Racing in the deserts of Qatar is no small task.
In a large white tent at a Doha hotel that serves as a combined service course for eighteen teams, the business of equipping riders for the often ferocious conditions of the Tour of Qatar takes place.
The riders can face block headwinds one moment, crosswinds that leave them scrambling in echelons the next, and tail winds that propel the bunch to average speeds of nearly 60kph, leaving a rider pushing a 53-11 feeling under-geared.
Mechanics help the riders to meet the unique challenges of the Tour of Qatar with careful selection of wheel depths and gear ratios. Trends are apparent, but there are interesting exceptions.
The rear wheel is less susceptible to cross winds than the front, and for a select group of sprinters and Classics powerhouses the rule in Qatar has been ‘the deeper the better’.
BMC Racing’s Marcus Burghardt, for example has used a Shimano Dura-Ace C75 at the rear. Mechanic Kevin Grove explains that Burghardt is the only one of his riders not using C50s front and rear.
“For me, it’s seemingly that the bigger guys can handle a deeper rear wheel. It doesn’t seem to matter as much in the crosswinds as the front. For bike handling, it’s necessary to have the front end more stable, but it's not the same case for a rear wheel under a big guy."
For lighter riders, whose duties in the desert are confined to supporting roles, shallower rims predominate, even at the rear. Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, for example, claimed his third stage victory of this year’s race with Mavic’s 80mm CXR80 in the back, while his road captain Luca Paolini, at 66kg some 15kg lighter than the Norwegian, used the 40mm Cosmic Carbone Ultimate.
There are exceptions to the rule, however. Lightweight sprinters, themselves exceptional, are also using shallower rear wheels than their heavier rivals. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), who at 66kg cedes 16kg to Giant-Alpecin’s Marcel Kittel, rolled out for stage five with a Vision Metron 55 at the back, while Astana’s in-form Andrea Guardini, another 66kg rocket, used Corima’s 47mm S+.
The majority of the peloton’s powerhouses have opted for a deeper rear wheel, however. Trek’s Fabian Cancellara, for example, has used Bontrager’s 70mm Aeolus 7 at the back, and the 50mm Aeolus 5 at the front.
The perfect balance
Most riders in the Qatar peloton have been using a medium depth wheel, front and rear. Shimano’s C50 is a popular choice among teams supplied by the Japanese component giant. “Aerodynamic difference between the C75 and C50 is very subtle, but the aerodynamic difference between the C50 and C35 is quite large,” Team Sky’s Filip Tisma explains. “That’s why they opt to use C50 most of the time. It gives them a balance between aerodynamics and crosswind handling.”
Rob Van Der Brand, mechanic at Giant-Alpecin, concurs. “We’ve brought the C35 and also C75, but with the winds, the guys want the best wheel for every condition,” he explains. “In the TT, some of the guys rode the C75 for aerodynamics, and in the sprint they often want the C75 too because it’s a little bit stiffer, but in the wind, they choose the C50.”
It’s a similar story at Movistar, where the entire team, from Grand Tour and Ardennes Classic winner Alejandro Valverde, to the surprise winner of the opening stage bunch kick Juan José Lobato, are using Campagnolo’s Bora Ultra 50.
The stage three time trial at Lusail offered further variations on the wheel theme. Team Sky’s Christian Knees and Ian Stannard used C75s front and rear, according to Tisma. Stannard finished fifth on the stage, just one second behind his team-mate Bradley Wiggins. The world time trial champion used a C75 at the rear and C50 at the front.
Early pace-setter Lars Boom (Astana) opted for a 73mm Corima UP S at the rear and a 47mm Corima S+ at the front, while Tinkoff-Saxo domestique Nikolay Trusov used 60mm Specialized Rovals front and rear – wheels his team leader Peter Sagan felt comfortable using on the following day's road stage.
The immensely strong desert tailwinds have delivered terrific average speeds at this fourteenth Tour of Qatar, and riders have experimented with gear ratios to avoid ‘spinning out’ when the peloton reaches top speed.
Many riders have opted for 54-tooth chainrings, rather than the 53s typical of other races, and some, including the sprinters Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) and Adam Blythe (Orica-GreenEDGE), have gone as high as 55.
Cassette choice has varied across the peloton, if our focus group is a guide. Team Sky has used 11-25, while Giant-Alpecin opted for 11-28. “It’s nice,” says Van Der Brand, “because they can ride the 53-23 and the chain is still pretty straight.”
Kittel had reverted to a 54 after a day's racing with a 55, he continued, while Rouleur understands that Team Sky's Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard are both using 54-tooth chainrings