Track Cycling’s Strange Quirk

Embed from Getty ImagesAs you watch this Sundays Hour Record attempt by Bradley Wiggins, bear in mind that no part of him, or any static part of his bike has actually travelled the Hour Record distance he sets. It’s a quirk of riding on a velodrome compared to riding on the road, science gets involved & messes things up, during a quiet period of any hour attempt you can bore your family with this info, perfect cycling nerd territory. A long-legged rider has an inbuilt benefit from this, here’s why….

The Banking Effect

Let’s take a hypothetical vertical wall of death you may have seen motorbikes using as an example. This wall of death has Brad Wiggins cycling round it, but it’s quite a small diameter wall of death, so his head is sitting exactly at the centre of rotation. Even though he’s having to ride at 55kmh to keep going on this vertical wall, his head isn’t really going anywhere, he barely feels any wind there at all, it’s just rotating on the spot, causing little or no aerodynamic drag. The only point travelling at 55kmh is the point his tyre touches the wall of death. So Brad’s body or bike frame isn’t actually travelling at 55kmh, the fastest static point of his bike is his bottom bracket, which is travelling less distance than his bike computer would tell him.

A track rider, banked over on a velodrome experiences a similar, but not quite so dramatic effect. The riders body travels at a slower speed on the bankings than a computer measuring wheel rotations would indicate. Consequently, if an accurate GPS unit was affixed to the handlebars it would also read less distance & a slower speed in the bankings than the timekeepers would tell you, there’s nowhere on a bike you could fit a GPS unit that would record the exact track distance covered.

There’s aerodynamic consequences from the banking effect, Brad’s body will be causing more aerodynamic drag on the straight than it does on the bankings. His body’s air speed is slower in the bankings than on the straights, even though his track speed is the same. So as a rider gets taller, their effective body speed reduces on the bankings. It also makes wheel choice & even bottom bracket shape are more important than it originally seemed, as that as close to the point of consistently maximum speed as you can get, that point travels fastest for longest in the Hour Record.

‘Analytic Cycling’ Study

The excellent ‘Analytic Cycling‘ website, contains a wealth of information for cycling geeks, they’ve done a study using the geometry of the Dunc Gray Velodrome in Australia. The test is based on a flying 200m time trial effort, so our distance are not based on a full lap, but include a full banking & one partial banking, so our reduction in distance the centre of gravity travels per lap is more than shown here.

The model they generate shows that even though the track distance is 200m (199.99m), the distance the centre of gravity travels is about 3m less (196.7m) at a pace equivalent to a 14.166 second over 200m. This also shows that there’s a 0.3 second advantage gained on their baseline model, caused by the leaning affect & the riders centre of gravity not travelling as far as the track distance. In the next test the speed is increased & we find that the distance the centre of gravity travels reduces again, as the rider leans in more, essentially cutting the corner yet again. The final test shows that a rider sitting 200mm higher on the bike, with longer legs, also reduces the time for the 200m based on the same power & reduces the distance travelled even further.

So in summary, a taller rider (or one with longer legs to be precise) travels less distance each lap than a shorter rider, they benefit from the leaning effect of the banking, it reduces their time for the same power output. If the additional wind resistance from the longer legs can be minimised, a taller rider (such as Wiggins) has a distinct advantage. It also means that the faster you go, the more benefit you get from this reduced travel effect, which may slightly counter the huge increases in wind resistance you get from increased velocity, anything is a bonus.

The Gist Of It

This is a bit of fun for cycling nerds, but it does show a measurable improvement in speed. Those with the analytic tools to make these estimations correctly have perhaps identified an ideal body type for a pursuit/hour-record rider. But not just on the aero characteristics they display on the road, but from how their body type translates to track cycling. It may be the case that similar to rowing, a certain size of athlete is particularly gifted at these very specific disciplines in cycling. I’m pretty sure British Cycling have got this sorted already, those team pursuit riders look very similar indeed. It looks like Brad’s centre of gravity travels approx 5m less per lap than his track speed, which would mean in a 55 km Brad only travels 53.9km, while if he rode 55km in a straight line on the road, his body would also travel 55km. I was always told “you’ll go quicker on the track than anywhere else”, this may have been true, due to the reduced distance & work required caused by the banking. All this does is explain a strange quirk of track cycling, which the cycling geek may like, others, well, they stopped reading a long time ago.

 

199 Laps

When a rider such as Wiggins decides that a weight penalty of (reportedly) an additional 8kg is for winning the Worlds time trial, when he’s beaten the opposition at his low le Tour weight, we know there’s something else going on, could it be a UCI record attempt?

Recent Patterns

We saw Brad winning the Tour de Pologne TT by some margin, this was over a distance of 37km, it took him approx 47 minutes, in this event he beat Taylor Phinney by a margin of 1min 14seconds. Roll on a couple of weeks & we see him finish 5th but beat Phinney by the much reduced margin of 2 seconds in the Eneco Tour, but in a much shorter & punchier 13km effort. When we wonder why he’s putting on some extra weight right now, the answer could be glaringly obvious, he’s preparing his body to withstand an hour & 400 velodrome bankings at 50kmh, it’s very hard to do that if you’re skin & bones like the 2012 Tour Wiggo. I’ve blogged previously about how reduced weight leads to reduced cross-section of arms, body, legs etc, resulting in reduced aerodynamic drag, we know Wiggins can TT with the best at his Tour winning weight, so putting that weight back on (as muscle) can mean only one thing to me, a dual objective to salvage & make his season exceptional, to bow out on a glittering career as I’ve suggested previously. I think he’s on for a pop at the UCI Hour Record, to write his name into that record book too.

