Team Ineos swaps to Lightweights for climbing stages

The decision to switch to these particular wheels today, when wheel tech has come so far, is interesting for a few reasons, some technical and some financial

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Team Ineos of the marginal gains thinks it’s found another one: At least ten (that we spotted) sets of $4,000 Lightweight Meilenstein Obermeyer wheels, pulled out of the mechanic’s truck out whenever the road tilts up.

The entire team rode the fifth stage of the Tour de France, a lumpy route across the Vosges, on the exceptionally light, incredibly stiff carbon fiber wheels, apparently as a sort of test for the first major mountain stage to Planche des Belles Filles on Thursday.

If this story feels a bit early-2000s, that may be because the first generation of Lightweights to make a splash at the Tour was under riders like Jan Ullrich. The decision to switch to these particular wheels today, when wheel tech has come so far, is interesting for a few reasons, some technical and some financial.

First of all, Shimano is the official wheel supplier of Ineos, as it has been for years. It’s one of the team’s longest-running sponsors, in fact, dating back to the early days of the team along with frame sponsor Pinarello. A team spokesman indicated only that the team continues to be sponsored by Shimano, but will be using wheels from two different brands this Tour de France. He would say no more, but if history is an indicator, Ineos bought the Lightweights with its own money. The ones Ineos is using cost about US$6,000 per set at retail – and the team has at least ten sets.

You do the math.

The technical argument for switching to an ultralight wheel with unconventional construction and an old-school V-shaped rim profile is based mostly on weight.

Shimano’s lightest wheelset, the C24 tubular, comes in around 1,110 grams. A pair of Lightweight Obermeyers, which appear to be what’s under Ineos, can be as light as 930 grams, roughly. Nearly 200 grams is nothing to scoff at. The heavier non-Obermeyer version weighs about the same as a C24.

Low weight is certainly desirable on mountain stages, but only if it’s useful. And it would only be useful if Ineos is struggling to get its Pinarello F12 X-Lights down to the UCI’s weight limit of 6.8kg.

Which they may be, given the frame weight of around 900 grams. Pinarello claims 820 grams for a standard frame, without paint (and likely without hardware). Ineos’ bikes are the 100g-lighter X-Light version, but have paint, and hardware, which adds, at minimum, 100-150 grams. Probably more like 200.

If the bikes were already at 6.8kg with Shimano wheels, then adding Lightweights would just make the mechanics add weight to the bikes elsewhere. There are plenty of teams that struggle to hit 6.8kg, but that’s mostly with disc bikes, and Ineos is still on lighter rim-brake setups.

It’s not the first time Ineos has run non-Shimano wheels in an effort to drop weight. Both Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome have raced key Tour stages on a pair of custom-built AX-Lightness rims.

The decision gets stranger if considered through the lens of modern aerodynamics. Ineos is not on Lightweight’s latest rim shape; it’s on a very old-school V-shaped rim. These sort of shapes are plenty fast at low yaw angles – meaning a direct or near-direct headwind – but are completely awful in crosswinds. There are dozens of wind tunnel studies that show this. They’re not stable in crosswinds either, as the sharp edge at the tail of the rim shape catches wind. Make no mistake: These Lightweights are not aerodynamic, particularly compared to the latest low-profile rim shapes.

Every aerodynamicist I’ve ever spoken to has made it clear that running a deeper, more aerodynamic wheel, even while riding in a peloton, is on balance faster and more efficient than riding a slightly lighter but less aerodynamic wheel over the course of an entire stage. That 200 grams must mean a lot to Ineos, if it’s willing to give up on aero.

This does ignore rider feel, which, in the pro ranks, shouldn’t be ignored. Not every decision in cycling is based on data. Lightweights are also incredibly stiff, thanks to the way they’re constructed. They use carbon spokes, bonded at the rim and hub, rather than traditional metal spokes. The ride feel is unlike any other wheel, and many love it.

Regardless of why the team made the switch, when the road tilts up to 24% on La Planche des Belles Filles tomorrow, Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas surely will be happy with the swap. At the very least, they’ll feel fast.

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