Multi-million-pound research facilities filled with safety-goggled lab boffins fiddling with equipment so advanced, it looks like it could transport you to the moon and back. What’s that? No, we’re not describing a scene from E.T. – it’s actually the kind of thing that’s helped Great Britain’s paracyclists excel in the velodrome over the past few years.
At the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, GB topped the medal table in both track- and road-cycling events with 17 gold medals – more than the total gold hauls of the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-placed nations combined. As well as a set of athletes with the ability to pump pedals at warp speed, the main weapon in their armoury was a fleet of bikes so state-of-the-art, Steven Spielberg’s friendly little alien creation could have probably used one to pop back across the galaxy and reunite with his mothership.
One man who knows just how these two-wheeled technological wonders are helping our cyclists reach their potential is GB’s head coach Chris Furber. We caught up with him at the Paracycling National Championships in Manchester to find out what separates the saddled beasts between the legs of athletes like Jody Cundy and Jon-Allan Butterworth from your common-or-garden spokey-dokeyed runaround…
The bikes that GB’s cyclists use aren’t anything like the ones you’d pick up in Halfords. Can you tell us a bit about them?
"We use two different types of bike; a track bike and a road bike. The track bike was commissioned by the UK Sports Institute and is the only one-piece carbon-fibre bike available in the world. It was designed in 2003 and used at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games. It was so good that we used it again in Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games and it will appear again in London. It’s a really clever piece of kit despite the fact it has no gears or brakes. It’s pretty simple, but very, very sophisticated.
The road bikes are produced by a company called Pinarello and generally involve a carbon-fibre frame. We use the top-two bikes in the range, but our visually impaired athletes use what’s called an FP3 or an FP4, both of which come with aluminium frames. This is because they do a lot of their training with their bike stationed on a turbo (a fixed trainer) and using a carbon-fibre frame on a turbo for prolonged periods weakens the frame. But generally, 99% of the bikes we use are carbon fibre."
Are the tyres any different?
"The tyres we use when racing are top of the range – they’re made of silk. They don’t last very long. Before you know it, you have to change them and you’re looking at £50-70 per tyre. While they are super-expensive, they’re very light and very fast. In training we use a standard rubber tyre, which we can inflate to some pretty high pressures. The tyre is a perfect circle and it’s glued to the rim to give a lower rolling resistance."
Just how bespoke are the adaptive bikes?
"It really does depend on the athlete you’re working with. For example, Jon-Allan Butterworth is missing an arm, so his bike is adapted quite a lot. We’ve changed the controls so the brakes and the gears are both operated from one side of the bike. He uses a prosthetic arm, which literally has a ball on the end of it that fits into a socket on his handlebars to give him extra stability. He can operate both the front and the rear brake from one lever. We split his brake cable so when he pulls on the brake levers the back break comes on slightly before the front brake so he can maintain control when he’s descending. Other than that, we try to stick as close as possible to a bog-standard bike. We try to change things as little as possible and stick to stock components."
What about special attachments, such as Jon-Allan’s arm socket?
"It’s an off-the-shelf attachment. The army uses it and Jon had it so he could ride his motorbike. It’s quite heavy-duty for what he’s doing on a bicycle, but it works for him. Jon has two different types of arm for when he’s riding; he has an articulated arm for when he’s using a pair of drop handlebars and he has a very short arm, which, for want of a better expression, looks like a Dalek arm. It’s a rod with a small ball on it, which he uses when he’s in his low position. It helps him get incredibly aerodynamic. We measured it and he’s a lot more aerodynamic than some of our able-bodied pursuit riders."
So it’s not just about the bikes – prostheses are also important, right?
"Most of the athletes who have an amputation work with a prosthesis. Jody Cundy is sponsored by Össur but Terry Byrne and Jon-Allan Butterworth worked with the guys at Headley Court, which is a rehabilitation centre for members of the British Armed Forces. We’ve been really fortunate to work with those guys and they’re brilliant at what they do. At the start of the year we decided we needed a new leg for Terry, so we went to Headley Court to meet with his prosthetist. The team there designed the leg one week, made the prototype the next and the week after that Terry had a brand new carbon-fibre leg delivered that he could use for training. It made a big difference; the first time he rode with it he took half a second off his standing lap time. So it just goes to show, if you get the prosthesis right, it can have a big impact on the rider’s performance."
How much does a typical track bike weigh?
"There’s a minimum weight limit on any track bike, which is 6.8kg. But we’re generally a little bit over that because we add material to make sure the bikes are safe, strong and deliver power in the right way. So in the end, our bikes probably weigh 7.2 to 7.3kg – they’re incredibly light."
About the same weight as a small dog? Wow – that’s light. We bet they don’t come cheap…
"It’s really difficult to put a price on the UK Sports Institute bikes because they aren’t available on the open market. If you incorporated all the research and development costs you’re talking tens of thousands of pounds per bike."
But if that means gold, then it’s worth it, right?
"Absolutely. It’s also value for money in that the design has stood the test of time. The bikes were current in 2004 and they’re still current now – no one else in the world has been able to produce a better bike, which is why we continue to run it and we’ll continue to work on different versions of it. Until something better comes along, there’s no need to change it."
To get involved in Paracycling, head to the British Cycling website