Phenomena

Tour de France Physics: Breakaways

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In cycling, a small group of riders often leave the protection of the peloton in a breakaway. These riders will often spend 80% or more of a stage or race outside of the peloton, trying to reach the finish line before they’re caught. Because the pressure drag is so draining on a lone cyclist, it’s vital that breakaway riders work together. When the wind comes predominantly from the front or back, riders will form one or two lines, riding with their wheels within a foot of one another (see ~0:23). This paceline rotates so that every rider takes a turn at the front, bearing the brunt of the effort while other cyclists recover in their wake, where they experience less drag.

If the wind blows predominantly across the riders, they will form a diagonal line with the frontmost rider rotating behind for shelter from the wind after a pull. This drag reduction technique is called an echelon (see ~1:40). As seen above, for experienced riders the echelon can protect individuals even in bike-stealingly high winds.

FYFD is celebrating the Tour de France with a weeklong exploration of the fluid dynamics of cycling. See part one on drafting in the peloton.

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