In July, swimming’s governing body, FINA, banned Speedo’s polyurethane swimming suits despite having okayed them in June. Cycling’s UCI also has a slew of rules on go-faster clothing, but the world’s governing body for cycling has yet to come down hard on those companies breaching the clothing rules.
There are lots of ways to make cycle clothes faster, such as: dimples, placing seams away from the airflow, fabric rugosity (i.e. roughness), body-mapping (i.e. designing clothes with athletes’ muscle groups in mind), trapping air around the upper arm and wire inserts under jerseys to aid air-flow. Some of these are allowed by UCI and some are banned, but not routinely enforced.
Given their propensity for the pristine, UCI tech wonks may soon turn their focus on fabrics and could one day ban a lot of the clothing innovations that have been trickling down to consumers over the last three to four years.
The UCI doesn’t like anything that has a smack of ‘performance enhancement’. According to sources, the UCI seriously wanted to ban materials that absorb moisture as this helps cooling –and thus aids performance. Fortunately they were talked out of that one.
It would be cruel to imply that some UCI types hanker after the type of woollen cycle shorts that weigh twice as much when wet as when dry. However, the guiding principle behind the UCI’s tech regulations seems to be: ‘what was good enough for Eddy Merckx in 1970 should be good enough for us today’.
Jason Rance, vice-president of marketing at Speedo International, pointed out in July that preventing sports equipment companies from innovating is point blank stupid. “In order to get rid of having wetsuits in the pool, they’re actually going to take back innovation in the sport and send it back two decades. My analogy is that next year at Wimbledon, Federer and Nadal will be about to start a game and they’ll say: ‘Hang on a minute, mate. Give me your carbon graphite racquet and you can have a cane one from the ‘90s. Have a good game.’”
Critics of the ‘give-technology-free-rein’ approach say that some performance-enhancing clothing isn’t just slippier through the water or air, it is biomechanical cheating. ‘Compression’ clothing is getting a lot of attention right now and there are some claims that it’s almost another form of propulsion. For instance, Power Lycra controls and reduces muscle vibration, maximising power while reducing energy loss, muscle fatigue and the risk of cramps. It sounds reasonable, but what about elastic-band exoskeletons? There are garments for elite cross-country skiers which use Thermoplastic urethane (TPU) bands to store and release energy on movement.
Adidas uses TPU Powerweb Technology on its cross-country ski suits. TPU bands support the natural expansion and contraction of the musculoskeletal system while performing. They provide elastic support and performance enhancement for muscle groups.
Working on such garments for Adidas was James Lamont. He used to work with the Adidas Innovation Team but is now a freelance consultant. He has worked across many different sports, but his interest is predominantly cycling.
In the early ‘90s, Lamont worked for Raw Experience of Edinburgh, the then importer of Clif Bars and other niche brands.
Now, when it comes to go-faster fabrics, he is the go-to guy. It was Lamont who developed the Adidas Ian Thorpe swim suit, he who led the research to make TPU bands for cross-county skiing, and he who combined polyurethane with swimming suits. Lamont has also worked on go-faster cycle clothing for pro bike teams, such as Team Telekom.
After speaking to Lamont, he points out the latest developments in bike clothing technology...
AERODYNAMICS AND COOLING
Aerodynamics is always key in cycling. More attention could be paid to specific riding positions – not just for time trialling, but for long breakaways and chases at the front too. There seems to be a fascination with surface drag in cycling. We constantly see quotes for power savings or ‘gains’, which as a percentage of the drag load from surface friction, effects are bigger than the total power lost by the drag factor they suggest they are dealing with.
The UCI has been very strict on clothing and footwear, but must always be respected. This year, however, some teams have been experimenting in early season races, like the Tour of California, with devices on clothing that are clearly against the spirit and the law of the regulations. Given the attention that the UCI has recently been giving to equipment, particularly aspect ratios and fairing, there are still major steps that can be made in drag reduction. I am still very surprised that few people have looked at aerodynamics in the context of cooling, as they have in braking systems in Formula One. This is a huge area to make improvements for, in performance and comfort.
