Saturday, November 29, 2008


The race season is finally over, at least over here in North America. I've just attended and covered the last race of the season. I love covering the trips international, but it's always nice having one in my proverbial backyard, which was the case for Ironman Arizona part deux.

Despite being the last race, it didn't fail to disappoint. I got to see a few things I think few have picked up on, including a prototype Bontrager/Hed wheelset aboard Chris Lieto's ride... which is above. I'll be doing a blog update soon on a recent trip with Steve Hed to the San Diego wind tunnel, the day before he provided councel to Lance Armstrong. With Bjorn Andersson there, and lots of prototype work going on (some of which I'll be permitted to show you), you can be sure Steve is pushing Zipp to be top brand in the market.

I also saw this guy. I think maybe he was confused that it was the new Ironman Sahara. We saw no sand dunes (or coyotes, roadrunners or rattlesnakes on the Tempe course for that matter), so I think we can be sure his grill stayed grit-free. I ran into Fletch Newland from Cervelo roadside on the race course, who did a bike count at Ironman Arizona, and he said he saw a BMX bike in the racks at Ironman Arizona... right down to the race number plate on the front of his bars, held by a gooseneck. Not a stem, a gooseneck.

He said he talked to the guy and he was not only an Ironman first-timer, he was a first-time triathlete. Talk about trial by fire. We saw him cruise by out on the Beeline Highway, and as I marveled, I should have tried to catch up and have him pop a wheelie and do a tabletop off some berm.

I observed several other things. First, the race was the deepest* pro of the year outside Hawaii, with nearly 90 pro men and women. Note the asterik—for pros, there was some pack fill. But as always, the cream rises to the top. My wife Donna, who did the swim and bike and passed on the run due to a calf tear, knew that "depth," particularly on the mens side, would off the ratio of the seven available Kona slots. With about 60 pro men, five spots went to the men, two to the women. It wasn't surprising when she came out ahead of many of the pro men. But when she found she was passing several "pro" men on the bike, that spoke to the fact that of the 60-something pro guys, maybe 10 were real contenders. The rest? I just wonder how they got a pro card.

I think Jordan Rapp is on the creep-up. He raced in Tempe both times it was on this year, and had solid podium results against solid fields. For as skinny as he is, he's unbelievably strong. I think Joanna Zeiger will be sticking to 70.3s for a while—she admitted as much that as much as she loves them, Ironmans aren't her bag.

I think people are pathetic. Kona was awesome, with drafters getting pinged. I think we all heard Clearwater was a challenge. But with the multi-lap format on the bike, I saw lots of good, but wham, I saw three instances of pack riding that was abysmal. Jimmy Riccitello is doing a good job, and I know some courses, like Arizona, make it hard to put multiple motos out there—one wobbling rider caused a rider behind to swerve into the path of a course moto, ending the athlete's day and breaking the front cowling off the moto. It's tight out there.

I'm sure there's those who are cheating for that elusive Kona slot. But these mid-pack guys (and girls mixed in) have nothing to gain. I think the four-minute penalty is too slack. For many, it's just a nice rest, with little effect on their day on the whole. Eight minutes would be a proper first offence. 10 minutes would be brilliant. When people get caught now, they figure it into the minutes they saved being in the pack—it's a net-zero loss, a wash. If the rules could change, if officials would err on the side of being too harsh, well, the world would be a better place. And less people would be capable of cheating... themselves. Honestly, I wonder how they can smile as they sleep, knowing their new PR was the result of cheating. I couldn't do it.

I think the rockstar award for the day in Tempe goes to Kieran Doe. Everyone has their reasons for finishing a race. But from mile one, he was experiencing foot pain and decided to pull off his race flats and did the entire run in just a pair of socks. For those that don't know the Arizona course, half is on cement path, and the other half is on crushed rock. Either way, it was painful.

