Industry predictions: What will WorldTour tech look like five years from now?
Predictions are notoriously tricky to get right, as evident by my last attempt. However, when it comes to the WorldTour, with its often old-school mentality, we know that trends or even emerging technologies we see today are likely to become commonplace in pro racing in years to come.
Inspired by predictions from the likes of Silca’s Josh Poertner and Deceuninck–Quick-Step mechanic Rune Kristensen, I wanted to take a deeper look at where pro race tech is headed. Will the bikes of the future be all that different from the present?
Let’s charge up the flux capacitor and see what the WorldTour will be riding in 2024. Oh, and the Almanac says Egan Bernal wins his third Tour on 12-speed Shimano.
Aero will become everything
If there’s one trend that’s shown the most rapid adoption in pro racing, it’s a focus on aerodynamics. Drag is the biggest force a cyclist must overcome for speed, and reducing that drag by any means will likely result in increased speed.
To learn more of where this trend is headed, I reached out to aerodynamic genius Damon Rinard, formerly cycling technologist for Cervelo and now the road engineering manager at Cycling Sports Group, Cannondale’s parent company.
“There are still plenty of high-drag racing bikes in the WorldTour,” said Rinard, stating that just because a rider’s position creates the most drag, doesn’t mean the bike’s drag isn’t important. “In many cases, the difference between many classic style race bikes and a fast racing bike like the SystemSix can be the single greatest improvement in equipment performance a rider can adopt.”
While the use of aero bikes is becoming more prevalent, there are still many teams and riders who use them sparingly. And this slow adoption is arguably caused by the continued obsession with weight, a metric that’s the simplest to measure and compare.
“Current generation technology results in a distinction between aero and light, though they are converging,” Rinard said. “Nevertheless, I believe there will still be a demand for both, if only because it takes several generations for the science to sink into such a traditional sport.” Both light and aero may continue to be separate, but as Rinard suggests, “the best light bikes have a little aero added, which means the pure lightweight bike might be slowly vanishing already.”
“Low drag bikes require more surface area, so a more structurally optimized ‘light’ frame can always be lighter given the same construction. With a weight limit in place, the low drag bikes may approach this and so negate the need for a slower, lighter-weight frameset.” However, as Rinard warns, a change to the UCI’s weight limit may upset this. More on this later.
While a lighter bike may not be the answer to going faster, Rinard believes that it’s because of lightweight bikes that riders have realised and accepted the benefit to newer, better, technology, such as deep dish wheels and disc brakes.
“We’re continuously taking weight out of aero road bikes by eliminating heavier aero features as we figure out lighter ways to reduce drag,” he said. “That’s slowly changing the way aero bikes look, closer to a more structurally optimized light bike’s appearance. Then again if the UCI permits different shapes (compensation triangles in road bikes?) we might see another new, different look.”
Every team will be on discs in five to six years
Earlier this year I sat down with Deceuninck–Quick-Step team mechanic Rune Kristensen to learn more about the team’s dedicated move to disc brakes for 2019 and the logistical hurdles in doing so.
For Decunick-Quickstep, going all-in with discs fits with the team’s single day and flatter stage race ambitions, and certainly, there’s an element of being a first mover in the space. “It’s an investment and our sponsors are really good with it,” Kristensen said. “We had the option to do what we wanted, but we chose disc brakes. In five to six years, maybe even two years, everyone is going to be on discs. So the more experience you have, the bigger the advantage.”
Kristensen spoke to the experience the team has amassed through trialing discs for a number of years prior to committing to them. Through practice and improved wheel tolerances, they’re now confident in swapping wheels mid-race (Kristensen has been timed doing a wheel swap in just eight seconds). By contrast, many other teams racing discs are typically seen swapping entire bikes when a flat tyre occurs.
It has taken a number of years for the equipment to get to a point that the WorldTour teams were happy with. There is now just as much wheel choice for discs as there was for rim brakes, and from Kristensen’s point of view, dedicating yourself to a single braking platform sure makes the logistics of travel and spares far simpler.
