The sound of a deep-section wheel hurtling through a high-speed corner is the sound of modern racing. The wheels are ubiquitous at local crits and time trials because they’re fast. They also have unique idiosyncrasies.
Deep-section wheels are vertically rigid. This is a function of their geometry: A deep profile, created to reduce aerodynamic drag, makes for a vertically stiff structure requiring few spokes. However, most people don’t realize that deep-section wheels are laterally flexible. When sprinting, the rim tends to bend back and forth, often rubbing the brake pads. And due to the carbon layup, most also generally become slightly out of round when the tire is inflated.
Why are deep-section wheels so laterally flexible? Again, it’s due to geometry. The tall rim section, when pushed sideways against the road, acts like a lever that hinges where it meets the spokes — the deeper the rim, the greater the leverage on it. (See illustration below.)
Hinged at the spoke attachment, the rim leans further over than the plane of the wheel when pedaling the bike pushes the side of the tire against the road. There is no mitigating this because the rim is hinging beyond where the spokes can laterally control it. Changing spoke tension or spoke patterns will have no effect. Bill Mould, author of “The Bicycle Wheel: Physics & Engineering” created an excellent online video illustrating this effect.
Deep-section rims are built from carbon fiber because aluminum rims of equivalent height would be very heavy and could not be rolled into a circle without wrinkling. Most deep carbon rims are molded into a single piece with the spoke attachments being at the bottom of the rim section (as with most rims). Thus, all of the carbon in the wheel is structural.
Some deep rims, however, consist of a shallow-section rim with a thin, non-structural, deep-section carbon “skin” fairing bonded to its inner diameter. Rather than attaching at the bottom of the deep section, the spokes pass through holes in the skin and attach to the shallow rim section, which dictates how the rim flexes. (Don’t hang a bike on a hook by one of these wheels, because the thin fairing would collapse.) Devoid of a standard deep-section wheel’s long lever, these wheels hinge less at the spoke attachment, resulting in reduced lateral flex when sprinting.
The carbon in both types of rims is “pre-preg” unidirectional carbon fiber fabric; the fibers are parallel and pre-impregnated with resin that bond layers of the fabric together. Fabric is freezer-stored to prevent the resin from curing, and it is cut and placed into molds in cool rooms to prevent the resin from sticking to cutting blades or work gloves. Fabric pieces are machine-cut and laid by hand in a prescribed orientation in the mold. After the material is heated, outward pressure from the bladder within the carbon compacts its layers against the inside of the mold, squeezing out excess resin.
In a shallow-depth rim, a long strip of fabric can be laid into the mold while folded lengthwise into a U-shape, wrapping the entire way around until the ends meet. This technique is generally not used with deep-section rims since the carbon fibers are so rigid that the strip’s outer diameter won’t stretch, and the inner diameter won’t contract; thus, the walls would wrinkle.
Instead, deep-rim sidewalls are generally made of arc-shaped pieces of straight fibers laid in a patchwork fashion in the mold. Conversely, the rim bed is made of continuous strips wrapped around the rim. Envision a wooden wagon wheel made of arc-shaped pieces of straight wood constrained by a flat, steel band wrapped around them.
As the pressure in a tire on a wheel increases, the rim width also increases (if it’s a clincher rim) while the spoke tension decreases because the rim’s diameter compresses due to the force of the air pressure. If the carbon layup were uniform throughout the wheel, the decrease in spoke tension would also be uniform. But on most deep wheels, the tension drop is not uniform, because the layup of arc-shaped fabric pieces is not the same at every spoke. Radial fibers compress less than fibers at low angles, so the spokes around radial fibers maintain the most tension. Spokes where the fibers are at the greatest angle to the wheel diameter lose the most tension. Consequently, the higher the tire pressure, the more the rim slightly loses its roundness.
Now you understand there’s a lot more to know about deep-section wheels than aerodynamics.
The United Arab Emirates hosts multiple stage races and even sponsors an entire WorldTour team.
The list of Emirati riders racing at the WorldTour level, however, is short. It starts and ends with Yousif Mirza.
The 29-year-old was the first Emirati cyclist to compete in the Olympic road race. He’s won a whopping eight national titles in the road race and five in the time trial.
Last year, he became the first rider from the UAE to join the WorldTour — joining UAE Team Emirates, alongside established stars Dan Martin, Fabio Aru, and Alexander Kristoff. He raced a fairly limited calendar in his first season with the squad, although he did add to his tally of national titles in both the road race and the TT in 2017.
This year, Mirza reached new heights as a pro, powering to a road race victory at the Asian Cycling Championships.
VeloNews caught up with Mirza at the Amgen Tour of California to talk about his journey to cycling’s highest division, adapting to life on the WorldTour, and the growth of cycling in his home country.
VeloNews: What did your path to the WorldTour look like?
Yousif Mirza: In the UAE, cycling is not a famous sport. Football is number one everywhere. Especially in Dubai, there was no cycling five or six years ago. I started with a local team when I was nine years old. I improved step by step until I joined a Continental team in 2016, NASR-Dubai. I started to do international races, Asian races, [UCI-ranked] 2.2s, 2.1s. Then I raced the Dubai Tour and, after that in 2017, I got my chance to join UAE Team Emirates.
VN: Is there much infrastructure for competitive cycling in the United Arab Emirates?
YM: Now, cycling is growing. Many young people have started to do cycling. With this team, they will have more chances, in the next two or three years, the young people.
VN: Was it strange to suddenly become the lone Emirati rider on the WorldTour?
YM: Before, I thought it was easy. It is not easy to be a WorldTour rider. And going from a Conti team to a WorldTour team is a little bit … well, not a little bit — it’s really hard! I’ll keep fighting for my goals. I think it will be better for the next generation in the UAE.
VN: You had been racing for several years before joining NASR-Dubai, and then you jumped up to the WorldTour. How different is it at the highest level?
YM: It’s a really huge change. I got my chance and I [took it], so I’m in now! I’ve got to do my best in all the races I’m doing. In California … I did it last year, and this year it’s harder — stronger riders, tougher roads. It’s a huge, huge, huge difference between 2.2s, 2.1s, and WorldTour races.
VN: Is it important to you to be a face of Emirati cycling at the highest level?
YM: I’m representing my country, not just myself. Emiratis are following me, seeing me at this WorldTour level. I have to do 120 percent of my level. It’s big for me, being part of this team, representing my flag, my country, all over the world.
VN: Do people recognize you back home in the UAE?
YM: I have many friends that follow me. And, of course, my family. But now, the situation is different. I’m staying a little bit far from family. That hurts as a cyclist. When you go to races, you miss home.
VN: Has it been hard to get comfortable in a new environment?
YM: This is my second season only, and I need more time to adapt with the European [lifestyle]. Our traditions, our religion, everything is different. Everything. When I moved to Europe, I had to completely change. I had to change everything, how people deal with each other. And adapting to European weather is not easy. Coming from 45 degrees [110 Fahrenheit], moving to [below freezing] sometimes … that’s tough for me. I need more time to adapt.
VN: What kind of goals have you set for yourself now that you have arrived at the top level?
YM: For me, I’m hoping to get a podium or a stage in a WorldTour race. I’m trying my best in every stage, and I will keep fighting and trying to reach my goal, in this team. I’m also representing the national team. I reached my goal this year to be Asian champion in 2018. That meant a lot to me, to be on the top of Asian cycling. That’s a goal I’ve already reached — with team help. I signed with them in 2017 and in 2018 I got the Asian gold medal. Now I have to think big and make bigger goals. The next goal will be a stage in a WorldTour race.
VN: Do you find yourself giving advice to up-and-coming Emirati riders?
YM: Sure. I have a lot of cyclists in Dubai that I’m in contact with all the time. I share my experiences and moments with them, how we are training, how we are racing, how we are meeting, how we are eating. I share that lifestyle with them, so they will have this opportunity, so they will not be shocked with what it’s like.
It was 2010 and de Luna, one of Mexico’s best cyclists of this generation, was racing a European campaign in his first year with Canada’s Pro Continental squad SpiderTech. De Luna had endured three months of dreary weather and furious racing; often he was not fast enough to even finish the events.
“I struggled a lot,” de Luna says. “I felt like I sucked as a cyclist. I kept thinking, ‘Oh my God, I just want to go home.’”
The blend of culture shock and the speed of the European peloton was overwhelming; it also showed de Luna exactly what was lacking from Mexico’s process for developing young cyclists. De Luna was one of Mexico’s top talents, yet he had never traveled abroad with a development program to prepare him for the next level. Rather, he had worked under the direction of a single coach for much of his time in Mexico. There was an enormous chasm between his preparation and the life he found in the European peloton.
Eight years after that moment, very little has changed within Mexico’s cycling system, de Luna says. De Luna believes Mexico’s cycling development still needs to change if the country’s top riders want to succeed overseas. The country lacks an under-23 development program, and Mexico’s national racing calendar is shrinking — races often change dates at a moment’s notice. The lack of anti-doping infrastructure means riders often feel like they are competing against a peloton with two speeds.
De Luna places much of the blame at the feet of Mexico’s cycling federation, the Federación Mexicana de Ciclismo.
The Mexican federation says it simply lacks the resources to fund such operations. These days it is focused primarily on youth development and looking for further financial support from outside sponsors.
“In the case of the professional cyclists that are racing, yes, they have very little support,” says Gabriel Espinosa, the technical director for the federation. “There are very [few] sponsors to be able to make professional teams, like Canel’s-Specialized, at the UCI Continental level.”
Due to this reality, Mexican riders often look to the U.S. domestic racing scene as the only opportunity for development and advancement. Over the years, a plethora of Mexican cyclists have ventured north to compete on UCI Continental teams such as Jelly Belly-Maxxis, Aevolo, and 303 Project, among other teams. These riders have also worked with a handful of dedicated coaches in Mexico to help them find their way.
The system works, however, it is not guaranteed to graduate any of these riders to the top of the sport.
“For the future, sure we would like to have a structured program in Europe for the juniors and U23 riders so that they can have the experience the professional teams do,” Espinosa says. “First, we need to have more support before we can confirm these programs.”
IT’S BEEN 30 YEARS since the high point of Mexican cycling when Raúl Alcalá and Miguel Arroyo raced alongside Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten in Europe. Alcalá became the first to compete in the Tour de France, winning the best young rider’s jersey in 1987. He went on to win two Tour stages and help Andy Hampsten win the 1988 Giro d’Italia.
Back then the federation played little part in each man’s ascension. Both were coached by Otto Jacome, Greg LeMond’s soigneur, and both credit their first opportunities abroad to their coaches rather than national programs.
Today, the situation remains unchanged. Espinosa admits many riders tend to find teams abroad and leave the country — something the federation is trying to change. For now, it is focusing on junior development.
De Luna came up against this roadblock leading into the first year of his career. Rather than race in Mexico, he decided to race in the United States. The move made him a trendsetter for Mexican racing — in subsequent years more Mexicans went to race in the U.S.
