Understanding the wind tunnel and its impact on your equipment decisions
By Vinnie Santana, coach at ironguides.net
Specialized bicycles have built their own wind runnel to have unlimited access to testing their equipment and build the most aerodynamic bikes, helmets and accessories to their athletes and costumers. This was a great move for their RD and marketing team as they can now go into details on the type of aerodynamics savings each of their equipment will save you.
The video above is a great example that shows why their Shiv frame can save you a lot of time compared to a standard time trial frame, as the Shiv was designed for an optimal combination of aerodynamics and fueling by holding a “fuel cell” that also work as a fairing and holding a water compartment inside the frame set. This testing shows a great amount of savings (up to 77 seconds over 40km – Olympic Distance Triathlon) and also the importance of aerodynamics in this sport.
However many other tests done by all type of equipment companies should be taken carefully by the athletes, in the end of the day, the wind tunnel isn’t the real world and you can’t replicate some of the race day situations that the athlete goes through in a quick test run in the wind tunnel.
Triathlon attracts a specific type of individual that most times has a high degree of attention to details. Triathletes are also very competitive, either by trying to improve their own times in race and training or to achieve certain placing in specific events.
With this personality in mind, the sports industry marketing team aims to pass on to their clients and athletes, a message that their products will make you faster. The two most common ways to achieve that are:
1) Sponsoring high performance athletes
By sponsoring high performance athletes, companies are adding credibility to their brands and equipment, after all “if that Ironman champion use certain equipment/brand, it has to be decent”. However it is important to understand that professional triathletes experience a different reality to the average age grouper. They have better skills, higher fitness level and are on the course for a much shorter time
It is difficult for example to compare the bike fit of a working age grouper who is a beginner in the sport, with a professional triathlete in their mid twenties. Remember that most of the high performance equipment is designed to suit the high performance athletes.
2) Design certain equipment based on wind tunnel testing
The wind tunnel is a great tool and allows companies to measure the drag of their equipment.
There are some flaws with that system though, most of the testing is run at 50kph (30mph) to create better results as the faster the speed, the bigger the difference in drag since the wind resistance increases exponentially.
Certain type of equipment choices may make a big difference at 50kph but won’t be such an issue at a more real world speed of 30kph.
Bike fit is another aspect of real world racing that can be overlooked in the wind tunnel, as the test are run for only a few minutes, so while it may feel easy to stay in a very low and aggressive position to save several minutes, on race day you will be moving around a lot more often, staying out of the aerobars, hydrating and stretching.
And finally, the wind tunnel doesn’t offer the climate challenges as wind, rain or technique skills such as dangerous downhills or turns
Based on these ideas, very often I see beginner triathletes opting for equipment that may not be appropriate for them.
Carbon racing wheels are almost a compulsory equipment for the elite triathletes, very often a disc wheel is also the faster option (based on wind tunnel testing). Tubular tires are also slightly faster than clinchers.
However for a beginner or intermediate level triathlete, these type of wheels may also become a challenge in the below situations:
Confidence: A carbon braking rim isn’t as effective as an aluminum rim. If you ever raced in a technical and wet course (the downhills of Phuket Triathlon comes to mind), you know that you wish you had better braking at these situations.
Flat tyre: If you have changed a tubular tyre before you know how difficult it can be. If this is on race day, with sweaty hands, it becomes even more difficult. Back in 2005, at Ironman Hawaii, defending Ironman World Champion Normann Stadler lost several minutes waiting for the support vehicle as he couldn’t change his own tyre. And that is coming from a very experienced triathlete with decades of experience.
Consider using clincher wheels with aluminum braking surfaces if you aren’t a skilled or confident biker.
In theory, integrated aerobars are the fastest options for time trial bikes, however this free speed comes at a very high price of flat base bars that can be very slippery in wet races and time trial brake levers that aren’t as reliable. The popularity of disc brakes on high end triathlon bikes though negates, but not everybody will be able to afford this option.
Another option is to use the traditional road cycling drop bars, with STI shifters/brakes and a clip on aerobars. This will give you a better grip in case of wet weather and better braking
The bottom line is, while technology and science is here to help, make sure these are also appropriate for athletes of all fitness and skill levels.
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