In the cold season of the year, you can meet many triathletes during their training camps on Fuerteventura. We met Thomas “Hell on wheels” Hellriegel and listened to his stories.
Sebastian: Hello Thomas, nice to meet you. You are kind of a legend – the first German IronMan Hawaii winner in Kona, 1997. This is exactly 20 years ago. Your nickname of that time was “Hell on wheels” – Did that derive from your name or did it form after your victory in Kona?
Thomas: No, that came after my first public competition in 1995. I didn’t expect great chances for a top end ranking. I just went to the competition and cycling was my strength. I just wanted to see what’s possible on the bike. It happened that I came in Second. After cycling, I had a 12-13 minute lead on Mark Allen – who already had five victories.
Sebastian: That means you came in First?
Thomas: Yes, I led the race for approximately 6 hours – up until km 38 or 39 during the run. Sure, he had to catch up and I wasn’t that bad in running. If I had known that I had a perspective to get on the podium, then I would have cycled a bit more defensive and would have run a bit faster. Whatsover – that’s how it came. The Australian Greg Welch – who won the race in 1994 (the year before) – said during the press conference “It’s hell on wheels.”
During the swim I was a bit behind – I wasn’t such a good swimmer at that time. After 40km I came from behind, overtook and disappeared a few minutes later into the lava field. The nickname remained after that.
Also during other IronMan races, e.g. the following year, I rode cycling record: 4:24 h:mm.
Sebastian: And that stayed for a while?
Thomas: Yes, but now Norman Stadler has the record – still.
Sebastian: Have you dealt with aerodynamics at that time? Was that a topic of interest?
Thomas: Honestly, it was, but surely at a completely different level compared to today. For example, we had no aero wheels. We built them ourselves or had them built by a bike dealer. There existed almost no radial-spiked wheels and if so, then they were often 36 hole bicycle rims with a high number of spokes. We left our every second hole and put flat spokes into the remaining ones. There began to be a difference between training wheels and competition wheels.
Even at the Tour de France they rode with 32-hole or 36-hole wheel rims and crossed spokes – that was normal, indeed there was nothing else. Except in time trial, that’s were the disc wheel came up. During that time it was forbidden to cover up items. You could have a disc wheel much more cheaply if you would cover up the spoke wheel – but that was forbidden by UCI. They then needed to be designed in a way that they were hollow. Then, its no longer a covering but a integral part. That’s how they outsmarted the rules. That was during the early 90s.
The same with triathlon handlebars – basically everyone rode road bikes. Greg LeMond – he was the first to use such kind of top piece.
Sebastian: So, these were primary results of such experiments, because you were able to cycle faster – without calling it aerodynamics?
Thomas: In the end it was the result of self-experimentation. We did know that one must be flat on the bike – if possible the handlebars lower than the saddle and not the other way around.
For example, there were no triathlon frames at the time. We used normal road frames and special seat posts, which were cranked at the front. Therewith you’re sitting tilted forward on the bike. Compared to cyclist, if you have the bike saddle very much at the back and the handlebars too low, then you’re extremely bent. We’ve tried something like that, but even if you’re sitting quite flat on the bike, if you’re bent like that, you can’t put any power on the pedal.
We then mounted a 26 inch fork to a 28 inch frame. Then including a small front wheel. Of course, the top tube was no longer horizontal, but went down steeply. That was quite brutal looking at drivability. It was great just going straight but if you went downhill with serpentine you had the whole weight on the front wheel. You only had to brake slightly and it either blocked immediately or the back wheel came up. It was difficult to ride. Well, if you sat on it, you always had the feeling it goes down. That’s how it was.
There were no real handlebars as we know them today. We had a mate who was a heating engineer and he organized copper tubes for us. That’s what we fixed at the front. That’s how all began.
Sure, we thought about it – you need to be flat, put power on the pedal. Of course, this was far from what is possible today. And there were no people with experience. Even on Hawaii, people rode normal road bikes and normal handlebars. You couldn’t ask anyone. Until my first start on Hawaii, I knew only one person who had ever participated there. Sure, they did some races in Germany or participated at the Algäutriathlon. Or with us: Friesenheim, Schömburg or Lake Constance. But none of those have ever been to Hawaii.
Sebastian: Well, the question whether you have tested your aerodynamics in a kind of wind tunnel or cycling track is therewith irrelevant.
Thomas: Such measuring systems didn’t exist for us. What do you want to test? If you don’t have a heart rate monitor or cycling power meter, you need to rely on your subjective judgment. From my experience it’s not that bad. This relation of how much power I can put on the pedal compared to my seating position.
