Wheels priced at four grand, £10k tri bikes and fully integrated carbon aerobars. There’s a reason that triathlon is often labelled as an expensive sport. But it doesn’t have to be, with some considered aero tweaks and purchases – partnered with a smart approach to training, of course –possessing the ability to supercharge your tri times once the season starts is possible for all.
- Clip-on aerobars: 5 of the best reviewed
- Triathlon cost-cutting: how to train and race on a budget
- Ironman: can you race it on a £1,000 gear budget?
- How much does it cost to race Kona?
- How much does it cost to enter and race an Ironman?
- 7 triathlon kit upgrades for beginners that don’t cost a fortune
- What should I be looking for in a second-hand bike?
Instead of gobbling up all the aero kit you can muster, however, the changes all need to holistically combine. There’s no point buying all the aero trickery on the market if your bike position leaves you a crumbled heap by transition two. So where should you begin the process?
“A bike fit 100%. That’s where your journey starts.” The words of 220’s resident aerodynamicist Stephen Roche from the Silverstone Sports Engineering Hub’s wind tunnel. “The common mistake triathletes make is often with their bike position. It stands to reason that, if you’re riding in the right position, your power output will increase, making you more efficient, comfortable and therefore, it’s more sustainable overall. It’s personalised to the rider, and the results I’ve seen with my athletes is proof enough. Small refinements make all the difference.”
Up for refinement here is our tri guinea pig Tomos, who is targeting his first Olympic-distance triathlon in 2021. Already a very strong runner, he’ll need an assured 40km bike leg to prepare him to fly through the field on the final discipline. So, what fundamental changes and marginal tweaks can Roche make to Tomos’ bike position and kit bag? Can an aerodynamic overhaul really be achieved while on a budget? And what can you apply to your own tri performance? Let’s enter the Silverstone wind tunnel to find out…
THE BIKE FIT TIME SAVING: -90secs
The first step on Tomos’ aero makeover actually makes him less aerodynamic. Roche analyses his set-up and finds that Tomos’ saddle height is too low and he’s stretching a little too far for his bars. Saddle height is incrementally raised a centimetre at a time to 3cm and his saddle moved forward by 1cm to open up his hip angle, which is key for triathletes with a running leg to come. These seem like minor tweaks but are changes that, when Tomos reports back a few months later, have increased his comfort on long training rides and reduced the pain that he was experiencing in both his back and knees. So, while the initial aero penalty stands at 90secs over 40km/h due to an increase of Tomos’ frontal profile, this one step back, two steps forwards approach will pay dividends for both bike leg comfort and efficiency for the final run discipline. And the changes will prepare Tomos’ bike for clip-on bars to be added.
ARM SLEEVES TIME SAVING: +50secs
If we needed any example of how easily aerodynamics can be improved on a budget, step forward arm sleeves. Over half of the 90secs of drag that was added after the bike fit has already been wiped out with the addition of Zone3 arm sleeves on Tomos, instantly increasing aerodynamics by 50secs over a 40km bike leg. While you’ll lose a few seconds putting them on in T1 for a triathlon race, you can wear them for the entirety of a duathlon event for added warmth as well (or UV protection in the sun). And, at around £25 quid from multiple brands, are there any more cost-effective ways of reaping aero benefits?
TRI-BARS TIME SAVING: +102secs
It was triathletes who gave the world aerobars long before Greg LeMond used them at the 1989 Tour de France. The designs may have largely changed from the American’s bullhorns of ’89, but the theme of reducing a rider’s frontal profile (and increasing comfort) remains. Our aero analysis instantly shows a mighty gain of 102secs over a 40km race when riding at 45km/h.
- Aerobars: Integrated versus clip-on – which is best?
- How much time will aerobars save me?
- How to fit aerobars (tri bars) onto your bike
Here we’ve specced Profile Design’s classy Sonic Ergos (£130, but you can find pairs from £25 on Wiggle or Decathlon. Set-up is key here, however, so ensure that the armrests are comfortable for extended stints in the aero position and that there’s enough adjustability to find your desired fit. Also aim to refine your position and practise long stints on the bars on a turbo trainer if you have one, and find some empty country lanes or park paths to hone your tri-bar cornering.
TRI-SUIT TIME SAVING: +60secs
A key stat to remember when contemplating aero changes is that 80% of aerodynamic drag is caused by the rider, with just 20% coming from
the bike. That’s why a tri-suit is one of the best bangs for your aero buck, especially given brands have placed added emphasis on tri-suits for the past 5-10 years.
