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The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind: At the wind tunnel with Team Phonak

‘A noticeable part of Landis’ win was his unique handlebar position -- which he reconfirmed last week in a wind tunnel here in California. ‘I changed my handlebars a little from last year. Mostly the wind tunnel is minor details. Some of the reason I was there was to confirm my handlebar position is better -- there was some debate whether it was a good idea or not. I think now people can stop debating that!” -- Interview with Floyd Landis on after his victory in the San Jose TT stage of the Tour of California.

Anyone who earned a C+ grade or better in Bike Racing Tactics 101 can outline a fairly trustworthy strategy for winning the Tour de France: Don’t crash, don’t flat, don’t attack (except maybe once or twice for psychological purposes), and instead save every last bullet for the time trials. As majestic as the Tour always is, it’s perhaps equally formulaic -- or at least it’s been that way since the beginning of the Indurain era: Hide for 98 hours, then lay the smack down for 2. No one was better at it than Indurain -- do you remember how he used to win Tour TT’s by 5 minutes? Nobody followed his example better than The Lance, and it’s because of this that the smart money is riding on Ullrich this year: Over the last decade, no one has time trialed better in the month of July than our beloved strudel-gorging, ecstasy-tripping, Olympics/Worlds/Tour champion.

Most real contenders of the Tour can’t get any lighter come July, and they’ve fine tuned their engine blocks to the point that generating appreciably more power isn’t gonna happen. So, short of the team doctor spiking a vein with 50cc’s of luck or strategic nous or….well, nevermind -- a top-10 rider has only one option to get himself on the podium: improving his aerodynamics.

Let’s back up a bit. Let’s think of time trialing as a simple math equation where a rider’s speed is strictly a function of their power and their aerodynamics. If you look at photos of Indurain and Lance, their aerodynamics aren’t as awe-inspiring as others’ (cf. the nearly-invisible Dave Zabriskie). What does awe, though, are the well-circulated estimates of the power they put out: Lance’s baseline for TT training was the assumption that at Tour time he could maintain 490w for a 50km TT. If you’ve never trained with power, regret it now -- because only folks with powermeters can really appreciate what it means to maintain that sort of intensity for that sort of duration. 490w for 50km is not an athletic achievement: It’s like Superman flying or Aquaman talking to fish or Jesus turning ciabatta into tilapia: It’s Superhero stuff -- barely and hardly believable, but doubly-frightening because it’s totally and really true.

According to widely accepted estimates, Lance’s power output in the TT’s in the ’05 Tour was 1% greater than Ullrich, but 5-10% greater than the rest of the riders who finished in the top-10 in the GC. The only hope any pro has to go toe-to-toe with riders with Ullrich/Armstrong-like average power is to contort themselves into the tiniest aerodynamic profile possible without shedding a single watt of power. After all, if speed is a function of nothing more than power and aerodynamics, and power has already been maximized (that is the point of training, after all, isn’t it?), you’ve gotta put all your hopes in something.

Photo of Floyd Landis in the wind tunnelFew riders grasp the importance of aerodynamics with more urgency than Team Phonak’s Floyd Landis. He’s always been a superb time trialist, as evidenced by his passel of top-10 Tour TT finishes. But no one dissects the science of le Tour better than his personal coach, Allen Lim, PhD, and what he’s made abundantly clear to Floyd is that he produces roughly 8% less average power during a TT than Ullrich. Floyd’s TT times are in the same ballpark as Lance and Jan for only one reason: His aerodynamics are stellar. And here’s the rub -- they need to get more stellar if he plans on winning the Tour.

Allen Lim taking measurementsWe spent a week with Floyd and Allen during the Floyd Landis Power Camp in Temecula, CA in mid-January this year. As you might imagine, the intersection of power and aerodynamics was a topic that came up time and time again in our conversations. In our role as a sponsor of the Power Camp it was our professional obligation to keep the topic of training with power at the forefront of our conversations with the campers. Talking up the science side of training is always a pleasure, really, and it was a doubly-relevant pleasure since Phonak had 3 days of wind tunnel time reserved at the Allied Aerospace Low Speed Wind Tunnel in San Diego shortly after the camp finished. Given that one of our most experienced staff at Competitive Cyclist, Scott Warren, has quite a bit of wind tunnel testing experience, including the design of frames and aerodynamic components up to the edge of the UCI legal limits, Allen invited us to participate in his analysis of Floyd’s position, as well as that of his Phonak teammates Santiago Botero and Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero.

