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Vittoria: the future looks like this

Jordan Gibbons
15 Jan 2016

Much has been said about how graphene is going to revolutionise cycling, and thanks to Vittoria tyres we can now see it in action.

We’ve talked a lot about graphene these last few months, and so has the scientific world at large. It’s the new wonder material derived from carbon that promises to make products incredibly light and strong, as well as having remarkable conductivity, and it has been touted as the future of composites and electronics. The bike industry has shown great interest in the potential of graphene, but it has been little more than a concept – until now. Italian brand Vittoria has just released a batch of graphene-infused products including the Qurano wheels we reviewed in issue 41 and the Corsa G+ tyres we featured last issue.

It’s not easy to understand exactly what graphene is, what it looks like or how it’s used to enhance cycling products, which is why Cyclist has come to Italy to visit Directa Plus, graphene supplier to Vittoria. Directa Plus pioneered and patented a method of extracting 100% pure graphene nanoplatelets from graphite in 2005, a process it describes as ‘simple if you know how’. 

‘We insert a filler material between each layer of graphene and heat the graphite to 10,000°C, which causes the graphite to “super expand”,’ says Laura Rizzi, R&D manager at Directa Plus. ‘This gives us a pure carbon lattice, with no other atoms present nor defects.’ Simple, yes. Cyclist’s oven doesn’t go much past 250°C but if it did…

The super-expanded graphite looks like a dense black foam and this foam is quite stable, so it’s stored in rather mundane-looking sacks that weigh just 100g when stuffed full. In total, Directa Plus already produces 30,000 tonnes of graphene a year in its various forms. As far as Vittoria is concerned, obtaining the graphene was the easy part – actually getting it into the product was the real head-scratcher.

First-night nerves 

‘We went into the unknown in 2010 and didn’t really know how it would end,’ says Vittoria CEO Rudie Campagne. ‘The professionals race 30 million kilometres per year on our tyres at speeds sometimes above 100kmh, all on a 4cm2 contact patch. We’ve had 20 million customers choose our tyres, so changing anything makes me incredibly nervous.’

Christian Lademann, Vittoria’s road tyre product manager, was frank in his admission that Vittoria’s initial graphene experiments didn’t go particularly smoothly. 

‘It was a lot of learning by doing,’ he says. ‘The first time we tried four years ago it was a failure. It didn’t work. We needed to further adjust and fine-tune the percentage of graphene but also the application. At first we used the powder, which is very light but if you throw that in the rubber how can you spread it equally? You can’t. The graphene was like little bumps everywhere.

‘The next step was for Directa Plus to develop the graphene in a liquid base that we can mix into our rubber and achieve distribution that is much more even. This was the big step forward in the product,’ Lademann adds.

With the graphene in liquid form, the nanoplatelets can be evenly distributed throughout the rubber and also aligned with the tread (although just checking this during the development phase involves dropping the tyre in liquid nitrogen and gold plating it, before examination under an electron microscope). With precise quantities of graphene uniformly distributed through the tread, Vittoria has created what it calls an ‘intelligent tyre’. Under braking the friction at the contact patch tends to deform the rubber, which pushes the graphene nanoplatelets out of alignment. The bonds between the nanoplatelets act to retain their alignment, supporting the rubber, resisting the deformation and increasing grip.

This resistance also applies to foreign bodies invading the tyre, causing punctures, and enhances the tubeless sealing properties. The graphene helps the rubber snap shut very quickly around any small holes in the tyre.

‘The tyres are able to return to their previous shape much faster, due to the change in rubber elasticity,’ says Lademann. As an example Vittoria provides a demonstration of riding the new tubeless tyres back and forth over a bed of nails. After eight runs over the nails the tyres are still at 80psi. 

