Aerodynamics in professional cycling to benefit from new research

aerodynamics in professional cycling
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Guest contributor Ali Dockerty explores the impact of groundbreaking new aerodynamics research on the world of professional cycling.

Researchers in Australia have developed simulations capable of finding the best position for the legs while cycling to reduce the effect of aerodynamic drag when racing. The 15-year project by Monash University, Cycling Australia (CA) and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) has released research ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Distinct from tech designed to optimise athletic performance, the research focuses on sports science and how professional athletes can alter their pedal stroke technique to produce the best results.

Numerical modelling used to produce simulations

The pedal strokes study is a world first, involving research on simulations of the time-dependent pedalling action in a cyclist. The researchers found that the position of a cyclist’s legs when moving through a pedal stroke is key to producing the optimum aerodynamics. Currently, the research places Australian cyclists ahead of the game and could mean they’re able to ride faster. But, with the pedal strokes study now being published, professional athletes from all over the world could use it to improve their technique and performance.

The study, published in the Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology, shows computer simulations of an endurance cyclist and the dependent flow of their pedal stroke. Researchers used numerical modelling techniques to simulate the aerodynamics of a pedalling cyclist and paired this with the data provided by a fast-cycling mannequin. The result has enabled researchers to look more closely at the details of the pedal stroke and the flow around a cyclist, which previous research has been unable to explore.

Enhances previous research on aerodynamics in cycling

Furthermore, future studies aim to investigate additional techniques that can be used to reduce aerodynamic drag throughout a pedal stroke. The flow patterns around a cyclist change throughout the pedalling cycle, which has led researchers to conclude that a cyclist will need to consider each phase of the pedal stroke in order to maximise speed. Dr Timothy Crouch at Monash University explained that previous research has looked into the position of the cyclist to improve aerodynamics, but wind tunnel experiments have produced results that haven’t been deemed practical for competition.

The new research, however, suggests that the extreme sprinting positions tested in wind tunnels may now be more viable for professional athletes. A widely recognised benefit of cycling is that it improves your focus, both while engaged in cycling and once you dismount, so elite athletes will be well-positioned to learn how they can apply the research to their pedal stroke technique; a skill that could prove difficult for many people.

Reducing the effect of aerodynamic drag

Dr Crouch said that ‘[m]ore than 90 per cent of the total resistance experienced by elite cyclists is attributed to aerodynamic drag’ in the velodrome, with the effects being great enough to prompt research into the problem. Cyclists experience aerodynamic drag in the form of skin friction drag (largely addressed by professional athletic clothing) and pressure drag. This is caused by the difference in air particles, which are more spaced out on back-facing surfaces and more compressed on the front due to the turbulent flow around the cyclist. This results in a drag force because the air particles are pushing towards the front of the cyclist more than they are the back.

Professional bikes are designed to minimise the low-pressure zone in order to reduce the drag, and professional cyclists use techniques such as leaning forward to reduce it even further. The pedal stroke study presents the possibility of cyclists learning techniques to reduce the low pressure zone even more through leg positioning throughout a pedal stroke, and this could make an enormous difference to the aerodynamics of an elite cyclist.

The timing of the research sets cycling up to be an exciting field to watch in the 2020 Olympics, and athletes from other countries will need to study their own pedal stroke technique if they are to match Australian cyclists armed with this new information.


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