At the beginning of June our MSc Sports Engineering cohort headed off to the beautiful city of Delft in the Netherlands, to take part in the 2019 Special Topics in Sports Engineering course (#MScST2019). Entering its fourth year of delivery, this two week course is delivered collaboratively by staff from Delft University of Technology, Sheffield Hallam University, and VU Amsterdam. Students from the collaborating universities work in interdisciplinary teams to complete an engineering challenge around a theme that is relevant to sports engineering.
Students were challenged to create a predictive model of a track cyclist, with the students having to predict how quickly a cyclist could complete an acceleration lap from a standing start, and how far the cyclist would then travel if they were to coast to standstill. However, to complicate the predictions we stipulated that the cyclist should also double or halve their drag during the coasting stage. Creating predictive models is a task sports engineers are accustomed to dealing with. We use predictive models on a daily basis to understand and predict the performance of both equipment and athletes. The accuracy of the models was to be assessed in a live test at the Sportpaleis Alkmaar Velodrome, with each team responsible for sourcing a bicycle and cyclist for the test.
The students quickly identified cyclists from within their cohort, and sourced their own bikes (never difficult to find in the Netherlands). These ranged from elite road bikes to traditional Dutch city bikes, but sadly no tandems this year. Students soon began to realise the enormity of the challenge, and the quantity of information they would need to obtain. What should they include in the modelling? How would they obtain accurate track dimensions for the velodrome? How would they understand the power output of their cyclists without access to a power meter? How would they alter their drag?
To support the creation of their models, students attended a series of lectures, laboratories, seminars and workshops covering topics including; predictive modelling, bicycle stability, rolling resistance, aerodynamics, cycling biomechanics, thermo physiology, and endurance.
Particular highlights included; a tour of the TU Delft wind tunnels where the Dutch cycling team just happened to be testing their new track bike for Tokyo 2020; and a talk by Team Sunweb on the preparation, and performance prediction, of their cyclists in time trial events. Students conducted VO2max and Wingate tests on their cyclists at the VU Amsterdam physiology labs to understand their power output, and an experimental test day was held at the TU Delft sports hall.
Ideas for doubling drag were assessed through coast down tests, ranging from simple posture changes, to the deployment of parachutes and umbrellas! Frontal areas were measured using systems developed inhouse by the Centre for Sports Engineering Research. An awful lot of matlab code was developed, scrutinised, and refined.
Two weeks went by extremely quickly and before we knew it, we were making the journey an hour north to the Alkmaar velodrome. The teams came armed with bikes and presentations to justify their modelling approaches and most importantly state their predicted times and distances. Taking to the track, teams watched anxiously, trying to assess their performance, whilst staff scrutinised the official times and recorded distances. Students were not permitted to coach or instruct their cyclists during the event and instead had to wait for the results that were measured and scrutinised by participating staff. The winning team posted a first lap time within 0.01 seconds of their predicted time and implemented a Monte Carlo simulation to assess the likelihood of their predictions. Their reward was the coveted Special Topics Course golden bicycle bell.
A video of the course can be seen here.
At the end of the course the students were asked to reflect on their two weeks, and sample extracts can be seen below.
“Overall, I found this course to be challenging and interesting, but most importantly fun. The course allowed for new skills to be developed and knowledge to be learned, and then to be applied to the task at hand. To come up with a model and test it against an actual experiment was really interesting and enjoyable.”
“It was really nice to work with different universities and I think that is the best element of this course. In this way you learn a lot and it is also fun to learn about the other ‘cultures’ of the different universities.”
“These two-weeks went by so fast because each day was a new adventure, each day meant new friends and new experiences. All these aspects combined with the fact that we had to do the thing that we truly love is amazing.“
“To conclude I learned a lot the last two weeks, made new friends from different universities and became really enthusiastic about sports engineering and all its different topics. Thank you for offering me this possibility!”
Through participating in this course the students clearly had a lot of fun. They worked hard, but they also enjoyed the associated extra curricula activities. Of more importance however was the exposure of the students to the global sports engineering community. Valuable life experience was gained working with engineers, sports scientists, and academics from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Hopefully we will see this activity continue to grow and evolve in the coming years.
The participation of our students and staff was only possible thanks to the support of Erasmus, Sheffield Hallam Go Global Fund, and the International Sports Engineering Association.