The Worlds TT is 57.2km, he’s doing that in full aero kit, so the comparable time could be just over the hour, the double objective is so close physiologically, that it would be an opportunity to miss. This could explain why he’s not so good against the opposition over the shorter distance like in the Eneco TT, he’s possibly not training for that distance at all, so going into the higher zone over a shorter distance isn’t going to show him at his best, CP16 Versus CP60 for those power nerds (including me).

Why Muscle?

If you’ve ever ridden behind a Derny at 50kmh on a 250m track for a few minutes, you’ll understand what it takes to do that for an hour. The first visit to the track after you’ve been riding road for a few months is usually quite painful, not just in the legs, but arms, hands, neck & back, the G-Forces you encounter are something you just don’t have to deal with on the road, it’s a different sport.

To counter that you’ll find a lot of the to track riders carry a bit extra muscle in order to ensure they can deal with the additional forces the track applies to you, when riders leave the track to ride road again, they try to lose that extra upper body bulk, it’s not doing anything to help you in road races, in fact, quite the opposite. We can assume that his body fat percentage will be as low as possible to reduce drag, he could potentially go even lower as the temperature is carefully controlled in a velodrome record attempt, there’s no risk of getting chilled.

Where & When?

London would be the incredibly likely venue for a Wiggins Hour attempt, it’s due to open for public on March 4th, a precursor to that could be a Brad Wiggins Hour attempt, otherwise it would likely be Manchester. I can’t see him missing the opportunity to perform in front of his ‘home’ crowd at London, if he goes for it I’d expect it to be London.

The Worlds time trial is on 23rd September, I doubt that an attempt would be within 2 weeks of that, there’s probably a fair amount of adaptation to do, to get from tri-bars to drop bars & adapt to riding those for an hour at that speed, it can’t be done overnight. He can use this time to also reduce weight & possibly train exclusively at a currently ‘closed to public’ velodrome after the Worlds?

The Record

The current record is 49.7 km, so he’ll need to do about 199 laps to beat it, the magical 50km & 200 laps in one hour is right there as the big carrot. The UCI somewhat ruined the Hour Record when they introduced their current bizarre rules which negated years of technological developments & put the Hour Record back a few years. They wanted everybody compared to Eddy Merckx, but as we know, historical comparisons are pretty useless as there are so many different factors, sports science, diet, aerodynamics etc. So wouldn’t it be lovely if Wiggins, along with going for the ‘Athletes Hour’, also went for the UCI’s ‘Best Human Effort’ record of 56.375 km (held by Chris Boardman), which allows riders to use what would be a UCI legal pursuit bike & position.

For the ‘Athletes Hour’, Wiggins would have to use a non aero frame, shallow rims, a helmet within an agreed standard & dropped bars. So we could see an additional marketing opportunity for Pinarello to produce a special ultimate steel bike, “As used by Bradley Wiggins”. If this record attempt is actually going ahead & not just a figment of my imagination, the bike probably already exists, in BC’s secret squirrel lab & Brad’s already been in the wind tunnel on it.

What Will Happen Next?

If it’s on, you’ll not hear about it, I think they’ll wait until just after the Worlds and announce something then, possibly in October. I could be very wrong, but I find it hard to work out why else Brad would be putting on extra weight when he can potentially beat the likes of Cancellara at his Tour weight. It’ll all come out in the wash, but it would be a fitting finale to his season, it would turn an entire year of disappointments right around & leave him in the position to move on or stick out another year of classics & other objectives.

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Knee Deep in Motivation

Bradley Wiggins, after an outstanding 2012 is struggling to come to terms with an ordinary 2013, lets take a look at how that might have come about.

2012

Lets not forget just how stellar a year it was for Wiggo in 2012, here’s a list of his main achievements during the year.

  • Winner : Paris Nice
  • Winner : Tour de Romandie
  • Winner : Criterium du Dauphine
  • Winner : Tour de France
  • Gold Medal : Olympic Time Trial

He won Paris Nice & almost everybody wondered why he was peaking so early, then at Romandie we were astounded, he’d kept that peak going. Moving on to the Dauphine & we were sure he had peaked to early on the run up to the Tour, then the Tour came along & he took that too (although we don’t really know how strong Froome was, or if he was stronger would he have been mentally ready to lead the team). Finally the Olympic Gold medal was taken in London in front of huge crowds. An incredibly hard season to follow, most riders would be legends winning these events over an entire career, let along one season.

2013

We really have no idea about what effect maintaining his 2012 form over a long period of time has had on Wiggin’s body, let along his mind, the discipline he ruled on himself must have been incredible. We also have to factor is the stardom effect, after a year like that he’s moved from somebody most people had heard of to a household name in the UK, the media demands are huge for somebody thrown into that kind of fame over a relatively short period of time.

