Well, it’s the time of year when you’ll be writing out your little lists for santa and hoping that he’s feeling generous in his assessment of your behaviour over the last 12 months….
So, a good time to post some advice in response to a few frequently asked questions regarding investment in “gear that’ll make you go faster” for triathlon. We’re not talking Triathlon Gear Basics here – the essential kit requirements for a beginner in this expensive sport will be covered in a different post – this one is dedicated to items that, in exchange for your hard-earned, can provide free speed.
Ok, a wetsuit is one of the basic essentials of the sport, ranging form £150 for a very basic or ex-demo suit to several hundred pounds for top end super engineering. £300 seems to be about the mid-range mark for most popular brands of suit. Different makes and models offer different degrees of flexibility and buoyancy as well as slightly different fit. It’s certainly worth having a wetsuit that you feel good and unimpaired in whilst swimming, although do bear in mind that baggy is not a look to be going for – a good fitting suit will feel pretty tight on dry land. It seems to be the case that the cheaper suits are of the more buoyant and less flexible variety because most people looking for bottom-end gear are poor swimmers who benefit from buoyancy in the legs correcting their body position in the water, and being less naturally flexible in the shoulder anyway don’t so much notice the restriction. They my even find that reduced shoulder flexibility helps encourage better body roll. However, those with a swimming background often struggle to adjust to swimming in a wetsuit finding their legs raised unnaturally high, even breaching the surface of the water, and their shoulder movements restricted by the rubber. In response to this, most manufactures offer a top-end suit with panels of varying thickness around the body to allow freer motion. Addition features of a more expensive suit include textured panels for improved hydrodynamic flow around the body, ribbed sleeves for a better “grip” on the water, materials with lower drag coefficients and easy opening fastening mechanisms. The suit that I currently use is a Sailfish One – this is a great suit but one of it’s ‘special features’ is the extra buoyant hip panels to help with body position and encourage hip rotation. This is a lot better than simply having floaty legs. I find it a good fit (though a little high around the throat) and is very flexible in the shoulders. The athletes on our team who can swim better than me wear the Attack – which does not have this feature and is at least as flexible around the arms. Sailfish make excellent suits which tend to be reasonably priced compared to similar level product on the market. I am not just saying this because I am sponsored by them, but of course my experience of wetsuits is limited to what i have tried myself. Snugg do a good value taylor-made suit. I loved mine because it was so buoyant , fit well and was easy to unzip and remove quickly. It also stopped fitting so great when my body changed shape, so unless you are a person of very unusual dimensions, I’d not recommend that you spend up on custom fit. My first ever wet-suit was a bottom of the range ex-demo QR. It was perfect as far as I could tell at the time, and i still enjoy swimming in it occasionally. The best advice I can give you is to try out as many demos as you can – BlueSeventy, the market leader, regularly have “try a suit” stalls at open water swim and race venues. Look for ex demo stock and sales – sometimes you can get suits at real heavy discounts.
Race wheels are a bigger investment. But in terms of time saving they will give you more than a top -end wetsuit. Think of it in terms of minutes per £! Something with a deeper rim means shorter spokes thus less drag (drag is created along the length of the spoke as it cuts through the air). The deeper the rim, the more this is the case ….but also the more eXpensive, starts getting heavier and susceptible to instability in cross winds. The Disc wheel is the extreme example of this. Quad, or tri spoke wheels address this by reducing the number of spokes to a bare minimum – replacing them with a four (or 3) solid aero shaped arms. Other benefits of race wheels are better quality bearings, generally lighter construction, fewer spokes and not to ignore the psychological boost. The most versatile option for most people is something similar to the Zipp 404 – perhaps something a little deeper on the back.The 404/808etc in the name refers to the depth of the section, I believe – must be 40.4/80.8mm. Don’t just plump for Zipp because they are the best known on the market though – they are very expensive and there are many other brands equally good. A couple of points to be aware of are. Most race wheels come with a choice of tubs or clincher. Make sure you know what you’re getting! Wheels with carbon rims require that you use special cork brake pads. On most clincher wheels this did not used to apply because carbon fibre was not strong enough to withstand the side forces that the clincher tyre applies – however most wheel manufacturers are now producing fully carbon clinchers. Swapping your brake pads over is not a huge task or massive expense either, but again just be sure that you know what you are buying! Look for sales and second hand, and certainly try to arrange to ride a set and decide for yourself whether the difference is noticeable. For those tempted by the sex appeal of a disc wheel, a low cost and versatile option are clip-on disc covers. These are thing flexible discs of plastic which can be temporarily (but securely) fixed to your own rear wheel. Made to order and distributed by Wheelbuilder.com, they offer all the aerodynamic advantage of a basic disc wheel, weigh a lot less and retain the flexibility of a road wheel so you suffer less road vibrations than you would on a disc. Drawbacks are that they don’t look like you spent a grand on a wheel, and don’t make the distinct “whump whump” ing noise that signify the presence of someone who’s spend loads-a money!
