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Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Tri Bike Conundrum

Most triathletes are gear geeks -- I'll include myself in that characterization.  Perhaps that's a reason some athletes get into the sport, and the sport does not disappoint.

While there are numerous geegaws and doodads for the swim and run portion, the bike reigns supreme.  Aero bars, helmets, hydration systems, powermeters, skinsuits, GPS, carbon wheels (including the ominous sounding disc wheel -- you'll know what I'm talking about if you've ever been passed by someone with one), not to mention the increasingly over-engineered bike frames.

With all these options for countless ways to spend your money, what should you spend your money on if you want to get some bling but do it in a half-way meaningful way.

Most triathletes do their first races on a road bike that may or may not have aerobars on it.  Once they invest in the sport, the dedicated tri bike is usually the first big purchase, often followed by the aero wheels, then perhaps a bike fit, and then a good aero helmet.

This sequence is all wrong, though:

1.  Bike
2.  Wheels
3.  Fit
4.  Helmet

I've been doing a lot of triathlon bike fits recently -- I did about half a dozen in one day a few weeks back -- and a number of things struck me while I was doing them.

First, something I always think about when I do any fitting, which is usually that many of my clients would be a lot better off if they had called me and started the fitting process before they bought a bike.  A fit session where we determine the correct position and work backwards from that to determine the right size would save a lot of headaches.  While I do sell bikes, of course, my clients will tell you I never pressure them about my bikes when doing a fitting.  If they're interested in a BMC or a Wilier road or tri bike I'm happy to make that happen for them if it's going to be the best fit.  If they're more interested in another bike from another manufacturer, I'm more than happy to help them get fit to that bike and just take my normal fitting fee.

On this particular marathon day of bike fitting, half of the clients I saw would have been better off on a different size frame.  It all comes down to compromise -- when the bike isn't sized right we have to make compromises in handling, aerodynamics, balance, etc. in order to get it to fit half-way decent.  I may be able to get a functional fit for someone on an aggressive and aero bike like the Cervelo P4, but the compromises we make to get this position can often negate the benefits of that slippery frameset.

I don't think it's a travesty when clients come from a bike shop purchase and aren't fit properly -- that's not really what the shops are good at.  They're good at building, selling and repairing bikes, not analyzing complex biomechanics.  But I do think it's nearly criminal when they are sold a bike that is the wrong size entirely.  Spending thousands of dollars on something that's the wrong size is the ultimate bummer.

For all my tri/TT clients whether they're on the right size bike or not, I wonder whether the super-aero frame is really giving them much edge?  How much edge does the frame give?  What many athletes are surprised to find is that for aero advantage the biggest savings is from refining their body position -- your body supplies 80% of the drag while on your bike.  That bike fit is looking even more important, isn't it?

So what's the next biggest savings?  Must be the frame, right?  Wrong.

Gotta be the wheels then; we're always hearing about how important the wheels are, huh?  Wrong again.

Actually it's the helmet.  A good aero helmet, and it's proper positioning (read as "you need to be in a position on the bike such that you can have the aero helmet properly aligned -- usually with the fin running close to your back"  -- bike fit again) is more critical than the frame or wheels.

Seems crazy, I know.  So I always then wonder, how many of these athletes would be better off on a custom tri bike?  I think the answer is the majority of them.  Even with the understanding that there are few full custom aero bikes out  there, and the ones that are out there are quite pricey -- it's not unusual to have those framesets start at $4,000-$7,000, which kits out to roughly $6,500-$12,000 for a complete bike.  The non-aero custom cousins made out of titanium and even steel, however can be significantly cheaper (and can even provide options for travel bikes with S&S couplers, since triathletes famously travel quite frequently to races all over the world and pay expensive shipping or airline charges to get their bikes there).  The steel and titanium bikes don't have the aero tubing, but with the relative unimportance of the frame's aerodynamics especially when weighted against the extremely important notion of proper body position, which the custom bike can refine without compromise, this is a very easy trade-off.

Am I going to convince everyone to forego the bladed shapes of the stock carbon tri market?  No way.  And I'm not trying to.  There are some athletes (however few) who will be able to fully take advantage of the position those bikes provide, and they should buy those bikes.

But those aren't the clients that need me anyway.  The legions of athletes in the age groups that do need my help -- those with more motivation than time or talent (again myself included) are "my people".

Not  conventional, but very effective.  You spend a lot of time and money training and going to races, don't compromise when it comes to the biggest gear purchase you'll make.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could email me?