In order for an ‘engine’ like Wiggo to perform against the climbers, he has to run at an incredibly low body weight, which we presume a Sky doctor is constantly monitoring in order to keep him healthy. So we can also presume that a body fat percentage like that is a fine line between staying healthy & performing incredibly well. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that he’s been unable to maintain the kind of form he enjoyed in 2012, maybe it’s impossible for the Sky backup team to factor in all the appearances he had to make in winter 2012/2013 in relation to his relative public demand in the winter of 2011/2012, where he’d really only won the Dauphine & it has very little public perception in the UK.

So far in 2013, he’s finished 5th in both the Giro del Trentino & the Vuelta a Catalunya, with some mechanical problems adding to the disappointment. In the Giro we were having to come to various conclusions as to what was going wrong, be it form, illness, motivation, or a mixture of them all, which resulted in having to withdraw with a chest infection.

What is going on?

There’s no reason to believe that Wiggins didn’t have a chest infection at the Giro, but I’d ponder that a chain of events have led to this being the case. Possibly started by a lack of motivation, after all, what exactly did he have to prove by re-running the 2012 season, which as he stated himself, would have been a failure if he didn’t surpass what he achieved last year. So the Giro was targeted, but can we be sure that the Giro is as motivationally tempting to him as the Tour, regardless of what’s said in press conferences, we’d imagine not. So this leads to my motivation pondering, can a lower level of motivation lead to an athlete becoming ill?

Take the winter of 2011/2012, Wiggins knows he has the ability to win the Tour, the following year is made for him, he decides to give his all to turning up at the Tour is the best shape possible. He knuckles down & lives a life none of us can imagine, carefully controlling absolutely everything in his life, he does this for a full year with one thing in mind.

Now we move on to the winter of 2012/2013, he’s won the Tour, the next year’s is going to be a harder course for him & he also knows that his team-mate will be less inclined to hold back this time, a team-mate who it niggles him in the back of his mind may have had the ability to beat him without team orders. Wiggins has to be better than 2012 in order to win the Tour again, he has to be better to even have team leadership, in all likelihood he’ll be a super-domestique for Froome if he concentrates on the Tour. He doesn’t take quite as much care of himself (still living a life of discipline none of us can really imagine), he has huge demands on his time, his recovery time is affected massively, with travelling, functions, late nights etc.

If you take a step back & look at what Wiggins has had to endure during the winter, demands far above what he’s ever been used to in the past, 2013 was always going to be a disappointment. He knew he also had to improve to do the same again, so he focussed on the Giro instead and reshaped his calendar around that. Essentially he lowered his targets to some extent in order to focus on different goals, it was a plan that may have worked, but a weather stricken Giro, form not at 100% & a stunning Nibali put and end to those hopes rapidly. Brad had to go deep into his reserves, presumably with an incredibly low body fat percentage, slightly lower form & unseasonably bad weather in the Giro, all added to something Sky couldn’t control & the wheels came off the wagon. We don’t know what would have happened had any factors been different, but Wiggin’s team-mate eventually finishing 2nd (at over 4 mins) shows that had things gone to Sky’s plan, Brad would surely have been expected to finish above Uran, i.e much closer or ahead of Nibali. But looking at it, it seems unlikely that the Maglia Rosa would have been on anybody elses shoulders, Nibali looked like he still had an extra gear he had no need to use against the competition that surfaced in the final week, I think he would have won anyway.

Where are we now?

Wiggins is suffering from a bad knee, as reported today, but when things go wrong, the little things seem a lot worse. Take the mechanical issues in Wiggins early 2013 season, you could feel the frustration bubbling over what he would have taken little issue with in the past. The report suggests he’s still able to train, but could this be another poor PR gesture from Sky, who are really between a rock & a hard place on this, when you’ve got twitter participants like Froome’s girlfriend suggesting that there’s no way Wiggins will be riding in the same team, in the same race as Froome (remember ‘Wagwars’ from last year). My guess is that he won’t be on the start line in this years Tour, or any others for that matter.

Conclusion

This isn’t a blog about slagging Bradley Wiggins, it’s more about understanding what he’s been through in order to perform as spectacularly well as he did in 2012, then the fall out from that effort in body & mind. He’s proven what he can do & anything less in any further years would be a let down. I expect him to retire from professional cycling at the end of the year, he should be applauded for what he’s done to the profile of the sport in the UK, he’s taken the brunt of many Team Sky PR blunders & if motivation isn’t going to rise above knee level, it’s maybe time to step away from bike racing while he’s still at the top. Wiggins suffered many years of living on the fringes of nearly making it big time, he doesn’t need to do that anymore, he’s set himself up for life.

Brad, you’ve done us proud, you’ve also earned millions, don’t screw it up now, enjoy the rest of your life without having to worry about pedalling a bike fast, you earned a pittance doing that for too long, it’s time to enjoy the spoils of war, don’t get any more scars, life isn’t bike racing, it’s just one small (but necessary) part of it.

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