Technology: Flop, Flop, Fizzle, Fizzle

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches: News from the Field, November 1996

Technology: Flop, Flop, Fizzle, Fizzle

Think $5 million can buy cycling gold? Guess again.
By Eric Hagerman

It was, of course, high comedy, a refreshing respite from hours of jingoistic cooing and Macarena-dancing gymnasts: At last summer's Olympics, gold-medal favorite Rebecca Twigg refused to pilot Superbike II, the wondersteed that was to prove America's technological prowess to the world, saying it handled horribly on the track. In the end, USA Cycling's $5 million Project '96 resulted in just one paltry silver medal. How could we have spent the GDP of a small island nation on such a dismal flop? The fun is in the details.

First, there was the matter of the bike's ultrathin frame. Aerodynamic, to be sure. But five weeks before the Games, members of the pursuit team heard a...troubling sound during a test ride. Seems one of the vaunted frames had cracked. "We had a high-stress area," admits engineer Scott Gordon.

That problem was solved, but others arose. Manufacturing delays forced USA Cycling to scuttle Superbike II's custom pedals, leaving the Americans to race with ungainly off-the-rack models (picture a Ferrari with "Keep on Truckin'" mud flaps). Twigg complained that she didn't receive her bike early enough to test it. Then there was the fact that the team's coaches opted to forgo the so-called Superman riding position, which had won world championship gold a year earlier and would win again in Atlanta. And the fact that, despite secrecy befitting the CIA, the French team showed up with a remarkably similar bike. And...well, you get the idea.

Still, there are those who say that the project was a success. After all, Superbike II produced the Americans' fastest times ever. "To believe the bicycle was going to make the complete difference was illusion," says its designer, Forrest Yelverton. "We have the best bicycle on the planet. We didn't have the best athletes." And so we come to the bottom line: The Superbike squad--with only two real contenders (Twigg and time-trial silver medalist Erin Hartwell) and such fossils as 43-year-old Kent Bostick--had little hope to begin with. "Everybody says the project was a disaster, but we got what we deserved," Bostick says. "We need a better pool of athletes, so somebody like me doesn't win the trials."

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