Tests show that he doesn’t feel pain. At least, not like the rest of us. They also show that his lung capacity is way greater than your average athlete, and that his resting heart rate is a preternaturally low 32 to 34 beats per minute. What’s more, he’s beaten testicular cancer, he’s written a book, he’s started a non-profit foundation, he’s raising a family and he inspires millions. But if you happen to find yourself behind him on the L’Alp d’Huez mountain stage of the Tour de France, none of this is important.
The only thing you’ll care about is the legendary cadence, the killer rpm, the smooth, unwavering rhythm that never falters. His legs are pistons, forcing a pace that no one else can live with. And if you think the gradient will slow him, just watch him apply more power and more determination. More than anyone, even more than his closest competitors can comprehend. And if you think you’re getting his measure, Lance Armstrong gets serious. He flattens Alps and he raises the game, confounding those who thought that he’d never see the ripe old age of 26, let alone the Champs Élysées from the 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 winner’s rostrum. And if you think that four first places in the meanest bike race on Earth is enough for one man, think again – he hasn’t come this far to roll over and retire gracefully. He now has his sights firmly set on a fifth win to match the achievements of just four other riders, and to equal Spain’s Miguel Indurain as the only rider to have scored five consecutive victories.
In his autobiography – It’s Not About The Bike – he candidly hopes that his eventual departure from this life will be as glorious as his tenure: happy, loved and living life at top speed. But most of all he wants to be old. An ambition that once seemed an impossible dream. Lance Armstrong is a living legend, a walking, cycling miracle. One of the greatest bike racers of all time and a cancer survivor extraordinaire.
That American bike builder TREK should arm the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) cycling team with the best machines that technology could create was never in question. The surprise was that the team would be built around a man whom other sponsors were quite literally leaving for dead. They just couldn’t believe that anyone could make a comeback from such a savage disease and its brutal course of treatment. The cancer’s progress was rapacious (spreading to his lungs and brain), so much so that his doctors gave the 25-year-old just a 40% chance of survival. But Armstrong didn’t just survive, he came back stronger than ever: fitter, leaner, more determined and claiming that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him. And TREK’s faith might well be regarded as the most important investment that the company ever made – it’s never been shy of backing talent, but the 9 members of USPS team have turned out to be the best salesmen that any bike company could wish for.
In 30 years, TREK Bicycles has never stopped growing, thanks in part to the global resurgence of two- wheeled recreation, but also, at least in the past 4 or 5 years, as a result of the achievements of Armstrong and his team.
Based in Waterloo, Wisconsin, a small, unassuming town in America’s Midwest, not far from the western shores of Lake Michigan, TREK is just a short car ride from Milwaukee, home of America’s most notorious two-wheeled icon: Harley Davidson.
The company was founded in 1976 by a team of 5 employees. It was one of the first to build aluminum alloy frames and, with the introduction of the world’s lightest road frame in 1992, was a pioneer in the use and development of carbon fiber as a bike material. These days, TREK designs, engineers and manufactures high-quality, technologically sophisticated road and mountain bikes, exporting them worldwide via the industry’s most extensive distributor network.
Growth has been both impressive and consistent, partly through a global expansion of sales, and partly through acquiring some of the biggest and most successful names in the industry. In 1993 TREK bought the Gary Fisher Mountain Bike Company from the widely acknowledged founder of mountain biking. Within just a year of ownership, sales of Fisher bikes increased from $2 million to $20 million. Two years later, in the spring of 1995, the company also acquired Klein bicycles, a top-end American-built bike born in Washington state. Later that same year, TREK brought the Keith Bontrager line of American-built componentry into the fold. If you ever find yourself on a walking tour of the company’s frame-building plant, you’ll see all products being painstakingly hand-built by the same technicians and engineers.
Next time you’re struggling up a 10% gradient against a 15 mph headwind, remember that a bicycle is still the most efficient form of human-powered locomotion known. If you’re riding a TREK, particularly a carbon fiber TREK, you can find additional comfort in the fact that bikes probably don’t come any lighter or any more efficient. The hardworking folk in Waterloo make sure of that.
TREK introduced the OCLV (optimum compact low void) carbon fiber frame in road bike form in 1992. Weighing in at a svelte 2.44 lb, it was the lightest frame in the industry and marked the beginning of the company’s leadership in carbon frame technology.
It was followed by the 2.84 lb mountain bike frame just a year later – an even more remarkable feat of materials science when one considers that mountain bike frames have to be that much more robust.
Carbon fiber is a composite. Composites, by definition, are two or more separate components combined to give a material with properties superior to either of the two ingredients in isolation. Nature has been making composites even longer than TREK. Take wood, bone and muscle, for example. Early civilizations combined mud and straw to produce basic building composites, and the idea has developed over the ages to the point that almost everything we use to carry loads and provide structure (concrete, plywood and chipboard, for example) are, technically, composites.
