Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cut The Cable: What REALLY Happened in Colorado

So you have heard the story of how awesome it was in Colorado but, running short on time, there was one small part that I glazed over that might be important to know should you find yourself headed to next year's clinic. Also it is important to me that I get my point across about a particular area of contention. You see, when you reach a certain age, it is fair to say that you are pretty much done with test taking. It's one of the good things there are about becoming an adult. Then you foolishly decide to better yourself and hopefully your career by diving into a pool full of people more talented than yourself. The only problem with that is, they're going to make you take a test. The good thing about this test is that the answers, as the instructors put it, were not "right or wrong. The questions are asking what is the MOST right answer." Meaning, each of us may respond to a situation differently, so the answers were open to interpretation and believe it or not, open to debate.
...well, mostly
What I mean is, the answers may have been open to debate but there was clearly an answer they are seeking and if you were going to argue with them in hopes to reverse their decision, you had better have a pretty damn good argument.

With that, I present to you the following:
My Pretty Damn Good Argument

Question #56
You are a team mechanic. One of your riders is in the break of four riders, so three will get podium spots. You are following the break. They are in the last 3k, a very steep uphill with an uphill finish. Your rider hits a pothole and bends a rear wheel. He opened the brake quick release and the rim still strikes the brake pads, slowing his progress. He calls your support car up to the group and you decide to:

a. change the wheel
b. change the bike
c. do nothing
d. cut the cable.

The fact that I am even taking the time to write this, should be a pretty clear indicator that I do not agree with the "correct" answer which was, "d. cut the cable"

I call bullshit on so many levels. So try to follow along here as I break this down as best I can.
Let's start with the choices we are given in this scenario:

a. change the wheel. - This option may not be as fast as cutting a cable but does ensure that your rider now has a stable, efficient wheel under him for what sounds like a pretty challenging climb. Done correctly (by a veteran technician) this maneuver takes about 10 seconds. Not to mention, this option means that your rider still has both brakes.

b. change the bike - In a neutral situation, changing bikes requires the addition of pedals, and a cursory saddle height adjustment. This would not be ideal. In a team car however, you may get ridiculously lucky and have the exact bike for that exact rider in the outer most position on the roof rack (most accessible). In that case, a bike swap is faster than a wheel. That said, the chances that all of the stars will align and you will have that bike ready to go is about the same that it will not happen like that, so therefore it is not ideal.

c. do nothing - not as dumb an answer as you think. I mean, if the brake rub is minimal at the point where the caliper is open, perhaps you leave it. At least he would still have his brakes. PLUS, leaning out of the car to cut the cable can result in a fine (though this is a risk most teams are willing to take).

d. cut the cable - ... ...

First, please watch this:

While the test question was not very clear about the grade, it did give us a distance of 3km (approx. 1.8 miles). We can assume then, that the climb to which the question refers, is similar in size and grade to the one in the video. With the exception of Peter "SuperRad" Sagan, if you watch closely, anguish is clearly visible upon the faces of the riders. It is with that that I make my first point:
A professional rider who is already turning themselves inside out is likely unwilling to increase the pain they must endure when there exists an option to the contrary. Meaning, the rider, in order to have anything left for the last 200 meters, would rather overcome the 10 seconds lost by a wheel change than the effort required to overcome the same 10 seconds due to 2 miles of brake rub.

I decided that my arguing my opinion would be all talk and therefore less effective if I did not carry out some sort of experiment to validate my second point which is:
Cutting the cable won't fix the problem anyway.
If the problem is brake rub then you open the brake quick release to alleviate said problem. When that does not work you have to decide, to cut? or not to cut? I would have loved to take this experiment outdoors but blowing snow and sub-zero temps made it seem like I would be turning a potentially unsafe experiment into a death wish. With that, I put a bike in the stand and de-tensioned the rear wheel inside a 4 spoke area. Though it would be hard to duplicate a unquantified amount of damage caused by a pothole like in the question, based on my experiences in the field, I feel like the small area I was working with was close to being fairly accurate as to what to expect. So, I opened the QR and made sure that (as the question described it) the rim "struck" the brake. This did make it very difficult to pedal through the "damaged" area. So, would cutting the brake cable change this?
On most standardized side pull road brake calipers the difference between the "open lever" position and having the cable released, is about 2mm. That is only 1mm on either side. My hypothesis said "no, it would not change, it would still strike the brake."  With absolutely NO help from my lovely assistant, Greg

