Early summer in Texas means the state championship time trial weekend is right around the corner (June 20th and 21st this year). That means its time for the triathletes to show what they’re made of and the roadies to dust off the time trial bikes and disc wheels. While honing in on the training and pacing is the surest way to make a name in time trialing, the aerodynamics of you and your machine can make or break your day against the clock. Aerodynamics always matter and the air is always on. Even at slow speeds, aerodynamics tend to make big differences. But having an aerodynamic bike isn’t the only difference maker in the field of aerodynamics. Small changes to your equipment and to your person can give you huge advantages. Here are some big tips for making you and your bike more aerodynamic (even some good nitpicking).
Let’s start with the big one. All bikes are not equal! And time trialing will weed out the good from the poor. But first, what makes a good aero bike? Well, frame and tube shape is first and foremost. A bike with a bladed or teardrop shape tubing is going to be much more aerodynamic to round tube bikes. If you take a look at any of the modern time trial bikes, they look like a knife cutting through the wind. Having an aerodynamically shaped frame will be a huge advantage over a standard bike. The fork is another huge part of a frame’s aerodynamics, especially since it is the leading edge of the bike and the first portion to hit the undisturbed air. Now let’s get into some nitty gritty frame details. Cable routing is an easy way to weed some bike apart. Having cables flying everywhere is a good way to catch wind. A good frame design has internal cable routing, most likely entering behind the steering column.
Wheels and Tires
Wheels are another huge aero gain for time trialing. A good set of aero wheels can shave large chunks of time off a 40K compared to the stock wheels that come on most bikes. What makes good wheels? Much like bike frames, its all in the shape. Wheels like Zipp, ENVE, HED, and others have very aerodynamically shaped rims paired with thin bladed spokes. When choosing a set of wheels, the deeper the wheel, the more aero it is. Just be sure you can handle it in cross winds. Deeper wheels also tend to grab onto cross winds pretty easily and cause your bike’s handling to plummet. Disc wheels are also very popular with time trialing and triathlon, and for good reason. Time and again, rear disc wheels have proven in the wind tunnel to be the fastest option, if you don’t mind the hefty price tags. And since disc wheels are only allowed in the rear and don’t pivot on the steering column, you won’t really have to worry about it affecting the handling. Now for tires. Tires are the only part of the bike that touch the ground, and are the another leading edge into the wind on the front of the bike. A good set of tires will be both aero and have low rolling resistance. Just don’t stick a set of cheap tires on a set of good wheels!
Handlebars are another one of those things that are a leading edge on the bike. Most entry level TT bikes come with very non-aero rounded handlebars. These are a pretty easy upgrade and can help clean up the front end of the bike. Most component manufacturers have bladed cockpits that hide from the wind and have a very small frontal profile. Most aerobar systems also allow for internal cable routing. When picking out handlebar systems, think about practicality. You aren’t spending much time out on the wings, so go with the narrowest option you can ride. Look for internal cable routing. And above all, get something thin and bladed!
Aside from the bike, your helmet is what gives you probably the biggest advantage in aerodynamics. There are several options on the market ranging from traditional tailed aero helmets to the new aero style road helmets to round back aero helmets. Differences in body position and head position usually constitute what helmet may be the best option for you, depending on how high your head is, if you look down a lot, etc. Regardless, aero helmets are significantly faster than standard road helmets.
Don’t wear loose fitting clothing! For time trialing, its always recommended that you wear a fancy skinsuit. They are very tight fitting, usually made with aerodynamic fabric designs, have minimal seams, and no pockets. But if you don’t have a fancy skinsuit, tight fitting clothing is always ideal. The more your clothes flap in the wind, the more drag they are creating. The same goes for triathlon. You want your tri kits to fit pretty snug so they don’t catch air (or water). If you can, wear something with sleeves as well. If you put your arms into the aerobar position, your clavicle creates a pocket near your shoulder that is really good at catching air. Sleeved tops cover this pocket up and make your shoulder a smooth surface. This is why sleeved tri suits have started to gain some popularity.
This one is pretty hotly debated in the tri and cycling worlds, but body position has a huge effect on your aerodynamics. Starting with body angle, the more upright your body is, the less aerodynamic you are. Having a pretty flat back allows your chest to be hidden from the wind and your frontal area to be much smaller. Narrowing your elbow width will also decrease your frontal area and reduce drag. Your head position is the other big offender in aerodynamics. Keeping your head low and level with your shoulders once again creates less frontal area. When thinking about body position, a good thing to keep in mind is, you guessed it, frontal area. When you move forward, the more body you have showing, the more wind you catch.
Little Things Make Differences
Now for the fun stuff. These are a list of very little things you can do to save seconds, but in time trialing, seconds tend to matter quite a bit. A good example is the infamous 1989 Tour de France ITT down the streets of Paris. Greg LeMond used the most aerodynamic equipment he could get in order to win that time trial, and it payed off. He won the 3 week grand tour by a mere 8 seconds. So here are a few things to give you those few seconds you may need.
Clean up your bike. Many cyclists, and most triathletes, have way too many things on the bike for a 40K. This can include things like removing your unneeded water bottles (you really only need one small bottle for a 40K), putting that one bottle between your aerobars rather than on the frame, zip tying your cables out of the way, wearing shoe covers, removing unused bottle cages, taking off bento boxes and saddle bags, taping the vents in your helmet, aero chainrings, and shaving your legs. Cleaning up the bike gets rid of everything you don’t need. Everything you have on the bike creates drag and the less you have the less drag you create.
So why is this relevant to triathletes? Well in most cases the bike portion of a triathlon is very similar to a time trial. There is no drafting, you ride alone, and its just you against the clock. Triathletes tent to be notorious to having aerodynamic equipment set up in very nonaerodynamic fashions. So next time you get ready for a race, take a look at your set up. There may be small changes that can make the difference of being on and off the podium.