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.


Jacob said...

nice article

Finanger said...

by far your best blog post....thanks for sharing....i'm expecting some fast bike splits from you next season!

Debbie Steiger said...

Thanks for a great article. I just recieved a call from Triathlete magazine that we won the sweepstakes! It was exciting to share your experience!

laminar air flow said...

This was one of my favorite posts of yours. Keep up the good writing!

php scripts said...

Wow this is amazing. I never thought that there exist something like this. This is my first time reading your post and i like it a lot. Keep it up.. I like reading articles regarding cars or designs of cars.

Peter said...

Thanks, this is a great article, really interesting.

Chuck said...

Cool idea on the Craftsman Inflator, just picked one up today at Sears Hardware.