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After watching a few stages of the Tour de France, I see the teamsriding lots of carbon frames, aluminum/carbon frames and even magnesiumbut it seems like relatively few teams ride Ti frames. Yet, it seems likeas “Joe Consumer” these are being touted as the ultimate frames. So whyaren’t the pros riding more Ti?
Reno, NVDear Andy,
The short answer is that there are no titanium bikes in the Tour thisyear for sponsorship reasons, i.e., there is no manufacturer providingtitanium bikes to a team. But there is more to it than that.
The Lotto riders using titanium Litespeeds in the Tour last year generallyloved their bikes. They were plenty light the Ghisallo that Robbie McEwenloved so much is about as light as any superlight frame. Furthermore, theLitespeeds of Lotto were strong, stiff and responsive, and they had thatsmooth, gentle titanium ride.Litespeed is not back in the Tour this year not because riders prefera different bike; they are not back because of politics. When Lotto andDomo (both Belgian) combined into one team, one bike sponsor had to go.Well, needless to say, you don’t send Eddy Merckx packing in favorof an American company if you are a Belgian team.That answers the disappearance of one titanium company, but it doesnot explain why other companies are not putting their riders on Ti frames.The fact is that the density of titanium is greater than that of aluminum,carbon fiber or magnesium. Furthermore, the cost of titanium is far higherthan that of aluminum, it is generally more pricey than carbon, and, Iwould guess that it’s costlier than magnesium as well, judging bymagnesium’s widespread use in suspension forks of all price points. Thismeans that
lighter bikes can be built more cheaply out of these latter materialsthan out of titanium. Riders are extremely focused on weight of their bodiesand of their bikes and bike companies are focused on price points.The Tour is a place to market bikes to consumers, and price mattersto most consumers. Some of the bike brands in the Tour Decathlon, withtwo teams in the Tour, is a good example are trying to market bikes (inthis case in Decathlon stores) that are priced well below the high endof the market. And moderately-priced road bikes and mountain bikes are almost always built out of aluminum these days. Aluminum is light, inexpensive, easily welded and easily extruded and shaped and butted into interesting-looking tubes that are and reinforced and increased in diameter where needed to provide sufficient stiffness and strength. Any titanium bike is hitting a price point way higher than all but a small percentage of aluminum bikes. Since it has higher stiffness and strength than aluminum or magnesium, it is still possible to build a superlight frame out of titanium by reducing wall thickness of tubes. However, the titanium bike is likely to be more expensive. This is partly due to its very high materials cost, but Ti is also costlier because it is harder to work with. Titanium is hard to cut and machine, it requires extensive cleaning steps, and it must be welded in an inert-gas atmosphere. To build a frame as light as a superlight aluminum one out of titanium requires a supreme focus on every detail, like more expensive butted tubing, costlier lightweight cutaway bottom bracket shells, dropouts and fittings to anchor dropouts into tubes and to bond onto carbon seatstay wishbones.So, even though many titanium bikes would be great bikes for the Tour,a manufacturer has to first of all be well-connected in order to just getits bikes under a team. Furthermore, the manufacturer has to have deeppockets to sustain the astronomical cost of sponsoring a Tour team. Finally,the manufacturer has to think that it is worth its while to market titaniumbikes to the public. If you are a big bike company, you are certainly going to sell most of your bikes in aluminum, because lower price points is where the majority of the sales are. So it makes sense to have your Tour riders on aluminum bikes because that is what you are selling. Many top riders (Lance Armstrong among them) used to race on titanium bikes for performance reasons. These biked were always painted to look like the sponsor’s brand of bike. But as the quality of aluminum and carbon bikes has climbed (and as sponsoring manufacturer have become more insistent on riders sticking with their products) the allure of looking elsewhere for a better bike has dropped.
It’s a long answer, but don’t assume one bike is better thananother simply because one is used in the Tour and another one is not.
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