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Bike Modifications - Do They Really Help Track Cyclists Go Faster? 

Track is one of the most controlled environments for bike racing. With no change in terrain, no head winds or uneven road surfaces to contend with equipment, riding position and products can be finely tested and tuned.

Cyclist racing on the track

Dr Michael Hutchinson is Head of Research and Design for the Irish National Team, he is also a former national champion in the Individual Pursuit and attempted the Athlete’s Hour in 2003. He has invested many hours on the track and track side trying to identify what really makes track cyclists go faster. 

With so much that can be controlled and tested the track requires attention to detail, the phrase ‘marginal gains’ really belongs on the track.  “When preparing for the Athlete’s Hour we looked at everything, the whole package and managed to reduce the power needed from well over 500 watts down to nearer 400 watts. Of the whole package the bike is only part of this” says Hutchinson. “It is important to remember that there is seven times more drag from the rider than from the bike for the average male rider.”

Attempting the Athlete’s Hour meant that Hutchinson was limited to round tubes and spoked wheels so he had to work harder at perfecting the areas that he could control, “There was very little we could do with the bike so we worked on the position. I normally ride a 56cm frame, we extended the top tube to 65cm which created a weird long bike. We needed a narrow front end so we found some narrow bars from 3T that were marketed as ‘for girls’ and they were very effective. I needed to keep my shoulders down and shoulders in”

Creating the perfect position is in many ways more complicated than developing the perfect bike, every human body is different and each individual can train and adapt. “We use Alphamantis telemetry which enables us to sit at the side of the track with a laptop and see in real time the CdA (coefficient of drag) of the rider. We put up messages to the rider such as tuck your elbows in or drop your head and we can get instant feedback on how that is changing their CdA.”  This kind of feedback doesn’t come cheap, you are looking at around £300 an hour for this and £500 an hour if you want to visit a wind tunnel.

Whilst there is no simple formula for position that can be applied to everyone with bikes there are some recognised rules, “Clean up the front end as that is where the air is hitting it” explains Hutchinson. “It is the font end of the bike which has seen the most change in the last two decades. Get it small and neat with narrow bars and a stem that joins the top tube in a nice straight line. Even simple things like making sure your bar tape is tight and neat will help. It’s about the first 30-40cm. That’s the easy place to make track bikes faster.”

Track cycling kit

What you wear on your bike has surprisingly huge performance gains.  “It took me years of research to realise that skinsuits make a very considerable difference” says Hutchinson, “Skinsuits are the biggest development of recent years. The difference between a top end custom made skinsuit designed for the rider and an off-the-peg skinsuit, no matter how high-end, can be as much as one mile an hour. That is more than you could get from modifying your bike.” The customisation is crucial to their performance, “Bikes are an awkward speed, on the cusp between turbulent and laminar flow, so the right skinsuit needs to be chosen for the speed of the event.”

Comparing a modern carbon track bike to an aluminium bike like for like there will be a difference, not just in stiffness but in the slippery aerodynamic shapes that a carbon bike can be molded to. However, the bike accounts for far less than the other technological developments around skinsuits and helmets

“If every national team had a standard modern machine such as the Cervelo T4 they wouldn’t touch the bikes. All the research and investment would go into the position, helmets and skinsuits” concludes Hutchinson.

Written by Hannah Reynolds

Hannah is proof that you don’t need to be good at racing to pin on a number, just enthusiastic. She has ridden some of the world’s toughest sportives including the Haute Route Alps, La Marmotte and Megavalanche – the famous downhill mountain bike race.

When she’s not on the bike, Hannah is a freelance writer and journalist and former Editor of Cycling Weekly and Cycling Active. She is co-authour of France en Velo and Bloomsbury publications Fitter, Faster, Further and Get on Your Bike.

Follow Hannah and her cycling adventures over on Twitter @hannahmreynolds and Instagram @hannahmreynolds.