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Black magic: Chris Boardman and Rory Sutherland in the wind tunnel

  • By Steve Frothingham
  • Published Jan. 13, 2011
  • Updated Oct. 24, 2011 at 4:20 PM EDT

Chris Boardman, Mike Giraud and Rory Sutherland in the tunnel Wednesday. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | cbgphoto.com

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (VN) — Chris Boardman is a relaxed man. Maybe his six children make him that way (or maybe it’s only a relaxed man who could enjoy six children as much as he does).

In any case, here at the A2 wind tunnel, the British time trial legend is not under a lot of pressure. This morning he flew over from England, dodging a snowstorm that shellacked the Southeast this week, to consult with the UnitedHealthcare team, which his bike company sponsors.

A2′s Mike Giraud is running the tunnel operations, turning the fans on and off, starting the tests, adjusting the bikes. Boardman, who reckons he’s spent more time in a wind tunnel — as a rider and a researcher — than any cyclist in the world, was free to offer tips and insights on optimizing rider aerodynamics, a practice he says is “still a lot of black magic.”

Still, tension at the tunnel builds as team star Rory Sutherland prepares for his session in the tunnel. Sutherland’s new Boardman Elite AiR time trial bike is set up, adjusted to the position Sutherland raced last year.

As mechanics, team officials and photographers hover about, Sutherland gets on the bike and Boardman steps up to his right side, his arms crossed and his head bowed slightly to avoid the sloping tunnel ceiling.

Adopting his most formal tone of the day, Boardman probes Sutherland’s commitment.

“How much are you willing to work on this?” he asks. The others in the tunnel — an echoing acoustic nightmare, even if it is aerodynamically brilliant — go quiet.

“As much as necessary,” Sutherland says. At the end of his sentence, it isn’t hard to hear an unspoken “sir.”

‘A stubborn, talented bike racer’

Sutherland wants to win the 2011 Amgen Tour of California. So does his team director and owner.

The team is building its early season around the California race, with an expanded international schedule that will give riders the form needed to compete there.

Last year the Australian was ninth overall, 1 minute, 58 seconds behind winner Michael Rogers. He lost 57 seconds of that margin on the 33km stage 7 time trial.

Getting some of that back is what brought Sutherland, Boardman, team director Mike Tamayo, team owner Thierry Attias and a support crew to the tunnel.

Mike Giraud adjusts a saddle between tests. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | cbgphoto.com

In the morning, Sutherland’s new teammate, the top domestic time trialist Scott Zwizanski, tweaked his position. There was little drama, just a small position change and Zwizanski and his coach gathered enough information to work with over the coming months.

But while Zwizanski had been in wind tunnels twice before, this is only the second time for Sutherland.

“I’ve always had a pretty terrible position,” he told VeloNews before the session. “I sit pretty high on the road bike and I have a hard time making the transition between my road bike and my TT bike.”

He’s certain he can improve significantly.

“The exciting thing for me is that I’ve got this not-great time trial position, and I’m still doing OK. A lot of these guys have been in the tunnel year after year after year and they are as refined as they are going to be, and they’ve got the fastest bikes and the fastest everything. So it’s kind of fun to realize that a lot of those guys don’t have anywhere else to go, so it’s just now playing catch-up.”

Team director Mike Tamayo (left) and Chris Boardman keep an eye on live data while Sutherland is in the tunnel. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | cbgphoto.com

There are some challenges, however.

Sutherland’s body doesn’t like getting lower on the bike. He’s working with a personal trainer three times a week to change that.

And the 28-year-old, a two-time National Racing Calendar champion, has a reputation within the team for being a tad resistant to change. “He’s a stubborn, talented bike racer,” Tamayo said Thursday, not without affection.

Sweeping the box

Watching Sutherland warm up, Boardman is asked for a snap-shot assessment.

“There is a lot of room for improvement,” he says, gesturing at Sutherland’s handlebars. He explained that Sutherland was not close to the limits of the UCI’s rules for handlebar positions. Boardman calls the area defined by those limits, which are sometimes as open to interpretation as a baseball strike zone, “the box.”

First, a test is done with Sutherland’s current position, to establish a baseline.

Then his handlebars are moved up and down, in 1 centimeter increments, within the box. Arm pads are moved out, then in. “We’re doing a sweep,” Boardman says. “Up and down, in and out.”

