Six ways to improve aerodynamics on the bike

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Six ways to improve aerodynamics on the bike

Sponsored by Sage One: Want to ride faster? Then you need to cheat the wind. Here a variety of ways that you can give mother nature the slip...

The single biggest factor stopping you from riding faster is you. Which you’d probably already guessed, to be honest. But it’s not actually in the way you think. While training will make you more powerful, the very best way to ride faster is to avoid the air.

On the flat, air resistance is the biggest boundary when you’re riding your bike. Actually, riding uphill air resistance is quite often the most prominent factor as well, and that only changes when the road becomes rather steep indeed.

What this basically means is that cheating the wind should one of your main goals as a cyclist if you want to ride fast and it’s why aerodynamics have become so crucial at the top level of professional cycling, from the rider down to the bike they’re riding and the kit they’re wearing. After all, it’s free speed (sort of), and who doesn’t want that? Here are a few ways you can cheat the wind.

Ride a time trial bike (or an aero road bike)

If you could transform into a Domenico Pozzovivo sized version of yourself that could produce the same power you do now, you’d immediately be faster, because you’d be less of a barrier to the wind. Mind you, if you could transform in to a Pozzovivo-sized person who can produce the same power as Pozzovivo, you’d be laughing. But since that’s not possible, a TT bike might be a good bet instead.

Aero road bikes like the new Trek Madone 9-Series are all the rage, designed to cut through the wind without resorting to a time trial bike

What you’re basically trying to achieve with a TT bike is a reduction in your frontal area. But a mistake some riders make is to inextricably equate that reduction with the idea that they have to be low to be fast. This is not necessarily the case. What you actually want is to be more compact. Think about it this way. If you customised a chin guard on your handlebars so you could ride with you chin at stem level (assuming you could still put out decent power that way), you’d think you’d be pretty darn aero. But if the trade off were that in order to ride in that position you’d have to have both arms straight out like you were flying you might really low, but your frontal area would still be reasonably large. And  you wouldn’t necessarily be any faster than in a conventional TT position.

And never forget, being aero on the bike is all about sustainability. Anyone can cram themselves into a super aero position for five minutes, but if you want to ride fast you need to be able to hold it for far longer.

If you don’t want to to full TT bike – and, unless you’re always riding time trials, that probably makes sense – you can always opt for the compromise that is an aero road bike. And it’s a proper compromise as well, not the sort of compromise like when you want to go for a ride and your partner doesn’t want you to, and you compromise by not going for the ride. Some of the latest aero road bikes, like the Trek Madone and Specialized Venge ViAS, are seriously fast to the point where they’re actually challenging TT bikes in the aero stakes. Of course, if your bike’s super aero but you’re flapping all over the top of it like a Voeckler on acid (which we’ll come on to), it might not do you any good.

Rumour has it you can also attach clip-on aerobars to your road bike if you want to get a little more aero without having to buy a new bike. But style-wise this is a really murky area and you’ll have to decide for yourself whether your really want extra speed that much…

Embrace bike fit

Of course, one of the best ways to improve your position on the bike is to have a bike fit. And bike fits aren’t just for aero gains, either. If you have any kind of issues – especially with pain or discomfort – a bike fit can be genuinely helpful when it comes to figuring out the causes and suggesting solutions. In his book, Bike Fit, British Cycling’s head physiotherapist, Phil Burt, identifies the three pillars of bike fit – aerodynamics, comfort and power – and a bike fit isn’t just about putting you in the right position on the bike, but for your specific goals.

A bike fit isn’t just about improving aerodynamics, but also your comfort and power. What takes priority depends on your goals

if you’re after improvements in aerodynamics, a bike fit – ideally one with a wind tunnel session if you can afford it – is a very useful tool. One of the big mistakes a lot of newer riders make is forcing themselves into too extreme a position too soon, and experiencing discomfort while riding as well as struggling to generate the same power they usually would, but a bike fit can help realistically marry your goals.

Think of a bike fit like this: remember that time you took your bike to the shop to get it fixed, and the mechanic stared back at you shaking his head through bleary eyes at your ‘workmanship’? A bike fit is like that, but for you rather than the bike. Seriously, though, it’s always helpful to have an extra opinion on many subjects, and doubly so if that opinion comes from an expert, and a top class bike fitter will be able to teach you a lot. What you get out of it, whether it’s comfort, more power or improved aerodynamics, depends on your goals.

