The Tour de France is the pinnacle of the sport, not just for riders vying for the yellow jerseys but manufacturers putting their wares in front of an audience of millions.
In fact, we love the Tour almost as much for its tech as we do for the exploits of riders on the road.
Here the BikeRadar team shares its favourite Tour de France bikes from years gone by – machines that paved the way for future Tour tech or, quite simply, looked damn cool.
Our choices focus on the modern era because that’s where we’ve seen many of the innovations that characterise today’s bikes (or they’re bikes we have first-hand memories of).
What’s your favourite Tour de France bike? Let us know in the comments at the bottom of the article.
Greg LeMond’s 1989 Bottecchia with aero bars
George Scott | Editor
To describe a tech moment as game-changing is perhaps a cliché but Greg Lemond’s equipment choices at the 1989 race undoubtedly started a new era for Tour de France tech.
LeMond’s decision to use aero bars – a first at the Tour de France – in the race’s two time trials not only brought aerodynamics to the fore in professional cycling, but effectively won him the race.
Having won the first time trial in the race, the American famously overturned Laurent Fignon’s 50-second advantage on the final stage – another race against the clock – to take the title by eight seconds.
LeMond rode a steel Bottecchia on the Champs-Élysées course, hunkered down on its U-shaped bar (except when sprinting out of the saddle) to cheat the wind and secure the second of three Tour de France wins.
While today’s time trial bikes are a far cry from LeMond’s Bottecchia, aerodynamics now influence almost every equipment choice in the pro peloton, from frames and components, to clothing and helmets.
Chris Boardman’s 1994 Lotus 110
Simon Bromley | Technical writer
Perhaps the most iconic time trial bike in the history of road cycling, Chris Boardman’s Lotus 110 still has the power to wow.
A road version of Boardman’s famous Lotus 108 track bike, the 110’s carbon monocoque frameset was so advanced that you could drop it into today’s Tour and it would still look like something crazy from the future.
The only issue would be that today’s chunky wheels and tyres wouldn’t fit in it.
Of course, part of what makes it so iconic – especially to us Brits – is that Boardman used it to take the yellow jersey by annihilating the field in the prologue time trial at the 1994 Tour de France.
Covering the 7.2km distance at a record average speed of 55.152kph (which stood until 2015), Boardman even caught his minute man, Luc Leblanc – who, deliciously, had previously belittled Boardman’s 1993 hour record.
But, in this writer’s opinion, the Lotus 110 remains the most elegant and iconic bike of that era.
Mario Cipollini’s 1999 Cannondale CAAD4
Warren Rossiter | Senior technical editor
The Saeco-era Cannondales, with their bright tomato red livery and yellow graphics, were iconic in their own right, but for the ’99 Tour Mario Cipollini had a custom white and gold edition, on which he set records with four back-to-back stage wins.
In anticipation of Cipo’s success, Cannondale even provided mitts with the company’s logo emblazoned on the palm, so no-one would forget what bike he was riding when Mario held his arms aloft.
The reason for the new colour? To celebrate Julius Caesar’s birthday (12 July) – Mario even dressed as the Roman emperor, replete with toga and a golden laurel wreath on his head, during the race and the team wore a limited edition white and gold kit on stage nine.
The bike was Cannondale’s own blend of aluminium (based on 6061 T6) for the CAAD4 and it ran on Campagnolo’s 9-speed Record titanium groupset.
The Magic Motorcycle cranks (branded CODA) are the precursor to Cannondale’s superlight SiSL2 cranks of today, and Mario ran Stronglight chainrings in a big 53/42t pairing.
Upfront, there was a Cinelli Integralter one-piece bar and stem.
The Cannondale Saeco team used wheels from both Spinergy and Mavic at the time and, for this bike, Mario chose first-generation Mavic Cosmic Carbone tubulars.
Super Mario rode this bike for the first seven stages, winning four in the process (and posting the then-fastest ever Tour stage in the process) ahead of the individual time trial. Mario quit the race and headed for the beach when the mountains arrived on stage nine.
Aside from what was a stunning bike, I think this CAAD4 shows what the modern Tour has been missing: proper personalities, theatre to match the drama of racing and proper special-edition bikes for publicity and grabbing headlines.