Few TT positions are as unforgettable as Floyd’s. He and Allen lovingly (or perhaps not-so-lovingly) refer to it as the ‘Praying Mantis’ position due to the fact that his aerobars and arms angle upwards at a 30 degree angle, in complete contrast to the flat arm position of Dave Zabriskie or the negative position of Ullrich. We welcomed the chance to take part in dissecting Floyd’s aerodynamics, and little interested us more than debunking the Praying Mantis in all of its ugliness. Beyond that, we were rather fired up to work with Botero -- the only pro we know who’s won both the KOM title at the Tour (2000) plus a rainbow jersey in the Time Trial (2002 -- and it wasn’t mountainous!)

The goal of the testing was straightforward: Test the existing position (known as the ‘baseline’) of each rider and see what if any equipment or position changes could reduce the aero drag of the combination of man and machine. In our experience, this sort of analysis with age group triathletes or lower category road racers is always fruitful: There’s so much improvement to be made there that even moderate changes to their position or their equipment has a dramatic impact on reducing drag. Pros present a substantially greater challenge since they’ve spent years refining their positions and they continuously leverage the latest and greatest in equipment technology from industry leaders such as BMC and Zipp. Given the average wattage of a major-league pro like Floyd, though, the speed difference derived from minor aero improvements can be vital when it comes to results -- enough, we hope, to move Floyd from last year’s 9th place in the Tour to a step on the box.

Unlike Lance’s well-marketed & pedigreed ‘F-One’ team, Floyd’s posse is perhaps a bit more NASCAR-like. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there was undeniably a Bad News Bears vibe to our gang. Beyond Allen and two of us from Competitive Cyclist were Zipp’s owner and head engineer, Andy Ording and Josh Poertner respectively, plus Mark Lucas from the New Zealand Academy of Sport, Phonak directeur sportif Rene Savory, as well as Dave Sanford and the rest of the tunnel support staff. Other than the tunnel staff, none of us can claim direct association with a Tour victory -- not yet, that is.

Wind tunnel propellerAllied’s Low Speed Wind Tunnel is literally right next door to the San Diego airport, in the cradle of the now-nearly-defunct San Diego aerospace industry. From what we’re told, most of the jobs and infrastructure related to aerospace either downsized or departed for greener pastures elsewhere. Nevertheless, the photos on the office and hallway walls of the LSWT give evidence to the role it played in the evolution of modern aerospace. It opened for operation in 1948, and it specialized in performing aerodynamic and flutter testing (the latter is especially of interest to the white-knuckle flier: Flutter = turbulence) on excruciatingly accurate scale models of prototype aircraft. As the presence of the aerospace industry became increasingly diminished in San Diego, the staff at the LSWT began marketing their facility outside its traditional boundaries -- and since then they’ve attracted numerous major pro cycling teams, the US Luge team and Bobsled team, crotch-rocket motorcycle pros, plus gobs and gobs of triathletes. Business can’t be that bad for them, though -- in perusing a random bulletin board I noted that Boeing reserved the tunnel for two straight months in late 2007 to test the 787 Dreamliner.

The array of team bikes and one-off TT equipment present at the tunnel was enough to amaze even a jaded bike industry veteran. No less than 5 BMC Time Machine TT01 bikes were spread perhaps-less-than-carefully across the floor in a shop area (in case you hadn’t checked, we sell those framesets for $12,000 each), along with bizzarro monocoque cranksets, triangular carbon brake calipers, and enough bars, wheels, and helmets to outfit a whole Tour TTT squad.

