Track Cycling: what’s left to optimise?

Despite the disappointment following the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, some major sporting events continue to take place around the world. Fortunately for track cycling fans, they were able to watch Team GB romp home to victory – yet again – at the European Track Cycling Championships, held in November in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

As for all team sports, the 2020 Championships were a slimmed-down affair, with many prominent athletes opting out of this year’s competition owing to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But that didn’t team GB from once again topping the medal table and romping home with an impressive 11 medals (including 6 golds). As our track cycling record goes from strength to strength, we need to figure out how to stay on the top of that leader board.

Since the very first World Championship in Track Cycling was held back in 1893, the sport has come a long way. Riders are fitter, leaner, stronger and better prepared than ever. They don’t just train on the bikes, they also work hard behind the scenes to increase muscle mass, lose body fat and optimise nutrition, all to achieve that small advantage over their competitors. But track cycling isn’t all about the riders.

In 2008, Team GB’s 7-medal Olympic haul was attributed to innovation and improvements in cycling technology. These ranged from the riders’ ‘skin suits’ to helmets, ‘hot pants’ (which literally keep the riders’ muscles warm during the short period between warm-up and the event itself), to all aspects of the bicycles’ frames and tyres. Team GB used a technique known as computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to model airflow, making minute design adjustments to see how they affect a bike’s aerodynamics. Saddles were adjusted to minimise the risk of rider injury (which, believe it or not, was previously fairly common thanks to the G-Force experienced inside the velodrome); cranks (which attach the pedals to the wheels) became hollow and the solid back wheel was refined.

Team GB won a further 7 out of the ten available golds in London 2012, went on to dominate the 2016 games in Rio and still proudly retain world records in many of track cycling’s various disciplines.

“so we have to ask ourselves: what is left to improve?”

What’s new in cycling technology?

In 2019, British Cycling launched the new ‘Hope/Lotus’ bike (also known as the ‘Marmite bike’ owing to the extreme reactions it elicited within the sport), which has been hailed as a “milestone in the evolution of bikes”, with a view to pushing that advantage even further. The Hope/Lotus was designed by British Cycling’s best and brightest – working within the very strict design parameters set out by the UCI – who have produced some of Team GB’s most successful track bikes to date.

The design is an unconventional one, featuring 8cm-wide forks and seat-stays, but it’s estimated that it will give riders a 2-3% speed advantage on the track. Pretty impressive stuff.

British Cycling’s director of technology, Tony Purnell said, “We know that getting any tangible performance [gain] is going to be very difficult at this point in bike design… but just having something that’s strikingly different [could] go down very well because there’s a lot of psychological wars that go on.”

Track cycling has immersed itself in technological research and development, keeping pace with the innovations and improvements that modern design and computational power have helped us to explore. Computational bike design has enabled a raft of improvements and modifications in recent years, from 3D-printed titanium to carbon fibre disc-wheels.

Modern track bikes are already extremely aerodynamic, so we have to ask ourselves: what is left to improve? How much faster can track cyclists really get and more importantly, how can they get there?

It’s all about the chain…

One of the areas which has received little or no attention from engineers so far is the chain. Bicycle chains have been designed on a roller chain principle for over 100 years (although the original idea was reportedly inspired by 16th century sketches produced by Leonardo da Vinci). There’s nothing wrong with this design: the roller chain is durable, efficient and it transfers power effectively. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon. And in the realm of track cycling, where improvements of 1 percentage point can make the difference between victory and defeat, these small gains are more valuable than anywhere else.

On a traditional roller chain, power is transferred on one side of the tooth, in a process known as single engagement. In terms of bike chains, this means that up to 60% of power is transferred onto a single tooth in the chain at any one point of pressure. In the world of track cycling, that represents a significant loss of efficiency.

Our new DUAL ENGAGEMENT™ system – a re-design of the traditional roller chain – uses both sides of the tooth to engage and transmit power. This offers several advantages over a traditional single engagement system, including:

●  Highest ever levels of efficiency

●  4X increase in system lifetime

●  25X more torque transfer

●  30% decrease in peak stresses, enabling the use of lighter materials

This revolutionary new engagement mechanism is what the world of track cycling has been waiting for.

The cycling industry’s best engineers are making ongoing improvements to the design and manufacture of frames, employing state-of-the-art materials in new and innovative ways. Clothing is more aerodynamic than it’s ever been and athletes are working harder than ever before on their fitness. Let’s not stop innovating but instead, consider how dual engagement could take our existing advantage in the velodrome just that little bit further.