Alex Dowsett (GBR/Israel - Premier Tech) minding his business ©kramon

Alex Dowsett: the early bird on the latest tech

Alex Dowsett honed his craft at the Maldon 10, and is now turning his knowledge and ability into a kind of commodity.

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Alex Dowsett has gone from a bit of an oddity in the WorldTour peloton to a commodity. Something of a nerdy time trial specialist, Dowsett made the surprise move away from Team Sky and the home of marginal gains to Movistar, a much more traditional squad, in 2013 – without a word of Spanish.

One of the first pro riders to start a YouTube channel, Dowsett was talking aero gains and rolling resistance losses before many had so much as acknowledged their existence. Dowsett used this understanding to, as he says, “punch above his weight in time trial results” and build himself a career. But has Dowsett lost his early bird advantage? 

We put the question to Dowsett on a Zoom call designed to introduce us to Black Inc’s new Zero time-trial disc wheel. Dowsett, and the entire Israel-Premier Tech team, will ride the new disc in the upcoming Giro d’Italia time trial stages, but Dowsett’s involvement stretches much further back to the new wheel’s very inception. In fact, he was involved from the initial concept to trialling prototypes and testing throughout the past year. Pro riders test new equipment all the time, but there can’t be many riders with the level of understanding Dowsett brings to the table for this wheel. His aero nerdiness, once an oddity, is now a valuable commodity. 

Graham Shrive, director of engineering at Factor and Black Inc, was on hand to talk us through the new wheel. The asymmetrical disc features a lenticular shape and a drive-side only “virtual 100mm” rim said to offer as much as 20 watts of “thrust”. A disc can offer significant savings over a less aero rear wheel, but the savings between discs are often minimal. That said, Black Inc’s new design unveils a real ‘ah-ha moment’ when Shrive rotates the display of the wheel. The bulbous lenticular shape on the non-drive side, Black Inc suggests offers significant aero gains, is not possible on the drive side due to the space required for the drive train.

The derailleur would bump up against the wheel if Black Inc had used the same lenticular shape on the drive side. As such, Black Inc opted for a virtual 100mm deep rim paired to a structural central flat section on the drive side to accommodate derailleurs and cassettes. The pre-tensioned, spoke-less disc features a 21mm internal width tubeless rim optimised for a 26.2mm-wide tyre with a sub-1200 g weight. All those stats are eclipsed by a US$ 2,349 price tag.

A brand touting its relationship with a pro team and the extensive testing that said team employs with a new product is nothing new. But listening to Dowsett and Shrive talk, I get the feeling Dowsett tests Factor as much as he tests other prototypes. Dowsett laughs at the suggestion there could be a job for him as a performance consultant post riding career, suggesting his riding days might be numbered as “old riders are out of style.”

Laugh he may, but the technical consultancy role now seems a new and natural career move for a Dowsett-esque rider, whereas 10 years ago, the limited number of director sportif or punditry roles meant a return to the real world for most senior pros.

The highly analysed and optimised chaos of the modern peloton is a far cry from the bunch Dowsett entered as a neo-pro in 2011. At the time, tech advancements still clashed and often lost out to traditional “sensations” and less than savoury practices.

Dowsett points to Bradley Wiggins’ 2012 as the turning point for many teams and specifically his 2013 Movistar squad. Despite zero understanding of the language, Dowsett could easily translate the repeated mentions of “Wiggins“, “Froome“, and “Sky” as the Spanish words for a team realising it needed to evolve. As he put it, “Movistar recognised and rapidly caught up, turning to sponsors who could develop better equipment at that time.”

Where Sky led the way, with Movistar not far behind, every other WorldTour team has since followed suit.

Dowsett broke the Hour Record in 2015 while riding with Movistar, note the lenticular shape of those Campagnolo discs.

Despite teams catching up and towing the aero line, Dowsett suggests many might have preferred to keep it traditional, “many of the old school teams have reluctantly had to accept aerodynamics do exist, and that’s been tough because it’s costly and not all that tangible.”

Having a good eye for the invisible – or more specifically, an open mind – is Dowsett’s legacy skillset from a decade of inquisitive thinking. It is the kind of willingness to test rather than dismiss that two attempts at the Hour Record can instil in an already aero-curious rider.

It’s that understanding that not everything is as it appears that Dowsett says is still holding some teams back. He points to a conversation he overheard recently where a rival team’s aero consultant quickly dismissed a pair of aero socks as feeling slow without any testing or data to back it up. “You can’t always feel these things,” Dowsett said.

Even so, as almost every team now boasts an army of staff with analysts of this and consultants on that, in Dowsett’s words, “The gaps are coming down now between riders, and it’s very small margins now, which I think shows a greater acceptance and understanding.” 