SOLAR LOAD AND COLOURS
Colour makes a big difference in terms of solar load. This was evident at this year’s Tour de France, where teams changed jersey and short colour. However, there are issues to do with opacity caused by water, particularly liquid sweat, which could be dealt with better in regards to heat load.
There have been improvements in the use of different fabric weights and constructions such as mesh, single jersey or mock eyelet, plus incorporation of stretch and in wovens. The placement of lighter or more closed fabric is still an area which seems very old fashioned compared with work I have done on heat production and heat load on the body. This is potentially an area for big improvements.
As riders get tired over the course of a race, heat and how they cope with it has a big impact on performance. When a rider is producing 400 watts or more on a climb to stay with the leaders, the body is creating nearly 1,600 watts –1,200 watts of which is then mostly lost as thermal energy. Combine this with external heat load, quite a remarkably high number of watts per square metre on the open road in the Alps in July directly from the sun, plus reflected and radiated heat from the external environment (Mont Ventoux’s final kilometers being one of the most striking examples of this later effect) – there’s a great amount of heat to be lost from the body through evaporation, radiation, convection and conduction, along with a large heat load from the external environment.
Clearly, what’s next to the skin, to lose that excess heat generated internally and resist external heat load, is the rider’s clothing, which can have a big positive impact on performance.
It’s great to see ideas like pre-cooling before the event and ice pack interventions during the race, but more can be done in the future for cycle clothing. We can look at other industries and incorporate their solutions.
In the high mountains, gravity is a key issue –I always see this on my SRM power meter as I hit a climb. For much equipment, there is an obsession with weight, however it’s always looked at as a dry weight. We know from research, our own riding experience and from watching top riders in the tour, that water, in terms of sweat, is a major factor in weight. In fact, there are some quite counter-intuitive approaches to system weight of a rider’s outfit which could yield much lower weights in a race.
COMPRESSION & BODY-SHAPE
This has become a huge trend in the past couple of years, with every team having different sponsors providing a variety of products with performance improvement claims.
Over the course of a grand tour, we can see from riders’ SRM power meter data that a rider’s challenge is to recover from each day’s efforts, and perhaps over three weeks try to delay the inevitable reduction in performance.
For recovery, compression garments offer great potential benefits. However, most products I have seen, both on the general and custom-made market, offer very little compression, compromise freedom of movement and don’t have the correct compression graduation engineered into them. Most seem to offer no more than a placebo effect. In addition, many garments I see being used are of very low compression force compared with the trained muscles of a professional cyclist, and in addition pay scant attention to the very specific body shapes of these athletes.
While this is disappointing, it leaves scope for improvements to be made in the products and in maintaining rider performance for recovery, travel and warm-up.
LAYERS AND SYSTEMS
There has also been little attention to all the layers and components of what the rider wears, and although sponsor manufacturers would like us to buy only their products, there is still not enough thought going into clothing as a system. A better approach in all the areas above could yield great benefits.
SKINNY AND WET
In the Tour de France in the late ‘90s, a German star lost a lot of time due to cold and wet conditions. With very low body fat (insulation) at peak conditions, high riding speeds and water from precipitation, and water thrown up from other riders’ wheels, we end up with big issues.
Given that water conducts heat 26 times faster than dry air, the potential for heat loss and catastrophic loss of performance is huge. Combined with high power outputs up climbs, then inactivity and high speeds on descents, rapid cooling’s a natural result. This year I was struck by how poorly prepared teams were. This is an area in which pro riders, tied to sponsors’ product and the need to show logos and names, can actually be at a disadvantage to amateur riders who are free to wear what they want. There’s a whole range of products which could be built specifically for pro riders’ needs, in events like the Tour de France.
A version of this interview appeared on srm.de and is used here with permission.