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Jacob Tipper is a coach of athletes across the spectrum from track sprinters to triathletes, and he is also a great track and road cyclist himself. Jacob was the person tasked with putting together Alistair Brownlee's team for the Sub7/Sub8 project (Brownlee was replaced by Joe Skipper due to injury before the event), and in this episode we discuss that whole process and what we can all learn from it.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- The process of putting together a team for Sub7, as well as training and testing done leading up to it
- What it took (power numbers and race power profile) to be a part of the team, and what Joe Skipper needed to do to hold on at the back of the paceline
- Tactics used on the bike leg
- The importance of training at a high speed (like moto pacing) due to pedalling kinematics
- The battle between Team Skipper and Team Blummenfelt
- What lessons can regular age-groupers take away from the Sub7/Sub8 project and how Jacob and his team approached it in particular
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- I am a cyclist and coach based in the UK. I ride for Ribble Title Pro Cycling Team.
- I am not a full-time professional, but I won a stage Tour of Xingai Lake, the cycling event held at the highest altitude in the world.
- Concerning coaching, I work with some athletes, such as Dan Bigham (hopefully, future hour record holder) and Ben Healy, who is racing for EF- Education First.
- When I was younger, I was a triathlete. However, my swim was not good, and my 70.3 time was not a time that would allow me to pursue it as a professional.
- However, in recent years, I returned to it during the pandemic. Now, I am trying to balance cycling and triathlon and helping other athletes such as Alistair Brownlee with the sub-7 project. It does not help my triathlon journey, but it is something I will pursue in the future.
- I am very competitive in my sport, and it has been not easy in the last few years to see continuous improvements in my performance, as I am getting busier and busier with work. It is hard not to see power improvements over years of training, and it is good to have a triathlon to keep motivated.
- I also work with Huub Design on a consultancy base around aerodynamic work and then apply sports science to their products.
- My swim and run have improved this year, and when all your life is around sport (hobby and job), it is good to see some improvements.
- We can compare it to Breaking2. The goal is to break a world record in triathlon without rule limitations for the Ironman distance.
- For men, the goal was to break seven hours, and for the women, eight hours.
- We had to find an agreement on what some rules would be. We did not want to be an 80-men peloton in the bike split or drafting behind lorries or cars.
- Therefore, each athlete would have a team of 10 athletes, and it would be up to you to decide the best strategy for managing the athlete lineup for each modality.
- For me, the exciting part was competing against other teams and leading up to the event, and we developed a rivalry with Kristian's team. So, our mindset was not only to break seven hours but also to beat the other team.
- Therefore, it was about seeing who had the quickest wetsuit, cycling setup, sport science and sponsors. It became an actual race instead of just beating a record.
- I knew it would be hard to beat Kristian, but we stood up for the challenge, making the event super exciting.
- And when we saw Joe passing Kristian on the bike split and barking at him, it gave good TV coverage and showed how those two were racing against each other.
- In the end, it was just a fair competition, and the best athlete would win, where all teams competed against each other in the different sports.
Steps Jacob took and worked on for training, testing for optimising triathlon performance
- There are two different approaches from different camps: Alister sat down with us a year ago and presented us with the project and the goal of going as fast as possible,
- As Dan went to Ineos, I took over the bike side of things, and it was my job to get organised. Fortunately, we kept Dan as a rider to pitch him with aero stuff.
- We went specific when preparing for this effort. Half of the cyclists were from the Huub Wattbike team, so they have this experience of riding close to the front wheel and making team-time trial-based efforts.
- Harry, Dowsett, John and Dan have been World TTT contenders racing for Great Britain.
- The other athletes trained a lot with us, so they could have the ability to ride a TTT.
- We picked guys that were tailor-made for this effort. In my opinion, road cyclists are a lot better at long-distance trials.
- I had done team time trials before, where I performed better than an individual time trial because I could punch hard on the front and recover on the back.
- However, time trial specialists might not be as good TTTs as others.
- Therefore, we picked fast, aerodynamic guys with the background and the ability to do the over-under required to perform.
- We tried to pick cyclists that were fully optimised.
- On the Kristian team, they had some limiters because they did not have those riders, so they spent more time training to make up for that.
- Moreover, they had limitations on sponsors and the kit they had.
