Icons of cy­cling: Dril­lium

CW dis­cov­ers that mar­ginal gains ex­isted long be­fore the days of Team Sky’s dom­i­nance

Cycling Weekly - - Contents -

Rac­ing cy­clists have al­ways sought a com­pet­i­tive edge, and if you can’t buy power, you can al­ways try to buy or make ways to get more out of the power you have. Sky didn’t in­vent mar­ginal gains, they just gave it a name. In the late Six­ties and early Sev­en­ties, that de­sire for a tiny ad­van­tage led to a craze for drilling and milling away all ex­cess ma­te­rial from as many com­po­nents as pos­si­ble. It even had a jokey nick­name — Dril­lium.

It sounds ob­vi­ous — cy­cling’s all about power to weight, so you want your bike to be as light as pos­si­ble, so the more un­wanted ma­te­rial you can re­move, the lighter it is and the faster you can go. Time tri­al­lists in par­tic­u­lar em­braced the trend — road rac­ers tend to be a more con­ser­va­tive bunch, al­though fa­mously, Eddy Mer­ckx was a Dril­lium fan — but it was record-break­ing TT leg­end Alf Engers who took it to an­other level, aided and abet­ted by his bike builder, Alan Shorter.

Engers didn’t in­vent the idea of drilling out com­po­nents (there are plenty of ex­am­ples from many decades ear­lier), but he took it to ex­tremes. Brake levers and calipers, han­dle­bars, seat­posts, gear mech­a­nisms and chain­rings were all ruth­lessly pep­pered with tiny holes. He even short­ened his seat­posts so only the bare min­i­mum was left to clamp into the frame, and cut off the slots on his brakes below where the pads were bolted on. The story was that you could hear his bike whistling in the wind as he over­took you.

Trio of prob­lems

There were three prob­lems. Firstly, there was a risk of fa­tally weak­en­ing crit­i­cal com­po­nents. Engers’s han­dle­bars were of­ten so full of holes that a small child could have twisted them into knots.

Se­condly, it was re­ally, re­ally dif­fi­cult to do it well. The mul­ti­ple curves of bi­cy­cle com­po­nents do not lend them­selves to easy mark­ing out, or clamp­ing down for ac­cu­rate drilling. A re­ally skilled prac­ti­tioner could cre­ate works of alu­minium art from dull stan­dard parts. Most peo­ple just made a mess. For ev­ery beau­ti­fully fin­ished Cam­pag­nolo brake lever with evenly spaced and pro­fes­sion­ally coun­ter­sunk holes, there were dozens of butchered Wein­mann ex­am­ples look­ing like they’d been used for tar­get prac­tice by a trig­ger-happy red­neck.

Thirdly, it was pretty much point­less. The amount of weight you could re­move from a bike by drilling was so neg­li­gi­ble that you could have achieved the same ef­fect by spend­ing a ex­tra few min­utes in the loo be­fore the start. A pure climber might have felt the dif­fer­ence, but for flat time tri­als it was ar­guably coun­ter­pro­duc­tive — the holes could up­set the air flow and make you slower...

Engers him­self even­tu­ally aban­doned the ex­tremes of Dril­lium and went in search of aero­dy­namic ad­van­tage in­stead. He fi­nally achieved his aim of break­ing the 50-minute bar­rier for 25 miles in 1978 — a record that would stand for 12 years — on a bike with hardly a hole to be seen (or heard).

Engers: whis­tled while he worked

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