At the end of 2017, we were given behind-the-scenes access to Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka’s first off-season training camp in Cape Town, South Africa. Now we’re sharing this rare access with you through a series of four features, providing an insight into the team’s preparations for the season. Read about our rides with Africa's Team on the roads of Cape Town, head this way for part two, when we saw how the team ensures its riders stay fit and healthy through the year, learn more about social media training with Mark Cavendish and Scott Davies or join us for our final instalment - taking a closer look at how the team's sponsors try to give their riders the edge.
It’s easy to imagine one of the best aspects of being a professional cyclist – an upside with no downside, if you like, as opposed to getting to travel the world but without your family – is all the free gear. On some of the most lavishly-equipped teams, a complete set of kit – riding and casual clothing, equipment and accessories – approaches one thousand individual items.
It sounds crazy but when you think about all the different items they’re given, in order to have the right gear for every eventuality, and then consider multiples of each, it really mounts up.
At Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka’s November training camp in Cape Town, South Africa, we spoke to the riders and suppliers to find out what was being handed out, how it was going down, and what technical challenges arise.
So do the riders enjoy it? Of course they do. But at the same time the gear is a uniform and the bike barely more than an office desk to the more detached among them. The most important thing is that it all performs.
In search of a little more wide-eyed excitement, we made a bee line for British neo-pro Scott Davies. To Davies, his new Oakley skinsuit is still a uniform but it’s also a symbol. He’s too modest to say so in quite so many words himself, but pulling on the jersey of his new WorldTour team means he has made it.
"You put it on and look in the mirror and it’s a nice feeling because of how hard you’ve worked to get there. It puts a big smile on your face," he tells us.
The Oakley clothing is well liked by the riders for its aero fit and comfortable pad. In Cape Town the riders are only issued with speedsuits; the rest is still being made. A fitting session leads to some riders getting custom sized versions; Nick Dougall, a Boonen-sized unit of a rouleur, is one of those riders.
Brand new for 2018, meanwhile, are the Oakley helmets – first revealed at Eurobike back in August. It’s Oakley’s first entry into cycling helmets and from the gun they have three models for the team to use: the aero road ARO5, the super-light ARO3, and the ARO7 time trial lid.
“They’re really comfortable," says Davies. “Oakley gave us a talk on them and helped us get the fit dialled in. I’m really impressed. They look good, too."
A key test for the aero version was passed when Mark Cavendish won stage three of the Dubai Tour in early February. The result is much more about confidence in the new equipment rather than an empirical test of aerodynamics, but that’s every bit as important.
Oakley is a new partner to the team for 2018, so the taking and use of photographs at the pre-season training camp has to be carefully managed.
In cycling, contracts run for the calendar year, so while lots of images were gathered for use throughout 2018, separate shoots were carried out at the November camp for use on social media through to the end of 2017.
That meant riding in the old gear, with the old helmets, and the new signings – obligated to wear their previous team’s gear – staying out of shot.
Enve’s approach is notably different to most sponsors. Instead of a marketing liaison, it was chief design engineer Kevin Nelson who was on the camp, gathering feedback directly from the riders and personally fitting prototype aero stems (carried in his hand luggage so they couldn’t be lost) to the bikes of Mark Cavendish and Mark Renshaw.
"Enve’s approach is notably different to most sponsors. Instead of a marketing liaison, it was chief design engineer Kevin Nelson who was on the camp, gathering feedback directly from the riders"
Many brands talk about the R&D benefit of sponsoring a pro team; Nelson says it’s Enve’s primary reason, above anything to do with public exposure, and the team contributed to the stem’s design right from the concept stage. His presence backs that up, as does his friendship with most of the riders having been to lots of camps and races over the previous three seasons.
The aero stems are shaped for a small drag reduction at the crucial leading edge into the wind and feature switchable shims at the steerer clamp to adjust the stem angle and length, fine tuning the riders’ positions and allowing them to get lower on their Cervélos despite the tall headtubes.
For the team’s new riders it was their first taste of ENVE wheels with their moulded, textured brake tracks. TDD won’t be joining the likes of Trek in fully switching to disc brakes this year but the consensus among the riders is that they’re not missing out.
That’s testament to the braking performance attributed to Enve’s textured surface, which is claimed to boost power and bring wet performance virtually in line with dry.
Davies was impressed, anyway, telling us: “The Enve wheels are spot on. The brake surface is impressive, especially in the wet. They’re much more reliable and predictable than anything I’ve ridden before."
For the 2018 season, the team also has new suppliers for two components which barely get noticed by the public, but which are critical to the riders’ comfort: the pedals and saddles.
The former has switched from Speedplay to Shimano, which have a very different feel, with tighter float, less of it, completely different adjustment, and the obvious switch from double- to single-sided. Some of the riders had no issues, others were experimenting with different cleats and positions day after day.
Meanwhile, changing saddle for a pro is quite a big deal, given they spend upwards of 1,000 hours on it each year. It’s only in recent years that most teams have had saddle sponsors with tight contracts preventing riders from using an old favourite perch. It’s very rare now to see a blacked-out logo on anything attached to a pro’s bike, so when a new sponsor comes on board it’s important to find the right option.
Luckily for Dimension Data, new supplier Astute, a lesser known Italian brand, has a huge range. In Cape Town, riders were swapping saddles regularly and many of them had already been given the chance to test a selection at home, with the initial shortlist established by matching shape and features to their previous saddle.
Renshaw found several successive options to be too soft in the cut-out centre area before getting the right one; Edvald Boasson Hagen adjusted the position of his on the post three times on his first ride, searching for the sweet spot.
"I’m quite fussy and didn’t want to waste the mental energy on fiddling with a new saddle for weeks, so I wanted to get it sorted straight away" - Scott Davies
Davies went to the greatest lengths of all. “I went to Cyclefit [in London] and they helped me get it spot on," he explains. “I took five Astute saddles with me and they used a pressure mapping system to help me choose the right one.
“I’m quite fussy and didn’t want to waste the mental energy on fiddling with it for weeks, so I wanted to get it sorted straight away.
“It was explained to me a while ago, that you have two types of rider: one can jump on any bike and crack on, the other needs to fiddle and get it perfect. Unfortunately, I’m the latter."
On the other hand, the team’s returning star GC signing, Louis Meintjes, certainly seems like the first type. He was happy with the first saddle he tried and didn’t touch it. What’s more, through the week he sampled each of the available team bikes – super-light R5, aero S5 and the P5 TT rig – and declared himself happy with all of them.
Of course, such a simplistic summary does a great disservice to the preparation work done in advance by head mechanic Kenny Latomme, who built each of Meintjes' bikes personally and with impeccable attention to detail. It isn’t the case that Meintjes doesn’t care if his saddle setback is 5mm out or his handlebar a size bigger than he’s used to.
Rather, Latomme sourced Meintjes' fit data and preferences and built the bikes to match perfectly; when the team’s new GC hope, who finished eighth in both the 2016 and 2017 Tours de France, clipped in to his Cervelo for the first time, it felt like his bike. The remaining difference in feel between his old and new equipment is what the South African's more easy-going nature absorbed.
As Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka embarks on its most ambitious season yet – targeting the Giro d’Italia with Meintjes, the Tour de France stage win record with Cavendish, and much more – its riders can be confident they’re well equipped. The pleasure they take in their new gear comes not only from a fresh delivery of equipment, but from knowing they have the right tools for the job.
To donate to the Qhubeka charity, visit Qhubeka.org