Buying Incremental Performance – A Look at Equipment!
There is a reason the average age of a triathlete is in the late-30s and their median income level is in the six figures (and 15% make over $200k a year). Sports like triathlon and cycling can get prohibitively expensive when compared to other endurance endeavors (such as running or swimming). Carbon fiber frames and wheels, wetsuits, running and cycling shoes, biomechanical insoles, aerodynamic helmets, and race entry fees (stretching to nearly $1000 for some Ironman events) can add up. But, if you have the means, many of these items can lead to improved performance. A lighter more aero frame or wheel set, a professional bike fit, a 'smart' trainer for indoor riding, portable altitude tents or even VO2 testing can enhance your own performance.
According to a study completed in 2010 by the Sports Goods Manufacturing Association (SGA) for the sport of Triathlon, over 1.2 million participated in at least one triathlon in 2009; an 11% increase from 2008 and over 50% increase from 2007 (so I can only guess how large the number was in 2016!). According to that same SGMA study, here is what the average Triathlete spent on their sport over the prior 12 months:
· $2,274 spent on bikes
· $564 spent on race fees
· $524 spent on bike equipment
· $370 spent on training, running and athletic footwear
· $277 spent on nutritional supplements
For a grand total of just over $4000 per Triathlete over the prior 12 months!
Bicycles and equipment have certainly come a long way since my racing days back in the 1980s. In the mid-80s our racing bikes were all steel from frame to stem to handlebars to wheels. If you had a bike that weighed in close to 20 pounds, that was considered light! As a budding racer coming up through the junior ranks in southern Wisconsin, I recall saving up all summer long for my first Italian racing bike – a Basso Gap set up with full pantographed Campagnolo Super Record parts. The cost of this first bike from my local racing shop, Yellow Jersey, Ltd – a mere $999.00! Today, that would not even buy me the front wheel on my racing bike.
Fast-forward thirty some years and a 20 pound bike would either be a piece of vintage bicycle art for the wall or an entry-level tank! Carbon fiber has taken over. From the frame to the stem and handlebars to even the wheels – everything is carbon fiber save a few nuts and bolts and the bicycle chain. The move to lighter carbon fiber means it is now commonplace for a top of the line bicycle to weigh in less than 15 pounds and run you well over $10,000 (and in some cases more than double that). For safety reasons, the professional cyclist must adhere to certain minimum weights for their race bikes. So, if you are looking to gain a few precious seconds or even minutes, consider an upgrade in your equipment.
However, even if you have a steel or even aluminum bicycle frame, before upgrading there are several factors to consider according to Cadence Cycling and Multi-sport in Philadelphia*:
1. Frame stiffness (vertical, lateral, and torsional)
3. Rider Strengths and Objectives
4. Custom geometry options
*(taken from Cadence’s Bike Tech 101)
How stiff your new bike frame should be is a factor of your weight, height, average ride duration and riding objectives. Looking for comfort over a Gran Fondo or looking for superior acceleration in a local criterium race? As for what type of material, that again will depend on many of the same factors above with one more added in – budget.
Back to the case of our ever-popular carbon fiber, it has many advantages. Lighter, better damping qualities, resistant to corrosion, malleable enough to offer infinite shapes and uses, and comes in several different grades which in the end will affect cost. Bicycles made with carbon fiber frames can run anywhere from close to $1,000 to over $20,000, however, are susceptible to cracking if crashed with little opportunity to repair (whereas by season end, my old steel or aluminum frame would have a few dents here and there adding to the lore of the machine!).
Outside of a lighter, better handling frame to help you cheat off father time, aerodynamics is another place one can invest money and be rewarded. For the time trialist or triathlete reducing one’s drag coefficient (consider this your footprint in the wind) is where the action is.
Most studies on aerodynamics for the cyclist point out that wind resistance is the greatest force riders must overcome (Grappe et al., 1997; Kyle and Burke, 1984). These same studies show that the body is responsible for the majority of this (close to 70 percent), with the bicycle making up the rest (30 percent). Two areas where one can make an immediate improvement in their drag are wheels and helmet.
Aerodynamic wheels can reduce the drag of the bike by 49 grams of force (Greenwell et al., 1995) or according to studies done by aero-guru John Cobb, a full 2 to 3 minutes of improvement over a standard set of box, 32 spoke wheels over a 40km distance. However, a set of top shelf carbon aero wheels can set you back easily $2500 (for wheels from Zipp, HED or Mavic) or more. A company called Lightweight makes a set than run upwards of $5000 a pair! But no need to spend that much as cheaper sets can be found for under $1500 ).
An aero helmet can also deliver a much welcome aerodynamic advantage (without the huge hit to your wallet), but only if worn properly - that is with tall down, flat against your back verses dropping your head and having that long aerodynamic tall stick out like a shark’s fin in the wind (and why we are seeing the rise of the short tail aero helmet)!
The early aerodynamic helmets were nothing more than a cheap plastic aero faring added to a chinstrap – no real protection. When the cycling world moved from no helmets (right before my era) or allowing the minimally protective leather helmet (aka the ‘hairnet’ as all it really did is keep your hair in place), aero helmets had to evolve as well. While a Tour de France rider competing in a 5km prolog or even 45km time trial does not really need to worry about helmet ventilation (as those vents are not very aerodynamic in the wind tunnel), someone doing an half or full Ironman does. Rudy Project introduced the “Wingspan’ aero helmet in 2010, and with the help of aero guru John Cobb, produced not only one of the most aerodynamic helmets on the market, made a product that spoke to both the competitive cyclist and long course triathlete with vents that could be removed. They improved upon this model with their Wing 57 helmet.
Below is a look at other improvements one can make on their bike to help ’cheat’ the wind, which was put together by the Southern California Time Trial Series. Time savings are based on a 40km distance (standard length of an Olympic distance bicycle leg), with a rider going approximately 30mph (ya, like most of us can do that). These time advantages can be considerably less if riding under 20mph, something to consider before investing money into aerodynamic upgrades.
Handlebars (Reference: J Cobb, Vision Tech)
From: To: Savings:
Drop Handlebars Integrated Aerobars 2 – 4 minutes
Drops/ with clip-on aerobars Integrated Aerobars 15 seconds – 1 min
Clothing (Reference: Rainer Pivit)
From: To: Savings:
Shorts & Jersey Skin Suit 29 seconds
--- Add Shoe Covers 13 seconds
Wheels (Reference: J Cobb)
From: To: Savings:
"Box Style" 32 spoke wheels Deep front/disc rear 2 - 3 minutes
Deep front/rear Deep front/disc rear 30 seconds
Frame (Reference: J Cobb, Martin/Cervelo)
From: To: Savings:
Round tubing Airfoil chainstays, down/seat tube & post 30 seconds – 2 min
Helmet* (Reference: J Cobb – this data pre-dates the Wingspan figure study)
From: To: Savings:
Standard road helmet L.G. Prologue 30 seconds
Standard road helmet Std road helmet, tape over vents 10 - 30 seconds
So it is easy to see there are many places one seek to improve their performance on the equipment front if you are willing to spend a few bucks!
Of course, there are other areas to help improve performance one should consider when getting into a sport such as cycling or triathlon. They include: getting a professional Bike fit, doing some performance testing (either lactate threshold or VO2 testing), and seeking out a qualified coach to help you construct a proper training program. Enjoy the journey!