The slippery tech that helps Olympic track cyclists go faster and set records

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Olympics - Cycling track team sprint explained

Every four years the fastest track cyclists on the planet gather to race for medals around a velodrome in front of millions. And while the athletes who make it to the Olympics are massively powerful and finely skilled bike racers, they are also keen to gain every technological advantage by using the fastest bikes and gear — all of which can prove critical in a sport where races are won by millimeters and fractions of a second.

Here's a sample of some of the technology used by Olympic cyclists in Rio to cheat the air and pedal faster:

In races such as pursuit, riders opt for disc wheels in front and back. Using discs improves airflow around the bike and helps riders go faster at steady speeds by reducing drag. As the saying goes, aerodynamics is free speed.

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Source: Vision

In addition to discs, the riders have sleek eyewear, helmets, skinsuits, handlebars, and frames, all of it wind tunnel tested.

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Sprinters choose aero spoke wheels on the front and discs in the back. Aero spoke wheels are lighter than discs and handle better.

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To help reduce drag in front and back, track bikes in Rio had sleek aero shapes all around the frame.

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For events like the pursuit, riders use aero handlebars. Of the four hand positions, the outer bars help riders leverage their upper-body strength to start fast, while the inner hand positions allow riders to race in a tuck position like a skier to slip through the wind.

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In Rio, Team USA did something unprecedented in the Olympic Games ...

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The Americans rode left-side drivetrains.

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Source: Felt Bicycles TV/Vimeo

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2016 Rio Olympics - Cycling Track - Final - Men's Sprint Final Gold Race - Rio Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 14/08/2016. Jason Kenny (GBR) of Britain and Callum Skinner (GBR) of Britain compete. REUTERS/Paul Hanna 
2016 Rio Olympics - Cycling Track - Final - Men's Sprint Final Gold Race - Rio Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 14/08/2016. Jason Kenny (GBR) of Britain and Callum Skinner (GBR) of Britain compete. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard 
2016 Rio Olympics - Cycling Track - Final - Men's Sprint Final Gold Race - Rio Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 14/08/2016. Jason Kenny (GBR) of Britain celebrates. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard 
2016 Rio Olympics - Cycling Track - Victory Ceremony - Men's Sprint Victory Ceremony - Rio Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 14/08/2016. Jason Kenny (GBR) of Britain celebrates winning the gold medal. REUTERS/Matthew Childs 
2016 Rio Olympics - Cycling Track - Final - Men's Team Sprint Final Gold Race - Rio Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 11/08/2016. Jason Kenny (GBR) of Great Britain celebrates with fans. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard 
2016 Rio Olympics - Cycling Track - Preliminary - Team training - Rio Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 09/08/2016. Jason Kenny (GBR) of United Kingdom during a practice session. REUTERS/Matthew Childs 
Britain Cycling - Team GB - Rio 2016 Cycling Team Media Session - Newport Velodrome, Wales - 25/7/16 Jason Kenny of Team GB in action Action Images via Reuters / Tony O'Brien Livepic
2016 Rio Olympics - Cycling Track - Final - Men's Team Sprint Final Gold Race - Rio Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 11/08/2016. Jason Kenny (GBR) of Great Britain celebrates after winning the race and setting a new Olympic record. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard 
Britain Cycling - Team GB - Rio 2016 Cycling Team Media Session - Celtic Manor, Wales - 25/7/16 Jason Kenny of Team GB poses for a photo Action Images via Reuters / Matthew Childs Livepic
Britain Cycling - Team GB - Rio 2016 Cycling Team Media Session - Newport Velodrome, Wales - 25/7/16 Jason Kenny of Team GB in action Action Images via Reuters / Tony O'Brien Livepic
2016 Rio Olympics - Cycling Track - Final - Men's Team Sprint Final Gold Race - Rio Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 11/08/2016. Jason Kenny (GBR) of Great Britain celebrates after winning the race and setting a new Olympic record. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard 
2016 Rio Olympics - Cycling Track - Victory Ceremony - Men's Sprint Victory Ceremony - Rio Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 14/08/2016. Callum Skinner (GBR) of Britain with the silver medal and Jason Kenny (GBR) of Britain with the gold medal pose on podium. REUTERS/Matthew Childs 
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"Traditional cranks are on the right side, which we basically figured out was the wrong side for the track," said Anton Petrov, an engineer for Felt Bicycles, according to NBC.

