Caleb Ewan’s sprint position is the best. So why isn’t everyone using it?
It’s pretty obvious: if you can get down low in a sprint, you’re going to be more aerodynamic than if you’d stayed upright. You don’t need to do a bunch of research to realise that the ultra-low sprint position employed by Caleb Ewan is pretty effective.
But hey, if research is what you’re after, that certainly exists as well.
First there was a study out of Belgium that used computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to test the super-low position. Then there was research out of Western Australia that did the same but with real-world riders on the road. Both studies confirmed, independently of one another and using different techniques, that an ultra-low sprint position is super effective. The takeaway seemed clear: if you’re a sprinter, and you’re not getting low, you’re leaving an aero advantage on the table.
Following those two studies it seemed likely that other sprinters would follow in Ewan’s wake, getting their heads as low as possible as they dashed for the line. And yet, many months later, you could argue that Ewan is still the only world-class sprinter getting the most out of his sprint.
Perhaps a third research paper, using another different research technique to confirm the benefits of getting low, will be the catalyst for change in the sprinting world?
Published in August, this latest paper uses wind-tunnel data from Melbourne’s Monash University to again show that a low position means a more aerodynamic sprint. But unlike the two papers that it follows, this one builds off work done with Ewan himself.
How it started
Dr Paolo Menaspa has worn a number of hats during his time in cycling. He’s been a sports scientist with Cycling Australia on and off since 2011, he’s been a researcher at Edith Cowan University in Perth, and he’s worked with the GreenEdge cycling team (now known as Mitchelton-Scott).
Menaspa is one of the co-authors on this latest study; a study that involves researchers from Monash University, Edith Cowan University, the Australian Institute of Sport and the University of Canberra. While this particular paper has only just been published, the building blocks for this research go back as far as 2011 when Menaspa was in the early stages of his PhD.
“You may or may not remember the Road World Championship [where] [Mark] Cavendish won and second was Matt Goss,” Menaspa told CyclingTips. “Probably the gap between gold and silver was less than a wheel. The sprint was my topic for my PhD so I was all excited and trying to look into all the little details.
“There was a front photo where you could actually see clearly that … the frontal area of Cavendish was much lower than Goss. So we kind of guesstimated what could have been if Goss was a little smaller or more aerodynamic or anything like that. And so we had some fun with some modelling.”
Menaspa and his colleagues started testing sprinters in the wind tunnel as early as 2012.
“That was the first time that some actual wind tunnel numbers on a practical level confirmed what we expected from some modelling,” Menaspa said. “And so we were kind of dreaming: imagine if you can have a more economic sprinter, potentially we could have won that world championship in Copenhagen, which I found exciting at the time.”
Menaspa was working with the U23 Australian development team in 2013 and 2014, a team that Ewan was part of. In November 2014, Menaspa brought Ewan into the wind tunnel in the hope of improving the youngster’s sprint.
“We explored what I would say at that stage was … almost silly aerodynamic or silly low and forward, and trying to be as low as possible,” Menaspa said. “Because again, the thinking after the world championships was at the moment the lowest cyclist or the most aerodynamic sprinter we could think about was Cavendish.
“So we started from there, we had a look and then we were saying ‘Caleb, try to go as low as possible. It doesn’t matter even if you can’t pedal, just be low.’”
Those early studies with Ewan would pave the way for Menaspa’s recent paper. Included in the study are data from one unnamed male rider and one unnamed female rider. Menaspa won’t confirm whether it was data from Ewan that was eventually used in the published research, but it seems to be a distinct possibility.
The study itself was reasonably simple.
“You get a subject, you ask them to sprint in what would be their normal or common sprint position, which generally is out of the seat and is kind of upright — whatever is comfortable and normal for them,” Menaspa said. “And then the goal … we ask the subject to assume a more forward position and a lower position.
“In short, it’s just trying to actually be as low and as forward as possible on the bike. And then in the wind tunnel you actually measure wind resistance, so that tells you what the potential gain is.”
