This year, the winning bike rigs from Kona tell two wonderfully different tales, and what they mean is a big deal for the world of tri bikes. They show that two vastly different rigs, built with vastly different philosophies in mind, can both be perfectly suited to the same ultimate goal. The difference is in the rider.
On the one hand, you have Craig Alexander, who after two incredibly dominant years in 2008 and 2009, failed to threepeat in 2010 when he was upset by countryman Chris McCormack. So in 2011, Crowie took a very hard look at his equipment, ultimately making a drastic switch in order to gain an aerodynamic performance advantage that might mean the different between victory and defeat. And indeed it DID make the difference - Alexander shaved a full thirteen MINUTES off his bike split compared to his previous Kona best. That's an improvement unheard of at the World Champion level. Thirteen minutes! Crowie's Performance Advisor, Mat Steinmetz, went over every detail of the rig with Alexander, helping him refine it to the point of perfection. Read my full rundown of the bike for the skinny. And for the first time ever, Crowie switched to an aero helmet in Kona.
The changes he made alone are likely worth thirteen minutes in the wind tunnel. But even more important is the confidence that those changes inspire. Crowie has gone from a hesitant, "wait-and-see" biker to one of the gnarliest, most aggressive guys out there. This year in Kona, he rode with a chase pack of just four or five riders hunting down uber-biker Chris Lieto. He did the exact same thing in Vegas, and both times, unleashed his insanely-fast run splits to take the victory by a wide margin.
And let's not forget that the Shiv is no stranger to the Queen K. This is the second year in a row that the superbike has won Kona, following last year's success under Chris McCormack. The bike is a weapon, to be sure, and in a world where the men's field is getting closer and closer together, having the advantage of superior technology can make a big difference.
Basically, Crowie's new bike equipment has given him both an aerodynamic and psychological edge over his competitors, and transformed him into an entirely new animal. His bike was selected with those purposes in mind, and his Shiv does those jobs perfectly.
Contrast, and Conclusions
Chrissie's rig, on the other hand, is completely different. Where Crowie's Shiv is a bike built with cutting-edge aerodynamic technologies, the Cannondale Slice is a much simpler bike, designed for the easiest possible build, the easiest possible maintenance, and adding aerodynamic features only where they don't interfere with the traditional mechanics of a bike. It has standard brakes, front and rear. It has a standard 1-1/8" fork, standard spacers, stem, aerobars, etc. Chrissie continues to run a standard road helmet, and even clincher wheels so that she can more easily change a flat.
These features are meant to give Chrissie confidence in the way that she needs it. Unlike Crowie, Wellington doesn't face an incredibly deep field - she's been basically untouchable for the entirety of her Ironman career. In every full-distance triathlon she's ever done, she has come in first place! So there's no need for her to seek out so-called "free time," otherwise known as aerodynamic advantage. What Chrissie wants and needs is a bike that makes her comfortable, and inspires the confidence she needs to unleash her race. And the Slice is exactly that, for her. It's the steed that has won the last three World Championship Women's titles in a row. It's not as fancy as the latest crop of race bikes, but it hasn't needed to be, on the women's side.
Both stories are marvelously compelling, but what fascinates me the most about them is how different they are. So where does that leave you, dear reader? Well, the above examples are basically two points on a spectrum, each on an opposite extreme. How comfortable are you with learning new systems? With wrenching your own bike? With trusting your bike to the local shop, and hoping they know how to work on the weirdness that is the tri bike? Where you come out determines which of these stories is more like your own.
Personally, I love to tinker with, modify, and service my own bicycles. It often comes with a healthy dose of swear words and frustration, but for me, the payoff is worth it. I'm probably on the far extreme end of the spectrum. Most people probably fall somewhere in the middle. But the point is, bikes still work at both ends. World Champions might choose either end of the spectrum, based on their strengths and needs. And it's devilishly fun for me to sit back and point out that although I love my high-tech bikes, that there is validity in the low-tech side of the tri bike world.