A couple weeks ago Luke Plapp (Inform TMX Make) scorched his way to an elite Australian time trial title. The 20-year-old was eligible for the U23 ranks (which he won last year), but opted to race in the elite category at the suggestion of Santos Festival of Cycling teammate Richie Porte. It turned out to be a great decision.
Plapp turned many heads at Nationals. Not just because he beat four-time Aussie ITT champ Luke Durbridge by a minute to win gold, but because of the bike he was riding on the day.
Perhaps most striking about Plapp’s Giant Trinity TT rig was its unusual cockpit. The 3D-printed titanium bar extensions were custom made by a small Melbourne brand called Sync Ergonomics, headed up by bike fit and aerodynamics expert Ken Ballhause.
What Sync does
Based in Abbotsford in inner-eastern Melbourne, Sync grew out of Adaptive Human Performance, a bike fit and aero testing company that Ballhause runs with his wife, exercise physiologist Dr Evelyn Parr.
Adaptive HP was founded in 2014 and in its early years, the brand serviced a largely road-focused clientele. But as Adaptive HP grew, so its client base started to diversify. More triathlon and time-trial-focused riders came through the doors, pushing Adaptive HP to, well, adapt.
“We were doing a lot more triathlon and a lot more time-trial bike fitting and there just weren’t the components that we were trying to access to basically do the fits, to achieve the position that we wanted to achieve,” Ballhause tells me.
In the past few years Sync has invested plenty of time trying to create cockpits that will work with the wide range of time-trial and triathlon bikes on the market. In recent times that’s meant a focus on redesigning the components Sync offers, allowing the brand to mount its bar extensions to a range of different bikes.
When Sync started, they initially tried to source arm cups and extensions from other brands. When they could not get the quantity they wanted, nor a consistent supply, they started to develop their own solutions. “We never intended to be at the point we are today, manufacturing the range of components we manufacture, but as the brand diversifies so does our product offering,” explains Ballhause.
Evo Pro Ti
Sync’s 3D-printed Evo Pro Ti extensions, as seen on Plapp’s bike at Nationals, were more than a year in the making.
“When Luke won U23s last year, we had a chat afterwards, a bit of an informal chat about what it was going to take to repeat that process,” Ballhause explains. “Not necessarily winning in elite – that was never the goal until a week before Nationals, but, yeah, just that question of ‘where do we go next?’
“We’ve worked with Luke pretty much from the start of Sync and before the start of Sync so he’s always been an athlete that we’ve done stuff with. We appreciate his feedback and his abilities as a rider and as someone that can help us test products as well. So it was a simple question of ‘what do we need to do next to keep the ball rolling and keep making you faster?’”
Sync already had the details of Plapp’s bike fit so from there it was a case of building a product that would support his position and make him more aero in the process.
“Measurements are the starting point,” Ballhause says. “In a way it’s almost easy to do stuff within the framework of the UCI rules because you’ve got very strict parameters on what you can and can’t do. So straight away, that limits things that you might want to explore otherwise.
“So in terms of the basic parameters of the length of the product and the dimensions, we kind of had that already. The next step was just to do a 3D scan and really map the forearm and allow us to create that surface that is truly his.”
By building extensions right up to the limits of the UCI specifications, Sync can help get the most out of a rider’s TT position. After all, airflow over the rider is responsible for more than 70% of the aero drag of the bike-and-rider system, so getting the position dialled, right up to the legal limit, is well worth doing.
After designing the Evo Pro Ti in CAD, Sync then worked with a 3D-printing company in Melbourne to build the parts (and in case you’re wondering: no, it wasn’t Bastion). The design went through a raft of iterations – Ballhause has lost count of the number – with Plapp trialling two plastic-printed versions before switching to titanium.
That Ti version he rode at Nationals was the first one printed. It came off the printer less than a week before Plapp’s time trial.
