THE FUTURE IS NOW
The new Boardman Performance Centre has just opened its doors, with the affordable wind tunnel instantly being labelled a game-changer. We secured an exclusive behind-the-scenes look to see if reality matches the rhetoric
The future is about integration.” The words of Chris Boardman when we interviewed him three years ago about what tomorrow would look like for cycling and tri. We took it as integration of stem and bars, designing frames and cutaway tubes specially to match tyre widths… namely, making the different parts of a bike more united for improved aerodynamics and effortless speed.
It’s now October 2018, a crisp day in Worcestershire and its meaning has been upgraded, tested and streamlined. “I don’t know anywhere else that has this level and accessibility of biomechanical, physiological and aerodynamic analysis under one roof,” explains Dr Barney Wainwright, head of performance and development at the recently opened Boardman Performance Centre.
The £3-million centre in Evesham is the brainchild of Boardman. The former hour record holder dreamt of making aerodynamics – in particular, windtunnel testing – more accessible to agegroup riders. So while universities like Southampton offer impressive facilities, they can set you back nearly a grand. Here, services start from under £200.
I’m here with strong age-grouper Mark Jerzak, who’s representing the tip of the pyramid, and us, well, the wider base. I’m here to assess my engine, while Mark’s seeking aero gains, starting with a biomechanical assessment from physiotherapist Bianca Broadbent. She investigates his athletic history, current level of racing and future goals, all to paint a draft of his ability. She highlights two key issues: up top and down below.
“I raced a duathlon with a teardrop helmet and my neck stiffened,” explains Jerzak. “I also competed a 25-mile time-trial and experienced pain down the left side of my neck and into the shoulder.”
“Could be a sign you shouldn’t go too low,” Broadbent says. “What’s this lump on your foot?” “I broke a bone playing football. And I have wide feet. I bought some fancy shoes, but the buckle rubbed.”
Broadbent advises Lake shoes, known for their wider profile. The subjective soon turns into objective as Mark undertakes a series of assessments including GebioMized saddle pressure mapping to review hotspots – red is high, blue is low; BioRacer Aero – a neat system that requires Mark to be plastered in sensors and viewed by numerous cameras for realtime aero feedback; and pedal efficiency determined by pedals that cost €20,000.
“They’re the only ones in the country,” says Broadbent. “Essentially, they measure forces in different axes, so are even more detailed than a WattBike. One of the
“The subjective turns into objective as Mark undertakes a series of tests”
key parameters is measuring efficiency of force and how it changes when you open your hips. Essentially power versus aerodynamics. Aero isn’t everything. If the position’s not sustainable, it’s no good. You might come up slightly and gain 30 watts while only losing 10 through a change of position. Also, being a triathlete, you must be able to run after.”
It’s a thorough review of Mark’s aches and pains, pros and cons, and, says Broadbent, is so comprehensive because it’ll save time in the wind tunnel. “I feed this info to Barney [Wainwright] so we can discount a number of positions and pieces of gear straight away, which means we don’t waste precious tunnel time,” she says. With that info in the locker, Broadbent passes the aero baton to Wainwright. Mark heads over to the wind tunnel. Meanwhile, in the physiology lab…
“All good?” the Centre’s lead physiologist Lee Eddens asks me. “Moderate,” my response, muffled by the gas-analysis mask that’s been strapped to my face for 15mins while I undertake a sub-maximal step test. Eddens has been looking under my bonnet to understand my physical capabilities, and it all began with a blood test to examine my health. Parameters included cholesterol, haemoglobin and haematocrit levels. All come up fine health-wise. But what about performance?
We mount a WattBike and face a large screen featuring variables including heart rate, cadence, pedal efficiency and power output (in watts). Eddens then pops a sensor onto our finger to measure oxygen saturation and that mask on my face to measure fuel utilisation. “Now cycle for 5mins but keep to 110bpm,” says Eddens. “This establishes a power benchmark.” Once warmed up, resistance increases by 20w every 3mins, at the end of which Eddens takes a blood sample to assess lactate content (a sign of anaerobic capabilities), while I shout out my RPE. Being sub-maximal, this doesn’t edge over seven but, as the stream of sweat reveals, it’s still taxing.
“You’ll see some VO2 max numbers on there, but these represent a predicted value, extrapolated from the sub-max response, so take this with a pinch of salt,” Eddens says, which is comforting as they’re not wonderful. “More important
is the fractional utilisation; in other words, the lactic threshold and turnpoint. What I say to a customer is you have your VO2max. That is the upper limit of your performance. But arguably, it’s more vital what percentage of that VO2max can you sustain before it all falls apart.”
