Ed. Note—above are the after and before pictures of Heather's Jackson's bike position. On the left, the new position, ahead of Ironman Boulder, and on the right, the older position at Kona in 2016.
We have a golden rule in triathlon, right? Don’t make any changes before race day. Nutrition, apparel, a new bottle, whatever; don’t touch it before a race. Don’t even think about it.
Don’t tell Heather Jackson. Messing with your bike fit three weeks out from an Ironman could be considered a cardinal sin among us all. But left to the trust of renowned 51 Speedshop fitter Mat Steinmetz, Jackson’s risk—changing her aero position before Ironman Boulder in June—was a calculated one. Said Steinmetz: “The risk is she rides really really well, and there’s always the risk of messing with someone already successful.
“But as a pro,” he adds, “there’s a standard of position you must put yourself in, or you’re at a performance disadvantage. Heather was ready to make that change.”
And it paid off. Jackson’s pairing with Steinmetz—one of triathlon’s preeminent fitters—to look at her bike fit came initially at the behest of her coach, Joe Gambles, who had his own fit dialed by the Boulder-based fitter. It was then spurred further after analyzing some photos of her bike position. “I found out later that Josh Amberger had been on her about how she could use some work on her position. And Wattie had said that on Slowtwitch, there was a thing that had pictures of people’s bike positions. All of that served as a catalyst to make some changes.”
In nearly every situation an athlete is advised to make any changes after a race, but a level of trust Steinmetz instilled in Jackson allowed her to consider making some adjustments. It worked out that Jackson would be in Boulder for the month leading up to Ironman Boulder, so Jackson booked an appointment for his fit studio. Steinmetz said Jackson was initially tentative, “but I’m used to that. Athletes of her level always hear conflicting stuff. I didn’t want to do anything that she wasn’t comfortable with, but I did want her to be part of the process, so I had to earn her trust.”
His biggest goal? Getting Jackson to go from a throttle-it rider to one who settled into the ride. “She was into this ‘grip it and rip it’ kind of approach to riding the bike,” he says. “I’m all for going as fast as you can, but with the least amount of effort possible.”
Steinmetz analyzed her existing fit and then came up with four new potential fit options using a Guru fit bike, which allows for dynamic change adjustment on the fly. With it, he solicited instant feedback from Jackson. “It was important here that Heather be a big part of the equation. I could drop the front end, and with the fit bike, she could tell me if she felt impinged at the hip. She communicated well too; she can describe riding over varying terrain like many athletes can’t, basically optimizing for a given part of any course.”
The back-and-forth feedback yielded four potential fit positions. “I let her pick the one she wanted,” he says. “Everything I did, she had final say. As long as she was riding the bike relaxed, I was happy. But I felt she bought in, and that was largely because she was able to be a part of the process.”
How’d it work out? Jackson had a visibly different look on the bike during Ironman Boulder. “From a feel, I told her it would be different, to be relaxed instead of choking the bike, but she took to it very quickly, which surprised me because I know she has years of riding one way.”
The result was a day-best bike split, that took her onto the run in the race lead at Ironman Boulder and netted her a runner-up finish…and that all-important Kona qualification. The big gamble had paid off.
But it wasn’t done yet. “We did so much before the race, but there were a few things she almost did but decided against,” Steinmatz recalled. "She raced on 170mm cranks, but we went to 165mm cranks after the race, and dropped the front end 10mm lower. She was stoked enough with it that she came back to make those final changes after the race, while keeping the key components of the position the same,” Steinmetz said. “Looking at images from the race, she was doing exactly what I wanted her to. There were drastic contact point changes, but the majority of them were the changes that made her able to morph into a more aero position.”
Steinmetz also employed use of the newest tools of his trade: aerobar extension and pad designs of his own creation under his brand 51 Speedshop. The new products (not yet ready for public use) include his FSM (or Frankensteinmetz) extensions with a 30 degree kick.
Steinmetz thinks that even with so much positive feedback on debut, the fit will get even better with time. All to the good with Kona in the distance. “She’s continued to adapt to the point that unless there’s something she struggles with, I would wager to guess it’ll look better,” he says. “She’ll have more proprioception to fall into that position. And I think she’s excited with how quickly she’s adapted to the position and was able to hold it for the race. I think she’s happy with the process, and that process’ outcome.”