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The crazy month of Elisabetta

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Let’s say that there are around 10 triathlon races in the world who can claim that they are the “hardest triathlon in the World”. And this list is growing every year. Some of these races became classics, some never will.

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Most triathletes have at least one of these events on their bucket list. To do or to finish one day one of these events.

 

Elisabetta did 3 of those races. In one month. In her first year as a pro triathlete. Racing her first ever ironman distance triathlon in one of those races. Best result: 4th. Worst result: 6th. Impressive. And then she underwent a breast surgery.

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At the beginning of the season it wasn’t planned that she would race the Triathlon XL de Gérardmer, but in June she discovered a fibroadenoma in her left breast. Nothing bad or dangerous, but it had to be removed. She asked the doctor if she could postpone it to the second half of August, immediately after the Embrunman. For the doctor it wasn’t a problem, so this was a huge relieve. But he was not planning on working in August at all so the surgery was planned for the 5th of september. So Bella Bayliss, Elisabetta’s coach, came up with the idea to race in Gérardmer the 1st of september. The fitness from Alpe d’Huez and Embrun would set her up for another good race, since there was no time for another training block anyway with the planned surgery. And at least she would have the opportunity to race one more time in 2018, in case she wouldn’t recover in time from the surgery for a late season race.

 

Luckily everything went smooth and 10 days after the surgery she was training like nothing ever happened. As if she didn’t do all those crazy races and if she never went through the surgery and recovery process. She keeps on surprising me day after day.

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These are the races she did in the month before the surgery:

*2nd of august: Alpe d’Huez Long distance. 2200m swim, 118K bike (3300m of elevation), 20K run (at an altitude of 1850m). Result: 5th

*15th of august: Embrunman: 3800m swim, 188K bike (4800m of elevation), 42K run. Result: 4th

*1st of september: Triathlon XL de Gérardmer: 1900m swim, 94K bike (1900m of elevation), 21K run. Result: 6th

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Below you have her race videos of all three races.

 

She raced all the events with a single 54T chainring and an 11 speed mtb 11-42 cassette. In a previous post I wrote about her bike set up. You can read it here. I mentioned that it was a work in progress. Well, right now she’s already a centimeter lower in the front and with the help of Shimano and 3T we could clean up the front end of her bike. All her cables and the Shimano Di2 junction box are now integrated in the 3T Aeronova handlebar. Her new carbon handlebar is lighter a lot more aerodynamic than her previous alloy handlebar. The extension poles are now from carbon fibre as well. 

Shimano also provided some other upgrades over the XT components she was using: an XTR Di2 rear derailleur and an XTR 11-40 cassette.

In total the bike is now half a kilo lighter as well.

Before:

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After:

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And she got even more carbon bling bling. Before summer she just had her first ever carbon frame, but no carbon components. Now almost everything is out of carbon, including her first ever aero wheelset. These are the Stan’s Notubes Avion R wheels.

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They are not too deep (42mm) so the step from a more standard alloy wheelset to these aren’t a problem for her, even in the crazy winds we often face here in Sardinia.

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Next race: Challenge ForteVillage, Sardinia. For once an easy trip since the race venue and the beautiful ForteVillage resort is only an hour drive away from where we live.

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Elisabetta’s full custom 1500eur Italian Championships winning triathlon bike.

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It’s crazy how many questions we got about Elisabetta her bike the last weeks. Is it because of her two Italian championship titles or because of her unusual bike set up? Probably a combination of both.

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Elisabetta started the season on an aluminum Specialized frame that she won a few years ago. She raced the Italian championships non drafting duathlon with this bike and set the fasted bike split on a totally flat course. No aero frame, no aero wheels. Just a standard road bike with a value of around 800eur.

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This bike actually replaced an even older bike she was using at the time: a Cannondale Caad 3 from 1999. In 2015 she raced her first half ironman on this bike averaging 37km/h for the 90K ride.