He said he did it for friends and family, he had to finish for them, tearing up a bit as he told me. Clearly, it was more that being that simple. Whatever the reason, it was an impressive show; being first out of the water, leading most of the bike alone, then soldiering through the run. He'll have more Ironman wins than his first in Canada a year ago, but this year, Arizona wasn't in the cards for him.

The last thing I noticed was German Andreas Raelert. This guy is like so many that have segued from ITU racing, and found out they have a natural affinity to distance racing. He was an Olympian in Sydney and Athens, and quite honestly, I only remembered him by name from short-course, because the sport is so.... so not our sport, as competitors.

But he made a bit of a name for himself by almost running down Terenzo Bozonne in Clearwater at 70.3 Worlds. Then he firmly made a name for himself with a balanced, dominant race in Tempe. In the finish chute at Ironman Arizona, representatives from different brands were approaching him—I'm sure to congratulate him, but also to pass their cards and interest in sponsoring him. As a journalist I found him to be a great personality, excited about this new chapter in his sport, with the same excitement that we heard from Andy Potts about racing Kona. He nearly earned it by winning in Clearwater, but he removed any technical doubt in Arizona. This guy is a rising star.

Now it's on to winter (which has already seen snow with a trip to Halifax to see family), will be tempered by several projects, and which is also the perfect time to play with the new positons I found in the wind tunnel, as well as tweak and adjust to changes with Donna's setup. Granted, Ironman Western OZ is on soon, as will Ironman New Zealand, Pucon and the rest of races going on Down Under. But soon enough, the season will start again.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Blue Carolina: A company's quest to make you—literally you—faster

I’ve returned from my East Coast swing to A2 Wind Tunnel. Chance Regina of Blue Competition Cycles hosted me on the trip to Charlotte, N.C. The goal: experience just what the Blue Triad buyer will: an hour of time in the wind tunnel.

That is, a free hour of time in the wind tunnel. To do whatever I wanted. Get fit, play with parts, whatever. Or pretend I was Jimmy Riccitello and break wind, which he found comes back around and gets you, right in the grille.

The last time I had been tunnel fit tested was about six years ago. Then, I was given a VHS tape of my runs. That’s like Betamax and regardless, I’ve evolved my fit so much in those six years that it would have been moot anyway. It was time for a new fit. Beyond that, I wanted to try some different equipment and positions.

A2 is adjacent to AeroDyn Wind Tunnel. If you’ve listened to me before, you’ll know AeroDyn does all the aerodynamics testing for the NASCAR teams, with the tunnel rented out by the big teams on a literal 24/7 basis. With that business locked down for the next year and a half, tunnel owners decided to build a second, smaller tunnel next door, catering to the rest of the industry outside cars. And, says A2 engineer Mike Giraud, about 80 percent of his business now is bike-related, whether it’s athlete fitting or manufacturers coming in to test prototype gear.

What’s great about Giraud, is that in his other life, he was a triathlete and a fitter. He spent several years as the team mechanic on the Saturn road team, then wrenching and fitting for the Timex Triathlon Team. The guy knows bikes and fit. To the right is Regina on the left, and Giraud on the right, both setting up my test bike.

So if you do the Blue Triad deal, the value is apparent; wind tunnel time at tunnels around the nation ranges from $700 to $1800 per hour. They will pump out numbers you have to decipher yourself. After you get yourself to Carolina for your tunnel test, you could bring your own coach or fitter with you to break down your numbers, but barring that, Giraud has the capabilities. I’ve been around enough fitters to know he knows his stuff.

So what’d I find? I thought my aero position was pretty damn good… but I wasn’t that good. Giraud was able to determine that because I have long forearms, I tend to prop up on them and crawl across my aerobar, perching on about the front two inches of my saddle.

