No UCI here: The bikes and riders who could help break the Ironman 7 Hour barrier
The Pho3nix Sub7 Sub8 Triathlon Powered by Zwift is a Nike Breaking 2 style event designed to support four athletes in their quest to break the men’s and women’s 7 and 8 hour Ironman time barriers for the first time ever. Current and former Olympic champions Kristian Blummenfelt and Alaistair Brownlee will race on the men’s side. Nicola Spirig will attempt to become the first woman to complete the Ironman distance in less than eight hours. Lucy Charles Barclay was also due to race, but having recently broken her hip, organizers are now looking for a replacement athlete.
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An Ironman triathlon sandwiches a 180 km/112 mile bike ride between a 3.8 km/2.36 mile swim and a 42.2 km/26.2 mile marathon. While Ironman events are strictly solo events with no drafting allowed, the Sub 7 Sub 8 event has its own rules designed to “help” athletes break the seemingly impossible 7 and 8 hour barriers.
The Sub7 Sub8 rules are designed to facilitate a “new global standard of human physical achievement that also encompasses technical innovation, planning and strategy”. The rules are designed to provide room for innovation almost like an experience of what is possible, as opposed to the UCI rules we are used to which put man over machine and facilitate sporting fairness. for everyone. One of those rule changes is the inclusion of teams, with each athlete being allowed ten teammates to provide pace, drafting and carrying the essentials. On the bike, this roughly translates to an individual time trial with up to ten servants.
While each athlete can deploy their pacemaker as they see fit throughout the swim, bike and run stages of the event, the recent announcement from the Brownlee and Blummefelt teams clearly shows the absolute value of a fast bike stage and likely strategy on race day. Both teams have named eight riders to their ten-man squads, with some of the industry’s best time trialists in both lists.
World Tour cyclists do a triathlon relay
Alistair Brownlee signed the most prominent formation of the two teams. The two most notable names are undoubtedly Alex Dowsett and Dan Bigham, both of whom bring aero and hour record expertise aplenty. Joining them are former World Tour pro Harry Tanfield and his brother, Commonwealth Games medalist Charlie Tanfield. John Archibald, Zeb Kyffin, Ollie Peckover and Alex Pritchard round out the team and add considerable watts and time trial experience to the mix.
It’s an all-British team, but rather than nationality, it’s a common sponsor that seems to be the tie that binds those mighty legs and spirits together. Apparel maker HUUB sponsors both Brownlee itself and the HUUB-Wattbike and Ribble-Weldtite teams. Many Team Brownlee “pacemakers” race or have done so in the past for HUUB sponsored teams. Alex Dowsett is the odd one out, having never represented the HUUB or Ribble teams, but Dowsett attempted the hour record last year in a Vorteq suit. Vorteq are the British aerodynamic experts who have partnered with HUUB to create some of the fastest and most expensive suits and overshoes on the market.
Blummenfelt, meanwhile, will rely on another team with British time trial expertise, led by multi-time British time trial champion Matt Bottrill. A prolific time trialist himself, Bottrill has enjoyed much success on the UK time trial and triathlon scene, including victories in the 10, 25, 50 and 100 mile TT Championships. Now a coach and performance manager, Bottrill has worked with many of Britain’s top time trialists, triathletes and even World Tour teams such as Lotto-Soudal.
Botrill enlisted Paralympic Games gold medalist tandem rider Adam Duggleby MBE, top British all-rounder Thomas Hutchinson, Loughborough University student-athlete Axel Dopfer and time trial champions Gruff Lewis , Kyle Gordon, Chris Fennell and Phil Williams.
If you haven’t noticed yet, a theme is developing here. The two athletes looking to smash the seemingly impossible goal of a sub-7 hour Ironman distance triathlon have looked almost exclusively to the UK time trial scene without UCI rules to help the game bicycle “make or break” event. Although neither team has announced their racing and swimming pacemakers yet, with eight cyclists already named, that leaves room for just one pacemaker specializing in swimming and running. A fact that’s all the more remarkable considering the number of pacemakers Eliud Kipchoge relied on for his similarly styled “Breaking Two” marathon.
Some runners can overtake and provide race pace, but must do so on foot, with rules stating that competitors cannot receive drawing assistance from the support runner on the race leg. That said, the bike stage arguably offers the greatest opportunity to save time with the smallest ripple effect for the competitor, so it makes sense for teams to be made up of many cyclists.
