Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Interview with TorHans: We'll Make You Faster

As a pilot for Southwest Airlines, Hans Bielat knows a thing or two about aerodynamics. Lucky for us, he also happens to be a bike geek who has applied his knowledge to the world of triathlon. The company is TorHans, and they promise to make that bike of yours even faster.

Tell us the TorHans story… what’s the history of the company?

I’ve basically been a bike geek since my days racing competitively as a teenager. My best event was the time trial… I loved everything about it. I got away from racing while going to school to pursue aviation, but remained a cycling enthusiast. I became a pilot, and the aviation geek in me was always reading about aviation, whereas the bike geek in me was always checking out what was new in the cycling world.

I’ve been friends with Jim Felt (legendary leader of Felt bikes) for 20 years. He sponsored me when I was racing as a young pro, and even custom made my bike for me. Several years later I caught the triathlon bug. One thing I immediately noticed was that triathletes were taking these great bikes, with great airfoil shapes, and putting all kinds of crap on their frames, bottles behind the bike, carrying 84 oz of hydration when there was an aid station every few miles, etc. I asked Jim directly, “why are they doing this?” Jim said I should do something about it, and I said “well, I just have ideas, I don’t know what to do with them!”

I got a tri bike and started to look at products that claimed to be “aero,” but I knew the shapes were all wrong. I thought to myself, “we can do better.”

I’ve known Tor my whole life, and he moved from California to Bend, OR as I did. He’s an entrepreneur and a brand builder who has worked with Fortune 500 companies. I told him some of my ideas, and we went to work. We started with, “how can we eliminate all drag associated with hydration if we were to make it perfect?” That was the blank slate template we used, and the Aero 30 was our first design born from this question.

Armed with some prototypes, we went to the low speed wind tunnel in San Diego with Felt for some testing, and the results were, “wow, we really need to make this a product!” It was better than anything else on the market. Two-time former IM World Champion Tim DeBoom was a Felt sponsored athlete, and for his last year at Kona in 2010 we put a prototype of the Aero 30 on his bike a few days before the race.
We also talked to Chrissie Wellington, who really liked the Aero 30, but told us she didn’t like to carry that much fluid on the front of her bike. From that we designed our next product, the Aero 20, which holds 22 oz. We put an elliptical front end on it, tested it in the tunnel and got great results. We sent it to Chrissie, who said it was exactly what she was looking for. We were happy to play a small role in her 8:18 domination at Challenge Roth shortly thereafter.

Since those early days, we’ve been continually growing as a company and a brand.

So Tor + Hans = TorHans, but what about Kevin? Just didn’t have a nice ring to it? What are your respective roles within the company?

I handle product development. Just like any tri enthusiast, I want the best equipment I can have and can afford that will give me the biggest gain. It starts with asking “what products are needed?” My role is to see the products through, from development until they hit the shelf.

Tor focuses on our branding, design work, promotional materials, website, etc. As I mentioned previously, this is his area of expertise.

Kevin has tons of experience in the bike industry and is a racer himself. He played a huge role in setting up our distribution network. He’s currently the president of Electra Bicycles, recently purchased by Trek, and now helps us as an external consultant.

Are aerodynamics just in your blood? How has being a pilot carried over to TorHans?

Yeah, I’ve always been fascinated with aerodynamics. At TorHans, we’re constantly working to eliminate drag, just like bike and wheel manufacturers. For a triathlete, the biggest opposing factor to moving forward is drag. It’s the biggest force, so if we can eliminate things that don’t need to cause drag, such as hydration, we do it. That’s our job. In aviation the term “parasitic drag” is used, meaning unnecessary things that cause drag. I look at a bike and think “what can we possibly hide or blend into the bike to make it go away?” Little things can accumulate to make a real difference, and aviation plays a big role in why our products are the way they are.

If you look verrry closely you might see Hans waving from the cockpit

What differentiates TorHans from the competition?

Simply put, we use proven aerodynamic principles to make the best shapes possible. I can’t say the same about other hydration products out there, that often rely on unproven studies or claims. For example, one study was done in 2011 that said a horizontal bottle between the arms (BTA) was the most aerodynamic hydration system. But ask yourself, is a cylinder an aero shape? The answer is absolutely no. I’ve never seen those results repeated in any test… I don’t know how they got the data. Yet many of our competitors took that study and ran with it. You can’t arbitrarily say that a bottle between the arms is fast. There are a lot of variables… do you have big arms? Do your hands effectively “hide” the bottle or is it exposed? etc, etc.

