Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Landed in Kona, and Custom Kits: Can you look pro too?

I've finally arrived in Hawaii and have, with my wife:
media registered
athlete registered
done a quick tour of the expo
had the bike tuned
And finally, made the press debut of the new SRAM shifter.

Which was unreal cool. The "trigger" people were thinking was not what I was envisioning—but was every bit as ingenious as I had imagined. Will get to that.

But first, I took Donna to the pool this morning, and ran into Michael Lovato. His training kit was one of the sickest out there; tribal tattoos and well-placed sponsor logos. So pro.

Which begs the question: who will have the sharpest kits in Kona this year? I can bet you one thing: Chrissie Wellington will look a hell of a lot sharper then she did when she came across the finish in first last year. She surprised everyone with that win, and

For most pros, looking after sponsors on your race apparel is paramount. And so is looking professional, with a color and match that shows you know what you’re doing, that you take your job seriously. The rest of us just take what’s available off the shelf.

Well, we don’t necessarily have to anymore.

The handiwork of custom design with many of the pros who will be racing this Saturday in Kona falls to one of the most creative designers in the sport: Kristin Mayer. Kristin and husband Dan live just a block away from my wife and I in Encinitas. So we often see one another at masters. Or we’ll honk at one another from our car as the other is headed out on a run.

Kristin’s an accomplished triathlete, scooping up podiums in her age group on any given weekend around here. But when she’s not training, she’s at home, in front of her computer, doing design work for HerSports magazine. Or, increasingly, with her race apparel design line, Betty Designs.

Which is where Kona comes in. If you see race-day shots of Michael Lovato this weekend (or have seen shots of Heather Fuhr and Michellie Jones, you’ve seen Kristin’s work. It all started in the late ‘90s, when Murphy Reinschreiber, agent to many top talents, wanted to lend a more professional look to his athletes. He wanted to make sure they didn’t look rag-tag, that their sponsors were properly placed for exposure, and that the athlete could add their style to the mix. “I would get to work directly with the athletes and try to come up with colors and motifs that reflected their personalities,” Kristin recent told me. So she went to work doing designs for Fuhr, Lori Bowden and Fernanda Keller. Working with Michellie Jones presented some cool new opportunities as well, designing both the race kit she wore when she won the 2006 Hawaii Ironman world title, but her matching bike motif as well.

“They really understood how to market her as an athlete and create the complete visual package to showcase her sponsors,” Mayer says. “Michellie wanted to support her sponsors, but she also wanted to look great and stand out from the rest of the women on the race course.

And as Murphy will contend, standing out doesn’t mean wearing white compression socks. Just bring up the subject with him and watch him get red.

After doing work for the pros, Kristin decided to broaden her design, making blank palates that anyone could buy. After all, age groupers like to look stylish, too. “In 2002 I began creating my own race gear out of the desire to race in something unique and "cute" and would match my race clothing to my helmet to complete the package,” she told me. “Through the process I found that the unit costs on producing a full custom tri top and short was less than some off-the-shelf (more boring) options out there. While fabrics and constructions are limited, the ability to come up with unique colors, patterns and motifs out-weighed this fact.

So after a few test runs (including doing the design on the super-bright HerSports tri team kit) Mayer launched Betty Designs last year, bringing custom design to teams—and individuals.

I know what you’re saying: most apparel companies do custom too. But not the way Kristin does it. When you see one of Kristin’s kits, you know it. Bright colors on contrast. There’s nothing reserved about her kits. Which is why they pop in photos. Instead of picking some pre-set design, Kristin works with you on what you want your custom race kit to be.

“I feel that I spend more time on a personal level with my clients and they walk away with something that really reflects who they are.

What’s it cost? Because minimums range from six to 10 pieces per item, an athlete/team can expect to pay around $1,200 and up for full custom race gear, all told. Some may blanch, but many will think, “well, I’m already spending on a custom paint job for my bike, or for $1,800 in wheels.” Age groupers that want to look the part, that are on a world stage like they are in Kona, and want to look after their sponsors in a very professional way, can do it, custom, while presenting themselves—and their style—in their best light. All they have to do is get out in it and go fast to back up the looking-fast part.

Kristin put it in perspective: “For athletes who spend thousands on their sport each year the cost is well worth it. After all, if you feel like you look good, you perform better.”

If you’re looking at going custom, you can visit Kristin’s website and check out her work at Meantime, keep an eye out for Lovato this weekend to see her art in motion.

Because Lovato his other apparel choices in the past, including a hot dog Speedo and compression socks at worn at the Underwear Run last year, that was not art in motion. It was far, far from it.

After my swim (or at least for me, watching Donna swim, and running into the who's who of Saturdays' race—including Lovato, Cam Brown, Eneko Llanos, Chrissie Wellington, Paul Amey and Chris McCormack—we bolted for HP to have Donna's bike tweeked and dialed, then to the Royal Kona for the big press debut of the new SRAM shifter.

The technical term for the new shifter is the 1090-R3C aero shift lever. 1090 represents the top-level for all their road componentry.

And R2C? That is an acronym for how this thing works: Return to Center.

So here's how it works: the lever pulls up and pushes down. But instead of staying up or down, the lever physically pops back to its "level" start position. The shift you made, one gear at a time takes place, ratcheting the cable to your effort, but the lever returns to it's start spot.

It looks like you could dump gears just like on a road shifter, with quick, successive clicks.

It means no wrestling, shoving with your thumb or torquing your wrist to pull the lever up. In short: no stress. SRAM staffers said the Astana team doctor, who serves as the team psychologist, said it's a huge mental advantage to the athlete for that don't have to wrestle the bike to get it to do what you want.

While Michellie Jones, Torbjorn Sindballe, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Lieto have been the prototype testers since April, Michellie was on hand at the press conference, and I had a chance to play with the prototype on her bike. It is WICKED. I have loathed the act of literally leveraging your whole body when having to engage a downshift on the rear derailleur, or pull the lever to lift the front ring. Michelle mentioned that they are particularly awesome when its cold out, or immediately out of the water with wet hands. I think we can all attest to how hard it is to shift with numb and/or wet fingers.

To the left are early prototypes.

The front shifter will have two trim positions. While the existing protos are comprised of alloy, the finished product will have a carbon lever, with ti hardware. Other facts that SRAM dropped on us:

  • Their wind tunnel testing of the levers reported an average savings of 10-15 watts at 30mph. I'll have to ask how they tested that.
  • It will be mountable to existing integrated Zipp VukaShift extensions.
  • SRAM's 1:1 actuation ratio of cable pull means it will work with SRAM componentry only.
  • Projected weight for the set is 195 grams.
Saturday, Chris Lieto will be the one man using the prototype R2C levers. SRAM says spring is the date we'll get to use 'em as consumers. No price as yet.

My last salve: something that brought a smile to my face, found in Donna's race registration paperwork. You can click on it in full, but it is a letter that says, in essense, leave your family out of the finishing chute. Let's see if it happens.


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