Over recent years, Continental has become synonymous with success in the Tour de France. The winners of the last three editions of the race have crossed the finish line on tires hand-made at the Continental plant in Korbach.
What do Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal have in common? They are all pro cycle racers, they have all won the Tour de France and they have all worn the yellow jersey across the finish line in Paris on bikes fitted with Continental tires. Bernal in 2019, Thomas in 2018 and Froome in 2017 – three times in a row the German company has kitted out the Tour victor. And eight out of ten Tours in the last decade have been won on Continental tires. So Continental is not only one of the Main Partners of the Tour de France, but currently also one of the most successful equipment supplier. As well as the racers themselves, of course, credit here goes to the experts at Continental’s plant in Korbach, Germany. This is where the international manufacturer’s bike tires are developed and produced – by hand.
The development of a high-tech race tire presents myriad challenges. After all, it has to be up to the rigors of race action in the mountains and on the flat, and deliver optimum performance on grit, cobblestones and smooth asphalt. It will be pushed to the limits during time trials and high-speed descents alike. So just how do you develop a pro tire capable of carrying an elite rider to the podium in Paris?
Jan-Niklas Jünger is product manager for Continental’s racing tires. “Talking to the riders is always part of creating a new racing tire,” explains the Continental expert. “A variety of other factors also play a role in how we define the precise use profile. How fast should the tire be? How wide? How light? What requirements does it have to fulfil?” Only when those questions have been answered can the team set about developing a prototype, which will then be put through its paces – largely by pro riders – over thousands of kilometers. Before a tire can go into series production, it also has to complete a further testing phase: the pilot run. “The pro riders are often using prototypes which are still in the advance development phase,” explains Jünger. Series production for the end customers only begins once the tire has proven itself in extreme use. Amateur cyclists will not be familiar with the tires used by the pros; tubular racing tires are glued to the rim rather than hooked on.
Six pro teams are using Continental tires this year. And it seems they’re doing so to good effect once again, given the “altogether very positive” reaction from the riders that Jünger reports: “The tires the professional racers use are hand-made in Germany and contain BlackChili, a highly complex rubber compound which stands out clearly from its competitors in terms of wet grip and rolling resistance,” he adds. “The pro teams also tell us that the puncture protection offered by our tires is better than that of rival products, and it seems the teams we supply suffer fewer tire problems than others during the Tour de France”.
Continental also has another ace up its sleeve: the knowledge transfer between the bike and car tire departments in the development process. “As a bike tire department, this means we have expertise and materials at our disposal that a normal bike tire manufacturer wouldn’t have access to,” highlights Jünger.
A good example here is the use of dandelion. “With dandelion, Continental has found a locally cultivatable plant which offers an alternative to sourcing latex from rubber trees,” says Jünger. Around two years ago, a new research laboratory was set up in Germany where teams working with experts from the Fraunhofer Institute explore the industrialization of latex from dandelion roots. “As a result, we in bike tire development are also in the fortunate position of being able to use this material for our series-produced tires,” he adds. The Urban Taraxagum tire using sustainable dandelion rubber was recently presented with two prizes: the Red Dot Design Award for the design of the tread and the E Bike Design & Innovation Award from Focus E-Bike magazine in the Sustainability & Green category.
Continental is supplying six teams in the Tour de France 2020: Sunweb, Groupama-FDJ, Bahrain McLaren, Arkéa-Samsic, the INEOS team of last year’s winner Egan Bernal and Movistar, which won the teams’ classification in 2019.