A departure from the usual talk of pro cycling now the Winter Olympics are in full swing. As someone used to watching cyclists in competition there are many crossovers from the impressive VO2 max scores of the XC skiers to the importance of aerodynamics in downhill skiing.
But what of aerodynamics? Looking at the Alpine ski events there seem to be many things where the skiers could take time for free. Taking the screengrab above with Italy’s Verena Stuffer for illustration. The more you look, the more you see.
What goes for her seems common across the other men and women:
- Many will notice the bib is creased. But they are given this and the International Ski Federation (FIS) rules say they cannot pin or modify it so let’s look elsewhere.
- The suit is creased too, these lines interrupt the airflow and if the suit moves like this in the start hut it’ll do the same elsewhere
- Look at the helmet. FIS rules reject spoilers and protrusions but could the shape be improved?
- The holes in the helmet around the ears look odd given this is a competition event. The “drillium” might save a few grams but it’s so that users can hear what’s going on around them – useless in competition. They risk disrupting the airflow.
- Look at the dangling chin strap, why can’t be it be cut to size to stop it flapping in the wind?
- Personal style is important for many but long hair? Surely a hairpin or two could stop it flapping in the wind or those with very long hair can tuck it under their suit
- Now for the goggles. Why is there a big elastic strap over the helmet, breaking the lines of the helmet? It’s also one of those adjustable ones with a double band and metal clip, can’t an Olympian get a piece of elastic to fit?
- FIS rules don’t allow aerodynamic modifications to the goggles but could fit flush to the helmet to improve aerodynamics, no?
- Look at the gloves, the second photo shows items that flare over the wrists like medieval gauntlets. Normally you’d expect something tighter to help with airflow. Maybe this flare helps spread the air around and over the arm?
- We can go on, look at the pronounced bindings and the boots with their exposed ratchets from US skier Ted Ligety below (yes I know they’re open). But note the way the front of the bindings leave a gap to the boots and how there’s a big space between the sole of the boots and the ski, an empty space that just stirs up the air.
The Science Bit
Aerodynamics matters because air resistance increases to the square of the speed. In cycling we’re talking about competition speeds of 40-60km/h. In Alpine skiing it’s double with competitors clocking 130km/h at times meaning aero matters a lot more.
Cycling can be a very reductive sport. Climbing is all about the W/KG ratio just as time trialling is primarily a function of your frontal area and watts. By contrast a downhill skiing requires skill in picking the trajectory, power to hold the line and a lot of the tech goes into ski design and waxing to suit the conditions. In other words skiing seems to have a lot of variables.
Cyclists have learned plenty from skiers. We talk about tri bars when mentioning the handlebar prolongations but they’re really ski bars because they come from Boone Lennon, a ski coach.
I’ve checked the FIS rules and they don’t allow aero helmets but there’s little on big gloves, long hair or boot design to stop some gains. Of course downhill skiing needs huge skill and enormous strength and there’s a lot of danger, it’s so much more than a windtunnel session. But that’s the point, all the power and precision shouldn’t be held back by long hair or a flappy strap. See the winning margins in competition, the difference between gold and fourth place can be fractions of a second.
What if the skiers are right?
What if the cyclists are too obsessive? Your weeekend warrior dresses up in aerodynamic clothing for a Sunday spin and the market is flooded with aerodynamic products from the obvious wheels and frames down to aero pedals and other marginal improvements.
You can see two different commercial approaches. A consumer who wants to ape a pro cyclist can get all sorts of advantages but it’s impractical, specific and often marginal. By contrast the skiers are paid to wear gear that is sold to ordinary punters so boots have the kind of ratchets someone with frosty fingers inside thick gloves can adjust when sitting on a ski lift. Such a level of practicality isn’t needed this week but it’s what makes the market work.
It’s not just the Alpine skiing. Watching the snowboarders in halfpipe makes you wonder why they’re all in such baggy clothing. Sure it’s cool but oversized jackets = wind resistance = slower runs = less air. It’s a clear case of fashion beating performance and you wonder why some geek doesn’t slide down in a skinsuit.
None of this is meant as a criticism of fellow athletes, there’s no pretension of superiority. Cyclists and skiers have plenty in common and my trip down the Sochi downhill course would probably end in hospital rather than the finish line. Plus I’m skating on the thin ice of ignorance so feel free to put some informed comments below to correct this.
Skiers do work on their aerodynamics a lot, they visit windtunnels to work on their position as much as cyclists. Like cycling the governing body imposes plenty of rules so some obvious gains are outlawed. Yet the cyclist’s eye, rendered obsessive by years of science and marketing , makes you wonder why the skiers are giving up free speed, especially as the winning margins are so small. It can be cheap things like long hair or flapping straps, it can be technology like boots and bindings.
I put a similar piece as an afterthought on tumblr earlier in the week but didn’t get an answer so I thought I’d put it to a large audience again