A talented junior, de Luna grew up racing in Aguascalientes in central Mexico. His rise through the Mexican ranks was due in part to his relationship with his coach, Klement Capliar, who had a long stint coaching in the United States and Canada. De Luna showed signs of talent, and Capliar thought he could develop him into a world-class rider.
“From deep in my heart, I wanted to help the incredible talent I saw in Mexico,” Capliar says. “To give them a real view in the world of cycling. I saw Flavio as a WorldTour rider — he was going to be a super good climber.”
A native of Czechoslovakia, Capliar moved to Mexico to coach young athletes after coaching handball and other sports in the United States. He saw that the country’s best riders received little support from the federation and wanted to change that. Capliar says the Mexican federation had courted him with a job. Working with the federation would have meant giving up his autonomy, so he declined.
With de Luna, Capliar started with basic workouts, building the rider’s base. The training sessions were rigorous and regimented. De Luna was required to show up early each morning. Capliar tended to do the cooking and massage, after regular sessions of motorpacing. Not long after, de Luna was joined by his cousin, Luís Lemus, and rider Rene Corella.
“For a year, we were in like a Communist regime, it was a 24/7 thing,” de Luna says. “But [Capliar] groomed me well. With him everything is organized — ‘This is what you’re doing and you’re going to work super hard.’”
Apart from Capliar, other individuals are also investing their time and energy to help get Mexican riders to the top. Jacome continues to train athletes but now on the junior level in the northern part of the country. Retired Spanish pro David Plaza, who helped kick-start the new SwapIt/Agolico team, and Siddharta Camil, sport director and team manager for Canel’s-Specialized, are both working hard to advance Mexican women’s teams.
As a result of his work with Capliar, de Luna was focused on racing abroad. The lack of structure, access to new equipment, and minimal support drove him away from remaining in Mexico to race. So in 2009, he began to look north of the border to continue his career. In 2010, de Luna inked a deal to ride with SpiderTech.
MEXICO’S CYCLING LEAGUES ARE divided by state associations. They feature fast, competitive racing. However, the scene is extremely insular. A good result in Mexico rarely gets a rider noticed abroad.
“There is a lot of cycling, but the level is not very high,” says Fernando Islas, a Mexican U23 rider who currently races for the American Aevolo team. “A way through to the next level does not exist. The opportunities are difficult because you have to earn them from abroad.”
Fewer races on the calendar mean fewer chances for riders to hone their skills, both when it comes to tactics and bike handling. As Jacome sees it, the national racing calendar is not the only problem. The long-time veteran has been frustrated with the cycling culture in the country and the federation for years. He now encourages talented riders to leave the country if they want to continue in the sport.
“They have races in October through January. When do the athletes recover?” Jacome says. “If [the federation] really cares for the sport, they have to try and work more with the state associations with what they have and promote the races and the people who are working hard to grow the sport.”
According to Jacome, many of the state associations work autonomously from the federation, leaving the race calendar without structure, giving no incentive for riders to purchase race licenses, and reducing anti-doping measures. Jacome often finds cyclists utilizing old-fashioned techniques of training as hard as they can for as long as they can.
Heading into the 2013 season, de Luna was left for six months without a team after SpiderTech lost its title sponsor and failed to secure financial backing to continue. It is a theme that has continued throughout de Luna’s career.
He was 21 when he signed with SpiderTech. Earning Pro Continental money at such a young age, he chose to skip university. He has had opportunities to leave the sport, but cycling is all he knows.
“I’ve seen cycling from a decently high level to the bottom,” he says. “For me, I found myself in a position where I’m okay with not going [to school]. I founded a decent business in media and video, and cycling.”
After his first years with SpiderTech, de Luna signed with Team SmartStop in 2013. He considered racing with Canel’s-Specialized, the only professional men’s team in Mexico. The two parties discussed a contract; however, they never finalized an agreement.
At SmartStop, de Luna was under pressure to perform right away. He won the king of the mountains prize at the Cascade Classic in 2013 and agreed to stay with the team for two more seasons. The team signed Travis McCabe and Eric Marcotte, and had a magical year in 2015, winning a stage at the Tour of Utah and the overall at the Tour of the Gila.
The success didn’t last, as the team faced financial problems and was forced to disband in 2016. The software company Cylance covered the finances in the final months without SmartStop. They promised contracts for 2016 before they chose to start a completely new program, leaving many of the riders, including de Luna, without a team.
De Luna then signed with Team Illuminate for 2016 and admits it was a bad move. He left the team before season’s end and spent most of 2017 opting for guest rides, in search of something more permanent. After reaching out to everyone he knew, he called the budding 303 Project team, which he had met at the Redlands Bicycle Classic. It was a last-ditch effort, but they soon agreed to a contract.
“When we had two-year contracts it was so nice; I could be relaxed come October,” de Luna says. “Now, the contract is done and then it’s high stress, ‘What am I going to do!’ So I reached out to [team manager] Nick Greeff, I offered him what I could do for the team, and if it didn’t work for the team I would keep looking.”
In recent years there has been a surge of signings from Mexico in the United States pro peloton, from Alfredo Rodriguez and Eder Frayre at Elevate-KHS, to Ulises Castillo and Rene Corella at Jelly Belly, to Luis Villalobos and Fernando Islas at Aevolo, and Tony Baca who joined de Luna at 303 Project. Many team directors sign the up-and-coming talents to their programs with confidence, but it hasn’t always been this way.
De Luna is the rider that many of his compatriot’s credit with opening the door for the current generation. De Luna says while he is happy to see more riders with contracts, the same problems still exist at home.
“As Mexicans, we need to learn to think globally and not just about Mexico and the United States,” de Luna says. “People still want to ride their bikes and become professional cyclists. There are so many people who like cycling in Mexico. Like when they tell you in a race, ‘No matter what, keep riding.’ You find yourself finishing the race and starting the next day and then you win! It’s the same thing but in a different time frame. That’s cycling.”
The world’s most populous nation counts just one man within pro cycling’s highest echelon.
Meiyin Wang is China’s sole rider in the UCI WorldTour this year, riding his second season with Bahrain-Merida. Upon his hiring, the team heralded the moment as a major step forward for cycling’s global ambitions.
“The inclusion of Wang on the team once again shows the importance of the team making it more international,” director Brent Copeland said in a 2017 interview with Cyclingnews.com. “We are now sitting on 12 different nations in our team and this gives us a lot of satisfaction.”
If Wang’s signing marked a high point for Bahrain-Merida, the moment represented a seismic event for China’s largely government-sponsored cycling development system. China may be home to roughly 1.4 billion people, but less than a dozen Chinese athletes have ever ridden for WorldTour teams.
Wang’s journey to the WorldTour took him from his youth as a promising runner, through sports school, to racing a road bike for his home province of Shandong. He drew WorldTour interest with results at races like the Tour de Langkawi, Tour of Hainan, and Tour of China.
The dearth of top-tier Chinese road pros is part of a larger sports conundrum that the country has faced for decades. How do you create champions from a seemingly unending pool of talent? China’s answer has been to use government resources to identify and develop athletes. Over the years China has come to dominate a plethora of global sports — swimming, table tennis, figure skating, and competitive diving, among others. There are other sports — soccer, for example — that have eluded China’s model.
Road cycling exists between these two poles. The sport receives plenty of government support and enjoys a moderate government-funded domestic racing scene, but Chinese cyclists have long struggled to graduate to the international peloton. Unlike figure skating or table tennis, road cycling, particularly on the men’s side, does not revolve around the Olympic cycle. Instead, success is generally gauged via results in a European-dominated professional peloton that races practically year-round. China still has a long way to go to find results there.
There are signs of progress. Wang’s is a success story for Chinese cycling as it currently operates. Meanwhile, the growth of Continental teams like the Mitchelton-BikeExchange development squad, on which there are seven Chinese riders, could provide them with the needed experience to step into the global ranks in greater numbers. A strong presence on the world scene may not be a thing of the distant future for the East Asian powerhouse — but the road to success in the international peloton remains paved with challenges.
WANG, LIKE SO MANY Chinese athletes, came up through a sports school system.
The Chinese government invests heavily in identifying and developing talented kids from a young age. Children who show athletic gifts are sent to schools that focus primarily on sports. The most talented ones stay in that system throughout their school-age years, before graduating to even more selective training programs and teams.
“Our Chinese sports system is like a pyramid. We’re the base, the fattest part of the pyramid. The middle of the pyramid is the professional provincial teams, and the national team is the apex,” said Tian Hua, the headmaster of a Chinese sports school, in a 2008 interview with National Public Radio. “Our main role is to choose future athletes.”
Sometimes athletes are steered toward a certain sport, depending on their abilities and the country’s larger goals. Former runner Jingjing Wang and former road cyclists Ren Chengyuan and Ying Liu, for instance, gave China a highly-vaunted mountain biking trio at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Wang started his own journey to elite sport as a runner. He transitioned to cycling in his late teens. After school, he made it to his city-level team. From there, he graduated to the provincial level.
Chinese provinces staff their own provincial teams, which compete against each other. For most elite riders in China, riding for a provincial team is the pinnacle of a racing career. Provincial teams compete in a national racing series within China, earning points towards participation at the annual national championships and the all-important National Games of China, which are held every four years.
The government-funded provincial teams provide healthy infrastructure for developing riders, connecting them with coaches, putting them in a serious racing environment, and providing an income that allows them to race full-time.
Yet the system creates a challenge for those riders hoping to race overseas. Chinese riders have limited exposure to the European racing scene, and therefore lack opportunities to ever race the world’s best. In turn, international teams rarely see the talent present in China’s domestic leagues.
Those few that do manage to link up with European teams, often via provincial team connections, recalibrate their schedules to focus on UCI events. Provincial teams, whose funding is dependent on results in the national racing series and the National Games, are loath to lose their young stars. The handful of athletes who do make it to the Continental level or higher often feel obligated to continue racing for the provincial team whenever called upon.
“It’s like an invisible contract when the [province] coach calls the riders to come back for provincial races,” says Chinese cycling journalist Michelle Chen of QI Cycling. “They pretty much don’t have a choice, because in the future they’re all going to retire, and then they’re going to come back to China.”
MEIYIN WANG’S JOURNEY TO the WorldTour relied heavily on the pathway built by Fuyu Li, who became China’s first-ever WorldTour pro when he joined the Discovery Channel team in 2007. Both men hail from Shandong.
In 2009, Wang stepped into the international ranks with Li’s then-team, the Continental-level Trek-Marco Polo squad, the first professional team registered in China. Wang raced in a handful of UCI Asia Tour events over two seasons. In 2011, he joined the Hengxiang Cycling Team.
Unlike Trek-Marco Polo, Hengxiang was (and still is) almost entirely composed of Chinese riders, pulling heavily from the Shandong provincial team. The Hengxiang squad represented an important lifeline to cycling’s pinnacle, albeit a lifeline with major challenges. The team’s small infrastructure meant riders struggled.
“The team leveraged coach [Fuyu] Li’s experience racing with Discovery. He tried to prove that riders from the Shandong province could get good results at the international level,” says Wang, who spoke to VeloNews through a translator. “It was really hard at first. Pro teams have soigneurs and sports directors; for us, everybody [on staff] had to do everything. They had to be a soigneur and a coach, and so on.”
