Wind breakers: The epic quest to eliminate aerodynamic drag

Outside of high school science classes, there are only a few people who think about Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion every day. There are, obviously, academics—scientists and engineers—as well as the people who make planes, trains, and cars. But there are also those who design aerodynamic clothing for athletes.

If you’ve forgotten the basic principle of Newton’s second law, here’s a refresher. It says that the rate of change of momentum of a body is equal to the product of its mass and velocity.

This is an equation that Steve Smith, brand manager of Italian sportswear manufacturer Castelli, thinks about often.

Steve Smith, Castelli Brand Manager Castelli

He knows that Castelli-suited cycling teams are some of the fastest in the world, but how can the fabric, pleats and fit of their gear give them a second or two more time advantage over the competition? The answer lies in the search for the elimination of aerodynamic drag.

“When a cyclist is riding through the air, 90% of their power, depending on the speed, goes towards expelling the air,” Smith said. “A cyclist’s aerodynamics are the biggest factor in their speed.”

The faster a cyclist goes, regardless of their mass or speed, the stronger the air blows into them. However, optimizing the aerodynamics of clothing can seem like a lot of effort for minimal gain.

But within those milliseconds, world records are broken and gold medals are won.

And it’s just more pleasant.

A man riding a bicycle in the forest in Castelli cycling clothing.Castelli

“Aero clothing that’s well made doesn’t have to come at the cost of comfort — sometimes it’s nice to wear something floppy — but it’s easy to get a little faster,” Smith said. “And cycling is more fun when you ride a little faster.”

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A lot is at stake when a rider slaps a jersey on the back or zips up a suit. Because of this, companies developing aerodynamic clothing have increasingly relied on technology to improve the process. Whether it’s biomechanical equipment, performance modeling using data from wind tunnel sessions, 3D imaging, or “smart” textiles — even the tiniest advances are welcome.

The production of aerodynamic clothing is perhaps as competitive as the sports for which it was developed. The people who manage this technological development of clothing are silent, and the process is hidden. They know that the position of the zipper can affect the time their runners cross the finish line. And that is not information they freely give.

The science behind the lawsuit


Jon Paton has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, which many clothing brand owners cannot say. He runs Vorteq, a three-year-old research and development company based in England that develops unique, customized sports equipment for cyclists based on 3D modeling of their “correct geometric proportions”.

“It’s a matter of running the data, creating things to order for that athlete,” he said. “What tension must these fabrics have? Where can I put a stitch?”

Vorteq also puts its money where its mouth is, according to Paton. Any rider interested in the company’s offer is invited to come to its headquarters and try on a custom suit. If the suit Vorteq makes isn’t as fast as the suit they originally came with, they’ll get their money’s worth guaranteed.

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Steve, Stefano Sartor (template creation), Rigoberto Uràn.Castelli

The first step in creating the Vorteq cycling suit is to 3D scan the athlete on the bike in position using Artec Leo equipment. Using a 3D model rather than measurements, fabrics are draped over the athlete’s 3D computer environment to ensure there are no creases or loose parts.

After selecting the fabric, the athlete returns to the wind tunnel for testing to repeat the twists, turns and race conditions in the new suit. There, data is collected to determine aerodynamic drag, and if it turns out that the Vorteq suit does indeed improve the athlete’s performance, the design goes home with them.

Can technologically enhanced suits close the gap?


Paton said he spent thousands of hours in the wind tunnel at the Silverstone Sports Engineering Hub to determine which fabrics to put where (no suit contains just one fabric) and discovered that one size does not fit all.

“If you buy a ready-made suit and it has a crease on the shoulder, that might be worth 1% or 2% resistance,” Paton told Digital Trends. “If you’re asking an athlete to go and find 2% more strength, it could take years or it could be impossible.”

Castelli, Smith said, also works in a similar way. The company uses CFD (computational fluid dynamics) modeling to see how the body moves through changing environments (sun, rain, wind or snow) and which materials (like nylon and polyester) work best where.

Year after year, Castelli has collected mountains of data on which fabrics work best where and for what speed. A stiff shoulder pad may be great for a cyclist traveling at 40 mph, but not optimal for another doing 20. It’s all about A/B testing and working with leading aerodynamicists. But even then, there is still so much to learn.

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“There’s no book about it, so we have to come up with our own scientific research,” Smith said. “A foot pedaling at 90 revolutions per minute is completely different from what an engineer has to do to build an airplane or a car, which is a static form moving through the wind.”

Speed ​​for everyone


Cyclists depend on their leather suits as much as they depend on their legs to propel them through time trials, hill climbs and road races. Unlike other sporting events, the fastest riders in cycling events are often placed at the back and must fight their way to the front by pushing harder and faster. If a seam breaks and a 1-centimeter piece of fabric flutters in the wind, it could push the first-place driver into second place. It’s that minute.

But speed is not only important for professional runners. The high-tech equipment, 3D modeling, and data analysis used to determine the best fit for an Olympian in sports top suits can also be found in the threads of gear hanging in your local sporting goods store. And brand managers like Smith prefer it that way.

“The things that happen to all the top athletes really flow together to make your cycling experience more fun, more comfortable and faster,” he said. “It’s the cheapest gear you can buy on your bike.”

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