I simulated cutting the cable by loosening the brake's cable anchor. Wouldn't ya know it, the damn thing still rubbed, but so lightly that a rider might not even notice. Perhaps I was wrong. Greg certainly thought so as he yelled "SEE!! NOW WOULD YOU JUST FUCKING DROP IT ALREADY?!"
Um, if you have to ask if I will ever let something go, then clearly you don't know me, Ma'am.
Aside from some "unknowns" like the actual severity of the damage, etc...
my experiment was fatally flawed in one very specific way;

I was using this bike as the control for the experiment.

The bike is fine, a great bike even. It's the wheels that are the problem...let's just say, the wheels are not exactly "PRO."
At a scant, 21mm wide, they fall well short of today's wider wheel standards. Let's be honest here, the wheels teams are using today barely fit in a large percentage of the brakes that are out there today. In most cases, Using a Zipp wheel (for instance, but one of the most used wheels for sure) requires running the QR "open" from the gun. If you managed to wang that wheel hard enough to rub the brake, then you are, technically speaking, fucked. In some cases, you cant even fit the wheels in the brakes to begin with even if you are running the caliper fully open.

Still aside from all of this, my final point is this: Having sat through 40 hours of training on the subject of bicycle racing and wrenching, one thing stuck with ME personally which was: rider safety is paramount. You do not make decisions that could potentially injure the rider or put other riders in danger. With rider safety in mind it is NOT the cutting of the cable alone that is my concern. Can a professional cyclist ride uphill without a rear brake safely? Sure he can. But throw in a wonky wheel which is inherently unsafe, under a person who can put out more power per pedal stroke than you and I combined, and you are asking for a disaster. Granted, we are dealing with pro level shit here, but I have seen people simply sitting on a department store bike when the wheel collapsed under them. Again, are we talking poorly tensioned, Chinese-made Walmart wheels here? NO. 
Yet we are talking about a wheel that has been abruptly damaged, with no way to tell how badly other than how out of true it is? (yes that is a question) Meaning we now have a wheel that is, in "Sasquatch Theory," just as prone to failing as it is to not failing, under a rider capable of damaging it further simply under the load he places upon it, and adding a brake caliper that does not function.  
If that wheel does fail, what happens? One of two things, he goes down hard, ruining his chances of any finish, or, you have to change his wheel anyway with a (presumably) fast-approaching Peleton. In either case, a situation has been created which does exactly the opposite of what we are taught, and puts all of the riders' safety in jeopardy. 

At the end of the day the question states: 
"YOU are a team mechanic," then asks: "...YOU decide to:"

Well, If YOU are anything like ME, then YOU will NOT #cutthecable. 

I respectfully submit this argument and ask that my answer be found acceptable for race mechanics in the future.

Thank you.

This plea is brought to you in part by: 


  1. Interesting perspective there. I think that question comes from mostly past experiences and in many of those cases the objective it getting to the finish. 3k, no way a rides is going to close 10 seconds especially with a rubbing wheel. That's a ten second wheel change, maybe in my day but not with todays equipment. Uphill, not much danger with only a front brake. A fast approaching peleton, your not going to be in there, maybe a neutral motor. Don't slow the progress of the rider, cut the cable.
    I'll tell you a quick one. In my time I was asked many time about what is and if I and how to do a quick wheel change. Very simple. I roll the car up behind the rider with a flat, you jump out and do you thing, pick up your stuff and when you turn around to come back to the car and the car's not there, it wasn't fast enough!

    1. Thanks Jim. I enjoy it when people share their own insights. In the end, I know that cutting the cable is the correct answer (if it works that is) where speed and effectiveness is concerned. Contrary to what many of my constituents think, I will do what ever the job calls for in the moment. I just really wanted to convey my thoughts from the other side of the question which is: as far as being tested on the subject, the answer is either absolute because the facts are clearly laid out, OR they are open to conjecture because there are still unknowns that the question did not address. Perhaps I read a little too far in to the question itself, but if you have read any of my other works, then you know that is kinda what I do. Anyway, Thanks for the comment and Thanks for reading! Cheers!