Turbo — Roka Viper Elite
This blog has not been much of a source for product reviews. But now I have a reason. Wait until you hear about my new swimsuit. It is a doozy.
As context, I really love my Kuota K-Factor. I’m devoted to the New Balance products and in the past year upgraded from the 1080s — a version of which I’ve been wearing for half a dozen years — to the slimmer, sleeker 890s. They also have tremendous customer service people who will engage with you on questions and quickly solve problems.
Like so many others, I ride with confidence on Continental 4000S tires and rely on Shimano components. I’ve been buying Giro helmets for a long time but I’m not wedded to the company so much as the stock at my local bike shop. The Aussies who make 2XU are behind my race kit and compression sleeves.
I’m on my second wetsuit. A few years ago I had to replace an aging Ironman branded suit and bought a nice fitting Blue Seventy Reaction longjohn.
For goggles, I vacillate between the gear from Speedo and TYR. I grew up on the no frills, no eye gasket “Swedish” goggles but learned early that any sort of contact in an open water setting is enough to deliver a black eye. Both Speedo and TYR make high quality products and they both are easily enough found at retailers everywhere.
For nutrition, I spent the better part of the last year switching over from Powerbar to Bonk Breaker because of my experience with the Whole30 challenge and because Bonk Breaker would be offered on course at WTC events. The year prior, I switched from Powerbar gels to Gu gels for the same reason. I ride with Perform for the same reason and when I don’t feel like all the sugar, I use Nuun.
Last month I made an impulse purchase. I called the people down in Texas at Roka Sports. I had read about their product development in a thread at Slowtwitch and had some questions of my own about the new speed suits — swim skins as they are called now — that they were preparing to market against a crowded field of products led by the TYR Torque, a product that I had long admired and coveted but could simply not get my head around buying.
We talked. A friendly guy named Michael answered questions on the textiles, on the bonding process, the lifespan, how they had tested the fabric and confidence in its durability, sizing and probably a couple of other topics. He may have thought I was not a prospective customer so much as an investigator. And then I made the purchase. It helped that I was preparing for the biggest race of the year at Lake Placid, it was infernally hot here at home and the water temperature at Mirror Lake was hovering around 76 and 77 degrees for days on end.
Impulse purchases are not my thing. I like to research, test, plan and anticipate my big gear purchases. I poke around and check dozens of product reviews. But I did it. In the intervening week, Michael-the-Roka-guy switched the delivery location for me so that it would go straight to Lake Placid and as sure as the sun rises in the east, the regional temperatures dropped in New England and we ended up with a wetsuit legal race with water temperatures at 73 degrees for race day. But I still wore the new Viper Elite for a practice swim on Friday before the race. My observations boil down to three:
1. Wow. It makes you feel like a human torpedo. If not like this guy:
Then at least like one of these things
2. It is tight. I mean really really tight. I have a men’s medium and out of the water I needed help with the zipper. I’m a shade under 6′ 2″ and was about 177 pounds. I’d say it fit like a glove but that doesn’t do it justice. Standing on shore, it felt like someone stood behind me and placed three fingers on either side of my neck and pressed the trapezius muscles down as hard as they could. The Roka team may have their reptiles mixed up because instead of a viper the suit is a constrictor. They should call it the Mamba or the Boa. However, as soon as I got in the water — the pressure was gone. In fact, I couldn’t feel a thing. It is as if these things are engineered for movement and flex and not for standing still. Once I started to swim, my shoulders, neck, arms — nothing was tight. When I got out I expected to see some red lines — rings around my legs and under the armpits — where the suit had constricted too much. Nothing to see. It was as if I had never worn it. Also, very important, while I couldn’t zip up on my own for that first swim I had no trouble unzipping myself once I got out of the water.
3. Swimming is a tactile and sensory activity. The feel matters a great deal. This suit feels awesome. The zipper is secure. The cuffs around the neck and arms are smooth. The legs are just the right length so as not to mess with flexion in the knee or pinch around the quadriceps. To the touch, the fabric feels sturdy and not like it is ready to rip or tear. Once in the water and after a few drills, I did some pick ups.
My read is that the suit operates much like a deep dish wheel. It will help you go faster — less work for speed — from a moderate pace to a good pace. But the real value is the energy savings from going from a good strong pace to a fast pace and then staying in the zone of that fast pace. On wheels, you can feel the difference of an 808 going from 15 mph to 20 mph but they are really valuable for when you accelerate from 20 to 25 and for the savings you get maintaining the 25 mph pace. The same principle applies here. The suit was really nice when I was playing around but when I put some power into the strokes and amped up my turnover, it was like my torso became a speedboat and someone had turned on a turbo charger.
Granted, I was fully tapered and it was early in the day. And, while I was shaved I had not actually shaved in about four days. Still, I cannot wait to actually put the suit to use in a race situation. I found myself actually hoping that the lake would warm up and that there would be no wetsuits. I was excited to turbo race in my new suit. Good on you guys at Roka: A great product at a price point well below the market.
By the way, I’d be remiss not to say that I’m at least a little bit partial to them because of the story behind the company. The founders were teammates and top notch swimmers at Stanford. I know that others do a lot of R&D with big time swimmers, but it seems to me that these guys at least know what they are putting together and how it affects the body in a firsthand way without being told by one of their test subjects no matter how famous that athlete is or will become.