The Ironman triathlon world champion Sebastian Kienle on his racing cycle in the wind tunnel of Mercedes-Benz.

Sebastian Kienle in the wind tunnel of Mercedes-Benz.

The triathlon world champion Sebastian Kienle works on his aerodynamics together with Mercedes-Benz V-Class experts.
  • Sebastian Kienle in the wind tunnel of Mercedes-Benz.

  • The perfect pose.

    Eyes down and spin those pedals. A large digital display shines down on Sebastian Kienle from above: it reads 28 mph, into a headwind. Below him, the tunnel’s base plate slowly moves a few degrees to the left, so that the artificially generated breeze now hits him from the side.

    Headwind and aerodynamic drag are the toughest opponents for Sebastian Kienle.

    The 30-year-old triathlete and winner of the 2014 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii is using this rare opportunity to do some testing in the Mercedes-Benz wind tunnel in Untertürkheim and bring his dream of a successful title defense a little closer still.

    Highly concentrated Sebastian Kienle is sitting on his bicycle in the Mercedes-Benz wind tunnel.

    Triathlon is no bed of roses.

    Mr. Kienle, the way you’re sitting on the bike in the wind tunnel looks totally relaxed. 

    I’m glad it looks comfortable – that’s how it should be. But it’s misleading.

    Is it uncomfortable, then? 

    Yes, very much so after a while. You get back pain and begin to see stars because your head is hyperextended and the nerves in the neck get pinched. And you have to turn your eyes very high up to get any view at all. There are triathletes who wouldn’t be able to ride in this position, let alone pedal like this for more than four hours.

    Why do you put yourself under that sort of strain? 

    Aerodynamic drag is my toughest opponent. Of all the obstacles I have to overcome, this is the biggest. That’s why I want to sit on the bike as aerodynamically as possible.

    28 hours of training per week.

    In an Ironman competition, you swim 2.4 miles, ride 112 miles on the bike and then run a marathon. And the wind is your biggest concern?

    If I have a 22 mph headwind and I’m riding at 22 mph, the air is hitting me at 44 mph. And the faster I get, the bigger the problem becomes. Aerodynamic drag increases to the power of three, so to ride at twice the speed, I need to apply eight times more power. As a triathlete, I can try to increase my power against resistance, and that’s why I train on average 28 hours per week – or more than 40 hours a week during a training camp: swimming, cycling, running, strength work. The other angle is to reduce resistance. When it comes to aerodynamic drag, you can gain a lot that way. If I can improve my aerodynamics, I’ll be able to go faster and at the same time save energy, which I can then use for the run at the end.

    28 hours of training per week.

    No contest without the V-Class.

    Aerodynamics also dictates the efficiency of a car, of course. How important is a car in your day-to-day training? 

    Very important. I cover around 9,300 miles a year on the bike and another 18,600 miles in the car. I’m a keen driver but, as a triathlete, I also need a car with space. It’s not uncommon for me to take two or three bikes with me for a competition, as well as several wheelsets. And sometimes I’ll also have people from my team on board. My V-Class is ideal in this respect, because it has enormous amounts of space, but drives like a normal car. I like something a bit sporty, but also enjoy the feeling of comfort and safety when I’m on my way back after a long competition.

    No contest without the V-Class.

    What are the key factors in ensuring you’re as streamlined as possible on the bike?

    Certain variables play a significant role. There’s the frontal area – the smaller, the better. Then there’s the form – a teardrop shape, like my helmet, is more effective than a sphere. And, finally, surfaces. A dimpled golf ball, for example, flies up to four times as far as a smooth one.

    Every watt counts.

    Every watt counts.

    Is aerodynamic fine-tuning your priority? 

    I certainly do a lot of work in that area. I studied physics and I love all that stuff. It’s a way of getting faster without having to expend more effort.

    Have you gained new insights here in the wind tunnel? 

    We’ve tested out some different fabric variants, as the suit I wear for competition has a large surface area. We suspected we could make some advances here. And now we know that two-digit watt savings are possible. I generate just under 300 watts on average over the 112-mile bike course. Saving an average of 10 watts by wearing the right suit would be incredible. It would be worth several minutes.

    Which is more painful – riding up a steep mountain pass or fighting against the Hawaiian Mumuku winds? 

    A headwind is more unpleasant, because you can’t see it; you’re battling against an invisible force. But as a strong bike rider, I benefit from headwinds and side winds during a race. The tougher the conditions, the better it is for me.

    Relaxation through success.

    Relaxation through success.

    What’s the best strategy in side winds?

    To stay in the aero position. It requires extremely good bike control. If you’re slowing down in windy conditions, you often want to change your position, stand up out of the seat and push more power through the pedals. That’s the worst thing you can do, since you’re giving the wind a larger surface to hit and wasting your energy.

    You’re the guy everyone wants to beat this year. How do you deal with that?

    A pessimist would say that, from where I am now, the only way is down. But I’m building on the extra confidence my success has given me; I’ve won in Hawaii and I know I can do it again. That allows me to approach things in a more relaxed frame of mind. Having success under your belt doesn’t only mean there’s more pressure on you – it can also take the pressure off.

    IRONMAN European Tour dates 2015.

    Event Date Location
    IRONMAN Austria 28. June Austria, Klagenfurt
    IRONMAN France 28. June France, Nice
    IRONMAN European Championship Frankfurt 05. July Germany, Frankfurt
    IRONMAN UK 19. July UK, Bolton
    IRONMAN Switzerland 19. July Switzerland, Zurich
    IRONMAN Kalmar 15. August Sweden, Kalmar
    IRONMAN Copenhagen 23. August Denmark, Copenhagen
    IRONMAN Wales 13. September Wales, Pembrokeshire
    IRONMAN Mallorca 26. September Mallorca, Acludia