With such a focus on the bike stage and the already lenient Ironman rules even more relaxed, the Sub 7 event could offer riders from both teams the opportunity to express their true aero ingenuity. Both teams have “aero experts” to fall back on, many of whom have had their fair share of feuds with the UCI. Most notable is Dan Bigham, the innovation and extraordinary aerodynamics behind HUUB-Wattbike’s team pursuit winning innovation, world record attempts and someone who once worked for the Mercedes F1 team .
Alongside Bigham, Alex Dowsett, ‘club ten’ and World Tour time trial with Giro time trials and stage wins. Dowsett had two attempts for the hour record, one successful, only to have the suit developed for that race banned by the UCI soon after. And an attempt that ultimately failed to break a record, but still felt the wrath of the UCI. More on that later.
As for the Blummenfelt team, Matthew Bottrill brings his fair share of aerodynamic ingenuity after pushing the boundaries of design for the better part of two decades.
Give free rein to aero enthusiasts
Unlike UCI rules, Sub7 Sub8 rules are designed to allow teams to push the technical limits.
As for what all of this could mean, well, the devil is probably in the details. An analysis of the Sub7 Sub8 event rules suggests that teams have a lot of flexibility to develop their own strategies for the fastest possible bike stage. The vast majority of the bike stage takes place on the 5.8 km car test oval of the Dekra Lausitzring. The rules allow competitors using pacemakers to run the entire 180km in support of their leader or swap as they please.
As if an eight-rider team time trial wasn’t fast enough, the rules on aero clothing and bike positions are relaxed considerably from UCI regulations. Sub 7 Sub 8 rules are the closest thing to a vortex generator and free-for-all knee-high aero socks, as we’re likely to see a World Tour rider take part. The rules even allow riders to take a trip down memory lane, stating that the “front wheel may be of a different diameter than the rear wheel” and “of any construction, including…disc wheels” opening the door to tiny front discs like Francesco Moser’s Hour Record bike. Of course, these days just finding a smaller disc front wheel might be the biggest challenge for teams hoping to use this blast from the past aero.
One thing we might see is even narrower handlebars. While one strategy might see a rider adopt a very low aero position to better protect their team leader, we expect to see most riders in a time trial position throughout the bike stage . This, of course, means that the base bars will see very little use, and so downsizing or removing them could offer significant aerodynamic gains on a relatively straightforward, non-technical course. Dan Bigham threw up a minor storm when he used 27cm handlebars last year and Alex Dowsett told CyclingTips in a recent interview that he had hoped to use narrower bars for his record attempt. hour before the UCI intervenes to stop its plan. The only specs that Sub 7 Sub 8 put on width is that the bike should be no more than 75cm wide. Only time will tell if the aero-nerds of both teams decide to use this freedom.
Of course, 75cm is wide enough to provide the leader of each team with sufficient shelter should any teammates need to be replaced by the human-powered sacrificial fairing, not the fairing. Imagine the free ride of seven aerodynamically optimized teammates providing shelter and plenty of speed for an anti-aerodynamic teammate sheltering his team leader. Or maybe just having eight pacemakers for the 180km bike ride is enough in itself to shave 21 minutes off the current record of 7:21 set by Blummenfelt himself last November.
Beyond that, there aren’t really many more rules to speak of. In fact, all the design rules for bikes and gear are covered in less than four pages, with no mention of design principles, saddle angles, 8cm boxes, mandatory tubing, or aspect ratios. Anyone for a two-wheel drive monocoque beam bike with no downtubes or seatstays and just a single chainstay? No one?
Fear not though, the Sub 7 Sub 8 event has rules and bans on fairings, thrusters and motors, as well as strict anti-doping rules. Undoubtedly, this intentional, tech-heavy style of arms racing event isn’t for everyone, nor would we want to see normal races take such a stripped-down approach. But it will give us a glimpse of what’s possible when we combine the best athletes and the best innovation in pursuit of a “new global standard of human physical achievement.”
After the Ineos 1:59 Challenge marathon and now the Sub 7 Sub 8 attempts, what cycling events would you like to see a similar “experiment” to determine the pinnacle of human achievement?