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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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?
Cavendish on the other hand has completely different requirements. His low profile position on the bike is an advantage he utilizes in sprints.
“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."