Assume the position
Adjusting the way you sit on a bike can reap benefits in power and speed. But emulating the pros may not be the way forward…
Greg LeMond, upper body static, arms stretched out on the radical Scott DH
aero bars, a component borrowed from the world of triathlon. A stubby teardrop-shaped, canary yellow helmet adorns his head. Laurent Fignon, blonde ponytail swinging in the hot Parisian air. Two disc wheels lend a nod to technology but no aero bars, no aero helmet. Fifteen miles of solitary time-trialling, consuming the tarmac at an average 34mph, sees the American eclipse Fignon’s 50-second overall lead to take his second Tour by eight seconds,
still the closest victory in the race’s history.
John Cobb now runs Cobb Cycling, designer and manufacturer of cutting-edge saddles. But in 1989 he was the man who helped LeMond destroy French hopes of a home victory. ‘At the time none of us had any experience with a more forward seat tube angle so we were using his standard bike geometry,’ says
Cobb from his base in Texas. ‘We worked out that aero position after a few hours in the wind-tunnel. The cycling world learned that aero bars and a more aero position were the future of time-trialling.’ No single moment in cycling history quite captures the importance of position on performance like LeMond’s historic comeback. But we’re not simply talking aerodynamics here. Regardless of the level of the rider, it’s all about satisfying the Holy Trinity of bike performance: aerodynamics, power output and comfort.
Optimum speed on a road or TT bike marries stealth-like aerodynamics and a wattage output that could power a small Alpine village. In principle, improving power is relatively logical – follow a progressive training plan and, unless you’re meandering on two wheels, your wattage output will increase. Aerodynamics is more complicated as you’re trying to overcome two key components of drag: pressure and skin-friction. Pressure drag is you and the bike, specifically the frontal area presented to the air; skin-friction is less debilitating and relates to the surface texture of you and your bike.
Without delving into the turbulent world of laminar flow, you’re looking to carve a path through the air with as little disruption as possible. And that’s for all abilities – once you clock over 9mph, most of your energy is used to overcome air resistance. So why can’t you simply lean over, rest your chest on the top tube and scythe through the air with the ease of a hot knife through butter?
‘Research shows that an athlete’s metabolic stress increases when reducing the trunk-to-femur angle,’ says cycling coach Dave Smith. ‘If the function of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles is compromised by a restricted position on the bike, you’ll find your desire to breathe outweighs your desire to slice through the wind.’ And if you can’ t breathe, your mind dispenses all thoughts of speed for one of survival. Reassuringly it’s not an issue purely for us 9-to-5ers – finding the optimum aero-power balance is a mission across all levels of cycling.
‘I remember working with a Colorado team and putting riders into super-aerodynamic positions in the wind-tunnel,’ says Garmin-Sharp’s director of sport science, Robby Ketchell. ‘The numbers told them they only had to hit a certain power to go at a certain speed. But when they headed out into the real world, they just couldn’t hold that power output.’
So unless you’re Greg LeMond, who Cobb recalls had the unique ability to roll his pelvis so that he didn’t have any diaphragm interference from a low position, finding your optimum road or TT position can be a game of trial and error – even if you can afford wind-tunnel assessment.
‘To make someone faster might actually mean you make some riders less aerodynamic to elicit more power,’ says Simon Smart, chief aerodynamicist at bike fitter Drag2Zero. ‘But no one can tell you instantly if you’ll produce more power. You’ve got to look at the clues in biomechanics, and from your experience manipulate someone into a good position where in time they’re going to produce more power. But it’s worth the effort. In a sportive, for example, you produce perhaps 250 watts with 85% drag from you and 15% from the bike. With the right position on the bike, you can easily increase wattage by 10-15% and have a ratio more like 65/35.’
Saddle and bars
It’s only once you’re out on two wheels that you start to receive real feedback – is your position comfortable? The permutations of saddle height, handlebar height, fore-aft position etc are numerous and deserving of analysis in their own right. ‘In general, though, for longer races I’d recommend you have less of a drop between your saddle and your handlebars,’ says Ketchell. ‘So for long races where you have bigger climbs and you want to sit more upright and be more relaxed, have a smaller drop.’
Road bikes in 2013 tend to have a slightly steeper seat tube angle than days gone by, and that’s encouraged a shift forward in weight. The UCI legal minimum for saddle position is 50mm from tip of nose to centre of the bottom bracket. While some cyclists prefer a setback of only 20-30mm (not permissable on the UCI circuit), riders such as Graeme Obree and Sean Kelly preferred a bigger saddle setback somewhere nearer to 90mm.
Obree says, ‘I’m a big believer that you put your saddle back as far as you can so that your thighs can get close to your chest. You hear people saying quite often, “I’ve got a sore neck or sore shoulders.” The fundamental problem is your saddle’s not back far enough and there’s too much weight on your hands.’
It’s a contentious view but at least with the Obree way you’ll reduce your frontal area and you’ll cut drag. But be warned: set the saddle too far back and a kinetic chain of events will leave you on the sidelines. ‘The most common problem we see is an individual’s reach being slightly too long and often too low as well,’ says Nicole Oh, senior physiotherapist to Pearson Cycles. ‘This is because the bike they have bought is the wrong shape for them [even if the correct size], with the head tube being too short. Either that or the handlebars are too wide, effectively lengthening the reach, or the wrong shape, placing the hoods further away.’ But before you apply for a new bike loan, all is not lost. ‘You can cure this problem to a degree by shortening the stem and/or increasing its rise.’
