Commentary: Bike swap ‘controversy’ at world TT championship was overblown

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A world time trial championship was held Wednesday in Bergen, Norway. A total of 64 starters rolled out of the start ramp and tackled the 31km course. Most riders started on time trial bikes. Because the course finished with a steep climb in the final 3km, some swapped to road bikes, some did not. Some, like local favorite Edvald Boasson Hagen, used road bikes with clip-on aerobars.

Bikes were swapped in a world time-trial championship, hemming and hawing commenced, and yet the earth continues to spin on its axis.

Giro d’Italia champion Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) was crowned world champion, 57 seconds ahead of Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic, with Tour de France and Vuelta a España champion Chris Froome (Great Britain) taking the bronze medal.

Roglic took a bike swap at the bottom of the Mount Fløyen climb; Dumoulin and Froome did not. It appeared to help the Slovenian, who climbed Mount Fløyen (3.4km, at a 9.1% average gradient) somewhere between four and 13 seconds faster than Dumoulin — depending on whether the timer started before or after the bike-exchange zone — though the Dutch rider’s advantage at that point was insurmountable.

There was, of course, risk involved with taking a bike change.

Even when executed perfectly, a bike swap takes time, breaks rhythm, and threatens momentum. Even a slight mishap — a missed pedal, a botched handoff, the chain in the wrong gear — could affect a rider’s overall placing. Staff was allowed to assist, but not push, the riders along a 20m stretch of red carpet along a cobbled section at the base of the climb.

The bike-exchange zone was created for the elite men’s time trial — the only field to finish atop Mount Fløyen — after several federations pushed the UCI for it.

Among the pre-race favorites, in addition to Dumoulin and Froome, riders like Rohan Dennis (Australia), Tony Martin (Germany) and Jonathan Castroviejo (Spain) all opted against a bike swap.

“I was doubting [whether or not to swap bikes] for a long time,” Dumoulin said. “At first I thought definitely I would change bikes, but then I saw the climb last Friday, and then I was already doubting, and yesterday I made the decision, let’s not take the risks. I think I’m one of guys who can do a really good climb on the TT bike, I have no problem handling it. So I think it was the right decision.”

I spent the morning, here in the U.S., watching the race while debating with people on Twitter about the merits — or lack thereof — of a world time-trial championship that included the possibility of bike changes.

I had stated that I was for it — or, at the very least, I didn’t see what the supposed controversy surrounding it was all about. I saw it as riders using every tool at their disposal on the course presented to them. And that’s hardly new.

I rode in a team car at the 2002 Saturn Classic, the epic one-day race from Boulder to Breckenridge, when the majority of the peloton — certainly all of the team leaders — swapped from road bikes to mountain bikes to descend the washboard dirt road on Guanella Pass, and then back onto road bikes to finish the race. I thought it was clever.

I stood on the side of the course in Sonoma in 2004 when Carl Decker won a NORBA short-track cross-country race on a road bike, on a parking-lot course that was 90% paved. Some complained, saying that, while allowed under UCI rules, it was not “in the spirit” of the race. Decker said simply, “They shouldn’t have courses where it makes sense to have a road bike… These courses are lame.”

I agreed with him, and admired his willingness to use the best tool for the job, even in the face of criticism. Fact is, bike racers will always seek every competitive advantage possible, on every course thrown their way.

Some might argue that these examples were one-offs — a now-defunct Colorado epic, one poor course design at a mountain-bike race over a decade ago. And that would be a true statement.

But this is also a true statement: Riders make voluntary bike changes all the time, for weight, wheel, tire, or gearing reasons, including in hilly Grand Tour time trials. One that comes to mind was at the 2013 Tour de France, when Froome swapped bikes for a climb in the Stage 17 TT, which he won. This was not bending the rules, this was seeking every competitive advantage possible.

In cyclocross, riders swap bikes every lap on muddy days. There’s a dedicated bike-exchange zone specifically for this. This is not bending the rules, this is seeking every competitive advantage possible.

