One of our long running local races, the French Broad Cycling Classic (FBCC), decided to make their time trial “Merckx Style” meaning they banned full-on TT bike set ups. All bikes must be mass start legal and have no clip on TT bars. You gotta ride a regular road bike set up (drop bars), like Eddy Merckx did back in the day before specialized TT equipment was developed. Further, they also banned aero TT helmets. This action follows the trend of several other races, most notably the Nature Valley Grand Prix (NVGP) Stage Race, which has been aero equipment free for a few years now. Although I agree with the intentions of the Merckx style movement, I’d like to show everyone how to circumvent the rules and go almost as fast as you would on your full TT bike set up. In doing so, I’ll demonstrate that the Merckx style TT actually creates the opposite effect on some of its intentions.
Reasons for the Merckx style TT: The motivation behind the Merckx style TT is all about making the event more “pure”, leveling the playing field, making it more about the rider and the clock rather than about who has the most aero TT bike, position, and time dedicated to going fast in that position. Whoever has the best legs/fitness wins. It is meant to reduce the amount of equipment needed to compete and lower the costs associated with getting into the sport. Theoretically it should simplify travel logistics since riders don’t need to bring multiple bikes and might even help reduce the carbon foot print of the race slightly since there are less bikes on roofs reducing fuel mileage and more riders car pooling together to the race since they only need to bring one bike. The thought is that riders that are good at time trials will still be good at the event and it gives those who don’t have a TT bike the opportunity to compete.
I applaud the intentions of the Merckx style TT. Let’s make the race more about the rider and less about the equipment. However, the tech geek in me sees opportunities to maximize aerodynamics within the rules and gain a technical advantage. I know that if I see these opportunities, other riders will also, meaning I HAVE to take advantage of these opportunities to be on the same playing field as others. There is a classic fundamental tension here between race organizers who may or may not have a deep or even working understanding of technology and the tech geek who will stop at nothing to maximize their performance within the rules. Remember Graham Obree? You make a rule, and I’ll find a way around it.
Ok, let’s be honest here, a time trial is MOSTLY about your fitness and who can pedal the hardest over the course. However, we also know that the single biggest force that a rider must overcome is wind resistance. A rider’s fitness ability can be enhanced or impaired by how aerodynamic they and their equipment are. For a 20k course, the difference in time between a full well-tuned TT set up and a regular up-right road riding position at the same wattage is staggering. We’re talking minutes of difference. Riders that put a lot of effort into being good in TTs spend a lot of time fine tuning their position on the bike, making compromises between the most aerodynamically efficient position and power output. Being able to contort your body into a super aero position is one thing, being able to actually get good power output in that position is another.
So, how can you be “aero” in a Merckx TT?
1. Frame Choice: The Nature Valley Grand Prix requires that riders use the same bike in all stages of their race. So whatever you ride in their Merckx TT is what you have to ride for the rest of the race. The FBCC has no such rule since it is an omnium and some riders will only do the TT. So, your natural choice should be to ride a frame designed with aerodynamics in mind. The most aero frames are going to be ones designed for time trials, however many bikes from the “aero road” category (Cervelo S5, Felt AR3, etc) would also be very good. Since my normal road frame is only semi-aero, I used the frame from my time trial bike, a Boyd Cycling – Bow and Aero. All of these frames meet mass start requirements, double diamond frame.
2. Wheels: Merckx TT rules only state that wheels have to be mass start legal, which pretty much only eliminates disc wheels. Conventional wisdom will tell us that the super deep carbon wheels will be the most aero wheels in this case, so I went with Boyd Cycling 88mm Carbon Tubulars, front and rear.
3. Helmet: The FBCC rules only say, “No time trial helmets” which clearly means I can’t use my long pointy helmet, even though those are technically mass start legal (any helmet is mass start legal as long as it meets the CPSC standards). Something like the new Giro Air Attack are in the grey area of this rule, but would be acceptable. There are several things I can do to my regular road helmet to make it more aero however. I’ll race with the clear plastic cover that is made for my Lazer helmet that covers up the vents. You could easily do the same with clear packing tape or a swim cap stretched over your helmet. I also added a visor to the set up. I took it off my TT helmet and just taped it to my road helmet.
