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A common focus on both car tyres and bicycle tyres – at this year's Tour of France, the Continental brand, in its dual function as a supplier and one of the five main sponsors, attracted the highest media attention worldwide.
Tour de France 2020 involved 1 800 accredited journalists, 100 TV stations and 7 000 broadcast hours. Approximately 1.4-billion people followed this year’s event on TV and, despite the coronavirus, up to 12-million viewers were watching live along the route – almost every single one of them wearing a mask. Between 29 August and 20 September, 176 professional cyclists battled for points, time credits and stage wins.
With Sunweb, Groupama-FDJ, Bahrain McLaren, Arkéa-Samsic as well as the INEOS team and with Movistar as the team that delivered the best team performance last year, six of the teams in the world's toughest bike race again benefited from the quality and reliability of the handmade tyres from Korbach in Hesse.
A total of three of the 10 best-placed riders took part in the race on Continental tyres. In the end, after 3 470 kilometres through all five mountain ranges in the country, Slovenian rider Tadej Pogacar, from UAE Team Emirates, was victorious ahead of its compatriot Primož Roglič (Team Jumbo-Visma) and Richie Porte from Australia (Team Trek-Segafredo). As in the previous year, the team ranking was won by the Movistar team equipped by Continental. In total, four of the 21 stages were won on Continental tyres.
However, Continental doesn’t only supply bicycle tyres for this prestigious event but is also the official tyre sponsor of the Tour de France. As the "Tour of Suffering" regularly pushes not only the athletes and their equipment to the limits of their endurance, but also the many assistants – from timekeepers to material suppliers and medical professionals, Continental fits the official service cars on the Tour as well as the support vehicles in individual teams (including FDJ) with its PremiumContact 6 tyre.
This high-tech product for mid-range and premium-class vehicles with speed ratings of up to 300 km/h combines the characteristics of a comfortable saloon tyre and a tyre for sports models of passenger cars. It provides comfort, precise steering response, maximum safety and positive environmental qualities. This means that the PremiumContact 6 is equally ideal for the requirements of accompanying vehicles winding downhill on rain-soaked roads as it is on extended flat stages or in sweltering heat on the way up to mountain summits.
Q&A with Andreas Schlenke
Tyre development engineer Andreas Schlenke was responsible for developing the PremiumContact 6, which literally keeps the wheels turning on the annual dash around France.
All the official vehicles in the Tour de France used the PremiumContact 6 tyre from Continental. As the person who developed the tyre, that must be a special feeling.
Andreas: Yes, that makes me feel very proud. It’s a special accolade for our tyres to be given a major role in such an important sporting event. Of course, the main spotlight is on the riders, but it’s also essential the support crews can rely 100-percent on their vehicles – and therefore on the tyres they’re fitted with.
Your product pounded the roads of France for three weeks in front of a worldwide audience. As the tyre developer, weren’t you concerned there’ll be a puncture live on TV?
Andreas: No, that’s not something I worry about. After all, I know how solid and reliable our product is. That’s one of the reasons the race organizers have decided to go with the PremiumContact 6.
The Tour de France is a very special challenge. In 2019 the riders – and all their support crews – had to contend with gale-force winds, desert heat, hailstorms, icy roads and even mudslides. How can a single tyre master such extreme conditions?
Andreas: We use highly sophisticated testing procedures to check that our technologies are up to the job. The rubber compound and tyre construction must be able to withstand high and low temperatures and deal with the most varied road conditions. We test every type of condition a tyre might encounter.
Did you take into account the conditions at the Tour de France in the development of the tyre? After all, the PremiumContact 6 is actually a tyre for everyday use, which countless drivers around the world have fitted on their cars.
Andreas: No, the tyre was developed not for the Tour specifically, but – as you say – for everyday applications. However, this is exactly what allows the PremiumContact 6 to take all the challenges thrown up by the Tour de France in its stride. It is a master of the extreme. During the development phase it showed it could even handle significantly more taxing situations. In dry handling tests at the Nürburgring or our own test facility, the Contidrom, a tyre encounters conditions – e.g. lateral forces – that are many times more extreme than they face in everyday use.
So there isn’t a “Tour de France” edition of the tyre with a special compound for Pyrenean passes?
Andreas: No [he laughs]. The only difference from the standard tyre is the fetching yellow Continental lettering on the sidewall. The Tour tyre is otherwise identical to the model anyone can buy from a retailer.
Offering gradients of 20-percent, extreme hairpin corners and surprise outbreaks of winter weather, the Col du Grand Colombier pass in the Jura mountains is one of the highlights of the Tour. Can a standard tyre survive here?
Andreas: Of course. The PremiumContact 6 is a tyre that works in all types of road conditions. That means it can handle everything from the Pyrenees and Alps, including France’s Jura mountains, to the northern reaches of Scandinavia and the summer heat of Spain.
A modern tyre is a high-tech product with integral sensors, e.g. for tyre pressure monitoring systems. How important are functions like these for safety on the Tour?
Andreas: The tyre knows things a driver does not and is the vehicle’s sole contact point with the road. Road conditions and the status of the tyre itself – e.g. the air pressure and temperatures inside it – can be detected using these sensors. Such functions play a very important role at the Tour de France in helping all of the support vehicles to get to the finish safely and without problems.
Are you a Tour fan yourself?
Andreas: Yes absolutely. Bike racing has always fascinated me. I’ve been to the Tour de France several times – as a spectator, needless to say – and the atmosphere among the fans really is unique. So I was particularly pleased when Continental came on board as a partner of the Tour.
Do you also take part in cycle races, e.g. events open to the general public?
Andreas: My passion for cycling hasn’t stretched that far [he laughs]. I get out on the bike a lot in my spare time, though. I cycle to work every morning, which is refreshing and gives me a daily hit of exercise.