The Hengxiang team gave Wang a chance to prove his talents to larger international squads. In 2013 he won a stage and finished fifth overall at the Tour de Langkawi. He also won the mountains classification there. Those awards caught the eye of WorldTour teams. Results in the Tours of China I and II and the Tour of Taihu Lake in the following years cemented his status as a promising rider.
Wang’s coach, Li, acted as his agent and received offers from several international teams. “[Li] had offers from not only Bahrain-Merida but a few other teams too, which was a dream come true,” Wang says. According to Wang, he’d also heard from Giant-Alpecin and Orica-GreenEdge along the way, but Bahrain-Merida represented the most appealing option — with the most opportunities — to finally make the jump to the WorldTour.
“Li thought Bahrain-Merida would be the best choice career-wise,” Wang says. “I liked the idea of joining a young team, like when I was at Hengxiang. I thought it would be a nice adventure.”
The upgrade to the WorldTour brought new challenges, among them the language barrier. All of the sources VeloNews spoke to for this story put it atop the list of challenges facing Chinese riders.
Now based in Italy, Wang is studying both English and Italian simultaneously.
“I don’t have a teacher and I’m really busy with racing and training,” he says. “I learn mostly by talking with the team, so it’s that kind of vocabulary.”
When he’s not in Italy, Wang does occasionally return to China to kit up for the national series, though he says he only rarely competes with his provincial squad these days. The team is content for him to focus on his WorldTour career as long as he accrues the necessary points for the annual national championships, with the next National Games still a few years off.
Some riders struggle to convince their provincial coaches that their international ambitions should come first, but Wang can at least point to the benefits of his racing experience in Europe.
“Just before I got to [the Tour of] Japan, I raced in a national series event to get points for the July national championships,” Wang says. “I won the time trial, criterium, and road race, I think thanks to the training I got from riding the Tour of the Alps.”
“They really didn’t understand what was going on in terms of logistics, how to get to the stage start, etc., so I really assisted them a lot, in that particular event, and that built a bond.”
AS CHINA’S SOLE REPRESENTATIVE on the WorldTour, Wang carries a nation’s hopes on his shoulders. He also represents a major opportunity for cycling’s growth around the globe.
Pro cycling’s various powers have long looked to expand in China, due to the country’s economic might. Wang and other Chinese riders become the focal point of promotional efforts focused on the Chinese market. The UCI has invested heavily to get pro racing off the ground in the country. Lampre-Merida nearly became the Chinese-registered team known as TJ Sport two seasons ago before a deal fell through, with the United Arab Emirates stepping in at the last moment.
It’s not the only foreign project to focus on Chinese cycling. Currently, the Australia-based Mitchelton-BikeExchange team is looking to gain inroads in China.
That project traces its roots back to a chance encounter in 1987. Shayne Bannan, now general manager of GreenEdge Cycling, was in Italy for the Giro della Regioni when he met Jinkang Shen, coach of China’s national cycling team. Bannan’s conversations with Shen would become the seed of a project that now sends seven Chinese riders to races all over the world.
“We spent a couple of nights in the same hotel, and we formed a friendship,” Bannan says of his first meeting with Shen. “They really didn’t understand what was going on in terms of logistics, how to get to the stage start, etc., so I really assisted them a lot, in that particular event, and that built a bond.”
In 2012 the duo discussed a plan to launch a team for Chinese riders. Five years later, in 2017, Bannan and the rest of GreenEdge decided to act. They launched a Continental squad then known as Mitchelton-Scott. That name was adopted in 2018 by GreenEdge’s WorldTour team, and the Continental team became Mitchelton-BikeExchange. As of this season, the squad is one of nine Continental teams registered in China. Seven of the team’s 13 riders are Chinese.
Connecting those riders to a WorldTour-level support structure gives them serious advantages as developing athletes. Just as critical as that WorldTour structure is the team’s calendar. Mitchelton-BikeExchange raced the Dubai Tour in January alongside nine WorldTour squads and completed a two-month block of racing in Europe at the end of May. Bannan points out that many of the Chinese riders had never been to Europe before signing with the team.
The calendar was a can’t-miss opportunity for a Chinese up-and-comer like Zhihui Jiang. He rode for the Netherlands-based SEG Racing development team in 2015 and 2016 but wasn’t sure about his future after that. Then, his coach, Wu Weipei, introduced him to the Mitchelton-BikeExchange team.
“After the National Games I once thought I wouldn’t have any more opportunities to go back to Europe,” Jiang says. “[Mitchelton-BikeExchange] gave me another chance.”
The Australian team faces a long list of challenges, namely the language barrier. Bannan says that some riders have begun to learn basic Chinese, to ease the challenge.
“It’s important that we make an effort as well, not just the Chinese riders,” he says. “It’s a real educational program for all of us.”
FOR NOW, MAJOR RESULTS for China’s top pros remain elusive. Wang has struggled at the WorldTour level. He raced the spring classics in 2018 but did not finish the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne, or Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Nevertheless, Wang represents one opportunity for China to change that narrative. His success at a race like the Tour de Langkawi, which typically sees multiple WorldTour teams in attendance, suggests that results at the highest level may be an achievable goal. Wang isn’t content to simply have a WorldTour contract. He says his biggest career target is a stage win in a WorldTour race, and he knows a breakaway may be his best pathway to that ultimate goal.
None of the Chinese riders on Mitchelton-BikeExchange have yet won a European race. Bannan is patient and hopeful that success will eventually come.
“Yes, there are Chinese riders at the moment that are capable of becoming WorldTour riders,” Bannan says. “The next step is to actually have them win at the WorldTour level.”
Winning will require patience and increased investment. That said, it’s hardly a surprise how much effort the UCI has put in over the years attempting to promote pro road racing in China. The world’s second-largest economy could help a sport with eternal financial problems turn the page.
Bannan, for one, knows just how big of an opportunity China represents for competitive cycling. He is hoping that efforts like Mitchelton-BikeExchange’s may eventually bear fiscal fruit as well.
“The primary goal is to build a platform to create a pathway for Chinese riders. As a byproduct of that, I think the commercial side of it does interest us very much,” he says. “We’re of the opinion that a strong Chinese cycling in the future is also a strong global cycling.”
A nervous energy pulsed through Team Rwanda’s hotel suites on the day before the 2017 Colorado Classic stage race. Kimberly Coats, the team’s marketing manager, shuffled between rooms with an orange cooler in tow, handing out sandwiches to riders. Jonathan “Jock” Boyer, the team’s co-founder and longtime director, paced down the hall barking out logistical orders to his soigneur on his cell phone.
Inside one room, rider Bonaventure Uwizeyimana sat on his bed and spoke with a reporter. His goal for the four-day race was to win a stage, despite the presence of WorldTour teams. Uwizeyimana was unfazed; at 25 he had already raced his bicycle across Europe and Africa and won Rwanda’s national road title.
“I come here, and I want to win,” Uwizeyimana said. “Yes, I am a bit nervous. What can you do? It is a race.”
For Rwanda’s national cycling team, the pre-race scene represented a powerful bookend to a process that had started a decade earlier. When Rwandan cyclists first raced in the United States in 2007, simply making it to the starting line was a success. Boyer brought Team Rwanda’s original five riders — Adrien Niyonshuti, Nathan Byukusenge, Abraham Ruhumuriza, Rafiki Uwimana, and Nyandwi Uwase — to the southwestern U.S. to race New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila, a much smaller race with a lower tier of competitors. None of the five Rwandans had ever been outside of Africa; just 18 months before, several had worked as bicycle deliverymen.
The Rwandan riders lacked the horsepower of the domestic U.S. peloton. On each stage, all five were immediately dropped; simply completing the stage marked a form of success. Only Niyonshuti completed the five-day race.
In the decade between these disparate scenes, Team Rwanda made enormous strides, both on and off the bicycle. The project overcame seemingly impossible financial and organizational hurdles, as Boyer, Coats, and the project’s other benefactors found ways to keep the project afloat. They capitalized on mainstream media attention to publicize the transformative power of the project to a wider audience. They navigated cycling’s social circles in search of benefactors with the dollars to propel it forward. And they found people with enough passion to keep the program moving forward.
At each pivotal moment, the project has taken a step forward. The mission, however, has remained the same: to build a sustainable program for the Rwandans to oversee.
“The Africans are the captains of their future with this project,” Boyer says. “All we’ve done is open the door for them. Their choices will determine where they are going.”
THE STORY OF TEAM Rwanda became lore within the North American cycling scene due in part to the 2011 New Yorker story “Climbers,” and the 2012 documentary, “Rising from Ashes.” Boyer, the first American to ride the Tour de France, and mountain bike pioneer Tom Ritchey, launched the nonprofit Project Rwanda in 2006 with the dual goals to both develop racing cyclists and import inexpensive cargo bicycles to the country. The two men shared a common belief that the bike could help Rwanda step out of the shadow of its decade-long civil war and genocide. Rwanda is, and has been, a land of hundreds of thousands of cyclists; they ferry cargo and passengers aboard antiquated Chinese bicycles.
Ritchey and Boyer discovered five cyclists who showed talent and set to work developing them into racers. In the ensuing years, those athletes raced across the continent and the globe, inspiring their country to follow cycling and take up the sport. Two of the riders even made it to the sport’s highest echelon. Niyonshuti competed in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games and raced in the WorldTour with Dimension Data; Byukusenge raced mountain bikes at the 2016 Olympics. The project became the focal point for mainstream American media, and all five original riders attained some level of fame.
“In Rwanda, people know us because of the Tour du Rwanda, or the races we do, or because of technology like Facebook,” Rafiki Uwimana says. “It’s different how the guys follow us in the USA. They know us because of the magazines or watching the movies.”
Behind the scenes, the Rwanda project struggled to overcome a series of organizational and financial hurdles. The project had a tiny budget; for its first year, Ritchey donated $100,000 in funding and also paid Boyer to work on the project full-time. In the second year, the budget grew to approximately $130,000, mostly through donations. Boyer stretched every penny to pay for a masseuse, mechanic, rider salaries, and traveling fees. Funds trickled in from private donations, industry sponsors, and the Rwandan government. The project rarely had enough cash in the bank to fund the program for more than three months.
“It was highly stressful — knowing that maybe in three months I’d have to pack up and go home,” Boyer says. “I was finding volunteers and sometimes fixing bikes and taking them to the races. I was totally winging it.”
Boyer uprooted from Monterey, California, where he operated a bicycle parts company, and moved to a small house in Kigali to coach the riders full-time. His coaching did not stop at cycling; Boyer taught the Rwandan riders a wide range of skills, from proper fueling and eating strategies, to how to budget expenses.
Ritchey juggled co-operating duties of the project with the rigors of operating his own company. He traveled to Rwanda twice a year, often bringing figureheads from the sport to show them the project.
“I felt like I needed to involve all of these people from different parts of my life,” Ritchey says. “There were a lot of people who helped the project along in the process.”
