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The Reign of the Kite Men,
Racing's Ultra-light Riders

By Larry Theobald

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Larry Theobald of CycleItalia gives his views on the changes in pro racing and offers some solutions to the problems they present.

Former ski-jumper Primoz Roglic’ victory in the 2019 Vuelta a España demonstrates a growing phenomenon in Grand Tour racing – the Reign of the Kite-Men.

Bicycle racing of all types was once the domain of powerful, muscular men. Look back at photos from the early years of cycling. None of these men resemble prisoners rescued from WWII concentration camps as do many current Grand Tour champions. At various points in the sport’s history, many riders were actually looked upon a sex-symbols.

As Eroica founder Giancarlo Brocci says; “Let them eat! Introduce a minimum body weight. Then they will be attractive to watch again, and they will last more than one month a year. One of our L’Eroica mantras is: “From heroic cycling to the sweet life,” when cyclists were good-looking sex symbols, not to be pitied, like anorexic models or patients suffering from a chronic illness, queuing up for a drip.*

How did this come about? Let’s examine some of the contributing factors. The introduction of an inner chainring with just 39 teeth (versus the then standard 42) was in some ways the beginning. Shimano’s 1973 Dura-Ace groupset was the first to include inner chainrings as small as this, the result of a reduced diameter bolt-circle on the crankset.

A combination of 39-53 began to replace the previous 42–52 for mountainous races by those using Shimano’s groupsets. They didn’t shift that well due to the large difference in size but even mighty Campagnolo was eventually forced to redesign its previously dominating Super Record groupset by 1984 and release what is widely known as C-Record in order to offer this smaller size chainring. While Fausto Coppi might have muscled up the Passo Stelvio using a 44 inner chainring with a 21 tooth cog in back, low gears were now attainable without the use of a triple chainset 36-42-52 as used by Giovanni Battaglin on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo climb in 1981’s Giro d’Italia.

Fauto Coppi

Fausto Coppi and Jean Robic in the 1952 Tour de France. Photo from Sirotti collection.

These lower gears allowed for more seated climbing, especially by those larger, muscular men, but at the same time those lower gears started to make those muscles extra baggage as well. Watching films of Coppi, Bartali  or Merckx back-in-the-day on the Alpine or Dolomite climbs will show you muscles no longer needed today. The tiny climbers who danced away on a 42 inner chainring could still do so but even they began to fit a 39 instead as it allowed a smaller, tighter and lighter grouping of cogs on the rear wheel. The gaps between the climbers and roulers at mountain top finishes slowly began to shrink.

The next body-blow to the climber’s Grand Tour victory chances came in 1989 with Greg LeMond’s success at the Tour de France using triathlete-style handlebar extensions in the races against the clock. Before the use of these tri-bars, smaller and lighter men (without the huge hearts and lungs of the muscular sex-symbol champions) were able to make up for their lack of pure power in a race-of-truth via their smaller, more aerodynamic stature. Their power might have been less, but so was their frontal area. Before tri-bars ace climbers like tiny Charly Mottet of France (all 5’3” of him) were also champions against the watch. Mottet won the prestigious Grand Prix des Nations time trial in 1985, ’87 and ’88, an event usually dominated by larger more powerful riders. After the triathlon bars came into use his time-trial victories were over.

Charly mottet

Charly Mottet racing the 1992 Tour of Flanders

While the “defend in the mountains, mow ‘em down in the time-trail” stage-racing philosophy was anything but new (riders like Jacques Anquetil made their careers with similar tactics) the universal adoption of the triathlon bar now allowed big men (with those big engines) to fold themselves up into a more aerodynamic position than ever before, negating any aerodynamic advantage the small men had enjoyed. The use of oxygen-vector drugs like EPO may have helped some of the small climber types stay competitive (Marco Pantani’s a good example) for a short period, but the prototypical time trial champion was by then rarely a smaller man like Bernard Hinault or Mottet, but one built more like Miguel Indurain.

Miguel Induain

Miguel Indurain in the 1992 Giro d'Italia. Sirotti photo

BigMig as he was known, was an early prototype of the “Kite-Man” – a big guy with huge heart and lungs pared down weight-wise and then aided by triathlon handlebars and lower gear ratios to enable the perfection of (5 straight TdF victories for example) the “defend in the mountains, mow ‘em down in the time-trial” way of racing the Grand Tours. Similar strategies have since been used by Bradley Wiggins (a man who reportedly shed 30 kgs to be race-fit for the TdF) and Bjarne Riis among others.

