ST GEORGE, UTAH - MAY 07: Kristian Blummenfelt of Norway competes on the bike during the 2021 IRONMAN World Championships on May 07, 2022 in St George, Utah. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for IRONMAN)

No UCI here: the bikes and cyclists that could help break Ironman’s 7-hour barrier

Want to do the fastest triathlon ever? Employ a team of British time triallists.

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The Pho3nix Sub7 Sub8 powered by Zwift triathlon is a Nike Breaking 2 style event designed to support four athletes in a bid to break the 7- and 8-hour men and women’s 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 set to race, but having recently broken her hip, organisers are now looking for a replacement athlete.

Please do not adjust your device, you are still tuned to, and we bring news of interesting cycling endeavours. We promise this is one.

An Ironman triathlon sandwiches a 180 km/112mile bike ride between a 3.8 km/2.36mile swim and a 42.2 km/26.2mile marathon run. While Ironman events are strictly solo events with no drafting permitted, the Sub 7 Sub 8 event has its own rules designed to “assist” the athletes in breaking the seemingly impossible 7 and 8hr barriers.

The Sub7 Sub8 rules are designed to facilitate a “new world standard of human physical achievement which also encapsulates technical innovation, planning and strategy”. The rules are designed to provide scope for innovation almost as an experiment of what is possible, as opposed to the UCI rules we are accustomed to which give primacy to man-over-machine and facilitate sporting fairness for all. One such rule change is the inclusion of teams, with each athlete permitted ten teammates to provide pacing, drafting, and carry essentials. On the bike that roughly translates to an individual time trial with up to ten domestiques.

While each athlete can deploy their pacemakers as they see fit throughout the swim, bike and run legs of the event, the recent announcement of both Brownlee’s and Blummefelt’s teams makes clear the sheer value of a fast bike leg and the likely strategy come race day. Both teams have named eight cyclists within their ten-man teams, with some of the best time triallists in the business across both rosters.

World Tour cyclists do triathlon relay

Alistair Brownlee has recruited the most high profile lineup of the two squads. The two standout names are undoubtedly Alex Dowsett and Dan Bigham, both of whom bring aero and hour record expertise in abundance. Joining them are former World Tour pro Harry Tanfield and his fellow Commonwealth Games medal-winning brother Charlie Tanfield. John Archibald, Zeb Kyffin, Ollie Peckover, and Alex Pritchard complete the squad and add considerable watts and time trialling experience to the mix.

It’s an entirely British squad, but rather than nationality, it’s a common sponsor that seems to be the link bringing together these powerful legs and minds. Clothing manufacturer HUUB sponsors both Brownlee himself and the HUUB-Wattbike and Ribble-Weldtite teams. Many of the Team Brownlee “pacemakers” either race for or did so previously for the HUUB sponsored teams. Alex Dowsett is the odd one out, having never represented the HUUB or Ribble teams, but Dowsett did attempt the Hour Record last year in a Vorteq skinsuit. Vorteq is the British aerodynamic expert who partners with HUUB to create some of the fastest, and most expensive, skinsuits and overshoes on the market.

Blummenfelt on the other hand will rely on another team full of British time trialling expertise, headed up by multi-time British time trial champion Matt Bottrill. A prolific time triallist himself, Bottrill has enjoyed plenty of success on the British time trialling and triathlon scene, including wins in the 10, 25, 50, and 100 mile TT championships. Now a coach and performance manager, Bottrill has worked with many of the best British time triallists, triathletes, and even World Tour teams such as Lotto-Soudal.

Botrill has called on Paralympic Games gold medallist tandem pilot Adam Duggleby MBE, British Best All-Rounder Thomas Hutchinson, Loughborough University student-athlete Axel Dopfer and time trialling champions Gruff Lewis, Kyle Gordon, Chris Fennell and Phil Williams.

If you haven’t noticed yet, there’s a theme developing here. The two athletes looking to break the seemingly impossible target of a sub 7hour Ironman distance triathlon have turned almost exclusively to the UCI rule-free British time trial scene to help with the “make or break” bike leg of the event. While neither team have yet announced their run and swim pacemakers, with eight cyclists already named this leaves space for only one specialist pacemaker in the swim and run. A fact all the more remarkable when we consider the number of pacemakers Eliud Kipchoge relied upon for his similarly-styled “Breaking Two” marathon record-breaking run.

