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A brief history of cycling aerodynamics

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

Considering that it’s the single most important element to going fast on a bike, it’s a bit worrying just how long it took cyclists to start looking seriously at aerodynamics.

In the 1870s, penny-farthing riders quickly discovered that they if they hunched down over the bars, they went faster. Penny-farthing racers transferred this knowledge to chain-driven bikes. But then, for getting on towards 100 years, putting your head down a bit was about as far as it went.

There were only one or two deviations from that norm. In the 1930s, the recumbent bike appeared, and was obviously faster. The faired-in recumbent was faster again. But you weren’t allowed to ride them in official races, and no one really transferred the experience gained to the upright bike. In 1936, Maurice Richard prepared for a successful world hour-record attempt in a Parisian wind-tunnel. Whatever he discovered didn’t stop him riding the record in an entirely conventional position with a flapping jersey.

The obsession for most of the period was weight. Grams were shaved off, one by one if necessary, and despite making relatively little difference to speed other than when climbing a steep hill, the conventional wisdom was that weight was what mattered.

There was an ironic high-water mark when Eddy Merckx went to Mexico City to attack the hour-record in 1972. He chose the venue because the reduced air pressure at altitude meant there was less aerodynamic drag. But having grasped that, his equipment selections were made entirely on the basis of weight – the headline feature of his round-tubed bike and its spoked wheels was that it weighed just 5.5 kg. It had holes drilled in most of its components to achieve that figure, the aero penalty of which almost certainly outweighed whatever miniscule gain he got from the weight saved.

It took till the 1980s for us to start to work it out. Merckx’s record was broken (pretty easily) in 1984 by the Italian, Francesco Moser, who used a skinsuit, aero hat and disc wheels. The wheels on their own probably weighed more than Merckx’s whole bike. Even cyclists started to get the message.