The Relentless Pursuit of Cycling Aerodynamics – Part 1.
A version of this article was first printed in the April 2016 issue of
I just finished my afternoon bike fitting. While the shop is closing for the night soon, I find myself assembling a new aerobar for my track bike. Testing shows this aerobar is faster than my existing aerobar, but I plan on field testing it myself next month to find out if this is true for me. I won’t change my aerobar unless I prove it lowers my drag. It’s time consuming to setup, and I’ve been fussing with it for what seems like hours over the past week as every change requires disassembling it and reassembling it. It’s the Shimano Missile Evo aerobar, which is the only well-tested aerobar that satisfies my other position needs. There are aerobars that have tested faster, but they can’t be adjusted to match my position so they’ll ultimately slow me down. This is one of many areas I’ve been addressing trying to find a faster setup.
My whole 2016 racing season is geared around a 4 Km race at Elite Track Nationals in July and Masters Track Worlds in Manchester England in October. This past October I won the 40-44 3 Km Individual Pursuit at the UCI Masters Track Worlds. This was my highest athletic accomplishment ever. As I stood there with the Rainbow Jersey and gold medal around my neck I thought I was done chasing whatever it is I’ve been chasing and could ride off into the sunset with my family. The trouble is that my 3:27.1 finishing time is 2.1 seconds slower than the UCI 40-44 world record for that event.
My course model tells me setting a record would require 14 more watts. I’ve been doing this a long time and I know that I’m not getting 14 more watts out of this body in that event. This brings me back to working on this new aerobar and a number of other ideas. I’m looking at a pair of double disc Mavic Comete wheels sitting in the corner of the bike fit area. These wheels are the hands down top choice of all the fastest pro riders on indoor tracks. The wheels themselves may not be any faster than my Zipp 808-Disc setup I ran last year, but they allow me to run a 19mm tire that if pumped up to 210 psi will save me 2 watts through lower rolling resistance on a smooth wooden track compared to my tires last year. Did I mention I can’t even use these wheels or tires outdoors? The front disc will blow around in the wind too much, and the narrow tires are slower on concrete and pavement than the wider 23mm tires I ran last year.
I have new ceramic bearings for the bottom bracket of my track bike that took six weeks to order from Europe. Potential savings appear to be less than a watt over my existing bottom bracket, but every watt counts when you can’t make more yourself. I could lose double that time with a bad start, but the incremental gains add up. This new bottom bracket sure feels smooth when you turn it.
I ordered a skinsuit a size smaller than my suit from last year. I couldn’t put it on last time I tried but maybe with another cycling-only season my arms will be even skinnier this year and there’s a chance. A tighter suit will possibly squeeze my shoulders tighter together giving me a narrower profile. I’ve studied this in the mirror and field tested it as faster. It’s amazing how the different ways you press your hands on your extensions can change your shoulder profile. I could possibly tape my shoulders tighter together during trainer riders to make them narrower over time. Of course I’d never do that. Not me, never… Well, at least I’d test it first.
There are reports of athletes testing my same aero helmet in a velodrome faster with a visor despite my outdoor testing showing the visor didn’t matter. I know another athlete who tested slower with the visor. Thus the visor will be added to the long list of items to test and re-test this summer. There are also two new aero helmets I plan on testing. If I find a faster aero helmet I’m back to testing a number of other positions with it since helmet choice can impact what position is fastest. I’m trying to find aero socks similar to what Bradley Wiggins used on his Hour Record. Booties over my shoes actually increase my drag presumably by making my foot larger, yet fortunately aren’t allowed on an indoor velodrome anyway. Yes, I used the Speedplay aero pedals at worlds last year since I figured they couldn’t hurt – and the rubber aero cleats gave me the added bonus of not slipping when I walked up the smooth banked track to the starting gate.
After all these changes are made I’ll be spending every Saturday morning at my field testing venue all spring and summer. I can test up to seven setups or positions in less then an hour if weather and cars cooperate. I’ve field tested about 500 setups at this point so my protocol and results are pretty tight. So many of my tests lead to more questions of what else could be faster and the endless journey for free speed continues. Sometimes I don’t find any improvements – in fact the lower hanging fruit was picked years ago. That rare day I find something conclusively faster puts me in a great mood for a while. I’ll train all year to raise my power 1 watt, so if I can find many times that changing the height of my hands I’m ecstatic. I’ve found 15 watts in a single setup change on multiple occasions.
Would I be doing all this had I gone 2.1 seconds faster this past October? Well, maybe. OK, yes I definitely would since this is what I do every year. I enjoy the journey and quest for speed and incremental gains no matter how big or small they are. I’ve been on this same journey for a long time. While this opening is all about me, the instant I step into the shop it’s all about helping clients get faster and more comfortable on their setups.
So how does a former mechanical engineer find himself waking up early enough to ride his track bike decked out in full aero gear up and down a residential hill so many times that even parents of kids waiting for a school bus are asking what in the world I am doing? “Virtual elevation field testing for aerodynamics.” doesn’t seem to satisfy their curiosity. Maybe they’ll read this.