Still, for many teams, it’s the obsession of weight that’s slowing the adoption for discs. In the case of Team Sky’s general classification ambitions, the additional weight of discs is deemed a disadvantage in the mountains, and the team will likely continue to race rim brakes until disc system weights are reduced even further.
Glueless and tubeless tyres will soon be adopted
Prior to giving new life to the Silca brand, Josh Poertner was the lead engineer at Zipp, where he was instrumental in proving the performance of carbon aerodynamic wheels to the WorldTour and performance-seeking riders alike. In a recent podcast discussion with CyclingTips’ global tech editor James Huang, Poertner predicted that the WorldTour will soon adopt tubeless tyres.
“The data is showing a small number of high-end tubeless or clincher with a latex tube are faster than a good tubular,” said Poertner, before adding that things will only get better. “I can tell you 99% of the engineering and development dollars are being spent in the tubeless space, so the direction here is pretty obvious.
“It may not be this year or the year after, but [eventually] all tubeless tyres will be better than tubulars.” Poertner then went on to predict that “five years out, 95% of the teams will have probably moved over to tubeless.”
However, there are still some tall hurdles for tubeless’ adoption in the WorldTour, and one is related to safety in the event of a flat tyre. “That’s where the tubulars really shine, you can get an instant flat and have some hope of controllably getting the bike stopped,” explained Poertner of the benefits in gluing a tyre to the rim. By contrast, tubeless and clinchers rely on air pressure to be secure to the rim, and in the event of a flat, you’re simply relying on tight tolerances to keep it there. Poertner admits that tubeless is fast improving in this regard, but still has some way to go.
Much like the debate for aerodynamics or discs, weight remains a barrier for tubeless. “We still have a lot of weight-weenies in the pro peloton,” Poertner said. “It’s the easiest-to-measure feature of a bicycle and so there’s still a lot of weight obsession. It’s absolutely justified in some instances.”
Speed and weight aside, the mechanic infrastructure will need to change too. Currently, teams glue tubulars tyres in large batches and have the luxury of hundreds of wheels at their disposal. Tubeless could lead to far fewer wheel stocks and easier logistics at races, but it will be a learning curve. Tubeless setup doesn’t take long, but it comes with different maintenance (sealant) and practices to what teams and mechanics are used to.
“Tubes and clincher rims are generally more damage resistant to potholes than tubular rims,” Poertner said. “And so I think some of the things will take time for the mechanic to see and feel the benefits of. On the whole, [the] five-year-out view: wheels will be stronger, tubeless will be simpler, tolerances will be tighter – for that safety piece of the equation. Directionally, that’s where this all dovetails in and starts to make sense.”
Road tubeless has faced slow uptake to date — after all, the industry only just got an agreed-upon fitment standard. And certainly, there are plenty of cyclists who will dismiss Poertner’s predictions for tubeless, one such example being CyclingTips’ editor-in-chief, Caley Fretz. “I don’t see it happening in a sport that’s so old school,” he said. However, as Poertner suggests, uptake of such technology has a habit of being slow, and then suddenly being widely accepted. And perhaps, Alexander Kristoff’s victory in the 2019 edition of Gent-Wevelgem on tubeless tyres may prove to be the catalyst.
There’ll be a greater focus on drivetrain friction
Looking to the drivetrain and SRAM and Campagnolo-sponsored teams are already racing 12-speed groupsets, and you don’t need a crystal ball to guess where Shimano’s next generation of Dura-Ace is headed. Perhaps we’ll see Rotor’s 1×13-speed groupset thrown into the mix, but that’ll require a decent cash investment to make it a reality within the WorldTour.
Regardless of the drivetrain used, there is room for improvement in creating greater efficiency between the watts put through the pedals, and those received at the rear tyre. Jason Smith, formerly of Friction Fact, and now CeramicSpeed’s Chief Technology Officer, is a world authority on bicycle drivetrain efficiency. In many cases, he’s directly responsible for the fastest chain lubes on the market and for raising awareness around potential gains (or losses) through drivetrain setup.
“Without a doubt, watts are being left on the table,” said Smith, suggesting that at 250W, professional riders could be losing anywhere between three-eight watts through the drivetrain – a figure that progressively increases with power.
