PezCycling News - What's Cool In Pro Cycling : Tunnel Vision: In The Tube with Trek, Basso & Discovery

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Tunnel Vision: In The Tube with Trek, Basso & Discovery
It’s not everyday you get to visit a wind tunnel test – where “visit” means being the only media present. PEZ gets a first hand look into TREK, Bontrager, Giro and Steve Hed’s efforts at making a fast man even faster. While lots of things in cycling are far simpler than companies would have you believe, this time it really is “rocket science” as we take you into the tunnel…

Tunnel testing was once considered a luxury for the top riders. In the past few years it has become a requirement, as placement in the top 20 positions of a Grand Tour TT has progressed from “could be” affected by tunnel testing to “will be” affected. Every Pro tour team (if there is such a thing by the time this hits you) and top rider now realize that skipping tunnel testing or more to the point, refusing to make the investment, will make a quantifiable difference. That’s not to say that all teams and all bicycle manufacturers take the time to test their equipment and riders to the degree that Trek and Discovery Channel do (or that they test at all), but everyone understand the value.

click the thumbnail at the top for a great screensaver-sized picture

Choose Your Tunnel Wisely
What some may not realize is that the choice of the tunnel to be used can be a factor in the accuracy of the data and the ability to realize gains. To that end, Trek, Discovery and Steve Hed (and a quick adder from Giro Helmets) wanted to be sure that the tunnel they use is geared toward a higher degree of both sensitivity and repeatability. As our sport happens at a snails pace compared to most things concerned enough with aerodynamics to need a tunnel, THE choice for this crew is the Low Speed Wind Tunnel (LSWT) in San Diego California as the best place for cycling and cycling related products testing.

The tunnel itself came under construction in 1944 and finished in 1947. General Dynamics ran the place until 1994 and operations then turned to a private company until 2006, when ownership passed to the San Diego Air and Space museum.

During that time the place has run for better than 100,000 hours of testing and has seen some of the best in military and civilian aerial hardware with extensive work in the development of the F-106, B-58, F-111, F-16, A-12, as well as the Tomahawk and Advanced Cruise Missile programs. Boeing has their own test gear, but even they understand how important it is to use the right tunnel for job at hand and used the LSWT for lower speed flutter testing with the 707 to the 787…

They also branched out into another form of Cycling… I know Trek make some fast bikes, but there’s fast and there’s “Holymerrymotherof!”… These guys (left to right) Aaron Yates, Mat Mladin and Ben (elbows) Spies on the Yoshimura Suzuki have dominated AMA superbike racing in a way not unlike Lance Trek and Disco have, and Ivan Trek and Disco would like to, dominate the Tour. Tunnel pays folks…

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t some uber-talented athlete or highly financed team that discovered the tunnel for Bikes you Pedal. That honor sits with rather keen-thinking tunnel personnel seeing an article published about and how they focused their athletes on several aspects of triathlon training including the value of aerodynamics. The tunnel called em up, and the rest is modern history…

What Makes A Good Tunnel For Bikes?
For starters, the key is in the gear that holds the bike.

The easiest thing to see is the elevated platform and disc (splitter plate) that holds a rider (or wheel or bike) up off of the trashy air flow on the floor and into the most consistent and uniform air flow. Of course, this whole rig rotates too, so that you can get a more real world test of wind cheating ability in a cross wind. The platform (splitter) and all of the more complicated load measuring equipment it houses will actually allow for you to get wind blasted at a full 90 degrees, not that it’s relevant to the sport (except for that nut-ball Tour TT stage that crossed the bridge to St. Nazaire in 2000). For cycling though, the range for testing is typically less than a third of the available range for the equipment.

Of note (above) is that the platform has an exceptional ergotrainer built in that not only features a nice flywheel to simulate road conditions, but also measures rider power and can adjust its resistance and/or speed.

The balance (the load measuring system under the platform and splitter plate) is more sensitive than those found at several larger or more high speed focused tunnels and the support equipment that hold the rider and bike is also custom tailored for cycling and gear tests sans rider. The gear can hold parts of cycling gear alone and can spin wheels etc making the LSWT a hotbed for equipment testing for several manufacturers.

Blow Me!
Another feature to this tunnel that aids in the sensitivity and consistency of feedback is that this tunnel re-circulates the air. This helps to create a more consistent wind speed and uniform airflow which helps increase the consistency and repeatability of the test data as temperature and air density influences the test data. By having a closed system, you’re not as subject to outside temperature and humidity changes that can move quite a bit throughout the day.

This system drives that airflow with a fan that on first glance looks pretty cool…

But it takes on a whole other level of cool factor when you understand the scale of the thing.

Huge thanks to Elizabeth Kreutz who is a far better photographer than me.

The fan makes for very good testing flow and also makes this one of the top 10 places not to stand when the little warning buzzer sounds and the lights flash (and you crap yourself if the tunnel folks have some fun with you…).