An example: A swimmer immediately feels it, when wearing different swimming trunks, where something flutters. He immediately feels that he does not glide so well. So, if you’ve been cycling many kilometers, you’ve already developed a feeling for it – oh yes, the new chain or wheels roll well, are very direct or riding out of the saddle is too smooth, it tangles up.
AThis is not comparable to the possibilities today. There’s a cycling track, standard conditions with your power meter, which is zero-point-something and you optimize in the millimeter range.
Sebastian: You said there were few people you could ask. Today, if you see a top athlete on Hawaii he or she is accompanied by a coach, maybe a physiotherapist, there is the possibility of calling the bike-fitter, has maybe even his/her swimming-coach flown in. In comparison, you have tried and figured out a lot yourself, had homemade materials. How big were the teams of that time, were there even something like teams or did your family support you?
Thomas: Hmmmm, basically we travelled with friends, girlfriend, partner and sometimes parents. We did not have a real team. You could organize a little bit locally, maybe together with the travel agent.
There was, for example, a physio on side, who came by in the evenings and you could enter his list. Sometimes the physio was very good; sometimes he only put some cream on you. You did that once, put a few dollars on the table und knew if it was worth it or not. It didn’t have that much with the right team to do.
But we were pretty fast anyways back then. This shows that its all head and training. The fact that you really want to make such a race plays by far the biggest role.
Only looking at the technique, you need to be an athlete that takes part, otherwise you’re having disadvantages from the start. Everyone has good bikes – none of the top athletes uses cheap bikes or aluminum frames. If you don’t take part in it, you’re loosing minutes; you can’t make up for that with training. You’re already doing as much training as you can handle – often you’re already at your limit and can’t just add more. Surely, you can almost improve, no question – but having a bad aerodynamic on the bike, so that you lack 10 watt from the start – you rather have to loose 2 kilos during training and that’s usually no longer possible. Then having to come up with these extra 10 watt, for that, you need much more kilometers during your training in order to get the time back in. It’s an enormous effort.
Sebastian: Looking at your time as an active professional triathlete – would you sign the statement that a good cyclist was a good mechanic?
Thomas: Surely, the biggest things you need to be able to get done yourself. To be a good mechanic is maybe a bit overstated. But to be able to mount a new chain before the race or – ah we still had headsets with counter screws – such stuff you had to have experience with, as it wasn’t ensured that there was someone on site to help you.
Nowadays, looking at some time trial bikes, you must already have a mechanic to be able to fit the bike into your bike case. If all is integrated in the frame or stem it easily becomes much more complex.
Sebastian: You’ve seen a lot. If you could invent something to make an athlete or yourself faster in a competition – what would it be? … M you could use the chain not only to move the bike but also to propel a propeller – as an example.
Thomas: That`s difficult. But the idea with the propeller is quite good. To additionally move something else with the chain. Or compared to running: use the arm strength to push forward – something with sticks.
Honestly said, I like it that it’s not as complicated with us as with e.g. skiers. You need a huge team from the beginning, one that grows – and as soon as you’re extremely well trained and your team isn’t able to get your skis up to the level of the others, you can go home with your dull skies. I participated in a winter triathlon once. I took my one pair of skis with me which had been waxed in autumn, and that was it. When I arrived, other guys came with VW-busses and had 20 pairs of skis in the back. They put up a slide, had every single ski lying in the snow for half an hour and then tested them on the slide while stooping the time – I had no more desire to participate in the competition.
Clearly, you need to have a good bike with good aerodynamics. You’ll have it adjusted during winter and then have a good overall package for the season with clothes, helmet and wheels – and that’s pretty much it. The skiers have 3 or 4 people for waxing with them who wax the skis all night long, and in the morning at 5am, 6am and 7am they measure the snow temperature – that’s terrible.
I rather love swimming: swimming trunks and goggles for 20 Euro and you’re able to swim world record. That’s more the ideal case.
Sebastian: Now you cleverly changed to topic towards the cheapest type of sports. It looks quite differently with cycling.
Thomas: Sure. But hej, such a time trial bike is pretty cool. It’s just really cool. And if you sit properly on it, while looking good, than I like to take a look. Whether it’s a triathlon or an individual time trial in cycling – it’s simply fun.
Sebastian: I only have two more short questions. When sitting on your bike, you’re almost one with the machine. As which animal would you describe yourself?
Thomas: The problem is that humans are one of the most persisting animals. Big-game hunting used to be coursing. There is almost no animal that’s more enduring than human being – ok – hmmmm – maybe some kind of migratory bird.
Sebastian: A crane?
Thomas: Yes, a crane. But that doesn’t have much to do with cycling. Or wait… there are geese flying over the Himalayas. That’s actually physically not possible. But they still do it somehow.
Sebastian: Great, thank you very much.
Thomas: My pleasure.