- Whereas. for our team, I could not ask Dowsett to train with us because he was in the Giro. Therefore, we only optimised our formation in the last week.
- However, we had the freedom to use different pieces of equipment.
- So, in the weeks leading to the race, we bought as many components as possible (waxed chains, OPW, wheels, tires, chainrings, drivetrains). We also ensure that we got the fastest skinsuit with different base layer technology.
- Most athletes had optimised cyclist/helmet interaction. When we were at the project's location, we had access to this massive velodrome for the entire time. Therefore, we did some helmet testing and position testing on specific athletes.
- The thing with aero testing is that if we take power out and focus on aerodynamics is not guaranteed that we will get faster.
- Some athletes can become much faster, while others would not improve.
- For example, Dan, when testing, would always find 3-5 watts in each test, and I would do a four-day aero testing, and I would not find anything.
- Then, we did a lot of modelling to evaluate the CdA when the riders were at the front and draft efficiency when sitting behind another rider. With this information, we understood the power required to achieve the goal speed and who could reach it.
- We also had two spare riders and decided who would be in the final team. Apart from 2-3 cyclists, all riders had the same ability.
- And modelling allows taking "guessing" out of the equation. And this model depends on the 3-hour power output. However, no one has made a 3-hour effort.
- Therefore, we had to assess how everyone would perform and ride in the formation.
- For example, when you have someone like Dan in the team, you have to put someone strong behind him because he is super aerodynamic.
- On the day, we executed all this planning. The estimated splits were close to what we did. So, it was good to prove to the general public we were right because everyone doubted we could do sub. 3h20.
Optimisation of Joe's setup
- We did some changes in his setup, and most of it was calling for manufacturers to get him equipment.
- We got him a 1x Chainring and a wax chain. We put some calf guards, but we had some limitations on his position.
- We had more improvements in improving his drafting efficiency by improving his handling behind one rider.
- Moreover, this late appearance meant we did not have time to optimise the setup.
- Therefore, we focused on optimising the formation to make it easier for him to ride. The power Joe had to put depended much on what the team would do.
Team race tactics
- On the front, we would do the 10-mile power out (around 420 W for most athletes).
- In the back, most athletes would do 45 % of that power (220-250 W). That power would increase as you moved up the line.
- Once you were second on the formation, you could do your power target (if you were behind Dan) or less than 20-25 % of total power produced.
- We learnt a lot with our time in the team relay. You do not want to continue taking turns because athletes must constantly accelerate. You save 40-45 % in power at a steady speed, but if you do various changes, you must match that acceleration.
- Therefore, the pacing strategy was on the power athletes could do without blowing up. Most athletes would do half laps, where you could change in the banking.
- However, the most potent athletes would do the whole lap. When changing, you could use banking to avoid accelerating. If you had to change on a flat road, you would have to accelerate again.
- If you have done team time trials, the most challenging part could be doing the acceleration to return to the formation.
- And that is why we did not do laps out, and we thought it would be easier for everyone to keep pedalling instead of stopping and accelerating again. The energy athletes would put by going from 0-50 km/h to get back to the group would not be helpful for the team. The energy athletes spent when 8th on the formation would allow the team offers more draft for Joe.
- While on the formation, we had to ensure the riders were on top of fueling because they were still doing 250 W on the group.
- Most athletes were consuming 100-120 g/h of carbs. Moreover, for the guys in the group, they could recover in formation, and it would be as easy as stopping.
- Moreover, we had to follow the rules. However, the rules mentioned we could not give the pacers a sticky bottle to get them back to speed so that we could save the rider's energy at that moment of acceleration.
Joe's power profile
- Joe was doing around 305-310 W. However, the importance was avoiding significant variations in power, which we could achieve on the day because there was no significant headwind or tailwind.
- If we had stronger winds, we could take more time from Kristian's team, but it would make Joe's ride more difficult.
- Joe's power meter had some dropouts. He said it was slightly higher than before, which means it is incredible he could run a marathon PB.
- For Joe, it was a risky move. Alistair knew he could ride at that power, and Alistair's draft efficiency would be better than Joe's because of the time we spent optimising it.
- The team could have done the same with Alister on the back, but he would do less power.
- If we raced with Alistair (slightly faster on the swim and run), the strategy could have changed somehow. Whereas Joe knew he could not beat Kristian on the run, we needed to take advantage of the bike split.
