How fast would ‘King’ Alf Engers go in 2018?

Alf Engers was the fastest man on two wheels in the 1970s, and how The King would do to­day has amused and puz­zled time tri­al­lists since. Now we have the tech­nol­ogy to get the an­swer

Cycling Weekly - - WELCOME - Words Si­mon Smythe Pho­tos Chris Lan­away, Ge­off Waugh, Cy­cling Weekly ar­chive

Sports fans love to com­pare ath­letes from dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions. If you put Fan­gio be­hind the wheel of Hamil­ton’s Mercedes AMG F1 car would he leave the English driver chok­ing in his tyre smoke? Would Pele’s 1970 Brazil side trounce the French team that won the World Cup this year?

For Bri­tish time tri­al­lists there’s one man and one per­for­mance against which all oth­ers are mea­sured: Alf Engers’s break­ing of the 30mph bar­rier in a 25mile TT in 1978. When­ever a record falls or a su­per-fast time is recorded some­one asks, “What would Alf do?”

The ques­tion — some­times tongue-incheek, some­times not — has be­come an es­sen­tial part of time tri­alling cul­ture. Not only used for trolling top modern riders, in its par­o­dy­ing of the “What Would Je­sus Do?” im­per­a­tive it also el­e­vates Engers be­yond his sta­tus as The King, his nick­name at the time, to a sort of time tri­alling mes­siah.

Armed with state-of-the-art aero test­ing soft­ware, a vin­tage bike and a triple na­tional cham­pion, Xavier Dis­ley, who runs the aero-test­ing ser­vice Ae­ro­coach, is poised to an­swer the ques­tion with ac­cu­racy and ob­jec­tiv­ity for the first time ever.

“It’s a bit last minute for you I know, but we’re go­ing to do the Alf Engers aero test at New­port on Mon­day,” he mes­sages on Thurs­day, Oc­to­ber 4. At 10 o’clock sharp on Mon­day morn­ing we’re track cen­tre in an empty and echo­ing Geraint Thomas Na­tional Velo­drome with the an­swer just a few laps away.

The mis­sion: to cal­cu­late the time Alf Engers would do on the R25/3H course in South Wales, where the cur­rent comp record for 25 miles is held, if he was rid­ing a modern TT bike, equip­ment and cloth­ing.

The method: to dress triple na­tional cham­pion Richard Bussell in 1970s kit, rid­ing an Engers-spec bike in The King’s dis­tinc­tive head-down po­si­tion, and to mea­sure his co­ef­fi­cient of drag (CDA) — a score to gauge how aero­dy­nam­i­cally ef­fi­cient a rider is — us­ing the Garmin Track Aero Sys­tem. And us­ing that CDA to cal­cu­late the num­ber of watts re­quired to clock Engers’s time of 49.24.

Next, Bussell, wear­ing a modern skin­suit, aero hel­met and over­shoes is to ride a Cervélo P4 around the track and will have his new CDA mea­sured.

Fi­nally, to trans­pose Engers’s power num­bers onto the CDA of the modern aero set-up and to cal­cu­late his time on a course model of the R25/3H. Since we’re only in the era of the wind tun­nel not the time tun­nel, the re­sults and con­clu­sion would be as close an an­swer to the ques­tion as any­one is likely get for now.

Ex­cited crab

Ped­alling around the empty New­port track dressed in a wool jer­sey tucked into wool shorts, Bussell cer­tainly looks the part. He rides a round-tubed steel Mer­cian that Dis­ley “picked up for £300 off ebay”. It’s a good enough ap­prox­i­ma­tion, if not quite equal to the fa­mous Shorter ‘Speed Ma­chine’ Engers used. Dis­ley would later make an es­ti­mated ad­just­ment to the re­sults to al­low for this.

But a more im­me­di­ate prob­lem is to get Bussell’s po­si­tion right. On his lap­top on the desk next to the start/ fin­ish line Dis­ley has that fa­mil­iar and iconic pic­ture of Engers at full tilt, nose touch­ing the stem, fore­arms tucked in tight,

nav­i­gat­ing by the white line and noth­ing else. “He needs to look less like an ex­cited crab,” re­marks Dis­ley as Bussell buzzes past, all el­bows and an­gles.

Bussell is called back in and Dis­ley, Ae­ro­coach fi­nance and op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor Jes­sica Rhodes-jones and track man­ager Gar­rie Til­lett, who has au­tho­rised the hel­met-less test­ing, hold him up while con­tort­ing him into the ag­gres­sive po­si­tion to show him what it ought to feel like. “My arms are burn­ing,” he com­plains, though sym­pa­thy seems to be in short sup­ply.

But as he gets into char­ac­ter the CDA num­ber falls dra­mat­i­cally un­til Dis­ley is sat­is­fied that 0.255m2 is as low as it’s go­ing to go. “A CDA of 0.255 is like a fairly up­right triathlon comfy po­si­tion but there will be triath­letes worse than that,” says Dis­ley. “It’s a long way off de­cent time tri­al­lists. Go­ing below 0.2 is now the ba­sic en­try level. Ev­ery­one in the Na­tion­als is go­ing to have a bet­ter CDA than 0.2 these days.”

Now comes part one of the big reveal: how many watts would it take Bussell with the Mer­cian, the woollen kit, bare headed and in the Engers po­si­tion to do the magic 49.24?