Improve your flexibility

Whether it’s for time trials or road riding, flexibility is a really key factor for anyone who wants to ride fast. If you want to be able to contort your body into increasingly unnatural shapes to improve your aerodynamics and still pedal the bike efficiently and comfortably (and that’s the key), you’re going to need to be pretty flexible.

A regular stretching regime can help increase your flexibility and improve the position your can comfortably sustain on the bike. Compression socks are optional.

The good news is that this one’s free. You can work on your flexibility in the comfort of your living room by stretching, foam rolling or indulging in yoga or pilates. It might not be as fun as riding your bike, but you don’t have to do these for hours at a time, and they can make a real difference to your comfort on the bike, especially if your goal is to eventually have that sought after and oh-so-pro ‘slammed stem’ look (editor’s note: remember, how your bike looks should be a secondary consideration to how comfortable you are on it).

You know who I bet did flexibility work? Dave Zabriskie. And he’s easily one of the most aerodynamic Daves of all time. You don’t hold a TT position like that unless you work on it and, unfortunately, that sometimes means doing things you don’t necessarily want to do.

Buy some deep-section aero wheels

This is where the fun starts. Aero wheels can make you faster. We say ‘can’, because they’re not a quick fix for a lack of power. That one’s down to the rider.

Deep-section wheels won’t give you free speed, by virtue of the fact that you’re going to have to put your hand in your pocket, but they will help make the most of what you do have

Deep section wheels are not free speed. Mostly because they’re bloody expensive, but also because they’re aimed at increasing efficiency rather than actually making you a stronger rider. Basically, aero wheels help you make the most of what you have. So, if you’re riding along at, say, 40kph, it’ll be slightly easier to do so with a set of deep-section wheels on your bike than with a set of standard alloy clinchers. Alternatively, you should be able to hold a slightly higher speed at the same wattage with aero wheels than you can without.

For example, Zipp reckon you can save 80 seconds riding their 404 Firecrest wheels over 40km against a standard alloy clincher. That’s at 40kph and equates to a saving of 27 watts over the distance. Now of course, this relies on all other things being equal (wind angle, bike, etc) – and you being able to ride 40kph for an hour – but it’s still a pretty impressive time saving if you can afford it.

Complement those aero wheels with an equally aero helmet

Smoothing the air flow over your head is another factor that can make a noticeable difference in your aerodynamics on the bike. On a TT bike, of course, you’ll have a proper aero helmet that’ll both make you fast and also make you look a little strange.

Aero road helmets like the Giro Synthe are designed to improve aerodynamics without compromising comfort, weight or ventilation

But on road bikes, aero helmets have become all the rage in the last few years and pretty much every major manufacturer has a ‘aero road’ helmet out at the moment, designed to offer an aero advantage without necessarily compromising on comfort, weight or ventilation. Time savings for these vary comparatively widely, but Giro have stuck their necks out there and claim that the Synthe, reviewed here, offers 16 percent less drag than their Aeon road helmet.

Sure, that only means you’ll be 16 per cent faster if you upgrade to a Synthe from an Aeon, but the point is that you can get an appreciable difference by moving to an aero road helmet from your standard vented model.

Ride in a skin suit. Or at least in clothing that fits properly

Anything that flaps around on a bike is going to cause drag. It’s part of the reason you don’t see world class cyclists trailing banner ads behind them as they power round prologue courses. As much as the sponsors might like to see it, you’re not going to be winning a time trial with that setup.

Aero clothing isn’t just for time trial. Close-fitting clothing can make an appreciable difference to kit which flaps in the wins and acts like a sail (Pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

The same goes for clothing. A few years back it would have been unthinkable to see riders wearing skin suits in anything other than a time trial, but now Andre Greipel, Mark Cavendish et al wear skin suits on pretty much every stage they think they have a chance of winning as, like an aero helmet, aero clothing can make a real difference when the margins between winning and losing are so fine.

While most of us won’t fancy wearing skin suits unless necessary (and again, for time triallists they’re a must), clothing that fits properly can actually make a difference in more than just comfort. The goal is to have perfectly smooth airflow around your bike and body, and anything that disrupts said airflow just makes your life a little harder. Flappy clothing that acts like a sail is one of these things. Nail down your clothing choices and you’ll make your life easier.

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