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Exclusive: Cycling NZ unveil revolutionary new Olympic bikes

NZ sprinters test out the new bikes in a wind tunnel.
NZ sprinters test out the new bikes in a wind tunnel.

Cycling New Zealand has unveiled bikes they believe will have a revolutionary impact on the Rio Olympic velodrome.

Since the track team's two bronze medal haul at the London Games, local investment has helped research and develop sprint and endurance bikes to advance their 2016 cause.

Working in secret, Cycling New Zealand combined with High Performance Sport New Zealand, manufacturers Avanti, wheelwrights Southern Spars, aerodynamic experts Kinetic Simulation and Auckland University's wind tunnel in an effort to produce track bikes capable of delivering gold.

Expect fingernails to be gnawed and rooms to be paced when the Kiwis take to the Rio track 12,000km away in August. Each bike carries the livelihoods of more than just a solitary pedaller.

Bicycle design engineer David Higgins led the project for Sheppard Industries, who market the Avanti brand. This assignment has been his passion for more than three years as he sought the best ways to lighten frames, reduce drag, and scythe through the red tape of cycling's governing body, the UCI.

He describes it as "America's Cup without the spy boats".

"In the design phase few people within the walls of Avanti knew about it," Higgins says. "My boss, myself and some key guys at Cycling New Zealand. The athletes didn't know until they first got to ride the designs last December. Even then, old handlebars were used on media days.

Avanti Pista Pursuit Team Bike.
Avanti Pista Pursuit Team Bike.

"There was full confidentiality. I still haven't seen a single image on social media."

A lot of mouths need to stay mum. Two were Yin Fai Li and Ben Goodwin, researchers based at Auckland University's wind tunnel in Newmarket.

They gave the Herald a guided tour through a precinct which includes a model of Black Magic, the 1995 America's Cup winning boat, at its entrance. That was the inspiration which provided much of the facility's future work.

Puffer jackets are de rigueur, drills and soldering irons are handy and fascinating scale model experiments provide an insight into their work. These include bran flakes being blown at model buildings to test wind flow in a new Auckland property development. You half expect James Bond and Q to wander in testing the latest explosive device.

Two 90 kilowatt electric motors power wind into the tunnel through mesh screens to remove turbulence in a looped circuit.

New Zealand's top track cyclists tested simulated designs at the venue. They began to ride the real bikes in closed sessions at Cambridge's velodrome in December. The prototype handlebars were the product of 3D printing, an expensive exercise but one which ultimately saved time because the frames could be mixed and matched before agreement was reached on the final product.

Goodwin loved the process because it demonstrated "a nothing is impossible attitude, and showed how hungry the cyclists were for a technological edge".

Higgins says the key thing for the sprint bike was reducing aerodynamic drag - eventually cut by more than 15 per cent - and lightening the bikes' weight.

"We've integrated a new handlebar design into the frame. In the past it all bolted together, whereas this bike is one piece of fluid design.

"With the pursuit bike, the main design feature is the wings. They are part of a new fork design. The fork load pass is attached to the handlebars rather than the frame. That makes a more direct attachment to the wheel which reduces the weight on the front.

"Each set of handlebars is customised for individual riders and the new design provides substantial aerodynamic and stiffness benefits after honing in the wind tunnel."

The Avanti Pista Sprint Team Bike.
The Avanti Pista Sprint Team Bike.

The design team liaised with the UCI to ensure they met competition specifications.

Higgins says the track cycling design market changes so swiftly that it is more important to be "first to market" rather than patenting intellectual property because there is "little legal protection" when others tinker with new designs.

Cycling New Zealand was allocated $17.5 million of taxpayer money across the Olympic cycle. Performance director Mark Elliott says optimum technology is required to ensure the public get the best return on investment.

"What we are doing is a partnership to ensure our riders are riding the best product in the world, and something that the world will see as a new benchmark."

Sprint world champion Ethan Mitchell concurs as he prepares to look down on a frame embossed with the silver fern: "We don't want to go to Rio and be beaten by equipment, so for us to have the ability to put our knowledge, as well as the team's knowledge into the frame, it's been a really cool project."

Those who have done the background work must now settle in to watch the coverage from Rio to see how their design and engineering talents fare against the world.

"It will be stressful," Higgins admits. "But we've done all we can to make the fastest bikes. Now it's up to the engines on them."

- NZ Herald

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