Course switch

Dis­ley ex­plains that be­cause the E72 course on the A12 in Es­sex, where Engers rode, is not used any­more, he would take the R25/3H in South Wales as the course model, where the cur­rent 25-mile com­pe­ti­tion record was set. He in­puts the data into the soft­ware. “R25/3H, 0.255 [CDA], nor­mal day, time of 49.24, he would have needed to pro­duce 391 watts.” He pauses. “That’s a lot of power for a rel­a­tively small guy.”

Now Bussell changes into a Nopinz Ae­ro­coach skin­suit — the ‘closed’ ver­sion. Dis­ley ex­plains that for ac­tual com­pe­ti­tion Bussell has a cus­tom-made skin­suit, but for the pur­poses of our test and so that kit avail­able to the pub­lic is used, he wears a con­sumer suit.

He also puts on a Giro Aero­head hel­met and Nopinz Ae­ro­coach Trip over­socks. He’s rid­ing a Cervélo P4 which is, ac­cord­ing to Dis­ley, faster than the P5 and be­longs to Dis­ley him­self. He ex­plains that Bussell’s own CDA with his own bike and skin­suit is pro­pri­etary — top riders keep their Cdas se­cret.

It takes a few laps be­fore the CDA num­bers be­gin to level out at what Dis­ley ex­pects, and that’s mainly be­cause Bussell is now used to ‘do­ing an Engers’, which is not as fast as shrug­ging his shoul­ders into the back of the hel­met and dip­ping his neck in the modern style.

This time Bussell’s CDA on the aer­o­bars is 0.183m2, which Dis­ley says is the same as when he won the Na­tional 10mile ti­tle for the sec­ond time in 2016. “It was much bet­ter than in 2015 — we had to step up be­cause ev­ery­body else had,” he says. And af­ter a lit­tle more num­ber crunch­ing, fi­nally we’re about to find out what Alf would do.

“I’m so ex­cited about this,” en­thuses Dis­ley, peer­ing at the lap­top screen.

“OK, that’s 109 watts dif­fer­ence. In the Engers set-up, to do 49.24 on the R25/3H would re­quire 391.2 watts. Tak­ing the P4 and ex­actly the same power would re­duce that to 43.56. I sus­pect that the ad­vanced na­ture of Alf’s bike — hid­den ca­bles, smaller hoods, nicer front

“It’s clear his po­si­tion was good, and the times are so good and stood for so long”

wheel, sin­gle ring, no front mech — would re­duce the CDA com­pared with the Mer­cian, prob­a­bly to the tune of 0.010m2 (15.1W). That would con­vert to an ad­justed time of 44.33, about 37sec at that speed.”

100 watts more

The cur­rent com­pe­ti­tion record for 25 miles is 42.58, clocked by Uk-based Pol­ish pro Marcin Bi­ałobłocki this year. Is Dis­ley sur­prised that the Engers model wasn’t quicker? That he’s not miles bet­ter than the riders of now, as peo­ple like to as­sume he must have been?

“No. We know that the hu­man phys­i­ol­ogy hasn’t changed that much in 40 years. So the idea that Alf could pro­duce watts in the high 300s for some­one of his height and weight [5ft 7in and 65kg] makes ab­so­lute sense for some­one who trains very hard. There’s no way he was go­ing to be putting out more power than Fabian Can­cel­lara.

“Ob­vi­ously he got in trou­ble for us­ing traf­fic and we know that helps to re­duce CDA fur­ther. Look­ing at him it’s clear his po­si­tion was good, and the times are so good and stood for so long.

“I think the thing that sur­prised me the most was when Rich sat up on the base bar on the P4 and it was pretty much iden­ti­cal to the most ex­treme Engers po­si­tion. That high­lighted the dif­fer­ence all the kit makes. He could hold that base bar po­si­tion for as long as he wanted and it would have been the same as the re­ally ex­treme po­si­tion he was strug­gling to hold down for just two or three laps.”

So what con­clu­sion would Dis­ley draw? “As a gen­eral test that no one’s ever done be­fore it ticks all the boxes. It’s the changes that are the im­por­tant thing, not the ab­so­lute. Rich’s CDA won’t be ex­actly the same as Alf Engers’s, but it’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween go­ing from Alf-style on the Mer­cian to the full TT bike. It’s sav­ing 100 watts. Which means that since 1978 ev­ery­body has gone 100 watts quicker. Comp record is about 100 watts bet­ter than it was then. But no one’s putting out 100 watts more. So it’s the tech­nol­ogy that’s got them there.

“Hid­ing your brake levers be­hind the bar tops, go­ing sin­gle ring, mak­ing sure you’ve only got as many spokes in your wheels as you re­ally need. Stuff like that shows that Engers used the best tech­nol­ogy avail­able to him at the time, to go as fast as phys­i­cally pos­si­ble and that hasn’t changed.

“You op­ti­mise your equip­ment, you op­ti­mise your train­ing and then you race as hard as pos­si­ble. If power me­ters and wind tun­nels were avail­able back then, of course Engers would have used them. Why wouldn’t he?”

What would Alf do? What he’s al­ways done.

Engers played with the tech­nol­ogy he’d been dealt

Copy­ing The King thread for thread

When the arms burn the CDA falls Prac­tis­ing the Engers tuck

As­sum­ing the cor­rect po­si­tion was para­mount Bussell pi­lots the Cervélo P4 in full aero fa­tigues

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