Sunday, November 22, 2009

9 60% Of Cycling Hour Records Due To Engineering

I came across an unsurprising insight into the role that engineering plays in the cycling world hour record. Here's a quote from a recent Science News mag piece titled "Breaking The Speed Limit", which explores studies done to extract the role of better engineering in these records, and to quantify that role. The only thing different in the quote here on the blog is that I have directly linked to these studies for your reference.

"The cycling hour record — the distance an athlete can pedal in one hour on a flat track — steadily rose in the 1980s and 1990s as riders began to use new high-tech gear and streamlined riding positions to improve their aerodynamics. In 1999, University of Tennessee researchers used a model that accounted for adjustments in bicycle design, riding position and other modifications. Writing in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the team reported that about 60 percent of the world records in the previous two decades of cycling were due to better engineering. In 2000, cycling leaders essentially locked the sport in a time machine, declaring that cycling equipment and position had to be similar to designs used to set the hour cycling record in 1972 — an effort, Neptune wrote this summer, “to prevent the hour record from becoming influenced more by technology than by the athletes.” Records set between 1972 and 2000 are still on the books, but in a category called “best hour performance.”

The above graph was originally shown in the paper "The Influence of Muscle Physiology and Advanced Technology on Sports Performance". It was compiled by Neptune et al and appeared in the 2009 edition of The Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering. Richard Neptune is an associate professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Looking at the way Fabian Cancellara has been performing lately, if he mounts a specially made bike and gives this event a try in the Superman position, one wouldn't be too far in guessing that he'd run away with UCI's Best Human Effort record. The question is, will he try?


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  1. Anonymous4:42 PM

    It makes huge amount of sense. Physically, I think you'll have to be a freak of nature to break Eddy and Boardman's records. But technologically speaking, anything is possible.

  2. Speaking of technology why not add recumbents and human powered vehicles.

  3. Jason : I was sticking to UCI specific. There's no question about it, upright bicycles are no match for streamlined recumbents when it comes to speed. In the coming years, I wonder if one of our pro cyclists would get fed up of convention and go challenge the record on a bent. Cancellara on one of Mike Burrow's Rocket Bikes? Now that's something I'd like to see before dying. :)

    Nice chart on that blog. I'll be linking it here.

  4. Hi why is there an error to the recumbent blog site? :|

  5. Joe : Looks like the site as a whole is down. Must be something temporary. Keep checking.

  6. Seems like the bottomline of these studies are facts we knew all along. You can't go into these competitions with a beater bike and sitting smack duck into the wind. :O

  7. Chris Broadman holds the hour records in both UCI categories (I refuse to qualify Ondrei "Doper" Sosenka as a record holder). His best human effort record is 14% better than his UCI hour record. That means 14% of his BHE-record was due to technology. Right?

    And why, every time we talk about the hour record, a smug recumbent rider pops up to remind about their superiority? :) I've been told that it takes considerable amount of time to get used to a recumbent bike (blood circulation in legs must adjust to vertical riding position) and I doubt that any professional rider is willing to sacrifice a winter of training for recumbents. But anyway, Whittingham is a world class athlete so there really is no need for an upright pro to take on the record.

  8. ASB : I believe technology has a huge role to play. Not only are efficient aerodynamic bikes needed for such an endeavor, you can't discount the important of precision tailored aero fabrics that reduce drag co-efficient. One example comes to my mind to illustrate the importance of fabrics and I read this a while back. Cyclists who wore the famous NIKE Swift aero suit at the Athens Olympics set 4 world records, six Olympic records and also won seven medals. One of the most noteworthy improvements was that of New Zealander by the name of Sarah Ulmer She bettered her 2000 Sydney gold medal performance by 4.14% and also improved her own 2004 World Championship world record in the 3000-m Individual Pursuit by as much as 2.88% when wearing the suit.

    All other factors kept the same, better engineered apparel and bikes make a huge collective difference in performance.

  9. asb said...
    Chris Broadman holds the hour records in both UCI categories (I refuse to qualify Ondrei "Doper" Sosenka as a record holder). His best human effort record is 14% better than his UCI hour record. That means 14% of his BHE-record was due to technology. Right?

    Starting to drift off topic a little, but are you suggesting that in the mid-90s the UCI BHE-records were set clean?


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