Top 5 Olympic sports that have been influenced by technology: No 1

Number 1: Cycling – Computational modelling of bike design

Our final post in this series looks at a technological influence that isn’t focussed so much on the big gains, but more on fine tuning the small details to make a winning difference. As said many times during the Olympics, cycling is all about finding marginal gains; i.e. making tiny changes in bike design, training methods, nutrition, or helmet position, etc., in order to gain that extra millisecond advantage that could win you the race. The form of technology that has played the biggest role in this has been the use of computational fluid dynamic (CFD) analysis to assess the aerodynamics of the bike, rider and clothing.

Essentially, a CFD program is a virtual wind tunnel; it can be used to model how the air will flow over an object and return useful values such as drag coefficients and pressure maps. By making small changes to the shape of the object during the design stage, CFD analysis indicates how these changes will influence its drag without having to go through the manufacturing process.

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CSER worked with Planet X to redesign handlebars using CFD techniques.

CFD is most notorious in sport for its use in F1 but has been fully adopted by cycle teams to help understand the effect of bike design, rider position and clothing choices. By using 3D body scanning of the riders on the bikes, CFD analysis can tell coaches how to order cyclists in team events to make full use of the drafting effect. In terms of bike design, each component on the bike can be optimised to reduce the drag coefficient; from the handlebars down to the nut holding the front wheel. With heavy restrictions from the UCI in terms of bike design, using CFD analysis to make minute changes may seem inconsequential to an outsider, but it could result in a rider coming out on top of a photo-finish line call.

Heather Driscoll

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