Rio Olympics 2016: Engineering speed for the Canadian track cycling team

Waterloo research team had one week to design and deliver a complex handlebar connector that helps athletes stay in the optimal position for maintaining speed

By Brian Caldwell

Faculty of Engineering

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A tight timeline was only fitting when engineers at the University of Waterloo took on a special project for the Canadian track cycling team headed to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Lending their expertise in a world where winners and losers are typically decided by tiny fractions of a second, Professor John McPhee and research engineer Carin Yeghiazarian had just one week in June to produce a small but technically complex piece of hardware.

“It’s a very complicated 3D system,” said McPhee, a professor of systems design engineering and Canada Research Chair in system dynamics. “Obviously, we dropped everything else in the lab and just focused on this.”

Made of lightweight aluminum and shaped like a teardrop, their work connects the upper and lower handlebars on bikes used in team and individual pursuit events to make riders as aerodynamic as possible when they go into what is known as the praying mantis position.

Carin Yeghiazarian holding aluminum handlebar connector

Research engineer Carin Yeghiazarian shows off one of the two-piece aluminum handlebar connectors he helped produce for the Canadian track cycling team in time for the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Aluminum connector tilts bars upward at a 12-degree angle

The two-piece connectors – an aerodynamic holder and a fastener that fit together and measure about five centimetres by two centimetres – tilt the curved, narrow upper bars upward at a 12-degree angle to put cyclists in the optimal body position for maintaining their speed after accelerating.

The deadline was imposed because Cycling Canada officials didn’t want to introduce any equipment changes too close to the races in Rio, which are scheduled to run August 11 to 16, for five members of the women’s pursuit team. The men’s pursuit team didn’t qualify.

Meeting the deadline meant a trip to the new velodrome in Milton, doing three-dimensional computer scans and logging long hours during the initial design phase before turning CAD models over to a manufacturer, who worked over the weekend.

“It was pretty exciting, I’ll tell you that,” said Yeghiazarian. “It really got the adrenaline going.”

Handlebars with “Waterloo tweak” will be on standby

Mike Patton, a sports scientist for the track cycling team, said bikes featuring the Waterloo connectors may not actually be used in competition in Rio. The team recently had entirely new handlebars designed and produced for pursuit riders to take advantage of the aerodynamic, tilted upper bars, which were made possible by a regulation change in the sport about two years ago.

Still, the team also wanted its old handlebars on hand – with the Waterloo tweak, which replaced previously improvised connectors – in case there is a problem with approval of the new ones, or some riders ultimately prefer not to switch for the competition.

“It’s kind of an insurance policy,” said Patton. “It means we have 100 per cent confidence our athletes can race in the position we want them to be in.”

Knowing they just might have an impact on races on the world stage a continent away, McPhee and Yeghiazarian will be squinting at their televisions to see if they can spot their connectors in use on the steeply banked indoor track.

“My friends were saying, imagine if they win the gold by just a few milliseconds,” Yeghiazarian. “That would be really crazy.”

Waterloo connectors will be used on the World Cup circuit

Canadian cyclists race in the world championships in London

Canadian cyclists (l-r) Georgia Simmerling, Allison Beveridge, Kirsti Lay and Jasmin Glaesser race during the women’s team pursuit event at the recent world championships in London, England, where they won the silver medal. Photo: canadiancyclist.com

Even if they aren’t used in Rio, Patton said the handlebar connectors will be pressed into service for subsequent international races on the World Cup circuit.

He also expects the successful project to be the start of an ongoing relationship and much more collaboration with McPhee and his researchers.

“The guys jumped on it and were phenomenal,” Patton said. “They gave us exactly what we needed.”