Bike on the roller drumsInside the tunnel sits an elevated disc roughly 8 feet in diameter (the disc can rotate so you can test the rider & equipment at varying angles of yaw). Flush with the surface of this disc are two stainless steel roller drums -- just like something you’d expect from Kreitler. The only difference, though, is that unlike the rollers you ride in your garage these rollers are all of about 3′ in width. Extending upward from the rear drum is a device that resembles a Yakima wheel fork in which you bolt down the rear wheel to hold a bike in place. The bike is ostensibly locked in place at the rear wheel, and it gains an added bit of stability thanks to the fact that the front drum is flared at its ends to help keep the front wheel on track. But given that during a testing run the rider puts out 300w with a 30mph wind in their face with 60mm deep rims on the bike, it’s not difficult to accidentally twist the front of the bike off the drum, especially when the rider is turned at 5 and 10 degree angles against the wind.

When things get cranking in the tunnel, three things impress more than anything else: (1) It’s almost surreally quiet. We’re accustomed to stories about places like the Texas A&M tunnel that require the use of industrial-strength earplugs. The silence in the LSWT is golden, and it allows for a colloquy between us in discussing the trends we see during each run. It adds substantial productivity to the session. (2) A small thing, but it goes hand-in-hand with the silence: There is no visual evidence that tunnel is running. I think we’ve all come to expect smoky contrails to flow off the rider to serve as visual evidence about the cleanliness of the airflow off the rider. No visual dramatics here. Why? It’s because of (3) The real-time telemetry about what’s going on is mind-blowing, even to a cyclist comfortable spending long hours staring at the data-thick screen of an SRM Powercontrol. One aspect of it is video: You see real-time video of the rider from about 6 different angles. But even more impressive is the volume of real time data: The entire environment is hyper-controlled, exactly what you’d expect from a place that serves as a proving grounds for the aerospace industry. The computer systems know the speed and power of the rider (the roller drums are tied into an SRM Professional Powermeter) plus the speed of the wind and the angle of the rider in the wind. It calculates a rider’s drag coefficient with near-absolute exactitude. This near-absoluteness is what makes the tunnel such an intriguing environment: Everything is repeatable. Put the same rider on the same bike riding the same speed and the same wattage, changing nothing but his helmet: What happens to his drag coefficient? That’s the name of the game. Change and test. Change and test.

Here’s what we learned really quickly once testing commenced: Floyd’s baseline position is fast. Given our original skepticism of the Praying Mantis, the numbers were a stunner. The first conversation between us was speculation on how little we might be able to reduce his drag through positional changes. First on everyone’s agenda, though, was proving whether the 30 degree arm position really does makes sense. The big shocker was this: Without altering anything else about his position or equipment, if you moved his arm angle anywhere between 0 and 30 degrees, it resulted in lousier drag numbers in comparison to 30 degrees. The Praying Mantis works for Floyd, and it’s due to one fundamental fact about the position: It allows his armrests (and thereby his arms) to be positioned firmly alongside each other. In other words, even though his arms are angled upwards, they’re so narrow they dramatically slim his frontal area.

If the only improvements possible in the tunnel were positional, it would’ve made for a quick day. Nothing we experimented with resulted in meaningful improvement over the baseline -- and given that pros train for months and months to gain familiarity and tolerance of their TT position, it seemed like little use to reinvent it in order to gain little-if-any improvements in drag.

Arundel water bottle and cageThe next phase of testing was equipment based, and we learned a boatload. Fact #1 is probably evident to all of us: A standard round bottle was slower than not having one on at all. But we learned an interesting corollary to this: An Arundel Chrono bottle and cage on the bike lowered drag in comparison to no bottle at all -- plus you can have a drink along the way. It was the first in a handful of experiences in potential team sponsor conflicts: Given that Elite provides Phonak with about a billion bidons a year, plus who-knows-how-many cages and trainers and how thick the briefcase full of cash is they present to the team on an annual basis, a Graham Watson photo on the cover of L’Equipe with Floydo racing to a Tour TT stage victory with an Arundel Chrono on his bike would likely result in someone’s ass being lit afire -- and it would be a hot fire, not one of those lukewarm ones. But we love science because it gives no regard to such matters. You heard it here first: Arundel Chrono>Nothing>Elite Cincio.

