A recently published paper provides a useful review of competition cycling aerodynamics. It looks at the results of a wide range of academic studies, highlighting the significant advances made in the last 5 to 10 years.
The power required to overcome aerodynamic drag rises with the cube of velocity, so riding at 50km/h takes almost twice as much power as riding at 40km/h. At racing speed, around 80% of a cyclist’s power goes into overcoming aerodynamic drag. This is largely because a bike and rider are not very streamlined, resulting in a turbulent wake.
The authors quote drag coefficients, Cd, of 0.8 for upright and 0.6 for TT positions. These compare with 0.07 for a recumbent bike with fairing, indicating that there is huge room for improvement.
Wind tunnels, originally used in the aerospace and automotive industries, are now being designed specifically for cycling, though no specific standards have been adopted. These provide a simplification of environmental conditions, but they can be used to study air flow for different body positions and equipment. Mannequins are often used in research, as one of the difficulties for riders is the ability to repeat and maintain exactly the same position. Some tunnels employ cameras to track movements. Usually a drag area measurement, CdA, is reported, rather than Cd, thereby avoiding uncertainty due to measurement of frontal area, though this can be estimated by counting pixels in a image.
One thing that makes cycling particularly complex is the action of pedalling. This creates asymmetric high drag forces as one leg goes up and the other goes down, resulting in variations of up to 20% relative to a horizontal crank position.
Cycling has been studied using computational fluid dynamics, helping to save on wind tunnel costs. These use fine mesh models to calculate details of flow separation and pressure variations across the cyclist’s body. The better models are in good agreement with wind tunnel experiments.
Cycling speed is a maximum optimisation problem between aerodynamic and biomechanical efficiency
Ultimately, scientists need to do field tests. The extensive use of power meters allows cyclists to experiment for themselves. The authors provide two practical ways to separate the coefficient of rolling resistance, Crr, from CdA. One based on rolling to a halt and the other using a series of short rides at constant speed.
Minimising aerodynamic resistance through rider position is one of the most effective ways to improve performance among well-trained athletes
Compared with riding upright on the hoods, moving to the drops saves 15% to 20% while adopting a TT position saves 30% to 35%. Studies show quite a lot of variance in these figures, as the results depend on whether the rider is pedalling, as well as body size. The following quote suggests that when freewheeling downhill in an aero tuck, your crank should be horizontal (unless you are cornering).
Current research suggests that the drag coefficient of a pedalling cyclist is ≈6% higher than that of a static cyclist holding a horizontal crank position
The authors quote the figures for CdA of 0.30-0.50 for an upright position, 0.25 to 0.30 on the drops and 0.20-0.25 for a TT position. Variation is largely, but not only, due to changes in frontal area, A. Unfortunately, relatively minor changes in position can have large effects on drag, but the following effects were noted.
Broker and Kyle note that rider positions that result in a flat back, a low tucked head and forearms positioned parallel to the bicycle frame generally have low aerodynamic drag. Wind tunnel investigations into a wide range of modifications to standard road cycling positions by Barry et al. showed that that lowering the head and torso and bringing the arms inside the silhouette of the hips reduced the aerodynamic drag.
Bike frames, wheels, helmets and skin suits are all designed with aerodynamics in mind, while remaining compliant with UCI rules. Skin suits are important, due to their large surface areas. By delaying airflow separation, textured fabrics reduce wake turbulence, resulting in as much as a 4% reduction in drag.
In race situations, drafting skills are beneficial, particularly behind a larger rider. While following riders gain a significant benefit, it has been shown that the lead rider also accrues a small advantage of around 3%. It is best to overtake very closely in order to take maximal advantage of lateral drafting effects.
For a trailing cyclist positioned immediately behind the leader, drag reduction has been reported in the range of 15–50 % and reduces to 10–30 % as the gap extends to approximately a bike length… The drafting effect is greater for the third rider than the second rider in a pace-line, but often remains nearly constant for subsequent riders
For those interested in greater detail, it is well worth looking at the full text of the paper, which is freely available.