“We are seeing more teams looking into having their bikes/drivetrains tested for efficiency,” Smith added, suggesting that availability of test equipment, more flexible (or no) drivetrain contracts, and efforts in seeking different areas for marginal gains are all reasons for the increased attention in the space.
For Smith, sometimes the available watt savings are obvious, “such as whether a stock derailleur cage versus an oversized pulley wheel system is being used.” Or if the team is using factory grease or wet drip lubricants, versus an optimized or coated chain. But other times it’s less obvious, “for example, the types of bearings being utilized, the types of seals installed, and the type of bearing lubricant or fill rate (amount of grease used) can affect the overall friction levels of the bike.
“We can assume that some teams have the knowledge and resources, and indeed take advantage of these subtle and hidden optimizations. We can also assume some teams don’t.”
With so many decision makers within a WorldTour team, Smith suggests that technology adoption can be slow and lack agility, despite what the available data may show. He points to triathlon or Ironman-style events as an example, where the athlete is often the one to make technical decisions and the adoption of new technology happens far more rapidly.
As for the lowest-hanging fruit, Smith believes it’s the chain. “If a team was sponsored by a manufacturer with a slow chain product, and a team actually used that product, they could be leaving six watts on the table,” he said. “Or if an oversized pulley wheel system is not being used, another three-four watts could be at play. Ultimately, sponsorship commitments can often come at the expense of the fastest bike.”
Those sponsorships are certainly why the likes of oversized pulley wheel systems aren’t more prevalent. One source with a leading team once told me they’d tested CeramicSpeed’s oversized pulley wheel system and would indeed race with it if it didn’t conflict with another sponsor.
Smith believes a changing climate of sponsorship may lead to equipment modifications in future. “In the past, groupset manufacturers typically sponsored teams directly [ed, this is still quite common, and still applies to more than half the WorldTour teams]. With this relationship, teams were often banned from performing modifications of the groupset. Recently, this trend has been changing towards teams procuring their groupsets from other entities (typically through the bike brand). When this happens, it removes the restrictions from drivetrain optimizations and enhancements.”
As for the most perplexing trend Smith is currently seeing? “It’s the use of a 10T small cog.” As used on SRAM’s latest road drivetrains, and assumed to be equipped on Shimano’s next generation (based on XTR M9100), Smith points out that smaller cogs create an exponential increase in friction.
“A 10T cog forces the chain to bend 36 degrees as every link engages and disengages the cog,” he said. “My two cents are that the friction levels created by this very small cog could be mitigated by instead using an 11T cog and then keeping the overall gearing range similar by increasing the tooth count of the largest cog, and subsequently increasing the tooth count of the front ring. Or in others words, returning to where we’ve just come from.
The UCI’s weight limit is unlikely to change
The UCI’s 6.8kg weight limit has been well debated over recent years, but the advent of aero frames and disc brakes makes it questionable whether the industry would still be pushing to reduce that limit. And surely, the widespread adoption of technologies such as disc brakes, tubeless tyres and aero frames rests on the shoulders of the UCI’s weight limit decision.
While it’s the UCI’s decision, the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI) is actively pushing for a lowering of the weight limit. According to one anonymous source, “the WFSGI requests every year that the minimum weight be changed, but there’s currently no serious consideration on the UCI’s part to do anything about it.”
Damon Rinard, who’s also part of the WFSGI’s working group, says it’s an ongoing debate. “For what it’s worth, right now the fastest racing bikes weigh more than 7 kg,” he said. “Virtually every bike designer is already looking to reduce weight, so a rule change won’t significantly alter that. But regardless of the UCI’s potential decision, outside a handful of superstitious pros, I don’t see a big rush to weight-weenie bikes in pro racing.
“The smartest pros will choose the faster bike, not the lighter bike. Most teams are limited to sponsor equipment, which ironically makes it easier for amateurs to put together a weight-weenie bike than pros.”
If the UCI does reduce the weight limit, I believe we’ll see an even greater divide in the types of bikes general classification and mountains riders select versus those sought by sprinters, puncheurs and breakaway specialists.
