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This is Nicolas Roche’s new bike. Only just retired, the Irish ace is FiftyOne bike’s new prototype ‘test pilot’, and as such he naturally got given a company bike. But the kicker? He could have the geometry any way he wanted, which raises the question: is what the pros are given to ride what the pros would choose to ride?
59cm × 59cm was apparently the bedrock of all Miguel Indurain’s bikes – a 59cm top tube, 59cm seat tube. But could you buy one in the way you can buy Tadej Pogačar’s exact bike today? Nope.
All Big Mig’s bikes used custom geometry and, if you were up the pecking order as a pro, that was how it had always been – Eddy Merckx used to get Ugo De Rosa to braze him 50 bikes a season, often just millimetres different. But how things change.
Miguel Indurain’s 1995 Banesto Pinarello. Photo: Mike Massaro
I was once at a live Q&A with Mark Cavendish when someone asked, ‘What’s the best bike you’ve ever ridden?’ To which the answer came, ‘The one I’m riding now… want to ask me about the best wheels I’ve ever ridden?’
Pros no longer get custom bikes. They haven’t for more than a decade, which is part rules – pro kit must be available to consumers within 12 months of debuting – and part economics: it’s much easier to make a custom metal frame, which just requires cutting different length tubes, than a custom carbon frame, which requires making whole, very expensive and entirely specific moulds in the case of modern monocoque designs.
Plus, we’ve presumably perfected geometry since Indurain was shaving his legs – modern bikes offer pros precisely what they need, surely?
Well to answer that, let’s contrast Nicolas Roche’s FiftyOne Road Disc with the last sponsored bike he rode, a Scott Foil Disc.
Below are the geometry diagrams and charts, the first Roche’s FiftyOne, the second is a Scott Foil. Roche rode a 54cm.
Interestingly, both bikes share a 150mm head tube, which is short as you’d expect for a pro-bike, where low and aero is paramount. But focussing on head tube length only is misleading as, ultimately, it’s stack height that determines how low a ride position is.
The FiftyOne’s stack is 555mm, compared to the Scott’s 547.5mm, so in essence Roche’s shoulders are 7.5mm higher up with respect to his hips, compared to his last pro racing days. Reach is a similar story, 382mm on the FiftyOne versus 388.9mm on the Scott.
As such the FiftyOne offers a slightly more upright riding position. ‘Nico told us that he didn’t want a pure race bike, he wanted more comfort,’ says FiftyOne’s founder Aidan Duff.
It’s an interesting facet of cycling – fitting one’s body to something for speed at the expense of comfort – but moreover it’s an interesting facet of pro sensitivities and bike fit: mere millimetres make big differences, and the riders notice.
Before you say ‘but what about the stem?’ that reflects a relaxed fit too, down a whole 5mm from Roche’s racing days, to 130mm.
OK, that’s still way beyond what most of us will ever need. But still, it very much looks like Roche thinks pro bikes could be more comfortable.
The most interesting thing here, though, is bike handling. Roche has worked with FiftyOne to create a bike that ‘is really dynamic, for him to throw around descents’, says Duff. To that end, two key figures stand out, and are very different: trail and wheelbase.
The Scott Foil’s trail is 64mm whereas the FiftyOne’s a is a startlingly short 53mm (for further context, a Specialized Tarmac size 54 trail is 58mm).
Shorter trail typically means sharper handling, but too sharp and a bike goes from reactive to twitchy to unmanageable, particularly at speed. Consider how a very short trail vehicle like a shopping trolley can make incredibly quick turns but becomes progressively less stable when pushed down a hill (what do you mean you’ve never pushed your mate down a hill in a trolley?).
Duff says Roche was after a bike with fast handling, but it also needed a focus on high-speed descending, hence the wheelbase of the FiftyOne goes the other way: 1,006mm while the Scott’s is 987mm.
Usually shorter wheelbases create sharper-cornering bikes (consider the turning circle of a van versus a car) and longer wheelbases create more stable bikes at speed (one of the reasons why drag racing cars are so long).
Thus the melding of a long wheelbase with a very short trail creates a bike with high-speed stability, but one that changes direction rapidly.
To find this extra wheelbase, FiftyOne has pushed the rear axles further away from the bottom bracket with long-ish chainstays – 420mm compared to the Scott’s 410mm. (Note that pulling the front axle further out would decrease trail even further, thus creating an even more twitchy bike.)
So why doesn’t a brand such as Scott do what Roche has done with FiftyOne? One answer is that Scott’s bikes have to be sellable to – hence rideable by – the public, and controlling a short trail bike is not going to be every rider’s idea of fun.
Finally, the bottom bracket and seat tube. The BB drop of the FiftyOne is 70mm, which is 4mm lower than the Scott’s, thus lowering Roche’s centre of gravity – a key contributor to confident descending at speed. Then the FiftyOne’s seat tube, 530mm, some 50mm more than the Scott’s.
The last point is moot in the sense the elongated seat tube won’t affect fit or handling as the touch points of saddle, pedals and bars remain the same. But it does affect aesthetics as the longer seat tube means the top tube slopes much less dramatically than the compact geometry of the Scott.
For Roche that’s apparently down to aesthetics, to remind him of bikes he grew up riding, where classic steel racers mostly had horizontal top tubes.
For a manufacturer like Scott, sloping top tubes create compact frames in the Mike Burrows school of design, the British designer who designed Chris Boardman’s Lotus bikes and latterly Giant’s ground-breaking TCR (‘total compact racing’) compact geometry frames.
Part of the rationale behind the Giant TCR compact frame was that it could be lighter and stiffer due to the tubes being shorter and hence the main triangle smaller. However, by far and away the bigger boon for Giant was the compact design lent itself to fitting a wider array of riders – suddenly a range of 12 sizes, as was common, could be slimmed to five: XS, S, M, L, XL. And with that, manufacturing costs came down.
All of this is not to single the Scott Foil out (nor any other of Nicolas Roche’s pro bikes) as being somehow lacking. They are not. But it is to highlight that when commercial aspirations as well as race results are taken out of the equation, an exceptionally qualified cyclist such as Roche might choose something different to the bike they get given.
Looking to test out the latest road bikes on a purpose built circuit? Cyclist Track Day Sessions at Lee Valley VeloPark on 7th/8th May give you the opportunity to try out top road bikes from Canyon, BMC, Orro, Ribble and Cannondale.
Find out more and book tickets at cyclisttrackdays.com
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