Ritchey and Boyer began to deviate in the program’s third year. The financials of the cargo bike program didn’t add up — even at a steep discount the bicycles were too expensive for Rwandans. Boyer wanted the project to focus squarely on athlete development. Ritchey was in California, Boyer was in Rwanda, where he had begun a relationship with Coats, who joined the program in 2009. Eventually, the two men’s relationship frayed.
“It was evident we needed to separate,” Boyer says.
“It was a beautiful mess. It did nothing but bless my socks off.”
And there was another component of the project that troubled Boyer; the Rwanda project included plans to produce a feature-length film. In 2006 Ritchey and entrepreneur Dan Cooper brought filmmaker and producer T.C. Johnstone to Rwanda to ride and Johnstone was immediately captured by what he saw. The next year Johnstone sent a film crew to Rwanda to document Boyer’s progress. The move caused tension. Boyer saw the film as a distraction; between $30,000 to $50,000 was earmarked for its production each year, and those funds could have funded the athletes.
Boyer had another reason to balk at the film. Boyer has an infamous past. In 2002 he had spent nine months in a California prison after he pleaded guilty to groping a teenaged girl on several occasions during a three-year period. Boyer has since discussed his crime and sentencing in the media at length, but in 2008 he was still hesitant to draw attention to himself.
“Honestly, I didn’t want to be on the radar again. I even told the producers to cut me completely out of the film,” Boyer says. “I just thought it would create more problems for everyone.”
Eventually, the mounting tension caused an irreparable schism. Boyer and Coats separated themselves from Ritchey in 2010. The original nonprofit, Project Rwanda died; the new nonprofit, called Team Rwanda Cycling, started with $5,000 in a bank account and a $1,200 purchase on Boyer’s credit card.
Johnstone, who worked closely with both men, believes the stresses of the seemingly impossible task put enormous strain on the relationship — it was doomed to fail.
“You have two guys who are so similar. They’re both brilliant and extremely opinionated,” Johnstone says. “You have two personalities just hitting up against each other with management philosophies. Tom is here, Jock is [in Rwanda], and I think the vision for the project got complicated.”
Ritchey and Boyer have come to peace with the breakup. Ritchey called the move “natural,” and continued to help the team navigate the cycling industry in an unofficial position. Boyer and Coats took on full-time management of the program, including fundraising duties.
“It was a beautiful mess,” Ritchey says. “It did nothing but bless my socks off.”
THESE DAYS THE EPICENTER of Rwandan cycling is a collection of houses and brick buildings that sits on the outskirts of Musanze, a city in the country’s mountainous northeast. Like many Rwandan cities, “Musanze” is an adopted name — the city’s previous name, “Ruhengeri,” was abandoned years ago in an effort to forget the genocide. Ruhengeri was a place of mass graves and revenge killings; by contrast, Musanze is where Rwandan cyclists train for the professional ranks.
Rwanda’s cyclists travel from across the country to the compound, called the Africa Rising Cycling Center, to undergo physiological testing and participate in talent camps. The program’s various national teams meet at the center to embark on long training in the nearby mountains. A team of mechanics resides at the center to fix and maintain bicycles and gear. The country’s new cycling federation is also based there. Coaches, directors, and soigneurs assemble at the compound to plan the coming season.
Boyer and Coats first saw the collection of buildings during a training ride in 2012. By then, the two had left Kigali for Musanze, where they ran the organization out of two rented houses on the other end of town. Boyer’s team had become Rwanda’s de facto national program, yet the riders crammed into a series of bunk beds in one house and fixed their bicycles in a small garage. Coats and Boyer shared the other house with five staffers a quarter of a mile away. The setup was far from ideal.
“We had come to the point where, if we didn’t get a new home, we were done,” Coats says. “We had the conversation. We either need to go big or go home. We couldn’t keep living like this.”
The buildings on the edge of Musanze represented a lifeline. The price tag for the buildings, however, was well out of the reach of Project Rwanda. In 2014 Boyer asked Rwanda’s minister of sport Joseph Habineza if he could arrange for the team to take over the center. Habineza told Boyer that the country’s president, Paul Kagame, could approve such a transfer. Should Boyer’s team win the Tour du Rwanda, he might get the opportunity to meet president Kagame and ask.
“We had the conversation. We either need to go big or go home. We couldn’t keep living like this.”
In November 2014, Boyer got his chance. His rider, Valens Ndayisenga, won the overall on the final day of the Tour du Rwanda. Boyer and the team received an invite to a presidential media event alongside Kagame. Boyer says he was told that the moment was his chance to change the project’s future.
“I introduced the team and then I asked [Kagame] for the center. I also asked for new bikes,” Boyer says. “We were facing the press and photographers. When he responded he said, ‘Absolutely, the center is now yours. It’s about time.’”
The serendipitous meeting was one of perhaps half a dozen pivotal moments that helped Rwanda’s cycling project grow from those chaotic first years. The program’s first lucky encounter occurred in 2008. Boyer met S. Robert Walton, the eldest son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, while racing the 2007 Absa Cape Epic. A passionate cyclist, Walton traveled to South Africa to participate in the Absa Cape Epic and invited Boyer to work as a crew for him. Walton then traveled to Rwanda to see Boyer’s project. He was amazed by what he saw.
“Jock had this patience and this firmness and all of those things you need to be successful,” Walton said. “I was really impressed with what they were doing and I liked the story of the recovery of Rwanda.”
Walton marveled at the Rwanda project, and in 2010 agreed to donate $75,000 to the program each year. The donations boosted the program’s bottom line to $180,000.
“We could buy a generator. We could build an area for the mechanics. We could pay for plane tickets,” Boyer says. “That was all because of the Walton grant.”
Then, in 2015, Walton stepped up his contribution. He promised $750,000 to the program, to be paid out in $250,000 annual payments for three years. The grant completely changed the way Boyer and Coats thought about the program and its potential. The door opened for the team to compete across Africa and abroad.
“It was the first time we could actually do long-term planning,” Coats says.
THE NEXT PIVOTAL MOMENT came in 2012. Of the original five cyclists, Niyonshuti showed the most promise. He had inked a contract to ride with Doug Ryder’s MTN-Qhubeka for the 2009 season and raced a series of major events in Europe and Africa. The team wanted him to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London. Ritchey thought Niyonshuti had a better shot at qualifying in mountain biking, so starting in 2009 he began racing both road and off-road events. In 2011 he qualified for the Olympics.
But could he actually finish the race without being lapped? Ritchey posed the question to Swiss mountain bike legend Thomas Frischknecht, who said no. Frischknecht invited Niyonshuti to Switzerland for several months and personally trained Niyonshuti to prepare for the race. Niyonshuti finished in 39th place in London, 12 minutes down on winner Yarloslav Kulhavy. He finished on the same lap.
The scene was immensely important; it created the emotional bookend for the documentary film, which by then had entered its sixth year of production. The project itself suffered through rocky moments; after Niyonshuti missed the 2008 Olympics the film was shelved for an entire year. Boyer eventually warmed up to the project after John- stone proved his dedication; five years in, film crews still followed Boyer and the Rwandans to races. Starting in 2010 he upped his budget for the production, and by 2012 the total spend surpassed a half million.
“We wanted to know, ‘What is the value of hope?’”
“The story of this team was reconciliation and going through borders, and changing an entire country,” Boyer says. “That was far greater than me being faced with my issues being back in the limelight. It would have been selfish not to tell it.”
Over the years Johnstone’s crew had captured thousands of hours of content. They witnessed the Rwandans progress as cyclists and saw them become celebrities within their own country. They captured Rwanda’s intense poverty, and the wide-eyed children who flocked to see the cyclists. Yet there was no guarantee that the footage would ever be cut into a film. Niyonshuti’s participation in the Olympics gave the film a natural ending.
Johnstone secured additional funding from a private donor in Texas, and in 2012 was able to create a final cut.
“The fear was this project could have continued to fly under the radar if somebody didn’t put it on film,” Johnstone says. “We wanted to know, ‘What is the value of hope?’”
The film was released in October 2012, just two months after the Olympics. Its launch proved to be another important moment. Johnstone took the film to festivals across the country, and the audience response was immediately positive. It won awards at 12 consecutive festivals, eventually taking home 18 festival victories and 30 total prizes. It gained distribution on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes, and brought the project’s story to millions of viewers.
Johnstone and Boyer launched the Rising from Ashes Foundation to generate funds from the film. While the fundraising has been small, the impact it has had on the program’s awareness is impossible to quantify.
“People send us notes and emails saying how much the film has impacted their lives,” Boyer says. “It’s about how the bike changed the lives of people in dire situations and what the team has done for African countries. It’s given hope in so many ways.”
LIKE HIS PREDECESSORS, BONAVENTURE Uwizeyimana pedaled a taxi bicycle before he joined Rwanda’s national cycling team. Unlike Niyonshuti or Byukusenge — both of whom were in their late 20s when they joined — Uwizeyimana came on as a teenager after being invited to several of the program’s development camps.
“All I wanted was to be a pro [cyclist],” Uwizeyaimana says. “I did not get it the first time, and I trained so hard for my second time.”
Uwizeyimana entered the program amid a new generation of stars. Uwimana, Ruhumriza, and Byukusenge retired from racing and joined the program as coaches. New riders Joseph Areruya and Samuel Mugisha joined the team as teenagers. All three riders had more time to develop the requisite skills for pro cycling. Mugisha now competes for South Africa’s Dimension Data team.
The three men also entered the program during a management upheaval. By 2014 Boyer needed assistance with the day-to-day operation of the Africa Rising Center and the national team. The program had rebranded itself Team Africa Rising, and Boyer and Coats looked beyond Rwanda to create similar programs in other nations.
Fundraising and operations took most of their attention, and Boyer lacked the time to coach the national team riders. He hired on retired U.S. pro Sterling Magnell to come to Rwanda and oversee the national team.
“All I wanted was to be a pro [cyclist]. I did not get it the first time, and I trained so hard for my second time.”
Magnell arrived in 2015 and saw a program sagging under the weight of its operational requirements. The Rwandan team had anywhere from 15 to 20 full-time riders who received a financial stipend. Dozens more hovered around the periphery, unpaid but awaiting a chance to prove themselves. There was no incentive-based program to elevate riders. Some veteran team members neglected training or disappeared for weeks. Yet they still drew a payment.
Magnell ended the guaranteed payments, and instead initiated a payment plan based on results.
“I think Jock was trying to get people to the level where they could compete, and just doing that was a success,” Magnell says. “I wanted them to win races. I changed the mindset of this being a charity to this being a national team of athletes and ambassadors of Rwanda. We stopped the handouts.”
Magnell’s policy drew immediate criticism. Simply to make it on the Rwanda national team brought stardom to a rider; and the stipends made the riders rich. The riders were incredulous. Midway through the 2015 season, a handful of riders went on strike during the Vuelta a Colombia. Magnell responded by suspending them from competition.
Differing opinions exist about the decision to drop the riders. Former members of Team Rwanda were critical of the choice. Magnell believes the move helped the team by creating a new level of responsibility.
“I lost one rider for good; the four individuals who came [back] became leaders of the team,” Magnell says. “They have created a new culture and taken ownership of the values. They value winning.”
