You can spend a fortune on tri kit, but will it really make you faster? In the name of answering this thorny endurance performance dilemma, we hit the Blenheim tri course twice with the same age-grouper (33Fuel co-founder Warren). The only difference? The budget for kit. The first race was a pure no-frills affair with a budget of precisely nothing. For the second race (after a night's sleep to reduce any fatigue wrecking the data too much) there was no budget limit at all, and - after pulling in a lot of favours from some very kind folks - the gear used came in at a shade under £10,000.
The results were illuminating in the extreme, but we're not giving them away yet - you'll have to read on. But if you're expecting this piece to help convince your other half how much you really need those £3k wheels, this may not be the ammunition you're after.
So enough of the preamble, let's get this show on the road. Let the cash battle commence!
The gear: zero budget
"The brief here was simple – get to the start line and race safely for the minimum amount possible.
"The wetsuit was a garish early ’90s surfing number bought when I was foolishly convinced I was Patrick Swayze in Point Break. According to some in the tri world this suit would be useless. It would fill with water, I wouldn’t be able to move my arms properly, and without a smooth coating it would slow me down so much I’d barely make it off the start. This was a risk I’d have to take though, because costing nothing this was my cheapest way into the water.
"If the suit was wrong, the bike was worse. A 1983 racer I found discarded in a hedge and fixed up for the price of a puncture repair kit, this was taking basic to extremes. But three of its five gears worked, and being two sizes too small it also forced me into a very tight crouch which would hopefully help with aerodynamics. Rusted bottle cage bolts meant I couldn’t fit a bottle so there was some more weight saving right away, while removing the back brake slashed further essential pounds and completed my race prep.
"A knackered helmet bought for mountain biking in 1995 was drafted out of retirement as protection, while board shorts and an old t-shirt made ideal cycling gear. Handily I could also use the last two on the run. Better still, as these were things I already owned, total cost so far was still a big fat nothing.
"My run gear kept to this theme with a pair of old running shoes. I may have looked like a teenager on his way to a beach party, but I was on the start line for £0."
- 90's surfing wetsuit? Check. Bike found in a hedge? Check. Boardshorts and cotton t-shirt? Check. Welcome to the world of no-cost tri gear. Looking fly
The gear: no limits budget
"Funnily enough this lot cost a little more as I plumped for Top Gun gear from start to finish.
"Swimming was looked after by Speedo’s Tri-Elite wetsuit and Speedsocket goggles topped off with my swim cap from last year’s Swiss Ironman. The suit would by all accounts turn me into a drag-free, lightning-fast fish, while the goggles were the very same as favoured by swimming legend Michael Phelps so had to be good. The Ironman swim cap was just a swim cap, but taking into account the stratospheric costs involved in getting it (monster entry fee, even larger training, travel and hotel costs), you could reasonably argue it had in fact cost nearer £1,500.
"Which was pocket change next to the bike.
The Trek Speed Concept 9.8 is a delectable, aerodynamically evolved racing piece of magic and at £6,000 sits comfortably towards in the higher end of triathlon spending limits. Flyweight carbon fibre throughout and wind tunnel designed to smooth every edge, the heaviest part of this bike will always be the rider. But don’t expect to just hop on and ride away – these bikes are precision instruments, and need treating as such.
"First you’ll need pedals. If you’re posh enough to spend this much on a bike heaven forbid the manufacturer should be presumptuous enough to decide which pedals you like. I opted for top of the range Shimano Dura Aces.
"Then you’ll need shoes, for which I selected Bontrager’s top end carbon fibre road shoe. These were of course fine tuned further with custom insoles to minimise power loss between push and pedal.
"Next came the fitting.
"What Savile Row is to gent’s tailoring, Cyclefit (www.cyclcfit.co.uk) is to two-wheeled bespoke perfection. A cyclist’s dream, tucked away in a discrete sidestreet off London’s Covent Garden, this is where good can be made great. Once I would have scoffed at such frivolity, before adjusting my own seat thanks very much, but having since had my ride on the same road bike transformed from numb-nutted discomfort to sublime all-day luxury, I am a convert. If you are splashing megabucks on your ride, it should at least fit.
"Then came are the computers. With Polar's (www.polar.com) top end datalogging gear fitted to bike and rider, I now had more performance data on tap than Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.
"Riding gear was covered with a slinky Orca Enduro RS1 race suit which not only squeezed under my wetsuit for a faster transition out of the water, but which would apparently also reduce the evil of drag on the subsequent bike and run, while my head was graced with a full on aero lid from Giro and Oakley shades to complete the pro look. I looked awesome on the bike, but looked like a ridiculous cartoon stickman as soon as I so much as took one step away from it.
"For the run I had a pair of flyweight Brooks T7 Racer shoes as used by a certain Chrissie Wellington, with all important speed laces, and that was it. Running it would seem has remained the most immune triathlon discipline to over-exuberant spending and will no doubt remain so, until someone invents go-faster air and a potion to reduce the wind resistance of your hair. Watch this space.
