So in 2016 I had my second crack at IRONMAN Wales.
Thanks to the best conditions that race has seen I had a good day, so did most, which showed in my position. Despite being an hour faster than I was in 2013 I only placed one position higher in my category! The winner of my category actually posted the fastest big split of the whole race, a crazy 4:48, an hour faster than I could manage. Anyhow, I was still pleased with my bike split and my performance overall. So what? Well, something you might not have expected is the fact that I chose to ride a road bike. No deep section wheels, no clip on aero bars, no bento box or extra bottle cages, no modifications. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly. During 2016 I rode on the IRONMAN Wales course seven times on three different bikes. To put it simply, on my TT bike I felt like I was ‘surviving.’ I didn’t feel I could utilise the aero position enough to get the true benefit from that bike. I also felt tentative descending through some of the narrower lanes and then felt I was losing momentum too easily on the ascents, generally I was glad to get off it in Tenby! In contrast, on my road bike I felt confident and more aggressive, I was flowing through the descents at a better pace and using a range of hand and body positions to stay aero and ascend smoothly without too much heart rate fluctuation. I came up with a theme for my race which was ‘be light.’ I knew I had to make up in weight savings what I was losing out on in aerodynamics so I shed weight wherever I could. I carried one drinks bottle and calculated my intake around the feed station locations. My food was in my jersey pocket so I had no extra baggage on my bike frame. I wanted my bike to look and handle like it would on any other ride. I even paid special attention to my diet around the taper to arrive at the start line the lightest I had ever been. Practice on the course allowed me to set heart rate boundaries for the flatter sections with a ceiling figure I was not to break even on the steepest climbs. I had seen that my average speed after the first ‘flat’ loop would drop by 1 KM/h after the first ‘hilly’ loop and by a further 1 KM/h after the second ‘hilly’ loop, if I kept up the same effort throughout, this allowed me to predict my bike time during the race and keep me focussed.
I’m not for one second saying that a road bike is the answer. If it was then more of the pro’s at IRONMAN Wales would be riding road bikes. What I am trying to highlight is that I had a plan, a plan which I took time to calculate, practice and then execute. With that in mind I have come up with some points for you to consider when making your own IRONMAN Wales bike plan.
TT or Road Bike – If you have a TT/Tri bike you are going to want to race on it, after all that is what you bought it for. Have a professional bike fit. Make sure the fit is tailored to suit a hilly IRONMAN course and not a 10 mile time trial! You will need to sacrifice some aerodynamics for comfort but it will be worth it. If you are looking to buy a bike for IRONMAN Wales and this bike will be your only bike for training and racing then consider an aero road bike. Adding clip on aero bars can get you into a similar position to that of a TT bike but you also have more hand hold options for climbing and descending. You will also be more likely to train on it as it is a more versatile tool for group rides, poor weather, sportives & other events.
Gearing – Have a look at your gearing and give yourself options. An 11-28T cassette would be a good place to start (although medium cage derailleurs are now providing even more cassette options) and then decide on a chainset depending on how strong you are. For anyone likely spending over 7 hours on the bike leg at IRONMAN Wales a compact (50/34T) chainset would be a good option. Stronger cyclists might try a semi-compact (52/36T) with just the elites really benefiting from a compact set up.
Wheels – On such a varied course there is no need to go too aero here. I would suggest that 50MM rim depth is plenty or 80mm rear and 50MM up front. Something that requires more thought is the type of rim and the quality of your brakes and brake pads. There are some fast and technical descents. Carbon rims do not brake as well as aluminium ones especially in the wet. Know your limits and adapt to the conditions. Make sure you know how your wheels and brakes react in the wind and wet before race day, the descent to Wiseman’s Bridge is not a good place to discover your brakes don’t work!
If you are competing at IRONMAN Wales this year you have plenty of time to trial different bikes and/or set ups. One thing that became apparent to our athletes in 2016 was how invaluable recce rides proved to be. The time our athletes spent on that course made them able to mentally break down the route and make race day feel like an 80 mile ride as opposed to 112. No matter how strong a cyclist you are you will always find the second lap of the ‘hilly’ loop challenging AND remember you can have a dream day on the bike but you still have to run a marathon. When trialling bike options always run off the bike and be aware of any different feelings in the hips, quads, glutes, calves and lower back. My biggest piece of advice would be do not let race day be your first outing on that course. It is known as the hardest IRONMAN bike course for a reason. Make a plan, practice it & perfect it!