Talking Aero with Age Group TT Champion Rob Barrett

Tell us a bit about your cycling career.

I was a very keen cyclist in my youth, but I stopped when I was around 16. There was the incident with Tommy Simpson, who died during the 1967 Tour, and amphetamines were reportedly found in his system. It became apparent to me that you had to have a “flexible attitude” to succeed at a high level, and I wasn’t interested in that. I also like to keep my body in one piece, so I wasn’t keen on the flat-out descending that you have to do to have a chance of a win, so I basically gave up cycling at 16. I took it up again in my 40s. I started back with off-road on a mountain bike, then somebody lent me a road bike so I got back into road cycling. I did a few rowing triathlons (static 4k row, 25k bike, 7.5k run) and that got me looking at TT bikes. I started back into time trials seriously around 2010.

I quickly learned that 21st century TT was all about aero. Back in the 1960s I was in a club where Gordon Wright was a member. I went back to the same club and Gordon was still there. There was also a guy called Mark Jones, one of the aero gurus here in the UK. Gordon gave me training tips and Mark gave me a few aero tips. I suddenly got a lot faster by switching to a pointy helmet, a skin suit, and time trial wheels - and the rest, as they say, is history. But it did take me until I was in the 70+ age group this year to actually win anything!!

There was an event I did in 2014 after which my RST coach noticed that my CdA was incredibly low for someone riding a road bike frame with deep section wheels and a budget TT front end. It was a cold day, and I was wearing leg warmers with a zipper on the side of the calf. After some more testing we realized that the zips were making a difference – the covers on the zippers were actually acting like an aero trip, and that gave me an advantage. That lead to the coach inventing aero trip strips that gave you the same effect! Now we have aero socks and “calf protectors”. Aero is a game changer. At my age, maintaining power is the best I can hope for, as there probably aren’t any power gains I can get from training. So if an age grouper like me wants to go faster, improving aero performance is the way to go.

You recently won your age group at the Thruxton Cycling Time Trials Closed Circuit Championships – tell us about that.

Well, I won by one second over a guy who was a previous age group world record holder for the hour velodrome record. He may have been having an off-day! If you compare my position on the bike to his, you’ll see a big difference. He was probably putting out 10-15 % more power than me, but I had been testing my position with the Notio, and that’s probably what made the difference. It was one of my season goals to win my age group at this event. This year I’ve just gone into the next age group: 70-74, so that gave me an advantage, since I’m now one of the youngest in the group. Last year I was at the top end of the 65-69 group, and that was much tougher. The same guy beat me by nearly two minutes last year, although I will say that when I popped over to the pub opposite our cottage to celebrate the win, the other people in the bar didn’t believe me when I told them my age! I guess cycling keeps you young.

How did you train?

My training was, in all honesty, pretty poor. I did a 15-mile TT in May where I managed to average just over 25mph, then we moved to a new house in June and I didn’t do any training at all for two months. I went on to a TT forum and posted “Four weeks to Thruxton – Help!”. I got advice to just do high-end intervals and make that the focus of my remaining training time. We now live 30 minutes from Reading where there is an open-air velodrome, so I went to the velodrome with my Notio and TT bike, and started doing 5-minute intervals at race pace as a combination of training and aero test runs. I did three sessions at the track and more interval sessions on the turbo, and that got me feeling more confident. I also made sure I was well rested for race day, although you could say I already got some rest during my time off!  I did lift an awful lot of boxes, though, when we moved, so maybe that counts as training.

How do you use Notio in your training?

Whenever I go aero testing I use the Notio, so every time I go to the velodrome or a cycle circuit. Basically, it helps validate what you think might be happening. For example, you can guess if helmet X is going to test better than helmet Y by looking at videos of yourself on the turbo. If you can test and get real data, it lets you make informed decisions. One helmet might work really well on calm days and a different one test better when there is a wind. Testing gives you real data. The Notio collects the data for you and the NotioGC app processes that data to give you the CdA comparisons needed to make the choices. Essentially, the whole benefit of aero testing is to get information, and Notio just makes that process a whole lot easier and more accurate.

The Notio is a scientific instrument. It may be small but it is measuring and recording a whole bunch of variables. It’s not something like a speed sensor that you put on your bike and it just gives you the answer. You need the NotioGC app to interpret the information that you get from field aero testing.

I should also mention Ollie Hucks - he came third at Thruxton overall, and 14th in the British Cycling National 30+ mile TT just last week. Ollie tested with the Notio and it helped him make an informed choice about which helmet to use in both events. When he was testing at the velodrome, he was using my Notio and I was analysing the results on my laptop remotely, which just shows how versatile the system is.

I’m lucky enough to have a velodrome close by where I can do this type of testing. Not everyone has the luxury of a velodrome or a dedicated cycle circuit that they can use for aero testing. The next best thing is an out-and-back test route, if you’re careful about traffic and wind conditions affecting the data. This is where the Notio really comes into its own. You do your out-and-back test runs, you look at the data in NotioGC, selecting the race-pace segments for analysis, you click on a button, and NotioGC gives you the CdA numbers. It definitely simplifies the process – three to five minutes of riding in each direction is all you really need for each test un. This is the most common form of testing that people have access to. The Notio turns the open road into a virtual wind tunnel.

What tips would you give someone who, like you, left the sport and is trying to get back into it?

Number one - don’t think you’ll be back to your best after just a few months of riding. It takes about three years to get back to peak performance after a few years off. It’s a long road back. And even then, if you are the wrong side of 45 to 50, it can be a use-it-or-lose-it situation. I try to never take more than two weeks off in a row in order to maintain form. I was actually ten watts down at Thruxton from where I was earlier this season because of taking the two months off when we moved house. I hope to at least gain that back over the coming off-season.

And of course, aero is definitely something to bear in mind in your training, with either a road or TT bike. There are significant advantages to be gained, be it in your setup, equipment, or position. Aero testing with the Notio helps you make decisions on equipment – and if you’re just getting back into the sport, and finding equipment is a lot more expensive than it used to be, testing helps you choose wisely. Your cheap gains are skinsuits and helmets - and the cheapest gain of all is getting yourself into an optimized aero position!

Rob Barrett TT Champion