Tuesday, July 6, 2010

F-One & Thirty-Six Seconds

Are you surprised that Armstrong wears 15,000 dollars on his head these days? Why? History has it that an entire empire is built around the guy to babysit him with products with which that he be marginally faster or psychologically faster. Its an incredible win-win situation for the producer and the user. Is there a better walking salesman that the most famous athlete? The following excerpt from the book Lance Armstrong's War, written by two time National Magazine Award finalist Daniel Coyle, sheds ample light on the cozy love affair and extent to which a company will go to satisfy the His Highness of cycling. One can perhaps derive a sense of why the Omerta is a sustainable concept in the industry. 

The riders’ bodies weren’t the only items being eyeballed in Murcia. There was also the crucial matter of the riders’ faithful steeds, their alter egos: the bikes. The following morning, as the riders prepared for the stage 2 time trial, bikes were everywhere: millions of dollars of tropical candy-colored frames stacked in casual piles next to buses, antlering team cars, whirring atop stationary trainers. The cycling press strolled among them, lofting the ritual questions: “How’s the new bike? How’s it feel? How’s it ride?"

This year’s plot was particularly thick, focusing mostly on the secret black bike that was now in some undisclosed location within the Postal compound, and whose attributes Armstrong was now discussing with journalists in front of the bus—or, rather, not discussing.

“You’ll see,” he told the breathless crew, which was clamoring for detail. “You’ll see.”

“Secret” was not quite the right word. A multimillion-dollar industry had been built around Armstrong’s equipment selection, an industry that feeds on the tideline between telling enough to sustain interest and not telling enough to give away competitive advantages. Over the past five years, Trek and Armstrong had become quite deft at this process, to the point where this particular bike, the construction of which had begun back in August, was the best publicized secret bike in history. The bike had been created by a task force of companies that called themselves F-One, and that consisted of whiz-bang experts from Trek, Giro, Hed Cycling, and Nike, among others. Numbers were being thrown around—it was one minute faster over fifty kilometers. Two minutes! After his first race in Portugal, two weeks before Murcia, Armstrong pronounced it “the fastest bike I’ve ever ridden.”

Exactly why it was so fast—well, that was the secret. The cycling media was abuzz with speculation—it was a new hand position, it was a new front fork—and each time somebody guessed, Armstrong would smile knowingly. “It’s something pretty radical, pretty deep,” he said. “Let’s just say that the bike’s fast and leave it at that.”

While Armstrong was being interviewed, two men were picking their way discreetly through a crowd, moving toward a stack of bikes. One had long gray hair; the other was younger, with a shaved head. They wore sunglasses and baseball caps and dark, rumpled T-shirts chosen because they lacked any betraying logos. The long-haired one toted a backpack and a dated, clunky 35-mm Olympus camera that any self-respecting bike geek would refuse to carry.

But they were more than bike geeks; they were high gods of bike geekdom, handpicked members of Armstrong’s F-One project. Their names were Steve Hed and Scott Daubert. Hed, a forty-eight-year-old Minnesotan, was founder and owner of his eponymous wheel-manufacturing company and was known as one of the foremost aerodynamics gurus in America. Daubert, a thirty-five-year-old Coloradan, was Trek’s liaison to the Postal team. They had come to Murcia for a variety of reasons, one of which was to spy on the other teams and report back to Armstrong. And like any respectable spies, they were worried.

Specifically, they were worried that some of the other teams might have caught on to F-One’s big secret—or worse, have come up with some new fast design of their own. This was the season’s prime information gathering time, after all. With four months to go before the Tour, teams still had plenty of time to make adjustments. Spies were everywhere. Two weeks ago, in Portugal, the F-One boys had a scare when they noticed some German guys with a camera skulking around the Postal bus, and they quickly covered up the secret bike with a black tarp. The Germans had turned out to be bored magazine photographers, but still, you never knew.