Gear ratios were to get even lower as Riis is widely acknowledged as one of the first to utilize “compact” gearing, which was the final puzzle-piece needed to fully enable the Reign of the Kite-Men. The Pinarello bike-making family (who were also behind that triple crankset used by Battaglin) equipped Riis’ bike with front chainrings much smaller than normal. The then standard 39-53 was quietly replaced with something like 34/36-50 in the high mountain stages. You may remember in 1996 the imperious way Riis checked on his competitors while stomping away on his “big ring” during the climb of Hautacam, still regarded by many as the fastest ascent in cycling history. While no doubt aided by EPO as well, “Mr. 60%” demoralized the opposition by seeming to power a huge gear with ease, a gear that was actually smaller than they thought.

Within a few years, just as the 39-53 combination had become standard-issue, “compact” cranksets with 34-50 or similar small chainrings came into wide use on the climbs of the Grand Tours. At the same time they were matched with larger cogsets in the rear since with 10, 11 (now 12) cogs to choose from, no longer did a pro have to sacrifice a favorite rear cog to enjoy the use of a 28 or even 30/32 tooth cog to go with his 39, 36, or even 34 small chainring when the climbs became steep.

Seated climbing soon became the norm with the images of tiny climbers dancing on their pedals away from the big roulers relegated to something seen only in archived videos from the golden age of cycling. The strategy of defending in the mountains even became much less defensive as large men like Chris Froome (a guy who went nowhere with his previous team but just like Wiggins, lost many kilos as part of the SKY project) now went on the offensive, wildly spinning a ridiculously low gear up the climbs with arms akimbo while monitoring his wattage output via a handlebar mounted power display.

Chris Froom

Chris Froome in the 2016 Tour de France. Sirotti photo

The same Mr. Froome could then put his big heart and lungs to use in the time-trail stages to further his gains over the tiny climbers who have seen their power-to-weight advantages (especially useful when standing on the pedals during a climb) pretty much wiped out as cycling becomes more and more a simple watts vs kilograms contest.

The prototype Grand Tour winner is now truly a Kite-Man as former ski-jumper Primoz Roglic illustrates. While certainly some skill (and bravery) are needed for ski-jumping success, that sport in many ways has evolved into finding a competitor large enough to essentially fill out the heavily regulated one-piece suit worn by the ski-jumpers. He or she becomes a sort of kite frame, holding the suit’s surface in the perfect position to catch the air as the stripped-down feather-weight competitor glides down the hill. Take that big but lightweight guy with his huge heart and lungs, then teach him how to race a bicycle and voila: Kite-Man!

Primoz Roglic

Primoz Roglic in stage 20 of the 2019 Vuelta. Sirotti photo

As gear ratios seem to get ever lower, Grand Tour organizers are now constantly on the look-out for ever more steep climbs (while decreasing time-trial distances) to separate the competitors, create an exciting spectacle and choose a winner. The sport seems to be devolving into little more than watts vs kilograms contests. This is perfect for the Kite-men but few others have any real chance to win.

Perhaps old Henri Desgrange wasn’t as much of a luddite as his draconian attitude would indicate? “I still feel that variable gears are only for people over 45,” Desgrange said in an interview with L’Équipe. “Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft; as for me, give me a fixed gear!” **

One might argue that 2019’s first two Grand Tour results throw cold water on this idea, but two of the most famous Kite-Men, Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin were injured and did not compete and that famous race in July featured just one very short time-trial, greatly reducing any Kite-Man’s chances.

Is the answer to simply do away with time-trialing altogether to blunt the domination of these Kite-Men? I hope that’s not the case but instead I suggest the UCI simply get rid of the tri-bars (and the aero benefits they provide to the Kite-Men vs the climbers) while perhaps imposing a minimum gearing requirement. Not something as draconian as Desgrange, but what about a limit of 39-26 like BigMig used? Do we want Grand Tour winners to all look like Chris Froome and the Grand Tours to be dull affairs where anyone not a Kite-man has little chance of victory?

*https://www.velonews.com/2015/03/news/qa-leroica-founder-brocci-brings-golden-age-of-cycling-to-california_364294

**https://www.bikemag.com/pavedmag/5-reasons-why-he-was-henri-desgrange-and-you-couldnt-have-been/

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