Today’s advanced, carbon-based composite materials are everywhere. In fact, aerospace, transport, sport and building technology have all made quantum leaps in performance thanks to what is rapidly becoming the most revolutionary material of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
But, although glass, carbon and Kevlar (the main materials used in modern composites) have desirable tensile and compressive strength, they’re brittle and prone to failure in their solid, non-composite forms. To overcome this fundamental problem, the material is produced as fibers and arranged directionally to counter loads and forces. By setting the fibers with a resin matrix bond, loads are distributed evenly throughout the structure, even when small structural flaws are present.
Despite the relatively high cost, there are several advantages to using carbon fiber in the construction of competition and high-performance bicycles:
Less weight means less rider fatigue and higher speeds. A rider in the Tour de France can burn between 6000 and 9000 calories a day – that’s a possible total of 125,000 calories for the race! Reducing the weight of the bike simply means that those calories can be used to haul the rider, not the machinery.
Weight for weight, carbon fiber has better impact resistance and superior longevity when compared to aluminum. Also, the honeycomb construction provides excellent energy-absorbing properties. When you’re hurtling down the side of a mountain at 60 mph, it’s nice to know that nothing’s going to break.
A flexing frame is a waste of energy. The stiffer the bike, the more that energy can be used for forward motion. Simple as that!
“TREK has been building carbon fiber bikes for over ten years,” says Waterloo-based Brian Moe, manufacturing engineer specializing in composites. “We developed and we patented many of the processes we still use today, in particular the molding process. It’s pretty sophisticated.
“We make all sorts of components in carbon fiber: seat tubes, forks and even entire frames. It’s very lightweight and very strong, even compared with aluminum. It also has a memory, so if it gets knocked or twisted, it knows where it came from and it’ll return to its original shape.
Aluminum won’t. What’s more, the bonds that we use for joining parts are stronger than aluminum welds, so the joints are generally tougher. Basically, it’s just a lighter, stronger material.”
But making carbon fiber components and frames is a labor-intensive process. The material is laid by hand, and the curing process can’t be rushed.
“Making a carbon bike or a bike with carbon parts is expensive,” says Moe. “All of our bike frames are built by hand, even the aluminum ones, but carbon fiber is even more labor intensive. For example, a time trial frame can cost up to $4000, even though we’re building around 200 examples. The high-end road bike frames are upwards of $2000, and we’d typically make something like 20,000 of them a year.”
As the material and the technology have proved their worth in the cost-is-no-object race environment, so they’ve caught the imagination of the serious amateur.
“These bikes are pretty high-end machines,” says Moe. “Lance and many of the other professional riders come here, and we custom design and build a bike to fit each of them. We conduct wind tunnel tests to get the best possible fit, then we use the same design to build a frame for the public. So anyone, if they’re willing to spend the money, can go along to their local TREK dealer and buy a top-of-the-range road bike knowing that it’s exactly the same as the bike Lance would ride in the Tour de France.
“At Waterloo, we’re tending to concentrate on the high-end machines,” he says. “We import a lot of the lower-end frames, but all of the assembly is done at our Whitewater, Wisconsin, plant, or at our Ireland plant. I guess we currently make around 25 to 30,000 carbon bikes a year here in Wisconsin. The rest are mostly aluminium.”
“You know,” says Moe, “the more Armstrong wins, the more bikes we make and sell. We’re never quite sure how or when his latest success will impact us, but it invariably does. We have to make sure we have the capacity to meet the demand when it occurs. A big part of what we do here in Waterloo is try to find ways to speed up the whole manufacturing process.”
Just about the only machining on the high-end bike frames is the bearing surface on the steering tube. In the past, TREK used a manual lathe to turn the surface, struggling to maintain the desired accuracy and keep up with ever-increasing demand. There had to be a better, faster, more efficient way.
“For the high-end bikes,” says Moe, “the main part of the fork is aluminum and the fork legs are carbon fiber. We’re machining the bearing surface to plus or minus one-thousandth tolerance. It’s a simple part, but it needs to be very accurate.
“The steering tube itself is aluminum. It’s bonded into a crown and, before we fit the carbon fiber blades [the fork legs], we machine the bearing surface on the Haas. We’re making 300 of these every day! That’s 6000 bikes a month, and they’re all high-end bikes.”
Moe was a key player in TREK’s decision to purchase a Haas SL-10 CNC turning center. “We needed the Haas turning center because we needed a fast machine with excellent, repeatable accuracy – something reliable. It didn’t have to be very big, because it’s really just the one small part we’re machining on it.
“The cycle time is less than one minute per part. It’s a simple operation, but it has made all the difference to what we’re doing. In fact, the Haas has made us look very critically at other stages of the manufacturing process, to see if we can speed things up and make things more efficient. We’re currently machining parts quicker than other operations, so we only machine for one shift a day. The molding operation is three shifts a day.