My test bike for the baseline was the one any Blue buyer will be aboard: the Triad. It’s the same bike I’ve been testing with for the last few months for a Triathlete magazine Bike of the Month review in San Diego, so I had lots of quality time on it in my baseline position. It’s set with a three-position seatpost, allowing a seat angle as shallow of 74 degrees and steep as 80 degrees. A2 also has any variety of wheels, aerobars, aero bottles to swap and try if you so desire. I ran my tests with the spec Aerus aerobar with s-bend extensions, and the spec Zipp 808 rear/404 front clincher set.

My notes:

• I tested two helmets I was most interested in; the Specialized TT2, and the Giro Advantage II. While the Specialized helmet is not available to the market, at least not yet, the nice cats at Specialized set me up for one to test. Between the two, the Specialized was most aero for me. And I say for me, because as Giraud reminded, every athlete’s flexibility and aero position will dictate what helmet will fit best and flow wind off it and onto a rider’s back.
• Aero helmets are not the end-all, be-all. Craig Alexander did an aero versus road helmet test at A2 earlier this year, doing a fit working with biomechanics expert Todd Carver of Retul fitting. For Crowie, it wasn’t about what was the faster helmet; he knew the aero helmet would be faster. He wanted to know by how much, and use that data to determine if it was worth the potential heat buildup an aero helmet brings about racing in Kona. The gains being too negligible, he opted for the vented helmet, Smart choice; he won Kona. So did Chrissie Wellington. It seems to me that TeamTBB coach Brett Sutton didn’t need to visit a wind tunnel to know that aero helmets won’t win the race—but they can certainly lose you one.
• The Praying Landis position didn’t necessarily work for me. It was the one thing that got me to duck my head (trying to replicate the images in my head of Levi Leipheimer shoving his face into his hands), but flexibility and just general comfort limited me.
• Ducking the head can yield massive, massive drag savings. Giraud noted that no matter how my bars dropped or extend, my head rise was seemingly locked into place for every run. It wasn’t until I attempted the Landis position that I consciously made an effort to dive my head down. Suddenly was taken out of the wind for a significant drop in drag.
• I also got a chance to test the new Vision aerobar hydration system. While it had a drag coefficient of 2.891 ft squared in a zero-yaw test, those numbers dropped to 2.571 when I was kicked over to a 15-degree yaw—a realistic crosswind situation. Just like Zipp’s test finding in the Sub 9 that the disc’s numbers dropped all the way to positive drag at a certain yaw angle, The increased surface area on the Vision unit meant more opportunity for laminar air flow, and thus lower numbers.

Bottom line, and need to practice tucking my head, and I can go lower in front. If I do that, I could manage to get my baseline drag coefficient of 2.792 ft squared down to 2.667. At least I ruled out a bunch of arm and aerobar positions that saw my coefficient rise to as much as 2.807. I have all winter to practice. Even for a guy who has access to coaches and fitters left and right, nothing can substitute or replicate the data you get when wind tunnel testing—what a valuable experience.

So you have to ask yourself, how valuable is it to drop massive drag watts through your position, or to buy a wheel that will get you maybe an extra six watts versus your existing race wheelset? Until now, the best a company could do to sweeten the pot of their bike sale is to bump up a spec. Or throw you a water bottle.

Blue has -gone one better—way better; they realize that the bike is a part of the equation, but the largest part of it is the rider. Optimize the fit, and aerodynamics, and you optimize the results in the race—which optimizes your experience. You can buy speed, and like many brands, Blue has that in the Triad with a tunnel-designed, engineered scythe of a ride. But Blue is throwing more speed—the opportunity to find your best position, to play with different options, whatever you want—to you for free.

Beyond that, Blue, along with Zipp and SRAM, is soon doing a giveaway, run in Triathlete magazine through March of next year: a draw for what they call the “Pro Treatment,” which they did for their sponsored pros Heather and Trevor Wurtele and Brent McMahon earlier this year. One person will win a Triad, and get a paid flight to North Carolina for two free hours of fit time at A2 Wind Tunnel. Someone’s gonna get lucky.

