Phenomena

Rio 2016: Cycling

Today marks the official start of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Here at FYFD we’ll be celebrating by taking a look at how fluid dynamics affects Olympic sports. You can check out our previous series on the London Olympics here. Since this weekend features the men’s and women’s cycling road races, we’ll get started with cycling!

In road cycling, equipment and race strategy are all built around aerodynamic efficiency. It’s understood that following a car or motorbike gives a cyclist an unfair advantage, and officials can be quick to punish infractions. What the rules don’t account for, though, is the advantage a cyclist gets when they’re followed by a motorbike (or car). These vehicles are significantly larger than a cyclist, and when they are trailing a cyclist, they have a significant upstream effect. Essentially the higher pressure traveling ahead of the motorbike will counter the low pressure region immediately behind the cyclist. The result is that the cyclist, despite being in front, experiences less drag than they would if the motorbike weren’t there.

The difference isn’t tiny either: if a motorbike follows a rider at a distance of 0.5 m for just 1 km, the rider saves more than 2 seconds. When events can be won or lost by fractions of a second, those gains are significant. (Image credits: DCMS; B. Blocken et al., GettyImages, Reuters; research credit: B. Blocken et al.; submitted by Marc A.)

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