The AU$2,900 latex skinsuit New Zealand is using at the Tokyo Olympics

A relaxed UCI rule meant Champion System could bring back some of its old tech to make its riders faster.

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We might have had to wait an extra 12 months for it, but so far the track cycling at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games has been well worth the wait. Olympic and world records are tumbling left, right, and centre, and that’s not to mention the riders. As ever, the Olympics is proving the absolute pinnacle of track cycling. 

With such prestige and high stakes, most national federations, riders, and even sponsors pour multiple times the resources into the Games than the rest of the Olympic cycle put together. Many teams arrive at the track with the latest equipment and technological upgrades. Team GB have their Lotus x Hope bike, the United States have their Felts, Australia brought plenty of new tech, and most viewers will have spotted the New Zealand riders wearing a plastic-looking skinsuit à la the 1970s. 

That skinsuit is Champion System’s Aero Project Speed Suit, the latest offering from the custom clothing brand and the suit New Zealand hopes will help them to a haul of medals at these Games. 

We spoke to Chris Reynolds, managing director and founder of Champion System Australia, to find out more about this suit.  

High Performance Sport New Zealand released a video detailing the attention to detail in the new suit and the gains it offers.

The project speed suit results from a two-year development project by Champion System to create the fastest suit for the speeds at which the track stars are racing. 

The suit has all the features of an Olympic level skinsuit: good fit, strategically shaped panels and trip strips, plus its defining feature, a latex coating applied to the suit during the last step of the manufacturing process. Champion System claims this latex coating creates the smoothest surface possible with no creases, wrinkles, or seams. These smooth surfaces, combined with the specifically located and angled trip strips (the rib-like fabric strips), create a more aerodynamic skinsuit. 

The suit’s latex coating is only possible thanks to the UCI’s relaxation of the non-permeable fabrics rule. In fact, Hayden Godfrey of New Zealand used a similar type of Champion System skinsuit as far back as 2008, before tightened UCI rules meant the latex coating fell outside what was permissible in competition. 

That rule has since been relaxed and Champion System was keen to reintroduce the latex coating application for the Tokyo Games. “Early in the development process, we were able to work with the UCI to confirm that the suits and the fabrics used were UCI legal,” Reynolds explained. “Of course it has to pass technical regulations for approval pre-event.”

Champion System’s focus on custom clothing manufactured in its own facility means it can rapidly create prototypes for testing. This ability to quickly produce test samples at its Chinese factory and the company HQ’s proximity to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University means Champion System could test almost countless suit variations with an array of latex coating and trip strips locations.

Reynolds explained that this vast amount of testing allowed Champion System to determine the optimal suit for each discipline at speeds specific to each of those events, where normally a supplier might provide one suit to all cyclists regardless of the event or race speed. 

Champion System used rider mannequins to facilitate more testing.

Champion System used rider replica mannequins to enable much more frequent and quicker testing of different suit options in this design and testing phase. Through this testing, Champion System found that strategic placement of the latex panels and so-called trip strips was better than an entire latex suit. The strategic placement of the latex and trip strips can better smooth the airflow over the rider, plus the lack of ventilation in an entirely latex suit would have the riders overheating much too quickly. 

The final phase of testing got the riders into the suits for fit adjustments and final aero testing. As Reynolds explained, the latex coating does affect a skinsuit’s fit.

“If you imagine your normal jersey can stretch, once we put the latex coating on it has the effect of shrinking the jersey,” he said. “While we need to account and fit for this, that shrinking is also good as it creates a very nice fit. The fabric still has some stretch in it to help the riders getting into it, but importantly it has that tight and close feel.”

A person fits inside this!

The Kiwi team pursuit squads have used similar suits so far with slight variations for individual riders, but Champion System has found gains with different placement of the latex on suits for the sprint events. The suit used by the team pursuiters features the latex coating on the forearms, shoulders, and back, plus it has trip strips strategically positioned on the back and upper arms to smooth the airflow over the rider in a pursuit position.

The suit belonging to Hong Kong sprinter Sarah Lee, meanwhile, has the latex applied in more forward-facing areas for a sprint-optimised suit. Due to Champion System’s manufacturing capabilities, the company was still finalising Lee’s suit as recently as five days ago to fit her perfectly in race shape. 

While Champion System was reluctant to provide us with any of the actual aero data until after the Games, Reynolds could tell us that the new Project Speed Suit can provide a wattage saving of “more than 2.5% versus a standard skinsuit”, at team pursuiting speeds. 

We’ll have to wait for the actual aero testing data, but that 2.5% could be as much as 10-15 watts for some of the most powerful riders. The High Performance Sport New Zealand YouTube video above suggests the savings could be in the region of 2.5 seconds in the team pursuit.  

The New Zealand women’s team could only manage sixth with the new suit.

One trade-off for this extra speed could be reduced breathability. Reynolds explained the decision to have the latex coating only on the rear and forearms for pursuiters was partly made with ventilation in mind. Reynolds also pointed out that the team pursuit is still a relatively short event at well under four minutes for men, and just over four minutes for women, where the possible overheating trade-off can be managed. “You wouldn’t use this suit in a long hot Tour de France road stage – it’s just too hot, it’s not designed for that,” Reynolds said. “We are looking at using it at other road events, time trials etc. We still looking at options to include this in road suits.”

Reynolds explained that as per UCI regulations, the Project Speed Suit is available now, although at AU$2,900 don’t expect to see one at your local club 10-mile time trial just yet. As for the future of the suit, Reynolds was excited to explain that the suit will very much become an actual commercially available suit and not just a once-off for the world’s best athletes. 

“While we are at the cutting edge of sport in the Olympics, what we always look to do is make these products available to everyone,” he said. “It was always our goal to make these top-end products available for everyone.” 

Reynolds was confident the price would come down to a much more reasonable level as Champion System rolls the suit out to customers of custom clothing. Coincidentally, this rollout will happen post Olympic Games. 

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