A few millimetres goes a long way

Tech feature: Tom Boonen's Specialized Roubaix ride, April 14, 2007

Tom Boonen is one of the men to beat for Sunday's Paris-Roubaix, where the 26 year-old Belgian of Quickstep-Innergetic will have a large number of riders chasing after both him and the title of the 2007 'Hell of the North'. To keep him at the front of the action he will need a bike that can take the demands of the 28 sectors of pavé. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown takes a quick peak at the Specialized bike Boonen will use for Sunday.

Over fifty kilometres of pavé make up this year's edition of the Paris-Roubaix and Tom Boonen will have a total of six bikes at his disposal to vie for the win. When he last won this race in 2005, after winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen a week earlier, the Belgian was riding on a French bike made by Time. Since the start of 2007, he and his team have switched bicycle sponsors to US-based Specialized, and Boonen's machine of choice has been the S-Works Tarmac SL.

Specialized has worked hard to ensure that Boonen was comfortable on its bikes, especially given the nagging back issues he developed after crashing into a photographer at Gent-Wevelgem four years ago. When Boonen's back began acting up again in early spring, Specialized quickly responded with a custom E5 aluminium rig fitted with a 13mm longer top tube to ameliorate the symptoms. That new bike was properly (and promptly) christened when he stormed across the line as winner in the Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Although the custom aluminum frame was clearly effective, it is still just a temporary measure that inevitably does not offer up all of the performance benefits of Boonen's originally intended carbon Tarmac SL. In a clear sign of its commitment to Boonen and the team, Specialized is developing a special new Tarmac SL mold for the 2005 World Champion that will incorporate that longer top tube. Currently there are no plans for bringing that particular frame geometry to market, possibly making Boonen the only rider in the world, racer or otherwise, to have a carbon frame mold made just for him.

For Sunday's 259.5km race, Boonen's aluminium machine will run a 53-tooth outer chain ring and a 46T on the inside, which will allow for better gear ratios on a flat and power-demanding course. A plastic chain keeper mounted on the seat tube adds a few grams but ensures that the chain will not pop off the inner ring while Boonen is hammering over the pavé of northern France. Front and rear Campagnolo Record derailleurs, like he normally uses, will guide the chain along during its shifts. Boonen will match those chainrings to a standard 11-23T cassette, and the 10.1 metre development (125 gear inches) of the resultant 53-11T combination should give him plenty of top end gearing for the sprint on the Roubaix velodrome.

Like many riders in Paris-Roubaix, Boonen will forego the usual pre-built wheelsets for a fully handbuilt set that is decidedly traditional in nature. Thirty-two Sapim spokes are laced in three-cross fashion front and rear, tied up to Italian Ambrosio box-section rims and Campagnolo Record hubs.

The narrow course of Paris-Roubaix makes it notoriously difficult for team cars to properly support their riders. In preparation for a flat tire, Team Manager Patrick Lefevere will adopt the strategy he championed with his old Mapei team which stations team representatives on many of the cobble sectors with spare wheels. These helpers can execute quick wheel changes in these crucial points where team cars can't arrive.

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