1. What can competitive cycle design teach the automotive manufacturing industry?
3M Transportation
  • What can competitive cycle design teach the automotive manufacturing industry?

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    Competitive Cycle Design

    Image credit: Aksonov via iStock

    • There are plentiful parallels between design engineering in competitive cycling and in the automotive industry. These parallels provide valuable inspiration that translates to the application of innovative thinking within the automotive manufacturing field.

      Some of these lessons, such as lightweighting, are already reflected in current trends within the automotive industry, while others suggest ways to think differently to produce better results. Here are some of the most instructive lessons competitive cycle design can offer the world of speciality vehicles, including buses, trucks and cars.

      Consistently strive to improve performance

      Like motor vehicles, the humble bicycle has seen a dramatic evolution since its invention. In the world of competitive cycling, as in motor racing, there has been a clear theme to development down the years - the constant strive to improve performance.

      The key driving force behind innovation in competitive cycling is optimising performance. While this is a theme shared by motor sport, it contrasts the wider automotive sector; performance may be a central theme here, but the overarching goal in the current climate is reducing emissions. Fortunately, there is much overlap between the two - something that makes the cycling industry's focus on performance enhancement of particular interest to the speciality vehicle manufacturing sector. Because of course, with performance enhancement often comes reduced emissions.

      Focus on aerodynamics and efficiency optimisation

      A key trend in bicycle design is the push to improve aerodynamics, thereby reducing the amount of power needed to move at speed. According to an article by NUI Galway and Eindhoven University of Technology research project published in Engineers Journal, aerodynamics is believed to hold the most potential for improving speed.

      Of course, in the world of competitive cycle racing, engineers must take into account the form of the cyclist themselves, as they have a significant impact on both viscous drag and form drag. While automotive manufacturing clearly differs in that it need only take into account the vehicle itself, there are still useful lessons here.


    • For example, competitive cycle design is very much geared towards ensuring cyclists get as much output for their input as possible, meaning it provides good inspiration for committing to focus on efficiency - and for vehicle manufacturers that translates to green credentials too.

      Furthermore, while the human elements of cycle engineering, i.e. the position of the rider, do not feature in motor vehicle design, there are some valuable lessons here as well. For example, to achieve optimum performance, it's important to strike a balance between how the rider's position effects the overall aerodynamics of the design and the level of power the cyclist can leverage from that position. This strong focus on balance, which is an absolute necessity in competitive cycle design, is a useful concept for design engineers in vehicle manufacturing to keep in mind.

      One of the tools cycle designers now use to test drag is computational fluid dynamics (CFD). This is something that has historically been applied to motor racing and then wider road vehicle testing before filtering down to cycling and even other sports - an example of the reciprocal relationship of design between the two fields.

      Try new, innovative materials

      A focus on improving designs through the selection of the best materials is common to both engineering sectors. In cycle design, what we have is a precursor to a growing trend in automotive design - the prevalence of carbon fibre. In competitive cycling, this has been a favourite material of the last decade, balancing lightweight properties with strength.

      Previously, carbon fibre has been considered too costly for incorporation into vehicle design (outside of motor racing). However, the recent strong focus on emissions reduction and the cost benefits associated with achieving green targets is helping drive a gradual increase in the use of carbon fibre - a trend that is expected to continue. According to the 'Lightweight, heavy impact' report by McKinsey & Company, the cost of carbon fibre could drop from 2012 levels by as much as 70 per cent by 2030.

      What we see in the cycle design's early adoption of carbon fibre is the prioritisation of performance gains, actively demonstrated by a willingness to adopt new materials.

      Innovate in line with developing technologies

      In competitive cycling there is also a distinct trend to evolve in line with developing technologies. A good example of this is the development of electronic gears, with manufacturers creating both wired and wireless systems. These changes themselves have required improved technologies, such as enhanced battery technology - while they also require innovation to implement. For example, new battery technology makes electronic gears possible, but for the engineer, this means creating a system that can handle the environmental factors, such as the weather, that it will be subjected to. And so, innovation breeds innovation.


    • Be ready to go back to the drawing board

      Glancing back over competitive cycling's history, what we see is a constant readiness to take fundamental bike design concepts back to the drawing board. This has allowed the industry to innovate in ways that have changed the history of cycling. Some examples include:

      • The 1948 Legnano Team Bike, which featured the first gear system to function without the removal of the rear wheel. The Cambio Corsa derailleur gave riders the choice of more than one gear (though only two!) for the first time, and paved the way for the advanced gear systems that changed the possible achievements of competitive cycling.

      • In 1986, the Look KG86 Tour de France was the first bike to use a carbon fibre frame - the dominant material in competitive cycling today.

      • In 1999, the ONCE Giant-TCR used compact geometry for the first time to create a lighter, more robust and more versatile frame that used less material.

      Thanks to the current focus on emissions reduction, automotive manufacturers have more to learn than ever before from the world of competitive cycling, which has historically championed optimal performance through innovation. The process of learning, incorporating new technologies and testing is a constant strive for improvement - and one which the automotive industry can take inspiration from in the battle to cut emissions through the smart use of materials, efficient design and, ultimately, improved performance.