At New York City Triathlon, an Arms Race as Cyclists Vie for an Edge

Jul
24
2016
At New York City Triathlon, an Arms Race as Cyclists Vie for an Edge

Ken Szekretar Jr. of the Asphalt Green Triathlon Club will compete Sunday on his Specialized Shiv, seen here in Central Park. Credit Ryan C. Jones for The New York Times

More than 3,500 athletes, their bodies sculpted from a three-sport training regimen, will take over the West Side of Manhattan on Sunday for the New York City Triathlon.

Spectators will be forgiven for gawking. At their bikes.

In the swim portion of the swim-bike-run competition, there are goggles and wet suits. In the run, there are sneakers. The middle event, though, is the real showstopper: aerodynamic slivers of carbon fiber on wheels, costing upward of $15,000 — or more than a new Nissan Versa. Huffys with banana seats and baskets on the front are not welcome.

The arms race for an edge intensifies every year as elite triathletes work to minimize wind resistance. They try to hide anything that might disrupt the flow of air over the bike, including cables for braking and shifting, even containers for water.

The electronic box on the handle of the Shiv sends signals to the front and rear derailleurs. Credit Ryan C. Jones for The New York Times

Ken Szekretar Jr., of New York’s Asphalt Green Triathlon Club, and Kirk Tashjian, of New York’s Empire Tri Club, will compete Sunday on a model called the Shiv, made by the manufacturer Specialized. The bikes have an integrated hydration system in the downtube with a straw poking out, allowing them to remain in a tucked, aerodynamic position while drinking.

“So when I’m doing a race, I can actually just stay in my aero position, use this hose or little straw that pulls out, and I can drink water while I’m racing in the aero position without having to sit up, pull the water bottle out, drink from it, close the water bottle, put it back in and then come back down into the aerodynamic position that we’re usually using when we’re racing,” Szekretar said.

Many athletes, including Szekretar and Tashjian, are also using power meters. These devices can be affixed to a bike’s crank, pedals or hub, and they provide data that can help athletes train and help them avoid overexertion during a race.

The Specialized Shiv’s “Fuelselage” integrated hydration system allows the rider to drink while remaining in an aerodynamic position. Credit Ryan C. Jones for The New York Times

Last month, with a triathlon in Virginia just 12 days away, the pro triathlete Rebeccah Wassner was ready to get her bike just right. So she arrived at ACME Bicycle Co.’s third-floor shop in Brooklyn, where owner Jonathan Blyer went to work. After some pedaling on her own bike, which was locked in a trainer, and a quick physical assessment, Wassner hopped onto a sophisticated motorized rig with handlebars, a seat and pedals. The machine barely resembled a bike at all, but Blyer had set it up to mirror the dimensions of Wassner’s bike.

From there, he experimented with aspects like the seat height and the position of the handlebars. He adjusted them by the millimeter with the touch of a finger on a keyboard as Wassner pedaled.

“It’s a very efficient process,” Blyer said. “It’s advanced trial and error, basically.”

Blyer also used a three-dimensional motion capture system that allowed him to validate some of the adjustments with data, and also to pick up on nuances between Wassner’s left and right sides as she pedaled. The adjustments were then measured and carried over to Wassner’s bike.

Rebeccah Wassner, a three-time winner of the New York City Triathlon, rides the E-119 Tri model by Argon 18. Credit Ryan C. Jones for The New York Times

The process, called bike fitting, is meant to maximize performance and comfort by ensuring a cyclist’s bike is contoured to their body in an optimal way. It can help fix misalignments that cause pain while still allowing them to ride aerodynamically. And it is just one tactic that some triathletes use to get the most out of their high-tech rides.

“Everything is focused towards making that person as efficient as possible when going through the air,” said Blyer, a former triathlete.

Some triathlon competitors will ride more traditional-style road bikes, but it is known that triathlon bikes can ride faster. Wassner, a New York City resident and three-time winner of the New York City Triathlon, said it is hard to compare, but the difference is there.

“I just know the comparison of when I race against people that are on road bikes, or bike training with people that are on road bikes, and I’m on my triathlon bike, once you get on anything flat it’s just the same effort but I would be going way faster,” Wassner said.

Wassner is part of a team, Maverick Multisport, that is sponsored by bike manufacturer Argon 18. As a sponsored athlete, she gets a new bike every year or two and still owns multiple bikes, but is now riding Argon 18’s E-119 Tri model, which she got in February.

The bike is outfitted with upgraded parts picked out by her and her team, like an electronic shifting system, an oval-shaped chainring and a different seat. The electronic shifting system allows Wassner to shift with the touch of a button and from different handlebar positions. The oval chainring is meant to make it easier for the rider to get over the recovery portion of the pedal stroke.

The CeramicSpeed pulley wheel system, as seen on Rebeccah Wassner’s E-119 Tri.

The seat is split-nosed in the front, which allows the rider to sit aerodynamically with more comfort.

“So this allows the rider to perform usually at a much higher level, because they can rotate down lower, to a more aerodynamic position, and they can sustain that position because they’re not saying, ‘My seat is killing me and I can’t ride this bike. And I have to stand up or fidget’ or whatever,” Blyer said.

The technology can make maintenance a challenge. Wassner, Szekretar and Tashjian said they do basic maintenance themselves. For Szekretar, that entails periodic cleaning, tire changes and lubing of the drivetrain. But for anything more intensive, it’s off to a capable bike shop.

Rebeccah Wassner’s E-119 Tri. Credit Ryan C. Jones for The New York Times

“This is the equivalent of a Ferrari or a Maserati,” Blyer said. “So you can’t go into your local bike shop, in some cases you can, but a lot of the times if you walk into a bike shop that deals with kids’ bikes or commuting bikes with something like this, they’re going to scratch their head and say sorry.”

The bikes are not cheap. Szekretar said they can range from about $1,500 to about $15,000. The staging area for the New York City Triathlon will display the full range. Event organizers arrange overnight security.

Blyer said that Cervélo was the most popular manufacturer in terms of sales. He said the company, which was founded in 1995, was one of the first to focus on aerodynamic frames.

“And they just gained a lot of momentum and a lot of traction in the industry,” Blyer said.

In a tally of brands used at the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, last October, Cervélo came out on top, ridden by 522 athletes, according to Lavamagazine.com. Trek bikes were used by 275 athletes, and 218 rode Specialized.

The athletes notice what their peers are riding. “Everyone’s always looking over their shoulder and seeing who’s passing them and what kind of bike they’re on,” he said.

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