There's an interesting Q&A on Velonews.com that sparked a few of our customers to write to us for our take on this.
Are the bikes ridden by the pros essentially the same as those available to Joe and Joanne Public? I understand that the pros probably get pre-production prototypes but I have heard rumors over the years that the only similarity is the paint job.
— Richard, Australia
In most cases, pros are riding exactly what you can buy at your local bike shop. There are a lot of stories from bygone days of re-badged bikes. A few things have changed that.
The first is the widespread use of carbon fiber. Molds are extremely expensive and therefore custom geometry is nearly impossible.
The other reason is that most manufacturers spend a lot of time making their frames look distinctive with various tube shapes and styling cues. This tactic helps with product differentiation. It also makes it nearly impossible to put Specialized stickers on a Trek (for example) and get away with it.
The money involved in sponsoring a large cycling team can be quite large. Bike manufacturers do everything they can to maximize their return on that investment, not just from exposure but also from development. Their product doesn’t improve if the team isn’t actually riding it.
So, sorry to take some of the mystery out of the rumors you’ve heard. A Felt-sponsored rider is on a Felt, a Cervelo rider is on a Cervelo.
Nick (the velonews editor) is right. With the advent of big money sponsorships, moulded carbon frame silhouettes, and the intense branding rivalries shaping the sponsorship side of the sport, the professional racer does not get a custom frame like he once did. In 2001 Cyfac was making roughly 1/3 of the frames in the Division 1 teams (precursor to pro tour level). Apart from the Jean Delatour squad, all of these frames were made by Cyfac but covered in another sponsor's livery. The frames of the era used traditional tube shapes and didn't feature the fanciful outlines of today's carbon creations. As such, it was easy to pass off this facet of the sponsorship supply. ALL of the frames that we built for the pro teams and individual riders were 100% custom! This is no longer true as a relatively small number of big brands dominate the sponsorship landscape.
Imagine that our sport's elite competitors face the prospect of getting equipment that may not actually fit them and that doesn't correspond to their needs (maybe too stiff, maybe not stiff enough, maybe too harsh, etc)! Today's cycling enthusiast can actually end up being on equipment that is better suited to him/herthan what a pro has. This is an anomaly in professional sport elswhere when it's typical that athletes get product specially-crafted for them and considerably different from what the consumer-public has. The consumer may be able to get something that is a "replica" but it's hardly the same in terms of performance and quality.
What the velonews piece is missing is a pretty illustrative statistic that we have from our workshop. When we built frames for a 25-man pro team in 2001 they received about 80 frames. This was a TT frame, a training one, and a race version. On occasion the star rider may receive a special frame for the Tour or something individually produced for a cobbled classic. But, these are what saw them through a pro season and the frames not only fit the rider but lasted through the rigors of travel, training, and racing. Today's pro teams get upwards of 300 frames at the going rate. Teams aren't any bigger, they just go through product more quickly.
There's been a revolutionary change to sponsorship with big budgets, standardized product, and disposable bikes. Yes, you can have what the pro races now but do you want it? Pro racers are relatively young, superbly gifted, and at a fitness level most of us can only dream of. They are able to adapt to new equipment better than the average person and, ultimately, they are paid to ride whatever the team has by way of sponsorship; they don't choose the product and don't have to pay for it.
We have a steady stream of retired pros coming to Cyfac to buy their bike. When it's their own money we see where they put the premium. Quality, custom, care and attention to what they want.