Track cycling, whatever the discipline, is never simply a question of who has the strongest legs. Success or defeat is often decided far from the velodrome, in top secret rooms where engineers spend long months studying the best possible position for their riders to take on the bike.
Adjustments like the tilting of the saddle by a few millimetres or the barely perceptible lifting of the shoulder line can make all the difference to the stopwatch. All of which serves to underline the importance of wind tunnel testing, a practice that is now commonplace in almost all speed sports – whether mechanical or not – and that has become part and parcel of professional life for many an elite athlete.
The key objective of these tests can be summed up in a simple abbreviation, one that constitutes the veritable Holy Grail for engineers: the Cx. Or to give it its full title, the drag coefficient. The lower a rider’s Cx, the more aerodynamic he or she is. It is owing to this burning desire to improve the way the cyclist moves through the air that wind tunnel tests first began sprouting like mushrooms.
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The challenge of body shapes

This has been particularly true over the last 20 years, a period in which the dominant nations in UCI Track competition have effectively been locked in an “arms race”, determined to remain one step ahead of their rivals. The costs can be enormous, but so are the gains. "For some years now, thanks to the wind tunnel, we’ve had a lot more experience regarding the positions we take on the bike,” notes François Pervis.
The French seven-time world champion has been perfectly placed to take full advantage of these tests, which involve the cyclist riding on a kind of travelator and being asked to pedal “full gas” against the continuous blast of air being thrown in his face by the merciless machine. The aim is to identify the most efficient position that he or she can take in such fiendish conditions.
What makes the task of wind tunnel engineers even trickier, but all the more fascinating, is that they work with groups of riders who all have different body shapes. And it is up to them to adapt to each individual. “We’re not all made the same way,” laughs François Pervis. “You’ve got tall thin riders, others like me who are stockier, some are hunchbacked, and then there are those who are just born for the track like the Spaniard, Castroviejo."

The end of the Superman era

Such has been the technological progress made in recent years that every last facet of performance is now subjected to this quest for improvement. “They even design the helmet to best suit your position,” says Pervis. The proliferation of these testing techniques has also necessarily coincided with the tightening of regulations by the Union Cycliste Internationale.
Before the UCI intervened to harmonise the rules across all disciplines, and in particular for the hour record, the sport had become a free-for-all with everyone vying to come up with the most improbable positions on a bike. François Pervis recalls the 1990s as being the peak of such innovations: “We all remember the image of Graeme Obree lying flat on his frame – he looked like Superman!”

Gaining a tenth a lap

Faced with riding positions that were as dangerous as they were unusual, the governing body put its foot down and introduced restrictions to the measures authorised to find the best position on a bike. These days, many improvements can be put down to the mysteries of those wind tunnels. Which are proving increasingly efficient: “A change of position on the frame can save us a tenth of a second per lap,” enthuses François Pervis.
Nevertheless, however informative they may be, it would be too simplistic – and not to mention unfair – to give all the credit to the testing. The last time we checked, it was still up to the rider to pedal the bike! And more often than not, those efforts to improve aerodynamic performance, and in turn results, come at the expense of comfort in the saddle. “The positions are certainly more efficient, but they’re also much more difficult to hold for the duration of the ride,” concludes François Pervis. Victory, it seems, comes at many costs.
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