Real-Time Aero Testing Will Define the Next Generation of Cycling Performance

It’s on a break from a busy classics campaign that Iván Velasco lightheartedly reflects back on his own career, wondering what could have been had personal aerodynamic meters been in use fifteen years ago. When he raced professionally, heart rate monitors where the de rigueur training aid. Almost remorsefully, he explains that his not-so-distant generation rode under much less measured conditions.

“When I raced, it was based much more on feel,” he says wryly over a Google Hangout, sticking his finger in the air as if to measure the wind, thinking about when he and former Euskaltel-Euskadi teammates relied primarily on target HR zones to determine effort. By the time the intertwining of power and heart rate data was ubiquitous in cycling, Velasco’s career was in its twilight, though the added dimension of power to performance was immediately clear.

Now 39, Velasco is enjoying an interesting third act to a career spent in professional cycling, witnessing a similar but different evolution in performance. After riding professionally for nearly a decade, he went on to work as an engineer with Specialized, a bike company, focusing on software development to calculate Coefficient of Aerodynamic Drag (CdA) using power files from velodrome testing, working with teams like Bora Hansgrohe and Team Quick Step.

Today he is in an innovation-focused role on one of the strongest teams in the professional peloton, Astana Pro Team, where he works as lead performance engineer. He spends his days applying real-time rider data, taken from aerodynamics testing (and personal aero meters), to influence the team’s cycling performance. So far the results have been good.

By the end of April 2019, Astana had already taken 23 first place finishes, consistently succeeding in races where time trials and aerodynamic advantage can mean podiums. At this year’s Tour of the Basque Country and Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol, for example, a focus on innovation yielded strong results for their GC, Ion Izagirre, who took first and second-place General Classification finishes at the respective races.

It was last Spring (2018) when Astana bought into the concept of leveraging real-time aerodynamic analysis to create a competitive advantage. To explore its potential more fully, they created role on the team’s coaching staff which Velasco went on to fill. By that time, Astana had been using the Notio - a device that measures CdA, rolling resistance and more - for months. Having a full-time engineer in an innovation-focused role, they thought, would help them accelerate the advantage. Turns out they were right.

The advantages of real-time testing

When Velasco was handed the opportunity to build an aerodynamics-led performance program within a powerful pro team using a new aero-meter -- this generation’s power meter, he wondered -- to optimize rider positioning, equipment and materials, it was clear a lot had changed in cycling performance since his days at Euskaltel.

In the first 60 days in the new role, Velasco set up meetings with each of Astana’s riders at a velodrome in Northern Spain, close to where he calls home, with two training camps over six days. The goal -- aside from settling in -- was to use the Notio and to create an aerodynamic profile for each of the athletes looking ahead to the 2019 season.

Focusing specifically on time trials, Velasco measured the intensity and timing of each rider in the time trial, then compared it against everyone’s aerobic threshold. He then compared rider data taken from the velodrome and compared it against real road conditions. The outputs where the beginnings of a now well-determined time trial protocol adhered to by the team. Before Notio testing, each rider on Astana functioned more like Velasco when he was a professional, pulling at the front, for example, based entirely how they themselves felt.

Now using Notio data, and with the analysis from Velasco and the entire performance coaching staff, each rider has very specific roles in their respective TT positions, defined by their CdA and physiological profiles. The advantages of applying real-time testing were clear.

“Riders saw the data similarity between velodrome and road testing, which inspired a lot of confidence,” adds Velasco. “We’ve replicated scenarios that were previously available only in a wind tunnel, which are really static conditions that don’t mimic racing. Notio adds that element of reality because you can test and train exactly how you would in a race, constantly refining the process from wherever you are.”

At the camp, the team started what’s now become an established TT process, gaining clarity on each of their individual and collective roles - something they did not have before extensive CdA analysis became available. Decisions are made based on established controls, while riders continue to react positively to the approach. “This kind of thing inspires a lot of confidence,” believes Velasco. It’s a sentiment that is echoed in the team’s ongoing performance. 

Making meaning of aero data

Throughout the 2019 season, Astana will spend just one day inside a wind tunnel. The rest of their aero testing will come directly from the Notio device in real-road conditions. Ahead of the Giro D’Italia, Velasco has been tinkering with several different materials working closely with Giordana, Limar and Argon18, to improve skin suits, helmets and bikes - all of which are testing and retested using the Notio.

The team is consistently finding small but significant aerodynamic variables they can enhance thanks to their approach. Innovation has become an ongoing dialogue on the team bus and in meetings. Power plans are developed for each rider, for example, ahead of races by taking into account every single detail - materials, tire pressures, rider position and more - and contrasting it against CdA data analysis. It just could be the advantage that continues to guide the team’s success.

“We are faster than last year, thanks to everyone’s understanding of aerodynamics and data. It’s a really great collaboration across the team. Everything counts and we are always looking for ways to get better.”

The Notio measures and correlates multiple data sets in real time. This compact piece of technology, which can be used on any bicycle brand, will help you be more aero and perform better. In addition to its own sensors, it connects to other external sensors and uses data in live calculations.