Applying lessons from the wind tunnel
We look back on a feature from 2014 when RIDE Media attended at testing session in the wind tunnel at Monash University with a selection of professional riders. The objective that day was to improve their aerodynamic position… and go faster in races.
Years ago, RIDE Media joined Caleb Ewan, Michael Hepburn and Luke Durbridge for a day in the wind tunnel at Monash University. Also along for the day of learning were some sport scientists, a couple of aerodynamicists, some engineers and a GreenEdge team mechanic.
All three riders remain employed by the team that’s had many names. In 2018, it’s Mitchelton-Scott but many associated with the Australian squad still call it by its original title: GreenEdge it was upon inception in 2012 and what it will be for the purpose of this story.
Although the priorities have changed over the years, there remains a core group who have been part of the journey since day one.
Durbridge is the 2009 junior TT world champion and the 2011 under-23 TT world champion. He’s also won a few world titles as a team pursuit rider (two as a junior, one as an elite). He is morphing into a Classics specialist but he came to cycling as a time trial specialist and continues to use his strength, pacing, and aerodynamic prowess to achieve solid results.
It seems like he’s been racing as a pro for 20 years but ‘Turbo Durbo’ is still only. He is part of the original GreenEdge corp and, at the wind tunnel at Monash University in 2014, he was one of the riders who was most willing to experiment with position and equipment in an attempt to save a few watts wherever possible.
(Listen to Luke on the day of the testing session, click the SoundCloud link below.)
Luke Durbridge (in the wind tunnel in 2014, above) began the 2018 season with a crash in the nationals. He has made a rapid recovery from a broken collarbone and expects to be racing again soon.
Photo: Rob Arnold
“When I visit the tunnel I get to take away a little bit more,” he said after the session at Monash in November 2014. “This time I think I got the position quite dialled.
“As you could see there was a few areas there that I changed, going from lower to high to medium to wide to narrow… but I think my position is pretty good as it is. Maybe I might make a slight adjustment here and there.
“But it’s also always a tricky one in the wind tunnel between being able to produce it in the tunnel and being able to produce it on the road.”
For Hepburn, a good friend of Durbridge and another original from the GreenEdge crew, it’s much the same story. Also 26, he has won a few world championship medals too: bronze on the day Durbo won the under-23 TT in 2011, and then a collection of team and individual pursuit gold medals from over the years – including a couple of silvers from London and Rio.
His pursuiting days are behind him and the Queenslander remains a key member of GreenEdge as a robust worker, reliable TT man, and another pursuit specialists who has justifiable ambitions for the Classics.
And then there’s Caleb Ewan. We know his story. We’ve watched his progression. We realise that his junior ominium world title from what seems like decades ago was achieved with cunning, grit, a little hustle and a good dose of bustle, and a lot of sheer speed.
We have been documenting the career of Ewan for years but he’s still only 23.
A lot has changed since the testing session in 2014 but all three riders remain committed professionals in 2018, albeit with more experience and a few more results on their CV.
And their position on the bike? That too has been refined a little but many of the lessons learned at Monash remain in play today.
(To read the full feature from #RIDE66, click the image below.)
Read the feature ‘Into the wind’, published in #RIDE66 (November 2014): click the image above and see it as it appeared in the magazine.
From ‘Into the Wind’
(Published November 2014)
For Tim Crouch and Nathan Barry, wind has become their obsession. They are aerodynamicists and every day they are thinking of how an object can become more efficient in the way that it interacts with the atmosphere.
At the beginning of their racing season, riders from the Orica-GreenEdge team consulted Crouch and Barry at the Monash University wind tunnel facility. On the final day of the collaboration Caleb Ewan, Luke Durbridge and Michael Hepburn took a break from their usual training regimens and went back to school with their bikes.
Many lessons were learned on the day in the tunnel but the adjustments that were made were relatively small.
Still, the obvious question to start with is: how important is the innovation with equipment that has been accelerated in the last couple of years?
“For elite competition, very important,” said Crouch. “Once you’re going 45km/h, 90 percent of the resistance on the rider is drag.
“If you’re using a power meter, whatever your number says on the power meter, most of that is spent overcoming the force of the air pushing on you. So, if we can make even small changes to aerodynamics, they translate almost directly into power gain.”
Luke was keen to experiment with handlebar height, bootie covers, shoulder and position, helmet shape and a range of other things to see how it would be affected by the wind.
Photo: Rob Arnold
The wind tunnel becomes the testing ground to see if innovation is actually effective or if it just inspires people to upgrade from one perfectly suitable piece of equipment to another. Not everyone can sprint like Caleb Ewan, pursuit like Michael Hepburn or time trial like Luke Durbridge. But still we care about the products they use and want to know if they will benefit us as well.