The likes of Endura, Huub, Orca and Zone3 have utilised their own wind-tunnel time to include elbow-length sleeves, dimpled fabrics, aero trips on the sleeves and drag-reducing pockets on their top-end suits, and the tech often trickles down to mid-range models. Tomos is sporting the admittedly pricey Orca Dream Kona suit (£250) here, which shaves a further minute off his 40km bike split, but more affordable short-sleeved aero options include Dhb’s Aeron Lab (£96) and Heart Sport’s Ice Blue (£125), the latter especially in crosswinds.
More importantly, ensure the suit fits you well without being restrictive, and be sure to weigh-up the other tri-suit variables such as comfort, the number of pockets, the size of the chamois, and the various types of grippers and zippers.
- Tri-suits: What are the different options?
- Best tri-suits reviewed: short-sleeved, vested and Ironman
- Tri-suits: what to look for
- 5 of the best: Two-piece tri-suits
AERO ROAD HELMET TIME SAVING: 44secs
Our previous wind tunnel analysis has
revealed that an aero road helmet can be 45secs faster than a traditional vented lid over the 40km bike leg, a healthy saving for those vying for age-group honours especially. The caveat is that much will depend on an athlete’s ability to keep their head in the same aero position, since the effectiveness of many aero road and especially time-trial helmets is severely reduced by having them in the wrong aero positions.
- Best aero road helmets for triathlon reviewed
- Road, aero road and TT cycling helmets: How much difference does the type really make?
Tomos swaps out his standard road helmet for the Kask Utopia here (£219) and we see an instant drag saving of 44secs, while our previous tunnel experiences have shown the S-Works Evade II (£250) and Limar Air Speed (£180) are pick of the top-end crop that can save 68secs over 40km. For budget options, our previous tunnel testing has also revealed Decathlon’s Van Rysel Racer (£40) is the best bet, especially if you’re racing in windier conditions.
Also worth noting is that it’s a misconception that slower cyclists don’t need to think about aerodynamics. If you’re out on the road for
twice the time of the pro athletes, then aerodynamics of course will still be a factor. Triathletes at every level need to make things as efficient as possible on race day.
AERO SHOE COVERS TIME SAVING: 30secs
They’re possibly more for cyclists over triathletes given the added time you’ll need to add/remove them in transitions, but aero shoe covers have long been celebrated as one of the most cost-effective aero cheats. Available from £15 online, they’ve been shown to save 30secs over a 40km ride by covering the knobbly ratchets or beefy Velcro straps on tri or bike shoes. Until someone finds a swifter way for them to be pulled on and removed, we can’t see them gaining any Olympic-distance traction, but the 135secs saving over a 180km Ironman figure may turn some long-distance heads.
LEG SHAVING TIME SAVING: 48secs
Sadly, we didn’t have time to bring out the shaving cream and Bic on Tomos, but data from the Specialized Wind Tunnel in California has shown that shaving your legs isn’t just a cyclist badge of honour. The research revealed that leg shaving can produce aero savings from 48-77secs over 40km, depending on how hairy the protagonist was originally. There can also be savings of 15secs over 40km after stripping the arm hair, if you’re so inclined.
RACE NUMBER TIME SAVING: 27secs
When tri events return, they’re often a showcase of cutting-edge tech soundtracked by the humming of deep-rim wheels through the air. Adding to the audio medley is the classic flapping of race numbers billowing in the wind, which always seems incongruous among the
£10k bikes and pointy helmets. Our research has shown a flapping race number can add 27secs to a 40km split, so think about taping them
down, or check out Nopinz’s array of race number solutions (from £30).
ENERGY GELS TIME SAVING: -10secs
Another potential aero no no is how you carry your fuel. Our Silverstone tunnel research has revealed that adding two energy gels into a tri-suit’s back pockets can add 10secs of aero drag at 45km/h over a 40km bike leg, 46secs over Ironman, which is certainly something to be considered by the elites and the top age-group long-course whizz kids out there. If carrying gels, ensure they’re stuffed fully into your pockets or use an aero Bento box on the top tube.
- Best energy gels: top choices for triathlon
- Energy gels versus energy bars
- Are energy gels with caffeine worth it?
ELASTIC LACES TIME SAVING: 60secs
Okay, we’re straying into run territory here, but with your tri position now honed you’re aero and clean on the bike, so it’d be a shame to blow your gains by faffing around tying conventional shoelaces in T2. Tri laces come in many forms, including models from Greeper, Lock Laces and Xtenex, but the principle is the same – a simple jolt of the lace or locking mechanism and you’re away. Depending on your lacing skills (or lack of), you can save up to a minute in T2 by using tri laces over conventional versions from the princely sum of £3
Images credit: Steve Sayers