Aerodynamic cycling – the secret and scientific of cycling speed

Aerodynamic cycling - the secret of cycling speed

The complete insider’s view of how aerodynamic cycling affects ride performance in this article!

The aerodynamics of an object is the way air flows around it and its potential resistance to surface friction and pressure drag. In essence, drag is a cyclist’s worst enemy.

In the modern cycling world, everyone is “getting aerodynamic.”

Much of the new cycling technology and discussion is about optimizing our bikes, bike or electric bike accessories, and position on the bike to minimize aerodynamic drag, saving some valuable power.

Moreover, the impact of aerodynamics on professional cycling tactics cannot be underestimated, and a great deal of rider behavior in large races is attributed to minimizing drag.

But what is drag? How much difference does aerodynamics actually make?

In this post, we’ll give you the complete inside scoop on getting aerodynamic cycling.

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    What is cycling resistance?

    Cycling resistance

    Resistance is the air-induced resistance to movement.

    But how does it happen? When you ride a bike in windless conditions, you move at a constant speed relative to the air.

    You are essentially moving directly into molecules in the air, causing them to either hit you and bounce off, or move around you.

    This creates two different types of resistance to your movement: pressure resistance and surface friction resistance.

    Pressure resistance

    For cyclists, this is probably the main form of resistance. Consider a cyclist riding through the still air.

    As their bodies, faces and bikes hit the air molecules, each individual molecule exerts a force in the front area of the bike system. Of course, each of these forces is tiny.

    However, when you add up the contribution of each particle, it simply doesn’t matter. This will result in higher air pressure in front of the rider’s front surface because the force per unit area is higher.

    These molecules will also move around the rider and bike, slowing them down, resulting in fewer particles in each area behind the rider. This results in lower pressure areas.

    Therefore, when there is a pressure difference between the front and back of the cyclist, pressure resistance is created.

    What is cycling resistance

    This difference in pressure creates resistance to the cyclist, which acts in the opposite direction to its movement direction and is known as pressure drag.

    Pressure resistance can be reduced in three ways:

    • Reducing the frontal area to the air
    • Reducing the rider’s speed
    • Making bicycles with specific shapes

    These methods optimize the flow of air around the bike, ensuring that molecules do not significantly slow them down as they travel around it.

    Surface friction

    As molecules move around the rider, they slide along the surface.

    This sliding action creates friction parallel to the rider’s sides, i.e. opposite the direction of movement.

    Surface friction resistance can be minimized by changing the bike frame materials used in the manufacture of the bike and the shape of the surface.

    This is why, for example, cyclists wear Lycra (which is extremely elastic and does not deform easily): to minimize the friction resistance of the skin. This is also why golf balls have dimples.

    How does aerodynamic cycling affect riding performance?

    As we talked above, the aerodynamics is the way air flows around it and its potential resistance to surface friction and pressure drag. And drag is a cyclist’s worst enemy.

    At speeds as low as 15 km/h (9 mph), drag has become the main resistance to the rider’s movement.

    At speeds above 40 km/h (25 mph), the percentage of drag resistance increases to 90%.

    Even at 20 km/h, more than half of the energy is used to overcome aerodynamic drag. This saves a lot of power!

    How does aerodynamic cycling affect riding performance

    That’s why we’ve seen such a shift in bike design philosophy: everyone now prioritizes the aerodynamic performance of their bikes.

    Even in the case of lightweight cycling climbing bikes, we have seen a shift towards improving their aerodynamic cycling qualities.

    In general, they offer far greater benefits than reducing weight or changing the mechanism of the bike.

    How do you get aerodynamic cycling?

    Obviously, as a cyclist, reducing drag is extremely important.

    But how do you actually do it?

    Gaining aerodynamic cycling power consists essentially of two parts: reducing the aerodynamic drag of the bike, and reducing the rider’s own aerodynamic drag.

    Aerodynamic bikes

    What does an aerodynamic bike look like? Aerodynamic road bikes are built with one thing in mind: minimizing drag.

    Aerodynamic road bikes are usually made of carbon fiber. Part of the reason for this is that carbon fiber bike is easier to form than other materials such as aluminum and steel, which must be pulled into tubes.

