With the marginal gains philosophy entrenched across the majority of the top teams these days, I find it surprising that most use a bulky radio system in time trials to communicate to their team car. It looks like they’ve stuffed a packet of fags up their skin-suits, surely there’s a better way than this?
When all of us carry a mobile phone, pro cycling teams are using a much larger & bulkier unit than an i-phone to relay information to & from their riders. I’m was very confused about this, it blatantly gets in the way of the airflow over the rider, a device like a mobile phone would have a much smaller profile & save a few more watts.
After my ranting on twitter about this, I think I’ve overlooked a few things, these radios are not designed for bike racing, and mobile phones only work if they’re in range of a transmitter. When we see bike races, we admire the amazing scenery, but as anybody who’s been to the mountains of Europe (or the general rule in Scotland, if you’ve got a nice view, you’ve got no phone signal), they probably don’t work for the majority of European race routes, traversing 200km of wilderness.
So lets imagine somebody who’s in charge of in-race communication at Team Sky, we’ve discounted the light & compact mobile phone option as unusable during any normal race, so we go back to radios. As anybody who’s experimented with anything other than ‘CBs’ in domestic race organising, as soon as you use the light & low power radios, once the event gets split up, or there’s a hill bigger than a railway bridge, you can probably forget communication. So we generally revert to ‘CBs’, but even these get out of range pretty easily & voices become crackled. Now what units are available? Not many that meet our requirements unfortunately, it has to be slim, aero, without a giant antenna. It may be the case that Sky & others are using the least worst option here, finding communication more important than the lost watts they incur by having a ‘packet of fags’ under their jersey. There are other very short distance radios that are much smaller, so I’m assuming that riders are not just communication with the following car, but also getting info in time trials from other sources who also have radios.
The placement of the radio on the back may seem like the worst place to put it, but perhaps this is simply to get the best signal at all times. We saw Fabio Aru with a pocket sewn into the outside of his skinsuit to carry his, which must be an even worse option than the under-the-suit position. The radios we see also have very sharp corners and as anybody who’s done even basic studying of aerodynamics, this is far from ideal, smoothing out corners to even slightly rounded can have a significant effect (I can’t find an actual photo of the Sky radio unit anywhere, can anybody help?).
There are likely some other places to put these units, but maybe these have been tried & discounted. Such as under the tail of the helmet (may raise tail & disrupt flow), inside the helmet (probably against UCI rules), fitted aero on the bike (again UCI rules) or behind the saddle as the track team do with their SRM units. The latter idea may be blown out of the water by the final item on this blog, carrying a six pack of beer, where there’s less drag with the beer in a rucksack on your back, than on the rack behind the rider. Beer used in aero performance tactics, you heard it here first!
But looking into the aero effects a bit more, I found some surprising sensible information from the Specialized wind tunnel, which showed that carrying a bottle in the back pocket was more aero than carrying it on the bike, although not a radio, it should give some idea of what’s going on. But bear in mind this was with a cross rider, so not in an aero position, we can assume an exposed item on somebody’s back would have a greater impact. Here’s the video.
It looks like wind tunnel tests may have shown the teams that the position on the back, under the skinsuit, although slower than no radio, is the best option currently available. It may also be that they’re looking for a product that doesn’t yet exist on the market. This may be one of the next innovations that we see in the peloton over the next couple of years, a communication company teaming up with a professional cycling team to develop a lightweight, waterproof, low-profile radio with excellent range that can be used in other sports. Maybe sports car racing where drivers can wear the radio, so cuts down time on having to plug in to the car radio, marathon runners if it’s featherweight, there are likely many sports applications and even more leisure ones. The problem is with a product like this, it’s currently only allowed to be used in the top level races in cycling, under the rules would have to be commercially available, so they can’t sell very many until other markets are identified, it would probably be incredibly expensive. Looking back, I was probably wrong to give the teams a good slagging, it seems they may have some valid reasons, but it’s not pretty & there are improvements to be made in the near future. I’ve no doubt that teams such as Sky have already identified this & are working on it, who knows, they may be saving up their innovations for the Tour.
Further viewing for the everyday cyclist
If you’re still interested in the more practical uses, and judging by the interactions I have with readers on this blog on twitter, the following data on the most aero way to carry a six pack of beer may be an everyday benefit to most riders, over saving a few seconds in a time trial.