Lademann is keen to stress that adding graphene to the rubber doesn’t make the resulting compound harder, but stronger, as it’s just as supple. If you take the graphene out, it’s still a very grippy four-compound racing tyre. In cyclocross tyres the graphene holds the tread firm and prevents ‘knob squirm’, increasing traction in deep mud. The added strength also means graphene tyres should be capable of huge mileages. Lademann says he has covered over 2,000km on a pair of TT tyres, and shows us a pair of used road tyres that have almost no wear after 6,000km.

Graphene and grip

Ultimately for tyres the issue is of grip, as Lademann knows all too well from his time in the pro ranks: ‘I used to have a sponsor that made a coloured tyre and I had to stop racing in a criterium breakaway because of it. It was wet and I was sliding all the time – the front and rear slid away. I was confident I would win but the tyres were a nightmare. They lost me the race.  

‘I did lots of testing with competitors’ tyres,’ he adds. ‘All tyres work fine in dry conditions – it’s only really in the wet that you notice the difference.’ It’s the same sort of personal feedback that Lademann demands from the professional riders that Vittoria supports. 

‘We do special development with the pro teams,’ he says. ‘John Degenkolb won on our 30mm Roubaix tyre the first time he raced on it. It’s a bigger volume, but the new Corsa shares the same construction. They are even helping us to adjust our range a little bit. We had never done 30mm tyres before, but also they are helping with the compounds.

‘Giant-Alpecin used to race on the Corsa SC and in December [2015] they will see the new tyres for the first time. Some riders might fear poor grip – they always fear change so we need to convince them. The lack of fishbone grooves makes people worry about aquaplaning, but it doesn’t exist as a problem.’

And why is that? Lademann explains that the grooves on tyres are just for show, a confidence booster. Bicycles tyres just don’t have the inertial mass to force water out through the grooves in the way car tyres do. It’s also very rare to hit the speeds required to aquaplane a bicycle (roughly 200kmh): ‘They need to prove it to themselves. Mallorca is a great testing ground as the roads are very slippery. But then they need to race on them. This is the time we have to convince them that the new tyres are better than the old ones.

‘They will always ask us to make it super supple because they don’t care about mileage. After 260km, if it is worn down they do not care because it doesn’t cost them anything to replace,’ he adds. About the exact amount of tyres Vittoria supplies, Lademann was a little less forthcoming. 

‘It is a lot. I’m not allowed to say, but it is a lot. I don’t pay for it though – that’s Rudie.’

European outlook

There was small uproar when Vittoria moved its tyre production to Thailand a few years ago and, although the graphene is produced in Italy, the final product is produced in the Far East. Some people dither about their reasoning, but Campagne is abundantly clear: ‘In Europe there is an intellectual arrogance with technological innovation. A classic inward-looking mentality. There is no government support. China is investing $200 billion a year and we just sit here on our cultural heritage. If you wake up in Taiwan at 6am, you’re a day late – in Europe, you’re a day early.’

Vittoria has actually opened a new facility in the Far East to deal with the addition of graphene to its various products. For now, it’s included in a few wheelsets and high-end racing tyres but within a year the company expects to have added graphene to the entire tyre range. Vittoria’s is a joint venture with Directa Plus, and it has an exclusivity agreement on the use of graphene on ‘two-wheeled vehicles’, but it admits that soon other competitors will want a piece of the action. A sizeable portion of Vittoria’s business is producing tyres for other brands and that business would quickly shrink if it refused to share its graphene products, although Campagne admits it’s a sensitive situation. ‘We are bit-sharing this technology at the moment. Markets cannot be controlled by monopolies, so we will need to expand, but right now we want the commercial advantage.’

Returning to the fun demonstrations and we are shown how a thin coat of graphene ink makes polystyrene sheets instantly flame retardant and how graphene foam repels water and soaks up oil. It’s this versatility that has Vittoria excited about future products, and it’s why Campagne doesn’t see tyres as the end of graphene’s applications in the bike industry.

‘We started testing graphene in carbon [disc brake] rotors and it dissipated the heat much better. We can see graphene being used in textiles that could protect people in crashes. It could even be used to dissipate heat away from the body.’

So there you have it: graphene is the future. But you knew that already, right?

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