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Chris Boardman’s seven tech trends for 2016

The former member of British Cycling's ‘Secret Squirrel Club’ casts his expert eye over the tech developments set to dominate 2016

Chris Boardman is man who has his finger on the tech trend pulse.

As a rider, Boardman was nicknamed the Professor thanks to his fascination with bike tech and scrupulous attention to detail.

As a rider, Boardman wasn’t afraid of breaking the mould, riding the revolutionary Lotus 108 to gold at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, riding in the now-outlawed hyper-aero ‘Superman’ position to set the hour record, and using Mavic’s Zap electronic shifting system to win the opening prologue of the 1997 Tour de France.

Chris Boardman wore the yellow jersey at the 1994, 1997 and 1998 Tours de France

Following retirement, the 47-year-old was a key member of British Cycling’s ‘Secret Squirrel Club’, development space-age tech for the likes of Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins.

Boardman stepped back from that role to focus on his eponymous bike brand. The three-time Tour de France stage winner isn’t just a name on the downtube, but has a day-to-day hand in the design and development of the Boardman range.

We caught up with Boardman at the launch of the new Boardman Bikes Performance range to get his take on the tech developments set to dominate 2016 and beyond.

‘One-by’ single-chainring setups

“I like them but people have got to commit to it. From a pro’s point of view you’ve now got 11 sprockets at the back. That’s a lot of gears – enough to allow you to look at a given race profile and swap out a cassette [to match the demands of that day’s race]. And you lose the front mech, which keeps that area really clean and simple… If I was a pro, that’s what I’d have.

A single chainring? “If I was a pro, that’s what I’d have,” says Boardman

“And I think for us [amateur riders], maybe we get big jumps between gears but it doesn’t matter for me. And we can all get used to saying ‘I’m going to do X today’ and swapping to the cassette that’s best suited.

“I think one-by is a good thing. But I’ve always liked keeping things as simple as possible. I think the triple is no longer required; maybe in some circumstances you need two rings, but less is better as far as I’m concerned.”

Disc brakes: actuation and rotor size

“Hydraulic is definitely the way to go, it just works better. It’s a long cable run to the rear brake and you can’t get away from cable flex. So hydraulic is better.

While most road bike brands have opted for 140mm disc rotors (pictured), Boardman believes 160mm rotors are more suitable

“What’s most interesting is that a lot of companies have gone for 140mm rotors because they look nicer. And they do, but when you consider performance, on a road bike you’re almost the same weight package as a mountain bike. There’s maybe two kilos in it, so you’re 80kg instead of 82kg.

“But on a road bike you’re going much faster and that energy has to be slowed down. And also you’re doing more sustained braking, which puts huge loads on the disc. So it’s certainly aesthetically pleasing to run smaller discs but it’ll be interesting to see how that pans out because, performance-wise, discs should be bigger [as on Boardman’s disc-equipped bikes] not smaller.”

Disc brakes and aerodynamics

“Disc brakes are an interesting curve ball because aerodynamically they’re not as good, but performance-wise, you can brake later, brake with more confidence and brake better in the rain. That’s got to be worth something that’s hard to quantify. So I personally would prefer that and take less aerodynamic performance. But it’s yet to be seen if everybody else does. Will it be a passing fad? I can’t say.

Boardman’s eponymous brand has adopted disc brakes on a number of models for 2016

“There’s the potential to do make them aerodynamic. At the moment the bikes are essentially a like for like, you have the same bike and one’s with discs and one’s without. And the one with discs is less aerodynamic.

“But if you say ‘well, I’m going to make a disc-specific frame’, then you can change things like the crown of the fork because it doesn’t have to accommodate a brake. So you might end up with a net gain. It’s more draggy [at the disc] but I can recoup that [at the crown]. So that’s going to be interesting to play around with.”

Drag distribution

“The potential for changing fork shape and doing different things with it is huge. At the moment people are thinking about minimising drag rather than manipulating it. They’re still not into a mindset of treating it as a rider-bike package and there’s some stuff to unlock there. If you’re prepared to have a localised loss in order to create a net gain, there are quite a lot of things you can do.

Time trial specialist Boardman was nicknamed The Professor during his career, thanks to his meticulous attention to detail

“If you look at a Formula 1 car, in a lot of cases the shaping is to minimise drag. But there’s tonnes of it that’s shaped to distribute the drag and to do things with it, to shove it into one place from another. And there’s no reason you can’t do that with a cyclist and a bike.”

Wireless electronic shifting

“In a time trial electronic gears are quite useful because it means you can stay in position and just touch, touch, touch to shift. So for time trialling electronic gears make sense.

Is wireless electronic shifting the future?

“But for a road bike I prefer nicely set-up mechanical gears with a light, strong change. And when you think about it, mechanical gears are lighter, cheaper and if they break on the go you can fix them. Electronic gears just seem to be a solution looking for a problem. Although, having said that, the wireless Sram eTap stuff… that I think is a game changer.

“Suddenly eTap makes electronic gears really interesting because I’ve got no battery inside my frame, I haven’t got to run cables everywhere and it’s a little bit more aero because there are less cables at the front. I think that’s got real potential. The batteries are small and clip directly onto the mechs. Plus they’re the same for the front and back so even if the one on the rear runs out I can take the one off my front mech and put it on the back. That’s really nice; that’s going to spread out fast.” [Boardman are one of the first brands to offer a SRAM Red eTap-equipped bike]

Integration, cranks and crank length

“I love the fact that LOOK were bold enough to try something as integrated as the 795 Aerolight. I like the idea of it although it was a crying shame that they went to so much trouble to sort out the toptube, headtube and stem and then shoved all the cables out from under the handlebars and into the head tube. What? You couldn’t get them to run inside after having done to all that?

Boardman is a fan of the integration found on the LOOK 795 Aerolight

“But there are things on the 795 that are interesting. Things like the one-piece Zed 3 crankset, which lets you change the crank length – that’s clever. On each crank there’s a little triangular piece you can rotate to adjust the length; it’s similar to an eccentric bottom bracket.

“I don’t think anybody’s really messed around with crank length yet because we’re constrained by history. I’d like to see a lot of people using 150mm cranks. All of the physiology data I’ve ever seen says that for an endurance athlete crank length actually doesn’t make any difference. But shorter cranks mean you’re more aerodynamic – if you’re trying to get into a tuck you can get lower because your knees aren’t coming up. So shorter cranks could produce a really big net gain but it’s a fashion thing.”

Better equipment than the pros

“I think one thing that’s changed is that people have started to think about themselves and their specific needs more, and it’s largely thanks to the UCI. Before, when people wanted to get the best bike they could, they looked at what the pros were using and said ‘I’ll have one of them.’ But the UCI put a false ceiling on everything.

UCI regulations mean you can ride a bike ‘better’ than that of a Tour de France winner (Pic: Sirotti)

“But if I’m riding a sportive, I can have a bike that’s a kilo lighter than a pro’s bike. And I can use disc brakes, which are brilliant in the wet, so I’ll have them too. Those things changed people’s mindsets so now they don’t necessarily just follow the pros. Now they think about what’s best for them. So that opens up a lot of potential.”

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