As with most things in life, the technological revolution has dramatically impacted professional cycling. New cycling tech changes the way in which amateurs and professionals alike interact with the sport.
Revolutionary advancements in aerodynamics, tracking, equipment, communication, and anti-doping tech have had direct consequences in the sport itself. Nowhere is this more present than in cycling’s biggest race: the Tour de France.
The Tour de France is home to the most cutting-edge technologies in the field, and the riders, teams, and organizers alike have unrestricted access to the newest and best new advancements in technology to attempt to maximize their potential.
In this article, we’ll be talking about how these technological advancements impact the biggest stage of professional cycling, the Tour de France. We’ll be covering:
- Performance Tracking And Analysis
- Aerodynamics And Equipment Innovations
- Anti-Doping Technology
- What Drives Technological Advancements In Cycling?
Let’s dive in!
Performance Tracking And Analysis
One of the fastest developing fields within cycling technology, performance tracking has one of the biggest impacts of any technological category on the Tour de France.
Riders now have access to a plethora of different metrics related to their physical performance, progress, and recovery. The impact of this on training cannot be understated, and such metrics can provide riders with an objective perspective on their current fitness.
An excellent example of this is power meters. Power meters are attached to a bike in the pedals, cranks, crankset, or sometimes the hubs, and they measure the direct power output of the rider. Power measures the energy outputted by the rider per unit time.
These days, every rider on the Tour de France start list will have their bikes kitted up with power meters, and during the race, the metrics provided by the power meter offer an accurate insight into the amount of energy used by the rider.
This is invaluable data when it comes to fuelling during the race, recovery after the race, and post-race nutrition.
In addition, during training, they provide detailed insight into how much their fitness is improving, and how much time they need to leave to properly recover between training rides.
Another important (and more recent) technological advancement in the sport is the introduction of sophisticated analysis software.
The data gathered by power meters is useful, of course, but it becomes invaluable when combined with proper analysis.
For recovery, for example, access to software such as WHOOP and similar innovations offers extremely accurate information about a rider’s current state of recovery.
By making continuous measurements of exertion, sleep, and nutrition, WHOOP provides an extremely detailed and accurate insight into your current state of fitness and recovery.
Through modern research, we know the importance of recovery during training to properly maximize the fitness gains made by a given training regime. Cutting-edge software is extremely valuable in this regard, allowing riders to maximize their fitness gains.
Riders and teams now have access to extremely advanced mapping software, allowing them to provide a real-time detailed description of the course to riders during the race.
This includes things such as weather overlay, fuelling points, and detailed profile descriptions.
This allows teams to properly prepare for a day’s racing. For example, detailed weather information can provide insight into the correct clothing choices and even tactics based on wind speed and direction.
Fuelling points can allow riders to know exactly when they will next get nutrition and they can then pace themselves properly.
Aerodynamics and equipment innovations
One of the most impactful forms of technological progress is the actual kit that Tour de France cyclists use.
Cycling kit is something that develops incredibly rapidly, and new technology and developments can make a huge difference for riders, but usually a little at a time.
An excellent example of the technological advancements are those in the field of aerodynamics. Aerodynamics refers to the efficiency of an object moving through the air. More specifically, it refers to the resistance of an object to experience the force of “drag”.
When you move through the air, each air molecule hits you and bounces off you. This exerts a tiny resistive force on you, that depends on your speed relative to that of the air.
However, when you include the contributions of every air molecule, this force becomes significant.
The total resistive force is drag. A huge oversimplification here, but this can be minimized by attempting to shape an object so that when the air particles are hit by the object, rather than bouncing off the object, they “stick” to it, and roll along it.
This excellent resource gives a detailed and interesting explanation of aerodynamics in cycling.
Advancements in aerodynamics in cycling are generally two-fold.
They either improve the aerodynamics of the kit – the bikes, helmets, clothing, and everything physically in contact with the air on the rider – or, they improve our knowledge of aerodynamics, influencing the behavior and tactics of the riders.
The first category here makes a huge difference in the possible speeds riders can reach, particularly when descending, and particularly when riding solo, time-trialing, or attacking.