Regardless of what happens with bike weight, I sure hope everyone involved is working on racing bikes that are safer in the event of impact and crashing, An increasing number of new hybrid composites claim to add significant impact resistance to carbon structures, and certainly, safer bikes without performance loss will be wanted by those racing.
We’re yet to see any of the major bike brands integrate this technology into their frames, but it can’t be far away.
There’ll be an increased focus on bike fitting
A bike is only as good as its rider, and changes in bike fit can result in reduced injury, improved power production, and greatly reduced aerodynamic drag. To learn more about the trends in bike fit, I reached out to the biomechanical researcher at bikefitting.com, Niels Boon.
“I strongly believe there is room for improvement,” Boon said. From what I have seen, cyclists, in general, are very likely to adopt a change just because the guy who is winning races is doing this as well. Sometimes this can be an improvement, but in many cases, there is absolutely no (scientific) rationale behind it.”
Boon believes the most common issues he witnesses are related to long stems, massive saddle-to-handlebar drops, saddles that are too low and too far forward, and handlebars which are either too wide or narrow for the anatomy of the rider.
“I think that most trainers and the medical staff of the teams are pretty keen to adopt new measurement technologies to improve performance through a better riding position or more efficient pedaling style,” said Boon. “When it comes to the actual adjustments/setting up of the bikes, teams can be a bit more resistant to change. They are often still using a good-old tape measure and plumb line to adjust saddle and handlebars.” By contrast, Boon suggests the use of a laser tool for faster, more accurate, and repeatable measuring methods.
Asked about the trend toward a more forward riding position (longer stem, saddle slammed forward), Boon admitted it is something he’s been seeing but isn’t a fan of. “It makes no sense from any point of view.
“Biomechanically, because with a forwards position you cannot place force on the pedals in the right direction.” Boon suggests that from an ergonomic point of view, the muscles at the back of the upper leg and buttocks are under a lot of tension in that position, while the hands, back, neck, shoulders and elbows will get more load.
Boon suggests the forward trend is potentially inferior from an aerodynamic point of view, too. Stating that most riders lock their arms in this position “so they act as wind-catchers and increase tension in the upper part of the spine which make you hold your head upright as a second wind-catcher.” Finally, Boon suggests too much weight on the front wheel makes the bike unbalanced and difficult to handle.
By contrast, Boon has seen an inverse trend with timetrial positions. “many riders [are] realizing that a higher handlebar position can actually make you faster and for sure more comfortable,” he said. “Many riders also use a different type of extensions which give more support (e.g. not straight anymore, but with a bend).”
From a technology point of view, Boon suggests 3D Motion Analysis together with analyses of pedaling efficiency data will become more common. Speaking to aerodynamic testing “the measurement methods are currently either extremely expensive (e.g. a wind tunnel) or a very rough estimation (e.g. calculation of drag based on frontal surface). The possibility of performing these measurements on the riders while they are riding or racing outside could also add valuable data.” And with emerging technology such as Stac’s computational fluid dynamic simulation software, Boon’s predictions could become a wide-spread reality quite soon.
Looking to the equipment, Boon points to stiffer, lighter and thinner carbon shoes, resulting in lower stack heights and more efficient pedaling. “There is a trend towards shorter saddles and in general, saddles seem to have less and less padding,” he said. “Finally, the shape of drop handlebars is changing towards a more compact shape (i.e. less reach and drop).”
Finally, Boon suggests that increased planning and standardization should be viewed with greater importance, stating that teams who do more frequent bike fitting checkups, at the right time, could save themselves the headache of injured riders.
Big data will start to have a greater influence
Looking beyond the bike, Rinard suggests that big data may prove to be the biggest technological change the WorldTour sees over the coming years, and one that may have the largest influence on race results.
“Software that predicts performance based on recorded ride data,” Rinard said. “Equipment selection based on measured performance values and the rider’s team role. Strategy tuned by wind tunnel and field measurements and modelling of different attacking scenarios. Tire and inflation optimization. Some of this was already in the most advanced teams a decade ago. I expect more teams will try to adopt similar technology.”
What do you think WorldTour tech will look like five years from now? Let us know in the comments below.