Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics

Celebrating the physics of all that flows. Ask a question, submit a post idea or send an email. You can also follow FYFD on Twitter and Google+. FYFD is written by Nicole Sharp, PhD.

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Like the athletes who compete on ice, skiers rely on a film of liquid beneath their skis to provide the low friction necessary to glide. The moisture results from the friction of the ski’s base and edges cutting into the snow, and, depending on the conditions of the snow, different surface treatments are recommended for the skis to help control and direct this lubricating film. Similarly, skiers uses various waxes on their skis to lower surface tension and provide additional lubrication. Fluid dynamics can also play a role in tactics for various ski-based events. In endurance events like cross-country skiing, drafting behind other skiers can help an athlete avoid drag and save energy. When drafting, cross-country skiers have lower heart rates. Drag and aerodynamics can also play a significant roles in alpine skiing, especially in speed events like the downhill or super G. In these events solo skiers reach speeds of 125 kph, where drag is a major factor in slowing their descent. Between turns smart skiers will tuck, decreasing their frontal area and reducing drag’s effects. Athletes use wind tunnel testing to dial in their tuck position for maximum effect, and, like speedskaters, skiers may also wear special aerodynamic suits. (Photo credits: F. Cofferini/AFP/Getty Images, C. Onerati; h/t to @YvesDubief)

Reader juleztalks writes:

I’ve just entered an amateur triathlon, and there’s a whole load of rules about not “drafting” in the cycle stage (basically, not sitting in other cyclists’ slipstream). However, there are no such rules for the swim or run stage; I thought the effects would be the same from drafting other swimmers and runners. Any ideas?

As in many endurance sports, it’s all a question of energy savings from drag reduction. Drag on an object, like a triathlete, is roughly proportional to fluid density (air for cycling or running, water for swimming), frontal area, and the velocity squared. Because drag increases more drastically for an increase in velocity, it makes sense one would worry most about drag when one’s velocity is highest - on the bike.

Drafting has major benefits in cycling and can reduce drag on a rider by 25-40%. Aerodynamic drag accounts for 70% or more of a cyclist’s energy expenditure, so that reduction can really add up. The energy saved by drafting during cycling can even increase a triathlete’s speed during a subsequent running leg. So it makes sense for a sport’s governing body to be concerned with it.

That said, there’s plenty of room for drag reduction in swimming as well. Even though the velocities are much lower, water’s density is 1,000 times higher than air’s, generating plenty of drag for an athlete to overcome. For swimmers at maximum speed, drafting can reduce drag by 13-26%, depending on relative positioning. Such drafting has been found to increase stroke length and may (or may notimprove subsequent cycling performance.

Although a similar reduction in drag is possible by drafting when running, drag on a runner only accounts for about 8% of his/her energy expenditure so such savings would matters very little next to the swimming and cycling legs. There could be some psychological benefits, though, in terms of pacing oneself. (Photo credit: Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies)

jonesmartinez asks:

As a cyclist, I’m curious about drafting. How fast do I need to be going for there to be a measurable benefit? Additionally, often in a time trial a single rider is often followed by the team car and I’ve heard the rider can be pushed by the air around the team car. Any truth to this rumor? Thanks, I love the blog.

Drafting plays a major role in cycling and its tactics (check out our previous series on cycling). In general, drag increases with the square of velocity and data show this holds for cyclists. The rule of thumb I’ve heard given is that aerodynamic drag doesn’t play a large role below 15 mph, but I have not seen the numbers that inform that claim. Moreover, you have to consider the resultant airspeed around the cyclist. For example, a cyclist moving 13 mph into a 15 mph headwind (28 mph effective) will be experiencing more drag than a cyclist moving 20 mph with a 10 mph tailwind (10 mph effective). With drag being reduced 25-40% by drafting a leading rider, it is almost always beneficial to get behind someone.

That said, I have seen no measurable benefit for a leading rider with a paceline behind him, even though this should, in theory, reduce the drag on the lead rider by closing out his wake. With a large object like a car behind a solo rider, there might theoretically be some benefit. However, the car would have to be driving extremely close to the rider—far closer than they do in reality.

That said, with the prevalence of power meters in the amateur market these days, I think it would be a neat project to go out and try a few of these things firsthand and see whether such tactics actually result in a measurable difference in a cyclist’s performance—though I don’t recommend riding a foot off the front or back of a car!

Flow visualization in a water tunnel shows what the flow around a line of traffic looks like. Note the progressively more turbulent flow around each car as it sits in the wake of the car before it. Turbulent flow is usually associated with increased drag forces, but because turbulence can actually help prevent flow separation it is sometimes desirable as a method for decreasing drag. In the case of these cars drafting on one another, it is clear that the cars further back in the line cause less effect on the fluid—and thus have less drag to overcome—than the front car.  (Photo credit: Rob Bulmahn)

Conventional wind turbines feature horizontal axis propellers which must be placed far apart from one another to avoid wake interference. Researchers have found that using vertical axis wind turbines specially arranged to utilize the wake of one turbine to improve the efficiency of its neighbor can produce far more energy per square meter of land. The inspiration for this arrangement came from fish, which also derive benefits from the drafting that occurs in their schools. #

For those who like the effects of drafting in cycling backed up by Mythbusters, here’s a comparison between riding a mountain bike at 20 mph solo and on the tail end of a semi. #

In cycling, a small group of riders often leave the protection of the peloton in a breakaway. These riders will often spend 80% or more of a stage or race outside of the peloton, trying to reach the finish line before they’re caught. Because the pressure drag is so draining on a lone cyclist, it’s vital that breakaway riders work together. When the wind comes predominantly from the front or back, riders will form one or two lines, riding with their wheels within a foot of one another (see ~0:23). This paceline rotates so that every rider takes a turn at the front, bearing the brunt of the effort while other cyclists recover in their wake, where they experience less drag.

If the wind blows predominantly across the riders, they will form a diagonal line with the frontmost rider rotating behind for shelter from the wind after a pull. This drag reduction technique is called an echelon (see ~1:40). As seen above, for experienced riders the echelon can protect individuals even in bike-stealingly high winds.

FYFD is celebrating the Tour de France with a weeklong exploration of the fluid dynamics of cycling. See part one on drafting in the peloton.

July is well underway and for cycling fans around the world that means it’s time for the Tour de France. This week at FYFD we’re going to do something a little different: in honor of cycling’s biggest race, every post this week will focus on some of the fluid dynamics involved in the sport.

On a bicycle, except when climbing, the majority of a rider’s energy goes toward overcoming aerodynamic drag. Riders wear close-fitting clothes to reduce skin friction and loss to flapping fabric, but most of their drag is pressure-based. A blunt object disturbs the airflow around it, usually resulting in separated flow in its wake. A high pressure region forms in front of the rider and a low pressure region forms in the separated flow behind them. This pressure difference literally pulls the rider backwards. Since drag goes roughly as speed squared, adding a headwind makes matters even worse for a cyclist.

In races, especially on flat stages, the majority of the riders will stay in a large group called a peloton in order to counteract these aerodynamics. By riding in the wakes of those in the front, riders in the peloton experience a much smaller front-to-back pressure difference and thus much less drag. For a rider in the midst of the peloton, the drag reduction can be as great as 40% (#). This allows riders to conserve energy for solo efforts near the end of the race or stage, like breaking away from the peloton in the final kilometers or winning a sprint for the finish line. (Photo credit: Wade Wallace)