The Evolution of a Bike Position: The Work Behind Heather Jackson's Kona Ride
Heather Jackson's position, over four months this summer (left to right May, June, and then August)
by Chris Bagg
Ed. Note—two weekends ago, Heather Jackson ran back to the front of the race at Kona, getting off the bike in 9th place and pushing all the way up to 5th, but it was her bike that put her in the position to make that move, posting the 3rd fastest bike of the day in 4:46:46. Today we track the evolution of her position and her equipment, and the mindset changes that helped execute her development.
Heather Jackson likes to go fast, but she's also always been wary about changing things that have worked. She held off on disc brakes until this year, as the bike industry hurtled towards "discs-as-standard." Conscious of the possible race-ending downsides of electronic shifting, she waited until she knew the systems inside-and-out before deploying the technology in a race. This year at Kona, though, she made several changes in the months leading up to the race: discs, di2, a lower head and higher hands, a completely new bike model. What gave?
Jackson has a similar partner in Argon 18, her bike sponsor, who remained skeptical about disc brakes until they'd tested them again and again and discovered that—by imbuing the rider with a greater sense of confidence—they could very slightly beat the time penalty incurred by a modest loss in aerodynamics. They'd developed a lighter time trial bike for Astana Pro Cycling Team designed with smaller riders in mind, and reached out to HJ to see if she'd like to try it (you'll notice that the bike at top right is dressed up in Astana's teal colors—that's the bike that was ridden at some of 2019's grand tours). They'd shrunk the bike's head tube dramatically, resulting in a bike whose stack (the vertical distance from bottom bracket to the top of the head tube) was 2cm lower than any of their previous super bikes. In the meantime, Jackson and her husband, Wattie, had reached out to Jim Manton at ERO, the bike fitter and aerodynamicist based at the LA Velodrome, to see if they could tweak Jackson's position ahead of Kona 2019. Manton tried all sorts of positions with Jackson and the new Argon, using some prototype bits and pieces to achieve positions the bike usually couldn't accommodate. By the end of the process HJ had settled on a bar angle around 10 degrees from horizontal (most triathletes are, sensibly, heading to the "high hands" position that both increases comfort and aerodynamics), and a saddle position that lowered her head and flattened her back, two changes that would help ward off injury AND make her go faster.
Jackson on one of her late summer rides in the new position on the Argon 18 E-118 Pro
"It's like giving our sharpest knife to a chef," says Dominique Fortin, who is technically the Quebec Territory Manager at Argon 18, but prefers to go by "Jack of All Trades and Athlete Friend/Manager." "The E-118 Pro is very slightly less aerodynamic than the E-119+, our other superbike, but it is lighter and more aggressive, both in a positioning sense and in how we set up the geometry. With the lower hand position, your weight is more forward and down—similar to how you would ride a road bike in the drops—and the bike is a bit more responsive. To an athlete like HJ, who wants something light and quick, it was perfect. She changed her position a little bit to gain back any tiny losses in aerodynamics from the E-119+, and the rest is history!"
Argon 18 machined some custom wedges for Jackson's bike to hit the new hand position, a feature that they're rolling out on the production E-118 Pro.
Of course, if you're going to change your bike you should go all-in on the design, right? It's like shaving off a beard—you have this chance to try out all sorts of facial hair! HJ's Kona bike started the day off as a rather understated white and (apparently) deep maroon bike. As the temperature (and competition) climbed, though, the bike began to change. The fork and top tube were painted with thermochromic paint, which changes color as temperature changes (remember those Hypercolor shirts in middle school? Yeah, those, but your bike). Spectators who saw HJ's bike later in the day noticed that the front of it was now a shining red, with words emblazoned across it: DAIDA NANA LINDA WATTIE. Her grandfather, grandmother, aunt by marriage, and husband, respectively. Those who know HJ recognized the New Hampshire state motto "Live Free or Die" along with "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take," one of the sayings that powered her through her early career in triathlon.
The bike in its natural habitat, dressed for the heat of Kona
The result of all this work, both physical and mental? One of the fastest bike splits at the World Championships, and one that still allowed Jackson to run through the rest of the field. A fast bike, of course, is worthless if your legs are toast afterward. With the new position and new whip, we can see the benefits of "overnight" changes, even if those changes have been arrived at over the course of months and years.