The Gizmos: Better Olympians through Science

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1996

The Gizmos: Better Olympians through Science

Can Technology help score medals? Consider the $5 million superbike
By Andew Tilin

Strength, stamina, agility. They're only part of the equation. In some sports, your gear had better be as state-of-the-art as your body. Take pursuit track cycling: At a cost of more than $5 million and an effort of 40,000 man-hours, building the U.S. team's high-tech mount, Superbike II, was a veritable Manhattan Project. The upshot? No more excuses for the homeboys. Inspired by the zany-looking bike that Great Britain's Chris Boardman rode to victory in Barcelona, this new creation has the Yanks sounding downright cocky. "It's so aerodynamic that they'll be eating our dust," says Forrest Yelverton, designer of the bike's frame. What follows is a glimpse under the custom-molded carbon-fiber saddle.

FRONT WHEEL The Mavic front rim, about the same diameter as a large pizza, is smaller than the rear, thus allowing the rider to draft the guy ahead of him. But parts from the Continent, on a Stars and Stripes rig? "The French are damn good engineers, and their wheels are the best," says Ralph Ray, the bike's consultant on components-an American who happens to work for Mavic. The wheel shown here is a mock-up; the real thing will debut in Atlanta.

SADDLE Basically a carbon-fiber shell topped with a bit of padding, the seat's spartan design is one that not all the racers relish. "I definitely experience some problems from riding in the efficient position," says team member Dirk Copeland of California. "I get considerable pain, you know, down there."

REAR WHEEL Like the frame, the Mavic rear wheel is half as wide as that of a typical track bike's. Fabricated from carbon fiber, the disk is intended to slice through the air without creating any undue turbulence. "You know it works because there's not as loud a 'whoosh-whoosh' sound," says consultant Ralph Ray of the $10,000 wheels.

HANDLEBARS It takes a day to custom-make each set of aluminum handlebars, which are tailored for slicing through the wind-at the cost of comfort. Ever try pedaling a bike all-out for four minutes with your head as low as your butt?

FORK The fork is constructed of pedestrian chrome-moly steel, because in a crash scenario, a broken carbon-fiber blade becomes a 37-mile-per-hour pitchfork.

PEDALS At press time, Superbike II's crew was still hustling for a design befitting a $20,000 bike. Pedals are a drag, aerodynamically speaking, so the dry-eyed engineers are trying to make a pedal that disappears into the sole of the cyclist's shoes.

FRAME The monocoque frame was shaped at the General Motors wind tunnel in Warren, Michigan, at $40,000 per hour. Tangible benefit of the winglike tubes? An extra ten meters in a 4,000-meter race, or the difference between gold and nada. Intangible benefit: "The bike looks superfast," says Copeland, "and there's no better way for insecurity to creep up on our competitors."

At 4.5 pounds, the frame is designed for pure stiffness. Constructed of $800 worth of raw aerospace-quality carbon fiber, the frame barely flinches under a typical Olympian's 300 foot-pounds of torque. The entire bike weighs 17 pounds, which is nothing special to Yelverton. "It's not the lightest ride," he says, "but do you see any hills on the track?"

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