Menaspa and colleagues set the Monash University wind tunnel to produce a wind speed of 70kph for the male rider and 60kph for the female rider. Each rider did a number of sprints in five positions:
1. Their normal position, as a baseline
2. With a low upper body, and with their elbows in
3. With a low and forward upper body, with elbows in and head down
4. With a low upper body only
5. With a low upper body, elbows in, and head down.
Menaspa and his colleagues discovered that, in the third position, wind resistance was decreased by 27% — a significant saving.
Menaspa wasn’t surprised to see that the lower position was more aerodynamic. Other factors did surprise him though.
“What surprised me was by how much [the position was more aero],” he said. “The difference is pretty big. And what surprised me as well — I feel like I’ve never seen it before — was how similar the results were from what are pretty much three different research groups and three completely different research settings.”
Menaspa’s findings were remarkably close to those of Bert Blocken in Belgium and Paul Merkes over in Perth (Menaspa contributed to that study too). Blocken’s CFD tests showed a 24% reduction in wind resistance, while Merkes’ field tests showed a 26% reduction. (You can read about both studies in this article published on CyclingTips in March 2019)
“Basically you’ve got a group doing CFD, a computer estimation; [you’ve got] Paul in Perth doing the actual cyclist; and the wind tunnel …”, he said. “All these three groups [were] applying potentially different methods and instructions etc. [but] we all saw a CdA [aerodynamic drag] improvement of about 20-25%.
“I’m surprised by the consistency of the results. That’s pretty impressive.”
The research seems pretty clear: getting low is more aerodynamic. But after reading all three papers, one question stands out: is it possible to produce the same amount of power when you’ve got your head down and you’re leaning way over the handlebars? After all, you could be the most aero sprinter in the bunch, but if your power drops in the process, then any aero advantages are likely to be worthless.
“I’m not aware of anything published but I can say that that’s part of what Paul [Merkes] is doing in his PhD and a paper has actually been submitted and is currently under review,” Menaspa said. “I can’t say too much but my expectation would be that you’d be able to produce a very similar amount of power.”
Ewan’s sprint certainly doesn’t seem to have suffered from his super-low position. After spending more than a year working on it, Ewan publicly debuted the position in January 2016. He won plenty of races that summer: three stages and the overall at the ‘Bay Crits’, the Australian criterium title, and two stages of the Tour Down Under.
In the three-and-a-half years since, he’s claimed a whole host of victories, many of which saw him adopt that super-low sprint position in the closing metres of his sprint.
As noted above, it’s somewhat surprising that more riders haven’t imitated Ewan’s position, just as Ewan ultimately mimicked Cavendish’s. But Menaspa believes it’s happening, slowly.
“I think it’s fair to say that more sprinters are doing it already or are thinking about it,” he said. “Maybe not in an extreme way … but I think [Elia] Viviani is. I actually remember a specific interview where he mentioned that he does some training on trying to be lower and you can see in some photos where he actually is relatively low.
“So I think sprinters are thinking about it. It’s not always possible, it’s not maybe as consistent as you could imagine — it’s still a relatively new thing. I think there’s another Italian, [Jakub] Mareczko who has been using it.”
Menaspa believes that, just as he was inspired by Cavendish’s position back at the 2011 Worlds, so other sports scientists have almost certainly been inspired by Ewan’s exploits. He expects that, right now, institutes of sport and national federations are working on teaching their charges how to assume a similar position.
Given that we now have three research papers showing that the position is more aerodynamic, it would be a surprise not to see more sprinters using it in the years ahead. It will likely take some time though — it took Ewan more than a year to feel comfortable with his head down, below his handlebars.
Some riders might never be comfortable with it, or they might not feel they can produce the same power down low. And then there’s the issue of size. Perhaps it’s only smaller sprinters like Ewan (165cm), Mareczko (169cm) and Cavendish (175cm) that can fold themselves over their bars aerodynamically, while still maintaining power. More research will be required to confirm that.
One thing’s obvious though: those who are able to get their head down safely and comfortably while sprinting should absolutely do so.