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Is TJ Tollakson the Graeme Obree of triathlon?

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TJ Tollakson's 1996 Zipp tri bike

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Admittedly, I don’t know much about the sport of triathlon, but I was very interested to see the bike setup of pro triathlete (and engineer) TJ Tollakson. A reader, Phil, sent me a link to a post about Tollakson’s recent win at Ironman Lake Placid using a 1996 Zipp beam frame bike for the cycling leg. Apparently, Tollakson has been winning quite a bit on his “vintage” bike. His frame may be over 15 years old, but the bike is built with newer technology like the Zipp Zedtech 808 Firecrest carbon front wheel and the Zipp Zedtech rear disk (both clinchers), a SRAM Red grouppo, and a power meter. The bike also has a very unique aerobar setup. It is based on a Profile Cobra bar with Cobra T2 extensions, but Tollakson added athletic cups and shin guards to serve as elbow and forearm supports. I love to see that kind of DIY engineering on a pro level racing bike. The homebuilt custom aerobar set-up immediately reminded me of Graeme Obree’s early 90s “Old Faithful” hour record track bike, which famously employed bearings from a washing machine in the narrow bottom bracket.

TJ Tollakson aero bars

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Tollakson ingenuity goes way beyond modifying his bike with soccer gear from the local sporting goods store. He also has a company called Ruster Sports that produces a couple of products that he developed to meet his own needs. One of those products is the TricaeroTop Carbon Hydration System, which carries food and drink in an aerodynamic container that acts as a fairing over the aerobars. You can read more about Tollakson’s 1996 Zipp 2001 (and see more pictures) at Boulder Triathlon, and find out more about his products at Slowtwitch. Also, check out the Slowtwitch forum for a discussion about his bike.

I find it pretty inspiring that a pro athlete like Tollakson is willing to experiment with his riding position and use his engineering skills to make his bike as fast as possible…instead of just relying on the equipment that he is given. I also think it is quite encouraging that USA Triathlon apparently allows such innovation (unlike my pals at the UCI). Tollakson’s willingness to question the latest offerings from the bicycle industry to and use whatever materials are readily available to him to test his new ideas is what brought Graeme Obree to my mind. As soon as I started thinking about Obree and his hour record bike, I opened the folder of pre Lugano Charter bikes that I still keep on my hard drive (just a few of which you can see in the image below). The Mike Burrows designed Lotus bike was among my favorites at the time, but many other companies were experimenting with frames that were unlike anything that had had seen before. Once the UCI stepped in and outlawed those monocoque frame designs though, non-traditional frame design stopped (at least with upright racing bikes).

Pre Lugano Charter bicycle designsDon’t get me wrong. I like modern time trial bikes and I think it is interesting to see what designers can do within the constraints of the UCI’s equipment regulations. There is only so much that one can do re-shaping carbon tubes on a traditional diamond frame though. With the material advances of the past 15 years, what would time trial bikes look like today, and how would the rider position differ, if the standard diamond frame rule had never been imposed back in 1996? For that matter, what if recumbents hadn’t been banned from international racing in 1934 (to open up a whole new can of worms)?

Perhaps the results of an athlete like TJ Tollakson will get the big players in industry to think about developing more triathlon specific bikes that don’t comply with the UCI’s restrictions. After all, as long as there are triathletes choosing to ride old Softrides and Zipps over new Shivs, P4s, and Time Machines, there seems to be a market. I’d just love to see the designers and engineers at the major bike companies today working to create the fastest TT bikes they can possibly make…with no regard for frame restrictions or silly stickers.

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  1. Nick F July 26, 2011 at 9:08 pm -  Reply

    Heck yes this is what it’s all about!

  2. Brian B July 26, 2011 at 11:02 pm -  Reply

    Ditto. UCI doesn’t touch triathlon and triathlon has grown soooo much since the UCI banned the aero bikes.

    Why not a Tri specific aero bike for the masses. A new version of a Lotus perhaps?

    Actually, no don’t build them. My old Zipp and Softrides would go down in value 😉

  3. Gillis July 27, 2011 at 4:44 am -  Reply

    I find his position more reminiscent of Floyd Landis’ “praying mantis” tt position….but i see your point about Obree.

    My favorite “pre lugano charter” type bikes, and one of the last, is the Pinarello tt bike used by Indurain and Riis in the ’97 Tour. Indurain also had this crazy bug-eyed tt helmet to go with it.

    • James Thomas July 27, 2011 at 2:05 pm -  Reply

      You are right, his position is more like the “praying Landis” with the steeply angled aerobars. With the Obree comparison, I referring mainly to his experimentation with the bike and use of uncommon materials.

      By the way, I agree about those old Pinarello TT bikes. The Blade and Espada are both pictured in this old TT bikes thread at Weight Weenies.

  4. Milessio July 27, 2011 at 6:14 am -  Reply

    I rode my beautiful Mike Burrows designed Giant MCR 2 weeks ago at the Zurich Ironman & will again at this weekend’s London Triathlon. People continue to stop me in the street & at races, where they walk past the legions of modern Di2 Cervelos & Treks!

    • James Thomas July 27, 2011 at 2:07 pm -  Reply

      Those MCR 2s are beautiful bikes indeed. Still one of my favorite designs

  5. Sam August 24, 2011 at 5:02 am -  Reply

    I’ve posted a gallery of pictures including the official time trial bikes of the teams competing in La Vuelta of Spain this year.

    I think there are some nice shots. I hope you like them, and I believe this is a good complement for the readers of this article, because these are used also by triathletes…feel free to comment on any. Cheers

  6. no December 20, 2011 at 7:56 am -  Reply

    Re, food container-Last I read for USA triathlon ANY object to fair the rider was prohibited

  7. Thomas February 21, 2012 at 12:38 pm -  Reply

    it is interesting that triathlon bans the mounting of external fairings on bikes, but does nothing to stop the use of these high tech frames. Perhaps it is because one could make a fairly aero bicycle out of one not so aero, for a small amount of money, and scant few grams of additional weight. I think triathlon should allow any bike design, as long as it is not falling apart, or parts are falling off of it, purely in the name of competition, and advancement through intelligent experimentation. I race in my local sprints on an ’89 frame, with full SRAM force components, and profile design handlebars, and am currently experimenting with fairings of my own design that I hope will improve the aerodynamic profile of this bike. No bike check at a sprint tri! Having said that, I am now a huge fan of Mr. Tollakson, and am glad to see someone far more fit than me also tinkers on his own, instead of relying on corporate engineering.

    • Nando July 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm -  Reply

      A racumbent bike made with state of art components and materials would crush easily any tri-bike in existence. That’s why the banned rule is keep intact. An average person could surpass the best Ironman bike record time in same scenario.
      I think the event should introduce a new kind of championship where technology rules and old bans are overruled.

      • Kimmo July 12, 2012 at 10:29 am -  Reply

        A tinkerer’s championship!

  8. SuperDave August 6, 2013 at 9:27 pm -  Reply

    You’ll love what you see in 2014.

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