I don’t give a damn how many watts you can put out. In an indoor triathlon, you race in a pool, head upstairs to power out on the cycle ergometer and then hit up the treadmill. Your power matters in there. But in real triathlon, outside, with elements and variables, speed matters, not power. I’ll never forget a question asked to me last year by a fellow triathlete. “How did you go so fast?,” he asked. I laughed for a second before I realized he was serious. I don’t remember how I answered the question but I am sure I said something about training. But, in reality, training alone cannot get you a fast time in triathlon, and definitely is not the only factor in cycling. There are cyclists who are faster than me who are no better trained and many who are slower than me who are stronger. But what is it? How do the pros do it? They train their butts off for sure but alongside that, they take into account four sources of resistance that not many triathletes completely account for or are aware of. While some cyclists only know of one or two of these, weight, aerodynamics, drive train resistance, and rolling resistance all act to slow you down.
Being sheltered in the middle of a pack, road cyclists tend to religiously worry about the grams they carry on their bicycle. Almost everything on a bike can be made out of carbon fiber now. But frequently I see a cyclist with a bike that they paid 8K to lose one pound but they carry an extra thirty pounds on their abdomen. Gravity is a significant source of resistance, especially when trying to change speeds or haul up a hill. So what do I account for with weight? First and foremost, I keep my body fat percentage as low as I can and still be healthy. I use a Tanita BC-1000 scale to weigh myself every single day. I weigh in when I wake up after using the bathroom. I avoid eating meals past 8PM and if I do, I exclude the next morning’s data. All my body fat estimates and weights are recorded on a neat graph on my computer. Not using any single data point, I look at trends. If I see an upward trend, I consciously lower my caloric intake during my next recovery week, avoiding limiting calories during my hardest training. As far as the bike itself, the components are decent and the bike is a Felt B2 2012 model. I don’t carry anything to fix a flat because the extra weight may knock me out of the competition before a flat even happens which would surely knock me out of contention. Beyond that, I measure out my quantity of fluids the morning of the race. I make sure I am not carrying more than potentially four ounces extra of fluid. It is never a matter of give or take though; you never want to run out of fluids. But I ensure I am not carrying an excessive amount or else I will have carried dead weight the entire race. With that said, on a flat course, weight has minimal effect on speed but I challenge you to find a perfectly flat course.
Another source of resistance in triathlon cycling that is the most well known as well as well as the most destructive to one’s speed is wind resistance. Aerodynamics on both the bicycle itself as well as on the rider combine to help reduce the wind resistance and effectively decrease the wattage it takes to go a certain speed. At 25 miles per hour, wind resistance can make up 80% of drag on the cyclist. Relevant to the topic above, losing weight can be one of the best ways to limit drag. It is pretty obvious what volume increasing effects weight gain has. The effects transfer to frontal surface area and act to slow a cyclist down, another reason I keep my weight in check. To cut wind resistance, a proper fit to a bike made for the job beats anything else. I am not going to talk about the effects of aero bars and TT helmets. Everyone knows that stuff. No question about their effectiveness for their cost so buy them. However, so many triathletes buy this gear but sit upright in a position that looks as comfortable as my La-Z-Boy recliner. A proper bike fit on a triathlon bike can drop minutes off your time.
But if a professional fit is not available, there are some general techniques to improving aerodynamics. Drop the shoulders so the back is flat. To do this, take out spacers in your stem. Also, what many triathletes do not realize is that how low your back lies is not dependent on where your hands are but rather where your elbows are. Tilting the tips of your aero bars down will pop your back up slightly as well as making your bike very hard to handle. Tilting the tips of the bars up will drop your elbows and in turn drop your shoulders as well as in my opinion make the bike easier to handle. It also makes a more tucked feeling which I find more comfortable. However, make sure not to close the hip, otherwise you will lose a significant amount of your power. That is where a professional can hugely help.
Another technique for improving aerodynamics that requires no turn of a hex wrench is simply the position of the head, neck, and shoulders with respect to the back. This is not one that I recommend to beginner cyclists. However, triathletes with good handling ability can benefit greatly from shrugging the shoulders and dropping the neck. A lot of triathletes will round out the back and lift their shoulders into a nice dome. While this may look good for pictures, it adds several inches of height to the upper back. Additionally, many will choose comfort and vision over aerodynamics by sitting the tail of their helmet on their back comfortably, with their chins up. Instead, you want crunch your neck in a way that sort of feels like reaching your chin towards the ground. This pulls your head in front of your shoulders rather than letting it sit up in the wind and creating additional wind resistance. I find that I cannot where sunglasses because the upper rims block my vision. This is a very uncomfortable technique and definitely requires practice. Another nuance that many triathletes are unaware of is the benefit to staying in this position. With the exception of the occasional lift of my eyes to better see the road ahead, I rarely leave this position. I carry my momentum through turns by continuing to pedal and staying aero if the turn allows.
As far as the bicycle, there are a few techniques that do not require a $1,000+ investment for a couple watts of energy savings. For example, I use the Profile Design Razor Bottle on my seat tube for hydration and have a 24 ounce regular bottle between the aero bars if it is Olympic distance. This is the most aerodynamic set up I could find as well as the most convenient. I do not have to stop pedaling to access the fluid, it does not splash in my face, and it does not require any uncoordinated reaching behind me. A helmet without vents is typically faster than one with vents but will be hotter. Taping over vents on a road helmet will save time in a triathlon. A loose tri suit will flap and causes additional drag on the swim as well as the bike. Other than these few simple techniques, most of the drag results from rider position.
An element of resistance that triathletes almost always neglect is drive train resistance. I don’t want to have to reiterate the well lubed chain but too many times have I seen a watt stealing chain in the transition zone. Also, check your hubs for any grinding pieces of grit. Each time your hub has to click over that grit, your effort is being wasted. The single most important addition to my drive train has to be the ceramic bottom bracket. I would estimate I was losing about 4-6 watts to turning over my old bottom bracket. Additionally, some people’s derailleur pulleys will grind and hold them back. All these elements of a drive train create some amount of resistance but there are very cheap ways to limit their effect.
The last form of resistance on a bike is rolling resistance. An often misunderstood concept, smooth tires do not always equate to fast tires. Ideally we would ride on roads made of hardwood. However, this is not the case so we do have to make somewhat of a compromise between rolling resistance and flat resistance. Essentially the more junk that is between the tube that holds the air and the surface of the tire that hits the road, the higher the rolling resistance. This means more rubber will flex and touch the road surface. The lower rolling resistance tires sit on top of the road, holding their round structure and do not flex, while the crappier tires will spill onto the road surface. I ride Vittoria Corsa Evo CX’s and would not recommend any other tire. I have had no flats and being one of the lowest rolling resistance tires on the market, saved myself about 25 watts over my old tires. Another tip for reducing rolling resistance is to pump your tires on race morning to the right pressure for the course and your weight. Tire pressure is a heavily debated topic and one that I have yet to fall on one side of so I will refrain from any view. Also, I make sure to replace my race tires often, desiring a clean, round surface, rather than a flatter, high resistance surface touching the road.
This is certainly not a complete guide but will hopefully help get some triathletes started on the right track. These are some of the tricks I have learned over the years but nothing beats being a student yourself. Studying each of these forms of resistance and refining your techniques and equipment will help on the path to becoming a better triathlete. Still yet, as I talked about how many watts working with these techniques can save you, none of it will help unless you can actually push the watts.