Wattie Ink. pro Sam Appleton on his 51 Speedshop extensions, fit by Mat Steinmetz, en route to winning Santa Rosa 70.3. Picture courtesy of Paul Higgins

by Mat Steinmetz

Ed. Note—Mat Steinmetz, coach and bike fitter extraordinaire, joins us every quarter to talk about bike fit, bike equipment, and coaching. He just launched the product side of his bike fitting endeavor, 51 Speedshop, and is now selling aerobar extensions and bar tape to discerning athletes. Today he talks about that equipment and how to optimize it.

Back in 2011, I had the privilege of working with the great Craig Alexander. Craig had lost the 2010 Kona race on the bike, after relying on his hard work and superior fitness in the two previous years, when he had won the race. For a competitor like Craig, however, failure forces change.He came to me and was all in when it came to optimizing his bike position and equipment. He would train harder than ever, but wanted to make sure he was getting the most speed out of his effort. In 2011, Craig showed up with a new attitude and had his equipment and bike position dialed. The result was his third Kona title in which he broke the course record, distancing himself from most of his competitors on the bike. He didn’t ride at a higher output— he simply went faster for that output. Today I'm going to give you some insight on how you can do the same.

Triathlon’s sequence of events sees that as you go from swim to bike to run, the resistive forces (water, fast-moving air, slow-moving air) that inhibit forward motion decrease. As an athlete, looking to dose your energy across an eight-to-seventeen hour day, throwing your effort into the wind is not a great use of that energy. 

In this installment, since most athletes spend at least half of their race duration working against fast-moving air, I’m going to focus on the bike. 

Aerodynamics and equipment optimization continues to be a polarizing topic. Some embrace it while others try and pass it off as a fallacy. Athletes who continue to ignore the science put themselves at a material disadvantage. If I take two of the SAME athletes and optimize one and not the other, for a given effort, you can’t argue that one will not cover the course faster than the other. An athlete needs to check all the boxes. On the other hand, buying a set of fast tires doesn’t mean you can take the week off from training, but if you’re serious about improving your performance, you will go faster without an increase in fitness by optimizing your bike position, equipment, and setup.

Bike Fit

My first recommendation would be to get a professional bike fit from an experienced fitter in your area. A bike fit is the biggest performance upgrade you can make to your bike. You’re looking for SPEED. Roughly 80% of our energy on a bike is used to overcome fast moving air, road friction, and other resistive forces. In fact, the only reason we ride in the TT position is to reduce aerodynamic drag so we can ride faster for a given output.

  1. A good TT position starts with comfort. Comfort is relative to the individual and those that are new to the position will find it unnatural at first. However, the unique thing about the TT position is that it is highly adaptable. An athlete should be able to sustain their TT position for the duration of their event.
  2. Next is power. Power is the ability to pedal the bike without restriction within a range of accepted biomechanical ranges. There are a lot of moving parts to this, but the goal is freedom of movement, not to increase or decrease power. Unless something was way out of norm with an athlete’s position, it’s difficult to objectively prove this.
  3. Aerodynamics is the last goal of the fit, but is often a result of the initial fit process. I’ve been to the wind tunnel and velodrome with a lot of athletes to look at aerodynamics. I’ve seldom changed an athlete’s bike position to chase a lower drag number. Most of the time the athlete’s bike position and posture has already been optimized to be as low as possible while maintaining comfort within their biomechanical profile. Typically, details such as arm position, elbow width, and hand height are the only tweaks I’ll make to the position. At the pro level, I believe there is a certain standard that must be met or you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. There are still a lot of poor bike positions in the pro ranks and in my opinion, almost any excuse you can come up with as to why your position is unique is unacceptable with the resources that are available.

Equipment Optimization

If you add it all together, a bunch of small things equal one big thing. Almost every part of a bicycle can be optimized to move more efficiently by reducing aerodynamic drag, drivetrain friction, and rolling resistance. Typically, the bike frame is the first thing we think about. However, there are other lower cost methods to consider before upgrading your bike frame. Tires, tubes, wheels, cable routing, clothing, helmet, drivetrain maintenance, bearings, and (most importantly) nutrition and tool storage.

Long course triathlon can be a logistical nightmare. We need to carry “stuff” on our bikes. There are well thought out strategies that have minimal impact on aero drag and there are substandard methods that can turn your aero machine into a lunchbox on wheels. I’m also willing to make a few compromises with what I’d determine optimal setups to accommodate what is practical. For example, Liz Blatchford prefers to place both her drink bottles on the frame. I don’t believe it’s the fastest bottle setup, but it’s faster than her drinking less because she can’t comfortably access her nutrition.

In the end, all of this comes down to desire, goals, and budget. If you’re just out there racing to have fun and stay in shape, I’m not going to criticize you for not wearing an aero helmet. However, if you dedicate a lot of time to improve your ability to move forward at a faster pace, it’s crucial to your performance to minimize those forces that are working against you.