All three of cycling's Grand Tours feature a Time Trial. We've been taking notes on how the professionals achieve their streamlined success helping them shave seconds off their times. Here are the aero upgrades that can help you get the edge.
The good news for riders everywhere is that much of the advancement in cycling technique, performance, and bike tech featured in the top events trickles down, becoming accessible for those outside the upper echelons.
In this four-part Get in Gear series, we’ll be looking at four main areas where riders have pushed tech and technique to new levels, and offer advice and guidance on how you too can enjoy the advancements made for cycling's toughest competitions.
These areas include Lightweight upgrades, Pro clothing, while in this article, we’ll be looking at aerodynamic advantages found at the peak of competition and some of the techniques used to exploit these technologies to give you an edge.
How to be more aerodynamic on the bike
Aerodynamic drag is responsible for around 90% of the resistance to your forward motion when travelling on a level surface. That means most of the energy you expend while pedalling is simply used to push aside the air in front of you. Evolution hasn't spent a lot of time making the human body - with its wide shoulders, broad chest, and knobbly knees - particularly aerodynamic, making us an inefficient traveller at the speeds experienced by competitive and pro cyclists.
As your speed increases, the energy needed to slice through more air rises exponentially. But this situation brings opportunities, as the advantages of streamlining become increasingly pronounced the faster you go.
This has prompted pro teams to expend huge resources on finding the most aerodynamic solutions to the problem of speed versus resistance. From clothing to helmets, and streamlined tubes to deep section wheels, every element of the bike and its rider has undergone study, research, and testing to create as sleek a profile as possible.
The importance of aerodynamic advantage is most prevalent during the speed-focused flat and time trial stages where every second counts, while lightness and ventilation reign during tough climbing sections.
Deep section wheels
Using top aero race wheels is one of the most dramatic changes you can make to your bike, with the aerodynamic advantages used to the fullest extent by pro race teams in the world's biggest races.
The deep section design is beneficial in two ways. Firstly, the smooth shape creates an orderly path for the air to follow across the wheel, reducing turbulence and therefore drag. The second effect, and less well known, is how deep section wheels act as a ‘sail’ in crosswinds, directing the airflow to follow the shape of the wheel creating a mild forward thrust.
A quality set of aero road wheels can save up to 2 to 3% of drag, which translates as a saving of around 50 seconds over 40km, depending on your speed.
The Zipp 454 NSW Carbon Tubular wheelset boasts deep section performance benefits, with a rim profile that carves through the air and provides significantly advanced power-transfer and stability even in strong crosswinds. Zipp's Cognition hubset has built-in Axial Clutch technology which can cut mechanical drag in half for further efficiency gains.
The latest wisdom from the pro peloton is that wider rims are actually more aero. The special edition RR-50 wheelset from Prime has an external rim width of 27.5mm, giving you an optimised tyre to rim interface, which reduces rolling resistance and improves stability on corners. This set contains almost everything you need to get started with tubeless - you just need to supply the sealant!
Time Trial and aerodynamic helmets
A rider's helmet is responsible for a large chunk of the wind resistance encountered at speed, with aero designs used exclusively at the top level by pro riders during time trial stages. The sleek profile, however, can be a little heavier and less ventilated than standard helmets, making them less advantageous for big climbs.
Many helmet manufacturers now offer hybrid designs with many of the wind-resistance advantages of aero lids coupled with the ventilated, lightweight approach of traditional helmets.
Giro Vanquish MIPS Aero Helmet is one of the most technologically advanced road cycling helmets available. Designed to streamline the airflow and reduce drag, it also features large vents to aid ventilation.
In a world of marginal gains, where every small advantage is leveraged to provide an edge, aerodynamic clothing has become an intense area of development. The aero suit, which has grown in popularity since finding podium success in the early 2010s, has gone on to become ubiquitous across the pro cycling circuit, with its influence spilling outside the time trial and into the climbing stages too. Just one notch down from the hard-core time trial skin suit, the aero suit is an increasingly common sight among competitive riders, being found with increasing frequency at local competitions.
Many modern cycling jerseys, meanwhile, are replete with air-slicing stitching and seams, capable of cutting through the air at speed and saving significant watts.
Featuring a comfortable seat pad a technologically rich design, the dhb Aeron Lab Raceline Speedsuit offers a significant wind-resistance reduction along with fast-wicking fabric. It was designed and developed in collaboration with riders from two-time Tour Series winners UCI Continental team Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes which means you really are getting a pro-level advantage.
Castelli's best-selling bib shorts are now even better. With a new and improved seat-pad and vortex dimples on the legs to disrupt airflow, these are the perfect shorts for both racing and training.
When it comes to saving watts, the profile of your components can be an important next step. For example, pro riders at the world's biggest races can often be seen sporting sleekly-engineered handlebars helping to maximise glide through the air, especially at speed. Modern manufacturers are putting aerodynamics at the forefront of their designs across the full spectrum of components, including even the cycling computer.
The Primavera has a triangular drop design for comfort on even the longest stages. The high modulus carbon fibre has been created for a high stiffness to weight ratio.
Created in collaboration with a world-renowned aerodynamics expert, Wahoo created an integrated computer and mount system which will shave over 12 seconds off a 40 km TT (at a 21mph average) when tested against the leading GPS competitor.