Your Aero Edge
We followed four professional triathletes on their hunt for watts at the Los Angeles velodrome. Take what they learned to make you and your bike more aerodynamically efficient.
By Jené Shaw
Photographs by Matt Harbicht
An aerodynamic focus is not just for the pros and the super tech geeks—age-groupers of all levels can benefit from getting the most speed out of their equipment. Historically, the wind tunnel has been the standard for aerodynamic testing, but a new option—the Track Aero System at the Velo Sports Center (aka the LA velodrome)—has allowed athletes to test drag in a more real-life riding scenario.
The Velo Sports Center holds the largest indoor velodrome in America, and bike fit specialist Jim Manton runs his Retül fit studio and aerodynamic testing business, ERO Sports, out of the facility. Combining the fit process with the Track Aero System (developed by an engineering start-up out of Montreal), Manton can measure, in real time, how much drag you, your bike and your equipment are creating in various scenarios.
The complicated algorithm used to determine a rider’s coefficient of drag (CdA) involves more than 20 calculations that take a host of variables into account, but the main objective is simple: Find more watts.
“We’re looking for free speed,” Manton says. “With a lot of people, their equipment is actually making them slower. So if we can find them the positions or equipment to make them go faster for very little money, that’s going to help them do better, get on the podium, or do whatever they’re looking to achieve.”
Why the track?
The wind tunnel keeps riders in a fixed, stationary position. Although it has a lot of benefits—mostly in terms of manipulating the direction of airflow (or yaw angle, in aero speak)—it’s not as realistic for riding as if you were on a road. Plus, testing in a wind tunnel is a pricey endeavor (upward of $500 per hour). The velodrome is slightly more affordable (a pre-test position analysis plus two hours on the track is $700), but its real advantage is that it’s a step closer to what actual riding feels like.
How it works
Every athlete starts with his or her bike on the trainer to get a sense of various fit ranges. The Retül fit system captures angles while pedaling, and Manton uses those numbers to get an idea of what he might want to tweak once out on the track.After some practice laps to get used to the 42-degree banked velodrome, riders start with a baseline test, which future data is compared against. Each “run” is about 10–12 laps or a 3K, ridden around half-Ironman race pace. Manton or a member of his team will change one small thing at a time, and have athletes go back out to see how it affected the watts. They’re looking to see how much power it takes to go a given speed. If it takes 250 watts to go 20 mph, for instance, and then a small change sees you only using 240 watts to go 20 mph, that equals a change in being more aerodynamically efficient. Your drag is never constant, so they average the laps and throw out the highs and lows.
Who should test?
“Anyone who is serious about getting faster, no matter where they’re at,” says coach and aerodynamics expert Brian Stover, who has hosted multiple aero camps at the facility. “We’ve tested a lot of guys who are going to Kona and a lot of pros who want that extra edge, but the most relevant people are top age-groupers or people who are looking to reduce the amount of energy they’re putting out on the bike.”
Before the Ironman World Championship in 2013, pro (and eventual second-place finisher) Luke McKenzie worked with ERO to find extra speed in Kona. They tested his fit, equipment and clothing, and one of his biggest changes was to switch to a sleeved tri suit. With the combination of changes, “we predicted it would save him 7 minutes over the course of an Ironman,” Manton says. “He came out of the water at the same time as Faris Al-Sultan, and they both averaged 280 watts. It was 4 watts per kilogram and Luke went 7:43 faster. The only way you do that is if you’re more aerodynamic.”
Velodrome-Tested Speed Secrets
Although aerodynamics are incredibly individual to each rider, there are common findings that have come out of the velodrome tests that you can use to uncover more speed.
Prioritize a bike fit
Manton says he can get most people 85 percent of the way there aerodynamically simply by giving them a proper bike fit. Before you even dream of setting foot on the track, go to a qualified fitter to find your ideal position. “The average age-grouper comes in with a horrible fit,” Stover says. “They’re way too low or way too high in the front. You see a lot of athletes who, by 100 miles into the bike ride, are riding completely upright, and that’s just indicative of a bad fit and/or lack of training.”
