British Cycling’s head of technology Tony Purnell believes he has designed the world’s fastest track bike for Tokyo 2020 but admitted delivering the radical new machine to an accelerated deadline as been “fraught with risk”.
Purnell and his ‘secret squirrel club’ of engineers this week unveiled the HB.T, which will be raced between now and next year’s Olympics – starting at the opening rounds of the UCI Track World Cup this weekend in Minsk and next weekend in Glasgow.
The bike, built in partnership with British components company Hope Technology and Lotus Engineering, has been shrouded in secrecy and features a number of distinctive features, most obviously its wide seat stays and unique handlebars.
Though it may look unconventional, former Formula One engineer Purnell believes it is a winner.
“Every manufacturer is going to say they’ve built the most aerodynamic, lightest, stiffest bike and we’ll say the same,” he told the PA media agency.
“They’ll all come out with a percentage number about how much better it was than the last bike. We don’t want to get into that game.
“All we want to do is look our riders in the eye and say this is the fastest bike we know how to make and that’s what we’ve done.”
British Cycling has often been at the forefront of innovation in recent years, the so-called ‘marginal gains’ which have been associated with their dominance on the track since the Beijing Olympics, but this is their most radical bike since the Lotus ridden by Chris Boardman at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
It is the product of endless experiments, wind tunnel sessions and test rides which often took place in the early hours of the morning after a change in UCI regulations saw the entire timetable for development fast-tracked.
Whereas in previous Olympic cycles the bike would not need to be ready until next June, new rules this year mean that any kit which will be used in Japan has to be used during the World Cup, shifting the deadline forward by eight months.
“I thought, ‘Right, we’re just going to have to cut every corner’,” Purnell said. “Basically, we’re up for the challenge or we scrap it. You know you’re sentencing yourself to long weekends, working night after night and lots of dramas because engineering is difficult and people let you down.
“We’ve lent on our sponsors to an embarrassing extent. The amount of riding time has been almost minutes, not hours, but we’ve got it straight in at the last possible moment.
“Those first tests, God, I was nervous. These riders, they call a spade and spade and I was thinking what if they get off and say, ‘Look, Tony, it’s not right.’ There’s not time to do anything about it, so it’s been fraught with risk.”
Britain’s performance director Stephen Park believes the revised timetable has caused difficulty for several nations, and in a sign of the stir British Cycling’s new machine has caused, he even revealed one rival rider had already contacted Hope asking when the bike would go on sale commercially.
“It’s made it harder for all the other teams as well,” Park said. “We know other countries that were in the process of designing bikes and not been able to manufacture them or get the bike completed in the timescale.
“But we don’t know what our competitors are up to. We know they’ve been developing bikes as well.”
Britain’s existing Cervelo bikes will remain registered with the UCI so riders can continue to use those in competition as well while they become accustomed to the new bike, but both Park and Purnell will be watching for the first competitive times set on the HB.T to see if it matches expectations.
“We could give you an idea of what we think is going to happen but in reality we’re not going to,” Park said when asked what sort of differences the bike could actually make to the time set in a team pursuit.
“Until we’ve had four guys lined up on the bike it’s still ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’. Once we’ve been in that position we can have more confidence in ourselves. But we still won’t tell you.”