Magazines are filled with dozens of pages describing and featuring slippery bikes, sleek helmets, and all manner of wheels and apparel. All of that stuff is great and shows the intense level of innovation that cycling and triathlon benefits from. But those things won’t make you faster if you’re still sitting upright like a parachute.
From a performance perspective, aerodynamics has to be thought of as a behavior, because for all the attention we give the bike and wheels – even the position of cables and brakes – the human on top of the bike accounts for up to 80% of the air resistance you’re fighting against. That’s why HOW you ride is more important than WHAT you ride.
As a cyclist you have to punch a hole through the wind, and you can make that hole smaller by reducing your frontal area. When your back and forearms are closer to horizontal, you’re showing less surface area to the wind and you save serious watts. But many cyclists – especially older cyclists – struggle to achieve this position because of bike fit and a lack of specific training.
When it comes to bike fit, there has to be a balance between power production, aerodynamic advantage, and comfort. To make a comfortable and powerful position more aerodynamic you need to be able to roll your pelvis forward or achieve greater forward flexion in your spine so you can comfortably ride in the drops or lower your elbows to get your forearms into a more horizontal position.
Research indicates that forearms horizontal while gripping the brake hoods provides more aerodynamic advantage than riding with your hands in the drops. This makes sense because you’re reducing the vertical exposure of your arms. However, riding in this position can be tough on your triceps, at least initially, and like any other position you’ll adapt over time to be able to sustain it longer.
In some cases, raising a rider’s stem or installing a handlebar with a shallower drop is the right choice for improved aerodynamics. Seems counterintuitive, right? But it’s all about function. If your bars are low but the entire lengths of both arms are exposed to the wind just so you can reach your brake hoods, you’re not saving watts. With a higher bar position, you could achieve the same back angle (angle between your legs and torso) and head position, but also have more of a bend in your elbows so you reduce the vertical exposure of your arms.
And even though research suggests there’s a more aero option than riding in the drops, I still think they are a good option. Riding in the drops offers a more aero position than riding upright with hands on the tops or relatively straight-armed on the hoods, and a more sustainable position for many riders compared to the horizontal-forearms-on-hoods position.
Part of the reason we see so much attention paid to helmets, wheels, and clothes is that pros have the flexibility and leanness to maintain a flat-backed riding position all day. But for most amateur cyclists, the torso is the biggest barrier to an aerodynamic riding position. From a bike fit standpoint, riders who feel stuck in a relatively upright position should look for saddles that enable you to roll your pelvis forward – and hence bring your shoulders down.
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Increase range of motion
Changes to the bike are only part of the aerodynamics solution. You also have to train your body to produce power in a more aerodynamic position. Many amateur cyclists and triathletes suffer from a lack of mobility through the hips and lower back, and this translates to a more upright cycling position. Not only is it important to spend time riding in the drops to adapt to the position, you can also improve your mobility with the following exercises:
Basic piriformis stretch: Lay on your back, legs out straight. Bend your right knee and place your right ankle on your left leg, just above the knee. Slowly raise your left knee to bring your right ankle toward your torso. Your right knee should stay even with your right ankle throughout the movement. You should feel the stretch in your right glute. Hold 10 seconds, repeat three times.
Hip flexor stretch: From a standing position, step forward into a lunge position and drop your back knee to the floor. Raise your arms over your head and reach toward the ceiling as you push forward with your hips while keeping your back knee on the ground. You’ll feel the stretch through your torso, the front of your hip, and your quadriceps. Hold 10 seconds, repeat 3 times.
Step-ups: You’re looking for an exaggerated step up, so your starting position places your knee as high or higher than your hip and makes you engage your glutes and lower back in an elongated position. Start with your bodyweight only and complete 10 step-ups with each leg. As you make progress, add resistance with dumbbells.
Go More aero When it makes the biggest difference
Aerodynamics on a bicycle is always a compromise with comfort and power output, and since air resistance increases exponentially as speed (either your speed or the speed of a head or crosswind) increases, your priority should shift to favor aerodynamics over comfort, and to a lesser extent over power output. This necessitates a change in mindset, from thinking that you have one perfect riding position to realizing that you have to constantly adjust your riding position so it’s perfect for the conditions. So, while it’s common sense to get into an aero tuck going downhill, it’s also important to drop your shoulders and get your head more in-line with your shoulders anytime the winds pick up or whenever you hit the front of the pack.
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