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Duathlon Equipment: How to Save Time

By Tom Demerly
This USA Triathlon Multisport Lab article is presented by

runnersOur sport is increasingly dependent on equipment: power meters, disk wheels, aerodynamic carbon fiber bike frames. Duathlon and triathlon have become as expensive as an arms race between superpowers. The big time gains don’t always come from big price tags though.

Duathlon is a lightning-fast sport that at the top of the results list is decided by seconds rather than minutes. At the 2010 National Duathlon Festival in Richmond, Va., second place and third place men overall were separated by only one second. There are no unimportant time savings. In a sport as fast and competitive as duathlon it’s often the little things; the minor details that decide an age category victory- or a national title. The small efficiencies in speed are tied to attention to detail.

Once you’ve practiced your transitions and shaved every spare second off your T1 and T2 it’s time to look at the race as a whole to save more precious seconds.

One of the first opportunities for saving time is with your race wardrobe. This breaks into two categories: time savings in transition from not having to change clothes and time savings on the bike from better aerodynamics. In 2006, I volunteered for a wind-tunnel test conducted by Ford Motor Company and Ironman Triathlon. The primary purpose of the test was to re-evaluate drafting standards, but I learned a number of lessons about efficiency from the test. A key insight is that wrinkles in clothing cause an enormous amount of drag on the bike. As one engineer in the wind tunnel in Allen Park, Mich., mentioned, “It’s like towing a five inch diameter parachute behind you.”

The best wardrobe choice for a duathlon is a one piece suit designed for multisport: the tri suit. In addition to going seamlessly from run to bike a stretch fabric, snug-fitting one piece tri suit is the most aerodynamic wardrobe on the bike. In a duathlon, you’ll improve your aerodynamics by not using a race belt and using safety pins to pin your race number to your one piece suit so it does not flap in the wind behind you. Most paper race numbers in the age of chip timing are worn for draft marshals and race photographers, so pinning your number to your lower back should be in compliance with race requirements to wear the number. Verify this with race officials.

Another easy and relatively cost effective time saving technology is an aero helmet. Mark Harrison’s article, “Revenge of the Nerds” in Bicycling showcased a 2007 aerodynamic study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Stephanie Sidelko, et al advised upon by Kim B. Blair that measured the effects of aero helmets against conventionally configured helmets through 0’ to 15’ of yaw angle. The clinical verbiage of the test stated that, “The testing results showed that aerodynamic helmets offer drag reduction over a standard road helmet. The best and the worst performing helmets are all more aerodynamic than a road helmet.”

One concern mentioned about aero helmets is ventilation since aero helmets have fewer vents than a traditional road helmet. In a September 2007 study at the Clinical Investigations Unit at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, researchers found that, “Head cooling had no obvious effects on the main physiological response to exercise at equivalent time points.” I’ve raced in the hottest events in the world including the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii and the Laguna Phuket Triathlon in Thailand wearing an aero helmet, and I didn’t perceive any noticeable difference in helmet heat accumulation, even climbing the steep “Tiger’s Back” climb in the steamy Thai jungle.

Another opportunity for cost efficient speed is to do a “parasite drag inventory” on your bike. Chances are if something is sticking off your bike, it may be slowing you down. Gel flasks, extra water bottles, large bags with spare tubes and tools are obvious places to start. The more subtle drag-producing issues are drivetrain and brake cables that are too long and/or frayed, old handlebar tape that is unraveling or has turned up edges and even minor details like vertically oriented quick release levers that are perpendicular to the boundary layer of air surrounding the bike. The cumulative effect of these minor factors is a measurable drag savings- and it’s all free speed.

Another seemingly obvious, but often neglected, part of speed in duathlon is bike maintenance. Preventive maintenance and bike cleaning deserve a number of articles on their own or, in the case of a book, Lennard Zinn’s excellent “Zinn & the Art of Triathlon Bikes: Aerodynamics, Bike Fit, Speed Tuning and Maintenance.” I would put this on the required reading list for every multisport cyclist. 

Finally, an analysis of everything you don’t need during the race and on your bike is a good way to simplify your race and save time. If you are a top age-grouper battling for seconds there may be wisdom to using fresh tires and racing without a flat repair kit to shave a gram or two of drag and a few ounces of weight. When you think back to that one second margin between second and third place in Richmond in 2010, it may be wiser to err on the side of speed.

trisports logoThis article is the second in a six-part series leading up to USA Triathlon's Duathlon National Championship, brought to you by is the presenting sponsor of the USAT Duathlon National Championship slated for April 30 in Tucson, Ariz.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.