Some riders may double up and provide some run pacing, but they must do so by foot, with the rules stating competitors may not receive drafting assistance from the support rider on the run leg. That said, the bike leg undoubtedly offers the greatest time-saving opportunity with the smallest knock-on effect for the competitor, so it makes sense the team line-ups are cyclist heavy.

With so much focus on the bike leg and the already more lenient Ironman rules relaxed even further, the Sub 7 event could present riders on both teams the opportunity to express their true aero ingenuity. Both squads have “aero-experts” to lean on, many of whom have had their fair share of squabbles with the UCI. Most notable is Dan Bigham, the innovation and aerodynamics-extraordinaire behind HUUB-Wattbike’s team-pursuit-winning innovation, world record attempts, and someone who once worked for the Mercedes F1 team.

Lining up alongside Bigham is Alex Dowsett, “club ten” and World Tour time triallist with time trial and stage wins at the Giro. Dowsett has had two attempts at the Hour Record, one successful, only for the skinsuit developed for that ride to be banned by the UCI shortly after. And one attempt that was ultimately unsuccessful in breaking a record, but still felt the wrath of the UCI nonetheless. More on this later.

As for Team Blummenfelt, Matthew Bottrill brings his fair share of aero-ingenuity having pushed design boundaries for the better part of two decades.

You must have brakes, you must not have a motor, that’s about it for bike rules at the Sub 7 Sub 8. Whether that’s a good thing or not is up to you.

Let the aero afficionados loose

In stark contrast to UCI regulations, the Sub7 Sub8 rules are designed to allow teams to push technical limits.

As for what all this might mean, well the devil is likely in the detail. A scan of the Sub7 Sub8 event rules suggests the teams have ample flexibility to develop their own strategies for the fastest bike leg possible. The vast majority of the bike leg takes place on the Dekra Lausitzring 5.8km car testing oval. The rules permit the competitors cycling pacemakers to complete the entire 180km in support of their leader or swap in and out as they see fit.

As if an eight rider team time trial isn’t fast enough, the rules on aero clothing and bike positions are greatly relaxed compared to the UCI regulations. The Sub 7 Sub 8 rules are the closest thing to a vortex generator and knee-high aero socks free for all as we are ever likely to see a World Tour rider participate in. The rules even permit riders to take a trip down memory lane, stating the “front wheel may be of a different diameter than the rear wheel” and “of any construction including…disc wheels” opening the door for tiny front discs ala 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 aero past.

Dan Bigham is no stranger to narrow bars.

One thing we might see is even narrower handlebars. While one strategy might see a rider adopting a very un-aerodynamic position to better shelter their team leader, we expect to see most of the riders in a time trial position throughout the bike leg. That of course means the base bars will see very little use, and so reducing their size or removing them might offer significant aero gains on a relatively simple and untechnical course. Dan Bigham kicked off 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 Hour Record attempt before the UCI stepped in to halt his plan. The only specifications Sub 7 Sub 8 have put on width are that the bike may not exceed 75cm wide. Only time will tell if the aero-nerds on both teams decide to utilise that freedom.

Of course, 75cm is plenty wide to offer each team’s leader plenty of shelter should any teammates be made the sacrificial human-powered fairing-not fairing. Imagine the free ride from seven aero optimised teammates providing some shelter and plenty of speed for one anti-aero teammate sheltering their team leader. Or maybe just having eight pacemakers for the 180km bike ride is enough in itself to shave the 21minutes off the current 7:21 record set by Blummenfelt himself just last November.

Beyond that, there aren’t really many more rules to speak of. In fact, all the rules on bicycle and equipment design are covered in less than four pages, with no mention of design principles, saddle angles, 8cm boxes, mandatory tubes, or aspect ratios. Anyone for a two-wheel drive, monocoque beam bike with no down tube or seat stays and just a single chainstay? Anyone?

Fear not though, the Sub 7 Sub 8 event does have some rules and outlaws fairings, pushing, and motors, as well as strict rules on anti-doping. Undoubtedly, this tech-heavy intentional arms race style of event is not for everyone, and nor would we want to see normal racing adopt such a stripped-back approach. But it will give us a glimpse of what is possible when we combine the best athletes and the best innovation in pursuit of a “new world standard of human physical achievement”.

Following 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” with to determine the peak human achievement?

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