So far this series of article has explored to the time of year, wind and weather conditions when riders have set their best times on the Strava leaderboard, using the popular Tour of Richmond Park segment as a case study. This blog considers how the attributes of the cyclist affect the time to complete a segment. The most important components are power, bodyweight and aerodynamic drag area or CdA. Your best chance of picking up a KOM is to target a segment that matches your strengths as a cyclist.
A power curve plots the maximal power a cyclist can sustain over a range of time periods. Ideally, the curve is plotted from the results of a series of maximal effort tests performed over times ranging from 5 seconds to an hour. Alternatively, Strava Premium or software such as Training Peaks or Golden Cheetah can generate power curves from a history of power data files. Power can be expressed in Watts or in Watts per kilogram, as in the example below.
The shape of the power curve reveals a lot about the characteristics of the cyclist. Dr Andrew Coggan explains how this information can be used to define a cyclist’s individual power profile. In the chart above, the 5 minute and functional threshold (1 hour) Watts/kg rank more highly than 5 second and 1 minute figures, indicating that this cyclist can generate fairly high power for long periods, but has a relatively weaker sprint. For a heavier rider this profile would be consistent with a time trialer, who can generate a high absolute number of Watts, whereas a light rider with this profile may be a better climber, due to a good sustainable power to weight ratio.
If you have a power meter or access to a Wattbike, it is well worth gathering this data for yourself. It can help with training, racing or selecting Strava segments where you have the best chance of moving up the leaderboard.
The power required to maintain a constant speed, V, needs to balance the forces acting on a rider. Aerodynamic drag is due to the resistance of pushing the rider and bike frame through the air, with some additional drag coming from the rotating wheels. Drag can be decreased by reducing frontal area and by adopting a streamlined shape, while wearing a skinsuit. Additional mechanical factors are due to gravity, the rolling resistance of the tyres on the road surface and drive chain loss.
Power = Drag Factors * V3 + Mechanical Factors * V
Since the power needed to overcome aerodynamic drag scales with the cube of velocity, it is the dominant factor when riding fast on flat or downhill segments. However, on a climb, where speed is lower, the power required to do work against gravity quickly becomes important, especially for heavier riders.
Consider a rider weighing 60kg, call him Nairo, and another weighing 80kg, say Fabian. Suppose they are cruising along side by side at 40kph. Under reasonable assumptions, Fabian rides at 276 Watts or 3.4 Watts/kg, while Nairo benefits from a smaller frontal area and lower rolling resistance, requiring 230 Watts, though this equates to 3.8 Watts/kg. Reaching a 5% hill, they both increase power by 50%, but now Nairo is riding at 27kph, dropping Fabian, whose extra weight slows him to 26kph. You can experiment with this interactive chart.
Climbers are able to sustain high force on the pedals, taking advantage of their ability to accelerate quickly on the steepest slopes. Time trialers generate high absolute power for long periods, on smoother terrain, while maintaining an aerodynamic tuck. Sprinters have more fast-twitch muscle fibres, producing extremely high power for short periods, while pedalling at a rapid cadence.
The following chart shows the gradient and length of 1364 popular Strava segments from around Britain. Distances range from 93m to 93km, with an average of 2.3km. Gradients are from 21% downhill to 32% uphill (Stanwix Bank Climb).