The bikes of the Tour de France: a brief history of the race-winning machines
Chris Froome won the 2015 Tour de France on a super-light carbon fibre Pinarello Dogma F8. But how did we get to that point?
The bikes of the Tour de France have come a long way since Maurice Garin won the first edition back in 1903.
Chris Froome triumphed in the 2015 race aboard a Pinarello Dogma F8 – itself an upgrade on Team Sky’s previous Grand Tour winning Pinarello, the Dogma 65.1 Think 2 ridden to victory by both Froome and Bradley Wiggins.
But how did we arrive at this point? We’ve taken a closer look at the evolution of the Tour de France winners’ bikes.
Maurice Garin won the first ever Tour de France, in 1903, riding a steel La Francaise bike which weighed in the region of 18kg. Black, with a tricolore headtube, it had new-fangled toe clips but the wheel rims were made of wood.
The bike – as all were at the time – was a fixed-gear single-speed machine. Multiple-geared freewheels arrived a few years later allowed for gear changes, but required the rider to get off the bike and reposition the chain and wheel in order to do so.
La Francaise had cornered the market at the turn of the century, with the top five riders at the inaugural Tour de France all riding one of their machines. Garin had also won the Paris-Brest-Paris in 1901 on a La Francaise Diamant.
More-recognisable drop handlebars were introduced as the First World War approached, while it was not uncommon for riders to attach saddlebags and pumps to their bikes given at the time it was against Tour rules to receive external mechanical help – a far cry from today.
Enter the derailleur
It took until 1937 – a decade after the technology first came available – for Tour de France organisers to finally allow rod-actuated derailleur gears to be used. Frenchman Roger Lapebie, who won that year’s edition, used an Osgear Super Champion rear derailleur with a single chainwheel on his Mercier bike. Lapebie’s win was the first at the Tour de France for Mercier, while his bike was also equipped with Hutchinson tyres – still a familiar brand today.
Former Swiss pro Oscar Egg – a two-time Tour de France stage winner and former Hour Record holder – was the man behind Super Champion, whose components were also used by Sylvere Maes in his 1939 Tour victory. In between, Gino Bartali won the 1938 edition on a bike equipped with Vittoria Margherita components. Initial designs by both companies required back-pedalling to change gears, but the tech had advanced beyond this by the time it was permitted in the Tour.
Incidentally, aluminium wheel rims had also become the standard in the pro peloton by 1937. Mavic’s 750g ‘Duralumin’ rims had actually been tested – and raced to victory – in 1934 by Antonin Magne. As they were against Tour rules, Magne painted his rims to look wooden in order to avoid detection.
The parallel years
The post-war years saw big changes in frame geometry, with road surfaces gradually improving allowing for a more aggressive setup. That said, the frames themselves remained largely the same – steel-lugged frames, steel cranks and side-pull brakes.
Gearing also improved further with Simplex introducing their Tour de France rear and Competition front derailleurs. Jean Robic used Simplex components in 1947, as did Fausto Coppi in 1949 and Ferdi Kubler the following year. Significantly, Campagnolo also entered the stage with the Cambio Corsa rear derailleur deployed by Gino Bartali at the 1948 Tour.
Campagnolo’s innovation shone through at an early stage, with the Gran Sport cable-operated front and rear derailleurs paired with double handlebar end levers used in 1951 and 1952. Cable-operated derailleurs sounded the death knell for manual gear changes, with Jacques Anquetil’s 1957 win, with Simplex components, the last instance of a rider winning the Tour using ‘clangers’.
Steel rules the roost
Steel remained the frame material of choice throughout the next few decades with Jacques Anquetil riding a Helyett frame during his four consecutive victories in the early 1960s. Eddy Merckx’s 1969-winning bike, meanwhile – the first of his five wins – was based around Reynolds steel tubes and came with Campag’s Nuovo Record derailleurs.
Gearing had developed even further too, with the ‘slanting parallelogram’ design we know today first patented by Suntour in 1964. Weight had also started to come down, though Joop Zoetemelk’s 1980-winning Raleigh Team Professional weighed in excess of 10kg.
Experiments with carbon tubes bonded to aluminium lugs also enjoyed some success in the late 1980s – most notably when Greg Lemond won the 1989 Tour on a TVT carbon bike. Interestingly, Lemond’s victory was also the only one using Mavic components in an era dominated by Campagnolo.
