Every four years the fastest track cyclists on the planet gather to race for medals around a velodrome in front of millions. And while the athletes who make it to the Olympics are massively powerful and finely skilled bike racers, they are also keen to gain every technological advantage by using the fastest bikes and gear — all of which can prove critical in a sport where races are won by millimetres and fractions of a second.
Here’s a sample of some of the technology used by Olympic cyclists in Rio to cheat the air and pedal faster:
In races such as pursuit, riders opt for disc wheels in front and back. Using discs improves airflow around the bike and helps riders go faster at steady speeds by reducing drag. As the saying goes, aerodynamics is free speed.
In addition to discs, the riders have sleek eyewear, helmets, skinsuits, handlebars, and frames, all of it wind tunnel tested.
Sprinters choose aero spoke wheels on the front and discs in the back. Aero spoke wheels are lighter than discs and handle better.
To help reduce drag in front and back, track bikes in Rio had sleek aero shapes all around the frame.
For events like the pursuit, riders use aero handlebars. Of the four hand positions, the outer bars help riders leverage their upper-body strength to start fast, while the inner hand positions allow riders to race in a tuck position like a skier to slip through the wind.
'Traditional cranks are on the right side, which we basically figured out was the wrong side for the track,' said Anton Petrov, an engineer for Felt Bicycles, according to NBC.
'The researchers discovered that due to the curves of the velodrome walls and the motion of the cyclists, wind is an important factor even when the race is indoors,' NBC reported. 'The designers got to work on how to minimise drag and came up with a solution never done before on Olympic bicycles.' (Also note the aero shoes and disc wheel and the low-friction chain covered in Teflon powder.)
These Olympic Games also saw the introduction of on-board TV cameras that showed live images from inside the race.
Jason Kenny of Great Britain reigned supreme in Rio, winning three gold medals -- in the sprint, keiren, and team sprint.
The UK's Ryan Owens wore a wind-tunnel-tested skinsuit, seamless eyewear and helmet, and a custom 3D printed narrow aero handlebar.
Because today's high-tech cycling apparel is often faster than skin, the sport's governing body limits how much skin may be covered. In Rio, for example, officials checked that riders' aero socks were not too high. Socks can go up to mid-calf only, an International Cycling Union spokesman told Business Insider. And though these 'socks' had zippers in the back, they are still considered socks. 'We don't govern the structure of the sock or how it is attached,' the UCI said.
When the difference between first and second can be a fraction of a second, every wind-cheating bit helps. Several riders, including gold medalist Jason Kenny of the UK, wore super-stiff custom carbon aero shoes. Unlike with regular shoes, the hardware for adjusting the shoe is kept underneath and out of the wind. The carbon-fibre tech was borrowed from the aerospace industry.
Most track sprinters used some sort of toe strap to keep their shoes clipped in tight and transfer maximum power to the pedals.
The races often come down to a bike throw: Here Gold medalist Jason Kenny of Great Britain, silver medalist Matthijs Buchli of the Netherlands, and bronze medalist Azizulhasni Awang of Malaysia cross the finish line in the men's keirin final.
Riders from China wore custom-painted aero helmets featuring faces and masks from the Chinese Opera. The women's had images of legendary female warriors ...
Others, such as Laura Trott of Great Britain, raced without gloves but covered the inside of their hands with chalk for extra grip.
During training, coaches used tablet devices to show riders lap times so that they could perfect their efforts for the real racing.
A semi-pro cyclist who owns a bike shop in Brazil, Ivo Siebert, set the pace on what's known as a derny bike for the track cycling keirin event, as Reuters reported. He rode an electric bike while the world's fastest racers behind him prepared to sprint.
Of course aerodynamics only make you so fast. In the end you have to be a powerful cyclist who can lay down the watts.
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