At 41 years old I look back twenty years at the 21-year old version of myself rowing at the Naval Academy. I got invited to a national team camp during the summer of 1996 and made the 8-man boat we sent to the U23 World Championships in Belgium. We won the gold medal after pulling through Russia in the last 100 meters of the race for the win. I’ll never forget that moment crossing the finish line and watching all the bodies in front of me collapsing, and yelling knowing we won. One guy was throwing up, so he had to wait a minute to celebrate. Little did I know this would be the high point in my rowing career; I ruptured discs in my lower back that fall and my rowing career ended.
The Navy kept me shore-based for my injury and I spent three years rehabbing my back through swimming and cycling before I could jog and finally run. I entered my first triathlon and was hooked. Suddenly I had a new outlet for all this obsessive behavior and drive. I purchased a power meter for my bike in 1999 after my experience with rower ergometers. No matter how much encouragement I gave, it was years before I ran into another cyclist or triathlete with a power meter.
As my back allowed my run form to go from bad to decent I was able to compete at higher levels in triathlons. In 2005 I got a pro triathlete license and enjoyed years of great regional showdowns with top New England triathletes. In 2006 I left the mechanical engineering job to open Fit Werx with Marty to follow my true passion of working with cyclists and triathletes every day in bike fittings. I’ve spent the last ten years doing over 3000 bike fittings with cyclists and triathletes from all over the world. In 2009 I raced in a regional sprint tri where all but two of the top ten finishers had done bike fittings with me. More importantly, half of the top 50 were fitting and/or bike clients of Fit Werx as well. Once I found myself caring more about making my competitors fast I knew I was doing what I was meant to for a living. It’s been ten years since I dreamed of doing something else for work.
In 2006 I saw Jim Martin give a presentation on aerodynamic field testing on an airport runway using a power meter. Learning that I had a portable wind tunnel already mounted to my bike, I was soon field testing everything I could think of. My power meter became the best wind tunnel available. There were a variety of protocols and I tried them all. The following seasons I was riding much faster on the same power and now setting local time trial and bike course records from all the aerodynamic improvements. Other riders wouldn’t believe my power was the same until I posted my power files. I raced triathlons in a cycling skinsuit because I couldn’t get past how much more drag my tri suit had according to my testing. I was testing piles of tires on my indoor rollers for faster rolling resistance during my recovery days.
In 2011 I tested the fastest tires I’ve ever seen and I still use them today – the Continental Supersonic 700×23 clinchers. We’ve sent hundreds of them out the door for regional triathletes and time trialists who are looking for every second they can find. They’ve also proven to be a very aero combination with top carbon clincher race wheels which added to their benefits. Unfortunately they went out of production last year so now Marty and I keep a stash that we protect more than anything else in the shop. No, I’m not telling you how many we have left, but it’s a small enough number that I used the same tires Marty used for Ironman Mont Tremblant for the Manchester Track Worlds. The Team Sky mechanic helped me clean the outdoor debris off them before I was allowed to ride them on the smooth wooden track known for its world records.
Some very knowledgeable tire testers on major triathlon websites have recently tested these tires as well so the secret is out. I ask the industry please bring this tire back or make an equally fast replacement before our stash runs out! Yes I was probably the only guy running 120 psi clinchers at the track worlds, yet they were among the fastest on the track. Unless you were using those Mavic Comete discs, with the 19mm tires at 210 psi, then kudos to you for doing your homework. Don’t use them outdoors though. Also, don’t try to take a photo of the Team Sky track bikes during their testing session or you’ll be politely asked to put the camera away. I may have asked their mechanics and staff one or two questions while I was there that week…
By 2010 back pain and related injuries had taken their toll and my running form had been suffering for years. I took time off running and noticed the daily pain was nearly gone. With the exception of a couple brief attempts that led to even more pain than I had before, I never ran again. After a brief Aquabike and Mt Washington hill climb season in 2011 left me feeling something was still missing, I started bike racing. I got hooked and between 2012 and 2014 upgraded from Cat 5 to Cat 1 having a blast in New England bike races. While my strength was time trialing, it took me a couple of years of field testing a variety of positions before I found an equally fast position that met the UCI rule requirements for time trial nationals. They started drug testing at nationals too which was a big driver in me going as I have zero tolerance for drugs and cheats.
In 2014 I won the time trial in my 35-39 age group at nationals bringing home a cherished Stars and Stripes jersey. I wore it on a club ride from peer encouragement before we framed it in the shop. I also ventured onto the track in an event my power profile always told me I’d be strongest at in the 3 Km individual pursuit. I won the national 35-39 pursuit title in 2014 and my focus shifted to the track from there. In 2015 I won the pursuit again and I joined a team that won the team pursuit (for a 4th national title) – an event that quickly became my favorite given all the pacing and order possibilities in the endless quest for fastest team time. I capped off 2015 with a trip to Manchester England for the UCI Masters World Track Championships and won a Rainbow Jersey for the world title in the 40-44 3 Km individual pursuit I mentioned already.
