by Justin Davis
BEIJING, Aug 13, 2008 (AFP) – When the Olympic track cycling competition gets underway on Friday, the power and speed of the world’s biggest track stars won’t be the only thing on display.
At the Laoshan Velodrome, the big medal favourites will also unleash millions of euros (dollars) worth of the latest technology in the hope it can give them a vital edge.
Track bikes, compared to their road cousins, look like simple machines. They have no brakes or gears, and the pedal cleats are reinforced with toe straps to make sure there are no glitches.
But try to ride one, and try stopping, and you realize that the futuristic shapes formed by carbon-fiber nanotechnology are designed for only one thing: going as fast as possible.
“The bikes are relatively simple,” Chris Boardman, who at Barcelona in 1992 became Britain’s first Olympic cycling gold medalist since 1920, told Bicycle.net.
“The gear is a single freewheel, but the aerodynamic aspect is crucial. Carbon fiber is the main material we use because it’s very resistant and can be bent into almost any shape.”
While a veil of secrecy surrounds much of Britain’s track material, the French team’s ‘Look’ bikes are mass produced and used by several competing countries including hosts China, who have painted theirs a customary red.
France’s head mechanic Jean-Pierre Delorme said each of their machines, if on sale to the public, would cost around 15,000 euros (22,000 dollars).
Theoretically, the lighter the bike, the faster you go. The minimum regulation weight is just 6.8kg and – because they are so light already – the lack of brakes and gears can cause occasional problems at the weigh-in.
As well as continually changing wheels, chainrings and the fixed gearing in the search for a winning combination, mechanics need a trick or two up their sleeves.
Adding weight to bikes has not been unknown.
“I’ve been caught out at the weigh-in a couple of times when the bike has been 125 grams too light,” explained Delorme.
“But we can do certain things, like adding a strip of metal in a discrete place to make sure they meet the regulations.”
Tubular tires are made from silk and glued on to the rims of the wheels, with the thin rubber coating alone making contact with the wooden boards of the angled banking of the 250-meter track.
At 150 euros (220 dollars) each, punctures are to be avoided – although some tires only have a lifespan of 50 kilometres.
The minute detail that goes into creating the space-age equipment spreads to the riders’ flashy skin suits and helmets that make them look from another world.
It’s rather fitting, given that from outside the Velodrome here looks like a flying saucer.
While Boardman says the carbon-fibre coated helmets – designed to reduce air resistance – are “probably bullet-proof”, British track sprinter Jamie Staff says he can empathise with the Olympic swimmers.
He too has trouble getting his skin suit on.
“Once it’s on though, I feel like I’m Batman, only in white and blue instead of black!” he said.
Hidden away in the minds of experts like Boardman – the team’s research and development chief – is the kind of knowledge that can remove critical thousandths of a second from Olympic performances.
Deciding to “keeping an open mind” when searching for and developing new ideas, Boardman – who embraced many new technologies prior to his Olympic triumph – has spent years perfecting an estimated “150 details” that go into Britain’s hugely successful track team.
In the notoriously secretive world of track cycling, those details are rarely given away. But, he admits, it’s only a matter of time before their rivals catch up.
“It’s impossible to keep a secret in this sport, and you don’t have a winning formula for very long,” he added.
“But if you’re working hard to gain an edge, you try to make sure you don’t give it away.”