"Total cost for this little lot? £8,337.97 exactly, or £9,837.97 if you include the £1,500 cost of the ‘free’ Ironman swim cap. Bargain."
- Spend big, look pro, but will you actually be any faster?
Warren had the Blenheim course to himself for two consecutive mornings, and would ‘race’ one set of gear each morning. While the bike and run courses were simple to replicate as they follow the park’s pathways, the swim was trickier as there were no buoys on the vast lake. To ensure he swam the same distance daily, the lifeguard joining him in the water rowed his canoe to a fixed point providing a marker to swim around. This made the swim roughly 120 metres longer than normal, but did at least guarantee a repeatable distance.
Zero budget race
"Day one dawned fresh and clear as I squeezed into my ancient surf suit at the water’s edge with my boardshorts bunching up beneath. The quiet thanks to the absence of other racers made this an unusual start, but not as unusual as the lack of a startline pontoon which meant an undignified mincing wade through the rocky shallows before reaching the swim start. There, with no more fanfare than starting my watch, I was away.
"First impressions in the ancient suit were smug. With a super tight neck and long arms and legs it was very buoyant, and swimming seemed no harder than in a tri suit. This smugness eased minutes later as fatigue began in my shoulders. Even so, as I hopped out of the water 20 minutes later I was feeling good.
"My mood faded fast though as I lost an age in transition struggling to get out of the bloody thing before taking almost as long again to get my trainers on. I’d left them done up to save time, but with wet feet slipping them on was impossible. I left on the bike an agonising four minutes later.
"Getting a race face on with no race around you isn’t easy, but when you’re riding a tiny old bike and dressed like you’re going to the beach it’s even harder. Still, I gave the old Peugeot the berries and the rubbish brakes helped with carrying corner speed as I couldn’t slow down anyway, while the boardshorts were a result, matching a tri suit in transition speed and drying even quicker. The old helmet was a nightmare though, the peak catching the wind every time I peeked up from my tuck. Otherwise, apart from the bike getting stuck in one gear for the last lap, all went well, and I was back in transition 44 minutes later.
"This one was far smoother than the first, as all I had to do was whip my helmet off before legging it out on the run which I saw off in 24 minutes.
Total time: 1:34:02
No-limits budget race
"Back at the lake at seven am the next morning and I wasn’t feeling the supple benefits of the Speedo wonder suit as keenly as I had expected. It was easier to swim in, but not hugely. One relief though was there was also little difference in buoyancy. I’d wondered if such a race-bred suit would have favoured lightness over helping less than elite swimmers like me float. Fortunately this wasn’t the case.
"While I hadn’t felt a huge difference in the two suits in the water however, there was a major difference on the clock because I leapt out of the water over two minutes faster than I had in the surf suit, and continued the theme by finding the Speedo also significantly quicker to whip off.
"Precious seconds were lost squeezing my go-faster shades into my aero helmet, while bike shoes went on faster than the previous day’s trainers, and I was out of transition over a minute quicker and onto the bike course dug into the aero bars for all I was worth.
"Some experts give the impression aero bikes are buggers to ride, but I had no problems. That fitting session was clearly paying dividends. The only hitches were the climbs, where the bike’s lack of a decent climbing position meant relatively slow progress – a pro wouldn’t have left the aero bars for these, but for the rest of us, they made the point that such focused bikes need seriously good riders to exploit their benefits.
"Benefit or not, compared to riding the Peugeot I now felt like a true pro which probably shaved a few seconds on its own, although an increased headwind made the laps harder at the same time. Even so, I sliced over four minutes off the Peugeot’s time as I came into transition, which was slightly slower as I now had bike shoes to change out of.
"On the run, I didn’t feel any major differences over the previous day’s boardshort session other than the joy of a damper gusset throughout, but perhaps the gear did help as I took almost a minute off the stage.
Total time, rich man: 1:25:30
No doubts about it – the more you spend, the faster you can go. Eight and a half grand (not counting the '£1,500' Ironman swim cap) made me eight and a half minutes faster, a grand a minute in other words.
Does this justify throwing your wallet at your next race? Not entirely, because with the vast gulf in performance between the two sets of gear, even average gear would have made major differences. The time gap between the no-expense-spared gear and a basic road bike, tri wetsuit and a pair of elastic laces would have been significantly much smaller.
Which means that the biggest performance gains are still to be found... from ourselves. Money can't buy you love, and it can't buy you fitness either. Great training, awesome recovery, and a brilliant diet all cost fractions next to a new set of wheels and will all make you a lot faster than the wheels alone ever will.
If that latest shiny piece of gear is really turning your head though and your budget can handle it, take solace in the fact that treating yourself every now and again is also a great motivator and feeling faster can often translate into the real thing. And for anyone looking to do their first tri without lashing a fortune on the kit to make it happen, rest assured boardshorts and trainers make an awesome bike/run combo slashing time in transition and drying quickly too. They're our top tip for the 2016 race season.
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