Monday, November 10, 2014

Clothes Make the Man, and the Hour Record

Before I get into it, congrats to MABRA's own Matt Cooke.  See his frank interview on ex-dopers here.  He's not alone: check out Will Routley's 2012 essay.

Also congrats to MABRA neighbor Bobby Lea on claiming the first ever American medal in a World Cup Omnium.

Now, back to the trivial...

The hour record allows comparison between past and present greats.

The difference in performance between race bikes of fifty years ago and today is less than 1%.  This isn't merely a hypothetical--Chris Boardman actually did take on Merckxx's record, with the same basic equipment.

And despite hours in the wind tunnel refining his position (apparent in the picture below) as well as the use of a power meter and a carbon tubed frame, Boardman surpassed Merckxx by only 110 meters (0.02%, if you're interested).

It's safe to bet that Jens Voigt and Matthias Brändle put out less power than Boardman and Merckxx.  What allowed them to surpass Merckxx and Boardman by several thousand meters?

If you answered, "their bikes," you're mostly wrong.

When it comes to speed, it ain't about the bike, and it ain't even all about the engine.

If you want to personify advances in the past half century in cycling technology, imagine a tailor standing there saying, "now bend over...I'm gonna take this in a bit."
I'll explain what I mean by comparing the hour attempts of Jens Voigt and Matthias Brändle with the less recent attempts of Chris Boardman and Eddie Merckxx.

Boardman in 2000

In their attempts, performed Merckxx and Boardman probably averaged higher power outputs than Voigt and Brändle. Boardman was capable of sustaining 442 Watts, and Merckxx--despite his slightly slower speed--probably put out significantly less power (due to the altitude of his attempt).  For the math of the estimation, see here.

Jens targeted 370w and Brändle probably averaged closer to 390w.

Yet, Voigt and Brändle went around 2k further than Boardman and Merckxx.  How?

Mostly, Jens and Matthias bent over and tucked better.  Moving from a road position to a TT position makes you faster.  How much faster?  Well, if you're putting out 440 Watts, about 3 kilometers an hour faster.  That's about the difference in Boardman's own efforts (2000 "Merckxx" shown above, 1993 TT position shown below) in both positions.
Boardman's 1993 Attempt
Note, Boardman's 1993 ride in what looks to me to be a UCI legal position today is nearly a kilometer further than Brändle's effort.

Hour rides
Boardman in TT position: 52.713k
Brändle: 51.852
Voigt: 51.110
Boardman in drops: 49.441
Merckxx: 49.431

Brändle (estimated) in drops: 48.852
Voigt (estimated) in drops: 48.110

Moving from the drops to the TT position gets you about 3k, all other things being equal (in this case, it's Chris Boardman, so it's a safe assumption).

Brändle and Voigt riding in the drops would never have beaten Merckxx.

But that's not the whole story.  If Jens and Matthias didn't have today's tailors, it's doubtful they'd have taken Roger Rivière's 1959 record!

That's because we've excluded some other important variables in estimating their Merckxx-ian time.

Clothes make the man...take the hour record
How much do other factors (disc wheels, skinsuit, helmet, shoe covers, gloves, and bike frame contribute)?

Of these, skinsuits potentially offer the largest benefit, at least in comparison with Merckxx.

Voigt and Brändle both wore textured, perfectly tailored suits.

Brändle's suit shows textured shoulders
On the other hand, Voigt didn't wear shoe covers, and his helmet looks closer to Boardman's than to Brändle's.

Michael Hutchinsin in his book, Faster, suggests cutting edge skinsuits can yield substantial gains not only from regular kits, but from other skinsuits--in the order of minutes over 40k.

How fast would Merckxx have gone if he'd have ridden in Brändle's clothes and on his bike?

Put him in a modern skinsuit (+200) with a modern helmet (+200 meters), put him in the TT position (+3 kilometers), and Merckxx would be somewhere north of 52.8 kilometers.

Sure, for our speed, we'd like to point to carbon and Kam-shaped airfoil tubes, to wires routed inside our tubes, to better training, and to the general superiority of our age to that of the past, but in the end we're just faster because be wear better-fitting clothes and fabulous headgear.

That's the shameful truth.