There are two methods to get faster on the bike: pedal harder, or decrease resistance. By making a few small changes, you can quickly decrease your aerodynamic profile and go faster on your road bike with the same effort.
With a PhD in aeronautics, Chris Yu is Specialized’s aero R&D engineer. Ever since the Californian company built its own wind tunnel in 2012, Yu and his team have carried out more than 1,600 hours of aero testing on bikes, parts and riders, from world champions to everyday cyclists. Here he shares some of the basic lessons he’s learned along the way about how to make big aerodynamic gains without breaking the bank.
Each of these tips hinges around the idea that a smaller frontal profile is faster. You can feel this for yourself while coasting downhill. Sit up high and you catch more wind, slowing your progress. Tuck down tight — effectively reducing your shape at the front — and you go faster.
The first five suggestions add up to as much aero savings as fast aero wheels and an aero frame over a standard setup, Yu says.
And don't forget — drop those elbows!
1. Wear tight clothing
“By far, the easiest way to get faster is with a cycling kit that is cut well for you and fits as tightly as you are comfortable with,” Yu said. “That is usually the best bang for the buck.”
2. Keep your bike build tidy
“Make sure your bike build is clean,” Yu said, referring to excess material like overly long brake or shift cables, or cables that protrude way out from the frame. “An extra 10cm of housing, that adds up quickly to unnecessary drag.”
3. Ditch the enormo tool bag
“If you’re going for a PR, lose the giant saddle bag; it isn’t helping you,” Yu said. “That is free. Or, just use a more compact model.”
4. Shave your legs
Specialized tested a few riders [including this writer] before and after they shaved their legs and found an average savings of 50 seconds over 40 kilometers.
“Again, also free,” Yu said.
5. Get a fast helmet
Although not a free solution, a new helmet hits two birds with one stone — you need to protect your head, so why not get faster with your equipment?
“An aero road helmet is a big winner,” Yu said.
“Those five things easily add up to as much aero benefit as fast wheels and a frame,” he said.
6. Stop flapping
Yu conducted a wind-tunnel test to simulate a common gran fondo/sportive situation, where a rider would start in a zipped-up windbreaker on a cold morning, then ride with it unzipped for the last half.
“Image it’s early, cold, and you’re wearing one of these loose day-glo jackets. You ride for the first 50 miles of a century and then it gets warmer, so you unzip, but you don’t want to stop,” Yu said “We tested this scenario in the tunnel, and if you do half of a century with an unzipped jacket, it will cost you nearly 10 minutes. So, the moral of the story is either A) use arm warmers and a tight thermal jersey, or B) stop and take two minutes to take off your jacket and pack it into your jersey.”
7. Get a bike fit
Finally, consider the biggest source of aerodynamic drag in the whole equation — you.
“A professional bike fit can not only make you more comfortable and efficient in your pedaling, it can also get you into a position that lets you ride in the drops comfortably for a long period of time instead of up on the hoods,” Yu said. “Also, a good fit can address things like knee tracking. If you knees are bowing out as you pedal, you are effectively increasing your frontal range.”