What Cyclists Can Learn From Schools of Fish

A weaker athlete might be able to keep up if they stay to the back of a group

Erik Isakson/Corbis

A group of animals moving together can be mesmerizing but also useful to study. The laws that creature collectives follow can offer hints for human efficiency. For cyclists, this means paying attention to the synchronized motions of a school of fish, according to new research. 

Former competitive cyclist and self-taught physicist, Hugh Trenchard, teased out the principals guiding a group of cyclists riding together en mass, a grouping called a peloton, reports Rebecca Boyle for New Scientist. Like a school of fish or flock of birds, members of the pack draft off one another, reducing drag and saving energy. But to pass a competitor, a rider must venture out of the pack and work against the drag. And it turns out that fish and birds follow a similar set of rules.

Trenchard recorded and analyzed videos of racers competing in a velodrome—a kind of circular track used for bike racing. He noticed that as the lead rider sped up, the peloton changed from a rough circular shape to a single-file line. This observation led Trenchard to develop a model that describes the principles guiding the fluidity of the peloton as the riders change speed. Trenchard recently published this work in the journal Applied Mathematics and Computation.

Though Trenchard's model hasn't been applied to animals, it could be, the behavioral ecologist James Herbert-Read tells New Scientist. But it will be more difficult. The model uses stats about each athlete's performance, which aren't easy to measure for fish or birds. Yet up for the challenge, Trenchard is teaming up with Shaun Killen of the University of Glasgow to study fish.

Killen has already seen similar patterns as Trenchard found in a group of eight schooling fishLike the cyclists, who can hide in the draft of other riders, fish in the back need fewer tail flicks to stay with the group, reports Alok Jha for The Guardian

Even more interesting is that also similar to pelotons, wild fish schools may not all perform equally, Killen told The Guardian. "It wouldn't be smart for a fish to join a school with others that are much slower or faster than it is."

So another tip cyclists can glean from the animal kingdom is: Don't overestimate skill level. Novices wouldn’t be able to compete in the Tour de France by drafting alone. 

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