“The bike wasn’t built until 1 o’clock Sunday night,” Ballhause says. “So it was all very last-minute pulling it together. But everything is identical in terms of measurements – saddle position, where the arm cups are relative to the seat, where the end of the extension is, the angle of the grips – all that’s the same as what he’s ridden until this. The only change is he’s now got support for his forearm.”
And ultimately that’s the main thing the Evo Pro Ti does differently – it provides support for the length of the forearm, rather than support at just the arm cups and then at the shifters. And having the rider’s forearm recessed slightly within the concave bar extensions makes the system more aero.
“We now have one structure that the air is flowing over – the extension and the forearm is now one structure as opposed to there being two distinct structures,” Ballhause explains. “If you look at a traditional setup, it’s an extension and then a forearm – two round objects passing through the air, both pretty inefficient.
“Because we’re engineering that structure from the ground up, we can then control the shape of it as well. So it’s not just a round tube passing through the air anymore – it’s an airfoil shape.”
Sync is yet to aero test Plapp’s setup, but Plapp’s teammate Tom Benton (fifth in the U23 time trial and winner of the U23 road race) was running his own Evo Pro Ti extensions at Nationals and Sync has tested that setup on the velodrome.
“We use some software that allows us to calculate CdA [drag area] for the system – bike plus rider – based off how fast they’re going, how much power they’re pushing, and the air density at the time,” Ballhause says.
According to Sync’s calculations, the Evo Pro Ti offers an equivalent saving of around 13-15 watts – a not-insignificant amount.
Frame and wheels
But there’s more to Plapp’s medal-winning bike than his bar extensions. For one, there’s that striking green and gold paint job.
“The frame was meant to be painted a long time ago, but obviously with so many delays last year with all the issues surrounding COVID and bike availability etc. we didn’t end up painting it until pretty late,” Ballhause said. “But basically the custom paint job is pretty much to say well done for winning National U23 [TT] champs last year.”
The bike itself, a size medium Giant Trinity Advanced Pro TT, came to Plapp through a relationship between Sync and Giant, and between Giant and Saint Cloud, the Melbourne bike shop that supports Plapp.
“The CADEX wheels, that again is just part of that relationship with Giant so they were able to supply these wheels for this event,” Ballhause adds. “They’re actually pretty hard to get a hold of – they’re the clincher version of these wheels and that’s what we wanted to use. They were able to ship those out from Europe in time for the race.”
Choosing clinchers gave Plapp and his support team greater flexibility when it came to tyre choice. In the end they decided to take a punt on Veloflex’s new Record.
“They’re Veloflex’s latest time-trial tyre, which is just a superlight thin casing [with a] really, really thin coating of rubber on it,” Ballhause says. “Incredibly light, they’ve got really low rolling resistance – a lot lower than Vittoria’s time-trial tyre. But obviously the risk of that is a puncture. And on the Buninyong [Nationals] course, it was pretty much potholes that would be your main concern.
“If you hit a sharp square edge with that tyre, you question whether you’re going to get a cut in the tyre or potentially a pinch flat. So, yeah, those tyres and a combination of latex tubes creates something that’s fast.”
Plapp was running 85 psi in the front and 95 psi in the rear.
A few things stand out about Plapp’s drivetrain. First: the oversized jockey wheels. At Nationals Plapp was riding an all-black version of the SLF Motion Hyper Aero System; a green and gold version has since arrived and is pictured below.
“SLF [is] a company from the States that just does driveline systems, so larger pulley wheels,” Ballhause says. “Basically that reduces the bend of the chain, which is where you get [some] mechanical loss in the driveline. It just makes for a more efficient driveline. So combined with all the ceramic parts to go with it – ceramic jockey wheel bearings, ceramic hub bearings, ceramic bottom bracket – plus a treated chain, you end up with a very efficient driveline.”
When Ballhause says “treated chain”, he’s talking about a wax treatment.
“Molten Speed Wax is the lube of choice in this scenario,” he explains. “Molten Speed Wax plus they provide a powder that you can put on for race day which is just a Teflon and molybdenum disulfide combination that’s meant to be the fastest.”