Cipollini wasn’t just a masterful sprinter, he was the ultimate showman and this bike matched his showmanship.
Lance Armstrong’s original Trek Madone
Matthew Loveridge | Senior writer
Following on from the Trek 5000-series that Lance Armstrong took his (heavily-asterisked) first Tour victories on, the Madone is arguably the most famous bike of the last two decades.
It’d be a stretch to call it my favourite Tour bike, but I don’t think there’s a machine that epitomises mid-2000s pro cycling better than a Trek in U.S. Postal Service colours.
The original Madone 5.9 debuted at the 2003 Tour and it was more of a refinement of its predecessor, the 5900, than an all-new bike.
It was named for the Col de la Madone in France – not a climb used in races, but rather one that Armstrong favoured to test his form.
Compared to today’s bikes, and even the more curvaceous second-gen Madone that followed, the OG bike is relatively traditional looking, with a horizontal top tube and external headset.
At the same time, it’s sporting Bontrager carbon tubular wheels (albeit super-skinny, low-profile ones) and then brand-new Shimano Dura-Ace 7800 components.
The eagle-eyed will note that this isn’t actually Armstrong’s Tour bike, it’s one set up for a mountain time trial in the 2004 Critérium du Dauphiné, hence the aero bars.
If you look really closely, there’s also a weight-shaving down tube shifter for the front derailleur – a favourite Lance mod if you believe the lore.
For such a lightweight bike, it’s one with a lot of baggage…
Frank Schleck’s 2006 Cervélo Soloist SL-C SL
Warren Rossiter | Senior technical editor
Okay, I’m cheating here with two entries but Cervélo basically invented the aero-road bike so, as well as Mario Cipollini’s Cannondale CAAD4, I’m nominating Frank Schleck’s 2006 Soloist SL-C SL.
Sure, brands like Cinelli had the Laser much earlier but that was aero-styled rather than scientifically engineered to be aerodynamic.
In the aluminium era, aero tubes were more like round tubes ‘squashed’ into an aero shape. Cervélo, with the original Soloist, used NACA profiles to define the shape, and when it came to carbon, the Canadian brand adapted the Soloist design brilliantly.
By the time Team CSC and Frank Schleck got to ride the SL-C SL, Cervélo had managed to extract more than 200g from the standard SL-C (when we tested the frame back in 2007 it weighed a still-impressive 994g in a 58cm).
That made it not only the most aerodynamic bike in the 2006 Tour, but also one of the lightest (it tipped the scales at 6.9kg complete, just 100g over the UCI limit).
On stage 15, Schleck and his Soloist went head-to-head with Danielo Cunego through the 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez. When Schleck attacked 3km from the finish I’d like to think that the added aero of the Soloist gave him the edge, especially when he could have chosen the lighter Cervélo R3 for the mountain stages.
The Team CSC bikes used Shimano Dura-Ace with FSA K-Force chainsets, along with FSA bars and stems, Zipp aero wheels and True Temper’s Alpha Q fork. Remember when bikes used forks that weren’t specific to the frame?
Vincenzo Nibali’s 2016 S-Works Tarmac
Jack Luke | Assistant editor
In a time dominated by dropped seatstays, aero-formed everything and total integration, I find myself bored senseless by the homogeneity of modern road bike design.
That last point is probably the key culprit for the remarkable sameness of pro bikes these days – in-house brands and proprietary components tie riders and teams to a very narrow selection of components, leaving little room for quirky customisation.
Seemingly hodge-podge builds largely died off with the end of the traditional triple triangle era and, as a professional bicycle tech nerd, I mourn the loss of this time.
For me, the Specialized Tarmac SL5 defines the latter part of that era and, in particular, I fondly remember Vincenzo Nibali’s 2016 Tour de France bike.
A full gallery of this bike was published just before I started working at BikeRadar – a time when I was studiously reading everything published on the site, earning it a special place in my heart.
With a mad kinda-naff-kinda-cool paint job, a full Campagnolo Super Record (mechanical!) 11-speed groupset, Corima S+ wheels and dreadful custom-painted FSA finishing kit, the bike is totally unlike anything we would see today, and just a few years later.
RIP, weird bikes of the Tour de France.