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