Tour de France Physics: Pelotons

July is well underway and for cycling fans around the world that means it’s time for the Tour de France. This week at FYFD we’re going to do something a little different: in honor of cycling’s biggest race, every post this week will focus on some of the fluid dynamics involved in the sport.

On a bicycle, except when climbing, the majority of a rider’s energy goes toward overcoming aerodynamic drag. Riders wear close-fitting clothes to reduce skin friction and loss to flapping fabric, but most of their drag is pressure-based. A blunt object disturbs the airflow around it, usually resulting in separated flow in its wake. A high pressure region forms in front of the rider and a low pressure region forms in the separated flow behind them. This pressure difference literally pulls the rider backwards. Since drag goes roughly as speed squared, adding a headwind makes matters even worse for a cyclist.

In races, especially on flat stages, the majority of the riders will stay in a large group called a peloton in order to counteract these aerodynamics. By riding in the wakes of those in the front, riders in the peloton experience a much smaller front-to-back pressure difference and thus much less drag. For a rider in the midst of the peloton, the drag reduction can be as great as 40% (#). This allows riders to conserve energy for solo efforts near the end of the race or stage, like breaking away from the peloton in the final kilometers or winning a sprint for the finish line. (Photo credit: Wade Wallace)

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