Cen­tre Stage

With this trio of race bikes set to go head-to-head at this year’s Tour de France, we ar­ranged our own lit­tle pre­view

Cyclist - - Contents - Words STU BOW­ERS Pho­tog­ra­phy JUAN TRU­JILLO ANDRADES

Cy­clist heads to France to test three of the bikes that will go head-to-head for the gen­eral clas­si­fi­ca­tion at the Tour

Sink­ing a cold beer on a warm sum­mer’s evening, look­ing out across a lake back­dropped by moun­tains, is a bliss­ful way to end any day. We’re in Aix-lesBains in the Savoie Mont Blanc re­gion of France, the lake is the Lac du Bourget and the moun­tain, tinged pink by the set­ting sun, is the Mont du Chat. It’s a serene scene. Ten min­utes ago, though, things were not so calm.

While build­ing my Pinarello Dogma F10 for our lat­est bike test, I man­aged to drop the alu­minium seat­post wedge into the seat tube. These things hap­pen, and I wasn’t ini­tially con­cerned, but when I turned the Dogma up­side down, ex­pect­ing the wedge to fall back out, noth­ing ap­peared.

Stage 9 boasts three key climbs, each with an av­er­age gra­di­ent of close to 10% for the en­tire length

I shook it. Noth­ing – no sound of any­thing in­side the frame. My com­pan­ions all had a go, but it seemed there was no dis­lodg­ing the com­po­nent from wher­ever it had be­come stuck. It even­tu­ally took a team ef­fort, with Steve be­ing chief bike-shaker and pho­tog­ra­pher Juan at­tempt­ing to shine a phone light through a tiny hole while I at­tempted to tease the wedge out with tweez­ers do­nated by the ho­tel re­cep­tion­ist. It was like the kids’ board game Op­er­a­tion, only us­ing a very ex­pen­sive Pinarello race bike.

The wedge was even­tu­ally re­trieved, with bike un­harmed. Good thing too, as it’s about to be put through its paces in our three-way Tour de France bike shootout.

Test­ing times

For this test we’ve brought to­gether three bikes likely to do bat­tle at the sharp end of this year’s Tour, and where bet­ter to test them than the place where they will get their first taste of the moun­tains in the 2017 race?

Stage 9, a ride of 181.5km from Nan­tua to Cham­béry, is the first of five moun­tain stages and boasts three key climbs, each with an av­er­age gra­di­ent of close to 10% for their en­tire length. That’s un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally steep even by Alpine stan­dards and in to­tal the day’s

el­e­va­tion gain adds up to a hefty 4,600m. First on the menu is the 1,325m Col de la Biche, fol­lowed im­me­di­ately by the 1,501m Grand Colom­bier (with a max­i­mum gra­di­ent of 22%) be­fore the Mont du Chat rounds off what is likely to be a par­tic­u­larly ar­du­ous day that will al­most cer­tainly trig­ger a shake-up in the GC.

We’re not go­ing to fol­low the en­tire route. In­stead our man on the ground – Bruno Toutain of tour com­pany Cy­clo­mundo – has planned for us a 125km loop. Start­ing in Aix-les-bains, we’ll fol­low the lake north be­fore tack­ling the Grand Colom­bier from Cu­loz (rid­ing up from the op­po­site side to the Tour) be­fore de­scend­ing and head­ing south to join the of­fi­cial Tour route for the fi­nal 50km, where the Mont du Chat awaits be­fore the fin­ish in Cham­béry.

Cham­béry is de­scribed as the door­way to the val­leys of Savoie, and the Tour has vis­ited this pic­turesque re­gion of France on al­most ev­ery sin­gle run­ning of the event. How­ever, 2017 will mark the first time Cham­béry it­self has hosted a stage fin­ish, and the fi­nal climb of the day, the Mont du Chat, which will no doubt be de­ci­sive on the day, hasn’t seen Grand Tour action since 1974, when an age­ing Ray­mond Pouli­dor dropped Eddy Mer­ckx – only for the Can­ni­bal to catch him on the de­scent.

Con­tenders ready

Let me in­tro­duce the con­tenders for our hy­po­thet­i­cal three-man break­away group. James, Cy­clist ’s fea­tures ed­i­tor, will as­sume the role of FDJ’S Thibaut Pinot, aboard the Lapierre Xelius SL 70th An­niver­sary. Steve, a self­con­fessed Strava ad­dict, will be Mo­vis­tar’s Nairo Quin­tana (although some­what taller), aboard the Canyon Ul­ti­mate CF SLX 9.0 Ltd. That leaves me on the Pinarello Dogma F10, Team Sky’s weapon of choice, so I guess that makes me Chris Froome. Well, some­one had to be.

