Thursday, December 22, 2016

2017: A Turning Point in Triathlon Bike Innovation?

This is an interesting time of year for a bike fitter.  As the new year approaches, most of the manufacturers have introduced their new bikes.  For me, this means a lot of data entry as I gather all the geometry information on all the bikes available from Vector Cycle Works, the local bike shops, and online.  I track over 90 brands of bikes that are currently in production.  I get to spend at least a little time looking at every bike out there, and sometimes the details of a certain bike grab my attention.  Sometimes, I see trends.

The 2017 triathlon bike introductions have brought some pretty interesting changes, with some radical-looking designs coming out around the time of the Ironman World Championship in Kona.  The most radical of these are the Diamondback Andean and Cervelo P5X.  These look like something Batman would ride.

In the triathlon world, it has become hard to separate the concept of "the best bike" from "the most aerodynamic" bike.  Aerodynamic efficiency rules the triathlon bike courses of the world and engineers strive to find ways to save every possible watt.  Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and wind tunnels are an integral part of bike design today.  This is also a part of why these bikes command some pretty hefty price tags.

In my opinion, the triathlon bike industry has hit a point of diminishing returns.  I call it "peak aero."  The trend with triathlon bike design over the last few years has been all about aerodynamic performance, with manufacturers introducing their new high-end models with increasing price tags and white papers desperately trying to demonstrate why this bike is so much faster than the others.

Problem is, aerodynamics is a cruel science.  There are so many factors involved in what makes something aerodynamic, how it is measured, and how wind tunnel data compares to real world information.  Two bikes tested in the same wind tunnel on different days can have different results due to atmospheric conditions.  The same bike in different wind tunnels can have different results.  Testing with or without a rider, pedaling or not pedaling, introduces even more confusion.  It's hard for anybody to present a good apples-to-apples comparison of how their new bike is faster than anything else out there.  It's not anybody's fault, but it's hard to trust the white papers.

We're at a point of diminishing returns.  I'm certainly no aerodynamics expert, but when you look at the bikes on the market today, for the most part, we're settling in on some very similar concepts across all models.  Cables runs are clean, front ends are tidy, and tube shapes are similar.  Much of what was introduced on the superbikes of 3 years ago has trickled down to even the most affordable models in the lineup.

As bikes leave the factory, they are all very good nowadays.  I feel that there is a lot of bang for the buck in the sub $3,000 triathlon bike market - bikes like the Felt IA16, Cervelo P2, and many others get a ton of trickle-down technology from their more expensive stablemates.  In my mind, it makes it hard to justify the more expensive bikes.  How much does one spend for each watt saved over the more affordable model?

This is good for the consumer, but the manufacturers (and specifically their marketing departments) have a challenge: the bike does not race by itself.  The bike is one part of a system, and as it turns out, is a relatively small part.  Throw a big blob of meat and bones (i.e., a human body) on top of it, and the bike is only about 20% of the system's total frontal area, at most.  Put that human body in a bad aerodynamic position, and it's even worse.  As a bike fitter, I can help you get more aerodynamic and we can even go to the wind tunnel, but in all honesty, comfort is going to trump aerodynamics (although you might be surprised just how aero you can get while being comfortable).  Throw on the nutrition people need for training and racing, and we are a long way away from that that thing of aerodynamic beauty that left the factory.

This is where I see a shift happening.  Bicycle manufacturers need to tout the other features of the bikes.  The shift has started to happen, with an emphasis on a few things:

  • Non-traditional designs
  • Integrated storage
  • Disc Brakes

Non-Traditional Designs

Looking at the P5X, you'll notice something is missing.  A seat tube.  And chain stays.  The classic "double diamond" design is being challenged again - Dimond, TriRig, Ventum, Falco, Reap, and others are challenging the traditional design.  Many of these have had a parallel design from the past - what's old is new again.

The early Dimond prototypes were based on the Zipp 2001 frame from the early 90's.  The TriRig Omni and Ventum One look similar to the Lotus 108, also from the early 90's.  The idea is that if you can remove unnecessary parts, you can reduce drag.  Some folks think they're ugly.  I think they're beautiful in their own way.

Integrated Storage

Integrated on-the-bike storage is a fun one.  If you look at the P5X and Andean, they have been very clever in how they've integrated storage.  Cervelo put out a white paper for the P5X.  I haven't seen it, and I don't believe most of us can.  Dan Empfield did, so his write-up on it will tell you more than I can.  It appears that the P5X will save the average rider maybe a minute over the P5 on an Ironman course.  How much is that worth to you?

The P5X and Andean aren't the only ones who have jumped on the integrated storage bandwagon.  The new Dimond Marquise has 3 storage compartments.  The Ventum One has a 1,4 liter water bottle integrated into the top tube.

Of course, none of this is totally new - Trek has had their integrated rear storage solution on the Speed Concept for a few years now.  Quintana Roo has their similar QBox on their PR series of bikes.  Many bikes are including top-tube bosses to mount a bento box like the Profile Design ATTK behind the stem, helping to improve airflow through that area.  The Scott Plasma Premium has a nicely integrated between-the-arms (BTA) drink system.  Ceepo offers their Viper-R with storage up front, on the top tube, and in the back.  These are just a few examples.

Disc Brakes

There is one other big thing to point out on the Andean and P5X: disc brakes.  While disc brake technology is pretty much the standard in the mountain bike world, it is only now catching on in road cycling.  The aerodynamics of the disc itself have been a challenge for triathlon bike designers, and part of the reason for the relatively slow adoption.  So far, I am only aware of 3 tri bikes with disc brakes - the P5X, Andean, and the Parlee TTiR.  Over the next 2-3 years, I think we'll see a big shift in braking systems.  The wheel manufacturers are all over this and the products are coming.

I think we're starting to see a shift in triathlon bikes that will start to gain some momentum.  Marketing departments will be looking to find ways to quantify things beyond aerodynamics.  We'll start to see more integrated storage, more disc brakes, and maybe more attention to other factors like how the bike rides, handles, and brakes.  If we can start quantifying these things, we'll see a lot of innovation that will benefit us as consumers.

While late 2016 has brought a lot of big bike announcements, what is interesting to me are the big players that haven't said anything lately - Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, and many others have been fairly quiet.  Is this the calm before the storm?

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