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The Tech Improving Performance At The Tour De France

From electronic gear changing to wind tunnel testing

27Jul

The Tour de France has come to an end, with Briton Chris Froome taking cycling’s most prestigious prize for a third consecutive year. Winning the tour takes endurance, intelligence, and drive, with 21 days of racing a grueling prospect for any rider. Behind the scenes, though, there is a host of technology at play to improve times and make the tour easier for the riders. As we look back at the tour, we took a look at the tech giving riders an edge on the road.

Wind Tunnel Testing

One more obvious improvement riders can make is in their aerodynamics. As bikes have become lighter (although still limited to 6.8kg under UCI regulations), the battleground is now over how aerodynamic they are, as well as riders looking to optimize their position to save as many watts as possible. Access to wind tunnel testing is limited among the majority of riders due to its cost, but the improvements of using it can be huge. Team Drag2Zero owner and aerodynamics expert Simon Smart said: ‘For someone relatively new to time-trialling, who might be producing say 200 watts, optimizing their position in the wind-tunnel can give them an extra 30 watts. That’s a 10-15% improvement.’

One person looking to make wind tunnel testing more accessible is cycling legend Chris Boardman. At the end of 2016, Boardman Bikes was granted planning permission to build an 18,000 square foot center that would house an accessible wind tunnel, a physiology suite, and a cafe. Boardman believes the center could be ‘revolutionary’ for UK cycling, which coming from one of the most high-profile aero-pioneers is testament to just how much of an impact access to wind tunnel testing can have on cycling performance.

Power Meters

Put simply, power meters are devices fitted to one of five different areas of a bike to measure the power output of the rider. Generally, they use strain gauges that deflect slightly when a force is applied which, when coupled with measuring angular velocity, can be used to calculate watts.

With this information, coaches can put together specific training programs to work on things like left/right leg power and optimize elements like cadence. Just as in other sports, having more data gives coaches an insight into what’s going right or wrong, and, as power meters become more sophisticated, cycling analytics will improve.

Electronic Gear Shifting

Just as in previous years, electronic gear shifting dominated the Tour de France. There are some riders who continue to use mechanical out of personal preference (although 2017 was the first year in which no riders used traditional cable-based systems), but there is little argument as to which is better for performance. Electronic groupsets mean sharper and more precise shifting, they allow for shifting through multiple gears (some mechanical group sets can do this but it’s standard with electronic), they can be connected up with the rest of your tech, and shifters can be put anywhere.

The Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 was overwhelmingly favored by riders on this year’s tour, winning every stage. The rest of the riders went with either the SRAM Red eTap or the Campagnolo Super Record EPS. Electronic gear shifting is currently out of the price range of most riders, but as the technology develops the price should become more accessible.

Oval Chainrings

This year’s tour saw the likes of Chris Froome using Osymetric’s chainrings as opposed to traditional round ones, a change Sir Bradley Wiggins adopted before his Tour de France triumph. There is ongoing debate as to whether an oval ring has any significant impact on performance, with testing and research currently inconclusive. Both Froome and Wiggins have favored them at points in their careers, though, so we can certainly say that they don’t have a negative effect on performance.

‘You can alter the design so that you give the leg muscles work to do where they are at their strongest and less work to do where they are weak,’ says Jean-Louis Talo, a French mechanical engineer and long-time proponent of the Osymetric ring. ‘A round chainring gives you work to do where you are weak and takes power away from you where your legs are strongest. A bicycle chainring is round because at one time that’s all factories knew how to produce.’ More testing and competitive evidence will be needed before we can declare either oval or round chainrings superior - this year’s tour has simply brought them back to the center of conversation once again.

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