Hoods or drops?
The television helicopter hovers above the peloton, each pro nestled down on the drops as they surge through the French countryside. Scenes like this from the pro tour are logged by your inner chimp (as GB Cycling psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters would term it), lying dormant until you’re out on the roads. There the streamlined memories thrust into your consciousness, forcing you to shift your hands down from the comfort of the hoods to the aggressiveness of the drops. ‘This is a badge of honour,’ you think. ‘This is how the pros do it. This is… simply not sustainable.’ When it comes to hoods vs drops, it’s time to ignore
your ego and your perception of the pros.
‘Will you see riders ride the whole of the Tour de France on their drops?’ says Ketchell. ‘No. They’ll need to relax a little bit. I’d say the guys spend about 75%
of the time on the hoods; the other 25% of the time is spent on the drops. And this will generally be finishing sections, windy stretches and descents.’
Of course, hoods vs drops is a classic cycling debate – one that’s pervaded cycling since drops were invented back in the early 1900s. One man for whom the textbook is simply used to prop up his latest invention is Obree. The 47-year-old is renowned for breaking the Hour Record on a bike created by his fair hands, mind and parts of a washing machine; a Scotsman whose esoteric ideas on aerodynamics saw him regularly lock bullhorns with the traditionally conservative UCI. He’s currently tweaking his recumbent Beastie for an attempt on the human powered vehicle land speed record later in the year. And his take on the hoods vs drops argument?
‘The fundamental thing on a road bike is that the narrower your hands, the more efficient you are. Every centimetre is worth “X” number of watts in narrowing your hands. I’m always riding with my hands next to the stem, especially in a headwind. Jacques Anquetil used to ride like that – the squirrel position – because he knew it was the most aerodynamic. It would mean you’d have to get take your Garmin off your handlebars, though, because you want to get your hands close to the middle.’
Examine the physics of Obree’s hand placement and you’ll see where he’s coming from. Remember those family trips to the seaside. You’d be stuck in the back of the Hillman Avenger, counting down the seconds till you could build a temporary thing of palatial beauty – aka the sandcastle. How many of you passed the time by sticking your hand out of the window, feeling the force of the wind against your palm? Well, that’s what happens between your arms, shoulders and hands – it scoops up the air. But reducing the width of this area reduces drag. In fact, 20% of the drag your body produces could be cut by narrowing your hands and, therefore, frontal area.
‘So I’d definitely recommend narrower handlebars,’ says Obree. ‘In fact, I use 36s and move my brake hoods in.’
Stretch and glide
Midweek time-trial, crit or 90-mile sportive – whatever your discipline of choice, nothing impacts your position and performance quite like flexibility (or lack of it). Simply put, if you struggle to reach your toes, the chances of your thighs kissing your chest for miles upon end in aero ascendency is nigh-on zero. And if you’re too adventurous, the result is inevitable.
‘Lower back pain is the most common problem we treat,’ says Oh. ‘No joints like being loaded at end-of-range for sustained periods of time, and if you can’t bend forward without slumping at your lumbar spine, or you have poor hip range of motion, meaning your spine has to flex more to compensate, your lower lumbar joints will become irritated pretty quickly.’
To ease the aerodynamic transition, the simplest but most significant remedy is simply getting out on the bike and practising this position. But ensure you transfer this position to all of your bikes, not just the one you’re reminded of when you receive your credit card bill.
Obree says, ‘Most people have three bikes: the evening wear [racer]; the smart casual, which isn’t bad but not your best bike; and the jeans and sweater bike, which you ride 90% of the time. Most people think, hey, this isn’t my best bike so any old position will do. But that’s the most important one to dial in, as that’s the one you’re riding on the most.’
That adaptation will receive an evolutionary shove with – whisper it – stretching and core exercises. Yes, as much as you bury your head, you can’t ignore off-the-bike work if you’re serious about unleashing an aerodynamic and comfortable position. Pilates, yoga and core work helped Bradley Wiggins to the yellow jersey, and you’d be advised to choose at least one of these to improve performance and stave off injury.
Oh recommends focusing on ‘exercises that work on increasing the hip flexion’ to achieve a more aero position. Strengthening your core – lower back and abs – will help here. ‘I’d start with hamstring stretches [both upper and lower] to decrease tension over the hip/pelvis and hence improve range of motion,’ Oh adds. ‘In terms of strengthening, dead lifts are a great cycling-specific exercise as it requires lumbar and core control.’
That said, don’t become obsessed with the core. Cast your eye over myriad fitness magazines and ‘strengthening your core’ is cast as the golden ticket to achieving sporting nirvana, whether you’re running, cycling or curling. And while it will certainly help, just remember that, unlike the pros, you’ve also got to contend with a job, family and life.
‘Core stability is important, but I’ve seen pros through the wind-tunnel who’ve had appalling core stability,’ says Smart. ‘It just goes to show how adaptable the body is; they simply develop other muscle groups.’
Once you’ve flexed your muscles and found your position, it’s then a case of maintaining it. ‘Many riders, especially newcomers, rock their shoulders when putting in the effort,’ says Obree. ‘Don’t. It wastes energy. The best thing you can do is sit back on your saddle to maximise power and keep your head still. This will drive the energy through your body directly to the pedals. It’s something I’ve observed from studying big cats. Watch them power forward and their head doesn’t move an inch.’