Tour de France - sport engineering at its peak

The Tour de France, one of most anticipated sporting events of the summer, pedalled off on Saturday 2 July and with excitement building around the annual multistage bicycle race a natural curiosity surrounding the training, preparation and technology employed by the top teams is emerging.

As a competition that tests both endurance and speed, the design of the equipment used by riders can play a huge part in the success of a team’s campaign. Teams of engineers investigate new material applications and create pioneering new designs that reduce air resistance and drag. Through this research they are able to develop innovative bicycles, helmets and clothing that allow cyclists to reach the highest possible speeds with the least amount of energy expenditure.

Bicycles

A far cry from the steel frames used in the first Tour de France in 1903, the bicycles taking to the roads this year are made of lightweight carbon fibre.

Team Sky is riding the Pinarello Dogma F8, the eighth incarnation of the successful Dogma frame that launched in 2010. 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.

Made from Tarayca T1100 1k Dream Carbon with Nano-Alloy technology, the frame is stiff yet super light. Its shape has been informed by Jaguar’s Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) technology, where extensive testing has aided in the creation of a new aerodynamically efficient tube shaping aptly named ‘flatback’ which eliminates turbulence.

Every detail of the bike has been designed with speed, functionality and rigidity in mind: the seat tube bottle cage has been lowered to reduce drag, the internal cable routing allows for a choice of mechanical or electrical gearing systems without impacting on the bike’s aerodynamics and the Bolide forks have been reworked separately in order to improve airflow.

Employing the latest technology to test every aspect of a bicycle’s design is an approach not limited to Team Sky, with the stress on aerodynamic design being of paramount importance across the top teams and bike manufacturers at Tour de France 2016.

Helmets

The process of comprehensive testing has also been adopted by helmet designers. In a race where milliseconds can be the difference between the team kit or the yellow jersey, every aspect of a riders clothing and equipment, whatever its function, must aid speed as much as possible.

One manufacturer doing just this is Giant, who has produced the new ‘Pursuit’ helmet in conjunction with Team Giant-Alpecin and Aero Concept Engineering in France. Utilising CFD and wind tunnel testing, Giant has created a helmet that brings together effective aerodynamics, clever ventilation and a precision fit.

The Pursuit also boasts custom-designed AeroVent technology 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.

Alongside the focus on speed, the Pursuit has also been constructed with safety in mind, where 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.

Performance Technology

As well as developments in bicycle and helmet design, Tour de France athletes have also enjoyed an accelerated advance in technology usage within the race. 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.

The Race

This year the 3,535km race, consisting of 21 different stages, saw riders leaving Mont Saint Michel in Normandy on Saturday 2 July. Riders will then make the descent down to the South of France, Spain and Andorra, whizzing across the Alps into Switzerland, finally culminating in a sprint through Paris’ Champs-Elysees on Sunday 24 July.

From a strictly solo sport where riders were disqualified for receiving help when changing a tyre, the Tour de France has now developed into a sport commandeering whole teams of engineers and designers.

Innovative developments are continually being made in equipment design and with the increase in popularity that cycling has enjoyed in recent years and the growing use of technology in the sport, new branches of sport engineer have emerged alongside the traditional bicycle mechanical engineer as being central to professional cycling.

Les Hewlett, Divisional Manager – Automotive, Matchtech, commented:

“The Tour de France and other cycling sports offer a variety of cooperative engineering opportunities. Demonstrated by the increased use of lightweight materials, aerodynamic testing solutions and the collaboration between bike and car manufacturers in cycling equipment design, engineers are no longer confined to one sector and can utilise their skills across a variety of industries.”

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