U.S. cyclist Erin Hartwell, 31, was riding the fastest bike ever tested in a wind tunnel when he captured a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. That bike was the ultra-aerodynamic Superbike II. Aerodynamics is the study of objects moving in air.
“In cycling, aerodynamics is everything,” said Sam Callan, manager of sports science for the U.S. cycling team. “If you can go 1 percent faster, it can be the difference between a gold medal and no medal.”
Yet even riding Superbike II, the team won only a few medals. The 1996 Olympics taught the U.S. team an important lesson: Bikes alone do not win medals.
Shortly after the ’96 Olympics, the world governing body of cycling set new regulations for bike construction. Those regulations took the Superbike II out of competition.
“The Olympics wants the best athletes to win, not the richest country or the country with the best technology,” said Steve Morrissey, team operations and equipment manager for the U.S. cycling team.
What made the Superbike II so different? First, the frame of a regular racing bike, from its handlebars to its wheels, is made of tubular parts. But the parts of the 16-pound Superbike II were shaped like airplane wings to reduce drag, or air resistance.
Second, the Superbike II’s handlebars were custom-made to suit each athlete’s riding position. The front wheel was smaller than the back wheel, enabling riders to sit low. In that position, the riders could save energy by taking advantage of the wind-blocking effect of the racer in front of them. Cyclists call that effect drafting.
Now that the Olympic regulations governing bike construction are stiffer, the emphasis has shifted to the “engine”–the athlete–and not the machine. If bikes can’t be made more aerodynamic, cyclists can be. Cyclists can wear one-piece skin suits made of fabrics that keep air flowing around the suits instead of through them, to reduce drag. Cyclists can also reduce drag by learning to ride like Alpine skiers, with their arms low and their backs flat.
“But they can’t [lie] out on a bicycle like Superman flying through the air,” Morrissey said. “There are rules against that.”