The F-One boys moved from team bus to team bus, mixing innocuously with the crowd, sauntering touristically up to the various bikes along with the rest of the curious masses. Hed carried a tiny tape measure in his fist; occasionally he would reach toward a bike, capture a measure, and let the tape snake noiselessly back into his palm. But mostly the two of them just looked, eyes blank as camera lenses as they roved over forks, seat posts, and cables. So precisely attuned were their minds that bikes registered not as shapes but as time—specifically as time savings per kilometer. “This bike looks like two seconds,” Daubert said. “That bike looks like one, maybe one and a half.”

The place Hed and Daubert gazed at most, however, was a small area called the bottom bracket, where the pedal cranks insert into the frame. The bottom-bracket width was an indicator of what was called the Q Factor—the distance between the pedals—and this distance held the key to Armstrong’s and the F-One project’s big secret.

Here was the secret: Armstrong’s new bike was narrower. Its bottom bracket was eighteen millimeters narrower than a standard bike’s. It wasn’t much—about the width of a pinky finger—but the change pulled the pedals closer together, creating a slimmer profile to cut through the wind. It was dead simple, and that was part of what made it such a pleasure for Armstrong to see the finest minds of the cycling world puzzling over it, focusing wrongly on the bars and the fork and all the extras when the truth hovered right in front of their noses—it was narrower! The narrow bike combined with the smaller changes (new helmet, new bars) had been measured as thirty-six seconds faster over fifty kilometers than Armstrong’s previous setup.

The competitive advantage of this advance was complicated slightly by the fact that the F-One boys most assuredly weren’t the only ones with the idea. Bikes with narrow Q Factors had been ridden on and off in track and road cycling for years. In fact, as the F-One boys would tell me a few weeks after Murcia, a handful of riders in last year’s Tour rode them, including Ullrich himself.

The reason that the F-One boys played those facts down undoubtedly had something to do with corporate spin, and the fact that it wouldn’t do to be seen as cribbing from a competitor’s approach. But there was something else in play here as well. The F-One project, as with so many of Armstrong’s endeavors, had confidence in its own supremacy. CS&E’s Bart Knaggs, who played a key role in putting the F-One project together, called this Armstrong’s “we can conquer the world” feeling.

“He sees all the facts, figures them in, but he doesn’t get hung up on them like you or I would, because he’s got faith in his decision-making process. That’s the engine that drives this thing. He knows—we all know—it’s going to be better because it’s going to be better.”

The F-One project had been born in a conference room in Armstrong’s agent’s office in Austin, Texas, on August 26, 2003. It was not an auspicious birth; in fact it was rather tense. In attendance were the brass from Trek: Ed Burke, Dick Moran, Doug Cusack, and Scott Daubert, along with Armstrong’s agents, his mechanic, Mike Anderson, and Johan Bruyneel.

“On the ride from the airport, we knew we were in for it,” Daubert said.

Bruyneel kicked off the meeting by pointing a long finger at Burke and telling him that the time-trial bike was too slow—it was old technology. It hadn’t been redesigned since when, 2000? Then there were the other problems: Armstrong hadn’t liked the last road bike, the Madone. And then the mixup with the fork, which had been caused, it turned out, by a human assembly error at the factory. Bruyneel laid it all out while Armstrong sat simmering.

Burke apologized. It was their fault, they would fix it, all of it. First and foremost, however, they would build Armstrong the fastest time-trial bike on the planet. Various ideas were thrown around, all of them limited by the fact that the size and shape of time-trial bikes are tyrannically constrained by the Union Cycliste Internationale. The narrow Q factor was settled on as a likely path, particularly given Ullrich’s success. The next step was obtaining a copy of Ullrich’s bike. Unfortunately, that bike was made by Andy Walser, the famed Swiss designer who produced a handful of frames each year for pros and recreational athletes. Figuring Walser would naturally balk at selling a frame to Trek, the company dispatched one of their European salespeople to Walser’s shop, posing as a wealthy triathlete—a perfectly legal subterfuge. The ruse worked. By the time Walser discovered the triathlete’s true identity, the bike was en route to Trek’s headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin, being prepared for dissection and testing.

