Sunday, September 28, 2014

W/m^2, Altitude and the Hour Record

More hour record stuff to follow on from the item on Jens Voigt's hour ride.

This time to look at the physics impact of increasing altitude. I'll layer on top of this the physiological impact in a future post.

tldr version, click on this chart:

In brief:
- for a given W/m^2, you'll go faster as altitude increases
- for a given speed, the W/m^2 required reduces with altitude
- for a given altitude, to go faster the W/m^2 required increases

Now the long version:

There are two major factors which determine the speed a rider can maintain on flat terrain such as a velodrome, that being their power output and the air resistance. Or put another way, these are the primary energy supply and demand factors. There are other smaller energy factors as well (mostly on the demand side) but power output and air resistance are by far the most important when it comes to riding an hour record attempt on velodromes (or any race of individual speed on flatter terrain).

Energy Supply

What power output one can sustain for an hour is a function of several underlying factors that I discuss in this post. We influence that primarily through training, and of course to a large extent it depends upon the genetic gifts we are blessed with*.

There is of course also the physiological impact of altitude, as the partial pressure of oxygen reduces with increasing altitude, and as a result, so reduces the power we are able to maximally sustain aerobically (with oxygen). How much reduction in power occurs with altitude is individually variable, and you can acclimate to some extent as well, but there is no denying that once altitude starts getting high, ability to generate power definitely falls away.

I go through some of this in this post on altitude training, and I will be returning to this and its impact on hour records in a future post.

Energy Demand

For hour records on a velodrome, air resistance accounts for more than 90% of the total energy demand factors. In the case of  indoor velodromes and speeds in the 50-56km/h range, it's of the order of 92-93% of the total energy demand, with the balance mostly being rolling resistance and other frictional energy losses, and a tiny fraction in kinetic energy changes. This dominance of air resistance in the energy demand is why there is such a solid relationship between speed and the ratio of power to aerodynamic drag.

Air resistance & CdA

Air resistance on a cyclist is a function of several factors, being:
- the bike and rider's coefficient of air drag (Cd),
- their effective frontal area (A),
- the speed they are travelling at,
- the speed and relative direction of any wind, and
- the density of the air.

The coefficient of drag (Cd) and frontal area (A) multiply together to give us a measure of a rider's air resistance property - CdA. A lower CdA means you can go faster for the same power, or less power is required to sustain the same speed.

CdA is something a rider can change through bike positional and equipment choices (e.g. using an aerodynamic tuck position reduces your CdA compared with sitting more upright, or using deep section wheels with fewer spokes lowers CdA compared with using shallow box section rims with lots of spokes).

So to ride faster on an indoor velodrome where there is no tail or head wind to aid or hinder, you'll need to either:
- increase your power output, or
- reduce your CdA, or
- reduce the density of air you are riding through.

Or of course some net combination of all three that results in more speed.

It is possible that one can produce less power but have a significant reduction in air resistance factors such that the resulting speed is higher. For example, sometimes there is trade off between the advantage gained from use of an aerodynamic position on a bike, even though there may be a sacrifice of some power output due to the impact the aggressive bike position has on a rider's bio-mechanical effectiveness.

It all boils down to W/m^2

Robert Chung some years ago published a nice chart that shows the equivalency of speed on flat terrain with the ratio of power to CdA:

What we can see in this chart is how well Power/CdA can help estimate speed on flat road terrain over a wide range of power outputs and CdA values. Of course it's not a perfect correlation, as you can attain a slightly higher speed with the same W/m^2 as the power (and CdA) increases. So even if you share the same W/m^2 as another rider, the rider that has more absolute power will still be ever so slightly faster.

Not by much though. As an example, if we compared two riders on a low rolling resistance velodrome, one with 400W and another with 10% more power (440W) and both had the same power to CdA ratio of 1700W/m^2, then the more powerful rider will only be ~0.1km/h or 0.2% faster (all else equal). Like I said, there's not much in it.

