Aerodynamics of Track Cycling
Thesis DisciplineMechanical Engineering
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
The aim of this thesis was to identify ways in which the velocity of a track cyclist could be increased, primarily through the reduction of aerodynamic drag, and to determine which factors had the most significant impact on athlete performance. An appropriate test method was set up in the wind tunnel at the University of Canterbury to measure the aerodynamic drag of different cycling positions and equipment, including helmets, skinsuits, frames and wheels, in order to measure the impact of specific changes on athlete performance.
A mathematical model of the Individual Pursuit (IP) event was also created to calculate the velocity profile and finishing time for athletes competing under different race conditions. The model was created in Microsoft Excel and used first principles to analyse the forces acting on a cyclist, which lead to the development of equations for power supply and demand. The mathematical model was validated using SRM data for eleven, elite track cyclists, and was found to be accurate to 0.31s (0.16%). An analysis of changes made to the bike, athlete, and environmental conditions using the mathematical model showed that the drag area and air density had the greatest impact on the finishing time. The model was then used to predict the finishing times for different pacing strategies by generating different power profiles for a given athlete with a fixed stock of energy (the work done remained the same for all generated power profiles) in order to identify the optimal pacing strategy for the IP. The length of time spent in the initial acceleration phase was found to have a significant impact on the results, although all strategies simulated with an initial acceleration phase resulted in a faster finishing time than all other strategies simulated.
Results from the wind tunnel tests showed that, in general, changes made to the position of the cyclist had the greatest impact on the aerodynamic drag compared to changes made to the equipment. Multiple changes in position had a greater impact on drag than individual changes in position, but the changes were not additive; the total gain or loss in drag for multiple changes in position was not the sum of individual gains or losses in drag. Actual gains and losses also varied significantly between athletes, primarily due to differences in body size and shape, riding experience, and reference position from which changes were made from. Changes in position that resulted in a reduction of the frontal area, such as lowering the handlebars and head, were the most successful at reducing the aerodynamic drag, and a change in skinsuit was found to have the greatest impact on drag out of all equipment changes, primarily due to the choice of material and seam placement. The mathematical model was used to quantify the impact of changes in position and equipment made in the wind tunnel on the overall finishing time for a given athlete competing in an IP event. Time savings of up to 8 seconds were seen for multiple changes in position, and up to 5 seconds for changes to the equipment.
Overall this thesis highlights the significance of aerodynamics on athlete performance in track cycling, suggesting that it is worthwhile spending time and money on research and technology to find new ways to reduce the aerodynamic drag and maximise the speed of cyclists. Although this thesis primarily concentrates on the Individual Pursuit event in track cycling, the same principles can be applied to other cycling disciplines, as well as to other sports.