We had several prototype helmets to test and we found that this was another area of improvement for Floyd to reduce his drag. It’s clear that the potential for an aero helmet to benefit a rider is primarily a function of his individualized position & anatomy. What may work for one back shape creates nasty turbulence on another -- and you can only determine which works for whom in the wind tunnel. Otherwise, you’re just guessing. Chapter 2 on sponsor conflict -- the sponsor-approved Catlike helmet we tested on Floyd is, um, lackluster. A mystery brand TT helmet so fast & so popular amongst the pros that a 3-week race in Italy got named after it was seriously exceptional and it doesn’t take Magnum P.I.-like smarts to see why Floyd won the Tour of California TT a week later in an aero helmet that was blank white except for strategically placed ‘iShares’ decals.

BMC/Campagnolo cranksetWe tested a handful of other prototype components throughout the day. A wicked full carbon fiber crankset fabricated by BMC out of a Campagnolo carbon crankset pays meaningful drag-reduction benefits. A modified brakeset with a frontal shape not too-far-removed from an F1-car nosecone (did I say fairing? Reminder to self: Never say fairing) surprisingly had little impact. The equipment that worked well got set aside for further refinement and testing. Keep your eyes on Floyd’s bike come July to see if any of it makes the final cut.

Day #1 was spent setting up equipment and testing Floyd ’til he was ready to fall over with boredom and fatigue (think about spending all day on a set of rollers with a 30mph wind blowing in your face). Day #2 was slated for testing Perdiguero and Botero.

Perdiguero -- ‘Perdi’ we nickname him since his full name is 32 syllables -- is likely one of the very best pros you’ve never heard of. He won the Classic of San Sebastian World Cup race in 2004, and had nearly 20 top-10’s in 2005, including a 5th place in the Amstel Gold Race. He’s tiny as a jockey, and he walks around in a somnambulant, foot-dragging pace that -- when combined with his slow, droopy eyelids -- gives him an uncanny resemblance to Brad Pitt’s hilariously stoned character in ‘True Romance’. He was first to go in the tunnel on Day #2, and while I was quick to attribute his lethargy to jet lag, I soon realized that it was only 5pm in Spain.

PerdigueroPerdi speaks no English -- zilch. And that morning none of Phonak’s multi-lingual people were present. Even getting him to start pedaling was a challenge since he couldn’t respond to the most primitive monosyllabic commands -- ‘Go’, for example -- and as though he wanted to affirm his bonged-out vibe he waited 2 or 3 seconds before he’d react to hand signals. We joked that we needed a ‘Spanish Pro Whisperer’ to get through the session with him. He more or less slept through things -- at least as much as you can sleep through putting out 300w with that 30mph wind in your face. He wasn’t notably aero, and frankly he didn’t seem to care too much. Anytime Allen stretched him out or lowered him down Perdi voiced his discomfort, not curiosity about how working on a position like that might pay dividends with some adaptation. You could see from the way he was built -- short enough to ride a 47cm frame, thin as a celery stalk except for his oak tree thighs -- he was ideal for the races he’d already earned results in. 6 hours of steep, rolling climbs would clearly suit him fine, and other than sub-1 week stage race affairs (such as the Tour of Catalunya, which he’d also won in the past) we weren’t exactly sure where TT skills would come into play for him.

To our relief, Perdi didn’t fly in all the way from Spain simply for his 3 hours in the tunnel. He was on Phonak’s Tour of California squad, which also explained the presence of both his TT and road bikes in the tunnel. Right around the same time that he finished up his session, Floyd and Phonak’s South African field sprinter Robbie Hunter showed up in order to take Perdi along on a training ride. It isn’t a detail worth mentioning except for the fact that the airline smashed the daylights out of Perdi’s road bike. His left Record Ergolever was snapped just below the hood and was held on by little more than a few thin strands of carbon. From a braking and shifting perspective, it was useless. The clearcoat on his top tube looked like it’d met the business end of a bastard file. His bike, in short, was a mess. And quick conversation revealed that the trio had a hell of a ride planned for the day -- downtown San Diego back to Floyd’s house in Murrieta. If you took the freeway, it was 75 miles through some savage climbing. By taking less-traveled roads it’d make the ride at least 90-100 miles with many-thousand feet of climbing.

