Saving Energy with Aerodynamics

They key to a successful bike race is knowing when to work and when to conserve energy. Depending on your style of riding, you might choose specific times to work and specific times to conserve. Sprinters prefer to sit in the middle of the pack conserving their legs for the big sprint finish. Climbers wait until the climbs and then make their big attacks. TT experts like to attack early and use their excellent pacing ability to stay ahead of the pack. Whatever the strategy, the key to making the most out of those moments when you have to work hard is making sure you have enough energy stored for the effort. Allen & Coggan in Training and Racing With a Power Meter outline the importance of conserving energy, “Most winning road racers do not pedal at least 15 percent of the time. If you are pedalling more than 85 percent of the time in a race, then you need to think about where you are sitting in the peloton.”¹ If you consider the length of some races, 15 percent is a significant amount of time to not be pedalling.

When you’re in the pack riding in a draft, most of the time, you’ll find yourself soft pedalling or coasting, particularly on flat sections. But sometimes, in more difficult races, or those not suited to your particular strengths, resting in the pack might be difficult. Therefore knowing some tricks to reduce the amount of energy you consume and reduce your efforts to something manageable is very important. Even in races suited to your strategy, there is no sense burning through energy you might need later. There are many ways to reduce energy consumption in a bike such as staying in the draft and sheltering from the wind and upgrading components to make them lighter and more aerodynamic but sometimes you can’t control your position in the pack and your gear might not be providing the benefits you need in a particularly gruelling race. In this post I’m going to go over some of the ways a rider can decrease power output and conserve energy by getting more aerodynamic on the bike.

1. Stay out of the Wind

The drag created by a bike cutting through the wind increases exponentially as you increase speed. If you can reduce that drag a little while racing, you can reduce the amount of power you need to output in order to maintain that speed. The best way to do that is take shelter in the draft of another rider. This is news to no one, I’m sure. There isn’t a single rider out there who isn’t privy to the benefits of riding in a draft. Most, however, believe the draft is a virtual safe haven from the harsh effects of drag. Even while riding in a draft, there is air moving over your body, and where there is air, there is drag created. Most riders when in the draft sit up a little once they feel the pressure of cutting through the wind ease off their tired legs. While it certainly feels like you are doing much less work, and certainly you are, you can increase the draft benefit by getting low. Get low like you would if you were out on the front of the pack riding solo cutting through the wind. You’ll immediately notice a difference. This is especially important if the rider in front of you is the same size or smaller than you. I might not be comfortable or practical to ride like this all the time but when you need a break after a hard pull or when the pace is really high and you’re struggling this could be the difference between staying on and getting dropped. Aerodynamics still play a crucial role while riding in the draft.

2. Tuck and bend those elbows

So often I see riders with their hands on the drop ands their arms are virtually locked straight. While you might feel a little more aerodynamic because your head is lower, you are actually less aerodynamic than riding with your hands on the hoods and your elbows bent at a 90 degree angle. The reason is because straight arms equals more frontal area exposed to the wind. Bent arms means less. The two most aerodynamic positions to ride are with hands over the hoods and arms bent at 90 or hands on the drops with arms bent at 90. Never should those arms be straight if you’re trying to save energy.

Many riders who do bend their elbows, and this is especially true when working hard, let their elbows flare out to the side. This creates a broader frontal profile and increases drag. Keep those elbows tucked in. They should be in line with your top tube at all times. If you’ve ever seen a video of Cav in a sprint from head on, he doesn’t win by putting out the most power, he does it by having the smallest profile. His elbows are tucked and his chin is almost tapping his stem.

3. Get low and coast through the pack

I almost never pedal when I move up through the pack. Instead I get super low, as low as I would when I’m descending and coast through the pack. At Calabogie in April a few times I was able to coast from the middle of the pack all the way off the front of the pack and around a corner. Everyone else around me was pedalling and wasting energy while I gained position in the peloton and let my legs rest. I was so low that I was able to rest my chin on my cycling computer. This tactic works great when the pack eases up. As soon as you feel them slowing, tuck in and start coasting forward. You might even find yourself accidentally putting a small gap between you and the peloton without having to make a single revolution of the crank if timed correctly.

4. Never let how you feel dictate how much energy you should be trying to save.

I see guys all the time at the start of races, when they’re feeling good, move out of the pack and riding into the wind or not shifting from left to right of the rider they’re drafting when the wind direction changes. Sure you feel great and strong and you might not even notice the extra work you’re doing. But that energy should be treated as a sacred commodity not something to be squandered. If you’re feeling extra strong you should be doing everything you can to conserve that feeling for the end of the race when it you’ll really need it.

¹pp95. Allen, H. & Coggan A. 2010. Training and Racing with a Power Meter, Colorado: Velopress.

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