I also showed this in the chart from my previous post on the Jens Voigt hour ride, where estimating his W/m^2 with reasonable precision is much easier than his absolute power. If the power was lower, so the W/m^2 must be a little higher, but not by much. Over a 100W (25-30%) range of possible power outputs, the W/m^2 required to attain the same speed varies by only 2%.

So even if we consider a range of power outputs typical for elite riders of the calibre likely to attempt an hour record ride, the W/m^2 ratio required for a given speed on a given velodrome will be within a pretty tight range.

Air density

Air density however isn't quite as easy for an individual to control, as it is largely a function of environmental conditions, in particular:
- air temperature,
- barometric pressure, and
- altitude.

Air density drops with an increase in temperature and altitude, and with a reduction in barometric pressure. Humidity also affects air density, but only by a very small amount (humid air is marginally less dense than dry air). So while a rider cannot control the atmospheric barometric pressure, they can choose a velodrome with a temperature control system, or one that will likely be warm, as well as choose from a range of tracks that are at different altitudes.

Altitude and its impact on speed

So given all that, I thought I'd look at how the combined effect of the power and aero drag values required to ride at certain speeds varies with altitude. As is typical of me, I've summarised this in a chart shown below. As usual, click on the image to see a larger version.

It's not overly complex, but let me explain.

On the vertical axis is the ratio of power output to the coefficient of aero drag x frontal area (CdA). Power / CdA in units of watts per metres squared.

On the horizontal axis is altitude in metres.

Then I have plotted a series of slightly curves lines, one each for speed ranging in 1km/h increments from 47km/h to 56km/h, and another line for 56.375km/h, which is the speed Chris Boardman averaged for his hour record.

For the sake of comparison, I've fixed the air temperature, barometric pressure, bike + rider mass and rolling resistance to be constant values for each. I did a little variation of power, but not much, and as I have demonstrated, the impact is very small.

So if we look at any particular line, we can see how the W/m^2 required to sustain that speed reduces as altitude increases. And of course we can see that for any given W/m^2 the speed you can sustain varies with altitude.

e.g. let's take 1800W/m^2. At sea level, the 1800W/m^2 line crosses the 51km/h line. As you trace horizontally from left to right, the 1800W/m^2 crosses the speed lines roughly as follows:
51km/h @ sea level
52km/h @ ~500m altitude
53km/h @ ~1000m
54km/h @ ~1450m
55km/h @ ~1950m
56km/h @ ~2450m

So naturally there is interest in using tracks at higher altitudes in order to ride faster and set records.

Now of course different tracks have variable quality surfaces, and so the assumption of rolling resistance being equal at all tracks is not valid, so any comparison of actual tracks should also consider impact of changes to coefficient of rolling resistance (Crr). Even so, since Crr accounts for only ~ 5-6% of the total energy demand, then track smoothness, while a factor, is more important when considering tracks at similar altitudes.

But what about power output at altitude?

Well of course there is a trade off between the speed benefit of lower air density at increasing altitudes, and the reduction in a rider's power output as partial pressure of O2 falls.

Hence as altitude increases, while a rider's CdA will not change, their power output will fall and hence their W/m^2 will also fall accordingly. So the W/m^2 line for any individual won't be horizontal, but rather trend downwards from left to right.

How quickly an individual's W/m^2 line drops away with altitude then determines the real speed impact of altitude.

So, what's the optimal altitude for an hour record?

I'm going to explore that in a future post (although I'm certainly not the first to have done so). So stay tuned.

* Pithy Power Proverb: "Choose your parents wisely".

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hour record: Jens Voigt

Plenty has been written about Jen's Voigt's successful attempt at the new UCI hour record, set under the recently revised rules which permits the same bike set up currently used for the individual pursuit.

I thought I'd just add a chart to illustrate what sort of power and aerodynamic drag would be required to attain the result Jens achieved. The chart below summarises these key numbers and plots the CdA v power required, and shows the ratios of power to coefficient of drag area and power to body mass.

