"If you don't mind riding your own wheels I can have a TitanFlex ready for you tomorrow!"
After six emails each, back and forth, Tom sent the above line early in the evening of Monday, August 10th, 2009. Tuesday morning, I took the saddle, pedals and wheels off my road bike, and went to meet Tom.
When I got there shortly before 1 PM, Tom had an unpainted TitanFlex Veteran in his stand, waiting for my components. The components already on the frame were a mixed bag: Suguino crank, Shimano 105 rear derailleur, Oval Tektro front brake mounted behind a Cane Creek fork, Cane Creek 200SL rear brake, and aero bars, the identity of which were obscured by bar tape. Tom said he had to gather parts from spares and other bikes to get a full set for my demo. My Bontrager RaceLite wheels, Shimano SPD pedals and Adamo saddle fit right in.
Soon enough, the bike was fully assembled, we made minor adjustments to the fit, and I was out the door.
A note about the fit: Once I knew I wanted to demo a TitanFlex, I immediately had a small problem to overcome: I had never ridden a TT bike, and I had spent very little time in the aero position on my road bike. I needed to learn how to ride the aero position on a TT bike, and I needed to learn fast.
The quick solution was also the best: Go to Moment Cycle Sports and get one of JT's famous two-hour fits. My fit actually took closer to 2.5 hours, and I was pushing 200 watts most of the time. We started with a "newbie" fit, with the seat not much higher than the aero bars. Fortunately, my years of "active stretching" had given me enough useful flexibility where a more aggressive aero position was both possible, and surprisingly comfortable.
JT produced a CAD drawing of my optimized fit, and gave me a copy. I sent the numbers to Tom, who had the bike configured very close to my fit even before I had arrived. The main adjustment required was to slightly lower the seat, since my fit with JT used a 172.5 mm crank length, and the TitanFlex was fitted with 175.0 mm.
As I was walking the bike to my car, another issue came to mind: Would the solid-body TitanFlex Veteran frame fit on the Thule "Spare-Me" bike rack bolted to the spare tire on the rear door of my tiny Suzuki Grand Vitara SUV? Turned out not to be a problem, but it was close. The front strap had to go completely around the TitanFlex frame just behind the fork, and the strap was barely long enough. The open-body TitanFlex Transition frame would have had no problems. Here are some photos:
In the car, leaving the parking lot, I now had to decide where to go for my first ride on the TitanFlex, which would also be my first time on the road with a TT bike. I was near Sorrento Valley, and I knew that Sorrento Valley Road between Carmel Valley Road and Carmel Creek Road had minimal traffic. I went to check it out, and found it deserted. Unfortunately, I also knew my risk of crashing would be highest during my first few minutes on the bike, so I'd prefer to ride where there are people, but where traffic would not be an issue.
Only one place came to mind: Fiesta Island. After parking between the two loops (where the spring TCSD club triathlons are held, as well as other club events), I did a small ride to ensure everything was dialed in. The first thing I noticed was that the steering was very twitchy, and my elbows were much closer together than the were during my fit with JT or on my road bike. First stop, adjust the aero bar separation. Ah, MUCH better!
As my confidence grew, I added a little speed. When I came to my first significant turn, I applied some brakes, but very little happened. Second stop, adjust the brakes.
I forgot to mention a special customization Tom made to the front brake: It had no brake lever! Instead of a lever, the brake cable went from the tip of the bar to near the center, making a triangle with the bar. Tom calls this his "cleanbrake" system. To stop, you could either push the cable with your left arm, simply by dropping it from on top of the aero bar to next to the end of the bar. This motion is both fast and economical, since you don't have to lift your arm off the pad. Just what's needed to bleed off a little speed before a turn.
For harder breaking with the front brake, shift your hand to the bar, and wrap your thumb over the cable and close your hand. This takes a little getting used to, but it isn't difficult. The mechanical advantage of the front brake, combined with the use of high-friction brake pads, means plenty of stopping power is available.
The neat thing is this: To apply the front brakes, you need only push on the cable from any direction, and braking will occur. This is much simpler, faster, and more versatile than having to remove your arm from the areo bar and arm pad, grip the bar end, and reach for a brake lever. But it sure is different!
With the brakes adjusted, the ride resumed. As my cadence increased, I tried to shift, only to find the derailleur was very reluctant to give me the gear I had selected, skipping gears and making clicking noises almost all the time. Another stop, this time to adjust the rear derailleur.
OK, I now saw the moral of the story: When demoing a freshly assembled bike, take the first short ride IMMEDIATELY, and do so IN THE PARKING LOT!
After another stop, I realized I was no good at rear derailleur adjustment. Instead of losing more time with repeated adjustments, I shifted through all the gears to find the ones I could use, and continued my ride using only those gears.
I completed my loop around the north end of Fiesta Island, during which I became more confident in my ability to control the bike from the aero position, and started adding more speed. My second big loop was a full loop, during which I started to add more speed on the straights.
Two observations: First, I really like the aero position! The wind was blowing 15-20 mph during my ride. In the drops on my road bike, I'd be lucky to maintain 14 mph into such a stiff wind, even out of the saddle. My first time on the TitanFlex, and my first time in a serious aero position, and I was easily doing 16 mph.
Second, the TitanFlex boom suspension doesn't let you cheat! You know how, in spin class, if you take it too easy at a high cadence, you start to bounce in the saddle? I found I was bouncing on the TitanFlex boom whenever my power output dropped significantly while my cadence was high. This meant I either had to use the gears more to keep some power applied at all times, or coast. For me, the bouncing tells me I haven't been getting enough saddle time lately, and my continuous power level had dropped somewhat. Like I said, no cheating!
After finishing that loop, I called Tom and made an appointment to bring the bike back for a quick tune-up in the morning. The adventures continue in the next post!