The tunnel also features things like a mini circulated river of oil across the floor in a closed off section that traps dust (and the odd part when something fly’s off a test subject). There are also some super sleek cameras…

These Aero-peepers are in a few select spots and track the test subjects to a host of monitors that record everything so that each rider can get a full CD of his time in tunnel.

There’s also a projector in the ceiling so that the athlete can have a peak at his own info in real time…

This is a plus for tests that may run a bit differently than the fairly machine-like rapid fire of the Trek / Disco / HED effort. A rider that lacks a “crew” of this caliber may be making body changes on the fly and simply looking at the differences (a head tip, elbow move, etc). For this test, the changes were more methodical and controlled than a rider simply moving around, but for others less fortunate, it’s an incredible tool to see what differences your movements make in real time, then get the added benefit of a CD recording to help you recall exactly what was what.

Another Key: The San Diego LSWT Staff!

The staff is professional, extremely friendly and most importantly, they really seem to have an excellent handle on cycling. While on the surface that might seem trivial, the expense to use this facility is VERY large (and Bike companies are not exactly budgeted like defense contractors). San Diego is more expensive than several other tunnels when measured by the hour (a rough estimate of “twice as expensive” was given by a large wheel manufacturer that just finished several days testing here). However San Diego’s LSWT is a value relative to other testing facilities. That’s due in part to the accuracy of the data, as it can take half the “runs” (that’s clearing the tunnel, spinning it up, testing, spinning down and resetting for another run) and calculation time to get accurate (and trustworthy) data. The extra value here is also that the staff is extremely well drilled at handling cyclists, attacking things between runs like an F1 pit crew…

Very few words needed speaking at all for things like bike set up and swap, as these folks have a familiarity for setting up the equipment. The facility also has basic grinding, drilling and machining gear so that some things can get a massage if need be…

Arguably more important is that the staff knows how to handle and manipulate riders and understand efficiency and comfort as well as body position for the aerodynamics…

Ivan’s New Set Up
The first test of the day was to gather a baseline with Ivan’s prior equipment. Trek’s Scott Daubert wanted to be sure that Ivan was completely comfortable and ready to give the proper effort, especially in setting the baseline measurement of his Aero values on his old bike…

Once mounted on his new Trek TTX, built up to put Ivan in the same position, it was interesting that prior to any position manipulation Ivan was slightly more aerodynamic on the Trek (but only very slightly and within a margin of error). And the unadjusted / matched fit, as you can tell by the trace as Ivan was ready to go the new bike, was dead on from the Cervelo to the TTX.

But a quick look at Ivan’s position and a bit of conversation with the rider and a couple of very small tweaks were made that showed instant and surprisingly (to me) substantial results…

Trek’s Daubert and Steve Hed, shown later, playing with a Hed Prototype, are a potent tunnel combo

[**Note: The photo’s you’ll see are in a specific order. That is to say that the photos have been placed in this article out of order and at various angle changes, so that the substantial investment made by those involved isn’t easily used by others. You also don’t get to see the prototype parts that probably won’t get leaked until the Giro or Tour, at least not at Pez…]

There was a bit of a communication train despite the fact that Ivan speaks pretty good English relative to everyone else’s Italian (and also has a very pleasant, friendly and direct attitude with people in a way that’s not always the case with top athletes). Unfortunately there’s a funky lingo that comes with the nuances of body position, bike fit and power output which had English to Italian looking like a game of Rock paper scissors…

Thankfully Dr. Max Testa made a house call, as he’s Trek Triathlete Chris Lieto’s coach and was down stairs with Chris who was scheduled to be in the tunnel next. He may not cure the common cold, but I know first hand he can cure the hell out of a bad bike position… He was also a cure for everyone else’s poor Italian! Although Ivan’s English is very good in conversation there’s a certain Je ne sais qui, or is it, “Non conosco che cosa” to bike and body position. Max is simply fluid in the several languages required (tech-geek-English, arm-and-hand-waving-Italian, bilingual med/biomechanics and pro cyclist body feel)…

Ben Coats holds the bike, Eki has an idea, Max looks on and Ivan speaks “handtalian” as Scott Daubert soaks it in and Pez Tech Ed. tries to warm everyone by reflecting heat from his bean…

Ivan went through a lot of positions, though always through the exact same conversation, set up, warm up, start and finish for each testing cycle. I can say that Ivan’s ability to lay down robot consistent power was incredible, not for its high power level, but simply for the flat as a board consistency.

In each run though, it was not the watts that he put out, but that the cadence and wheel speed were the maintained each time so that the wind resistance number was the same for his legs, feet, and wheels, leaving the position as the variable being tested. Comfort is also relative in a TT and it was up to Ivan to explain not simply what was (or was not) comfortable but also that “ita giva di good power feeling”.