4. Body Position: This is going to be the most critical part of your set up. The frame and wheels certainly make some difference, but your body is the biggest thing you are trying to shove through wind, so getting your body position to be as close to your proven TT position will be the best. This presents some challenges with the Merckx rules and requires some creative solutions.
5. Saddle Position: Your best bet is to keep the same saddle position as you use on your TT bike, usually farther forward than your regular road position. If you are converting a road bike for this purpose, you could get a second seat post and saddle and set that up to mimic your TT position and just swap them back and forth for training sessions leading up to the event.
6. Handlebar: Mass start rules say that you have to have regular drop bars with no bolt on extensions. Your best bet here is to set your handlebars at the height of your elbow pads on your TT bike and ride with your fore-arms resting on the tops of your bars. This is a “virtual TT bar” set up. There is nothing for you to hold onto with your hands. Adding some additional padding under your bar tape is a good idea. You can even shape that padding with bumps that will keep your elbows closer together.
I find the virtual TT bar set up effective, but difficult to get any leverage to stabilize my body so I end up loosing some power over longer distances. My solution to this was to get a super narrow drop bar. I found this Salsa that is 34mm wide! I mounted the shifters rotated inward as far as possible and rotated the bars up to create a nice little cradle for my fore-arms. I have two positions with this set up, hands on the horns of the shifters when I need maximum control or I can slide my arms farther forward and have a nice long comfortable stable platform for my arms to rest on. This allows me to achieve a body position very similar to my normal TT set up.
Here is a side by side comparison of my body position with my regular TT setup and my Merckx set up.
Here is the comparison of the front view. My TT position has my elbows much closer together, which forces my shoulders to be wider. My Merckx position has wider elbow placement, but that means my shoulders can be more narrow. Probably equal drag between each.
How much slower will it be? Let’s evaluate my set up and make some predictions on time losses compared to my normal TT bike set up. I’m going to loose a few seconds for the rear wheel since it is not a disk, and a few seconds for my helmet not having a tail. I might also loose a second or two for extra frontal area of my drop bars compared to my TT bars. So, I’m predicting 20-30sec over 20k.
Results: I finished 3rd out of 60 starters in the pro/1/2 category. My time was 27:07. You can see the Strava file here. In 2011 I finished 5th with a time of 26:36 on full TT equipment with a similar average wattage.
Why Merckx style rules don’t work: Ok, so the change in style of TT did accomplish one goal. Participation in the TT went up a good bit this year. The event was more available to participants and more contested it. If that is all the change is evaluated on, then it was a success. Let’s look at the other points. For simplification of equipment, it was a failure. Many people decided to purchase deep rim rear wheels since a rear disc was not allowed. Many also purchased different helmets that could accept a cover. 2 of the top 3 riders converted their normal TT bike to a drop bar set up (I’m sure there were more, but were un-observed by me). 4 of the top 5 finishers wore helmet covers. All of the top riders adopted the “virtual aero bar” position with fore-arms on the tops. How much control do these riders have over their bikes on a course open to cars, other riders, and road hazards?
If you didn’t want to go the extra mile and make these upgrades, you were at a distinct disadvantage. That means the goal of leveling the playing field was also a failure. Those that understood how to gain a technical advantage took it and rode faster, those that didn’t went slower than they could have.
Suggestions for future events:
1. Clear up confusion about helmets. The head official at the event told me that the helmet just had to be mass start legal. He clearly didn’t understand that ALL helmets, even the pointy TT versions meet the standards for mass start events. There is no differentiation between the type of event and the type of helmet used. If they just say “No TT helmets” then they have to list every model of helmet and say whether it is allowed or not. There are too many helmets that don’t exactly have a long aero tail that are WAY more aero then a normal road helmet (eg. Giro Air Attack). Where do you draw the line?
2. Same bike for every stage: Even though it is an omnium, the event could stipulate that you ride the same bike set up for every event in the omnium. There will be guys that just show up for the TT, but probably not a lot. Stage races have a clear advantage in this department.
3. TT bikes for P/1/2: My suggestion is to make the P/1/2 category regular TT equipment and have every other category go with the Merckx style. Maybe Masters 35+ should be TT bikes also? Anyway, there can be both at the same event.