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To really understand why Elisabetta was using such cheap bikes in the past you should know her past. It’s the perfect scenario for a Hollywood movie because it includes many lows, mafia, success, family, depression, victory, etc. To make a very long story short: she left home at the age of 17 to become a professional triathlete at the Italian army. The most unbelievable things went wrong and she could only leave the army four years later. Than she went to the university and graduated last october with maximum scores and highest honours. During those years she races some XTERRA triathlons (she finished 3rd at XTERRA Italy and 11th at the XTERRA World Championships on an average of 8 hours training a week so clearly there was some potential) with me and saved every euro she could to be able to “survive” one year as a pro triathlete and pay a professional coach (Bella Bayliss). That “one year pro life” started last november. It was a choice not to invest in a top level TT bike because it made more sense to us to invest money in a coach and a training camp with her coach than in equipment. It turned out to be the best decision ever.

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While all elite/pro athletes showed up with their 5000-10000eur carbon TT bikes at the Italian Triathlon Championships, Elisabetta was crazy excited that also she was finally on her first ever carbon road bike.

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She still has no bike sponsor but we got some unexpected help. One of my biggest sponsors/supporters/friends, Jamie Anderson followed Elisabetta’s career and story and decided to give her an old SCOTT Foil frame. This was just incredibly helpful but also a great coincidence because SCOTT Sports Italy is Elisabetta’s official running equipment sponsor.

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The other huge help came from Elisabetta herself. While most people invest first a crazy amount of money in their equipment before making 1 euro from triathlon, she did the opposite. The first months of the year were so successful that she made enough prize money to buy some components for the SCOTT Foil frame she got from Jamie.

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From then on it became my project to turn this opportunity into the best and fastest triathlon bike ever for Elisabetta. Luckily I had some help from the guys of Technobike, which was definitely needed for the Di2 stuff etc. Drilling holes into a carbon frame to make it Di2 ready is kind of freaky.

The first step was making this aero road frame into an even more aero frame. It is known that the front derailleur and hanger create more aerodynamic drag than the difference between a round or aero frame. So I asked my friend and carbon specialist Antonio Marongiu to remove the front derailleur hanger and rework the carbon in that zone.

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Our other friend Rossano Mascia repainted the frame in Elisabetta’s custom design. 

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This left us with a totally custom frame with no option to put a front derailleur and thus no double chainring option. “One by” or “1x” became the only option. This means that on this bike Elisabetta has no possibility to change between the small and big chainring, she has only one (big) chainring. But she has her 11 sprockets in the rear. Hence the name: 1×11 or short: 1x or One By.

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I’ve been making custom components for 1x for over 20 years. It always made a lot of sense to me to get rid of the front derailleur and use only the rear derailleur to shift between gears. I’m happy that with today’s technology, mainly from the mountainbike industry, there are finally several standard solutions and there are no more limitations. Back in the day I had to modify cassettes and shifters and made some other custom components. Here a picture of one of my custom 29 gram chainguides from 1999.

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We decided to go “electronic” for the shifting. For road cyclist electronic shifting has some benefits, but for triathletes and time trial specialists it has one huge advantage over traditional mechanical shifting: you can add extra shifting options. This means that Elisabetta can shift while she’s in her normal road position and when she gets as aero as possible using the aero extensions. In whatever position she is, she never has to get out of this position just to shift.

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We went for Shimano Di2 because that’s actually the only reliable electronic system that’s 1x ready. It’s not really offered as a 1x groupset, but by mixing a mountainbike rear derailleur and cassette with road shifters and brakes we got all we needed. Because of the very limited budget we opted for the cheaper XT/Ultegra combo over the lighter and more expensive XTR/Dura Ace option.

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Another advantage of using a Shimano mtb rear derailleur is what Shimano calls its “Shadow RD” technology. It not only helps to have a greater chain retition to prevent dropping the chain due to the clutch system, it’s also 12mm more inwards than a traditional rear derailleur. This is done to prevent hitting the rear derailleur to rocks etc while mountainbiking, but on a triathlon bike it makes for a very aero set up. As you can see on the picture, the core of the rear derailleur is hidden behind the cassette. Aero is everything!

