleops power meter pictured left is also wheel hub. This means that it can be built right into a rear wheel which makes it much easier to use one of these meters for both practice and racing.

I am sure there is much more tech in the Tour but for the purposes of this post I think the basics have been covered. If you’d like to learn more about the technology behind today’s advanced bikes please check out Bike Tech Review. Oh, and watch the Tour if you get a chance. Once you get into it you’ll be hooked. There is a lot of strategy that goes into the whole race and the athletes are just phenomenal to watch.

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5 Comments so far
  1. trust but verify July 12, 2007 10:06 am

    Landis was absolutely the first to carry a power meter through the Tour, in 2005. He credits knowing how to use it with helping to maintain a sustainable pace to the end of his Stage 17 win last year.

    TBV http://trustbut.blogspot.com for Landis news, research, and comment.

  2. Emily July 12, 2007 1:49 pm

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  3. Dave July 16, 2007 9:38 pm

    Eric, like yourself I’m watching the Tour. Did you see that Danish chicken power away from everyone on Sunday.
    Regarding your article I’d say one thing about the frames. Obviously the pros get the bikes free so they use whats best. But long term some of the carbon frames do have stress related issues (usually in the rear chainstays area). The way to not worry about this is make sure you have a life time warranty. If you are buying a frame second hand the warranty will not follow the first owner to you. Just something to remember if you’re looking at dropping some cash on a second hand carbon bike.

  4. gettyImages July 23, 2007 6:18 pm

    Nice stuff…

    I really like this post!…

  5. Mary Branscombe August 3, 2007 8:22 am

    There’s also the tech they use for covering the race; I got to go ‘backstage’ for the Grand Depart in London and see everything from the commentary box to the weigh in to the remote press office miles down the Thames. If you’re interested in the comms behind the Tour, I’ve got a piece with photos of kilometres of cabling at http://www.itpro.co.uk/wireless/features/121393/the-technology-that-brought-you-the-tour-de-france.html.