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The impressive engineering behind the Tour de France
The Tour de France, one of most anticipated sporting events of the summer, got under way with a 14 kilometre time trial in Düsseldorf, Germany on Saturday. The competition puts riders through their paces, testing their endurance and speed throughout every stage. There is no doubt that all the participants have the fitness and skill to take on the challenge but something which can set them apart is the equipment they choose. With the technology and techniques employed by each team being a topic of much discussion and debate, we’ve looked at a few elements of engineering which might influence their success.
Carbon fibre bicycles
A far cry from the steel frames used in the first Tour de France 114 years ago, lightweight carbon fibre is the material of choice for today’s competition bicycles.
Defending his 2016 title, Team Sky’s Chris Froome will be using Pinarello’s latest race machine, the Dogma F10. Last year, Team Sky used the F8 which proved itself in the tournament with its aerodynamic tubing and lightweight design. The latest model is said to be even lighter and stiffer than the previous model and features a concave downtube designed to reduce aerodynamic drag.
Working exclusively with Sky Professional Cycling Team and alongside the supercar engineers at Jaguar, the designers at Pinarello have utilised sporting expertise and engineering prowess to form a bike engineered to provide the best performance in aerodynamics and rigidity.
The new frame is made from Torayca T1100 1k carbon fibre which Pinarello claims has the highest tensile strength in the world installed on a bike. The rest of the bike has also been optimised for aero efficiency, with a carbon bar-stem setup, and a custom-made seatpost.
Every detail of the bike has been designed with speed, functionality and rigidity in mind: but at launch Pinarello called the F10 an evolution rather than a revolution. The F10 retains the smooth tapered rear triangle of the F8 and keeps the same T1100 carbon fibre layup as the frame.
Safe & speed-enhancing helmets
Last year’s competition saw the introduction of a number of road helmets including the ‘Pursuit’ from manufacturer Giant, which was produced in conjunction with Team Giant-Alpecin and Aero Concept Engineering in France. Utilising CFD and wind tunnel testing, the helmet brings together effective aerodynamics, clever ventilation and a precision fit.
Custom-designed AeroVent technology is another feature of the Pursuit, which optimises airflow by streaming air through the helmet via drag-neutral ports and wide internal channels. Providing consistent ventilation, cooling and speed, the helmet also possesses dimples – a proven feature that minimises drag in a variety of wind directions and rider positions.
Safety is of course just as much of a consideration as speed. Multi-density foam enables the helmet to withstand both low and high speed impacts with efficiency by absorbing energy with low-density foam and protecting the skull with high-density.
As well as developments in the physical tools of the tour, over recent years athletes have also enjoyed an accelerated advance in digital technology usage within the race. This year, it is predicted that more than 3 billion data points will be processed during the event (Data Dimension). With the recent trend towards cycling as a data driven sport, the adoption of specialist tracking technology now enables teams to oversee and analyse every aspect of a rider’s performance before, during and after the race.
Two-way radios and analog speedometers have given way to digital cycling computers that are able to track lap times, cadences, power outputs, heart rate, drag factors, elevation and even calories burned.
This live stream of data also has a benefit to fans who are able to get closer to the race action than ever before. This year, the sensors stored underneath the saddle of each bike will produce even more data says Data Dimension, the technology company supporting the organiser of the event Amaury Sport Organisation (A.S.O). The sensors produce real-time data on the speed, position and distances between riders which is then combined with data from external sources on the course gradient, the weather and historical data on the riders and stages.
Evolving engineering skills & new techniques
The increasingly competitive world of cycling and the insatiable desire to break records has created new roles within sports engineering alongside the traditional bicycle mechanical engineer. Competing teams rely on the development of lightweight materials, the testing of aerodynamics and the ability of their trusted equipment suppliers to produce custom-made equipment in short timescales. Design engineers play a big part in these teams and will no doubt shape the future of competitive cycling with innovative materials and methods of producing faster, safer and stronger cycling gear.
This year the 3,540km race, consisting of 21 different stages, will see riders climb 23 mountains or hills including the five main mountain ranges in France not visited by the event since 1992. After departing the individual time trial in Düsseldorf on 1 July, riders will work their way through Belgium and Luxembourg before arriving in France at the end of the third stage on Monday 3 July. Following the announcement of the route, race organisers have been open about how they wanted the route to encourage attacking racing which they believe was missing in the 2016 race. This year will also be the first year that each and every one of the 21 stages will be shown live from start to finish.
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