Time Trial Bike – When contemplating the purchase of a time trial specific bike, you are talking about adding a bike to the stables – you’ll still want a road bike for most of your training, so the value of this really depends on the sort of (and amount of) racing you anticipate doing. No doubt about it, on flatter courses a bike with geometry designed to be ridden low-down and forward of the bottom bracket, incorporates aerodynamic features and a has very stiff frame design is faster. Weigh that advantage up against the compromise on comfort, handling and weight of the bike depending on your race goals and type of courses that you expect to encounter. Also, bear in mind that for road cycling, or elite level ITU races, these bikes are not allowed. You may even be asked questions by a very diligent officials at Cycling Time Trial events. A decent time trial bike built with mid-range components and wheels will set you back between £2 and £3k. You’ll immediately notice the difference from your old road bike and feel super fast! The psychological benefits of that are huge. I save my TT bike for my race specific training sessions and races – not my day to day training – so that I feel special whenever I ride it. seeking lighter, stiffer and more aerodynamic you can really spend – add top end components and wheels and it’s not unusual to see £6 -7k worth of bike sitting in transition, especially at an Ironman event. But, you’ll see just as many, if not more road bikes set up with lowered front end, aero bars fitted and race wheels. If you are doing a long event, then you need to balance comfort with aerodynamic function. If you’re back/bum/neck is killing you and you cant hold the position, you’re just riding a flash-looking uncomfortable bike that you paid a lot of dough for.
Aero Helmets are something frequently seen in association with both (or all) of the above! Wind tunnel testing ‘proves’ that the pointy headgear offers substantial time-savings. How this relates to real life race conditions is another matter! With a well fitting helmet worn correctly so as to fill the gap behind your head and back, drag will be reduced. Drop your head down as you tire probably results in greater drag as turbulence forms in the gap between back of helmet and your shoulders. Taking in the scenery turning your head side ways and the long profile catches the wind side. So, the longer the event, the more difficult it is to get the benefit of the helmet. Another factor to consider is thermal regulation. This is a consideration more relevant to long distance racing, or events in very hot climates but one of the drawbacks of the aero lid is the lack of vents. Since any interruption to the smooth surface of the helmet (aside from the shallow golf-ball like pocks which have been introduced to some of them) creates drag, ventilation slots is something you compromise for a fast head. Both make and female Ironman World Champions in 08 and 09 rode in standard helmets. In acknowledgement of this and the ever expanding long-distance market most manufacturers have started to incorporate some form of ventilation and even water-dump reservoirs into certain models of helmet. Most manufactures make a helmet that meets the road safety standards which make them functional as a piece of safety equipment as well as a faring, and is insisted upon by race organisers – but check this. Pointy helmets originated on the track and cycling time trials where wearing a helmet is not compulsory as it is in triathlon and so there was no requirement for this degree of robustness for protection. An aero helmet is a relatively cheap way of standing out as a “fast” athlete- but probably the least functional item on this list so far unless you are already a pretty accomplished cyclist and able to maintain correct head position throughout your race.
Specialist hydration systems are just one example of the race paraphernalia that you can spend your cash on to help you save time on race day. There are many types which are designed to slot between your aerobars with a drinking straw projecting upwards and close to your face for quick easy sips of your fluids without having to deviate from your optimum aero riding position. The aerodynamic effect of a vessel mounted here is questionable, though it’s better than a bottle on your tubes because of the fact that you don’t need to sit up in order to drink. There are a few different designs on the market. The budget variety is by Profile Design, which has been greatly improved since I bought mine 4 years ago, used it once in training and gave it up as hopeless and annoying. Pay more for lower profile designs such as the Podium Quest (with dual chambers) and top dollar for the Speedfill system which mounts on the frame with a long semi flexible drinking hose up to the riders face. i’ve seen many smart modifications to these systems but it has recently become fashionable to simply fix a bottle cage in the gap between your bars and use a standard bidon in there. admittedly this required that you remove the bottle to drink, and cant be re-filled on the fly, but wind tunnel tests have demonstrated that by filling the gap between your forearms (when on the aero bars) frontal drag is reduced compared to not having a bottle there. Profile design released a rather expensive gizmo to help you fix your bottle cage in this position, but it does nothing better than you can achieve yourself with a handful of zip-ties.
Powermeters and Powertaps are increasingly seen on the bikes of amateur triathletes, especially long distance specialists. Unlike the other items listed above, these are not in the quick-fix free-speed race-day bling box but rather a long term investment to take your training up a level. There are a few systems with methods of power measurement. The most commonly used by amateurs are SRM and Powertap. SRM system is based around strain -gauge in the crank arms or bottom bracket whilst Powertap (PT) measures post-drive power through the hub of the rear wheel. There is slight loss of power through the drive (chain and gears) of a bike and so SRM will tend to give a higher power reading because of this. Both systems use ANT+ wireless communication so can be used on different bikes and paired up to your other training aids and GPS systems. With a PT, you swap the wheel over whilst SRM is a bit more complicated as it means switching the cranks over – but this is a job that can be done at home once you have tools and had the advantage of enabling you to make a choice on different wheels for a race. SRM cost over a grand for even the most basic version, which is why they are less commonly seen is use by age-group athletes. Powertaps generally price up cheaper – starting at around £600, but don’t forget to factor in the cost of a wheel build around the hub. You can get any sort of wheel that you like; from a sturdy all-weather good value clincher training wheel to a super light and aero deep-section tubular race wheel. Of most use is something in between the two that will be robust enough to train on but not impair your racing should you choose to use power data in a race. Low cost “disc covers” mentioned earlier are a good solution for suitable courses, giving the aero effect of a disc, whilst allowing you to retain the Powertap in the wheel’s hub. Training and racing with power will be a topic of a future post but without doubt, at the end of the day a tailored training programme based around your own personal data will give you far greater gains on race day than any amount of gear under the tree!