Areruya was one such rider who was suspended and then returned. In 2017 he won the Tour du Rwanda and was the top-ranked rider in the African continent.
Magnell’s success with the team led to the most recent chapter in Team Rwanda’s evolution. During the project’s first decade, Boyer and Coats had worked independently of Rwanda’s fledgling cycling federation, yet they named riders to the teams, oversaw development, and paid the cyclists.
In 2017, the government-funded cycling union, called FERWACY, received the funding to take over the project. In April it assumed control of the Africa Rising Center. The new federation hired Magnell and his other coaches as sub-contractors and began to pay the bills for the Africa Cycling Center. The program was funded by government cash, rather than by the Walton family grant and other private donations.
The move marked a natural conclusion for Coats and Boyer. After a decade in Rwanda, both sought a return to the United States. In late 2017 they relocated back to Boyer’s family ranch in Wyoming.
“We probably stayed too long in Rwanda,” Coats says. “Hindsight is 20/20.”
In the months after their departure, Boyer and Coats started a new mission: to grow cycling across Africa. If the original program succeeded in Rwanda, could a similar model be replicated in Nigeria, the Congo, or someplace else? The two are currently working with the Nigerian government to launch a UCI Continental team there in 2019.
Should that project work, then perhaps Project Rwanda could become the model for growing cycling across the globe.
“This thing has always been about how the bike can change the lives of people in dire situations,” Boyer says. “What this team has tried to do for African countries, it has given hope in so many ways.”
How many cycling teams have a trained sniper on the roster? How many employ a political refugee? How many are owned by the son of a Holocaust survivor who promises to give his fortune away to charity?
Meet Israel Cycling Academy, one of the most intriguing and controversial teams in the peloton. The team made its grand tour debut at this year’s Giro d’Italia.
“This is a special team,” says Dennis van Winden, a blonde-haired Dutch rider who provides European ballast to the upstart squad riding high on dreams. “I raced on one of the biggest teams in the world [Rabobank], but I have never been on a team as tight as this one.”
The team is somewhat comparable to the all-Basque Euskaltel-Euskadi team, or the United States’s 7-Eleven squad, which brought American riders to Europe for the first time. Having finished the 2018 Giro d’Italia, Israel Cycling Academy has dreams of a Tour de France bid by 2020. The team’s racing ambitions, however, are just a piece of its larger mission. Israel Cycling Academy wants to change the wider global perception of Israel, one of the most polarizing countries on the planet. The team management’s unabashed patriotism is one of the main drivers behind its existence.
“Our athletes understand that being on an Israeli team, they are each ambassadors for the team’s home country,” says owner Sylvan Adams. Adams’s father survived a Nazi death camp and then built a billion-dollar real estate empire in Canada.
“Israel is so much more than the bad images of what is often seen on TV by the world,” Adams says. “That is a distorted view of the life I know in Israel. We want the team to help tell that story you don’t often hear about.”
The team faces very public pushback in its mission to tell this story. Its mere presence in races sometimes elicits boos, insults, and even protests. Last year an international collection of organizations launched protests against the Giro d’Italia for choosing Israel to host the “Big Start” of the 2018 race. Anti-Israel activists accuse the country of using the Giro, and to a certain degree the Israel Cycling Academy, to whitewash decades of war, as well as alleged human rights abuses against Palestinians.
“Starting the race anywhere under Israel’s control will serve as a stamp of approval for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians,” says the group BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). “Would the Giro d’Italia have considered starting a race in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s?”
The team says it just wants to race bikes.
“We know everyone is watching us, but we are here to race,” says van Winden, who raced seven years in the WorldTour before joining in 2017. “We don’t need any gifts. We present ourselves and fight like everyone else. Is an Israeli ready to race at the top level? Oh, for sure.”
CYCLING’S GLOBAL REACH NOW touches every corner of the globe, with major races held in China, South America, and even Africa. Yet prior to 2014, Israel had not made it to the cycling map. Israel Cycling Academy’s quiet launch that year brought the country its first professional team.
Today, cycling is booming in Israel. Young urbanites spin along the streets of Tel Aviv in between bars, cafes, and restaurants year round. The countryside is alive with pelotons of amateur riders, and world-class mountain biking exists in Israel’s rural areas. There are weekend criteriums and a growing gran fondo series across the country that draws hundreds.
Despite the growth, Israel has no WorldTour professional riders. This could be traced to Israel’s mandatory military service. Israel requires a three-year commitment from all young Israeli men and two years for women. When young Belgians or Italians are racing in the U23 ranks, their Israeli counterparts are practicing military drills.
The five Israeli riders on Israel Cycling Academy’s elite team all spent time in the army. Guy Niv, whose nickname is “Sniper,” was trained as a sharpshooter. Guy Sagiv, Israel’s two-time national road champion, took four years to complete his military training because he mixed racing with his duties.
Niv has shown tremendous potential. In March he rode into an all-day breakaway during stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico. When he finished that event, Niv became the first Israeli rider to complete a WorldTour stage race.
“The army will give us time to train and travel to race, but we have to make up for time we miss,” Sagiv says. “It’s part of duty here in Israel. Everyone must serve.”
Riders like Sagiv and Niv know that in Israel, country comes first. Yet the nation’s politics sometimes put the riders in challenging situations.
In 2016, Sagiv defied Army orders and traveled to Qatar for the UCI world championships. Israelis are not allowed to travel to most Muslim countries in the Middle East, but the Israeli cycling federation worked out a deal with Qatari counterparts. Sagiv did not inform his Army bosses, who found out when images of him racing were printed in newspapers.
“A fan started screaming at me in Spanish about the Palestinians. I went up to him and talked to him calmly. I know that I am racing with a symbol on my back, and I am proud of it.”
“I decided that if I wanted to be a cyclist, I needed to go there [the worlds] no matter what,” Sagiv says. “I felt comfortable and safe in Qatar. I did what I thought was the right thing. I didn’t go to jail, but I was quite close to.”
The team’s riders have multiple stories of this nature. Roy Goldstein, reigning Israeli national champion, raced in Spain’s Basque Country, where anti-Israeli sentiment runs deep.
“A fan started screaming at me in Spanish about the Palestinians,” Goldstein says. “I went up to him and talked to him calmly. I know that I am racing with a symbol on my back, and I am proud of it.”
The team’s riders and staff are cognizant of the squad’s international ambitions and the challenging dichotomy that comes with the plan. Israel Cycling Academy wants to build a professional racing program that can win major races and develop Israeli talent for the WorldTour. The team also wants to be a two-wheeled billboard for Israel, and the various political baggage that comes along with it.
ISRAEL CYCLING ACADEMY TRACES its origins to a chance meeting on Nes Harim, a good-sized hill west of Jerusalem favored by local cyclists. In 2013 Ran Margaliot, an Israeli professional rider, met Ron Baron, an amateur cyclist and businessman 20 years his senior.
Margaliot had just seen his professional cycling dreams come to an abrupt and bitter end. After just 26 race days with Saxo Bank during 2012, team manager Bjarne Riis broke the news to Margaliot as gently as he could. There would be no contract extension.
“It’s hard being told you’re not good enough,” Margaliot says. “I dreamed of becoming the first Israeli to race the Tour de France. It took me a while to accept that was never going to happen.”
Margaliot burned his anger out on the steep pitches of Nes Harim, where he met Baron while riding that day. Margaliot recounted his personal frustrations of trying to become a pro cyclist: he paid his own way during summer breaks from Army service to race in Belgium, and then attended the UCI’s World Cycling Center. After two stagiaire deals he joined Saxo Bank, but he couldn’t quite cut it at the pro level. Baron was intrigued. The pair struck up a friendship and soon shared a common dream: create an Israeli professional cycling team.
“It is a bit of a Cinderella story,” says Baron, who was the team’s early financier. “There are a lot of amateur cyclists in Israel, but no professional ones. Ran wanted to start a team and I thought, ‘Why not?’ He was so enthusiastic. And now here we are, four years later, going to the Giro.”
With Baron’s financial backing, Margaliot reached out to the pro cycling network to look for riders, staff, and infrastructure. Barely a year after their mountaintop meeting, Margaliot was able to create the infrastructure for the team. He also secured the help of Peter Sagan, who agreed to serve as a public ambassador for the squad.
The team debuted in the Continental ranks under the name “Cycling Academy” in 2014 with 14 riders. Sagan attended the launch — his mere presence helped the team score headlines across the globe.
“The idea was to start small and build up the infrastructure,” Margaliot says. “We signed Israelis, but also some established pros. We know it will take time to develop Israeli riders. We are not going to throw them into the deep waters.”
Margaliot, 29, is perhaps the youngest team manager in pro cycling. His youth and energy helped the team quickly excel. The squad took its first professional victory in 2015, and scored invites to races in the United States and Europe. The following season, the team added riders with European experience, including Dan Craven, Guillaume Boivin, and Chris Butler.
By 2017, the team took another important turn, adding the word “Israel” to its official name. There was no more hiding the team’s ambitions.
Enter Canadian billionaire real estate developer Sylvan Adams. Adams is a passionate cyclist and former world champion in the master’s category. The recently retired 58-year-old moved from Quebec to Israel in 2015 and soon tapped into the booming Israeli cycling scene. He heard about the Cycling Academy project through Baron.
He was just the man Margaliot needed to help the team step up another level.
In 2017, Adams joined as co-owner and chairman of the newly branded team. Adams brought unabashed pride as well as deep pockets. His investment helped the team climb to the Pro Continental ranks in 2018. His cash also allowed the team to grow to 24 riders and attract an even higher level of talent, including Ben Hermans (from BMC Racing), Ruben Plaza (from Orica-Scott), and Kristian Sbaragli (from Dimension Data), all three WorldTour pros.
“We want to bring Israeli cycling and modern Israel to the world stage. It’s the bike that can connect people. This is about sport and about passion.”
Adams has quickly become Israel’s cheerleader for all things cycling. He backs the Cycling Academy team, personally funds the construction of Israel’s first velodrome, and is a promoter of Tel Aviv’s tagline as “Amsterdam of the Middle East.” He also helped fund Israel’s $12 million bid to lure the Giro d’Italia’s “Big Start” to Jerusalem; his involvement earned him the title “honorary president” of the project.
A natural salesman, Adams believed the team could function as a traveling postcard to foster a new image for Israel.
“We want to bring Israeli cycling and modern Israel to the world stage,” Adams says.
“It’s the bike that can connect people. This is about sport and about passion.”
Four years after its launch, Cycling Academy has now grown into a multi-program development organization. Beneath the pro team sits a U23 feeder team, a junior team, as well as a mountain biking development program. Israel Cycling Academy riders made steady progress in 2018. Guillaume Boivin was seventh at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; Zakkari Dempster was fourth at Ronde van Drenthe; and Edwin Avila won the third stage of the Tour of Taiwan.
“The best way to develop Israeli talent is to race in the world’s biggest races,” Margaliot says. “Our dream is to race in the Tour. Do we have to become WorldTour to do that? I am not sure. Building up the Israeli base is the priority.”