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The crank is a Dura Ace from one of my old 10speed bikes. The old Dura Ace still uses a 130 BCD which gave us some options for specific 1x chainrings. It’s actually really hard to find specific 1x chainrings that are big enough! We started with a custom FibreLyte 54T.

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It’s really beautiful, aero and light, but we found out that without a chainguide the chain retention was not good enough. Because we have to avoid at all costs that she would drop the chain during a race, we mounted a Sram 1x 54T narrow/wide chainring. She never dropped her chain again. Problem solved.

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For the gearing it’s actually easier than what most people think. With a mountainbike cassette you have all the gears you need. For flat courses or for the Alps. When she uses an 11-40 cassette with her 54T chainring her lightest gear is equal to a 39×28. If she uses a 10-42 cassette her lightest gear is equal to a 36×28 and the 54×10 is equal to a monster 59×11.

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So we have an aero frame and an aero time trial position with easy access to shifting. What else is missing to turn a road bike into a triathlon bike? In the past the answer would have been: a reversed seatpost to get the seat angle from 73 to 78 degrees to get a more forward position. But these days are over. Now we have specific “noseless” seats that puts the rider automatically 3 to 8cm (depending on which model of seat and brand) more to the front.

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Another big difference between a road bike and a TT bike is the height of the head tube. It used to be a real challenge to get low enough, definitely for smaller riders. But that was in the old days when we taught “low is aero”. Now we know better. Usually it’s more aero to have the arm pads a little bit higher so you can drop your head as low as possible between your shoulders. In the past we tried to get really low but as a result our heads were sticking up like telescopes and thus creating a lot of drag. A perfect bad example is Cadel Evans’ low but un-aero TT position.

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Let’s get back to the seat. This was a huge struggle for Elisabetta. We tried millions of different seats. Ok, millions is maybe slightly exaggerated. For women in general it’s much more complicated than for men. I used to be sponsored by Cobb Seats and Elisabetta tried every model. Nothing worked. She tried other brands. Even worse. We had to adjust her road position to be more upright, like on her mountainbike, because like this she had less comfort issues. But because she looked like somebody who just started cycling instead of an elite athlete we went to a famous Sardinian bike fitter: Quirino Atzori. He did a great job and Elisabetta looked a lot better on her bike. He also suggested some seats and we kept on experimenting. In the beginning we were optimistic and hopeful, but after a while she couldn’t even finish a 2h ride. Luckily at that time she had no time to train any longer because of her studies. She was riding around 3 hours a week but we knew that the moment she was going to be finished with the university she was going to ride 3 hours a day.

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Things only got worse. The comfort issues related to the seat made her ride the bike really tense. She didn’t enjoy riding at all and her neck and shoulders became so sore that she had to stop each session after 1h to max 1h30.

In our quest to find a solution we visited Giuseppe Solla, a Sardinian cycling and triathlon legend who has a Triathlon shop near Cagliari. Coach Bella Bayliss suggested that Elisebatta had to try ISM saddles and Giuseppe had those in stock. He gave her two different ISM seats and made some small adjustments to her TT position. With the ISM Road seat she immediately felt a lot better. But when we switched it for a ISM PL1.1 all problems were solved. I think that if a seat company would offer Elisabetta a million euro she would still turn down the contract. Thanks to Giuseppe she not only found the perfect seat and comfort, she also rediscovered the joy of road cycling.

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Her current position is still far from finished. It’s a work in progress. Half a year ago she was still in a mountainbike position on her road bike, so it looks already a lot better now. But we have to take small and careful steps to avoid drops in performance and/or new comfort issues. After each race we make some small adjustments (5mm lower or 1cm longer) before starting the new training block. By spring 2019 she will be perfectly aero and powerful.

