In the modern era of professional cycling the off-season provides precious little time for the elite riders to put their feet up and relax. Instead of racing, the winter months are spent analyzing and planning for the upcoming year and for Mark Cavendish, Alberto Contador and Zdenek Stybar, recent weeks have provided the perfect opportunity to tweak their riding positions.
All three men ride Specialized race bikes, Contador for Saxo Bank, Cavendish and Stybar for Omega Pharma QuickStep and the trio recently spent time at the bike manufacture’s state of the art wind tunnel testing facility in Morgan Hill, California, where Mark Cote, Sean Madsen and Chris Yu were on hand to help the riders improve their aerodynamics and performance.
“The wind tunnel tests were one part of a season long performance testing program that the Specialized Racing team, led by Simone Toccafondi has put together for our key riders. We basically sit down and find out what the main objective for each rider is, for example winning GC or Green jersey at the Tour de France and what deliverables we can give them to help maximize performance leading up to and at those events,” Yu told Cyclingnews.
“This can be equipment or position recommendations to save energy (calories) on non-critical stages, equipment or position recommendations to maximize speed on key stages, or pacing strategies on specific time trial courses in specific weather conditions. The wind tunnel tests are the first part of the program where, in the off-season, we baseline each rider and record their different positions on the different bikes and helmets. We also make a few changes where we think there might be a performance benefit. We will then follow this testing up with both velodrome testing at team camps in Europe and outdoor and on-road testing. This allows us to verify position changes made in the tunnel and see how riding at threshold or for a long duration may affect things.
“So in short, the wind tunnel testing was to both improve positions (for energy savings and/or maximizing speed) and to database rider information so we can better simulate their key races and make performance recommendations.”
Specialized keeps all their test data secret, only providing the information to the riders and their respective teams but Yu did confirm that riders can see huge shifts in performance, even with the softest of tweaks made to their position.
“I will say that it was interesting to see that some riders are very sensitive to small changes, while others were not sensitive at all. That changes what we can do in terms of balancing comfort, power, minimizing aerodynamic drag.“
For Yu and his team the importance lies in balancing aerodynamic gains and power output. It’s a vital dynamic and one that varies for each rider due to a number of factors including riding style and racing ambitions. All three riders tested both their road bike and time trial bikes while in Morgan Hill.
“The good thing about working with top level Pro Tour riders is that they are very aware of what positions they can sustain in terms of power output and comfort. So we got a lot of instant feedback on some of the changes that we made,” Yu said.
“For some changes, it could go either way so that’s why we’ll follow up with additional testing in the velodrome and outdoors to see if and how power output is affected. For some riders that may be more local to us, we’ll suggest that they come back and do a winter indoor training session in the wind tunnel. We can then record the entire session and monitor if either power output is declining or the position is degrading over time as fatigue sets in.”
All three riders have different needs though. Contador will never been seen on the front of a peloton with 200 meters to go in sprint, for example. The Spaniard relies on his Saxo Bank teammates to protect him both from attacks and the elements. So how do aerodynamic play out for someone like Contador, who is normally sheltered by teammates until the big climbs where aerodynamics isn't as important as weight and efficiency?
“There’s two big things that still matter for a guy like him,” Yu said. "Firstly these guys climb fast. Fast enough where aerodynamic drag is an important component to the times. Also their bikes are typically at the UCI weight limit anyways. Secondly, the lead-up to the climb is as important as the climb itself. We’re trying to minimize energy expenditure, even sitting in the draft, during the kilometers before the climbs (including the flat stages before the climbing stages). Even in a draft, some small changes add up to significant calorie differences when added up over hours, days, or even a week. Also, there are things, like the helmet, which are less affected by drafting since they are more exposed.”
Cavendish on the other hand has completely different requirements. His low profile position on the bike is an advantage he utilizes in sprints.
“He has a very natural sprint position and he doesn’t really have to work or train getting into the position,” said Yu.
“He just goes and his body automatically gets low. In fact, there’s not much he can control or fine tune during an all-out sprint. His style is his style. However, there were a couple of things he said that he’s been able to tweak and was curious to see what impact they had on his sprint speed, which is what we tested. We actually spent a decent time working on TT stuff with him.
“Not a lot of people think of it, but he’s actually a very good pursuit, short distance time trial rider. But in those disciplines, bike handling and ability to put out super-threshold efforts is more critical than on a longer TT. Also, his main goal for most longer time trials is to save energy for the impending sprint stage. In the Tour, the final time trial is often right before Paris. So it was interesting finding the balance between his two goals for time trials."