Not many pro triathletes can make a bona fide claim to being a technological innovator. T.J. Tollakson can. The Ironman Champion doesn’t tend to run with the conventional, but rather looks simply at how he can go faster. He spoke to us about his early (as in, preschool) roots in the sport, the game-changers in his dual careers, and building the superbike of the future.
Written By: Julia Polloreno
In 2008, T.J. Tollakson was living and training in Boulder, Colo., with Craig Alexander, gearing up for the biggest race of the year—Kona. A tinkerer by nature and engineer by trade, Tollakson was tooling around with an idea for an ultra-aero bike hydration system. Instead of trapping air at the biceps (what traditional hydration mounts do), this system would create a fairing to move air past the rider. Match that with an all-carbon composition, and it would be more aerodynamic than anything else on the market. He got to work, and his TricaeroTop (pronounced like the dinosaur) hydration system was ready to go in time for the world championship.
It became a pattern for Tollakson: 1. Use a piece of triathlon gear. 2. Realize shortcomings of said gear. 3. Invent better/faster/more aero iteration. Or, he’d just create an entirely original product that met an unanswered need. That’s how his most popular invention to date—the Hen House bike case—was born. Once bike fees jumped past a hundred bucks each way, he began searching in earnest for a way to bypass the charges. His solution: remove the fork and stash the frame in one bag and the wheels in another. His pro friends began asking him to make them cases, and the demand kick-started his company, Rüster Sports.
“Necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s really where the bike case came from,” says Tollakson. “I’ve always been very entrepreneurial, even as a kid, so it comes natural to me.”
Athletics, it seems, also came naturally to Tollakson. As a kid growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, he was immersed in soccer, wrestling, swimming and running. Like a lot of kids in Iowa, his sports hero was wrestling legend and coach Dan Gable. “When I think about growing up and learning things about sport and life, Dan Gable was such a big part of that,” says Tollakson, now 31. “He has three qualities that I admire most: persistence, aggression and perseverance. He’s still one of my biggest inspirations in life.”
Those qualities were already beginning to crystallize in Tollakson as a 4-year-old. That’s when he did his first triathlon at the local YMCA. The kids had to swim one length of the pool, ride a short obstacle course on their Big Wheel or tricycle and then run up a small hill to the finish line. While all the other kids were helped along by their parents, Tollakson insisted on swimming without any help—from Mom or water wings—and riding his two-wheeled bike without training wheels. He was adamant about doing it completely on his own. “I got crushed,” he says. “But I was super proud that I had done a triathlon.”
PHOTOS: Behind The Scenes With T.J. Tollakson
Tollakson raced a couple IronKids triathlons in junior high, and as a high school freshman started an annual tradition with his cousin and sister of doing a local Olympic-distance race as a relay team. He did the run leg, and at the time couldn’t fathom the idea of all-out racing each of the three disciplines as a single event. In July 2001, as a sophomore at the University of Iowa, he tackled a solo sprint and finished third in his age group.
“Early on, every race was pretty similar to that first race,” says Tollakson. “I’d lead out of the water, get totally whupped on the bike, then run myself into the top five.” Despite his weakness on the bike, he kept at it, competing on the college tri team and surprising himself with a top-20 finish at collegiate nationals his senior year, in 2003.
A month later, he graduated with an industrial engineering degree and took a job at Alcoa, the world’s biggest producer of aluminum. His professional life was just getting started, but his triathlon career was already becoming a competing priority. Living in the Quad Cities area on the Iowa-Illinois border, he linked up with a group of experienced, highly competitive triathletes and resident tri guru Jeff Castro, his first coach whom he credits with turning his cycling around.
“I’d show up for group rides with Jeff and the group, and whenever these guys would accelerate really fast I couldn’t do it—I would get shelved,” says Tollakson. “All I did was ride around in my small chainring at 100 RPM. Jeff told me I had to spend two months riding only in my big ring; he didn’t care how steep a hill was. I learned how to keep up with the group that way.” Another training tactic that transformed his riding was VO₂max interval training. For three solid months, three days a week Tollakson rode for an hour doing five minutes at full intensity followed by five minutes of rest. “I can’t tell you what that did for my cycling ability,” he says. I couldn’t break an hour in a 40K and a few months later I was riding sub-55.”
The big breakthrough race came in 2004, at the age-group world championship in Portugal. His goal was a top-10 finish, and he finished third. “It absolutely blew my mind,” he says. He followed that by winning the amateur division at the Memphis in May and Chicago triathlons and taking the overall title at the 2004 age-group nationals. Soon after, Tollakson was invited to train at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., an opportunity he jumped at. Two weeks in, he broke his collarbone in a crash on the center’s criterium course, and he packed his bags for home. He rehabbed, and once healed decided to return to the training center and took an extended leave of absence from work. He never returned.
Today his job—“more like a hobby,” he says—is running Rüster Sports (the name alludes to the farm rooster and the company motto of “rise and shine”), though he considers triathlon his primary profession. Still, he’s pouring a lot of energy into developing his own bike brand, Dimond, set for launch in 2013. Tollakson raced on the prototype he made—a modified, all-carbon Zipp 2001 frame minus a seatstay and seat tube—in Kona last year (he dropped out due to stomach issues), and he rode it at Ironman St. George and Ironman Lake Placid, his first Ironman win.
“I raced on a Zipp bike that was 15 years old but has also proven to be one of the most aerodynamic bikes ever made,” says Tollakson. “I’m trying to push the envelope a little further and make a bike frame that’s super aerodynamic. When people look at the aero position that I ride, they think it’s radical and new, but if you look at a picture of Greg LeMond in the 1989 Tour de France, he was riding in the same position. By no means is it innovative—it’s more old-school than anything but proven effective.”
Between 1993 and 1997, Zipp made 100 of these limited frames. The Dimond follows the standard diamond geometry of most top-shelf tri bikes, but without the seat post it’s open in the rear and lacking the A-frame (hence the missing “A” in the bike name). It is 100 percent bare carbon—no slick paint job—and will come with an SRM power meter and top-of-the-line components, says Tollakson. He plans to make only 100 frames and sell them at the top end of the market, in the neighborhood of $12,000. The entire bike will be made in the USA—a fact that this Midwesterner takes deep pride in.
The Dimond garnered its fair share of double takes on the Ironman circuit in 2011, and its appearance always ignites chatter in online forums. Tollakson acknowledges that he’s earned a reputation as an out-of-the-box inventor (yes, those were jock cups propping up his elbows on his aerobar extensions at Lake Placid), but he knows it just comes with the territory when you’re an original thinker.
“I’m not afraid to buck conventionalism and conformity and just say, ‘Hey, I want to go as fast as I can and I want to use as much science and knowledge as I can to help me be faster,’” he says. “If that means looking goofy or riding something different, then so be it.”
While the Dimond is his main focus, Tollakson, who splits his time between Des Moines and Tucson, Ariz., with his wife, Ashley, an elite marathoner and attorney, has a host of other products in development. “Last summer I had a group of interns working for me, and I came up with 22 different inventions—most of them swim training devices and bike-related inventions for travel or performance use,” he says. “It’s a time-consuming process and some I’ll never make, but I hope to have some new designs for bike cases out this year, as well as some other products.”