By: Jay Campbell
On July 18, 2023 the top cyclists in the world raced a 22.4 km time trial on a hilly course that ended with a 2.5 km climb at 9.4%.
You can watch the highlights here: https://www.nbcsports.com/watch/highlights-2023-tour-de-france-stage-16
These are my takeaways for us mere mortals trying to get faster at the cycling leg of a triathlon.
- Workout in the aerobars as much as you can!!! There is a very old study that measured peak power in upright and aero positions for elite cyclists vs. triathletes. Triathletes had higher peak
power in the aero vs. upright position while it was the opposite for cyclists. [Peveler, W. et.al. Effects of Training in an Aero Position on Anaerobic Power Output, J. Exerc. Phys., 2004 7(5), p.
52.] Not surprising. Athletes are strongest in the position they train in. I am continually amazed at how many of the Tour de France cyclists “sit up”; during the time trials, but then that is how they race and train. It shouldn’t be surprising however that the winner of the time trial stayed in the aero bars all the way through his final sprint. It is the most efficient position IF YOU HAVE TRAINED FOR IT. I know training in “aero” is not possible when riding with groups. But, with all the time most of us spend on a trainer, there is no excuse for not doing the bulk of that in aero.
- If you have the cash, buy a rear disc wheel, aero socks, and aero helmet. Every rider in the time trial was outfitted with this gear (actually I think I saw one rider in a road helmet). The aero advantage of these items has been shown in the wind tunnel on a wide variety of riders. In triathlon we still do not have the limitations on sock height that the Tour has. I am convinced that just about any sock is “aero” and the more sock the better. So pull on those full length compression socks if you don’t mind having a long transition (or are doing a duathlon.) If you are in the market for an aero helmet, check out Smith’s helmet –“Jetstream TT” helmet. The innovative helmet (“Redeemer”) worn by the Uno-X Pro Team at the Tour is on a whole new level – very unusual design and is not available to the public yet.
- Wear long-sleeves? About 90% of the riders had long-sleeve speed suits despite temperatures close to 90F. All of the top 5 finishers had long-sleeves. OK…maybe you are not ready for that, but at least go short sleeve vs. sleeveless. The aerodynamics on this are well established. I have seen some “arm-coolers” at Nationals. They are worn like arm-warmers but are well-ventilated and aero.
- Workout in the aerobars as much as you can!!! DIDN’T I ALREADY SAY THIS? I tried to count the number of riders who switched from a time trial bike to a road bike for the final climb. [A bike change in the middle of a stage of the Tour is not that unusual.] I estimate it was about half including the #2 finisher, but not the other four in the top five. Switching to a lighter bike when gravitational forces predominate over aerodynamic forces often makes sense. I also tried to determine under what conditions riders “sat up” or “stood”. Generally, they “stood” when
speeds dropped below 10 mph (only on one very steep section) and when sprinting at the end. The best time trialists were only coming out of the aero bars when their speed dropped below
16 mph. Many riders “sat up” when their speeds dropped to 20 mph. However, even at 16 mph there is significant drag making the aero position beneficial (IF YOU HAVE TRAINED FOR IT). I have heard arguments that it makes no sense to “stand” for the final 100 meters of a time trial as the increased drag wipes out the additional watts generated by standing. Maybe the winner of the time trial believes those arguments, as he remained in the aero bars during the final sprint. He was the only finisher I observed who chose to do that.
HERE IS A DRILL: Do a hilly workout while staying in the aero bars the entire time. It is true that when you are going very slow up a hill there is little advantage to be in the aerobars, but it will make you stronger in the aero position. You will be like the triathletes discussed above who actually have a higher peak power in the aerobars vs. upright. Now you can reserve “sitting up” for the occasions where you need to stretch or slightly change muscle groups.
To answer my own title-question, there are a few things triathletes can learn from the Tour de France Pros. But your time is better spent watching the triathlon pros. Only triathletes would think of stuffing a water bottle down the front of their jerseys to get more aero. (See Gustav Iden.) https://www.triathlete.com/gear/bike/expert-tested-the-water-bottle-jersey-trend-produces-shocking-
results (607) Fast or Fiction: Does a bottle down the front of your kit make you more aero? – YouTube.
Now get on the bike and in your aerobars!