THE TEAM PROUDLY CARRIES the Star of David on its jersey and all the baggage and hopes that come with it. Many inside the team embrace its dual messages of racing and ambassadorship.
“We want to bring a message of peace and hope,” Baron says. “But we are also a racing team. We don’t need any favors. We want to grow Israeli cycling and we want to put Israel on the map.”
The team’s ethos was underscored when it signed Ahmet Orken, the first Turkish rider ever to sign with a Pro Continental team. Months later, however, politics reared its ugly head, when President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s political capital. The decision created an international crisis that filtered all the way down to cycling. Under pressure from the Turkish government, Orken left the team before the season started.
“That’s why sports and politics should never mix,” Adams says. “This is what this team is fighting against. Here is a talented athlete who only wants to race his bike.”
To replace him, the team signed a 25-year-old Eritrean refugee living in Sweden named Awet Gebremedhin. Having raced for his country’s national team, Gebremedhin fled during a European racing swing in 2013. He traveled to Sweden and was forced to hide out for 18 months until he was awarded refugee status. His signing fits into the team’s ethos. Management denies his arrival is political, but rather because they want to help him foster his dreams.
“We are not a political movement, we’re a sports team. We believe that sports is about connecting people,” Margaliot says. “Awet is a special rider, based on his personal story and his abilities.”
Israel Cycling Academy will continue its two-sided mission to promote Israel and develop Israeli riders. The team brought Sagiv to the Giro, where he finished in 141st place. That fact alone will mark a milestone for the program. Yet politics will always linger. When VeloNews sat down with Margaliot last fall, he downplayed the political winds that inevitably blow around his team.
“This isn’t about politics. This is about racing bikes,” he says. “How come you and I are talking? It’s because of cycling. It’s about bridging differences with the bike.”
More than a decade ago, South African Douglas Ryder forged an ambitious dream: take an African team to the Tour de France, create a system for developing Africans into professional cyclists, and get Africa to embrace the bicycle. More than a decade later, Ryder has achieved much of that dream. His Dimension Data team earned a berth to the 2015 Tour de France and has competed in cycling’s biggest race every year since. And the team-funded charity, the not-for-profit outfit Qhubeka, has donated more than 75,000 bicycles to kids across Africa.
One part of Ryder’s dream has proven more challenging to achieve. Dimension Data has advanced multiple African riders to the WorldTour, however, a black African has yet to claim a WorldTour race.
The team has also seen various African riders come and go — some are unable to adjust to the rigors of the WorldTour. And the team’s dismal results in 2017 and 2018 — as of press time, the squad had just three wins this season — have sunk Dimension Data to the bottom of the WorldTour standings.
VeloNews caught up with Ryder to discuss the various hurdles standing in the way of his project.
VeloNews: Your team launched in 2013 with the stated goal of advancing African riders to the Tour de France. Since then you’ve hired a number of riders from across Africa, from Eritrea to South Africa. How is the experiment going?
Doug Ryder: I had the big dream. Initially, when we registered as a Pro Continental team, 70 percent of our riders were from the African continent. Now we’re just below 50 percent. Originally, I had said that we would never go below 50 percent of our rider base. That was the original dream, of course. And then you think about the depth and quality that we have, and how hard the WorldTour is. Six years later, I think to myself, ‘Was my plan too ambitious?’ I think so, sadly. Are we going to change our strategy? No. We will have our development team. Look at all of the other big teams that stopped their development teams: BMC, Quick-Step, and others. On my development team, I have 100 percent African riders from Algeria, Morocco, Rwanda, and Eritrea. We’re not losing focus, but sadly the group of riders we initially believed in potentially weren’t the right guys.
VN: Why haven’t some of the African riders worked out?
DR: Sometimes we get African riders who feel that when they get to our team, they’ve made it. But making it to the team is just the start — then you have to work really hard and win. We had guys who were the pioneers. But there wasn’t always that desire to take the next step forward. Daniel [Teklehaimanot] was that guy for a while and he didn’t go to the next step. He didn’t want to be the total teammate, and cycling is a team sport. You go to a grand tour and you’re only as good as your slowest rider. We had Tsgabu Grmay who rode for us for three years and is now on Trek-Segafredo and is doing really well. He left our team because we didn’t renew his contract. I think that was a wakeup call for him.
VN: What other hurdles do you face in working with African cyclists?
DR: Africa is a funny place. So many people have come here and taken from Africa. They’ve gone into countries and just got what they wanted and then left. The Africans know this. They can be distrusting of the outsiders. There are cultural differences between each country, of course, but for each it’s quite difficult to gain their trust. We do this through loyalty, even if it means staying with a guy a year or two too long. Some riders just want to earn money and then they are done. I’ve asked them, ‘Do you want this to be a 10-year career? If not, that’s OK, but just tell me.’ I haven’t gotten answers from them.
VN: How can you go about overcoming this problem?
DR: The door is open, but today’s riders have to go through it and define what is possible for those who come behind them. I have always said that I need to find the Michael Jordan of African cycling. Some guy who will go deep into his career and continue to improve. I haven’t found him yet. When I look at Amanuel [Ghebreigzabhier], he may be it. He has a different glint in his eye. There’s a fire that burns deep inside him like he has a flame that he doesn’t want to let go. Maybe he’s going to be something special. We need a guy who competes at the top consistently and doesn’t say, ‘This is just a job.’
VN: What are the hurdles that African riders face in making the jump to the European peloton?
DR: The jump that’s required in technical skills is unbelievable. In Africa the roads are wide and they go on for 100 kilometers in a straight line. In Europe you have 100 riders crammed onto a two-meter wide road and every few kilometers there is a village and twists and turns. There are no major mountain [roads] in Africa, so the descending skills are very behind. Before we went to our first Tour de France we went to a ski resort in Livigno and made them train on the downhills because they would often lose two to three minutes on the descent. Some are not getting the technical skills fast enough. Their power is improving and they’re very strong, but their efficiency within the peloton doesn’t improve fast enough.
VN: How has your team tried to help these riders overcome those challenges?
DR: You put them into smaller races where they have more of an opportunity to gain that positivity in the peloton and believe in themselves. Unfortunately, the WorldTour doesn’t allow for that. Ultimately, we should probably be a Pro Continental team. We race for the charity, and we’re a good team that works hard and races hard. But the WorldTour ranking is so specific and based only off of WorldTour races. So, we can’t do smaller races like the Tour of Langkawi and have the points count toward our ranking. It would be beneficial for us if the UCI changed that because we could compete in those smaller races for practice.
VN: How does the current WorldTour structure impact your team’s goals with African riders?
DR: If you look at the WorldTour points, and the points that the African riders have gotten during the season, the results aren’t quite there. We’ve been at it three years, and for the last two seasons, we’ve been at the bottom of the WorldTour rankings. In a year’s time there’s talk of having a relegation system, and if we get relegated, we will potentially lose our sponsorships. And then the team suffers, the charity suffers, and all of African cycling suffers.
There are rules that are also directly against our project. For example, if you look at the UCI decision to go from nine riders at grand tours to eight riders. That one spot, that is the spot of the African rider. So now it’s making it even harder for teams like ours to give opportunities to guys who would never normally get it. It’s a privilege to be at the Tour de France.
VN: How do you balance the pressure to win with the pressure to give these African riders a chance to prove themselves in WorldTour races?
DR: It’s the hardest part. We’ve had a really tough season this year with our star riders crashing. At one point we had 11 riders out. That is catastrophic. So, we had a poor spring classics season. I had a meeting with Dimension Data last week and met with the executives, and they are saying, ‘Where are the wins?’ In the end, I have to care about the sustainability of the team. The charity relies on it, and that is massively why we exist, and why I did this. It’s not window dressing.
And then there’s the importance of the ranking and the commercialization and sustainability of the team. I own this team. We don’t have a wealthy backer. I own it 100 percent. I do this because I’m passionate that we can transform cycling and give Africa the opportunity to be seen in the pro peloton. We do belong there. It’s a massive motivation for the kids we give bikes to. When a pro cyclist says I earn a living off of the bicycle, they look at him like he’s mad.
VN: What are the success stories coming out of African cycling?
DR: We’ve seen a few successes. Certain countries like Eritrea and Rwanda are now leading in terms of the number of pro riders coming through. They’ve embraced the sport. The national federations and governments have gotten behind it. They are really caring and giving. Opportunities are rich for those guys. Our first Rwandan rider won a stage of the U23 Giro d’Italia last year. I look at the African races and I see success. Races like the Tour of Rwanda and the [Tropicale] Amissa Bongo in Gabon are amazing races. You see these strong African teams coming through, and I feel like we’ve helped create hope. People are seeing that there is a bridge that we’ve built. It’s not insurmountable. It’s creating hope for others to follow; I just think that my timeline for what I thought was possible was a little too ambitious.
VN: I’ve heard that there are visa problems and travel issues for some African riders.
DR: There are visa situations that have popped up in the last 24 months that make it nearly impossible for some of our African riders. Merhawi Kudus was supposed to be at the [Amgen Tour of California] and we couldn’t get him a visa. We tried so many different ways. It’s so discriminatory in terms of how some countries treat Africa. I could get a 10-year visa for the United States and an Eritrean can get a visa for only the days that he’s here. [South African] Nicholas Dlamini couldn’t get a visa for Yorkshire on time. Those are the things that most cycling teams don’t have to deal with.
VN: How do you deal with those hurdles?
DR: I employ a person who is 100 percent focused on the rider whereabouts and visas. Any sportsperson from Africa is going to have a tough time competing internationally. The whole continent is at a disadvantage, no matter if it’s cycling, football, or track and field. We fly them in and out. We had to register our Continental team as an Italian team, so we could get visas for the riders. You have to find ways to make it work. We want to give these guys opportunities.
Tsgabu Grmay is sitting in an anonymous hotel lobby fielding questions. Suddenly he rises from his seat. His Trek-Segafredo teammate, Colombian Jarlinson Pantano, has entered the room.
The two broadly smile as they embrace. Both of the young men are thousands of miles away from home. Both know the fight it took to make their way into the European-centric WorldTour peloton. The warmth and understanding between them seem palpable. Here they are, together at the start of another professional bike race.
Grmay, in his first season with Trek-Segafredo, has taken one of the least traditional paths to the highest echelon of professional cycling. He’s an Ethiopian pioneer, the only one of his countrymen to ever race on the WorldTour.
In Ethiopia, many people struggle to feed or house themselves or their families. Striving for success as a world-traveling professional athlete is — typically — staunchly avoided. Despite that fact, Grmay has made it. He’s competed in the Tour de France on two occasions, and his next dream is to win a stage in the sport’s biggest race. It would be another first for Ethiopia.
Reaching the WordTour level and competing in the Tour was Grmay’s dream since the age of 17. Now 26 years old, not only has he managed to accomplish what he set out to do, he’s done it against a tide of bureaucracy and red tape that constantly pushes against him.
“A lot of people, when I told them my dream [of competing in the Tour de France] a really long time ago, they thought I was joking. They thought, ‘Ah, he’s just speaking bullshit,’” Grmay says.