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Ok, I admit, the wheels don’t look aero or sexy, but they are fast. I’m convinced they are faster than a pair of standard carbon aero wheels. These Stan’s Notubes wheels ended up on her bike because I had them already for a few years. She didn’t have to spent one euro on a set of wheels, which was actually more important than the “aeroness” of the wheels. But why do I claim that they are fast? They are tubeless and this comes with many advantages. It’s almost impossible to puncture. Combined with low rolling resistance tubeless tires (she races with Vittoria Corsa Speed Tubeless at 5.5 Bar), which outperform fast “normal” tires by far, this feature makes up for all the losses on aerodynamic performance. It also has an aluminium brake track for reliable brake performance even in wet conditions. The low profile of these Stan’s Notubes ZTR Alpha 340 wheels are helping Elisabetta not to be affected by lateral wind. These wheels are a lot lighter than normal carbon aero wheels. So yes, even on a flat course her wheels will be a little bit faster than standard aero wheels paired with slower non tubeless tires, but on a hilly course like Alpe d’Huez triathlon or the Embrunman, the benefits of her simple tubeless wheels will be a lot bigger.

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After trying several options Elisabetta decided that she feels more comfortable on the Zipp Vuka Clip aerobars. It’s also one of the few clip on aerobars where I didn’t have to do any custom work to get the arm pads narrow enough. Just standard, out of the box. For once something simple. Attached to the extensions are Shimano’s Sprint shifters. They are custom, with longer wires to get from the brake levers to the extensions. I had those from another bike and didn’t really need it, so it was cheaper than buying new TT specific shifters.

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She’s using standard road (drop) handlebars instead of the TT (bullhorn) bars. For now she prefers this set up because she can corner a lot faster and feels a lot safer in the drops while descending. The only negative fact about road handlebars is that they create more aerodynamic drag (while in the aero position) compare to a specific TT handlebar/brake levers set up. Those things are almost invisible to the wind. But we feel that Elisabetta can make up for these aerodynamic losses because of the much greater handling of the bike. After the bike fitting session with Quirino she switched from 40cc to 38cc handlebars as he suggested, because of her very narrow shoulders.

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I agree, two bottles on a frame doesn’t really look aero. But we opted for this just for simplicity. During a long distance triathlon she can just grab a bottle at the aid stations and put it on her frame.

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An aero bottle in the front has its benefits, but also some negatives. It’s impossible to see how much there is left in your bottle while racing. And if you lose the straw, the whole system becomes unusable. Plus, if your bike crashes in transition area, you lose all your liquids. These systems also affect the handling of the bike in a negative way, definitely in corners and when there’s lateral wind.

PD-Hydration-HSF_Aeria-Side_preview_1200xThe same for the behind the seat systems. Yes, it is aero, but to get that bottle from behind your seat (if it’s still there because after a good shock the bottle might fly out of its cage), drink, try to put it back, … you’re out of your aero position for much much longer than just grabbing your bottle from the traditional two positions.

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There was no budget left for a nice Garmin computer, but Elisabetta got a used Polar watch from a friend. Her coach Bella Bayliss wants her to train with cadence and not with power, so all we had to buy was a cadence sensor. To make the set up a little more aero I’ve put a small magnet in the pedal axle instead of the big ugly one that was provided by Polar to tape on the crank arm.

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Thanks for reading this blog and hopefully I answered all the questions people have been asking us the last months. This project isn’t finished, it’s an ongoing process. I still have better and faster solutions but we have to take it step by step. The very exciting part is that the budget problem we were facing the last years will be solved. After her impressive start of the 2018 season we got contacted by 4 different bike companies and 2 component companies to sponsor Elisabetta from 2019. It has been a difficult journey for her to get in this situation, but it was all worth it. Dreams come true. And this is just the beginning.

Edit/Update September 2018: Elisabetta raced all August in France and participated at 3 of the hardest triathlons in the world. These are the results achieved on her special bike with a 54T 1x chainring and 11-42 cassette:

Alpe d’Huez Long distance: 5th pro women

Embrunman ironman distance: 4th pro women

Gérardmer XL Long distance: 6th pro women

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