“There’s a number of different ways you can approach wind tunnel testing of athletes,” explained Nathan Barry when asked how they tend to athletes from a wide range of disciplines and why it’s beneficial for an aerodynamicist to work with professionals.
“All riders are different shapes – they come with different equipment which means that in order to tailor or optimise the aerodynamics you need to treat each rider on an individual basis. So, as a general rule of thumb, one way to approach optimising aerodynamics is to minimise their projected frontal area.”
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A lot of time on the bike has passed since that day of testing in 2014…
Anyone who has ridden a bike has surely played around trying to find a more efficient position. But not many people have been able to go to the extremes that we see Caleb Ewan using when he’s sprinting.
When I arrived for the session at Monash in November 2014, Ewan was on the bike in the middle of the giant room with wind from an enormous fan blowing over him.
He had his head in That Position, the one that we’ve come to know, the one we’ve seen him employ time and time again when he’s launching his sprint… the one where he seems to hang so far over the front of the bike that you half expect the back wheel to hop off the ground and for him the go sliding down the road.
Ewan has crashed a few times while sprinting. Even as a junior he had a reputation for being so committed to being on the right wheel that he’d annoy rivals with his antics leading into the finale of a race. But he’s won more than he’s crashed.
And he has taken aerodynamics and sprinting to a new level.
If all goes according to plan, he’ll be there in July, racing his first Tour de France and chasing stage wins in the biggest race of all. And he’ll be doing so with a position that is extreme, aero, unique, and highly effective.
There were varying degrees of extreme sprinting positions tested in 2014… this one (above) is relatively tame compared to others tested at Monash – and even how Ewan now sprints in races.
Photo: Rob Arnold
“Obviously, it all started in the wind tunnel,” he told me during the 2017 Tour Down Under when he went on to win four of the six stages. All of them were won with him in That Position.
“But then I never really put it into practice until about half a year later when I was really fading in a sprint and I was looking at [getting] that little bit extra. So then I went into my aero position…
“It was Patrick Bevan who was coming around me and once I got into the aero position, I just kind of held him there and he couldn’t come past.
“After that,” he smiles, “I kind of realised that there was a massive benefit of getting into that position. Ever since then I kept practicing it a bit in training and putting it more into practice during the races.”
(To watch Caleb explain his sprint position, click the YouTube link below.)
Listen to Caleb explain how his position came to be used in races and how he finds the dynamic of the bike when he’s racing that way… click the YouTube link above.
“Everyone knew that sprinting aero would be faster than, obviously, sprinting upright… but it wasn’t actually until we got into the wind tunnel that we saw how much of a benefit it made.
“I think that kind of made me realise that you do get a massive benefit but then it was also, in part, trying to get my head around – in the sprint, when you’re trying to put out more power – to get into a position like that.
“Obviously it’s harder when you’re in that position, to put out power…
“And, during the sprint when you don’t have much time to think, most of the time you think, ‘Oh I need to get more power out…’ so you come up higher.
“We were trying to switch [the] mind around and go lower to keep the speed going.”
What about the dynamic on the bike? Does it ever feel like your back wheel is skipping because you’re pushing so much of your weight forward?
“No… I’ve seen pictures and some videos and it looks way more extreme on the video than it actually feels on the bike. At the moment, it feels kind of natural… it feels safe. But then I see videos and photos and it looks really extreme.”
* * * * *
A lot of equipment has changed in the three years since testing and Caleb (above) continues to refine his aerodynamics…
Photo: Rob Arnold
It’s one thing to learn something and understand that it can make you go faster, it’s another to be able to apply those lessons in the heat of action at the end of an arduous race against some of the best riders in the world.
Usually the wind tunnel sessions that we hear about so often are built around trying to improve time trial positions and shave a few watts off the effort required to go fast. But the testing done at Monash when Caleb was just a stagiaire with GreenEdge has served him well ever since.
He’s a winning machine, a dynamo of muscle and a never-surrender attitude. He has had his setbacks but also plenty of triumphs.
Like Durbo and ‘Heppy’ who continue to improve their performances (and their position on the bike) with age, we can expect to see Ewan refine his technique and continue slipping through the wind a little faster than others.
Just because he can do it, however, doesn’t mean that everyone can. Not many get the chance to put themselves in a wind tunnel and contemplate how they might increase their speed by finding the best position possible.
Read the full article and you’ll also realise that it’s not always about being lower and ‘slippery’. It’s also about minimising resistance, maximising output, and being able to ride comfortably enough to be efficient.
The lessons from three years ago are still serving the team well as it begins another season of discovery.
– By Rob Arnold