The difference between winning and losing a bicycle race sometimes comes down to fractions of a second.
The drive to gain that competitive edge in time trials--where each rider competes on his own without the help of teammates--is what lured Toyota-United Pro Cycling team rider Chris Baldwin and two of his teammates to the San Diego Air and Space Museum's Low Speed Wind Tunnel.
By suiting up in form-fitting spandex uniforms and donning space-age helmets in the eight-foot by 12-foot tunnel in late January, the trio hoped to dial in the ideal position to reduce wind drag on their aerodynamic bicycles.
Baldwin was particularly motivated to find ways to shave precious seconds in races against the clock. Last year, he was on his way to winning the USPRO Time Trial Championship in Greenville, S.C., when he crashed on one of the final turns. After changing bikes, Baldwin still managed to finish only 33 seconds behind David Zabriskie, who once beat Lance Armstrong in a time trial in the Tour de France.
With experts in aerospace test engineering and related fields looking on, Baldwin rode for ten to 20 minutes at a time in the wind tunnel, changing his position on the bike by adjusting the "drop" and "reach" of the bars mounted on his handlebars.
Like a downhill ski racer tucked tightly on a descent, he was looking for a position that cuts wind drag without reducing power to the pedals. That meant technicians had to adjust his time trial handlebars up and down and forward and back.
"There is a difference between the ability to produce power and the ability to be aerodynamic," said Baldwin, who won the US National Time Trial Championship in 2003 and 2005. "There are positions that are very aerodynamic but impossible for you to pedal."
Toyota-United Team Director Kirk Willett--whose brother, Kraig, is known as a "cycling aerodynamicist" at the wind tunnel facility--said data from the testing is collected and analyzed before a rider takes a "field test" ride to determine whether the new position is practical.
"There's basically head elevation, shoulder elevation, drop and reach," Kirk Willett said. "More than anything, though, going into the tunnel is a way to show the data to the rider as a reminder that it's important to keep your head and shoulders in the same position when you are out there racing."
Joining Baldwin in Toyota-United's testing session were fellow teammates Heath Blackgrove and Chris Wherry. Blackgrove said during his wind tunnel rides he concentrated on a digital readout screen which tracked his drag efficiency.
"They give you a lot of positions and show you what works as far as aerodynamics," he said. "With each position, it's not obvious how much you are changing things until you see the data."
The final step for a rider to gain the need for more speed is to get on his bicycle outdoors and try out the new position.
"When you're going to twist yourself into a pretzel, you want to confirm it's helping before you do it," Baldwin said.
Baldwin and his Toyota-United teammates will soon find out just how much they've improved following their work in the wind tunnel--which is capable of producing wind speeds up to 270 mph. They'll take part in the February 23rd Stage Five time trial at the Amgen Tour of California.
The 14.5-mile race through Solvang, Calif., sends each of the 144 riders out alone on the course at one or two-minute intervals. Last year, Baldwin finished 37th in the time trial, two minutes and 43 seconds behind the winner.