Why Cyclists Care About Aerodynamics

Peter Glassford
by Peter Glassford
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Why Cyclists Care About Aerodynamics

Even if you aren’t trying to win a Tour de France time trial, air resistance accounts for much of the resistance you feel while riding. Finding ways to reduce the air you push around benefits all cyclists — even if they ride off-road or commute. In fact, the book “Faster” states that “at any speed above about 25 kph, half the resistance on a bike is aerodynamics. By 30 kph, it’s almost everything.”

If you think about it, that’s not super fast and doesn’t account for riding on windy days. This is why it matters to you: 25 kph (15.5 mph) is a speed recreational road riders will do for at least some of their ride. Even mountain and gravel riders get up to that speed frequently.

Given that you are going this fast, or faster, it might be time to think about your aerodynamic position, equipment and tactics.

THE AERO POSITION

Before you head out and start buying the most expensive aero gear, consider that your body catches a lot of wind, which means your body position matters.To get more aerodynamic, you can try to get smaller to reduce the area that catches wind. Most simply, you can lower your torso and narrow your hands on the bar.

Your mobility can limit how aerodynamic you can be. While riding in a low position, you are effectively touching your toes while pedaling hard. This extreme position puts high demands on your hamstrings and low back. Being effective in this lower position also requires you to develop a few different muscles, so make changes to your bike fit and position gradually.

To support your own progression, do your homework off-bike by incorporating some flexibility with yoga and some strength training to help you become more effective in, and adaptable to, different positions.

To tweak your position for a triathlon or other endurance events like gravel-grinders, you might use an aero-bar, while road riders might grab the drop portion of their handlebar. Even narrowing your hands on a mountain bike can be hugely beneficial. To go further, get a bike-fit to optimize your saddle and bar position to optimize your power production, comfort and aerodynamics for your goals.

BENEFITS OF DRAFTING

You likely won’t be surprised to hear drafting can save you a ton of work. Simply riding in the group and staying close to the rider ahead of you can save around 40% of your effort. However, drafting well is a skill that takes practice and comes with risks. Getting instruction on drafting, group-riding skills and cycling tactics from an experienced road or track coach can be a very good way to gain efficiency and performance.

HAVING THE RIGHT GEAR

If you consider a boat’s sail catching wind, it makes sense that wearing tight clothing would catch less wind and help us cut through the wind. In “Faster,” author Michael Hutchinson says that, in terms of aerodynamics, your skinsuit matters more than your bike. For recreational riders who may not want to wear a tight skinsuit, this observation still informs our choice in rain coats, vests and everyday riding gear: Aim for gear that’s comfortable but fits snug.

With the advent of road aero helmets that have more vents and comfort, it is worth considering one the next time you are helmet shopping. Your head, and helmet, are a big part of what hits the wind so optimizing it can have significant benefits. Other spots where you can gain or lose aerodynamic advantages is in bottle cages and in trying to downsize accessories — lights, bells, pumps, tools, etc. — on your bike that can increase the wind you catch.

More expensive changes that can influence aerodynamics include deep-section wheels, clip-on aero bars for longer endurance rides/events and even an aero bike frame. While these pricier changes can make a difference, the positional, accessory and setup tweaks mentioned above are the way to start.

About the Author

Peter Glassford
Peter Glassford

Peter is a cycling coach and registered kinesiologist from Ontario, Canada. He travels frequently to work with athletes at races, camps and clinics. He also races mountain bikes for Trek Canada and pursues adventure in all types of movement. Follow @peterglassford on Twitter, or check out his online and in-person coaching at www.smartathlete.ca.

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