    To minimize pressure drag, an aerodynamic road bike will be as thin as possible, thus reducing its frontal area.

    Aerodynamic bikes

    These tubes are also often shaped like wings (airplane wings) to reduce the amount of deceleration of air molecules as they move along the surface of the bike, resulting in a smaller difference in pressure from front to back.

    In order to minimize surface friction resistance, aerodynamic road bikes are often textured on a microscopic scales so that they have less surface to apply friction to the air (like a golf ball with dimples, but to a lesser extent).

    Aerodynamic road bikes are so effective at reducing pressure drag that the main drag is actually surface friction drag, much like drag on a wing.

    Getting aerodynamic cycling

    How do you minimize rider resistance to yourself?

    By far, the rider’s aerodynamic qualities play the biggest role in reducing drag on the bike.

    In fact, about 80% of the drag on a bike comes from the rider’s body.

    This can usually be minimized in two ways:

    • Reducing skin friction through Lycra, using aero shoes and helmets, and shaving the legs (although the difference in this last one is very small).
    • Reducing pressure resistance through your position on the bike is by far the most important aspect of gaining aerodynamics.

    In fact, your performance can improve by up to 20% just by changing your position. That’s why it is so important to find the best riding position.

    Getting aerodynamic cycling

    In a time trial or race, for example, this is huge. In order to take an aerodynamic cycling position on the bike, you need to minimize your frontal area.

    The first step is to move your hand position from the bars or cowl to the sag. This will change your body position from basically upright to more folded.

    You can then try to keep your back as straight as possible. Also, if you want to get really aerodynamic, then you need to lower your head slightly.

    However, according to UCI, this is as far as you can safely go.

    How does aerodynamic cycling affect riding strategy?

    Many of the strategies involved in professional cycling are related to aerodynamics.

    If you are in a slipstream with another rider, then you will feel relatively less aerodynamic drag as you ride.

    This is effective because as the first rider moves through the air, they will be resisted by pressure.

    This means that the pressure behind them will be significantly lower, which is known as slipstream.

    As a result, the pressure resistance of the latter rider will be lower because the pressure in front of them is significantly lower.

    In fact, you can reduce aerodynamic drag by up to 50% by towing only one rider.

    Towing behind the main peloton results in even more dramatic gains, with drag reductions of up to 94%!

    We see this all the time in pro cycling, where some of the main riders will ride behind their team’s competitors to save energy.

    How does aerodynamic cycling affect riding strategy

    Team-mates at the front will rotate frequently to keep the lead cyclist at a high speed.

    Another example is at the end of a sprint. Sprint lead-outs are essentially where the rider takes the brunt of the resistance in order to allow the rider behind to conserve energy for a powerful acceleration in the sprint.

    In addition, on days with strong lateral winds, riders are often seen forming “echelons”.

    Here the group will position itself parallel to the wind (i.e. across the road) to protect the group leader from the worst of the strong lateral winds.

    One of the main situations where we see aerodynamics affecting cycling equipment is during time trials.

    Here, riders often use dedicated time trial bikes instead of road bikes to minimize drag on the bike.

    These are extremely aerodynamic road bikes, often with disc wheels that reduce surface friction on the wheels.

    In addition, one of the main factors that separates the best time trial cyclists from the rest of the professional cyclists is their ability to adopt and maintain an extremely aerodynamic position, which has a huge impact on their performance.

    Is aerodynamic cycling worth it?

    Is aerodynamic cycling worth it?
    Should you choose aerodynamic cycling?

    If you want to be faster: yes!

    Much of modern cycling is related to aerodynamics, and the quest for aerodynamics never ends.

    As technology continues to improve, drugs will be reduced even further, and the potential benefits are enormous.

    Therefore, no matter how serious a cyclist you are, it’s worth getting aerodynamic cycling! The ride will be faster for the same effort. Who wouldn’t want that?

    Chocolatezhu
    Chocolatezhu
    Hi, I'm an experienced writer about mechanic and an expert on bike and e-bike tech who appreciates practical, beautifully-engineered things. And of course, I love cycling.
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