Cycling: Cambridge whizzkids offer British riders edge

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The Americans have come up with a funky new track bike for the Olympics and everywhere you look around the inner-sanctum of Rio’s velodrome there is space-age kit primed for action.

2016 Rio Olympics - Cycling Track - Preliminary - Team training - Rio Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 09/08/2016. China's (CHN) men's team during a practice session. REUTERS/Matthew Childs

New Zealand’s carbon wheels have been designed by the firm who make masts for their America’s Cup yachts.

But Britain believes the brainpower that has gone into maintaining the domination they enjoyed on the boards in 2012 continues will be unsurpassed.

Tony Purnell, former principal of Formula One motor racing teams Jaguar and Red Bull, is the latest boss of British Cycling’s Research and Innovation department -- or to give it its more informal title “Head of Stuff”.

A self-confessed bicycle nut who admits to shamelessly trawling the internet looking for new gizmos and ideas, is in charge of everything from frames, to suits to training and says the team competing in Rio will enjoy a “nice little gain” compared to London when they scooped seven of the 10 titles.

He will not be taking all the credit though if things go well over the next five days -- confessing he has tapped into the gray matter of some of Cambridge University’s finest students who he lectures once a week.

“It’s like our own version of Bletchley Park,” Purnell, who joined British Cycling in 2013, told reporters at Rio’s Olympic Park on the eve of the track cycling program. “There will be students sitting at home this summer and saying ‘yes! I had something to do with that.’

“I’ve had good contributions on aerodynamics and strategy. Some pretty subtle stuff. There are at least 10 who will be able say they’re part of Team GB,” adding some are on retainers. “They’ve even signed the official secrets act!” he joked.

According to some reports the 10,000 pounds ($13,013.00) Cervelo bikes the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Laura Trott will ride in Rio, have been coated in top-secret aerodynamic paint to shave fractions of seconds off times.

Despite some initial teething problems with weight, Britain’s team are purring with delight at the new bike and Wiggins, attempting to win a British record eighth Olympic medal, has described it as the best he has ever ridden.

“I wasn’t going to go for something bland, there is no point in doing it unless it’s quicker, so we pushed the envelope,” Purnell said. “I was really keen on good aerodynamics because at the speed they are going it really counts.”


With plenty of connections in the F1 paddock, Purnell has had access to wind tunnels, tools and engineering equipment with the petrol heads only to pleased to chip in.

“I spent many years in the glamour world of F1 but those guys just want to talk about bikes, they are cycling nuts.”

But what about the new bike the American team pursuiters, led by Sarah Hammer, will be using as they try and to follow their world title with a first Olympic gold in the event.

It will have the drive chain -- the crank and chain that propel the back wheel -- on the left rather than the right.

“In track racing, you’re spending more than half of the race turning left. By moving the drivetrain to the left side, there is less drag,” said U.S coach Neal Henderson.

“It’s a leap forward. I wouldn’t say it’s like the ‘Fosbury Flop,’ but it’s a significant advance.”

Purnell said doing the same to the British bikes would have been too costly for “not enough gain” - adding with a mild degree of sarcasm “I’m sure they are using good science.”

When all is said and done, however, whether you have left-side drivechains, futuristic skin suits or even a bunch of under-graduates beavering into the night on new innovations, a bike is only as good as its engine.

“You develop a Formula One engine and it’s all about the hardware. Here the hardware is the athlete,” he said.

“They are humans and they are squidgy and they are emotional and it’s a very different game. But at the end of the day they respond to science.”

Not that they all do what they are told, with Wiggins insisting on riding without socks.

“Personally I think they should wear socks halfway up,” Purnell said. “But Brad is not afraid to experiment.”

($1 = 0.7685 pounds)

Editing by Frank Pingue