Satisfy Your Need for Speed and Comfort with Insight from John Cobb
By Kevin Kolodziejski
You and I, my friend, are like Goose and Maverick in “Top Gun.” We feel the need. The need for speed. (I’ll take one for the team and be Goose since he whacks his head and dies when they eject because of jet wash.)
But while you satisfy your need, here’s what you don’t want: a pain in your neck, an ache in your glutes, a throbbing in your knees, a numbness in your hands, a chafing of what chamois is supposed to protect, or —god forbid — a full-blown boil on your butt.
Clearly, your speed need can’t supersede attaining a comfortable position as you cycle. In fact, you probably long for comfort while approaching your own Mach 1 as much as Maverick longs for his female pilot instructor. To help eliminate that (and add one more “Top Gun” allusion), RBR asked John Cobb, to be your superior officer, your Viper, the guy who offers to fly with you now that Goose is gone.
And lucky for you, he agreed.
In case you don’t know, Cobb’s the first guy to take a bicycle into a wind tunnel. As he informed me, “There were no Cliff Notes on how to do stuff [with bikes] in a wind tunnel in 1984.” Or power meters. (Cobb started testing SRM-equipped bikes in 1988 and “could really start doing stuff” then.) “And there was no internet to help get the findings out to the racers.”
But by applying what he knew about cars and getting some help from Steve Hed, the founder of the aero wheel company that still bears his name, Cobb was able to create the formulas that took cycling aerodynamics out of the Dark Ages. Those formulas are still used to this day.
In a rather free-flowing and fascinating hour-long phone conversation, Cobb answered questions that Goose from the grave thought his good old buddy Maverick would want to know. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
RBR: If you were working with a cyclist who owned a regular mid-range Ultegra-level road bike and had about $1,000 to spend with the goal of getting faster, how would you tell him to spend his money? In other words, this advice is geared for someone interested in saving watts while on his regular group rides and racing on a traditional road bike.
JC: “Wheels are where you save watts.” For about $1,000, Cobb explains, you could get a nice pair of used carbon wheels, a Zipp for the front and a 606 for the back is what he suggests. And the savings of watts might surprise you. “When you’re putting out between 175 and 180 watts, those wheels could save you about 45 watts. And towards the end of a ride, you’ll find discover another big difference. The calories you saved by riding those wheels early in the ride are available energy for the end.”
RBR: We’ve heard this before and were wondering if you could explain it a little better. As your speeds go up, wind becomes a bigger and bigger force that you have to overcome, and it’s clear that improving aerodynamics makes a difference. But what about guys who are doing a 100-mile gravel ride or maybe a road century and are just middle of the road and not particularly competitive cyclists? Or if your average speed is only 17 or 18 mph on a group ride, do better aerodynamics really make a difference?
JC: “A pretty good local guy might average 175 watts for a ride like this.” While that may not sound like much, Cobb notes, that’s because you don’t really possess that much power. Think of it this way, he says, “You need to produce 746 watts to make [the equivalent of] 1 horsepower [in a car]. So if that pretty good local guy can save about 18 watts, or 10 percent of his average, for 100 miles, he gets to the finish line 20 to 30 minutes faster.” One way to save watts Cobb suggests is by riding tubeless tires on your gravel bike. “That’s worth 15 or 20 [watts] right there. And don’t forget many of the pros use some form of aero bars [in gravel races] to help reduce drag and allow for change of position.”
RBR: Your domain name is https://speedandcomfort.com/. Does that mean you’ve moved away from aerodynamics and that you think comfort is more important? If so, which aspects of comfort?
JC: “I haven’t moved away from speed at all. It’s still in the name, isn’t it? But even at Kona [John sometimes attends the Ironman, the granddaddy of triathlons], I’ll see the elite-level guys up on their brake bars 25 or 30 miles into the bike leg. They’re doing so, because they’re craving comfort — and that lack of comfort is what’s ultimately killing their speed. That’s why ‘comfort’ has been added to the domain name.”
RBR: You worked with LeMond, and you worked with Armstrong. Do you work with any pro road cyclists anymore?
