The science behind wheeled sports
The science behind wheeled sports

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The science behind wheeled sports

3 Materials technology and wheeled sports

More so than in many sports, success in competitive cycling and wheelchair racing depends on technology.

One aspect of the technology involved in cycling is the development of materials used in manufacturing the bicycle itself. Many years ago bike frames were made from steel, which was then replaced by aluminium, resulting in lighter cycle frames. Modern cycle frames, at least at professional level, are made from a relatively new material called carbon fibre, which is lighter than aluminium but still strong enough to be used for this purpose.

The following short film is an excerpt from a BBC television programme about technology in sport. It describes how a new bicycle frame was developed for the British national cycling team. Watch this film now. Note both the high-level of technology involved, and the effect of this technology on the cyclists' performance.

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Transcript: Video 2

Kate Knapman
When he does a standing start, Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy can produce up to 250 kg of effective mass on his bike. When you have athletes this powerful and highly trained, you want to give them a machine to match. He's got the body, now all he needs is the bike.
The bike is made from this. It's carbon fibre with an epoxy resin. It's put into a mould, and then it's headed under pressure in the autoclave behind me. When it comes out, it looks like this. This is the new bike frame. Now it may just look like an ordinary bike frame, but actually it's very very light. It only weighs just over one kilo and considering it's that light it's also very very strong for its weight.
The technology used to create the bike is the same for Formula 1 cars and fighter jets. British cyclists are pinning their ambitions to be the best in the World on this set of wheels. Remarkably, no prototype has ever been built. Instead, the bikes performance can be determined whilst it's still just a computer design. The weak points in the frame can be identified before they result in a potentially dangerous crash.
Peter Keen (Performance Director, British Cycling)
We've looked at where the strain and the forces are going to occur in the bicycle using the computer analysis. And we're therefore able to look at how we can apply the right carbon fibres in the right orientation to give the frame its maximum stiffness and strength for the weight that it is, so the cyclist gets more for the power that they put into the bicycle.
Kate Knapman
The aim is to produce a lightweight frame that is super-strong, making it faster than its competitors.
And what is the most important thing for the people that are going to ride that bike?
Dimitris Katsanis (Design Engineer)
How they feel about it. When we are going to have the first test, he's going come out of the ride, step off the bike and you're going to be there, you're going to say 'What do you think about it? Is it good?' If he says yes, then that's the most satisfactory thing for me. If he says no, then I'll go away.
Kate Knapman
You'll go and cry? Fingers crossed then that he likes it!
Dimitris Katsanis
Fingers crossed then. Definitely.
Kate Knapman
With six weeks to go the bike arrives in Manchester for the first track test. It's too late to make any big changes before the Commonwealth Games.
Chris Hoy is keen to test it out. And then delivers his verdict.
Chris Hoy
It just feels really really impressive. Very good. Nicest bike I have ever ridden by far.
Dimitris Katsanis
Very good. Very good.
Peter Keen
I think its performed as well as we could ever have hoped. It gives us confidence that Dimitris has got it pretty much right.
Kate Knapman
And then in what should be a routine 200 meter time trial, something extraordinary happens as Chris pushes the bike to its limits. The current track record is 9.98 seconds, but not for long.
[Trainer]
If I tell you that's the fastest we have ever had for that effort, 9.75. Nice one 9 7 5!
Kate Knapman
Within just a few hours of getting on the bike, Chris has smashed the track record. Those legs pushing the speed up to 75 kilometres per hour. The team were hoping the bike would be fast, but no one had expected this.
Chris Hoy
I'm pretty surprised actually, it felt very good. It didn't feel like I was having to put that much effort in, so it bodes well for the bike you-know. As soon as I got on it I could tell it was something special. I just don't want to tell people about it, you-know, keep it a secret, so that they don't want to use the bike as well.
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The development of carbon fibre has had an enormous impact on performance in many sports other than cycling. It is used for a wide range of sporting equipment, from tennis racquets to bobsleighs, including almost anything for which a strong, lightweight material is required.

In this section we will introduce more detail about the structure of carbon fibre, and explain why it has the particular properties that it does.

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