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AERODYNAMICS – PURSUIT OF THE PERFECT POSITION FOR OLYMPIC ‘SPEED SYSTEM’

A vital Speed System project undertaken by Cycling Australia during any four-year Olympic cycle is the never-ending pursuit of the perfect riding position.

The perfect riding position is a typical engineering a conundrum, in that the perfect position is not always the rider’s most powerful. Therefore the rider and sports scientist have to find a compromise of aerodynamic position versus power production.

Then the rest of the equipment, such as skinsuit and helmet, have to be factored in to the equation to reach the best speed system solution.

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Cycling Australia’s High Performance Unit (CA HPU) has been trying to solve the perfect position equation for a long time. In the past, to help with this tricky problem, CA HPU called upon the help of the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) and Monash University, and for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games campaign the same team was put back together again.

The coaches and riders are always asking questions like, what is the best position, what is the best helmet, do I keep my hands low or high,” said Andy Warr, employed by the AIS, but seconded to Cycling Australia as the Performance Systems Manager.

“Having the ability to call upon the expertise of the team at Monash, through an AIS linkage grant, allows us to solve a number of these questions with total confidence.”

Warr elaborated on some of the work that has been completed within this current Olympic cycle.

“We have used the large Monash wind tunnel to conduct a series of athlete positions tests for both the sprint and endurance riders, producing significant gains in efficiency for both disciplines.,” Warr added. “These results have then been confirmed on subsequent visits, which is really encouraging that we have got the direction right.”

The initial testing, conducted in mid-2014, threw up a couple of design ideas, around handlebars and helmets, which would complement the positions and enhance the overall speed system.

“Monash University has been at the forefront of understanding the fundamentals of the cycling aerodynamics for a number of years,” said Monash researcher Dr. Tim Crouch, who led the experiments at the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

“The Cycling Australia coaches for the Olympic Games are always trying to find new options for the optimised speed system, and Monash is delighted to be involved in finding the solutions.” 

Cycling Australia HPU has had the riding positions of more than 20 athletes analysed by the team at Monash over the last three years, and the results have exhibited a significant efficiency gain for all disciplines.

“The more research we do, the better we understand all aspects of the cycling flow regime. This leads to ideas in position, which then equates to performance on the track,” Crouch added.

The change in the riders’ positions led to questions being asked about potential changes in skinsuit designs to complement the new positions. And with the International Cycling Union (UCI) changing the regulations around skinsuits between London 2012 and Rio, therefore it was decided that a new investigation would be a prudent use of resources.

David Burton, Head of Wind Tunnel Group at Monash University, agreed that a new set of investigations could potentially give a performance advantage.

“Whilst equipment can give small, but important gains it is primarily the cyclist’s position and the optimisation of equipment for that position and body type which makes all the difference come race day,” said Burton.

“We were under significant time pressure to complete the skinsuit investigation before Rio, but with the changes in rules and position, it was work that needed to be done and we are delighted with the outcome.”

Crouch used a totally unique cycling mannequin that he developed to quickly determine that a range of suits would be required to cover the rider size and speeds in the Cycling Australia Olympic squad.

“This was the first time that we have investigated the effect of the suits in relation to cycling speed and rider size, thus changes in Reynolds number. It quickly became apparent that one size does not fit all when it comes to skinsuits,” concluded Crouch.

The Monash team used data from the Wind Tunnel facility to design new, aerodynamically optimised suits, one specifically for sprint cyclists and the other for endurance riders, within the constraints of the rules and the available fabrics.

The outcome from Monash research, is that for the Rio Olympics the Australian Olympic and Paralympic riders will be riding positions that have been optimised drawing upon knowledge gained at Monash over many years and suits designed specifically for the discipline that they ride.

The suits will be complemented by a new helmet and handlebar design ensuring that the perfect position is obtained.

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