If that SRM Origin chainring below looks big it’s because it is. Plapp was running a 58-44.
“It’s a 58 which was definitely needed on that course just with the tailwind section on the way out,” Ballhause says. “I’ve got a couple of other athletes that we work with [and] one was running a 55. [The] 55-11 was majorly spinning out down that section of the course.”
The cassette on the bike now is different to the one Plapp rode to victory at Nationals.
“We’ve changed that cassette over just because those wheels are now going to be used for a triathlon and we’ve changed the cassette to a 12-tooth smallest cassette cog,” Ballhause said. “Luke ran an 11-25 as opposed to the 12-25 that’s on there now.”
Other bits and pieces
Plapp’s saddle is a standard ISM PS 1.0 which Ballhause describes as “the go-to for almost everyone on a time-trial bike”.
“When you’re talking about aero position on a bike, you want to see a low torso angle,” Ballhause explains. “That’s one of the first steps. To do that you basically need the pelvis to tilt on the seat and pressure relief is how you do that. And the ISM is the only one that has a design that really facilitates that to the extremes that you need on a TT bike.”
One of the most interesting details of the build is the skewers.
“[These are a] nice little piece from a company called View-Speed in the States,” Ballhause says. “They’ve just done really nice aero skewers for the past few years. Just a really nice, trick little part. Simple, does what it’s meant to do, low profile.”
And then there’s the nifty computer mount. The mount head is from a UK company called 76 Projects. Sync 3D-prints the arms for the mount so as to have control over the position of the computer.
A fast package
Plapp’s bike has got plenty of people talking in recent weeks, but it’s those titanium bar extensions that have attracted the most attention. Ballhause says he’s got a list of amateur athletes interested in getting their own – despite the current AU$6,000 price tag – and likewise a handful of WorldTour riders. Sponsorship arrangements at the highest level of the sport might make things tricky for those top riders though.
For Ballhause, Plapp’s bike is a demonstration of the ‘marginal gains’ philosophy in action.
“When you add all those little pieces up, you end up with a significant advantage,” he says. “Whether it’s things like the aero skewers or use of ceramic bearings or treatment process for a chain or an oversized pulley-wheel system, by the time you add all those gains up, you end up with something meaningful.
“We don’t have the most resources but if a small company like ours can develop equipment for an athlete that wins Nationals by a minute, there’s no reason why teams with far greater resources can’t do it,” Ballhause adds. “They just need the right people involved in the process. You can’t just throw a rider on a TT bike and expect them to perform.”
Frame: Giant Trinity Advanced Pro TT, size medium
Fork: AeroDrive TT Advanced grade composite fork
Wheelset: Cadex Aero Disc Tubeless (rear) + Cadex 4-Spoke Aero Tubeless (front), w/ceramic bearings
Shifters: Shimano Dura-Ace Di2, SW-R9160
Crankset: SRM Origin with SRM power meter, 44-58T
Bottom bracket: Kogel ceramic, BB86
Front derailleur: Shimano Dura-Ace Di2
Rear derailleur: Shimano Dura-Ace
Jockey wheels: SLF Motion Hyper Aero System
Cassette: Shimano Dura-Ace 11-25
Chain: Shimano Dura-Ace with Molten Speed Wax treatment
Brakes: Shimano Dura-Ace Di2, ST-R9160
Tyres: VeloFlex Record Open Tubular 23 mm
Handlebar: Giant Trinity Composite Basebar
Handlebar extensions: Sync Ergonomics EVO PRO Ti
Stem: AeroDrive TT
Seatpost: Giant Trinity Composite
Bar tape: Sync Ergonomics TT grips
Saddle: ISM PS 1.0
Pedals: Shimano Dura-Ace
Skewers: View-Speed Series 4 aero skewers
Computer mount: 76 Projects Modular TT head, Sync Ergonomics custom mounts for EVO PRO TI extensions