French entrepreneur Jean-Louis Talo says he is helping Chris Froome win the Tour de France.
Froome, who leads the race after 16 of 21 stages, is using a boxy-shaped aluminum chain-ring on his bicycle which Talo invented and says produces 5 percent more power than the round Shimano Inc. disc most of riders are using. Froome had the ring fitted on his bike even though the Sky team that employs him is sponsored by Shimano.
Osaka, Japan-based Shimano, which dominates the bike-parts market, is putting pressure on Sky and the six other Tour de France teams it sponsors for riders not to use his design, according to Talo. Richie Porte is among several Sky riders who have switched back to Shimano since 2012, leaving just Froome using Talo’s o.symetric brand.
“Froome is the only one who can resist the pressure from the sponsors,” Talo, 59, said.
Shimano advises Sky and other teams to use its Dura-Ace drive-train -- including gear shifter, derailleur and chain -- because the parts are designed to work together, Shimano spokesman Rudy Bouwmeester said in an e-mail. The company, which abandoned production of an oval chain-ring in 1993, says tests show that it isn’t more efficient, and is detrimental to gear-shifting, Bouwmeester said.
Sky spokesman Rob Jorgensen didn’t immediately reply to e-mailed questions. Tim Kerrison, Sky’s performance director, said there is “very little in it either way” between the two designs, according to cyclingweekly.co.uk. Belgian mechanical engineers Gilbert Storme and Lievin Malfait -- who have studied the performance of the rings using a mathematical model -- said in an e-mail that Froome might produce as much as 2.5 percent more power on mountain climbs using Talo’s ring because of his seat position and fast pedaling.
That would fit with Sky’s approach to racing, which it calls “aggregating marginal gains.”
The design that Froome is using reduces the “dead spot” when a rider’s feet are at the highest and lowest point of the pedaling arc when pushing down requires more effort, Talo says. The ring on Froome’s bike doesn’t have a brand name on it and the Kenya-born Englishman isn’t allowed to talk about it under the terms of Team Sky’s agreement with Shimano, according to Talo. Still, the entrepreneur gets publicity every time trade publications say Froome uses it.
Jonathan Vaughters, CEO of the Cannondale-Garmin team, which isn’t sponsored by Shimano, said in an e-mail it has tested Talo’s design and it is “effective for some riders, less for others.” His riders are free to use it if they want, he said. Tim Vanderjeugd, a spokesman for the Trek team, which is backed by Shimano, said there is no demonstrable evidence that the Frenchman’s product is better.
“Froome isn’t winning because of those chain-rings,” Vanderjeugd said.
Talo studied biochemical engineering and previously designed a muscle-building machine for gyms. He began working on a prototype chain-ring in the 1990s. In 2005, he persuaded American rider Bobby Julich to use his design. Julich liked it and spread the word at Sky, where he was coaching in 2011 and 2012, Talo said. Bradley Wiggins and Froome used it for their 2012 and 2013 Tour victories.
When Froome won in 2013, sales at Talo’s Nice, France-based Biosquat S.a.r.l. rose 42 percent to 355,726 euros ($386,950), according to published financial filings at France’s company registry. Orders flooded in, especially from China and the U.K., Talo said. Talo, who has a small showroom off Nice’s seaside drag Promenade des Anglais, said he expects a similar effect if Froome wins again.
How many extra sales Talo makes from the Tour rests partly on how much host broadcaster France Television zooms in on pedals to show the chain-ring, he said. The rings he uses cost between 111 euros and 137 euros.
Madrid-based Rotor Componentes Tecnologicos S.L. is among other companies that make different-shaped chain-rings. Talo said his design is patented in Europe, the U.S. and China. The Frenchman says that on several occasions he has met the 30-year-old Froome, who lives a few miles from him in Monaco, for coffee to chat about the science of cycling.
Froome pedals more furiously than most riders, churning out as many as 100 revolutions per minute on climbs and like other race leaders in recent years he has faced questions about whether he is doping. He says he is clean. He built his Tour lead by pulling away from rivals with a four-mile solo breakaway in the first stage in the Pyrenees last week.
Tuesday is a rest day and the three-week race resumes tomorrow with the first of four stages in the Alps. The Tour ends in Paris on July 26.
About 10 years ago, Talo offered to sell his design to Shimano but company executives turned him down without discussing a possible fee, he said.
“They said they don’t buy patents,” Talo said. “I think their engineers are too proud.”
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