Tour de France Physics: Time Trials

Unlike road stages in which cyclists can draft off one another to reduce drag, in the time trial a cyclist is on a solo race against the clock with nowhere to hide. As a result, the event features lots of technologies designed to reduce both pressure drag and skin friction on the cyclist. For time trials, cyclists wear skinsuits and shoe covers to eliminate any sources of flapping fabrics and to reduce skin friction. They ride bicycles designed to be as light and aerodynamic as possible. Instead of rounded tubing in the frames, these bikes consist of elongated airfoil profiles that direct air past and prevent separation that may increase pressure drag. The rims of their tires are wider and the back wheel is replaced with a disc wheel that allows no airflow aross the wheel. Like the airfoil tubing, these changes help prevent separation. Similarly, riders wear elongated helmets designed to be as aerodynamic as possible while the rider is in the “aero” position, with arms directed out over the wheels, head level, elbows tucked, and back flat. In wind tunnel tests, the rider best able to hold this position will experience the least drag. Even the addition or subtraction of a water bottle is not left to chance, with many time trial bikes designed to be more aerodynamic with a water bottle onboard (though you probably won’t catch the cyclists breaking their aero position to get a drink)! (Photos by Veeral Patel)

FYFD is celebrating the Tour de France with a weeklong exploration of the fluid dynamics of cycling. See previous posts on drafting in the peloton, and pacelining and echelons, and the art of the lead-out train.

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