As a triathlete, you have to bear in mind that whole running thing afterward, not to mention the need to digest nutrition while riding. An aerodynamic fit that winds up being too uncomfortable halfway through the bike course defeats the purpose. Lower may seem more aggressive and aerodynamic, but going too low will have an adverse effect. “A fit should be comfortable,” Stover says. “If you get a fit that’s more aggressive, it may take some getting used to, but an aero fit should be comfortable off the bat. There have been many instances where we’ve actually gone up in the front and have seen a reduction in drag.”
Keep your forearms flat or slightly angled up
By now, the ERO Sports team has a very large general sense of what works for most triathletes, with the Retül data to back up the optimal angles for various positions. A lot of athletes who have been through their fitting process leave looking the same—they all have a 10–15-degree up angle on the arms. “It’s more comfortable and more aerodynamic,” Manton says. “Anytime we see people with their wrists below their elbows it’s almost always slower.”
Buy an on-trend and well-tested helmet
Any aero helmet will be faster than a traditional helmet, but from there it can be pretty individual based on your head shape. “The difference between buying an aero helmet versus the aero helmet for you could be two seconds per kilometer faster, in some cases more,” says Stover. Ideally you can try one on, but if not, he suggests buying a helmet that tests well consistently. Two helmets that they’ve seen do well for the majority of triathletes are the Giro Advantage 2 ($165, Giro.com) and the Louis Garneau P-09 ($350, Louisgarneau.com).
Ditch the shield and wear sunglasses
Many aero helmets come with an optional shield attached. Based on data from many tests, Manton says to take it off and put on your own shades. “Visors on helmets are almost always slower than just wearing sunglasses,” Manton says. Pro Magali Tisseyre tested this theory during her time at the velodrome and confirmed that her sunglasses plus helmet combo saved watts over the visor option.
Race in a tight, sleeved tri suit
Sleeved suits are starting to become more ubiquitous in the pro ranks as of a couple years ago, and that is starting to trickle down to the age-group field too. “Clothing is the revolution in aerodynamics right now,” Manton says. “We feel like we’ve had a lot to do with that, and you’ll see all the triathletes—age-groupers and pros—wear sleeved suits, and a lot of that has come from our testing. We’ve realized how much speed there is to be gained from that, and generally they provide UV protection and keep you cooler, so there’s a big plus there.”
Even if you aren’t quite ready to make the jump to sleeves, operate under Manton’s notion of “skin is slow, wrinkles are worse” and make sure your tri suit isn’t too baggy or flapping in the wind. He suggests to size down. “One thing we found out with testing here and at the wind tunnel, was to size down with a top and it’s automatically faster,” he says.
Stop carrying so much stuff
When you’re on a bike course for multiple hours, yes, you need a lot of fuel and hydration to keep your body going. But a lot of triathletes put way too much stuff on their bikes—two bottles on the frame, two off the back, CO2 cartridges, tires, a rolling buffet, etc.—and, without realizing it, they’re hurting themselves aerodynamically. “You’ve got an aid station every 10 miles for an Ironman—you don’t need 16 gels on your top tube,” Stover says. As far as hydration goes, “there are a lot of things you can do with a zip tie and you don’t need to spend $80 on a fancy bottle,” he says. He suggests hiding a bottle between your forearms, which is almost always faster than having something in the wind (like on your frame). He did mention, though, that some frames work really well with the integrated bottle on the down tube, such as the Felt IA with the Torhans Aero Z BTA bottle.
Put a bottle behind your saddle
In the many variations of hydration setups, Manton says there’s one thing that works well most often: One bottle directly behind the saddle. Retül specialist and aerodynamics consultant Ivan O’Gorman furthers that advice by saying that anything you put behind the saddle needs to be included in the body mass that’s in front of it. “Eighteen inches behind the saddle creates dirty air that has to rejoin after,” he says. “It needs to be tight, clean and close.”