The recent fit of fancy seems to be the “up” position, AKA “the Levi”, AKA “the Floyd”, and was tested by Ivan at the request of Disco boss Johan…

And briefly by Eki (who says he’s done with the bike, but looks like he could still land a TT top 5 in blue jeans and tennis shoes…)

In fact, several versions of the “up” were tested along with several versions of a more traditional position…

Placement of hands, head tilt, bar tilt, bar bed twist in / out (as the former “MUST HAVE” straight bars seem to be back “out” again), wrist bend, all make for changes in Drag / CDA, and Steve Hed had a few home made tools to help put to paper some details that have always been considered but where a bit tough to accurately quantify until Steve mad himself a “maniper”.

A sweet little tool that can take larger relative measures around things (like head and shoulders) then be measured and logged rather than guessed at.

That these little details can amount to a large difference when properly measured and dialed in is no secret but the combination of subtle changes made, and the resulting data for Ivan are not for the public… What can be said is that all of these features are linked! Wide elbows work along with wrist bend or bar rise in one way, while narrow elbows work better with other combinations. The same goes for ‘up’ versus ‘down’ positions as related to arm angles in relationship with your upper body angle…

Watching guys that really understood what they were doing made me quickly and clearly realized that I have heard LOADS of bad info from Tri and TT and bike coaches (and other would be experts) in the past…

The generalizations like lower or flatter is “always” better or straight bar extensions are better or arms down or up are “always” better have, in large part, been horsesh!t unless linked with the right other factors… It’s with this in mind where I recognized that Steve Hed has a pretty good eye for the tunnel.

Case in point, the torso needs to be at a fairly level angle with the arms in the “up” position to work correctly. Steve Hed leaned over and said “it won’t work for Ivan” the second he looked at him but it was tested anyway as Steve not only accepts silly questions from knucleheaded Technical Editors from web sites, he encourages them from everyone and seems to genuinely LOVE what he’s doing…

In fact, the whole thing ran full circle and the best position wound up being what Steve set up as his very first choice. The other positions need trying, but it was impressive that Hed’s very first eyeball changes, made after a minutes worth of review, wound up being better than everything else suggested. (And yes, I know you’re sitting there saying “well what are the relationships!?” All I can say is that IF you’re lucky enough to get a chance to have Steve help you, you’ll benefit tremendously!)

As for Basso…
Interestingly and understandably, nothing was done to change Ivan’s pedaling mechanics (toe point, seat setback or height etc). When you’re the world’s top stage racer, you’ve got a very good understanding of some of the basics and Ivan has an excellent understanding of his mechanics as he’s gradually progressed to the point where he is now competitive on a TT bike.

Ivan was quick to make sure that he had a full set of measures so that he can repeat things in his daily / weekly progression toward what could very well win a pair of Grand Tours this year.

Part of me wants to say “easily win” as Basso will be a clear favorite for both the Giro and Tour, but being the clear favorite is only easy for the press and public to predict. Actually getting everything right on and off the road is something else entirely. Case in point; Basso is more than likely a double Giro winner if not for a simple stomach bug…

Now he’s got a team with a chef and understands why he needs one. While some others thought it simply overkill by Armstrong (or still think it an extravagance by Discovery), most now see it as a necessity, just like the tunnel testing, and CSC had also made the switch after making the mistake…

Ivan is also fairly happy on the new Madone as he’s a bit more of a fan of standard geometry and feels like the new bike is “able to produce the power”, but he’s thankful for the “better stability and comfort, which is important for the stage racing as well as putting in the miles this time of year”.

And so…
What can be said is that the result of the time spent in the tunnel exceeded the goal that the crew had at the start of the test. That was to at least be equal to the equipment available to Ivan last year. The assumption by Ivan and not immediately discarded by Discovery and Trek was that CSC and Cervelo had done as good a job as possible with Ivan. While they did do an incredible job, in a head to head comparison, with very few and only minor changes, Ivan has simply been made more aerodynamic on the Trek TTX that he was on the Cervelo P3.

How much faster?

There are two 50k plus TT’s in the Tour this year and the gain for Ivan on paper, over these TT’s was larger than the difference between winning and finishing off of last year’s podium (as it stood the day the Tour ended anyway).

Conditions change and the most important of conditions is the rider’s physical ability, but the value of testing is undeniable at the top of the sport now. The benefits of testing are only as good as the quality and focus of the test facility and staff though, and San Diego’s Low Speed Wind Tunnel is at the pinnacle of what’s available for our sport…

Also at the pinnacle are a select few bicycle, wheel and equipment manufacturers that make the commitment and substantial investment to be leaders in the field. Huge thanks to the guys at Trek Bicycles for trusting PEZ with this exceptionally rare access.

Best of luck to Trek, Ivan and Discovery in the quest to put an “8” on the bikes after the 07’ Tour!

Have Fun!

Charles Manantan

You can visit Trek at TREKBIKES.COM

Note: if you have other experiences with gear, or something to add, drop us a line. We don’t claim to know everything (we just imply it at times). Give us a pat on the back if you like the reviews, or a slap in the head if you feel the need!

PezCycling News and the author ask that you contact the manufacturers before using any products we test here. Only the manufacturer can provide accurate and complete information on proper use and or installation of products as well as any conditional information or product limitations.

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