The aerodynamics of your bicycle itself has the potential to reduce your aerodynamic drag significantly, by altering the shape of the frame and wheels in order to maximize their aerodynamic properties.
For example, the shift to aerodynamic deep-section wheels has a great positive impact on the amount of effort required by a rider to sustain or accelerate to high speeds, despite the fact that it comes with a weight penalty.
There are exceptions to this, for example with hill-climb racers, for example, but over the course of an entire Tour de France, it’ll generally be more efficient to prioritize aerodynamics over weight in your kit (especially given the existence of the UCI weight limit).
The second category arguably has a larger influence on the Tour, certainly from what we see as a viewer.
New studies using digital wind tunnel experiments (CFD experiements) show that drafting on a single rider, for example, can reduce aerodynamic drag on the drafting rider by 40%, and drafting at the back of a peloton can reduce drag by up to 97%.
This is essentially the core concept behind almost all modern cycling tactics.
Additionally, the physical position of the rider on the bike can account for up to 80% of the aerodynamic properties, relative to just 20% for the bike itself.
Being in a descending tuck on the drops, for example, results in a 32% reduction in drag experienced by the rider.
These things have noticeable consequences on the behaviour of the riders, and their success in the Tour de France.
Other advancements in equipment, not related to aerodynamics, also make a huge difference to the race.
Electronic shifting, for example, makes shifting so much easier for the riders, and allows them to reduce the frequency of mechanicals and rely on their gears a little more, even under load.
This is a far cry from the un-indexed tube shifters of yesteryear.
Another example here is the shift to slightly wider tires. It used to be thought that the thinnest possible wheels (23 mm was the chosen size) reduce the rolling resistance on the ground by reducing the size of the contact patch.
However, this has recently been discovered to be incorrect, and the internal resistance generated by the immense pressure on a small area is in fact increased with wheels this thin.
There is a sweet spot, minimizing friction and minimizing internal inefficiency, which seems to be around 28 mm. Note that this also comes with a tiny aerodynamic penalty, but the gains in rolling resistance make up for it.
These are just a few examples of the plethora of recent technological advances in Tour de France equipment that impact the race and force it to develop each year.
Since cycling’s darkest hour in the midst of the series of doping scandals that came to a head with Lance Armstrong‘s public confession just ten years ago, there have been relentless and concerted efforts to revolutionize the testing and anti-doping tech in order to irradicate it from the sport.
As far as we know, it’s been rather successful, too.
The approach to irradicating doping from the Tour de France is two-pronged. Firstly, their testing regime is far more aggressive.
The mandatory known tests, in addition to the random but inevitable tests, on every rider, as well as the severe punishments given to those caught, serve as a strong deterrent for the riders to make use of performance-enhancing drugs.
But, perhaps more importantly, the tests have been heavily invested in to increase their accuracy for difficult-to-detect substances. This is where the technology has advanced most significantly.
what drives technological advancements in cycling?
The technological advancements that progress the equipment, efficiency, and tactics of the Tour de France can be attributed to essentially one thing: scientific progression.
In the past 30 years, the technological revolution has altered almost everything in daily life, streamlining our experience, connecting us as a species, and creating new innovations that transform our lifestyles.
It’s the same in cycling; advancements in aerodynamics, for example, can be attributed to enhanced understanding of fluid dynamics, and better and more accurate modeling of the relevant situations.
This, of course, is also related to advancements in the software in which such situations are modeled.
The emergence of the field of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) is essentially what every aerodynamic advancement in cycling can be attributed to, and the software used to do such modeling is consistently and rapidly progressing.
In addition, advancements in performance tracking and analysis technology can be directly attributed to the rapidly developing software and computing industries – a knock-on effect from advancements in physics, materials science, and computer science.
Head units – a staple of the modern cycling world – are essentially powerful and tiny computers on the front of our bikes, something made possible by the reduction in the size of the transistor.
Anti-doping technology, and particularly advancements in the accuracy of testing, are directly related to developments in modern medical technology.
Cycling, as a sport, is inherently intertwined with scientific advancement, which ultimately necessitates the inevitable future advancements in cycling.
These are likely to come thick and fast, and particularly with the recent developments in AI, the potential applications in cycling software and analysis are unbounded.