After the testing, Regina, having gotten wind of my affinity for NASCAR, pulled some strings. A drive through from A2 to an undisclosed location led us to Joe Gibbs Racing. For those that don’t follow sports, let me explain: Joe Gibbs is the legendary coach of the Washington Redskins from 1981 to 1993, earning three Super Bowl rings.

After the NFL came NASCAR team ownership, with Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin racing under his flag. In ’09, youngster Joey Logano will be driving the Home Depot car as Tony Stewart starts his own team.
And all those cars are headquartered in Huntersville, North Carolina. Eric Groen was just off the plane from the race in Phoenix for Tony Stewart as one of his over-the-wall wheel changers. Groen took Chance and I around the facility.

And the facility was gorgeous. The main garage floor was pristine, with several of the cars lined up meticulously along the walls. Eric pointed out Stewart’s car that won Talladega a month ago. As we walked down the row, I saw one of Denny Hamlin’s cars, crunched to bits. “Is that….”

“Yep, that’s Denny’s car from Talladega,” Groen said. At that race, Goodyear was having a tread compound problem with its tires, and no matter the camber they set up on the cars, the tires were going right down to the cords—and blowing up. Denny’s was one that saw the front passenger quarter panel explode like a bomb had gone off. It's over there on the right.

After watching all the bump-drafting, I walked around for a look at Denny’s bumper, which was as scuffed and scratched as I thought it would be.

Eric took us through the fabrication room, where they build the cars from flat squares of sheet metal. Saw the TRD engines, and a room full of CNC machines cutting parts that any bike engineer would only be able to dream of having at their disposal. Saw the transport trucks, rows of Goodyears, and crankshafts in the engine room so beautifully polished, so sexy, I wanted one for my coffee table. Not only could I not have one as a souvenir, I couldn’t take pictures of it. Ah well.

Eric said that the guys working on engines would basically spend the day in a locked room for six hours, concentrating on just assembling that one engine. And for an engine room, it was, again, pristine. The solvent basins were without a spot of dirt.

Another interesting element; you know how the UCI has a frame measurement gauge that it uses at races to makes sure TT bike saddles and aerobar extesions don't go to beyond its regulations for legality?

NASCAR has the same gauge. Except it's massive, and they call it the claw. They drop this thing, *which you see below above Tony Stewart's car) onto the cars at races.

It has to be within an eighth of a centimeter, Groen said, at each of the points when it is winched down onto a car's body, for the car to be legal. If extends out, or flares in, the car can't go out for practice until it is spot-on, and the team has to hammer in or pull out the sheet metal to get it compliant. "Any little thing like that can be a big aerodynamic advantage for the car at the speeds they're going," Groen said.

So I left now knowing what a pro motorsports operation looks like and now its time to go back to work. Having been in two wind tunnels in the same week (I was at the San Diego Low Speed Wind Tunnel last week with Steve Hed and was there the following day during the Lance Armstrong test) I’m back to the grill. Got a cool wind tunnel story to write.


Oh, one more thing I forgot to put in this story, which is on the homepage: being a wicked mechanic, Giraud is a clever one. I've included two things he did; one was a little "pigtail" which he put on the rear derailleur to keep it in one gear, allowing him to change out bars during our test.

Another was a wicked-cool Craftsman compressor gun that he rigged with a hash pipe. Voila, the ultimate, portable, no-effort pump for your garage or the races. It even has a digital gauge on it, showing readings in tenths of PSI, until it reaches 100, where it goes in individual PSI. Show up to your local Ironman and it'll be like a guy walking through a sorority with a puppy: you'll be the most popular person in transition, guaranteed.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

What's a wind tunnel fit worth?

Just done with another wonderful SoCal ride, and barely survived an attack at a light. As a couple cars cruised through a light in wonderment as a mad swarm headed along with them, I was yelling at them to light a fire under their asses. Because while they were safe in their cars, I was in the path of the swarm, and had nowhere to go. When the last car moved through the intersection, I busted through, but just barely. If anyone saw the allergic reaction my head underwent when I was stung on the head (bee in helmet vent) earlier this summer, you’ll know how much I didn’t want anything to do with these bees.

