SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, CA (CT) — The bike was under a shroud, unseen and awaiting a Formula 1-type unveiling. And when USA Cycling revealed its very secret weapon, during the Amgen Tour of California, the reaction was part forehead thump and part jaw drop.
Called Project 2016, and to be ridden by the world champion American women’s team pursuit foursome at the Rio Olympics, the Felt bike had a first — its crankset was on the left side.
The obvious question — Why hadn’t anyone thought of that before, for crying out loud? — was left unanswered.
Not in question was the reported result: Tests show a 3.5-second gain over the 4,000 meters of the women’s pursuit.
For perspective, consider this: In March, the U.S. women won the worlds in London — the country’s first team pursuit championship — by nearly three seconds in a race usually decided by fractions.
Doubling that margin is a serious escalation of the cycling arms race.
“That’s one of the reasons we kept it a secret,” said Anton Petrov, lead design engineer for Felt.
The timing of the announcement was as important as the secrecy, close enough to the August Games so as to leave competitors without the time to fashion copies — and to hand the American women an unchallenged advantage. (UCI rule 1.3.007 states that all equipment used in compeition be taken to market in the nine months after its first use in competition.)
“It’s hard to pull that off,” said Bob Stapleton, USA Cycling chairman, of the pressure to keep the new bike under wraps. “I think realistically we kept it quiet for two years. It got very intense the last year.”
Working from scratch but with mountains of collected data, Felt and partners Hed wheels, Vision components and IBM essentially black-boxed an asymmetrical, odd-looking combination. It’s a bike built solely for the women’s pursuit team that does nothing other than go fast, oval after oval.
“We tried to figure out what was going on on the track, what was different,” Petrov said.
“For example you look at NASCAR; they only go left [on oval tracks]. So the NASCAR cars are highly asymmetrical. On the track you’re also only going left, and we knew there must be something going on with that. We had to go outside the box.”
The project — formally known as Track Aero, Felt Racing Development (TA FRD) — used input from four-time individual pursuit world champion and double Olympic silver medalist Sarah Hammer, who was on the four-woman team that won gold in London. But that was minimal, which is unusual for the development of a new frame.
Instead, the team let the crunched numbers dictate the form. Working with oversize airfoils on the front of a regular track bike, Felt measured the effects of barely perceptible wind force from the side, or yaw, generated by going around in circles.
Most recent track bike R&D, led by the British, Canadians and Australians, focuses solely on reducing frontal aerodynamic drag.
“The airfoil was very highly cambered and designed to work well from one side and poorly from the other side,” Petrov said. “And so we did runs around the track in clockwise and counterclockwise directions, and we used data systems to measure drag, and then we found that there was significant difference.”
Testing found that the left-side yaw produced from the track was best countered by putting the crankset — a sleeker version of Vision’s existing Metron TT dish — on the other side. Felt also used the airfoil test results to fashion tubes in a canted, somewhat left-leaning way made to address the way air moves on the track.
Stages developed carbon-based, dual-sensor meters that capture high-resolution data at 64hz with cadences of 10-220 rpm and power outputs from 1-2,999 watts.
“It looked different, for sure,” said Chloe Dygert, the 19-year-old from Indiana who added the team pursuit title to her junior road and time trial wins at the Richmond worlds in 2015. She and teammates Hammer, Jennifer Valente and Kelly Catlin had crushed the team from Canada on the previous generation bikes in London. They’d been training on the new rigs for about a month and there was no hiding the takeaway.
“It’s definitely fast. It’s crazy. I mean, we’re seconds faster,” she said. “The design of it, everything is just perfect. It’s beyond perfect. I’m so excited to use it and race it at Rio.”
The project reveal coincided with a new logo for USA Cycling and more importantly, Stapleton said, a shift to grow the sport from the edges, the top and bottom. Heretofore mainly focused on the middle — the development of young talent — Stapleton said Project 2016 shows more the organization placing a greater emphasis on American elite riders, particularly women.
“We’re one of the top nations in the world [with] the quality of our women’s athletes,” Stapleton said. “There’s [now] an intense focus on improving those programs and supporting those athletes.
“But we’re also supporting the grassroots in bringing more people into the sport as part of a healthy lifestyle, and also getting them in different levels of competition, because we’d really like to build future generations.”
In the meantime, though, they built a secret. A weapon. Both.