The last several years have seen a shift in the world of professional cycling. Questionable practices that led to dominating performances have been slowly pushed into the shadows and the heroes of years gone by now have a stain on their collective reputations. In the grand tours and classics, margins of victory have shrunk dramatically and teams and riders have all started looking for whatever sanctioned advantage they can find in the quest for precious seconds.
Teams like Sky have taken this approach to new heights by trying to “control the controllables”, micromanaging every aspect of the team and their athletes’ environment and equipment to get the best out of every performance. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but with cycling’s more disreputable preparations largely off the table, every minor advantage adds up over hundreds of kilometers.
With this in mind, the new focus on aerodynamic everything within road cycling is shifting the paradigm for equipment design over the foreseeable future. Deep section road wheels have been the norm for many years now and aero road frames started to follow about a decade ago with the Cervelo Soloist and its airfoil tubing. Gradually, every major manufacturer followed suit in producing their own aerodynamic road frames and the technique has been pushed to a new level with the advances in composites over the last few years. Saving handfuls of watts here and there might make the difference between winning and losing at the end of a long race and professionals leave nothing to chance.
Helmets are the latest piece of the aero puzzle and Giro’s introduction of its “Air Attack” helmet last season saw a number of other major companies like Specialized and Scott clamor to provide their sponsored teams with competitive alternatives to help keep up. While the bulbous, bowling ball aesthetic flies in the face of existing style conventions, the efficiency gains seem tempting enough to break with the unofficial rules of the European cyclist. Expect to see more of these aero lids in the years to come, not just in the pro peloton, but in local races around the country.
Taking this new push to a new level, California manufacturer Specialized has just announced the completion of its own in house wind tunnel. The pursuit of ultimate aerodynamics is clearly going to be the new design standard for bike companies for many years to come. With the ability to test every product in house to calculate the overall effect on efficiency and drag, expect cycling equipment to radically change in the future.
The next step for equipment and bike manufacturers is to be able to achieve designs that meld new standards in aerodynamics with the previous benchmarks for bike and equipment design. Bike frames used to be considered excellent if they could be ultra stiff and ultra smooth, but to combine that ride quality with the tube shaping necessary for lower wind resistance will test carbon engineering at a new level. Similarly, modern helmets have become so light and well ventilated that they’re like wearing no helmet at all. To get similar performance out of a shape that maximizes aerodynamics will likely prove challenging for manufacturers.
The exciting thing about cycling equipment is that there is no end to the innovation and ingenuity of the industry. The time was that it was unthinkable that a rideable bike could break the fifteen pound mark, but every major manufacturer now has a production bike that comes in well below. Similarly, in a few years, riders won’t have to compromise between aerodynamics and overall ride quality on the bike end or aerodynamics and comfort and style on the equipment end. With this new focus in the industry, it’s going to be very interesting to watch the evolution unfold over the next few years.