This article was originally published in the Nov./Dec. 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
A good triathlon bike must be fast and efficient — that’s a given. But an ideal machine for the Ironman 70.3 distance also has to meet the less sexy challenges of a multi-hour race. It must handle well, travel without too much mechanical difficulty, ride nicely and carry the fuel needed to finish the distance strongly. The Trek Speed Concept 9 Series won Inside Triathlon’s wind tunnel test early in 2013, and since then the engineers in Waterloo, Wis., tweaked the original to make it a little faster and more practical. Our Ironman 70.3 dream bike is built around this new chassis with accessories and pieces that make it a blueprint for any bike setup for 70.3, regardless of price.
A 70.3 hydration setup doesn’t have to carry every ounce of fluid you’ll require during the ride. Most half-Ironman bike courses have three aid stations, giving three separate opportunities to grab a full bottle of water or sports drink during the ride. Equipping a bike with hydration systems that can be easily refilled is better than loading a bike down with every ounce of water needed to start the run topped off. Finding a combination that is simultaneously aerodynamically efficient and practical is the key to long-course hydration. Two bottle carriers can be enough, assuming they are refillable.
XLab’s Torpedo System combines some of the best features of fixed front-end drink systems and horizontally mounted bottles tucked between the arms. Water is accessible through a straw without having to leave the aero position, but the straw can be tucked down to save drag. While the difference may seem trivial, every inch of exposed drinking straw creates meaningful resistance. A port on top of the XLab bottle allows for easy on-the-go refilling. Trek integrated a solid bottle mount into the aerobar that makes the perfect platform for XLab’s system.
Wind tunnel testing conducted by Cervélo has found that a tapered, aerodynamically shaped water bottle on the frame can save approximately 36 seconds over a half-iron bike split compared to a standard round bottle, but the aero-shaped bottles can’t be swapped at aid stations. That time isn’t worth sacrificing the ability to quickly grab a bottle from an aid station and stash it on the bike. In this case, the simple solution is the best one.
The Bontrager box on the top tube effectively stores gels, bars or chews. It has no zipper, so items can move around a bit, but they are easy to access.
Performing well in the wind tunnel isn’t enough for a bike to be fast in a long-course triathlon — it also has to accommodate the rider’s ideal body position. The Speed Concept can do exactly that. It is adaptable to practically any position because the frame’s fit characteristics are in the middle of the spectrum — between aggressive and conservative — and the aerobar and stem combine to offer a massive range of adjustment.
Whether or not to bring supplies to fix any potential problem such as flats or mechanical breakdowns is a matter of personal preference. How important is finishing the race? If making it to the finish is a must, even if that means spending time fixing your bike, you have to find a way to bring supplies. Schlepping the necessities in a container behind the saddle is more efficient than taping them to the frame.
A test conducted on Leanda Cave using the Ero Sports Track Aero System found that she creates less wind drag when a single round bottle is added behind her saddle. While these results don’t necessarily transfer to every rider, if you decide to bring an inflation kit or multitool, storing it in a bottle behind the saddle may not come with any speed penalty at all.
The tweaks made to the Speed Concept since it won Inside Triathlon’s wind tunnel test are subtle, but they can add up to a meaningful difference. Trek shaved a few grams of drag off the aerobar by streamlining the shape of the basebar and using a single aerobar extension that branches out for both hands. Other small changes throughout the bike, such as a more usable saddle clamp, deeper fork blades and a more effective rear wheel shield, give the new iteration of this bike a leg up over the original.
If this bike has a tragic flaw, it’s mechanical complexity. Changing cables, adjusting the brakes and moving the basebar position is significantly more difficult for this bike than it is for most. But traveling with the Speed Concept 9 Series is no different than any other, assuming the bike is adjusted and set up for the race before going into a travel case. Removing then reattaching the aerobar is actually pretty simple, and it doesn’t pose any undue technical problems unless something goes wrong — in which case fixing certain mechanical problems can be challenging.
Zipp’s 404 and Super-9 disc combination stands out in the three most important attributes of a wheel used for a long-distance race. First, both wheels are aerodynamic. Second, they handle well in crosswinds. The influence of a disc is overblown. It’s fixed in place and due to a counterintuitive consequence of fluid dynamics, a solid rear wheel partially helps to overcome the side force created by crosswind. The deep-section 404 front wheel pulls slightly more than a shallow one, but it has proven to be one of the most stable and trustworthy among deep options. Third, they ride fairly smoothly. The foam-core disc vibrates more noticeably than a spoked wheel when traversing rough pavement, but the tubular tires make up for the difference. While they can be pumped to rock-hard pressures, keeping the pressure down — the ideal number often falls between 90 and 125 psi, depending on road quality and rider weight — improves ride quality and cornering, and can reduce rolling resistance.
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