All three bikes boast win­ning pedi­gree. Pinarello’s Dogma needs lit­tle in­tro­duc­tion as the bike Froome has pi­loted to the yel­low jer­sey in Paris for the past two years. The F10 re­cently re­placed the F8 as top of Pinarello’s shop and although many of the F8’s fea­tures have car­ried over, the F10 does have a newlook down tube that, Pinarello says, is based on learn­ing from its Bolide time-trial frame. The sculpted shape con­ceals the wa­ter bot­tle from the wind, which Pinarello claims makes it a lot more aero­dy­namic – and there­fore faster. Just be­ing Team Sky’s bike is enough to put it straight to the top of many rid­ers’ wish lists, but its cur­va­ceous sil­hou­ette, with dis­tinc­tive bowed forks, doesn’t al­ways sit well with those of a tra­di­tional pre­dis­po­si­tion. At £7,750 it’s also the most ex­pen­sive of the trio.

The Lapierre Xelius SL, mean­while, won the Alpe d’huez stage in 2015 with Pinot on board, so it also knows a thing or two about win­ning in the moun­tains. It cer­tainly has a di­vi­sive ap­pear­ance, start­ing with the 70th an­niver­sary colour scheme but par­tic­u­larly the way the seat­stays curve up from the rear dropout, by­pass­ing the seat tube be­fore blend­ing into the un­der­side of the top tube, leav­ing the seat­post a lit­tle out on a limb. For the record, Lapierre says this is all in the name of mak­ing this light­weight clim­ber’s bike more com­fort­able.

The Canyon is the stealth fighter of the three. It’s black, with ex­tra black. Cam­pag­nolo’s Su­per Record groupset is a dis­cern­ing choice, and although Steve con­tin­u­ally refers to the in­ner shift but­tons as like ‘lit­tle ele­phant ears’, he’s clearly happy with its crisp and pre­cise shift­ing as we set­tle in over the early kilo­me­tres. The Canyon of­fers con­sid­er­able value, be­ing £2,500 cheaper than the Lapierre, and £2,750 less than the Dogma. It’s also the light­est here, dip­ping slightly un­der 6.5kg.

Break­ing away

Hav­ing passed though Chanaz, a charm­ing vil­lage Bruno tells us is known as ‘France’s Venice’ due to its pretty arched bridges that span the Rhône, the Grand Colom­bier looms ahead.

The climb im­me­di­ately bites hard. Gra­di­ents don’t budge much from 9-10% and the air is

Just be­ing Team Sky’s bike puts the Dogma top of many wish lists, but it’s also the most ex­pen­sive of the three

muggy in the forested slopes. Soon we’re all sweat­ing. Steve seems to be rel­ish­ing the weight ad­van­tage his Canyon of­fers, danc­ing hap­pily out of the sad­dle as James and I grind the ped­als from our seated po­si­tions.

That said, the Dogma carries it­self well. I’m not re­ally a huge fan of its looks, if I’m hon­est, but I can’t deny it’s a treat to ride. It re­sponds valiantly to ev­ery ef­fort I make on the climb.

James has stayed fairly quiet as we con­tinue our slow as­cent of the Colom­bier, but with just a few kilo­me­tres re­main­ing he de­cides to push hard for the sum­mit. As he in­creases his wattage, hulk­ing the bike ag­gres­sively around the hair­pins, the Xelius SL shows no sign of flex or brake rub, indicating the frame and Mavic wheels are both hold­ing firm.

Steve and I work hard to stay on James’s wheel, and by the top we’re all pant­ing hard. Each of the three bikes seems to have taken the Colom­bier in its stride. Next, though, comes a true test of any road bike’s met­tle.

The de­scent down the steeper side of the Grand Colom­bier (the side the pros will have to ride up) has sec­tions of 22% and a flurry of hair­pins to test the bikes to the full, with plenty of sharp brak­ing and tight cor­ner­ing, and lit­tle chance to savour the views of Mont Blanc in the dis­tance.

When we reach the val­ley floor, pumped with adren­a­line, we de­cide now would be a good time to stop for a cof­fee and dis­cuss the rel­a­tive mer­its of our bikes when it comes to de­scend­ing.

I’m re­ally start­ing to like the Dogma’s han­dling, but James seems a lit­tle less sure of the Xelius, which he feels is a touch twitchy and un­set­tled when the speeds nudge 75kmh. Which leads us on to the topic of brak­ing.

There’s not a disc brake in sight, yet we’re all singing the praises of our re­spec­tive brak­ing set-ups. My Ful­crum Rac­ing Zeros are a great re­minder of how con­sis­tent alu­minium brak­ing sur­faces are, and while the Lapierre has lit­tle piles of yel­low brake dust around the cal­lipers from the rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing Swissstop pads, James is happy with their per­for­mance. Steve can’t fault the Canyon’s Bora One 35s ei­ther, although he’s not con­vinced the glossy brak­ing sur­faces would cope well in the wet.

James is start­ing to look out of sync with the Lapierre, which ap­pears to be a lit­tle skit­tish over the bumps

The cat’s whiskers

With full stom­achs (we couldn’t re­sist a few plates of French food while mus­ing over the

bikes) we re­join our route. It’s rolling roads for the next 20km, which we hope will set­tle our lunch be­fore we reach the Mont du Chat.