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Source: NBC


"The researchers discovered that due to the curves of the velodrome walls and the motion of the cyclists, wind is an important factor even when the race is indoors," NBC reported. "The designers got to work on how to minimize drag and came up with a solution never done before on Olympic bicycles." (Also note the aero shoes and disc wheel and the low-friction chain covered in Teflon powder.)

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Source: NBC


These Olympic Games also saw the introduction of on-board TV cameras that showed live images from inside the race.

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The cameras provide an unprecedented view of the race.

NBC Sports Network

Meanwhile, officials placed bikes in a jig to make sure that each met shape and size requirements.

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Further reading: Momnium


Jason Kenny of Great Britain reigned supreme in Rio, winning three gold medals — in the sprint, keiren, and team sprint.

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The UK's Ryan Owens wore a wind-tunnel-tested skinsuit, seamless eyewear and helmet, and a custom 3D printed narrow aero handlebar.

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Because today's high-tech cycling apparel is often faster than skin, the sport's governing body limits how much skin may be covered. In Rio, for example, officials checked that riders' aero socks were not too high. Socks can go up to mid-calf only, an International Cycling Union spokesman told Business Insider. And though these "socks" had zippers in the back, they are still considered socks. "We don't govern the structure of the sock or how it is attached," the UCI said.

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Some riders didn't bother with socks of any kind.

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When the difference between first and second can be a fraction of a second, every wind-cheating bit helps. Several riders, including gold medalist Jason Kenny of the UK, wore super-stiff custom carbon aero shoes. Unlike with regular shoes, the hardware for adjusting the shoe is kept underneath and out of the wind. The carbon-fiber tech was borrowed from the aerospace industry.

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Most track sprinters used some sort of toe strap to keep their shoes clipped in tight and transfer maximum power to the pedals.

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Riders from Great Britain wore easily adjustable Velcro toe straps.

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The beefy toe straps make for a super-secure power transfer from the rider to the pedals.

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The races often come down to a bike throw: Here Gold medalist Jason Kenny of Great Britain, silver medalist Matthijs Buchli of the Netherlands, and bronze medalist Azizulhasni Awang of Malaysia cross the finish line in the men's keirin final.

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Riders from China wore custom-painted aero helmets featuring faces and masks from the Chinese Opera. The women's had images of legendary female warriors ...

Phil Walter/Getty Images

Source: South China Morning Post


... while the men wore helmets showing military generals from the Three Kingdoms period.

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Source: South China Morning Post


They helmets looked fantastic and added a cool visual element to the racing.

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Gorgeous details.

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Some riders, such as Gregory Bauge of France, wore custom leather gloves.

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Others, such as Laura Trott of Great Britain, raced without gloves but covered the inside of their hands with chalk for extra grip.

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Grip chalk on a rider's handlebar.

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Finer details included a gold-plated chain.

AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

... and custom-painted shoes with riders' name printed on them.

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During training, coaches used tablet devices to show riders lap times so that they could perfect their efforts for the real racing.

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A semi-pro cyclist who owns a bike shop in Brazil, Ivo Siebert, set the pace on what's known as a derny bike for the track cycling keirin event, as Reuters reported. He rode an electric bike while the world's fastest racers behind him prepared to sprint.

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He's become something of an internet star on cycling Twitter.

Source: Reuters


Of course aerodynamics only make you so fast. In the end you have to be a powerful cyclist who can lay down the watts.

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Rio's track-cycling events are over, so we'll have wait for the Japan Games to see what new tech will make the cut at the next Olympics.

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