The Science of Aerodynamics in Road Cycling: Go Faster

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Ashley Brown

Cycling Techniques, Other

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As a passionate road cyclist myself, I am always on the lookout for ways to improve my performance and shave seconds off my personal bests. One aspect of cycling that has always intrigued me is the science of aerodynamics, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. In this blog post, we’ll dive into the world of aerodynamics, explore the science behind it, and provide actionable advice to help you improve your aerodynamic efficiency and ultimately, your cycling speed. So, let’s get started!

Understanding the Basics of Aerodynamics in Cycling

Aerodynamics is the study of how air flows around objects, and when it comes to cycling, the main force we’re concerned with is drag. Drag is the resistance an object encounters as it moves through the air, and in road cycling, it accounts for about 70-90% of the total resistance faced by the cyclist. Reducing this air resistance (or drag) can lead to significant improvements in speed and efficiency.

Let’s take a look at the best ways we can reduce air resistance as we cycle along.

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The Importance of Body Position

When it comes to improving aerodynamics, body position is key. A study in 2018 demonstrated that the optimal body position could reduce the drag experienced by a cyclist by up to 15%.

Here are some actionable tips to help you find the most aerodynamic position:

  • Lower your upper body: By lowering your torso and getting into a more horizontal position, you can significantly reduce your frontal area, which in turn reduces drag. An easy way to achieve this is by bending your elbows and resting your forearms on the handlebars, similar to the position used in time trials. Just make sure you practice this position on safe roads, as it can be less stable and requires more control
  • Tuck in your elbows: By keeping your elbows close to your body, you can further reduce your frontal area and streamline your body. When I first tried this, I noticed an immediate difference in how the wind felt against my body – again, though, this adjustment makes you less stable, so it’s important to test it out from traffic and other cyclists first
  • Tighten up your clothing: Loose and flapping clothing can generate additional drag, so make sure you wear well-fitting, streamlined cycling apparel such as form-fitting cycling jackets and bib shorts
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The Role of Bike Setup and Equipment

Besides body position, the bike and its components can also play a significant role in your overall aerodynamics. Here are some equipment and bike setup tips that can help you become more aerodynamic:

  • Upgrade to an aero road bike: While they may be more expensive, aero road bikes are designed with aerodynamics in mind, featuring tube shapes that reduce drag and improve airflow. If you’re serious about improving your aerodynamics, it might be worth considering the investment – see if you can test one out first (either via a bike store or your local cycling club) before you commit to purchasing one for yourself
  • Use deep-section wheels: Deep-section wheels, also known as aero wheels, can improve your aerodynamics by reducing the air turbulence generated by the spokes. A study in 2014 found that aero wheels could save up to 60 seconds over a 40-kilometer time trial – a massive saving
  • Install aero handlebars: Aero handlebars can help you achieve a more aerodynamic position, reducing your frontal area and drag – these automatically bring your torso down and your elbows in as we discussed earlier. I remember when I first installed aero bars on my bike – I felt like I was flying!
  • Choose aero helmets: Aero helmets are designed to reduce drag by smoothing the airflow around your head. Some models also feature built-in visors, which can further reduce drag by eliminating the need for sunglasses
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Adopting an Aerodynamic Riding Style

Beyond equipment and body position, there are other ways to improve your aerodynamics through your riding style:

  • Ride in the drops: Riding in the drops (the lower part of the handlebars) puts you in a lower, more aerodynamic position compared to riding on the hoods. It’s especially beneficial when riding into a headwind or at high speeds. I’ve found that I can maintain a faster pace with less effort when riding in the drops and it’s great to use in a headwind as reduced drag makes it much less tiring
  • Drafting: Drafting is the practice of riding closely behind another cyclist to take advantage of the reduced air resistance in their slipstream. This can result in significant energy savings – up to 30% according to one study. Just make sure you’re comfortable riding close to others and always communicate your intentions clearly – drafting is inherently more dangerous than riding spaced further apart, so it’s best to practice this with cyclists who you ride regularly with
  • Smooth cornering: Maintaining a smooth line through corners can help maintain your momentum and reduce the need to accelerate back up to speed, which requires extra energy. Focus on looking ahead, leaning into the corner, and smoothly applying the brakes and pedaling as needed
  • Pacing: Pacing is crucial in road cycling, especially when it comes to improving your aerodynamics. By maintaining a steady pace and avoiding unnecessary accelerations and decelerations, you can conserve energy and maintain a more efficient, aerodynamic position
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Training for Aerodynamic Efficiency