Floyd and Hunter weren’t interested in schlepping to a bike shop to fetch a new lever (the Phonak service course was already en route to the Bay Area for the start of the Tour of CA), and they weren’t keen to chat about other options. Rather, as Perdi stood there with his glazed eyes half-open, they showed equal parts determination and lack of inventiveness by rubber-banding his left lever into an immovable position. They then took a nearby power drill to drive the L screw of his front derailleur down so far that it locked the chain in place into the big chainring. I was quite unnerved. What could’ve been done more cleanly with a quick cable adjustment, Hunter accomplished by disfiguring a derailleur. As he did the work I started to suggest a better method of accomplishing the job at hand. In proof of why he’s a world-class field sprinter and why I was broom wagon material during my cup of coffee in the Cat 2’s -- he didn’t reply to me with words. It was a quick ‘fuck’n’ and then he growled at me. Seriously. Like a zoo animal. Ahead of him was 5+ hours over relentless hilly roads (two blocks away from the LSWT was a climb I would’ve needed my small ring for!), and poor Perdi was banished to the big ring.

The rest of the day was spent working on Botero. Unlike Perdi, Botero made the trip to California for testing and testing alone. It was a 15-hour trip from Colombia, and he mentioned that all-in-all this trip would cause him to lose almost a week of training. He didn’t state this in a resentful way, but rather it was the means by which he expressed how important tunnel time was to him. Given the weight he was putting in the experience, and given the fact that in his career he’d won more important time trials than you could count on 2 or 3 hands, it put some pressure on our crew to give some value to the time he was investing.

Botero is a big boy. He’s thick, and he’s not short like most of the other pros you’ll ever see in the flesh. He’s more or less a regular shaped guy -- God forbid he actually wears size Large in a jersey and his bibs, and I don’t know of any other pro who goes L/L like that -- which makes his KOM title from the 2000 Tour truly startling. Given his size, his drag coefficient numbers were inevitably higher than Floyd’s. Given his historical TT performances, it’s clear that his average power numbers must be enormous since he has so much additional drag to overcome. His ability to churn out power was on full display during what turned out to be our favorite day in the 2005 Tour, when he and Alexander Vinokourov battled each other throughout a day-long breakaway in the Alps that took in climbs no less withering than the Cols du Madeleine, Telegraphe, and Galibier, with Vino winning the war of attrition for victory that day.

Santiago BoteroBotero is a veteran’s veteran. He’s been on the pro scene for a long time, and we eventually got the sense that he’s spend abundant time training on his TT bike. No matter what positional changes we made on him, his drag numbers were eerily identical from run to run. It’s as though his body is so at home on a TT bike that it naturally morphs to the baseline position he’s grown accustomed to over so many years of training that one skill. We tried nearly 20 variances, and the drag numbers change fractionally at best. The only high-impact positional changes we make -- by placing his armrests tightly together not unlike Floyd’s -- create such intense discomfort in his deltoids that he has no interest in pursuing it further. Rather, we spend the rest of the day testing equipment on his bike. Like Floyd, he benefits from a faster bottle/cage and helmet than what he’s used in the past. But, in summary, his tunnel time ended up delivering to him one good thing: Reassurance that from an aerodynamic perspective his position is totally dialed.

While we put him through a final few runs, we discuss amongst our group whether this is his final year before he retires, and we all agreed that he seems deeply motivated to win a Tour TT stage and to close out his career with one more World Championship TT victory. From what we’re told, he’s a celebrity so enormous in Colombia that he has to drive around in an armored SUV with bulletproof glass. But in our hours with him he’s kind, humble, soft-spoken, and very receptive to input -- the earmarks of a neo-pro, not a grizzled-and-very-accomplished veteran. Clearly, he’s one of the good guys, and we’ll be pulling for him in a big, big way this year.

The days are long gone when an athlete or for that matter a pro cycling team can afford to ignore wind tunnel testing. We’ve read that the Ferrari Formula One team spends upwards of 15-20 million Euros per year in tunnel testing. Indeed, any athlete in any sport where wind offers resistance or assistance is wise to study their aerodynamics. Keep in mind, wind resistance is the primary factor a cyclist’s power must overcome to maintain or increase speed. For a cyclist or triathlete at any level -- age-group or pro -- the wind tunnel offers the performance benefit of allowing you to maximize your performance. And once you’ve accomplished that, additional tunnel testing is ideal for the psychological benefit of reassuring yourself that you’re thoroughly optimized.