Have you ever watched the pros on TV and fantasised over the bikes they’re riding, wondering what you could do if only you had that BMC Timemachine and a custom-tailored skinsuit? As cyclists we are always looking for ways to go faster and if you can do it without any more training then even better.
Any amateur cyclist could get fitter with more time, training advice, or a dietician, right? While we wouldn’t question the sense of achievement you feel from training hard and the resulting improvements, there is another way.
With the technology now widely available, there is no doubt it is possible to buy speed and instantly become faster. The question is: how much speed can you buy, and how much would it cost?
At Cycling Weekly, we are in a privileged position to test this. We are not suggesting anyone goes out and blows all their cash on the latest kit. But we wanted to know, if money was no object, how much faster could we go? Does all the expensive kit out there actually make a difference?
We decided to test this by pitching a B’Twin entry-level bike with standard kit against a top-of-the-range Canyon TT machine and the most aerodynamic kit available on the market. The two bikes and sets of kit we used sit at opposite ends of the spectrum, but crucially, everything we’ve used is available to buy.
We are aware that this is not the most accurate experiment. It’s not designed to be. We could have run this test in a wind tunnel and therefore controlled more variables and produced some quantitative data, but then one could also argue that no one races in a wind tunnel.
We believe it’s a reliable ‘real world’ test, but it’s important to remember that it has been designed to give people a general idea of how much time it is possible to save when using some of the best kit available.
The plan was to ride both bikes on the Holmwood G42/10 time trial course, just south of Dorking in Surrey. Both rides were done on the same day and crucially both at an average of 300 watts.
For those unfamiliar with this 10-mile course it’s described as ‘sporting’ and is regularly used by the local cycling clubs. 300W was chosen because it’s a typical output of many competitive club time triallists, and results in a speed at which aerodynamics come in to play.
As it’s not every day I get to ride the cycling equivalent of a Formula One car, I also raced the faster of the two set-ups in an open 10-mile TT on the fast V718 course near Hull to see just how fast I could go (see box).
The elements of aero
When looking at aerodynamic gains it’s not just about the bike — we needed a skinsuit. Endura had kitted out Alex Dowsett for his Hour record and had reportedly tested 57 different skinsuits in the process. We figured they might have a few lying around.
They kindly supplied us with a skinsuit and even took measurements in order to customise the fit; this is a service they offer to the consumer.
Club riders often state that ‘a skinsuit is a skinsuit’ but this is not the case. Certain fabrics are much more aerodynamic than others and when you factor in that at 48kph roughly 90 per cent of your total drag is from your body, what you cover it in becomes hugely important. The difference in drag between fabrics can result in wattage savings that frame designers can only dream of.
When asked about the difference between a standard skin suit and a premium, aerodynamacist and engineer Simon Smart informed me that “although there are a lot of variables involved, such as rider size, I would expect to see a difference of at least 10 watts at 30 mph, and its not uncommon to see a difference as high as 30 watts.”
The helmet was a Kask Bambino Pro, notably used by Team Sky. The reason for this is that I have a tendency to drop my head when riding. A longer-tailed helmet could be detrimental if the point is constantly sticking in the air.
For power measurement we used a pair of Garmin Vectors and a Garmin 1000 head unit. Riding to power has the potential to provide you with immediate feedback and help you pace your effort. Pedal-based power measurement makes the test fairer too, as it accounts for drivetrain losses.
To ensure that I had a good TT position, I spoke to Dr Chris Bartlett of Palmares. Bartlett is a former elite cyclist, coach and expert bike fitter who explained: “There is a trade-off; getting lower and more aerodynamic can result in a lower power output.”
I needed a position that was sustainable, with no loss in power, but he stressed: “Head position is crucial. Concentrate on keeping your head low, you want to avoid a gap between your back and helmet.” When asking about how low I could get, Bartlett replied: “With more training, you can develop your muscle recruitment so that more aerodynamic positions are efficient.”
Both runs were completed on the same day with a 10-minute rest in between. Because both rides were ridden at the same, sustainable power output, fatigue was not an issue. The weather was dry and sunny, with a 10mph south-westerly wind which was consistent on both runs. While riding the B’Twin Triban I made every effort to be as low and aero as possible, holding my elbows in and riding in the drops.
The time difference was three minutes and 40 seconds, which could easily be the difference between first and last. Given the £10,000 price difference between kit, this equates to roughly £45 for every second saved.
Aerodynamics clearly contributed to the quicker time, but drivetrain efficiency, bearing friction and rolling resistance also felt better. The Canyon Speedmax felt fast, smooth and free, while there was noticeably more mechanical resistance pedalling the B’Twin.
So if you rock up to your local evening 10 on your road bike and your friend using ‘all the gear’ beats you by a minute, feel free to use this case study as proof that you would have won were you on the same bike.