I thought that I had reached the highest point I could get in my athletic career, but as the dust settled I found myself analyzing my pacing trying to figure out if I could go faster. Those 2.1 seconds I spoke about earlier wouldn’t leave me, which brings me back to fussing with this aerobar before the shop closes. Hopefully it’ll test faster and I can use it this year, but if not at least that particular stone has been turned.
What about this power thing? Can I find a way to make another 14 average watts over three and a half minutes? My power hasn’t risen significantly for a long time now. I have power files from time trials in 2006 that are the same as my local course record file ten years later. I’ve done everything from low volume high intensity, to high volume low intensity, to intervals every day, to tempo every day, and in the end I find myself making similar power for my key events. Vo2 max tests when I’m on form show me using 90% of my Vo2max at threshold. This is on the higher end of the charts which unfortunately means not much headroom to push it higher. But that’s 60-minute power, and my key event is now just three and a half minutes. I did see my highest 3 Km power so far in Manchester, so maybe there’s still room. There won’t be any lack of training and planning in an effort to find as much power as I can, but I’m not going to count on increasing power. If I can find all the gains in aero and rolling resistance then power improvements will be a bonus. And don’t get me started about gear choice and cadence or this article may never end.
I know guys who live at altitude for three weeks leading up to these key events. Evidence suggests you can add 5% to sea level aerobic power by living at altitude. There could be more than 14 watts right there, but not everybody responds the same. I lose sleep at night thinking of how easy that could be, but find me a parent with four kids and a full-time job that can leave home for three weeks – actually four weeks if you include the trip for the race – and still have the job and family waiting for him when he gets home. Ironically I would probably have the support of both, but it’s still not easy. When I first mentioned this to my business partner Marty his response of course was, “Why wouldn’t you?”
At home I still have the same uber-wife Carolyn that spent six hours on the phone with the airline after Hurricane Joaquin turned my Track Worlds trip upside down by re-routing me to England in time for my race but left my bike box in Philadelphia for three days. I sat gutted and broken after a sleepless night of connections at the Manchester airport trying to explain to them my race was the next day and now I would helplessly miss it. Carolyn lined up enough heroics to get my box on a different plane during the hurricane to arrive at the velodrome two hours before my qualifying heat on Sunday. At one point the voice of the airline representative on the other end of the phone said, “I can tell this is important since I’ve never seen anybody hold 45 minutes for me.” There would be no Rainbow Jersey in the shop right now without her. Twenty years ago she was also the first phone call I made from Belgium after winning the U23 rowing worlds, so this wasn’t her first rodeo with me. If I asked, she’d let me go live at altitude.
There are altitude tents and chambers that can simulate altitude benefits at home. The trouble is controlled tests show they have smaller gain (sometimes zero) compared to truly living at altitude. Ask your spouse or partner if they mind if you sleep in a long tube next to them in bed; a long chamber that makes a humming noise and drips condensation onto the bed. Perhaps your bed-top submarine will fit and function better on the living room couch. Sleep in that for the months leading up to your key event and keep your fingers crossed it actually helps you make more power. Also, make sure you sleep as well as you did on the normal bed or your training could actually go backwards. There’s probably no chamber showing up at my house this year, but if asked she’d probably let me sleep in the noisy tube if for not other reason than to tease me for it. Now where did I put that aerobar?
The journey to seek out all possible gains never ends. I enjoy the process as much as the results. I enjoy helping other athletes as much or more than helping myself. Remember, all my low hanging fruit has been picked, but there’s typically plenty of it with the typical Fit Werx client that comes in the door. Satisfied customers range from those that find a more comfortable saddle, to a more powerful and aerodynamic position, to a more optimized ironman bike power pacing plan, to a time trialist hoping to find just a couple seconds at nationals or an equally fast position that’s UCI compliant. The questions we get every day will always keep us on the cutting edge of best practices for cyclists and triathletes. “What do you think of Q-rings?” “Will shorter cranks make me faster?” “How much time will I save from aero wheels?” “How do I use a power meter to race faster?” “What’s my optimal pacing on this hilly time trial?” “What’s the best bang for the buck in making my current setup faster?” “Where’s the most aero place for my bottles?” “What are the fastest skinsuit/aero helmet/tires/frame/aerobar/wheels?”
The greatest thing about new athletes coming into Fit Werx every day is the endless opportunities to make people faster, more comfortable, and happier in reaching their goals.
Great post! I wish I had read it earlier.
Dean, checking to see if you have evaluated the New Vittoria Corsa Speed open TLR clincher or the Tubular version in Corsa Speed both are 700 x 23mm.
These tested off the charts in 7.7w
The new Vittoria Corsa Speed TLR clinchers are very fast. They’re among the fastest rolling clincher tires available right now, and have the benefit of using sealant for flat protection which I’d recommend since they’re not as puncture resistant as some others. It looks like the relative performance to other top tires in the test you linked is inflated since the other tires are tested with butyl tubes. You want to use latex tubes for lowest rolling resistance in tests like this. I stuck with the Conti SS tires for outdoor racing this season since they’d still at the top Crr-wise, and also have top aero performance.