To become a pioneer, Grmay has had to take full advantage of his limitless determination and a thick skin. He’s had to overcome setbacks, cruel jibes, and jokes made at the expense of his goal.
GRMAY WAS BORN IN 1991. At the time, Ethiopia was still recovering from one of the worst famines in history. By the end of 1984, it was estimated that as many as 1 million people had died from malnutrition. Parched land held no mercy for the people struggling to survive. Thereafter, corruption and civil war left their mark — they still traumatize the nation and its people to this day. All of this has helped establish a culture, aided by a delicate government coalition, that incites regular protests and has repeatedly led to fatalities.
This atmosphere offers very few stepping stones for those who wish to rise to be among the cycling’s best. Grmay grew up in a family of 12 living in a two-room house. With five sisters and four brothers, space was limited, as was food.
“For me, it’s nothing, and it was easy because that was the way to grow up. My family was poor and had no money; we are surviving just to have more food, not beds,” Grmay says.
It’s the type of struggle that can be a catalyst for good and bad. When asked about his past, Grmay seems slightly embarrassed to talk about it.
“As a kid of eight and nine years old, I was doing a lot of bad stuff. But it also [taught] me a lot,” he says. “I was a fighter, and you know, you steal some things… [I did] a lot of bad things as a kid in Africa; anything can happen there. I’m not that guy now, I’ve changed. But that way of growing up helped me a lot now, that’s why I’m not scared of [anything].”
For every misfortune in Grmay’s life, he’s found a way to harness those setbacks as fuel for his progress. Along the way, he’s also had the help of his older brother Solomon, who saw his potential and encouraged him to follow his lead and jump into the local racing scene. Every Sunday when Grmay started racing, he’d enter the criterium races that were held close to his home. He rode a heavy old bike and wore his brother’s hand-me-down cycling kit. Grmay immediately possessed a natural hunger to push himself.
“Being nervous, it’s normal, but you know I had a tough life growing up, so I wasn’t really scared that much,” he says of his earliest races. “Having to deal with tough things helped me a lot — whenever I felt nervous, I always knew I had it inside me to fight it.”
He finished sixth in his first race and claimed top 10s and wins in many other local races. He was immensely talented, and at 17 he began to draw the eyes of local cycling clubs. The Trans Ethiopia team pounced before two other local clubs had the chance, snapping him up for the equivalent of $50 a month. It wasn’t enough to live on, but Grmay was happy to be racing regularly. And he was a small step closer to his dream of becoming a professional cyclist — and racing the Tour de France.
GRMAY ROSE QUICKLY THROUGH Ethiopia’s tiny cycling scene. He won Ethiopia’s national time trial title three times and the national road race twice. He then made the Ethiopian national team. Racing came naturally to him. He was chosen to spend time at the UCI World Cycling Centre Africa, based in South Africa. Jean Pierre van Zyl, the founding coach, had asked the Ethiopian national team to put two names forward of cyclists with potential. Grmay was their obvious choice.
Van Zyl was instantly impressed.
“I would say every afternoon after training, ‘Tsgabu, you are tired, today was a long day,’” van Zyl says. “We have a hill called Telephone Hill, and we did it 25 times. He would go up faster every time, and at the end, everybody would be absolutely dead, and he would just say, ‘It’s OK. Tomorrow we can train hard again.’”
Van Zyl admits his biggest task was to try to prepare Grmay for the culture shock of moving to Switzerland, to the UCI training center specifically founded for athletes from developing countries.
The stress of dealing with cultural differences can strip vital energy from an athlete, which would ideally otherwise be used for performance. Grmay says he leaves his “Ethiopian mentality” behind when he travels to Europe; he relies on his ability to switch it on and off to cope with the different ways of living. It raises the question, does his success as an athlete mean having to turn off who he was brought up to be? Grmay seems indifferent to setting his cultural differences aside in order to help him realize the dream of racing a bike.
“Being nervous, it’s normal, but you know I had a tough life growing up, so I wasn’t really scared that much.”
Of course, this psychological rollercoaster is just a part of the equation for finding success as a top-tier cyclist. Part of the physiological challenge for Grmay, as well as for others who aren’t exposed at a young age to a cycling-rich culture, is racing on the twisting roads that litter Europe. Competing against people who see you as an outsider isn’t easy.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is not bike racing,’” Grmay says of his first European race experiences in Belgium.
If that European weather, unfamiliar culture, and homesick feeling weren’t enough to break him, the next challenge was finding a team willing to take him on. With that came the bundles of red tape that Grmay shouldered by being born in Ethiopia. The Henley and Partners Passport Index states that Ethiopians have the right to travel to 39 countries without a visa. In comparison, citizens of France, Italy, and Spain have travel access to 178 countries visa-free, and Americans to 176.
Still, there was never a moment when Grmay thought about quitting.
“If I started thinking about going back to Ethiopia, I know there is nothing in Ethiopia to go back to,” Grmay says. “Nobody knows better than me in that moment. I think for me coming from Ethiopia you don’t see quitting as an option — you’re prepared to fight because you don’t want to go back.”
LUCKILY FOR GRMAY, van Zyl had put wheels in motion for the formation of a Continental team, which became MTN-Qhubeka. Team director Doug Ryder, who had a vision of building a team that helped develop Africa’s talent, gave Grmay a springboard for entry into the WorldTour. After joining MTN-Qhubeka in 2012, Grmay moved to Lampre-Merida in 2015. He had finally made it to the WorldTour.
For 2018, his colors changed to those of Trek-Segafredo. Grmay says he hopes the move will bring him closer to his next goal of winning a stage of the Tour de France. But in so many ways, he has already won big.
“The biggest moment for me was racing the Tour de France back in 2016,” he says. “I remember on the first day I was crying. That was my dream that I was chasing for a long, long time. I will never forget that Saturday on the start line of my first Tour. It was my dream come true.”
Editor’s note: There’s been a lot of chatter about the different tuck positions used at the Tour de France this year. Certain broadcasters have even made claims about the advantages of particular positions. Where’d they get that data? We don’t know, but we risked life and limb to determine which is the fastest descending tuck position of them all. This article originally ran in the July issue of VeloNews magazine.
What goes up must come down. The Tour de France has almost as much descending as climbing, and time can be gained without exertion going downhill, particularly by heavier riders. Larger time gains usually come on ascents, but huge time losses and Tour-ending (even life-ending) injuries can be sustained because of poor descending. There are countless examples when descending speed made the difference to winning a stage.
We tested eight different descending techniques used in the Tour to see which was fastest. We named them after riders who have used them successfully. Six of these were tested — and published a year ago — by Professor Bert Blocken of Eindhoven University of Technology, in the Netherlands.
How we tested tucks
We used a laser timer to determine the gap between two riders on roll-down tests of all of these descending positions. We chose the wide, relatively low-traffic hill up to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, for our test run. The driveway atop this hill was made famous in Woody Allen’s 1973 movie, “Sleeper.”
Both riders started each run adjacent a roadside reflector post, one approximately 80 feet behind the other. The riders started simultaneously, each taking a single half pedal stroke to start and coasting from that point on. The rear rider maintained a constant body position throughout all of the runs, with the large starting gap ensuring that he would not benefit from a draft from the front rider. The only (controlled) variable was the coasting position of the front rider.
Each rider had a piece of reflective tape running down the length of his right fork leg. I stood with my right foot on the road’s white line at a point approximately one kilometer (0.6 mile) further down the hill; I had a Star Crono Test laser timer strapped to my right calf that was tripped by the reflector on each rider’s fork as they passed within four feet of my leg (attaching it to a fixed post would have required the riders to come dangerously close to the road edge at high speed). The Star Crono Test records times to the thousandth of a second and saves 50 numbered files of time gaps for later review. I also timed it with an iPhone as a backup.
A larger time gap at the finish meant a faster position, as the front rider was rolling away faster from the rear rider. Conversely, a smaller time gap indicated a slower descending position for the front rider, since the rear rider was able to lose less time or perhaps even gain time on him.
Which aero tuck is fastest?
After the first run of eight different positions, three of them were so slow (indicated by small time gaps between the riders) that there was no point in testing them any further. These were positions #5 (Pantani), #7 (Froome), and #8 (Cancellara). After the next run of five positions, we also eliminated position #6 (Nibali, v.2) for the same reason.
At this point, we altered the protocol slightly to improve accuracy. We noticed that having the front rider immediately assume the chosen descending tuck position could lead to some wobbling at low speed in some positions, particularly the narrow ones or the ones hung over the stem. So, he instead held the Sagan position, the most stable at slow speed, for the initial 0.1 mile; then he switched to the chosen position for the remaining 0.5 mile. Since we were interested in how these positions compared at high speed, not low speed, we felt that bringing them all up to the same speed first before going into the position would make the test more accurate.
After one test with this new protocol of the remaining four positions, we eliminated position #2 (Mohorič). This position had consistently tested second fastest to the Phinney position (0.085, 0.088, and 0.097 seconds slower) and well ahead of the third and fourth fastest positions. It also posed the highest danger to the rider, as it offered the least control of the bike, hence its elimination for the safety of the test rider. It took some skin, too; on the 3T Strada aero disc test bike, the rider thought that by pinching the tall-section top tube between his knees, there was “no chance” of his knee hitting the front tire. That was until he hit his knee on the tire coming out of the Mohorič tuck on its final run.
We now wanted to find which position would take the third podium step, since the first two were clearly well ahead. We then performed three more runs of the Sagan position and two more each of the Phinney and Nibali tucks.
Taking a straight average of the total runs on each position gave us the ranking on the left of the table, with two positions tied for fifth. As there had been an occasional surprising outlier in some of the runs, we then threw out the one run (from each of those that had multiple runs) that most deviated from the others and averaged the times again. This did not change the order of the positions from fastest to slowest, but it did break the tie between the Pantani position and the Nibali position on the drops.
The positions (in order, from fastest to slowest):
1. Taylor Phinney
Sitting on back of top tube; hands tucked by stem.
Tucked low on the top tube, with his hands placed close together on the tops of the handlebars near the stem, Phinney dropped the entire field on the descent of San Marcos Pass on stage 5 of the 2014 Amgen Tour of California and held on to win the stage in Santa Barbara.
2. Matej Mohorič
Sitting on front of top tube; hands tucked by stem.
At the ripe age of 18, a year after winning the junior world championship, Slovenian Mohoric won the U23 world road championship in 2013 by holding off South African Louis Meintjes using this technique, alternately pedaling and coasting while sitting forward on the top tube, chest slung over the stem, head hanging down, and his shoulders as far forward as the brake hoods.
3. Vincenzo Nibali
Sitting on nose of saddle; hands tucked by stem.
On May 22, 2010, Nibali gave notice of his descending prowess and confidence on wet roads when he won stage 14 of the Giro d’Italia in Asolo. He dropped an elite group on the descent of Monte Grappa, switching back and forth between this position and position #6.
4. Peter Sagan
Sitting on back of top tube; hands on drops.
Sagan used this technique on stage 16 of the 2015 Tour to drop Jarlinson Pantano and almost catch breakaway rider Ruben Plaza. Sagan kept his back flat, head up, shoulders on the tops of his bars, and crotch firmly planted on the top tube with his butt slid back to the seatpost. Sagan held this position through turns of the technical descent of the Col de Manse.
