Aero frames work. They minimize drag, which translates to a substantial time savings. The same goes for deep-section wheels, teardrop helmets and an effective position. But you already know all that. Whether you’re looking for the last little bits of improvement on top of an already decked-out gear collection or to save seconds without clearing out your bank account, these hard-earned tips from the sport’s most knowledgeable and experienced speed experts can make you faster.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
Transition and Footwear
Having the right gear is key, but sometimes adding too much junk can be just as detrimental as lacking a necessity. 2012 U.S. Olympian Sarah Groff lives by this rule for short-course races: When in doubt, leave it out. “Think about what you absolutely need for the race and eliminate everything else from your transition area,” she says.
Managing your equipment makes a bigger difference in transition times than simply having the right stuff. Groff shares four techniques to make sure she transitions without a hiccup.
1. Meet your gear halfway. “The fastest ITU athletes tend to bend at the waist to put on their gear. That way, the equipment travels less distance and your body stays more compact and coordinated.”
2. Practice until it becomes second nature. “Before racing with a new helmet, I repeatedly practice putting it on and taking it off. While I probably look ridiculous buckling and unbuckling for five minutes straight, it’s better than fumbling around with a new clasp while my competitors ride away from me.”
3. Dress on the move. “If you tend to fumble with your sunglasses in T1, leave them on your bike and put them on when you settle into a pace. Likewise, grab your belt and hat in T2 and put them on while you are running.”
4. Think it through and move slowly. “Part of your pre-race planning should always include visualization of the transition flow. Let your own patterns and the setup of the transition zone help form your decisions. When athletes try to transition too quickly, mistakes become far more likely. Slowing down a hair means less fumbling and fewer mishaps.”
With a little practice, a pair of tri-specific cycling shoes is one piece of hardware that can save real time. “Keep your cycling shoes clipped into your pedals and secure them with rubber bands,” says Groff. Loop the band through the shoe’s heel tab and around part of the bike to hold them upright. Without the bands, they will drag on the asphalt and can trip you up. “Ride with your feet on your shoes until you have settled into a rhythm and have clear roads.”
Donning the right pair of running shoes in T2 can be even more important. The extra spring that we all feel in race flats isn’t psychological—there is a real, measurable difference. And while it doesn’t take research to understand that light shoes save energy, a group of scientists from the University of Colorado, Boulder have measured the precise value of shaving a few ounces off a shoe. According to a 2012 study conducted by a team of biomechanics researchers led by Roger Kram, Ph.D., oxygen consumption required to run 8-minute mile pace decreased by 1 percent when shoe weight dropped by 3.5 ounces. Translated to actual shoes, this study reveals that switching from New Balance’s 1080v3 cushioned trainers to the race-specific NB 1600 reduces oxygen consumption by 1.5 percent—a substantial difference.
Finding the right wetsuit comes down to comfort and buoyancy. “But not just buoyancy, the location of that buoyancy,” says Genadijus Sokolovas, Ph.D., senior physiologist at Global Sport Technology. Sokolovas, who served as USA Swimming’s director of physiology and sport science from 2000 to 2008, designed and uses a machine that can identify just how effective one suit is for a particular athlete compared to another. While he has not found specific “elite” suits that are faster than all the others, two major trends have emerged. The first is that “people who have very good natural buoyancy benefit least from additional buoyancy, and different suits have different buoyancy up and down the suit,” he says.
Sokolovas recommends a simple test to determine if a swimmer needs a suit with exceptional lift in the hips and legs. Hold a streamline pose at the top of the water without moving forward. Record the time it takes for the legs to drop toward the bottom of the pool. “Fast sinking is [going vertical] within 10 seconds. Slow is holding a semi-vertical, semi-horizontal position for up to 30 or even 40 seconds.” If you sink within 10 seconds, a highly buoyant suit is likely to save you a ton of time. Athletes who are capable of staying closer to the surface can consider options with less flotation without losing too much speed.
The maximum neoprene thickness allowed for USAT and WTC races is 5mm. So if you failed the buoyancy test, limit your wetsuit search to models with the 5mm panels across the hips and legs. Aerated neoprene with little air pockets between the rubber can be even more buoyant than standard neoprene.
The comfort and freedom of a sleeveless suit can be a psychological benefit, but there is a reason that even the most skilled and experienced pros choose to race in full-sleeve wetsuits. “The more of the body you cover, the less friction you have with the water,” says Sokolovas.
The second universal trend he has learned is that full-sleeve suits are more efficient than sleeveless. “Some don’t like to cover the arms, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t benefit from sleeves. It’s just a feeling they have.”
RELATED – Suit Up: Finding The Right Wetsuit For You
All the aero refinement isn’t worth anything if the athlete runs out of fuel or ends up on the side of the road with a flat. Reality dictates that most triathlon bikes have to be loaded up, especially for long-course races. “The goal is to achieve what we call a no-loss gain, basically riding with extra stuff [without adding drag],” says Specialized aerodynamics R&D engineer Chris Yu.
