Technique: Lose that drag

By Joe Beer | Thursday, April 3, 2008 1.30pm

From your clothing choice to where you hold on to your handlebars, it all affects your speed and how much you're hindered by headwinds. 

Take the time to tweak some equipment choices, vary your riding position and try to use other riders to beat the wind. It doesn't get any easier, you just go faster - or get home earlier!

Lessons from the pros

The pro peloton is now used to offseason trips to various wind tunnels around the globe. This phenomenon started almost 30 years ago with the Reanult-Gitane team in 1977 at the Institut Aerotechnique of St-Cyl-L'Ecole.

Two years later, the team rode bikes in the 1979 Tour with profiled tubes and concealed brake cables, thanks to Renault having wind tunnels. And, as they say, the rest is history.

For all that time and effort, has there actually been any trickle-down effect, with the average rider benefiting from the pro? Well, we think there has been.

Power the masses

TIP: get low when you hit a head wind

The wind tunnel has taught us that the rider and the bike combine to create drag, and by getting into a position that makes your silhouette smaller, you go faster for the same effort. This is vital to remember when battling a head wind - keeping your knees narrow and your elbows tucked in all reduces drag and means the torment's over sooner. And by getting yourself more aero savvy you can gain extra speed.

TIP: get out of the wind using other riders wherever possible

In a similar vein, if you're riding with a friend, a group or leap frogging from bunch to bunch on a mass ride, getting out of the wind is vital. There is a great trick that Audax, sportive and charity riders can use when the need arises: hop behind somebody and use the drop in drag to recover or just ease the amount of energy you have to expend. Thrust yourself into a peloton of people and you can happily roll along well above 20mph with minimal effort. As long as you don't drop more than about two to three feet from the wheel in front, the drag will be 30 to 40 per cent less. However, you must be aware of the wind and always try to put other riders between you and it.

TIP: keep clothing zipped up, relatively snug and adjust it to the wind and heat

Skin tight Lycra works by reducing drag. Now, it's difficult to say exactly how much skin tight Lycra has over a woolly top or a trade jersey with the zipper down, but it does add up. Buy your clothing in person rather than via the internet and you'll get a better idea of how well it fits. It's pointless wearing a parachute just because it was cheap on eBay - every ride will be slower and head winds will be very hard work. 

On hills, especially as it gets hot, opening up zippers makes sense to dissipate heat. Wearing a cape and becoming a boil-inthe-bag rider does not. One clothing option does not fit all scenarios, so check weather conditions and make appropriate choices before you head out the door.

Wheel benefits

This article is not concerned with the super high-tech, high-price stuff; it's more like day-to-day advice, so how about wheels?

TIP: lower spoke count drops drag, and lighter wheels will make climbing easier too

Reliable wheels have generally dropped in total spoke count - it's not uncommon for very reliable wheels to have 18 and 20 spokes respectively - as with Mavic Ksyriums, for example. It's hard to pin an exact figure on it, but a drop from the classic 36 spokes to 18 will create a noticeable drop in drag. At a guess, based on data from, it's about a second per mile. 

But go for one of the slightly deeper rims and you can get even more free time and less effort. Yes, bike weight makes climbing easier. Yes, fewer spokes and a non-box shaped rim makes you faster. However, you create around 70 to 80 per cent of the drag on your bike, so don't spend in the wrong places then sit up in the wind and expect to go faster or find headwinds easier.

Aero bars (not the chocolate)

TIP: consider aero bars to make your ride more comfortable and faster

Now to put the cat among the pigeons: have you ever thought about getting some clip-on aero bars? These are retro-fit versions that allow you to keep your shifting system where it is. You may lose a bit of the handlebar, but there are some very minimalist versions, which mean you can have all the benefits without any loss of position.

Aero bars rest your upper body, make your arms narrower and your ride faster. After all, aero bars started with comfort and speed in mind in the Race Across America (RAAM), so why should they only be used by the time trialist racing against the clock? A quick search on eBay will find you a pair for a lot less money than hiring a wind tunnel.

Beat the wind...

Whether for fitness, distance completion or touring, every cyclist has to deal with wind, drag and aerodynamics. Ironically, slower riders spend longer doing the same distance, so aerodynamic gains can be greater than for a more competitive racing cyclist.

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