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Are You Too Focused On Aerodynamics?

  • By Julia Polloreno
  • Published May 26, 2014
Todd Carver with Joe Dombrowski.

Editor-in-Chief Julia Polloreno chats with Retül co-founder Todd Carver about key factors when fitting bikes to triathletes. 

On the heels of this year’s Amgen Tour of California, which finished last Sunday with a win by Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, I had the opportunity to join some of the Team Sky riders on a social spin around Agoura Hills, a Los Angeles suburb with sweeping canyon roads. I’d been invited by Retül co-founder and expert bike fitter Todd Carver, who works closely with Team Sky riders—and a few other World Tour teams—to help the team get dialed on their bikes for optimal comfort and performance.

As we finished up our 20 mile ride, young star rider Joe Dombrowski pulled up next to Carver. Before the Tour of California, Dombrowski’s spring had been dogged by knee pain. He’d visited Retül HQ in Boulder, where Carver changed his saddle to try to get him more support so he didn’t sit crooked on it. They also experimented with correcting for a leg length discrepancy with a lift under his right foot.

As Dombroski rolled up, the two checked in on how the changes were helping, and Todd, helmet still on, set to work fine-tuning the position of Dombrowski’s cleats. “Hopefully that will get the last of his niggling pain to go away,” he said.

When Carver and his international crew of Retül bike fitters aren’t dialing in bike fits for the world’s best cyclists at training camps in Europe, they’re helping triathletes of all abilities, from newbies to Craig Alexander, find that sweet spot between comfort and speed on their tri bikes.

“Triathletes are often riding the Ferrari of bikes but the time trial position is so hard to ride,” says Carver. “The biggest mistake I see is that they prop themselves up on a TT bike and don’t give themselves proper time to adapt, so the position is hard to ride and is just not right. What usually happens at the bike shop is that they set them up in a weird position where the saddle is kind of low and the bars are high. They’re initially comfortable there, but at the end of the day that totally cracks them.”

Carver tries to get his triathlete clientele to first realize that the adaptation window is “huge,” so they need to actually train like a cyclist, and work into a better position over steps. The goal is to get the bars down and the saddle up to where it needs to be.

So, how long is the adaption window?

“It depends on your athleticism,” Carver says. “Good athletes can adapt pretty quickly—I’d say weeks to months. For the lesser athletes it can take years to learn how to ride a time trial bike effectively. For someone who hasn’t really ridden much and is getting into triathlon because they want to get healthy and like the sport, it can take years for them to get into a good TT position.”

The key, he says, is more time in the saddle. He recommends hopping on a road bike to train like a pure cyclist. “Triathletes could benefit from some old-school cycling training,” he says. “They don’t spend enough time on the bike and don’t have that muscle memory from riding for years. You don’t have to race on a road bike in a triathlon, but do some training on it and your TT position will come together,” he says.

RELATED: Bike Fit Fixes

Carver also says that triathletes tend of focus too much on “getting aero,” and even his pro clients fall into this trap. He uses Crowie as an example:

“With Crowie, I think going to wind tunnels can be a problem. You’re there to get a marginal gain and you take your arm pads down and out more and it shows your CDA (coefficient of drag) is lower so you say, ‘great, I’m going to do that,’ and then at mile 80 on the bike course he has to sit up. He’s overcooked, it’s just too much.”

Bottom line: Sustainable comfort should always be a factor when considering how bike/position adjustments can make you more aerodynamic. “A lot of top athletes get into trouble because they try to lower their CDA so much, almost to where these Sky riders are, but these guys are pro cyclists who ride a lot and ride for short durations on their time trial bikes,” says Carver. “If you’re on your tri bike for five or six hours, you should not be chasing your CDA. That’s the beauty of the Retül system—we now have ranges we can put people in, we know we can get people lower, but our data shows us that if you take people beyond that limit you see them start to perform worse. With Crowie we saw that happen.”

Two main considerations for a good bike fit:

1. Handlebar position. “If the handlebars are too low and too far away it pulls you forward on the saddle and it’s not comfortable. If your bars are in the right spot you don’t have to move on the saddle as much. So you want to make sure the front end is not too low because then you’ll put too much pressure on the wrong parts of the saddle.”

2. Saddle type. “We try to get something under someone that gives them support on the sit bones or the pubic rami, some sort of structure that is taking it off the soft tissue and trying to get people centered.”

Another of the biggest differences between cyclists and triathletes is how far forward they ride. “A triathlete rides very far forward over the bottom bracket—it’s a couple inches difference from where pro cyclists ride—because you have to keep your hip angle open because you have to get off and run,” says Carver. “These [pro cyclists] close their hips down a lot more because they sit farther back on the saddle and their saddle is further back. So they are more balanced on the bike, where triathletes are kind of front-loaded on the bike—they’re so far forward over the bottom bracket. They’re trying to actually run on the bike rather than pedal like a cyclist does—they get behind the pedal. That creates a different saddle situation too.”

Whenever your body or equipment changes significantly, you’re due for a bike fit, says Carver. “When you change any equipment or contact point on your bike, like your shoe or saddle, it’s time for a refit. You can replace your cleats in the same spot, but if you change pedal systems, you need another fit.”

Ultimately, each rider will present a unique case study and requires a highly custom fit. “You’ve got to listen to your rider; you can’t put everyone in the same position,” says Carver. “You have to measure their flexibility, measure their strength, learn about their goals—all that comes into play with position. And then there’s just so much variability with how people ride a bike—so dynamic bike fits are the only way to go so you can really get a good reading.”

For more information about the Retül fit system or to locate a fitter, go to Retul.com.

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FILED UNDER: Bike / Gear & Tech TAGS: /

Julia Polloreno

Julia Polloreno

As Editor-in-Chief of Triathlete magazine, Polloreno oversees the monthly magazine’s content and production. A Stanford University graduate with an award-winning track record in publishing, Polloreno is a two-time Ironman finisher and has been a competitive triathlete for more than a decade.

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