“The Haas machine is set up in a cell,” continues Moe, “and we move parts in batches. We start by drilling and deburring the brake hole before loading the part in the machine. As it’s machining, we drill and debur the next part ready to load. Finally, the forks are bonded to the crown and the batch is moved into an adjacent oven for curing.”
TREK’s SL-10 was one of the very first of the new generation turning centers from Haas. “We narrowed our search down to three makes of machine based on price, service and specifications,” says Moe. “Service was a particularly important factor. When we had our short list, it was a clear-cut choice: We wanted the Haas.
“The Milwaukee Haas Factory Outlet (HFO) had the machine in and up and running in just a day. We were very impressed. And, because it was one of the first of the new machines, the Haas factory in California was extremely supportive. We had regular contact from engineers at the Oxnard plant making sure everything was fine.”
Once Moe and his team had the chance to put the SL-10 through its paces, their choice was vindicated. “The controller in particular is very easy to use,” Moe claims. “Personally, I’d had some CNC milling machine experience, but not lathes. For the production part, we program at the control. For other parts, the prototype parts, for example, we program using a Mastercam package. The programming is very simple. We’ve only had it a year and a half, and now I’m the main programmer.
“Now that everyone is very familiar with the machine, we just keep finding additional uses for it. Aside from everyday production, we also do tooling, research and development, etc. We’re making aluminum head tubes for prototype bikes on the machine, as well as specially designed rolling dies for our wheel rims. We get a straight extrusion and roll it. We make what we call rolling pins for rolling carbon fiber. You roll the carbon fiber sheet around the pin, then take the pin out. It’s a very versatile machine. When I think back, I just can’t believe we used to try and do all of the same on a manual machine.”
Not only is the Tour de France widely acclaimed as the world’s greatest bike race, it’s also one of the most grueling physical challenges any professional athlete can undertake – anywhere.
For three weeks in July 2002, 21 teams of 9 riders raced a total of 2036 miles, the length and breadth of France, across 20 stages to the finish line in Paris. Along the way, hopes were shattered, spirits were broken and a billion people tuned in every day to watch one man rewrite cycling history.
In essence, the Tour consists of 21 individual races (20 stages plus the Prologue) that take place over a period of 23 days. The stages, or races, fall into three major categories: flat stages, which have only minor climbs and favor sprinters; time trials, which pit the riders directly against the clock; and mountain stages, which are the most difficult and dangerous, incorporating long, steep ascents and fast, treacherous descents.
Stages 1 through 9 and 20 are considered flat stages. The Prologue, stage 4 and stage 19 are time trial events, and stages 11 through 18 are mountain stages.
To win the Tour de France, a rider must complete every stage, and must have the lowest cumulative time at the end of the race. Often, simply finishing an individual stage without losing time against the leaders is more important than winning it.
The Tour is also very much a team event. Each member of the team brings different strengths that can be utilized during different stages. Some are sprinters, some are climbers and some are just all-around good riders, but they all have one common goal: to assist and protect their team’s primary rider. In the case of the USPS team, that rider was Lance Armstrong.
Lance kicked off the 2002 Tour in typical Armstrong style by winning the Prologue – a 6.5 kilometer (4 mile) individual time trial – to grab the yellow leader’s jersey right from the start. That statement made, Armstrong soon ceded the yellow jersey to other riders, but remained strongly in the hunt during stages 1 through 10, always staying within striking distance of the leaders.
Next came the mountain stages, which some say are where the Tour de France actually begins. Each day, riders tackle climb after grueling climb, with little rest in between, as they face first the Pyrenees and then the Alps. Summits rise from 4,300 feet to nearly 8,700 feet, with gradients ranging from 4.9% to 9.6%. Fatigued riders then reach speeds of 70 mph on the treacherous descents. This is where Armstrong reclaimed the yellow jersey by winning stage 11, and solidified his lead by winning stage 12. Third-place finishes in stages 14 and 16 kept him in the lead, and winning the stage 19 time trial was just icing on the cake.
When all was said and done, Armstrong’s margin over the next placed rider as he rode into Paris was a staggering 7 minutes and 17 seconds. Helping him achieve this incredible feat was the USPS team – nurturing him, sheltering him and systematically breaking down the morale and the resolve of the other riders. The blue-liveried, TREK-equipped team has become so proficient in its duty that it’s been dubbed the Train Blu – a relentless locomotive with Armstrong as its powerhouse.
The 2003 Tour de France, Armstrong’s bid for his fifth consecutive win, and the 100th anniversary of the race, will start at the traditional finish line – on the Champs Élysées in the French capital. No one doubts that Armstrong can achieve his dream, least of all the competition. To paraphrase Tour organizer Jean-Marie Leblanc after the 2002 race, Armstrong is too much of a master of his sport to have rivals of his worth.