Do you ever wonder, as I have, what professional road racers have on their bikes that you don’t (besides a professional rider, I mean)? Professional road racing is mostly about money – prize money, money from manufacturers whose bikes and assorted parts are used in high-profile races and, of course, from sponsors. So teams will invest to make the bikes as performance optimized as the riders. Or, put another way, it takes money to make money.
But a lot of the stuff on a pro bike has nothing to do with performance. For example, the name of the racer who owns the bike is usually displayed on a sticker attached to the top tube of the frame and, increasingly, on the wheels. This is important because even though the wheels are identical, different riders prefer different tyre pressures.
And there are the number plates, attached either to the rear brake with a special adaptor or to the seat post. In addition to helping identify a rider in the pack (along with the jersey numbers), this helps the team mechanics with arranging spare bikes on top of the team car.
But, of course, there are important design differences between a generic store-bought road bike and a bike on the Tour de France. The most common difference is probably the long and slammed stems pro riders prefer because they enable them to get very low at the front. This improves aerodynamics and lets them stretch out.
Decades ago, racers would have the steel frames custom-made to fit them, but today, most of them have to use a stock carbon frame size. As a result, they will ride a smaller size frame and then adapt the reach with a very long stem, as long as 140 mm and even 150 mm.
The pro road racer also uses tubular tyres that are glued to the rim – often to a carbon wheel, which is the lightest setup because the rim construction is simpler. Another reason the pros use tubular tyres is that they can continue riding with a flat, at reduced speed, until the affected wheel can be switched. As we know, that’s not possible with a tyre with an inner tube, which can even blow out dangerously when it’s punctured.
Pro bikes also have immaculate cassettes because the bikes are totally cleaned after every training ride and race, to prevent grime, dust and dirt from accumulating on the precious moving parts. And the chains are replaced frequently so that there is no danger of them wearing out during a stage or race.
The pros also like to put power meters on their bikes to get their training right and even to analyze a stage in terms of energy used and other metrics. It enables a rider to target essential power output during a time trial or track the work done on a breakaway. Finally, almost all pro bikes today have gone electric – in terms of gears, at any rate. Once the initial scepticism about the practicality of electronic gears was overcome, almost everybody on the pro tour jumped on the bandwagon. The reason is that electronic gears are just better than mechanical setups.
The benefits include less maintenance, more precise and quicker gear changes, reduced chain wear and the facility to allow multiple locations for shifters, making swapping cogs as simple as the press of a button. Electronic shifting also doesn’t worsen over time or in poor conditions as cables can. For example, if your hands are vibrating when you’re riding over a rough surface, such as cobbles, it’s much more difficult to change gears with a mechanical lever than simply pressing a sprint shifter button.