Meanwhile, the industrial design process revved up, each detail flowing through the window of Armstrong’s BlackBerry. Mannequins were built, Nike’s skinsuit people were summoned, body doubles were hired, a new wind tunnel was found. The vivid spectacle of intercorporate effort helped persuade Armstrong to participate in “The Lance Chronicles,” an eight-episode OLN series whose first few episodes were devoted to the narrow bike’s development, and which was, in Knaggs’s words, “a win-win-win-win proposition.

A thousand images of Trek and Nike and Giro at work making Lance go faster—what’s not to love?” Viewers got a taste of the hours spent analyzing such seemingly tiny issues as that of the race number, which had an unkindly tendency to balloon out like a parachute and add thirty-six grams of drag, or about 1 percent of the total. Could they make a sleeve for it? Could they integrate it into the jersey? Tape down the leading edge? “We had long conversations over who would be the number pinner-onner,” Giro’s Toshi Corbett recalls. “It was like being at NASA or something.”

The beautiful part was, the exact same process was happening everywhere else in Armstrong’s world, a flurry of Cape Canaveral–like activity designed to fix what were regarded as the series of problems that had caused 2003’s near miss. Since Armstrong had been dehydrated, the Postal team started adding salt to its water bottles. Since heat had caused the dehydration, Carmichael started researching methods of staying cool, including heat-dissipating vests and tiny refrigerator-like devices that worked by cooling the hand. Corbett briefly looked into a helmet with a battery-powered refrigeration system built in, strong enough to give the wearer an ice-cream headache.

There was more. For the uphill Alpe d’Huez time trial, chief mechanic Julien DeVriese suggested using silk tires, which weighed a fraction of what conventional tires weighed. Hed and Daubert came up with the idea of profiling the Besançon time-trial course, mapping it with GPS, a digital level, and a wind indicator; examining historical weather patterns; and locating hedges and walls that might provide shelter. Anderson found an aluminum frame that allowed mechanics to replicate Armstrong’s preferred position on any bike with 3-D precision.

Here was the interesting thing: most of these ideas failed utterly. The salt solution tasted awful. The UCI was not likely to allow the ice cream–headache helmet. The silk tires were deemed too prone to puncturing. The course mapping turned out to be too complex to be useful, and the Belgian mechanics summarily refused to use the Dutch-built bike frame on point of national pride. (“They won’t budge,” Daubert said. “Not even Lance could convince them, I think.”)

Here was the other interesting thing: none of the failures mattered. The point was the process itself, in the way Armstrong transmitted his gaze through other people who hawkeyed the world to find the new Shit That Will Kill Them. The failures were banished, the rare successes embraced.

“We cannot have a feeling like we are standing still,” Bruyneel said. “For every ten ideas, perhaps one or two will be used. What it’s about is knowing that we have all the options on our side.”

“At some level, the science of it disappears,” Daubert said. “The important thing is that we get Lance something new and cool that he loves, and that’s what makes him faster.” 

To be sure, he was getting faster. The new wheels were light. The new skinsuit was fast. Best of all, the narrow bike itself was looking quite promising, which was underlined in January, when Armstrong road-tested it for the first time.

“What we want is for him to go ‘wow,’” Daubert said. “We try to catch him at a good time, or we’ll give it to an impressionable person, so they can say ‘wow’ and talk about it with him, warm him up.

“It’s a game,” he continued. “We have to be careful not to show him everything, or he’d be like a kid at Christmastime, and we’d be left with nothing. So we unveil things slowly, and we always keep an ace in the hole, something really cool we’ll give him right before the Tour. It’s kind of strange, but it seems to work.”

Armstrong didn’t like the narrow bike—he loved it. He tested it in Austin in December and again at the team’s California training camp in January, most memorably on a training ride where he started out on his regular road bike and switched partway through, letting the team go ahead. Armstrong powered up to them on the narrow bike and blazed past, a big smile on his face.

“How much did this cost?” he yelled as he rode. Hed and Daubert quickly ran the numbers: $250,000 so far, which made him even happier. Thirty-six seconds! It was beautiful!

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