Finally, don’t forget that improving your aerodynamic efficiency also requires training and practice. Here are some ideas to help you train for better aerodynamics:

  • Time trial simulations: Incorporate time trial simulations into your training, where you maintain an aerodynamic position for a set distance or duration. This will not only help you get comfortable in the position but also improve your ability to maintain it during actual races
  • Wind tunnel testing: While it may be costly and not readily accessible for everyone, wind tunnel testing can provide valuable insights into your aerodynamics and help you identify areas for improvement. If you have the opportunity to try it, it’s worth considering
  • Group rides: Participating in group rides can help you practice drafting and riding in close proximity to other cyclists, which can ultimately improve your aerodynamic efficiency in races
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Analyzing and Optimizing Your Aerodynamics with Technology

In today’s digital age, technology can also play a significant role in helping you analyze and optimize your aerodynamics. Here are some tech tools you can use to your advantage:

  • Power meters: By using a power meter, you can measure your power output (in watts) and analyze how changes in your position, equipment, or riding style affect your efficiency. A lower power output at the same speed indicates improved aerodynamics and it’s very useful to be able to get this kind of data in real time (and make incremental adjustments to body position)
  • GPS and heart rate monitors: Combining GPS data with heart rate information can help you understand how different riding conditions, such as hills or headwinds, impact your aerodynamics and effort. Analyzing this data can help you make informed decisions about when to focus on aerodynamics and when to conserve energy
  • Video analysis: Recording your rides, either with an action camera or by having a friend film you, can provide valuable visual feedback on your body position and riding style. Reviewing the footage can help you identify areas where you can improve your aerodynamics. Make sure you get footage of yourself from different angles – for example, side-on tells you if your torso is at the right angle, whereas front-on tells you if you have your elbows tucked in tight
  • Virtual wind tunnel apps: Some apps, such as AeroLab Tech and Notio, can provide real-time aerodynamic data by using sensors mounted on your bike. These apps can help you test different positions and equipment setups without the expense of wind tunnel testing
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The Mental Aspect: Embracing the Aero Mindset

Finally, it’s essential to embrace an “aero mindset” when trying to improve your aerodynamics. This means consistently focusing on your body position, equipment choices, and riding style, even when you’re not racing. Here are some tips to help you develop this mindset:

  • Visualize success: Imagine yourself riding with perfect aerodynamics, cutting through the wind with ease. Visualization can help you internalize the ideal body position and movements, making it easier to execute them on the bike
  • Set goals: Establish specific, measurable goals related to improving your aerodynamics, such as achieving a particular time on a favorite route or maintaining a certain speed in a headwind
  • Learn from others: Observe and learn from cyclists with excellent aerodynamics, either in person or by watching professional races. Take note of their body positions, equipment choices, and riding styles, and try to incorporate these elements into your own riding
  • Celebrate progress: Acknowledge and celebrate the progress you make in improving your aerodynamics, no matter how small. This will help reinforce your commitment to becoming more aerodynamically efficient

By incorporating these tips and adopting an aero mindset, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a more aerodynamic, faster, and more efficient cyclist. Remember, improving your aerodynamics takes time and practice, but with dedication and focus, you’ll see the results in your riding and racing performance. As Maverick once said, “I feel the need – the need for speed!”

The Science of Aerodynamics in Road Cycling: How to Go Faster

Body Position

Maintain a low, streamlined position with elbows tucked in, knees close to the top tube, and head low

Bike Components

Choose aero handlebars, deep-section wheels, and an aero frame to reduce air resistance

Clothing

Wear tight-fitting, aerodynamic clothing and an aero helmet to minimize skin friction drag

Group Riding

Take advantage of drafting by riding closely behind other cyclists to reduce drag and conserve energy

Wind Conditions

Adapt to wind conditions by maintaining a low position in headwinds and leaning slightly into crosswinds

Equipment Maintenance

Keep your bike clean and well-maintained to reduce skin friction drag and ensure optimal functioning

Aerodynamic Trade-offs

Balance the pursuit of aerodynamic gains with potential impacts on power output, comfort, and handling

Advanced Testing

Utilize technologies like Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), wind tunnel testing, and velodrome testing to optimize aerodynamics

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