Cycling’s speed secrets | The Economist


Few sports test the limits of professional athletes like cycling. [Cycling Commentator]
It’s a furious threat. But it’s not just human endurance on the track that delivers
the winning formula, it’s human ingenuity off it. It’s the world’s fastest bike. In an elite sport, the difference between success and failure is often the finest of margins. This is base camp for one of the most successful teams in global sport. Great Britain’s track cyclists have topped the medals tables at the
past three Olympic games. And it’s a team that keeps
churning out winners. We wanna be the fastest in the world, we don’t just wanna win the Olympics, we wanna win in the fastest time ever. In a sport where races are decided by as little
as 1/1000th of a second, Emily and her teammates are
obsessed with one thing: marginal gains. A little margin of half a percent will make that difference on the day. [Cycling Commentator]
Turning the pressure on. And one of the best places to find those tiny margins is on the bike. The team’s key man for this
is an aerodynamics expert and ex-Formula One motor racing engineer. My job is simply to use
technology and engineering in any way I can to
make the team go faster. Cambridge University
Professor of Engineering, Tony Purnell, designed the world-renowned T5GB bike with manufacturer Cérvelo. By dramatically reducing air resistance, it helped the British team enjoy its most successful Olympics ever. It’s the world’s fastest bike. The way those layers of
carbon fiber are constructed all makes for a lighter
and a stiffer bike, without compromising the aerodynamics. All important milliseconds were shaved off performance times by making the tiniest of design changes, even down to the chain. When you cycle, a little
bit of the power you produce gets lost in friction in the chain. If you can reduce that loss, it translates into the athlete being that
little bit more powerful. Using that chain would
have made the difference in the games between the
silver and the gold medal. It’s not just the bike where aerodynamic perfection
is relentlessly pursued, it’s also the person on it. The precise position of the rider can make all the difference. [Cycling Commentator]
Always ahead of schedule, he was 45 seconds up after 40 kilometers. In 1996, Olympic Gold medalist Chris Boardman broke the
one hour world record. [Cycling Commentator] As Boardman settles into the superman
position, arms stretched in front of his head, for
smoother aerodynamics. By pioneering his legendary
superman position. Today, this legacy lives
on at the state-of-the-art Boardman Performance
Center, in Evesham, England. Bike design can absolutely help, but we see that the
most significant portion of the aerodynamic effects and the drag is coming from the rider themself. Sit down, tell me a little bit more about the direction we want to take,
what do we want to look at. Today, Jamie is helping professional cyclist Dan Bigham decipher his optimum body posture for
an upcoming team pursuit race. In the wind tunnel, Dan is battling winds of over 60km/h to simulate
the drag conditions he’ll face on the track. His performance, and ultimately success, could depend on a series
of almost imperceptible tweaks to his position on the bike. Okay Dan, let’s go for our first change, we’ll do this on the fly. Let’s move the hands, please. By moving his hands slightly forward, and adjusting the gap between
them by just millimeters, Dan speeds up by nearly
half a second per kilometer. We’re operating at a
world record place here. So we’ve found some gains there, particularly from the hand open position, which is absolutely worth having. Come race day, subtle changes like this could add up to a big
advantage for Dan’s team. Me personally, I’m about 4/10ths
quicker just for my turn, and if that gain was for
everybody in the team, then we’re one and a half to
two seconds quicker overall. Cycling’s reputation has been damaged by doping. But its pursuit of
legitimate marginal gains still sets the pace for
many other disciplines. Britain’s world-beating cyclists face ever more intense
competition from rivals who are quickly learning how to innovate. The pursuit of marginal gains is about to get even more marginal.