Clipless pedals were becoming the norm by the late 1980s, meanwhile, with LOOK having invented the system in 1984. Stephen Roche was the last rider to win the Tour de France while wearing toe clips in 1987. Roche’s bike was a Battaglin, crafted from Columbus tubing.
Steel’s days were numbered – at least as far as the Tour de France was concerned – when manufacturers started to experiment with other frame materials. Miguel Indurain was the last man to win the Tour de France on a steel bike – an Oria-tubed, TIG-welded Pinarello (rumoured to actually have been made by Dario Pegoretti) weighing in at around 9kg for his size 59cm frame in 1994.
Indurain won his fifth and final Tour on an aluminium Pinarello Keral Lite the following year, with Bjarne Riis riding the same model in 1996. Riis’ 1996 bike – which used round tube profiles – was equipped with Campagnolo’s Record groupset, a 3T aluminium handlebar and Selle Italia Flite saddle.
Aluminium’s reign was short-lived however – Marco Pantani was the last man to win aboard an aluminium bike in 1998. Il Pirata’s Bianchi used the compact geometry (rather than a horizontal toptube) which has become common in the modern peloton, though unusual at the time, and the weight was said to be down to just shy of 7kg. The bike was painted in an eye-catching celeste and yellow, and was equipped with Campagnolo’s Record drivetrain and Electron tubular wheels.
Carbon becomes king
There are some (unverified) suggestions Pantani’s bike was not even made from aluminium, but boron instead. But what is for certain is carbon became king the following year and has been almost ever since. Lance Armstrong’s Trek 5500 was the first full-carbon frame to be piloted to Tour de France victory – albeit a ‘win’ now scratched from the records.
Shimano supplied the groupset for the first time and, by 2000, the quill stem had also been replaced by a tapered steerer as the modern bike took shape. In 2003, Shimano Dura-Ace went to ten-speed and the Japanese firm’s latest gruppo was used for the first time on a machine said to be the lightest ever used in the Tour – Armstrong kept weight down further by using a downtube shifter on mountain stages.
Magnesium’s one-hit wonder
Pinarello have been the most successful bike brand when it comes to Tour de France victories in the last three decades, with 12 race-winning bikes bearing the Italian firm’s badge. From Indurain’s steel machine, through to the aluminium used by the Spaniard and then Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich, and on to the carbon bikes of Wiggins and Froome, the Italians have proved their versatility across the board, too.
And Oscar Pereiro’s retrospective 2006 win came on the firm’s magnesium Dogma. Adopting the curvy seatstay profile later used on the carbon Pinarello Dogma 65.1 Think 2 – Team Sky’s race-winning bike in 2012 and 2013 – the frame was crafted from an AK61 magnesium alloy, but with a Pinarello Onda carbon fibre fork and rear triangle. Campagnolo Record 10 groupset and Bora Ultra wheels completed the setup. It was the first – and only – Tour-winning magnesium bike as Pinarello ditched it in favour of carbon fibre soon afterwards.
The UCI introduced the 6.8kg minimum weight limit for racing machines in 2000 and all bikes since then have not been allowed to dip below that mark.
With bike manufacturers comfortably able to hit the weight limit – and the lightest frames around just 700g – an advantage has instead been sought elsewhere.
While there’s certainly no shortage of super-light frames in the peloton, the focus has fallen on aerodynamics – take Froome’s latest winning bike, the Pinarello Dogma F8, or the Canyon Ultimate CF SLX on which Nairo Quintana finished runner-up on in 2015 – both look to combine their incredibly low weight with a subtle aero advantage. Canyon are also among the many brands to offer a fully-fledged aero bike, with the Aeroad ridden by Katusha sprinter Alexander Kristoff.
While not as important to pro riders as weight or aerodynamics, comfort has also become a consideration, particularly in the cobbled Classics (and Tour de France stages which are run over the cobbles) – aiming to deliver the rider to the finish in as fresh a condition as possible. Look at the latest iteration of the Trek Madone – a machine which originated as Armstrong’s lightweight all-rounder, but which has morphed into a super-aero machine which still weighs a claimed 950g for the frame, keeping it suitably light, and includes a version of Trek’s comfort-boosting IsoSpeed decoupler.
What’s next for the Tour de France bike? The UCI is rumoured to be considering scrapping the 6.8kg weight limit, while disc brakes are of course taking their first – tentative – pedal strokes in the peloton. How long until a disc-equipped bike wins the Tour de France? We wouldn’t want to place a bet on that.
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