Against the wind: Hepburn and Howson go into the tunnel in Milan

Sat 18 Nov 2017

On a clear November morning on campus at the sprawling Politecnico Milano, a short walk from the iconic San Siro football stadium, Australians Michael Hepburn and Damien Howson change into skin suits and get ready to step into the wind tunnel.

The off season is in full swing, but for Hepburn and Howson the emphasis today is not on base miles and coffee spins. Instead it’s on repeated time trial efforts on a stationary SCOTT Plasma TT bike inside a steel tunnel in Northern Italy against a constant 50kph headwind to assess and improve position.

“Part of the process for setting up the team for 2018, is taking an opportunity during this pre-season to review our riders time trial positions, and to see what else we can learn and apply across the team for performance gains,” explained ORICA-SCOTT’s performance director Kevin Tabotta.

“We measure and assess the full rider/bike aerodymanic system in the tunnel, and this naturally includes equipment and apparel assessments and how these best match to a rider’s position and style. From here we will then seek to validate our findings with track testing, and then of course road sessions and racing.”

“We are here working with the Polytechnic University in Milan with their wind tunnel facility, which is one of the most renowned in Europe for cycling specific tests.

“At this stage it provides us with a good opportunity to test Damian and Michael early on before we look at utilising the tunnel with some of our GC riders and other time trial specialists to be ready for 2018 as well.”

The technical engineering aspect of the tunnel is impressive and a close attention to minute detail is important with the constant change of equipment including different tyre widths, handlebar height and angle, types of helmet and a recurring question of “But can you hold that position in a race?” being fired at the riders.

“It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been in a wind tunnel and the first time that we have used this facility here in Milan,” said time trial specialist Hepburn. “It feels good and it’s a great chance to check the data. Obviously you have a fair idea just from looking at the position, but having the precise data from the tests to back that up is invaluable.”

“Tests like this also provide us with a good opportunity to work with our sponsors and try out new equipment and products that are in the wings for 2018, but mainly the tests are about position.

“We try out different things like wheel set up, skin-suits and helmets, but the focus is on finding the most comfortable position where I can ride a full distance time trial that is also the fastest and most aerodynamic we can achieve.

“The season is very hectic and the whole team has a schedule that’s packed full so at this point in the off season it’s quite relaxed and ideal to come in and work on the position whilst having some time before the first races to go out and try it on the road in a training situation.”

It could be easy to get lost in the science behind these tests, but Cycling Australia senior sport scientist Paolo Menaspa explained that the main objectives are simple and the improvements could be very straightforward.

“At the end of the day the ultimate goal of what we do is to improve performances,” said Menaspa. “One of the obvious ways to do this is to try and make the guys go faster so we investigate some changes in position that could yield a double advantage – making the guys faster, but also more powerful.”

“We are trying to play with some angles, for example if it is possible to open up the angle of the hip a little then the rider could get lower and more aerodynamic, but it must be done without losing any power.

“Using a wind tunnel for these kind of tests is really the gold standard of measuring aerodynamics. Wind resistance is the main resistance any cyclist has to encounter whilst on the bike and a wind tunnel is the only way to know for sure what the numbers are.

“The improvements are not only about the riders. As Michael mentioned we are also testing equipment for next season and comparing that to what we are already using and assessing whether we can make further improvements.”

While Hepburn is a seasoned campaigner in wind tunnel testing it was the first time for 2017 Herald Sun Tour champion Howson and the 25-year-old described how it felt.

“When the wind started it I didn’t really know what was gong to happen,” said Howson. “It’s pretty noisy and I was just trying to remain as concentrated as possible. Obviously it’s different to being out on the road in the wind at 50kph and with the echo in the chamber you really notice that.”

“The resistance on the rollers is quite stiff and makes it quite hard to hold an aerodynamic time trial position, but you also realise the importance of why we are here and the potential gains to be had.”