- So, we transform this into a race where the mental side would also matter. As Joe gave us the confidence he could pull out this strategy, it gave us the freedom to try to achieve it.
- With the athlete's last-minute change, everything might have changed if Joe did not have this ability and had taken this risky move.
- Joe's attitude allowed us to enjoy and make the most of the event.
Pedal kinematics and its impact on performance
- Cyclists do a lot of motor pacing work. When you are at higher speeds, the way you pedal changes (you apply more torque at the start of the pedal stroke). You apply force throughout the pedal stroke when climbing with low inertia.
- Most power meters do not record this. If you are spiking at the start of the pedal stroke, there are not enough strain gages that could pick that up. When you motor pace, your power is low, but your HR is high. You "hurt yourself" much more by riding at higher speeds in a much more "shoppier way", but this is about going faster.
- The lesson is that if you are going to do a super-fast triathlon and ride at 45 km/h and spend all winter riding at 28 km/h and doing turbo and erg mode with low cadence, you will find riding at that speed difficult.
- You may have practised the power at roughly the same cadence, but you have not been pedalling and distributing the torque similarly for the months before.
- Therefore, it is helpful for riders to practice riding at the speeds they will be racing because there is that change in pedalling kinematics.
- Therefore, we had the second benefit of Alister making motor pacing because he became more efficient at riding at 50 km/h in the draft, which is different from going out and doing long hill reps.
- So, this is something I believe many riders do wrong if they spend too much time on the turbo.
- If we can go outside, I think it is helpful to spend that time getting used to riding at those higher speeds.
Other points to consider when preparing the sub-7 Project
- As Joe came late, we could not work much around optimising other aspects. With Alistair, we did isotropy tracking to see how much carbs he could absorb, for example. Moreover, Alistair did his sports science studies.
- Therefore, we tried to check things we did with Alistair and see if we could apply them with Joe.
- Alistair had some new prototype wetsuits, but Joe could not use them.
- My proudest sports science moment was when we chatted with Alistair about pre-cooling, so we bought these water pistols and used them during the race to cool him, taking advantage of the additional rules.
- However, Alistair got a better idea and found a weed killer on Amazon that we ended up using to cool him down. It was 27 ºC on the day, so that was a game-changer.
- The Blummenfelt team is super scientific with the use of lactate, measuring poo samples and core sensors.
- The core sensors would tell it was hot because he did not have a plan for cooling down on the run, which we had gotten.
- As soon as they saw us doing, Olav was out making an effort to cool Kristian.
- Therefore, we thought outside of the box when doing this.
- The fun part of this project was that it was a problem-solving exercise of finding different solutions to go faster.
- Our team also has a less conventional triathlon background, so we did not even know some of the rules of an Ironman.
- We can think of all these new ideas if we do not know the rules.
- I was hoping that we would get those hot conditions so that we could use it out.
- It was a cold rainy day the day before.
- I was overheating only by filling waters, so shout out to everyone competing.
- The general public was not impressed with the run times, but it was 27 ºC.
- People do not realise that you need those micro accelerations to keep in the group, and having to work hard was worth it because it was where we took the most time.
- After that doing a marathon at 27 ºC is impressive.
- Kristian was planning on running 2h25 for the marathon, but the conditions did not allow it to happen.
- People forget the impact of thermoregulation and heat, especially when running.
- Do not expect to run extraordinary times if you have a hot Ironman.
Preparation of the other teams
- Many teams kept information for themselves. It was a friendly environment, but we kept the information within the group concerning strategy.
- My wife was working with Kat's team, and I asked her not to share some insights on what we were doing.
- Kat's preparation was only six weeks, so she did not even get the skinsuits for the pacemakers. Moreover, she did not have time to practice some of the skills needed to improve her performance.
- All of our stravas remained hidden during the week of the event.
- I thought Nicola's team would not perform as well as they did.
- Moreover, if we would not race to win, we would feel "rubish".
- Everyone took something from this event and enjoyed the race.
- I was worried that athletes would get frustrated and do not enjoy doing 110 miles of TTT.
- Therefore, not every time you see 40 athletes coming out of the race feeling happy.
Takeaways from the sub-7 project to improve cycling performance
- It is about looking at what we can do differently to improve performance. Every event is a problem-solving exercise.