At TorHans, we go by what we know about aerodynamics to make something faster. To be honest, we have gotten on board with a BTA system as an option for people, but only by doing it our way and creating the fastest version on the market. After two years developing the Aero Z, we tested it and it did better than the competition in the wind tunnel. The three competing BTA systems on the market today all use a standard cage. When we looked at that, the system started to lose its airfoil shape, meaning airflow detaches from the unit. Instead, we designed it to fit into our existing mount, in a much more airfoil shape. Also, ours is the only system that is “gravity fed,” meaning fluid comes out the bottom of the bottle as opposed to the top. It’s unlike any other.

That said, will you see a BTA system on Starky’s (uber-biker pro triathlete Andrew Starykowicz) bike? No, because from wind tunnel testing we know the Aero 30 gives that bike negative drag because it blends in with rider and bike so well. We know that Starky saves 7.5 watts by having the Aero 30 on his bike vs. nothing at all! That’s what I mean by negative drag. A BTA system at best can be invisible, with maaaybe a slight negative drag in some cases. It really depends on the bike and rider. That’s the cool thing about aerodynamics in this sport… the savings is quantifiable. I personally think that First Endurance Optygen makes me faster, but I can’t quantify it. On the other hand, we can tell our athletes precisely how much faster we’re making them. It’s pure math.

Starky at Kona with the TorHans Aero 30 and VR Series bottle

If you prefer a BTA system, I will say with confidence that the fastest out there is the TorHans Aero Z. I’ll gladly give one to anyone who wants to test it in the wind tunnel for themselves.

Can you give us some insight into the product development process at TorHans?

Initial renderings are done in 2D, then brought to life with CFD software. CFD really changed the industry in the mid 2000’s, when the “superbikes” started popping up. It’s pretty safe to say that every major bike manufacturer these days has a very knowledgeable aerodynamicist. If you don’t, you will get left behind. We have one as well, allowing us to optimize our products before they’re built. With CFD you can actually see the airflow… it’s incredible. Wind tunnels are great for data, but you can’t visibly see the airflow. Also, by the time you go to the wind tunnel, you already have a product. Another engineer does CAD (design) work for us to make the actual shape, and we then create prototypes before manufacturing on a larger scale.

How do you use feedback from athletes you sponsor?

We have great friendships with all our athletes and value all of their feedback. For example, we’ve had the longest relationship with (Luxembourg pro) Dirk Bockel, and he’s just a great, great guy. Early on he experienced some splashing with the Aero 20 and Aero 30, so we re-designed them to be much more splash resistant. It was great feedback that we acted on. We also had a prototype Aero Z ready to go on his bike at Kona. But with the material of the prototype, we just didn’t feel comfortable using it in the heat. We got one drop of splash in testing, and Bockel said, “you’ve just gotta put a door on it.” We initially didn’t want to, as we thought we’d lose aerodynamics, but we thought “this is Dirk Bockel here!” We went back to our engineers, and said “ok, we’re not gonna launch (the Aero Z) in Jan 2014. How can we incorporate a completely sealed door, so you can throw it 30 yards in a spiral without a drop, yet without losing any aerodynamics?” It wasn’t easy, but we’re now preparing to launch it 9-10 months later. Dirk was a big factor, and it’s now as perfect as it can get.

What’s the nature of your partnerships with bike manufacturers?

Have you ever seen a BASF ad? “At BASF, we don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” We’re kinda like that… we don’t make the bikes, we make the bikes faster. Companies come to us asking how they can make a fast bike faster. In a couple years you’ll start seeing TorHans products included on bikes OEM. For now we sell after market, but often partner with bike companies on specific projects. For example, the Aero Bento began as a project with Cervelo. It was going to come OEM with the P5 until someone found an arcane law from the 1970’s stating that nothing can come on the top tube of a bike for “safety reasons.”

Our Felt partnership is ongoing, and the VR bottle got its start on Felt’s DA and B-series bikes. Felt was instrumental in the design. The bite valve, bottle, and holder are seamless, creating negative drag. There’s also no round, threaded cap and spout like most bottles, giving you 1-2 free watts. As another example, with its gravity fed design (liquid pulling from the bottom of the bottle as opposed to the top), the Aero Z will be able to directly fill the “bladder” of the Specialized Shiv. There are also new companies we can’t name that we’ll be doing cool projects for next year.

In summary, have you got a fast bike? Put our stuff on it, we’ll make it faster. We’re very transparent with our data, and we’ll show you how TorHans will make you faster at your next race!

Learn more about this awesome company at TorHans.com

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