5. Marco Pantani
Butt behind saddle; saddle against chest.
Pantani scooted off the back and rested his chest on the saddle while unsuccessfully chasing Richard Virenque down the Col du Tourmalet in the 1994 Tour de France. Cancellara has also been known to descend in this position.
6. Vincenzo Nibali, v.2
Sitting on nose of saddle; hands on drops.
Nibali has used this position many times to take corners at speeds that few riders can or dare to. However, the Shark of Messina also has his limits; he was leading the 2016 Olympic road race on the final descent before the run-in to Rio de Janeiro, when he crashed and took down Colombian Sergio Henao, at the expense of his collarbone and their almost certain podium positions.
7. Chris Froome
Sitting on front of top tube; hands on drops. Froome dropped a lead group of race favorites on the descent of the Col de Val Louron-Azet during stage 8 of the 2016 Tour de France. With his chest hung over his stem and his shoulders out to his brake hoods, he even pedaled frequently while sitting forward on his top tube, taking both the stage victory and the yellow jersey in Bagnères-de-Luchon.
8. Fabian Cancellara
Hands in the drops; up-angled back. In the 2008 Milan-Sanremo, Cancellara kept his hands on the drops and his head up as he wove through riders on the technical descent of the Poggio, enabling him to get to the front so he could break free on the flat run-in and win the monument.
But why are some faster and others slower?
We expected the two positions in which the rider sat on the saddle with his hands on the drops to be slow; top descenders only use these positions when they need greater control in corners or to avoid other riders, cars, or road hazards.
The Froome position, as Professor Blocken also found, tested slow. Hanging over the stem as Froome did bends the back, whereas the Sagan position, which Froome notably used last month in his crushing stage victory at the Giro d’Italia, gives the rider a more aerodynamic flat back and allows the head to be lower while still looking forward.
Pushing off the back of the saddle as Pantani did is also relatively slow because it spreads out the drag over a longer object, and it is wide — the hands and arms are further apart and scoop air into the pocket created by the body. It only achieves one objective of an aerodynamic position, namely getting the back lower.
The Sagan position—sitting on the top tube, shoulders on the bar tops, and hands in the drops—achieves the best combination of control and aerodynamics. It’s easy to steer and brake from this position while keeping the body flat and low.
The three tuck positions with the hands near the stem are the fastest because they are the narrowest; this is the same reason aero bars are faster than drop bars in a time trial. Nibali’s tuck on the saddle is a bit slower than the Mohorič and Phinney tucks, because the rider’s shoulders and butt are higher than in those other positions.
The Mohorič tuck offers little control of the bike, because so much of the rider’s weight is over the front wheel, and because the hands are trapped beneath the chest, making steering difficult. It was less than a tenth of a second slower than the Phinney tuck on all three of its runs.
The Phinney tuck, which is like the Sagan position but with the hands and elbows tucked in as narrow as possible, is visually a fast position. The back is flat and low, the head is low, yet the eyes can see forward, and it is narrow. It offers better visibility and control than the Mohorič tuck and is a hair faster.
The take-home points
The good news to come from this test is that positions offering the least control don’t offer a speed advantage. If you have a wide-open descent giving you the confidence to ride the Phinney tuck, that will be the fastest. The Mohorič tuck is not faster and thus doesn’t justify its inherent crash risks. The Nibali tuck puts undue strain on the neck to look forward with the back sloping down from a higher level.
When you need more control, moving the hands to the drops (the Sagan position) has no peer among positions offering braking and more steering control. And when you need more control yet, sitting on the saddle in the Nibali v.2 position should be the go-to.
There is a ninth position we considered testing, but for safety reasons, we decided not to test. Fixie rider Michael Guerra’s descending style is well documented on YouTube. He holds his body in a horizontal superman position, fronts of his thighs on the saddle, feet straight out the back, pedals spinning around madly, and no brakes. We have yet to see anyone use this descending technique in the Tour de France.
“Where the hell is my bike?” Dumoulin bellowed. The defending Giro champion was storming back and forth, ignoring questions and screaming at team helpers. “Where is my bike!? I want to do my cool-down.”
Had someone just swiped the reigning world time trial champion’s bike? Yes and no. Dumoulin’s bike was gone, but it wasn’t a fan with sticky fingers. Instead, the bike had been whisked away for X-rays.
The 2018 Giro d’Italia was historic for many reasons. The “Big Start” in Israel and Chris Froome’s controversial attack over the Colle delle Finestre stand out, but the race was significant for another reason. The UCI deployed new X-ray technology that it says will assure the public that no riders are using illicit motors to power up Europe’s steepest and longest climbs.
NOT FAR FROM BARDONECCHIA, over the Alps and across Lake Geneva, Jean-Christophe Péraud was watching with interest from the UCI headquarters in Switzerland.
The French ex-pro — who retired at the end of 2016 after a long racing career that included Olympic medals and Tour de France podiums — was the man who ordered Dumoulin’s bike be tested that day.
Péraud is leading the UCI’s invigorated push to find would-be cheaters who may have hidden an electric motor inside their bike frame. Péraud coordinated the team of UCI commissaires who worked at the Giro to
carry out the controls on mechanical doping. “We are pleased with how it’s going,” Péraud said. “The teams and riders have been cooperative.”
Péraud’s official title is Manager of Equipment in the Fight Against Technological Fraud. You can just call him the UCI’s man on an X-ray mission.
The push against mechanical doping was one of the major campaign platforms of newly elected UCI president David Lappartient. The Frenchman was quick to move, and within six months of his election in 2017, the UCI rolled out ambitious plans in March.
Central to the effort is a specially designed mobile X-ray machine. It was trundled from stage to stage across the Giro on the back of a small trailer. Developed by U.S.-based VJ Technologies, it was first used during the spring classics.
The device, which was discretely tucked near the anti-doping control area at each stage of the Giro, allows a full bike, with both wheels mounted, to be slid between X-ray panels. The self-contained unit is safe to use and does not emit dangerous rays, the UCI said. The X-ray and review process take about five minutes.
Giro organizers didn’t take it to Israel, but from stage 4 in Sicily to the final stage in Rome, post-stage X-rays became part of the protocol.
“We want to make sure that cheating doesn’t exist in the peloton,” Péraud said. “The X-rays and other methods are meant to be a strong deterrent to any potential infringer.”
RUMORS OF MOTOR-DOPING have circulated for years in pro cycling, but thus far no elite male pro has ever been caught. That hasn’t stopped conspiracy theories from taking root. The most famous involves Fabian Cancellara during the 2010 Tour of Flanders. Other videos of seemingly magically spinning wheels, including one involving ex-pro Ryder Hesjedal during the Vuelta a España, also have gone viral.
Those rumors turned into a shocking reality in early 2016 when a motor was discovered in the spare bike of 23-year-old Belgian cyclocross racer Femke Van den Driessche during the world championships. The scandal fueled rumors that hidden motors were rampant in elite road racing.
Under former president Brian Cookson, the UCI first introduced scanning technology and brought a large X-ray machine to select races.
Lappartient defeated Cookson in the 2017 UCI presidential election in part campaigning on the dangers that motors present to professional racing. As technology improves, especially with lighter and more functional motors as part of the booming e-bike market, Lappartient wants to be in front of the curve.
“People must believe in the results of cycling,” Lappartient said in March. “Technological fraud is easier to resolve than doping. It is our responsibility to guarantee the results, and we’re determined to do it.”
The effort began this spring. Bikes were X-rayed starting at E3 Harelbeke and continuing at all the major races until Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Bikes are also being tested at the women’s WorldTour and some junior races as well.
The UCI had a high-profile presence throughout the Giro. Not only did the governing body roll out its fancy mobile X-ray machine, it also continued deploying its iPad scanning devices as well as thermal-imaging cameras unveiled at the Tour de France a few years ago.
At the Giro, the peloton acted with a mix of incredulity and amusement at the notion of their bikes being X-rayed.
“I’m sure not using a motor,” said BMC Racing’s Rohan Dennis, whose bike was X-rayed after winning a time trial stage. “And if someone is using a motor and can’t beat me, they must be a pretty bad bike rider.”
The UCI promises to be as vigilant through the remainder of the racing season. The X-ray device, as well as the other detection technology, will be deployed at the Tour de France, the Vuelta a España, the road world cycling championships in Innsbruck, and Il Lombardia. The UCI also promises to use it at selected track, mountain bike, and cyclocross events across the calendar.
CHRIS FROOME’S BODYGUARD EXPERTLY slipped through the finish line chaos after the final mountain stage of the Giro d’Italia.
It wasn’t easy to match the handler’s pace as he weaved past journalists, soigneurs, riders, and even a few overzealous fans packed onto the narrow road in the shadow of the Matterhorn. It was odd to see the bodyguard walking briskly away from his star client just as Froome was receiving kisses from the podium girl.
What was the rush? Froome’s bike had been selected for testing.
Just as when a rider is selected for a doping control, when a rider’s bike is selected for testing, he is immediately joined by a chaperone when he crosses the finish line. A UCI commissaire targets the bike after the racer dismounts. The commissaire affixes a color-coded band to mark it for testing, to assure the line of custody, and guarantee that the bike cannot be switched.
The bike is then carried into the testing area. The commissaires were busy on the Cervinia summit, checking several bikes, including the top three racers on GC as well as the top three riders on the stage.
Teams are only privy to their test results, and in the evening the UCI releases details of how many bikes were X-rayed and how many were scanned with the iPad.
And what happens if they detect a motor? According to the UCI, the bike would be dismantled to confirm the finding. The rider would be immediately excluded from the race and a disciplinary case would be opened for possible fines and sanctions.
THE UCI HASN’T HIDDEN the fact it is testing for motors. That’s its first line of deterrent — if you know you’re being watched, you might not be tempted to cheat.
“The more checks we have the better,” said Giro points jersey winner Elia Viviani, who had his bike X-rayed before a mountain stage. “From my point of view, nobody in the pro ranks has used one. All the talk around these guys having a motor in the bike, blah, blah, blah. All the research they do, no name comes out, nothing is confirmed. But it’s better to check this because for sure you don’t want any rider to use a motor in the bike.”
The finish-line checks at the Giro were usually picked in coordination with the day’s anti-doping controls, which meant the day’s winner and a few random bikes were checked. Some days it was more. On the stage 16 time trial, for example, they checked a total of 12 bikes.
“I was quite interested to see how it worked, so I went up to the finish to check it out,” said Bahrain-Merida manager Brent Copeland. “What I saw was very thorough. You get a full picture of what’s inside the hub, the wheels, the crankset, the frame — and then they fill out a report that a team representative has to sign. After seeing this first-hand, I have a lot of confidence in the process.”
Froome’s bike was tested on all the key stages of the 2018 Giro, including after winning at Monte Zoncolan, and in Bardonecchia and Cervinia. The UCI is hoping its efforts will help to end the notion that Froome and the other top pros are winning the sport’s biggest races with special assistance.