Threshold relates to the average power that can be maintained for around 3hrs; turnpoint is around 40-60mins. Posttest, a PDF arrives in my in-box detailing each, plus my pedalling and fuel efficiency, all made more accessible via a colour-coding system. My lactate threshold’s a ‘good’ 67% of VO2max, while turnpoint is an ‘excellent’ 80%. The report also signals moderate fat-burning potential and an over-reliance on carbs.
“Longer sessions would help shift this balance,” says Eddens, “and there’s glycogen-depleted efforts, though keep these to a minimum.” Armed with fuelling info, I can also best plan race-feeding strategy, while all the data’s been fed through the Boardman system to deliver bespoke training zones. Back to Mark…
“As air comes into the wider opening that the rider looks into, it goes through a series of honeycomb panels that smooths airflow before hitting the rider,” explains James Ryan, Boardman’s product manager, who’s given me a backstage pass to the tunnel. Back stage is cavernous and has to be or the airflow, and subsequent data, will be distorted.
Up top, Mark’s about to set off on another spin, as a series of cameras document him from the side and behind.
“My power is quite high – an average of 300w for a 25-mile TT and 330w for a 10mile TT,” he says. “But people are beating me by 3mins. It’s got to be my position.” The scope of refinements in the tunnel’s huge as not only can windflow touch 65km/hr but a moveable floor means yaw angle can reach 30°. Already top athletes including Lucy Charles have been through the tunnel, and all under the watchful gaze of the experienced Wainwright.
“We’ve put Mark in here with his Blue triathlon bike,” he says, “and now we’ve got him on our test rig. It’s just easier to play around with things like the cockpit as we’re short of time today and the integrated cockpit on the Blue doesn’t lend itself to swift changes. Mark rides for 1min each time. We then assess from here in our own cockpit, make the subtle changes and reassess.
“Key is that we’re not just here to look at aerodynamics in the aerobar position,” Wainwright continues. “We can look at
your goal event. Is it hilly? What are the average speeds like? We can tune the aerodynamics to that. So if hilly, optimise position on the base bar as that’s where you can generate more power. But also find the best position for descents. And then look at pacing. If you know the physiology, know how hard to go on different parts. When and where to push. This facility can do everything.”
Which the team would do but time restrictions mean that’s not possible today. There’s still time enough for the team and Mark to work through a number of positional and gear changes that conclude, sadly for Mark, that his Blue’s less aero than Boardman’s test rig.
“We ran eight different gear, arm- and hand-position set-ups and two speed scenarios across which we completed 11 test runs,” says Wainwright. “The baseline CdA [measure of frontal-profile aerodynamics] was 0.2199 and the best solution came down to 0.2066. It’s not loads but Mark, being a triathlete, has drag-inducing broad shoulders and is already in a pretty good position.”
The runs were undertaken at typical 20km sprint-distance road conditions and at an average 39km/hr, 5° yaw and 230w baseline power. That optimum 0.2066 derived from 40° extensions that brought his hands up but meant he could tuck his head in. A Kask Mistral helmet smoothes things out further. “This optimum solution equated to a 11w saving and 68secs faster over 25 miles,” says Wainwright
For an experienced athlete like Mark, that’s impressive. And arguably an improvement he’d struggled to match on physical training alone, especially with a young family. “It’s fascinating to see the real-time feedback from the tiniest adjustment projected in front of me,” Mark tells us. “It allowed me to see the difference in ‘turtling’ my neck and bringing my shoulders closer together, which is something I need to work on.”
A combination of wind-tunnel data and Broadbent’s biomechanical assessment also meant Mark will “definitely” change his bar extensions from S-bars to 40° efforts, while he’s been given core and flexibility exercises to help him adjust to the recommended lower-head position. “I’ll also change my saddle,” says Mark.
The UK’s blessed with worldwide experts in each discipline and some impressive facilities. Take the CycleFit down at Covent Garden or Drag2Zero over at Brackley, but never before have we experienced such an all-round offering under one roof.
It’s all made redundant, however, if the data emanating from these cutting-edge tools can’t be assimilated and made accessible to the everyday triathlete. And that’s where the Performance Centre’s real win comes from, as Boardman’s HR department’s clearly scoured the UK for the best in each department, whether it’s from the English Institute of Sport or the finest universities.
Yes, it’s not perfect. Though the wind-tunnel costs are more accessible, they’re still not for the “price of a curry” that Boardman called it a few years ago. But with a full aero assessment for less than one carbon wheel, it’s still damn good. Ultimately, without sounding too fawning, it’s hard not to see the centre becoming the hub for progressive triathlon clubs and individuals alike.
“We’ve never experienced such an all-round offering under one roof”
The outer shell of the cavernous Boardman wind tunnel in Evesham