Smartly placing the necessities can keep your bike slippery in the wind. Even seemingly inconsequential details can have a major impact.
1. Pack behind the saddle. “Tucking stuff up extremely tight behind the saddle” is one way to achieve a no-loss gain, says Yu. “If you have a bottle, taping flat repair supplies to either side is an effective way to carry [them].”
2. Store between the arms. The gap between the aerobar extensions is also valuable real estate. A horizontal bottle between the arms is essentially invisible to the wind.
3. Hide your bag. “If you have a bike that’s not integrated on the front, tucking stuff behind the stem is typically a no-loss gain,” says Yu.
4. Fix your number. “Number placement is something a lot of triathletes can refine,” says Yu. Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races require athletes to wear their number for the bike in addition to the run. “A lot of the time you’ll spend a lot of money on a nice, tight tri suit and if you have a number flapping you’re negating a lot of the benefit of the race kit. That drag we have measured for a rider holding 40K per hour is something north of 5 watts. That kind of power savings, a lot of times, is the difference between a poorly fitting jersey and a nice, tight tri suit.” Tucking the entire number into the waistband or putting it over the stomach is against race rules, but securing the lower portion of the number is just as effective. “Tucking the edge in, wearing two number belts or Velcroing it to the suit is worth it.”
Mounting bottles to the frame typically comes with a speed penalty. “Whether it’s on the down tube or seat tube, [standard aero bottles] don’t make any of the bikes we’ve measured faster at all,” says Cervélo senior advanced research and design engineer Damon Rinard. “They always add drag.” (Some testing from the mid-’90s says otherwise, but those tests were conducted on round-tube bikes without a dummy.) While aero bottles such as the Bontrager Speed Bottle are not drag-free, they are better than round bottles. “Aero bottles are preferable to the round bottles in every case. On most frames—and it varies a bit—but when you add a round bottle to almost any aero bike, it adds about 50 grams of drag. An aero bottle creates about 25 grams of drag.” That difference is worth about 10 seconds over an Olympic-distance triathlon. In some cases, bottles designed for specific frames can have no aero penalty, but situating bottles behind the saddle or between the arms is almost always faster. Instead of bolting cages to the frame, invest in a rear-mounted or horizontal front bottle carrier.
As the first and last part of the bike to touch the wind, the tire is a crucial ingredient in an aerodynamically efficient bike. Testing conducted by several wheel companies including Zipp, Bontrager and Mavic has revealed the importance of matching an ideal tire to a specific rim. The newest generation of aero wheels with wide brake tracks ranging from 23mm to 28mm typically performs well with either narrow or wide tires, while older rims with narrow 19mm brake tracks perform substantially better with a thin tire.
But aero performance is only half the equation when it comes to tire selection. Rolling characteristics—the way a tire interacts with the pavement—are also crucial to performance and comfort. Counterintuitively, wider road tires create less rolling resistance than narrower ones. Cycling researcher Al Morrison has conducted an ever-growing series of rolling resistance tests on many of the premier race tires since 2006 and has found that the time saved by switching from a slow-rolling tire to a fast one can be equal to the difference between a great aero frame and a mediocre one. Morrison’s tests have shown that a 25mm tire has roughly 15 percent less rolling resistance than an identically constructed 23mm tire.
Tubular gluing technique is another key factor Morrison has discovered. The tests he conducted before 2007 showed clincher tires to be substantially faster than identically constructed tubulars, but it was the gluing method, not the tires themselves, that made the difference. Morrison originally assumed that gluing a tubular with minimal cement would reduce rolling resistance, since the glue itself is elastic. After experimenting with a thicker gluing protocol, Morrison realized that creating a completely solid connection between rim and tire is more important. Now he applies three layers of Vittoria Mastik One cement to the rim and two coats to the tire base tape before adhesion, totaling two tubes of glue per wheel. As repeated tests have demonstrated, thoroughly adhering the tire to the rim is the most efficient—not to mention safe—way to glue a tubular tire.
Racing with a wider tire that reduces rolling drag while improving ride feel without adding aero drag is another no-loss gain. “A lot of new triathlon fames are well designed in the back so the rear tire is well shielded,” says Yu. A frame that blocks the rear tire reduces or eliminates the aero penalty of racing a wide rear tire. “We tested a Specialized Shiv and a Venge with a 21mm, 23mm and 25mm tire in the back, and aerodynamically there was no measurable difference (between the tires), but, in those cases, rolling resistance decreased and comfort improved with the fatter tire.” As a result, a 25mm rear tire is the best race rubber for athletes on aero frames with a rear wheel cutout. These tests measured more aero drag with broad tires mounted on a “modern front race wheel.”
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