But as others catch up, Dowsett’s advantage is slowly eroded away. It’s an advantage Dowsett didn’t fully appreciate at the time but attributes to a local time trial he had competed in since he was a kid. At the time, teams and coaches were struggling through the difficult teenage years of the power meter’s growth within the peloton. FTP tests, TSS, negative splits, and riding head down staring at a head unit were the talk of the peloton. Dowsett, though, was already psuedo-aero testing with repeated rides at the “Maldon 10”.

“It was like a wind tunnel combined with a fitness test for me,” he said. The conditions would vary, but the equipment and power were relatively constant. The Maldon 10 gave Dowsett the chance to understand the influence of changing conditions on time trialling, perfect his pacing, and get competitive kilometres in the TT position. As little thought as Dowsett gave it at the time, these TT-ing miles likely formed the basis of his future success and even his role within the team today, not to mention his Hour Record rides.  

It’s still a battle, though. Dowsett speaks fondly of attempts to convince sprinters of the benefits of aero helmets and race suits. Dowsett lays much of the blame for the slow uptake on the language used to communicate the benefits of modern tech.

“No one knows what 10 or 20 watts faster means,” Dowsett said. “But if we say to a sprinter, in a 200m sprint, this is 1.5m faster, suddenly their eyes light up. They’ve all lost a sprint by less than a metre.”

As Dowsetts speaks of sprinting and the changing nature of WorldTour lead-outs, it’s difficult to decipher whether he is more excited by the possibilities that modern tech offers the fast men or frustrated at their slower uptake. It’s easy to imagine Dowsett knee-deep in spreadsheets calculating how much faster Giacomo Nizzolo might be in a Giro sprint with these wheels or that tyre pressure.

Israel-Premier Tech has enjoyed a successful few weeks with Patrick Bevin claiming several wins, but the team will need to keep this trend going if they are to escape the WorldTour relegation zone.

Still a time triallist?

It seems strange to suggest a rider who tackled the Hour Record as recently as six months ago might have given up on time trials already. But the race of truth is evolving as more teams “reluctantly accept aerodynamics is a thing.” The truth is no longer just a reflection of the rider, but of teams as a whole.

As some dominate Grand Tour time trials, others languish in the bottom half of the results sheet.

“You’ll see a lot of riders from the same few teams within the top 20 of a race and the non-time triallists of those teams moving up quite significantly,” Dowsett said. He jokes that it’s “because I’ve lost that advantage” when asked if the rising time trialling tide has influenced his decision to focus on lead-out duty, but it’s hard to believe him when he recently scored what he considers “one of the strongest TT performances of my career” with a fifth place in Tirreno-Adriatico.

Israel-Premier Tech had the new Factor Hanzô at the Itzulia Basque Country recently, with the Zero disc already getting a taste of competition.

While we don’t have exact figures, Israel-Premier Tech seemed to punch well above their weight when we ranked the 2021 Giro teams by the sum of their top-five placings on the stage 1 time trial compared to their estimated team budget. Both Dowsett and Shrive point to both the team’s and Factor’s attention to detail as key components of the team’s success, the kind of lines we hear a lot from WorldTour teams in the modern era. But there’s a sense of the F1 engineer’s brief level of detail as Dowsett explains that just that morning – two weeks out from the Grande Partenza – he received the equipment guide from the team laying out the recommended wheels, gearing, and equipment choices for all 21 stages of his forthcoming lap of Italy.

Shrive expands to explain the team spent a significant amount of time in the wind tunnel and pulled historical weather data to create the database that would help with that decision making. Interestingly for a components supplier, Shrive has no problem confirming that some team riders have used non “sponsor correct” equipment in the past.

“If we have a product that Alex feels isn’t performing at the level that he needs it to, it’s incumbent upon us to bring that performance up to a level that meets with his expectations,” Shrive said. “We didn’t block him riding other wheels in the past.”

I get the feeling Shrive sees this as an opportunity to continually advance Black Inc’s offerings rather than the marketing disaster that other brands might perceive it to be.

“We want our riders to win races first and foremost,” Shrive concludes. 

Winning races will always be central to professional bike racing, and tech is arguably playing a bigger role in success now than ever before. Dowsett is a prime example of that. The Maldon 10 advantage garnered a decade ago is eroding, along with Dowsett’s own chances as others catch up.

Still, that inquisitive tester’s mentality is seemingly the basis for a chunk of his value to a 2022 World Tour team.

If you still need convincing of the growing value of the Dowsett commodity, look no further than this article. I can’t think of another way I could get a story on a new disc wheel not just published, but read, too.

Alex Dowsett winning stage 8 of the 2020 Giro d’Italia.

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