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The wheel selection crystal ball

The fuzzy psychology of optimizing for the way up, or the way down.

Caley Fretz
by Caley Fretz 02.07.2024 Photography by
Gruber Images & Cor Vos
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As Tadej Pogačar dropped down the back side of the Galibier, followed about 10 seconds later by Jonas Vingegaard, the two moved from one gravity-driven arena to another. Climbing to descending, swapping from a focus on weight to a focus on aerodynamics. The equipment choices made to go up a hill fast are not the same as the equipment choices for going fast down one, and the two riders at the front of this Tour de France seemed focused on different parts of the course.

It’s an inexact science, muddled by sponsor obligations and available product, but a difference in wheel and bike setup between Pogačar and Vingegaard is a small window into their mindset heading into a crucial mountain stage.

In general, equipment selection indicates which part of a course a particular rider is focused on. Different equipment choices come with different strengths and weaknesses. We can apply a little rough extrapolation to understand what worries a team or rider, or, equally, where they’re confident. If the steepest parts of climbs are a concern, or alternately seen as a source of opportunity, then a rider might go with a shallower rim, seeking the lowest possible weight and quickest acceleration. They will optimize for these key uphill moments, almost always at the expense of overall aerodynamics. If a descent is an opportunity, aerodynamics is placed above weight.

Alex Dowsett once described this on the Performance Process podcast as the Mike Woods Puzzle. Do you optimize for aero to get Woods to the end of the race fresher, or optimise for the moment he’ll actually try to win the race?

For example: let’s say you’re racing Flèche Wallone. Or Mike Woods is. All the aero savings you could muster won’t matter if you can’t follow Alejandro Valverde when he punches it up the Mur de Huy. This is where the selection will be made, and if you lose the wheel, you’re done. In this instance, one might optimize for the lowest possible weight and quickest acceleration, at the expense of aerodynamic savings throughout the rest of the day. This logic is why most teams use low-profile, lightweight wheels on major mountain stages. Deeper wheels might save more energy all day, but riders prefer something lighter for those key moments.

In contrast, if a team believes that high speeds are where a race will be won or lost, or a descent is seen as a key part of the race, then a deeper wheel is used. But deeper, more aerodynamic wheels are heavier. Which brings us to the crystal ball part of all this.

To put it simply, Tadej Pogačar appeared to optimize his setup for the descent off the Galibier, while Jonas Vingegaard optimized for the way up. Mostly.

Pogačar used an old favorite, a wheelset that frequently adorns his Colnago V4RS. In fact, he rarely takes them off. The Enve SES 4.5 AR is a deep-rim wheelset, 50 mm front and 56 mm rear, originally designed for the rigors of Paris-Roubaix but now put into use across much of the season. It has a generous internal width and Pogačar runs them with wide tires to match. The Galibier, you may have noticed, is not Paris-Roubaix, but these wheels are versatile and fast at high speeds and it takes a serious climb before Pogačar considers ditching them.

The last time I can recall Pogačar running shallow wheels came in stage 17 of last year’s Tour de France. That particular day came just after he had lost time to Vingegaard in the previous day’s time trial, and was the day of his most infamous Tour crack. “I’m dead,” he said over the radio, losing more than seven minutes.

Bad news wheels for Pogi.

Jonas Vingegaard went in a different direction on Tuesday. He ran an aero bike, a Cervelo S5, with Reserve 34/37s, unsurprisingly 34 and 37 mm in depth front and rear, respectively. They are a climbing wheel, significantly shallower than the Enves and roughly 100 grams lighter too, give or take a few grams depending on the precise build of each. Aerodynamics on low-profile wheels like this has improved in recent years but in almost any circumstance the Enves are going to be faster at high speed, and in particular when crosswinds might create a sail effect. Vingegaard often runs deeper wheels on flatter stages but this setup has become his go-to in the mountains.

Take the wheels off of both and the S5 is heavier than the V4RS, but is more aerodynamic. So Vingegaard may feel he needs to run shallower wheels to keep the bike near the 6.8 kg UCI minimum weight limit. On days with an uphill finish, when he knows the key moment will come on a climb, he often rides the R5. That’s a lighter, less aerodynamic frame, paired with either the same 34/37 wheels or the deeper 40/44 option.

Remco Evenepoel, who used the descent off San Luca to claw back time on stage two, went with deep wheels as well, running Roval’s 50 mm option. Geraint Thomas went with shallow rims, Primoz Roglič went with deep rims. Vingegaard’s teammate Matteo Jorgenson, whose job it was to hang on with the front group as long as he possibly could up the Galibier, went shallow wheels and an R5, the absolute lightest setup available. Two riders on the same team with different setups because their goals and crux points for the day were vastly different.

In the most basic terms, teams and riders optimize for the part of the course they believe to be most important in achieving their goals. Vingegaard told reporters he expected to lose time in all three of the early climbing stages, so avoiding getting dropped going uphill was the number one priority for him. If he could hold the wheel going up, he could certainly hold it going down. So put the light wheels on and cross your fingers.

In contrast, Pogačar wanted to be the aggressor and hoped to go over the Galibier solo with a gap. In an ideal scenario, the descent would be crucial to maintaining or increasing a gap he’d already made. The V4RS is the lone Colnago road race bike in UAE’s service course. Without a more aero option in his quiver like Visma has, the deep wheels were Pogačar’s best bet to eke out some marginal gains on the way into Valloire.

The caveat to all of this is that some riders just don’t care, or prefer to ride whatever feels best. Wheel choice, in particular, is a decision that is often as subjective as it is objective; pros like certain wheels and they want to feel fast as much as be fast. There are dozens of other choices made that need to balance various needs – aero helmets vs cooling needs, low rolling resistance tires vs flats – and each indicates where a rider’s priorities lie.

Wheels were not the difference between winning and losing on Tuesday. Pogačar took more than 30 seconds on his rival mostly because he sprinted harder out of every corner and pushed more watts throughout and, as Vingegaard noted in a diplomatically worded dig, “Pogačar has a bit more gravity that works for him and so he took time.” But that doesn’t mean technology doesn’t play a part, or that equipment selection doesn’t provide a little insight into a rider’s mindset. Pros’ equipment choices may not win or lose the race on their own but they do tell us what those riders feel truly matters.

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