- You have limiting factors such as budget and rules, but every event should focus on breaking down what you can do differently.
- The easiest is to start with the bike: have you optimised your tires, chains, chainrings, and OSPW? Bicycle rolling resistance will tell which tires roll the fastest, and you can see how much they cost.
- For example, tires could give you 4 W and cost 18€ more, but OSPW costs 200-400 €.
- Other examples are if you were struggling with the heat. So it would be best if you did heat work.
- If you do the same thing and expect different results, you are on a path to failure. Address your fueling strategy and what, when, where and how you could have improved it.
- We did everything preparing for this event: we stripped this event and set all the things we could do.
- You do not practice many nuances in training, like fast starts during the swims or open water skills.
- You might not have Olav Bo or Dan Bigham to evaluate the performance requirements, but you can work out this list and address what you can improve over time.
- We might say that football has too much investment. However, people are discussing on Monday what they have done wrong in the weekend's game. For many cyclists, the job finishes when they finish the race. However, that should not be the case.
- You can learn more from the post-analysis than the race itself. And that is the part I enjoy the most.
Things that Joe's team could have done better
- The first thing we did was ask if anyone could go sub-six.
- What if we had a colder run when Kristian could have run a 2h25.
- We could have improved the handling on the bike and taken the shortest route between transition and the "velodrome".
- The guy behind Dan had to recover and chill after one hour in the back of the group, and we could not use him as we wished. Moreover, we did not discuss what would happen if someone entered the wrong position.
- We did it on the radio during the race, but it was too late.
- Not everyone is on optimal shoes, so we could find 2-4 W with different shoes.
- For example, Joe has a shoe sponsor. Therefore, we did not have time to contact the company to develop a prototype he could use during the race.
- Therefore, I would have had as many shoe prototypes as I could and tested them.
- The Alphaflys seem to be the fastest at 20+kmh, but that is not the speed Joe runs at when doing an Ironman because shoe performance tends to depend on stride length.
- For example, the Alphaflys tend to be faster on 10k but not on half-marathons.
- Therefore, the perfect shoe would have helped Joe go much faster.
- However, manufacturers will focus more on selling products to as many people as possible, but if you had that budget to do whatever you could, we could even go faster.
- Joe did not have an optimal wetsuit with buoyancy in the correct places. We could have prepared the swimming strategy better.
- Joe could not maintain Alistair's hip, but if he got to swim, who he trained all the time to have the best drag reduction, he could swim in the hip of the athlete.
- Swimming on someone's hip is the fastest place to swim, and you have to sync your arms with the athlete ahead. However, it will slow the other person slightly, so if that happens to you in a race, you will have to hit them or politely take them out of your hip.
- In this event, improving the swimming draft would have improved Joe's performance considerably.
- So, there are many things we could have improved, but we did not have a massive budget to do all those things.
- I reckon we could get closer to him if you gave us another month and if Kristian would do the same time.
- However, I think Kristian will improve this time, and more teams will exist in future events like this one.
- The organiser is talking of changing the rules with more teams, but fewer pacemakers, for example.
Takeaways from the discussion
- Training at a race pace is essential. On the track, we would train with skinsuits, aero helmets, and disc wheels to match the speeds we would race at during the events.
- At different speeds, the track feels different, and the banking trajectories also vary.
- Moreover, having a bag for nutrition during the swim is useful. I started doing it at the start of the pandemic. But it depends on your bike frame. It might not be as crucial if you have a bike with loads of hydration.
- My bike frame is so thin that a bottle ruins its aerodynamics. For example, it would cost me 12 W to put a bottle on it.
- However, do not do a bike split without hydration; take your time in the transitions and practice them. I used to practice it when I was younger.
- Practice simple things like getting your wetsuit off and shoes on 2-3 times before a primary competition.
- If you are doing your first Ironman, you do not need to race through transition, but you do not need to through away an extra 2 min needless. Some people will spend 1000 € on a fancy disc wheel that could save them 30-1min, but they could only practice transition and get the same time.
- Moreover, if you would practice mounting on a bike, it could also improve your times.
- If I developed a product that would save 30 seconds in a triathlon, I bet people would pay a lot of money for those magical 30 seconds.
- And those 30 seconds could get only things you could practice in your living room.