Each change is made separately, then tested. The tests pile up: nine, then 10, then 11. Each time, mechanics, coaches, team officials, photographers and Boardman come into the tunnel while the bike is adjusted. After the change, Tamayo, aware that the team is paying by the hour for the tunnel, hustles everyone out except the rider (A2 tunnel time starts at $390 an hour).

Sutherland. Does this look like home? Photo: Casey B. Gibson | cbgphoto.com

The observers all walk a few steps back to the control room, where tests are monitored on computer screens. Videos show Sutherland from three angles. A horizontal line like an EKG reading shows wind drag over time. Giraud sits at one computer station with three monitors; Boardman at the other. Everyone else looks over the pair’s shoulders.

The changes in arm-pad width and bar height result in minor improvements. On the computer, Giraud gives each test run a short title: “Baseline,” “stem 10 mm+” “stem 10 mm+” “back to pos. 7″ … and so on.

Between some early runs, Boardman stands directly in front of Sutherland on his his bike and squints. “It doesn’t look natural for you to be on a time trial bike,” he says. “It doesn’t look like home, I don’t know how you feel.”

“It feels fine,” Sutherland says.

Another position tweak and we are herded out.

The next step is to move the aero extensions (Boardman calls them “skis”) forward, to near the edge of the box. Something starts to pique the interest of Boardman and Giraud. The data is showing a significant reduction in drag. The videos show Sutherland’s shoulders are rolled in and his head is lower. The long tail of his aero helmet settles perfectly onto his shoulders.

At least, sometimes it does.

“His head’s better, but he can’t hold it consistently,” Giraud says to Boardman. “It’s not a realistic position.”

’More comfy’

Moving the aero extensions further out meant Sutherland was resting the middle of his forearms, rather than his elbows, on the pads. It’s not a comfortable position and it stresses his upper body. A shorter stem is installed and the extensions readjusted to the previous position. From the wind’s perspective, the position is exactly the same. Giraud makes a note about the upcoming test: “Adjusted setup to be more comfy.”

Giraud shows Sutherland his before and after pictures after the test. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | cbgphoto.com

Another test and Boardman and Giraud huddle outside the tunnel. They are running out of ideas. The team swaps on a different set of Ritchey handlebars, with the same extension position but a lower base bar and different elbow pads.

Boardman and Giraud return to their computers and another run. Team owner Attias walks by.
“How we doing?”
“They are trying to get his elbows in more,” someone says.
“Did he do it?”
“Sometimes.”

On the 17th run, Giraud gets excited. The position hasn’t changed much, aerodynamically, in the last three trials, but the handlebar tweaks have somehow (black magic?) allowed Sutherland to settle in to a stable position.

“Finally!” Giraud says. “He’s learning how to make his equipment come to him.”

Boardman looks over from his computer. “That’s your lowest (drag) of the day,” he says.

‘Falling through the wall’

A happy, tired Sutherland comes into the control room and looks at the data and videos.

Giraud points to head-on before and after photos; he notes how Sutherland’s shoulders roll in in the new position. A sponsor name on the Aussie’s shoulders is legible in the first photo, but not in the faster position.

“Maxxis will be pissed!” Sutherland says, referring to the sponsor on his shoulders.

World champion, Olympic gold medalist, hour-record holder, Tour prologue winner, and practitioner of black magic. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | cbgphoto.com

Sutherland’s final position put his stem 1 centimeter higher, his elbows 5cm closer and his extensions 4cm further out. His saddle position (already as far forward as the UCI allows) is unchanged.

Giraud and Boardman do some calculations.

“That’s a realistic 15 to 20-watt improvement,” Boardman says. “A 2 to 3 percent performance gain.

“That’s worth a minute over a 40k time trial,” adds Giraud. “An extra 1 kilometer per hour at the same wattage.”

If Sutherland had been 1kph faster at the 2010 Tour of California time trial, he would have finished two seconds behind Michael Rogers on the day.

“It’s all good on a computer,” Sutherland says after the test. “It’s another thing to make it happen on the road.”

He called the test “mentally tiring.”

“When we felt like we weren’t getting anywhere, it was like hitting my head against the wall. And then, finally, we were falling through the wall.”

And then, toweled off, Sutherland headed for the airport to begin his trip to the Tour de San Luis, his first race of the year and another step in his team’s journey to the Tour of California.

And Boardman, the black-magic conjurer, relaxed as ever, headed to the airport himself, for a journey back to England and his children.

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