We must stress that the amount of time saved will differ depending on the rider, power output and course. But what if you can’t afford a complete new set-up, what should you prioritise? At 40kph your body will account for around 80 per cent of your drag and at 50kph this rises to 90 per cent.
Your clothing and body position are therefore hugely significant. Although the skinsuit we used was expensive (around £300), when you consider it will save more watts than a £3,000 frame or £2,000 set of wheels, it provides significantly more bang for your buck.
When asked about what gives a greater time saving, the skin suit or the position, Smart stated “The position comes first! Find a position that reduces drag whilst you can sustain good power output. Once you have that , you will really notice the benefits of the suit.”
And what if you have no budget? Accomplished time triallist Matt Clinton says you can get some for free. “Before buying speed you should look at the things that cost you nothing — things like pinning your number on so that it doesn’t flap around, cleaning your chain, making sure your gears and brakes work properly, having your tyres at a good pressure and doing a quality warm-up. You don’t see many dirty bikes at the Nationals!”
When asked what single piece of kit he would recommend the most, Clinton said: “The obvious choice would be a power meter. That way you can track your progress, learn how to pace properly and quantify the difference other bits of kit make.”
Top-of-the-range bike and kit
The Canyon Speedmax resides firmly in dream bike territory. Race-proven and used by both Movistar and Katusha, it features a neat, completely integrated aerodynamic headset and front and rear integrated brakes. This mean-looking bike is designed to cheat the wind.
The bike came with some beefy Zipp 808 clinchers, and although they’re fast wheels, we wanted a more specific TT set-up. Bearing in mind we were looking for the ultimate kit we went for a Hed GT3 trispoke front wheel; a wheel which Hed says has won more Grand Tour and pro time trials than any other.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement of the GT3 is that several teams buy their own — despite being sponsored and supplied by other wheel brands. We opted for a Vision Metron Disc at the rear. Although not the lightest available, it is laterally stiff and is the disc of choice for Tony Martin and Etixx-Quick Step.
Although you don’t need to drink during a 10-mile time trial, a bottle can act as a fairing and is useful in longer events. We chose an Elite Chrono cage and bottle, which is designed to reduce drag with its narrow shape and dimpled surface.
The tyres chosen were Continental Attack/Force tubulars. The narrower 22mm front is slightly more aerodynamic and fits flush against the Hed GT3 rim, while the wider 24mm rear gives greater traction. Studies show that faster tyres exist, but the Continentals have very good puncture protection.
In the pursuit of marginal gains, we changed the Dura-Ace derailleur jockey wheels for Cycling Ceramic ones. The super-smooth bearings are about as close as you can get to perpetual motion!
The idea was to try and make the drivetrain slightly more efficient, so we also meticulously cleaned the chain and lubed it with Muc-Off’s Team Sky-endorsed Hydrodynamic Lube. Muc-Off claims that this particular lube is 27 per cent more efficient than the competition.
Entry-level road bike and kit
The entry-level equipment chosen was not the cheapest available, but simply well-priced kit that is more than up to the task.
B’Twin has developed a strong reputation for providing outstanding value for money so we chose the Triban 300, a solid performer that features eight-speed Microshift gears, a triple chainset, box-section aluminium rims, 23mm tyres and a frame that comes with a lifetime warranty.
The fit on the B’Twin jersey and shorts was fairly aero and the Bell Event helmet was light and comfortable. The same shoes and pedals were used in both experiments, but you could potentially spend a further £100 on shoes and pedals and still have a total cost below £500.
Going for a PB on the V718
The event was promoted by Team Swift on the V718 near Hull, held on September 19.
The course was used by Sir Bradley Wiggins in his tilt at the National 10 record earlier this year. Having previously not owned a TT bike I had no idea what time I could achieve.
Everything fell into place, my preparation was good, the legs felt fresh, my warm-up had gone to plan, conditions were favourable, and of course I had all this fast kit. I was riding to the start when disaster struck. The Di2 electronic gearing stopped working.
My heart sank as it dawned on me that I would have to ride the time trial with just a 53-15 gear. It could have been worse, but with no choice, I got stuck in and gave it my all. Pacing went out the window, as I decided that I would have to use the gear to its maximum potential on the false flats, and simply pedal as fast as I could on the fastest sections. I finished with a ridiculous average cadence of 108rpm.
My time was 20:15. A time that I could have never dreamed of a month before and would have given me the national record in 1978! But ultimately it was disappointing and I was left wondering what might have been. Had my gears worked and I was not left spinning out on the faster sections, could I have gone sub-20 minutes?
It makes for a poetic message though. You can spend as much money as you like, on the best kit available, yet things can still go wrong.