Where on that line Jens was, I don't know exactly, but it will be somewhere along there, or nearby. Click on the chart to open a larger version so you can see the numbers.

Jens' power to CdA ratio was in the range of
1715 - 1750 W/m^2.

Let me add some detail as to how the chart is derived, the assumptions used and key sensitivities. First the numbers we know.

Distance travelled and speed
Jen's official distance for the hour was 51.115km, which is calculated by the number of whole and partial laps completed x 250m per lap. Now we know from video that Jens did not always ride a perfect line around the track, and so his wheels actually travelled further than the official distance. Riding a good line is all part of the skill of track racing, so Jens likely cost himself some official distance.

So when calculating what speed Jens was actually doing, we'd need to know his actual wheel speed or distance per lap. However since air resistance acts mostly on where the centre of mass of the bike and rider is, which on a velodrome travels a distance less than that of the wheels, then we'd also need to factor in the lean angle of the bike and rider. Now I'm not going to attempt to do that. The data does actually exist as it was recorded by the Alphamantis Track Aero System which performs such calculations on the fly, but I don't have it.

In any case, I am going to assume that the extra distance travelled by Jens' wheels was cancelled out by the lean angle meaning Jens' centre of mass travelled about the same as the officially recorded distance. It's difficult without more data to be more precise than that, but it's a reasonable assumption.

Complicating the speed equation was Jens' pacing, which was somewhat variable, starting strongly, falling into a lull and then increasing somewhat in the final 10-15 minutes of the ride. So there would have been quite some variations in the power output during the ride. Of course the event starts from a an electronic gate that holds the rider, and there is some extra effort require to get up to speed which takes 10-15 seconds, so while it's a factor, it's a pretty small one in the the overall hour.

Here is a picture posted by Xavier Disley on his twitter account, showing lap by lap speeds, and when Jens got up out of saddle briefly:

In any case, I am going to work with the overall average speed of the rider as 51.115km/h.

Environmental conditions
Based on Weather Underground link the following conditions existed at the time of the ride:

Air pressure: 1012hPa
Humidity: 60%
Outdoors there was a light wind of 2-3km/h and no precipitation.

A spectator at the track reported the temperature indoors was 26C. Outside it was 20C with a maximum of 23C, so the reported indoor temperature is plausible and I'll go with that.

430m at Grenchen, Switzerland.

All of this provides an air density value of 1.114kg/m^3.

Rider and equipment mass
Trek reported via social media Jens' body weight to be 76kg. It may have been a little more but it's not a number that is particular critical to the calculations, as this is all about power and air drag.

Bike/kit mass - I'm going to assume ~ 8kg, again the calculations are not overly sensitive to this value.

As an example of this insensitivity, changing rider's mass by 5% only introduces a 0.3% error into the W/m^2 calculations.

Rolling resistance
I'm going to assume a coefficient of rolling resistance (Crr) of 0.0025, which is about typical for a quality set of track tyres on a quality wooden indoor velodrome. I did some calculations for Crr of 0.002 and 0.003, which is quite a broad range for such tracks and tyres and it only changes the power demand by approximately  +/- 1.5%. This is because rolling resistance accounts for less than 10% of the total energy demand for the event.

Power and coefficient of drag area
OK, so given all that, what power and aerodynamic numbers would be required to do what Jens did?

Well we can't really know what power Jens averaged for the effort unless Trek release the data, but what we can say is what his power to air drag ratio was. To ride that speed, it would be in the range of 1715 to 1750 W/m^2.

That's an average, as of course Jens' actual instantaneous CdA did vary as he changed position on the bike at times. He was mostly in his aero bars but was occasionally standing up on the pedals or making other adjustments.

This chart shows the line along which Jens likely falls somewhere. If his power was lower, then his CdA must have also been lower in order to maintain power to drag ratio in the range of ~ 1715-1750 W/m^2.

The chart also then shows what his power to body mass ratio would be (assuming 76kg), so we can see the wide range of power capability possible to attain such a speeds. You don't need big power, if you are very slippery through the air.

Aero matters. A lot.

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