Pros aren’t paid to have a cushy ride. They’re paid to put their noses in the wind and suf­fer hour upon hour, and as a tool for that there’s some­thing sat­is­fy­ing about the way the Dogma eats up the road. How­ever I’ve started to no­tice it’s at the sac­ri­fice of some com­fort. At least that’s what my ten­der pos­te­rior is indicating as our next big climb­ing chal­lenge be­gins.

A few kilo­me­tres into the Mont du Chat, the group splin­ters for the first time. ‘Froome’ edges away from ‘Pinot’, who has in turn dropped a flag­ging ‘Quin­tana’. The Pinarello again feels well de­fined, with a so­lid­ity both in and out of the sad­dle. The gra­di­ent is slightly steeper and a lit­tle more re­lent­less than even the Colom­bier had been. At 10-11% for large chunks of the 14km climb it’s a brute.

It’s also in­cred­i­bly tran­quil, with no sound other than the breeze stir­ring the tree canopy above our heads, and we haven’t en­coun­tered a car in ages. How­ever, not even the light and nim­ble Canyon can save Steve (or should I say Quin­tana?). At the top he ad­mits he was in dam­age lim­i­ta­tion mode, churn­ing out a rhythm to sur­vive the ar­du­ous slope. James ad­mits he too was glad of the Lapierre’s su­perb climb­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, which he at­tributes mostly to the stiff­ness in the bot­tom bracket area, with­out which the Mont du Chat may have taken a greater toll. Steve is quick to de­fend his Canyon, how­ever, say­ing it was only the fear of re­gur­gi­tat­ing lunch that was hold­ing him back.

Back down to earth

The de­scent to Cham­béry is the fi­nal test for our su­per­bike three­some. The Dogma feels ea­ger be­neath me, but it’s still James who is set­ting

the tempo. Steve has only re­cently re­cov­ered from a nasty road bike crash that left him with crushed ver­te­brae in his neck, so un­der­stand­ably doesn’t want to take un­nec­es­sary risks. He backs off the pace slightly, leav­ing a straight-up fight be­tween Froomey and Pinot.

From my van­tage point a few bike lengths be­hind, James is start­ing to look out of sync with the Lapierre, which ap­pears to be a lit­tle skit­tish over the bumps and un­du­la­tions in the road sur­face. The Dogma, on the other hand, is en­tirely sure­footed. I nip past James and find my­self in an ex­quis­ite zone where the bike feels per­fectly con­nected to the road, tip­ping left then right through suc­ces­sions of S-bends. I might be rid­ing at my lim­its, but the Dogma still feels well within its own.

By the time I reach the lake, I’m sold. It’s per­haps the best-de­scend­ing bike I’ve ever rid­den. It’s lit­tle won­der that Team Sky’s tac­ti­cians now con­sider de­scents as a re­al­is­tic way for Froome to make time gains.

I quiz James about what was go­ing on with the Lapierre. His thoughts seem to mir­ror my ob­ser­va­tions – the frame maybe suf­fers slightly from be­ing too stiff and light, caus­ing it to feel jit­tery at high speed on the rut­ted road sur­face.

Steve is down safely too, and as we pedal along the lake­side we’re in agree­ment that it has been an in­cred­i­ble ride on some in­cred­i­ble bikes. Steve can’t get over how com­fort­able the Canyon is com­pared to his Can­non­dale Su­per­six Evo Nano, which he says af­ter a ride this long would have left him feel­ing much more beaten up. James is still go­ing on about the ugly orange ca­bles on his Lapierre, although he ad­mits that is nit-pick­ing at an oth­er­wise sur­pris­ingly ef­fec­tive all-rounder.

Per­son­ally I’d like to know how the Pinarello hides its puppy fat. At 7.1kg, it’s a bit portly for a bike in this el­e­vated cat­e­gory, but I was never con­scious of the ex­tra weight, even on the most se­vere gra­di­ents.

What is cer­tain is that all three of us will be even keener to see how the real race un­folds on Stage 9, and whether one of these bikes will find it­self be­ing rid­den into the his­tory books. Stu Bow­ers is deputy ed­i­tor of Cy­clist and was al­ways go­ing to be Froomey in our Fantasy Tour de France

By the time we reach the lake I’m sold. The Dogma is per­haps the best­de­scend­ing bike I’ve ever rid­den

The Dogma has al­ready forged a slight lead on the up­per slopes of the Grand Colom­bier, and if we had to call it I would say the F10 de­serves its place at the front when it comes to sheer de­scend­ing de­light

The Dogma F10 is the heav­i­est bike on test, but you’d never know from on board. It holds speed bril­liantly and re­wards hard ef­forts

Above: The three bikes of our TDF test – the Lapierre Xelius, Canyon Ul­ti­mate CF SLX and Pinarello F10 Pre­vi­ous pages: What goes up, and all that… The de­scent of the Grand Colom­bier is steep, and a great test of han­dling

Once we’re out of the tree line, the fi­nal few bends of the Mont du Chat re­veal some stun­ning vis­tas

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