Ladies: Braid your hair and wear longer shorts
It’s a simple change, but braids typically lie flatter against your neck versus a flapping ponytail. Better yet, suggests Stover, tuck your ponytail into your helmet and out of the wind. And, although many women are opposed to it for aesthetic and comfort reasons, a lot can be gained from wearing longer shorts that cover the majority of the thigh.
Want to do your own aero test?
A one-person test is $700 and includes:
– Pre-test position analysis using Retül
– Two hours of testing on the LA Velodrome with multiple equipment and position changes
– A comprehensive results report
– Photos and videos
On The Hunt For More Speed
Earlier this season, coach Paulo Sousa brought four of his pro athletes—Heather and Trevor Wurtele, Eric Lagerstrom and Magali Tisseyre—to the velodrome to test various fit and equipment choices. His academic background is in aerodynamics, so he was interested in gathering some objective data that could potentially make a difference in his athletes’ performances.
“I like to focus on the 97 percent of what brings us performance, which is doing our job every day and focusing on that part of athlete development,” he says. “I felt that this would be an aspect where we could explore a bit of the detail. Getting a lot of basics of good aero is easy, but to get down to the details, you really need to do some testing.”
Each athlete had his or her own goals and objectives for the aero session. At such a high level, the aero testing often serves as a confirmation that an athlete is doing everything he or she can. Here’s what each pro found.
6x Ironman champion, 12x Ironman 70.3 champion, 2015 Ironman 70.3 North American champion
Main testing objective
Current sleeved race suit, hydration system, seat height
Raising her seat 3mm saved her more than 7 watts over her baseline. And her current sleeved suit, which Manton originally thought was too baggy, proved to be the right choice over both a sleeveless two-piece and smaller one-piece sleeved suit.
“I think it’s advantageous to figure out how to be the most aerodynamic I can be. And as compared to the wind tunnel, it’s sort of a real-life situation, and you’re moving on the bike with an actual pedal stroke. A 3mm change in saddle height saved a significant amount of watts—that was something small that had a significant impact.”
2015 Escape from Alcatraz champion
Main testing objective
Minor position changes, race gear, helmets
Switching to the Louis Garneau P-09 helmet was an 8-watt savings over his original setup.
“The helmet was really the only thing that made a difference. In terms of my body, I was in the best position I could’ve been in. It would’ve been great to walk away with, ‘Oh 40 more seconds!’ but it’s good to know I haven’t been giving up much time. The biggest takeaway is peace of mind that I’ve turned over every stone and that there’s nothing else I can think about … and I can go into the race with a completely quiet mind that I have the best setup that I possibly can.”
2013 Ironman Canada champion, 2012 Ironman 70.3 New Orleans champion
Main testing objective
Current sleeved race suit, helmet, position
His sleeved race suit worked well over a sleeveless option; extending his arms out farther narrowed his shoulders and flattened his back making for almost a 10-watt savings, which would amount to more than 4 minutes saved over the course of an Ironman bike leg.
“We’re always adjusting small things, from training methods to body position. It was good to come and see that some of those tweaks make an instant real-world difference in gaining a few seconds. It’s nice to be in a velodrome and actually be able to ride the bike while making those position changes. With the slight change in position, and if I could keep my frame clean and free of bottles, I would save 4–5 more watts. Of course, those are restrictions you run into with long-course triathlon. There has to be a balance between aerodynamics, comfort and the need to carry calories and fluid.”
2x Ironman 70.3 Worlds podium (2009, 2010), 13x Ironman 70.3 champion
Main testing objective
Angle and reach of aerobars, hydration systems and Rudy Project Wing 57 helmet with or without visor—during hot races, Tisseyre chooses not to race without the visor.
What paid off the most was riding with sunglasses as opposed the visor, going lower in the front (by taking out some spacers under the elbow pads) and switching to ski bend extensions, and making her position more narrow.
“It was cool to go to the velodrome and see what it’s like to ride on a track. I feel like whatever position I’ll adopt when I’m working harder at a race is closer to what I did during the testing on the track than in any fixed position. I had done some wind tunnel testing before and it is interesting to try something different and compare.”
See a behind-the-scenes video detailing our velodrome tests with the pros below.