One critic of the bike swaps replied to me on Twitter, “This isn’t normal and it will likely change the outcome of the event for many competitors.”

Fair point. Also a fair point: Every course, and every equipment choice, changes the outcome of the event for competitors. That is the nature of bike racing.

Another critic of the course, or the decision of riders to swap bikes on course, said, “It puts riders from countries with less money and support staff at an even greater disadvantage.”

But did it? It’s a fair assumption that any rider who traveled to Bergen with a time trial bike also brought a road bike, or at least had access to a road bike. Most nations had one or two riders in the field of 64 starters, and the bike-exchange zone was in a fixed area, so assisting in the swap was no serious drain on resources. It’s possible that it may have impacted some of the riders from nations with less support staff, but it’s unlikely it impacted the outcome at the top of the standings — especially as the majority of riders in the top 10 did not swap bikes. Roglic, who did swap bikes, hails from Slovenia, which has nowhere near the depth of support as the much larger British, Italian, Belgian, and Dutch federations.

Roglic exchanged his Bianchi Aquila CV time trial bike for the Bianchi Oltre XR4. “We practised the bike change several times,” he said. “I questioned whether or not to swap bikes, because there was a risk of losing time. In the end, it didn’t make the difference. Dumoulin was by far the strongest.”

Another commenter wrote, “In my opinion changing bikes in cyclocross races is part of the format. Time trials have their own format.”

To that, I say that the time trial format is, simply, a race against the clock. There is no rule that says a rider must use a time-trial bike; they’re used because they are faster. There is no rule that says a rider can’t use a road bike in a time trial; they’re slower, but also lighter and easier to maneuver. So why not use both if the course demands it? Riders are allowed to swap TT bikes from the follow car if they have a crash or mechanical, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to swap bikes because of a steep finishing hill?

One interesting reply to the “bike swaps are an integral part of cyclocross” point was that a motor was found in a bike at the 2016 world cyclocross championship. This is a valid point; in an era where the possibility of motors being used in bikes racing is real, bike swaps are often viewed with skepticism. An easy fix: On a TT course that calls for a bike swap, UCI commissaires must disassemble every bike, after the race, to inspect the drivetrain and wheels, on both the TT bike and road bike used. It’s not a stage race, no one needs to pack up and drive to the next town. Riders must agree to this, or not be allowed a bike swap.

Torin Hjelmstad pointed out to me that Stephen Roche and Claudio Chiappucci both swapped bikes in the final, uphill time trial of the 1993 Giro d’Italia, at Sestriere, but that spare bikes were on team cars, which he said is how it should be — though he added that “riders can/should use any number of bikes, the more the better.” However the 20m red carpet zone was established for safety reasons, the idea being that it was better to have a dedicated bike-exchange zone than team support staff scattered all over the route jumping in and out of cars.

In a video post of an early botched bike swap on Wednesday — and there were several botched bike swaps — someone commented, “This is everything wrong/right with doing bike changes for the neophytes.”

On that, I agree. And to me, that was part of the thrill of it. To those who botched their bike changes, I suggest they should have practiced more, like the Belgians did. Or they shouldn’t have attempted it at all.

As my CyclingTips colleague Matt de Neef wrote in the comments section of his time-trial preview, “I can see both sides of this. Yes, it would be kinda nice if they stayed on the same bikes throughout, for purity’s sake. But at the same time it’s an option available to everyone. No one’s getting an unfair advantage. Plus, someone’s bound to botch the transition somehow and that will be entertaining to watch.”

Time trials are an absolute test of rider’s strength, skill, and mental resolve — as well as their equipment — but they can also be pretty boring to watch. I found Wednesday’s world TT championship more interesting, and more exciting, than any TT worlds I’ve seen. The strongest and best all-around rider on the course still won. It was still the race of truth — handling the bike swap, or eschewing it altogether, made it even more so.

In the end, the decision was up to the rider, who still needed to navigate the course, measure his efforts, and choose his equipment wisely. And that’s the beauty of it. Same as it always was.

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