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
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.
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?
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