I know the cold is coming (I know, I heard the Midwest already received its first blizzard of the year, and I’m sure my wife and I will get a good dose as we head to see her family in Halifax for Thanksgiving in a few weeks). But I guess that this sweet weather is the reward for the financially meager life my wife and live in Encinitas, Calif.

I headed out with Donna and former pro star Todd Jacobs and Donna’s swim partner/buddy Doug Compere. On the way back I did efforts on a Suplicy test tri bike, and in between I screwed with my iPhone. I wondered, what happens when you take a picture of your wheel while it’s spinning, with the phone? Did it freeze action like my Canon pro cameras? The result?
Cool as hell… it’s like the freeze frame photo finish shots from the Tour. I guess that means if I stand at a race finish line, I can be the official timing company of the local crit.

Well, Donna’s still out riding, so while she’s out, I figured I’d update my blog.

While I missed covering and seeing 70.3 Worlds (I had planned on going but the trip was scuttled), I am really, really excited about my next trip, which starts tomorrow: a trip to North Carolina again!

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday at the San Diego Low Speed Wind Tunnel, thanks to an invite from Steve Hed. I got to watch Steve do some amazing prototype work, as well as Trek engineers who were doing some tire testing, each of which I’ll soon chronicle here.

Tomorrow, I’m boarding a plane for Charlotte. I made a recent trip to the A2 Wind Tunnel, and am going back again, this time at the invite of Blue Competiton Cycles. Blue has been doing tri bikes for a handful of years, but 2008 marked a major surge for the brand when they debuted the Triad, a tunnel-designed weapon against the wind.

Blue, however is adding a unique twist to the whole thing. You buy a bike from most folks, and you get a great bike, then have to figure out the whole fit thing on your own. Maybe you’re lucky and your local shop has a certified fit… which you’ll pay for to have done. Maybe you’ll pay to go to a wind tunnel camp. Maybe you bought the bike, and you’re done paying… and have to figure out the fit yourself, using Slowtwitch forum members to dissect your fit and the wallpaper and shag carpet in the background of your living room.
The folks from Blue have a different tack: you buy the bike, you get the fit for free. Not just a fit, but a wind tunnel fit. A fast bike is not fast when you have a bad fit. Blue knows this, and paired with A2 Wind Tunnel in Mooresville, N.C., to offer a wind tunnel fit, included with the bike. You have to get to Carolina on your own, but really, you have to make an effort to get to a wind tunnel anyway if you were paying, yes? And A2 is one of the newest tunnels out there coming out with great accurate data. Craig Alexander did his tunnel testing at A2 this year, trying to see value between wearing an aero helmet versus a vented road helmet. You saw his results in Kona... in a road helmet. It seemed in his case heat management trumped aerodynamics. But that was all secondary to to his bike fit.

What does “free wind tunnel fit” mean? I’m going to find out. I’m headed to the land of NASCAR (yeah, I know, I talk about it ad nauseum… there’s two race left in the season, so bear with me) to experience just what you get when you buy a Triad, and how much that can impact your experience with the bike. I haven’t had a wind tunnel fit in about six years and I’ve literally let my fit devolve to a fit based on feel, so this will be a genuine, from the ground fit to determine my baseline, an optimized mix of aerodynamics and power. You can do the power thing anywhere, but to get your true drag numbers, you can’t do it anywhere but in a tunnel. Blue and A2 are offering a killer deal. What’s it worth? Well, you can buy a Triad with an Ultegra SL group for $4,400. What’s a wind tunnel session worth on its own? I’ll find out.

Whatever it is, it’s a unique, and valuable freebie any way you slice it. This will be an interesting trip, one I've been looking forward to. Will update here shortly...