JC: “I’m not currently working with any European pros; I’m working with a number of guys in the Zwift League. One, in fact, wasn’t ever a road rider, but now [after a number of changes Cobb helped him make] he’s really fast. He can hold 450-plus watts for 20 minutes and average 947 for 15 seconds . . . . This indoor cycling stuff is really catching on. [So much so that] some of the triathletes I advise never ride on the road until the day of the race. And they still absolutely rip it.”
RBR: You have a line of saddles, a line of short cranksets, and you even sell some very aggressive negative-rise stems. What type of cyclists are these products aimed at?
JC: “About 70 percent of my business comes from triathletes, but that’s not to say I target my products just towards them — though I do like their general way of thinking. They tend to embrace technology changes quicker than roadies — who at times can wear me out.
“Most of my products are simply a result of me needing to solve a personal problem. For instance, my hands were going numb cycling. I had carpal tunnel surgery, but that didn’t solve my hand numbness. Other changes on the bike didn’t either. But when I went to a negative-rise stem, the pain went away. Then I rode my older bike, a Colnago with a traditional stem. The pain returned in 10 minutes.
“While most people won’t have that exact problem, everyone would benefit from getting more aero. The negative-rise stem certainly will do that for you. In fact, it makes you so aero the guy behind you can’t get a good draft off of you. In a way, [a negative-rise stem] functions like aero bars, but with a big comfort benefit: it flattens your spine, making it easier for your body to absorb shock.”
RBR: Does using shorter crank arms and/or a negative-rise stem on a road bike diminish power on climbs, particularly long, steep ones where you spend most of the time out of the saddle?
JC: “Let’s think about a typical mile long hill and how a fit guy doing 150 to 200 miles per week will climb it. He’ll stand briefly for a power surge and then sit for most of the climb. This only makes sense since your hip flexors produce more power when you’re in the seated position. And [when seated] shorter crank-arms increase cadence, which aids your endurance by shortening the length of muscle contraction time. Besides, studies show power increases as crank-arm length decreases down to about 145 mm. . . . Moses didn’t come down from the mount and say, ‘Thou shall ride 172.5’s,’ but roadies seem to feel that way.”
RBR: Do shorter-than-typical crank arms create any changes in the pedaling motion? For instance, would someone weaned on the Greg LeMond scraping-mud-off-the-bottom-of-the-shoes pedaling style still be able to do so?
JC: “It’s not hard to use this sort of pedaling style with shorter crank arms since using them makes it easier to pedal at a high RPM.”
RBR: What tips or advice would you offer a cyclist who wanted to forego a professional bike fitting and take a do-it-yourself approach to increasing comfort and speed?
JC: “Get video of yourself from the side and then get an opinion about your positioning. There’s some good wisdom out there just for the asking. Seek it out. I’ll do it for anybody. But stay with one source and his suggestions until you know whether or not it works for sure. Don’t jump about. And don’t get an ‘email coach.’ Like constructing a pair of handmade shoes, a good bike fit comes from the shoemaker and the shoe wearer talking things out, spending time together.”
RBR: What type and brand of bike or bikes do you ride and why?
JC: “The bike I ride most of the time is my Wilier. I did some bike designs for them and got the bike in exchange.”
RBR: Is there anything you’d like to add to the article?
JC: “While the importance of road bike fit is always important, what needs addressing today is the fit on these indoor bikes because that’s the direction in which things are heading. But something like 60 percent of the people who get an indoor bike trainer wind up using it as a clothes rack. That’s because they can’t get comfortable on it. And the same thing can happen to a road bike. Comfort on both types comes from good fit. And without comfort, most people aren’t going to keep riding any sort of bike.
“You know, a runner won’t think twice about trying out a pair of $200 shoes and then burying them in the closet if they don’t feel right. Yet roadies expect miracles when they make changes like trying out a $200 seat.”
And while Cobb is too modest to use the question above to plug his products, here’s something RBR wants to add. You’ll be doing yourself and your cycling a great service if you visit speedandcomfort.com to check out the featured articles and the products.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.